A Minor Contradiction

By Maya

Last night I attended  A Minor Contradiction the closing event for Indignation SG 2014. Indignation SG 2014 is a volunteer-run, month-long series of events by the LGBT community that seeks to explore issues of sexuality and to chronicle the experiences of queer people in Singapore.  Most significantly, I believe that it aims to promote a sense of community for queer people. A Minor Contradiction showcased the literary works of young  and emerging queer writers. I thought that it was interesting that a presentation of written works was the means by which the organisers had chosen to close the month, and to me that was a testament to the power of writing in terms of self-expression. I was interested to attend the event because I had observed that in recent times, many queer people in Singapore were writing about their experiences and sharing them not only in printed works but also on social media. I was thus curious to understand how similar or different this reading of works might be from any other readings, such a poetry slams I’d attended before.

The event was opened by Jerrold Yam, who read a few poems including one entitled Museum,  in which he talked about reconciliation with his parents after they found out about his sexuality. Jerrold was probably one of the most well-known performers that night and it was clear why from the skill of his writing. His poetry to me, was largely confessional and made use of vivid imagery. One of my faourite lines from his reading was “His mouth receeding with scraps of forgotten conversation”. I thought this line was quite beautiful as  it showed how his style of writing was  emotive and yet effortless. What I did notice though, was the universality of the issues he talked about. Struggling to re-connect with your parents after a major difference in opinion is something I think many young people relate to. The fact that poetry is often written in a way in which the subject matter is not explicitly outlined,  allows  people who are not queer to relate to the sentiment expressed.

Another reader who was outstanding to me was Mrylyn. She too read a few poems and her brand of writing was bold and peppered with puns( good ones).  She wrote openly about sexuality and many puns were made about every day objects. One of her poems cleverly melded the topics of food, sexuality and her family which created a funny and daring read. Mrylyn is obviously a natural with words, however the sexual innuendos in her writing might not go down so well with everyone. In  this way, I felt that  her writing while no doubt entertaining, is possibly alienating and thus an acquired taste. The audience really enjoyed her enthusiastic readings, but I suspect that the larger Singaporean audience would not be so  readily accepting of the frank and sometimes raw way she wrote about sexuality.

A third reading I thought was note-worthy was Dylan by Lavanya. This was a story about a child of a same-sex, female couple who realises at school that their  family is different from the other childrens’.  I use “their” when referring to Dylan because the protagonist’s gender was not referenced at all in this story. To me this emphasised how the writer wanted people to focus on the the deeper issue at hand, love,  and not the sexuality and gender of the characters themselves. It discussed the idea of family and illustrated the challenges faced by Dylan’s parents in raising a child in Singapore as an “unconventional” family.  This story was interesting to me because besides being the first (and only) story of the night, it was also the first that was written for children. I thought this was one of the most original pieces of work because I have not heard previously of writing about same-sex parenting in a Singaporean context. I thought as a children’s book, it was a step forward from the “happy-ending” and one-dimensional stories that already exist because of the ambivalent tone at the end of the story. I thought in this way, it was a realistic and mature piece of writing.

All in all, while I enjoyed the spirited works of the young writers at the event, I think that there is much more that can be done to make the writing more diverse. Many of the pieces read at the event were poetry and I am not sure if this was done in the interest of time, but it would have been nice to hear more short stories for variety. Also, I felt that there was a tendency to over-sexualize things in much of the writing. Perhaps, this might sound ironic since this was an event about sexuality, but to me it would have been more interesting if some of the writing had focused more on emotions and social stigma for example rather than sex. Ultimately, “queer writing” if I may loosely use the term seems to be in its infancy in Singapore. Having said that, judging by the crowd  that showed up last night and the talent I saw, it looks like this is just the beginning of some very beautiful work to come.

 

Happenings this Week

This isn’t a usual review post, but just a listing of interesting things that I’ve come across this week that you might be interested in following up.

