Showing posts from 2019

What Can't Wait

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It was supposed to be a routine check-up. After hearing about the recent falls, however, the family physician strongly recommended that my beloved send his mother for x-rays, blood tests, the works, and so we found ourselves in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati two days before Christmas. Then we found out that if she went directly from the hospital into physical therapy, Medicare would pay for it, but if she went home from the hospital to celebrate Christmas with her family in her own home, and to attend her grandson's wedding reception, Medicare would not pay.

Money is an unavoidable issue for many families at this time of the year. The costs to families who have loved ones incarcerated in the USA rise during the holiday season as they make more visits, send more care packages, and make more phone calls. Even emails come at a price. A set of 30 digital stamps, required by correctional facilities, c…

Patience Agbabi's TELLING TALES

Hijinks in high style. There's even a pilgrim born in Singapore, Tim Canon-Yeo, who obtained a Medieval English degree from Oxford and taught TEFL for several years in Colombia, before becoming a personal trainer and bodyguard to paranoid pop stars. Tim resides in Kent and writes a poem a day. Thanks, Larry Breiner, for the recommendation after hearing I'm writing a book of poems based on The Canterbury Tales.

The Muslim and The Scenic Designer

Ian Chung kindly accepted two poems "The Muslim" and "The Scenic Designer" for Eunoia Review, publishing one immediately after the one, as is apt for these double portraits of a married couple. Thank you, Zizi Majid and Izmir Ickbal, for sharing your stories with me. The stories illuminate the experience of Singaporeans living in America.

Who Do You Aspire To Be?

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I was going to write about the neighborhood petition I saw in the East Village on Sunday. A public park is to be renovated and, as part of its renovation, its twelve-foot fence will be lowered to four feet. Residents of the gentrified village are petitioning for the fence to remain twelve-foot high to keep "the park safe for children." I never thought I would see Trump's wall at the heart of supposedly liberal New York.

I was going to write about an on-line petition posted by the homophobic Facebook group Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family. A school has adopted Mark Haddon's award-winning novel A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for supplementary reading. The haters want the book banned for its "foul and blasphemous language." Unable to appreciate the book's sensitive depiction of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's Syndrome, the book burners are the true vu…

Thank you, Hong Kong!

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This Thanksgiving I'm giving thanks for the Hong Kong protesters who struggled bravely for democracy and human rights, and for the brave Hong Kong people, who voted in record numbers and handed authoritarianism a stinging defeat. There is mourning amidst the thanksgiving, for the protesters who died or were badly injured in the struggle. For injured members of the Hong Kong police too, who are someone's father, brother, and son. It is unbridled authoritarianism that pitted one side against the other. There should be a commission of inquiry into excessive police violence and the higher-ups who gave the orders, not those who had to carry them out, have to be held responsible, but the commission should include not only the goal of truth, but also that of reconciliation.

The Hong Kong protests will, I hope, inspire those of us in the USA to take part in the mass movement to impeach Trump, if any inspiration …

Barefoot and Gun Island

Barefoot is the Collected Poems of Scottish poet Alastair Reid edited by Tom Pow. I found the book in Barnes & Nobles one evening while browsing the poetry section. The poems are skillful and reflective, sincere and nostalgic, but not terribly memorable, to be honest. The stakes in the poems are not raised very high.

Gun Island is my first Amitav Ghosh. I bought it from Book Culture to support the bookstore. The novel is humane and well-plotted, although the writing slips into cliches at times. The protagonist, Deen a rare books dealer, remains a bit of a cipher. The two sections are interesting for me in different ways. The first section is set in the Sundarbans, a mangrove delta of the Ganges that I got to know from Rushdie's Midnight's Children. The second section is set in Venice, which we visited for the first time last summer. I could vouch from my personal experience that the Bengalis have been in that city for a long time: we had dinner at what looked like a very lo…


Read this a while back but never got round to blogging about it. It's an absorbing read, with an accumulating power, as secrets are revealed and connections are made. I find the ending of The Emigrants more moving, but the sober ending here has a depth of its own.

Longlisted and Semi-Finalist

SNOW AT 5 PM, my hybrid manuscript of haiku translations and commentary, is on a roll! It has just been longlisted for the 1st [PANK] BOOK CONTEST. This comes after it has been selected as semifinalist for the YESYES BOOKS Open Reading Period. Excerpts have also just been published in the Long Poem Magazine. The contest results will be announced in December. Wish me luck!

