Lit Up 2014: A Review of “Everybody Hertz”

I attended Lit Up 2014 over the weekend, in what was my first exposure to live poetry by the Party Action People spoken word troupe. I wanted to simply write on a local work, but was convinced by a fellow classmate to give the Singaporean literature scene a try.

So walking up to the event, I was greeted by loud reggae music which reverberated throughout the courtyard of the Aliwal Arts Centre, as dreadlocked vendors slackly walked about hawking goods at the flea market amidst a throng of local and Caucasian faces. Strangely enough, other than a painting of Chinatown, most of the goods on display were foreign-looking oddities or reggae/funk vinyls. This Jamaican market vibe left me feeling mildly culturally displaced in what I had presumed to be a celebration and partaking of my own national literature and culture.

Anyhow, my ticket was collected before I was ushered into the performance hall. I wondered then, if the pitch-black darkness was intentional, as some sort of blank canvas or tabula rasa concept? But such trivial concerns gave way to the pressing need for a seat, as I groped through the perilous dark until I found a place among others, in a nebulous room of hushed voices which seemed then, to be filling with a tangible energy both from the audience and the troupe themselves.

Now on the production itself, the format of the live poetry performance was interesting, given that the different spoken word pieces were conceptualised and arranged as a TV programme schedule. This arrangement allowed for a somewhat voyeuristic experience, and it helps to note that the official brochure invites the viewer to “channel surf through mediated fantasies”. This fixation on watching TV and being watched by it was particular played up in Gideon Goh’s hilarious parody of North Korean propaganda in “Pyongyang Passions”, where his self-censoring and self-policing were brought to bear on perhaps, a tongue-in-cheek jab at some of our own government’s antics with the media.

Indeed, much of the poetry was highly politicised, with mockery of the paternalistic Singapore Government a mainstay theme throughout the hour-long production of Everybody Hertz. A number of pieces were particularly memorable in this light, notably the North Korean parody as mentioned, as well as Marylyn Tan’s “All News is Good News” piece. Here she fired off devilishly clever lines with all the forced panache of a Channel NewsAsia anchor, in what was a hysterical take on the state of local news in Singapore – highly-censored, diluted and only ever about the good and “actual” stuff.
Those that shifted away from political themes tended to be downright bizarre like the monologue of “Penis-Man”, a washed-up hero struggling to keep up appearances, or “Boo-geoisie”, three ghosts in a variety show vying for the right to haunt the living. As a Singaporean, though I found a satisfaction in appreciating the local flavours and references of such pieces, against the other more politicised “programmes” which seemed to have more of an objective, the laughter produced by the bizarre poems felt a tad arbitrary at times albeit genuine and sincere.

Nonetheless, I also enjoyed the troupe’s line-up simply in that it was genuinely more multi-racial than any edition of our national parades. This year, the Party Action People featured Marc Nair, Charlene Shepherdson, Jennifer Anne Champion, Gideon Goh, Allee Koh, Shivram Gopinath and Marylyn Tan – a delightful blend of foreign and local talent. And while the myriad accents were pleasing to the ear, the different races and ethnicities allowed for a small space to explore racial anxieties for recognition. In this light, Gopinath’s part in the “Jeopardy” piece was particularly relevant and mirthful as his Gopal Kannan character persistently wrestled with the host (Marylyn Tan) for a proper recognition of his name and presence in the game show. Though the audience had its sides split with blithe laughter by Gopinath, I thought it was an ironically poignant reminder of the struggle and Government which many minorities must contend with on a daily basis, in a State that tends to water down race and ethnicity.

Finally, my personal favourite was the last piece wherein each member of the troupe sang a different national day song, on top of each other, which ultimately produced a final sound so raucous and discordant it would have been a shoo-in number for the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The audience thoroughly enjoyed this bit, as did I, no doubt reminded of the forced image of unity we are made to suffer annually through the parades. Yet when the lights came back on, I found myself leaving, feeling that all the laughter I had given was genuine but peculiarly empty in some ways. What I mean to say is, seeing that the Party Action People have a keen interest in asking political questions about the People’s Action Party – are they sufficiently convicted that literature can change humanity and the system they mock, for the better? Is it true change they are striving for? One must ask these questions because we chortle at poetry about ourselves and the Singapore government, but I still don’t believe that parody for parody’s sake or poetry for its own sake is ardent enough to elicit change from this system and space we find ourselves in today.

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“Tender Delirium” by Tania De Rozario

By Rachel Tan

I was browsing through the ‘Singapore Literature Collection’ section in my neighbourhood library and chanced upon Tania De Rozario’s Tender Delirium. It caught my eye because it looked familiar and then I recalled that it was one of the books Prof Holden was giving away a few weeks back. I didn’t usually read poetry collections but the blurb piqued my interest, especially with Cyril Wong’s comment on how reading this collection was like “swallow[ing] fire or drink[ing] liquid nitrogen”. As such, I borrowed it and read it in one setting. Cyril Wong’s description wasn’t far off from what I felt after that. I sank back into the couch and felt like I just went through a very raw and explosive roller coaster ride. Unlike the texts we have been looking at that deal with political and social issues, this collection deals with issues that relate more pertinently to the self and particularly, self-identity.

