Afterwords: Some Personal Insights

by Brandon Chai

Friday, 12 September, 2014

A while ago, I attended a rather cozy, humble and informal book sharing session called “Afterwords,” at Marine Parade Library. The session was structured into two portions, each sharing revolved around one book. I suppose that made the entire experience more interesting as well, as the back-to-back sharing sessions really highlighted the different notions of what constituted Singapore Literature. I must say beforehand, that this is (ashamedly) my first book sharing session, and it was quite an eye opening experience.

So, perhaps just to give a bit of a refresher…

The first half of the “Afterwords” featured Yong Shu Hoong, Dave Chua and Wong Shu Yun on their contributions in an anthology titled Inside/Outside: Revisiting Passages. Apparently this was an initiative by the National Arts Council (if I’m not mistaken — it was a kind of governing body for sure) to give writers a kind of insight into a part of Singapore that we are not entirely used to. Inside/Outside, hence attempts to capture the experience of the inside; what Yong Shu Hoong claims to be “things that writers wouldn’t otherwise have a perspective on as they belong to the outside”. The anthology mainly revolved around writers trying to articulate the experiences of ex-convicts. The idea was to use these experiences as inspiration for short stories — to create ‘original’ literature, as opposed to any kind of greater artistic notion. “Seemed like a modest project,” I thought, and I like modest.

What I find interesting here is this dichotomy of inside and outside. At first impression, I thought the title was reflective of a kind of way to divide the world, or Singaporean society in this case, into the privileged inside and the marginalised outside. The fact that they claimed to be dealing with ex-convicts piled onto my pre-conceptions. Perhaps, I thought, the book would deal with the writers (who are supposedly inside) trying to capture the experiences of the outside — the ex-convicts who are supposedly marginalised and find difficulty reintegrating into society. Such dichotomies, I’m sure, are problematic to define. But I digress…

Listening to the experience of the writers was rather refreshing and fruitful. Dave Chua mentioned difficulties in getting the ex-convict he was assigned to share about his experiences, while Wong Shu Yun had an easier time (she was assigned to someone more talkative). Also, I really liked what Shu Yun said of her writing process. She felt like music is inherently linked to prose — that it lends a kind of rhythm to her writing and the reading of it, and so she tries to capture the melody of a song as she writes. That made a lot of sense to me, and for some reason I never thought of writing in that way before (maybe I’m just ignorant of course…I’m not listening to anything as I write this). 

However, while I appreciate the efforts of the writers to give a kind of voice (albeit secondhand) to a ‘minority group’ (I’m not sure if it’s entirely ok to call them that), I think that such a staged and forced means of producing literature makes it especially complicated for the fictional writer, as Dave Chua pointed out. He said that typically, he would have the liberty to create characters in his fictional stories, but having to ground his story on something limits his creative process. Perhaps, such a project also aims at allowing the writers to experiment with different methodologies of writing, bringing them out of their comfort zone as much as the ex-convicts.

Personally, I feel a bit divided towards the project, as the staging of writers to “articulate” the stories of ex-convicts is definitely problematic. While the stories are somewhat based on a kind of lived experience and reality, it does also limit the writer’s imagination in a certain way (I’m sure Dave will agree with me on this), and of course there were problems trying to communicate and better understand the experiences of these ex-convicts. In my perhaps very romanticised vision, I imagined this process of “telling someone else’s story” to be an intimate and symbiotic affair. Thus I think without a degree of openness on both the writer and the ex-convict (which is admittedly difficult to achieve in a short amount of time), it would be difficult to “do justice” to the experiences if you will.

Following the sharing session on Inside/Outside: Revisiting Passages, we move on to Jerrold Yam’s collection of poetry titled Travel Politics: Making Homes out of People & Places. This collection was mostly written during Jerrold’s travels around the UK, and his poetry sort of undertakes the question of whether people are in fact, “intruders” of various spaces, and whether we can be more than that. I’m not quite sure if I completely understood what he meant by that, but I suppose some semblance of it is this idea that we are all intruders — strangers to the land, yet leaving our marks and footprints as we trod through life. He talks of how everyone has their own “magnetic field” — their own unique sense of baggage and experiences, which continuous shift as we interact with other “magnetic fields”. His title is hence suggestive, as it questions the notion of “home” and its makings. Perhaps especially for someone like Jerrold, who studied in the UK for a significant period of time, this notion of home making becomes crucial in giving him a sense of belonging and identity.

A lot of Yam’s poetry appears to be very personal and intimate, which also focuses on his transition from a phase of adolescence into adulthood. Yet, Jerrold himself does not claim to be a confessional poet, perhaps in the same way that he doesn’t consider himself to be any kind of poet. I’d just prefer to think of it that way, as sometimes I feel like it’s suffocating to just throw everything into shoeboxes. He didn’t have any particular audience, just a voice waiting to be heard. A voice that tries to speak of universal, human states of being.

I’ve had some time, to think and rethink my impressions of all this. And for some time I wasn’t sure what to think about it. It was one of those surreal, impressionable moments that happened too fast for you to really think it through. I merely viewed this through my own personal keyhole, but I think I enjoyed myself.

