By Toh Hsien Min
Tan Hwee Hwee, 27, is Singapore’s novelist of the moment. She had her first book, Foreign Bodies, published by Michael Joseph (a Penguin imprint) in 1997. Her second novel, Mammon Inc., a cutting satire of our times, was released in July 2001. She has won numerous awards, including a New York Times Fellowship for Fiction for her MFA in Creative Writing at New York University. Toh Hsien Min meets her at the Book Café for coffee.
THM: You’ve lived in a fair number of places: Singapore, the Netherlands, different parts of Britain and New York City. I won’t ask you which one you liked best, but what did you take away from each?
THH: Singapore was where I grew up, so there were a lot of childhood influences. Most of them weren’t particularly positive, and that comes out more in Foreign Bodies. Certainly, there’s the idea that as I was growing up I was very, very bored, living in Singapore, and there’s the idea that being overseas would be a lot better, especially in England and in New York. When I was growing up I always thought that – I would read stuff like The Famous Five and The Hardy Boys, and I genuinely thought that if you were a typical teenager in America you’d spend most of your summer vacations going to capture smugglers and trying to track down murderers – that life was so much more glamorous and exciting in the West. So that was my experience of Singapore, just being very frustrated at the lack of opportunities for excitement and also for culture, in terms of feeling that I very much wanted to have a successful career as a writer, and that it would be very difficult to do that in Singapore just because there wasn’t the market and the audience for it and there wasn’t also the support system in terms of training being developed to do that.
My parents moved to Holland for about three years – and I wrote about this in Foreign Bodies – the shock was that Holland was really boring. It wasn’t really that much better than Singapore in terms of excitement levels or cultural opportunities. And then I went to England to do my BA, and I chose the University of East Anglia because in England at that time they had the most famous creative writing programme and it was the only university that I knew offered undergraduate creative writing programme classes.
THM: So you took part in the creative writing programme there then?
THH: Only on the BA level. I was quite mistaken because the programme that was famous was the MA, and there was quite a separation between the MA and the BA programme. The one thing which was quite significant for me was not so much the UEA programme, but the Arvon Foundation; it started running creative writing courses, and I went to one that was run by Will Self and Carlo Gabler – Carlo Gabler by the way is the son of Edna O’Brien and he was a really good teacher – and it was very intense, basically you go there and write for a week: you wake up in the morning, you meet with the tutors one-on-one and maybe meet with the group a bit and then you’d write for most of the afternoon and the evening, and you’d come back together and read your work. For me it was quite a big turning point on two levels. On the first level, before that I’d been writing for maybe four, five years and sending a lot of stuff out and not really getting any of it published, you know I’ve gotten 200-500 rejection slips. But during that workshop I worked on a story that later on became ‘Hungry Ghosts’, which was the first story I actually published. And when I was working on the story there I did feel that I was making quite an exponential leap, in the development of my writing; one of the things that came across during that workshop is that what writers really need is time – if you really want to be a writer, it’s kind of like a job, and it really helps if you have that dedicated time period. One of the things I notice about Singaporean writers is that they really don’t invest enough time in their writing. It’s quite pathetic – and I can go on the record saying this – that there’re some writers who haven’t published anything in ten years and people still consider them writers. There was a four year gap between my first book and my second book, and I already feel a lot of guilt that it’s taken me such a long time. Most of my peers, you know, British and American peers who were first novelists, a lot of them do books every year or so. I have two or three friends who published in the same year as me, ’97, and they have three or four books out already by now, and one of them was still working full-time as well. As a Singaporean, it was good for me to go there and realize that that’s the most important thing you need, to be able to block out huge periods of time which you can just spend writing and be productive that way. And the second thing that was great for me was just the idea of – I’ve talked about this plenty of times before – I think the key about writing is knowing what is unique about your country and about your place, and I believe very strongly in developing a signature style and a signature topic; I think that’s true for my work, I do have quite a specific style, and if people picked up one of my books they do know that it’s coming from me. Shall I go on?
THM: Yes, but there’re all these strands that can go everywhere: you know, you talk about Singapore, I’ve got responses to what you’ve said about Singapore... but let’s take it in chronological order, so that there’s some continuity. You’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, most recently in the Writer’s Festival, that you really didn’t like Oxford. It also comes through in Mammon Inc. Why was that?