Just some background information on Tanzia De Rozario:
“Tania De Rozario is an artist, writer and curator interested in issues of gender and sexuality. Co-founder of EtiquetteSG, and winner of the 2011 NAC-SPH Golden Point Award for English Poetry, she is the author of Tender Delirium  (Math Paper Press | 2013), which was recently shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize. She is currently penning her second full-length book, And The Walls Come Crumbling Down.”  (Taken from her official webpage, taniaderozario.com)

Just an overall sweep of the book: Tender Delirium does not have a specific narrative trajectory and they did not exactly revolve around a particular subject matter either. The book is also structured into three sections, Denied Access, Between Two Points and Returning Home. Interestingly, the way the three sections were titled hinted at a sort of narrative that I expected while reading the collection. I took a quick guess and inferred that it probably encompassed the reconciliation of certain extremities or conflicts. However, the whole range of subject matter and themes dealt with by Tania dismantled my initial preconceived notions about the collection. I find that the thread which connects her poetry is a raw, explicit and bold intensity that is frankly rather frightening at some points but otherwise, extremely powerful. Tania cleverly subverts our expectations through many layers and techniques in her poetry as reflected in her unconventional use of subject matter, perspectives as well as her exceptionally skilful use of enjambment in almost all of her works. Her poetry teases and confuses the reader by with one particular interpretation only to undermine that very same point in the next line or stanza.

WHAT YOU ARE

I want to write you a poem that unravels
from the gut, hurls itself towards you
like a slap across the mouth. Let my words
unleash themselves upon you like dogs
looking for a fight, like seeds bursting
from overripe pods. let every vowel
explode in your face like cruel laughter,
every consonant pronounce itself like
death into your ear, every comma
trip up your speech, every full-stop
prevent you from finding your way
home [. . . .]I want
to write you a poem that drives a bullet
through your beliefs, plagues you
with your own reflection, smashes every
illusion like bricks through a window
pane; let it stir the birds in your chest
so hard they burst through your flesh
in a spectacle of sound and despair. I
want to write you a poem that lingers
on your breath like cigarettes, stings
your eyes like salt, a finger pointing
unflinchingly: this is what you are
_

This is an extract from the very first poem within the collection that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of it and largely illustrates her strong confrontational and assertive style. This poem explicitly prepares the reader for an unconventional read (“I hope you were not expecting/sweet nothings, love songs, cherished/clichés”) that aims to challenge stereotypes, blur lines and cross boundaries. The subsequent poems build up upon her declaration right at the start and boldly deliver her aims as stated within the opening poem.

I realised a curiously interesting blend of subject matters and emotional phenomenon. 怨念 ONNEN and WATCHING DOGS EAT were two poems that really caught my eye primarily because of the unconventional subject matters as well as the unconventional perspective adopted. The poem 怨念was just as haunting as the three female spirits they revolve around. (I am not a big horror fan so writing and reading this at night really did spook me out) Her rewriting of the stories of the three vengeful female spirits shifts the usual emphasis from the fear evoked within the victims to the spirits. She tells their untold story and the theme of revenge is a salient one in this poem as Tania seeks a form of redressing their grievances by the incessant haunting of their assailants or murderers. The selection of the title was also an equally interesting choice that caught my eye because it was a Japanese word that could also at the same time be accessible to Chinese readers. The word, as reflected in her footnotes, “signifies an emotion so strong that it lingers even past death”; revealing the intensity of the vengeance and anguish behind their stories. Here, I feel that the beauty of her poetry comes through from the meticulous details – the intensity of her poetry is compounded through and through in her choice of words, diction and titles.

In WATCHING DOGS EAT, the speaker aligns herself with animals and turns the tables on her own kind, humans. Revenge fuels the speaker as she watches and even relishes in the death of the man who flirted with her. Dismissing the fact that he has a family to return to and other commitments within his life, this stark cruelty and lack of compassion lets loose a darker side of vengeance that Tania conveys and somehow through her tone of voice she has managed to glorify the act of and emotions associated with revenge. As such, the poet also presents the gratification of the self as something that is righteous and just, revealing the raw intensity of emotion – revenge, that consumes the individual thoroughly, leaving little or no compassion within.

Another aspect that I found really interesting in her poetry was her ability to put two disjunctive subjects together in poetry. For two subjects that seem incongruent, the poet creates that adhesive link that artfully weaves them together. These subject matters also effectively articulate the various tensions that are occurring within the poem. For example, sex and a car crash, a massage and an apology. In MASSAGE: AN APOLOGY, the speaker confesses the act of cheating on his or her lover. Naturally, one does not expect an explicit and vivid running commentary of the misdeed as an apology. As such, the initial reader response might be to posit that the apology may not be sincere. Just like how the subject matters are in contention with each other, there is a similar tension within the poem between the inherent guilt and his need to alleviate it as well as the derived pleasures from this act of betrayal. As much as the speaker apologises (“I’m sorry that”), the vivid physical description of his intimate tryst undercuts that sense of guilt running through the text. Hence, the term guilty pleasure is brought to its literal meaning here where the speaker struggles to come to terms with these conflicting emotions.

In CRASH, a stark sense of loss is emphasised in the text through the two incongruous images of sex and a car crash. The physical act of love making conflated with that of the physical collision of two vehicles until you cannot really tell the two acts apart as you read on. The explosive power of the two are highlighted but the car crash steals the loved one away “One of us is still breathing.” hence emphasising the stark contrast and feeling bereft of your loved one alongside the image of passionate love making. The romantic associations of sex are also shattered by the brutality of the car crash. Any forms of romantic imagery are immediately followed by a jolt back into reality through the run on lines or short staccato phrases, “like stars, till dismembered”, “ghosts of the empty street we once called/love. But wait. One of us is still breathing.” The combination of these two events, sex and a car crash creates a very strong, heady and powerful image that magnifies the depth of grief, love and loss that not only brings lovers together but also forcefully tears them apart.

