Marginalised lives are illuminated in Singapore Writers Festival initiative
By Daryl Lim Wei Jie
Passages: Stories of Unspoken Journeys
It may not be obvious to you, dear reader, but reviewing is a task bristling with peril. Physical violence is (probably, hopefully) rare. Angry, hostile letters and e-mails are more common. Readers, through occasionally intelligible comments on social media, are all too happy to subject reviewers themselves to some pretty serious reviewing. But perhaps the greatest difficulty to overcome is realising that on the receiving end of one's spiky, incredibly witty hatchet job is a living, heaving, 80-pulses-a-minute human being, dealing with the same or possibly thornier insecurities many, if not all, writers face. But Passages: Stories of Unspoken Journeys, a collection of short stories by Singaporean writers about the less privileged, the fruit of a 2013 Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) special project, presented an almost unique peril. For once, what this reviewer felt to be under threat was not small-bore stuff like reputation and accuracy. No: the danger was distinctly soteriological. Anything less than judicious reviewing, anything that hinted of flippancy or a lack of sympathy, anything verging on mockery these would be brimstone-scented stains on my soul. What made this reviewer's sense of impending guilt far worse were the earnest prefatory and concluding notes by persons involved in the project. In the 'Foreword', we are told, rather soberly, by Paul Tan (Singapore Writers Festival director and writer in his own right) that the aim of the collection is one of "enriching the canon of Singaporean literature and, at the same time, showing how some fellow citizens responded to and rose above difficult circumstances". Project coordinator and editor Yong Shu Hoong (incidentally also an editor of this journal), tells us in the afterword that "this is one of the most meaningful writing-related projects that I've been involved with". There is a lot of goodwill and charity in this volume, and to criticise it unduly would be churlish (and, of course, in the fullest sense of the word, damnable).
Nonetheless, the measly and merciless business of criticism must proceed. Such a collection presents many literary dangers. The temptation is to present unconvincing cardboard unfortunates, who will then proceed to wearily tug at the same, worn Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul heartstrings. Emphasis on their tragic situation might reduce them to a pornography of suffering and misfortune, at the expense of their humanity and, indeed, their complicated existences which ought to be every bit as deservedly complex as every one of ours. Or that classic error: too much telling instead of showing, with the telling in this case being of the worst variety off-putting moralising. The stories in Passages are a mixed bag, as such collections tend to be, and the weaker stories are blemished by these problems. The stronger stories excel due to their attention to detail, their commitment to realism: in these cases, one does not get a sense that the writer is simply rushing through a moral tale with the usual mawkish checkpoints. Rather, there is real justice done to the characters (almost always drawn from real life) and their situations; there is a refusal to simplify them into an underclass behaving in typically underclass ways, and having typically underclass problems and, in the end, the best stories transcend their brief of simply being stories about the less privileged. To push the point, stylistic failure in this collection is not just bad, inelegant, inept or awkward writing (though it is most certainly that as well); it also becomes a failure to live up to the moral and didactic purposes of this volume.
It is a shame that several stories in this collection read unconvincingly, as if the authors were in a rush to blandly document the people they have met through this project (ex-convicts, former drug addicts, the elderly in hospices, among others). S Anparasan's 'Two Paths, One Journey' possibly suffers from a poor translation from the Tamil, but even after making allowances for this, remains a limping, moralising mess of a story. (There are twelve stories in this collection: nine in English and three in the other official languages of Singapore Malay, Tamil and Chinese which are followed by translations.) This story about two women mothers who live in one-room flats in Bukit Merah is hampered by clunky, almost anti-literary lines such as:
This is an area where families are not only stuck below the poverty line but also find it challenging to rise further up .... one can understand to what extent poverty exists even in this country.
Or the wince-worthy:
The utilities company's officers ... simply cut the electricity supply and informed her to change to the "Top Up" system their "tiptop" suggestion before departing.
Unfortunately, much of Anparasan's story does not really rise above primary school-textbook moralising injunctions. For example, one of the woman's husbands, Karthik, is a drug addict. Anparasan thinks readers need to be told that "Drug addiction isn't something that one can start today and give up tomorrow. It isn't like smoking cigarettes". (Surely it's at least a little like smoking cigarettes which are also chemically addictive?) Fortunately for Lalitha, the wife concerned, "just as there isn't a night without a dawn, there's no such thing as never-ending grief as long as one believes in what tomorrow brings". What emerges is a pastiche of clichι and platitude.
