Away and Apart

A Short Film and E-mail Interview

Our first featured short film at Unseen, Away and Apart by Colin Huang explores in gentle tones and touches the familiarity of homesickness shared by Singaporean youths who travel and live abroad for their studies. In the accompanying e-mail interview, Colin shares how literature and the literary remain early and present influences in his work as a practicing and aspiring filmmaker. Away and Apart was submitted as an entry for ciNE65 IV.

UNSEEN
In your opinion, is the short film a form of poetry? Can it, or should it, by extension, be considered literature?

COLIN
Yes it is. I would call it a poetic film. It draws parallels and in some ways uses rhythm and rhymes in the form of editing and the juxtaposition of images. Whether it is a form of literature though, I don’t think so. They might draw inspiration from each other but they are inherently different art forms. Perhaps a script can be considered literature, but I feel that the final film is more than that.

UNSEEN
Why do you choose the visual form as your primary medium to tell a story, as compared to just text?


COLIN
I feel that text uses the power of words to draw an image in the reader’s mind. Authors, poets and even playwrights or screenwriters, they aim to evoke imagination in their readers minds. But I love the power of creating the world for my viewers. To allow them instead to imagine the ramifications of the world I created. In short, I prefer to directly show them what I want them to see and allow them to straightaway ponder about what I’m trying to tell them.

UNSEEN
What were you trying to avoid doing / trying to highlight differently from other films/writings/presentations of homesickness in ‘Away and Apart’?

COLIN
I don’t think I actively avoided anything in particular. The film was made simply to convey how much we missed everything that is what made home home for us. We wanted to make something together while being separated by such a large distance. In a way, the film was made perhaps to make us feel more connected to each other.

UNSEEN
How would you describe your current relationship with literature in general?

COLIN
It’s been a while since I’ve read a book, but I’ve been going back to poems and prose.

UNSEEN
How did/does literature / literary studies influence you in your filmmaking work?

COLIN
Literature was one of the biggest influencers to me in my filmmaking work, more so perhaps than film itself. I grew up reading books. Literature was my best subject in secondary school. In literature I learned to read more into each sentence that is written, each action that is emphasized and each vocabulary that is chosen. These minute attention to details and the underlying meaning that they hint to allowed me to try to do the same in my filmmaking – even if I’m not so successful yet.


COLIN HUANG studied at Singapore Polytechnic for a Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media. He is currently based in Taiwan, pursuing his Masters in Fine Arts in Filmmaking degree at Taipei National University of Arts. He is majoring in Directing.

Photo Credit: Colin Huang (from Away and Apart)

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On Returning

Content advisory: adult language

When Chloe Tong writes of returning, she invites us to consider the leaving as much as the coming back – the homecoming, after all, is simply a corollary of the sojourn. Tong’s work is an anthem for anyone who has left home shores for others. Unflinchingly, she tackles alienness, explores the constant instability of life abroad, all while delicately capturing the wonders of little odysseys and embracing each stumble into familiarity. Going ever further away can make every pocket of home resonate even stronger, and Tong reminds us of that with the impactful grace of a plane’s wheels kissing familiar tarmac.

This is not a how-to, an itinerary. This will not teach you how to get from A to B under X dollars. This is not like, share and comment. There is no discount code at the end.

This is not a complaint about thirty-two degrees celsius. This is not a layman’s commentary on Brexit; the Brits would’ve fucked themselves over eventually even if they remained.

This is an inside joke you will never understand. This is the neutral accent you put on with angmohs. There are two Chloes, two Beccas and two Isabelles in your class. You realise your mother gave you a very white name. This is solidarity. This is for every time somebody knows that the country you are from is not a part of China. This is the double take every time they realise how well you speak English. This is giving up explaining why you’re so good in the first place. You learn that in Britain, Asian means Indian and you are oriental. Oriental is also word used to describe supermarkets and bikini wax flavours.

This is a kitchen argument on the pronunciation of scone. No one can pronounce your real name. Someone hasn’t done her dishes in two weeks. Chicken rice mix from a jar will never taste as good as the real thing. This is a game of drunken twister and Joe has skipped your turn for the third time but you don’t mind. This is a never-ending prank war. This is a Marquez novel peeking from under his strewn scarf. This is a Deeper Conversation. This is an impromptu night out, a neon mistake. This is a schoolgirl fantasy played out at three AM. This is the perfect omelette, pale and cheese-stuffed.

This is a Syrian girl child selling roses to tourists past midnight in Taksim. This is homelessness, the man asking you for a cigarette has worn its scent for too long. You give him the last stick in your pack of Luckies. This is a cancelled flight to Barcelona. This is a metro strike in Rome. This is a tube strike in London. This is a tram strike in wherever-the-fuck else. This is subpar Asian food spelled wrong on the menu. This is a misplaced lah tumbling from the mouth of someone who thinks he knows Singlish. This is nihao said by a white person. This is 你好 said by a young Chinese cook who lights up when you order Thai takeout in Mandarin.

This was winter. This was spring. This is the feeling you get when someone calls you by the name you were born with. This is the wonder of a Moroccan pigeon pastilla. This is the bad bitch who changed her tampon in the Sahara. This is the aftermath of an Ibizan rave. This is summer. It is still summer.

This is, to all Singaporeans and residents of Singapore, a warm welcome home.


TONG JIA HAN CHLOE is a postgraduate at Warwick University. She is part of Burn After Reading, a collective of young poets in Singapore. Her work can be found in Inheritance, an anthology on family histories by Math Paper Press.

Photo credit: Chloe Tong

The Insidious Picture of Dorian Gray

Constance Teng plays Basil to her Dorian in this ekphrastic piece The Insidious Picture of Dorian Gray. Complete with her own original artwork drawing upon (missed) connections of desire, beauty and absence, Constance layers the world of Basil and Dorian Gray onto a personal coming-of-age story of loss and belonging, but unlike Wilde’s painter and protagonist, Constance hides away her painting only to open the closet with Unseen to come face to face with it once more.

When Henry Wotton makes himself at home, reclining on a couch, in a house not of his own, basking in the scents and colour tones which only the author remembers, the appeal of places, not of one’s own, recalls a persistent desire to leave home and search for that comfort shelter with different airs and sceneries. The grass seems greener on the other side, with the moon more radiant and the city lights at night more colourful. Henry could express himself here freely, without driving away a friend opposed to his morals. When one enjoys a space in the manner of escapism, without the need for social masks, over-grooming, and toil, the accompanying beauty of such places rarely fail the senses, contrasting against a mundane self-owned space of plain colours with woeful cares and noises too familiar. Closer people, inhabiting one’s home and seeking to dominate, make the home confining and repulsive. A better space out there is therefore preferred, where one can truly be.

There is a place overseas where I was born, but never lived in for long. I’m like a foreigner there, a traveller marvelling at ordinary things only new and extraordinary to a tourist, strolling and sitting around, on trains and buses, camera in hand, carefreely spending and easily delighted at sights perhaps mundane and ordinary to locals. Indeed, the grass seems greener there, high up the mountains with crystal clear streams in cooler air. I stepped onto more terrains there than some locals, through the urban nostalgia with a new otherness, something unspeakably absent in Singapore. When a grownup travels on holiday without cares, one doesn’t want to return, and sensually appreciates the new places more.