Powered by Passion

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If you've enjoyed reading this weekly newsletter, would you consider donating to Singapore Unbound's End-of-Year Appeal? We rely completely on the support of private individuals like yourself, who care for literature and human rights. We can devote all our resources to writers and the presentation of their work because Singapore Unbound is powered by passionate volunteers. All our events are free and open to the public.

Many of you have been steady supporters through the years. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Here's to another year of struggle, solidarity, and small victories.

Donate Now. 

Jee Leong Koh
November 22, 2019

Soft Power

On GA's strong recommendation, PN and I watched David Henry Hwang's new play Soft Power at the Public Theater on November 2. It was a very clever, even mind-bending, re-write of The King and I, with a Chinese producer playing the part of a counselor to Hilary Clinton. Some of the dualism depicted by the play were too crude for my taste, such as the opposition between American individualism and Chinese family duty, but it was still fun to see Chinese political culture presented as a viable competing ideology, in some cases, superior to that of the USA. Since right at the start the play criticized the use of the Broadway musical as a vehicle for American soft power, the ending extolling the virtues of American democracy must be viewed with the intended ambiguity. If we felt the appeal of American ideals, we also knew that we were being put upon. In this way, Hwang had his cake and ate it. The party was also about the wonderful number of Asian American actors on stage. They acted…

Accent on the Ascent

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"Did your accent hold you back?" The question came from a participant of, a social enterprise that brings young Singaporean creatives to meet artists, entrepreneurs, and media workers in New York in order to deepen their own creative pursuit. Fielding questions from the nine young women, we were a poet, a pianist, and an actress on the panel held in the intensely casual atmosphere of the WeWork lounge in lower Manhattan.

What is my accent? Many Singaporeans describe it as American, American friends detect British elements in it, and British acquaintances often pronounce it Singaporean. How can I forget that very uncomfortable incident at the private school on the Upper East Side where I had taught English for 10 years, an incident uncomfortable to all concerned, when a student with a hearing disability said she could not understand my "accent" and asked to be transferred to anothe…

Ritwik Ghatak, Bengali Filmmaker

Last week Film at Lincoln Center screened a retrospective series of restored black-and-white films by Bengali master Ritwik Ghatak. I caught two films: A River Called Titas, an epic about the dying of a village, told in linked stories; and The Cloud-Capped Star, a more domestic film about a young woman who gave her life working for her family. Both films could be described as social realism, but I would rather call them lyrical realism, so beautifully crafted are the images and sequences.


This is one of the few novels by Singaporeans that I did not feel was a duty to read, but a real pleasure. I admire the ambition, not only in its range of characters, settings, times, and scenes, but also in its daring depiction of such well-known historical personages such as Hitler, Goebbels, and Walter Benjamin (in addition to the three female stars, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Reifenstahl). It could have fallen on its face, but it did not; it throbs with life. The self-awareness invested in Benjamin, in particular, is Shakespearean. If the prologue about the Berlin Press Ball, which brings together the three female protagonists, feels stagey, the reader lives the last days of Benjamin with him as in a dramatic monologue.

The novel does own a few non-fatal weaknesses. The slight over-deliberateness in the construction and juxtaposition of scenes. The occasional flamboyance in the language, including distracting puns and wordplay. The chapter titles are coquettish, and…


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If you can't kill it, I guess you may as well call it Evergreen. Launched in 1957, with work by Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mark Schorer, and James Purdy, Evergreen Review thrived for 16 years on scandalizing American propriety with audacious writing. Then it went silent for many years before it was revived on-line in 1998, and again in 2017. Now under the leadership of publisher John Oakes and Editor-in-Chief Dale Peck, the magazine has just published the first of four installments of its Fall issue, and is again kicking against the pricks.

Headlining the issue is Guatemalan journalist José García Escobar's report on the immigrant caravan traveling from Honduras to the United States. Having embedded himself among the refugees, he was privy to their stories of hardship and to the moral ambiguities of covering them. Looking at the problem from the other end, the American side, Natascha Elena Uhlmann argues …

Bad Speech? More Speech!

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Facebook's refusal to take down Trump's false ads has generated great controversy and backlash. Its own employees have just published an open letter urging Mark Zuckerberg to reconsider his policy towards political ads. While thinking about this question, I recalled vaguely some slogan that went like "the solution to bad speech is more speech." Looking it up on the internet sent me on a crash course on U.S. law on free speech.

