Mon, Aug 10, 2009
The Straits Times
Love for library that held more than just books

TAMIL language writer K. Kanagalatha stands contemplating all that remains of her beloved old National Library building: two red-brick gate posts and a weather-beaten white fence.

These remnants of the old library's carpark entrance, now incorporated into the National Museum's compound, were preserved as a physical reminder of what was for decades a favourite haunt of book-loving Singaporeans.

The library in Stamford Road was shut down and demolished in 2004 as part of the redevelopment of the Fort Canning area. A tunnel to ease traffic flow into the civic district has swallowed up the distinctive red-brick building, built in 1960.

'I really loved the library. The place left a lot of memories, not only for myself but also for Singapore,' says Ms Kanagalatha, or Latha, as the 41-year-old award-winning poet and short-story writer prefers to be known.

As a student at Upper Serangoon Secondary Technical School, she used to spend hours after school combing through the shelves in the library and losing herself in a book.

In the 1990s, when she started working as a features writer at Tamil language newspaper Tamil Murasu, she participated in literary events held at the library.

She is now the daily's news editor.

Although some Singaporeans had called for the library to be preserved back in the late 1990s, she thinks of Singapore as - by and large - an unsentimental, practical nation when it comes to heritage conservation.

Her soft voice belies the strength of her convictions as she goes on to argue that such breakneck modernisation is, ironically, detrimental to nationhood and identity.

'When you continually demolish the memories and the attachments to various places, your attachment to the nation is slowly eroded.'

She sees this lack of sentimentality reflected in another Singaporean characteristic - the urge to make money from buying and selling houses.

'Singaporeans don't have an attachment to the home; they only see the investment value. And when you don't have an attachment to the home, how can you develop an attachment to the nation?'

The shawl of her russet red salwar kameez, a traditional South Asian outfit, curls like a question mark in the breeze.

Home for the writer, who is single, is a three-room HDB flat in Tiong Bahru.

A Singaporean of Tamil origins, she moved here from Sri Lanka at the age of 12 with her family. Her late father was already working here as a priest in a Hindu temple.

She was 20 and working at Tamil Murasu when she wrote her first poem. Poetry was an outlet - 'I think I had a lot of things I wanted to say.'

Her works are pointed musings on personal and social issues. For example, her collection of short stories, provocatively titled Nan Kolai Seyium Penkkal or The Women I Kill, depicts the female struggle for space and identity within the male-dominated Indian community here.

It won in the Tamil category of last year's Singapore Literature Prize.

Her two collections of modern Tamil poetry, Theeveli (Firespace) and Paampuk Kaattil Oru Thaazhai (A Screwpine in Snakeforest), explore themes of race, gender, history and myth.

Her works have appeared in two anthologies of Singapore poetry as well as prominent international Tamil literary journals.

Anthologies collecting the best of Singapore poetry are a good idea, but she feels strongly that the poems selected should reflect the voice of the people rather than officialdom.

For Tamil literature, the biggest challenge is getting young Indian Singaporeans interested in reading and writing it. She observes that they are more comfortable with English literature.

While schools are trying to simplify the teaching of Tamil and emphasising more the spoken language, in the process they are also 'taking out much of the essence of the language', she feels. Students should be introduced to at least the basics of Tamil literature, she says.

But what is common to both the English and Tamil language poetry scenes here is the lack of a wider audience, she believes.

'To have literature, you must have the support of society. In India, there are different types of literature being produced. Every group has its forums where they write, discuss, fight - inspiring people to read and write more.'

Singapore's literary scene is much smaller and people 'don't really talk about literature, don't really criticise'.

As a writer, 'you have to read and write on your own and inspire yourself', she says with a rueful smile.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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