It is unclear if Basil Hallward, owning the space where Henry indulged in, could ever attain Henry’s level of affluence. Dissatisfaction could have driven him to paint, not just for a living but to picture an unfulfilled desire. For he revealed to Henry, though not explicitly, a motive behind painting that beautiful face, of someone onto whom he projected a weakness for, that led to his eventual death unknowingly. The biblical saying of beauty’s deception was not for nothing. Emotions drive one toward gratification rather than virtue, self-control and guardedness. Henry seemed to prefer gratification, or he could be lying, putting on an entertaining front with sweet-talking about sensual pleasures.

That emotional drive leading Basil to paint reminds of the zest behind my painting of a beautiful face, an object of superficial, insidious liking. The way Henry described Dorian’s beauty in the painting – suggesting indulgence in it – awakened an idolising of that face once more, recalling a past of homesickness, the want of belonging, and admiring beautiful faces from the “homeland”, bringing with them an air of uniqueness from “home”. For Dorian Gray had been the “type of everything that is wonderful and fascinating” to many, despite his hurtful ways. Some faces bore what I used to think I lacked – friends and belonging from home. Some people in real life, probably comparable with him in beauty, were adored this way, and all the more liked, for their similar birthplace like me.

Pains were taken to overcome the urge of vengeance at rejection, though not committed as grimly as Dorian’s. The want of those faces and fair skin, however, lingered, and secretly wanted as closely as possible, for an ally, for confrontation, or for the unspeakable bad. The one painted was once reachable, face to face, and then reduced to something to behold in pictures but not touched. I wonder how many have been hurt by that face in my painting, just like how Dorian hurt others.   

Unlike Basil’s painting of Dorian, my painting was exhibited, hoping viewers would not see anything unsightly of it. Unlike Basil having the privilege of a model he befriended and took a fancy to, I painted secretly without the model knowing, collecting photographs of her at ease after being given her cold shoulder. Unlike the young and impressionable Dorian Gray, my “model” was my contemporary. Commodifying her image on a canvas and finishing it brought pleasure, imagining the same end on it as Dorian and his picture. But since it remains unsold, I concealed it from sight, not with reasons like those of Basil or Dorian, rather of the recurring fear and loathsomeness of seeing the cold and unchanging face.

The comfort of home, a mere shelter with possessions and “loved” ones, seems deceiving. When two letters from the universities came to me, revealing my failure to secure a place to study there, I was almost beaten. I wished I was orphaned like Dorian. Orphaned, and inheriting the material riches to myself, with no one around and restraining my undertakings. My Grandpa treated me better than his grandfather treated him. But I don’t live with mine. Had he been here, my parents would have restrained themselves. And they thought they treated Singapore like their home and fought for it. Before winning this “fight”, my mother resented me singing National Day songs and calling Singapore my home.

Patriotic euphemism, calling Singapore a home and praising Singaporean achievements were repeated in school. I believed in them and followed their footsteps, till people made snide remarks on other places, one of which remarked upon was where I came from. Being one of the less popular in class, and hating them, I desired and wished for a new friend sharing the same “homeland” as me. Being “away” and alone at this time was painful, with a mother who wanted nothing but results. That wish for a new friend came true in school, or so I thought. I fancied having her as an intimate friend, like Alan Campbell and Dorian’s past intimacy, sparked by a common interest. Theirs was music, and mine with this girl was our birthplace. She was tall, fair-complexioned, had nice facial features, and brought with her an air of authentic background from home, strangely foreign but delightful to me, lonely and delusional then. When I left Singapore for “home”, away from her, I missed her badly.

There was no reciprocation of my friendly gestures. And she broke promises. Back when social media just began blooming, I searched and found her. Befriended. Expressed my adoration. Found out I wasn’t invited to her party. And our friendship ended. I thought Oscar Wilde could have added a left-out, stalking friend to Dorian for more colours.

I made more friends from “home”, but losing this friend left a deep void in me. I found another new friend from “home” to replace her. She was shorter, and had a sweet face and physique. We met a few times and she began appearing “offline”. She lied to me about it, and displayed an all too obvious cold shoulder, bad-mouthing me at plain sight to others I knew, sending chills down my spine and hands. I “unfriended” her.

I became a Singaporean. I grew up here and had friends. I went back to my birthplace and made friends there. But logic and passion hardly blend, and things unobtained seem more attractive and desired than those already in possession. The pleasure of drawing and painting faces came not from picturing those loving and already loved, but those “unobtainable”, with their pretty faces and bodies. And I learned a lesson – people from “home” aren’t always welcoming, regardless of their beauty.  

An old wise friend composed for me a letter to my school ex-friend, one of clearing doubts and making peace. She said I should give it with her picture that I sketched, as a goodwill gesture. I faced the sketch once again, at its fine lines and soft details. I kept the letter and the sketch to myself. Then there was a painting competition coming up. That second ex-friend, befriended to replace the first, and still remembered insidiously, came to my mind. Those photograph-like matching colours, the colourful mess of my palette, the space-taking easel, and the triumph of finishing that face, came not out of admiration anymore, depicting no purity and innocence like Dorian’s. Those perfect facial features had a paleness from the flash. I call it a plastic smile. I dedicated days for it, finishing that permanent smile, colder than the original photograph.

Basil and I idolised beauty. Whatever that was written to Dorian idolatrously, I did a little for my schoolmate, the first beauty from home I ever met. I wrote poems while waiting for her letters, even after she broke her final promise of response. She “unfriended” me. Basil died in his living idol’s hand, while I lived on, manipulating those faces on paper, canvas, and “photoshop”, contemplating and repressing the id of wanting another pretty face and body from “home” to tangibly replace them. My complacency with being alive in reality while repressing the restless id of vengeance and desiring, contrasts with the more moral Basil’s tragic end, led on by his sincere care for Dorian.

I wonder what Wilde meant when he wrote “All art is quite useless”.

Picture1


CONSTANCE TENG is a working adult studying part-time for a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She enjoys writing poetry, plays, novels, music composition, drawing and painting amongst others. She participated in a playwriting competition and three art exhibitions, and has a personal story published in the book Mind This Voice – From Hurtful to Helpful. She attempted literature during her first three months at junior college in 2002 and did poorly. She revived her interest in literature at her current university in 2014, where she came across The Picture of Dorian Gray and compensated herself by scoring a “B”, though she would have preferred an “A”.

Photo and art credit: Constance Teng

Home, the Final Frontier

If Home & Away posits a binary between two places, then Benedicta Foo’s Home, the Final Frontier dissolves such binary assumptions with her country-crossing, planet-hopping and time-trekking essay straddling three countries and two planets, timezones and centuries. Star Trek and young Spock aside, Benedicta’s ongoing literary cartography draws and erases frontier lines of Third Culture Kid experiences, hunching over kitchen sinks projecting maps of home to life.

I haven’t lived in enough cities of polarizing urbanities to ever consider myself a third-culture kid, but I have lived in enough that my body processes the homesickness.

My mother constantly traveled between Palembang, her homeland – a mid-sized town in the south of Sumatra, Indonesia – and Singapore, where her husband resides. As a child, I found myself spending the defining moments of my childhood in my grandmother’s quiet corner house, resting in what Singaporeans would call a kampung.

