At CLEO, we celebrate women, especially those who are making changes in society. And these “rebel girls” of Singapore poetry featured in The Straits Times are some of those we love to put the spotlight on. They’re not afraid to tackle taboos where others might flinch away, nor are they afraid to speak their minds, for better or for verse.
At Deborah Emmanuel’s first poetry slam, she performed a poem about seeing a loved one taken away to prison.
In real life, she had been the one taken away. When she was 19, she went to a party, was caught up in a Central Narcotics Bureau raid and tested positive for drugs. She spent six months in Changi Women’s Prison and another six months at a halfway house.
By the time she tied for first place in the slam two years later, she had realised that she needed to talk about her prison stint but did not know if she would face stigma from her schoolmates. The poem was a way to process her emotions with anonymity.
“Sometimes I have these moments when it feels like a whole other life,” says Deborah, now 30. “I know it happened to me but sometimes I feel like it could have happened to anyone.”
Today, Deborah is a writer, a performer and educator. She has two collections of poetry—When I Giggle In My Sleep (2015) and Genesis, which she recently crowd-funded and self-published—as well as a non-fiction book on her experiences in prison, Rebel Rites (2016). In 2017, she was part of the opening act of the Singapore Writers Festival.
She has put out music albums with bands Wobology, The Ditha Project and Mantravine and will be performing with the last in September at the F1 Singapore Grand Prix.
In prison, she was not allowed to write anything except letters. Going through that, she reflects, was a catalyst for her to “write about things that need to be said”.
“There were so many people in there who were invisible,” she recalls. She met women who had given birth at 16, were working the streets at 17, or had become loansharks at 19. “They just accepted that was their lives.
“I don’t know who is telling the stories of these people who never get reformed because punishment doesn’t work when people just need healing.”
Despite often being labelled a rebel, she maintains she does not mean to be one. “I’m not trying to push anybody’s buttons. I’m trying to do what’s right.”
In her work, she takes on gender inequality and violence against women. “My mother and many people I know have suffered violence,” she says. “I grew up with this understanding that women are secondary. For so long I had to embody this truth that was not the truth.”
She, her mother and sister moved around a lot, from relatives’ homes to rental flats. Her mother, a secretary, finally succeeded in applying for a Housing Board flat in Sembawang, but died of cancer more than five years ago before she was able to live in it with her daughters.
“I remember all the things she tried to do and gave and wanted for us,” says Deborah, who is in a relationship. “For her, I have tried to live in the best way.”
When Marylyn Tan published her debut poetry collection Gaze Back, she received this glowing endorsement from her mother: “Eh, not very nice to write like that.”
Gaze Back is not in the least “nice”. Marylyn, 25, writes about women, bodies and sexuality with unflinching frankness. She reimagines Jesus as a teenage girl who “finds walking on water easier/ than walking home alone at night”. She discusses the shaving of armpits.
In the opening poem, Nasi Kang Kang—based on a casual remark from a girl she was dating at the time—she subverts the South-east Asian superstition of a love spell in which women gain control over men by feeding them rice laced with their menstrual blood.
“My whole aesthetic was to overwhelm the reader in a clustered, over-stimulating way,” she says.
“I wanted to give voice to the marginalised members of society who don’t talk about their bodies and sexuality. Pleasure is very radical. I wanted to draw from that source of power and use it as a tool of emancipation. ”
Gaze Back was shortlisted last month for the annual Lambda Literary Awards, a prominent United States-based prize for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender works. It is nominated in the lesbian poetry category, which has been won by the likes of American poets Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. This year, it is up against books by former winners Eileen Myles and Etel Adnan.
When Marylyn was a child, her father—who works in finance—would occupy her during the school holidays by making her write a poem a day. She cut her teeth on the local poetry scene by performing spoken word at venues such as The Projector and the now-defunct Artistry.
Marylyn, who is a teacher by day and studied linguistics at Nanyang Technological University, has been working on the collection since 2015.
