Monday 23 November 2020

Of Suitcases and Superheroes: Poems between Singapore and the Philippines

As nations grow closer, so do their literary communities. In this month’s poetry column, we look at the cultural, economic, and literary ties between Singapore and the Philippines, and hear from two poets, Eric Tinsay Valles (whom we last interviewed in 2016!) and Rolinda Onates Espanola, about what it means to write between these two cities.

Many readers may be unfamiliar with the links between Singapore and Philippine writing. Eric, you co-edited
Get Lucky in 2015, an anthology of writing by Filipinos in Singapore - could you tell us more about these connections? 

There have been inextricable links between Singapore and Filipino writers. The pioneering poet Edwin Thumboo, for instance, had interesting and productive interactions with Ninotchka Rosca and F. Sionil Jose, among other Filipino writers, during fellowships and short-term teaching stints in the US. Thumboo will never forget his visit to the Philippines’ Banaue rice terraces on the way to the Ilocos region and meals overlooking scenic Taal volcano with Jose as tour guide. He has written poems about those trips, and about his Filipino friends. 


The poet and playwright Robert Yeo also became chummy with Alfred Yuson at the International Writing Programme in Iowa. Such friendships spawned frequent writing and other exchanges between the two countries. Most dramatically, Aaron Lee, Alvin Pang, Felix Cheong, Heng Siok Tian and other Singaporean poets witnessed Philippine-style freewheeling democracy first-hand when they were caught on Manila’s main thoroughfare in the middle of a revolution. 


Shared writing projects, thus far, include Love Gathers All, a love poetry collection; Get Lucky,  an anthology of poems, essays and stories by Filipinos and Singaporeans; and a recent anthology of poetic dialogue between the two countries by local literary nonprofit Sing Lit Station (SLS). The connections come easily as both countries have English as an official language, are in close proximity (it is sometimes faster to take a plane from Changi to Manila’s Aquino Airport than to drive a car from one end of metropolitan Manila to the other) and have close economic ties (200,000 Filipinos work here). Singaporeans and Filipinos tend to complement each other in character.

Does your own work as a poet (and teacher!) in Singapore respond to some of these ideas? 


Yes, it is natural to write about what and whom we know. The complex ties between Filipinos and Singaporeans informed my first poetry collection, A World in Transit. I wrote about the lengths that one can go to for friendship’s sake, such as smuggling West Coast roast duck in a suitcase through Immigration on Christmas Eve, as well as the unusual circumstances that could have driven Flor Contemplacion, a domestic helper, to kill a friend of hers and the latter’s young ward. 


Co-editing Get Lucky led to sustained conversations and public readings with both Singaporean and Filipino writers over the years at libraries, bookshops and other arts venues . All that work raised enough interest among Singaporeans to merit an all-Filipino poetry reading in Tagalog organized by SLS at the recent Singapore Writers’ Festival. With so many Filipino permanent residents and work permit holders sharing lifts and sometimes even living quarters with Singaporeans, the ties between our peoples can only get stronger. Let’s have a Jollibee nasi lemak burger!

Rolinda, you were first shortlisted in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition (MWPC) in 2015, and later helped to organise the 'Migrant Writers of Singapore' (MWS) collective, alongside writers from other countries. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?


After I was shortlisted, I felt the responsibility to get involved in the Migrant community. I volunteered to join the organizing committee of MWPC and after winning a prize in 2016, my urge to serve the community became more intense. I represent the Filipinos in this multi-racial group. I wanted Filipinos to have space also in Singapore’s migrant literary scene and I think I successfully helped to create this. 


When we built MWS, the aim was to give a platform to everyone who loves the literary arts. To bring more talented writers together, and develop their skills. Being with a group of writers with different beliefs, different cultures, different languages and different ways of living was difficult at first. But what has kept us together, especially myself and Brother Zakir,* is our desire to serve the community. We have dedicated ourselves to making Migrant Writers of Singapore an accessible platform for those who need it. We keep the lights on, so others will shine.