The way Tania named her sections and her book was something that really intrigued me because after reading the collection I realised that everything ties together beautifully. Amidst the various themes of sexuality, revenge, the home, loss and love, the intense personal experiences and emotions reflect the process of self identification and realisation. Tania’s myriad of approaches effectively presents this process as a struggle that is fraught with emotional turmoil and confusion. There is a whole lot of incessant questioning, confronting and testing the boundaries of our comfort zones. Ultimately, the process might be a painful one that leaves you full of scars, hurt, confusion and anguish but it also strips you down to your basic and raw state of self. Thus, I somewhat realised the essence of the title, Tender Delirium. At first sight, it called to mind the idea of softness but upon reading the poems, they reflect a completely different aspect of this word; tender just like the state of a raw wound, still pink and fragile. In itself, the title self-reflexively overthrows the stereotypical notions of the word “tender” and offers a critique towards the innate mechanisms of stereotype application. As such, I find that the title not only perfectly embodies this process of self formation and discovery but it also emphasises this explicit sense of rawness. It is precisely the strength to survive by healing the tender wounds inflicted after bruising and hurting yourself again and again that makes you whole.

This was my first read on Singapore Literature outside of our texts in class and it was really mind blowing. Definitely left a strong and deep impression on me.

 

“Seeing anew, speaking things anew, and doing things anew.”

By Eisabess Chee

“The government does the dreaming for us,” Daniel remarked thoughtfully, “so what about our own dreams?”

Organised by Singapore architect William S.W. Lim’s non-profit company Asian Urban Labs and held at Theatreworks on a blazing Saturday afternoon, the Singapore Dreaming Project Workshop was unprecedented in terms of its conceptualisation. Daniel, one of the main organising members, told me about how the workshop was envisioned as a four-hour long sharing session that itself comprised of 10-minute capsule presentations by a diverse array of “thinkers” (to employ the word used in its Facebook event page description). The end result? An amalgamation of voices ranging from the metaphorical to the meditative, the pragmatic to the cathartic—in short, a rojak of perspectives.

Front of the room: A minimalist, barely-there arrangement that contributed to the overall uncluttered mood

As its name suggests, rather reminiscently of the Colin Goh and Woo Yan Yan film released six years ago, I must add, this project was conceived with the intent to “move beyond layers of constraints – whether dogmatic or structural – to imagine all alternatives”. In other words, this project aims to challenge the limits of the Singaporean dream across multiple arenas and will be consolidated into a conference to be held at the beginning of next year.

At first glance, the relentless name-dropping of speakers on its event page is hardly impressive. Indeed, constructive discussion necessitates variety, but the crowded line-up appeared like an overambitious attempt at piecing together far too many aspects of Singapore. And yet never in my life was I gladder to have been proven unequivocally wrong! Each speaker, with his or her own unique background and focus, never failed to bring something refreshing and thought-provoking to the table in spite of the heavily-restrictive time constraint. Each speaker evidently sought as best as they could to provide some form of insight into their own specialisation, with or without slides, and regardless of the lengths of their delivery. Barring tea breaks, I sat enchanted as speakers breezed through topic after topic such as sustainable development and social equity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, even though the event was a medley of varying concerns, it wasn’t long before literary-related issues began surfacing. The presentations that struck me as most pertinent to Singapore literature were ‘If We Dream Too Long’ by Prof Wee Wan Ling and ‘Our Pragmatic Dreams’ by Lee Hui Min.


The first was Prof Wee’s reflection on his presentation’s titular namesake, Goh Poh Seng’s If We Dream Too Long (Dream). Widely hailed as the “first true Singaporean novel” (to quote Koh Tai Ann), the story follows 18-year-old Kwang Meng, his dreams and the sacrifice thereof in the context of Singapore’s immediate post-independence years. Goh, whose novel was published to lukewarm response and whose vision of a bustling nightlife scene along Singapore River was not taken seriously till much later, was clearly ahead of his time. Prof Wee thus proposed that Dream criticised not only the typical 1972 Singaporean who could be pacified with the mere sense of solace in place of his dreams, but also the “world of standardisation and discipline” that the government had already affixed into place by then. Dream also suggested that the chase for dreams back then was aborted primarily so that the nation could be developed into a place of comfort for succeeding generations, and so the question begets: “Did we get what we want, for our children and for our children’s children?”

Lee, whose recently published non-fiction Chinese book Growing Up in Lee Kuan Yew’s Era has received plenty of praise from overseas readers, began by acknowledging the oxymoron in her use of “pragmatic” to describe “dreams”. However, Lee questioned if the juxtaposition of these two words was truly paradoxical. In reference to a project that collected dreams from around the world (the best articles I could retrieve were this and this), the Korean lady who created the project revealed that “the least inspiring ones” had originated from our very own city-state, born simply of the desire to upgrade from a HDB flat to a condominium unit. Have we grown too comfortable with our stable lives to be in want of change in our lives? Regardless, Lee critically raised the example of the Pledge and appended to it new meaning: she argued that the very ideal, “democratic society” encapsulated in this one-sentence pledge is aspired to “so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress”. In this vein, therefore, pragmatism and idealism are not so much dichotomies as allies in our quest for a better society.

Dream struck a chord with me as our module had explored post-independence poetry just last week. I mentally drew up a comparison of the novel against the works we studied and concluded with a tinge of poignancy that the subject matter across the two media and the four writers was not so different after all. In fact, even when measured across the dimension of time, it’s almost as if little has changed where dissatisfaction with the system is concerned—Goh’s very concerns of the 1970s echo through the decades to speak to us with resounding relevance even today. Have we stagnated? Has change occurred merely as a veneer? Is it therefore time that we leave behind our sorry excuse of tradition to move towards an all-inclusive society that will embrace one and all? (This is something to be considered especially where sexuality is concerned, in light of Arthur Yap’s sexual orientation being increasingly brought to the fore and of prominent personalities like Cyril Wong and Ivan Heng continuing to voice out on behalf of the marginalised gay community.) And whereas pragmatism used to be pitted against art (as per S. Rajaratnam’s and D.J. Enright’s starkly differing views), be it modernistic or realistic, Lee now beckons for an integration of the two to create a space in which dreaming towards a society that does not forget the disenfranchised as illustrated by Mohamed Imran’s metaphor, the socially vulnerable as mentioned in Yeoh Lam Keong’s presentation, and the economically dependent as underscored by Teo You Yenn is undoubtedly possible.

