One of the best parts of traveling is discovering the world’s most wonderful bookstores — and my heart exploded when I stepped into BooksActually in the Tiong Bahru neighborhood in Singapore. (Tiong Bahru is helpfully described by the Singapore Tourism Board as “one of the most happening hoods in town” — sort of like a sunny, very small Williamsburg, and punching well above its weight in terms of bakeries.)
BooksActually is amazing, with walls stacked with novels (Singaporean classics and contemporary, plus all the other stuff worth reading), a super-smart and eclectic collection of art and design books, some lovely souvenirs, and, in the back, an entire room full of local vintage pieces. Outside, a vending machine sells “Mystery Books”; inside, two cats meow at customers. There is literally nothing more you could ask for from a bookstore.
This is my interview with Kenny Leck, the founder of BooksActually and publisher of Math Paper Press.
If you are headed to Singapore, or passing through on a visa run, it is a must. Check out their Facebook page for up-to-date details on coming events and readings.
What do readers lose by sticking with writers who share their same backgrounds or cultural identities?
They lose the ability to see the world, and perspective from another individual’s eyes, and experience. The wonders of reading is its timeless, and some say magical, ability to transport the reader into another world, another body, another mind, depending on which character in the book that you most identify with or [are] rooting for. It develops your sense of empathy for another being when the character is facing a challenging scenario. It brings you into another person’s world and culture that you wouldn’t expect unless you travel there. All these can only be accomplished if you read widely.
What do you see as the greatest benefit of reading outside of that constraint — by seeking authors from different places?
For me, it’d be “growing up” in a personal capacity. As cliché as an old Chinese proverb is, 活到老，学到老。It literally translates to “living to a ripe old age, one continues their pursuit of knowledge till their ripe old age as well.” And one of the best way to do this is by reading authors from different places and backgrounds.
Is there is a cohesive identity to Singapore’s contemporary writing scene, and if so, how would you characterize it?
I’d say the “glue” that is currently pulling us together in one, cohesive identity — though there are multiple “pullers” — is the understanding that the SG Literary scene is undergoing a time of exponential growth. For the aspiring writers, including the older generation that had last published in the last decade or more, they are now buoyed by the receptiveness of the reading audience. They can see the demand of SG literary readers, and with demand comes supply.
Can you make an official BooksActually recommendation for a contemporary Singaporean author?
Can I recommend two? Sorry, couldn’t resist, as both authors have been really quite underrated.
Stephanie Ye’s The Billion Shop
To me, Steph’s writing is a combination of Ishiguro and James Joyce’s lucid prose pieces (think “The Dead”, not his stream of consciousness stuff).
Daryl Yam’s Kappa Quartet
His writing and debut novel comes across as the most effortless piece of writing that I have ever read. He is my Murakami but with the depth and youthful gravitas of Borges.
Is there a Singaporean canonical work or classic you always recommend (my American equivalent would For Whom the Bell Tolls — a classic that I also love).
That’d be Goh Poh Seng’s If We Dream Too Long. It is essentially considered the very Singaporean full-length novel that had been after our independence.
If you could recommend 5 Singaporean books to people — like, If you only read these five! — what would they be?
Not un-relatedly, I’m reading a book from every country in the world. Join me!