Sitting on Palimpsests: An Interview with Alvin Pang
Singaporean poet Alvin Pang met several HFR editors at AWP in Minneapolis and, upon discovering that many of us would be in Singapore that summer on various fellowships, casually suggested meeting up. One May afternoon, he kindly crammed as many of as us as we could fit into his car and took us for a tour of Singapore. Between pointing out the most haunted building in Singapore, lunch at a hawker center, and wine at the Flower Dome, he sat down with us in the National Library for a conversation.
-Sue Hyon Bae
HFR: A lot of readers may not be familiar with Singaporean literature and poetry, even though because a lot of it is in English, it should be available. How would you characterize Singaporean literature and poetry?
AP: Well, it isn’t supposed to exist. Singapore has only been an independent country for fifty years. The official view is that we are really too young to have produced anything worth reading. We are connected to the key centers of the world economically, but not culturally. If Singapore disappeared off the map tomorrow, banks around the world would notice, shipping companies around the world would notice, anyone involved in global commerce would notice. Nobody in the literary world would notice because we’re not actually plugged in to that circuit, not on the same scale.
There are a variety of reasons for this. One is that we are a former British colony. Former colonies tend to face a hard time having their voice heard elsewhere in the world. If you look at Africa, for example, it took them decades to be acknowledged as a voice on the global cultural stage. Even then, you can argue that relative to the scale of Africa and its culture and traditions, we have only come across the tip of the tip of the iceberg of what’s available. And that’s Africa, a whole continent. A tiny little Southeast Asian island city-state fifty years old — best known for being occupied by the Japanese during World War 2, for casinos and shopping and for our harsh fines, for caning this boy that Bill Clinton pleaded mercy for — isn’t exactly conducive to being regarded as a significant producer of culture and the arts.
When I was growing up, Singaporean kids were brought up with a British style of education system: nothing in our upbringing or schooling gave us any sense that we were supposed to create culture in any way. We were not so much a site of cultural production as one of cultural reproduction and consumption. BBC, TV from the UK, US. We grew up with stuff you or your parents might have been brought up with on TV. We didn’t have our own shows, we didn’t have our own books, our own authors. We didn’t even have our own music. Everything we had, down to our food, was imported from elsewhere.
What’s interesting is that if you go further back beyond the past fifty years, Singapore has in fact historically been rather culturally important; we’ve been on the map for over seven hundred years. There used to be a settlement here called Temasek that was active in the 13th century. And it was a city very much like we are today: a diverse trading port. The popular myth is that we were a sleepy fishing village until the British came along – or even worse, until the ruling party came along fifty years ago. Obviously there is a reluctance to disabuse people of that misperception. The fact of the matter is, even when we become independent in the late fifties and early sixties, we were inheriting what was, at that time, already one of the most thriving port cities in Southeast Asia, built on the efforts of the British as well as the settlers and regional natives they attracted to these shores: our ancestors.
So Singapore has been running for over a hundred years as a successful city. It was also a city whose residents were British subjects, nominally: they were figures who founded schools, churches, libraries, institutions of learning. On occasion, they were also, I have since discovered in my research, writers. Ask any Singaporean today, when did the earliest Singaporean writing in English come about, and they would almost certainly say the sixties, after Independence. The fact of the matter is, I have documented records of published poetry, fiction, essays, dating back to at least the mid to late 19th century by Singaporeans. We’re not talking about some Brit expat, we’re talking about people born and bred in this city. Some of these names are among those recognised today for their civic and political achievements as early pioneers. We conveniently forget they were also literary persons who considered that aspect of cultural life as important as their social or political careers. They published novels. They ran a literary journal, for goodness sakes. It was called The Straits Chinese Magazine. You can find, in the library archives, microfilm versions and so on. They ran a literary journal in every sense of the word we would regard literary journals today. And they used it as a vehicle to write about social issues, all the things writers write about today. Poetry, fiction, contemporary critical essays, social commentary, everything we look to in literary magazines, they did back then, circa 1910.
