Speaking Migrant Tongues in Edwin Thumboo’s Poetry


  • Eric Tinsay Valles, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate, Edwin Thumboo, is best-known for poems celebrating nationhood. Not much critical attention has been given to his lyrics on the plight of migrants who are seeking a new identity. The quintessential Singaporean poem on nationhood, “Ulysses by the Merlion†(Reflecting on the Merlion 18-19) takes the objective viewpoint of a traveller who observes the settling down of itinerant peoples. The migrant is, in fact, a motif that is juxtaposed alongside the nation in many of Thumboo’s works, from “The Exile†(20-21) in Gods Can Die to “Uncle Never Knew†(19-20) in Still Travelling. Thumboo shows how the migrant’s voice, like the nationalist’s, may clash with the dominant or official culture. In so doing, Thumboo gives utterance to his or her feelings and beliefs as well as suggests cultural improvisation as a means to convert the lyric into a means of building a nation and nurturing the individual other.

    In this paper, I will apply ethical concepts and aesthetic strategies outlined by Zhou Xiaojing in her study entitled The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian-American Poetry. She said that Asian-Americans differ because of their “inherent cultural otherness and subsequent political and cultural marginalization, and because of their apparently successful assimilation†(1). I will explore how Zhou’s appropriation of Levinasian otherness may generate an appreciation of the migrants’ cosmopolitan experience and social critique in Thumboo’s poetry. Otherness as irreducible is also a form of intervention in an adopted society. It requires new ways of looking and voicing the experiences of self and nationhood. This otherness opens up new possibilities for the use of language, imagery and poetic techniques.


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Author Biography

Eric Tinsay Valles, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Eric Tinsay Valles, a PhD candidate at the Nanyang Technological University, has published the poetry collection A World in Transit (2011). He has been featured in the Ethos-published & Words (2010), the National Arts Council’s Reflecting on the Merlion (2009) and Routledge’s New Writing (2011). He has also been invited to read poetry or commentaries at the Universities of Melbourne, Chichester and Oxford as well as at writing residencies in Centrum (Washington) and the Vermont Studio Centre.  




How to Cite

Valles, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, E. T. (2013). Speaking Migrant Tongues in Edwin Thumboo’s Poetry. Asiatic: IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature, 7(2), 230–244. Retrieved from https://journals.iium.edu.my/asiatic/index.php/ajell/article/view/328



Articles on Edwin Thumboo