What Is Singapore Literature’s Story?

AT A time when reading usually means gawking at ‘shareable content’ on social media, books seem to have taken a back seat. Or have they?

In talking to authors and poets about the Singapore scene, it would appear that there is a lot going on, even if book sales may be waning. But, if you consider books as just a medium of communication, then the mode of delivery becomes immaterial.

Hence, with heartening response to The Singapore Writers Festival should hark well for the future as new young writers are publishing new books with surprising frequency. The local literature scene is going through a renaissance of sorts as Millennial writers and audiences are coming to the fore.

The Ministry of Education has seen the light, by revising the A-Level syllabus to include local poetry and spark an interest in local works.

Kenny Chan of Books Kinokuniya, paints an optimistic picture for the local scene: “Sales of local literature continues to grow for us especially with increased coverage by the media and the fact that we’ve pushed our local books section to the front of our newly expanded main store. From the spike in numbers, we can see that awareness drives sales significantly.”

In all this, we need to ask if Singapore literature may be building towards a stronger showing in decades to come. If the government can get behind it to support rather than peer over it shoulder, and the public picks up more local literature, there’s nothing to stop it becoming the next big thing. Not everything has to be about technology and finance.

We talk to members of the literary community to understand their take on the local scene.

What is happening in local literature?

Where do we stand and where will it go from here?

Beyond Borders

Tan Kah Wai, Mandarin Writer

For now, I am cautiously optimistic about the prospects of Chinese literature in Singapore.

Firstly, we are now beginning to see new writers emerging. The pool of young Mandarin writers may not be that big, but I’m glad to see fellow budding writers passionate about Mandarin literary arts.

Bilingual education helps too — exposing readers to both Western and Chinese literature. Fortunately, the support from the National Arts Council, even in this less-than-ideal climate, has been heartening.

However, I must add a cautionary note.It is easy to emphasize the need for uniquely local narratives.

However, creating literary works purely for the sake of being uniquely Singaporean is quite frankly a parochial view that ought to be rejected.

The artistic values inherent in literature should never be purely or chiefly assessed on the grounds of nationality. Nor should we determine the standards of our literary works solely on local conditions.

We should be conscious of our local roots. We should be supportive of our local authors.

However, that should not in anyway deter readers and writers from exploring great literary works from around the world. Our local literature must strive to look beyond the four walls of Singapore. I believe that this is our greatest challenge in the Chinese literary scene.

For his short stories, Tan was a prizewinner at the Golden Point Awards in 2015 and the Singapore Tertiary Chinese Literature Awards in 2016. He is currently pursuing a law degree at the National University of Singapore.

Freedom Of Expression

Grace Chia, Writer & Editor

Singapore literature undergoes a renaissance of sorts every decade or so. From pre- to post-colonial to nationalist to confessional narratives, every now and then, the writers in Singapore have a collective zeitgeist moment, that seems to also be reflected in music, art, drama, and other arts forms.

I’ve noticed that in the wider international publishing world, fiction, especially novels, sells most, which is true in Singapore.

But the thing is, poetry has always had a special space in our local culture.

As a condensed form of narrative that uses symbols and metaphors, it is hard to censor poetry even if it has a subversive angle.

This allows poets a lot of leeway to continue to produce and publish poems in print or perform as spoken word, a genre that is particularly popular today.

What I mean is that with online media and the democratisation of social media, any emerging poet who wants to be seen and heard can get on the online platforms to showcase their poetry, and they are rather successful with that. It has become our modern oral storytelling.

Also, writing poetry is efficient for our fast-paced, on-the-go society. Poets can produce poems without sitting down for a long stretch of time, even without paper or computers, unlike longform writing.

Poems are written in spurts while novels are written like long-haul marathons, demanding all the time and energy of the writer, much like marriage. Which explains why in Singapore, poetry is thriving and alive.

Writers like crafting verses; readers like consuming poetry. It’s a healthy, symbiotic relationship.

I have been publishing poetry since 1998, and am known as a female poet who experiments with form and language. I am gratified to see the new wave of poets these days take to spoken word and even collaborate with music and visual arts, to bring out the third and fourth dimension of linguistic aesthetics.

For several years, I have consciously moved towards prose, to expand my readership demographics, and have published a book of short stories and a novel. This is something many poets in Singapore do a lot – we wear different hats.

