Mammon and the Discipline of Writing
Tan Hwee Hwee gets real
By Toh Hsien Min
Tan Hwee Hwee, 27, is Singapore’s novelist of the moment. She had her first book, Foreign Bodies, published by Michael Joseph (a Penguin imprint) in 1997. Her second novel, Mammon Inc., a cutting satire of our times, was released in July 2001. She has won numerous awards, including a New York Times Fellowship for Fiction for her MFA in Creative Writing at New York University. Toh Hsien Min meets her at the Book Café for coffee.
THM: You’ve lived in a fair number of places: Singapore, the Netherlands, different parts of Britain and New York City. I won’t ask you which one you liked best, but what did you take away from each?
THH: Singapore was where I grew up, so there were a lot of childhood influences. Most of them weren’t particularly positive, and that comes out more in Foreign Bodies. Certainly, there’s the idea that as I was growing up I was very, very bored, living in Singapore, and there’s the idea that being overseas would be a lot better, especially in England and in New York. When I was growing up I always thought that – I would read stuff like The Famous Five and The Hardy Boys, and I genuinely thought that if you were a typical teenager in America you’d spend most of your summer vacations going to capture smugglers and trying to track down murderers – that life was so much more glamorous and exciting in the West. So that was my experience of Singapore, just being very frustrated at the lack of opportunities for excitement and also for culture, in terms of feeling that I very much wanted to have a successful career as a writer, and that it would be very difficult to do that in Singapore just because there wasn’t the market and the audience for it and there wasn’t also the support system in terms of training being developed to do that.
My parents moved to Holland for about three years – and I wrote about this in Foreign Bodies – the shock was that Holland was really boring. It wasn’t really that much better than Singapore in terms of excitement levels or cultural opportunities. And then I went to England to do my BA, and I chose the University of East Anglia because in England at that time they had the most famous creative writing programme and it was the only university that I knew offered undergraduate creative writing programme classes.
THM: So you took part in the creative writing programme there then?
THH: Only on the BA level. I was quite mistaken because the programme that was famous was the MA, and there was quite a separation between the MA and the BA programme. The one thing which was quite significant for me was not so much the UEA programme, but the Arvon Foundation; it started running creative writing courses, and I went to one that was run by Will Self and Carlo Gabler – Carlo Gabler by the way is the son of Edna O’Brien and he was a really good teacher – and it was very intense, basically you go there and write for a week: you wake up in the morning, you meet with the tutors one-on-one and maybe meet with the group a bit and then you’d write for most of the afternoon and the evening, and you’d come back together and read your work. For me it was quite a big turning point on two levels. On the first level, before that I’d been writing for maybe four, five years and sending a lot of stuff out and not really getting any of it published, you know I’ve gotten 200-500 rejection slips. But during that workshop I worked on a story that later on became ‘Hungry Ghosts’, which was the first story I actually published. And when I was working on the story there I did feel that I was making quite an exponential leap, in the development of my writing; one of the things that came across during that workshop is that what writers really need is time – if you really want to be a writer, it’s kind of like a job, and it really helps if you have that dedicated time period. One of the things I notice about Singaporean writers is that they really don’t invest enough time in their writing. It’s quite pathetic – and I can go on the record saying this – that there’re some writers who haven’t published anything in ten years and people still consider them writers. There was a four year gap between my first book and my second book, and I already feel a lot of guilt that it’s taken me such a long time. Most of my peers, you know, British and American peers who were first novelists, a lot of them do books every year or so. I have two or three friends who published in the same year as me, ’97, and they have three or four books out already by now, and one of them was still working full-time as well. As a Singaporean, it was good for me to go there and realize that that’s the most important thing you need, to be able to block out huge periods of time which you can just spend writing and be productive that way. And the second thing that was great for me was just the idea of – I’ve talked about this plenty of times before – I think the key about writing is knowing what is unique about your country and about your place, and I believe very strongly in developing a signature style and a signature topic; I think that’s true for my work, I do have quite a specific style, and if people picked up one of my books they do know that it’s coming from me. Shall I go on?
THM: Yes, but there’re all these strands that can go everywhere: you know, you talk about Singapore, I’ve got responses to what you’ve said about Singapore... but let’s take it in chronological order, so that there’s some continuity. You’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, most recently in the Writer’s Festival, that you really didn’t like Oxford. It also comes through in Mammon Inc. Why was that?
