Elaine Chiew - Interview
Elaine Chiew is the author of The Heartsick Diaspora, a collection of short stories published 23rd January 2020. Bad Form spoke to Elaine about her new book, her role as a writer, and the advice she has for aspiring writers.
Your collection of short stories, The Heartsick Diaspora, is an incredibly moving representation of Chinese migrant communities. What drew you to this subject?
It’s a representation (if I even dare call it that) of a particular segment of Chinese migrant communities – Singaporean/Malaysian Chinese (or in Southeast Asia, also known as the Straits Chinese), and reflects a contextualisation of my own experiences of being a diasporic body, seeking to amalgamate multiple selves. I wanted to focus on the feelings attending this phenomenon -- thus ‘heartsick’, but also laughter; food joy; familial (not)togetherness; longing for traditions and history; toggling cultures; and the sexiness/carnality of bodies.
Do you believe it is best to write from personal experiences? Could a non-migrant, for example, write fiction about migrant experiences? Or should they?
I don’t believe in policing fiction or the imagination, but I do believe that if you’re going to write experiences very far from your own, it takes an incredible feat of empathy, imagination and hard work to check all your blind spots. It’s important to get it right, it’s important to do it with incredible sensitivity. I contend that freedom to write is not in question, but peeps seem to be expecting freedom from consequences when they get it wrong.
You’ve engaged with a huge range of genres in this collection, and shown you can write them all beautifully. Why did you write across genres for this book?
The short story for me is such a rich playground for diverse stories and genre-jumping as a form of experimentation. As a minority that ticks several boxes ☑️female ☑️BAME ☑️underprivileged (when growing up) the hierarchy in literature never meant much to me. Borders or categories to me are more about the mechanics and dynamics of porosity than they are about line-drawing or inclusion/exclusion.
Do you think there is a wider movement at the moment to move towards more 'diverse' writers and stories?
Yes, definitely. And it can only be a good thing. Paraphrasing author Kiran Desai here: my book is one voice that hopefully makes room for a plethora of other voices on the shelf.
Is there an innate problem labeling any stories as 'diverse' or 'minority-led'? Should they instead be considered as part of the wider canon?
This is a very big question with many aspects to address. As one example, in our drive towards inclusivity, these labels like ‘minority-led’ or ‘diverse’ have sometimes devolved to a mere exercise of box-ticking, without addressing the underlying systemic inequality in terms of opportunities. Two, how we go about decolonising a canon or folding in fiction by minority voices has got to be an examination and destructuralisation of how we define ‘canon’, very much the way Linda Nochlin in her 1971 seminal essay asked “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”. Given the predominance of English as lingua franca, many worthy books of literature aren’t even translated or accessible. To widen the canon, do we perhaps need to look at the standards we use to judge a book as worthy of translation?
How important is the idea of representation in your work?
I think ‘representation’ is a double-edged sword; it is a word wielded often to determine who gets to be lauded or held up as an ‘example’. The best of being held up as ‘representative’ is the ability to bridge cultures and thus foster understanding, the worst is to end up contributing to existing or even shape new stereotypes in which to view the ‘other’. While I would do everything in my power to encourage and inspire marginalised writers similar to myself and do, what I want to say is this: I draw my strength from the many others who wear the minority skin day in day out and who are not considered role models, examples or ‘representations’ but who nevertheless bear up under daily onslaughts of misperceptions with fortitude, kindness, dignity and a love for humanity.
Our review is particularly geared towards young, aspiring writers, can you offer any particular advice to them?
Read widely, read everything. Keep notes about why something speaks to you or something doesn’t.
Who (or what) inspires you at the moment?
The list is long. Have you got time, LOL? I’m very much inspired by post-Meiji Restoration writer Natsume Soseki at the moment, and also Junichiro Tanizaki, Kobo Abe, Fumiko Enchi, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima and Japanese kabuki theatre. Soseki was a writer with strong training in Chinese and Japanese classics, but his oeuvre has also synthesised Western literary and philosophical traditions, and forged new ground for the modern Japanese novel. Recently, we’ve heard about ‘psychological mystery’ as a genre; Soseki has made me think about the ‘psychological-philosophical novel”.
And lastly, what does The Heartsick Diaspora mean to you?
As I was putting the collection together, one of the themes I realised was missing in it was the idea of ‘the return’. But of course for the diasporic person, ‘home’ is a place-in-time residing in the heart and mind; no true ‘return home’ is possible. This resounded with me immediately as a Greek form of ‘nostos’ – Odysseus, the odyssey, and all that. Thus, some of the stories in the collection focussing on Eastern mythology, historical settings, the diaspora within the diaspora are the various ‘routes’ or ‘journeys’ (to use British academic Paul Gilroy’s terms for diaspora) I took to rediscover ‘roots’ and address alienation from homeland traditions.