 

Story Slam Singapore 8 – The Weirdest Stuff I’ve Seen

by Geraldine Mark

Last Tuesday (21 Oct), I attended the rather unusual Story Slam Singapore 8 – The Weirdest Stuff I’ve Seen held at Artistry Café. For those who aren’t too familiar with the story slam, it is similar to its poetry slam variant where people read or perform stories instead of poems. In a bid to keep up with the Halloween spirit, readers were required to tell non-fictional accounts of weird and strange experiences. Given the theme, one would naturally expect certain stories to be of the horror genre.

The readers regaled in their many tales of bizarre experiences in Singapore, which ranged from nasty customer service encounters to just plain weird behaviors that one cannot begin to comprehend. Others opted to share true stories of supernatural encounters with much relish, some of which were passed down by friends or family members.

What I really enjoyed about the story slam was the informal nature of its set up. The stage was open for anyone interested in sharing their story, and he or she only needed to slip his name into a black box to be randomly picked later. There was something genuine in the spontaneity and “raw-ness” of the stories, told by members of the community without any larger agenda other than the desire to share their experiences. I suppose this community-centric way of addressing literature was also emphasised in the ‘Round Robin’ session where the audience were encouraged to write sections of text which would later be stitched together to form a coherent story.

This exercise had me recalling Ricard’s notion of national literature in the sociolinguistic sense, where it remains a “collection of literary texts written in the national and the official languages, by former and present residents of the geographical space now occupied by the country”, as opposed to a gentrified notion of local literature that we might be more accustomed to seeing. This resulted in stories that were less didactic in nature and more focused on the central consciousness of the main character (usually the speaker themselves), sans the imposition of institutional models and an enforced sense of cultural consciousness.

One of the stories that stood out for me was that of a homosexual who described his paranoia following a suspicion that he was infected with HIV. The perspective in which the story was told was illuminating; I was able to relate with him as a student juggling his social life and his studies. Yet, his unique experience shed light on the scary experiences the marginalized community in our relatively conservative culture may sometimes face, trapped in their controversial predicament with little support, on top of being alienated from a heteronormative society.

As the night accumulated more stories with their fair share of laughs and shocks, I slowly realized the distinct cultural markers of our hybrid culture making their regular appearances through repeated references to the Pontianak, bomoh, local slangs and Singlish, superstitious beliefs and typified local stereotypes like the unassuming NSF, the “staunch Catholic mother with an iron faith” and the “conservative Malay family”. These references affirmed and identified our multilingualism and multiculturalism, and the local audience can very easily identify with the ‘Singaporean-ness’ of each story, even if we have not directly experienced them before.

One example was of this Malay family’s encounter with the supernatural as the youngest daughter was purportedly ‘cursed’ by her ex-lover who was jealous that she was going to get married to her new boyfriend. As the speaker brought up images of local ghosts and the bomoh and shared how the scratchy sounds one may sometimes hear in an HDB flat is that of a Pontianak walking upside down from the ceiling, I found myself stitching images of my home (I live in a flat) and memories of exchanging local ghost stories with my friends in my childhood days, complete with the key Pontianak or Toyol appearances.

As a listener, there was something that felt overly intimate about the personal nature of the stories. Yet, there was an odd sense of recognition and familiarity in the way they relate to us, as told by the different speakers who comprised of students, working professionals, and Singaporeans having come back from living overseas.

Simply put, my experience at the literary event was a timely reminder that what should ultimately be the core of local literature is its place as a product of a shared cultural experience with the community, whether through its relatable context, references, or its implicit “Singaporean-ness” that seeps through.

 

A Gift Worth Sharing: A Poetry Reading session with Jason Wee

by Amanda Kee

Earlier this semester, the University Scholars Program (USP) had invited a young Singaporean poet, Jason Wee, for a public reading session, in which he shared his thought processes and motivations for publishing his debut poetry collection, The Monster Between Us.

 

As an English Literature student, I was very curious of the mechanics and the heart that are put into writing poetry. Very often, we (more specifically, readers and literary analysts wannabes) sit at the opposite end of the table and analyze or critique a poet’s work, instead of putting ourselves in the poet’s shoes to look at the poem through his/her eyes. Therefore, I saw this session as a wonderful opportunity to critically appreciate poetry a little better.

 

Throughout the semester, I had gone for a couple of public literary events. Yet, I have come to realize that you do not have to search far to find something that strikes a chord in you. In fact, it can be the things that are closer to home that move you the most. This small reading session was one that stood out the most for me. Perhaps it was due to the more intimate setting that made me remember the event starkly. But, I felt that there was something really humbling and worthwhile in Jason’s poetry that I wish to share with everyone who reads this post. Lewis Hyde says in his book, The Gift, that art is a gift worth sharing. Hence, I see it as my pleasure and responsibility to sincerely share with you my experiences and learning outcomes that I have gained through Jason’s poetic gift. I hope, then, that you will be inspired to experience and continue spreading this gift by picking up his collection.