So yes, Singapore writers can be adaptable, true to the nature of being a Singaporean. Prose reaches a different audience who may not necessarily like reading poetry, so writers are evolving constantly — just like our society — to tell and document the stories that move our generation.

We are not historians or demagogues. We are storytellers, and Singapore literature does just that, tell the stories that are often overlooked, capturing small, ephemeral moments that are gone in the blink of an eye. This has never changed, no matter who the writer of the day is, be it Catherine Lim or Philip Jeyaretnam or Simon Tay.

Every decade produces its new Bloomsbury brat pack. And in Singapore, we have our own literary communities and ecosystem, too.

A Stage For Our Say

Koh Buck Song, Author

Singaporean society tends to judge people only by their fame, fortune and/or formal qualifications. Hence, much focus is placed on the next bestseller or award-winner — which is fine.

But there are also so many other literary works already published that deserve attention and promotion because they add richly to the Singaporean sense of identity and belonging, and of self and society.

Singapore would have been transformed if it had embraced literature, instead of previously treating it like a luxury niche interest, too chim (profound) for “real life”.

To promote Singapore literature further, how about giving literary heritage its rightful place?

As an illustration, the National Gallery Singapore and other museums are doing a great job of profiling Singapore’s visual artists. But when will a similar platform be accorded to writers?

Today, trying to build its country brand, Singapore is looking more to culture for its soft power. Well, the fullest, deepest material is always to be found in literature. The proper study of literature develops qualities such as humility, wisdom, empathy, and acceptance of diversity — all needed in the world today more than ever.

Uniting Singapore Literature

Sudheeran Damodaran, Malayalam Poet & Dramaturge

Indulgence in literature will definitely free one’s mind from the material world.

Even in the professional arena, creative thinking for innovation can be evoked only if one frees one’s mind from the “system”.

Get out from the “system” and identify the problems; this will kindle your creative mind to find solutions. A free mind is the essence of creative thinking.

Indulgence in literature, music and other art forms are always the means to achieve that.

As long as education, job, and other activities are linked to material achievement, then grades will be more important than a creative mind.

Literature will bring us closer to language, and together they will keep our cultural identity intact.

But the question is: should we keep Singapore divided along ethnic and cultural lines?

Or should we promote the necessity of a Singaporean identity through common grounds with the evolution of a language and literature without ethnic diversions?

Singapore’s Malayalam literature has had a cyclical pattern of ups and downs over the decades.

It was most vibrant during the ’50s and ’70s when the first generation of Malayalee immigrants was most active.

In recent years the third generation of Singapore Malayalees has got it moving forward again. The Singapore Malayalee Literary Forum, for example, has already published two poetry compilations by local writers.

The Return Of A Classic

Mohammad Farihan Bin Bahron, Malay Author

The Malay literary scene is like the Nokia 3310 that is making a comeback into the mobile phone industry.

Once glorious in the Nation’s infancy, bustling with thought-provoking ideas and forward-thinking philosophies, it was slowly overtaken — like the bells and whistles of the Galaxies, the iPhones and the Xiaomis.

Thankfully, like the Nokia 3310, the local literature scene has returned; reinventing itself with poetry recitals, writing workshops, courses and book launches organised almost on a monthly basis.

More and more writers are bypassing the traditional publisher’s route and entering the DIY (do-it-yourself) expressway so that they can finally witness their works in print. Established writers and academics are also exercising their initiatives by discussing published works on social media.

Local writers need to be brutally honest.

Are we challenging conventions by forming new thought patterns and pushing the boundaries of our limitations? Or are we regurgitating stories and stanzas that have already served their purpose?

Maybe it’s time for writers to act like a seasoned salesman without compromising the craftsmanship of the pen, or the keyboard. Look, listen and feel.

Create the plot that excites the readers, the rhyme that moves them to tears, or the words that turn the pages.

And then possibly, the 3310 can also find its place back in todays finger-swiping, Wi-Fi-dependent and selfie-indulgent society.

Possibly.

Farihan recently won the top prizes for Malay poetry and short story at National Arts Council’s Golden Point Award. His work will be in stores later this year.

Living In Discomfort

Pooja Nansi, Poet & Performer

We live in a city that is so invested in progress that we demolish, refurbish and upgrade endlessly.

