Football, Bloody Hell

OR: Did You See That Ludicrous Display Last Night? 1

Content Advisory: Adult language

In Football, Bloody Hell, Rachel Eng kicks off a riveting game in search of scoring her most important literary goal: Why isn’t there more of football literature? This “unexpected delirium” of football (and) literature, perhaps the literary equivalent of commentary by John Motson, deserves a full 90 minutes of reading with extra time.

Football matters, as poetry does to some people and alcohol to others…Football is inherent in people…There is more eccentricity in deliberately disregarding it than in devoting a life to it.
– Arthur Hopcraft, The Football Man

If football literature were actual football then Fever Pitch would be Leicester City winning the Premier League; unexpected, fantastical, and completely changing perceptions of the game. Fever Pitch lifted football from the clutches of the Hooligan Yob and into the manicured hands of the Gentrified Middle Class, complete with its own Colin Firth movie (a movie that, like most Arsenal seasons, is worth forgetting). Suddenly writing about football was sexy – something that wasn’t just the backdrop of a highbrow novel trying to get into the headspace of the Fascinatingly Boorish Lower Class. You must remember that Fever Pitch also came out in 1992, which was a fundamental moment in the history of English football – it coincided with the beginning of the Premier League, and did much to rehabilitate the image of the football fan three years after Hillsborough had unfairly tarnished it.2

Football non-fiction has skyrocketed in terms of breadth and quality ever since. Respected journalists like Sid Lowe enter the fray with Fear and Loathing in La Liga; David Goldblatt is as close to football’s official historian as anyone will ever get, with Futebol Nation and The Game of Our Lives; even economists and mathematicians have attempted to get in on the action with Soccernomics and Soccermathics. Howler and 8by8 magazines are amalgamations of football and design. Duncan Hamilton’s writing straddles the border between non-fiction and literary fantasy, so vivid and beautiful are his descriptions of George Best playing. If you notice, football has an inordinate amount of books written by amateurs – as a Manchester United and England fan I’m aware of books like Ta Ra Fergie and One Night in Turin, but there are Liverpool tributes (mandatory side-eye), non-league ones, all manners of people bursting to tell their own love stories.

And therein lies the curiosity of football, and perhaps of sport in general. Because while football non-fiction is generous, the field of football fiction has remained smaller than Tottenham Hotspur’s trophy cabinet. For how popular the beautiful game is no one seems to want to write stories about it. When I was doing research for this article I came up with a list of football fiction books; I could count them on my fingers, and the national library didn’t even have half of them for me to read. So to take home and away quite literally – a phrase so ingrained in football culture that I voted for it without thinking, regardless of how many flashbacks to the 4-0 MK Dons defeat it sparked – here is a brief, completely self-indulgent contemplation on the state and character of football literature.3

One reason there isn’t a lot if it might be that the audience is niche. As Hopcraft astutely writes, there are two kinds of people: those who devote a life to it, and those who deliberately disregard it. (There’s also the third kind, who don’t actually exist, but we call them Man City fans.) Unfortunately, the manic obsession that the first group tends to project puts the second group off, and consequently football writers are left with a very niche audience. By clicking on this piece you are in fact a member of a minority, and writers don’t write for members of minorities unless

a.     Their manic obsession levels are very high – and I mean having to decontaminate your limited edition United watch by inserting it into your fifty United kits for a period of 24 hours after your Liverpool-supporting uncle touched it; or
b.     They’re getting paid for it.

And – let me tell you – there is a serious lack of people who own fifty United kits.

But football is the most supported sport in the world, you cry; well, therein lies the problem, because even within this niche but massive audience there are divides that some call rivalries and others call completely insurmountable. (Anyone who’s ever seen Madridistas and Culés try to get along on Twitter will understand.) Fever Pitch is an exception – in general, the closed ranks of football fans mean that some books just can’t be read. Many United fans would give both of David Peace’s fiction books, one about Leeds and one about Liverpool, a pass. And I doubt that die-hard England fans are going to get much joy from the German-praising Das Reboot, unless it reimagines a future where penalty shootouts are abolished and draws are decided by how fast you can spell the name ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’.4

Above all, football fiction is as self-indulgent as this article. People write about football because they’re the ones who want to read it. I once read a review of David Peace’s Red or Dead which was scathing in its criticism of the book as something written for no one: “you can only assume that Peace wrote it for that most reliable, persistent and forgiving audience: himself.”5 One gets the feeling that J. L. Carr must have supported the smallest of football teams, since How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup reads like a personal fantasy of reaching Wembley. Fever Pitch and those of its ilk are the most self-indulgent of all, chronicling their own journeys, not professing universality or even good writing (I sometimes wonder if Ta Ra Fergie was edited before being published). The stab of modernism that Red or Dead took aside, football writing is perhaps the most lowbrow of forms, with every great writer outnumbered by a million mediocre ones, and the same story (there’s a ball, people kick it, someone loses, and might I just say fuck Huddersfield Town, fuck Chelsea too, and we may as well fuck City while we’re here) is done over and over again.

But therein lies the reason why football and literature work. First off, football literature isn’t just about football. As the clever folk of Soccer & Philosophy write, ‘football re-enacts the drama of life’.6 The stadium becomes an arena for other, human conflicts and concerns to shine through: Wanderers is also about the nostalgia for disappearing old towns; Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs is as much about idols and hero worship as it is about Welsh wizards; London Fields reads like class conflict. Even Bend it Like Beckham, probably the most famous football movie, is about belonging and the clash of cultures.  Horribly big ideas can be distilled into a ninety minute sport spent kicking the life out of each other, because ‘football is fictional in character’, and therefore can be manipulated as such.

And the fictionality of it is what lends it universality. Football, more than anything else, is about the human condition. Going back to Soccer & Philosophy, ‘the study of football – be it historical, sociological, economic, or philosophical – is a study of humanity, in all its glory and debauchery’. A diehard Liverpool-supporting friend of mine (mandatory side-eye) recently described Fever Pitch as (in capital letters, no less) ‘VOLDEMORT’S SOUL DIARY N I WAS GINNY READING IT, EXCEPT VOLDEMORT IS NICK HORNBY’.7 Multiple who have very many reasons for hating Arsenal or even not caring at all relate to it because all it takes is a little stretch of the imagination – instead of Arsenal, it’s United, instead of Wenger, it’s Ferguson, but the melodrama of if they don’t win I will throw myself out of a window remains. Every football fan, in the end, feels the same way.

Football is the only sport where the ‘Narrative’ is bandied about, and events like Istanbul (2005) become part of a cultural fabric and shared memory that is used as the story of who we are and why we are. Football literature is about people, emotions, feelings, and above all the fantasy that is such a part of our nature. It marries the escapism of a book with the escapism of the game itself. The Steeple Sinderby Wanderers beat professional teams by fantastical margins: its 6-0, 7-0 scorelines are reminiscent of the ridiculousness that is Shaolin Soccer, and yet where you wouldn’t believe the quintessential Stephen Chow nonsense somehow you are carried by the narrative of the Wanderers, all the way to the final, willingly suspending your disbelief. Because you aren’t expecting reality here. You are reading a genre where a team hammered the opponents they always lost to on penalties 5-1 (England v. Germany, 2001), where a team bottom of the league the previous year went on to win it (Leicester, 2015/16), where a team scored two goals in the last three minutes of the game to win the Champions’ League final (Manchester United v. Bayern Munich, 1999). Literally anything can happen. You, too, long to have it that easy – for your own team to win the cup, or for yourself to win the lottery, or for a promotion to fall into your lap – and in football, where the lines between escapism and real-life miracles are blurred, that narrative is actually within reach. To paraphrase Phil Neville, ‘it might be fantasy, but I think that football is built on a little bit of fantasy’.8

So to answer my original question: the reason there is so little football fiction is because the subject matter itself is fiction. You can’t distinguish the two genres the way you can, say, distinguish a book about the history of the Cold War and a James Bond novel. The only reason fiction needs to be written in football is to have greater control about the secondary messages you want to put across – class and race and all that – but, ultimately, all of your concerns have already been framed in the language of actuality.

Football is real life. It is also so much more than real life. (United fans, forgive me for sounding like Bill Shankly here.) It is only in this genre, with the possible exception of historical fiction, that real person fiction is mainstream – Red or Dead and The Damned United are both fictionalised accounts of real people in ways that other forms of literature might have denounced weird or slanderous. Non-traditional forms of literature abound here – as mentioned, almost literally anyone can publish a book about football, regardless of credentials or indeed the ability to write – because what matters is not the writing but the narrative. Sometimes in writing about high ideals and achieving technically beautiful language writers neglect the story itself. Well, football writing brings you right back to the heart of the matter. Because literature, after all, is a reflection of humanity, and football is humanity in all its community, spirit, glory. Football is not a highbrow thing. It is a working man’s sport, and appeals to the most fundamental of our nature. Self-indulgence is something that anyone can enjoy. Even if the writing itself can’t convey the feeling of going to a football match, it stirs in us the same ideas of communal identity and free emotions; to some extent a modern day religion. There’s a reason your own football stadium is called your home.

Football literature shouldn’t be looked down on because it’s part of the Uncouth World of Sports or because someone’s written in the colloquial ‘I was stood’ instead of ‘I was standing’. Football players needn’t be associated with stupidity and football fans needn’t be associated with mindless violence. It might be lowbrow, but that only means that it is more raw and human than many other forms of the written word, and that is no bad thing.

People who’ve read Fever Pitch will be able to utter that immortal, vaguely heteronormative first line about falling in love with football the same way as he would later fall in love with women. But my personal favourite comes from the Liverpool-Arsenal (mandatory side-eye) game towards the end of the book. It is an appeal to the non-sporting amongst us to try and understand why football is so important; a hope that people can look past boozy forty-year-olds banging on about the offside rule and see the nucleus of human consciousness at the heart of the game; or at the very least something that might encourage you to pick up a copy, see for yourself, and earn me some kind of referral fee, since fifty United kits is never enough.

So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.
– Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

Books Mentioned That Are Ranked Higher Than Leeds United

  1. The Football Man by Arthur Hopcraft
  2. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
  3. Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe
  4. Arsenal
  5. Futebol Nation by David Goldblatt
  6. The Game of Our Lives by David Goldblatt
  7. Immortal by Duncan Hamilton
  8. Ta Ra Fergie by Pete Molyneux
  9. One Night in Turin aka. All Played Out by Pete Davies
  10. Das Reboot by Raphael Honigstein
  11. Red or Dead by David Peace
  12. The Damned United by David Peace
  13. How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers won the FA Cup by J. L. Carr
  14. Soccer and Philosophy ed. Ted Richards
  15. Bring me the Head of Ryan Giggs by Rodge Glass

Books Not Mentioned That Are Still Ranked Higher Than Leeds

  1. Provided You Don’t Kiss Me by Duncan Hamilton
  2. The Footballer Who Could Fly by Duncan Hamilton
  3. Tor! by Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger
  4. Arsenal
  5. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Soren Frank
  6. Saturday, 3pm by Daniel Gray
  7. My Favourite Year ed. Nick Hornby
  8. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGuinniss
  9. God is Round by Juan Villoro
  10. Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

As evinced by the unnecessary bibliography and even more unnecessary footnotes, RACHEL ENG is a history graduate now working in a museum, surviving only on salt, bitterness, and old youtube videos of Ryan Giggs’s chest-carpet. She has over a hundred titles on her football books wishlist and accepts combined birthday-Christmas presents. Her claims to fame include dissolving into a sobbing wreck in front of Gary Neville, touching the Premier League trophy more times than Steven Gerrard, winning Man of the Match after waking up at 3am to catch England lose to Iceland, and watching Class of ’92 enough times to qualify for the sobriquet of Why, God, Why. In her spare time she makes Bad Jokes and runs a football website called We Lose Every Week that redefines the term ‘self-indulgence’.

Photo Credit: Rachel Eng

  1. This was stolen from The IT Crowd‘s beautiful depiction of the fan/non-fan dichotomy (–1aw), but given the amount of Arsenal already featured I felt the title ought to go to something United, just to salvage my dignity. Sir Alex Ferguson’s immortal quote summing up the fantasy nature of football works better than his other one about knocking Liverpool off their perch, as much as I would rather have fucking printed that. 
  2. The Hillsborough disaster saw 96 Liverpool fans killed because of police negligence, and media/government opinion at the time unfairly blamed the fans themselves for being ill-behaved. 
  3. Sometimes, at night, I can still see Jonny Evans backpassing. 
  4. With a W2L12 record, England are the worst penalty shootout takers in the world. Trivia for you, tragedy and despair for me. 
  5. The pointlessly bitter savagery might remind you of Roy Keane, but it isn’t. 
  6. Hoyningen-Huene, Paul. Why is football so fascinating? In: Ted Richards (ed.), Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2010. 12. 
  7. Thanks Shaz for being more entertaining than Steve Gerrard in 48 seconds, in itself a hard act to follow. 
  8. Life of Ryan: Caretaker Manager. Fulwell 73. DVD. 

The Literature Plunge

Can choosing to study literature ever be a pragmatic choice? Does enjoying literature necessitate, or permit one to study it further? These are perhaps the wider question lurking in the background of Sneha Varma’s The Literature Plunge, an honest personal reflection on the moments of anxiety in one’s education journey where one is faced with weighing the opportunity costs of (not) studying literature as a subject at the next level against the tide of expectations surrounding us.

“And congratulations to the graduating class of 2017!” The auditorium erupted in cheers. Yet there seemed to be everything and nothing happening at once. I was acutely aware of the girl who was in tears while the one on my right rejoiced in her liberation.

Me? I was numb.

