reviewed by Ian Chung
Alvin Pang’s What Gives Us Our Names is part of the Babette’s Feast chapbook series from Math Paper Press, the publishing arm of BooksActually, a Singaporean independent bookstore. When I first read What Gives Us Our Names just over a year ago, I thought it was one of the best pieces of writing I had ever encountered. Time and several re-readings have done little to change that assessment. A great part of the appeal of this chapbook is the lucidity with which Pang personifies the abstract qualities he has chosen to depict. In these prose poems, concepts like Purpose and Service are transformed into figures with rich inner lives, figures who interact with each other and create intersecting narratives that reflect our own hopes and fears back to us.
When I first read What Gives Us Our Names just over a year ago, I thought it was one of the best pieces of writing I had ever encountered.
For instance, Success is the progeny of Progress, but also of Insecurity, hence he manifests a need to always be pursuing something newer and improved. Success is also married to Complacency, ‘who is easy to please’, and yet his first love was Purpose, whom he ‘hasn’t forgotten’ and might be ‘secretly trying to track […] down all this time’, even if he is ‘afraid of what he might do and what he would have to give up, if he really found Purpose again’. For her part, Purpose has found happiness with Passion: ‘She’s fascinated by his energy and intensity, and he admires her sense of focus, how she can always find her way without making a fuss. She calms and steadies him, and he makes her feel alive.’ Pang’s diction throughout What Gives Us Our Names is deliberately plainspoken as he recounts the characters’ stories. It is this straightforwardness that gives each prose poem the ring of authenticity, even as it seeks to delineate one aspect of our human experience by distilling it down to a mere handful of pages.
In this regard, one of my favourite moments in the chapbook is the prose poem for Failure. Due to how taboo the subject of failure is in Singaporean society, it is refreshing to see it so candidly treated. Pang’s portrayal of Failure consciously challenges our understanding of what it means to fail: ‘At school, Failure was a good student who learnt much and in fact had lots to share. He kept asking questions on subjects that were not in the textbook, and trying things that were not part of the lesson. His teachers thought he was a troublemaker.’ Thus the failure here is really the failure to conform, to accept whatever one is told and colour within the lines. Fortunately, the second half of Failure’s story sees him teaming up with Humility, finding success and becoming an inspiration to many. Failure and Humility also give birth to Experience and Wisdom, ‘who look nothing like their parents, but who share their deep strength of spirit. […] Ask them and they will tell you the story of your life’.
To a certain extent, this central premise of What Gives Us Our Names, i.e. personifying abstract qualities or concepts, could well be extended indefinitely. The chapbook only gives voice to 17 characters, although enough are named throughout the poems that this could easily have been extended into a full collection. To give an example, a friend who teaches in primary school is using the chapbook with her class, encouraging them to write about characters of their own creation in Pang’s style. So far, the one that sounds most promising is called Blah, which is a funny yet sadly accurate depiction of what is surely a common state of mind. (Personally, I would like to see something written about Bureaucracy.)
What is most interesting to me, however, is how Pang has chosen to begin his sequence with Community and end it with Congruence, which lends the chapbook an elegant structural unity. Both poems also particularly embody their titular character. Community is not actually named until the very last sentence of his poem. Instead, a whole host of other characters is introduced, some of whom will appear elsewhere in the chapbook, with the explanation being that they have all assembled to mark ‘a special birthday’. The key lesson offered by Community is ‘the difference between “I” and “We”, and how “Them” becomes “Us”’, so it is only fitting that he make his appearance once everyone else has been gathered.
On the other hand, when Congruence arrives at what is presumably the same feast, it is after having weathered Doubt and ‘the public heat of day, unexpected storms, dense fog, treacherous quagmires; and sudden tricky hills he did not know how to climb, except one slow step at time, trying not to slip’. His journey’s fare has been ‘the wealth of stories and spare tears he had earned along the way’, in order to arrive at this state of agreement, of harmony with the self and others. Likewise, with this slim chapbook, Pang has artfully revealed for us the underpinnings of our common humanity. The title of What Gives Us Our Names could be interpreted as a question or a declaration. Either way, Congruence delivers the most powerful line in the chapbook, reminding us that ‘it is what we love that gives us our names’, which is then followed by what I think is a perfect ending to the proceedings, as Integrity, the child of Congruence and Conviction now grown to a man, ‘stepped forward proudly and began to sing’.