Five For The Road

Five For The Road

by Crispin Rodrigues
2nd December 2018

Every year, loads of new books are launched and/or featured at the Singapore Writers Festival. An avid reader himself, poet Crispin Rodrigues reviews five books of poetry and prose that featured at this year’s edition.

Marylyn Tan, GAZE BACK (Ethos Books, 2018)

Reading Marylyn Tan's GAZE BACK is self-flagellation at its finest. Her employment of language as a method of not just dissection, but gouging and strangling dominant patriarchal institutions, all while searching for a language for her ownership as a queer witch. There are very few texts in Singapore this sensual, and thanks to her I will never look at rice the same way again. The book contains a myriad of languages in which she finds representation in, from Singlish to visual poetry to Unicode, making it a rich reading experience that definitely feels not just explorative, but also truth-seeking. It is not a long read, and though there aren’t many poems in the collection, each poem carries its own epic-ness in the way that feels organic and beautiful in its need to inculcate a personal voice. Particular poems that stand out include the opening “Nasi Kang Kang”, an interrogation of the myth of using adding menstrual fluids to rice to control one’s husband and the gender dynamics of manipulation, and “Unicode (Hex)”, which analyses not only the symbolic in witchcraft, but also the symbolism of the self as a woman in society. A distinctive voice that is much-needed in our age of #metoo and the ever-persistent overwhelming ghost of the patriarchy, this book is prophecy at its finest.

 Available here:

Ng Yi-Sheng, Lion City (Epigram, 2018)

I completed Ng Yi-Sheng’s Lion City in 2 days and it is largely a testament to Ng’s electric writing. If speculative fiction is a critique of the state by creating an alternative space extending certain state narratives, Ng has created a wildly imaginative probe into how our hypermodern state goes overboard into new, sometimes bizarre spaces. It almost functions as a ur-text, combining and blending the myths of the pre-colonial era with the speculative works of new authors like Victor Ocampo, JY Yang and Judith Huang, making it a port of sorts. Ng’s poetic style often bleeds through each piece as well, making each short story feel almost like a poem, and can definitely be read out loud. Although it has a huge audience appeal, one cannot detach seeing Ng through each story, as he embodies each story with his trademark energy, whether it be analysing historical revisionism in the Bukit Merah story (“The Boy, the Swordfish, the Bleeding Island”) or the one where he goes full on quirky and reimagines himself as laksa in a previous, only to attend a AA-like meeting to understand his hunger (“Food Paradise”). Fresh, cheeky, charming and witty, Lion City is literary playfulness at its best.

 Available here:

Deborah Emmanuel, Genesis (Self-published, 2018)

Deborah Emmanuel's second collection of poetry "Genesis" breathes new life into organic verses. The collection is really a multimedia work of art, with very apt and lush illustrations accompanying the poems. While the medium is static, one cannot help but be enthralled by the strong cadence that each poem sings. Each poem mixes the discourse of the structural and strikes it over the head, word by word, with blunt force trauma until nature can grow through the cracks. What is really beautiful about the book is that is feels more like one is reading a community rather than just a single voice, incorporating music lyrics and a communal understanding of breath as a means of speaking through something larger than the self. The work is spiritual in the way that it attempts to amalgamate these voices into something larger than itself, possessing so much soul in the use of anaphoric, declarative lines that hark back to Emmanuel’s spoken word background. Poems such as “Imperfect” and “Warcry” are mantras that are worth meditating on and draw strength from their frankness and honesty. It is not a long book, so I strongly recommend you read through the collection in one sitting for maximum effect.


Jason Wee, An Epic of Durable Departures (Math Paper Press, 2018)

The doppler effect is the phenomenon of determining the frequency of a wave in relation between a source of emission and a subject. This phenomenon perfectly captures what Jason Wee is trying to do in An Epic of Durable Departures as he comes to terms with a friend's Parkinson's disease. These poems, written in the haiku and renga forms, emit a strong imagery of fragmentation, as well as anticipating loss that arrives and goes by in such quick succession that you suffer that loss as a result too. Drawing from a range of ideas from references to Walter Benjamin to Jacques Derrida to Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore¸ With Love, the collection is not about lingering on any single issue, but perhaps how modern life just happens, and it happens so quickly that all one can do is to see the world go by. Several poems stood out for me as being exceptionally thoughtful in their construction, such as “A Building Tests Its Walls” and “Vespers or Making Haste” and “Being All Kubler-Ross at your Wake”, all of which focus heavily on fragmentation and line breaks to incorporate a sense of fragility and stoicism that comes with decline and fall. There is a certain beauty in how motifs also pulsate in the poems, and it is definitely worth your time reading the book from front to back then back to front for a different sense of departure.

Available here: 

Intan Paramaditha, Apple & Knife (Harvil Secker, 2018)

I first heard of Intan Paramaditha's work during this year's SWF horror-themed reading and I wasn't disappointed with her translated collection of short stories Apple & Knife. The stories in it are very brief, but their brevity is what makes these stories horrific and macabre. They rely heavily on intense monstrous acts such as rape or physical violence, mostly done on women, to create the dread and comeuppance the antagonists deserve. While it definitely harks back to the fairy tales of old, there is a certain freshness to its Southeast Asian myths and the mixing of animism and Islamic practices into the stories. Here, Paramaditha rewrites the morality tales of childhood as something fascinating, and yet brilliantly gory, and one is reminded of stories parents used to tell children about misbehaving and having retributive justice done upon them. Particular stories that stood out for me was the visceral “Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf”, which toys with the idea of the witch in Snow White and the gruesomeness of trauma that results in self-harm, and “The Porcelain Doll”, which conjures up nightmares of murderous living dolls, but is all about how culture and history does violence upon the present way of life. The collection is brilliantly framed in horror, and Paramaditha’s skill in crafting a deeply suspenseful conclusion for each of her tragic stories is something that keeps you glued to the collection.

 Available here: