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 Amazon.com.
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.