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: 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.
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.