Tse Hao Guang on Singlish as a “Creole in the Making”

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Singaporean writer Tse Hao Guang about his latest poetry collection, Deeds of Light. They also discuss the challenges of defining a literature by nation or even by language.

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Tse Hao Guang Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.


Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.


The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


This episode of Origins features Singaporean writer Tse Hao Guang.


Merrill: Tse Hao Guang is a poet and fiction writer from Singapore. He is the author of Hyperlinkage, which was published in 2013, and Deeds of Light published in 2015, shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. He co-edits the literary journal Of Zoos, is the essays editor of poetry.sg, and is co-editing UnFree Verse, an anthology of Singaporean poetry. He participates in the IWP courtesy of the Singapore National Arts Council.

We are recording this from the University of Iowa on October 17th, 2016 when we had the chance to sit down with Hao Guang who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.

So, reading your poem, “Gongs, Alarms,” from your collection Deeds of Light reminds me of the Czesław Miłosz famous quote: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person. For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.” Do you identify with that quote at all?

Tse: So, I think it’s a difficult question. I think for me at least, I write knowing a sense of self. I write with a kind of knowledge that I am one person. At the same time, of course, what the quote is trying to get at is that when people read what I write, then they bring all their own kind of psyches, their own interpretations to what I write. And I think it’s always that tension, that tussle between the writer and the reader, because I think if I as a writer were to write in that kind of way, I think my writing would be very dislocated. It would be too general. It wouldn’t be interesting anymore. So, I think the specific “I-ness” of my writing makes it interesting. But of course when someone reads it, they get all kinds of things from it.

Merrill: So I think Milosz is also trying to talk about the ways in which as a poet, you are a servant of the language, and in this service to poetry, other voices can enter into the poem, other ways of thinking about the world. Remember how he says to us later, we have to pray that our pen is guided by better angels than devils. Does that factored at all into your work?

Tse: I think unconsciously, yes. From everything I’ve read, unconsciously it has to seep in somehow, if not, what’s the point, right? But I don’t know. I think I’m still conflicted over this kind of idea because to me, it’s very unstablizing—destabilizing. But I think that’s speaking more to my own kind of neuroses rather than anything else. Yeah, so I think he’s right. I think he’s right even though I don’t like it.

Merrill: (Laughs) Your poems seem to be influenced by environment, especially, “All the Souls of Mynahs.” Do you see each of your poems as rooted in certain places? Or is the place in your mind something other, something elsewhere?

Tse: I think for many of the poems in that book Deeds of Light, they did have a kind of sense of space as I was writing them. I had that sense especially in certain poems about, kind of domestic life, the sense of, you know, small tight spaces that Singapore has a lot of when I was writing them. Not necessarily a particular place, not necessarily a place I’ve been before. But I definitely had a sense of place as I was writing them.

Merrill: And of course you are writing from the context of Singapore—a very small city state, which gives a completely different angle of light on this question, doesn’t it?

Tse: Yes. I think space is very contested in Singapore. From very legally speaking, all the spaces are owned by the government and they can do what they want with it. And you have like heritage groups upset that, you know, the latest buildings have been torn down, that kind of thing. So in a sense it’s a very political question, I think, space in Singapore.

Merrill: Well that leads me to a question about the definition of Singaporean literature, which is complex, as you have noted in many conversations, comprising of multiple languages and ethnic backgrounds, and histories beginning in the colonial period. So how do you define Singaporean literature?

Tse: I think it’s a question you can talk about forever. I like to think of Singapore literature as a broad church. I don’t think many or most people would agree with me, but I think writing that is associated meaningfully with Singapore qualifies, even if you are not technically you know a resident or a citizen of Singapore. And I think that to me that is a very traditional idea of what living in Singapore means, because for most of our history, we have not been an independent nation and people have been coming and going. So I think that’s the best way to think about Singapore literature. But at the same time, there is a very strong strand of nationalism within, you know, the idea of Singapore literature. So I think many people probably disagree with what I have to say.

Merrill: It leads me to think about Benedict Anderson’s wonderful idea of imagined communities. When we try to reflect on the imagined community of Singapore, that national strand, how do you describe it to yourself?

Tse: You mean the kind of, that streak of nationalism within Singapore writing?

Merrill: Yeah, yeah. And the sense of having a separate identity from other parts of the region.

