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MELISSA DE SILVA

Author of Others’ is Not a Race, winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2018 

(Creative Nonfiction).

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What 'Others' is Not a Race is about and why she wrote it (excerpt from an interview with BooksActually): 

 

Although Eurasians make up less than 1 percent of the population in Singapore, your book has been resoundingly relatable for many people. Why do you think that is?

 

What I write about in my book are simply my own experiences, my feelings and thoughts, as I contemplated my dearth of cultural inheritance (all my own fault) and what I did in an often hilarious attempt to go about recovering bits of my culture. I don't think my situation is something alien to many people living in this time, people in their 20s or 30s, who have had that uncomfortable feeling that they don’t know very much about their own culture and are totally clueless about their traditions, and that squirmy feeling of not being  able to speak their ancestral language, whether it’s Tamil, Cantonese or Catalan.

 

A number of young people especially have told me that they relate a lot to the story ‘The Gift’, about when my grandmother was dying and I wanted to speak to her in Kristang to make some kind of meaningful communication. To my deep sadness, I could only say, “I have eaten. I ate rice.” Pathetic. That was a moment of profound lameness, and sadness, for me, and after my grandmother died before I could learn more Kristang words to speak to her, I vowed I would learn my language somehow. People have told me how they too struggled to speak to their grandparents when they were terminally ill, because they didn’t know enough of their Chinese dialect, or of their Tamil language.

 

I think the dismay of knowing your culture is slowly dissolving with each passing generation also resonates with many people, from any culture, anywhere in the world, because it is a reality most of us face in this era. I was thrilled when after one book event, a young man came up to me to say that because of my book, he realised he didn't know anything about his own cultural traditions and felt compelled to go and learn more about the mooncake festival.

 

So actually, that is the other thing I really would like for readers to take away from my book—the sense of the preciousness of culture, their own and every other culture in the world, and to be spurred into doing something to protect it and keep it alive.

 

 

In ‘Others’ Is Not A Race, you mention learning Kristang as a way to reconnect with your culture and heritage. Was this one of the elements that pushed you to write this book?

 

Learning Kristang, and in the process reclaiming my ancestral tongue of this Portuguese-Malay creole that originated in Malacca, was part of my quest to reclaim my larger Eurasian heritage, which I felt I really didn’t have much of. It was this acute sense of loss of my culture that prompted me to embark on some of the madcap adventures I describe in the book, in an attempt to recover my language, my cuisine and knowledge of Eurasian food history, to collect some oral narratives from my older family members about their experiences growing up in Singapore.

 

In the book I also wanted to articulate some of the frustration and sense of injustice I have felt (and still feel) as a Eurasian Singaporean, where the national racial classification policy does not officially name us but shunts us under the ‘Others’ category, along with people who were not born Singaporean.

Read the rest of the interview here