The globe and books represent our world literature focus

Have you ever found yourself doubting your ability to teach stories that belong to unfamiliar cultures? What if the students ask questions you can’t answer? Worried you don’t know enough? (we’ve all been there.) Want to grow your literary knowledge and improve your student’s outcomes? Look no further! 

The World Lit podcast is an essential part of We Teach Well’s commitment to providing teachers everywhere with the knowledge and tools they need to reduce educational inequality. 

We know that teachers work better when they are confident in their subject knowledge. Our mission is to use new technologies to provide teachers with sound professional development and support no matter where they live in the world. We know that there are still students being left behind due to the digital divide and we will do all we can to close the gap. 

Season 1 – Decolonising literature.

It has long been understood that English language teaching acted as an hegemonic tool. When teaching internationally, Carolyn became aware of just how ingrained this still is in many places. Courses in English literature are on the curricula of schools and universities globally, yet much of the literature included is not English. It is the literature of societies and cultures with conventions that are dramatically different from English ones.

The World Lit podcast is an essential part of We Teach Well’s commitment to break the cycle of colonisation and cultural imperialism. It invites writers and educators from around the world to share how to effectively and inclusively teach their stories. Our hope is that this will remove the barriers that prevent many educators from teaching content they are unfamiliar with.  In the current global context it is more important than ever that our students learn that for all the ways that we are different, there are more in which we are the same. That they are shown there are universal truths that we share, which will highlight the dangers of neo-nationalism and fear of the other. 

Show Notes and Transcript.

Episode 1

Introducing the We Teach Well World Lit podcast with Carolyn and Judy.

Show notes and transcript

A globe and books. World literature

Carolyn 0:09
Welcome to the first episode of We Teach Well’s World Lit podcast. We are your hosts, Carolyn and Judy. Judy, do you want to say hi in there?

Judy 0:20
Yeah. Hi,

Carolyn 0:21
from, We Teach Well, and we’re excited to share this first episode of our podcast, where we’ll be talking about our mission, why we wanted to do this, and how we see it increasing educational equality, partly through decolonizing literature.We have, for a long time wanted teachers everywhere, to get the sort of knowledge and tools that they need to successfully teach literature. There’s nothing worse than going into a classroom when you’re not confident that you understand the texts that you’re going to teach.

Judy 0:54

Carolyn 0:54
If teachers are not confident, they’re going to get stressed. And we can see that happening everywhere.

Judy 1:00

Carolyn 1:02
What we want to do is look at how you can break down the cultural and socio-economic boundaries that prevent educators, teachers everywhere, from teaching content they are unfamiliar with. The podcast is an essential part of our commitment to breaking the cycle of colonization and cultural imperialism. We are inviting writers, educators and academics from around the world, to share their knowledge on how to effectively and inclusively teach their stories. Judy, do you want to throw anything in there?

Judy 1:40
I just, I guess, that in this virtual age that we’re certainly, you know, experiencing at the moment, it’s probably appropriate that we’re looking at exploring the virtual world. You know, the world is so much more open to us. We have far more access nowadays in this technological age. And so I think it’s time yeah, that we actually did something like this. So yeah, I’m really excited about it.

Carolyn 2:12
Yeah, I mentioned to you the other day, I was going through our Google Drive and came across a folder that we had put together, now I’m thinking this could have been 15 years ago

Judy 2:26

Carolyn 2:29
When we talked about doing a text, a reference book, not a textbook, but a reference book for teachers, to teach texts from other places. But now we’ve got this incredible opportunity to do a much better job and actually get the voices, I get really excited about this.

Judy 2:51
I do too

Carolyn 2:52
I need to find a Russian teacher. I mean, I really so much want to find a Russian person who can talk about Chekhov, you know I love Chekhov. But also, of course, Dostoyevski. I remember, talking to this guy, he was an accountant. And we were just talking about some stuff. But during that, I found out that his mum, that they were Russian, and that his mum used to live in the same block of apartments as Dostoyevski.

Judy 3:28
My goodness,

Carolyn 3:30
I know. And it’s just like, I need to find his name. There are insights that they would have,

Judy 3:39
It’s like walking in the footsteps of these authors. It’s the next best thing. I mean, we can’t go back in time, we don’t have a TARDIS. We can’t talk to some of these classical authors ourselves. But we can certainly talk to people who understand the context of what they wrote.

Carolyn 3:57

Judy 3:58
And that’s really, really exciting.

Carolyn 4:00
Because I mean, we can watch all the spy movies and documentaries about the Cold War and about the way things were in Russia, but we can’t know it.

Judy 4:17
No, and we can’t know it from an actual person’s perspective. You know, you tend to get the official line or even an Americanized or westernized version of that you. You don’t get the authentic voices, ofimportant actual people. And that’s really important

Carolyn 4:37
It is. We can read about the rules. You know, we can read about the political,

Judy 4:45

Carolyn 4:46
Yeah, it’s the conventions. You know, those things that are not codified, but that you just know, if you lived in that place, at that time, or even around that time. I was talking to one of our guests in a couple of weeks, Angela Tutty is talking about New Zealand literature. And we were joking about the idea that, you know, unless you’ve lived in New Zealand, unless you’re part of it, you don’t know why they call thongs, jandals.

Judy 5:19

Carolyn 5:20
Its not written down anywhere, there’s no law about it. But you just know it. And that’s what you need. When we try to share these worlds with students, I think, and to get students right into it and fired up, you need to have got some of these understandings some of these stories, so that you can share them with the students, and they can then have better engagement with the text, I think.

Judy 5:56
I know, and as English teachers, we do that, or we attempt to do that to the best of our ability, but, you know, as much research as you can do, and trying to place yourself, you know, in the position of these people, you just can’t do it, as well, as people who have placed themselves in that position who are there who are authentically living this. And I think that’s what’s so important, in this age of cultural appropriation, let’s not do that. Let’s actually get to the bottom line of it, and speak to people who have been there who have done that,

Carolyn 6:35
That idea of cultural appropriation, and I mean, for me, as you know, that is a big issue. for me having been born, my parents are Scottish and as being born as a white child in India, and just after the Raj, but still, at a time where Britain held, you know, has affected the way Indians and Indian texts are interpreted. And then living in Singapore as a primary school student, and doing my primary education there, and not being aware of racism, or cultural appropriation or any of those things until much later. And, I remember it so clearly, on the way to Australia, because we migrated, we came on a boat, just in case people were wondering, wasn’t very big boat, but it was a boat. So we’ve gone from Singapore, we went to Thailand to Bangkok for a couple of weeks, or a few days, escapes me. And then we flew to Kolkata, we were supposed to only be in Kolkata, for a week or so. And then we were going to see the Taj Mahal, and everything before going to Mumbai, or Bombay, I think it was still called at the time, to get the ship, to Australia. And I became aware when I was quite young about the differences in life for, children from different countries. And I couldn’t work out why my life had been so different. What had happened for those children in India who I saw as we walked down the street. And why, they had fewer opportunities than what I had. I didn’t think that was fair. But I was young at the time. And it was before I understood about cultural appropriation and colonisation, that my desire, perhaps to build a school and take all the children off the street, was perhaps not an appropriate response. But now I mean, in the last couple of years, having the chance to be in India and to teach there and in Abu Dhabi and Singapore. I was surprised to find that they call them English literature, they call the subjects English literature. But there are Indian texts and Russian texts and Irish texts and all of these others. It just seems to me to be a bit rude.

