Vyvyane Loh

Vyvyane LohAfter 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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