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.

ALFIAN
Alfian Sa’at

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.

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By Pallavi Narayan

kq

The cover of Kappa Quartet is striking. It’s simple — a subway car opening onto a station platform, with Japanese signs hung up, a man in a hat reading a newspaper on the left, a woman in a dress with a closed book on her lap. The man and woman are faceless, and the person entering is incomplete —  a faceless individual with a pair of red glasses perched on (in?) air. Indeed, waiting is the trope the novel appears to be premised on. Water is the element kappas are most comfortable in and around, and it too plays a vital role in moving the narrative forward.

The novel plunges right into the action by taking as self-evident the presence of the mythological figure of the kappa, a river demon of Japanese folklore, in the everyday life of humans and cities. Kappas enjoy a solitary existence and distance themselves from even their families, yet they are integrated into fast-paced society: they drink at izakayas, consume nabe at restaurants, play instruments in orchestras, relax at cafes and hotels, marry other kappas and procreate, marry humans and don’t, get adopted as children, go to school, in short, do everything that humans do. How they are differentiated is through a hole in the head (while bathing, it is apparently a custom for them to have another individual present scoop up some water and pour it into the hole). In some kappas like Takao the hole is very small, say, “no larger than a five-hundred-yen coin”, while his nephew “Goro’s was probably three or four times bigger” (p. 145), because of which he is picked on by his classmates.

Kappas can also take away human souls. It is specialists or senmon-ka such as Ms Neo, Haruhito Daisuke and Ahab who are able to see who is without a soul, and which kappa is prone to turn dangerous. It is not elaborated as to how they gain their powers, and how they protect their souls from being sucked away by kappas. The senmon-ka appear throughout the novel, putting forth the question of what is fabricated and what the actual happenings are.