Study your personal, social, economic, and educational contexts carefully, and then answer all the questions.
1. How did you come by this profession? Why not be a doctor, or a wife? [5 m]
As a disclaimer, I am a doctor. Though not the kind who would be able to help you if you have a heart attack in a coffee house. I might be able to make an astute observation about your expression, the tension in your shoulders as you clutch at your chest, your life, your every regret, and the sudden resurgence of faith in God as those moments flash before your eyes. And I will be able to write about it. Well. I hope.
Wifehood had never been in my books growing up – mainly because my parents were not for the idea and because everyone seemed to have come to the common conclusion as they held my face and stared into my mouth that with my buck teeth, this was not to be a reality for me.
Familial opinions aside, writing was the profession I kept returning to, in between dreaming of being a soldier, police officer, princess, archaeologist, nurse, veterinarian, and astronaut. However, “writer” was not acceptable. “Writer” makes up stories and sells untruths. “Writer” will not put food on the table. “Writer” is what you are in English class, to do well in a core academic subject and win small presents in schoolwide composition-writing competitions. “Writer”, in this time when the community needs more scientists, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, is just another artist it can do without.
2. To what extent does a writer need to be good academically in order to pursue the craft? [13 m]
Part of my job scope at one point was slicing open envelopes filled with submissions for a creative writing competition. The motion had become memory; the Swiss army knife quick- cutting through paper, my ears regaled by a long interview posted on YouTube, in which Hilary Mantel, who is one of my favourite authors, spoke about the research and thinking that went into her Man Booker Prize (2009) winning historical novel, Wolf Hall.
Raffles Girls’, Tao Nan, Methodist Girls’… I never paused, until one airmail envelope with its distinct blue and red striped border, with a return address written in the precise hand of a conscientious twelve-year-old: Circuit Road.
The road is known for its old blocks and its under-served communities. Then another envelope, again the return address written precisely: Yishun. Two more from madrasahs in Singapore. Out of more than a thousand entries received, only a smattering was from Malay/Muslim students. The few I saw made my heart soar and sink at the same time. Soar because they had sent their stories in. Sink, because I knew the chances of them making it into the shortlist, amongst the competition pool was likely to be slim.
I am reminded of an interview that I have seen in which the author Zadie Smith was asked, “How does the issue of class affect who is writing what?”, to which Smith answers,
The great working-class monument is music. Because music doesn’t need a narrow path. You don’t need to speak a certain way or –. The working-class community has made the monument to last the ages. Hip-hop, rock, music in general. Pop music. It is absolutely exquisite. It is a masterpiece. But Literature has this narrow path, because it is a written form of a certain kind. It needs good schools and good universities. There is always the outsider writer. But the truth is, it’s one in a million. You need an education to write. And at least in Britain, the educational system is rigged. So, if you are expecting working class Black British writers to appear, where do you think they’re going to come from? From what universities are they going to appear? I was one of like three Black girls in Cambridge. Where are these writers going to spring out from the air? It’s not going to happen. But they continue, despite all odds, to be incredible musicians, incredible hip-hop artists. And every form where you don’t need money or a degree, their creativity will be clear. But it’s not gonna spontaneously appear. The schools have to change.1
What she said particularly struck me. There is a stereotype that Malays sing well. That when it comes to playing music and being loud, we are “straight-A students”. In my alma mater, the Art class, and not the Triple Pure Science one, saw the biggest representation of Malay kids. Ditto, the Normal streams, particularly the Normal (Technical) one.
My not-so-privileged past has always been hailed and celebrated in any kind of literature surrounding my “accomplishments” – the “How did you do it?” human library. This very same thing was asked by a panel during a job interview: “Your father is a courier and your mother, a factory worker, but you made it to university. What is your secret?
I had good teachers. Who would give me money for recess so that I wouldn’t miss a school day. Teachers who did not sweat the small things. Who saw that I could write and let me be when I went off the beaten path in composition writing.
Who knew when to be tough and when to step back. I had time with my parents in my early childhood years. My mother read books to me. My father taught me to write. They sat down and practised my spelling with me. Taught me to add and subtract. Before the time started to slip out of their hands when money grew tight.
I also had timing on my side. I entered university when the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, as it was known at the time, was still new. It meant that I was able to get in despite not having any English Literature background. Had the school’s prestige and the competition be what they are today, I would not have made it in on my paltry A’ Levels results.
