On Writing ‘The Difference’

Theophilus Kwek

They say first impressions are lasting. When ships under the command of Diogo Lopes de Sequeira berthed near Malacca in 1509, they stumbled on a cosmopolitan harbour that had been thronging with traders and travellers for at least a century. According to the Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals), the Malaccans – steeped in the Indian Ocean’s expansive maritime milieu – ran out to shore to greet the strange newcomers, exclaiming over their odd features and tugging at unkempt beards.

Surviving accounts differ on what happened next. Some sources report that the city’s Gujerati and Javanese communities persuaded the Sultan to turn on Sequeira and his men. The Sejarah Melayu, by contrast, describes how it was Afonso de Albuquerque, the new Governor of Portuguese India, who began to ‘covet Malacca eagerly’ and made plans for an invasion. Whichever way the malice went, the armada returned in 1511 armed to the teeth, and stormed the port on 25 July, the Day of Santiago.

I began work on ‘The Difference’ earlier this year, back in Singapore for a spell before my last undergraduate term in Oxford. Reading for my thesis had introduced me to the chequered histories of early cultural contact in Southeast Asia: heartbreaking pages of misunderstanding, greed, and ruthless dogma. As colonial, mercantile and hereditary powers battled to establish spheres of control, many lives were lost in translation. I wanted to write about that time of fear and transition.

But here my responsibilities as an historian faded into my calling as a poet. How could I tell where one ended and the other began? ‘The Difference’ takes the Sejarah Melayu as its starting point, describing the encounter from the Malaccans’ perspective, and thus implicitly blames the Portuguese for antagonizing their erstwhile acquaintances. It steers clear, however, of taking sides in the bloodbath. We know that Malacca was riven along ethnic lines during the dust-up, with some Chinese traders striking a deal with Albuquerque’s fleet, yet who can point fingers in all the armour and confusion?

The poem cannot avoid being tilted on other lines. I am after all Singaporean by citizenship, Chinese by ethnicity, and write – only – in English, the tongue of that other empire which would see itself as more benevolent. The loose iambic pentameter that I’ve thrown over these lines, and the dispersed rhyme-scheme within each stanza, harks back to a European past. Because I cannot read Malay (though it is my country’s national language), I’ve worked through the Sejarah Melayu in Charles Brown’s 1970 edition, with Scottish poet John Caspar Leyden’s 1821 translation for reference.

And so this poem, like all others, has several skins. The ‘difference’ in its title refers both to the visual differences that the Malaccan crowd identified in the Portuguese seamen, and to the vastly different approaches the Portuguese made in 1509 and 1511. But it homes in on an experience that lessens all differences: a very human joy, surprise, and hospitality. The references to ‘walking on water’ and ‘bread and fish’ aren’t accidental – such moment of welcome are, I think, at least a little bit miraculous.

I’ve spent the past three years in Oxford as an international student, my second extended stay in the UK since my family came here for a year in 2001-2002. Back then, we’d lived on a ‘majority-minority’ housing estate in Manchester, and watched in horror with our neighbours of all heritages as two hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Centre. More recently, as a student at a global university – and resident of an incredibly diverse city – I’ve seen movements to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum occupying, and changing, some of the same spaces as movements to improve the lot of refugees in our city.

At a more personal level, my writing life has become inseparable from my life as a non-white, non-EU, foreigner in this country. Like many of my international friends, I’ve been looked through, heckled, and once, hit. But I’ve also enjoyed the immense privilege of living in a secure college environment among open-minded peers and, thanks to a scholarship, receiving a brilliant education. Especially since the Brexit referendum set off a series of racist incidents across the country, I can’t begin to imagine what life must be like for others who do not enjoy, or have been cut off from, many similar benefits.

I’ll say this. In a way, every encounter is a first encounter – defined by historians as an unprecedented meeting between different cultures or peoples, but perhaps better seen as an opportunity to counter difference with something else. ‘So kind was he to them’, records the Sejarah Melayu of the bandahara (or port master) of Malacca, that ‘the kapitan (Portuguese captain) adopted him as his father’. It takes time to learn what that something else is. But in time, I think we’ll learn to see the difference.

theophilus-kwek-picbw-695x1024Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), and Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets Prize in 2016, and was president of the Oxford University Poetry Society. ‘The Difference’ is featured in Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd, alongside two other new poems from Theophilus. You can purchase the issue here and read ‘The Difference’ here.


© Theophilus Kewk, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.