There are many distinguishing things that separate humans from animals. American social psychologist and writer Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University thinks humans are the only animal that thinks about the future. We want to know we can choose a life of pursuit rather than just merely existing through a series of accidents and ordeals. But the future is spontaneous; it's unpredictable and that can lead to feelings of insecurity. It is much easier to cling to the past than to look forward. In bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, she uses the analogy of being frozen in time as a handicap, specifically the quote: “[Inability] to allow themselves to love for fear that the loved one will abandon them.” For Thea Lim, she used the concept of time as the plot for her debut novel, An Ocean of Minutes. Exploring themes of love and grief through a science-fiction time travel story, The Toronto Star raves in An Ocean Of Minutes, “Lim comes into her own here, with prose that’s elegant and haunting, somehow managing to be both unsentimental and deeply moving at the same time. A devastating debut.”
The novel is set in an alternate America, where a flu outbreak has taken over. Polly, the protagonist, signs up for a job as a bonded laborer in the future to help pay for her lover’s medical treatment. While on the surface it may seem like a science fiction love story, Shelf Awareness sees more within the novel: “Lim dives seamlessly through questions of race, gender, immigration and corporate monopoly, to surface with poignant discoveries about love, sacrifice, loss and ephemerality...a visionary literary dystopia.” For Lim to be able to interweave these questions and discoveries though, she had to comes to terms with her own past before writing An Ocean of Minutes.
This personal confronting moment was in the summer of 2009, where she saw her writing career take a standstill. In her essay for the Paris Review “Because the Story Was Mine,” she reflects on this moment as she is commuting day to day on the bus “It gave me time to think. I thought about a relationship that had ended two years earlier, one I had believed would last forever. When it ended, it triggered an avalanche of other endings, ones I’d never laid to rest: how abruptly I had left behind one life after another as my parents and I moved continents, sometimes twice in one year, and then how I’d moved one last time, without them, the loss of their presence like a fissure in the earth that would never again be filled.” Realizing that she wasn’t letting these endings rest in peace, she finds that she can have Life after Death (in a philosophical sense not in a literal sense like Biggie.) This revelation had given her the motivation to start writing her first novel.
Before becoming an novelist, Lim’s previous work consisted of think-piece articles that were about issues of race and gender published on Racialicious.com. While the website has shutdown, she continues the spirit of the site by implementing race and class dynamics in her novel. For example, when NowToronto.com asked why is Polly Lebanese and not Chinese/Singaporean like herself, Lim responds, “By making Polly an Arab, I could explore something that fascinates and dogs me: how race changes depending on where you live, and how you’re coded by class.” This detail in the book reflects a time in American law: in 1909, George Shishim, a Syrian-Lebanese immigrant that became an officer, fought in a California Court for his status of being white. When he arrested the son of a prominent lawyer for disturbing the peace, the man arrested argued that Shishim was not white, and thus ineligible for citizenship, so his arrest was invalid. As Kollaboration sees artistry as one of the most effective and inspiring forms of activism, we can learn a lot from Lim’s unique form of activism as we fight through turbulent times in America’s climate.
As a shortlister for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, An Ocean of Time is one of the 12 books that “were written in elevated, idiosyncratic, original prose that exhibited an exquisite command of the art of language, and unparalleled mastery of structure and storytelling.” Adding her to our #KollabSFGetsLit series was an honor, and I am grateful to have had the chance to interview her. The conversation was so much fun, I found ourselves getting distracted and offtopic throughout the discussion. In the interview, we talk about what trauma means in terms of being “Stuck in time,” being a 3rd culture kid, and being apart of Mariah Carey’s lambily.
Long Vo: Where did you grow up?
Thea Lim: I was born in Toronto and was there until I was 8. In the late 80s, a recession hit Canada, and rather than moving to another city, my dad -- somewhat adventurously -- moved us back to Singapore, because he was from there. Growing up, I identified very strongly with Singapore culture. It's a place that always feels like home, but at the same time while I was living there, because I’m mixed, I wasn't ostensibly Singaporean to a lot of my peers. So I simultaneously had the experience of belonging somewhere, and then really intensely not belonging somewhere.
When I came back to the West as an adult, people always really saw me as Asian, to a degree that surprised me, because I had spent my childhood being seen white in Singapore. All these mismatched, strange, or irreconcilable ethnic experiences really fed into how I decided to write the book; how coming and going to places that you used to be from can feel like time travel.
LV: Do you have kind of a unique relationship with your parents?
TL: I'm one of those mixed-race people who looks essentially ambiguous. My parents are wonderful and supportive, but there was a lot that they couldn't anticipate about my ethnic experience, and as a child I didn't really have a language for expressing that what I was experiencing.
I think many parents believe that as the parent, they can understand the whole of their child’s experience, but especially in interracial families, or queer families, or families with disabilities, there isn’t always full understanding.
LV: Do you think grief is vastly different for Asian Americans?
TL: I think maybe, in terms of my ethnic experience, what most informed the way I experience grief is my status as a third culture kid. The term refers to someone who grew up in a culture different from their culture of origin, who then returns to their culture of origin as an adult. I guess our most famous TCK is Obama -- he he grew up in a partly in Indonesia.
