Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore. Lion City Lit explores what is going on in the City-State lit-wise. Here Lucía Damacela attends the launch of This Is Not a Safety Barrier, a collection of 113 Singapore-inspired poems and photos from 69 contributors. This Is Not a Safety Barrier, edited by Marc Nair and Yen Phang, offers commentary that questions and challenges the physical and symbolic barriers erected in Singapore, a place constantly under construction. It is published by Ethos Books.
This Is Not a Safety Barrier was launched on Saturday September 17, to an engaged audience’s acclaim, at local arts venue, The Projector.
Editors Nair and Phan worked with designer-artist Lim Qi Xuan on the book’s cover and design. They, along with the featured poets and photographers, have collectively presented artistic propositions that invite the reader to re-examine the quest for uniform and unmovable national narratives. They call This Is Not a Safety Barrier “an ekphrastic literary survey of how our country is changing.”
The anthology, the result of a year and a half’s work, including an open call to submit that attracted more than 120 entries, explores responses to the warning printed on the white and red plastic barriers often found around local construction sites. The warning “this is not a safety barrier” highlights the permeability and pliability of the barriers, as opposed to the connotation of firmness carried by the noun “barrier.”
Among the contributors are published poets and recognised photographers, as well as lecturers, students, and migrant workers such as Mohammed Mukul Hossine (click here for the blog’s coverage of his collection Me Migrant), and Zakir Hossain Khokan, winner of the first prize at the Migrant Worker Poetry Contest in Singapore 2015, who read two poems at the launch. Geographically, contributors hail from Singapore, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and The Netherlands, amongst other places.
The book is comprised of four sections. Work Done, the first section, paradoxically starts with a poem titled Under Construction, and includes poems that voice construction workers’ pleas and aspirations, as well as nature’s own challenges, as in the poems that allude to the haze. Images in this section, accordingly, portray both construction sites and natural landscapes. The second section, All Hail the Scaffold, depicts slices of day-to-day life, like an uncle seated at a hawker centre, or another one watering the lawn. This section shows, as the title of one photo says, that “safety not guaranteed". The third section, Overtime, focuses on events that capture social dynamics, such as a series of photographs of W, a migrant from Xiangxi, injured at work. Or the poem about two boys that went missing in 1986 and were never seen again. The final section, Track Records, intertwines many visual threads, such as Singapore at night time, and fences - long fences lost in the horizon, fences that seem to separate the city from nature, a wired fence with a dead bird on the other side. Perhaps the unifying thread in this section is a sense of desolation, dislocation. Overall, most of these forceful and sophisticated pieces highlight: “These gaps, the empty spaces, / the lines we draw between our selves.”
The launch, like the book, was a visual feast, with photos and poems projected on the screen of the movie theatre. Ethos Book’s founder, Fong Hoe Fang, emphasised the innovative nature of the book in Singapore, with its thorough integration of poetic and visual content. Performing-artist and book-contributor Daniela Beltrani brought the audience into the experience with mirrors and broken reflections. The event concluded with a dialogue between Marc Nair and Yen Phang recounting the aims of the book and the process of bringing it to life.
This Is Not a Safety Barrier is now available online through Ethos, and it will be in selected bookstores by the end of the month.