Out of the Many

Notions of union have perhaps always been significant to the creative life of the United States—hardly surprising, given its expansive territories, diverse populace, and complex history. But the same self-reflexivity is also evident in Singapore—another multicultural nation founded not on distinctions of breed or creed, but on certain espoused values and ideals. Indeed, Singapore’s insistence on ethnic equality before the law was one of the main reasons for its expulsion in 1965 from a nativist Federation of Malaysia, amid racial strife and political tension, at the height of the Cold War. It became perhaps the only modern nation-state to have gained sovereign independence against its will. Fifty years after that excision from a union once thought absolutely essential for survival, Singapore has pulled back from the brink of bitter, internecine bloodshed and collapse. Now affluent and cosmopolitan, it still searches for existential purchase and clarity of being.

In the second decade of the 21st century, such ambivalences seem to have become more globally apprehensible. How will the warp and woof of unities from an earlier, visionary era hold up against such debilitations as cultural zealotry or capitalist zeal? What could we glean from a creative conversation between these two communities hailing from opposite ends of the geopolitical scale—one an Asian island city-state no larger than the land area of New York City, the other a global hegemonic superpower? Both are unapologetically diverse, Anglophone, globally oriented, and with the foundling’s sense of newness and possibility unshackled from (but not fully free of) old pieties. But how might we begin to speak together of what connects us, across oceans of difference, if what sets us apart is also what sets us free?

The contributors to this folio, responding to the theme of Union, are a first sortie towards addressing such questions. A fuller anthology, commemorating both fifteen years of Drunken Boat’s inception and fifty years of Singaporean independence and literary endeavour, is set to follow later this year.

Already, the selections presented here reflect the rich constellation of nuances to be explored: nation as a construct of willed political ideology or of shared experience; the possibility of communion between disparate lives; family as a first, primary ground of social interaction and conditioning as well as a figure for broader community, for tribe; the primal primacy of sex and death, those great levellers; ideas of place, belonging, home, continuity, wholeness; unities of time and space both enforced and eluded.   Among many interesting entries are those exploring the liminal, with the intellectual and aesthetic syncopation of jazz. Here are poems and fiction that interrogate boundaries, and push against the confines of geography, history and culture.  Here too is the shock of recognition that what ultimately unifies us may well be a shared loneliness and the desire for connection.

These are voices reaching for a language with which to make meaning of increasingly discordant realities, while keeping faith with the possibility of integrity of vision and spirit.  It is a daunting, perhaps impossible struggle, but one the world still needs. This is a way to begin.

Alvin Pang
Contributing Editor
April 2015

Alvin Pang

Alvin Pang was Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005. A poet, writer, editor and anthologist, he has been translated into more than fifteen languages and has appeared in major festivals and publications worldwide. A Fellow of the Iowa International Writing Program, his recent publications include Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Autumn Hill) and When the Barbarians Arrive (Arc Publications). Among many engagements, he teaches Poetry Writing at Yale-NUS College.