MD Sharif Uddin’s Stranger to Myself

November 1, 2017

Stranger to MyselfThe following is my foreword to MD Sharif Uddin’s Stranger to Myself (Landmark Books, 2017), edited by Theophilus Kwek. This book won Best Non-Fiction Title at the Singapore Book Awards 2018.

Writing develops as a gift, but it also involves discipline. What this does not mean is precisely the sense we tend to hear a lot from writers. It does not mean that we turn writing into an enforced routine where the work of putting pen to paper becomes subconscious.

Such a routine will still achieve little if there is no discipline of the soul. By this, I mean a mental training to draw from all the senses to form a unified truth. A commitment to it can help writers generate for their audience powerful experiences of being. This is what I recognise and commend in the writing of Mohammad Sharif Uddin.

How Goh Eck Kheng, the publisher of Landmark Books, and I discovered Sharif is a story in itself. I was compiling short works for a literary anthology on Singapore’s modern history, which was published as Written Country in 2016. The Little India Riot of 2013 had presented a clear dilemma for me. That mayhem centred on migrant workers, and it felt meaningless to revisit it with Singaporean eyes.

Goh and I thus looked for a suitable voice among previous top entries in the fledgling Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. While all available works had been special and passionate, we desired a distinct sensibility. This was found in Sharif’s “A Worker’s Journey”. The poem glistened like deep water; it felt fragile and tortured but unyielding, and in between a boundlessness flowed.

How thrilled I was when Sharif agreed to contribute to Written Country! His work became “Velu and a History”, also included in the current book. But now, in the arrangement of his diary, I learn at last where both poems stand within a personal history. His thoughts on his condition read as gravelly and brutal as the ways he sees himself: as slave, exile, orphan, and prisoner.

Sharif understands that the migrant worker’s life is unnatural. It comes to exist by means of fundamental violence. The worker belongs to a shapeless community detached twice, from home and from its country of work. His or her mind and body split between two places, and out of it a new existence has emerged. Through it, the worker survives conscious of alternative existences and the chaos rumbling inside year after year.

A recurring image of the volcano here captures this inner turmoil. Sharif’s story chronicles his time in Singapore, his range of encounters, and, above all, his mental development. As dreams of a better life elude him, he grows cynical and yet finds strength to push on. Sharif becomes clearer in thought and more confident in anger. We feel his changing pain, loneliness, homesickness, and sense of powerlessness. We watch Singapore become his tormentor and then his teacher.

The records from hours between 2009 and 2016 take us on a harsh, profoundly emotional journey. Let us remember that we are meeting a passage of real life that runs concurrent to ours within this alleged city of dreams. The book is therefore urgent because it breaks open the hearts of readers to what our eyes fail to see. As Sharif’s words invade our sense of self and of place, our world cannot be the same again.

Gwee Li Sui

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