Ten Asian poets writing in English
  • Agnes SL Lam and Kelly YN Tse

Writers realise their creative practice only through the physical loci of their bodies. While writing is a solitary task, unless writers are contented with being lone voices crying in separate wildernesses, they must go beyond their embodied selves into the community. For writers writing from bilingual or multilingual backgrounds, their acts of creative identity usually require them to negotiate between two or more communities. This paper focuses on how Asian poets writing in English identify with their local, ethnic, national and/or international communities in terms of their readership. It draws upon interview excerpts collected during fieldwork to five Asian places (Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and India). Though ten poets from each location were interviewed from October 2009 to November 2010, the paper will only discuss the creative practice of two poets from each place. The data show that there is fluidity in identification with writers finding their own bearings at different loci of a virtual literary terrain where boundaries exist in a somewhat diffuse manner; perhaps it is this very diffusion that allows them to share their embodied poetic knowledge(s) in a distributed manner so that the creativity of the global poetic community exceeds that of each locale and each poet.

Keywords: Asian poetry—creative writing—English—identity—community
 

 

1. Introduction

It has been postulated that thought or inner speech ‘arises through simulated interaction with the social environment’ (Shanahan 2010: 188). In this conception of consciousness, writing, as inner speech expressed, is thus inextricably tied to the community that the writer is in. Through writing, writers express their embodied inner selves and yet, through their creative writing practice, the community is itself embodied within the various writers forming it. No writer can write in a social vacuum devoid of communal norms for creativity. This is not to say that writers always abide by these norms. On the contrary, every writer has to determine how much creative risk he or she can take so that he or she can offer something fresh, and yet still be understood by and accepted into the community or communities he intends to reach.

Writers using English for creative expression have to contend with the reality that their audiences might be hailing from myriad backgrounds. Those writing from postcolonial bilingual or multilingual milieus where English plays a significant, if at times controversial, role, may also have to contend with the sociopolitical baggage that the use of English might entail. Yet, in recent decades, the use of English for creative expression by writers who have acquired it as an additional language has thrived remarkably in Asia. In communities like Macao and Hong Kong, poets writing in English often have Chinese (Putonghua and/or Cantonese) as their home language; in other communities like Singapore, the Philippines and India, however, it is not unusual for poets writing in English to have acquired English as their first language or one of their first languages. Given the multifarious linguistic settings Asian poets have grown up in, they may develop dual or plural linguistic and cultural identities, even if they have adopted English as their chief medium for creative expression.

This paper seeks to engage with the issues of creative identity and community with reference to Asian poets writing in English. As part of a larger study of 50 Asian poets, it draws upon interview data collected from five Asian locations (Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and India) from October 2009 to November 2010. The focus in this article is on ten poets, two from each location. The specific questions are: How does the use of English for creative expression bear upon the poets’ sense of community? What kinds of creative communities do they conceive of? How actual or imagined are such communities? How fluid are their acts of creative identity in their practice? Does fluidity, if it exists, undermine or enhance the sharing of their embodied selves through their poetry or of their knowledge(s) about their art or their culture(s)? The argument proceeds as follows: creative writing communities are first conceptualized within the sociolinguistic framework of speech communities, the study of community and embodied knowledge as a whole; a brief overview of the ten poets’ backgrounds is then provided before an analysis of their interview excerpts to elucidate patterns of identification in their creative practice.
 

2. Speech communities, literary communities and embodied knowledge(s)

The use of a language among a group of speakers has been captured in the concept of the ‘speech community’ defined by Gumperz as:

any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage. (1972: 219)

Given the availability of various digital forums in our present age, a ‘human aggregate’ or group may not necessarily be delimited by physical space but may exist in virtual space. What is noteworthy in Gumperz’s definition are the characteristics of ‘regular and frequent interaction’ and ‘a shared body of verbal signs’. Applied to the study of Asian writing in English, some immediate questions may be: how regular and frequent must interaction be before one can claim membership in a certain speech or literary community? What about the intention to interact with a target audience or readership when a writer is writing, even if the ultimate interaction with readers in that community is fairly infrequent and limited? How shared must a ‘body of verbal signs’ be before members of a community can interact in any meaningful way? Do writers adjust their use of vocabulary, phrase structure, imagery or cultural references consciously based on their intended audience(s)? These are pertinent questions, not all of which will be sufficiently addressed in this paper.

