Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Daryl Lim Wei Jie
By Yeow Kai Chai
If there is one thing Daryl Lim Wei Jie does not suffer from, it's the dreaded "sophomore slump," a syndrome said to fell some artists who crumble after delivering well-received debuts.
Indeed: If his first poetry collection, A Book of Changes (Math Paper Press, 2016), signals the arrival of a nascent lyrical sensibility with an eye for socio-historicism, then the follow-up, Anything But Human (Landmark Books, 2021), is a great leap forward. It ups the ante with a surrealistic exposition of a world torn asunder—geographically, emotionally, morally. Alternately very funny, worldly and otherworldly, his voice is shaping up to be among the highlights in the next generation of Singaporean poets.
Even in this field, Lim distinguishes himself with a keen intellect and generosity of imagination, constantly probing essentialist borders of identity, time, and place. It comes as little surprise to find out that he read history at the University of Oxford; has a Master's in Political Thought and Intellectual History from the University of Cambridge; and now heads a team in the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, under the Prime Minister's Office.
Since winning the Golden Point Award in English poetry in 2015, he has been prolific in the literary scene. His works have been published in publications and periodicals such as the Poetry Daily, Cordite, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, The Southwest Review, Drunken Boat and Softblow, and been featured in anthologies such as A Luxury We Cannot Afford, Call and Response, 11 X 9 and others.
He co-edited Food Republic: A Singapore Literary Banquet (2020), an anthology of literary food writing from Singapore, with Ann Ang and Tse Hao Guang; and edited the revised edition of The Hidden Papyrus of Hen-taui (Bluback Productions, 2019), a sonnet sequence by Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam. Lim also penned a critical introduction to Wong's works at poetry.sg, an online encyclopaedia of Singapore poetry set up by Sing Lit Station.
In 2022, Lim is working on a translation of a Chinese book, Short Tongue (短舌), by Singapore poet Wang Mun Kiat, and on an anthology of Singapore-Malaysia writing.
1. What are you reading right now?
In addition, I am constantly reading Facebook and Instagram, like everyone else, which is a fact so banal and unremarkable now that it is like saying "I drink water daily." Yet it is perhaps still worth pointing out.
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.
Living: not to be a flatterer, but I would have to say Yeow Kai Chai. Kai Chai has been an inspiration in the way he has blazed the trail for experimental poetry in Singapore, carving out a special, mysterious space of his own.
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?
"'Twas brillig and the slithy toves
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?
(I include what I find to be a hilarious shot of me and Birdy.)
One of my least favourite words has to be accessibility, followed closely by sustainability. I find these to be much abused words that serve mainly to cloak inadequacies of thought and rigour.
12. Compose a rhyming couplet that includes the following words: cockatiel, umami, I Ching.
Imbibing the energies of the I-Ching,
(This may be one of the handful of instances where I have rhymed in my poetry.)
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. On the Sing Lit Station website under the 'Book A Writer' programme, you have been delivering two workshops: one on the intersections of history and poetry; and the other on critically examining the boundaries of what constitutes 'Singapore poetry'. Looking back on the history and development of Singapore poetry, can you cast an eye into the future and predict how it will evolve?
Where I am perhaps going with this is that Singapore poetry, at least in English, has always been somewhat boundaryless and amorphous. It has arguably become more so, with migration to Singapore and from Singapore. I am wary of attempts to try and overly define and fix the boundaries of SingLit, as some have tried to do, by tying it to a Singaporean setting or Singaporean characters. The most Singaporean thing, some might argue, is trying to run away from being Singaporean.
At some point then, does the category serve a purpose? I half-suspect that as tastes and styles of writing get more and more diverse, Singapore literature and Singapore poetry will become less useful categories, and to talk about its future or shape might also be increasingly meaningless. Very few people would try to pronounce on the entire state or future of American poetry, for example. I think Singaporean writers and artists perhaps need to look past the nation-state as a main frame of reference. It can be suffocating and constraining, and some of us have an unhealthy obsession with it.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?