Writing Matters: In Conversation with Alfian Sa’at
By Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee
Born in 1977, Alfian Sa’at is an accomplished and versatile Singaporean writer who has published across all three genres of prose, poetry, and drama, winning awards in each genre, including the Singapore Literature Prize, Golden Point Award and Singapore Young Artist Award. His three poetry collections, One Fierce Hour (Landmark Books, 1998), A History of Amnesia (Ethos Books, 2001) and The Invisible Manuscript (Math Paper Press, 2012) were mainly composed during his undergraduate days in Singapore, and he has since published several plays, translations and two short story collections, Corridor: 12 Short Stories (SNP, 1999; Ethos Books, 2015) and Malay Sketches (Ethos Books 2012; Gaudy Boy 2018). Alfian is the Resident Playwright at Wild Rice, a theatre company in Singapore headed by artistic director Ivan Heng.
As part of an ongoing collaborative project entitled Anglophone City Poetics and the Asian Experience, Alfian talks to Tammy Ho and Jason Lee about his first poetic journeys, his relationship with the city-state he calls home, and his reactions to globalization and the cultural imaginary of the Asian city.
Tammy Ho & Jason Lee: You are perhaps more renowned as a playwright these days, but can you tell us what inspired you to write your first poems?
Alfian: I think I was exposed to poetry through an anthology we used in my secondary school (Raffles Institution) called Touched with Fire. It was my first introduction to poets such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, and, if I’m not mistaken, also Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin. I think these poets left quite a significant impression and I started hunting for their collections in the school library. I was at that age when I took on melancholy as adolescent affectation, and I remember committing Larkin’s ‘Faith Healing’ to memory.
I probably started dabbling in poetry when I joined the Creative Arts Programme, which was a residential programme for students who displayed some aptitude in creative writing. This was when I was 15 years old. We spent one week staying at a hostel at the National University of Singapore. Every day, the other students would publish some of their writings in the daily newsletter. This was one of my earliest exposures to a writing community of peers.
Tammy & Jason: Can you list some important moments in your early experiences as a poet?
Alfian: I recall quite distinctly one moment in the canteen, when we were having our lunch. This was usually some rice with a side of meat and vegetables. Just the day before, one of the students had claimed to have found weevils in the rice, and all the complaints about how bad the food was took this rather nightmarish turn. On that day, the newsletter featured many poems, limericks, doodles about weevils.
So I went up to the lady who served us the rice (in styrofoam containers), to top up my drink. She seemed very pleased with the fact that I was returning ‘for seconds’ and asked me what school I was from. I told her, and her response was that I should eat more, since I was ‘so clever’ and used ‘my brain a lot’.
It was that gap, between the woman’s unguarded, even effusive interaction with me, and the fact that she was a target of parody, that made me return to my hostel room to write one of my first poems. I felt all these things that had to do with class and privilege and guilelessness and betrayal and it was something that I could only process through poetry.
Tammy & Jason: In your opinion, how useful is poetry as a medium for expressing your personal experiences? How does it compare to playwriting or the other genres you write in?
Alfian: I have always felt that poetry is the medium that comes closest to my idea of a ‘voice’, or even ‘breath’. So it’s the one medium that I think is purest to the idea of art or literature as a response to the question of mortality. When I write short fiction, or my plays, I always feel that the challenge is in creating all these characters whose ways of speaking and even thinking are distinct from my own. With poetry, especially with the lyric poem, the challenge is in finding intimacy with the self, even if it means sometimes confronting the horrors of the self.
As for playwriting, it’s a kind of background contrast to poetry—it’s very social, your head is crowded with characters. And sometimes it helps for me to conceive of poetry as a retreat from playwriting, a sense of fencing off the world and committing to the dilation of silences. And that bit Yeats said—rhetoric as a quarrel with others (especially when that quarrel is the dramatic conflict in drama). But poetry as a quarrel with one’s self.
Tammy & Jason: Looking at your poems, stories and plays, it’s interesting that you write in both English and Malay. How do you mediate between these two languages? For example, do you think in one language and write in another, or do you incorporate aspects of one language medium into the other?
