Sunday 31 May 2020

Building a House in a Moving World, guest post from Theophilus Kwek

Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry, two of which were shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. His pamphlet, The First Five Storms, won the New Poets’ Prize in 2016 and was also shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award in 2017. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, The London Magazine and elsewhere; he has also written on issues of migration and citizenship for The Straits Times, South China Morning Post, and Singapore Policy Journal. He has edited several books of Singapore writing, and serves as editor of Oxford Poetry.

Moving House is a collection of border-crossing poems that make their way from episodes in Southeast Asia’s colonial history, to scenes of displacement and difference in contemporary Britain and Singapore. Drawing on the author’s personal and family histories, it lands on the bigger question of what it means to feel at home in a mobile and deeply unsettled world.

I woke this morning to the news – reported in the New York Times, no less – that at least three boats carrying Rohingya refugees are adrift in the Andaman Sea, denied entry to both Malaysia and Bangladesh amid the coronavirus lockdown, and otherwise at the mercy of human traffickers.

We Southeast Asians are generally accustomed to being left out of international news coverage, so it’s all the more troubling when we make headlines for such discomfiting reasons. I still recall the shock, back in 2015, of reading the Guardian’s expose on the ‘secret jungle camps’ close to the Thai border that were used by people smugglers in Malaysia to traffic Rohingya and other migrants fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. A number of mass graves were also discovered near the coast.

The Andaman is, in many ways, our Mediterranean. Not only in terms of the flight of Rohingya across it in recent years, on a scale comparable to the journeys made by asylum-seekers from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to European shores. Historically too, the sea (which flanks the Bay of Bengal) has been a path for commerce and conquest for centuries: an entry-point to the East Indies for traders from the Coromandel coast, and the first phase of the hajj for pilgrims heading in the other direction.

Moving House is an attempt to grapple with the overlapping histories of migration across territories that have become familiar to me: island Southeast Asia (where I live, in Singapore), and the UK (where I spent several years as a highly privileged migrant, on a student visa). The former’s colonial past provides a useful starting-point to consider how such histories are quite often shot through with power and violence, and full of lost opportunities for more peaceful and productive encounters.

One poem, The Difference, is based on the first encounter between Portuguese factors and the people of Malacca in 1509; the scene is described in the Sejarah Melayu (or Malay Annals) as one of great wonder and welcome, before the treacherous conquest led by Afonso de Albuquerque two years later. Another poem, Sophia, told in the voice of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ long-suffering wife, imagines how the people of Singapore might have fled at the sight of this pale-skinned official of the East India Company when he first arrived on the island that would, much later, remember him as ‘Founder’.

Other poems are drawn from more recent histories of movement and displacement. Huang Xueying Meets Her Mother in the Underworld reflects on the Thai government’s decision to grant citizenship to exiled members of the Malayan Communist Party. This allowed them to return to Malaysia for the first time in fifty years – as shown in the film I Love Malaya (2006) – but by then, some reunions could no longer take place. Operation Thunderstorm is titled after the Singapore Armed Forces’ move to detain or deter refugees fleeing South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon; it was only later that the mission came to include a humanitarian element of providing these ‘boat people’ with food and fuel.

And some poems, finally, take this conversation into the present. A good number (including Lucky, which is dedicated to two foreign domestic workers from the Philippines who were killed in a traffic accident outside a mall last Christmas) address the situation of low-wage migrants in Singapore today, who often find themselves caught in a web of loneliness, debt and exploitation. A longer sequence, Strangers Drowning, places the reader in the shoes of a naval officer deployed during Operation Thunderstorm who is confronted, years later, by a news report on the Rohingya crisis.

In retrospect, what these poems have in common, I think, is a vantage-point shaped by my own experience as an overseas student – a student of migration issues, no less – in the months before and after the Brexit referendum. I’ve written elsewhere about my encounters with racism during this time, and one poem, Occurrence, is about an incident in which I was assaulted by teenagers in a passing car. But the true rifts are more than skin-deep. What most affects me, especially in the aftermath of the terror attacks at Westminster and London Bridge, and as the UK feels the repercussions of Trump’s election across the Atlantic, is how a community I have come to love is tearing itself apart.

In the poem HO 213/926, I try to speak this experience back to a British audience. The title refers to a dark episode in post-war history; specifically, a Home Office document laying out plans for the ‘Compulsory Repatriation of Undesirable Chinese Seamen’. Prior to World War II, several thousand Chinese seamen crewed British ships docked at Liverpool, with some serving valiantly in the merchant navy during the war. In 1946, they were rounded up by police, served deportation orders and forcibly repatriated, without even the chance to bid farewell to their British families. So many things about that incident – the pain of communities suddenly divided, the weight of bystanders’ guilt, and the long echo of fear and suspicion – bear an uncanny resemblance to the events of seventy years later.

I write these words now in relative privilege and safety, in faraway Singapore where I am no longer migrant. At least for the time being, this is home. But it is a home where so many who pass through find themselves lost, marginalised, and unheard; not only as a result of an unprecedented crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic, but even during what we have come to think of as ‘normal times’.

In such circumstances, it is the duty of all who are able to say ‘I am home’ to make a little room for others, and those of us who write have the special calling of enacting that welcome on the page or stage. Attentiveness, trust, generosity: how much of these qualities can we draw on, to receive those who arrive? As we root our own selves in a moving world, can we also allow ourselves to be moved?

Details: Moving House is published by Carcanet Press (UK) in paperback. Priced in local currencies.