Calling for Singapore Literature

American editors are showing a keen interest in the literature coming out of Singapore. In May last year, the much-esteemed journal Prairie Schooner published a Fusion issue of new Singapore writing and American writing from its archives. Revolving around the theme of “Bones,” the issue featured Singapore writers such as Yeng Pway Ngon, Rafaat Haji Hamza, Johar Buang, Yong Shu Hoong, Madeleine Lee, Toh Hsien Min, Jollin Tan, and the elusive Elangovan, alongside such American literary luminaries as Brenda Hillman, Marge Piercy and Annie Finch. In an essay specially written for the issue, “The Democracy of Bones,” journal editor Kwame Dawes describes the poetry of “bone”:

The English word bone is a fine poetic word. The sound is delicious because of the softening nasal sound that rhymes with the bilabial breathy “b” sound. And, of course, the vowel sound is that echoey “o” that carries in a theater. It is one of those Anglo Saxon words that has barely changed over the years—snub-nosed, punchy, and thick with allusive possibilities. To bone is both to take the bones out of something and to put the bones into something. The bone is a horn, it is the primal weapon, it is an erection, it is the act of sex, it is a gratuitous gift, it is what we become.

The guest-editor of the issue, Singapore poet Alvin Pang asks pointedly in his essay, “What to make of bones in a city that makes space for none?” and goes on to describe the different stances that the issue contributors take toward the country’s historical forgetfulness. Most moving is his reference to Yeng and Rafaat, “writing from once-powerful vernacular traditions driven to near-extinction by the homogenising force of national development within the space of a generation.” A signal achievement of Pang’s editorship is the gathering of Singapore authors writing in all four official languages, English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

Then, in the summer, MANOA, published by the University of Hawaii, released a special volume dedicated to Singapore writing. Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore collects essays, fiction and poetry by two dozen writers, including such stalwarts as Boey Kim Cheng, Philip Jeyaretnam, Ng Yi-Sheng, O Thiam Chin, Wena Poon and Alfian Sa’at, and exciting new voices such as Amanda Lee Koe and Nicholas Liu. Edited by Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Frank Stewart, the beautifully designed volume featured photographs of Singapore’s latest architectural designs, and archival images of Peranakan and Chinese families. The New York book launch, organized as a part of the Manhattan Lit Crawl, was attended by a standing-room-only crowd at St. Mark’s Bookshop.

Hard on the heels of Starry Island was the special Singapore issue “Focus on Ten Singapore Poets,” published by Blue Lyra Review on August 9, Singapore’s National Day. The review, edited by Matthew Silverman, aims to publish voices from diverse backgrounds. The Singapore issue featured new work by established writers such as Leong Liew Geok, Yeow Kai Chai, Grace Chia, Alvin Pang, Aaron Maniam and Cyril Wong, and newer voices such as Christine Chia, Tania De Rozario, Pooja Nansi and Joshua Ip–five women and five men.

In his essay, written in the form of a postscript, not an introduction, guest-editor Jee Leong Koh questions the idea of representativeness usually lurking behind such selections. No selection can represent adequately the diverse riches of even so young a literature as Singapore’s. He writes, “Ideally, a good selection should kindle the desire to read these poets, and their compatriots, more deeply.” His essay thus provides “no overarching narrative about Singapore poetry but only a series of micro-contexts and mini-juxtapositions that I hope are suggestive, but not complacent.”

This year, Singapore writing has already appeared in Drunken Boat, an influential on-line journal edited by Ravi Shankar. Issue 21 features a folio named “Union,” which collects new prose and poetry by Singaporean and American authors on the theme of Union. The Singapore net widens to include Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Jerrold Yam, Joey Chin, Desmond Kon, Loh Guan Liang, Zhang Jieqiang, Jeremy Tiang, and Quek Shin Yi. The American authors include Robin Hemley, Tim Kahl and Caits Meissner.

In his introductory essay, contributing editor Alvin Pang addresses head-on the question of joining two countries as different as Singapore and the USA. He argues, “Both are unapologetically diverse, Anglophone, globally oriented, and with the foundling’s sense of newness and possibility unshackled from (but not fully free of) old pieties.” The folio is, Pang notes, only “a first sortie” to find the commonalities between the two literatures. In fact, Pang and Ravi Shankar are putting together a book anthology of the two countries’ writings, also to be called Union. The anthology will be launched in New York City in September this year, as part of the Singapore Arts Festival, and in Singapore in November during the Singapore Writers Festival.

Now the editors of Hayden’s Ferry have come on board. Founded in 1986, Hayden’s Ferry Review is a semi-annual and international literary journal edited by the Creative Writing program at Arizona State University.  International editors Sue Hyon Bae and Aria Curis have decided to dedicate 30 – 40 pages of Issue 57 to a feature on Singaporean writers. The theme for the upcoming issue is Borderlands, as described below:

Borderlands are venues for encounter, exchange, and conflict. They encompass not only physical or legislative borders, but also abstract spaces—psychological, cultural, social, and natural. What happens in the limbic, the transitional, and the in between? What is gained and what is lost in the act of defining boundaries? What questions does the space raise of race, class, gender, citizenship, and identity? Hayden’s Ferry Review invites writers and artists to interpret the theme as they like. We’d prefer interpretations of a personal nature, rather than general, but mostly we just want strong, passionate pieces that excite and challenge.

The editors would like the work submitted to fit the Borderlands theme, interpreted according to the author’s wishes. Also, the work submitted should be previously unpublished. They accept prose (fiction and non-fiction), poetry, and translations.

Please send all submissions to both Sue Bae and Aria Curis:

The deadline is June 1, 2015.


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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