The debate on free speech and its limits is of long standing, but the course of the development of U.S. law has clearly been towards the expansion of free speech against arbitrary limits. In the 19th century, the common practice was called prior restraint, defined as censorship imposed by a government or institution that prohibits particular instances of expression. To give an example from a different jurisdiction, the Singapore government's ban of Tan Pin Pin's …

Defense Against the Dark Arts

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The Yale Faculty Senate meets today to discuss, among other matters, the cancellation of the "dissent" learning module at Yale-NUS in Singapore. Big thanks to everyone who wrote to Yale. I hope the Senate discussion at today's meeting will not expend itself on general questions about academic freedom at Yale's satellite campus, as this Yale Daily News report did. Obviously there is academic freedom for most topics and most people at Yale-NUS. Singapore is not yet a Stalinist state. It is, however, an extremely sophisticated practitioner of the dark arts of (self-)censorship.

Instead, the Senate meeting could examine the analysis of Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal, which casts serious doubts on the Yale Report on the module cancellation. The Yale Report was written without taking into account the emails and text messages between Yale-NUS and the module instructor Alfian Sa'at. The senior cou…

Pain and Glory

Last night, watched Pain and Glory directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar, with GH, WL, and CC. The Spanish title Dolor y gloria sounds so much better and fitting. The film is a rich meditation on love, desire, family, and the creative process. How much do you really love your lover if you won't abandon your Madrid-centered artistic ambition to help him cure his drug addiction? How much do you really love your mother if you won't stay in her village of caves? After the success, will there be time to make it up to lover and mother? Is the failure to make it up to them related to one's creative crisis? Antonio Banderas was superbly subtle as the aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo. Penelope Cruz and Julieta Serrano were wonderful too as the mother at different ages. César Vicente was the dishy young man who was the director's first desire, when as a boy he was first awakening to the world of men.

César Vicente with the director Pedro Almodóvar


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I thought my grandfather's smell would never leave me. Years ago, my father's father had left his wife and children for another woman and her family. In his old age, when the other family could not take care of him any longer, my grandfather returned to his original set of children, as to a stone wall, because none would take him back. Except for my father, himself dead now just slightly more than a year ago, who turfed me out of my room to make room for my grandfather. I could not bear the smell hanging on him like a wreath. He smelled of rotting pork rubbed with Tiger Balm ointment, but drier, dustier.

I am reminded of my grandfather by the granddaughter of J. B. Jeyaretnam. The Yale freshman has just published a beautiful essay about her grandfather who is, was, famous in Singapore for being the first opposition politician to be elected into Parliament after almost three decades of People's Action P…

Did the Leaders of Yale-NUS Lie?

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I wrote to Yale's president after Alfian Sa'at shared his version of events about the cancellation of his "dissent" module at Yale-NUS in Singapore. Please consider writing to Yale's president to ask for the re-opening of the inquiry with an unbiased representative, now that there is fresh and convincing evidence that the Yale report is wrong. His email is Please feel free to share my letter with friends and media contacts. 

Dear Yale President Peter Salovey:

I hope it has come to your attention that the narrative and analysis of the Yale report on the cancellation of the Yale-NUS learning module "Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore" has been refuted by the instructor concerned, playwright Alfian Sa'at.

According to the administrative leadership of Yale-NUS, the learning module was cancelled because of (1) insufficient academic rigor and (2) the legal risks pose…

What It Means to Have a Range of Perspectives

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In a previous column in this newsletter, I asked readers to write to the President of Yale University to support a fact-finding mission regarding the cancellation of a learning module titled "Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore" at Yale-NUS College. The Yale report, published on September 29, finds that "the decision to cancel the module was made internally and without government interference in the academic independence of the College.... [And] the evidence does not suggest any violations of academic freedom or open inquiry." However, the instructor of the module, playwright Alfian Sa'at, in a Facebook note published yesterday, charged that some members of Yale-NUS College "have been lying." He has "detailed emails and Whatsapp messages that will definitively prove that the allegations [of defiance, recklessness, and incompetence against him] are false and defamatory." He i…

Never Look Away Slave Play

Two astonishing productions, one a play on Broadway, the other a film watched at home. Slave Play by young writer Jeremy O. Harris explores the legacy of slavery through interracial sexual dynamics. So glad that HA told me about it and we went to see it at the Golden Theater on Tuesday. The film was Never Look Away (2018), written and directed by Floran Henckel von Donnersmarck, about a young artist who escaped East Germany to live in West Germany but could not escape the trauma of living under Nazi rule. Play and film, each in its own way, makes me want to write better. To be more truthful. Whether in the two-story mirrors at the Golden or the lightly blurred paintings of amateur photographs.

