Sunday, October 30, 2016

Art Censorship (Again) in Singapore

"Artist cuts himself, takes blood oath, after his performance piece was cut from Singapore Biennale"

Religious sensitivities be damned if religious sensitivities do not, or will not, understand the intent and context of a work of art. I wonder, however, if more is at work than what is stated by the authorities. Could it be that the real concern is not religious, but political sensitivities? That Chandrasekaran's performance piece about the harsh lives of Indian convict workers in 19th-century Singapore will provoke powerful resonances and raise important questions in the present day about the way we treat our guest workers, most of whom come from the Indian continent?

It's interesting that the reporter mentions that Chandrasekaran had spent 6 years abroad in Australia before returning to Singapore and responding in this defiant manner to the act of art vandalism by the authorities. Apparently, the audience at his Q&A, "most of whom were from the local arts community," questioned Chandrasekaran "whether there was a way to step away and approach the subject from a less dramatic angle." The question betrays not only an ignorance of how an artist works, but also a cowardice in trying so hard not to give offence. It takes a foreign artist, Sri Lankan Niranjan Rajah, to point out that the audience responses “seem to be missing the point." What is important is the integrity of Chandrasekaran’s work. We should be asking, instead, why the work is being censored, and what the censorship says about us as a society.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

An Open Letter to NBDCS and My Fellow Shortlisted Authors

My book Steep Tea was not submitted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize because of a mistake made by my publisher. Not knowing the mistake, I had reasonably expected my book to be shortlisted in the English poetry category, and so was prepared to withdraw it from consideration in protest against Singapore’s anti-sodomy law. Now that the heat around this year’s prize has cooled down, I wish to address some of the larger issues around a state-sponsored literary prize by publishing my planned letter of withdrawal. My hope is that the letter will contribute to the debate about the role of a writer when confronted with legalized injustice.

An Open Letter to NBDCS and My Fellow Shortlisted Authors 

 I wish to withdraw my book Steep Tea from consideration for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize in protest against Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore, which criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men. My action is not directed against the National Book Development Council of Singapore, the non-profit awarding the Prize. I have great respect for its efforts over the years to promote Singapore literature, and warm regard for its helpful and professional staff. My action is compelled instead by the Singapore government’s recent defense of its discriminatory law during the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review in January this year. I am dismayed by the continuation of unequal treatment of LGBT citizens, the cause of my leaving Singapore, and the theme of my book.

The United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review provides for “a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States,” according to its website. It is designed to “prompt, support, and expand the promotion and protection of human rights on the ground.” In accordance with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Review considers the rights of LGBT persons to equal treatment under the law as human rights. The first cycle reviewed all UN Member States. The second cycle, begun in May 2012, requires all Member States “to provide information on what they have been doing to implement the recommendations made during the first review.”

Representing the Singapore government at the review, Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee repeated the same excuses given by the government for retaining Section 377A in the 2007 parliamentary debate. Her speech showed that the government has not changed its legal position one iota in the last nine years. A baby born in 2007 would be in Primary Three this year, having cut its first teeth, taken its first steps, cried on its first day at school, grown in its love of others. The Singapore government has not brought forth real change. It has killed the baby in the crib. Ambassador Chan justified the legal discrimination by capitalizing on the improvements wrought mainly by the LGBT community itself. According to her, LGBT persons are “free to lead their lives in Singapore” since they are permitted to work in the Civil Service, hold an annual rally, stage plays about LGBT issues, and frequent bars. Her idea of freedom would be laughable, if it is not so sad. In intention, this idea of freedom is cynical. It uses limited, and demeaning, concessions to justify larger discriminations. It seeks to contain legitimate aspirations while presenting a benign face abroad.

