When I approached Keith Brooke (the über-awesome proprietor of Infinity Plus Books) with the idea of publishing my new ebook collection The Alchemy of Happiness, I very much had in mind to model the contents after those in PM Press’ Outspoken Authors series of perfect-bound chapbooks: a small number of fiction pieces (no more than three), followed by an essay or some other work of non-fiction, and then an interview.
Two of the fiction pieces, “Reality, Interrupted” and “In Jurong” were previously published (and the third, “Always a Risk,” will see print publication in March in the anthology Eastern Heathens, edited by Ng Yi-Sheng and Amanda Lee Koe). The non-fiction piece, “Embracing the Strange: The Transformative Impact of Speculative Fiction (A Hybrid-Essay)” will also see print publication in March as a standalone chapbook in Math Paper Press’ Babette’s Feast chapbook series. But I wanted the interview, titled “Represented Spaces,” to be solely exclusive to The Alchemy of Happiness, and so I have no plans to release it elsewhere, either in print or electronically.
So, to whet your appetite, below is posted just a small extract from the nearly six-thousand-word interview by author and editor Wei Fen Lee; if you dig it, you can only find the rest of it in The Alchemy of Happiness:
> A motif of fluid identity and the potential for multiplicity is prevalent throughout the three stories in The Alchemy of Happiness, from the metamorphosis of characters into different stages of life, to more mundane details like just a change in outfit choices. Why the choice of this motif, and what are your own thoughts on the construction and destruction of personal identity?
I’ve always seen identity as very fluid; we’re different people depending on whom we’re around. I act differently whether I’m with my wife, or with my daughter, or with my female friends, or with my male friends, or with my parents. It’s just something we as human beings negotiate all the time. What’s interesting to me about speculative fiction is the ability to make it more concrete, to actually literalise this concept.
> I guess that’s the power of the strange as well: we have the ability to see how far these changes can stretch.
Right. You can make things more literal so that we can actually examine them. If Gregor Samsa changes into a giant beetle, what can we find out about his family dynamics?
> In “In Jurong” especially, memory is linked to identity, and the past is constantly seen as constructing us.
The past is what makes us who we are. Even if traumatic things happened in the past, even if things were really horrible or transformative, they make us into the people that we are. So I definitely see memory as linked to identity in that way, depending on how we think of ourselves and our memories. It informs how we act and react in any given situation.
> In David Eagleman’s collection Sum, his speculations about the afterlife agree with your own stories about the afterlife not constituting a single place. Why did you choose the afterlife to write about, and what do you think of the potential to play with this concept and space of the afterlife?
It’s the biggest mystery there is, right? One of my favorite writers, Jonathan Carroll, has been very preoccupied with death and the afterlife over the last 15 years or so in his writing; I presume that as he’s grown older, he’s been thinking about it a lot, and questioning what the afterlife might be like. It’s the great unknown. What’s interesting to me is that he hasn’t formed a comprehensive view of it yet; he’s come up with many different types of afterlives, in order to explore all these “what-if?” questions. And that tactic appeals to me as a writer as well.
> Asking questions about the afterlife also begs the question, what kind of death?
Exactly. I’m a practicing Buddhist (although my practice is a bit slack at the moment), and the typical Buddhist view is that there is no afterlife. If you don’t become enlightened, then you reincarnate into a new form and you do it all over again, with your new life determined by your previous karma. There are lots of different ways to look at the cessation of life, and part of the fun of writing this stuff is being able to explore big issues like that.
> On that note, the stories in The Alchemy of Happiness seem heavily imbued with Buddhist philosophy and thought. What do you personally subscribe to, and how do you see your personal beliefs mixing with your fiction to create new beasts, so to speak?
I look at Buddhism more as a life philosophy than as a religion, and so even if I’m not meditating every day, or chanting mantras on a regular basis, I still try to keep the Four Noble Truths ingrained in my thinking, and to exemplify the core ideas of compassion, connection, and consequence in my actions.
For Red Dot Irreal, my focus was more on the strangeness of the Singaporean psyche, seen through the lens of a foreigner living in Singapore. But with The Alchemy of Happiness, I was thinking a lot more broadly, and the Buddhist mindset is definitely more prevalent. Especially in “Always a Risk,” where this weird realm deals with magic and demons, yet Buddhism still has a place there.
> So is it a conscious choice, inserting these philosophies, or does it naturally arise just because of your paradigm of the world?
I think that with my older stories, it was more of the latter, but with “Always a Risk” and especially with A Fickle and Restless Weapon, the novel that I just finished writing, it was a much more conscious choice (the title even comes from the Dhammapada). I really wanted to put Buddhism front and centre. I don’t want to be prescriptive or anything, but I deliberately made the themes and ideas much more obvious.
> So how then do you prevent yourself from being prescriptive? What would constitute prescriptive?
I think if I was saying: this is the right way to believe. So as long as I can prevent myself from doing that, I hope I’m not preaching in my work.
> So just offering the view.
Exactly. Buddhism is not very prevalent in SF; it’s there, but maybe it’s based on cursory or incorrect information, used as this unconventional opposition to the Judeo-Christian tradition. There aren’t many writers using the philosophy or the core ideas of Buddhism in SF and fantasy yet, on anything more than the level of a curiosity. It’s something that’s important to me and I want to try to express that in my writing as well.