Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Kirpal Singh's Shadows

Shadows. Attached to us. Distortions of us. Surprising us. Scaring others. Following everyone. Universal, yet so personal. How do different people, different cultures, respond to this concept that everyone has experienced?

Kirpal Singh, author, poet, professor and creativity consultant expounds ad hoc on the idea of a shadow narrative: "Literature," he says, "has all kinds of shadows; some are dark, some are not so dark."

I. A Literature of the Colonized?

In 1824, through the self-aggrandizing "barter trading" that was happening between colonizers, Britain took Singapore and Malaya (now Malaysia) and Holland kept Indonesia. These countries' histories developed accordingly in English and Dutch -- but for a slight change in history, "I would be here speaking Dutch," Sin
gh says. History, culture and community grow, autochthonous traditions must coexist like bitter siblings, and societies think multilingually. Perversely, Asian languages are considered "underdeveloped;" are they a shadow of their colonizers' tongues, Singh wonders. Which is the language of authority, of origin? Which language lives in the shadow of the other?

Singh recounts a story, back when he was about 7 years old and his village was buzzing with the anticipation of someone famous coming to visit them. It was a British District Office (DO) -- cue a reference to George Orwell, his position as a DO in Myanmar in the 1920s, and his corresponding literature -- who drove through, all pomp and fancy, and he happened to notice Singh and call him over. He tapped Singh's nose lightly with his cane, as if playing with him, and asked him in a British accent dripping with condescension, "and how are you, my boy?" Singh remembers being disgusted with this man of status, his voice, his words, his cane, and realized then that "I could wawk and tawk [British accent] if I wanted to, or I could walk and talk [Singaporean accent]." One could be colonized by the English tongue, or one could resist. And Singh resisted, achieving in English what few native speakers have, speaking at the House of Lords and winning numerous literary prizes.

Singh points out that "America has a very strange history…[it] has not been colonized in the way Singapore was colonized by the British." He quotes Robert Frost who read his poem, 'The Gift Outright', at JFK's inauguration: "The land was ours before we were the land's." This was America, but what was America? Who was it a gift to, who was it a gift from? How does one explore ideas of possession versus owning; and owning versus ownership? Colonization blurs these concepts with the confusing palette of morals, tradition and modernization, and North America's literature reflects a similarly rich and diverse set of narratives that define what it means to be American. Singh remarks on America's break from the English language which was a breach of "the compact, a creation of shadows" obscuring and enlarging the voices of America. As the Spanish Ambassador reportedly once said to Queen Elizabeth I, "the most potent instrument of domination is language."

II. Form and Experimentation in Shadow Literature.

What is 'form' and literature to story telling and oral cultures? "Can a story teller become a novelist? Is a story a novel?" What is the purpose of a story? How experimental is storytelling? "How do you experiment with voice?" he asks, a glint in his eye.

Comparing Chinese literature to Western literature, he shows us how human characters in the former are typically "very diminutive" while those in the latter are very large. This is an indication of different cultures, the shadows they live with, and how those inform literature, reveal and single out details, and become part of narrative. Here, experimentation with form is a commentary on a community; the literature serves a purpose. Experimentation for its own sake is "masturbatory, narcissistic;" writers today need to read more and discover how writers from the past would experiment, before they lay their own creative schemes down on paper.

He defines the spectrum of experimental creativity. On one extreme is the Demonic: the writer wants to hypnotize, enrapture reader, draw him in, spellbind him, create an addiction, propagate the idea of 'evil'. The other extreme is the Divine: the writer wants to focus on good, which is ultimately a fragile concept and always "under threat from the evil that is lurking everywhere." His point? "Experimentation must not be so unique as to leave all your readers confounded. There must be a point of contact between you and your reader." Therefore, when playing with this form, "be sensitive to the promptings that come from within, and grounded in the reality around you."

III. Writers v. Readers.

Singh agrees with Italo Calvino who advocated in an essay that a writer needs to be humble with and respectful of a reader engaging with his work; he cannot treat his reader as inferior. At the same time, he lavishes praise on author Wilson Harris (who wrote Palace of the Peacock) and describes him as "a man who is tormented -- because writings live on forever -- in life."

He writes mostly poetry, short fiction and creative non fiction and is working on a long piece now, confessing that it will take him a very long time to write. He closes with this scene from the 1994 movie 'Il Postino' --

Mario Ruoppolo: My dear poet and comrade, you got me into this mess, you've got to get me out of it. You gave me books to read, you taught me to use my tongue for more than licking stamps. It's your fault if I'm in love.
Pablo Neruda: No, this has nothing to do with me. I gave you my books but I didn't authorize you to steal my poems. If you think you gave Beatrice the poem I wrote for Matilde--
Mario Ruoppolo: Poetry doesn't belong to those who write it, but those who need it.

"We go through life, and we fall in love, and more often than not, there is a rude awakening," he says. Explore it, indulge it, feel out its shadows and if there's a story there, write it, as Singh seems to have done with his life so far.

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