Tse: Yes. So I think at one point in time, particularly just right after independence, in 1965, and probably for twenty years after that, I think many writers were kind of caught in this kind of identity crisis, because people were thinking, ‘Oh, we are part of Malaya. Let’s forge a Malayan identity.’ Then separation happened, which I think took some people by surprise. And so I think the kind of nationalistic writing that happened during that time was necessary for writers to think through issues about themselves and how they related to the government or the wider society. I think maybe what I can say what I said because we are at a place where that identity is, kind of, you know without question anymore. We are definitely a sovereign nation, there’s no question about that. So therefore, I think the time has come to start thinking in more expansive ways about literature as it relates to the state, the country.

Merrill: And I wonder if that inspires some of your work. You are learning other languages, learning Malay, learning Chinese, so that you can encompass the whole of Singaporean literature, is that, or at least understand where each group is coming from?

Tse: Yeah, I don’t think I can encompass anything no matter how hard I try, and I don’t really want to do that either. But you’re right, I think to understand at least, you know. I think a language is—I mean it’s a cliché to say this—but language is a way into a certain world view. And so I think I’ve been very interested about these world views that have been kind of, not completely alien to me. They are actually very close and intimate to me, but that I have not actually pierced through, or been able to see in a clearer way, until I think I have mastered enough of a certain language to do that.

Merrill: You are always rubbing against these language groups and literary traditions. So in your poem, “Spare Change,” you write: “I have made my peace. I have grown thin./ I see my beer-lady, my boatman, in every local face./ I know their English is not the English I dream in,/ which is not the English I read. This is a sandy place.” You have also described your relationship with English as a “love hate” relationship, and your relationship with Chinese as “obsession/fear.” What do you mean by that? What was it that made you decide to write in English in the end?

Tse: I think I will tackle your last question first. That was a very natural decision for me. My parents didn’t speak to me in Chinese, in Mandarin at home. They spoke to me in English because they wanted me to, uh, well firstly they didn’t really know Mandarin. My mom spoke Hokkien. My dad spoke Cantonese. And they would speak to each other in Cantonese. And then they would speak to me in English because that is the modern thing to do. So I grew up surrounded by English books, learning English in school, learning Mandarin in school. I think the reason why I write in English is because I came to literature through English. The first, I think you know, literary books or stories I had read were in English. And the only things I had read in Chinese were like my textbooks and that kind of thing. So it’s kind of interesting now at this point in my life where I have actually started reading things, you know literary things, in Chinese. And I have been around people who talk about Chinese in the way that shows they love the language. So I think that is also making me much more interested in Chinese literature. And I think that is the thing—that love for language—I saw it first in English. That’s why I started writing in English.

Merrill: So your first influences must have been in English. I am remembering a conversation with a Malaysian poet, Eddin [Bu-Eng] Khoo [IWP ’02, ’03], when I said to him, ‘Who are the greatest Malaysian writers?’ And he replied without hesitation, ‘Somerset Maughm, Joseph Conrad, and Anthony Burgess.’ (Laughs) Three British writers. Who of course had spent a considerable amout of time in Malaya. So what were your models starting out?

Tse: I didn’t really have very many models. I think I came to what we would call literary writing pretty late. You know, when I was young I was reading a lot of science fiction, fantasy, which is great. It’s not any less than literary fiction. But I don’t think I’ve been influenced by them in how I write. I think the poets that have influenced me a lot are Derek Walcott. I think, understandably, because he is one of the few I think who have managed to both incorporate the canon but also disrespect it in ways that are very, you know, productive. And then also Marianne Moore, the American modernist, because the way she uses language I think. The way she observes and interacts with objects, I think is very interesting. So these two are kind of my old dead influences. And I think other than that, I read a lot of so-called world literature, so I am not really sure where my influences come from.

Merrill: But it’s interesting to note first, Walcott who comes at English from the periphery, and Marianne Moore who subverts the iambic line by choosing to write in syllabics. It’s interesting that they would be formative influences for you. Yeah, yeah. And then on the question of mucking up the language in the way that Walcott does, I’m thinking about the relationship between English and Singlish. I wonder if you could talk about how Singlish is viewed in Singapore. How do you see diglossia and code-switching in daily life? Is this a part of how you imagined your role as a poet to be incorporating this—to be mining this vein?

