Why writing as resistance is not just about defiance February 27, 2017 08:00
by Foo Peiying
(Image credits: Klaas)
Mention writing as resistance and one of the first thoughts that comes to mind is defying the authorities, and having the police knock on your doors in the dead of the night. But Clara Chow believes in resistance of a different kind. In the first AfterWords of the year, she shows us how resistance can be an internal battle to come to terms with what has passed, and how the ideas that live on in our writing may be more important than the change it brings today.
“What can an individual do in dark times; when one’s world is seemingly out of one’s control? Writing can be an act of resistance in such instances – a legitimate private response to outside forces.” –Clara Chow, author of Dream Storeys
What is resistance?
Clara begins the evening with definitions of resistance but it’s the one on physics which throws everyone off:
The degree to which a substance prevents the flow of an electric current through it.
To resist something, she says, you have to let it pass through you first. Instead of being pushed along by the waves of change and the indifference of justice, the human spirit is capable of first, taking it in, and then resisting it. For Clara, it was the feeling of alienation in a fast-changing city which drove her to write Dream Storeys. For others in the group, it ranged from environmental destruction, death of dialects, the survival of a writer in Singapore, one’s usefulness to society, loss of religious places (particularly Hindu shrines), death of music, to the 'disposable culture' that brought them to the session.
We then looked to Jim, who most recently published Payoh.
“Years later, when my publisher at Ethos Books asked me what inspired me to write Payoh, I dug into my memory, all I could remember was this particular incident, being told that I had to pay interest on my overdue income tax when I was in financial straits. The officer was polite. She was merely pointing out the rules and regulations. I did not argue. Instead I sat down and wrote a book…” – Jim Tan, author of Payoh
And a book on a political fable of birds at that.
Forms of written resistance
Using allegory in Payoh provided Jim the “freedom to write fantastical things without getting into trouble”, just as George Orwell got around censors and avoided offending people in Animal Farm. Clara suggests that allegory makes the work timeless: it transcends the settings and the moment when the author wrote it. As people continue to read it over different time periods, there will be new meanings which can be read from the story. We see how Animal Farm and 1984 continues to be relevant, and will be for a long time to come.
But sometimes, telling the truth may be even stronger than satire or allegory. When a person in power is able to dispel facts and figures, nothing will be a greater counter-spell than presenting reflections of reality which are hidden from sight. Paul Stroller in the Huffington post, Writing Resistance in the Age of Trump, suggests ethnography narratives to resist these false truths.
“In ethnographic narratives, writers (journalists, dissenting officials and scholars) describe the conditions of social spaces and places to tell the stories of a person or group of people. How will their lives be inalterably upended by Trump’s proposed policies on health care, taxes, the environment, foreign policy or civil liberties? What are the human costs of living in a mythical world constructed of Big Lies? Put another way, ethnographic narrative dramatically links personal experience to larger social, political and economic issues. A continuous stream of well-crafted ethnographic narratives can have a powerful effect on general audiences of people who read blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch short and/or feature films on social platforms like YouTube or Vimeo.” – Paul Stroller, Writing Resistance in the Age of Trump
Other forms to resist these false truths that are mentioned: Journalism, poetry, science & speculative fiction, storytelling movements, social media, talking through an issue with a friend, praying.
And there is an interesting observation for us here: poetry is the most prevalent form of written resistance in Singapore. There lives the poetry group SingPoWriMo, provocative poetry book titles like A Luxury We Cannot Afford, and Singapore being the only country (to our knowledge) to produce more poetry than novels. And we’re writing to resist heartbreaks, inter-racial discord, technology, terrorism ... these are just a small sampling of what's out there.
Clara wraps up this section with a gem: Writing as resistance doesn’t just happen when you write a novel – every small piece of writing you do is a piece of resistance: in a podcast; on a Facebook status update; a personal blog post. It doesn’t have to be epic.
But are all forms of writing resistance?