There was fear and excitement, uncertainty and enthusiasm. My heart was beating out my chest because what I was unsure of. This one place which had made up who we were and what we have done for the past four years was now no longer a constant in our lives. It was truly the best of times and the worst of times. We were presented with furniture to assemble with four different set of instructions but none of them in a language that we could interpret.

Now more than ever the unpredictability of what was to happen was prevalent.

Thump. I walked past what used to be the dreaded school hall that held never ending talks

Thump. Past the now empty classrooms that have kept me company these past four years.

Thump Thump. Past the joys and mishaps that these walls speak of.

Thump Thump Thump Thump. Past what once was the only thing I had to worry about.

Thump. Past knowing what and where I would be the next day.

What’s next? More like what isn’t next. Junior College: the most viable option to those who know nothing of what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Choosing to hide behind the core 4 paths: Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer, Accountant. The only desirable jobs available. Being anything else simply shows that you haven’t worked hard enough. You did not focus enough. You did not have the drive to do well. You did not want to put in the hardwork. Sometimes it’s simply… you didn’t know better. Admitting that is scary and perhaps the reason why ignorance is bliss. Now there is no time left to put off and we have to answer the questions haunting us since our birth and that would haunt us till we die.

Who am I? Who will I be?

Now the basics of that are pretty easily covered, but when it comes down to what really matters I stop short. Even I don’t know who I am. I have heard and read enough about the world to know that this is supposed to be the time for self discovery… but how long is it supposed to last? When is the deadline for us to know what we want to do, when the people flocking on my left and right know exactly which course and what positions they hope to get in their careers? How is it that everyone around me knows the ‘correct’ course to take while I can’t even begin to decide. To me, it wasn’t about what to take; it was about what to drop, to sacrifice, to leave behind. Head over heart; Science over Arts; money over everything else. Now then, who will I be?

It seems like everybody has something to say about my next steps in life. My parents, teachers, peers, even the neighbour whom I met in the lift and talked to for the first time last week. I want to scream back at them: I know this is important! I know that this determines my future and that I can make or break it! However, I just don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Is this where we leave our last ounces of wants behind?


Literature. I distinctly remember being in my first literature lesson in secondary school. To say I was obsessed with books would be putting it lightly, but never did I expect it to blossom to anything more than simply a pastime. The first thing that my teacher taught us was not who was Shakespeare, or why literature is important, but instead she only flashed the words “Mary had a little lamb” on the screen and everyone burst out laughing. We only realised what was the purpose of the slide when she went How many of you think Mary enjoyed her dinner? That was my first introduction to literature and its power to dazzle, question and intrigue.

I fell in love almost instantly. I started seeing so much more in my favourite books than I did before and I felt a much deeper connection to my favourite characters. Before I knew it I made my way to the deeper end of the sea and was always looking forward to the next literature lesson. I encountered Shakespeare and George Orwell and learnt to appreciate what I would have labelled and boring just a few months back. The one subject that I did not mind studying, my oasis in the desert was the chance to connect to characters and learn from them that always grounded me even in the most demanding of situations. However, as school went on, my interest in literature had to pass multiple tests.

The first test came and passed without much thought, the mid-year exams. They generally have a significant impact on the outcome and destination of our grades but is overall of less importance than the finals. I had never scored an A for Literature before, which seemed to be the only way to assess my progress. Though disappointed and filled with envy of those who seemed to be simply better at Literature than me, I knew I was not ready to give up the subject. At that point I knew what I know today, that I do enjoy the subject and look forward to more of it. At that point, that was enough. Enough to make me take the dive into the unknown enough to trust that taking Literature would not be a mistake. I was now able to take both science and arts subjects. At this point I convinced myself that I should be allowed to have one subject of choice. Surely this would be a reward or indulgence that I deserved for picking all my other subjects with purely reason and the ones offering the most promising future, right?

As my final exams approached, my anxiety grew. How would I fare, would I make it to the other end and what would it have to offer? This time the choice may also mean a parting of ways, a segregation that forces you to pick a side… Head over heart; Science over Arts; money over everything else, no one told me what was correct. There was and is no model answer and the possibilities are endless. Maybe there are no correct answers but definitely better answers. But how am I supposed to know what the better option is when both seem equally relevant but there is only one space for me to write my answer down. That this decision will determine the rest of your future has become a chant ever present in my head, yet it seems to mean something different every time I mention it, seemingly unsure what it is supposed to represent.

After much deliberation, one thing was certain I was not going to be taking the arts stream entirely by itself. Once again, the omnipresent voice of reason said something like pick something you have enough help for that has an easier road for improvement that will definitely matter more in life. Do I get a concession this time as well? Could I afford dropping a science subject to replace it with an arts subject? I had once again drawn a multiple choice question which did not offer the option: none of the above.

Choosing Literature would mean an escape from the mad rush for digits and quantifiers, it would mean the chance to appreciate what is around us for a change. It would mean learning about people, places and portrayals. It would be like the brush of wind against my fingertips: strong enough for me to feel its presence but never really close enough to reach, to hold. It would mean holding on to my human side and knowing that regardless of what happens and how badly I score, I will always have a place to call home.

I will never be able to predict my Literature grades like I do my Maths and Physics. I will never be able to memorise facts and statistics and know that I have prepared adequately like English and Chemistry. Literature is still the land of unknown where you never know what could and would happen. You may reach the end of the rainbow to find a pot of gold or encounter a troll but you never know exactly what lies ahead before taking the plunge downwards, headfirst with no escape. The question is: am I ready to take the plunge? The question is: are you?

Having just completed her secondary school, SNEHA VARMA is looking forward to taking up literature in junior college and to what else literature has to offer after presenting her first thesis at the Literature Seminar 2017 organised by MOE. An avid reader, who enjoys 100-year-old classics and queuing up for the latest JK Rowling books, she also likes writing as much as reading. She believes herself equally at ease whether helping specially-abled school kids, or volunteering in international tournaments.

Photo credit:

Source-Based Unseen #1

Reclaiming Pedagogical Criticism in Literature Education with Dr Suzanne Choo’s Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos  

In our new feature column “Source-Based Unseen”, Dominic samples some of the main thrusts of Dr Suzanne Choo’s Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos in the style of source-based responses, before scattering brief personal musings about her arguments. With shades of Social Studies and History SBQ (Source-Based Question) formats, Dominic examines how understanding our literature teaching and studying experiences are shaped by wider forces in the history of how literature as a subject was designed, promoted and executed in schools over time.


Image result for Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos
The purpose of this book is to restore the centrality of pedagogy in governing the ways literary texts are received, experienced, and interpreted by students in the classroom. More importantly,
Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos discusses how these values have been shaped by broader global forces and key movements in the discipline of English literature. To varying degrees, these approaches are aimed at cultivating a hospitable imagination so that students may more fully engage with multiple others in the world. Given the reality of an increasingly interconnected twenty-first century, literature pedagogy plays a vital role in schools by demonstrating how approaches to teaching literature can facilitate the prioritization of the other, challenge us to think about how we can be accountable to multiple others in the world, and push us to continually problematize the boundaries of our openness towards the other.

Suzanne S. Choo is Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She received her Ph.D. in English Education from Columbia University. Her research in literature education has been recognized with the Walter Sindlinger Writing Award from Teachers College, Columbia University and the International Award for Excellence from the International Journal of the Humanities.

(Adapted from back cover of Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos)  


In the context of the classroom, the literary text is never purely received by the student without direct mediation by the teacher or indirect mediation by the school administration that directs educational goals and the state that establishes national curriculum standards. One particularly important aspect of mediation concerns the way the literary text is taught, which then governs how it is received, perceived, and interpreted by students.
In the everyday reality of the classroom, literature teachers consciously or unconsciously enact values concerning beliefs about the good of teaching literature that area then conveyed through the choices of texts they select and the teaching approaches they employ. By introducing teachers to the different approaches of teaching literature, it is hoped that this will broaden their consciousness and repertoire of pedagogical approaches as well as equip them to be more purposeful in their applications of these to the classroom.

(Extracts from ‘Chapter One: Introduction – Toward a Pedagogical Criticism of Literature Education’, pp.3-4, 27.)

The source extracts are long but detailed, so I will keep my comments brief and open-ended rather than prescriptive.

Reflecting on Source A, I have often wondered about the underlying motivations of my wanting to study and teach literature. I was never very sure if there were links to character education, but I have suspected for me they remain inevitably connected. What motivations are these exactly, and why am I not conscious of what they are? How have the ways in which my literature teachers introduced and taught the subject influenced my worldview on what literature can and should do for me (and by extension, others)?

Choo’s interest in “how the processes of globalization correlate with particular turns leading to changing beliefs about the good of teaching literature. In summary, the four waves and their relation to four pedagogical paradigms are as follows:

  1. The first wave of globalization (late eighteenth century to the nineteenth century): Nationalistic approaches to teaching literature
  2. The second early wave of globalization (early to mid-twentieth century): World approaches to teaching literature
  3. The second later wave of globalization (mid- to late twentieth century): Global approaches to teaching literature //
  4. The third wave of globalization (late twentieth century to the present): Cosmopolitan approaches to teaching literature” (Choo 26-27)

(Adapted from ‘Chapter One: Introduction – Toward a Pedagogical Criticism of Literature Education’, pp. 26-27.)

This may be a rather strong and aggressively pitched personal intuition after reading Source B, but I clam it would be naïve for me to read literature without acknowledgement of wider forces of globalisation in shaping what and how we read and study literature. Perhaps I do not have to rigorously apply such a perspective onto every text I read, but it may be helpful for me in unforeseen ways to be aware of how English literature as a subject and discipline came to be, and how these curriculum decisions were influenced over time at various stages of globalization?

First, the emphasis on the concepts of nationalistic citizenship and taste in literature education points to approaches to teaching literature that center on the promotion of elitism. From the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, the teaching of literature contained the functional aim of increasing literacy, since a more literate population would contribute to greater political stability. More importantly, the teaching of literature centered on the mission of fashioning the ideal citizen as one who exhibited civilized values of Englishness and who was nationalistic in spirit. One of the most effective strategies for supporting elitism was to center approaches to teaching literature on texts deemed worthy of being read. The emphasis on older, more classical English texts served to dichotomize classical works from popular vernacular fiction. Only the study of ‘valuable’ works was legitimized in the early national curriculum and this was similarly observed in schools.
Second, the relation between the concept of taste and the concept of the Absolute suggests the connection between teaching literature and the teaching of moral and religious values. For example, another common approach adopted during this period involved didactic pedagogy. Here, poems and stories that promote desired moral virtues were read aloud by the teacher to young students who passively listened. The prevailing view during this time was that literature, and poetry in particular, needed to be explained to students and therefore explanation should comprise a large part of teaching (Michael, 1987). Once again, this suggests a pervasive distrust that students could read and formulate opinions on their own. Teachers primarily directed students to particular virtues and moral messages, such as courage, that students were to appreciate from texts, and students would then passively regurgitate their teacher’s explanations in their written responses.(Extracts from ‘Chapter Two: Nationalistic Approaches to Teaching Literature’, pp. 54-55, 57)

I was really bothered by Source C because I began to realise how the beginnings of my favourite subject were rooted in colonialism and a certain project of cultural elitism. It is no wonder then why some friends (See also in Issue Five: “2-Hour Group Therapy with NTU Lit Lurkers”) sense an underlying and lingering connotation of atas-ness and class consciousness surrounding associations and the study of literature itself. But what do I do now with this newfound understanding of the history of my subject? I feel mixed.

World approaches to teaching literature can center on the idea of boundary recognition, and the first approach involves facilitating students to read within the boundaries in which literary texts have been categorized. Indeed, teaching students to read across historical time and geographical space seems to be the most common way in which the world literature curriculum was organized in schools between 1900 and the 1930s.Boundary recognition also involves the second approach of facilitating students’ reading of the constructedness of boundaries. Such an approach enables students to become aware of how global forces across history contribute to developing literary categories and forms that themselves reflect a kind of progress in the world history of ideas.

The third approach of boundary recognition is to read around boundaries. Reading around the text involves getting students to think beyond the constructedness of the text. One way is the integration of subjects, literature and history. Another way is the integration of literature with other subjects through thematic units. Some of the problems with an integrated literature in the world curriculum, in which literature is integrated with history or other subjects under a common theme, is that literature becomes marginalized and either used to supplement the teaching of history or used to elucidate a theme.
The fourth approach of boundary recognition involves reading against boundaries. Teachers can have students examine instances where the text transcends the borders (historical, geographical, or generic) in which it has been categorized. By doing so, students become aware that literary texts refract rather than reflect cultures and nations (Damrosch, 2009). Reading against boundaries also entails recognition of the fluidity of boundaries. This is why Lawall (1994) insists that teachers must emphasize to students that world literature provides only a starting or entry point to understanding the world so that students become aware of the limitations and restrictions of the boundaries categorizing literary texts in the curriculum.

(Extracts from ‘Chapter Three: World Approaches to Teaching Literature’, pp.84-87)

In Source D, we observe several possible directions outlined by Dr. Choo on exactly what kind of critical thinking the study of literature could promote.

One of the four suggested approaches in a global paradigm to teaching literature addresses the concept of empowerment by aiming to equip students with discriminatory powers and with the capacity to produce cultural texts.

The first way is to expand the scope of text studied in the literature classroom to include media texts in a variety of modes such as words, images, and sounds as well as in a variety of genres such as film and radio. The second way involves the incorporation of media and cultural studies’ emphasis on active ccritical engagement in literary studies. For example, this would involve replacing new criticism’s passive close reading of literary texts, especially poetry, with semiotic criticism’s active close reading of all forms of textualities. The latter centers on equipping students to recognize linguistic, visual, gestural, and other semiotic signs in all forms of texts. They can do this by analysing concepts of representation, stereotypes, and bias in texts.
Finally, the third way is to incorporate a media and cultural studies’ production component into literary studies. In order to promote more active engagements with texts, instead of passive consumption of texts, literature teachers have increasingly required students to produce original creative works such as a fictional work or a play script that are then counted as part of students’ formal assessment.”

(Adapted from ‘Chapter Four: Global Approaches to Teaching Literature’, pp.111-112)

I believe Source E is useful to a large extent in enthusing me with the idea of having creative projects be taken seriously as part of literature assessment, something I can only find at university-level modules presently. On the other hand, Source E is not very useful in suggesting how the administrative and logistical difficulties of implementing such assessment formats can be overcome.

A cosmopolitan paradigm to teaching literature is tied to concepts of responsible engagement and alterity. The first approach proposes to reimagine literature education as a space that can accommodate explorations of the different conceptions of alterity through integrating both philosophical and religious reflections.

In order to facilitate an other-centric classroom culture, I propose a second approach to teaching literature that emphasizes responsible engagement with the other through the strategy of responsible interruptions. By using the term ‘interruptions’, I imply that the task of the teacher and student is to look for moments where the literary text or criticism objectifies the other and then to resist closure in the interpretation of the other.

The third approach to teaching literature that can promote a consciousness of alterity is through the use of transnational literature. Three broad areas of discussion can be summarised in the following questions:

  1. ‘How does the text construct the other and what is my relationship to him or her?’
  2. ‘To what extent does the text reflect philosophical-religious beliefs of the other and how do these beliefs influence the actions of the other?’
  3. ‘What are my own philosophical-religious beliefs that lead me to interpret the other in particular ways?’

(Adapted from ‘Chapter Five: Cosmopolitan Approaches to Teaching Literature’, pp. 149, 152, 154, 156.)

After reading Source F, I cannot help but wonder how deeply personal philosophical-religious beliefs can be aired in a literature classroom safely and honestly, especially when there are students and teachers who are likely to disagree with each other and oh no will it spiral into classroom politics inadvertently and we start judging each other based on how we judge literature texts?

To be captivated by the other, caught in the gaze of the other, perhaps this then is the significant role that world, global, and cosmopolitan approaches to teaching literature can play in pushing toward moments when absolute hospitality can be glimpsed or imagined. It is this captivation that interrupts and disrupts systems and language used to designate identities of power so that a greater consciousness of the human may be reached.(Extract from ‘Chapter Six: Conclusion – The Teaching of Literature and the Cultivation of a Hospitable Imagination’, pp. 163)

Source G is similar to perspectives that argue literature teaching has much potential to promote empathy in students. However, Source F is different from perspectives that argue literature teaching is not primarily steered towards cultivating empathy, but may perhaps develop interpretive skills such as understanding the design of texts and their effects on audiences and readers (See also in Issue Five: “Resituating Literary Studies: Mellowers Café and Flat White with Dr. Nazry Bahrawi” for an alternative perspective on teaching and promoting literature studies to STEM students).


Group Therapy with NTU Lit Lurkers

In this extended dramatic interview, the Unseen team reaches out to several literature majors from NTU at Cathay Cineleisure to have candid conversations about the experiences of living and studying literature. In giving visibility to these literally ‘unseen’ lurkers in the literary periphery in Singapore, this interview seeks to uncover perspectives and questions often discussed privately in groups or alone, with little room for grievances to be aired collectively. We hope to have more “Group Therapy” sessions in future.

Dramatis Personae (in alphabetical order)


Maki-san, Cathay Cineleisure. Monday afternoon. Table of 7 at the back of the shop. All orders have been collected. Green tea slurping.

How do people-at-large perceive you when you tell them that you are an English major?

People tend to give an “Oh okay” with a somewhat pitiful look and then “So what do you do in lit? Read books ah?”

Many people think that all English majors do is read fiction, but we also watch films and read theories from various disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, and psychology to name a few. We incorporate so many ideas and concepts from other disciplines but the common perception is that we just read fiction.

Perhaps these misconceptions come about because not much has been done to bridge the gap between literature and other disciplines.

Is that why NUS has a general first-year module to bring about that kind of interdisciplinary appreciation?

The way people phrase it, I see a lot of uninformed assumptions being made – that writing or teaching is the only thing we can do with an English degree. People don’t know that lots of English majors end up pursuing careers in business, marketing or the civil service. We also have peers who end up working in the social service sector or even the medical humanities.

I’m pursuing a career in teaching because I have a genuine interest in it, so it gets really frustrating when people assume that I’m only doing so because of a lack of options. Cabbies especially have a lot of opinions. “What are you studying?”, “Literature”, “Oh Shakespeare ah so you want to become teacher is it?”

Some people are impressed though.

I guess most people don’t see English majors as having a real skill set. Compared to engineers or even media students, we don’t come across as being very learned in any specific area.

Someone once asked me “So how are you going to contribute to society?” Basically what he was trying to say is: what is the point of literature? I think that’s why many of us tend to be very defensive about what we study.

In a pragmatic, practical society like Singapore, people want to see tangible results and rewards from what we study. With a degree like English, the skills we learn cannot be clearly identified or directly applied in a workplace. It’s hence regarded as less valuable.


Enter stage left service crew, exit stage right service crew.

What then, do you think literature at large, or studying literature could be useful for?

I guess a common misconception of English majors is that we’re self-absorbed – you know, hopeless romantics who are caught up in our own make believe worlds of fantasies and dreams. But studying Literature has helped me come to terms with a lot of internal struggles and given me many insights and entry points to resolving some of them.

I believe that a lot of individual, social, and political problems stem from deep-seated emotional issues—insecurity, jealousy, greed, the need and/or desire for power, etc—and reading about character struggles in fiction can help us understand how these internal conflicts manifest in real world situations. However, I’ve also learnt that not everyone thinks nor feels the same way as me – many people are most often only interested in solutions to problems, not with an understanding of where or how these problems come about.

I definitely found the process of studying for my degree fulfilling – I’ve learnt how to draw connections between literature, myself and social issues happening all around the world.

Yes, things which most people would otherwise not have thought about or considered before.

Perhaps we are able to question and challenge things that are commonly accepted at face value and go against them? I’ve read about racial and religious tensions in some books and the many different perspectives surrounding things commonly thought of as the truth.

So in terms of usefulness – by thinking critically and not taking things at face value, we may have an advantage over others in terms of discernment. This may not always be accepted because questioning the status quo is not always welcome.

Yes, I agree with you all. But are we just self-gratifying here?

Are we trying to make ourselves feel better?

We all knew that taking Literature was a risk. There is this perception that English majors are always on the defensive. Maybe the reason we turn to self-gratification is because we aren’t always given the opportunity to demonstrate the abilities and skills we’ve picked up in our study of Literature.

Many employers don’t give us the chance to prove ourselves, and I think that most of us are bitter at being subjected to this kind of dismissal from the get-go. Having said that, we have peers who balance their English Lit degree with modules from other majors like Economics to diversify their academic portfolio.

It is common knowledge that some degrees are more prestigious than others, and it is an unspoken perception that some courses are just ‘dumping grounds’.


All degrees are not created equal.

Looking past these stereotypes though, I think it is important to negotiate the distance between “Is literature purely for our own gratification?”, not just for us English majors but also those who read for entertainment, versus “Is literature for something bigger?” Even while these two aren’t mutually exclusive, we cannot avoid asking the question of usefulness. Jaf’r brought up the importance of multidisciplinary learning, but it could be a disadvantage to be socially aware, because we intensely tune in to all these sociological issues but there has been little guidance for how to manage or act upon them.


Collective deep breath.

Is there an inherent link between literature and empathy?

There is correlation but not necessarily causation.

Those of us who love to read are probably already empathetic people to begin with. Perhaps that’s why we’re drawn to literature?

Yet another stereotype of literature students is that we are too emotional and sensitive, and that we’re too attuned to our own perceptions of other people’s emotions and sensitivities. But there are many literature texts and theories that show indifference to emotions, such as nihilistic and postmodern ones. Perhaps reading and studying literature may make us more empathetic, but this empathy doesn’t necessarily translate into action.

Some people spend 4 years of their literary lives (or longer) not being more empathetic people. For some people, literature is just a subject or a degree. Just because you are exposed to many different perspectives and are able to discern different emotions doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an empathetic person.


If you think about it – when you read a novel or a poem, you usually put yourself in the shoes of the characters. Therefore, the empathy we feel towards them could actually just be snippets of ourselves reflected in them. For instance: I am Harry Potter, Harry Potter is me.

Yes, there can be a relation, but is it enough to spur us into action? You can feel so deeply for a character but like what Maya said, it does not necessarily translate into any action in the world.

On the flipside, when you don’t relate to a character or when there is something that conflicts with your belief system, sometimes you disengage? While it is important to ask what attracts you to a character or a text, it is also meaningful to ask what your points of contention with the texts are.

I did a research project on one stratum of the disadvantaged by looking at postmodern literature, and actually found that it is (perhaps unexpectedly) likely to create more empathy than some other types of literature. I also got to read texts that focus on empathy as a topic, so at least literature might introduce us to these questions of empathy.

While literature may not be inherently interdisciplinary, interdisciplinarity is the intersection where I believe empathy can be enhanced. It’s hard to even define what empathy is, which is why there are such intricate studies about it, but I do think that critical theory and its very specific language (not quite the brevity that limits coherence) go a long way in giving clarity to issues that might not make it into mainstream discourse.

Literature might not directly result in empathy, and I am greatly skeptical that there’s even a correlation, but I think a nation that does not teach literature will not have a history and a mutually fulfilling relationship between the individual and society. I would say there is a link but there has to be a root cause as well as a catalyst, and then especially an end.

Like Liana expresses, the underlying factor might be exactly what brought us to literature in the first place, which needs to be met with action, as Maya says. What happens in this intermediary period? Could literature result in the opposite effect – being aware of the social and existential threats that pertain to us, but without a mode of action, would we turn away from empathy or withdraw from social interaction? After all, literature is interpretive and there are theories that support the idea that every man for himself is the best way to be socially contributive. But I do think that literature and the study of it tries to challenge the desirable idea of an invisible hand.

Mel mentioned that literature helps us work on a lot of emotional or moral issues, but because of the way literature is taught, a lot of the learning about ethics is done on our own. Then again, these observational skills allow us to create more links. Maybe at the end of the day, what we need is conversation, and any kind of link is refreshing, and heartening.

Maybe it’s good clickbait? I’m not completely sold on it but neither am I completely off the idea.

Perhaps it goes back to that point about usefulness. Honestly I think the link between literature and empathy came about because we wanted to try and sell the subject to others. People want to justify why students should continue studying literature—a subject that seems useless—so we cling to this idea that it promotes empathy. It might for some, but not for all of us.


Collective deep breath.

Do you strongly identify as a literature student or person?

I don’t strongly identify as a literature student. In fact, I avoid being known first as a literature student [Laughs] because I’m aware of these associations and stereotypes placed on us. I don’t want to colour others’ impressions of me.

Just because you read a book doesn’t mean you are a ‘literature person’. I’ve seen how some people present themselves on social media and it really does come across as pretentious. Suddenly it’s become cool to be a ‘lit person’ – whatever that means?

Friends have always told me that I “belong in literature”, but I don’t think they know what that really means. It could be that literature comes a bit more naturally to me than to some others, but whether or not one has that flair or not shouldn’t matter because it is a choice to feel.

I would say I’m a literature person because I make it my lifestyle to philosophise, but that’s all there is to it. Ironically, I have also felt like a fraud for the same reasons that reinforce my identity, or for other reasons such as the presumption that literature students pronounce every word correctly and are adept at public speaking at all times. I have encountered a professor who focused on this and emphasised that we will need this skill when working in communications, business, and public relations – perhaps as a way of deflecting the difficulty of working in these industries as an English major, while playing up the prestige.

Society causes literature students to differentiate themselves from other literature students based on negatives, and not just in terms of specialisation, which would actually be communal and productive. It is hard to understand why being passionate is equated to being a ‘closet mugger’. But another assumption that literature must be a talent is counterproductive when push comes to shove. I knew someone who, perhaps in response to such false equivalence, regularly tried to create an effortlessly artsy image of herself, by taking private classes in using nail polish to paint the tabs of cans, for instance.

It is an aesthetic identity.

At least we can laugh at our shortcomings?

One reason why I stopped using Instagram was because I couldn’t meet the expectation of keeping up a poetic identity on a daily basis. Even if that is who I am, there are also moments where my thoughts go off on a tangent or simply don’t match any of the photographs I have. The difference between editing words and curating content, especially if representative, is quite wide.

Then there is the problem of presentation being associative – I don’t want to be a face to my work. As I am a serious person, the humour I inject is often interpreted unironically. If I use big words, people may think that I’m being pretentious and this alienates them, but if I use everyday words, am I being crude? It seems that I get stuck between being either too formal in my use of language or too ‘not-artsy’.

This dilemma reminds me of the Rupi Kaur controversy. Just because there is enjambment, does it mean it is proper literature? Just because she says she doesn’t like to read and is more concerned about book covers, does it mean she is not considered a literary figure?

Lang Leav and Rupi Kaur appeal to the masses because of their easy readability and relatability. Their writing is less of an intellectual pursuit than an attempt to express themselves.

When I saw the headline, I thought—or rather, hoped—that Rupi Kaur was referring to the readership of the canon and maybe her selectivity of less well-read books. But from her succinct language in the actual article, it could be that she was really trying to be honest about caring for the marketing of reading platforms, and that books are just one of these?

