Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Jon Gresham
By Yeow Kai Chai
At first glance, Jon Gresham may appear as somewhat of an outlier in the Singaporean literary scene a post-national scribe equally at home, and observing from a distance.
Born in English, raised in Australia, and having lived in Singapore and Thailand for the past two decades, the writer who was adopted at birth but knew his father was Hong Kong Chinese and mother English has shown an acuity in exploring complex, interstitial spaces, physical and emotional.
Angus Whitehead, in a review of Gresham's debut short story collection, We Rose Up Slowly (Math Paper Press, 2015, 2nd edition), praised him for providing a "uniquely weathered and maturely distanced literary lens trained on Singapore, contrasting fertilely with much of the comparatively more instant writing generated here in the last few years." (Asiatic, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 2017)
In We Rose Up Slowly, Gresham parlays his own background and cosmopolitan experience having worked in finance, software, and investment banking and travelling all over the world into stories set in Singapore, Jakarta and Australia, which flit between genres, moving from social realism to folk mythology to horror.
His writing has appeared in various publications including The Best Asian Short Stories 2020 (Kitaab 2020) and Best Singaporean Short Stories 1 (Epigram Books 2020). His story 'The Visit' was shortlisted for the 2020 Short Fiction/Essex University Prize and included in Best New Singaporean Short Stories Volume 5 (Epigram Books 2021). He also co-edited In This Desert There Were Seeds (Ethos Books and Margaret River Press, 2019), a collection of stories by West Australian and Singaporean writers.
A co-founder of Sing Lit Station, he currently runs the Asia Creative Writing Programme, a collaboration between The College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and the National Arts Council (NAC), and which is a reboot of the NTU-NAC Writing Residencies. He is working on two novels, a memoir, a haiku, several tadpoles and a small child.
1. What are you reading right now?
Blob by David Walliams
I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
The Situation & The Story by Vivian Gornick
Spiaking Singlish: A Companion to How Singaporeans Communicate by Gwee Li Sui
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.
Jackie Kay. Post-colonial, mixed race adoption.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Like I believe in unicorns.
Writer's block is overcome by attitude, technique, process, hard work, perseverance, acceptance, doing something else, relaxation, meditation, yoga, actually writing, et cetera.
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...
I used to be really thin (my fringe weighed more than the rest of my body combined).
And I had a bodyguard for three years when I lived and worked in Thailand at the turn of the 20th century.
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?
My least favourite word is "liminal". Overused and misunderstood.
12. Compose a short-short story in three sentences that include the following three items: igloo, levitation, darkroom.
Beyond the tundra, in the darkroom of memory, I developed a tumult of those sudden sensibilities in the congealing light.
Something cold this way comes.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
My right index finger, my brass Kaweco Lilliput fountain pen, Scrivener on a functioning MacBook Pro, and at least two packets of M&S Extremely Chocolatey Milk Chocolate Orange Biscuits.
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 have been involved in some of Singapore's pivotal literary initiatives in the past decade. You co-founded Sing Lit Station with Joshua Ip and Daryl Qilin Yam in 2016, and currently help run the Asia Creative Writing Programme (ACWP). The latter is aimed at addressing "gaps and needs in the Singapore literary community." Can you elucidate on specific gaps and needs the Programme hopes to address, and how the literary scene has evolved during your time in Singapore?
Over the next few years we plan to bring writers to Singapore to help develop Malay and Tamil writing, how to write creative criticism from a non-academic perspective, how to teach creative writing, and more courses to encourage inter-lingual collaborations and experiences, cross-media writing and genre fluid text production.
I've been in Singapore since 2002 and read my story, 'We Rose Up Slowly', for the first time at SubTEXT at the Book Cafι around 2003, thanks to Yong Shu Hoong. Since then the scene has become more diverse, more part of Singapore's mainstream, and more supportive of writers with more independent local publishers, book stores and spaces to develop the craft of writing. I'm very proud to have helped run Writing the City over six years and to create Book a Writer to place Singapore writers in Singapore schools.
I don't think we should be self-congratulatory though. Community should never be taken for granted, COVID has set us back, the industry remains obsessed with US and UK publishing trends, independent publishing in Singapore is as hard as ever, not enough people read, there are increasing authoritarian trends everywhere, and there is too much of an obsession with the cult as opposed to the craft and hard, lonely work of being a writer.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?