This April, Aesop presents its inaugural Women’s Library, arriving in two Singapore signature stores on 20—24 April 2022. Over the course of five days, the shelves of Aesop VivoCity and Aesop Marina Bay Sands will be cleared of product and filled entirely with books by predominantly South East Asian authors who identify as women and allies.
The selection—composed of recommendations from four collaborating publishing houses who champion local literary voices—is sprawling in genre and spirit: from emerging voices to seasoned authors, and short stories to novels and poetry. Transient and temporal, the library will allow customers visiting the stores to select a complimentary book of their choice—with no purchase required. To support local independent publishers and booksellers in Singapore, Aesop has purchased over 50 titles from Math Paper Press, Epigram, Ethos Books and Sea Breeze Books.
Amongst the roster of accomplished writers like Melissa De Silva, Amanda Chong, Stephanie Chan, and Annaliza Bakri is award winning author and poet Pooja Nansi. In the interview to follow, Nansi unpacks the conceptual inspirations that informed her recent work We Make Spaces Divine that is available for complimentary pickup at Aesop’s Womens Library.
What were instances of the physical and emotional spaces that inspired the work We Make Spaces?
The key space/place that began the exploration into the collection was really Mustafa Centre which I have always had a very emotional attachment to. I initially thought the whole collection was going to be poems about Mustafa Centre, but in one of my many visits there where I would just wander the aisles and observe people, I realised that Mustafa Centre was really a metaphor for all the places I have lived in and loved and lost. It became for me a central metaphor to talk about belonging and loss as an child of immigrants.
Themes of belonging, identity and immigration underscored the work. Could you throw some light on your personal experiences that were incorporated into the work?
I came to Singapore as a 18 month old with my parents and we ended up living here for the next 40 years. And yet there is a continuous prickly tension about what it means to be "truly" Singaporean. And home is always two places and both and none all at the same time. But I wanted to make a collection that really reflected all the different things that made me feel like who I was. Instead of having to constantly explain who I was against untrue versions of what I wasn't, I just wanted to write poems that said "this is me"
"Instead of having to constantly explain who I was against untrue versions of what I wasn't, I just wanted to write poems that said "this is me""Pooja Nansi
“Deliver us from racial harmony. Forgive us our alienation. We are resurrecting the selves we've buried.. in 'Nachangeh Sari Raath or Everybody Get Your Motherfuckin Roll On'. The lyrics from Drake and Stereo Nation feel so embedded in shaping the collective identity referred to here. How does music arrive in your writing process?
A large part of my poetic practice is spoken word and performance and I grew up on Hip Hop so I've never really seen poetry and music as two separate entities. Even the old Bollywood songs I grew up listening to had poets as their lyricists. So really music and poetry and their intersections have always just been a very natural influence in my life.
The work appears fairly rooted in reality but its poetic form allows for much creative liberties. How much ‘world building’ takes place before you start writing, if at all?
I think its really sharp that you used the word "appears" because there is so much world building in this collection. I don't think it happened before I started writing but the writing guided the kind of world I wanted the reader to step into in terms of tone, emotional timbre, soundscapes, textures, smells, etc. So there was a lot of intentional crafting taking place and sometimes one poem would inform the next.
You turned to family to find “country” and a place of your own after “synapses unshackled from this city’s / bullshit slogans.” I imagine it’s not always clear how exactly our family’s voices arrive (or not) in our work. How have you balanced a collective identity with that of your own?
In my one woman show You Are Here, I end by saying that memories are not solid like the roots of trees, but yet they may be the only roots I have. In a sense, my family and my family history are some of the only ways I can understand where I have come from and who I am but there's also a big part of me that has grown up here, is deeply Singaporean and has had cultural influences completely separate from my parents and I am a collective of all those parts. What is that famous line by that famous poet? I contain multitudes.
In a recent interview, you likened the writing journey to a Zen class, mandating a slow approach and to listen to what your work was trying to say. What realisations were made during this process?
The making of this collection was slow and it was ready six year after my previous book was published and despite (well meaning) pressure from my editor and my publisher, I was very sure that I wanted to sit with what I wanted this book to be until I was completely happy with it. And I found that no matter how hard I tried to rush it, the poems happened when they wanted to happen and that I had to trust the process and live my life because so many of these poems are about the living of it.
Pooja Nansi is the current festival director of the Singapore Writers Festival. Her third collection of poetry We Make Spaces Divine was published in January 2021 and was cited by the Straits Times as one of the 50 greatest works of Singaporean Literature. Her key performance work includes her one-woman show, You Are Here which explores issues of migration through personal family histories. She also wrote and performed Thick Beats for Good Girls with Checkpoint Theatre which opened in April 2018 and explored the intersections between feminism, identity and Hip Hop. She was a recipient of the Young Artist Award in 2016.
We Make Spaces Divine is available for complimentary pickup at Aesop Marina Bay Sands and Aesop VivoCity as part of the Aesop Womens' Library initiative.