Then there is the case of ‘you care, but you cannot be seen to care’.

We want literature to be a leisurely pursuit, not something to be associated with commercial or business aspects because it ‘pollutes’ the essence of it.

Writing may start off as a noble pursuit but monetary issues do come into play after all. You need to be able to network and sell both yourself and your work in order for it to be sustainable as a career.

In an interview I had with a local publishing firm, I’ve learnt that even a seemingly superfluous thing like how visually appealing a book is goes a long way in determining how well it would sell.

Have you guys heard of The Chance Encounter? It’s a very clever concept where this guy and his team wraps books up in very nice covers but replaces the titles with very generic synopses of the books. I thought of getting one, but I realised that I could not bring myself to buy it – what if I don’t like the book, or what if I already have the book?


Enter stage left service crew. Exit stage right service crew with empty trays.

While we are on the subject of how literature is commercialised in Singapore, what are your views on the present state of SingLit? What are some of your hopes and concerns for SingLit?

There is a lot of published SingLit but my sense is that the writing can be very obscure. If you don’t have knowledge of certain concepts and references, it gets hard to follow.

Are we writing with marketing in mind? As Singaporeans, are we too concerned with trying to define and market the Singaporean identity even in our local literature?

I notice that representations of the Singaporean identity always fall back on the rhetoric of the kampung community or of racial harmony… These are the same themes which many politicians raise during election season or National day but haven’t these ideas evolved by now? Or are people just clinging to the past?

We are in a perpetual state of nostalgia. Also, I feel that the local lit scene is very upper middle class. I don’t feel like I see enough writers and subjects who are underprivileged or of colour. Often I see writers who have extensive education and their writing is not always something you can relate to.

In my mind, I automatically think of two categories when it comes to SingLit. The first one is the kind of Singaporean literature you come across in secondary school where you discuss it in a very fun and sheltered way. You act these texts out in group activities and you never quite realise how exclusive the texts we’re made to study are. While my classmates and I felt very connected to some of these texts, we didn’t realise how our teachers very purposely guided us into interpreting them in a certain way.

The second category comes into play when you’re older and you have all these peers and classmates who are already very involved in the scene. You start to feel a certain kind of alienation when you research about all these prominent local writers or poets because they seem to occupy a space that isn’t very accessible. While some writers are vocal about social issues, they don’t always make people feel welcome. It’s my perception—whether you agree or not—that the approach between local writers and Singaporeans is still very top-down.  

In the local lit scene, just like all other scenes and subcultures, there will always be people who are left behind and forgotten.

My impression of some people in the scene is that they’re socially exclusive. They come across as very detached individuals and it seems as if they’re always observing others and using everyone else’s opinions and beliefs as fodder for their writing. When I’m called upon to give my opinions, it doesn’t always feel like a very engaging effort. To me, this is reflective of how the local lit scene works – people are asked to contribute but made to feel that their input is not valuable ultimately.

I’m not sure why the barrier to entry is so high, especially for writers who don’t have connections. If this is intellectual elitism, it’s a construct. If this is quality control, I can understand because people commit in different ways. Personally, I’m not fond of doing something for the sake of doing it, so I’m happy to be disconnected from the scene. I would rather start my writing career overseas even if it’s bound to be more difficult.

Al has highlighted the desire for authenticity and this inspires me to consider whether what we have is an invented culture felt in writing only. There is that slippage between textual tokenism and real, richly subjective experiences of the minorities who may feel displaced from certain hyper-identities. I think it’s very telling that the theme of nostalgia in Singaporean films is usually a result of something unfulfilled.

I’ve noticed that there are not a lot of Malay writers writing in Malay in Singapore. I studied Malay Language and Literature for A Levels and most of our texts were from Malaysia and Indonesia. They have a much more vibrant literary scene there and it’s a pity we don’t have something similar. We don’t have enough support and visibility for local Malay writers. It’s also very hard to share this with friends.


Pause. Texting break. Pause. Resume conversation.

Do you find it difficult to share your literary enthusiasms with others?

I’ve always thought of my love for literature as an independent journey, without the romanticism of being a reclusive poet. There have been times where I wanted to start a project of my own but didn’t know who to ask – and it wasn’t a matter of my friends having different interests and approaches. How did new literary movements begin, and is it possible in the 21st century?

Being with lit kids mitigates the loneliness, but it feels like once you leave university your safe space is gone. Perhaps that’s why some English majors pursue careers in teaching or even academia – so that they can share their joy for literature with like-minded students and peers.

Some of us incorporate our literary enthusiasms into our lifestyle while some make it a lifestyle altogether. However, people who don’t ‘get it’ seem to almost always pity you.

This is the first time in weeks (or months) that I’ve gotten to talk about my views on literature so it’s really very comforting. Perhaps because lit is quite a nerdy topic, it’s hard to share your enthusiasm with others?

When people find out you did English at university, they’re not always very impressed by it.

There is also this sense of atas-ness—of class consciousness—when people think of English majors.

We are all we have then? I did feel a certain kind of loneliness at one of my internship places where conversations were very different.


Collective sigh.

What were some of the more confusing aspects of studying literature?

I had to learn to find an opening within the essay structures given even though I was supposed to make my own stand on things. After all, a literary essay is not a stream of consciousness – reasoned argument is absolutely necessary and you need to write clearly to be understood.

As a student, I had many burning questions. I kept wondering “What do I read?”, “What do I know is worth reading?”, “What kind of cultural capital do I need to read certain books? Am I reading to gain some kind of cultural capital?”, and “Is it by trial and error that I find out what I like, or do I follow the literary canon?” Till today, I still don’t understand why I needed to learn the canon.

The jump from A Level to Uni level lit was huge. Suddenly we had to cite all these academic articles and we were more or less thrown into the deep end of figuring everything out by ourselves with some help from our tutors. There was little to no spoon-feeding at all – at least in Year 1. It was also very frustrating for me to be studying Early American lit in the first semester of Year 4. I kept thinking: “Why am I studying this when it’s not going to be relevant once I start work?”

Should we introduce literary theories to students at a much earlier stage? It could be useful in sparking interest in students and making the learning of literature more fascinating.

How do we know the age at which students are intellectually ready to be exposed to these kinds of texts?

It’s true what Maya says about cultural capital. When there is an insisted cultural identity based on narratives that are subverted and therefore more reliable, sometimes the sense of displacement is doubled. I had to consciously teach myself Singlish based on observation, and I identify as an internationalist, so an admired professor’s insistence on linking our writing back to the context of local culture was disconcerting. This is a class issue as well. There shouldn’t be the assumption that we know classical or biblical literature just because we may have studied literature – or even contemporary literature just because we are from this generation. There’s also a certain amount of respect accorded to those who can make literary references and jokes, so much so that it’s become something for many to aspire towards. However, our reading choices are largely determined by what our family and peers have been exposed to, and perhaps the 2-5 texts on most syllabi exclude those who, for various reasons, find it difficult to choose literature. I feel like primary and secondary schools could create non-generic reading lists, perhaps with an innovative one-line summary to each title. Spoon-feeding of analysis is OK—even welcome—but personal control is also important. Literature is subjective (as it ought to be), but even professors have conflicting preferences about when to use which types of reasoning. I find it usefully relevant when professors create connections between texts and films or games, usually more effective than in lower levels of education. However, the structure of essay writing is still rather rigid and taken for granted, so perhaps critical writing classes should be monitored at all levels to make sure they are not fillers.

An inconsistency in university might be that there is a lot of ambitious interest in integrating other disciplines like sociology, philosophy, psychology, etc., but the constraints of the degree means that these are not grasped in-depth. It is so frustrating when some links are not made for the gaps introduced that I’d almost rather not have these tidbits until interdisciplinary studies become more of an established field, in both education and administration, which is critical. The stigma of studying humanities, especially if not at established schools, and the lack of information regarding a tangible future are so pervasive that I did not know what was available to me. It is not just that we are expected to be independent, but that there aren’t services available for alternative needs or secondary skills, which require more professionalism throughout all institutions at the very least. The structure of admissions based on a set of general subjects, from L1R5 to UAS (which is very unlike universities in the UK and the US) also causes delays in what and how we learn.

I think even the personal trajectory of those who have taken literature as a subject for a while becomes confusing in itself. I’ve had to backtrack a lot in terms of what vocabulary is socially suitable, but these values change, as proven by the trend of memes and intentionally bizarre language. Although university allowed me to challenge myself, it follows from secondary school that the impulse to be experimental in creative writing is shut down before efforts can find an effective style congruous with the subject. Thankfully there is only one major experience I had, which was being continually discouraged from exploring the genre of noir in screenwriting. I was simply told “I find it hard to give regular notes to you because what you do is quite outside of the conventions I usually work within”. Other experiences include this informal comment on my work, “you are trying too hard to sound academic!”, from someone who uses ‘autochthonous’ for ‘indigenous’. Once, an economics teacher kept emphasising that humanities is not about memory work, but that does constitute a significant proportion of what we are judged on. How much of such examinable writing is the mimesis of what’s been approved before, and how much room do we have for personal styles and complex discoveries, purposeful or accidental?

Children are quite severely underestimated. It can be difficult for the authorities to imagine that we could have cultivated a certain level of commitment to what we study to the point that it has already become a ‘life career’ at a young age.


Stage is empty of all other calefares eating maki-san except Group Therapy participants.

Why did you decide to study English at university?

I didn’t choose the lit life – the lit life chose me. I wanted to apply for Flight School after my A levels but failed to make the cut. I was always better at the Humanities and had a good command of the English language. Eventually, I applied to both NUS and NTU and got a space in NTU Lit.

I think many acquaintances of mine have this presumption that I wanted to go to law school (or some prestigious course) after the A levels. However, I’ve never in my whole life ever bought into the idea of the proverbial rat race. I’ve always admired high flyers because of their dedication to work but I’ve never aspired to be them because I know for a fact that I am not competitive nor hardworking enough.

I didn’t know who I was back in JC and still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was applying for university. Like Jaf’r, I just knew that I was good at lit. I also didn’t have a strong understanding of other disciplines so I just applied for whichever courses my grades allowed – which were very limited. I got rejected by NUS and came to NTU, which has been one of the biggest blessings in my life thus far.

I’ve always had to fight to study lit. I came from TKGS where the culture was such that if you were good at English but not good at Maths or Science, you weren’t good enough. In JC, I decided to study both English lit and Malay lit, but I still had to take an aptitude test for them even though these were subjects I knew I could do well in. The school put me on probation because they thought that their own students were incapable of handling the subject.

For me, it was really quite a stumble. I graduated from secondary school with good O Level results. I then went to the science stream in NYJC where I absolutely hated it. After a few months of sulking and emotional blackmail, I finally convinced my parents to let me go to polytechnic. I went to SP for a few months but quit without telling my parents – I would go to the library and read books instead of going to school.

In the following year, I applied to IJC and took literature as a subject. I had the chance to study postcolonial lit and it was then that I understood my position as an immigrant child better. For those who are curious, I read The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, The Spirits Play and The Eunuch Admiral by Kuo Pao Kun). The rest is history.

My A level grades were bad and that’s why I came to NTU to study lit. I got rejected twice from the course because I didn’t take literature at the O or A Levels. Having studied literature for close to 4 years now, I still don’t find it very relevant to bread-and-butter issues in life. Because of our constant analyses of texts, I’ve come to dislike reading almost altogether. My impression of academic writing is that it’s pretentious and convoluted. However, that’s not to say that I hate literature entirely. Some of the literature I’ve read has helped explain some of the angst I feel towards my family and society at large. Also, I’m better able to appreciate good writing when I see it now.

I don’t really know when it began or who inspired me, but literature was always there for me, even in my personal life. I missed my desired JC by one point, despite having distinctions in the languages and humanities. I then missed the choice university for arts and social sciences by 1.5 rank points even though I did well for my H2 subjects that were relevant. I might have gotten a more prestigious—or rather, more stable—education if I had opted for one of Singapore’s top secondary schools. I was always somewhat of a big fish in a small pond, and I suffered for it.

My narrative goes in the opposite way of a success story, both as a trope that evolves failure and as a standard path. But there are definitely uplifting and humbling moments, and people whom I’m grateful for. I am where I need to be, simply because my experiences are mine. I don’t know if I would have blossomed as much elsewhere. While I do wish there was more I could have done with literature, it did give me something precious: a voice that I myself could hear.

All the signs pointed me to literature, so it was really kind of a FoMo when I had to do my university applications. My first choice was something else and I might have gone to another local university for it, but NTU was nearer, more familiar, and had lower tuition fees. Also, I didn’t want the one subject of mathematics to weigh me down like it had. Literature was safe: it wouldn’t get too technical and it wouldn’t play with my sanity. I was wrong on both counts, but it wasn’t that which had me thinking to myself every now and then, ‘Am I in the right course?’. I’m not proud to say that I considered dropping out or switching courses, though it was mostly because of other issues I was going through. There is always time to branch out into my other interests, but looking back, I might have tried another course in the same university if it had been better acknowledged. The literature department is relatively stable and has been readily improving over the years, which is something that I envy of the newer cohorts. I would certainly have benefited from that and the multifarious sharing we are doing now, instead of letting myself get riddled with the global viability and local credibility of my degree. For one, even the most related job openings tend to be remotely relevant to what we study in English, so I don’t feel that I would be happy in a lot of jobs.


Bums shifting in seats. The ice in the cups have melted.

What are some burning questions you have been harbouring about/around the study of literature, that you feel has been overlooked or not raised sufficiently?

