SingPoWriMo: The Anthology — A Review

by Jasmyn Lim

SingPoWriMo: The Anthology is an anthology of Singapore poetry compiled from the submissions to Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo), a challenge to write one poem a day to a given daily prompt for the whole of April 2014. The event eventually grew to an open community of 454 poets ranging from veterans to first-time writers, and SingPoWriMo: The Anthology compiles the best of hundreds of submitted poems. Arranged chronologically by day with the daily prompt preceding each selection of poems, the anthology does not reveal the poet and presents the poems in their original unedited form “to preserve the energy and immediacy of these raw works”. Reading each apparently anonymous poem thus truly foregrounds how personal they all can be –rather than reading as a work by _____, each poem is heard only in the voice of the reader who reads it. There is thus an interesting paradox between being removed from knowledge of the author/context (and only being able to appreciate each poem for its form, style, and content) – and intimacy, where anonymity implicates readers in the creation of the poem’s full meaning.

One interesting prompt where this tension may be seen is in “Day 17: Write a poem from the point of view of the opposite gender. Bonus challenge: …And a different sexual orientation.” Not knowing the gender or sexual orientation of the poet opens lines like “I said ‘make love’ instead of ‘fuck’”[i] and “why couldn’t you / just drop your pants”[ii] to a proliferation of inflections and meanings that perhaps reveal more about the prejudices of the reader than the intended meaning of the author.

Another prompt I like for the simultaneous ambiguity and proliferation of meaning it enables is “Day 14: Write a poem about yourself in which nothing you say is true.” With this prompt in mind readers perhaps feel even more keenly the poignancy of lines like “but i definitely am not / in love with you”[iii] and “i am not bitter. i am a unicorn. / but no one believes in unicorns anymore.”[iv]

In addition to tackling challenges of formal, stylistic, and linguistic discipline/flexibility, SingPoWriMo takes on various ways of creating meaning via interacting with other works; prompts such as “Day 12: Write a blackout poem. You can start with your favourite poem or any article, passage or text at all, and proceed by blacking out the text with a marker, retaining the words you wish to use for your poem” and “Day 13: Find a line in a poem in this group posted by someone else and write a poem in response to that line” encourage a dialogue between works and poets. Meaning also abounds in the camaraderie and series of “memes” or running in-jokes like the “terrible infestation of BCM(Bak Chor Mee) poems” or the flurry of “Hamlet themed haiku” (“i don’t want to kill / uncle, maybe kill myself / instead. so should i??”). And finally also the editors admit that meaning escapes from the confines of prompts, and a selection of non-prompt-conforming poems are presented in the wittily titled “The Impromptu Verses”. Pooja Nansi in her introduction to the section writes that “if we are living in a time where power is synonymous with control, then it is important to have spaces where language is free.” SingPoWriMo is thus one of those free spaces where creativity and control clash, to delightful results. From heartland (“STOMPhoria”, “Serangoon Gardens”) to heart wrenching (“Scenes from Ward 48”, “In Grandpa’s Wake”), poets covered a dizzying array of topics with humanity and verve.

Above all therefore this anthology revolves on the key idea of the power of poetry to move people — SingPoWriMo: The Anthology was published with funds raised through crowd-sourcing, and Ann Ang observes eloquently in her introduction that “this is also our way of freeing poetry from its academic or highbrow association; our way of saying to you that it’s obvious from the sheer diversity of poems and poets in this collection that poetry is still relevant in our city.” And Pooja Nansi adds: “there’s a treasure trove of contemporary Singaporean poetry out there saying important things. It’s up to you to hear them and decide which ones speak strongest to you.” The voices in this anthology cry out a plethora of meanings from “Yes. We are not alright”[v] to “lifehack: live”[vi]; it is well worth the time it takes to savour thoroughly and return to. As a testament to the chaos and depth of humanity, SingPoWriMo: The Anthology is a trove of raw, lovely pieces embedded with golden advice for times when “pollen embedded like shrapnel in your skin / sprout flowers from them.”[vii]

Jasmyn Lim

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Notes:

  1. SingPoWriMo: The Anthology is available at BooksActually.
  2. In keeping with the spirit of the anthology I have not listed the authors of the cited poems; a full list of indexed and attributed titles is presented at the end of the anthology.
  3. If anyone is interested, SingPoWriMo is slated to take place again in April 2015, and updates will be posted on their Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/singpowrimo/

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[i] “Jock Chivalry”

[ii] “Jock Chivalry”

[iii] “sarah”

[iv] “I am a unicorn (but no one believes me)”

[v] “Bus 156”

[vi] “Lifehack”

[vii] “burgeoning”

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A Sensual Pulse – Review of Lydia Kwa’s Pulse

By Annabel Lee

Lydia Kwa’s 3rd novel called Pulse follows the life of Natalie Chia, an acupuncturist who has moved from Singapore to Toronto, Canada. The story sets off in the summer of 2007 in Toronto, where Natalie receives a handwritten letter from her childhood friend and ex-lover, Faridah, from Singapore. Natalie learns that Selim, Faridah’s son, has committed suicide. Here comes the interesting part: somehow, Selim’s death is connected to Natalie and Faridah’s past love life back in the 1970s, emblematised by the two words “Godzilla’s touch”. Selim leaves behind a note persuading his mother to remember this phrase. Disturbed, Natalie returns to Singapore to uncover the truth behind Selim’s suicide. Returning to Singapore, therefore, not only becomes a quest to understand the tragedy of Selim, but also a reworking and remembering of Natalie’s left-behind past.

The novel premises itself on the fact that Natalie has abandoned her past in the hopes of forgetting the pain it has caused her, and move to a foreign land to recuperate and reinvent herself. Thus, I feel that it is of no surprise that what Natalie has been trying to run away from, has to eventually be resolved. In other words, perhaps there is a slight exemplification of the Freudian notion of the return of the repressed, in which Natalie’s repression stems from her being unable to arrive at a resolution of her break-up with Faridah, and Faridah’s eventual marriage to a man. Kwa definitely wants to give Natalie a sense of closure. In fact, the entire novel can be read as Natalie’s journey towards closure, albeit an unconventional and painful one.

I say painful, mainly because while attaining her closure, Natalie has to recall her traumatic experience of her father’s abuse towards her. The sheer fact of having to remember, re-work and repeat the past as the plot progresses, allows the reader to get that a disturbing sense of secrecy and hidden-ness is being forced out into the open. The revealing of one’s darkest secrets is a prevalent theme in Pulse. It is interesting to establish the connection between the hidden-ness of a pulse, and the discovery of secrets. The act of pulse taking is one in which one can understand what is going on internally – the pulse is invisible to the eye; absent in this sense – without having to actually see what is going on internally. Kwa cleverly uses a motif to emphasise how one can understand the absent without having to resort to seeing what is present. A mere simple touch on the wrist is adequate to understand absence via its absence.

The novel definitely becomes really full of symbolic value, in this sense, precisely because the entire plot revolves around the simple notion of a pulse. Kwa does not hold back on playing up this notion. I think it is no coincidence that Kwa falls back on her roots by paying tribute to the Chinese language. She pays this tribute wonderfully by offering a substantial and fresh insight into how two vastly different languages (in terms of its execution) can work harmoniously in a predominantly English-language novel. For instance, in Pulse, the conscientious effort to include the Chinese character “脈”, which directly means “pulse”, next to every single chapter number first draws the reader’s attention to it, and second probes the reader to figure out the significance behind such a move. However, if I were to break down the character into its root components, what surfaces is an artistry of symbol-recognition that drives meaning-multiplicity. The Chinese character itself literally emblematises the shape of a human body, with the left component “月” a modified word from its original word “肉”, which means “meat” in English. The right component of the word originates from “永” which means “eternal” in English, symbolising the perpetual flow of human vitality. On a deeper level, the multiple layers of strokes in each component mimics that of a pulse in which a reading of a pulse can be made via multiple layers:

 only when I probe more firmly – at the “pressing” level – can I pick up a faint pulse through my ring fingers placed at the chi point on both wrists. The quality of the pulses confirms it: I’m showing the signs of someone in shock, the kidneys and adrenal glands most affected by the news about Selim. (Kwa 27)

What happens here is the mirroring of a bodily function to the symbolisation of the Chinese character “脈”. The phrase “faint pulse” indicates a sense of secrecy and hidden-ness in which it resembles the second component of the Chinese word. The narrative works in a way such that it is thought-provoking while captivating, probing the reader to connect the puzzle pieces of past memories and present as he/she uncovers the reason behind Selim’s suicide. On a deeper level, perhaps a slight knowledge of Chinese would enrich the reading experience due to the multiplicity in meaning-making.

In an interview with Kwa, she mentioned that “we remember through our lived experiences, and we re-live memories in our bodies”[1] which I think is a dominant recurring theme in Pulse. Kwa employs the the act of kinbaku (Japanese bondage) as a creative device for the narration of Natalie’s quest – at once creates a lived experience, and marks the body in the way that each intersection of the markings symbolises a memory, a vital point, and ultimately, a pulse. Overall, the novel is beautifully dark, sensual and captivating. It is rich in its exploration of two lesbian women’s struggle to accept their loss of their loved ones, and their eventual overcoming of this loss that has been suspended across space and time, ultimately providing Natalie and Faridah with a sense of closure.

 

[1] You can read the full interview here: http://cwila.com/we-remember-through-our-lived-experiences-and-we-relive-memories-in-our-bodies-an-interview-with-lydia-kwa/

 

Singapore Writer’s Festival ‘Apart’

By Primrose

As part of the Singapore Writers’ Festival, Apart is a performance rendered by five poets – Cyril Wong, Tania de Rozario, Pooja Nansi, Joshua Ip and Jollin Tan – where its component parts of poetry, drama and music collapse into one and give it a distinguishing allure. Part of this strong emotional appeal lies in the confessional nature of the poetry being performed, with frequent interjections of expletives jolting the audience in its unabashed revelation of deep desires and anxieties. The play revolves around the figure of Uncle Andrew who is a homosexual – aptly played by Cyril Wong – with an intricate web of desires and frustrations of other characters weaved around Andrew. The feelings of displacement and isolation that form the central consciousness of the play lead to estranged relationships and a break down in understanding between individuals.

The state of isolation of individuals – already encoded in the title Apart – is accentuated through the monologues rendered by the characters while standing in the same space, ironically dramatizing the ineffectiveness of speech in forging understanding. The disjointed nature of the utterances of the characters evokes the modernist mode of ‘stream of consciousness’ through the randomness of thoughts that arise. Furthermore, the viewpoint of the characters is also accentuated by the oneiric mood created by the stage lighting which singly illuminates Andrew and the other characters while the rest of the stage is casted in darkness. The directed trajectory of the audience’s gaze to the single figure who is speaking establishes a certain intimacy between the character and the audience, almost as if we are connecting with their emotions and their thoughts.

Furthermore, what was particularly delightful was the word play on the word ‘apart’ where multiple realizations of the words are explored – go apart, fall apart, take apart and falling into parts. Despite the differing meanings the word yields, it centers on the state of brokenness, whether in terms of an individual’s state or relationships. This is exemplified by Andrew’s niece, played by Jolin, who battles with eating disorder and shares an estranged relationship with her parents who evade tricky problems to assume the façade of normalcy. Though both Jollin and Andrew suffer from the burden of meeting societal expectations of what constitutes normal and beautiful, what constitutes as normal in the eyes of society is also being contested through the figure of Jeffery. Consumed by pragmatic issues of work and sustainability, the ironic voice which dishes out advice to his children is portrayed to be rather vacant and jaded. Hence, the play – by portraying the adherence to societal norms as unthinking conformity – challenges the idea of normalcy as well as societal perception of who needs to be fixed.

