Sitting Down with Sing Lit Station
A conversation with local writers Daryl Qilin Yam, Tse Hao Guang, and Joshua Ip on the importance of reading, local literature, and how reading has shaped their writing.
by Faith C. Lai
In support of the National Reading Movement, we sat down with a few of the key individuals behind local non-profit organisation Sing Lit Station (SLS). As a registered charity and Institution of Public Character, SLS aims to be “a platform where readers and writers can meet”.
Apart from managing SLS, the three gentlemen are also well-established in the literary world. Daryl is a writer of prose and poetry whose first novel was longlisted for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, and has been released in both Singapore and in the U.K. Joshua has won multiple literary awards for both prose and poetry, edited multiple anthologies, and been an integral figure in a variety of programmes within the local literary scene. Hao Guang is the author of two full-length poetry collections, the editor of a variety of literary journals, and regularly runs creative and academic writing workshops.
Could you start by sharing with us how SLS all started?
Joshua: There have been a lot of locally based literature-oriented initiatives that have been going on from as long ago as 2014. A bunch of these groups were simple community initiatives that I started with a few friends, and a community naturally grew up around these initiatives — such as SingPoWriMo. We’ve always said that SLS is “a platform for writers and readers to meet”, and this is because we feel that bottom-up, community-based, initiatives are what have a great deal of energy today.
I’ve heard a fair bit about the Book A Writer programme, which conducts workshops in schools, including workshops that teach students how to critically read literature. Could you tell us more?
Daryl: We wanted to start Book A Writer because we wanted to think of a sustainable way to provide writers with a source of income, and also because we wanted to play a part in being able to expose the younger generation to literature. We feel that sometimes, handing someone a book isn’t enough to inspire them to read or write. Sometimes, coming face to face with a local author can be more inspiring than reading a literature text. This inspiration can start a desire to not just read books but to read local books as well. We’re about inspiring young readers, and we hope to do so by creating moments of potential inspiration for readers to come into interaction with the writers responsible for what they read.
Joshua: One might analogise it to the classic Economics problem of a ‘missing market’. There are a lot of writers who want to do gigs. And there are a lot of schools who want writers to do gigs. As it is SLS’ overall mission to help writers and readers meet, we wanted to create a platform — a ‘market’ — to facilitate both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ for writers to engage directly with readers.
In our conversation we’ve alluded to the idea that many of us believe reading local literature is important. Do each of you have a personal reason as to why you think it is important for Singaporeans to read local literature?
Daryl: We need to stop always looking towards the West or the Far East as our main producers of culture, and realise that there are people within our own country who are indeed creating art. Art that has actual relations towards our actual circumstances. This not only builds a sense of a national culture, but also promotes levels of self-awareness or introspection. Also, for me, reading any piece of writing that’s about Singapore deepens my understanding of what home can be.
Hao Guang: Local writers are the most accessible writers for local readers. It isn’t so easy to get Neil Gaiman to come and say ‘hi’ to you, but Cyril Wong will always be around. I think the best thing that local writers can offer to local readers is their physical presence. This extends beyond words on the page. So, an accessibility to local writers can help local readers understand that writers are not just abstract names or famous people.
Joshua: To me, local writing is a necessary part of Singapore’s quest to discover our national and cultural identity. Ground-up, community based, reading and writing is essentially the act of reconstructing an assembly of personal narratives into a national narrative. Reading local literature promotes a sense of reflection and conscious introspection that Singapore tends to lack when it comes to issues of identity. Of course, a local writer does not have to write about Singapore for it to be considered ‘Sing Lit’. Any writing that a local writer does comes from a local perspective and it deals with local issues wherever the story is set. For example, Daryl’s novel is set in Japan. However, a closer look reveals a concern with very Singaporean issues from a Singaporean perspective. You will feel at home as a Singaporean when reading it, even though it’s about somewhere abroad.
Do you remember the first time you read a piece of local literature? Do you remember what it was and how it impacted you?
