The Merlion Spouts

Recently, I attended the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) as an invited writer. Objectivity is very much suspect when one writes about something of which one was a part so you shall not find that here.

Asia Truly Exotic

In Malaysia, publishers, writers and readers of fictional works are, at best, fictitious. Whether in BM or English (or any other language for that matter), contemporary Malaysian fiction is: like the dugong, a rare sight. Then out of the bulldozed landscape, Tash Aw emerges. As a shining example no less, that a Malaysian – not the average type, mind you – can relocate to the colonial motherland and launch a literary career with a tin-mining novel. (Shows you how you don’t have to be Lillian Too to be able to sell books.)

While opinions may be divided over the worth of his novel, or whether he actually deserves all the attention (or whether Lillian should not be the national laureate), we should not deny the one lesson that the Tash phenomenon has taught us: that to find international success, Malaysian writers must engage with the rest of the world. No, you don’t have to slog it out at home like K.S. Maniam. Go straight to Cambridge, exploit your roots, and never go back, except for promo tours and family holidays.

Tash’s success is no isolated incident, of course. More and more Asian writers are being embraced by a global readership. So it was kind of apt that the opening forum of the SWF (“New Asian Writing – Finding a Voice on the Global Stage” 8-10pm, 26 August, National Library, featuring writers Peter Goldsworthy, Wei Hui, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Rudhramoorthy Cheran and Nury Vittachi) adressed this.

While each of the speakers were eloquent and sensitively aware of the space that Asian writing occupies within the international literary scene, bringing up interesting points on what global audiences expect of an Asian writer (or what an ‘Asian writer’ can be), I found myself highly bemused by the views that were put across.

Nury Vittachi, positively alien-looking in his long purple coat, bluntly pointed out several things, one of which was that he once did a survey of Asian writers, with an aim to find out how many of ‘our’ so-called ‘successful Asian writers’ actually lived and worked in Asia. From the list of familiar names – V.S. Naipaul, Shyam Selvadurai, Amy Tan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, etc – none lived in Asia. Nury’s only exception was Arundhati Roy whom he sighed has given up on writing.

I found Nury’s anecdote a bit rich, however, since I only have to cite Pramoedya Ananta Toer as an example that one can work and live in Asia and find success abroad. And, anyway, what does it mean to be an ‘Asian writer’? Whose/which Asia are we talking about here? The Asia that stands as the Exotic Other to the Occidental Imagination (fantasy), or the Asia that is lived through the spectre of the Asian whose Other is an Occidental concept of Asianness (banana insecurity/double fantasy). Most of us who live in Asia don’t even consider ourselves Asians until we find ourselves in a context that demands us to identify ourselves as such (a freakshow in the literary circus).

Still, this in no way dilutes the whole of Nury’s point that the direction and output of work by Asian writers are still being controlled by the interests of ‘big publishing houses of the Western world’. There are no world class publishing houses operating out of Asia (except perhaps niche coffee book publishers), no literary agent based in Asia (except maybe to manage the careers of expats in exile), and apparently little effort by Asians as a whole to cultivate a regional literary culture (notwithstanding local proclivities). It’s a big problem when bookstores and publishers (even in Asia) still consider Asian writing a niche market, focusing on niche exotic topics (e.g. oppressive regimes/cultures, the sexual mores of the Chinese/Japanese/Korean woman, Asian cookbooks flavour regardless, etc.). Why does Kinokuniya relegate Asian literary writers to a special section labeled ‘Asian Literature’?

I don’t know if this is sad or empowering. What would it mean to a writer based in Malaysia or Singapore? Here we are, trying to point out the fact that we are a people constantly in flux, have always been so, and will continue to be. Goddammit, globalisation happens in the backwaters of the Third World too. And yet boxes await us.

Thai writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap almost rectified the situation by relating his experience as a writer living in between two worlds, not only geographically and culturally, but morally. Yet he did not – could not – deny the contention that perhaps what made his collection of short stories Sightseeing an American literary success was partly because he is seen in the American lit scene as a cultural (or more accurately, ethnic) anomaly.

Almost the same can be said of Wei Hui whose Asian chic lit style came across strongly in her anecdotes and exuberant if bimbo-ish personality. Here is an example of an Asian writer who unashamedly mines the exotic Asian factor for her books; practically throwing the explosive sex and Zen swill at the heathens. Good for her that she can do it and still look fabulous (what more can one ask for?). But alas, the testimonials left a metallic taste in my mouth (a lot more, it seems).