Since Gumperz, other researchers in the last four decades have adapted and redefined the construct of the speech community. For the purposes of our discussion here, the most relevant work is that of Kachru’s (2005) and those working in that tradition (Kachru & Nelson 2006; Kirkpatrick 2007). Attention is drawn in particular to Kachru’s model of the three circles of English users: the Inner Circle, where English is used as a first language by the majority of the people in the community (for example, Australia and New Zealand); the Outer Circle, where English is ‘institutionalised’ as an additional language (for example, India, Singapore and the Philippines) and the Expanding Circle, where English primarily functions as a foreign language (for example, China and Thailand) (Kachru 2005: 14). This concentric conceptualization of the various communities of English users has also been usefully applied to the study of literatures emerging from such communities (Kachru & Nelson 2006: 18-19). Reference is made to this conceptualization as it provides the necessary backdrop for the postulation of overlapping literary communities in the psyche of Asian writers writing in English. Variation in the different Asian Englishes that have emerged makes multiple identification with more than one speech community, and its related literary community, almost a given for Asian poets writing in English; it is what is shared in the ‘body of verbal signs’ that allows readers from different backgrounds to understand the writers in English writing from different communities. This is not that surprising a claim if one remembers that, even within the native-speaking English world, there is much idiomatic variation according to region, social class, age or gender among other variables, and yet speakers from different backgrounds can still largely understand each other.

To appreciate the process of identification on the part of the Asian writers writing in English, a particularly useful perspective has been provided by Le Page and Tabouret-Keller who emphasize that:

groups or communities and the linguistic attributes of such groups have no existential locus other than in the minds of individuals, and that groups or communities inhere only in the way individuals behave towards each other. (1985: 4-5)  

In other words, all language or literary communities are by nature ‘imagined’ with no material boundaries. The imagined nature of such communities is immediately reminiscent of Anderson’s (1991 revised from 1983) landmark treatise, Imagined communities. While Anderson was primarily writing about national consciousness (1991: 37-46), his construct of ‘imagined communities’ has been applied to understand other kinds of communities that are ‘shaped by cognitive and symbolic structures that are not underpinned by “lived” spaces and immediate forms of social intimacy’ (Delanty 2003: 3). This is not to say that communities cannot, on some occasions, be geographically located because there are:

multiple forms of community—traditional face-to-face communities, virtual communities, transnational communities, one world community—which often complement each other. (Delanty 2003: 166)

But what is crucial to the existence of a community is the sense of psychological identification by members. To argue that communities exist in the mind is not to argue for disembodiment in identification. On the contrary, such a stance only serves to underscore the fact that a group of human bodies in physical proximity is just that: without interaction between them, they do not form a community. Because communities exist in the mind of individuals, they can only exist if there are individuals who value their existence. Communities can be willed into actuality only when there are individuals willing to interact with each other, even if they are not in geographical proximity. The converse is true—when individuals no longer think they belong to a particular community, that community no longer exists for those individuals, even if it may still be in the geographical vicinity of their bodies. Communities are therefore most fluid in their ontogenesis and demise. For individual writers from bilingual or multilingual backgrounds, the literary communities they may identify with include as many as the ones they have had occasion to interact with, and as they wish to be part of, and these communities may vary at different times of their writing career.

Of some relevance to this conceptualization of writing as an activity with reference to a community is the research on embodied knowledge in organisations. It has been argued in product development that much knowledge is tacit knowledge and cannot be made explicit; only when people work together can such knowledge be shared (Madhaven & Grover 1998: 2). In software development, for example, adopting ‘the community-based model of knowledge creation’ (Lee & Cole 2003: 647) has been found to be conducive to creativity. Put simply, some knowledge can only be learnt in direct interaction with those who have such knowledge:

Although ideas are formed in the minds of individuals, interaction between individuals typically plays a critical role in developing these ideas. That is to say, ‘communities of interaction’ contribute to the amplification and development of new knowledge. (Nonaka 1994: 15)

This emphasis on embodiment in the practice of knowledge creation is ‘meant to indicate the developing process of organism-environment interactions that constitute our ever-changing reality’ (Johnson 1989: 367).

