Vyvyane Loh

Vyvyane Loh
Vyvyane Loh photo by Robert Birnbaum

After I had talked with novelist Vyvyane Loh—who has recently had her debut novel, Breaking the Tongue, published—I sent her the link to my conversation with neurologist/writer Alice Flaherty and a sampling of that chat, in which I had posed a question about obsessive reading—hyperlexia. Vyvyane responded with the e-missive that follows:

When I was young, my mother complained that I read too much. ("Come and watch TV NOW! It's good for you!" And I would have to spend an hour watching the Six Million Dollar Man with my family!) I used to have a book hidden in each room of my home. I could then read without my parents noticing and just stuff the book into a hiding spot if they walked in. If they got suspicious and sent me into another room, voila! I'd have another book tucked away that could jump into. I usually had about four books going at one time. My mother would be doing the ironing in one room listening to me practice the piano and I would do scales mechanically with a book propped up in front of me. In school people would have to avoid bumping into me as I insisted on reading while walking. I would even cross the street while reading (stupid! I tell people I never did drugs but I did books and lived to tell about it!).

That probably tells you as much about Vyvyane Loh as you need to know—but just in case—she was born in Singapore of an ethnic Chinese family and attended medical school. As the talk that follows shows, she has figured out how to practice medicine in a humane way. She also attended the well-regarded Warren Wilson College for a low-residency MFA in creative writing. In addition to this well-laden plate, Loh is also a choreographer and dancer. She lives in the Boston area with her three rabbits.

Breaking the Tongue is a panoramic novel about the fall of Singapore to the Japanese at the beginning of the WWII in the Pacific theater. The focal point of the novel is Hubert Lim's Chinese family, whose Anglophilia straddles the time of the dissolution of the British Empire. And the resulting narrative is a compelling weave of coming of age and search for identity—with a good portion of love added to this resonant story.

Robert Birnbaum: I have talked to a number of people who have taught at Warren Wilson—I don't think I have ever spoken with someone who has attended as a student. Why did you want to go there?

Vyvyane Loh: I was working as a physician full time, and I was thinking about getting my MFA in writing. And I looked around at some programs, and just because I had a full-time job and I had my regular life going on, I needed a place where I could do a low residency.

RB: Meaning you go there two weeks a year or—

VL: Yeah, you spend 10 days every six months actually on campus, and then the rest of the time—

RB: The campus being in North Carolina.

VL: Outside of Asheville. And then you are assigned someone to work with. And for the six months following that residency, that period on campus, you send your work to your supervisor, and they make comments, and you have a dialogue, a mentoring relationship with your supervisor. And they write you letters about your work. [Rosie enters room and, of course, interrupts] Rosie, oh yeah—

RB: So, is there much interaction with the other students?

VL: When we are there, a lot, because we are in dorms.

RB: Adults in dorms.

VL: Yes. For 10 days—day one it's, "La, la, la." Day 2, it's, "Leave me alone." Day 3, the swearing starts. [both laugh]

RB: Most of the students have to stretch their lives to accommodate this program. It seems to indicate an inordinate amount of dedication to wanting to be a writer by attending Warren Wilson.

VL: Yes.

RB: You pay some serious money. You have to plan to fit it into your life—

VL: It requires at least 25 hours of work a week.

RB: You are still a physician?

VL: I am an internist and work part time now. I moonlight.

RB: Are you intending to give it up entirely?

VL: No. I did go to medical school because my parents really wanted me to.

RB: Why else would anyone go?

VL: Yeah. [both laugh] I did get that training, and I did take up a spot in medical school, and I feel ethically that I can't abandon it. I have the training; I should use it.

RB: That's admirable. I have talked to a number of physician-writers: Oliver Sacks, Rafael Campo, Sherman Nuland and Alice Flaherty, Daniel Mason. And there are others. What does it say about the medical profession? You wouldn't expect doctors to have the time.

VL: Many people go into medicine because they think about the future and you need a secure job and so on. Many would have preferred to do something else--paint, compose, and get involved in the arts--but of course, you have to pay the rent and keep food on the table. Many people feel pressured into getting a secure job. I think I would always like to practice medicine but not full time. Hopefully at some point pro bono, so I don't have to think of it as paying the rent.

