Amanda Lee Koe

Interview: Amanda Lee Koe

UPDATE - Amanda is the winner of the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction. This interview was published just before the announcement. See below for a story from Ministry of Moral Panic.

Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic is on the shortlist for the Singapore Literature Prize 2014 and was long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Amanda is Fiction editor of Esquire (Singapore) and is the editor of creative non-fiction web platform POSKOD.SG. She was the 2013 Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and is currently based in New York City where she splits her time across editorial projects, art-writing and Columbia University’s Writing MFA.

The winners of the Singapore Literature Prize will be announced on 4 November 2014.

What was your reaction to making the shortlist for the Singapore Literature Prize 2014?

I’m awful at these reaction questions – does it suffice to say I was pleased? That sounds a little underwhelming. Maybe pleased as punch? I’ve also been a fan of Claire Tham’s writing since way back when so it was really sweet to be nominated alongside her. Well, this is going to sound very superficial but I think it pays to be honest instead of coming up with six pretty ways to say “happy” and “vindicated” or what not, so: when the news came out they printed a picture of me and my mother took a picture of the picture in the newspaper and sent it to me on social media. I have very messy hair and the paper had cropped my hair in a strange way that made it look like a French pastry, and my main recollection as to my reaction is that I was amused by that.

The Straits Times in a review of Ministry of Moral Panic says, ‘Readers expecting another local writer waxing lyrical about the everyday intricacies of HDB life will be pleasantly disappointed…’ How do you feel this anthology subverts expectations of what a traditional Singaporean short story should be?

One of my senses is that I’m not sure how old and wide a canon has to be before we get to definitive parameters of what a “traditional Singaporean short story” is. That said, I think it is fair enough to say that there has been a social realist slant to Singaporean writing that is specific to themes of domestic drudgery, coming-of-age-ness, the returning Singaporean, familial tension, the burden of responsibility as opposed to the pursuit of freedom – often set in a public housing block. This has been done to sharp perfection by forerunners like Dave Chua and Alfian Sa’at, but what bothered me was that through conversations with younger writers and through editing their work, there seemed to be some tacit pervading “understanding” that what made a story “Singaporean” was that you stuck with these themes, wrote in a HDB void deck somewhere, and sometimes when this was not well done, I thought that this could – instead of the ethos of social realism which was to draw attention to the everyday conditions of the disempowered as class critique – instead be patronizing, even if one were to be perfectly sincere in one’s writing thereof.

But I think that at the same time, right about now, there is a growing number of young Singaporean writers working in different genres who are very aware of and interested in deviating from the seemingly “traditional” – across style, content and form: I think Daryl Yam and Ann Ang are doing very good work in fiction, that Joshua Ip and Daryl WJ Lim write truly innovative poetry, and that Joel Tan (also a playwright in his own right), Tjoa Shze Hui and Brandon Chew are sophisticated non-fiction essayists.

For me, I think that with my work, it felt pertinent on the macro level to attempt to open up ideas of what Singaporean literature could be, but on the micro level, these stories are just what felt natural to me; these are undercurrents I feel in my bones, characters I’m interested in, and forms I am investigating.

An aside on form – I do think that in Singaporean fiction, straight-up narrative has been the categorical norm. There has been much more formal innovation in poetry but not nearly so much in fiction. I’m drawn to form, not as a highfalutin practice, but just as different ways you as the writer can interact with the reader and make his/her brain tick, off the page, across space and time.

You are currently living abroad – what were your reactions and thoughts about the National Library Board’s debacle concerning three children’s books with homosexual themes? With three judges resigning from the Singapore Literature Prize panel do you feel this award and the Singapore Writers Festival has been unfairly tainted by the scandal?

What should really be made clear, in my opinion, is that the debacle is hardly between the Library – which I merely see now, sadly, as a weak public institution – and any self-respecting Singaporean writer or reader or lover of books.

The debacle really is between the sharp and unbearable odour of self-righteous fundamentalist Christian groups masquerading religious agenda as public morality and, simply, any self-respecting secular state. Given that the instigation for the books to be taken off the shelves came from an individual from such a group, who publicly posted about her success in getting the Library to remove the offending books, and encouraged others in the group to join in and continue such policing, I feel that this is crystal clear and should not be overlooked.

As such, why I won’t jump in with boycotting the Library and by extension the Prize or Festival is because, to me, they are not the root of the problem, and I can’t for the life of me see how we are meant to count on them, anyway, to protect anyone’s interests as writers or readers or sexual minorities. Singapore is run like a corporation, and I have never expected to be protected by bureaucracy, so there is not much point in getting mad at them, in my humble opinion, though I have nothing but respect for my fellow writers who have come together to make a stand against them. (And I do think it can make a difference, just in a much slower way that requires a cumulative effect that I’m not sure I have the patience for, given the selective-amnesiac qualities of our state).

What is more interesting, for me, is to think about how to confront the insidious hypocrisy of the root problem, i.e. the afore-mentioned self-righteous fundamentalist Christian groups (and I should say right here I know many lovely, kind, sensible and respectful Christians, so this is not an all-out call-out body-slam, before anyone gets the wrong idea). I think the true instigators of the debacle (I’m looking at you, the Facebook group We Are Against Pink Dot In Singapore) should have the decency to remind themselves that secularism is not to be treated with impiety, and that diversity is inherent in Singapore (as it is in any populace). They are of course free to preach what they will within their circles, but to attempt to influence the hand of policy is a very different thing altogether, and they should keep themselves and their zeal in check.

