All the space in the world
Amidst a xenophobic society, a poet stakes her claim on the city
By Jonathan Chan
We Make Spaces Divine
Reading Pooja Nansi's latest collection, two things stand out. First, the book functions as the most forceful poetic rebuke of the rise in xenophobic sentiment against those of Indian descent in Singapore, gloriously celebrating the presence of the South Asian diaspora in the city. Contending against the interrelated racism and xenophobia stirred up by the Delta variant's origins in India and the economic pretence of opposition to CECA (India - Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement), Nansi positions her poems as articulations of resistance to these sentiments.
Second, the book illustrates the difficulties of effectively translating spoken word poetry and its styles to the page. Nansi is an accomplished and established performance poet, having founded the monthly spoken word and poetry event Speakeasy in 2013, co-organised and produced the minority voices festival Other Tongues in 2018, and more recently serving as director of the Singapore Writers Festival, taking over from Yeow Kai Chai. Yet, rendering the aurality of spoken word poetry on the page, which is in and of itself governed by other imperatives such as audience interaction and other rhythmic effects, is often an arduous task. Simply reproducing a spoken word poem ad verbatim fails to properly honour its original form while also undermining its effects when read.
It is with these observations in mind that Nansi's collection can be properly appraised and understood. As its title implies, We Make Spaces Divine is a celebration primarily of space and place in the context of Singapore. Samuel Lee has remarked that the collection 'bathes in a sacralizing light the living rooms, nightclubs, kitchens, bars, and department stores that offer hospitality and resistance against the monocultural, technocratic, and majoritarian tendencies in a city like [Singapore].' Ally Chua remarks that the collection is 'a rumination on the places that she calls home and the spaces that feel like home - a recollection of hiphop nights in clubs, drunk nights, and midnight cab rides', while Olivia Ho has noted that 'Nansi paints a city that she loves fiercely, though one she is not always sure she belongs in - the burgeoning aisles of shopping complex Mustafa Centre, the changing face of Marine Parade, the now-defunct nightclubs that were havens of her youth.' In Nansi's writing, what is conjured most viscerally is the sensate atmosphere of the particular places she draws readerly attention to, the crackle of the moment 'space' becomes a 'place'.
Among the spaces that capture Nansi's imagination, the aforementioned Mustafa recurs with exuberance. Mustafa Centre makes its appearance in 'Mustafa Centre. A Fact Sheet.' and 'Mustafa Centre Blues'. The former plays out as a form of myth-making, a recollection of the story of Mustaq Ahmad's migration to Singapore from Uttar Pradesh and ascent to dazzling economic success as the CEO of Mustafa. The body of the poem, ostensibly, is a play-by-play of the details of Mr. Mustaq's life, from setting up his own stall to hawk his wares as a child to his decision to lease space on the ground floor on Serangoon to its expansion into a 24-hour department store on Syed Alwi Road. In some ways, the success of Mr. Mustaq's venture is a stalwart example of capitalist ambition, a rendition of the immigrant dream that, funnily enough, seems more aligned with the mythicised American Dream. Nansi notes the prime minister's remark that 'You get the right foreigner here, he creates thousands of jobs for Singaporeans', which in itself defers to the immediacy of xenophobia through the language of 'right' and 'wrong'.
It is in the footnotes that Nansi prises away attention to Mr. Mustaq's story for its symbolic implications, working as a dialogic poetic counterpart. For example, the line 'Mustafa Centre is named for Haji Mohamed Mustafa, Mustaq's father' is accompanied by a footnote that reads, 'This is a poem about how we leave our marks. Leave our father's names permanent in the topography of a country – how we turn our fathers' names into plaques, how we turn them into a likeness made of stone. In another line, which reads, 'An entry on Tripadvisor calls Mustafa Centre an "out of Singapore shopping experience"', the footnote reads, 'This is a poem about how you can take up all the space in the world, and still they will never see you as their own.' Nansi expands on these sentiments in a later poem, 'Mustafa Centre Blues', which takes Mustafa as a Rorschach test for the limits of South Asian immigrant assimilability in Singapore. The poem is prefaced by quotes from online reviewers, who variously refer to Mustafa as 'like a street market', a 'Completely Indian style shop', and 'Packed, cramped, dirty.' Nansi's speaker rails against these judgments in an act of poetic elevation, declaring,
To Nansi, Mustafa is a resonant space not only for its provision of a vast quantity of goods, many of which are sourced directly from across India, but also because of its similarities with her own story. The pejorative comments surrounding Mustafa form part of a larger prejudicial discourse against those of South Asian descent in Singapore, rehashing familiar associations between South Asia and epithets such as 'smelly', 'dark', and 'dirty'. Nansi wrests Mustafa and other spaces in Singapore like it, spaces established to cater to the needs of Singapore's various South Asian communities, away from the condemnation of a majoritarian gaze.
In a similar vein, Nansi juxtaposes odes to places that have captured her affection and wonder against instances of racism, deftly toggling between the joys and sorrows of being part of a minority community within Singapore. In 'Geeta Cinema', a theatre known for screening Bollywood films, her persona declares it to be a place where 'you can sit on the / wooden slated seat, eat channa, drink Limca and lose yourself / in somebody else's dream.' In 'This Year We All Watched TV And Saw Ourselves in Yamuna Sangarasivam', a reference to Sangaravisam who famously performed an Odissi dance alongside Michael Jackson in the music video for 'Black Or White', Nansi begins with recollections of 'Lata Music Centre', with 'rows of cassette tapes' with movie soundtracks from 'Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin / Hum / Phool Aur Kaante / Saajan.' These gradually feed into the sense of vindication that arrives with witnessing Sangaravisam on television at a time when her classmates are all 'listening to Jacky Cheung'.
