By Mitali Chakravarty
What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.
— Suchen Christine Lim, Second Fragment, A Bit of Earth
She wanted to run a chicken porridge stall in Singapore. Instead, she wrote about the coolies, the illiterate and the chicken porridge stall owners. Meet Suchen Christine Lim, an established voice in ASEAN literature with multiple awards and fellowships to her credit.
The first thing I notice when we meet is her humility. I remember listening to her during a panel discussion on ASEAN literature where Suchen said that she picked up bits of garbage and put them together to make a story. To me, her stories are anything but a bit of garbage. They record the history of Malaya and then, Singapore and Malaysia. Her works have been lauded by The Straits Times as ‘worthy literary landmarks that capture a slice of South-east Asian history’. Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University, Malaysia, sees her works as ‘brilliant stimulating and a compelling read’; Lily Rose Tope, PhD, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Phillipines, says, Suchen makes ‘history personal… a joy to teach and a riveting read’. Martin Marroni, a Scottish poet wrote to Suchen: ‘Astonishing tour de force. You have created a physical and social landscape and peopled it with characters with real human feelings on issues of political import as well as on the strains of personal and social survival.’ Yet, when I ask her where she sees herself in the ASEAN literary context, her response is that it is for the critics to decide. ‘I don’t see myself as anything except being able to write.’
Her passion for writing developed in the course of her teaching career. The characters she wrote about in her novels and short stories came to life for her as she went about her daily chores. She became the weaver of tales for these imaginary personas who led her through their adventures. She talks of her works in terms of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) based on the belief that puppets have a life of their own and their needs must be respected. She sees herself as the dalang, the puppet master, not a puppeteer, she emphasises. ‘And to me, the relationship between a novelist and a character is that of the dalang and the puppet, which eventually evolves a life of its own.’
Her description of the way her characters bother her brings to my mind the play, Six Characters in Search of an Author by the Nobel laureate, Luigi Pirandello. Her characters too plague her till she writes out her story; eventually they detach themselves from her to survive as independent entities in her books.
She explains how the main character in A Bit of Earth, Wong Tuck Heng, sprang out of her imagination one day and followed her around till she had researched and written about him. He became part of a book, which in Associate Professor Philip Holden’s (National University of Singapore) words, ‘brought to sharp relief conflicts over colonization, nationalism and community’. To think that it started with the pig-tailed man she saw in her mind’s eye!
Some characters, she says, interfere with the story till they are made a part of it. The character of Weng, the dizi player, kept popping up when she was writing the novel, The River’s Song. ‘I saw a woman playing the pipa. Then I kept seeing Weng with the dizi,’ says Suchen. She had to rewrite the novel to include Weng in it. However, it’s not all from imagination. Suchen talks about how she draws her characters from her surroundings. She compares writing to cooking and says that all the ingredients (like imagination, personal interactions, our surroundings and their influences) are stirred in a pot to create a character that has a life of its own, like a unique dish.
Suchen’s novels often draw on the histories of the South East Asian region. When I ask her about the focus on history in her books, she says it can only be called ‘contemporary history’ as Singapore is a very young nation. What spurred her to explore historical fiction was an incident during a seminar. A participant commented that Singapore had no history; she reacted to this by sprinkling local and Malayan history all over her novels. ‘In my fiction, the past and present are interlaced like a braid of hair.’ She admits to being a history buff, drawing from sources such as obscure letters from the Malayan branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and the stories of bum boatmen found in the National Archives. She wanted to write the stories of common people. History, she says, has been mostly studied from the colonial perspective. The heroes were either the ‘white man or the millionaires or towkays (business owner or a boss)’. ‘I wanted to see the past from the perspective of coolies, the illiterate, who have largely been left out of history books. Yet, without them, who would clean our rubbish, our filth?’ She imagined what the lives of these people would be like and wrote about them.
In Fistful of Colours, the novel that won her the Singapore Literature Prize, she reflects on the rickshaw pullers, coolies and their lives. In A Bit of Earth, she goes back further in time to 1874 to explore the lives of coolies in Malaya. In her first novel, The Rice Bowl, she explores Singapore of the 1970s, ‘when it was very young’. She elaborates how she has discussions in the book about ‘the values and direction’ the young country was taking, the industrialization of Jurong and the building of factories as well as the protests that involved university students voicing their concern over the Vietnam War. ‘For the first time in their lives, students cared about what happened in another country without prompting,’ explains Suchen. The book has an interesting contrast between idealism, student activism and the cold, pragmatic outlook of a careerist. In The River’s Song, she focuses on the cleaning up of the Singapore River in 1977, which changed the life of the immigrants forever. In all these novels she has Chinese characters that speak dialects, like Hokkien, Teochew, and multi-racial characters ranging from Americans to Malays to Indians. They intermingle in her stories, sometimes with bonds of love and friendship. Has she seen this kind of intermingling in real life? ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Beyond the element of racism that exists in every society, when people know each other as friends, as neighbours, as decent human beings, they can be kind to each other. And I think Fistful of Colours celebrates that.’
