He read English at Oxford, trained as an actor at Drama Centre London, taught Mandarin and puppet-making and acted in the Bollywood film Show Man . He has reviewed books and plays for magazines, his short-stories have been published across the globe. His plays have been read in Singapore, New York, Los Angeles and London, developed for productions, he has translated Chinese books into English, and has been short-listed twice for the Birdport Prize. He is currently writing his second novel. Jeremy Tiang, on his second visit to India to participate in the Sangam House residency in Bangalore and teach at the Chennai Mathematical Institute says, “I have been lucky.”
May be. His programme today (7 p.m.) at Book Building where he will meet Chennai-ites is a “lucky” event. Looking for an address, he spied the Tara Books board, followed it to the bookstore, and ended up being “discovered.” In 2009, unable to sleep during a train journey in Denmark, he wrote the “dialogue-heavy” short-story Trondheim , which won the Golden Point Award. Following this, he was invited to a retreat in England where a teacher introduced him to her agent, and his life as a writer /translator got on firmer ground. He now has a PEN grant to translate Zou Jinzhi’s short stories about the Cultural Revolution. His six translations are of books he loved to read, “I was lucky.”
Our conversation is about straddling the two worlds of writer and translator. “There is a lot of interest in Chinese history and literature now,” but translating is a demanding calling. The work he is doing “is set in a different culture, a different time.” None of the books he has translated are set in present-day Singapore. One was about 15th Century Indonesia, another about China, yet another about Taiwan. Also the translator has to guard against the temptation to add his thoughts, he says, has to approach the original work respectfully. “I consult the writer about unfamiliar expressions, sometimes about a food item.”
He is also working on a campus novel — “it’s about half-way done” — that explores the wisdom of allowing American colleges in Singapore. Does it bring about cultural exchange or have we done this for money, he asks. He visits CMI twice a week, and is catching the sights of the city. He will be talking to students at IIT, will meet admirers at Spaces.
That is a lot. “Injambakkam (Cholamandalam Artists’ Village) where I stay is a quiet place,” he smiles. He works on the novel early morning, writing in a note-book in neat long hand. “I write slower than I think, so it works. I type faster.” He goes for a walk on the beach, gets back to doing translation. “It’s a whole book of stories, you really can’t pause, it should feel like one person writing it.” He’s compartmentalised, he says, there’s space between writing and translating. “I don’t have the luxury of taking up things one by one, it’s tricky how you earn a living as a writer.” It is a full-time job, and half of it is spent on looking for work, applying for grants, residencies.
He has a word for young writers. “Discipline,” he says. He uses a timer, setting it for 15 minutes, 45 minutes. There is no TV at Injambakkam, but the Internet can be a major distraction. These little strategies make it work. Writing takes your life, he is emphatic. If people say words just pour out, they are lying. Sometimes they flow, but mostly you have to go looking for them, replace them.
It’s a long step between ideas, shaping your thoughts and crafting your sentences. And yes, he is influenced by other writers. “You can’t write in isolation, I would be puzzled by a writer who does not read.” He read this brilliant use of “we” in Joshua Ferris’s novel And Then We Came To The End , and when he was writing a piece on Indian construction workers he found this usage fitting in well. “You make it your own.”
He is learning Tamil, will be back definitely, he says. We smile politely, till he whips out his ID.
It says: Jeremy Jeyam Samuel. “I am 25 per cent Tamil, my father is half-Tamil, his father came from Jaffna.” He took up my mother’s surname to avoid confusion, he explains. “Shame I have not been to Sri Lanka (my father refers to as Ceylon), I’ve heard him speak Tamil on the phone. The Tamil side of my heritage stands neglected.” He loved Lakshmi Holmstrom’s translation of Tamil poetry, is intrigued by the word Maoism, by the fact that the Indian Chinese were confined in Rajasthan during the Indo-Chinese war. Plenty to draw him to the sub-continent.
Meet Jeremy Tiang at Book Building, Off Kuppam Beach Road, Thiruvanmiyur today at 7 p.m.. Call 4260 1033.