Meet Gautam, an awardee of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Dean’s PhD Fellowship. The FASS Dean PhD fellowship is one of the highest honors awarded to the top few incoming PhD FASS Students, with a cap of maximum three recipients annually. Recipients of the FASS Dean’s PhD Fellowship will attain an extra year worth of funding in addition to the NUS Research Scholarship. In this feature, Gautam will be sharing more about himself and his research project.
As a teenager I searched novels for sentences that felt true, and later grew fond of stringing together moments in my writing. Before starting my PhD at NUS, I was working on a creative writing MA at NTU. The MA thesis traced my prodigal-son journey to the US, hiding hurt of migrating from small-city India to Singapore as a tween. Where that story was a chance to travel past dysfunctional bits of the global as I came to terms with Singapore, the PhD allows me to ask more methodically what may replace that which I have critiqued.
My research then is focused on ways of reframing Indian Ocean histories of migration and environmental transformation to allow for alternate terms of belonging in global cities like Singapore, Bangalore, and Dubai. Having grown up a Malayali migrant into the Tamil-majority Indian-diaspora experience in Singapore, I focus specifically on these two South Asian language-diasporas and their attempts to make Malaya and the Persian Gulf home over the last century. I look for historical commonalities between post-nineties migrants like myself, and the pre-Cold-War generations I moved into, hoping to find terms which may persuade the latter to more systematically extend generosities to future migrants.
With the Tamil and Malayali diasporas, I am particularly fascinated by how their movement and terms of stay in the last century have been shaped by the oil-driven industrialization of ex-colonies. And how these patterns of industrialization and emissions will likely shape future movement (forced and voluntary) out of monsoon-fed coastal regions of South India, vulnerable to climate disasters, toward global nodes. In the narration of these movements, I see English as a key language of translation between two diasporas and three regions, navigating patterns of industrialization shaped by Cold War policies and the dance between British and American interests in the Indian Ocean. I also hope the study of two diasporas may create a framework that can be applied more broadly from Philippines to Myanmar to Egypt.
Within the discipline, my proposed essay collection adapts Amitav Ghosh’s explorations of the histories of climate change, migration, and global capital, from a predominantly Bengali standpoint to a South Indian context. Archival material from a Ghosh-inspired historian’s work, Crossing the Bay of Bengal, connecting South India and Malaya, form the basis for the creative strands. While the essay form extends Ghosh’s discussions within The Great Derangement about the suitability of different literary forms when tackling climate change. My project also tries to insert itself into the gap Rob Nixon highlights between traditions of postcolonial ecocriticism and North American environmental writing.
Undertaking this project at NUS is a rare chance to be close enough to issues to change my mind. To be able to fly Scoot to Madurai, take a bus up to Penang, spend weekends at regional archives, learn Tamil, work closely with local experts on these themes, and build relationships that can shape knowledge. NUS’s joint-programme with King’s College also provides an opportunity to work with creative nonfiction faculty and access the colonial archives in London. At a time, when research on Asia is often written out of faraway universities, when Anglophone writing from the peripheries is often studied separately from regional language literatures, and writers are increasingly reliant on the university for jobs, the time and freedom the NUS PhD allows to pursue a question in this region through a hybrid critical-creative thesis, is precious.
The Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences will be awarding the Edwin Thumboo Prize 2020 to four pre-university students for their outstanding literary work.
Named after one of Singapore’s most prominent poets and scholars, the Edwin Thumboo Prize, aims to promote excellence in the study of Literature at the pre-university level by recognising outstanding literary works by A-level and International Baccalaureate (IB) students of English Literature in Singapore. It is administered by the Department with support from the Ministry of Education (MOE). The Prize, established in 2019, is funded by generous donors, including patrons of the arts and former winners of the Angus Ross Prize.
The winner of the Edwin Thumboo Prize 2020 is Ms Loh Su Jean from Raffles Institution, who will receive a monetary award of $200.
Her essay on Shakespeare evinced a thorough and dedicated pursuit of scholarly knowledge and individual insight. The panel praised her exceptional work, which embodied both intellectual capacity and depth. Ms Loh demonstrated similar poise and discernment during her interview when she had to analyse and compare two unseen poems – one of which was by a Singapore poet. She navigated poetic complexity with immense conviction, rigour and detail, and presented an insightful reading of the poems.
