Tag Archives: singapore

Book Review: Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment by Vera Hildebrand

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The historical Rani of Jhansi, 19th century Maratha queen and Indian nationalist, is frequently portrayed on a rearing horse, brandishing a sword with an infant tied to her back. That last detail is pure fiction: the child in question, ostensibly her son, was 10 years old at the time of the battle memorialised, and no evidence exists of his having accompanied her in combat. The maharani’s role of mother – a pleasing one within the patriarchal realm – is merely reinforced by the symbol. Nearly a century later, it was her spirit (or at least, symbol) that Subhas Chandra Bose called upon to form the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the Indian National Army’s all-woman unit.

Largely considered a footnote of sorts in the anti-colonial struggle, the RJR was primarily given interest due to its charismatic Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan, who later became the illustrious Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal. Vera Hildebrand’s Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment does not simply stop at the cursory, but separates fact from myth, and fills in gaps in public knowledge. Swaminathan’s own memoirs were largely embellished with vivid scenes of combat – which the Regiment never actually participated in firsthand. The RJR propaganda project, and Bose’s order to destroy INA records, also created misperceptions. The book presents a compelling case that what actually happened is more interesting by far.

Bose organised the RJR in 1943 in what is now Singapore, and the total number of recruits is an estimated 450. These recruits were often teenage girls – even as young as 12 – although rules stipulated that they had to be over 18 years old. Dr Swaminathan and other Indian women like the teacher Protima Sen in Burma were tasked with convincing parents to sign the permission slip (curiously, married women were required to obtain this from their husbands, a point that undermines the stated premise of gender equality).

Hildebrand sets the context of the Indian independence struggle and charts Bose’s personal and political growth extensively. Numerous gender-related issues abound in the formation, and indeed legacy, of the RJR. Bose initially shared Gandhi’s prudish views on sexuality, and was even disappointed that his own firstborn was a girl, but later grew to become an advocate of birth control and women’s rights. Gandhi used women in sexist ways in the freedom struggle, and it is clear from this book that some of Bose’s initial motivations were also objectifying in nature. He eventually developed the view that complete gender equality also meant military action. That the RJR did not engage in combat disappointed all concerned. Hildebrand’s neutral, thorough research allows for a wide range of questions to emerge. For instance: did Bose select impoverished illiterate women for the task as their bodies, and lives, were considered more expendable? The historian H.N. Pandit suggests that the entire enterprise was to shock, and thereby destabilize, the British army with the sight of slain women on the frontlines.

The little known, and thoroughly fascinating, truth about the RJR is that most of its members had never been to India. 60% of them were young Tamil women from the Malayan plantations. 20% were Sikh (Hildebrand was unable to find any surviving Ranis from this category). Joining them were college-educated, Burma-raised women and others from various parts of the motherland. Hildebrand’s extraordinary research culminated in interviews with all the living Ranis that she could track down, the majority of whom are elderly Malaysian ladies. A centrefold of photographs attests to Hildebrand’s description of them as “sweet old women” – but more importantly, sweet old women who still remembered their bayonet exercises, which they gladly demonstrated to her, even when unable to rise out of their seats. “With a grimace and a grunt these octogenarians thrust the rifle hard forward, and made a swift upward movement with the fancied bayonet. The training mantra still etched in their brains, ‘[Maaro, kheencho, dekho] – kill, pull out, look.’ Then they usually smiled and said, ‘That’s how you kill the enemy.’”

For two years, the Ranis trained as soldiers, although it emerges that they were ill-prepared for the jungle. While they did not go to war, their time in Rangoon in particular contained many grueling demands, including long-distance night marches and jungle treks. The RJR was formally disbanded in 15 August 1945, just three days before Bose’s sudden death in a plane crash, although groups had been sent home at various points for some months. Hildebrand writes that most of the Ranis “found no audience” for their stories, instead quietly assimilating back into ordinary life, and sometimes concealing their military participation in order to do so.

This participation, lionised as being for race and motherland, was in fact more likely to have been about poverty or about escaping oppression. At 14 years old, Rani Muniammah, the daughter of a rubber tapper, was encouraged to join the RJR so as to have regular meals. Decades later, in a living room with a dominating portrait of Bose, she repeats army slogans to Hildebrand but admits it wasn’t until she enlisted that she had considered the Indian identity. Rani Janaki Bai, too, was encouraged by her father to enlist in order to avoid an arranged marriage. Hildebrand further contextualises the background from which most of the Ranis came: “Many of the women who joined the Regiment from the large rubber estates in Malaya lived and worked under conditions that approached slavery. Sexual abuse by the mainly white estate managers was a common occurrence. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment offered an environment where for the first time the young women found themselves respected and freed of the social stigma of ‘coolie’ status.” After their stint in the RJR, Ranis Rasammah Navarednam Bhupalan and Janaki Thevar Athinahappan turned their attention toward Malaysian independence (won in 1957) and various social justice causes thereafter. However, the book glosses over the problems of race in Malaysia.

