In Singapore, comedy might just be one of the few things to bring us together. From weekly comedy nights at local bars to your big theatrical pantomimes, humour is one way that lightens the mood while bringing important issues to light. Suffian Hakim‘s second novel The Minorities uses his trademark humour to talk about those who may not necessarily fit in with the majority.
In The Minorities, you have a Malay-Jew who is trying to get his father to make a ghostly return. Then there is a fledging Bangladeshi artist running from a construction company. Together with a Chinese illegal immigrant and a gifted Indian lab technician escaping her abusive husband, this is a story about triumph, diversity and good storytelling. Join four misfits as they struggle and grow, with a forlorn Pontianak haunting them all this time.
While laughing at certain moments, I also find myself questioning what I find humorous and what is appropriate or not. This questioning is essential for me, as a majority here in Singapore, to check my privilege and to be able to do so with enjoyment is great.
The language is straightforward and transports you into a world where Asian myths come true. If you are looking for a relevant read that is relatively lighthearted, this just might be the book for you.
Popspoken speaks to him on inspirations behind his writing and what we might expect next.
Popspoken: What drew you to the art of writing?
Well, there are two aspects to consider in the art of writing: storytelling and craft.
I picked up storytelling from my grandmother. We were a big family in a small flat, so I had to share a room with her. At night, she’d tell me all sorts of stories, from recollections of her life in Indonesia to fantastical, horrifying vignettes that she’d dream up.
I remember realising early in my life that stories are the stuff of our souls: the narratives that move our spirit are the ones we use to define ourselves. It was such a simple act: my grandma telling me stories in the dim light of our room, but it played a huge part in shaping who I am today.
As for craft, I read a lot of Terry Pratchett and Joe Dever as a kid, and I wanted to recreate that magical moment in every avid reader’s life: that moment when your imagination is ablaze and you’re going, “Whoa, I just read something very special.”
In primary school, I would write stories in small notebooks, usually drawn from Greek or Egyptian mythology, and I would give them to my friends. I think they were crap, but I guess we all have to start somewhere. I received validation for my fiction here and there across primary and secondary school, but it was only in polytechnic, when I attended a creative writing class taught by local poetry legend Desmond Kon that my confidence as a writer truly developed.
Popspoken: Specific to The Minorities, what inspired you to write it?
I think The Minorities is a culmination of many small moments and ideas in my life. It was the displacement I felt in my first in secondary school, where I was one of very few Malay Muslim boys in a Catholic school. It was the dispelling of that feeling of displacement as I grew closer to my best friends, who I dedicated the book to. It was my first foray into studying comparative religions. It was my belief that we should become genuine friends with the friendless.
It was the death of my grandmother as well, and my attempts to come to terms with the idea of an afterlife.
Popspoken: Was the process any different from your very first novel?
Was it different from writing a parody about an 11-year-old Malay wizard named Harris bin Potter? Hell yes!
I first wrote Harris bin Potter while I was bored in a lecture theatre. It’s basically a bunch of jokes that stab at the disconnect between Western magical fantasy tropes and Singaporean life. If it was a dance, Harris bin Potter would be me prancing around in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.
The Minorities was more structured, more planned. World-building in writing The Minorities, for example, was from the imagination, whereas world-building in Harris bin Potter and The Stoned Philosopher began with an existing reference point. I also spent a good 3-4 months just letting the characters stew in my head. They needed to be real to me before I could start writing their story.
Popspoken: In light of the e-pay ad controversy, what are some struggles of minorities that the majority may overlook?
In the book, I use the supernatural entities as a metaphor for the people who we pretend don’t exist. Perhaps the ones we perhaps ought to listen to are the ones whose identity, and way of life would be most adversely affected from this issue and similar issues of race and ethnicity.
Popspoken: Your novel uses humour quite a bit although the characters’ lives are dark and heavy. Tell us a bit about your choice to make things funny.
I’ve always hated the idea of having to live my life in one way, or having the same experiences over and over again. I’ve always hated the idea of routine, and while we may think of routine in terms of scheduling a day, I think of routine in terms of emotions as well. I would hate to feel happy all the time in a world where people are suffering. I would hate it if I were unable to laugh in a sordid, gloomy world.
The Minorities reflects my view on life: with the dark comes the light, with life comes death, with the sweet comes bitterness, with suffering comes joy, with love comes hate, with connection comes separation.
Popspoken: Three is a magic number, so if you get to work on another novel following this. What would it be about?
I have already written book number three, actually. I just submitted it for this year’s Epigram Books Fiction Prize, so I can’t say much about it, but it’s a deeply Singaporean story that celebrates the magic of storytelling. That’s as detailed as I can be, I’m afraid.
That said, while three might be a magic number, I don’t intend to rest there.
There are many voices inside my head, many stories waiting to be told. They range from Lovecraftian horror set in Singapore to hard sci-fi concerning the idea of multiverses. There’s also a story I’ve been dying to write called the ‘Second Coming of Berkawk’ about the chaos that ensues after it is revealed that the One True Religion is Berkawkward, the worship of a chicken deity named Berkawk, who descends to Earth one day and reveals himself to be the One True God. Of course, the other religions denounce this as the work of the devil, but Berkawk shows himself to be truly all-powerful, truly all-knowing and truly good. All this is told through the perspective of an underground porn actress whose stage name is Belle Bedok, who herself is a follower of Berkawkward.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to write that one in Singapore, but there’s a deep well of this stuff waiting to come out, and my struggle is finding the time between augmenting my CPF account with my day job, playing football and generally living that sweet middle-class Singaporean life to translate all of them to paper.
To purchase the book The Minorities and to find out more, look it up here.
Reads is a series by Teo Dawn on Popspoken. Learn more about local writers, their inspirations and what they think is worth writing about. After all, one writes about what one cares about. Got a book you want featured? Drop her an email here.