What would an editor who has edited more than 20 books go through when he becomes the author?
What would someone with a theology masters in world religions from Harvard University experience after encountering a near-death experience himself?
What would someone who owns over 2,000 books recommend you to read?
Read on to find out more in this enlightening and entertaining intimate interview with Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde, or hear him at the Singapore Literature Book Club on 20 Feb!
Let’s start with yourself. You mentioned in your website that you’re someone who “loves playing with language”. Where did you first find that love?
In 1995, when I started out as a journalist at 8 Days magazine, I had to churn out The Last Page every week. It was extraordinarily difficult to deliver the offbeat, clever wit on cue, at a steady pace.
It was only when I seriously engaged with post-structuralist thinkers like Barthes, Blanchot, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan and Deleuze that I really grasped the messiness of language, what more meaning-making. Encountering the limits of language gave me the license to be comfortable with the unknowable and ineffable.
From that humble admission ensued a liberating realisation, that language can always be playful and delightful. In a nod to creative expression, language should be something a writer may happily and freely experiment with.
Do you have any interesting reading habits? For example, reading only at night or tucking yourself in your blanket or locking everyone out before you start?
I rarely read books from front to back.
This engagement reflects my own sense of how one might approach a poem — that one may step into a poem at any point that seems to provide some important, meaningful access. I’ve called these “entry points of happy chance”, how one might wander, stray or drop into a text.
These fine moments tend to only make themselves noticeable upon critical scrutiny, upon rereading. It’s really serendipitous, this act of unearthing their faint presence. They sneak up on you, like a good friend.
This manner of reading shouldn’t surprise me at all, given how I prefer randomness and contingency, rather than linearity, or even coherence. Indeed, I like to stumble upon these small utterances of language — whether ornate or stylised, intriguing or thoughtful, delicate, grim, sombre, disquietingly so, harsh, even boorish — within a larger narrative, to plumb that textual vista for such luminosity.
Here’s one for fun. We found this photo of you on your website:
If you had to choose one book on that shelf to recommend to someone, which would it be and why?
That was actually the study in my sister’s former place. My sister was kind enough to let me stay in that room for six months, after I’d broken my hip, slipping on ice, in Massachusetts.
My own library has swelled to house over 2000 books. There are books everywhere, on the tables and chairs, on the floor. I threw out all my DVD cases, to free up the DVD cabinets for more books.
Apologies, but I can’t bring myself to settle on one work. So, I’ve just scanned several shelves, and singled out fourteen titles (served up like a list poem of a sonnet). Here are my recommendations, in no particular order:
- Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (By Anatole Broyard)
- Pastorelles (By John Taggart)
- The Totality for Kids (By Joshua Clover)
- The Postmodern (By Simon Malpas)
- A Different Practice (By Fredrik Nyberg)
- Bones & Breath (By Alexander Hutchison)
- Close Range: Wyoming Stories (By Annie Proulx)
- The Angel Tiger and Other Stories (By Barrie Sherwood)
- Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (Edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain)
- Comparative Poetics: An Intercultural Essay on Theories of Literature (By Earl Miner)
- Poetics in a New Key (By Marjorie Perloff)
- A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith (Edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler)
- Negative Theology and Modern French Philosophy (By Arthur Bradley)
- Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing (By Marianne Boruch)
If there’s one thing you could do to stoke someone’s passion in reading, what would that be?
To discover what they like to read, and have a conversation about it. To expand that reading list to include new work that interrogates this aesthetic predilection. I adore discussions that dip into theory, across disciplines — often, this helps shed light on the workings of language, its enigmatic nature and its profound relevance to the ways we construct our perceptions of the world. I like these lines by one of my favourite poets, Fernando Pessoa:
“There are metaphors more real than the people who walk in the street. There are images tucked away in books that live more vividly than many men and women.”
It’s wonderful when I meet someone who encounters reading not just as activity or habit, but as something of a great love.
For a quick tour of exhilarating texts, I like to send a link to the stunning journal DIAGRAM. Here it is, for lovely people to soak in its mind-blowing awesomeness: https://thediagram.com
Let’s delve into your book! Trying to make head or tail out of the near-death experience (NDE) must have been a strange one. How did you manage it?
In fits and starts. In a series of sputters and stutters, lots of spluttering. This mirrors the way aspects of the NDE found their way into my other books, so much so my literary oeuvre has surfaced as some measure of testimony or evidence of the NDE’s indelible impact on my life.
Of course, there was considerable wrestling with theological ideas — the ideas of truth and faith, theodicy, eschatology, pneumatology, soteriology, among others — but largely, the struggle resided in how language would eventually rise to the unenviable task of such narration.
This moment brings to mind a lovely work by Maurice Blanchot, titled Mallarmé’s Experience. It appeared in L’Espace litteraire in 1955. Here is an excerpt:
“In the language of the world, language as the being of language and as the language of being keeps still. Thanks to this silence, beings speak, and in it they also find oblivion and rest. When Mallarmé speaks of the essential language, part of the time he opposes it only to this ordinary language which gives us the reassuring illusion of an immediacy which is actually only the customary. At these junctures he takes up and attributes to literature the language of thought, that silent movement which affirms in man his decision not to be, to separate himself from being, and, by making this separation real, to build the world. This silence is the production and the expression of signification itself. But this language of thought is, all the same, ‘ordinary’ language as well. It always refers us back to the world, sometimes showing it to us in the infinite qualities of a task and the risk of an undertaking, sometimes as a stable position where we are allowed to believe ourselves secure.”
