What was your early reading life like, what did you read and what books left an impact on you?
I did not have many luxuries when I was growing up as my family was not well-to-do. But I considered myself very blessed because one of the luxuries I received back then when I was a child was second-hand books. My mother believes that a book purchase is more worth it than a doll or toy. Thus, I grow up with reading books that provided me with hope. They are magical in that sense, sublime perhaps, simply because I was able to imagine and dream of experiencing adventure and exploring the world. I was a voracious reader, and yes, I would choose a book over a Barbie or My Little Pony. It could be Enid Blyton’s collection- The Enchanted Wood or the Famous Five. I would adore them all. And then, I move on to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, and these books left me craving for more ‘realness’ as I embraced the meaning of life together with its ups and downs. In primary school, I read the Bookworm Club, simply because they had book sales in school.
How did you come to writing? Was there a pivotal moment when a lightbulb went off? Or, was it a gradual process?
I started off writing academic papers because my mentor, Dr Azhar Ibrahim, current Deputy Head at the Dept. of Malay Studies, NUS, encouraged me to present papers on Malay language and literature at conferences and seminars. He felt that as a MA candidate, I should be exchanging ideas and be involved in the current discussions that are related to my thesis. I remember being selected for the plenary session for my first overseas seminar in Goethe University, Frankfurt and the truth is, I almost didn’t make it because I was so, so, so lost when I arrived in Germany. I am a member of The Reading Group, Singapore and besides reading books (of course), we had to share key ideas and write commentaries. That is a significant factor that has contributed to my realm of ideas and writing journey. As I get involved in literary activities, I felt that there is much more to explore. Meeting Singapore poet, Alvin Pang, gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the art of translation. I started with translating his poem, ‘Dance’ and ‘Sea and Sky’. We collaborated for a Prairie Schooner edition. There is an increasing demand for translated Malay works and I must admit that as I translate more, I see it as a calling and a contribution to the community – the Malay community and the larger Singapore society. A work that must be done! Otherwise, a voice may be silenced, resulting in a lack of representation, bearing in mind that the Malay community is a minority in my country. Also, I see it as my personal cause to ensure vernacular writers get the space and recognition that they truly deserve.
Tell us about your latest book. What are its themes and techniques?
Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit is an anthology of poems that I edited and translated. Acknowledging that literature was a tool of consciousness and empowerment, a vehicle to carry emotions and hopes – not just a reflection of daily life or reminiscences of the past, I decided to focus on places in Singapore. It is not merely a kind of nostalgic dwelling but keeping the memories alive because what’s left when buildings are torn down. We reclaimed land, and what’s used to be the sea is no longer the sea, what’s present now turns into the past in seconds, minutes, hours. A Russian writer, Marina Tsvetaeva’s words are engraved on my mind – One’s homeland is not a geographical convention, but an insistence of memory and blood. Thus, the poems are selected based on their rumination on specific sites in Singapore such as Orchard Road, Geylang Serai, Mount Palmer and Pulau Sudong. It reflects not just the literary pursuit of the community, but it is, in fact, an important historical resource as the poets’ voices speak of loss, identity, problems and aspirations. The ghosts of yesteryears are invoked and as one reads the anthology, a multitude of thoughts and emotions are evoked too.
Where does this book fit in contemporary Singaporean literature? Here, I am wondering about the work of peers that you like, and the broader ecosystem in which you work?
The poems, in the original language -Malay, and the English translation, are placed side by side, making it a bilingual edition that works for a society like Singapore where English is the dominant language and Malay is our national language (but hardly spoken by non-Malays in the country). The anthology features mainly the older writers who have shown resilience and perseverance in ensuring Malay literature in Singapore continue to exist. They are our literary heroes who are not deterred by the lack of support and interest due to political and social changes that are inevitable in a developing nation then and the baggage that we have to bear now. As a first-world nation today, it is sad to note that we rarely have access to the works of our vernacular writers. I must applaud the efforts of ‘Buy Singlit’ that promotes the works of local writers including those who choose to write in vernacular languages. Having a bilingual anthology like Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit offers a spectrum of perspectives for the English reader and the bilingual Malay reader. The cultural and historical tropes and nuances embedded in both the English translations and the original works in Malay allow readers to gain entry to two domains – familiar and unfamiliar. It creates conversations and perhaps, contestations too and that builds the literary ecosystem because we can finally read each other’s works.
What would you like to share with emerging writers? Do you have any advice on what it takes to publish and become a writer?
Translation is a work of art and a labour of love. It is exhausting, intellectually and emotionally but it brings you great satisfaction knowing you have created a piece of work that will continue to spread its wings in the literary realm. Listen to criticisms and feedback but always keep yourself grounded and stay humble. Incompleteness and imperfections must be embraced because only then can you keep going and make yourself better.
And, finally, can you explain your future literary plans? Are you working on anything specific at the moment?
I have just completed translating a collection of poems by Singapore writer, Isa Kamari. It will be published this year by Math Paper Press. And yes, it will be a bilingual edition too. Currently, I am translating the works of a literary giant. But I shall not reveal details because I would rather complete the translations first before sharing the good news. Stay tuned…