Thursday, 28 June 2012

Worlds 2012 Memoir, Fiction & Truth (6)

Alvin Pang

I have Alvin Pang's provocation in hard copy so will quote from it. Alvin is from Singapore. He started with a funeral and ended with ashes, in other words he was framed in mortality and our ways of dealing with it. This is how he began.

Just over a week before arriving here, my mother-in-law passed away. Traditional Chinese funerals in Singapore can be long-drawn affairs – we spend days camped out at the foot of the apartment block where she lived, wearing stark white and black, with token mourning patches on our sleeves – colour-coded to indicate our precise place in the family hierarchy. We stand, or sit, or kneel, or bow as the Taoist priest indicates, circling and circling the coffin as he chants on in a language and idiom incomprehensible to most Singaporeans today – since Chinese dialects were discouraged in the 1980s, we have largely lost touch with our family tongues and traditions. So the rites have become public ritual performances of mourning that leave little room for private grief. We fold paper currency meant to be burned as offerings, mix up protocols, confuse taboos, make do, wonder if calligraphed talismans we cannot read can still protect us.

He continued:

One of my very early poems describes my grandfather’s funeral, which I experienced as a child. In it, I described the same sense of dislocation, the ritual exposure of a deeply private affair, his remains stacked alongside row upon row of anonymous others in the columbarium, gazed upon by passing strangers who do not speak of him. It and other poems from that early period attracted immediate recrimination from my family -- the cultural taboo about voicing the private in public is still strong. (To this day, I don’t show any of my writing to my family: they’ve become the external manifestation of my inner critic. Truth may cry out to be heard, and readers may want the dirt, but readers don’t have to live with my relatives afterwards).

This then broadened out to the role of the state:

This question of responsibility about what is to be said and not to be said, also has a political dimension. A writer from and in Southeast Asia carries a complex filial burden: on the one hand there’s the rich imaginative possibilities available to our diverse peoples, but on the other, the pressure of having to build up a new shared sense of the canonical, of shoring up a viable dogma adequate to a post-independence, modern idea of nationhood. In Singapore, a generation of our poets have famously been admonished for “retreating” into personal lyric and abandoning the unfinished project of nation-building through public, monumentalising verse... At the same time, literature itself as a cultural tradition has been pared and pared back: in schools, in the media, in public life – it has been regarded as at worse, subversive and at best, uneconomical; a weak bet: “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford” is the indicative quote by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose memoir is tellingly titled, THE Singapore Story.

Alvin then explored the way this attitude works through the practicalities of education and publishing. He discussed these under the three headings of Infrastructure, Independence and Intimacy.

In terms of Infrastructure he considered the market and the idea of public success; in terms of independence he described the lives and backgrounds of poets, who are mostly professional people (as he is) whose sales of a thousand or two combined with state neglect encourages them to play with language; and in terms of Intimacy he talked about the use of intimate language such as Singlish (a language he himself uses in some poems). Its use means poets can write about things that are insignificant in public terms, about their own families, for instance. It allows poets to play - it almost invites them to do so,

Intimacy may not survive contact, he writes. But writing can become a means of riding the gravity of our inward and outward fascination, encircling that core of our longing. And he talks of The Burning Room, a poem where a woman spontaneously combusts after her lover departs; when he returns she is already the ash he wonders at and brushes gently away from the hood of his car. Alvin ended wheere he began, with a funeral, the description of the cremation process, saying of the dead woman:

What the ovens cannot claim, claims us. We breathe her ash-dust into our lungs, carry her home.


Dust and ashes, dust and ashes, wrote Browning in A Toccata of Galuppi's). We are framed by them and by ritual, the rituals of mourning a life and of  running a state.

In so far as the funeral was concerned there was a form and the proprieties associated with the form. The form in Alvin's account was ancient and hierarchical: people had their functions and stations. Grief and fear, two of the key elements in death were shaped and allocated roles. Trespassing against the form was a form of sacrilege signifying a lack of respect. And this obtained across a whole range of familial relationships. The period of mourning extended beyond the primary ritual into bans against marriage in the mourning period. There were prescribed ways of behaving.

On the other hand there was the role of the state and the state education system in affirming a view of itself, presenting a face to the world. The state was concerned with the world of markets and public commercial success. The presentation of the national self was prescribed much like the ways of behaving at the funeral.

What then is the writer’s role: what kind of propriety or responsibility is incumbent on the writer, and to what degree should the writer offend against the first and reject the second? Is the writer fundamentally a solitary, the relationship between writer and reader as of one solitary to the other? If so we are not wholly part of the funeral, we resist absorption into the state. We stress the self and the truth of the self. And again if so, is that a peculiarly Western or a more universal 'we'?

A discussion of centres and peripheries was beginning to emerge. If the state, the ritual, the adult, is the centre, is the writer’s place at the edges of ritual, transgressing against its complex codes, at a point in  Gail's locatable, sticky-fingered numinous childhood, far from, but aware of, the centres of power.

Syon talked about the power of stories in his culture, Iceland, where literature is the only developed form.   There was some question as to how far we expect writers to speak for their cultures, their particular political situations.

But how fair is it to expect a Nigerian writer, like Chika Unigwe,  a Ugandan writer, like Goretti Kyomuhendo, or, say, an unnamed Somalian writer to write directly about being of that place? How far was location actually in the local and - I think back to Gail’s point here - how far is the notion of responsibility to a place or people an obligation if one is to be considered a serious writer? Is the imagination local or metaphorical? Is it a free agent or has it responsibilities? If you are not at a centre of cultural power - say at a major Western metropolis - are you obliged, if not by moral or aesthetic conviction, to engage with that power and do what it seems to demand?

The writer's public responsibility is not just an old chestnut - it is positively ancient. Socrates is said to corrupt Athenian youth. He has a responsibility not to, says the city. Do we speak out? Do we speak on behalf of? This was a theme picked up by Chika the next morning.

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