Our reaction to gays, our xenophobia and political discontent. Celebrated local writer Alfian Sa’at has never shied away from turning a harsh light onto Singapore foibles.
In fact, Ivan Heng, founding artistic director of edgy local theatre company W!LD RICE, describes his resident playwright, who he’ll not consider replacing, as “fearless in tackling taboos and difficult subjects, often giving voice to the marginalized”.
This month (3 – 20 July), the playwright-poet himself is given centerstage with W!LD RICE’s In The Spotlight, a season focusing on the works of a single Singaporean playwright. Heng adds, “The first time I ever heard of Alfian Sa’at was seeing The Optic Trilogy in 2001. I remember at the time appreciating its distinctive Singapore voice, and how it managed to tap into our national psyche, our soul. Now 12 years later, and after premieres across Europe, we are staging a revival with almost no alterations. I think this is because it is a play that captures the universal human experience of one’s need to love, and be loved.”
There’s certainly much material to draw from, because at age 35, the fearless bilingual author, who granted UrbanWire an e-mail interview below, has already published over 30 plays in both English and Malay, 3 collections of poetry and 2 books of short stories.
And this prolific output hasn’t been at the expense of quality either. While his name was absent this year, the man of Malay-Chinese origin has been nominated 7 times for Best Script at the Life! Theatre Awards, winning this recognition for his plays Landmarks and Nadirah. Other awards he’s garnered include the Golden Point Award for Poetry and the National Arts Council Young Artist Award for Literature in 2001, as well as the Singapore Literature Prize for his collection of poetry A History of Amnesia, for which he was also a candidate for the Kiriyama Asia-Pacific Book Prize.
Within this body of work, 3 will be staged concurrently at LASALLE College of the Arts: The new play Cook A Pot of Curry will premiere alongside 2 revivals: Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 and The Optic Trilogy, both last performed over a decade ago.
Continues Heng, “Alfian has his finger on the pulse and his ear to the ground, and is able to capture the concerns and urgent issues of society, and to present them in a way that inspires reflection and debate.”
You can certainly expect more than your usual dinner conversations to be sparked by Cook A Pot of Curry, which calls attention to the hot-button Singapore issue of migration, increasing anti-foreigner sentiment and the fast-changing demographics of our society. Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 touches on homosexuality presented with a mix of divinity and queer, while The Optic Trilogy is a contemplation on love, redemption and forgiveness.
Heng had previously directed Asian Boys Vol.2 in 2004 and Asian Boys Vol. 3 (2007), and wanted to “complete the trilogy” because “this is one of Singapore’s first openly gay plays, and it shines a light on a community emerging from the shadows. It a wickedly funny camp extravaganza, and presents an alternative reading of Singapore’s history, reclaiming it for the LGBT community – proudly, loudly and fabulously.”
Says international-award-winning local poetDesmond Kon of Alfian’s work, “2,000 years from now, when historians and literary critics look back at this small republic, they’ll be referencing the great post-Independence writers. And our notable scribes like Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng, Robert Yeo, Kirpal Singh, Alvin Pang, Toh Hsien Min, Yeow Kai Chai, Paul Tan, Yong Shu Hoong, will all be in that esteemed list. Alfian will, no doubt, be in it as well.”
“It’s sort of like reading about Socrates and Plato and Aristotle now, when you’re being inducted into a bit of Greek philosophy. If readers today had that foresight, they’d really understand the value of our small but important literary canon,” adds the founding editor of Squircle Line Press. This boutique press is publishing broadsides of Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout and National Book Critics Circle Awardee Amy Gerstler, among others.
Kon, who teaches Creative Writing at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, had talked a bit about A History of Amnesia in a poetry reading in Massachusetts, US. He recalls reading Alfian’s first poetry book, One Fierce Hour, in the late 90s. “I remember thinking… that this voice had to be heard, that: “Wow, this writer has really struck the core of what it means to write about the Singaporean experience.”
Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of The Necessary Stage and whom Alfian has twice been under the mentorship of during his participation in the Creative Arts Programme, also listed Alfian as one of his top five authors because “he writes with intelligence and heart”.
Audiences overseas seem to agree that there’s also a universality to his work, which has been translated into German, Swedish and Danish. These have been performed in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, London, Berlin, and Melbourne, just to name a few.
UrbanWire interviewed Alfian about his political stand, the writer’s block myth and his thoughts on the upcoming plays via an email interview.
