The Role of Artists in Society, Quote by John Dewey

The freeing of the artist in literary presentation, in other words, is as much a precondition of the desirable creation of adequate opinion on public matters as is the freeing of social inquiry. Men’s conscious life of opinion and judgment often proceeds on a superficial and trivial plane. But their lives reach a deeper level. The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness. Common things, a flower, a gleam of moonlight, the song of a bird, not things rare and remote, are means with which the deeper levels of life are touched so that they spring up as desire and thought. This process is art.

[…]

Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.

John Dewey, Search for the Great Community (1927)

[Anthology Review] This Is My Family: New Singapore Plays Volume 2

family-cover

This Is My Family: New Singapore Plays Volume 2

Lucas Ho (Ed.)

Checkpoint Theatre (2014)/ 283 pp./ SGD 24.90 + shipping costs

For more information, visit Checkpoint Theatre

Part I

[Transcript]

The Untitled Funeral Play by Luke Vijay Somasundram

This is a comedy of errors surrounding a family that consists of an Indian husband and a Chinese wife. Hilarity ensues when the undertaker is late and the husband’s uncle and the wife’s mother arrive unannounced to help with the funeral arrangement.

This play criticises bureaucracy and how inflexible it is. While one may see the influence drawn from Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, Somasundram certainly has his own voice that makes this play absolutely hilarious. I was literally laughing out loud, as I was reading his play in my room, to the point of squawking. Yes, squawking.

Aside from criticising bureaucracy, this play stands out by exploring a diverse range of issues such as interracial marriage, negotiation between the races, and what death means to the living. These themes are well placed in the play and it doesn’t feel like that playwright is anxious to discuss everything that interests him at one go.

Finally, as a testament to the skill of his writing, the play does not merely start from being somewhat funny before escalating the humour. Instead, it actually starts on a slightly tense and poignant note before transiting to the funny bits. The transition is not rushed and it feels like a natural progression.

This play is certainly refreshing as most plays that comment on social issues are often serious and morose. One hopes that the playwright continues honing his craft and puts his stamp of comedy on the Singapore stage.

 

For Better Or For Worse by Faith Ng

For Better Or For Worse by Faith Ng was nominated for best script at the Life! Theatre Awards and it’s not difficult to see why. This play depicts the long marriage between Gerald and Swen; warts and all. It is structured with alternating scenes between the couple as they are now and when they were young. Ng’s ability to portray the differences between a young, hopeful love as compared to one with years of emotional baggage shows Ng to be a sensitive and perceptive writer.

The choice to play with absences by making all the other characters invisible allows us to hone in on the marriage of Gerald and Swen. If you remove everyone and everything that one must deal with when one is married, what does marriage; this relationship between two people mean?

Perhaps the greatest merit of the play is that it does not offer any easy resolution. Yet, the readers are taken on a journey as we experience all the joys, pains, laughter, and sorrows that comes with life. We are made to dwell in a shared humanity.

The only bone to pick with this play is that the level of colloquialism in the dialogue seems to be overdone. Given that Gerald has a diploma and Swen studied at a very good school, they are generally better than average in terms of education for their generation. That said, I am open to the fact that it might not sound so jarring when spoken considering that the theatre reviews did not raise this issue.

 

Maggie And Milly And Molly And May by Leonard Augustine Choo

Three gay men in their 30s and one gay teenager, for their own individual reasons, decide to throw themselves off a cliff. Interestingly, all of them chose the same cliff as they each arrive at different times only to find that someone is already there. They bicker, taunt, challenge, and justify why they should commit suicide. In this morbid situation, they form an unlikely bond.

What makes this play a good read is the subtlety in exploring issues about homosexuality. Gay stereotypes and tropes are weapons used by the characters to annoy and confront each other which make for great comedy. Yet underneath the comic exterior, the conflicts among the characters disclose personal difficulties they face as gay men in society.

The choice for the slow reveal captured my attention as I was eager to find out what drove them to suicide. Choo certainly struck a right balance between entertainment and mystery which makes for an intriguing and thought-provoking piece.

While the gay men are not related by blood, the bond that they form is just like one regardless of whether they would like to admit it or not.

Part 2

[Transcript]

#UnicornMoment by Oon Shu An

I had immense pleasure reading #UnicornMoment by Oon Shu An because it brought back happy memories of watching the stage production earlier this year. It reminded me why I liked the play so much. To top it off, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my review of the production was quoted to promote the play! For those who are interested to read the whole review, I’ve placed the link in the description below.

