Gweek’s Unread Keynote Speech

July 21, 2014

The following keynote speech “Adventures in Literature” was to have been read at the National School Literature Festival on 12 July 2014. But, a day before, I agreed with a group of writers to withdraw from events linked to the National Library Board in protest of its decision to pulp two children’s books featuring alternative families. The NLB was a sponsor of the Festival and had invited me to give this keynote speech. The books have since been restored to the shelves of the library. This speech is also available at Scribd.com.

Good morning, everyone.

I like to thank NLB and your teachers for inviting me to be one of two keynote speakers at this special event. Dr Dennis Yeo has spoken to you at the festival before… and I am new. When we came to deciding how to split our addresses – since one keynote speech is already a head crack – we agreed that he would speak as a well-shaken-and-trampled educator. I, on the other hand, would speak as a writer.

But I shall cheat here only because it is necessary that I begin somewhere else. I didn’t come to writing through the subject of literature taught to me at school. Therefore, reading literature academically – what you’re doing now – did not make me the writer I became. It played a different, more cursory role, and I must be honest about this.

Long before I was taught this thing called literature, I had been reading. I was a voracious reader, a mad one. There were the how-to-be-a-spy and how-to-be-a-detective manuals, the did-you-know books, the nature and science books, and then every kid’s favourite kinds of books: horror books, mystery books, joke books, adventure books, monster books, dinosaur books.

But there were also the classics, albeit the retold versions that came with illustrations. Many of these took the form of mini-books published by the now-defunct Moby Books. They were small but thick, resembling little chocolate boxes, and cost about two to three dollars each – very kid-friendly! These formed my first fake literary library, and I had a whole span of them! I knew Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Lemuel Gulliver, Captain Ahab, Ben-Hur, Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, the “little women”, the Count of Monte Christo, Roderick Usher, Dr Victor Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, and others.

They were the living characters in the landscape of my young mind. They were the inhabitants of my edgeless Hundred-Acre Wood.

On Sundays – and it was a monthly ritual – my father would take me to the old MPH that stood at the junction of Stamford Road. You won’t know of this bookshop unless someone from around my age group tells you about it. MPH Stamford Road was the largest bookshop in Singapore back in the day. It had three whole floors of books, and, on the highest level to which you gained access through a narrow stairway, there were the children’s books…

In one corner of this floor was a stage, and a theatre group called Act Three would dramatise a different beloved story each weekend to a wide-eyed audience. Until this day, I still remember the players’ names fondly: Ruby Lim-Yang, R. Chandran, and Jasmin Samat Simon, unsung heroes for a generation of readers.

Occasionally, my father would do something different, take me across the road to visit the National Library instead. The old National Library, at Stamford Road too, was a short red establishment, so unassuming that it looked like a pile of bricks someone arranged into a building. But, more than its neat rows of metal bookshelves inside, I recall this: always kids of all sizes, some younger, many older, coming down the same stairs I was climbing. All of them had on their faces an eerie glow, their arms hugging books as though those were theirs forever…

So this was the home of my innocent years. It was made of many books, a bookshop, a library, these readers, friends I never ever came to know, and the people committed to keeping stories alive.

School was a separate matter. We hadn’t heard of literature as a subject until secondary level, and my first exposure to it was through books we read and write short reviews on every fortnight. The few titles I can still remember now are Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. I remember these because they had some pretty graphic, disturbing scenes in them.

Then came the progressively hard stuff. Guy De Maupassant’s short stories were pleasing in a random way. I remember “The Wreck” giving me my first experience, in unabridged literature, of something wildly sensual. At one point, its narrator couldn’t contain his lust for a young girl and grabbed her and kissed her like it was his last day on earth…

But that hardly prepared me for what came next: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The River Between. This shocking novel exposed my little, pure mind to the tribal custom of female circumcision and the anatomy I needed to know to make sense of it. Then came another violent African novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart… Who was putting all these modern, anti-colonial African stories into my school syllabi?

Of course, we had the usual Shakespeare, who, for some reason, was taught even when nobody knew what he was saying without notes. We read Julius Caesar and then Twelfth Night – those were really tough! After them came my first significant exposure to poetry through an anthology called A Choice of Poets. There had been earlier anthologies, but this book was truly substantial. I encountered Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Tennyson, Hopkins, Frost, among others.

Well, needless to say, literature the subject was nothing like the books I had been reading on my own. It was firstly difficult since the texts had a coarser, more complex language, and their reality was darker, less stable, less reassuring. Secondly, literature was – sad to say – terribly boring, full of things I didn’t need to know as a kid in Singapore. Why would I need to care about conditions of life in the past or people from another culture and tradition and their problems?

Thirdly, there were all these questions my teachers kept asking and asking and I had no answers for. I was entirely OK if the questions had been of a factual kind, like the types I came across in nature and science books. But this was about fiction, and surely the pleasure from reading and a happy ending should have been enough? Why kept talking and asking about what I felt and about endings as though there could be no end? Why shouldn’t we move on, go on to another topic?