Its title draws on French feminist theorist Helene Cixous’ essay The Laugh Of The Medusa, which refers to the Greek myth of the Gorgon whose gaze turns men to stone.
“I have a problem with eye contact,” says Marylyn, who is in a relationship. “I wanted a way to talk about the distress I felt at not being able to confront things like street harassment. How often are you able to look the perpetrator in the eye? As women, we are afraid that if we break our silence, we might suffer consequences.”
The collection experiments with form. One poem about dating is written in the Python programming language. Another mingles witchcraft and unicode, an international encoding standard for use with different languages and scripts, used in computer software.
A playful section, “Sexts From The Universe”, collects uncannily funny messages she has chanced upon, such as a product display speech bubble that reads “You will be surprized at dirts!” or “Keep loving it will all work out” written in correction fluid on a trash can top.
She would like to write poetry that “hurts, but in a good way”.
“I wanted my writing to speak a truth others might want to silence.”
Gaze Back ($16.82 before GST) is available from Books Kinokuniya, MPH, City Book Room, Grassroots Book Room, selected Times bookstores and ethosbooks.com.sg.
Poet Topaz Winters has a fraught relationship with her body.
“I didn’t like my body for a long time,” she says. “I still kind of don’t. In my own head, I have often spun my body as something that needs to be silenced and pushed away.”
Topaz, the pen name of Priyanka Balasubramanian Aiyer, is 19 years old but has already published three books, including Poems For The Sound Of The Sky Before Thunder (2017), which made her the youngest poet published by Math Paper Press, independent bookshop BooksActually’s publishing arm.
She is also the youngest Singaporean nominee for the United States-based Pushcart Prize, which honours literary work published in small presses and which she has been nominated for twice.
Her fourth book, the self-published Portrait Of My Body As A Crime I’m Still Committing, will be out at the end of next month.
Topaz writes about her experience with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and hyperacusis, a heightened sensitivity to sound. A poem in her upcoming collection is titled When My First Boyfriend Learned I Was On Anti-Psychotics, He Laughed & Told Me He Always Suspected I Was Crazier Than I Let On.
“As women and chronically ill people, we are often told what our bodies are and are not,” she says. “This is an attempt, not to define the body, but to allow it space to breathe.”
She was born in the US into a family of engineers and has lived in Singapore since she was seven.
When she was 13, she hated poetry. “It was not comfortable. But I believe in making myself do things that aren’t comfortable because that’s where growth comes from.” She forced herself to write a poem every Friday and post it on her blog, until she grew to love the genre.
In 2016, she put out a chapbook, Heaven Or This, on her website for $3. Today, it has been downloaded more than 25,000 times.
“It was a real shock,” says Topaz, who is single. “I was 16. I designed the cover of the book in Microsoft Word.”
Since then, she has received plenty of hate mail. “I get ‘you’re too young to write’, ‘mental illness isn’t a real illness’ and ‘have you tried X to cure your Y?’. Some people refuse to believe I’m real and think I’m a middle-aged man in his mother’s basement.”
But there have also been heartwarming messages from readers who say her poems have helped them to propose to their girlfriends or cope with suicidal thoughts.
“There isn’t a way to put art into the world that is right or wrong,” says Topaz, who also runs arts organisation Half Mystic and will be going to Princeton University to study literature and film in September.
“We have access to a furiously stunning platform in the Internet that levels the playing field in a way that no other time in history has afforded us. These stories have always existed but this generation is so blessed that, on a global scale, we can finally hear them.
“They exist on the same artistic level as the poets whose voices we’ve been hearing for centuries. They’re loud, they’re joyful, they’re making up for lost time, and they’re not going anywhere.”
Portrait Of My Body As A Crime I’m Still Committing ($7 as PDF, $15 as paperback) is available for pre-order at www.topazwinters.com. Poems For The Sound Of The Sky Before Thunder ($16 before GST) is available at Books Kinokuniya and BooksActually.
Images: ST Photo / Jasmine Choong, Desmond Foo, Kelvin Chng
Text: Olivia Ho / The Straits Times / April 2019