Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit: An Anthology ed. by Annaliza Bakri


[a version of this review was published in Karyawan vol. 13 issue 1, Jan 2018]

What does it mean to lose a place? In a capitalist city-state like Singapore where economic interests supersede sentimentality, nostalgia, & even history, where heritage sites are mowed over or revamped for a highway or a new shopping district, what does it mean to remember a place except to participate in a kind of mourning?

Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit is an anthology of poems edited and translated by Annaliza Bakri. The poems, placed in their original language and translations side by side, are focused on specific places in Singapore written by Malay poets both award-winning and established, as well as more contemporary, younger voices. These poems were selected based on their rumination on specific sites in Singapore, such as the poets’ individual kampungs, Orchard Road, Tebrau Strait (commonly known as Straits of Johor), and the area most associated with the Malay community, Geylang Serai. As the book progresses however, one realises that it is too simplistic to reduce the anthology as a collection of poems on places. Additional considerations had also been “to include voices that spoke of loss, nostalgia, identity, problems, dreams and aspirations.” In a way, the places were either central, or tangential, to these other considerations.

A considerable number of the poems are meditative, caught in a rumination of a place in a past era, recounting its now vanished sights and sounds, such as “Silent River” by Mohd Khair Mohd Yasin, “Geylang Serai” by Yatiman Yusof and “Bukit Timah Sidewalk (memories from the 60s)” by Nordita Taib. Some are more experiential than descriptive such as poems “Bus 67” and “Haji Lane” by Isa Kamari, while others are odes to specific places, or a retelling of a historical episode. For the most part, a sense of nostalgia pervades the collection of poems, regardless of the voice or form it takes.

This tendency to poeticise places in a wistful, even mournful rumination is a telling one. It is as if one cannot speak about these places without invoking the ghost of its former streets, its former people, and the memories the poets associate the place with. It is no small fact that a considerable number of the poets lived through a developing Singapore, and some even remember a pre-independent Singapore, before the split with Malaysia.

“Song of Tebrau” by Juffri Supa’at, for example, is an almost loving ode to the Tebrau Strait that one can’t help but read in parallel with Singapore’s relationship with Malaysia. Mourning the absence of intimacy and warmth that was once felt, he asks

Is this…
because we were once
disappointed and failed in love?

Similarly, “Tebrau Strait” by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed is also a loving, even an almost erotic ode, at the end of which he presents the Straits as a place subjected to the political wills of men, while she herself is indifferent –

and you remain silent
calm and gentle
letting clams and cockles rodents roam about
moving on with life
without thinking
who will earn profits
who will carry the burden.

Presenting these places as innocent victims to development and capitalist imperatives of profit is something we see throughout the text. The spectre of development is never far, and often spoken of as a kind of violence, a tide, a wave that has swept over these places, changing them so completely that the poets are at a loss to comprehend the fact that they are no longer the same. As Yatiman Yusof writes in “Geylang Serai,”

Now the wind blows
and everything is gone.

This sense of standing unnerved, helpless only to watch as change happens in a blink, is a familiar sentiment of those who have lived through the rapid development of Singapore.

Part of the pain of development is the way former prized places, often seen as places of peaceful natural respite and pristine slowness, is helpless before the violence of development. In “Geylang Serai” by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, we are given the following image:

A distance away
a bulldozer roared madly
flattening the attap houses
the old mosques.

This image appears again in Norashikin Jamain’s “Kampung Melayu” where she writes “your chest is scoured / by lorries and bulldozers.”

Interestingly, even the very air is mentioned in several poems, to mark perhaps the corruption that development brings – with Jamain describing “the freshness of the morning / disturbed by the stale vapour from vehicles’ fumes,” and Ahmad Md Tahir in “Shenton Way” writing “The air gets viscous / as it dissolves in monoxide.”

Corruption is an interesting concept to turn to at this point. To point out that the air is corrupt, or to look back and remember a place as one of natural simplicity, is perhaps something only truly done in retrospect, after it is compared against the current tide of development. Corruption isn’t only spoken of in the physical and literal definition but also through a lens of morality and value-judgement. Development is seen as a corrupting, almost immoral force. When combined with the strong presence of Islam in the lives and words of these poets, we see how the language of religion is employed to further reiterate the loss felt. In “Wak Tanjong Will Continue to Stand Here,” Suratman Markasan writes an ode to the madrasah that stands in the face of moral and religious degradation: “there are many signs everywhere / that made us confused and the ulama sorrowful” – with the students being the ones “who know the real truth.”

