On an island getaway
By Toh Hsien Min
Now that I've returned to civilisation, it's difficult all over again to sit down and write this editorial. Last week, although it seems like further away than that now, I joined a dozen intrepid writers in a writing retreat on that rural outcrop in the north east waters of Singapore called Pulau Ubin. To be sure, there have been an incredible number of demands on my time since then, as happens after you go away for a bit - unfortunately I had to take some more days off on medical grounds, which I assure you had nothing to do with the cooking of the guys in Chalet #1, and the calls coming in during my absence presaged the whopping number of emails I had to clear once I was back in the office. QLRS itself had to go from zero to hundred in 4.6 seconds, and I had cards to write (sorry they're late) and cheques to send and photographs to electronically process for an event in the other time-eater this week, the Singapore Writers Festival. I had friends visiting from Hong Kong on consecutive weekends and from the USA. It was hard for me, amidst all that, to gather enough time and tranquillity even to write this short piece, never mind my own creative work.
QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009
In a way the value of the writing retreat for me lay in simply having time out from everything else to write, which I did as productively here as during the translation workshop I attended in Melbourne last year, but there was much cream on top of the cake. I always think of the QLRS editorial as being one of those things that suggest that I can if I really want to just sit and go at it hammer and pens, dashing something out to order, but the Ubin workshop exercises that we had to complete in fifteen minutes proved that to be even more the case. And then the cherry on top of the cream: to be able to thoroughly explore Pulau Ubin, which I had wanted to do for a while. Although the afternoons were meant for individual writing, I went off cycling to all corners of the island. At Chek Jawa, I saw wild boar from a distance of fifteen metres, heard pistol shrimp clicking in the receded tide, traced the caress of seagrass, peered down on fiddler and hermit crabs marking their territory in the sand, and walked through mangrove swamps as forbidding as Dagobah. The west side of the island proved to be less about nature (not counting the mosquitoes) and more perhaps about spirituality; I saw terrapins in a temple that predicted that my year would be one that blew hot and cold, zoomed in on the pareidolic Goddess of Mercy on the far side of Ubin Quarry, and found the yellow Taoist shrine deifying a German girl who had drowned in a quarry during the First World War. All these were being stored up as in a battery, waiting for their own particular electric spark.
These sparks might be poems. It occurred to me during this time out that there was a line of sight between the reading habits of Singaporeans and the predominance of poetry in Singapore literature today. Because Singaporeans don't do much literary reading (comparatively with self-help books and pulp fiction), there is a small market for literary writing in Singapore, which means one cannot make a living writing literary work, which means one has to hold down a day job, which means that writing gets only the pockets of time that one can squeeze out, which tends to favour short self-contained pieces such as poems over long, sustained novels.
By coincidence, this issue features a short story written by one of the island retreat participants along with a story written by Golden Point Award runner-up and frequent contributor Lee Yew Leong, who also contributes an excellent essay (astonishingly enough, the GPA winner was a coursemate of mine in university, but that's literally another story - congratulations Jeremy). For poetry, I was very pleased to see new work by Pat Galvin, an Irish poet who is preparing his debut collection, and by Australian poet John Mateer, who is no stranger to Singapore - his poem is set on another offshore island here. We have more criticism than usual in this issue, led by David Fedo's review of the Italian/Singaporean anthology Double Skin and Shirley Lim's review of Boey Kim Cheng's essays. I am not sure I can agree with all of Nicholas Liu's review of Gilbert Koh, although if we had found it elsewhere we would surely have excerpted it for the Acid Tongue (which, this issue, deals with Theatreworks in Edinburgh), but it is a review that can certainly spark considerable debate. Here's hoping this issue sparks other things for you.