Judy 9:30
Very, very rude.

Carolyn 9:32
Yeah. And I became aware, and this is terrifying. But Dr. Larissa McLean Davies from Melbourne Graduate School of Education was talking about, she’s a English literature and language specialist. And she was talking about why teachers in Australia seem reluctant to teach Australian texts,

Judy 9:55
The cultural cringe maybe?

Carolyn 9:58
She says that’s definitely there. But the other thing she said was that, some teachers, apparently say that they find the racism or the violence difficult to teach. And I thought well yes that’s okay. But they can still teach ’12 Angry Men,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I do wonder whether it’s easier for us to teach somebody else’s dark stories.

Judy 10:28
Exactly than to explore our own.

Carolyn 10:31

Judy 10:32
But that’s too close to home.

Carolyn 10:34
That’s right. It’s okay to say, ‘Oh, they do that, but we don’t do that.’ But then when you read things like ‘Deadly Unna’ and other texts, you realize that we did actually. And worse in many, in many cases.

Judy 10:51
Oh, yes.

Carolyn 10:55
The other thing Larissa was talking about, she introduced the idea of the ‘Macaulay Minute,’ and I’ve never heard of it. Have you

Judy 11:04
Heard of it? No.

Carolyn 11:06
Yeah. Well, Macaulay was one of the British government’s supervisor people, in India in the 1800s. About 1840s, as they were setting up,education stuff in India. Some money had been made available to help with getting Sanskrit and Arabic literature. And McCauley wrote what is certainly not a minute. He wrote this thing that was sent back, had about 13, or 30, or something parts to it. But there are a couple that were, I’m not I mean, I can’t tell you what they were, because it makes me feel sick just to say the words. But his view was, that that would be a terrible waste of money. Because from what he had seen, the languages were so primitive, they couldn’t imagine that anything beautiful could be said in either of those languages.

Judy 12:23
That is so disgusting, isn’t it?

Carolyn 12:27
It’s beyond.

And, and he went on to say that it was obvious that one shelf of British literature was worth more than all the Sanskrit and Arabic literature combined.

Unknown Speaker 12:42
Oh god.

Carolyn 12:44
It’s just appalling. And then, he went on to say that we needed …..

Judy 12:51
It sounds a bit like Matthew Arnold actually.

Carolyn 12:54
Well, maybe, yeah. But it will…..

Judy 12:56
You know, English literature contains all that is most appropriate for a person to read to learn how to behave appropriately in

Carolyn 13:05
Yeah. And he and Macauley actually said that. He said, we want to make them more English.

Judy 13:14
Oh, yes. One of the greatest homogenizing tools ever is literature and

Carolyn 13:21
English language, yeah.

Judy 13:23
Well, English language literature, yes. But you know, but making literature all about only English literature. Yeah, is definitely one of the worst hegemonic tools that that is available and has been used.

Carolyn 13:38
And this is, this is what I think is really important. English language is an important language, people in all countries use it,

Judy 13:50

Carolyn 13:51
But it should never be used at the cost of the people’s own language. No, and

Judy 13:58
No, and certainly not at the cost of their culture.

Carolyn 14:02
And that’s what English language teaching was. And in places like India, and even here, you know, I shouldn’t say even here, I just here in the different orphanages and different places that indigenous children were educated, it was done to make them more English.

Judy 14:24

Carolyn 14:26
It’s interesting, talking to one of the other episodes we’ve got coming up, with Gwee Sui Li, who’s a poet and teacher in Singapore, and he talks about the four languages. Singapore is a really interesting country, so far as that goes, there are four languages, three mother tongues, so that’s Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. And English is the language of instruction and financing. You know, governance.

Judy 15:03
Yes. Most professional.

Carolyn 15:05
Yeah. And every student learns to speak English. But they’ve done it a bit better, I think. Because they accept the three cultures. It is multilingual. It is a multilingual country. And, English is used for where it is useful. But it’s not considered a mother tongue, which is important. But English as a language has been used as a hegemonic tool for way, way long time. And I just find that unconscionable.

Judy 15:55
Yes, although it’s funny, I, I wouldn’t mind actually doing it in reverse. I, I do think that English translations of other cultures, texts, sort of has that same hegemonic aspect, you know, in at least broadening people’s minds and opening them up to the, you know, the lived experiences of other people’s and other cultures, which is the only thing really, that is going to stop and stamp out racism.

Carolyn 16:27
Yeah, but it depends on who the translators are, this is important. If you’ve got a Chekhov play, or a Solzhenitsyn’s, you know, ‘One Day in the Life’ who is it that translates that to English? Is it an English person? Who has learned to speak Russian? Or is it a Russian? Who has learned to speak English? Because those are two very different things.

Judy 17:00
That’s true. And I mean, I think an English person who has learned to speak Russian might cut or change, without understanding, some of those cultural aspects. And that would actually dilute the importance, or passion of the author. And that’s just untenable.

Carolyn 17:21
Well, yeah. And I mean, that’s the thing, isn’t it? I mean, both of us are, you know, fairly passionate feminists. But, when I became a teacher, there was no internet. Well, there might have been, but it wasn’t anything that we knew about. But for all our literature studies, because you graduated before, you know, the internet became sort of as available as it is now. And we were dependent, didn’t you?

Judy 18:03
No, I’m a very late developer, remember…

Carolyn 18:08
Yeah, so am I..

Judy 18:09
I only went to university, you know, at a very late age. So, that was late 1990s, early, early 2000s. It was up and running certainly, isn’t what it was, you know, isn’t wasn’t as it is today. No, no?

Carolyn 18:31
Yeah, no, yeah. I was thinking, yeah, but no, no, I didn’t, I can’t remember when I, there was some access in the early 2000s. But it wasn’t really until I went away that I became aware, it wasn’t until I had students who were having conniptions because they couldn’t last a day without Facebook. And, I didn’t even know what Facebook was. And that was 2007. But when I went through, again, I was a late teacher, but I did my dip ed in 91. And we were still, it was books that we had to get our knowledge from. And most of those books were written by….

Judy 19:21
Middle aged white men.