When informed of the results, Ms Loh said, “I owe this to each and every one of my literature teachers, who showed me how to look at the world with inspiration and discover its beauty in the written word. To my mother, who read to me before I could: thank you for filling my childhood with books, libraries, and a love for stories. None of this would be possible without you.”
Three Merit Prizes will also be awarded to Ms Chu Shuai Wu Freyja from Dunman High School, Mr Ng Zheng Yang from Anglo Chinese Junior College, and Ms Silvia Suseno from Nanyang Junior College. They will receive monetary awards of $100 each.
The winners of the Edwin Thumboo Prize were selected through a rigorous selection process. In 2019, government pre-university institutions were invited to nominate one candidate each. The competition attracted entries from 13 institutions.
Each institution had to submit recommendations for their nominated candidates. The candidates were also required to submit a piece of academic writing on a literary text or topic.
Candidates were assessed by a selection panel, comprising representatives from NUS and MOE, as well as former prize-winners. The selection panel for this year’s Prize included Dr Susan Ang from the Department and the 1997 Angus Ross Prize Winner, Mr Aaron Maniam. In identifying the winners, the selection panel looked particularly for an excellent grasp of the written word, and a sensitivity to its significance as a creative endeavour.
Associate Professor Michelle Lazar, Head of the NUS Department of English Language and Literature, was impressed with the quality of the entries and expressed the Department’s gratitude to the donors who initiated and donated to the Edwin Thumboo Prize. She said, “We are very encouraged by the number of nominations received this year, the diverse topics of the submissions – ranging from Shakespeare to Bob Dylan – and the sophistication of writing and analysis of many of the entries. We are grateful to our partners in education from MOE and the pre-university institutions for working with us to promote the study of and love for literature.”
About Professor Edwin Thumboo
Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo is one of Singapore’s pioneering 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 had 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).
A mid-term overseas excursion involving almost sixty hours of travel can be no mere flight of fancy. From 17 to 19 October 2019, I was very privileged to be at the North American Victorian Studies Association’s (NAVSA) annual conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was there with the support of the English Language and Literature department at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and under the mentorship of Professor Kevin A. Morrison from Henan University, whom I met during a module on Victorian Literature and Culture that he had conducted as a Visiting Professor to NUS. Dr Morrison had nominated me to present a project at NAVSA 2019’s Undergraduate Research Event. Months of research following my acceptance into the programme, which found me stealing time from my vacation and coursework to read anything from Victorian lyric poetry to nineteenth-century animal welfare brochures, eventually yielded the theme of this project: “Rethinking Victorian Anthropocentricism: The Avian Poetics of Thomas Hardy, George Meredith and the Rossettis.”
Part of the research programme for undergraduates at NAVSA 2019 included a workshop. This was an opportunity for us to pitch our projects to one another, to refine our arguments against our peers’ evaluation. We also shared insights and experiences related to the challenges of preparing for the upcoming presentation. We spoke at length, for instance, about the difficulty of handling the specific genre we were assigned to work with: the academic poster. To compress reams of research into a mere five hundred words or so plus a handful of images was infinitely more demanding than a five thousand-word paper might have been. Yet the prevailing realisation was that such limitation could only be the impetus for radical creativity. Brevity boasts its own poetry. What was truly inspiring in the work of my peers was its sheer felicity and acumen: everybody was bold, open and in earnest about what they were sharing. I was deeply impressed, for example, by Hannah Calderazzo’s presentation titled “Unfeminine Legacies from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White to Victoria Cross’s Six Chapters of a Man’s Life,” which skilfully and imaginatively unpacked the transactions between nineteenth-century sensation fiction and classical tragedy. Hannah was extremely well-read and fluent in her knowledge of the period. Like every other participant at the conference, she was deeply in possession of her own niche, and proudly, unapologetically so.