THH: England tends to be a very class-based system, and Oxford more so than anywhere else – and you’d be familiar with that. Going from UEA where there was a campus system and the money was distributed very evenly, to the collegiate system and finding that the university didn’t really exist and there was a class-based system of richer colleges versus poorer colleges: stuff like that disturbed me. More than that, on a social level, when I was at UEA I really made some of my best friends, and I got along very well with people; but at Oxford I would go into parties and it was absolutely impossible to talk to anyone, you would talk to someone and you knew they were intelligent but they would make no attempt to engage with you in conversation, and by that you knew they were snubbing you in a way, because when they see another white person they would launch into this long and funny conversation. That happened to me very often at Oxford, and I had a lot of other Oxford friends who had similar experiences. You know about S. [name changed for privacy] right, that she got death threats? S. was at Brasenose; in her first year she got notes slipped under her door that said ‘Die’ and ‘Why don’t you go back where you came from?’, and when she reported it to the authorities they said, oh don’t worry about it, it’s just a joke – I was really outraged by that, I mean at any other university there would be a proper investigation: that’s pretty much as close as you would get to a racial death threat. But on another level I’m not surprised because Brasenose does have a reputation for being very racist. So it’s stuff like that. I’d be at the telephone booth and people would be making slanty eyes at me. At some level you’re so appalled, you’re so shocked that anybody can be like that, that you can’t even believe that it’s happening to you.
Another story I tell is that I was riding on the Oxford Tube back to Oxford, and there was this English girl and two Egyptian girls sitting next to her. They were talking in Egyptian, and she just turned around to them and said, “Excuse me, but when you’re in my country can you please speak my language?” I was so appalled [chuckling], I just stood up and started scolding her, you’ve just gone over the line, you have no right to talk like that. But I’d never experienced behaviour like that until I got to Oxford, because UEA was very liberal, very left-wing, very PC in a lot of ways. I liked Oxford a lot, because intellectually the kind of work that I was doing, which was 16th-, 17th-century literature, I was doing with John Carey, who’s you know widely considered the expert in his field, and when you’re on graduate level you do it one-on-one, so I liked that, I liked that a lot. And the Bodleian library is great, it’s the idea of just going in there – you know stuff like the Incendium Amoris, it’s actually based on experience – you take out these books and they’ve been there for a hundred years... and they’re not like books we know nowadays, they’re sort of – I can’t remember – papyrus, and leather... and vellum, and it’s amazing, it’s almost like a historical treasure you’re holding in your hand, and it’s very, very specialised. In terms of the scholarship side of Oxford, I definitely loved that, but I found it very frustrating on the social level.
THM: I guess I was really quite fortunate in the sense that I didn’t experience a lot of racism there. Throughout my whole Oxford life, I can only remember one instance of racism. What about New York? Was the urban lifestyle less alienating than Oxford’s?
THH: I really loved New York and I really miss it a lot, because especially in Brooklyn where I lived... you know I’ve lived in a lot of places and it’s the first place where I really felt at home. In terms of demographics, in terms of my social background and my interests, I felt that I fit in there. I lived in the Fort Green area, which was near the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where they premiere all the Philip Glass. You have a lot of 20-something 30-something lower middle-class professionals, a lot of them have artistic inclinations, so you have a lot of writers, a lot of people working in the arts... I’ve a friend who’s also a novelist who lived in the same building as me. Marianne Moore the poet lived in the building right across from where I was, it’s near the park called Fort Green Park, which was designed by Frederick Law-Olmsted, who designed Central Park... the idea of Fort Green Park came from Walt Whitman though, who was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. So it was amazing to live in that kind of area, where you have a lot of young people who are involved in practising the arts, and even if they’re not practising the arts they were very interested in going to theatre. That’s one thing I miss about New York compared to Singapore: the idea of having the double life – nobody’s just a waitress, even the waitress is trying to be an actress. In Singapore, people’s interests are very narrow, they sort of just want to go to work, go back home and spend Sundays with their family and raise a family, and in terms of broader cultural or even any other kind of interest, life seems to revolve very much around work, and family, and shopping, and eating.
THM: But now you’ve come back to Singapore. Why did you decide to come back, and can you briefly describe your life in Singapore?