Complaining, hate speech, baseless ranting, misrepresentation, and propaganda speech. We all nod in agreement that these forms are not considered resistance. Then, a contentious point arises: Can a completely bleak and tragic tale be a form of resistance? Someone says a hopeful ending will be encouraging, while another’s comment leaves the group in quiet contemplation: “Sometimes hope comes when it’s not a reality yet.”
What do you consider as forms of resistance and which ones are not?
We'll be continuing the conversation in Writing As Resistance <Part II> with Clara Chow on 9th March 2017, 7:30PM, at Marine Parade Library. Slides and writing exercises can be found here.
We’re revamping our monthly AfterWords sessions! We will be breaking down the year into three parts and each third will be moderated by one of our authors. Clara Chow, author of Dream Storeys, will be the first moderator from February to April.
This session is part of #Whydoesthecagedbirdsing inspired by our new book, Payoh by Jim Tan.
Why the Caged Bird Sings February 20, 2017 18:00
This week, veteran poet Felix Cheong, who's always quick on his feet to give social commentary and quib words of wit gives us his take on "Why does the caged bird sing".
Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Felix Cheong
Because singing sounds deep
When talk is cheep.
Because songs mark time
In their keepsake of rhymes.
Because it's easier behind bars
Wishing upon stars.
Because Cage is in the John
Four minutes thirty-three too long.
Because to be still
Is watching, waiting till.
Because God listens to prayers In the Sabbath of His lair.
Felix Cheong has never considered himself a funny writer. Until the Singapore Siu Dai stories hit him in the head, he was known more as a writer of poetry and fiction. Felix has published ten books, including four volumes of poetry. His collection of short stories, Vanishing Point, was longlisted for the 2013 Frank O’Connor Award.
He is currently a lecturer in journalism and a weekly columnist with news website The Middle Ground. Nothing surprised him as much as the satirical short, short stories that came together in a rush in Singapore Siu Dai.
This piece was written as part of #Whydoesthecagedbirdsing inspired by our new book, Payoh by Jim Tan.
I Think I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings February 13, 2017 18:00
by Loh Guan Liang
(Photo credits: The National Archives UK)
Of the Same Feather
Little bird, little bird, why do you sing
over rooftop, vale and sea? Your quill shakes
with so much fury. Foul tidings you bring
to the neighbours below for complaint’s sake,
soiling your cell with the spitter spatter
of long letters. Nobody sees your chicks,
your debts, your pay gone to seed. No matter
the fuss, no one here cares for politics.
Little bird, little bird, why do you sing?
The monkey’s gone packing and the rooster
goes pecking for whatever’s worth crowing
this year. Pay my talking cock no utter
heed. Keep singing, the day is far from done!
The door swings open, gone is the jailor
but we’re watching the door, watching the sun.
Cagey bird, cagey bird, time to be heard!
Other than the faint echo the theme “Why does the caged bird sing?” bears to the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I find it apposite to be writing about my poem “Of the Same Feather” in the Rooster Year. Given recent developments in politics and society, it has become all the more pressing—not to mention depressing—for poetry to engage with world affairs.
The first half of “Of the Same Feather” is an exercise in cheerlessness. The opening line’s singsong quality hardly mitigates the protagonist’s bleak life. We are no strangers to his situation. There’s even a figure to denote those of his ilk: 99%. In Singapore there is a tendency for the 99% to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. A fishball skewer on a footpath. Foreigners. Curry-cooking neighbours. Sex education. Chickens. Kicking a ball at the void deck. Singaporean discontentment finds release in disseminating pictures, stomping on keyboards and lobbing missives at media outlets. (The Straits Times Forum page is a case in point.) Alas complaint letters do not a revolution make; the battle cries we hear are but squawking birds rattling their cages.
Feathers get ruffled because there is the prevailing sense that no one cares a hoot about the lives of common folk. Economic sentiment is grim. Wages are stagnant even as living costs are soaring. Workplace morale is at an all-time low. The cage shakes but no one listens.
