An Interview With Thea Lim, Author Of An Ocean Of Minutes
What’s new in Toronto? Are you planning on making a trip to Singapore soon?
I would love to! You all keep changing the city around every time I turn my back, heh heh. But what's new in Toronto is the baby I just had, so that will keep me landlocked for now.
So time travel in An Ocean of Minutes - Tell us more about it. I love the idea of a love story spanning across time. How was this idea conceived?
I actually wasn't thinking about love as in lurve as in romance, but more about connection / relationship of any kind -- love between friends, parents and children, lovers, people and animals -- and how impossible it is, because the nature of being human is that we are temporal beings; everything ends. And yet, though we know this deep in our bones, we continue to fall in love, to give birth, to adopt bunnies etc. So I wanted to make sense of this recklessness, this willingness to forge connections, even though we understand how unbearable it will be when connection ends: when lovers go, when friends move away, when Bun Bun breathes her last. I thought, let me put a character through the paces of heartbreak, and try to make sense of this trick.
When I started to realise that the essential ingredient in loss is time — because time is always passing, bringing us closer to a connection's end — I realised that if my character time travelled, if she jumped over years and years, that would help to amplify the sense of the fleetingness of love, to help me really get to the bottom of this conundrum.
BUT then the introduction of time travel — I guess of travel — turned the story into something else: an immigration story. And that really surprised me, and then it made sense, because my own understanding of love and connection has been so deeply mediated by migration. And after all, all migration stories are love stories in the end.
More on the topic of time — is there any reason why the story is set between the 80s and 90s? Is this somehow related to the sense of nostalgia that pervades the novel or is it a convenient narrative device?
I don't think there's anything convenient about writing, hahaha. Initially, the story was set several hundred years in the future. My early guinea pig readers commented that it was interesting how I forecasted how migrant workers might be used one day. That was when I realised that I was not interested in talking about what might happen, but in giving us a different way of processing what is already happening in our world. So I flipped things around and set the book in the past. One of my favourite books of all time is Never Let Me Go by Kauo Ishiguro which is a speculative novel set in the past, and if it was good enough for Kazuo, obviously it's good enough for me.
I'm a believer that every aspect of a piece of art should be doing double (or triple or quadruple) duty so I was happy when I realised that setting the story in the past also, as you pointed out, would help me tap into the readers' feelings of nostalgia, so that hopefully the readers could "feel" along with the characters, whose existences are freighted with nostalgia. And the thing specifically about the 90s that I find most interesting is that it wasn't that long ago, and yet it's on the other side of this very thick curtain of technology — there were no smartphones, no social media, nascent internet — which makes it feel unreachable. Very near yet very far, and that was thematically useful for my novel.
Much has been said about how An Ocean of Minutes is a hybrid of different genres, science fiction being one of them. Science fiction conjures images of aliens and space ships for me. I much prefer the term ‘speculative fiction’. I see it as an imagining of a different world that seems strangely familiar at the same time. Care to share your thoughts on this?
I used to dislike the term speculative fiction, because I thought it was a posh, sanitised way of saying science fiction, which seemed snobby to me, because what's wrong with plain old science fiction? But then I learned from the great Nalo Hopkinson that instead, we can think of the term as just a means of dividing all literature into two categories: mimetic fiction, which is any fiction that mimics real life, and speculative fiction, which is an umbrella term for anything like sci fi or fantasy or horror, that imagines a slightly (or very) altered version of our own reality. This I can definitely get behind, because it flattens the old and outdated dichotomy of "literature" (aka realism) VS "genre" (aka everything else), which discounts how profound, innovative, and well, literary much of "genre" fiction is.
Because my training is in old world, high literary realism (I can count the number of spec fic works I’ve read in grad school on one finger), but my heart belongs to the fantastic works of storytelling I loved as a child, like The Borrowers or The Rats of Nimh or Batman. I like to write realist speculative fiction. I like to think about what the fantastic technologies of sci fi would really be like if they existed in our world, as it is. It's natural to imagine that as yet uninvented technology would be magical to experience, just as 150 years ago people must have imagined flying to be magical. They would not have conceived of the specific flowered urine smell of the toilets on a plane, or the casual humiliations that border guards are required to enact every shift.