Translation work. To what extent should we study translated works in English literature? Is a translator’s work their own work instead of the original? How do you reconcile all these dilemmas?

The usefulness of literature – but that’s something that is almost impossible to reconcile it seems?

How we can make literature graduates more relevant when it comes to employability.

This may be a bit off topic but the essays I’ve written in uni may not at all be relevant when employers ask for ‘writing samples’. Moreover, when English majors know of any kind of job opportunities, I sense that most would keep it to themselves. I can’t think of many who would share it with like-minded peers.

I strongly believe that your friends should not be your competition. Perhaps this lack of sharing is a result of scarcity in job opportunities for English graduates?

A more sharing culture—

More collaborative—

How can we communicate more opportunities around lit to students and people without assuming their lack of interest depending on where they are?

Don’t mind me interrupting, but I need to go toilet quite urgently.

It’s okay, it’s okay, no problem—

Shuffle of bags, chairs and feet. Phone screens brighten. PayNow transactions commence.

Pause? End? To be continued…?

Unseen The Magazine would like to thank the NTU Lit Lurkers for their time and brainpickings. The NTU Lit Lurkers are:

AL drinks more coffee than the daily recommended limit and mercifully hasn’t been admitted to the hospital for caffeine-related issues. His dream is to have a good cuppa everywhere in the world.

JAF’R wants to live in a world that mandates 4 weeks paid vacation leave and where books come bundled together with mint chocolate.

LIANA is an aspiring writer, occasional traveler, and lurker of designer cafes. True to the spirit of an English graduate, her sustenance includes books and copious amounts of tea collected from all over the world.

Born to migrant parents, MAYA found the cure to her maladies in the form of postcolonial literature which explains her unabashed passion for all things race, identity and culture.

Educator by vocation, Instagram aficionado by passion. In addition to her love for social media and all things artsy, MEL’s interests include reading, photography and procrastinating.

Y is student is student is student.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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)

Three Course Homecooked (Second) Breakfasts

Unseen’s inaugural literary promo collaboration call was answered by The Second Breakfast Company (2BCo) and aren’t we all in for a treat. An impromptu visit to 2BCo’s secret hideout kitchen reveals an exclusive insight into what’s cooking for this breakout theatre group founded by youths, for youths. Unseen thanks the 2BCo team for giving this unprecedented literary promo call a good shot: have they set a precedent for a new form of cross-promotional marketing?


Welcome to the humble kitchen of The Second Breakfast Company (2BCo), huddled in a secret location somewhere in Singapore. Sorry about having to bag you on the way here. We have to keep this place Unseen, and I’m sure you can appreciate that.

Today, we are cooking up a three-course homecooked second breakfast just for you. But first, the aperitif a.k.a. typical introductory paragraph. We are 2BCo: a well-meaning, outgoing and fun theatre outfit that laughs when coffee is spilled on our shirts, is not afraid to talk with a mouth full of colloquial speak but knows when to sedia and be serious. We also think of ourselves as the joker in the classroom that is actually quite smart.

In other words, we are a not-for-profit theatre company founded by youths, for youths, inspired by the growth of Singapore theatre over the last few decades which was possible because of the creation of new and original works by young practitioners of their time. We see ourselves as continuing this energy in the present day, particularly as we seek to fill the grey area in the Singapore theatre scene where young, emerging artists can take risks in a safer space, without worrying about being good enough presently for the scene to perform in established companies’ productions.

2BCo offers a savoury 3-course theatre degustation that speaks to the contemporary and urban sensibilities of the young Singaporean, addressing their ambitions, fears and realities of living in Singapore. They are as follows:

The Reinvention of perceptions and notions through original works

Earlier this year, we ran an open call for scripts and were overwhelmed with 40 different recipes for stage plays. We had hoped to profile young writers and empower young voices with the platform to hold important conversations. When we came across the two plays, Lemmings and The Wedding Pig, we were struck by how real the stories were and how accurately reflective they were of the societal issues we face today that we wanted nothing more than to present these works to the world.

By staging new works written by young playwrights, we at 2BCo hope to empower young voices with the platform to hold important conversations. Together, The Wedding Pig (by Chelsea Cheo) and Lemmings (by Myle Yan Tay) will allow for a meaningful discourse on themes like relationships, religion and tradition. Kristine Ng, Producer of 2BCo hopes that our kitchen can “create a safe space for them to develop and stage their scripts” before they get served out to the world.

Lemmings was Tay’s award-winning entry to TheatreWorks’ 2012 installment of the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition, and has been since published by TheatreWorks in the collection of winning entries. The Wedding Pig was originally written by Cheo as her submission for her final year project in Yale-NUS College where she majored in Arts and Humanities. Cheo’s slow-cooking of The Wedding Pig was “really about taking a magnifying glass and putting a spotlight on issues like feminism, the values we inscribe onto traditions, mental illness and intergenerational conflict, and seeing if it will all shine in the light or spark a whole new fire altogether”.

The Wedding Pig was performed by a separate cast at the inaugural Asian Youth Theatre Festival running from 13 to 15 October 2017. The festival, organised by Buds Theatre Company, aims to place youth theatre on the map as a credible and relevant part of the artistic landscape by bringing together youth theatre groups from different parts of Asia. Denise Dolendo, Producer of 2BCo says that “we are extremely honoured and excited to be a part of the first ever (Masterchef) Asian Youth Theatre Festival”.  She also believes it is “a great platform for youth theatre groups from the region to meet and learn from each other” and that “having a youth driven festival like this is such a monumental move in shaping the future of our arts landscape in Singapore and Asia”.

All these new samplings are meant to keep you coming back for more. We also welcome budding (chefs) writers and performers to get in touch with us during future Open Calls and Auditions.

The Revival of the Singapore canon

2BCo’s inaugural production celebrated the 20th anniversary of Leow Puay Tin’s iconic play Family. The show, which had a sold out run at Centre 42 in October 2016, was praised by Michael Ng of as “commendable” and “a great show” for its “bold directing choices that left [him] on the edge of [his] seat all the way till the show’s end.” Another critic, Kathy Rowland from ArtsEquator claimed that “for an inaugural production for a young theatre company, it was extremely self assured. There was not any sense of hesitation with the direction and it was very clearly crafted”. We believe they enjoyed their main course very much and so will you.

Currently scheduled to be served in May 2018 for our Main Course is a restaging of Goh Poh Seng’s The Moon Is Less Bright, written in 1964. Get your theatre tastebuds ready for a blast from the (pre-independence) past.

~ DESSERT ~ (Recipe preparation in progress)
The Reimagining of existing stories

We are still testing out recipes for this one so we prefer not to reveal too much of our blueprint ideas at the moment. Suffice to say that in our collective experience sampling theatre from all over the world, as well as attempting our own adaptations of works like the Restoration Comedy classic The Beaux’ Stratagem by George Farquhar (who performs Restoration Comedy anyway in Singapore apart from some Theatre Studies students at A Level?) back when Adeeb and Mark were directing and producing with NTU Paparazzi in 2014, we at 2BCo believe there is room for experimenting with established classics (or lesser-known works by established playwrights) to fit the context of a contemporary English-speaking audience in Singapore.

But this does not mean we must necessarily resort to Singaporean-ising every play we choose to adapt. We may not need to localise the language or setting entirely even though the original play could be set very long ago and/or very far away from home.

What flavours and recipes will we bring home and cook up in future? Only time (and budget and other logistical resources) will tell.


We see you are ready for the bill. Allow me to suggest that you may split the bill with your many friends and readers at Unseen?

With double the scripts being performed this November, it is double the cost of presenting the works on stage. We hope to at least cover the cost of our ingredients, preparation and service in order to sustain future breakfasts. This, along with the limited arts funding available has made the realities of staging the two plays a struggle for a youth theatre company such as ours. Thus, we humbly seek the support of fellow art advocates to make this show possible.

Funds contributed will go a long way in helping to realise the dreams of the two young writers, Cheo and Tay, in having their works staged. At the same time, funds raised from the campaign will help 2BCo empower youths in their creative pursuits and provide a safe platform for youths to gather and hone their talents and capabilities.

We hope that friends of Unseen The Magazine will be open to support us in small tokens. As a gesture of goodwill, we will waive the 10% Service Charge and 7% GST for Unseen on this Second Breakfast with us today. Adeeb says we can throw in the iced water for free.

Upsize here:

We welcome all Kopi-O Kosong, Kopi-O and Kopi perk orders. We can consider arranging for special visit to our secret kitchen like Unseen if you order Kopi-C, but for sure we will serve you homecooked second breakfast if you order Kopi-C Gao or Special Teh Tarik with us!

Okay, bye for now, we got to get back to cooking.

[Proceeds to interrupt Unseen’s half-eaten second breakfast mid-chewing before bundling them into the unseen uber that drove them to this unknown location.]

Everything you need to know about THE SECOND BREAKFAST COMPANY has been shared in this literary promo. Find us on Facebook and Instagram @thesecondbreakfastcompany !

Photo Credit: 2BCo

Re-Situating Literary Studies

Mellowers Café & Flat Whites with Nazry Bahrawi

In this exclusive sit-down session with Dr. Nazry Bahrawi of SUTD at the cosy Mellowers Cafe in Bugis, we explore his  multifaceted work as a critic, educator and translator. Over two cups of flat white, he shares how critical, pedagogical and creative endeavours converge in a proposal to reframe our conception of literary studies and literature in Singapore from a primarily Western/Anglo-centric one towards a greater acknowledgement and engagement with the location of Singapore in the geo-cultural spaces of Southeast Asia.

0 | Nazry and Coffee

Shall we sit at the regular tables or at the one with bean bags? Okay, bean bags. Here is your flat white. No problem. I insist. Let’s jump straight in, shall we?

1 | Nazry as Critic

In most of our cultural configurations of ‘the world’, whether it is teaching literature in Singapore from the ‘O’ to the ‘A’ Levels, or the conception and framing of literary studies inside and outside institutions, there seems to be a focus on nation-centric, Anglo-centric, and even period-centric literature. First, a clarification. With the fairly recent push for Singapore Literature or SingLit, it is important not to make SingLit the panacea to this largely Western-centric conception of literary studies which most of us are acquainted with. I believe it is a positive step, this advocacy for SingLit, yet we cannot rely on it to solve our dependency on Western literary knowledges. Instead, we need to rethink our dependency on (shall we call it something like) an “Anglo-geoculturalism” in conceiving literary studies, or literature originally written in English. In this vein, translation has been significantly discounted to date, on the assumption that it often opens up a can of worms. Yet, an increased focus on the importance of translation can bring literary studies outside of its domains of aesthetic and formalist analyses to cross disciplines, allowing texts to enter into conversation with, and comment on, the configuration of the world it re-presents. This way, I think there is an opportunity here to align literary studies with the  centralisation of Singapore as a geocultural port of exchange and encounter, much like how it is recognised such in the sphere of  trade.

Before we go further, I think it is important to note that categories function as a means of controlling knowledge in a scientistic manner. Categorising as a method is the move to reduce elements to their most irreducible unit  possible. So when I speak of the term ‘geocultural’, I am already appealing to categorisation as a method, and yet I am also co-opting this method, introducing a category that tries to resist and avoid stereotypes.

Another point of clarification: why ‘geocultural’ and not ‘geopolitical’? Geopolitics tends to constrain discussion to issues of decolonisation,  nation-state formation, post-independence and multilateral formations like ASEAN, which can end up diluting deeper connections across national boundaries. For example, the idea of Indian Ocean cultures is one which cannot fit neatly into current geopolitical formations. This is not to say that politics does not play an important role, but that we need to widen our conception of literary studies, seeing it from alternative applications and frames.

I refer here to the work of Ronit Ricci in her book Islam, Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia to expand this point. She studied how an ancient Arabic text was translated, and adapted in South Asia and Southeast Asia communities over time. In doing so, she inadvertently  replaces an Anglophonic conception of the world with an alternative Arabophonic conception of the world. This is one where the cultures of South Asia and Southeast Asia were connected to a cosmopolis that is Arabic in origin, one that was not prompted by Anglophone developments, skipping entirely the presumably common historical trajectory of the European Enlightenment, thus suggesting  a non-Western trajectory of modernity. Such work resists the easy classification of East versus West that we are familiar with today.

Then there is the academic literary field of Comparative Literature, which attempts to study literary and cultural expressions across languages, nations and disciplines. It is a kind of international relations study of  languages and artistic traditions with an emphasis on reading and comparing texts in their original tongue. Often, comparison is practised across works of different languages, but comparison of works in one language can be practised too if they come from different cultures or nations that speak the same language. Here, the dominant debate centres around whether Comparative Literature is a Eurocentric academic practice and how we can avoid unequal representations. Of course, its connections to Translation Studies cannot be understated.

Instead, I am interested  in whether there can be a practice of comparative literature in Southeast Asia that takes into account the character(istics) of the region. Here , we cannot fully divorce ourselves from the discipline of Area Studies, which is premised on the idea that the world is divided into ‘stereotypical’ regions for research, and that the point is to understand the features of local cultures and knowledge. My preferred version of Area Studies does not overlook and forget existing power relations. In fact, it must avoid enacting an ‘othering’ gaze or position in its comparative work.