THH: There were quite a lot of reasons. One of the reasons was that when I was in New York I got a bursary from the NAC, and one of their requirements was that I had to come back to Singapore for a year, two years I think, to sort of practise the arts here. So that was kind of hanging in my mind. I actually got them to delay the return, because I wanted to work for about a year in New York, which I did as a technology journalist for a magazine which I think is now called Adweeks Technology Marketing. So that was one of the reasons: I knew at some stage I had to come back to Singapore for about two years. During that time I started looking for a job, and I got this offer at the Business Times to work in the Executive Lifestyle and Arts section, which was a great opportunity; so that’s what brought me back, and because I felt the timing was right. I wasn’t that happy in my old job, I tried being a journalist, but I think in terms of doing the lifestyle and the arts beat, I really do love my job now, I love the beat, so I’m glad I made the move back for that reason. There’re other frustrations about living in Singapore, things like the cars – it’s so expensive to own a car – but it’s really more on the level of what I mentioned before: the people, finding people with a real passion for things which don’t involve money or shopping or eating. One thing I do like about Singapore which I found lacking in New York is that Singapore has this kampung feel. Even in the artistic community it’s very small and in general they try to be supportive of each other. In New York, because there’re so many writers and it’s such a big place, even though there’re a lot of things going on, there isn’t the same kind of feeling of a tight-knit community; I mean the Singapore writing community is so small that pretty much all the writers know everyone by reputation at least, and most of them would have met each other more or less, which I think is good, and I kind of enjoy that.
THM: There’s a line in Foreign Bodies that goes: “To be fair, there’s something exotic about Singapore”, and then you kind of talk about how it is that way. Your publishers, who were British/American, found you one of the weirdest writers they’d come across. How much of this is you, and how much of this is Singapore? Do we find Singapore dull because of familiarity and contempt?
THH: That was the Kirkus review, and I think the Kirkus review was about the book, in the sense that it fuses a lot of very disparate elements like mysticism, child abuse and soccer gambling, which is quite a strange mix, I think. I think Singapore is still quite dull in a lot of ways and it’s kind of getting worse in that it’s becoming more and more westernized. One of my theories about Singapore is that it’s really trying to become a kind of franchise city of America. I think the government – this might have been a couple of years ago – I think the government did say very clearly that they wanted to make Singapore a Boston of the East. There’re still elements of exoticism in Singapore, on the ‘Asian past’ level – we still have our hungry ghost festivals, people burning huge drums of ghost money in the streets, so that’s kind of still quite exotic, but you see on some level those things don’t interest me. I’m on some level very much like a banana – I’ve no interest in Chinese culture, I just get very bored. So the boredom might come from that as well. I do have a strong fascination with western culture a lot more than some eastern culture. I can’t stand Chinese music, I can’t listen to any sort of Chinese music.
THM: Foreign Bodies sounded, when I first read it, like a collection of vignettes or short stories rather than a whole, integral, cohesive novel, so that when you read it you can see both a kind of whole and the seams in between, as it were. Is your mode of writing an evolutionary one?
THH: No, not really. Foreign Bodies was kind of different from Mammon Inc. in the sense that originally it was a collection of short stories. I wrote about eleven, twelve short stories and I had enough to make it into a book, but during that time and actually still true now it’s very difficult to get a collection of short stories published, especially if you’re a first-time writer. So after I got the collection done, I tried to rewrite it into a novel. It’s not so much evolutionary, but I used the frame of ‘foreign bodies’ so in a sense the structure is more like a metaphysical poem than a novel, because the connection is actually based on the pun – you have ‘foreign bodies’ which deals with the idea of foreigners, and ‘foreign bodies’ the medical term which links into the whole ‘buried secrets’ theme. So that made it quite unique as a structure for a novel. Mammon Inc. was quite different because when I started writing it, I sat down to write a novel, I knew I had to write a novel and I had a very clear concept of what it was about: basically it was going to be about a girl who’d adjust people, and there were going to be three set pieces – one set piece in New York, one set piece in England and one set piece in Singapore.
THM: On that point of comparing Foreign Bodies and Mammon Inc., both books feature a young professional woman at the start of her career who’s best friends with a semi-sober, smart but somewhat himbo British male. Is this coincidence?
THH: No, no, no. I mean the female characters... I don’t know about the ‘at the start of her career’ thing, but it’s more the idea of the voice. The female character has this kind of almost film-noir Chandleresque... it’s a sort of Raymond Chandler does Amy Tan kind of voice. They’re both strong and feisty.
THM: Yes, that’s true.
THH: As for the start of the career thing, it’s more that’s a kind of turning point, so it’s a good point to pick up the book. As for the British side, I’m very inspired by Nick Hornby, and there’s this recent tradition of laddish literature of the boozy British male... I mean I did want to write a comic novel, in the whole Men Behaving Badly, Nick Hornby kind of tradition. So I did want to use that type of character, who I thought in a way, in that sort of clueless laddishness, was very typically British.