The state of brokenness also characterizes the theme of love that runs through the performance, manifested in the various forms of self-love and love between family members and romantic partners. The yearning for sexual and physical intimacy – whether it is Andrew’s yearning for hugs or Jollin’s dream of being sexually involved with her classmate – is indicative of the profound sense of estrangement between loved ones that is no longer reconcilable through speech, hence requiring physical intimacy to fill the void which hinders communication.

In the translation of poetry on paper into performance and play, words that will otherwise remain static on paper are injected with a new vibrancy, after being subjected to modulation and improvisation.The beauty of this process lies partly in the affective quality of such a performance where the residual sense of pain and loss lingers on in the viewer. The organized form of thoughts in the form of poetry and poetic language break against its restraints when it is being verbalized and given a new form of life. In the unrestrained expression of emotions by the characters/poets in the play, there is always a moment whereby the viewer finds himself asking whether it is the poet or the character in the player talking.

Displacement|Rootedness: Jerrold Yam’s Intruder

By Mabel Loh

A few days ago, a friend of mine passed me a copy of Jerrold Yam’s Intruder. It was a gift meant to provide a form of cathartic release from the sense of displacement and restlessness I experienced upon returning from exchange in the UK; indeed, it did not disappoint.

Yam is a young Singaporean poet currently pursuing a law degree in University College London. His youth belies his accomplishments, as his poems have been published in over twenty countries and eighty literary journals. Intruder is his third collection of poetry, recently published this year. The collection draws from his diverse experiences both in Singapore and overseas. Written from a first-person perspective, his poetry is intensely personal, drawing listeners into his innermost thoughts and private ruminations on life. He relives the apprehension of leaving the comfort of home for foreign territory, fond memories of his childhood and grandmother, the paradox of family as a provider of unconditional love and simultaneously a site of alienation, and also indulges in sensual explorations of past and current romantic relationships.

These experiences are painted with a light and tender touch, crowned with sparse, monosyllabic titles such as “Doubt”, “Kin” and “Route”. These simple and yet poignant titles express a deep sense of yearning, articulating an absence that marks the difficulties of fully expressing the complexities and contradictions of human experience. Yam engages with the themes of displacement and transience, considering the fluidity of ‘home’ and the ‘self’. He questions:

“Home, like love, may be a fiction that we must resist claiming for our own. After all, can we — and should we — be more than just intruders?”

Considering the questions of Singaporean-ness and rootedness, what then, makes us who we are, as part of an intentionally constructed and imagined community?

To perhaps answer these questions, I would like to explore some of his poems that I found rather poignant and thought-provoking. The first would be “Route”, which recreates the sensory experience of walking through his neighbourhood in the still of the night. Natural imagery is used to describe the fading of lights and the encroachment of silence and darkness, with “lights retreating into smaller and smaller/ spaces like ants, lids/ of cars drying like a herbalist’s medicinal crop”. The atmosphere created is one of peace and serenity, allowing for the focus on the private state of mind. The reference to a “herbalist’s medicinal crop” is also an image that can be read as “Singaporean” in essence, with the drying of traditional herbs on crinkly paper on glass cabinets of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shops being a typical scene in the heartlands. The first half of the poem hence recalls the familiarity and comfort of this memory, and points to specific Singaporean experiences:

This is the time when I’d walk back
After a day out, in the lavish
hiatus between university
and National Service…

Walking becomes an exercise of routine, a time for reflection and introspection, with the act itself leading him on a “route” to a literal and figurative home. The poet hence creates a spatiality that is infused with uniquely Singaporean elements such as “National Service” and TCM shops. It persists in the backdrop of his poem, even as he contemplates a future distant from the motherland:

And I would remember no matter
smoke or gravel, kiss or handshake,
to wrench my heart
back in place, as a compass adamantly
rights itself, heeding
walking’s familiar rhythms
to where I am welcomed home.

There is an incessant pull of home that compels him to violently “wrench” his heart back in place, an action that suggests a slight sense of reluctance at doing so. Nonetheless, this compulsion is naturalistic and unexplainable, just “as a compass adamantly rights itself”, without knowing the exact reason for doing so. Just as how the needle of a compass will always — inevitably, “adamantly” — point to the North, his heart will always respond to the call of Singapore, even though the reasons might not possibly be articulated clearly.

Throughout the collection, there is a sense of the rupture between the self and the nation. There is never a complete and willingly identification with being Singaporean, and yet, the idea of belonging is so deeply entrenched within him that he can never truly break away. In “Routine”, he remarks on the “strange and unapologetic” place that he occupies, away from the “home [he] never accepted” on his birthday. There is an overwhelming sense of displacement as the persona looks out into the city of London, a “city [that] accelerates into winter, shedding/ inhabitants at each interval.” The physical space he occupies is cold and unsentimental, with the winter sky heightening the feeling of displacement, loneliness, and transience. The city is relentless in its pursuit of change, and the mention of “winter” also brings to mind the cyclical repetitions of seasonal change. Fluidity is the only constant, and change waits for no one. There is at once an unbridgeable distance and yet connection between the persona and home, a place that he simultaneously yearns for and yet rejects.

The paradox of distance and connection is also drawn out in “Darwin”, an exploration of his identity as partially constructed by his parents’ expectations; expectations which he regrets being unable to meet.

