Marylyn Tan’s GAZE BACK: It’s 2020 — Why are we still celebrating women writers?

On 27 August 2020, Marylyn Tan made history as the first woman to win the Singapore Literature Prize for Poetry in English with her debut volume, GAZE BACK, published by Ethos Books.

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Credit – Marylyn Tan

Even more groundbreaking than being a first woman winner, I’d say, would be the winning work itself. I had the opportunity to speak to her about GAZE BACK, and ask what she thinks about gender in Singapore’s literary landscape.   

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GAZE BACK, with its infusion of words, images and poetic forms, never has a dry moment.

In the words of the poet herself, this collection is an “instruction book, a grimoire, a recipe book; a call to insurrection—to wrest power from the institutionalised social structures that serve to restrict, control and distribute it amongst those whom society values and privileges above the disenfranchised”. 

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Credit – Marylyn Tan

With its bold irreverence, Gaze Back unapologetically calls out how some people are institutionally made more equal than others. Think of the gay people, sex workers, non-Chinese and queer folk. At best, they pass under the radar, and at worst, they bear the brunt of discriminatory policies. 

As Marylyn highlights, we live in a society that doesn’t think all of its members deserve the same access to protection and resources. Gay couples face additional hurdles to getting the same housing as their straight counterparts, sex workers often find themselves outside of government safety nets, and offences seem reportable only by the race of who reports them. 

Behind all this, it’s clear that our existing power structures are designed to maintain the divide between the privileged and disenfranchised.

GAZE BACK calls out these oppressive power structures while lifting up the disenfranchised that it speaks for. In this way, it reads like a two-way manual for empowerment and righteous destruction. While GAZE BACK exposes the damaging violence and sanctions enacted upon marginalised individuals, readers may also find themselves mirrored in all their unacceptable glory here. 

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One of my favourites from this collection has to be C:\Users\marylyn.tan\UnDocuments\Queer Bodies. Yes, you read that right. This unusually named poem ingeniously appropriates the language of code to mock the dichotomous classifications of sexual and gender identities.

It is both the unconventional forms and unabashed tackling of silenced topics that makes GAZE BACK so remarkable and memorable.

A lot of attention is paid to Marylyn’s status as the first woman to win the SLP in English Poetry, and rightly so. Her win speaks volumes for our growing acceptance towards previously silenced voices.

I asked her if she felt that recognition for GAZE BACK had been in any way diluted as a result. She aptly pointed out that you can’t really separate the person from the poetry, and recognition for an alternative voice like hers does pave the way for her works to enter mainstream consumption. In the process, the people she speaks for also have a chance to be heard.

Establishment recognition – such as that bestowed by the SLP – on a work like GAZE BACK is a hopeful sign of increasing openness to different voices and stories. After all, when GAZE BACK was first published, Marylyn was convinced it would only appeal to a small demographic of readers. Look at it go now.

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Credit – Marylyn Tan

I was humbled by Marylyn’s realistic candour when it came to talking about gender in Singapore literature. My idealistic self had initially raised a skeptical eyebrow at the fuss made about the first woman winner of the SLP in English Poetry. Were we not, in the process, drowning out value for her work?

Admittedly, in an ideal world, a woman’s triumph wouldn’t be something out of the ordinary and there wouldn’t be a need to make a fuss. But, as she acknowledges, women are still navigating male-dominated fields and industries in the unideal world that we live in. In these cases, recognition for their voices inevitably becomes a political act.

For GAZE BACK, Marylyn’s win puts marginalised perspectives in a place of hope in literature. Perhaps we’re beginning to accept alternative voices and perspectives in what we read.

So, why do we still celebrate women writers when we already think they should naturally have a voice? It boils down to the fact that that platform does not come easily for women to project their voices. Because of that, it’s still important to promote and celebrate the perspectives they offer.

GAZE BACK addresses so many intersectionalities–women, queers, people of colour, the list goes on. Alone, it stands up for the disallowed. As a Singapore Literature Prize winner, we’re a small step closer to institutional recognition for the disallowed.

If you’re interested to read GAZE BACK yourself, you can get a copy via Ethos Books or Kinokuniya Singapore.

Find Marylyn on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with her literary and artistic escapades.