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Melissa De Silva on Identity and Otherness

Posted on October 17 2018

 

Following the win for 'Others' is Not a Race at this year's Singapore Literature Prize, we interviewed Melissa De Silva to find out more on why she wrote the book, and what being Eurasian means to her. 

 

Your book ‘Others’ Is Not A Race won the Singapore Literature Prize for creative non-fiction this year, if you could choose one message that you would like the readers to take from your book what would it be?

It would be that really, the barriers and boundaries between peoples—ethnicities, cultures, nationalities—are fictitious. We are all fundamentally linked by our common humanity, and our common human experiences. So racial categorisations, like the CMIO (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) classification system in Singapore and indeed, the very concept of race itself, are essentially meaningless constructs.

Those of us who love stories (and frankly, which person on this earth doesn’t?), in whatever form they may be—books, film, TV, tales by the fireside—gobble them up often because we can connect with the human character at the heart of the story. They may be a teenage girl in Iran, a housewife in 1950s America, or a detective in Botswana, but the experiences they have—love, heartache, irritation, joy—draw us in because these are universal experiences we have had too, and they remind us, again and again, that really, there are no boundaries between human beings.

 

In ‘Others’ Is Not A Race you mention learning Kristang as a way to reconnect with your culture and heritage. Was this one of the elements that pushed you to write this book?

Learning Kristang, and in the process reclaiming my ancestral tongue of this Portuguese-Malay creole that originated in Malacca, was part of my quest to reclaim my larger Eurasian heritage, which I felt I really didn’t have much of. It was this acute sense of loss of my culture that prompted me to embark on some of the madcap adventures I describe in the book, in an attempt to recover my language, my cuisine and knowledge of Eurasian food history, to collect some oral narratives from my older family members about their experiences growing up in Singapore. In the book, I also wanted to articulate some of the frustration and sense of injustice I have felt (and still feel) as a Eurasian Singaporean, where the national racial classification policy does not officially name us but shunts us under the ‘Others’ category, along with people who were not born Singaporean.

 

The sugee cake mentioned in the book seems to encapsulate the Eurasian experience through its struggle to be understood. Besides this are there any other elements that reflect the nuances of the Eurasian experience?

I think just the fact that the term ‘Eurasian’ is poorly understood is one case in point. I always assumed it was obvious what the word ‘Eurasian’ meant. European + Asian = Eurasian. But noooo….I have learned that this is not apparent to many Singaporeans. Also, many Eurasians I know (myself included) have often had to deal with trying to ‘explain’ ‘who’ and ‘what’ we are. This can be tiring after the 200 millionth time, plus the fact that I have often encountered incredible statements from some Singaporeans, such as Eurasians are Peranakans (what??) or that Eurasians are only people who are bi-racial, with one parent European and one parent Asian. I find it puzzling that the entire history of colonisation in Asia seems to not factor into some people’s understanding of what a Singaporean Eurasian is. We are a community resulting from the legacy of European colonisation in Asia, and most of us have been Eurasian for generations and generations, from when the Portuguese came to India in 1498. So, we've been here a long time!

 

You highlight that the strict categorization of races and ethnicities leads to ostracization and this sense of “others”, In your opinion what role does literature play in breaking those barriers?

I believe literature has to power to dissolve perceptions of ‘otherness’ and ‘us vs. them’ mentalities by bringing us, the reader, into the very minds of characters. These characters may do things we find puzzling or reprehensible (think Humbert Humbert in Lolita!) but when we are allowed to be privy to their thoughts, we understand their motivations. And while we may not always agree with their actions and choices, we arrive at a place of deeper understanding of why this person made those choices.

Ultimately, of course, all of us are united by our bond of common humanity. We know what it is like to feel the euphoria of entering a relationship, the heartbreak when love ends, rage and hurt at being treated unfairly, the pain of seeing a loved one on their deathbed. But we can forget this common humanity as constructed barriers of language, culture, country and ethnicity get in the way. Literature invites us not to judge or dismiss other people just because they bear some superficial differences to ourselves. It pulls us back into the deepest, most intimate parts of a human being—their thoughts and emotions—to reconnect us with the rest of humanity once more.

 

Although Eurasians make up less than 1% of the population your book has been resoundingly relatable for many people. Why do you think that is? 

What I write about in my book are simply my own experiences, my feelings and thoughts, as I contemplated my dearth of cultural inheritance (all my own fault) and what I did in an often hilarious attempt to go about recovering bits of my culture. I don't think my situation is something alien to many people living in this time, people in their twenties or thirties, who have had that uncomfortable feeling that they don’t know very much about their own culture and are totally clueless about their traditions, and that squirmy feeling of not being able to speak their ancestral language, whether it’s Tamil, Cantonese or Catalan. A number of young people especially have told me that they relate a lot to the story ‘The Gift’, about when my grandmother was dying and I wanted to speak to her in Kristang to make some kind of meaningful communication. To my deep sadness, I could only say, “I have eaten. I ate rice.” Pathetic. That was a moment of profound lameness, and sadness, for me, and after my grandmother died before I could learn more Kristang words to speak to her, I vowed I would learn my language somehow. People have told me how they too struggled to speak to their grandparents when they were terminally ill because they didn’t know enough of their Chinese dialect, or of their Tamil language. I think the dismay of knowing your culture is slowly dissolving with each passing generation also resonates with many people, from any culture, anywhere in the world, because it is a reality most of us face in this era. I was thrilled when after one book event, a young man came up to me to say that because of my book, he realised he didn't know anything about his own cultural traditions and felt compelled to go and learn more about the mooncake festival.

So actually, that is the other thing I really would like for readers to take away from my book—the sense of the preciousness of culture, their own and every other culture in the world, and to be spurred into doing something to protect it and keep it alive.

 

As an author, do you think it is important to have a strong sense of belonging to a geographic location to call home or does this just simplify the complexity of one's narrative?

I think writers are prompted to write by many factors, and I believe a strong sense of belonging to a particular place in this world is certainly one of them. However, for writers who don’t have this sense of a bond with a specific place, that in itself can be an issue they may be interested to explore in their writing. But at the end of the day, I think place or placelessness is only one possible subject a writer could explore, and there are an infinite number of other issues and themes to investigate.

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