In Honor of Juno

A new journal of women’s writing has just been launched from Singapore by Grace Chia, poet and teacher. Named after the Roman goddess of marriage and domesticity, Junoesq publishes writing by women from Singapore and all around the world. Chia describes her mission in an editorial, “This is to be a platform in which I foresee a good blend of literature featuring “established” and debut writers; where the former’s voices lend a kind of mentoring guide to quality writing and the latter’s voices are heard as a fresh breath of new writing.”

The inaugural issue consists of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and interviews. In the poetry section, foremost Singapore poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng is represented by three poems from her recently-published Selected Poems, Soul’s Festival. She also speaks frankly about her own writing and the current Singapore literary scene in a long interview. The fiction section presents a wealth of riches: four short stories, two excerpts from longer works, and a piece of flash fiction. In the non-fiction section, four essays by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Diyana Mohamad, Patricia Karunungan, and Karen Tan Bee Lin  take center-stage.

SP catches up with Chia to find out more about the writer behind the editor.

 

SP: In your editorial, you write, “When I published my first book in 1998, it was done with bravado, youthful idealism and an over-excess of emotional catharsis that was necessary for the young poet in me then to walk the journey that would lead to this [journal].” What was the Singapore literary scene like when you were writing your first book of poems, womango? What was encouraging or discouraging to a woman writer like yourself at that time? Have things changed since then?

GC: My first book, womango, was a book-length collection of poems written over several years, from my late teens, and published in 1998 in my mid-20s soon after I had graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS). My literary journey was, mostly, a self-made affair in which I had no mentor, had not attended any creative writing workshops and didn’t know anyone in the literary scene. The book, as a result, was a mishmash of juvenilia from my teenaged years, sensuous adult confessional exhortations, concrete poetry and experimental poetics influenced by the avant garde poetry I was reading. In short, my rocky start was both an advantage and disadvantage – the first because I didn’t have any literary burdens I felt I had to carry or disavow; the second because I could have used a stricter editor or mentor. I don’t mention this to boast that I did it all on my own, but that I now recognize this creative bravado in my students and mentees who feel this urgency to be published without knowing much about local literature or wanting to read beyond their Anglophilic comfort zone.

Even though I had attended the Creative Arts Programme for Junior College students, I didn’t have a mentor as I applied too late to the programme, or so I was told. Logistics sometimes can change the course of events, as we all know. Even then, I was buying books about local writers and was familiar with the works of Claire Tham, Catherine Lim, Simon Tay, Philip Jeyaretnam, et al, and the late Bonnie Hicks, whom I have tenderly eulogized in a poem.

At NUS, I wanted to learn about literature in order to improve my writing, but the university didn’t – and still doesn’t – offer creative writing modules. The next best thing, I thought, was Theatre Studies, since it allowed me to read and dissect plays, understand character motivation, subtext, dramatics of action, dialogue, setting, etc, so I took that and English Literature as my subjects, the combination of which altered the way I saw poetry – space could be verbalized, expressed by the physicality of the body, or words, and then it hit me. I wanted my poems to move across the page as fluidly or discordantly as actors moved on stage. It made perfect sense.

The literary scene in Singapore in the 90s was already buzzing. When I was published, I remember being written up by Ong Sor Fern in a Straits Times article about emerging poets. Among many writers featured were Alvin Pang, Alfian Sa’at, Cyril Wong, Felix Cheong, Aaron Lee, Paul Tan, Gwee Li Sui, Daren Shiau, all the names that are now associated with the 90s third-wave poets. I was the only female in there, an observation which felt somewhat odd but flattering. I was surrounded by a bunch of guys and trying not to be cowed by them. I must say, my presence, whether as novelty or threat (I’ll never know, you’ll have to ask them) made me very much visible, even though I’ve never been much of an attention-seeking kind of person.

The difference in the way I was published was I had approached a random publisher who had never published poetry and who wanted to “diversify”, in his own words. In that sense, I didn’t have to compete with a manuscript from a male poet, although my publisher then decided on a joint-launch of womango and another poetry book also by an unknown poet, who was a British man. So yeah, my voice as a female poet in the 90s was a rare phenomenon in Singapore then, and seeing the number of female poets being published now in Singapore, I would say things have improved greatly.

The thing to note is that publishing in Singapore is sometimes segmented into traditional and indie publishers, but the lines are blurred somewhat, with indie becoming a mainstay and traditional often not even publishing poetry at all, mainly bestselling fiction, nonfiction and educational books. Publishing here, and elsewhere, is a minefield of relationships that I can’t impress enough on my students – for they still think that all manuscripts will be read and accepted based on fortuitous luck or desperate plea. It is always hard to be published for both men and women. If some women poets remain as wallflowers, they will be left out, for it is a competitive business, and the choices for publishing are limited.

