Amanda Lee Koe

Amanda Lee Koe was the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for her first collection of short stories, “Ministry of Moral Panic,” which was also shortlisted for the International Literature Prize of Berlin’s House of World Cultures. The collection features an eclectic cast of characters, including Maria Hertogh, a Dutch girl who was at the center of a legal custody battle and riots in 1950 Singapore, the Merlion —the beloved mascot of Singapore — personified as a streetwalker, and an Indonesian domestic worker. Amanda is known for her experimental, evocative and psychologically realistic writing that often deals with issues of race, sexuality, capitalism and modernity.

The working manuscript for her debut novel, “Delayed Rays of A Star,” won the 2017 Henfield Prize, and is forthcoming from Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday known for publishing authors such as Ian McEwan and Pat Conroy in 2019. She is also the fiction editor of Esquire Singapore. Born in Singapore, she is based in New York, and has lived in Beijing, Berlin and Bangkok.

Q: What have you been up to since you won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2013?

A: I was in Thailand for almost a year when my partner was working on a feature film, and I was still working on my novel, but it was a bit discombobulating. But the interesting thing is that it was easier for me to work in Thailand than Singapore because everyone was speaking in Thai and that allowed me to not be disrupted from the syntax of the novel. The syntax of the novel isn’t really my verbal syntax. It happens across a few different cities, from Berlin to Beijing to L.A. over pretty discrete time periods, as well, from the 1920s to the 1960s to the 1980s. It was hard to find a syntax that could hold everything both tightly and loosely together. And there are quite a number of characters with different ethnicities and backgrounds, so I wanted that world to be able to expand and contract as and when needed, but without flattening the style. The syntax is both a bit classical and kind of raw. There are whole chunks of contemporary pop culture that I have no idea about, because I’ve been so stuck in this hermetically sealed training gym I built.

I find it hard to agree to do events because a writer’s lifestyle is so unstable and unpaid when you are starting out that the only thing I have is my own freedom for my own time. For me to be able to do things according to my mood is very important. I’m also very entrenched in my final leg of edits [for my novel] right now so I feel quite scattered and discombobulated in general. The textual environment and intellectual mood you get into when you are working very intensely on a text is like coming out from water and back onto land again.

Q: I do feel that you redefine what Singapore literature is in many ways. A substantial amount of Singapore literature I’ve read feels familiar. It feels like they are describing things that I’ve heard versions [of] before. When I read your stories set in Singapore, it feels like they are being told through a different lens. Does that reflect your experiences growing up and living in Singapore?

A: I wonder how much of it is a lens that I put on versus something that I have actually lived forever. I think in some ways I’ve always felt out of place, even as a kid. In what I’m sure is a very jejune and naive sense, I became aware of power dynamics quite soon, and I always felt frustrated in school, even primary school. If I did not see the sense in something a teacher was saying, I did not believe I had to listen to them just because they were the teacher. And, of course, that is a very childish and obstinate line of thinking, but I still feel that way now. I guess having grown up, when you are more clearly able to see the official narrativization of what a productive life in Singapore is meant to be, then, I just don’t see why again, in literature, that should be replicated. That’s not to say social realism isn’t valid. But I just feel that from my work, what I was more interested in is investing in it a more heightened point of view, but also one that was able to puncture a certain veneer that we are used to, to come to a more alternative truth (and I also don’t mean alternative as in like, alternative facts).

Q: You wrote in Guernica about the idea of the Singapore Dream and how it has been ingrained in the Singaporean social consciousness that success is material success. Do you see yourself as pushing back against that narrative?

A: It wasn’t and isn’t really conscious. I just don’t know why my metrics for what is interesting to me are just more varied. In fact, I don’t think it’s me, I think we all probably started out clean, as in, everything was very open. I don’t know how life in other places would be, but life in a pretty conformist society functions to narrow down your vision of what life can or should be. So that, in the end, you are contributing productively to a certain social-economic vision. I was never consciously pushing back but I held on dearly to having feelings. I don’t want that to be taken away from me. That sounds pretty dumb but it’s true. It’s not like I think “oh my god, I’m a revolutionary and we must all push back against hierarchy and authority,” but I just want to be human.

