Literary Conversations: Daryl Qilin Yam, author of 'Kappa Quartet'
What are you currently working on?
Kenny asked me to write a novella, which I just passed to him. I’m also working on a second novel – it’s about a married couple and explores the reasons why people choose to stay together or leave and this concept of escape that I’ve been preoccupied with for a while.
Is it vastly different from Kappa Quartet?
There are some clear differences. I want to grow as a writer so I’d definitely try to expand my creative processes. Some things still remain the same – cosmological, supernatural events still happen once in a while. It’s also partly set in Japan but that’s just a third of the story.
Why did you choose to set your stories in multiple places?
I had the privilege of living and spending a significant amount of time overseas in the formative part of my life. A lot of it had to do with the fact that for as long as I’d ever known, Singapore was to me just a very small, vulnerable nation. For a long time that also limited what I thought was possible in Singapore, in terms of storytelling. It wasn’t until I left and experienced a larger life (literally) that I realised there were so many more possibilities, on both the creative and personal level.
On top of that, limiting any story to just one place seems almost dissatisfying to me, especially for a larger scale project that requires me to explore wider themes, different outlooks on life and what it means to be human. Almost necessarily I feel the need to place myself in other places.
Was your decision to set your book in Japan also influenced by your time in Tokyo?
I knew that I wanted to write a book set in Japan. I think everything just coincided – around the same time I decided that Kappa Quartet was going to be the book I was going to write, there was an open call at my university to apply for an exchange year at the University of Tokyo. They would only send one student from the entire cohort so I was really betting on my karma. As it turned out, I got it.
It was desire, mostly. I’ve spent a chunk of my life exploring different parts of Asia. I was also very interested in the fact that, for some reason, we’re all in love with Japan and there’s this history of violence that we’ve somehow chosen to forgive while other people in China or Korea still have yet to forgive them for their deeds in World War II.
How did you ensure that there was no appropriation of culture?
You have to make sure the locations are right, for instance. You want to make sure that the place that you choose to set your book in feels lived in and the book has enough details for the experience to come across as real as opposed to something you’ve plucked out of a film or something.
Also, the important thing is to make sure that you do not simply reduce a character to fit a certain stereotypical trait.
Your characters are allowed to be something more than those traits. They are allowed to feel a whole range of things and not just be beautiful angels or horrific monsters – they can be both.
In writing the book, I saw my characters not just as Japanese people but also as human beings who lead their own lives and have their own stories to tell.
How did you get your start in writing?
It began with reading as a child. It wasn’t until I went to school when I met this incredible teacher who encouraged me to write. I’d start showing him things I’d written and he would always return them to me by the end of the class with his comments – that was very nice and encouraging.
A few years ago I walked into the BooksActually branch at Cineleisure – it was called Birds & Co…?
I picked up the very first issue of Ceriph (it was called Issue 0). I saw that the journal was accepting submissions from emerging writers and suddenly the idea that I could get published came to mind. That was when I decided to write more seriously and submit things to consider for publication.
The first time I got published, my work appeared in Issue Five of Ceriph in 2012.
In an interview with Queer Southeast Asia, you mentioned that you’re not done with writing yet. How would you imagine being ‘completely done with something’ to feel like?
Oh my god, I don’t know! But it’s very interesting in the sense that when you talk about a writing career, especially at a point where I suppose you retire, that’s a point where you’re allowed to say, ‘I’m done’ and take a step back. This reminds me of Alice Munro, who had been writing short stories all her life and decided she was going to stop.
It’s like she was just done with writing and talking about things.
Yeah! The more we live or have the opportunity to live increasingly older lives, we should have the choice to decide ‘I’ve done enough and I think it’s time to take the backseat now’.
Strangely, I’m almost kind of looking forward to reaching that stage – it would mean that I’ve lived an entire full life in which I’ve been productive and creative, and in which at the end of the day I can tell myself, ‘I’m done too’.
What does ‘Kappa Quartet’ –– from the release of the book to the story –– mean to you?
