Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Singapore Writers Festival authors Dave Chua, Theophilus Kwek and O Thiam Chin
By Yeow Kai Chai
If there's a trait common to these three Singapore-based authors featured in this year's Singapore Writers Festival, it's a self-effacing air they exude.
Dave Chua, a Singapore permanent resident born in Johor Bahru, illuminates the quiddities of Singapore life with such warm clarity. Check out his latest book, The Beating And Other Stories, which is justly short-listed for the Singapore Literature Prize.
The other two Singaporeans have a similarly patient eye. Theophilus Kwek, a Raffles Institution student who is sitting for his A Levels, speaks softly, but as his debut poetry collection, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue, proves, still waters run deep.
Belying his decorous demeanour, O Thiam Chin is unafraid to venture into greyer areas such as sexual mores in four collections of short stories within six short years. His accolades speak for themselves: He has been twice long-listed for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award and was recently the recipient of the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award.
1) What are you reading right now?
Dave Chua: Bridge of Birds (a fantasy book set in mediaeval China) by Barry Hughart, and now reading Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes. Also squeezing in my usual manga reads such as Bleach and Yakitake! I enjoy the take-no-prisoners style of storytelling in manga.
Theophilus Kwek: I've had to whittle the list down to my five Lit texts in view of the impending A-Levels, but most recently: several volumes of poetry (Richard Siken's Crush, Ng Kwang Cheng's Landfall Day, Edgar Allan Poe), and a volume of essays by Michael Chabon, Maps And Legends. A visit to the MPH Book Fair yielded Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter Of Maladies, based on a friend's recommendation, which I hope to read soon.
O Thiam Chin: Secret Historian: The Life and Times Of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, And Sexual Renegade, by Justin Spring. I first came across the works of Phil Andros, which was a pseudonym Samuel Steward used, a few years ago, and became interested in the literary man behind the erotic writings. Also, I'm reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. From lost losses to madness, to the manic search for love, Jeanette Winterson writes like a fighter, wrestling with the meaning of love, truth and belonging, throwing fierce punches that leave me completely dazed and spellbound, in awe, in fact.
2) If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
Dave: Boy that's a tough one. Possibly one of the dwarves from The Hobbit.
Theophilus: I used to dream of being Ivanhoe, in Sir Walter Scott's world of castles and crusades; later, Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. But I realised what I really wanted at that point was my own life with a bit more drama. The penchant's subsided by now!
Thiam Chin: John Proctor from The Crucible by Arthur Miller, so I can utter these drama-like-hell lines, "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"
3) What is the greatest misconception about you?
Dave: Hmm, that people think that I have an arts background. My bachelor's degree is actually in electrical engineering and computer science from Berkeley.
Theophilus: That I take well to crowds I get terrible stage fright.
Thiam Chin: That I'm a Malaysian. Because my last three books have been published by Malaysian publishers.
4) Name one living author and one dead author you most identify with, and tell us why.
Dave: Uh, that's a tough one. Afraid I'm really drawing a blank with this one.
Theophilus: a) Jonathan Franzen, for his attention to family; and b) Wordsworth, but only because I agree that poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquillity". I can't hold a candle to his flame!
Thiam Chin: Raymond Carver and Jeanette Winterson, for their working class background, and their fight to overcome the poverty and limitation of family, history and personal demons, with their love for words and literature.
5) Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Dave: I think one does come to points where it's to write, so I tend to switch between projects.
Theophilus: I don't one either has something to say, or not; saying it well comes by editing, not waiting.
Thiam Chin: One of the romantic myths of the trade, and the hardest to kill. Well, if I can't write anything for that day, I'd either read or go for a long run. Both help to kill time, and then it's another day, another attempt to write. Repeat cycle, if/when there is a need.
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
Dave: The ability to write every day, and the ability to use humour. Comedy is extremely difficult to write.
Thiam Chin: The unique voice to describe his/her particular, very specific insights.
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
Dave: Expecting someone else to finish your writing for you.
Theophilus: Sentimentality, but I myself am guilty.
Thiam Chin: The "tortured soul/artist/writer" attitude.
8) Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Dave: "To be human one must have a story." Chinua Achebe
Theophilus: "How selfhood begins with a walking away/And love is proved in the letting go." Walking Away, Cecil Day-Lewis
Thiam Chin: "When something feels complex or complicated to you, write it out carefully and thoughtfully, several different times if necessary, until it flows smoothly and expresses exactly what you want it to communicate and nothing else." Raymond Carver
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
Dave: Take naps.
Theophilus: Have never read Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings.
Thiam Chin: Do a lot of housework, every time, before I start writing. I'll clean and sweep, fold and tidy, wash and wipe. No, it's not OCD; it's preparation.
10) At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy or a tragedy to watch, which would you go for?
Dave: It depends on my mood. Right now, probably a comedy.
Theophilus: A comedy! Tragedies are best seen alone.
Thiam Chin: Tragedy 'cos I'm that kind of person/writer. Drama feeds my dark, thirsty soul.
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Dave: I use "lah" a lot, so that might qualify it as my favourite word. I get annoyed with the phrase "without further ado".
Theophilus: Favourites: words with words in them "strange/r", "quest/ion", "in/terminable", "in/surmount/able", etc. Least favourites: overused descriptors, especially when used incorrectly, like "halcyon", or even "nice".
Thiam Chin: Favourite word: "free". Least favourite word: "deadline".
12) Which location in Singapore means most to you, and why?
Dave: I guess East Coast, where I spent most of my secondary school and JC years.
Theophilus: At the risk of sounding clichι: Home, even if it's not always where I want to be. But apart from that I don't connect easily with places, so wherever a good ramble leads.
Thiam Chin: Ang Mo Kio, without doubt. The estate I was born in, live my entire life, so far, and hopefully, one day, to die in.
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
Dave: A computer because my handwriting is indecipherable to myself.
Theophilus: A laptop I must see the words as they will appear printed, in standardised font. Also, Internet connection or a thesaurus.
Thiam Chin: Music. Either house music or Kings of Convenience, depending on my mood for that day.
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
Dave: Mornings tend to be the best for me.
Theophilus: First thing in the morning, or late at night.
Thiam Chin: Hard to nail down. Perhaps 11am to 3pm, but it varies, depending on where I am.
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Dave: Gandalf, Sha Wujing/Sandy (The most often ignored character in Journey To The West) and Sherlock Holmes. Just to see how the conversation would go.
Theophilus: If it were my last meal Wilde and Dostoyevsky, for mirth and courage. And someone to translate.
Thiam Chin: Haruki Murakami, for running advice and training for marathon. Sam Steward, for all the stories about his sexual conquests. Mr Stevens, from The Remains of the Day, for tips on upholding one's duty and dignity, and keeping a stiff upper lip.
16) If you could programme an event for the Singapore Writers Festival, what would it be?
Dave: A panel discussion by some SF/Fantasy writers.
Theophilus: I would invite each featured writer at the Festival to contribute a piece about the festival experience, or about Singapore, for our guests from overseas, if they so wish to a festival anthology.
Thiam Chin: Tough, as it seems like anything worth having have been done before.
17) What would you write on your own tombstone?
Dave: A URL.
Theophilus: "One short sleep past, we wake eternally." Donne
Thiam Chin: "Son, brother, uncle, friend. It's enough, and it's over, finally."
Dave Chua will appear at two panel discussions: namely, The City As A Character on Nov 3 from 2.30pm to 3.30pm at The Salon, National Museum; and The Malaysian In Singapore Literature later on the same day from 7pm to 8pm at Glass Hall, Singapore Art Museum (SAM).
Theophilus Kwek will be part of a panel discussion, New Voices in Singapore Poetry, on Nov 11 from 5.30pm to 6.30pm at The Peranakan Museum Lecture Room.
O Thiam Chin will appear at three events: Finding My Muse on Nov 4 from 7pm to 8pm at Glass Hall, SAM; What I Talk About When I Talk About Music on Nov 7 from 6.30pm to 8pm at Switch (NTUC Trade Union House); Who Needs The Novel In Singapore?, on Nov 11 from 5.30pm to 6.30pm at Glass Hall, SAM.
Some Singapore Writers Festival events are free while others require special ticketing and/or a Festival Pass. For more information, please see the SWF website.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012