Except to me, it wasn’t just that. In my grandmother’s house, I had all the resources to run a kingdom, or a thriving restaurant; an airline; a business empire; a humble laundromat; a kiosk selling fishcakes – everything and anything from bookselling to baking, if I wanted to. The three storeys were ample space for any universe to develop, and to easily occupy the five of us; when my grandmother and aunts weren’t mothering me, they were cast members for every single story that my tiny hands and mind could create.

When I left Palembang for good and settled in Singapore to begin a very long, arduous process of growing up, my mother and I bonded over shared airplane rides, naps during lonely afternoons where the dust in the air could be seen, and endless nights in bathrooms. I cried many, many times over the sink the way children do: vomiting on an empty stomach as my mother held my hair, quiet and helpless.

Sometimes I’d catch my mother over the same sink, her figure three hundred light years away. In these moments I was an astronaut, desperately trying to hold the sun in the cusps of my minuscule hands, except it was burning in ways my mind couldn’t comprehend. Except she wasn’t the sun, even with the gravitational force of one – she was smaller than space debris, hunched over a sink, crying.

 

 

Home, now, is planet Vulcan. Home is sixteen light years away from Earth, and this is a planet without a moon. The seas remain still; the tides less turbulent, and the water does not kiss its Indian red soil like clockwork – it merely exists alongside. One does not need the moon to survive, and there are no urgent rushes of water – but it is too quiet for a heart to bear.

I am in a city that is an artifact – it is old but it is breathing and it is alive, and I am templed in mahogany. I am in a planet ruled by logic, but it suppresses its roots of love; it forgets that love sometimes is logical; it forgets it is named after the God of Fire.

 

 

Here, in Singapore, I am a cartographer. It is easier to map out places when you’re always feeling lost, and I have learned to identify homes. Places that promote isolation – the kind of places that allow vulnerability – become beacons.

One of the biggest challenges that cartographers face is map projection. This means that what is accurate and seen on a globe is difficult to translate into a flat map. The everyday map people use is called a Mercator map, and it prioritizes navigation above all else; an adventurer can use a Mercator to determine the direction to take when going from Asia to Africa, but they cannot rely on the Mercator to compare the continents’ sizes.

My maps are made for navigation too. They lead me to homes – and sometimes they lead me to people who symbolise home. This way, the Singapore that I’ve mapped shrinks more often than I want it to. People leave and take away homes with them. They strip the landmarks off my personal map: 24-hour eateries of sub par curry; theatres; shared Netflix accounts; churches, steeple and minaret; rented rooms as sacred as these religious shelters. I wonder often how much more minute this land can be – I wonder if the Singapore that I know today could just disappear and leave outlines made of dust. I try to cradle dust in my hands, sometimes, make sure it doesn’t disintegrate. Just for practice.

When drawing maps, the most important thing to note is the proximity of favorite cities from Singapore. Palembang: an hour. Jakarta: 1.5 hours. Batam: 30 minutes on a boat ride, but too close for home.

Hougang: 20 minutes. You learn to make do.

 

 

Some 213 years from today there will be a man by the name of Spock – half-human, half-Vulcan, full-time science / commanding officer working for the United Federation of Planets, in a starship named Enterprise.

Here is the poster boy for biculturalism, or third-culture kids, or even the poster boy for humanity – the embodiment of all the moments when anyone has felt out of place. Amongst  all the good things that the Star Trek universe brought was an alien born to an Earthling science teacher and a Vulcan scientist and diplomat.

His entire life was a struggle between a life of human emotions and one governed by logic. He was never enough to be either of his parents’ ideal identities – not that he knew how to be them.

I think often of seven-year-old Spock, who had to learn to put his pet sehlat, I-Chaya, to sleep without mourning for it, for its life was a life that was well lived. I think of Spock, who grew up with a compassion that could only be characterized as human, in the best possible way. I think of Spock in the reboot movies who had to witness the destruction of his homeworld, the death of his mother, and then the death of his best friend, James Kirk.

In many ways Vulcans are superior to humans; their dedication to logic is enviable, and physiologically they are stronger. But Spock was simply a man born on a planet named after the God of Fire, and steered the tides of his emotions without a moon. He learned to find home in space – in the Enterprise.

 

 

In Melbourne, I am 6,079kms and and 2 hours ahead of Singapore, and perhaps here I am simply just water.

Here, I am a child of the moon. When it is dirty, dark, and taunting, I am a lone figure kneeled down on a pew in a cathedral. When it forms a crescent, I am mirth bubbling at the base of my throat. I am the product of tidal waves and I am learning to kiss the shores of Brighton Beach in winter, where it is frigid and cold and I am still not close enough to freezing.

There are families with dogs here. I try my best not to kiss the dogs.

Home, here, is an abandoned conch, and I am learning to fill it with abandoned furniture from other abandoned shells. I dress the couch with vintage skirting, too. My white noise machine is the rerun of a Cartoon Network show at 1AM, and my neighbor is a grumpy bookseller who only smiles when he talks about the letters he’s written to dead poets. On good days, home feels like a lonely business hotel room – but there are no good days here, the same way there are no bad ones.

Home here is forgetting how to map things out. Home here is never needing a map to navigate. Home is forgetting the turns that lead you to your favorite corners, and relearning that every corner would work just as well as when you were 17.

 

 

Perhaps, maybe, if I pray enough, one day home would be the Starship Enterprise, and I’d be a cartographer. I’d be in many planets with too many moons, or none at all. My job would be to map out alien cities and new civilisations we’d discover – it could be anything from Vulcan to Andoria, even Qo’noS – right from the comfort of my crewman’s quarters.

The bedsheets would be marigold (in some lights it’s salmon), and the walls purple. And if I grew bored, and I wanted a kingdom, or a thriving restaurant, an airline, a business empire, a humble laundromat, a kiosk selling fishcakes – everything and anything from bookselling to baking – I’d have the recreation deck and replicator for that.

And here it’d be okay to have many homes, or none at all.


Benedicta Foo writes about lonely people and/in lonely spaces. Her work has been published in journals worldwide, and she won the National Poetry Competition (Singapore) in 2016.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee

Dear Dirty Dublin

Content Advisory: Adult Language and Sexual References

Dear Dirty Dublin is Lisa Zuliana’s poetic tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses, a work testament to Irish Modernism in its concerns with sense of belonging, nationalism, what makes a true Irish citizen, wandering and the usurpation of the home. Writing in the combined perspectives of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom, Lisa sketches in shorter, (hopefully) more understandable verses than the novel, anecdotes of what home means to each character, their regrets, peregrinations and hopes in securing a home.

