Gender Matters: A Conversation about Women in Writing

On July 10th, I attended a talk given by Grace Chia Krakovic and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow entitled “Gender Matters: A Conversation about Women in Writing” at the National Library. I was interested in this talk for a number of reasons. I’ve read and enjoyed work by both of the writers in the past. Grace Chia’s first collection, Womango, contained several interesting and rather cheeky concrete poems: we chose “Starfruit” for Writing Singapore. Her more recent collection, Cordelia, is on my reading list. Yu-Mei Balasingamchow’s the co-author of Singapore: A Biography, which offers an interestingly anecdotal take on Singapore history, and her short story “Lighthouse” is featured in the short story anthology we’ll read at the end of the semester. I was also interested in the topic, both in the material sense of the particular challenges that women face as writers in publishing, having their work reviewed, and so on, and also in an older issue about whether writing is gendered: whether women and men write in distinctively different ways.  

The audience was small, and this made the atmosphere quite intimate, with discussion evolving into a genuine conversation. The two writers began by giving a brief account of how they came to write poetry and fiction. Yu-Mei’s was an indirect route, first via blogging and then moving on to historical research. Her first short story, she mentioned, was written in response to a request from a friend, but then took on a life of its own. Grace talked about growing up in a kampung, but having a rich internal life that involved reading widely and also writing. She published her first collection of poems quite early on, but then fell in love, went abroad, travelled for a long time with her husband in a circus, and then returned to Singapore, where she had a writer’s residency at NTU, and completed a second volume of poetry. One of the interesting elements of this discussion was to find out just how difficult it often is to be a writer: both writers have unpublished work that they’ve been working on for some time. Both also find it vital to have a small group of readers who can comment on unpublished work, and whose opinions they can trust. Grace Chia also raised an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of before. While Singapore has a number of prominent female poets (we’ll begin with Lee Tzu Pheng in our module) the poets of her generation—those who started publishing in the 1990s—were predominately male. 

The discussion was followed—or perhaps more properly interwoven—by a series of questions. One issue raise was whether the authors avoided controversial topics, or whether they consciously addressed them. Both replied that they did neither. They wrote from certain concepts and certain spaces, beginning with what they knew, and, in the case of Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, supplemented with extensive research. This might well lead them to topics that others would consider controversial: Grace’s early poems, for instance, were more sexually explicit than most Singapore poetry of the time. Yet, if I represent them rightly, both writers said that they didn’t simply think of making an intervention into a particular controversy: their writing grew out of particular experiences and impressions. I thought that this was interesting with reference to our module in thinking about some of the issues we’ll look at in Week 4, when we look at writing about the Emergency. He Jin seems to me to have a very definite purpose in writing and a “message” to convey: he certainly sees his writing as a political intervention. Lee Kok Liang, on the other hand, appears to work as these two writers do: he addresses the issue of detention, but he does so obliquely, without an obvious message.

 A second issue that came up – OK, I have to confess that I asked this question in discussion!—was the issue of audience for Singapore writing. Both writers noted that the Singapore market was very small, and it was thus impossible to make a living as a writer. There were difficulties, though, in writing for an international audience that might not know Singapore well. Grace Chia felt that some form of annotation or explanation might be necessary, while Yu-mei argued that a writer shouldn’t be self-conscious, but should rather write in a way that was comfortable for her. She gave the example of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist who at times uses distinctively Nigerian English without glossing or translating, and yet who has a large international following. In our class, I think this issue might come up most strongly with Lydia Kwa’s novel This Place Called Absence, which was first published in Canada and the USA.

 All in all then, a stimulating discussion that ran well over its allotted time.