Posted on April 08 2019
Can you tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Firqin, I read a ton of nonfiction books and recently started a bookstagram reviewing mostly nonfiction books. The books I read revolve around issues regarding gender, class, language, religion, inequality, environment, mental health and much more. I occasionally contribute to the online platform Beyond the Hijab and also help run a support group Penawar which holds peer-led support group on a monthly basis for women and non-men who were raised in Muslim households. In the day, I spend my time in a lab analysing speech sounds and conversations.
How did your passion for books start?
My intense passion for books only developed recently after I read Syed Hussein Alatas’ book The Myth of the Lazy Native in 2016. It was mind blowing and really made me reflect on how I have internalized the cultural deficit theory and colonial racist stereotypes of my community. This began the process of unlearning which meant having to read more books!
It also helped that my dad likes to read and my mom bought us any book we wanted (she pre-ordered all of the Harry Potter books for us).
What are some Sing Lit books you would recommend to someone newly discovering Singaporean literature?
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal! I’ve suggested this twice for new readers (from extremely different backgrounds) and both loved Sugarbread so much! Not bad considering both of them hardly read!
Growing Up Perempuan. It’s an anthology written by young muslim women in Singapore. Finally, an outlet for Muslim women’s voices to be placed at the forefront without judgment, and scrutiny. Each story was raw and incredibly cathartic and healing.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Alfian Sa'at, Jordan Flaherty and bell hooks.
What made you want to start a blog about books?
Funny story—it was not my decision. My sister got extremely tired of me reviewing books to her and suggested I take it online instead. I thought this was a decent idea because I could practice compiling all my thoughts into written work. Soon, people found out about the account and my audience has been growing ever since!
How important are aesthetics when choosing a book?
Zero. Nonfiction books have pretty dull covers (think bold, capitalized texts on a purple background). I also don’t think people visit my Instagram page for pretty pictures anyways! The most likes I had on a post was a Palgrave-Macmillan textbook on raciolinguistics! HAHA!
What was the first literary text that had a big impact on your life?
Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community. It’s a book with facts after facts after facts. It confirmed some of my intuitions growing up as a minority in Singapore, also the false myth of meritocracy. I’m still hoping someone would reprint it so more of us can read it. ;)
What are your opinions on the local publishing scene and its expanding popularity?
I am so excited and proud! I love how each publisher has their own style, genre and that is what makes them stand out. If I’m looking for nonfiction, I’m heading to Ethos. If I’m looking for local poetry, I’m going to BooksActually, and if I want a novel, Epigram is for me! It’s a standard formula that has not failed me!
What makes Singapore Literature special?
I had to read Shakespeare and Wuthering Heights for literature classes when I was growing up and I struggled imagining the world and understanding the books – because I do not know that world. I remember at 18 wondering why Heathcliff died after getting caught in the storm because I get caught in the rain all the time and I never fell that ill until I died. The English countryside felt incredibly foreign and unfamiliar. Not being able to connect with these 'classics' did not help much in building my love for literature.
However, with Singapore literature, I see myself in the novels, I hear myself in how the characters speak. There’s a certain form of pride when you are able to see yourself represented and written about in a book. Finally, in an industry that is dominated by whiteness, we can finally see ourselves as the star of an adventure or mystery without being considered too 'other'.
Reading broadly and prioritizing Singapore Literature recently expanded how I viewed the way stories could be told, what languages are “allowed” to be written in novels and what type of stories could be told. Like Chimamanda Adichie said, "there’s a danger to telling a single story". If we hear only a single story, about a country, or a person, we risk misunderstanding an entire community. Especially when it comes to reading nonfiction. It becomes personal, cutting and incredibly discomforting as we are faced to discuss the truths many of us hardly discuss.
How has writing book reviews changed your outlook on literature?
I am much more critical of the books I read and have no qualms criticizing or putting a book down if I don’t enjoy it (life’s too short to read books you do not like). When it comes to nonfiction, I am much more attentive to when an author may have missed out on certain aspects, or marginalized communities and I would also take into consideration the relevance of the book. I no longer read to reach my reading goal! Quality over quantity is what matters to me now.
(Image credits: Firqin Sumartono / @nonfirqtion)