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Mammon and the Discipline of Writing
Page 2

THM: But now youíve come back to Singapore. Why did you decide to come back, and can you briefly describe your life in Singapore?

THH: There were quite a lot of reasons. One of the reasons was that when I was in New York I got a bursary from the NAC, and one of their requirements was that I had to come back to Singapore for a year, two years I think, to sort of practise the arts here. So that was kind of hanging in my mind. I actually got them to delay the return, because I wanted to work for about a year in New York, which I did as a technology journalist for a magazine which I think is now called Adweeks Technology Marketing. So that was one of the reasons: I knew at some stage I had to come back to Singapore for about two years. During that time I started looking for a job, and I got this offer at the Business Times to work in the Executive Lifestyle and Arts section, which was a great opportunity; so thatís what brought me back, and because I felt the timing was right. I wasnít that happy in my old job, I tried being a journalist, but I think in terms of doing the lifestyle and the arts beat, I really do love my job now, I love the beat, so Iím glad I made the move back for that reason. Thereíre other frustrations about living in Singapore, things like the cars Ė itís so expensive to own a car Ė but itís really more on the level of what I mentioned before: the people, finding people with a real passion for things which donít involve money or shopping or eating. One thing I do like about Singapore which I found lacking in New York is that Singapore has this kampung feel. Even in the artistic community itís very small and in general they try to be supportive of each other. In New York, because thereíre so many writers and itís such a big place, even though thereíre a lot of things going on, there isnít the same kind of feeling of a tight-knit community; I mean the Singapore writing community is so small that pretty much all the writers know everyone by reputation at least, and most of them would have met each other more or less, which I think is good, and I kind of enjoy that.

THM: Thereís a line in Foreign Bodies that goes: ďTo be fair, thereís something exotic about SingaporeĒ, and then you kind of talk about how it is that way. Your publishers, who were British/American, found you one of the weirdest writers theyíd come across. How much of this is you, and how much of this is Singapore? Do we find Singapore dull because of familiarity and contempt?

THH: That was the Kirkus review, and I think the Kirkus review was about the book, in the sense that it fuses a lot of very disparate elements like mysticism, child abuse and soccer gambling, which is quite a strange mix, I think. I think Singapore is still quite dull in a lot of ways and itís kind of getting worse in that itís becoming more and more westernized. One of my theories about Singapore is that itís really trying to become a kind of franchise city of America. I think the government Ė this might have been a couple of years ago Ė I think the government did say very clearly that they wanted to make Singapore a Boston of the East. Thereíre still elements of exoticism in Singapore, on the ĎAsian pastí level Ė we still have our hungry ghost festivals, people burning huge drums of ghost money in the streets, so thatís kind of still quite exotic, but you see on some level those things donít interest me. Iím on some level very much like a banana Ė Iíve no interest in Chinese culture, I just get very bored. So the boredom might come from that as well. I do have a strong fascination with western culture a lot more than some eastern culture. I canít stand Chinese music, I canít listen to any sort of Chinese music.

THM: Foreign Bodies sounded, when I first read it, like a collection of vignettes or short stories rather than a whole, integral, cohesive novel, so that when you read it you can see both a kind of whole and the seams in between, as it were. Is your mode of writing an evolutionary one?

THH: No, not really. Foreign Bodies was kind of different from Mammon Inc. in the sense that originally it was a collection of short stories. I wrote about eleven, twelve short stories and I had enough to make it into a book, but during that time and actually still true now itís very difficult to get a collection of short stories published, especially if youíre a first-time writer. So after I got the collection done, I tried to rewrite it into a novel. Itís not so much evolutionary, but I used the frame of Ďforeign bodiesí so in a sense the structure is more like a metaphysical poem than a novel, because the connection is actually based on the pun Ė you have Ďforeign bodiesí which deals with the idea of foreigners, and Ďforeign bodiesí the medical term which links into the whole Ďburied secretsí theme. So that made it quite unique as a structure for a novel. Mammon Inc. was quite different because when I started writing it, I sat down to write a novel, I knew I had to write a novel and I had a very clear concept of what it was about: basically it was going to be about a girl whoíd adjust people, and there were going to be three set pieces Ė one set piece in New York, one set piece in England and one set piece in Singapore.

