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Erasing histories

In August I spent a few days in Singapore (enjoying temperatures very similar to back home in Norwich) attending a prize ceremony, visiting other literature organisations, catching up with writers, translators and publishers, reading Singaporean literature and visiting art exhibitions. Throughout the week, I noticed a theme emerging – how writers and artists combat attempts to erase histories that don’t fit in mainstream narratives.

On Monday 6th August we were proud to give the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize (English fiction) to State of Emergency, by Jeremy Tiang, published by Epigram Books. His collection of short stories, It Never Rains on National Day, was shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. Jeremy is also an eminent Chinese-English literary translator.

The Singapore Literature Prize is organised by the Singapore Book Council, which receives funding from the National Arts Council. Most of the newspaper reports noted that it was the second time in a row that the Singapore Literature Prize has gone to a novel that challenges the established narratives of Singapore. In 2016 the prize was awarded to the best-selling graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a retelling of Singapore’s political history through the eyes of a fictional artist, by Sonny Liew, also published by Epigram. Both books had their grants withdrawn by the National Arts Council, but went on to be published to wide acclaim.

State of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang’s beautifully written first novel, highlights a lesser known side of Singaporean history, exploring the leftist movements and political detentions in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1940s onwards, through the stories and memories of an extended family. As fellow judge Kenny Chan noted, the novel is epic in scope yet intimate in its depiction of the characters.

‘Henry complains about the folly of Brexit, a country cutting itself off from the world, and his father points out that Singapore did the same, albeit not voluntarily, but no one could argue with the results. Henry tries to explain that the circumstances were completely different, the population in Singapore didn’t get a real vote, but Jason is already drifting off. It was all so long ago, he’s bored of it. So much history, especially with the 50th anniversary of independence just recently. Everyone wallowing in it—all over the TV and papers, even in the streets. Why? Bad enough living through it the first time round.’

We noticed that many of the 30 writers we read as part of the judging process were responding to the 50th anniversary of Singaporean independence in 2015, whether through literary or historical fiction, satire, fantasy, sci-fi and speculative fiction. Novels and short story collections explored politics and corruption, surveillance, outsiders and minorities, and issues such as racism, caste, disability and gay rights. Other themes included the evolving landscape and architecture of Singapore, and the resulting changes in society and values.

The Singapore Literature Prize has twelve categories – fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. The prize for creative non-fiction in English went to ‘Others’ is Not a Race by Melissa De Silva, published by Math Paper Press. She writes about being Eurasian in Singapore, exploring her own family history and Eurasian culture, including a sugee cake recipes I’m tempted to try. Her work laments the erasure of the Eurasian identity from the official narrative of Singapore by eliding it into the catch-all category of Others.

The winner of the English poetry category was Samuel Lee for A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore, also published by Math Paper Press. My favourite poem from the collection is this alternative take on historical shopping.

Charlotte Farquhar Remarks on her Souvenirs
Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Father, returning from Asia,
disembarks from his ship,
clutching not a lacquer chest
inlaid with mother-of-pearl,
or a vase of burnished pewter,
but the head of a boar —
the curve of its mouth
contemplating its own cleverness,
its wide eyes transfixed
on some distant joke.

Closer, I witness the transfiguration
of flesh to something gleaming.
The animal is enamelled, and
has deposited its image
on porcelain instead of bone.

“I thought you might like this soup tureen,” he says,
and removes the top of the head to reveal an empty space
where nature would have intended a brain.
At dinner, I ladle grey meat into my plate,
and sit in front of its stupid grin.

The international judge for Tamil poetry was the Sri Lankan poet Cheran. As we sat in a cafe near our hotel, Cheran wrote a fragment from one of his poems in my notebook in exquisite Tamil script. In it he describes succinctly how war erases the history and stories of a people; his work is a race against memory loss.

The sea has drained away
Tamil has no territory
Kinships have no name.