To return to our discussion of creative practice in literary communities, it is important to note here that, as writing is essentially a communicative act (Lam 2000: 394), the readers are as much part of a literary community as are the writers. In that sense, both writers and readers are practitioners of literary creativity—the former in the art of expression and the latter in the art of reception. In fact, without readers, a literary community cannot exist. Writers in themselves do not make a community, unless they also act as readers for each other, if there are few other readers, as in emergent literary communities. A literary community has even been conceived of as ‘a constellation of readers who write, to and for one another, with the links always open at the end’ (Bernstein 1996: 179). The communicative nature of a literary community has been traced to the social basis of the evolution of human society, of cognition and of language itself; the ‘production and consumption of creative writing are conditioned by the pre-adaptations of the human mind and human motivational structure’ (Nettle 2009: 113). The very act of writing is an affirmation of the mind through the body; in this act of embodiment of the inner self, a writer seeks to connect with his or her environment—a community who can understand and perhaps appreciate his or her piece of writing. This reaching out for an audience is intricately tied with the writer’s acts of identity.
 

3. Profiles of ten Asian poets

To appreciate the acts of identity of the ten poets featured in this paper, let us first briefly review their place(s) of residence and language backgrounds.

 

Table 1   Profiles of ten Asian poets

Name (Year of birth)

Place(s) of residence

Language(s)

Macao

Agnes Vong (1978)

MacaoB, America, United Kingdom

CantoneseH, English, Putonghua*

Petra Seak (1981)

MacaoB, Guangzhou

CantoneseH, English, Mandarin, French*

Hong Kong

Louise Ho (1943)

Hong KongB, Mauritius, United Kingdom, America, Australia

CantoneseH, French, English

 

Arthur Leung (1969)

Hong KongB, United Kingdom

CantoneseH, English, Putonghua*, German*

Singapore

Leong Liew Geok (1947)

MalaysiaB, Singapore, Australia, United Kingdom, USA

EnglishH, Hokkien, Malay*

Gwee Li Sui (1970)

SingaporeB, United Kingdom

TeochewH, English, Hokkien, Putonghua*, Malay*, German*

The Philippines

Gémino Abad (1939)

The PhilippinesB, USA

 

CebuanoH, English, Tagalog, Spanish*,

Latin*, Greek*

Conchitina Cruz (1976)

The PhilippinesB, USA

 

EnglishH, Filipino, Italian*

India

Jeet Thayil (1959)

IndiaB, Hong Kong, USA

EnglishH, Malayalam, French, Hindi, Cantonese*

Arundhathi Subramaniam (1967)

IndiaB, Scotland

TamilH*, EnglishH, Hindi, French, Marathi*

Key:  B Place of birth
         H Home language at birth
         *Language the poet has been exposed to but has not gained fluency in


All except Leong Liew Geok, born in Malaysia but now based in Singapore, were born in their current place of residence. All but one (Petra Seak) have had overseas experience, for education or for work. All are at least bilingual, often trilingual or even multilingual. While some might write bilingually, most reported writing exclusively in English.


4. Macao

As a community writing in English, Macao is the youngest among the five. It is an intimate circle much guided by Christopher (Kit) Kelen, a poet-teacher-mentor of vision. Because of the compactness of the poetic circle, it is no surprise that both poets discussed below identify overtly with their immediate community in Macao.

The community Agnes Vong truly identifies with is that from Kit Kelen’s classes:

I think it is the community … I’m working with, the students in the University of Macau. So, actually, it is Prof Kelen’s group … I am more associated with. (M-03: 10)

The specific coterie referred to by Vong meets not only at tangible sites like the University of Macau and the Association of Stories in Macau (ASM) but also in intangible spaces like the digital world:

We have an email group called ‘1958 group’, named after the year Dr Kelen was born … [We] have 20 members. … [Anyone can] post a poem which is not yet finished to the group and may be someone can comment on it. (M-03: 12)

Although Vong is aware of the global community to which English gives her access, she has mixed feelings about it:

[If] you can speak … English …,  you are exposed to a very big world—this makes me happy. But … it can [also] be quite terrifying …, because when you’re in Hong Kong and Macao, you think that perhaps you’ve mastered the language quite well, but when you’re actually living abroad, …  you come across more slang, and people talk about things or places that may be you don’t really know. (M-03: 17)

These contrasting emotions of joy and horror Vong reveals highlight the fact that she is not completely at home in the English world outside Macao.