Carolyn 19:22
Yeah. Educated, in what was an incredibly privileged position. And maybe, I mean, even if they traveled to places, I mean, both you and I loved traveling, and going to these places, but visiting them it’s not enough to learn those things. It’s just not enough. So anyway,

So that’s what that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. And partly because we think it’s just going to be really, really good fun. And partly because we love talking about literature. We’re both a bit geeky. And the idea of being able to find out from people of different cultures, how to read their stories, and then how to bring those stories to students.

Judy 20:17
Yes, and to bring them to life, the only way you really bring them to life is to have that deep inculcation into, you know, the, culture and what was thought about and what was, what was eaten and, and breathed in, in the air in that particular time and/or context.

Carolyn 20:37
Yeah, because I have this sort of mountain of colonial guilt attached to me, and being very Scottish, and therefore I’m not fond of the English, anyway, the other people whose literature I love is the Irish. And, so we’ve got a wonderful teacher called john Ryan, who’s from Dublin, and who talks to us about the history, the stuff behind Irish literature. So that’s great, because I love Irish literature.

Judy 21:13
Oh, yes.

Carolyn 21:15
The playwrights are so incredible, and their poetry. I’m not saying that English literature is not good.

Judy 21:26
Please don’t, to a Shakespeare specialist, please do not.

Carolyn 21:30
No, And I also, am a Shakespeare lover too. So. And I do and I love Jane Austen. And I love the Brontes, and I love a lot of British literature. English literature.

Judy 21:47
Yes, we just don’t believe that that is all there is. No, there’s a whole world out there. And people need to explore that. I think sometimes you can get so set in your ways or, you know, we can pigeonhole students into a certain style of texts, or even a certain way of experiencing and reading those texts. And I think it’s really important that our job as teachers, particularly teachers of English, is to broaden students minds, not pigeonhole them.

Carolyn 22:20

Judy 22:21
This, this is exciting for me, it’s one way I think that we can definitely do that is to introduce teachers to the context so that they can know it and love it and teach it to their students.

Carolyn 22:35
Yeah. And when we started, We Teach Well, the people we wanted to serve were teachers. Because we had become aware of how difficult teachers jobs had become, I don’t know about when you started, but when I started, you got time to research, there was time to go and do some work into unpacking the texts for your students.

Judy 23:02
There certainly is no time now. There’s a whole lot of administration paraphernalia that you need to, you know, get your head around,

Carolyn 23:14
And, and a teacher’s job, for people outside teaching, a teacher’s job has become more about filling in paperwork and reporting, than it is on actually teaching and broadening the minds of the students sitting in front of you.

Judy 23:38
And what a way to lose passion. Right. Unless you’re actually, you know, passionate about what you teach, and because you’ve, you’ve delved into it in so much detail, then you’re going to be teaching very passionlessly and, you know, that just isn’t ideal. That that goes against the grain of everything that, we stand for and everything in fact that we, inaugurated this ‘We Teach Well’ for.

Carolyn 24:09
Yeah. Because, we have children, you have more than I do…

Judy 24:13
That’s an understatement. Yes.

Carolyn 24:16
I mean, I can remember, times when my kids were bored, and I’m thinking how can you be bored in English? It should be the most fun you have in a day.

Judy 24:27
Well, yes, it is for me.

It was for me too.

Carolyn 24:33
Well, it’s just that I got excited about, I loved what I was doing. I remember saying to somebody, when you teach English, you actually teach everything.

Judy 24:44
Yeah. Well, that’s exactly right. Which is, possibly why, well, in my very, very biased opinion, that the most passionate teachers out there are English teachers. Because they, they’re not pigeon holed into teaching just one little thing, we can teach the history and the art and,

Carolyn 25:04
And the philosophy and the psychology

Judy 25:07

Carolyn 25:08
And, I mean, you’re a history teacher as well. So you’ve done some study in history. I did a double English method at Melbourne Uni, the only people who would let me do that. I’m pretty sure that everything I know about history, I got from reading literature,

Judy 25:28
That’s just it, if you are taught very good English literature, and let’s use the horid term again, but if you are taught literature, then you actually glean historical knowledge, artistic knowledge, philosophical knowledge, sort of almost imperceptibly, you know, without knowing it, it just comes, comes through the skin, a bit….

Carolyn 25:52
A bit like Ozmosis.

Judy 25:54

Carolyn 25:57
I really feel for a lot of English teachers and, I think the figures I was told, were that 40% of English teachers, same with maths, were never trained in it. They didn’t study English.

Judy 26:15
How can you possibly teach English without the knowledge? I mean, I know that you can be self taught, but you have to have a grounding. Certainly.

Carolyn 26:27
Yep. And I mean, any chance I get, when I hear people talking about how important literacy and numeracy is and all the rest of it, and I’d like them to have a look at if that is true. If governments really were concerned about literacy and numeracy, they would ensure that English and Maths teachers were not seen as generalist, but were seen as specialists.

Judy 26:57
Exactly. It’s downplaying the roles of both of those types of teachers. But they’re just too important.

Carolyn 27:07
Absolutely. I mean, I’ve had, you’ve probably heard it as well, people say, ‘Oh, you can speak it, you can teach it.

Judy 27:16

Carolyn 27:22
That idea of, you know, we want to offer manual arts, home economics, and IT and drama. And…and…and

Judy 27:34
Which we should, it is very important.

Carolyn 27:37
Absolutely. But they have to have teachers who know what they doing, they have to have specialist teachers. You certainly don’t want to leave me in charge of a class where there are electrical tools.

Judy 27:53
That’s a scary, scary position.

Carolyn 27:57
So you need to have people trained, but because English and math are compulsory, you need to fill up the classes with teachers who trained in a number of anything, not either English or maths.

Judy 28:11
It’s so stressful to think about that sort of thing. It’s so distressing, because, I mean, mathematics is a language, to be honest, just as English is. And I certainly wouldn’t put myself out there to teach maths I, I would have no idea how to do that appropriately or passionately, or, you know, even effectively, or any other way to be honest. So, yeah, I do, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think English has got to be promoted, English and Maths have got to be promoted as skills and specifications in their own right. And if we can’t do that, I mean, economically, if, you know, we have to sort of have generalist teachers teach it, then, you know, I think they need some support.

Carolyn 28:59
Yeah. And and look, maybe economically, we think of putting more money. You know, rather than putting money into conducting a ridiculous standardized test, or, you know, putting it into the latest new idea, that’s gonna fix everything, just pay for teachers. Pay teachers to teach Put the money in getting people who know what they’re doing in front of classes. And I think your results will improve a lot,

Judy 29:28
Dramatically. Yes, I agree.

Carolyn 29:31
But, we are not policy makers, though it certainly hasn’t stopped us from thinking about it or saying what we think, but…

Judy 29:42
Nor should it…

Carolyn 29:43
Nor should it. This is why we’re starting this podcast, and I’m actually finding it a lot more fun than I thought, I wasn’t that I didn’t think it’d be fun, it was that I thought it might be a bit hard.

