Gweek Says Just Write!

February 22, 2014

The following keynote speech “Writing Matters: Why Now is The Best Time to Begin Writing” was read at the All In! Young Writers Media Festival 2014 held The Arts House, Singapore on 22 February 2014. It is also available at Scribd.com.

I like to thank the Book Council for inviting me to speak to you this morning. It is a huge honour to be giving this keynote speech at a weekend that is destined to be mind-blowing for many of you. I have looked at your list of speakers, and I know. I know that you will be meeting wonderful and exemplary people in the field, from whom you can learn a great deal. Learn well, my padawans. The All In! Young Writers’ Media Festival itself has been growing from strength to strength…

But first, let me not forget to say what I may have already forgotten to say: “Hello, everyone!”

All of you know what it means to write – or you won’t be here with me, in this room, on a perfect weekend. You don’t just want to write or dream about writing; I know you have already started writing. You don’t want others to know yet, not until you are prepared, and so you have hidden away what you do. But, whatever it is you are writing or have written, wherever you have hidden it, you must have got from it a sense of what it means to write.

It is to listen to that shadow of yourself in the mind and to give it a face, limbs, slow movements, waking movements, a character… and finally a voice. It is to create another world, a different world, where you do not exist except as an eye that sees its beings and a mind that knows their stories, every one of them. It is to look for a thread in a word and to follow this thread, tugging at it, into another word… and another word… until you are looking at a whole poem.

It is like nothing you have experienced before… not in mere reading, not like this.

But what does it mean to write in Singapore? This is the real uncertainty, the fear – because very few things scare us as much as discovery, the discovery of who we may be, who we are. What if I am a writer? You will not be the first to ask this question here as every Singaporean who has indulged in writing has asked this question not once but countless times. But your question will be the most important.

What do I mean by this?

The first Singaporeans to have given in to the temptation of writing were products of the university and the colonial system. They learnt in one the power of language and literature, the power of culture, and they took it with them into the other to challenge it. They celebrated their awakening by their themes of longing and identity or by their sheer, youthful exuberance. They sought to be free, and they found in writing a young voice. Their spirit and their goal, their purpose in words, were the same.

The next generation of writers grew in a context when the nation was new, its foundations shaky, the future hazy. Their day-to-day energies were trained on making a City of Man, on building a nation. They lived and breathed to help raise up and maintain the structures that make Singapore what it is today. And you know what? Their writings showed what took hold of their hearts and minds. They sought to know themselves less as individuals than as a people… They and the nation were one.

What if I am a writer? This was a question I asked myself when I was a teenager in the 1980s. I wrote and I drew largely for myself, perhaps for my friends. I asked the question again – this time more seriously – when I published my first book, Myth of the Stone, as a young undergraduate in the early 1990s. But to be a writer seemed like what I could only do on the sideline: the real business of study, of work, had to come first. A decade later, as a university lecturer, I asked myself this question again… because it felt like I had chosen the wrong answer. The question wouldn’t let me go.

It took me a long time to understand what the question requires of me and to dare answer it aright. In fact, if you look at early versions of my biodata, in press cuttings or on the internet, you will note that I never called myself a writer or an artist then. They would just say, if I wrote them: “Gwee writes…” or “Gwee draws…” or “Gwee likes to draw…” I put it all in active verbs. I couldn’t call myself a writer because I didn’t know if I was really one – and a real writer would know, right? But all I knew was that I liked doing something. I just did it whether anyone ever saw it or not.

But we keep saying these days that things are different for the young, for you, that it is way easier to become a writer. How can it be easy when it was one of the toughest questions in life I had to answer? What does it mean to write in Singapore now?

Certainly, people know better today than they used to about what to expect from writers – and especially young writers. They are more accommodating, more open to suggestion, more supportive. That doesn’t mean that you won’t get scathing reviews for your book, the kinds that make you feel like you have drowned a cat… but at least you get a review! Or you can get your friend to blog one. And every new manuscript that surfaces doesn’t have to be in the running for “the great Singaporean novel” to be considered worthy of print paper or media attention…

But this was not how it was at one time! At an age not too far back – and I remember it like an aftertaste – it really resembled the old Chinese imperial exams. Top entries would be selected by mandarins of state, the university professors, and only these got to become published books. Everyone else had to try again the next year, with new stories and poems. Then, we were an impatient people… Even with culture, we were impatient. We wanted a literature that could put us in the world of letters ASAP. So we went straight for high literature without care for popular literature.

So, rather than starve on a diet of a dozen of ghost story books, our general readers read every Western country’s popular books. These were well-devoured. Meanwhile, our writers found themselves limited to a particular type of writing if they ever dreamt of appearing in print. So they wrote like how Singaporean kids still study for exams. You spot questions. You give your teachers what they want, right?

Anyway, we got the literature we wanted, a literature to showcase, put in school syllabuses and university reading lists. We just weren’t as proud of a literature normal people could read for leisure. Remember leisure?

I remember reading for leisure then. It just didn’t involve Singaporean books – except perhaps Adrian Tan’s Teenage Textbook and Teenage Workbook and the volumes of ghost stories by Damien Sin and Russell Lee. Those aside, and maybe a few more, Singaporean literature was rather heavy stuff!

Today, other than the serious writers, you have writers who have taken the road less travelled and written in genres, worked in mediums, others wouldn’t write or work in. Because of the precedent they set, this is now a clearer path.

Some of the writers who once struggled to get their works seen are mentors today, offering help to you who may need the help to get to where they needed to. Then, through the internet, you also have something like QLRS (Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore), Softblow, and, most recently, Singapore Poetry, websites set up by writers to deal with writing, to share and talk about writing.

And writers know now that we can survive. Those old wives’ tales from our concerned elders – that, soon enough, we would be ripping off pages of our books and eating them – turned out to be false. Phew! We have Catherine Lim to thank for that. She may be the first Singaporean writer to live for and off her writing… In the early 1990s, she showed us that it could be done. Since then, more and more of us have built a livelihood on writing, working on a range of writing jobs simultaneously or working just enough to sustain more time to write. It isn’t J. K. Rowling, but we know that we won’t be eating paper.

Infrastructurally, many things have changed too. Schools give rather fair attention to our writing and our writers, and writers do get invited to conduct talks and classes. The same happens at our polytechnics and our universities. While literature used to be a compulsory secondary-school subject and that was great, yet we also seem strangely to be losing the culture of pooh-poohing on our own writing. Perhaps, it is because we have, as a result, a less narrow non-textbook view of Singaporean literature… or, being not set against major Western texts, we tend to make fewer sweeping judgements. So there is bad and good in that.

You will also find the strong support of independent literary publishers – and this has a chequered history of its own! One of the longest survivors is Landmark Books, which began in the 1980s and is still going strong… I am proud to remember it start in my youth and to watch it evolve. It published my book of poems in the 1998, by the way. Other main Singaporean publishers include Ethos Books, a strong player, emerging in the 1990s. In the new millennium, we saw Epigram Books and Math Paper Press, both differently exciting and game-changing…

After my session, you will hear directly from three more special publishers: Select Books, Monsoon Books, and Bubbly Books.

We also have, these days, bookshops that are actually keen to stock Singaporean literature and stock it well. That sounds like a pretty stupid thing to say since bookshops sell books, and so a bookshop in Singapore sells Singaporean books… right? Wrong. Remember that this is Singapore, and strange things do happen at the most commonsensical level here.

There was a time when bookshops didn’t feel obliged to have much or any Singaporean fiction or poetry because, in their understanding, “these just don’t sell”. And that was the excuse that fed a whole vicious cycle since books that weren’t sold weren’t read… and books that weren’t read weren’t celebrated… and books that weren’t celebrated couldn’t sell. And it went on like that. If you know of a bookshop where you can barely spot a row of Singaporean books, imagine how, at one time, these bookshops were the norm!

The bookshops we have today – Kinokuniya, Borders, BooksActually, Select Books, and so on – are gifts from the gods! Support them, find ways to do so, because they support our line of work.

Finally, institutions such as The National Arts Council, the Book Council, and the Arts House have also changed. It has taken painful years for them to work out what kind of support writers really need and what kind of nudging writers don’t enjoy.

