Appreciating Literature with Singaporean Authors

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We delve into the psyche of Singapore’s notable literary authors by uncovering their favourite books.

By Lee Ying Ying

When I was in secondary school, I never did well in mathematics or science. Perhaps this self-fulfilling prophecy was deepened by the constant expatiating by teachers and family on how the two subjects would “get you in a good JC”.

I studied elective literature (combined humanities) for O Levels. To my chagrin, pure literature was not offered at the time because I was the only one out of the entire cohort who wanted to study the subject. Was there a symbolic significance behind the fact that there were less than 10 students in my elective literature class?

Yet as time has progressed, commendable efforts have been made to recognise and appreciate the contributions and benefits that can only be derived from the arts. In the words of PM Lee, “But ‘Man does not live by bread alone’. We do wish for the finer things in life, to appreciate beauty and love, and something uplifting for the spirit.”

Gone are the days of “poetry being a luxury we cannot afford”, as famously cited by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. With the arts industry now in full bloom, to say that literature is merely a finer thing in life is an understatement.

Literature allows us to traverse space and time to live a thousand lives in our short span of one. Whether it takes the form of a book, movie, or art form, it allows for stories that challenge our views on life – with all its good, bad, ugly and moral sides.

Literature promises everything and nothing – at times a refuge or adventure; other times something different. Most novels transcend the trappings of their words, often providing a lens to something at once bigger than itself and also smaller; they help readers to grow and nurture the ability to empathise.

Connecting with humanity requires the power of literature to bring us out of the mundanity of our own circumstances.

We think the arts alienates the common man, but does it really? The following Singaporean authors, all storied in their own right, share what they themselves think of this exquisite form of art through their favourite books.

Cyril Wong: “The Ending of Time” by J. Krishnamurti & David Bohm

In summary: A series of intellectual and highly literary dialogues about the meaning of time, between a spiritual philosopher and a renowned physicist.

Why this? Time or timelessness; divisions within humanity and the conflicted mind; the meaning of existence and the renewal of the brain through intelligent inquiry – these are the themes of my life, and these authors discuss them in ways that rejuvenate my thinking every time I re-read their arguments.

Cyril Wong is a Singapore Literature Prize-winning poet, fictionist and critic, whose last book was The Lover’s Inventory.

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé: “Waiting For Godot” by Samuel Beckett

In summary: Beckett’s play is such a classic and timeless work. The eternal wait for Godot, an enigmatic figure who never appears, is alluring as a trope. It seems cryptic and inexplicable but the writing is beautifully resonant as the characters engage in quaint conversations.

Why this? I like the Theatre of the Absurd, which Beckett was brilliant at. The dual-act script, at once tragic and comic, is an interpretative puzzle, open to various readings, described by Gerry Dukes as “the mirror of your conscience”. I adore it because its conversational language is refreshing, a stark contrast to the lyric compression I work in.

In the last few years, a rereading of the work has resulted in my finer writing. In fact, I invoke Godot in my recent book, Apophenia: Forty-One Dada Dilemmas, and it will make an appearance in my upcoming hybrid book. The book, titled Jia Lat Lah, is written as an antiplay due to the strangeness of Beckettian aesthetics.

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is no stranger to literary awards (see the full list here). He is the author of an epistolary novel, Singular Acts of Endearment, a hybrid work, Babel Via Negativa, a neo-noir proem suite, FOODPORN cum Maundy Thursday, and eight poetry collections. Widely anthologised, his writing has appeared in over 200 literary publications. He invented Singapore’s very own poetic form, named the asingbol, followed by the anima methodi, which he conceived with Eric Tinsay Valles.

Pooja Nansi: “The Magic Faraway Tree” by Enid Blyton  

In summary: Three children discover a gigantic, tall magical tree in the forest by their house. They also discover that many magical folk live in the tree and that a new magical land appears above the tree past the clouds.

Why this? When I think of when I fell in love with stories, I think of the books my mother gave me to occupy myself as a child. And I think of the many afternoons I spent lost in them. The Faraway Tree books were the most exciting thing I could imagine and so this is the book I turn to when I need comfort or when I want to forget the world.

Pooja Nansi is a poet and educator who has published two collections of poetry and co-written a teacher’s resource for using Singaporean Poetry in the classroom. She curates a monthly Spoken Word and Poetry showcase called Speakeasy at Artistry Cafe and is a recipient of the Young Artist Award, Singapore’s highest accolade for Arts practitioners below the age of 35.

