I Can Only Go by My Gut10 min read

A conversation with Singaporean novelist Jeremy Tiang

With seven translated novels under his belt, in addition to the short story collection It Never Rains on National Day, novelist, playwright, and translator Jeremy Tiang has been making a name for himself. Already making waves in Singapore when its funding was withdrawn by the National Arts Council, his debut novel, State of Emergency, provides a snapshot of a Singaporean family during the tumultuous decades that followed the second World War. I sat down with Tiang to discuss his “hyphenated career.” –Nick Stember

Nick Stember: You’ve said before that you dislike talking about your work, and I guess this is a little bit of an ironic or awkward place to start an interview, but I wonder if you could elaborate on this.

Jeremy Tiang: I think the work should stand on its own, and by the time it’s out in the world, I don’t have much more to say about it. I also don’t like talking about work-in-progress, because I believe that if you say something out loud too much, it starts to feel limp and worn out by the time you come to write it. Really, I’d be much happier if author panels could just consist of me showing the audience pictures of my cat.

It’s said that translation is a kind of performance art, and as a translator and a playwright, and also a trained actor, I’m curious if you find this metaphor to be a productive one.

Um! I don’t think it’s performance art, which is an entirely different beast, but it is a type of performance. Being an actor is very like being a translator – you can’t alter the lines, but that still leaves you a huge amount of room for interpretation and nuance. I think we discuss D.J. Enright’s Swann’s Way vs. Lydia Davis’s Swann’s Way the same way we might talk about whether we preferred Benedict Cumberbatch or Andrew Scott as Hamlet.

You once said “To have truly Singaporean literature, we need translation.” You’ve also said you’ve found that “working on so many styles, learning to ventriloquize other voices” has made your own work more fluid. Do you ever worry that you haven’t succeeded in getting an author’s voice across in English?

Oh, constantly. But I can only go by my gut – if a line in my translation makes me laugh or feel sad the same way as in the original, then I’d hope that means the voice is at least in the right place.

Another author-translator who comes to mind is Ken Liu, who has described his translation work as the “joy of helping.” If I’m not mistaken, some of your first translations were also for friends: Zhang Yueran and Su Wei-chen, who you met at the Iowa Writer’s workshop in 2011. Do you prefer translating for friends rather than (relative) strangers?

It’s always nice to work with a friend, of course, but I often find that when I’m translating a piece I love, I end up becoming friends with the writer anyway, even if I didn’t know them before. There’s something about spending so much time inside someone else’s mind that creates intimacy.

Like many authors, you started out in short fiction, later moving into plays and, most recently, a novel. But during the seven years you were writing State of Emergency (due to be released internationally in November of this year), you also translated nearly a dozen books out of Chinese. Have you ever felt pressured to be one thing or another – author or translator – but not both?

Not at all. I quite enjoy being more than one thing (I’m also an editor) because I find that the different streams enrich each other, and varying my work keeps me from getting stale. People are quite accepting these days of hyphenated careers.

Related to State of Emergency, you also had some difficulty with the National Arts Council, who withdrew funding two-thirds of the way through. You’ve said before that you spend almost half your time looking for work and applying for grants and residencies. Are you finding it any easier to find time (and funding) to write now that you’re more established?

Time is always in short supply – I think that’s true of any writer – but I am grateful to be able to write/ translate/ edit full time now, without having to do anything else (while I enjoyed teaching, I also resented it for absorbing so much time and energy that I’d rather have spent writing). I don’t apply for funding or residencies as much now, because I’m largely able to support myself through my work (which doesn’t mean I’m not a beneficiary – the publishers and theater companies I work with are often the recipients of public or private funds).

Reading your 2015 short story collection It Never Rains on National Day, I was struck by the way your characters are connected by a common thread (which leads back to Singapore) but at the same time they are out of place, even at home. As one character – the writer in “Meatpacking,” I believe – says, “You just need to be somewhere else, sometimes.” Is this a personal obsession, or do you think there is something essentially ‘Singaporean’ about this rooted-rootlessness?

I definitely needed to go to unfamiliar places in order to gain the clarity and distance I needed, and was fortunate enough to have had opportunities to travel when I needed them. I can’t speak for other Singaporeans, of course, but perhaps there is something about being from a very small country that fosters this rootlessness in certain individuals – whereas Americans can visit another city or state for a change of scene, you can’t travel much more than an hour in Singapore without leaving the country, and so leaving home can become more of a necessity.

