Pooja Nansi on where she belongs, why Singaporeans have a hard time being creative and her love of gangster rap.


Poet Pooja Nansi is an established name in the Singapore literary scene. A teacher and writer-in-residence at NTU, she is the author of two collections of poetry and the organizer of the wildly popular Speakeasy poetry series at Artistry. She is performing her poetic stage show, You are Here, at Esplanade Apr 19-20. Here she tells us about being a first-generation Singaporean and what’s wrong with poetry in Singapore.

I’m first-generation Singaporean. I came here when I was one. I have less in common than one might think than a lot of my Tamil Singaporean friends who are third- or fourth-generation.

But when I meet new immigrants, I feel really Singaporean. Every time I hear Singlish, it sings to my heart the way Hindi does. So it’s weird: I feel like I’m not here, I’m not there.

I grew up in the East. My first memory is of these little apartments across Katong Shopping Centre called Rose Gardens, now demolished. My favorite place in the world is Parkway Parade. I have memories of going there at every stage of my life.

When I was 18, I went to my first club. It was called Kilimanjaro’s at Boat Quay. It’s now a seafood restaurant. It was really small, really dingy. It had a fake papier mache volcano in a corner and the seats were leopard print. The only people in this club were brown people—Malay kids, Indian kids. And they played hip hop and gangster rap.

You will not find a Singaporean Indian my age who has not gone to a hip hop club. Gangster rap at the time is so political and so about marginalization that it doesn’t surprise me that it appealed to the minority races here.

I’m not an expat. It’s not like I grew up anywhere else. I went to primary school here. I learned Malay. I speak Malay fluently. I know all the national day songs from the 80s. So this is home.

I don’t like being called Indian Singaporean. Why do you need to qualify that I’m an Indian Singaporean? Why is Chinese the Times New Roman of what Singaporean means?

There’s a Simon Tay poem, “Singapore Night Song,” and the last two lines are: “If you cannot love / (yes, love) this city / you have no other.”

If I don’t belong here, where do I belong? I don’t really have anywhere else.

The Speak Good English Movement has it wrong. Singlish isn’t bad English. It’s a whole other pidgin of its own. It’s so succinct, efficient and untranslatable. There’s nothing that will make you feel more connected to another Singaporean than speaking Singlish.

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was three. I would teach my dolls, put them in a row and have class. I got into teaching straight out of university. It’s the hardest job, and it’s also most fulfilling.

But when I became head of department, the management aspect took over the teaching aspect. I was going into class without having to think about it. And that’s dangerous. I didn’t want to get to a point where I was a bad teacher.

I took a break. I took a year off, travelled, focused on my writing, went back to writing festivals, got married. Then this residency at NTU came up, and it’s great because I get to teach, and I get to write.

Poetry in Singapore is happening in a bubble. For such a small place, we’re saturated with poets, and there’s a real love for it, but the average Singaporean doesn’t have poetry or literature on their radar. It’s being taught quite poorly in some schools.

The study of literature as a discipline teaches you real technical, hard skills, like reading critically, dealing with ambivalence and understanding complicated arguments.

When I encountered kids doing their A Levels, they could not understand how you could love someone and loathe them at the same time, or completely agree with one aspect of an argument but find the rest rubbish. It’s really hard for them to understand that kind of nuance because they’re not exposed to it enough.

We don’t value imagination and stories. We only value them when we need them. We say, “Oh no, we’re not creative people! How can we teach our kids to be creative people? How can we teach people entrepreneurship?”

For all our diversity, we’re such a homogenous society. We’re so afraid to be different. There’s a genuine fear of not fitting in or not going down the correct path.

Failure is key to creativity. How are you going to be creative if you’re too scared to fail?

Because we’re a young nation, the top-down narrative is that we need to survive, economically progress, stable. But we’re past that. Not everybody wants to keep climbing. Not everybody wants to be a principal. Some people just want to teach.

The case against the Sticker Lady, Sam Lo, was so awful. On one hand you say, “Let’s teach creativity.” But that’s what happens when people are creative.

I don’t take things for granted. I have a friend who used to teach in a trailer in the American South. They would not give her money for paper. That would never happen here.

That’s the reality of systems, though. Some things work, but you give up other things for them to work.

I can walk here at 4am and I feel safe, but it’s not like the excitement and vibrancy of walking down the East Village at 4am. That kind of uncontrolled creativity would never happen here.

I wish we would stop looking at art as just a utilitarian thing, stop asking “What does this piece of art do for society? What does it say about national narrative?”