Judy 29:57
Yes, but it’s…

Carolyn 29:58
And scary..

Judy 29:58
But its more like good fun than it is hard work, I think

Carolyn 30:02
It is, it is more like fun than it is work.

We’re heading into an interesting year. And if anyone out there, we would certainly like you to stay with us and follow us along. But if any of you know, English teachers in other countries, or academics or writers in other countries who can talk about their literature, please send them our way, we’d love to have them as guests on the show.

Judy 30:30

Carolyn 30:31
I actually have got the podcast already cleared on iTunes and Spotify.

Judy 30:39
Yes, I saw that. That’s, that’s very exciting. Yeah,

Carolyn 30:43
It is exciting but we’ll also have it available on our website, is where you will find us. Any ideas or thoughts that you want to share? We’d love to hear them.

Judy 30:59
I think you have said it all, actually. I’m very excited about this. My, I guess my only point is I miss out on a lot of this. But I shall learn vicariously through you.

Carolyn 31:17
How do you mean you miss out on on

Judy 31:19
In the podcasts?

Carolyn 31:21
You’re going to hear them? You will be coming in to do some of them too.

Judy 31:26
Yes, yes. It’s just that interactivity. That’s right. I think it’s absolutely fascinating the things that you’ve been talking about, with, you know, the authors and teachers we’ve spoken to so far. And, I find it absolutely exciting and interesting, and I hope everyone else does, too.

Carolyn 31:48
Yes, I do hope so too. I do I do. We can I just say I need to, there’s a couple of people we need to mention here. Yep. And the first one was Nikki, who worked with us last year, Nikki De Leon.

Judy 32:05
Yes, yes. Thank you Nikki, for your work.

Carolyn 32:07
And then there was the delightful Georgia Eason, and Georgia created the artwork. And, and Mai, the third, and she’s a journalism student. And she has been writing all the scripts and stuff for me. Things that I would like to do, but because there’s other things I need to do, I haven’t had the chance, and she has done a huge amount of work. These three, three girls are part of the Monash Arts Intern program. (WIL Arts)

Judy 32:44
We have been intensely lucky, haven’t we?

Carolyn 32:46
We have, yeah.

Judy 32:48
Our Swinburne boys as well, you know, have done remarkable work in getting us ready. to launch the program..

Carolyn 32:57
And drawing up, a roadmap and getting all the information that we needed and making sure the website was working. Those four guys from Swinburne were terrific.

Judy 33:10
Yep. And, you know, I think this is exactly what ‘We Teach Well,’ is all about too, this helping everybody. It’s not as if we are, you know, conduits of all knowledge and we’re deigning to give you some, it’s ‘help us,’ you know, us and help everybody else. It’s, it’s all really wonderful. And collegial. I love that.

Carolyn 33:40
Yeah, me too. And I mean, we’re not in the classroom anymore. But it’s kind of nice. working with the interns. Because you feel like you’re still helping a young person. Get more skills and, and that’s something you never lose when you’re a teacher, I think.

Judy 34:01
No, I mean, that’s that’s the reason we become teachers, isn’t it?

Carolyn 34:05
Yeah, pretty much. Yep. And we’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had some terrific kids. I shouldn’t call them kids. These are.

Judy 34:14
You should not. These are adults.

Carolyn 34:17
Yeah. And incredibly smart and capable young people, who we could not have done with, you know, we would not be up to this point were it not for them?

Judy 34:30

Carolyn 34:31
They’ve been stunning.

Judy 34:33
Technology for two old broads like us. Yes. Yes. Slightly. daunting.

Carolyn 34:40
Yep. No, they’ve been, you know, social media, they’ve taken care of social media, which is fantastic, because I’m not very good at it.

Judy 34:51
No, me neither.

Carolyn 34:52
So yeah, I just want to thank them. Thank those guys because they’ve done great work.

Judy 35:00
And thank you to anyone out there who’s actually listening to this, because that makes me excited as well.

Carolyn 35:06
And please share it with everyone, you know, who might be interested. We’re just beginning and we’re looking forward to building it slowly but surely. So anyone who you think could benefit, we would love you to share it.

Judy 35:24
Yes, definitely share, share, share, share, share, share.

Carolyn 35:28
The next one will be in two weeks time.

Judy 35:32
Yes, our second broadcast..

Carolyn 35:34
So there’ll be two in February and then all going well, there should be two a month from then on.

Judy 35:41

So who are you speaking to? In podcast two Carolyn?

Carolyn 35:47
In podcast two, it is likely I’m speaking to Gwee Sui Li from Singapore?

Judy 35:57
Ah lovely.

Carolyn 35:57
And then to Angela, from New Zealand, and then to the wonderful John Ryan, in Ireland. And I think that’s the order for the next three.

Judy 36:10
Marvelous. And of course, these people that you’re speaking to are talking about elements of their culture? the customs? They’re talking about literature from their areas?

Carolyn 36:24
Yeah. And what lies behind the text. The last question I asked the guest is, if you could recommend three texts that best define your culture? What would they be?

Judy 36:39
marvelous question. Although, gosh, I’m sure there are so many.

Carolyn 36:44
Yeah. And so lots more books to read, which is going to be really cool.

Judy 36:49

Carolyn 36:55
Thank you very much for people who have joined us for this very first show. We hope that you will come back again next fortnight when we will be speaking to Gwee Sui Li from Singapore. Gwee is a poet and teaches at tertiary levels. For more information about We Teach Well, you can visit our website at If you have any questions or would like to send any of your suggestions for the literature you’d like to learn about, contact us at [email protected] Any books that I mentioned, any resources that are mentioned in the podcast will be included with the transcript and the show notes. And that’s us. We are your hosts Carolyn and Judy and we are saying goodbye until our next episode.

Transcribed by

Show notes

The Monash Interns have been part of the Monash Work Integrated Learning (WIL) program.
They were:

  • Georgia Eason
  • Mai Gutman
  • Nikki De Leon

Enquiries can be emailed to: Jo Walsh, WIL Arts Team Leader,   E: [email protected]

The Swinburne Interns were:

  • Dean Thorn – Accounting and business. 
  • Yasi Saparamadu – Computer anything. 
  • Mitchell Fielder – ICT – systems management.
  • Luke Dilabio – Accounting and business info.

They were part of the student partnerships program. Information on how to host a team can be sent to:   [email protected]

Episode 2

Poet and educator Gwee Sui Li talks to us about the literature of Singapore.

A globe and books. World literature


Carolyn Newall 0:06
Hi all, and welcome to the second episode of our World Lit podcast. Today we’re going to be talking to Gwee from Singapore, about Singapore literature. Gwee is a poet, a graphic artist and a literary critic and if you google him, you get lots and lots of hits, and many of them are around the phenomena of Singlish. I encourage you to watch his YouTube talk, Singlish is a language for the future la. So thanks so much for giving us your time Gwee

Gwee Sui Li 0:38
Thank you, Carolyn.

