Bending laws, reclaiming lore
Writers (re)narrate traditional tales for a contemporary audience
By Laremy Lee
Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore
Literary writing in Singapore has entered a renaissance; a Reformation, in terms of both the amount of literary work and the type of writing produced. The last half a decade or so has seen a marked increase in the number of Singaporean writers publishing and performing their literary works. Within these works, a further trend can also be observed – the subversion, reclamation, revision or redirection of narratives (traditional or otherwise) in Singapore writing, evident in works such as Jean Tay's Boom (2008), in which the modern Singaporean narrative of economic progress and prosperity is given a careful rethink, through to Ann Ang's Bang My Car (2012), a novella that challenges form by mixing multiple writing genres and using Singlish in place of Standard Singapore English.
These counter-narratives are indicative of the post-postmodern Singapore zeitgeist: a desire to reclaim narratives as an act of remembrance of a Singaporean past that is constantly being demolished and, at the same time, to wrest power away from the ones who traditionally tell the narratives by retelling the same narratives in different ways. It is in this context that Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore is situated, inhabiting an equally important space in this segment of Singapore literature that focuses on revising or unearthing narratives for a contemporary Singaporean audience and beyond.
Eastern Heathens contains 14 short stories and opens with 'Kaun Lok' by Bryan Cheong, a retelling of a Cambodian myth that traditionally posits the female character as neglectful, heartless and wanton. Cheong's version adeptly underscores the chauvinist overtones of the myth through his repositioning of the female character as the subaltern, whose actions to save and rescue her daughters from the portrayed patriarchal grasp of the neak ta (a Cambodian spirit) are unjustly judged based on preconceived notions – the villagers are convinced that the woman:
Similar themes of gender and male dominance/female resistance can also be seen in 'First Weave' by Li Huijia and 'The Gods of War' by Abha Iyengar. The former is a retelling of the Chinese legend of the cowherd and the weaver girl, where Li's story casts the male character ('Niu') as the symbolically dominant and controlling patriarch from whom the female character escapes to a future of her own determining:
The latter retells the story of the dynamics between Sita, Ram and Lakshman from the Indian epic, the Ramayana. The chauvinism is more forceful this time: Malini, who represents Surpanakha from the original, explains that the masculine violence wrought against her for asking the married Ram out was because "[h]e was just so not used to this direct approach". Ram's sexism is also played up when Ramesh (Ram's representation) is shown to be surprised and even in admiration of Lokesh, (Lakshman's representation) upon discovering that his brother has actually cut off Malini's nose:
Unfortunately, these two stories reinforce gender stereotypes more than subvert them: Zhi, the weaver, re-embraces her life of "weaving [for i]t is the one thing I know I can do perfectly better than anyone, immortal or mortal", suggesting a return to stasis and domesticity. While Malini exacts her revenge on Lokesh and Ramesh, she is ultimately portrayed as a female monstrosity; she "storm[s] in[to Tanya's room, h]er eyes wild and her hair an untamed black cloud all around her, she looked like Kali".
On the other hand, 'Fox Wedding' by Hoa Pham artfully utilises the Vietnamese fox spirit legend to portray a woman of strength and intelligence who resists patriarchal entrapment and turns the tables on male dominance. The language is playful and adds to character development and atmosphere:
The story itself is structurally well-crafted; a chicken motif is consistently employed throughout – not only as a pun, as seen in the example above, but also to symbolise tradition, the familiarity of home and cowardice.
Jeanine Hall Gailey's 'The Fox-Wife Dreams' also uses a similar fox spirit legend from Japanese culture to tell a tale of love, the masculine desire for control and the female desire for independence through beautifully poetic prose. For example, the fricatives of "Foxfire, foxflare, foxfur. Our noses were flames in the forest" evoke passion and desire, while in "I shed claws and wings once already; don't think it won't be easier to shed this, where the cling and thrum of gristle and blood grow so faint I forget them", the onomatopoeic rhythms of "cling and thrum" serve to advance the female character's assuredness and resolve to be free.
