A Poetics of Exile: Ee Tiang Hong

Part 3.2 of Poetry in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Rajeev S. Patke, DPhil (Oxon.) Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Newly independent Malaysia provided writers from its ethnic minorities sufficient reason for voluntary self-exile. Shirley Lim writes: 'After the disillusionment of the May 13 riots [1969]... I had no nationalist idealism to imagine. The cultural parochialism that took shape in the aftermath of the riots in Malaysia, which includes race-based quotas, communalist politics, and separatist race-essentialised cultures, was absolute anathema to me' (Lim, 1996, p.279). The much older Ee Tiang Hong suffered the most in terms of disenchantment and disenfranchisement (see Offprint Collection). A poetic register based on linguistic economy and understatement found itself deflected, after I Of the Many Faces (1960), into brooding on the consequences of Malaysian nationalism. Koh Tai Ann notes the painful irony of Malaya bhumiputra (son of the soil) displacing poets who were Straits-born Chinese, 'whose term for themselves, peranakan, means native-born, in contrast to more recently arrived immigrant Chinese from whom they are culturally distinct' (Koh, 1992, p.131). The tragedy of exile fills with disaffection as well as poignancy all the poetry in the two volumes of the middle period (Myths for a Wilderness, 1976 and Tranquerah, 1985); though bitterness and melancholy eventually toughen nostalgia past despair into a kind of stoic grace and ironic poise which are the distinctive qualities of Ee's later poems, some of them set in Australia, and collected posthumously in Nearing a Horizon (1994). Younger poets like Leong Liew Geok and Kirpal Singh have written sympathetically about Ee's personal odyssey:

Ee attempted now to come to terms with the nature of his escape, the precariousness of his exile. The full realisation of his condition started to make itself clear and the poetry started to allow the peculiar release so necessary for a poet's survival (Singh, 1988, pp.37-8).

At every stage, the life and work of Ee Tiang Hong became a parable of displacement for Southeast Asia. Using his poetry as an example, a Research Project might examine how poets have deliberately accepted their ostensible marginalisations, and offered individual resistance to various forms of the metropolis, nation or community from what Nissim Ezekiel, writing in Bombay, called a 'backward place' (suggestion 4).

Main Web Page Singapore Literrature Next Bibliography