In Singapore, female writers are being increasingly recognised as a dominant force in the local literature scene. These women don’t just receive prominence in Singapore’s art and culture festivals – like poet Pooja Nansi who is the current director of Singapore Writers Festival – but are also succeeding on the global stage. Below are some female poets to know, whose works, touching on themes such as gender, sexuality, identity, and more, are holding court as part of the landscape of poems in Singapore.
1. Marylyn Tan
Marylyn Tan is an artist and a poet best known for her unflinching honesty and frankness, which are apparent in her works that usually tackle womanhood, the female body, and sexuality. Tan’s debut work, Gaze Back, earned her the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize – the first for a woman writer in Singapore – and was nominated for the Lambda Literary Awards in the United States.
Inspired by her own experience of marginalisation, Gaze Back provides an unsettling and thought-provoking view of feminism and queerness, infused with supernatural symbols, local witchcraft, and the erotic. According to Tan, in an interview with TheHomeGround, Gaze Back was driven by her anger towards the way women and queer people are policed and treated in the world. In another interview with The Straits Times, Tan stated that her objective in writing is to give voice to society’s marginalised members who are afraid to talk about their bodies and sexuality. According to Tan, she wants to write poetry that “hurts, but in a good way.”
Note: Marylyn identifies more as non-binary, but is open to being referred to as a female writer.
2. Deborah Emmanuel
Known by her performance name ArunDitha, Deborah Emmanuel is a natural talent who wears many hats. A singer, theatremaker and poet, this artist has had her works featured in many poetry festivals, including the Barcelona International Poetry Festival. She has also won several writing competitions in Singapore, Germany, and Australia. Emmanuel’s poetry is usually characterised as a mix of the personal and the political. Her debut poetry book, When I Giggle In My Sleep, is a collection of personal experiences that touch on critical social issues.
Perhaps one of Emmanuel’s most remarkable life experiences is her one-year prison stint, which she often talks about in her poems, and was the central theme of her nonfiction book, Rebel Rites. At just 19 years old, Emmanuel was arrested for testing positive for drugs, and spent half a year in Changi Women’s Prison and the other half at a halfway house. During that period, she was prohibited from writing anything except letters. In her interview with Olivia Ho for The Straits Times, Emmanuel revealed that her experience in prison became a catalyst for writing “about the things that must be said”. Today, she lives in New Zealand, where she works as an integrated expression coach and soul doula.
3. Christine Chia
Christine Chia is a prolific poet whose life has inspired much of her work. The former teacher has authored two poetry books, The Law of Second Marriages and Separation: a History, which both remarkably talk about emotions, love, desire, and pain. In Separation: a History, for instance, Chia weaves together stories of two kinds of separation: the separation between Malaysia and Singapore and the separation between her parents. The book contains sections with titles such as “tearful” and “independence against will”.
For Chia, one of the primary purposes of writing is to comfort people. In her interview with The Singapore Women’s Weekly, Chia expressed that her goal in writing is to make people feel less lonely and give them hope that things can eventually become better as long as they keep going.
4. Venezia May
Venezia May is an eco poet in Singapore who uses her literary talent to speak potently about environmental and social injustices. She has published two anthologies in London and Singapore and won several slam poetry competitions, such as the Causeway Exchange Slam in 2018 and 2019. Locally, she has performed at the Poetry Festival Singapore and The Esplanade. When not at slam poetry events performing her works with unshrinking honesty, May can be found conducting writing workshops for children with special needs.
As an ecologically conscious spoken word artist, May is mainly interested in unpacking narratives that focus on environmental and social issues. In one of her best-known poems titled “If Moses Was Filipino”, for example, May uses popular Biblical stories as an analogy to create vivid narratives about the constant floodwaters in Manila, Philippines. Aside from poems that grapple with environmental concerns, May also writes about her disastrous dating life and her grandmother.
5. Topaz Winters
Topaz Winters is the pseudonym of writer Priyanka Balasubramanian Aiyer, who has published three full-length poetry collections, including the forthcoming So Stranger, which will be published in May 2022. At 22, Winters is already an internationally acclaimed poet, performer, essayist, and curator. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the literary journal, publishing house, and arts organisation Half Mystic. In her interview with The Daily Princetonian, Winters revealed that Half Mystic was her way of uplifting marginalised voices who might not get the opportunity to be heard otherwise.
Mental health is a recurring theme in many of Winters’ widely received works. She usually writes about her experiences with mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, hyperacusis, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Winters shares that her work on mental health has led to her receiving hate mail, with some questioning the truthfulness of her mental illness. According to an interview with the The Straits Times, she says the brickbats do not faze her, as she feels work is an attempt to allow the body space to breathe in a world in which the bodies of women and the chronically ill are often policed.
Through their words, Singapore’s female poets today are tackling the most important issues of their generation, including feminism, queerness, environmental degradation, mental health and more. These women are truly changing the way people read and experience poetry.