[Theatre Review] Tussling Between Advocacy and Poetry

Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu
Grace Kalaiselvi
23 March 2019, 8 p.m.
Play Den, Arts House
21‒24 March 2019

 Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu by playwright and director Grace Kalaiselvi hits a snag quite early on.

In an early scene, we are told sexual assault includes lewd comments and jokes. Shouldn’t that be classified under sexual harassment? Shouldn’t the differences between both terms matter?

Initially conceived to explore works by Indian female poets writing in English before evolving into one about sexual assault, the work finds itself caught between advocacy and poetry, rather than combining both aspects in a cohesive whole.

Its advocacy efforts consist of preachy scenes and skits such as telling us how we are complicit in “rape culture” with our words; that there is no clothing that is rape-proof; and not forcing others to eat briyani as an analogy about consent.

While the whole spectacle is fun and tongue-in-cheek, one wonders who it is meant for. In one segment, the audience has to indicate whether certain statements are appropriate through holding up the programme booklets, which has a red background on the front and green on the back. However, the statements are so ludicrously inappropriate that one just holds up the red background all the way and tune out.

As well-meaning as those segments are, it really is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Malicious abusers are without scruples, and will not recant if they were to watch this. But for the majority of us, who may say something insensitive unknowingly, or misread signals in the heat of the moment, the show is too simplistic and does not address these issues.

In fact, I found the post-show dialogue to be more enlightening and nuanced. But a show should stand on its own rather than be a prelude for the post-show dialogue.

As for the poetry, Grace and her cast (Pramila Krishnasamy, Mumtaz Maricar, and Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) made a judicious choice in selecting the poems of Sarojini Naidu. Through movement sequences; drawings; and turning the verses into song, these segments are evocative and poignant. This is complemented by the haunting flute playing by Raghavendran Rajasekaran.

While the poems are not about sexual assault, the images of struggle and hurt makes it seem as if the poet is reaching across the ages to tell the women that she understands what they are going through.

To top it all off, the performers then perform monologues detailing actual stories of assault, including their own. The deliveries of the monologues are relatively cautious, as if they are too painful for the actors to delve into. This is a wasted opportunity as the stories are not told to its full potential.

That said, one cannot deny the effect the show has on the audience. A few audience members walked up to the performers to hug them, and some can be seen crying.

While one hopes that the show gives those affected a certain sense of consolation, the dramaturgical and artistic merits of the show must be assessed independently of the audience’s reaction in this case.

Other Reviews

“Review: Goddesses of Words – Sarojini Naidu by Grace Kalaiselvi” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

Mini Reviews

Last year, I applied to be a social media intern  with Asymptote, which is a literary journal that focuses on world literature and its translations. As part of the application process, I was asked to pick a few pieces and explain my choices. Having read through them, I found it a waste to leave it in the recesses of my sent mail. As such, here are some of my thoughts about some of the works featured.

Ermanno’s Breath by Fabio Pusteria (translated by Damiano Abeni & Moira Egan), Jan 2011

I am struck by the exploration of breath as a metaphor to describe a poet’s voice, presence and legacy. This simple tribute to a poet who died too young, with an inter-textual reference to another poem, is really clever. Just as the father’s breath gave life to the mattress in the other poem, Ermanno’s work thus brings to life certain things for Pusteria. I love the economy of the last line – “a breath and some lines” – which points to a variety of things but it most centrally suggests the lingering presence of the poet and his work.

Views and Testimony of a Sheep by Tan Chee Lay (translated by Teng Qian Xi), Jan 2011

Being a Singaporean, it is understandable that any work of local literature being featured will immediately catch my attention. This work was simply refreshing for me. There is a certain gentleness to the poem despite containing some biting criticism and fierce images such as war drums, annunciation and drawn-out screams. Portraying the voters as sheep is a very interesting choice for me as it contains a lot of connotations – from meekness and gentleness as marks of a civilised person to passiveness and helplessness as one is being shepherded around. Tan displays an acute awareness of this as evident from the direct juxtaposition in the line. “little lambs/must rule their homes”.

A lingering thought after reading the poems was how will Singapore solve the various problems of our politics? Do we need a sort of a Messiah figure to shepherd us? While there are no biblical allusions in the poems, it is to be expected that some readers would immediately connect it in such a way. But a further thought came to mind, if we need a shepherd, what are our roles as citizens and voters? This brings me back full circle to the complexity of the image of the sheep. If a poem could inspire such afterthoughts on first reading, what fruitful conversations are there to be had with closer readings and more in depth discussion? Of course, the accompanying essay by Teng made me appreciate the craftsmanship on part of the poet as well as the translator which further deepens by impression and admiration for the set of poems.

