Judith Huang is a Singaporean writer and translator living in Beijing. She is the three-time recipient of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award, with works appearing in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha, and elsewhere. She is the translator of four volumes of poetry by Singaporean Cultural Medallion winner Yeng Pway Ngon, published by the Literary Centre of Singapore.
Ants was first read at Spittoon Fiction in August, 2016.
An interview follows the work.
The first thing you notice about this place is the ants. Ants on the walls. Ants on the floor. Ants on the ceiling, between the crack between the lights. Ants in the kitchen, ants in the dining room, ants in the living room, ants in the bedroom. Ants on the flowers you pick. Ants on the cup you put down. Ants on the soles of your slippers. Ants on the seat of your chair. Ants on your arm when you lean against a tree. Ants, reddish brown, tiny as a fullstop with tinier feelers. Ants, in a line, bringing reinforcements. Ants, mulling around a puddle, feeling it out, and then winding around it. Ants. Ants. Ants. Ants. The ever-present soldiers of rot, of decay, of furor, of the ever-looming ever-present near-ubiquity of death.
The death of an evening, the death of a week, the death of a year of Mondays through Sundays. The death of you, the death of me, the death of the forest, the death of the city. Ants, heading a pity-party daisy-chain hailing the fact that everything’s rotting, quickly so quickly, in the fulsome decay of the tropical sun.
Bury your grandma, and within a minute you can be sure she’s a feast, a feast of her eyes, her ears, her nose, her hair. Ants at her neck, ants at her throat, ants on her tongue, ants in her vagina, ants knocking at the unlockable door of her teeth. Nothing stays, not the condos, not the semi-Ds, not the bungalows, not the HDBs, everything is one fecund, rotting, shifting, collapsing thing.
Ants move in and build a nest. They knock down and they build up. They are building museums one day, and catacombs the next. They are building MRT lines, they are building library skyscrapers, they are building roads that lead nowhere and everywhere at once. They are building shopping mall after shopping mall after shopping mall. They are building hipster coffee shops, they are building sky gardens, they are building infinity pools, they are building lego sets, they are building simulated high-tech break-neck metropolises, they are building high-end luxury villas for the billionaires of the world to unite in the carefully constructed tax havens of the cove.
Ants, everywhere ants, they are tearing them down, they are going to town, they are knocking down schools, they are tunneling through libraries, they are demolishing skyscrapers to make room for even higher towers of glass bridged by bridges of glass, they are unearthing your ancestors to build high-rises on the wounded exhumed lands of the dead. Oh restless land, heaving with the absolute biomass of ants, ants, ants, building your carefully commissioned babies new cribs in the sky, building a sky high fantasy eye to eye your sky as it wheels by.
Ants, eating away at the prophecy of the old man, tearing away at his legacy to make it more perfect, more cunning, more insidious than ever before. Ants, working to put together the labels on museums, the programs for concert pianists, how it will be legato in this era and staccato the next, determining which species of trees we will grow on the sides of the roads in robust and cacophonous harmony.
Ants - laboring to the rhythm of the silent obese queen, issuing orders through pneumatic pipelines. Ants on my bed, feeding the gifted with royal jelly, keeping the drones in their amniotic sacs even as poets emerge in full chorus, on cue, in your third generation.
Ah, ants, you have crawled over my crevices, you have exhumed my graves, you have stalked up my banana ghosts, wafting like frangipani hosts in the middle of a wet petal. Every damn where, ants, what have you done with my grandma, all you’ve left of her sweet old face is the brittle bone, the hole where her nose used to be, the hole where her lips used to be, the hole where the head of my father first emerged into this world, obliterating all love of and knowledge of history with the hard forgetting light of life.
Ah yes, ants, tap dancing on the way to infinity on a closed loop with no possible feedback, ants, in the musical of the life of our founder, the founder of the colony, the founder of the party, the founder of every last drip and drop of our nether end, ants, saying nothing original, only a soup of letters to feed as pap to the embryos that hatch every year into batches of prepaid preconceived dots joined to dots joined to dots that are our offspring, that are our past and our present and our future, a blank after blank of ants after ants after ants.
Ah doyennes of recycling! Multitude of multitudes! Ants from end to end to end to end, beginning at the very moment of the end, poised on the cusp of every last future, zigzagging around this and then that corner of the world, sending scouts out and then flooding in armadas of puny heavy-lifting champions.
Ah yes, we are ants, flying in pairs on the wings of love to an inevitable descent by the moon of the fluorescent light, waiting for our chance to replenish the genetic stock of the colony. We are ants, sniffing out the trail of opportunity, the chemical trail left by ants of yore. We are ants, never resting, never sleeping, questing continually on our equatorial island for the very edges of time, stretching its form to the limits of regularity, building to the very edge of space. And when we have flown beyond our inevitable tower, a satellite fixing its gaze upon the pinpoint of our origin, may we look back and gasp, and see on the swarming dot of our land the heaving mass of ants, ants, ants.
