By Joan Ang (17A01B) and Ernest Lee (17A01A)
It is a common practice in any vaguely literature-related classroom to, during introductions, go around the room and say a few things: firstly, your name, and secondly, your favourite book. There’s usually a bit of uncomfortable shuffling, and people nudging the person on their left to say something to break the silence. A few big names are then thrown out—J.K. Rowling, Haruki Murakami. At least two people say “I don’t have a favourite book,” followed immediately by nervous laughter.
However, what has always stood out about such situations to the writers is the lack of local names mentioned. Ask someone whether they’ve read anything by Cyril Wong, and the first response is usually, “who?”, followed by, “I don’t read local anything, sorry.” In fact, a 2015 survey conducted by the National Arts Council indicated that only 1 in 4 readers have read any local literature, with most respondents citing a lack of awareness of Singaporean literature and authors as a key reason.
In an effort to combat this, the NAC annually organises the Singapore Writers Festival, inviting both local and international writers and artists to present at events over the course of 10 days. The festival serves to promote writing and reading in Singapore, hosting book launches, as well as performances and Meet-the-Author sessions.
The highlight of the festival? Numerous panel discussions, each typically featuring three to four experienced authors. These could focus on anything, from “the Hipster Invasion of the Local Food Scene” to “The Literary Glass Ceiling”. One of the clear themes that emerged from this year’s topics was the “meta” of Singaporean literature (or SingLit)—essentially, what makes a story Singaporean?
The most intuitive response to this, as noted by many panellists, would be the presence of national icons. When referenced in writing, HDB blocks, Singlish or the Merlion ground pieces in Singapore and Singaporean concerns, making it easily identifiable as SingLit. Students from RGS may recall that when asked to write a Singaporean short story, localisation via landmarks such as the Esplanade or SBS Transit granted you marks for making the story “Singaporean”.
That said, literature written in Singapore, or about Singapore, does not a Singaporean story make, as seen with Joshua Ip’s online decrying of A Gentleman’s Game, by Jonathan Lethem. On the other hand, something thematically non-Singaporean may still be constituted SingLit, if written by a Singaporean.
In the panel “What Makes a Story Singaporean?”, Balli Kaur Jaswal noted that her novels, Inheritance and Sugarbread, do not focus on what is considered a ‘typical’ Singaporean experience, the former exploring the lives of a Punjabi family in the 1970s–1990s, yet they are undeniably considered by many to show part of the “Singaporean experience”, and hence SingLit.
More puzzlingly, something based in Singaporean experiences, yet not written by a Singaporean citizen, may also be considered SingLit. For instance, Me Migrant by Md Mukul Hossine, focuses on the experience of a migrant worker, presented and expressed through poetry. Mukul is not Singaporean—yet, his works are very much rooted in the “Singaporean experience” as well.
Labelling a literary work “Singaporean” is hard enough. When a festival presents itself as not just one of ‘Singapore’, but of ‘Singapore Writers’, the assumption is that every topic, every panel discussed here is one thoughtful about Singapore.
The selection of these writers, these books and panel topics was done not by the writers themselves, but by an organising team. Events at the festival are therefore not subject to the personal preferences of the panellists, but instead display the concerns of the team themselves, made clear through panels such as “Canon-Making and Canon Anxiety” debating the question: does a Singaporean canon even exist?
Within these panels, panellists agreed that this question could even be asked makes the answer self-evidently ‘no’. At the very least, a canon that is well-defined, agreed upon and documented does not exist. At the very best, some key figures are prominent and can be pointed to: Edwin Thumboo, for one, is easily and often referenced.
Panellists, in their capacity as writers who respond and add to existing bodies of work, did share their thoughts on the body of Singaporean literature. Between them, writers could not wholly agree on what should constitute a Singaporean literary canon, or what even defines a Singaporean story.
Newer writers that develop and write in our current postcolonial era have different concerns from an older and renowned generation of writers. This older generation, including Thumboo, would have lived in both colonial and postcolonial periods, with different established traditions at their point of writing. This adds the dimension of time, which further complicates the concept of Singaporean literature. With today’s prominent names coming from both generations, a ‘Singaporean canon’ and its likely concerns are harder to describe.
