Penman No. 225: Sayang in Singapore

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Penman for Monday, November 11

 

TO US Filipinos, sayang has one meaning and one meaning only: a regrettable loss, something that causes us to shake our heads or hold our palms to our hearts and say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” But elsewhere in the region, from some sultry corner of which the word worked its way up our archipelago, sayang means that and more: the love which may have been that which was lost, love as both a noun and a verb, or even an endearment, depending on the nuances of its intonation. So love and loss—the former all too often trailed by the latter—coexist in this wonderfully complex word, through which we Filipinos can at least claim some vestigial connection to the heart of Asia.

Sayang was very much on people’s lips in Singapore last week—you would have thought a lovefest was going on, and in a sense, it was. But the love was for books and literature, the occasion being the Singapore Writers Festival, which I was visiting for the third time after a hiatus of five years. Sayang had been chosen as the festival’s theme, and the word was festooned against a suitably floral backdrop all over the Arts House area where most of the festival events took place.

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Now on its 19th edition, the SWF began in 1986 as a biennial event, but it has since become a fixture on the regional cultural calendar (alongside the Singapore Arts Festival), cementing the city-state’s reputation—like its iconic Merlion—as the fountain of artistic endeavor in this part of the world. (I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t that be us, the Philippines, with our long tradition of cultural expression and our bountiful artistic talents?” But I’ll tell you what festival director Yeow Kai Chai—himself a poet and journalist—told me over lunch: “I can’t believe you Filipinos have yet to establish a Department of Culture!”)

It was clear, from the minute I stepped out into Changi’s arrival area, that the National Arts Council, under Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, had once again pulled all the stops to guarantee a pleasant and efficiently managed experience for all SWF attendees, expected to number about 20,000. I was here as a journalist on coverage for the Star (I had attended the SWF as a participant in 2008, and returned to cover it in 2011) and I knew what to expect, but like they say, you never cross the same river twice, and this year’s festival offered a steady stream of 300 events spread out over ten days from November 4 to 13. There were over 300 official participants registered, with a hundred of them coming from overseas.

That makes the SWF one of the world’s largest and longest festivals of its kind, if not probably the most multilingual one, with its support for literature not just in English but also in Bahasa, Chinese, and other Asian languages. According to Yeow, the goal was to be as inclusive as possible in the SWF’s programming, going so far as to offer facilities for the hearing-impaired.

The fullness of the festival programme required selectivity, so I cherry-picked my way through the three days of my stay there, paying special attention to literary developments in Singapore itself. I’ve often remarked—most recently at a reading in Diliman featuring authors brought over by Ethos Books, one of Singapore’s most energetic presses—that the Philippines and Singapore have enjoyed a longstanding “bromance” going down the generations: between F. Sionil Jose and Edwin Thumboo, for example, followed by Krip Yuson and Kirpal Singh, then Joel Toledo and Alvin Pang, to name a few. We’ve published books together; not too long ago, Isabel Mooney and Lily Rose Tope worked with their Singaporean academic counterparts to edit a landmark anthology of Southeast Asian writing in English. So I wanted to see where things were at.

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The first session I attended addressed the diasporic element in Singaporean literature—but unlike our exodus of workers and writers to the far reaches of the planet, this diaspora was inbound, and a voluntary one. Moderated by the Filipino expat poet Eric Tinsay Valles, the panel comprised the Eurasian short story writer Jon Gresham, who had come to Singapore via the UK and Australia; the Filipino fictionist and diplomat Cathy Torres, who had moved from her posting in Singapore to Germany; and the American creative nonfiction expert Robin Hemley, who’s married to a Filipina and who now teaches in Singapore.

They discussed how, in the words of Eric, the diaspora could be “a creative space” within which the experience of estrangement could create some positive value. Being away from one’s home, the three agreed, made new impressions and expressions possible. The writer’s struggle to adjust and adapt was in itself the story. Jon spoke about how “It isn’t so much about roots as routes—the journey, the getting there” for the diasporic writer. Adverting to the title story of her debut collection, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories, Cathy observed how “Diasporic stories are like butterflies. They may look alike but no two are truly the same. I try to catch them and send them out into the world.”

But the it was the keynote talk by Farish Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and historian who’s become something of an intellectual rock star in the region, that both charmed and alarmed the packed chamber where the Singaporean parliament used to meet. Dr. Noor introduced his talk thus:

“How a word can have multiple meanings at the same time, and have their meanings change over time, is an interesting mirror to the unfolding of history. This lecture looks at one word in particular, sayang, charting its path of adaptation from pre-colonial and colonial histories to the post-colonial present; and considering how the changes in its meanings and applications—from fables to novels to cinema and pop culture—tells us more about ourselves, like how our own sensibilities and worldviews have evolved, leading to the postmodern present which we inhabit today. The word remains the same, but do we sayang today as our ancestors did?”

Looking back on how concepts of love evolved over time in the region—including love across species in folklore, and love for the colonial master—Farish noted how “Words are what we have left of the past, and the past is far more complicated—more rich, more deep—than the present. Today, in the age of Facebook, ‘love’ has been reduced to clicking a ‘Like’ button.”

During his turn in the chamber, Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate Edwin Thumboo looked back on a lifetime of literature in his country thus: “Young poets no longer write about nation because the nation has been constructed for them. It’s no longer a problem….. It’s so easy now to get published but I don’t think there’s enough revision going on. People are anthologizing like mad. Be patient. Always think you can do better.”

The renowned American critic Marjorie Perloff spoke at the last event I attended, and she closed SWF 2016 for me with a rousing challenge: “Avant-garde poetry has crossed the boundaries between the verbal and the visual, but poetry hasn’t changed in 70 years the way painting and music have. We need another kind of revolution!”

Many thanks again to my hosts and to my SWF friends—it was all sayang and yet no sayang for me this past weekend. In a coming column, I’ll digest two interviews I conducted with Singaporean poet Aaron Lee and our very own Eric Tinsay Valles on what it’s like to be a poet in Singapore.

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