Amanda Lee Koe: "I think fiction has a lot of catching up to do."

We are starting 2013 with a bang, we tell ya! We will be launching our new short fiction section in our magazine, which will showcase the best and newest of Singaporean story-telling. Leading the charge? The mega-talented Amanda Lee Koe.

Co-founder of the design and communications practice studioKALEIDO, which she runs with creative director Winnie Goh, Amanda's love for story-telling has gone through an interesting journey. We chatted with Amanda and found out more about her love for prose, the state of fiction in Singapore, and what we can expect in the coming months from the newly-minted Esquire fiction editor:

ESQUIRE: So, what's your personal journey/history with the art of story-telling?
AMANDA LEE KOE: Let's start from the beginning; when I was eight I had a best friend named Phaedre and we co-wrote an 'adults' magazine with an underwear catalogue on hotel stationery. Suffice to say, my mother found it in my schoolbag and wasn't very pleased.

I've always been drawn to the written word but I suppose I only came into it proper not too long ago. I've never been schooled in it creatively - I get these anxieties that creative writing MAs might take away your natural purity and verve, making you third-guess yourself, shaping you into a certain sort of writer: not a bad one, not at all, I'm sure it makes you a better writer technically, just one that might not have been your natural conclusion if you kept at it on your own. What I studied was communications, which is basically writing, only prostituted. It was a little painful to study, but I felt that I'd left my creative-writing inner-self intact at a formative age. I can sell you something with good copy, or I can tell you something you don't know yet about yourself, or the world, or yourself through the world, with a piece of fiction. But I delineate the two very clearly, the commercial and the creative.

That's enough of a smidgen of history and in the present proper, I run the communications end of design practice studioKALEIDO and edit the creative non-fiction magazine POSKOD by day, and I write by night. Under studioKALEIDO, my creative partner and I also delve into curatorial initiatives (may I add here that curating and editing share so much in common) and experiments in independent publishing. I write for local magazines like Singapore Architect and The Design Society Journal, whilst my fiction has been published in local anthologies, and in foreign nooks ranging from Thought Catalog (USA) to Der Greif (Germany). I also collaborate with artists; I am currently in talks with a fine-art photographer to work on the textual aspect of a commissioned work for the upcoming Singapore Biennale. Lastly, I'm working on finishing up my own short fiction collection - keep an ear out for more on this.

A commissioned literary arts project by studioKALEIDO

ESQ: You help run Ceriph, a fascinating platform for Singaporean writers. Tell us more about it.
Ceriph is a biannual literary journal, currently the only one in print in Singapore. We seek to share Singaporean creative work in the form of prose, poetry, social commentaries, and visual art. The beginnings of this project are humble: whilst examining the local arts scene, we found many outlets for artistic expressions. However, most of these outlets concentrate on art or exclusively on one medium of expression over the other. Publications for local writing are even harder to come by, and cater mainly to professional and full time writers. Since then, it has been our dream to provide that space: a space that is neither too formal nor flippant, that combines word and form.

We feature the work of experimental and up-and-coming writers vis-à-vis more established ones, and presented our fourth issue at last year’s Singapore Writers’ Festival. Every name has a back-story, and this is ours: Ceriphs are semi structural details on the ends of alphabetical fonts that make up letters and symbols. Likewise, we hope to be the book covers and endings of these Singaporean creative pieces, to provide structural support—but at the end of the day, we hope that they speak for themselves, for writers, and to readers. 

Ceriph #5
ESQ: So as Esquire Singapore's new fiction editor, any plans you have in store?
ALK: I hope to bring in new breaths of short fiction which speak of the contemporary condition - be that as it may the flâneur of city-living, the trappings of consumerism, love in the time of binaries, or however you would like to interpret something as slippery as ‘the contemporary condition’. I would like a mixture of both the locally-specific as well as those where the geographical bounds of the story clearly do not matter, and those that come right out of nowhere. What I dislike in prose-writing are overly-descriptive and haplessly lyrical meanderings, that however beautiful, do not have a core. I've found that my main criterion in reading short fiction is whether it punches the heart in some way. I think it was Susan Sontag who said: “Talking like touching. Writing like punching somebody.”

ESQ: What is your opinion of the Singaporean fiction scene?
ALK: I opine that it is still fledgling. I think that if you look at the trajectory of poetry, we are more secure in our poets and our themes; well, we can at least draw a trajectory. But with regards to fiction I honestly think that our spurts and starts are too randomised to draw a blanket opinion of "the Singaporean fiction scene". Certainly we have people like Goh Poh Seng and Philip Jeyaretnam, Wena Poon and Dave Chua, but when you look at our poets already you will find a few generations and several names within each generation and fuller bodies of work to each individual name. So I think fiction has a lot of catching up to do, but we have wonderful new writers like Stephanie Ye and Ann Ang whom I look forward to seeing more from. Booksactually has done us all a favour by giving us chapbook tasters of promising writers in their Babette's Feast series.

ESQ: If you could write the next great Singaporean fiction story, what do you think would be the central theme?
ALK: I notice you say "story", rather than novel (as the term 'the next great American novel' goes) as that is certainly an area in which we have been even less prolific. I find it difficult to talk about a central theme though because my favourite writers are those who can't quite be pinned down in central themes. Example, when you talk about what a Murakami novel is about, that is never the key point, but the metaphysical planes he transgresses and the personal philosophies of life and loss that you come into close contact with that colour your experience of the novel. Or even in say, The Great Gatsby, if you truncate its central theme as the original book jacket did: "The ironic tale of life on Long Island at a time when gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession," then you are already losing so much.

With that disclaimer in place, if I had to pin key terms down, there are certain themes I explore in my upcoming fiction collection - certainly not that I am billing it as great or spot-on in any way, but which I personally and humbly feel are important to me in a Singaporean context: prestige anxiety, spatial empathy, sexual repression, everyday anomalies.

Catch our new fiction piece in our January Blue Skies Issue, out soon in newsstands. Interview by Jon Chew.

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