This interview series seeks to introduce fellows and students of Tembusu College to the wider community on a more personal level, and to create dialogue between these groups of people. This week, Jeremy Fernando shares his perspectives on writing, reading, and teaching.
Jeremy Fernando is a Fellow at Tembusu College. He received his PhD from the European Graduate School, where he is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow and a Reader in Contemporary Literature & Thought. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the media; and has written eighteen books — including Reading Blindly, Living with Art, Writing Death, and in fidelity. He has also published in magazines and journals such as Berfrois, CTheory, TimeOut and VICE. Exploring other media has led him to film, music, and art; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is the general editor of both Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative.
Rachel (R): How do you begin your day?
Jeremy (J): Grumpily. Like, really grumpily? I hate getting up, so usually with a lot of protesting and groaning, and I do like taking a very long time with it. I wake up at least three hours before I have to leave the house, which is why I don’t like teaching in the morning. In order to get myself going, I need to do a few things that mitigate the fact that I had to get up. So I really like reading in the morning, for instance. I almost always – if possible, I mean – get up and have coffee and read something for at least a period of time. That’s usually how I like to start the day. And then fiddle and faddle and do whatever needs to be done la.
Denise (D): What makes a fulfilling day for you?
J: I mean, a good day is if you found something interesting, or if you’ve read something interesting, or may have written something interesting, or you had a good conversation, or you met up with a friend, and just not did anything. I know the days I don’t like. I mean, days I don’t like are the ones when you have a hundred and one things to do. So unproductive days are good days. Or at least, unproductive in the sense of not having – or maybe that’s productive in the predesigned sense, like if you define production as what you had to do. But a good day can be productive in the sense of, you’ve made something new. Like you’ve brought forth something new and unexpected.
at some meeting, pretending to care
R: Like art? I’m sure to many students, you seem like quite the ‘artistic’ spirit. And we know you write quite extensively, but do you do any art-related things other than writing?
J: Nope. I mean, I failed art when I was in primary school. I hang out a lot with artists, a lot of my friends are either visual artists or musicians, and it just somehow played out that way. I’m not sure why. So I learn a lot from them. I think going to a museum or a gallery with a visual artist is really interesting, because they are the ones who can point out to you what the person is doing, this is the angle – so that’s fun. Recently I’ve been writing in response to their works more and more, starting to find that really interesting.
R: But you don’t dabble in visual arts yourself?
J: No, no. I’m an epic disaster. The only time I do sketches is when I’m at meetings. It seems appropriate bringing two disasters together. The last time I drew a knife. Although for one of my artist friends, for her housewarming as a joke gift, I printed one of my crap sketches on a frame and went, “Na. This will ruin your house.”
R: So you don’t perceive that as art.
J: No la, there’s very little chance of that. It’s lines on paper, yeah, but it’s just stains on the paper, not even sketching let alone painting — for there’s a huge amount of craft that goes into art, or at least should go into the making of these things. You see, I’m with Joseph Beuys on this. Everything has a possibility of being art, which doesn’t mean everything is. There’s a huge difference. Because art requires transformation.
D: What is the story of how you came to Tembusu? What led you to Tembusu?
J: Tembusu, specifically, very simple – I needed a job. I was at NTU previously and I was in the English department for a few years, then I moved to a research centre, and it shut down. Then I ran into Connor [Graham] and Greg [Clancey] at a conference by chance – I wasn’t even supposed to be there actually, I tagged along, and at the last minute, there was a spot, so I presented something, and then we started talking. That’s pretty much how it happened.
For academia in general, it was equally coincidental. I did my undergrad in mass comms, and I thought back then that I wanted to be a copywriter, like an advertising copywriter. So, whilst I was doing my undergrad, I was also working. I started my own small firm. And I also did a bunch of internships.
Probably the best internship – as in, the most fulfilling one – was the one at Ogilvy & Mather. During the time I was with them, I was wavering a little bit, because I realised that copywriting is a very specific skillset. I was crap at it, and neither was I particularly interested in that mode of thinking. I also had a couple of people at Ogilvy who were saying that my personality doesn’t really match advertising, because there you need a really loud personality. And I’d stumbled into French philosophy along the way and I was reading more of that. I think I was in year three or year four of undergrad, when I had discovered the European Graduate School (EGS) by chance, so I was thinking about going there then. That made me decide to switch over.
And then, I did grad school. So it’s a really accidental stumbling into academia. I still don’t consider myself an academic. I like the university setting, it gives you quite a lot of freedom, open space. I’ve grown to like teaching. It always felt very fraudulent. It still feels kinda fraudulent. But I think I now make the fraudulence part of the seminar. Like, the question of – Adam [Groves] also does that, to some degree – who gives one the right to teach? That authority question that he plays with. I play with a similar question, maybe slightly differently, but that same question of, who are you to stand in front of other people and tell other people things? I see myself as, if I had to categorise it, someone who reads and likes to write.
from me talk at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang (March 2017)
D: On the note of academia and teaching, we’d like to know, how is your new module, Writing Women, coming along?