The RJR belongs not only to Indian history, but to South East Asian history as well; Hildebrand notes the absence of material on them in Malaysian archives. They were willing to fight, and even to kill or to die, for India’s independence, but as Rani Janaki Bai tells her, “In India we would be foreigners.” The story of the RJR is shot through with far deeper colonial implications: born and raised in South East Asia, but belonging to disenfranchised communities in a region with sociopolitical problems that did not allow them to forget their roots, and with no sentimental attachments to India other than those roused by Bose, these women complicate facile narratives of patriotism.

This book is very much a historian’s tract, not a biographer’s. While the Ranis’ intricate personal stories are not explored in depth, Hildebrand clearly classifies apocrypha as such but uses it in an enlivening fashion. For instance, there is mention of a secret service within the Regiment, which involved a blood oath. Thirty or so Ranis were said to have cut their own fingers to paint a tilak on Bose’s forehead before signing a pledge; Bose was said to have wept with joy at this sacrament. Rani Mommata Gupta, meanwhile, insisted to Hildebrand that a hole had been drilled in one of her teeth, in which she was meant to smuggle microfilm to India.

This much is poignantly, powerfully made clear: what these unlikely soldiers experienced was not only an unusual adventure, but in a strange way a reprieve. As Hildebrand notes, many Ranis described those two years as the best ones of their lives. Their lives before they enlisted were chiefly as daughters; after, they continued in ways that largely recognised them only as wives, mothers, widows and grandmothers. Women At War is a fascinating testament to some women that history almost forgot, who like the apocryphal baby on the back of the original Rani herself have never been seen as anything other than figurative.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

The Venus Flytrap: A Scarless Journey To A Stolen Beach

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In retrospect, it’s difficult to tell you exactly what I had hoped for. I had made precise calculations: I trusted that Singaporean efficiency would get me out of the airport in thirty minutes, and that proximity and familiarity would take me to the place itself within that hour. My transit was for five hours, my baggage already checked-in. I had my visa, acquired specifically for one purpose. Not a feast or a tryst, but a visit to a small beach by a mangrove that I had been going to, sometimes in secret, since I was 19. The first time I had gone to Pasir Ris, and every time that followed, I had called that purpose a pilgrimage.

I’ll admit this: I knew it would be different this time.

I walked through a new mall and arrived somewhere almost recognisable. Where there had been chalets was an expanding resort, construction in progress. The park was tidy. Something was missing. I gazed at trees I had known as a younger self and wondered what they had witnessed since.

The lapping water, too, was further inland than I remembered. It is said that the ‘ris’ the beach is named for is ‘keris’ – a weapon native to the Malayan region, with a thin, undulating blade. But even that slim strip of shoreline had diminished. It was a hot day; the sun would not set for almost three more hours. These could not be just tidal vagaries.

Six years since my last visit, a long time only if the interim years had not been what they were. I’d known about the resort development, and had steeled myself for disappointment. But it was not quite that: my experience this time in Pasir Ris was of having outlived something. There was old magic in that mangrove beach, this I can promise you. It was gone, and not for any reason as self-evident as urban progress.

I went back, but it was already gone.

I had stolen the beach from someone, a long time ago. I had made it mine by way of pining and prose. By right I should have lost it, for what I had done. But of all the places that are no longer within my reach, this is the one that most feels like I had let it go.

There’s a feralness in me that makes me crave saltwater, cherish tree roots and place my cheek against the earth to weep or to listen. I know that, though quietly, that is still alive. It should have torn me to see my stolen beach stolen from me. Instead I sought it, touched base, and simply walked away.

Everything that is valuable to me about Pasir Ris is safely stored in the pages of a novel I started writing after that first journey and still haven’t finished. I have loved other places since, lost them, had other preciousness stolen from me, made other reparations.

