Showing posts from 2019

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

Weekly column written for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here

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

Weekly column written for the Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column written for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column written for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column written for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here

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

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column written for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound's newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

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…

Where Are the Writers?

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

The Singapore government's proposed anti-fake news law has been heavily criticized by local and international media and rights groups for investing too much arbitrary power in government ministers to decide what is fact or otherwise. Most recently, a group of 59 academics, with expertise, experience, or interest in Singapore and Asia generally, have joined in the chorus of criticism by issuing a joint public statement and sending letters to the Education Minister and Singapore University Leaders.

Other professional groups with a stake in free speech and democratic process should do likewise. Unfortunately, the Law Society of Singapore has been gagged by a 1986 law from commenting on legislative proposals unless they are invited to do so by the government. Singapore's creative writers are not so proscribed. Individual writers have spoken up but they could make a far bigger impact if they would speak together, as the …

A Poet Laureate of Singapore?

Weekly Column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here

We're proud to announce that Gaudy Boy's Poetry Book Prize co-winner The Experiment of the Tropics by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil has been selected by The Millions as 1 of 6 must-read poetry books for April 2019. Congratulations, Larry, on this wonderful honor! At the book's New York launch last week, Larry shared that much of the book, which meditates on archival photographs of the Philippines under American occupation, was written in Clementi hawker center in Singapore. That, we fondly imagine, must have enhanced the book's delicious tropical lyricism.

April is National Poetry Month in the USA and Canada. Introduced in 1996, the annual celebration of poetry organized by the Academy of American Poets has the laudable aim of increasing awareness and appreciation of poetry in the USA. It was inspired by the success of Black History Month, held in February, and Women's History Month, held in March, but it wo…

Gaudy Boy Matters

A whirlwind of events these past two weeks. First, AWP at Portland, Oregon, (March 28-30), where I tabled for Gaudy Boy, and all three of our authors—Alfian Sa'at, Lawrence Ypil, and Jenifer Park—signed books, and read at an off-site event. Alfian also participated in panel titled "Innovations in Southeast Asia" with Gina Apostol and Laurel Fantauzzo, moderated by Larry Ypil. I read at Literaoke at Chopsticks Karaoke Lounge and Bar, and that was quite fun.

Then the New York launch of Larry and Jenifer's books at the Asian American Writers' Workshop on Thursday, April 4. The launch went really well. The house was full and the books—15 copies per author—were sold out. Larry and Jenifer read very well and were full of thoughtful and memorable reflections during the Q&A. As Judy Luo remarked, our poets have personalities!

And then the Second Saturdays gathering on April 6, hosted by C and M at their Harlem home. About 35 people came. Potluck, mingling, drinking, …

Worse Than 1984

Weekly column written for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act tabled in Singapore's Parliament on Monday threatens to restrict free speech in the country even further. It effectively gives any Minister the power to decide what is fact and to demand corrections or removals of statements that he deems to be against the public interest. If passed, the Act will not just create a Ministry of Truth, so ironically named in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, but will turn all agents of the Singapore government into Ministries of Truth.

The best commentary that I have read on the bill so far is written by media professor Cherian George. Here I will just highlight one provision of the bill that indicates its wide-ranging scope: its extra-territoriality. Section 7.1 states that "A person must not do any act in or outside Singapore [my emphasis] in order to communicate in Singapore a statement knowing or having re…

Spiritual Affiliations

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

I turned 49 yesterday in New York. 16 years ago, I arrived in the city to begin graduate studies in writing poetry. Stepping into the stupendous Great Hall of Grand Central Station to take the Metro-North train to Sarah Lawrence College, I thought, as many did before me, I'm finally here. On the train, I spoke to the first New Yorker I didn't have to. He turned out to be an elderly jeweler whose family fled the war in Europe.

New York is a city of refuge for many people, including artists. Here you find, at last, your own people, who are related to you, not by blood, but by spirit. On the morning of my birthday, I wrote a poem about a young gay Singaporean who came here to study fashion and found himself, before graduation, marrying a man 21 years older than him, and, upon graduation, adopting two teenage children. During our interview for the poem, it was obvious that he was still amazed at what he had done.


