Gweek Tells Tales!

July 30, 2010

The following text was read during the launch of Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010) at the Literature Symposium 2010 held at Nanyang Girls’ HIgh School on 30 July 2010. It is also available at Scribd.com.

Distinguished guests, educators, and fellow writers –

Telltale is a very special project of mine, which thankfully came with the support of a few groups of individuals. There is firstly Fong Hoe Fang of Ethos Books, who, for some unknown cosmic reason, saw it fit to tie me down with this assignment. I must have, of late, done something terribly right – whatever that is. His team at Ethos has been magical, being able to turn that troublesome Number 11, our count of stories, into a strength, a symbol.

Secondly, there are the various shady individuals who have asked not to be named or talked about in either a high or a low voice. These individuals who have offered an assortment of help can be found in the corridors of the Ministry of Education and the National Arts Council. So please, kindly help me to forget my acknowledgement right after this address.

Above all, there are the writers, not just those who are included in this collection but also those who I can ultimately not include because of the proverbial “hard decisions”. The six who made the final cut – Claire Tham, Tan Mei Ching, Dave Chua, Jeffrey Lim, Alfian Sa’at, and Wena Poon – I need to thank expressly for their generosity, confidence, patience, assistance, and inspiration.

The use of literature to teach national or social concerns and the use of national or social concerns to teach literature are not often differentiated well. Yet, to be able to differentiate between them is a primary task of a literature teacher. The two are not the same, any more than using dollars and cents to teach mathematics is the same as using mathematics to teach the use of money or business. In one, you arrive at sheer pleasure and awe in the beauty and intelligence of a subject. In the other, you move quickly along to put even pleasure and beauty at the service of something more hurried and, in the hurrying, less universal.

The notion of pure literature is, in this sense, similar to a notion of pure mathematics. It is both simpler, and cleaner, and yet also messier. Numbers, in the abstract, are clean, but the fact that you can apply them as much to bananas as to bus fare increases and your CPF contributions – that is messy. Words too are clean, but what an author intends but a reader misses and what a reader may see and even enjoy but the author never intends – that can be messy.

Mere literature allows for such openness, such messiness. When we teach a language, we stress the need for exact meaning and obedience to what the dictionary allows. But when we teach literature, we teach something else. We teach that language is not contained in a dictionary. It does not matter how exhaustive or authoritative the dictionary is: language is not in a dictionary.

Language has a way of changing meaning – distorting or losing meaning and taking on new meaning – when people arrive at some level of familiarity with each another. It is how you know when a sense of community has emerged, when a language changes, takes in not just new words and structures but also nuances, subtleties, evocations, contexts, and insider jokes, and, with these, a newborn bit of soul.

In the smallest sense possible, the relationship between every author and his or her reader forms such a community. This understanding is what has led to our collection of stories being titled Telltale. To read a story for its plot is the most straightforward hassle-free approach to a story. But nobody who reads really reads for a plot – or else we might as well consider a synopsis or a Master Guide enough, if not more efficient!

We read for an experience – the more well-paced, the better – and, in this experience, a bit of soul. In this soul is an image of ourselves that we carry through our own enjoyment of a good story. In it too is the investment of the writer, an image of himself or herself, his or her history, thoughts, and desires. Every story is this messy meeting between a reader and a writer and the fulfilment of a reader’s desires and thoughts in the desires and thoughts of the writer. Every story is telltale.

But telltale of what? In this book, we have a story about a working mother agonising over a birthday gift for her best friend. We have another of a schoolgirl coming to terms, in the most hauntingly practical sense, her best friend’s death. We have a story about a family breaking up with the backdrop of a more public destruction, the Asian tsunami of 2004. Then, there is the story of an elderly man coping with the pressures of immigration to a foreign land.

These are tales that highlight the all-too-familiar secret questions and struggles that do not fall neatly into the language of newspapers, circulars, annual reports, and textbooks. Their awkward shapes, their messiness, in fact, help to give proper shape to our own humanity and mortality. This is why we say that, when we teach literature, we teach life – or, at least, life in a form that cannot collapse into systems, sciences, and policies.

How to provoke and then deepen the love of such knowledge is the task of every teacher-reader. This can only be pursued by encouraging each student-reader to own his or her responses, by drawing the inkling of an identification with a story out of this student and then affirming it. To help both types of reader meet such a challenge, this book has aimed to make unnecessary certain tasks, such as double-checking basic facts, that may prove distracting. I have taken the extra step – with the blessings of both Ethos and MOE – to provide rather comprehensive notes and a common but open-ended study guide.

These notes explain words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to a new reader. They further explain terms that may interest someone coming from a different ethnic, religious, cultural, or national background. Meanwhile, the study guide invites a reader to explore each story either on his or her own or in a group or in class. Four questions turn inwards into the literary form of a story for clarification of its themes, structure, imagery, and characterisation. Every fifth question turns outwards, so that nobody needs to believe again that literature bears no relevance to the whole human, one who learns not just from books but also from daily life.

The book’s featured writers were all born after Singapore achieved full independence in 1965 – as was its editor. While this may go some distance in assuring readers that the different mental landscapes are not too remote, such comfort is ultimately beside the point. It is hoped that readers will be drawn steadily, through an illusion of familiarity, into a growing appreciation and love of difference, of the Other’s perspective. It is only through such an exposure that his or her love of literature can grow some more, as the mind adapts to the variously toned universe of the language of humans.

Thank you.

Gwee Li Sui

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2 Responses to “Gweek Tells Tales!”


  1. […] anthologies from Ethos Books were launched during the morning activities: Telltale: 11 Stories, a prose collection edited by Dr Gwee Li Sui, containing works written by authors born after […]


  2. Thank you for the superb post you made. You truly packed your post with quality content.


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