EFW II NGS Dome Opening Pix

The building is but material structure. Within its architecture is imbued its aesthetic character. What happens when a writer confronts such a created space, and what texts emerge, themselves rendered as works of art?

At the Singapore Writers Festival, Eye/Feel/Write will launch its third instalment, with the publication of a beautiful anthology, titled Eye/Feel/Write: Building Architectonics, as well as curated reading tours at National Gallery Singapore. A special commission by the National Arts Council, Eye/Feel/Write is an ekphrastic project that invites distinguished writers in Singapore to pen texts inspired by art institutions here.

This year, editor Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé extended the invitation to twelve eminent writers — Aaron Lee, Aaron Maniam, Amanda Chong, Clara Chow, Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Heng Siok Tian, Josephine Chia, Kirpal Singh, Nuraliah Norasid, O Thiam Chin, Toh Hsien Min, and Tse Hao Guang — each creating texts inspired by the history and architecture of the Gallery.

In the preface to the anthology, a series of questions are posed: “On its own, architecture already surfaces its own symbols and associations, its own poetry. How then may a writer gaze upon a building and take in its space, then render the experience in language? How is the language of architecture translated into the language of lyric or narrative? Across artifice and edifice. What of proportion, of range? What of scale and shape, body and motion? What is inhabited, what inhabits, through time and space? What is made manifest, what new memories in the poetry of fiction — and how momentous, how memorable?”

Towards understanding any emerging discourse borne of these ekphrastic experiments, Kitaab shares beautiful insights from several of the contributing authors, as they contemplate how they went about their particular creative renderings.

AARON LEE

“The former Supreme Court building holds special memories for me. In 1998 I was admitted to the Singapore bar to practice as a lawyer in a ceremony that took place in the grand hall of the building. As an apprentice litigator I often accompanied senior lawyers to hearings in the chambers of various judges in the same building, and visited the Court library to do research. The National Gallery Singapore that now stands in the place of the former Supreme Court and the former City Hall, is a marvel of architecture and design. Since it opened I have spent many a contemplative hour in its various galleries enjoying the spectacular art and the grandeur of the building’s interior. For this ekphrasis project I thoroughly explored the NGS several times, always taking my time and stopping occasionally to make some notes when inspiration struck me. I paid particular attention to the exhibitions which told stories about the people who inhabited the Supreme Court building as it was then: judges, lawyers, court workers and victims of crime and those affected by conflict. I wanted to challenge myself to write three different poems for this anthology. The poem ‘Lady Justice Contemplates’ expressed the reverie of a person I imagined as a conflation of an actual judge and the figure of Justice in the tympanum pediment of the building. The poem ‘Then & There, Here & Now’ is a response to two books that I read about the NGS building project. I wrote it as a ‘twin cinema’ poem as a tribute to a newly-invented poetic form native to Singapore, and also because the NGS comprises two buildings, each with its unique history and purpose, now put together. ‘Poetic Justice’ is a tongue-in-cheek mash up of common idioms related to the law.”

AARON MANIAM

“Working at the Treasury Building on High Street, I visit the National Gallery often — sometimes for lunch, sometimes during lunchtime in search of silence amidst the whirring routine of a day. I love the art, but I think I love the architecture more; particularly the clean lines and curves, and how light shines into the most unexpected corners. Desmond’s challenge to us — to write about the architecture — was therefore very welcome! Many of my usual poetic concerns play out here — silence, in-between-ness, space and how we find names for them when they defy easy articulation. I also decided to experiment a bit with myth-making; the Gallery has always struck me as a world unto itself, and it seemed like a fun experiment to see what the dwellers in, and travellers into, such a world might be like. I’ve long been fascinated with world creation, where knowledge of ‘True Names’ enables heroes and heroines to claim a special kind of power. Perhaps such Naming is all that poetry really is!”

