Home >Specials >Mint Asia >Meira Chand | Decoding the art of storytelling

Strange things happen in the world of imagination. While immersed in writing a novel, the real world will often feel like fantasy, and fantasy the lived reality.

Meira Chand, one of Singapore’s most well known literary writers globally, says, “unless these strange things happen, a book is in danger of not carrying conviction. It will run the risk of not being a complete world in which readers can lose themselves, cry, laugh, share and identify with all the human emotions with which the world is filled."

Chand’s books certainly are not lacking in the complexity of human emotions. Her characters—located in the context of big historical moments—provide a compelling panorama of the tragedy and resilience; culture and individuality; and political evolution and renaissance of 20th-century Asia.

Many writers have sat in their rooms and conjured alternative realities that mirror life but few have captured the imagination of a nation as Chand has with her writings.

Most notably, her book A Different Sky, a historical epic of Singapore, gained much attention. She was encouraged by former president S.R. Nathan to write this novel.

“He had read a previous novel of mine, A Choice of Evils, a large-canvas book about the war and the Japanese occupation of China. And asked me if I would consider writing a novel with similar historical breadth about Singapore," she says.

“President Nathan felt the younger generation did not understand and took it for granted the roots from which the miracle of modern Singapore had sprung."

Chand set out to achieve this formidable task. And soon after the launch of A Different Sky in 2012, it became an instant hit. The book touched a chord among a vast majority of Singaporeans; it became a creative tool to better understand their history and trace their journey into becoming the modern day global metropolis it is today.

“Singapore was then nobody’s home. Immigrant and colonial, people just came to make money and leave," explains Chand. “The novel also deals with many personal struggles to be free of stifling traditions, the national struggle to be free of colonial rule, and the struggle against the oppression of communism. This is the story of how for many Singapore finally became a homeland, a place of belonging. It is a search for identity on many levels."

Among other accolades, A Different Sky was included in Oprah Winfrey’s recommended reading list, and was also long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Chand, a sensitive and deeply intelligent woman in her late 60s, is of Indian-Swiss parentage. She was born and educated in London, and lived in Japan for many years before moving to Singapore in 1997. She is today a prominent member of the Singapore arts community and has recently been elected as board member of the National Arts Council. In the past, she has served as the chair of the Singapore Literature Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the region of South East Asia and South Pacific.

Chand has just completed one of the most exciting and important projects of her career—writing about the life and times of Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, for a musical that will be inaugurated next month as part of this city-state’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Lee died in March.

“I was approached by the production team that was put together for this project and asked to write a story about Mr Lee’s life from which a musical could be developed," she says.

LKY, The Musical, written by Chand, explores the tumultuous times of pre-independence Singapore and how it shaped Lee Kuan Yew. His life, political battles and enduring relationship with his wife form the crux of the story.

Chand says that “this musical is a tale of high drama, intrigue, betrayal, love and loyalty. It offers new and little known insights into the emotional struggles faced by Mr Lee and his friends at a time when Singapore history balanced on a knife-edge".

She confesses that this was an intimidating project to tackle due to its subject, and the responsibility the producers bore in projecting Lee accurately and creatively. Given the excitement the musical has generated even before its launch, the project is set to capture the imagination of both the local and the global community who mourned the passing away of this iconic leader.

The author says she chose the musical’s focus to be on the early years of Lee, portraying “his bravery and fears, his entrepreneurship through the war years, and his determination to succeed at all costs. It also tackles his later struggles for independence against a colonial regime and then the communists. These are some of the most dramatic moments of his life which I found fascinating".

She adds: “Mr Lee was profoundly shaped by the violence and drama of that era which is somewhat forgotten now. Constant strikes, bloody riots, and daylight assassinations by the communists were the stuff of everyday life. This period interested me as it deeply shaped Mr Lee’s transformation into the legend he is today."

So, did she find the process of writing about one of 20th century’s most prominent leaders challenging?

“When I was first approached to do this I was somewhat taken aback," she says. “However, given that many great musicals have been made of equally unlikely subject matter such as Evita, Les Miserables, so I decided, why not?"

