Gweek Tells Tales a Year Later!

September 8, 2011

The following keynote speech “What is a Story?” was read at the Telltale Symposium held at the St Joseph’s Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus on 8 September 2011. The event saw the launch of Dennis Yeo’s study companion to Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010). This speech is also available at

Students, teachers, writers among us, readers all –

What is a story? Put it under a magnifying glass. Turn it with your little fingers, and feel every nook and cranny. Hold it under your nose; take in a deep breath. Press it against a ear, and listen hard. What is it saying to you?

The eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope gave us the words that have since become a common proverb: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” But, when he first wrote these words, he also made sure that he qualified himself by adding: “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.”

In Greek mythology, the Pierian Spring is the sacred spring of the Muses, who are goddesses of artistic creation. It is a fountain of knowledge capable of inspiring anyone who comes to drink of its water. What Pope is saying is that our first taste of knowledge will always excite us, and, like intoxication, it will make us feel that we already know a lot. But we need to drink on, drink deeply, because, unlike alcohol, the more we drink of it, the soberer we actually get. (The drunks, though, insist that it is exactly like alcohol.)

What is a story? To approach this question, we may want to go all the way back to our earliest experience and memory of a story and its effect. Perhaps it was on a parent’s knee while your father or your mother read to you a book about dragons and princesses on a drowsy afternoon. Perhaps it was in school when you were discovering the strangeness of something called language, the forms of the beautiful rolling off into shape into your quiet, pliant mind. Perhaps you were playing with your best friend, and suddenly, one day, he or she just wasn’t interested in mere play anymore, having opened a large book resting on a floor scattered with toys.

My own first experience followed a small operation I had had at an age I no longer remember. I was resting on a hospital bed feeling utterly restless when my father arrived to pay me his first visit. In order to help me forget the pain and pass the time in an unfamiliar environment, he had bought me some comics from the mama shop in the common area of the hospital.

The comics intrigued me: there were the adventures of “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and of “Richie Rich, the Poor Little Rich Boy”. If you think about it, descriptions like these are already bound to fill pages. How can a ghost be friendly or a rich boy be poor? These made profound effect as my first owned comics and, for a long time, my only owned stories. My other books were about science, wildlife, the environment, and dinosaurs – the usual stuff.

I read and re-read these comics for many years until the pages turned crisp and brown. The more I read, the more familiar the characters and their environment and dilemmas became. And yet, the more these became familiar, the more I could negotiate around their layers of meaning and possibility, the smaller the pages felt. Comic pages, you must understand, are already pretty large.

I was growing bigger in the way Lewis Caroll’s Alice grows bigger after growing smaller – or it could be that I was just growing up. The stories were worlds I could have spent hours moving in, wandering and wondering, inquiring, even extending with my own mind through a million “What-ifs”. I learnt through them the power of images and of words, and then, one day, I realised that I have grown bigger than the story.

As age passed on, year by year, I recognised the structures and mechanics of the story in this quality in me and around me called Life. I know that I am a son and a brother in a Chinese family. I am something known as a Singaporean. I was also a student who spoke English and Mandarin – more English than Mandarin – in school but strangely Teochew at home. My IC says that I am Hokkien. My friends don’t look like me, and yet I didn’t take notice until it was pointed out patchily by stray words and gestures. I was raised in a staunch Buddhist family who worship ancestors, but I became a Methodist: the layers do not bother me as they often do others.

I didn’t choose to spend years serving the army; the army chose me. I didn’t think much about going to the university; still, I passed through its ranks from “blur student sotong” to “scary lecturer”. I do not know why life presents me often with sudden opportunities to visit and live in different countries or why I love the woman I love. The questions of why I write and still love to draw I cannot answer.

These are each part of a story, and, at different points in my life, some of these stories have come to an end. Some more will yet end; some are starting to. Others, like stories with multiple interrelating characters, will go on and survive me, the death of my own character. I need these stories as these stories need me. So the Argentinean writer Jorge Louis Borges says about his own relationship with this other self: “My life is a flight, and I lose everything, and everything belongs to nothing or to him. I no longer know which of us writes this page.”

But, as the necessity of stories demands, I sometimes forget this simple truth, that I live as a character in stories. In those wayward moments, I take plots and passions too seriously, feeling angered, sad, or defeated by what I am denied the power to change or failing to act when this power to affect things, to make the world better, is within reach. And then I remember again, and remembering puts not the world, but me, back in perspective.