THM: So you were aiming after the contemporary hip-funny then, the Bridget Jones stroke yeah Nick Hornby kind of style.
THH: Definitely, and to a certain extent Douglas Coupland. Bret Easton Ellis very much so as well, especially for the New York sections, though I must say I tried to read Glamorama to research for Mammon Inc., and it’s a terrible, terrible book, in terms of plotting, but in terms of style, I like that kind of style a lot. It’s kind of hip, though I don’t like to use the word ‘hip’ because I think it’s slightly pretentious, but it’s got that sort of clean, very economical, very sexy in a way...
THM: Well you do have a sharp eye for the hip, and a sharp pen for fleshing this out in your details. What do you feel about consumer culture?
THH: Could you be a little more specific? Consumer culture – that’s quite a wide topic.
THM: I was thinking of the way in satirizing consumer culture in Mammon Inc. particularly, it does nonetheless foreground it, highlighting consumerism in its details, making all those things – Versace etc. – seem really hip. In a sense, it’s a defeatist style, because in putting it forward you promote it as well.
THH: You have to look at Mammon Inc. in the book as a whole. I did want to make several passages about the mc products very sexy and attractive and seductive, and the key word there is seductive, because Mammon Inc. is basically a novel about seduction.
THM: No, I agree with the seduction. It becomes fetishistic, that’s what I’m trying to say.
THH: And? [Chuckles.] What’s the question then?
THM: The question then is, is that something you’re comfortable with?
THH: What, fetishising consumer culture? Um, yah, because without having to give the ending away a lot of the book is about how this kind of seductiveness of materialism really does destroy your soul. Also, there’s this problem of linking consumerism and art. This is not directly related to the book, but if you look at magazines like Wallpaper, it’s a matter of fact that a lot of the best designers and the best artists nowadays are working within advertising, they’re working within journalism, and, a lot of times, this medium and certainly advertising: they’re designed to sell products. At the same time, I have a great fascination with looking at advertising because you know that a lot of times the best artwork is actually being done in advertising, because they have the money to attract the best people. I can’t remember who said this before, but I was at a talk and he was saying well this is not really different from the past, because it’s just a different kind of patronage system, you know, like during the Medici times or the Renaissance times, the Medicis would hire the greatest artists to paint portraits, and certainly people like Sidney, even Shakespeare, they had patrons... one of the greatest sonnet sequences, Astrophil and Stella, was supposedly written in praise of Queen Elizabeth. So artists in general throughout time have had this struggle: you want to do good art but at the same time you know that your art is being used for a different agenda that you might not be completely happy with. Which is why Disney is a very interesting example, because you have a lot of great artists who go and work for Disney, which is probably considered as this evil über-corporation, and what the artists would do is draw obscene little figures in their cartoons that only they can see and that’s their way of subverting the system.
THM: Yeah, there’s that one frame in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where Jessica Rabbit is caught with her pants down, literally... Anyway, you’ve had the good fortune of winning support from writing communities overseas – for example, you won a writing fellowship at NYU, where you took your MFA. How do Singaporean writing infrastructures stack up?
THH: Oh, very, very badly, and I’ve been making a lot of noise both in my position as a journalist at the Business Times, and by complaining endlessly to the NAC. Writers – and I’ve written about this in BT – if you look at the funding for theatre as opposed to writing, the NAC spent $6 million on the Arts Festival, and they spent $200,000 on the Writer’s Festival. Of course they say, blah blah blah, it costs a lot more to bring in a theatre group than to hire a writer, but the budget was very small, let’s put it that way. Also they don’t know how to support writers. They don’t have any writing grants for writers, which England has, and America has, and Australia has. America has things like the Guggenheim, which offers US$250,000 – twice the budget for the Writers’ Fest. And they award that quite regularly; I have friends who've won the Guggenheim. The only thing that they have in Singapore, which is very frustrating, which shows that they don’t understand how publishing works, and you probably know this, they have grants where after you finish the manuscript, they can give you a grant to go and help out your publisher. That's really not a writing grant, that’s a publishing grant.
THM: And they label it as such.
THH: Yeah, and you don’t have grants which would enable writers to let’s say go off for a year, at least buy them time; and remember what I told you about the Arvon Foundation course, the most important thing for writers is to be able to have that block of time where you can actually focus on your art, especially for young writers. Now I have a full-time job, it’s not that difficult just because I’ve had experience of writing full-time, I know the discipline, I’ve had time to sort of develop my methodology. But if you’re a young budding writer, you really need that good two, three years when you can focus on your art and really think about your pedagogy and all that kind of stuff.