Alfian: Yes, I write in Malay as well, but only Malay plays. This is probably because with plays, a lot of it is about mentally transcribing how people speak and then reproducing it as dialogue. I don’t think I’ve read as much Malay literature as I have English literature to be able to confidently write poetry or prose in Malay. I would say that my first language is English. I speak Malay at home, with my family, but I use English in practically every other situation.
Sometimes when it’s difficult to start writing poetry I try to warm up by practicing translation of some Malay poems into English. For me it’s a way of recognising what my poetic voice sounds like, a voice that struggles to assert itself independent of the source poem. Also, by the act of translating, I remove the pressure for me to create something out of nothing. The raw material for the creative act is already there in the source poem.
As for whether I might incorporate certain aspects of the Malay language into my English poems, I think it depends. I think there’s definitely some kind of bilingual consciousness that can be mined towards experimental ends. Like writing a poem in English but conforming to Malay syntax, for example. I have yet to explore this kind of approach with rigour, though I’m aware that I might produce poems with a very specific addressee—a reader who is herself bilingual and who would be able to recognise residues of both languages in the work.
Tammy & Jason: Let’s talk about Singapore as a backdrop to your creative writing. Do you find living in the city nurturing of or stifling to your creativity?
Alfian: I think a lot of my poems are either set in Singapore, or address something about Singapore. As someone who’s ethnically Malay, one of the things that I try to do is give visibility to my own cultural backgrounds and practices. So a lot of the writing involves representing Singapore as something which is not a Chinese city.
I think I’m one of those writers who thrives on the kinds of stimulation that a city provides—being able to attend a show, a talk, a workshop, a forum, visit a library, etc. All of these feed into the work in some way. My sense is that even in a city you can find your pocket of calm if you want to—it’s possible to just unplug by being an Internet ascetic for a while. Or even pockets of nature. But if you intend to tap into the energy of a city when you’re in a non-urban environment, that would be very difficult, if not impossible.
Tammy & Jason: So, would you say that poetry, as opposed to other prose fiction or drama, is an effective medium for narrating the city?
Alfian: Frankly, I think cinema is best positioned to capture or narrate the city. A lot of my own impressions of cities that I had not visited (at the time) came primarily from cinema rather than literature. Such that when I visited New York it felt like walking around on a giant movie set—the brownstones, the yellow cabs, the exposed manholes with steam curling out of them.
Tammy & Jason: Given that you write in a variety of different mediums, would you consider yourself well positioned to narrate Singapore?
Alfian: I’m not sure how much of a bard of the city I am! But I think there are some complexities involved in the representation of the city in Singapore. The first has to do with the fact that the environment is almost entirely urban. Even supposedly suburban residential areas, which are often referred to as the ‘heartland’, are populated by high rise housing. The second has to do with the fact that Singapore does not have a hinterland. And thus we don’t really have this sense of a metropolitan city centre, a place which is often romanticised as one of bountiful opportunities, and also a place of freedom where one can escape the petty surveillance and prejudices of one’s small town of origin. At one point of time, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister, did speak of his dream that Singapore would be the New York of Malaysia. After separation, however, that dream dissolved and Singapore became a city that could not harness the kinds of pilgrim energies and social mobility that characterise rural-urban migration. Although there is net migration into Singapore from other countries, they tend to be within class brackets, for example, PMET expats or foreign workers who are employed in menial occupations. In other words, in spite of the translocation from another country, one effectively moves from condominium to condominium, or village to dormitory.
Tammy & Jason: Have you noticed many changes in Singapore over the years, and do you feel compelled to write about them?
Alfian: Singapore, because of land scarcity, is one of the cities that seem to exist in an eternal present, which means that there is an alarmingly high turnover rate of built heritage in the name of urban development. So when we are writing about the city in Singapore, we are almost always writing elegies about the destruction of the city. Almost the entirety of the poet Boey Kim Cheng’s oeuvre about Singapore is about its vanished places. I think with Singapore filmmakers as well, there’s always the idea that even if they’re working with narrative film, they are documentarians by default, preserving a landscape in celluloid that might vanish within 30 years.
