Where do we write from? Sharlene Teo, author of the hotly anticipated Ponti, responds.
Words often fail me. If I admit that and call myself a writer, is that tantamount to a swimmer stating that they often almost drown? Or is this simply an acceptance of the limits of language, of the written word being inextricably enmeshed with cultural, political and representational complexities? If we read and write to comprehend each other more fully, why is the execution of this rarely as simple as our impulse to be understood?
For a Chinese Singaporean like me, language is a murky thing. To write in English is to wade directly or indirectly into a state of cogitation and occasional conflict with my linguistic and cultural inheritances. My grandmother came from Fujian, China. But my standard of written Chinese is a shambles; my spoken Chinese is functional at best. English is the language of instruction in Singapore; from primary school onwards I’ve felt like a cultural traitor, estranged from my Chineseness. To write in English as a Singaporean is a privilege but not always an easy pleasure. My first language is one that was effectively enforced upon my syllabus by the forces and floes of colonialism and the global economy. This is further complicated by the fact that I have lived in the United Kingdom for the past twelve years, having moved there for university; it is in England that I have developed my adult consciousness.
I experience a double estrangement writing in English and residing in the UK, the site of imperialist, colonizing power, yet I can’t escape that I am estranged of my own volition. The choice and hard-fought right behind this circles the sense of blame back to myself.
The English vocabulary I use to articulate my innermost thoughts is a concession to the tangled, mangled roots of my identity. If I live in England, why do I keep returning to Singapore in my fiction? Frankly I feel freer imagining and remembering this space that has so definitively shaped my emotional education. Even the act of remembering is its own form of constant fictionalization. To me, the past is a well-known country. I edit and embellish bits of it to fit the narrative of who I’ve become, or what I’m becoming. When I write stories set in London, where I’ve lived for the past nine years, it feels stilted, less elastic. Like reportage, or bad travel writing. Perhaps familiarity mars or dulls my voice. Geographical distance from the site of my description makes it easier to pick out the strangeness in the mundane.
I don’t write to fight or make a forceful claim. I’m constantly trying to get words out, strung together into a story, because I want to make connections with other people. Place to me is a framing structure rather than a shorthand or shortcut to such connections. Kazuo Ishiguro phrases this impulse much more eloquently: ’Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings…one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m feeling? Does it also feel this way to you?’
The role of place in my writing, then, is as a way of conveying this emotional topography, a way of externalizing feeling to the reader. Place to me is an inner landscape externalized through observation or the shock of the weather. I love cities for reasons of obvious dramatic tension. I feel like characters can feel so incredibly, unbearably alienated amidst the hubbub and chatter of those they know best. My debut novel Ponti was set almost entirely in my home country, that is also my home city, that is also my home island. The Singapore I write about is its very own sometimes-unwieldy character. It is complex, protean, with jagged edges and pockets of decay. William Gibson famously condemned Singapore as ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty’, a staid neoliberal metropolis deprived of democracy and spontaneity. Flawed as Singaporean technocratic governance may be, we shouldn’t let disparagement dominate all conversations or depictions of the country.
One place can be many, many things. I’d like to convey an image of Singapore that deviates from Western-centric cultural explanation.
I’m concerned with the mood of the space, its beauty and bad temper and contradictions. The way that certain neighborhoods are teeming with stray cats, old furniture, and a gentle sense of mystery. How does one convey this carefully, without romanticizing? Yet other spaces can seem so oppressive and cloying in intensely niggling and personal ways. How does one convey this carefully, without ranting? My concerns are intensely emotional and aesthetic.
For the foreseeable future I can only imagine writing fiction fixated upon my own particular Singaporean perspective on the world. One that is diasporic, sometimes shamefully Westernised, and hopefully opened up rather than foreclosed to the narrative possibilities of having one foot in a different culture, another back home. What is home anyway? This hackneyed but essential question comes up time and again in discussions of migrant literature, in an increasingly globalised and connected world. The Internet with its memes and connectivity facilitates cultural osmosis. Our influences bleed into one another. Yet the corporeal cartography of Singapore the city is highly specific, despite its veritable hodgepodge of cultural influences. For a small country with neoliberal and global concerns, there really is a distinctively Singaporean way of seeing the world.
Last week Singapore’s last polar bear died. His name was Inuka and my timelines were flooded with his picture. Born and raised in the Singapore Zoo, his off-white coat was stained by algae. In every image he looked unbearably sad and painfully out of place. Polar bears don’t belong in tropical Singapore, much less in captivity. The last time I saw a polar bear on a humid island was more than a decade ago, in the TV series Lost. A big bear in tropical confines is wildly implausible, but he survived for quite a long time. So this is what happens when you take a creature from far away and put it somewhere familiar. Its coat gets stained green. That’s my fear when I try to write about Singapore from a position of remove: that the telling might come across as grotesque novelty, unrecognizably tamed. This uncertainty and unsettlement both animates and haunts my process; the ambivalence outlives the animal a long, long way.
Sharlene Teo was born in Singapore in 1987. She has an LLB in Law from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she received the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship and the David TK Wong Creative Writing award. She holds fellowships from the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the University of Iowa International Writing Program. In 2016, she won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award for Ponti, her first novel.
Photograph: Barney Poole