Melissa De Silva is the author of the cross-genre memoir ‘Others’ is Not a Race, which won the Singapore Literature Prize 2018 (Creative Nonfiction category). Her writing explores issues of identity and culture through food, memory and forgetting. Her fiction has been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best New Singaporean Short Stories Vol. 3 and LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. She is currently working on a climate fiction novel. Trees, squirrels and matcha lattes are some of her favourite things.
‘Others’ is Not a Race is comprised of multiple genres of narrative fiction, creative nonfiction, food writing, and memoir. How did you decide on the formation of this book?
It wasn’t a premediated decision. The multi-genre compisition emerged organically as I write the first piece that would eventually go into the collection, ‘The Gift’, which was a creative nonfiction piece about how the passing of my maternal grandmother was interwoven with the loss of my ancestral language, the creole of Kristang, a language which developed during the time of Portuguese colonisation of Malacca (in then Malaya, today’s Peninsula Malaysia). Kristang is a creole of mostly Portuguese vocabulary with a primarily Malay grammatical structure. As I was documenting my own search for my cultural identity as a Eurasian in Singapore, the genres I chose to write specific pieces in simply suggested themselves naturally based on what I found most suited to the piece in question.
How did you approach researching the history of Eurasians in Singapore? How long did it take to research and write ‘Others’ is Not a Race?
There is a wonderful book on the history of Eurasians in Singapore called Singapore Eurasians: Memories, Hopes and Dreams by editors, Myrna Braga-Blake, Ann Ebert-Oehlers and Alexius A. Pereira.
Another good book I referenced was Alexius Pereira’s Eurasians. I’d recommend these to anyone interested to read about the history of the micro-minority of Eurasians in Singapore (we comprise less than 1 percent of the population!).
I honestly can’t remember how long the research process took. I worked on each piece in the collection individually, without any intention of putting them together as a collection until much later.
What does identity mean to you and/or did this book shape or alter your views of identity?
Yes, the research, and the experience of doing various things to reclaim and learn about my Eurasian heritage, as a person belonging to a community that traces its origins to colonisation in Southeast Asia (a Eurasian can be technically defined as a person of mixed Asian and European heritage), made me realise how rich my cultural heritage was, especially the learning of my ancestral language, Kristang, going back to Malacca in today’s Malaysia to try and document my family’s traditional profession of fishing, learning to make some of our traditional dishes like sugee cake and dabel curry, and researching some of the (possible) history behind these foods. I came away with an expanded sense of my cultural heritage and a new confidence at being to explain some of my heritage to those who might be curious.