Later that night, while hovering over the buffet spread at the Pod of Singapore’s spanking new National Library, and admiring views of the city below, I thought that maybe, yes, perhaps I should exploit my Asianness too. Might as well, eh? Since I’m certifiably Asian and all that keroncong.

But then this ten-ton realisation fell upon me: Is this what Asian writers must do to become successful? Exoticise ourselves? Like some stripshow in front of a mirror. Sigh. Not all of us look like Arundhati Roy.

Over the course of the next few days at the Fest, (almost) everything I saw merely made it harder to resolve my uneasy feeling with what this literary circus of a fest stood for. (Or maybe it was just that strange Singaporean vibe.) I couldn’t for the life of me get rid of the nagging thought that perhaps Tash Aw should’ve been here representing Malaysia, instead of yours truly. At least he’s got a book to his name.

Poetry Ecstatic

Who or what one chooses to empathise with says a lot about the personality of the individual. As if it’s not enough that someone has put in years and years of effort to produce a book (or anything), we ignore all that, choosing who we want to be associated with based on personal likes and dislikes. Freedom of choice, or somesuch. Hype (or absence of) has a lot to do with it. I’m certainly not free of this. And if you asked me who I prefer to shower my empathy on, a poet or a novelist, I would most certainly root for the former. Because poets seem more human. Also, because poems for me are easier to digest than lengthy prose. The following are my three favourites at SWF.

Ishle Yi-Park represents the kind of writer for whom the past and present are alive and sensual in her prose and poetry, informed by her Korean-in-New-York upbringing. If her work exhibits a pain in having lived via a displaced culture, she also manages to transmute it, with humour and an unflinching eye, into an element of beauty.

So I stayed in America. Why? I had to work. Edmond, my
husband, was going crazy. Oh, he grew a beard and wore old
clothes. Drank so much, took drugs with his beatnik friends. 
Not hippy – beatnik. The cool ones. But he looked complete
like a crazy! Like a caveman. Even my neighbour, this old man,
American, said to me once, Is that your husband? I feel bad
for you. Even he said this to me, a Korean!

– from “Kunemo” from The Temperature of This Water (Kaya Press, NY) by Ishle Yi-Park.

This she performed in a most emphatic fashion, affecting her aunt’s Korean accent, funny and sad. (“Open Mic Night – Poets in Action, 27 August, 11pm-1am, Black Box, National Library”)

Not everyone has a gift for empathy, it must be said. Ouyang Yu is a sneering man, curiously pissed off with everything. In him, I saw a glimpse of myself – the bloated ego of one whose exact analyses of emotion and intellect offer an abrasion instead of a kiss. I couldn’t begin to imagine the forces that drove him away from his homeland to set up a floating life for himself in Australia. We embrace those whose voices drive us away.

three years on
i no longer know what nationality i am
i am a bit of everything
i was reading herman hesse some ten years ago
in a wuhan university library
and i had the impression that i not he had written the entire book
should i owe the success to the translator
or to the author
i should owe that to myself
to that something within that is capable of infinite metamorphosis
that something that at once denies the existence of my own being
and creates a totally alien one

– from “40” from Songs of the Last Chinese Poet (Wild Peony, NSW) by Ouyang Yu.

Which he did not read aloud, but had something to do with his view of translation in a forum in which he spoke as a member of the panel. (“Translating Text”, 27 August, 3-4pm, National Library)

Through Ouyang, I was introduced to Zheng Danyi, a poet whose words exacted my empathy 100%. Mere words cannot describe the generosity of humanity in his poems, which humbles even the gloating I’m prepared to shower at anytime in honour not only of his talent, but his sensitivity to the world and his deep understanding of the presence of life.

Oh, fragrant summer, I’m willing to smell you
I’m willing to give you my joy!
All the cups I touched are only to hold
Wine. All the names I uttered
Mean more than what they say
Immaculate teeth, naked pools
From one city
To another city’s streets
One evening, or another evening’s sleeve
You make me drunk and make me sing!

– from “Fragrant Summer”from Wings of Summer (Sixth Finger Press, HK) by Zheng Danyi (trans. Luo Hui).

