Ownself Check: SWF 2016 Lecture, Unwritten Country

By Pavithra Raja

(831 words, 5-minute read)

On November 5th, acclaimed literary figures Gwee Li Sui and Boey Kim Cheng both spoke on the topic, Unwritten Country, as part of the Singapore Writers’ Festival Lecture series. The softly lit Chamber Room at the Arts House – formerly the old Parliament house – set a fitting stage for an exploration of Singapore’s history and the notion of its literary past. At the same time, the audience was treated to visions of Singapore’s future, and the future of its literary scene. Gwee Li Sui is a long-standing Singaporean poet and literary critic who recently edited Written Country: The History of Singapore through Literature (2016). Boey Kim Cheng, one of the contributors to the anthology, is a Singaporean-born Australian who migrated in 1997, and is currently Associate Professor at NTU. Gwee’s recapitulation of the hard-hitting facts surrounding the growth of Singapore’s literary scene and Boey’s nostalgic reminiscence of halcyon days seamlessly blended together to create an experience that in both content and structure was reminiscent of the anthology.

Gwee Li Sui (Photo: Sing Lit Station)

Gwee set the pace by methodically delineating detailed facts surrounding the growth of Singapore’s literary scene throughout the years. He brought forth three main points to describe the change in the literary world – starting off with the late 1990s, when “institutional powers believed their own construct” and literature was inevitably pigeonholed as redundant and uninteresting. Invoking the Singlish word “ownself”, Gwee captured the notion of the way the state’s stance extended to and influenced local literature and writing: “They ownself check ownself”. In the second phase, circumstances gave way to a more natural flourishing of literature. Gwee noted, thirdly, the change in the nature and activity of writing – that writing becoming a viable vocational choice. With the popularity of authors like Catherine Lim, more aspiring writers were inspired to pursue it as a career option.

Running through Gwee’s talk was the idea of the birthing of new conciousnessness in relation to writing. That said, he not only discussed developments in a general sense, but also detailed practical predictions. He asserted that Singaporean writing must not remain invisible and quoted poet D. J. Enright: “Art does not begin in the test tube.” “Writing itself is a human quest for perfection, we are raised and transformed.” I was left with the idea that writing is not necessarily a practice that could only be segmented, structured and contained to a limited extent. It is inextricably linked with the larger contexts of the social, political and cultural aspects of nation building, but extends its reaches into private worlds insofar as it is a deeply personal act.

While Gwee’s lecture was framed through rigorous research into Singapore’s literary history, Boey’s “Reflection of a Returnee”, started off with quite a different image – that of the gum trees, bright sun, and quiet nature. With this description of his new home Australia, Boey broke through structure and weaved through time and space, shadow and light, in a characteristically nostalgic and romanticized fashion. Boey recalled a moment suspended in time when, pausing on Pitt Street in Sydney, he recalled standing similarly on Bras Basah Road. He grappled with the pertinent question of whether migrants “recall, reconstruct their home, seizing past”. Musing about where home exactly was, Boey let the audience linger in the momentary sense of saudade. Transcending time and space, Boey led the audience to the humble understanding that home “is in a liminal space”, negotiated and renegotiated, built up in the minds and souls of those who remember it and treasure it.

Boey Kim Cheng (Photo: Sing Lit Station)

Boey related his practice of invoking a prayer before work-related meetings in Australia, a custom he’d adopted in his new homeland in acknowledgment of being on aboriginal land. I got the idea that a unique sort of kinship is formed, a respectful relationship between those who originally walked the lands we now call home, and ourselves. Home can be known, can be understood, even or perhaps especially more when we experience it elsewhere, when there is a coming home to the self. Boey Kim Cheng’s talk seemed substantially influenced by his own personal realities and the complex emotions a migrant might feel, regardless of the country.

Singapore was built and developed by migrants who landed here ages ago. In the past few years, we have witnessed more and more migrants calling this land their home. In this way Singapore is a nation of migrants. Yet there are always, and perhaps always will be, tensions and uncertainties that are contribute to what is unwritten.

In the dim blue light of the Chamber where the speakers shared their visions, below a ceiling that was flecked with floating white wisps, an almost amorphous, misshapen creature seemed to take shape somewhere in the shadows, embodying a certain liveliness, yet also a sliver of anticipation and thrill of an unwritten future. Listening to Gwee and Boey, I got the sense that the written and the unwritten together contributed synergistically in preserving the memories of a nation that would constantly be re-written in the future.


This talk was held on 5 November 3pm at the Chamber, Arts House, as part of the Singapore Writers Festival 2016.
A full transcript of Gwee Li Sui’s speech may be found here.
A live stream comment thread of the panel can be found on the Facebook page of Sing Lit Station.

Guest Contributor Pavithra Raja is a graduate of the MA (Applied Linguistics) programme from National Institute of Education, with a background in communication, psychology, education and a taste for the esoteric. She enjoys travelling and photography and more of her writing may be found here.

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