Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Melissa De Silva
By Yong Shu Hoong
According to the website of Singapore independent bookstore, BooksActually, Melissa De Silva's first book is "a tapestry that weaves together the multiple genres of narrative fiction, creative nonfiction, literary food writing and family memoir, to offer insight into (Singapore's) micro-minority Eurasian community." Published in 2017 by BooksActually's imprint, Math Paper Press, 'Others' is Not a Race clinched the Singapore Literature Prize 2018 for Creative Nonfiction.
The word "Others" is taken from the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) model of categorising race in Singapore. It is the category that Eurasians are grouped under for the purpose of official documentation and government statistics. Yet, according to the Eurasian Association in Singapore, Eurasians (defined as "descendants of a marital union between a European and an Asian") are one of the country's earliest residents, with origins linked to major ports in the region such as Malacca, Penang, Goa and Macau.
From how De Silva taps on her own experience living and growing up as a Eurasian in Singapore, it is obvious that the author guards her heritage proudly. Her novel, The Kristang Club (Math Paper Press), is slated for publication this August – the title refers to the creole language that is the ancestral tongue of Eurasians of Portuguese descent.
De Silva has worked as a journalist and an editor. Her fiction has been published in the anthology, Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Three, and journals like QLRS and LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction.
1. What are you reading right now?
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. I have only been able to read this exquisite book in fits and starts for a few months now, which is really not what I would wish for such an exceptional novel. Now that I am going on a writing retreat in Penang, it's in my suitcase and I'm looking forward to completely immersing myself in its world. Of course, the added bonus is that it's set in Malaysia as well.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
What a fun question! I think I'd be Hamlet. I'd like to find out what it's like to be royalty. And also understand from that experience that being royalty doesn't make life's problems go away but can reduce you to a state of creeping around castles in the dark, plotting to kill leery old uncles.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
I have no idea!
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
I don't actually feel any strong particular identification with any living or dead authors.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Well, I think the idea of writer's block can be comforting in the sense that it seems to be an idea of something writers face, external to themselves. An obstacle that just happened to be there: Ta da! Writer's Block! So, as writers, we can relieve ourselves of some of the responsibility for being stuck. I used to think that was what writer's block was before I began writing. Now, I realise that when I am 'stuck' and can't figure out a way forward, with a plot, a character of whatever niggly issue, the reason 99.9 percent of the time is I haven't done enough research, so my brain doesn't have what it needs to come up with the requisite solutions. So… responsibility for writer's block is mostly all mine. Not that I'm saying a writer has to know and have read every resource under the sun before beginning a work. That would be insane. And, of course, impossible. The work is a journey and the flow of writing comes in waves, propelled by each surge of new information and research. So the short answer: (a) not really (b) more research!
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
I admire the trait of sheer dogged persistence all writers universally have. I think it takes an enormous amount of doggedness to keep at the writing task for such an enormous project that, to be honest, no one really cares about or understands until it's done. Also the amazing thick-skinnedness of most writers. Sending out their work to journals, agents, publishers. Nine times out of 10 (okay, maybe more), you get a rejection. And most don't cry or fling themselves in front of an oncoming train. They maybe get a bit disappointed, but mostly they just say to themselves, "Maybe the next journal / agent / publisher." That is mettle and a solid-gold quality in my book.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
Being angsty about Everything. Lol. I mean, yes, the world is a serious place with serious issues. But writing is also about play and fun. After all, that's what creativity is. I have been totally guilty of being angsty too, and ideally I would like to achieve a healthy, beautiful balance of wisdom and playfulness, as a writer and as a human being.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
"I don't mean to be rude –" he began, in a tone that threatened rudeness in every syllable.
"Yet, sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often," Dumbledore finished the sentence gravely.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but…
I love stepping on dried brown leaves. The crunch they make is so satisfying.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
Comedy, if those are the only three options. I like laughing, and I often need to lighten up!
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
So hard… well one of my favourites is "quibble". What a delicious word! One of my least favourites is "disruptor", used in the corporate sense of being different in the market. Absolutely detest it.
12. Write a short-short story in three lines that include the following three words: "mirror", "beat" and "another".
My heartbeat skittered… and I turn to the mirror, expecting my own fear, but instead see another.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
The mornings, when my mind is freshest and has none of the day's "disruptions" – okay, kidding – distractions entering my consciousness.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Ooooh… fun fun fun…
(1) Humbert Humbert from Lolita definitely, because I want to pick his brain and find out what lies in his preference for underage girls and how he became the way he is. I found him fascinating from the first time I read the book, and was especially interested again to see that incredible quality of literature, enabling us to put ourselves in someone else's shoes so we don't approach them as "other", but instead feel what they are feeling and think their thoughts. Reading Lolita, I didn't judge him for being a paedophile, and I liked him as a person.
(2) Cleopatra, specifically from The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, because she's so kickass and had the fire and gumption to go after whatever she wanted even from a very young age. There're lots to learn from her.
(3) Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House on the Prairie series. I read the books over and over again when I was a kid and was fascinated by how they would make everything themselves – churn butter, bake bread, make soap. I'd love to have a conversation with her about living a life where one's domestic and household industry is absolutely integral to survival.
16. How are you continuing the discussion on identity and otherness, as you embark on writing projects after 'Others' is Not a Race?
I have a novel coming out August 2019 with Math Paper Press. Its title is The Kristang Club and it's a historical novel set in Singapore in 1906. It's about a young woman accused of a murder she doesn't know if she committed and it explores cultural and racial identity, and notions of belonging and otherness. So it's good fun – there's murder and opium and horses!
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019
She loved much.