Tania de Rozario
Written by Amanda Chong
Dated 4 Nov 2015
Tania de Rozario is an artist, writer, and curator interested in issues of gender and sexuality. She won the SPH-NAC Golden Point Award in 2011 and her debut Tender Delirium (Math Paper Press, 2013) was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize for Poetry in 2014. As a visual artist, her work has shown in Singapore, The Netherlands, the USA and Spain.
De Rozario has described her own artistic practice as hovering on the intersection of text and image. True to this, her writing reveals a poet with the eye and energy of a cinematographer. Tender Delirum opens with the poem “What you are” firing salvos of visceral images at the reader. De Rozario animates words with a raw power—unleashes them like “dogs looking for a fight / like seeds bursting from overripe pods,” commands vowels to explode in faces, consonants to whisper death and poetry itself to “stir the birds in your chest / so hard they burst through your flesh / in a spectacle of sound and despair”.
Yet the stage in which de Rozario’s poetic flourishes play out is profoundly intimate. Her work explores the private spaces between lovers, narrow contestations between mother and daughter, the claustrophobic distance between a woman and her mirror. Within these confines, the force of her searing images is magnified. Lovers’ bodies hurtle together in a metaphorical car crash— “everyone is watching / jotting down lottery numbers” (“Crash”). A mother feeds her young daughter slimming pills, wanting to “fit me / foetus-like, into her palm, to curl me / back into her tummy” (“Shrink”). A newly-shorn woman regards her unframed face in a bathroom—“no precious / locks bolting it into attempts at girlhood,” and repeats to herself with the growing strength of an incantation—“I can see” (“On shaving my head”).
Even public spaces take on a clandestine quality in de Rozario’s poetic vision. In “Walking Distance,” she plots the familiar terrain of an HDB estate, slitting open its underbelly with a scalpel of gritty realism:
Above: Newlyweds who tie their dog up
for hours on end [ . . . . ]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Across the street: Large vinyl signboards
prostituting brand new condominiums,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Downstairs: Cats gone crafty from rumours
of culling, patrol corners sneaking glances
at the man who rants to an invisible audience
about the government.
This is not a poetics of glib social observation; de Rozario scrutinises cracks, peels back facades and disrupts orthodox narratives.
Naturally, de Rozario does not settle into comfortable conclusions nor trite sentiments, instead she plays up her affinity with the macabre and imperfect. In “From Vincent,” an artist slices off his ear as a token of love to a prostitute, “the blood / congealing like glue / on some anatomical jigsaw piece,” begging her to whisper to it. In “Eczema, Hands-on,” sex with a lover suffering from a skin condition is cast in a numinous light—“calluses speaking / against the insides of my thigh”.
De Rozario’s poetry traverses the perennial tension between the real and the ideal, suggesting that life must be experienced in the fullness of its discordant notes. In “The first face you saw,” the persona waits for her lover in surgery, imagines bodies cut open, neat animal dissections, organs fitting perfectly together, and observes: “we do not collapse into each other like that, the way / lovers should.” Still, we do not have world enough and time—de Rozario’s love poems are breathless, urgent with desire, imbued with intimations of mortality:
[ . . . ] we are nothing more than fossils pressed together
by emergency; [ . . . ] I want more than anything
to write you poetry while I am able; not risk re-birth
into a body whose heart is a knot tangled in the guts
of language [ . . . ]
(“Without you” )
De Rozario’s instinct to agitate settled notions comes into its own in her poems about gender and sexuality. She brings experiences from the margins to a reader’s consciousness, her bold language projecting an assertiveness that cannot be ignored. Alvin Pang has commented of de Rozario’s poetry: “This is language backed into a corner; poems that tear down fences and dare you to look them in the eye” (Tender, blurb).
In “Onnen,” titled after the Japanese word for an emotion so strong that it lingers even past death, de Rozario invokes three female ghosts from Asian pop culture, commonly portrayed in films as silent and sub-human. She gives these ghosts agency by describing them as women who were once victims of domestic and sexual violence, finding vengeance against their abusers in the afterlife. De Rozario evokes the complex power relations between the women and their abusers by mingling gothic horror with unexpected intimacy—“for him, she will stay, arms about his neck as she sits / upon his shoulders like the weight /of guilt. This is how she loves him”.
De Rozario also illuminates the lives and consciousnesses of gay women, drawing out universalities that seek to diminish othering mindsets and behavior. In “What type do you like?” the politics of sexual identity are dissected with wit. De Rozario discards labels (“butch, femme, andro, dyke, /crew cuts, chinadolls”), employs clever enjambment and makes cheeky associations with typography. In “After Sappho,” she unravels the long history of violence and oppression against lesbians, using repetitive couplets that reflect this history’s cyclical and continuing nature. Her vignettes balance loss and survival:
Long before we were denied access
to our lovers on their death beds
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Long before the narcissism of your pornography
and the delusions of your medicine.
De Rozario has said that “the quickest way to engage people is to come from personal places of love, loss and desire,” where poetry to her is a form of engagement, a means to “create spaces in which people can approach gender and sexuality from points of commonality, not difference” (TimeOut.com). She invites her readers to confront themselves by first making herself vulnerable. The darkness of her writing is tempered by the assurance of her first person witness—the solidity and brightness of her poetic voice.
In this, she follows in the confessional mode of her mentor Cyril Wong. De Rozario writes as a means of “wrestling control of her life from herself,” and we are privy to the tenaciousness of this battle (kitaab.org). Pain is keenly felt, ravaging the spirit, before it is fearlessly reclaimed:
there is no soft way
to love, no love that does not split flesh
like firewood, burning hollow spaces into
bone and sinew, making scars of skin [ . . . ]
(“Making scars of skin”)
Within her jagged images, there is a salve. This brings to mind a quote from Rumi, which has resonated with de Rozario—“the wound is the place where Light enters you.” Her writing, then, is both wound and light. American writer Monique Truong has observed that “de Rozario’s Tender is what happens to the skin and to the heart in the wake of a wounding. We bruise and we survive. De Rozario does both [ . . .]” (Tender, blurb).
Tania de Rozario is a writer who draws out shared reverberations from deeply private experience. We recognise our own brittle humanity in her wounds and her light. Her poetry is a finger pointing at us unflinchingly, telling us, in a tone at once indicting our foibles, yet tender with truth, telling us that this is what we are.
de Rozario, Tania. Tender Delirium. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013.
“In the Studio: Tania de Rozario.” Time Out Singapore. 22 Sep 2011. Web.
Kon, Desmond. “Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Tania de Rozario.” Kitaab.org 4 May 2015. Web.