Hit And Stay
A poet captures the effervescence and incertitude of youth, in spoken-word verse now immortalised in print
By Michelle Lee Yan Yee
Roadkill For Beginners
Reading Stephanie Chan's debut collection, Roadkill For Beginners, I found myself alternating between laughing and cringing at the younger self I recognised in these pages. The collection lovingly chronicles the experience of growing up, without casting inexperience as something negative. What it does, instead, is capture both the exuberance and naivete of youth. Chan, an award-winning spoken-word poet, has been performing for over a decade; Roadkill For Beginners puts together poems from her spoken-word oeuvre, following an autobiographical trajectory of her migration from Singapore to Ohio and then London, before finally returning home.
The authenticity of Chan's descriptions of youth stem in part from her willingness to recount the mistakes of growing up. She complicates the typical narrative in which a post-colonial protagonist loses power when moving to the Global North by examining the complex valencies of privilege and class as her persona moves between different social contexts.
From confronting the invisible migrant labour that made her comfortable Singaporean childhood possible ("You Are Six Years Old and She Is Teaching You How to Ride a Bicycle"), to first becoming aware of her race upon moving to America ("We Found a Sign in a Dumpster that Said 'Granville, Ohio: Centre of Everything.'"), the speaker engages with the privilege she has—and has had to give up—in being able to willingly leave her home for somewhere else. In "Visiting Hours", she uses the claustrophobia of a detention centre to examine the privilege that comes with the freedom to be mobile, contrasting her experience as a migrant with that of a woman she meets: "And after the allotted time/ I will go back out,/ she will go back in." Chan's use of humour helps her avoid being preachy: she willingly fleshes out the most embarrassing details of this growing awareness, inviting the reader to laugh at her younger self for taking a cab to a squat.
However, the right to belong to a place extends beyond the legal. Chan's account of an itinerant growing-up is particularly relatable in its description of the universal need to belong, to something or someone or somewhere, which she addresses through the lens of desire. She describes—with a level of ethnographic accuracy that again made me squirm with uncomfortable recognition—the pressure to be an object of desire in the local queer scene, starting in adolescence ("Maybe All We Wanted Was Somebody Who Cared") and lingering long into adulthood ("Scissors Paper Stone"). This desire for belonging through desirability follows the speaker of Chan's poems, from trying to fit into the party scene as a college freshman in rural Ohio to the idealistic counterculture of a London squat. Her speaker searches for belonging through others, squatting places and bodies, before she finally comes to "[...] realise the most/ permanent thing is our selves, if even that." ("Notes on Adverse Possession")
For Chan's speaker, transcending the desire to belong to others coincides with transcending her desire for cultural legibility. The apogee of her movement away from Singapore and her concurrent journey of self-discovery occurs in the poem "The Whole Thing About Janis Joplin and the Rabbit". The poem lays out in no uncertain terms the relationship between desire and cultural belonging. It pictures Janis Joplin going down on Mick Jagger, thinking that "[...] one night might give her a bit/ of insight into his power and mythology"; at the same time, the poem's speaker and her lover trade legends from their respective cultures. The poem marks a turning point in the collection where the speaker asserts her agency as a poet, staking her claim not just to cultural legibility but cultural immortality: the ability to have the stories she tells be the ones that last, that matter. Her rejection of the cultural hegemony, both masculine and white, which her lover represents, is perhaps the most powerful moment in the book. Here, as she returns to Singapore, what seems like a self-imposed exile becomes an act of agency that completes the speaker's coming of age.
The strengths of Chan's poetry are primarily the same strengths that make her successful as a spoken-word poet. Her poems are conversational, likeable, and frequently very funny, such as when she describes knife-wielding babies on the London late-night bus ("The 29"). However, the same conversational tone becomes a weakness in some poems, which lack a certain economy and precision of language in favour of meandering anecdotes and generic romanticised description.
To me, the poems that stood out were those grounded by the specificity of setting. One of these would be "Senior Year", which follows the passage of time in a rural forest in Ohio. Here, Chan deftly uses descriptions of stillness and natural decay to suggest an undercurrent of apathy that belies her friends' hippy lifestyle. Her rich descriptions of the natural world of the forest subtly convey the manner in which language and culture affects the way we process our environment. Through the speaker's Singaporean eyes, paw paws register mentally as "alien papayas", while a machete translates as a parang. The ability of words to bridge the strange and the familiar is suggested in her description of what she finds overturning rocks in the creek: "a hundred worlds embedded within ours/ but still outside of it".
Yet, too often, Chan falls back on a certain register that romanticises her subject matter. The cities she moves through blend together, at certain points becoming generic. With poem after poem addressing the unnamed lover in the second person, this interchangeability of both people and places culminates in "London, Staying Up Waiting to Fall Asleep Next to Me", a poem personifying London that is filled with romantic platitudes such as "London, you're a fuck-off mess, but you'll do for one more night". To some degree, this stylistic and topical repetitiveness could have been remedied by making it a shorter and tighter collection, cutting out weaker poems to highlight the ones like "Senior Year", where Chan shines. This tendency to fall back on a certain mawkish sentimentality is something she openly acknowledges in "Back Again": "They know I can't help but romanticise/ everything I see and feel and hear". This collection might have benefited from a more focused observational lens, narrowing the meandering range of personal anecdata she recounts in order to more closely examine the details that remain.
While Chan flirts with socio-political commentary, her collection refrains from taking a clear stance, leaving deliberately ambiguous the link between politics and poetry. In "You Are Six Years Old", the speaker describes feelings of helplessness after the implied mental breakdown of the domestic helper who raised her, able to offer only "a shitty handmade card and a copy of a poem you/ once wrote about her teaching you how to ride a bicycle". Even though she's "still thinking that writing will absolve [her]", the sense of guilt, it is suggested, remains. Similarly, in the poem "9th of August, 2011", the speaker offers up this comment on protest: "I am not saying that any of this is okay, but violence doesn't/ ask you to condone or condemn [...]". Tongue-in-cheek, she refers to herself as "hav[ing] nothing better to do than write stupid poems that glorify violence".
This knowing self-referentiality initially struck me as a way to acknowledge one's position as a poet while refusing the responsibility to take a concrete political stance. However, Chan's project is focused more on the individual, foregrounding interpersonal relations in order to both challenge and complicate abstract political affiliations. Chan's narrator never fully succumbs to the wide-eyed political idealism that surrounds her, nor does she unquestioningly swallow the myth of Western liberalism even as she searches for freedom. The same Singaporean pragmatism that drives her to leave in "Satellites" leads her to stoically bury a dead kitten in "Senior Year", in what reads as a commentary on how women and the subaltern are left to clean up the messes of others. Her poems on London squats reveal that student revolutionaries too, face the same human concerns as everyone does: impressing "the hardest guy in the Freshers Week jam night" ("Diogenes was Right"), wearing the right trousers, dealing with friendships and love affairs and breakups. Ultimately, the driving force behind her poetry is human connection, not political action, as suggested by the collection's closing poem ("Why This"). Whether that is enough is up to the reader, not the poet.
In the end, Chan's book is charmingly self-aware enough that it cannot be faulted for a Peter Pan-esque refusal to grow up. In its refusal of political ideology, its romanticisation of places and drugs and sex, its open sentimentality, her poetry is completely open in what it sets out to do. In that sense, even the clumsiest images contribute to the portrait her poetry paints of the roundabout journey of self-discovery. Any remaining desire to cringe on my part is perhaps less a rejection of the book, and more a rejection of the truths it reflects in its uncanny characterisation of the earnest mistakes and immaturity of youth.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020