Euginia Tan on writing about the female body and identity — Singapore Lit Prize feature
This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.
First up, we have Euginia Tan, author of Phedra. Read on to find out how she was inspired by a stain on the MRT and why she loves writing as a form of creative expression!
Hear Euginia read her favourite poem from Phedra.
Dripped juice like a grapefruit.
Brown sauces—pig’s intestines?
Peter pan stews—ageless, aromatic,
Patient peanuts boiled soft as cud
Leaving residual engine oil grease ,
A contraband birthmark
On speckled mrt grounds.
Move-in martins and stand-up staceys
Pirouetting over its corduroy shoeshine varnish
While I’m slumped against the cold pole
Remembering my grandma’s cooking.
Tell us more about this poem. Why is it your favourite and what is its significance? Do you remember how you felt when you wrote it?
I love food – food that you know has gone through a process of preparation like hawker centre food, home cooked food and food that lovers cook for one another.
This excerpt made me think of a time I saw a brown stain on the floor in the MRT and I started to remember this particular dish my grandmother knew how to make – just right! It could never be replicated after that. You just can’t with some things.
Contrasting that with the still fresh MRT campaign at that time when people were encouraged to “move in” and “give up their seats” made me really wistful about certain moments that you just cannot be instructed on how or when or why… They just do, and if it stems from a loving place, they continue to touch you within.
How did you get the idea to write your book based on your own interpretation of the Greek mythology?
Phedra was conceived during my mentorship with Grace Chia-Krakovic (the 2013 Mentor Access Program organized by NAC) and having her feedback and insight was extremely helpful. Well it was also never fully reliant on the angle of Greek mythology, but rather just how the ordinary coincided with a lot of myth and folklore that we usually think of as lofty notions but are closer to us than we think. I explained during my book launch that the title was heavily inspired by a young girl I had taught art to, whose name was Phedra. Later it helped that in my casual reading, I found the figure of Phaedra who was a silent, overlooked persona that I could relate with, and the misspelling of real life Phedra versus mythology Phaedra was also something I grappled with and knew the significance of (people confusing my name for Eugenia versus Euginia with an I.)
I was hell bent on naming this collection Phedra despite the many initial objections I faced with the lovely Kah Gay. I’m glad he accommodated this quite instinctive request from me in the end and here we are… I honestly never expected this nomination ever.
Your writing in Phedra, as with your previous two poetry collections, focus largely on the female body and identity. Was it a conscious decision to write on this subject or has it always been a part of you and your writing?
It has always been a part of me perhaps not just in writing, but the way I choose to express myself. The body I have is the one I have the most control over – I have pushed it to several limits and I’m always experimenting or reflecting about movement in general. I would likely have chosen dance as a creative expression had I not fallen in love with writing first because I admire a certain effortless fluidity and grace the body has when you pick the right precision for it. I try to embody that same rhythm in my writing. That being said, we do project our feelings about ourselves or the world around us onto our bodies. So I enjoy observing body temperament a lot, not just a physical measurement of it but the way people inhabit their skins.
What was the hardest thing about writing this collection and why?
I faced two deaths in the span of both editing and publishing this collection, that of both my maternal and paternal grandmothers in the span of a few months. The way they died and the grieving process was vastly different. I ended up putting a lot of moments like those in the collection even though not all the poems were not directly related to their demise.
It’s hard to devote your work to family, because the idea of it is so different here compared to Western dynamics. That was probably the most difficult thing completing this collection. Strangely, after Phedra, the next collection I am writing is focused on my grandfathers. There was never a conscious plan to do these things, but again, here we are.
If this book was dramatised for the stage, what do you think would be most fascinating to see?
I would love to see the many different iterations of nature I’ve included in Phedra come to life: Like the mythic notion of it being unconquerable and wise versus a more current take on it being something vulnerable that needs to be preserved. We don’t see enough of nature as a main rooting component on stage as opposed to people’s reactions to nature.
Lastly, how does Phedra contribute to your ongoing body of work?
I write about death quite a bit, whether or not the work gets published, it’s a topic I think about often. It doesn’t perturb nor enlighten me… It just makes me think of things that are much larger than me, like the sea, or the innocence of a child. Death helps remind me to toss the ego, root my mind and try as best as I can to contribute with my strengths (in the short time I have).
Phedra is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.
P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here.