If you had a laugh reading Harris Bin Potter and The Minorities, your sides are bound to ache from laughter as you read Suffian Hakim’s replies to our questions. Explore what goes into the mind of the eccentric home-grown author and his reading habits.
1. It’s safe to say that Harris Bin Potter was inspired by Harry Potter. Were there any other books you read and decided, ok I’m “stealing” this character/location/description? If yes, which was it? If not why not?
Harris Bin Potter, source: http://po.st/o3mR11
“Stealing” is a horrible word! I think what I’ve done is that I took established norms in popular culture and subverted, questioned and distorted them for my own writing pleasure. I did that for a lot of my favourite works in popular culture and inserted them sporadically into Harris bin Potter.
For example, a group of American students in Hog-Tak-Halal-What School of Witchcraft and Wizardry started a Food Fight Club, a CCA that exists in the same vein as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, which itself is one of my favourite books-turned-movies. It was an opportunity for me to question the first rule of Fight Club (” You do not talk about Fight Club!”) as well as the deeper, more philosophical issue of the need for a Fight Club/Food Fight Club to exist.
In terms of style, I was heavily inspired by Douglas Adams, author of the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy of five books. I think there is a similar random, haphazard quality to Harris bin Potter, like the movement of an electron, and like an electron, its interactions with an established body of neutrons and protons can cause the qualities of the overall compound to alter and evolve.
2. While working on the two books, you had to really juggle your time between work and writing. How did you manage that?
I had no life. I wrote in the train en route to work. I’d park myself in the National Library after work (and the cafe outside or the 24-hour McDonald’s at nearby Odeon Towers after the library closes), just writing.
My thoughts dwell constantly on my books. I’m constantly crafting scenes, I perform thought experiments (within the boundaries of the universe of my books) while I’m eating or while I’m in the bathroom.
My girlfriend helps a lot as well. She’s the first person I bounce ideas off, and she helps arrange all the primordial material in my head into some semblance of the cosmos. I’m a messy person, and it helps so much to have a more organised mind nearby to help put things in order.
3. It’s very important for an author to come up with his own unique voice, his own writing style. How did you find yours?
I believe an author’s voice and style are shaped by three things: their obsessions, their influences and their hopes. My obsession is astronomy and the supernatural, my influences are Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams, and my hope is to see greater equality among people and peoples, and for us to laugh our way to a more just world.
Finding my own voice is also intricately linked with my own personal experiences. I’ve lived my life feeling like it’s not okay to be me. I don’t know if it’s my immediate family and friends, or society in general, but people tend to like telling me to be better, or to point out my flaws.
The people around me like to see themselves as instruments of good and to highlight my other-ness. But in that sense, it was also very easy for me to be a voice that alternates heavily from theirs.
I think with every teacher who tells me I won’t amount to anything, with every friend who tells me I shouldn’t talk or think a certain way, with every older family member who questions my decisions in life, I grow more assured in who I am, and my place in this world — first as an antithesis to their impositions on me, and eventually as my own person, paving my own path, having my own voice.
Don’t get me wrong – loyalty to your friends and filial piety are virtues in their own right, but not many people will hold your hand and walk with you on the road less travelled.
4. What were some of the challenges you faced while writing Harris Bin Potter? Did these same problems resurfaced while you were working on The Minorities?
I think the biggest problems I faced while writing Harris bin Potter are:
- That I was no longer the same writer I was when I wrote the first chapters for my blog, back in polytechnic.
- Because it was a crowdfunded project, a lot of people asked to be written into the book, which did impose limitations on the creative process.
- That I did all of it alone — writing, printing, editing, retailing. It became a little easier when my girlfriend came on board, but in the first year and a half of the journey, it was all me.
I think with Epigram Books picking up Harris bin Potter, a lot of these kinks will be straightened out.
With The Minorities, it was a much easier journey because of all that I learnt from doing Harris bin Potter. Also, now that I have the support of Epigram Books, a lot of the headaches in terms of marketing and logistics are substantially lessened.
The Minorities, source: http://po.st/MOkcFz
5. What are some of the must-read books you recommend aspiring authors to read?
My biggest recommendation has to be Cosmos by Carl Sagan. That was the book that most clearly paved my way towards intellectualism.
If you judge it by its cover, or a cursory read, Cosmos might seem like yet another book on astrophysics by an inaccessibly science nerd.
But Mr Sagan (who mentored Neil Degrasse Tyson, mind you) wrote the book with simple yet lyrical prose and incorporated literature, history, mythology and psychology into his exploration of the universe.
It is the best contextualisation of our existence and the universe we’ve found ourselves in.
To combat the crippling insecurity authors might feel when reading their own work, I strongly recommend Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.
There are many lessons you can take from the beat poets. The main one is this: revel in your own voice for it is your own and nobody else’s. It is alright if it doesn’t sound like Lang Leav’s or JK Rowling’s or Salman Rushdie’s, for these people will fail to sound like you.
I chose On The Road particularly because it was written in the stream-of-consciousness, a fluid river of prose unchecked and unhindered by self-censorship or self-editing. The result is a book whose sophistication is sublime and understated, and also puts you firmly, intimately at the heart of Sal Paradise’s bopping, free-wheeling, mad, mad, mad journey across America.
6. With both Harris Bin Potter and The Minorities intended for a niche group of target audience, are there any other niche areas you wish to see aspiring writers take on?