THM: So you have a regular schedule for writing then?
THH: Basically weekends. I cycle in the morning, do something social either in the afternoon or in the evening, but in between that time I slot in my writing work. Now I’m working on a screenplay as well, I’m trying to slot in maybe some of the weeknights. At the moment I’m finding it’s okay, because certainly one of the things I found when I was writing full-time was that I couldn’t write every day anyway, because it’s too exhausting emotionally and mentally; I was finding the best is to write alternate days, you have time to give your brain to recharge and to go out and do social things and... can I complain more about the NAC?
THM: Well, if you want to.
THH: What they really need to realize is that they do have to set up a proper grant, a writing grant for writers, to give them time off, and to do things like writers’ residencies – they’re very successful in the States and the UK. You can let someone be a writer-in-residence for a year, and they can go and teach and put things back into the community. And I think there’s a definite lack of training, you don’t have any proper writing programmes set up in Singapore; if the NAC or NUS could actually get together and set up a writing programme that would be very beneficial for the writing community.
THM: There is a mode of writing in both books that I shall call evangelical, but that a harsher critic might call polemical. This tends to be attached to subjects you feel strongly about, such as Christianity or child abuse. How do you see that fitting in with the general style of your work?
THH: I try very hard not to be polemical or evangelical, but what I try to do is to adopt a structure where I can deal with certain topics which I’m interested in. For example, in terms of structure Mammon Inc. follows the temptation scene of Jesus, there’re allusions to... like she’s being brought up to the pinnacle, she’s being shown all the sights...
THM: There’re three tests...
THH: Yeah, there’re three tests, so it’s actually more taking the principle of Biblical narrative, which, you know, a lot of authors, whether they’re Christians or not, do. Ultimately Mammon is the basic myth of the struggle of good and evil, the devil tempting the pilgrim, in a sense. Even in terms of Christianity, I try to choose perhaps narratives and themes which have a more universal application, so whether you’re Christian or not I think there’re things that you can identify with. The endings of my books tend to be very, very dark, so I don’t think they can necessarily be seen as specifically Christian endings.
THM: You don’t do happy endings.
THH: Yeah. And I think Foreign Bodies, even though there are a lot of passages which might be seen as promoting Christianity or certainly talks very well about Christ, the ending itself is very post-modern in the sense that I did want to choose an ending which was very, very open.
THM: I didn’t think that was so much post-modern as realistic.
THM: So, for a final question, a realistic one: what would you advise Singaporean writers who want to go international?
THH: First you have to write a good book, and you have to write an international book, in the sense that you would have to write a book that would be able to cross cultures, mostly in terms of themes. And the cultural mustn’t be too localized, but you have to know what can be explained and what can’t be explained, but you must do that kind of explanation in a way that’s seamless so it doesn’t look as though it’s explanation. I think it’s woven in fine in Mammon Inc., because it’s set up in a structure where the whole book is about explaining; e.g. that section where she has to train Steve to be Singaporean. But even the explanation part isn’t that damaging if you don’t do it well, because for most parts it’s the literate readers or the writers who worry more about the craft of fiction. I think most general readers – if they read an explanation and it’s exotic and interesting, they don’t care about stuff like that. So that’s on the craft side. On the business side I think you have to realize that it’s an international business, and the market is in New York and the market is in London, and you have to go out, you have to network, you have to get your name out there. One way you can do that is to find a good agent, who’s based overseas.
THM: And you have one.
THH: Oh yeah, yeah.
THM: She was the one who landed you Foreign Bodies?
THH: Yes and no. She sent it out to a lot of people, but in the end Penguin heard about me just through someone else, and she negotiated the deal. But certainly all my other deals – my German deal, my Swedish deal, my Dutch deal, my American deal – that was all done totally by my agent; I wouldn’t even begin to know how to sell my book in Germany, you know. It’s like the basic principle of diversification; as a writer, you’re useless at the business side, so you need an agent. I know that Gopal Baratham has gone on record saying that he doesn’t want to get an agent because they’re expensive and whatever, but they’re definitely worth it.
THM: They generate the income for you anyway.
THH: Yes but it’s a big cut, sometimes they take from 15 to 20%. The irony with agents is that the more successful you are, the less you need an agent. I mean, if you’ve reached the stage where you’re like John Grisham, you really don’t need an agent, you just need a lawyer to look through your contract. Because once publishers know that you’ve got a book, they’ll be flocking to you!