words across borders
L Kiew on two radical collections which explore ideas of identity, bodies and place in Vietnam and Singapore.
Moon Fevers Nhã Thuyên, trans. Kaitlin Rees
Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit: An Anthology Annaliza Bakri (editor/translator)
Translations bring poetry across the borders and into the English language, confronting readers with wider world views and literary traditions. Moon Fevers is published as part of Tilted Axis’ Translating Feminisms chapbook series which showcases collaborations between some of Asian’s most exciting womxn writers and translators. Vietnamese poet, Nhã Thuyên is also a translator, editor and organiser of literary events. Her most recent poetry collection words breathe, creatures of elsewhere (từ thở, những người lạ) was published in Vietnamese (Nha Nam, 2015) and in English translation by Kaitlin Rees (Vagabond Press, 2016). Nhã Thuyên is also translated in English in un\ \martyred: [self-]vanishing presences in Vietnamese poetry (Roof Books, USA, 2019). She co-edits AJAR, a bilingual literary journal-press based in Hanoi, with Kaitlin Rees, who translated Moon Fevers.
Moon Fevers contains fifteen prose poems, and a response to the process of being translated. The poems explore the way women give account of themselves, both within and without the nexus of family and sexual relationships. In the long title poem, the speaker is self-shielding and self-negating, as well as crossed out or redacted by others:
[i] open the wound.
[i] withdraw [myself] from you.
The fevers withdraw from [me], thrashing flail-
These textual tactics empower rather than diminish the speaker who finally transgresses and transcends socio-familial strictures:
the fevers open their wings: tottering throbbing
The other poems are shorter, but equally visceral, erotic and intimately sited in the body:
i speak in billowing undulations you don’t
understand, i wait for a curse, and with exces-
sive softness, in the night, in your cramped
tight skin, i swerve around layers of the epi-
dermis and escape into terrifying immensity.
Moon Fevers certainly fulfils Tilted Axis’ ambition to expose readers to an expanded conception of feminist writing and being. It provided a valuable perspective to counterbalance that of the readily available works by Vietnamese-heritage writers in English, and I look forward to more translations of modern poetry from Vietnam.
Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit is a bilingual anthology of Malay language poetry from Singapore, edited and translated by Annaliza Bakri. In that pluralistic city-state, English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil are recognised as the official languages and taught in schools. People of Malay ethnic backgrounds make up around 15% of the population, and form part of a cultural-linguistic community spanning the Malaysia peninsular and parts of Indonesian archipelago.
The 70 or so poems in this anthology revisit lost places in a city which has re-fashioned and rebuilt itself repeatedly since its separation from Malaysia in 1965, growing from a post-colonial port to modern hi-tech city. The poems explore social narratives and memories, seeking to re-embody identity in place and as an act of witness to change. In ‘Tebrau Strait’, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed expresses geography as surreally overrun body; rodents ramble over the strait’s warm bosom while narrow inner thighs are ‘laden with cars scrambling.’ Despite all this, the (mother)land remains:
calm and gentle
letting clams and cockles
rodents roaming about
moving on with life
who will earn profits
who will carry the burden.
That sense of intimate teeming life is also found in ‘Bus 67’ by Isa Kamari. The poem celebrates bodies on the morning commute through the city. Passengers with ‘Droopy eyes laden with dreams’ crowd the bus, its atmosphere ‘Mingled with sweaty body odour’. Though everything seems to be on the move in the Singapore of many of the poems in Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit, a sense of continuity is often expressed. Faith, customs and history are sited in buildings, roads and kampongs:
here we have planted
our life tree
here contains the pulse
complete as one’s self
The anthology successfully gives non-Malay speaking readers an intimate glimpse into the places which embody Singaporean identifies; the parallel text leaves the door open to readers to explore beyond the border of English.
For me, Moon Fevers and Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit cracked open windows into the modern literature of two countries in South East Asia, a region where there are over 800 native languages and English casts a long shadow as a legacy of colonialism. As readers, we need more of these openings.