 

When Jason stepped into the room, I remembered doing a quick eyebrow raise when I saw his (should I say, unique?) appearance. Clad in suspenders and a singlet, while sporting a trendy hairstyle that resembled my 16 year-old brother’s, I was immediately intrigued by this stranger. I want to be very honest with my thoughts here because I think his appearance makes a part of our poet’s identity. What made me warm up to him, however, was his sincerity and humility. I had the stereotypical perception that artists were often loudly passionate, but Jason’s gentleness and slight nervous signs made me earnestly open my mind and ears to him. They are qualities that are refreshing to experience.

 

One of the poems that Jason read to us was entitled, “1986” (there are actually 2 poems under this title. I am talking about the 2nd one), which was inspired by an experience he had as a child after watching the news on Operation Spectrum, also known as the “Marxist Conspiracy”. If I recall what Jason recounted to us correctly, he had asked his relatives what the news meant, but they merely “sshed” him. It is intriguing to me that he retains this sort of memories that others may simply forget in time. It dawned on me that these recurrent thoughts that we pass along from childhood to adulthood are something intimately human and vulnerable. Jason is one person I know who is willing to take a step back, think of what these thoughts really mean to him and express them eloquently in a way that still retains all the emotions of the experience.

 

I felt that his poetry was a way for him to express the confusion that he experienced in his childhood and find a way to reconcile the unanswered thoughts that he had suppressed unconsciously. As these thoughts came back to him again as he mature, Jason said that he felt that it was a right time to explore them again. I saw his poetry as a form of recovery that represents a personal journey towards a kind of truth. I think writing the poem had helped lay out his recurring thoughts and decode them by re-experiencing and delving deeper into the history of Operation Spectrum. In this way, he re-worked these familiar and not-so-familiar thoughts and findings through poetry and realised that even at the completion of his collection, he was far from finished in this journey. He had more questions to ponder over and more to answer to when people asked him why he was particularly interested in this part of Singapore’s history and how he was even related to it. Therefore, I think, rather than merely finding a kind of reconciliation, poetry actually led him on to unexpected paths.

 

I think that in writing this poem (the whole collection of poems, in fact) was an act of bravery. He had taken a part of Singapore’s history and developed a sense of ownership around it, wishing, in his own way to do justice to what has past. It reminded me of an article, “Tradition and Individual Talent” by T.S. Eliot, which I had recently read. Eliot felt that a good poet does not merely does art with a limited understanding of his own generation, but also combines the past and the present under one simultaneous existence. I think it makes me see how Jason is acutely aware of his place in time (present and past) and is continuously developing this sense of consciousness as he moves along his career as a poet.

 

This conclusion I came to was reinforced when he brought up an idea that he had for USP. He wanted to invite students to work with him on an artistic endeavor by using a copy of The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew as a platform for us to write our own poetry. Of course, we were all very confused. What does that mean? What was his purpose? I remembered Jason just responding in this manner, “I think it will be fun to see where this goes”. I am glad he did not give a very definite answer, because then, I could draw deeper and more memorable conclusions for myself (I went on to participate in this workshop and discovered more of myself through this process of writing). After the reading session, I could catch a glimpse of the deep well of brilliance and generosity in Jason’s mind and heart and I am thankful for this opportunity to have been able to interact with him.

 

More importantly, however, I think that Jason had hoped to share with us ways to expand our boundaries as a creative, thinking human. He is very aware of the individual’s capacity to shape society and I suppose that, for him, he wants to reclaim a bigger and more truthful representation of the past that will shape the state of society in the present and in the future.

 

Returning to his simple statement, “I think it will be fun to see where this goes”, I realized that his easy-going nature made me think of how rare it is for most of us to slow down, think, appreciate the small and immaterial things and create something that expresses our gratitude for life.

 

This reflection made me think of a recent article I read by Lim Thean Soo, “Why Study Literature?” I definitely agreed with Lim’s thoughts, especially the phrases that say that literature is “a record of an experience”… “that broadens our outlook of life”. While it is undeniable that literature does offer us a sharp sense of awareness, I think it also makes us happier but sadder beings, more fulfilled yet still unfulfilled people. I am not sure how else to explain these conflicting feelings. But, I think it is worth finding out how to negotiate these feelings on our own. This search for a higher truth and beauty, I think, is what makes life so much more meaningful and worthy.

 

As a promising poet in Singapore, Jason gave me a glimpse of this beautiful light shining within him. I hope that he continues his search for truth and shape our society in his own unique way.

Singapore Dreaming: A Beautiful Mess

On 27 September 2014, I attended the Singapore Dreaming Project, a precursor to a larger-scale discussion of national issues in 2015. As promised, the event centred on dreaming—an actively ongoing process—in a Singaporean context, with diverse speakers sharing their interpretations which were insightfully informed by their respective fields of expertise. This, I felt, was highly relevant to Singapore Literature, which has the potential to probe, be as multifaceted and as full of possibilities yet critical as the dreams we have, and have yet to dream for Singapore.

