Union, a literary anthology jointly published by Ethos Books Singapore and Drunken Boat Media, celebrates 50 years of writing from Singapore and 15 years of the US-based journal Drunken Boat. Editors Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar have assembled in one volume poems, stories, and essays that speak of their origins and across the distance between the two countries. Recently launched at the Singapore Writers Festival, the anthology will receive a hearing at the Asian American Writers Workshop on Monday, November 23, 7 pm. Contributors Christine Chia, Rand Richards Cooper, Rachel Hadas, Amanda Lee Koe, Jee Leong Koh, Sabina Murray, Gregory Pardlo, Stephanie Strickland, and Ravi Shankar will read from this seminal bilateral tome.
In the introduction to the anthology, the editors explain the compelling reasons for the collaboration.
2015 celebrates the 50th anniversary of Singaporean independence and the 15th anniversary of Drunken Boat, two occasions patently divergent, given that one is a city state and island country in Southeast Asia with a population two-thirds less than that of New York City, while the other is one of the world’s oldest electronic journal of the arts founded in New York City, out of a self-selective subculture devoted to the arts. Yet looking closer, one finds threads of commonality related to innovation, globalism, technology, humanism and collective vision that this anthology hopes to explore. 250 years, let alone 50 years, in the life of a nation is still a period of relative infancy, just as the 15 years that Drunken Boat has been in existence, roughly mirroring the ascendency of the internet in displacing and supplementing print-based technologies, is the inception of a Gutenberg-like paradigm shift whose effects are far away from being fully seen or experienced. An anniversary event presents us with the perfect occasion both to celebrate and to look backward, but also for a moment, to pause and to deliberate a vantage point from which to consider the vista. Take the work in this collection, then, as a literary field guide.
Singapore, much like America (although recent legislation in Arizona and Texas has highlighted how much we fear the very premise), is a diverse, polyglot society–yet it is seemingly much more at ease with its many tongues than, say, a middle American is with a Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant. To showcase the literature of Singapore is to delve into works in the country’s four main languages—English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil—each with its own historical trajectory, discrete enough that they might well be considered distinctive sub-literatures. The English language in particular—incepted with British colonialism in the 19th Century and taken up as the formal lingua franca by independent Singapore since the 1960s—has given expression to a growing and eclectic body of literature that must be reckoned with when we discuss global canon formation.
The work of colonial-era authors such as W. Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad are probably the more familiar among literary perspectives on Singapore, but some argue the first notable work of English literature written by a Singaporean was the book-length poem F.M.S.R., a pastiche of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land published in London in 1937, decades before Singapore’s political independence would be won. The author, Francis P. Ng, turns out to have been the pseudonym of writer Teo Poh Leng who disappeared during World War II. The letters in the poem’s title are an acronym for the Federated Malay States Railways that connected Singapore with the Malayan Peninsula of which it was the southernmost point and key port. Already evident were the ways in which the British colonial and industrial heritage was shaping the landscape of the imagination in this part of the world. Notably ahead of its time F.M.S.R. anticipates a moment later in the 20th century when collage and the cut up would colour poetics and literary experimentation. And to paraphrase Singapore’s dedicated librarians whose tireless work have preserved this and other gems: there’s lots more where this came from.
When Alvin Pang and I were discussing putting this ambitious collection together, one that spans continents while excavating a secret shared history of literary connections and confluences, he suggested to me that Singaporeans were becoming a “post-blurb” society: the public’s publishing appetite, which is considerable—Singaporean poets can move print runs up to the thousands in a city of five million—had begun to find the work itself sufficient and not in need of additional back-cover marketing, however well-meaning or bombastic. That small detail, certainly a divergence from the current climate of the American publishing industry, where celebrity trumps all, echoed back to me some of what I have come to feel about Singapore’s place in world literature: a thoughtful, creative, sophisticated, unorthodox curiosity from which American letters can learn a thing or two, a proposition that tacitly acknowledges how much Singaporean literature has already learned from the West and elsewhere. This book is meant to get at these unities.
