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How a Singapore writer survived a year of imprisonment

Deborah Emmanuel seems like a sunny enough character. The Singaporean writer is young, witty, affable and attractive. Even her rave-reviewed collection of poems is called When I Giggle In My Sleep. So when she says she has taken a short break from writing and performing her poetry to pen a non-fiction novel based on her own experiences, you wonder what she could have possibly lived through that would take a whole book to tell.

Dig a little deeper, and you’d find that this eloquent literary luminary was imprisoned at age 19 for a year under the Drug Rehabilitation Sentence (DRS). The drama school dropout had tested positive for ganja and MDMA (Ecstasy), after a night party was raided by the Central Narcotics Bureau. (Oh, and contrary to the title, When I Giggle In My Sleep is often quite melancholy and political.)

As the DRS is meant to rehabilitate young people rather than punish, the stint did not go on her permanent records. But the experience, which saw her spend six months in Changi Women’s Prison and the next six in Christian halfway house The Turning Point, left a lasting impression on Emmanuel.

“After I was freed seven years ago, I just wanted to leave the experience behind by working very hard. In order to feel comfortable as to why I had been there, I had to believe I was punished for a reason — I was wrong, and I needed to become a better person. That drove me to achieve things and pursue a more productive life,” said the 27-year-old.

“But at some point, I realised it was still affecting me — in the way I view the state, authority, the law. If I had to talk to even security at airports, I would get really affronted and unconsciously have my ‘bitch face’ on,” she added with a laugh. “I thought I was again being confronted by people who had the power to make decisions to affect my future, who thought they knew better than me.”

So rather than continuing her efforts in leaving the traumatic time behind, Emmanuel decided to capture it in writing. It wasn’t easy though.

“I tried for a long time, but I couldn’t fit a year of being imprisoned, and the really intense accompanying stimuli, into one poem,” she explained.

Then a woman at her writing group in Brisbane suggested that she document the experience in a factual account. “I was surprised at how much power my memory has, to recall little moments like me and a cellmate sitting in a corner propped against the cell door, talking about The Road Less Travelled, the book I was reading,” she shared. ”I think it had been a purge of all that memory that had been trapped inside me for so long.”

Still, she “failed miserably” at being factual. “There were all these feelings and thoughts I thought were important to say as well. That was when I realised I didn’t want to write this account just for myself, I wanted other people to be able to read it. So I got to work.”

After a year of writing and rewriting, Emmanuel’s first non-fiction novel, Rebel Rites, was completed. But she was confronted with another hurdle: She needed to fund its printing and publication. So she set up a crowdfunding campaign, and exceeded her target even before the deadline, with donations coming in from all over the world.

Emmanuel is aware the content of her book is “sensitive”, to say the least.

“You see, with the story and the way I tell the story, there are definitely some issues about the system that come up. I question the way that we rehabilitate most drug consumption offenders. We punish people who smoke marijuana or pop Ecstasy the same way as hard-drug abusers who, say, shoot up heroin — in the same way or similar ways, at least at the time I was in there,” she pointed out.

After seeing what many of the inmates experienced, she grew cynical about whether prison really gives those imprisoned a second chance. “How are you supposed to leave believing you will amount to anything?” she said, adding that she managed to carve a life for herself only because of family support.

“It’s pretty cool that my work and what I’ve achieved since seem to take precedence over my history of imprisonment … But I’m not a prison success story. I had a loving family and network behind me and that’s why I had the strength to do the things that I’ve done, despite what I went through.”

So what is Rebel Rites to Emmanuel, if not a prison success story? “It’s a story about equality,” she said.

“I come from a privileged background … There is this stratification in Singapore so you mingle with people who are the same as you,” she noted. “Prison was the only time I knew so intimately a group of people born to a completely different realm of experience: Into destitution or broken families, into drug abuse and crime. And I thought I was so different from them; I didn’t belong there. But we were feeling the same fear and sadness. We became friends. We became an ‘us’.”

“But other than this ‘us’, the majority of our population has no idea what we felt, and what we went through. And I think that’s one main reason I have written Rebel Rites.”

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