Peeking into Pico Iyer’s Perspectives

A picture with the perspicacious Pico Iyer (from left to right): Goh Khiam Li, Edward; Loon Kin Yip, Brendan; Pico Iyer; Darshini Rajen; Mohamed Adri Bin Mohamed Rafik Alkhatib

Like an ivory frontispiece to a magniloquent tome, wherein lay the annals of a nation splayed across its vellum pages, stood the Raffles Hotel, monumentalising old-world resplendence and modern mystique in its grand visage. Stark against the Singapore sun and sky stood its frosty white marble pillars and alabaster walls, chilled by both its grandeur and the modern air-conditioning.

Sweating from the heat and the imposing event ahead, we students approached, with caution, unsure of where amidst these colonnades, balustrades and quadrangles we would find our session with internationally acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer, author of The Man Within My Head (2012), Sun After Dark (2004) and The Lady and the Monk (1991). This exclusive engagement on 14 August 2019 for National University of Singapore (NUS) literature students arose on occasion of Mr Iyer becoming the first Writer-in-Residence in the new Raffles Writer’s Residency fellowship, set up by the Raffles Hotel. For the joint organisation and coordination of this opportunity, Associate Professor Anne Thell and the Raffles Hotel receive our sincerest thanks!

We eventually found the venue for the session: Jubilee Lounge. This in turn found us jubilant at our arrival in time – and, mutually, the hotel staff equally jubilant at their successful wrangling of a dishevelled group of students through the labyrinthine hotel and into this immaculate room. Thence began the magic of the moment, manifest by the man of the moment: Mr Iyer opened—with characteristic courtesy, asking leave of the audience to read a passage from his notable work, The Global Soul (2000)—with a reading of a quasi-autobiographical scene of his burning house set ablaze by California forest fires and his harrowing escape.

With a meditative coda, Mr Iyer’s tone dispossessed itself from that different time and turned with warmth to us, instead. With his eyes gleaming with learning and reflection, and his smile—genial, assured and knowing—he invited us into conversation on the notion of home, initiating this topic with intellectual and spiritual verve as he expounded on Buddha’s Fire Sermon, in which the image of a burning house features most prominently as a symbol for the stripping away of the pleasure and perspective of visual indulgence for one to bear witness to the truth. Indeed, for Mr Iyer, a cosmopolitan supra-cityscape like Singapore—with its global connections, globalist orientations and sparse land space—was conducive for the making a global, mobile people who would be especially prepared to take their sense of home with them wherever they went, rather than tether ‘home’ to an expression of a thing or a place.

What constitutes home—for us, for anyone? Our responses were too varied to capture in this brief essay, but I will offer a skeletal report: One English Literature major alumnus, Ong Lin Kang, proffered the observation that the mobility of a people whose homes could be ensouled and so carried with them despite their travels had to be supported by a certain status and privilege. Given this, the increasingly vociferous reactions and sentiments of xenophobia, especially with respect to immigration, could be seen as a conflict between those who sense of home is physical and those for whom it is not physical. Mr. Iyer averred and supplemented this idea—and this in turn prompted Augustine Chay, a current postgraduate student, to ask about Mr Iyer’s views on the ethics of representation in the craft of a literary practitioner of travel writing, as to whether one should take pains to reorient unconscious biases to one’s conscious values. Showing utmost respect to the audience, Mr Iyer asked leave to answer the question posed, in another way. He related his own complex cultural programming: American by residence; British by birth; Indian by ethnicity, citizenry and ancestry; and Japanese by residence and through marriage. Only with an exceptional exercise of self-awareness and self-abnegation could he identify how one or another cultural lens contributed to his perspective – the perspective through which he views the subjects of which he writes, and with which he narrates his views to readers through his work. More often than not, however, it would be a nigh-impossible task. The question then was for readers to identify, and then de-orient themselves from, the writer’s unconscious biases, in relation to the reader’s conscious values. This was why he stood by the words he said in an interview in 2006 that “imaginative imperialism when writing about the West’s meeting with the East […] never concerned [him] too much” – not because it did not concern him at all, but because there was little, if anything at all, that he could do to operationalise that concern. How he could do anything about it, however, would occur in his teaching: guiding others towards developing a critical literary intelligence and independence to do the work of reading with relish, responsibility and resistance.

On the matter of how a writer operationalised his craft, Owen David Harry, another postgraduate student in English Literature, was interested in what Mr Iyer’s actual writing practices were. Mr Iyer was glad to divulge his experience – and revealed that of the questions students had prepared for this session, he was looking forward the most to attempting an answer to this one. He informed us that he sets aside a few hours, at least, each morning for writing, by hand, and insists that he continues this practice even if his writing that day does not come to him easily or well, or if he is travelling and in a new time zone. He perseveres in this way because he has realised that when he does so, even if he does not get much writing done on a current project, he produces something, and is better able the next day to discriminate between what was good in style or subject and what was not, and what should be in this work and what might belong in a subsequent work, like the next book or an essay.

