At the age of 80, Edwin Thumboo is the senior-most writer attending the fourth Hyderabad Literary Festival. The Emeritus Professor of English at the National University of Singapore displayed a remarkable sense of humour in an interactive session on World English and the literature of Singapore that took place on day one of the fest on Friday.
“The English language is so rich, but you can make it richer by writing the way you want it. Every writer must have his own culture. For example, Indians have the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Vedas, the Upanishads and so much more. India is so rich in literary culture, it reflects on the writer as well,” explained the octogenarian.
Often dubbed as Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate, Thumboo is a pioneer of local English literature who edited some of the earliest anthologies of English poetry and fiction from Singapore and Malaysia. Drawing from his rich experience, he gave an insight into the history of the language.
“The English language originated in the United Kingdom before it went to America, Australia and other parts of the world. However, English is a very young language. In fact, Indians had classical literature before the British even had a language,” he shared.
A receipient of several international awards for literature, including ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award (Literature) in 1987, The Raja Rao Award (2002) and the Sun Thorn Phu Award (2013), the professor rued the lack of identity which Singapore suffers from.
“Singapore is a country which is filled with immigrants from India, China, Malaysia and so on. There is no identity and no individuality as a nation. The younger generation has quickly adapted since they know Singapore after her independence. However, the country did not have the luxury other nations had to establish an identity for themselves before the beginning of rampant globalisation and the internet. We never had a chance to become national before we became international,” he explained.
Speaking as someone who worked towards building a body of Singapore literature in English, he felt that his countrymen still struggle to create an identity for themselves. “Singaporeans are often hyphenated as Chinese-Singaporean or Indian-Singaporean. Though we are an independent country and we have a legal identity, it will take time for us to be recognised as Singaporean,” he points out.
A professor since 1966, his non-academic body of work include poetry collections like Rib of Earth (1956), Gods Can Die (1977), Ulysses by the Merlion (1979), A Third Map (1993) and The Best of Edwin Thumboo (2012). Each of his work have been a conscious attemot to give his people words they can call their own. “In 1952, I wrote an editorial saying it is time we create our own literature; the future generation must be able to read our own literature. Unfortunately, we lack the totality to become a society. There are no folklores, myths or legends, and it is important for a writer to have a hinterland.”
And while the lack of a cultural legacy has been a big enough obstacle, Thumboo feels the evolution of the internet, development of mass media at large and increase in hand held smartphones has killed the art of literature.
“The internet has become so rampant these days. I often tell people not to use Google because it diminishes the value of language and literature. Unfortunately, the younger generation is far more comfortable with the internet as opposed to books,” he rued, adding that he hoped such fests in India would help promote a stronger sense of pride in Indian literature among our people.