Full marks for freshman effort
Philip Holden hits the bull's-eye with Heaven Has Eyes
By Laremy Lee
Heaven Has Eyes
Code-switching, or alternating between languages or language varieties, is never an easy feat.
But Philip Holden makes the practice look effortless with Heaven Has Eyes, his debut collection of short stories that centre on or revolve around Singapore.
Each of the 12 texts demonstrates Holden's keen understanding of both the Singaporean condition and the linguistic oddities that characterise the nation-state.
Whether it is portraying characters that converse using a mix of English and Singlish, or shifting between English and the various Chinese language varieties in telling each of the stories, Holden is equally at ease.
"Aeroplane", for one, utilises an intelligent interplay of English, Mandarin and Hokkien, conveying, through the symbol of flying, themes of migration, abandonment and exile.
It is done masterfully.
In the story, the protagonist's mother-in-law is described to be engrossed in Air Hostess, a fictitious television show about the lives of flight attendants.
When one of these characters is unable to keep to an appointment, the protagonist's mother-in-law describes this as "pang pui ki" (12), or 放飞机 a Chinese figure of speech, literally translated to "release aeroplane", and used idiomatically to mean "standing someone up" or "not honouring a promise".
Likewise, the collection's titular short story uses the main character's fascination with Heaven Has Eyes, a similarly fictitious television soap opera, as an allegory for the national pre-occupation with the country's most famous family.
There is some prescience in this piece, especially in how these lines describing the TV show uncannily reflect the inflection point at which Singapore's polity and society now finds itself:
'Heaven Has Eyes', like many of Holden's other stories, has impact primarily because of the innovative way in which Holden weaves in references to memorable instances in Singapore's collective culture and history.
To begin with, Heaven Has Eyes the show in the story riffs on The Spirits of Love (or Love), a Taiwanese soap opera popular in Singapore from 2008 to 2011.
If this sounds alien to the reader, its theme song "我问天" ("I ask heaven", in English) surely should not; its chorus "Wa meng ti, wa meng ti " used to blare out from television sets all over the country, in the evenings.
And this snippet containing an allusion to Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang inimitable style in an actual general election rally speech evokes much emotion and nostalgia too:
Another piece that contextualises and discusses uniquely Singaporean concerns through popular culture is "Two Among Many", which was first published in Cha, a Hong Kong-based online English-language literary journal, in 2008.
The story juxtaposes the separate and intertwining lives of two characters in order to showcase then-trending topics that captured Singaporeans' imagination: Singapore's death penalty laws, especially for drug mules, and the role and function of the hangman his profession and his symbolic significance in the city-state, where mandatory capital punishment was once the norm for drug trafficking cases (the law has since been revised to provide the courts some discretion in cases where specific conditions are met).
Given how well Holden has his pulse on Singapore's heartbeat, it is unsurprising that the collection contains a reimagining of history in "Forbidden Cities" and "When Pierre Met Harry", where both texts depict speculative portrayals of Lee Kuan Yew.
Both are, to some extent, reconstructions of what may have been, and based on archived material, such as reported accounts of or speeches by Lee.
In this, Holden undertakes a presentation of the nature of historiography and the crafting of official narratives in relation to nation-building, and reinforces this idea through the use of formal letters as a framing device to introduce both stories.
The letter in 'Forbidden Cities' sees an attempt by a faculty member of the University of British Columbia (UBC) to seek absolution for a student accused of "damag[ing] diplomatic relations between Canada and the Republic of Singapore".
In the hopes of landing a scoop, this undergraduate who is also a student-journalist for The Ubyssey, the University's student-run newspaper is inadvertently caught in the middle of a campus protest during Lee's visit there in 1968, as she interviews him, picking his brain and trying to differentiate between man and myth(s).
For "When Pierre Met Harry", a piece of official correspondence acts to steadfastly set the record straight, asserting that:
This excerpt is especially poignant, reflecting the bureaucratic style of the establishment in Singapore, and the reality of reality in dominant discourse: If something is alleged to be an attempt at circumscribing the truth, and is not anchored in the lived reality of the recipient, then it does not exist, and cannot be authentic.
While most of the stories are realist in genre, a third of the texts contain elements of magic realism, as can be seen in 'The First Star From The Moon', 'Penguins On The Perimeter', 'Gan Rou, Kong Bak' and 'Library'.
Holden's experiments with the limits of reality show the inconsistencies within our own: the protagonist's sister is shown to be keeping a pet pig in a Housing Board flat, in 'Gan Rou, Kong Bak', while 'Library' is about a collection of books existing underwater.
'The First Star From The Moon' and 'Penguins On The Perimeter' also incorporate fantastic or mythical elements into what is a feasibly realistic depiction of Singapore society.
And like the earlier-mentioned stories, they are notable for their references to Singapore's history, culture and society.
'The First Star From The Moon' and 'Penguins On The Perimeter' allude to the manner in which conservative segments of Singapore's population have responded to progressive societal views on democratic participation and homosexuality.
In 'The First Star From The Moon', a "virus" serves as a metaphor for a nascent form of nationalism spreading among Singaporeans and which the powers-that-be disapprove of:
Along the same lines, "Penguins on the Perimeter" hints at the 2014 Penguin-Gate saga, when two children's books featuring same-sex couples were withdrawn from Singapore's national libraries; one of the books, And Tango Makes Three, was about a family of penguins.
Holden portrays a Singapore in which penguins have been sighted, but their existence is denied. Any effort to unearth more information about these creatures is also discouraged:
Yet, the compilation demonstrates versatility by refusing to fixate on the socio-political. Slightly more personal themes on topics such as death, mortality and loss are dealt with in 'September Ghosts' and 'Mudskippers'.
It is in 'It's All In A Dream' that Holden's craft can be fully appreciated, and it is also most representative of the collection.
It combines all of the techniques that characterise this opus: The intersection of languages; the allusion to real-life events; and, most significantly, the homage to Singapore's history, culture and society through its literature.
As Holden makes clear in his acknowledgements at the end of text, "It's All In A Dream" references Lee Kok Liang's 1964 short story of the same name.
Through an analogous plot structure, Holden adroitly demonstrates the parallel between the era of Lee's writing the use of the Internal Security Act against elements that were deemed adverse to the existence of the government of the day and the era of his own, by way of measures that media academic Cherian George has described as "calibrated coercion".
Besides the depth and breadth of thematic and linguistic variation that Holden has been able to pull off, this work is also remarkable in terms of Holden's ability to code-switch between academic and creative writing.
Holden is a literature professor with more than 30 years of experience in reading texts, writing about texts and lecturing on the reading and writing of texts, and this is his freshman endeavour at producing one.
As a whole, the different ways in which Singapore is inspected and scrutinised through different lenses is delightful and refreshing.
Though it must be noted that a slight idiosyncrasy is present: In almost all the texts, the characters are either academics or have some academic association.
In forthcoming or future collections, greater distinctions in characterisation could be worthwhile to consider.
In any case, this quirk does not mar the overall quality of the work, and the collection gets a solid A+ for a job well done.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 4 Oct 2017