How the Sound of Roadkill Feels Like: A Review of Stephanie Chan’s Roadkill for Beginners
by Crispin Rodrigues
13 May 2019
Roadkill for Beginners by Stephanie Chan
(2019) Math Paper Press
I have known Stephanie's work for almost a decade now, from the slam scene to her current incarnation as comedian, spoken word artist, co-organiser of Indignation, a queer Singapore literary festival, and host of Spoke & Bird, one of Singapore's major monthly poetry open mic events. Whether performing as Stephanie Chan or Stephanie Dogfoot, she has read hundreds (maybe thousands) of poems and performed at the Singapore Writers Festival and literary festivals overseas. It is no wonder that her first poetry collection, Roadkill for Beginners, was received with such aplomb.
Before reading Roadkill, my main concerns was how Chan would translate that energy she gave the audience in every spoken word performance on the page and how she would be able to curate from thousands of poems into a collection. And I wasn't disappointed. The collection is powerful as it is intimate, and celebrates the growth of the poet, and should rightly be up there with any Künstleroman.
In the collection, she carefully weaves three main thematic concerns beautifully into one tight narrative. For the persona of these poems, travelling isn't just a jaunt overseas for education, it is an alienating space that allows one to explore issues of queerness and gender politics while not being tethered to Singapore's watchful eyes. Here, the exploration of queer identity begins in Singapore, in convent school, but it is overseas that the persona identifies her bisexuality and grows comfortable with her relationships as she moves away from the overbearingness of a Catholic and conservative education. Despite this, it is also the growing alienation that the persona begins to view the hypocrisy of living in the more 'liberal' West. This is best encapsulated in "New Words for 'Never'", which is Chan's take on the Peter Pan story, in which the non-binary Peter attempts to maintain their relationship with Wendy through drinks, drugs, sex and a lot of liberal tendencies that results in their relationship falling apart. The poem draws attention to the youthfulness of living without control and the need to grow out of it through understanding responsibility and the limits of one’s actions. Likewise, in several other poems, though Chan's persona encounters spaces in the UK and the US to explore her queer identity, it is the same liberalism that proffers alienation as an outsider who has lived in a more conservative Asian country.
However, for all its socio-political commentary, the collection is an intimate and sentimental one. The poems of travel and alienation are framed between dedications to home. The first two poems, "To Allow Room for Mine to Grow" and "You are Six Years Old and She is Teaching You How to Ride a Bicycle" are the persona's tributes to her mother for creating a space for exploration in a small country. In the latter poem, the persona compares the impact that her mother has made on her to the very economy that shapes her world and it is written in such beautiful and protective language:
How your balance and muscle memory was moulded by a pair of invisible hands so that you might someday fly through cities built on tarmac laid by a thousand invisible hands, past buildings put together by a thousand invisible men. (“You are Six Years Old”)
Likewise, at the end, in the second-last poem "When the World Ends You will be Eating Hokkien Mee", the persona pays homage to the comforts of home in an increasingly chaotic and apocalyptic world through the refrain of eating hokkien mee and knowing that "the taste of prawn stock, lard and MSG will be the only thing left to hold on to" (88). For all its political redressing, Chan’s poetry is really about home-searching.
Roadkill for Beginners reflects on Chan's growth of wit and her commitment to cracking gender and cultural relations with a pickaxe. She masterfully mixes her background in spoken word with comedic timing and the accumulated wisdom of travel, and it shows. It is the final line in her final poem "Why This" that sums it up the best, that no matter what the subject matter is, the poem is "always the adrenaline" (90). Poignant in its message, powerful in its delivery and honest in its voice, Roadkill is a collection that was well worth the wait for the acceleration that comes right after the first page.
Roadkill for Beginners is available at leading Singapore bookstores and online here.