Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Danielle Lim
By Yong Shu Hoong
I first met Danielle Lim when she was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) in 2016 – I moderated a Singapore Book Council panel discussion where she appeared with a few other SLP-shortlisted authors. She subsequently co-won the SLP for English non-fiction for her memoir, The Sound of SCH: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey (2014), which depicts her uncle's struggles with mental illness, as well as the love and bonds of family.
Since then, Lim is no stranger to awards. Her debut novel, Trafalgar Sunrise (2019), was shortlisted for Best Literary Work in the Singapore Book Awards 2019. More recently, her 2020 collection of short stories, And Softly Go the Crossings, won the Book of the Year and Best Literary Work in the Singapore Book Awards 2021. The Sound of SCH has also been translated to Chinese and Tamil, and published in Taiwan and India.
A graduate from the University of Oxford, Lim has worked in the financial sector as well as in tertiary and global education. Aside from being featured at the Singapore Writers Festival, she has been invited to speak at various local and international events, including the Kimberley Writers Festival (Australia) and the George Town Literary Festival (Malaysia).
1. What are you reading right now?
I've been reading The Courage to be Disliked and its sequel, The Courage to be Happy, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. These wonderful books take us through the psychology and philosophy of Alfred Adler, the least known of the three giants of 19th-century psychology, the other two being Freud and Jung, whom we are more familiar with. Adler's psychology contains great insights into how we can step out from the shackles of the past, and from the fetters of wanting to be recognised by others.
I'm also re-reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This story, while seemingly simple, is profound and powerful in its wisdom and symbolism, taking us on a journey in search of our dreams and deepest desires, an endeavour which requires courage and hope. In this pandemic, perhaps these are what we most need – courage and hope.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I think I would like to be the shepherd boy in The Alchemist. He may not be a famous literary character in the usual sense of the term, but this simple, humble shepherd had the courage to leave everything he had behind to go on a search for his dream, and to seek to understand the universal language of life. He touched the Soul of the World, or what Jung called "the collective unconscious". As Coelho states in his preface, "the Master Work is not the work of a few, but of every human being on the face of the Earth."
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I'm talented in writing and the words pop out like popcorn, when actually it's more like building a 50,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, one piece at a time.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
It is important to me that my writing is accessible, that I can meet my reader on a human level which goes beyond language. I identify with poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng in this aspect. In her poem 'Why is Your Poetry so Normal', she writes, "Why should I choose to lose you in a maze as if I'm trying to hide away from you? I'd rather take your hand and lead us through."
I certainly would not compare myself to literary giants like Anne Lee and Hemingway, though I identify with their conviction that, in Hemingway's words, "it is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply."
Such a conviction has to be understood in the context of lived experience and how complex, how difficult, life already is. As Hemingway says, "In order to write about life first you must live it."
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I do go through periods when I'm not able to write much, or I'm still searching for what it is I think I want to write. Sometimes it's just fatigue. At such times I just try to get on with life, to remain open and attentive till life presents me with an insight.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Sincerity and humility.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
Writing which, in order to sell or to seem clever or funny or whatever it is, does not show due respect to the human struggle inherent in lived experience.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
In her poem 'Ethiopian Famine Victims: Mother and Child', Anne Lee Tzu Pheng laments, "Why is poetry shamed by its own words?" This is such an honest, sincere expression of how helpless writing can sometimes be in the face of human suffering. Human suffering is at the core of my writing, and I often feel such helplessness as well. I can only hope that in whatever small ways, my work can bring about a change for the better in the lives of others, through the honest soul-searching, beauty and hope that I find and share, and which I try to live out in my own life.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
listen to and love Chinese music. When I tune in to the radio, it's usually to UFM100.3.
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?
Before the pandemic, I might have picked a tragedy. During the pandemic, I would pick a comedy. Perhaps when the pandemic finally ends, I will go for an action thriller. All three – laughter, sorrow and adventure – are core to what it is to be human, aren't they? For me, it is often trying to seek balance.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
My favourite word: mummy. A great deal of what I have learnt about life, I learnt from being a mother. It is a human experience which reaches the depths of the soul, where profound joy and intense struggle meet, a place of love one reaches only by lived experience. When my children call me "mummy", it is something very precious and special.
My least favourite word: Panadol. Well, okay, the word in the dictionary is paracetamol, but we all know Panadol, right? I have been suffering from chronic migraines since my teenage years. The debilitating pain can strike suddenly, so much so that living a "normal" day can often be out of reach. I am happy if I go for a week or two without pain or illness.
12. Write a short-short story in three lines that include the following three words: "guilty", "green" and "leave".
The handkerchief tree bids me her usual dawn greeting, her green tassels reaching out in the breeze. Across the road, her companions have taken their leave, felled to make way for vehicular passage. For now, the empty space sits heavy, a void as guilty as my feeble "good morning".
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
I suppose it would have to be that chunk of thinking meat in my head (you have a similar one in yours too!).
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
I write through the day if I'm working on something, though for me the stillness of the early morning enables a deeper reach into the soul.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
With no offence intended to the literary community, if I had a last supper knowing that I would die that very night, I would want to have my last meal with my family. So to be honest, I do not think I would invite any literary figures to these personal, intimate last moments with those whom I have loved and who have loved me every day in this world.
16. What are the challenges you have faced as you made the shift from memoir and non-fiction to writing novels and short stories?
It's been a learning process, a great deal of writing and re-writing, at times difficult but deeply enriching. I learn a lot from reading, analysing and reflecting on other works – why is this sentence so powerful, what happens if a writer tries too hard to achieve a certain effect? I then try to apply what I learn in my own writing, through trial and error. Some of my short stories were written and re-written over years. It has been a lot of hard work, buckets of perspiration. I recently completed a new novel, tentatively titled All Our Brave, Earthly Scars, to be published by Penguin Random House next year. I hope readers will like it.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 20 No. 4 Oct 2021
A life most ordinary, richly blessed, and free.