MB: I love bugs. You like bugs?
JH: I like bugs, obviously, as a departure point for writing. They are so other that they are often the inspiration for science fiction aliens. And the whole superorganism thing just freaks Western individualists out. Which is kind of fun. I think Westerners think that Asian people may have some kind of hive mind that they don't, and that scares them. By the way, naked molerats are also part of a superorganism but they are not bugs.
And as for the other kind of bug, their existence feeds my paranoia. I don't like the fact that I may be bugged. Of course I have already given away all my information in exchange for free services anyway. But bugging is not cool.
MB: With ants you're using a series of devices to look back at Singapore. Where did you originally write Ants? (Was being wherever you were important?)
JH: I wrote Ants in two and a half intense bouts of writing while I was back in Singapore for a few days this month. It was very important that I was in Singapore when I wrote it because being physically there prompted me to write it: it stemmed from my observation that wherever you go in Singapore there are ants. This is a real thing. But it is not a thing that you would observe if you were a Singaporean living in Singapore all along, because to you that would just be normal. But as an overseas Singaporean returning to my country I saw it as odd and different. That was the point of departure for me.
And of course the whole piece is really about Singapore, although I'm sure anyone in a modern metropolis would also find it resonating. It is a celebration and condemnation of Singapore in the same breath. Being on home soil gave me this vibration, this energy, this sense of connecting with the place's spirit, which is a restless, heaving thing, constantly in the middle of remaking and also constantly, physically, overturning and rotting. Because in the tropics everything is always in imminent danger of collapse from termites and rot, and your neighbours are always renovating. The drilling never stops.
MB: Would you prefer to be at/inside of a given location while writing about it, or is the distance productive?'
JH: You know, the last time I was living in Singapore, and was thinking of leaving again, a friend who is also a writer said, "Just do it. Sometimes you have to leave Singapore to write about it", and I think he was right. Sometimes when you are in the middle of a place it doesn't seem strange enough to you to spark an occasion to write about it. It's just what's normal. It's just like being a writer in China makes people think you're writing about China, but really I don't think I'm writing that much about China. Of course the details of living in China seep into my writing, for example slipping in state-owned enterprises into scifi stories about morality-regulating cute animal companions, but it's harder for me to get the big picture about the country when I'm actually in it.
I think writers, like historians, need a certain distance before they can write about something. But on the other hand sometimes the immediacy of the place impresses itself upon you when you are in it, so you channel the spirit of the place, which is what happened with the writing of Ants. Maybe that's the ideal - to have been away from the place for a while, and then suddenly intrude upon it, so it both impresses you with its newness and its familiarity. This is especially so for Singapore for me though, because I have an ongoing lovelorn quarrel with the place.
MB: At first I thought this ant business was just about decay and the omnipresence of death, but then you get the idea that the ants are a constant, which makes me think there's something that's outside the reach of decay? (Then, later, the ants appear to be standing in for humans. Any comment on mixing metaphors?)
JH: It is a cliche, but the constant is change. One thing giving way to another. And the inescapability of the ants. The ants are change. And death is the ultimate change. What endures is change.
The ants were always a metaphor, it's just that the vision of the piece telescopes from the individual's point of view to the satellite's point of view, and then what you see the humans as ant-like, and then finally the island itself is an ant. It is not so much a mixed metaphor as an extended one, like a conceit.
MB: I saw you post the entirety of this text on Facebook. What's that about? (Are you excited about the potential for direct sharing or is the context in which a work appears just generally not that important? Or is Facebook the perfect context for this work?)
Actually, because I haven't really been using Facebook for the years I've been in China, posting writing on Facebook is kind of a losing proposition for me because the Facebook algorithm has pushed my posts far, far down the pipeline on any of my friends' feeds. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I get a measly handful of likes. It's really sad. I don't think it's much of a statement for me to post my writing on Facebook because the moment I've done it, I'm immediately incredibly insecure that nobody is going to like it, and then I'm stuck in a horrible feedback loop where I keep checking Facebook to see if anyone's liked it, and if they haven't, I'm like oh no! I'm a failure. So yeah. It’s not like I have a comprehensive social media strategy or anything.
But there ARE pieces that should be perfect Facebook poems, like my poem "Things Facebook thinks I'm interested in", but I haven't, ironically, posted that on Facebook. I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. On the one hand, Facebook listed “Communist Party of China” and “People’s Action Party” as my Lifestyle and culture interests, so obviously they have some kind of oracular insight into my inner soul, on the other, how can I love a site that constantly curates my acquaintances’ professional, artistic and romantic accomplishments to serve up as fodder for my self-loathing on a minute-to-minute basis?
If Facebook parses my poetry accurately for marketing info, and somehow knows that what I need most in my life is Masterclasses by Aaron Sorkin, does it mean it knows me better than my best friend? Does it mean that Facebook IS my best friend? And should that mean I should post more often? Sometimes life on the other side of the Great Firewall is good. However, when I do manage to draw some comments my friends always end up on some groan-worthy pun contest, so there are upsides to posting writing on Facebook.
[e.g. on Ants:
EB: What drugs were you on?
EB: Then you'd love that attraction that used to be on Sentosa. What was it called? Antasy Island?
EB: I heard they closed because of some antics.
JH: I guess now it's an antique.]
Also “Ants” got me some killer recommendations for insecticide, because of course some of my pragmatic Singaporean friends wanted to help me out with my ant problem.
I do have a Wechat channel (plug!) but that's another story.
MB: Is there any relationship between your work as a painter and your work as a writer?
JH: Well I did write poems at the places where I painted some of the paintings I’ve made, and it’s interesting to juxtapose the two different types of art produced from the same inspiration. And then I’ve tried illustrating my own writing, for example I did a sketch of the Turtle Man from my flash fiction The Turtle. But I would say it is an evolving relationship. One thing that they have in common is that, as you pointed out before, both forms of my art are quite narrative. That’s why I think of myself sometimes more as an illustrator than as an artist. But I’ve illustrated more of other people’s writing than my own. (See http://www.judithhuang.com/art.html)
MB: You've done some translation. Does the act of translation (or the preparation that goes into it) inform your writing?
JH: I translated four books of poetry by Singaporean Cultural Medallion winner Yeng Pway Ngon, which were published by The Literary Centre in Singapore, and more recently I’ve been working on translations of 徐钺 and Xiao Shui.
Translation opens whole new vistas of literature to me as a writer. It is hard work, and a very collaborative process, which makes it quite different from writing your own stuff, but it makes you very aware of word choice and grammar, as well as all the cultural connotations of certain words that may not be translatable. One of my friends is in the middle of translating “Ants”, and because she’s mainland Chinese and not Singaporean some of the Singaporean terms and contexts needed to be explained to her.
When I had poems translated from English to Chinese there was a similar thing – how do you translate something like “Chinatown”, for example? Chinatowns are known by different kinds of names in Chinese depending on exactly which one you mean – Boston’s Chinatown, Singapore’s Chinatown (Niu Che Shui), New York’s Chinatown. When Felix Wong translated my poem “Chinatown Bus” (which refers to the service between Boston and New York) he chose to translate it as “風X巴士” which was wittier than my original title because one of the Boston Chinatown buses was the Fungwah bus, but then having the Phoenix in there also referred to the chicken feet in the poem, and the X conveys the idea of crossing from one city to another. So translation opens up a lot of space for wit.
MB: I know this is Ants we're talking about but can you tell me about how Caliban came about? When and how did you decide to write it, how long did it take, etc.?
JH: Caliban came about in one blurt as well, like Ants, with perhaps one or two stanzas composed later in the same vein. Probably one and a half blurts. So it maybe took about 30 minutes, and then lots of tinkering afterwards. I wrote it on a plane, between Boston and London, and suddenly this Shakespearean iambic pentameter epic as you say, fanfiction just came tumbling out. I had been reading a lot of Shakespeare that semester, and my favourite play is the Tempest, with its bitter warped magical beneficent hallucination of colonialism, and I had also been trying to write a series of poems about sidelined characters in canonical works, just imagining their interiority, but things really coalesced with this one – all that postcolonial theory, just the experience of being about to land on the metropole as someone from a former British colony, thinking what if Caliban were uber literate and the empire writes back. I wanted to address the continued legacy of white-worship and adulation you still see in former colonies, which you see here in China, which was not a colony (except Hong Kong and parts of Shanghai), how we are still very much not postcolonial in our minds.
As an interesting addendum, Caliban was heavily plagiarized by another poet to describe the experience of Vietnamese boat people, which I think is kind of a strange alternate universe life the poem took on.
And as an additional addendum, I read Caliban out loud to my Nigerian-American friend while I was in Nigeria and felt thoroughly ashamed of appropriating the language of darkness and blackness while I was “white” there. He didn’t feel that way but I did while reading it out. Which just goes to show how the text shifts according to context.
MB: You frequently read your work aloud in Beijing. Does that inform your process, influence your work at all? (How?)
JH: Yes. I think Beijing, and particularly Spittoon, which Matt does such a great job of organizing, is kind of a safe space for me. I feel that the atmosphere is friendly and experimental enough for me to try out things, even raw things, things which are not completely formed. I first started out reading old work that I was very confident about, but now I’ve been testing out new things, and having a space to read it aloud gives me insight into the work and how it can be improved. I also get feedback from some of the writers who have become my friends, and I think we have a bit of a community going which is thrilling.
MB: What are you working on now?
JH: I am working on, or probably more accurately, sitting on a poetry manuscript. I am also working on a science fiction short story, flash fiction, creative non-fiction and trying to sell postcards of my paintings – which I will be selling at Loreli’s Art Market, btw, as well as produce more paintings. I’m on a roll!