Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Singapore's Fiction Famine

One of the great conundrums of local writing - how come Singapore produces so many excellent poets but comparatively few writers of fiction? And why does that situation seem to be reversed in Malaysia? Of course it is something of an oversimplification, but on Eric Forbes' blog, poet Ng Yi-Sheng suggests some reasons :
... the easy answer is that poems take less time to write. Singapore’s a busy country. Most of us have day jobs; those of us still in school often have night tuition. It’s hard to carve out a chunk of time to write the Great Singapore Novel, or even a full-length play. It’s much easier to scribble out a poem on the bus in between stations, or while waiting for our systems to defrag.

Another answer is that communities of poets have developed. The seminal moment for this was the Singapore Literature Prize in 1995, which allowed unpublished poetry manuscripts. The official victor was Roger Jenkins’s From the Belly of the Carp, which has faded into literary obscurity, but the runners-up were a band of 20- and 30-somethings, eager and determined to develop Singapore literature anew.

The Class of ’95, as they call themselves, were Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, Boey Kim Cheng, Yong Shu Hoong and Heng Siok Tian. They organised readings, lobbied bookshops to stock their works, travelled overseas for literary festivals and put together grand, ambitious anthologies (e.g. No Other City, a collection of urban poetry where names of poets were relegated to the index, so that laureates and neophytes rubbed shoulders to form a polyphonic national epic).

I was lucky enough to be present in those early years: an awkward, closeted schoolboy, chanting my free verse at Chijmes, the old National Library, Borders and the old MPH bookshop. What was really great was that these guys were approachable and inclusive, paying for our dinners at mid-priced Indonesian restaurants while they discussed politics and culture, bringing us along on overnight train rides as part of poetry delegations to Kuala Lumpur. Without their encouragement, I might never have dared to print my verse.

And today, it’s the same story. The Class of ’95 and the poets who followed them continue to be the crusaders of homegrown lit. There’s Cyril Wong and Toh Hsien Min, who run online literary journals Softblow and Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore respectively. There’s Chris Mooney-Singh, who hosts poetry slams and coaches students in performance poetry. There’s Enoch Ng, a Chinese-language poet, who cranks out award-winning volumes of verse in Mandarin and English from his one-man publishing house, Firstfruits.

Poetry in Singapore is alive and well, not just because of our preference for bite-sized creations, but because poets are working hard to make themselves heard. Thus, we’ve got communities, not only of writers, but also of readers, willing to support us as well as the newer poets who emerge year after year.
He makes the point though that the media in Singapore largely ignore the poets (but were very keen to pick up on short story writers Wena Poon and O Thiam Chin after the Singapore Literary Festival).

But, he says, he can't think of :
... a single other Singaporean fiction writer who’s emerged and published in the 2000s ... it's a fiction famine ...
He reckons though that there is hope for the future :
The literary agency Jacaranda Press is actively seeking out Singapore fiction for a global market. There’s a new grant from the National Arts Council called the Arts Creation Fund, supplying enough cash for people to actually to take a long-term break from their jobs and churn out a humongous tome. November has even been declared a NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month, an exercise wherein participants are committed to churning out 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days. ... Not surprisingly, the Class of ’95 has also leapt to the rescue. Poet Alvin Pang has teamed up with The British Council in Singapore to set up a week-long writers’ retreat on the island of Pulau Ubin, with novelist coaches from the UK’s Arvon Foundation to goad us into writing fiction. I attended the retreat myself in October 2009, one of 12 participants gathering in pondoks with laptops and notepaper, five of whom were fellow poets. I’ve borne witness to the workshops, and I can assure that there’s some great prose bundled up in some of us, waiting for a moment to break free.
(This piece will be appearing in the next edition of MPH's Quill magazine.)


Zed Adam said...

Writing poem is much easier? It's the opposite for me, I could never write a good one. I've written several but they turned out to be too lyrical with multilevel symbolism, and mostly cheesy. :p

Subashini said...

I don't think poems are easier to write. If you're aiming to write a good one, it requires as much time, focus, and energy as writing a piece of fiction. You can probably jot down the kernel of an idea or thought while you're on the bus, etc., but you could also do that for short story. The writing of the thing can't be that simple as to be done while hanging about waiting for the MRT.

It seems easier to write poetry, however, because it's easier to be lazy with poetry. String a bunch of pretty-sounding words together and pass it off as a 'poem.' Better still, make your meaning utterly unknown in order to be more 'poetic.' And voila... a poem.

I suppose this means that Singaporeans are lazier than Malaysians? Ha.

Anyhow, I think maybe Malaysians are closet poem-writers. There's still a lot of stigma about poetry here. People misguidedly think that poetry is synonymous with arty-farty pretension, and I suspect that's why Malaysians feel braver stepping out with their fiction, but less so with poetry. Possibly there's something to his point about there being a more visible and supportive community of poets in Singapore.

gnute said...

Maybe it also has to do with more Singaporean students than Malaysian ones sitting for GCSE A Levels Literature papers, which covers contemporary poetry? They probably come across contemporary poetry more and at an early age.

dreamer idiot said...

It's easier to be lazy with poetry? Mmmm, I don't quite agree, though I can understand why this might be partly true. However, for really good poetry, one can't afford to be lazy at all. A misplaced phrase or word in a poem can be pretty jarring, unless that is its intended effect... or if it is used in those avant-garde poems posing in a postmodernist vein (some in the pretension of poetry).

Singaporean poets (in general at least) do craft their words, but I suppose some do fall short from being "great". But, still, we can still take a leaf (or is it subconsciously, taking leave) from how Singaporean poetry grew organically, as it were, as part of people's efforts to promote it, even when it is very little appreciated at all. And the efforts by older, established poets to mentor the younger ones (this, we malaysians, have a problem). If I'm not mistaken, Nic Wong grew under such mentoring, and benefited from such an encouraging environment.

But...I do see signs of a gradually emerging (yet submerged) poetry scene in Malaysia. People like Reza, Liyana, Han, Sheena etc...

Amir Muhammad said...

The weather was great
Yi-Sheng is a cool dancer!
Ubud memories

(see? easy haiku. and factually correct!)

onekell said...

How about Tan Hwee Hwee?