One of the best things about being a journalist/blogger in a foreign country is that I get to understand things with a fresh perspective. Another perk, which I absolutely love, is that I get to meet and interview international artists – photographers, writers, painters and other awesome creative beings. One of the highlights of one such job was interviewing the young and inundating Daryl Yam. Generally, I do not post features in Q & A formats – I develop a piece. But, this time it had to go “as it is”. His answers are so prolific and deep that I did not feel like tampering them with my editing. Enjoy!
It has been two years since your first book – Kappa Quartet – was published. How has your life changed since? How has the response been so far?
Life has been different. Whenever I meet new people I often tell them about my year in Japan. I tell them how lonely I had been during that year, especially during the winter: it was a dark time, literally and figuratively, in which I found respite and pockets of warmth in my friends, the dorm and the town I lived in, the Starbucks near Inokashira Park that I regularly frequented. And I did not know what love was, at the time, or to be specific – how it ever felt to be love, and be loved in return. That lay at the core of my loneliness, which also lies in the core of Kappa Quartet, which I had written during that time.
Looking back I cannot help but think that Kappa Quartet is, in many ways, a time capsule for me. It represents who I was at a point in time that I think nothing else can compare. In my eyes, the book also serves a point of arrival and departure; it allowed me to finally embrace the identity of being a published author, allowing me to fully self-realise so to speak, while also allowing me to fully confront what being published – or the act of publishing – truly entails. It isn’t a matter of being prolific, which is a thing that I wanted for myself initially; it isn’t a matter of money either, which is another thing that I had wished for as well, in some fantasy scenario. Nor is it a matter of popularity, or of being famous or well-known, which truly frightens me.
I think what truly matters to me now is the kinship that I have allowed to establish between me and my readers. I write now so as to find a kindred soul who believes in the things that I do, who sees the world in the way that I do, and who feels as intensely and variedly about life as I do too.
I am happy, and very gratified of course, when I see a kind review of my book: QLRS had very nice things to say, and so have some people on social media. It’s more than I need or have ever come to expect.
Kappa Quartet is set in different locations across Singapore and Japan. What were your influences? What inspired you to explore these sets in your script? How did you get the idea for Kappa Quartet?
My key influences were Murakami, no doubt, but also the world- and time-spanning books of David Mitchell. I also weave in a number of references in the text that I’ve listed in my acknowledgements.
But what truly inspired me was the desire to write about the kappa as though they were members of contemporary society, people whom we might casually pass by on the street – the idea for that came right after I had devoured the anime adaptation of The Eccentric Family by Tomihiko Morimi, and then proceeded to take a shower. At once several things clicked in my brain, and the figure of the kappa, with the hole in its head, came to the fore of my mind. The various stories that make up the novel then fell naturally, like dominoes.
As a Singaporean author encountering so much source material that was essentially Japanese in origin, I knew, instinctively, that I would have to set my novel across both countries. It was a challenge that I couldn’t avoid.
What was your first literary work that got published? How did it happen?
My first-ever literary appearance was in a print journal named Ceriph. It’s not around any longer, but it was definitely part of the initial wave of an expanding Sing Lit scene in the early 2010s.
In 2012, Ceriph was approaching the publication of its “fifth” (though technically sixth) issue, and the editorial team decided to turn the issue into a special collection of five chapbooks themed around five different versions of the colour white. I submitted a number of pieces for consideration, and they chose two – a short story titled “The Girl and Her Giant”, and a long poem titled “Petrichor” – for publication.
Were you a voracious reader as a child?
I was. I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton, and then was totally part of the Harry Potter craze, which then forced me to read other fantasy books while waiting for the sequels, such as Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I was around 16 when I finally began consuming more literary works, starting with Margaret Atwood.
When did you start writing, at what age? You must have had an inspiration as a child, someone who motivated you towards Literature. Tell us about that.
I began writing at the age of 17, under the encouragement of my English teacher, a very kind and intelligent man named Brian Connor. I would send him pieces for him to review, and he would send them back to me full of comments done in red pen. It was him who led me to believe that I can truly embrace a fully literary life.