Back of the room: A wall of mind maps that scribed each and every speaker’s presentation

Most significantly, I realised hours later that while I was seated comfortably in the high-ceilinged, whitewashed room, eagerly scribbling down notes, in another part of Singapore another narrative of conflict and disharmony had unfolded. The question of dreams hence in an instant became that much more pressing: as we continue to develop into an island that will soon be home to 6.9 million inhabitants, what will become of our space to dream? Will our dreams ironically come under more threat? And will our dreams be nightmares, or will they, in the closing words of Prof Jane M. Jacobs, “[tend] towards harmonising and reconciling—past, present and future, myth and reality”?

Insofar as a Singaporean identity is concerned, we have clearly progressed beyond the awkward phase of EngMalChi and grappling with the coloniser’s language in various endeavours to mould it into a familiar tongue. But despite a common language amongst all, much remains to be articulated regarding the future of this nation and the direction in which we can proceed. As Singapore Dreaming moves into its second phase of bringing this discussion into the heartlands, I wish it all the best, and hope that the collective dream that is to emerge from this ceaseless conversation will render obsolete Lee Tzu Pheng’s early observation that “My country and my people/ are neither here nor there”.

“Boom”, Jean Tay

 

 

Screen shot 2014-09-27 at PM 10.41.57

By Nicole Chia

I was digging through my shelves for a suitable book related to Singapore Literature and I managed to unravel a dusty, old book with crumpled pages entitled “Boom” by Jean Tay. Jean Tay is a playwright and wrote this book as a sequel to “Plunge” another play she had written in 1997 about the Asian Economic Crisis. “Boom”, on the other hand, is a play about the property market boom in 2007 which brought emphasis on en-bloc sales in which “a group of owners come together to jointly sell their property, and thus command a higher price than if they were to sell their units individually” (Tay, 2009). Many older buildings fell to this process because the owners wanted to redevelop that particular piece of land and residents had to move out so long as 80% of the estate owners agreed to the en bloc sale.

“Boom” talks of Boon, a property agent who wants to achieve the en bloc sale of their own home and his mother, who stubbornly clings onto that old piece of house as if it is treasure. Jeremiah is a civil servant who has just begun his bond and is commanded by his boss to contact the families of those buried in the cemetery and to settle matters regarding exhumation and cremation. Along the way, he converses with a stubborn and reluctant corpse who has no memory of his family and is unwilling to be cremated. The second plot, which happens simultaneously with the first, can be seen as a parallel to the first, because they both shed light on the issues of relocation and history, and how memories and personal lives are compromised in the age of modernity in a land-scarce Singapore.

This play was an interesting read because it depicted the similarities between en bloc sales and exhumation of corpses. Both involve the relocation of people – whether living or dead, without a care for their feelings. This is seen by how Jeremiah labels the corpse as “just a lump of rotten flesh and bone”. The adjective of “just” denigrate the fact that he was once a human just like him, as if death renders a human completely useless. However, this can be challenged because this corpse believes that his “rotten flesh” is a step closer to divinity as “in [his] decay lies [his] own immortality”. It highlights the reconnection to nature, which is enabled through death, depicting death in a positive light and thus also how despite being dead, he still has ambitions and should not be disregarded. The reason why he is treated hostilely is because Jeremiah would rather be in the “ivory tower, …swivelling around in [his] ergonomic chair, sipping my mocha frappucino”. The metaphor of the “ivory tower” refers to modernity, allowing contemporary infrastructure to be built with upmarket goods like “ergonomic chair” and “mocha frappucino”. It also highlights how this “tower” towers over the cemetery, as if looking down and belittling it. This parallels the fight between Boon and his mother where he does not want to live in that “shit hole” that has his mother’s “tacky souvenir figurines”. He compares his house to a slum only because it is old and full of his mother’s old trinkets. He belittles these objects and disregards how these have been significant in shaping her memories. This is emphasized by how her mother asks her neighbour “How much can they give [her], for a memory like that”. It depicts how memories are priceless because they are important in forming meaning for one’s life and with progress, sacrificing these memories would seem to compromise on the quality of life. Thus, this reinforces the issue of how progress has devalued the worth a human (alive or dead) and shifted its values to focus on affluence and status, not on simplicity of life and importance of a past in creating an identity, represented by the cemetery and the mother’s memories respectively.

In addition, Boon’s father is an important character for the development of Boon’s character as well. Boon remembers his father chaining him to a tree when he enquires about those “ugly red scrawls” on the wall, alluding to their house being attacked by loan sharks. This led to him remembering his mother bringing “magnolia milk and tissue boxes and mopiko cream”. These are all objects to nurse Boon and to console him. Without his father’s strict behaviour and also his failure as a father to provide for the family, Boon would be unable to see his mother in an endearing light. Furthermore, his father is the catalyst in jolting Boon’s memories, which emphasizes the importance of the need for a past because without Boon remembering his father’s faults, he would continue to be an overbearing son that wants to force his mother to give up the house and her memories stored in it.