Carolyn Newall 0:39
I’ve been thinking a lot about two places I’ve recently spent time. The first was the UAE and the second was Singapore. Both of them are very young countries. Both have exploded developmentally in the past 50 years or so. The UAE did it with the help of substantial oil and gas money. But Singapore seems to have done it through an enormous act of will. Would that be accurate?

Gwee Sui Li 1:12
Well, on the point of Singapore, I think that is pretty accurate. It’s will and quite a lot of long suffering.

Carolyn Newall 1:20
What was required from people in Singapore. I mean, when I went back to Singapore in 2008, it was completely unrecognisable from the Singapore I had known in the 60s. What was required of the people of Singapore for that growth to happen.

Gwee Sui Li 1:38
Well, I mean, there are a lot of forces at work naturally, I mean, one of them is realising, after the World War, that, we really shouldn’t depend on foreign powers. Because I think when the Japanese invaded, it was a pretty much disappointment in the British ability to protect Singapore from what laid ahead. And so after that, there was a much discontent leading to a kind of spirit of independence of wanting to be self ruled. And we achieved that, from 1959 onwards. 1965 was when we broke free from Malaysia. And so that was a kind of a double disentangling, the first from the British colonialism and second from the area. And that, I mean, the second one, was also pretty traumatic for Singapore, because for a while, the people of Singapore and the people of Malaysia, we do feel like we were one family. But when Singapore has to leave Malaysia, that created a kind of psyche, where you kind of realise you are rejected, you need to find a way to belong, find a way to survive. Because Malaysia has been this hinterland, it has all the resources, they have all the space, and a lot of things were piped. Even today, the water comes from Malaysia. And so, because of all this, there’s this anxiety that we don’t have the things to survive. And so there is a lot of overcompensation, where we try very hard to work hard, and we are also willing to sacrifice a lot. The generation at a time, sacrificed a lot for the future. There was a strong leadership, of course, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was the was the big idol of sorts of the people because, you know, he led with a very strong fist. He also had a very clear vision of where he wanted to take the people. And so that was, on one hand, a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices. And also people have a idea, a sense of what I think is like a siege mentality, the idea that, if we, if we don’t do things well, it will be lost to us. It could be a hostility out there, you know, the world is a big place, a big scary place. So even though Singapore is known to be this international place, but also on land, there is this whole anxiety of globalism as well. So it’s a very strange paradox, where on one hand, we are very open, but on the other hand, we’re also quite closed and guarded.

Would this be a an appropriate place to then talk about the idea of the little red.

Yes. Oh, well, the idea of the little red dot was from a naughty comment that was made at one stage about it. Not really tied to the idea that it’s linked to China. In fact, I think we have quite a vague relationship. On one hand, we realise that we are small nation. In a world with big powers, and so there is a need to negotiate to find a way to not step on anyone’s toes. And so I guess internationally there is the need to maintain that balance with the West and with China. At the same time there is this danger of losing our own identity. And that is the internal issue, the internal issue is identity, the external issue is not to cross anyone We are so small that, you know, we can be easily swept away. We are very conscious that we are an anomaly in not just world politics, but in history.

Carolyn Newall 5:40
Yeah. I think it is hard for people who are not familiar with the area, to conceive of the idea that you can stand at, you know, one side of the causeway, and actually, you could swim across to Malaysia. In about, in not very long. It wouldn’t take long. It is very close. I remember my dad saying when they were there, you could get in the car and drive across. There were no checkpoints, there was, nothing. You could just go across to Jehore for dinner if you felt like it.

Gwee Sui Li 6:21

Carolyn Newall 6:21
It’s not like that now.

Gwee Sui Li 6:23
No, no, I mean, after independence, things changed. And especially now with this COVID situation. I mean, the border is closed, completely. And so we have this heartbreaking situation where, people will be standing on opposite sides of causeway waving to each other, and they support each other. I mean, for loved ones who lived on on different sides, you know, because we can’t visit them now.

Carolyn Newall 6:51
And Singapore takes its lock down very seriously.

Gwee Sui Li 6:55
Yes. And no, I think it knows that the situation in this time with this is, hard. The very early lesson with the foreign workers community, I think that’s the one that really totally broke complacency we had at first, thinking that it could easily manage this. But when it started to spread really bad in the migrant community, thats when they kind of realised that, you know, things have to be taken really seriously. And a lot of the old, I think very harsh measures came back in

Carolyn Newall 7:29
Singapore is incredibly good at managing those sorts of things.

Gwee Sui Li 7:37
Yes, I think, because I’m always managing is tied to law and order. You know, I mean, I think there has never really been something we put aside. In fact, I think since the Lee Kuan Yew days, the law has always been a way to get people to fall in line. And so you know, when it’s needed, like a time like this is very effective.

Unknown Speaker 8:01
Writer, Rachel Heng spoke in 2018, I think it was, about other people’s bizarre focus on Singapore’s laws about chewing gum. And she lamented that, that was all she got asked about, and she didn’t get the chance to talk about the Hawker food, the importance of getting the chicken rice, right. All the government campaigns, you know, whose posters and mascots chart the years of childhood, the national campaign, speak good English movement, etc. And when she looked back, and I think it’s interesting, she no longer lives in Singapore, but she notes that her novel ‘Suicide Club’, like most of her others was talking about home. And no matter where she lives, Singapore still home. So the ideas of state paternalism, metric driven notions of success, and the darker side of meritocracy, had all been deeply inspired by her upbringing. And can you? Do you want to talk to that? Explain a little bit about what she’s getting at?

