Singapore Shelf: 'Ear prostitutes', secrets in Clarissa Goenawan's Watersong

Watersong by Clarissa Goenawan. PHOTOS: Scribe Publications, Olivia Choo

SINGAPORE - In this monthly feature, The Sunday Times lines up five hot-off-the-press local books for readers to dive into.

1. Watersong

By Clarissa Goenawan
Fiction/Scribe Publications/Paperback/304 pages/$29.95/Buy here/Borrow here

When she was a busy marketing professional in her 20s, Clarissa Goenawan felt she had no time to read anything except manga.

One day, a colleague lent her a novel. It was Norwegian Wood (1987) by Haruki Murakami.

"I thought, never mind, I'll take it home and a couple of days later I'll return it to him and say I didn't have time to read it," says the Singaporean author, now 34.

"What happened was I read the book and I couldn't stop."

It rekindled her love for reading.

She started reading more novels by Murakami, as well as the writings of other Japanese authors such as Yoko Ogawa, Banana Yoshimoto and Hiromi Kawakami.

Readers of Goenawan's fiction will not be surprised by her penchant for Japan, the backdrop of all three of her novels - Rainbirds (2018, buy here, borrow here), The Perfect World Of Miwako Sumida (2020, buy here) and the newly released Watersong.

Her latest novel tells the story of Shouji Arai, who works as an "ear prostitute", someone who listens to high-profile clients talk about their delicate affairs. The company's two rules are "no judgment, and complete secrecy" - but Shouji breaks the agreement and is forced to flee, haunted by memories of his girlfriend Youko, who has also disappeared.

Goenawan has long been fascinated by Japanese culture.

Growing up in Surabaya, Indonesia, she was a fan of anime such as Candy Candy and Sailor Moon. In high school, she studied Japanese and joined the Japanese culture club. She has since learnt the art of kimono dressing and the Japanese tea ceremony, and cooks mostly Japanese food at home.

Goenawan came to Singapore when she was 16. She obtained a visual communication design diploma and a marketing degree before working in marketing and banking.

About 10 years ago, she had a "quarter-life crisis" and decided to take at least a year off to write.

"I wanted to give myself a chance to pursue my childhood dream. If it doesn't work out, at least I tried, right?"

She ended up spending nearly a decade as a full-time writer. First, there was Rainbirds, which she started writing in 2013 during the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) - an international creative writing event that happens every November. The early pages of The Perfect World Of Miwako Sumida and Watersong were also written during NaNoWriMo.

Goenawan says her novels are like icebergs - readers see only the tip of the world the characters inhabit. Watersong had 200,000 words before it was whittled down to less than half of that.

While working on Rainbirds, she wrote a lengthy draft - later discarded - revolving around one of the characters, just so she could understand her better.

"I wouldn't say it's wasted writing, because I get to know my characters as I write them."

Goenawan has also translated literature. Her 2020 English version of an Indonesian short story by Tjak S. Parlan was published online on the literary platform InterSastra.

She says: "There are a lot of great Indonesian stories that haven't been read by a wide range of people, because they are available only in Indonesian. The translator is the bridge."

2. What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian

What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian by Shailey Hingorani and Varsha Sivaram. PHOTO: AWARE

Edited by Shailey Hingorani and Varsha Sivaram
Non-fiction/Aware/Paperback/320 pages/$15/Buy here

In this anthology of personal essays and other reflections, Indian women - and a few men - in Singapore tell their own stories.

Wide-ranging in scope, it includes notable names such as novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal, poet Pooja Nansi, civil society activist Constance Singam and comedian Sharul Channa.

It is a follow-up to a 2018 anthology by gender equality group Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research) titled Growing Up Perempuan.

3. All Our Brave, Earthly Scars

All Our Brave, Earthly Scars by Danielle Lim. PHOTO: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE SOUTH-EAST ASIA

By Danielle Lim
Fiction/Penguin Random House South-east Asia/Paperback/240 pages/$26.64/Buy here

Danielle Lim, author of the Singapore Literature Prize-winning memoir The Sound Of Sch: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey (2014) is back with a new novel.

Couple Lee Yang and Snow are brought together and pulled apart in a story spanning four decades - from the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire in Singapore to the 2002 Bali bombings, the worst terror attack in Indonesia's history.

Lim is also the author of Singapore Book Award-winning short story collection And Softly Go The Crossings (2021) and the novel Trafalgar Sunrise (2018).

4. So, Stranger

So, Stranger by Topaz Winters. PHOTO: BUTTON POETRY

By Topaz Winters
Poetry/Button Poetry/Paperback/81 pages/$31.35/Buy here

The titular poem in Topaz Winters' latest collection begins thus: "if your body is a country, open your mouth./Swallow down the drought & the distance./Fold your limbs & follow them back..."

Immigration and inheritance, arrival and departure, a fading American Dream - these are movingly woven into the warp and woof of the third full-length poetry collection by the Singaporean-American poet, whose real name is Priyanka Balasubramanian Aiyer.

5. Transition: The Story Of PN Balji


By Woon Tai Ho
Non-fiction/Marshall Cavendish International (Asia)/Paperback/248 pages/$29.96/Times Bookstores

PN Balji, 73, is the former editor of newspapers The New Paper and Today.

Three years after releasing his memoir Reluctant Editor, he features again in a new book, this time penned by Channel NewsAsia founder Woon Tai Ho.

Born of breakfast conversations between the two, it seeks to paint a fuller portrait of Balji the man - not just as a veteran of the media industry, but also as a husband, parent and grandfather.

Transition also touches on topics such as Singapore's 4G leadership.

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