J: I think it’s not too bad, considering it’s in its first incarnation. I think the first few rounds, you’ll always have stuff that works, and doesn’t work. You know how everyone likes to say that afterwards you figure out what works? The trouble is that each batch, each constellation of people in the seminar, is different, so whatever reading has worked once may not work the next time. It’s really hard to say. But you have at least a loose sense.
What’s been quite nice is that quite a number of people who are not registered have been auditing the class, so which suggests that there’s at least a general interest, beyond like, modules and having to pass. And what’s also quite nice is that some of my former students – both from Tembusu and beyond – have showed up. It gives the seminar a nice mix, because there is a variety of people in there.
D: You’ve been with Tembusu for quite a while now. How has your experience interacting with different batches of students been? How have you seen Tembusu changing over time?
J: You know, in many ways, especially for Junior Seminars, it hasn’t changed very much. Or at least, there’s no discernible pattern, because we usually encounter people in Junior Seminars very early, often their first semester. So there hasn’t really been much institutional shaping yet, which is good, actually. Because institutional shaping tends to make people safer, because institutions tend to drill into you that the stakes are very high to try something new, to experiment, or you know… it lets you know very quickly who’s in charge, who’s not in charge, right?
But institutionally, we’ve changed slightly, because at the very beginning, people didn’t know what they were coming in for. It was very new, right? But as the place gets better known, what goes around, which is natural, does come with a greater sense of what to expect, which, on one hand, is good because it takes you less time to get it going, but on the other hand, it’s slightly less interesting because they have a preconceived notion of what to expect.
D: Do you think that that has affected the degree to which people are willing to try out new things, in that case?
J: On the whole, no. I don’t think so. It actually doesn’t stop the students. The problem lies with the staff, because they’ve been here longer. Because even, one might say, for Oxford and Cambridge, which have hundreds of years of history, you would’ve had an idea of what Oxford is before you go to Oxford. But really, having an idea and being there is quite different. The moment you’re there, everything changes. But it’s people who’ve been there for thirty years, or forty years, that are the problem. In our case, people have been here for five or six years. Because they start to fossilize a certain version of the institution that they like, be it good or bad, they start to make it that way. Hence, you start to see a discourse on continuity, which actually doesn’t make sense on a continually rotating sort of framework. This whole need to build culture – I’m not sure why people are so obsessed with becoming bacteria… continuity. Hence, you have this long-lasting project.
D: How do you think one can remedy this, then?
J: The obvious way is to keep moving, which is not always viable. I mean, we all need jobs and stuff, and the reality is that, the longer you stay in a job, it gives you some form of stability – financial, contractual. But I also think it’s how much you invest in the institution? If you see you and the institution as linked, then you might become fossilised with it.
If you are doing a lot of other things outside of it, like you see it as one aspect of you, yes, and also a means of making a living, yes, but you do a lot of things outside, that could be one way.
with Avital Ronell at the European Graduate School in August 2009
D: You seem quite fond of your grad school, EGS. Could you share with us more about your time there? What were some definitive or mind-blowing moments you’ve had there?
J: Definitive is a bit difficult. But certainly, a lot were. I consider it my favourite school. It’s hard to say definitive because I’ve been there for a very long time. There have been some really memorable seminars. I clearly am very fond of my dissertation supervisor, Avital [Ronell]. The current president, Hubertus von Amelunxen, his first year was my first year there, and we’ve become friends. I think that he’s one of the reasons why I’m also interested in photography and art, because I’ve learnt so much about responding to, thinking with, images from him over the years. I’ve also taken a really, really good seminar with Werner Hamacher. He can spend whole seminars, 20 hours, on one sentence of a short story. He does a super careful reading, which is really fascinating, almost spell-binding really.
But I think the really nice part of EGS was also meeting the people who I was reading. Recently I met this long-time hero of mine. His name is Sylvère Lotringer, and he’s the one who founded Semiotext(e), the press. Semiotext(e) started in New York, in about the ‘70s, and it’s the press that basically translated all of French post-structuralism into English. So no Semiotext(e), no French theory in America, really. Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, they were all his friends, and when moved from Paris to the US, he essentially brought them to America.
Sylvère’s seminar at EGS is ostensibly on Baudrillard, that was the title, but it’s really about French poststructuralism from the 60s to the 80s. And he conducts his 20 hours over the course as one long storytelling session. He can tell you about how he knows these people and their backgrounds. And then he’d go, “Oh, let’s say Deleuze was talking about this major concept”, and then he’ll go on to explain to you the concept in two sentences, and you’re like, “Whoa. Yes. Why didn’t I see this?” So for him, it’s just embodied, for him it’s just like “oh, they were doing that, and this is the idea, and that’s how it relates to that guy’s idea”. To him, it’s not theory in that sense, it’s lived experience and how it’s come about, and why these observations showed up, and why at that particular time, and how they were responding to each other: so perhaps, one could say that Sylvère is doing theory in its purest sense of staging it, showing it, all whilst also creating it, making it.