Did your NDE challenge some of the things you’ve learned as a divinity student?
That’s a great question, thank you. I’ve always approached any study of religion as an evolving, never-ending process. One learns as one unlearns and relearns; then, one has to learn again. There’s no end to the discourse, this existential jaunt and quest — the destination is ultimately the journey, it seems. So the NDE only underscored the importance of deepening my own spiritual life.
I think the NDE made me realise how important experience is to adopting any kind of spirituality. Yes, language can provide us a good measure of knowledge and understanding, but there’s no understating the importance of having a religious experience as discomforting and bewildering, yet edifying and uplifting as an NDE. I feel blessed to have been made privy — I call it a kind of witness, within the book — to the phenomenon. That said, as I keep stressing in my book, I don’t necessarily have any privileged understanding of the afterlife, or the secrets of the universe for that matter.
Many people who have experienced NDE lead life with a brand new perspective. Without any spoilers to your book, can you provide some examples of this?
I started adopting greater intentionality in my life. I started reading the books I wanted to read, writing the books I wanted to write. I simplified my life. I wanted to only do work that seemed meaningful to me. Fortunately, all my passions have bled into one another quite seamlessly and beautifully. There’s the writing, the editing, the design, the publishing, the teaching, the mentoring, the talks, the workshops.
I’ve by no means perfected any method here. It’s constantly a crazy juggle; yet, it’s a life that can be pared down to something clean and fuss-free. The upshot is that, for me, it proffers a very agreeable lifestyle, one that provides me much treasured simplicity and balance. These days, I’m also more easygoing and mellow about lots of things. There’s a real beauty, a real peace that comes with one’s acceptance of one’s life station.
I’m always on the lookout for memorable aphorisms. Joseph Campbell, who researched comparative mythology and comparative religion, said this:
“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.”
Then, there’s this lovely apothegm by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:
“What you are is God’s gift to you, what you become is your gift to God.”
You’ve been both a writer and an editor. When writing your book, were there times the editor in you clashed with your author side?
Yes, all the time. And sometimes, in such frustrating, exacting ways. For instance, I usually avoid sentimentality in my writing. I’m also quite happy banging out the abstruse and esoteric, reams of it.
This quasi-memoir demanded a surfacing of truth, however complicated that notion remains as a philosophical idea. I needed to balance all the different aspects of narrative properly, within the larger, threaded arc of self-administered questions. I needed to be accountable to myself — as a writer, as a reader, as a simple human being and as what Ruth Behar has called the vulnerable observer (the irony is not lost here, of a self-aware, self-conscious, self-imposing ethnography, of an “anthropology that breaks your heart”).
In this book, more than any other, I felt I owed it to myself “to get things right”, however that peculiar phrase might take to mean, might translate.
In addition to writing and editing, your website also mentions that you’ve organised literary events. What is one event that made you glad you did it?
Last year, I put together an anthology titled Seven Hundred Lines, premised on the form which, erm, I invented. The sonnet is unrivalled in its classic stature. No other form has its cultural cachet, so much so that whole nations have their own versions of it. You have variations from the Italian and English to Russian and German. So, it was fun to create one for Singapore, which has a funky name: the found//fount sonnet.
The anthology published exactly fifty contributors, their fifty sonnets selected to form a loose sonnet cycle or crown. This lovely tome remains a commemorative publication, to mark the Singapore Bicentennial. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect — it had to come out last year, and we needed exactly fifty sonnets, each having fourteen lines, to corral and strand the eventual seven hundred lines. More on the anthology may be found here.
The found//fount sonnet was also the poetic form-of-choice for this year’s Light to Night Festival. As the marquee event of Singapore Art Week, the annual Light to Night Festival is celebrated across five of the Civic District’s most iconic cultural institutions: the National Gallery Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum, The Arts House, Victoria Theatre & Victoria Concert Hall, and Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay.
Over the two weeks, art moves outdoors, onto the streets of the Civic District. It’s such a stellar coming together of minds, with such a breathtaking showcase of artists, writers, musicians, designers, filmmakers, performers, among other creative talents. Such a festival is a huge undertaking, with so many moving parts.
All I did was to gather the wildly talented Kevin Martens Wong, Marc Nair, and Nuraliah Norasid, to also pen their special sonnets, which inspired many of the art works. With deep gratitude to the inimitable Jean Hair of the National Gallery, it’s just been a complete honour to work on such an important arts commission.
To read these found//fount sonnets and for more on the festival, do visit the event page.
Speaking of literary events, you’ll be attending the Singapore Literature Book Club soon. Are there any hopes or expectations for this event?
I hope readers will be open and kind. I hope they understand that the writing of this book took a great deal out of me. I hope they understand when I plainly explain there are some things I’d rather keep to myself. I hope there’s tenderness. I hope readers trust me when I say the writing comes from a good place, is borne of something precious, akin to grace. It is ultimately just a gift of a personal story, a modest act of loving-kindness. Above all, I pray for peace and goodwill all around.
Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir — Anatole Broyard | eBook
The Postmodern — Simon Malpas | Physical Copy
Close Range: Wyoming Stories — Annie Proulx | Physical Copy
Comparative Poetics: An Intercultural Essay on Theories of Literature — Earl Miner | Physical Copy
Negative Theology and Modern French Philosophy — Arthur Bradley | Physical Copy
The Good Day I Died — Desmond Kon | Physical Copy
Seven Hundred Lines — Desmond Kon | Physical Copy
National Reading Movement
National Library Board