The ghosts who kill themselves become ghosts of ghosts.

Four Poems

Published at Softblow

Animating Principle

No one ever told me I was matter.
I listened closely. I was never
heard. The ghosts who kill themselves become
ghosts of ghosts.
That is what I see
behind me in the mirror. That is why
I have not braked
to let anyone cross in front of me
for quite some time.

Goodness is a Fruit

and thus never a lonely
business. Anther, meet stigma. Meet on

the furry legs of bumblebees or
marvelous currents of air. Meet the other

on the other side of the moon, clouds drifting,
hushed sheets. I rose higher still when you

cracked me open and used both thumbs
to coax every luscious drop

into flowing. I begged you not to despise
what comes so easily to your hand.

Read “Animating Principle,” “Goodness is a Fruit” and other poems

And here are our own colony work dogs!

Excerpt from On the Moon

Short Story

Published at Quarterly Literary Review Singapore

Moon colony, landing port

It’s the year 2082, and there is life on the moon – human life, hailing from the United States of America, Russia, China, Germany, Singapore.

Ships land in a separate port from the main base to minimise traffic. In a passenger shuttle docked inside the landing port, Yevgeny Kuznetsov presses the button that releases the door hatch with a pneumatic gasp.

The passengers begin to board. In the low gravity, their movements are of a child’s in slow motion: large, exaggerated strides, the concentrated stomp it takes to land your centre of mass.

“Good morning, sir,” Yevgeny says to each dazed person who clambers aboard, “good morning, ma’am!” He counts among his passengers between 30 and 40 sciencey types and a handful of tourists. Mario Rossini, one of the few true commuters, comes on board last. He makes this trip twice a month and is the only one who looks perfectly at ease in his surroundings. Yevgeny nods at Mario, and the two men exchange smiles.

Among the newcomers is 32-year-old Carina Chan, one hundred percent a sciencey type, who pipes, “Good morning!” at Yevgeny, a huge grin all over her comically youthful face. The corners of Yevgeny’s eyes wrinkle upward. He himself came over moonside at the age of 15 hoping to train as a mechanic, but found he preferred people.

Yevgeny peers down the side of his shuttle. At this hour, it’s Seng and Ali helping to load up the passengers’ luggage and water tanks, stowing some items in compartments that snap shut and strapping the larger pieces down so they don’t bump around during the journey to the central moon base.

“Hurry up, you slowpokes,” Yevgeny calls down to them.

“Shut up, you old man,” Ali shouts back, but they all laugh. The culture of the moon is one of ritual and repetition. Against the risks every one of them is taking day by day by being out here moonside, constancy is their assurance, as unchanging as the endless, chalky grey landscape. One immense metal door of the landing port grinds open, revealing the grey expanse of the moon. Yevgeny starts up the shuttle. As they roll out, grey dust sprays in a shower up from the shuttle’s huge tires. The passengers talk among themselves about the sun’s unflagging brightness du jour: what rotation the earth makes in 24 hours takes the moon 28 and a half days.

Read the full text of On the Moon

It’s as important as it’s ever been to consider the effects our words have on others.

From Civics Lessons from the 2016 Election

Interview

Published at The Atlantic

In classrooms around the country, the surprising, unprecedented, and deeply polarizing twists and turns of the 2016 election have become a foundation for lessons on how America works. We interviewed more than 40 teachers about the ways they incorporated the presidential race into their instruction.

Here’s what I sent in, which was excerpted: “As a poet and fiction writer, of course I hope that the personal writing and poetry [we did at the beginning of class the day after the election] helped my students in some way. But it’s possible that the best thing we did yesterday was to carry on with the course material of rhetoric and composition. It’s as important as it’s ever been to consider the effects our words have on others.”

Read Civics Lessons from the 2016 Election

Seaweed farmers carved her image in a granite pillar facing the Ariake Bay.

Rapture of the Deep  

Poem

Published at dusie #19: Asian-Anglophone

Sushi seems so Japanese, but so does
tempura, its roots in the fritters

introduced by Portuguese sailors. The Ishikawa region
still pickles whole fish with rice in a jar, preservation

being the same process as
decay. Americans didn’t invent

California rolls with avocado in
the 1960’s because they didn’t know any

better; those were by and for a Japanese clientele homesick
for fatty raw fish. Gunkan-maki – nori seaweed enclosing

rice and soft toppings like melting
mounds of sea urchin – was created only

in 1941, by a Ginza chef inspired by warships
docked in the Tokyo harbor. Nori was hard

to come by then. No one even knew
what it was, until new findings in 1949

by Kathleen Drew-Baker, a British botanist. Seaweed
farmers carved her image in a granite pillar facing

the Ariake Bay, with the English inscription
Mother of the Sea. Marry the sea and

mother your mother. Every great discovery
is as old as death.

