‘The afterlife is full of ironies and dark humour’: In Conversation with Yong Shu Hoong



Every time a new book is published, the author is invited to have a conversation with us. I’m pleased to present a bunch of questions that I've posed to Yong Shu Hoong, author of 
Right of the Soil. —Justin Chia

JUSTIN

There is a strong theme of pleasure & pain being two sides of the same coin running through your new book of poetry, Right of the Soil, especially in your long poem, The Subterranean Courts, which reimagines hell as a vacation resort. I wondered if you might want to talk more about this?

SHU HOONG

I suppose the idea of opposite things being two sides of the same coin isn't too radical—in life, as in literature, there are examples about love and hate, right and wrong, black and white, and the blurring of those distinctions. I think of an early poem, 'The Anorexic Cactus' (from my first collection of poems, Isaac), and how my over-watering (and general lack of green fingers) has unintentionally killed one potted plant too many, and this song by Queen comes to mind: 'Too Much Love Will Kill You'. As someone who enjoys foot reflexology, I'm only too acquainted with how pain can translate into relaxation and pleasure. So the poem 'The Spa at Second Court' (from the section, or multi-part long poem if you prefer, The Subterranean Courts) pokes fun at how the spa experience might well derive pleasure from pain—from the kneading, scrubbing, and the dips in hot and cold pools, which form an interesting comparison with the prescribed punishments in the second of the 10 Courts of Hell in Haw Par Villa: "thrown into a volcanic pit" and "frozen into blocks of ice". Life—and in this case, the afterlife too—is full of ironies and dark humour. 

 JUSTIN

I am also reminded of a Jeremy Bentham quote: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." Of course, we also intuitively know that the intensity of pain can far exceed that of pleasure. We could look at the wildly different experiences of an animal eating versus an animal being eaten. The animal who is being eaten would probably feel like they are in hell. I’m also wondering if we could pivot here and talk more about the idea of hell. You referenced Dante’s Inferno in the epigraph of The Subterranean Courts, which almost looks like a daycare compared to the ten courts. Is hell something that is visceral to you or does it feel more like an abstraction?

SHU HOONG

Yes, my reference on Dante's Inferno comes from a quoted excerpt (from Hwee Hwee Tan's book, Foreign Bodies) comparing a Westernised hell with the version depicted in Haw Par Villa's 10 Courts of Hell. I was more fascinated by the 10 Courts' vivid images of gore, which haunted me in my childhood, rather than being obsessed with speculating endlessly what hell might be like after an unrepentant sinner passes from this mortal world. To me, hell is an abstraction, even though the Bible does also go into detailed description of how things are in hell. I suppose no one really knows for sure. Perhaps as a poet, I prefer to believe in metaphors and not taking things too literally.

 JUSTIN

I guess there is an abstract mythological version of hell that we are familiar with and then there is also hell on the material plane like climate breakdown, political turmoil, and predatory behaviours that go unpunished. In the opening poem of this collection,'Tracing', the speaker wonders about the disappearance of an airplane. The poem suggests that nature (the ocean, the sky) is a lot older and more enduring than anything that humans have ever done. It is sad to me that despite the overwhelming evidence that we need to take decisive actions to protect our shared environment, corporations and politicians still do not learn. Are we destined, like the poem says, to be “a cloud that, / despite seeding, / refuses to stir”?

 SHU HOONG

Yes, there are many problems in the world that are larger than what we as humans can handle or solve. To date, the missing Malaysia Airlines plane remains missing. We can prod as much as we wish at mysteries large and small, conundrums that threaten our existence, only to find no answer and that some things are beyond our realm of understanding.   

 JUSTIN

Your title references jus soli, which is a Latin phrase that means the unconditional legal right of a person born within a country to receive citizenship. Outside its legal usage, I find it quite moving that it affirms we all have the right to belong here and that no human person is ‘illegal’. But I guess we can also argue whether it is truly affirming to know that there is still a distinction between who's a citizen and who's not a citizen based on an objectively arbitrary occurrence. Did writing and thinking through this collection of poems make you challenge the concept of citizenship or think about it in a different way?

 SHU HOONG

I think when I first encountered the term, "right of the soil", I was more enamoured by the musicality of how the entire phrase sounds, and the double meanings inherent. For example, extending beyond the definition involving citizenship, I was also thinking about the right of the soil to claim us (when we pass on), as in burial—of course, increasingly, it's the element of fire that claims us (in cremations) rather than the element of earth. Of course, the word "right" can also mean correctness, or staying on the right side of a path. Or the notion of turning left or right. I think these poems do not challenge concepts of citizenship so much, but rather ruminate on the romanticism of how a person is linked to the ground he or she was born on. I think of the feeling of being close to the ground, of smelling the soil and vegetation. Of nostalgia, of loyalty, of the sense of home. And of how the soil sustains us, yet at the same time, can be treacherous enough to swallow us whole.

 

 

 

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