You could argue a lot of the work was published were derivative. But I mean, if you wrote a piece today that’s inspired by Paul Muldoon or Dave Eggers or the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, would you be as readily dismissed as derivative? There was a piece that’s called “Charge of the Fruiters,” essentially a self-conscious pastiche of “Charge of the Light Brigade.” And it was about going to Singapore’s Kampong Glam district to buy fruits, mangosteens. You had to be in Singapore, in this part of the world to get the references, the fruits, the street names. It employed a thoroughly Singaporean idiom, written in homage to the style of Lord Tennyson, who was alive at the time. Do you consider this early Singapore literature? I think we should.
Our stories go way further back. Much of this material, like the ones I uncovered, have been neglected, forgotten, left rotting on shelves for years. And that’s just in English. Think about the centuries of work in other languages. Malay, for example, which has a rich and really literary tradition. You have the Sejarah Malayu, the Malay annals, which is a mystical stylized history of their kings and aristocracy, half-history, half-myth, including the mythical founding of Singapore, the story of Bukit Merah, one of our hills, are part of the folktales of the entire Malay region because it was one heritage, one culture at the time. Is that part of our heritage? I think it is. But no…only what comes after 1965 gets counted. I think that’s shallow and blind. All sorts of postcolonial questions arise. What histories get recognized, which histories get erased? This has happened across Southeast Asia in general. The Philippines, for example, doesn’t only speak one language, it speaks dozens and dozens. Some of those languages have their own epics. We’re talking the sort of epics we can sit down and recite for four days nonstop. And yet some of these are considered primitive tribal people, whose languages are downplayed as dialects. This happens over and over in history.
I think we should reconnect with these different stories, these layers of stories that we sit on top of. I believe all cities, and for that matter all cultures and societies, are palimpsests; we are just the latest layer of a whole range of stories. History is in a sense translucent. Some of it filters through. Half understood, half heard. Some of it persists. We don’t understand the full truth of it. But some of what we were, or some of what the place was, becomes some part of what we still are. Not necessarily in a conscious, embraced way, mind you. I think there’s a lot of potential in connecting back and recovering some of this history. Our frontier may not be what is new but what used to be. There’s just so much of it. There’s several generations’ worth of PhDs there that haven’t even been thought of yet.
Think about the transitions, the flows of history and culture and spice and money and how we came to be the crossroads, in some ways still are the crossroads of so many of the world’s greatest cultures. Chinese culture, Indian culture, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, the West. We’re the children of all these different factors. There’s something quite unique about that position. I don’t think we’re sensitive enough to the condition and its potential. We grew up being told we are a cultural desert. First, well, we’re too poor. Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford. Literal quote from our first prime minister. Well, now we’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Now the argument is we’re too small and we’re too young. They’re just excuses.
We have something to give to the world. I think we have the opportunity to present a model of what the world could be, in a diverse multipolar fashion, that isn’t all about only “western” values, or only “Asian” values. It’s a healthy, fertile syncretic mix of all it means to be human. We can do things here that many people don’t. Take Islam, for example. People are touchy about that. We grew up with a very different view of what Islam is because it’s a part of our diverse community, our overall way of life. We grew up listening to the call to prayer. Mosques situated next to temples and churches on the same streets. It’s not alien to us, it’s not new to us. It’s part of our family.
One of my favorite local Singaporean novelists [Isa Kamari], who writes in Malay, is a devout Muslim and also an architect. He’s been, since 9/11, interrogating the place of modernity, the intersection of modernity with Islam. And he’s been writing these controversial novels precisely to challenge received notions of this. Because he feels that there hasn’t been enough thinking about what the role of modernity and postmodernity are relative to faith and to contemporary Malay literature. He considers himself a devout Muslim, so it’s not about hitting back at his parents or anything. But he’s writing from the inside. How often does that happen? Writing from the inside is both challenging and a literary necessity. The novel I helped him to edit in English translation features a German scientist who steals some genetic material from Turkey and from it creates a clone of the Prophet Muhammad. Which he implants into a tribal villager woman from a jungle tribe in Borneo. She’s a simple villager who doesn’t know exactly what has been done to her. She goes back to the village, has the child, who mysteriously grows up to replicate in his village context the life history of the Prophet without understanding a bit of it. He has no idea. This child has the feeling that he is the shadow of a shadow of a shadow, to quote from the book, but does not understand the context. You think about that. Just the very idea of writing a book like that. We toured with this book. Sweden and so on. All the European audiences asked: Why is there not a fatwa on your head? How did you get to write this? And he simply said, well, we are a culture and society where we can do this, rationally, calmly, intelligently. People might still find it obnoxious, offensive, or rude, certainly controversial, but they still respect it as a literary work of art. Nobody here resorts to violence. At most they might debate it in a forum. We can do this, we can talk about it. Can you imagine this being published in Europe in today’s climate?
