by Cally Cheung
It was five minutes into the first Pure Literature class when my teacher asked me about the significance of scrambled eggs. We were at the first act of A Raisin In The Sun, the 1959 Broadway play by Lorraine Hansberry.
One year later, I found myself waxing lyrical about mooncakes and rice dumplings for my GCE O-Level examination paper. The content was from the 1978 local anthology Singapore Short Stories, and my ink echoed the familiar pedantry of comestibles from day one.
To me, literature is more than a subject. It is a step into liberal semantics and a leap into the conduct of individuality. I embrace the symbols, embody the metaphors, and evade the digestion of Singapore’s literature students plunging from 16,970 in 1992 to a mere 3,000 in 2012.
A recent article in The Straits Times (ST) titled “Embrace Shakespeare, Austen too” nudged attention from the increase in local texts to the importance of the international canon. Give a secondary level student Shakespeare, and she will cry, “I don’t understand anything! It’s too difficult.” Replace it with Arthur Yap, and she will respond to the colloquial slang and homegrown settings. The current academic situation is encapsulated in the concentration on paper grades versus pensive knowledge.
The number of schools using Singaporean works in their syllables increased from 18 in 2011 to 32 in 2014, signifying the spotlight’s shift to stand on mere grounds of societal cognisance and appreciation. True, the concept behind what a plate of chicken rice means to the kopitiam uncle comes at a far more accessible level than what a rose means to Gertrude Stein. Bonus factors include a national level of support for the authors, debunking the myths of an ebbing creative circle, and the importance of readability when it comes to fostering young interests at the pace of their attention spans.
Stepping aside from the pendulum of linguistics, one can recognise that local works are able to maximise its colloquial content to embody a smoother introduction into embracing literature as a global whole. Its role ensures that the first step is the right step into this ambitious course of study; and that it is time to read local to understand universal.
As the ST article suggests, “Use Singapore writers by all means as an entry point.” Go big on this entry point because primary impressions spark off curiosity and cultivate opinions – the two essential ingredients to fuel any expressive endeavours branching beyond literature. Amplify the homegrown edge to encompass ubiquitous tools because when it boils down to a semasiological argument, there is no clear distinction between the original constitutions.
If the declining figures for literature in secondary schools showcase the pragmatic highbrow scholarly quests, then let’s return the favour and entice the field with domestic elements. Appeal with the ease of familiarity and let it breed an augmented love because literature translates teachings far from what a humdrum citizen’s daily milieu can assimilate. Perhaps this is what our generation of students will benefit from: the gift of a self-serving pedagogy.
I see myself back in class, asserting that Ruth Younger’s scrambled eggs personified her frustrations towards a dying dream of progress. Let us beat on, Singapore. Let us wake up to a better plate of nourishment for the nation.
by Cally Cheung