Ants Among Elephants

The subtitle—An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India—provides a sober summary of the content of this memoir, but it deliberately underplays the harrowing stories told in lucid prose by the author Sujatha Gidla. The national tale is one of class-initiated and state-supported oppression of the lower castes and, in helpless response, the divisions in the Communist Party of India when it abandoned armed revolution to enter electoral politics. The family tale traces the transformation of an uncle into a famous poet and leader of a left-wing guerilla movement. The other hero of the story is a heroine, the author's mother, who comes into her own as a mother and teacher in the later part of the story. A wonderful aspect of this memoir is that it never lets you forget the impact of social upheavals on women. The author is, however, not concerned with hagiography. The different members of the family, including their circle of friends, are here depicted with warts and all.



I have a poem, "Gaudy Boy," written after Singapore's late poet Arthur Yap, in this anthology commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of Walt Whitman and the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Besides Whitman, many poetic forebears, including Cavafy, Rimbaud, Thom Gunn, Justin Chin, James Baldwin, Garcia Lorca, Tim Dlugos, Allen Ginsberg, and Yukio Mishama, are celebrated by a good range of contemporary gay male poets. Big thanks to editor Raymond Luczak for including my poem and for putting together this celebration of the vitality of the gay male poetic tradition. You can get hold of the anthology here.

Building on Sand

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

To expand its surface area, Singapore has become the world's largest importer of sand for its land reclamation projects. A documentary video made by environmental activists shows how sand dredging in Cambodia to meet Singapore's insatiable demand for land has destroyed coastal ecosystems and the livelihood of Cambodians who depend on harvesting shrimp and shellfish from the mangroves.

When the video was posted on Facebook yesterday, it attracted a range of comments. One Singaporean dismissed the video by writing, "Willing buyer and willing seller. The solution is for Cambodia not to sell anymore [sic] sand to anyone." The remark springs from a purely transactional view of the world and ignores the harm that Singapore is complicit with. Under pressure from activists, the Cambodian government has banned the sale of sand to Singapore, but activists suspect that illegal smuggling is still carrying on.

Another …

A Crackle of Flames, A Circle of Rainbow

A Selected Poems, spanning 1967-1977, by the foremost Singaporean Malay poet Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, A Crackle of Flames, A Circle of Rainbow (Ethos Books) is worth the read. The poems are from two collections, the first bearing the same title, the second titled When the Butterfly Breaks its Wings. This is a fighting book of poems, passionate and plainspoken, often lambasting the New Malays for not fighting for their own dignity, culture, and history, but giving it all up instead to serve Chinese dominance in Singapore. Yet the high rhetoric often ends with a lyrical, and sometimes mysterious, image. For instance, "Poetry of Song" begins unsparingly:

if what i say hurts you
then that is what I intend
because i like to tell stories
exposing harlotry as it is
right before our very eyes...

and ends with:

the tears of the wretched
who have lost everything
at dawn on the blue petals of pomegranate
the call to prayers reverberates
love and longing overlap
and the moon falls on the…

Banding for Good?

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

On Tuesday, Singapore's Ministry of Education announced that it will scrap streaming in secondary schools in 2024 and replace it with subject-based banding. Singapore Unbound supports the abolition of streaming, which has undermined and stigmatized students by labeling them as Express, Normal (Academic), and Normal (Technical). The belated change to subject-based banding, or tracking as it is called in the USA, is an improvement, but it does not go very far in addressing the inequities in the educational system.

Subject-based banding will, in fact, reinforce the false idea that the current system is based on meritocracy. Even with the change, schools will still be measuring student performance based on different student starting points and unequal access to resources (families, schools, and communities). There is no acknowledgement of prevailing social and economic injustices in society, as piercingly de…

Why I Am Half in Love with Jolovan Wham

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

Because like most Singaporeans l have been inducted into the cult of personality. I have been indoctrinated, I mean taught, from young the history of Great Men, so I petition Parliament to preserve the shrine of Jolovan's HDB apartment, even if it's against his wishes, after he joins our Lord.

Because he is super tech savvy, as a Singaporean should be. The cops confirm it after they arrested him for holding an indoor Skype meeting with a democracy activist from Hong Kong, another tech-savvy city. The courts confirm it by convicting him of public disorder and sentencing him to 16 days in prison. See how powerful techies are!