Like Vong, Petra Seak also identifies well with her immediate community:

A few of my classmates also write poems and stories … [We] have an ASM group. We share feelings and sometimes poems in the group. (M-06: 18)

These literary friends from Seak’s immediate poetic circle are usually her first readers:

My readers are mainly people who also write English poems in my own circle, my classmates and some professors … Two or three years ago, we had a poetry workshop … every Saturday afternoon. (M-06:18)

In terms of her intended communities though, she writes for:

… both [her] ethnic group as well as the international English community ... not just for English people, but also for people in the city, or in other cities in China. (M-06: 17)  

Although Seak is aware of both the local and the global communities, her identification with the former is apparently stronger than with the latter.

Individual identification issues aside, remarkably, several of the young poets in Macao who write in both English and their native tongue have engaged collectively in translation projects, often involving overseas poets such as those from Australia.


5. Hong Kong

While there is a certain degree of constancy in the Macao literary community partly contributed by its association with the campus environment and ASM, the poetic scene in Hong Kong is somewhat more fluid in membership, with local and expatriate poets arriving and departing more often.

In terms of her audience, Louise Ho—now residing mostly in Australia—reported:

I speak to people who know about English poetry. But, having said that, I would like to concentrate on Hong Kong as a subject ... This is very vain of me … I hope to … put Hong Kong on some sort of, no matter how small, a map. … It’s a search for the Hong Kong identity—for myself as well as for Hong Kong. (H-05: 9)

While Ho’s poetic audience is the international community, her very desire to record Hong Kong on the poetic map underscores her identification with the city as well. Nevertheless, in terms of communal interaction, one might argue that she is more international than local:

What sort of community have I got in Hong Kong? I could involve myself in Australia … I’ve given other readings … in Canada and England and people have responded because they know poetry … But an immediate context—I haven’t got one; I would like one. (H-05: 9) 

Interestingly, Ho also holds dear an abstract community consisting of the people she admires and reveres:

Some of them were in Hong Kong; some of them were in England. We didn’t see each other constantly … It’s a kind of abstract community. Yes, it’s always been that—a virtual community. (H-05: 12) 

Ho’s layered communities apparently reflect her layered identities.

Somewhat different from Ho, at least in terms of overt identification, Arthur Leung, maintains that he belongs to:

the literary circle in my place of residence [Hong Kong]. Although I am also involved in a lot of international publications, I don’t view myself as much identified with them … The occasions are usually very transitional. Usually I just submit. I didn’t even see the publisher, and then I got published. … But in Hong Kong, I do readings in Outloud at the Fringe Club, I can see the faces of the audience ... We can discuss the poetry. … I really interact with the audience and identify with them. (H-03: 12-13)

Despite his insistence on his close ties with the local community, in terms of audience awareness, Leung probably reaches out to both

… the Hong Kong local Chinese audience and the international English community, depending on the subject matter and the occasion of writing; … when I write a poem on a Chinese theme, sometimes I would like to exoticize it … My intended audience would be the English international community. For some other poems, which may contain some specific social contexts of Hong Kong, my intended audience would be local Chinese, because they would have resonance with those poems. But … some other poems … address everybody. (H-03: 12)

That Leung identifies a different audience for different poems and consciously adjusts his use of the local idiom according to the audience is illuminating as it relates directly to the need for ‘a shared body of verbal signs’ in a community (Gumperz 1972: 219). And both Ho and Leung seem to require interaction with other members in a community before they can identify comfortably with them.


6. Singapore

The poetic circle in Singapore can be said to be undergoing generational transition. While veteran poets like Edwin Thumboo still play a mentoring role, poets from Alvin Pang’s generation appear to be especially active in terms of communal interaction. A comparison of an older poet, Leong Liew Geok, with one from Pang’s generation, Gwee Li Sui, might prove useful.