If I am allowed to give you a definition of literature based on my juvenile experience, it would be this: literature is books normal people won’t read. Truly, who wants to read this stuff, pointless and decadent as it is? On your own, in the flow of your life into adulthood and through it, you’ll probably never have to pick up such books out of necessity. For pleasure or self-fulfilment, there are always more efficient means such as going to the movies, playing computer games, or running a marathon. The world in literature is just too complex, its language too adult and showy, and there is too much material to hold in one’s head.

I liked reading, but I didn’t like to “do literature”. Let me say this again so that it’s clear how I thought: I liked reading, but literature really sucked.

Which was why I flunked literature year after year in secondary school. This may come as a surprise to you, but it was indeed the truth. Personally, I am curious to know how many consistent top-scoring students in literature went on to become writers or, conversely, how many writers were once terrible literature students. I need to know because almost all the exemplary literature students I knew became lawyers. They learnt how to have an opinion, how to twist meanings and to perform an argument, and they became lawyers.

I am a writer because everything has been a struggle to me, including literature. Even when I am learning to acquire knowledge, I struggle with the truth and limits of this knowledge. They say that scientists ask questions centred on “Why?”; if so, writers ask a lot more such as “What if?”, “What about?”, “Why not?”, “So what?” Writers struggle with experience in different directions all the time; we are ill at ease in this world. We are not made for living… and yet here we are, stuck in the thick of it.

Looking back, my problem with literature had been among my earliest struggles as a writer. I couldn’t – and then didn’t bother to – bridge the two halves of me, the Gwee who read all sorts and the Gwee who “did literature”. These two halves didn’t meet, and they didn’t know of each other. My teachers therefore never knew that I loved books since my confusion with and disinterest in the taught texts appeared to show no grounding life in books.

Eventually, of course, I was compelled to bring them together, and the process began on the evening before my O-level literature examination itself. I remember sighing as I told myself then: “Let’s get all this over and done with. I’m not going to ace the subject, so I’ll just read the damned books like my life depended on it. Then, tomorrow, I’ll regurgitate what sticks.”

That was the plan anyway, and then something else happened. As night drew in, even though I had read those books slavishly for class before, I was enjoying them for the first time. I managed to look behind what my teachers were saying, behind the themes, symbols, characterisation, and all that claptrap – and I found myself involved in those works. I saw versions of me saying something else, surviving in another place, having another life… I took all these feelings and convictions into the examination hall, and, as it turned out, I went from scoring a Fail to an A*. One of my teachers fell off the curb when she heard.

What then followed belongs to another story.

Right now, I need urgently to be sure that you won’t go away with the wrong lesson. I’ve not given you the secret to doing well in literature because what happened to me was my own experience; it was my course of life. You have your own journey with literature, which will almost certainly be different because you are somebody else.

There is no secret for you here except the truth that you have your own struggle, your own mystery in relation to literature to unlock. Answers will, no doubt, come when they come. Maybe you’ll find one today or maybe, like me, you’ll get it the night before an examination. Or maybe you’ll discover it ten years later when you’re sitting down to read an as-yet-unwritten book…

My own early mystery had been about understanding what literature was doing to me. Until that point when I thought that I found the start of something, I had kept two worlds. In one world, the one I enjoyed more, the realm of books was inside me while I existed outside. I was the reader, I was in control, I was more real than these books. But, through literature, what I came to understand disruptively was that I could never contain what books were about because that world was larger. The reality of books is always outside me while I am stuck inside. I am never a person reading a book; I am someone being read by books.

My early reading had delighted me, but they had also insulated me, made me a navel-gazer. My books allowed me to draw very clear limits to what I knew by means of what I wanted to know. What I didn’t want to know, I simply didn’t pick up. But “doing literature” forced me to go beyond myself, breach my self-raised fences, and know things I wouldn’t have cared about. It introduced me to radical difference, real difference, the kind that ultimately mattered because it was actually broadening my mind.

The related truth I learnt anew was simpler: all the things I had come to appreciate had always started as stuff I didn’t like. That is how anything we understand always begins anyway, as things we don’t understand and may even misunderstand or detest!

You see, like the social world you will grow up in, the world of readers is also full of self-absorbed people following and keeping to what they only like. In this space, they are contented, entertained, and, most of all, themselves. What they are not, however, is social. But, at a formative age, literature helped to throw me out through the window of my own house to experience a wider world. It sent me effectively outdoors. It threw me out even as it is, no doubt, throwing you out at this time.

What will your adventure in literature be like? What will be the struggle it is contributing to in you and then helping you to resolve? It will take your future self to know when you look back years later at this particular point in your life, and I can neither tell you nor thankfully know of it. This is the crux of your mystery. What I can assure you is this: feel excited already that what you do not understand yet has begun. The journey you have embarked on will give you the opportunity some day to understand what all this has been truly about.

Thank you.

Gwee Li Sui

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