Think you’re escaping but you run into yourself
Longest way round is the shortest way home

Start from the phallic symbol jutting up from
Mother Ireland that faces her
Scrotumtightening fluids and look up
The gulls caw a greeting and sun creeps
Past the rocks where soon you will wander

Usurp the home but home is everywhere

Ashplant makes a hole in all sand and soil
Walk, you brute, what else are you good for
Save for writing like I am writing because there must be an omphalos reference in here
Somewhere

The streets stank of squalor and a lame soldier begs
Woman’s arm, full of love’s lard and lusty folds, flings down a coin
Glints and I sing a song of sixpence
The journey took me here though maybe it was mine own two feet
Strange, surely, I have transgressed the natural order of things

This detour seems fortuitous

Redirect my path to home but home is everywhere

Potted meat and its gaminess wafts through the air
Coupled with smoke and faeces and fecund wives
The perfume of my nation
But I am not an Irishman yet this smell sinks into my blood
Like the reddish essence of my burnt kidney
Sawed off and gnawed
Leftovers from another world that found solace in the womb of a shelter
Home can be a home even if it is not the picture-perfect home

Paint my own home and look through my eyes and the Daily Telegraph waves in the wind as does the Irish flag

Have a pint no thanks not for me

What I have no money
I wish only to relax in this place that I have known all my life
I am not one of them
Damned dog of the foreign and chased by a mongrel myself
Can’t leave well enough alone
Ah but these are the trials of finding one’s place in home

Home is where I belong surely
But could it also be where I want to belong?

yes of course he took me away to here where the city never sleeps i can’t sleep either so noisy and the stinking rises up in the midday the two damned dogs are at it again breeding populating no stopping want to fill up all blank space He takes residence up in me cunt he fits surprisingly you think after so long of no loving he would be down for the count i want to make him feel all over me till he loses control hide himself in me like i am the safest place for him ay i hear the toll of the clock what a fool he is keeping me up in such a state need to be in his arms lie with him side by side indent on the right is growing deeper and when was the last time he used his tongue on something other than that bit of burnt kidney loved seeing him rush down and near cracking his head on the staircase pussens would lick up the dried blood a happy home is a home of laughs and solemnity my mother used to say without a husband what home could you have a stupid jealous brute that wants to shove it right up into you let you house his hat rack and polish it good till it shines he thinks i want to hang pearls around his neck make it a noose and ill give it a good tug i want him to eat me though it is a stuffy old place this apartment but i suppose it will do so hot so lurid woofing and barking and humping and ay husband come home and make me a home for you


LISA ZULIANA is a graduating student majoring in English Literature in Nanyang Technological University. Her writing often details feminism, eroticism, gender issues and the battering of women. She is inspired by Rupi Kaur and Angela Carter but her senpai is James Joyce. Her hope is to publish two poetry collections she is currently working on.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

5 Poems

In these five poems, Ainne Frances dela Cruz expresses a sympathetic sensibility, drawing the reader from observation to affective spaces. In “Form”, the heart is a Heideggerean vessel in which we are invited to “listen to it / Beat”, and this rhythmic space finds metaphorical form with the young man’s heart in “Beating the Drums”. In “Stars”, the space of Being is transformed into a kaleidoscopic display, where things “make you stumble on broken springs”. Such imperfect movement is explored in “Parallel Lines”, where the observation of crabs transforms into existential, purposive reflection. The perspective is inverted in “If these walls could talk”, where her cat’s gaze alienates; her existence becomes mere object in her cat’s maze—”a 10-inch nail”. Yet, like her other poems, we are always brought to the same moment: the moment which “gives shape / To a space than can contain” these things.

Beating the Drums

1)   In an old house, a young man.
In his hands, rough skin beating beneath his palm.

2)   Picture the man’s hair, long.
Entwined in his fingers are the tresses he used to love.

3)   He used to cover his face with his hair.
Now he covers the drums.

4)   Music catches the longness of time
He holds it in his hands, finger by finger.

5)   Every sound is a beat, every beat an echo.
He strains to hear long dead words.

6)   Skin to skin, he and the drums become one.
Echo by echo every movement drums.

7)   Today the drums beat as soundly as before.
Today his heart is a drum.

***

Form

Form is only a function
Of air, to give shape

To a space that can contain
It. Even the heart knows

This reason, listen to it
Beat, confined to a wall

Of muscle and skin, taut
As nightmares and as real

***

If these walls could talk

There’s a cat that lives
in my house.
I don’t see it
I only hear
the meows and yelps
that mark its catness.

So much louder,
so imaginatively egotistical
when it sees a mouse.

I search for its cat-eyes,
its cat-paws
its nine lives.

Wanting a taste of fang and claw
of whiskered fur,
sheathed velvet.

Too fast, our times never meet
I am stuck to a wall.
The cat lives
in a maze

forever going in and out
in and out
of my life.

And I a 10-inch nail,
a hair in its path,
will go on loving
behind cracks
from screen to screen
hole to hole

until it looks
and ravishes me.

***

Parallel Lines

One can find crabs
In swamps, burrows
And other unusual places.

They dig deep
And stay under
For long periods of time.

Their aloofness turns off neighbors
They live and die
Alone.

But even they
Seek to wander
Even they
Seek to commune
To trick God himself
Who has made them
This way.

And so they walk
Trying to overtake
Their very nature
Trying to cover
Ground before
Reality
Catches up with them.

But one just can’t get
Too far
Walking sideways.
And though we always
Want to do what is good
We somehow never end up
Where our feet
Wanted to be

***

Stars

Fireworks slice my skull into colours. Green. Yellow. Silver. Gold. Purple. Unnamed variations of light striating their scions in my brain. I gulp this madness with my skin. Unnamed versions of desire. Stirring slowly and clogging my heart. My heart. That with a moving crane one can stir up and dredge. Mud and viscous things. The desire to move entrenched upon skin. The desire to live outweighed by the habit of keeping alive. And yes. Only that. Only that which feeds.

What feeds us keeps us alive. In one version of the story, the man ate his heart because it was bitter. (Bitter things taste better in afterthought). In another version of the story, the man ate his heart because it was his heart. That which nourishes us keeps us alive. So all the fireworks in my brain. So all the explosions that echo in our skin.

Feed me. Oh, I always wanted freedom from this horrible hunger. That depends upon body clocks and clockwork oranges to satiate. I sing this body, electric with all its desires, and all its mad hungers, its mad flavours, its whirling, indigestible afterthoughts, that in haste, in haste, we bury and consume.

Slowly upon wheatfields (that makes one sorrow with its colours), one realizes, that beauty is colorless. It steals our colors. Entrenches in us ideas of fear. (Is there beauty without fear?) What strikes chords in our skin is only images of ourselves whitewashed against that greater image of God. And god is a thing to fear. A thing that brings madness even to angels. The nothing that was nothing before. A wandering star.

Always, I find myself drawn to bright lights and falling objects. (and you were a thing that fell fathoms deep, that fell down to forever-ness.). And I? Oh bright lights are drawn to things that shine and gleam. And in the dark. They make you stumble on broken springs.


AINNE FRANCES DELA CRUZ’s first chapbook Tumbleweed was published by Tiny Press, USA. Her works have appeared in Philippines Graphic, ANI (the literary journal of the Cultural Center of the Philippines), Under the Storm: an anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry, and various international publicatons.

She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from St. Scholastica’s College, Manila and has completed some units for her Masters in Comparative Literature from the University of the Philippines. She was a fellow for the University of Santo Tomas’ National Writers Workshop and the Montaggio Writers Workshop. She now writes for Gulf Insider, one of the leading magazines in Bahrain.

At night, she edits the awesome little zine called Paper Monster Press.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee

I think I understand Phaethon

What is a grieving man supposed to do? This story draws you into the fantastic world of Greek mythology at first glance but quickly weaves it into our real world without reprise. Heartbreaking yet riveting, it chronicles a man’s self-discovery in his musings and leaves a reader reeling from the final blow. As it was intentionally left unnamed, the author also invites you to think about why this is the case, and if it adds to the story’s narrative.

I think I understand Phaethon.

If I were given the chance I would step into that gold-gilded chariot, too.

I would be mesmerised by its glitter. I would run my fingers along the intricately carved surface, feel the dips and bends in every corner.

