A writer grows every day!
He dons many hats and loves expressing himself in various ways- theatre, literature and translation. Singapore based writer Jeremy Tiang was recently at the Book Building in Chennai to talk about ‘Writing and Publishing in Singapore’. Janani Rajeswari S listens in as he opens up about the history of Singapore, growth of the literary scene and his personal journey. Q: You are a man of many interests – writing, acting, translating, and so on. Tell us about your foray into writing?
Jeremy: I studied English at Oxford University and then trained as an actor. I was then invited to join the writing group of a theatre company I’d acted with, and they (Yellow Earth Theatre in London) encouraged me to write my first play, and then my second. I later branched out into writing fiction and then translating. Now, I am trying to strike a balance between my various literary pursuits. I hope I’m still growing! Mainly, by learning more about the world and about people who are different from me.
Q: Please give us a little insight into the history of literature in Singapore.
Jeremy: It’s hard to say much about the history of literature in Singapore, because it’s not a very ancient one. Although people have been writing for quite a while, it’s really in the last two or three decades that we’ve seen the development of a real literary scene – people reading, commenting on and supporting each other, a proper framework of development and learning. There are now many great small presses, independent bookshops and literary journals who groom emerging and mid-career writers, and I expect great things to come from this quarter.
Q: How much has the colonial rule in Singapore impacted/influenced the literature?
Jeremy: The largest impact of colonial rule is that the predominant language in Singapore is now English, and as a result we have, consciously or unconsciously, taken to writing in the English-language tradition. Our idea of a novel still descends from (Charles) Dickens and Hardy, our theatre in an unbroken line from Shakespeare. Of course, this is constantly evolving, but that was the starting point.
Q: Having been under the same colonial rule, do Singapore and India share a common thread when it comes to literature?
Jeremy: As with many post-colonial nations, both Singapore and India focus on identity – who we are now and what it means to be an independent country.
Q: You’ve mentioned that there has been a growth of literature in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. One could understand the growth of languages such as English. But what is contribution of Tamil and Malay to the literature?
Jeremy: Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-cultural society, and the different languages we write in reflect this. They also connect us to the places our ancestors originate from – through Tamil, we share a link with Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, where many Singaporean Indians come from. While through Malay we reach Malaysia (of which, Singapore was once a part) and the Riau Archipelago.
Q: Interesting that you mentioned writings in Tamil. How different/similar is it to writings in Tamil in India?
Jeremy TiangJeremy: I haven’t read much Tamil literature as I’m restricted to work that has been translated. The books I’ve looked at deal with heritage and identity – whether Singaporean Tamils belong more to Tamil Nadu or to Singapore, their old home in India or their new home in South-East Asia.
Q: You have also mentioned that over the last decade, Singaporean literature has seen the emergence of many young writers? How has the literary scene changed ever since you began writing? Is this because of the support lent by the government?
Jeremy: Young writers in Singapore today are much more widely read, and much more aware of the world. I think this is due to the internet, greater ease of travel, and globalisation. Government support has helped to an extent – there is greater funding available for training and support, for example. But much of it is also the result of people coming together and collectively building a space they can work in.
Q: As you mentioned, the development of small presses and independent bookstores must have made a lot of difference to the scene.
Jeremy: Rightly so. Small presses have given opportunities and exposure to more writers, making it easier for emerging writers to find their way into the scene and gain readers. On the other hand, independent bookstores are more interestingly curate, often reflecting a varied array of literary taste rather than just the bestsellers. So, yes, they have enabled people to find more books and writers they might not otherwise encounter.
Q: In general, short story writing has been a very popular genre in Singapore. What are the reasons behind it?
Jeremy: I think short stories are a popular genre everywhere – they enable writers to create a rich, detailed world through the intensity of a small area of focus. One of the main literary competitions in Singapore, Golden Point, gives out awards for both poetry and short stories. This has become a major means for emerging writers to make a mark.
Q: When it comes to aspect of ‘Freedom of Expression’, how much liberty do writers enjoy? If not, where is the line of censorship drawn?
Jeremy: The internet is changing this greatly, and governments are finding it increasingly difficult to clamp down on what can be said. I think writers should be able to write about anything they want (though I can also see the need for laws about hate speech – this is a discussion every society needs to have, deciding where to place the limits, if there are to be any).
Q: In today’s world of e-publishing, how much have the independent bookstores been influenced by the trend?
Jeremy: Actually, e-publishing hasn’t really taken off in Singapore. In fact, there are not many people who have Kindles.
Q: You are also into translating work from other languages. How pertinent is translation today?
Jeremy: Yes, I translate literary works from Chinese into English. There are some wonderful books in Chinese from countries such as Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia that English language readers have no access to owing to the lack of translated versions. Although it’s getting better, there are still far too many Chinese books that are yet to be translated. As I was fortunate enough to be raised in bilingual environment, it feels more like a duty to make these works of literature available in English. And, I am very happy to fulfil it.
Q: As a reader, what are the translated works that you enjoyed the most in recent times?
Jeremy: I try to read varied literature. So yes, I do enjoy many translated works. Most recently I’ve enjoyed the work of Horacio Castellanos Moya (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver). I am starting on a Sundara Ramaswamy novel, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom. Murakami is also a perennial favourite
Q: How do plan to take your writing and translating forward?
Jeremy: I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing with an open mind and a flexible spirit, and looking forward to where life takes me from here on.