So I asked myself, what would it really be like to time travel? It wouldn't be all flying cars and going wherever you liked and playing the guitar at your parents' school concert. Just as travel is greatly circumscribed in our world, it would be closely regulated. Just as airline travel is taken for granted by some and an unimaginable luxury for others, time travel might be too. And just as air travel revolutionised industry in our world, so would time travel.
I like to think of this as an aggressively boring approach to speculative fiction, something that I think the movie Blade Runner exemplifies. I love how that film engineered a super futuristic city complete with flying cars, but when you get closer, you see that it has terrible weather, and bad food, and that while all the high tech trinkets you can imagine are present, they're drab and broken down and shoved in the back of closets.
To me, this an oddly anti-magical way of thinking about how the fabulous would interact with the everyday, helping us to make sense of our actual world, and to make sense of ourselves as technologically-enhanced beings —which is what humans have always been.
In the novel, Polly, the female protagonist, becomes a bonded labourer. Is it accurate to say that her character was heavily influenced by the time you spent in Singapore, and your observations of the migrant domestic and construction workers living here?
Well, yes. Singapore is not unusual in our use of migrant work. Just as is the case in the US, Canada, across Europe, and in Hong Kong and the Middle East. The high standard of living that Singaporeans enjoy is subsidised by "externalised costs”. In other words, in order for Singaporeans to have incredible, lavish architecture, comfortable clean homes, and affordable childcare, we pay less than a living or fair wage to the workers who have little choice but to take these low paid positions, due to global income inequality. This has been true in every country I've lived in, but when I was growing up in the 90s in in Singapore it was very visible, and many of those visuals — the famous "maid room" that is part of the layout in so many flats in Singapore, no larger than a closet; the shantytowns construction workers throw up first at the edges of building sites for themselves to live in, made of little more than cardboard — made their way into my novel.
I didn't set out to write a political novel, and as I said earlier, this book turned itself into a piece of migrant literature by accident. But the art we make is a product of our world, so it has to, in some way, reflect and be in conversation with that world, in order to offer something worth engaging with. Otherwise you're probably just making work that's redundant and then I guess, why bother?
Speculative literature offers us different ways to see what we think we already know. So, by recasting migrant work as a temporal migration that has already been happening in our world for many decades, I strove to place the familiar in unfamiliar housing. I hoped this would let us see the world that we are complicit in, or maybe trapped within, with new eyes, so that we can access it from another angle, one that might provoke more empathy, or at least greater curiosity about how the world works. I don't think it is the writer's job to tell the reader what to think, but it is the writer's job to create a kind of staging environment for the brain, like the holodeck — one that offers the possibility of another way to see.
Having lived in Canada, the UK, and Singapore, where do you feel most at home? Could you tell us how your experience of living in so many different countries has influenced your writing?
I also lived in Texas for three years, which I only mention because this book is set there!
I spent most of my teens and twenties living in different cities and seeking one where I'd feel at home, and then I came to the rather anticlimactic realisation that really you just feel at home wherever there are people who love you, who you feel seen by. But in a way this idea that home is not a specific geography, but a place plus a set of a people plus a temporal space — because, like I said in my response to your first question, you can return to a place to find it isn't itself anymore, even when it's right where you left it — this is what inspired my novel.
Having said all that, Singapore is the only place in the world where I feel a very deep and emo connection to the land, as if some kind of bird-like mechanism in my brain (or heart, or heart-brain) only clicks into its proper place when my feet land on Singapore concrete, and feel that thickness of the air, and the insectean buzz of the trees.
Lastly, if you could time travel, which time period would you like to travel to and why?
After having spent many years writing a time travel novel, I can safely say that I would not, for any amount of money, ever set foot in a time machine.
Photo credit: Penguin Random House Canada