Sri Lankan journalist Ranga Chandrarathne interviews Zafar Anjum, author of The Singapore Decalogue
The Singapore Decalogue is woven around the series of episodes encountered by the protagonist Asif Basheer, a foreign talent who arrived in Singapore to make a better life. It seems that Asif’s life is a literary devise to describe the complex socio-cultural landscape of Singapore. You, yourself, are a foreign talent and successfully naturalised in Singapore. What are the range of experiences which inspired you to create Asif Basheer?
Zafar: It’s like asking me in a backhanded way whether The Singapore Decalogue is an autobiographical work. Like most literary works, it is and it isn’t. Let us break down Asif’s character to see where he comes from and what is the genesis of this character.
At the metaphorical level, Asif’s story is a parable of moral corruption, of the moral decline of a person who loses his path and gets spiritually gutted out by the modern city life. You see, life asks us to make moral choices all the time and hence, we have to keep taking moral decisions at every turn in life. Should we give money to the drooling beggar with chapped lips sitting on the pavement, whose body is emaciated with hunger and starvation? Shall we help the blind man cross the street even if it means missing the bus to office and being late for work? Making a moral decision could be as simple as that.
When I came to Singapore nearly ten years ago, I was naive but not as naive as Asif is in the book. Some of the experiences that Asif has gone through, I have gone though too and some of the events that happen to Asif probably come from experiences of my friends and other people whom I have watched over the years, not so consciously though, and some of the episodes are purely imaginary.
While writing the book, I was also trying to pay a tribute to some of my favorite writers—writers whose work I have admired for a long time, writers who have not faded away from my heart, such as Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Kafka, Joyce, Hemingway, and Hanif Kureishi and many stories in the collection reflect their sensitivities and attitudes that have seeped into my writing by just being a reader of their works.
In a sense, this collection also emphasizes my interest in robust storytelling. What is that, you might ask. I believe that for stories to really work, they have to stand on some kind of real life experience. For me, fiction is not just pretty language, and this is just a personal view. There is poetry for that purpose. Literary fiction is about the exactness of expression and that exactness can only come from the lifeblood of experience. This is also the reason I enjoy reading only a handful of writers. I don’t seem to enjoy storytellers who only hide behind pretty language, and somehow I sense that when I read such writing. Read Chekhov, Tolstoy, Joyce, Hemingway, Carver—you don’t have the feeling that they are phony storytellers. Their stories are examples of robust storytelling.