Discovering the Singapore Style

by Wong Zi Ling, Journal Watermark

The gradual growing emphasis placed around establishing a prominent and robust literary community in Singapore has seen the rise of many local literary events over the years, one of them being “All In! Young Writers Festival” which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. A strong advocate for youth involvement in the Singapore literary scene, it is thus apt that we attempt to shed more light on the subject matter. As our literary scene evolves, it becomes ever more important for us to ground ourselves to our roots by asking, what exactly is Singlit?

Guiding us along in this journey are veterans in this sector, having spent years studying and producing their very own style of local literature across different genres. From local children’s books to a collection of real life stories of colonial Singapore, Don Bosco, Josephine Chia and Rosemarie Somaiah have their fair share of insights to impart to the audience about just what it means to be an author who writes local literature.

The discussion covered a wide range of topics. The more notable points being the role that local literature plays in our lives today and how writers have developed it, the evolution of a uniquely Singaporean command of the English language and perhaps most important of all, finding a personal voice amidst the various other inputs we receive.

The panel started off by scoping the discussion for debate, providing their views on what Singaporean literature meant to the average citizen. The notion of literature being “highbrow” was brought up by Josephine Chia amidst a vivid recount of her experiences growing up in colonial Singapore as opposed to her later years spent in England. To Josephine, literature can be accessible and the key to change this mindset may lie in local literature. Writing literature -- local or not -- is about conveying important issues through stories.

As such, writings do not have to sound patronising by exclusively churn out facts and philosophical ideas, which is arguably what causes many people to consider it “highbrow” and inaccessible. Instead, this can be avoided by focussing on giving stories a solid and well thought out setting, it in turn allows readers a glimpse into an underlying theme that anchors the readers to the piece. When it comes to Singaporean literature, this is paramount to differentiating it from other forms of literature.

It lies in finding out what “Singapore” means to the writer. It may sound elusive, yet it goes a long way in defining Singlit. Only when “Singaporean literature” has been defined and takes on a personal meaning for the writer can it then be extrapolated to produce a piece of work that is localised. Defining an underlying strong theme allows one to find like-minded readers who better relate to the work, increasing accessibility to literature.

As the discussion shifts, we find ourselves focussing more on identifying specific traits, such as form or imagery, that sets Singaporean literature apart from others -- assuming there are any. For Dom, he believes that diction goes a long way when it comes to producing local literary works, especially for children. After committing himself to producing texts for young local children, he felt that a good way to encourage children to read was by tapping on what they already have, such as their existing vocabulary.

This led him to further explain how Singaporeans’ sentence structure varies greatly from the other english speaking countries when it comes to the way English is used in its colloquial form. As such, this practices may impact written works as well. This means that young children, who are much more familiar with colloquial language than the former one, may find it difficult to read what was written by people who are more familiar with their way of language usage.

This sensitivity allowed him to learn to ground his books in words that stemmed from an effort to be localised, not forcing young children to accustom themselves to an acquired taste which might be heavy and foreign.

Lastly, for all budding writers that might have the most pressing question at hand, how does one find the source of inspiration? Well, the discussion naturally led them to share their own sources of inspiration. While it is most definitely not an exhaustive list, their passion and vigour may move you to try them out yourself. For Rosemarie, being a foreigner in Singapore has caused her to question her identity for the longest time. However, it is due to the conflict within herself that allowed her to eventually find her source of inspiration; gratitude. Gratitude is her way of connecting with her audience and no one else could have said it any better than herself, that “you’re only as relevant as you’re serving your audience.”

If the discussion has proven anything, it is that Singaporean literature may stay as elusive as ever and it is an ever evolving entity that reshapes itself with every push and pull. However, what was made crystal clear throughout the session is the emphasis on the power that writers have when it comes to defining local literature. While our history and diverse culture has given  the local literary scene a broad definition, that does not mean we are at the end of our path. On the contrary, the path has widened as we trod on. As Josephine has aptly put, the best way to contribute to local literature is to “Find your own voice. Don’t try to imitate anyone… that is where the greatest writing comes from.”