Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ESSAY ... O Thiam Chin

Singaporean writer O THIAM CHIN, author of the forthcoming short-story collection, Never Been Better (MPH Publishing, November 2009), talks about growing up with a love of words

IT ALWAYS STARTS WITH A STORY. Or something I remember clearly as one.

For a brief period in my childhood, I stayed in a kampung in Choa Chu Kang with my maternal grandparents. My parents were too busy working as hawkers to take care of us, so they arranged for my grandfather to pick my siblings and me up on a Friday, and bring us over to the kampung for the weekend. It was a carefree time of idleness and daydreaming, happy moments spent staging epic sword fights, picking rambutans off tall, craggy trees, and chasing clumsy chicks and ducklings around the huts in the compound. Of the many events that took place then, I recall one incident that changed the way I looked at and remembered my grandfather.

Near the main house, there was a large cage built on wooden stilts, with a flimsy wire mesh suspended a metre off the ground, where my grandfather kept the chickens. One day, while playing with my cousins, we chanced upon a flock of pigeons that had made their way into the cage, unable to escape. We dared each other to catch one of these birds and somehow I was chosen for this task. Standing wobbly on the edge of the cage, I ventured in and began chasing the pigeons around. The wire net gave way under my weight, and one of my legs went under, and the rusty wire pierced into my knee. I was too stunned to do anything but cry. My cousins, shocked, rushed back to the house for help. My grandfather soon came running to the cage. He made his way carefully to me and pulled me out of the tangle of broken wires. He held me closely without saying much, and carried me back to the house to nurse my wounds.

Since then, the kampung has been torn down to make way for a new housing estate and my grandfather passed on some years ago. Of all the memories I have of my grandfather, this is the one that sticks in my head. Memories narrated through the act of storytelling turned into a neat sequence of words and actions, and finally breathed into life, albeit an imagined one, in my head and on the page. Memories became stories, and the words that helped to build it became the cornerstones of my memories.

I never wanted to be a writer when I was growing up. While I loved to read since I was young, I had never fully associated the final product of a book to an actual person writing it. And I never gave much thought to the act of writing, of putting words onto a page. Words simply exist, like fish in the water or birds in the sky, they are always there. A book could be born from a tree, for all I know back then, and the writer was just a name on the book, nothing more.

Thinking back, I’m grateful to have the reading habit instilled in me from a young age, though it wasn’t structured in any way to facilitate learning, knowledge hoarding or to better my English. Reading to me was purely an act of seeking pleasure. The act itself is the reward. I read to be entertained, pulled along by a good story.

Then adolescence hit, and I discarded reading for other loves and distractions. I grew up during an exciting time in the early 1990s when film censorship was still a big debate, and the neighbourhood cinemas were showing Restricted (Artistic) [R (A)] movies, mostly from the US and Hong Kong. One particular movie caught my attention: Last Exit to Brooklyn, a film adaptation of Hubert Selby, Jr.’s novel. Since I was too young to catch an R(A) show (you have to be 18 then; later they revised it to 21), I could, I reasoned to myself, at least read the book to find out what was so ‘artistic’ about it. As luck would have it, it wasn’t too hard to find a dog-eared copy of it in my secondary school library. Little did I know what an impact it would make. Not only did the novel lay out all the imaginable crimes and vices of a city caught in a nightmare of its own making, it did so with a powerful, serrated language that was as distinctive and provocative as the city itself, a pure native tongue proudly spoken, without shame or guilt. I was bewildered, shocked and invigorated by the possibility of words and what they could do.

My love of books and the words that made them soon took a turn for the better. I became more conscious of what I was reading and began to read seriously to get the best out of this experience. And what I learned, on my journey to become a writer, was the growing awareness of the need to develop a significant sense of place and time in the stories I write.

Fictional characters are born with the might of a pen (or words typed on a laptop these days), and to have any semblance of a ‘real’ being, not only have to possess the tangible attributes of a believable person, but also needs to be firmly anchored in a particular culture or society—a product of its time. These vital ingredients are the soil, sun and water that nurture these characters, giving them the impetus to grow and develop. When I think of a character, a hazy, shadowy unknown at the back of my head, only a tentative outline at the start, my mind would also pull in the attendant aspects of the different parts that made up the story—how the character is placed within his milieu, his relation to his surroundings, to the people around him, and the constraints set by the boundaries of time and place. No fictional character in contemporary realist literature can exist without another human being, live in a vacuum, or be devoid of any circumstances that may shape his life.

Naturally, what I have written is, in one way or another, greatly influenced by what I see and observe around me and where I stay—in the ageing neighbourhood of Ang Mo Kio, smacked in the heart of Singapore. While I could have easily written about other people in faraway places, across vast lands and oceans, I have chosen to write something closer to my heart, something that stirred within me a warm feeling of familiarity, of a tangible sense of place, and the shared understanding of a mutual history or a period of time. I do not have to look far for ideas to write a good story; there are already enough story ideas around me to fill many books. The challenge is to find the right one to write about.

A writer cannot separate himself from his own upbringing, of being grounded and groomed by the society he grew up in. Essentially, he too is the product of his time. Because of that, he processes and filters much of his storytelling through the lenses of a particular age, tinted by its own prejudices, trappings and social mores. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing; if done with care and dexterity, it can potentially be a force in honing his craft as a writer. Beyond just writing a good story that captures the universality of human emotions, desires and hopes, a good writer, by infusing his story with the cultural specifics of his own country and milieu, can create a better world that is as realistic as it can be, one that pulsates under the skin of the real world.

O THIAM CHIN’s short stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best of Singapore Erotica, Silverfish New Writing 6 and Body2Body, and his début collection of short stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006.


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