It would feel hot to the touch. Not burning, but a comfortable kind of warmth that makes you think of summers on the beach. Mixed in the air would be the smell of sun lotion and the salty depth of sea filling every cell of your expanding lungs. I would lay my hands on the chariot and soak up its pulsing warmth forever. Close my eyes, will myself away. Take me to the beach again, back to her and the happiness and the sea and the warm sun.

When I open my eyes I see at the horses at the front of the chariot. Their bodies must be a creamy white, like vanilla ice-cream that you eat with your love during summertime. As the both of you laugh and race to finish the dripping cones, she flashes the most vivacious smile that stops you in your tracks. Beautiful. Then you start as an ice-cold sensation hits the tip of your nose and you realise she has smeared ice-cream on your face. You chortle and dip your finger into your own cone. Yes, the horses possess the exact same shade. They’re the colour of memories. Now they’re neighing at you gently.

I dip my toes slowly onto the dazzling, gold-polished surface of the chariot. Has anyone ridden this before? It is irradiant; it glitters. I bend on my knees and, on a whim, lay my cheek against the surface. I can see the horses gazing at me incuriously, tilted to the side. From this angle their manes look like rippling columns of majesty as the snow-white columns dance about in the breeze. Such elegance. It reminds you of the first time you actually noticed a girl in a way that makes your heart skip a beat. Maybe it’s the way her hair swung around as she turns, catching the sunlight in its beat. Maybe it’s how she placed her hand on your chest and made you feel instantly at home. Maybe it’s just her. But it’s time to go. A lump hitches in my throat.

I gather the thick ropes in my hands. They look tiny as they are harnessing the giant ropes tethering the horses. As I look at the ropes, the horses, then up into the azure wideness of the sky, a serene faith takes over me. I will be fine. I hesitate, then ripple the ropes in one swift motion. I observe as the rope obeys my command and waves up and down, travelling to the horses patiently awaiting. Then it happens: the rope solidly thuds against the horses and the fur on their bodies displaces. All of a sudden I am rising higher and higher. The ascension is so fast I feel dizzy, it reminds me of the time I went to a theme park as a child and tried a roller-coaster. But I threw up after that, and now I pray I don’t. I look around me and see nothing but whizzing chunks of white within the blue. Is this the sky?

I turn around and stare at the goal in front of me. It is blazing, intense, aglow with fire. It seems to be pulsing and beckoning at me. I feel myself getting warmer and warmer as I get closer to it. My heart is racing, this warmth is exactly like how it felt at the beach so many years ago. I almost smell the sea again. Now I feel fire. I think tears are streaming down my cheeks. Was this how she felt in her last moments, with the blaze surrounding her? Did she take the time to appreciate the vivid glare of the fire as it slowly consumed her, like I am? I squeeze my eyes shut as the pain takes over, searing every cell of my body. It feels like a renewal. I am delivered once more into a new, bright world. I can’t escape the glow now; it is bright and I think I am about to shatter. I faintly hear the horses screaming in the background. But mostly all I hear is her singing softly the night we first slept together.

I think perhaps I understand Orpheus better.


S is a soft-spoken girl who has acquired the love for writing at a young age – as a child, she often dreamt about fairytales, and now realises that she can write herself in the world of fantasy. Now as a final-year undergraduate in NUS, she finds herself increasingly in need of escaping into this world of fantasy. In her writings, S is especially intrigued with the motifs of Greek mythology and appreciates a good unexpected twist in stories every now and then. Her least favourite book is Pride and Prejudice – she once fell asleep reading it.

Photo Credit: Victoria Lee

The World Inside Our Pages

Lee Russell‘s simple but uplifting tale merges elements of fantasy with the too-real problems of Singapore’s education system. His story raises questions about the efficacy of our education system, what the point of studying is, and the beauty of literature – questions most, if not all, literature students have had to grapple with at some time.

Michael sat at the bus stop, watching the vehicles vroom past. His eyes were fixed on the hedge that divided the road between its coming and going lanes, such that the crisp forms of the cars, buses and taxis were reduced only to greyish blurs.

A bus cruised to a halt before him. With a groan, the doors opened and regurgitated a swarm of students in grey. They scurried towards the gate behind the bus stop, some slowing to offer Michael and his grey uniform odd looks. From the distance came a bell’s chime, muffled as if heard from within a pool of water.

Michael raised his watch. It was 8 o’clock.

I don’t even know why I come here anymore.

He boarded the next bus that arrived and picked a window seat so he could stare outside. It wasn’t long before a vibration in his pocket interrupted his ride.

He took out his phone. “Hello?”

“Michael?” A woman’s voice came from the receiver. “Hi, this is Mrs. Tan. Are you coming to school today?”

“No. I’m having a fever. Sorry for not telling you earlier.”

“Have you gone to see the doctor?” Concern coloured the woman’s voice.

“Not yet. When I woke up for school this morning I went back to bed straightaway because I had a very bad headache. I only just woke up again. I’m planning to go see the doctor after I eat breakfast.”

“Did you check your temperature?”

“It was 38. But my headache is better now so I think I’ll be okay after I take some medicine.”

“That’s quite high. Make sure you rest well today, okay?” Mrs. Tan adopted a firm tone. “And let me know in advance if you won’t be coming to school tomorrow.”

“Okay.

“Oh, I returned the class their mid-term papers already. Do you want to know your results?”

“Okay.”

“Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, GP. All As.” Mrs. Tan’s voice rose both in pitch and tempo. “Well done.”

Michael’s lips hardened into a straight line. “Wow, I wasn’t expecting to do so well.”

“If only the rest of the class could be more like you.”

Drawing his gaze away from the window and to his feet, Michael fidgeted.

“Okay, sorry for interrupting your rest. Take care of yourself. I’ll see you in class when you’re feeling better.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Tan. See you.”

Beep.

Michael leaned back and stared at the ceiling.

Straight A’s again. But I don’t even remember anything I studied. What am I doing?

As if all the air in the bus suddenly amassed around Michael’s neck, his throat tightened and he clutched a hand over his mouth.

He disembarked at the next stop to a cluster of HDB flats he failed to recognise. Turning back, he caught a glimpse of the number of the bus as it departed: 77. The same bus he took to school and back every day. He tried to recall the window scenery of his daily morning trips but nothing came to mind.

I better check the bus numbers.

But he found no signs, no benches, not even the usual pole denoting the name of the bus stop. Michael scrunched his eyes.

Is this even a bus stop?

He took out his phone and tapped the icon labelled ‘Google Maps’. The next moment, his phone emitted a weak vibration and the screen went black. Michael sighed.

Shit.

Stuffing the device back into his pocket, he looked around. There were no road signs at the end junction and, on the grey paint faces of the HDB blocks, only numbers were placed. Across the road was a compound of white buildings from which the sounds of children rang out. Apart from that, the street was silent.

A distant rumbling turned Michael towards the HDB flats.

An MRT station?

He felt his throat with one hand and his stomach with the other. Once done, he strode off.

Like a palm with fingers all pointing skyward, a plaza was situated within the cluster of blocks. In it were grassy patches spotted with bright flowers, and a modest playground sat in the middle. It had monkey bars, a swing and a castle with a slide. A boy was sitting on a bench near the playground, eyes fixed on the castle walls.

“Excuse me.” The boy spoke the moment Michael crossed his line of vision.

