Sizzling Reads Singapore Edition

Restless at home

It Never Rains On National Day, by Singaporean writer Jeremy Tiang (left), examines what tethers the people of Singapore to the island.
It Never Rains On National Day, by Singaporean writer Jeremy Tiang (above), examines what tethers the people of Singapore to the island.PHOTO: KAY HUI

Jeremy Tiang looks beyond Singapore's heartland preoccupations in his first short-story collection

The characters in New York City-based Singaporean writer Jeremy Tiang's first short-story collection, It Never Rains On National Day, are running away, in a sense, or trapped figuratively.

Opening story Sophia's Honeymoon details a Singaporean woman leaving her new husband, a Briton, at an opera in Zurich, wandering the old European streets as Edgar Allan Poe-esque suspense builds.

Trondheim, which won the 2009 Golden Point Award for fiction in the English category, chronicles the meeting of two government scholars on a Norwegian train - a strangers-in-the-night scenario - with one of them fleeing something.

Both stories trigger leitmotifs of staying and going; ennui and restlessness - conditions that well-heeled, well-educated and socially-cum- globally mobile citizens in their prime vacillate between.

Tiang's fiction oeuvre refreshingly goes beyond cliched heartland preoccupations, opting instead to step beyond the physical and psychical borders of Singapore to examine what tethers its people here.

  • FICTION

    IT NEVER RAINS ON NATIONAL DAY

    By Jeremy Tiang

    Epigram Books/Paperback/220 pages/$18.90/Major bookstores/4 stars

Singaporeans and their uneasy relationship with home are seen from the outside in National Day, narrated by a nebulous, nameless "we", part of a collective of foreign workers trying to watch the National Day fireworks on St John's Island. Harmonious Residences, comprising the stuff of evening tabloid headlines, such as headless bodies, critiques the apathy of some towards the disenfranchised in search of a living here.

The 11 stories here are loosely linked, almost all previously published in literary journals such as Litro, Asia Literary Review and Drunken Boat.

A translator and playwright, Tiang reaches for the right word, like a jeweller examining stone after stone under a loupe to find the best one for his setting.

In his prose, a man does not merely hand a woman's dropped scarf back, but "restores" it to her. Wasting time at the computer is letting "a couple of hours slip into the black maw of Minesweeper".

No surprises, then, that the standout story here, for me, is the previously unpublished Tick: A writer holed up in a cabin, not dealing well with writer's block, is rendered in all his clarity by Tiang's words.

If one has to quibble, it would be that the National Day trope crops up often enough to make one wish for a bit more variety from the home-and-belonging theme.

Still, coming out just a couple of months after this year's SG50 celebrations and General Elections, this is essential reading for those trying to work out complicated patriotic/political feelings.

If you like this, read: Ministry Of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe (Epigram, 2013, $18.90, major bookstores), winner of last year's Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction, with its fresh twists on familiar Singaporean tropes.


  • FICTION

    THESE FOOLISH THINGS & OTHER STORIES

    By Yeo Wei Wei

    Ethos Books/Paperback/148 pages /$18.60/ www.ethosbooks.com.sg/ 4 stars

Regular readers of this monthly column might find Singaporean author Yeo Wei Wei a familiar name - she, too, has been contributing book reviews to Sizzling Reads.

The tables have turned and, now, it is Yeo's work being put under the microscope.

Her debut effort, launched at the recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival, is a collection of 10 short stories titled These Foolish Things & Other Stories.

The stories range from poignant nostalgic vignettes to modern-day tales of love and yearning.

The prose is elegantly constructed and her profound narratives make what should be a breezy 148-page read into one that is at times heavy and thought- provoking.

Yeo, who holds a PhD in English from Cambridge, has said in a prior interview with The Straits Times: "I draw inspiration from everyday life, from the things I see around me. The stories revolve around love, longing and loss."

This is abundantly clear in her stories, which are nothing short of relatable - if not for their very Singaporean nature, then for their universal themes.

Take, for example, the eponymous These Foolish Things, which opens the book.

It is impossible not to be drawn in by Yeo's elegiac writing through the vivid tale about a man whose first wife died in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Ten years later, he is still holding onto her belongings as remnants of a fading memory.

Or, if you are an animal lover, feel saddened by Here Comes The Sun, about an old woman pining for her beloved dog which she had to give up when she moved into a home.

The open-ended "Did he or didn't he?" plot in The National Bird Of Singapore evokes a ringing sense of injustice and raises the question of how one's way of caring might be misconstrued by others.

Beauty In The Eye is enjoyable both as a "meta" tale that references a writer trying to finish her 10th short story, as well as a social commentary with witty quips such as "We see ourselves as Jason's or Cold Storage. And we look down on the people who come from the same countries as our ancestors, we see them as Sheng Siong".

The book comes full circle with the closer Innocence, a visceral tale again about pining and holding on, but this time in a failed relationship after having invested too much.

If you like this, read:Coast, edited by Lee Wei Fen and Daren Shiau (Math Paper Press, 2013, $24.80, www.booksactually.com). A collection of 53 works - all titled Coast - by Singapore writers such as Alvin Pang and Cyril Wong.

Walter Sim


  • FICTION/NON-FICTION/POETRY

    SINGATHOLOGY: 50 WORKS BY CELEBRATED SINGAPOREAN WRITERS

    Volume One: Life & Volume Two: Art

    Edited by Gwee Li Sui with Tan Chee Lay, Sa'eda Buang, Azhagiya Pandiyan

    NATIONAL ARTS COUNCIL & MARSHALL CAVENDISH EDITIONS

    Two-volume paperback box set with hardcover slipcase/636 pages/$45/Major bookstores/ 3.5 stars

The premise of this two-volume anthology is brilliant: commission writing from recipients of the highest national accolades for artists, the Young Artist Award and the Cultural Medallion.

Forty-seven artists were invited to write, with two submissions taken each from Toh Hsien Min, K.T.M. Iqbal and Isa Kamari, resulting in 50 works - appropriate for the Jubilee Year - grouped under two volumes subtitled Life and Art.

According to the introduction by editor Gwee Li Sui, the writers were invited to commemorate the living Singapore "in their own ways, in any medium of their choice", so here are collected poetry, fiction and theatre scripts.

There is an essay from theatre practitioner and critic T. Sasitharan on why artists create art and a comic from pictorial memoirist Troy Chin on a favourite snack.

With so many genres on display, the anthology is a literal representation of the diverse voices in Singapore's art scene. This is admirable, but also makes reading the works sometimes disconcerting. When one has become lulled into the rhythms of Yeng Pway Ngon's poetry, the immediacy of Chong Tze Chien's theatrical script is refreshing but also startling. Separating plays from poetry, essays and fiction would have been preferred.

In both volumes, writers speak of history and the transformation of Singapore. Some are nostalgic without regret such as You Jin recalling her family's migration to Singapore in 1958, or Edwin Thumboo's poem about his boyhood towards the end of the Japanese Occupation.

Others are sadly observant, such as Lee Tzu Pheng's poem about a house changing through the ages, in an obvious metaphor for the nation's own journey: "In time, new people, perhaps tenants/may find me worth keeping/as a half-way stop, my fate uncertain."

Some works are personal but equally powerful.

O Thiam Chin offers a riveting story about a boy coming to terms with his mother's death and his first crush - some unfortunate typos derail the momentum in parts - while Dan Ying's verses about household chores are also meditations on female identity.

The latter poet is among many overlooked names Singathology brings to the attention of readers in English. Writers who create in their mother tongues have their commissions first presented in Chinese, Malay or Tamil, followed by an English translation.

Singathology thus succeeds in reminding readers of the cultural wealth and literary diversity on this island, but its very range also works against it.

Translation is chancy. The English version of Mohamed Latiff Mohamed's poem Di Bawah Bayangmu (Beneath Your Shadow) tugs effortlessly at the heartstrings - "We live on affection's horizon/ Buried/By development projects", he writes of urbanised Singapore.

At other times, one can glimpse what the writer was trying to achieve, but the literary flourishes that are beautiful in one language seem distorted in English. Some translated stories and scripts from Tamil suffer from this syndrome.

Thus, the conundrum of Singathology: It is a collector's item that makes for fascinating study, but is also an uneven read.

If you like this, read: The Epigram Books Collection Of Best New Singaporean Short Stories 2 edited by Jason Erik Lundberg (Epigram Books, 2015, $24.90, major bookstores). It collects some of the best short fiction published by local writers in 2013 and last year. Familiar names include Claire Tham and Singapore Literature Prize-winner Amanda Lee Koe.

Akshita Nanda


This debut novel by China-born author Lin Yang flits between three generations of women.

While protagonist Fan searches for her identity and love in Singapore, her distant mother, Hua, and larger-than-life grandmother, Weinan, live in China.

The action starts when Weinan's death brings Fan back to her birthplace in Guo Village, China, after a decade of being away.

The plot is easy to follow and is most satisfying during the chapters devoted to Weinan.

Born in a world where infant sons are prized and daughters are routinely drowned, she appears to overcome any challenge that is thrown at her.

For one thing, she is cross-eyed, a bad omen for superstitious families. In addition, she does not have bound feet, which is considered a standard for beauty in China up till the early 20th century.

With her smarts and some luck, she manages to snag a well-to-do and well-educated husband.

Weinan's character is admirable on one hand, and yet she is constantly antagonistic towards her daughter-in-law Hua, whom she dislikes, and her grandchildren. The women appear trapped in a vicious circle of negativity, as Hua also never seems to display motherly feelings towards Fan and her sister Lu. As a result, the two sisters attempt to escape in different ways - one through marriage, the other through emigration.

While Fan's modern-day perspective gives the reader an easy entry point into her complex family tree, her own story plods along to an unsatisfactory end. Perhaps the author wanted to leave things open- ended, but it ultimately leaves the reader feeling disconnected with the protagonist.

There are, however, some gems in the social commentary, particularly in a brief exchange between Fan, during her return trip to China, and Jin, an old friend who represents the new nouveau riche class in the country.

She notices that he keeps a medallion of Mao next to that of the goddess Guanyin in his silver Mercedes.

"I haven't had any traffic accidents, so why not believe he is a god?" he says, when she remarks about it, before they go into a debate about whether a "god" is allowed to make mistakes and wage wars.

This brings the book back to a more contemporary setting, something which could have elevated the text beyond what felt like an incomplete historical account of the Guo family.

If you like this, read: Cherry Days by David Leo (Ethos Books, 2015, $18.60, www.ethosbooks.com.sg), a coming-of-age tale set in 1950s Singapore, where an unnamed road in a kampung represents the changing face of the country.

Nabilah Said


  • FICTION

    FIRST FIRES

    By Jinat Rehana Begum

    Ethos Books/Paperback/192 pages/$18.60/ 3 stars

The sudden disappearance of a young woman forces her family to re-examine their relationships with one another, confronting the tensions that have simmered beneath the surface over the years.

Singapore poet and educator Jinat Rehana Begum's debut novel examines the difficulties of love in a middle-class Muslim family amid the pressures of conformity in a rapidly changing Singapore between the 1970s and 1990s.

A mother frets about her defiant youngest daughter, Sal, who is unlike her pragmatic siblings Adam and Sarah.

Born as a third child at a time when government policy recommended just two and bearing an androgynous name that prevents her identity from being easily shoehorned into fixed categories, she is an inscrutable soul who is buried "so deep inside her own world there is no room for anyone else".

Begum's prose is lush and evocative, displaying a poet's sensitivity to detail.

The oppressive drudgery of Singaporean pragmatism in opposition to her own idealistic nature is cast as the main difficulty that Sal has to contend with.

The fire metaphor, used consistently throughout the novel, fuels the turmoil of Sal's emotional world, but comes across as slightly contrived in turns of phrases such as "my body shakes with a million different fires".

The novel alternates between voices and deftly moves between past and present, drawing out the complexities of constantly evolving familial relationships.

Still, Begum's fixation with carving out other characters as foils to Sal's standout non-conformity risks reducing them to convenient stereotypes, such as when Sal almost self-indulgently ruminates on how a "stuffy accountant" of an ex-boyfriend had "squashed (her) three-dimensional passions... into... a paper doll dressed in the quiet pastel colours of this season".

The plot, which relies mainly on characterisation and narrative flashbacks, unfortunately also peters out after the first few chapters.

That aside, Begum offers a refreshing voice and perspective.

If you like this, read: Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal (Sleepers Publishing, 2013, $25.68, Books Kinokuniya), which examines the familial fissures that develop within a traditional Punjabi Singaporean family following the disappearance of their teenage daughter.

Yuen Sin


  • FICTION

    UNION

    Edited by Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar

    Ethos Books and Drunken Boat/Paperback/640 pages /$26.75/Books Kinokuniya/ 3 stars

In mathematics, a union is a shared set; in textiles, it is a fabric made of two kinds of yarn.

These are the metaphors editor Ravi Shankar draws on to elucidate the premises of this anthology, which combines writing from Singapore and online arts journal Drunken Boat, which he founded in New York. The anthology, meant to celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee alongside Drunken Boat's 15th birthday, is a mixed bag.

At nearly 130 entries, it is a staggeringly diverse collection - in content, in cultural background and, unfortunately, in quality.

In the anthology, organised in alphabetical order by author, prominent names such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Norman Mailer, Palestinian "national poet" Mahmoud Darwish and Singapore literary pioneers Edwin Thumboo and Elangovan sit next to relative unknowns.

The standard forms of poetry and prose are interspersed with textual experiments, crossword corrections and a Christiana Langenberg poem masquerading as a multiple-choice questionnaire.

Stylised Singlish mingles with Americanisms and translations of French, Korean and Arabic. One moment you are reading an interview taking place in a Taman Jurong coffee shop; the next, you are reading accounts of bad sex in Bosnia. This bewildering variety often makes for incongruity, rather than the coherence which the anthology's title promises.

It is possible to tease out some kind of dialogue between the local and global, as Pang and Shankar suggest in their introductions, but this requires considerable creativity on the reader's part.

