Recently, a course on dissent and resistance that was to be conducted by poet and playwright Alfian Bin Sa’at in NUS-Yale was dropped by the university. Sa’at had not been fully aware of the consequences that students could be going against the laws and risk arrest in pursuing the course curriculum.
The decision said the Yale President,Professor Peter Salovey, was made “internally and without government interference”.
In an earlier report, Professor Salovey had said: “In founding and working with our Singaporean colleagues on Yale-NUS, Yale has insisted on the values of academic freedom and open inquiry, which have been central to the college and have inspired outstanding work by faculty, students, and staff: Yale-NUS has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia.”
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.
Fresh from his double win at this year’s Beverly Hills International Book Awards, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has been named a silver medalist at The 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY). This win, in the Multicultural Fiction category, is for his novel, Singular Acts of Endearment (Squircle Line Press & Grey Sparrow Press), which was launched at last year’s Singapore Writers Festival. Monona Wali’s My Blue Skin Lover (Blue Jay Ink) takes the gold, while Chantel Acevedo’s A Falling Star (Carolina Wren Press) walks away with the bronze.
Myanmar’s first post-independence President, U Nu, recognised the value of good literary translation with the establishment of the Burma Translation Society in 1947. This organisation grew in strength over the next ten years producing high quality volumes of English, French and Russian to Burmese translations of European Classics and Western modernists.
After the military coup in 1962, the philosophy of the ‘Society’ was quickly strangled to the degree that it soon could only translate from a limited, pre-approved list of texts which were not considered ‘harmful to the state of the nation’. Literary translation became another victim of General Ne Win’s socialist ‘way to democracy’.
Writers in Singapore have gone on a verbal offensive (and launched petitions) against the decision of the National Library Board (NLB) to pull out and “pulp” three controversial children’s books. NLB decided to take this step after a pro-family group in Singapore complained to the library about these titles that were supposedly anti-family.
The three titles are And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express and Who’s In My Family?
Here are reactions from some prominent writers of the city state who have spoken on the matter on their Facebook pages or have shared their thoughts with the media:
Ng Yi-Sheng, Poet
“They could have chosen a compromise solution, such as putting the books in Adult Lending, or even the Reference Section. They didn’t. Don’t think they won’t do the same again.”
Cyril Wong, Poet
“As a queer writer, I think I have reached a limit of some sort, in the light or dark of recent events. I don’t know why I’m bothering anymore. By sometime next year, I’m just going to stop; yes, stop publishing, stop working with governmental organisations, even stop writing.”
“Cook A Pot Of Curry” references an intriguing incident reported in the media some two years ago, in which a mainland Chinese family quarreled with a neighbouring Singaporean Indian family, because they could not bear the smell of the curry the latter cooked at home.
The incident went on to spark a lively discussion in Singapore about immigration and the Singaporean way of life.