Lecture by GWEE Li Sui at the double-bill SWF Lecture: Unwritten Country on 5 November 2016. The other lecture was Boey Kim Cheng’s “Reflections of a Returnee”. GWEE is a Singaporean poet, graphic artist, and literary critic.
I have been invited to do something today I don’t technically do. I have been invited to peer into something I don’t own, a crystal ball, to tell you about something nobody knows: the future of Singaporean literature.
It’s a crazy invitation, and I cannot say what has given the SWF team the impression that I can do this. I’m the guy – some of you know this – who, at the last General Elections, betted on PAP winning no more than 65% of the votes. That went so well. Now I cannot eat laksa until the next General Elections!
My friends are advising me not to bet in the upcoming US Presidential Election. Maybe, whoever I choose, they will bet on the other candidate?
So Luck really doesn’t favour me although I’m always game for a challenge. So here but for the grace of God I stand. To get it right, I mustn’t rely on this amorphous, bet-losing quality I have called my instinct. I need to proceed scientifically – which is to say, I will use historical data, the empirical method, and cold logic. I will draw from observable trends that stretch from the past to now, in order to construct a future.
After all, “[h]e who controls the past controls the future”… and “[h]e who controls the present controls the past”. Who said that? It was a totalitarian slogan in George Orwell’s 1984.
Anyway, I can do this because I’ve been involved in our literary scene for what seems like the bulk of my life. I believe that I should know enough and – in the spirit of this festival – sayang it enough. This knowledge isn’t for the faint-hearted or the short-attention-spanned. Edwin Thumboo once called himself the footnote man. Maybe I can call myself the table-of-contents man.
As a whole, Singaporean literature has changed a tremendous lot. Today, we may take for granted the climate we have and suppose that it will always be this way. But History reveals to us otherwise. It hasn’t always been like this… and there’s no reason to believe that it will stay so either.
In fact, things were relatively controlled and sleepy and low-key – at least as I remember it – for a long time until around the late-1990s. Since then, whatever can be said about the state of our literature practically goes out of date every five years! When, for example, I re-read something I had described back in 2009, I find that it is no longer relevant or accurate. When I read even older surveys by others, they are like notes from a distant universe, news from nowhere.
So how has our literary world changed? Let me boil it all down to three main factors; there may well be more.
Firstly, there has been a steady loss in centralisation, what once followed a powerful alliance between state direction and academic interest. There used to be a narrative, one through which an idea of what made Singaporean literature Singaporean could be argued. Arthur Yap on HDB mothers – check. Gopal Baratham on ISD – check. We had a clear sense of what was in the canon – that now-despised C-word! – and, in this light, educational and what conversely lay outside, pointless and not talked about.
This power base has since been weakened, its bell tolled when literature fell out of standard school curricula almost three decades ago. How it could have happened may perhaps be described tersely with the Singlish word “ownself”. They ownself. It was as though the institutional powers started believing their own constructs, that literature was too personal, impractical, and useless, that Singaporean literature was too boring and limited to study.
So the hand of control moved somewhere else, and a once panopticon, a space of careful management, turned into what is more like a tech support centre at state level and, in the academic context, a junkyard.
That, actually, is good – because, with such pressures lifted, the second trend could happen. The very notion of what literature was started changing back to its more natural meaning. Literature simply is what literature does.
So, unlike those who moan and moan about the loss of literature as a school subject – and they still do sporadically in The Straits Times – I’m personally quite happy with it. Teachers, please don’t beat me up until after the lecture… with, maybe, a headstart? The change may be bad for institutional learning, but it has been great for writing!
Writing is freed from a predefined way of naming it. With this freedom has come a forgetting of what once divided its parts. We now see children’s literature, speculative fiction, supernatural fiction, humour literature, translations, comics, among others, treated on a par by readers – and that can’t be bad! Literature has exploded like a shaken can of Coca-Cola and become not just society-, history-, or tradition-based.
In a third related trend, the nature and activity of writing have also changed. Writing has become increasingly – though not yet fully – something we can call a vocation. To be sure, I must assure you that the development of every literate society has seen this emergence, the birth of a consciousness. Because writing is not just a talent but also a craft, it is only natural that writers soon realise that they need to own the opportunity to hone their skills.
After all, you cannot develop your full potential as, say, an engineer if you’re a part-time engineer. You cannot become a great statesperson if you’re not a full-time politi… – never mind that one.
Once, writing as a career had been inconceivable. Whenever parents and teachers learnt that their kids possessed an aptitude in language, they herded them away, towards something more worthwhile and profitable like the legal profession. Writing is tang bo jiak one – that is to say, it earns you nothing to eat.
But, beginning with the late career of the amazing fiction writer Catherine Lim, all that has changed. If Lim wasn’t the first to have made writing courageously her main commitment, she certainly was the first to have inspired aspiring writers to rethink their life goals. Several of us went on to unteach ourselves to want other things in life less than we wanted to write and then to take the bold step of making it a day job.