Drug addiction seems to be a difficult topic to tackle, generally, and it trips up even accomplished writers such as Marc Nair and Dave Chua. Nair's 'Soon' is more polished than Anparasan's writing, but none of the characters really come to life in this story. The former drug addict-turned-trainer of a school camp, Soon, and his boys seem to be mechanically reciting lines so that Nair can tell Soon's story and finally arrive one almost hears brakes slamming at a cackhanded attempt at a twist ending. The boys become a chorus in an Ancient Greek play; their sole purpose is to ask questions to allow Soon's story to swiftly ripen: they really do not need individuation. Chua's story, 'The Zookeeper', has a compelling enough protagonist, the drug addict-turned-zookeeper, Jared. But the story fails to stack up: Jared is asked to take over the afternoon elephant show in the zoo, and somehow, inexplicably, he ends up telling the head trainer that he's an ex-convict. The head trainer surprise! says "Well, that's in the past right?" (this is verbatim), and goes on to make an analogy between Jared and one of the elephants who had almost killed someone. Chua clearly knows what he is talking about: the zookeeper's enthusiasm and job are etched convincingly, but his drug-abusing and drug-dealing seem to be an inconvenient fact that does not cohere with the rest of the story. Han Han's story, 'Low-Class Animals' (translated from Mandarin) about a female inmate, Zhang Xiao Yu, imprisoned for drug abuse, also suffers from this lack of development and the sense that the necessary storytelling mechanics are just not in place. Xiao Yu tells us that she despises her three fellow cellmates as "ignorant low-class animals without the ability to think for themselves". Mysteriously, at the end of the story, the three cellmates end up defending Xiao Yu from an inmate known as Big Mama. Xiao Yu is led by this incident to realise and the story ends on these lines that:
In the past, I was too arrogant. I looked down on people and liked to make fun of them. But actually, I'm no better. I'm a low-class animal too.
Bathos supplants pathos too often, and unintentionally, in many of these unsatisfactory stories.
Problems of style also threaten to reduce the achievement of some of the stories. Quek Shin Yi's 'The Little Boy' is a competent, if not particularly compelling, story about a boy with an abusive father who beats his wife, the boy's mother. But Quek leans too much on the adverb, often in overused combinations, to do the storytelling: so we have 'grips ... tightly', 'stare blankly', 'stroking ... tenderly', 'murmurs helplessly', 'clinging ... tightly', 'looks around frantically', 'standing as silently as a ghost', 'says pleadingly', 'gently peels', 'runs her fingers tenderly through his hair', 'gripping ... tightly' (again), 'tells himself frantically', 'says as quietly', 'desperately' and this is in four pages. Wong Shu Yun's 'A Short History of the Sun' has an interesting story arc: a father in a secret society, a son who follows in his footsteps; while the father converts to Christianity and becomes a changed man, the son is still in jail. The story feels and this is a laudable change from the some of the weaker stories firmly located in Singapore, with Chinese secret societies forming a historical backdrop. But some tighter editing would have weeded out lines such as "These punishments, being figurative, had all the more inspired generations of secret society members" (this refers to the punishments in hell for those who break secret society oaths) or "Yet soon after telling a story, Father would end up behind bars and suffer much boredom". Wong's clumsiness in writing, along with the imprecision of the plot, means that the story never quite gets off the ground.
But the other stories in the collection more than make up for these unsatisfactory ones. Five of them stand out, and the rest of the review will deliberate a little on these. Stephanie Ye's 'Seascrapers', about a man with brain cancer who loses his memory, is a poignant, affecting piece, which plays effectively with time and memory to heighten the melancholy and loss that permeates the story. The ending of the piece is moving in the extreme. Ye's piece is very deservingly included in the Epigram's Best New Singapore Short Stories Volume 1. But there are some reservations: some of the story is overwritten, as Ye strains for emotional effect. For example, in the description of a beach, Ye writes that "Stumbling about are hysterical groups of teenagers and strained families, dazed children and defeated parents" not every noun necessarily needs an adjective. Sometimes Ye misses the mot juste:
What fools humans are ... to believe that myth of the immutable soul, when so much of one's sense of self is determined by one's corporeal circumstances: gender, skin colour, geographic location.
