From an Investment Bank to a Writing Desk: An Interview With Jon Gresham

"We should try not to be gatekeepers, but encourage diversity."

By Kanksha Chawla

October 5 2018

Jon Gresham, writer and photographer, 2016. [Photo credit: Alvin Pang. All rights reserved.]

Jon Gresham is a writer and photographer based in Singapore. His short story collection, We Rose Up Slowly, was published in 2015 to critical acclaim.  He is also a director of Sing Lit Station, a literary community, and charity based in Singapore. He leads the Writing the City creative writing workshops and the Book A Writer programme placing writers in Singapore's schools.

How did you get started? 

When I was younger I was inspired to write by Enid Blyton, the Beatles, Biggles, Tintin, Frodo, Yossarian, Holden Caulfield, the Franks Robert and Anne, Alice Munro, the Bible, and the promise of untold fame and fortune. However, I grew up and worked in finance, software, and investment banking. I wrote stories and took photographs as a means of remaining human.

Can you tell us more about your personal website and why you built it? is an accumulation, a scrapbook, an assortment, a haystack. It is where I have put bits of my brain over many years. When I was younger I used this website to fulfil the role social media now performs for other people in documenting their life. 

This was before I was single and before I had a kid. There was no Netflix or streaming and I wanted to avoid American Idol and Survivor. I wanted to create, rather than consume, so in my time away from work, I took photos and wrote, and put some of this stuff on my website. 

You’re a photographer as well as a writer. How do you find these two forms of art inspiring each other and your creativity? Do you plan on marrying the two?

I would like to collaborate with a poet and put together an exhibition of images and text. I talk about this a lot but I haven’t yet found the time or a poet, who is both willing and compatible, that is, kind enough to put up with me. Anybody interested should PM me.

Kids, Jakarta Selatan by Jon Gresham from [Photo credit: Jon Gresham. All rights reserved.]

Tell us a bit more about your initiatives to make writing more accessible in Singapore. 

I run a monthly prose creative writing workshop, Writing the City, which is open to the public at Toa Payoh Library. We entertain visiting writers like Clarissa Goenawan, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, and Lim Cheng Tju.

I also run Book A Writer with my colleague, Azira Amran. This is a programme to put Singapore writers in Singapore schools, ITEs, polytechnics, and JCs. We have over 25 writers on our books and have provided over 80 workshops in Singapore's educational institutions.

I also run a monthly prose creative writing workshop with Migrant Workers, called The Fire Pen. We have a laugh.

I am also working with my colleague, Klarissa Schmitt from Sing Lit Station, Professor Graham Matthews and Olivia Djawoto of Nanyang Technological University and the graphic artists, Don Low and James Tan, to provide Graphic Medicine workshops to the public. We will run workshops monthly from August to November to empower Singaporeans to explore their experiences with health and sickness using comic book and graphic novel techniques.

These programmes are all run by Sing Lit Station, a literary community, and charity I helped co-found with Joshua Ip, Tse Hao Guang and Daryl Qilin Yam two years ago.

World building with Writing the City At Sing Lit Station[Photo credit: Jon Gresham. All rights reserved.]

What are your thoughts on the local literary scene? 

I am encouraged by the quality, passion, and diversity of the local literary scene. 

We should always try not to be gatekeepers and try to encourage diversity. I was lucky and blessed enough to have people like Alvin Pang, Cyril Wong, Verena Tay, Amanda Lee Koe, Wei Fen Lee, Stephanie Ye and Kenny Leck to help my writing and make me feel part of a community. It’s important to tear down walls and barriers and embrace all shapes and size of writers, and allow people to fail, explore and be creative.

Art is meant for all. Your passion for migrant workers is inspiring. What more do you think can be done to make this community more inclusive in the arts scene? 

Our focus should be on building bridges, encouraging hybridity and empowering people to ‘do what they want to do’, rather than trying to centralize and commodify creativity or waste time trying to strictly define what is acceptable or label what ’Singapore literature’ is, or is not. By all means explore the question but avoid prescriptive, dogmatic answers.

Above all, we need to allow people to thoughtfully address who we regard as ‘other’ in our communities and society, and the reasons why. Compassion and empathy are values we need more than anything today. This means we should be interrogating our privilege, class and unconscious bias in our communities and society. 

The front cover of the second edition of We Rose Up Slowlyby Jon Gresham, Math Paper Press 2015. [Photo credit: Math Paper Press]

What are your plans for the future?

Finish my novel and go and live in Indonesia.

What advice would you like to share with artists?

Eat your greens. Brush your teeth. Read a book. Don’t normalize Trump or the rise of nationalism and far-right ideas. Anybody that tells you that compassion and empathy are signs of weakness is a hamster (with apologies to hamsters). 


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