UrbanWire: Your first poetry book was published about 15 years ago. In your opinion, how has the Singaporean poetry scene changed in that time? How do you feel about this development?
Alfian: “I think it’s changed tremendously since I started out. There are many more poetry books being published since then, by publishers such as Ethos Books, Math Paper Press and firstfruits. So as a poet your chances of getting published is higher. I also think that once there is a critical mass of poetry books on the market, then the readership for poetry will grow. If there is a diversity of poetry out there, there’s a higher likelihood to find the kind of poetry that appeals to you. Some poets are abstruse, some go for clarity. But if we have a spectrum of voices, then hopefully readers don’t immediately stereotype poetry as a difficult or inaccessible form.”
UrbanWire: Artists often do a self-portrait. If Alfian Sa’at were a haiku/sonnet, what would he read like?
Alfian: “I think I would be a pantun, which is a classical Malay poem written in 4 lines. The first 2 lines are usually evocative and deal with concrete imagery, and then the final 2 is the more abstract ‘meaning’ of the poem. So I think, like any other person, I’d like to be conceived as living in the world, yet also having this interior life.”
UrbanWire: You’re incredibly prolific; having written over 30 plays (both in English and Malay), What most motivates you to work at this pace? Do you ever wonder if you might produce even better work by slowing down? Is writer’s block a myth?
Alfian: “Most of the time, what makes me produce a play are deadlines! At the same time, I don’t think that by being prolific, it means that the quality has to suffer. I think I try to approach a new work without the baggage of previous works, because being prolific becomes a problem only when you start becoming repetitive. I like to do work where I try to constantly undermine my own ‘style’, and try out as many forms out there as possible: episodic or non-linear work, psychological realism with narrative, verbatim theatre.
Also, I tend to write in concentrated bursts, so even if you give me a longer time frame I just might procrastinate right until the end to finish the work? As for writer’s block, I’m sure it exists, but I’m not sure that it should be given such a forbidding name. I’d like to think that the ‘block’ is more of an idea that is still gestating, and if it’s not ready then whatever you try to squeeze out on a page is stillborn.”
UrbanWire: You’ve written plays, poems and prose. Which is your favorite form of expression and why?
Alfian: “I can’t really say, because the gratification you get from each is different. In a play, you get the immediate audience response, and it can be satisfying to directly observe how your lines can affect others and interact with their consciousness and imagination. But at the same time, it’s a collaborative art, so there’s a lot of negotiation that you have to make with actors and directors. With poetry and prose, it’s a more intimate dialogue that you have with readers, and more often than not (unless they feedback to you), a secret one as well. But you have full control over what you put on a page and don’t have to calibrate your own views with the other participants of a theatre-making process.”
UrbanWire: You’ve achieved so much and so fast as a playwright, poet and writer, who do you look up to? And why?
Alfian: “I’ve always looked up to my mentor, Haresh Sharma, who I have to say is much more prolific than I am! Way before we’ve had all these debates over Singlish—whether it constitutes national identity, whether it’s actually a debased form of English that will handicap us as global citizens—Haresh has been quietly putting Singlish on stage. And not in a way that calls attention to itself, or as a disparaging affect to flatter the middle-class, which is what you see in clownish portrayals of Ah Bengs and Ah Lians. It’s there in his plays simply because he’s got one of the finest ears in Singapore theatre, and he’s very attuned to the richness of language used by Singaporeans, like code-switching and code-mixing.”
UrbanWire: W!LD RICE picked The Optic Trilogy, Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1 and Cook a Pot of Curry as a representative slice of your work. Would your own 3 choices have been any different? What else would you have picked and why?
Alfian: “I think that the directors have to be excited by the works first and foremost. There is little point in doing my plays for the sake of simply showcasing my works—I’m too young to have that kind of retrospective! But I have had some plays that were written before I joined W!ld Rice as a Resident Playwright, and Ivan read them again recently and decided he wanted to take a crack at them. I think for Ivan it’s been a while since he last directed plays in a black box—the last time was my Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2 back in 2004. So he’s now exploring non-proscenium configurations, like a traverse stage and something like a diamond thrust.
And with Glen, we both decided that the issue of Singapore’s very rapid demographic changes was something we wanted to tackle in a play. If there’s maybe one more play I would have wanted either director to tackle, it would have been sex.violence.blood.gore, which has been performed in Stockholm, Copenhagen and most recently Melbourne last year. But they already have so much on their plates!”
