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Making English Literature Happen

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Jeff Clapp

on 12 April 2017

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Transcript of Making English Literature Happen

Making English Literature Happen
Thumboo: Earlier and Angrier
Thumboo: Framing a City
The Merlion
Our reading is in two parts: four ironic, satirical poems showing a lot of bitterness toward society, followed by five poems written from the point of view of society itself, with the poet as spokesman.

The first four are "Conformity," "The Immigrant," "The Sneeze," and "An Ordinary Man."

-The structure approaches the self in three stages. These register also the approach of history to the individual, and the appalling question whether one’s life is part of it.

-This is a good poem for beginning because it poses the difficult question of the relationship between the writer and the larger social world, which has been the overall question of Thumboo’s career.

-Just that here it is about the colonial scene, and for Thumboo it has been about Singapore as a state.
"Conformity": Major Ideas
Repetition in the first stanza:

“Calculating smiles, / connived quietness”

“acquisition of a careful face, / Putting a curfew on the heart”

“eased” “quietness” “softly”

Contrast in the second stanza:

“gentle, inbred”

“ceremonial stuff”


“curfew” and “circumcising”
Forms of emphasis in the final stanza:

-shorter lines contrast with previous parts of poem

-use of first person contrasts with previous parts of poem

-“stolen” and “indexed” repeat an idea but in two very different ways

-the final word of the poem repeats the title

-The poem approaches a desperate situation through a calm, ironic, and distant tone.

-The speaker’s apparent lack of emotional or social identification with the immigrant emphasizes the similar lack of concern shown by the Gods, or the weather, for the farmer’s situation.

-What might be described as fancy or elevated or abstract ideas are played against moments of simple syntax, and against the simplicity of the story and the subject himself.
"The Immigrant": Major Ideas
Repetition for Emphasis
In your group, identify three forms of repetition in the poem that contribute to or develop its main ideas.
Contrast for Emphasis
In your group, identify three forms of contrast in the poem that contribute to or develop its main ideas.
In four poems, including "Catering for the People," "The Way Ahead," "May 1954" and "Island," Thumboo's poetic voice speaks as a "we." These four poems correspond to Thumboo' assumption of a central role as Singapore's leading writer and his decision, one might say, to advocate the "establishment" of the city.

("Ulysses by the Merlion" assumes a different point of view.)
"May 1954": Main Ideas
-This poem is written in response to a set of riots against military conscription. This was an important event in the process of achieving Malaysian, and then Singaporean, independence.

-Unlike the other three poems I mentioned, this one is written from a "we" to somebody else, addressed here as "white man."

-The poem makes a simple demand: leave, which is to say, decolonize. The poem is in three parts, each of which climaxes with the direct instruction to "depart."

-Notably, however, this poem, although rigid with anger, also maintains a formal and elaborate diction which culminates in a surprising invitation to remain friends.
The first part
The reminder of serious losses to "little yellow soldiers" is an aggressive declaration that contrasts with the optimism of the notion of "the waiting generations."

An interesting reading of this stanza would be able to integrate a claim about its use of ellipses. (...)
The Second Part
Probably "our" is the most important word in this part of the poem, as it is repeated here no fewer than six times. This creates an intense impression of possession.

An interesting reading of this part would be able to explain the differing effect of this "Depart:" from the previous "
Depart white man
The Third Part
The speaker emphasizes that there is no difference in knowledge or expertise between the colonizer and the colonized, particularly in terms of the language; "Depart Tom, Dick, and Harry" is a reference to a common idiom for "everybody," which emphasizes the same point.

An interesting reading of this section would be able to explain 1) the emergence of the "I"; 2) the rhyme on tide/side, which is the only rhyme in the poem.
Three Poems
In your group, articulate the main idea of one of the three remaining poems in two or three sentences.

Then, identify three of the poem's most interesting features and connect them to the main ideas using five or six further sentences.

Submit to today's FB page.
Singapore writing in English
Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for thirty years, in 2013:

“The political and economic realities led us to choose English as our working language. . . . Making Chinese the official language of Singapore was out of the question, as the twenty-five percent who were non-Chinese would revolt."

“The choice of English as a common language gives all races an equal chance to learn, communicate, and work. But we also kept our original languages through our policy of bilingualism, allowing peoples to study their mother tongues….For us it is important that we have this bilingualism, it will build a sense of belonging to our original roots, it will increase our self-confidence and our self-respect, because we will never be British or Americans. A united multiethnic multilingual people has ensured Singapore’s survival through the use of the English language."


Someone like me, of a mixed inheritance . . . If I appear to have a fairly reasonable attitude, equipped with enough perspectives to look at the competing interests of the various groups, it is because of the English language. Ironically, the only group in Singapore who ceased to be orientated by their ethnicity were the English-educated. (167)

I have taken the view, as a teacher as well as one involved in language practice in Singapore, that the English we use has to be a stable one. . . . We feel . . . that there ought not to be such a thing as “Singapore English.” (184)

-a literature in English which integrated a significant number of Malay and Chinese words, a project of the late 1950s.

“The key to what I had to do? Alter; add; permutate; renovate; and teach English new tricks from other literary traditions, for my English to better secure my reality. That meant harnessing an idiolect that was the fullest possible instrument for meaning-creation. (192)

“English had turned into my main language when I was 9. Using it to write poetry from 1950, meant a series of interrelated bonding relationships with it . . . a journey whose trajectory moves through three “stages” in a single continuous process: a borrowed “poetic”, then moving to tap current English, finally coring it from within to evolve an idiolect—the fullest possible and still developing—instrument for meaning-creation.” (199)
Literature in English in Singapore has become generally unmarked, whereas in Hong Kong it remains strongly marked.

This despite the fact that both are multilingual societies that inherited their English through British colonial governance.

In part, this is because of Thumboo's major influence.
Hong Kong writing in English
Making English Literature Happen
Although literature in English exists everywhere in the world, two particularly successful literatures in English are in Asia.

In South Asia the most successful English literature is in India; in Southeast Asia the most successful is in the Philippines.

What these countries share is a history of colonization by English-speaking nations, and a wide variety of local cultures and languages that made it possible for English to become a lingua franca.

At the same time, a recent book on English language literatures in Southeast Asia examines four cases: the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
A Discussion
A Creative Assignment
Down by the convention center is Golden Bauhinia Square. Here stands a symbol of Hong Kong, six meters tall, which is also echoed on Hong Kong's money, flag, and so forth.

Write a text--in any form--and give it the title "The Merlion by the Bauhinia." Your text is an imaginative speech or dialogue or statement connecting Singapore and Hong Kong.

Possible strategies:
1) directly imitate one of the Merlion poems;
2) choose anything we have read and integrate or imitate it;
3) look at
online for inspiration.
Due via email to jmclapp@eduhk.hk,
12pm, Thursday April 6th (tomorrow)
Another Assignment
By classtime next week, draft the thesis of your paper. In order to do this, you need to:

1) choose a text
2) choose a paper prompt or email me about topic
3) re-read or, at minimum, re-skim the text
4) make a few notes about the analysis
5) draft the thesis.

You can expect immediate feedback from me during class.

Bringing a written thesis to class is a required assignment.
It takes a huge amount of work over decades to establish a national or regional literature in a particular language. This work depends on, but is independent from, formal schooling, which will always tend to teach linguistic and national literatures in their traditional alignments.
Quarterly Literary Review Singapore:
Softblow: http://www.softblow.org

Hong Kong
Cha: An Asian Literary Journal: http://www.asiancha.com
Yuan Yang: http://www.english.hku.hk/yuanyang/yuanyang.htm

Asia (but run from Hong Kong)
Asia Literary Review: http://www.asialiteraryreview.com
Asian Review of Books: http://asianreviewofbooks.com/content/
Literary journals are the first and most important step. These are the most important CURRENT journals.
Publishers and presses are the next step. They are more expensive, more elaborate, and more durable than journals.

Math Paper Press:
Ethos Books: https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg

Hong Kong

Chameleon Press: http://www.chameleonpress.com
MCCMcreations: http://www.mccmcreations.com
STORY, by MCCM: http://storyproject.wixsite.com/story/home
Anthologies, Editing, Scholarship
Both Singapore and Hong Kong have dozens of English-language literary anthologies. More in Singapore. Then:

“The accumulationi of sizeable poetic canons in each Anglophone country has been followed by the bibliographical work of scholars….[including] the ASEAN-sponsored anthologies edited by Edwin Thumboo, and more recent compilations from Hong Kong edited by Mike Ingham and Xu Xi." (Patke/Holden, p.103)
Digital Anthologies
Poetry.sg: https://poetry.sg

Hong Kong
Hong Kong English Literature Database:
And Money. Both Hong Kong and Singapore spend large amounts of money on promoting and supporting English-language literature, through the National Arts Council in Singapore and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council here.
In Singapore:

“the growth of creaive industries has been enabled, if not entirely controlled, by the state.
1995 minster for the arts George Yeo claimed that the city will become 'a global city for the arts.'"

