Reviews / March 2016 (Issue 31)


A Literary Miscellany: Union: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing from Singapore

by Grant Hamilton

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Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar (editors), Union: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing from Singapore, Ethos Books and Drunken Boat, 2015. 640 pgs.

 

Union: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing from Singapore is a curious book. Not because the writing included in this anthology is odd (although some is, and pleasingly so), but because one cannot easily put a finger on what is being anthologised in this collection. The subtitle of the anthology seems to orient the reader—Union is of course an anthology born of fifteen years of Drunken Boat and fifty years of writing from Singapore. But I'm not sure how helpful this set of coordinates is to the reader. I suspect that for the lay reader, the reference to "Drunken Boat" doesn't mean much. Although, the phrase perhaps draws a half-formed memory of an Arthur Rimbaud poem ("Le Bateau ivre") to the surface of things, it is clear that this cannot be the "drunken boat" being referred to here. Rimbaud's poem is undoubtedly a good one, but it certainly doesn't deserve to be brought into conversation with fifty years of writing from the nation of Singapore.

In fact, the drunken boat to which the subtitle refers is the name of an online journal founded in 1999 by Ravi Shankar and Michael Mills. "Drunken Boat," Shankar tells us in the introduction to Union, aims "to show that in the interconnectedness that the internet literalises, there are reservoirs of shared humanity and ideas worth exploring around the globe." To this end, this international journal of literature and the arts, which is based in America, "seeks out and promotes the work of marginalised and under-represented artists, including especially people of colour, women, queer, differently-abled and gender nonconforming artists."[i] I have my points of dispute with this kind of language and this kind of remit for an arts journal, but since they have nothing to do with curing the bewilderment that quickly strikes the reader of this anthology who tries to rationalise the act of forcing union between the work presented in an arts journal and that conducted by an entire nation over fifty years, I shall pass gracefully over this issue in silence …

For their part, the editors write an introduction (actually, they write one each) that at least attempts to justify the conversation that takes place on the pages of the anthology. The American editor, Ravi Shankar, chooses to do so by riffing off the idea of "union"—of thinking about Singaporean literature as the expression of "a thoughtful, creative, sophisticated, unorthodox curiosity from which American letters can learn a thing or two, a proposition that tacitly acknowledges how much Singaporean literature has already learned from the West and elsewhere." "This book," he says in the next and final sentence of the paragraph, "is meant to get at these unities." I'm not sure what "unities" Shankar has in mind when he writes this, but the sentiment is without question a welcome one.

By the conclusion of Shankar's introduction, things are still a little out of focus. He writes that "in the end, union is also conjugal and results in something being born, a shared awareness that out of this anthology we hope to see grow." The conjugal dimension of a union, the idea that something new is born in the exchange between two life-objects, is something that most of us would anticipate and recognise, but what exactly is the "awareness" of which Shankar speaks here? Does this sentence mean that Shankar wants awareness itself to grow from reading this anthology? (That's a mighty lofty ambition for the collection). Or is it that Shankar wishes to see an awareness of something more specific? (If so, it is a specificity that he leaves unnamed). The net result of this kind of writing is that the reader is left entirely unsure of what to take away from the coupling of "union" and "awareness" that Shankar sees taking place in this anthology.

My suspicion is that the reader is left in this situation because the invitation to examine unities and think again about the notion of union and awareness comes from the pen of an editor who, like his reader, doesn't really understand what this anthology is supposed to anthologise. Don't misunderstand me: I recognise that what we are being asked to consider here is the conversation between an online journal on the one hand, and a national literature on the other. But since when has a journal (online or not, fifteen years old or not) shared the same order of magnitude as a national literature in our thinking? Surely, this is not the relationship we are being asked to consider, is it?

