Letter from Singapore: An Interview with Jason Erik Lundberg

In addition to running his livejournal, Jason Erik Lundberg is a writer and editor who, with his wife Janet Chui, runs Two Cranes Press. TCP put out Scattered, Covered, Smothered (fiction about food/cooking) and has a new antho coming out soon. In 2008, his writing will see publication in Subterranean Mag, Farrago’s Wainscot, Sybil’s Garage, Tiny Stories, and Strange Horizons. In addition to all of that, he podcasts, including a reading of my story “Appoggiatura” from John Klima’s Loghorrea anthology. In the middle of all of this activity, he up and moved to Singapore. I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his various projects, and what it’s like to live in Asia.

I’m curious, since we live in an internet-based world these days…do you feel anything has changed with regard to your connection to the writing and creative community, living in Singapore?

Surprisingly little has changed, actually. The majority of the people within the writing community with whom I communicate on a regular basis are online in some fashion–blogs, message boards, Facebook, their own websites–and at the very least use email. And I’m very lucky that I can still keep up with all these friends and acquaintances even though I’m now on the other side of the planet from where I used to live. My blog is at LiveJournal, and the friends-list aggregator has been fantastic for making sure I stay current with everyone’s lives.

However, I do really miss the face-to-face interactions that I used to get several times a year, something that I really took for granted. Whether it was conventions like WisCon or World Fantasy, or local readings and seminars in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, I was able to feel culturally fulfilled and enriched by hanging out with like minds. My previous apartment was only five minutes from Quail Ridge Books, my all-time favorite bookstore ever, and some event or other happened there almost every night of the week. This kind of literary and cultural connection is something I haven’t really discovered in Singapore yet.

Have you checked out any of the local writers’ groups?

I haven’t, for the simple reason of laziness. I’ve participated in a few writers’ groups in the past, but after a while they fell apart because we just couldn’t devote the time and energy to attend regular meetings and keep turning in new work. So after the last one, I just stopped looking. I now have several first readers that I go to in case I need a critique (with my wife Janet at the very top of that list), and it’s easy enough to email the manuscript to them. As mentioned above, I do miss the face-to-face criticism that a writers’ group offers (I’m a graduate of both Clarion and the Strange Horizons Oregon workshop, so I dig a good critique circle), but it’s something I’ve learned to do without.

This may sound incredibly full of myself, but I’ve also gotten to the point in my career when I trust my writing more than I used to. I’d like to think that I’m more careful in my decisions and more thoughtful about character motivations and such. I spend much more time now thinking about a story before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), letting it percolate in my mind for a while, so that when the physical writing process begins, it’s much cleaner and needs less revision. Critiques now are usually of the smaller details, and not of the big questions that can make a narrative completely collapse. Of course, I could be full of shit, and the writing is just as flawed as before, but I suppose that’s for others to say.

What’s the biggest cultural difference you’ve had to get used to?

Wow, where to start? There are so many! I’d visited Singapore a few times before moving here from the States, and so I wasn’t shocked right away by the different ways that things are done here; it also helps that my wife is a local, and I was plunged into the culture right away. At first, I didn’t think it would be that big a deal; though the majority of Singapore’s population is of Chinese descent (with Malays and Indians right behind), it’s a very Westernized country, and almost everyone speaks English (albeit heavily-accented English).

But then I kept coming up against cultural assumptions that were different from my own. Things like having to accept a gift with both hands instead of just one, or taking off your shoes whenever entering a residence, or having to have two or three backup choices when ordering at a food stall because there’s no guarantee that your first choice will be available (even when it’s clearly displayed on the menu). Those are small fry compared to living situations (children are assumed to live with their parents until marriage, and sometimes after, so that they can build up savings before finding their own place; this is also practical, as land is a luxury in such a tiny country), lingerie adverts (which are seen more as practical than sexy; bras and panties start to lose their sex appeal when you can’t avoid seeing older aunties pawing through bins overflowing with them at the various shopping malls), and attitudes toward sex (Singapore is even more conservative than the States in this department, and any hints of naughty scenes in films are snipped out by the government).