Sometimes positive things come out of all this shaking. Take the French Revolution for example. Pink Dot. The Umbrella Movement. Black Lives Matter. The Women’s March. Organised action demonstrate the power of numbers in the fight against inequality and injustice. Behind every protest sign or pink hat is an unflappable flock.
But the reactionary heart is dangerous. It is a powder keg capable of deflagrating into mob action with a well-timed fact. Liberal sensitivities take offence too readily, and social media only serves to fan the ire. Heartstrings risk becoming puppet strings in the hands of a select few. How can the heart lead the charge in a post-truth universe when it is susceptible to manipulation? Little wonder that the body part responsible for protecting, and entrapping, the heart is the ribcage.
That said, let us return to the poem. The tone shifts from gloom to hope. The door opens, unmanned; liberation is within reach; all is not lost! Yet the protagonist remains doubtful. Are you sure there are no government agents outside? Let’s wait and see. Singaporean society organises itself around that which is safe and respectable: racial quotas, CMIO, heartlander, heteronormativity. The list goes on, of course, but the point remains that institutions reinforce the status quo so the masses are free from danger. Nobody gets hurt because the cage they are in is so strong they forget that they can transform their circumstances. For it is not the material cage that bars the bird, but the treacherous one the mind keeps.
Like Barack Obama said, yes we can. Change will not come from a single tweet. Change needs to be sustained and resolute in the face of harsh headwind. Why does the caged bird sing? It sings for a far nobler purpose beyond the confines of the cage. It sings for the world.
Loh Guan Liang is the author of two poetry collections, Bitter Punch (2016) and Transparent Strangers (2012), and the co-translator of Art Studio (2014), originally written in Chinese by Singapore Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon. Winner of the 2011 Moving Words poetry competition organised by SMRT and The Literary Centre, his work has been featured in the Singapore Memory Project and The Substation Love Letters Project. He updates at http://lohguanliang.weebly.com.
This piece was written as part of #Whydoesthecagedbirdsing inspired by our new book, Payoh by Jim Tan.
Get this for someone who ... November 27, 2016 11:36
A festive gift guide to help you decide what to give to who this year.
Architectural fanatics will be head over heels for 50 new places to explore and Instagram with Faith in Architecture.
UNION : 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing From Singapore is an impressive tome collecting over 120 of the best writings from Singapore and America (curated from Drunken Boat, an online literary journal). The best of the best, for the one who researches hours on end before they buy anything.
For the friend who gets into intense discussions about parliamentary sessions, and always has ideas about how Singapore can be a better place, The Birthday Book, will be a dream-come-true of finding like-minded individuals. 51 others, to be exact.
Also consider: Troublemaker
Get ready for more quizzes, questions, and paperwork in the title story of this stunning debut by Clara Chow. A quirky reinvention of Build-To-Order (BTO) as we know it—and check out the bonus: no waiting time needed!
Sometimes, strength is drawn from knowing others have been there and made it through. The twenty-seven stories in Body Boundaries spans three generations of women's experience navigating life and growing into the person they are today.
Also consider: First Fires
Whether your friend is a nightclub chiong-ster, or an everyday life chiong-ster, we think there'll be something for them in this epic 3-in-1 box set of Singapore humour.
For that one friend who would be ready to fly to the moon with you anytime, if you said you have the equipment and know-how. this is how you walk on the moon will take them into 25 different realms, and keep them entertained till you find that space machine.
For the friend who's always travelling to places, and feels straddled between the universes they've been in. Unhomed and Crossing Universes may be a thin chapbook set, but don't let its thickness (and the endearing bear on the cover) fool you for its heavy works.
For the nature-lover, or someone who desires to be patient like plants (growing at the same place and at their own pace). Or perhaps, they often wish that they could photosynthesize to make their own food. From Walden to Woodlands affirms the awe for plants and nature.
For a friend who could use a metaphor or imagery to identify with things happening in their lives. Separation weaves the divide of Singapore and Malaysia with Christine's personal experience of her parents' divorce.
