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.