(Patke/Holden 214)
Somebody has to make English literature happen. In Singapore it is very clear that the central figure has been Edwin Thumboo. In Hong Kong, with a less developed and less established literature, Xu Xi has played a parallel role.
Miniature Second-Level Paper Writing Workshop
Reread the paper prompt you've chosen
and the thesis you brought with you today.
Your text has a number of elements, dimensions, or aspects. Identify at least five. This is the first stage of "analysis," which just means "taking apart."

Now choose three of those things--three things you are likely to talk about in your paper. You don't have to talk about three things, but three is a nice round number.

Write one sentence of observation, or a claim, about each of those three things.
The order in which your present your arguments in a paper is quite important. First of all, you must avoid this structure: Good Argument, Okay Argument, Bad Argument.

Any other structure is better than that structure. The best structure is this one: Strong obvious argument, Whatever is Left Over, Intriguing Exploratory Argument.
Strong Obvious Arguments have immediate clarity and power, and they are likely to be relatively large-scale: they address a larger "part" of the text--for example a major character, or the "conclusion."

Intriguing Exploratory Arguments tend to have a relatively smaller scale, but they will be intriguing insofar as they can prove that a small-scale observation has a large-scale payoff. It's hard to find such arguments, and even harder to make them work, but I can tell you that a paper that makes an Intriguing Exploratory Argument, even if that argument is gibberish, will always get a better grade (from me) than a paper which only makes safe, obvious claims.

In any case do not conclude with general, repetitive claims. Take the most boring part of your argument and "hide" it in the middle of your paper.
Not a thesis:

This paper will explore how Jeff Clapp organized the course "Readings in New Literatures."

A thesis:

In "Readings in New Literatures," Jeff Clapp blended a thematic logic in which pairs of authors illustrated a single idea, with a chronological logic that illustrated generational differences in literary form and style over the course of the last seventy years. In this way he developed both a sense of narrative and change toward the present, without telling only a single unified, homogeneous story.
Agnes S.L. Lam
Xu Xi
Writing in a context in which English is marked
means having to continually ask what
is “Hong Kong” about the writing.
English writing in Hong Kong
Jorge Luis Borges, "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" (1951)
“the idea that a literature must define itself in terms of its national traits is a relatively new concept; also new and arbitrary is the idea that writers must seek themes from their own countries. . . . The Argentine cult of local color is a recent European cult which the nationalists ought to reject as foreign." (174)
Note that this statement is a recapitulation
(as a criticism!) of the idea about “new literatures” that I introduced on the first day of this course.
“Gibbon observed that in the Arabian book
par excellance
, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe that if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; fo rhim they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page.”
Borges 174
Lam has extensively investigated what it means to be an Asian creative writer in English. Her 2014 book interviews writers from Macao, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, and India.
“After my first collection…people started calling me a poet. . . .Two common questions were “Why do you write in English when you are Chinese? Do you think you are Chinese?” Until I was asked, it never occurred to me that I might not be as Chinese as I thought. I would usually answer, “Yes, I am very Chinese, in my values, in my world view.” Privately, though, I found that question rather strange because so many of the values I believed in and wrote on were universal values." (356)
Lam, "Writing from a Chinese Centre: From a Learner to a Poet." (2008)
Lam, "Writing from a Chinese Centre: From a Learner to a Poet." (2008)
“While the linguistic challenge is merely a matter of skill, the possible ideological conflict is what writers writing in English just have to live with because the potential readership is too varied in ideological persuasion . . . If one wants to write about what one really believes in, one must be ready to take risks, to be misunderstood, even censored and not published. I realise though that perhaps it is easy for me to take this attitude as I write in Hong Kong where no one is imprisoned for what they say or write.” (359)
The four poems by Agnes Lam that Xu Xi chose to include in the anthology
Fifty-Fifty: New Hong Kong Writing
(2008) offer a spectrum of approaches to such problems about culture, identity, and language.

This isn't a random selection: these are poems chosen for an HK-centric anthology. But each poem positions itself with regard to HK differently.

