Missing persons form material for S'pore writer's new book

This article was first published by publichouse.sg

Absences, voids and disappearances form the theme of Felix Cheong’s masterful new collection of short stories, 'Vanishing Point'.

What happens when a person disappears? Not just when they die, but when they become so disconnected that they are no more a part of this world, or when they simply decide to one day leave their lives behind? Singapore writer Felix Cheong, a familiar name in our literary scene, explores these questions in his writing.

Each story revolves around a character who is about to, or has already, fallen off the edge of his life. Mysterious disappearances, addiction, alienation in a society to whom they mean nothing—are some of the situations in which Cheong’s characters struggle. Some find redemption, some don’t and some are left staring into the unknown.

There is Pek, a man who makes his life as bland as it can be, who removes from it any trace of colour, emotion or personality, and also tries to erase his wife. Then there is Chris the drummer, who lives an accelerated life in a haze of sex and lust, only to find it screeching to a halt; Ah Pin, the retired prison officer, grapples with the emptiness and futility of life, and decides to walk away, never to return; Melanie a writer finds words inexplicably disappearing from her manuscript; and Dominic who is drowning in debt and has to contend with strangers showing up at his flat asking for a 10th floor that doesn’t exist.

As each story comes to an end, questions linger in the air. Questions that stir the imagination and leave one feeling on the edge — of life and death, of sanity and insanity, of a realm in which the logic of this world no longer applies, or of a moment in which everything changes — looking into the lives, and vanishing points, of the characters.

Q: Three hundred people vanish without a trace every year in Singapore. To get under the skin of this book you researched these missing persons. How did you feel, looking at their photos and wondering about their lives?

A: To say I was haunted by these people is an understatement! I would focus on the missing people with an intriguing detail that seemed to suggest a back story, something left unfinished or unsaid. Then I would work my way back. For instance, Ah Pin, in ‘Life Sentence’, is based on an elderly man who disappeared after he told his wife he was going downstairs to buy newspapers. For weeks, I kept looking at his picture, wondering why he disappeared, what his life was like before and after. Slowly, I assembled a character based on this. I would even dream of him, waking up with a eureka moment about why he did what he did. In a way, it’s literary forensics.

Q: Your book isn’t about these real-life people or their histories though. It explores absences, unanswered questions, voids and spaces in-between the real and unreal, the living and the dead. Why did you choose to write about this?

A: 'Vanishing Point' explores themes I have previously explored in my poetry. I think these voids, spaces in-between the real and unreal and the living and the dead are creatively provocative because in our day-to-day existence, we hide them, don’t talk about them, do our best to ignore them.

Q: The supernatural occurs in a few stories. Why is this so prevalent in Singapore writing?

A: My stories are not so much suffused with the supernatural as the surreal and the absurd. There is no ‘ghost’, as it were, in any of the stories. Even Wong, in ‘True Singapore Ghost Story’ (a tongue-in-cheek spoof of Russell Lee’s bestselling books), is not really a ghost but a zombie who has lost the will to live, having bought into the whole Singapore narrative of meritocracy and found himself shortchanged by it.

Q: There is no redemption in many of the stories. Your characters fall off the edge, disconnect themselves or die in mysterious circumstances. Were you drawn to these types of endings?

A: Well, there is redemption, in some fashion, in ‘Melanie & Molly’, as both characters realise at the end that they have to learn how to be true to themselves. I wrote this story specially for my wife, Georgette, because she felt that the collection was getting too bleak.

It’s a misconception that writers force a certain kind of ending on their characters. Character is destiny. Once I’ve picked the characters and set the scenario, they write and will their own outcome, their own endings. For instance, in ‘In the Dark’, Pek is so obsessed with white and cleanliness (a political metaphor) that he literally cannot see the woods for the trees. In his worldview, nothing else matters but to clean spots, clear up mess. So he even turns his wife white, erasing her. For me to engineer another ending would have been out of character for him.

Q: What was it like to write prose after being so accustomed to writing poetry?

A: As I did when I wrote my two young adult novels in 2006–2007, I had to learn how to walk again. Poetry and prose require different skills — the former needs the ability to crystallise an emotion or thought succinctly, the latter the ability to embed and flesh out a believable character in a story.

The language part came first and was easier; I could pen a turn of phrase that cut a character to the quick. But the storytelling part came in later, after much heaving and shoving. In fact, I had to leave the manuscript alone for more than six months so that I could unlearn some of my poetry writing habits. Thankfully, at some point, the two skills came together.

Q: When you write a book, do you every worry about how it will sell?

A: I would be lying if I said I didn’t care. Every writer worries, of course, about sales, though that doesn’t necessarily drive the motivation to write. My philosophy has always been: Do it well, do it honestly, and the book will find its audience.

('Vanishing Point' will be launched on 10 November; Festival Pavilion, Campus Green, Singapore Management University; 3:30–4:30pm. Admission is free.)



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