“On Literary Work, On Building a Community” by Eddie Tay

The “Writing Singapore” issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal will be available in October 2018. Eddie Tay, one of the two guest editors who read the submissions with us, has written the following editorial. Also read Joshua Ip’s editorial here.

As a Singaporean poet and academic based in Hong Kong, it gives me great pleasure to be the prose editor of this issue. Of course, as the reviews editor as well, I get to curate the reviews section, though it has to be said that most of the reviews in this issue were possible because of this issue’s poetry editor, Joshua Ip, who matched reviewers with the books. I am grateful to him for tapping his network.

I am beginning to realise that the term “literary work” does not just refer to words on a page alone, but also to the work of literature, and in particular, the work of building a literary community.

While writing is largely a solitary endeavour, a writing community cannot emerge without the work of institutions. I was at the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize ceremony, and I was most impressed by the efforts of Singapore Book Council, which has been running the Singapore Literature Prize since it was launched in 1991. I should say, rather immodestly, that I remember the 2012 Singapore Literature Prize ceremony with much fondness, because my collection The Mental Life of Cities was awarded the Prize in Poetry (English Category) that year.

I met Joshua Ip in person for the first time in November 2017, when he was in Hong Kong for the launch of Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as to give a talk the same evening at which I was one of the speakers, under the aegis of the Cha Reading Series. Joshua of course is the person behind Sing Lit Station, a non-profit group which conducts workshops, holds readings and organises various other literary events.

Writers are by nature comfortable with being alone, simply because of the nature of their craft. Yet, and I say this as an introvert who has learnt to enjoy public and social literary events: the work of building a community is important. I can see this is where the work of institutions like the Singapore Book Council, the National Arts Council, the National Library Board, the Arts House and Sing Lit Station is critical to building in Singapore an infrastructure within which a literary community could flourish. And, of course, publishers like Ethos Books, Landmark Books and Epigram Books (and not forgetting the independent bookstore BooksActually and its imprint Math Paper Press) are the writers’ champions.

It has to be said, though, that there is a long-standing and complicated tension between institutions and creative writers. The National Arts Council’s funding for Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was withdrawn, and the graphic novel subsequently won the English fiction award for the Singapore Literature Prize 2016. Likewise, the National Arts Council withdrew a grant that was awarded to fund the writing of Jeremy Tiang’s novel State of Emergency, which likewise won the English fiction award for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018. (I am trying very hard not to spot a trend here.)

The politics of funding and prize giving aside, it’s important to remember that writers need not and should not always be comfortable at the centre, for ultimately, newness has to come from elsewhere. There is a delicate balance to be sought in the dialogue between power and creative forces, between the institutional powers-that-be that speaks for socio-political norms and the writers who are questioning those norms.

That said, I’d like to think that Cha, with its quarterly issues featuring both established and new writers and with the launch of its Cha Reading Series and Cha Writing Workshop Series which bring together writers and readers, is doing its part in building a literary community in Hong Kong.

I am pleased to see that this issue offers a mix between the established and the new, and in terms of formal experiments, between the straight-up robust narrative and the edgy. All the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize 2018 winners in the English section are represented here in one form or another. All of the pieces featured in this issue are wonderful reads. I’ll avoid playing favourites and let the readers explore this issue on their own.

Eddie Tay / Reviews Editor and Guest Editor
“Writing Singapore” (October 2018)

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