But it was also really the work of many wonderful editors who helped build me up as an author of literary works. There was the Ceriph team, of course, who essentially debuted me, as well as the team behind Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and then QLRS, who quickly went on to publish more of my work in the following years. That gave me a constant sense of validation, which I really needed at the time.
In an interview you said that you have a “difficult relationship with poetry”. Could you elaborate on this?
Poetry comes from an intensely personal space. If anything, every poem I have ever written is intensely personal, and it’s the medium to which I turn to when I wish to confess to something in a way, or memorialise an event or a feeling in my life. And so while I might have been more than glad to showcase how angry I used, or how I sad I used, or how I deeply I felt at one moment or another, I do think that a part of growing up in the age of social media really entails deciding what should be public, and what should remain private.
And so I can’t help but say that I find it very, very difficult to publish any more of my poetry. I also cannot help but say that as I look at other Singaporean poets, who proudly champion the development of the form, and who actively read and write so much of it, that I am in no way worthy of the claim of being a poet, which I feel is a very big claim to make, a claim which a person has to actively live up to. I am not a poet – merely a writer of poetry.
Note: I have read ‘A DARK PART OF TOWN’ and as a reader I have to say that loved it. I think your relationship with poetry might be complicated but the outcome is simply beautiful.
Thank you. I was particularly inspired by Stephen Crane’s poem, “In The Desert”.
What does storytelling mean to you?
A man I’ve been seeing recently just sent me an excerpt from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It goes like this: “How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”
Yuval Noah Harari also says that “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively”. In many ways, I’ve come to understand that stories, narratives, myths – they have an incredible power over us, informing the way we think, and feel, and act. As a storyteller, I’m naturally suspicious and in awe of the power of stories; it’s probably the closest thing that we have to magic.
As a queer writer, what are your opinions on representation of the queer community in the Singapore literary scene? Do you take this upon yourself as a social responsibility? If yes, how does it affect your writing?
I can definitely say that we’re oddly lucky to see a glut of Chinese queer writers in Sing Lit – we’re active, we’re visible, we’re creatively thriving and winning awards. But can I say that non-Chinese queer writers are presently experiencing the same level of recognition, of fame — of comfort, even? I don’t think so. While I do think queernesss in general is already such a weight to handle, I also do believe that queer folk from ethnic minorities have to handle baggage that’s far, far heavier (and trickier!) to manage. It’s almost impossible to imagine, and yet they get by, somehow, writing and making public the inferiority of their lives. It’s miraculous.
Another thing I believe queer writing needs to understand is that queerness involves understanding one’s strange place in the un-strange world, the otherwise normal world. Things that instinctually and naturally manifest in others – romance, affection, desire – are otherwise constantly second-guessed and riddled by self-policing in queer folk. How do we demand love in a society that insists we don’t deserve it? Will go to hell for it? How do we express love if society declares that it is illegal, not because it actually ought to be, but because a significant majority within our society feels like it is? Who are our gods, then? Who do we pray to for salvation, grace, kindness, redemption? Who do we look to for justice, for compassion? How do we even find the courage to walk down the streets, then? Which alleys do we have to find in order to kiss, to hug, to embrace the ones we want? At what risk of exposure?
Queer life is strange and so I do not consider queer representation to be a social responsibility of any sort. Queer life is strange and so my writing shall therefore be strange. The stranger it is, the queerer it is. Strageness — queernesss — is how I honour the members of my community. That is what I hold myself accountable to.
What are you writing at this point of time? Also, what was the last book that you read and what did you like about it?
The last book I read was a fucking delight: it is Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story collection I’ll Think It, You Say It. It was so good I took a photo of the book in my hands and sent it to a Whatsapp group filled with other local writers. I called it whip-smart, borderline anthropological, humourous, full of good-hearted hypocrites, judgey but well-meaning secret bitches, and very conservational in tone too, like a massive gossip session on the set of Girls, except everyone’s in their late thirties and hatefully eating salad.
