Monday, January 19, 2015

My relationship with poetry.

When I was younger living in Singapura, I had to lie to my parents about a lot of things. Like "going to the library" could mean, going on a date with a boy. Or going to watch a N16 movie with some friends. Or going to an all-ages punk gig on a Saturday that starts around 3pm and ends around 7pm. Sometimes I really was at the library. Reading books that I should not be reading. Writing things I should not be thinking.

I am the eldest in my family and while it is established today that I am the black sheep of the family (due to my choice of living in activism and not getting a real job), I also happen to be the most multi-talented over-achiever one amongst my siblings. Throughout my primary school life, I often won some sort of annual Best Prize for English, or Malay, or storytelling, or essay-writing, talent quests, and even sports day events. My parents would stock all my trophies, medals and plaques in the glass china cabinet for people to see when they visit. My younger sister got very jealous and insecure growing up. She probably felt like she was always in my shadow, or worse, that those medals and trophies meant that I was somehow smart(er) or worthi(er) in the family.

But when I was in secondary school, suddenly things changed.
My parents wanted me to focus on my studies and would not allow me to join any arts/sorts clubs apart from the all-girls' choir. Even that was hard to convince them. I initially wanted to join the Malay Performance Arts/dance society. My father got very nervous. He was afraid that I would start mixing with those dirty Malay boys and become pregnant at 15 like many Malay girls we knew in our community. So at all costs, they got even stricter about my extra curricular activities. The "library" thus became everything - not an excuse for rebellion but a means for me to free myself from that fear of me growing up harboured by my parents.

One of the most difficult things for me to access in these years was poetry. My mother found my diary/notebook once and it had a lot of poems and verses. She got very very shocked because I was able to use various expressions of love and translate my observations of people and nature to highlight the hypocrisies and tragedies of romance. She told me however, that I was possessed by the devil and should relieve myself with prayer every time I think of such things. Later when I was 15 or 16, my Malay Bahasa teacher got me reading some Malay poems, called sajaks. Sajak is like a free-verse poem, as opposed to pantuns which are rhyme-based. Sajaks are ferocious and dramatic creations. And you know, since you need to feel a sajak in order to recite it, Sajaks were dangerous. I remember feeling so free reading them out loud in class. My Malay teacher approached me afterwards and told me that I have a gift and I should sign up for the regional poetry recital competitions. My parents would not allow that. So I forged their signature on the parental permission slips and went to the "library" a lot for months, writing and practising after school hours.

When I eventually won the national poetry recital competition, I had this huge as trophy to bring home. I even got interviewed for the local Malay newspaper and it was going to be published on the same weekend my event was held. I panicked. When I got home, I tried hiding the trophy in the shoe cupboard before finally telling my mum. I told her everything. I said, "sorry Mum sorry" multiple times, "I won, and I couldn't help it. I just really wanted to try and see if I could do it". My mum hugged me and scolded me for lying to her all those months. She later said, "just don't do it again." and "we have to tell your father though ok?"

Interestingly when the newspaper article came out, my father who was then studying in Queensland for his masters programme, demanded for a clipping to be scanned to him so he could show it to his friends. Phew, that was close. I thought. My family members and extended relatives kept calling my mother that Sunday complimenting her. She just said, "Alhamdullillah, it is the will of Allah that she won anyway."

I never stopped thanking and doing poetry since then. It has become part of my life not only because it freed me from the loneliness and isolation imposed on me as a young person growing up, but it also enabled me to keep myself honest during impossible times. My parents never understood how and why I felt so connected with writing and reciting, as much as I could not understand why they were so afraid of me getting off the rails through it. But I realise it now. Poetry means freedom. Freedom in a way only you can access. When I really feel the undying need to write poetry, I don't go looking for words. Words just come out of me, often rushing, often painful and often awakening like... the truth. And when you discover the truth, you have a choice to hold it close to your heart and never express or express it as boldly as you need to and be ready for societal consequences. I was hiding my relationship with poetry because of both.

These days, as I find myself often navigating through activist, feminist and Muslim spaces and things get too personal or political or both, I realise that I need poetry more than ever. I just let it become a part of me, and live and speak it in any form, any way and any day until noone, not even my parents, realise it as anything else but me, even if it means people seeing me as contradicting, foolish or talking gibberish. I am just so so thankful for poetry.

Here I am with one of my poems. Enjoy.


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