This play seems to resemble the lecture on “Poetry in the developmental state”, where the texts covered tried to negotiate with the apparent irrelevance of English language poetry in a society undergoing rapid economic development. In a general sense, this play, like most Singapore literature is not popularly accessed, which begs the question of whether it is indeed irrelevant as a tool to inform Singaporeans about the ill-effects of such modern processes and policies. While Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng and Authur Yap discussed in their works how poetry may or may not reflect the true identity of Singapore (is there even a concrete identity of Singapore in the first place?) when Singapore was undergoing early progress and urbanisation, Tay is in an age where things have been modernised already, but the state wishes to push it further to achieve higher economic growth. This would mean the need for more land to develop modern infrastructure suited for businesses and large companies. By writing this play, however, readers can see how Tay reflects on this further modernisation, where she questions the way the state treats her citizen. It seems as if the treatment is homogeneous, meaning her living citizens are perceived as a mass of tools to contribute to society, with no regard for their personal lives, which can be seen by how Tay depicts en bloc sales as almost vicious. This is similar to the exhumation of corpses in the cemeteries – how the civil sector, embodied by Jeremiah, is merciless in having to complete this process. They have to go law-by-law and do not bother to understand or empathize if the families, or the corpses in this play are reluctant to be cremated. The bureaucracy is portrayed as heartless and unsympathetic to the needs of the individuals, only caring for the country’s economic growth. It would seem then that we as young aspirated people, and the state are sacrificing the welfare of our citizens by being heartless.

Furthermore, we are sacrificing Singapore’s history for rapid economic development. One example is the famous “zhup lau chu (10-storey buildings) at Tanglin Halt, built in 1962 and once featured on the back of the 1-dollar note of the Orchid series, were announced as a Singapore En bloc Redevelopment (SERS) Scheme site in August 2008. By late 2013, most of the flats, shops and eateries were emptied” (Remember Singapore, 2013). By demolishing old buildings and turning traditional cemeteries into places with modern infrastructure, we forget these important aspects that made up our ancestors’ memories and in general, our past. Would Singapore then nurture the younger generation as one that is unable to appreciate our past because of the lack of it being accessible and available? Would we also treat our elders’ memories that are so entrenched in the past as something foolish because we feel that they are old-fashioned and are unwilling to progress with the times? The pervasiveness of modernity compromises the memories of the older individuals’ lives as well as Singapore’s history. Tay underscores these conflicts between modernity and tradition as well as the memories of the elders and the aspirations of the young aptly in this play. Coupled with the commonplace use of Singlish that is relatable to most Singaporean readers, Tay is able to engage the readers to reflect on the hidden and detrimental effects of progress in Singapore.

Works Cited:

“Singapore En-Bloc Flats.” Remember Singapore. 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

Tay, Jean. Boom: A Play. 1st ed. Singapore: Epigram, 2009. Print.

 

 

A Travel Special @ Artistry Café

By Lycia Ho

As a lover of travel and poetry, I knew I had to attend the event ‘A Travel Special’ at Artistry Café on the 19th of September. Hosted by Ethos Books, the event featured music by Olivia Cham and Maximilian Tay, poems by Jerrold Yam and an essay titled ‘Home’ by Zhang Ruihe.

Jerrold Yam’s latest poetry publication is aptly titled ‘Intruder’, and focuses on his identity as a Singaporean studying overseas. Yam said that he ‘felt like a stranger in his first year in London’. For him, poetry is a way of navigating lone and loneliness; his collection deals with that strange sense of alienation that comes with being a foreigner living in a country that is not his own. It is this sense of alienation, of being an intruder, that Jerrold wishes to communicate to his readers. For him, poetry is universal in that it compels its readers to share in the emotions it tries to convey – he hopes that by reading his poetry, his readers will identify with the emotions that come with alienation, and that if they feel the same way, that they would be comforted.

The cover of Yam’s latest publication features a knife slicing through a loaf of bread. When you’re a stranger, ‘even familiar objects are disconcerting,’ Yam explained. At his mention of the word ‘familiar’, I immediately thought of Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization – the artistic process of making the familiar everyday object unfamiliar. For Shklovsky, defamiliarization is the purpose of art: by rendering the everyday object unfamiliar – or strange, even – the artist is able to shift our perspective, allowing us to see the same thing in a new way. The title of Cyril Wong’s poetry collection ‘Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light’ comes to mind – the artist tilts his plate by manipulating his words so we as readers catch the light and gain a new perspective.

I wonder if the artist himself – or in Yam’s case, the poet – has to undergo some sort of defamiliarization, or alienation, in order to translate that into his art. In other words, the shift in perspective must first occur for the poet before he is able to use words to do the same for his readers. After all, honest poetry has to come from honest experience. I recently hosted a tea with Miss Pooja Nansi, who said that her poems are honest partly because she’s ‘not very good at writing about what she doesn’t know.’ For Yam, it is his own experience of alienation in London that allows him to translate that into his poetry and shape the readers’ own experience of his poems.

‘For a moment there is no shame
in becoming my own best companion,
no remorse or loneliness
pushing me to disentangle words
from strangers.’
– from Intruder, by Jerrold Yam

After Yam’s poetry reading, Zhang Ruihe took the stage with excerpts from her essay, ‘Home’, which was initially published on Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. You can read it here: http://www.qlrs.com/essay.asp?id=1114

Zhang’s essay reads like poetry, a difficult task to accomplish. In her work, she tries to uncover why Singaporeans love to travel. ‘Maybe our origins explain our restlessness,’ she writes. After all, ‘we are a nation of immigrants – the blood that flow in our veins has its sources elsewhere, in China, India, Saudi Arabia, England, Portugal, Amenia… Our very existence as a city is predicated on movement, transit and exchange.’

For Zhang, it is only ‘when you have to explain your country that you find it strange.’ She referenced the fish story told by David Foster Wallace:

‘There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”’

According to Wallace, ‘the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.’ Travel takes us out of the familiar, it removes us from the most obvious realities. For Yam and Zhang who have traveled extensively, Literature then provides a space where they are able to articulate not only the re-imagination of themselves but also their re-imagination and re-examination of the notion of home.

Living with Myths III

By Priyadarshini

Living with Myths Beginning is the third instalment of the Living with Myth series which serves to deconstruct and re-examine the “truths” that we have been living with our entire lives in Singapore. I was personally interested in this as I am a History major, but also because I believe that there is single historical narrative. Instead history is personal and can be interpreted in many ways.