In many ways it was the people who made the occasion. This was especially true during the undergraduate poster session, held on the third and final day of the conference. Our posters were arranged along corridors adjacent to seminar rooms in the Hilton Columbus Downtown where the conference was being hosted. Interested participants could approach individual presenters to talk about their projects. Here, I was quite overwhelmed by the encouraging feedback I received. Dr Maha Jafri from Sewanee, for example, summoned such tremendous energy to engage with my readings of Hardy, Meredith and the Rossettis; she also shared valuable information about where I might look up archives related to the work of Meredith (a writer whose work, we both agreed, suffers its own somewhat maligned, critically underappreciated dogmatic brilliance). I also got to test my interpretations of poems by Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti against the expertise of Professor Elizabeth K. Helsinger, whose work I had read when conducting my own research. Part of the difficulty of establishing an ecological reading of the Rossettis concerns how one might evaluate the theological preoccupations of their work. In simple terms, it’s difficult to say precisely that when, for instance, Christina Rossetti in “A Birthday” writes “My heart is like a singing bird / Whose nest is in a water’d shoot,” she is being as aware of the bird itself as she is with its symbolic properties. It was therefore immensely motivating to hear Professor Helsinger say, in agreement with my own intuitions, that, “Yes, I do think she sees the bird.” The poster session resonated, in sum, both effectively and affectively; it built my confidence and helped me sharpen my own critical perceptions.
I’ll finish this post with a thought that returns me home. Many of my fondest memories of NAVSA 2019, strangely enough, don’t come from Columbus at all. These include: the enthusiastic and unconditional support of my family; endless matrices of email correspondence with Dr Morrison on the details of the project, which he tirelessly and meticulously guided me through; Professor Lazar and Professor Sankaran’s warm encouragement before my trip; Dr Susan Ang’s illuminating discussions on Hopkins, Keats and Shelley; Ms Angeline Ang’s kindness and patience in guiding me through the administrative work of requesting conference funds; expedient emails from CLB containing articles requested via DDS that were essential in helping me define and refine my project; Dr Jennifer McDonell’s expert feedback on my ideas and poster design; Dr Michael Hollington’s hugely supportive response to my queries about his own work on Dickens and to my project; talks with Stasha Wong on environmentalism, animals and various things ecological; philosophical gymnastics with Tan Wei Lin on dialogism and Derrida; discussions with Joycelyn Lee Yuet Zhen on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Sudden Light,” phonemes and the IPA chart. It’s this community of people back to whom I must trace the roots of the sweetness of my experience of NAVSA 2019, and so I do, with great wonder and gratitude.
Alumnus Khor Kuan Liang majored in English Literature and graduated in 2014. He has since published his first novel titled Kallang Basin Adagio. In the interview below, we catch up with him and invite him to share his views on his novel and on Singapore literature.
Can you tell us what your novel is about and what your motivation is in writing this novel? Can you also comment on your novel’s interesting title—Kallang Basin Adagio?
The novel has universal themes and is set in a future world, which has been ravaged by global environmental catastrophe. In this post-apocalyptic setting, a group of survivors rescue a boy and his musically-inclined humanoid, Doll, on their way to the haven at Kallang Basin. But Doll is no mere android. She has been designed to play some of the most beautiful music the world has ever heard. Music has been a form of catharsis for me and thus prompted me to write this story…
Speaking of music, an Adagio refers to a slow tempo — used chiefly as a direction in music. Adagio for Strings (by Samuel Barber) is a musical piece that has significance throughout my novel. What would become Doll’s most special piece of music was actually composed in 1936 when Samuel Barber encountered a passage from Virgil’s Georgics:
…curve of wave begins to whiten
And rise above the surface, then rolling on
Gathers and gathers until it reaches land
Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks
With a prodigious roar, and what was deep
Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls
Born in the chaos of a continent on the brink of apocalypse, such Adagio music certainly resonates with some of the other themes in this novel. The actual Adagio music is over in eight minutes, harmonically unresolved, and if any musical piece can come close to conveying the effect of a sigh, or courage in the face of tragedy, or hope, or abiding love, this is it.
Did studying literature as an undergraduate contribute to the writing of Kallang Basin Adagio?
Certainly; I came across twentieth-century literature texts that revolve around art and artistic endeavours. I decided to examine these themes in the context of a futuristic, post-apocalyptic setting where humanity is already on the brink of extinction. What role does art or artistic endeavours – represented by musically-inclined artificial intelligence in the story – serve when we struggle to survive? This is a pertinent question raised that readers can continue to ponder long after they have read the book.
