Saturday, 2 July 2022

Quite Lit, and Rightly So: Celebrating 20 Years of QLRS

Publisher Fong Hoe Fang introduces the QLRS editors

Clearly, in-person events have returned in style to Singapore’s poetry circuit. The past fortnight alone has been a buzz of activity, with a series of readings hosted by ocean-crossing nonprofit Singapore Unbound (don’t miss the upcoming Gaudy Boy reading!), as well as a stellar evening with the stalwart series Spoke & Bird, and competitive spoken word event Outspoken at Blu Jaz Café. In this firmament, one occasion stands out for its more reflective quality – a thoughtful pause before the summer flurry – namely, the launch and reading of Quiet Loving, Ravaging Search, the 20th anniversary anthology of the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS).

For the uninitiated, 20 years is a long time for a literary journal in Southeast Asia (I survey some relatively recent arrivals here). In any milieu, any journal that has come this far will have accumulated its fair share of histories, more than sufficient for an evening’s reminiscing. At the event, Chief Editor Toh Hsien Min paid homage to the journal’s beginnings as a by-product of the dot-com boom, appearing on the scene shortly after its friendly, though now-defunct competitor The 2nd Rule. (Café-goers familiar with River Valley’s new, chipper attractions might be surprised to know that QLRS launched with some fanfare at The Book Café, back in the day). Besides expressing his gratitude to publisher Fong Hoe Fang of Dakota Books, Toh also acknowledged the strategic cajoling of his fellow editors – Yeow Kai Chai and Yong Shu Hoong, who joined him on his panel – without which this print incarnation of QLRS would not have materialised.

In many ways, it is apt that the anthology should now appear under Fong’s imprint. Apart from the fact that QLRS’s early issues boast many ‘Third Generation’ poets championed by Fong’s earlier venture, Ethos Books; the journal’s archives are also hosted on Ethos’s servers, an arrangement brokered by longtime technical editor Alvin Pang. Who better than Fong to plumb that store of literary treasures for this anthology? And indeed there are gems. Among others: Arthur Yap’s poignant poem ‘On Offal’ from the first issue (fondly selected for the anthology by Yeow), Philip Holden’s ruminative ‘Penguins on the Perimeter’, later to appear in his collection Heaven Has Eyes (chosen by Yong), and Diana Rahim’s piercing ‘The People You Love Do Not Stay Dead’ (chosen by criticism editor Stephanie Ye). Tipping its hat to the journal’s longstanding policy of editorial latitude within each section, the anthology is structured as four freestanding volumes, representing each editor’s own journey through the QLRS archives – with a light sprinkling of newly-commissioned texts.

The four volumes of Quiet Loving, Ravaging Search

Pre-empting the question of why anyone would buy a book whose contents are almost entirely available online, mused Yeow at the launch, “an anthology’s value lies precisely in the act of curation”. In this case: the editors’ labour of love in assembling their respective selections, each a unique ‘deep cut’ to mine a seam of riches. Dipping into the anthology, I’ve been most absorbed by the few pieces of nonfiction (including criticism) selected by the editors; such as returning contributor David Fedo’s ‘Letter from America: After the Storm’, and Jeremy Noel-Tod’s ‘Classical Collapse’. Perhaps because these are so clearly tied to particular moments from the past, there is a time-capsule quality to them; portals through which the two decades of Singapore’s literary history return to haunt the present. (Notably, a common refrain at the launch and in the introductory essay to Toh’s volume is the relative paucity of good literary criticism – fair-minded, erudite reviewing that stands the test of time. One of the journal’s founding aspirations, after all, was to create space for this sort of exchange, sorely missing from the Singapore scene: though one might also note, with Joshua Ip, that QLRS’s review pages have already raised the bar in relative terms).

More so than other birthday celebrations, perhaps, the launch of this milestone anthology provides an opportunity to return to what, ultimately, defines QLRS. The editors have always prided themselves in upholding a nonpartisan gold standard of “quality”; in contrast to, say, following fickle artistic fads (Yeow, again: “QLRS… does not play to any gallery, except to its own”). Certainly, listening to the breadth of contributions that received an airing at the launch event – including top-notch readings by Shelly Bryant, Patrick Sagaram, and others – few would contend that the journal’s offerings, by and large, do what the best literature does: offer us other worlds to lose and find ourselves in. But all the same, one wonders if this editorial line will be as easily defended to a reading public all the more attuned (and with excellent reason) to the different, real-life worlds in which diverse benchmarks of "quality" are formed and tested. Surely, a journal that has played such an integral role in the shifting landscape of Singapore writing will continue to adapt. Only the next twenty years will tell. 

The anthology: Quiet Loving, Ravaging Search is available from Dakota Books.  


Theophilus Kwek is the poetry editor of the Asian Books Blog. 

