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Alice Hiller introduces guest reviewer L Kiew

I would normally hope to meet up with the guest reviewer over coffee, to share our experiences of reviewing, and the excitement and interest of the works we have written about.  In this case, poet, activist and promoter L Kiew and I met over Zoom, and our conversation was mainly focused on the challenging days we are living through, and how we are trying to maintain our personal, professional and creative lives against what can seem at times like fairly hefty odds. The following interview takes a chance to co-experience the two works under review, both of which were new to me, and both of which I am going to be sure to find or borrow copies of when our engagements with the wider world become less restricted. 


Alice Hiller: As someone who was born in Singapore, I experienced a real feeling of excitement and discovery reading about the two collections you chose to review. Moon Fevers is a translation of Nhã Thuyên’s poems from Vietnam via Tilted Axis. Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit is a bilingual anthology of Malay language poetry from Singapore.   Can you tell me how you came across them, and what prompted you to decide on these two?


L Kiew: I am a firm believer in supporting translation and have a couple of subscriptions to presses that specialise in translated works. I am also always looking for translations from the languages of south-east Asia, so was very excited to see Moon Fevers. I picked up Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit from the Poetry Translation Centre stall at an event I went to last year at SOAS.


AH: In your own debut pamphlet with Offord Road Press, The Unquiet, you explore lives lived in multiple languages between Malaysia and the UK. Was it enriching for you to engage with other work speaking across borders?


LK: Ever since I was a child, I’ve read to explore experiences and world views unlike my own. In the cultural and political climate following the Brexit vote, it has felt ever more important to read poetry of different heritages and identities in order to both celebrate our diversities and find common ground, especially beyond the more often translated languages.


AH: Vietnam and Singapore were formerly colonised by the French and the British respectively, a process which silenced and negated the voices, and languages that were original to these regions. Malaysia experienced British control by proxy rulers. How did you experience these works, written in Vietnamese and Malay, claiming their space of being within these translations into English?


LK: With the exception of Thailand, I think pretty much every nation in south-east Asia experienced colonialisation in some form or another. I found it intriguing to read the two translations in parallel, reflecting on the two nations’ respective political journeys since 1940s-1950s and also the shift between oral traditions to the written page. Nhã Thuyên’s work explicitly explores speaking and silencing from Vietnamese perspective, and the pamphlet ends with her reflections on being translated. With Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit, I read it with an awareness that Malay is the dominant language across the causeway in Malaysia and that a number of the poets included in the anthology are active beyond Singapore where English and Mandarin are the dominant languages – though others have official status. I am reminded constantly that there is no one process silencing and negating the voices, and languages. It continues to be important to embrace multiplicities, and to seek them out, listening and reading.


AH: You share with the reader how Nhã Thuyên’s poems invoke feminist poetics to enact the multiple forces from within, and beyond the speaker’s self, which oppose their own realisations. Reflecting creating as a scarred act of resistance against negation seems to me to be integral to the process of writing from spaces which have been less heard. Could you relate to it yourself as a woman of east Asian heritage writing in English, in England?


LK: Identity is complicated for most people and I’m not sure that I believe in individuals having just one identity. That’s why Nhã Thuyên’s poems resonated with me. Since the changes we have all experienced since the start of this year with the pandemic, I have been grappling with how I can write from my own position – being mixed race, someone who gave up her original nationality to take British citizenship, who is educated and in a profession which means I don’t experience the risks that others do – alongside the awareness that racism against people of east Asian heritage is spiking and the third largest ethnic minority in the UK is often the invisible minority in conversations about diversity and inclusion. It feels vital to keep creating, despite the scars and acknowledging scarring is also part of the process.


AH: How did you find the experience of reviewing? I know from my own experience it can be harder than it initially seems.


LK: To be frank, it was terrifying. I’ve thought a lot about why this was the case and haven’t really come to a conclusion yet.


AH: When I review, I try to hear the writer’s voice and nuance, in order to communicate my own act of reception to readers who may not have yet seen the work, and thus bring them into its conversation. Did you have a goal in mind with your reviewing?


LK: I wanted the reviews to be useful to readers, giving them enough of a sense of the books to be encouraged to explore for themselves.


AH: It’s been really wonderful for harana poetry to be able to host your debut review. Is reviewing something you would consider doing here, and elsewhere, again?


LK: I’m very grateful for your support during the process, Alice. harana poetry’s encouragement of reviewers from a diversity of backgrounds is vital. I’m still processing my experience of reviewing and trying to decide whether I can be of service to others’ work by doing more.


AH: Thank you so much for reviewing for us L Kiew. This is going to be my final review as reviews editor for harana poetry. It’s been an enormous gift to be involved as editor in establishing what the reviews pages can offer our readers round the world. I’m already looking forward to discovering the choices of the new reviews editor as harana poetry continues to grow and build.

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