To Know Our Names
By Theophilus Kwek
Early last September, it emerged that Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had, in his younger days, co-edited an anthology of prose and poetry with Chew Kheng Chuan, chairman of The Substation, and Yeoh Lam Keong, former chief economist of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). With the General Elections approaching, much of the comment surrounding this re-discovery centred on the volume's politics, rather than its poetics especially since Chew had previously been detained in the alleged Marxist conspiracy of 1987, while Yeoh (now adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy) had publicly critiqued Tharman's economic arguments just the week before. A poem by Tharman was widely circulated online and garnered some praise, but the rest of the volume's contents gained little attention.
Political interest in the anthology has waned over the ensuing months, providing an opportunity to consider it with fresh eyes. While one of the contributors Angeline Yap went on to publish her Collected Poems in 1986, none of the others has released a full volume, and this anthology remains the only book-form record of their creative voices. Apart from the fascinating insight the anthology provides to young Singaporean writing in the 1970s, it thus forms a unique part of our literary history and, by preserving the explorations and experiments of its time, reminds us of our own.
In 1978, the Young Writers' Circle would have encountered a Singaporean literary landscape very different from the one we inhabit today. The previous year had seen the publication of Robert Yeo's And Napalm Does Not Help, Arthur Yap's Commonplace and Edwin Thumboo's Gods Can Die, all of which swiftly came to be seen as landmark collections of Singaporean poetry. In addition, a wide-ranging anthology called Singapore Writing (edited by Chandran Nair) was published in the same year, featuring voices from Bilahari Kausikan, then a young postgraduate, to Lim Thean Soo, who had been writing since the 1950s and subsequently received the Public Service Star in 1979.
The three editors of the Young Writers' Circle anthology, but we have no legends (Singapore: Woodrose Publications, 1978), were, at the time, all in National Service. Chew would later go on to Harvard College, and both Yeoh and Tharman to the London School of Economics, but they were, at this point, not unlike today's young participants of the Creative Arts Programme, or online initiatives like Singapore Poetry Writing Month. Little information is readily available about the Young Writers' Circle, except that, like the present-day Young Authors' Club and "Writing the City" Writers' Group, it was hosted by the National Library. But it is unlikely that the Circle was formally structured, or benefited from mentorship by any published authors. The editors credit only Gan Chwee Lian of the National Library for her help and, on a wry note, her "unshakeable faith that someday before the turn of the century, we would get down to work on this book."
This ambitious initiative, thus, seems to have been the editors' own. As described in the book, they worked "irregularly over three months", "drank countless cups of coffee" and had "violent quarrels over strange things like grammar, meaning, and whose poetic license had expired": scenes still familiar to anyone working in the literary arts. Their self-deprecating words, however the book seeks "no applause, only acceptance" suggest that they were driven by a belief in the value of the work and an urge to be heard, in order to "give more sense to the purpose we find in expressing ourselves."
The 30 pieces included in these pages brim with adventure, honesty and a youthful self-awareness. Yeoh's opening poem, 'Cicada', highlights the young writers' double-perspective of being young enough to remember the freedom of childhood, but mature (or sensitive) enough to recognise it as such. "My life ran away with me", he writes, and like " the afternoon's cicadas, / We blew on breezes, humming, / Not looking sideways." This wistful introspection is balanced with an equal dose of realism. A poem by Tharman that follows soon after sets out to list the qualities of a "good sarabat stall" "has / two kittens, displaying little / regard for Hindi music / / the shadow of an / extra table," etc. but becomes an intimate sketch of the communal life that surrounds the stall: "silent youth stub / cigarettes, trying to R.O.D.; / / a good sarabat stall / serves boiling kopi 12.00 a.m. any night".
In addition to writing about their own experiences, Monica Gwee's poem, 'To Rilke', captures a sense of the writers' heady engagement with the wider literary canon. She treats the poet as her "first love": read, savoured and now "gone", like the "whiff of a much loved / perfume / gently haunting". Stylistically, however, the piece departs from Rilke's lyric intensity, choosing instead a fragmented metre and a liberal approach to line-breaks. The contemporary flavour of lines like "One hand, Rilke, / to hold, / that held, / to cry on" suggest that Gwee has gotten over the pain of "losing" Rilke, in both her reading tastes and written idiom. Another poem, Wong Soong Meng's 'Rings on white and yellow porcelain', reaches back in history to Gerald Manley Hopkins' long lines and complex metres, but also across the Pacific to the colloquialisms and neologisms of his Beat-generation contemporaries. "You know sometimes I think we are little sailboats", he muses, "boats of canvas and wood that sail men in bath-tub seas / of stormwinds and rainshadow amidst whispers and shouts of sun".
