Queer in Singapore: GASPP!
GASPP: A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose (2010) comes with a breath of the sensational, from its title to its cheeky cover, exploiting the contradiction of a celebration of homosexual culture in staid Singapore. It’s both warranted and unnecessary at once—while homosexual sex acts (specifically man to man) continue to be criminalized by Singapore law, homosexuality seems to be condoned or tolerated by law enforcement and much of the citizenry, though not by more conservative and traditional segments of society. This has allowed queer art and culture to flourish in the country, though under a watchful government eye.
Indeed, while GASPP represents a milestone in Singapore literature (although queer writing has been published in the country for the better part of three decades) it must defang homosexuality and make it appear non-threatening. The cover is provocative, but in a playful way, and the pieces inside remain safely within the bounds of propriety, with the more transgressive aspects of the LGBT lifestyle only hinted at, albeit aggressively. To some extent, this is the appropriate stance to assume, in a country where a relatively tame Abercrombie & Fitch billboard can still cause an uproar.
The book’s editors (Ng Yi-Sheng, Dominic Chua, Irene Oh, and Jasmine Seah) do recognize that this is a belated effort. In their introduction, they provide a capsule history of queer literature in Singapore, tracing its incipience in the 1980s through its explosion on the cultural scene in the 1990s, and its current foothold in Singapore arts and letters. “Today,” they state, “it seems nearly impossible to talk about Singapore literature without making reference to queer sexuality,” though primarily in English—“[q]ueer themes are…still rare in the worlds of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil fiction and poetry.”
They also cite an earlier effort around 1997 to assemble an anthology that was shelved due to the immaturity of queer writing, with much of the submissions constituting not much more than gay porn. (Arguably, however, erotica and pornography are necessary phases in the development of a literature that deals with sexuality.) GASPP, in its belatedness, sidesteps this problem, but runs into questions of relevance and obsolescence once queerness is mainstreamed, which the book’s afterword, by Alex Au, already presages. His optimistic view is not quite supported by current conditions in national legislation or in Singaporean society—in tracing the roots of Singapore queer lit, the editors refrain from naming a pioneering poet “out of sensitivity to [his] family,” and the final piece of the anthology is a poem attributed to “Anonymous,” purportedly because “it represents an uncomfortably early stage in his literary development.”
Still, if one assumes that such a future will come to pass, Mr. Au does bring up an interesting tension—“the security of marginalized identity”—that is present in any equal rights movement, whether sexual, racial, or economic. Occupying a marginal position has its privileges and perks; many gay and lesbian activists reject the label “queer” (which is used liberally in this book), for being too inclusive, to the point of rendering other categories of preference and orientation meaningless. The danger of surrendering marginal status lies, ironically, in normalization, in becoming mainstream, even if liberation efforts seem to move towards this goal.
The majority of the works are about the male homosexual experience, and poetry and prose are equally represented, although some works blur the distinctions between genres. The collection deliberately excludes plays and screenplays, despite much of the efflorescence in queer lit happening in those genres, and privileges prose over poetry because the editors believe readers prefer to read prose. Most of the works are in English, and though there are four works in Mandarin and one in Bahasa. Many of the authors have studied in other countries, a few are based outside Singapore, and all of them “inhabit some kind of queer identity.”
Readers are encouraged to view the anthology as a continuing social history of queerness in Singapore, as the pieces are arranged in the order of the author’s emergence as a queer writer, even if the works were written more recently. Venerated pioneers like Johann S. Lee, Alfian Sa’at, and Cyril Wong are represented, as are newer, younger voices. All but three of the works were written in the last decade, and about a third of them in the last five years. Despite their having been selected from the “mature” works of queer lit, one still discovers a pattern of thematic shifts as the concerns of the older writers give way to those of the younger. It appears to be a movement from an inward gaze directed at the self—the physical body, selfhood, identity, emotionality—towards a consideration of the self-in-the-world, in which queerness is no longer central, but incidental, reinforcing Mr. Au’s predictions.
Perhaps aside form the pornographic, the other tendency of early queer literature is melodrama, whether romantic or domestic: the tumult of coming out, the complexities of same-sex relationships, and angst over one’s identity. The stories and poems included in this volume handle this mode skillfully, using enough restraint and irony to prevent the work from tipping over into bathos, or attempting stylistic or metafictional experimentation to defuse the sentiment.
A handful of pieces successfully transcend the novelty of queerness to mark fresh territory for queer lit. In “Lee Low Tar,” for instance, Ng Yi-Sheng channels Nabokov, Calvino, and Borges by presenting not a conventional short story but a rejection letter from the Media Authority on Development (a barely disguised Media Development Authority, which issues permits for cultural events), explaining exactly why Mr. Ng’s “Lee Low Tar” cannot be included in the proposed program. In the letter, the MAD manager Humbert Hum betrays a self-delusion of Zemblan proportions, even as the piece skewers the withered old men running the country. We see only glimpses of the work in quoted selections, or through the feverish handwringing descriptions provided by the hapless Hum. The satire might be too broad and the comedy too low, but coming as it does in the middle of the book, it effects a bracing change of pace from the earnestly lovelorn, angry, or self-obsessed mood of the first half and sets the stage for the more adventurous second half.
Andrew Cheah’s “The Eyes of Benjamin Kang” dismantles the gay male obsession with physical beauty in a graphic episode involving a jaded scenester who allows himself to be picked up by someone far below his own league. Without apology, Mr. Cheah rejects the conventional gay hero wallowing in his own preciousness and gives us one who is unrepentantly, perhaps self-consciously cruel, uglier than the schlub he condescends to sleep with that night.
Ash Lim’s “Paper Cup” livens up a humdrum story of infidelity in a long-term relationship with a comedic detour into herbal medicine and witchcraft. Mr. Lim deftly balances sentiment and sarcasm, reining in the maudlin with tongue firmly in cheek. On the other hand, Nicholas Deroose’s “She” tells a standard coming-out story with the inevitable disinheritance, but from the point-of-view of the long-suffering mother who casts her lot with her transgender son, although without accepting or understanding his choice completely.
Among the prose pieces, Jabir Yusoff’s “i remember the day it was cut from me” calls attention to itself with the absence of standard queer indicators. It’s a short piece, in which a Muslim recalls his ritual circumcision at the age of five, reflecting on the experience and his lost foreskin. This piece raises the question of what constitutes queer literature, and suggests the scope that the editors have applied to the term. Similarly, perhaps because of the nature of the lyric, many of the poetry selections are free of signifiers indicating the gender or orientation of speaker or addressee. The lines transcend the banality of specifics to focus on ideas, images, and emotions that are bound to one person and one situation, but could also belong to anyone. Ultimately, it may be works like these that will fulfill Mr. Au’s prophecy, in which the label “gay” or “queer” will no longer be an accurate description for an anthology like this one.