The Required Reading Interviews: Daryl Yam
The Required Reading Series highlights voices from across the world, showcasing their opinions and sharing their inspirations. The literary scene, that wide and slippery beast, is fueled by the energy and enthusiasm of its individual parts, as well as a desire to share knowledge and ideas. Here we’ll explore the world’s front line of emerging, beginning, ambitious, desperate and passionate writers, ask them how they came to be writers, what they are reading and why you should be reading those things too.
Daryl Yam is a Singaporean writer of prose and poetry, a co-editor of the SingPoWriMo anthology series by Math Paper Press and an arts organizer at the literary non-profit Sing Lit Station. His first novel, “Kappa Quartet” (Epigram Books, 2016), was longlisted for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, and has been released in both Singapore and in the UK.
Writing mostly about topics that inform his identity and personhood, Yam is drawn to stories of freedom and those that explore friendship, sexual and gender identity, the necessity of self-care, and the consumption of art, media, and culture. He takes particular delight in stories that are situated around the world, which feeds his grander impulse to write stories that are trans-nationally, globally situated. Yam is also employed at Sing Lit Station, a non-profit which promotes the reading and writing of Singapore literature.
Joshua King: Did you grow up surrounded by literature, or a creative atmosphere? Or was it something that you discovered by yourself?
Daryl Yam: Home, I would say, wasn’t a particularly “creative atmosphere.” My parents were never the sort, nor were they active consumers of the arts. As the first child however my mother made sure I read plenty of Enid Blyton and the Key Words Reading Scheme when I was little. It seeded within me an essential love for reading that clearly never went away. Eventually my parents would divert their attention to raising my two younger brothers, and so the process of discovering the world of literature lay very much in my own hands. Whenever the family went grocery shopping at Thomson Plaza, for instance, I’d excuse myself and go browsing for books at Popular instead. Once I spent so much time in there I didn’t even realize my parents had gone back home and left me behind.
King: Do you find your writing changes with the setting you are in? Is place important to your writing process, or in your writing itself?
Yam: It’s difficult, I suppose, to find both space and time in Singapore that’s somehow conducive to writing. Home itself is too comfortable, which in turn inspires laziness, and most of the best cafés here are either too crowded, too noisy, or too hard on people who stay for too long.
There’s also the persistent aura of work hanging over my head that’s personally hard to ignore. Some degree of removal is necessary, I think, to write fiction of a certain length. Whenever I’ve been abroad I have found that I can easily carve out the space and time I need to uphold a sustainable practice of writing. Now, in Singapore, I find myself writing best in the mornings, when there’s no one in the office except myself and my boss’s cat. A quiet afternoon with a cup of cold brew doesn’t hurt either.
King: Are there particular themes or a certain style that you think best give an impression of the contemporary Singapore literary scene? What themes do you find yourself returning to in your own writing?
Yam: I think the best of contemporary writing is currently attuned to the exploration of myths. On one hand it entails fantasy, the power of imagination, and the creation of possibilities. It demands an ability to rethink how we might possibly imagine a country like Singapore, whose identity, geography and very appearance still remain tenuous, malleable and mercurial to this very day, immediately putting to question ideas of nationhood and nationally-held beliefs.
On the other hand it takes to task the matter of storytelling itself, for the ability to determine who, what, and how a story gets told is a matter of real power in Singapore, with real consequences on the lives of people both direct and indirect. It thus becomes an attack on state narratives, organs of censorship, and revisionist claims on national history. Personally all of this is resonant to me, though I tend to find myself taking on these approaches in ways that are hopefully subtler and less didactic, so as to avoid being labelled pretentious or condescending.
King: Singaporean writers, if I’m correct, didn’t start writing novels until fairly recently. From a writer’s perspective, is there a greater appetite among the reading public for novels, poetry or other forms?
Yam: Well it’s easy to make that assumption, and I would owe it to greater visibility in the twenty-first century. Goh Poh Seng wrote our first post-independence novel “If We Dream Too Long” in the early ’70s, and it wasn’t till the ’90s when writers such as Catherine Lim, Ming Cher, Tan Hwee Hwee and Daren Shiau released novels of prominence.
Even now it’s hard to say whether the start of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015 led to some sort of rise in the appreciation of novels, particularly because it was established to promote what was seen as a dire lack in a literary scene dominated by poets, playwrights, and short story writers. Nevertheless, I would agree that the appetite for Singaporean literature is growing, especially amongst a savvier, younger generation of in-the-know cultural consumers. As to whether or not local writing has reached a level of public know-how still remains to be seen.
King: As director of Sing Lit Station, a non-profit which promotes the reading and writing of Singapore literature, how have you seen the literary scene change in Singapore in your lifetime? Have you been surprised by the people that have shown interest in your organization?
Yam: Seeing how our organization is merely a year old (while I am only 26), my direct experience with the growth of Singapore literature remains rather limited. But the numbers are there: we have record attendance ratings for literary festivals, the creation of new literary organizations and initiatives in recent years, a rising number of internationally distributed Singaporean novels, constant reprints of favorite titles, events galore happening every month.
It’s a scene that never fails to reveal fresher faces every year. Sing Lit Station’s annual writing challenge SingPoWriMo (Singapore Poetry Writing Month) has hit nearly 5,000 members on our ever-growing Facebook group, and we received a total 50 full-length manuscripts to consider for our 2017 edition of Manuscript Bootcamp, Sing Lit Station’s highly-selective developmental program for new and emerging talent.
King: Does having four official languages within your country help or hinder the writer? Do you find yourself reading many translated works, or, with the nature of your work, do you try to read as much literature in your own language(s) as possible?