In “Shades of Vibrancy”, Professor Joseph Lim posed an interesting question which stayed with me throughout the workshop: why are some cities considered “vibrant” while others (heavily hinted to be Singapore) merely “crowded”? Could population density—a problem certainly not unique to us but pertinent nonetheless—be something actually celebrated? Professor Lim suggests that spontaneity is key here: also the stuff dreams are made of. The roads of Ho Chi Minh which operate on unspoken yet vocal pedestrian-driver cooperation is a sign of vibrancy. So is the normalised, mutually-supportive mix of informal and formal businesses in Shanghai despite increasing curbing measures from the state. In both cases, people negotiate, even struggle to create, their own ways-of-life within the state to an extent, which certainly seems to support Professor Enright’s take that “you must leave people free to make their own mistakes”.

However, recognising that this would be rather extreme for Singapore where “space is tightly controlled”, Professor Lim turned to the potential of Singapore’s existing mall culture as the first step in creating vibrancy. He gave examples of teenagers using malls as spontaneous spaces in which to practice dance routines or generally hang out, as well as mall-sponsored events inviting community participation. I found this optimistic but less convincing than the first half of the presentation. In my personal experience, malls are first and foremost areas of commerce, and such hype is contingent on spending power more than anything else.

Nonetheless, if perception and image of a certain space can literally change one’s living experience in it (see author Zadie Smith’s “love-hate letter to New York City”), literature can play an extremely important role having always grappled with such ideas. Ricard would probably add a caveat that a literary mausoleum can hardly force such character and culture into being. Yet, more independent ventures are popping up in the literary market (BooksActually comes to mind), carving a legitimate spontaneous space as I’m sure most bookworms will agree—perhaps because of the relative newness of this market?

A video promoting GoLi, a mobile community theatre initiative, certainly seemed more convincing as a spontaneous space. The stars of this video asking for support—and hopefully of this travelling theatre if realised—were your friendly neighbourhood aunties and uncles, for whom theatre is a means of strengthening bonds, articulating their lived experiences, and just good spontaneous fun. I feel this project is especially relevant in light of Singapore’s aging population: aside from the fact that a travelling theatre adds a refreshing sense of whimsy, it is a way to pass on culture by meaningfully engaging them and the younger generation as well in a common avenue. Of course, the market aspect cannot be discounted—they are still short of their goal—but perhaps it is this goal that creates a sense of liveliness and drive, which comes through in the video. It’s hard not to be affected by its infectious optimism; at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, it reminded me that age does not stop one from artistic dreams.

Other speakers also provided reminders of a more “wake-up-call” variety. This is especially important when we do dream too far…

From Leftwrite Centre, Mohamed Imran demonstrated how literature can really engage: relating his dream, which was clearly not literal but was presented as such, the speaker allegorised race relations in Singapore. Trapped in a box where he could not look out, but where people who did not look like him could look in; being labelled as lazy, undeserving; finally being allowed to join those outside but not knowing why; staring inside the box at people who did look like him and feeling conflicted—to some of us, this would seem a nightmare, but for some, it’s reality. By defamiliarising it for those of us who have never had to pause and think about this, he invites us to examine more closely our own role in others’ nightmares. It could have just been my imagination, but was there a subtle discomfort as the speaker was telling his story? (Shklovsky and Marx would approve!) Ultimately, Mohamed Imran dreams for a Singapore where all have “freedom from stereotypes, and freedom to do things”. This was in my opinion a thought-provoking start in asking whether our dreaming is inclusive enough.

Similarly, Teo Yeo Yann delivered a hard-hitting presentation on “Undoing Differentiated Deservedness” in Singapore. She revealed how nightmarish the lives of those who toil to support this nation’s “dreaming” can be—performance here is certainly not of the spontaneous kind, and in fact only serve to humiliate and trap the underprivileged in positions where they must prove their deservedness through specific gendered functions. If dreams are to be earned, perhaps they are not dreams at all. The speaker emphasised, “That the material problems are pronounced and the conditions they are in are logical outcomes of our system and not an aberration”. If what we accept as this country’s dreaming is manufactured, then this is no coincidence. Any possibility of spontaneity is called into doubt if this dreaming is a calculated plan to follow through. Perhaps this is the best explanation for why I am unconvinced and even disturbed by the idea of mall culture paving the way for “vibrancy”: it’s already too close for comfort, aligning Singapore more towards District One than Ecotopia (which another speaker, Professor Chang Jiat Hwee, dreamt of for Singapore).

In four hours, the workshop provoked, convinced, and questioned the audience about almost every aspect of Singapore. Perhaps it’s the “Singapore” that negates the floatiness of “Dreaming”, but as Lee Hui Min suggests, perhaps such pragmatic dreaming is just our way. As dreaming always consists of a shifting multitude of strands of dreams and never just one single narrative, the workshop has me convinced that Singapore Literature similarly has this wealth of issues to explore. It’s certainly never seemed more challenging and interesting!

Living With Myths III: Beginnings

By Naomi Neoh

Nestled in a gallery space located in Gilman Barracks, a contemporary arts cluster in Singapore, ‘Living with Myths’ is series of talks which center on “exploring Singapore’s pasts and futures”, considering various aspects of Singaporean identity through various voices and perspectives.

