Bookends

Sally Wen Mao was recently appointed to the 2015 Singapore Creative Writing Residency.
Sally Wen Mao was recently appointed to the 2015 Singapore Creative Writing Residency. PHOTO: SHERRY ZHANG

Who: Sally Wen Mao, 28, poet

The American was recently appointed to the 2015 Singapore Creative Writing Residency and will undergo the six-month programme jointly organised by the National University of Singapore and The Arts House.

She kickstarted the first public programme on Sept 16 with a reading of her debut poetry collection and a discussion of her residency plans.

She won the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award, given by an American non-profit poetry press, and has authored poetry book Mad Honey Symposium.

What are you reading now?

I am reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It is a sprawling and devastating novel, and I am on page 429, just over halfway.

The book follows the stories of four young men living in New York and spirals into this tragic epic, and a central character, Jude St. Francis, arises. His story will make one weep.

This novel is grand in scale, dealing with a gamut of topics such as friendship, trauma, abuse, love and survival. When I read it, time stops and I enter the world of these characters. I approach this world with both wonder and horror.

Unspeakable things happen and, in the end, one will feel exposed and perhaps skinned alive, yet alive.

This book is about living and I have not yet reached the end.

What books would you save from a burning house?

I will assume that it is my burning apartment in Singapore, so I will have to choose from the 10 books I brought with me from America. I packed books for research, as well as novels, collections of essays and poetry books.

I would save Notes Of A Native Son by James Baldwin. He died in 1987, but his essays speak on the undeniable truths of race in America today, resonating vividly with anti-racist movements in the United States.

The essays in Notes Of A Native Son illuminate a great variety of topics from Richard Wright's Native Son to Baldwin's artistic exile to Paris.

His insights challenge and provoke the status quo; they do not gloss over the truth of what it means to be black in America.

Another book I brought is Terrance Hayes' book of poetry, How To Be Drawn. The poems are fresh, arresting, lyrical and sharp.

Hayes experiments with visual forms and the poems take the shape of objects - such as lists, flow charts and crime reports - which are almost always visually interesting and they never seem arbitrary.

The poems deal with conceptions of self, self-image and the political significance of representation. The act of "drawing" and the act of "being drawn" all correspond with identity and agency and cultural contexts, where the act of representation cannot be extricated from its histories and legacies.

From confederate ghost stories and Etheridge Knight, a black poet who wrote his books of poems in prison, to the politics of donning a wig in the shockingly good poem Wigphrastic, Hayes dares to create poetry that is at once charged with lyricism, stakes and invention.

It is beauty, but it is not without brutality.


• A Little Life ($32.95, 2015, Doubleday) is available from Books Kinokuniya. Notes Of A Native Son ($18.60, 2012, Beacon Press) and How To Be Drawn ($21.70, 2015, Penguin Books) are available from Amazon.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'Bookends'. Print Edition | Subscribe