Yam: I do think that having four “official” languages in Singapore certainly helps the writer, in the sense that anything written in English, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil all have claims to an equal share of the bounty at the Singapore Literature Prize and the Golden Point Award. Needless to say of course the English categories of these prizes are the most hotly contested, which also means that works written in English tend to receive a greater share of attention, appreciation and support. Personally I consider myself a rather failed product of the government’s bilingual policy: I am certainly more adept at English than I am in Mandarin, even though it is my prescribed mother tongue, and so I am rather disinclined to read anything written in Chinese unless it’s been translated. I don’t see myself making my ancestors proud anytime soon, I’m afraid.
King: “The Great American Novel” is a term often used to describe a quintessentially American book, typical of the North American experience at a certain point in history. Which book might be the best candidate for the Great Singaporean Novel? Which author might be best qualified to write it?
Yam: As it stands, the best candidate for this claim would have to be the graphic novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” (Epigram Books, 2015) by Sonny Liew. Not only does it meaningfully retell the story of Singaporean politics across the second half of the 20th century, it also changes its visual style in a way that pays homage to the way comics too were subject to many shifting trends across the decades. But we’re never one to settle for just a single Great Singaporean Novel; if there are more to come I am sure it will come from the like of Sharlene Teo, Stephanie Ye, Balli Kaur Jaswal, Amanda Lee Koe, and many others more. It’s only a matter of time.
King: Having just had your first novel, “Kappa Quartet,” published, to great praise, do you think your work is representative of the literary traditions of Singapore? Did you write it with a Singaporean audience in mind, or another audience altogether?
Yam: Well I would most certainly say–and I have said this many times–that “Kappa Quartet” is the culmination of many things that inspired me throughout my early to mid-twenties, one of which is a chapbook of four stories titled “The Billion Shop” (Math Paper Press, 2012) by Stephanie Ye. And that was the mere extent of the Singaporean connection, I think, though it had certainly proved enough. The very structure of it inspired me to want to do something similar, which thus resulted in the form “Kappa Quartet” finally assumed, for both halves of the novel.
And when I did write the book I didn’t particularly have a Singaporean audience in mind–if anything I was more conscious of how a Japanese reader might view the way I used the myth of the kappa to tell a Singaporean story, to elucidate what seemed to me a particularly Singaporean condition. I was very conscious and very determined though to ensure that it first and foremost find a home with no other publisher but a Singaporean one.
King: How do you view the role of a writer in society? Are strong, confident literary voices more necessary now as the modern world grows more unpredictable?
Yam: Personally I’m rather frustrated with what I find to be a very outdated notion of the writer as some sort of sage, or oracle, or seer. The very idea that we are to somehow responsible to provide any sort of decent answer or solution to the world is repugnant to me, because I really can’t pretend to be in any way a social worker, or a doctor, or a politician. To me it’s important that the writer instead find themselves grappling with questions instead, to be lost and familiar and even comfortable in the unknown, precisely because it’s hard to trust anything in the world these days besides ourselves.
King: If you had to recommend one book as required reading for the schoolchildren of the world, what would it be?
Yam: It’s not really a book but a trilogy. Nor is it really for schoolchildren either, but oh well. I’d recommend “His Dark Materials” by Phillip Pullman.
Daryl Yam’s Required Reading List
- “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood. The truly greatest novel I read as a teenager.
- “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. Reading him is like being connected to a circuit of power: it turns a light on in my head every time.
- “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather: timeless. The only thing in my Modern American Literature module that left me longing for another, more distant age.
- “Flesh & Blood” by Michael Cunningham. It’s the best thing he ever wrote; “The Hours” comes really close, but not quite.
- “The Neapolitan Novels” by Elena Ferrante. Each book in the “Neapolitan” cycle I consumed in less than three days, three and a half days tops.
- “Beauty is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan: yas, kween.
- “after the quake” by Haruki Murakami. It’s a bold claim to make, but these short stories are testament to the fact that his best fiction really comes in smaller doses, and even more so when the one motif that occurs throughout the collection is in fact a sudden, seismic crack across the crust of the earth.
- “Revenge” by Yoko Ogawa. Again: yas, kween.
- “M Train” by Patti Smith. This accompanied me and gave me great nourishment and warmth when I traveled alone in the city of Prague. And like the best work of art it gave me a fresh pair of glasses through which to view the world once more.
- “My Documents” by Alejandro Zambra. I’m particularly proud of the fact that this revealed to me the wonderful work that Fitzcarraldo Editions was doing in the spheres of experimental fiction and essential non-fiction; without Zambra in their catalogue I wouldn’t have discovered the joys of Dan Fox, Agustin Fernandez Malls and Claire-Louise Bennett either.
Recommended Singaporean Novel: “The Billion Shop” by Stephanie Ye. One thing I failed to mention earlier was how quickly I read this book. I remember getting in the train at one point and then taking the seat; before I knew it I was already done with the book, and I hadn’t even reached my destination. And so thus lingered this sense of awe and devastation in my chest that never went away till now. Like Willa Cather in particular there is a wonderfully still and stable assuredness in Ye’s voice that carries one through what is otherwise an ever-changing, ever-shifting, ever-turning world.
You can find out more about Daryl Yam’s writing and wider work at his website: www.darylqilinyam.com and follow him on Instagram and Twitter @yammonation.
And find out what’s going on at Sing lit Station here: www.singlitstation.com
Josh King received his MFA from Adelphi University in New York, and now lives in the UK. His fiction has been published in BlazeVOX magazine and other places, and he divides his time between writing articles, drama and drawing comics.
Originally published at Newfound.