Gweek Goes Round!

March 3, 2012

The following is the text for “Putting a Nation’s Pen to Paper: In the Beginning, And So on, To Be Continued…”, the closing talk of the Words Go Round Literary Open House held at Goodman Arts Centre on 3 March 2012. It is also available at and has been reproduced at New Asia Republic.

Students, teachers, parents, writers, organisers from NAC, book-lovers –

I have been given the most wonderful title for a talk this morning. When I asked what exactly it was I should be covering, I learnt that I should address the history of Singaporean literature, the range of its writing today, and the role students play in the shaping of our future cultural landscape – in twenty minutes.

This will be a very long twenty minutes. So shall we get started?

1. Singaporean Literature

Let’s begin by applying our brains to understanding what this creature – whose past, present, and future I am to engage – is. What is Singaporean literature? For pure convenience’s sake, I like you to exercise a bit of creative visualising without the need for PowerPoint. I like you to imagine two huge mathematical circles, into which all possible meanings of Singaporean literature can fall.

In the first circle, we put Singaporean writers, that is, writers who are or have been Singaporeans or whose ways of thinking and living can be recognised as Singaporean. In the second circle, we frame something else, writings on Singapore, that is, writings that represent and reflect on aspects of Singaporean life, its history, culture, people, politics, and so on. These two circles together encompass all the thoughts we can have when we say Singaporean literature.

There is a third space that results from the same two circles overlapping; it is where we have the sub-category of writings on Singapore by Singaporean writers. A focus on this space can be anything from self-reflecting to narcissistic. It can allow our readers to think bluntly about themselves or just to pat their own backs in an opposite, uncritical way.

For all the attention this space keeps getting, it does not, and cannot, carry all that Singaporean literature means. To think so, however, one has to make a number of bad assumptions. One must assume that only Singaporeans can write about Singapore, that we alone can understand our realities well enough to depict them accurately or poignantly. Worse, one may assume that Singaporean writers – if they are serious about writing – must write only about Singapore, Singapore and nothing else.

2. The Past

Admittedly, if we look just here, to this definition in the middle, Singaporean literature is quite small. Yet, such an idea is also the easiest to understand and manage, thus to teach and support institutionally. As supposedly all we need to care about, it is great for teaching in schools, academic writing and research, funding by state and organisations, and policy-making. You know who to reward, what to talk or write about, and what the uses and benefits of literature are.

Isn’t this form of literature wheeled out all the time, whenever Singapore’s National Day draws close or whenever the newspapers discuss literary culture and legacy in Singapore? Don’t we encounter it whenever art becomes part of some community development scheduled to enrich the lives of “heartlanders”?

This kind of treatment is really a way of “boxing” that can harm the growth of the imagination. It is not always good for writers and will most certainly destroy them in the long run. Taught as all there is, it is not good to students as well – if a love of creative writing or of our own literature is what educators aim to cultivate. Indeed, when students moan about how boring Singaporean literature is, they are, in actuality, saying that this “boxing” is boring. And they are entirely right.

The history of Singaporean writing is the history of a determined movement out of this stifling third space.

There was a time from our late colonial era to our early independence years when the only literature our society knew how to celebrate was one tied to specific themes and agendas. These had included a firm (and somewhat anxious) rejection of colonial influence, the voice of a new nation, the quest to shape a communal identity, “the local experience”, and the enigma of modernisation and urbanisation.

Such clarity has been double-edged; it certainly gave us a literature in the way skin colour may (or may not) give a person his or her race. Yet, it also joins our literature from its birth idiosyncratically to social and political interests. Subsequent generations of writers are hailed or dismissed according to the social ideas they are putting across or whether they have any. Meanwhile, we remain collectively inarticulate about why good writing must be good in and of itself.

The eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope made a similar lament at the height ironically of print proliferation in the London of his time. He decried how the reading masses were unable to see good writing as having standards independent of power, favour, status, academic knowledge, religion, morality, money, and popularity. This failure to understand resulted in London falling under the stupidity- and sleep-inducing sway of the evil Queen Dulness:

The gath’ring number, as it moves along,
Involves a vast involuntary throng,
Who gently drawn, and struggling less and less,
Roll in her Vortex, and her pow’r confess.
Not those alone who passive own her laws,
But who, weak rebels, more advance her cause.

Queen Dulness’s deadly night finds its parallel in what our late poet Arthur Yap has called the “tree of night” that “grows and grows” with every step of progress in Singapore. Yap presented this image in an early poem titled “expansion”, which was published in 1971. He warned there of urbanisation in a way where urbanisation itself might well be a metaphor for compartmentalising personal imagination. So he began:

no stretch of darkened sky
would show a patch of red
a patch of sunset

In other words, when you block out the scope of the free sky, you cannot hope to enjoy natural colours, natural uncurbed movements too. What you see may still be sky but not as it ought to be. You misrecognise the space of creative freedom utterly and assume that it must already be something poor.

3. The Present

For no more than fifteen years, Singaporean writers and readers have been striving to move our literature out of this third space constricting Singaporean literature. The process reveals what they know all along, that competing forces have always been defining and complicating our society’s attitude towards literature. The history of Singaporean literature is the history of such a struggle for change, a push to move beyond what weighs down the natural freedom of the literary imagination.

But why can’t writers – someone may ask – individually ignore such mental demand and just write as they please? They can and have, of course, but my point is that they are never allowed to forget the cost and expectations, what precisely arises from this tendency to “box”.

