Friday, December 11, 2015

To be less established

This Middle Ground article provides a useful summary of events and views about censorship and arts funding in Singapore, for those coming into the discussion mid-way.

From the discussion so far, I've read stated either directly or indirectly that I could stop asking NAC for funding because I am already an "established" artist, whatever that means. The implication is that less established artists cannot afford to stop asking NAC for funding. I just want to point out (at the risk of sounding as if I'm tooting my horn) that I did not apply for NAC funding even when I was trying to establish myself. I quit as VP of a secondary school in Singapore to move to New York City to study creative writing. I was rejected by four different graduate programs before I was accepted by one that did not offer any financial aid or teaching assistantship. I spent all my savings on the program before I received a financial gift in my second year from the college for my work.

After graduation, I submitted my thesis poetry manuscript to countless book contests, which required payment for consideration, and was rejected by all of them for four years. Finally I decided to set up my own imprint, Bench Press, and self-published my first two books. I paid for it all with my private-school teacher's salary (private schools pay less in NYC than public schools because teachers in private schools are non-unionized), while sharing an apartment in Queens with two other people to keep living costs down in this expensive city. I sent my self-published books to people whose work I admired. All this time, I was reading at open-mics all over town to hone my reading style, to share my work, to network, and to learn from other writers, while holding down a full-time job teaching in a very different culture, to a very different set of students.

Of course, I had advantages. My Oxford undergrad degree got me the private-school job. My private-school job came with well-motivated kids and stimulating colleagues. You make of your advantages, whatever they are, however you can. But, and here's my point, I did not apply to NAC for funding. Not one cent. Until, as I shared in my open letter, I was published by UK's Carcanet Press and applied for funding for the UK book tour (I've just mailed off the check this afternoon to return the money to NAC).

I am not so different from so many younger Singaporean artists I know in NYC. They are ambitious, resourceful, inquisitive. They have to be, to survive in NYC's competitive arts environment, where you can throw a stone in any direction and hit a gifted actor, an innovative painter, and a swoonsome singer. These Singaporeans will succeed because their lives depend on it.

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