"It gets a bit crazy lah"—The launch of parsetreeforestfire by Hamid Roslan
By Bettina Hu
Last Sunday, we gathered at Grassroots Book Room for the launch of parsetreeforestfire. Debut author Hamid Roslan was joined by Alfian Sa’at to have a conversation about the processes and intentions of the book. This post quotes heavily from the conversation, for which, the livestream can be found here.
For those of you who are new to parsetreeforestfire, or are still confused by it, the book aims to be a bilingual book of Singlish and English poetry. It consists of four sections–“parse”, “tree”, “forest” and “fire”–that come together to form the compounded title “parsetreeforestfire”, and each section stems from a different intention. As Hamid himself explains, “parse” is the beginning, where one is able to use language without restrictions. His intention behind “tree” is to see what occurs when language is decontextualized and removed from specific context. “forest”, which consists of numbered statements and footnotes, seems to be the most ambitious, and tries to reply to the question of “can I, as a poet, try to find a way to embody myself in English?”, and here, Hamid tries to put himself in the language, so that when he speaks, it is a reflection of who he is. Commenting on “fire”, which he read in public for the first time at the launch, he simply states, “it gets a bit crazy lah”.
Answering a question about the intention of writing the book, Hamid is clear that he was not looking of a readership but rather hoped that readers were able to find out who they are through reading the book. Identity and its intersection with language are what, for me, lie at the heart of parsetreeforestfire. There is a recognition by Hamid that the impulse to use of different languages within the book are a way for readers to understand where they come from :
“I think when you read this collection, you find yourself where you know the languages that you know. And of the ones that you don’t know well, too bad. And that will mark you off as being a very specific kind of reader who understands very specific things. But that’s not of any fault of your own. We grow up in different spaces and in different spheres. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
What started out as Singlish poetry had morphed into a creative translation, and translation in the loosest sense of the word, of Singlish poems. This is why the poem-pair and the interplay between English and Singlish are integral to parsetreeforestfire. Contrast and juxtaposition play key roles in the book as while language is presented as contradictory and flawed, it is also presented as something that connects and allows you to understand yourself better. Language becomes a signpost, a barrier, a connector, a membrane, all at once, but also nothing at the same time; a medium for understanding the self better, but also an othering device.
Commenting on the process of writing the book, Hamid shared his experience of being “locked out” of his book, where he was unable to access his own work, with no idea about what he was thinking about at the point of writing, and how in being “locked out” of the work, he became a reader of the book. For him, the primary effect of the book is finding oneself “kind of lost at sea”, as “there are no titles, all the poems only exist in relation to their sections and the sections are only related to each other because they are all in the same book. And the only thing you have to go off of is the title.”
It seems that when the poems only exist win relation to the section, and the sections to each other, the reader has to take the time to be present with the poems, to read carefully (and preferably out-loud), in order to gain any sense of meaning from them. This seems to also be in response to the tendency of overexplanation that Hamid observes in our society. Here, I quote at length Hamid’s response to a question on the lack of titles for individual poems in the book:
“I have a general dislike of people trying to explain a little bit of what it means to live in this country. To me, we do too much explaining what happens in this country. We need to stop doing that. Stop explaining ourselves. And that was one of the things that I really wanted the book not to do, which was to explain. And to kind of trust that when you read sometimes you also try other strategies to understand the text aside from just the words that you see on the page and I think this happens to us all the time, when you look at signs outside… then you try and find some other way of reading that situation. And I want to call attention to that. That’s kind of an untapped resource for us to understand what it means to read and to try to understand things, whether it’s text or paintings..."
Below, we share a recording of Hamid reading “fire”, in all its glory, at the launch. But before you listen, to contextualise what this hard-hitting fire-spitting section follows, Hamid explains the stakes at this point of parsetreeforestfire by talking about what the previous section, “forest” has done:
“The language tries to do two different things, in English it tries to find some kind of embodiment that is quintessentially Singaporean. In the other, the Singlish is desperately trying to find a way to, on the one hand, it’s kind of going like, ‘okay, what are you doing English, you’re just doing something stupid’. Of course we had a kind of… there’s a kind of eminence to the language that we already speak but later on what happens is that the Singlish is also admitting that how you speak Singlish is really a reflection of your body and of your culture, and of your background and all that. And so, there is no neutral Singlish from which all Singlishes deviate from. I don’t think that’s the case at all. So that sets the stage for ‘fire’.”