Can you share some of your views on the current state of Singapore literature?
I think it needs more time to develop and there is still some way to go. However, there also now seems to be more support with events like the annual Singapore Writers’ Festival and initiatives by local publishers like Epigram Books. I have heard of Epigram Books from quite a number of years back but only after they published my novel did I truly see how special and supportive this publisher is. Hopefully more people will see that too.
Do you have any future writing plans? How do you manage writing in a busy country like Singapore?
Like music, writing has been a therapeutic experience for me; shining rays of light amidst the darkness of personal issues I’ve gone through and am still going through. Thus, I will certainly be writing in the future but on other topics of interest, including stories for children. I have stopped teaching for the moment and seek to focus more on writing.
Kallang Basin Adagio can be purchased from Epigram Books (below).
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.”
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.
On 19 September 2017, Theatre Studies staff and students, including a group from the University Scholars Programme, came to listen to playwright Kaite O’Reilly talk about her works and practice. O’Reilly, a playwright and poet based in the UK who has taught and collaborated in Singapore throughout the years, is an advocate and practitioner of disability arts and culture. In mid-September, she was in Singapore working on a series of monologues that were inspired by the experiences of disabled and Deaf Singaporeans.
During her talk, O’Reilly shared with us a short compilation of her works, going more in-depth into her play, the 9 Fridas. She shared with us her interest in Frida Kahlo and how she decided on using nine different characters to portray the full complexity of one of the first well-known female artists.
She then introduced disability arts and culture, emphasizing the importance of opening up more possibilities for disabled and Deaf persons to contribute to the field of theatre, whether it was by becoming professional performers or including their perspectives and experiences within theatre works. She discussed the two models of disability: the medical model and the social model. The medical model uses the diagnosed condition to identify and classify people with disabilities, and this is also the more traditional approach. The social model, however, defines disability as something that is organized through societal practice and categorization rather than an individual’s impairment. Thus, the social model seeks to find ways that society can change to create a more equal community for all people. She also mentioned that there are two kinds of barriers that disabled and Deaf people face: architectural and attitudinal. While it is important to push for architectural facilities that do not exclude people with disabilities, it is equally important to push for the change of societal attitudes.
At the recent Nanyang Graduate Student Colloquium held on 17 February 2017 at NTU, two graduate students from the department won the Colloquium’s Best Presentation Awards. The two students are Grace Chong who is a first year Masters by research student in English Language and Phoebe Pua who is a first year PhD student in English Literature. Grace’s research interests are in contact linguistics and sociolinguistics, while Phoebe’s dissertation focuses on cinematic representations of Southeast Asia with an emphasis on sound.
We talk to Grace and Phoebe about their experience at the conference.
.Q: How did you hear about the conference?
PB: The Department often sends out CFPs for various conferences and I keep an eye out for the ones that are based in Singapore. I was excited about this conference organized by NTU as it centred on Asia, which is an area I am working to get more engaged with.
G: I heard about the conference through my supervisor, A/P Mie Hiramoto. She encouraged me to give it a shot to gain more exposure and meet people who may be in the same field as me.
Q: What made you want to submit a paper there? Was it A/P Hiramoto’s encouragement?
G: Yes, Mie’s encouragement, and also a genuine interest in finding out what it is like to actually attend a conference and present at one. I did not think too much about it after I submitted the paper, so I was really happy to be given the opportunity to present at the conference.
PB: The conference’s focus on Asia was attractive to me given the scope of my research. It was also a graduate students’ conference so it is, in one sense, a survey of what our peers are interested in and what kind of work is being conducted. I attended a couple of conferences before this one, but I would say that a graduate students’ conference can be a lovely foray into the academic world. And finally, practically, attending conferences in Singapore is a treat because it eliminates the hassle of travel and the need to scramble for funding.
Q: Did you present a whole new idea or a draft version of your ongoing research?
