Culture Vulture

I think about hybridity in Singapore and what it can do for storytelling

Culture springs up in archipelagos of different people and it is up to us to negotiate them

1. Earlier this year, in the hot sultry weeks as July gave way to August, I shacked up with a bunch of writers from various parts of South-east Asia.

We lived in a large, three-storey house in Kampung Muara, a village/suburb in Jakarta. For a week, in a residency programme that led up to the Asean Literary Festival, we slept on air mattresses next to one another - the men on the ground floor and the women on the second - shared a bathroom and had all our meals together.

In between, we visited schools to teach children what little we could about our home countries in an hour, ate snacks at Hari Raya street markets and watched a hilariously bad Indonesian horror movie in a local cineplex.

But, mostly, we talked. Not just about writing, of which there were a fair number of discussions: Which publishers and literary journals to submit manuscripts to? To MFA or not to MFA (that perennial debate over getting a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, as though it could stave off the insecurity of not knowing what you're doing with each story you sit down to write)? Favourite authors, beloved themes, pet peeves.

Like a misguided anthropologist, I peppered my new friends with questions. How do the gender-determined inflections in the Thai language shape the way Thai people view categories of male and female? Does it mean more or less fluidity? How has national war and trauma influenced the way Vietnamese writers write? What does being bilingual bring to your writing?

As the days went by, however, and I trudged around with a battalion of portable fans, in my sun hat, trying not to be a clumsy auntie and fall into wet cement again, I realised that none of my fellow writers-in-residence fit into easy categories.

Bangkok-based Mai Nardone, who is half-Thai and half-American, is working on a novel centred on the politics of surrogacy. Intan Andaru, a popular novelist in Indonesia, is also a medical doctor who has worked in remote villages. Meiling Kogure, the daughter of a Chinese-Malaysian man and a Japanese woman, writes poetry and pop songs. Hariz Faddylah, a poet from Brunei and the youngest of our bunch at 20, writes angry poetry a la Allen Ginsberg and Chairil Anwar. He told me that it was reading Alfian Sa'at's poetry that made him realise that he, too, could publish and be heard.

Check your essentialising baggage at the front door.

On literary discussion panels, I am asked about the state of feminism in Singapore. I am asked about being "a young Asean-er". I fight the panic that I don't know enough about either topics to speak about them. I can offer only the experience I have lived.

Don't we all?

2. I once gave a talk at a Korean university, to a class of American literature students, in which I told them that it is okay to go out and "colonise the world with your imagination".

At the word "colonise", I could feel the English poet on the panel with me stiffening her already straight and skinny spine.

Perhaps it was a poor choice of metaphor. Perhaps I had chosen it to needle her, as I had been needled for weeks by what I perceived as rudeness as she categorically refused to eat the rice we were all served at lunch and dinner, once pronouncing: "I never eat carbohydrates. How could you put this into your bodies? It's disgusting"; or by the way she constantly complained about villagers staring at her, oblivious to the fact that that was the reality of any foreigner who looked patently different from anyone in a close-knit community.

On one occasion, when a Korean film-maker had remarked that she loves her dog, the poet had replied calmly: "Oh, to eat?"

But I soldiered on, telling the students to write about faraway cultures and places. Sail there on your armada of Google searches and infantry of reference books. Don't be afraid to walk in someone else's shoes. To open yourself up to sympathy and empathy.

At the very least, you'll be populating a previously blank part of your mind. Slaying some monsters in your mental map. At the very least, it's the first draft in your understanding of a very complicated world. Revise that first draft. Do more research. Go to more places. Test your hypothesis by talking to people. Then revise again.

Never forget that you're writing fiction. That the fictions shaping the way you see the world shape the world, too.

3. Back home from Jakarta, I try in vain to buy a copy of seminal Indonesian poet Anwar's complete works at local bookstores. In the national library, the few precious copies of his books are in reference sections or the used books repository.

I think of how much I still do not know about the culture of this region. The literature and knowledge I cannot access because I lack the language to understand it.

Should Singapore schools offer a non-examinable South-east-Asian language to all students, to strengthen our ties and understanding?

I attend a National Language class conducted by Alfian, in which he tells us about tricky pronunciations and guides us in writing pantun, a Malay poetic form that is passed down orally. Musicians are brought in to set the pantun to music, ranging from the mournful asli to the upbeat joget.

By committee, we come up with this:

Kalau tidak ada beras

Jangan dimasak ikan bawal

Kalau tuan ingin bebas

Jangan sayang sang pengawal

If there is no rice

Don't cook the pomfret

If you want to be free

Don't love your captor.

I think of writing a novel about the Malay community on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, an archipelago part of Australian territory, which is geographically near Indonesia. I think about whether I am qualified to tell the story of 100 slaves - 98 of them Malay and two Chinese - reportedly taken to those coconut islands in the 19th century.

I think about who is qualified to tell stories. I think about the hybridity that Singapore prides itself upon and what it can do for storytelling. I think about long roads and journeys towards understanding. I think about living and walking, step by step, with friends.

•Clara Chow is the author of Dream Storeys (Ethos) and co-editor of WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Islands of meaning'. Print Edition | Subscribe