In many ways, theatremaker Ong Keng Sen was a natural fit to run the Singapore international festival of arts when it relaunched in 2014.
A recipient of Singapore’s Cultural Medallion, Ong’s company TheatreWorks signalled a new creative movement when it was founded in 1985. He was there for the birth of Singapore’s arts scene and 30 years later is still a major player within it.
But for a festival run by a famously restrictive government, Ong was also a risky choice: an outspoken artist known for avant garde experimental work, and for pushing buttons that others wouldn’t push.
The poet Ira Lightman stared at his laptop screen in disbelief. Could it be true? He was sitting on the sofa in his terrace house in Rowlands Gill, five miles south-west of Newcastle, a narrow man with a curly mess of dark red hair. He’d just made a routine visit to the Facebook group Plagiarism Alerts. There, a woman named Kathy Figueroa had posted something extraordinary: “It appears that one of Canada’s former poet laureates has plagiarised a poem by Maya Angelou.”
Lightman clicked the link. It led to a Canadian government webpage where a poem had been chosen to honour the memory of Pierre DesRuisseaux, Canada’s fourth parliamentary poet laureate, who died in early 2016. The poem, it said, had been translated from DesRuisseaux’s French original. Lightman read the opening lines: “You can wipe me from the pages of history/with your twisted falsehoods/you can drag me through the mud/but like the wind, I rise.” The poem was called I Rise. Next, Lightman looked up the Maya Angelou. “You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” The poem was called Still I Rise.
In the era of a global cultural bingeing on food, cookbooks, and celebrity chefs—a form of escapism, one suspects, from truly important but inedible political realities—that perspective might not seem so odd. But, as Shapiro points out, this gastromania we now behold is relatively recent, as well as focused on the now-fashionable intricacies of exploring food and cooking as ends in themselves. She has an entirely different way to use food in mind.
It’s hard to imagine approaching this debut collection of short stories, set in the US prison system, without the knowledge that Curtis Dawkins is a prisoner serving a life sentence without parole. Dawkins killed a man in the commission of a botched robbery at a time when he was addicted to drugs, a crime that’s fairly commonplace for the hapless but gravely culpable people who end up spending their lives in prison. Less typical is the fact that, before he went to prison, Dawkins earned an MFA in creative writing.
This combination results in a book that is remarkable for its modesty, realism and humanity. There’s no trace of the grand guignol sadism and preoccupation with sexual violence that typify popular prison narratives, from Oz to Prisoner Cell Block H. Instead, Dawkins gives us prison as it is for most inmates most of the time: a series of dull, claustrophobic days, in which men oppress each other not with violence, but tedium. His characters play dominoes, tell interminable stories, sell handmade Christmas cards to each other, obsessively watch sports. The existence of violence is acknowledged, but it’s left at the margins of the narrative. The more present danger, to which various characters succumb, is the temptation of suicide.