30th May 2016
The wording of the theme, ‘Avoidance Of Doubt’, comes from the language of legal documentation and contracts – and any mention of the law tends to at least subconsciously suggest the breaking of it. Perhaps that is why many of this week’s entries sought to establish a mystery, often involving some real or potential transgression, to be resolved by the end of the piece: it is a structure in writing made familiar by crime fiction and other procedural tales, that is to say stories driven by an account of the means by which a problem comes to be solved, or doubt dispelled. So here we have conspiracy theories, suspicious behaviour, anxious spouses, ancient manuscripts needing to be decoded, questions of origin, and even a heist. A well-wrought story of this nature has to be assured and evenly paced, like a confident guide taking the reader by the hand and leading them somewhere worthwhile and pointing out interesting sights along the way. In this regard, I most enjoyed reading 1844 and 1845, which I’d like to recommend as featured pieces, because they are full of interesting little details that help to flesh out the worlds they inhabit, taking the reader behind the scenes, as it were, into the realm of professions and practices not common in daily experience. Simply put: they showed me something I didn’t already know, and then whetted my appetite for more.
1844 does this quite effectively through the use of specialised language: terms such as “croupier” and “tophatting”, along with appropriate descriptions of place names and outfits (even though it does resort on several occasions to cliché) do much to convey an authentic sense of a casino, even as the narrative punctures the very glamour it generates, by showing us some of the tawdry backstage operations beneath the glittering surfaces. The story comes to a generally satisfying ending and I found myself rereading it with pleasure as I sifted through the entries for my favourites.
Similarly, 1845, while a tad overwrought in places and not altogether convincing in historical terms, takes us into the world of religious archaeology popularised by the Da Vinci Code and other such tales – yet there is an emotional core to the story I found compelling, in the figure of the dry, devout Deborah who decodes the mystery manuscript. A few brief, choice descriptions and fragments of dialogue are all the story needs to suggest Deborah’s inner spiritual and emotional upheaval, aroused by their startling find, the narrator’s quick witted understanding and quiet sympathy, and in contrast the bluster and managerial impatience of the results-oriented Sir Ken. There isn’t any unearned melodrama: quite the opposite: this story works best when it shows rather than tells.
But the piece I felt most moved by was: 1838 “Psalm of Avoidance”. Deceptively simple, almost conversational in language and structure, the poem engages with the theme in multiple ways, and enacts a series of silences and absences – speaking to what is unspoken and articulating evasion in a way that feels true to the experience both of “avoidance” and of “doubt” in light of different traumatic, intimate betrayals: of an unfaithful spouse, of a lack of familial communication and trust, and of the body’s inevitable, undeniable deterioration. I choose this poem because I want to draw attention to the way this poem proceeds through a series of denials, negatives, failures, erasures, culminating in the loaded silence of the understated killer of a last line. “We did not speak of this again” is devastating in both its implications: that something of such fundamental import to the family might be swept under the carpet, and that the silence might have been the outcome of not only obstinate refusal but of the mother’s death. There are doubts that can only be avoided, never answered.
Congratulations to all the writers and here’s to the next round!
About The Judge
Alvin Pang (b.1972, Singapore) was Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005, and received the Singapore Youth Award for Arts and Culture in 2007. A poet, writer, editor and translator, his work has been translated into over fifteen languages.
Pang has appeared in numerous major festivals and publications worldwide, and represented Singapore at Poetry Parnassus -- part of the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad. A Board Member of the University of Canberra’s International Poetry Studies Institute and a Fellow of the Iowa International Writing Program, he also directs The Literary Centre (Singapore), a non-profit inter-cultural initiative.
His recent publications include the Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Autumn Hill, USA: 2010), What Gives Us Our Names (Math Paper Press: 2011), Other Things and Other Poems (Brutal, Croatia: 2012) and When The Barbarians Arrive (Arc Publications,UK: 2012).