THH: England tends to be a very class-based system, and Oxford more so than anywhere else – and you’d be familiar with that. Going from UEA where there was a campus system and the money was distributed very evenly, to the collegiate system and finding that the university didn’t really exist and there was a class-based system of richer colleges versus poorer colleges: stuff like that disturbed me. More than that, on a social level, when I was at UEA I really made some of my best friends, and I got along very well with people; but at Oxford I would go into parties and it was absolutely impossible to talk to anyone, you would talk to someone and you knew they were intelligent but they would make no attempt to engage with you in conversation, and by that you knew they were snubbing you in a way, because when they see another white person they would launch into this long and funny conversation. That happened to me very often at Oxford, and I had a lot of other Oxford friends who had similar experiences. You know about S. [name changed for privacy] right, that she got death threats? S. was at Brasenose; in her first year she got notes slipped under her door that said ‘Die’ and ‘Why don’t you go back where you came from?’, and when she reported it to the authorities they said, oh don’t worry about it, it’s just a joke – I was really outraged by that, I mean at any other university there would be a proper investigation: that’s pretty much as close as you would get to a racial death threat. But on another level I’m not surprised because Brasenose does have a reputation for being very racist. So it’s stuff like that. I’d be at the telephone booth and people would be making slanty eyes at me. At some level you’re so appalled, you’re so shocked that anybody can be like that, that you can’t even believe that it’s happening to you.
Another story I tell is that I was riding on the Oxford Tube back to Oxford, and there was this English girl and two Egyptian girls sitting next to her. They were talking in Egyptian, and she just turned around to them and said, “Excuse me, but when you’re in my country can you please speak my language?” I was so appalled [chuckling], I just stood up and started scolding her, you’ve just gone over the line, you have no right to talk like that. But I’d never experienced behaviour like that until I got to Oxford, because UEA was very liberal, very left-wing, very PC in a lot of ways. I liked Oxford a lot, because intellectually the kind of work that I was doing, which was 16th-, 17th-century literature, I was doing with John Carey, who’s you know widely considered the expert in his field, and when you’re on graduate level you do it one-on-one, so I liked that, I liked that a lot. And the Bodleian library is great, it’s the idea of just going in there – you know stuff like the Incendium Amoris, it’s actually based on experience – you take out these books and they’ve been there for a hundred years... and they’re not like books we know nowadays, they’re sort of – I can’t remember – papyrus, and leather... and vellum, and it’s amazing, it’s almost like a historical treasure you’re holding in your hand, and it’s very, very specialised. In terms of the scholarship side of Oxford, I definitely loved that, but I found it very frustrating on the social level.
THM: I guess I was really quite fortunate in the sense that I didn’t experience a lot of racism there. Throughout my whole Oxford life, I can only remember one instance of racism. What about New York? Was the urban lifestyle less alienating than Oxford’s?
THH: I really loved New York and I really miss it a lot, because especially in Brooklyn where I lived... you know I’ve lived in a lot of places and it’s the first place where I really felt at home. In terms of demographics, in terms of my social background and my interests, I felt that I fit in there. I lived in the Fort Green area, which was near the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where they premiere all the Philip Glass. You have a lot of 20-something 30-something lower middle-class professionals, a lot of them have artistic inclinations, so you have a lot of writers, a lot of people working in the arts... I’ve a friend who’s also a novelist who lived in the same building as me. Marianne Moore the poet lived in the building right across from where I was, it’s near the park called Fort Green Park, which was designed by Frederick Law-Olmsted, who designed Central Park... the idea of Fort Green Park came from Walt Whitman though, who was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. So it was amazing to live in that kind of area, where you have a lot of young people who are involved in practising the arts, and even if they’re not practising the arts they were very interested in going to theatre. That’s one thing I miss about New York compared to Singapore: the idea of having the double life – nobody’s just a waitress, even the waitress is trying to be an actress. In Singapore, people’s interests are very narrow, they sort of just want to go to work, go back home and spend Sundays with their family and raise a family, and in terms of broader cultural or even any other kind of interest, life seems to revolve very much around work, and family, and shopping, and eating.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001