In which of these poems do you recognize Hong Kong the most, and in which the least? Explore this question not because it’s important to give a final decision, but because the exercise will oblige you to think about them in the same way Borges was thinking about Argentine literature.
Discuss together, then complete the poll on FB independently.
Leo Ou-fan Lee introduces Xu Xi
City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong (2008)
-her books
-her anthologies
-her MFA programme
Her introduction to

“Perch. That’s what we do. Like the avian population of our skies and the butterfly lovers who flit around our cultural imagination, we perch, waiting, wondering (some might say waffling) and meanwhile continue to dance until dawn, watching the Hang Seng index dip and rise.”

To her reader:
“Above all, do not be too literal with your reading. To be literal is the province of bureaucracy, not art. Instead, enter these pages with an open mind and a willingness to gamble at least a little—if not a lot. Perhaps by the time you close this volume, 50-50 may tilt toward more favorable odds for our collective voice, one that speaks for the SAR of the nation to which we belong."

Which sense of "belong" is that?
Which "we" is this?
two stories
"Insignificant Moments in the History of Hong Kong"
a discussion
a demonstration
Connect each of your arguments to your thesis.

It may help you to remember that the thesis should "synthesize"--that is, put back together--the pieces that you took part in the first steps of your paper. The thesis explains how the parts of the text work together to create its meanings.

At this point, do this however you think best: chart, draw, graph, freewrite, list. Spend a few minutes.

What about the extra leftover two things? Why do I have to identify five and then only comment about three?


Because you will end up integrating the extra two into your argument at some point in the writing process. Gather resources. Then they will be at hand wen you need them.
Literary analysis papers have two options:
organize according to the structure of the text, or not.

Both options have strengths and weaknesses.

Make your choice: organize your claims into some order.
This thesis must actually be stated in the first paragraph of your paper. Do not "promise" to state a thesis. Actually state one.
When you have completed this exercise, send what you have to me via email, and I will provide brief comments on your direction.

I expect to receive some thoughts from you at the end of class today, and I will spend my afternoon replying to them.
CHARACTERS, in order of their appearance

Patricia Chow, Girl Guide, university professor, daughter of civil servant
Wong Yin-Fei, Patricia’s best friend, leader of Free Hong Kong Party, daughter of university professor
Teresa, Patricia’s other friend, fashion designer
Maria Cheung, Patricia’s rival, daughter of factory workers
The company Captain, an adult advisor to the Girl Guides
Melvin, Patricia’s boyfriend and then husband
'The “growth of trade” girl'

-time frames
-stomach symbolism
-characterizing Maria
The fundamental technique of “Democracy,” like Xu Xi’s other story “Insignificant Moments in the History of Hong Kong,” is juxtaposing two different times in the life of a single character.

We see Patricia Chow both as a teenager and as an adult, along with several of her friends. By following this character through time, Xu Xi clearly suggests the way in which the history-book history of Hong Kong, abstracts from daily life, but also how the events of history are impacted by daily life.

In fact, Xu Xi chooses a character who is not directly involved either in the 1966 protests or in the nineties’ struggle over democratization in Hong Kong. Whereas the character Wong Yin-Fei is directly involved in both events, the story’s focalizing character, and its protagonist, Patricia Chow, witnesses these events through the news, through daily life, and through Yin-Fei.

At the same time, the story’s primary series of events, in which Patricia wins a Girl Guides election over the expected candidate, Maria Cheung, is a direct reference to the story’s main theme of democracy and democratization.

Conclusion of this argument:

"The effect of the story, particularly because of its title, is to show the pervasive effects of democratization and liberalization in various aspects of Hong Kong society."
Time Frames
Stomach Symbolism
Xu Xi develops her story’s themes by repeatedly emphasizing the theme of Patricia Chow’s digestive discomfort.

185 awoke feeling queasy [first sentence]
188 Her stomach ached
188 was nauseated
199 The ice cream worried Patricia’s stomach
199 she took some Pepto Bismol
204 Her stomach began to settle…She really must watch her diet from now on. [last sentence]

In the first few paragraphs of the story, this discomfort is put in parallel with the “unrest” of Hong Kong society in the 1960s. The suggestion is that there is a direct connection between Hong Kong and Patricia, almost as though she represents the city.

