Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Queer Singapore Lit!

Confession: I haven't started reading War and Peace. I've downloaded it onto my Kindle and dipped into the reader-friendly preface (carting this thousand-page tome around in hard copy did not seem to be a wise decision), but what's been occupying my intellectual space recently has been the literature of Singapore.

Specifically, the queer literature of Singapore. I've been invited to contribute an article for an academic journal on the subject. And even though there are multiple wikis about it, and numerous essays (including one I wrote as part of the introduction of GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose), I've found them to be woefully incomplete.

For instance, if you want to talk about the first queer Singaporean work, then you run into some murky ground. Most people say it was Chay Yew's short play, As If He Hears, in 1988.

But then what about the highly successful 1987 play Army Daze by Michael Chiang, which features a flamboyantly effeminate ensemble character, Kenny Pereira, with a heartstring-tugging monologue about how much his parents are forcing him to be a real man? What about Wei Tongque's Mandarin short story Mei Jiang/媚将, which won the Golden Point Short Story Competition in 1986? What about the codedly queer poem gaudy turnout by Arthur Yap, published in 1977? And what about James Eckhardt's Singapore Girl, a memoir of a young American's passionate love affair with a Singaporean transwoman, scribbled down in 1975 and left unpublished until 2007? And what about the weirdly homoerotic Michael and the Leaf of Time by Gregory Nalpon, which could've been written anytime between the 1950s and the author's death in 1978 - and which wasn't published until 2013?

Should we incorporate these works into any kind of queer Singaporean canon, given that they're either oblique or written by straight people?

Even after queer people started writing openly queer books, there's weird gaps in the academic record. These two books, for example were mainstream publishing successes:

But today they're not only out of print - you can't even find them in the National Library's reference section. I had to get a Temporary Readers' Permit for the National University of Singapore Central Library to hunt those two down.

(They're Joash Moo's Sisterhood: The Untold Story - a collection of short stories inspired by the lives of transwomen, published 1990; and Bonny Hicks's Discuss Disgust, a semi-autobiographical novel, published 1992. I'm not sure if the second book has queer content, but Hicks was quite open about her bisexuality in her 1990 memoir, Excuse Me, Are You a Model?)

And of course there's all the unpublished plays, and all the new books published in the last four years, and all the new live poets who're gracing the stage, being loudly and proudly lesbian (or bisexual, or pansexual, or queer), as so few Singaporean writers were before.

Basically, there's a lot of ground to cover. And I am fiendishly late with getting started on the actual writing.

Story of my life. Tolstoy will have to wait.

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