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.