  • First of all, Grace Chia, who has published two very interesting collections of poems — her poem “Starfruit” is in Writing Singapore — has launched a journal of women’s writing, with a suitably punning title JUNOESQ. Several interesting things here: new fiction from Amanda Lee Koe, poetry and an interview with Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, and an interview with Jolene Tan, as well as an excerpt from her novel  A Certain Exposure, which I enjoyed reading recently.
  • Second, two launches of new poetry collections at Books Actually. On September 3rd, it’s THE CONFUSION OF HAPPINESS by Michelle Tan, and on September 4th WE WERE ALWAYS EATING EXPIRED THINGS by Cheryl Julia Lee. I don’t know either of the poet’s work, but Books Actually and their associated Math Paper Press are known for bringing new voices to our attention. Either of these launches would be good blogging opportunities!
  • Third, some of my own reflections on reading. Things are slowing down for me a little, but I’m half way through Claire Tham’s new novel The Inlet. It’s based on a real incident a few years back, when the naked body of a woman was found floating in the pool at one of the luxury residences at Sentosa Cove. It’s a detective story with both an engaging plot and a very intense exploration of the internal lives of some of the characters. So far it’s turning into the best novel I’ve read this year. I do have the library copy, but will return in due course!

Celebrating Words

By Chen Yun

A couple of days ago, I attended the ELL symposium – Celebrating Words, which was graced by notable local poets and writers like Felix Cheong, Heng Siok Tian, Cyril Wong, and of the older generation – Oliver Seet and Edwin Thumboo.

Basically, the event was categorized by 3 different sessions which began with some poetry reading by featured local poets, and ended off with a Q&A where they would field questions from the audience.

I quite like Heng Siok Tian’s Mixing Tongues, which was drawn from her own personal experiences of – in her own words – having to master both English and Chinese despite being brought up in a dialect speaking family. It reminded me briefly of Catherine Lim’s works, which has a tendency to bring in some aspects of Chinese culture, e.g. idols and gods. Heng explained her approach towards the crafting of this poem, which was initially meant to be a 7 stanza long poem, each with 30-31 lines, mirroring the length of a month. To push it further, she tried to fit 24 syllables into every line, to represent the 24 hours in each day. However, she confesses that she gave up on it, as the ‘need to impart discipline and exercise restrain’ was getting to be too ‘controlled’. Her brief comments made me think about the conflict between craft and personal expression in poetry writing. Should something which is birthed from the outpouring of the soul be freely expressed, or edited and constrained to make it palatable for consumption?

Felix Cheong’s A Love Poem, By Way Of Wikipedia, also sat well with me. I found the title pretty interesting, because it has a defamiliarization effect for me, since the word ‘poem’ is fleshed out, making the reader conscious of that which is an artefact, and constructed, not so much an outpouring of the emotions of some lovestruck figure. The image of the artefact which can be defined as something man-made is compounded by the use of ‘Wikipedia’ which is a compilation of bits and pieces of information. The two words used in harmony, seems to give the poem a rather deadpan vibe as seen from how the poem makes use of definitions – “[love] is a many splendoured thing’. This seriousness is however, severely undercut by the nonsensical quirky phrases that follow. Wikipedia also seems to be appropriate given that it is an open book, available to all, and can be edited by anyone, like how love is worn on the sleeve and holds no pretense (or can be full of false truths, depending on the view you take), and is vulnerable in that anyone can have the power to edit it.

Audience participation was requested, and we were to shout ‘edit!’ at the end of each stanza. It proved to be an easy task after all, since there were only two stanzas. Not only did it compound the technique of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ as with the title of the poem, the verbal articulation of the word sounded like the French – ‘à dit’, which means ‘to say’. Fitted in quite appropriately with what we were doing – saying. Also, it illuminated the links between the art of editing and saying. To edit something, is, to some extent, the expression and articulation of another opinion in a bid to replace or change the former.

It is a many-splendoured
thing, a crazy little thing, that old
devil, blind, star-crossed, head
over heels, patient and kind, never
having to say you’re sorry. [edit]

It is an old, crazy patient, sorry
splendour, blind as heels,
the devil’s kind of cross, never stars or say in your head. Little
by little, it is a thing, and over. [edit]

I also enjoyed Oliver Seet’s Hainanese Chicken Rice in Singapore, which was full of food imagery and mouth-watering phrases that made us all hungry. Seet actually made a trip down to Hainan because he wanted to try the original version of this tasty national dish. Having found the original authentic Hainanese chicken rice in a small little humble village, he confesses that it was extremely different from what he expected. The chicken meat was thin and measly, and the rice hard and oily. The soup too, was ghastly different from the local version, with shreds of cabbage in it. From the way he described the dish, I imagine that he must have found it to be quite a nasty experience. In his words, ‘We [Singapore] do it best!’ Food aside, his brief preamble got me thinking about the question of what makes Singaporean literature what it is, given that something belonging to a foreign land can be assimilated into our local culture so effortlessly, and given a brand new makeover which made it better than the original.

