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#WhySingLit: Singapore literature's coming of age

Forget Caucasian vampires and Orientalist schtick. Read local writing, and revel in the sense of identity, the creation of our own, nuanced narratives.

As a local writer, this question haunts me: why don't we read more stories about ourselves?

When young Singapore office ladies pick up a potboiler romance for the commute home, do their hearts go pitter-patter for a sparkly Caucasian vampire, or one dressed in Qing Dynasty garb? Should they swoon for the tale of a brooding New York billionaire whose sexual creativity is restricted to some tame bondage, or for a local entrepreneur who can unlock their sexual tension with a bout of Kama Sutra-inspired calisthenics? And if ever a secret code existed, why does it have to be discovered in Europe by a mild-mannered tweed-jacketed Harvard don? Why not in the National Gallery by a mild-mannered songkok-sporting professor from the National University of Singapore?

Don't get me wrong - I'm not advocating that local writers write only within the narrowly defined cultural and geographical spaces of our little island. We don't need to add any more restrictions to our imagination than those that already exist.

But I'm telling readers that no one else will write stories set in or about Singapore, except the odd Orientalist jaunt like Paul Theroux's Saint Jack or James Clavell's King Rat, which exploit our culture and clime almost entirely as exotic foreign window dressing.

 

When you read about characters who look like you, whose names look like yours with a "bin" or "d/o" or are basically just more than two words, something different happens in your brain. When you hear the familiar lilt of Singlish, when you read the dialogue off the page in an accent you don't have to fake, fireworks go off somewhere between your eyes and your cerebrum.

This is called identification - when you see yourself or characters familiar to your sense of self being written into the page, and granted that greater level of validation of being deemed worthy enough to be written about.

GAINING GREATER SELF-WORTH

Thus, in reading local literature we gain a sense of identity and a greater sense of self-worth. When did an awkward, bespectacled student growing up in an all-boys' school first believe he could find a girlfriend? Probably when I read Adrian Tan's The Teenage Textbook (1988) and followed the travails of an awkward, bespectacled student going to junior college - not an American high school where people join glee club or aspire to be cheerleaders or the quarterback of the football team. No, a Singaporean junior college complete with morning assembly civics lectures on skirt lengths and scrunchie colours.

When you read about characters who look like you, whose names look like yours with a "bin" or "d/o" or are basically just more than two words, something different happens in your brain. When you hear the familiar lilt of Singlish, when you read the dialogue off the page in an accent you don't have to fake, fireworks go off somewhere between your eyes and your cerebrum.

A key part of an identity is a sense of place. We have heard too often the complaint that Singapore changes too fast. The National Heritage Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority pay attention to conservation of Singapore's heritage buildings, but who will remember King Albert Park McDonald's or the old Big Splash?

Writers, that's who. Every piece of local literature is a snapshot in time, that not only documents and describes these former landmarks, but inhabits them with living characters. Verena Tay's Balik Kampung series gathers local writers to tell the stories of places they have lived in for at least a decade, and in their tales we see these lost locations come to life - the land surrounding the KTM railway, Wayang Satu before the flyover. Local writing captures the past, just as much as it records the present for the readers of the future.

When you superimpose a sense of place over a sense of time, what we arrive at is a notion of history. And when you inject living characters into that history, we can see how local literature gives us a sense of narrative - not just one official version, nor even a single-minded tear-down of the endorsed version, but rather countless individual stories that branch off from or build on the trunk, each sprouting fruit and flower.

Local stories are a way for us to fill the potentially alienating rooms of our great building projects with real people who dwell in them - Dave Chua's The Beating or Daren Shiau's Heartland populate these apartments with teeming life and creative possibility.

And finally, when so much of our modern population consumes news and information from biased, single-minded sources in their respective echo chambers, does it not behoove us to encourage reading of texts that contain more than one correct answer? That approach issues with complexity rather than declaring a simplistic moral of the story?

Amanda Lee Koe's Ministry Of Moral Panic set off a mini-furore in the local community when notable local writer Alfian Sa'at gave it a withering early review for its "thoughtless (racial) stereotypes". But upon a second reading, Alfian revised his opinion to a more positive one - her courage in challenging taboos and subtly empathetic approach convinced him that it deserved praise rather than condemnation.

If only the architects of the many government publications that gave sweeping recommendations that fell by the wayside, had met readers sensitive enough to recant their views, or comprehend nuance!

Because that is the last thing Singapore literature can give us: a sense of nuance about the issues that confront us daily. The willingness to suspend our disbelief and accept views that are incongruent with our own, and to at least entertain, if not engage, them. Doesn't that sound like a mature, informed electorate with the ability to assess and dismiss the platitudes of loud-mouthed, wrong-headed demagogues hovering beyond the horizon?

One can only hope.

•Joshua Ip is a director at literary non-profit Sing Lit Station that promotes Singapore poetry. His poetry collection Sonnets From The Singlish was co-winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for poetry in 2014.

•The #buysinglit programme begins tomorrow, with a weekend of activities to promote local literature. For more, see www.buysinglit.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline '#WhySingLit: Singapore literature's coming of age'. Print Edition | Subscribe