Susan Nguyen interviews Ethos Books about Singapore's Literary Scene
Our poetry editor Susan Nguyen (right photo, top-right) with some members of Ethos Books.
Last summer, our poetry editor Susan Nguyen was on fellowship in Singapore where she co-taught a creative writing course at the National University of Singapore. While there, she had a chance to explore the beautiful Lion City that is home to a diverse literary scene, have lunch in a hawker center with the wonderful poet Cyril Wong alongside other HFR editors, purchase a wide array of books (and pet the cats!) at BooksActually, and interview the editorial staff of one of Singapore's independent book publishers, Ethos Books.
Susan: Ethos Books was established in the late 90s. What was the Singaporean literary or publishing scene like at the time? Was Ethos created as a response to what was seen as a need for or a lack of something at the time?
Ethos: Back then, there was quite a number of publishing houses actively publishing books, like Times Publishing, Straits Times Press, NUS Press, and Flame of the Forest to name a few. The choice of publication was mainly novels (crime novels, from what I know but this needs fact-checking!) and short stories (a really famous series is True Singapore Ghost Stories). No one was publishing poetry though, and Mr. Fong Hoe Fang, when approached by Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, and David Leo to consider their poetry collection for publication, he decided to start Ethos Books.
The focus of that era was directed at economic growth – technology, science, finance – and the necessity of language was to fulfill business needs. There wasn’t emphasis on language and the artistic growth of the society, and Singlit would have been one of the last things on people’s mind. Considering how the literary scene in Singapore is the biggest it has ever been today, and yet it’s still relatively unknown to the larger part of the population; how obscure it must have been back then! Starting a publishing house focused on poetry and literary fiction wasn’t likely to be a money-making venture at all – but that’s not what Ethos set out to be. Mr. Fong’s love for words and language, and to see it flourish in his own homeland, was the main drive behind it.
Susan: Singapore has a relatively new history as an independent city-state. It is home to three major ethnic groups and boasts four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. How do you see Singapore’s short history and multiculturalism affect its literature scene?
Ethos: To “unite” our multicultural society and expand our economic boundaries, numerous policies were introduced in the first fifty years alone which shaped people’s conception of language, race and religion. The implementation of English as our main tongue, while our mother tongue took on a secondary role (and Chinese dialects were to be completely replaced by Mandarin), has shaped and continues to shape the literary landscape: The volume of English publication outweighs publications in any of the other mother tongues. We are at a stage where it’s normal to be bad at your mother tongue, and there is little interest to pursue literary material without mastery of the language. Interestingly, in The Poetry of Singapore Vol. 1, edited by Edwin Thumboo, the number of poems across all 4 languages were almost the same – a difficult feat to achieve if you’re curating a Singapore anthology today.
Being made acutely aware of our differences and the need for inclusion, to the extent where we are awkward about maintaining diversity for the sake of diversity: from literary panel speakers to reading movement ambassadors, to prize award winners: do we really need a palette of colours at any event? There is so much more honor to be invited based on your personality and wits over your skin colour! But fifty years is an incredible amount of time to have condensed this much campaigns and policies, and perhaps what people need is just time to recover from it all, and think.
The word ‘multicultural’ gets a bad rep on most days in Singapore, but at times when writers do play upon the mix of languages and dialects in their works, it’s quite a magical feeling to know that such an entity is possible – That you could understand it, that the person next to you could understand it, and that perhaps, only Singaporeans will understand it.
Maybe we’re being too hard on ourselves. We are, after all, only fifty years into the making. A newborn still crawling on all fours, and a long way to go before we get to where the leagues of American and British publishers are right now. But if anything, this Singapore baby has big dreams.
Susan: Does the idea of “identity,” in whatever shape or form but especially as it relates to ethnicity, race, and/or nationality, come into play in much of the writing you’ve seen or even published? How might this conversation about identity differ from that of other countries’?
Ethos: Yes, it does, and in fact, it’s very much in all of the work we’ve published. We’re looking at identity in all forms here – the self, the nation, the self with the nation, and the self with almost anything. People struggle with a multitude of things from in their lives, from micro-personal level and all the way up to macro-global. At the core of the topic, people are looking to make sense of who they are and what they mean to their family, their society, their nation, and the world – what differs are the conditions.
Susan: How exactly does a hopeful writer get into the literature scene here? Are there a lot of resources for those interested in fiction, poetry, play writing, and so on? Are these arts encouraged?
Ethos: There are definitely resources to get anyone started on their writing! There are writing residencies by various organisations throughout the year, and also organisations who would sponsor your residency elsewhere in the world. Our national libraries have quite a large collection on various genres, which makes it a good start for any specific area you are interested in.
I think the best way to get into the literature scene, and to really immerse yourself in it, is to hang out at literary events and make friends. Beyond knowing people in the community, it’s really one of the ways to get feedback on your own works and developing your writing through your experiences with other writers and their writings. People are walking encyclopedias of knowledge and experience.
Some literary events to look at are writing groups online (e.g. SingPoWriMo), manuscript bootcamps (by Singlit Station), recurring literary events (e.g. Speakeasy).
There has been an overwhelming increase in support for the Singlit over the last decade. The National Arts Council has been coming up with new initiatives for engage the written word in various ways. They are programmes outside of their own plans which they generously fund when appropriate. The Singapore Writers Festival is getting bigger each year, with more workshops and masterclasses. More schools are adopting local texts for the ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level curriculum over the years, and are interested to invite authors into the classrooms for creative writing workshops or assembly talks. It’s a drop in the ocean, but the ocean is made up of tiny drops of water!
Susan: How do you think the literature and/or publishing scene will change in the coming years? Where do you think or hope Ethos will be in the near or far future?
Ethos: A change seems to be descending the publishing scene here in Singapore; many young writers are coming forth to present ideas and books, and a fresh wave of concepts are flowing freely from publishers and people involved in the book industry. There’s the quirky, guerilla style of bringing Singlit to the city through Singlit Station’s efforts, there’s grounds gained on the translation front with Select Centre’s initiatives, and a revival of the novel with Epigram Books’ Fiction Prize. There is much to look forward to in the coming years, I think we can expect to see more writers coming out with their works and these works will be even more carefully considered, edited, and talked about.
Our hopes for Ethos is to create books that will open doors for different readers, and for our books to drive change, even if it’s limited to the small group who has read them.
Susan: Finally, are there any last words of wisdom or advice that you’d like to offer to emerging writers?
Ethos: If you’re ever stuck, try out a collaborative project – whether with another writer, or using materials from people of various industries. A lot can be drawn upon from people outside of your usual circle of knowledge to inform your writing. One of our new releases, Dream Storeys, is a hybrid of journalism-fiction where Clara Chow draws upon her interviews with architects and writes stories around them. It was a beautiful melding of design philosophy, storytelling, and really, getting to know a little bit more about people in your society you would have otherwise never known.
For more about Singlit, you might also be interested in this past HFR interview with Singaporean poet Alvin Pang or in picking up Hayden's Ferry Review issue 57: Borderlands, which has a special feature devoted to the work of Singaporean authors.