For all the avid readers out there in Singapore and beyond, you would have sooner or later wondered about this perennial question: what defines Singlit? Is there a distinctive theme or style that sets it apart? Indeed, as our nation grows in affluence and self-awareness, its desire to embrace a unique identity has also heightened, leading in part to today’s session entitled “Singaporean Identity in Contemporary Fiction”, where we listen to two young authors JY Yang and Balli Kaur Jaswal (BKJ) share their personal take on this complex topic.
To start off, the panellists shed some light on how they themselves explored Singapore identity through their works. For JY, she recognised the difficulty of doing so due to the relatively new phenomenon of a national identity, as opposed to her Western-centric works borne out of a practical need for funding and access to a broader market. For BKJ, her desire to examine Singaporean identity through the lens of less represented communications was primarily due to her own identity as being a North Indian in Singapore, which she considers a minority within a minority. Accordingly, she strongly believes in expanding the narrow definition we sometimes impose on Singaporean identity as ‘a dynamic society defies definition’. That said, she acknowledged that there were certain key concerns within each ‘wave’ of Singlit, and although she grew up in a generation that grappled with the idea of Singapore as an ‘offshoot from someone else, [constantly] looking outwards’, with a focus on war and post-colonial independence, some tensions, for instance between tradition and modernity, continue to be felt today.
On what inspired the two writers and their works, race emerged as a significant factor. For one, JY highlighted how Chinese privilege has initially made her a sheltered child, and it was her entry into the realm of journalism that forced her to look at the world more deeply, eventually motivating her to create fictional worlds that exaggerate problems (of power balances and rules) which can then be examined. Similarly, with a sense of bleak humour, KBJ shared that it was the difficulty of being Indian in Singapore, compounded by the layers of restrictive rules from parents, school, and the kiasu culture at large, that compelled her to challenge authority (figures) in her workers, ensuring that the underdog gets what they deserve. As the moderator Sheena Kang notes, both authors recognise the complexity of identity and are especially careful not to fall into any stereotypes, even as they recreate fictional words in their favour.
As we moved on to the Q&A session, the discussion shifted to globalisation and how its potential effects on Singlit. On the one hand, JY is cheerful that with the Singapore publishing world experiencing a renaissance of sorts, you can now be both a local and global writer, roles once mutually exclusive. On the other hand, BKJ tempers this sense of optimism by citing how the Western publishing world still desires the Orientalist image of the Far East (eg. Crazy Rich Asians), and this prevailing and totalising mindset is unlikely to change anytime soon, as the publishers must retain readers’ interests, and even as readers seek to expand their minds through reading, they would also be wary of and uncomfortable with too radical a paradigm shift in outlook. As such, she really hopes that even as our national icon as commonly represented in Singlit has changed from the Merlion to MBS, we can one day get past this image (a tall order nonetheless!).
Ultimately, despite the differences in background and writing genre, both authors, who identify as queer and non-binary, never fails to emphasise the importance of having socioeconomically disadvantaged groups (like the disabled) tell their own stories, and while having a singular national narrative is a seductive idea, we would much more appreciate for a diverse variety of voices to be added to the literature canon!