“Yes?” Michael turned his head.

From his seat, the boy raised a pointed finger. “Can you help me take my ball, mister? It bounced somewhere around there.”

Michael followed the finger’s gaze and found a basketball hidden beneath the slide.

Retrieving it, he tossed it towards the boy. “Here.” But the boy’s arms remained still even as the ball flew through the air.

Bam!

The boy jerked to the left as the ball slammed into the bench right next to his head and ricocheted into the sky.

Bonk. Bonk. Bonk.

“Sorry.” Running to retrieve the ball a second time, Michael carried it over to the bench. “Here.”

Staring straight at Michael’s stomach, the boy spent several seconds groping for the ball.

When his fingers finally reached their mark, he smiled. “Thank you, mister.”

Michael took a step back and frowned. “Are you?”

The boy nodded as he bounced the ball on the ground. “Ya. I cannot see.”

“What are you doing at the playground all by yourself, then? Where are your parents?”

“At work. I’ve been blind for a few years already so I know how to come down and go up by myself. I always come here to play.”

A few years. “So you were not born blind?”

The ball bounced past the boy’s frozen fingers and fell underneath the bench.

“Sorry.” Michael’s voice softened as he retrieved the ball again. “I shouldn’t have asked that question.”

The boy shook his head as he bounced the ball. “It’s okay. I’m happy to have someone to talk to. Usually I play here alone the whole day until Mummy and Daddy reach home and bring me upstairs.”

“What time do they usually come back?”

“I don’t know. I cannot tell the time.” The boy caught the ball and stopped. “I got in an accident when I was crossing the road on the way back from school. That’s how I became blind.”

Taking a seat next to the boy, Michael sat in silence for a moment and asked, “Is there anything you miss?”

The boy laughed. “Everything.”

“Then what do you miss the most?”

The boy dropped his chin and spent a while rolling the ball in his hands. “Books.”

It was Michael’s turn to laugh.

Frowning, the boy turned. “What’s so funny?”

“Why would you miss books?” Michael’s voice was thick with condescension. “They’re just black and white only. So boring.”

“Have you read books before, mister?” The boy’s reply meandered with the lilt of curiosity.

“Of course. We have so many textbooks to study in school.”

“Not textbooks.” The boy sighed. “I mean storybooks. You know, like Hunger Games and Maze Runner.”

“Of course I’ve read storybooks also. I study Literature, you know.”

The boy’s frown grew wider and deeper. “You sure you read them properly?”

“Oi, I just got A for my Literature mid-term exam.”

“You must be colour blind.”

Michael’s smug grin faded as his eyelids snapped open. “How do you know?”

The boy’s frown vanished. “Really? You’re colour blind?”

Michael nodded.

A frown returned to the boy’s face as he turned away. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry. I’m okay. I don’t really care about it anyway. I was born colour blind so I don’t know anything about what colours are like. I have nothing to miss.”

“Eye problem?”

Michael leaned back and stared at the clouds, white wisps on grey. “No. Actually I go for medical check-ups every year. But every time the doctor says there’s nothing wrong with my eyes.”

Pointing a finger, the boy aimed his face at Michael’s. “Maybe it’s not a problem in your eyes, but a problem in here.”

Michael looked down at his chest and chuckled. “What are you talking about?”

“What is it like to live without colours?”

“Like I said, I don’t even care-” Before he could finish, a snake circled itself around Michael’s throat.

He slapped both hands above his mouth as he broke into a coughing fit. Taking deep breaths through his nose as he gulped down the poison inside, two beads formed at the outermost corners of his eyes.

“It,” he tripped on the word. “It sucks. Everything is the same. Every day is the same. I go to school, listen to class, go home, do my homework, go to sleep. The same day every day. I don’t even know why I’m doing it. What’s the point? ”

A wave of heat rose from his feet and crashed into the top of his skull. The beads in his eyes shattered, spilling their liquid forth.

“I always get As for my exams because all I ever do in my free time is study, I don’t even know what else I can do. And I keep doing it because when I get As, Pa and Ma won’t disturb me and when they don’t disturb me I get more free time but what do I in my free time? I just study, I don’t even know if I’m really studying because I can’t even remember what I study.”

Panting, Michael hunched over his knees. His knuckles pressed over them were shivering even though there was lava slowly slithering down his back, dripping.

“So you don’t have fun?” the boy asked.

Michael laughed. “What is fun? I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s boring. They’re just words that people taught me.”

The boy stood and, basketball in hand, hobbled away into the HDB flats.

Covering his eyes, Michael rested his neck on the spine of the bench.

Shit. Why did I go and say all that stuff to a primary school kid? I’ve never talked to anyone like this before.

His skin was still burning with smouldering embers that chafed him when he moved so he remained there, quiet like a corpse. There was no time in the silence of the playground.

“Mister.”

Michael blinked, expecting to be blinded by the brilliance of the sun but the world was just as dull as he remembered.

Black, white and grey. Those are the only things I ever remember.

The boy stretched a paperback out to Michael. “This is my favourite book. You can have it.”

Michael glanced at the cover without looking at the title. “Why?”

“I want to teach you about colours. But I think a book can do a better job. Books are full of colours, you know.”

Michael stared at the boy’s smile and mistakenly placed gaze.

Whatever.

Grabbing the book, he stood and walked away.

**

The moment Michael reached home, he locked his room door, shut the curtains and settled in a corner with a lamp dangling above his head. There, he opened the book and began to read. Instead of blurring through the text like he usually did, he focused on each word, lingering, giving each the opportunity to simmer in the sea of his mind and dissolve before the next splashed in.

Ploop.

As he progressed, light streamed out from the pages. It was warm, unlike any he had ever experienced before. He read on and, as the light intensified, the words detached themselves from the paper and floated into the air, transforming into bubbles of coloured vistas that replaced the walls of his room. Rivulets spilled down his cheeks as he flipped the pages over and over.

**

Michael awoke in the corner of his room. The book was gone. Light streamed in from behind the fluttering curtains.  Rising, he pushed them aside and shoved the windows open.

That morning, the sky was blue.


LEE RUSSELL, not to be confused with local True Singapore Ghost Stories writer Russell Lee, is an aspiring novelist with a penchant for fantasy fiction. Easily entertained, his hobbies include doing basically anything. He currently runs the NUS Literary Society’s resident e-zine Symbal and hopes to expand it as a space for budding local writers to share their works, interact and be recognised for their creativity. You can check it out at nussymbal.wordpress.com.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee

Unheard Thoughts On An Unseen Essay

If you’ve never thought of essays as a creative genre of work, this essay might persuade you otherwise. The writer of this essay pushes the boundaries of what might be considered an academic essay by foregoing polished prose for a stream-of-consciousness thinking aloud juxtaposed alongside essay-worthy literary analysis. Part pastiche, part serious mulling over what it means to study literature, Ivan Sim‘s essay manages to convey a student’s struggle with the commonly-feared unseen poems. Pulling together social media references, essay-writing jargon and a good dose of self-deprecation, this writer reminds us all that the journey to understanding literature always begins with courage and an honest struggle to understand the world around us.

I remember how scary and confusing it used to be, facing these random poems picked by our teachers and the blank piece of foolscap paper next to them, my pen uncapped at the ready. What am I supposed to write about them? Why can’t I seem to find the hidden meaning? Why don’t I get it? No wonder so many friends of mine ditched literature after Secondary 2. I don’t get it, no point studying this poem stuff. Not for me, I’m not that kind of literature person.

