GRACE CHIA TALKS ABOUT WRITING AND HER LATEST BOOKS
Did you ever intend to become a writer?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve never learnt a musical instrument so I’ve always wanted to express myself like most people do, be it frustration or excitement as a child. For me it’s always been pen and paper. It’s the cheapest form of instrument I can use for self-expression.
I’ve always been attracted to language and words. I think I have an affinity with it. I realised I could write stories beyond the scope of what I was ‘allowed’ to back in school when we had to write compositions. It was a thrilling feeling, to expand the stories and grow the narratives. It allowed me to create a different world and escape from the present life.
It was a form of expression that was very much suited for my personality. It was also at some point when I became a teenager—and you know how teenagers are like, personal problems and all that— that I saw writing as self-therapy. In Singapore, it’s not very common to go to a therapist or psychologist to talk about your problems. I was left on my own, mostly. Writing helped me make sense of the confusion I felt.
I also had pen pals all over the world. That was my way of translating my experience of living in Singapore to other countries. I felt like I was reaching out to the world through writing. From those early years I segued into creative writing and dived into prose and poetry.
In Junior College I won first prize for a poetry competition and got accepted into a creative arts program. Those markers indicated to me that even though I was never mentored, there was some quality to my writing.
What’s the best thing writing has given you?
It’s a very complex question that only requires a simple answer. Writing has made me feel less lonely. I’m a very private person by nature. I keep my circle of friends very small. I don’t have plenty of acquaintances. Writing, to me, is like a counsellor, a friend, a mentor. It has made me feel less lonely by being able to write and letting the world out there—whoever it was—to better understand my existential condition.
Why was it important to write The Wanderlusters?
I wanted to invent a full circus show and put it into the novel. The Wanderlusters has a romantic relationship narrative arc about a woman, her estranged husband, a man she meets at work and her daughter who follows her in the circus. It’s a fictional story that happens mostly in the backstage of a circus. Personally, I was travelling with Cirque Du Soleil for several years with my own family. When I returned to Singapore in 2011 for the NTU-NAC Creative Writing Residencies, that was in a way the end of my journey with the circus. I suppose I wanted to honour the time of growth in that journey—I became a mother, I became a much more mature woman, I’ve seen the world much more than before. I wanted to filter everything I had experienced into a book.
The ‘Wanderlusters’ are people who chase the wanderlust. In the world of circus [to me], it is a sense of being very nomadic but also having a core home, and the home is the circus community that exists for people to pursue their dreams. That was what I felt being in the circus—being surrounded by a community of nomads who stuck together. We were self-sufficient within the community—we had our own schools, chefs and plumbers. As I was with my spouse who was a performer, my perspective was one that existed from the backstage.
So even though it’s a fictional story, a lot of non-fiction elements were incorporated from my understanding as an observer.
What were some of the greatest challenges while writing the novel?
Most writers know that when we create characters and worlds, they are loosely based on people or settings we’re familiar with. I had to try to balance what I could censor or express. I give myself the freedom to express a collage of different types of people, who did not necessarily have to be from the circus. They could be friends or neighbours as well. I could assign different personalities to different characters, which wasn’t a challenge.
The challenge was making the characters authentic to me while balancing the fiction and non-fiction elements. Other challenges include the fact that it’s a wide scope—it wasn’t just a story of a moment, or an event that happened in a month. It was a huge ensemble. By definition, the circus itself is made up of many, many employees and families of the performers from different countries. I had to balance different personalities, cut the number of characters down but still keep in mind that a lot of these backgrounds existed in the real circus scene.
“Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Be Food” is a very lasting title. How did you come to decide on it?
It is a biblical term. It was mentioned that every moving thing—things that crawl and move—that lives shall be food and therefore should be eaten. Also, some people think that the Chinese eat anything. I found it very interesting to have a title that had both Chinese and Western influences.
I’m also very interested in the idea of consumption, and not just with food. Consumption can come in the form of desire, love, companionship and more. The idea that even human beings crave for each other, and not in the sense of cannibalism, but by wanting to love someone, you actually want to consume them, which is also why sometimes love can be suffocating and draining. You can lose your identity in love when someone has trapped you so much and has taken everything out of you.
What kind of world, or worlds, have you always wanted to create through writing?
You will probably never find me writing a science-fiction novel, just because I don’t get that world. The real world is scary, alienating, horrible, brutal, surreal, absurd and beautiful enough to just focus on it as it is, and amplify it with my writing.
Now this is related to your recent anthology, We R Family. What is family to you?
The book was titled after We Are Family by Sister Sledge & Jade. I intentionally left the second word as ‘R’, as a consumerist reference to the American toy retailer, Toys R Us.
What makes a family? It’s a very difficult question, isn’t it? People who choose to be together, for whatever reasons. People who come together to trust each other and live together and negotiate their differences.
What’s the greatest lesson you have learnt in life, and in writing?
Don’t trust everybody. Don’t even trust yourself. It’s one of the things that we writers know that when we write, we must put it aside for a few months or years just to improve our craft. You can’t really trust yourself in the moment of epiphany, ecstasy or depression, or even when living.
We sometimes lie to ourselves even when we think we’re not. We’re performing everyday [on social media]. We’re not that funny or witty. It’s all a performance. In writing you have to perform the sad or happy person when you’re creating the different worlds and characters. You write differently for different audience.
Writing also makes me feel connected to the world and helps with my understanding of it.