Q: Is there a particular reason you chose to be based in New York?

A: By the time I came to New York, I was already a fully formed adult, but to fight harder to keep my dreams alive made me stronger. I also don’t want to hype New York up as that “eternal dream,” because to believe in that dream is to be buying into an aspect of the American Dream and I don’t feel that’s my narrative. As a city, New York remains special. I just feel normal in New York. It’s not so much that New York is special, but that it allows for a wider expression of what you decide your life to be. And also, maybe this is strange, but I am really drawn to and curious about the true idea of cosmopolitanism. And I’m not sure that it’s possible for us to experience this cosmopolitanism anymore, in the sense of the 1930s when Walter Benjamin was experiencing cosmopolitanism and this idea of cities and modernity and life and speed and intercultural pollination, when all of that was more serious. I’m not sure what cosmopolitanism means now. At the same time, I feel like for all of Singapore’s cityness, it sometimes feels quite provincial to me, mentally and emotionally, whereas infrastructurally and economically it is cosmopolitanism. It has all the cosmopolitan markers, but I’m not sure it has a cosmopolitan soul. For all its faults, New York is invested in the idea of a cosmopolitan soul.

[…]

I do feel like so many things are set in stone now that it is difficult to envision new ways of being without it feeling pretentious or cynical. Probably even if you used a word like “cosmopolitanism,” it sounds really quaint. So many of these kinds of “-isms” have been co-opted by mainstream media and brand marketing that I have no idea what it is now to truly be politically aware but also not cynical. I don’t know what that can look like. And I think a lot of us default to irony. And I don’t know what that will do or where we will go from there.

Q: You’ve lived in quite a few different cities, and are also writing in many different cities and syntaxes. What is your “pole star,” and what grounds you?

A: Wow, I’m so curious too. I wonder, because I think also that my novel is quite a hot mess, in not a pejorative way, but it’s really a hot mess. I only want to do things that fascinate me and [that] I find fun, but that also are grounding and that I can sink into. When you’re deep into a work, it’s hard to see the recurring themes that are native to yourself, but I’m sure that they exist. And people will often retrospectively tell me about them. But when I am at the stage of creation, I try not to overthink it so that the work does not become too canny. This can’t possibly be a pole star, and if it is, then I’m in danger, but the idea of risk-taking is important to me. And this sounds counter-intuitive, but whenever I can allow for it, I will never choose to not take a risk. Even in the stupidest, smallest ways, like cutting the time too fine, or an aesthetic risk that might mistranslate and people might not take well to how I decide to render something. But if this is our one life, then risk-taking is a way to live within a greater multiplicity and have fun at the same time.

Q: The conversations about race in both the U.S. and in Singapore have very established, politically correct narratives that people don’t deviate from. In your short story “Why Do Chinese People Have Slanted Eyes,” [you] engaged with how the West essentializes Asian appearances, but you were also doing something unconventional there. I wonder what your thoughts about race issues in Singapore vis-a-vis the U.S. are?

A: In Singapore, as a Chinese, I’m part of the majority race. But here, I’m a minority. […] A part of this is my character, but I also should not discount that I’ve grown up as the majority race, in contributing to how I think that even in a situation where I’m a minority, I will never cede over that power. […] I think that the best way to disrupt any hierarchy of power is to queer it. And to queer it, you actually can’t be angry.

Q: What dominant emotion, attitude or mindset do you generally take toward living life?

A: I think that it would be super serious but super frivolous. You have to be serious about your frivolity and frivolous about your seriousness. That would be my take on living life.

Q: Is there any particular food that you miss from Singapore?

A: I’m really a fan of bak chor mee. But the thing I really miss is this three-dollar prawn mee that is served until 4 a.m. in Geylang, and I’m friends with the auntie who sells it. It’s in an alley and only uncles watching soccer go there. So when I miss that prawn mee, I miss that whole setup.

Ko Lyn Cheang kolyn.cheang@yale.edu