#UnicornMoment is sort of a partial auto-biography of Oon, except that it is much more daunting for her. Rather than just recollecting various episodes of her life, she went back and asked the questions she has always carried with her. Based on a series of interviews with family, friends, and teachers, what emerged is an honest and witty script that captures the various facets of life. It is impossible not to identify with at least one of the scenes.

It is rare for one to say this but I am impressed by the stage directions of the last movement sequence. When I was watching the show a few months ago, I was wondering what would the stage directions say and guessed it would just say “final movement sequence.” But what was written in the script did capture the essence of what I saw.

I don’t see this play being restaged at all because it is inextricably tied to a point in Oon’s life. But it is worth publishing based on the writing and how it captures a deeply personal experience. After revisiting this play, the title of my theatre review still rings true: #UnicornMoment #Heartfelt #Compelling.

 

Family Outing by Joel Tan

Before reading this play, I thought Family Outing would probably be about everyone being too busy with life and they finally realise the importance of spending time with each other. After reading it, I can’t get over how clever the title actually is as you’ll soon find out.

Due to an absurd accident, Joseph is electrocuted while trying to fix the TV. One year later, Joseph’s boyfriend, Daniel—in accordance with Joseph’s wishes—appears at Joseph’s family dinner commemoration to tell them that their son is gay. This does not bode well for them, especially Joseph’s mother who is a staunch Christian. Family Outing thus explores what happens when a son posthumously comes out to his family. Get the cleverness of the title now?

One thing that stood out to me is how Joel Tan deals with memory by weaving the past and present into the same scene. While this is nothing new, I like how he uses the same device to show the family reminiscing or re-constructing the past. The revelation of Joseph’s sexuality then forces the family to deal with how to carry on their lives while holding the memory of Joseph dear to their hearts.

While it is possible to criticise the ending for being too easy and too neat, I think it captures the wonderful thing about familial bonds. It is this indescribable instinct we have of our family members, and they of us; a sort of inherent knowing. We love and hate this instinct at the same time, that’s what makes being part of a family so intriguing.

While the play explores the conflict between religion and sexuality among other issues, Family Outing is more about love than anything else.

 

Recalling Mother by Claire Wong & Noorlinah Mohamed

As the title suggests, Recalling Mother is a play in which Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed play as themselves and they recall what their mothers are like at various stages of their lives.

Parallels and contrasts are at the heart of this play. We are made aware of the different backgrounds and cultures of both women, yet certain struggles or concerns are very similar in any parent-child relationship.

One element that fleshes out these parallels and contrasts is language. From the get-go Cantonese and Malay are used whenever they converse with their mothers. In certain situations, the mother tongue represents a generational and language gap. In others, it is comforting as it allows both ladies to access their childhood memories. It is, at the same time, a tool of isolation and reconciliation.

This review would be incomplete without discussing the words in the script itself. The simple conversational style makes it very accessible. In fact, the shortest sentences tug at one’s heart strings the hardest. It is no wonder The Straits Times review of the stage production states that the play will “make you go home and hug your mother much harder.” I couldn’t agree more.

 

Conclusion

If I were to sum up my experience of reading this anthology in a sentence, it is this: reading these plays makes me regret not catching these productions when they were staged. So if you are free and have some cash to spare, go catch a local play. You never know, you might be the first to encounter a gem.

Book Reviews

A most common advice from any writer to improve on your writing is to read more and read critically. Sometimes, in my eagerness to be published by literary journals or anthologies, I often forget to read. In fact, reading is one way to work on my craft when I do not have the time to write.

As such, to discipline myself, I have decided to read more and post book reviews whenever I can. Hopefully this will keep this blog more active and I would love to engage in a conversation over books with my followers and occasional readers. While I am in the midst of preparing for my school exams, I have decided to pick up a book and read it while commuting. So what am I reading now?

Beyond the Village Gate

Additionally, I am still thinking of whether I should start a YouTube channel and film myself reviewing books and performances. I realised that no one in Singapore is doing that and there should be more discussion about our local arts scene. It is also a great way to promote our local literature and shows as well. Furthermore, while watching YouTubers from abroad doing book reviews, I am not really satisfied with the way they review books. They tend to focus too much on the plot and almost nothing on the writing save for a few vague comments on character development.

Who knows? If I have a strong enough response, I will set up a dedicated blog for all my reviews and as a complement to my YouTube channel (if I should decide to go ahead with it).

So what do you think? What books should I read and review? Do you want to see a YouTube channel that does reviews? Leave a comment!

