Sing Lit comes of age

A new generation of writers mentored by older writers is coming of age. The flourishing of Singapore literature would do its pioneers proud.

Singapore creative writing talents (from left) Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sonny Liew and Cheryl Tan. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, CAROLINE CHIA, LIM YONG TECK

Literature students know that coming-of-age stories are nearly as popular as journey stories.

In journey stories, an archetypal narrative structure, the hero embarks on a quest or discovery, makes a conquest, and returns transformed.

Coming-of-age stories are a slight variation, finding their protagonists moving from innocence to experience, learning more about the world and themselves in the process. Examples are two popular 20th-century American novels - To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher In The Rye.

In Singapore, I would say, the creative writing circle is in a new chapter of its coming of age.

A recent event brought this home to me vividly - the well-received Sing It! All Star Poetry Reading last month at Lasalle College of the Arts, which had six poets performing their poetry to an appreciative audience.

A national literature comes of age when established writers begin formally mentoring the next generation of writers.

From the long-running Creative Arts Programme administered by the Ministry of Education and National University of Singapore, and the Mentor Access Project, run by the National Arts Council, to the rise in formal creative writing degrees, Sing Lit - or Singapore literature - has climbed another stair in its coming of age.

Coming-of-age stories are so popular in literary study that their technical term in English is borrowed from the German, but also has a smattering of French.

A Bildungsroman combines the German for "education" with roman, which is both German and French for "novel". A far less popular term (and sub-genre) is the Kunstlerroman, a story of someone becoming an artist.

Singapore creative writing talents (from left) Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sonny Liew and Cheryl Tan. PHOTOS: EPIGRAM BOOKS, CAROLINE CHIA, LIM YONG TECK

Famous examples of the latter include James Joyce's A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. Artists come of age twice, first into adulthood and then into artistry.

At a recent Tropics of the Imagination conference hosted by James Cook University in Singapore, I argued in a paper that the rise of creative writing education here is part of a literary coming of age. Lasalle, for example has a Master of Arts degree in creative writing, of which I am the inaugural programme leader.

Singaporean literature certainly appears to have hit a new stride.

The Singapore Writers Festival turns 20 this year. When Balli Kaur Jaswal was a guest writer last March at Lasalle , she shared the great news that her then brand-new novel Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows was to be published in 11 other countries. While I don't want to perpetuate the famous post-colonial habit of appreciating a national artist most when she's appreciated abroad, it is exciting when international magazines like The Economist review Sing Lit like Jaswal's Erotic Tales.

Cheryl Tan's Sarong Party Girls and Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye are popular around the world. I'm not saying that's better than their being popular here, but it's always exciting to impress strangers.

As writers, our influences are always national and international. With Sing Lit popular worldwide, it's great to see that influence moving out, not just in.

For a long time, another generation of literature professors tells me, Singapore didn't always respect Singaporean literature. In a panel discussion at last year's Singapore Writers Festival, Dr Kirpal Singh claimed that for most of his career in Singapore he received more institutional credit for "writing a very short paper about Shakespeare compared to a much longer paper devoted to Singaporean literature".

I had a conversation last month with Professor Edwin Thumboo, who reminded me that in the beginning he had to fight to get Asian works in translation admitted to literary curricula in Singapore. "If you can study Ancient Greek authors in translation, why can't you study Asian literature in translation?" the esteemed poet once had to ask.

Prof Thumboo's comments also reveal how the study of creative writing marks a coming of age within a literary education. Where he had to lobby for the study of Asian literature in translation, a hundred years ago professors in England had to lobby for students and faculty to read in English, not Greek or Latin.

Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory: An Introduction describes the academic revolution that was once studying literature in your own language: "In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else."

Perhaps by the early 2030s, Singaporeans will be asking a similar question.

The remarkable Between The Lines: Rant & Rave II, a whirlwind ride through local literature staged at the Singapore Writers Festival last year, showed that Sing Lit is no recent sensation but a canon steeped in its own history and more than its fair share of inside jokes. The play was so popular that it returned for a screening at The Projector in January this year.

Singapore Literature Prize winner Cyril Wong, reflecting on his own PhD dissertation in English, remarked to me recently that instead of writing about other literature, he "would have loved to have spent that time doing a verse novel or an interconnected series of poetry narratives, while under direct academic supervision".

Happily, a new generation of writers has the opportunity to do so, and in the first year alone of the MA creative writing programme at Lasalle, I've been astounded by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from the community.

It's also heartening that there is such a burgeoning interest in creative writing education here, for in this respect, Singaporeans might be pleasantly surprised to hear they're ahead of many developed Western countries.

Continental Europe remains so disinterested in creative writing that, according to Lasalle MA student and debut novelist Olivier Castaignede, his native France counts just one such master's programme. A Spanish professor was quoted as saying that he's first trying to launch a creative writing master's programme in English (at a Spanish university) in hopes of then branching out into Spanish.

In English-language universities, however, creative writing enjoys exponential growth. In his wonderful anthology MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures Of American Fiction, Chad Harbach cites a staggering growth in American creative writing programmes - from 79 degree courses in 1975 to 1,269 today.

Singapore is seeing this growth right now, and Sing Lit has arrived at a stage of maturity that would make the early pioneers proud.

All that remains to be seen - even as it grows beyond these shores - is how deep its roots go. If recent evidence is anything to go by , they run deep indeed.

  • The writer is programme leader, MA creative writing at the Lasalle College of the Arts.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2017, with the headline Sing Lit comes of age. Subscribe