For the friend who's not only excitable about all kinds of mythology, but is a walking encyclopedia of it too. In 3, Krishna Udayasankara—master of mythofiction—reimagines the life of Sang Nila Utama.
Set in a kampung on the verge of being pushed out to make way for land developments, Cherry Days will bring them back to the joy of climbing trees to pluck fruits, and how things used to cost cents.
Or if they've stolen pebbles from neighbours' plants when they were growing up. Gone Case is a non-cringing story of growing up, and growing up in the heartlands.
Also consider: Corridor
The bonus of Smokescreens and Mirrors? Secrets behind the execution of these "magic tricks".
Also consider: Beyond the Blue Gate
And especially if they are skeptical of the local newspapers. Riot Recollections charts the voices of people present at the Little India Riots to debunk the idea that all migrant workers were part of the mob, or want to incite unrest.
And fights with a fiery passion for the things they believe in, like our Kampung Boy, M Ravi.
Also consider: Priest in Geylang
And not just fathers in the biological sense. Godsmacked explores the impact of LKY on the one's childhood and world views.
And all MRT/LRT lines which plans to cut across nature reserves and heritage sites. Spaces of the Dead will be an eternal memory of the spaces which existed once before.
Because the city's quirks and imperfections make it home after all (even if they deny it). There is No Other City.
Also consider: This Is Not A Safety Barrier
5 books about growing up in Singapore August 09, 2016 11:29
Part of the Ethos Books National Day 2016 Spotlight (sale ends 21 Aug)
When it comes to memory, it's natural to recall the big milestones and indulge in nostalgia: childhood games; the terror of PSLE; the joy of the first job; holding your first newborn... the rest of the details are lost and scattered in the wind of memories blowing by. But look closely at the discreet details of our lived experiences; each one moulds us like the single, gentle stroke of the potter’s finger, turning clay into pottery—the particular neighbourhood you grew up in, your parents' beliefs, the band of friends you hanged out with when you were 17…
Here are 5 titles that tunes the mind to focus on the details of growing up in Singapore:
1. Pulse by Lydia Kwa
Tucked neatly along Joo Chiat Road is an old and boarded up Cosmic Pulse, the only outfit in the area that sold traditional Chinese medicine back in the day. Though it has faded with age, Natalie cannot forget the childhood she spent growing up there among the shelves of herbs, the chanting of her fortune-telling grandmother, and the asthmatic rasp of her Conrad-quoting grandfather. She mustn’t.
We find ourselves drawn into Natalie’s story as she retraces her life in the past in order to understand the death that has assaulted her in the present. Accompanying her, we revisit Singapore through the eyes of someone who has spent almost twenty years beyond its shores, practicing acupuncture far, far away in Canada. Natalie recounts her memories without waxing lyrical about ‘the old times’ in Singapore. Instead, we see how each precious detail of her past—from her habit of peeling the skin off her hands to her gawky but heartwarming crush on her classmate Faridah—holds a key to answering the mystery at the core of Pulse.
The dark truth that was bound up while she was growing up, must become unbound in order for her to set herself free.
2. Gone Case by Dave Chua
One phrase that often pops up about Dave Chua’s novella is “quietly disturbing”. What does that say about this story of a young boy, living in Singapore’s heartlands, and going to take his PSLE in a year’s time?
Yong is at the top of his class in Primary 5. His best friend compulsively steals stones out of their neighbour’s garden. His grandmother wears angel wings to sing in the choir at church. He wishes he knew why his father had to move out, and why a strange man from China has taken a room down the hall. He fights with his brother when he makes too much noise, and he can’t take his eyes off his best friend’s sister.
Yong is, by all accounts, an average Singaporean boy who is learning to grow up in the 80s, and Gone Case is his unsentimental and unromantic story.
3. No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry
If you cannot learn to love
(yes love) this city
you have no other.
