Histories of the Present: Reading Contemporary Singapore Novels between the Local and the Global

Philip Holden


My paper responds to a growing a number of literary works written about Singapore which participate in a complex transnational politics of representation. Recent novels such as the three discussed here--Fiona Cheong's Shadow Theatre, Vyvyane Loh's Breaking the Tongue, and Shirley Lim's Joss & Gold are the products of both their authors' long residence in Singapore and their experience of expatriation, of living elsewhere. Published outside Singapore, these texts frequently respond to the desires of global reading communities whose members have little knowledge of the city-state, and the novels may initially appear ahistorical and exoticising when read in an historically informed Singaporean context. Active critical engagement with these popular and widely-disseminated texts, however, is fruitful in enabling us to reconsider both literary canonicity Singapore, and the manner in which cultural production engages in a politics of the everyday in the city-state; it also offers us opportunities to meditate on the possible exclusions of metropolitan critical practice.
This paper thus discusses the possibility of a located critical reading practice that allows attention to be given to the politics of representation in individual literary texts and the manner in which they, in David Palumbo Liu's words, "historicize the present." Such a reading practice offers the possibility of disrupting both a parochial insistence on local authenticity on the one hand, and a dehistoricized critical recuperation of the novels into such categories as Asian American or postcolonial on the other.



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