The Big Read

Catherine Lim's esoteric book An Equal Joy: One woman’s search for meaning

Catherine Lim focuses on the fear of death in An Equal Joy.
Catherine Lim focuses on the fear of death in An Equal Joy.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

That sums up literary doyenne Catherine Lim's esoteric book, An Equal Joy

If an Irish nun had not scolded Singaporean author Catherine Lim's father one day in the 1950s, she might well have wound up selling tickets in a cinema or helping out at a hawker stall in her hometown of Kulim, Kedah, as some of her cousins did.

Lim, who is now 75 and an internationally lauded doyenne of Singapore literature, recalls how the nun, whom she knew only as Sister St John, harangued her accountant father to keep his daughters in school despite his financial difficulties. He had earlier removed them from the convent where the nun taught, at a time when Lim says eggs were a luxury for them.

Lim is the eighth child in a family of four boys and 10 girls. She says that her father must have been very hard-up because, unlike most Chinese fathers then, he actually believed in the importance of education for women.

Fortunately for her and her sisters, he listened to the nun and Lim went on to become, among many other distinctions, the first Singaporean author to have two of her short story collections - Little Ironies: Stories Of Singapore and Or Else, The Lightning God And Other Stories - studied as O-level texts internationally.

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In 1992, the former project director and administrator for the Ministry of Education's Curriculum Development Institute here quit her post as a specialist lecturer in socio-linguistics and literature at the Seameo Regional Language Centre here and began writing fiction and non-fiction full-time.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times a week before she launched her new book An Equal Joy in late March, she declared herself "supremely happy" and, indeed, happier than she had ever been.

  • AN EQUAL JOY: REFLECTIONS ON GOD, DEATH AND BELONGING

  • Catherine Lim focuses on the fear of death in An Equal Joy.By Catherine Lim

    Marshall Cavendish/Paperback/ 207 pages/$26 with GST from leading bookstores or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 128 LIM

She says that was largely because her life has been laden with luck and good health.

Asked why she no longer airs her views on politics publicly, she says that she sees her role "as mainly a Lee Kuan Yew critic" and as the founding prime minister of Singapore had died in 2015, she no longer wants to comment on politics.

  • In a nutshell

  • THE GOOD

    Singaporean author Catherine Lim's latest musings on life and death make for riveting reading because of the vitality of her views, the precision of her language and her remarkable economy of expression. Her assured weaving of ideas with words recalls the taut and vivid eloquence of the late British authors Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor.

    THE BAD

    In her sheer verve for her subjects, Lim sometimes succumbs to exaggeration. There are a fair number of "must"s in her insistent prose to highlight points that she believes in strongly, but which she does not back up with facts and figures.

    To be sure, she says she is not into intellectual rigour for this book, but only wants to pique readers' curiosity about the many subjects she discusses in it. In an age of much confusion and distrust, readers would likely warm to writers that tread the tightrope of reasoning gingerly and expertly.

She says she had waded into politics "by accident" in 1994 when, among other things, she said that after Mr Goh Chok Tong succeeded Mr Lee as prime minister in 1990, she was "noticing no change" in the "climate of fear and things like people getting sued" that, to her mind, pervaded Singapore.

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"I had no idea there would be such a storm, that my views were creating such a ruckus," Lim recalls. "Mr Lee was so much in control that he could not let go. He did so much good for Singapore when we needed a strong hand, but… he carried over that control into the 21st century."

  • Five questions that this book answers

  • 1 Where should you start to find yourself?

    2 What is the worst possible motive for writing?

    3 What do racists and some feminists have in common?

    4 How might everyone be kinder to everyone else?

    5 How might atheists and those who believe in God find common ground?

Her "supremely happy" state today, as it were, does not square with the main focus of her latest book, that is, the fear of death and her mordant, and sometimes morbid, takes on that. Its title, An Equal Joy, comes from her self-penned obituary about 20 years ago, which goes: "I have loved and lived life richly and deeply. And I embrace its closure with an equal joy."

Ms Mindy Pang, a spokesman for Marshall Cavendish, which published this book, says that it saw An Equal Joy as a "very dangerous" book as it touched on so many things that could "step on many toes", especially given Lim's many recollections in it of her mental tussles with being Roman Catholic, a religion which she has long renounced.

"But she was so candid in it that it is a unique and needed book. Few writers could leverage on the experience she has to write something like this."

An Equal Joy, then, is meant as one woman's exploration of faith and death and, in doing so, she finds a renewed appreciation of life. Those who are religious may baulk at her oft-provocative queries such as "Did Jesus have a sense of humour?" and what she calls her "cherry-picking" of the noblest aspects of various religions to guide her through life, that is, "love from Christianity, hospitality from Islam, compassion and closeness to Nature from Buddhism and Taoism, intellectuality from Judaism, commitment to the richness and unity of life from Hinduism".

Her blithe approach to her brand of godlessness, bolstered by compassion or what she calls "the religion of humanity", will be discomfiting to some, but her heartfelt introspection and myriad sources of inspiration from Emily Bronte to Nelson Mandela make this book worth your while.

The theme that underpins An Equal Joy is the same one for all her books - freedom, be it breaking away from tradition or oppression. Her exhilarating riffs on liberation are what lift An Equal Joy. At no point are her musings random ramblings, although she apologises for the "structurelessness" of the book as a whole.

Lim says she will not write an autobiography because, to her, that would require her to be "totally candid" as "the readers will expect it".

"I would have to write about my father, who was not exactly responsible… which would be too painful for my family. And it would maybe not be right to write about my ex-husband, who would not be there to defend himself as he's not a writer."

She has two children from her marriage. Her daughter, Jean, 52, is a doctor who lives in Hong Kong while her son, Peter, 49, is a journalist with the Houston Chronicle, which is the largest daily newspaper in the American city of Houston, Texas.

Musing on the need to be kind to others, Lim, who describes herself as pragmatic and, above all, a "humanist, humanitarian and artist", says: "If you are happy, focused and do your work well, you will be able to do to others what you want others to do to you."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'One woman’s search for meaning'. Print Edition | Subscribe