Gweek Talks Singathology!

November 5, 2015

This is the transcript of my speech made on behalf of all who worked on Singathology at the launch of this 2-volume work in the City Hall Chamber of the National Gallery Singapore on 5 November 2015.

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Photo Credit: Glenn Wray

Professor Tommy Koh, Festival Director Yeow Kai Chai, Ms Lee Fei Chen, and distinguished writers and guests –

At our reading event on Tuesday, someone who spoke in Chinese approached me and asked what the word “Singathology” meant in English. I struggled to give a short answer. Her question must surely be one that is on many minds, even those of predominantly English speakers here.

“Singathology” came to me one fine day after over two weeks of brainstorming with some members of NAC and Marshall-Cavendish International. We had, by that stage, the bulk of the works for the collection submitted, selected, edited, and translated. And we also had a list of potential final titles: generic ones, elegant-sounding ones, figurative ones, marketable ones.

But none of those felt like a good fit for the totality of texts that laid before us. After all, we couldn’t have known – until the works came in – what you the writers would make, engage, after we invited you last year to respond creatively to this symbolic moment in Singapore’s history.

But what we could guess was that your works would be unpredictable – unlike, say, a scholarly essay on the legacy of a person, an institution, or a community – because writers are writers! We knew that your writings would be meaningfully refreshing, inventive but truthful, not all comfortable or positive in tone – and we quite expected this to be the case – but certainly all provocative and alluring.

50 works by 47 writers across our 4 official languages with different mediums of textual expression – all being like this. In other words, each work has been individualistic at a high order, a planetary system onto itself, calling on the anthology’s readers to know truth from its quarter of the cosmos, each as a whole reaching for the whole.

At the same time, the whole that is this collection of the works cannot just be the sum of its parts. The anthology cannot be a mere random assemblage – put together bureaucratically or hurriedly – or there would be no respect from me to you for the design that exists in each of your creations.

So, when the word “Singathology” flashed on my mind and I emailed it in caps to the team, we came strangely to full agreement quite quickly. I still wonder how it might have dawned on the others then the potential behind this portmanteau word – which is a word joining two existing words. I wonder if they already understood that “Singathology” wasn’t just a twisting together of the words “Singapore” and “anthology” but also invoked the idea of an “–ology”, from the Greek –logia, meaning a branch of knowledge, a subject of study.

Singathology is responding to creative differences and varieties by turning to the supposed enemy of Art, Science, to link parts up the way pursuits such as cosmology, anthropology, geology, etc. do. I hope that our collection’s readers will therefore not just enjoy your works and bear away some insights each time they dip in. I hope too that, at some future point, perhaps at many such points, someone will remember that so-and-so has said this or that before in a work called Singathology and then realise what the title has meant playfully all along.

Singathology is an invitation to study ourselves at this point in our country’s age through our writers. Writers are, after all, the mirrors of society, and, while they may be in control of what they write, they may not be control of why they write, out of what they write.

In this sense, writers are both strong and week. We are strong as the instruments of Art, but we are weak before the influence of Truth. We are like a carrying vessel – a cup, a ship – both strong and weak.

This anthology is thus divided creatively into two volumes, one called “Life” and the other “Art”. The division is not done, as it seems, on the basis of themes. It does not suggest an order of significance or a simplification of the works’ ideas. Rather, the 2 volumes represent 2 narratives, 2 stories, with which I have organised the vast universe of your writings. There are 50 works presented through 2 interconnected stories: the story of living and the story of creating, the 2 halves of every writer’s life.

I want to thank the NAC always for their support and encouragement throughout the crazy project, specifically Paul Tan, Yeow Kai Chai, and Amanda Yee. At Marshall-Cavendish International, Glenn Wray and Mindy Pang have been helping me passionately and tirelessly since Day 1. The beautiful work of their designer Adithi Khandadai is here for you to behold.

I couldn’t have managed the undertaking without the help of my 3 other-language editors Tan Chee Lay, Sa’eda Buang, and Azhagiya Pandiyan. My 3 translators Jeremy Tiang, Harry Aveling, and A. Palaniappan have done such a sensational job that you have to read their endeavours to see how they have brought whole works into life in English.

Singathology commemorates and observes an invisible largeness in whose belly we here exist, called Singapore. But I must be stating the obvious when I further say that it is fundamentally a tribute to the Singaporean writer. In so many ways, the book represents – in each commitment to truth through beauty – writing’s gift to writers.

So thank you all very much. Do enjoy the evening.

Gwee Li Sui

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