For Drunken Boat’s part, just the fact that a decade and a half into our mission we would be publishing a book, that the physical artifact that we were overtly working against when we first began (because we are interested in publishing works online that could not exist in print—web art, digital media, hypertext, sound, video, interactive fiction), shows part of the surprising trajectory we’ve been traveling along. While many print journals have rapidly been transitioning to life online, we are doing the exact opposite, publishing now our fourth print collection (with the requisite e-book corollary of course). The reasons for this are manifold, and each project we’ve done has had its unique story of conception and realization, but whereas in the past, publishing in print was considered superior to publishing online, now no such distinction really exists, or rather the conversation no longer makes much sense. What was once an aesthetic and principled motivation for us to avoid print suddenly doesn’t seem as urgent, since a sea change has now taken place, making publishing online, once considered a curiosity, requisite for any venue wanting to be taken seriously.
At Drunken Boat we’ve always attempted to use the medium of the web to cross-pollinate the arts but also to promote global consciousness, to show that in the interconnectedness that the internet literalizes, there are reservoirs of shared humanity and ideas worth exploring around the globe. In the fifteen years we’ve been in existence—which these pages only partially trace of course, since the magazine was digitally born and much of the work cannot be represented in print—we’ve featured Pulitzer Prize winners such as Norman Mailer, Kay Ryan, Vijay Seshadri, and Franz Wright, giants of the visual art world such as Sol LeWitt and DJ Spooky, and folios on everything from “Aphasia” to “First Peoples Plural” to “Exploration.” We’ve put on live events in Los Angeles, New York City, Bombay and Frankfurt, and have a staff of nearly 30 individuals from around the world, but when we started we were a two-person operation with no clear models in sight.
The now-apocryphal story of Drunken Boat’s founding on a Brooklyn rooftop has been told too many times to be repeated here but it’s instructive to note that when it became clear that our little lark of a project had sprouted wings and was turning into something livelier and more complicated than a one-off art project, Michael Mills (Drunken Boat’s co-founder) and I looked around for other endeavors doing something similar to us. Imagine our surprise when we found two prominent models in Singapore; first, the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (www.qlrs.com), founded by poet Toh Hsien Min in 2001 and then Softblow (www.softblow. org) founded by poet Cyril Wong in 2004. Those journals were what first triggered my awareness of the richness of Singaporean literature.
There I found what I never expected, writers on the vanguard of linguistic experimentation, poets collaborating with filmmakers, anthologies such as our own Alvin Pang’s Tumasik (Autumn Hill Books) that celebrate instead of lament living in a multilingual society; Singlish, a rich patois of English served with sambal and curry paste; a thriving small press literary scene compromised of innovative publishers like Landmark Books, Firstfruits Publications, Math Paper Press and this book’s own co- publisher Ethos Books, and even a government infrastructure that actually seems to have helped support and grow the arts. And I found that the poets there were avidly reading American authors and deploying what they learned in their own work. Taking the Black Mountain School and filtering it through the Malay Peninsula, for instance.
This evocative and lively literary and arts culture stands in stark contrast to the image of Singapore that is exported by the mass media, for if you were to ask an average American what they knew about the country, odds are 1 in 3, if they knew anything at all, would respond, “Isn’t there where you can get caned in the street for chewing bubblegum?” The reality is that even if there continues to be a more conservative undertow to the creative proliferation that is taking place in Singapore—and there certainly seems to be if the recent controversy over Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) destroying children’s books that they considered not “pro- family” because they featured intimations of homosexuality and alternate ideas of family were any indication—it doesn’t seem to have affected the truly remarkable ways in which the Singaporean people have reinvented themselves in the last 50 years.