What is a story? When I read a story, I remember once again who I am. I am a reader, but I am, in essence, also a character. The two are not so unlike as we tend to want to assume. After all, neither a reader nor a character knows how a narrative will pan out: even if you cheat by jumping to the last pages or watching a film adaptation, it’s never quite as satisfying. Both reader and character are clueless, and yet both breathe as one in the grip of the same churning story. Both want a good tale, a depth in what they have invested a piece of their lives measured out with teaspoons of time. Both want a dimension that lets them look – as the two-dimensional square in Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland (1884) wishes – less flat.

A reader looks at a character as if through a looking-glass, and stories put in his or her head the thought that he or she lives not just on stories but in them. This idea can give us all the hope that we can always change our own stories, leave behind genres that have grown stale, and embark on new adventures. We all have the power of a reader but the life of a character.

Indeed, this much I know: all stories are about change. Yet, it is also true that many of us can read a thousand stories without coming to this realisation. It doesn’t matter if the stories are considered literary or sacred by tradition. Most of us leave a story as we leave a mirror; we remember what the mirror reflects, but we forget that it reflects.

For me, in the reflection of a story, time always stands still. Before a story, while the plot rolls on and the relationships deepen, all the time my own character in life growing old in quiet, part of my memory kicks back to life, and I remember. I remember that I am that friendly ghost who is still intrigued by humans. I have become a different kind of a poor little rich boy, a rich big poor man. And I was once like you, sitting facelessly in a crowd and listening to someone talk about a private life in literature. And, deep inside, I have never left that hospital bed, to which I will no doubt one day return.


Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010) is now slightly over a year old. When we first launched this collection in July last year, I spoke about how every story was really telltale of something. The title of this book is, in other words, deliberately a standalone adjective. It is not a grammatical or a typographical error. It is not Telltales, as it is sometimes labelled mistakenly, or Eleven Telltale Stories, as some critics helpfully correct it. As such, even this book title seems to have taken on a life of its own, spinning in so many directions in the minds of its readers, out of the control of my hands.

What a story is telltale of is firstly internal to this story, truths about its characters, their relationships, circumstances, and adventures. Secondly and as importantly, it is external to the story in that it is also about the writer’s own thoughts and circumstances, the elements that have given shape to his or her creative processes. It is furthermore about your thoughts as a reader, what you bring to the story by means of your telltale openness – Why is it you go on reading? Is it really only interest or boredom? – as well as your eager identification or sheer resistance to the story.

Among the responses I have received in the past year, some came from literature teachers themselves. A few have reacted with a range from being mildly curious to being deeply concerned about why the stories seemed largely to be, in their words, pessimistic. “There are so much death, angst, and depression everywhere!” they pointed out – which is, to be sure, true. But no student, in the various schools I have visited, pointed this out to me – which is interesting.

And this sets me wondering whether we adults sometimes get so protective over our charges that we give them less credit for knowing the world as it is, the world they see daily in the newspapers and the internet, on the streets, among friends, and at home. Perhaps, it is we adults who have unlearnt life’s rawness and chosen to deny its general realistic aspects, becoming unable to confront these truths without discomfort, even in just stories. We have ironically de-immunised ourselves while believing that our young need indefinite quarantine.

When you read the gritty stories in this collection, it is my utter intention that you study the elements of the story, and then you let the reverse happen. Let the elements of the story study you. The master storytellers – Alfian Sa’at, Wena Poon, Jeffrey Lim, Tan Mei Ching, Dave Chua, and Claire Tham – have created the perfect mirrors for us to gaze at ourselves, the things, and often horrible things, we do to ourselves and to our loved ones.

Unless you are able to get to this second part in your study of literature, you will only be a reader or a student. My invitation beyond the confines of the book’s pages and your classroom is that you take the stories into your lives. Live with the thoughts and struggle with their lessons until the day you have outgrown them.

Once again, as when the book was first launched, I want expressly to thank the writers as well as the publisher Fong Hoe Fang and his team at Ethos Books – Chan Wai Han, Adeleena Araib, and Leo Tong Juan, the cover’s designer – for the adventure. At the National Arts Council’s end of things, a year on, I must still thank Michele Thompson, Koh Jau Chern, and May Tan for their mysterious form of support in the endeavour. They are the gods in the machine.

I also need to credit specific individuals at the Curriculum Planning and Development Division of the Ministry of Education for their advice on the book. They are Janet Liew, Joanne Ng, Faith Aw, and Meenakshi Palaniappan; their contributions cannot be ignored. They have previously barred me from naming them in public, but it has been a year now: they should allow themselves some pride of place.

To this list, I am now overwhelmingly happy to add Dennis Yeo, from the English Language and Literature Group at the National Institute of Education. The launch of his meticulously assembled Telltale: A Study Companion (2011) is the highlight of highlights in today’s event.

May you all enjoy this half-day together, and I hope that you take away some special key that will allow you entry through the door into our secret garden.

Thank you!

Gwee Li Sui

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