 

Free Delivery on all Books at the Book Depository

Literary Criticism: How and Why by Simon Leys

Beautiful lecture on the what literature can offer to the reader, the functions of literary criticism, and some pitfalls of it to avoid.

By literary criticism, Leys just means a written response to the work and is not referring to any of the literary theories such as structuralism, post-modernism etc. He feels that getting too caught up in these theories may impede in the enjoyment of the work.

Mini Reviews

Last year, I applied to be a social media intern  with Asymptote which is a literary journal that focuses on world literature and its translations. As part of the application process, I was asked to pick a few pieces and explain my choices. Having read through them, I found it a waste to leave it in the recesses of my sent mail. As such, here are some of my thoughts about some of the works featured.

Ermanno’s Breath by Fabio Pusteria (translated by Damiano Abeni & Moira Egan), Jan 2011
 
I am struck by the exploration of breath as a metaphor to describe a poet’s voice, presence and legacy. This simple tribute to a poet who died too young, with an inter-textual reference to another poem, is really clever. Just as the father’s breath gave life to the mattress in the other poem, Ermanno’s work thus brings to life certain things for Pusteria. I love the economy of the last line – “a breath and some lines” – which points to a variety of things but it most centrally suggests the lingering presence of the poet and his work.
 
Views and Testimony of a Sheep by Tan Chee Lay (translated by Teng Qian Xi), Jan 2011
 
Being a Singaporean, it is understandable that any work of local literature being featured will immediately catch my attention. This work was simply refreshing for me. There is a certain gentleness to the poem despite containing some biting criticism and fierce images such as war drums, annunciation and drawn-out screams. Portraying the voters as sheep is a very interesting choice for me as it contains a lot of connotations – from meekness and gentleness as marks of a civilised person to passiveness and helplessness as one is being shepherded around. Tan displays an acute awareness of this as evident from the direct juxtaposition in the line. “little lambs/must rule their homes”.
 
A lingering thought after reading the poems was how will Singapore solve the various problems of our politics? Do we need a sort of a Messiah figure to shepherd us? While there are no biblical allusions in the poems, it is to be expected that some readers would immediately connect it in such a way. But a further thought came to mind, if we need a shepherd, what are our roles as citizens and voters? This brings me back full circle to the complexity of the image of the sheep. If a poem could inspire such afterthoughts on first reading, what fruitful conversations are there to be had with closer readings and more in depth discussion? Of course, the accompanying essay by Teng made me appreciate the craftsmanship on part of the poet as well as the translator which further deepens by impression and admiration for the set of poems.
 
Only in New York by Jonas Hassen Khemiri (translated by Rachel Wilson-Broyles), July 2011
 
The sheer creativity of this piece caught my attention from the first few sentences. The structure of this fiction is a manifestation of what happens when we travel to another country or attempt to write about it; we engage in constant conversation with it. I love how through New York’s voice messages, one can see a variety of experiences one can have in the city. On the other hand it can remain impenetrable as evident from the persona’s failure to have a direct conversation with New York and a great deal of what the city says are stereotypes or idealised. After reading the piece, I found myself forgetting that this is a translation from Swedish. This leads me to wonder if Khemiri was spot on with the Americanisms or was this a voice of Wilson-Broyles coming through which reminds me of Susan Bassnett’s comments (in her interview from the previous issue) that “translation is effectively rewriting”. Whether it is the former or the latter, the co-authorship of two writers has provided me with a wonderful reading experience.
 
Mulberries by Massimo Gezzi (translated by Damiano Abeni & Moira Egan), July 2011
For some reason, this poem took me on a road trip. What spoke to me in this poem was that the reader was made to go through the exact same experience as the persona. I thought the first four lines were referring to the mulberries stretching out its branches to touch the car window as it drove past. This seemed to be further established by how the persona looked and counted 8 mulberries. It is only in the last lines that the hands and gestures refer to the passenger in the car. Just as the passenger is able to create an “illusion of redemption” for the persona, the carefully crafted words of the poet and translators gave us an illusion of the seeming personification of the mulberries. Really cleverly written.
 
HOTEL by Lin Yaode (translated by Lee Yew Leong), July 2011
 
Speaking of personification, I imagine the hotel heaving and breathing while reading this piece. I love how it casts a brilliant new light upon a venue that we are relatively familiar with. It also possesses a sensitivity in addressing the politics of space – from how the buildings around it are affected by its presence to the interaction between people and the hotel. It also compels us to think about how we conduct ourselves in different spaces as well especially in Singapore when the landscape is constantly changing and important buildings and social spaces can be demolished for the most banal of reasons.
 
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If you’re wondering, I didn’t get the job.