Shze-Hui Tjoa Is a Detective Seeking Clues to Her Own Life

Literature


Shze-Hui Tjoa’s The Story Game is an unflinching investigation into herself—represented in the text as ‘Hui’—and her lost memories from a dark place called ‘Room’ during her years as a piano prodigy in Singapore. A script-like dialogue between Hui and her sister Nin in Room structures the book from the start: the reader is swiftly inducted into another, deeper space within the page as the game’s silent witness, surfacing periodically for Hui’s fractured stories of adulthood that function as a trail to the pain of her childhood. The stories narrate stilted nights in a kink club, a faith-breaking visit to a holy land, the complications of trying to love through self-loathing and more—all written with a formidable balance of candour and restraint that mimics, in prose, the effects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) on what she can remember.

This memoir challenges its own meta-narrative that a person knows, and can tell, their own story best with its breathlessly inventive form of prompted, iterative honesty. Eventually countered by her sister’s gentle yet firm refusal to play their game, Hui’s stories spiral upwards towards truth—towards an integration of the somatic and the cerebral; the factual and felt. At the point where the memoir’s edge touches Tjoa’s lived reality, the contained meditations on grief, mental health, identity and family fuse into bright, earned clarity.

I spoke with Shze-Hui over Zoom and email at the start of 2024. Our conversation spanned the way The Story Game has been influenced by Singaporean particularities, how a writing career has affirmed her capacity for extremes in control, and the aching—yet fortifying—process of growing beyond yourself. 


Claire Chee: Being ‘smart’ comes up throughout the book, especially in how you describe managing to hide your deep trauma behind cleverness and achievement for a shockingly long time. What role do you think your schooling had to play in this exaltation of academic intelligence? 

Shze-Hui Tjoa: A huge role. When I was growing up in Singapore, there was a standardized, nationwide exam that sorted all children into three education pathways at age nine: “gifted,” “express,” and “normal.” Imagine what this rigid pigeonholing did to everyone’s self-worth! Especially when the adults around us were constantly warning that the stream we ended up in would determine the rest of our lives.

I tested into the “gifted” stream—which, in hindsight, I think had more to do with my knack for intuiting others’ needs and desires, than with any sort of book-smarts. But for decades afterwards, I walked around with a kind of desperation to present myself as an “intellectual.” I only read books that were dense with theory; tried to use big words; went to academic lectures that I mostly ended up daydreaming through. In other words, this label of “smart” that had been imposed on me—it became a self-image that I clung to in the absence of a unique personality, or a sense of self. And for a long time, it prevented me from attempting any sort of real personal growth—because to improve at something, you have to first be willing to admit that you don’t know everything. You have to be able to honestly reckon with your own limitations, so as to transcend them. I couldn’t for a long time without experiencing significant self-hatred.

CC: A vestige of that can still be seen in the book’s first story, “The Island Paradise,” which your sister deems intellectual, but dishonest. Could you share more about how the content of this book’s stories evolved with your own growth? What did you have yet to learn about yourself when you began writing?

Detective novels have a promise of omniscient knowledge built into them—there’s always someone, somewhere who holds all the answers.

SHT: I agree—“The Island Paradise” is a record of who I was then, back when I relied on “smartness.” These days, I feel a lot of sorrow and compassion for that younger version of me. She was really suffering —yearning to evolve, to become something, anything other than what she was at the time. And yet she believed that she was fully-formed and right about everything.

The biggest thing that I learned from writing this book is to let go of the need to present as perfect all the time. Expecting constant perfection is the direct enemy of growth and change. Nowadays, I feel like I am much more comfortable embodying “The Fool”—you know, like the Tarot card? I know we don’t typically associate published authors with this archetype! But The Story Game represents my journey of growth towards the freedom to make mistakes, vacillate, and explore. The freedom to connect meaningfully with others, too—because by the end of The Story Game, my in-text avatar has realized that the only way to learn what she doesn’t know is to step outside of her own head to talk to other people. She realizes that embracing her weaknesses gives her a real reason to need others and let them in.

CC: The Story Game asked me, as a reader, to respect its parameters in giving an answer that was different to the one I sought. I’ll admit I was fairly preoccupied with knowing exactly what happened during your childhood years, only to realize by the end that I wasn’t entitled to it. Could you share a little bit about how you decided what to disclose and withhold about those events?

SHT: It’s funny you should say that because, actually, I don’t feel like I withheld anything at all. I told readers as much as I could about what had happened to me—which is to say, as much as I could truthfully remember at the time of writing.

With the dissociative version of complex-PTSD—which is what I developed as a child musician—trauma often manifests as avoidance, with the mind fleeing elsewhere while bad experiences happen, and refusing to store them as sensorially rich information. So although I had a kind of semantic memory of those childhood years “playing the piano,” I didn’t know what those words actually felt like, if that makes sense. I could not have concretely described what I had actually experienced each day as an embodied self, sitting on the piano stool.