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Kitaab Daren Shiau Pix

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I liked reading when I was child, and I enjoyed studying literature in secondary school – it opened a door for me. In my teens, my best childhood friend and I both decided to pursue an audacious wish of publishing a novel before we were 21. It seemed impossible at that time, but Johann actually did it with Peculiar Chris which went into print while we were in National Service, and has become somewhat of a cult classic (I am very proud of him). I took much longer, and only managed it by receiving a commendation award of the Singapore Literature Prize, which in the 90s was a competition for unpublished fiction. It’s funny because Cyril Wong says Heartland reads like a Peculiar Chris for straight people. That was 1998. I wasn’t able to write prose following Heartland for a while soon after, for some reason, so I turned to poetry. In 2000, I put out a poetry collection, Peninsular, thanks in large part to Ethos Books, which had faith in someone unschooled in that genre. In 2007, I published a microfiction collection, Velouria, which has a deliberately sparse and minimal style, and was probably a reaction to how much I had become unconsciously associated with the verisimilitude of Heartland.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I’ve been working on two books, one short fiction and the other poetry, for the last ten years – I need to do better at writing less slowly <laughs>. The current title of the poetry collection is We Remember Killing Tigers, which is the last line of the poem ‘We Must Be Lions’ in Peninsular.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Music is a big part of my writing. For Velouria, which has a deliberately pared-down style, Richie Hawtin and Kings of Convenience were often playing in the background while I was writing it. Almost half the story titles in Velouria are names of songs. My earlier work was heavily influenced by the aesthetic of bands such as Cocteau Twins, Joy Division and The Smiths.

Ananda

By Aminah Sheikh

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

This is the kind of question, like “what do you write about”, that plunges me into a regular quandary because it’s as if I were being asked to summarize my life in one paragraph. I actually don’t know how I came to writing because I started as a child, almost as soon as I began to read and write, and it grew up with me. But I realized its importance when I was around 12 years old and started writing my first “novels”. I obtained my first literary prize at 15, published my first collection of short stories when I was 19 and never really looked back. I would say that I began to write because it was a way to break the silence – both mine and that of Mauritian society around me, which is one where things are left unsaid, where there is a kind of culture of stifling real feelings, and where, as in many other parts of the world, a large number of people are condemned to be unheard and at times invisible. My first novel, after my collections of short stories, was a first person narrative about a prostitute of Port-Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Written in the eighties, it broke a taboo in many ways, including the sexual violence being described and the sensuality of the writing. I’ve sometimes been described as a writer who writes for the voiceless. But this is a little too grand and emphatic for me. We are all voiceless in certain ways, and writing delves deep into our psyches, into fears and obsessions that fear to reveal themselves because they make us vulnerable.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

The novel I have just completed and that will be published early next year was probably one I found most difficult to write because it broke away from my usual literary haunts. For instance, in all my novels, the place where the story is set is extremely important and plays a major part in the narrative. Whether it is Port-Louis, or Terre Rouge, in Mauritius, New Delhi or London, my characters tend to take on part of their meaning from their surroundings, which closely reflect their states of mind. This roots them in history – their own and the larger history of the place – in their being, in their becoming. In this last novel, however, I do not name the place; it could be any modern city, and there is hardly any description of the outer environment of the main character. This is because the story is told by a morbidly obese 16-year-old for whom, in a way, the “place” is her body. It is her prison and her shrine. She is captured by this inflationary process, trying to come to terms with it, with the fact that her mother left her with her father when she was still a baby, and her father, who adores her, also destroys her by constantly feeding her the most delicious food. He has also created the myth that the protagonist is obese because originally her mother was expecting twins, and that somehow, one was absorbed by the other. So the girl is both constantly shadowed by this invisible sister, and believes she has in a way devoured her inside the uterus. At the same time, it is a very contemporary novel because it talks about the constant “eye” of social media and the virtual world on all of us and on her especially, which turns her into a monster that is constantly being watched. The virtual world is the fourth dimension in which we now live, whether we like or not, and that has unleashed the most negative traits in people, mockery, aggression, hate, racism, behind the walls of anonymity. It all ends in an orgy of self-inflicted violence, the nihilism that is reflected in the many different sorts of violence surrounding us.