16 May

A Conversation with Gwee Li Sui

From teaching you the difference between “la” or “lor” and how to use the term “stunned like the vegetable” in Spiaking Singlish, to the very real and thought-provoking lessons about life from Death Wish, it’s not a stretch to say this fervent literature-loving author has contributed a whole lot to Singapore’s literary scene. Sure, you may know him as the poet, graphic designer and literary critic but do you know his strangest bookmark? Or how many books he has read thus far? Well, we didn’t too until the interview! Read on to find out 🙂

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1) Are there any Singlish books (apart from yours) you would recommend to locals and foreigners alike to gain more insights on Singaporean culture?

Lots ah! You can easily find in bookshops Sylvia Toh Paik Choo’s The Complete Eh Goondu! and Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen’s Coxford Singlish Dictionary. If you must have a ton of cartoons, look for Miel’s An Essential Guide to Singlish.


2) Do you have any peculiar habits you adopt when it comes to reading?

I jump into a hole where I can’t be found for at least 2 hours. Then I read with one hand holding a book and another a mug of tea or coffee.


3) What is one book ALL Singaporeans must read and why?

The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew – because, come on, it’s such an important document! But I haven’t read it.


4) In your interview with CNA last year in July, you mentioned that the whole infection of reading has to be discovered by itself. How then would you as a third party encourage this discovery?

I would encourage this discovery by encouraging people to discover for themselves.


5) If you had to court someone within 3 books, which would they be and why?

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha – because it shows how it’s human to be lustful. Also, Adrian Tan’s The Teenage Textbook, for the same reason, and any Jane Austen novel, for the same reason.


6) As a literature teacher, how would you encourage your students to read more?

I would assign them endless homework requiring them to read every waking hour.


7) Imagine a world where reading and writing has been deemed as a criminal offence, what would you do?

Get married.


8) What’s the weirdest thing you’ve used as a bookmark?

I’m not sure if this is considered weird, but I still use the London Travelcards I’ve amassed from my years living abroad.


9) Can you name 3 of your favourite fictional characters and how they managed to stand out from all other characters you’ve read before?

Surely Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing – better known as Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy in English! They are such unlikely great buddies who rouse me to make the most of myself. At any point in my life, I’m one of them.


10) What led you to pursue a career in literature?

Naivety. Please listen to your parents and aspire to be a medical doctor.


11) You used to have trouble with literature before but have seemingly turned it around. Is there any advice you would like to give others who are now having issues with literature?

Hang on. I never had trouble with literature. I had trouble with its academic study – which is a different thing? If you’re facing this problem, know that it’s OK to feel stupid. Don’t let it affect your love for books.


12) What’s the target number of books you aim to read this year?

What target number? That’s more for people who motivate themselves to read the way they motivate themselves to lose weight.


13) How many have you read so far? And which is your favourite book you’ve read this year?

Please see my last reply. Also, I only sometimes read from cover to cover. It’s fine to put down a book and return to it years later – or never. This year, I discovered Junji Ito and have since devoured everything by him available in English.