I was thinking about all this after I saw the graphic promo on Facebook calling for responses to these unseen extracts. I read the three excerpts offered by the Unseen Team: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Acropolis at Mid-Season by Lisabelle Tay, and Youth by J M Coetzee. I haven’t written one of these essays in over six years. I remember them from JC. I won’t say which one.

I’ll probably take much longer than an hour to finish it. I’m probably rusty by now. It’ll take longer. Now the first problem: deciding which one/s to respond to. I print the extracts out so I could annotate, just like how I was taught.

I start with Ozymandias. I circle “traveller from an antique land” and “This too is a kind of pilgrimage”, reckon there is something in the opening of both poems about journeys. This begs the question: what kind of journey? Travel so far, for what? At first glance, I can’t tell yet, but at least it seems that the persona in the extract from Coetzee is also searching for a better life in London from 1960s South Africa. I remember always choosing to write on unseen poetry, simply because there were fewer words to get through! I know some friends say unseen prose is easier to understand. But I’m a slow reader so with fewer words, it’s easier to focus my attention. Sorry Coetzee, I am dropping you in favour of the traditional comparative essay between two unseen poems.

(I am thinking of consulting Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, Shmoop for help. But I think the editors will know if I do that. It’s not fair anyway. It’s not true to the spirit of the hallowed ‘Unseen’ essay.)

I look at the paper I have printed. Ozymandias looks very compact, whereas Acropolis at Mid-Season appears looser in shape. What can I say about that? I count the lines and scan the last words of each line for patterns and rhymes. Ten-twelve-fourteen: aha! I can confidently declare Ozymandias is a sonnet and Tay’s poem is not. Okay, so what? Surely the different forms affect the meaning of both poems, but it’s not apparent to me at the start now what I can write about comparing a sonnet to free verse. Maybe I’ll check out the volta in Ozymandias, watch how it turns.

Hang on, Ozymandias seems to read a little like a dramatic monologue. I need an authority on this to confirm, but by the laws of responding to unseen poetry I cannot call upon secondary material. Nonetheless, who is the persona speaking to? And then there’s the sign on the statue that the traveller and the persona are both looking at? Or is that a complete misinterpretation? I re-read the poem again. Ah, it seems like the traveller is telling the persona what he saw out there in the desert.

Now I find myself drawing lines out into the margins, scribbling fragments of my thoughts like “legacy”, “wants to be remembered”, “storytelling”, “control of one’s own story”, “(mis)representation” – loose concepts I have heard of before and which seem productive for my critique. Right now I am groping around the cage of words on the page. Right now I need to understand exactly what’s happening in both poems. It’s already been ten minutes and if I only have an hour in an examination, I would probably have to start writing by now! Do other people just get it faster than me, or am I just slow?

Perhaps Acropolis at Mid-Season will give me the clues I need to unlock Ozymandias. They don’t pair up poems at complete random. You can always count on them sharing at least a couple of thematic strands!

I read the poem twice over, because the first time the words just glaze over me and I don’t register anything concrete. Right, so I am thinking Acropolis is reaching across the times to compare how people in Ancient Greece and present day visit the Acropolis and what they did. And this is presented in the direct address reference in “The wine-God devotees who wore these stones down to bone, it is their work / You are continuing, you who have come / From Taiwan and Canada and Korea” –

OH WAIT I GET IT.

It’s about tourists who come to see the Acropolis! So they are the ones making the so-called ‘pilgrimage’. Mid-season: of course! That’s when the weather is good for travel! And the persona is observing them, just like the persona who is speaking to the traveller in ‘Ozymandias’. OH NOW BOTH POEMS MAKE SENSE! At least in the wordless spray of thought in my head it makes sense.

In the midst of my great epiphany, I reward myself with a Facebook break. Two scrolls down my wall and I see this appear on the side:

KAYAK
Sponsored ·

Keep your wanderlust alive ⚓

Isn’t that what Tay is writing about! The state of modern-day tourism, package tours and backpacking trips to all these ancient sites, taking pictures (that must be what ‘scrabbling for the right angle’ is referring!) to prove to other people (maybe on social media, to extended family and friends or someone who sieves through your stuff when you die) that you were there!

Creating a legacy for yourself and for it to be seen by others! Isn’t this similar to what Ozymandias yearned for? With his hired sculptor and the completed bust, he could proclaim “I was here! I was important!” People would “Look on [his] Works!” – and lo’ and behold – someone centuries later did! The persona who saw the statue and told another traveller about it and here we have a poem. There are two levels to this: the great individual men of history seeking to preserve their legacy in the grand sculptures and architecture, and the laymen looking to bask in reflected glory by association, by having been witness to these creations of grandeur! And so both poems are connected together by this – this – this sense of reaching for a kind of immortality! Yes, that’s it! Okay, so now let me try and cobble a thesis statement:

In both poems ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Acropolis at Mid-Season’, Shelley and Tay explore the human compulsion to create lasting impressions of themselves, a sort of legacy for others to remember them by, which prompts at a human need for significance. Both poems show this by bearing witness to both the efforts of ‘Ozymandias’ and his time-worn statue, as well as the international tourists congregating at ‘Acropolis in Mid-Season’, all of whom seek to curate, capture and preserve the best possible sense of permanence of themselves, their experiences and identities. Although both poems foreground the importance of imagination in giving life to these historical traces, they also simultaneously reveal how future subjects can never fully grasp the significance and legacy of these historical claims, whether through casual neglect in passing or material decay.

Right, now I need to back up my points with literary devices and techniques. Back to that volta in Ozymandias. So this is a Petrarchan not Shakespearean sonnet, seeing as the turn comes only after the first octet into the final sestet after 8 lines. Also… there’s the alternating rhymes of ‘land/sand/command’ – but wait a minute – the other alternating rhymes are ‘stone/frown/read’… Maybe I won’t look at rhymes.

Instead, I’ll look at what the story is in the octet. Here, the traveller is describing his encounter with the statue of Ozymandias, and the word that leaps out at me is ‘abandoned’! Yes, so contrast the abandonment of the well-worn statue of Ozymandias and the reinvigorated Acropolis, which, while also well-worn, is given a new lease of life with throngs of ‘worshippers’ that try to piece together the history of this place. Tay’s line ‘Worship demands imagination’ is a useful counterpoint here. A concerted mental effort is needed at trying to reconstruct these histories, regardless of how many are up to the task. In ‘Ozymandias’ there is only a single traveller who seems to stand outside of time, and most of the poem really is filled with imaginative work of conceiving that seemingly unseen statue of Ozymandias in the desert. One could say the traveller’s recount, as an act of storytelling, almost recreates and reimagines Ozymandias into being. Whereas in Athens, I imagine there must be bus-loads of East Asian tourists, young groups and couples of backpackers braving the heat ‘jostling in the burning streets’.

But to what extent are they really ‘seekers of mystery’? Tay’s anaphoric “Here is what we think […] Here is where we think […] here is where there probably used” calls to mind a tour guide walking ahead of a camera-wielding, handkerchief-wiping group gesturing and reciting from either personal research or summary of travel guides. The lack of specificity in those lines and their quick succession suggests the treatment of these histories are brief and cursory, token nuggets of information that may prompt passages of imagination but are perhaps not dwelled upon for too long. But even with the closer attention to detail with which the traveller recounts the eroding facial features of Ozymandias’ statue, “whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”, which is no less supported by his recital of the engraved words on the pedestal, both the traveller and the tour guide similarly demonstrate an awareness of the tension between trying to preserve one’s proof of existence in tangible form, and the vast indifference of the world that surrounds one.