Related to this concern of what goes into constructing place and in writing a book about places, a current English Literature undergraduate, Ariane Noelle Vanco, asked if elision in travel writing is a concern, as surely not everything experienced and observed may be accounted for in writing—and, furthermore, not much that is pejorative or unpleasant finds its way into travel writing. Mr Iyer prefaced his answer as both a response to Ariane and a continuation of his response to Owen about his writing practices: in writing Video Night in Kathmandu (1988), he shuttled from one city to the next, from Rangoon to New York to Manila to Hong Kong to Bombay to Beijing to Bali; and from one country to the next, from Thailand to the Philippines to Nepal to India to Burma to China to America. He was young, and traveling eagerly through fast-paced cities, and furiously scribbled down everything, attempting to record, as much as he could, every perceptual observation—sight, sound, smell, touch and taste—as it happened. He found, though, that while this method captured fresh perceptions, it also encouraged only nascent thoughts about them. Later, he changed his methods and began to exercise more discipline and focus. Now, he jots down phrases and fragments, and what creative and descriptive expressions dawned on him about his observations – how sights could be smelt; and how sounds could be touched and felt, for instance. He then writes from memory and carefully selects just a few details to include—the sound of a saxophone on a busy street, for instance. He acknowledges that reconstructing from memory is difficult, especially if you want to make writing come alive. Oftentimes too perceptions once missed cannot be recovered. Thus he returns to his notes to start writing about his impressions, as these allow him to reconstruct, or approximate, that feeling of first perception that is so central to capturing place. If he can still feel those first sensations via his writing, it is more likely a reader can, too—and that is his wish for any reader of any of his works: to feel place. He concluded jocularly that despite this conscious effort to connect with readers, each time he writes a book he strives to write a very different book than the one before, which may not be viewed as a wise marketing strategy since a reader who loves one book might hate the next! Optimistically, though, he hopes that a reader who hated a first book might find himself or herself loving another.

Picking up from Mr Iyer’s initiation of the topic of Video Night in Kathmandu (1988), I asked if he still held the suspicion that every Asian culture and city he encountered was “too deep, too canny or too self-possessed to be turned by passing trade winds from the west”, as he wrote in that book; and if, in the thirty years since its publication, that suspicion had been ossified or overturned. Mr Iyer smiled and said, “Of course.”

“These are grand, old civilisations that you have in Asia,” he continued. “They will not so spurn themselves to become someone else. Look at China and its resurgent ascendance. Look at India and its innovations for an electronic democracy. Look at Japan, and its cultural and aesthetic power. They have reassurance in and respect for who they regard themselves to be – and who they were and who they want to be.” He also mentioned that the underlying identities of cities and countries are not so easily changed; for instance, a city which might appear to have transformed entirely—a new skyline, new streets, new trends—still retains its unique character. Cities you know well are like old friends: recognizable even after years of distance. He concluded that this was much the case with Singapore, too: Singapore, as he writes in his recently published book This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow (2019), “belonged to many cultures all at once, but wasn’t entirely hostage to any one of them.”

(Contributed by Loon Kin Yip, Brendan.)


2019 Applied Theatre Workshop with the Shigang Mama Theatre

It’s a beautiful, crisp February morning in Shigang, Taiwan, and a group of eight NUS students are hard at work on several pear farms and an orchid nursery dotted around the area. We’re working with members of the Shigang Mama Theatre, a company that began almost 20 years ago, following the horrific earthquake of 1999 that devastated various parts of Taiwan, particularly Shigang, a tiny district right along the fault line that runs through the heart of the island. Founded by a group of about a dozen Hakka women who are farmers, mothers and wives (and now grandmothers), their initial performances potently portrayed their traumatic experiences of the earthquake, then eventually incorporated other aspects of their lives as marginal, labouring women: their fears, their hopes, their dreams.

This field trip to Shigang is part of a long-term transnational project combining theatrical collaborations and academic research called A Home on the Island. This year’s workshop, the fourth in the series, was subtitled “Body, Labour and Gender.” Assistant Professor Liang Peilin, who teaches the module TS4222 Performance as Research in Applied Theatre, has worked with the Shigang Mama Theatre since the mid-2000s and has been bringing her students to the area to develop what she’s conceived of as a “probody aesthetics,” which is ”an endeavour that shifts the conceptualisation of theatre and performance from body-based or body-centered practices towards an idea of body-centric practices. This move is based on the idea of providing care for performers through their artistic practices and the artwork they make.” (Liang, 2018: 3, my emphasis)

Over the course of the two decades, the members of the Shigang Mama Theatre have begun to encounter physical injuries aggravated by age and the coercive demands of the agricultural labour they do on a daily basis. During our visit to Shigang from Feb 23 to 27 (2019), Dr Liang hoped that we might be able to start developing an approach to creating performances with the Mamas that might be restorative and therapeutic for their bodies, instead of physically exploitative. We also did work on their farms so that we could empathise with the strain on their bodies and the repetitive motions they are subject to. Over the course of the five days, and together with a Taiwanese chiropractor, Dr Hou Boyuan, we choreographed and devised short performance pieces incorporating various chiropractic movements that countered neck, shoulder, back, and knee injuries, aches and pains. These socially-engaged pieces also dealt with themes such as domestic responsibilities and challenges, agricultural labour, and marriage and parenthood.