Freedom and independence are, likewise, important themes in Cyril Wong's 'The Dragon Prince's Letter to His Father', an imagined extension to the Chinese myth of the tyrannical Dragon King. The story's primary focus is on transgression as perceived in the setting of the text – that is, the protagonist's union with another male, as well as the act of defying the Confucian precept of filial piety – in order to gain the "free[dom] to love", away from the restrictive confines of his authoritarian home. At the same time, Wong skilfully layers the story in an intelligent manner to allow for a secondary socio-political reading: the reader could also argue that the story is a subtle allusion to the relationship between a father and his eldest son from a particular political dynasty in Southeast Asia, the same one that was referenced in Glen Goei's film The Blue Mansion (2009).
Anila Angin also explores the similarly perceived transgressiveness of same-sex unions in 'The Switch', a retelling of the tale of two star-crossed lovers from The Arabian Nights but where, in contrast to the original, both lovers are male. The transgressiveness is highlighted to the reader through the use of the moon as a motif, where the moon traditionally represents tradition, as in the Qur'an, where the Surat Al-Qamar uses the event of the shaqq-al-Qamar (splitting of the moon) to castigate disbelievers for succumbing to their human inclinations. In Angin's story, Ying (银; silver in Chinese), one of the lovers, is named as such for it is "the colour of the moon under which [he] was born", while Qamar (قمر; moon in Arabic), the other lover, "too was born under the full moon". Qamar and Ying eventually couple, but they do so in disguise and secrecy; Ying pretends to be a woman. Towards the end of the story, the secret is nearly discovered by Qamar's mother, who walks in on Ying, "st[anding] in all the glorious moonlight of his nakedness" (emphasis added). While the original lovers from the Arabian Nights (Kamar al-Zaman and Budur – the latter being the Arabic for 'full moon') are eventually split from each other, Ying and Qamar instead experience marital bliss, as symbolised through the maintained secrecy surrounding the truth of their relationship and the "love child" that they 'create'. This alternate ending as a happy conclusion to the use of the moon motif throughout the story thus suggests possibilities for a reconsideration of tradition, as opposed to a strict adherence to it.
Two other stories also examine sexual transgression/taboo, one of which is Amanda Lee-Koe's 'Siren', an engaging commentary on modern Singapore through the brilliant retelling of the contrived Singapore myth of the half-lion, half-fish Merlion. Marl, the Merlion character (the symbol of modern Singapore), is depicted as the fabricated product of a whirlwind romance between a "hirsute sailor and [an] ashen siren" – symbols of Singapore's colonial past and Malayan roots. Lee-Koe adroitly pushes the envelope further by using Marl to discuss Singapore's present-day societal predicament of being a pragmatic "cultural orphan" for whom economics makes the most sense. Marl is characterised as a being that defies sexual categorisation – not only does Marl possess neither male nor female sexual organs (but something else entirely), s/he goes on to become a transsexual/transvestite sex worker with whom the protagonist tentatively but passionately falls in love (or lust) with – alluding to the tenuous relationship between citizen and state in Singapore.
The other story to examine sexual transgression is Jon Gresham's 'A Girl and a Guy in a Kijang in Kemang'. Inspired by the Javanese legend of Sankuriang, the text is reminiscent of the Odysseus and Jocasta myth, though the incest taboo touched upon here acts as a plot device to critique female entrapment in society. The female character is first hemmed into an unequal marriage she did not choose:
Forced into investing in an unfavourable situation, the female character demonstrates psychological entrapment, for even "[a]fter [her husband] die[s] she realise[s] she'd fallen in love with him a long time ago [and is] surprised to discover depths of sadness she never knew existed". Kicking her "anak punk, cat tortur[ing]" son out of her home is the first step towards regaining her independence while "los[ing] the weariness of living with so much sorrow and hatred" and "beg[inning] to glow again". However, their reunification and coupling suggests the threat of re-entrapment – even after the female character asks the son to leave for the second time, the son refuses: "[h]e won't go away and she can't escape". Thus, when she finally utters the words "I can never be with you" to her son, it is not merely because of the incest taboo; her rejection of him is a re-assertion of her independence and desire for the freedom to choose.