One could, for instance, find traces of the howl of Allen Ginsberg and the barbaric yawp of Walt Whitman in the intensity of Alfian Sa'at's Singapore You Are Not My Country, that sledge-hammer to the nation's facade that I like to think opens the anthology (it does not because Alfian comes alphabetically after Abildskov).

Singapore, in turn, has something to say about Western representation.

Teng Qian Xi writes about the irony of a western being screened in a Navajo reservation. In its spareness, her poem speaks volumes about the colonial violence suffered by the Native Americans.

Elsewhere, Amanda Lee Koe confronts racism and orientalism in her incisive Why Do Chinese People Have Slanted Eyes, a series of vignettes that ranges from a Shanghai teenager suffering the after effects of double-eyelid surgery to the lawsuit by Lucie J. Kim, who sued Miley Cyrus for enacting "a derogatory Asian caricature".

It may be a bit of a stretch, but one could even find uncanny local resonance in the lines of Palestinian poet Darwish: "a museum empty of tomorrow, cold/ narrating the seasons already chosen from the start.

"This is forgetfulness: that you remember the past and not remember tomorrow in the story".

In a year overloaded with SG50 nostalgia, Darwish's words are a timely interrogation of how things are remembered.

The anthology also throws light on Singapore's other foreign influences. Two of its best short stories, Leonora Liow's Rich Man Country and Jeremy Tiang's National Day, take a look at the experiences of foreign construction workers here.

In Tiang's piece, a group of migrant workers spend National Day on a St John's Island getaway that turns sour after a xenophobic encounter. Liow matches lyrically beautiful prose with a despair to recount how a worksite accident victim watches his life flash before his eyes.

It is a pity that to get to the gems that make Union worth reading, one has to wade through much unremarkable writing.

A more discerning hand would have gone a long way towards creating a tighter product.

If you like this, read: No Other City (Ethos Books, 2000, $20), an anthology of urban poetry from Singapore edited by Aaron Lee and Alvin Pang.

Olivia Ho


  • FICTION

    BLOOD COLLECTED STORIES

    By Noelle Q. de Jesus

    Ethos Books/Paperback/$18.60/240 pages/www.ethosbooks.com.sg/ 4 stars

As its title suggests, Filipino-American author Noelle Q. de Jesus' bruising debut short story collection draws blood, but in the best way possible.

The 25 novellas she has crafted here manage to cut to the bone even as they tug at heartstrings. Raw wounds are re-opened and closely examined, and contained moments of pain, be it from the sting of rejection or the ache of yearning.

De Jesus' characters inhabit a world of regret, loss and unfulfilled longing. In these works, there is as much said in the silences and ellipses, as there are in the fraught, perfunctory exchanges.

Take, for example, Klein, in which the Filipina pen-pal bride of a German farmer takes a secret day excursion to see a concert by singers from her hometown.

Asked by a friend about her marriage, a loveless but cordial union of convenience, the protagonist replies simply: "He is kind and good."

In Deja Vu, a standout flash fiction entry, the main character feels "the shock of memory, the ache and the pining of nostalgia" when she encounters an old fling at dinner, before realising from his body language that he has struck up an affair with another acquaintance at the table.

Many of the stories which unfold across continents are anchored by De Jesus' own life experiences growing up in the Philippines and living in the United States and Singapore.

In a foreign land, her Filipino diaspora characters are overwhelmed by the twin forces of isolation and alienation, often manifested in the form of the inescapable cold which seeps into their lives.

In Cold, a girl, newly relocated to an American university town, finds "her sentences and paragraphs strung together in a liquid drawl". The protagonist in Polar Vortex flees the frostbite outside and gets sucked into a chilly reality indoors, in the home of a family friend.

De Jesus also positions her characters as caught between tradition and modernity, between the life they left behind and the one they have sought out.

This, perhaps, explains the choice of laundromat, a liminal space of transience, as the setting for her two-parter Babies and The Wash, where a Filipina contemplates abortion.

De Jesus' economy of words and her voice, bleak and spare, yet intimate, recalls the virtuosity of short story fiction masters, such as Lorrie Moore and Edith Pearlman.

"You know nothing. Sadness tastes fierce like salt on your lips that never goes away," goes the opening of one story.

Of course, not every tale hits the mark.

Mirage, the dystopian imagining of a flooded Singapore in 2090, is a tad too heavy-handed for my liking.

But this does not detract from a trenchant debut collection that glides effortlessly between the realms of love and passion and that of jealousy and anger.

If you like this, read: Bark by Lorrie Moore (Faber & Faber, 2014, $19.21, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of eight stories laced with acerbic wordplay and rapier-sharp observations by one of today's short fiction masters.

Lee Jian Xuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Restless at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe