Singapore Literature Festival 2014: Rich Words, Poor Words

“Rich Words, Poor Words”
Singapore Literature Festival 2014
2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m., October 11, 2014
92nd Street Y, Warburg Lounge, 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128
Authors: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Joshua Ip, and Wena Poon. Introduced by Rohan Kamicheril
More information here

The inaugural Singapore Literature Festival found its way to NYC’s Upper East Side on Saturday with a pair of ticketed reading events at the 92nd Street Y. The first, titled “Rich Words, Poor Words” featured authors discussing the divide between haves and have-nots in Singapore society, and the role language plays. 

Moderated by Rohan Kamicheril, who edits international lit mag Words Without Borders, the panelists approached the subject from three different literary disciplines. Brooklyn-based Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan began with a reading from her memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen, which recounts a return trip to her native Singapore to re-learn its culture by learning how to cook, starting with the pineapple tarts of her grandmother. Her second reading came fromSingapore Noir—an anthology of fiction edited by Tan, and part of publisher Akashic Book’s globe-spanning noir series. Her reading served up a slice of “old Singapore,” as experienced by a working-class fisherman dwelling in a sleepy village near the country’s far-eastern border. Joshua Ip followed up with his poems “Tongues” and “Conversation,” featuring strong dashes of “Singlish”—a Singaporean language that he informed the audience “is a weird patois of English, and several other dialects (Chinese, Malay, bits of Hokkien, Teochew) all mushed together in this big pot.” Tan later noted the inherent duality of Singlish, commenting, “On the one hand, it’s conveying meaning to people. But on the other hand, it has this different layer of sentimentality, history, tradition, who-we-are identity, all in one.” 

The day’s second panel (see here) featured one of Tan’s Singapore Noir writers, Colin Goh, who founded satirical website, and penned 2002’s Coxford Singlish Dictionary—both cheeky references to a colloquial term whose roots lay in the “cock and bull” Britishism. Ip said his poems in Singlish were efforts to elevate its commonness to the lofty regions of literary art. Though he expressed concern at what he sees as poetry’s systematic movement toward being the exclusive domain of Singapore’s elite, due to the country’s secondary education system commonly failing to offer literature classes. He pointed to literature enrollment in Singapore’s high schools dropping roughly five-fold in the last 10 years, and asserted that currently less than 10% of those students study literature. “As a result,” he added, “Study of more obscure things like poetry are eventually fading into the background.” That also means fewer Singaporean students are exposed to the words of Austin-based author Wena Poon, whose work actually forms part of the Cambridge Ordinary Level Literature exam syllabus in the country’s high schools. Poon’s reading explored language divides far north of Singapore in her 2014 fictional work, Kami and Kaze: A Story of Occupied Japan. She read the book’s pivotal conversation between an American woman working for the occupying Allied administration in 1948, and her young Japanese driver, about the history and implications of the word “Kamikaze.” Yet it was the current state of the British-influenced Singaporean high school literature experience that drilled closest to the heart of this event’s topic. Ip broke down the basic divide, lamenting, “Because of the way that system is built, only good schools get good literature, ‘because good students can do lit. It’s a hard subject’. Which I found is completely untrue. Every time I go to a neighborhood school, and teach a poetry seminar or a course, the work that comes out is as sensitive and as adept, and as intimate and real, as anything from the top schools in Singapore.” He punctuated that observation with a simple quiet battle cry. “Poetry is for the masses, and should be.”

Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.