Category Archives: Buddhism

Interview in I-S Magazine

I was recently interviewed by Clara Lim for the November issue of I-S Magazine, which should be out soon if it isn’t already (my favorite café, which normally stocks the magazine, doesn’t have any copies yet).

They posted some “grabber” lines from the interview on the website, which make me look far more decisive and pithy than I actually am. And while I appreciate it, this extracting also removes the nuances from my actual answers; they feel a bit like contextless non-sequiturs. I don’t know if the interview in the print magazine is also like this, or if my full answers were used, but regardless, I feel that it’s important to have the full thing out there. So here you go.


Tell us about your new book.

I’ve actually got four new books out right now: a hybrid-essay chapbook, Embracing the Strange (Math Paper Press); the first volume of a new anthology series, The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories (Epigram Books); the first issue of a new literary journal, LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction (Math Paper Press); and a new collection of short fiction, Strange Mammals (Infinity Plus Books). The first item is a small offering at 14,000 words, and the second and third were projects on which I was the editor, so I’ll talk a bit more about the fourth.

Strange Mammals is a representative collection of my short fiction published over the past decade, which didn’t already appear in either of my previous two collections, Red Dot Irreal and The Alchemy of Happiness. It’s what is called a “kitchen-sink” collection, in that the stories are not linked by theme or character, and gathers together twenty-five of my short stories published in various literary journals, magazines and anthologies since 2003, including some pieces original to the book.

All of the stories are what could be thought of as literary speculative fiction, which is set in a place that looks an awful lot like our world, but one that is slightly off-kilter or sidewise, so that the fantastic is possible and metaphors can become literalized. Other names for this type of writing include slipstream, irrealism and interstitial fiction; it is very much in the vein of writers like Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, Aimee Bender, Haruki Murakami and Ursula K. Le Guin (although I fully recognize the presumption inherent in putting my work in their company).

Who and what influence you? Or do you write under the influence?

When I was a bit younger, I tried writing under the influence a few times, but upon later examination the prose just didn’t make much sense, and was far less shiny in the sober light of day. It was a lot like dictating a dream, which may make complete sense within the internal dream world, but reads like utter nonsense once fully awake.

I’m naturally influenced by other writers, and make a habit of keeping up my relentless reading schedule even when working on something long-form, like a novel or novella. But I’m also very much influenced by visual art and music; I’m a bit busy now to make regular museum trips, but the Internet is fantastic for finding a wealth of visual stimuli. Often, I write while listening to the music of Nine Inch Nails, and Trent Reznor’s other sonic projects; his songs often put in me into a sort of in-between dream state that facilitates creative thinking.

What are your dreams like? Describe a recent one—it can be bizarre or silly or just incredibly mundane.

I actually don’t remember my dreams as much now as when I was younger. However, I did have a dream recently where I was in my bedroom and my four-year-old daughter came in and slept on the floor at the foot of my bed. In the dream, I got out of bed and tried to pick her up to carry her back into her room, but she was as heavy and immovable as a boulder. She said, “Daddy, I like it here,” and so I shrugged and got back into bed. I’m not sure if it means anything, other than to remind me that she has her own preferences that sometimes differ from mine, and that I need to respect that difference.

What things/hobbies (esoteric and otherwise) are you into?

The typical content consumption: reading, watching movies, listening to music. I’ve recently gotten back into console video games after a gap of about seven years; at the recommendation of some trusted friends, I bought a PS3, and have so far finished L.A. Noire, Sleeping Dogs, Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 3, LEGO Batman 2, and Rocketbirds. I’ve got Bioshock Infinite and the Mass Effect trilogy on deck, but won’t get to them until after I’ve finished revising my novel. [N.B. I did crack open Bioshock Infinite a couple of weeks ago, and am quite loving it so far.]

How do you spend a typical Friday or Saturday night?

Having a small child, most weekend nights are spent at home, although every so often, I’ll drag her along to a reading or literary event at BooksActually or The Arts House.

What were you like as a kid? Any childhood dreams?

My path in life has been fairly linear: from the time I was about seven years old, I wanted to be a writer, and most of my choices since then have been in support of this goal.

What’s funny to you that other people don’t seem to get?

I like to think of myself as a classy, reasonably sophisticated guy, but fart jokes just crack me the hell up. I saw the South Park movie on opening weekend in 1999, and was sore all over for a week afterward for all the laughing.

What turns you on?

Besides the obvious things, intelligence. I have little patience for stupidity (and even less for purposeful stupidity), so people who display intelligence are almost immediately attractive to me, and I try to surround myself with as many of them as possible. An example of someone I haven’t actually met yet is Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant; he’s so effortlessly smart about any number of topics, and I could just listen to him talk all day on YouTube.

Describe your day job.

