Going Inside

Jini Kim Watson interviews Jeremy Tiang on his novel State of Emergency (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2017). New York, May 23, 2019.

Jeremy Tiang is the author of State of Emergency (Singapore Literature Prize, 2018) and It Never Rains on National Day, and the translator of novels by Li Er, Zhang Yueran, Yan Ge, Yeng Pway Ngon, Chan Ho-Kei and Su Wei-Chen, among others. He also writes and translates plays. www.JeremyTiang.com [Photo credit: Oliver Rockwell]

Jini Kim Watson: I want to start with a question about your choice to write on the Malayan Emergency and the the history of detention without trial in Singapore. There seems to be a recent resurgence of interest in these topics—I’m speaking here of the English-language materials—for example Tan Pin Pin’s documentary To Singapore with Love (2013) and Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2015). Why do you think there’s been a particular resurgence of interest and what drew you to write on this topic?

Jeremy Tiang: I guess it might be partly generational. The people writing now may be looking back at the past and questioning where we’ve come from, and maybe questioning the official narrative, whereas older works often, not always but often, replicate the official government line—“We were a sleepy fishing village, [and then] this metropolis”—unquestioningly. Or where they do write about more contentious topics—for instance, older plays about detention without trial—it’s often couched in the language of victimhood. So essentially we are asked to feel sympathy for the people who are unjustly detained and we feel a sense of injustice, but there’s no real investigation of the systemic oppression that surrounds this or what the bigger picture might be, or how this might be a continuation of colonial oppression.

Whereas now, I think people are more rigorous in their critique and maybe more politically aware, so there’s a desire to place these incidents within a framework and look not just at the injustice, but also what the injustice is serving, and whose interests are being served. It’s more about the language of power imbalances and governance.

JKW: I’m really curious about your process of researching the book and assembling the historical details, which gives it such a richness, and it’s a beautifully written book as well. How did you deal with such a big historical canvas?

JT: At a certain point, I had to give myself permission to not capture the whole thing. When I first started writing, the whole book was from Henry’s point of view, but I realized that was too much. It became implausible that one person would just happen to be present at all these major moments in history. So it was a question of: okay this is the story, who is telling this segment of the story, and what are the connections between these characters? That became the narrative arc of the novel—the connections between these family members. But at the same time, there was also a historical arc that determined at which moment in their lives we encountered them. And because I wasn’t writing a history book, I could skip certain things. Rather than trying to absorb everything, I just read a lot and talked to a lot of people, and let things pass through me.

I did also have to have a lot of timelines, resulting in walls covered with bits of paper just to make sure I got the chronology straight. There’s still one or two places where the chronology isn’t quite right and I did get a couple of emails about that… but on the whole I think I got most of the history correct. I asked a historian friend to read it through and she said it was accurate. A lot of my research was just talking to older people starting with my parents and branching out. At one point, I was living in Singapore and visiting Malaysia. I went to the New Villages and wandered around talking to people—anyone who looked old enough to remember the 50s, I asked, “Tell me what you had for breakfast back then.” It was those details that needed to be right. “What did you listen to on the radio? How did you get around? How many people in your village had cars?” It was these things I knew I needed to really fill out this world, because the dates were easy to look up. I’m fortunate that people were generally quite willing to talk to me.

I also visited the former guerrillas in the Peace Villages up at the Thai-Malaysia border. Again, I was lucky that one of the things about the Communist movement was that they emphasized the need for Mandarin, so all these people spoke perfect Mandarin which meant I could go and interview them (my Cantonese is awful). A lot of things lined up. I started this process 10 years ago, and it was much more possible then. If I was trying to do this now, there wouldn’t be as many of them alive because they were already in their 70s.

JKW: So you were doing a kind of oral history for your research?

JT: When I was in the Villages a lot of them had self-published oral histories of their own movements, which were a little one-sided but still contained a lot of useful info. It wasn’t as systematic as if I’d been writing a formal history, which gave me the freedom to go to a lot of unorthodox sources. I’d be talking to people and thinking, “What you’re telling me can’t possibly be true, and I have no way of verifying this,” so in the book I would couch these as someone’s memories rather than strictly factual.

JKW: Going back to the question of generations, I was thinking how these events are not so removed from our generation in the sense that our parents or grandparents might have experienced them, so they’re not entirely removed but of course we weren’t there. I wondered in the process of research and writing, how did your understanding of this period change? You would presumably already have had an idea?

JT: Like many Singaporeans of my generation, I had thought it was relegated to the past, but of course it didn’t actually end till 1989. My mother’s Malaysian, and when I was growing up we would go to Malaysia twice a year during the school holidays, June and December, to visit my great-uncle and aunt, and then we’d often go to Perak where my mom’s from, and travel round the north of the peninsula. So it was kind of mind-boggling when I started looking into the history and realized that not that far from us, a guerrilla war was going on and I had no idea. I just had no awareness of it; I would have been 12 when the final treaty was signed in 1989, and I don’t recollect seeing it on the news or reading it in the papers—either it wasn’t reported or I didn’t understand it. Or I just haven’t retained it.