Read Rapture of the Deep (p.222) →

Not everyone can be romanced.

Inquisition  

Poem

Published at dusie #19: Asian-Anglophone

Inquisition

If you awaken with no memories after a blast, trust anyone
who gives you a weapon.

The right hand
is the soldier. The left hand is the spy.
Some tasks are best accomplished
by diplomacy, some by subterfuge,
some by force.

It is quite disappointing to kill something
only to discover you cannot use it
as a crafting material.

You appreciate a castle in the mountains
the better for having been given a
dinky little village with wooden huts first.

If someone’s approval is high enough, they will tell you
more about themselves. Sufficient disapproval
can make someone a drunk or a traitor.

Not everyone can be romanced.

Dead companions
will get up at the end of a battle. Only your choices
can cause them to leave the party forever.

All of your choices are
supposed to have meaningful consequences. You learn
to crave it. You are what you want.

Notes: The roleplaying game Dragon Age: Inquisition was released by Bioware in 2014. This poem is after “Nine Ways in which Pac-Man Speaks to the Human Condition” by Katie Willingham.

Read Inquisition (p.223) →

Why creative writing? What does this practice teach us to value? And how does it make us into a community that values those things?

From You Have to Enjoy What You’re Doing in Order to Do Something Good

Essay

Published at The Kairos Journal

Teaching is important to me, and I want to do it as well as I possibly can. For one thing, teaching writing has made me a better writer. It’s true, you only really learn some things once you start teaching them to others. But there’s another reason. It occurred to me that the work I do as a fiction writer and poet may never see the light of day, and even if it ever does, odds are it will die with me. Not so whatever time I spend with students, which really might make a difference to someone’s life, however brief or small.

It’s true that the impact my teaching has may be incredibly brief or small. As we were told at orientation, unlike you, your students are not lying awake at night mulling over what you covered in class. Or as my mom, who teaches young children, says: They forget almost everything!

Still, I need to do everything I can to remind myself how lucky I am to be doing this. And in the previous semester, I’d stumbled upon the best way I know how.


During the first week of that fall, my Facebook feed was full of statuses by my fellow instructors. “Thoughts after viewing my class roster for the first time: every one of my students looks older than me.” “Friends, I love teaching.” “Reader, they tolerated me.”

I didn’t often compose Facebook statuses, but now the gauntlet had been thrown. Still, I didn’t want to feel like I was talking behind my students’ backs, just because they wouldn’t see what I wrote. So I pictured myself addressing them, saying some of the things you always think to say a minute after you’ve let them go. “Dear students” was how I always began.

The statement I wrote after our third class proved to be a turning point:

Dear students, we spent a long and incredibly fruitful time unpacking just the title of today’s reading, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” You made great points about how the question automatically picked a fight with an Internet giant, that Google acting on ‘us’ meant we were under attack, that ‘stupid’ was an emotionally charged word. I love that you’ve got a fight in you.

I’d put a quote by E. M. Forster on the top of their syllabus: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Rereading my own words, I felt something change in me, unexpectedly. Suddenly I wasn’t just lost in a sea of my own ignorance and fear and insecurity anymore. The students were less of an opaque unknown. I knew exactly what I thought of them in that moment, fixed it into words.

I love that you’ve got a fight in you.

It was news to me. I might not always know what I was doing, but I did know I was on their side.

Read You Have to Enjoy What You’re Doing in Order to Do Something Good →

It is dangerous to relate to literature. It is dangerous to think you are like another person at all, just as it is dangerous to think other people could be like you.

From Tragic Flaws

Poem

Finalist for the 2015 Singapore Poetry Contest

 

My tragic flaw was to believe I could leave home behind, and then think I could never return.

My tragic flaw was that I imagined myself as an orphan from nowhere, ground zero for self-development.

Which is also Pip’s tragic flaw in Great Expectations, and the impetus behind theories that something can come out of nothing.

That most enduring origin story.

That most untrue.

Pip is not really an orphan from nowhere.

He is raised by his sister and her husband Joe in marsh country down by the river.

It is his homeland, yet not home.

Like Pip, my tragic flaw was to think I could establish myself as self-made using the resources others had given to me.

