I read at Vassar College yesterday, at the invitation of the Southeast Asian Student Alliance. The Vice President Suzie Shin was given my Pillow Book by a friend before she left Singapore for Vassar. She has lived in Singapore since she was four, when her parents migrated from Korea for her dad to take up a professorship at the National University of Singapore. Her mum is an artist and writer, who has just been published by Kenny Leck. The reading, co-sponsored by Wordsmiths, a student poetry group, and the Asian Studies Department, was well-attended. There were close to 40 people. I read a 40-minute set, the longest that I have ever done, and brought the audience along with me on my personal journey. Four stages, corresponding to my four books: (1) from Singapore to Sarah Lawrence College, (2) from Sarah Lawrence to New York, but also back to Singapore, (3) from New York to Self-Invention and Its Limits, and (4) from Self-Invention to Self-Understanding. The questions afterwards revolved around being gay and a writer in illiberal Singapore. It was lovely to chat with the students over food. A couple major in English, one in Asian Studies. A number are budding political scientists, one of whom is researching the situation of migrant workers in Singapore. SEASA is hoping to invite Tan Pin Pin next to show her documentary To Singapore, With Love.
I arrived early so that I would have the time to explore the campus. Walking around, I had the same feeling that I felt in my first weeks at Sarah Lawrence, that I didn't belong. The campus itself could not be more welcoming. No one stopped me to ask who I was or what I was doing in the quad. No electronic doors or barriers prevented me from wandering into the art gallery, chapel and library. But, as I told the audience at the reading later, I was still highly conscious of not-belonging. The library, the heart of learning, was built on the basic plan of a cruciform. The valuable first editions on display were all by Victorian writers such as John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll and Sara Coleridge. George Meredith's "Arab entertainment" The Shaving of Shagpat acknowledged on its title page that it followed the style of the Arabian Nights, but still claimed that it was an original work. If an Asian author writing in English was influenced by a Western author, however, the Asian would be seen as imitative, not original.
These appurtenances were, however, a valuable and integral part of Vassar's identity. They made Vassar Vassar. So every strong identity, no matter how open and friendly, must alienate those trying to get in. This was a tension that I had always inhabited. I had no doubt that if I stayed in Vassar for a few weeks, that I'd be welcomed and made to feel at home. But I valued this feeling of not-belonging, I told the room, even though it was not a comfortable feeling. My poetry comes from this feeling of not-belonging, and so I want to hold on to that feeling as long as possible.
the hudson line
barrels past the hudson--
hare and tortoises