For a while, I was keeping a list on my blog of all the cultural differences I happened to observe (to be found here), but found, the longer I stayed here, that I wasn’t noticing as much anymore, possibly because those things that struck me as so different when I first arrived were now commonplace. What I notice now, after I’ve just taken a position teaching English at a highly-regarded secondary school, are the differences between the USian and Singaporean educational systems; Singapore was once a British colony, and there are still many holdovers from the colonial days (including the argot: they say lorry, lift, flyover, and queue, rather than truck, elevator, overpass, and line), so a lot of what I’ve had to get used to is related to how things are done pedagogically in the UK.

How has living in Singapore affected your writing, or is it too soon to tell?

I’ve been fascinated by the country since visiting for the first time in 2003 (the trip where I proposed to Janet; thankfully she said yes!), and have started to write more about the region in my fiction. “Bogeymen,” a novelette forthcoming from Subterranean Magazine, is all about Singapore in the early to mid-1800s, and I had to do a tremendous amount of research, but it was all information that I was keen to know. The place has creeped more into my contemporary stuff as well, and has leant itself well to tales of the fantastic. People here live closely with the supernatural (ghost stories are the bestselling literary genre), and it’s easy to see why. Religions butt up against one another–Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Chinese folk beliefs–although they seem to all coexist peacefully, with the consequence that the place feels suffused with mythology and magic.

I’m also currently writing a novel set in a fictional country very similar to Singapore in many respects, but more on that below.

Singapore has one of the world’s most efficient water recycling systems, as I understand it. Is Singapore in general a model for environmental technology?

That’s a fantastic question, and I’m a bit pink-faced that I have to answer: I don’t know. I’ve certainly heard of the NEWater reclamation project and the various desalination plants around the country (both of which are very much motivated by the desire to be less dependent on Malaysia, where we import the majority of our potable water), but I haven’t heard much else about the other research and development being done here. I know that many private and government firms are working on more sustainable technologies, and the green movement has picked up some steam.

But what I see more of, on a day-to-day level, is the overall public attitude to such conservation efforts, which seems to be indifferent at best; society here is still very much based on consumerism and convenience, both of which lead to an incredible amount of waste.

Singapore has an efficient public transport system (the buses not so much, but the trains are excellent), yet the roads are constantly choked with cars pumping VOCs and other nasty things into the atmosphere; and though these cars have smaller and more fuel-efficient engines than in the USA, they will have to be replaced, by law, after ten years of use. The national pasttime is shopping, yet no one wants a secondhand item; it must be brand new, the latest model, so the old model goes right in the bin. It’s difficult to find an indoor area that is not air-conditioned (which admittedly is sometimes a necessity in the tropics), but the heat transferred from inside to outside go toward making the country even hotter (which leads to more aircon, which leads to more heat, etc.), not to mention the amount of electricity guzzled to power all the aircon units. Food is a large part of the cultural identity, but the demand for organic and local produce is extremely small because of the high prices. Everything is wrapped in plastic, and then placed in a plastic bag to carry home. It can get a bit frustrating.

You and your wife are working on a surreal botany anthology. Where did that idea come from?

A Field Guide to Surreal Botany is Janet’s brainchild, and I’m kind of just along for the ride. We both share editing credit (like with our previous anthology–Scattered, Covered, Smothered–even though only my name was on the cover), but it’s her baby, so after all the final selections were decided by the both of us, I’ve gotten out of her way.

It’s set up similarly to a traditional field guide–organized by geographical region, with each entry containing the specimen’s common and Latinate name, ecology, life cycle, and other notes–but our contributors went wild with the concept, and gave us some of the most bizarre and hilarious fictional plant species that we could have imagined. We have flora that can warp spacetime, mimic manmade structures like houses and telephone poles, or exist almost invisibly floating high in the air. Janet has illustrated each entry, and is doing some really interesting things with the design, and I can’t wait to show the book to the world, hopefully in the next few months.

The book is very much in the tradition of other fake fantastical guides–most notably Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings and The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, which you yourself edited with Mark Roberts. I also just discovered, thanks to David Langford’s sharp eye in F&SF, that Italian children’s author Leo Lionni wrote a very similar book thirty years ago called La botanica parallela (or, Parallel Botany*), so it seems that we’re in very good company.

You’ve written quite a bit of short fiction–are you also working on a novel?

I am, although I’ve been stuck about 25,000 words into it for almost a year now. The preparation and move to Singapore put a stop to the novel’s forward motion, and I’m just now getting it started up again. I’ve written a few short pieces in the meantime, but I’m hoping to properly get back into the book soon; ideas and images have been coming to me lately, which is a good sign that I’m starting to think about it more.

It takes place in a Singapore-esque country, and shares some similarities in culture, ethnic makeup, and government, but I’m also borrowing heavily from the rest of Southeast Asia and the USA. It’s about dislocation and the absence of “home,” and trying to make a home not just in the place where you live, but with the people with whom you choose to share your life. It’s also about oppressive political systems, redemptive love, the value of art, flying fish, cloud fortresses, gigantic spider golems, eco-revolution, and the realities of living in a world of everyday magic. Think Salman Rushdie plus Milan Kundera, with a dash of Terry Gilliam, and you’ve got a starting point.

Can you recommend any Singapore or Southeast Asian writers you’ve encountered since you moved?

One of my missions here has been to explore the Singapore literary scene, but my efforts have been pretty minimal so far. Last December, the Singapore Writers Festival was held, but there didn’t seem to be many local writers; although this could have been because I could only make it during the first weekend. But I did manage to attend a panel featuring Cyril Wong and Alfian bin Sa’at, two wonderful poets whose work I sought out immediately after. Malaysian novelist Tash Aw has also written beautifully about his homeland in The Harmony Silk Factory.

Several months ago, while I was in Select Books (an excellent independent bookshop that features fiction and nonfiction of Southeast Asia), I picked up a copy of Silverfish New Writing 6, an anthology edited by Dipika Mukherjee and published by Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but glancing through the book and reading the introduction gives the impression that it’s a good snapshot of the area’s contemporary lit scene. When I do read it, I’ll certainly review it on my blog, so you can find out more about it at that time.

Similarly, there seem to be more Western writers now taking Southeast Asia as their focus, fifty years after Anthony Burgess’ Malayan Trilogy and seventy years after George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Alison Jean Lester is an American expat also now living here in Singapore, and her first collection was recently published, featuring locales all over Asia. John Burdett writes supernaturally-flavored crime novels about a Buddhist cop in Bangkok named Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Geoff Ryman’s novel The King’s Last Song takes place in Cambodia, Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen novels are situated somewhere near the South China Sea, and several of Paolo Bacigalupi’s short stories address the concerns of the region. Southeast Asia is a rich literary territory, and it’s very exciting to see the West waking up to this fact.

Is there a moment or incident since you’ve moved that sums up the experience for you?

Saved the hardest question for last, eh? Well, okay, here’s one incident that I happen to recall vividly, because it just happened recently.

As I said above, I just accepted a position at Hwa Chong Institution, teaching English to Secondary 3 students (which would approximate to high school freshmen in the States). Among the many things I’ve had to get used to (teaching at high school level instead of university, at an all-boys school, using British curricula and assessment systems, among teachers and administrators who hardly ever work less than 10-hour days) is the students themselves. Simultaneously the best part of my job and the most frustrating.

I was teaching them about the different facets of writing an argument paper, and as an example of a topic they could write about, I mentioned gun control. As Singapore’s gun laws are incredibly strict (a person discharging a gun can possibly receive the death penalty, whether or not he has wounded or killed anyone), this naturally provoked a flurry of questions.