Such influences are moderated, finally, by the writers' commitment to a Singaporean sound and "feel". Recent experiments in the vernacular, such as Joshua Ip's Sonnets from the Singlish and Gwee Li Sui's The Other Merlion and Friends, should rightly be considered late successors to the pieces in this anthology. Ho Khek Fong's prose reconstructions of 'Music Lessons, Torfer Primary School', feature teachers as well as students who converse, endearingly, in Singlish: "Why so much noise?! You want a tight slap?!", or: "Sir, can I don't go music lesson?" In the same vein, Chew begins his poem 'cityzens, Singapore' in a highly naturalistic flashback: "Day-off from Camp / Riding Alice along Merdeka at 70" while Tharman remarks, in 'staircase, blk 104': "yesterday is no pakai". These unaffected expressions suggest that the young writers were not only eager to pursue what they saw as "true" Singaporean literature, but also unafraid to do so, despite writing just a decade after Singapore's separation from Malaysia.
If the anthology broke boundaries in style and language, it was also ahead of its time in bibliographic art and craft. Its landscape format, arresting monochrome cover and lowercase title add an understated edge to its contents, and mirror the deft, run-on lines which characterise its best inclusions. Most pieces are printed on, or beside, photographs of Singapore street scenes taken by the writers themselves. For example, one of the shortest poems, 'Singaporean', provides a poignant footnote in the form of a broken conversation to a photograph of pedestrians and cars on River Valley Road: 'We rush. // "Don't know " / "I wouldn't know." // " .sorry."'
In some cases, it is the photographs, instead of the writing, that deliver the narrative. On page 11, a short poem, 'Of All the Days for a Moon', describes a scene at "day's end" where "blackness bends day's hot thrashings " The next two pages feature uncaptioned photographs of a boy, asleep face-down on a mattress, and a long HDB corridor respectively. These provide a poignant visual transition to the next poem, 'Excerpt', in which the laughter of unseen people "over the road" hurts the ears of one who "clutches at silences to cry with".
Midway through the book, a quote from Edwin Thumboo's 'Ulysses by the Merlion' is printed on crepe paper, such that it appears above the vague silhouette of Singapore's skyline, featured on the next page. Interestingly, the Merlion itself does not appear in the image, and the chosen text seems to point not to the troubled icon but to the young man in the photograph, looking wistfully across Marina Bay:
Immediately after, we find the volume's title poem by Asha Devi, which begins:
In the preface to his 2009 anthology, Reflecting on the Merlion, Thumboo wrote that the Merlion had, "of late", attracted "a growing number of poets". A full 30 years before, however, these excerpts reinforced by the book's innovative layout suggest that the young men and women of the Young Writers' Circle were already interrogating both the island's chosen icon and its existing literary tributes. They were fully conscious of being a new generation, and tried to put that awareness into words.
Towards the end of the anthology, two photographs show members of the Young Writers' Circle gathered around a cluttered worktable presumably at a meeting room in the library at Stamford Road with a well-stocked bookshelf in the background. Sporting open, wide-collared shirts, high-waisted trousers and skirts, large-frame glasses and shoulder-length hair, they are confident, even debonair; full of the exuberance that characterised the Baby Boomers' generation as well as the Republic's early, meteoric rise. Another photograph, widely shared on social media last September, shows the three editors, shirtless and hard at work under a small table lamp. Their faces are hidden, but we can see their postures of intense discussion, and the glint in Chew's spectacles.
In light of the three decades that have passed since the anthology's first publication, its title seems wonderfully apt. Not only have the three editors gone on to shape modern Singapore, the pieces that they pulled together for these pages have, four decades on, come to inform us of a generation of young writers who responded to a young Singapore in telling ways. By entering our literary history and lending us a record of how they saw their world, they have become our legends in their own right alongside the many others whose stories have yet to be rediscovered, told or heard.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 2 Apr 2016