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These Places Are Equally Ours: An Interview with Melissa and Samantha De Silva

These Places Are Equally Ours: 
An interview with Melissa and Samantha De Silva

By Marc Nair, 10 September 2017


Who is a Eurasian? And why have they been lumped under 'Others' in Singapore's convenient racial CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) categories? Broadly defined as Asian with some European ancestry or heritage, Eurasians in Singapore have been linked to various ports in the region, including Malacca, Ceylon, Macau and Penang. They've been around a long time, and yet, Eurasians in Singapore are often treated like they've arrived (recently) from somewhere else. 

The De Silva sisters are of Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and Indian descent. They are writers who grapple with being Eurasian in a supposedly egalitarian Singaporean society. And quite tellingly, themes of identity, place and voice weave their way across the various genres they write in. 

Marc: How did both of you get into writing?

Samantha: I started when I was 10. I was writing rubbish stories in a notebook and they were really bad. I even wrote mini-novels for school. In my teens, I started writing poetry but it didn’t last. I participated in NANOWRIMO in 2006 and kind of wrote my first novel by accident. I came upon the manuscript a year later while clearing my room and found that the bones of the story were there. So I decided to rework the story.

Melissa: In secondary school, it was angst-ridden poetry. For many years I did magazine writing and I began experimenting with fiction only a few years ago. Weirdly, I was very ambitious and started not with short fiction but with a novel. I attempted something about a girl who was a garbage collector. It went nowhere and is now buried!

Marc: Did you know about this, Samantha?

Samantha: No, I’m only hearing about this for the first time!

Melissa De Silva (L) and Samantha De Silva (R) enjoying a chat at Colbar in Portsdown Road

Melissa: When my grandma passed away I realised that our mother tongue is disappearing and I hadn’t done anything about it. Only then did I have the emotional prod to start writing.

Samantha: My writing can best be described as young adult urban fantasy and horror, probably because one of the main themes is identity. I enjoy using horror to talk about things that aren’t right in society. It’s a deep genre, not just about blood and guts, so the gothic is definitely a large part of my influence.

Melissa: I love reading historical fiction and it’s fantastic when it merges with literary fiction. Right now, I like Japanese fiction because the sensibility is rather different. There’s a meditative quality about how they observe their worlds. In general, I go through phases in my writing. Right now I’m reading E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Most of my stories in ‘Others’ Is Not A Race (forthcoming end-2017, Math Paper Press) are non-fiction, based on my own experiences or accounts solicited from my parents. But at least one of the stories is fiction, so the book itself sits between genres.

Marc: Is ‘Others’ Is Not A Race exclusively about Eurasians?

Melissa: Largely, yes. The first story in the collection, 'The Gift', was written about my grandmother. But I was surprised when it was accepted in The Wilderness House Literary Review. And the wider response to it was very positive. I found it rather unexpected, because I’ve always found my racial identity in the workplace to be a blank. People assume I’m Indian because of my name, not Malay, or they simply don’t care. I’m just a blank little post-it note to them.

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Marc: Was it a similar experience for you, Samantha?

Samantha: People ascribe other identities to me. “Oh, you’re very dark, you must be Indian. When’s Deepavali?”

Melissa: I just feel there’s a very happy oblivion towards us. We’re less than 1% of the population so we can’t help it if there isn't enough of us to go around and create awareness of our culture and heritage. I feel that people need to know and it’s important to tie ourselves to a particular community. We grew up in certain places, like Jalan Bahagia, and these places are equally ours. These places, these names, I own them, too.

Marc: Samantha, your protagonist in Blood On The Moon is Eurasian as well?

Samantha: Her first name is Alegria, which is a Portuguese name, but her surname is Sequeira, which is my grandmother’s name. I struggled at first with making her Eurasian, because I thought she might connect better if she’s Chinese. But I persevered because there isn’t enough representation of Eurasians who weren’t cardboard cutouts, like the SPG, the seductress, etc. So let’s have a strong, badass female who’s also a Eurasian. Culture isn’t a focal point of the story as its set in a fictionalised universe. Alegria is a Singaporean supernatural species consultant. When vampires came out into the open, she began studying them. The book is also a reflection on differences in culture. 

 
 

Hunter's Moon is forthcoming in 2018.

Marc: How much of your heritage figures in the novel?