My brothers, on these accounts – in having good teachers and time with my parents in early childhood, and the right timing – were not as fortunate.
But my brothers loved telling stories. They loved listening to and engaging in them. They invented games and TV series in their heads. When we were children, we had a family newsletter, where we would write articles about our neighbours and our neighbourhood. We drew comics and put up mini-plays using our double-decker bed as a stage.
My brothers could have been artists. They painted beautifully. Something they taught themselves. My first brother gave up on his art because, “it doesn’t pay the bills”. So, he went on to be a machinist, where he was spat and shouted at by colleagues who thought he was the scum of the earth, a general worker, and then a pest control officer. All while teaching himself history, the political sciences and rhetoric through YouTube videos.
My second brother took on visual communications in ITE. But we had no money for Photoshop and no space for him, a deeply quiet and private person, to practise and work on his assignments without someone looking over his shoulder and passing by him on the way to the kitchen every half hour. I have never seen anyone learn quicker than he does. But in the business of education today, learning quickly is not enough. You have to learn well, and more importantly you have to learn “right” (know the “right” people, be at the “right” place at the “right” time, be the “right” type).
You also have to come from the “right” family. We cannot deny the leg-up of old money and financially stable, healthy parents.
My heart still breaks at the thought of my brothers today. I put the submissions in a nameless, identity-less pile to divide up and be judged, in the name of equality, rather than equity.
3. In your opinion, should we develop writing skills and talent in the community? If yes, why do you say so and how do you think we can do so? [10 m]
Writing is definitely a useful skill to have. Writing, creatively, is more than just the ability to conjure pretty descriptions about human life. It is a medium to showcase the collective imagination of the community. As it is in Malay/Muslim Singaporean literature, we have authors writing in a range of forms, from novels to short stories, poetry to screenplays,
dramatic forms and critical essays; addressing a variety of pertinent topics – science, religion, society, history – and presenting them in a number of unique ways. Their writing projects into futures we can only imagine but not be able to put in words, make observations about our environments that we would otherwise be blind to. Writing is a means of conducting thought experiments, following the through lines of complex questions and communal anxieties:
What if Singapore was never colonised? Would the lives of Malay/Muslims on the island be better than what they are today? What if aliens arrived on Earth and told us that all our lives is a simulation? How would our beliefs change?
Not to mention that writing brings our history to life and carves a space for it today. Writing is a means of effective and compelling communication. It is a means of inscribing and memorialising knowledge for the next generation. It has a cumulative effect. The more of our own literature that the future generations have to work with, the better they can think and express.
More importantly, I feel, writing can be a form of empowerment. I recall an article I once read a long time ago for class, about a programme conducted in a girls’ home, where the girls were taught to write their own stories; their struggles, their hopes, and aspirations. I also think of lawyer and poet Amanda Chong’s work with youth and children in the underserved neighbourhoods, teaching them functional reading and writing skills, while also getting them to express their views and feelings about the places they live in; perceptions that they have about themselves which are often shaped by perceptions that others have of them.
To be able to put pen effectively to paper, resources (teachers or instructors, books, lessons), opportunities, and space need to be made accessible to a range of individuals, not just the ones who could go to universities, get good tutors, have money for experiences that those without cannot afford to have. It is also about freeing up mental bandwidth. Taking care of a household can be draining.
Keeping a roof over our heads and putting food on the table can take all of the energy out of a family, what more an individual. Spaces to think and create for the average Malay/Muslim individual can be sorely difficult to come by.
4. Write down your final thoughts. [2 m]
This is something we can work towards, if not to produce writers, but at least to produce students and working adults who can express themselves independently, confidently, sensitively, and well.
END OF PAPER ⬛
1 Zadie Smith on Class & Creativity. September 27, 2016. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9lrl-Ym7L8.
Dr Nuraliah Norasid is a writer and literacy arts educator in Singapore. She graduated with a PhD in English Literature from Nanyang Technological University. Her thesis looked at the conceptualisation of marginality through the medium of literacy and creation and revisionism. The creative portion of that thesis has since been published as the novel, The Gatekepper, which won her the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016. Nuraliah is currently working on a new novel and enjoys quiet pursuit, such as reading, penmanship and stamp-collecting.