(*Read our interview with Bangladeshi poet Zakir Hossain Khokan here.)

Congratulations on your first book, No Cinderella, which was published by MWS! How do your poems speak to the experience of Filipinos in Singapore? 

Thank you so much Theo, you are one of the writers I look up to. I attended one of your workshops. Honestly, I thought this publication would never happen, as No Cinderella was initially rejected by a publisher. Yet I am so grateful to have superheroes beside me, who taught me that everything is possible. Dr. Richard Angus Whitehead and Brother Zakir both helped to make No Cinderella happen.This is the first book published by MWS, and I pray that this is just the beginning of more works to be published by migrant workers in Singapore, especially female migrant workers, who have been overlooked for so long in the Singapore literary scene. 


No Cinderella is a representation of how a true Filipina stands for what she believes in. Not all have the courage to speak out and even I, in the last stage of my stay in Singapore, chose to keep my mouth shut in order to go home peacefully. Yet I never allowed my pen to stop. I practice resilience, I accept pain and I endure. Previously, when I was asked what I wanted to do with my writings, I said that I want every employer to read them.  Now, with No Cinderella, this is possible. A Filipina domestic worker publishing her own book of poetry is a testament that all dreams can come true with hope, perseverance and faith.

Eric, you've started work on a new edition of the anthology, Get Luckier. What should we look out for in the new anthology? Have you faced any challenges while putting it together? 


Expect more emerging voices reflecting on and versifying their bittersweet experiences of being Pinoy in Singapore, as well as more published Singaporean authors replying with their observations of and dealings with Pinoys. The editors are sifting through more contributions to the sequel than to the first anthology. It is taking longer to decide on the final line-up for the anthology.

Finally, Rolinda, now that you are no longer working in Singapore, how do you continue to stay connected to the writing community here? 

Even though I am not physically in Singapore, I have not left the writing community. I’m still engaged in MWS and our monthly showcase, ‘Carnival of Poetry’, as one of the admins. I still continue to participate in SingPoWriMo (‘Singapore Poetry Writing Month’, organised by SLS) and its Southeast Asian regional equivalent, SEAPoWriMo. Recently, new members of MWS who created the Facebook group ‘Daily Life in Covid-19’ asked for my help to give them some insights about writing poetry as most of them weren’t able to attend workshops conducted by SLS. So, since I had benefited from SLS’s workshops in the past, Reah and I agreed to help and share what we had learned from our mentor, Tse Hao Guang’s workshops. This is the simplest way to give back what we have received before.


I had had a fair share of the limelight when I was in Singapore, so now I'm trying to help others to shine too. And I'm so happy about what I am seeing now. The new members continue to strengthen MWS. I can probably say that I left a legacy in Singapore, and the new writers are enjoying it now. 

Yes, Rolinda, you certainly can! Thank you both so much for taking the time to answer these questions - and for all your contributions to our literary community.


Read a recent review on our blog of new short fiction from the Philippines!

Eric Tinsay Valles has published the poetry collections A World in Transit and After the Fall: dirges among ruins as well as co-edited Get Lucky: An Anthology of Singapore and Philippine Writings, Sg Poems 2015-2016, Anima Methodi and The Nature of Poetry. He has won a Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing prize. He has been invited to read poetry or commentaries at Baylor, Melbourne and Oxford Universities. He is a director of Poetry Festival (Singapore).

Rolinda Onates Espanola hails from Bacolod City in the Philippines. She worked in Singapore as a foreign domestic worker from 2012 to 2019, and is a key founding member of the Migrant Writers of Singapore (MWS). She facilitated the Carnival of Poetry, a monthly poetry reading session, and also was a co-editor of Call and Response, the first migrant-local poetry anthology in Singapore. She recently published her first poetry collection, No Cinderella.