Stories About Stories: The Riot Act by Sebastian Sim
Stories About Stories is a series where authors bring you behind the scenes and reveal what goes into the creation of a book.
* * * * *
Author Sebastian Sim's second English novel, The Riot Act is a dark comedy set in the aftermath of the 2013 Little India riot and follows three women as they become wrapped up in a web of truth, deception and political connections over the incident — presented in Sebastian’s trademark comedic vein.
The manuscript won the 2017 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and Singapore Literature Prize winner Cyril Wong and one of the judges for the EBFP had this to say about the book:
“Sebastian Sim’s The Riot Act is a surrealistic retelling that strikes at the heart of cynicism driving Singapore’s culture wars ... but satire becomes brutal realist fiction when we realise the author is merely holding up a tilted mirror to everything that is wrong with our society.”
Sebastian has seen society through various mirrors, having travelled around the world to soak up different experiences and cultures, and tried his hand in diverse industries: He worked as a bartender at Boat Quay, an assistant outlet manager at McDonald’s, an insurance salesman, a prison officer in a maximum security prison, and a croupier in a casino.
He previously published three Chinese wuxia novels, and his first English-language novel, Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao! (2016), was shortlisted for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.
Here, Sebastian talks about what went on behind-the-scenes of The Riot Act.
What was the inspiration for this book?
Back in December 2013, I had just started my new job and my boss came to the team and showed us a clip on his phone. He said there was a riot in Little India. None of us believed it until we saw it on the news. It was a big shock for most of us (because we) had grown up in Singapore not believing that we would one day actually see a riot here.
That got me thinking: All these years when I took for granted Singapore’s safety and security, did I see the whole picture? Are people so dissatisfied with the system that they would go all out and flip over vehicles and set them on fire? That was the spark that triggered the idea of writing this book.
Your story is told through the eyes of three characters...
I had (the Akira Kurosawa movie) Rashomon in mind when I was writing the book. I believe that when an event happens, it is perceived differently by different sectors of society, based on their background and mindset and agenda.
There’s a character called Harshwini. She experiences the riot as an individual. Then there’s a second character called Jessica — she got injured in the riot but she realises that different sectors see her case differently. An NGO would want to rope her in as their spokesperson, to promote their own interest. The third character, Sharon, represents the government, so to speak. She is an MP and wants to manage the event to gain political mileage.
What was the biggest challenge writing this book?
When I went online to do research, a lot of it was about the riot itself. But what I wanted to do was to find out how people reacted to the riot. When I talk to colleagues, friends or even customers in the casino where I was working at the time, they all had different takes on it. Basically, if I had to stick to one protagonist and a single storyline, it would not have been able to reflect the spectrum of reactions to the riot. I think that was necessary to be able to rope in all these different viewpoints.
You seem to like to use humour in your stories, even though the subject isn't necessarily funny.
Some of the themes I wanted to discuss are serious themes — Singapore’s meritocratic system, for example — and with Gimme Lao, a lot of readers said that they liked the humour in it, even though I was dealing with serious themes. So I realised that humour was one of my strong points. If I want to write something serious and I coat it with a large dose of humour it delivers better. Readers may laugh about it, but after that, they can reflect on it.
The first draft of The Riot Act was a serious narrative of events leading up to the Little India riot itself. But after the first chapter, I realised that was not my style. I didn’t enjoy reading that. So I decided to get back to look at a serious issue but approach it in a light-hearted way, using humour to coat the delivery.
What's your goal as a writer?
My long-term goal as a writer is to build a body of work about Singapore stories. When I was growing up, I read a lot of stories by American or British authors and I got a good feel of what life was like in the US or UK, but I didn’t find many books about Singapore in those days.
So, as a storyteller, I feel it is my duty to tell Singapore stories. And who better to tell these stories than Singapore writers. I want to share with readers — Singapore or international readers — stories about Singapore. That’s my ultimate goal.