I am presently working on my second novel; it is about two Singaporeans who meet, who marry, and who leave one another across three decades, in three different places, at three separate moments of reckoning. I was very fortunate to receive a Creation Grant from the National Arts Council; it has allowed me to take time off from work and hole myself away in London and in Madrid to write it – intensely, furiously. I’m nearly at the end of the first draft, which is presently very, very long. It is twice as long as Kappa Quartet, a fact that pleases and frightens me in equal measure.
Tell us about your association with the Sing Lit Station.
My official designation is Station Control, but it often confuses people. What I like to say is that I manage and run the organisation, which is small but very scrappy, and very dedicated to what we believe in as a charity and IPC. I make sure that every dollar and cent is properly accounted for; I poke my nose everywhere and ensure that all our projects and programs are being carried out by the people that I trust.
You are also a photographer. Tell us more about it. (P.S.: I loved “ Reading Week”.)
I am not a photographer – just a taker of photographs. When I am not writing or reading I tend to indulge myself in the beauty of things, which can take a number of forms: I love window shopping, especially on the Internet; I adore Jeffree Star on YouTube, and actively devour every video in the Bon Appetit channel; and then I take photos. My appreciation for them – for photographs – really grew when I took a module at Tokyo University that everyone first assumed was about taking photographs, but what was really about intensely reading the many philosophers and thinkers who have written about the art form. For weeks we would apply what we learnt to the works of Jeff Wall and Hiroshi Sugimoto, all wondrous, world-famous and well-accomplished photographers in their own right.
Tell us about the main highlights of your career so far. Also, the not-so-good times if any – the period of struggle.
A part of me is tempted to say that being published was a highlight – but it really wasn’t. If anything, it was a non-event: I was in Jakarta, for a conference organised by the cultural ministry, when I received an e-mail sent to me at 11 am that I only read much later, at 9pm, informing me that Kappa Quartet had arrived from the printers and apparently now available for sale. And a deep ambivalence overcame me, an ambivalence which I told the poet Tania De Rozario about, and she said to me, in a cab: “That’s because it’s just a document. It’s a document, a piece of evidence. It’s proof of what you’ve done. That’s all.”
And so I don’t think I’m conceited when I say that the main highlights of my writing career all lie in the act of writing itself: when I get a scene right, or a sentence right, or a feeling right; when pieces of my story fall together in a way that makes sense, not just for me, the creator, but for my characters, the avatars for my ideas, my feelings, my place in the world. A highlight would be an early reader telling me to keep on writing, to finish the damn thing, because what I’ve written was definitely worthy of being read. That’s a real highlight; that’s everything to me.
And so the not-so-good times can all be found when the writing isn’t coming to me, isn’t flowing out of my fingers, not because I’m feeling lazy that day, or because I feel like I deserve a break from the labour, but because I’m actively trying to write but everything sounds so dissatisfying to me. That happened to me for six months, six cruel months in the middle of 2017, when I was trying to get my second novel started without really knowing fully who or what my principal characters were. I was so stressed, so full of anxiety, so convinced I would never be able to write again, that I actually caused my thyroid to weaken for a while. I would wake up with night sweats and then have my neighbour casually inform me that I might have cancer. (I don’t.)
Looking back, I actually wish I had been harder on myself. Smarter, too. But now I am good.
You have a BA (Hons) in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. Did you always know that you were going to be a writer?
In a way. One doesn’t enter a program like that without the hope of being one.
These days the trend of InstaPoets is hot. With successes like Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav, more and more writers are adapting to this culture. What is your take on poetry on Instagram / social media?
Wig. It better werk!! And tea.
What message would you like to give to aspirant writers? Any tips on writing and storytelling…
Read plenty, of course. Read meaningfully, too: look at what’s being published in the last ten years and ask yourself who you identify with the most, who you want to be the most, etc. And then read as much of everything else.
Write something that matters. But more importantly, publish something that matters as well: think of all the trees that are being felled for your sake; ask yourself if they were worth dying for you. Think hard and think actively about the real cost of things.