Tse: I think the short answer is, yes. One of the misconceptions of the relationship between English and Singlish, I think, is that there are two, right. There is English, you know, some kind of imagined perfection, and there’s Singlish, which is some kind of what people actually speak at home, or whatever. But actually in real life, people kind of go up and down the spectrum all the time without really thinking about it, I think. So I think Singlish now, in recent, maybe in the past two years or so, has taken on a lot of interesting cultural significances because it’s gotten a lot more international recognition. Certain words from it have been incorporated into the OED and that kind of thing. So people are getting this kind of, I think a sense of validation, like, ‘Oh, you know, Singlish is now official.’ And I think it’s—I don’t know what to make of it. I think Singlish has been taken as a kind of marker of Singapore identity. And so some people are making the argument that if you don’t know Singlish, you are not, or you are less of a Singaporean. So I think these are also interesting things to think about, that Singlish is not something that is fixed. I think it is not at all like, say, French Creole, which is kind of more fixed. Singlish is—I call it ‘creole in the making.’ It has a lot more valences than what might be seen on the surface.

Merrill: I love that phrase ‘creole in the making’ because it seems to me that for a poet, that’s exactly where a certain kind of potential lies.

Tse: Oh, yes, yes, yeah. That’s why it fascinates me. I haven’t really found a good way to use it yet, but there are at least a couple of young Singapore writers who are doing that, which is very exciting. Yeah.

Merrill: But on the other hand, translating between Chinese and English too, well, more stable languages. I wonder if you could talk about the particular challenges you find in going from one language to the other, and trying to bring work into English, say.

Tse: Yea, I think the biggest difficulty I found is that certain ways of thinking makes sense in Chinese that do not make sense in English. And so providing a straight gloss, you know, makes the English translation sound very unfluent, when actually it sounds perfectly fluent in Chinese. And so my challenge has been to decide when to change things, when to take away things to make it more fluent, or should I leave it so-called unfluent. And I think the other thing that has been raised a lot is the idea of time, that Chinese doesn’t mark time in language quite the same way that English does. So instead of modifying the word itself, they would add on words to show later or before, right. So ‘I fish before’ rather than ‘I fished.’

Merrill: So can you feel how, or notice how the work of translation is shaping your own poems? Do you notice any influence?

Tse: Maybe I am the worst person to ask this question to because I don’t think so. At the same time I think that when I use Singlish in my writing, or when I use aspects of Singlish in my writing, some of these aspects come from the way that Chinese has interacted with English to form Singlish. So certain ways, certain syntactical, what you would say, errors or infidelities in English actually come from, or in Singlish sorry, actually come from the way that Chinese interacted with English.

Merrill: Can you give some examples of that?

Tse: I mean, a very, a cliché is the phrase ‘long time no see,’ which is ‘好久不見

(Hao jiu bu jian)’ in Mandarin, which is perfectly grammatical. In a recent poem, I think I wrote, one of the phrases I used was ‘go gym,’ which means to go to the gym, right? So instead of saying ‘to go to the gym,’ I would say ‘go gym.’ I’m not sure if it is a Singlish thing to say, but people in Singapore say it all the time. So I think that also comes from—that can be done in Chinese, but not in English in a way.

Merrill: So some if the compression in Chinese then can be translated into idioms in English or Singlish.

Tse: Yes, yes, yeah.

Merrill: Ah, okay. So what value do you find in the space of untranslatability between these languages? Can the readers really appreciate that space when they cannot understand the original?

Tse: I think a bigger question would be to ask if any reader can fully understand anything even in the language that he or she is familiar or fluent in. To me, I think that space of untranslatability that you talked about, that is a very exciting place to be in. I think that’s precisely where language becomes more than just a way of communication, and it becomes a thing that has more valences to it, and becomes a kind of art in a way.

Merrill: That makes me think, in a recent panel discussion at the Iowa City Public Library, you spoke about ‘Real Work,’ and said, ‘The uselessness of artwork is where its value resides.’ Could you expand on this? It makes me think, do you see utility as anathema to art?