For Leong Liew Geok, born in Malaysia but transplanted to Singapore, the innate need for self-expression seems to be at the core of her poetry:

I write for myself … there is something deep down in me that requires expression ... But, I do not use esoteric language. I write in a medium which, I hope, is accessible to everyone. (S-10: 14-15)

Even as Leong professes to write for herself, that she endeavours to write in a non-esoteric medium to enhance intelligibility to anyone who reads English is implicitly an indication of a more universal intended audience, even if it is one which, indisputably, includes the Singaporean community around her, for Leong does occasionally sprinkle her writing with Singlish to capture ‘certain realities in Singaporean life’ (S-10:24).

Another Singaporean poet, Gwee Li Sui, feels he is not primarily addressing the global poetic community. His readers include people in his vicinity who share similar experiences with him:

Every poet, even if he or she denies it, has an implied reader or an implied readership. In my case, I really cannot imagine an international readership. I imagine the person next door who is able to read my poems, someone who may not have a literary background but has shared the same experience. (S-03:16)

Gwee deems himself a communal poet who attempts to connect with others through his poetic art; he wishes to keep his communication ‘simple’ without being ‘condescending’:

I keep it simple … through poetry, you can reach another stage of forging ties with another person. I don’t think I do that kind of ‘I, me, myself’ … a lot. I do have that … type, but they tend also to have an aspect that reaches out to people … I tend to be a bit of a communal poet. (S-03: 17)

Rooted to the local community of Singapore, Gwee finds the literary circle there conducive to his self-critique in his creative practice:

I think the community here is healthy. …We tell each other what we think of the others’ poems; … the feedback … gives you a kind of mirror to look at yourself … It happens quite a lot these days. Thanks to Internet, Facebook, blogging, we talk to each other like this. (S-03: 18-19)

Notably, as in Vong’s case, interaction in Gwee’s community happens both face-to-face and through virtual means. 


7. The Philippines

While the geographical compactness of Singapore might have allowed face-to-face interaction more conveniently, the community in the Philippines is not any less close in spite of the geographical spread. The strong culture of mentorship through writers’ workshops and senior poets soliciting younger poets’ works for publication, the active role played by universities in publishing and incorporating poets in their syllabi, as well as the national awards: all appear to have been conducive to the development of a vibrant community or a host of sub-communities. Another binding force might also have been the poets’ passion for their country, which has suffered turbulent times in recent history.

Gémino Abad, for example, is unequivocal that he feels most at home in ‘[of] course, the Filipino community’ (P-01: 12).

I feel I am speaking to my countrymen. … what is important is … your feeling about the people around you, your environment, your neighbourhood … your own personal experience … the most honest part of you … the deepest part of your soul. … I am a Filipino and I grew up here, whatever I write is Filipino. You cannot help it—you cannot help being Filipino. (P-01: 11)

Abad’s identification with his ethnic/national community has been actualised not just in his writing but also in his active promotion of the poetic arts in his country. One of the founders of the Philippine Literary Arts Council [PLAC], he has been a dedicated mentor of budding poets in writers’ workshops. When asked if he also speaks to the international community, Abad answered,  

As long as you are true to yourself, especially your feelings, your attitude is open and accessible to everyone. For me, the universal … is not the realm of eternal verities; it is rather the site of everlasting questioning. (P-01: 11-12)

For Abad, if he is true to himself, he is true to his fellow Filipinos and hence, by extension, to all men and women. To him, writing in English does not undermine his Filipino identity:

We have colonized it [English] … Through sheer usage over the years, we have made it our own. It is the lingua franca in my country—in the Philippines. As I always tell the writers—at first, we wrote in English; but later, we wrought from English. (P-01: 19)

Like Abad, Conchitina Cruz, also has a strong national/local bent in terms of her identification: 

I would have to say that the only literary circle that I know is what’s here [the Philippines] … and the literary community is very academia-based as I am in academia. (P-09: 15)

Cruz’s stance perhaps hearkens back to her early years when she was nurtured by national workshops (P-09: 16). Nevertheless, she is apparently also reaching out to a broader public:

I would like to think that I can speak to all three [ethnic, national and international communities]; I cannot speak for all three. … I do aspire also to be read and understood by others … not necessarily Filipinos, but certainly the audience that I most desire to reach is here. That’s why I publish here, and that’s why [when] I lived in the States, [I] wrote about here … But it wouldn’t hurt also to be able to reach the bigger audience, which I think can happen anyway, even if you are just thinking primarily of this audience. (P-09: 15)

For both Abad and Cruz, the ties to the local community are non-negotiable but they are confident that their writing can appeal to a more universal audience as well.