My great-uncle and aunt were outside KL in a place called Jinjang, which I only found out relatively recently was a New Village. Again, I had no idea at the time. It wasn’t visible in that you couldn’t see where the wall had been, but it’s this mind-boggling thing: at one stage this place was basically a concentration camp with guards standing around it. So that definitely made me realize there were a lot of things that I either hadn’t noticed or had been so completely erased there was no way I could have known.

Right now I’m translating a collection of short stories by Hai Fan, who was a communist guerrilla between 1977-1989. He was in the jungle with a gun for more than a decade, and now he’s a regular middle-aged man with a regular job. (He was very young when he went in, like many others—20 or even younger.) And it’s just mind-boggling, he’s writing these really authentic pieces about life in the jungle, how they ate elephants and so on, and all of this was happening while my family and I were having vacations not that far away.

JKW: I was really intrigued by those scenes, especially in the Nam Teck chapter, of the Ma Gong going inside. So often we see such representations through a very Cold War lens and communists are presented as subhuman, so I wondered what it was like to write those scenes and experiences, especially knowing that in fact you were almost alongside them, but not really realizing that?

JT: Well, the Ur-text for me is And the Rain My Drink (by Han Suyin) and I kind of wrote this knowing that I would never depict this as beautifully as her, and that book is still one of the best ever written on the subject. It’s such an amazing book. She is very aware of her own limitations, and she’s put herself in it, as this Anglophone Eurasian doctor who glimpses these lives she can’t understand, but she was so close to it. And you can tell her sympathy for and attraction to the Communists, and that kind of intimacy is something I knew I could never replicate. I do wish more people read Han Suyin still. But that did help give me a model about how to write about this. Even that term “going inside” is one that she uses. I think you can see my sources quite clearly. The Nam Teck chapter was at one point too Han Suyin, and I was saying things like, “The green mouth of the jungle”—that’s a Han Suyin phrase—so I had to pull back from that. Just as the Stella chapter was at one point too much a transcription of Teo Soh Lung’s book; again, I had to consciously disengage. So the textual sources for this and the literary antecedents are I think still markedly present, and I didn’t or couldn’t write something completely original—I mean I don’t think anyone can. I knew there would have to be some kind of dialogue.

JKW: What did you take from the Chinese language antecedents?

JT: The sense of being marginalized, being made invisible. Even in the 50s, people felt very much like their way of life was being threatened, because the English-educated civil servants who then became the government were very intent on a particular Western way of living that didn’t take into account what happened if you were Chinese-speaking or Chinese-educated. It’s just the lack of care and awareness that the colonial government had for the Chinese speakers. You can completely understand why a lot of people—who when you talk to them don’t actually seem particularly sympathetic to communist ideology—nonetheless signed up and went to the jungle. It was just the best option they had at that point.

JKW: Was your book received differently in the English and Chinese-language press in Singapore? What is your relationship with these two language spheres?

JT: I regard myself as writing in dialogue with the Chinese-language ma hua wenxue—ma from not Malaysia but Malaya—the Sinophone literature from Singapore and Malaysia that’s evolved separately from the Anglosphere. A lot of these writers now publish in Taiwan, even live in Taiwan. Unfortunately, many people who read this book have little awareness of that other body of work, not much of which is translated, which removes a context that I would like to be read in, but I don’t know that there’s anything I can do about that. (Except for translating more of it—I’m doing my best.) It’s interesting to me that the reviews diverged slightly, in that the Chinese-language press placed the book in a context of other writers such as Yeng Pway Ngon, and I was grateful that they went out and read this book in English.

JKW: In a review article by Theophilus Kwek, he writes that your novel reminds us that “the author’s task [is] to re-imagine and re-instate those whose lives have been erased from public memory.” What I really love about the novel is that it’s not merely about recuperating a past that has been sidelined, but it’s about recovering those futures that were imagined to be possible then. Can you say anything about your intentions here?

JT: I think the Singapore government, which has been in power for so very long, likes to present itself as what in Imperial China would be thought of as a mandate from heaven. When a lot of people, including critics of the PAP, talk about Singapore history, it’s presented as a kind of inevitability: that of course it worked out this way, but actually, there were a couple of moments when it very much could have gone quite differently. What it would look like remains open to question, and I think people like to point to less affluent Southeast Asian countries and say, “Well we would have ended up like Laos, do you want that?” But Singapore was already a very wealthy country when the British left, so that’s kind of counterfactual in the wrong way.

We can’t be sure what a leftist Singapore would have looked like, but I think it’s worth imagining, bearing in mind the PAP government for the first couple of decades called itself a socialist government, hence the mass public housing and actually some quite good programs like that, until the 1970s when the PAP was forced out of Socialist International for not actually being socialist. But they got away with it for a long time, and they played both sides, claiming to be Socialist while saying “but these Communists will destabilize us.” A lot of the so-called Communists were not that different politically from the PAP back then, they just happened to be Chinese-speaking.