The third installment of the series brings into focus the relationship between myth and history, locating its exploration in a historiographical approach, entering into conversations of the SG50 initiative, which aims at consolidating the founding stories of Singapore. This relation between history and myth, seen as significant, constitutive elements of Singapore’s founding as a nation-state, is clarified through the three different approaches presented by the three speakers Huang Jianli, Seng Guo-Quan and Lee Kah-Wee. Huang Jianli’s discussion locates the specific myth of rags-to-riches as premise integral to the founding of modern day Singapore and the formation of our sense of national identity, and questions its seeming veracity as a means of shaping the early stories of Singapore. Seng Guo Quan’s segment continues on this trajectory of unravelling particular historical and mythological narratives in Singapore’s past by focussing on the construction of the historical event of Singapore’s merger as structured purely in terms of the then-present conflict between the Communists and pro-Communists. Finally, Lee Kah-Wee’s discussion brings the talk to a close by examining the Casino debates of 2005 as a protracted moment of “self-imagination of the nation” and how the state negotiates and justifies the eventual construction of the “Integrated Resort” in relation to a consolidation of its timelessness and immutability as a nation-state.

My post will be directed towards drawing links between Lee’s discussion on how the construction and re-construction of the Casino debate manifests the myth of Singapore’s developmental success story and Kuo Pao Kun’s play The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole as a negotiation of the state’s narrative of meritocracy in practice. In a similar sense, both events can be sourced in the state’s construction of narratives in order to reshape and alter public perceptions of the state and reinforce particular aspects of the Singaporean identity.

Lee’s paper situates the 2005 Casino debate further back in history, examining the state’s position on the matter, and traces its development over the years in terms of a “re-presenting of history” that ultimately attends to a particular construction of the nation’s needs. The state’s prioritising of Singapore’s economic needs on the matter of the Casino threatens to undermine the values of consistency and timelessness, values which endorse the myth of the Singapore’s developmental success story. Thus, the impasse between sustaining economic development through the Casino and the need to project values of consistency and timelessness appears to be conveniently resolved through the state’s reshaping of particular aspects of Singapore’s history (in terms of past responses to the Casino gambling) into particularised versions that acquire mythic qualities.

Lee’s structures his argument by examining two simultaneous but distinct trajectories: how the government draws focus to “what has changed” and “what has not”. His examination reveals how this dual emphasis on both aspects of change and timelessness enable the state to maintain the projection consistent values while simultaneously launching economic growth through ‘new’ measures such as the Integrated Resort. He contextualises the measured reconstructions of the ‘Integrated Resort’ in published ‘public’ narratives such as speeches, newspapers and even in architectural plans as a follow up to a long history of the state’s deliberate reconstruction of gambling in the 1960s and 1970s. The spatial relocation and containment of gambling, as represented by the plans to build a Casino on Pulau Sejahat or the legalising ‘new’ forms of gambling by setting up Singapore Pools (Private) Limited become means by which the state resolves contradictions between the consistent prohibitions on gambling and the new, acceptable forms of gambling. When played out in the 2005 context of the plans to build the ‘Integrated Resort’, Lee reveals how the state registers its presence in public consciousness as a “large-scale development offering multiple world-class attractions…an entire complex of classy hotels, luxury shops, fancy restaurants, spectacular shows, convention centres…the gaming component will occupy no more than 3-5% of the total area of the IR developments”. In doing so, it attempts to downplay the element of gambling as the main attraction of the IR development in order to maintain the appearances in keeping with the previous prohibitions on gambling.

This need to maintain a sense of coherence and consistency in the Casino debates similarly runs through Kuo’s play The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole. The play’s protagonist, directing the funerary process of his grandfather, meets with particularly distressing (but ultimately comic) state ‘policies’ at the site of the cemetery. The entire play depicts this spectacle arising from the absurd, almost grotesque figures of state bureaucracy, symbolised by the cemetery officials, and their insistence on maintaining the appearance of impartiality through the enforcement of standardised burial plots without obvious or genuine concern for a sense of empathy or dignity. However, plot unfolds to reveal a compromise made by the head cemetery official (he relents and grants the protagonist an extra burial plot) and how this particular instance of a shift in policy has to be reconstructed and represented by the state in the form of an award for the “Most Human Personality of the Year” in order to maintain the state’s projection of consistency, impartiality and meritocratic values. The emphasis again is on what “has not changed” while the changes are noted as glorified exceptional behaviour, thereby neatly resolving the seeming inconsistency and paradox implied by the extra burial plot granted to the protagonist.

In sum, the notion of myth, as a re-presentation of history, attends many aspects of Singapore society, and personally, it was illuminating to see how these abstract forces are at work even in lived everyday experiences and in literature, and it is hoped that being conscious of the efforts to mediate what we regard as historical truths can be re-examined and negotiated more critically.

Find out more about Living With Myths here: http://livingwithmyths.wix.com/livingwithmyths

 

The Week Before SWF…

Before Singapore Writers Festival Starts, there are still a few upcoming events. Some of these  I’ve mentioned before:

Today, there’s the next instalment of Living With Myths, which reappraises the commonly-told stories of Singapore’s history. This month is on multiculturalism, and if you went you could make a very interesting post reflecting on how some of the insights transform your understanding of Emily or Kuo’s Plays. The speakers are Imran Tajudeen (who’s really good!) Elaine Ho from NUS’s Geography department, and Lai Ah Eng from USP. Thursday night, 7.00, Space 3, TheatreWorks – 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road.

