Singular Voice, Plural Tongues
A much-needed anthology celebrates contemporary Singaporean writing
By Kristina Tom
Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore
Any review of this recent anthology of contemporary Singapore writing must begin with kudos to editor Alvin Pang. Although he is a major Singaporean poet and writer in his own right, Pang's work in Tumasik exemplifies what he does best: anthologizing, codifying and promoting Singaporean work for local and international audiences, both present and future. His past edited works include No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry (co-edited with Aaron Lee; 2000) and Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia (co-edited with John Kinsella; 2008). The former has proven useful for local school syllabuses and the latter is yet another example of the increasingly popular cross-fertilizing, binational anthology. However, Tumasik, a singularly Singaporean collection with works that cut across generations, genres, styles and languages, is his most ambitious and important to date.
It is that last divide that the book breaks though — language — that makes this anthology so remarkable. The works, representing well-known Singaporean voices in all of the country's four official languages (English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil), are presented in English. The anthology is weighted slightly — perhaps inevitably — towards English-language works, but to Pang's credit, most of the non-English works have been translated into English for the first time. In a time when the truly cross-language Singaporean writer — of which playwright Kuo Pao Kun most probably comes first to mind — is a rare breed, and works in the four official languages are often considered separately as sub-categories of literature, Pang presents an anthology that purposely does not organize writing by working language, instead simply listing each author by alphabetical order, with only an unobtrusive footnote at the end of each translated piece.
As Pang himself — who incidentally works in multiple capacities for Tumasik, including poet and translator as well as anthologist and editor — explains in the preface, "…these are all writers from Singapore — their work deserves to be read as contributions to our collective intellectual, cultural and social discourse as a nation; they ought not be pigeonholed in treatment or scope to the concerns of any one particular group or community". Take a quick look at the alphabetical listing of 39 writers, and you will realize that putting together a cohesive collection, ranging from Edwin Thumboo and Xi Ni'er to Cyril Wong and Mohamed Latiff, although all citizens of the same island nation, is no small feat.
As disparate as they are, the works, many unpublished or newly translated, as a whole offer a snapshot of the discourse on national identity that Singaporean literature is still engaging in, both communal and individual. The usual questions of Singapore as a young nation or not (or perhaps just in adolescence) and the social role of the writer (obligatory or not, inherent or merely overemphasized) appear both in Peter Nazareth's introduction and Pang's preface, and is also a unifying theme for many of the works, even as some of them question the continuing fixation on this topic.
Take, for example, the plaintive yet also angry excerpts from Alfian Sa'at's cycle of poems entitled "The Tudung Interviews". Although commenting on a specific public controversy as well as what he sees as the "speechlessness" of the marginalised, Alfian also uses the opportunity to talk about the out-of-bounds markers that Singapore writers and, indeed, Singaporeans in general, have had to navigate in public discourse since long before the 2002 controversy he references. Different voices of different ethnicities and viewpoints narrate various portions of the poems, echoing each other with refrains of "How can they say…", "They say…", "How to say…", or even "…better don't say". And although writers, paradoxically, end up saying a lot more while ostensibly trying not to say anything, Alfian sums up the perceived value of such discourse in the words of an archetypal Singaporean pragmatist: "You want to talk about human rights. / I'm not going to argue with that. / But I want to ask, how do you turn that / Into something you can practise?"
I won't comment too much more on the topic since, as an American living in Singapore for merely the past five years, I know enough to leave it to much more knowledgeable local writers and thinkers to comment on the role of the writer in Singaporean public discourse. I will say, however, that this anthology is a much-needed addition to the ongoing literary, if not social, discourse in this country and that such old, problematic questions of national and self-identity naturally arise in a vastly diverse collection of works whose main theme is nationality.
Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature (Angelia Poon, Philip Holden and Shirley Lim Geok-Lin, eds.), another important anthology published just last year, is a more historically comprehensive anthology of English-language works, but Tumasik offers a wider look at contemporary writing here across the four languages. Still, Singapore continues to lack truly comprehensive anthologies of its authors' works, although both Writing Singapore and Tumasik are steps in the right direction. However, it would be unfair to criticize Tumasik on this score, as it makes no claims towards comprehensiveness. As Pang mentions in his preface, the collection is "but a sampling" of the creative work coming out today. I could make a fuss about some of the names left out; these names, in no particular order and certainly not a comprehensive list in itself, come to mind: Haresh Sharma, Stella Kon, Tan Hwee Hwee, Catherine Lim, Eleanor Wong, Paul Tan, Lee Tzu Pheng and Boey Kim Cheng, the last of whom is remarkably mentioned in the introduction and in the explanatory notes to one of Enoch Ng's poems, but not actually anthologized here. But again, this should be taken as a curious aside rather than an actual criticism. Similarly, it is remarkable how many of the writers, including Pang, are alumni of the Iowa International Writing Program, which co-published this book. In my opinion, this points less to a selection bias and more to the rather large influence that one American creative-writing programme has had on a whole nation of writers, or at least on those writing in English. It is as interesting an influence to note as the various literary and cultural traditions that these works draw from.
While on the topic of selection, I wonder also at the label of "contemporary" for the anthology, with the inclusion of what Nazareth has called the "first generation" of Singaporean writers, such as Thumboo and Kirpal Singh. Although it is good to see new work by them, their styles are less representative of contemporary writing and more reminiscent of a previous era. And while this anthology represents some of the best writers of this country, it does not always represent their best work. One could make the argument that the emphasis is on new and recent work, but then I wonder why an excerpt from Daren Shiau's well-known Heartland (1999) is included, instead of something from his more recent collection Velouria (2007), while Suchen Christine Lim is represented by the capably written but hardly subtle 2007 short story "Gloria" rather than an excerpt from the better-known Fistful of Colours (1992) or even A Bit of Earth (2000). And, while I am not familiar with the Tamil and Chinese stories of MK Narayanan and Wong Meng Voon, I am fairly certain that writers with such distinguished careers are not best represented by the hackneyed ghost story "Rebirth" and the predictable mini-fiction story "Farewell My Child, Farewell Manila", respectively. Contrast these puzzling selections with excerpts that show writers at the top of their game, such Wena Poon's wonderfully strange magical-realist story "Starfish" and Ovidia Yu's bitingly funny play 3 Fat Virgins; the reader can't help but wonder what selection process ultimately led to works that inconsistently represent the talent of their authors.
That said, I want to re-emphasize that as a near-monolingual writing in English, I am not familiar with the untranslated works of either Narayanan or Wong, and not much more with their respective literary traditions. I am relying completely on the quality of the translations. This business of translation, while one of the most important strengths of the anthology, is simultaneously one of its weakest points. I have no working knowledge of Chinese, Malay or Tamil, so I am not in a position to judge the strength of individual translations, but the translated works seem weaker than the English-language works, and I can only make the educated guess that the fault lies in the translations, not the originals. Although I am still thankful for the effort the various translators have put in to make these writings available in English, I wish they had gone through a few more revisions before publication.
There are a few notable exceptions, however, and I would like to draw attention to Yeo Wei Wei's excellent translations of Enoch Ng's poems, which are wonderful to see here in English after so many years of Ng's dedicated publication of English-language poetry, but never his own works (at least, not until March 2010) in translation. One, in particular, is worth reproducing in its entirety:
No other translations in the book come close to communicating the bold understatement of the quietly observed moment that is one of the hallmarks of the Chinese literary tradition, as does this poem depicting the horrifying aftermath of a flood.
