The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Elaine Chiew
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher, editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora is forthcoming from Penguin Random House SEA (Oct 2019) and Myriad Editions UK (Jan 2020). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. Elaine lives in Singapore and blogs about art at www.invisibleflaneuse.blogspot.com. In this interview, she reveals more about her new book and her ideas.
Why do you write?
Very simply, I can’t not write, call it word-constipation or what Danish short story writer Naja Marie Aidt calls ‘an urge that cannot be overlooked’ or a ‘point of desire’. A character or voice arrives out of the blue, takes hold of you as in a waking dream, make me real, it says, and you do.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
My short story collection, The Heartsick Diaspora, forthcoming with Penguin Random House SEA (October) and Myriad Editions UK (Jan 2020), draws upon my experiences of being part of the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese diasporas in the cities I’ve lived in, mainly New York City, London, Singapore. Even saying this, frankly, stumps me with an oceanic wave of imposter syndrome. I feel I know Malaysia less than Singapore, and Singapore less than the U.K. Amidst all this schizophrenic conflation of multiple identities within myself, I wanted to explore the idea of the global citizen (yes, exactly the one descried by former British Prime Minister Theresa May as a ‘citizen of nowhere’), I wanted to explore what the contours of this ‘nowhere’ might feel like in the psyche. It’s also another way of saying I wanted the stories to reflect how place and culture might infiltrate voice and story-building. There are psychic costs to being ‘other’, and I hope the stories bear that out, but perhaps seeing the diasporic body as a site for the confluence of multiple influences, as a place of ‘flows’, to use cultural theorist Paul Gilroy’s term about diaspora, can be a form of return. Definitely, for me, moving to Singapore constituted a Greek form of ‘nostos’, returning me via a different ‘route’ to my ‘roots’.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Because I write ‘flash fiction’, compression (a beautiful word for urban story-telling, a term given artistic reflection by Singaporean Indian artist Kanchana Gupta) necessarily involves layers. I realised that meta-layers in fiction (the ‘odysseys within the odyssey’ to cite Calvino) has always hugely appealed to me: the nested narrative, the inter-webbing of disparate disciplines (what Richard Powers does so incredibly well). I try to have my short stories do the same: that feeling of an entire novel in the breaths taken to read a short story. I am writing a novel now, not my first (more on this below) and discovering, hopefully adding, new arrows to the quiver. Perhaps it isn’t so much about density and compression as much as it is a fine, delicate interweaving of motifs, desires, history (personal and collective), cultural theory (which I find inescapable if you’re writing from the periphery for a reading audience in the center), yes even philosophy, and daily existential observations.
In terms of my voice, which took a long time to find, as fragmented as I was, I think I have a predilection towards tragicomedy. Something about the marriage of the absurd with the real, the flippant and funny with the serious and sobering, allows for another angle to view something too big for the mind and heart to comprehend fully (laughter is always ‘the lesser turmoil’ – Calvino again).
Who are your favorite authors?
Three are indicated above. Calvino, Powers, Gilroy.
Add (in no apparent order, just as it comes to me) David Mitchell, William Trevor, Kevin Barry, Edward P. Jones, Ta-nehisi Coates, my good writer friend Petina Gappah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill, Tobias Wolff, Junot Diaz, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Hazzard, Shirley Jackson, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima, Yoko Ogawa, Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Anthony Doerr, S.J. Naude (really deserves to be better known, he’s a study in ‘the violent poetics in prose’), Nathan Englander, Teju Cole, Rebecca Solnit, Jeanette Winterson, Iris Murdoch, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Emile Zola, Anton Chekhov (I’m in awe of his descriptions of a range of ‘noses’) and this list has just begun.
Writers have to read, and read widely; it’s our bread and butter, I really believe this. But the underside to this of course is the pervasive pall of influence (which I take on in one of the stories in The Heartsick Diaspora).
Reading as a writer evolves over time. I feel like I want to talk about this ad infinitum, LOL, but I’m no Calvino. I have very few mousedroppings of apocrypha. For me, reading as a writer is also to know the kind of pilgrim you will never become or can be. Reading as a writer is a work in progress. Reading, as an act, also has to commute along and correspond with lived life.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
I tried to write a novel about hip hop, street dance and gourmet cooking.
I loved the research, I became healthier and developed a form of muscle learning taking all the street dance and hip hop dance classes I took (Leland Cheuk has an amazing article about ‘method acting’ for the immersive research a writer has to do). I also acquired a ton of food knowledge, and even apprenticed myself to a New York fine dining kitchen for a week.
Ultimately, the bottom dropped out when I couldn’t convince my then-agent to sell it. Probably because deep down, I knew I was doing it to avoid the heart and guts of writing a story closer to home.
I don’t think a failed novel is a waste of time (even though it took the better part of four years). I suspect, and we will see if this bears out, it was probably my steepest learning curve. None of that food knowledge goes away; it has a way of worming itself into a lot of what I write. Maybe the way to my writing brain/heart is through my stomach?
What’s your idea of bliss?
Uninterrupted sleep. I suffer from insomnia.
Having a really good meal, regardless of cuisine.
A great joke.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I don’t smash china, but I may avoid travelling to certain countries, simply because the punditry and all-around-media-circus would make me go absolutely bonkers. You know the issues I’m talking about (outright lies by politicians, the setting up of ridiculous hermetic borders, discrimination that strips others of rights and their reason for being, populations afloat on the high seas and small bodies being washed ashore, forests burning down that may mean none of the babies born every minute will get to ever live out their lifespans); I’m not alone in being so angry and feeling so hopeless that I have to switch off. This year, though, has been a year of rumination for me and our extended families about what we can do. Do something, we will. I no longer want to just sit at family tables and rail. It is too enervating.
What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
I’ll take this question as an imminent three-month retreat, which means I’d probably scribble furiously and try to finish this novel I’m writing, which means it would be research pertaining to that book. So, this would be Ipoh: When Tin Was King, Vols. 1 and 2!, Walter Skeat’s Malay Magic; James Brandon and Samuel Leiter’s Kabuki Plays on Stage and Cheah Boon Kheng’s Red Star Over Malaya, just to name a few.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
Nothing. Not a thing. No object is irreplaceable.
Either that, or do what my wonderful writer friend, Charles Lambert, writes when one of the characters in his latest novel, Prodigal, was asked the same question: he’d take the fire itself.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I really, really try to practice this in all situations. It is very hard!
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