I refuse to conspire with the government in my own oppression. Although the Singapore Literature Prize is administered by NBDCS, it is funded mainly by the National Arts Council, the government’s arts agency. The government cannot properly acknowledge my contribution to the arts if it does not acknowledge my person in the world. It cannot genuinely commend my poetry if it proscribes what the poetry is about: love. I left Singapore 13 years ago because I was afraid to come out as a gay man in my own country. In Singapore, I had to hide who I was or risk being fired from teaching, even though my work record was unimpeachable. 13 years later, the legal situation remains unchanged. I was 33 years old when I left Singapore, and now I am 46, and still no change in the law. If not now, when? In the poem “In Death As In Life” from my shortlisted book, I expressed a wish to have my ashes scattered in the sea south of Singapore. After hearing the government’s deeply disappointing response to the Universal Periodic Review, I am having second thoughts. Many Singaporeans have left the country for reasons similar to mine, and many will stay in permanent self-exile for those reasons.

Our situation is, however, still better than that of many in Singapore who live in fear and uncertainty, subject to suspicion, hostility, and violence, through no fault of theirs but for the fact that they are queer. Teens, transgender persons, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable populations. Even children’s books are not spared. In 2014, the National Library Board banned and threatened to pulp And Tango Makes Three and two other children’s books for depicting non-traditional families. Under fire from many quarters, including the judges of the Singapore Literature Prize who resigned in protest, the Board returned the books, not to the children’s library but to the adult’s section. As a country, we cannot properly protect our vulnerable citizens and books as long as Section 377A stands in the way. Striking down Section 377A will open the way for a more equal and caring society. The government must grow up, take the lead, and not hide behind its excuses any longer, if it truly “treasure[s] every Singaporean,” as Ambassador Chan put it.

I humbly ask my fellow shortlisted authors to withdraw their books from consideration for the Singapore Literature Prize too. As an author myself, I understand the sacrifices made to create a work of literature, and the natural desire for recognition. But for the sake of your queer grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, childhood friends, best friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, students, classmates, and fellow citizens, would you consider withdrawing your books to protest against the injustice of Section 377A? We cannot have business as usual. We have labored long and hard to bring Singapore literature into the light, but once it is in the light, what will it stand for?

Jee Leong Koh
 New York City
30 May 2016

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Third Annual IAAC Literary Festival

On Gopika Jadeja's invitation, I attended the third IAAC Literary festival yesterday. The 3-day festival, organized by the Indo-American Arts Council, was attended mainly by South Asian Americans. It was a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between them and Indians from India. The Americans were intensely interested in social and political developments in India. They were also captivated by celebrity culture, that of Bollywood and of nationalist politics. The panels on the the first biography of film legend Shashi Kapoor and on the secret diary of Kasturba Gandhi were very well attended.

I particularly enjoyed the panel "This Unquiet Land," also the title of the debut work of non-fiction by award-winning broadcast journalist Barkha Dutt. She has reported on a wide range of issues, famously on the disputed region of Kashmir. She was impressively sharp and articulate, and was well-matched by the nimble acuity of her interlocutor Suketu Mehta, the New York-based author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and an associate professor of journalism at NYU.

Gopika's panel on art and activism was also well-received. She spoke about her translation of poetry in the minority languages of the state of Gujerat into English, including the poetry of the Dalit. Her fellow panelist Priyanka Dasgupta spoke about her investigation into the phenomenon of passing, not of blacks passing as whites, but of Indians passing as Blacks and Latinos in the late nineteenth century because of the Asian Exclusion Act. She mentioned a book about this phenomenon happening in Harlem, when Indian sailors docked in New York ran away from British imperalism and hid from American racism.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Queer Southeast Asia

An important project, a queer Southeast Asia lit journal. Thank you, Bry Hos and Cy Rai, for including me in the inaugural issue, together with Nuril Basri, John H. McGlynn, Khairani Barokka, Lawrence Ypil, Alwynn C. Javier, Paul Dominic B. Olinares, Gino Dizon, Jeffrey Pascual Yap, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Leon Wing, Danton Remoto, Nimruz De Castro, and Wilfredo Pascual. The journal is now on-line for your reading pleasure.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Dusie's issue of Asian Anglophone poetry

Proud to be included in this rich and varied anthology of Asian Anglophone poetry, edited by the very fine poet Cindy Arrieu-King. I first heard Cindy read at the Asian American Writers' Workshop literary festival called Page Turner, and I was immediately drawn to the delicate and resilient layering of stories and images in her poetry.