This somewhat new generation of writers and the even younger official systems of patronage, make it difficult for both readers and writers to agree on what might constitute a canon. Whereas countries like the UK or USA appoint a poet laureate to legitimise and designate in an official capacity national concerns and identities, such a system is absent here. Awards and prizes, even if official, do not give literature the same weight in nation building.
Despite the multilingual nature of Singapore, works are often published exclusively in one of our many languages. Even with constant governmental emphasis on interaction between communities, little crossover occurs. This is an issue of both writers and readers: mother tongue languages do not see enough publicity and readership, which in turn discourages investment from publishers and writers in translation, and fragments an already small body of work into further pockets.
This challenge in defining the eponymous ‘SingLit’ does not just hinder an abstract, intellectual exercise. If there is no coherent, easily definable way to characterise Singaporean literature, exporting and marketing this body of work is difficult. If local bookstores like Kinokuniya cannot decide which section Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal should be sorted into, what books would we even see at an overseas Singapore Literature Festival?
The Singapore Writers Festival’s annual country focus, on Japan in 2016 and Indonesia in 2015, shows an ability to pinpoint what literature can showcase and exemplify in a country’s culture and consciousness. Can the same be said for Singapore? Perhaps this complexity in defining SingLit is intertwined with the complexity of the Singaporean identity. The relationship between these two identities is symbiotic, with each side’s development driving and refining the other.
Perhaps Singapore’s literature is then hard to define, not purely, but in part because of its youth. When asked about the formation of a Singaporean literary canon, panellist Philip Holden was very clear on this: at the moment, a SingLit canon should be organically formed, and only immediately defined for academic purposes. Any definitions would be restrictive. Before we can even define what a canon is, we must organically develop enough material to form a selection, rather than just big names subject to idiosyncrasy.
How can this be done? Supporting local authors, publishers and booksellers with simple acts of purchase gives them the impetus to further create and diversify Singaporean literature. In #sglitftw, all four panellists heavily stressed the importance of dollar votes in helping the scene grow and the value of an inclusive SingLit community, without which they would, in the words of Kenny Leck, “go bankrupt sia.”
More abstract help would be the acknowledgement and legitimisation of Singaporean works, be it through attending festivals or through more large-scale publicity along the lines of BooksActually’s book vending machines. Participating in SingLit events, spreading SingLit through word of mouth—all these help to support and develop the Singapore literary scene, and by extension, the commonly-argued-to-be-nonexistent Singaporean culture.
Embedding an entire body in a nation’s cultural consciousness is indeed no easy task, and neither this article nor the numerous panellists at Singapore Writers Festival pretend to know any easy answers. The simple act of involving oneself in any community of literature, however, is as simple as checking out a bookstore or buying interesting books: who knows, you might even catch Gwee Li Sui debating drunk.
Obligatory SingLit Title Recommendation List To Prove We Walk The Talk
Books (at the writers’ discretion)
- What Gives us Our Names by Alvin Pang (Prose)
- Tender Delirium by Tania de Rozario (Poetry)
- A History of Amnesia by Alfian bin Sa’at (Poetry)
- Me Migrant by Md Mukul Hossine (Poetry)
- The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (Graphic Novel)
- A Luxury We Cannot Afford edited by Christine Chia and Joshua Ip (Poetry/Prose)
- Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe (Prose)
Bookstores, Publishers and Shops (non-exhaustive)
- Books Kinokuniya (bookstore, multiple outlets)
- BooksActually, 9 Yong Siak Street, Singapore 168645 (bookstore)
- Woods in the Books, 3 Yong Siak Street, Singapore 168642 (bookstore)
- Books Ahoy, 583 Orchard Road, #02-03 FORUM, Singapore 238884 (bookstore)
- Math Paper Press (boutique publisher)
- Ethos Books (boutique publisher)
- Epigram Books (boutique publisher)
- Landmark Books (boutique publisher)
- Red Wheelbarrow Books (boutique publisher)
- Firstfruits Publications (imprint publisher)
- Sing Lit Station (literary non-profit)