Let us take a brief digression on Southeast Asian geopolitics first. One way we can divide Southeast Asia is to use the two categories of maritime Southeast Asia (ocean cultures) and landlocked Southeast Asia (Hindu-Buddhist cultures). Here the locality, more than the politics, cannot be neatly divorced. We can observe how traders who  came through the Malacca Straits navigated monsoon winds and often used to stay in their port towns  of choice  until the monsoon wind changes (effectively, they stay around for about 3 to 6 months per visit). With this kind of short-term residence in Batavia, Singapore, Malacca, we see inter-marriages happen between  male foreign traders and  local women. Peranakan culture started that way. Chinese traders came, married locally, making  the first matriarch of their lineage a Malay woman. Overtime, their culture evolves as they decide to settle. Religion also changes along with that. For example, there is now the co-existence of Confucian-Taoist traditions with Christianity.

So how does all of these leave an impact on literature or literary studies in this region? Or of a comparative literature practice in Southeast Asia? I posit here that a sense of greater situatedness in literary studies would be productive. This bleeds into wider conversations about the place and purpose of literary studies. By re-injecting a sense of place and history, and the cultures that developed as part of Southeast Asia being this  meeting of many cultures, we can observe the development of many literary forms. For example, you have the art of travel writing (rihlah) from Arabic writing which started as biographical journals and turned to travel novels when it arrives in Southeast Asia (perantau). Another question comes up here: if the Arabs moved to Southeast Asia, then why hadn’t the Malays of the region travelled outwards and spread their literary forms elsewhere? It is likely that because the Malay Archipelago is itself already a maritime region, there is a cultural sense that you don’t need to go beyond the Archipelago because you would already be travelling between worlds within this world. In perantau literature, you see, for instance, literary accounts of travels that transpire between Malacca-Singapore-Kelantan as these were recorded by Munshi Abdullah, who is hailed  to be the father of modern Malay literature. The man was very much an admirer of Sir Stamford Raffles and was quite the Anglophile. As a polylinguist, his most controversial work was to translate the Bible into Malay, but it was his love for the English language that drove him to do that rather than any form of intended blasphemy. Elsewhere, in terms of modernising the rihla, you have the writings of Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. You can use lens of comparative literature to account for the shifts across his realist and fantastical phases of writing. You can compare literature across the two  forms of Bahasa languages, namely, Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia in the way the Indonesian literary critic Maman Mahayana has done. Singapore falls squarely within this region, and so it would be productive to compare writings across these two cultures in this geocultural fashion.

So we can trace how cultures develop in Southeast Asia, a region that takes in many major cultures and then reproduces them as its own. Literary forms also develop in this manner and in the reverse. You have the pantun being reinscribed as the pantoum in France. The Indonesian artist Eddy Susanto had outlined the similarities between narratives of the princely character Panji, expressed through shadow puppetry (wayang kulit) and those of the Japanese character Genji, also a prince whose story has been expressed as an opera performance. You see, there is room for comparative literature to be productive in this part of the world: if you look at Europe, you tend to focus on Abrahamic Faith-centric cultures, but here you can compare between maritime Southeast Asia and landlocked Southeast Asia, and between the array of cultures between them.

I am reminded of a quote by the Singapore playwright Kuo Pao Kun about cultures and trees: something akin to the idea that if you go beneath the canopy of trees, into the soil, you can see their  roots entwine, sharing the same nutrients. It is often used to describe the commonality of  Singapore’s organic multiculturalism, but I reckon this may be extended to describe maritime Southeast Asia? I sense here a previously unseen  link between Pao Kun and Franco Moretti’s work as a world literature scholar in Graphs, Maps, Trees too but maybe that’s another conversation to be had within the field of world literature.




2 | Nazry as Educator

I teach several kinds of applied humanities courses at SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design). I think this idea can be a disciplinary interjection in the teaching of literature in Singapore on a larger scale. In an institution like SUTD which  has liberal arts inclinations, and which proposes a different kind of pedagogy, there arises the opportunity to position and even challenge literary folks to make ourselves relevant in a primarily STEM environment. Technically, we are already speaking to a skeptical audience who are  probably not going to engage much with literary studies on their own.

What I notice most about Singapore’s technocratic education is that we have a propensity for solution-centric thinking. So the value of learning literature is that it can be pitched against this over-enthusiastic need to propose solutions to problems. In literary studies, we spend more time dwelling on problems, sometimes too much, but I believe this  mulling over is an important venture to guard us against  the perils of technological determinism. We literary folks, even humanities folks, can be a kind of wet blanket, but  an essential blanket, to get people to take a step back and rethink their positions on technology and progress. This point is very pertinent to me working within the traditional setting of a university. It has inadvertently and pleasantly convinced me that  literary studies can have worldly implication.

Originally, I begin with the idea that literature can promote empathy in terms of application to STEM students. But I quickly I realise that this has a limited appeal. Instead the key takeaway from literary studies for STEM students is that it engages them at the level and language of design. We are, after all, speaking to designers, architects, engineers. The key to make literary studies relevant to them is therefore through the idea of design: so I begun exploring how texts were designed, how readers reacted to the design of the texts, how the design of the literary marketplace matters in the promotion and reception of texts.

I teach two elective modules at the SUTD. The first is  titled Multicultural Archipelago in History and Story, which I co-teach with a colleague. We assess our students not via academic essays but through exams, placing emphasis on having the students articulate concepts. There are two parts to their exam: a short answer that gets them to explain a concept, and a longer essay where they are asked to critically reflect on of the assigned texts on the module. Basically we are looking at the Archipelago as region that processes many different cultures. We replace the common adjective ‘Malay’ with ‘Multicultural’, with the intention of provoking a deeper cross-cultural engagement between our students and the texts. This is not to deny the Malay character of the region but rather to avoid an essentialist view of Malay culture for our students.

The other module I teach is The Word and the World, which is an introduction to literary theory. The title itself stems from my emphasis of applying literary studies (‘The Word’) to its context (‘The World’). In terms of assessment, I get students to produce a piece of creative work that is inspired by a cultural event that they attended. This gets them to get out into the real world and attend cultural events, to reflect on what people are discussing and engaging on, and finally to express this reflection in a form that they would not normally use. So students can produce anything from a piece of drawing, to a podcast, a poem or any form of creative project they would like to suggest. It is a form of paraphrasing we are getting them to do by changing the form of their response, which entrenches their understanding of knowledge by having students reproduce the knowledge in their own way and form of understanding.

What has been surprising for me while teaching at SUTD is that engineers can read and are willing to read as long as you hit the right buttons — in this case, that button is the language of design. They do love and appreciate literature and are not stereotypically formulaic in their thinking, but their initial interest in literature has to be coaxed out of them, which requires engaging them first on their turf, because for most of these students, their initial experience of humanities is, mostly, economics, which is closer to a social science subject as it is taught here. But that is how economics is categorised in junior colleges. Sure, it can be done at the ‘A’ Levels in a humanities sort of way but this is still far off from doing something like literature.


3 | Nazry as Translator

Speaking of paraphrasing, we can see this as a form of translating. A literary translator like myself is engaged with the task of connecting two points, to highlight literatures that people would not normally read in their own language or culture. Also, it is important to note that a translator does not need to agree with everything the author whom s/he translates. Translators and writers need not be like-minded, and can disagree as long as there is an acknowledgement of that in the translator’s note. Personally, I prefer to do this in the form of an afterword or an epilogue, rather than an introduction at the start of a text. To me, if a translator writes an introduction as a sort of prologue to the text then s/he has already coloured the mind of the reader. I prefer to have people think of translation issues on hindsight.

You could say that translators tend to translate into the language they feel more connected to. So in my case, I would consider myself connecting better with English given that  I translate from Bahasa Melayu to English. At some point I would like to do the reverse, to translate English texts into Bahasa Melayu, but for now I find that I am more expressive in English. An idea I have been toying with is to translate Nietzschean ideas in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra into Malay, but I have to consider the tabooness of the idea, this notion of ‘God is Dead’ and how it could be received by a staunchly Islamic crowd. It may not be the most palatable idea to be rendered into Bahasa Melayu.

The first time I wrote an afterword for a translation was for a play by the 1988 Cultural Medallion winner Almahdi Al-Haj Ibrahim, or better known as Nadiputra. The play is called Muzika Lorong Buangkok based on the last kampung in Singapore. The second time I wrote an afterword was for my translation of a collection of short stories by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (2013 Cultural Medallion winner) titled Lost Nostalgia which will was launched at Singapore Writers’ Festival this year. For my next project, I’m intending to translate Hikayat Faridah Hanom, or Chronicles of Faridah Hanom, hailed as the first Malay novel in the region (circa early 20th Century) written by a Muslim of Arab descent based in Singapore named Syed Sheykh  Al-Hadi. He had reformist ideas about  Islam that challenged  the traditional practices of Islam at the time. Although the story is totally set in Egypt, it is still considered to be a Malay novel written by an Arab based here in the Malay world. This is interesting from the perspective of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that holds how the structure of language that you learn shapes the way you think. In what ways had Al-Hadi writing in Bahasa Melayu makes a Middle Eastern tale Malay? Complicating things further, here is a novel written by a man writing about a woman. It is interesting to think of Al-Hadi from a feminist lens.

I guess my philosophy of translation is that it is a creative work in its own right and that there is no such thing as an original in the purest sense of the word. Southeast Asia is itself can be said to be a translated region, or a region prone to translation where people encounter foreign cultures like Arabic and European, transform them and reproduce them  to suit their contexts. This is not just limited to language alone. It is in fact a philosophical outlook on life which seems to affect both Arab-centric and Anglo-centric cultures that have entered the region. In literary studies we tend to figure influence mostly as a one-sided move stemming from Anglo-centric literature. Perhaps this could be the reason why even with our geopolitics, we tend to neglect our own historical geoculture. We think we can gain economic riches by becoming more intimate with the West, and we believe we become better too if we inherit and inhabit literary traditions from Anglo-centric traditions. But in the age of rising Asia, this is something we can afford to give pause and give greater consideration.

A funny comment to finish off. When people  asked me what my religion is, I would say Literature, with a capital L, the concept of it. I believe in the value of embracing a literary outlook of life and what that can bring to an individual. Sure, it is not a theistic religion, but in the mental acrobatics accorded by the unconventionality of literary works, there is for me a sense of faith that encapsulates the entirety of human wisdom, which in a way is also what religions aspire to do.

DR. NAZRY BAHRAWI is a faculty member at the Singapore University of Technology and Design specialising in the study of world literature, translation studies as well as Islam and culture between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Trained in comparative literature under the tutelage of the translation theorist Susan Bassnett, Nazry has also translated several creative works from Bahasa Melayu into English, including Nadiputra’s play Muzika Lorong Buang Kok (2012) and Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s collection of short stories, Lost Nostalgia (2017). He is the associate editor of the UK-based journal Critical Muslim, and former interview editor for Asymptote. His socio-cultural commentaries have been published in international news agencies like The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, South China Morning Post, and Today.

Photo credit: Nazry Bahrawi

Can Creativity Be Taught, Then?

A Story of Learning Across Two Countries

Hannah Weiss’ comparative reflection on the reception of creative writing in schools across the UK and Singapore arises from her recent summer school experience at NTU in Singapore. She takes us on a round trip observing cultural differences of deliberate apathy and structured inspiration, receptivity to adult and teacher instruction, all while probing her impulse and affinity with storytelling. Yet what emerges from writing the unreality of culture shock is Hannah’s suggestion of an unlikely lesson in creativity to take home with her.

Not everybody wants to learn. In the UK, my A Level English Language classmates were apathetic when instructed to write a story, in comparison to their long lost eight year-old selves, fizzing with excitement at the prospect of the same task a decade earlier. Will we write about fairy-tale castles or spaceships?  A murder mystery or epic quest? But learning is not considered cool, in my country.

From where do we find this apathy? Why is it so ingrained, in all TV shows and movies aimed at western teenagers, that gaining respect from friends is about refusing to show interest in learning? Perhaps at that age it is about declaring mutiny from all adult instruction. I assumed everyone felt this way, until I went to study abroad.

For every British teenager knows that they must slouch back in their chair and stare down the teacher, chew gum with exaggerated insolence, and swagger their way past centre-stage to slam the door behind them as they are sent from the classroom, all to prove to their peers that they defiantly do not care. To put any less effort into this act is to be labelled a boffin, a swot, an arse-licker. And if you find yourself achieving too many A grades or failing to laugh off the teacher’s threats of failed exams, you will trip up, stumble and fall to the very bottom of the food chain. School is a jungle, and you do not want to become the prey.

I was the kid who blatantly flouted the dress code and got kicked out for doodling in class when I should have been making notes. But at home, where there was nobody to mock my tentative first scrawls of storytelling, I began to create vast, intricate worlds of my own. Staying up late into the night, pen in my hand, as I named the characters of my first novel and transcribed their stories.

The habits learnt in school were vices I struggled to shake off at university. And so became the pattern: procrastinate by day, then stay awake, dreaming, into the night. The stories grew longer. But the creative writing seminars I trudged to through the grey English dawn were peppered with bored first years, bleary-eyed from nights at the student bar. The few remaining attentive spouted references to highbrow tombs I had never opened, by eminent luminaries I had never heard of. Cowed, I slumped lower in my seat, to the refuge of doodles and dreams.

But I wanted to write. To tell stories, they say, you must have seen things, done things, know the world. You must be an adventurer. So I went with this small seed of a plan to the study abroad office, and through piles of paperwork and stark airport corridors and the ocean of the sky, I found my way to Asia.

Imagine how surprised I was, with this history of seeing study as something to be scorned, to arrive in Singapore and receive a gentle reassurance from the wellbeing counsellor on the very first day, that I must not put in so much effort as to find myself awash in panic. They say there are bars on the top level of the student dorms for a reason. The students surrounding me were from Shenzhen and Fukuoka, Seoul and Jakarta. They sat silently in the classroom. They made neat notes and worked hard.

I was impressed. And intimidated.

