“now I speak up”: A Conversation with Hamid & Xiao Ting

By Bettina Hu

On Thursday, we joined Hamid and Xiao Ting at The Moon for a session about Hamid’s debut poetry collection, parsetreeforestfire. As audience members sat on the floor among cushions, it felt like a group of friends coming together after a long period of absence—perfect for the conversation that was going to take place. A line from the first poem-pair—“now I speak up”—sums up what Hamid and Xiao Ting were trying to interrogate in this conversation: what it means to speak in English from a Southeast Asian positionality and Singaporean identity, the act of speaking and speaking out loud, and the relationship between language and identity.


We began with the question of whether there was a difference between reading the poems to yourself or out loud. According to Hamid, part of his process of writing was reading the poems out to himself, and as such, he feels that “the poems are meant to be read out loud, they’re meant to be performed. And so sometimes whatever people read on the page may not necessarily translate when they hear me speaking it and that’s sort of been something that’s come up again and again whenever I read out these poems to an audience.”


While Hamid shies away from the labelling of his poetry as ‘autobiographical’, for him, his poetry is only autobiographical in so far as it is a product of circumstance. It is undeniable that when he reads it and performs it to an audience, he embodies the speaker. In order to explore the effect of different speakers, Hamid had Xiao Ting read the same poem-pair before he performed it for the crowd. In listening to the two voices contrasted and juxtaposed, it becomes clear that different people approach the poems distinctly.  


As Xiao Ting observes, when Hamid reads, he seems to have a specific character and timbre of voice reserved for the recitation, and this is different from the tone that she takes when reading the same poem. She found that in reading the poem-pair out loud, she tripped on words and phrases, and that there were Malay phrases that she wasn’t familiar with.


She muses that the textures of the poems and collection as a whole changes with who is reading it out loud, as the places that one might trip are different and dependent on the reader. This allows the poems to become a mirror, reflecting the reader to themselves. For her, although Hamid and his experiences are present in the book, the reader is the one that ultimately has to piece together the puzzle in order to make sense and meaning of the book for themselves. She states that reading 'parsetreeforestfire' was “an invitation for me to see where my loopholes are and whether or not I want to fill them up or not”.


For Hamid, it is because of this subjective experience of the book that for him, it’s “pointless” to explain what the book is about. He prefers that “you experience it for yourself” and states that his hope is for the book to “tell you more about you than it does about me”. On the experience of people tripping over words when reading his poetry, he exclaims, “Oh I love it. I love it when people trip over stuff… it’s such a glorious thing to be able to see an interrupted reading process because that tells me that someone is trying–they’re actually trying to get what it is you’re trying to say.”


One of the most pressing questions for Xiao Ting was the use of Eurocentric academic references in the third section, “Forest”. Hamid addresses this by revealing his intentions for the section—to unearth and question some of the “basic assumptions that we have when we are speaking through a certain language”. In the section, one of the first mentions of a European thinker was René Descartes’s oft cited line of “I think, therefore I am” and the various French and Latin permutations of the line. For Hamid, “Forest” questions the “very stable ‘I’ from which you speak from and for that reason it just felt very natural for me to start trying to question where do some of these assumptions come from”.

In the section, he cited Descartes, acknowledging how the question of radical doubt underpins fundamental ideas in modern philosophy, but also rallied against the importance given to Descartes by the canon with the use of the Singlish persona in the footnotes, stating that “to me it felt so delicious to be able to say actually, does that really matter?’ because in the Singlish it doesn’t matter.”


For me, the most interesting nugget from the session was the realisation that Hamid shared nearing the end of the session. He shares that when he arrived at the end of the writing process, he realised that “the kind of languages you speak are entirely conditional”. He continues:

“There’s nothing permanent about what we’re speaking, at least for us. I don’t know for other countries, but at least in my circumstances… And so there is no particular reason why I should be privileging one language over the other. Whether or not I’m proficient in the various languages I do know is a separate matter but at the very least there shouldn’t be any reason why I should be speaking English over speaking Malay or speaking Chinese…”

I feel that it is important to realise the weight and meaning behind the languages we speak, to interrogate the reasons why we privilege one language over others in the ‘formal’ realm of schooling, bureaucracy and work. To come to the realisation that the languages we speak are conditional is at once freeing and constraining, and this carries its own ramifications. Hamid continues on this train of thought in an answer to an audience question, where he expands on the idea:

“I’m trying to understand what the implications of saying something like ‘the languages I speak are entirely conditional to my circumstances’ because to me, the implications of that seem to be much more scary than what it sounds. It doesn’t just mean that you can pick up any language you desire and then time just becomes a factor of how proficient you are in it. It also means that the decision to speak in a particular language will inform certain things about you—like your worldview or how those languages that you do want to learn construct how you perceive things.”


The conversation left me feeling as the initial reading of the book did–intrigued, full of wonder, with the experience of pockets of laughter, but also filled with new questions to think about. Are we entirely accountable to the conditions and parameters set by the languages that we speak? How can we try to break out of the specific worldview that we inhabit? Keeping the idea of the text as a mirror in mind, I return to my copy of 'parsetreeforestfire' to see if I can see myself more clearly.


About the speakers:
Hamid Roslan’s work may be found in The Volta, Asymptote, and the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, among others. parsetreeforestfire is his debut collection of poetry.

Teo Xiao Ting plays with words and works as a freelance writer/editor. Her preoccupations surround publishing as manifestations of truths-telling and alternative forms of book-making. They recently graduated from Yale-NUS college with a BA (hons.) in Arts & Humanities and a minor in Psychology.

To watch the livestream of the session, click here.