And there’re also other seminars I’ve been for particularly in the grad school I went to that it’s only years later that you’re like, “ooh… this is what they were talking about, it sort of makes sense”, which also opens the question of time and teaching? The time of the seminar is not necessarily that scheduled time you have together, be it 13 weeks, 20 hours, whatever. But the time of the thoughts, the thinking, continues, and in the best-case scenario, the best relationships with your teachers – because not everyone who has run a class for you, you will consider a teacher, that’s just life, you know, for whatever reason – that relationship carries on, even if it’s not in a personal way. But something carries on.
R: At Treehouse, we’re rather curious about your writing process. Or rather, do you believe in a writing process?
J: It’s not fixed, but over the years I’ve recognised that there’s a little bit of a pattern. It’s rather random in the sense that, at some point I decide, or when it comes to me, that I want to write about X. But I have this thing – it was suggested to me by Avital when I was attempting to start writing my dissertation . The big question is usually, how on earth do you start writing a dissertation, right? And she was like, “Why don’t you go to your bookshelf and take out four or five books that call out to you as you’re thinking about whatever you’re thinking about. It probably has something to do with it. You don’t necessarily know what. Just leave them there. Flip around, play with it.” So I started doing that, and I still do that these days. I pluck out quotes, segments, ideas, and just put them on the page. It’s a bit intuitive, faith-based, really, that in whatever I’m reading, if something jumps out at me, it’s jumping out at me for a reason, and I just plunk it down to the paper itself. At some juncture, I start to work through these quotes and actually try to lead from one to the other. There’s no plan.
So obviously when you do it that way, a lot of things will be in fragments. The editing process is where I start to try to bring it together, insofar as it can be. And I don’t necessarily mind if parts don’t gel, because it’ll be silly to assume that in any idea, notion, or even piece, that everything has to fit.
R: It’s quite interesting, what you mentioned earlier, about feeling like a fraud sometimes when you teach. Do you ever feel like a fraud when you write?
J: Yes, but I also care less at the same time. In a weird way, as I’m writing it, I’d probably care quite a bit about it, in trying to craft it and trying to make it like, the best, whatever that means. And of course you try to be at least clear to yourself, on what you’re trying to do. But the moment I send it out, strangely, I actually don’t care. I’m not particularly concerned about reactions to the thing. I’m a bit um… Pontius Pilate about it. “What I have written, I have written.”
les monyets — or, them who write all of me books
R: So, what makes good writing for you?
J: I don’t know what makes good writing as a sort of – objective judge of good writing. I know I like writing that plays with itself in its making. That’s one kind of writing I like. So someone like say, Derrida or Marguerite Duras, they’re very aware of the fact that they are constructing a piece as they’re doing it. But not so neurotic that it breaks itself down completely. So they’re making something even as they are aware.
Another kind of writing I like is that super storytelling sort of writing. It’s like listening to someone stand on a stage and tell you a story, I think that’s amazing. So someone like John Irving. You know the ending, you know it’s coming, it’s very obvious, but you’re still enthralled when he tells you. That’s really good storytelling. Or Dermot Healy as well, super good storytellers.
These are the two kinds I really enjoy. I can’t do the super storytelling kind, I have no ability to do that. And I don’t think I have the imaginative world to create fiction-fiction, per se, so I’m just very jealous of people who can.
R: Perhaps such writing need not necessarily be “good”, as you see it, but are there any writers or pieces of work that have really influenced the way you perceive the world?
J: Jean Baudrillard, definitely. Hélène Cixous is one of the most elegant, beautiful, writers, thinkers, out there. I mean, growing up, people like Roald Dahl as well? Enid Blyton was the best describer of food in history. Like, no one can describe canned food like she can. Even though she clearly has no friends. She averaged like, 36 novels a year. How do you write 36 novels a year? By the time she died, she wrote 800 novels. I was like, this is insane levels of – do you not talk to anybody? But that sheer descriptive quality, and there were always lashings of something, lashings of butter, lashings of jam. So, those are really good.
Oh, people like Gary Larson as well? Just seeing the world in a – so obvious yet not obvious kind of way, I think he’s wonderful. And Lat, it’s Southeast Asia’s best known comic series. What else is good… Genet I’ve recently been reading more, Jean Genet. Who I really like.
R: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
J: Just read and read. And write.
R: Last question, what does the tattoo on your arm say?
J: Words are missiles that explode in your somatic being. This is from a seminar. I’ve always heard these lines, and I might be hearing them wrongly because no one else actually remembers them. And then I need to meet someone who I think matches the saying. Then I get them to write it out once with their non-master hand, and then I transfer it as a tattoo. One of these days it’s going to go very wrongly. So far, it’s been okay.
with Hubertus von Amelunxen after my talk at the University of Malta in March 2016
This interview was conducted by Rachel Tay and Denise Goh, with images contributed by Jeremy Fernando and Yeo Guek Ling.