We Can Talk About These Things

World Wide Poetry Studio Interviews Alvin Pang

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Alvin Pang is a Singaporean poet whose latest book, When the Barbarians Arrive features new and selected poems. I, of course, wanted to talk to him about his satirical, shrewd, and energetic poems (and in the full podcast you will hear that) but we also had an enlightening digression about his work as an editor and advocate for Singapore's diverse poetry scene. I had no idea!

RVW: What did you like about editing Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore

AP: The cool thing about this is that it brings together thirty-nine living writers from Singapore and from the four different literary languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Everyone speaks and works in English, but, in terms of literature, they write for their respective audiences. Chinese novelists and poets look to be known in the Chinese speaking world: so Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China. They’re not interested in whether they’re known or not in New York or London the way the English-speaking poets are. And the Malay poets are read by the Malay archipelago, an audience of around one hundred million people. Tamil of course, is read in the Tamil-speaking regions of South Asia.

RVW: Is it rare for them all to be in one anthology together?

AP: We’ve not bothered to read each other’s work! Partly because we’re looking elsewhere; we’re not looking at each other. And partly because the politics of the situation means you’re not encouraged to look at each other’s work. There was a little bit of divide and conquer in domestic policy, dating back to British times. I thought: let’s see what happens if we translate this stuff. Much of it was written in the sixties and eighties, and has never been seen before in English.

RVW: Does it hang together?

AP: It does! There are themes and concerns in common. The powerful thing about doing this book is how much we speak as one people, we have not been allowed to think that we have allies in the different (linguistic) communities.

RVW: Did you feel comfortable engaging with all the different cultures and religions in Singapore and gathering them in one book?

AP: Malay culture in Singapore is deeply influenced by Islamic culture. It is a form of Islam that has not had enough airtime in the popular Western press. We grew up with Islam. It is part of my childhood and my background and my urban landscape, and it is very strange to go to Australia and hear perfectly well-educated, intelligent, cosmopolitan intellectuals say, ‘But Islam is an evil, evil thing!’ I’m like, 'What?' Those are my people you’re talking about!’ That’s not my experience; let’s put it that way. The Malay community in Singapore, of course, writes back about these things, they write about things which in the popular, Western conception of Islam isn’t talked or written about.

A novelist friend of mine wrote a novel about a German scientist who cloned the prophet Mohammed from a strand of hair, and then implants the child in a woman from an indigenous tribe in Borneo as a social experiment to see what would happen. And even from birth the child starts to re-enact the sacred life of the prophet Mohammed, but obviously in a new and different context. And that child becomes a very conflicted being, because he knows he’s 'a shadow of a shadow of a shadow' – it’s a very beautiful line there – but at the same time, he starts to question what his place is in the spirit and the history and the faith. He did not choose to be born, he was created as a very cynical experiment, but his life clearly demonstrates the sacred past he came from. He wrote the novel as a way to interrogate – as a contemporary, educated, professional and devout Muslim -issues surrounding the interface of technology and science and faith, to make the point that these are things that should, and are, being thought about. When we toured (in Sweden), he talked about the novel. Everyone was like [gasps] 'How are you not being lynched yet!?’ The point is that in south-east Asia there is a strength in our culture that we can talk about these things. Of course it’s still controversial, but we don’t come to blows about these things. We’re civilised in our own way.

You can hear the full conversation and Pang's own poems on the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast or read some of his work here.

You can also purchase his latest book 'When the Barbarians Arrive'.

Alive is on Twitter  @alfpang

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.