The mosque especially is important in our discussion here. The mosque for the Malay/Muslim community is a religious place, but its value extends beyond its practical purpose. It also functions as a place where the community gathers. The aspect of community, one which is contrasted against the alienation and isolation replete in capitalist city-states like Singapore, is important for us to keep in mind when understanding the sense of alienation.

In “Kampung Race Course Mosque,” Faridah Taib writes:

what is left is just history
no more kalima
the rhapsody of the prayer call
can I buy a nostalgic past?
can the unyielding tears be its replacement?

Masjid Al-Falah makes a couple of appearances in the book as well. In “Saturday Night (In Orchard Road)” by Juffri Supa’at, we read the following lines:

From a corner
the call reverberates from Al-Falah
audibly fading
in the midst of roaring
vehicles and city dwellers.

This is perhaps one of the more elegant, quiet expressions of insecurity and loss in the face of development. The mosque, a place that represents spirituality, communal gathering, and the Muslim community is not only in the corner, but audibly fading, drowned out by the sounds of deafening progress.

National narratives often present the speed of development Singapore went through after independence as a success story. One that proves our miraculous and meteoric rise from “third-world to first.” But of course, it is imperative to remember that this is a national narrative, a constructed one, or at the very least a kind of wilful selection and shaping of facts. The poems in the collection present a different narrative: one where the speed of development people bore witness to was experienced with a sense of longing, mournfulness, loss, and even a sense of disassociation and dislocation. More importantly, the poems are also a form of resistance against the speed of forgetting that accompanies the kind of development we are caught in, where places are destroyed and rebuilt faster than our memory and recording can cope with.

For a moment, these poems throw us into the personal narratives and memories of these places. In just another decade, perhaps this book would provide the only lasting piece of existing memory to remember some of the historical images and memories recounted. Who else will remember the smell of a river so many decades back, or the call of the birds? Who else might remember that a place once had another name, and that for a long time, nobody had called it any other way? Perhaps this anthology of poems can be a call for us to also participate in the act of slowness and remembering; to write our own kind of poems to fossilise what would be swept away so quickly by the winds of capital and national development.



And The Walls Come Crumbling Down, Tania De Rozario


[an edited version of this review was published in the latest issue of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. The original intended title was “Written on The Body: The centrality of the material in Tania De Rozario’s latest title.]

Written on The Body:
The centrality of the material in Tania De Rozario’s latest title.

by Diana Rahim

Tania De Rozario’s “And The Walls Come Crumbling Down,” is an exploration on home, love, family and loss. These concepts are familiar to us, but often in parochial terms shaped by dominant narratives or conditioned by arbiters of power like the state or religious authorities. We are told what home is supposed to look like (a happy state-approved, heteronormative nuclear family) and what love and family is supposed to be like (heteronormative too, amongst other things), and many a wordsmith have given words that help tide us through our experiences of loss and grief.

But what if the dominant understanding and narratives around family, love, and home are ones that exclude you? What if the world has failed to write you into its history and stories? At the heart of “And The Walls Come Crumbling Down”, I believe, is the act of writing one’s self into a world that has failed to include you in its writing.

While all the aforementioned terms are conceptually and personally explored, we can look into detail perhaps into how De Rozario deals with the notion of history. De Rozario encapsulates the experience of exclusion when she says:

“You never realise how personal notions of history are until yours has been erased.” (p 57)

If the conceptual understanding of history, home, family and love are those that one can never identify with, then you have to create your own and insist against its disappearance. When the girl De Rozario loved banished their romantic history to non-existence when she re-wrote her first love to be her husband, De Rozario is the one left to remember and sustain the truth:

“I still keep her letters in a box, in the bottom drawer, much like the way I kept that tabloid article about convent school lesbians. I keep them to remind myself how important it is that I write my own history.” (p. 57-58)

As constructed narratives, notions like history are shaped by the institutions and people that hold the power to speak it on their terms. If they are ideologically motivated, then history is bent to the shape of their ideology, though it purports to be an objective re-telling. To tell her own history then is to insist against its exclusion in the dominant shaping of history. It is to insist that one’s personal history is as much a part of the larger history that is shaped to be told to all. The personal is political.

At this point allow me a moment of important digression. In the chapter “Blueprints”, we are introduced to the inner world of a South Asian migrant worker, Bhavan, and this section reads as somewhat out of place in a book that has largely focused on De Rozario’s personal history. One can’t help but feel this section introduces a break from the narrative up till then. But if this section seems out of place, it is not thematically so. In the chapter’s attempt to understand the effects of the state’s organisation of space, homes, and therefore its citizens, one cannot exclude the migrants who have directly built the very spaces we inhabit when we work, play and rest.

