In a review titled “Taming the Tiger: Exploring the Possibilities for Art in a Concrete Jungle,” Arielle Stambler has written about Starry Island for Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Founded in 2007, a decade after the handover, Cha is the first Hong Kong–based English online literary journal. With a strong focus on Asian-themed creative work produced by Asian writers and artists, it is dedicated to publishing quality poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, reviews, and art. It also publishes established and emerging writers and artists from around the world.
Many…works in this anthology engage with this power of art to contemplate (and perhaps compensate for) loss—whether it be of the wilderness, of one’s home country or of one’s native language. A number of these are selections from books of flash fiction, such as Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches and O Thiam Chin’s Under the Sun (both of which have previously been reviewed in Cha). These selections, often taken out of the context in which they were originally published, provide illuminating new juxtapositions, asking readers to put together their own pictures of the worlds these authors describe. In fact, the entire anthology can be viewed as a collage, displaying Singaporean writers’ work in multiple narrative forms and engaging readers to see Singapore as itself a pastiche of different cultures and international influences.
But, to its credit, the anthology does not push any one definition of Singaporean literature and contains the musings of authors who struggle with this definition. In Jee Leong Koh’s twenty prose poetry selections from The Pillow Book, an excitement about “the efflorescence of Singaporean poetry in the last two decades” is combined with an anxiety about the fragility of this very literature. Through his work, we can see a connection between the tiger and the Singaporean writer: both are mythologised; yet, both struggle to survive in modern-day Singapore.
Koh certainly sees himself as part of an endangered breed, fearing “that, like my country, I am too small to survive” and that Singaporean poetry has “sprung up like wildflowers on a hillside, [but] it may die without altering the landscape.” Ah Leong fears the loss of wild things, Wong accepts the loss of his childhood Eden and Koh worries that the recent flowering of Singaporean poetry could lead to nothing lasting, that the nation’s literary voice is searching for staying power.
Starry Island explores the possibilities for that voice to reflect upon loss and change. It is a collection that has and creates momentum.