The Heart of a Stranger

The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature (2020, Pushkin Press). Edited by André Naffis-Sahely. The editor with: Jenny Xie (NYU, Graywolf poet), Aaron Robertson (Lit Hub Editor and translator of Martha Nasibù), Jonathan Galassi (poet and translator, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Sinan Antoon (poet, translator), Jee Leong Koh (poet). Presented by CasaItalianaNYU in collaboration with the Primo Levi Center. September 12, 2019. Purchase:…/the-hea…/9781782274261/

Doubly Displaced

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I first met Boedi Widjaja at the Dome cafe in the Singapore Art Museum. It was surprising to both of us how quickly we fell into easy conversation. Because of racial tensions in Indonesia in the early 1980's, his parents sent him and his sister to Singapore to live apart from them. He was just nine years old and he did not know a jot of English, having grown up speaking Bahasa Indonesia. Singapore was alienating and he longed for home. At our meeting, I was living away from home too, having transplanted myself from Singapore to New York. Migration is, we discovered, the keynote of my poetry and his art. Both of us are sons of Chinese diaspora who have not just settled in one new place, but having made the place home, have moved again. We are doubly displaced.

As our friendship grew, so did our appreciation for each other's work. I attended his art shows in Singapore, where his intensity in live-art perf…

Jogos Florais

"For some reason I cannot pin down, I go to the word “soft” often in my poetry. It does not only speak, it also touches and tastes, and it does all this while meaning, variously, listen, gentle, vulnerable, honest, subtle, strong, tender, comfortable, pre-erection, post-orgasm, receptive, sympathetic, malleable, formal, transformative. It is not the opposite of hard, but is a state of hardness, just as hard is but a state of softness. It appears in conjunction with “ware,” “water,” and “power.”"

Pleased to be included in this special Singapore feature of the Portugal-based journal Jogos Florais. Shout-outs in my interview to Tan Pin Pin, Sonny Liew, Gwee Li Sui, Dorothy Wang, Timothy Yu, Jahan Ramazani, and Gina Apostol.

And thanks, Marguerita, for sharing your story with me. Your poem has appeared!

Poems and interviews by Angeline Yap, Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, Cyril Wong, Edwin Thumboo, Jee Leong Koh, Loh Guan Liang, Pooja Nansi, Shirley Geok-lIn Lim, Tania De Rozario, and Yeng…

Elie Wiesel's "The Night Trilogy"

"Night" was less harrowing than I thought it would be. The stark style is moving, especially when it revolves around the author's "betrayal" of his father, but I miss the exact choice of detail and word that would render the incidents piercing. Even the famous description of the hanging of the child lacks focus, capitalizing as it does on sentimentality. At one point the victim is described as a tall and well-built young man. At another he was a mere child. Having reread George Orwell's essay "A Hanging" recently, I could not help comparing the two. There is nothing in "Night" that compares with the victim's sidestepping of a puddle on his way to the scaffold in Orwell, that unforgettable humanizing detail.

"Dawn," a short novel, has a promising premise—a Holocaust survivor becomes a resistance fighter in British-ruled Palestine—but again the the promise was not fulfilled. What plot there is is covered by a thick layer of m…

What Matters Most to You?

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In view of upcoming elections, New Naratif surveyed Singaporeans on the most important issues facing the country. 447 people responded, and their responses covered not only jobs and cost of living, but also electoral and parliamentary reform, human rights and civil liberties, social discrimination, and foreign policy. Interestingly, as New Naratif points out, no one mentioned religious extremism or deliberate online falsehoods, issues identified by the PAP government as so important as to justify rushed and controversial legislation recently.

Now, if you are a Singapore citizen, you can decide which of the 28 issues identified by fellow citizens are most important to Singapore. The goal is to pose these questions to every candidate standing up for election, and to hear their individual stands. Please consider participating in this democratic exercise. Vote with full information.