In this instalment, there were 3 speakers – Huang Jianli, Seng Guo Quan and Lee Kah Wee. Huang Jianli discussed the myth of “rags to riches” and deconstructed the narrative of Singapore going from third to first world country by examining the Nanyang Diaspora. Seng Guo Quan re-examined the notion that merger was the means to a battle against communists and communist sympathizers. Lee Kah Wee discussed the integrated resorts as a physical representation of the contradictions of the “consistency” of the government. I will concentrate on the Huang Jianli and the discussions after the sharing as they are the most relevant to our module!

Huang Jianli was really interesting in his sharing as he very neatly deconstructed the myth of the “rags to riches”. A myth usually perpetuates itself or is perpetuated in society for many reasons such as popularization by the public due to the emotional connection to the notion or state appropriation for the celebration of the state.

Looking more closely into state appropriation, he talked about how in the state narratives, the beginning (third world) and end (first world) are emphasized but there are insufficient details in between. That is, a lot of the crisis and hardship that people go through are forgotten in this broad macro linear structure of looking at history. A good poem that we discussed in lecture in relation to this would be “The Planners” by Boey Kim Cheng, as he provides a very contrasting and bleak representation of development as opposed to the “third world to first world” approach that the government utilizes. We always hear of the great successes of Singapore, but often the pain and discomfort that come with development (as represented by the dental and hard images in the poem and the defamiliarization through the formality of the poem) and its impact on the society is left out in nation building.

In addition to this, he also mentioned how there has been suppression of alternative narratives and suggested that there is space for both the myths and alternative stories in the understanding of our history. This is also relevant to the view that history can be personalized and how this resonates in literature, as the works of the different poets and writes of Singapore tell the different stories of the different facets of Singapore/Malayan society; just like how we looked at the differences of the poems of Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap and Lee Tzu Pheng in our previous lecture. Their poems are influenced by the different experiences of their lives and look at society in different aspects. For example, Edwin Thumboo focuses on the grandeur of Singapore’s modernity while Arthur Yap looks at the lives of the people through his observations re-presented in his poems. Thus, the sharing by Huang Jianli was relevant and interesting in relation to the poems and discussions that we have had in class.

During the discussions after the sharing by the 3 speakers, there were a number of questions on the “space” available to Singaporeans to have access to alternative views or to engage in conversations on alternative views (such as the event itself). There was also a question of understanding history from ground up instead of from top down, through gaining new insight on the experiences and feelings of the citizens. This was in light of the banning of Tan Pin Pin’s documentary by the MDA on terms that “the film’s contents “undermine national security” and distort the legitimate actions of security agencies as acts that victimise innocent individuals” *.

The speakers suggested looking at oral archives and pictures as they are very representative of the situation during the time period of pre-independence to independence. I would like to add to that by saying that I think literature produced during the time is also extremely relevant in understanding what life was like in the past. In our module, we also have been doing a thematic approach to history, narrowing into different facets of history – development, merger, colonialism and even Malayan dreams (of the people rather than of the government). This has enabled us to see, not only one point of view, but many viewpoints that are influenced by differing experiences of the many writers.

With that said, I believe that while there is scope, this space is limited. As we discussed during our first tutorial in this module, a lot of times these “national collections” or “national histories” are limited by government regulations and this is a setback to the uncovering of many unknown stories that also play an important part in shaping our society to be what it is today.

I really enjoyed this event and do recommend the subsequent instalments to those interested in re-discovering the narratives that we have never questioned, and perhaps begin to understand that there is no “Truth” but just many different truths that are just as important as the other.

*See more at: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/singaporeans-arrive-johor-baru-screening-documentary-sin#sthash.lFPCMz0e.dpuf

 

Over the break…

Quite a few events coming up that are worth checking out. Tonight, there’s an event called Travel Special ++ at Artistry Cafe on Jalan Penang. Jerrold Yam again, and also Zhang Ruihe, who has done interesting work in creative non-fiction. Towards the end of the break, there’s something more open-ended, on Saturday, 27 September  there will be a Singapore Dreaming Project Workshop, in preparation for a conference in 2015 that will look at alternative ways of imagining Singapore: several speakers, including Colin Goh of Talkingcock.com fame, and Wee Wan-ling, will certainly touch on the arts and literature. And, then, of course, the mother of all events, Singapore Writers Festival, begins in a month’s time. I’m involved in two sessions, on Pinoy Poets and on Arthur Yap, but there’s a huge menu of possibilities, and it’s worth booking ahead. A warning, though–if you leave it until then to post on the blog, you’ll be cutting things fine timewise. It might be best to post in the next couple of weeks: remember you can also review a book. My post on Christine Chia is getting a lot of hits–partly because the poet herself discovered it!

Afterwords: “Passages” – Stories of Unspoken Journeys (or not?)

by Hazel Toh

On Friday evening, I had the pleasure of attending my first book sharing session “Afterwords”, organized by Ethos Books at Marine Parade Library. As pointed out by the organisers, we were in for a double treat as the event was divided into two sessions, a sharing by Jerrold Yam on his new poetry collection Intruder, and a sharing by Yong Shu Hoong, Dave Chua and Wong Shu Yun on their work for the 2013 anthology Passages: Stories of Unspoken Journeys. I shall focus on the latter for this blog post as the sharing by these writers left a deep impression on me.

Dave Chua and Wong Shu Yun’s individual works were on sale during the event, but their sharing session was focused on Passages, a Singapore Writers’ Festival project that provides a platform for writers to “pen original stories after meeting different segments of our society whose voices are often not strongly heard: senior citizens looked after by a hospice or a home for the elderly, low-income families that had endured tough times making ends meet, and former offenders who had spent time behind bars” (quoted from the promotional poster by Ethos Books). Dave Chua and Wong Shu Yun shared their experiences interviewing ex-convicts for their writing of “The Zookeper” and “A Short History of the Sun” respectively.