Basically, a lot of The Story Game is about trying to deduce what might have happened to me, in the years when my mind was absent. Like a detective, I had to examine my adult body’s attitudes towards food, sex, illness, and pain as clues from the past. I shared those findings as fully as I could, in the book.

During the last stage of writing—when I was creating the dialogue between me and my sister—I relentlessly read Agatha Christie detective novels, and also watched the entire TV adaption of her Poirot books. I had entered the murky territory of “unknown unknowns” at this point: I had no idea if the dialogue would go anywhere at all, or manage to wrap up in a satisfying narrative. Detective novels have a promise of omniscient knowledge built into them—there’s always someone, somewhere who holds all the answers. I suspect I needed to replenish this feeling of security in my own psyche—to believe that someone, somewhere also knew where my own project was going.

CC: Your relationships with Nin (your sister) and Thomas (your husband) are both fractured by inverse needs for control. With Nin, you claw back agency by dominating every narrative you share. With Thomas, you want to relinquish control to the point of having him intuit a toothache you’re having—when he fails to do so, you draw a knife. Has writing about these ruptures recalibrated the concept of control for you? 

SHT: It hasn’t. I still have the same ability and desire to control the other—or otherwise be controlled by them. I actually think that’s part of what makes me suited to being an author, since writing engages in these two extremes: the pleasurable coercion of another person via text, while also letting them control the fate of your career as a reader who’s entitled to judge your work.

My in-text avatar realized that the only way to learn what she doesn’t know is to step outside of her own head to talk to other people.

The difference in having written this book is that nowadays, I’m able to name what I’m doing, whenever I’m engaging in complete domination or submission with other people. This self-awareness has given me much more agency over how and when I exercise the dynamic in my life. In the past, I didn’t know how to stop, which made it feel unbearable and inescapable. But now I understand that control is a game I can play, and also stop playing, at will. I can engage in it temporarily for strategic purposes: to influence others or myself to take brave risks, work together for a common good, or create beautiful things. 

You know that Mary Oliver poem? “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness / It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” That’s how I feel about the concept of control in my life now.

CC: Singapore adopts a paternalistic approach to governance that, compounded with common Asian dynamics of filial piety, has produced a general cultural aversion to questioning one’s elders. In the book, you have to reckon with how your parents—who you assert are good people—could hurt you so terribly. What are your feelings today towards dynamics that foreground both fear and love?

SHT: Thank you for picking up on this! I would say that this duality sits at the heart of The Story Game: that love always means making yourself vulnerable to the possibility of hurting another person, and being hurt by them yourself. I think this applies across all forms of close relationships: between parents and children, siblings, romantic partners, even friends. That’s what makes emotional intimacy so rewarding in the first place, right? That we are willing to take this risk with another person, day after day, in order to experience a season of closeness with them?

It’s true—in the culture where you and I grew up, there is definitely a deep-rooted belief that being a “good child” means never confronting this duality. Many of us in Southeast Asia are taught that if we truly respect our elders, then we must deny the parts of ourselves that remember all the ways they made us feel small and angry and afraid as children. But what kind of love is this—that wilfully denies the fullness of what we can remember about another person? To me, a love that does not truthfully reckon with the ways in which our parents’ imperfections shaped us growing up is a love based on myth—without real people at its center.

In parts of The Story Game, I explicitly name the ways in which my parents hurt me as a child to achieve their own ambitions. One of the most difficult sentences to write in the whole book was the one you reference: “[my] parents are good, kind, and loving people.” It took me over four years of personal reflection to get to the point where I was able to put those words down on a page, and really stand by them. But I had to reach a place where I could both hate my parents’ actions towards me, and also love them as people—in order to eventually extend that same complicated grace towards myself, as someone who has also wounded others.

CC: One of The Story Game’s defining themes is an ouroboros of flawed authority and how it perpetuates hurt; your parents, the eco-hostel owners, and even yourself to your sister, Nin. How has your relationship with authority shifted or solidified since you wrote the book?

SHT: What I’ve learned as a memorist is: the more democratically my sense of self can exist out there in the world, among the general public, the less I have to worry that any one powerful entity can control it, minimize it, or otherwise eradicate my personhood. Nowadays, I see the “product” of this book as a form of immunity against the power of authority. In particular, I suspect that the Singapore government’s desire to gain international prestige through my writing career means that they’re willing to give me more freedom to speak out, compared to others back home. This has enabled me to talk back on some political issues that I care about—for instance, the ways that they’ve been punishing citizens’ self-expression about Palestine recently. The process of championing my book loudly, and being proud of its readership has made me feel less afraid in general. The collective keeps me safe. People are my protection.

CC: The Story Game spans Indonesia, Singapore, London, and the unspecified Baltic region of one of its essays, the ‘Good Green Place’ so I have to ask—where are you currently based? And are you working on anything new?

SHT: In Edinburgh! I relocated from London at the start of the year, to work on my second memoir. It’s very early days so I can’t be sure yet but I suspect that it revolves around the politics of empire and motherhood. Something about the physical configuration of this city is helping my body to find the specific voice that it needs; to channel its feelings.

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