Tammy & Jason: Are there any aspects of Singapore that have remained unchanged? What are they?
Alfian: There are some built features, but quite a few have succumbed to facadism. For example, you’ll see a lot of ‘preserved’ shop houses that have been converted to offices, but the thing is only the fronts remain and are refurbished; the interiors have been completely gutted and redesigned.
Tammy & Jason: Would you say that Singapore’s past, its colonial history for example, has had an impact on your writing of place?
Alfian: I think so, and it’s useful to remind one’s self of this history when we write about the city as palimpsest.
Tammy & Jason: Does that mean that there are particular aspects of Western or colonial representation that you challenge or engage with in your poetry?
Alfian: As mentioned, I feel like what I’m writing against is less Western/colonial representations of Singapore and more Sinocentric representations. One can also make the argument that the Chinese are a settler community so in some ways this kind of writing has anti-colonial undercurrents too.
Tammy & Jason: Are there any other political, social or economic critiques about Singapore represented in your poetry?
Alfian: I think there’s always some form of critique regarding Singapore’s authoritarian government, ranging from poems that explore detention without trial as well as various controversies relating to the censorship of the arts.
Tammy & Jason: How do you think your writings about Singapore differ from poets of earlier/later generations? What perspectival differences do you think exist between these generations?
Alfian: My sense is that there was a bit more of a nation-building imperative in the works of earlier generations of poets. So perhaps their description of the city might sometimes tilt towards the rhapsodic.
Tammy & Jason: How do you think Singapore might change in future? Do you see yourself living in the city in, say, five, ten or twenty years’ time?
Alfian: I do see myself living in the city until old age. I can’t say with certainty what changes might occur, and there is always some background anxiety over how continued environmental degradation and climate change will affect the island state that I live in. Rising sea levels might be a concern, although the Singapore government, obsessed with horizon scanning, have already consulted Dutch experts on how to deal with the sea’s encroachment. Demographically, I definitely think that Singapore will change—many more of its residents will be those who were born outside the country. The question is whether or not the bulk of them will continue to come from China, which is something the government has been practicing as a way to ‘maintain the racial balance’ (code phrase for maintaining Chinese numerical supremacy). Because of the current tensions between Singapore and China, due mostly to an increasingly belligerent China that sees Singapore as an American stooge, it’s a question mark whether it would be advisable to keep on importing the China-born, who rightly or wrongly might represent a potentially destabilising fifth column.
Tammy & Jason: What is your reaction towards the expression ‘the Asian experience’? Is this a meaningful idea to you? Have you explored notions of an Asian identity in your poetry?
Alfian: I think one always has to be cautious about any kind of self-orientalising practices, particularly whenever writing about identity – that of essentialising something that is much more hybrid than one gives it credit for.
Tammy & Jason: What about ‘the Asian city’? Do you think cities in Asia have more similarities than differences, and if so what are they?
Alfian: I think there’s some kind of a cliché in the global cultural imaginary of the ‘Asian city’—a dense, crowded megalopolis of docile bodies that have been trained to consume the products and services of advanced global capitalism.
Tammy & Jason: Finally, while we’re on the topic of the global imaginary of the city, what positive and negative impact has globalization made on Singapore?
Alfian: Positive: Singapore has reaped many of the rewards of the global trade and global financial systems. Negative: Singapore has also become very vulnerable to fluctuations in the world market; import of foreign labour has resulted in depressed wages and increasing inequality; ideas on localism and identity are being stressed by a foreign-born population, sometimes giving rise to xenophobic attitudes.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is the founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and the academic journal Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press), English Editor of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine (聲韻詩刊), and Vice-President of PEN Hong Kong. She is the author of two poetry collections, Hula Hooping(Chameleon Press, 2015),Too TooTooToo (Math Paper Press, 2018), one short story collection, Her Name Upon the Strand (Delere Press, 2018) and co-editor of numerous poetry anthologies. She is an Associate Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Jason Eng Hun Lee is a poet and academic at Hong Kong Baptist University. His poetry has been published in Envoi, Acumen, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016. He is the author of Beds in the East (Eyewear Press, 2019).