Notes from Singapore Writers Festival: Paul Theroux

“Reading and writing are the most civilized things you can do.”

– Paul Theroux, Singapore 2014

Paul Theroux gave a lively and interesting talk at SWF on Saturday. In opening he talked of a tv interview of two men standing in the recent US election. They were both asked ‘What was the last book you read?’ and neither had an answer. Theroux was disgusted by this, saying the idea that someone is capable of reading but doesn’t pick up a book is a disgrace. Especially if that person is standing for government.

It is obvious books and writing are in Theroux’s blood. With over fifty books published in his more than seventy years of age now, Theroux doesn’t seem like he will, or could, stop anytime soon.

Most of his talk discussed the idea of why we travel, and he used the Jungian theory of Individuation as a reason for this – that you don’t find out who you really are, and where you want to be in life, til you leave home. He used himself as an example – coming from a family of seven kids, he needed to get away, needed to figure out what he was going to do with his life that would be of value. He spent five years in Africa in the Peace Corps before coming to Singapore in 1968. He worked for the University of Singapore and he credits his time here for helping him figure out that he wanted to be a writer full time. He also discovered his love for writing what he called ‘the truth’ – writing things as he saw them and not how he wanted them to be.

He used many of his descriptions of the people and places on Singapore in his novel Saint Jack. He finished the novel after moving to London in 1972 and soon after he began an epic train journey from London into Asia and back. This would give him material for his extraordinarily famous The Great Railway Bazaar. He described travel as ‘a mode of enquiry’. He differentiated between ‘travelling’ and ‘tourism’ by saying that a true traveler doesn’t know where they are going or what they are going to do. A lot of travel is about having a ‘bad time’ and enduring hardship while tourist travel is about searching out a ‘good time’. Travel helps you develop as a person, it is humbling and it makes you feel small and reminds you of your tiny place in the word. Theroux used an apt description of flying out of Singapore. While we are on this tiny island we feel like it is the whole world. Once we take off from Changi and look out of the window we see the large landmasses of Malaysia and Indonesia right next door we realize how tiny this island really is.

Theroux was passionate, funny and engaging – a pleasure to see a true master in the flesh.


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