The full poem, After Apocalypse, can be found in Cheran’s collection A Second Sunrise, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom and Sascha Ebeling.

The Singapore Book Council celebrated Cheran’s visit by organising a reading for him, chaired by poet Alvin Pang. Cheran’s poems are born in the heat of resistance. They are witness to his experience of civil war and violence in Sri Lanka, exile in Canada from 1987 onwards and the end of the war in 2009. Some of his poems were included in Lost Evenings Lost Lives, the anthology of Sri Lankan war poetry translated and edited by Lakshmi Holmstrom, launched at Dragon Hall in 2016.

Cheran opened his reading with the title poem from A Second Sunrise, about a fire in his town in 1981.

No wind that day;
even the sea was dead,
no waves rising.

As I walked along,
feet burrowing deep in the sand,
I saw another sunrise.
In the south, this time.

What happened?
My town was set on fire,
my people lost their faces;
upon our land,
upon the wind that blows upon it,
an alien stamp.

Who were you waiting for,
your hands tied behind your backs?
The fire has written its message
upon the clouds.
Who waits, even now?
Out of the streets
where the embers still bloom,
rise, march forward.

During this incident the Sri Lankan police burnt down the Jaffna public library, which contained over 90,000 books in Tamil, some of them rare. It was the second largest library collection in South Asia according to Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, one of the shortlisted titles for the creative non-fiction in English category of the Singapore Literature Prize.

This is the first of five planned volumes by Shubigi Rao exploring the physical erasure of history and stories and cultural genocide. The project encompasses an art installation currently on display in the Singapore National Museum as part of the Signature Art Prize. Written in the Margins includes short films, photographs and texts in a space reminiscent of a reading room.

Many of the films related incidents connected with two major fires in the Balkans in 1992, part of a drive to eradicate culture and deny history that doesn’t fit with the dominant narrative. One was the burning of the Oriental Institute in Bosnia and Herzogovina, the major destination for ancient manuscripts written in Persian, Turkish, Hebrew and Arabic; the other was the incendiary bombing of the National Library in Sarajevo, destroying two million irreplaceable books and manuscripts, the heart of Bosnian literary culture.

In one film clip, an art historian describes black flakes of burnt pages like miniature birds floating through the streets. While watching it, I remembered that Norwich library also burnt down – albeit accidentally – in 1994, destroying more than 100,000 books and thousands of historical documents from the archives.

Towards the end of my week in Singapore I met with two writers and translators, Annaliza Bakri and Yeo Wei Wei. We talked about plans in 2019 to mark the 200th anniversary of the British colonising Singapore, and the importance of old manuscripts in offering challenges to the mainstream narrative of Singapore. One popular myth is that Singapore was just a fishing village when Raffles founded and modernised the place. However, a 15th century Portuguese map shows that the island was already even then a trading hub between the Malay archipelago and the rest of the world.

Malay history and literature is not explicitly part of the mainstream curriculum in schools, Annaliza told us. The changing landscape of Singapore has led to the loss of many places significant for both individuals and communities, but Malay literary works have preserved stories of their way of life. In the introduction to her anthology of Malay poetry Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit Annaliza writes: ‘The Malay poets play a crucial role in remembering and recording these historical fragments so we will not be a nation void of memories and emotions.’

It was a fascinating week, exploring these histories through art, literature and conversation. I’m hoping that I’ll be invited to be a Singapore Literature Prize judge again one day, so that I find out how Singaporean writers – whether in English, Malay or other languages – respond to this 200th anniversary and challenge official narratives, ensuring that the wider spectrum of stories and memories are not erased.

Footnote:

Singapore Literature Prize 2018 – English fiction

Winner:
State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang

Shortlist:
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Regrettable things that happened yesterday by Jennani Durai
The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid
Death of a Perm Sec by Wong Souk Yee

Judges: Kenny Chan of Kinokuniya, author Shamini Flint, and Kate Griffin