 

 

Christine Chia — Separation: A History

I went to the Arts House on Friday night to attend the launch of Christine Chia’s new collection Separation: A History. This post isn’t so much about the event, at which Jerrold Yam’s Intruder was also launched, but about the poetry collection itself. Christine Chua is something of a new discovery for me. Her first collection, The Law of Second Marriages, was on my reading list when I was in Canada, where Singapore poetry’s very difficult to obtain. I head straight to NUS library when I returned, and read it. The Law of Second Marriages is a curious collection of poems in that it’s consciously autobiographical. One of the early things that you learn in studying poetry is that the persona, or voice that speaks in the poem, is not necessarily the poet’s, even when—as often happens in lyric poetry—you’re encouraged to believe this. One famous example is Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” a poem about Wordsworth viewing London from the bridge early in the morning. Despite the dramatic situation of the poem, it’s highly unlikely that Wordsworth wrote a beautifully constructed sonnet in a perfect form in real time while on the bridge: the voice and moment of the poem, even though it pretends to be immediate, is elaborately staged. In The Law of Second Marriages, there’s an interesting play with this sense of the poet’s voice and its relationship to autobiography. Chia first gives an account of her experiences growing up, her father’s death when she was ten, and her complex relationship to her mother and her nanny, who took care of her. There’s also a family tree, and a warning that “I’ve written a family psychodrama that would only be touching if you though that it was the unequivocal truth.” The poems that follow give tiny snippets or moments out of a life that are written in a stripped-down style, yet are heavy with emotional weight. In addition, there’s a Facebook page for the collection, in which Chia’s commented in greater detail on the poems, and their relationship to autobiography.

Separation: A History returns to the same life, and cast of characters, but it adds another layer: the separation within the family is consciously paralleled to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. The collection begins with a meditation on three photographs. The first two are public photographs: one of Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman together when the formation of Malaysia was announced, with a single garland around both their necks. The second is a much more famous photograph; Lee Kuan Yew at the press conference where separation was announced in August, 1965, on the verge of tears. These two photographs are contrasted with a private photograph of parents, the woman pregnant with her first child, their gestures expressive of a “simple life” that didn’t last.  The collection then continues through a series of sections that plot a story of both Singapore and Malaysia’s separation and the separation caused by the father’s untimely death, with titles such as “a short-lived union,” “tearful,” and “independence against will.” Individual poems often begin with a quote from a historical document regarding political separation that the poem then responds to by placing it within the context of the personal. Sometimes the connection seems strained: in “close the coffin” the connection to the father’s death is superficial, and simply touched on before the poem returns to Lee Kuan Yew and the “mausoleum” of Singapore society that he helped create. Yet when the parallel works, the effect deepens the emotional register both stories. An example is “dancing in the dark,” about the period spent in solitary confinement by Chia Thye Poh, the Barisan Socialis MP who would become Singapore’s and—after the release of Nelson Mandela—the world’s longest-serving political prisoner. Chia’s poem personifies the darkness of the solitary confinement cell, describing a resistance to the violence of solitary confinement in terms of a dialogue between lovers:

She breathed in my ear

that I must grow to love her

because she is all

I will ever have.

 

Why are you doing this

to yourself

when your soft tongue

can unlock that door?

At this moment the personal attaches itself hauntingly, and disconcertingly, to the political. The best moments in the collection are like this, when the connection is neither superficial nor forced, but when the two stories are tangled together in poetry.

In this way, Separation: A History begins raising questions regarding the nature of metaphor, which brings together two different things, and transfers qualities from one to another. It’s possible, of course, that seeing Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in terms of familial or romantic relationships reduces politics to melodrama; it’s equally possible than insight may be gained through a different perspective on the past. If you want to decide for yourself, there’s still time. Christine and Jerrold will be reading again at Books Actually in Tiong Bahru at 7.30 on Friday 22 August.