She took an earlier iteration of my on-going project "Does Grass Sweat: Translations of an Insignificant Japanese Poet." In this iteration, dated January 10, 2016, I appended commentary to the haiku translations. You may have read the haiku on Facebook, and so may be interested in reading the commentary. There is also a translator's preface that conveys the earliest inspiration for the work. The project is still evolving, so I'd be happy to hear what you think.

Monday, October 03, 2016

2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC (Sep 28 - Oct 1)

2nd Singapore Lit Fest ended on a high note on Saturday, with scholarly and passionate talks about Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I hope the panel is the first of many, many to come because the graphic novel rewards close analysis and open discussion. A favorite moment was when two panelists, Ying Sze Pek and Matt Humphreys, disagreed with one another. Is the depiction of Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew as hero and villian an instance of the novel's oversimplification of complex people, or is it part of the novel's sentimentalist structure? Is it, in other words, a fault or a a strength? Another favorite moment in the festival is less of a clash and more of a clarification, when Alfian Sa'at asks Jason Koo whether he means "mean as fuck" or "mean ASS fuck" in a discussion about the depiction of race and sexuality in literature. Ha, ha, literature is full of double entendres. Then there was that awkward moment in the "Fictionalizing Southeast Asia" panel when Jessica Hagedorn turned to Alfian, whose "Malay Sketches" she read and loved, to say that all the panelists, since they are writers, find themselves confronting the human crises around the world, but Alfian must feel the urgency more than they, and Alfian asked, "You mean, because I am Muslim?" And then there was that moment when Jason Koo admitted with disarming honesty that he had not been into Asian women until he visited Korea and found himself surrounded by Korean women. Yet another favorite moment came when Sheela Jane Menon, whose own presentation on Malaysian literature in "Contexts and Texts" was praised by Winston Lin as one of the best talks on any topic that he has ever heard, asked the playwrights and directors at the talkback in "Outside the Lines" how they treated time in their work, and Ovidia Yu said, and I paraphrase, that she saw both past and future through the present, for there was only the present, and I was reminded of Octavio Paz's Nobel lecture "In Search of the Present." Another favorite moment, and I really got a kick out of it, was when I was caricatured in Marcus Yi's musical "When the Merlion Returned Home" as a gay party boy, complete with black tank top and sashay, who was going to organize a Singapore literary festival without NAC funding. Well, there was no NAC since the premise was that Singapore had sunk beneath the waves. Another favorite moment happened not on stage but at rehearsal when the director Mei Ann Teo and her cast discussed with great earnestness a line from Alfian's "Hotel." In NEW YORK, people! I had a favorite moment when Alfian read the Malay Sketch "Hole," when Naomi Jackson read from her Barbados novel The Star Side of Bird Hill, when Gina Apostol read with superb irony from Gundealers' Daughter, when Jeremy Tiang read with disguised irony from "Sophia's Aunt," when Ovidia read with dramatic irony from "Hitting (On) Women," when Jessica Hagedorn read without irony from Dogeaters. Another favorite moment was when a regular attendee of events at the Asian American Writers' Workshop came up to me to tell me this was the best event she had ever attended, when the Singaporean blog editor at Asia Society came up to me to tell me this was one of the best events ever at Asia Society, and when my Department Head left the event with books by all four writer-panelists. Ah, that moment when I saw R.A. Briggs, who had flown in from Stanford to be at the festival--priceless. The moment I finally met Patsey Yeo-Ramaker, whose youthful spirit made her a tireless festival volunteer--unforgettable. What is your favorite moment?