Saturday, April 27, 2024


ERIC TINSAY VALLES presents the Preface to

A World in Transit by Eric Tinsay Valles

(Ethos Books, Singapore, 2011) 



As a Chinese Filipino, I have had brushes with otherness in my native and adopted societies. While growing up in Manila, I was aware that I was fairer and had smaller eyes than most people around me –and for a while got teased for this. Living abroad, first in Taipei in the 1990s and now in Singapore, has made me realize that I speak and, in certain ways, think differently from many of my colleagues. This otherness could be frustrating, especially when I was just starting to learn Mandarin, the language of my maternal grandfather’s family. How could one make sense of noodle-like brushwork on billboards or bus guides everywhere, for instance? But might this otherness also be liberating? It gives me some objectivity in exploring ways of looking and voicing my experience of self and others in a much more integrated world. It also opens up possibilities for cobbling together words, imagery and poetic forms from more than one cultural tradition in my writing. 

My poetry is an attempt to capture snatches of home in exile, which is a theme and trope that can be applied to the human condition. We are, after all, always on the way. People who have been wrenched from some native place struggle to reconstruct this home through stories and poetry. This home, however, may not always correspond to the physical place that has been left behind. Filipino poet and literary critic Gemino Abad locates this notion of home in the poet’s lively, expressionistic imagination. He writes, “Our country … is in a deep sense how we imagine her. To speak of her is to re-imagine her. Our sense of our country is a sustained act of imagination…. Now, in our own stories and poems, … in whatever language, our writers too have created those images of ourselves – our land and our people and the way we live –by which we recognize our nativity.” This task, like any calling, requires commitment.

I have found out that this view of the poetic imagination is shared by many Singaporean writers, with whom I have felt a kinship over the past decade. I first got acquainted with a few of them during graduate research in the early 2000s. I have grown in my interaction with them during Creative Arts Programme workshops attended by some of my students, coaching with Aaron Maniam under the National Arts Council’s Mentor Access Project, and by proxy as I grappled with their texts in literature classes. Singapore literature pioneer and grand mentor Edwin Thumboo, for example, suggests in the seminal poem “Ulysses by the Merlion” that the old symbols of Singapore’s various ethnic groups are inadequate to convey the boundless ambition and creativity of its young people. He thus fashions a new discourse and mythologizes the half-lion, half-fish icon as a new symbol of nationhood: 

Adding to the dragon, phoenix, 
Garuda, naga those horses of the sun, 
This lion of the sea, 
This image of themselves.

Indeed, the poetic imagination cannot help but generate ideas and find means to express that elusive sense of home. 

One fruitful way of looking at the poetic migrant experience is through the use of sociologist Elliott Robert Barkan’s analogy of monkey bars or the jungle gym, which is a fixture in children’s playgrounds. New or late-coming children become others in this mini world. They swing from one bar to another. They may hesitate to climb to a higher rung, because other children made it there first. But these newcomers learn to be patient and observe. Later on, they are able to converse with the others and contribute to wholesome play in a safe environment. That is when they may claim to have settled down in a new home. 

I am a newcomer to the microcosm that is poetry on this island. I am awed by what I am constantly discovering about its symbols, idioms and people. At the same time, I bring with me some beliefs, experiences and stylistic conventions with which my immediate readers may not be readily familiar. I take solace in the fact that perhaps all poets have gone through a comparable, if not similar, experience.


Eric Tinsay Valles recreates home in exile, whether physical or spiritual. He won a Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing prize for poems in his second collection, After the Fall (dirges among ruins). His first poetry book was A World in Transit. He won Illumination. ELit and Living Now awards for his co-edited A Given Grace and Finding God in All Thingsanthologies. He co-edited also the Get Lucky and Get Luckier anthologies of Singapore and Filipino writings, Sg Poems 2015-2016, Anima Methodi, The Nature of Poetry, The Atelier of Healing and Finding God in All Things. He has been featured in & Words, Reflecting on the Merlion, Southeast Asian Review of English, Straits Times, Routledge’s New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing and other journals. His critical essays have appeared in The Asiatic and Writing Diaspora. He has been invited to read poetry or commentaries at Baylor, Melbourne and Oxford Universities as well as Kistrech Poetry Festival. He is a director of Poetry Festival (Singapore). 

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