8. India

Of the five Asian locales, the English poetic community in India is the oldest. Despite its international prominence, Indian poetry in English does not always attract as much attention at home, as reported by some of the poets interviewed. Not surprisingly, some poets might be more prone to forging connections with overseas communities.

Jeet Thayil, having grown up in various cities around the world, is possibly one of the most internationally oriented poets. He stated resolutely, ‘My nation is the nation of English’ (I-01: 31).

English is my community and my country. It’s the place … I feel most comfortable [in]. I feel like a fish in the great sea of English … I can swim anywhere, come back or not come back … I’ve only begun to articulate this now, but it’s been that way even when I was growing up. Wherever I lived, whether it’s Hong Kong or New York or Bombay, for me the community was English. (I-01: 45)

Since some of Thayil’s poems have been translated into other languages and he often performs poetry in cosmopolitan cities like London and New York, his international identity is understandable (I-01: 32). In fact, he has even published a book of verse entitled English, affirming his loyalty to his Republic of English. Thayil confessed:    

The literary community … I identify with is in my head. And it consists of dead poets mostly … from all over. (I-01: 31)

His imagined identification with bygone poets from different locales directly explicates that communities can well transcend temporal and spatial borders and that acts of identity might not always be bounded by time or space but only on the part of readers. The interaction with the dead poets is one-way; Thayil seeks to understand the dead poets while they cannot be expected to understand Thayil’s writing.

In accord with most poets discussed above, Arundhathi Subramaniam recognises that she interacts with several literary communities simultaneously, even intimately, by virtue of the fact that she is writing in English:

I am just speaking to a close friend … maybe I am writing poems for a presupposed listener …;  that same poem goes out, and you may find an echo somewhere in distant Italy or … Ghana, and you find … you’ve been writing to many more people than you’ve ever imagined … Because English opens up an Anglophone readership all over the world.  (I-02: 61-62)

As for the communities she identifies with, Subramaniam stated:

In a very foundational way, … the Poetry Circle in Bombay was my literary community … It nurtured me for a good period of my life ... But … since I have been published, and since in the past 10 years I’ve travelled a great deal, I have felt a great sense of kinship with writers and readers in other parts of the world as well … So I do feel … increasingly that … one is often, at least in one’s head, sometimes reaching out to those people as well … And yet … every time I am abroad, I know, in some very deep way …, that not just my spiritual roots, but my cultural roots are just very much Indian. (I-02: 62-63)

It seems that, the more extensively Subramaniam publishes, the greater her awareness of the international literary community. Noteworthy too is that overseas exposure does not necessarily jeopardise a poet’s ethnic identity. In fact, it might even heighten the awareness of one’s ethnicity. Subramaniam’s sense of affinity with Indian poets writing in Indian languages also highlights the fact that the Indian community is in itself constituted by sub-communities. Nevertheless, whether at home or abroad, Subramaniam’s principal community is an English one:

It’s the English-speaking community in this country. And it’s very much those who speak English in other parts of the world who’re interested in reading poetry and who happen to encounter my work. (I-02: 64)

Of the English language in India, Subramaniam noted:

In India, there is almost no language you can speak without a sense of marginality … because you are always marginal to someone else … English, in some ways, has been a privileged language. But … it’s also … the language of a landless minority. (I-02: 85-86)

English, as a lingua franca in India, belongs to any Indian who learns it and is therefore not region-specific. It could be argued though that it is precisely such landlessness that permits one to find one’s roots in it; for if one does not belong anywhere, one can belong everywhere. Yet, while English is very much interwoven into the fabric of Indian society, to Subramaniam, the language is not without its baggage:

English today is as Indian as cricket or as Indian as democracy. There’s no way we can wish it away …; at the same time, … it’s not an unmixed legacy. It’s a fraught legacy. (I-02: 87)


