Tribute To The Cosmopolitan
Masters of the modern universe search for authenticity
By Judith Huang
The Proper Care of Foxes
In an age in where "I friend you" has morphed from Singlish schoolgirl olive branch to globally recognized verb phrase, where young executives are whipped from one metropolis to another in the space of a week, and where the geeks inherit the earth, Wena Poon's luminous prose provides a voice that helps us make sense of it all.
Her concerns are timeless love, death, kindness, cruelty, friendship, family and loss. But her voice is distinctive: defiant, confident, quirky and devastatingly, relentlessly hip. In her latest collection of short stories, The Proper Care of Foxes, she seems to be self-consciously transnational an intention immediately obvious from the shopping list of the world's major cities on the contents page. If her debut collection, the well-received Lions in Winter, was a tribute to the Singapore "heartlander", then Foxes is its natural companion: a tribute to the "cosmopolitan".
Here is a writer who is fluent in the feel and thought of an impressively broad range of worldviews the dim cynicism of the expatriate photojournalist, the despairing decadence of the scion of New England Brahmins, the frenetic workaholism of the high-flying Hong Kong accountant, the cosy antiquarianism of the middle-class English retiree. Despite their closeness to stereotype, her characters defy easy classification. They have the weight of authenticity instantly recognizable from cursory experience, and yet infused with depth and compassion.
Poon's narrators are most often on the winning side of history they are the savvy survivors in a world where the illiterate, the old, the unconnected, the unmoneyed, are left in the dust, as it were, of a frenetic, furious new world order. Hers is unmistakably a voice of the new: a Mrs Dalloway on speed, Ecstasy and a host of as-yet-unmixed drug cocktails, fingers flying on three keypads to contact 20 social networks to all corners of the pulsing ecosystem of humanity. But her allegiances are far more complicated. Her title, after all, invokes care and "proper care" a kind of embrace offered gingerly to something swift, dark and subtle. Her cosmopolitan empathy is also catholic: although her project in this volume is not to narrate for the dispossessed, her self-assured characters identify with them, however briefly.
In "Vanilla Five", a bored, privileged housewife with literary ambitions and a larger-than-life philandering novelist husband momentarily superimposes on her Japanese shopkeeper neighbour the Japanese soldiers who "killed women by jamming Chinese fireworks up their cunts and lighting them". She does this not because she has anything against her mild-mannered neighbour, who has an unexplained white son, but because "she knew so little about Japanese people and Asia" that it was the first thing that flitted into her mind when she saw him.
And she is unflinching when she writes about evil.
rants MacGregor, the jaded British photojournalist, on the Filipina maids in Hong Kong and Singapore, comparing maid abuse in the comfortable apartments of middle-class Asians to the Senegalese supermodel he photographed at a Hermes show, who spoke of her experience with female circumcision. Where the outrage of war had ceased to move him, the "horror lurking in boring places" is what draws his lens, and the author's pen.
Poon seems determined to write a different kind of story fully confident in itself, but poised defiantly against the kinds of writing the mainstream offers about Asia. Worshipful Orientalism, embodied in the prancing tranny New Hampshire billionaire Siegfried, is continually brought down to earth by his no-nonsense nose-to-the-grind Hong Kong university roommate Regina: the classic odd-couple story updated into a 21st-century strange dorm room encounter with the third kind. MacGregor, who laconically describes his job as "photographing scenic poverty", and who, tellingly, flees the banality of developed Asia, still finds himself galvanized in defense of abused Filipina maids when he finds cruelty lurking unexpectedly in the pristine lives of upper- middle class Singaporeans.
And yet, Poon's stories never tip over into the territory of the angry young Asian woman of the "empire writes back" variety. Her frustrated divorcee, Alison, says of her successful novelist husband, "I'm sick of Langley and I'm going to write a story that Langley and other stupid male authors like him, who have first names which were really last names, can never write. I am going to write Langley and his Men's Club out of my life". But the revenge that Poon has planned for her is far more subtle, and far more exquisite Alison gets to run away with a sweet, confused white Japanese punk-rocker neighbour who could pass for a 22-year-old, in defiance of her social pack of "upstate Radcliffe-educated women who no longer worked".
And, where there has been misunderstanding, she is careful to unwrap, quite deliciously, the appreciative core at the heart of the misunderstanding for example, watch what she does with Orientalism in this particularly sublime moment in "Siegfried & Regina". Siegfried, naked, long-haired and illegal, stands rapturous in the middle of an empty French theatre in Hanoi:
And so, Siegfried and Regina, archetypes of the Decadent West and the Industrious East, somehow ventriloquise something essential about authenticity that it is found where beauty is, that there is, really, nothing new under the sun, and to have seen it once is to have seen it all, but that it does not preclude the need to keep on seeing.
To keep on seeing seems to be Poon's ultimate project: though unflinchingly honest, she is, at heart, optimistic that through the thicket of BlackBerry chatter, real connection real love, real friendship, can and does come through. Poon herself elucidates this phenomenon best in the title story, a lonely English executive wonders at the bittersweet one-night-stand he had with his Malaysian Cambridge tutorial mate:
And so once again, the oldest questions still have the oldest answers.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010