Writing away life’s mysteries

O Thiam Chin writes stories because no one else can tell the stories he wants to tell.

“As in the story in my head, how I feel about things,” the Singaporean author says, remarking he sees stories everywhere.

The 32-year-old’s latest publication, Never Been Better, is a collection of short stories that comprise a unique portrait of modern Singapore.

Through distinctive individuals – a teenage runaway, a young woman grieving her sister, a Chinese immigrant hoping to find a better life in the nation-state – Thiam Chin effectively explores themes of love, loss and longing.

Never Been Better was preceded by 2006’s Free-Falling Man, another collection of short stories, and will soon be followed by a collection of micro-fiction later this year, and a possible novel, which would be his first.

Such literary dexterity and prolific output is all the more astonishing from someone who only realized he wanted to be a writer five years ago, following careers in telecommunications, the media and marketing, and even an afternoon of acting for Singaporean series Crimewatch, (“Really really bad” and “embarrassing”, he says).

Although Thiam Chin wrote his first short story at 21 while serving a compulsory two-and-a-half-year army stint – “that was because I had nothing to do” – it was almost a decade before he returned to creative writing.

He originally studied mechatronics (mechanical engineering) for three years due to a “herd mentality”, as all his friends were doing it.

“Plus my O levels results weren’t that great, so there weren’t many courses I could choose from. At that point of my life, it seemed like the right thing to do,” he admits.

Once he started working as an engineer, he “didn’t see a future in it” and turned to marketing and PR, which was “quite fun” and helped him develop his writing skills.

But it was only while pursuing a part-time graduate course in English Literature and Language that he realized he wanted to spend his life writing his own stories.

“I took the course to become a better reader… I didn’t realize it would make me want to write,” he says, explaining the exposure to so many good writers proved inescapably inspirational.

This was in 2005. His first break was a short story about gay prostitution for Best of Singapore Erotica.

“The editor loved it… so he asked me to write a second piece… so I wrote a second piece about orgies,” he says.

Since then he’s volleyed between writing full-time and media and marketing jobs, as well as writing for magazines and websites. Currently, he’s freelancing and tutoring high school students, to free up more time to realize his seemingly nonstop flow of ideas.

So many ideas in fact, that while Never Been Better was in the proofing process, he set himself a challenge to write 50 micro-fiction (500-word) stories in as many days, providing MPH, his Malaysian publisher, with another book in almost no time at all.

But it hasn’t always been so effortless. After he finished his first collection of short stories in 2006, he wasn’t able to find a local publisher, so self-published Free Falling Man using iUniverse, an online self-publishing company, in what proved to be a relatively “painless” three-month process.

“It was a good learning experience, for me as a new writer, to know what went into the whole publishing process so that I was more aware and appreciative of all the hard work that had been put to it when it came to my second book,” he says.

Thiam Chin describes the Singaporean publishing world as closed.

“You have to either be really, really talented, or outspoken or well-connected.”

He remarks that many Singaporeans don’t read local literature unless they’re doing a literature course.

“It’s because it’s boring. Talking about the same thing again and again, first generational drift, postcolonialism… I don’t feel a lot of that,” he says.

“My parents didn’t struggle with a postcolonial identity… so I don’t see the need for it in my literature. I prefer to escape from the reality I have… a land can be a fixed place, but it can also be imaginary, illusory, like Haruku Murakami’s Japan.

“But I think new works from new writers like Cyril Wong are good. He’s a talented writer who can write whatever he wants, with daring and originality.

“I like Alfian Sa’at and Claire Tham too. They write about many aspects of life in Singapore with a piercing but sympathetic clarity that appeals to me.”

Regardless of the lacklustre Singaporean interest, it seems Thiam Chin’s work is beginning to reach a wider audience. A woman based in Sweden was so taken with one of his stories that she had it translated and managed to get it published in a Swedish literary journal.

“She’s a godsend,” he says, adding he’s hoping his stories will also be translated into Japanese.

In Never Been Better, Thiam Chin presents the perspective of several female characters, from a girl who attempts to commit suicide to a woman trapped in an abusive marriage.

He says he writes about women because he finds them much harder to pin down than men, and wants to understand them better.

“By writing, I write some of mystery out, some of my questions, doubts, some of my curiosity. To me *women* are the foreign land… I see women as friends, as foes, as so many things at once… I understand how a man would feel, their ego, their entity, wanting to be a provider… but a woman, I can never get it down right.

“I don’t think I can actually pin down 100 percent woman, one profile that fits everybody… that’s why I find it so interesting. Every woman has her own take on relationships. That’s why women’s magazines sell. I think there are only a few kinds of men.

“I also wanted to explore the kind of relationship where you have to stay together no matter what… is it love, is it poverty?” he says, referring to the domestic abuse victim in his story “Turning a Blind Eye”.

In addition to violence and suicide, Thiam Chin also addresses the fluidity of human sexuality. This attention to controversial subjects is unintentional, he says.

“I don’t choose to write with a particular theme or subject matter in mind. I simply let my story dictate itself and go along with it. It’s only when the story is done, and I take a step back and look at it, and it becomes clearer that it had done certain things, or addressed some particular issues. But I never side-step difficult subjects.

“Writing allows me to explore the mystery of man and humanity in all its profoundness, depravity and loves.”

While his style is often realist, he’s become more interested in magical realism, recently completing a story about a girl who falls in love with a bird boy, a story of first love that apparently resonated deeply even with friends who aren’t fond of reading.

“It’s difficult… my voice said you’re going to suck at that, you’re going to make a mess… I ignored the voice and kept writing,” he says.

His next challenge will be a novel, which he hopes to complete this year. Inspired by a story by Jhumpa Lahiri, he plans to use the 2004 tsunami as a backdrop, against which he’ll explore the dynamics of two couples, one straight and one gay.

“Initially I planned to set it in Phuket, but I realized I may not be very strong on the details, the places… so I’m thinking of setting it in a nameless country, in a nameless island… it’s easier for me to work with,” he says, adding a strong sense of setting might distract from the psychological exploration.

“The tsunami is the perfect backdrop to talk about loss, to talk about memories.”

Despite this ambitious premise and the constant challenges he’s been undertaking with considerable success, Thiam Chin remains humble, acknowledging he still has much to learn.

“As a new writer, I’m still not sure about my voice… to me, when you read my stories, it’s very different from one to another, you can never tell if its O Thiam Chin, or O Thiam Chin’s brother.”

Never Been Better is available to buy online at www.mphonline.com/

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