—Simon Tay, "Singapore Night Song"
No Other City stands at the turn of the millennium, with one eye on Singapore's morphing landscape and another stealing glimpses into deeply personal vignettes—be they on the MRT or in the parents' bedroom. Works of established poets are placed in dialogue with those of students, creating a richness and discernible warmth. Re-reading this anthology 16 years after it has been published is a nostalgia trip, as acts of looking back are compounded, illuminating lost details of city life then—giant trees, IRC, walkmans, Marine Parade beach and playing police and thief. The grandeur and dazzle of urbanity is offset by tiny, intimately felt moments: time spent at a jazz bar, contemplating the skyline, or sitting in an empty cinema. Such poetry will delight in its simplicity, honesty and timelessness, now and always.
4. First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum
Does the ridiculous squeaking of slippers that toddlers prod around the playground in sound familiar to you? What about the cross-stitch puzzles your home economics teacher used to assign to the class? Such insignificant memories are littered throughout First Fires, allowing us to experience a very familiar Singaporean childhood through the characters’ eyes. It becomes hard not to grow with them as they move from fearing the longkang, to lighting cheap paper lanterns in the park, and to protecting each other from their mother’s bamboo cane. First Fires portrays a very real family, where the tiniest pieces of each characters’ story make up the most significant parts of their Singaporean childhood.
5. They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue by Theophilus Kwek
They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue follows Theophilus Kwek when he is transiting from the young innocence where the world blurs by to becoming keenly aware of the people and places he's surrounded by. Theophilus walks to observe the city but the poems suggest more than just a passing observer—something has clicked and changed within the poet with each scene that he chances upon: the quiet family dinner after the passing of a relative, hostility towards foreign workers on a train; the diverse paths of a tourist, a mother and a maid on leave at a Orchard Road crossing ... each poems ends like the quiet contemplation that descends a late-night conversation with a friend at a park bench.
Check out the full National Day 2016 Spotlight Collection here.
What to read next if you liked ... August 01, 2016 18:36
Do you read lots, love reading, but don't know what to read next? Want to enjoy a story close to home but don't know where to start? As part of the National Reading Movement (but really for the love of books, yours and ours), the team at Ethos Books has chosen some great titles you may have read, and paired them with titles we think you will enjoy.
These deeply engaging books were chosen for their varying narrative styles and scopes, from the intimate portraits of Alfian Sa'at's Corridor to the sweeping epic myth of Krishna Udayasankar's 3. We believe in these stories and want to share their wonderful worlds with you, even as they bear uncanny, thought-provoking resemblances to ones you may already know.
Do leave any other recommendations or book pairings of your own in the comments! Happy reading!
If you liked Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, you might like…
First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum
From family tensions to jumbled flashbacks, Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You and Jinat Rehana Begum’s novel First Fires are similar in more ways than one would first imagine. These two emotionally complex and multigenerational novels tell different stories of silence, alienation, lies and disorientation—giving readers a peek into the life and expectations within a minority family. Shifting between character voices that speak from both past and present, these novels show how a family makes sense of their lives after one of their daughters disappears. Pick them up if you enjoy heartfelt stories about family and culture that grip the reader with its unfolding mystery.
If you liked Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, you might like…
Blood: Collected Stories by Noelle Q de Jesus
Thousands of people migrate across the world every year but how easy is it to assimilate into a foreign land which doesn't care for the cultures you've brought along with your suitcase? Jhumpa Lahiri and Noelle Q de Jesus delve deeply into the migratory experience and how the prospects of life in new lands is not always warm like the soft morning light on one's skin. The Interpreter of Maladies and Blood: Collected Stories are also anchored by each writer's realisations to the depths of the human soul—how does a card of kindness play out in a game where everyone plays to win? The careful dealing of characters in each writer's short story leaves you with a hand of mixed cards, enough to make you stop and contemplate this particular combination of life, before you make your next move.
