Why writing as resistance is not just about defiance

by Foo Peiying


(Image credits: Klaas)

Mention writing as resistance and one of the first thoughts that comes to mind is defying the authorities, and having the police knock on your doors in the dead of the night. But Clara Chow believes in resistance of a different kind. In the first AfterWords of the year, she shows us how resistance can be an internal battle to come to terms with what has passed, and how the ideas that live on in our writing may be more important than the change it brings today.

What can an individual do in dark times; when one’s world is seemingly out of one’s control? Writing can be an act of resistance in such instances – a legitimate private response to outside forces.Clara Chow, author of Dream Storeys

What is resistance?

Clara begins the evening with definitions of resistance but it’s the one on physics which throws everyone off:

The degree to which a substance prevents the flow of an electric current through it.

To resist something, she says, you have to let it pass through you first. Instead of being pushed along by the waves of change and the indifference of justice, the human spirit is capable of first, taking it in, and then resisting it. For Clara, it was the feeling of alienation in a fast-changing city which drove her to write Dream Storeys. For others in the group, it ranged from environmental destruction, death of dialects, the survival of a writer in Singapore, one’s usefulness to society, loss of religious places (particularly Hindu shrines), death of music, to the 'disposable culture' that brought them to the session.

We then looked to Jim, who most recently published Payoh.

“Years later, when my publisher at Ethos Books asked me what inspired me to write Payoh, I dug into my memory, all I could remember was this particular incident, being told that I had to pay interest on my overdue income tax when I was in financial straits. The officer was polite. She was merely pointing out the rules and regulations. I did not argue. Instead I sat down and wrote a book…” – Jim Tan, author of Payoh

And a book on a political fable of birds at that.

Forms of written resistance

Using allegory in Payoh provided Jim the “freedom to write fantastical things without getting into trouble”, just as George Orwell got around censors and avoided offending people in Animal Farm. Clara suggests that allegory makes the work timeless: it transcends the settings and the moment when the author wrote it. As people continue to read it over different time periods, there will be new meanings which can be read from the story. We see how Animal Farm and 1984 continues to be relevant, and will be for a long time to come.

But sometimes, telling the truth may be even stronger than satire or allegory. When a person in power is able to dispel facts and figures, nothing will be a greater counter-spell than presenting reflections of reality which are hidden from sight. Paul Stroller in the Huffington post, Writing Resistance in the Age of Trump, suggests ethnography narratives to resist these false truths.

In ethnographic narratives, writers (journalists, dissenting officials and scholars) describe the conditions of social spaces and places to tell the stories of a person or group of people. How will their lives be inalterably upended by Trump’s proposed policies on health care, taxes, the environment, foreign policy or civil liberties? What are the human costs of living in a mythical world constructed of Big Lies? Put another way, ethnographic narrative dramatically links personal experience to larger social, political and economic issues. A continuous stream of well-crafted ethnographic narratives can have a powerful effect on general audiences of people who read blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch short and/or feature films on social platforms like YouTube or Vimeo.” – Paul Stroller, Writing Resistance in the Age of Trump

Other forms to resist these false truths that are mentioned: Journalism, poetry, science & speculative fiction, storytelling movements, social media, talking through an issue with a friend, praying.

And there is an interesting observation for us here: poetry is the most prevalent form of written resistance in Singapore. There lives the poetry group SingPoWriMo, provocative poetry book titles like A Luxury We Cannot Afford, and Singapore being the only country (to our knowledge) to produce more poetry than novels. And we’re writing to resist heartbreaks, inter-racial discord, technology, terrorism ... these are just a small sampling of what's out there.

Clara wraps up this section with a gem: Writing as resistance doesn’t just happen when you write a novel – every small piece of writing you do is a piece of resistance: in a podcast; on a Facebook status update; a personal blog post. It doesn’t have to be epic.

But are all forms of writing resistance?

Complaining, hate speech, baseless ranting, misrepresentation, and propaganda speech. We all nod in agreement that these forms are not considered resistance. Then, a contentious point arises: Can a completely bleak and tragic tale be a form of resistance? Someone says a hopeful ending will be encouraging, while another’s comment leaves the group in quiet contemplation: “Sometimes hope comes when it’s not a reality yet.”

What do you consider as forms of resistance and which ones are not?

We'll be continuing the conversation in Writing As Resistance <Part II> with Clara Chow on 9th March 2017, 7:30PM, at Marine Parade Library. Slides and writing exercises can be found here.


We’re revamping our monthly AfterWords sessions! We will be breaking down the year into three parts and each third will be moderated by one of our authors. Clara Chow, author of Dream Storeys, will be the first moderator from February to April. 

This session is part of #Whydoesthecagedbirdsing inspired by our new book, Payoh by Jim Tan. 

More event details >