RB: Do you feel in your experience as a physician you are under pressure to practice medicine with cost analysis as a factor of your work?

VL: Yes, especially when I was working fulltime and had a private practice. That was very frustrating, dealing with insurance companies, spending more time with the paperwork than with patients. That was one part that I really hated.

RB: I guess that as a moonlighter, you are relieved of those odious pressures.

I did get that training, and I did take up a spot in medical school, and I feel ethically that I can't abandon it. I have the training; I should use it.

VL: Yes, I go in at a fixed time and leave at a fixed time and don't deal with billing. So—

RB: [laughs]

VL: It's great that way. Medical billing is a great profession, if you really want to make money.

RB: So you actually can interact with your patients based on purely medical concerns?

VL: That's right, I have the luxury of having more time to interact with them, and I am a much better doctor because of that.

RB: Does anyone try to discourage you from taking the time?

VL: No, not in the settings where I work. I have been very happy. I work in a clinic in Newton and down on the Cape.

RB: Where were you born?

VL: I was born in Malaysia. I grew up in Singapore.

RB: That would explain something about why you wrote this novel. I thought of two other books as I was reading Breaking the Tongue. One a greatly overlooked book by Amitrav Ghosh called The Glass Palace and Daniel Mason's The Piano Tuner. There doesn't seem to be much literature using Southeast Asia as a setting. There certainly is for India.

VL: That's right. It's just all Asia, somewhere over there. Until very recently, I think. I grew up in Southeast Asia, and growing up there, there weren't a lot of writers writing about the area—even people from Southeast Asia. It's not a place where there is a lot of focus on the arts.

RB: It has been seen as and held up as a highly successful economic model. Is that where they beat people for chewing gum on trains?

VL: They don't beat you for leaving gum, but they highly discourage it. [both laugh]

RB: I hope that wasn't taken to be racist, but I know they execute drug dealers, and that translates to an image of a harsh, authoritarian culture.

VL: Yeah.

RB: But then that is true of many countries in the world—this extreme fear of drugs. Here we kill people for crimes other than drug dealing. In other countries there isn't capital punishment except for drug dealers.

VL: There you go. It says a lot about the different value systems.

RB: Tell me why you wrote Breaking the Tongue?

VL: The book is about a search for a national identity. And as you know, it is set in Singapore. I grew up in Singapore at a time when the country was just emerging out of British colonial rule. It was a very confusing time for most people. The government struggled with this issue of national identity and trying to forge a sense of unity among various ethnic groups and religious groups.

RB: How many ethnicities would that be?

VL: It used to be called the Federation of Malaya, and then two countries separated and you have Malaysia and Singapore. A majority of the people in Singapore are ethnic Chinese, and then you have Malay and Indians and a miscellany.

RB: And Tamals?

VL: They are south Indians.

RB: I found the opening epigram useful [Lee Kuan Yew]:

A person who gets deculturalised—and I nearly was, so I know this danger—loses his self-confidence. He suffers from a sense of deprivation for optimum performance a man must know himself and the world. He must know where he stands. I may speak the English language better than the Chinese language because I learnt English early in life. But I will never be an Englishman in a thousand generations and I have not got the Western value system inside; mine is an Eastern value system. Nevertheless, I use Western concepts, Western words because I understand them. But I also have a different system in my mind.

VL: He was the first Prime Minister of Singapore. After I started working on this book, I read portions of his memoir. He too was somewhat like Claude, raised to really admire the British. After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, it really changed his perspective and opinion of the British.

RB: British domination was accomplished with the willing compliance of most of their subjects. Not only were the British shocked and surprised at the rapidity with which the Japanese achieved their military victory, but so were native people.

VL: That's right. It was unthinkable before.

RB: It was in part a self-imposed inferiority complex.

lohVL: That's right. To a certain extent, there is still that post-colonial mentality in a lot of Third World countries.

RB: Looking over the notes that accompanied your book, it was suggested that Claude also had a feeling of superiority. I didn't get that from my reading of this story.

VL: There was a sense of class superiority because economically he was better off than most of the other Chinese in the area and he was closer—he had access to the British. In that way, he had a sense of being better off. But he still wasn't good enough because he wasn't British.

