What if we looked at the history of Singapore through the eyes of its writers, its poets, and its playwrights? What if we explored Singapore’s storied past in the creations of its artists? What if we examined the landscape of a country’s time through the way it felt as much as the way it was? What if the difference between the two didn’t need to matter?
The interplay between the fact and the imagined lingered throughout my experience of Written Country: The History of Singapore Through Literature. The book is an anthology, edited by Gwee Li Sui, compiling fifty literary works illuminating fifty different events in Singapore’s history. The works run the gamut of written forms; from poems and chapters taken from larger novels, to scenes from plays and short stories. The events in turn span seventy-three years of this country’s past, with the first entry describing the surrender of the British in 1942, ending on a sombre reflection following the death of our First Prime Minister in 2015.
Structurally, the anthology gives greater room to an uncommon period of Singapore’s history, between the end of the Japanese Occupation and the Declaration of the Independence of Singapore. Our national narrative has often started on 9th August 1965, with the occasional harkening to a Srivijayan prince tossing his crown to placate the sea. Stories of the Japanese Occupation are drummed up every Total Defence Day. This in-between period, however, is often left out or skipped altogether. The entries between the fall of Singapore and its independence take up the numerical half of the entries (twenty-five out of fifty), yet by volume these entries consume two-thirds of the books pages. Perhaps it was an editorial choice made by lack of alternative material. Or perhaps Gwee wanted to leave room for a period of our past insufficiently covered. Regardless, the space Gwee gives for history to breathe here is appreciated.
The idea behind the book is an attractive one, exploring history through the literary. In execution, Gwee does the work of the masterful tailor. The book is a patchwork quilt, stringing together pieces like lenses into each pocket of time. Some are different versions of familiar stories, such as Goh Sin Tub’s recount of the Sook Ching Massacre. Some are odes to versions of places no longer here, like Edwin Thumboo’s ode to the old National Library Building. Some choices are decidedly controversial, like using Said Zahari’s own poem to mark Operation Coldstore. Others come straight from the earliest nation-building efforts, as in the transcript from founding father S Rajaratnam’s 1957 radio broadcast. Some works pull tears to the eyes, as in Muhammad Sharif Udin’s poem of remembrance over the death that began the Little India Riot. Some still shine in their comedic recollections of the time, like Michael Chiang’s fictional imagining of a Social Development Unit-organized meeting.
The choice to allow fictional works to describe real-life situations might seem odd at first. The fictional can be fanciful and imagined, so what good is it as a tool of history? The question lingers at the back of the book’s longest stretches – chapters from larger fictional novels. There is a subtle query if the emotions a reader feels are worth feeling if they didn’t happen to real people. Any sacrifices made are scribblings on a page, any loss suffered is only the artistic choice of an author.
Gwee’s introduction reads as one designed to head that question off at the pass. Cleverly titled “As It Was, Literarily”, the introduction sums up the point of the piece altogether: it is a collation of a different kind of history. It is a version of history that (in Gwee’s words) “goes beyond simply mastering the outside of events, their phenomenal truths, to enabling them to cleave again to life.” To that end, the anthology succeeds. So many of the pieces do more than exposit, they breathe.
This is not to say that deliberately inaccurate works were chosen. Gwee makes it clear that factual accuracy is as important as emotional accuracy. The point of the anthology is that the two are compatible and equally legitimate paths to a better, fuller understanding of this country’s past. As Gwee puts it in the introduction, “the divide between fact and fiction is fundamentally misleading. Both natures are valid means to zero in on the truths of life”.
In conclusion, read this book. Read it for authors you haven’t heard of yet, but need to. Read it to glimpse times in this country’s pre-conception too often overlooked. Most importantly, read it to understand Singapore’s past through the eyes of those that lived it, whether those eyes are flesh and blood or ink and paper.
Written Country is available at leading Singapore bookstores.