On a cold, winter afternoon in Cambridge, England, propped against my bed and feeling the knots in the carpeted floor, I discovered the poems of Boey Kim Cheng. At the time, I’d joined my university’s Decolonise English Campaign, but had sheepishly found myself ill-acquainted with the English-language poetry of Singapore. Nestled deep in the heart of empire, an ability to articulate a national lineage seemed necessary. If not as a representative of Singapore, then in being able to provide counterexamples from the post-colonial world—different experiences, different conceptual frames, different Englishes. I’d purchased a copy of Clear Brightness, Boey’s fifth collection, to read after going through the Collected Poems of Arthur Yap. I began to leaf through the pages and once I started reading, I found I couldn’t stop. Lines from the book’s eponymous poem, “Clear Brightness”, have remained with me:
Here the bush is charred, the trees
splintered, pulverised like Dad’s bones
after the fire. The ash taste clings
to the house, even after hosing and sweeping.
It seeps into my dreams, into the new life
I have made, and on my sleep it is still raining
ash, flakes falling like memory, on my dead settling
like a snowdrift of forgetting.
Boey’s poems left me breathless. They spoke of movement, of restlessness, of yearning, and of unsettling. They had a peripatetic verve that saw Boey’s speakers traverse a multitude of places and memories. They held a kind of wry, observational power to them, an imagination that was constantly looking both beyond and back within Singapore. Something of Boey’s concerns held an eerie mirror to my own life, itself stitched together by the comings and goings of my ancestors, from Malaysia and South Korea to the US and Hong Kong and Singapore. And on to England, as an undergraduate, being given the chance to become grounded someplace new, where I would find that the baggage of all the previous migrations that had sustained my life could and would not leave. Boey’s poems spoke to that kind of solace.
“...your writing didn’t just release me from the burden of conscience, didn’t just make me feel less alone,” wrote the poet and essayist Zhang Ruihe, in a heartfelt letter addressed to Boey. “The greater gift was that your writing opened the door to a world I hadn’t known existed in Singapore—a world in which people thought about and wrote poetry, invested time and energy in that most arcane of the literary arts.”
The exquisite and aching quality of Boey’s poetry has left him much vaunted in the annals of Singaporean literary history. In 1992, his debut poetry collection Somewhere-Bound won the National Book Development Council’s Book Award for Poetry. This was followed by a nomination for the Singapore Literature Prize for his 1995 collection Days Of No Name as well as his receiving the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 1996. The poet and scholar Shirley Geok-lin Lim once called Boey the “best post-1965 English language poet in the Republic today.”
The irony herein is that Boey renounced his Singaporean citizenship long ago, having emigrated to Australia with his family in 1997. Poet and critic Gwee Li Sui has written that Boey’s writing drew “attention to an invisible coating over a young nation’s creations.” He elaborated that Somewhere-Bound, Another Place and Days of No Name, three of Boey’s books, insinuated “mental deviance, a refusal to cooperate in acts of nation-building, and a preference for existential flux and vagueness.”
This rejection of a desire to adhere to a nationalist narrative was perhaps what set Boey apart from his predecessors, but also gave a sense that his leaving was inevitable. Boey continues to occupy a unique, perhaps vexed, position as a Singaporean literary émigré who is no longer a Singaporean. This peculiar position was further complicated when, in 2016, after decades spent living away, he made the quiet decision to return, one driven primarily by filial piety. His mother was aging and her health was declining. He felt a tremendous sense of guilt to have not been in Singapore when his father and grandmother passed. He’d taken on an associate professorship at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), teaching English and creative writing. A prodigal return, but on an expatriate package.
“You do feel a double sense of betrayal. That you leave your adopted country to come back to your place of birth to live and work,” he described of his return to Singapore. It is a feeling I am familiar with—having renounced my American citizenship in 2017, I returned to attend graduate school in 2021. It was a position of ambivalence and imposture that I haven’t altogether learned to resolve. As Boey articulated, “It’s been strange, returning as a native turned foreigner, to be an expatriate here. You feel doubly an outsider, and the ground has once again shifted under your feet.”