10.7.14

This thing is happening tonight

I'm speaking at the National Library tonight, together with the poet Grace Chia Krakovic, at the following event:
Gender Matters: A Conversation about Women in Writing
7 - 8 pm, Thursday, 10 July 2014
Visitors' Briefing Room, National Library (Level 1)

In this day and age, what do terms like "women's fiction" or "women's writing" mean? What is it like to be a writer who happens to be a woman, in a publishing industry dominated by men? Grace Chia Krakovic and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow will discuss these and other questions of gender and writing, and how it has affected their work.
As timing would have it, this week the National Library is mired in a broader, equally serious and not entirely unrelated controversy about its apparently kneejerk "withdrawal" of certain children's books from circulation because of a "pro-family" letter-writer. It's heinous, of course, this kind of censorship and Kirsten Han has written a good commentary on it, "NLB should not define ‘family’ and censor books". And as a friend pointed out on Facebook:
... a person who actively lodges a complaint and subsequently urges others to scrutinise the NLB's catalogue is simply known as a "concerned member of the public". While those who are concerned about the encroachment of religious conservatism on secular public space are almost always labelled "activists". Shouldn't it be the other way around?
Speaking of these "activists", there's a Facebook group, Singapore's Parents Against Library Censorship. Separately, there's an open letter that I've signed, and you should too, if you care about living in an open and progressive society where different viewpoints and beliefs can coexist alongside each other and be debated openly (there's that word again) and rationally.

There's supposed to be a press conference today at the National Library about this incident. I suspect the National Library doesn't so much have an ethical position on making knowledge, information and ideas freely available to all, as it has a bureaucratic checklist of what books Singaporeans "ought to" read. Despite that,  I'm going ahead with speaking at tonight's event because I think the subject matter is important in and of itself, and also important to be discussed in the context of questions of censorship, fear, problematic definitions and categories, and the power of imagination against that.

I love libraries. Libraries were where I fell in love with stories and ideas, and where the exquisite range of books available --- even in dinky Queenstown Library in Singapore in the 1980s --- was far more what any parent could have afforded to buy. The author Neil Gaiman delivered a wonderful lecture on libraries last year, "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming", in which he said (among many other things):
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. ...

... libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
So tonight let's talk about women's writing, or what the heck that is anyway, and what it's like to be put in a box, and have people tell you what you can or cannot write because of it, and then whether people say others can or cannot read your writing because of it. Technically you're supposed to register for the talk, but I have it on good authority that there are still spaces available --- so please come!

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8.7.14

I went on vacation with a bunch of three-year-old girls

Not intentionally. It just so happened that they were everywhere I went, during a whirlwind trip to France and the UK in June.

First, there was my cousin's wedding celebration near the village of St Laurent in France. Three children were in attendance, the youngest of whom was three.

Kids at the playground

Next I visited some old friends who now live in Canterbury. Their daughter is my goddaughter, and she turned three a few months ago. Finally, I went to see other old friends in London, whose twin daughters were on the cusp of turning three.

All in all, it was an unexpected crash course in the vagaries of the temperament of this age group, interspersed with surprisingly adult conversations in which they very seriously told me about their books, their clothes and various adventures.

Shoreditch

Kids notwithstanding, I was also blessed with good company, good food and wine, and absolutely great weather. London was so sunny, I came back with a bit of a tan.

Next time, I must set aside more time for beachcombing and oysters at Whitstable, Gordon's Wine Bar in London, and more of London's small museums, especially Dennis Severs' House.

Belle and her domain

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6.6.14

Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore


Not that everything here is about islands, but it just so happens that I have two short stories that will be published in MANOA, a literary journal published by the University of Hawai‘i Press, and they've decided to title the volume, "Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore".

The full list of contributors has just been published on MANOA's Facebook page (not on their blog, though), and it's thrilling to see the names of so many authors and poets whom I admire. *squee*

My two stories that will appear in MANOA are "Lighthouse" and "Grandmother". "Lighthouse" is a little story that really seems to have legs: it first appeared in Balik Kampung (2012), then it was selected for the inaugural volume of the Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One (2013), and now it's going to be in MANOA. "Grandmother" was recently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I didn't win; the Asia prize went to Sara Adam Ang, whose work I hope to read very soon. But as with "Lighthouse", I've been very pleasantly surprised that the story resonates with foreign readers, even though in many respects both are (to my mind) very Singaporean stories.

I'm also feeling a little wistful about "Lighthouse" because it was recently announced that the Bedok Lighthouse, which inspired the story (although it's never mentioned by name), is going to be moved to a different block of flats in Marine Parade next year. I thought I was writing about something fairly unchangeable at the time, but real life has once again shown that nothing ever really stays in the same place in Singapore.

I suppose at least we'll always have stories ...