Daryl: The first piece I ever read was No Other City. I read it when I was 17. In secondary school, I didn’t read a single piece of local literature at all, but when I was sitting for my IB (International Baccalaureate), a copy of “No Other City” landed in my lap. The first book that made an impact on me was Stephanie Ye’s “The Billion Shop”. I was reading it on a train and it was so consuming that I finished it — the entire book — even before the train journey ended! It’s about a cast of Singaporeans scattered across different locations in and out of Singapore, and they all have their own neuroses that are tangibly identifiable as ‘Singaporean’.
Hao Guang: The first piece that made an impact on me was a novel, “Mammon Inc.”, by Tan Hwee Hwee. That book was my first experience reading a Singaporean writer, and I was like, “Oh my gosh! She’s writing about Singapore!” I didn’t like it merely because of that, but also because it told a really good story.
Joshua: I had local poetry on my school syllabus. There was a collection called “The Calling of Kindred”, an anthology of predominantly Western literature with a few selected Singapore poems. The first Singapore poem I saw was “old house at ann siang hill” by Arthur Yap. It was printed alongside a T.S. Elliot poem. Upon being forced to compare both, I realised I actually prefer Yap’s. After that, I read a poem called “Unholy Sonnet” which was being passed around school. It was written by Ng Yi-Sheng who was my senior in school at the time, and I thought — “this poem is better than anything in my textbook!” In that moment, I realised that local literature was not just on par with Western literature, but could even be better.
Can you describe your reading habits in one word?
Daryl: ‘Constant’. I always feel like I need a book in my bag. It just needs to be there. I may not even be reading it that day, but it needs to be there. Once I left a book in the office and I wanted to cry!
Hao Guang: ‘Desperate’.
Daryl: Hahaha! Oh my gosh! Why?
Hao Guang: I think I make myself desperate; I have a Goodreads counter set up with a certain number of books for me to read within a year, and it lets me know if I’m ahead or behind. I also say desperate because sometimes I read a good book and then want to read all the books related to that one, such as everything else written by that particular author, or everything that inspired that author. So suddenly I have a huge long list of things that I want to read!
Joshua: Mine is ‘mobile’. I have no time so I’m forced to read everywhere — while driving, walking, or even in the shower.
How do you feel that reading has shaped the way you see the world?
Daryl: The first book I ever fell in love with as a child was Harry Potter. As a child, I felt like school was a prison that the bus forced me to go to every morning. When I read Harry Potter, I realised school doesn’t have to feel that way all the time, and that essentially — the world is larger than it looks. It also gave me a lot of courage and determination, and helped me deal with a lot of my own personal issues. It gave me an escape, and it gave me pleasure and excitement when life in Singapore felt sorely lacking in that. Books were my safe space.
Hao Guang: My first experiences with reading were driven by a desire to escape. I would often visit family who lived in the suburbs of Canada, and there wasn’t much to do except visit the library to read and pass the time. I’ve been impacted most by the books that, while providing escape, also exposed me to the harshness of reality. For example, a tragic story about two children who lived in Nazi Germany in which the Jewish protagonist is killed. I started reading it as a form of escape from boredom, but was then confronted with the reality of a certain time and place.
Joshua: I read very fast, so the books that have made a biggest impact on me are actually Chinese books because they force me to slow down; I don’t speak Mandarin very well. When I read in Mandarin, I spend a longer amount of time on each page. I started out by reading the 14 Chinese martial art novels of Jing Yong. 90% of my moral ethos and personal code has been shaped by those books.
How has reading shaped the way you write?
Daryl: When I read writers that I admire, I tend to model my writing after them — Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood. I couldn’t write the way I do if I hadn’t read the writers that I love, learnt from them, emulated them, and brought the parts of the writing that I love into my ow work.
Hao Guang: Very similarly, I think most writers start that way. And for me, I was equally influenced by what I do not like.
Joshua: I think you write the stuff you want to read.
Hao Guang: Without reading there would be no writing.
Anything exciting programmes from SLS that our followers should know about?
Daryl: We have a crazy inter-disciplinary performance coming up in early October. It’s a pro-wrestling and spoken word poetry showcase called ‘Sing Lit Body Slam’. Basically, it’s a crazy night in which you have pro-wrestlers and spoken word artists tag-teaming against another team, such that while the wrestlers fighting it out, the spoken word artists are also slugging it out in their own way!