We Ask 3 Authors What It Means to Be A Queer Singaporean Author in 2018
Today, words create and uncover worlds.
Literature is increasingly forced out of its vacuum — becoming a pool of alternative resource, tangible support, and an invitation to acknowledge and accept diversity in a multitude of forms.
As part of our ongoing collaboration with BooksActually, we heard from three authors what it means to be a queer Singapore author in 2018, as well as their reading habits, journeys, and the power of language.
What does it mean to be a queer Singaporean author in 2018?
Tania De Rozario, And the Walls Come Crumbling Down
I guess that really depends on which definition of “queer” we are looking at. Is the word an identity marker that encompasses all writers who are LGBTQI? Or are we looking at queerness as a concept charged with cultural and political potency? Is “queer” an opposite of “heterosexual”? Or an opposite of “heteronormativity”?
A gay writer engages in queer culture and politics via public platforms will have a very different experience of Singapore from a gay writer whose primary literary focus is writing about the Merlion. Don’t get me wrong — I am not saying that one person’s work is more worthy than the other. What I am saying is that I am not sure there is one singular answer to this question… even though it is definitely a question we should continue to ask.
Ng Yi-Sheng, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century
I think it means very different things for different people! I’ve got queer Singaporean friends writing fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction in English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil; they’re young and old; male, female and non-binary; out and closeted; published and unpublished. The experience isn’t uniform at all.
I’m a mid-career, 37 year-old, gay male English language writer in multiple genres. I’ve got a deep interest in activism and history. So. for me, being a queer Singaporean author right now means that I’m able to see myself as part of a vibrant literary tradition: one that includes G. Selva’s transgender-themed Tamil play Akka (1991), Johann S. Lee’s gay novel Peculiar Chris (1992), Eleanor Wong’s lesbian drama trilogy Invitation to Treat (1993–2003), Alfian Sa’at’s gay poetry collection The Invisible Manuscript (written 1999, published 2012) and JY Yang’s genderqueer-themed science fiction books The Tensorate Series (2017).
Singaporean queer literature is no longer in its infancy: it is already quite developed. Many local readers are also accepting of LGBTIQ persons. This means that writers are becoming increasingly edgy and unconventional in our explorations of queer issues. Examples include Ovidia Yu’s play Hitting (on) Women (2007), which describes lesbian domestic violence, and Amanda Lee Koe’s short story Siren (2013), which imagines a transgender sex worker who is the child of a mermaid.
At the same time, we’re fighting Singaporean laws and policies, which continue to deny us very basic rights: gay sex is illegal; positive depictions of queer people are censored on TV; trans people are still subject to discrimination at work and at school. So there’s still a place for very simple queer stories, like Cyril Wong’s The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza (2013), which protests homophobia through the tale of a schoolboy’s suicide.
What’s really cool, however, is that thanks to social media, young people are coming out and forming communities earlier than ever. I’ve met some wonderful young writers via Singapore Poetry Writing Month, and they’ve shown me that there’s still a lot of energy in queer writing.
Basically, I’m trying to expand the possibilities of local queer literature, while being aware that very basic stories of acceptance and oppression must still be told. And I’m trying to be a decent mentor for folks younger than me, so that they too can enrich the scene.
Daryl Qilin Yam, Kappa Quartet
I believe a queer Singaporean writer needs to understand that life is and can be meaningful. That life is and can be tough too. That life is relentless, and unsparing, while somehow joyful. That we all need to brace ourselves for it, for whatever future that may befall upon us in time to come. That we must remain honest. That nothing will ever stay the same. That we are and have to be in control of our own lives, even when it feels like we are not — even when it is proven that we are not, and never will be.
That all this and everything is ridiculous. That life gave us all two parcels — one with joy, and another with grief — and that life has somehow given us the ability to translate both into words. And that, to quote Joan Didion: we all need stories in order to live.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Tania: I learned a lot about the power of language growing up in a very religious household where you could not use god’s name in vain, where talking about how you were sick was equated to “claiming the illness for yourself”, where everyone’s lives seemed to revolve around a single interpretation of a single book, where people believed that you could cast demons out of people if you used the name of god correctly. I never believed in any of that. However, all of that did make me aware of the fact that words had power, could shape attitudes, could shape lives.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Daryl: This is a very interesting question. In my experience, the only person I have ever used to form a character is myself. That character is Kevin, in my first novel, who comes to realise the depth of his monstrosity in one chapter, and allows himself to be transformed by it by the chapter’s end. Is that a cruel way to treat oneself? To that I say I owe myself some measure of kindness.
[cont.] Some have remarked surprise in the way I’ve allowed Kevin to become a monster. Others have also noted how the kappa plays a function too, in representing a kind of queer, marginalised, disenfranchised member of a largely homogenous society. I’ve had a few messages thanking me for writing the book, even, so I would like to feel in some encouraged by what I have done, and will continue to do.
What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
Tania: I’m not sure. I’m really wary of making assumptions regarding what mainstream attention is (or not). I mean, once we move beyond the Dan Browns of the world… isn’t everyone else considered slightly less than mainstream? Sometimes, books which are very much appreciated in one place, might be very under-appreciated in another. For example, I know that Monique Truong’s novels (I particularly enjoyed Bitter in the Mouth) and Ruth Ozeki’s novels (I enjoyed All Over Creation) are not necessarily widely read here, but I know that they have a good audience in the US. Do those count?
Yi-Sheng: Tricky question. But, since last year I’ve been telling everyone about Kevin Martens Wong’s Altered Straits (2017), which is an incredibly intelligent Singaporean science fiction novel featuring NS boys riding genetically engineered Merlions and a really hot gay romance.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Daryl: I’ve been very lucky, I think, with all of my recent reads, fiction and non-fiction which have made vital steps towards shaping my understanding of how we as human beings constantly frame our realities. I’m currently reading Carmen Maria Merchado’s Her Body And Other Stories, and am literally in the midst of the strange and exhilarating forty-page story consisting nothing but the episodic synopses of long-running procedural drama. Before her book was Yann Martel’s High Mountains of Portugal, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Jeff Vandemeer’s Area X trilogy, and the omnibus of Joan Didion’s collected non-fiction.
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