"I am speaking full of dirt"–In Conversation with Hamid Roslan

By Bettina Hu

Before the launch of his debut poetry collection, I had the chance to ask author Hamid Roslan some questions about parsetreeforestfire. Naively expecting straight answers to these questions, I was thrown off centre when he replied me with quotes from the journals that he kept while working on the book. After much initial panic and conversation with colleagues, I came to the realisation that it was more fitting that Hamid’s past self was answering these questions about process of writing and his feelings towards the book. At a recent event, Hamid responded to an audience question about whether or not he would write this book again:

“the questions [asked in the book] are no longer as urgent… I don’t think I can write the same book like this again because I don’t want to do the same thing twice but also because writing this book was hard. There were periods when it was so, it was so all consuming, like I remember spending like an entire weekend doing it and just neglecting everything else and then there were times when it was utterly silent and I could not actually find my way back into the book. That was especially the case when I was trying to figure out what the last section should be. So it’s a very particular kind of frame of mind I guess…”


After hearing this, I felt reassured that presenting the notes in verbatim was the direction to go in, and here, Hamid speaks for himself.                                                                              



Can you introduce your work for new readers?

“…leaves me with nothing but the puzzle of self-articulation. What is this speaking, who does it, why, and how is it spoken? This is a question whose tail eludes me. I have no answers.”

[4 October 2016]



Where did the idea of parsetreeforestfire stem from? Was it born out of any particular train of thought?

“…perhaps the way out of trying to write oneself into narrative is to instead think of it as a series of possible enunciations; the puzzle of self-articulation then becomes one of figuring out what permutations allow some ‘me’ to exist, and what others might do to elide other senses of ‘me’. I return to the ideas of the discontinuous self, and the ways this comes into being – or rather, how it flits in and out of perception”

[21 October 2016]


What was your writing and refining process like? Did you start with the intention of four sections with distinct forms? With the passing of time, how have your feelings towards the work evolved or changed, if they have? What were some challenges in writing the work?

“as homage to bi-lingual books? One translates the other, but here it doesn’t translate but asserts presence and transferrability”

[10 October 2016]

“Manuscript’s rhythm is itself staccato”

[10 October 2016]


“Even looking at the table of contents tells me that the real heart of all of this is to communicate – to speak, and to be listened to in the impossible, telepathic way.”

[4 October 2016]

“If so, then how is the collection to end? As a sort of sputtering, in which the machine churns, gears gnashing against articulation until it sputters out? If I agree with that then the technique is to self-destruct: take reflexivity to the extreme and then see where it decides to shoot itself – to commit linguistic hara-kiri (honorable death? In service of whom? What disgrace did the language feel itself unable to recover from?)”

[12 October 2016]


 The title of the book is a compounded word, can you walk us through how you came to this title?

“Then tree is what? PARSE is destabilizing…words. Phrases. First impression. Sentence construction. TREE is the failure of description.”

[29 October 2016]

“This ‘essay’ that I am writing seems to become larger and larger everytime I return to it. Now I have to tackle Meditations? What am I doing?”

[29 November 2016]

“The most difficult section to write might be FIRE. I honestly don’t know what is going to come out of that. Wanton permission? Who knows.”

[30 October 2016]

“I am speaking full of dirt”

[13 March 2017] 


The idea of the compounded seems to feature heavily in parsetreeforestfire – in the compounded title, the compound structure and compounded history represented within. How does this sense of the compound relate to the notion of liminality in your work?

“Write Singlishly - English with the broken texture of Singlish"

[13 March 2017]


 The work questions the taken for granted status of English in Singapore and explores the implications of being a writer located in Singapore, and Southeast Asia, writing in English. How has this positionality informed parsetreeforestfire?

“I wonder if the people who lived in this part of the world – before the ‘Southeast Asian’ appellation – ever had anxieties about identity. Perhaps they led continuous lives but never thought to question their constantly shifting identities. How old is the concept of identity anyway?”

[4 November 2016]


 I find that the idea of translation, be it through self-translation or even the seeming refusal to be translated, runs through the work. Do you consider parsetreeforestfire as a work of translation?

“Key difference I see between Western writers with only one language (English) and writers who are multilingual is translation. We translate; it is a given for us BUT not for them. So. How to confront with this idea of not only incomprehensibility, but also the possibility of comprehension, but through effort. Can I conjure up alternative senses of translation aside from source -> destination?"

He also adds, "Perhaps the answer is in context. How then do I create this ‘web’ of text to generate meaning – instead of the single-breath articulation?"

[24 October 2016]


“One last time. Translation has always been the demon in the corner waiting for a chance to speak. I must return there.”

[27 February 2017]


Do you think that the lack of ability to fully translate within the work, and in general, is related to the notion of postcoloniality/ies? On the subject of labelling the work, do you consider your work as postcolonial?

“But the longue durée of Southeast Asia has been marked by never-ending discontinuties: Indianization and its Hindu-Buddhist religious matrix; Islamization, and its Islamic religious matrix; colonialism and its Enlightenment-capitalist matrix; now poco, and its globalizing, technologizing matrix.”

[4 November 2016]

“If I want to understand Southeast Asian anything I need to be able to pick up, assimilate, and synthesise any number of cultural influences from outside, and to do so in a way that is sensitive to what is lost, but also to what is gained”

[15 November 2016]


In your reflective essay, you mention English as the language that rendered you addressable. Can you explain how the notion of addressability informed parsetreeforestfire?

 “Because English constructed correctly erases what I wish to say, and Singlish constructed well adheres to some social norm"

He continues, "that is ultimately context-specific – which means there is no real Singlish."

[3 December 2016]


What stood out to me throughout the work, and specifically in the section “Forest”, was the use of footnotes to denote a different voice. How did you decide to use footnotes in this manner in your work? What was the desired intention of using footnotes and do you think you managed to achieve these intentions?

“Damn it. The essays run in two opposite conceptual directions.”

[30 November 2016]


At the reading of “Forest” at SingLit Station, there were two readers reading the main text and footnotes in tandem. What was the intention in splitting the text between the readers? Do you envision the main text and footnotes to be the same speaker?

“All writing is autobiographical – fine. My life informs my work. I cannot deny this. I suppose I am to continue.”

[5 February 2017]


The work itself seems to have a performative quality that works well when read out loud. What are some differences that you observe between reading your work out loud and reading off the page?

“Funny to see people closing their eyes when they are hearing a poem – beacause what is happening isnt that they are paying attention to word-music; but that they are paying attention to their own minds as the images unfold.”

[11 November 2016]



About parsetreeforestfire:

parsetreeforestfire is a bilingual book of poetry in which poems in Singlish occupy one side of the book, and poems in English on the other. Conventionally such a book functions as a way for a person to learn a new language, but it remains to be seen if translation has successfully occurred, or if the book even intends to teach any reader how to speak either language. Instead, if poetry is intense attention to language, then this book can be considered to be the product of such scrutiny on the languages the book is written in.

About Hamid Roslan 

Hamid Roslan’s work may be found in The VoltaAsymptote, and the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, among others.