It’s another double draw in what has been a charmed year for Singapore author Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, who has just bagged two accolades at this year’s Living Now Book Awards. Desmond’s hybrid collection, Babel Via Negativa, was awarded Bronze under the Metaphysical category, while his novel, Singular Acts of Endearment, clinched Silver under the category of Inspirational Fiction.
Based in Michigan, the Living Now Book Awards remain unique in recognizing the year’s most laudable lifestyle books. The Living Now Book Awards only consider books written in English, and books specifically intended for a North American readership. “We all seek healthier, more fulfilling, and productive lives, and books are an important tool for gaining knowledge about how to achieve these goals for ourselves and our loved ones,” the Awards site states, in defining its vision and parameters. “The purpose of the Living Now Book Awards is to celebrate the innovation and creativity of newly published books that can help us improve the quality of our lives, from cooking and entertaining to fitness and travel…. Lifestyle publishing categories such as home, health and self-improvement are the fastest-growing segments of book publishing today, and the Living Now Book Awards will help demonstrate the importance of these books to readers and their vitality in the marketplace.”In this year’s Evergreen Medal for World Peace winner, The Book of Forgiving, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “My heart has been broken a thousand times over the cruelty and suffering I have seen human beings unjustly and mercilessly inflict upon one another. Yet still I know and believe that forgiveness is always called for, and reconciliation is always possible… But I also know that is only possible if this peace begins with each of us.”
“Yes, books can inspire, inform, and change peoples’ lives,” Awards Director Jim Barnes says. “Throughout history, books truly have been ‘changing the world, one book at a time,’ and they continue to do so today, whether in the form of a tattered paperback or an interactive ebook on an iPad. The spirit of helping others learn and grow is what the Living Now Book Award-winning books are all about.”
Kitaab talks to Desmond on his twin win.
It’s been a great year for you. Congratulations are in order. How are you feeling?
Couldn’t be happier. This totally made my day. But life goes on, and I’m at McDonald’s now, giving myself a treat while working on my next work of fiction. You can actually create your own burger now with an Angus quarter pound beef patty in a glazed or semolina bun. I pile on the lettuce, tomatoes, wild rocket leaves, caramelized onions, sliced jalapenos, grilled mushrooms, and red onion rings. I prefer the pepper jack cheese over the colby cheese. For sauces, go for the creamy garlic aioli and spicy sauce. You can even have add-ons like guacamole or a grilled pineapple ring. This is the best thing that has happened to fast food in a long while.
This is a special book award that’s very clear and focused in the kinds of books it accepts for judging. There’s a feel-good atmosphere that surrounds the Living Now Book Awards because its entry criteria stipulates that entered books should improve personal well-being or larger society in some way.
You can see it in the entry categories. You’ve got books that fall under Green Living, Family/Parenting, Social Activism/Charity, Personal Growth/Motivation, Relationships/Marriage, Enlightenment/Spirituality, Health/Wellness, Caregiving. You get the idea. Some larger genres like Cooking, Fiction and Children’s Literature actually offer multiple categories because the genres are diverse and popular.
Your novel, Singular Acts of Endearment, has picked up two other awards this year, for Visionary Fiction (Beverly Hills International Book Awards) and Multicultural Fiction (Independent Publisher Book Awards). It also made it to the finalist shortlist under Cross-Genre Fiction at the International Book Awards. At Living Now, the book has won Silver under Inspirational Fiction. Tell us about your novel, and how it might inspire better living.
Yes, it’s quaint and bizarre how this novel’s peculiar narrative straddles several genres. The book is jointly published by Squircle Line Press and Grey Sparrow Press, thanks to the lovely Diane Smith. It’s ultimately fiction, but even while I was writing it, I was aware of how certain topical or tropic threads were weaving themselves across the chapters. Structurally, the novel is an epistolary written up in bite-sized chapters, like vignettes or microfictions. Thematically, there are strange diversions that seem jolting to the reader, a conscious decision I made to add to the postmodern fracturing I desired to infuse the work with. The diversions also help flesh out the thesis that in the anticipation of death and dying, “nothing makes sense”.
It definitely fits the multicultural label, with the border crossing the narrator Jasmine makes from Boston to Singapore, and the book is filled with all sorts of cultural references. The dream sequences that seep into Jasmine’s conscious retelling – sometimes even indistinguishable from real-world experience – has that paranormal aspect of visionary fiction. With the literary theorizing and metalingual moves, the cross-genre category definitely works, especially once the collaborative sonnet appears. This is a sonnet that Jasmine and her boyfriend Jeremiah undertake to write with her Ah Gong as he dies from cancer. There are many layers to the sonnet, just as the chapters within the book tier and unfurl themselves in an unfolding narrative that doesn’t always tie up all its loose ends.
It’s lovely that the novel placed under the category of Inspirational Fiction. It’s even lovelier that a novel that treks the postmodern vista is read with that lens of edification or gratification. In any talk of death, there’s surely an atmosphere of despair or grief or fatalism – and this book certainly swims neck-deep in those dark waters. Yet, each chapter locates a singular act of endearment, no matter how obscure or inconsequential to the larger narrative. Collected together, these small moments become defining moments for the larger story arc. They hark back to the title of the book. In these small acts of kindness lie that soft inspiration that advocates for love and compassion and altruism and a bundle of other good things that make life precious and important and worth fighting for.
What about Babel Via Negativa? It’s a hybrid collection, and this is the first time this book has received an award. Tell us more about the gems in it.
Yes, the book only just got published, thanks to the fabulous team at Ethos Books, in particular Fong Hoe Fang, Chan Wai Han, Ng Kah Gay, and Adeleena Araib. Actually, its formal launch will only happen in early November at the Singapore Writers Festival, where I’ll read alongside the lovely Yeo Wei Wei and Noelle Q. de Jesus. So, it’s completely thrilling that the book has picked up this award so early on.