A beaver damming itself with the tragic debris of hubris.

There are no beavers where I grew up, which is Singapore.

Yet like many Singaporeans, I speak of things I have never seen: elm trees, starlings, ginger beer, a blazing hearth, geese, spotted dick, the wild and windy moors, lacrosse, goblins, mountains, boiled sweets, nightingales, holidays by the shore, snow.

We read of them in books.

We were stunned to discover, upon traveling overseas, than some of those things were real.

It had never occurred to me that you could write about things that were real.

There were no books describing Singapore.

Which is strange.

People from Singapore are strange.

Their tragic flaw is that they tell themselves they are not.

They are very educated.

My tragic flaw, like Pip, was to trust too much in my education.

I studied in Singapore as well as overseas.

This is getting to be quite common among Singaporeans.

I did not like to say I was a Singaporean, and I taught myself not to sound like one when I spoke.

Still, I gave myself away.

In London, one of my teachers said that I was like a little doggie who had been trained to do tricks by people putting bacon on its nose.

Now, it was time I learned to put the bacon on my own nose, she said.

No Singaporean teacher would have said such a thing to me.

For one thing, bacon is not commonly eaten in Singapore, by dogs or otherwise.

Nor does it enjoy the kind of cultural status that it does in the UK.

Furthermore, it is “western.”

Making it especially fitting for the point I am trying to make.

My tragic flaw was that I was forever trying to make points.

For this I blame my mother.

But unlike my mother my tragic flaw does not arise from feeling for one’s family, which is a fearsome and magnificent force.

Even in adoptive families.

Ask Magwitch how he shackles Pip with his own societal aspirations and the means to make them come true.

Ask Miss Havisham how she came to create Estella in her own ruined image.

Ask Joe how he finds it within himself to forgive Pip his loutishness.

All things done in the name of parental love will stand.

In any case they cannot be prevented.

My tragic flaw was that I related too much to characters in old British books.

It is dangerous to relate to literature.

It is dangerous to think you are like another person at all, just as it is dangerous to think other people could be like you.

Upon such tenets are societies built.

People from overseas are confounded by the kinds of liberties that Singaporeans cede to the government.

The more discerning among them note that they do so in exchange for considerable civil assets, including clean streets, low crime, good public schools, stable economic dealings, advanced military defense, the world’s highest trade to GDP ratio, the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, and soon, universal healthcare coverage.

The most discerning among them will see that this is the wisest course of action.

This is my father’s view, anyway.

His tragic flaw is that he has no tragic flaws.

That is another thing he will tell you.

Irony is lost on people like him.

My father is not at all literary, but he bought me books.

My mother is too pragmatic to have studied literature, but she taught me how to read.

My parents say, you could call home more often if there wasn’t a seven hour time difference.

But we will get up early, they say.

Or we will stay up late.

I am less willing to do either of those things.

For them, anyway.

I am busy pursuing my dreams.

I am busy becoming cruel.

I am busy trying to cover up my tracks.

My tragic flaw was that I tried to hide the people and the place I had come from.

Which is Singapore.

For the person I became was ashamed to recall them.

Which is the most Singaporean experience of all.

Failing to realise that was yet another tragic flaw.

For I thought it made me different.

And I thought no human had felt so alien.

And I thought that was my secret.

I tell you, it’s damn tragic sia.

It’s not love, but a sense of duty, which is like love, only dependable.

From Why, Grandmother

Short fiction

Published at Print-Oriented Bastards

II. The Sickness

Soon I will be eighteen. My studies are going well. The weather is bad but I have not been ill. These are the sort of things I’m ready to say. My mother pretends to read as I dial my grandmother’s number. Now that I’m home for the summer, we go through this every month. When I was in primary school, I would wait at her old flat until my parents finished work. My grandmother never went out. She hung up wet clothes, or boiled soup, or surveyed Chinese newspapers with a silver magnifying glass. Please take care; I’m taking care of myself. I’m glad to have talked to you. But my grandmother and I are gladder still to keep our conversations short. We still haven’t learned how to interest each other. My mother clears her throat; she wants me to give her the phone. In the background I hear the television going. “Yes, she’s fine, we’re all very well,” my mother says, words we always need to hear. Whatever it takes to secure a family, I imagine they’ve fixed it in me too, waiting only to be put to the test. It’s not love, but a sense of duty, which is like love, only dependable. No. When I’m honest, I know it is love. And the sickness is only the way I am – reluctant to give, to receive.

Read Why, Grandmother →