How strangely scarless it is: to lose but still belong to the things I took and didn’t keep – in fragments of a story, memories of a wilder self, pages and pages of an incomplete pilgrimage.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 18th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Places Called Home

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Long after most of the shops had closed in the small city of Darwin, we were having a late dinner of streetside gyros, when the interlude of an inebriated and entertaining stranger to whom we’d lied, saying we were all locals (until my clumsy handling of the gyros gave me away), veered the conversation toward homes and homelands. A mixed group of two Australians, two Malaysians and yours truly – new friends and old – in the city for a literary festival, all of us had travelled widely and were involved with culture, lawmaking or indigenous interests. I expressed the opinion that I find ethnonationalistic separatism deplorable, because it reinforces divisions instead of harmonizing them, and because identity relies on emotional geography, which political cartography can only brutalize. The other Ceylonese person at the table disagreed, citing the example of India’s state divisions upon independence, and the recently-sovereign Timor Leste. Just then, surreally, the Sri Lankan anthem began to play. Here on a hot night in northern Australia, a cricket match on TV, and there it was, emotional geography in a nutshell: memory, coincidence, the things that bind.

The following week, I was in Singapore, the city I most feel at home in, although I have never technically been a resident. It was the first time in two and a half years that I was there for longer than a day’s transit, yet I fell back into its pace and energy instantly. All of my old haunts: the bolt-rope beach which is the key setting of my novel forever-in-progress, the red light district where I would stay overnight in those poorer, madder days in which I lived in Kuala Lumpur on a visa that required me to exit that country every month, the mall in a far suburb where I’d visit a now-estranged uncle, where I’d ironically enough been invited to read. When people stopped me to ask for directions, I could give it to them. I can do without maps, I have had as many homes as a hermit crab, but emotional geography is something I cannot do without.

I felt like myself again: an antevasin, one who lives on the border, in sight of more than one world, belonging to either and neither. In Darwin I had chatted with East Timorese and Indonesians in Bahasa, in which I am fluent; in Singapore I felt at once shy and amused that two baristas were discussing how pretty I was in that same language, thinking I couldn’t understand them. I was ripe with a sense of belonging, deeply connected to every moment and at ease in it, comfortable in both my otherness and my familiarity.

How long does one have to know a place before an emotional geography is charted? In Chennai, which has been my base for almost three years, I have none. I know this because in the many contortions I have attempted in order to peg my angularities into this determinedly round hole (what kind I’ll leave you to guess), I have tried very hard to create it. But emotional geography is not something that can be willed, no matter how varied the experiences one engages in. Here’s a more relevant question, maybe: how long can one remain in a place without an emotional geography to it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Readings in Singapore

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Because I’m just a genius that way, I went and practically double-booked myself for two readings on Friday May 21, genuinely thinking (until I pulled the two confirming emails up side by side) that one was on Friday and the other on Saturday. Some apologetic phone calls later, I managed to buy myself a half hour to dash to the other end of town, or rather, country. This should be interesting!

I had a wonderful time in Darwin at the Wordstorm Festival of Australasian Writing, and am taking a few days’ transit in my favourite city – Singapore. So, for the first time since December 2007, when I was here for the Singapore Writers’ Festival, I’ve got a couple of events scheduled for May 21:

4pm (sharp!) – A reading at FOST Gallery, 65 Kim Yam Road. RSVP Clarissa Cortes at clarissa@fostgallery.com or on 6836 2661.
5.30pm – A reading and discussion with Heartlands Book Club at Bukit Batok Public Library, West Mall. RSVP Kweh Soon Huat at soon_huat_KWEH@nlb.gov.sg.

Please note that RSVPs are required for both events. I will have copies of Witchcraft and lipstick, and at least for the Library event, an even breathier voice than usual thanks to all that running between venues!

The Venus Flytrap: Earthbound

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This is how it happens. I’m on transit in Singapore for a day. It’s too early in the morning for the part of Chinatown I’m in, but by luck, Kenny Leck appears just as I arrive at his bookshop, which supports my work. We talk business while the resident kitten pounces on me and gnaws at my handbag, and then I ask Kenny what I can do in the area. I have two hours to spare. That’s when he tells me about the firewalking.

The Ubud Writers’ Festival 2008 is over, and I am returning from a blissful week in Bali. Still, it hadn’t happened yet. I had sat beside a delightful and drunk Vikram Seth at dinner, made friends with the charmingly debonair Alberto Ruy Sánchez (who never failed to greet me with two firm kisses at every opportunity), and traded glamorous gossip with one of Asia’s foremost arts journalists in an airport lounge. I had left my lipstick prints and autographs on dozens of books and brochures, was confronted by the happy emergency of the festival’s bookshop selling out my book even before my first panel appearance, and had a session discussing sexuality in India land me an improbable but sincere invitation to perform at a Tam-brahm wedding. Readings, panels, a shoot for a documentary, a handful of print and radio interviews, and the more fulfilling private conversations with individual fans. All that. But not that.