Here is where readers must see the value and urgency of what they choose to stand for and support. Our current writers are thankfully freeing themselves to explore other themes and genres such as romance, science fiction, fantasy, children’s literature, and character writing and to experiment. Even pieces on social and political issues are daring to show greater variance in their treatment.

A recent collection titled Coast, edited by Daren Shiau and Lee Wei Fen, has fun with poems, stories, and short plays all with the title “Coast”. Another called The Steampowered World, edited by Rosemary Lim and Maisarah Bte Abu Samah, brings together pieces in that compact sub-sub-genre of steampunk.

Where there is free exploration, mature and complex good writing will come in its time.

Meanwhile, the state continues to encourage artists to look to international markets and acclaim. Academia – and what invisibly controls its direction, related socio-political and economic realities – are casting their eyes on a general audience that is less and less patient with local specificities. This tendency to simplify what is local was once a hallmark of colonialisation. Now, it is the hallmark of globalisation.

The clamour for broad repute forces some writers to look for validation from a Big Br/Other outside the call of their own writing. The use of theory must be recognised as this globalising simplification found in academic study. Teachers, impart theory to your students as topsy-turvily the means to enter literature at your own peril. Remember that you will still not have taught them to read, let alone to appreciate reading.

On the one hand, Singaporean writers are becoming less and less hung up about having formal aspects to our literature. On the other hand, academics find it more and more worthwhile to treat Singaporean literature as mere writings about Singapore or the “Singaporean condition”. They use it to discuss not art but trends and identities and to compare and conflate colonial and cultural histories, treatments of communities, diasporas, urban and postmodern realities, and so on.

So a Singaporean-Australian writer like Boey Kim Cheng can be read for his “transnationalism”, which is then related to other “transnationalisms”. Wena Poon as a Singaporean-American writer is interesting as an Asian-American “woman writer” or for her thoughts on culture and identity.

Most of the recent Singapore-based poets are still sidestepped, given their seeming irrelevance to larger, trendy subject matters, while older, “nation-building” writers continue to circumscribe what Singaporean literature looks like.

There is a powerful distinction, rupture, if you can see it. On one side, the focus is individual-specific while, on the other, it is theme-specific. One side is moving from the third space to our first space while the other side is pulling from the third space to the second. I don’t think that bureaucracy ever wants to stray too far from Space Three.

The challenge I am coming to here is not to reject what academia or bureaucracy has been doing. Let these do their jobs according to what the expectations for their different domains are. But a reader must know that his or her own field of preoccupation is distinct from that of a scholar or an administrator. Surprisingly, not many Singaporean readers realise this. They do not know that they do not need to follow the lead or recommendations of some authority and that they should simply seek and enjoy good writing, learn what it, in and of itself, must be.

As crucially, they do not know the implications of their not knowing so far.

4. The Future

We must thus see the nature of any continuing work for Singaporean literature as two-fold. We must firstly encourage our budding writers to love writing for its own sake, and, to do so, we have to recognise the limits in the other forms of encouragement tying writing to something else.

We have to be wary of promoting “what” to write, that is, writing along restrictive or popular themes, be they nation-building and mere socially acceptable issues. Also, we should be wary of “how” to write: too many creative-writing courses are transmitting ideas of “technicalising”, simplifying the impulse to write and the quiet way with which writers really work and experiment.

We must further be done with highlighting “why” write. As a society, we should stop telling or expecting people to write for social, political, and economic causes or to promote accessible benefits of writing. If this does not come naturally, it will only bring unnecessary pressure and affect the will to write.

In a recent interview with Lee Tzu Pheng, I was given a wise insight into this poet’s own impulse to write. Lee admitted plainly to me: “How do I know what I think unless I see what I say?” To put it another way, she is saying that writing actually surprises writers who honestly do not know, in the way we expect, everything they produce. At some basic level, writing is not a deliberate activity, and so we should simply encourage people to look inwards and let their own voices speak out through writing.

But this idea of finding one’s own voice is frankly clichéd, being often expressed by mere copiers as well. Rather, think of it as like cooking. Two thousand cooks may make the same dish, but no two cooks can produce the same taste – even with the same recipe. A good cook is an irreplaceable talent; his or her uniqueness cannot be understood independent of the tasting. This cannot be put into cookbooks or surpassed from eating more.

Secondly, we must encourage the growth of a more sophisticated kind of readers. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once remarked: “Books are like a mirror. If an ass looks in, you can’t expect an angel to look out.” Reading may indeed sharpen the mind and reading literature may clarify the soul, but the attitude towards reading is far more important. If you just encourage people to read for an end, you may not ultimately find someone who understands reading as its own end and the pleasure of language therein.

So let’s stop this nonsense of teaching young people to read for academic ends, for their own future’s sake. The enjoyment of literature is as much for grades, study, and research as the enjoyment of buildings is for architectural contests and site surveys.

Yet, in Singapore, we are still full of practical-minded readers. All societies, to be sure, have such jokers around, but others have practical-minded dreamers and believers who read too. These are who true writers and readers of literature are, people who dream through writing about the largeness of the human experience and who believe that this largeness and writing are somehow linked.

Some years ago, at one of my first school visits, I ended a lecture with a challenge to students to dream up this society for ourselves, a republic of Singaporean literature. It is a Singapore residing within practical-minded Singapore, whose doors are always open to newcomers and aliens and whose representative literary voices are various and innumerable, not governed by the few.

I ask you now, years later, again to be part of such a movement to free our literature.

Thank you.

Gwee Li Sui


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