Frog Pond Splash Collages by Ray Johnson with Texts by William S. Wilson edited by Elizabeth Zuba (Siglio, 2020)
It’s hard for me to know what to make of this book.
This is a book that will be picked up by most people because of one of the names on the cover – Ray Johnson – and it is indeed an attractive compilation of some of his work. I don’t have a sense of where Ray Johnson is in the cultural pantheon of the moment; the newcomer might be advised to start with John Walter’s documentary How to Draw a Bunny, which captures something of Johnson and his world. The Johnson pieces in here are mostly familiar to me; the value of this work comes from the text about the images, excerpts from the correspondence of William S. Wilson. (His With Ray: The Art of Friendship is the other place I’d start thinking about Johnson’s work.)
What’s confusing to me about this book is entirely subjective: I was a friend of Bill Wilson’s from soon after I moved to New York until his death. Bill sent me mountains of correspondence, both by mail and email, easily hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pages. I am not particularly special in this — Bill corresponded with many, many people, most more interesting than I. The fragments of letters that make up this book could have been pulled from letters he sent to me; reading through this is an odd experience, like overhearing a conversation and not knowing whether you should be or not.
I met Bill at the launch party for Joseph McElroy’s Actress in the House – my roommate at the time had met him on a bus coming back from an anti-war march in Washington, and was surprised when I knew his work. Bill was the first person we met at Joe’s party; he was pleased I’d read his book of short stories, Why I Don’t Write like Franz Kafka, claiming, probably facetiously, that he’d never met someone who’d known him from his fiction. Bill was soon deluging me with correspondence; I dropped by his house in Chelsea on a semi-regular basis for show-and-tell sessions, where he’d show me art, talk about his writing, and invariably loading me down with books that he thought I might be interested in. Sometimes he’d throw parties and you never knew who would turn up – Carolee Schneemann and Alison Knowles, of course, sometimes Dorothea Rockburne, occasionally Billy Name, once a rather wrecked Ultra Violet. Bill was a bridge to a lost world: Nam June Paik and Lee Lozano had lived in his house. He’d shown Christo around the city when he first arrived. His mother, living in the Chelsea Hotel, had kept Valerie Solanas’s gun under her bed. Ray Johnson had brought Marcel Duchamp to visit.
But this is to the side. Bill had a Ph.D. in Chaucer, though he’d taught fiction writing (at the party when I met him, Rick Moody, a former student, suggested he was a malign influence); in the time that I knew him, however, he wrote about art: sometimes about his mother’s work, mostly about the work of his friends Eva Hesse and Ray Johnson. A key part of knowing Bill – from within a week of meeting him – was getting mail from him (with emails alongside mentioning that something was in the mail, often elaborating on mail that couldn’t have been received), and the sudden vertiginous feeling that one had been inserted into a complex network of nodes and edges that wasn’t entirely comprehensible. Part of this was being sent large pieces – ten or twenty pages at a time – of writing that he was working on, refining his thinking on Johnson or Hesse, never from the beginning, always in medias res; making sense of this was compounded by the inclusion of forwarded commentary on his previous writings by other correspondents, who might not be introduced. Part of this was Bill’s method: he wouldn’t explain something, opening it up as a space for discussion, something to be questioned and then explored.
And so the fragments that are in this book feel very familiar – I don’t think any of the particular texts were sent to me, though any of them might have been, and many of the themes feel familiar. Bill reworked ideas over and over, wringing them out: his interactions with Ray Johnson in particular, from their first meeting to his death, were reimagined and rethought again and again. Part of this is that Ray Johnson’s life was inextricable from his art: a piece of art could never be separated from the context in which it came into the world, the people or things referenced in it, and the interactions around it.
But there is a key difference here in seeing letters from Bill to other people excepted in a book and seeing letters to other people excepted as part of correspondence from Bill. A letter is usually sent to one person: it has a recipient in mind (though it may be waylaid, or passed along, or shared). A book is different: while it may be difficult to acquire a book for whatever reason, a book is (generally speaking) designed so that anyone may read it. (Analogously: email versus the open web.) A key point in communication with Bill was that a communication was valuable in proportion to the specificity of the recipient: something that could be said to everyone wasn’t as interesting as something that could only be said to one person. Bill was interested in the meaning that the person he was communicating with could uniquely convey to him – and he assumed conversely as well.
