September 28, 2019

Some people can’t pretend. You either are, or you’re not. There’s no in-between. I imagine that’s what it’s like to be a writer, or more specifically, a poet—a role far more challenging than reporting straightforward facts as a news journalist. By this Weltanschauung, Amanda Chong seems to be a natural. The Singapore poet, who turned 30 a month ago, isn’t the type to yap about having no time to pen a poem. She gets right down to business, using her lunch hour amidst frenetic days to produce literary works of art because that’s just who she is.

An established lawyer working at the Attorney-General’s Chambers by day and a prolific writer by the remaining hours, she embodies the perfect dichotomy of right-brain, left-brain brilliance. Not only did the high flyer serve as an expert at the United Nations Expert Group on the International Legal Definition of Trafficking in Persons in 2016, the same year saw the publication of her debut poetry collection, Professions, which went on to make the shortlist for the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. Since then, her work has been commemorated through an engraving on the Marina Bay Helix Bridge.

On top of all that, the obsessive reader, who used to power through “a novel a day”, is the co-founder of ReadAble (a non-profit programme founded in 2014 that offers reading classes to low-income kids and migrant women) and the sometime founding web editor of local poetry archive poetry.sg. We get the Singapore Youth Award recipient to share her literary diet, reading and writing habits, and her perspective on the iffy trend of Instagram poets, topped off with a list of 10 book recommendations for every mood from flirty to forlorn.

High Net Worth: Have you always been a voracious reader? What influenced your reading habit when you were growing up?

Amanda Chong: My parents really emphasised the value of reading when I was a kid. My father would tell us stories about growing up in a one-room flat in Geylang Serai and how when the electricity cut out, he would read by the light of the common corridor. To him, books were an escape from a world of poverty, and his love for reading and acquiring knowledge was a big part of how he managed to be the first in his family to go to university, eventually becoming a lawyer. My father read a lot of JRR Tolkien as a boy, and would tell us his own dramatised version of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, which had us entranced. When you grow up surrounded by stories, it is only natural to reach for books.

My mother also fueled our appetites for reading by taking us to Queenstown Public Library every two weeks. We’d combine everyone’s library cards so we could get bags of books. I remember lying down in the children’s section reading, as I loved the smell of library books. Books were the only thing that my parents allowed us to spend on, without restriction, and so I spent much of my teenage years browsing books at Borders and Kinokuniya. Every long holiday, I’ll try to read a novel a day. I refused to take longer than 24 hours to finish a book because I wanted the full experience of the novel to be delivered to me concentrated, much like watching a movie! This meant that I’d often be fiercely gripping a book till the early hours of the morning.

What’s the first poem you remember reading, and the first poem you remember falling in love with?

I used to read a lot of Shel Silverstein as a kid. His poetry book for kids, Falling Up, was one of my favourites. There were funny rhymes about digging your nose and putting your brother up for sale, which inspired me to write my own. I also loved Roald Dahl’s books of comic verses for children, Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts. There is something about the rhyme and rhythm of a poem that gets verses stuck in your head like a song.

The first non-rhyming poem that I loved as a 13-year-old was Linda Pastan’s “Love Poem”. It is a slim and simple poem that relies on a single metaphor, powerfully used in both substance and form. I love how the poem itself breaks down into breathless waves lapping, much like the creek after thaw.

Do you read to expand your writing skills or for leisure?

Both. I think a writer is always first, a reader. My number one tip to young writers is to read widely because it helps you to develop good taste, which is essential to being a good writer. Taste is knowing what you like, or what “works” from the viewpoint of a reader and this ability to critique naturally translates to critiquing and developing your own work.

Even today, when I am planning on working intensely on a piece of writing, I prime myself by reading literary fiction or poetry. This sets my brain in the right “groove”, away from my day job as a lawyer and the linearity of legal argument.

As a writer, when you read, do you “X-ray” or close read the text? Do you immediately find yourself analysing while reading?

I definitely close read and pay attention to craft even when I am reading for leisure. I’m not sure whether I do this because I am a writer, or simply because I am a lifelong literature student. I know how painstaking it can be to craft a single sentence, and how much intentionality goes into writing, so I like to think I’m giving writers the attention they deserve when I close read a text.

Are you in the habit of reading a work of literature more than once?

