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Doing the Write Thing: Cyril Wong

Cyril Wong is a name that is more than well-known in the Singapore literary scene. As a two-time Singapore Literature Prize-winning poet with countless of poetry anthologies published, his name regularly pops up on lists featuring must-read Singapore literature. 

More prominently known for his confessional poetry dealing with a multitude of issues such as love, sexuality, death, and the human condition, he has also written a short story collection (Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me), a novel (The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza), and edited other anthologies, including We Contain Multitudes and Best New Singaporean Short Stories Vol. 3.

Now, he has published his second novel, This Side of Heaven, a tale about life, the universe and the world we go to when we're gone. We go behind the scenes with Cyril to learn more about writing this surrealist parable about the afterlife.

Tell us more about your new novel, This Side of HeavenWhat is it about, and what can people expect from it? I consider it a cautionary, surrealist parable about a panoply of spirits meeting in a garden while inside a transitional afterlife. They exchange stories and share surprising revelations about where they have ended up—and why. Readers can expect the unexpected in this vision of what a temporary sojourn post-death can look like, and what the afterlife might teach us about ourselves.

What was the inspiration behind it? Kuo Pao Kun’s The Spirits Play, What Dreams May Come (an underrated Robin Williams movie), Tibetan Buddhism’s notion of the bardo (meaning “transition”), the magic-realist prose of Juan Goytisolo, oppressive cliches of conventional religiosity—all inspired me to write a dreamlike and open-ended story touching on what it might mean to cling to the self after we die.

What were some of the challenges that you faced writing this novel? The biggest challenge was maintaining a sense of compassion for my “sushi-conveyor-belt” of characters, as many of them can be quite unlikeable, even as their existential challenges can also seem familiar or even universal.

There are 32 characters with 32 different stories featured in the first half of the story. Why did you decide to tell the story this way? This is a difficult question to answer, as the characters suddenly appeared and moved through me as if in a waking dream. I didn’t choose this range of voices—they chose me. In an incremental way, their differences in self-revelation also helped me to convey a more rounded sense of where they are and fundamental aspects of their shared afterlife.

You are mostly known for your love poetry. This Side of Heaven, however, revolves around heavy questions of death and existentialism. What made you decide to embark on this path for your new novel? Actually, I have always engaged with death and existential meaning in my work. Just that now, in this case, I thought it would be intriguing to deal with these themes beyond the familiar prism of my confessional voice. Other lives are at stake now beyond the ken of my own private subjectivity.

What is your own personal take on the afterlife? Through my own meditational practices, it has become clear that all stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what life (before or after we die) can mean are ultimately incomplete and temporary. If understood deeply, death is an opportunity to relinquish limited narratives of selfhood and the burden of mindless belief—because if we fail to let go of the tyranny of the known, we become trapped in disastrous cycles of thought and self-inflicted suffering that may extend into the afterlife. Hell is what we make of it and we create our own mental prisons through what we tell ourselves about how our reality should be

Is this novel a subversion or a homage to any philosophical argument you have been wanting to address? It’s neither a subversion nor homage to any established philosophical argument. Maybe there is a hint of John Keat’s negative capability here, but I am hoping to go beyond that to reach the heart of infinite potential at the heart of creation. Think of this little novel as more of a fleeting extension of what we usually understand about what it means to exist (at least in our minds) in a state of wonder regarding the unknown—a total freedom that is ours when consciousness enters that eternal space of wonder. As my characters constantly prove (I hope), what animates us—beyond what we believe about ourselves—is eternally unfolding and beyond our self-centred imaginations.

Your book Satori Blues is going to be re-released too, but what else is in the pipeline? Is this the year of Cyril Wong? Oh dear, I hope not! Satori Blues is really a reprint of an old chapbook, so it’s not exactly new but the upcoming print run is beautifully re-designed by Math Paper Press. Seagull Books in India is releasing a new book of my poems, Infinity Diary, that explores the duality of a mystical exploration with the seeming everydayness of the romantic life—a duality I always grappled with in my poetry. I think I will keep grappling with both the mystical and the romantic until I die! 

Get This Side of Heaven here ... and everything else Cyril Wong here

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