Then, like the most natural thing, I feel
disappointed at the disappointment
of being their son…

He sees himself through the eyes of his parents, constructing an image of the self that is “the fruit of their tiresome love/ broken from its stem.” The burden of fulfilling expectations weighs strongly in this poem, and the image of a fruit “broken from its stem” suggests a break from the rooted tree that provides nutrients and allows for growth. With this break comes the promise of freedom, of birth anew in other lands and the possibility of leaving the negativity and pressure experienced.

Yet, just as he writes in other poems, invisible threads of connection bind him to family and home. The relationship he has with his family is a paradoxical one, one that cannot be simply explained by logical strains of thought, nor resolved in the blink of an eye. The intimacy and alienation he feels are reminiscent of his relationship with the homeland — he is a “son” of Singapore — and can be interpreted as a microcosmic representation of a youth’s relationship with the nation. Yam thus adeptly explores the confusion and contradictions of being tied to the nation (despite being physically distant) by inexplicable ties that urge an overwhelming sense of belonging. Feelings of displacement are placed right next to the notion of rootedness.

Yam’s poetry has successfully reached out to an audience beyond the shores of Singapore, holding an international appeal and yet retaining its status as national literature. In considering what makes literature “Singaporean”, it is interesting to note that Yam rejects the use of Singlish, and instead weaves an impression of the nation through his private experiences that references public spaces within Singapore. He deals with familiar themes of exile and return, and expresses what many fail to articulate though simple and yet elegant writing. Yam’s style might not necessarily be defined as conventionally “Singaporean”; however, the resulting accessibility of his writing to non-Singaporean audiences could partially explain his widespread appeal.

Now & Then

By Chesna Goh

Text in the City is a campaign that aims to promote Singaporean poetry using an interactive mobile app and a writing competition. Revolving around the various geographical locations in Singapore, the app features artists’ audio recordings of the poems as well as fun trivia and archival photos to provide a more holistic approach to a literary understanding of our nation. Divided into six geographical different zone, the app also features poetry trails and curated tours by guides from the Singapore Heritage Society.

On the Sixth of October, I attended Text in the City’s poetry reading at Kinokuniya Orchard and it was an eye opening experience as I’ve never attended any poetry readings prior to this. The three poets that were reading were Gwee Li Sui, Terrence Heng, Tse Hao Guang and they all read from a carefully curated list of poems that fit the theme of Singapore.

The biggest impact the reading had on me was when veteran poet, Terrence Heng read of one of his first few poems titled ‘Postcards from Chinatown.’ While remarking wryly that he wrote this in 1997 when we (most of the audience members were like myself, barely past twenty) were wee babes, he detailed its particular significance. The poem was inspired by Smith Street Complex and Block 1 Upper Pickering Street which used to house his paternal grandparents and hence forming bulk of his childhood memories.

Racks of clothes along racks of clocks, as

if ticking away the fashion of the eras.

Fortune telling weight machine, I never

stepped on one before. Durian sign sale,

bicycle underneath no-bicycle sign.

….

That was in the background where I walked,

background of the closed down emporium,

background of the foreign worker outside

an unopened shophouse. Background wet market,

background unanswered responses to the cajoling

from the hawkers in the background hawker centre.

Background, backstage.

Our performance dictates a different set of scripts.

….

I’ll sell this as distinctly local. Our whole stage of

rojak culture and the embracement of strolling

down the street back into the tour bus. Shiny shiny

trishaws and fluorescent T-shirts peddle you around

the incorporated country. This is Singapore,

ladies and gentlemen, although you don’t see

the locals anywhere.

Written in a period of intense modernisation that was fuelling Chinatown’s commodification, his poignant poem struck a sobering chord with me because it made me question how I constructed my notion of what a Singaporean identity is and on further introspection, realised that this poem alienated and made me feel like an outsider to my own country and its heritage.

An old photograph of South Bridge Road in 1997

My paternal grandparents though Singaporean, are estranged, and the maternal ones that I am close to reside in Malaysia. Furthermore, my father who is English educated and spent a good number of years working abroad may possibly be the saddest representation of what the Olden Singapore and its heritage was like. And I, only actually achieving consciousness well in my tWeenage years(because really, aren’t our pre-pubesence years all just a blur of playgrounds, birthday cakes and rotting milk teeth), realised my constructed notion of Singapore was contingent on its modernity— westernised cartoons on Cartoon Network, sunday breakfasts at a Macdonalds situated in an air-conditioned shopping mall, Enid Blyton borrowed from the nearest public library, my OshKosh overalls, my Barbies etc.

So when Terrence spoke of the ‘ticking away of the fashion of the eras,’ and how heritage and culture has been reduced to nothing more than ‘fake pigtails stapled to the back of Chinese hats’, he was equal parts scathing and nostalgic for a past that seemed very foreign to me. I’ve never seen Chinatown as more than a tourist trap in the day and chic gay heaven come sundown. 

Backstage (Gay) Bar right in the heart of Chinatown

To me, those ‘shiny trishaws and fluorescent T-shirts’ have just been assumed to be part of the national identity that I have always subscribed to, (and am realising belatedly that Kampong Glam and Little India has undergone similar white washing by the government). The possibility of it existing in another, less homogenised and less artificially crafted state was in all honesty, something I’ve never spent much consideration on. In other words, while I have noticed that those overpriced Kueh Tu Tu hawking uncles speaking in broken english to stupid tourists may seem a little out of place, I’ve never imagined them existing on their own and belonging to another time. Unlike Terrence Heng, my Singaporean identity never had a ‘before’ (or the pre modernised Singapore) to serve as a comparison and is instead solely constructed around the now.

Back in the first week of school, I quoted Shklovsky in a forum posting, stating that ‘art removes objects from the automatism of perception’ and this instance really exemplified how art defamiliarises and as it does, forces us to reconfigure previous perceptions. And I guess I’ve now come full circle.

