Claire Tham

Interview: Claire Tham

2 November 2014.

The Singapore Literature Prize 2014 winners will be announced on the 4th November at the Singapore Writers Festival.

The biennial competition awards $10,000 (SGD) per category for Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents whose works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have been published in Singapore or abroad during a specified period of time in any of Singapore’s four official languages – English, Chinese, Malay, or Tamil.

The Asia Literary Review spoke to Claire Tham, whose novel The Inlet, published by local Singaporean publishing house Ethos Books, is a contender in this year’s Fiction (English) category. Claire is no stranger to literary prizes. At the age of seventeen she won two prizes in the 1984 National Short Story Writing Competition. ‘Cash-based awards are an obvious attraction!’ says Claire. With the prize money earned when she was seventeen, she was able to buy her first pair of contact lenses.

The Inlet is only Claire’s second novel since the publication of Skimming in 1999. Claire’s short story collections have also received awards and acclaim in Singapore: Fascist Rock: Stories of Rebellion (1990), Saving the Rainforest and Other Stories (1993) and The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories (2003).

Claire read law at Oxford and is a partner at a law firm in Singapore.

What was your reaction when you heard The Inlet was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize (English, Fiction)? Has making the shortlist attracted more attention to your novel?

I’m always honoured to be nominated for any award. Writing is not particularly lucrative in Singapore, so any financial recognition is always very welcome.  According to Ethos Books, though, being on the shortlist hasn’t really boosted sales of The Inlet.  I’m quite resigned to this – none of my previous books have sold particularly well. 


What made you shape this fictional novel from real-life news headlines? 

The novel is based very loosely on a real-life incident that occurred in Singapore several years ago, when a female Chinese national drowned in the swimming pool of a bungalow in Sentosa Cove.  I believe she was a bar hostess, and the owner of the bungalow was the nephew of a prominent local businessman.  Subsequently, one of the Straits Times’ reporters did a lengthy, in-depth feature on the victim and her family; the reporter even followed the family back to China and accompanied them (if I recall correctly) when the ashes were scattered.  It was quite an affecting piece and I knew I wanted to tackle this subject at some point.  It stayed at the back of my mind for a long time until just before the Singapore general election in 2011, which has been described as a watershed election in more ways than one.  All the tensions in Singapore society that had been simmering for years over the wealth/income gap, immigration, national identity and so on, simply boiled over in that election.  It seemed to me that Singapore as a nation was at a turning point and that no one was really trying to address this literarily (although there was and is a lot of excellent writing in Singapore) and I wanted to capture some of that ferment and that change in novel form.  The incident in Sentosa Cove then presented itself as a natural starting point for the novel.


Did you intend to write this book for an international or local audience? 

I suppose I wrote this book mainly for a Singapore audience.  It’s my way of trying to explore and make sense of what is happening in Singapore.  I didn’t choose to be born here but I do feel a sense of responsibility (even urgency) to try and make sense of it.   


You are a partner in a law firm – when do you find time to write? Where do you go to write your novels and are you working on any new writing? 

I usually write on weekends or at night.  I don’t write consistently; there may be weeks I don’t even look at what I’ve written.  Luckily, the writing of The Inlet also coincided with a lull at work.  Usually, I write at home with a laptop in an armchair near the window. The Inlet took about two years to write, but it wasn’t a continuous process.  It was in fits and starts. I am not working on anything new at the moment. It takes some time for me to work the characters that I’ve been carrying around in my head for so long out of my system.


What do you think holds literary authors back from breaking into the international market and why isn’t there more recognition for Singaporean authors abroad?

I really don’t know the answer to this question!  Perhaps it’s more a question for publishers.  In my case, I didn’t approach any overseas publishers, so perhaps it’s a case of self-limitation.  It would be false modesty to claim that one doesn’t have ambitions to be a worldwide bestselling author but why certain books sell and others don’t is a mystery.  The Great Gatsby sold very poorly when it was first published but look at its reputation and influence now. 


The narrative of The Inlet has been described by one reviewer as being a “polyphonic symphony”. What freedoms and or difficulties as a writer do you feel this approach presented and why did you choose to write it this way?

I took a long break from writing fiction before the latest novel.  During that time, American TV underwent a renaissance.  It sounds appalling to say this, but I spent a lot of time watching TV during that period (“The Wire”, “Breaking Bad” and so on).  Now that great TV is mainstream TV, it’s hard to remember how ground-breaking a TV series like “The Wire” was – the dialogue, the overlapping storylines, the ability to mesh individual stories and a portrayal of two communities (the police and the drug dealers) with an overarching view of Baltimore society.  I knew I wanted to do something like that in novel form, and that it wouldn’t work if the story was told from the point of view of only one character.  Multiple viewpoints do give you a great deal of freedom and flexibility in propelling the story forward.  I’ve also always been interested in how the same incident can be viewed differently by the different persons involved.  The Inlet was also supposed to be a microcosm of Singapore society, so I needed to use different voices to do this.   

The Inlet is available from Ethos Books.


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