Discovering the Singaporean Identity in Contemporary Fiction

by Sean Wang, Victoria Junior College

Faced with discussing the daunting topic, Singaporean Identity in Contemporary Fiction, authors Balli Kaur Jaswal and JY Yang shared their thoughts about the Singaporean identity, Singaporean literature and how their works have been influenced by their experiences.

Balli Kaur Jaswal is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, and Sugarbread, a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize. She has been a writer-in-residence at the University of East Anglia and Nanyang Technological University. Her third novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Harper Collins/William Morrow) was released internationally in March 2017. 

Meanwhile, JY Yang is a queer, non-binary Singaporean author and editor of SFF. They are the author of the upcoming Tensorate series of novellas from Tor.Com Publishing (THE RED THREADS OF FORTUNE, THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN), and they have over two dozen works of short fiction published in places such as Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Lackington’s.

These well-established authors, both Singaporeans themselves, kicked off the discussion by sharing how Singaporean identity was explored in their fictional works. Mrs Jaswal’s work explores Singaporean identity “through the lens of communities we don’t normally see represented as part of the Singaporean identity”. Based on her experience trying to explain what Singaporean was to foreigners, Mrs Jaswal mused if the Singaporean identity had been defined too narrowly. She feels that Singaporean and Chinese are synonymous overseas.

Mindful that being Singaporean commonly means identifying with many aspects of Chinese culture, her Singaporean characters experience a “Singapore where sometimes their made to feel invisible…that feels quite foreign to them even though it’s their own country”. Echoing her character’s sentiments, she too felt similarly sometimes whilst she was growing up, even in the present; particularly due to her North Indian identity which was self-described as a “minority in a minority”. Summed up briefly, her work explores how the characters are invisible and how they fight to make themselves visible.

Adding on, Mx. Yang felt that they were the default Singaporean- Hokkien and Chinese. They expressed similar views to Mrs Jaswal, observing that things specific to the Singaporean Chinese experience were considered the universal Singaporean experience. Substantiating their point, they brought up our monetisation of nostalgia, noting how it riffed on things that are very Chinese and very Hokkien. In terms of writing Singaporean identity, as their main market is in the West, they are keenly aware that a large majority of their audience are not Singaporean. As how they present the Singaporean identity might be the first time their audience is introduced to anything Singaporean, they are vigilant to ensure that they do not automatically assume their experience is the default. They wisely point out that they have privilege that shields them from the fact that the Singaporean experience is not uniformly Chinese or Hokkien.

When questioned if Singaporean fiction has a distinctive mark, both speakers expressed similar uncertainty. Mrs Jaswal commended that we spend a lot of time questioning what is SingLit, what is Singaporean, although she coyly noted that “we don’t get too many answers”. While she described the process of going around in circles as frustrating, she expressed that it was a good thing, as it meant that we were still “finding our identity, being defined”, adding that we are “quite dynamic in a way”.  She recognised that Singapore is a very dynamic society, being a transient place for a lot of people.  

Elaborating on her point that change is a very significant part of the Singaporean experience, she shared that people who have lived here for many generations have seen Singapore changing very rapidly and the Singaporean identity will continue to change. Rejecting a permanent idea or singular definition of what constitutes the Singaporean identity, she compares many Singaporeans’ generalisation of our experience to stereotyping- that we do it to save time. On an inspirational note, she proudly proclaims that our literature reminds us that Singapore is a dynamic society that cannot be pinpointed and defies definition.

Do you have to write about Singapore for it to be Singaporean literature? If a foreigner writes about Singapore is that considered Singapore literature? These were some of the thought provoking questions posited by Mrs Jaswal.  

On the topic of SingLit, they shared their interaction, or rather their lack of interaction with SingLit. Mrs Jaswal acknowledged that growing up, Singapore felt like an offshoot of something else. All she had was looking outwards, usually to the West. The reading she did reflected that, as she shared that SingLit was not made available to them the same way it was made to us. She observed a hierarchy of what we were told to read.

