Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Esther Vincent Xueming
By Yeow Kai Chai
For Esther Vincent Xueming, picking up meditation was timely, coinciding as it did with the onslaught of the novel coronavirus.
"It has put me in touch with a part of myself that had been lying dormant all this while," she says. "I'm slowly embarking on a spiritual journey of healing and energy work, and I've had some wonderful experiences, which attest to my belief that existing on the physical plane of consciousness is only one way of being."
Meditation aside, Vincent has been occupying herself with editing The Tiger Moth Review, Singapore's first eco journal of art and literature which addresses nature, the environment and ecology. It has gone from strength to strength, chiming with the increased attention on climate change and ecological destruction, particularly in the wake of the viral outbreak.
As she witnesses "the world reacting in fear and anxiety, which manifests in hoarding and other ugly behaviours (and now the racial unrest in the US)," she finds herself calm and at peace. "I strongly believe that we all have our time, that our journey on earth is temporary and the question we should be asking ourselves is not how long will we live, but how are we spending the time that we have?," explains the literature educator by profession. "To live as best as we can, doing as much good as we can while we're alive and able to do so."
To that end, she has been spending her time fruitfully. Besides co-editing two poetry anthologies, Poetry Moves (Ethos Books, 2020) and Little Things (Ethos Books, 2013), she reads for Frontier Poetry. Her poems have been published in QLRS, The Stinging Fly, About Place Journal, Split Rock Review, Ghost City Review and Contour: A Lyric Cartography of Singapore, among others. She was a Best New Poets 2019 nominee and a finalist for the Singapore National Poetry Competition 2019 (English Language). She is prepping her debut poetry collection for her MA in Nanyang Technological University under the supervision of Boey Kim Cheng.
1) What are you reading right now?
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.
As for a living writer, I think it would have to be the Guyanese-British poet Grace Nichols, whose work I Have Crossed An Ocean moved me deeply. Despite the differences in our cultural backgrounds, 'Hurricane Hits England' was the hurricane that hit me when I read it the first time a few years ago. Something about its "gathering rage / [l]ike some dark ancestral spectre" resonated with me, and I think our shared cultural legacy of British colonialism erasing "old tongues", and the symbolism of the hurricane following the speaker to her new home, refusing to be forgotten or buried, "unchained" my heart as well. In some ways, I consider her my literary mother, my "Tropical Oya" "[r]eaping havoc" in my psyche, birthing in me a "blinding illumination," offering me wisdom that "the earth is the earth is the earth."
5) Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I overcome it by listening. If I sense that the words won't come, I don't force it. I believe that my poetry is already there, within me, but it only finds a shape and voice, or materialises when the time is right, when things align. I've found that if I try to force it, the work is forced as well. So, the best way for me to write is to listen to the work, be patient, and let it speak when ready.
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?
"Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one…" – Matsuo Bashō
"Attention is the beginning of devotion." – Mary Oliver
"We all must find our own way home." – Nahko Bear
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 would you go for?
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Least favourite, "religiosity."
12) Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: fracking, emission, silent spreader.
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) You founded The Tiger Moth Review in 2018 in order to engage with nature, culture, the environment and ecology, with a commitment to creating a space for minority, marginalised and under-represented voices. With four issues done and dusted, what primary concerns and issues have you gleaned from the contributions so far?
That said, I've found that we are all the same. We share the same hopes, and the same fears. We want the same things – to live and die with dignity on a land that will continue to flourish and sustain our children long after we're gone. No matter where we're from, what languages we speak, the colour of our skin, which gods we pray to, our social class, we all want to live in a world of beauty and hope, we all seek comfort in times of pain, grief and hardship, and we write to imagine and re-create goodness in the face of fear and chaos.
17) What would you write on your own tombstone?