In math, an union is a logical set which consists of the elements common to two or more other sets; for textiles, it is a fabric made of two kinds of yarn or a yarn made of two sorts of fiber; this book presents a similar kind of union, an interbraiding of Singaporean literature with the best of Drunken Boat, which in itself evokes a certain kind of millennial innovation not possible before. Of course our hope is that this anthology also draws you back to the online journal, to the folio that Alvin edited in Drunken Boat #20 (http://www.drunkenboat.com) and to the other works—video, photo, sound, web art—that provide a rich dimensionality to our aesthetic imaginations. Whatever we might or might not agree with politically or socially in our respective countries, how lucky we are to share song and story with each other, ecstatically. For in the end, union is also conjugal and results in something being born, a shared awareness that out of this anthology we hope to see grow.
The seeds of this collaboration were sown at a discussion during the 2013 American Writers Festival in Singapore put together by the writer Kirpal Singh. The panelists, Shawn Wong, Suchen Christine Lim, Ravi and myself, had been prompted to draw meaningful comparisons between the Singapore and the US. It would be hard pressed to find two nations with greater disparity between them—in terms of size, heft, composition, politics and history, to state the obvious.
But I made a (perhaps foolhardy) case, that despite these differences, the US and Singapore were both post-colonial societies founded not on the basis of tribe nor creed, but on particular ideals—unity in diversity and equality before the law, for instance. Both might be seen as New World nations distinguishing themselves from the past yet sharing not dissimilar anxieties over similar qualities and opportunities that have also been salient strengths—cultural plurality, relative youth, a sense of exceptionalism in the world: inextricably bound to its currents despite perhaps a desire to be shielded from its excesses. A glib assertion, certainly, eliding complex and colored histories not often comfortably told. Yet it stirred enough interest for Ravi and I to consider pooling energies to explore these themes.
Corresponding over email as well as in person at AWP Conferences and other fortuitous encounters, we hatched a plan to proceed. We were to theme our collaborative project “Union”—ironically intended from the start, while suggesting a variety of touchpoints: the fact and aspiration of our collaboration; an allusion to the lofty ethos embodied in the “United States”, as well as of Singapore’s troubled Separation from Malaysia and subsequent sovereign coherence against the odds; literary fellows and comrades reaching for creative solidarity and meaning across borders and cultures; the word itself rich in connotations and correspondences that spool and spiral into the human world and all complexity. What keeps us together, and what pulls us apart? What is the relationship between these tidal forces? We felt that these were important questions central not only to the US and Singapore experiences, but also to the world at large, right now, in the early decades of the 21st century. We knew we wanted to explore pluralities and polyphonies (both within and across our communities), even if these may not necessarily prove harmonious nor conducted with ease, trusting that they might nevertheless be fertile and meaningful in ways we have yet to fully imagine.
I outlined and reflected on some of these ideas in an introduction which accompanied an initial folio of new, original pieces from both Singaporean and American, selected from material openly submitted to Drunken Boat on the theme of “Union” (See http://www.drunkenboat.com/db21/union); my thoughts in that essay extend to this book, which, I hope, expands the conversation. For this print volume, we reached for range: the Drunken Boat team selected material from its fifteen remarkable years of literary contributions, while I curated poetry, fiction and non-fiction that samples fifty years of literary production in Singapore across our four major literary languages. This is a Sisyphean task, even when it comes to a country of relative small size and youthful statehood. To keep things manageable, I restricted myself only to a subset of authors who have published a book. I have had to omit many genres of significant textural output and literary import in Singapore: including theatre, graphic narrative, film and spoken word. Most of the writing is originally in English; otherwise, work is featured here in English translation, along with the source text where possible. The translated pieces represent but a fraction of the dense non-Anglophone literary heritage Singapore enjoys but has yet to fully apprehend or engage with. I hope the pieces I have selected suggest many more opportunities for exploration to come, and that my literary compatriots will forgive any omissions they might find.
