CRITICAL INTRODUCTION

Written by Jedidiah Huang
Dated 9 Jan 2018

Deborah Emmanuel is a Singaporean spoken word artist. She is the author of When I Giggle In My Sleep (2015, Red Wheelbarrow Books) where she explores themes relating to social equality and justice, and the environment. Later that year, she released a chapbook titled RED AND WHITE. BLACK AND BLUE. She also has a memoir, Rebel Rites (2016, Cosmic Grasshopper Press), where she describes her journey through the Singapore prison system. She performs with her band Wobology and is currently exploring movement poetry, or translating poetic text into movement.

To discuss Emmanuel’s work purely with respect to the page would be akin to describing a wine purely by its colour. Only a few of her works, and none of her defining ones, manifest solely on this medium. She weaves physicality, musicality and words into a dynamic performance. With this in mind, I recommend any reading of this introduction to be accompanied by videos of her performances.

In “I love you,” from Giggle, Emmanuel tells a compelling love story that guides her audience along with repetition and song:

When the first of our kind felt they loved each other, nothing happened.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It was a song like
uoy evol I, uoy evol I ah
uoy evol I, uoy evol I ahii
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My ancient friend
we exist inside each otheriii,
glorious friendiii,
we are interlocked foreveriii,
but now our time is overiii.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So no one else shall have youiii,
so no one else shall have youiii.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I love you, I love youiii,
I love you, I love youiii.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  
uoy evol I, uoy evol I ah
uoy evol I, uoy evol I ah
uoy evol I, uoy evol I ah
uoy evol I, uoy evol I ah

Here, Emmanuel’s skill with sound is showcased. First, she introduces us to an unfamiliar, primeval-sounding song (uoy evol I). Then, she explains the song by singing the following lines in the same tune. She takes her audience on a journey through the different stages of love: from ancient desire, to fierce possessiveness, to explicit declarations of love and finally back to the love song. When paired with the visual text, the song is revealed to be “I love you” sung backwards, and we realise that the poem has described the many ways the persona expresses love, a realisation not possible if the poem had only been heard or only been read.

In “She,” from RED, Emmanuel continues to employ sound to significant effect in her work to explore humanity’s relationship with nature. Though the ‘she’ of the poem is not explicitly named, it is strongly suggested to be “Mother Nature,” with ‘her’ repeated references to “fruit,” “clean water,” “forests,” “coral,” “beaches,” “kittens,” and “monkeys”:

they hear “blips!” and “beeps!”
computer. generated. sounds
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
More money more power
More money! More power!
More respect!
More RESPECT.
What are you doing? She asks.
What more do you need when I give you everything?
when I offer you meat to peel off my bones
when I feed your mouths with the fruit I grow
when I give you clean water to drink
but you fill it with garbage and oily ink
you burn my forests
you trawl my coral
you dirty my beaches
you kill my monkeys
you torture my kittens

While “I love you” saw the repetition of a melodic phrase, “She” repeats words with increasing emphasis to lend different connotations to the same line. By intensifying her delivery of “more money more power” and “more respect,” an increasing sense of desperation and anger, implicit in the textual version, comes alive in performance. In addition, the computer imagery infused in the work as a counterpoint to nature becomes enfleshed through staccato rhythm and monotone. Humanity is painted as emotionless and belligerent. This is then immediately contrasted against the soft, slightly exasperated questioning of Nature. “She” is a good example of how Emmanuel conveys her intentions by embodying the themes in her poetry. Switching seamlessly between barbaric Man and softly accusatory Nature, Emmanuel takes on the voices of both, blurring the line between herself, nature, which she loves, and humankind, which she nonetheless belongs to.

In addition to her own voice, Emmanuel also uses external music and even filmic techniques in her poetry. Behind her video performance of “Sin City,” Emmanuel plays loud, unsettling background music. This, coupled with red-tinted filters, close-up shots of Emmanuel’s eyes and mouth and rapidly cut and edited scenes creates an almost slasher flick atmosphere which lends additional horror to her words:

I emerged from the belly of Singapore
crawled through the throat of the delivery room
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
where the lights never go out
so you can watch your back
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
they say it’s safe in Sin City
but only if you can afford safety
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
see, Sin City is a place where blood only bleeds behind yellow lines

The disturbing visual and audio effects underscore the gory metaphors and images of paranoia and dystopia. As the video progresses, the effects become increasingly unsettling. Emmanuel’s critique of Singapore is both intellectual and emotional. Specific descriptions of discrimination and violence (“or they might just use your complexion against you” “cold and shivering on the condo bathroom floor while they beat down the door”), unsettling visual effects and horror soundtrack work to recreate the “fear and loathing” born out of discrimination. The video ends with the sound of a metal door slamming shut—a possible reminder that in Sin City, no one is truly free.

Emmanuel’s 2017 one-woman show, InterStates, her most ambitious work to date, merges the various forms her poetry has employed into a single continuous performance. In it, she uses exposition, poetry, and storytelling to discuss the relationship between nature and society in a Singaporean context:

This is my sunshine bleeding onto my tree,
this is the river cutting through mud for me,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
Look how I form these structures with my hands,
look how the ground crumbles between my fingers,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
Person/Animal/Tree is a pre-anthropocentric sculpture, demonstrating a time when humanity did not think it was the centre of the universe.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
but these days hearts are made out of metal and faces are constructed with bum cheeks.

Emmanuel uses separate stories to portray humanity’s evolution, from its dependence on the earth to its seeming mastery over the natural environment. At the same time, Emmanuel hints that it may be human nature to be self-centred, through the repetition of personal and possessive pronouns throughout the poem:

People are so judgemental. People are so public. Then they apply their judgements and publicity to everyone else. What if I don’t want to share my information or be tagged in your Facebook post?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This is the moral of my story. Number one. Be grateful for what you have. If he never go on his stupid excursion none of this would have happen. Number two. Don’t aim so high. The higher you aim the longer the distance you fall on your idiot face [ . . . . ] Why you want to take the risk?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What is a house anyway right? It’s just a place to store your stuff and sleep. Who needs one? I think the homeless people got it right. I don't think we need a house. I think we should all just be homeless.

Through the stories of three Singaporean characters, Emmanuel explores different aspects of Singaporean culture, namely: the lack of privacy, a fear of exploration which leads to mediocrity, and a sense of home and belonging.

uman,
east,
roopin ngsan eaves,
s catte e,
s catte e,
s e e,
s e e,
whereve igh e,
whereve igh e,
almos ome.

The show closes with the themes of nature and home converging in the conflation of “I” with “angsana leaves” and “scatter[ing]” with “almost home”. Emmanuel reminds us that humanity is very much a part of nature, and that no-one has a stake over another’s identity. Similarly, regardless of one’s place in life or the world, “home” is a concept that we cannot take for granted. If the whole earth is our home, we should treat it with respect; otherwise, we might as well be homeless. After a formally and thematically ambitious work such as InterStates, we are left hopeful that Emmanuel will continue to push against the generic conventions of poetry, both on and off the stage.

Notes

The above essay references three poems that been performed and recorded by Deborah Emmanuel herself. The poems and their accompanying YouTube links are: "I Love You"; "She"; "Sin City".

Works cited

Emmanuel, Deborah. When I Giggle in My Sleep. Singapore: Red Wheelbarrow Books, 2015.

—. RED AND WHITE. BLACK AND BLUE. Singapore, 2015.

 

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