Jee Leong Koh
September 5, 2019

The Right and the Wrong

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"On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born," so memorably writes James Baldwin at the beginning of his essay "Notes of a Native Son." "A few hours after my father's funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker's chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass."

Reading the essay in order to teach it in the new school year, I was struck not just by the depth of feeling and the eloquence, but also, more surprisingly, by a strain of sardonic humor that runs like quicksilver throughout the writing. After being turned away by the ironically named "American Diner"—"We don't serve Negroes here."—Baldwin in his fury marched into a fashionable restaurant in which he knew "not even the…

Chad Abushanab's THE LAST VISIT

The material is rough—an abusive, alcoholic father, one's own alcoholism that loses one's marriage and the custody of one's children, a brother's alcoholism that leads to his car crash—but the verse is smooth. Some archaisms, such as "woe" and "spears" to make the rhyme, but, more damagingly, sometimes a looseness in the middle of a poem, where the words fall into the iambs right as rain but without a ripple. Once in a while, an image holds the attention, but not often enough. The best poems here, however, are very fine, "The Way," "The Landlocked Lighthouse," and the wonderfully uncanny poem "Visiting My Own Grave."

Italian Travels

We were in Italy for GH's 60th birthday for two weeks, from August 3-17. Venice was definitely the highlight of the trip: the magical canals and floating palazzi; the modern museum Punto Della Dogana restored from an old custom house by Tadao Ando; the moving works of Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis on show at the Prada Foundation; the dramatic works of Tintoretto decorating the Scuola Grande di San Rocco; the first-time visit to the Biennale. Unplanned were pleasant meetings with Filipino servers at one Italian restaurant and a Bangladeshi server at another,  beyond San Marco Square. Our hotel Pensione Accademia was perfect.

Florence was too crowded with tourists. Returning 29 years after my first undergrad visit, I explored the Basilica di Santa Croce (E. M. Forster!), with its tombs and memorials for Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini, and its perfect chapter house designed by Brunelleschi. The Bargello Museum was less impressive than I had thought. The…

The Christian

New poem, "The Christian," published in Eunoia Review. Thanks, Caleb Goh, for trusting me with your story. And thanks, Ian Chung, for publishing it.

Please Listen to Preetipls

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An advertisement created to encourage e-payment in Singapore featured a Chinese actor in brownface, dressed up variously as an Indian man with a curly wig and a Malay woman in a headscarf. It was widely, and rightly, condemned as racist. Mediacorp, the agency responsible for the advertisement, gave a half-hearted apology and withdrew it. When comedian Preeti Nair, known as Preetipls, and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, released a rap video criticizing the advertisement, however, they were judged by the Law Minister to have crossed a line in attacking the dominant Chinese majority in Singapore and the artistes were subjected to a police investigation.

The state's action is not only heavy-handed but also unfair, because it is patently clear from the video that the duo are not attacking Chinese Singaporeans per se, but Chinese racists for their racism. Although the refrain goes, "Chinese people always out he…

A Special Kind of Loneliness

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Congratulations to Chris Huntington on receiving Honorable Mention for his lovely poem "Lorca (6)" in the 2019 Hawker Prize for Southeast Asian Poetry, awarded by Sing Lit Station! Chris's poem was first published in SP Blog as third-prize co-winner in the 4th Singapore Poetry Contest. Read "Lorca (6)" and the other winners of the Hawker Prize here.

As the editor of SP Blog, I was interviewed by Sing Lit Station on Chris's poem, Singapore, and the work of Singapore Unbound. Asked about my judge's comment on "Lorca (6)" about the "essential loneliness" that pertains to Singapore, I had the chance to expand on the thought:

"I've always thought that a writer's first reader is himself. He writes to himself to hear himself speak, to assuage his loneliness, to fill the blank air with sound. Singapore cannot assuage this existential loneliness; no …

A Quiet Life

My introduction to Kenzaburō Ōe, and it is a mighty one. It begins so slowly, okay, so quietly, and then mounts and mounts in layered complexity as almost clinically it focuses on one and then another character in a very small social grouping comprising a family (K-san the father who is a novelist, the mother, the brain-damaged older son Eeyore, the daughter, and the younger son); their friends, the Shigetos; and the members of the local swim club. The parents' departure for America, ostensibly for the father to take up a writing residency but really for him to deal with his depression, provides the pretext for Ma-chan the daughter's keeping of a diary, which will inform the parents of all that is happening back home. The diary-as-home will eventually become the novel AQuietLife. Ma-chan appears at first quite simple; she elicits sympathy for her horror at remaining single and unloved because she will have to look after her disabled brother after her parents die. Even at the b…