RB: One thing that reoccurs four times or so is that George Orwell is cited—who was rabidly anti-colonial. I also recall there is a Noel Coward quote about the colonies being first-class places for second-class people. It seems easy now to look at the colonial system and the racism as despicable, but it was heavily entrenched—

VL: I grew up in an English-educated environment, I went to an English medium school, and for years at school, Chinese was something that was a chore. We had to study it. Bilingualism was mandatory in school, but it was difficult for me because I didn't speak it at home. I only had it at school.

RB: Structurally it must be extremely difficult. Not like Romance languages.

VL: Exactly. [It requires] pure memorization, so it was tough. I struggled with Chinese a lot. And yet there was a sense in an English school of superiority over other children who were Chinese.

RB: As an English-educated student?

VL: Over Chinese students at Chinese schools. We had a student once in our class, an immersion student, she was from a Chinese school, and she had to spend X number of days in our class to improve her English, and she was ostracized. Nobody talked to her, and there was always a sense of "She's Chinese Ed." As if she wasn't as bright or as good as the rest of us.

RB: My lack of ease with this tribal animosity and racism, it seems to be ubiquitous and a fundamentally inexplicable feature of human society. As you mention in the book, the Chinese thought everyone else was barbarous.

VL: That's right.

RB: The Greeks hate the Turks; the Turks hate the Greeks. The Armenians hate the Turks; the French hate the Germans; the English hate the Irish; and everybody hates the Jews. So we exclaim the terribleness of it all, and yet it is just an ever-present part of it.

VL: It is part of human nature. I was sitting there in English watching this girl from this Chinese school, and I realized, I am Chinese, and yet English is better somehow. So it was very confusing growing up, trying to deal with all that.

RB: I had a Puerto Rican girlfriend who hated Mexicans. [both laugh] This does explode the myth of monolithic Latin and Asian communities.

VL: That's right.

RB: Is there really such a place as the Tiger Balm Gardens?

VL: Yes. I call it Singapore's Disneyland—a very different feel to it than an amusement park. I was horrified as a child looking at the tableaux of these punishments. When I talk to my friends about it, we all go, “Yes was that horrible.” We hated going there, every time my parents said, "Oh that's where we are going" for a lovely Sunday afternoon, you'd start quaking in your shoes.

RB: Why did they want to go?

VL: I have no idea. I guess it was to instill in us a sense of what's right and what's wrong.

RB: Let me back track. There were ten tableaux of various punishments at this park

VL: For stealing, lying, lack of filial piety. That's a big one. A bad one.

RB: That's a universal. It's so self-serving for parents. There is a tableau that seems to resonate in this book. You describe Claude's dream where he thinks he has cut out his own tongue, which is described with great medical precision.

VL: So everyone says. There is actually a tableau where someone is being restrained and having his tongue cut out and for some reason. As a child that one stayed in my memory.

RB: And it echoes in the title of your novel. I don't think it gives anything away to say that close to the end of the book, one of the characters starts to drift from speaking English to where the text turns to Chinese. What happens for the reader who doesn't know Chinese?

Promoting the book and so on? It comes with the territory. I think of it as protecting the book and giving it a good place in the world…

VL: This is the point when the book becomes impenetrable to the English reader—almost shuts the door on the English reader--and this is a book about national identity and how that is very closely linked to language, and at that point the natives say you are outside and we are inside.

RB: If I am Chinese, what am I reading?

VL: [both laugh] No, I offer no translations. And it's for a reason. [laughter continues]

RB: How long did you work on this novel?

VL: 2 1/2 years to get the draft out. And then another year or so with my editor.

RB: Is this the story you set out to write?

VL: It started as a short story that just kept growing, and for the longest time I just called it LTSS, Longer Than Short Story. I knew in my heart that it was a novel. I just wasn't confident about calling it a novel at that point.

RB: Are you happy with what you have written?

VL: [pause] Yes, but I am thinking of the next one.

RB: Of what you could do better?

VL: I am dying to get on and do new work.

RB: And now that you are caught up in the publishing machine?

