The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Daren Shiau
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I liked reading when I was child, and I enjoyed studying literature in secondary school – it opened a door for me. In my teens, my best childhood friend and I both decided to pursue an audacious wish of publishing a novel before we were 21. It seemed impossible at that time, but Johann actually did it with Peculiar Chris which went into print while we were in National Service, and has become somewhat of a cult classic (I am very proud of him). I took much longer, and only managed it by receiving a commendation award of the Singapore Literature Prize, which in the 90s was a competition for unpublished fiction. It’s funny because Cyril Wong says Heartland reads like a Peculiar Chris for straight people. That was 1998. I wasn’t able to write prose following Heartland for a while soon after, for some reason, so I turned to poetry. In 2000, I put out a poetry collection, Peninsular, thanks in large part to Ethos Books, which had faith in someone unschooled in that genre. In 2007, I published a microfiction collection, Velouria, which has a deliberately sparse and minimal style, and was probably a reaction to how much I had become unconsciously associated with the verisimilitude of Heartland.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I’ve been working on two books, one short fiction and the other poetry, for the last ten years – I need to do better at writing less slowly <laughs>. The current title of the poetry collection is We Remember Killing Tigers, which is the last line of the poem ‘We Must Be Lions’ in Peninsular.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Music is a big part of my writing. For Velouria, which has a deliberately pared-down style, Richie Hawtin and Kings of Convenience were often playing in the background while I was writing it. Almost half the story titles in Velouria are names of songs. My earlier work was heavily influenced by the aesthetic of bands such as Cocteau Twins, Joy Division and The Smiths.
Who are your favourite authors?
Goh Poh Seng, Albert Camus, Milan Kundera, JM Coetzee, Raymond Carver. If I may name lyricists: Nick Drake, Ian Curtis and Morrissey.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
The novella I am working on has been quite difficult, because I am slow <laughs>. It is about a tiger escaping from the Singapore zoo, and how it impacts, changes, destroys the lives of a few people – but no-one actually eventually sights that tiger, after its liberation, by the end of the book.
What’s your idea of bliss?
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I am seldom – that – angry. But I am bothered when people are wilfully selfish or apathetic.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
I would spend it reading non-Singaporean Southeast Asian writers. I know too little about an entire area of literature that I feel I should be more connected to.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
Assuming that the people have been evacuated, it would probably be the irreplaceable chattels, which in these days largely means things that have not been digitised.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Life is too short for anything to be worth doing more than once, unless it is (in which case, do it all the time).
Daren Shiau is an award-winning fiction writer, poet and editor. He was the National Arts Council’s Young Artist of the Year in 2002, and has been described by The Arts Magazine as “among the most exciting of the post-1965 generation of writers” from Singapore. His works include a novel, Heartland (1999), a poetry collection, Peninsular: Archipelagos and Other Islands (2000), and a microfiction collection, Velouria (2007). Heartland, which received a Singapore Literature Prize commendation award, has been cited by the travel guide Lonely Planet as “the definitive Singapore novel,” and is a prescribed English literature text on the Singapore-Cambridge GCE ‘O’-Level syllabus. Velouria, a seminal collection of prose poems was launched just after Shiau received the first prize in an inaugural microfiction competition organised by Singapore’s main English broadsheet The Straits Times. He has also co-edited an experimental mono-titular anthology titled Coast (2010), featuring over fifty Singapore-based writers contributing works with the title “Coast”. Shiau was named as one of “50 Faces to Watch” in the National Day edition of The Straits Times in 1993. A decade later, in 2003, he was again named by The Straits Times on National Day as one of “38 Singaporeans Who Make a Difference to Singapore”. His short stories and poems have been translated into Italian and German, and he has been invited to read at international literary festivals, and at universities in New York, Boston and London.