Written by Ian Rosales Casocot and Shakira Andrea Sison, this anthology of "literary smut," as its subtitle has it, is superior erotica. Both authors are seasoned writers and award winners, but we all know how easy it is to write badly about sex. Casocot avoids the pitfall deftly by experimenting in literary form. "Road Trip" is told backwards, from climax to set-up. "Tell Him" is written mostly through dialogue. "The Thank You Girl" is all foreplay--so, so tantalizing. The highlight of his section is surely his much-anthologized story "The Boys From Rizal Street," which acquires its sexiness through sameness and difference. The form of these stories serves the sex but it is also true that the sex inspires the form.

Alternative Literary Eco-system

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On July 12, filmmaker Jason Soo and poet Ally Chua received their Singapore Unbound Fellowship awards from award-winning filmmaker Tan Pin Pin at UltraSuperNew in Singapore. The award enabled Jason to travel to Thailand to interview the exiled aging members of the Communist Party of Malaya, a project for which he would never have received funding from the government. Ally, who will be coming to NYC this year, will experience the freedom and trust that a true writer deserves since she does not have to complete any reports at the end of her stay. Having selected her, we believe in her talent, promise, and determination. She will be free to grow and follow her writerly instincts.

As I explained at the event, Singapore Unbound has developed a literary ecosystem that provides an alternative to the one run by the state. Our biennial literary festival and monthly readings offer a showcase for excellent writing. The fellowship…

The Southern Ridges

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Yesterday I ran to the top of Mount Faber without stopping on my fourth try. Fourth try! I'm really out of shape. At 106 meters (348 ft), Mount Faber is one of the higher hills in Singapore. It is part of the Southern Ridges, a trek through nature established and maintained lovingly by National Parks Board.

From Mount Faber, you could run, or walk, to Telok Blangah Green and then to HortPark, a one-stop gardening resource center. There in the orderly park you could run into Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least his words. He tells us still that "The earth laughs in flowers." As is characteristic of the American philosopher and writer, the words are unforgettable. Flowers appeal to our eyes and nose. They can even be touched and eaten. But heard? As bursts of laughter from the earth? So they are.

I have the good fortune to meet many flowers of Singap…

The Spirit of Writing, The Spirit of Independence

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Is there really a spirit of writing here, in Dumaguete, the sea-facing capital of the province of Negros Oriental, in the Philippines? My guide, fiction writer and heritage activist Ian Rosales Casocot, thinks so. He teaches creative writing at the oldest writing workshop in the country. He has seen many writers, new and established, discover that spirit in their time here. Yesterday I broke my dry spell in Asia and revised a poem that I had shelved.

Silliman University, where Ian teaches, is the oldest private American university in Asia. It is a living part of the country's colonial history. As Ian wrote in his blog, when the victorious Americans took over from the Spanish, they imposed English on the country to transmit their values. Ian remembers having to speak English only in grade school. To enforce the rule, the students were made to play a "game" called Badge. Whoever forgot himself and spoke Bi…

Cebu Day 1-3

First visit to the Philippines. Arrived in Cebu on Wednesday. Had dinner in Jollibee near the Maxwell Hotel.

On Thursday, visited the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño. The Christ child is the patron saint of Cebu, but a child with dark skin and black curly hair. Devotees lined up to pray to the icon in the chapel but there were replicas for sale in the church gift shop too. Replicas in the basement museum too, which are for traveling around the country and for bathing in the sea on a holy day. Along the cloisters of the church were paintings and stories about the miracles of the Child. The Tuba (drink) Provider. The Fishmonger (the Child plays a prank on a seller of fish). The Patriot (The Child signs up to defend the Philippines). The Speedy Boater. The Rainmaker. Beautiful and cool garden in the middle. Woman sitting under the shade of the Church. Saw Magellan's Cross behind the basilica.

Walked through the Carbon market to Ermita neighborhood, which reminded me of Goh Poh Seng…

Future Tense

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Because I'm flying tonight, first to Singapore and then to the Philippines (for the Cebu Literary Festival), I'm writing my weekly column on a Sunday and scheduling it for posting on Thursday. I'm writing in the future tense.

