“In four years’ time, I will be 70. Can you imagine?
Six years ago when I just turned 60, I made myself believe that I was living my last decade on Earth. There are so many things that can happen! You could still be alive but not know how much of your brain you still have left – you might lose your memory or your faculties.
I started a countdown on Facebook and told myself that now is the time to do all the things that I have always wanted to do. I wanted to write, and the play, Still Life, was something that I had been meaning to finish for a long time.
Still Life draws from events in my personal life. I’m from the baby boomer generation, and we have a slightly more convoluted and complicated childhood than, let’s say, the Millennials. I was actually adopted as a baby by my mother who was still single at the time.
When I was nine, she married my stepfather and brought me along with her when she moved in with his family, so I grew up with step sisters. Through Still Life, I’m looking at all of these episodes in my life and trying to understand them in a deeper, more profound way.
A lot of the play is also about my relationship with my mother. It’s almost as if I’m trying to tell her story through my eyes. I remember watching her as a child – and eventually as a mother myself – and feeling a lot of irritation, anger and frustration towards her.
The relationship was a problematic one because there was a clash of cultures, you know? She was from a time where a woman’s job was to cook, serve and keep the family happy, so she was always expecting me to play that kind of role in my family.
I was lucky because my in-laws were slightly more progressive and very undemanding of me, but it was my mother who tried to push me to behave like a ‘traditional woman’. It was difficult for me because I felt observed and judged all the time.
If she saw me painting at home, she’d say, “Why are you spending your time doing nothing useful? Why don’t you help me with the cooking instead?” I was always going against her expectations while still trying to find my own way around the things that I wanted to do.
I actually went to art school late in life because I wanted to paint. Perhaps that’s why the setting for the play is an art studio. It’s like an external representation of my life and what is happening within me – my mental, emotional and intellectual state.
I have a line in the play which says, “Every canvas is a self-portrait.” Even when I’m painting somebody else, it’s still a self-portrait because every painting shows where I am at the time. In that sense, ‘Still Life’ is very autobiographical.
I wanted to be a writer too, and it was through my interviews with feminists that I got to know about AWARE (The Association of Women for Action and Research) and eventually served as its President for two terms. That stint was a great educational experience for me.
AWARE was created in 1985 to protest against the Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme. The government only wanted educated couples to have kids then, so if you’re a mother without a university degree, you were given an incentive to get ligated and not have any more babies.
I think you have to be very secluded from the world to still buy into the kind of culture that my mother subscribed to, although I’m not surprised that there were families that did, especially in the 90s when our government was going on about the wonders of the educated Asian family.
When I thought about the idea of a family back then, I would think about the tyranny of a family because my mother was always so tyrannical and uptight. She didn’t allow me to be myself.
But I think she was representative of many women of her generation – women who were put to work when they were young to support the family. They survived the only way they knew how, which was to find a well to-do husband to give them some sense of legitimacy.
The human spirit, however, will always fight back and not allow itself to be culled, you know? I remember how my mom would say certain things that would ‘trigger’ my father and make him very angry because she ultimately felt very unrewarded for sacrificing so much for the family. It was her own way of fighting back.
She has long passed on, and apart from looking at the things that happened in my life, a very strong motivation for doing this play was to actually give her the kind of recognition that I feel she deserved but never had.
By putting her story on the plate, I hope that people can see the value of her life. No matter what I thought of her as a child and in spite of whatever negative feelings I might have of her in the past, there was a lot of value in her life.” – Dana Lam, 66
Interview by: Arman Shah