Because every national day I am brainwashed by songs on radio, TV, and in shopping malls telling me charity begins and stays at home, and Jolovan Wham is a labor activist belonging to HOME.

Because I won't give up my Chinese privilege and two Chinese men make more privilege than one, …

Inheritance: An Anthology

Slim pickings in a slim book featuring the work of younger Singaporean poets, edited by Marie Ee and Joy Chee, published by Math Paper Press. Most of the poems are, unsurprisingly, about family, and most of these family poems are overly sentimental and all-too-pious for my taste. How refreshing then to re-encounter the work of Cyril Wong, whose unsparing poem "Coming Out, Leaving Home" closes the anthology with a jet of cold water in the face. He is oddly placed here, however, since he has already published many books. Outstanding among the newer names are Joy Chee, whose "mother comes back as a wok" imagines anew the hoary scene of mother and daughter cooking in a kitchen, and whose "the blank space where the body used to be" deploys the surprising perspective of the dead to good effect; Ian Chung, whose pantun "Presently Absent, Absently Present" employs the recurring form not just seamlessly, but movingly; and Jerrold Yam, who writes with unc…

Less Is More

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

It's easy to make fun of Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru with elvish good looks. Her KonMari Method, so summarizable in the mantra to throw out everything and keep only the things that "spark joy," sounds the definition of twee. And yet, as the sale of millions of copies of her books around the world attests, she has touched an open sore in our maximalist lives and consumerist societies. What is to be our relationship to our things, which we accumulate so avidly?
The KonMari Method stresses looking at each category of things in turn, dresses, shoes, books, kitchen utensils, politicians, etc. You can see the necessity for this for we are all too apt to avoid decluttering by looking at our best category and pronouncing ourselves fine in general. To say, for instance, since we're doing well in the economic category, we're doing well too in life. The English word "good" is notoriously slippery s…

World Without Walls

Thanks, Lola Koundakjian, for organizing last night's reading FOR A WORLD WITHOUT WALLS, in conjunction with the World Poetry Movement at Saint Illuminator's Armenian Apostolic Cathedral. What a tremendous cloud of poetic witnesses, embodied and voiced by the 18 participating poets. There were rousing calls to action, moving appeals to pity, satirical depictions of wrong, and sharp diagnoses of individuality.

I read Frost's "Mending Wall" and then one of my poems about Singaporeans in America, "The Ceramicist." While reading over the Frost poem in preparation, I wondered if anyone has ever noticed that the speaker, in distinguishing himself from his wall-loving neighbor, is also building a wall between them. Frost's speakers are not his mouthpieces (see the much-misunderstood "The Road Not Taken") but may be airing an attitude that the poet wishes us to be wary of, if not criticize. The speaker of "Mending Wall" speaks of "m…

"Pitiless Trains"

Brief remarks at the launch of John Marcus Powell's book of poems Veil On, Veil Off (Exot Books) at Suite Bar, NY, NY, on Feb 10, 2019:

I relate to John Marcus Powell's poetry in many ways. We are both flaneurs, and we love to walk through the city and allow the city to walk through us. We are also queer, and so share a history that is far longer than the 10 years that we've known each other. And we are both immigrants to the great city of New York, and so we look back at our homes with an eye that is loving but not blind, that is critical but not cynical. I will read you one of his poems about his native Wales, and then I will say a few words about it. 

"River" is unusual in John Marcus's poetry; it is rather more objective than subjective. In his other poems about home, he inserts himself either as the vulnerable but self-aware child that he was or as the knowing, playful voice of adult experience. In "River" John Marcus dials down his mesmerizin…

Time to Open the Archives

Weekly column written for Singapore Unbound's newsletter. Sign up here.

"They came to the coffee shop in Joo Chiat where I was working at 2am. About five or six officers came, and they took me to Outram [police station], where there were already many people. I was detained for four and a half years. I was a Singapore citizen but I lost my citizenship; they took me to the border. I couldn’t return to Singapore for years...."

