Singapore Lit Mag Features Diversity and Empathy in Its Pages
The Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, or QLRS, is the first and primary full-fledged online literary journal in the country. It was founded in 2001 by Toh Hsien Min with a mission to “promote the literary arts in Singapore, to stimulate the feedback mechanisms in the literary scene, and to develop Singaporean writers to international standards.” Fifteen years thence, it boasts of over five hundred contributors, featuring some of Singapore’s most acclaimed writers such as Arthur Yap, Ng Yi-Sheng, Cyril Wong (editorial team), Alvin Pang and Amanda Lee Koe, to name a few.
Every quarter, the journal publishes a slim issue comprising of six to seven poems, two to four short stories and a couple of essays, pieces of criticism and author interviews each. The authors are a mix of local and international, veterans as well as young students.
In the latest issue released in April 2016, Editor Toh Hsien Min talks about his close experience with terrorism, being in Burges in March this year at the time of the unfortunate terrorist attack in Brussels. In light of this and terror advisories for other European countries, he points to Europe’s “lack of cross-cultural sympathy” and raises a pertinent question whether “literature can encourage the development of empathy in readers.”
The title, “Larks, still bravely singing, fly” from John McCrae’s famous “In Flanders Fields” echoes these thoughts. In fact, empathy could be said to be the thread running through most pieces in this issue.
The poetry section showcases seven poems penned by authors from Singapore, the Philippines, and New Zealand, most of them young students. Joshua Uyheng and Paul M. Jerusalem feature twice with two poems each, a seemingly common practice, seen with other poets in previous issues as well.
One poem that immediately flies off the screen and perches in the mind is Gary Langford’s “Aunts of the dead.” Charming, unexpected metaphors flow seamlessly to spin the chimerical texture of dreams:
The sisters went into the rooms of my novels as novel aunts.
Each knew the fabric of clothing; the whimsy stitching of love.
“What they dropped cleaned faces – after all if was a dream
Of laughter in flocks of large birds that were never seen.
Another poem that tugs for attention after a couple of readings is “Isaac” by Joshua Uyheng. Based on a Biblical tale, the poem takes what was just a vision in Abraham’s mind and renders it in God’s own voice, guiding Abraham through every step of the ordeal of sacrificing his son. The brotherly empathy toward Abraham and paternal kindness toward the boy palpates to highlight the cruelty of the mission.
Do not trace the shape of his shoulder blades, as if a space
Where he might sprout wings. Lift him slowly. Hold him
tender by armpits.
The other poems are thoughtful and sensitive as well, centring on love, loss and nostalgia.
Short stories feature four diverse pieces by a mix of local and international authors, all of whom have had their works previously published. The length varies from one thousand to over five thousand words.
Most striking of these is “The Adventures of Bear Man” by Melissa De Silva. It is a poignant story about a man who works as a lookout for a casino. On the eve of his fortieth birthday, he awaits his target in the rain in a dingy alley, contemplating the failures in his life. Trailing his prey, he impulsively jumps under an oncoming car, but not before giving a heads up to his target to run away.
“Another Sunrise” by Peter Barlow is a touching story about a man who finds an avenue to cope with his mother’s death by staying by the side of a dying sea lion pup till its life’s end. “Campfire” by O Thiam Chin is chilling account of a group of high school girls in a school campfire when they are attacked by an unseen entity and explores the myriad ways in which people react to terror. Antony Johae’s “The Meeting” is about a relationship set in a futuristic world where characters can travel in time. The last two stories are open-ended, leaving the reader to fill in the missing pieces.
This collection of poetry and short fiction makes for grim reading. It weaves a swatch of modern day emotions of loss, regret, pain and empathy, but without the warmer shades of humour and wit.
Amongst the three essays, Theophilus Kwek’s review of the Young Writers’ Circle anthology “but we have no legends” published in 1978 is cited as the highlight of the issue, and given the Singapore centricity of the journal, perhaps rightly so. The review explores the styles and range of writing that had developed in the republic just a decade after its separation from Malaysia and concludes:
Not only have the three editors (of the anthology, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Chew Kheng Chuan and Yeoh Lam Keong) gone on to shape modern Singapore….By entering our literary history and lending us a record of how they saw their world, they have become our legends in their own right...
David Fedo is a regular contributor to the journal with his “Letter from America” series. He writes about his reading of Robert Frost’s “Come in” along with an insightful analysis of the poem. Under the Criticism section, Wong Wen Pu reviews “The Poems of T.S. Eliot” published last year and there is Stephanie Ye’s regular listing of all Singaporean literary titles published since the last issue.
This issue’s author interview features Jerrold Yam, a young and accomplished writer who is also a lawyer. At the age of twenty, he became the youngest Singaporean to be nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012.
There is a forum for general discussions on writing but it has been dormant since 2011.
The layout is easy to navigate and simple to the point of being austere with a black and white look, plain font and no images. The reading experience could be enlivened by making the website more visually appealing and reigniting the forum.
QLRS is open to submissions from across the world, but is particularly keen on pieces “with Singapore relevance.” It does not accept simultaneous submissions. In an earlier issue, the editor speaks of sachlichkeit, a German word that best translates to "objectivity" and how it captures the editorial policy at QLRS; they look at the work and not the person.
The vast body of work that the journal has compiled since inception and the diversity of style and authors covered make it a space to watch for contemporary writing in and about Singapore.