It just hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by the egomaniacal euphoria that is supposed to overcome an author upon the publication of her first book. My ambivalence was disappointing.

I seek out the temple Kenny has pointed me toward. It’s unabashedly touristy, with a mini-arena set up around the pit and coupons on sale for photographers. I am waved through in spite of my conspicuous DSLR. The actual firewalking has just ended, and a priest turns a hose on full force across the coals, rousing billows of steam.

Sometime during the processions – figures of Draupadi, Arjuna and Aravan’s head among them – it starts to rain, and I discover that I am tearing up. Something I have been holding within me for weeks is coming loose. I’m sure nobody cares – in a corner, four people try to hold down the wild, vibrating body of a woman in possession. There are chants and drumming. What happens in this temple, commercial as it is, is electrifying.

When I have had enough, I will lay my head on the ground outside the pit and weep into the earth. I have spent my week in paradise in muted fear: someone I love is seriously ill. Somewhere in the genes we share are the traditions of firewalking and Draupadi worship, traditions I have never witnessed till now. My book is beside me, and I know now it is mine. This is what I have been waiting for: a moment when there is no disconnect between the life I have known and the one I am consolidating. Affirmation that no matter how far I dare to test the tethers to my roots, all things move in circles.

Accomplishment doesn’t taste like the otherworldly thing I expected. Perhaps the most enduring success is not that which catapults a person into an unfamiliar stratosphere, but one that brings her back to herself, that gathers up all the rudiments of her life and binds them to her like a talisman for the length of the journey that is yet to come. I understand why I cried into the hot ground beside the coal pit: what was meant for me was not elevation, but that which, necessarily, must keep me earthbound.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival

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I’m leaving tonight for for a week in Bali (and yes, on work!), to attend the Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival 2008.

Other than general official engagements and anything that happens impromptu, my readings and panels, in case you’re there, are as follows:

Thursday 16 Oct: Performance Poetry Extravaganza, 19.30-21.30 at Warung Opera

Top performers and comedians from Australia, India and the Philippines present a riotous medley of rhythm, sound and song. Lexical dexterity will be at work in this high-energy, cross-cultural celebration of the literary spoken word. Tug Dumbly, Sharanya Manivannan, Edwina Blush. MC: Benito di Fonzo.

Saturday 18 Oct: Mindscapes, 15.45-17.00 at Indus

Novelist Charlotte Bacon tells us what happens “when geography rubs up against people’s emotional states.” Matthew Condon’s novel The Trout Opera was inspired by the stark beauty of Australia’s Snowy Mountains. Carrie Tiffany, an environmental journalist, explores agricultural issues and the lives of rural people in her fiction. Poet Sharanya Manivannan believes in the magical quality of water and coasts. These writers get together to consider the way exposure to different geographies shapes human experience and action. Moderator: Poonam Sagar.

Saturday 18 October: Wine Tasting, 18.30-20.30 at Casa Luna

According to Persian mythology it was a woman who first discovered wine. For that we are thankful! Join us as award-winning Indonesian wine writer Yohan Handoyo leads us through a menu of full-bodied wines matched with some of our most sparkling Festival writers and accompanied by tasty tapas in this celebration of wine, women and words. Featuring: Peter Zilahy, Tishani Doshi, Sharanya Manivannan, Dino Umahu. Cost: Rp. 650,000 | AUD $82.

Sunday 19 October: Poetry of the Body 15.30-17.00 at HSBC Lounge

Whereas poet and dancer Tishani Doshi sees the body as the place “where the spiritual and the sensual combine”, Sharanya Manivannan has a fascination with the ancient Tamil concept of a potentially malevolent force that exists in women’s bodies. These two Indian poets will discuss poetry, women, dance and the body along with readings of their work. This session will be followed by a 30-minute documentary film on Indian dance featuring Tishani Doshi and her teacher Chandralekha, legendary dancer from South India. Moderator: Debra Yatim.

I was really looking forward to another panel on sacred geography, but it was cancelled as the other writer is not able to participate in the festival this year.

On another note, Books Actually in Singapore will stock limited copies of Witchcraft from next week.