Gregory Nalpon’s “The Wayang at Eight Milestone: Stories and Essays”

by Annabelle Goh

I admit that I’m totally unfamiliar with the genre of Singapore Literature prior to this module, so I selected Gregory Nalpon’s The Wayang at Eight Milestone in class at Prof Holden’s recommendation. The collection is a mixture of short stories, essays and brief sketches of life in Singapore in the 1960s. It is a fascinating glance into Singapore before my time.

Gregory Nalpon was born in Singapore and educated here, but he travelled widely following an eclectic variety of careers from disc jockey to journalist. The Wayang at Eight Milestone was published posthumously in October 2013 over thirty years later. The title of the collection was inspired by an ‘Eight Milestone’ at Seletar Road, Changi Road and Bukit Timah, a pragmatic description indicating it was located eight miles from the Singapore city centre.

One of my favourite short stories is ‘The Rose And The Silver Key’. It is a story about a beautiful rose that unexpectedly grows out of a rubbish heap and is tenderly cared for by a man Hamid, whose sarabat stall is near the rose. The rose has fantastical magical properties and a pretty young prostitute Fatimah attributes qualities such as healing to it. She wants the rose very badly and attempts to cajole and bribe Hamid into giving it to her. She wears a silver key that opens the door to her bedroom and rents it out to men. She offers repeatedly to lend Hamid the use of her key for the rose. One day Fatimah is ill used by a group of young men, badly beaten and presumably raped. Hamid comes to her rescue, caring for her, giving her his precious rose to comfort her and money to go home. He finds her silver key and buries it under the rose stem only to find a new bud blooming. I like the element of fantasy in it, prosaic street living in contrast to the fantasy and fairytale element. It contains all the elements of a fairytale told in street style Singapore. The allegory contains a moral of kindness being rewarded by the magic. Nalpon’s characteristic style of having both eye witness and omniscient narrator tell the story lends itself to this particular story by allowing us to access the dual viewpoints of Hamid and Fatimah without being too close as to lose the story in the characters. The silver key is used as a euphuism to suggest that buying Fatimah’s favors is an expensive commodity and yet even amongst the higher class of prostitutes, she is still vulnerable to abuse. Women are often compared to flowers, especially roses, which symbolize love and are often given to women as romantic gifts. Flowers are beautiful, fragile and are temporary, a plucked rose will wilt just as even women who believe themselves beautiful, treasured and secure can fall prey to abuse.

Another favourite is ‘The Hunter Lays Down His Spear’. It is a critique of employment policies, taking into consideration the economic climate and the effects of unemployment not just in financial hardship but also in emotional cost and loss of respect. This resonates powerfully with a Singaporean audience who are always concerned about the assuredness and stability of their jobs and worry about being unemployed. This is very much in the point of view of its time, when men were expected to be the head of the household and provide financially for the family in a patriarchal society. This is still true to a large extent today, but not so much as it used to be. Nalpon asserts that Man’s self-respect and self-worth is intrinsically tied to his ability to provide for his family and that nothing is worse than social handouts. Nalpon scorns the Western welfare states, stating that going on the dole, receiving money without working is tantamount to being emasculated, using the image of a hunter, the atavistic original Man laying down his spear, his weapon as the cost of being provided for. Nalpon laments that ordinary people desperate for work to avoid such a fate are taken advantage of by employment agencies. He suggests strongly that the law is being circumvented by the unfair actions of these employment agencies in spite of the Employment Act meant to protect the citizens and that it would be better if the government took over these employment agencies to offer honest help to people who are willing to work to maintain their self-respect. I agree with Nalpon about the unfairness he perceives and while this is still relevant and interesting, I believe that employment agencies are much better regulated today, hopefully at least in part due to his works and those like him who believed in fairness and a better life.

In conclusion, Nalpon’s collection was an easy enjoyable read that managed also to be deeply meaningful in spite of the limitation of short stories in conveying characters. I will definitely go back to finish the collection and reread my favourite stories.

 

The Colin Cheong Collection: Throwback Thursdays

by Clara Tan

Like pretty much almost everyone writing this module, I was stressing over what event/poetry collection/novel I should base this blog post on. Thank goodness I happened to stumble upon my sister’s “toilet literature”, its latest addition being The Colin Cheong Collection. This volume comprises of three novellas and twenty three short stories, with the entire collection being published in 2011.

The reason why this post is titled “Throwback Thursdays” (apart from the fact that this post is uploaded on a Thursday…), is because reading this collection brought to mind many memories of my pre-university days. Most of Collin Cheong’s short stories in this collection revolve around the lives of youths and basically, the struggles faced by the typical Singaporean teenager. I won’t go so far as to say that I’ve crossed that age gap, because I find myself able to relate to the stories told, but one thing that lingers on in my mind(which I’ll be blogging about) is how long can one remain connected to that past before it slips away with time?

The thing about literature in Singapore is that it is just like all the other natural resources in our country – severely lacking/sparse in number. Yet, literature is among one of the most important mementos we have today that links us back to the past. This is especially with regards to Singapore, as we are a country whose identity is diluted by many different cultures and experiences. It is precisely through the search of a “uniquely Singaporean identity” *cue cheesy Singapore Tourism Board music* that we find ourselves having to look back into the past to see where our roots begin. My personal take on this is that the point in life when we start questioning the most is when we are going through our adolescent years. In those moments of ‘questioning’, it’s always comforting when you pick up a book or something and you read about someone who has gone through exactly whatever you are going through now and that you’re not the only strange one asking too many questions. This is what I believe is important for Singapore Literature to preserve today, that sense of belonging and comfort that only a person who has gone through the Singaporean context before can give to someone else in the future – that kind of continuity of a Singaporean identity that literature is able to provide.

