UNION: 50 Years of Writing from Singapore and 15 Years of Drunken Boat Edited by Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar

Reviewed By

Drunken Boat was founded in 1999 by the Indian American poet and scholar Ravi Shankar, where he not only publishes works of literature by Americans but of writers from around the world. This is to conclude that the Drunken Boat is formidably a pool of international writing rooted in various cultures and influences.

On a similar note, the island city-state of Singapore being as liberal with its immigration laws, admit scores of migrants from around the world, thereof representing diverse values and literary traditions. This goes on to say that what we know as Singaporean literature is also literature from around the world, through inheritance, impression, inspiration, you name it.

I guess you know about the sunken forest of Kazakhstan is one of the world’s most exotic locations is a result of a damage caused by an earthquake. This union of “Singaporean literature” and the “literature curated by the DRUNKEN BOAT” is one such exotic damage; damage to recognizing the disparities between the Singapore and the US “in terms of size, heft, composition, politics and history to state the obvious.~Alvin Pang”. For those interested in exploring how sectarian axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, UNION is the venue.

Going by the content of the anthology, you are taking a flight over a landscape comprising poems, essays, ecocriticism, stories, notwithstanding academic hallucinations. For the maximum part of the anthology, it is stiff with text, like 70% of the earth’s mass being covered with water, and yet we do not have enough water to drink. I received this as an anthology of poetry, initially, assuming easy review until I ran into the miscellany consuming more than I was prepared to give. It was when I read Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé’s Eleven Ways of Looking at a Square, that I was keen on discovering what more the anthology has to offer.

Christiana Langenberg’s Maura Takes the Multiple Choice Test of her Life So Far, Amanda Lee Koe’s Why Do Chinese People Have Slanted Eyes?, Chandran Nair’s No Love for Snakes, and This Being Poisonous, Arthur Yap’s everything’s coming up numbers and Mei Ching Tan’s Angels of Dildo Run are some of the most commendable pieces I have come across. Well the anthology also houses some  prominent figures of contemporary literature for readers who binge on  big fat names (read : big fat weddings!) but it’s always a virtue to excuse the arrived except this one by Vijay Seshadri~


His sign flicks off.

His names of birds

and his beautiful words—

eleemosynary, fir, cinerarium, reckless—

skip like pearls from a snapped necklace

scattering over linoleum.

His thinking won’t

venture out of his mouth.

His grammar heads south.

Pathetic his subjunctives; just as pathetic

his mangling the emphatic enclitic

he once was the master of.

Still, all in all, he has

his inner weather of pure meaning,

though the wind is keening

through his Alps and his clouds hang low

and the forecast is “Rain mixed with snow,

heavy at times.”

Having said all these, I see a challenge with the translation of the poem “Gondho Bichar’ included in Union. Sukumar Ray is an epic poet of Bengal, India and famous for his collective of nonsense rhymes, ‘Abol Tabol’ that parody human follies and misgivings. The translator, Sampurna Chatterjee, has to be commended for taking the risk of translating such a difficult poem, also taking care of the rhyming scheme as in the original. But like we know a change in word upsets  a poem in its entirety. The title “The Scent Predicament’ is not apt. From “Gondho Bichar”, ‘Bichar’ is not Predicament, but judgement in Bengali, involves logical reasoning to arrive at something which is what Sukumar Ray takes us through in the  original poem. Since ‘Bichar’ comes into implementation to solve a supposed predicament, the use of ‘Predicament’ in the very title of the poem is problematic and not convincing. Predicament as an idea is silent in the original poem, it is not told but shown which is what the translation needs. Also, in the seventh line of the poem, the use of ‘scruff’ to match with “snuff” is problematic. His name is “Ram Narayan Patra” and I am not sure why his last name “Patra” is replaced by Scruff and why is it even treated as a proper noun in the following sentence when scruff means the ‘back side of the neck’ which has no distant relation with the original verse. Well, as mentioned in Pg 398, please note that the translation is from Bengali and not Tamil and Pg 398 also excludes the translation of another brief poem by Sukumar Ray as appears in Pg 397.

It is natural to have these problems with translation but translation being the only avenue for the readers to know the original authors, it has to be as perfect as possible. Due to language barrier, I cannot comment on the quality of other translations as included in the book. Readers thereof should enjoy the translations responsibly and not treat them as the yardstick to gauge the credibility of the original authors.

So starting from the title of the anthology, to content arrangement and then the works included thereof with sample size problem with translation, I have come this far to conclude that this book is still an important guide for those who prefer a buffet of literary genres across cultures. Personally, I expected a lot more (although I know a book can offer only as much) because it states the figures, 15 years of DRUNKEN BOAT and 50 years of SINGAPOREAN writing. I expected a lot more unfamiliar names, in fact more of them than those who can be accessed easily on the internet.

I would like to conclude saying that the lettering of Union on the cover is an immersion rod that’ll at least warm up your literary senses as you pore over the anthology. This book will at least initiate a conversation leading you to discovering voices so far escaping your radar.

Linda Ashok was one of the 25 feature poets selected by the Prakriti Foundation for The Hindu Lit for Life, 2014. She was selected for the 2015 Napa Valley Writer’s Workshop with Arthur Sze. Her recent works appear on the Big Bridge Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry, other press/publications can be found here. Linda is the Founder/Director of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts (rlpoetry.org). She tweets at @thebluelimit. More from this author →