Minding His Language

Published on 28 February 2018

Student Kevin Martens Wong writes speculative fiction while trying to revive Portuguese-Eurasian language, Kristang.

By Melanie Lee

In 2015, Kevin Martens Wong was in his second year of studying linguistics at the National University of Singapore (NUS) when he decided to write a short story for the NUS Creative Writing Competition because he was “relatively free”. He ended up winning the competition, and from there, he decided he would also write a novel to submit for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize that year. Wong’s debut novel, Altered Straits, was eventually longlisted and published in 2017.

Around the same time he was finishing up Altered Straits, a story set in an apocalyptic Singapore with weaponised Merlions, Wong also discovered Kristang — a language spoken by the Portuguese-Eurasian community — while learning more about rare languages in the region. This Eurasian-Chinese decided to set up Kodrah Kristang, a ground-up initiative to revitalise this dying tongue.

“Language and literature are like two sides of the same coin. I have always loved words and stories, and I enjoy learning about other cultures, other languages and other ways of being human,” Wong, 25, says.

He is currently a student at the National Institute of Education pursuing a Postgraduate Diploma in Education Programmes, and juggles his studies with writing and giving free weekly Kristang language classes at the National Library Building.

“For me, Kristang is in a more academic realm and more data driven. Writing a novel is more emotive and deals with affective experiences,” he observes. Nevertheless, Wong notices a similar structured approach in the way he works on these linguistic and literary endeavours.

“I plot a novel using a spreadsheet before writing. Likewise, with Kristang, we have prepared about 120 hours of lessons across six levels, and are planning to add two more levels this year.”

Besides teaching Kristang, Wong and his fellow Kodrah Kristang volunteers continue to document and create pedagogical materials for the Kristang language. They are also working on a graphic novel with Yale-NUS College about being Portuguese-Eurasian.

Meanwhile, Wong is hoping to weave Kristang and his fascination with linguistics into his second speculative fiction novel, a work in progress.

“Language hasn’t really been used much as a vehicle for speculative fiction stories,” he says. “But I think there’s a lot we can experiment with, as seen with Arrival [a sci-fi short story that became a Hollywood blockbuster]. I’m interested to see how this can be done in a local context.”

For more on Kristang, visit kodrahkristang.wordpress.com. Altered Straits is available in major bookstores and can be bought online at shop.epigrambooks.sg.

Credit: Epigram Books
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