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Singapore hot takes

Deborah Emmanuel

"For me, the emotions are so deep and intense that the only way to survive is to find a way to articulate them so I do not drown within an ocean of my own making."

Singapore Hot Takes is an interview series with contemporary writers from Singapore looking at issues like craft, reading, influence, community, and ethics.

Deborah Emmanuel is a Singaporean poet, performer and professional speaker. As a slam poet, she has won competitions in Singapore, Germany and Australia. Her work has been so privileged to travel to the Barcelona International Poetry Festival, Q Berlin Questions and the Queensland Poetry Festival, and she has been invited as a resident artist in celebrated places like The Watermill Centre NY and Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. Deborah has written When I Giggle In My Sleep (2015), Rebel Rites (2016) and Genesis Visual Poetry Collection (2018). When not writing or performing poetry, she makes music with Mantravine, Wobology and Kiat, creates movement pieces, teaches workshops, paints/illustrates,  and devises independent theatre.

What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
When I was a child, I would get so lost in a book that my apartment, the trees, the cars, even my mother’s voice telling me it was time for dinner, would all disappear. One book that is so stuck in my memory was The Hobbit. When I read it I was less than 10 years old and it hit me so hard that I still remember exactly what the living room looked like when I ‘came to’ on the sofa after finishing it. As if exiting a profound dream. That book left me with wonder and wisdom, two great gifts that some books leave me with today. When I am lucky.

How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
I don’t remember how, I just always did it. That need to write, to birth, to remove the words from within myself – it is something that I always felt as long as I could feel things. In my life, I have felt a lot. Sometimes I think I feel more than most people. For me, the emotions are so deep and intense that the only way to survive is to find a way to articulate them so I do not drown within an ocean of my own making.

Tell us about your latest work. What are its themes and techniques?
In 2018 I launched my most recent book, Genesis: Visual Poetry Collection. This is a collection of poems that can be spoken or read, and each poem is accompanied by an illustration from me. When I put out this book I was very proud, because most of my life I told myself that I couldn’t draw. As a child I somehow decided that it was the truth, and so I stayed away from it because it didn’t feel good to be inadequate. It was only as I opened my mind and heart that I was able to let the pictures come and trust that I could learn to put them on paper. So I taught myself. Personally, the book is a testament of my ability to overcome mental barriers more than anything else. But of course for other people it’s a book of activist poems with some paintings inside 😉

Where does your work fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you write?
I am a millennial, almost as contemporary as it gets. My work also increasingly explores esoteric ideas, which are not accepted by the mainstream. I want to express things that are current and important within my reality. The words and images from me are that of a minority in many senses – ethnically, sexually, spiritually. For this reason I admire the work of my peers Tania De Rozario and Amanda Lee Koe, who are able to speak so poignantly from the fringe, bringing their vibrant stories into being to be powerfully experienced. I think the minority voice is always more interesting because there is this palpable tension packed into it, speaking from an unheard place. I write out of desperation, of anger, from a million little explosions. I also find myself with the ‘minority’ label a lot, so I decided to own it rather than resist.

And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Is there anything specific readers should know about?
It has been a decade since I was taking poetry seriously enough to be called a poet. I’m bored of poetry right now. As I speak to you I am sitting at my desk, in residency at Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, where I have begun writing my first collection of short stories. Many of these stories have themes of the paranormal. My life at present has a lot of knowledge of the unseen, and exploring this through a fictive context is liberating. Often I do not express such esoteric things in my conversations with people, it can make people weird or uncomfortable since we have been trained to reject the legitimacy of ‘far out’ things such as extraterrestrials, other dimensions, spirits and such. Science has told us that if it cannot be observed then it doesn’t exist, yet there are many ‘real’ things we cannot see. Perhaps there are some phenomena we just have not learnt to measure with our simple ways. In the book I am working on, I am able to truly be myself, to place my perspective out there within the safety of a character narrative. Perhaps you will read it one day.

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