For copies of MANOA, it looks like you'll have to order online. Let's see if we can engineer getting some copies to Singapore for direct sales.

Edited to add (8 July):
As Pete mentioned in the comments below, NUS Press will be distributing the book in Singapore. Copies should be available in bookstores from late July and look out for book events too! For readers outside Singapore, you can order online.

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2.6.14

Islands, islands everywhere

Ready for opening

Since early this year, I've been working with Marcus Ng on an exhibition about Singapore's offshore islands, which opens at the National Museum of Singapore today. The detailed information isn't on the museum website yet, but here it is:
Balik Pulau: Stories from Singapore's Islands
2 June - 10 August 2014
Stamford Gallery, National Museum of Singapore

Singapore is not just one "sunny island, set in the sea", but an archipelago of more than 70 islands. For centuries, these islands have been important landmarks for sailors, and also home to different communities who lived off their waters. After Singapore gained independence, however, the islands were transformed dramatically and nearly all their inhabitants resettled on the mainland.

This exhibition, Balik Pulau, is a return to the islands, in memory and spirit, to recover the stories of those who lived, worked and played there. With new video interviews, archival images, historic boats, personal mementoes and specimens of marine life, the exhibition charts the changes that have taken place and how a new generation is rediscovering our islands and forging new links to them. Come and explore Singapore's offshore islands anew, and be inspired to even visit these places yourself.

View from the former Shell club on Pulau Bukom

From the start, people who heard about the project were always excited because the story of the islands is one of those aspects of Singapore history that are somewhat forgotten in plain sight. The islands are right there, if you know where to look, but in everyday conversation we're more likely to mention Singapore as an "island-city-state" (singular island, please, because that's what keeps the ruling government's siege-mentality narrative in place).

In May, we were in the final stages of putting the exhibition together, it turned out that there were a whole bunch of other island-related projects that have been germinating at the same time:
  • A new play Senang by Singapore playwright Jean Tay, which was staged at the School of the Arts from 15 to 25 May. The work was inspired by the prison riot that took place on Pulau Senang in 1963. (Dave Chua also wrote a short story inspired by the incident, "Senang", which can be found in his collection The Beating and Other Stories.)
  • Singapura Stories held a fantastic seminar at the National Library on 17 May, "Kampong Histories of the Southern Islands". The speakers were Normala Manap, Ivan Kwek, Suriana Suratman and Imran bin Tajudeen. We've referred to the former two scholars' work in exhibition research on Pulau Seking, and it was great to hear the others too.
  • As part of the Singapore HeritageFest, NUS Museum and artist Charles Lim will be staging a follow-up to their excellent exhibition "In Search of Raffles's Light". The recently-concluded exhibition (it ran 24 October 2013 - 27 April 2014) took as its starting point Raffles Lighthouse on Pulau Satumu.
I can't remember ever hearing so much buzz about the islands.

Almost ready for the exhibition opening

For our show, the museum's exhibitions setup teams have been hard at work for the past two weeks, getting everything ready. They delicately suspended fibreglass specimens of marine animals from the ceiling, hoisted seaworthy koleh and jongkong (traditional boats) into position, got all the audio and video productions playing like they're supposed to, and made sure every last blade of (artificial) grass and every grain of (artificial) sand was in place. It's been really exciting to see everything coming together, and I can't wait to see what visitors make of it.

There's no opening event today. The doors are simply unlocked at 10 a.m. and admission is free (kinda like how the islands used to be, heh). We'll be organising some talks and related activities in conjunction with the Singapore HeritageFest in July, but I suggest you see the exhibition first.

So if you've ever been curious about the names of all the damn islands that make up Singapore, or wondered what it was like to live on an island as recently as in 1994 (when the last villagers in the southern islands were evicted resettled), or want to see what kind of life --- human and non-human --- still thrives on our islands, please come and see Balik Pulau. The islands have been waiting long enough for their day in the sun.

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1.5.14

A little short story that's gone a long way

The official announcement was out yesterday, so I can say it here: my short story "Grandmother" is one of 19 shortlisted for this year's Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Woot!

I got the official (but embargoed) notification from the Commonwealth Foundation a couple of weeks ago, so I've had a while to digest the news. But I'm still super-chuffed when I think about it– and yes, I think only a Britishism like "chuffed" really conveys what I'm feeling here.

I'm also really surprised that only two entries from the Asia region were shortlisted and that both are from Singapore. (For the competition, "Asia" is defined as Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore and Sri Lanka.) I don't know the other Singapore writer, Sara Adam Ang, but congratulations to her too!

And thank you to the indefatigable Mayo Martin over at TODAY for breaking the news in Singapore.

People have been asking similar sorts of questions, so here's a short FAQ:

1. Where can I read your story?

It's not been published yet. A cardinal rule of the Commonwealth competition is that entries must be unpublished, so my story can't appear in print until after the final competition results are announced on 13 June.