This isn’t dissimilar, of course, to what Ray Johnson was doing with mail art: he was interested in investigating the connections between people more than the people themselves. His collages read differently to different people: picking up one of Ray’s pieces, Bill could pull out endless chains of association because he was close to the maker; meaning that dissipates when the works are seen on a gallery wall — unless two people are standing in front of the work. One could put the collages in a book and provide a key to the meanings; but this is a very different kind of experience than direct connection with another person. A letter can’t help but reach its destination, Bill was fond of noting – then invariably encouraging me to read Derrida’s The Post Card, a book he had talked through with Ray Johnson.
I knew Bill for the last fifteen years of his life; in all that time he was writing furiously, working through the problems he had set himself. Every once in a while he’d publish something small – essays for catalogues, usually – but there was always the sense that these were fascicles of a greater whole. Certainly Bill could have written many books if he had wanted to – he wrote thousands of pages while I knew him. He didn’t, and I’m not sure how to read that – I’ve wondered about this since his death. Bill would invoke Harold Brodkey as the great writer in his life, and it’s temping to read Bill’s silence as fear of ending up where Brodkey did with The Runaway Soul. I think, rather, that Bill – as bookish a person as you can imagine – might have moved past the book as a form, finding the meaning that others would take from the publication of a book in the give and take of correspondence about his writing. Looked at this way, Bill’s correspondence is his great work; the hundreds of personal connections he had with the people he wrote back and forth to. (The book that more than any other gives a real idea of Bill is his friend L. S. Asekoff’s book-length poem Freedom Hill, a set of monologues in Bill’s voice.)
Everything exists to end in a book, Mallarmé said, and now more than ever the book is inevitable. The book is how knowledge makes its way across time; that isn’t something to be dismissed lightly. But a book, at the same time, is something frozen: snapshots of a life, of thoughts, of communication. None of this is to say that this isn’t a good book – it is that, and I’m glad that it’s in the world. But at the same time it’s not the book that Bill would have written – this is very much Elizabeth Zuba’s book, and she deserves credit for it – and its existence can’t help to remind me of the book that was to come and will never come, something like Mallarmé’s book.
And it’s a book that makes me think, ultimately, of Bill and my relationship with him inevitably colors my relationship with this book. Early on in talking with him, still full of received ideas from school, I ventured the opinion that he couldn’t write objective criticism about people that he had known, that there was no critical distance. I was, not for the first time, missing the point and saying something foolish.
Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation
Amelia Rosselli, Obtuse Diary, translated by Deborah Woodard, Roberta Antognini & Dario De Pasquale
Michael Robbins, Patricia Lockwood, Timothy Thornton, Modern Poets Two: Controlled Explosions
Cyril Wong, Satori Blues
Cyril Wong, Animal Season
Stephanie Ye, The Billion Shop
Tryphena Yeboah, A Mouthful of Home
Andrea Yew, In These Curved Spaces
Unica Zürn, The House of Illnesses, trans. Malcolm Green
Non-fiction (and everything else)
Giorgio Agamben, What Is Real, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa
Eve Babitz, I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz
John Bayley, Elegy for Iris
Elias Canetti, Party in the Blitz: The English Years, trans. Michael Hofmann
Emmanuel Carrère, 97,196 Words, translated by John Lambert
Jean Cocteau, My Contemporaries, trans. Margaret Crosland
John Crowley, Totalitopia
Samuel R. Delany, The Atheist in the Attic
Marguerite Duras, Me & Other Writing, trans. Emma Ramadan & Olivia Baes
Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
Gerald Durrell, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives
Gerald Durrell, The Garden of the Gods
Elena Ferrante, Incidental Inventions, translated by Ann Goldstein
Françoise Gilot & Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso
Natalia Ginzburg, The City and the House, translated by Dick Davis
Michael Glover, John Ruskin: An Idiosyncratic Dictionary Encompassing His Passions, His Delusions & His Prophecies
Shirley Hazzard, Greene on Capri: A Memoir
Shirley Hazzard & Francis Steegmuller, The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples
Aleksandar Hemon, My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You
Yuri Herrera, A Silent Fury, translated by Lisa Dillman
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited
Franz Kafka, Aphorisms, trans. Willa & Edwin Muir and Michael Hofmann
Franz Kafka, Letter to the Father, trans. Ernst Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins
Franz Kafka, Letters to Ottla and the Family, trans. Richard & Clara Winston
Ben Katchor, The Dairy Restaurant
Frigyes Karinthy, A Journey Round My Skull, trans. Vernon Duckworth Barker
Robert Katz, Naked by the Window The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta
Richard Kennedy, A Boy at the Hogarth Press
August Kleinzahler, Cutty, One Rock
Primo Levi, The Truce, trans. Stuart Woolf
Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve, trans. Ruth Feldman
Suzanne Jill Levine, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction
Suzanne Jill Levine, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions
Norman Lewis, Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth
Norman Lewis, The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed
Norman Lewis, Jackdaw Cake: An Autobiography
Norman Lewis, I Came, I Saw: An Autobiography
Norman Lewis, In Sicily
Zoë Lescaze, Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past
Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
Curzio Malaparte, The Skin, trans. David Moore
Ira Nadel, Cathay: Ezra Pound’s Orient
Sheere Ng, When Cooking Was a Crime: Masak in the Singapore Prisons, 1970s–80s
Ng Yi-Sheng, Black Waters, Pink Sands
Jay Parini, Borges and Me: An Encounter
Prince, The Beautiful Ones, edited by Dan Piepenbring
Jacques Rancière, Short Voyages to the Land of the People, translated by James B. Swenson
Joseph Roth, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920–33, trans. Michael Hofmann
Maurice Sachs, Witches’ Sabbath, trans. Richard Howard
Severo Sarduy, Written on a Body, trans. Carol Maier
Severo Sarduy, Christ on the Rue Jacob, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine & Carol Maier
Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Harry Zohn
Ben Sonnenberg, Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy
Saul Steinberg & Aldo Buzzi, Reflections and Shadows, trans. John Shepley
Alexander Stille, Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic
Patrik Svensson, The Book of Eels, trans. Agnes Broomé
Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Urgency and Patience: Essays, trans. Edward Gauvain
Ultra Violet (Isabelle Collin Dufresne), Famous for 15 Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol
Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself: The Autobiography of Beatrice Wood
Mary Woronov, Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory
Carmina Archilochi: The Fragments of Archilochos, trans. Guy Davenport
Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Infamy, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Jorge Luis Borges with Margarita Guerrero, The Book of Imaginary Beings, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Julio Cortázar, Diary of Andrés Fava, trans. Anne McLean
Julio Cortázar, A Certain Lucas, trans. Gregory Rabassa
Jean Echenoz, Piano, trans. Mark Polizzotti
Brad Fox, To Remain Nameless
Chester Himes, The Crazy Kill
Stanisław Lem, The Star Diaries, trans. Michael Kandel
Augusto Monterroso, The Black Sheep and Other Fables, trans. Walter I. Bradbury
Alberto Moravia, Contempt, translated by Angus Davidson
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
Charles Portis, Masters of Atlantis
Charles Portis, Norwood
Charles Portis, The Dog of the South
Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman, trans. Thomas Colchie
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One
I assembled this list thinking that it would show a significant amount of re-reading over the past year. I don’t think it does show that, or at least as much as I imagined; rather, it shows a lot of re-reading over the last quarter of the year and a huge number of books that I have very little memory of. The reason for this isn’t very surprising: one response to the craziness that was 2020 was to turn to escape reading because I didn’t feel like I had the attention span to deal with anything else – a lot of detective fiction, a bit less science fiction, both of which I end up growing tired of pretty quickly though for different reasons. I always want to like science fiction more than I actually do (with a handful of notable exceptions); and the ludic element of detective fiction doesn’t do very much for me, while rooting for the forces of order begins to wear, especially this year; atmosphere and style are sometimes enough, occasionally an ersatz version of travel.