Not at all. I don’t watch the same movie twice either. Mainly because there are so many wonderful books in this world and life is too short for me to re-read the same work twice. The exception is poetry though. I return again and again to poems that I love in different seasons of my life.

Tell me about a time you lost your appetite for reading.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever lost my appetite for reading entirely, although I have certainly lost my appetite for certain types of reading. I read a lot for my day job as a lawyer, so sometimes I find it hard to plunge headfirst into a novel that demands a long span of attention. I’d rather read news articles or essays from the New Yorker.

What are some of your favourite words?

“Sonorous” because it sounds exactly like what it means. “Becoming” because it suggests a constant unfolding, and a sense of surprise at our own unfolding. I love the idea that we continue to become.

What are your reading guilty pleasures, and what draws you to them?

These days my guilty pleasure is endlessly scrolling through Instagram stories. I’m not sure you can even consider that reading! It’s ironic because I’ve banned myself from watching Netflix so I can have more time to read, but in the end, I am pretty sure the amount of time I spend watching Insta stories weekly is equivalent to a TV episode. I’m drawn to it because tapping endlessly through reels of stories is such a tactile and mindless experience—I call it the “Scroll Hole”.

What do you think of Instagram poets?

I think of Instagram poetry as a separate genre of poetry altogether. Instagram poetry has its own specific form and audience. Instagram poets have to keep their poems pithy to fit within their grids, and often illustrate their poems as part of their expression. Their goal is to immediately provoke a reaction within a sentence or two, and it does take some measure of skill to do this well. As a “page” poet, I don’t work with the same constraints or style. I think Instagram poetry is very often the gateway drug to people discovering and engaging with other poetry that many would consider more literary, with more sophisticated use of craft.

What’s your state of mind when you’re reading something, and does it differ between, say, reading a sci-fi novel and a love poem?

Yes, it definitely varies. I haven’t read a science fiction novel in years, if not decades, so I can’t comment on that. Reading as a lawyer is an instrumental exercise with a precise goal. When I read judgments or legal texts, my brain operates on a straight line, picking out the planks and building blocks I need for arguments. When I read poetry, my brain works in leaps and loops of freewheeling associations and tangents of emotion. Reading, then, is a transformative experience that can speak to the soul.

Reading Recommendations For Every Mood

When you need a shot of pure, wholesome joy: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. To me, the purest books are the ones written for kids and this one is no different. This book by a former Vietnamese refugee charts the emotional journey of a girl who moves to America during the Vietnam War. It’s written in a series of poems, and although it tackles dark themes, it carries with it a sense of wonderment at the tenacity of hope, and ultimately, joy.

When you want to feel schadenfreude: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, a collection of short stories about how a swaggering male protagonist loses the women in his life one by one, due to his serial infidelity and inability to see women as fully human.

When you’re in the middle of an existential crisis: Thirst by Mary Oliver, a collection of meditative poems that will set your eyes on higher things and remind you, in the words of the poet, of the long conversations that God is having in your own heart.

When you need a good cry: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinathi, a memoir by a neurosurgeon about the last year of his life battling cancer. He is a true renaissance man who is equally interested in literature and philosophy as he is the science of the human body.  The closing chapters of the book had me bawling. 

When you feel utterly alone: Bluets by Maggie Nelson, a collection of 240 prose poems meditating on the colour blue, ebbing with love and grief, all working toward this stunning end line—“When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.”

When you want to revel in the single life: How to Date Men When You Hate Men by Blythe Roberson, a hilarious send up of gender power dynamics in dating. It’s like Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse as written by a late night comedy writer.

When you’re contemplating starting a new life abroad: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir about the writer’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail after her life falls apart when she loses her mother, her compass in life. It will teach you to walk through the darkest parts of yourself.

When you’re looking for some creative inspiration: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, a set of essays leaping from topics like art history to memory and mapmaking, which explores the challenges of living with uncertainty.

When you’re feeling flirty: Love is an Empty Barstool by Pooja Nansi. The epigraph of this poetry collection, from a song by Bessie Smith, says it all—“No time to marry, no time to settle down; I’m a young woman and I ain’t done running around”.

When you want to get in touch with your spirituality: The Magnificent Defeat by Frederick Buechner, meditations on key passages in the Bible that are sound theological exegesis with all the heart-gripping beauty of poetry.

Image Credit: Sindhura Kalidas