Leaving Things Open
Established author's autobiography a detailed exercise in restraint
By Cyril Wong
Routes – A Singaporean Memoir 1940-75
The Memoir and the Memoirist, Thomas Larson's book on the writing of one's life, summed up quite distinctly the elements that usually make up such a work, stressing that the author of a typical autobiography or memoir often "organizes the work in strict chronology, usually dabbing in enough of the parent's past to bring about his birth. . . . [T]he life collects its periods and phases, the tone becomes self-justifying and is often trained on moral experience. The author's purpose is to set the historical record straight, an idea based on the assumption that there is a single record and that the person who lived it can best document it. A good writer might tell a gripping story, but it's not a requirement. What is required is that the author must have accomplished something notable. . . in order that the tale be written."
Most of the time, Robert Yeo's Routes – A Singaporean Memoir 1940-75 closely follows such conventions. There is an obvious chronology which reaches back to a story of grand-relatives from Sarawak, then returns, more or less, decades later when the author visits a demolished house with his children. Records are certainly set straight, or rewritten slightly, in order to incorporate fresh opinions or ambivalences. And although the 'story' told is not necessarily gripping at every turn, due to the great length at which many facts are documented or elaborated upon, the thrust of the memoir is still interesting, particularly when autobiography is juxtaposed or collides with significant changes in the socio-political landscape of our particular region.
Being notable is not really a problem either, since Yeo has been known as quite possibly the first playwright to introduce local varieties of Singaporean English and explore eyebrow-raising political issues in his plays, inspiring every local playwright after him to do the same, right into the present. As both a playwright and poet, the author often punctuates his chapters with excerpts from past creative works, providing varied counterpoints to accounts of a life and multi-faceted responses to the social milieux that changed dramatically around him.
The only way in which Yeo's memoir defers from more conventional writings in this genre — and not in any obvious way — is how, instead of setting records straight, the author is more frequently inclined to maintain a sense of openness about events or refrain from ending accounts or chapters of his past with absolute judgments. This is certainly not part of any ambitiously self-conscious, postmodernist agenda in which one evinces a smug knowingness about how narrativising the past is always problematic; instead, Yeo's memoir comes across as mostly candid, meticulously descriptive, more than sufficiently self-critical in parts, and genuinely unpretentious. There is no special eagerness to experiment with language and inject a multiplicity of voices in order to assert a clever and ironic sense of self-reflexivity here.
Yet, the memoir still manages to put into focus an intrinsic unknowability of the past in a manner that is both modest and illuminating. Through the insertion of newspaper articles and the analysis of photographs, the author retells private to public histories through a multi-faceted lens; he is more inclined to ask questions, posit various interpretations, or encourage readers to form their own opinions. One of the ways he does this is by recounting events through another person's unedited point of view. An article from The Sarawak Tribune, about four brothers (grand-relatives of the author) who barely escaped from Sarawak with their lives after one of them dumped a girl, is printed in its entirety. Soon after, a black-and-white photograph of the quartet is shown, with the author asking about what one of the men in the image could be thinking about, and the extent of their brotherliness; then commenting intriguingly about how one of them "looks odd in his hat". American essayist Susan Sontag is quoted to help the author highlight the poignant intentions behind archived images. Her words end a chapter about "the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life" as memorialised symbolically and poignantly through photographs. All this self-doubt and ambiguity throw up more questions than conclusions and the author is professing, in an indirect and gently ironic way, his own uncertainty about forging any kind of linearity from the past to the present day — even as the documenting of the past through a memoir is, nonetheless, still an earnest attempt to establish some sort of order. In such moments, the memoir becomes both a humble elegy to the past as well as a quiet bowing to its inscrutability and inevitable passing.
But for readers uninterested in pondering such profundities about the unreliability of recorded memories and images, the memoir offers more than enough charmingly nostalgic anecdotes and straightforward commentaries. Plenty of such anecdotes are derived from the author's childhood. Although Yeo was practically born into the Japanese Occupation — though sheltered incidentally and fortunately from most of its horrors — the distant nightmare of "a war [he] never knew" still manages to haunt the fringes of the author's early years, of which the author recalls playing with friends, catching spiders and fighting fishes, flying kites and anticipating his school holidays. Knowing that the author managed to retain his innocence in spite of the war actually provides an additional dimension of fragility to the otherwise unsurprising narration of a boy's private joys of growing up.
