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Why Singaporean author Amanda Lee Koe writes from the fringe

What is it like to write in a place where you don't feel at home? In a restrictive society, you have to stay strong, says Singaporean author Amanda Lee Koe.

Amanda Lee Koe, 29, is a fiction writer from Singapore. She edits fiction for the Singaporean edition of Esquire and the literary journal Ceriph. Her first book, "Ministry of Moral Panic" (2013), was shortlisted for the International Literature Prize of Berlin's House of World Cultures. DW met her in Berlin.

DW: You tell stories about people from the fringes of society. How do you find your characters?

Amanda Lee Koe: I think especially in a place like Singapore, where there is a sort of fixed national narrative, it is important to tell stories from different perspectives. I think for me it came quite naturally because these sorts of outcast characters aren't very common in typical Singaporean literature. I found it very limiting. So, in a way, it is both natural and deliberate. But it is not hard for me to write from there, because I never felt really at home in Singapore. So it is always very easy for me to empathize with characters who are more on the fringe of society.

You were born in Singapore, but now you live in two cities: New York and Singapore. Where do you spend more time?

Since I moved to New York - that was almost four years ago - I have been back and forth a lot. So it is hard to say where I spend more time. For now it really feels like a split existence. It is quite strange sometimes because I guess when you're away you always see the other thing more clearly. So it is interesting to have that dual perspective as well.

Singapur skyline (picture alliance/dpa/Robertharding)

Singapore is a cosmopolitan city, but one with strict morally motivated laws

Does this living in two quite different places with very different traditions influence your writing?

It's hard to say so far, because when I wrote "Ministry of Moral Panic" that was quite some years ago. I was much younger and had not moved to New York yet. But after I grew up in Singapore, and in our post-global capitalism age, I feel that whatever types of perspectives that have been in me have been in me for a long time already.

I had to hold on to a very strong sense of myself in Singapore, so that in a place that is very restrictive, I am able to be strong enough to remain myself. I don't think that my work is necessarily changed by the place. 

Your style of writing has been characterized as sparkling, electrifying, and naughty, but still deep and very sensitive. Do you agree?

I would like to. But also it is very strange when you're a writer and you think about what people have said about you. I don't think about it when I work. I think, when you work it has to be something that comes naturally to you. If not, the artifice can be felt on the page. Sometimes I feel it is hard for me to have a conversation on aesthetics or techniques with Singaporean literature. So I feel in a way I'm a bit displaced - but then I think that is an interesting position for me to work from.

Read more: Prophetic world literature: International Lit Prize shortlist in touch with the times

In some of your stories you write about old people who look back on their lives. How do you manage to intrude so deeply into the psyche of those figures?

Amanda Lee Koe
(Kirsten Tan)

Amanda Lee Koe likes to experiment

Firstly, I think that I have had an old soul inside me since I was very young. So it was also hard for me to make friends in my age range. But at the same time I also feel that as a writer, the most important thing to me is empathy. I think that I have a sort of over-empathy. It could be to old people or it could be to a tree that I see in the winter and suddenly I have too many feelings. (laughs)

Sometimes it is a bit inconvenient, but then I feel that that aspect of going deeper has to come from trying to understand someone else. I am always looking for the secret life of anything. Even if it is an object or a situation or a person - and I think that is how you get deep.

In one of your stories you focus on the colonial history of Singapore. You talk about Maria Hertogh, a Dutch girl that was adopted by Malaysian Muslims. Why does her fate hold so much importance for you?

Anecdotally, when we learn about Maria Hertogh in Singapore history lessons we always just learn it as one very simple line which is that racial harmony is very important in Singapore: Don't ever let the Maria Hertogh riot happen again. (Eds.: The Maria Hertogh riots broke out in 1950 after a court decided that a child who had been raised by Muslims should be returned to her Catholic biological parents.) It is always framed as a racial issue. Even in school, no one has ever talked about the aspect of why the riots happened or how the situation came about. So I feel like, in one way, it is a reaction against a reductionist thinking of historical pedagogy in Singapore. We get taught a very basic, skeletal way of thinking about very complex things in the past.

Are you trying to break taboos?

When the book was received in Singapore, everyone thought I was being very provocative but I didn't really set out to be provocative. This is just how I wanted to write. If along the way it breaks from conventions, then that's great. But I think that the interesting thing about pushing an envelope is also to just be quite natural about it.

When you chose the title of your book, "Ministry of Moral Panic," what kind of ministry did you have in mind?

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Nair)

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

(laughs) "Moral panic" is a sociological concept, where - to put it very simply - when one bad thing happens it gets sort of pinned onto a specific segment of society so that it is painted in a certain way. I think that for me, coming from a place like Singapore, where everything is very orchestrated and controlled, I just wanted to imagine what it would be like for something like this order to be bureaucratized as well. So I think that the title is more an invitation for us to think through the systems of power that we live in and that remain invisible to us.

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Singaporean politics tend to be very closed, but there is now a big fight over the inheritance of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. His sons - Lee Hsien Loong, the older one, is the present prime minister - and his daughter are fighting over it. Is it serious, or is it being exaggerated by the tabloids? 

It was a huge thing in Singapore. I think that on one hand it is almost like a soap opera or family gossip, but on the other hand I do think that makes it even more serious. In a traditional Asian society - even though Singapore is very cosmopolitan - it is very rare for dirty laundry to be aired in public. But I think that precisely that also shows the issues surrounding it. That our prime minister is talking about a private family feud in parliament shows the problems of power. And I find it quite disturbing that he doesn't realize that it is a bit strange to be talking about this in parliament.

"Ministry of Moral Panic" was your first novel. Does your next book have a title yet?

No, it doesn't, but it is a novel. It has a lot of different time periods and multiple perspectives. It takes place all over the world, but not in Singapore.

Your first work was well received and won important prizes. Does this put a lot of pressure on you while writing your next book?

Strangely, not really, because I feel that the short story collection was not very serious - I didn't think about it very seriously. It was almost like a UFO passing with a lot of feelings and energy. I didn't really think through the whole vehicle of it as a work of literature. But with this novel, what is most important is that I meet on my terms what I wanted to create as an aesthetic experience. I feel it is a more serious undertaking, so that should make me feel more pressure - but it makes me feel less pressure, just because I am serious about it. 

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