Raffles Reviews – Snapshots of Singapore

By Angus Yip (18A01A), Yeo Kee Hwan (18S03Q) and Nicki Chan (18S03C)

Raffles Press is back with the third instalment of our collaboration with BooksActually reviewing local literature! The school term is (finally!) drawing to a close, so we have picked out three candidates for your holiday reading.

The Desire for Elsewhere – Agnes Chew

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The Desire for Elsewhere, by Agnes Chew [Photo: BA]

In “The Desire for Elsewhere”, Agnes Chew writes about a traveller who recounts the myriad of adventures she has had in foreign lands. These experiences range from a volunteer trip to a rural school, to a conversation with a tour guide with a tortured past, and even a journey to the centre of a volcano.

The book is structured into 3 sections: “Nostalgia”, “Parallel Planets”, and “The Vast Unknown”, with the narrator reminiscing on experiences she associates with certain objects that she owns.

As the narrator recounts these memories, she links them to certain ideas she holds about life. The thread connecting all these stories is the belief that life may be ephemeral, but remains full of possibilities. The choices we make in navigating this labyrinth is what gives life meaning, impacting both ourselves and others. As the narrator so eloquently puts it, “At the point of extinction of our species, what myriad canvases would we have created? What kinds of museums would we each have left behind through our fleeting presence on this Earth?”

On that note, there is something to be said about Chew’s lyrical writing style. Her poetic writing allows for every event to be imbued with a romantic atmosphere, such that even the most mundane events take on new life.

On the whole, this book may not be a jaw-dropping thriller, but I found myself turning page after page in excitement, delighting in the ways in which the narrator evokes images of exotic lands, of memories she holds so close to her heart.

Keeping Skeletons – Tan Lixin

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Keeping Skeletons by Tan Lixin [Photo: BA]

From the back cover: “Keeping Skeletons is about the fight to let dreams stay alive and to remain true to oneself in a place where oppression is rife. It is an exploration of one’s attempts to save what will be lost or stolen, to keep memories of what we hold dear.”

Tan Lixin, author of 2 poetry collections and winner of multiple awards at high-profile competitions such as the Commonwealth Essay competition, has attempted the uncommon: melding science and art together, by using the human anatomy to structure her collection of poems.

In line with the title of the collection, various parts of the human anatomy were used to section the books. Starting with bones for poems about ‘structural identity’, she continues with ‘skin’ dealing with ‘the surface and the superficial’, and finally the ‘brain’ for ‘keeping memories alive’.

Interestingly, she also includes clinical descriptions of the organs alongside the poetry, creating a sense of detachment. This is juxtaposed against her exploration of themes which are likely close to the heart. These range from broader themes of being brave and being different, to more niche concerns such as struggling to construct one’s identity, the difficulties in creating art, or even, daringly, the desire to challenge the Establishment.

Two connected pieces, “education 0.1” and “0.2” respectively, may speak to us in particular. The subject matter is familiar, if perhaps not always discussed in depth: how the confines of a rigid education stifles the creativity that young minds are capable of.

Writing as a university student, Tan offers an intimacy and wistfulness which does not often appear in intellectual debates about the strengths and weaknesses of our education system. She laments, that “you cannot see/ what you had seen/ yesterday, free with/ an imagination of your own.” This refreshing frankness and honesty appears time and again throughout the collection, treating every subject in a barefaced manner, only slightly dolled up in pretty words and frequent line breaks.

And Other Rivers – Lee Jing Jing

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And Other Rivers by Lee Jing Jing [Photo: BA]

And Other Rivers by Lee Jing Jing features a collection of poems distinctly infused with Singaporean culture. Through each poem, Lee carefully and intimately explores the intricacies of Singapore’s diverse cultural heritage through different anecdotes from various perspectives. Readers can expect to break fast on page 8, watch a man work at an antique sewing machine on page 36, even sit watch at a traditional Chinese funeral – with every turn of a page, And Other Rivers opens a door to a new world.

Lee’s poetry carries a highly personal touch, such that each poem is read like a confession of something vulnerable. Each of Lee’s poems has a story to tell, through the eyes of someone new. Whether these stories are about the familiar traditions we grew up with, or the distant ones our grandparents might have fondly spoken of, one may feel a sense of warmth after reading these nostalgic tales.

And Other Rivers picks us up and sweeps us gently away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, and into the comfort of our own senses, allowing us to experience, albeit vicariously, the familiar and unfamiliar. Lee’s work, full of memories and musings, opens doors to new worlds and urges us to think about our own.

 

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