In Collin Cheong’s short stories, he writes a lot about the experiences of youths and teenagers, and that hits back home for me. I suppose the most interesting years in the Singaporean life is when we struggle in our adolescence, looking for the “right” path to tread before we settle down into the boring work life of the future. Colin Cheong delves explicitly into this aspect of life, and wrestles with the many choices and emotional struggles that Singaporean youths living way back in the 1960 to 80s dealt with.

Here are some examples!

In “Poets, Priests and Prostitutes,” the story revolves around a motorbike gang back in the early years of Singapore’s independence. Okay, maybe Colin Cheong didn’t mention specifically the year he was writing about, but I did some research and found that motorbike gangs were rampant in 1969. Strange thing is, while a large part of the story is set in the past, with a completely different context, (e.g motorbike gang experiences which not many of us can relate with), the feelings and struggles he goes through are almost identical to that of any kid in NUS today. The amazing thing happening here is that despite the completely different context in time and place, the thoughts and feelings between past and present do not seem so different:

I am an English major, double-English, which is worse, and I spend most of my academic hours in AS 5, a solitary block on the edge of the Varsity tucked away behind the canteen. If the University was a digestive system (which in many ways it is), the Central Library would be the stomach, everyone else would be the intestines large and small, and the English Department would be the appendix. There is no real use for us and I suspect the world would get on fine without Literati and Linguists. We exist only to be a pain in people’s sides.

I’m sure most of us can relate to that paragraph above right? (haha)

In Seventeen, Cheong writes about tradition, superstition and the past. Different from “Poets, Priets and Prostitutes,” “Seventeen” does not make the reader feel understood, but it evokes a memory of the past as it questions those who live in the here and now. Have we forgotten our past, and our roots? Coming from a Chinese family, I can say that this is true, most of us have long forgotten ancestral beliefs or values that our grandparents once held on tightly to.

What kind of boy is he? She asks, and I tell her and Jac tells her. I tell her about his home, his beliefs, his altar and ancestral tablets and the conversations we have about God and ancestors and spirits and how he’s so afraid of making them ashamed of him.

He really believes? She asks and I nod. She looks at me and then says, I come from a family background like your friend’s, except that by the time my generation grew up, most of us no longer believed in it and we don’t perform the rituals anymore. But some things, like not staying out after dark during the Seventh Month and all that, some things we still believe. It’s very deep and hard to forget.

Yet, have the Singaporeans today forgotten? These were the questions that I asked myself when I finished reading this short story.

Ok, last example so the guys have something to relate to personally. In “Silent Service,” Colin Cheong writes about the National Service experience:

“No! You twit. All these guys ever talk about is the army!” Amanda said in mock despair. “As if they didn’t get enough of it every day already. They bring the whole bloody army and its jargon and abbreviations home with them. And worse, my parents encourage the twit and he goes on and on and on, as if we’re really interested!”

“But wait, easy for you to say. Once we’re there, we won’t be doing anything else except army things so what else will we have to talk about?” Ronald protested.

By capturing exactly the frustrations of people around the newly enlisted BMT guys, as well as showing the difficult position of the NS men, Cheong recreates the experience for those who have already moved on with life after serving the nation.

Similar to the 3 examples above, Cheong does the same with his other short stories, recreating a memory of the past and bringing it to life, in order to either question the reader or allow us to relieve experiences that we have forgotten. Cheong makes this real for the Singaporean, as he writes about experiences that are relatable, not something abstract and profound, but a truth that everyone will go through as we grow up in Singapore. Furthermore, his use of colloquial English, and Singlish give the narrative a sense of familiarity and makes it less alien to the local reader, almost like rediscovering that Bak Chor Mee stall from which your parents would “dapao” breakfast back home for you when you were still a kid. The taste and feeling of remembering what you didn’t realize you forgot, and finding it still pristine and the same is what I believe is beautiful about literature in Singapore, that it is able to preserve that sort of special identity, which can be accessed anytime through a text/poetry.

 

Thoughts on Balik Kampung 2B: Contemplations

by Ho Zimin

The cover art for Balik Kampung 2B: Contemplations is a close-up of a row of metal mailboxes – the kind you get at the void decks of old HDB flats, the ones that needed padlocks and had tiny metal slit windows that clang loudly whenever the people whose jobs were to leave junk mail in your mailboxes push fliers into them with practiced ease. Already, Balik Kampung 2B: Contemplations is doing what it’s set out to do – giving fresh perspective to our view of Singapore. The collection is about mapping spaces in Singapore, not that of the merlion or the Keppel Bay view, but through images like HDB mailboxes, those of lived-in, tucked away neighborhoods.

The rest of Balik Kampung 2B: Contemplations is as compelling in its familiarity. A collection of nine tales by different authors, the collection is centered on neighborhoods in Singapore that the authors have lived in for at least ten years. Each short story is also accompanied by a paragraph by the writer on their connection to their respective neighborhood. Contemplations provides a more mediative and experimental collection of stories to its counterpart Balik Kampung 2A: People and Places. This mediative style is a seamless thread running through the short stories in this collection, stories that are geographically scattered yet all equally invocative of different but authentic Singaporean experiences.

The stories range from first-person childhood recollections to surrealist dreamscape explorations, from the protean urban landscape of River Valley to the aging estates of Balestier. My personal favorite would have to be ‘Such Great Heights’ by Zizi Azah – a story of friendship built around suppers at late-night eateries, of optimism in the face of the uncertainty of youth; a story that is the author’s ode to Bedok in thanks of its unwavering constancy.

And the streets still run the same way they do in the river of my memories. Overflowing with the sweetness of the past.

— ‘Such Great Heights’, Zizi Azah

The great thing about Balik Kampung 2B: Contemplations is that most of its tales eschew seeing the spaces they explore through rose-tinted glasses. There is little of the ‘old playgrounds turned novelty badges’-esque nostalgia, but rather rawness in the representation of what these spaces mean to the authors. In ‘The Vomiting Incident’, Cyril Wong writes of a void deck funeral and the strained familial relationships that occurred within the cramped space of his childhood home in Bedok. Tania De Rozario also explores the harsh reality of the trauamatic ongoings of broken families entrapped within the confines of the home in ‘Certainty’, a heart-wrenching tale that culminates in a mother killing her own newborn child.

