In your story “,” a woman in a senior-living facility in Singapore discovers something unexpected about the career of one of the other residents there. What inspired this story?
Without giving away any spoilers, I came across a newspaper interview with an elderly man who’d had an unusual profession. Many Singaporeans are well aware of the kind of work this man did—and endorse it, implicitly or explicitly—but would prefer not to think about the details. This made me consider the various ways in which callousness and cruelty are built into our society, in the name of pragmatism or some other utilitarian goal, and the toll this can take on the vulnerable, the elderly, the forgotten. And what happens when, one day, people who have been complicit in that system, but have been able to ignore it, find themselves in a position of vulnerability?
The story is constructed in three parts. The first and last parts, set at the Sunrise Valley facility, revolve around Kirpal, Hwee Bin’s fellow-resident; the middle part involves an outing that Hwee Bin takes with her daughter. Was the structure planned ahead of time, or did it just flow that way?
No, it wasn’t planned at all. I can’t say what exactly made me jump forward, at the end of the first part, but, once the residents found out about Kirpal’s past, I felt that we’d seen enough. We didn’t need to witness the shock or the ugliness or whatever reactions came next; we could fill in that blank space ourselves. I thought I might reconsider that jump in a later draft, but I found that I liked the room it gave readers to form their own reactions to Kirpal’s background, to let their assumptions and speculations percolate. It also allows the questions that arise in the middle part—the questions of mortality and loneliness that Hwee Bin faces—to be in quiet conversation with the broader, more disturbing societal implications of Kirpal’s past.
Is there a connection in Hwee Bin’s mind between the rat that she encounters at the mall—which doesn’t shock or disgust her as much as it does everyone else—and her relationship with Kirpal?
I didn’t intend—not consciously, at least—for there to be. The rat came from an experience I once had at a café in a mall. One of the clichés about Singapore is that it’s extremely clean (almost sterile, critics might say). This point of national pride was part of a big push, post-independence, to remake the country into a modern, sparkling beacon of economic success. The Singapore you might see in certain Hollywood movies today. But, of course, it’s a tropical country, so cockroaches, rodents—that all comes with the territory. There is only so much you can control about the physical environment. When I encountered a rat in a mall, some years ago, the dissonance stuck in my mind—the way so many uncomfortable contradictions lie just beneath the surface of the myth of national identity, and how those contradictions eventually surface. And I think Hwee Bin is grappling with that kind of contradiction on a personal level as well—all the beliefs she has about herself, her life, her choices, which she holds on to in order to live day to day. So the rat, for her, is a moment of clarity—the moment, perhaps, when she begins to face the ugly reality not only of her life, her mortality, her aloneness but of the callousness of the society around her. And her willingness to face this is perhaps what allows her to view Kirpal in a kinder light than everyone else.
In the story, you frequently note what language or dialect a character is speaking—English, Hokkien, Malay, Mandarin. Can you tell me about the linguistic melting pot in Singapore and how you try to represent that in fiction?
Language is the main reason I often find myself jealous of filmmakers. So much of the texture of Singaporean life lies in the dance of language, the way different languages clash and interweave. This is on top of Singlish, the locally spoken version of English, which has its own syntax, vocabulary, and intonations. Take Hwee Bin’s coffee order, “Kopi O gao, siew dai,” which in itself contains three languages. (“Kopi” is Malay for “coffee,” “gao” is Hokkien for “thick,” and “siew dai” is Hock Chew for “less sugar.”) While this linguistic density can be depicted in film somewhat seamlessly, in writing it’s a little clunkier. In this story, I’ve chosen to indicate what language the characters are speaking when they’re not speaking English, which also allows me to write Singlish as it sounds, including non-English words, the way the characters would, naturally, if they were speaking in real life.
The story is full of Singapore references, and yet the tale of the generation gap between the mother who grew up poor and had to fight for her education and her striving, ever-single daughter, who is overworked and burdened by the need to care for her parent, feels like a somewhat universal one. Can you imagine it in other settings?
I certainly could. Living in the U.S. today, I often think of the parallels between the generation gap that I was familiar with in Singapore (most starkly, the gap between my parents and my grandparents, but also that between my generation and my parents) and the one faced by many immigrant families here.
Did you have any other stories in mind when you were working on “Before the Valley”? Are there other writers whose work you often return to?
Always present when I’m writing any piece of fiction is something I once heard Edward P. Jones say: that the trajectory of every character’s life is a line, and, in writing, we have the freedom to jump to any point on that line. His collection “” is one that I return to over and over, for everything: place, history, how time works, the way details become stories. And I love this quote from his : “Make it plain. Make it plain all the way through. Starting from ‘Once upon a time.’ The emotions are indeed there, but you need not express them with neon lights.” I also return often to the writing of the Malaysian writer Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, whose prose style—its clarity and restrained lyricism—feels true and familiar to me in the way that home does.
Are you working on other stories with this setting? Or a novel?
I am working on a collection of stories set in modern-day Singapore that deal with questions similar to those of this story, though the stories aren’t specifically set in Sunrise Valley. And my second novel, “The Great Reclamation,” which is forthcoming from Riverhead Books, grapples with the generation gap from a historical perspective—tracing the arc of a young boy’s life from pre-independence to post.