Author Q&A: Elaine Chiew

The Heartsick Diaspora
(Myriad, £8.99)

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Set in different cities around the world, Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas to explore the lives of those torn between cultures and juggling divided selves.

These stories were written over a period of 10 years. How have you evolved as a writer in that decade and how did you go about selecting and ordering them to hang together as a collection?
Finding my authorial voice took time; perhaps, as Zadie Smith says, I’m one of those with contradictory voices in my head and not a strong sense of self. As a diasporic person, I had to learn to accept the multiple selves residing in me, which change and adapt in accordance with culture, place and situation – what is called code-switching nowadays.  In fiction, I see this as a strength because this surely involves an exercise in empathy. For the collection, the range of voices and geographies and cultural contexts posed challenges in the beginning. Settling on the central conceit of having members of a writing group in the title story discuss the various stories within the collection as if they had written it, when of course they were all written by me, imposes a meta-layer that allows all the different voices in my head to emerge, and hopefully showcases one of the most critical experiences of diaspora for me – to visualise the diasporic body as a site for the confluence of multiple influences, and show how place and culture can infiltrate voice and story-building.

Competitive, judgemental, disapproving, pushy and demanding – mothers loom large across these stories and the various cultures they take in. Is tiger mothering a term we could extend to mothers universally?
My story Rap of the Tiger Mother was a tongue-in-cheek, slightly absurdist reference to Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, while at the same time exploring this phenomenon in terms of how tiger mother parenting conflates race and class. By which I mean: while race relations played a part in tiger mothers’ interacting with each other in a playgroup setting, I believe Amy Chua’s book hit a particular nerve in a contemporary moment about how any of us are parenting, and why we are parenting this way. Do we need to think more deeply about how we respond to competitive pressures within high-income urban areas for education and economic advancement? Are we prepared for the distance we are deliberately adding to our goal of happiness when winning or losing is tied so closely to status symbols – what university, what job, what income, what lifestyle, what property values? These were some of the questions I wanted to explore.

Food is a recurring theme throughout the Heartsick Diaspora, and one character quips in the title story that it’s practically Malaysian and Singaporean national culture to polemicise food. Throughout your life spent across the globe, has food helped stave off cultural heartsickness above all else and why is it so evocative? 
Food for me evokes all five senses at once – and in the title story, one of the characters has exactly this cultural heartsick moment when she bites into sesame balls that evoke a memory of home (her madeleine moment!). Having compiled Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World, I continue to be fascinated by how family reunion dinners within the diaspora highlight the ways one culture may rub up against another (for example, in Chinese Almanac, the Thanksgiving turkey is stuffed with pork egg foo young), how the dinner table becomes a source of drama and narrative tension, and food becomes the enabler of story. Food in literary fiction offers rich symbolism, connects viscerally and directly to our emotional landscape, and provides illumination and insight to issues of personal, cultural, sociological and even historic significance.

Tell us about the use of magical realism in stories such as A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin and Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer?
Magical realism has a rich narrative tradition within world literature; it’s fascinating to me how magical realism in fiction is deployed as a counter-hegemonic discourse or challenge to the status quo. In a similar vein, in A Thoroughly Modern Ghost, the ghost there is an embodiment of a particularly Singaporean conundrum of hewing too dogmatically to racial categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other (CMIO). Thus the magical realism here has a political and satirical cant. In Confessions, the journey is not just a dreamlike quest to help Garuda locate mead but also an interior journey to escape Western literary influence.

There’s been a huge surge in Western mythology influencing modern literature, with authors variously stating that these ancient stories tell us much about our lives today. Is Eastern mythology ripe for a similar retelling, or has it never gone away?
In Asia, the supernatural seems to sit side by side quite comfortably with the logical and scientific. Not just Eastern mythology but also Eastern philosophy have much to tell us about our lives today – for example, yin and yang, as expressed by Chinese philosopher sage Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, was never meant to be seen as a binary concept, but as two halves that form an interconnected whole. This philosophy can lead to various radical paradigm shifts for the way we live, and one of them is our gender construction of identity. What would happen if we accept that each of us has male and female characteristics within us? Eastern mythology has become a way for an unhomed body like myself to return home and is an area I would love to delve into even more.

In the final story Heidi, a documentary maker, asks: when home as a concept is debunked or demythologised what is left? Were you exploring this question with these stories and what answer have you found?
History is another route home for me, taking on board British cultural theorist Paul Gilroy’s ideas about routes versus roots. Hence, a couple of stories within the collection go back in time to World War Two, as well as to pivotal moments in Singapore’s development of national identity. The Samsui women, for example, are women construction labourers from an area called Sanshui in China who migrated to Singapore and Malaya from 1920s to 1950 and helped build many of Singapore’s key hospitals and sections of its transportation system. Iconicised within Singapore’s heritage industry, they are indisputably women of grit and fire, but I also wanted to show the human face behind the icons. The story functions as a reminder that the Straits Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia are themselves diasporic communities, in large part due to British colonial policy (the history of diaspora is therefore chaptered and long) and there are multiple routes of migration (as contrasted to modern ways via overseas studies or economic/professional migration). Reading Gilroy was an epiphany for me: the further away in time I travelled from my point of origin, the more home becomes a series of routes to find it, because the home I had in heart and mind no longer exists. The home I may find in the end is the one I invent within myself.

Depending on which pundit you believe the Hong Kong protests could spread to Singapore, or they won’t. Do you think it’s likely?
Ha, I’m just a story teller.

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