VL: Promoting the book and so on? It comes with the territory. I think of it as protecting the book and giving it a good place in the world, and it comes with the job of being a writer. I struggled with that issue for a while. I thought, "I don't know if I can deal with publicity and book tour." And then I realized, of course I can. It's part of the job.

RB: Although it's not like you are lonely and need the relief from the solitude of the writer's life?

VL: No, I don't have enough time alone actually. Besides the medical work and writing, I also dance and choreograph quite a bit.

RB: Oh. So sleep deprivation is by choice.

VL: No, the last two nights I was at rehearsal for a Lowell House Opera, choreographing L' Histoire La Soldat for them. I don't feel like I am limited by writing or limited by dance. For me, one flows into the other naturally. I know I write better when I am dancing and choreographing and vice versa. When I am writing, I actually get up quite frequently and turn on some music and jump up and down. When I choreograph, I think a lot like a writer. I think a lot about narrative structure and how to get that across on stage. So I don't think of them as two separate worlds--they almost blend into one another.

RB: Perhaps that's what we do culturally. We assume those boundaries and divisions. "I'm now talking to a writer." Or, “I am now talking to a dancer."

VL: It's easier to put things into neat categories, but the two feed off each other. There is a kind of balance that is achieved with having both, because writing is solitary, and dance (at least for me) is more communal, and you inhabit space and you are present in your body. When you are writing, you are in your head, often times.

RB: It's safe to say that at your readings most of the audience will not have read your book. Do you have any feeling about that?

VL: One way to look at it is as a performance. There is definitely a performance aspect to every reading. It’s a little harder when you are reading from your book than when you are on stage dancing. You go on as a persona when you are acting or dancing, and you go on as yourself when you are reading. Obviously, I try to select passages that are complete in themselves so that it makes some sense to the listener. You want to stimulate people to buy your book. You to select something that will pique their interest.

RB: As you know, I am not a fan of the solitary book reading…[RB has been conducting public conversations monthly at Brookline Booksmith talking with Kathyrn Harrison, Stewart O‘Nan, David Denby and Nicholson Baker]

VL: When you interviewed Stewart O’Nan, I went to that, and I like that format a lot better. It's more interesting and the audience can participate in it.

RB: I think people want to get a feel for the writer much more than hearing passages from the book.

VL: And for me [as writer] it's more of a chance to interact with the audience rather than to stand at a podium—

RB: Actually, I think that the reading is based on getting to the Q & A, and I have been at many readings where the audience just doesn't take up the great opportunity they have. Sometimes I feel like a ringer because I'll start asking questions just to break the ice.

lohVL: People are a little shy, and you put someone up on a podium and there is that distance immediately. It would be a lot better to get physically closer—maybe sit closer to the audience.

RB: You say you're anxious to get to the next one. Do you already have an idea?

VL: No, I have several ideas. I just want to be writing. I'd like to start digging around and feeling things out.

RB: When did you turn this book in to W.W. Norton, your publisher?

VL: I finished copy edits around October.

RB: You could have started working in the next one then.

VL: No, in the editing process I still had to be thinking about this book. We call it editing, but it is really part of the writing process.

RB: What's the aftermath of completing a novel? Is this book still resonating in your head?

VL: Hmm resonance. I don't know.

RB: Are you still thinking about Breaking the Tongue?

VL: Sometimes when I open it up and read a few passages and I go, "Oh I wrote that?" Sometimes it's hard to—

RB: You seem to still have a youthful naivete about the writing business.

VL: [laughs] Extreme naivete. I just have very good people around me.

RB: Who was your mentor at Warren Wilson?

VL: I had four semesters there. I had C.J. Hribal, Andrea Barrett, Claire Messud and Christopher McLemore, and the director of the program, Peter Turchi; he's been wonderful. He just guided me through this whole process.

RB: There is something about the people who want to teach there that, I sense is special.

VL: Wonderful faculty. And the community there is so supportive; it's just a special place. I am very, very fond of that program.

RB: And then you went to a very good publisher whose authors, when I speak to them, are very happy about being with Norton. One of the last of the independents, cooperatively owned by the employees.

VL: They just love books. That's the amazing thing.

RB: Besides champing at the bit to get to the next thing, do you have a grand plan, a vision of your life?