And he’s just one example. There’s another well-known Singaporean writer and poet, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed. He had this beautiful poem with lines like: “man is but a living corpse / a pig / a horse / old dogs” Which sounds merely rude – until you realize that for a Muslim, a senior, respected Malay Muslim poet, to refer to humanity using “dog” and “pig” means something strikingly bold and different. And the point is he could get away with it; he can challenge particular pieties, because of the cultural position and the nature of our society. I think that’s really quite special. And this is becoming more rather than less necessary. We need safe spaces to talk about things that matter. I worry that the world is shrinking. That such spaces in the world are retreating rather than growing. The forces of globalization and capitalism are ironically reducing, simplifying and dumbing down spaces for intellectual discourse and imaginative reflection.
HFR: What role does translation play in Singaporean literature?
AP: I think a lot of the low-hanging fruit, the cultural opportunities, the wealth, is locked up in languages other than English. And that’s partly why it continues to be locked up. I don’t think they’re lost. I think they are under threat of being forgotten. Translation helps recover some of this. Part of its function is archaeological. Discovering all this stuff that has been produced over the years that we don’t know about simply because we’re only thinking about what been produced in English. I tried to address that with an anthology titled Tumasik. It’s published by Autumn Hill Press in the US. Many of these pieces of writing, writing by our masters, were published in English translation for the very first time because of this book project. It set in motion my conviction that there’s lots more where that came from. There’s some stuff that younger writers have picked up, which to them is so cool, it reads like it could have been written last year or last month, not 1968 and hardly touched since. Neglected for forty years, lying fallow, and then published for the first time in English, and therefore newly accessible, newly inspirational four decades later. In a sense, the wait was necessary. The political and social climate has changed; a new generation, more conditioned to look for and appreciate this work that was probably ahead of its time, has emerged. Now there are more resources for translators, more resources for publishing, distribution. The internet is making it more known that there’s this cool stuff out there. So in a sense we are ripe for this sort of work to now take place. And I think translation is part of that.
On a second level, there’s of course the need to build current and future bonds and relationships across different frontiers. I think our peers writing in different languages have more in common than we do with our respective predecessors. It’s a generational thing. I don’t just mean within Singapore but also across the region. We are an incredibly diverse region. If we don’t find ways to connect with each other, if we don’t find ways to talk to Indonesians, Thais, Filipinos, Malaysians, so on and so forth, I think, not only is it a shame, because we’re not learning from each other, I think it’s dangerous because we can be neighbors that don’t know each other, don’t understand or appreciate our mutual sensibilities, things we care about, potential political forces and woes. I think it’s very important to stay in touch with the part of the world you are in. Translation helps to bridge that sort of gap.
The third level is global writing. It’s just become so much easier to appreciate that the world out there is full of these riches that are locked up in different cultures and languages. There’s almost no excuse. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. Time and resources are. But we can no longer claim we didn’t know there’s brilliant work coming out of Iraq or Burma or Slovenia. I have personally benefitted from the work that’s been coming out of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Tomaž Šalamun, who passed away recently. So I know there’s really good stuff out there. It makes me want to read more. And the more work I do, when I connect, I realize they’re interested in our work as well. So just from a purely economic point of view, it opens up potential opportunities and markets that would never have occurred to us. I have books published in Croatia and Slovenia, and Swedish translations, with more coming. They seem to appreciate the work and see something in it that they want to bring into their languages; and very often these are the same peoples and societies and literatures in which I too have seen something of value that I can relate to and learn from. So there’s a mutual sense of affinity and inclination. And you want to celebrate and strengthen that spark. Translation is that conversation. It’s easier to do now. It’s more necessary now than ever. We should do more of it.