I'll update this page (and all the usual social media channels) when there's publication news.

2. When will the results be announced?

Regional prize winners will be announced on 14 May (I was told 20 May earlier, but the latest info circulating with the shortlist states 14 May). The overall prize winner will be announced on 13 June.

3. Who is judging this thing?

Ellah Allfrey (chair), Doreen Baingana, Courttia Newland, Marlon James, Michelle de Kretser and Jeet Thayil. Full details here.

4. Is this the first time Singaporean writers have been shortlisted for this prize?

I really have no idea. The prize, in its current form, has been running since 2012 and yes, this is the first year that Singaporean writers have been shortlisted.

For its previous incarnation as the Commonwealth Short Story Competition (1996-2011), I can find only a partial list of winners on Wikipedia, none of whom were Singaporean. I can't find any information on shortlisted writers from that period. If anyone knows of an authoritative list, please let me know!

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17.2.14

Call for submissions: In Transit

Oh my, almost three months without a new post. No wonder a few people asked me if I'm still blogging anymore ...

(It also makes it funny that I was invited to a government event in January and then introduced as a "blogger", as if that's the only thing I do --- would you introduce someone at an event as a "smartphone user" as if that were their official job or designation?)

Anyway, here's a good reason for a new post: the call for submissions for a new literary anthology.
My co-editor Ruihe and I have been bandying this about for some months, so we're excited to finally get this off the ground (pardon the pun).

==========
Call for submissions
In Transit: An anthology of writing from Singapore about airports and air travel

Airports and airplanes are places of transit – where people meet, say goodbye, where life-paths cross, converge, diverge. In Singapore, the airport and the notion of air travel have a particular hold on our mobility and our imagination. Given Singapore’s tiny size, going abroad for work or pleasure, particularly by air, has become a relatively common experience. And over the years, Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines have become cultural icons, closely intertwined with our sense of national identity.
Unsurprisingly, then, many Singapore writers have shared a penchant for writing about air travel, literally and also as a powerful symbol of longing, aspiration, and home – or homelessness. In fact, there is already a small but significant body of published poems by Singapore writers involving airplanes and airports, which testifies to the potential for a wider conversation across genres and generations.

In this context, Math Paper Press and editors Zhang Ruihe and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow are seeking previously unpublished short stories, poems and creative nonfiction for an anthology of English-language literary writing, to be published in early 2015, tentatively titled In Transit. We are interested in writing from a Singapore perspective about airplanes, airports or anything related to air travel, either as literal subject matter or as metaphor.

Some prompts to consider, though this list is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive:
  • What does it mean to live in and travel from a city-state so small, a commercial jet can overfly it in 3.25 minutes? Or a country often touted as having the world’s number one airport and number one airline?
  • What does it cost – in every sense of the word – to travel by air? What mobilities does air travel represent, in addition to geographical mobility?
  • Who (or what) flies in and out of Singapore, and why?
  • What place does the airport occupy in everyday life in Singapore?
Submissions should follow these guidelines:
  • The work must address the theme of airports and/or air travel, with a perspective from Singapore.
  • Writers need not be Singaporean or residing in Singapore, but works should engage with or refer to Singapore in some way.
  • Short stories and creative non-fiction (essays/memoirs/travelogues) should be 2,000 to 5,000 words long.
  • For a working definition of what constitutes creative nonfiction, please refer to this overview that we have adapted from Pooja Makhijani, the editor of another Math Paper Press anthology, Altogether Elsewhere.
  • Each poetry submission is limited to no more than three poems per writer.
  • Submissions must not have been published elsewhere, whether online or in print.
  • The deadline for submissions is 31 May 2014.
  • All submissions will be read anonymously. The title of the work and writer’s NRIC/FIN number must be indicated on the top right hand corner of each page of the manuscript. If you do not have a NRIC/FIN number, please contact us and we will assign you a serial number to use to identify your manuscript. No name, address or identifying marks other than the title and NRIC/FIN number should be indicated on the manuscript.
  • Send your work as an MS Word document (.doc) to in.transit.anthology@gmail.com, with your name and contact details in the body of the email. Please consult William Shunn’s article on proper manuscript format. Submissions in other formats will be deleted unread. 
Writers whose works are selected for publication will receive an honorarium of $90 per short story/essay submission, or $60 per poetry submission. Each writer will also receive two copies of the published anthology and a 40% author discount on further copies.

About the Editors
Zhang Ruihe works in education and has been involved in Singapore’s literary scene for over 10 years, serving as Essays Editor for the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS) from 2005 to 2009, and winning the Golden Point Award for English Poetry in 2013 with her group of poems, Nordic. Her work has been published in QLRS, Mascara Literary Review and Singa, and she has participated in writing programmes run by Singapore’s National Arts Council, the Arvon Foundation and the University of California, Berkeley. She has been awarded a grant by the Vermont Studio Center for a creative nonfiction residency in 2014.