It’s a well-known stereotype that Asian countries place higher value on education than in the west. And clearly this has positive and negative consequences. My classmates in Singapore were well prepared to sit attentive through four-hour seminars, while I was blankly appalled to find this seemingly endless sermon on my timetable. But a focus on results is not always conducive to art. The technical aspects of writing are of great importance – you cannot sustain a reader’s attention without a strong plotline, nor immerse them in the world you have created without being able to use description effectively. However, when the teacher instructed us to ensure we included enough detail in our work, many of my classmates, new to being novelists, and accustomed to following orders precisely, wrote reams of exposition and described the minutiae of settings and characters to the detriment of the flow of their stories. Can creativity be taught, then?

Many writers suggest that it is innate. But the habit of writing, of redrafting and editing one’s own work, is a skill that is hard to grasp without some guidance. I was impressed with the focus of the course on providing students with trips to explore various aspects of Singapore’s culture, from the Art Science Museum, a paradox in itself as a concrete flower, to the kaleidoscopic alleys of Little India. We were encouraged to use these places as inspiration, and to write about not only our new surroundings but our response to being there. Free writing was encouraged at the start of each class, and without the shackles of direct imperatives about their technique, I was fascinated to hear other students read aloud their thoughts on homesickness, small moments of culture shock, and that sense of unreality that dazes every international student; as you try to pinpoint your place on the other side of the world.

I was forewarned by Singaporean students that study would be hard there; not an exploration of learning but a crushing pressure to succeed. I was told by friends that the nation was struggling to cement its place in the world. That the dazzling skyscrapers shooting up around me, and the tour guide’s lengthy exposition on the city branding itself as a multicultural haven were attempts to cover up foundations recently built. As a foreigner who only attempted to sleep standing up as the MRT carried me home for a mere five weeks, I don’t believe my brief impressions can truly weigh in on the debate. I know the response of my fellow exchange students was overwhelmingly positive: the awe at the university, whose investment in impressive new buildings and research far outstripped our own, at the dedication to creating spaces for community and expression amongst the rush of city life. I have seen dancers in London claiming spaces in train stations and parks, wherever they can find, while Singaporeans have SCAPE; a whole arts centre to play in.

Creativity has a grand tradition in my home country. But perhaps we are taking it for granted. The British government pours cash into funds for students studying the sciences, while arts students are left to flounder. Singapore’s students may struggle through a more rigid education system than the one I grew up in. The nation may only now be making its own history. But during the few weeks I called the city home, I felt in it a vibrant potential for innovation that England seems to have forgotten it once had. In contrast, I think much of Singapore’s story is yet to be told.

Currently reading English Literature at the University of Exeter, HANNAH WEISS admires all storytellers from Shakespeare to Scheherazade. As Online Comment Editor for Exeposé student newspaper and world music columnist for Pearshaped magazine, her proofreading experience has landed publishing work placements where she was paid in books. One mission in life is to master headspins and make it as a pro b-girl, smoking opposition in battles worldwide.

Photo credit: Hannah Weiss

The Unseen Survey

Moral Encouragement for A Level Lit Students

For our special tribute to our fellow A Level (and IB) Literature student friends taking papers this exam season, we sought out notes of encouragement, shared frustration and reminiscence from friends of Unseen, and here we present our curation of all the responses of our 22 friends who answered our call. The Unseen team hopes this can help uplift you in time for the exams.

Literature – the subject where we write ourselves into oblivion in school. In this issue, the team has decided to shine the spotlight not just on the subject itself, but on people who have studied Literature, whether formally or informally! We invited respondents to share with us their thoughts on studying the subject as a form of solidarity and encouragement for our A Level Literature friends taking their H1 and H2 papers this November (IB friends we are not forgetting you entirely too!). This survey and its results mark our transition from engaging primarily at A Level Literature students to literature students past and present at all levels, literary lurkers and enthusiasts and we hope to open up a platform to promote a wider sense of camaraderie across Singaporean lit heads who may not always find a space for their voices to be heard and shared.

We would like to thank the 22 friends of Unseen who responded to the open call for our survey (in no particular order):

Sakunika, 25 | James, 25 | Brillia, 22 | Keith, 24 | Ying, 20 | Adeeb, 25 | Ianna, 19 | Daryl, 26 | Eliza, 22 | Nathaniel, 23 | Ling, 34 | Shameera, 23 | Royce, 24 | Ingmar, 27 | HY, 27 | Colin, 23 | JP, 24 | Edward, 22 | Brian, 25 | Yunita, 23 | Leonard, 25 | Ernest, 27

We had 4 main questions, and a curated selection of the responses are as follows:


Q1. At what stage/s did you formally study Literature?

A cool, pretty-looking chart that we certainly cannot claim credit for (thanks SurveyMonkey analytics!)
(Editor: our respondents could tick more than one answer for this, and the option for ‘Did not study lit formally’ also includes ‘studying lit up to Sec 2 only’)

Q2. What was one frustrating moment you had while studying/reading Literature?

For ‘A’s (‘A’ Levels), I high-key struggled with reading Shakespeare. One of my texts was Othello, and the version that we used didn’t have any summary or translation. Yes, I was That Literature Student who couldn’t understand Shakespeare.
(Editor: don’t worry – I am that student too – up to today I have to confess I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare!)

Frustrating was reading Shakespeare when I was 15 years old, and wondering if I missed out on language classes all the while that lead up to that moment in class where I did not understand what the Bard was writing.

Reading itself – because I’m a very slow reader.

Not understanding what’s going on in the poem — being unable to deal with ambiguity.

Being unable to keep up with the language of English Renaissance writers.

There was no guidance given to write essays. It was kind of like being thrown into the deep end and you either sink or swim. Even though I managed to swim, I didn’t know what I had done right…

I struggled writing cohesive essays that had overarching links. Writing out an essay plan at the start of every essay is a must, while reading exemplary essays written by your contemporaries can be very helpful as well.

That we didn’t get to read more. And how answers I wrote were never long enough to get full marks.

A glut of postcolonial texts.

It was so difficult to put my thoughts into words! Which is… the basic skill you need for literature, haha, so it was very frustrating at times.

Understanding and critically assessing poetry (aka Prac Crit).

Not being taught essay-writing skills, the jargon / language to talk about techniques and analyse texts at an early age – those were things I had to pick up later on my own.

There was no guidance given to write essays from the get go. It was kind of like being thrown into the deep end and you either sink or swim. Even though I managed to swim, I didn’t know what I had done right…

Feeling the pressure to be ‘cheem’ (intellectual) and to understand and luxuriate in the enjoyment of everything.

When I always seem to overlook a seemingly important moment.

Dreading the amount of textual analysis needed to prepare for the exams. You will at times feel overloaded, but there are many ways to optimise the studying process.

For all the prep, I blanked out and panicked precisely during my a level lit paper one. Eventually I submitted less than a page for 2/3 questions. (But there’s a good ending to this later)

I think it was when I realised I wasn’t as good at literature as I thought I would be. Frustration became acceptance, and I have not looked back since then because you should not dwell on the past ahem

Lack of structure or materials in poetry analysis.

Never able to write decent critiques.

One frustrating moment I had was not being able to keep up with the sheer number of readings and going to class feeling loss and unprepared.

Feeling like everyone else started younger and was more lit savvy.

Reading. I don’t like reading.

Q3. What is one fond memory you have of studying/reading Literature?

Just reading. It’s nice.

Reading poetry!

Reading beautiful texts and poems.

Coming across Marjorie Barnard’s short story, “The Persimmon Tree”.

Four legs good, two legs bad.
Four legs good, two legs better.
Some animals are more equal than others.

Reading and analysing a text, and then re-reading and re-analysing the text. I find that with every read I get a new insight of the text.

When I connected with and understood a certain character or moment.

Identifying with the characters or certain lines from the text–there is an Ah-Ha moment that’s indescribable.

A fond memory I have is having rich discussions with my teachers and leaving class seeing the world with a fresh perspective.

Reading books/narratives and being wholly immersed in them. Discussing plays and their respective themes! However in hindsight I wish that we could’ve analyzed it alongside real world phenomena. Imagine how novel it would be if in discussing say Richard III, that you could relate it in a creative and unfalse way to Trump?

I once dreamt I was the protagonist of The Sound of Waves, a Mishima text I was studying for IB.

When you are presented with an unseen poem/prose and with a single read, knowing exactly what you want to analyse in response.

Drawing links where I never knew I could in The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter.

I had a secondary school teacher, Mr Lam, who taught us Literature when I was in Cedar. He taught me literature at Sec 2 and Sec 3, if I’m not wrong. He introduced us to the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – it was mind-blowing and definitely made me fall in love with Literature. He used to stop me and two good friends when we ran into him randomly at school and go “IT IS AN ANCIENT MARINER/ AND HE STOPPETH ONE OF THREEEeee!!” (the opening line of the poem). Then we’d three respond with “By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, now wherefore stopp’st thou MEEEE”. He was an aged gentleman, which just made the whole thing more hilarious la.

Listening in amazement (and trying to follow) my teacher down a deep spiel was a bit like Alice following the rabbit down into wonderland.

The discussions we had in every class. I enjoyed every single one of them, even if some went incredibly off-topic. I recall one class on poetry suddenly drifting off and switching to the efficacy of chia seeds. There was a lot of life in those classes, and I became a more complete individuals after those dialogues.

I think reading the texts are fun enough, but seeing how they translate to movies or are revised to other forms of art during class made things more interesting.

When I understood every detail and how it linked to themes and authorial intentions, I felt like I could be a writer myself. Not just for my essays, but I thought I had a shot at writing poems and prose, too. It’s very satisfying to think about the complexities of literature and how they tie together so nicely.

Learning to appreciate good writing.

Marvelling at the beauty and elegance with which words can express the human condition.

Being able to write poetry as a group, that would eventually turn out to be a heavily-coded hate mail to the teacher grading the assignment.

Follow up to earlier question. I went into the second paper knowing that whatever happens I’m finished and won’t get an A, even B. I let myself free and wrote with no pressure and presented my best papers. Eventually I pulled myself to a C grade. Maybe that’s what you need. The mentality that it’s about you presenting what you truly feel about the texts, not chasing some grade.


Q4. In about 50 words, what is one piece of advice you would like to share with students taking the ‘A’ Level examinations this year?

You think the A Levels is bad? Wait till you finish your A Levels.

Just imagine.

Be curious. If you don’t understand something, Google it and find out what other people are saying online. Ask your peers. Ask your teachers. Have that conversation. Be respectful and open to different takes on something, and accepting that sometimes there is no answer, just how one argues. But most importantly, be curious.

Definitely go to your teachers and friends for help if you need it, don’t be shy! It’s perfectly fine to ask for help – it makes the process so much more stress-free and you’ll learn some really interesting stuff.

Be open, and give your thoughts some structure and you will be fine.

Spend time to re-read the text in its entirety again.

Use the Internet and resources in the NLB (11th? floor), especially for set texts. It expands your understanding of the text, and allows you to gather very different insights that you can piece together to form more novel ones – that’s what helps you stand out from those regurgitating what was raised in class. Even for unseen, reading a lot of analyses helps you break down what to look for and improves the flow of your essays.

Don’t do it for the grades. Do it because you love it.

Remember that the idea is to examine the writing and delve into it properly. Simply memorising model answers without understanding how the writer came to such a thought or concept will lead to mechanical and stiff answers.

Do not read passively; always been keenly aware of thematic concerns and threads running through your literary text. Draw mind-maps to visualise how everything connects. Lastly, create a system to be able to quickly identify critical portions of the text – I find coding paragraphs to specific highlighter colours greatly improves the speed in recalling why this particular text is important.

Study with friends. It’s a lot more fun.

Don’t necessarily think of it as an examination/subject to pass or get an A for. Part of the reason H2 Lit was one of the subjects I performed best in was because I honestly enjoyed doing it – reading the texts, doing supplementary readings, and even crafting and writing my essays. All the best!

Work smart rather than hard and know that in a couple years grades won’t matter as much as your skills. And learn to enjoy the process — especially in literature, if there is joy in the process there will be joy at the end!

I’m so out of touch tbh but I think something that helped me for my A Level novel text was to go through the text slowly, marinating in all the ways in which the themes we talked about in class come through, in ways not covered in class to see all the interlinkages.

Summary notes for each text were really great for me. I listed the themes, techniques, authorial intentions, character analysis things, and more major quotes for evidence from the texts into 2 pieces of A4 paper. Great for revision and forces you to link everything together.

Don’t worry too much about memorising stuff. Focus on reading your text, knowing where things happen, and why, and how, and when. Then just apply it appropriately to the question at hand.

Most of you probably took the subject as a choice, so you have to enjoy the journey. Books weren’t written in a day, so don’t fuss if you don’t understand. Keep on reading!

Good result, bad result, it all somehow works out in the end. I did badly, felt the sting for 3 months, but got into university anyway.

Appreciate the struggle, it’s part of the process. Sometimes you will feel you’re not getting anywhere, but actually you are. (:

As you write your essays, seek to develop a personal voice in your writing and let it come through strongly. All the best!
(Editor: Oh… this is so important! Remember you don’t want to give the same cookie-cutter ‘model’ answer – the best essays are those that are firm and with strong evidence, but you can only give that if you believe in what you’re arguing!)

Please study with a bigger perspective in mind. How does it benefit your life? How does literature inform our society, or at least, the way human relationships are formed?

Do not study so hard that you miss your paper. I studied up until 5 minutes before the exam started, and as a result of that was shut out of the examination hall. All of my schoolmates witnessed me knocking on the front door at 7.59am yelling, “PLEASE LET ME IN. I’M SUPPOSED TO BE HERE.”