Only in New York by Jonas Hassen Khemiri (translated by Rachel Wilson-Broyles), July 2011

The sheer creativity of this piece caught my attention from the first few sentences. The structure of this fiction is a manifestation of what happens when we travel to another country or attempt to write about it; we engage in constant conversation with it. I love how through New York’s voice messages, one can see a variety of experiences one can have in the city. On the other hand it can remain impenetrable as evident from the persona’s failure to have a direct conversation with New York and a great deal of what the city says are stereotypes or idealised. After reading the piece, I found myself forgetting that this is a translation from Swedish. This leads me to wonder if Khemiri was spot on with the Americanisms or was this a voice of Wilson-Broyles coming through which reminds me of Susan Bassnett’s comments (in her interview from the previous issue) that “translation is effectively rewriting”. Whether it is the former or the latter, the co-authorship of two writers has provided me with a wonderful reading experience.

Mulberries by Massimo Gezzi (translated by Damiano Abeni & Moira Egan), July 2011

For some reason, this poem took me on a road trip. What spoke to me in this poem was that the reader was made to go through the exact same experience as the persona. I thought the first four lines were referring to the mulberries stretching out its branches to touch the car window as it drove past. This seemed to be further established by how the persona looked and counted 8 mulberries. It is only in the last lines that the hands and gestures refer to the passenger in the car. Just as the passenger is able to create an “illusion of redemption” for the persona, the carefully crafted words of the poet and translators gave us an illusion of the seeming personification of the mulberries. Really cleverly written.

HOTEL by Lin Yaode (translated by Lee Yew Leong), July 2011

Speaking of personification, I imagine the hotel heaving and breathing while reading this piece. I love how it casts a brilliant new light upon a venue that we are relatively familiar with. It also possesses a sensitivity in addressing the politics of space – from how the buildings around it are affected by its presence to the interaction between people and the hotel. It also compels us to think about how we conduct ourselves in different spaces as well especially in Singapore when the landscape is constantly changing and important buildings and social spaces can be demolished for the most banal of reasons.


If you’re wondering, I didn’t get the job.

 

Character Study Featured In Wallflowers Anniversary Exhibition

Character Study

As a new ‘writer’, I am always happy whenever I am published – be it online or some obscure indie journal. But to be featured in an exhibition is really quite another experience altogether. To see people walking about and looking at your work with some concentration (I would like to think) is really exhilarating and frightening at the same time. You start to get defensive just in case people do not like your work.

Nonetheless, I do embrace this experience as it is all part of creating something. One’s work does not have a life if it stays in the bottom drawer.

Even if I fail, I would often tell myself, “fail often and faster – that way success will just be around the corner.”

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Looking at the other works on display, I must say that there really are a lot of creative talents  here and most of these artists/writers are younger than me! I am glad that my work sits together with them.

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I do hope that the works by these artists will soon be framed with a little card at the bottom right corner stating the dimensions, material, and price.

Quarter-Life Crisis in Malaise Journal

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I am pleased to announce that my poem, “Quarter-life Crisis”, has been published in the inaugural issue of Malaise. I was quite surprised that it was accepted as this was dashed off quite quickly. Do let me know what you think of the poem!

For those who are residing in Singapore, Malaise Journal can be purchased at Books Actually and Cat Socrates. Do hurry as this is a limited print run.

Haikews

I recently came across this twitter account, Haikews Project. The project is simple: read the news, compose a haiku that essentialises what it’s about, and post a link to the story. I thought it was fun and decided to give it a try. The following are what I have come up so far.

For the first few haikus, I wasn’t aware that I needed to post a link to the story:

(Embarrassingly, I even got the hashtag wrong! Unfortunately, Twitter does not allow one to edit tweets.)

After realising that I needed to add a link to my haikus, these were what I came up with:

At this point, I thought I should try to stick closer to the conventions of the form as possible. I felt that I was merely fitting words into word count. A quick search on the internet taught me that I needed to add a cæsura in the first or second line as well as a nature metaphor to provide a “sketch of nature” to those reading the haikus.

I tried to come up with a nature metaphor for these two pieces of news but I failed. As such, I just stuck to  the right syllable count.

It is a really interesting exercise to capture the gist of the news in 14 syllables. It forces you to be straighforward with your delivery, and leaves no space for superficial flourishes. When I added the nature metaphor, I realised that I tend to use it as my personal commentary on the news and it really served me well.

If I had to pick my favourite “haikew”, it would be the one on Obama observing the demise of newspapers. “Sheets of autumn leaves” is very evocative for me as I could see tonnes of newspapers being tossed out of windows as they fall like autumn leaves. The sight of newspapers falling also reminded of the Chinese funeral tradition of tossing paper offerings in the air as the family walks around the coffin.

All in all, it really is a good warm-up exercise if you are gearing to write something bigger and longer. It’s akin to practising the scales before attempting a sonata.