Another gem worth a special note are the translations of Wong Yoon Wah's poems. While the label of "contemporary" is stretched a bit again, as the imagery and themes depict an earlier era, particularly the Japanese Occupation, the poems are quite masterfully rendered in English. Of course, it helps that the translations are the product of collaboration among several pioneering writers of post-Independence Singapore, including Thumboo, Singh, Arthur Yap, Robert Yeo and Wong himself. Translated into English with such names tagged in footnotes, these versions deserve their own further study and criticism from a historical and literary viewpoint.
Aside from these and a few other exceptions, however, the bulk of the translations have the raw charm of an unedited manuscript; the meat of the stuff is there, but questionable choices in diction result in odd tonal shifts that leave the reader feeling jarred and wondering what got lost in translation. Take, for example, this line from Narayanan's "Rebirth": "The wooden walls turned orangey in the glow of the candle. Shadows began prancing all around." If you winced at the mention of orangey walls and prancing shadows in lieu of what should be convincingly frightening mood-setting for a ghost story, you might understand my frustration with the inconsistency of some of the translations. The feeling is akin to that of watching a capable musician transpose a familiar song on the spot and suddenly, very embarrassingly, hitting a wrong note. While the anthology is admirably ambitious in scope, particularly in this area, it seems that the collection, while obviously a result of much care and hard work, needed more time to incubate. Perhaps a second edition would correct some problematic translations and a few typos.
If a second edition were to happen, I would also make the hesitant suggestion to add more explanatory notes. Having these works in translation in one collection already does much to set the stage for more discussion and criticism amongst Singaporeans, for and by Singaporeans, but adding just a few more editorial footnotes would open up the discussion internationally. Works like Alfian's "The Tudung Interviews" showcase some of the most incisive commentary on current events offered by younger writers, but for non-Singaporeans not familiar with the ongoing discourse they reference, the point is lost. The same is true for the national history that Thumboo's poetry and Ng Yi-Sheng's play The Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles reference. The question of intended audience must be settled, and while more notes might be seen as burdensome for local readers and writers, they are absolutely essential for a larger readership beyond this island, which would seem to be part of the inherent value of such an anthology as Tumasik. Otherwise, the discursive possibilities of this collection might be limited to the same local scope as Gwee Li Sui's Facebook notes which, I for one, would have loved to have seen anthologized in this collection, as I enjoy his insightful social commentary even more when unbuckled from the confined line breaks of his poetry.
But these drawbacks are minor compared to what this slim 243-page paperback achieves. Despite some curious selections, one could read Tumasik cover to cover, as I did, and have a surprisingly seamless reading experience. What is amazing is the cohesiveness that Pang achieves with works that run the gamut from plays, stories and poems to novel excerpts, essays and creative non-fiction pieces. Thematically, the works find common ground not only in questions of national and self-identity, but also of class, race and gender, as well as faith and metaphysics. So many of the works focus on some aspect of being and becoming, or simply just belonging — the latter is most intriguingly, although perhaps too heavy-handedly, explored in the works of Singaporeans imagining the marginalisation of foreigners, as in Lim's "Gloria" or Latha's "Identity". Even images begin to echo each other: the moth of Isa Kamari's allegorical short story "The Dye" carries a similar note of warning to that of the butterfly in Johar Buang's polemical dream sequence "I Never Dreamed of Being a Butterfly", ghosts haunt Toh Hsien Min's poetry as well as Narayanan's piece, and the "island", of course, makes an appearance in more than a few works.
But the most obviously self-referential image this anthology features would be the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles in the excerpt from Robert Yeo's still funny 1991 play The Eye of History. As three workmen — of Chinese, Malay and Tamil ethnicity — peer around the four sides of the statue at a description inscribed four times in four languages, they finally find the only side all three of them can read, namely the English one, and read aloud in unison. This moment of comedic hyperbole — which mocks national symbols and neat policies of inclusiveness while simultaneously celebrating (or at least acknowledging) the diverse histories that have led to this one point of chronological and geographical convergence — perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the works in this anthology. To paraphrase Pang, they always carry heart and answer conscience, even in their most despairing or critical moments.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010