To what degree do you feel a prominent literary scene exists in Singapore?

I’m not sure what to make of the adjective “prominent” here, but let me try anyway. I think that in a manner of statistical objectivity, we’re doing okay but it might be hard to call the literary scene “prominent” – though I could say it is burgeoning, connected and warm, with a real sense of camaraderie.

Domestically, we are not quite known to be a nation of readers. When I see people reading on public transport in Singapore, which is only once in a long while, it seems almost appropriate to whoop for joy – it is quite an event. In New York, I see people reading on the trains everyday, every commute, from Knausgaard to bell hooks. Without a strong and pervasive tradition/habit of reading – and also, without a strong tradition of influential cultural criticism – it is hard for the lit scene in Singapore to be “prominent” because it is not necessarily seen as crucial or meaningful to those “outside” of the lit scene.

Internationally, we have good work, but we have not yet produced, say, a Tash Aw or a Salman Rushdie (just going with the Crown Colonies for this example).

What opportunities and follow-on effects do you anticipate for the winner and/or nominees of the Singapore Literature Award?  

Well, I think this is linked to my answers regarding the question of “prominence”. I think that the Prize will be a wonderful thing to win for any of the nominees, but it’s not going to be life changing. (Unless, of course, my benchmark of “life-changing” might be much too grandiose? Let’s not rule that out.) And I hope this doesn’t sound ungrateful because it isn’t – it would be great for anyone who wins and there will of course be good things that come out of it, but I’m just being dry-eyed to keep a level-headed objectivity.

How did this anthology come about and what were your inspirations?

I was asked this by an audience member at the Melbourne Writers Festival earlier this year too and I remember saying that, you know, as a writer, you see the way an old man pats his wife in the street and from that one gesture, my goodness, you think you see a world. So it could be anything really. It’s just what happens to accrue.

But of course, in some cases, there are things that bother you or that you feel driven to re-represent through fiction, and in that case it is much more specific. For example, with the short story “Fourteen Entries From The Diary of Maria Hertogh”, I felt like I had taken it on my personal mantle to “give voice” to Maria Hertogh (as if it were my voice to give – but precisely so did I make it diaryistic, to problematize this further) because I had always been disgruntled that she, her person, her complications, had been reduced to one line in a Singaporean social studies textbook, something like ‘And therefore racial harmony is important so that the likes of the Maria Hertogh riots never occur in sunny Singapore again.’ If I had to generalize I guess I would say that I am naturally drawn to the underbelly of anything, and the truth that can result in any type of atypical relations between people – be it through emotional wear-and-tear; sex; power dynamics; the compacting of space/time.

The title is very apt and clever. How did you come up with it? Was your aim initially for the stories in this anthology to capture a sense of unease and moral panic in today’s Singaporean society?

Yes, I came up with it on my own, and it is/was important to me. For me the idea of a Ministry of Moral Panic (imagine it literally, as a ministry, an organization – but, ah, does it fan or quell moral panic?) was always a sharp lens through which to view goings on in contemporaneous Singapore, given that there is so much tension between the triangle of paternalistic/bureaucratic puppetry, social norms/“Asian values” and inter/intrapersonal actualisation. On one hand, at a wider angle, it speaks to the fundamental incompatibility of bureaucracy in relation to empathy, and as such critiques the socio-political structures that are above the system. On the other, closer to the ground, it touches the pulse of dilemmas large and small outside the maudlin scope of morality/immorality – because morality is not as white and black as some of us would like to believe – and I think good fiction occurs in the grey.

For me it was initially meant only as a lens – a good one no doubt – at the time I wrote/so-titled it, in July 2013, but after the course of the year and a half that has passed since its publication, I truly think Singapore might be on the cusp of some sort of moral panic. (Just as one case in point, the Library episode you mentioned.) But I do think that we are at least more able than in the past to try to speak about our tensions, even if we fail; and I do think that fiction is one of those ways: both a bridge as well as a document.

Many of the themes covered in these stories are universal and nonspecific to Singaporean life yet many of the daily rituals and common foods eaten very much root the stories on the island would you say Ministry of Moral Panic was written for a local or international audience and why?

Ministry of Moral Panic was written for a local audience because for me this was my cahier (in the French Rev. sense of “list of grievances”, not “notebook”) as well as a love letter to Singapore. I think it is important for any collection from anywhere to be engaging and readable to both a “native” as well as a “foreigner”. It should work on all levels and the writer should be smart enough to engineer this thematically and technically without patronizing either the “native” or the “foreigner”, so I wouldn’t flatter myself as to think that this is a great achievement. But I will say that I do feel like Ministry of Moral Panic is a very “young” work and that I was mostly having fun – I don’t feel like it was super rigorous and I have a lot to work on.

When and where do you write? What are you currently working on?

I am very much a night bird so I write mostly at night – and into the morning if my engine is really chugging. I write at a desk in a second floor apartment in Brooklyn with a view of the street. There is a cactus in the window, and a long-limbed porcelain pony beside it.

I’m currently working on the fictive-narrative parts of a counterfactual history project with an Indonesian academic that takes “What if the Berlin Wall did not fall?” as its central premise, as part of her residency in relation to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s +89 platform.

I’m also in the very, very early throes of working on a long-form work that really slides across place and time in ways that I am worried about – but I don’t want to jinx it just yet so I’ll leave it at that for now.


Exclusive - read The Ballad of Arlene and Nelly from Ministry of Moral Panic (Epigram Books). 

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