Love means you breathe in two countries—Naomi Shihab Nye
In the first few weeks of my MA in Creative Writing, I showed a creative nonfiction piece I had written to a visiting writer-in-residence. It was about the Brixton riots of 2011, where looters set fire to a Foot Locker just down the road from where I used to live. They smashed the window and broke into the store before spreading to consume what remained of Marks and Spencer, Currys, and Halfords. An eyewitness who spoke to the Telegraph said they were ‘like ants’.
It was a ten-minute walk from my studio flat in Stockwell to that Foot Locker. When I moved there, the borough had the highest rate of knife crime in London and everyone north of the river cringed when I told them where I lived. But it was my home for a year, and it was the first place I’d struck out on my own like this without family and friends. In my first week there, I went to the Brixton Library to get a library card. It was just after my birthday. I don’t remember the date, but I remember the staff member who helped me saw me write the date on the registration documents, and wished me a happy belated birthday. When the riots happened, I felt as if someone had set my own backyard on fire, even though I’d moved away long ago.
Our writer-in-residence read this essay, and then asked me what I wanted to write about—what was it, deep down inside, that interested me as a writer. I told him I felt I should write about Singapore, but honestly, I just wanted to write about London. I had spent two years in London and for better or worse, I don’t think I’ll ever get the city out of my system. When I think of the South Bank in springtime, or Trafalgar Square at night with the lights of the National Gallery illuminating all the plinths, a thousand stories come to mind, the way they don’t when I think about Marina Bay or MacRitchie Reservoir.
I don’t know what I expected our visiting writer to say to me, but I was surprised when he said: ‘Well, then write your London novel. You don’t have to write about Singapore if you don’t want to. That’s political, the pressure you feel.’
He made it sound so simple, but this was a tiny revelation to me. As a Singaporean writer just starting to find her own voice, at a time when the local literary scene feels like a messy, glorious, kaleidoscopic explosion, I find myself constantly struggling with the guilt of not particularly wanting to write about Singapore. I should want to write about Singapore, because there aren’t enough Singaporean books out there. Because representation matters. Because if, growing up, I had read books about Siew May hanging out at the kopitiam after school instead of books about Mary Anne living in a house with a white picket fence, I might have felt I mattered a little bit more, like my stories mattered a little bit more. I could be that writer for Singaporean girls growing up today. Shouldn’t I want to be?
Sometimes, I say I don’t want to write about Singapore because it’s boring, but I know this isn’t the whole truth. Singapore isn’t boring at all. I think a big part of me struggles with the idea of a Singaporean story because I’m not sure I know what it is. I’ve spent enough of my most formative years abroad that I don’t know how Singaporean I am anymore, and I don’t know that I’m in any way qualified to tell a Singaporean story. Who am I to write about HDB living? About the Singapore River? I have so many more memories of the Thames that mean something. And that pressure—it scares me, the idea that I have to capture some kind of nationhood, something so much greater than myself in my words. I’m only one writer, with only so many words.
The irony is, I’m fully aware the reason Singapore doesn’t spark my imagination the way London does is probably because of the media I’ve grown up consuming. Of course Kings Cross is romantic to me. Of course I want to go to Platform 9¾ and take a picture with the trolley jammed halfway into the wall. If I’d grown up reading local stories, I might have found an equal romance in void decks. I didn’t, so I don’t, and I write pieces set across the globe from London to California, Kobe to Sydney.
But wherever they go, my characters are always tinged with what I feel when I’m in those places—a longing for home, an unanchored reaching, a feeling that the world is their oyster and they could open their mouth and let the sweet flesh slide down their throat, and still crave the taste of Milo dinosaur and chicken rice. In trying to escape writing about Singapore, I wind up writing about it anyway. And maybe that’s my Singaporeanness. Maybe that’s just as valid, and Singaporean girls who have seen the world and left fragments of themselves everywhere will read my work and think, oh, that’s me.
It would be easy to wrap this post up with some pithy wisdom about the politics of what makes a self, and the plurality of national identity. How, in a country as small and globally connected as Singapore, the experience of belonging everywhere and nowhere is as Singaporean as any now. At least, it’s my experience, and it is more authentic to me than sentimentalities about the kampung spirit and half-truths about colonial legacies. But I can’t say I’m particularly interested in exploring or forging a sense of national identity through my writing.
Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird:
My friend Carpenter says we no longer need Chicken Little to tell us the sky is falling, because it already has. The issue now is how to take care of one another. … So write about the things that are most important to you. Love and death and sex and survival are important to most of us.
I don’t need to tell you the state of the sky. You can look up at it yourself, and open your eyes. I do want to write something that will make you care about the people around you, about the places you come from, and the best way I know how is to write about the things that are most important to me, and pour all my reasons for caring into them. I still don’t know if I’m writing Singaporeanness, or that the pieces I write will ever be Singaporean enough. I do think, the more I write, the more I gain confidence that I am writing the whole of me, and all the countries I’m breathing in.
Chen Cuifen was born and raised in Singapore where she now lives and works, having spent many years abroad in the UK and Australia. Her poetry has been published in Southeast Asian Review of English, while her fiction is forthcoming from Ethos Books/Margaret River Press, and her creative nonfiction in the journal Fourth Genre. In 2018, Cuifen was the first prize winner of the UK’s Troubadour International Poetry Prize. She is currently pursuing a MA in Creative Writing at LASALLE College of the Arts.