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Suffian Hakim and Jocelyn Suarez
Photograph: Epigram Books

Local authors Suffian Hakim and Jocelyn Suarez on telling dark stories

The authors talk about their new books, scary characters, local folklore and even the dark side of Singapore

Cam Khalid
Written by
Cam Khalid
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Whether it’s the twisted tales of Badang and Bukit Merah or the scary stories of Pontianak, you’ve probably come across these local folklores at least once in your lifetime. Now, pull up your blanket even further as there are two new narratives that delve deeper into the darker side of Singapore, and even life itself: The Keepers of Stories by the bestselling author of Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher Suffian Hakim, and The Flesh Hunters by poet Jocelyn Suarez.

Longlisted for the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, both books take on real-life events and weave in local folklore to introduce readers to brand new worlds. The Keepers of Stories follows two siblings who come across Anak Bumi, a group of people who practise a storytelling ritual that invokes – as Suffian puts it – “the spirits of the land". While fans of murder mysteries can expect plenty of thrills and spills in The Flesh Hunters, which includes a series of killings by a suspected Hunter, a bloodthirsty hybrid between man and animal with a predilection for human flesh.

To get a better idea of these sinister stories and curious creatures, we chat with the authors Suffian Hakim and Jocelyn Suarez on the ideas, people, and even interesting anecdotes that have influenced the books. And what’s a dark tale without venturing deep into the great unknown? The authors also share with us their favourite local folklore, the superstitions they remember the most, and how haunted they believe Changi Beach is.

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Photograph: Epigram Books

Hi guys! Tell us – what about Singapore excites you the most?

Jocelyn Suarez (JS): I consider Singapore my home, so at the heart of being here, thriving here, and growing here, is the comfort of feeling a sense of belonging. A lot of my friends are deeply entrenched in the music and art scenes here, so I'm constantly engaged in and excited by that. I am also constantly amazed by the creativity and resilience of the arts and music scene in this country.

Suffian Hakim (SH): I must say I'm a huge museum nerd. I've been to the Smithsonian and the Museum of Cairo but I am equally awe-inspired when I'm at the Asian Civilizations Museum or the National Museum [of Singapore]. I feel small and insignificant in these places, but in a good way. I acknowledge the fact that I'm part of a rich tapestry of other people who have come before me. What they've left behind is just part of humanity's transcendental dance through history to our own songs of free will and creativity and resilience and intelligence. Places like this remind me to stop thinking about how I am special, and start thinking about how we are special.

Suffian, we heard you’re turning your love for museums into a new, exciting project. 

SH: I wrote and created a new pilot which I pitched to Mediacorp that was recently greenlit called Amaranthine and the primary location is a museum, and that's like, half my dreams come true. I love going to museums in general.

Now, moving on to your next love: writing. Both of you have recently released your new novels – The Flesh Hunters (by Jocelyn Suarez) and The Keepers of Stories (Suffian Hakim). The books seem to delve into the darker side of life – could you tell us more about it?

JS: The Flesh Hunters is a murder mystery with a speculative twist – not the human kind, for sure. It follows forensic psychologist Walter Kirino as he investigates murders committed by a Hunter, a cannibalistic pseudo-human going rampant in the city of Heitan.

SH: The Keepers of Stories is my most personal book to date. [It] follows two siblings in 1978 Singapore. One night, their father Sujakon wakes them up, raving of bad people coming to take the children away. Sujakon takes them away to a homeless community at Changi Beach called the Anak Bumi, who are led by a matriarch named Nyai Timah. The Anak Bumi practise a storytelling ritual under the stars called Wayang Singa, and most of the chapters in the book break away to tell the story being presented in that evening's Wayang SingaIn that sense, The Keepers of Stories follows a frame narrative in the style of Panchatantra, Canterbury Tales, Decameron, or most famously, in A Thousand and One Nights. However, just as the kids adapt to their new surroundings, their father disappears mysteriously and a strange man washes ashore, warning of mortal danger.

The Keepers of Stories is my most personal book to date.

How did the idea for the books come about?

JS: I wrote The Flesh Hunters as a submission for the Epigram Fiction Book Prize 2020. The idea came to me while I was in a bar, listening to live music. I saw a trail of ants by the sidewalk and wondered if the same trail of ants would follow a path to a diabetic's corpse. Morbid, I know. But that's how Walter Kirino was born.

SH: I think the spiritual origin of [The Keepers of Stories] is from my childhood experiences. I grew up in a small flat in Bukit Panjang. There were six of us – my parents, two younger brothers and my grandma. I had to share a room with my grandma and every night, she'd tell me stories. Some were sad, some were dramatic, some were fantastical, but all of them were extraordinary. This book grew from that feeling, those times, under the blanket of night, when my grandma started my mind on an adventure into the infinite.

The idea of Zuzu and Hakeem and Sujakon (who's on the wrong side of drugs and gangs) came from the stories I hear from my grandma and my aunts and uncles, about friends or relatives in the 70s and 80s whose lives fall apart because of drug-related crimes, mostly involving smuggling drugs in from Johor. It was so interesting to me because the Singapore we are in now is so removed from the realities of Singapore then. I wanted to humanize these people, these fathers who are taken from their children because they wanted to make a quick buck.


Photograph: Epigram Books

Suffian, you mentioned that The Keepers of Stories is your “most personal book to date”. What sort of sentimental value does it hold?

The writing process was emotional. There were a couple of scenes in which I cried as I wrote them. Yeah, I made myself cry writing this book. I really drew from a deep well of personal tragedy to write this one. 

The approach to the book is vastly different from when I wrote Harris bin Potter or The Minorities. Other than the tone, I think I cared too much about the mise en scene for my first two books. In this one, it was almost like writing my characters' diaries, only in third person. I wrote the story primarily in terms of how they experienced their new milieus, rather than using an omnipotent, omnipresent voice.