Samantha: There’s a scene where she teaches a werepanther how to make curry debal, but I didn’t put the full recipe in there, of course! You would literally have to marry into the family to get the recipe. The book opens with a scene from a very typical Kristang wedding and that’s a big part of our culture. And in my next book, I’ll definitely have Alegria in Malacca at some point.

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Marc: There was a Kristang Language Festival earlier this year (Kristang is the endangered language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Malacca and Singapore). What do you make of the upsurge in events and interest surrounding Eurasians?

Melissa: All of us Singaporeans could stand to know a lot more about each other’s heritage and background. Not just Eurasians. Our society is already so stratified by race, so I think what’s been happening is definitely a step in the right direction.

Samantha: I never thought I would see a Kristang festival in my lifetime, so this is a good indicator of Singaporeans recognising the place of Eurasians in society.

Melissa: If all of us take ownership of our own sources of cultural wealth, for example, someone who is a Dayak Singaporean identifying as such, that would go a long way to rooting ourselves in our country and an identity we can believe in. So we can stop drawing racial lines and dividing the country.

Marc: How does that translate into writing?

Samantha: For me, it helps to make explorations of identity richer and more complex and allows me to feel more deeply the problems in Singapore, particularly bigotry and race politics; the latter is explored even more in my upcoming novel.

Marc: Do you ever think of marketing yourselves as Eurasian authors?

Samantha: I would identify more with the phrase ‘Eurasian author’ rather than a writer from Singapore because I’ve never really felt at home here. And whenever someone wishes me "Happy National Day", I always feel very uncomfortable.

Marc: Who says that?

Samantha: The cashier from Cheers. I had to stop myself from telling her that I didn’t think nation states were a good idea. Not belonging might be an ultra-minority problem. I actually feel more at home in Malacca or even in Java. Singapore might just have too much of a cultural divide for me.

Marc: People might say you’re just being sensitive.

Samantha: Yes, please have some chill.

Marc: Without addressing the problem.

Samantha: Well, my writing is trade genre fiction and trade fiction is largely ignored in literary circles in Singapore. I’m kind of outside of the politics of race in Singapore when it comes to local writers and writing.

Melissa: I’ve never felt any kind of bias because I was a Eurasian. Neither have I felt that I was favoured because I was a minority and people were trying to fill up some quota. Just getting published was as simple as Kenny (from Books Actually) making a decision, by seeing that there’s a current gap in the market and we should fill it.

Marc: What excites or saddens you both about Singapore’s literary scene?

Melissa: I’m grateful for us not being as developed as the literary scene in a place like the UK. It gives emerging authors a much larger space to get somewhere and since our publishing industry is still young, it gives writers a lot more latitude to experiment. If we get our work into the wider world, our writing necessarily becomes more commodified because of very established publishing guidelines.

Samantha: I just wish that Singaporeans would read more. The market here is very small. Both by population size and because not many people read. It’s very difficult to be successful and to start with success in Singapore when you have such a tiny market. What I’m excited about, though, is the young generation of writers coming up. I’ve been working with the All In! Young Writers Festival, and attendance at the festival has been increasing exponentially. The enthusiasm and persistence shown by the young writers was very encouraging. Those kids will be the next wave of Singapore fiction.   

Marc: What’s coming up next?

 
 

Melissa: ‘Others’ Is Not A Race will be launched at the Singapore Writers Festival in November. And I’m working on a historical novel set in 1906. There’s going to be opium, hawker food and horses in it. The protagonist is Eurasian.

Samantha: My next book is Hunter’s Moon, the second instalment of the Daywalker Chronicles. Alegria plays a starring role. It’ll be a lot darker than the first book, with things like giant werespiders and a stalker necromancer.

Favourite authors and books:

Samantha
1. The Pit Dragon Chronicles- Jane Yolen
2. The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul, Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
3. All Tomorrow's Parties, Neuromancer - William Gibson
4. The Septimus Heap series - Angie Sage
5. The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight, The Shepherd’s Crown (Tiffany Aching series) - Terry Pratchett

Melissa
1. The Guest Cat - Takashi Hiraide
2. The Journey - Jiro Osaragi  
3. Strange Weather in Tokyo, The Nakano Thrift Shop - Hiromi Kawakami
4. Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami  
5. The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon  

Listen to an excerpt from Hunter's Moon here: 

Listen to an excerpt from 'Others' Is Not A Race here: