An Interview with A.B. Syahid, Author of Cogina

Ab Syahid

A.B. Syahid is the author of a short story collection, Singaporeans Cried When They Found Out Their Hearts Were Made In China, and a novel, Cogina, which is described as “A surreal vision of fleeting youth and sexual ambiguity.” Both books are available on Amazon.

One thing I noticed is that I can’t find much biographical info on you other than “A young author of transgressive fiction from Singapore; also known as ‘The Tiny Red Dot That Bleeds”. Can you summarize for us who you are?
I’m just some guy who writes for a living.

There’s an old adage that goes, ‘write what you know’. But that’s kind of like, boring or whatever. I’m thinking along the lines of what Kurt Vonnegut said. He said something along the lines of, ‘Science Fiction writers mostly don’t know jack squat about Science’. It’s like, the dude didn’t even know he was a Science Fiction writer, not until people told him. So I’m just pouring out whatever is on my mind, what I know, and what I don’t know, all muddled up into a ball of coherent (I hope!) piece of literature.

I write what I know, but not really. If that makes any sense!

You know you have friends, and you know them for a damn long time, and they do something that is so kind that makes you recoil backward, not in disgust or whatever, but more like because you know they’re full of shit and only you know they’re full of shit. Like, you know them for a very long time you know what’s underneath the surface, but they’re just putting on a show to impress a girl or whatever.

My writing is pretty much based on the wretched root of human condition, what people would really do when nobody’s looking, when there’s nobody to impress.

Where do you currently live? Please describe the type of environment you reside in.
I presently reside in sunny Singapore. The sun’s so bright it is borderline skin abuse. Censorship pretty much stifles creativity here, to be honest. Some friends of mine have packed up and left for conducive pastures like Canada, America, Indonesia, to name a few. My girlfriend and I are planning to relocate to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, next year. Cambodia has been dubbed the Amsterdam of southeast Asia. They sell grass and all kinds of medicine over the counter to satiate all your pharmaceutical needs. It’s not like we’re frequent users or anything like that, far from it. It’s just nice to have that option, you know. It is certainly nice to have options, I feel.

Can you summarize your youth (childhood-teenage years)? What did you study at Yishun Junior College?
My childhood was far from irreproachable because I have two older brothers who were constantly getting into trouble and teaching me things an eight year old have no business knowing, like how to roll a cigarette and how to get laid. They were always talking about getting laid and all, and since our parents work nights, they would sometimes bring girls over and, even though the walls weren’t paper thin, I could still tell what’s up.

Growing up this way, it’s strange that I proceeded with my teen adolescent phase with what you can call ‘class’. I played a lot of sports, did well in school, dated a bunch of popular girls in school, and then it dawned on me that I was slowly turning into an asshole jock. That’s when I began reading obscure literature, listening to underground music to rip myself away from the norm, from the trite conformity society expects us to be. A few years later I realize I wasn’t so special. They have a name for people like me, and it’s called hipster.

Shit, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, I can tell you that much. So from then on, around 18, I did whatever made me happy, whatever made me wake up in the morning and think, hey this life I’ve been given isn’t so damn bad after all.

At Yishun Junior College, I took up triple science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics) simply because I’m smart as fuck. And then I dropped out after a few months. Man, questions about education kinda bores me. Next question please! Haha

Along with getting into obscure literature and underground music, was your teen years also the time you started writing? How would your describe your early works?
I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can recall, but writing didn’t come so early for me. I would like to tell you some brilliant tale about how I began writing poetry at the tender age of nine or whatever, but that’s nothing but a lie, of course. I began rather late, when I was 18 or perhaps 19. I wrote flash fiction about my friends and family, and those who had the privilege of reading these stories got a kick out of them, so that was where I fell in love with writing.

After that it began to mean more to me because there was a phase in my life, when I was around 21/22, when I lost the will to live and, being all misanthropic or whatever. Writing, I realized, helped purge all the bad shit that’s going on within me. I spent 3 months traveling alone across Southeast Asia on a tightest of budget, with a weathered knapsack, and some books in it. I made a lot of strangers who turned into friends. I sort of just lived off the grid, no internet and all that, just reading and writing and interacting with strangers. It’s kind of life affirming for me, a period in my early adulthood I will look back in my senior years and say, yeah, that’s the young man I was, and not have an ounce of regret.

When I came back home, I got my first writing job as an intern at a business magazine, and that was where I cultivated various nuance in writing.

Besides Kurt Vonnegut, what other writers do you dig? Do you have a “style” to your prose, or consider your work part of any kind of literary movement/tradition?
I love Paul Auster’s contemporary style of writing. I adore minimalist writers like Chuck Palahniuk, [Bret] Easton Ellis, and manic writers like Bukowski and William S. Burroughs. Though I am not a fan of overly descriptive writing, I definitely appreciate what writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Ayn Rand do. Reading their work reminds me of a passage in Catcher in the Rye where Stradlater asked Caulfield for a favor of writing him a ‘goddamn composition’ that ‘descriptive as hell’. Haha.

The book that changed my life though has got to be Albert Camus’ The Stranger. The novel proves that you don’t need an extensive vocabulary to write something so hauntingly profound. This is true in real life as well. Imagine you’re presenting an idea to a client of yours and you stifle him with verbosity, dropping big words like some pompous asshole. What do you think the outcome would be? The key to making a point is for it to be concise. If it’s not concise, you’re giving your audience the impression that you’re unsure of yourself.

Speaking of The Stranger, I am pretty excited for Michael J. Seidlinger’s re-imagination of the literary classic.

Is the business magazine you’re referring to Aquila Style? Or is there another A.B. Syahid roaming around Singapore?
Yeah. Aquila Style is a magazine I wrote for after my stint as a junior editor at Worldbiz Journals. The people there are pretty chill. They mostly let me write what I want.

Before we talk about Aquila Style, can you tell us which branch of Islam you were raised in, or identify with? If “branch” isn’t the right kind of wording, how would you describe your beliefs?
I am a liberal Muslim, if that makes any sense at all. I believe that if you’re a good human being, good things await you in this life or the next, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Reading through your articles, one thing I noticed is you liked to tell other peoples stories, such as individuals you met while traveling, or members of your family, in great detail. Was this something you initially set out to do when you started writing for Aquila Style? Or did AS allowing you to pretty much write whatever you wanted make you write differently?
I am inspired by conversations. I love how people have a different way of talking to different sets of people. People put on masks when they speak. They change it with almost everyone they speak to. I guess it is pretty damn tiring. So when I’m caught in a conversation, I choose to sit back and listen what the other person has to say.

Writing for a Muslim publication had its drawbacks, like you have to be extra sensitive with what you’re writing. The heavy censorship in Singapore compounded by this, it is pretty messed up. I wrote an article about homosexuality in Islam and received death threats for it. It was sort of exhilarating to piss off someone so bad they wanna kill you, but they’re mostly empty threats. All religions have their own sets of fanatics, you can’t let these few dictate how you lead your life, you know.

Can we move on from Aquila Style? It’s kinda like a rotten phase in my life working for them. It was a good experience but rotten overall.

Let’s talk about Cogina. When did you start writing it? Was the writing process any different than your usual writing habits?
I started writing it in September 2013. Took me two weeks. I dedicated 2 hours every night for two full weeks writing it. It was mad fun. It is similar in a way in which I use people I know as inspiration for my character, real life conversations. I wasn’t working for two month back in 2013, and I stayed with a friend of mine who has an apartment in Chinatown, and we would get into messy situations all the time.

The process of writing was pretty much organic, I didn’t have to plan anything, I simply knew how to begin and end the story from the get go and the meat between the bread are all organically conceptualized.

Where did the idea for the “Cogina Curse” come from? I’ve Googled it, and besides random words and links to your novel, I couldn’t find anything within Singapore culture nor Islam that references it.
Hahaha, the curse came to me in a dream. No, a grotesque nightmare. Nothing to do with religious or social culture. It seems like a sick concept so I went with it.

Regarding the protagonist of Cogina: are his fantasies, whether it concerns violence, sexuality, or inanimate objects—such as an “in-shaped” mattress that goes to the gym—an innate part of his mindset? Or are they a product of him suffering from the Cogina Curse?
It sort of describes his abject sense of loneliness, viewing inanimate objects and wishing they are able to have human characteristics. He’s a terribly confused human being to begin with, and the curse fucks him up like a tsunami to the crotch.

What was the process for writing Singaporeans Cried When They Found Out Their Hearts Were Made In China? Were any of the stories previously published?
It was mostly inspired by news stories I read in local magazines. I devoured them to the point of disillusionment. The amount of bullshit you read in the news will lead you towards dark places. And, of course, like all of my stories, they’re based on personal experiences.

Are you currently working on anything, or have any future projects planned?
I am finishing a novel called Washing Dishes on a Sinking Ship, and a collection of poetry, flash fiction, and words of encouragement.

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