Being Baba Chinese and unable to speak Chinese also bring an expected set of personal problems and conflicts that the author documents faithfully. But the memoir becomes intriguingly elusive when it quotes again from other people's writings — even biographies and speeches — to stand in for a more singularly private perspective; or when the author responds to more photographs of his relatives in increasingly suggestive ways, hinting at illicit affairs and private shame without explicit clarification. Newspaper articles and even official minutes of meetings are roped in to help stitch together a colourful portrayal of events. However, this is not to say that the author's opinions are always entirely absent; they are barely veiled, for example, amidst accounts of injustices endured at the hands of state agencies.
When university professor and literary critic D.J. Enright was wrongfully accused by the media and the government for criticising its cultural policies during Singapore's pre-independence years, Yeo played the tense witness as students rallied to defend the need for academic freedom. The memoir draws in various perspectives to help record this early event that showed up the "thorny relationship between the University and the Government" at a crucial time when Singapore was finding its feet as a newly-independent nation. The author's opinion about this particular conflict pierces through when the local papers are described as "calculated" for portraying Enright in a negative light, or when the text of a resolution drafted by university students is printed by the author in its near-entirety, including a line about how "a University is an institution where there should be freedom of discussion".
Later in the memoir, while on the same topic of university freedom, the author recedes into greater ambivalence, critiquing from a slant when broaching the issue in academic terms and without any forthright conclusion. In quoting his own past dissertation on the subject, for example, Yeo only notes that there is a "discrepancy" between the demands of the university and the government and hesitates to form unambiguous judgments about the ethical aspects of this issue. Although this can be read as a kind of cop-out, I could perhaps suggest that the author is only and deliberately leaving room for continued critical debate and contemplation on a complicated subject, while providing a richer depiction of its occurrence in a larger social context.
Beyond witnessing events such as the birth of ASEAN and noting from a personal perspective the ethos of a time when a Southeast Asian identity was taking shape, the author moves from observing significant events in our region's political climate to being moved by Allen Ginsberg at a public reading and Ella Fitzgerald at a concert, dating women whilst studying for a master's in education in London, and witnessing political demonstrations which would later provide fodder for his creative work. The easy shifts from the public to the private make for an intimately revealing as well as historically informative read.
Later, Yeo even uses his memoir to get back at a certain literary critic in Singapore who had written a nasty review of his poetry collection in the past, silently pointing out the unwarranted meanness of her comments —Yeo's verse was described by her as "only fit for the wastepaper basket"— and her general dismissal of Singaporean literature at that time. Yet the author is also quick to forgive, hinting that the critic eventually mellowed since her career became "marked by a long term and tireless engagement with the emergent Singaporean literature in English, as lecturer…activist and critic and bibliographer".
Other moving moments of the memoir occur when the author writes about his stint in Bangkok as an information officer for the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation. From being lonely after a breakup to eyeballing naked women in go-go clubs to following the lives of Singaporean jazz musicians forced to lead more meaningfully artistic lives in Bangkok, Yeo portrays everything without "moping" (to use the author's own word in the book) or over-sentimentality. Sometimes the memoir even borders on over-detachment, yet mostly manages not to come across as simply cold or indifferent. It is a fine tonal balance, and one that the author manages to pull off and sustain throughout the memoir.
The author slowly allows more than a little emotion to seep through when he reacts to photographs capturing the fall of Saigon after the Vietnam War, capturing a time of fear and panic in a country that he had visited and written passionately about in poems. About one such photograph, Yeo describes the moment captured within it in both a haunting and non-judgmental way: "The American with receding hair who had earlier helped a young Vietnamese girl into the vehicles punches a man attempting to climb in; behind him, another Vietnamese man looks on in pain and below him, there is an outstretched left hand."
The memoir's final chapter is an elegiac tribute to his mother, an imagined letter never to be read by the person it is addressed to; it is a chapter that is potentially the most moving because of its weakening sense of restraint — one maintained so long throughout the book thus far, that it begins to suffer an evident strain. Here the author congratulates his mother for having lived long enough to become a great-grandmother, praising her for her warmth and cheerfulness towards her great-grandchildren. Indenting his last few sentences to form a brief but final paragraph, the memoirist's ending words could be interpreted as directed at more than just his own mother, including anyone whom the author hopes to have touched through his careful recording of the past, but has ultimately failed (for whatever reason) to do so: "I know you will not read this and even if you do, I don't think you will be able to appreciate what I write. But I had to write it anyway."QLRS Vol. 11 No. 1 Jan 2012