Singapore Decalogue final cover

by Zafar Anjum

My first collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue: Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent (Red Wheelbarrow Books, 2012) was released in November this year at the Singapore Writers Festival. The book was supported by the National Arts Council Singapore under the Arts Creation Fund grant.

In this collection of short stories, I have tried to create vignettes of life in Singapore. This is my tribute to this city state, which has built its social capital with great wisdom, civic sense, and quotidian practicality.

Like many modern metros, the Lion City is compact, with people of various ethnicity and nationalities living side by side. Though they live mostly secluded, private lives, there are times when their paths cross. This civic commingling of people can be harmonious or chaotic, depending on the circumstances.

Writer Ma Thida. (Thiri Lu/The Myanmar Times)
Writer Ma Thida. (Thiri Lu/The Myanmar Times)

In 2009, writer Ma Thida attended Brown University in the United States as a fellow of the International Writers Project.

During her stay the university organised an event called There Will Still Be Light: A Freedom to Write Literary Festival, and declared their plans to invite Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh, author of the novel The Glass Palace.

Ma Thida suggested that well-known Myanmar novelist Nay Win Myint also be invited, but when the organisers tried to find information about the writer on the internet they came up empty. There was simply no information about Nay Win Myint that had been posted online in the English language.

This was despite the fact that in his home country he had published nearly 200 short stories, as well as novels, travelogues, translations and more. He had also won the National Literary Prize in 2007.

New York-based writer Suketu Mehta is one of my favourite writers. I became a fan of his writing (he also loves Hemingway and Naipaul like I do) when I read his autobiographical account of his experiences in Mumbai (where he was born and partly raised before his diamond trading merchant family moved to New York), Maximum City. The book was published in 2004 and I read it shortly after I moved to Singapore. I loved the book because it was not a chore to read; it was like watching a Bombay film. Why was it an easy read? Mehta explains in an interview:

“… the impression readers have that Maximum City is a quick read is a false one because it was certainly not a quick write. But it takes a lot—Hemingway taught me this—to make writing seem effortless. It took me a long time before I learned how to write simply. My early sentences back in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were long. As Indians we tend to like longer sentences.”

Unlike many contemporary writers who are in a hurry to churn book after book, Suketu is a patient writer. He took seven years to research and write Maximum City. What I did not know though is that he had bankrupted himself while doing this book. This happened to him even though he had an advance from the publishers. In this interview with NDTV (Power of One), he reveals that he incurred a considerable amount of debt by the time he was done with the book. “When I finished my book, I was 40,000 dollars in debt,” he tells NDTV’s Srinivasan Jain.

How many writers will take this kind of risk?

Mo Yan

Mo Yan: no dissident. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Mo Yan, China’s first Nobel laureate for literature, has been greeted with some extraordinary hostility in the west. This week Salman Rushdie described him as a “patsy” for the Chinese government. According to the distinguished sinologist Perry Link, “Chinese writers today, whether ‘inside the system’ or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government.” And, clearly, Mo Yan has not made the right choice, which is to range himself as an outspoken “dissident” against his country’s authoritarian regime.

But doesn’t the “writer’s imagination” also conflict with the “imagination of the state” in a liberal capitalist democracy? This was broadly the subject that John Updike was asked to speak on at a PEN conference in New York in 1986. Updike delivered – to what Rushdie, also in attendance, described as a “considerably bewildered audience of world writers” – a paean to the blue mailboxes of the US Postal Service, which, he marvelled, took away his writings with miraculous regularity and brought him cheques and prizes in return.