Which I’m not sure if he read, with his (very attractive) translator Luo Hui (“Wings of Summer” 28 August, 2-3pm, National Library) because I was much too starstruck (and infatuated).

A Loveable Feast

Last year, for the KL International Literary Festival, Krishen Jit directed Riding The Nice Bus, a play using the writings of Singaporeans curated by playwright Eleanor Wong. So it came as a sort of nice surprise that for Singapore Writers Festival this year, “Second Link: The Singapore-Malaysia Text Exchange” was staged, which presented Riding The Nice Bus as well as Tikam-tikam: Malaysian Roulette. Directed by Singaporean Ivan Heng and acted by a Singaporean cast, the latter featured the writings of Malaysians curated by ‘our own’ Leow Puay Tin (oh the Singaporeans love to claim talented Malaysians as one of their own, whereas we prefer to play the race card). Both plays were performed as a way to cap off SWF, at the theatre facility of the new National Library.

“Riding the Nice Bus” was performed first by the original cast (except for Fahmi Fadzil, who was replaced by Vernon Adrian Emuang). Direction was also helmed by Ivan, who remained faithful to Krishen’s interpretation of Eleanor’s collation of texts. The pieces ranged from excerpts of Kuo Pao Kun’s Desendants of the Eunuch Admiral to Elangovan’s showstopping Talaq, with Edwin Thumboo’s humorously performed poem “Ulysses of the Merlion” and Eleanor’s own rather overly romanticised lesbian affair Jointly and Severably.

While the strong performances of the cast (Anne James and Sukania Venagopal, admirable in every sense) captured the essence of the play, it dragged in certain parts because of the weightiness of the script. The works chosen by Eleanor are, how to say it, rather thematically insular. It’s hard to generalise on how much Singaporean literature or what direction it has evolved after independence, but from Eleanor’s selections, themes of paranoia, of a national amnesia, of not being able to reconcile the past and its present seem to come up time and again. There’s a deep sense of insecurity and self-consciousness in the text that is made truly apparent in it being performed.

While it’s only natural to compare Riding the Nice Bus to Tikam-tikam, the differences in the curating styles of Eleanor Wong and Leow Puay Tin make the narrow scope of the former even more obvious. Whereas Wong’s choices, focusing on plays, fiction and poetry describe a dark side of the Singaporean experience, Puay Tin’s picks expand on the definition of ‘national literature’ and moved the flow of the night’s performances into a blow out of literary exuberance. The way the works were chosen and how they were performed are consistent with Puay Tin’s emphasis on chance operations and how randomness throw up many moments of unexpected lyricism.

Before the intermission, the order of the scenes were determined by tikam-tikam (a sort of lottery that was popular among children in the 1960s and 70s who paid to overturn a piece of paper on a cardboard to see if they’ve won a prize) chosen by the audience. Thus not all the scenes curated and rehearsed made it to the stage every night (ironically, Puay Tin’s own work, an excerpt from Ang Tau Mui, was never performed at all). It was intriguing to say the least. In the hands of a less experienced playwright, Puay Tin’s methods might have remained a novelty, but she kept it infinitely interesting by selecting a surprising spectrum of works, including feature articles, memoirs and interviews, in addition to the usual literary works. One especially inspired selection was a song from the musical version of Usman Awang’s Uda Dan Dara (composed by Sunetra Fernando and Adrian Lee).

On the night I saw it (which was the last of its three-show run), some of the more inspired pieces included a moving excerpt from K.S. Maniam’s novel The Return, C.C. Brown’s translation of Sejarah Melayu, an interview with the late Dalang Dollah Baju Merah by Eddin Khoo from Off The Edge, and Krishen’s “A Man Who Lived To Dance” (Gopal Shetty) from his book Uncommon Positions. Add to that, Hikayat Abdullah (Sir Stamford Raffles stumbling across unusual punishments at a Malay school), S.H. Tan’s obscurely entertaining “Mystery Of The Attraction In Haadyai Solved” (why the Thai girls treat Malaysian men so well) and Mark Teh’s “Daulat’ (“Daulatkan mereka yang memutar belit, yang membabi buta, yang gila babi, dan yang gilakan babi”) rounded up what was an amazing journey through what is perhaps not the best, but certainly most entertaining playlist of Malaysia’s rich literary past. Unlike Eleanor, Puay Tin dared to reach further back in time and corner the present. Which made the results far more expansive than Riding The Nice Bus.