On Saturday, there’s a session with Claire Tham on October 25 at the National Library. I very much enjoyed her recent novel The Inlet, and she’s also an important short story writer, starting out with her first collection Fascist Rock over twenty years ago. In the evening at 7.30, Books Actually are having a discussion with various people shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize: the panel might be particularly interested because it also includes nominees for the English non-fiction prize.

On Wednesday 29th October, Joel Tan (another ELL graduate) and Joshua Ip will be performing at Speakeasy#15 at the Artistry Cafe.

And then, of course, we bringPooja Nansi and Erin Woodford to you next week. SWF starts the same day.

If you haven’t blogged yet, I’d suggest attending an SWF event, although note for most of them you’ll need a pass. The last date you can submit is November 14th, and remember that you can “review” a book if you want to if you’d prefer.

Text in the City: Poetry Reading

By Chow Zhi Wei

I had previously heard of a campaign named ‘Text in the City’ that aimed to promote Singapore poetry, so when a friend, Hao Guang, was advertising a poetry-reading event at Kinokuniya (Orchard), I decided to go down to the bookstore for a visit. It was held on 6th October within the bookstore itself, and there were two other poets, Gwee Li Sui and Terrence Heng attending.

Having read Hao Guang’s poem ‘Joy’ on the QLRS before (http://www.qlrs.com/poem.asp?id=1122), it was a vastly different experience hearing it spoken out loud, in a Filipino accent, no less; Hao Guang may have chosen only the one poem for his poetry reading, but it was a well-chosen one. ‘Joy’ is written from the perspective of a Filipino domestic worker in Singapore, and deals with several issues such as the likelihood of the helper becoming the surrogate parent, as well as the thoughts and feelings that Joy herself has about her employment in a foreign country.

As opposed to simply being read, the poem cleverly and actively speaks in Joy’s stilted English as she describes her alienation from her other fellow domestic workers such as “Lisa” (who wears her employer’s clothes to Orchard Road) and “Vernie”, who makes “her face until so colourful”. The result is that Joy becomes distinct from the stereotypical domestic worker – for one, she eschews “Lucky Plaza”, the typical haunting-place of maids, electing to “go [to] Mass” instead – presenting to the reader, then, a perspective vastly different from that which we often typically, even stereotypically, ascribe to others like her.

Here, the prosaic rendering of her feelings not only layer on a greater sense of authenticity, but also belie a deeply emotional contemplation of her employment; in speaking for herself, Joy speaks for her fellow domestic workers as well, and this perspective is vastly important in a society where a sizeable proportion of Singaporeans employ maids in their households, and yet are often dis-inclined to see them as anything other than a subordinate entity hired to serve their needs. Indeed, that Joy is “too tired/ to be bored” hints at overworking, which, coupled with the hotly debated issue of granting off-days to domestic workers a couple of years ago, questions the fair treatment of domestic workers by their employers. Hao Guang’s aim, as he explained after his reading, was to encourage readers to consider their situations with greater empathy, and I believe that ‘Joy’ was a good poem to begin such a contemplation with.

That being said, I believe the highlight of the poem was really about how Joy ended up becoming a surrogate parent, of sorts, to “Meimei”, her employer’s child. Considering how some Singaporean children in families with domestic helpers are brought up more by their maids than their actual parents (especially when both parents are employed), we see how the pseudo-intimacy created out of prolonged exposure between Joy and Meimei leads to “life [being] difficult for everybody”, to the extent that the biological parent (“mum”) becomes alienated from even her own child (“she cannot make/ Meimei eat on my off day”).
Hao Guang’s depiction of the complex relationship between the employer and the employed is hence effective in asking a difficult question: how much should the domestic worker be treated as part of the family? While it is inevitable that bonds are formed (especially to undiscerning six-year olds with no concept of the power-relations between employer and employed), should they be allowed to? Indeed, the question seems to be left open; Joy explains in her responses to letters “I reply say I very happy”, but this only serves to further flesh out the lack of certitude regarding her employment. She can “say” that she is “happy”, but is she? After all, her rejection of Meimei is clear: “Don’t love me”.
To conclude, Hao Guang’s sole reading of ‘Joy’ at the Text in the City event is wonderfully apt in a society that often neglects to consider the role which domestic helpers play, in both the formation and cultivation of its families. Perhaps the only gripe I have was the fact that it was held in the public space of a bookstore as large as Kinokuniya. Hao Guang’s commendable effort at replicating the Filipino accent was hampered time and again by the squealing children (among other visitors) who distracted listeners. While I nevertheless still appreciate the apparent motivations of reaching out to unexposed members of the public, perhaps it could have been better for the event to have been conducted in a properly cordoned-off area of the bookstore.

 

Moving Forward

Some interesting events coming up this week, in a lull before the Writing Festival Starts. If you’re still searching for copies of the Epigram Best Short Stories Collection for Week 12 apparently there are some copies at our very own Bookhaven in UTown!