For this book, I mostly (but not absolutely) eschewed the familiar and monumental; looking beyond the oft repeated representative work of past generation of anthologies. Instead, I sought pieces that are strong reads in their own right, from a broader range of authors in Singapore, which at the same time resonate with our chosen themes in one or more ways as part of their own respective terms of engagement: writing, refracting, reflecting, responding to aspects of union. Plus points if the work also indicates the tacit and ongoing traffic between American and Singaporean communities and cultures through ties of trade, education, diplomacy, travel, creativity or kinship. An example: Alfian Sa’at’s “Singapore, You Are Not My Country” is a debut, but nevertheless highly influential, poem in our recent literary history, drawing inspiration from Ginsberg (and through Ginsberg, Whitman), in effect channelling important American literary precedents in its indictment of ersatz unities and uncritical pieties in Singapore’s flurried nation-building; the veteran Chinese writer Yeng Pway Ngon gives us “On The Operating Table”, which does something of the same, with much more texture, some three decades earlier. Simon Tay’s memoir Alien Asian, a series of reflective essays on his extended sojourn in the USA, articulates many of the keys ideas that prompted my thoughts on Union and on the unspoken correlations between Singaporean and American tropes: his sterling first chapter is included here. In contrast, “Conjunction”, from literary pioneer nonpareil Edwin Thumboo, is a later piece that transcends the strident, pragmatic nationalism of an earlier time to seek abstract and more profound unities of language, meaning, time and the kindled spirit. And then there’s Amanda Lee Koe’s striking fictional precis on Chineseness and the gaze, the likes of which might well have been found as much in New York as Singapore, or London, or any salon anywhere. Let the categories slip; let nationalities blur. It is 2015. If the works bewilder, let them bewilder—in the age of Google, there is no need to adhere to glossaries of the exotic. We have kept the spelling conventions in the texts as the authors have determined, for instance. We can co-exist in difference and reach for understanding.
Like the whole project of UNION itself, our aim was to suggest range rather than advocate a certain representativeness; we want to incite meaning; not to define but to inspire. The works in this volume have been arranged not into predetermined sections nor even a crude binary of US/ THEM (however one choses to slice the cake), but in alphabetic order of the authors’ names, regardless of their nationality nor text type—with author bios at the back of the book. We believe this to be democratic and most conducive to serendipitous readings and re-readings; we wanted to invite rather than impose connections, but we trust they will be ample and exciting. Let the conversations begin.
Our profound appreciation to the Drunken Boat team for their editorial eye, in particular Assistant Editors Ching In Chen, Kawika Guillermo and Emily Vizzo, and to Ethos Books: especially Fong Hoe Fang, Kum Suning and Tiffany Gwee, for their tireless efforts to bring the book to fruition, and the faith that it matters. Without the support of our contributors, nor of the National Arts Council of Singapore, this volume would of course not have been possible. Our thanks are not enough but we offer them nevertheless.
Alvin Pang & Ravi Shankar
Reprinted by permissions of editors and publishers, the introduction appears in UNION: 50 Years of Writing from Singapore and 15 Years from Drunken Boat (Drunken Boat Media and Ethos Books, 2015). The anthology may be purchased from the USA and Singapore.
Alvin Pang is a poet, writer, editor and cultural activist. His two volumes of poetry, Testing The Silence (Ethos Books, 1997) and City Of Rain (2003) were listed among The Straits Times‘ Top Ten Books of the Year. He is also co-editor of several acclaimed anthologies, including the urban collection No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry (2000) and the bilateral initiatives Love Gathers All (Philippines), Over There (with Australia) and Doubleskin (with Italy). A Fellow of the Iowa International Writing Program, his writing has been featured in major publications, productions and festivals around the world. He is a founding director of WORDFEAST – Singapore’s first international poetry festival, and CATALYST – a non-profit organization promoting interdisciplinary capacity, multilingual communication, and positive social change.
Ravi Shankar is an award-winning poet, author, translator, professor and founding editor of Drunken Boat, one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts. His many books include Autobiography of a Goddess, translations of the 8th century Tamil poet/saint Andal done with Priya Sarukkai Chabria; W.W. Norton & Co.’s Language for a New Century, called a “beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer; the winner of the 2011 National Poetry Review Prize, Deepening Groove; and the finalist for the 2005 Connecticut Book Awards, Instrumentality. He has been featured in The New York Times, on NPR and the BBC, held fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and has performed his work around the world.