Hair Roots, Language Routes

The main literary journal of the country, the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, has just published Volume 13 Number 1. The issue offers many delights in various genres. “Starlight,” a poem by Jena Woodhouse, is intensely and rewardingly imagistic. Zhang Ruihe, last year’s winner of the Golden Point Award for English Poetry, re-imagines the biblical story of Legion from the point of the pig farmers.

In the short story section, particularly moving are two stories about male camaraderie, one between university friends, the other between army mates. Cyril Wong’s “Nobody Loves You Right Now” follows a young man with ESP and a friend deeply interested in the supernatural. “Left Behind,” by Anurak Saelow Hao, is a delicate portrait of a man who gave up the army life for a bland corporate world.

The title of this post is taken from the essay by Chew Yi Wei, who ruminates on the predominance of Mandarin and the loss of Chinese dialects in Singapore. Chew writes with heartfelt discernment about the difference between learning a language from life around you, and learning a language at school.

I first encountered the Chinese language as a toddler. Both my paternal and maternal grandparents spoke to me in Hokkien despite themselves coming from vastly complicated linguistic genealogies. It is difficult to remember exactly how I learnt the language. One could almost say that it grew into me naturally. There wasn’t any official lesson or textbook that set out to teach me how to speak Hokkien. Rather, it was the mundane gossip between my grandmother and her neighbour, the conversations that took place between my grandmothers and their children, the ordering of food at markets and hawker centres that made up my classroom. How I got to speak and understand this lively dialect was nothing short of organic, a linguistic acquisition that came with hearing, association and mimicry. I must confess that I am not too proficient in the language still, because soon after these very impressionable years, I was immersed in a whole new learning environment – a structured, planned and institutionalised one, which was a far cry from that visceral, loud soundscape encompassing my grandmothers’ households.

Sam Ng’s review of The Ministry of Moral Panic, a short-story collection by Amanda Lee Koe, is characteristically thoughtful and informative. You could also read the answers of Romesh Gunesekera, Claire Tham, and Cathy Park Hong to the Proust Questionnaire. The editorial by Chief Editor Toh Hsien Min tackles the topical issue of tribal instincts in Singapore. This issue of QLRS is full of good stuff.


About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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