Babel Via Negativa is a hybrid work in that it contains tweetfic, poems, a cento written up as a play, and five literary essays on some of my favorite books. I like how the literary experiment moves past the confines and limits of the form, that one can still limn a narrative coherence through such disparate forms, and indeed, the energies of these forms. The metaphor or allegory works as a metaphor or allegory, whether it appears in a villanelle or screenplay or sudden fiction.
This book takes on for itself its own literary aesthetic, a new ism. This ism is known as ãkolpomõtism, an idea premised on using language as a way of folding into itself. In an effort to dissolve meaning through conflation and catachresis, among many other things and methods and manners. A stab at futile meaning-making, the making of meaning itself an end, a being of an intense diligence and effortlessness, something that empties itself and the things around it, out into a gulf. The term “ãkolpomõtism” combines the etymologies of the words “empty” and “gulf”. The adjective “empty” originates from “ã”, meaning “no, not”, and “mõt”, meaning “meeting”. The noun “gulf” has roots in the Italian “golfo”, with derivations ultimately in the Greek “kolpos”, meaning “bosom or womb”, thereafter taking on the sense of a “trough between waves, abyss”.
It is this feeling of a chasm, an eternal drift, that ãkolpomõtism strives to craft and make. It is a mixing up of everything and nothing, to say what language will allow, but ultimately amount to a steadying of the word through acts of unsaying. It’s not just apophasis, not just cataphasis, but both conjoined, in a contusion, a babble of language at its most transcendental.
Tell us what’s next in the pipeline. What projects are you working on that our readers can look forward to?
Well, this coming Sunday, I’ll be reading at the launch of From Walden to Woodlands, an anthology of writings that celebrate nature, faith and literature in Singapore. It’s also published by Ethos Books, and edited by the wonderful duo Ow Yeong Wai Kit and Muzakkir Samat. Next week, I’ll be involved in the American Writers Festival, co-hosted by Yale-NUS College and Singapore Management University. The festival is flying in really stellar writers like Tina Chang, Adam Johnson, Rajiv Joseph, Michael Meyer, Nisid Hajari, Jon Fasman, and Lisa Wells. Robin Hemley has been just awesome in putting together this festival, and he invited Singapore artists like Eleanor Wong, Adrian Pang, and myself to be a part of the festival, to join in the conversation. I’m on a panel discussion, titled “Poets, Playwrights & Polymaths on Cultural Multiplicity”. What an awesome title!
As for books, fingers crossed, I have a new poetry collection coming out, titled Phat Planet Cometh, by Glass Lyre Press, thanks to the fabulous Ami Kaye. It has the same structural integrity as my recent book, The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love, except there’s a distinct move to transport the characters into a multiverse reality. So it’s a stab at sci-fi, albeit with a strict poetic discipline – an aesthetic of lyric/word economy I impose on myself – of only writing in singular, end-stopped lines. It’s but one installment within what I expect to be a lifelong oeuvre where sequences are revisited, memory is taken apart and reconstituted, and assorted characters from my various books return, as themselves, or as incarnations or representations or imagoes of themselves. It’s starting to look like a grand hyperbolic irony. Of Derridean ideas of the trace, and how illusory and elusive that presence is.
I’ve just put to bed an anthology. It’s titled Ars Moriendi: Writings on the Art of Dying. It’s a really intimate, special and meaningful project that commemorates the 600th year of the Latin work, the first of its kind in western literature to provide guidance towards dying well. Written in the late Middle Ages, after the scourge of the Black Death, Ars Moriendi was also among the first books printed with movable type. This limited edition anthology packs a whopping list of international contributors, all of whom I name here because they’re just totally awesome: Amy Gerstler, Bill Yarrow, Cho Soo-Hyoung, Corey Mesler, Edwin Thumboo, Eric Tinsay Valles, Forrest Gander, Hedy Habra, Isa Kamari, Jane Munro, Jared Randall, John Barton, Karen An-Hwei Lee, Kent Shaw, Kevin Brophy, Kevin Prufer, Lily Hoang, Mandy Pannett, Marilyn Nelson, Michael Ryan, Rae Armantrout, Ryan Van Winkle, Steven Cramer, Susan Blackwell Ramsey, Susan M. Schultz, Tabish Khair, Timothy Liu, and Yeow Kai Chai.
I also just sent to the printers another anthology, titled Eye/Feel/Write: Experiments in Ekphrasis. A special commission by the National Arts Council for the Singapore Writers Festival, Eye|Feel|Write is an ekphrastic project that tasked twenty eminent writers in Singapore to pen texts inspired by artworks exhibited at The National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum. The twenty distinguished contributors include: Alfian Sa’at, Alvin Pang, Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, Chow Teck Seng, Divya Victor, Edwin Thumboo, Eric Tinsay Valles, Gwee Li Sui, Isa Kamari, Jerrold Yam, Jollin Tan, Joshua Ip, K. Kanagalatha (Latha), Leong Liew Geok, Ovidia Yu, Ramanathan Vairavan, Robin Hemley, Tan Chee Lay, Yeow Kai Chai, and Yong Shu Hoong.
Needless to say, it’s been a total blast working with such fine writers, all of whom are unbelievably accomplished and wildly talented. What happens when art meets literature? How does a writer view an artwork, and render new writing that stands on its own as a work of art? Those are the questions we’re asking in this body of ekphrastic texts. The selected artworks trek a bold and broad range, from the contemporary to heritage. Each text inhabits the artist’s material, yet frees itself from it: tasting, teasing, testing, extending, in beautiful acts of transference. From this relationship between two different kinds of artist is borne an articulation, an architecture/architectonic that celebrates the making of texts as experiment.