Singapore writers get comfortable with death

Cyril Wong imagines the afterlife from the perspective of different souls in This Side Of Heaven, while Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde gets personal with a near-death experience in The Good Day I Died

The Good Day I Died by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde (left) is interspersed with extracts from his other writings, which he feels his near-death experience influenced, while Cyril Wong (right) writes about the dead wandering a purgatorial garden in Thi
The Good Day I Died by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde (left) is interspersed with extracts from his other writings, which he feels his near-death experience influenced, while Cyril Wong (right) writes about the dead wandering a purgatorial garden in This Side Of Heaven.PHOTOS: KAREN KON, THE MINDFUL COMPANY
The Good Day I Died by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde (left) is interspersed with extracts from his other writings, which he feels his near-death experience influenced, while Cyril Wong (right) writes about the dead wandering a purgatorial garden in Thi
The Good Day I Died (left) and This Side Of Heaven.PHOTOS: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE SOUTH-EAST, EPIGRAM BOOKS

What happens after you die? Singapore Literature Prize-winning writers Cyril Wong and Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde have some ideas.

In his latest novel, This Side Of Heaven, Wong, 42, imagines the afterlife as a purgatorial garden in which the dead wander, fulfilling forbidden desires and haunted by what they left behind on earth.

Kon, 49, plunges into the profoundly personal with The Good Day I Died, a "quasi-memoir" about a near-death experience he had in 2007.

"I died in the attic, on the third floor of a rented house in Massachusetts," recalls Kon, who says he was told by the roommate who resuscitated him that he had no heartbeat. He declines to share the cause of his near-death, as he has not reached the necessary level of comfort with it.

Kon, who at the time had finished a graduate degree in world religions at Harvard University, describes - or attempts to describe - encounters with ineffable beings he believes were angels, as well as a terrifying plummet into a darkness that felt like hell.

The book takes the form of a self-administered interview, interspersed with extracts from Kon's other writings, which he feels his near-death experience influenced.

These range from the "inexplicable, beautiful light" he alludes to in prose poems from I Didn't Know Mani Was A Conceptualist (2014) to mentions of angels in collections such as Mirror Image Mirage (2016) and Hermitage Of Dreamers (2018).

I Didn't Know Mani Was A Conceptualist won Kon the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize, which he coincidentally shared with Wong's poetry collection The Lover's Inventory.

"Many readers want to know what awaits us upon death," says Kon. "Is there an afterlife at all, and if so, what can one expect? Is there a heaven? What about purgatory? Whom do we meet? What does one see, hear, feel, experience? What is this whole otherworldly realm like?"

He allows that readers, unable to rest on the suspension of disbelief, may be sceptical. "Not everyone wants to step out of The Matrix," he says, referencing the 1999 sci-fi film of the same name about virtual reality.

"Alas, everyone has to grapple with the phenomenon at some point in their lives. We are not immune to death. Death happens to all of us. It's actually good to come to terms with that reality, and be comfortable thinking and talking about the subject of death."

I died in the attic, on the third floor of a rented house in Massachusetts.

DESMOND KON ZHICHENG-MINGDE on his near-death experience in 2007. He was told by the roommate who resuscitated him that he had no heartbeat

I don't know who they were and where they came from. I still don't. These experiences felt almost supernatural, as if my usual muses had transformed into demented demons.

CYRIL WONG, who says he was once haunted by different voices demanding that he document their woes

Wong, as a teenager, had a friend who encouraged him to think about death at least once each day. "Doing this teaches us something new about the preciousness of our lives, every instance of remembering that everything will end," he says.

He was meditating one day when he had a bizarre daydream, followed by a few sleepless nights in which he was haunted by different voices demanding that he document their woes.

"I don't know who they were and where they came from," he says. "I still don't. These experiences felt almost supernatural, as if my usual muses had transformed into demented demons."

He produced a series of prose poems which evolved into This Side Of Heaven, several chapters of which are told from the perspective of a different anonymous soul.

There is the vagrant who died in a nuclear cataclysm and is now searching the afterlife for the young daughter she lost to disease. There are the choristers who perished in a plane crash, and the stewardess who is by now sick of their singing. There is the farmer who watches as a woman who looks like his wife stands in a distant field and shoots herself in the head, over and over again.

They and many others congregate in a garden where an orchestra is playing, though each person hears something different in the music: their national anthem, the greatest hits of American singer Whitney Houston, or nothing at all.

Of all the characters, Wong identifies most with the lonesome pianist. He expects he would hear the orchestra playing either the Liebestod from the opera Tristan Und Isolde or Houston's ballad Miracle.

"The dissolution of the self in a sense of the infinite provided by music, art or poetry is the truest form of heaven," he says.

He thinks that consciously imagining the afterlife can help readers face their fear of death head-on.

"As a result, we not only learn to live without fear, but also learn to love ourselves and one another without fear too. By constantly envisioning what can happen to us when we die, we end up treasuring more profoundly the time that is passing before our very eyes."

• The Good Day I Died ($23.54) is available here and This Side Of Heaven ($20.22) is available here.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2020, with the headline 'Singapore writers get comfortable with death'. Subscribe