JKW: So there’s a lot of blurring about who was a communist, and how that maps onto an ethnicity and language-identity…

JT: The small number of Malay Communists had an interesting position, as we saw in Amir Muhamad’s film The Last Communist, and that interests me as well. I tried, but it didn’t quite fit to have communists of other ethnicities in my book. My one regret about this book is that it is so Chinese.

JKW: Well I was curious about that; you do have multiple kinds of identities: the English-educated, the Chinese-educated, and then you have Revathi, and you also have the Eurasian characters.

JT: The book started out much more heavily Chinese, then Jason’s sister ended up marrying into a Eurasian family. Until quite a late stage, the Revathi character was actually a white woman, because my source for that chapter was Mary Turnbull. I was really intrigued by the figure of Mary Turnbull who comes out of World War II, can’t get a job, sees an ad in the paper, and applies to be a teacher in Singapore, then ends up writing the definitive history of Singapore. So the chapter was initially about this white woman who’d been living in Singapore for decades and observing it that way. But I became more and more uncomfortable with that. The idea of an Indian Singaporean who has grown up in the UK, so she still brings a British perspective to it but she’s more connected to Singapore, started making a lot more sense to me. And also I was more interested in that friendship of Revathi and Jason—

JKW: —Henry?

JT: Henry—I actually get Henry and Jason mixed up in my head, partly because they’re both me. Those are the two characters I slightly cannot keep straight, which is interesting, I don’t know what that says… Anyway, in an earlier version Henry was Mary Turnbull’s student in Cambridge, because she came back from Singapore and taught, and then they had that friendship. This was actually a shift I made after I signed the contract with Epigram and was supposed to be making final changes, but instead I said I would substantially re-write quite a lot of it. And I’m glad I did that. I think it’s much stronger, Revathi as a character is much more interesting. I didn’t have any real way of entering the mind of a white British woman living in Singapore in the 50s, so a lot of it just drew from books like The Singapore Grip [by J.G. Farrell] and it was just people playing tennis and going to country clubs. I was never fully convinced by it. Whereas a Singaporean living in London and not quite feeling she fits in, I absolutely know how to write that. Even though Revathi was there a few decades before I arrived in London, London doesn’t change that much. I think I was able to write that in a much more nuanced way.

JKW: This next question was prompted by something that Philip Holden said at his reading [of his short story collection Heaven Has Eyes] the other week, which I really enjoyed, which is that one of the challenges for any writer writing about Singapore or Malaysia is the question of the multi-lingual landscape, whereas you generally have to write in one language. So I was wondering how you dealt with that, especially since you are a translator; did your translation work inform the way you created characters who are speaking other languages than the one we are reading them in?

JT: Yes, it did. Definitely with the Chinese I was aware of how Chinese just functions differently, and nothing annoys me more than when I read a book and I’m told a character says something “in Chinese” that couldn’t actually be formulated as a  sentence in Chinese. So I did have to think that through. I’m lucky to be from quite a diverse linguistic background in that my mother is Cantonese-speaking (in fact she doesn’t speak Mandarin, which is what happens when you grow up in a small village in Perak), and my dad is part Sri Lankan, so I’ve grown up hearing him speak Tamil. I’ve been attempting to learn Tamil—it’s a really hard language—but I do have some familiarity with the language at least. Anyway I got a Tamil-speaking friend and a Malay-speaking friend to go through those bits, just to make sure they tracked, and they suggested a couple of changes. There’s not that much of either language, but I still wanted to be sure I got it right.

JKW: How did you come up with the structure of the multi-perspectival narrative, because you really have six fully developed narrators, which is a really interesting formal choice.

JT: The original story was much more limited, and at one point it was going to be a novel about a sad, angry old man in Singapore who’s been abandoned by his children who have gone to the UK and also his wife who has run off to be a communist. And I don’t think that was very interesting. (Also he was secretly gay and having an affair with a British academic, but that’s another story.) At a certain point, I realized I needed a broader perspective and there was no way to get it while staying with him.

The other thing is that I’d never written a novel, but I had written a lot of short stories, and I think I found this less daunting to think of as six short stories. I can be quite mathematical, at one stage I just thought, okay, if there are six narrators and each of them is 15,000 words, that’s 90,000 words, which is a novel. I actually then did break it up quite schematically; this isn’t true anymore, but each of these six chapters are broken up into sections and if you look, a lot of these sections are 1,000 words long.    

I believe in structure giving you freedom; I don’t write poetry but I have studied it, and I do believe that rigid forms can create a space in which you can then be incredibly creative.

JKW: Do you have any big philosophies of literature, as a writer and as a translator?

JT: Quite the opposite. I think my sense of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it changes constantly. The person who wrote this book, who wanted to challenge the dominant narrative in Singapore, I think did what he set out to do. And right now I’m very into the China-America novel that I’m attempting to write, that draws its structure from a Victorian novel.

JKW: You’re in the middle of that?

JT: Yes, I write slowly, so I don’t know when it’ll be ready.

Jini Kim Watson is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at New York University. She is the author of The New Asian CIty: Three Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form (2011) and co-editor, with Gary Wilder, of The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries for the Global Present (2018).