I’m the literary fiction editor at Epigram Books, so my mornings are filled with editing manuscripts that we’ll be publishing, communicating with authors about contracts and reviews and book launches, liaising with the in-house designers on interior and cover design, reading submitted manuscripts and deciding whether to acquire them, managing the books under my care on Goodreads and our own website, applying for arts grants, and discussing publicity strategy with our marketing department.

Of course, I don’t do all of these things every day, but it’s sometimes surprising how many things I have to juggle at once. I only work there part-time, and often the most difficult part of my job is actually finding the time to read the manuscripts, both the ones I’ve already acquired and those I’m considering.

In the afternoons, I typically head to a café with my laptop and either work on my own writing, read submissions for LONTAR, or focus on publicity for my book(s) that have just come out or are coming out soon (of which I’ve had to do a lot lately).

What do you do when you want a break?

Sadly, writers never get a break. The times when I’m not directly writing or revising, I’m still constantly thinking about the current work-in-progress, and counting the minutes until I can get back to it.

What annoys you?

People who are inconsiderate. If your head is so far up your ass that you can’t bother to show the slightest shred of human empathy or kindness, then you are utterly wasting your time on this earth.

What makes you sick to the stomach?

Violence against children, whether it is physical, sexual, or emotional. It always bothered me, but now that I have a young daughter, any news of this type reduces me to a blubbering mess. I honestly cannot think of a worse thing a person could do than assault a child, who is by nature defenseless and at the complete mercy of the world around them.

When was the last time you committed a sin or a crime?

I consider myself a law-abiding citizen; however, a few years ago, I did receive over email an MP3 of a song I did not pay for: “Home” by Nine Inch Nails. It was released on international versions of the album With Teeth, and was very difficult to get ahold of; it was also, at that point, the only NIN song I didn’t have in my collection (the rest of which I did buy), and its absence was driving me a bit batty. A friend had a copy and emailed it to me, and it has since become one of my favorite NIN tracks.

Do you have any political or religious persuasion?

I’m a Humanistic Buddhist, in that I treat Buddhism more as a life philosophy than a religion. This follows the Mahayana tradition in the optimistic belief that human beings are at their core good people, and that harmful thoughts or acts are the result of unawareness of the true nature of reality. I don’t necessarily do a lot of chanting of mantras or meditation, but I do try to carry this attitude into every facet of my life.

In terms of politics, I’m very concerned with social justice and civil liberties, so I definitely lean leftward. I’m not affiliated with any specific party, but for a while I was a member of the Green Party of the USA.

What do you live for?

The moments spent playing with or just being in the presence of my daughter. She’s in preschool now, and is a brilliant little person. She’ll say things that are unexpected, which show incredible empathy and understanding for someone so young, and which just blow me away. She also has a wonderful sense of humor, so we laugh a lot together as well.

Wax poetic about a topic of your choice.

So the café in which I do much of my writing is in the CBD, which means that it attracts customers who work at the nearby financial institutions. I typically write with headphones on, but every so often I’ll eavesdrop on their conversations, which are full of corporatespeak and euphemistic buzzwords and all are concerned with either the acquisition or retention of wealth. And I’ve discovered that I’ve developed a nigh-pathological revulsion for this type of interlocution.

This persistent emphasis on money money money at the expense of almost everything else, including happiness, is anathema to my sensibilities. I taught at an independent secondary school in Singapore for four years, and my principal was shocked into silence when I turned down a promotion in favor of fewer working hours. I now make enough money to live on, and a bit more for the occasional nice dinner out or movie or new books or toy for my daughter, and that’s enough for now. To strive for so much more than that just doesn’t make sense to me; I have much more useful and fulfilling ways of spending my time.

Famous last words.

“I hope I left the world better than how I found it.”

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Filed under Books, Buddhism, LONTAR, Nine Inch Nails, Parenthood, Publishing, Singapore, Writing

An Extract From “Represented Spaces”

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.

Buy The Alchemy of Happiness at the following ebook stores: SmashwordsNookKoboiTunesKindleKindle UKThe Robot Trading Co.

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Write As If Posthumously

To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone. From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!

He was already dead, [Winston] reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now, when he had begun to be able to formulate his thoughts, that he had taken the decisive step. […] Now that he had recognized himself as a dead man, it became important to stay alive as long as possible.

(Orwell, 1984)

Yesterday’s cyberflânerie through Facebook and Twitter brought up two different but related interviews: a June 2010 talk given by Christopher Hitchens at the New York Public Library on “the duality of his relationship with death, both a fiend of fear and a frontier of freedom”; and a new interview at The 99% with writer, artist, and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (of Persepolis fame) on the occasion of the screening of her new live-action movie Chicken With Plums (based on her graphic novel).