Mx. Yang had similar thoughts, sharing that there was no malicious pushing away of SingLit, just no consideration was given to it, and the problem was compounded by it not being accessible. They recognised a heavy emphasis on the Western canon instead. Their personal anecdote captured their sentiments perfectly, as they shared that it was only in university that they saw and were surprised by SingLit being treated as worthy of critical analysis and dissection. On a more optimistic note, Mrs Jaswal quipped that currently, our diversified identity allows SingLit to defy definition and span many genres. She added that it was actually very freeing to be a Singaporean writer, as one had no responsibility to carry or push for a certain identity in their work.

Questioned about inspirations that their Singaporean experiences have provided them, Mrs Jaswal centred in on the quote, “it would have been really really difficult to grow up Indian in Singapore”. Elaborating on what it meant, she shared that it was there were so many layers of rules, with strict parents, kiasu culture, difficult schools and a small competitive country likened to a pressure cooker, humorously adding that there were “certain unwritten rules that you didn’t know (were) there until you broke them”. She acknowledged that these led her to question a lot of things, such as wider authority, Singaporean culture, kiasuness, and the idea that one has to strive and compete, that being Singaporean meant being a part of the rat race. Drawing on her experiences with the layers of authoritarianism in her life, she offered the reason that she wrote- “recreating the world in your favour”.

Mx. Yang added on that they benefitted from Chinese privilege while growing up. When they became a journalist, they were forced to look at the world in a different and eye-opening way. This led to them thinking a lot about the ways the world was broken. To them, fiction creates worlds where problems can be exaggerated so as to talk about them. It acts as tools to examine the way in which worlds are put together, and how inequality and power imbalances work. As they is a science fiction author, they described their work as marrying how humanity is doomed and a love of monsters and pew-pew.

Shifting the discussion to characters the writers would like to see more of in SingLit, Mx. Yang expressed an interest in more stories from the perspective of the socio-economically disadvantaged, but not told by people who do not come from that income bracket. Mrs Jaswal agreed, stating that it often results in stories seen from a lens of pity and distance.

Mx. Yang elaborated on concerns faced by some writers, saying that to the socio-economically disadvantaged, access to literature or doing writing as a job is a lot more insurmountable. This was expanded upon by Mrs Jaswal, who added that the idea that someone of lower income might do literature may seem indulgent to them. She opined that our responsibility is to help writers let their voices be heard. Commenting on current systems and structures, she suggested that publishing or mentorship programmes need not be limited only to gifted students, but rather be accessible to students across the board.  As she put forth wonderfully, “everyone has a story”. However, she observes that they need better accessibility to writing in order to voice their story.

Moving on to a question about a national narrative, Mrs Jaswal complained that we get told the national narrative “like all the time”. She proclaimed that it is the writer’s responsibility to challenge the narrative, and to rewrite or correct aspects of that narrative that may not be true. Mx. Yang made an insightful observation that the idea that we need more marginalised voices in literature is to work against national narrative. It is through encouraging more diversity that we work against a broad narrative that generalises everything

.In an interview with Mx. Yang, they further expanded on how their queer and non-binary identity had influenced their writing. Interestingly, they discovered their non-binary identity through writing one of their novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven. Offering words of advice for young writers, they said “just keep going with your writing, if you have a passion for writing, if you have stories you want to tell, just do it”. They reaffirm that writing “is not a waste a time”, adding that in the future, someone might be moved by your writing in a way that makes it “all worth it”. 

Overall, while the topic Singaporean Identity in Contemporary Fiction may not seem like much, what it has sparked it a discussion ranging from Singaporean identity itself to a unique look at how writers shape stories and how their stories shape them.  There are many points to learn from the insights shared by Mrs Jaswal and Mx. Yang, and I hope that it will help create a deeper understanding of the Singaporean Identity and its manifestations, as well as contribute and inspire a more vibrant SingLit scene.