Anthology serves up tasty dishes but avoids meaty conversation
By Gwee Li Sui
Food Republic: A Singapore Literary Banquet
Epigram 101 of the English Renaissance poet Ben Jonson describes his invitation to a friend for supper. This friend is his long-time patron William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke. His lavish spread aimed to "rectify" Pembroke's palate; it includes an olive, capers, or "some better salad", then mutton and "a short-legged hen, / If we can get her, full of eggs", in lemon and wine sauce, a rabbit, and a variety of game birds. There are digestive cheese and fruit, with the local tavern's "rich Canary wine" to wash it all down with.
Jonson's sumptuous meal is a celebration of close friendship, of liberty among equals. The generous flow of food and goodwill cannot be separated from the confidence these diners enjoy at a table where they also talk, laugh, and listen to poetry. Unwelcome is a "Poley or Parrot", "any guilty men" – Robert Poley and Henry Parrot being government spies who had informed on Jonson before. Poley also stood out suspiciously as a witness to the slaying of the brilliant but controversial playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1593.
Food Republic, subtitled A Singapore Literary Banquet, certainly conjures some kind of allegiance even when no direct acquaintance is required. The anthology's contributors are bonded by a cultural enjoyment of food, which each expresses either overtly or via a food item's metaphoric use. Editors Ann Ang, Daryl Lim Wei Jie, and Tse Hao Guang have brought together fifty-nine writers – three from beyond the grave – to serve up this potluck. The amassed eighty-eight entries come in shapes of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, with just over a fifth being truly new.
This foregrounding of already published works is a smart but laborious move. It entails many months of editorial research, but then rewards with a backbone selection that offers iconic Singaporean writers. Any informed reader would be pleased to find here, in one place, Edwin Thumboo's "The Sneeze", Arthur Yap's "the grammar of a dinner", Catherine Lim's "Durian", Toh Hsien Min's "Aubergines", and Aaron Maniam's "Pantun for a Drink Seller at Newton Circus". There are others excluded, of course, but what appears is sufficient to highlight historical layers of gastronomic words.
But the true flavour of Food Republic surely lies in its choice of delicious fresh voices, in whom we find not just a broader menu but also new sensations. These voices help to make the book a grand feast of cultures, styles, aesthetics, and encounters. From the brash, local rhythm of Hamid Roslan's "Besok sunrise egg still put" to Margaret Louise Devadason's semantically playful "Scramble" and Stephanie Chan's plucky "When the World Ends You will be Eating Hokkien Mee", we experience a range that pleasantly alters our expectations from such a spread.
What raises the overall tone significantly is the newest of the new. Jack Xi's "ARE YOU A DURIAN DREAMING THAT IT IS A POEM, OR ARE YOU" is a standout, capturing an exuberance that recalls a younger Alfian Sa'at. Anitha Devi Pillai's bittersweet tale "How do you want your dumplings?" ties twists in life to the rhythm of eating local multicultural fare. Anurak Saelaow's "Self-Portrait as Sheng Siong Outlet" captures the subconscious consumerist love of supermarkets akin to how Don DiLillo has put it: "Here we don't die, we shop."
It is unclear to me, though, how the book is being structured; the section titles seem to relate more to famous food stalls linked to the titular food republic's coat of arms. I had to stop myself from using a lifeline to contact someone because such a major aspect ought to be self-evident. Perhaps, a reader is meant just to dip in randomly since this meal is all entrées and no hors d'oeuvre. It is often said that food and sex in literature are about something else anyway – and Daryl Lim agrees with regard to the former in his charming, discursive introduction. But this simply is not true here; whatever the individual entries may mean, the volume resolutely means nothing more.
The sense is perhaps the only way to understand why Ireland-based Wong May's poems with cherries and strawberries are included, when both fruits are not particularly tropical. Malaysian Wong Phui Nam's two-part poem is an elegant transcreation of Li Bai's verses on Lanling wine. A number of works turn on fruits rather than local dishes, a tolerable point, but I would draw the line at vinegar, honey, Neanderthal bone, and water. To be sure, the quality of these works singled out is superb, and my intention is not to doubt their accomplishment.
Yet, Food Republic – the anthology itself as territory – is as liberal about who is native as about what is called local food, or food, for that matter. It obviously throws open the question as to why then not accept works with clear Singaporean dishes written by anyone, of which there are many? In reverse, if the theme is always meant to be broad and even generic, then why a lack of footnotes on foodstuff and cuisines that assumes readers' familiarity and default cultural allegiance?
To be sure, Singaporean food-themed literary projects are not new. There is the quirky but obscured Odes to Edibles (1998) by Gan Yung Chyan, aka Kucinta Setia, from which one poem, I am happy to note, is found here. There is the seemingly discontinued Twenty-Four Flavours anthology series, where each issue features twenty-four writers scribbling on a single food item. US-based Kirsten Chen's novel Soy Sauce for Beginners (2014) leaps to mind too. To go beyond and learn about cross-border culinary exchanges, I rely on Jean Duruz and Khoo Gaik Cheng's Eating Together: Food, Space, and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore (2015).
But the central issue of what we cannot assume is what this volume assumes: food as a depoliticised safe space where anyone belongs and anything is belonging. Food has always been, in literary history, about allegiance – which naturally makes its breaking treachery. In the Ramayana, during their difficult journey through the region of Dandakaranya, Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshmana are said to have communed on something called mamsambhutdana. In the Gospels, Jesus's Last Supper is more than a meal after long travel as a partaking in a common body, and also why Judas's betrayal has remained traumatic to Christians.
William Shakespeare's Macbeth infamously gives a whole subversion with his banquet for the Scottish thanes. Thus, after he gets his friend and ally Banquo murdered, he sees Banquo's ghost come to sit in his seat at his table and is terrified. The etymology of "Banquo" may be unclear, but Shakespeare's use plays on the word "banquet" at this point. Macbeth has betrayed the lord of the feast – just like Luo Guanzhong's Three-Kingdoms-era Cao Cao, who, out of precaution, slaughters his host Lü Boshe's entire household and Lü last.
Macbeth's and Cao Cao's insecurity – best captured in the latter's words, "I'd rather do wrong to the world than let the world do wrong to me" – sum up their sharp contrast to Jonson. But, to all of these, the table signals an utmost place of social orientation. Even in Singapore and Malaysia's food fights, food is never simply between spaces but precisely centres identity. But Food Republic wants to have its kuih and eat it. The editors must know that there is another way to treat poems such as Thumboo's "The Sneeze", Hidhir Razak's "Garam Assam", and Xi's "Sugar/Cane". These works' power lessens when identity and its underlying politics are not framed for clarity. I wish that the understanding has not been buried by a buffet sweep.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 2 Apr 2021