Pleasant jaunt through Singapore literature fails to create definitive collection
By Ronald Klein
One: The Anthology
Editing an anthology of a country's short stories will inevitably call down criticism from many quarters and can be a thankless job. Some readers will cite the omission of their favourite writer. Some writers will complain about their exclusion. Included writers may question their works which were chosen. Critics will charge a bias of gender or generation. Passing through this gauntlet of potential criticism is Robert Yeo, Singapore's literary all-rounder, whose lifetime credentials as playwright, poet, novelist, librettist, critic and anthologist makes him ideally suited to the task — plus the fact that he was the first person to anthologize Singapore short stories more than 35 years ago.
With his Singapore Short Stories Volume 1 and 2 (1978) and Singular Stories: Tales from Singapore (1993), Yeo has consistently had his pulse on emerging writing talents and watched them develop through the decades. In so doing, he both encouraged the writing and created a canon of works. If Catherine Lim was one of the most prolific early short-story writers in Singapore, some small credit must go to Yeo, who mentored her. The present volume is dedicated to her.
This collection has an historical flavor, beginning with pre-independence writer S. Rajaratnam, and including literary pioneers Lim Thean Soo, Goh Sin Tub and Gopal Baratham, before moving on to older contemporaries and then younger contemporaries. Yeo's stated aim was to choose one story from the selected writers, preferably one that had not been previously anthologized. Thus, we get fresh works that display the writer's talent and, perhaps, expand the canon. However, upon reading the collection, it is clear that Yeo was not particularly aiming for any balance of theme, structure, style or overall coherence. The stories are generally good and worthy of standing alone.
Yeo's subtitle, 'Short Stories from Singapore's Best Writers', also throws up questions. Four of the seven writers in his Singapore Short Stories are not in One, a tacit tribute to the emergence of post-1977 writers. Stories included here may be by many of Singapore's 'best', but many are better recognized for their work in other genres — Arthur Yap and Felix Cheong as poets, Suchen Christine Lim as a novelist, Alfian Sa'at as a playwright, and Yeo himself as a poet and playwright. Kirpal Singh's oeuvre as a short-story writer is a bit thin to be included, despite the merit of his story, while authors like Catherine Lim, Philip Jeyaretnam, Claire Tham, David Leo and Jeffery Lim have made their mark as short-story writers. But such is the hybridity of Singapore's writers.
Reading this collection raises the question: Why another anthology? Since Yeo's early collection, there has been a steady stream of anthologies dedicated to Singapore writers. Some included poetry and some included Malaysian literature as well, but short-story collections have been frequent and consistent. For example, following Yeo, the Society of Singapore Writers came out with Stories from Singapore in 1983 and reissued it almost 20 years later as Singapore Yarn, which, oddly, includes many writers outside Yeo's canon. Unipress published literary journal Singa for almost 20 years, from 1980 to1999, and sometimes anthologized writing from the journal. In 1990, Edwin Thumboo was general editor of the authoritative three-volume The Fiction of Singapore, which categorized works by the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, with English translations of the vernacular works. In 1992, Heinemann published the Tapestry collection. Another literary journal, Eye of the World, edited by Anne Pakir and Doreen Goh, published student work through the 1990s. Across the straits, Mohammad Quyam has co-edited several collections of Singapore and Malaysian fiction, plus several critical studies of literature that may be 'sharing borders'. Leong Liew Geok's More Than Half the Sky and Julie Massey's In the Shadow of the Merlion were both anthologies dedicated exclusively to Singapore's women writers. In 2006, 27 writers, including half a dozen from Yeo's stable, contributed their insights to the Best of Singapore Erotica. The 2007 collection, Island Voices, contains mostly works from the 1990s, as does Yeo's One. And, finally, Gwee Li Sui edited Telltale: Eleven Stories for Ethos in 2010. Yeo does not explain in his short introduction why he felt impelled to produce yet another anthology. One contains few new writers, and his claim to include works which have not been compiled seems a slim thread with which to stitch an anthology together.
A second question is: Has there been a progression in the writing since Yeo's first collection? The stories by younger writers bring an updated voice from Generation X, but still relive the old issues. These stories still "tackle social issues and speak for the zeitgeist of the time" as the editors of Island Voices hoped their 'voices' would. But in what way is that a measure of progress?
By all academic accounts, the era of the Singapore short story was eclipsed by the rise of Singapore poetry in the 1990s, when literary talent was using a different vehicle to express itself. We will never know if this shift led to the abandoning of the short story midway towards the fulfillment of its developmental promise. By not including some of the more experimental and cutting-edge writing going on in e-journals like the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and literary blogs, One does not take on the 21st century. Perhaps Yeo will follow One with Two, and include more recent writing.
A third question is: How do these short stories define Singapore literature? This is a larger question within academic circles dealing with Commonwealth or post-colonial literature. In their introduction to the 1983 Stories from Singapore: Twenty-Four Short Stories by 18 Authors, the editors first raised the question: "Are we ready for a national literature in English?...Critical to this is Singapore's standard of English, or more aptly, the quality of our writers and also that of our readers."
Thumboo, in his introduction to The Fiction of Singapore, seemed to answer the question, stating that "a greater portion of the Singaporean's experience, of the Singapore experience, will be explored and captured through English", still couched firmly in the future. If Thumboo's goal was for writers to write about Singapore for Singaporeans, then Singapore literature is doomed to provincialism and a limited readership. As John McRae, in his 1993 introduction to S.E. Asia Writes Back!, cautioned:
Too much of a stress on nationalism will be a limitation, but any serious writer is engaged in much more than simply affirming nationality.... Local and universal, national and international must go hand in hand.
The current trend among academics is a moving from national literatures, and a morphing into the more inclusive contemporary concept of world literatures or what is sometimes called transnational literature. The new question is not whether Singapore writers are ready to create a national literature, 22 years after Thumboo hoped they would, but whether they are ready to take their place on the world literature stage.
The answer is 'no'. This may be seen by the small number of Singapore writers who have been published outside of Singapore's cosy publishing scene or in world literature anthologies. We are still waiting for a Singaporean writer to be long-listed for the Man Booker, or win a Whitbread Prize or Commonwealth Writers' Prize (now Commonwealth Book Prize), like Malaysia's Tash Aw. We are still waiting for a Singaporean writer to be translated into 22 languages, like the Philippines' F. Sionil José. Perhaps Singapore writers who aspire to a larger readership offering broader themes will have to move towards the publishing centres of New York and London, the way Indian, Caribbean and African writers have.
One does not diverge from expected themes (family, relationships, love, urbanization), styles (symbolism, POV, irony) and settings (Singapore). It also does not show a progression in the development of Singapore literature, besides giving us a 70-year sampling, nor does it define Singapore literature in any coherent way, beyond the overall gestalt. In short, this anthology has the feel of B-sides of our favourite singers' greatest hits, which are both pleasant and familiar. This isn't a bad thing. Yeo has done us a great service in compiling lesser-known stories by some of Singapore's marquee writers, past and present. The result is a few hours of pleasant reading, which is just about all you could want from any anthology.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012