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From prison to poetry: how one of Singapore's top spoken word artists got started

Deborah Emmanuel tells us about fathers, racial identity and loving (and hating) Singapore. 

By Mrigaa Sethi | May 22, 2015

  • From prison to poetry: how one of Singapore's top spoken word artists got started
    Deborah Emmanuel

Singapore poet Deborah Emmanuel is a TEDx alum, an educator and frontwoman for local dub band Wobology. Here she tells us about how a year in prison got her writing, why she doesn’t really belong anywhere and how patriotism is a weird concept.

 

Many people think poetry is frivolous and has no purpose in the greater scheme of things. There’s a certain amount of romanticism that needs to swill around in your head in order for you to even entertain being a poet. 

The priorities for a lot of Singaporeans are to live comfortably and be able to afford luxuries. Luxury for a lot of my friends is going on a holiday, buying a better car, those kinds of things. 

But there is a change coming. We’re filling up at the slams. Poetry, especially spoken word, is changing into accessible art. 

Putting out my first book hasn’t filled me with as much pride as I thought it would because I don’t think that my poems are good enough unsupported by my actual performance. 

I wrote my first poem when I was 12. It was in rhyme, about these girls at school I didn’t get along with. I’ve kept a journal since I was a child. I wrote on and off through most of my developmental years.

Then when I was 19, I went to prison for a year. I wasn’t allowed to write. But the whole time I was building words in my head. I got to write a letter twice a month, and that would be my release. 

I went to prison for doing drugs. I spent six months in the actual building, and six months in a Christian halfway house. And I met all of these women that I never thought I would meet and understood so much more about the marginalized populations that exist in this country.

I met so many women who were prostitutes at 16-17 years old, mothers at 16-17 years old. I met loan sharks, I met KTV hostesses. For a lot of these people, being in prison was not a shocker because they knew lots of people who had been to prison. For me, it was. I was like: I have a good education, my family did actually provide for me, we used to have a BMW! 

It was a gradual understanding that we are not as different as we think we are.

When I came out, I went to polytechnic. I was burdened with everything that had happened. I needed a way to talk about it, but I didn’t know how. It felt like pressure inside me.

A lecturer said, “Have you ever heard of this poetry slam? Maybe you should try it.” She sent me for this workshop with Chris Mooney-Singh and Savinder Kaur who run Word Forward, and I wrote my first poem about prison. I competed in a slam held at Singapore Polytechnic, and I tied for first place with my friend Juanita. And I thought, “Maybe I should keep doing this.”

There were so many things I wanted to say, that I never had a way to say, and never had a way to say beautifully, until I discovered spoken word. 

One of the major things that has crafted me is the fact that I’ve always felt like an other.

My father is Indian. My mother is Eurasian. We only spoke English growing up. I always thought I looked funny, and people always made fun of my hair. I longed for a long time to be a Chinese girl with straight hair, because it seemed like they had it easier.

After coming out of prison, I went to India, to the place where my grandparents came from, a city called Nagercoil, to see if I belonged there. But it was just me and a bunch of people from India. 

I figured that I don’t really belong anywhere, just where I am at the time.

I know there are oppressive systems in Singapore, but there are many systems that allow for opportunity, too. 

You play according to the rules of the game you’re in. I do think there are unjust laws, and we can eventually change them if we try. But there is very much a functioning system here, compared to lots of other places.

I have an issue with patriotism. It’s really just that you’re born in a place, and you deal with the place and try and be the best person you can be, even though that place may mold you or have some say in your development. 

It’s a rather obscene idea, to die for your country. You should die for people and you shouldn’t care where they’re from.

I don’t care that I don’t have money, because I don’t need it. It’s nice to have it once in a while. But creating very much feeds me.

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