9. Conclusion

To summarise, a good number of the poets seemed to identify with their immediate local community and to value such as the main locus of their creative interaction. For some of them, the world of English speakers seemed to feature more prominently. Yet for most of them, even if the original motivation for writing might be to speak for oneself, there is a certain degree of awareness that writing must be other-directed and, as such, attention to the choice of language and cultural references is necessary and often adjusted according to the intended audience. All of them therefore can be said to identify overtly or covertly with ‘the nation of English’ (to borrow Thayil’s term) and are trying to forge an identity for themselves on such a terrain. Perhaps that is why, even if the original target community of readers might be at home, as long as they are true to themselves or their community, they can appeal to the world of English speakers in parallel. This recognition is important because ultimately, it is not an either/or choice, as what is of universal relevance may also be meaningful at the local cultural level. The converse is true too. Overall, it is remarkable that most of the poets discussed reported that they had dual or multiple communities, either as loci of face-to-face interaction or with an intended readership, at least for some of their poems, thus affirming the existence of multiple literary communities for any individual writer, or for that matter, any reader. Of course, intention to reach a target audience or audiences can be realised only in creative practice, and not in the abstract. Readers cannot really understand poets without interaction with their works.

The five Asian locations also seem to have engendered slightly different modes of identification at their respective stages of development as communities. In Macao, the emphasis on the immediate/local context is especially salient, at least in the psyche of the two poets included in this article. The frequency and closeness of their interaction, the trust among members and the strong leadership through their mentor-teacher in this relatively young community provided a conducive environment for the development of this community and its members, even if most of the young poets have not yet attained the full international recognition their works deserve. In Hong Kong, a growing community with almost equal participation from local and expatriate poets, most poets display a certain degree of vacillation, if not tension, between wanting to speak for Hong Kong and wishing to address the international community as well. This is not difficult to comprehend, given that most poets in Hong Kong are rather mobile and often have the opportunity to travel or even reside overseas for a while. In Singapore, where the poetic community has already been established by a previous generation from Edwin Thumboo’s time, and governmental support for overseas poetic activities is now forthcoming, the poets can choose to be increasingly international if they wish. But some still appear to care more about speaking to the local community and believe that relevance of their works for the international community occurs more as a parallel outcome of honest communion with the local community. That is apparently the case as well in the Philippines, where strong identification with the local/national communities has been observed; this might be attributed in part to the mentorship culture and active institutional support from universities in the country, both of which tend to contribute to the cohesion of a national literary community. In India, harbouring the oldest poetic community in English among the five places, there is some divergence in identification; some, like Thayil, are almost entirely international in orientation while others, like Subramaniam, despite the opportunity for frequent international interaction, are still rooted in their own ethnic cultures.

It is important to note, along with Gruber (1988: 27), that we perceive creative identity formation as an ongoing evolving process. There are no fixed and stable identifications, only fluid ones with fuzzy margins. Perhaps it is this fluidity that allows writers to interact across time and space with writers in other lands without suffering poetic disembodiment, and, through such exchange, to share their creative embodied knowledge in a distributed manner so that the global creative community can be more than the sum of its parts.

In this day and age of digital communities, it is reassuring to argue that such a medium does not necessarily result in poetic sharing becoming disembodied. While digital channels might heighten the immediate accessibility to one’s work by a potentially enormous community of readers of English, the actual community of readers that might appreciate a writer’s works is still limited by the extent to which a writer is able to establish empathy through ‘a shared body of verbal signs’ (Gumperz 1972: 219) and any shared cultural norms of interpretation of such signs. Otherwise, even if a piece of writing is physically broadcast to the whole world, it will still not be heard; if it is not heard, no community exists for that writer, at least not through that piece of writing. Because English is used by people from so many different backgrounds, writing in English is not without its inherent risks. Yet if more writers from different cultures care to use this language for writing, mutual understanding in the world community of English writers and readers can only grow in spite of, or perhaps even because of, occasional miscommunication.

 

 

Acknowledgments

This paper was first presented at the 14th Biennial Symposium on Literatures and Cultures of the Asia-Pacific Region, the University of Western Australia, Perth, 7 December 2011, and is part of a project fully supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong SAR, the People’s Republic of China (Project No HKU 745908H). The immense support from the poets, other friends in fieldwork locations and the project assistants, Subhadip Biswas and Candice Ng, is most gratefully acknowledged.

 

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