VL: The creative act is what keeps me happy. Both writing and choreography. Every project is a new thing, a new experience. Every project takes on a life of its own.

RB: Do you have the same worries with each?

VL: I'd like to think I am a little smarter now about the novel form. I went into the Warren Wilson program wanting to have a novel draft by the end of the program, and I did. But I have gone to a lot of workshops where they really focus on the short story form—

RB: Why is that?

VL: In practical terms, [because of] time. If you are at a workshop with 8 people, it's a quicker turn around. That's not to say it's an easier form, but it is different. And it is really hard to find workshops with people who work primarily in the novel. So a MFA program is a good place to do that because you have that sustained—you have the time for it. You have two years.

RB: Most people in writing programs do, in fact, write short stories.

VL: Maybe they want to work on stories.

RB: But the reality of the publishing business, I'm told, is that publishers accept story collections so they can get to the novel.

VL: I didn't know that reality.

RB: We've talked about you—enough now. Have you read anything that has amazed you or made you jealous or some strong emotion?

VL: Let's see. The last fiction I read was Gould's Book of Fish. Flamboyant and lovely—I enjoyed it. Some of my other favorite writers are Jim Shepard. I read his Love and Hydrogen. I love his short stories. I haven't gotten to Project X yet. He's a great writer.

RB: So you are going to do a book tour -

VL: It's short, but it will probably feel like a year by the time I'm done.

RB: You're a physician, writer and choreographer. Any other hobbies?

I don't feel like I am limited by writing or limited by dance. For me, one flows into the other naturally. I know I write better when I am dancing and choreographing and vice versa.

VL: Not enough hours in the day. I just take care of my three bunnies. And that's a full-time job in itself.

RB: Bunnies?

VL: Yes.

RB: As in rabbits?

VL: Yes.

RB: How old are they?

VL: Both Frodo and FaFa are four now and Oolong is a year.

RB: What do rabbits do?

VL: They are wonderful! They have such wonderful personalities. [laughs] A friend told me that Oolong reminds her of a dog. She leaps in the air and does pirouettes. They run around. I learn a lot from my rabbits. I watch them prance around, and when they are tired, they just flop. I try to remind myself to flop once in a while. [laughs]

RB: Are rabbits affectionate?

VL: Oh yes. They lick a lot.

RB: What do people say when you tell them you have rabbits?

VL: They think, "How boring. What do they do? They sit around and look at you." We think of rabbits as these little furry animals in a cage we bring them out at Easter.

RB: And all they do is replicate.

VL: Replicate and poop. House rabbits are different. They can be litter trained, and they are very intelligent. They understand commands. I had a rabbit that I could talk to who understood. They can express themselves really well. When they are upset at you, they will turn their backs on you. Ignore you.

RB: [laughs] So given the fact that you wrote your first novel under aegis of a writing program, have you set a goal for how long for the next one?

VL: I am thinking about a novel and as to how long, but after working on this book—this may be controversial—I have a new rule. My new rule is the first draft should not take more than 12 weeks.

RB: Wow!

VL: Because it's just primer on the wall. Really. You just slap paint up. It's just primer. And then you can take as long as you want to work on 2nd and 3rd.

RB: Why is that controversial?

VL: There is a sense of you should sit down and carefully craft every word and so on. For a novel because it's such a long process, and it's a huge undertaking psychologically it's very useful to have some primer on the wall very quickly. Just a simple sketch, a simple frame up.

RB: Well, this not what writer Donna Tartt, who labors over every word, does.

VL: Different people have different ways of writing, obviously, but I think it is useful to just slap that primer on the wall. Get through that first draft and then you sit and the rest of it is revising. That is really big part of the writing process. The first draft is just a suggestion.

RB: That is a big lesson for people who have a fear of writing—just get it out.

VL: I have seen people at workshops rehash the same chapter over and over because they want to get it just right before they move on to the next chapter. And that's going to take a very long time.

RB: If Donna Tartt is a model, 8 years for her first book and 10 years for her second.

VL: [laughs] That might give you two books in your lifetime.

RB: Well good. Thank you, very much.

VL: Thank you.

© 2004 Robert Birnbaum Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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