My neighborhood bank in Harlem has just reopened after a thorough renovation. When I told GH, in my Singaporean way, how much quicker the shiny new ATMs are, he reminded me that the machines have replaced human cashiers. Some people have lost their jobs. If the bank was less efficient before, it was because they did not wish to invest in people and open up more counters.

Automation has replaced human beings at a frightening speed and will continue to do so at a dizzying rate. As consumers we have adapted perhaps all too readily to the changes. Even if the machine revolution cannot be stopped, it can be slowed down, so that all of us have time to plan, train, and adjust, to figure ou…

A Perched Privacy

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Last week I was packing up my office stuff in preparation for a move. My school is opening an extension across the road. Unlike the lower school and some other departments, which are moving into the new building, the English Department is only moving from one floor to another in the old building, but still I will miss the tiny office where I have worked for the last 14 years. I will miss the view of the East River and the passing boats.

All moves, big and small, involve complicated feelings. This Sunday I'm flying back to Singapore on my annual visit, back to the country I thought I had left behind in order to come out as a poet and a gay man in NYC. I have made a home of New York, but a made home is not the same as homemade. Those of us who flew away from our birthplace in search of transcendence, whether in art or love, often find ourselves searching for a hearth as well in our adopted city.

This was true of H…

More Than One Kind of People Movement

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On Sunday more than a million Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest against the passing of a bill that will extradite suspected criminals to China for the first time. The protesters suspect that the bill will be used to target political dissent and so accelerate the erosion of their civil liberties. Pictures of the protest march moved many Singaporean on-line commentators to praise Hong Kongers for their love of their freedoms and to wish that Singaporeans would be just as active and passionate about theirs.

Faced with government intransigence over the extradition bill, Hong Kongers mounted a second, smaller, protest on Wednesday, which was met by police tear gas and rubber bullets. 72 people had been hospitalized by the end of the day. Together with other civil-rights organizations, Singapore Unbound condemns the use of excessive force by the government to suppress a people movement. As expected, the Hong Ko…

Chafing against Anonymity

The Wife (2017) threw GH for a loop—who is the real talent in the family, and who the public face, the domestic help merely. At the beginning of our relationship, he had no doubt about who was who, but things have changed in nine years. It's hard to grow old, and harder still to feel useless, and overshadowed. He couldn't understand why the wife, played brilliantly by Glenn Close, would stay with the husband, played equally brilliantly by Jonathan Pryce. Why didn't she strike out on her own as a writer? Why didn't she strike against the gender bias of her time against women writers?

In an interview included in the DVD, Glenn Close said that she understood the character of Joan Castleman when she understood why she stayed with Joe. She did not say why.

My guess: love first, together with the willing subjugation of oneself to the beloved; then the knowledge of being the real power behind the scenes, of being the kingmaker, rather than the king, as the character admitted …

Fair Play

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Last Friday, Taiwan's parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage, a first for Asia. In doing so, it met the deadline imposed by the constitutional court, which struck down the Civil Code's definition of marriage as exclusively between a man and woman in 2017. Singapore Unbound salutes all the Taiwanese LGBTQ activists and allies, and rejoices with all Taiwanese, both LGBTQ and not. The change is not just for a sexual minority but for everyone, because it enhances democratic ideas, freedoms, and rights for all.

Over in Singapore, the annual LGBTQ rally called Pink Dot announced its campaign theme for this year, its eleventh. It urges all Singaporeans to take a stand #AgainstDiscrimination. To inform the general public of the real harm inflicted on LGBTQ people in school, at home, and at the workplace, members of the LGBTQ community are asked to take to social media to share their experiences of being discriminat…

The Blue Estuaries

The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 by Louise Bogan

I found one truly memorable poem in the collection, a sharp observation transformed by a peculiar sensibility, a formula advocated elsewhere in the book but rarely followed. Even in this instance, the poem would have been better served if the last line has been removed.

Roman Fountain

Up from the bronze, I saw
Water without a flaw
Rush to its rest in air,
Reach to its rest, and fall.

Bronze of the blackest shade,
An element man-made,
Shaping upright the bare
Clear gouts of water in air.

O, as with arm and hammer,
Still it is good to strive
To beat out the image whole,
To echo the shout and stammer
When full-gushed waters, alive,
Strike on the fountain's bowl
After the air of summer.

