Contrary to popular belief, Marylyn Tan reads almost no poetry. That’s a bit of a surprise, given that last August the poet and artist became the first woman to earn the Singapore Literature Prize for Poetry in English, for her debut solo published work, Gaze Back. So little was she expecting her win that before the virtual award ceremony started, she was telling friends they needn’t tune in, and during the broadcast she was sipping “a dead-inside cocktail of tequila and gin.” “I was getting drunk while thinking, Who’s going to win this time? because no woman has ever won before, so I’m not assuming anything would change this year,” the 28-year-old recalls her thoughts then.
Gaze Back, published by Ethos Books, centres on femininity, queerness and occultism, themes that Tan explores through poems bearing titles that might make one do a double take, such as “Nasi Kang Kang,” “Sexts From the Universe” and “C:\Users\marylyn.tan\UnDocuments\Queer Bodies”. In poetry, she tries to push the envelope because she eschews repeating what’s been said before: “I needed to be, at least for myself, fresh and to say the dangerous thing, the thing that will discomfit.”
And these concepts speak to her so personally “because I am them,” she adds with a laugh. “When I started writing Gaze Back, I was told to fantasise an audience, and the audience was actually like me,” Tan explains. “Being in a space of queerness and queer femininity brings you closer to a lot of the lived experiences of people who are less privileged, who may not have the chance to write that book.
“I realised it was a privilege that I had, so I wrote it for them, for all the queer bodies struggling through life.”
Described by the author CAConrad as “a voice for the audience of outcasts,” Tan says she has always been drawn to the outsider’s perspective. And through her background in psychology and her tenure as a volunteer hotline counsellor with the LGBTQ+ nonprofit Oogachaga, she came to see how pervasive loneliness is. These experiences and insights commingled and led her to champion the marginalised and the alienated, so much so that she “[has joked] about having a messiah complex for the longest time”.
“I do recognise I have a personality that tends towards codependency, so you tend to take on other people’s problems as your own,” she says. “But I don’t see it as self-sacrificial. How self-sacrificial can it be to write a book? It’s also for your own emancipation.”
Here, we speak to Marylyn Tan about her creative process and journey.
Any reason why you don’t read so much poetry?
I think I’m attracted to a story, so in a lot of contemporary poetry, I think there isn’t that mix of linguistic inventiveness and experimentation that I look for, coupled with a surprising narrative, which is the most satisfying thing to me, because when you read something, you generally want it to mean something to you that you hadn’t thought of before.
That’s why I try to read things that are less known or less popular. I’ve tried, but I haven’t really enjoyed titles that are super popular or that everyone has read. Maybe I’m a literary hipster (laughs) but generally I don’t think a lot of poetry I’ve come across gives me the kick for thinking about an issue in a certain way. Obviously that’s also coupled with the fact that I haven’t been exposed to as much of that kind of poetry, and I’m sure there’s a whole school of poetics out there waiting to be discovered. I think experimentation is sorely lacking, especially in the circles I’m familiar with, the circles that are mainstream or popular.
Is that part of why you write what you write, like compensating for what you don’t see out there?
I think so. I think the reason why anybody should write is because they want to see it in the world and they haven’t seen it yet, right? It’s like scratching an itch that can’t be fulfilled yet. I think I find it a lot more freeing once I get into the mindset of, Let me write the book I wish I had access to right now.
Since you started reading poetry in your mid-teens, was that the first inkling that this was something you wanted to pursue?
It wasn’t something I expected of myself — it wasn’t a real reality for me — and I was convinced I would become a vet all the way until I was maybe 17. I think I internalised that there wasn’t a career in poetry.
What has changed for you since your Singapore Literature Prize win, personally and professionally?
My friends made a lot of jokes about it (laughs), “We can’t all be SLP winners” and the like. Not really [much has changed], though. I feel that way about most accolades and prizes in general, they’re nice to have but not absolutely necessary or not something to aim for or strive towards, because the yardstick will always keep moving. What’s changed is that a lot of people ask me for interviews! That’s kind of about it.
Any comments from your parents?
Everybody loves a winner, right? (laughs) They were happy with the win, but they did wonder why I wrote such a book and they did ask me why I didn’t write something more marketable or more pleasant or something that will sell. But after the prize [announcement], I did see the book on my mother’s bedside table again, so I think she’s going back to read it and [thinking], What is it about it that everybody likes?
You’ve talked about one of the goals of Gaze Back being to emancipate bodies and souls from being policed. Is that a topic you feel strongly about?
Yeah. Yeah. I think people don’t realise how extensively we’re conditioned to accept body policing, especially in Singapore. Fat-phobia and ableism run rampant in our society, and I think part of the reason for that is because we’re interested in efficiency, and it’s not productive to cater to a wide variety of bodies and even lifestyles or gender expressions. When you think about whether your body is really free in this country, you think about all the little self-policing you do every day. Not just “Am I invading other people’s space when I take a seat on the MRT?” — and that kind of leeway is gender-differentiated: men somehow love to manspread on the train — but it’s also thinking about the way especially a woman is told to present herself as less of an easy target.
Do you feel an expectation to act as a sort of spokesperson for women writers?
I can see the merits on both sides, which is never something useful to say. I think it sucks that we have to specify that someone is a woman writer, but I think it’s warranted in some sense. Women writers have to face different issues or concerns or challenges, and sometimes you do just receive questions like, Do you write stuff like Twilight? You’d never ask a man that.
I think in any field where there are gender discrepancies, it’s important to level the playing field by creating equal opportunities for both the marginalised and those we are not, or even making up for that power dynamic by creating more opportunities for writers of color or are queer or working class or are mothers and don’t have as much time or capital to write, and so on.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of A Magazine.