Tikam-tikam in a way revealed to me just how rich and irreverent the Malaysian literary heritage actually is, with no little thanks to Puay Tin’s curatorial eye. The inclusion of the Sang Kancil’s con-job on Sang Buaya and his friends (organising them into a living bridge across the river) juxtaposed with “Daulat” made me laugh at how mad and surreal Malaysians pre- and post-Merdeka have approached the idea of authority (different to how the somewhat emasculated portrayal of Singaporeans in Riding The Nice Bus). Meanwhile, K.S. Maniam’s excerpt brought me to tears, not just because of his unflinching description of a poor Indian woman who fixed pots (that reminded me of people I once knew), but how it made me realise how wealthy our identity is as a people, and that it’s so sad how we often reduce it to a milk toast version in official representations.

Performed wonderfully by a stellar cast (Neo Swee Lin, Gani Karim and Jonathan Lim shone) and directed with a strong hand by Ivan, “Second Link” was an experience that bowled me over for its intriguing concept and for making me realise, through its well-executed theatrical presentation, how resonant Malaysian literature is, for it was put together here with so much care, perceptiveness and forethought. Here’s to hoping both “Riding The Nice Bus” and “Second Link” would be performed on the Malaysian stage. It would be such a shame if this shared piece of literary and theatrical experience is relegated to merely becoming the finale of the Singapore Writers Festival.

Happily Ever After?

To say the SWF was a total success would be erroneous. Scattered all over this lengthy review, there’s been a fair amount of griping, admiring and even exoticising of our Malaysian, Singaporean and Asian literary wealth. However, certain things still disturb me about the whole affair. In its efforts to be all-embracing, the SWF somewhat failed to make any real impact on the literary scene in the region. Maybe it just wants to be an international event and remain as it is so that it can attract major corporate sponsors. But Singapore is a hostile environment for a truly liberated arts scene. Compared to the Ubud Writers Festival (UWF) which was held in Bali in October, the SWF completely missed the point. The UWF was held in a wonderful pseudo-natural setting, where everyone was a tourist and could drink as much beer as they can afford. Singapore, on the other hand, in particular the grand new library where the SWF was held (no beers allowed), lacked that rustic charm and liberated atmosphere that made UWF so much more conducive to the sharing and listening of stories and ideas (not that UWF was free from its own set of problems – the bombings, for instance).

Some of the SWF venues where readings and discussions were held in depressingly bare lecture rooms, noisy outdoor cafes and clubs, and stages situated next to blaring traffic and road works. And spray painting graffiti next to a stage downwind to where poets, writers and spoken word performers are reading to a crowd of shoppers poring over discounted merchandise is not a very good idea. To the organisers of these events, why destroy your guest writers like this? Why not give them a space in which their talents can shine through?

Literary (or its friendly substitute, Writers) festivals are ultimately obscure in today’s fast spinning carousel of words and images. Discussions about literary themes in obscure novels by so-called emerging novelists will mostly be attended by the converted, which continues to dwindle in Singapore (and Malaysia). Literature has somehow become a nostalgic pursuit of the middle class, on the lookout for a fantasy. The intellectual handful.

Genre books and personality-driven works fare better on the Festival circuit. UWF managed to get Michael Ondaatje and Xanana Gusmao on their programme, a panel featuring three of Indonesia’s top female writers (Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari and Djenar Maesa Ayu), plus the usual retinue of lesser known writers, cookbook conjurers and literary critics. Festivals have to be fun not only for the writers but also the readers – there should be fun events to blur that line between reader and writer. While the SWF managed to include a few fun personalities (Kylie Kwong, Chef Wan) and events (Second Link, for example) into their programme, there was just not enough to spill over to its more serious side. The same could be said about the KL Lit Fest 2004.

Still, critics abound in their appraisals of what’s horrible and what’s not. For what it’s worth, the SWF had a few good moments but overall it suffered from bad organisation and lack of inspiration. It should still continue and I would be the first one to say that all its sponsors should continue putting in money to allow it to exist. Who knows? There are millions of budding writers out there just dying to get a bit of attention for their work that the SWF could really be their slingshot to superstardom.  But let us stop here before any more egos get deflated.


Jerome Kugan wants to be a merlion.

First Published: 30.12.2005 on Kakiseni

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