It’s that time of year, and Etiquette SG are putting on, A Certain Sort of Hunger, an evening of poetry and performances looking at an reimagining the role of female spirits and the supernatural in Asian cultures and folklore. 7.30 on Thursday  at Singapore Art Museum on Bras Basah Rd. One of the performers I’m interested in seeing is Stephanie Dogfoot, whose performance poetry I’ve heard good things about. My generation will be represented by Dana Lam, a former president of AWARE among many other things.

On Friday, there’s the next instalment of Living With Myths, which reappraises the commonly-told stories of Singapore’s history. This month is on multiculturalism, and if you went you could make a very interesting post reflecting on how some of the insights transform your understanding of Emily or Kuo’s Plays. The speakers are Imran Tajudeen (who’s really good!) Elaine Ho from NUS’s Geography department, and Lai Ah Eng from USP. Thursday night, 7.00, Space 3, TheatreWorks – 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road. If you want to go do make sure you’ve got a ticket in advance, because these events are massively oversubscribed.

A more unusual event, but something with definite connections to what we’re doing, is Story Slam Singapore 8 – The Weirdest Stuff I’ve Seen at the Artistry Cafe on Tuesday October 21st. From what I can tell, this seems to be a variant of Poetry Slam, with people telling stories rather than reading/performing poems: this might make an interesting contrast with performance poetry, which we’ll come to in a couple of weeks’ time in discussions with Pooja Nansi.

The Confusion of Happiness

By Tabitha Lee

In early September, I attended Michelle Tan’s book launch at BooksActually. She launched her first published poetry collection: The Confusion of Happiness .

Standing by the narrow aisles of the bookstore, we were treated to an evening’s delight of poetry readings from her collection, interspersed with snippets of her life experiences and thoughts. Michelle is a young artist – perhaps the same age as most of us. She has just graduated from King’s College London, and is on her way to further studies. What is interesting about her is that she is a Music student, training as a mezzo-soprano. And I believe that this is what makes her a very unique poet. She has gone through life with great exposure to both Literature and Music, and the influences of both are extremely evident in her poetry.

One merely has to look at the titles of her poems to see the impact of Music and Literature on her writing: “The Soprano,” “Sinfonia Concertante,” “an aside,” “after lancelot – & arthur’s loss” to name a few. These titles hold explicit references to Music and Literature. Moreover, many musical imagery and literary allusions lay interwoven within the poems themselves. She quotes many literary giants such as Gertrude Stein, Marge Piercy, and Larkin. Many of her poems also contain self-reflexive musings on words, the act of writing, and poetry. Music is definitely a key feature in her works, where many musicians’ names and instruments are referred to. At times, Music is used as a motif or as a metaphor to hint at a deeper meaning not explicitly laid out.

Most of the poems in this collection are confessional, dealing with very private experiences. What immediately struck me when Michelle began reading her first poem, was how raw it all is. There is so much truth-telling in them, so much honesty, so much organicity that it actually shocked me a little. The experience was akin to overhearing her private thoughts, in which I felt partly like a confidante, partly like an intruder. For example, in “Schopenhauer”, she writes about paradoxical desires and the act of writing as a relief:

I wake on the thought of someone

I want but don’t know, I don’t want

because I know, and – each letter is a space,

a palace to hide in… (4-7)

 

In “Missing”, she writes about issues of identity as a Singaporean away from her homeland, studying abroad:

… Here everyone tried

 

to place my accent but even I

don’t know what my teeth

and tongue feel any longer

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I am Singaporean not just

Chinese…” (6-9, 23-24)

 

And in “Plus Six Five”, she writes about the experience of maintaining relationships across space and time:

… My dearest still,

I don’t remember when you became text

in a cold phone, or when I flew out

of your fingers in the same form. (15-18)

 

I could not help but wonder at the vulnerability with which she writes her poetry. No artifice, no pretence, just raw emotion being expressed through language and music. In some sense, to be a poet demands much courage and a willingness to be seen through, for poetry is a very personal art form, and Michelle’s poetry embodies so much of her in it.

My biggest takeaway from this book launch is the thought that poetry is a kind of composite art. When asked if her time spent overseas has been an influence on her writings, Michelle explained that the livelier arts scene had given her more opportunities to experience live concerts and to appreciate art work. She illustrated that poetry is the meeting of Literature, Music, and Art. Poetry is Literature – in terms of its words, meanings, language used. Poetry is Music – the way the poem sounds is important with elements like meter, rhythm and rhyme. Poetry is Art – the way the poem is arranged visually on the page. Poetry is each and all at the same time. Have you ever felt that the rhythm of your thoughts and feelings was disrupted when reading poetry to the playing of random background music? Have you ever felt that something was missing when you merely had an auditory but not visual experience of poetry? Indeed, poetry is such a unique art form because it is many amalgamated into one, engaging multiple senses simultaneously.