I’m told that the website from which you can order the book will probably go up while I’m away. More info will be available soon. Hold your horses please! Will let you know when I know. Ditto about launches, etc. And lastly, remember the Exec Assistant? Yeah, she’s out of the picture. Irresponsible would be an understatement. So for any enquiries relating to publicity, interviews and events, please contact either sharanya dot manivannan at gmail dot com or bullfighterbooks at gmail dot com.

Okay, I’m off to island-hop and shoe-shop… I mean, work. :) See you after the 20th.

The Venus Flytrap: Paradise In My Pocket

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When people talk about ecological damage, what bothers me most is not that future generations will gradually have less and less to subsist on – I believe too much in abstract ideas to fear that. This is selfish, but I am saddened by the knowledge that even within my own lifetime, sacred places are going to be lost.

When I speak of sacred places, I do not mean pilgrimage monuments. I speak of those things that have allowed my soul to touch centre by being in their presence. These things are paradise only to me. I believe the earth is sacred, and so are coasts and trees. I do not think this is important to anyone but me, just as I expect people to respect that I may not share their beliefs.

I recently resumed work on the novel I have left alone for almost a year, a novel that was begun at all because of one such place: Pasir Ris.

Pasir Ris is a beach in north-east Singapore. It’s a strange place, an aberration in a nation known for its perfectionism – unkempt, wild, lonely, and the water sometimes coagulates with oil. It is barely a beach, by any standards. When I tell Singaporeans that it’s my favourite place in their whole country, they are puzzled. Some of them have never even been there; why would they? There’s nothing there.

But I am writing an entire novel in which the characters, the plot, entire lives and events, are just a way to tell a story about this place that moves me so.

I became obsessed with Ris because of a poem someone else had written. It was years before I discovered that it had been fiction, and by then it was too late. I was miles deep in a story that was more real to me than the scars those lies caused me. By then, it had become my personal sanctuary.

There isn’t the space here to describe all the synchronicities I’ve seen relating to Ris, but one particular incident matters. I had gotten it into my head to have a photoshoot there, dragging a friend clear across a border and then across the island to do it. It transpired that this friend, a multi-award-winning prodigy, had written his first poem at the same beach. We used a clay vessel in the shoot. I left it there because I felt I needed to give something back.

I went back a month later. A single piece of that vessel remained, almost impossibly given all that would have happened in a month. I knew only blessings return that way.

The last few times I was there, I saw that the amusement park nearby was being expanded. I don’t know when I will next go, but I do know it will no longer be my Ris.

Here is the irony of all this: Pasir Ris, like many Singaporean coasts, is reclaimed land. “So much sand,” someone told me. “I don’t know how they found so much. One day it was just there.” Tampering with ecology produced one of my places of pilgrimage, and yet I worry about ecological damage.

I cannot explain this, except to say that the same person who told me about the reclaimed land also told me that because he had grown up by the sea, he did not realise it  had a smell until he was nearly an adult. We only know the worlds we inherit, the metaphors and realities we are lead to believe. We lose these worlds. And we do what we can to immortalize them, to keep paradise in our pockets. I write.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Constellation of Scars — The First Chapter Published In Ghoti

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The first chapter of my novel-in-progress, Constellation of Scars, is available in the summer 2008 issue of Ghoti Magazine.

I recently realised the glaring grammatical error in the first line which, because it still worked on an instinctual level, escaped me for years. All my life I will remember this…

The novel is far from over. I have worked on it in some form or the other for about seven years, but in the form it is in now for about three years. There’s much left to go.

Three Poets: Amirthanayagam, Nansi & Ng

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One of the privileges of being a poet is getting to know the poets whose work you love as people. These are connections formed on many layers: how you know them as poets, as friends, as lovers, as contemporaries, as critics, as travel companions and sometimes as foes.

Two of these three friends of mine who are poets (or maybe poets who are friends of mine) have new books out. The third has a not-so-new book going into its second printing shortly. I’m one of those people who just rave about the things they love (you may have noticed, if you’ve been following my blogavatars for some time). So here are some favours for them as a friend, and some word-of-mouth as a fan.

INDRAN AMIRTHANAYAGAM’s The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems

Indran is a mentor, in some ways. He’s writing the foreword for my forthcoming book, after all. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust my opinion of his work: you only have to ask him to know that I have disagreed with some of his word choices, syntax, punctuation, whole poems — just as he has with mine.

What most struck me about this book of poems, written in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami of 2004 and focusing on its impact on Sri Lanka, was the attention to detail. Not just circumstancial description, but mainly emotional mapping of a subtle yet distinct variety. A substantial number of the poems adopt a persona, an eyewitness view, and there are moments at which the poet convinces the reader totally of having had the experience. The poet himself was in the United States at the time of the disaster, but you would never be able to tell, were it not for this admission in his introduction to the book.

