Zhang Ruihe and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow (editors), In Transit: An Anthology from Singapore on Airports and Air Travel, Math Paper Press, 2016. 324 pgs.
Let’s get straight to the point. It seems that in this book, Malays either don’t get to fly or don’t get to write about it. There are only a couple of Malay characters in the poems and short stories from this collection and zero Malay writers at all. At the book launch of Who Are You My Country? (Landmark Books, 2018) at The Arts House in March, a similar accusation was raised. Why is it so tenuous to include a Malay writer into Singaporean anthologies? When the country’s Anglophone Malay writers are winning awards and getting translated globally, such collective myopia veers closely towards literary racial genocide. The experiences and expression of the Malays in the new millennium are erased and become foreclosed to the literary consciousness; their bodies, voices and actions are not represented, much less imagined. Instead, their domesticity and poverty get concretised by the fact that they are starkly absent from this anthology of twenty-two poems and thirteen short stories.
Who then are the characters that people this state-sponsored publication supported by the National Arts Council? In the short stories, most of protagonists are the travellers themselves; otherwise they are the servants of these frequent flyers—cleaners, security officers, air crew and even a pilot. Readers learn about their aspirations and discontents, their encounters and memories. The notion of class differences inevitably rears its ugly head as these “unworldly” figures go about carrying out their menial labour with their simple thoughts. With a sense of indignation, I cannot help but feel that the writers have deliberately or unconsciously dumbed down the experiences and intellectual capabilities of these workers, essentialising their base social statuses. It cannot be coincidental that most of the thirteen prose artists sculpted their texts based on the conventional themes of disillusion and disappointment. For instance, Ng Yi-Sheng’s bisexual sex worker yearns for the impossible dream of returning home to Japan as the war looms overhead, and Daryl Yam’s divorcee escapes from the reality of familial cohesion only to discover the bolder decadence of a younger generation.
Apart from such dystopic directions, the settings of the short stories appear to be rather uneven. Certain writers are too ambitious and leave too many characters under-developed or criss-cross multiple story lines. Perhaps due to the syncopated divisions, many of the narratives also do not flow with effective logic. For example, it is unclear in Yeo Wei Wei’s European sojourn why an ordinary Czech watchman of a touristy clock tower would offer a Chinese air stewardess, of all people, informative conversation and free drinks; and there is no environmental or architectural transformation whatsoever when JY Yang in “Pocket Cities” excavates Singapore island and brings, along with its people and buildings, on her creative residency.
Including Kirat Kaur’s repatriation of a dead construction worker, the better works—both in terms of style and structure—which stand out and apart are those by Jon Gresham and Jeremy Tiang. Kaur, one of the few who writes from the exogenous perspective, navigates the fleeting memories and hopes of her protagonist in an adroit manner allowing readers to empathise with his tragic plight. Gresham and Tiang might have espoused the fairly formulaic thematic of unrequited love between airport staff members and their jobs, but their ability to weave unexpected twists into the plot shows their control of active and passive pacing.
Amongst the twenty-two poems, only a few gems impressed this reader. Other than Benzie Dio’s “Harrowing,” these were composed by the only three female poets in the collection. In Christine Chia’s “Plato’s Dream of Airports” and “Run,” we discover the bittersweet irony of a hollow aviation hub and the kiasu Singaporean, afraid of missing her flight. The stream of consciousness in Jasmine Ann Cooray’s “Laundry Line” displays an array of objects and their significances in twelve dynamic tercets, and Judith Huang’s “Moorsong” and “You, Riverine” stretch one’s imagination through her sexually charged personifications of bovids, snakes and rivers:
all that goes. Oh my serpent
writhe with me, in the depths
insidiously, then untapped
and untrapped, our sweet water
will be free.
The piece that resonates most with the poetic sensibilities of this reader is Benzie Dio’s “Harrowing.” It is constructed from a variation of twelve closed couplets with several homographs based on words associated with air travel: runway, gate, terminal, pitch, yaw and roll. There are temporal indicators guiding the readers through the chronology of the final descent, effectively unveiling the affective tenor of the poet-passenger. With the articulate alliterations in Yeow Kai Chai’s “From A to Z,” the reader can literally experience the cacophony of every phonetic landings, no less frenetic. A recited performance of this poem would be as palpitating as it would be spectacular.
The other poems in the collection regrettably pale in comparison, as they recall certain events at the airport or describe mundane flight activities. For example, Paul Tan’s “Final Call” fidgets about the no-show of a travel companion, while Jerrold Yam’s “Throne” tussles over who should be getting the window seat. Uncannily, there arises a striking tendency for Singaporean poets to borrow literary references from Western historical icons: Greek figures (Charon, Icarus, and Pandora in Tse Hao Guang and Plato in Christine Chia), American musicians (Jessie J in Yeoh Kai Chai, Miles Davis and Itzhak Perlman in Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé) and writers (Artaud and Ferlinghetti in Cyril Wong). For better or worse, this geo-cultural trend is indicative of the deep influences these texts have exerted upon Singaporean poets and poetry.
Taking the short stories and poems altogether, Singaporean and Singapore-based authors have a long road ahead in conquering both the local and global Anglophone literary terrains. Their integrated craftwork of linguistic dexterity and material contours has hitherto not managed to appease the most rigorous of readers and critics near and far. This anthology, if perceived as a survey of contemporary Singapore literature, instinctively showcases a very conservative, or even romanticised, style of storytelling. Judging by the quality of the contributions to this collection, the title of the book becomes no less a pun on the state of creative writing in Singapore: that is, still very much “in transit.”
NB: Some pieces within this collection, such as those by Boey Kim Cheng and Toh Hsien Min, were amassed from other sources and were not specifically commissioned for the anthology. As much as possible, I have reserved comment on these previously published works.
Pow Jun Kai, PhD, is a cultural historian and critic, specialising in music, politics and sexualities. His research interests include the global reception of music and Asian literary and media cultures, with a specific focus on the political representation of ethnicities and sexualities in the arts. He is published in ArtsEquator, Intersections and Transgender Studies Quarterly, and is the co-editor of Queer Singapore (2012) and Singapore Soundscape (2014). Visit his website for more information.