HFR: On the one hand, it seems that Singapore is very involved in its own literary presence, because there’s BooksActually and Math Paper Press, literary events and classes, the Arts House with its Text in the City app. On the other hand, we asked our students at NUS [National University of Singapore] to name their favorite Singaporean novel and they said, well, I’ve never read one. So I wondered about your thoughts on how Singaporeans relate to Singaporean literature and poetry.
AP: There’s a tremendous amount of ignorance. Why? We don’t get taught Singaporean material in school. We read Shakespeare, usually UK writers, on occasion US writers. Very rarely do we get to read our own writers. There are people who wait to be told what books they should read. Until very recently, Singapore’s own authors have hardly ever appeared on reading lists and school lists. We grow up and become teachers ourselves, never knowing that there are in fact our own good writers around. And then there are people who go out and actively look, in libraries and bookstores, for Singaporean writers.
We started doing this sort of work more actively in the mid-1990s: small presses and readings. We’ve since seen a huge shift in both interest and awareness. It’s still not across the board because we’re fighting against four, five decades of willful ignorance. But I’ve seen such a huge change. Last year at the Singapore Writers Festival, all Singaporeans writers’ panels were very well attended. In fact, they were often better attended than sessions by international writers – which is something that didn’t use to be the case. In fact, it’s relatively new to even have so many Singaporean writers in the Singapore Writers Festival. It’s usually some headliner from the US or the UK. For the past two, three years, we’re starting to see an equalizing. People are more prepared to appreciate good writing regardless of where it comes from. It’s partly because we now have a stable of respected writers with a healthy local fanbase: figures such as Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa’at, who have a huge following. Bookstores like BooksActually make Singapore writers a little more visible. Amanda [Lee Koe], for example, has quite a following among younger people. So I think there’s a new generation coming up, who take it for granted that there are at least some writers. They may not know about a whole range but they will start to have their own favorites. I’m seeing that really happen. The 2014 Writers Festival had two closing events: One was a debate, and the other was an original performance by five poets who wove their poems into something like a dramatic narrative –– they managed to pack a full auditorium, more than the debate which had always been the top draw of the festival. People bought tickets for this. It was quite amazing. To see a room full of maybe four to six hundred people, there for a dramatic poetry performance by five young Singaporean poets. I think that’s astonishing anywhere in the world.
HFR: We noticed that a pretty significant Singaporean presence at AWP. Do you feel that perhaps Singaporean literature is gaining a foothold in the US?
AP: I think we’ve always had to find our tribe, our market, our leadership, outside Singapore. And one of the places we do go is naturally to the US. So there is a base. There is a cohort. I wouldn’t say a small village-worth, maybe a few blocks-worth, okay, maybe a couple of households-worth, of Singapore writers who are based in the US. They studied there, or went there and settled there for whatever reason, they work from there, Jee Leong Koh, for example. Jeremy Tiang, on occasion. Amanda [Lee Koe]’s there now. These are your dynamic, talented ones. And then there are the visitor types, like me, who are footloose, travelling throughout the world for writing. And AWP is a natural place to congregate, isn’t it?
I got to know Ravi Shankar through Drunken Boat, he came to Singapore, he said Let’s collaborate. And he was the one who first got me interested in going to AWP in the first place. So I went last year, to Seattle. Had a great time. I actually invited some Arts Council people along, who also had a great time. For the first time they actually understood how I work, the sort of interest that there was potentially to tap. So this year I decided to go again. And I brought a few friends along, I said, Look, guys, you should check this out, come along, and somehow quite a few people had the same idea in Singapore. Which I think is quite nice.
HFR: You’ve already talked about the importance of anthologies because they introduce certain authors to a new audience. Could you talk specifically about No Other City?