Here, "corporeal", "gender" and "geographic location" add a strange note of the academic into what is otherwise a beautiful paragraph. But these are minor quibbles. O Thiam Chin's 'You are Always Here, All the Time' displays his usual strengths of emotional precision (and actual precision, which is always welcome). It is a remarkable achievement: in seven short pages, O creates a narrator who speaks entirely in the second person, addressing the real protagonist, the victim of what is termed locked-in syndrome. (The narrator is the man's wife.) A technical triumph, but not just that, because the second person has significance: the sufferer of locked-in syndrome cannot speak, and thus the narrator speaks for him with absolute sympathy. This decision gives the tale a subtlety, a refractedness that is unnervingly compelling. Jeremy Tiang's 'Hope' is another concise short story that compresses the tale of a single mother into seven pages (like O's) without the story feeling bereft, unlike some of the longer, unsuccessful pieces. Tiang's economy and matter-of-fact manner of storytelling is effective, and sets the reader up for the chilling conclusion. Both O and Tiang's pieces prove that one can achieve a lot with very little.
Two stories in particular deserve especial praise. Kristina Tom's 'So Far, So Good' is this reviewer's favourite of the lot. The story is about a young girl named Mei: Mei's father is in prison and the family (Mei, her mother and her brother in National Service) live with their grandmother ('Por-Por') in one apartment. At the centre of the story is Mei's relationship with a stray cat named Patch. The dialogue is, unlike some of the stories in this collection, realistic and convincing:
"Thumb-wrestle for Por-Por's pear?"
"Nah, I should have the extra. Army very shiong. I need all the calories."
"No, I need the extra. Teacher says the brain burns calories like a muscle, and since I have a bigger brain than you, I need the calories."
This conversation, shorn of any of the surrounding details, is still evocative. Similar instances of painstaking - and yet seemingly effortless attention to detail make this story an understated joy. Mei's perspective of the world is carefully carved out, and yet Tom's subtlety means that none of it seems laboured. 'So Far, So Good' is an exemplar of that elusive Renaissance ideal, sprezzatura: art as the hiding of art's presence whereas labouredness mars quite a few other stories in this collection. It is also a very good sign for the Singapore literary scene that the story was first published in issue #5 of the local literary journal Ceriph. Noor Hasnah Adam's 'Tales of Rabiah', translated from Malay, succeeds because of the voice of the elderly woman, Rabiah. Rabiah, old and abandoned in a home, scorned as insane because she insists on telling stories to both animate and inanimate things, tells her story. It is a simple, unadorned voice, yet it is heartwrenching and totally engrossing. Rabiah is in fact addressing her adopted son, Yusof, who has not visited her, and the frequent repetition of 'Sop' or 'Usop' (a diminutive of Yusof) is stunningly effective. The ending reads:
Usop, come visit, Sop. Cradle me. I want to sleep, Sop. I would like to go to sleep in your arms, Sop. The Tale of Rabiah is coming to an end, Sop... Come visit, Sop...
Let it be known that while typing this out, this reviewer had to suppress his tears. Another feature is that, unlike any of the other stories in this volume, 'Tales of Rabiah' is repeatedly intertextual, and takes reference from the Malay storytelling tradition. Rabiah's memory is clouded with tales, and she cannot help comparing her situation to traditional Malay fables and tales:
I was like Siti Zubaidah who went to war to save her husband. Like Srikandi protecting her family. Or like Bujang Selamat who could deflect any assault on his person.
This gives the story a richness unmatched by any other story. More importantly, these references, along with the story's title, are hints that Noor Hasnah Adam is trying to insert Rabiah's tragic life into this tradition. Thus 'Tales of Rabiah' is perhaps the most successful and also the most ambitious of the stories, especially in light of Passages' aim. It tries to write the unseen, the neglected, the abandoned and the forgotten into plain sight, into history itself. The only reservation is that the attempted metafictional ending to this story is, to this reviewer, unnecessary. These stories attest that there is continued vitality in Singaporean prose writing.
The volume is well worth reading in its entirety, because even at the very least, it is a collection of stories about the forgotten in hurtling, breakneck-speeding Singapore. But Passages is also a useful catalogue of what works and does not work in prose. Realistic dialogue, with attention to the dynamics and logic of Singlish or Singaporean speech; attention to place and history; psychological realism; the evocative creation of compelling voice and believable character; physical and geographic details: these distinguish the good stories, and their opposites tarnish the weaker ones. At its best, Passages is an edifying, moving read, living up to the hopes of the editor and SWF director Tan.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014