Interlogue 8's Attempt to be contemporary ends up being conservative
By Jen Crawford
Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature, Volume 8: Interviews II
This is the eighth volume in the indispensible Interlogue series, which offers collected critical works on Singapore literature in English. The second collection of interviews in the series, Interlogue 8 presents 12 conversations with writers of the so-called "Class of 95" (participants in the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize competition) and others of their generation; with the exception of David Leo (1950- ), those interviewed were all born between 1961 and 1980. The generational focus makes this a telling (if somewhat homogenised) snapshot of the current moment in Singapore's English literature. To summarise the demographics: nine of the 12 are men, eleven are Chinese and four make reference to their experience and/or publication as gay or lesbian writers. Eight have published poetry, six fiction, and four have written scripts for stage or screen.
Though the generational focus is intended and declared, Ronald D. Klein's introduction offers limited commentary on the selection process. It seems likely, though, that the narrowness of selection was determined less by the scope of editorial vision than by the particular balances of English-language literary activity in Singapore in the last decade. Still, the scope is stretched to include not only the generational exception of David Leo, but the generic exceptions of Eric Khoo as film-maker and Ong Sor Fern as arts journalist. These expansions make the absence or exaggerated minorities of Indian, Malay and women writers represented here all the more notable. Uneven literary representation is not surprising within a young literature over a short time-span. It is significant, though, and, in this case, suggestive, of who has the strongest access and imperative to written expression in language. A function of a document of poetics such as this is that it extends the creative record of literature by connecting it with the sociological record. For this reason, a more expansive commentary on the editorial challenges and choices involved would have been a valuable annex.
Klein does note that the selection responds to criticism of the earlier collection of interviews (Volume 4, 2001) as "too safe" because it "did not include some of the younger writers". The question of safety is potent in this context; certain measures of personal safety (as political stability and economic security) experienced by this generation of Singaporeans were not available to their predecessors. Do the interviews then reflect the impact of that safety as affording greater freedom of expression? Is the collection less "safe" because the writers are more contemporary?
Series editor Kirpal Singh's cautiously elliptical foreword suggests that perhaps freedom of expression had been worn a little too lightly by some of the interviewees:
Speculation on what he might be referring to here hardly seems useful, but few of the documentary remarks in the book seem to me (as an outsider) egregiously contestable. The warning is interesting for its paternal containment of the kind of rich debate that could be welcomed as a product of this collection.
Many of the writers discuss their religious experience as fundamental to their writing, and this, too, figures as metonymic of the double bind of security and restriction, remade in each case to liberate and then fuel the writer's creative impetus. Felix Cheong notes the rhythmic and associative inheritance he takes from Catholicism as well as his drive to break from it, while Madeleine Lee notes the legacy of her Buddhism in her drive to "remove [her]self from [her] poems".
These comments open precisely the sort of formal reflection that promise the deepest nourishment to the literary community from this volume, and in a few places it delivers that nourishment. More frequently, when it comes to the business of writing (rather than that of being a writer) the emphasis of both editor and subjects veers in the direction of process and lifestyle, rather than form and technique. In this regard, the book positions itself more as inspirational source than critical tool. It is possible that this positioning reflects a collective movement towards the safety of an acritical discourse, but it may also be a function of the relative youth of this group of writers, or of their instinctive, rather than technical, motivations.
A shared range of experience certainly becomes visible as a core of shared influence: frequent tribute is paid to Lee Tzu Pheng and Edwin Thumboo as both mentors and exemplars. Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot also warrant repeated mentions, as the somewhat predictable flotsam of the British-inflected schooling and British or American university experiences many of the writers share. I was surprised that a more current and experimental range of poetic influence did not come up, especially in the commentaries of Ng Yi-Sheng and Cyril Wong, whose works suggest some awareness of the energies and innovations of the last 50 years of the American avant-garde. Cross-linguistic literary influence is also less visible than one might expect, but does show its invigorating presence in discussions of Alfian Sa'at's immersion in Malay theatre and Ng's comparative reading of Gabriel García Márquez and Mo Yan. Given that Singapore writers are uniquely poised to make use of such cross-fertilisation, one can hope that this kind of exploration makes its presence known further as the literature accretes more layers.
What is distinctly bold in this collection is the willingness of writers to speak frankly about their experiences and their efforts to devise lifestyles that allow for the difference and self-determination that foster creativity. This openness is at times hard-won, by evidence of the testimonies here, and seems to be a valuable service to younger generations. There are areas which are notably off the radar: gender issues form an articulate absence across the volume, given the demographic slant and the general openness on issues of sexuality and taking into consideration the detailed commentary given to women's social positioning by Suchen Christine Lim and Catherine Lim in the previous volume of interviews.
Where creative practice meets political restriction there is also some illuminating commentary. Alfian addresses the stultifying effect of a censorious regime directly, while Cheong and Ng seem more accepting of the work of testing the system's limits. Such discussions are one of the undeniable strengths of this collection, and are fascinating for how they make visible the elimination dance that precedes the public show of literature. Through the relative candour of the writers, we have the opportunity to see how the public sphere interacts with the private in the development of what might otherwise appear to an audience to be untrammelled personal expression.
In some respects, this volume comes across as "safer" than the 2001 collection: there are few moments here that could match for courage Kuo Pao Kun's measured descriptions of his years in detention during the 1970s, and of the "subversive" effect of social engineering by the ruling People's Action Party. In aesthetic terms, it is more conservative, too – it is not just historical memory that produces the Dickensian vividness of Gopal Baratham's description of his Uncle Luther during the Japanese Occupation ("…He chain-smoked cheroots and was always covered in ash. He wore a white suit and white tennis shoes. He never wore socks.…"). It is clear, though, that much of the apparent conservatism of the volume is a result of its own terms and the very limited pool of authors it draws from. This limitation aside, it engages both as a social document and a record of praxis.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010