Someone may claim how efforts to inter-relate the four language traditions of our literature are also growing – but this is only half-right. The interest existed before from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, then faded away, only to re-emerge some fifteen years later. It hasn’t been stable and largely depends on the determination and vision of individuals.
So, observing just three main trends, we can project what the future of Singaporean literature will look like to a fair degree.
We can anticipate Singaporean literature to be a greater challenge to understand and contain, let alone teach – only because of the gulf widening between receding academic interest and the phenomenal hyper-expansion of literary pursuits. This means that there will soon be a rise in multiple, even competing, concepts of Singaporean literature.
At the creators’ level, freed from the burden of knowledge, with little to no Bloomian anxiety of influence as it were, writing will surely get weirder and bolder in many senses of this word. So we can certainly expect more exciting stuff, but we can also expect to be surprised more regularly by our renewed thoughts on tradition.
After all, who had guessed once that Alfian Sa’at’s poem “Singapore You Are Not My Country” could become today the spiritual successor to Edwin Thumboo’s “Ulysses by the Merlion” – something even many who don’t read poetry know? Who could have known as late as two years ago that the closest to a Great Singaporean Novel might be a graphic novel?
And we can expect writing as vocation to move from being imaginable to socially professional. This means that writing’s social role, as what can transform society fundamentally, will become increasingly clear and better understood in a way that it still isn’t today. Whether or not the day-to-day support comes is incidental to this fact that we’re already moving in this direction created by a consciousness.
These are at least general developments. But you ask: can I make more practical predictions, predictions more consequential to the writing scene? Yes, I believe I can. But bear in mind that this won’t be me enabling a certain reality by speaking of them – in fact, I very much wish that it won’t be the case. But, for this, I need to look for fault lines, and, to find these, I must note rather what, despite the changes, hasn’t changed.
Firstly, while, for some years now, we have been experiencing a momentum – a larger-scale SWF, a more ambitious, culturally ranging Singapore Literature Prize, a Singapore Poetry Festival, and so on – yet much of it still draws on institutional support. This is a necessary and, in itself, not a bad model as other national models such as the vibrant Korean model can show.
Yet, as a bird’s wings also make it slower on its feet, what is a factor is always also a limitation. Here we have a conditional arrangement, and conditionality implies two things. First, there exists a level of influence external to writing and so the Democles’s sword of censorship still hangs. Conditionality also implies that, as support may need non-literary justification, an amount of arbitrariness comes into play. Support can always be diminished or even pulled out at any time.
Can I say that? Did I just hesitate? Our literary climate lives under these conditions.
While writing will always survive with or without an audience, vibrancy is a different matter. Will our literary and publishing scene be strong enough to withstand a hypothetical cutback? Or must writing be expected to know and internalise its creative boundaries – so as not to bait the tiger – to the extent that this affects writing’s own subconscious quest for the new, for something that needs to be said at a human level, with teeth bared?
There is a second and even more disconcerting issue. Now, if the growth of our literature had been kept in check in the past by stigma and dissuasion, it is being promoted and enhanced today by prizes and recognition. That’s effectively two sides of the same coin! How many of our writers will still write or can afford to write when it is once again unfashionable or unacceptable to do so? Because that is how we can truly know if there has been literary maturity.
You see, the fixation on accolades, sales figures, international publishing deals, attendance at literary events, and so on cannot be what our literature, as content, is about. Yet, this is what you see all the time plastered in the media, or, should I add, this is what you only see. That tells me a lot. It tells me that what is encouraged at a level more fundamental than writing alone is quantifiable, non-literary benefits to the status quo and – damaging to deeper literary considerations – pragmatic self-interest.
From this, we can already think of two connected scenarios that are, to use Singlish again, same-same but different.
In one, imagine that the worst happens; the tap for literature is indeed turned off. The state computes that it is more worthwhile for Singapore to become a world sports hub – in fact, a Nation of Olympians – or to champion another cultural form like film or pop music, given our recent advance in Sing! China. It can happen!
National attention and massive resources will then be rechanneled in this direction. In no time, fewer will care for writing, and fewer read. Those who read would rather pick up the next Dan Brown novel or E. L. James novel… perhaps 51 Shades of Grey. Nothing wrong with that – but, as was once the case, Singaporean writing ironically becomes invisible in Singapore again.
Without support, our publishers will struggle to survive as businesses, weighing inevitably against non-profitable literary books. Translation, being expensive, will be the first to go. Poetry will become a permanent casualty. Theatre will diminish against the preference for safer, imported Broadway plays.
The quality of writing drops; the scope for exploration narrows. This will be the worst of all possible worlds.