“Character Pieces” is a poem which aptly encapsulates this idea. It is made up of three distinct parts, very much like three movements in a piece of music. The first part seems to embody the idea of Art, being about a painter called Cherubino. This portion has an interesting structure of gaps between words:

One day he woke up and discovered girls,

girls, girls! Wondrous women of curvature

sizes miniature                          of the best signature (1-3)

This creates an unusual visual effect as we read the poem. Moreover, there are also musical qualities with the rhyming of “curvature”, “miniature” and “signature”. In the second portion of the poem, she titles it Sesto which is a place in Italy, and this portion seems to embody Literature: it is peppered with references to “Larkin” and “Hamlet” (10, 15). The final portion of the poem seems to embody Music; she first describes a pianist, then goes on to describe herself as a musician. Art, Literature and Music are all distinctly and skilfully captured in this poem.

A personal fan of both music and poetry, it was a fascinating evening in exploring the boundaries and confluences of both, reflecting on the nature of writing, and perusing the mind of a new writer whose experiences of art and overseas living greatly shapes her writing. Michelle Tan is a unique and compellingly honest poet – definitely an up-and-coming young local writer to look out for (and an inspiration for some of us of the present generation to start writing, perhaps?).

 

But is the Book Better?: Utter 2014

by Tiffany Nah

A few weeks ago, I attended But is the Book Better?: Utter 2014– a film screening of local directors’ adaptations of local short stories in four languages (English, Hokkien, Malay and Tamil). I was intrigued by the variety of languages, as it raises the question of whether it is self-contained and limiting to write in one’s mother tongue or dialect, since the readership would be restricted to speakers of the language if the text is not translated. Although the films were true to the language used in the original text (with the exception of the Mandarin short story Going Home being translated into Hokkien), their social messages were effectively conveyed since the visual quality of film facilitates translation as audiences interpret the messages through mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing. For instance, the close-up of Mr Tan’s perplexed face at the end of Going Home (dir. Kenny Tan) conveyed a strong sense of displacement of older generations although the film was in Hokkien, thereby suggesting that the language barrier has been transcended in film. This demonstrates the power of films making these texts more accessible while preserving the essence and themes through nuanced cinematic techniques. Going Home is an adaptation of Lin Jin’s flash fiction about Mr Tan visiting his former neighbor, Mr Ng, at his old housing estate. Both men seek help from the police as Mr Ng appeared to be locked out of his house by his unfilial son. However, the story ends with the son’s explaining that both men had mistaken the wrong block of flats for their own.

Going Home prompted me to consider the developmental narrative and where memories of collective experiences and histories belong in the modern landscape. The developmental narrative is conveyed with greater urgency as the site of the on-location shooting is scheduled for redevelopment, contributing to the anxiety as to what will happen to the shared memories and histories of the older generation who have lived there after shifting from kampong to the HDBs. Furthermore, the older generation is beginning to confuse their memories, evident from both men’s mistaken identification of their flat. The film ends with a tracking shot of an empty corridor, mirroring Mr Tan’s sense of displacement and loss stemming from the subsumption of landscapes into narratives of modernization and development.

The film also depicts an evolution of community values from the kampong spirit to the impersonal and distanced relationship in modern society, such that modern society now has no place for the older generation and the values that they cherish. The establishing shot of the film depicts Mr Tan exchanging a greeting with a lady and her son, evoking a nostalgic sense of community and communication between its members. However, this ideal community crumbles as the film progresses, revealing how it has evolved in modern society, which has become fragmented through the compartmentalization into private spaces. The distance between residents is palpable in the scene where the Filipino helper, she gave a mistrustful look at Mr Tan and Mr Ng who wanted to seek her help, finally closing the door on them. Furthermore, her employer’s house was barricaded by a grille– reinforcing how people have come to privilege closed and private spaces. This reflects an erosion of the openness and community spirit during the early days of transition from the kampong to the HDB, as seen from the old man’s reflections on about how the corridor was a space where everyone gathered and kids played. The evolution of community spirit is also evident from the neighbors’ reactions to the arrival of the police, where clusters of nosy neighbors gossiping highlights the degradation of community spirit to a sensationalist unity. The title of the film, further exemplifies this problem– what does home mean to us in contemporary times and what does it mean to go home? Does it entail the closing off of communication and interaction between members of a community? This further raises the question of the place of the old generation in today’s society, as they appear to be displaced and uprooted even as they were the ones who laid the foundations for modern society. According to the director’s notes, his film reflects the recent interest in old people with the distribution of the Pioneer Generation Package– an effort to care for the pioneer generation who contributed to nation building in SG’s early independence years.

Overall, I think this event was illuminating in its reflection of how the different perspectives of Singapore were negotiated on various levels. The authors of the short stories voiced their perspectives of Singapore in their written texts, which were subsequently re-interpreted by the directors in the process of translating the textual medium to the filmic medium, where the original story took on new forms and meanings as the directors added their own personal touches to the stories. Subsequently, in viewing these films, audiences too are included in the process of meaning-making as they are free to interpret the films based on their personal experiences of Singapore. As such, I find that filmic adaptations of literary texts are effective in facilitating an environment for shared meaning-making, as audiences at different levels are allowed to inject their own personal flavours in the process of interpretation, thereby creating a holistic and inclusive view of Singapore and a Singapore identity.

For those who are interested, Utter 2013 films as well as a selection of local and regional films are available at www.viddsee.com