Joshua Ip:笑傲江湖” (The Laughing, Proud, Wanderer) by Jin Yong

In summary: Everybody is scheming over a secret kungfu manual. Guy doesn’t care and just wants to drink wine and anyhow. Everyone else cares a lot and does not want to drink wine and anyhow. Everyone else dies.

Why this? It has shaped my views on love, life, and the art of anyhow anyhow.

Joshua Ip is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of “sonnets from the singlish upsized edition”, “making love with scrabble tiles”, and “sonnets from the singlish”. He has placed in three different categories of the Golden Point Award. He co-edited the A Luxury We Cannot Afford and SingPoWriMoanthology series, and Unfree Verse, a historical anthology of Singaporean formal verse. He edits the Ten Year Series imprint of Math Paper Press and founded Sing Lit Station, a non-profit that runs community initiatives including SingPoWriMo, Manuscript Bootcamp, and poetry.sg.

Daryl Lim: “The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap” by Arthur Yap

In summary: This volume collects all of the poetry of the Singaporean poet and writer, Arthur Yap. Arthur Yap was possibly the best and most inventive of Singapore’s poets: he is revered for his playfulness, originality and ability to breathe curious life into the everyday.

Why this? Many Singaporean poets have fallen under Arthur Yap’s spell, and I am unashamed to say I am one of them. While I’d read some of Yap’s poems as a schoolboy, the publication of his Collected Poems in 2013 was really the first time the reading public saw all of his achievements in one place, and it revealed itself to be a mighty testament to his poetic powers, a true Singaporean monument.

I find myself coming back to his poems and his voice time and again. His poems are wise, yet not ponderous; playful, yet freighted with meaning; oracular, yet revealing. There is an innate stillness to his poetry that makes one pause and take in the world, as if for the first time. I emerge from reading his poetry with a renewed appreciation, and even an uncertain zest, for everyday life. The beautiful design and typesetting of the book enhances the experience, and I am very pleased to say that the design was done by Sarah & Schooling, a Singaporean design firm headed by two wonderful women.

Daryl Lim Wei Jie is a poet and critic, who studied history with a focus on intellectual history and political thought. He is particularly interested in the literary uses of history. His first collection of poetry, A Book of Changes, was published by Math Paper Press in 2016, under the Ten Year Series imprint. Daryl’s work has appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Ceriph, POSKOD.SG, Drunken Boat and Softblow, and his poetry has been anthologised in A Luxury We Cannot Afford (Math Paper Press, 2015) and elsewhere. His work won him the Golden Point Award in English Poetry in 2015. 

Dr. Chang Qizhong: “The Sandman Series” by Neil Gaiman

In summary: The Sandman series chronicles the story of Dream, one of the Endless. Dream faces trials and tribulations such as having his powers stolen, being trapped, sibling rivalry, and eventually passing on and being replaced.

Why this? I love the Sandman series for its multiple interweaving storylines, the richness and detail of its high fantasy worlds, and the multiple cameos from historical characters as well as characters from other franchises. It is also no easy feat how the author makes us empathise with the anthropomorphised characters such as Dream, and his siblings such as Death and Desire, even though their actions are ultimately unfathomable to humans. The art and illustration of the series is absolutely fantastic.

Technically, this is a series of books (10 paperbacks) and not a single book. If I had to choose a favourite among the series, it would have to be the Doll’s House (1989-1990). It features, among other things, a morbidly fascinating serial killers’ convention, which is a perfect example of something that can only be pulled off well in a story about dreams and fantasies.

Dr. Chang Qizhong is a lecturer at the National Institute of Education. He taught linguistics, writing and communication skills at various institutions, such as National University of Singapore, Singapore University of Social Sciences, and Singapore Polytechnic. Though his background is in theoretical linguistics, he is interested in analysing language education in Singapore through the lens of variationist frameworks.

Tan Hwee Hwee: “Your Best Life Now” by Joel Osteen

In summary: Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest church in the US (Lakewood Church), shows how you can live a prosperous and fulfilled life, overcoming problems to live the life of your dreams by outlining the positive thoughts we need to in Christ.

Why this? Before I read this book, I used to suffer from chronic anxiety and depression. After I read the book and practised its principles, my life changed dramatically and I can say that now I am peaceful, happy, successful and living my best life now.

Tan Hwee Hwee is an award-winning writer who has been published internationally. Educated at the University of Oxford, she has published two novels with Penguin, with the second one, “Mammon Inc”, winning the Singapore Literature Prize. She now works as a journalist and copywriter in Singapore, having published with articles with TIME and the Straits Times and writing marketing collateral for Singtel and Singapore Tourism Board. Find her Christian blog here.

Images by the respective authors’ websites

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