Photo credit: Nah Dominic

Fictional Power: The Collapse of Feminism in Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Diary of a Madman


Fiction has long been marshalled by activists of various causes, ANG KIA YEE notes, but closer examination of texts can reveal its very undoing after having raised its politics.  “There cannot be collapse without something built”, she writes, tracing the feminist energetics in both Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ and Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’, before unravelling how the patriarchal associations of women with caretaking and madness respectively are defied and inverted, only for both narratives to violently “resume hegemonic gender conventions”. In comparing the infliction of psychological and physical violence, and the contrasting narrative focalizing strategies from Porter’s “intimate first-person approach” to Lu Xun’s distancing narration, Ang’s proposal that feminism in fiction can turn out to merely be “fictional feminisms” raises a careful warning of the failure of activism in fiction, with caution to the world outside our pages.

“Never confuse movement with action.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Fiction as a site for activism is a notion that has endured a long history; it drives new and developing critical fields such as ecocriticism and queer theory. Building on this premise, I will engage with Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (“Pale Horse”) and Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” (“Madman”) not merely as stories but experiences that can alter mindsets, and therefore to be examined for their embedded politics.

Both texts possess a feminist spark in which gender conventions are transformed and women are elevated to a space usually occupied by men: subject rather than object, central figure rather than secondary character. They also articulate resistance against patriarchal forces. However, these traces of feminism disintegrate and reveal themselves as mostly phantasm. Fiction manifests the power for change but in “Pale Horse” and “Madman”, this power largely remains fictional. However, though both texts present the collapse of feminism, they situate the feminist struggle in different places: one in the mind and spirit, the other on the physical body.

There cannot be collapse without something built; before I probe the disintegration of feminism in the texts, I must first address how feminist potential and subversion of gender norms are set up in them. At surface level, the narratives bear one key difference: while “Pale Horse” has a female protagonist, “Madman” has a male one. However, they ultimately both present the woman at the centre of the narrative. While “Pale Horse” has a female protagonist through whom we experience the story not just in first person but in the highly personal stream of consciousness mode, “Madman” positions madness, “a female malady” (Showalter 4), at its core. Jane Ussher, in referencing Showalter, defines the relationship: Science, the rising authority of the Victorian age which would govern mental institutions and public asylums, was dominated by “the gentleman doctor – the masculine scientist… [and] personified as male. Nature was female.” (68). Just as Science as a governing body in England became a tool by which “men could uncover and control nature, and, by extension, uncover and control women” (69), “brutal treatment of women in China over the centuries had its support, if not its origins, in Confucianism”, a “state-sponsored…patriarchy” (Nyitray 145, 143) which is explicitly criticized in “Madman”. Given that “madness” and its root word are inscribed as female and the “equation between femininity and insanity” (3) so interminable[1], to use the word is to corporealize the woman. As such the title “Diary of a Madman”, as well as its first-person narrative of the madman in opposition to patriarchal Confucianism, coalesce with these contextual and linguistic presences to centre the woman at the heart of the narrative. The female is thus ascribed individuality and narrative authority in both texts.

Furthermore, there are multiple ways of reading “Madman”, which altogether frame madness positively. Carlos Rojas notes three readings: we might take the diary literally as depicting “an infectious disease that…transforms its victims into cannibals,”, “a symptom of a delusional mental illness… that causes the madman to believe he is surrounded by cannibals,” (47) or “an allegorical critique of China’s “cannibalistic” illness” (48). I disagree with his segregation of the readings; they necessarily overlap, and it is reading the narrative as simultaneously embodying all interpretations that provokes deeper reflection. Nonetheless, it can be agreed that they are all manifestations of truth that each possess some authenticity or validity. Madness, and in turn, femininity, is presented positively as a mode of illuminating truth.

Feminist expectations are built upon further in “Pale Horse,” though not so much in “Madman”. In Porter’s story, the traditionally female function of caretaking is both challenged and transformed by Adam and the nurse respectively. Though his time with her is brief, Adam is proactive and loving as Miranda’s caretaker. He “wash[es] her face with a wet towel” (346), “leap[s] up with an alarmed face, and almost at once…holding a cup of hot coffee to her mouth” (349) when she sits up in a panic (350-1). From his alarm at her condition, Adam acts in “the gentlest sort of way” (351), colouring him with maternal, feminine energy. His embodiment of the feminine echoes the madman of Lu Xun’s story, and subverts the gendered expectations of women as carers and mothers.

Despite manifesting a stereotype, the nurse also defies gender conventions. She is spirited, confident and persistent; she nurses back to health Miranda, “this patient [who becomes] visible proof of [her] theory” (360). The word “theory” is particularly powerful, for it attaches intelligence to the nurse – one who has a scientific edge. It is as though the nurse herself is a scientist; she conceives of a hypothesis and proves it. She is thus on par with men, the dominant demographic of science. Interestingly, the nurse’s efforts only amount to Miranda’s spiritual void in the wake of survival. This desolation can be read as a further subversion of the gendered stereotype surrounding nursing, for it retains the signifier – the persistence and strength of spirit – while removing the expected signified result. As her experiment successfully establishes theory; the nurse is thus more of a scientist than a caretaker.

Although both texts resume hegemonic gender conventions, “Pale Horse” depicts psychological oppression whereas “Madman” is returned to gender conventions in a physically brutal way. The feminism in “Pale Horse” diminishes early on, from the men pressurizing her to purchase Liberty Bonds to the caution exercised by Miranda and a female counterpart in speaking ill of the inherently patriarchal war. Miranda, a woman, is infantilized (“[t]he man wagged his finger at her…as if…prompting an obstinate child”). While they claim to be “just asking [Miranda] why [she hasn’t] bought” a Liberty Bond (318), their tone and physical cues indicate otherwise. They decide for Miranda that her poverty is “no excuse at all”, and that “[she] can pay for it five dollars a week” (318). In doing so they remove Miranda’s individual agency; they reject her knowledge of her own financial situation and attempt to rewrite her personal narrative. When speaking to the girl about her resentment of the “errand” of comforting men in cantonment hospitals, Miranda “turn[s] cautious also” when the girl replies to her “cautiously” (322-3). They seem to possess an internalized patriarchy, demonstrating the extent to which gender conventions have been seared into the very flesh of women’s social code so much that they come to silence themselves.

While women are very much present in “Pale Horse”, they are almost completely absent in “Madman”. Men dominate the narrative, evoking “cold fear” (22) in the madman just as the Liberty Bond agents evoke fear in Miranda. There is something decidedly animalistic, “fearful… [and] savage” (23) about their appearance and physicality in “Madman”, which suggests greater propensity for brutality than the men in “Pale Horse”. This persistent violence in “Madman” crystallizes most clearly in its almost complete absence of women, an invisibility with violent undertones. In his list of cannibalism’s accomplices, the madman mentions “fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, wives, friends, teachers, pupils, enemies, perfect strangers”. Male classifiers occur repeatedly, whereas female ones occur only once: “wives”. Mothers, daughters and sisters are conspicuously absent, highlighting the lack of women in the narrative and signalling the collapse of the reproductive function. Subsequently, humanity has no possibility of renewal and evolution. A feminist reading of this suggests an annihilation of femininity by the patriarchy, represented here by Confucianism, and subsequent hopelessness in the face of oppressive gender codes. While the undoing of feminism in “Pale Horse” rests more upon psychological and spiritual torment, in “Madman” the collapse rests more on brutality against the body.

The texts’ differing presentations of collapsed feminism is reflected in their dissimilar narrative frames. “Pale Horse” adopts an intimate first-person approach which situates readers inside Miranda’s psyche, whereas the framing of “Madman” distances readers and even objectifies the madman. In “Pale Horse”, distance between readers and Miranda is minimized by bringing the receiver of the narrative to its contextual inner source – Miranda’s mind. By doing so the narrative becomes a vessel for, or indeed, becomes the female voice itself, unfiltered and unedited by other characters or Miranda herself. This privilege of unfiltered speech is a feminist act, and becomes more sharply so when examined alongside “Madman”, whose narrative is reshaped and supervised through multiple frames. For one, the narrator’s prologue precedes the diary “entries” and recounts his acquisition of the diary, his “extract[ion] of occasional flashes of coherence” (21). The “entries” thus undergo multiple overlapping editorial processes of varying motives: for clarity, or for “medical research”. Even the title given to the collected “entries” is manipulation, firstly because the recovered individual conceiving the title is no longer the madman, secondly because the title is retrospectively constructed. As such, the original, “authentic” narrative is lost, buried beneath agendas outside of the madman. Also of note is that every frame is one constructed and applied by a man, corroborating my reading of them as manifestations of patriarchal oppression.

Perhaps the most damaging edit lies in the intent of “medical research”, which determines which “entries” are included in the first place. Furthermore, such a framing undermines the text’s emotional weight, instead objectifying the madman by reducing him and his terror to a case study. This dehumanization of the subject mirrors the objectification of women as mentally inferior and prone to madness by scientists in the Victorian age, and signals a regression into misogyny. Whatever power the madman possessed by being positioned as the protagonist is extinguished. Madness is distanced yet again, and the madwoman is returned to the attic.

In the texts’ depiction of recovery, “Madman” once again emerges with more physically brutal misogyny. In “Pale Horse”, Miranda, a survivor, takes on the emotional labour typically assigned to women. As Arlie Hochschild noted, women are expected to carry out more emotional labour than men both at work and at home; “the world turns to women for mothering, and this fact silently attaches itself to many job requirements” (182). In Miranda’s case, she is trapped by the emotional labour of memory, of remembering the devastation of the pandemic. As David A. Davis articulates,

Miranda’s memory of Adam, a memory she cherishes, is entangled with her memory of the pandemic, a memory she abhors, and they are connected by the fact that Adam died from the virus. […] [S]he cannot allow herself to forget…without abdicating her love for [Adam]. (69) Emotional labour becomes mandatory for Miranda, a permanent weight on her heart. Miranda’s fate here is foreshadowed earlier in the text, in which “a little drab man” (333) confronts her about a bad review. The man employs a warped feminism in the process of imposing emotional labour upon Miranda (“I wanta know what you think is wrong with me”) (334). He takes her criticism seriously despite her rhetoric, “What does it matter what I think?” (334) and oppressively demands for her to justify them. The “female” function of emotional labour is thus explicitly forced upon Miranda. Furthermore, she is unable to fend him off until Chuck, her male colleague, steps in. Her timid responses reflect more broadly the helplessness of women against men, against demands for emotional labour, and offset the feminist efficacy of the strong, confident nurse. Ultimately, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” concludes with a collapsed feminism which subjects women to spiritual melancholy.

On a metanarrative level, however, Porter’s act of writing “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is itself a feminist act of emotional labour, for it is one of the few narratives available that centres on the 1918 influenza pandemic. In fact, Davis argues that “Pale Horse” as a literary narrative “serves as the primary means of recovery (of the influenza pandemic), allowing survivors to recover their identity and allowing listeners to experience the trauma empathetically” (62). It is an act of emotional labour on behalf of survivors which facilitates their recovery process. This is unlike the emotional labour thrust upon Miranda, where the former is a feminist act because it works against the collective, oppressive suppression of memories. As such, while the narrative of “Pale Horse” does deviate into misogyny, the story as a whole retains a feminist edge.

In contrast to Miranda, the madman ends up “wait[ing] for an appropriate official post to fall vacant” (21) after his recovery, subsumed back into status quo. Specifically, he seeks to join the government, the gatekeeper and enforcer of state ideology which is implicitly blamed for the “cannibalism” in China. By attempting to join the government, the recovered man not only gives in to oppression but also becomes its perpetuator. Just as the women in “Madman” have been wiped out, the tormented madman is erased. As such, comparing the texts, it can be concluded that for “Pale Horse” the collapse of feminism occurs in the mind, whereas that of “Madman” rests in its brutal and abrupt disappearance of the tangible body. “Pale Horse” concludes with an outline of the woman still standing, her spirit emptied, whereas “Madman” subsumes and dissolves the feminine body.

In conclusion, while both texts attempt to surmount misogyny, they ultimately both resume hegemonic concepts of gender, one by dissolving the spirit, the other by dissolving the body. Through these fictional feminisms, they present contrasting philosophies as to the site of failure in feminism. They sustain memories of past violence against women, and also remind us that misogyny is not always public and visible in its brutality but manifests also in more insidious, spirit-breaking forms. Looking forward, I hope this comparison might inform a deeper understanding of feminism in reality, and contribute to existing discourse.

(1) Ussher writes, “[T]o be woman is often to be mad. […]We are all in danger of being positioned as mad.” (6)

Works Cited

Davis, David A. “The Forgotten Apocalypse: Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Traumatic Memory, and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 43, no. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 55-74.

Hochschild, Arlie, and Anne Machung. The Second Shift. Viking Penguin, 1989.

Lu Xun. “Diary of a Madman.” The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Translated by Julia Lovell, Penguin Classics, 2009, pp. 21-31.

Nyitray, Vivian-Lee. “Confusion, Elision, and Erasure: Feminism, Religion, and Chinese Confucian Traditions.” Editorial. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 26, no. 1, Spring 2010, pp. 143-160.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: The Selected Short Stories. Penguin Classics, 2011.

Rojas, Carlos. “Of Canons and Cannibalism: A Psycho-Immunological Reading of “Diary of a Madman”.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, special issue on Discourses of Disease, vol. 23, no. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 47-76.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980. Virago, 1987.

Ussher, Jane. Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness? Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

ANG KIA YEE is a writer and artist studying at the University of Warwick. She can be found at

Photo Credit: Joanne Loo