Taking Flight: Clarissa Goenawan

by Zara Zhuang
Portrait by Chino Sardea
07 Aug 2019

We get into the minds of one of Singapore's acclaimed writers who shares her thoughts on how far the local community has come and where the scene is headed.

Clarissa Goenwan's debut novel, Rainbirds, won the 2015 Bath Novel Award. Now working on her second novel, it is slated for publication next year – a literary mystery with elements of magical realism set in Japan.

Where do you feel Singapore's literature scene is right now, and where is it headed?
Singapore literature has been around for a very long time. However, in recent years, the local literary scene is gaining more and more attention. We’re lucky to have indie publishers and art organizations that are open to new ideas. As for the local writers, I’ve seen a lot of exciting voices to watch for. The wave is definitely there, but it’s still up to all of us, whether we can ride and sustain it.

What are your hopes and fears with regard to writers, the content they produce, and the publishing industry?
Censorship has always been an issue that weighed on my mind, especially as my writing often deals with difficult topics. I often find it challenging to balance between writing truthfully and not offending others. Of course, freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.

What are your thoughts on the impact that digital publishing and audiobooks may have on what you do?
Ebooks and audiobooks have many advantages—they’re portable and convenient. As an author, I think they provide a great way to reach a wider audience. But as a reader, I still prefer the good old paperback. There’s a certain romance in holding a physical book you can’t replicate using a digital device. At least, not yet!

"Rainbirds" by Clarissa Goenawan.

To you, what role or purpose does literature perform?
My answer probably will change as I enter different phases of life. But at this moment, it’s an escape.

What do you feel people are seeking when they read books, and especially books by Singapore authors?
I think most—if not all—readers are looking for the same thing. A good book. But each of us has a different definition of what makes a good book.

To you, what are the criteria for a good book or story?
Echoing my previous answer, it’s difficult to define a good book (or story) because each of us has different preferences. Reading taste is very personal. But if you ask for my personal opinion, a good book to me is the one that touches my heart. It can be anything—a heart-breaking scene, a beautiful description of a garden after the rain, or even a single sentence that grabs me and never lets go.

Why are you motivated to do what you do?
I have a one-word answer for this—passion.