A chat with Cyril Wong on speculative fiction

Cyril Wong is a Singapore Literature Prize-winning poet and occasional fictionist, as well as a vocal artist who has performed at the Seoul Fringe Festival and the Hong Kong Fringe Club. His poems have appeared in anthologies by W. W. Norton and Everyman’s Library and in journals and magazines including Atlanta Review, Poetry New Zealand, Transnational Literature and Ambit. More about him can be learnt at cyrilwong.wordpress.com.

Our editor Ram had a quick chat with Cyril at a cafe, while he waited for a taxi to head to a play.

Ram: Which was the first work of speculative fiction that you fell in love with?

Cyril Wong: I love horror – everything by Stephen King. The first adult novel that I read was Stephen King’s Carrie and that completely changed my life. It completely changed my life! It mirrored so many things about growing up that I was dealing with in a very crucial way. I love its language. It was the book that inspired me to be a writer. It’s a very funny path that my life took from wanting to write horror, all the way to becoming a poet. I don’t know what happened along the way but life had other plans for me, I suppose.

Ram: Where do you think speculative fiction in Singapore stands?

Cyril: Nicky Moey wrote some good horror books. He was one of the first Stephen King-ish writers (in Singapore) that wrote about supernatural elements but in a good way. It wasn’t like Singapore Ghost Stories which are terrible. Nicky Moey wrote literary short stories about more existential things and about growing up. There were also some semi-speculative stories by Catherine Lim. There were a few narratives by Stella Kon that had science fiction elements. All of that shaped me in a way. They made me see Singapore in a new light.

Ram: What do you think is unique about speculative fiction in the West and speculative fiction in Singapore?

We’re not eager to acknowledge how full our history has been. We’re not putting all of that suffering and emotional energy into our writing.

Cyril: We, as Singaporeans, are always insecure about who we are as a country. A hodgepodge of different cultures, how do we fit in, conservatism – we are all struggling with identity within identities. There’s always an inward looking quality to our speculative fiction. We imagine worlds in which we have greater inclusivity. In the West they’re looking to outer space already. They are looking at aliens and alternative universes. We’re not quite there yet, we are not so brave or so confident about ourselves to look at parallel timelines and life in other galaxies. We’re still bothered by questions like, “Who am I? What does it mean to be Chinese or Malay or Filipino? What does it mean to be queer? What does it mean to be human within my country?” These questions bother us more.

Ram: Do you see any exciting or disturbing trends in speculative fiction?

Cyril: The disturbing trend I see is not within speculative fiction per se. It’s more about how a particular kind of writing with speculative elements is overtaking and overshadowing every other kind of writing. For example, it may be more trendy now to write a postmodern novel that has a bit of time travel and all other elements that are semi-speculative, and that becomes popular. Other forms of writing which is more introspective, about family, history and nothing fantastical become sidelined. I’m very worried about that. Our literary landscape will just be filled with dragons and robots. I’m afraid it’ll be too cool for school.

Ram: What’s causing this shift?

Cyril: In line with Singapore’s need to always be current – whatever the word “current” means – it’s always looking at the present moment, almost devoid of real pain and anguish that come from living a full past. We’re not eager to acknowledge how full our history has been. We’re not putting all of that suffering and emotional energy into our writing. Instead we’re always erratic, restlessly looking at the future or restlessly looking at the surfaces of things. We’re never looking back anymore. That frightens me about writing in general in Singapore. We’re no longer looking at what made us us as people.

Ram: What’s your advice to a budding speculative fiction writer?

Cyril: Read everything, and not just creative writing. Read philosophical texts that you don’t agree with. Read things that make you really angry. Watch movies that are very, very bad. You must enjoy a whole panoply of things that both offend and excite you. When you feel the extremes of emotions, somewhere in the midst of it all, the creative impulse will be born.


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