UrbanWire: You wrote in the playwright message for “Cooling-Off Day” that you “would like to thank Jo Kukathas and Ivan Heng for bringing such a difficult work to fruition on stage”. In an interview with Lifestyleasia, you also mentioned it was a “much more arduous process than I anticipated”. Is this the most difficult work you’ve ever had to produce? Why/why not?
Alfian: “It was difficult in the sense that I couldn’t apply conventional dramaturgy when I had to shape the eventual play. Because it’s composed of these monologues or testimonies, I couldn’t just plot out what the main conflicts were, or where the climax point should be. So I had to approach it as if it was a piece of music—at some point I felt that the woodwinds should come in, and then there’s a character who’s young and hopeful who enters the stage, and then at another point I would feel the brass section is needed, and that’s when we get the brash, opinionated taxi driver. So it was ‘difficult’ only in the sense that the arc of the play didn’t conform to many of my earlier plays.”
UrbanWire: Cook a Pot of Curry is your latest play… we understand that it was created through a series of interviews you conducted. Is this your journalism training from NTU showing? Does relying on factual material take away from the creative process for you?
Alfian: “I ventured into verbatim theatre for Cooling Off Day because I was quite certain of what my own political inclinations were and to put them in a play would just be a form of political pamphleteering. I felt I needed to also gather views from people of different political orientations, and different stakes in the general elections (anyone ranging from grassroots leaders to opposition politicians).”
UrbanWire: On the goodreads site, within the same minute on 1 day you rated 9 books that either had Lee Kuan Yew in the title or were written by him. Do you read practically everything that’s written by and of him? Why? What would you say to him if you had the chance to?
Alfian: “I don’t read everything by and of Lee Kuan Yew. If I met him I would ask if he really did have ambitions to become Prime Minister of Malaysia, and whether Singapore’s separation from the Federation was a reasonable price to pay for such ambitions.”
UrbanWire: Despite being fairly critical of Singapore’s government, you’ve received quite a few grants and prestigious awards from the government both as a student (is it true you won the Prime Minister’s prize at both the PSLE and ‘O’ levels?) and for your work. Do you attribute this to luck, great skill on your part, our tendency to think the worst of authority or something else?
Alfian: “I think this is a question better directed at the people who give out these awards. For example, you can ask them: despite censoring the works of some artists and writers, these bodies also give them awards. For example, while performance art was considered anti-establishment in the light of the Josef Ng case, Tang Da Wu, a performance and installation artist, was offered a Cultural Medallion. What kind of game is being played? Are the conferring of awards an attempt at co-opting artists or softening the image of the censorship regime? How effective are they?”
UrbanWire: You said in 2010 “I love my country, I hate my country”, in one of your Facebook comments, you also said your dream was to be recognised as a Malaysian writer so that it will “bury my earlier phase as a Singaporean writer”. There has been much talk online about your preference for Malaysia over Singapore, and yet you spent Mother’s Day protesting electoral fraud in Malaysia. What should we make of this?
Alfian: “I didn’t actually protest electoral fraud in Malaysia. I was at Hong Lim Park in solidarity with Malaysians who were expressing concern that their countrymen were arrested by the police for assembling and taking photos in public. I believe that freedom of assembly issues which affected them also affect Singaporeans, which is why I went.”
UrbanWire note: Apologies for the ambiguous question. “in Malaysia” refers to where the “electoral fraud” allegedly happened, not where the protest Alfian took part in was held.
UrbanWire: Quite a proportion of your work is in Malay, and your latest piece, Malay Sketches, was just published last year. However you’ve said that as you were growing up, your mother, whom you’re very close to, actively discouraged you from keeping company with Malays and you couldn’t identify with them in school. Did these make it especially difficult for you to do/complete your writing in Malay? How did you surmount these challenges?
Alfian: “I actually could write quite proficiently in Malay; it was the more conversational form that I struggled with.”
UrbanWire: You once said in an interview, “Within any writer’s corpus, you’ll find abrogations and contradictions and renunciations anyway”. What have these been for you? Or do you find yourself surprisingly consistent over the years?
Alfian: “Some things will change and some things will stay the same.”
UrbanWire: Would you ever consider a career as a politician?
Alfian: “No. I like politics as discourse, but not as a career.”
UrbanWire: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers in Singapore?
Alfian: “Read widely. Read critically. Read.”
Photos courtesy of W!LD RICE.