A very high proportion of my reading this year was done electronically, on a tablet; this isn’t the best way of reading, and I notice that my retention suffers compared to reading in print. But the Singapore national library’s electronic holdings were available while libraries and local bookstores were closed and the mail wasn’t reliable. I will say that a major impact on what I read was as the result of the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library program: what’s in there (and available for download) is odd, to say the least, but there are a lot of out-of-print things that I’ve had on lists for a long time.
(I will note that one of the things that shaped my reading was acquiring books during what might be seen as the golden age of used books on the internet – for about ten years you could get almost any book shipped to you for a few dollars if you lived in the U.S., could wait a week or so, and didn’t mind the chance of getting an ex-library copy. I don’t know when this really came to an end, though it seems like automated inventory systems are pricing things much more aggressively than they once did; also, if you’re trying to find anything old, stocks are polluted with unreadable Gutenberg-sourced editions. While I have no doubt, for example, that there exist plenty of old copies of Henry James’s The Ivory Tower, tracking one of them down is trickier than you’d imagine if you don’t want to pay collector prices. Having this kind of book suddenly available online was a return to a past I hadn’t realized we’d lost: for a reader, this is wonderful. For book culture, this is more confused – although certainly Amazon’s done far more to destroy the used book market than the Internet Archive ever will.)
What sticks with me from this year of reading? Going back to Borges’s strange early writings; finally letting myself finish reading Austerlitz; systematically reading through most of Manuel Puig’s strange monologues; Ben Katchor’s very own Arcades Project. Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony. Reading more of Percival Everett’s astoundingly varied catalogue convinces me that he might be the greatest working American novelist. Christopher Brown’s novels were difficult to read this year, though I’m very interested in what he’s doing. Early in the year I tore through Lucy Ellmann’s undersung fiction; Ducks, Newburyport still waits for me.
The narrative of the outside world in American writing is historically teleological in character, an attempt to answer thorny questions that might cast doubt on the American project: What is the non-American world for? Why should it exist? What does the rest of the world have that we do not, and does that mean that we are morally lacking in some way?
In nineteenth-century travel writing, the writing of the American abroad largely serves to emphasize the perfection of America itself. For Hawthorne and Mark Twain, Europe can be a helpful mirror for Americans, reminding the elect of the future of the preterition of the past. (Melville looks more deeply and sees not a mirror but a vertiginous abyss, the realization of how arbitrarily and shoddily constructed American assumptions were; the reading public was not pleased.) Another model might be found in Henry James, who found in Europe better subjects for himself: social complexity and aesthetic sensitivity lacking in America. He was more perceptive than anyone else and became European himself, followed by Gertrude Stein, who held on to her citizenship, thinking that she could remake Americans.
The most lasting book of the American abroad is one which goes entirely unread and unremembered except for its title, The Ugly American, which will never go away. Those who pick up Eugene Burdick & William J. Lederer’s book might be surprised to realize that the ugliness of the title is very literal: the hero of the novel is a rough-hewn American engineer living in an imaginary country in southeast Asia who — while the diplomatic corps are busy enjoying cocktails and servants and failing to understand anything at all — impresses the locals with his homespun ingenuity and common sense. We don’t have to be Communists, think the locals; we can live like this splendid ugly American man. And he can get rich! This book is why they started the Peace Corps.
The ugly Americans that followed were those of Eat, Pray, Love, My Crazy Year Abroad, seeing the rest of the world as objects for consumption for personal betterment, a way to self-definition. Then came Instagram, and then global travel ground to a halt. This comically oversimplifies the narrative, but the American narrative of the outside world has always been oversimplified. And now Brad Fox’s To Remain Nameless appears.