Commenting on the great expectations this musical has given rise to in Singapore, Chand says: “Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, a writer’s job is to simply illuminate. It is for the audience to interpret and judge its significance."

Edited excerpts from an interview:

How easy or difficult is it to write about a man like Lee Kuan Yew, who is a legend and whose life is widely known?

Writing LKY The Musical has been both one of the most exciting and challenging tasks as the details of Mr Lee’s life are widely known. When this project began, he himself was still alive and the sensitivities of the family, plus the deep political sensitivities surrounding anything to do with Mr Lee and his life, had to be considered very carefully.

Which aspects of his life have you focused on in the musical?

I chose to focus on Mr Lee’s early life, before independence, that shaped him profoundly. At this time, his persona, beliefs and political skills were still in the process of evolving through the experiences he was facing. He had not yet completely crystallized into the man he later became; like others, he was also surrounded by struggle and beset with doubts.

Today is it easy to forget that then, the way ahead was not clear to Mr Lee or anyone else, and the courage and single-mindedness it took to be true to his vision was exceptional. We also forget how young Mr Lee was, only 36, when he first became prime minister.

What are some of the parallels between your book A Different Sky, and in LKY the Musical?

There is certainly some overlap between A Different Sky and the story I wrote that became LKY The Musical in that both are set in the era of pre-independence Singapore. Although Mr Lee’s story is integral to the “Singapore dream", in A Different Sky that story is also experienced by many different characters, each in their own way.

It is a historical novel that tells the stories of the “little people" whose lives are also profoundly altered by sweeping historical events.

Your next novel focuses on the Indian National Army which was headquartered in Singapore during the World War-II. Why did you choose to write about this era?

As most people will know, the Indian National Army was then commanded by Subhash Chandra Bose. What interested me was that Bose established a regiment of women in the army, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. It was a small regiment—estimates of its numbers vary—probably between 1,000-2,000 women only. Dramatic shifts in their lives and experiences, and how the army changed them interested me.

You are the chair of the upcoming South Asia Literary Salon hosted by the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies. What is it trying to accomplish?

Singapore is keenly interested in India and South Asia and regularly fosters interaction with public intellectuals. This is a unique and exciting initiative as it seeks to bring together influential writers and poets of South Asia to see how literature and poetry can redress and restore balance in South Asia today. The salon will provide an open, dynamic and liberal space to debate important and provocative ideas that need greater attention and voice.

Ideas of regional, national, and individual identity; of modernity and exile; of the role of minorities and women; the notion of language, class and religion, and how all these play out to create either inclusiveness or exclusiveness in South Asia.

What in your view has Singapore done right to develop writers in the last decade? Is it working?

Singapore has come of age in the last decade. The 50 years since the end of colonial rule have been given to nation building, and during those years, the dreamers that writers and artists by nature are, were low on the list of priorities. Now, however, Singapore is in a new stage of development, and the building of a cultural dimension has become very important. Over the past decade particularly, money has been poured into the arts. The last section to receive this funding has been the literary arts, but there is huge support and interest now for the arts. I am deeply involved in many programmes of mentorship for young writers as this is an important task that we must get right.

You helped initiate a well known project called Read Singapore, to encourage people to read. What is its significance?

We are working on infusing good reading habits amongst younger Singaporeans. The reading of career-orientated or self-help books—as so many do here—is not what I mean by reading. The reading of literature, of fiction, needs to be encouraged. To be a writer, you must first be a reader of fiction. If people do not enter the world of imagination at an early age, and travel in that world through experience, then something valuable is lost to them. Creativity springs from the world of the imagination.

Are there lessons to be learnt for India in terms of the encouragement given to young writers?

On the contrary, I feel Singapore has much to learn from India. There is such spontaneous and genuine support of the arts, and of literature and writers in India, if not from above, then certainly from the people in general. India has such an abundance of good bookshops. The educated populace are all readers with a reverence for books. This is not so yet in Singapore, where literature can be dropped from the school syllabus at an early age (this is part of the problem), and where to get people reading is an uphill task. But I am hopeful this will change as Singapore evolves and comes into its own as a country with a vibrant arts scene in the next decade. This is what we are working towards passionately.

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