September 27th, 2007

Jason sepia

iafa revamp and award

Congratulations to Carlos Abraham for winning the 2007 Jamie Bishop Memorial Award for an Essay Not in English for his essay "Las utopías literarias argentinas en el período 1850-1950" (PDF). The award will be presented along with $250 at ICFA in March 2008.

And if you haven't been to the IAFA website in a while, they've recently revamped, and wow does it look better. Much less cluttered, more functional, easier to navigate. A much-deserved facelift.
Jason sepia

eight things, part the second

In the spirit of the "Eight Things Meme," I'll be revealing eight little known things about me, but as opposed to the meme, I'll examine each one in its own entry. The hope is that you as the reader will feel compelled to comment and join in the discussion, and I can find out a little more about you too.

Second thing you might not know about me:

Certain physiological bodily issues are asymmetrical, and in a weird way. This isn't just stuff like my right eye is two millimeters higher than my left, or one arm is longer than the other. These are things that I deal with on a fairly regular basis.

Example 1: I sweat more on the right side of my head than the left. This is something I've just started noticing recently, but it's very evident on particularly hot days here in Singapore. I have no idea why this might be the case; maybe my right brain is running hotter than my left, the creative overclocking and outpacing the logical.

Example 2: My ear hair grows more in my left ear than my right. Yeah, I know, ew, ear hair, but it's something that guys have to deal with. Well, at least hairy guys like me. And wow is that hard to trim or what?

Example 3: My right sideburn grows faster than the left. My sideburns descend to just about level with my earlobes, and I like to keep them trim and clean and even with each other. I find myself having to trim the right side much more, else it keep creeping down and overtake the entire side of my face in a giant Wolverine muttonchop.

So what does this say about me? That I'm unbalanced? Perhaps. That I'm obsessed with bodily functions? Likely. That I'm weird? Most definitely.

So what about you?

Previously: Part 1
Jason sepia

singapore observations: an ongoing series

41. The Singapore Post Office offers an obscene amount of services beyond the usual postal variety, such as payment of bills and fines, airline ticket purchase, computer repair service, Salvation Army donations, international bank drafts, prepaid phone cards, etc. (Full list here.) With the result that those of us who just want to mail off a package or get some fucking stamps are stuck in a queue for twenty minutes at the very least.

42. When Singaporeans get together in large groups, the rudeness comes to the fore. At the Lantern Festival the other night, the Chinese Gardens were packed with people who didn't hesitate to bump into your shoulders, elbow you in the ribs, or run you down with a stroller. I've noticed this on busy streets as well. One flaw in the plan is that I'm bigger than the majority of those people, and so when they try to bump me, they get a big bump in return.

43. Some people treat the trains as their personal living room. On two separate occasions whilst on the MRT, I saw: a man clipping his fingernails and toenails, and then flicking the leavings onto the floor; and a woman cleaning out her ears with Q-tips, excavating great gobs of orange-colored wax and then examining them closely, I suppose for treasure. Other people play music so loud that you can clearly hear it, even when they're wearing headphones, and yet more will let their cell phones ring for minutes on end because they're enjoying the ringtone (usually a pop song) so much.

44. The leash laws here don't seem to be too stringent, since dog owners frequently let their pets wander around to explore. So far, all the ones I've seen have been well-behaved and returned to their owners when called, but I worry about the ones who like to run out into traffic.

45. If a mystic or witch doctor is performing a ritual, particularly if it involves increasing your finances, no matter where it may be, crowds gather to watch, whether or not they understand him or even believe in what he's doing.

Previous observations: 1-4, 5-8, 9-13, 14-17, 18-22, 23-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40
Jason sepia

review: the lies that build a marriage by suchen christine lim

In my continuing quest to become familiar with the Singapore literary scene, I'll occasionally be reviewing books by local authors, typically published by local indie presses.

Recently, I received an email from Phil Tatham, the publisher of Monsoon Books, mentioning that he'd found my blog and would be interested in sending me copies of fiction and nonfiction that they've published for review and examination. I checked out their website, and discovered many titles that I'd seen in the bookstores here, which I hadn't realized were published locally.

And once he sent several of them to me, I was again taken with how nicely put together they were. A good eye toward design and composition, very professional, the equal of any large house in the US or UK. I believe they only publish trade paperbacks, sized perfectly to fit in your hands (about 5" x 7-3/4"), using cream colored paper easy on the eyes, with both glossy and matte covers. Their books typically have some sort of connection with Singapore (makes sense; why bother to establish an indie press here if you're not going to support the lit scene?), whether it's the author, the subject matter, or the themes explored. However, they aren't limiting themselves just to Singapore readers, as they distribute in North America, Australia, and all over Asia, and can be found on

First selection from the pile was The Lies That Build a Marriage [ Select Books | BookSense | Amazon ], a collection by Suchen Christine Lim, who has previously won the Singapore Literature Prize. Ten stories tackling controversial subjects: homosexuality, abortion, transvestitism, infidelity, stripping, abandonment, child abuse, and prostitution. Things that perhaps polite society would like to forget about, but which remain nevertheless. For a Western reader, these topics may seem like no big deal, but it's a remarkable feat in conservative Singapore, and is a telling detail in the efforts to open up the society. The fact that the book was co-published by the National Arts Council is significant.

The stories themselves are a bit uneven. If the contents of an anthology are like a mix tape, then the selections for a collection are like a single artist's album, though both must adhere to principles of ordering: typically the first and last songs are the strongest of the bunch, with highs and lows in between to allow for a satisfying listening experience. And I have to admit to some confusion on the order of stories in this book.

The first three were originally written for church congregations, their messages too didactic. I prefer not to be lectured at in the fiction I read, and while the messages of tolerance are ones that I agree with, the execution is heavy-handed and obvious. It may be that this approach is necessary for Singaporean readers (or audience members, as they were originally read aloud), but Lim approaches other topics later in the book with more subtlety and grace, which made me wonder why these were all piled together at the front of the book. Based on the these three stories alone, I might not have continued reading, but I'm glad I did, since it does get better as the book progresses, where we get stories like "The Tragedy of My Third Eye," which is heartbreaking in its portrayal of a young girl struggling to learn English in school, and berated at home by her put-upon stepmother; and "Retired Rebel," which examines the life of an old soldier stuck in the glory days of his youth, and suffering a crush on his daughter's Filipino maid.

The Lies That Build a Marriage reads extremely fast. Lim doesn't slow down her prose with a lot of description, with the result that her fiction might not resonate with non-Singaporean readers. Without knowing where certain landmarks are, or the attitudes toward family life, or understanding the Singlish peppered throughout the dialogue, the reader unfamiliar with the context could feel lost. The prose is also occasionally clunky, especially when trying to explain Cantonese words or concepts in English. Compared to Catherine Lim (no relation), whose stories are lush and provide context through clear inference, and who also deals with such controversial topics in her fiction, Suchen Christine Lim's writing doesn't quite match up.

But there are also moments of beauty. The last story of the collection, "Ah Nah: An Interpretation," presents an older man talking at a banquet table to an older woman, and it is revealed that she is the man's one unrequited love, carried throughout his life since he was a boy. Ah Nah was a pipa girl, becoming a prostitute at age 14 to bring in money for her adoptive parents, and though the older man hasn't seen her since they were young, his rediscovery of her so late in life becomes both poignant and full of hope. And the writing in this piece really shines.

So, uneven on the whole, but worth the price of the book. If nothing else, it provides a unique window into the unsaid preoccupations of life in Singapore, and presents characters normally silenced by the social restrictions of living in such a conservative society.