“The Storytelling State: Performing Life Histories in Singapore”, by Cheng Nien Yuan John Legge Thesis Prize Winner

“The Storytelling State: Performing Life Histories in Singapore”, by Cheng Nien Yuan John Legge Thesis Prize Winner

Can you tell us a bit about your thesis. What’s the problem it explores and what did you find?

My thesis identifies and explores Singapore’s newfound interest in a specific form of narration as a phenomenon I call the storytelling state. Over the last decade, public (auto)biographical storytelling, elicited through visualised narrative interviews, have proliferated and constituted the nation’s mediascape. In other words, oral histories of ordinary people are more widely circulated than ever before. At first glance, storytelling in Singapore appears to have lost its monolithic, top-down quality, becoming diffuse and diversified. My thesis proves otherwise. Charting the development of the storytelling state since 2011, I found that embodied, affective performances of stories have been systematically deployed as a new mode of qualitative governance. Bite-sized pieces of consumable lives have been marketed as authentic windows to the private self, producing ways of being, doing, and feeling in the nation. While popular and academic discourses around life storytelling tend to frame it as an exercise in empowerment, my thesis makes it clear that the idea of ‘giving voice’ to the non-elite and marginalised can have injurious effects that are not merely unique to the Singaporean context. At stake here is the performance of citizenship. When the national mise-en-scène seems to be life itself, what does it mean to have a life?

How did you first become interested in this topic?

Inspired by my experiences conducting oral history interviews in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, my 2014 Honours thesis was on the practice of oral history interviewing as performance and performative. It had an addendum of sorts on oral history as formally practiced by the National Archives of Singapore in my home country. When I embarked on my PhD in 2015, our founding father Lee Kuan Yew passed away, and it was also Singapore’s 50th year of independence. Amidst the surge of memorialisation and commemoration in that year due to these two events, I discovered a curious new mode of oral history performance that went far beyond that practiced by official archivists and historians. That was when I pivoted away from the more theoretical and methodological examination of oral history that I originally proposed, into this specific phenomenon on the ground. By doing so, I inadvertently theorised something new, which has possible implications beyond that of Singapore’s shores.

What was the most challenging aspect of doing this research?

So many people have already talked about nations and about narratives; I needed to make sure my contribution said something new. What was helpful was my performance studies-inflected approach, which combines multiple disciplines and methods (from history, media studies, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and so on) and pits them against each other so the work is never beholden to one perspective or way of knowing. Of course, performance studies itself is a field with its own blind spots, so it was important that I maintained a critical reflexivity about my positionality as I wrote my thesis. There was a certain tension or conflict between my identity as a Singaporean and my identity as a performance scholar that I found both generative and challenging. In hindsight, this conflict was an invisible through-line across all the chapters, although I dealt with it directly in the introduction and conclusion. In the short space of this interview it’s hard to elaborate without flattening either Singaporean-ness or performance studies-ness, but I did publish an article on it recently with Studies in Theatre and Performance here.

Do you have a favourite anecdote, moment or insight from doing your research?

In the very early stages of my research, I conducted several oral history interviews of my own with people who very kindly gave me their time and trusted me with their stories. I will never forget this kindness and this trust. Although (as promised) I didn’t use their personal narratives per se in the thesis itself, the process of interviewing them taught me a great deal about what it means to “co-perform” with my interlocuters in this context, and the resulting power dynamics of this co-performance. Numerous oral histories I had read seemed to contain nothing but stories: exciting, illuminating passages of the interviewees’ uninterrupted words. Unsurprisingly, as I did my interviews, my ears would prick at any hint of performed storytelling, and I would sigh inwardly with relief when my interviewees began to gesture and talk at length. I realised that eliciting stories was the “key performance indicator (KPI)” for any interview, and as a researcher, you are performing as much as they are to achieve this goal. The euphemistic sense of mutuality and togetherness in the prefix for “co-performance” can make one forget that the word “coerce” also shares this etymology. This experience made me much more cognisant of the symbolic violence of interviewing, of getting people to confess their lives to you. People are more than the stories they tell, but the storytelling state makes it seem like that is all they are.

What are your hopes for the influence of your work?

I hope that academic and non-academic audiences alike can find resonance with my work no matter the cultural context. Although my case study of Singapore is the storytelling state par excellence, I know that this phenomenon is not unique to Singapore. For one, the beginnings of the storytelling state in Singapore actually took inspiration from the United States, from organisations like StoryCorps to immensely popular projects like Humans of New York. In turn, Singapore is not just an island. The stories that are told here have implications around the world. One perfect example of this is the portrayal of stories told by migrant workers here, who make up a significant part of our population: what are the invisible effects of entangling dehumanising labour practice with humanising storytelling performances in the context of global capitalism?

At the same time, my work deconstructs the idea that telling stories about ourselves is an essential human quality that binds all cultures. The frame of reference of such an idea is almost always defined within Anglo-American spheres; other contexts are swept along in these universalising statements about humanity. There is a need for scholarship that critically interrogates and historicises the specific uses of life history-telling elsewhere and how it has developed in ways that both appropriate and diverge from ‘Western’ perspectives. Globalisation has indeed influenced how interviewing and storytelling plays out in ‘non-Western’ contexts, but, as Arjun Appadurai reminds us, globalisation is not the same as homogenisation.

Is there a particular scholar(s) whose work you admire or shaped your academic trajectory?

There are too many to name! I have been very fortunate to have had a wonderful network of peers and mentors throughout my PhD candidature and beyond. I want to specifically shout out to the co-founders of the research group Perspectives of the Past in Southeast Asia: Michael Leadbetter, Natali Pearson and Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan. United by only our passion for Southeast Asian pasts, we come from such different disciplinary and personal backgrounds, but it is precisely this difference that continues to inspire and push me beyond my comfort zone.

I have also been deeply influenced by the many Singapore scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying this complicated and wonderful place I call home: Teo Yeo Yenn, Terence Lee, Huang Jianli, Hong Lysa, Cherian George, Liew Kai Khiun, Loh Kah Seng, Charlene Rajendran, Selvaraj Velayutham, just to name a few. It is the foundations of their work that my thesis is based on.

What are you working on now?

Since my PhD I have embarked on several projects that utilise my knowledge on the dramaturgy of storytelling in both research and practice. For one, I have acted as an actual dramaturg for a few theatrical productions and community projects, all of which utilise personal narratives in some way. For another, I am now a Researcher at the Intercultural Theatre Institute in Singapore, where I examine the pedagogy and practice of intercultural performance practices. I also received a grant from the National Arts Council to conduct rehearsal ethnography for two major local theatre companies, The Necessary Stage and Drama Box. On all fronts, I am happy to return to my roots in the theatre after doing a thesis which had a much wider scope examining everyday performance. That being said, I am looking forward to developing the thesis into a monograph this year. More on my current projects can be found here.

Nien Yuan Cheng is an editor of the Perspectives on the Past (PoP) blog on New Mandala. Cheng is an honorary associate at the University of Sydney's School of Literature, Art and Media. Her research is on performance and storytelling in Singapore. She is passionate about people's embodied histories.

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