Written by Samuel Caleb Wee
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Despite an educational background that immersed her deeply in literature, Christine Chia did not consider herself capable of writing poetry until late 2010. It was at that time that poet and close personal friend Cyril Wong began encouraging her to write a poem a week, scheduling a series of regular meetings to review and refine the individual poems. The Law of Second Marriages emerged from this period of mentorship. As a writer who cites the confessional tradition as a major influence, Chia’s work often incorporates scenes and details from her personal life, with Second Marriages mostly composed as a series of reconstructions from memory, a retelling of the “stoic defiance of chaos, meaninglessness and personal misfortunes” that Chia’s narrator triumphs over through the narrativising act itself (Ng).

Despite the pathos Chia generates in her work by drawing from personal experience, these reconstructions exist in an aesthetic as well as journalistic dimension. Her two poetry collections thus far do not merely function as objective factual recounts. Rather, we may understand Chia’s work as also performing the role Page DuBois credits Sappho for inventing: as poetic compositions which utilise the “first person singular [ . . . ] to anchor poetic speech,” thereby “hollowing out [ . . . ] the cultural space” for Chia to construct her position as a subject (DuBois 13).

This tension between the objective and subjective in the “construction of selfhood” is thus an observable theme in her work (DuBois 13). We may find Chia’s self-reflexive signposts towards this transformation of fact into fiction as early as the introduction to Second Marriages. Chia tells us about her desire to introduce the fictive into her personal relationships, saying that if she “had to do it again, [she] would lie to [her] father” (“Introduction”). This conscious desire for untruthfulness is subtly distinguished from malicious deceit by the fact of mutual consent: Chia’s father “wanted [her] to lie to him too”. Nonetheless, despite the willingness of both parties, the young Christine persona is unable to perform the task due to her lack of mastery in “the art of lying”. This description of lying as an art therefore suggests an association between the creative composition of the text and the fabricative nature of the lies young Christine wishes to tell, while the past perfect simple tense of the sentence suggests that this artistic mastery of lying—while deferred—is eventually achieved, possibly through the very composition of the text itself. Chia also destabilises the objective authority of “the facts” by fixing them to the unreliable perspectives of individual subjects: these facts are facts only “as far as [she] can tell,” or “as far as anyone [else] is willing to tell”; truth, for Chia, is both contingent upon the reach of the seeker as well as the generosity of those who hold it.

Nonetheless, a reading of Chia as denying the validity or the existence of truth would be a distortion of her ethos, a blank erasure of the trauma she shares with her narrator. Though she teases readers who believe in “unequivocal truth,” Chia acknowledges that the power of poetry depends upon a deeper kind of truth: in Anne Sexton’s words, “truth that goes beyond the immediate self, another life” (The Art of Poetry). Chia’s poetry induces in the reader a keen sensitivity for the constructed nature of received truths, a dislocation of essentialist associations between biology and social function. For example, Maternal behaviour becomes a matter of “whim and feeling” (“All Things”)—to be performed whenever “her mother felt like being maternal” (“being maternal”)—instead of a natural aspect of the biologically defined relationship between mother and daughter.

This notion of performance informs the subtle and careful distinction between Mother and Mama, two of the main characters in the collection. Chia assigns the more instinctive utterance of Mama to the outsider figure of the “experienced nanny, Madam Looi,” while referring to the protagonist’s “real mother” by the detached and markedly more formal “Mother” (Ng). The introduction of Mama in her titular poem (“Mama”) relieves us from the pattern of domestic estrangement and abuse that characterises Second Marriages up to this point. Thus far, home has been “suffocating confines [ . . . ]” instead of a “comforting safe haven,” and it is only outside of it that the speaker can be “affectionate, empathetic, hilarious [ . . . ] present” (Ng). At the end of the poem, “mama’s shoulders sagged / but she never let her down,” and Mama is the only adult in the entire text who offers the speaker unconditional love and support. The text does not deny the possibility of authentic affection, but relocates it from the biological mother onto an outsider figure.

Chia’s consistent use of dualities becomes more pronounced in her second collection, Separation: A History, where she juxtaposes personal recount with state narrative. Chia taps into a long tradition in Singapore literature that mixes private with political, with the former routinely being read as synecdoche or symbol for the nation-state at large. This tendency thrives in both the satirical overtones of Jack Neo’s I Not Stupid, and the “intermingling of personal nostalgia and postcolonial historicity” in the novels of Catherine Lim (Wagner 159). Chia partially complicates this trope in “hide and seek” by disrupting an alignment of the personal and the political as tenor and vehicle within the poem. Instead, she sees the two as stacked realities within the same geographic space which are intimately related:

the telco’s
nationwide outage
that day
prevented her husband
from rescuing her in time

For the most part, however, the trope is played straight, as in “thank you”: the persona thanks someone for teaching her to “love / like an economist”; personal and public spheres fracture and flow into each other. In “a clean break,” two narratives are again set against each other—this time, however, the effects are far more complex than before. The first, in the epigraph, is Lee Kuan Yew’s revealing that, contrary to then-conventional belief, Dr. Goh Keng Swee was responsible for “the decision on Separation from Malaysia”. This revision colours our reading of the poem proper, which asserts a preference for “white lies” over “history.” In the second narrative, Chia defends again the legitimacy of “the art of lying,” echoing her opening line in the introduction to Second Marriages. While truth and history in the former narrative complicate the notion of one hegemonic discourse, they are discarded completely in the latter in favour of an affirmed personal reality—privately contained and validated by personal witness.

Chia’s poetics might thus be described as confessional, not as catharsis, but as rendering a dialogic space: the reader-audience is witness to the subject, and so affirms its reality.

Works cited

Chia, Christine. The Law of Second Marriages. 1st Ed. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2011. 2nd Ed. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014.

—. Separation: A History. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2014.

DuBois, Page. Sappho Is Burning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Kevles, Barbara. “The Art of Poetry No. 15: Anne Sexton.” The Paris Review 52 (1971).

Ng, Sam. “All Things Pass with Time, All Things Freeze with Time.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 11.4. (2012). Web.

Wagner, Tamara. “Nostalgia, Historicity, Hybridity: Representations of Asian Identities in the Historical Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro and Catherine Lim.” Atlantic Literary Review 2.4. (2001): 154-65.