For the Singaporean editor of the anthology, Alvin Pang, the only answer to such a question is, "No." That is to say, quite sensibly, he doesn't buy into this conversation between journal and national literature if the dimensions of the conversation are to be bounded by a journal and a national literature. Rather, what Pang is after is a comparison (of sorts) between Singaporean literature and American literature. As such, the work found in Drunken Boat is seemingly to be read as synecdochic of American literature proper—and understood like this, the anthology starts to make a little more sense.

The only problem is that the material in Drunken Boat simply cannot be treated in this way. Why? Because the writing that it hosts comes from all over the world, not just America. For example, at the time of writing, a call was in place for art and literature submissions by emerging and established Bulgarian authors for Drunken Boat #23. What the reader is presented with in this anthology, then, is a cluster of writing from Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore and a mélange or farrago of other writing that shares as its only common characteristic the fact that it has appeared in the same online journal. Pang, I think, understands this, which is why towards the end of his introduction he writes, "Let the categories slip; let nationalities blur. It is 2015. If the works bewilder, let them bewilder—in the age of Google, there is no need to adhere to glossaries of the exotic." I like the sense of this; it appeals to my egalitarian and anarchic disposition. But … an anthology of writing that does not in some way look to organise its contents, that relies solely on "serendipitous readings," is no anthology at all. Rather, it is a miscellany—that is, a collection of disparate writings that are collated without regard for theme or subject.

Understood like this, Union: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing from Singapore is simply a collection of unrelated writings. The appeal to the notion of "union" in the title and the references to "Drunken Boat" and "Singapore" in the subtitle are misleading at best and disorientating at worst. Let me suggest, then, a different and perhaps more accurate title for this collection: Pang and Shankar's Miscellany: On the Folly of Organisation. Only in a book of this name does the inclusion of work by people such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Ko Un, Adnan Mahmutović and Raymond Queneau (there are others) make any sense alongside the work of so many writers from Singapore and America. Similarly, only in a book of this name does one come to understand the interest that the collection shows in lands well beyond the borders of Singapore and America—most notably Antarctica, Zaire, Holland, Philippines, Bosnia, Mexico and Russia (although, again, there are others). Lastly, only in a book of this name does the fact that upon diving into this collection one is just as likely to read an interview, or book review, or an introduction to another literary collection (!) as a short story or poem not boggle the mind.

However, for saying all that, the collection is well worth reading—just not for the reasons given in the introduction(s). As always in these kinds of project, some writing is better than others. For me though, the standout pieces of the collection are those that are more self-consciously experimental. For this reason, I'd mark out the work by Ann Ang, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Rachel Hadas for special mention. In addition, I am extremely happy to see several pieces of creative criticism in this collection—that is, a style of criticism that is defined by a genuine recognition of the creative moments by which the reader becomes writer in the act of critique. Excellent examples of this include Jason Anthony's "No Dry Light," Gregory Pardlo's "Hurrah for Schoelcher!" and Cole Swensen's "In Praise of Error." This is something of which contemporary readers definitely need a little more! But nigh-on everything included in this collection is worth spending a little time on. By this measure, the editors have done a very good job indeed.

Let me say this then by way of conclusion: the problem with this book is curatorial rather than literary. That is to say, Union: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing from Singapore is a terrible anthology, but a rather good collection of writing! What the reader does with the writing in this book is of course a private matter, but I fancy the one thing she will not be able to do is draw any kind of meaningful conclusion about the notion of union or unity between Singapore and Drunken Boat (or America for that matter). However, treated as a literary miscellany, this collection reveals itself to be a genuinely interesting pool of writing—an assemblage of disparate genres, styles and themes drawn from all over the world. Indeed, it is the sheer scale of diversity brought together in this collection that means it deserves a place on your bookshelf. For, in those moments when you don't know what to read and you simply want to be surprised, I can't think of another collection that will better serve you.



[i] Quotation modified. The original mission statement reads: "Drunken Boat is committed to actively seeking out and promoting the work of marginalised and underrepresented artists, including especially people of color, women, queer, differently abled, and gender nonconforming artists." See, http://www.drunkenboat.com/mission-history.

 
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