Written by Tan Hui Shan
Dated 25 Oct 2017

Jollin Tan has been writing from the age of eight, inspired by the stories of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton. Her foray into poetry started from her late teenage years, reading English Literature in school, including the work of poets such as Carol Ann Duffy. More notably, she names Pooja Nansi, a local poet and her former teacher, as a person who inspired her to begin writing. Nansi exposed her to local literature, encouraging her to take her writing further. Her pursuits culminated in two collections: Bursting Seams and Derivative Faith (both 2013, Math Paper Press). This makes her one of the youngest published writers in Singapore.

For Tan, writing is not just a form of catharsis—she views it as “a source of bravery,” a way to confront personal issues (Kitaab). More importantly, she finds peace through writing; by rendering her thoughts and emotions onto the page, she also hopes that readers can identify with them, and subsequently find their own peace in knowing that they are not alone.

Her first book, Bursting Seams, while primarily dealing with body image issues, is tied together with descriptions of personal relationships across time and space. In an interview with Monsters Under the Bed, she comments on the collection:

It just felt like no one wants to talk about the fact that almost all girls in society feel insecure about how they look but don’t really talk about it or acknowledge it as a problem [ . . . . ]

Seams takes on the additional role of affirming those who feel insecure about themselves. It highlights that these issues, insisting that they are real and should not be swept under the carpet. It encourages people to accept themselves as they are even though they may worry about their self-image.

In her poems, images of the sea, water bodies, and nature are employed to address the central theme of body image. In “Sea Creatures,” she conveys a self-consciousness that arises from tensions over the conventional notions of female beauty:

Tell me, who’d want to undress me and see
this? Too many times, I am too aware
of what this anchor feels like. Pressed between
these sheets is my body; I am in and
out of it. I have all the shape and none
of the grace of a whale in the sea.

The persona illustrates a form of anthropomorphism when she compares herself to a whale. Additionally, “Sea Creatures” brings across the persona’s request in the form of a question. This same request is mirrored in the following poem “Set Apart”:

[ . . . ] All that I ask is for you to feel the landmarks
on my skin, the dip and curve of this ground
and read its stories,
listen to the river in my veins
talk, hear the whispering
of this shell.

In this poem, the persona compares her body to a shell, objectifying it. While the object chosen is the shell, which is empty, it contrasts with the other parts of her body (skin and veins) that are compared to the ground and a river respectively—both the ground and river having a greater material presence. Even though the persona’s body is directly compared to a shell, the comparison of her skin to landmarks and her stories to the ground is a way of indicating the still water runs deep. Within the perceived emptiness of her body lies an expanse of experiences and personality that surely prompts deeper understanding from others. Both poems pay attention to the persona’s self-perception, fleshing out a heightened self-awareness and the need for acceptance.

The collection is structured thoughtfully—the persona’s struggles with self-image in society evolve as the book unfolds. She undergoes goes a journey which ends with her coming to terms with how her body is viewed by people that matter to her. More importantly, she comes to terms with herself. In the first part of Seams, “My Belly” highlights the difficulty of self-acceptance:

My belly is a flowerpot.
I sit here, cradling it
between my arms and it nestles
in the crooks of my elbows.
But I don’t like the way the flower looks, distended
and bulging. It is too big.

The same collection concludes by suggesting that beauty lies beyond what is superficially seen or heard about; that perhaps it is properly understood as a more submerged, internal story:

I am beautiful not in spite of my imperfections, but
because of what I am. Five feet two and seventy
kilograms, I am not your Barbie doll, with the
perfect hourglass figure (by the way, that
should remind you that her time is
running out). I am beautiful
because this body holds
stories that its skin
tells, and every
welt, every
mark, every
goose pimple
is Braille for you
to run your fingers
over and find out what I
am made of [ . . . . ]

Her deft modification of the etheree form fleshes out, visually, the appearance of an hourglass; this suggests that society’s expectations of the ideal female figure continue to structure the persona's thoughts, even as she appears to have made peace with her own body.

Derivative Faith, Tan’s second collection, deals with similar tropes as Seams: an emphasis on personal narratives or stories, an appeal to readers to go beyond a surface image of the persona. 

As its title suggests, Tan speaks of faith, hope, love, and loss—seemingly universal human experiences. “Faith,” an early poem, foreshadows the sense of loss that pervades the rest of the collection:

The air around you suspends
its gravity
so that everything rises
into chaos, and

this is what makes you the eye
of this storm,
waiting for it to pass; the leaves
to settle like grave markers rooted
to your feet.

In Faith, Tan utilises the pathetic fallacy to complement the crafting of natural imagery throughout her poems. This poem indicates the persona’s use of pathetic fallacy through the storm—reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s “The wind begun to rock the grass”—not just for its central conceit, but also for the build-up in the inner and outer landscape before the storm breaks.

As mentioned earlier, Faith is centered on the process of mourning—what happens before, during, and after experiencing the death of a loved one. Faith also differs from Seams not only thematically —but also formally, being interspersed with pieces of prose poetry.  In “13,” the persona appears to be engaged in a dramatic monologue, emphasising the weight of emotions that comes with losing someone.

There is nothing formal about sitting by a bedside and watching someone you love die. There is nothing formal about not being able to follow. There is, most of all, nothing formal about grief. 

At the same time, “13” unfolds around the practices surrounding a burial. Here, Tan suggests that the relationships and emotions that result from the formalities of burial rites are anything but. The same piece continues:

[ . . . ] maybe formality just makes the overwhelming grief easier to contain, maybe structuring lines and rules of formality into the casket helps to take the eyes off the seamless, unravelling edges of pain and loss.

Tan juxtaposes the act of fitting in—of ritual practices, of physically lowering the body into a casket—against the uncontrollable and unlimited reactions of pain and loss. By doing so, the persona brings out the stark contrast between procedure and emotion—in her view two divergent concepts.

The collection concludes with a concrete piece, “Full Circle,” its meaning again reinforced by form:

                 Listen, I was born
         with warped cylinders in my
      limbs and imperfect balls in my
lumpy flesh but all I am saying is that
circles can have the edges you want as
    well. I am round to bursting with
            my stories and all I ask is
                    that you listen.

“Full Circle” contrasts with the formless prose poems, especially given that the previous one highlights the formlessness of grief. Here, the persona seems to have processed external circumstances, and is ready, “bursting,” like in Tan's first book, to tell her own stories. 

The simple appeal of Tan’s personae (and one suspects of Tan herself) is for the reader’s understanding beyond the superficial. The very act of trying, the poem suggests, would suffice. At the same time, there is reciprocity in Jollin Tan’s poetics, aptly summed up in her own words: 

I do realise that when I hurt the most, then the poetry comes easier. I don't feel like those pieces are selfish anymore as well, because they are real issues that may haunt others too.

Through confessing raw emotions, Tan reaches out, letting others know they are not alone in their pain, if only they would just listen. 

Works cited

Tan, Jollin. Bursting Seams. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.

—. Derivative Faith. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.

“A Chat with Jollin Tan.” Monsters Under The Bed. Web.

“The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Jollin Tan.” Kitaab. 17 April, 2015. Web.

“Jollin Tan |” Kiu Qing Yi, Deborah Loh. May 2015. Web.