PB: Because I am still at the beginning of my program, any idea I have, really, is a new one. The paper that I presented came out of conversations had during the Graduate Research Seminar I attended last semester. I am indebted to Dr. Gilbert Yeoh who was the instructor for that class. Briefly, my paper was concerned with how the Southeast Asian imaginary is peddled on the international tourism market via a recent emergence of highly cinematic tourism advertisement videos (or travel films). It was titled “Your Government the Filmmaker: The Tourist Gaze under ASEAN Direction”.
G: I have a somewhat different story; what I presented was an extension of my honours thesis, which was in Mandarin (as I was originally from the Chinese Studies department) so I had to translate part of the paper into English. It looked at a unique feature of Singapore Mandarin: the beneficiary usage of the preposition gen. I expanded this topic and applied new theories from contact linguistics to give a new perspective on the issue.
Q: Did you find the conference enjoyable and also helpful to your paper?
G: I must say the conference helped me to tie down some loose ends that I did not have the opportunity to resolve when I was writing my honours thesis, and helped me to make the paper more coherent and comprehensive. It was also through the conference that I managed to draw a stronger conclusion, and demonstrate the relevance of the new theories I introduced into the paper that were not there in my honours thesis.
PB: I too found it enjoyable not least because I finally got to see the NTU Hive building, which is really unique in design. For me the most interesting thing was getting responses to my paper from people with whom I do not often get to interact— such as those from quantitative Sociology and state policy. That is the best thing about attending non-disciplinary conferences like this one.
Q: Congratulations again on winning the Best Presentation awards! How did you feel about winning?
G: I was really surprised. I have always had public speaking phobia so I practiced multiple times before the actual conference. I would especially like to thank A/P Mie Hiramoto and Wil, who listened to my dry runs for so many times, and gave me invaluable advice that helped improve my presentation. I would also like to thank A/P Mie Hiramoto and Dr Leslie Lee, for taking time to vet through my abstract, and patiently suggesting the changes that I could make to make it better. My classmates at the Graduate Research Seminar and Assist. Prof. Yosuke Sato also gave me great advice on how I can improve my abstract and conference presentation skills as we were given the opportunity to write abstracts and have mock presentations during the seminar. I am also grateful to my friends who encouraged me and believed in me more than I did in myself. Thank you so much, everyone!
PB: I am grateful for the organizers’ generosity though the award does feel somewhat undeserved. But I think this is testament to the education received in our Department and from our teachers. As I mentioned, Dr. Yeoh, whom I can always count on for honest feedback, played a key role in the development of this paper. I am also indebted to those who have taught me— a long list since I did my undergraduate studies in this department— but to name a few, A/P Valerie Wee, my supervisor, and Dr. Tania Roy, Dr. David Teh, and A/P John Phillips, whose graduate modules are in equalmeasure frustrating and gratifying. And of course, A/P Mie Hiramoto, to whom we both owe a great deal.
On 1 March 2017, Alumnus Ms Clara Chow came down to the Graduate Honours Room to give a seminar titled “How I Became a Liar.” Besides sharing her journey towards becoming a fictional writer, Clara conducted some writing exercises to get those in attendance attempt some creative writing. We also took the opportunity to invite her to share with us her thoughts on writing and her own experiences.
Could you share how the experience has been from writing as a university student to journalism and then to fictional writing?
As a student, writing was all about literary analysis and academic assignments. I was terrible at time management – always waiting until the absolute last moment, and then staying up overnight to finish my essays. It was as though inspiration would only strike me at the last moment, like freak heat lightning attracted to a very dry, gnarled tree on an otherwise barren hill.
When I became a rookie reporter circa 2000, I was told to write short sentences and stop using abstract, pretentious terms. It was terrible. It took me a long time to stop trying to use multiple embedded clauses in my sentences, and to banish the word “postmodern” from my theatre reviews. I became much, much better at meeting deadlines, though.
Then, when I started writing fiction full-time in 2014, I was free to go back to writing like a university student and imitating Virginia Woolf again, but found that I’d forgotten how. I’m not entirely sad about that.
What led you to cross over from journalism to fictional writing?
