What is your general impression of Singapore?
Well, I know a little about Singapore’s modern history. I’ve read about Lee Kuan Yew when I was in school. I’ve had friends and students who lived in Singapore and they’ve given me pinhole impressions. What have I heard? I’ve heard that in Singapore, people work their asses off, that the food is insanely spectacular; I’ve heard that artists struggle hard and that if a young person wants to be an artist, their parents are, on average, going to be less than receptive. I have a friend who loves Singapore to death and another who says it’s a consumer inferno. You hear a lot of things but I can’t wait to make some impressions of my own.
Do you think great literature can only come about through great adversity? Do you think it’s possible for Singapore, a relatively peaceful country, to have great literature?
To create a literary culture requires more than material deprivation – otherwise my beloved homeland, the Dominican Republic, would produce a Shakespeare by the month. Let’s not fall for the romantic fantasy that adversity is a necessary precondition for “great art.”
From everything I’ve heard, Singapore has its challenges on the arts front. Generally speaking, the less controlled a society, the more room there is for artistic expression. But could all our societies do with more arts education? Could we all value local arts and artists more? Of course. For very complex reasons, plenty of societies don’t have the arts infrastructures their artists deserve nor have they the will to nurture these infrastructures. For us artists who labor under these conditions, all we can do is keep fighting until we help bring about the necessary changes.
In your experience, what is the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel?
I’ve only written one novel so it’s not like I’ve got a lot to go on. But with that said, from my limited experience, a short story requires immense precision; while a novel demands immense endurance. Both leave me feeling like I’ve been ax-kicked in the heart.
In writing about love in the various forms, what have you learned about love?
One learns some things, about boundaries, about communication, about trust, about not chasing after the unavailable, but you never really figure it all out—at least I haven’t. If love wasn’t such a mystery, we probably wouldn’t be so obsessed with it as a culture. You have to understand I grew up in a culture where “men” weren’t encouraged to be interested in love. This means I grew up with some very weird ideas about intimacy. Forget learning. I feel like I’ve spent most of my time unlearning some of my society’s bizarre scripts.