Gwee Sui Li 9:18
Well, yes, um, how should I approach this? Now, generically speaking, I think all these aspects are right. But living in Singapore, at least, definitely over the years, you will realise that, you know, surprisingly, there are many ways to per-mutate these things. You know, they can change they can be in various forms. So, the way I experienced paternalism, when I was a kid was not the same as the way I experienced paternalism in the 90s, and definitely not the way I am experiencing it now. Singapore, changes and doesn’t change. So there is this very interesting way in which it’s really different. So, I guess for me, if you were to be fixated on the chewing gum, it really does harp back to the 80s, 90s. Around that time, when there was a new infrastructure in place, I remember the putting up the MRT lines. And then there was there was when the concern of people sabotaging grand projects like that led to the need to ban chewing gum. But then there was, of course, debated and then subsequently, they allowed it to be used. You can chew gum, but you just can’t buy it in Singapore. So there is this kind of subtleties, kind of great gray areas in which we deal with these issues. And also, when I was a child, the campaigns were definitely a big thing. Whether it is ‘keep your hair short campaign,’ ‘don’t waste water,’ ‘Speak Mandarin.’ You know, ‘don’t litter,’ ‘don’t spit,’ ‘flush a toilet’. Now all these campaigns are was a very big thing when I was young, you know, and to make them really enjoyable, you have all these mascots, very cartoony, cute, the mascots and jingles and all to help you get the message. I mean, and this is necessary. I can see why it’s necessary, because we are in one generation moving people from very rural lifestyle into urban lifestyle. In one generation, my father’s generation, specifically. and I think my grandfather’s generation, Didn’t really got used to it. So I think when we moved into the Housing Board flats and all, I think my grandfather is the one, my grandfather, my grandmother and that generation seem to be the most diminished as a people, whereas my father’s generation, my mother’s generation, they have to deal with this shift. So a lot of their habits, a lot of behaviours have to go. And so the state came in as a way to speed up the change in lifestyle. And so this was how all these campaigns came to place. But of course, they were kind of reactions to them, because they felt like, as was pointed out, it is very embarrassing in a way to have rethought this, what in a more developed country would be considered a pretty standard norms of behaviour. And so they have done away with that. Singapore today, I think, have really very minimal use of these campaigns. I mean, unless it’s something that they feel they needed urgently to push out as a message, like currently, you know, ‘washing your hands’ and ‘wear your mask’. And then they have to resort to that, when they need to have an urgent message out, they will resort to that. Because we do have a history of using those campaigns, but if not, they will not use it these days. That has been set aside in a way because I think the idea is that is not an effective or critical way of getting people to engage issues. They will rather have people talk about it.

Carolyn Newall 13:19
Can you talk a little bit about the the darker side of meritocracy. When you look at meritocracy in its purest forms, it makes sense, you know, People, they earn their place. But when you explore it further, as a building block for society, it doesn’t necessarily always work out that way.

Gwee Sui Li 13:48
Yes, I think you’re right. I mean, even the word meritocracy, it had an ironic origin, right? I mean, I’m sure you know that. And in that sense also, I mean, unfortunately, we seem to embrace it as if on a kind of idealistic level, on the level that we think that in terms of principle, it is something to be celebrated and something to be adhered to. But once you start to put into practice, and this is the nature of people and the nature of society, you start to find the loopholes, and start to see the gaps. And it doesn’t really work when you apply something like this across the board, or as an ideology across the board. In this case, for example, I think Singaporeans typically are great at finding loopholes and problems. Loopholes as a way to survive or to try when a system of practice hinders you. I mean, we have this word in Singlish, ‘kiasu’ right? Which means scared to lose or, always to have the advantage over another person. In a rational way. And so it can very easily expose the loopholes in meritocracy. Here’s an example. If you send all the kids into schools, of course, by educating you give everybody equal chances, but then a kiasu parent, or parents or a set of kiasu parents who want to send their kids to the better school, because that will give them a better chance of better education that will be above anyone else. And to do that, you know, they will usually go for the traditional or richer schools, because they feel like they will be able to give them that facilities. And so the government would step in and say no, they tried to stop that. And then they start to move the principal’s around. You know, they tried to make other schools as good as the so called good schools, and so there was a time when there was a tagline that ‘every school is a good school,’ right? You see, that’s a very interesting thing, whenever the government or people try to find a way to solve the issue, someone will find a loophole as a way to get their own advantage.

Carolyn Newall 15:58
And I mean, parents do it here too, parents have been known to go and buy a house, or move into the area that is covered by the school they want their child to get in to.

Gwee Sui Li 16:10
That’s right, that happens.

Carolyn Newall 16:11
I think parents everywhere do things, it’s no different in Australia than it is in Singapore. So now that we’ve covered some of the sort of general things about the way Singapore functions and the way it manages different things, I’d like to move onto the literature, the different kinds of literature, that are produced in Singapore. And one of the most interesting things about Singapore from the perspective of others is that there are actually four languages there are mother tongues, which are Tamil, I believe, Malay and Mandarin and then the language of commerce and education is English. So, can you talk a little about what that means, in the creation of literary works and in what is specifically Singaporean about that?

Unknown Speaker 17:20
It is important when we think about Singaporean literature, that we do not work with one tradition, that is the English language tradition. There are four main languages in Singapore, including Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, and there are therefore, four parallel literary traditions that we have on the island. It is because firstly, of colonial history, and then secondly, with the engagement with the world, the English language literature has come to the fore when we talk about Singaporean literature. But you know, the different traditions really do say in part, the same thing, but have reflected them differently according to the traditions. They also bring in different considerations about what Singaporean writing ought to be thinking about, focused about. I think with Chinese and Malay literature, for example, they are very concerned with the relationship with customs and values and also reactions of readership from the larger culture, to which linguistically they are connected. With Malaya literature, I think there is also this dimension of religion, that you may not see as strongly in the others, the consideration of spirituality and thoughts contained in it, in them. So, we need to remember this, that Singaporean literature is a multi prong multifaceted object and there are so many voices in it, not just within each language, but also with all four languages. And so, it has to be considered in that complexity, in that multiplicity.

Carolyn Newall 19:22
One of the things that interested me as I was doing some of my reading, and this is pointed for you, is the the idea of different genres of literature and the popularity of poetry and playwriting in Singapore literature. And I read that after independence in 65, there was a new wave of writing that emerged, and that it was predominantly expressed through poetry and that poetry has continued to have a respectable following, and much of the works of Singapore that have been published are poetic works. And I wonder whether poetry therefore, are there things you can do with poetry that you couldn’t know, perhaps do with prose? And so poetry allowed writers to touch on aspects that they wouldn’t have got away with in any other way.

Gwee Sui Li 20:33
Mmm, good question. But to contextualise it, I think things have again, changed in the last 15 years. I mean, poetry has stayed popular, until today, you’re right to note. But, fiction, novel writing, short story writing, has a renaissance of sorts, in the last 15 years. So right now, because of the support that fiction gets, through awards, through prize money, in a sense, and also through encouragement, and also through writers making it big elsewhere. That gives it the kind of lift that they needed In the last 15 years, fiction has definitely taken off in a way that we have not seen in the past. But you’re right to say that for a long time, it has always been poetry, and maybe a bit of playwriting. The reasons are varied. I think at the start, at the time when, Edwin Thumboo was the big name driving poetry in Singapore, he was at a time an academic, and also a professor at the National University of Singapore. At that time much of Singapore literature was being driven and being encouraged by the university, which it isn’t these days. So there’s definitely that shift, a moving away from an authority controlled form of literature. But at that time, poetry was important because of ?. There may be a few volumes of poetry, but there were a lot of anthologies, and anthologies are historically important for new people. Because it is a means in which people can easily contribute creatively, many people can easily contribute to a work. And it gives you a spread of psyche, a spread of artistic forms, and therefore, a way to show what the future could be, if each of these would go on to be a writer. And so anthologies at one time were really a way of encouraging the writing. Because at that time, a writer may not have, let’s say, even 50 poems in his drawer, he or she might just have like, two or three poems, which made it good for anthology but not necessarily for a book of poems. That’s one aspect, another aspect, and this is a point first made by a professor, who argued that it could well be because people in the nation building years, that means the 70s 80s, and perhaps early 90s, were too busy with, having a career, supporting their family, trying to pay off loans, trying to make the country work, you know, we talked about it being hard working at a time. And so people did not really have time to do something that needs months to work on like a novel, perhaps you will get some short stories, but poems are easily the most creatively pragmatic form to work on. And so this is why poetry was more common, not just as something that is written, but also something that’s read. You know, it’s very easy to find that say 10 minutes during lunch time to read a poem. I want to read novel, you have to really commit yourself to in a few days. And so that was the reason, but I think in a sense we moving from the 90s, late 90s onwards into a different realm. I think Singapore being a bit more established, people are finding themself very comfortable in that kind of affluent state. And people are not necessarily wanting to choose that kind of very crazily successful lifestyle. Then we have, people just willing to sit around and ask, really, frankly, to me pretty basic questions, ” What is the meaning of life? ‘Why, what am I doing all these things for?’ and then you get people doing novels and short stories and this I think, how you win?