To Remain Nameless is a book that draws a period when the contours of twenty-first century geography had come firmly into view – cheap flights that went everywhere – but had not yet been fully subsumed by the Internet, the time before Google Maps on a phone promised to make the most exotic location immediately accessible – only a decade ago, but unreachable now. The time is soon after the Arab Spring, and there are presentiments of the world we live in now: Erdogan is consolidating power in Turkey, and Syria is heading towards collapse. Laura and Tess have been working with refugees and displaced people in the Balkans, Turkey, and Egypt, heirs to the mission of Lederer and Burdick, but working out their destinies for reasons entirely unrelated. They have been at their work to know that it can be hopeless, but they’re not quite jaded enough to give up. The novel is structured around Laura giving birth – back in New York to care for her dying mother, she unexpectedly becomes pregnant and asks her friend, based, at the moment, in Istanbul, to attend. Tess lets her mind wander over the long period of the birth, going over her history with Laura and the other lives that have intersected with theirs.
Laura’s giving birth is described in graphic detail and at length: while Tess’s attention wanders – perhaps 24 hours goes by in total – it returns, as it must, to her friend’s physical struggles in the delivery room. Tess thinks of other births that she has been present at; of her past with Laura; her own family, mostly her half-brother Max, her occasional companion in the Balkans before worryingly dropping out of touch at a monastery in Syria; and the people she has spent time with since leaving America. There is no climactic interaction between Laura and Tess: they are, at the moment, impossibly separated. But there is a shared experience: and shared experience is key to this book.
Shared experience is also a reflection of their work, repeated attempts to dive into the lives of those they are working with and living with – time spent laboriously learning the ins and outs of languages, and openness to cultural specificity, the overlap of cultures possible in the dawning years of the twenty-first century: a man born in Mexico of Syrian descent speaks words in Serbian over a computer in Beirut. The world they work in is full of pain, but also full of opportunities for those who open themselves up to it. Tess leaves the hospital looking for a meal and finds herself savoring terrible New York diner food, noting, while she waits for her takeout order, the young cook’s Greek, the story of travel across half the world that ends with her coffee, terrible in the way that only New York coffee can be. Back in America for a short visit, Tess can see more than she could before.
The individuals seen through Tess’s vision have an unintended dignity that’s not unlike what’s found in John Berger’s fiction. Or one might connect this book back to another nineteenth century American, Walt Whitman, who never managed to leave the country. Whitman’s ideas about democracy what America was or was not don’t come into play here. Rather, it’s his idea of adherence that comes into play: families make an anemic showing in this book (a dead mother, a half-brother), but there is a richness in elective affinities across cultures. The world of Laura and Tess is a social network of coworkers, friends, lovers before the dead hand of that idea reified brought the world we live in a decade later into being. Again this feels like a dispatch from a lost world where Facebook hadn’t yet abetted pogroms against the Rohingya.
Read now, To Remain Nameless is a book unexpectedly adrift in time, a book about Americans and their construction of identity through engagement with the wider world reaching readers at a time when an American passport is as close to useless as it has ever been. But a book structured around a birth – there are not so many – is inherently optimistic. Tess, in a moment of crisis:
To serve others, Tess thought. To live for others. To despise them, to have been disappointed, and still to work for them. To disbelieve in progress, in benefit, to think that everything backfires. So why do anything? (p. 23)
To Remain Nameless might be seen as a thinking through of this problem. Work as if you lived in the early days of a better country urged the late Alasdair Gray. Fox’s book might seem like a dispatch from an alternate history, one of better, more engaged people in a world less fraught than the one we live in now, a world dominated by ugly Americans who fail to understand anything for their gain and everyone else’s loss. But it is still our world.
Mok Zining The Orchid Folios (Ethos Books, Singapore; 2020)
I periodically read the fiction and poetry of Singapore, trying to be a good resident, ever hopeful that I will find something that I think is interesting. There’s a thriving literary industry, if not a profitable one, in Singapore (in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay as well as English, though there’s not much cross-translation); it’s generally competent, though most isn’t that inspiring, though that’s true of anywhere. But having read all Singaporean poetry, say, is still an achievable goal, if one has the desire to be so thorough. As an outsider making one’s way through the mass of Singaporean writing, it becomes possible to see why, for example, certain works would have been important historically; the contours of scenes present and past become visible. This type of reading is sociological rather than specifically aesthetic; that’s fine for my purposes, as one can read the literary productions of a culture as a way of coming to understand that culture. But what one ends up noticing when reading this way is the quirks: there’s a strong inclination towards science fiction over realism in contemporary Singaporean fiction, and Christianity – as subject and as a quarry for metaphor – shows up with astonishing frequency. These are books that are important to certain readerships and have their uses, though I’m not sure that I find them useful to me as a reader. In a world where a staggeringly high percentage of books are available nearly anywhere nearly instantaneously, there’s almost always something that seems more important for me to be reading.