But, in another scenario, the obverse that is only outwardly better, literature thrives sensationally but emptily. Our writers will write exotica to indulge a wider audience, successfully, seeking international publishers as you might seek posh clothing brands, to be dressed up as superior. Economic gain and neo-imperialism become bedfellows. Our better writers will chase after prestigious accolades, drawn to stylistic formulas and social themes that have defined previous winners – against their own preferences.
The goals of the writer and the goals of the state merge seamlessly. A writer succeeds; someone’s KPI at NAC dazzles. Posturing for an international market will mean leaving behind the value of a located consciousness. Writers and readers will care less and less for the cultural meaning of, say, Rex Shelley or Lee Tzu Pheng.
Meanwhile, our press will talk on and on about our international standing, our having arrived as a Nation of Literature, parading a string of photographs and success stories of prize-winning and internationally published names in Straits Times Life!. SWF will become less an opportunity to interrogate and deepen culture, where what writers struggle over becomes manifest, than a showcase and a marketplace for culture.
For the world, another grand cultural exhibition is to be yet another tourist trap, another shadow-play. For Singaporeans, it is to be a means to self-congratulate, another chance to believe that everyone now enjoys a higher quality of life… because osmosis.
Strip away the trimmings, and what counts as worthwhile literature in this second Singapore isn’t quantitatively more than in the first since those who will write genuinely will still write. But these writers will here be reactionaries – because there is so much to write against, to struggle against. As such, these will become ideologues by necessity. They will be drawing energies away from their default potential to take their imagination and their readers’ imagination to a new, progressive place.
These parallel and yet identical futures are sobering. But, by negating their negatives, we can see that there is a third, ideal scenario. There must be a third way. It resembles the second scenario in some aspects, but it is healthier because it is less anxious and more enlightened.
In this Singapore, the newsmaking meteors may come and go, but what people will talk more about is writers, books, and their ideas. The press will talk more about these. It will discuss the interests of works and the aesthetics of writers and make connections within literary traditions. The common goal of social beings will be to manifest and sustain the magic of writing, the power of writing.
Our readers will read Singaporean literature not to support Singaporean writing – can we stop saying that already? – but to encounter truly gripping works. Our readers will grow out of a blind awe for literary celebrities and into a committed dialogue with creators as thinkers.
We may have more book clubs – but, above and beyond that, we will have general knowledgeable citizens who understand the social disservice of wanting to pulp books they disagree with. We will understand that writing is precisely that place to experience newness and otherness, what constitutes basic knowledge!
You see, the true future of writing doesn’t lie in an environment with writing, award-winning or bestselling writing, but in an environment conducive for writing. And, for that to take shape, there has to be an understanding and respect for imaginative freedom.
Writing has to break out of its compartment in language. For example, our policy-makers and leaders ought to be able to quote or extend ideas from our fiction, poetry, and drama. The words of books ought to become common idiomatic expressions through which society rises with literature and literature becomes part of general social discourse.
Have you ever asked why our writers aren’t sought yet for advice on anything other than writing? Doesn’t this reveal a fundamental failure to recognise that the writer’s job has always involved critiquing and re-imagining, for the better, people and society?
We are returning to the famous words of the poet D. J. Enright – who was a university professor in Singapore back in the 1960s – when he said that “[a]rt does not begin in a test-tube”, not “in good sentiments and clean-shaven, upstanding young thoughts”. Art, Enright said, “begins where all the ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
In this sense, we need to be clear what a festival like this supports when it says that it concerns literature. It isn’t that, because writers struggle, we need national and social help out of it: this is to misunderstand what the struggle is. A literary festival is rather always, at heart, a perverse idea because it supports the writer to struggle on – it embraces this perversity of an everlasting struggle.
Writing itself is the construction of some deepest struggle in the pursuit of some quiet ideal. It is, in a way, a very human quest for perfection. When we read and are then transported into an experience of the writer’s struggling spirit, we are raised up and transformed by a moment when we ourselves touch our own spirit, by how fruitlessness, emptiness, can become meaningful in the deepest sense.
And we experience something magical, supernatural, hopeful, an understanding of Creation itself – out of nothing can come something.
Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic artist, and a literary critic. His works of verse include Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998), One Thousand and One Nights (2014), The Other Merlion and Friends (2015), and Who Wants to Buy an Expanded Edition of a Book of Poems? (2015). He wrote Singapore’s first full-length graphic novel in English, Myth of the Stone (1993), which has since been re-released in an expanded twentieth-anniversary edition. A familiar name in Singapore’s literary scene, he has written and lectured on a range of cultural subjects. He wrote FEAR NO POETRY!: An Essential Guide to Close Reading (2014) and edited Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II (2009), Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010), Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011), Singathology: 50 New Writings by Celebrated Singaporean Writers (2015), and Written Country: The History of Singapore through Literature (2016).
Photo by Dan Koh