Team Effort

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Gaudy Boy, our imprint for publishing Asian voices, has been from the start a team effort. Our Managing Editor Kimberley Lim was instrumental in setting up operations in 2018. We were soon joined by Judy Luo as an editorial intern. With her sharp literary intelligence, Judy has been so valuable in assessing new manuscripts that we are over the moon that she has accepted the role of Assistant Editor, beginning yesterday. Last summer Jia Sing Chu came on board as a publicity intern. You have seen her thoughtful and beautiful social media posts promoting the press and our books. We are absolutely delighted that she is undertaking a bigger role as our new Assistant Publicity Director. Congratulations, Judy and Chu!

We are sad to bid farewell to Kathryn Monaco, our Marketing Director. Her expanded duties in her day job now demand her whole attention. Kathryn spearheaded our Instagram outreach, putting our books in the ha…

The Other Face of Violence

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When I expressed interest in attending a Jewish service, a kind friend brought me to the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which he has visited a number of times, not for worship (he is an atheist), but for the beauty of the Hebrew language sung and chanted, the sounds of his childhood. Founded in 1973 by twelve gay Jewish men, CBST describes itself as the world's largest LGBT synagogue. There I was last Friday, wearing my rainbow-colored kippah, tapping my foot to the catchy music, and trying hard to follow the service in English. I must admit that in the midst of the worshipful atmosphere, a fleeting thought went through my mind: what if a gunman should burst in and shoot up the sanctuary?

The rising tide of anti-semitism and homophobia in America made such a thought not altogether fanciful. The Poway shooting, which took place less than a week ago, must have been on the minds of the CBST congregation. The attack…

Munro and Levi

It is possible to read too many Alice Munro stories in a row. After reading Dear Life, I started straightaway on The Love of a Good Woman, and although I enjoyed individual stories in the latter collection, I find it difficult to recall precisely what each story is about, or even the main characters, except in the vaguest terms. The plots and the characters overlap with one another, and I see secondary colors when I should see primary ones. I did not care for the title story very much, thinking that it could be much improved by radical excisions. "Jakarta" is a classic Munro meditation on love and the sacrifices it entails. "Save the Reaper" stands out for that menacing scene in the rundown house. "Before the Change" for its charged topic of illegal abortion.

It was with some relief, I admit, when I turned to my first book by Primo Levi. In The Monkey Wrench, a rigger tells the stories of his projects to a chemist, the latter based on Levi, who was a chem…

Poem and Talk

I have a poem and talk published in the latest issue of the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore. The poem is "The Columnist," written for Kopin Tan. The talk is "'Core and Case': Some Thoughts on the Subaltern Sonnet," first delivered at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, in Portland, Oregon, on March 29, 2019, as part of the panel "#SonnetsSoWhite?: Poets of Color on Race and Traditional Verseforms." Thanks to Toh Hsien Min and Yong Shu Hoong, respectively, for the publications.

Joint Statement by Arts and Civil Society Groups

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Singapore Unbound joins 27 other Singapore arts and civil society groups in expressing our shared concerns about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill. In our view, the Bill would grant excessive discretionary powers of censorship to the executive branch of government.

"Action to address misinformation and disinformation should not take the form of the very broad powers of censorship set out in the Bill, which lacks robust safeguards to limit their use. In our view, by empowering a government to silence critical voices, the law, if enacted, will promote fear and distrust. Like the “fake news” it is said to combat, it would undermine healthy debate and public confidence in our common institutions." You can read the letter here.

We're especially heartened by the solidarity shown by theater groups (Drama Box, Dream Academy, Intercultural Theatre Institute, The Necessary Stage, The Theatre Pr…

Marking the Season

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Last Monday I finally met a Singaporean author whom I've admired for some time. Visiting from London, she is here for a month to work in her company's NYC office. At Grand Central Oyster Bar, we had a dozen oysters each. They all had beautiful names that reminded us of where they came from. The only name I remember now is Wellfleet Massachusetts, because of the Elizabeth Bishop poem. My dining companion expressed relief at the lightness of our repast, having been troubled by the size of American portions.

She loves living in London as much as I do living in New York. A reason? The seasons. This is not the shutter happiness of tourists, nor the novelty of snowfall to the tropical student. We have both lived in temperate countries for years, in fact, in each other's country, if the possessive is apt here for a pair of immigrants. The seasons mark the passing of time. The markings may be highly uncomfortable—the su…