The female assertion of independence and the desire for freedom and choice is also manifested thematically in Zeny May Dy Recidoro's 'The Great Disappearing Act', based on the Filipino creation myth of Tungkung Langit and Alunsina. Dy Recidoro doesn't exactly depart from the binary of Tungkung Langit the responsible man/Alunsina the irresponsible woman that is traditionally espoused in the telling of the myth. Nevertheless, she plays up the protagonist's father-in-law (Tungkung Langit's representation) desire for dominance and control. Through the use of setting and imagery, where the father-in-law's "house loom[s] over" the protagonist and her husband when they arrive, along with the walls that "thicke[n]" over the years, the father-in-law is portrayed as an imposing and stubborn figure. His overbearing ways are reinforced through his consistent "correct[ion]" of the protagonist, along with his penchant for saying "I told you so". Soledad's (Alunsina's representation and the protagonist's mother-in-law) desire for freedom is thus understandable, especially in the light of how different she and her husband are: the house is the father-in-law's domain, while "Soledad had her garden [which] was big and beautifully wild" – again, a clear indication of the juxtaposition between Apollonian order and Dionysian disorder. Though the garden is Soledad's refuge, for "[w]hen [they] argued she would go here and whatever [her husband] did could no longer affect her", even a sanctuary can prove insufficient if the motivation to "disappear" is stronger than the sanctuary's ability to soothe.
Disappearing is concurrently investigated in 'A Penunggu Story' by Alfian Sa'at, in terms of the invisibility and marginalisation of Malays in Singapore. Alfian takes a slightly different tack with this story as compared to his flash fiction in Malay Sketches: here, he explores the glorious past and heritage of the Malays, and how it has been reduced to "obsole[scence]" and "plastic tablecloth[s]" through "the government's…'characteristic efficiency'". As he did with Malay Sketches, Alfian effortlessly moves between socio-political commentary and emphasising a perennial human concern – the tension between holding on to links with the past versus moving forward into the future – through typically Alfian wry humour:
Chan Ziqian draws attention to the existence of male marginalisation through 'Pigeons', a reimagining of the Chinese myth of Hou Yi and the Ten Suns, thereby adding breadth to a collection that places some focus on female concerns. The story is impressively textured; the emasculation of the protagonist is acutely felt through the setting of an Asian male alone in England, feeling the effects of ostracism and racism as he goes about his days. In addition, the protagonist's sense of impotence is dextrously reinforced through the juxtaposition between the pared-down clauses/spartan syntax used to describe his life in the present, and the gushing verbosity used to describe the happiness of his life before this bleakness – compare "[t]he cold air washed over him. In the sky was a full moon. It looked cold too, like a slip of ice…" with:
The bleakness of 'Pigeons' is immediately counteracted by the following story, 'Tenali Raman Redux' by Jennani Durai. Though inspired by the tales of Tenali Raman, a precociously intelligent 16th-century Indian court poet, Durai also weaves in the oft-told tale of the senior citizen needing help with some gardening, which is then duly procured through some wily trickery courtesy of said senior's child. While the familiarity of this story makes the ending predictable, Durai spices up her version through nuanced characterisation. Her portrayal of Raman is descriptive without being pedantic, yet humorous at the same time:
Even Raman's father is portrayed in a droll manner that clearly underscores his bitterness and frustration without being exaggerated, as demonstrated in the father's letter to Raman:
The collection ends with 'Always a Risk' by Jason Erik Lundberg, a pumped-up variant of the Chinese legend of Lady White Snake. Lundberg's story is heady and unreal, achieved through the genre-crossing elements that cause the story to be best described as science fiction meets speculative fiction meets fantasy:
While following the general plotline of the original legend, 'Always a Risk' deviates from the original and other retellings by exploring the themes of love and sacrifice from Xu Xian's (represented by the character of Julian in the story) point of view. Julian decides to remain imprisoned with Lady White Snake in Leifeng Pagoda, and is forced to consider if:
Julian's choice of the former is noteworthy and seems to be a better ending than others; it transforms the usual perception of him as ineffectual and justifies Lady White Snake's previous sacrifices for him – a necessary reinforcement of the need for gender equity, if it may be called as such.
As the depth and literary merit of the fourteen stories are uneven at certain points, it would be a stretch to describe Eastern Heathens as a landmark anthology. Nevertheless, Eastern Heathens's place in the larger segment of subversive narratives and, ultimately, its place within the larger scope of Singapore literature, is an important one, and apposite praise must be accorded to both Lee-Koe and Ng Yi-Sheng for taking on the task of putting together this collection. The stories have been well-selected, based on the range of influences and the themes covered as a whole. More diversity and representation (e.g. from Mongolia and Korea) would have been desirable; perhaps this can be explored in subsequent volumes.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 3 Jul 2013