Unlike Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher, The Keepers of Stories is much more serious. What made you opt for a more dramatic turn?

SH: A lot of people have asked me to buckle down and focus on writing parodies and satires. I understand that some genres are more commercially profitable than others, but to me the most important thing is the story. I never wanted to be a comedy writer. I wanted to be a storyteller. It's why I wanted to play with forms and went with a frame narrative. It's also why my projects this year include television and theatre on top of literature.

I consider [The Flesh Hunters] my first baby and creating it felt almost like childbirth.

Jocelyn, you’re known for your poems, but what was writing a novel like for you?

It was a commitment. That's probably the best word to describe it. I've written short stories before but it doesn't compare to the commitment of writing over 70 thousand words. Perhaps the hardest part about writing a novel is pushing yourself to sit down and write even when you don't feel like it.  

There were a lot of those days when I was writing The Flesh Hunters, mostly because I juggle my creative pursuits with my day job and a hopefully thriving social life. But there is a certain joy to be had from following a long story from start to finish, a process of creation almost similar to giving birth. I consider this book my first baby and creating it felt almost like childbirth.

Okay, let’s talk about the characters in your books. Are the Hunters in The Flesh Hunters and the Anak Bumi in The Keepers of Stories fashioned after any particular figure – real or fictional?

JS: I would say that I fashioned Hunters based on psychopaths. In the psychopathic brain, certain neurological functions, especially those relating to empathy, simply don't work. Or they work suboptimally. Because of this, they can commit truly horrendous acts without feeling a smidge of conscience. Is it their fault that they were born without these empathetic functions? Must they then be held responsible for not having these empathetic functions? Writing this book, I was toying with the idea of a psychopath, but a lot worse. A sickness, a genetic anomaly, a species. All these describe Hunters.

SH: I think the Anak Bumi are analogous to several fictional groups that are removed and considered Other from society, like the children in Lord of the Flies, or Doctor Morel's 'holograms' in Alfonso Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel. Perhaps the closest thing to mythical they get might be the cave-dwellers in Plato's Allegory of the Cave. They have a misguided understanding of the modern world outside of Changi Beach. The matriarch of the Anak Bumi, Nyai Timah, is an amalgamation of my own grandma and Dune's Lady Jessica (Nyai Timah could pass off as Bene Gesserit) and, in terms of the tragedy of her matriarchy, Sethe from Toni Morrison's Beloved.

These characters remind us of some mythical figures. Do you have a favourite local folklore?

JS: I'm a big fan of monster-based folklore. As you can imagine. So the pontianak or, from the Philippine folklore, the aswang. I'm deeply fascinated with the idea of human-esque monsters. How the line blurs between human and monster. How, as humans, we so easily dismiss any kind of otherness as something that can never be us. And of course, being wrong about that.

SH: I can't pick a favourite! I've always found all of them fascinating. I guess my favourite would be the story of how Sang Nila Utama came to our shores. You know how his ship got caught in a storm – some accounts say it was the work of a water demon. And then Sang Nila Utama told his crew to dump their cargo, but nothing would steady the boat. In the end, he had to throw his crown overboard and then the storm ended, and they made safe passage to Temasek. I first heard it as a kid and I was like, what is this demon's deal?


Photograph: Epigram Books

Jocelyn, you decided to try your hand at a novel after spending a year reading up on psychopathy and serial murderers. Is there any particular case that lives in your mind rent-free?

JS: Definitely the Zodiac Killer. I read about the Zodiac Killer in my early teens and that case has since lived in me. I read all the books (well, almost), watched all the documentaries (also almost), and even enjoyed the film. They've recently decoded one of his ciphers and reading up on that was a fun follow-up of a teenage obsession.

Will your next novel be another murder mystery?

JS: I'm a big fan of the usual mystery greats: Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie. I had a "cannibal" phase a few years back because of Thomas Harris and a "running away" phase because of Gillian Flynn.

My next novel will definitely involve murder as well. That seems like a running theme in my creative life (the psychopathy books I've been reading may have something to say about that). I'm in the midst of writing the first draft. It isn't a murder mystery per se, but it will involve some detective work by characters who are the very opposite of detectives. 

I'm also planning on perhaps revisiting poetry. Just to keep me on my toes, you know. Will the poems be about murder? Who can tell – and honestly, that's half the fun of writing.

Suffian, on the traditional side of The Keepers of Stories, did any of age-old superstitions make the cut?

SH: There's one 'superstition' my grandma once expressed that has bled into the book. She used to say that we should draw the curtains, close the windows and switch off the lights at night, or this fearsome, inky black monster as tall as HDB blocks will come, reach into our window and take us away while we sleep. That story appears in the book as a Wayang Singa recital called The Ngrusak. I think it was my grandma's way of ensuring I have a good night's sleep, but telling that story to an impressionable child had the opposite effect.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how haunted do you believe Changi Beach is?

SH: I don't think it's “Who-You-Gonna-Call? Ghostbusters!” level haunted. Ghosts are sometimes just the memories of places where terrible tragedy and trauma took place, and a lot of terrible things happened in Changi Beach. 

Then again, just like one of my favourite rock bands from the 90s, I'm third eye blind. It could be swarming with spooks with unfinished business, who knows? I once did an interview to promote The Minorities at a cemetery. We asked the caretaker where we can take pictures. He showed us a map, and said we can take pictures practically anywhere, except for a stretch of road near the edge of the compound. Something in his voice prevented us from asking further questions. Maybe Changi Beach is like that. It's mostly just a beach like any other – except for that dark place near the outskirts that seems...different.

The Keepers of Stories and The Flesh Hunters are available from epigrambookshop.sg, the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop, and other leading bookstores.

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