The money shot from the Hitchens interview (via Maria Popova’s marvellous site Brain Pickings):

I’ve always known that I’m born into a losing struggle… don’t know anyone who’s come out of that a winner. One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer. You don’t really care about public opinion now, you don’t mind about sales, you don’t care what the critics say. You don’t even care what your friends, your peers, your beloved think. You’re free. Death is a very liberating thought.

And the money shot from the Satrapi interview:

Life is too short and we cannot spoil it. I don’t have 300 years in front of me. So I just do the things that I really want to do at the moment because that’s the only way you will do them well. If you don’t believe in yourself, it won’t work. Because creation, you know, it means that you don’t have any salary, you don’t have any retirement, all of that. So if you don’t have the security, at least have the freedom. I go for the freedom.

Both interviews are worth seeing/reading in their entirety, so do please click the links (although the Hitchens NYPL talk is 90 minutes, so you’ll need some uninterrupted time).

These remarkable writers, each remarkable in different ways, have hit upon something that creatives don’t think often enough. We’re typically wrapped up in our projects, and trying to make them (whatever they are: fiction, paintings, music, interpretational dance, etc.) the best we possibly can with the skills and talents that we bring; because of this, we focus very much on the moment, which is very good for completing our short-term goals. But we also have to think long term, very long term, and keep reminding ourselves that, unless the Singularity occurs and we all transcend our physical bodies and ascend into the noösphere, one day we, all of us, will die.

Death is scary, perhaps the scariest thing there is. No one, in real life, has come back from it, and no one has yet escaped it. It is inevitable, and no one can prove what happens after it (anyone who says they can is selling something; I’m a Buddhist, but my nearly 30 years prior to becoming one have instilled in me a strong skepticism of concepts like reincarnation, and I still have a very hard time with it). There are lots of theories, but no one knows, and that great unknowability is perhaps the scariest part of death. The idea can be paralyzing.

But rather than let death get into one’s heart and mind now (why give it the early opportunity?), one can pour one’s entire creative pursuits into the thing that you want to do and what you do well. Why wait? We all know what’s sitting there patiently for us if we wait too long, so it makes the most sense to create the most incredible art that we can while we’re still walking the earth.

At the end of 2011, I quit my teaching job at Hwa Chong Institution. (Well, technically, I quit at the end of September, since I had to give three months’ notice.) What both I and my principal agreed on was that I just was not suited for the high-stress atmosphere that did not give me ample time to pursue my writing. In point of fact, teaching there was creatively stultifying, and I felt myself withering away each day that I tried to hang in there. I greatly enjoyed the classroom interactions with my students, but teaching was actually a tiny percentage of how I spent my time, and all of the many many other duties I was asked to perform drained me of any energy and motivation to write. In the four years that I taught there, work on the Tower novel came to a screeching halt, and only picked up again last year during school breaks and weekends that I wasn’t overwhelmed with marking student essays.

So yeah, I don’t currently have steady employment (although I have a lot of freelancing irons in the fire), but I’m happier than I have been for more than four years. I’m now been making a steady progression on the novel. I was actually able to get 1600 words written today because Janet and Anya fled to my in-laws house in response to maintenance drilling and hammering on our housing block’s roof, which was LOUD, and I myself fled to a nearby café with my laptop. After my work today, the total count for the novel is now 79,400 words; I was strongly tempted to keep going and finish 600 more to bring the total up to an even 80K, but I was already exhausted after the writing I’d gotten done, and I’d stopped in the middle of an exciting scene, one I’m sure to be inspired to continue when I next get back to it, whether tomorrow or in a day or two.

The big reason I stayed at HCI for as long as I did was because of the financial security, but I’ve come to appreciate something Cory Doctorow once said (although I’ve forgotten where; if anyone knows, please be so kind as to enlighten us in the comments below): It’s stupid to work someplace if the only benefit is money, because it’s robbing you of your time here on earth; you can always make more money, but time is the only resource you can’t get back. If creatives remember this, it’ll drive us to make the best of the time we do have, and it’ll lend an urgency to our artistic endeavors that will push us toward greatness.

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Lunch With Thubten Chodron

Yesterday, I was extremely fortunate to be able to join Janet, Anya, Janet’s parents, and an American Buddhist named Kevin for lunch with Venerable Thubten Chodron. Long-suffering readers of these missives may remember how much of an influence Ven. Chodron has been on my spirtual life; it was her books that Janet passed on to me which introduced me to Buddhism and were a strong factor in convincing me to become a Buddhist myself; I see her as my guru, and was honored to take Refuge under her guidance.

So it was really cool to be able to share a meal with her and talk about all kinds of things, including teaching, fatherhood, and living in Singapore. What a wonderful gift.

Ven. Chodron also gave Anya a blessing which had her attention rapt.

Big thanks go to Raymond, my father-in-law, for providing such a great opportunity.

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