For a writer with such a strong sense of place, the fact that you’ve spent much of your adult life overseas comes up a lot in interviews and profiles. Has distance given you perspective on your hometown? Or do you feel a sort of alienation? (In one interview, you mention feeling “like a foreigner, even when I’m in Singapore,” but that you “thrive on dislocation.”) I’m thinking here of expatriate writers in interbellum Paris – Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller – but also PRC self-exiles, like Gao Xingjian, Ha Jin, and Ma Jian.

Perspective, definitely. It’s very easy, in a small country, to internalize whatever one experiences as “universal”, and living in other places has helped me to understand that some things regarded as norms in Singapore are actually highly unusual elsewhere. I don’t think living abroad has given me a sense of alienation from Singapore. Perhaps the opposite – I left because I never felt like I fully fitted in.

Being of Chinese descent in Singapore of course, means something different than in Europe and North America, where ‘Asian’ is used as a collar to Black, White, Latinx, etc. At the same time, there’s been a lot of talk about whitewashing in Hollywood and the need to create solidarity with Black Lives Matter. These issues don’t seem have a lot of resonance overseas. How does race influence you as an author?

I’m of mixed Chinese and Tamil descent, so my racial identity is somewhat complicated (though I largely pass as Chinese). Singapore has its own racial dynamics and issues, and while the specific conflicts that America is going through might not resonate in the rest of the world, that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own issues. Race influences me as a writer about as much as any other aspect of identity and living in the world.

Another theme your work seems be the the way that social media encroaches on our lives: characters take pictures to put on Facebook and complain about the inconvenience of the Great Fire Wall while visiting Beijing. How do you use (or not use, as the case may be) social media?

I probably spend too much time on social media, but then Margaret Atwood is on Twitter all the time, and she still manages to get lots of writing done. I really like social media (Twitter and Facebook, mostly; I am too verbal for Instagram, and Weibo scares me) – it enables me to stay in touch with people all around the world, and have a sense of what’s happening elsewhere. I’m particularly interested in what people are reading in other countries, and fortunately many of my friends are book nerds who post exactly that.

In most of your stories, I see an emphasis on making real life connections, whether that means embracing chance encounters, or just hanging out with friends. Is this something you consciously included, or did it develop more organically?

I wasn’t conscious of that! But human connections are important to me (and maybe it’s something I’m very aware of, as many of my days are spent alone in a small room with a laptop), so it’s natural that they’d find their way into my work.

On a related note, you’ve talked about visiting the locations your writing, and also even in your translations, in the case of Su Wei-chen, who invited you to visit Taiwan. How much do find yourself drawing from life, and how much do you end up inventing?

I’m translating a novel by Lo Yi-Chin (骆以军) at the moment, which he insists it’s a novel even though the main character is a writer named Lo Yi-Chin, and the events are based on his life. When I pressed him as to how much of the story was fictional, he claimed not to remember, which I thought was fantastic. So I draw a lot of things from life, and I invent a lot of things, and sometimes these are the same things.

Your stories seem to be populated with a strange mix of pragmatists and idealists: engineers and businessmen and bankers on the one hand, would-be writers and runaways on the other. Since you don’t seem to fit into either category, why do you think you are so drawn to these two types of characters?

I think we all have a bit of both in us. I might distill these traits a little for the purpose of fiction, but my main interest is in the collision of these two aspects – when the idealist comes up against reality, or the pragmatist allows herself to dream a little.

I’m not sure if you would agree, but I can’t help but be reminded here of the stereotype of risk-averse Chinese parents who discourage their children from doing what they love. Is this something you’ve struggled with in own education and career? If not, do you think your work still speaks to this old saw in some way?

It was a factor, but I’m not sure my parents were any more risk-averse than any other family that’s not in the upper middle class. You’d have to be pretty financially secure to not blanch when your child says they want to go into literature. I perhaps spent more of my life than I would have liked wondering if I was *allowed* to want these things, but I’m doing them now, and that’s all that matters. I don’t think my work deals specifically with parental restriction all that much, but certainly the essence of storytelling is keeping your characters from what they love.

From following you on social media it seems you worked closely with the Asian American Writer’s Workshop over the last year. Can you tell me a little about your responsibilities there, and also what role the AAWW plays in promoting marginalized literature?

As the Asia Literary Editor at the AAWW, I curated writing from East and Southeast Asia for the Transpacific Literary Project, with the aim of creating a dialogue between diaspora and mainland, as well as facilitating conversations across the region. By seeking out marginalized voices and providing them with a platform, we hoped to level the playing field in whatever little way we are able, and draw a little attention away from the center toward the periphery. 

Jeremy Tiang, State of Emergency (Epigram Press, November 2017).