Someone should write something for and from the Inuit and Yupik demographics! A literary take on life in the Arctic regions would be pretty interesting. And also, the psychological cost of being clumped together as Eskimos by large swaths of the world who do not understand how derogatory the term can be. Eskimos tend to be removed from the rest of the world (the Arctic doesn’t exactly have strong tourist and telecommunications facilities), so I think their take on the modern world would be very, very interesting.
7. What goes through your mind when writing the two books?
“I need to stop drinking so much coffee.”
“Do I have some kind of psychological issue? Why am I writing this?”
“Do not fart in the library! Do not fart in the library!”
But honestly, most of the time I’m just giggling to myself when I come up with a joke or a particularly preposterous scene.
8. Do you have any particular quirky habits you do consciously or subconsciously when you’re reading?
I sometimes think reading in itself becomes a quirky habit in Singapore. Not many of my friends do it, unless a book gets really hyped about, like 50 Shades of Grey, Ready Player One or something or other by Lang Leav.
Oh! I dog-ear my books, and I must have a book with me when I’m in the bathroom. I don’t think that’s quirky, but I know of friends who think it strange that I do that.
9. What is your favourite book and why?
HOW CAN YOU MAKE ME CHOOSE? THAT’S LIKE ASKING A PARENT TO PICK THEIR FAVOURITE CHILD!
Currently, it’s the book I’m working on, The Stars In Their Eyes (working title), because my mind lives in the universe of that book now, and it encompasses most of the themes and ideas that set my mind to supernova.
If I were to give you a less self-promoting answer, it’s a toss-up between Cosmos by Carl Sagan or The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim.
10. When we say reading, what is the first image that comes to mind?
Me in my room. Aircon on. Plate of cookies, glass of milk. Phone on silent. ‘Moby’ or ‘Cigarettes After Sex’ on Spotify. In my hands is a book I can really get lost in, something by Salman Rushdie, perhaps, like Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights.
11. If there’s a book you really want someone to read, how would you go about making the person read?
Well, usually all I really need to do is to tell them how the book speaks to their raison d’etre. People usually only want context or perspective when it applies to them, so that’s what I give them. Either that, or, I buy the book for them as a gift. Usually, they’ll read it.
12. Harris Bin Potter was a parody of Harry Potter, are there other big titles you would like to make a parody of? Could you give us an example?
Honestly, I’m moving away from parodies. It’s fun to write, and it is the literary equivalent of prancing around naked in somebody else’s house, but I feel that I have my own stories to tell.
I did write a 50 Shades of Grey Parody called 3 Shades of Brown. I published that one on my website. I had a few ideas to do crossover parodies, after watching the recent Supernatural-Scooby Doo crossover episode.
Like, the Transformers fight the ghosts of Paranormal Activity at Tanglin (based off the Mediacorp drama). But I think that works better as a thought experiment than a book.
13. If you could tell aspiring local authors just one thing to spur them on their writing journey, what would it be?
Singapore’s narrative used to be in the hands of a select few. We’ve matured enough as a democracy for that narrative to be dictated by a larger pool of individuals.
We are in a position where that narrative can be moulded by imagination; that narrative can survive diversity and will be shaped, not misshapen, by the litany of different voices and beliefs that have grown here.
Your chance to have a say in that narrative will not come if you don’t pick up that pen and paper.
14. Name an author that you admire and his/her book that you think everyone should read.
THERE ARE TOO MANY. Okay, my go-to answer would be Neil Gaiman and The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. But I feel it’s because I’ve recently entered my thirties and the magic (and cruelties) of childhood goes supernova when seen through older, dustier lenses of nostalgia.
I think people my age can really connect with the mood and sentiment of The Ocean, while also accepting that there are strong echoes of our past selves in our contemporary selves, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
I would also recommend local uncle Gwee Li Sui, whose body of work is far more voluptuous than his actual body (eat more, Gwee!). He is a master of multiple mediums; check out Myth Of The Stone (a graphic novel), Telltale (short-story compilation), Spiaking Singlish: A Companion to How Singaporans Communicate (humourous non-fiction) and Death Wish (one of my favourite poetry collections).
15. What’s the target number of books you aim to read this year?
I don’t really have a target, but if I’m not reading or writing, crippling insecurity settles into my being and I very rarely allow that to happen.
16. How many have you read so far? And which is your favourite book you’ve read this year?
I think I’ve read about six books so far this year (while I’m writing my third). I think my best find of the year has to be The Corpse Exhibition, a short story compilation by Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. Mr Blasim is incredible. Every story in The Corpse Exhibition is either a raw, unflinching look at the Iraqi War, or an imaginative study into the more ethereal stratospheres of modern Iraqi life (if it can even be called a life).
A close second would be Iraq+100, a compilation of science fiction short stories by Iraqi writers. Compiled and edited by Mr Blasim himself, the stories posit what life in Iraq might be like 100 years after the ill-advised (depending on who you’re asking) American invasion of 2003.
As you can tell, I’m having a huge literary crush on Mr Blasim. But these two books are also the standouts of my 2018 reads thus far because I do not want the peaceful, progressive, relatively comfortable life I have in Singapore to blind me from the suffering of people beyond our shores, and the work of these writers have opened my eyes to psychological wounds I was unable to even imagine before reading these books.