AP: No Other City was the very first anthology I edited, in 2000. I was really young, foolish, naïve, and ignorant. Which is why I could pull it off. I could do things that I would find politically incorrect today. I had nothing to lose. I went right to veterans, newcomers, put them together, put Cultural Medallion-winning professors next to sixteen-year-old students because their poems seemed to talk to each other. Today, I might think twice. Nah, I still wouldn’t, but I would be more circumspect. Back then I did it because it seemed like a cool idea.
Why did I do it? Because we had started to run readings, started to publish our own collections. And we realized that there were many more writers, specifically poets, than we thought. You know the whole We are not cultural producers thing turned out to be a fallacy. And then once we started doing it we realized, Hey, you know what? Every third person is secretly a poet. People were secretly writing. We wanted to celebrate that. We wanted to document that. And we wanted to get a platform to people to come out, really it was a sort of coming out. But also, someone might not have a book-worth, but they might have a few things to say, and we wanted to document that and celebrate that. We decided writing about the city was the one thing we had in common and that was worth marking. So we put together an anthology that had to do with urban poetry. Very diverse, both published work as well as new stuff. It became quite seminal, it became quite a milestone. Many of the writers who are more well-known or well-established today had first outings in that anthology. Some schools and some universities, I understand, use that text because it’s a good way to look at Singapore through the lens of its urban writing, which is partly what we intended. But really it was a way for us to declare that as a community, as a tribe, that we actually exist. That there is such a thing as poetry in Singapore and it’s relevant, sensitive to its context, not necessarily merely derivative; it’s actually really interesting. And goes both backwards and forwards. So stuff from older poet writing about the earlier days as well as contemporary, forward looking, future looking perspectives.
I really wish some younger person would do a second edition, sort of an update. Ten, fifteen, twenty years. I believe anthologies are like translations; they need to be remade every generation. Every generation needs to create its own idea of itself. There is no such thing as an anthology for all time, THE greatest American writers. No! Every generation has to redefine its own lists, its own playlist, its own mixtape, right? Same for translation. Every generation needs to translate the works it cares about. To tell itself the stories that matter in a way that it understands. We have to keep doing this. People keep asking me to do a sequel and I say, No, it would not make sense for me to do it again. It makes sense for the next generation, a younger person. They might include me. Or not. I actually don’t care. But I do care that there’s a sense of succession, continuity, that the culture keeps growing. I don’t want to be a museum.
HFR: What role would you say Singapore plays in your own work?
AP: I think it’s there inevitably. I’ve tried to not have it dominate. My second book was called City of Rain. And it was about thinking about Singapore, being a place I’ve spend all my life, thinking about it as an emotional, cultural, psychological landscape rather than just a geographical, physical one. In other words, if a city has neighborhoods, maybe thinking about them as physical neighborhoods is one way, but how about emotional neighborhoods? There are places that seem ordinary but mean something to you because you lost someone you loved there, or you met someone there, you have particular memories. Those memories make place more than what it might be to someone else. So the map we have of our city, any city, is an emotional and psychological one. Cultural as much as physical. So my second book, City of Rain, is all about that. After that, I allowed myself to move away from the subject. If I chose to write about it, the city was incidental. It wasn’t about putting all my thoughts about urban writing as it were into one book. I freed myself both thematically and stylistically to write as the occasion rose, and I’m actually a very restless kind of intellect. I read all sorts of stuff, I’m interested in ideas from food to particle physics, archaeology, literature, and if something catches my fancy and surprises me, gives me that flash of insight that makes me want to write, I’ll go and write. So I don’t confine myself to particular themes or styles but it was good to have had that ground, to know where I came from. I actually think being from Singapore is part of that restlessness, this hunger for variety and diversity because that is my heritage. I don’t feel like I have any one monoculture or one tradition. I celebrate range. I celebrate difference, diversity. And I see that in my work.
HFR: Do you think that’s common for Singaporean writers, because everybody grows up in this mishmash of cultures, perhaps people have the same attitude that you do?