I could, if pressed, come up with a handful of Singaporean books that I would recommend to non-Singaporean readers. I wish this number were bigger: Singapore is a place that’s probably more interesting than it imagines itself to be. The term that outsiders have a hard time getting around for Singapore is “boring”; much of the country could be mistaken for a well-heeled suburb of Los Angeles with a government that functions. Malaysia and Indonesia, twenty miles away on different directions, do not feel like that. What’s not immediately obvious, however, is that that feeling of boredom isn’t inherent; rather, it’s achieved. People successfully made Singapore boring. For me there’s an analogy to the American Midwest, a place that’s similarly boring. One looks at hundreds of miles of identical fields of corn or wheat or soybeans and forgets that the land wasn’t a terra nullius: there are thousands of years of human history in the Midwest – and a genocide! – that are forgotten, if they were ever remembered, when we look at the land and call it boring. The seeming blandness of Singapore functions similarly, though it’s complicated by colonialism and the struggle for independence. Singapore has done very well for itself since independence, though it’s done astonishingly little reflection on what it means to have escaped colonialism. Walking past police stations, for example, one sees posters congratulating the Singapore police on their two-hundredth anniversary. This is strange: the police spent three-quarters of their history keeping the non-white populations down. But this is not out of character. Stamford Raffles, who signed off on the acquisition of the island for the British Empire, is largely celebrated for having created something out of nothing, that something being today’s Singapore.
Which is all by way of introduction to Mok Zining’s The Orchid Folios, which uses the orchid as a lens to look at the past and present of Singapore, managing by this to present a clearer picture of what the country is like than any other recent volume I can think of. This is a book probably best considered as poetry, though it’s full of historical documents and illustrations, some annotated, and there are sections of what appears to be fiction. The approach wouldn’t feel out of place in the contemporary visual arts world, one can imagine a version of this book presented as an installation; the word hybrid feels too easy but is entirely apt. Susan Howe in “Sorting Facts” gets at the sort of language this is, mutatis mutandis:
. . . I am an American poet writing in the English language. I have loved watching films all my life. I work in the poetic documentary form, but didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.
(in The Quarry, p. 94)
It might be easiest to start by looking at how The Orchid Folios deals with the structure of history, which isn’t dissimilar to Howe’s investigations into American literary history. One of the book’s narrative threads starts in 1893, when Henry Ridley, director of the Singapore Botanical Garden, sends a new orchid hybrid back to London where it is acclaimed. That orchid, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, would become Singapore’s national flower in 1981; the orchid has been embraced by the country as a symbol, and Singapore has gone on to create hybrid orchids for any number of visiting dignitaries. (Margaret Thatcher was given her own orchid.) Mostly occluded in this telling is the person who was actually responsible for the initial hybridization – not Ridley, but one Agnes Joaquim, a woman of Armenian descent, who has, aside from her name, almost entirely vanished from history. Glory goes to the structures of power; one remembers that the Singapore Botanical Gardens, one of the glories of the country, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, was started not to be the pleasure garden that it’s become, but rather to find ways for the Empire to exploit the vegetation of the tropics. Now it’s the national center for orchid breeding.
Besides this narrative, Mok excerpts documents concerning the founding of Singapore. The official narrative can be found inscribed on a plinth under a statue by the Singapore River in four languages:
ON THIS HISTORIC SITE SIR THOMAS STAMFORD RAFFLES FIRST LANDED IN SINGAPORE ON 28TH JANUARY 1810 AND WITH GENUS AND PERCEPTION CHANGED THE DESTINY OF SINGAPORE FROM AN OBSCURE FISHING VILLAGE TO A GREAT SEAPORT AND MODERN METROPOLIS.
