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The 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC (Sep 28 – Oct 1, 2016) brings together Singaporean and American authors and audiences for in-depth conversations about literature and society. As it turns out, all the authors from Singapore identify as gay and lesbian. This is perhaps not so surprising, since the best writers pit their strength against personal and social oppression. Singapore is well-known for its state authoritarianism and homophobia. What is less known is the fight put up by its writers.
The festival will thus provide a unique opportunity to learn more about LGBTQ communities in contemporary Asia, and the transformation of their experiences into literary works of imaginative power and social relevance. Readings and discussions will be held at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Asia Society, and New York University, among other venues. A night of new theatrical works will close the festival at the National Opera Center. For the full program, please check our website . Not only will the authors speak to the impact of sexual identity, they will also address the intersecting effects of race, gender, class, and immigration status from an Asian perspective.
Specially curated for Lambda Literary, “Singapore Literary Portfolio” offers a taste of what the festival has in store for you. This portfolio features three festival authors. We begin with an interview with Jason Wee about growing up gay in Singapore and a selection of his history-ridden poetry, before hearing Alfian Sa’at from his short story “Disco,” and Ovidia Yu from her play Hitting (On) Women.
Jason Wee is an artist and writer who lives in Singapore and New York. In Singapore he founded and runs Grey Projects, an artists’ space, library, and residency that focuses on curatorship, new writing, design propositions and art. He is also an editor for Softblow poetry journal. In New York, he was a 2005-2006 Studio Fellow at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. He has shown in the Chelsea Art Museum, Photo New York, and Sundaram Tagore Gallery. His book of poems The Monsters Between Us re-works fairy tales, government documents, and porn videos for the purposes of social critique and linguistic discovery.
An Interview with Jason Wee
When did you first become conscious of your attraction to men?
I don’t know when I wasn’t attracted to men; my memories of my childhood are soaked with foaming desire, for friends, for men, for books, for touch, for companionship; growing is wanting, one more passing birthday is more time understanding how capacious desire is, how little I often have. I remember being four, feeling an exhilarating crush for a tan lean fisherman my leg was brushing against, and keeping fiercely quiet about it. He and my parents knew nothing.
What did you know of gays and lesbians then?
Nothing. But then I wouldn’t know what ‘straight’ or heteronormativity was. Though it was around me, I wouldn’t distinguish it from what was around me; it wasn’t uncommon for boys in my kindergarten to be interested in each other’s changing bodies, or for the neighborhood teens to show theirs off to impress us boys. I did feel a sense of deep interiority, a wide cosmos between my closed eyes, populated with particles of desire and dreams and intensities, that was my first sense of being different from other boys.
How did you find out more about this secret cosmos?
When I was more self-conscious about my sexuality, I’d hang around the gender studies section of the old Stamford Road MPH, at the time the largest bookstore in the centre of town. It was there that I discovered Paul Monette, Felice Picano, Edmund White, which lead me to the writings of Thom Gunn, Cavafy, Dennis Cooper.
I remember that MPH. I think I picked up Paul Monette there too. Was your family helpful, or not, in this journey of self-discovery?
My mom was stunned when she asked, more out of curiosity than of panic, and I told her the truth. Her teleological view of the world, where all things work towards her notion of the good, hasn’t been the same since. My grandmother, her mother, still loves me to bits, laughing and smiling every time she sees me.
What about school? What was it like for you, a young gay teen?
I enjoyed junior college, I was in a great class where I made strong friends, including a bestie who defended me like I’m her one-boy tribe. Junior college was also when I saw self-identified gay boys around me for the first time, both in school and out of it.
I was too repressed to recognize a gay boy even if he swung his dick into my face. When did you discover your passion for art and writing? Does it have anything at all to do with your being gay?
Discovery implies that there is something already there, a latency or an inner substance waiting to be found, but I don’t know if that’s my story, and to narrate a kind of self-conscious emergence, with the clichés of artistic autobiography, sets off my skepticism. I enjoyed cinema and film, and would watch almost anything put in front of me, and I loved photographic images. I’d browse magazines, including the ads, to look at them. I didn’t think about making art until college, and even then I had no idea of what ‘being an artist’ meant. Writing though has always been with me, first as an avid reader, and slowly as I began to try out my own voice. I’d like to think that I’ve hung on to a little of the naïveté I had as a young gay boy; irony is everywhere, and so easy now.
That’s true. How has being gay shaped the development of your art and writing?
I was fortunate to encounter gay peers when I was doing my initial bits of writing. Some of them became crucial antagonists, others became crucial friends.
Hmm….I wonder if I know them. Who are your queer models for writing? What have you learned from them?
I don’t know if I have conscious models, if I seek to be like someone. I used to read to get away from a preoccupation or a near-demand by some poets and literary critics that ‘Singaporean’ poetry engages with canonical poetic forms or with the history of our island-country. Now I read to find my peers and colleagues, or to borrow a phrase from Antonio Benitez-Rojo, for my island to be repeated elsewhere. I read Carl Phillips and Maggie Nelson avidly, return regularly to Arthur Yap, Adrienne Rich, and Foucault. I’m just coming to Chiu Miao Chin and my friend Larry Ypil. And Walter Benjamin, in his fragmentary Arcades Project and in his death, is as queer a father to me as I need.
With your then-partner, you are the father of a son. How did your gay friends respond to your fatherhood?
The invitations to house parties dwindled; boozing boys don’t really want a baby around, and I don’t fault them for it. The moralizing responses were complex; one friend saw it as doing more harm than good, that a child is better orphaned than raised by gay parents. Another called me an inspiring Republican, that I have, because of the child, adopted the most hetero-conservative of domestic norms. Some friends faded and came back into our lives in stronger ways. As these things frequently are, I do as a line by Camille Rankine goes, move “toward the living after all the only ones still here.”
The living are definitely more fun. You spend part of the year in Singapore and part of the year in New York City. What does each city give you that the other can’t?
Singapore gives me laksa for breakfast, and ying yang (half-milk coffee, half-milk tea) all day. I return to the small number of people I’ve hung to, to what Gregg Bordowitz calls “a cosmology for myself.” New York satisfies my curiosity in countless myriad ways.
Now I’m curious too, about how New York satisfies your curiosity. Will the Singapore law against unnatural sex between men be struck down in your lifetime? What may give some hope that it can happen?
Yes, I like to think so. That will come with a generational change, and change elsewhere in Asia. If the India Supreme Court once again rules against their equivalent ‘unnatural acts’ law, and if Taiwan and Cambodia stride ahead with progressive legislation, then I doubt Singapore, with its pragmatic ruling party, wants to be left behind.
Alfian Sa’at is an award-winning playwright, poet, and short-story writer. He is well known in Singapore for his trenchant social and cultural criticism. He was nominated for Best Original Script at Singapore’s Life! Theatre Awards eight times, and won it three times. His poetry collection A History of Amnesia was shortlisted for the Kirayama Asia-Pacific Book Prize and the Singapore Literature Prize. His short fiction collection Malay Sketches was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. The story “Disco,” extracted here, comes from his collection Corridor.
Ovidia Yu writes children’s and crime fiction, but she is best known for her plays, which have been performed in many countries, winning an Edinburgh Fringe First, among many awards. She has received the National Arts Council Young Artist Award (Drama and Fiction), the Singapore Youth Award (Arts and Culture), and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) Singapore Foundation Award for outstanding contribution to the development of arts. She was also a Fulbright Scholar to the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. Her play Hitting (On) Women is a gut-punching look at physical and emotional abuse in a lesbian relationship.
Thanks for reading. I hope to see you at the festival.