Yu-Mei Balasingamchow lives in Singapore and writes about history, travel and culture in Asia. She is the co-author of the award-winning history title Singapore: A Biography (2009), and has covered Vietnam and Korea for Lonely Planet. In 2012, she was editor of POSKOD.SG, an online magazine with essays and critiques on Singapore culture. Her first published short story, “Lighthouse”, was selected for the inaugural Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories (2013). She is working on her first novel, with funding from Singapore’s National Arts Council.

(The above call is also posted on the In Transit blog.)

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24.11.13

"Last night you got see the show ...?"

Opening tomorrow: "50 Years of Television: An Exhibition"

This exhibition is what I've been working on since mid-July. I wanted to call it, "Last night you got see the show ...?" But the government isn't wild about using Singlish so prominently in the work it commissions, so we wound up with the more ho-hum, factual title: "50 Years of Television: An Exhibition".

It's running in the Stamford Gallery at the National Museum of Singapore until 19 January 2014. It's the first exhibition I've co-curated (i.e. researched and conceptualised from scratch with the museum), so it's pretty exciting. It was also nice that I got to work on a slice of Singapore's cultural history that hasn't been widely researched or written about. A big shout-out to my tireless researchers Eisen, Kim Chai and Sahara for their hard work, as well as to Dr Liew Kai Khiun, Phillip Lim and Karthik for their expert advice.

Five reasons you should go see the exhibition, even if you're neither a history nor media studies buff:

1) There's a rarely-seen clip of footage from the legendary press conference by Lee Kuan Yew on 9 August 1965, the day Singapore officially became an independent nation. 

Yeah, yeah, we've all seen the overplayed bit where he calls it "a moment of anguish" and cries. That's not in the exhibition. Instead we've drawn out a really interesting moment right at the end of the press conference, when after an hour of answering the reporters' questions about foreign policy and trade, Lee says, "I would like finally, if I may, just to speak not to you but really to the people of Singapore."

And he turns to face the camera squarely for the first time in the press conference and goes into a shpiel about what independence means for Singapore. He doesn't look down at his notes, he doesn't look anywhere else. For several minutes, he just talks to the camera, to this strange new medium, introduced to Singapore just two years ago --- and through that medium, to the people he imagines will watch the recording several hours later (there was no 'live' television broadcasting in Singapore then).

I wonder if the thought flitted across his mind, or across the minds of any of the aides or journalists or TV cameramen present, that 48 years later, people might still be interested in watching this footage.

Anyway, go to the exhibition and watch the excerpt. It's not all I wanted to do, in terms of presenting a critical look at the moment (of 1965) and the medium (of television) --- but it's definitely an overlooked moment in Singapore history that's worth a little more attention.

2) Another cool clip we found was of a sketch by iconic local comedians Wang Sa and Ye Fong, performed in 1973 at the tenth anniversary of the launch of TV in Singapore.
What caught my eye (and, more importantly, ear) about this skit is that it could not be broadcast in full today because the entire premise of the joke relies on wordplay in multiple languages, including Chinese dialects. Since the government started the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1978, Chinese dialects have been pretty much verboten on public radio and TV.

In the skit, Wang Sa and Ye Fong are exulting in the multilingual abilities of Singaporeans, and the notably multiracial audience is laughing along gladly. Even though the clip in the exhibition is subtitled, I'm not sure it will get the same response today. Which begs all sorts of questions about the Speak Mandarin Campaign, language policy and general inter-intelligibility in Singapore.

3) There's a short video on the Yam Ah Mee meme of 2011.

The meme was triggered at the time by Yam's official appearances on TV as the returning offier with the job of announcing the official results of the hotly-contested general elections. Then it was metatasised by social media into what Darryl Kang called "the most unlikely star of the 2011 election".

4) There are TV magazine images from the 1980s up to the present. 

No better way to revisit how long-time TV fixtures like Huang Wenyong, Xiang Yun, Chen Liping and Li Nanxing used to look. Bonus prize for spotting the cover of the very first issue of the Chinese Radio and TV Times (Dianshi Guangbo Zhoukan). Hint: it does not feature a local TV actor.

5) If you pay attention while you're at the exhibition, you'll hear the recognisable theme songs of landmark 1980s TV shows like The Awakening (雾锁南洋, 1984) and Good Morning, Sir (早安老师, 1989). 

I don't know about you, but even though I don't remember a single scene from The Awakening, when I was working on this exhibition, every time I saw a photo related to the show or was writing some text about it, the opening chords of the theme song would soar operatically into my consciousness. Most unlikely earworm, ever.

Damn, it's in my head now.

The exhibition is free and open daily from 10 am to 6 pm till 19 January 2014. If you see it, let me know what you think of it.

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