Tse: No, the short answer is no. I think you know, I’m not advocating for art for art’s sake, kind of a very pure, art for art’s sake position. I think that has its place, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I think what I am trying to say is that in any kind of art work, if it is to be understood as an artwork, besides all the usual things that people think about when they think about artwork, like social engagement, like communicating, you know, things that make studying literature useful in the classroom, maybe—if there isn’t an element of uselessness in it, then that’s where the art fails. Yeah, I think that is what I am trying to get at. If we want to understand and analyze art as art, then we have to kind of start poking and try to find that kernel of whatever it is that makes this particular artwork useless in some interesting way.

Merrill: And does that have any bearing on the fact that you live in a place where utility has been raised to almost mythic levels, at least in the minds of outsiders? Where we imagine Singapore as a tremendously efficient place and productive place?

Tse: Yes. The official rhetoric is that pragmatism is kind of the way that we have achieved all the successes we’ve achieved. To kind of deviate from that is a very bad thing. At the same time, I want to say that Singapore is not an efficient place at all. It just kind of raises itself up as a kind of efficient place.

Merrill: So in what ways is it not efficient?

Tse: For example, there is a certain kind of pervasive work culture. I think that’s changing, but a pervasive work culture that says that you have to be in the office for long hours to show that you are being hardworking. Even if you don’t have as much to do as the hours need. So you have people who just go to work and are really unproductive, and they stay really late. And then people think, ‘Wow, I’ve worked so much,’ or ‘Wow, I have gone home later than my boss so he won’t be angry at me.’ So in some ways, I think Singapore is not efficient at all.

Merrill: (Laughs) Well, it is the role of artists to strip away the stereotypes we have about a place. I am grateful to you for that. So just yesterday, you read a new short story at Prairie Lights here in Iowa City. You said it’s only the second one you’ve read ever, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the difference for you between writing a poem and writing a short story, and I’m wondering whether this presages the arrival of more short fiction, or even longer fiction from you.

Tse: Yeah, so I think I started writing poetry because I wanted to get away from ideas of characterization, of plot, and just engage with language in itself; which was really exciting, and I think I am definitely going to continue doing this. At the same time, I think character and plot is not unimportant, and there are certain things that can be told with character and plot that can’t be told without them. So I think that’s what made me decide to start writing fiction. I didn’t actually think I would writing fiction, but I thought, oh I have this idea but this idea, I don’t think can be expressed best in poetry. So I think that’s what made me start. So I think if I continue having ideas that can’t fit poetry, then it has to be fiction, yeah.

Merrill: So, are there particular fiction writers you have had in mind as you were writing your second story?

Tse: Not really, I’ve been reading a lot of Spanish writers for some reason. From both Spain and Latin America. Maybe that has unconsciously seeped in. Alexandro Zambra’s My Documents was the book I had just finished reading before I wrote that. And also a Spanish guy called [Augustín] Fernández Mallo, who I read in Singapore. I don’t think you can find his book in Singapore even, but my friend brought it back from the UK. And that was amazing. So, I really enjoyed those books.

Merrill: So before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder if you could tell us a little about what else you have been reading, and if you have recommendations for our listeners.

Tse: Okay. I’ve actually started reading a lot about, or reading into books that deal with this tension between English and Chinese. So there’s a book of poetry called Lost Wax [Lost Wax: Translation Through the Void] by Jonathan Stalling, which basically it’s a collaborative effort. So he writes a poem in English and sends it to someone to translate it to Chinese, who sends it to someone else to translate it back into English. So it’s like playing broken telephone. I find that really interesting because on one side, there are the translations, and on the other side, there is the working. So where the translator has decided what I’ll put in, what I’ll take out. So that is, I mean, I am not sure if I can appreciate it fully as art, but I can see it’s very useful for when you want to think about translating poetry.

Merrill: You know there is a great story in the biography of Paul Celan. The biographer took his translations of Emily Dickinson from English into German and then translated them back to English, and they resembled Emily Dickinson not at all.

Tse: Oh yes!

Merrill: It’s a completely new text.

Tse: So that’s what I’ve been interested in. I’ve also been reading, what is that, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.

Merrill: Yeah, by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.

Tse: Yes, yes. So that’s also been very enlightening for me.

Merrill: Well, thank you so much for giving us your time today. And good luck with your work!

Tse: Thank you. Thanks for having me.


The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.



Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available May 15, 2017 on iTunes where I talk with writer Courtney Sina Meredith from New Zealand.

Additional Information

Tse Hao Guang
April 15, 2017

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