These are far-ranging poems of much thought and great insight. Granted, their topic is one of pathos by default, but the true success of this book lies in the fact that the maudlin is a sentiment that occurs rarely. Amirthanayagam’s style is spare, his lines pared down, their enjambments numerous (I have wondered about this before — perhaps it is the poet as performer who dictates this style). My favourite lines from the collection are those that form this striking image, from the poem “Bosched”: “the city, machan,/like a virgin delivered/to her husband/on the wedding day.”

The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems was published by Hanging Loose Press, New York in January 2008. You can buy it online from Amazon, among other places, as well as from the publisher itself.

PoojaThe Splintered Face

I scoured the newspapers
and Web this morning
but did not find the 76th day
anniversary of the tsunami
cited. Difficult to keep
daily pooja, cut
jasmine flowers
and break coconuts
at the temple doors.

In these mountains,
coconuts are a specialty
item at the HEB, and
Catholic churches
do not encourage
heaping servings
of rice, plantains
and yogurt at the feet
of their images.

If I could take India
into my hands like
a ball of rice and curry
and eat in front
of everybody, pierce
the billion names
of god into one god
ring rattling
from my nose

that would make
my neighbors swoon
and me feel at home
in the silence of canyons,
church naves open
only on feast days,
Sundays, where the ablution
of holy water has been
removed for questions of hygiene.

POOJA NANSIStiletto Scars‘s Stiletto Scars

I first met Pooja at the KL Literary Festival in March 2007, where we “sparred” at a poetry slam. I was captured by her warmth and her gutsiness. We spent some time together when I was in Singapore last month, and I am hugely proud that she’s brought out this honest, sassy book. I’m not the first person to say it, but she’s a ray of sunshine amidst the generally excellent but rather sombre contemporary poetry of Singapore. Stilleto Scars was published by WordForward, Singapore in December 2007.

How To Be A Stiletto

Give the gift of power.

Not just by rising up to heights but by knowing
that pain can be overcome with
stubborn audacity.

Show that appearances are more important than reality.

That the blistered, chaffed parts of you
must at all times be covered in
sequins, so that even if you feel battered,
you look invincible in all your glory.

Reveal all that has been hidden deep inside.

Expose the seduction, spunk, spirit that’s been
quashed by the lazy wandering of easy flat planes.

Remind everyone that safe
is not wondrous.

Gratification is not the same as contentment

and that gracefulness has
nothing
to do with
ease.

Recognise that red is your best colour,
that you are a tool and a weapon all at once.

Harness your ability to keep someone
under your heel and grant freedom
from the same point
of your existence.

Walk low self esteem enlightened
into the night.
Make sure they wince
only once the music dies,
when they are saf
e
from the public eye.

Lead hearts on to dance floors.
Lift them into the promise
of the music to the understanding that

a life lived afraid
and in comfort,

is no life at all.

 

NG YI-SHENG’s Last Boy

Yi-Sheng and I met last month at the Singapore Writers’ FestLast Boyival. I was blown away by his performance poetry, and flattered that he remembered having seen a copy of my chapbook at Books Actually some months before. Yi-Sheng is really something to behold onstage. He brings across both quiet, emotive poems and loud, performative ones so convincingly — and is equally impressive on the page. I was so enamoured of the copy of Last Boy that he gave me that when we met for supper (crocodile meat in Geylang — and sad to say, it does taste just like chicken), I kept associating things he said with the poems in it. Only later did I think that in his place, I would have been weirded out. Most impressive about this book is Ng’s wide range of inspirations and images: from history to anatomy to mathematics and more, his poems are layered with knowledge — meaningfully. Last Boy was published by Firstfruits, Singapore in 2006, and will be reprinted soon. You can buy it online from the publisher.

Shirt
for QX

Sometimes the reason the girl will not speak
is that she is weaving shirts out of nettles
for eleven swan-brothers. This is why midnight
calls her to the churchyard, a sickle in her hand
as she sleeps in the bedchamber. People will call her
a witch, but really, she was stitching them long
before you found her, ragged-haired, swollen of hand
at the lake, waiting for rescue.

Sometimes the shirts are spun badly
and will not save her, even when flames lick her thighs.
Sometimes the brothers are not yet born
and the swans are inside her.
Sometimes she is a witch indeed,
and has had her eye on you since daybreak
and you need only lift the shutters
to break out in feathers, stiff as paper.