AP: I would say yes and no. In the aggregate I see tremendous variety. Desmond [Kon] writes differently from Cyril [Wong] writes differently from--, so on and so forth. There isn’t necessarily a “Singapore school”. Which is a good thing, and I think that is a part of our liking variety and liking uniqueness. On the other hand, there are also concerns that are driven by personal priorities. So for example, many of the writers are driven by their identities as gay men. And they feel like they need to write against the homophobia that prevails in many parts of Singapore society. They use that talent to speak about something that hasn’t been given a fair voice. Because those concerns are current and pressing, there is a clustering of voices around those themes: politics, sexuality, gender to some degree, certain cultural issues, minority Singaporeans who feel that the egalitarian aspirations of the Singapore state sometimes don’t quite play out in reality. Microaggressions and so on. So there is writing that is centered around these political encounters. There are also writers who write in their own particular style. Desmond [Kon], for example, is stylistically very experimental, as is Yeow Kai Chai.
One of the things about our writers is that we are not by and large -- with very rare exceptions -- full time writers. We all have different professions and backgrounds and jobs. That adds to the diversity of the writing. So, Isa Kamari, architect. Toh Hsien Min, banker. I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been a journalist, I’ve been a programmer, web developer. And it’s the norm. If you think about it, the idea of the full-time writer who does nothing but write is a) relatively recent, and b) not that traditional here. One of our traditional points of references is the classical class of scholar-administrator-poets: your Li Bai and Du Fu figures. People who basically did well in an imperial exam and were given a province or two to govern. In their spare time they did calligraphy and drank a lot and wrote poems. This idea of someone who is multidisciplinary, who did stuff to pay the bills but also had a cultural life, I think that’s our norm. I wouldn’t measure my success or failure as a writer by my ability to write full-time. Having a day job fits with our economic realities but I think it’s more of a cultural norm also. We aren’t regarded as lesser artists because we aren’t full time.
HFR: The theme of this issue is Borderlands. Earlier, you mentioned layers.
AP: Singapore thrives; at the same time it’s anxious about its diversity and hybridity. I think it draws its strength from it. Over this conversation we talked about so many different kinds of border crossings, as it were, trans boundary, liminal spaces. Cultural crossroads. We talked about being the gateway between east and west, which is a cliché we like to sell economically but on some level it is certainly true that there has been a mixing. We are a borderlands. We are a gateway culture, a great gateway society, where you can see traces of many different layers, and many different histories, that we haven’t come close to uncovering, making the most of. Even professionally the idea that we bring to the table as writers our own different backgrounds as people, ethnicities, adherents of different faiths, as practitioners of different professions. That enriches the idea of what it even means to be a writer, the idea of what literature is. That’s a different type of boundary crossing. Because we are conditioned to monocultural models that we’ve inherited from empire, we still think of these things as liabilities. Oh, you’re not full-time, you can’t be serious. Oh, you don’t have a single, long deep rich tradition to fall on and draw from. Well, we write in English. That makes Shakespeare our literary ancestor as much as anyone else’s. On top of that are all these other cultural references I can draw from, on top of that are all these other Southeast Asian ones, and the unique newness that comes from the mix, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And there’s a long runway yet for these things to come through. On top of that, I’m not just a writer, I do these other things, some of us understand how law works, money works, how business works, and guess what, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It makes us stronger. It’s allowed us to punch above our weight. Because if you think about it, we’ve had to do everything. The bookstore has to be publisher, writers have to be editors. Sometimes we’ve had to publish and organize things and also run journals. Because we didn’t have the infrastructure that allows us to specialize, we’ve had to do all these different things. And that’s allowed us to innovate. Forced us to think about doing things differently, in ways that are very productive. We’ve had to use the internet a lot more to speed things up. We’ve been able to put together anthologies in record time. We can move things much faster than going through the traditional route of publishing, where a manuscript might sit in a pile for a year, two years. We can get stuff done in a couple of months, or less sometimes, because we’ve learned how to do things quickly out of necessity. I go to many other countries, communities that are struggling with, literary culture is dying, poetry is dying. I find that actually we’re more vibrant in some ways. Part of it has to do with the newness and the novelty of it. We’ve not had this voice of ours for so long that there’s a hunger. But also I think we’ve done some things right. Done some of these things for ourselves, and it’s worked. And it’s paid off for us. There’s a lot to learn from this ferocity. That’s our strength.