Last Sunday, 30 March, I was roped in to something called Writer X Writer at the Arts House. Even out of context it sounds like two writers thrown into a metal cage and made to mud-wrestle. Which probably isn’t too far off from what I think the Arts House –co-organiser with indie bookstore giant (cf. Lucas Ho, 2013) Books Actually– wanted it to be. The idea is borrowed from a similar series of public talks called Poet X Poet, which pits two poets against each other; ‘against’ used here quite deliberately to mean ‘read and critique each other’s work’. Very scary stuff, more so as Writer X Writer expands to include playwrights, in which capacity I was invited to join the fray. Scarier, in fact, because of how sensitive theatre folk can be in this small industry littered with egos and agendas. Scariest because I was paired up with Alfian Sa’at of Alfian Sa’at fame, though less scary in the week or so leading up to it as we both realised we didn’t know what the hell was happening.
I mean, my plays haven’t received very big audiences, they’ve not been published, and I’m probably best known for Jack and the Beansprout!, which is a pantomime and, well, you know, not necessarily the best thing to talk about when trying to look like a serious playwright (debatable, future post etc). So I was curious about the points of reference people would have for the entire thing. It sounds like a pity-party, but it’s also true, because when Alfian asked the small crowd of maybe 10-15 people who’d actually heard of me, all of three people raised their hands, all three of whom were my friends. He then went on to ask me if it mattered what the size of my audience was, which is a fair question, and one to which my only answer is “what audience”? Ha.
Anyway, it was overall an okay public conversation. Probably a little too flippant in parts. If there’s an official transcript of it somewhere, I’ll probably come to regret everything I said. Under duress, I lose all sense of crossable boundaries. For the most part, though, I think it was incredibly boring for the audience, and it came to that point where I was looking at people slowly fading. It reminded me of university.
Issues that came up included the self-orientalising of Asian writers, the insidious, Foucauldian nature of censorship in Singapore (minus Foucault, but it’s a useful adjective), the future of the play-as-a-form, the anxiety of influence… in other words, it was in every way a really frouffy lit tutorial, something my friend B– one of the three– was quick to tell me after the thing (“oh my god, Joel, that was so boring, it was like shit lit majors say”). I suppose the clincher was actually the opening five minutes, during which five minutes we — Alfian, myself and Kenny Leck the moderator– writers we wished would stop writing. Oh, my god, transcript of that needs to be burned, though I do still wish Neil LaBute would just leave us all alone.
Probably the most interesting thing to emerge out of that exchange was discussing opportunities with Kenny’s Math Paper Press, which publishes lots of new writers. Generally, “publishing” is an interesting thing to talk about. I’ve always been kind of dubious about the whole thing. I mean, I’ve seen lots of young new writers — poets, short-storyists, mainly — get published in recent years, not all of whose work I’ve been completely convinced was ready, and I don’t want to be in that position where the lure of publishing means I overrate the quality and readiness of my own work.
There’s also that thing with publishing plays where they’re not ready for publication until they’ve received a first production, and while all of my plays have been produced or are awaiting production, most of them have received what might be termed “amateur” or “student” productions, which are egregious, misunderstood terms that unfortunately have a lot of baggage (future post, etc). So I don’t feel very strongly about publishing my plays, even though that would be nice, and people tell me I should, but I’d feel incredibly insecure about the whole thing.
Plus, who really reads plays anyway?
I’m marginally more confident about putting together a collection of non-fiction– creative, lyrical, literary, whatever– a small body of which I’ve been accumulating over the years through my writing for the marvelous POSKOD.sg. And it’s something I feel quite strongly about, putting together a collection of writing about Singapore as it is and was, as opposed to fictionalising Singapore. Something about Singapore, its multiple layers of pretense, falsehood and surreality, seem to impel us towards the non-fictional, the so-called ‘real’. Life in Singapore is so variously artificial and hilarious, you can’t make that much shit up about it without someone claiming copyright. So that might actually be a project I’ll embark on in the coming months, trying to create enough material to supplement stuff that I’ve already written, in a way that’s complete, rigorous, relevant and artful. Fingers crossed, etc.