THM: On that point of comparing Foreign Bodies and Mammon Inc., both books feature a young professional woman at the start of her career whoís best friends with a semi-sober, smart but somewhat himbo British male. Is this coincidence?

THH: No, no, no. I mean the female characters... I donít know about the Ďat the start of her careerí thing, but itís more the idea of the voice. The female character has this kind of almost film-noir Chandleresque... itís a sort of Raymond Chandler does Amy Tan kind of voice. Theyíre both strong and feisty.

THM: Yes, thatís true.

THH: As for the start of the career thing, itís more thatís a kind of turning point, so itís a good point to pick up the book. As for the British side, Iím very inspired by Nick Hornby, and thereís this recent tradition of laddish literature of the boozy British male... I mean I did want to write a comic novel, in the whole Men Behaving Badly, Nick Hornby kind of tradition. So I did want to use that type of character, who I thought in a way, in that sort of clueless laddishness, was very typically British.

THM: So you were aiming after the contemporary hip-funny then, the Bridget Jones stroke yeah Nick Hornby kind of style.

THH: Definitely, and to a certain extent Douglas Coupland. Bret Easton Ellis very much so as well, especially for the New York sections, though I must say I tried to read Glamorama to research for Mammon Inc., and itís a terrible, terrible book, in terms of plotting, but in terms of style, I like that kind of style a lot. Itís kind of hip, though I donít like to use the word Ďhipí because I think itís slightly pretentious, but itís got that sort of clean, very economical, very sexy in a way...

THM: Well you do have a sharp eye for the hip, and a sharp pen for fleshing this out in your details. What do you feel about consumer culture?

THH: Could you be a little more specific? Consumer culture Ė thatís quite a wide topic.

THM: I was thinking of the way in satirizing consumer culture in Mammon Inc. particularly, it does nonetheless foreground it, highlighting consumerism in its details, making all those things Ė Versace etc. Ė seem really hip. In a sense, itís a defeatist style, because in putting it forward you promote it as well.

THH: You have to look at Mammon Inc. in the book as a whole. I did want to make several passages about the mc products very sexy and attractive and seductive, and the key word there is seductive, because Mammon Inc. is basically a novel about seduction.

THM: No, I agree with the seduction. It becomes fetishistic, thatís what Iím trying to say.

THH: And? [Chuckles.] Whatís the question then?

THM: The question then is, is that something youíre comfortable with?

THH: What, fetishising consumer culture? Um, yah, because without having to give the ending away a lot of the book is about how this kind of seductiveness of materialism really does destroy your soul. Also, thereís this problem of linking consumerism and art. This is not directly related to the book, but if you look at magazines like Wallpaper, itís a matter of fact that a lot of the best designers and the best artists nowadays are working within advertising, theyíre working within journalism, and, a lot of times, this medium and certainly advertising: theyíre designed to sell products. At the same time, I have a great fascination with looking at advertising because you know that a lot of times the best artwork is actually being done in advertising, because they have the money to attract the best people. I canít remember who said this before, but I was at a talk and he was saying well this is not really different from the past, because itís just a different kind of patronage system, you know, like during the Medici times or the Renaissance times, the Medicis would hire the greatest artists to paint portraits, and certainly people like Sidney, even Shakespeare, they had patrons... one of the greatest sonnet sequences, Astrophil and Stella, was supposedly written in praise of Queen Elizabeth. So artists in general throughout time have had this struggle: you want to do good art but at the same time you know that your art is being used for a different agenda that you might not be completely happy with. Which is why Disney is a very interesting example, because you have a lot of great artists who go and work for Disney, which is probably considered as this evil Łber-corporation, and what the artists would do is draw obscene little figures in their cartoons that only they can see and thatís their way of subverting the system.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

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Tan Hwee Hwee goes in search of the Lotus Land

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FEER on Tan Hwee Hwee
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Tan Hwee Hwee visits the library
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Review of Foreign Bodies
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Soundbites on Foreign Bodies
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