YEH Kim Pak was 27 years old when he was arrested on February 2nd, 1963, along with over 110 anti-colonial activists on the mere suspicion of being Communists. Yeh was not a Communist, but he did fight for workers' rights through the Singapore Coffee Shop Employees Union. The British police operation, codenamed Cold Store, was supported by the Malaysian and Singaporean leaders who used it against their political opponents. In fact, there is evidence that Singapore's leader LEE Kuan Yew urged the reluctant British authorities to tak…

Posing Modernity

Saw the show "Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today" at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. Curated by Denise Murrell as her PhD thesis, the show argued that Manet broke from the Orientalist and ethnographic depiction of black women current during his time, that Matisse took his cue from Manet in his painting of his black models, and that subsequent painters have been in part influenced or reacted against these two forerunners, in particular, Manet's famous "Olympia." I was particularly happy to see Matisse's "Dame a la robe blanche" (1946) in which negative space defines the woman's chest, and for a second time his cutout "Creole Dancer," now rendered visibly black due to this show. I was also taken with Charles Alston's "Girl in a Red Dress" (1934), showing a modern and sophisticated young Harlemite.

The Tropics and Other Experiments

Weekly column for Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

Interviewed by the online magazine Entropy, I had the opportunity to reflect on the point of setting up Gaudy Boy in 2017 as an imprint of Singapore Unbound. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission, the interview asked. I wrote, "We arise from, and hope to contribute to, the transnational ‘turn’ in literature and literary studies. We are interested in the various ways that writers and writings move across national boundaries to develop a circulation of influences, exchanges, and alliances. Instead of seeing the world in such dualistic terms as East versus West, North versus South, we envision the gathering of the most progressive elements everywhere, and the publication of such a gathering in our list."

Big words indeed, which do not hide the fact that Gaudy Boy is very much an experiment in its infancy. We don't know if we will succeed, but we are inspired by others who have gone before us. In…

Seal Speaks

7 poems from my new book CONNOR AND SEAL forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in Spring 2020. The poems in the voice of Seal are pessimistic in outlook (be warned!), whereas the poems spoken by Connor are the opposite. Together they capture something of the vacillations of this politically unsettling time, I hope. Big thanks to Dale Peck, for accepting these poems, the first poetry published in this reincarnation of a pioneering American journal that was launched in 1957 with the work of Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mark Schorer, and James Purdy, and that introduced to American readers the work of Genet, Grass, Ōe, Duras, Paz, Walcott, and Nabokov.


Watched Tom at the Farm (2013), directed by Xavier Dolan, who also co-wrote the script and played the part of the protagonist. Quite a tense film, a psychological struggle between Tom and his deadlover's homophobic older brother, but the film could have been so much better. Pierre-Yves Cardinal plays the older brother Francis.

Adventure in Selfhood

Ian McKellen is luminous as the titular protagonist of Mr. Holmes (2015), directed by Bill Condon. Laura Linney, as his housekeeper, is good, and completely adorable is Milo Parker, the young fan who tries to get Holmes to work again, but McKellen could express so much with just one twitch in his hangdog face.

American Wrestler: The Wizard (2016), directed by Alex Ranarivelo, is too much of a feel-good movie to be genuinely moving, let alone intellectually probing. The teenage boy, who escaped from Iran, does not question his compulsive desire to assimilate into America. He succeeds when he helps his struggling high-school wrestling team to win and when he gets the blonde. Still, when George Kosturos finally pulled off his baggy shirt and showed off his Greek body, all my criticisms expired eagerly. Kevin G. Schmidt, who plays his teammate, was also dishy.

Read about Robert Penn Warren's long poem about Audubon in Literary Imagination Volume 20 Number 1 2018, in the essay "Rob…

To Redeem the Pledge

The column below is written for Singapore Unbound's weekly newsletter. Sign up here

Social change activists are often perceived as trouble-makers. This happens not only in Singapore but all around the world. However, this wrong perception is even more egregious in Singapore because Singaporeans have forgotten or suppressed their own local tradition of activism. The mistake is thus prevalent and stubborn. To unearth the history, theory, and practice of Singaporean activism, the news magazine New Naratif interviews former student activist TAN Tee Seng and civil rights activist Jolovan WHAM in their podcast series Political Agenda.

In the interview, New Naratif's THUM Ping Tjin referred to a theory of activism propounded by Bill Moyer. This is not the beloved American political commentator. This Bill Moyer (without an 's" at the end of his last name) was a United States social change activist who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and James Bevel to focus the…