Carolyn Newall 24:39
Yeah, Catherine Lim is a writer that obviously is known in Australia and other places, her short stories particularly. So I understand that about anthologies. That makes sense. But when I was there, we took some of the girls to Raffles,(Grammar School) they were holding a poetry reading, at Raffles, and there were a number of poets who were there. And I was outside in the hallway, talking to one of the organisers, and I said to him, so where are the dissenting voices? And he said, in Perth! And I noticed in my research here that a number of the Singaporean writers actually don’t live in Singapore anymore. Is that significant?

Gwee Sui Li 25:43
I think it’s not fair to say that we don’t have dissenting voices. It’s just that if you’re going to look for them, you’re not going to find them at a school event, you’re not going to find them in a National Event, you know! Because they’re probably not going to get invited. So let’s remember that. And secondly, also, I think people leave Singapore, writers leave Singapore for various reasons. I think, for example, the poet, Koh Jee Leong, who writes remarkably great poems that talks about the gay lifestyle, and all. I think he’s made to work in the US, in a sense, because I just see his growth and it’s tremendous, but he felt like he just couldn’t find… he found himself creatively limited, unable to explore the kind of feelings and thoughts that he could here. So he needed a bit more of that free space to do it elsewhere, and he did. Where as a poet or even playwright like Alfian bin Sa’at who probably you will find regularly in the news, because the government does have a thing against him, in a way. And, you know, he tried in this environment, because precisely, it gives clarity to the things that he believes in, it gives clarity to the things that he feels he should be fighting for. He feels it is easier for him to see what injustice looks like, you know, and so, therefore, that gives him the kind of energy to write even clearly and emotionally in Singapore. So in essence, we really is what kind of energy your work, draws from, and that then determines where is the best place to write.

Carolyn Newall 27:40
I came across KTM Iqbal, the Tamil writer, who said that what best describes Singlit is its openness and broad mindedness, and that authors are not afraid to write about what they believe in, including those related to unusual or sensitive topics. And I wondered whether, he is an older writer who’s been writing since 1957, how valid do you think that actually is?

Gwee Sui Li 28:25
It is valid to a degree and I wouldn’t say that people who dissent are necessarily always in agreement with each other. They could also disagree with each other on various aspects, on what is the proper thing to dissent on. So I mean, for a lot of writers today, I guess, the issues tend to always be, mostly be domestic about issues, social issues, ideologies and all. But I think for older writer, there will be more disagreement over form over practitions about what you can write about, the right way, how you should be writing, and the disagreement is, I think more along those aesthetic lines. I also feel writers have different strategies, and your game has to be tied to their personalities, and also the persona they want to put out there. So if someone has a persona that is not tied to social engagement, of course, what they write about and how they write will be more direct, more transgressive, and perhaps more current, and also on issues that are more sidelined. But I think writers, poets, playwrights who are not comfortable with rocking the boat, not comfortable with making this the main thing that would define their persona, they would be more willing, I guess, to make their writing less confrontational. They would deal with the issue still, but being creative writers, they will always be able to creatively write in such a way where it is more provocative than offensive. That happens. I’m not going to say that these people cannot be considered dissenting, because clearly I feel they do write in a spirit, they do not agree with what is going on. But they do not necessarily have to put it in a way that is very confrontational. So again, it depends on the creative style, the creative personality, and how they produce different ways of approaching contentious issues.

Carolyn Newall 30:58
Alfian Sa’at? Is that how you pronounce it? He seems to be quite comfortable with saying what he thinks. About broader sociopolitical things, in Malay more so?

Gwee Sui Li 31:15
I think he’s a very interesting person as well. Because I think he’s able to see things that I guess most Singaporeans would not be able to see. And secondly, also, because from the start of his career, with his book, ‘One Fierce Hour’ in 1998, he has really had image of being a kind of rebel, a writer who I mean, that was the authority in his face, everything that he hates about it. And so he has that already as his image. And so because of his craft and all, and his ability to write very fluently and also very concisely, I think, and very sharply about issues, he’s able to get that kind of engagement. I mean, I think with some other writers, you might not be able to achieve that sort of consistency in a way that Alfian is able to achieve. He has definitely managed to maintain this for the last 20 over years of his writing career. And I must say at one point that what is interesting, and what may be telling, and I’ve said this a couple of times, and I’m not sure whether anyone understood what I tried to make his point, is that I noticed that with Alfian, he may have a lot of admirers, but he doesn’t have a lot of followers. I mean, as in disciples, people who will write in his style, whereas there are writers who are less, I guess, confrontational, less dissenting, who have a lot of followers, but may not necessarily have a lot of admirers. You know, it’s a very interesting thing that he’s doing I feel like his courage definitely, his genuine engagement is the thing that draws both admirers and haters. But yet, you know, I wish he had people who feel inspired to write in his name.

Carolyn Newall 33:27
That is a really interesting point. It’s like, the Facebook profile that gets lots of likes that nobody actually speaks on it.

Gwee Sui Li 33:38
Yes, yes, yes. And you said earlier that you kind of like my quote on my email, which says, I can’t remember, what is it?

Carolyn Newall 33:51
It says, ‘Getting into trouble in Singapore is dangerous, because a lot of people will help you.’

Gwee Sui Li 33:57
Yes. And I think it ties up with this, because I think a lot of people want also do get Alfian into trouble you know, in that sense, either by supporting him unconsciously, not realising that they’re actually in a way that may actually get into more trouble. Or secondly, people who disagree and precisely want to misinterpret what he’s doing in a way that gets him in trouble.

