Letter 5: Alfian Sa’at
Singapore is tiny. On a world map, the island is dwarfed by its own name. Sometimes one sees a line pointing to it, with its name unscrolled across some breathing space—the South China Sea. According to the World Bank, Singapore has the third highest population density in the world, after Macao and Monaco.
Imagine then, 5.7 million residents of Singapore, stuck in situ, as airplanes were grounded and borders locked. In Malay, my mother tongue, ‘situ’ means ‘there’. The opposite of the Latin. One of the effects of the pandemic was to obliterate the idea of ‘there’. There was only ‘here’, nowhere but here, and our isolation felt like being in a whirlpool in a sink.
As a homebody, I initially celebrated the lockdown. I brought a ring light for my Zoom sessions. I moderated so many online panels that when friends saw me in person they would say “you look different without your headset”.
But too much navel-gazing and the spine is deformed. A friend suggested hiking. In Singapore? I laughed it off. Another friend, who had moved here from Sydney said: “I spent most of my childhood catching cicadas, raising frogs from tadpoles, racing skinks in pools, burying beetles (usually dead ones)…but when I moved here, the humidity made me somewhat indoorsy.”
Humidity. Mosquitoes. Tropical traumas. Each morning, as part of a world slowly mending, I would hear birds quarrelling outside my window. One morning, I decided that they were actually beckoning. And so, for the first time in 20 years, I bought a pair of jogging shoes. I slapped on sunblock and marched to a nature trail 40 minutes from my house.
It was, of course, hot. And yet, the sun cast its own spell. Walking down a path, I would witness a scene choreographed by heat and wind. Butterflies would flit along the tall grasses, dragonflies would play join-the-dots, and leaves would fall on the dappled ground according to mysterious cues. Shadows of birds flying overhead tangled with the shadows of tree branches, before escaping their insubstantial nets.
This reconnection with nature also reconnected me with language. With my iNaturalist app, I learnt that the butterflies were called the Common Sailor, the Tawny Coster, and the Common Mormon. These were colourful enough, but I found myself drawn to the insect names in Malay.
Kelip is ‘twinkle’, so kelip-kelip is the firefly. Jentik is to flick by launching the forefinger from the thumb, so jentik-jentik is the mosquito wriggler. Riang is ‘merry’, so riang-riang is the cicada. Undur is ‘retreat’ or ‘walk backwards’, so undur-undur is the antlion. And patung is ‘statue’, so patung-patung is the dragonfly, which is known to be stone-still, as its legs are not designed for walking.
I once heard of a translation workshop where participants listened to birdcalls and transcribed what they heard in their native languages. This seemed to me how Malays had named birds. There were the gagak (crow), merak (peacock), pekakak (brown-winged kingfisher), kuau (Argus pheasant), pipit (sparrow), cicit (crested partridge), tekukur (spotted dove), ketitir (zebra dove), belatuk (woodpecker), butbut (greater coucal) and tuwu (Asian koel).
The Minang people of Sumatra (from whom I trace my ancestry), have a saying, ‘alam takambang jadi guru’. It is a philosophy often translated as ‘nature becomes teacher’. But one must pay attention to that word ‘takambang’, or ‘flourishing’, which means that nature has to be teeming and expansive for it to become a teacher. I am still a homebody, but what is home now has trees for walls and a sky for a ceiling. It is how I have found the situ in situ.
Alfian Sa’at (1977) is a poet, writer and playwright living in Singapore. His published works include three collections of poetry, One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia and The Invisible Manuscript, a collection of short stories, Corridor, a collection of flash fiction, Malay Sketches, three collections of plays as well as the published play Cooling Off Day.
In 2001, Alfian won the Golden Point Award for Poetry as well as the National Arts Council Young Artist Award for Literature. He has also been nominated for the Singapore Literature Prize three times. Alfian has won Best Original Script at the Life! Theatre Awards four times, He is the playwright in residence at Wild Rice and the co-artistic director of the biennial Singapore Theatre Festival. He was one of our guests at Read My World 2015.
“And so, every night, at 3am, I talk to you. The people I haven’t met but know deep down, somehow. I try to picture your houses and your rooms. We are a tribe; a commune that rewrites the concept of family. I seem to have confidants in every corner of the world. It is a fresh prospect that reminds us of patience, to hope for the future.”Letter 1: Karin Karakaşlı
“There is no better way to escape reality than reading, there is also no better way to connect with it.Some books aren’t written to touch our souls, but for the writer to tell us something he knows. Those books I throw away to the recycling bin, even after reading just one page. I only read books that empower me and make me stronger, that touch my soul. Regrettably, I sometimes feel we are living in the past. The past that destroys us.”Letter 2: Rodaan Al Galidi
“He parks the car next to the tall grass, at the edge of the silhouette of the mountains. There he stands, an iPhone with a broken screen in his left hand, a Nokia with broken dreams in his right. Silver dots float through the twinkling air while a languorous voice speaks through the old device. Her husband has suspicions, she says. They have to end this.”Letter 3: Beri Shalmashi
“The genome is the blueprint of a cell and ninety percent of our human cells are filled with genomes of bacteria, fungi and other single cell species. Countless small, internal companions keep us upright. Our inner world is a teeming ecosystem, existing in many forms and far from lonely.”Letter 4: Marjolijn van Heemstra
“Humidity. Mosquitoes. Tropical traumas. Each morning, as part of a world slowly mending, I would hear birds quarrelling outside my window. One morning, I decided that they were actually beckoning. And so, for the first time in 20 years, I bought a pair of jogging shoes. I slapped on sunblock and marched to a nature trail 40 minutes from my house.”Letter 5: Alfian Sa'at