Thursday, 30 June 2022

'Badass' Women in Singapore Art and Literature

Source:Wikicommons, Movie Poster

Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (The Library of America, repr. 2022) had this one line, “Girls are like maggots in the rice.” That’s not to say that all Asian women have it bad. Nor it is denying that Asian women labour to free themselves from the trampling foot of patriarchy. 

 It’s that an infinitesimal shift is in order: looking at Asian women in contemporary arts and culture, what they’re creatively producing, what they’re making, can tell us something new hopefully about how stereotypes are being dismantled, specifically, how a ‘badass’ Asian woman is being redefined. From Michelle Yeoh’s main role in Everything Everywhere All At Once to Kirstin Chen’s Counterfeit (William Morrow 2022) we are seeing a moment (arguably, cyclical) in the Asian feminist zeitgeist, a regional lens threaded through a global landscape, where female protagonists are challenging the straitjacket of how they should behave, and how they should ‘win’, without being held up as bearers of tradition or exemplars of ‘female’ or even ‘feminist’ behavior, but in fact, showing that being ‘badass’ means carving out space to be who you are, to do what you do, on your terms while embracing all your passion and imperfections. 


In what ways then can we begin to conceive of the ‘badass’ Asian woman for our region? This month in a non-exhaustive focus for #SingLit, AsianBooksBlog spotlights works and voices who challenge, albeit break, the framework of how a ’badass’ woman should be defined.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

In Praise of Readers' Reviews: The Story of the Stone on Goodreads

 Nicky Harman peruses Goodreads for reviews of a classic Chinese novel.

As a translator, I’ve always been fascinated by how readers react to their first foray into translated Chinese fiction. The Leeds Centre for Contemporary Writing runs an excellent section with readers’ reviews of contemporary novels; but what about the classics? I have a personal favourite (I’m currently half-way through my second reading), The Story of the Stone, also known as A Dream of Red Mansions, or The Red Chamber Dream, an epic family saga written and set in eighteenth-century Beijing. By way of an experiment, I decided to trawl through the Goodreads review sections.

Saturday, 4 June 2022

The Four Immigrants Manga by Henry Kiyama

 The Japanese immigrant experience in America is often ignored, which makes works like The Four Immigrants Manga an invaluable record, both as history and as art.

Friday, 3 June 2022

Making a Scene: Literary magazines and the editors behind them

For all its prestige, the editor's role is one that often goes unsung. 

Frequently serving as proofreader, designer, gatekeeper and publisher (all rolled into one), these individuals – like the vast majority of staff who keep our publications running – are often unpaid volunteers. Those who have spent years in the job accumulate stories of strange writerly encounters, while picking up a host of unlikely skills (e.g. HTML coding, customer support) along the way. Yet, they also gain some of the sharpest perspectives on our literary landscapes, and help shape the platforms that define movements and nurture new voices. If poems are the best words in the best order, they are the ones who place them in their best light. 

In this month's poetry column, we go behind the scenes with some of the editors at beloved publications like Wasafiri, OF ZOOS, Mekong Review and the newly-launched PR&TA(Where these individuals are part of larger editorial teams, their comments represent their personal perspectives.)

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Indie Spotlight: The Tale of the Wuxia Hybrid

Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and indie authors who have found success in the creative world of independent publishing.

In indie writing and publishing, wuxia is a hot and fast-growing genre. It is a genre that traditional publishers are reluctant to enter because it is far outside of the mainstream and lacks sales records. But indie writers, who can pivot much quicker, have discovered the global demand for this very popular genre from the East, and readers are hungry for more. To distinguish his books from the rest, author J.F. Lee has taken a very creative approach on how he writes his novels. Here’s his story.

Saturday, 28 May 2022

A Return to Seoul, Again, guest post by Helena Rho

Former pediatrician Helena Rho is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominated writer - the Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize celebrating the best poetry, short fiction, essays or "literary whatnot" published by USA-based small presses over the previous year. Helena's work has appeared widely in the USA and she was awarded a writing fellowship in a scheme called TWP: To Think, To Write, To Publish, administered by the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. She is a devoted fan of Korean dramas, Korean green tea, and the haenyeo, the famed female divers, of Jeju Island.

Helena was six years old when her family left Seoul, Korea, for America and its opportunities. Years later, her Korean-ness behind her, she had everything a model minority was supposed to want: she was married to a white American doctor and had a beautiful home, two children, and a career as an assistant professor of pediatrics. For decades she fulfilled the expectations of others. All the while Helena kept silent about the traumas - both professional and personal - that left her anxious yet determined to escape. It would take a catastrophic car crash for her to abandon her career at the age of forty, and recover her Korean identity.

American Seoul, published to coincide with Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is Helena's powerful and moving memoir of her journey of self-discovery. It reveals the courage it took to break away from the path that was laid out for her, to assert her presence, and to discover the freedom and joy of finally being herself.

Here Helena explains how working on American Seoul helped sustain her through a Covid-quarantine in Seoul…