Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Fong Hoe Fang
By Yeow Kai Chai
Ever ready with a smile, publisher Fong Hoe Fang is the tireless and avuncular champion of Singapore literature.
In 1997, he founded Ethos Books, an imprint of Pagesetters Services, an advertising and communication design agency, to lend voice to diverse and emerging writers and to help foster a thriving literary culture. He launched it with a trio of titles by newcomers – namely Aaron Lee's A Visitation of Sunlight, Alvin Pang's Testing the Silence and David Leo's One Journey, Many Rivers.
Since then, he has published verse and prose by Dave Chua, Claire Tham, Alfian Sa'at, Wong Yoon Wah, Yong Shu Hoong, Phan Ming Yen, Adeline Foo, Felix Cheong, Grace Chia, Jeffrey Lim, Koh Beng Liang, Isa Kamari, Robert Yeo, Daren Shiau, Madeleine Lee, Tan Mei Ching, Teo Soh Lung, Jeremy Tiang, Chandran Nair and Yeng Pway Ngon, among others.
Ethos is also responsible for several iconic anthologies, including No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry (2000); Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011); Passages: Stories of Unspoken Journeys (2013); and Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore (2013).
A graduate from the University of Singapore, Fong spent a decade as an administrative officer with the Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS) at Changi airport before leaving to start Pagesetters in 1988. Today, assisted by wife and former journalist Chan Wai Han, Fong continues to support writers to tell compelling social stories.
In the coming months, Ethos will launch new titles from Aaron Lee, Lydia Kwa, Jinat, Eric Tinsay Valles, Danielle Lim, Jerrold Yam, Christine Chia, Leonard Ng, Russ Soh, Leonora Liow, Patricia de Souza and Bertha Henson (collating her blog posts on Breakfast Network).
1. What are you reading right now?
Butler's ability to write in the voice of Vietnamese men and women so authentically is quite astounding for me, though of course he had spent a significant part of his life in Vietnam. I will definitely pursue his other books once I am done with this one.
The other book I am just starting to read is Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. This is an illustrated special 50th anniversary edition published by Bookcraft. I saw it during the last day of the London Book Fair in 2013, and literally plucked it out of the hands of the exhibitor who was about put it into a box to ship home. I offered him a price he couldn't refused, and lugged the heavy tome home all the way across France and back to London before I flew home. Wonderfully illustrated, this book continues to testify to the power of story-telling for me.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living author and one dead author you most identify with, and tell us why.
Dead author would be Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. He writes with such humour and satire that he is easily accessible to most readers. Yet, his stories also carry deep insights and commentaries on society. As an individual, he was also adventurous, funny, and a quirky intellectual quick to prick the pretentious. Someone really after my heart.
5. Name one classic novel in either the Western or Asian literary canon which you wish you had published and tell us why.
6. Name one contemporary Singapore title you wish you published and tell us why.
However, there is one particular manuscript which I would have "killed" to win the right to publish. Unfortunately that manuscript will never be completed as my father has now passed on. He had written a poem in Chinese for my mother when he was in his 70s, and my mother had reciprocated with another poem in Chinese. Not very surprising normally, except that Mum was educated only up to primary school level when she was growing up in a village in China, and Dad had stopped studying in the middle lower school because of the war. They had never exhibited any inclination to write poetry till then.
My father's five-line poem and my mother's response in like fashion summed up their lives as a couple whose marriage had been arranged, so poignantly, and with such music and rhythm, it brought unexpected tears to my eyes. The poems spoke of struggles, of poverty, of failures but also of commitment and love. Those two poems are a great testament of love that grew, and not love that struck at first sight.
7. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
8. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
But one of the most unhelpful traits I find in writing is a "know it all" attitude, and a disdain towards the views of those less schooled in the language.
9. If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
10. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
Once I was the host to a cabinet minister who graced an event which a social service organisation had organised. As president of the association, I welcomed him, walked him through the two prancing lions and deafening drums which greeted him and accompanied him to the guest of honour's seat. I must have been with him for almost 60 minutes, during which my only conversation with him was, "Welcome", "Thank you" and "Goodbye".
I was just concerned that if I had initiated any socially meaningful conversation with him, I might have become too forceful, and rendered him a greater discourtesy than that of just having minimal conversation.
11. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
But to answer the question directly, if I were to go, I will pick an action thriller. To me, film media lends itself best to action thrillers within a short space of time. I will probably just lose myself in that movie for a couple of hours, know that it's just a show, and walk away without an addiction for more. But if I were to watch a tragedy (my second choice), I may get hooked for life. Then where will my poor books be?
12. If (or when) you write a book, what would it be?
13. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Least Favourite: A "So?" said with arrogance.
14. What is the one thing you would like to change most about the Singapore literary publishing scene?
Having said that, once a publisher depends on a grant to publish a literary work, there is the danger of addiction, where grant-giving bodies can quietly and gradually control and direct the kind of narratives which go into the public domain.
We need to change this, so that all kinds of manuscripts with different or opposing, but significant narratives, be given the opportunity to become a book.
15. As a publisher, you must be faced with a pile of manuscripts every day. What makes a manuscript appeal to you? What are the do's and don'ts when it comes to submissions?
16. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soirée, and why?
I want to interrogate Byron on his poem, 'The Prisoner of Chillon', which first seriously introduced me to poetry and made me a captive since I was 14. That poem helped me appreciate the power of poetry in conveying images, emotions and a spirit of resistance. It would have been very instructive for me to see what was in his mind when he wrote it. From most accounts, Lord Byron was not the best of men. In fact, he seems downright nasty, from the biographical data that is available on him. Be that as it may, I will sup with him because the questions I have for him are so burning.
I want to speak with Dylan Thomas on 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night'. Was there an influence of God in that poem? What was he trying to achieve with that? A cry to support his father in his dying days? A rage against the inevitability of death? Or a cry within himself, conflicted as he would appear to be, between a very Christian mother and an atheist father?
Finally, I want to question Robert L. Stevenson on his short story, 'The Bottle Imp'. That story left a deep impression on me. The theme there seems to span history – man's greed. Or was he talking about the capitalist system which would leave someone without a chair every time the music stopped? Or was it just a simple tale, to be told over a fire?
Questions… questions… questions. That's why readings and sharing sessions by writers are important. It adds dimension to their stories to eager readers.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
But if there is to be some word or phrase I would like to be remembered by, the short word would be "He prevailed". A longer phrase would be a verse from the Bible, Zechariah Chapter 4 Verse 6: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit."QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014