NAW Interview with Stephen Black

IATB_05_100513_coverStephen Black has previously dabbled in photography, video and music. He is the author of ‘I ate Tiong Bahru’ which is currently being given for free (only 1000 ebook copies available). See the bottom of the page for instructions on how to get hold of the ebook.


NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?

I grew up surrounded by books; my father is a book salesman, specializing in children’s books. As a child, not only did I read a lot, but I saw books as objects of commerce. I grew up with a keen awareness of the difficulties of becoming an author. So, although I wrote articles, I didn’t feel I had the energy to become a published author. Writing a book of any type is an extremely difficult thing to do.  To get an agent and a publishing deal takes time, patience and luck.

And, I expressed myself through photography, video and collaborating with musicians. I worked for CNN, Cartoon Network, Fuji  TV and other big media companies. When the Kindle came out in 2007, it became possible to create a book and send it through the internet easily. Obviously, this was very different from the production of printed books. It seemed there were many possibilities.

At this time, I became inspired to write Obama Search Words, which is probably the first Kindle book to be written and created in Singapore. I followed that with Furikake, a collection of short stories . Cyril Wong, a noted Singaporean poet allowed me to experiment with a collection of his poems called Fires. So, my decision to write books was linked to the technological advancements that made the internet and ebooks possible. These developments allowed me the most direct connection with readers.

NAW-  Tell us about your book ‘I Ate Tiong Bahru’. How did you get the idea for the book?

My photographic and video art projects were nearly always about my immediate environment. Obama Search Words was triggered by the fact that Obama had lived in Jakarta. Many of the short stories in Furikake are about Clementi, the area of Singapore in which I was living. Contact With Shadow, besides being an unusual love story, is about the history of the Armenian Street/Fort Canning area in Singapore.

So, when I moved to Tiong Bahru, it was natural that I would write something about it. Tiong Bahru has distinctive architecture, very good food and is full of history. And, I was lucky to spend time with its long time residents.

NAW-  Can you tell us about your other book, ‘Bus Stopping?’

It is basically an authentic non-touristy version of today’s Singapore and its people. Bus Stopping is meant to be something like a short film. There are no words and the layout suggests the feeling of travelling through a city for the first time. Of course now, a few years after publication, it has become a visual record; a historical document about the cityscape of Singapore. This is what others had to say about it-

Stephen Black maps moments and images, in this case often using bus windows as frames for external spaces. The book is not just about looking at and into buses; it’s also about dislocated spaces in a media capsulated landscape. It moves you, as a bus moves you, from one place to another, from one Singapore to another, from one passenger’s dream to another. You get there, but only by being complicit in the desires and fantasies of fellow passengers- and the whole of capitalist consumer society.

-Stelarc, pioneering cyberperformance artist 

“…meaningful images without a forced sense of nostalgia. The photographs document a city that is surprisingly full of humour and beauty. Singapore has never looked so real.”
-Cyril Wong, winner of the 2006 Singapore Literature Prize

“With its stunning visuals of a humanized Singapore, Bus Stopping debunks the notion of the island nation being ‘just’ a commercialized city.”

-Deepak Gurnani,  Indian film producer

“… a spontaneous, studied and ever eloquent eye.”

– Xu Xi, 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize nominee

NAW- Tell us about the research you did for ‘I Ate Tiong Bahru’?

Lyrical documentary is the phrase used to describe the book. Three years in the making, the documentary side is the result of countless hours in the Singapore National Archives and at the National Library. The lyrical side is the result of living in Tiong Bahru, doing things like exploring  adrain pipe at 3AM in the morning or walking in thunderstorms. Formal interviews and informal conversations; there were many of both. The book is not strictly a documentary, nor is it a memoir. The best research usually involved food or coffee in the market or at a kopitiam.

NAW- Did you face any trouble in finding publishers for your first book?

So far, everything has been self-published. For now, it is better to be the head of an ant than the tail of a lion. Although is a publisher or agent ever wants to look me up….they are more than welcome.

NAW- Writing is not looked upon as a full time vocation in many countries, were you aware that making a living solely out of writing is difficult when you first started out?

Absolutely. But being an artist is great training for the financial challenges. And one has to take the long term view…writing is a marathon, not a sprint.

NAW- You are giving away free copies of I Ate Tiong Bahru. This seems a good idea for promoting a book. How did you chance upon this unique method for promotion?

Actually, giveaways are proven ways of attracting attention and developing relationships. They are very common in the world of books. However, because I am my own publisher, I can make an unusual decision like giving away 1000 ebooks. A traditional publisher would likely have to think about it, have meetings and then start a campaign. On a Friday afternoon, I decided to do the 1000 ebook giveaway. By Monday I Ate Tiong Bahru files had been sent to almost 100 new readers.

NAW- Please name your 5 favourite books.

C.H. Kauffman: The Agaricaceae of Michigan

Stanislaw Lem: The Cyberiad

Ryu Murakami Almost Transparent Blue

Yasunari Kuwabata The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa

Bohumil Hrabal I Served the King of England

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

To Eat Tiong Bahru, the sequel to IATB, should be out in 2015. Hopefully Bali Wave Ghost will be out this summer.  And, next month, Contact With Shadow  will soon be in an ungluing campaign. The ungluing campaign is something like a Kickstarter campaign. In this case, the goal is to sell about 1000 copies. Contact With Shadow will then become a free ebook, no digital rights management, nothing;  free to the world.

About Contact With Shadow

“It’s a double pleasure to read this… First, there’s the joy of gleaning nuggets of knowledge about Singapore and the printed word hitherto unknown; and second,there’s the childlike wonder of never knowing what Stephen Black has in store for us on the next page.”

-Ng Yi-Sheng, Playwright, writer and winner of the 2008 Singapore Literature Prize

Stephen Black is currently giving away 1ooo free copies of I Ate Tiong Bahru for promotion. If you would like a free copy of IATB, all you need to do is send a blank email to and put I ATE TIONG BAHRU in the header.

Do you wish to be interviewed by NAW? Drop in a mail to with your complete profile and a list of your published works. 

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