Singaporean author Daryl Qilin Yam, 30, talks to us on expounding current worldly desires and problems through his protagonists across his latest books, Shantih Shantih Shantih and Lovelier, Lonelier.
ESQUIRE: What key messages do you wish to convey through your new books, Shantih Shantih Shantih and Lovelier, Lonelier respectively?
Daryl Qilin Yam: When I wrote Shantih Shantih Shantih, my primary aim with the novella was to create something less narrative and more experiential—something that really coasted along the lines of thought, realisation, epiphany, surprise. I wanted it to capture a truly cosmopolitan sense of Singapore: a place on earth that was wildly diverse and home to all kinds of people, all of them with agency and bearing their own incredible points of view.
With Lovelier, Lonelier, the message, if anything, is that suffering is cyclical. Pain is cyclical. In a work that could allow me to bend genres and dip my toes into science fiction, I realised science fiction, at the end of the day, is truly obsessed with how people change and evolve, whereas the more fascinating question to me is how people regress and stay the same, even in the midst of what feels like progress. And so, Lovelier, Lonelier functions really as a blip in time, an opportunity for these characters of mine to be engrossed in the minutiae of their own desires and problems, while also afforded a kind of glimpse into a wider view of reality that completely changes their understanding of how the world really works.
ESQ: The theme of loneliness anchors both titles. What aspects of it do you identify with?
Yam: I had a friend once remarked to me that loneliness is a throughline in all of my fiction. I now view it as a mantle I’m willing to undertake as a writer, to see how many stories I can exhaust from this one very essential thing about life till I’m done with it.
Once I was in National Service, I heard my own voice say in my head, “One day you are going to die,” and it’s a thought that has jolted me awake ever since. I am going to die one day, yes, and when I do it’s going to be a profound experience that only I will see the true end of. And in that prospect, I find myself inspired every day to write the stories I’m determined to write, like water I draw out of a well. Lovelier, Lonelier and Shantih Shantih Shantih are just the latest iterations to have come out of that well.
ESQ: Why use Sanskrit (Shantih Shantih Shantih) to represent the title of your novella?
Yam: For that, you’ll have to first ask TS Eliot. The novella borrows its title from the last line of The Waste Land, a poem in 1922 that reckons with both the aftermath of World War I and the fact that the British Empire, at the start of that year, was at its largest, ruling over one in four people on earth at the time.
It’s a poem that’s caught in the quagmire of truly global culture, a patchwork of voices, belief systems and points of view that culminates, ultimately, with a sense of spiritual release that lies in the Shanti mantra. It was that same sense of release, of relinquishment that guided me in the conceptualisation and completion of the novella.
ESQ: Tell us more about the significance of the freakish snowfall that lasts for only four minutes and 26 seconds in Shantih Shantih Shantih.
Yam: I think the idea of snowfall in Singapore taps into a kind of basic fascination that we all have, no? Imagining how Singapore would look like if it was under snow? As much as we might find comfort in the predictability of our weather, there’s something truly profound in witnessing the seasons change, a fact of life that I’m sure people not from this part of the world might take for granted. But it’s a fantasy that’s gripped my mind for the longest time; it’s a fantasy that has made me wonder how it might touch on some parts of themselves that only the kiss of a snowflake might touch.
ESQ: What made you want to revisit the Singapore-Japan framework again (first being Kappa Quartet), specifically Kyoto this time around, for Lovelier, Lonelier?
Yam: I’ve admired the Japanese culture for the longest time, while [I’m] also horrified, of course, by the dramatic events of the Japanese Occupation during World War II. How does one reconcile both things? I’m not sure—but I do think that writing, for now, is one of the ways in which I can do that, one small step at a time. Lovelier, Lonelier is just one of those steps.
As a novel, it is split into three parts, set in several different parts of the world, and in the first part, most of the action is set in Kyoto, a city that I have found particularly romantic, with its particular attachment to all kinds of spiritual, cultural and aesthetic traditions. It’s full of wonder, really: I remember spending a few days there in 2017, just in time for the Hanatouro festivities, which I hadn’t known was taking place at the time. I remember visiting all of the temples and rock gardens that I knew would also go into my novel; I remember riding the tram, knowing that my characters, too, would experience the very same thing I was experiencing.
But Kyoto is also a city that is at once close to and removed from the Kobe Earthquake of 1995, an event that is core to one of my characters in the novel who also finds a kind of respite in the city. And so, while there is much beauty and escape to be found in Kyoto, it is also very near to a locus of pain that I wanted to explore in my fiction.
ESQ: How do you feel about releasing both titles simultaneously?
Yam: I couldn’t be more grateful, really. I don’t know how, but for many years I was simply the guy who wrote that strange novel, Kappa Quartet; now I’m the guy with three books all of a sudden under his belt. And I have to say, for a while, it’s felt like all my hard work was finally catching up to me, like a large wave crashing over a beach, which has been nothing short of overwhelming. I’m still feeling rather overwhelmed. But I’m also very, very thankful. I can’t believe this is my life. Who knew loving books as a child could lead me all the way here?
Both books are available at all good bookstores including BooksActually, Epigram and Kinokuniya.