One thing that struck me during the session was Dave Chua’s admission that he was not too happy with the final product. He explained how his interviewee, a drug dealer turned zookeeper, seemed more excited to share about his ‘glamorous’ days as a triad member than to discuss his occupation at the zoo. As a result, Chua had to refocus the discussion, and in the end, he admitted having to do much research on what it meant to be a zookeeper.

Reading his short story, it seems that his research has paid off because the story contains some fascinating details about the lifestyle of a zookeeper, who has turned over a new leaf and quit his drug dealing days. “The Zookeeper” is a fun and interesting story, but I now have some reservations about the visionary project that Passages undertakes, or was meant to undertake. I understood Passages as a noble initiative that hoped to provide a voice for the silenced minorities of Singapore, but as the event progressed into the night, I began to lose sight of this social project that Passages has promised. It becomes somewhat evident that Passages is not being quite faithful to these marginalised voices that it has promised to elevate.

And it seems that both writers and audiences have picked up on it. During the FAQ session, Professor Holden inquired if the purpose of the interview sessions was to understand the voices of the silenced so as to better broadcast them, or to gather creative fodder. The answers provided by Yong Shu Hoong (editor of the anthology) seem to imply that he and the writers are aware of the limitations of their work. Yong emphasized the sensitivity of handling issues pertaining to the marginalised in Singapore and he compared writing about senior citizens to writing about low-income families, pointing out that there is greater sensitivity when it comes to writing about low-income families because of an underlying issue of politics. He also questioned, “How do you write about poverty without sensationalising it?” Indeed, that seems to be the problem that has perplexed the writers for the 2013 anthology: how do you represent the voices of ex-convicts without celebrating their criminal lifestyles?

Dave Chua chooses to skirt around the issue, while Wong chooses to focus her story on the relationship between a father and son, inspired from the interview sessions she had with an ex-convict who mentioned that his father had also been in the triad. We can’t blame them though, given the current social and political environment we are in, and especially if the project you are working on is initiated by a government body such as the National Arts Council.

It was mentioned during the sharing session that readers were concerned if it was ethical for writers to dwell on people’s misfortunes and to benefit from them by sensationalising and dramatizing their stories. Yong’s answer to that was, ultimately, what was produced was still fiction. (Note how the promotional poster, as well as the backcover of Passages, are quick to qualify that the writers are “pen[ning] original stories”!) But doesn’t that raise doubts and questions about what the true purpose of literature is? If what is produced is mere fiction, then what hope is there for literature to redeem the silenced? And in the context of our module, doesn’t that mean that the early Singaporean writers’ attempts to construct identity through literature turned out futile?

Furthermore, if our social and political environment has no place for literature that remains faithful to marginalised voices it tries to elevate (even if it means glamorizing crime because there are ex-convicts who do miss their criminal lifestyles), then what does this mean for our national literature? Doesn’t the situation prove that we are constructing, to borrow Ricard’s terms, a “mausoleum” of national literature by dictating and prescribing what Singapore literature should include and exclude?

For me, this sharing session has prompted many questions about the future of literature in Singapore, even if these were not issues directly addressed during the event. It is my sincerest hope that these concerns will be addressed one day, or literature in Singapore may eventually lose its essence, meaning and value.

Afterwords: Welcomed Intrusion

By Rheverie Chen Ying

On hindsight, perhaps calling the event ‘AfterWords’ is a little misleading. As much as the event introduces the completed works of the authors — fresh out of the oven, you might say — to the readers, it’s as much about what happens before these carefully chosen words fill the blank and inviting computer screen, as well as what goes on just as the tiny black alphabets gather to reflect their creator’s thoughts, opinions and experiences. And that, I find, is the beauty of the event.

In a clean, spacious and simple room at Marine Parade Library, next to the Children’s Section, a few rows of plain sensible chairs gradually filled up. The children peered in sometimes, doing their best to appear aloof and disinterested. I wondered if they knew that the somewhat mismatched figures sitting at the front of the room belonged to that group of people who put words on a page and fuelled their innocent imagination. As I entertained myself with these thoughts, the event began.

Many things happened that night, but what struck me the most was the atmosphere. I have been to events like these before, but this one seemed more harmonious, more blithe and inviting. The conversations and voices lure you in, and time passed ever so quickly. For those of us studying English Literature, who are contemplating entering the literary scene ourselves as authors one day, the session offered a helpful glimpse into the world of writing.

Wong Shu Yun, a graduate student at NUS, shared details about her writing process for her short story, “The Short History of the Son”, which was recently published in the anthology, Passages. Her story consists of one “long” and “rambling” paragraph, she said with a laugh. When she read snippets of it aloud, the poetic language was adorned with a touch of melancholy. In her oration, the ending note of the story was particularly delicate. Curious, even, almost difficult to pin down. For me, it is hopeful; the son passes on the stories his father told him to the ambiguous figure (I will not spoil it for you), and so life goes on. But I will not be surprised if someone found it chilling, or poignant, or all three and more. When asked about how she came to compose it, Shu Yun shared the myriad influences that found their way into her mind — Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat”, her conversations with a drug dealer turned ex-convict turned evangelist… “Life is stranger than fiction, sometimes,” she said, and she captured this perspective in her story.

Later, the poet Jerrold Yam talked about how he structured his latest poetry collection. “Organization”, “structure”, “plot”; these words he used now and then revealed the intricate processes that went behind the scenes in the publishing of a book.

