Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Tan Chee Lay
By Yeow Kai Chai
Few poets in Singapore are as comfortable in English and Chinese as Tan Chee Lay, or even as industrious.
Belying his boyish countenance is a super-achiever. His scholarly credentials are impeccable. He has a BA in Chinese, an MA in English, and an MBA, not to mention a PhD in Chinese literature from Cambridge University. He holds multiple positions: He is Associate Professor of Chinese at the National Institute of Education (NIE) and Nanyang Technological University, and the Deputy Head of the Asian Languages and Cultures Academic Group, NIE.
Currently a National Library Board's George Lyndon Hicks Fellow, he is the recipient of the Golden Point Award, Young Artist Award, Singapore Youth Award (Art and Culture), Dr Tan Tsze Chor Art Award and a National Taiwan Normal University Chinese calligraphy award.
He has published more than 20 creative writing and scholarly titles, ranging from children's picture books to collections of poems, short stories and letters. His latest collection, Landmark Poetics of the Lion City (2017), features 99 poems on Singaporean iconic landmarks, and won him the Singapore Literature Prize for Chinese poetry in 2018.
As co-founder of Poetry Festival Singapore, he is in charge of the Chinese-language programming of the edition, which took place in July (2019), as well as organising the Singapore Literature Conference at the National Library in the same month. He will be a featured author in the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival in November.
Besides creative writing and academic research, he enjoys Chinese calligraphy, painting and badminton.
1) What are you reading right now?
Next, while having a stopover at the airport at Turkey, I got a copy of Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City from the bookshop. I admire how Pamuk lovingly writes about rich and detailed histories, his and the city's. His enchanting prose never fails to compel me to reflect on my own writings, recollect on my childhood, and reinvestigate our city's literature. And as I also paint and write calligraphy, I'm constantly returning to The Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden《芥子园画传》, widely considered as the fundamental textbook for many Chinese painters, including Qi Baishi.
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 writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
First, I'm fascinated by the renowned Chinese poet Su Dongpo (苏东坡, 1037-1101), who was also a writer, painter, calligrapher, pharmacologist, gastronome, and a statesman of the Song Dynasty. A model for all literati, Su represented the epitome, and possibly best combination, of Taoist and Confucian philosophies, even when he was in exile. Widely revered by Chinese scholars and students, his prolific works are of the highest standard, including his poems, paintings, calligraphy pieces, and even creative food delicacies. While I cannot imagine attaining anything close to these achievements, I admire, and am inspired by, his absolute open-mindedness and artistic transcendence in so many genres.
Second, for similar reasons, I look up to the Singaporean poet, calligrapher and educator, Pan Shou (1911-1999). Another all-round modern Renaissance man, he contributed significantly towards Singapore education, notably as a founding member of the Nanyang University (Nantah) in 1955. Furthermore, his Chinese poetry and calligraphy were as good as, if not better than, the very best literati in China and Taiwan. As a writer, poet, calligrapher and educator myself, I know how challenging it is to excel and continue to be passionate in so many areas for so many years.
5) Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
8) Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
The translations of Chinese classical poems, more often than not, do not do justice to the original texts. Here's one:
On the seventh day of the third lunar month, along the Shahu Pass, sudden rain befell us. Those with rain-gear hurried ahead; while my colleagues all felt discomfort, I did not. The sky has since cleared up, so I have written as follows.
I particularly adore the Taoist outlook of life so beautifully captured in the last lines.
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
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?
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
That said, my favourite characters are still my Chinese name, given to me by my mother, who was a Chinese-language teacher.
As a writer and calligrapher, I like words and characters, so probably that is the reason for not being able to think of a least favourite one. That said, I do have some characters I'm less fond of, only because they are more difficult to master in calligraphy, such as 女 'female', 家 'home', and 母 'mother'.
12) You co-founded Poetry Festival Singapore in 2015. What have been some of your personal highlights, and how do you think the Festival can distinguish itself from other literary events in an increasingly crowded calendar?
Some personal highlights include inaugurating and curating several multidisciplinary and multilingual exhibitions, such as a poetry-photography exhibition with Singapore Photography Society; a poetry-painting-recital show with The Arts House; a poets' manuscripts exhibition, and co-creating multilingual poems with three other director-poets.
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
16) As someone who writes and converse in English and Chinese effectively, what do you observe are key differences and similarities between the Singaporean literary scenes in both languages, and what can they learn from each other?
This age difference can have a profound impact on the works produced, activities organised, the outcome and level of impact.
17) What would you write on your own tombstone?