I’ve stopped annotating by now, but I think I had better return to the titles of both poems which point me back to the physical presence of the decaying statue and the ruins of Acropolis, and focus on them for a moment. That they have lasted thousands of years and attracted the fervour of travellers suggests an exultation at the dogged persistence of their tangible forms of existence, perhaps there is a charm in witnessing their continuing on, at once invoking the presence of history, but not without opening up holes of absences to fill. Perhaps there is a relief that arises here, that there exists a real possibility “the earth will remember [them]”, but would that be enough?

 I think I have enough points to go off and write the essay in full now, but I wonder about the standalone prose extract of Coetzee’s. I don’t think I’ve ever had to compare a poem and a piece of prose extract before. I wouldn’t really know where to begin comparing across different forms. But I will say this: I, too, relate to the persona in that extract, in his hunt for a job which will not only pay the bills with a little extra “to go to poetry readings, meet writers and painters, have love affairs”, but also a job that my family and friends will not believe I could have scored. (I’m sure a humanities graduate can do that today.) Just like the persona, I too hope I “will be able to write to [my] mother giving her the good news she is waiting to hear, namely that her son is earning a good salary doing something respectable”. But the difference is I don’t have to write to my mother. She literally lives next door. Like I can hear her playing GOLD 90FM through my bedroom wall and it is Billy Joel singing of the piano man…


IVAN SIM is turning 25 this year. Ivan Sim is struggling. Ivan Sim is single and struggling. Back in JC, the running theme of writing feedback from his teachers was that he was too convoluted, always going in circles and he should just be clear and direct and get to the point. Nothing much has changed, it seems.

What Makes Me Who I Am

Delphie Yap‘s “What Makes Me Who I Am” is a heartfelt reflection on personal identity. Throughout the essay, Yap interweaves ruminations on teenage desires and materiality into a deeply personal narrative on growing up and finding a place “in this big, complicated world”. The capriciousness of life is reflected in Yap’s lucid style, and her words are underpinned by the conceit that life is a story in which we give meaning to. As Yap writes, “We all want to tell a story of our own”. Indeed, this essay tells a powerful one, speaking to our own youthful affections.

This essay won the All In! Young Writers Festival 2017 YOUTHSpeak Essay Competition.

Life.

It is something all of us have. Twenty-six letters are all we are given to make that empty book ours. We all want to tell a story of our own, but we don’t start out knowing how, because finding the right words is like finding a place in this big, complicated world. Living in the age where technology has annihilated all the barriers existing between us, we have come together despite our differences, making instantaneous connections over the ways we are alike. There are so many fandoms, movements and communities out there to belong to, that ironically, it makes fitting in and finding individuality an especially arduous journey.

Finding an identity is an even bigger crisis for us teenagers, old enough to want to tell stories of our own, yet still too young to know what they are. Doing things we are not supposed to do makes us feel alive. The glamorous fairytales exhibited on our idols’ Instagram feeds are so attractive. What about the stereotypes society put us into, the personality tests we take, or even the testimonials our teachers write about us? Do they reflect who we are?

Who am I?

The question hounds our minds, like the panic that rises when we stare at those blank pages for too long. We start out in imitation of our favourite stories. Wincing at the bitter taste of alcohol, our hearts thump louder than the bass reverberating around us. We sign our first petition and rally for the Pink Dot movement. We pore through thesauri, using bombastic words we don’t know the meaning of. Flowery metaphors seem sophisticated enough, even if they don’t necessarily convey our message, even if writing a word feels like bleeding one out.

And then we stop writing long enough to read what we’ve written – we cringe at the convoluted paragraphs that go nowhere. They evoke nothing within us… except disappointment. Our writers’ block is as persistent as the glaring whiteness of the paper in front of us, another page we cannot fill. Surely, telling stories, carving lives of our own shouldn’t be this hard?

I like to think that my life is a book, and my story spills over the pages until the inevitable ending. When I was fourteen, my cousin drowned to death. She was only ten, and when I saw her body in the coffin, it struck me like the rip current that pulled her under – the dreams that were too big for her little body, the way her eyes had been full of life just a week before. It made me think about life, death, and everything else in between. When I die, what can I look back on? My life was reading the same paragraph over and over again; a never-ending cycle of tests, extra classes and trying to fit into the mould of success. I went through the motions, did what others told me to – but there is more to life than this. I want to die brave, bold and beautiful – a story that transcends centuries, one everyone talks about and wants to live.

So I filled the pages with thrilling adventures and gripping plot twists I’d like to live. I tried everything I wouldn’t have tried until I die. Dying my hair purple, I piled make-up on my face like I was trying to forget who I was. I went on late night trips to arcades, movie theatres and bowling alleys, because everything comes alive at night, just like how we only start living when death breathes down on us. It was amazing: I looked like an Instagram model, and my life felt like a movie. But it is exactly that, that made it feel like I was living vicariously, reciting someone else’s story. It was like coming home to a house full of strangers. If this is the place I belong, I don’t want to go home.

Looking back, these are the pages I wish can be ripped off my book, because these are not the moments I’m proudest of. Like ink on paper, these are parts of us that we can never erase, but these experiences also shape who we are. The “rebellious” phase of my life made me realize that life can end anytime, but instead of rushing through life, perhaps I should slow it down, savouring every little thing worth living for. Appreciation is very important. We are always in the pursuit of something – happiness, belonging – but sometimes it is a matter of realizing something we already have. I begin to consciously find beauty and passion in everything I do, seeing the extravagance in the simple joys of life. I find pieces of myself in places I’ve never been in, in strangers I talk to, in songs that reverberate deep into my heart. If my life is a story, then the things I appreciate are the words that truly bring it to life.

I used to go the extra mile establishing a firm identity for myself, until I realize that every page and every letter add up to who I am today. Twenty-six letters are all we are given to make that ending a happy one, but the words don’t have to be bombastic to tell a good story. As Jack Kerouac said, “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” When we string the letters together, and put the simplest words next to each other, they jump off the page and fill every inch of our bodies – like happiness. Like truth, the words seep straight into our bones, defined not just by dictionary and thesaurus, but the meaning we give them. My simple gratitude, the good or bad life experiences, and even my little quirks and habits all build up the character I am. Finding an identity is finding the right words. It’s realizing something we already have and finding a place in this big, complicated world.

It would feel like coming home.


This essay was the Judges Choice Winner the All In! Young Writers Festival 2017 YOUTHSpeak Essay Competition. As one of All In!’s selected media platforms, we are delighted to publish Delphie’s essay here. For more information about All In! visit http://all-in.bookcouncil.sg/.  

DELPHIE YAP YU QI is a Secondary 4 student in Cedar Girls’ Secondary School. She is in the Integrated Programme and is also the president of ELDDS (Debate and Advocacy). Delphie won the bronze award in the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Writing Competition in 2015, and is a past participant of the Creative Arts Programme. On very rare occasions when she is not catching up on school or sleep, Delphie likes to read, write and play the piano.

Photo credit: Leonard Yip