When you start to live it, you will know it. A writer’s bio-rhythm is not the same as that of a regular person with a regular job. It is kind of like having a student’s life, of which you know so well, with the crazy hours of frenzied, disciplined work, hard play, wildness, sudden days of melancholy, and sleeping till noon. Except everything – the homework desk, the disco, the football field, the staring at the moon, the bed, what have you – happens on one spot, your writing table.

So now the understanding between institutions and writers have grown. The Arts Council has a range of grants and funding opportunities to help you along your way, whether you are a young or an established writer. There is also help to get to writing residencies around the world where, once you have some work out, you may apply to stay at and do more work. Then, there are the international art and book festivals, of which we are becoming more aware… and, of course, our very own Singapore Writers Festival that occurs near the end of each year. We go to the Singapore Writers Festival to remember that we don’t write alone and to draw inspiration from one another and meet our otherwise often invisible readership.

And this basic relationship between writers and readers, the contract, has also changed! The internet should certainly claim a fair bit of the credit because it has put readers more in touch with writers, even with young writers who have not even appeared in print! QLRS is one prime example of such a meeting-place. It emboldens young writers to work and experiment more even as it signals to its readership of the advent of the latest voice. Cyberspace has further allowed direct marketing of books, reviewing by common readers, bloggers, trolls, whatever else there are, and anytime-of-the-day discussion of books.

Singaporean readers are themselves more willing to read all kinds of rubbish produced by Singaporean writers – and, by rubbish, I mean how they don’t need to care about what another sector thinks or what everyone thinks. To be sure, that’s a good thing… because a book culture should be messy! Only a mess can surprise! This in turn means that, as a writer, you are freer to pursue what you are drawn to; you don’t have to write to types. You are freer to explore genres, sub-genres, and to experiment with styles that intrigue you…

Where are our fictional biographies? Where are our fantasy epics, our chick lit – to name a few? We really should keep writing and pushing until there is no more divide between the high and the low. There is no more up or down, only left or right in reading choices.

Exploring boldly is, of course, no guarantee that your book will find a domestic publisher. And yet now, if no one will publish your book, you can revise your manuscript and try your luck again… or you can self-publish or e-publish. There are even clever ways of doing it if you can’t find the financial support to print. Last year, new writer Zed Yeo self-published his first book Unapologetically Insane Tales – but it was ingenious how he went about it. He got on the online funding platform Indigogo to raise the money to put it out.

A few years ago, artist Johny Tay could not find a publisher for his massive graphic novel Seven Years in Dog-land. So he started his own label Avatar Studios and turned to UK-based Lightning Source to issue it as a print-on-demand book… You can now buy this book on Amazon.com when a lot of physical books published in Singapore do not even appear on Amazon.com for reasons of cost!

You see, I don’t want the idea that things are, in a way, better to give the impression that all writers are evenly struggling less.

Why should you write in Singapore now? The external reasons cannot be the real answers. These sit around in the head like furniture, and a home needs rather to be lived in. If you need the environment, the system, the community, your life, and so on to be working for you before you can become a writer, then it is fair to say that you shouldn’t be writing. You are not a writer.

A writer writes regardless of circumstances, and it has been decades of writers who have written regardless that have created the conditions you can now enjoy.

But these are still not enough; there are miles to go, and we cannot let up. For conditions to get better, for them to become more permanently writer-friendly, for writers to be recognised as an indispensible sector of society, we need you the young writer to understand the pleasures of writing as well as its cost. We ask for your commitment to the craft. We also ask for your commitment to the vocation.

The question “What if I am a writer?” is never a speculative one. The “What if?” does not imply a question the writer doesn’t already know the answer to.

The question should really haunt you… and may it do! May it haunt the writer in you, stalk you like a shadow or like death, so that you will keep finding yourself back on this path as everything else – studies, job, relationship, crisis – comes and goes. Be patient with life. Live life as you learn patience…

So what if I am a writer? When this question recurs, just keep writing… and you will find the road to an answer in the words.

Thank you.

Gwee Li Sui

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