We have little regard for anything messy, complicated or uncomfortable and Literature is all of those because it is a reflection of real life — it is hardly ever black and white.

A reading culture boils down to the kind of everyday lives we lead.

Literature is not about an end point; it is a continuous unquantifiable process. Unfortunately, I am not sure if we as a country understand the value of it.

What do we stand to lose along the way? Our truths, our stories, our complexities and our sense of self.  

Nansi is Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador and was awarded the prestigious Young Artist Award in 2016.

Free The Mind

Kenny Chan, Store Director, Books Kinokuniya

Local literature is the lifeline to our community and our quest towards nationhood. Therein lies the potential of building a reservoir of stories that will help grow and sustain any fledgling nation, allowing it to build resilience and a better sense of identity.

It will make a difference in how we think if enough Singaporeans start to gain confidence in their own creators and get more involved in the various processes of SingLit, including supporting it.

Another important yet missing component is for our literature to take a further leap of faith, especially in reference to funding, where writers should be allowed to venture freely beyond the dictates of state-funded guidelines.

Another The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (by Sonny Liew) would be nice.

Get Used To The Machinery

Christine Chia, Writer & Teacher

It is so easy to get tired of the miracle in your backyard.

Singaporeans are hungry for meaning, beauty and bravery and they will always seek out writers who dare to write it as they see it, like Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa’at, Amanda Lee Koe, Pooja Nansi and Tania De Rozario and also in anthologies like A Luxury We Cannot Afford and A Luxury We Must Afford.

The Balik Kampung series edited by Verena Tay gives wondrous insight into our HDB estates.

Local literature is going through resurgence now, with the revival largely driven by the audience and also the work of publishers and booksellers like BooksActually, Ethos Books, and Epigram Books.

Going forward, it is clear that writers also have to be more comfortable with publicity or performing, as the demand for live performances is phenomenal!

Changing Worldviews

Aaron Lee, Poet

We need more books, more stories, especially, better told ones. Concurrently, we also need a bigger, more engaged, more literary reading audience.

Literature is an indispensable part of culture. It contains the stories (real and imagined) of people who may or may not resemble us, expressed in the most creative and excellent ways.

The development of literature and the arts is intrinsically linked to the development of Singapore as a distinct diaspora of people, with our many ethnic and linguistic roots and aspiring to find our place in modernity.

Then, understanding, empathy and changed worldviews and relationships can ensue.

Christine Chia and Lee are working on a new book titled Lines Spark Code. It is the first ever anthology of Singapore poetry commissioned by the Ministry of Education for A-level study.

Develop The Habit

Kenneth Quek, Deputy Director, National Book Development Council of Singapore

I think more people are embracing local literature because the stories are relatable and the characters are recognisable.

It is debatable how much of an effect literature education in schools can have — when has anything compulsory been enjoyable?

Instead I think if a habit of reading could be inculcated both at school and at home, that would really make a difference.

Conversely, it is hardest to figure out what the audiences are looking for.

I would say that authors should write what they want to write, and let their audience find them, instead of the other way round.

Perhaps more general fiction like thrillers, romance novels and fantasy could foster a larger reading audience.

Riding The Wave

Clarissa Goenawan, Debut Novelist

When it comes to compulsory literature education at school level, I find that the words ‘creative’ and ‘compulsory’ are contradictory at best.

There are many factors that foster an environment that encourages creativity, not just compulsory reading of literature in school. In fact, regulated reading may drain people of their interest.

The focus should be on how to introduce students to local literature in fun and meaningful ways, and not just by shoving it down their throats.

The next wave (in local literature) is definitely here, but it’s still up to each of us to continue to ride it.

When was the last time you consciously picked up a book by a local writer?

Goenawan’s first novel Rainbirds won the first prize at the 2015 Bath Novel Awards and will be available in Singapore in March 2018.

Going Global

Ng Kah Gay, Associate Publisher, Ethos Books

The day our collective consciousness is broad enough to comprehend the depth of our own history as a people would be the day our writers can articulate our maturity as a society.

By then, local literature won’t be chasing after what audiences want, but readers, regardless of nationality, will find value in our works.

By that time, “local literature” would have entered the stream of world literature, and the term would no longer be in service.


You might also want to read:

Book Of Life Stories

Going Ape With Bernard Harrison


Main Image: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock.com

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