ST: The Red Interview: Interview with Suchen Christine Lim (Sept 9)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

SECRETS AND LIES: In The Lies That Build A Marriage, Lim gives a voice to those who can't articulate their feelings. -- ST FILE PHOTO

What lies beneath
Suchen Christine Lim's short stories might deal with controversial subjects, but three of them were actually commissioned by churches
By Stephanie Yap

SHE is one of Singapore's most respected authors and was the inaugural winner of the Singapore Literature Prize in 1992. But when Suchen Christine Lim shopped around her latest manuscript, she found major publishers unwilling to take it up.

A collection of 10 short stories titled The Lies That Build A Marriage, it deals with subjects such as homosexuality, cross-dressing, adultery and prostitution, all set in a Singapore context.

'The major publishers didn't want to publish it for one reason or another. So I decided to go to the independents,' says Lim, 59, whose four previous novels were published by Graham Brash Publishing, SNP, Times Books International and Times Editions.

The writer, who has a motherly voice and a ready laugh, was speaking to LifeStyle over the phone from Quezon City in the Philippines, where she is a visiting writer at Ateneo de Manila University until next month.

In the end, her collection was co-published by Monsoon Books and the National Arts Council, and is now available at major bookstores. It will also be released in the Philippines later this month.

However, its official launch will take place only at the Singapore Writers Festival in December.

Given that this is a book that deals with controversial subjects, it is perhaps surprising that three of its stories were actually commissioned by churches, and were read to congregants at their services.

Lim wrote the opening story, The Morning After, at the request of Reverend Yap Kim Hao of the Methodist Church of Singapore. He commissioned it for the Christmas Day 2005 service of the Free Community Church, which welcomes both straight and gay people.

The story is from the point of view of a mother who has just been told by her son that he is gay - something Lim has experienced herself.

The younger of the divorcee's two sons, Lim Chi-Sharn, 28, an engineer, has spoken publicly about his experiences coming out in Singapore.

'The reception shocked me because people were so involved and so moved. I had a standing ovation for the story. The atmosphere was electrifying,' she recalls of the special service held at The Arts House.

So positive was the response that she was invited to write two more stories - another for the Free Community Church and one for Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

My Two Mothers, about a woman raised by a lesbian couple, was read at the former in March last year, while Usha And My Third Child, which deals with teenage pregnancy and abortion, was read at the latter on Mother's Day last year.

But the writer, who was born in Malaysia and moved to Singapore with her parents and two brothers when she was 14, does not want to talk too much about her personal life, and stresses that readers should not read autobiography in her fiction.

She says: 'The narrative of the fictional eye could be based a little on reality, a bit of fact. But the way the story develops in the writer's mind is separate from the reality of the daily world.'

The collection also includes Christmas At Singapore Casket, a story about a stingy father which was originally written for The Straits Times Life!'s annual Christmas fiction special in 2004, and three previously published stories and three new ones.

Lim might be fiercely private herself, but it is clear she enjoys imagining and writing about the secret lives of others, particularly those involving the 'unsung, unsaid and uncelebrated in Singapore', as the tagline of her collection goes.

'I am interested in people who don't have a voice at the moment. These are people who cannot articulate their feelings, but they feel love, hate and affection all the same,' she says.

'Fiction gives us a new perspective on life, and hopefully this collection will make people more inclusive.'

The Lies That Build A Marriage ($22.50 without GST) is available at major bookstores.

'If you are given a lemon, make lemonade. If you are given a wall, climb it. If you are given cr**, save it and mould it into fiction'
On how she deals with life's challenges

'When you are away from the mountain, you can look at it from a different angle'
On why she enjoys taking up fellowships abroad

'Through the energy of this group, we can create something that is beyond our condominiums and towers. Those things might fall, but what we have been writing and what will be writ will be remembered, and that is going to characterise our society'
On the Singapore literary scene

By Suchen Christine Lim
Monsoon Books/ Paperback/216 pages/ $22.50 (without GST)/ Major bookstores/***