My group was “adopted” by Yang Zhenzhen Mama, the leader of the Shigang Mama Theatre who is in her late 50s and runs a sprawling orchid nursery with her husband and son. We quickly found out how a probody aesthetics in performance has been helpful for her own body. During the harvest season, she often picks thousands of orchids a day – by hand, and without using any farming implements or tools that might damage the flowers. This caused her to develop excruciating pain on the right side of her neck, fingers and wrist, so much so that she could not even move her head. When Zhenzhen Mama picked up taiko drumming as part of the theatre company’s performer training she grew acutely aware of her non-dominant left hand. So she implemented a policy of ambidexterity on her farm, insisting that everyone on the farm had to be able to use both their dominant and non-dominant halves of their bodies to carry flower plots or pick flowers, and she believes it’s an ambidexterity that most flower farmers lack – even the most experienced farmers in the industry – and that has helped prevent more severe injuries.

A Home on the Island (IV): Body, Labour and Gender allowed us to learn how to devise performances that make use of a probody aesthetic that might be crucial to sustaining the bodies of the members of the Shigang Mama Theatre not just in their performance practices, but also in their everyday labour on their farms.

(Contributed by Corrie Tan.)

The Inaugural Edwin Thumboo Prize 2019

The Inaugural Edwin Thumboo Prize 2019

The Department of English Language and Literature (DELL) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) is pleased to announce a new prize for Pre-university students of English Literature.

The Edwin Thumboo Prize, named after one of Singapore’s most prominent poets and scholars, recognises works by outstanding A-level and International Baccalaureate (IB) students of English Literature in Singapore. It is administered by DELL with support from the Ministry of Education (MOE). The Prize is funded by generous donors, including patrons of the arts and former winners of the Angus Ross Prize.

About Professor Edwin Thumboo

Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo is one of Singapore’s earliest poets. An accomplished literary practitioner and critic, he dedicated his life to the composition and study of English Literature. His work is studied in schools, both locally and abroad, and featured in public places in Singapore. At NUS, Professor Thumboo has served as Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Director of the NUS Centre for the Arts. He has also received numerous awards, including the Book Award for Poetry in English (1978, 1980 and 1994), Southeast Asia Write Award (1979), The Cultural Medallion (March 1980), ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award for Literature (August 1987), Public Service Star (August 1991), the Meritorious Service Medal (2006), and Distinguished Service Award (2008).

About the Prize

The selection process for the Prize is rigorous and multi-faceted. Government pre-university institutions, including those offering the IB Diploma Programme, were invited to nominate one candidate each. The competition attracted entries from 10 Pre-university institutions.

Each school submitted a write-up on their recommended candidate, who also submitted a piece of academic writing (not more than 10 pages in length) on a literary text or topic.

Candidates will be assessed by a selection panel, comprising representatives from NUS and MOE, as well as former prize-winners. Each year’s winner will receive a monetary award of $200. Merit awards of $100 will also recognise deserving nominations.

The selection panel for this year’s Prize included Dr. Jane Nardin from Yale-NUS, and the 1997 Angus Ross Prize Winner, Mr. Aaron Maniam.

In identifying the winner, the selection panel looked particularly for an excellent grasp of the written word, and a sensitivity to its significance as a creative endeavour.

The winner of the Edwin Thumboo Prize 2019 is Mr. Gan Chong Jing from Raffles Institution. Mr. Gan impressed the panel with his outstanding essay on the theme of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Chong Jing’s work was subtle, elegant and demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the play. It navigated complex and rich ideas while displaying coherence, fluency and economy of expression. In addition, all interviewees were given the challenging task of critically analysing two unseen poems – one by a Singapore writer – that they were shown only 20 minutes before their interview. Chong Jing’s nuanced response was exemplary in its rigour, comprehensiveness and detail.

When informed of the results of the Prize, Chong Jing was quick to attribute his success to his family and teachers.

“I wouldn’t have gotten here without every single one of my literature teachers, who not only taught me everything I know but also showed me how to love the written word for all its depth and beauty. Neither would I be here without my parents, who read to me when I was too young to read, stocked a house full of books and filled my childhood with stories. I owe this to you all; thank you.”

Three Merit Prizes will also be awarded to Ms. Jane Lee Jia Hui from Dunman High School, Ms. Lim Yi Jun from River Valley High School, and Ms. Yew Jien Huey from Victoria Junior College.

Merit Prize Winners (from top): Jane Lee Jia Hui, Lim Yi Jun and Yew Jien Huey.

Associate Professor Michelle Lazar, expressed the Department’s gratitude to the donors who initiated and donated to the ET Prize which aims to promote excellence in the study of Literature at the pre-university level. She added, “We are very encouraged by the quality of the entries and the high level of critical thinking displayed in the essays.”

The prize-giving ceremony will be held on Friday, 26 April 2019 at NUS.