Not to say that there are only hits and no misses within the collection – the occasional thinly-veiled political agenda and extended metaphor bathetically unfolding into tax-payer complaints evokes a laugh but nonetheless feels contrived, risking moments of incongruence with the easy rawness of the rest of the collection.

Balik Kampung 2B: Contemplations is a text that would be incredibly relatable for readers who have grown up in Singapore. Things like the confusing etymology of Ang Mo Kio and the ghosts of Choa Chu Kang are concepts that, I believe, permeate the everyday Singaporean consciousness to some extent. And to see writers take these notions and build narratives off of them is surprising and compelling. In addition, the diversity within this collection also throws into question the sometimes assumed heterogeneity of Singapore in mainstream representation of Singaporean spaces –are the residential landscapes of the East different from that of the West? Are all HDB flats just their void decks, are they all the same?

In some ways, the collection addresses what we’ve discussed in class about what makes up a national literature. This collection can be seen as a nuanced way of presenting a national literature spatially and temporally – it deals with the documentation of places in Singapore’s history but not in a contrived manner. Authors write narratives as shaped by territories and in this way the landscape of the nation is documented organically and honestly. Similarly, most tales are written in a vernacular that is authentically Singaporean without devising an overly formulated vocabulary of Singlish, dialects, and so on.

All in all, Balik Kampung 2B: Contemplations is about how spaces in Singapore shape people and how, like these authors, we re-shape these places for ourselves in our contemplations of them. Each author’s narratives are woven together to create an honest and unconventional map of Singapore and reading this collection is like taking a stroll through your childhood neighborhood but with a fresh pair of eyes – it is a simultaneous longing to rediscover what we’ve left behind and wanting to use this rediscovery as a means of negotiating our present and our future.

An Eyebrow for An Eyebrow: A review of Cyril Wong’s The Dictator’s Eyebrow

By Tanvi Rajvanshi

Cyril Wong’s The Dictator’s Eyebrow may at first seem like a ridiculous attempt at glorifying a rather unimportant, almost useless, feature of the human face. However, as one reads and unpacks this “poetic account of an unnamed dictator’s eyebrow”, one would be quick to realize that there is more to it than meets the eye(brow). Put simply, this text is written from the perspective of a dictator’s eyebrow, as he narrates all that the dictator has been able to achieve because of his fantastic eyebrows. What follows is a disturbingly funny account of a power-hungry eyebrow and his always-consenting wife. By personifying the eyebrow and making it the emblem for power, rather than the Dictator’s face as a whole, Wong makes pertinent political critiques of a particular country and its leader that the reader can understand by inference.

I was immediately attracted to this piece because the title itself promised me an interesting and different literary experience. And this text, for me, became interesting because it lies at the intersection of poetry and prose. Although written in verse, it has a prosaic quality about it, which is perhaps in its narrative structure. The piece has a very clear beginning, middle and end. This is not to say that poems do not have narrative structures, however, it becomes immediately clear that this text is the story of the eyebrow told as poetry rather than a poem about an eyebrow when the eyebrow claims, “I’m the real hero of this story”.

The choice to write this in poetic form gives the writer freedom to explore more ways of telling a story. For me as a reader, this piece brought up questions about how we define the texts we read on a purely structural basis. Yes, in some ways this is a poem, however, it is published and presented like a novella. There was even a ‘book launch’ for the piece. It made me question whether there are certain things about poetry we analyze simply because the text is written in poetic form, and whether these aspects can or should be analyzed when reading prosaic texts. For instance, when I analyze poetry, some of the things I look at are line lengths and rhythm. However, when I’m analyzing prose, the rhythm of sentences is admittedly not the first thing that comes to mind. It made me wonder then, if I’m missing out on not looking at rhythmic structures of sentences in prosaic texts. This points to the way in which we, especially as literature students who have to read and analyze texts on an almost daily basis, are automatically attuned towards reading a particular text in a particular manner simply because of the form that text takes. When I’m presented, then, with this text that looks like a novella but reads like a poem, every part of me is confused about what to call it.

But the confusion is good because it alters my perception. It makes me wonder whether I should change the way I approach prose, and whether prose can carry a poetic value. However, this isn’t the only way in which defamiliarization works for Wong’s piece. It’s interesting that he chooses the eyebrow as his chisel to carve this elaborate tale of a dictator’s success in building a country. When we think of famous dictators in history, it is always the face that immediately comes to mind. But really, isn’t it actually that one particular something about the dictator’s face rather than the dictator himself? Case in point, Hitler and his infamous moustache. Similarly, when I think of dictatorships, it is something about that particular dictatorship that lends it its infamy. Taking Hitler as an example again, it’s the holocaust and his anti-Semitism that is perhaps iconic to his reign, even though his political philosophy branched far beyond this. But getting back to Wong’s text, by making the eyebrow a separate entity from the face, Wong raises interesting questions regarding the shaky relationship between a powerful person and the way they use that power, and also the way in which we remember that person. As Gwee Li Sui mentions in his introduction to the text, “power itself is not a constant quality and is only as unique and competent as the individual who wields it”, just as eyebrows tend to be unique to a face. Telling this story from the unusual perspective of an eyebrow allows the reader to detach themselves, in some ways, from the dictator himself and see the politics in a different light.

This text works for me because, like a bushy set of eyebrows, it challenges the way I see things. Not only does it challenge the way I approach texts purely on a formal level, but thematically, it also makes me think about how I approach politics and form an understanding about political people. What makes a political figure memorable? Is it their command over power? Their use of their power? Or is it, at the end of the day, something as unremarkable as their eyebrows?

