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The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Kirpal Singh

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/Singapore 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Singapore as you feel or see it?

Anxiety-ridden and intensely competitive; faces show a lack of inner peace or joy.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

A man shoving his head into an open brick-oven when I was about ten years old in my kampong in Jalan Eunos. Though obviously disturbed, this man was an essential part of my growing-up, and seeing him do this (he died in the process) made me realize just how cruel life can be.

What is the most extraordinary detail in the city, one that goes unnoticed by most?

I think Singapore has one of the most beautiful skylines in the world—to look at our skyline on a clear night is sheer pleasure; exquisite.

What writer(s) from Singapore should we read?

All—if there is time and opportunity. I think it is critical that the young read our earlier generation of writers just as we old fuddy-duddies read the works of our young.

Is there a place in Singapore that you return to often?

Yes—Seletar Reservoir, for it holds very dear memories of my adventures there with my daughters and son, as well as Kranji, where my father lived without me.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Mandai and Changi—these two lovely places have been the subject of many poems and stories.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Yes, the hidden cities of sin and pleasure (Geylang) and of labor and resources (Chinatown).

Where does passion live here?

It rarely lives in Singapore because of an intense pressure not to display its force. When it does, it shows up in our poems, stories, plays—and sometimes in open fights along streets!

What is the title of one of your works about Singapore and what inspired it exactly?

“Moving Out,” a poem about my childhood, is packed with memories and a statement about what “shifting” might and can entail.

Inspired by Levi: “Outside Singapore, does an outside exist?” 

Yes—amazingly so—exemplified, for me, by the fact that every time I leave Singapore, I am struck by just how strongly the outside compels me to return home.


Kirpal Singh has authored or edited over thirty books, one hundred scholarly articles, four volumes of poetry, and two collections of short fiction. His latest book of poems, The Best of Kirpal Singh, is part of the Singapore Pioneer Poets Series from Epigram Books. A featured writer in some of the world's top literary festivals, he was a 1997 Fellow of the famed Iowa International Writers Program, and has been writer-in-residence at several universities. A much sought-after creativity guru and futurist, he is a long-time board member of the American Creativity Association and of the Aldous Huxley Society. His book of nonfiction, Thinking Hats and Coloured Turbans: Creativity Across Cultures (2004), was one of the first to link creativity to the language in which one is first nurtured. Currently, Kirpal is the Director of the Wee Kim Centre at the Singapore Management University, where he teaches creative writing.

Published Jul 14, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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