AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHANN S. LEE
We interviewed the writer of Peculiar Chris – Johann S. Lee! In this reflective, uplifting interview, Lee talks with no pretence about the conditions of writing the first gay novel in Singapore and quietly but firmly supports other youths going through a similar situation.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m the author of a triptych of novels - Peculiar Chris (1992), To Know Where I’m Coming From (2008) and Quiet Time (2009) - which depict the experiences of gay men in Singapore, where homosexual acts remain criminal under the country’s penal code. I’ve also written two short stories.
I live in London with my partner Dave. I have five godchildren. My main passion in life is travel.
Congratulations on the re-printing of Peculiar Chris! It has been a long time coming, how do you feel about this re-print, and on a similar note, do you like the new cover?
I have mixed feelings about the re-print. I’d rather we lived in a time where gay people in Singapore (and across the world) have the freedom to love, where gay teenagers can grow up without any angst about their sexuality, and where a book like Peculiar Chris is totally irrelevant.
I adore the new cover - it’s the best thing about the re-print!
This novel is ‘crisp and clear’ as Miles Lanham observes. While reading Peculiar Chris I felt as if I was listening to a friend. I think it is an interesting effect where Chris feels close and honest to me. I am curious, is there any reaction you hoped to get out of your readers?
My main priority in 1992 was to ensure that the protagonist was likeable and relatable. After all, I was carrying the burden of the knowledge that this was possibly going to be the first gay novel in conservative Singapore. I didn’t believe I had any other authorial choice around how to draw the character. As the Straits Times journalist who reviewed Peculiar Chris rightly observed, the book was “a plea for understanding… reminding people of their common humanity.”
I am aware that Peculiar Chris is the first gay novel in Singapore. In your foreword you mentioned:
“In western societies , writers who chose to write about gays can now develop plots that explore and go beyond the predictable and restrictive confines of “coming out” blues or the “growing-up-gay syndrome. But no such liberty exists in our country”
How have the people around you reacted to Peculiar Chris?
My friends reacted very positively, in contrast to my immediate family in Singapore who are staunch Christians and who to this day continue to distance themselves from my writing, and my sexual identity. It was a source of pain for many years. But recently, I’ve come to accept that some bridges can only be built from both sides.
What was the experience of writing Peculiar Chris for you? And on that note, do you have a character you love or love to hate?
The words flowed very freely - it’s almost inconceivable, looking back now.
There is a special place in my heart for Kuang Ming, who makes his first, fleeting, appearance in the epilogue. Based on the Chinese characters for the words “light” and “brightness”, Kuang Ming was in every sense a metaphor, for all the hopes I held as a twenty-one year-old for the future of gay civil rights in Singapore, and for my journey from Singapore to university life in London.
I was incredibly happy to bring back the character in the third novel.
The current queer literary scene in Singapore has changed a lot since 80s and 90s, people are writing a lot more queer literature. With the increase in queer literature, do you feel that the mindset of Singaporeans have changed? Where do you see queer Sing Lit heading in future?
I can’t say I’ve been closely following the development of queer Sing Lit. What I do know is that gay characters are nigh invisible in local TV dramas. Until section 377A is repealed and we don’t have to look to the West to see ourselves represented in mainstream media, queer Sing Lit continues to play a crucial role in documenting our existence and experiences.
Is it true that you wished to see Peculiar Chris performed on stage? That was such an interesting direction to take! Were there any reasons for this or why was this one of your long-time dreams?
Yes, it’s mentioned in the “About the Author” section at the back of the book that my “biggest dream of the moment is to see Peculiar Chris make the transition from print to stage”. I think most fiction writers probably dream of seeing their characters come to life and I’ve always loved the theatre. How amazing it was to have Alfian Sa’at fulfil my dream in 2007, with his play, “Happy Endings”. I’m eternally indebted to Alfian for this.
I see that you made many literary references in Peculiar Chris, namely Maurice by E.M Forster and Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. Were there any pieces of literature that particularly inspired your writing of Peculiar Chris?
In terms of writing style in 1992, I was most influenced by the works of David Leavitt, in particular, The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), Equal Affections (1989) and A Place I’ve Never Been (1990).
Did Peculiar Chris teach you something that you did not expect to learn writing a novel?
The power of writing as a form of catharsis and how it can lead to growth and self-acceptance. I felt this even more strongly during the writing of the second and third novels.
Thank you for this interview with us! In close, Are there any queer books you have enjoyed lately?
Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter (2015), which portrays the little known experiences of criminalised gay men in Edwardian England who departed from the British Isles in ignominious circumstances to begin new lives in homesteads in the beautiful, brutal landscapes of rural Canada.