In 2014, I travelled to the Iceland Writers Retreat, and sat in classes listening to authors such as Susan Orlean and Geraldine Brooks talk about the writing life, and met many participants from all over the world, at different stages in their artistic lives. When I came back, I realised that writing my own crazy, made-up stuff was what I really wanted to do. It was sort of a now-or-never moment: I was 37, my two children were no longer babies, the spouse was very supportive, and I felt like I’d put my dreams on hold long enough. So – after a few months of trying to write after work, typing softly in dark rooms while putting my kids to bed – I decided to quit my part-time gig as a copyeditor and just focus on writing fiction full-time. Losing a stable income was terrifying. Getting up every morning and sitting in front of a blank word document in my pajamas, with no brief or deadline to meet, was also terrifying. I had to train myself to be patient and wait for things to slowly develop – both creatively, and in the publishing industry – as opposed to the fast pace of the newsroom. But, because I made that switch, I’ve learnt so many new things and met so many more wonderful people.
What was it like to be a writer-in-residence with South Korea’s Toji Cultural Centre?
It was paradise. At Toji – which means “land” in Korean – writers are provided with communal meals, and building maintenance is taken care of by the super and lovely staff, so all I had to do was write and think. No school runs, ironing, car servicing, or the million mundane things that I have to deal with when I’m at home, being mum to two boys. When I got stuck, I went for long walks and climbed mountains with the Korean writers in residence. My productivity went way up: I completed new drafts every two or three days. One week, when the other residents went away to celebrate some public holiday or other, I stayed in my room five days in a row and wrote a 16,000-word novella. I haven’t been able to get back to that level of efficiency since I came back.
What led you and your team to come up with the online literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com?
My primary schoolmates, Christine Lee and Yen Yen Wu, were having dinner at my house, and I got this idea that running an art and literary website would be a fun thing to do, with very little monetary outlay. The cost was that of time and energy, and at that time – in 2015 – I had plenty of both, while plugging on to establish a foothold in fiction. It must have been the wine they’d already drunk, because my friends agreed to do this with me. We roped in a fourth, Eva Aldea, who lives in London but was based in Singapore for a while, to co-edit the venture. We’d meet and argue about the submissions for hours, while depleting Christine’s cache of champagne, and then I’d take what we accepted and put them up on our website. Couple of years on, we’re putting together our sixth issue. The idea is to give a platform to new art and writing that we like. Our contributors are awesome people.
How did it feel coming back to NUS again after your graduating years? Any thoughts on the architectural changes you see on campus?
I did my Masters in Literary Studies at NUS part-time, from 2010 to 2013, and it just felt so familiar coming back to campus. The canteen may have been renovated, but the topography is still the same. Certainly, AS5 is very much the same. I love walking down the corridors and looking at all the pictures and notices pinned on the tutors’ office doors. It’s always comforting to come back, because university was the last place where I felt I knew what I was doing.
What was your favourite spot in NUS (to study in or relax)?
I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Central Library, hogging RBR books and copying out passages from tomes. I was a kiasu nerd. I even had a supermarket trolley that I used to cart home the books I checked out (graduate student loan privileges rock!). I’ve considered taking out a personal external membership to the library, because I love it so much.
Thank you Clara for taking the time to come down and speak to us!
Clara’s book Dream Storeys is available in local bookstores and online!
Alumnus Prasatt Arumugam (Class of 2016) is one of 4,862 people in the world and the first Singaporean to complete the 4,280km-long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT is one of the world’s longest and toughest hiking trails spanning from Canada to Mexico. Prasatt boldly embarked on a self-funded solo trek as part of TrekInvicta, a social initiative he founded to support the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF). He did it in five months since July last year and has raised over S$40,000 for CCF with contributions from the National University of Singapore Society and the National Youth Council.
His desire to help raise awareness for children with childhood cancer started when he lost his close aunt to cancer, which left his family devastated. Since 2015, Prasatt has been an active volunteer at CCF helping to keep the children’s minds off the uncomfortable and painful procedures that they have to undergo. To Prasatt, this cause is like a symbolic representation of the journey that the children have to take on their road to recovery – a long and arduous one that is full of struggles.
He aims to raise a total of S$50,000 for CCF through his campaign by the end of this month (January) and is hopeful of more donations to help the CCF patients. To learn more about Prasatt’s inspiring campaign or to donate, visit TrekInvicta’s website.
Congrats Prasatt! We salute your perseverance and tenacity going through the journey.