“So does everyone in America own a gun, Mr. Lundberg?”

“What? No. Why?”

“Really? Do teachers bring guns to school?”

“No! Are you crazy? Why would teachers bring guns to school?”

“What about at the workplace? Can you bring a gun there?”

“No.”

“Even if it’s in a holster?”

“No!”

“Do you own a gun, Mr. Lundberg?”

“Absolutely not. I don’t believe in guns.”

And nearly thirty identical expressions appeared on thirty different faces, the incredulous dropped jaw of shock. It was simply too much to take, that I, as an American, don’t believe in guns. I had to explain that I’m a pacifist, and a Buddhist, and that my good friend Jamie was killed because it’s too easy to acquire guns in my home country. That there are a lot of people in the States who feel the same, and a lot that don’t. That it’s an issue that provokes heated discussion on both sides.

People have many assumptions about me because of my ethnicity and where I come from. Tailors assume I must be wealthy because I’m an expat, and hassle me to buy a suit, sir. My colleagues assume I moved to Singapore after being recruited for my current job because I’m a foreigner. And my students assume I must pack heat because I’m an American. Cultural misunderstandings go both ways, as I’ve come to discover, but thankfully, I’ve turned out to be quite adaptable, and don’t mind setting people straight.

Many of my American friends see my new home as wonderfully exotic, but many of my new Singaporean friends see my old home the same way. It’s provided an interesting dissonance, in that I’m seen as excitingly adventurous by both parties, which is an adjective I never would have applied to myself in the past. But it feels pretty cool to be in this position now. If nothing else, it’s a fantastic ice-breaker.

6 comments on “Letter from Singapore: An Interview with Jason Erik Lundberg

  1. Caitlin says:

    Nice read, Jason and Jeff.

    Was this in person, on the phone or via email? My guess is email – it has a written rather than spoken quality.

  2. It was via email. If it had been a spoken interview, there would be eighty thousand “um”s and “uh”s and “okay”s peppered throughout. I also wouldn’t have been half as coherent, and I’m barely coherent here as it is!

  3. Jonathan K Stephens says:

    Hi Jeff & Jason,

    Ok, I just had to flip over and check out the podcast. So much for getting anything done today!

    I had already thought that “Appoggiatura” or as I think of it, “The Book Of Smaragdine” was brilliant, but Jason’s tongue-tripping tour de force added so many different layers, not the least of which was the shear relief in hearing how some of the words were actually pronounced, that I’m thinking that the word “Masterpiece” can be used with some accuracy!

    Congratulations to you both!

    JKS

  4. That’s very nice of you to say, Jonathan. Thanks!

    Yeah, I definitely had to make lots of notes on pronunciation throughout the text; I asked Jeff about quite a few, and also looked many words up on several of the online dictionaries (although they didn’t always agree). For the spelling bee words used in Logorrhea, I defaulted to the pronunciation as given at the beginning of each story; this was a tremendous help (especially with “smaragdine”), and I’m personally very glad John Klima included this feature in the book.

  5. Mike Bishop says:

    Jason, Jeff, a good interview that I’ve just read with real interest. And, Jason, I must let you know that along with a catalogue issued in conjunction with the mounting of an exhibition of Jamie’s work in the Lamar Dodd Art Center on the LaGrange College campus (the show runs from February 1 to the third week in April this year), I’m sending some photographs that Jamie took at your and Janet’s wedding, along with the negatives. (I meant to get them in the mail yesterday, February 21, but couldn’t get home from work before the post office closed, so they’ll go out today, the 22nd, instead.) Again, a very interesting interview. Thanks to you both.

  6. Thanks for the nice words, Mike. And wow, I didn’t realize that Jamie still had photos of my and Janet’s wedding; thanks so much for sending those along with the catalogue.

Comments are closed.