In fact, Yam’s poems interested me the most. Perhaps it is due to our similar ages, or perhaps because migrant and travel literature (especially poetry) always fascinated me the most. But in any case, his book was the one I reached out for when my legs wandered to the sales counter later.

There must be a theme, he said, and his started with the home, then to London, and then back to our little island. But he assured us that something has changed between the first and last section of the collection, simply because after spending a year in a foreign land as an intruder, what was once familiar will cease to be so. Sometimes, a word begins to appear strange if you stare, transfixed, at it for too long, but other times, its the other way around. Homecoming is not always the triumphant return or a heartwarming reunion in the arms of the familiar. It could be a discordant, dissonant and fearful experience too.

For me, his poems engage with what always intrigued me about Singapore literature. How sometimes, our country is so small it is almost claustrophobic. Everything everywhere rushes at you like you have hit the fast-forward button and you cannot go back. Whether our culture, our progress, our education or our life, it is all so fast and so close that it becomes impossible to see things clearly anymore. So writing about Singapore from a place far away and above the noise brings to the table a whole new way of seeing. Just because our migrant writers have left the island and are now writing from a place different from Singapore does not discredit their writing. In fact, this distance empowers them and makes it possible for them to offer new insight about the Singapore landscape and culture that we are blind to. Distancing, or defamiliarization, as Shklovsky would call it, is important for us. It not only lets us see the artfulness of something, but to see a different perspective previously hidden and that gives us food for thought. Migrant literature makes us rethink whether we really know Singapore as we think we do.

Jerrold Yam’s titular poem, “Intruder”, is the last poem of the collection. It is the brainchild of someone who has left home, travelled, and now returned. The question it leaves me is this: Does our experience as an intruder makes us more at home with ourselves?

Intruder by Jerrold Yam

Back when I could stare without bitterness,

my brain easy enough

for toying a newfangled scene

or surprise, I would hop on a train to

watch meadows swim by,

mud slathered on fields

like toffee, my reflection in the glass

lighted by the novelty of the countryside.

For a minute there is no shame

in becoming my own best companion,

no remorse or loneliness

pushing me to disentangle words

from strangers. When I wake,

there would be no need for a future.

Give me unsettled coffee

by the window. Give me suitcases

muffling the snare of permanence

with leather rind, and I

can almost believe the life

hurrying before me

is not my own.

 

More on Emily of Emerald Hill

By Elizabeth Ow

In preparation for this assignment, I watched the play starring Margaret Chan as Emily (excerpt and  full play). This rendition characterized Emily as a powerful matriarch who takes pride in her flawless running of her household. Theatrical dramatics were superb in that the plethora of Emily’s emotions were wonderfully delivered. The well executed gestures created a false sense of reality where silhouettes of the other characters interacting with Emily could almost be seen.

The highlight of my adventure with the play was when I went to the NUS Baba house for a panel discussion entitled: ‘Emily of Emerald Hill – The Modern Asian Woman?’ Arriving early, I toured the house imagining the scenes of the play unfolding. My sentiments were mirrored in Stella Kon’s opening address which related various parts of the house to Emily’s roles and activities in the household. The discussion was held in the middle of the house right in front of the air well. Stella remarked that this room would have been the “seat of Emily’s power”, a place where she entertained, controlled the kitchen, and kept an eye on the front parlour.

The dialogue was split into two parts. In the first part, the playwright would read a selected excerpt, and the panelists would take turns to share their reflections. The first two panelists, student Deborah Tan and artist Kelly Reedy, chose the climactic scene when Emily reveals the circumstances that shaped her. Stella treated us to two different renditions of the scene. In the first, Emily was hysterically lamenting her life struggle while in the second, as the playwright herself put it, she was strong in the “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” sense. What struck me was Stella’s own admission of the multiplicity of interpretations that texts can have.

Though based on the same excerpt, the contributions of the two panelists were different. The gist of Deborah’s sharing was that the concerns of women in Emily’s time and the culture that governed their lives were very different from those today. This made it hard for her to see Emily as a contemporary woman. However, I agree with Deborah’s qualification that Emily’s character traits mirrored those common and valued in women today.

Kelly’s reflection was interspersed with her artwork created for the play’s limited print edition, and shared some of the inspirations behind them. I liked “Emily, twilight” best as I felt moved by meanings the picture spoke of. To me, the scalloped edges and the silhouette of Emily were reminiscent of the Queen Elizabeth stamps, fitting of Emily’s regality as matriarch of Emerald hill. The natural manner in which the batik print of the frame encroached into Emily’s silhouette symbolizes her success in upholding all the virtues of a Peranakan woman. Despite the overtones of triumph, Emily’s gaze is resigned and she is dulled in contrast to the colorful background. Perhaps in her preoccupation with being the “very devil of a wife and mother”, Emily has lost herself.

Last to share was Tan Dan Feng, who chose the final scene where Emily enters a dream like sequence which read in a most haunting fashion. Dan Feng then engaged in close analysis to the ending scene posing questions about what happiness meant. Contrary to the other panelists, he dubbed Emily the “last great dinosaur”, and that it was really only her children who exhibited traits of modernity. However, similar to what another member of the audience pointed out, I felt that towards the end of the play, Emily was more modern in her outlook as seen in her advice to her daughter regarding marriage.

This discussion about modernity led into the second part of the dialogue which was opened to the floor. The debate was highly interactive, revolving around what a modern woman would do if she were placed in a similar situation as Emily. In my opinion, this second part was not as meaningful as a lack of a clear definition of what a modern woman was led to confusion in the audience’s contribution. Indeed, the debate started going off topic, and it was only when a thoughtful person decided to ask the playwright for her views did the tensions diffuse. I loved Stella’s conclusion to the debate, which was for us to make our own conclusions about what a modern woman entails, reiterating the multiplicity of meanings and the autonomy of the readers in interpreting literary works.