Book Review: GASPP – A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose

Authors: Ng Yi-Sheng, Dominic Chua, Irene Oh, Jasmine Seah
Title: GASPP – A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose
Call no: NG

Singapore’s first gay anthology places the spotlight on the history of gay writing and gay writers; meet (some of) them at the launch and book reading on October 29.

Anthologies are, by their very nature, comprehensive and cohesive. The cleverly named GASPP – A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose – does not lack in this regard. The four co-editors – familiar names comprising Ng Yi-Sheng, Dominic Chua, Irene Oh and Jasmine Seah – have collated the work of 33 authors and translators into a robust 200 pages of fiction, poetry, memoirs and experimental writing, in English, Malay and Chinese.

This box of chocolates may not always be to everyone’s taste, but for better or verse, GASPP represents the brave voices of contemporary writers who voluntarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and otherwise queer in Singapore. There are cheeky references to censorship and infamous figures, alongside the expected navel-gazing at relationships headed south (in good ways and bad).

As the editors phrased it, “GASPP is a coming out book for many of us: for writers who are not usually perceived as queer, for queer people who are not generally perceived as writers.”

The time, it seems, has arrived for a gay anthology, especially as just across the border, Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology was released in 2009. Says co-editor Ng, “The idea (for a Singaporean collection) had been floating around since 1997, when my fellow poet Jason Wee was involved in trying to edit such a collection: a project which ultimately didn’t pull through.”

The germ of the idea for GASPP was born from ContraDiction, a queer literary event that’s been a mainstay at IndigNation since its first year in 2005. During the hunt for contributors of queer texts each year, the editors amassed an eclectic contact list of writers. About 30 months ago, a call for submissions went out; and the result is the book that will be launched on October 29 at Play Club.

The anthology’s structure is built on a logical timeline – four sections loosely based on the vintage and context of the writer’s career, at the point he/she began writing gay texts. The first section is the shortest but clearly most professionally written – comprising powerhouse pioneers in the literary scene like poet Cyril Wong, playwright Alfian Sa’at and author Ovidia Yu. The first story kicks off, somewhat aptly, with Johann S. Lee, often credited as the writer of the first Singaporean gay novel, Peculiar Chris. He adopts a particularly balanced opening note with the real-life memoir of HIV striking one half of a devoted young couple.

Says Ng of the structure: “We tried some thematic arrangements, and they didn’t work as well. Dividing the book into sections helps us to make sense of the diversity of gay writing, as well as some of its different stages and movements. It also makes it a bit more approachable to new readers: rather than plunging in to read the entire volume at once, you can go section by section.”

Co-editor Chua agrees: “And as with writing at large, so much of what we do is in part informed and shaped by what has gone before – this particular arrangement helps those patterns emerge that little bit more clearly.”

Contributor Nicholas Deroose, for one, is thrilled with his placement in the anthology. He told Fridae from Philadelphia, USA where he is currently a journalism student: “Being in the New Storytellers section, places me in a position where I am looking back on a history of writers as well as looking forward to continue to tell stories of the Singaporean LGBT community. I would not say that we are new ‘voices’, but represent a continuum of gay history that is growing and changing and that is a very exciting thing for Singapore because it actually shows that we are changing and not stagnating.” Deroose contributes a short but sensitive portrayal of a heartland family rend apart by the revealing of a “son’s” transgender identity.

With at least one-third of the authors still under 30 years of age, and another one-third between 30 and 35, the contributors to GASPP are in prime position to pose questions about Singapore society, and the place of gay people belonging in it. From Chua’s invocation of the HDB heartlands, to the ties of family, work and relationships, there are dreams and frustrations to be challenged at every turn of the page, but above all – there is hope, as long as someone is writing, and someone is reading in turn. These voices are a collective gasp that cannot be hushed.

Source: Reviewed by June Lee