 SP: You are now a mentor to young writers at Nanyang Technological University and other venues. “In the creative writing workshops I teach,” you write in your editorial, “I’ve encountered again and again the same narratives or themes involving depression, repression, isolation, ideation of death or suffering and questions of identity, many related to sexuality, gender and societal roles.” What have you found to be the most useful advice to these young women writers?

GC: This is an excellent question. Yes, I have met some students who have admitted to a history of not only depression, but clinical depression that includes hospitalizations, medication, and ongoing psychiatric or psychological counseling. These are extremely vulnerable adults, and most of them that I have encountered are women. I don’t know if it is because the men handle stress better or they hide their condition better, not wanting to reveal something like that to me. For the record, I didn’t coerce them to tell me their personal histories. They reveal themselves to me – I don’t know why. Perhaps it is due to the intimate nature of creative writing workshops that some of them feel like they can trust the space to unburden themselves. Maybe they are, like I said in my editorial, dying to be heard, to be understood, to feel less alone in their problems.

The thing about poetry is that it is the perfect medium for a writer to assume an intimate, confessional persona and voice while the subject matter could be something completely opposite. What I mean is that a poet could write in a first-person narration, “I love X” or “I hate Y”, then spin the narrative off to be about a duck on a carousel or about aliens invading the moon. So using this example, I try to convince my students that narratives can be used in poetry to write about themselves while talking about something else. This is the advice I give to them – asking them to open themselves up to their verses, to use it as a “talk cure” or in this case, a “write cure”. There is no cure just by penning down some lines, but perhaps the act of confessing, of revelation, of release, might just well be therapeutic. For this reason, and this alone, I believe creative writing as a subject should be instated in most, if not all, educational institutions, for it is a cheap and convenient outlet for many of our tortured young minds who find themselves isolated, misunderstood, unloved, stifled, coerced into life options they may not have chosen on their own.

Make no mistake, I am not blaming parents for parental pressure, for as a mother, I recognize that we often make choices for our children out of the best intentions; we wish our children will inherit the earth for we see their potential before they even know it’s there. But stress is a very real issue for students regardless of age, and sometimes, it is art or music or writing that gives them a bit of breathing space, and all schools should understand this, teach it as a subject, even if it’s (ideally) not graded.

SP: “You are also a mother. Junoesq, your journal, is named after Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage. How has motherhood affected your writing in terms of your process, preoccupations and, perhaps, even style?

GC: I think in terms of writing style I’ve stopped doing concrete poetry for the simple reason that nowadays, unlike the 90s, almost everyone has access to fancy computer software and can produce concrete poetry much better than the ones I can manage. The other difference is that as an actor then, I was extremely comfortable with the stage, and therefore was writing performative poetry, what is now called spoken word. Then, in the 90s, Singapore didn’t have poetry slams nor the proliferation of spoken word events and venues as it does now. I’ve since moved on from that form of poetics and I wish well the poets who are now writing this way. I must add also that right after the publication of womango, I left the country for many years, and the stuff that has since happened in Singapore has astounded me upon my return. It’s as if a revival of local literature has happened during my absence, getting more feverish in these recent years with Books Actually, an indie bookshop developing a notable publishing arm Math Paper Press, as well as Epigram Books, a design firm that found major success with Adeline Foo’s children books and now with multiple titles, including literary ones.

Gwee Li Sui [Ed: Singaporean poet and critic] has often said to me I have a unique style and voice, and I guess that means someone outside of myself recognize that I still write in a similar vein; which I do, using highly symbolic subjects in discordant or surrealistic ways, with a musicality and rhythmic beat that is influenced by my love of music (I’m a big fan of rock) and my frenetic speech pattern. I do write about my children, once in a while, but they are not major figures in my poems or prose, so I guess if I do write about parenting it comes from authentic experience, not conjecture – that being the most obvious difference. Also, having been away from my homeland for so long and now having returned, I write with a local but outsider perspective, from a real creative tension, so sometimes socio-cultural-political concerns bleed into my verses or they become centre-stage – something that is more related to being a returned émigré rather than a parent. About my writing process, that has definitely changed, for I can only write urgently and coherently when in solitude, which means when the kids are at school or asleep, like now, at 2.30 a.m. when I’m answering these interview questions despite the dulcet cooing of my bed.

End

Junoesq is open for submissions to its second issue. Deadline is 30 September.

 

Grace Chia Photo

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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