To me personally, the book represents a lot of who I was as a person. Especially a person who was trying to start a career of sorts. I think part of me wanted the book to be representational of what I wanted out of life, and how I have chosen to navigate this life. So on one hand, it’s a book, a story and a point of view; on the other hand, it’s about a world, a universe.
The fact that the book is now published and sold in the UK is very surprising to me. In fact, a lot of things so far have been very surprising, very unexpected. When I first released the book, I got to meet Cyril Wong for the first time and had coffee with him. He told me the difference between being a writer and a published writer is everything. He said that anyone can write and choose to be a writer but once you get published, it’s something else altogether... The fact that he gets to do workshops, perform and is invited to talks. It’s a very intimidating but rewarding experience.
Earlier in July, AWARE invited me to be part of a talk on gender-based violence and that I think was the most intimidating thing I’ve ever agreed to be a part of – to talk about my past. I’m very much a forward-looking person and I don’t really go back to the past. But this was rewarding to me, seeing as these are still prevalent issues that people face and to be allowed the opportunity to talk about these things is just... rewarding but also incredibly surprising to me.
Have you read any reviews of the book?
So far, in terms of press, journals and publications, reviews have been positive and I’m thankful for that. I check out my Goodreads page once in a while – I think someone left a one star review, which was both humbling and hilarious.
I have this fear of failure all the time but I kind of realised that failure is a part of our lives and so if people think the book is shit (and they are allowed to feel that way), as long as I feel like I’ve done my work somehow, that’s what matters at the end of the day.
What makes good storytelling?
I think a good storyteller has to understand that reading takes up a lot of time and energy. I don’t want to make it sound too precious but reading is a very valuable space. There is a lot of extra energy that goes into devoting yourself in a book because it’s such a one-to-one experience.
You can sometimes tell when a writer takes that for granted when the storytelling isn’t compelling or doesn't inform me of my culture or identity. Or when writers use a style that’s not entirely appropriate to the story that they are trying to tell.There are a lot of factors that make or break a story. In deciding what’s a good story, you may want to ask yourself, ‘Am I entertained? Am I taken along this ride? Is it a journey worth taking?’.
I really love Elena Ferrante for instance. Her works are gripping, incisive, they’re almost a little bitchy but also feel very lived in, and there’s a very specific European culture that you can’t help but learn about.
What are three books that impacted your life and perceptions as a writer greatly?
A lot of books helped me become who I am today. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood was the first masterpiece I read. I also really love His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (though that’s three books already). Reading Murakami’s short stories really made me see how his magic as a writer can be contained in such short bursts.
How do prose & poetry serve you differently?
I have a very difficult relationship with poetry. I can’t even tell how long I’ve gone without writing a poem. I think there are better writers out there who are more invested in the form and so I feel that I don’t really know how to contribute to that canon of Singaporean poetry.
Most of the time, when I do write poetry, it comes from a very personal place. I use it as a means to talk about my life. Towards the end of my university experience, I felt like I was finally done with that part of my life, my adolescence, and so the poetry stopped too.
The really messy, formative parts of my life were when I wrote the most poetry. But that’s not to say it always has to be about bad, ugly things. It’s just more of a thing I’d take on leisurely, rather than seriously. But when it comes to writing fiction, I feel a greater sense of urgency.
Tell us more about your work with Sing Lit Station.
We are a non-profit literary organisation that tries to push the development of the local literary scene by making sure that our writers grow in a way that their works can eventually attract more readers.
I take on project management, finances and accounts. It’s quite a heavy responsibility and for that, I have to thank the people who work alongside myself for helping me out.
From your experience, do you think there’s a certain quality to be fulfilled before local literary works are no longer referred to as just ‘Singapore Literature’, but are included in the general umbrella of ‘literature’?
I think we’re beginning to see more of that, especially when we have more novelists securing international deals. I think that in itself is a sign that these international publishers are starting to see that these books and writers don’t just talk about the Singaporean experience but also address larger themes that are relatable to a wider audience from different countries.
Get Kappa Quartet here. All books and some more at booksactuallyshop.com