Jeremy Tiang is a fiction writer, playwright, and translator from Singapore. His short story collection It Never Rains on National Day was published by Epigram Books in 2015, and is available at Epigram Books’ website. He lives in Brooklyn and was recently featured in the Singapore Writers Festival. We caught up in an email interview.
Xin Tian: What are some of your beliefs when it comes to craft?
Jeremy: I don’t have any beliefs, really. I’m tempted to just go “what even is craft lol”—or less flippantly, I think each story requires a set of tools to tell it, and you pick the tools out of a big bag that, sure, we could call “craft.” But I’m not going to be ideological about it.
X: What is your literal writing environment like, and do you have any working habits or rituals?
JT: I have a tiny room in my flat that is just mine—I think it was originally intended to be a walk-in closet, but I have filled it with white furniture and books. My desk faces the window. I go in there every morning and stay there till evening, apart from toilet breaks and forays for food. What I work on depends on what’s occupying my mind most at the moment and/or deadlines. I generally have several things on the go at once, and when I get stuck on something I move on to something else.
X: How would you describe the relationship between your translation work and creative writing?
JT: I’m not sure I’d place those two things in opposition, given that translation is plenty creative too. Being engaged in literary translation has made my work more fluid, I think—working on so many different styles, learning to ventriloquize other voices, has been an excellent form of training for my own work.
X: Has living in New York City had an effect on your writing?
JT: Probably? My writing draws from place and community, so I imagine it would be different if I lived somewhere else and had met other people, but it’s hard to say how much in or in what ways.
X: Your fiction has been published in the UK, Australia, the US, and Singapore—what do you think Singapore literature can stand to gain from exposure to foreign markets?
JT: So, I hate the word “markets” when used like that—it makes me imagine rows and rows of writers, all hawking their wares. Which, maybe we are, maybe Submittable can get a bit like that, but I’d like to think we’re doing more than just creating product and selling it.
But also, Singapore literature is what it is, and I don’t think the foreign gaze adds anything. Why would it? (Which isn’t to say we should be parochial—but I’m a believer in writing what you want to write, and not worrying about chasing particular readers.) Surely the better question is, what do foreign readers gain from exposure to Singapore literature? A great deal, I would argue.
X: Do you see any similarities and differences in Singaporean and international readers’ responses to It Never Rains On National Day?
JT: Not really, which is reassuring, given that the book tries to break down the boundaries we draw around ourselves, including those of nationality. Perhaps certain situations might feel more familiar to readers from Singapore, but the book ranges across so many different locations and settings that I hope every reader will be able to find a point of entry.
A small number of Singaporean readers have responded to the book by trying to assess how Singaporean it is, or by mining it for Singaporean signifiers—which is fine, if that works for them, but these weren’t particularly concerns I had when I was writing it.
X: Who are some short story writers you admire (in any language)?
JT: ZZ Packer. Yoko Ogawa. Jhumpa Lahiri. Yeo Wei Wei. Zhang Yueran. Latha. Zadie Smith. Amanda Lee Koe. I could go on.
X: What are you working on right now?
JT: I have a play going up in a few weeks (A Dream of Red Pavilions, Clurman Theatre NYC), so mostly I’m in rehearsals for that. I’m also translating a couple of books that I’m not allowed to talk about (because publishers like to announce these things with maximum drama), and one that I am: Lo Yi-Chin‘s Far Away. And I’m working on a novel of my own, but I don’t want to say what it’s about. I hate talking about my work until it’s done. Sometimes not even then.