Some of Suchen’s women characters are remarkable with their sense of independence and determination. Since her characters have a life of their own, she does not really see them as part of herself, she says. However, after creating the characters, she has met personalities who were very like the ones she imagined. After the book A Fistful of Colours was published, she met a woman who reminded her of a character from the book – the Indian-Chinese Nica (a character with strong convictions that finally led her to make choices which were questionable). Others like Ah-ku, a semi-literate character from The River’s Song, who had tremendous courage and strength to achieve and change her dreams, was based on ‘Chinese women with less education but energetic, resourceful, the true pioneers’. These were women, she explains, who rose from running hawker stalls to owning posh restaurants.
Have any writers, musicians and artists influenced her writing? ‘Art does not grow out of a vacuum,’ she explains. ‘Writing grows out of a community of writing and reading.’ Her favourite authors include George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing, and among books that influenced her are the books of Han Suyn, a China-born Eurasian. One of the books that she says ‘opened my eyes to South-east Asian History’ was And the Rain My Drink by Han Suyn, a book that described the guerrilla war of Chinese rubber workers.
Interestingly, while writing The River’s Song, Suchen was obsessed with the music of the pipa and dizi. Every morning, while working on the book, she would listen to pipa or dizi music, whereas normally she prefers to work in silence.
Many of the things she has written about can also be seen in sculptures, like the one of children jumping into the river by Cheong Fah Chong along the Singapore River and in a painting of Liu Kang in the national gallery. When I ask her if she knew them she says she knew of the works of Liu Kang; she and the sculptor Cheong Fah Chong had taught in the same college for a while.
Suchen is very hopeful about the future of ASEAN literature. She says it would be ‘the next big thing in world publishing’. Asia, she feels, is very rich in literature, which is largely untranslated. The Western world, she feels, has familiarized itself with Indian and Chinese literature but has not tapped into S.E Asian literature in ‘English and non-English’ languages. Translations to different languages could be a way of transmitting the ideas and thoughts across the world. Her own book, Fistful of Colours, written by her in English, is translated to Macedonian and might be translated to Arabic too.
Suchen, who sees herself as a South-east Asian, talks of how immigrants have a bond beyond the racial and national character of the country from which they emigrated. ‘Early immigrants were part of the diaspora in South-east Asia and we had a common history, which the mainland Indians and Chinese do not share with us. It is too soon to say if they blend or not.’ She feels that as historical processes take time, probably it will take time for the modern day immigrants to Singapore to blend in with the earlier ones. ‘A common history actually binds people. Common suffering is the best glue,’ she says, adding with a smile, ‘I hope in Singapore it will be common prosperity.’
At the end of A Bit of Earth, Suchen has composed a few lines of poetry, which talk of the homeland as a bit of earth (quoted at the start of this article). Her earlier statement that love and friendship creates bonds beyond races and her cast of multi racial characters are in keeping with the spirit of these lines. I ask her if she views the world as borderless. ‘Of course,’ she answers. ‘A man can rise and go beyond borders but the land that he leaves will always be in his bones and heart.’
List of Awards and residencies received by Suchen Christine Lim:
- Singapore Literature Prize, 1992 (Inaugural) Fistful of Colours, 1992
- E.A. Write Award 2012
- Merit Prize for children’s story, Valley of Golden Showers, Ministry of Education, 1980
- Merit Prize, National University of Singapore-SHELL Short Play Competition, 1986
- Fulbright Writing Fellow, International Writing Program, University of Iowa, 1996
- International Writer-in-Residence, University of Iowa, Spring 2000
- Writer-in-residence, NICA Centre, Yangon, Myanmar, 2003
- Writer-in-residence, University of Western Australia, 2003
- Writer-in-residence, Moniack Mohr, Scotland, UK, 2004-2005
- Writer-in-residence, Good Shepherd Convent, Singapore-Malaysia Province, 2006-2008
- Writer-in-residence, Toji Cultural Centre, Wonju, South Korea, 2009
- Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2011