By contrast, the arrangement of the poems 'Playground' and 'We Make Spaces Divine' are articulations not of triumph but of righteous anger. Nansi shifts her attention from panaceas to places of flourishing for the South Asian community to instances of racism and dismissal. 'Playground' is short and pithy, perhaps the most visceral gut punch in capturing the ways in which racism can crush a sense of self. On the left page, an image is shown of graffiti reading "F*** Indian', with the previous word crossed out. Nansi's poem reads, simply:
As a way of capturing the searing rage that erupts in the face of racism, this poem is unparalleled in the collection. What follows is the poem that gives the collection its title. 'We Make Spaces Divine' follows on from Priyageetha Dia's piece 'Untitled (Golden Staircase)', featuring a staircase wrapped in gold foil in a housing board block in Jalan Besar. The ethereal elevation of the seemingly mundane staircase stems from, in Dia's own words, how her practice 'deals with spaces that negotiate concepts on the sacred, secular and the profane', blurring the line between public and private. As with previous poems, the image, as Samuel Lee mentions, is apposite to Nansi's project of sacralising the mundane. It is a sensibility that is infused throughout 'We Make Spaces Divine' as Nansi describes minutiae that are made ethereal and conspicuous. It begins:
It seems fitting for the poem to proceed from food, of which its scents and aromas have formed a site of contestation in HDB flats amidst complaints by ethnically Chinese residents regarding these strong smells. As with the dazzle of the gold foil adorning the HDB stairs, Nansi sees these instances of conspicuous displays of cultural identity as worthy of adulation, however exhausting the weight of accumulated microaggressions. The poem runs through such images as 'turmeric stains / on your new manicure', the 'vibhuti on your neck', 'Scrapes' on knuckles from trying to wear 'bangles', and the 'skin'. There can be the occasional danger of Nansi veering too close to a form of essentialisation, reifying distinctive markers of what it is to be 'Indian'. Yet, such misgivings may be misplaced, as Nansi is eager to see in each moment of care and discomfort the possibility of beauty and wholeness. The poem's final lines encapsulate this:
Nansi's reference to Hungama and Galatta, digital portals for film, music, and entertainment across various languages in India, creates a great sense of the resources that can serve to sustain a sense of cultural pride. The individuation of the speaker's physical struggle helps to situate these practices of food consumption and wearing of clothes and adornments back within the fold of the body, which also bears the larger weight of microaggressions. I was reminded of Balli Kaur Jaswal's novel Sugarbread (2016); while bearing in mind that Jaswal's protagonist is Punjabi Sikh and Nansi focuses on her own experience of being Gujarati in Singapore alongside other ethnolinguistic communities originating in India, there were nevertheless resonances in the great efforts taken to render the beauty of daily practice in the face of majoritarian prejudice, if not sheer misapprehension.
I was slightly less taken by Nansi's club poems, many of which attempt to capture the heady sensations of drinking and dancing. There remain difficulties in conveying effectively the cohesion and clash of song and verse, especially when trying to capture the sensation of songs rotating on a DJ's musical line-up. For example, in 'Nachangeh Sari Raath or Everybody Get your Motherfuckin Roll On', Nansi writes:
Nansi's litany of party songs, which consist largely of American and British hip hop, bhangra, and their intertwined forms, recurs in other poems such as 'There's A Video On My Instagram Archive That Shows My Friend Kishan Dancing To Dreamlover By Himself In An Empty Corridor While Waiting For The Club's Toilet To Become Available', 'Night Songs', and 'Cheeky Monkeys'. Perhaps it is more a personal discomfort that much of the club scene in Singapore can posture toward the performativity of getting wasted or can dabble in the nebulous, appropriative space of assuming an African American or British grime aesthetic. Nansi's club poems, however, are positioned as pieces in which the overbearing weight of racism and daily diminution can be forgotten, abandoned to the ecstasy of dance and drink. The stream-of-consciousness style that some of these poems assume can prove immersive, though they can also read awkwardly on a tongue other than Nansi's own.
It would be remiss, however, to allow these misgivings to obscure the direction of Nansi's collection at large: to elevate sites of marginality, to claim ownership and pride in both immigrant and minoritised identities, to see in Singapore the possibility of flourishing despite the ways in which other forces, whether state or societal, can conspire to crush. Given my own background as a naturalised Singaporean, it is unsurprising then that the poems of Nansi's that proved most resonant were '"Are You Singaporean?"' and 'There Is A Difference Between Coming To A Place And Actually Feeling Like You Have Arrived', in which Nansi takes great care to articulate her position as a naturalised Singaporean of Gujarati heritage, and poems such as 'Tell Me The Story' and 'Silverscreen', where Nansi displays a kind of yearning for the places her ancestors knew but she will never know with intimacy, specifically Bombay. In these instances, Nansi troubles the essentialism of Singapore's racial categorisations by displaying the great heterogeneity that lies within the classification 'Indian'. As she writes:
Nansi writes this to an imagined interlocutor, a seemingly well-meaning Singaporean attempting to sort her into prescribed categories of 'India-Indian' or 'Singaporean', 'North' or 'South Indian', with a conversational interlude detailing her own heritage traced to Mumbai, Gujarat, and Nairobi. It is the kind of tedious self-explanation that I have grown familiar with, and one in which the aural quality of Nansi's verses find themselves most apt. And is it here where I have most appreciated Nansi's efforts to broker new space for the envisioning of Singaporean identities physically and poetically.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 1 Jan 2022