Carolyn Newall 34:29
Yeah, now that is a really interesting point. I think I remember. Well, I remember hearing the information on a radio broadcast, and I can’t remember if it was, I think it was 2008. Where Lee Kuan Yew actually came out and said that he had been wrong in the way that they suppressed creativity. And it wasn’t like ‘oh, I am wrong, I did a bad thing.’ He was sort of pointing out the one of the side things that happened, the result of that sort of act of will to build this new nation, was that creativity got sidelined?

Gwee Sui Li 35:16
Yes. I think the famously the line that was attributed to him was that he said that poetry is a luxury we cannot afford, right, yeah.

Carolyn Newall 35:25
But then he was saying that actually they built this incredible nation, but to build the, the essential soul of the nation, the spirit and the soul of the nation, required those other things, the creativity that builds the richness into the society, which I found really interesting, and would account for the changes that you’re talking about being made in the last 20 years.

Gwee Sui Li 35:57
Yes. Well see, I suspect that ultimately, the framework is kind of burckhardtian, after the Jacob Burckhardt idea, in his famous book ‘The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,’ which is that, you know, you begin with all this independence, small states, and what is originally the most important things with the founding of this, is the basic bread and butter issues, getting the political structure right, getting the powers there, to be able to control and effectively use resources. And once all these things are done, then we can talk about culture, because the powers will pay the patron to the artists, they will pay them, it will help them to grow. And therefore you can have a renaissance in Italy. That was the idea that was put forward there. And I don’t think we strayed too far from that idea, the idea that at first, we need to really get the state into a certain shape that is efficient. And once people are looked after, then you can allow culture to thrive. That is assuming that art is just something to do in a service of power.

Carolyn Newall 37:05
Well, yeah, that’s true.

Gwee Sui Li 37:08
You know, what if art is about questioning, what if art is about competent, a more critical state of of living? Or about asking essential questions about what life is an about? Now, what if art is about all those things that necessarily may not support an economic model?

Carolyn Newall 37:23
And that’s exactly what creativity is, isn’t it? That’s what we look to our writers and poets and film makers and painters to do.

Gwee Sui Li 37:33
But we don’t all have the same idea of what creativity intends or entails. Because I think in Singapore, we have this very strange thing you must have encountered this, when you were here that we still think we can master creativity, you can teach creativity. You can make people more creative, more critical. You know this is pretty interesting. I’m not sure whether you can do these things, or whether these things is very much part of nature or nurture, you know, those kind of questions, but we don’t we don’t even go there. We actually feel like you can go to a school and get, you know, taught to be creative, taught to be critical.

Carolyn Newall 38:11
Yeah, I think you can be taught to be critical. But I don’t know that you can be taught to be creative.

Gwee Sui Li 38:18
I’m not sure no. But to ask the question, then set that itself is necessary, we need to ask the question, is it possible to teach these things, but we don’t even go there, we just assume that it can be done. And that itself is pretty uncritical and uncreative itself.

Carolyn Newall 38:34
I remember I was I was in charge of 2 H. And you’ll understand what that means. That before 2 H, there was 2 A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. And the girls in my class were streamed accordingly, they were in 2 h. So I spent about three months trying to convince them, well no, I think I managed to convince a few, that they weren’t actually the dummy class. And there were some incredibly creative girls in that class. But they didn’t, they thought differently, they were creative. But they just couldn’t meet the standards in the areas that they were required to. And I think that in those lower classes, or what was seen as lower classes, people didn’t expect as much from them, so that they actually could get away with a little bit more experimentation. But they didn’t value their creativity because that wasn’t what they were being tested on, which I found was a bit sad.

Gwee Sui Li 39:52
Yes, um, when I was teaching in the university in the last decade, I felt the same way as well. I mean, some who I thought were pretty critical minded students, they don’t necessarily do well in the exam. You know, because I guess they haven’t found a way to structure their minds to answer questions. But that is a good thing, because they are still on a quest of asking questions, on a quest of finding answers, and maybe they’re not going to get there in time for the exam. But unfortunately, our educational system is such that there is a kind of deadline of sorts to achieve these things. So that’s that.

Carolyn Newall 40:42
And, okay, look, I am so grateful for your time today. But if I could ask you a one more question to finish up on. If you had to pick one text, one writer that define Singaporean culture, who would it be? Or what would it be?

Gwee Sui Li 41:03
That defines Singapore culture? Yes.

Carolyn Newall 41:05
So one piece of work that a person who wasn’t familiar with Singapore, but could read this book and with research, understand. Like, Rachel Heng, talking about the Hawker markets.

Gwee Sui Li 41:32
I mean, I don’t know how to put this because I feel it really depends on what aspect I want to go at. I would say that if you want to get to a sense of what being Singaporean is about, the kind of very ironic, less than self conscious, unfortunately, form of existence, I would think that a poem like ‘My Country and My People’ by Lee Tzu Pheng, a very early 70s poem has managed to capture that pretty well. She wrote that poem when she was a young woman and I thought that she got quite right, the kind of struggles we still face today about Singapore, and the way we institutionally think about progress, but also the things we unfortunately sacrifice in the name of progress, that’s in that poem. But I think a raw, angrier form of this would be the one by Alfian Sa’at, which is itself a take on Lee Tzu Pheng’s ‘My Country and My People,’ which is ‘Singapore You Are Not My Country’. I mean, this is a very controversial poem because recently, even in politics, he was condemned again, as a poem that shows his disloyalty towards the country. But I don’t really think that the poem is about that, I feel that poem is really about looking at all the things that we are not doing right, you know, there’s going wrong in a country. And so in a very, I think, ironic way that a poem that is so critical to country, I would think that is actually fundamentally very Singaporean. That, and I think, if anyone wants to look across the whole history of Singapore as a kind of introduction to the history of Singapore, these days, you can’t do better than a book like Sonny Liew’s , ‘The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye’ a graphic novel, but he managed to cover the last 50 years of Singapore in excellently excellent, brilliant, beautiful way, in art.

Carolyn Newall 43:38
Well, thank you, I will do my research and find those poems that you have spoken about these pieces of literature and include them with the transcript when they’re ready. Gwee, I can’t thank you enough for your time today. It’s been great to talk to you, it’s good to get the, cultural understandings of a Singaporean to light the way to those of us who are trying to read Singaporean literature.

Gwee Sui Li 44:16
Yeah, it’s really lovely talking to you.

Carolyn Newall 44:21
Thank you to our guest Gwee Sui Le from Singapore, and to all our listeners tuning in from around the world. This has been the second episode of the World Lit podcast, and is brought to you by We Teach Well, committed to providing equal educational experiences for all teachers and students no matter where they live. If you have any questions or would like to send any of your suggestions for the literature you’d like to learn more about, contact us at [email protected] We hope you are enjoying our podcasts. So please make sure to like and share and subscribe to our list so that you can stay up to date with all our latest news, initiatives and upcoming episodes. In our next episode, we will be talking to Angela Tutty, a New Zealand English teacher and I can promise you it will be interesting.

Transcribed by

Show Notes

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.