This pattern is enforced later by the contrast between Yin-Fei, who has “a cast iron digestive tract” (199), and Patricia. The stomach symbolism thus continues to develop the contrast between Yin-Fei, who has a clear political vision and a strident manner, and Patricia, who throughout the story is more hesitant. Whereas Yin-Fei is possessed by the urge to be elected, Patricia is only accidentally elected and feels guilty afterwards.
Conclusion of this argument:

"But the story also shows how these changes might benefit some and not others."
Characterizing Maria

The writing of fiction, or storytelling in prose, can be mechanically dissected. Aside from language, the other mechanics to be shaped are narrative and plot, the creation of a place or setting for your fictional world and characters to people that world. By far the most important, and difficult, one to engineer is the point of view, or more broadly, the perspective of the narrative.

It is simple enough to introduce, as in my case, Chinese English into writing the plot, characters, or place. . . .However, the consciousness of the protagonist or the sensibility of the overall narrative, what we might call its world view, is rooted in culture, and merely articulated in language.

“Finding My English: One Hong Kong Writer’s Evolution.” (178-9)
an exploratory argument
I want to go on to try to discuss what Xu Xi says is the most “important, and difficult” aspect of the story of “Democracy.”

And I want to do this by emphasizing the difference she introduces between “the point of view” and the “perspective” on the one hand, and the “consciousness of the protagonist” and the “sensibility of the overall narrative,” on the other.

In “Democracy,” we have a protagonist to whom the narrator is particularly close. In other words, the narrator knows what Patricia sees, feels, and thinks, but does not know those things about other characters. (We can also say that the protagonist is the “focalizing” character.)

This usually leads to sympathy with the protagonist, and that is true here. But is that sympathy unlimited, or is there a difference between “the consciousness of the protagonist” and the “sensibility of the overall narrative”? I think we can see this difference if we look at how Maria is represented.
How is the character of Maria Cheung represented, and why is she represented in that way?

First: there are two Marias: the classmate of Patricia from the 1960s, and Patricia’s student, thirty years later. Because the latter person strongly reminds Patricia of the former, the connection between these two Marias is the central link—in Patricia’s life—between these two time frames. We might inevitably conjecture that this is a mother and a daughter, but we are never told this and Patricia, so far as we know, never even conjectures this.

Second: the characterization of Maria veers wildly from negative to positive, in the case of both Marias.
Give me some examples.
Hypothesis (not quite an argument yet)
There is an divide between Maria and her classmates that has social, economic, political, and linguistic elements. We are given very clear information about this, so much so that the difference between Yin-Fei, Patricia, and Maria becomes almost an allegory of upper, middle, and lower-class Hong Kong people. At the same time, this does not result in a story in which Maria’s claims are seen as legitimate; instead, she is depicted as both abrasive and unsympathetic, and struggling in the face of forces that do not impose on Patricia and her friends.

This opens some space between Patricia’s perspective and the perspective or of the story as a whole. Patricia emerges as caught between worlds: upwardly-mobile and highly-educated, but still sympathetic to Maria’s situation.

And this “middle” point of view is extended even to the attitude toward “democracy.” It is Maria who suffers from the introduction of democracy into the girl guides, and it is Yin-Fei who is most invested in democracy personally and professionally. The suggestion seems to be that democracy is an elite concern which may not serve the “demos” as much as its full-throated defenders might believe.

This story about Hong Kong in English turns out to be about the relationship between a set of systems and values that often presumes to be universal— that is, democracy—and a set of characters that show some ambivalence and “unease” about that universality.

This strikes me as a good representation of what I know about Hong Kong—and other places, for that matter—which is that advocacy on behalf of democracy is often an elite concern.

But it also strikes me as relevant a story about Hong Kong in English. English is an elite language in Hong Kong, but also one that often makes claims of universality, as for example when people suggest that Hong Kong is a “multilingual” society. This is only true for elites.
Hong Kong Literature in English?
My conclusion, therefore, is that this story reflects some anxiety, and some guilt, on the part of those who, in pursuing their values in society—like democracy, or English literature—also become aware of their privileged status in doing so.

How, then, does this become Hong Kong literature? Not so much by mentioning important dates or events, or even by its evocation of place names or Cantonese words, although these things are all important. For me, the most HK thing about this is its uneasy attempt to deal with inequality from a postcolonial perspective—that is, without the conflict between the British and the Chinese, the story is forced to deal with the conflict between the rich and the poor. But this is built into the structure of the story in a much more intrinsic and defining way than the other elements, and thus is more difficult to identify, talk about, or even discern.
English Literature in Hong Kong?
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