In including the personal history and experience of Bhavan, De Rozario is implicitly insisting that the personal histories of all are intertwined, even those that are relegated to the margins. Bhavan’s experience and history are as important to her history, even if indirectly, and as part of it as all that has directly happened to her. Bhavan, like so many migrant workers in Singapore, are excluded in the dominant narratives of the state, their history and experience sanitised while their material conditions speak a dismal reality.

Bhavan was someone who had believed in the state’s story of itself:

“When he first landed, Bhavan had been full of hope. He had heard many things about Singapore — clean streets, fair government, lots of opportunity.”

But this is quickly dispelled by the material reality that he is confronted with when he arrives, the small dorms that allows little to no private space and the reality of having to work in the conditions that have been given to him in order to be clear of debt being amongst them. The truth of the concept then cannot be divorced from the material reality.

Going back to the discussion of history, it is thus more than just a mere narrative or concept to De Rozario. To her, history is also physically and materially experienced and expressed:

“I don’t want the kind of history taught for the purpose of propaganda and patriotism; the kind of past created to secure a safe future.

I want history. The moss that grows on walls, words that scar the skin, wrong turns, cracks in the stone, archaeologies of desire dug up like dirty laundry and flapping like wings in every back yard.” (p.110)

There is a shift here from the conventional ‘great-men’ or essentially a ‘top-down’ understanding of history to one that moves the reader’s gaze to the banality and minutiae of everyday life. History is thus not just a detached, intellectual concept to be conceived of in the mind, but something that is materially created and sustained and personal. She keeps the letters. She wants the moss that grows on walls. Even words, immaterial as they seem, are things that scar the skin. Elsewhere, she writes:

“Who knew the act of speaking could hurt so much? Could hold in its mouth that one concrete thing which gives weight to questions you never thought to ask ..” (p. 58)

This attention to the material is something that is present not just throughout this book, but also throughout her writing. I had noted even from her first book “Tender Delirium,” that De Rozario’s words are raw, visceral, vulnerable and achingly rooted in lived, material reality.

Even in describing her lover’s lie, she gives it a material presence:

“The lie got bigger as the day passed, expanding like some strange balloon animal out of control. It mutated, grew limbs, sprouted strange appendages, got so large that it blocked your eyes out.” p (33)

In making her case for her mother to choose her, the living, breathing person that is her daughter, over immaterial religious dogma, she says:

“Choose me. I belong to you. I am more than the myth of some made-up story. I am flesh. I am blood. I am yours. Choose me” p. 87

“And The Walls Come Crumbling Down,” then, is a book of the flesh and blood. The body. The material. It is no surprise that in exploring the concept of home, we are brought to focus on the material aspects (the door, drawers, bed, etc). The body of her lover is often the site of rumination. The body — whether the physical human body or the body of the home — is where rumination begins.

De Rozario’s attention to the material is thus an understandable extension of writing that focuses on the body. Exclusion is something material. We have seen this through how she understands history, but we also see it through the way she understands the concept of home. De Rozario’s understanding of home cannot be divorced from her personal experience of having had to leave her family home and moving from place to place while struggling to make ends meet. The physical experience of home informs the conceptual, personal understanding of home for her. In the end, home is located in her lover.

Yes, there can be something political about loving another person. There is politics behind leaving home. Making love. Losing your family. And the body is often lies at the focus of these contestations. The body is often the site of visible difference, it experiences direct violence and trauma. For many, the first line of exclusion and oppression is premised on presentation of their body, or their refusal to regulate their body according to accepted (and often repressive) sexual and social norms, and the pain that they will feel for their disobedience is often felt with their bodies as they are felt by the mind.

During the panel ‘Politics of The Body’ in the recent Singapore Writers Festival with panellists Tania de Rozario, Cyril Wong and A Mangai and chaired by Ng Yi-Sheng the centrality of the physical body was discussed in relation to the writing produced by the artists. The body is not just an apolitical space, but one where meanings are ascribed with or without the consent of the bearer. This is especially true when we talk about gender and sexuality. De Rozario had brought up early during the session that if her work was read as political, it is not because she intended to be political, but because society has rendered her existence and therefore her work, as political. Hearing her say that circled back to a moment years back when in a heated moment I had said something similar. A professor had found a certain Malay writer to be ‘too political’ for his taste, and I had retorted that said Malay writer was often times only writing about his reality and the realities of others as he observed. If this was found political it is not his fault, nor the fault of those who hold identities that render them political just by virtue of their existence in society and/or the world. Such a castigation reveals more about the speaker’s naivety or ignorance of the way the individual is politicised by forces outside of themselves, by power dynamics they are born into, than it does about the subject.