It’s an odd term in a way, because it tends to describe families with a lot of cultural or economic power -- often it’s children of executives or diplomats -- and it feels a little ick to insist that we need a special designation, outside of the language used to describe any other migrating family. At the same time, a lot of what I've read about it does resonate with my experience, in that they say that third culture kids have a lot of delayed grief. Because there are a lot of fissures or separations in their childhood that might be undealt with, these sort of instances of grief tend to bubble up, unbidden, in adulthood. The Wikipedia page for TCKs is really funny. It talks about how TCKs have these great lives, and all this success as adults, and oh, also, very high rates of suicide.
LV: Your book deals with time travel, and I’m wondering if you want to talk about migration and trauma. Trauma is almost as if a person is stuck in time. When something bad happens to a person, they only have that place in time as a reference. They are just stuck in time.
TL: Yes, and no! I have friends who are part of refugee communities, and often their stories describe the opposite of the trauma response you raise here. Instead of freezing, I think a lot of families go into survival mode, especially if there are young children. They compartmentalize whatever happened to them, and they move forward, and they do whatever they have to do to make a life for their families. Where they find the required strength to do so, is unimaginable to someone like me who comes from a vast amount of relative privilege.
I use that exact phrase -- “stuck in time” -- when I’ve talked about the book in other interviews. I was interested in writing not so much about trauma, but about grief, and about that garden-variety grief that any of us might have, that sense of heartbreak because somebody that you loved greatly has died or left you. What do we do with this grief? Maybe there's a funeral, and a month passes, but then you are expected to go back to work and to keep moving forward. Grief like that never really leaves us. So how do we go on, when all the relationships that we're going to have in our lives will eventually end in loss or death? How do we continue falling in love and continue sustaining connections and relying on others when we know that eventually all those relationships are going to come to an end?
LV: Looking at your earlier work of blogging and you posted a music playlist for An Ocean of Minutes: A Novel, does music have an Impact on your writing?
TL: Before I sit down to write I’ll often listen to music or watch music videos. I think that’s fruitful for me because it's an art that I know nothing about! So it's something that I can enjoy, and turn off the analytical part of my mind, but also be kind of inspired and moved, as we are by any form of art.
I used a lot of musical references in my novel, because I was trying to recreate nostalgia for the reader, by setting much of the novel in the 70s. And then, since I set the novel during a period when I was an infant, I needed a means to understand the period, beyond what I could learn from reading old news articles. I wanted to gain a sense of what it felt like to be a person then. Listening to music and watching movies and TV shows from that period -- really immersing myself in the popular art of the time -- was the thing that helped most in that project. So I listened to a lot of Toto and Carly Simon and Dionne Warwick.
LV: It also seems that Mariah Carey is your music hero as you used to blog about your love for her.
TL: Haha. Talk about a research deep-dive! Mariah Carey was ubiquitous when I was growing up in Singapore. When, as an adult, I moved to the West, and there weren’t many things that were transferable -- even pop music was pretty different. But Mariah is universal.
When I first moved to Toronto, in an attempt to assimilate, I tried to reinvent myself as a super cool indie rock hipster. But by the time I was in my mid-20s I became more comfortable with myself, which was just in time for Mimi’s glorious early ‘00s comeback, and her music and her persona were something I really embraced. Partly because she was familiar, eternal, and partly because I wanted to come out as a classic Southeast Asian who just couldn’t get enough of her. But more than this, I think there is something very magical about Mariah, for anyone who feels a little lost within who they might be. Because she’s someone who did work hard to conform to an externally imposed idea of who she could be, but then she overthrew that in the most magnificent way, again and again, very much in the public eye. And now a huge part of her brand is how unabashedly she is herself. So I think she’s a bit of a mascot for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the dominant gaze’s ideas of who they should be. She’s like a little big voice that’s like, come on out dahhhhling, who you are is great.
LV: Reading your blog posts from 10 years ago, your posts were very fiery. Has that Asian Anger subsided and calmed down?
TL: In my 20s, which coincided with the heyday of blogging, before it got subsumed by social media, I was a lot more overtly political and interested in direct forms of activism. I look back at the things that I wrote then and while I don’t retract them, I no longer feel the responsibility to fight with people who don't agree with me. I don’t feel that it’s my job or my right to correct the world. There is a lot of responsibility that POCs have to talk and advocate about their experiences, and that can be quite unfair. We rarely have those expectations for white writers.
Being an activist usually has a shelf life, especially writing on the Internet in those years. Because it was all comment sections back then, there was a lot of adversarial back-and-forth, in quite an intimate way. I did eventually burn out. The way to save yourself as an activist is to speak up for what you believe in, but to also know your limits. And to know the limits of your activism. The struggle matters, of course it does, but there’s also the fact that, that one blog post isn’t going to end racism. Realizing that, and realizing that there were soooooo many other fiery, tough, amazing activists who would step up if I stepped down, made it possible for me to do something else.
I was surprised to realize that when I started writing fiction, when my goal became to construct a really sound story -- instead of trying to convert white supremacist capitalist patriarchs -- there were ways that my values and politics crept into the story anyway, often in more organic and surprising ways than when I set out to write work that was more didactic.
And because I did this, my worldview shifted. I used to feel like there was “a truth” -- and it was my job to impose it on my culture. Now I feel there are “truths.” Maybe 2005 me would be disappointed in me. Lucky for me time travel doesn’t actually exist, yet.