CYRIL WONG ON SINGAPOREAN LITERATURE
Singapore is an island-city in a pathological state of survivalist panic. But with fear comes pragmatism and robotic adaptability. The British ruled us. So did the Japanese. The island formed part of the Federation of Malaysia from 1963 before its independence in 1965. Singapore can be "cosmopolitan," but only for practical reasons; we must do business and "play well" with others. Our multiculturalism is a source of both pride and painful cynicism. Its national language is tokenistically Malay, with Mandarin and Tamil as other officialized "mother tongues"; Chinese dialects to Indian languages are thus sidelined. For better or worse, English—neither consistently British nor American, much to the bemusement of outsiders or newcomers determined to "correct" our pronunciation, our ever-modifiable syntax—is becoming the language of all our dreams.
English is a fraught and widening bridge between our cultures. Not everyone is happy about this, of course. Literature in English has become an efficient way to know and connect us as the language is unceasingly adaptable, reflecting the accelerated rate at which Singapore develops. With progress, somebody is always left behind. Literature is also a way of archiving stories and values either abandoned or repressed. We still suffer censorship. Political opposition is far from tolerated. Minorities have much to say about being minorities. Literature records the wounds of such suffering; that is, if censorship—even self-censorship—hasn't done its dirty "whitewashing" work. We are highly contradictory—these contradictions vary from day to day.
To encounter what is right and wrong about Singapore, read our literature; read from across different stages of the country's evolution. Here I have chosen some of my favorite moments of our literature in English, including translations, for their perspectives on Singapore that are paradoxical, terrifying, poignant, insightful and sometimes hopeful, even celebratory.
The Widower by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (Epigram Books, 2015)
Translated by Alfian Sa'at
First published in Malay in 1998, this book is a mind-bending meditation on death and mourning that merges the erotic with a desire for spiritual consummation. An ex-political prisoner loses his wife in a road accident. The narrative slips and slides inside the claustrophobic depths of the protagonist's grief-stricken mind, offering up stark truths about the Muslim protagonist's private battles with his own religious beliefs, his self-destructive conflicts with members of his Islamic community, and an obsessive yearning for his departed wife that transgresses logic and reason. The book's surrealism culminates in a "hereafter" finale that could be either a timeless instant of pre-death madness or transcendence into the realm of the divine: the grieving widower meets his wife on the way to heaven, only to be distracted by explosive cries of the living still suffering on earth.
The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap (NUS Press, 2013)
Academics and educators in Singapore tend to bore each other and their students by constantly pointing out that Arthur Yap is a poet of restraint; Arthur Yap is painterly; Arthur Yap plays with language; Arthur Yap critiques Singaporean society for its materialism and urbanity. Not to say his poetry isn't all of these things. Yap is elegant yet ambivalent, but he can also be funny, bitchy, even mean-spirited, as well as bursting with a longing and melancholy fueled by that repressed queer sensibility almost never discussed in university classes. The marvelously conflicted psychology of the poet is manifested everywhere in his poems, if one is sensitive enough to look for it.
A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore by Samuel Lee (Math Paper Press, 2016)
Lee's poems connect, in intimate ways, the ordinary with the intangible. But unlike a rising tide of airy-fairy millennial artists and "intellectuals" (Singapore has a growing tendency of grooming such individuals in our over-achieving discursive hegemony), Lee rises touchingly above the mundanity of pretentious abstraction. In a poem like "Self Portrait on the Eve of my Birthday," inspired by a painting from the Rococo artist, Francois Boucher, we note a stoicism regarding artistic solitude and existential impermanence, the poet's diet of "self-pity" as negated gloriously by imagining oneself "in rooms with flowers."
Not enough of Sa'eda Buang's short fiction has been translated from its original Malay into English. The writer completed her Doctor of Philosophy in Malay Studies from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore in 2009, and is the assistant head of the Asian Languages and Cultures group at the National Institute of Education. She has received prizes from the Singapore Malay Language Council for both her fiction and her poetry. According to Singaporean translator and educator, Annaliza Bakri, Sa'eda's stories like "Razi," "Retorika" and "Ranggas," which question the role of elites in society and portray clashes between rationality and religious beliefs, demonstrate the depth and the humanity of the author's wide-ranging vision. All her stories deserve to be widely translated and enjoyed by everyone in Singapore.
A rare English translation of one of her works, "The Withered Cherry Tree," can be found in the Oct. 2016 issue ('In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore') of Words without Borders, guest-edited by The Select Centre.
Kappa Quartet by Daryl Qilin Yam (Epigram Books, 2016)
Located somewhere between the shattered filmic worlds of David Lynch and Satoshi Kon's apocalyptic anime, Yam's novel hypnotizes us into questioning our reality in ways that are terrifying, revelatory and fundamentally profound. A man has lost his soul while a Kappa, or river demon with an orifice in his head, looks to consume one. Surrealist imagery and metaphors aside, sub-narratives crisscross, fragment and ramify in ways that lead nowhere and everywhere at once, as the interconnected characters find and lose themselves between contemporary Singapore and Tokyo. Neither hopeless nor despairing, the novel takes an aerial and picturesque view of a curiously recognisable urban predicament.
The Beating and Other Stories by Dave Chua (Ethos Books, 2011)
"The Man Who Came Alone to Eat" is my favorite Singaporean short story. The cliché that life in Singapore's public housing is grim has been utilized ad nauseam by local filmmakers, poets, fictionists, visual artists, etc. But to me, only Dave Chua does it well. When Singaporean pragmatism trumps emotional maturity or one's capacity for love and empathy, the result is illustrated by the fictional lives of Singaporeans portrayed in these stories that struggle with splintered relationships and isolation. In my most beloved story, a mother half-consciously makes up for the fact that she is losing her daughter who is studying in America, by becoming a waitress in a restaurant. Chua's clear-eyed understanding and hope in the power of unexpected relationships to heal invisible injuries (uniquely Singaporean or not) shines through in this story that makes me weep.
Two Plays by Kuo Pao Kun: Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral and The Spirits Play (SNP Editions, 2003)
The late Kuo Pao Kun wrote in both Mandarin and English. The playwright and founder of The Substation, Singapore's first independent arts center (where I first watched his plays), helped to inspire an atmosphere of cultural and linguistic fluidity and artistic interconnectedness through his writings, talks and mentorship of younger theater practitioners and artists of all disciplines, regardless of their "mother tongues." This phase of imaginative openness in Singapore has since faded. "Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral" surrealistically recounts the legacy of a man responsible for China's once-extensive maritime expeditions during the 15th century, Admiral Zheng He. Through the trope of castration, readers and theater audiences are forced to confront their own displacement as modern humans and what is lost when adapting to an increasingly competitive society.
CYRIL WONG is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections, Unmarked Treasure and The Lover's Inventory, both published by Math Paper Press. TIME magazine (10 December 2007) has written that "his work expands beyond simple sexuality...to embrace themes of love, alienation and human relationships of all kinds." Cyril has received a Golden Point Award and the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award for Literature in 2005. His books also include the verse-narrative, The Dictator's Eyebrow, Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories, and the novel, The Last Lesson of Mrs. de Souza. In 2012, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore. Cyril has served as a mentor under the Creative Arts Programme and the Mentor Access Project in his country. His poems have been anthologized in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008) and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman's Library 2007).