If you didn’t catch this play, then you were a…

by Liana Gurung Qing Yu

Image taken from peatix.com

Just kidding.

Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that attending Haresh Sharma’s Poor Thing was a life-changing experience, but I hold that it was a near thing.

But firstly let me put this statement into context: I’m a relative newbie to the Singapore theatre scene, despite many friends who have been for several years deeply embroiled in their school’s drama clubs and productions, and despite having more than a passing interest in theatre (seeing all the photos of my friends on exchange attending this musical and that on Broadway is actually painful). Before attending Poor Thing I’d gone on a whim to Wild Rice’s gender-bent interpretation of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and after – riding the euphoria of Poor Thing and hoping for a similarly transcendental experience – Pangdemonium’s version of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (accompanied by a friend who’d gone to see Fat Pig for a writing module and produced a shining review for it as an assignment).

All paled in comparison to the experience I had of Poor Thing in March earlier this year – and I use the word experience deliberately, because it was precisely that. Imagine attending a play that had a QR code that linked you instantly to the Facebook profile of one of its fictional characters and invited you to make a friend request; a play that, in the waiting area just before we entered the black box let roll a clip of the scene just preceding whatever awaited you within. Even the set itself when we went in was a stylised but concrete reproduction of a car crash, though other than the two cars (with working doors, no less!) the props used were minimal. It was clear that the focus was meant to be on the characters themselves, and that we were expected to immerse ourselves in the drama that was to play out between them.

And what characters these were. Best friends Jerome and Sharifah, while en route to send the former to camp for reservist, accidentally rear-end married couple Jerome and Alisha’s BMW while they are driving home from a dinner. The frustrated civility and initial awkwardness of negotiating the aftermath of a car accident – furthermore problematized by high-handedness on the part of the well-to-do couple and the irreverence of the pair of best friends – give way to wider societal concerns as all four characters realise they have less and more in common than they would have ever thought. Tension ramps up to breaking point as an all-out fistfight breaks out among the actors, with the audience left to look on rapt, wide-eyed and afraid at these characters rolling around on the floor before and among them.

Poor Thing marked itself as different from the previous plays I’d watched from the outset; firstly, in the breakdown of distance between actor and audience. The audience was scattered among the actors, some seated on the floor, others on the prop-bollards that ringed the scene. Secondly what differentiated this play was its lack of breaks or clearly defined ‘acts’; there was no intermission. From beginning to end it was a tight, taut, emotional one-hour out of these characters’ lives.

After watching Poor Thing I realised that there’s something special about a play written specifically for Singapore’s context; not one whose original script has been fiddled with in an attempt to make it more relevant to the Singapore viewer, but one that is explicitly concerned with issues that Singaporean society is facing and has been written with these in mind. It’s true that maybe Sharma was limited by the play’s own one-hour continuous constraint; a lot of these issues were glossed over (a criticism from the friend who’d gone with me that we primly agreed to disagree over). But on hindsight she had a point: homosexuality, race, class were all only mentioned in passing, and then only as tools used to stoke the fire of the characters’ rage before the play’s climax of an all-out tussle. But how smart was it (please pardon the fangirling) that all these issues were embodied in the characters and props themselves: homosexuality in the character of Jerome, race in their casting and language (how Sharifah’s character would break into lamenting Malay that provided a lot of the play’s more emotional moments, both humorous and harrowing), class in the cars of both sets of characters. Sharma hadn’t needed to say all this because he had already shown it in (what was to me at least) a beautiful harnessing of the economy of the play. Not to mention a nod to that age-old rule in writing about speech and verisimilitude: one of the biggest challenges writing dialogue is knowing what to include and what to exclude taking into account the characters’ varying levels of intimacy and openness, something I think was held to a fairly believable standard of reality in the play.

Perhaps it’s a trait of Sharma, but his ability to write so that it not only speaks to the Singaporean but speaks of him or her is, in my current humble sampler of Singaporean plays, exceptional. However, while I had an obviously great time watching the play, the friend I went with left The Necessary Stage black box with rather mixed emotions. For her I think the whole experience was a bit discomfiting – as much as she felt a part of the play, she was also apart from it. We all were; stepping back, I realised after the performance that we were an actual part of the scene. Not just because the actors used us as props, but because we were; as is visible in any photograph documenting the scene of an(y) accident, we were the ubiquitous bystander, watching on wide-eyed at the spectacle unfolding before us. It’s possible some of her dissatisfaction stemmed from a sense of violation, where “an audience wants to be an audience, though it has a desire to touch the entity on the stage – to touch, but not to be swallowed by or to become that entity” (Raz 259), the latter of which Poor Thing’s audience came perhaps dangerously close to. However, that is probably ironically the thing that made me enjoy the play the most, and that on hindsight I really appreciated the sheer intelligence of.

Ultimately the play was best enjoyed not only in the moment, where we were entertained by great dialogue (thinking back to that moment in lecture when Prof Holden spoke about how Haresh Sharma said at a panel that he didn’t simply write “Singlish” but speech appropriate to thesituation) and rich character portrayals, but also in retrospect, poking at its several layers and unearthing more and more meaning. For instance, though the play’s central, given focus was a commentary on social media I thought a wider reading might be its criticism of our culture of spectatorship, which we are, as we were in the play, sometimes tacitly complicit in. All in all I think the best thing any piece of art can do is trigger some sort of self-evaluation upon its completion (or even during its course) – something that, even if it didn’t for my friend to the same extent, Poor Thing clearly did for me.

Bibliography
Raz, Jacob. “Conclusion.” Audience and Actors: A Study of the Interaction in the Japanese Traditional Theatre. Leiden: Brill, 1983. 259. Web.