Although this feels like a colonial relic, a note points out that this monument was actually added in 1972, after the country had become fully independent. This is a narrative complicated by actual history: in a letter from Raffles to his patron in 1819, Mok blacks out a phrase describing the situation of the island and places it on the facing page, pointing out that Raffles didn’t think of Singapore as an “obscure fishing village”:
the site of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays, and within the walls of these fortifications, raised not less than six centuries ago,
Four years later, Raffles, temporarily triumphing over death, again writes to his patron and again Mok excerpts a bit of his letter:
where, if my bones must remain in the East, they would have the honour of mixing with the ashes of the Malayan kings, and the result has been, that instead of dying, I have almost entirely recovered.
In between Raffles’s correspondence, he has been laying out a plan for the city he imagines, where different ethnic groups will be carefully segregated; he is angry at William Farquahar, his lieutenant – and the man who did most of the actual work involved in founding the colony – for neglecting his plan. It is not exactly novel, of course, to be pointing out the racism and wrong-headedness of the British colonial project. What Mok is more interested in is how things can be selectively forgotten; in Singapore’s case for seemingly pragmatic reasons. Another quotation, from government minister S. Rajaratnam in 1984, where he explains that Singapore’s history before 1819 is lost to the mists of time:
. . . from our point of view, to push a Singaporean’s historic awareness beyond 1819 would have been a misuse of history; to plunge Singapore into the kind of genocidal madness that racial, communal and religious imperialism is today devastating so many underdeveloped and even developed countries.
Neocolonialism succeeds colonialism; what can be preserved and what is forgotten are powers reserved to the state. Raffles wasn’t actually in Singapore long enough to do anything terribly bad – his time in Java is another story – so he can be kept around. On another level, contemporary Singapore takes from the British Empire the core of its legal code; it also takes (and upholds) the Empire’s Victorian racial distinctions, slotting everyone into the CMIO (Chinese/Malay/Indian/Other) framework that the British used, dumping those that can’t fit into a named category – or those that go in between – into “other.” Something similar happens with Singapore’s linguistic policies, which also come under scrutiny in this book.
At the same time, Singapore does celebrate – at least on paper, at least with orchids – the idea of hybridity as being central to the identity of the nation. There are tensions here on multiple levels, a biological messiness pulling against official urge to structure. Using the orchid, Mok casts this in botanical terms: growth can be defined in a monopodial way, which notates the plant growing from root to flower:
[root] [main stem] [leaf] [inflorescence]
A few pages later, however, the sympodial model of growth is described, which “allows variation of thought / to coexist as rhythmic / shoots.” The monopodial diagram is graphically complicated: while there is always a root, what were “main stem,” “leaf,” and “inflorescence” in the monopodial arrangement can here be a variety of different things: “leaf / pseudobulb / eye / rhizome / rhizome / new root”. A straight line becomes multidimensional: the growth of an orchid is more complex than the monopodial model allows. In the real world, boundaries are not as clear as we’d like to imagine. A leaf may be a root; the boundaries between plants are nebulous. A statement may be read in multiple ways. Legal categories don’t map on to biological realities. Language will always escape any structures authorities put up for it.
My treatment of this book is blunter than it needs to be, attempting to present it to an audience that might not be familiar with Singapore; I’m giving short shrift to much of the content of the book as well as most of its charms. Mok flips through forms deftly – there’s a page that might be torn from Laurence Sterne – but the result is a book that’s accessible but deep. This is a book that resembles those of Claudia Rankine, Nathalie Léger, and Sven Lindqvist (as suggested above); at the same time, it doesn’t presume knowledge of the literary traditions that it springs from, which might help it find a local readership. It’s also, necessarily, a delicate book: clearly attributed quotations are necessary to interrogate the history of a country that doesn’t have freedom of the press. (Local playwright Alfian Sa’at, who provides an epigraph for the book, was bafflingly demonized in the recent election for not loving Singapore enough; one might argue that one reason for the preponderance of science fiction in Singapore fiction is its useful indirection.)
Mok uses poetry and the placement of words and images on the pages as ways to think through the world she lives in. It’s a valuable book, and I’m curious what the local response will be. But this is a book that deserves an audience outside of Singapore as well, and it deserves attention.