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Creative Writing at NTU

Constellations, Issue 5

Jon Gresham

Jun 30, 2020 | Articles

I joined NTU in August 2017 to study a graduate degree programme: Master of Arts with specialisation in Creative Writing. The degree requirements include a thesis of 23,000 words comprising a creative project of prose, poetry or a screenplay, and an exegesis of 7,000 words, coursework, and a set number of hours teaching and assisting various School initiatives.

The programme is sufficiently flexible to permit change in a creative project over the course of the degree. In my case my original creative project concerned a fictional memoir, Memoir to the Unknown Father, which would explore authenticity and exoticism in transcultural adoption and Eurasian identity through the ‘imagined’ memoir of a fictional character in search of their biological father. This project morphed into an autofiction, The Bastard, and then became the start of a novel, Love, Death and Debt Restructuring, after input from my supervisor, faculty and peers.

At the end of two years I had a solid 27,000 words for the start of a novel. My supervisor was always available to provide useful input on each draft and a lot of my writing had been workshopped by many staff and students.

Another requirement for the degree is to complete three courses. I studied the mandatory course, History of Literary Theory, with Assistant Professor Graham Matthews. I found this prima facie dry and esoteric subject well explained with an expansive, practically oriented teaching approach. I also took Postcolonial Literature and Theory with Adjunct Professor Shirley Chew. I enjoyed reading and discussing the wide variety of books ranging from authors such as Joseph Conrad to Sonali Deraniyagala via Teju Cole.

Another significant component of the postgraduate programme is teaching. I taught fiction and poetry to several undergraduate creative writing classes. This was a worthwhile and challenging experience. There are similarities in struggling to maintain student engagement over a three-hour seminar and trying to keep readers turning the page.

The programme also provides an opportunity for involvement in literary community workshops and readings. I enjoyed organising graphic medicine workshops with Prof Graham Matthews and the artists Don Low and James Tan. This is an area where the humanities have an immediate practical benefit in opening up conversations with patients and medical professionals on their lived experience with their treatment and the hierarchies and structures of medicine.

The third course I took was a creative writing workshop with a warm and talented group nurtured and led by Assistant Professor Barrie Sherwood. I was fortunate to know several of the workshop participants already. This was the ideal environment to give and receive critique and have my stories challenged. Feedback in the workshop led me to take my novel in a new, perhaps foolhardy, direction combining a Eurasian adoption memoir with a corporate restructuring thriller set in Thailand.

These workshops were the highlight of my degree. Below are several random passages plucked from my colleagues’ texts so readers can sample a taste of the writing we critiqued in our workshops:

“And as the sun climbs overhead, a few more of us freaks turn up. A pocong, trying to sip 7 Up through the layers of his shroud. A hantu jepun, rusty samurai sword in hand, pouring stale sake into his decapitated stump. A trio of hungry ghosts, ribs like xylophones, snuffling prosperity cake covered in joss stick ash. And like my day couldn’t get any worse, a platoon of wild toyol, hooting and babbling in their own gobbledygook babytalk, butt-naked and streaked with dirt from their hunting grounds in Telok Blangah.”

Ng Yi-Sheng, excerpt from a work in progress

“ ‘We’re going to have to cut it apart. There’ll be no pain, but you might feel a slight tugging sensation when each half is taken out. It’ll be quick.’

I made the mistake of looking at the instrument, a rotating burr, the grit of which glinted in the light. He lowered it into my mouth. I felt the soft tissue parting, but without pain, as though it wasn’t my flesh but rather a layer of jelly that I held in my mouth. A spray of enamel erupted in a fine mist, coating the Doctor’s protective glasses with a thin layer of white.”

Yu Yan Chen, excerpt from a work in progress

“Just yesterday, he had defecated into a plastic bag filled with fresh marigolds meant for puja. He handed the soiled mess to Gomathi, his oldest daughter-in-law whom he now refers to as the maid, before returning to his bedroom for a nap.”

Prasanthi Ram, excerpt from a work in progress

“With her legs pinned down by the weight of the cartographer, Eva thrashed her arms about, grabbing at anything that might save her. Then, she felt the cool and scaly skin of a snake at the tip of her fingers. Its hissing close to her ears. With one hand, she coiled its yellow spotted body around her finger and lifted it into the air. Its instinct was to curl, to latch on to something. And so it projected itself and coiled its nimble body around Adao’s neck. And twisted.

Adao’s face was dark. Just then, an orange flickering light fell on his face and she saw that he had turned pale and blue.”

Arin Alycia Fong, excerpt from a work in progress

“There is a make-shift pandal in the yard, where guests are gathered. I watch everyone before me closely. When I kiss Appacha’s cheek it is cold. And as I lean over, I am afraid of hesitating. There is a long line of people waiting to kiss him. I watch my cousins, four and five, now wandering around the crowd in a happy daze. I give them looks as the eldest cousin. I want to be proper, solemn. Yet after the kiss I do not cry like my mom, though I expect to. And I am left with a nagging feeling that I did not love him enough.”

Gautam. Joseph, excerpt from a work in progress

“My gaze travels across the room. Dad is circling Mum and mouthing the lyrics. Mum is egging him on, her claps timed precisely to match the drumbeats. I never knew my parents had a song, but they must have danced to something at their wedding. The small children poke their heads out of the room and watch, mesmerised. The teenagers wander out as well. I’m totally aware that my parents are having a romantic moment in public and that this should be disgusting. But like everybody else in the room, I have begun to clap along with Mum. She tips her head to the left and rises from her chair, nudging closer to Dad with her hips. They’re radiant with happiness.”

Balli Kaur Jaswal, excerpt from a work in progress

We valued one another’s encouragement and insights so much that we decided to continue the workshops after the semester ended.

After finishing my studies I returned to NTU and got a job running the Asia Creative Writing Programme. This is a partnership between the National Arts Council and the University to bring visiting writers to teach and mentor students. The Programme builds on previous NTU and NAC writing programmes which have brought over thirty Singapore and international writers to NTU. Intercultural interaction will be promoted through developing literary translation and exchanges between writers writing in the four official languages of Singapore. We hope to provide more developmental opportunities for writers amongst NTU alumni and the public, as well as holding more activities in collaboration with NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, the School of Art, Design and Media, and Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information.

The best aspect of studying creative writing at NTU is the quality of visiting writers and fellow students. These have included Nicholson Baker – winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Hermann Hesse Prize, George Szirtes – a winning translator of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, Simon Armitage – the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Amanda Lee Koe – youngest winner of the Singapore Literature prize, Pooja Nansi, Director of the Singapore Writers Festival, and Mark Nair – winners of the 2016 Singapore Young Artist Awards, and Madeleine Thien – winner of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s LiBeraturpreis and shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. Tash Aw – winner of the O Henry Prize, the Whitbread Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize – is currently the Writer in Residence at NTU.

Graduate students receiving inspiration, guidance and support under the programme include Balli Kaur Jawal – winner of the 2014 Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award, Nuraliah Norasid – winner of the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and the 2018 Singapore Book Awards for Best Fiction Title, and Ng Yi-Sheng – winner of the 2006 Singapore Literature Prize for Poetry and the 2019 Singapore Book Awards Best Literary Work.

For writers looking to develop a poetry or prose work and deepen their craft in a supportive environment with a strong connection to South East Asian and Singapore literary communities I would highly recommend taking a graduate creative writing programme at NTU’s School of Humanities.