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. 

More event details >

Why the Caged Bird Sings February 20, 2017 18:00

Singing Birds illustrated by Morgan Chua

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

'Three skeletons at a piano' taken from The National Archives UK

(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.