Amplify Marginal Voices

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Sunday morning, I found myself in Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. Having left the Christian religion twenty years ago and not having found my way back to it yet, I was attending church at the invitation of friends, a lesbian couple who love Guy and me, and whom we love. Mount Auburn is a special congregation. In defiance of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Mount Auburn has not only championed the cause of ordination rights for GLBT persons but has also performed same-sex covenant unions since 1994.

After the confession, the readings, and the beautiful singing of the chancel choir, the pastor Rev. Stacey Midge applied the Bechdel test to the Bible. Named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test measures the representation of women in fiction. It asks three questions of a work: (1) Does it name more than one woman character? (2) Does it have a woman talking to another woman? and (3) Do the women talk about anything else besides men? Judged by these lights, the Bible, Rev. Midge said ruefully, fails the test, mostly.

One place where it does not fail is when Mary, the mother of Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth to talk about their pregnancies. This meeting prompts Mary's Magnificat, in which a woman's embodied interpretation of her religion has been preserved in pristine form. Mary sang of glorifying the Lord, sure, but she also sang of the Lord who "hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree." Her language ventures into economic territory when she continued, "He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away." Cutting right through the typical pictures of a modest virgin or an empty vessel, Mary's song of praise was, and is, revolutionary.

Rev. Midge owned that her sermon owed a great deal to a similar sermon by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the same text. She also made the point that the Bechdel test could easily be transposed into a test for the representation of other minorities. More and diverse stories need to be told by more and diverse voices. Mulling over this need, I recall a visit by Mexican American writer Rigoberto Gonzalez to my 11th-grade class last fall. During a discussion of the purpose of poetry, Mr. Gonzalez explained why he no longer used the formula "give voice to the voiceless," preferring instead the expression "amplify marginalized voices." No one is truly voiceless, not even the most powerless among us. To think so is to rob the powerless of their ability and achievement in speaking. The rest of us just need to be quiet and listen.

This year there have been heartening initiatives to amplify marginalized voices. In Singapore, poet and festival alumnus Pooja Nansi initiated Other Tongues: a Festival of Minority Voices, a whole day of readings, workshops, and talks. The annual Migrant Workers Poetry Competition, also held in Singapore, blossomed this year into the Global Migrant Festival, which "showcases performances, talks and panel discussions, involving artists from low-wage economic migrants and refugee communities from across Asia and the World, academic experts on migrant issues and advocates from relevant non-profits," in the words of its organizers.

In the USA, Singapore Unbound has contributed in our small way to a changing literary and cultural ecosystem. The 3rd biennial Singapore Literature Festival in NYC featured many authors of color from both countries (Hari Kunzru and Balli Kaur Jaswal at Asia Society; Vijay Seshadri, Ng Yi-Sheng, and Chinelo Okparanta at the National Black Theatre), offering authors and audiences an exciting platform for dialogue. The festival also brought the work of women-helmed Cake Theatrical Productions to the attention of New York. Our Second Saturdays Reading Series continues to highlight the work of such wonderful authors as Madeleine Thien, Min Jin Lee, Akhil Sharma, and Jenny Xie. In Spring 2019, our imprint Gaudy Boy publishes our inaugural poetry book award winners, Korean American Jenifer Sang Eun Park and Filipino Lawrence Ypil. We are always looking to improve the way we do things. One significant step is the welcome addition of Gina Apostol and Balli Kaur Jaswal to the selection committee for the next festival in 2020.

Beyond representation, however, lies the even harder challenge of economic justice. Mother Mary was not asking for women to be represented; she was asking for the hungry to be fed. The rom-com Crazy Rich Asians attracted a great deal of commentary on how the representation that Asian Americans crave was achieved on the backs of other Asians. The movie was rightly skewered for its blinkers about black and brown Asians. However, the most astute commentaries, to my mind, argued that the movie was actually realistic in its representation since wealth in Singapore is disproportionately concentrated in the hands of the Chinese. The scandal of the movie was that it held up a mirror to the economic inequities in the richest nation in Asia.

We are forced to ask hard questions of ourselves. If the wealth in Singapore is generated through the exploitation of low-wage labor, a phenomenon that attracts quick condemnation when it appears in the specific guise of migrant workers and local hawkers, why then is there so little pause in seeking arts funding from the state who refuses to legislate minimum wage, who upholds a regressive tax structure, who maintains a highly discriminatory educational system, who controls the trade union movement, who excludes foreign workers from the Employment Act, and whose coffers are filled by the wealth so generated? As artists, we are complicit with power, that goes without saying, because we need funding to present our work. But what about the hard question of how we can lessen our dependence on state funding in order to mount a no-holds-barred critique of power, such as Seelan Palay's protest outside Parliament House?

This year has seen tremendous violence against writers and journalists all over the world. They have been imprisoned in Myanmar, kidnapped in China, killed in the USA, and dismembered in Turkey. Singapore has been much more sophisticated and more effective in tamping down dissent. The result is clear for all to see. Instead of being afraid of losing our lives, we have become afraid of losing our livelihood. How can we free ourselves from our mind-forged manacles? If writers and artists don't show us, who will?

Jee Leong Koh
New York City
December 24, 2018


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