Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Heng Siok Tian
By Yeow Kai Chai
As a child born in the early 1960s, a transitional era when Singapore underwent tumultuous change from colony to independence, Heng Siok Tian assiduously locates self in contexts of history, familial and national, modern and traditional. Her poetry, likewise, is lived-in and realistic, seldom theoretical, and always sensitised to privilege and the concomitant absence of it; probing, but quite different from the polemical register of latter-day social justice champions.
She melds the polarising tendencies of her two early mentors—the moral, nation-defining stance of Edwin Thumboo and the Objectivist coolness of Arthur Yap—into a body of verse which is emblematic of an evolving Singaporean poetic parlance, questioning the past and the present, as it moves inexorably towards the future. At the same time, hers is also a distinctly feminine voice, drawing attention to matrilineal and marginalised concerns. Heng has said that she is trying to reach at an "inclusiveness of voices, verities and visions."
An educationist by day, she has written five collections of poetry: Crossing the Chopsticks and Other Poems (1993); My City, My Canvas (1999); Contouring (2004); Is My Body a Myth (2011); and Mixing Tongues (2011); and has co-written two books with three other authors, namely, The Adopted: Stories from Angkor (2015), and Lost Bodies: Poems between Portugal and Home (2016).
Her poems have been included in numerous anthologies over the decades, the most recent of which are Love and Life at The Gallery: An Anthology of Poems based on Artworks from the National Gallery Singapore (Poetry Festival Singapore, 2020); The Nature of Poetry (National Parks Board, 2019); Contour: A Lyric Cartography of Singapore (Poetry Festival Singapore, 2019), and Seven Hundred Lines: A Crown of Found/Fount Sonnets (Squircle Line Press, 2019).
Besides poetry and creative prose, Heng has written a short play, The Lift, which was staged in 1991, and was read at the Third International Women Playwrights' Conference in Adelaide in 1994. In 2000, she was a Fellow with the Iowa International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, USA, on a National Arts Council Fellowship.
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.
One living writer who amazes me is Margaret Atwood.
One dead writer I can identify with is Emily Dickinson.
The reason why I respect Atwood is for her staying power as well as her works. As for Emily Dickinson, it is the fact that she wrote with so little external acknowledgement and credit during her time. Both women are resilient in ways that I recognise are qualities undervalued these days.
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?
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?
If I must respond, I would qualify. If it is a word I'd like to use, it would be "wisdom." If it is a word I'd like to hear, it would be "sorry" if the circumstance calls for it.
As for the least favourite word, I think every word has its time and season.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: umbilical cord, dialect, photographs.
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. Few people know that your first three collections, Crossing The Chopsticks and Other Poems (1993), My City, My Canvas (1999), and Contouring (2004), contain the letter "C" which begin the titles. I understand it's your attempt to redefine the five C's which you feel are valued by many Singaporeans. As someone who has mentored generations of Singaporean writers and aspiring writers through the Creative Arts Programme, do you think the values which are held dear by Singaporeans have changed?
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?