If you liked Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman, you might like…
These Foolish Things & Other Stories by Yeo Wei Wei
Wei Wei's short stories, like Fragile Things, are thick with the clutter (or, if you like, thingliness) of everyday life—song lyrics, food, art, household items—yet charged with the mystery of the fantastic and folkloric. Gaiman's shamanic slipping between worlds is recalled in the imagination and whimsy of this collection, where a mynah sings a Beatles' song, a ghost hides in an umbrella, and a clock tower's watchman reappears at airports. Where Fragile Things parades pop cred, These Foolish Things portrays the messy, charming detail of Singaporean life in a way that will make you smile, not cringe. Delving deep into its characters' memories and private longings, these stories are exact, darkly humorous, and unexpectedly emotive without being over-sentimental.
If you liked Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other fantasy novels, you might like…
3 by Krishna Udayasankar
Don’t venture into 3 by Krishna Udayasankar looking for the same beats and characters. 3 puts a refreshing, mythohistoric spin on an important, but rarely retold story. Instead of focusing on demigods and magical beings, 3 is a gripping, coming-of-age tale about prince Sang Nila Utama. Set against the vivid, historical background of the Srivijaya empire in the 13th century, 3’s political intrigue and sea adventures sweep us into another world and time, where the people lived and dreamed differently. Its spirit of epic adventure breathes new life into the events that happened right in Singapore’s backyard, centuries ago.
If you liked Corridor by Alfian Sa’at, you might like…
Moth Stories by Leonora Liow
How much can we know about a person when we have a glimpse of them behind closed doors? Corridor by Alfian Sa’at has been a long-time local favourite for our readers as the author explores the interiority of multiple characters in an undeniably familiar Singaporean landscape. These short stories ask us to come closer and have a listen to the voices dwelling within our HDB corridors.
In a similar but separate strand, Moth Stories by Leonora Liow distinguishes itself with its haunting stories and how it makes us feel like intruders, crossing paths with characters who have so much to hide. An old man’s muted bitterness, a mother who is unwilling to let go of her son—we catch them in their most vulnerable states as we ghost through each narrative. Leonora guides us into the individual worlds of a varied cast, whose shocking decisions and fates make us squirm with discomfort, yet yearn for more.
The Ethos of Ethos September 17, 2015 16:58
Letter from Mr Fong Hoe Fang on the 18th birthday of Ethos Books.
Ethos 18th Birthday September 08, 2015 18:11
Ethos Books was conceived in 1997 to give a platform to aspiring and unknown Singapore writers. We were specifically inspired by the works of 2 young writers in their early twenties who had come to us, each with his own collection of poems, which they felt established publishers would decline.
At that time, poetry, writing and even literature had been worn down by the incessant waves of “tangible outcomes” in our education system. I felt that we would be just trying to hold back the waves over which we had no control. But the energy and enthusiasm of the young writers were strangely rejuvenating, and more important I could imagine the fun we would have, trying to push back the waves.
And then, a new community sprouted. More and more writers came forth, feeding on goodwill and good literature and good writing.
Today, these 2 fine young men, together with a whole host of others, are among the most highly regarded writers in Singapore. Today, we have a thriving community of Singapore poets and writers, booksellers and small independent publishers. And I am pleased to say that at one of our recent events “5 Under 25”, even more young writers have surfaced to join hands with those before them.
In the same way, Ethos Books itself has seen a new, a young and a vibrant group of colleagues populate its ranks. New ideas, new ways of doing things, new relationships. Whether they are full-time or just passing through, they have made this journey even more meaningful for Ethos. I invite everyone here to continue with us on the new adventures that lie ahead.
The sea will always be there. And with it, the waves. Sometimes we want a destination against the flow. We swim against it. We stand and with hands and bodies push forth. Then tired, we sometimes have no choice but let the waves carry us back. Then rested, we stand and push the waves again.
But always, we must have fun. Always, we must remember our final destination.
With best wishes and gratefulness to the Singapore literature community
Hoe Fang, Ethos Books
(For more pictures, visit our 18th Anniversary album on Facebook!)