Caught in the Heartland
Debut novella explores minutiae of HDB life
By Paul Ng
If I Could Tell You
Almost 50 years into our independence, and we're still perplexed about what it means to be Singaporean. There is never pause for reflection; we are unceasingly pushed towards change. Our identity is an ever-altering kaleidoscope of uncertainties, accommodation, compensation and reinvention.
There is a constant imperative for our limited landmass to be updated and renewed to accommodate the immediate, corporeal needs of government to sustain or grow the economy. Or so it says. With this comes, perhaps, the inevitable evisceration of history embedded in the chapters of these spaces land, building, railroad, cemetery; spaces which can enduringly anchor us to where we are. In response is an ambivalent desire, vacillating between fervour and resignation, to preserve.
It is not just spaces. People are lost, too. People left behind, unable (it is impossible for them) to keep up with the mercantile march into the future there is no room for them. They cannot live on a diet of banknotes, prestige and diamonds in cocktail glasses. Here, in If I Could Tell You, what may be lost are the voices of heartlanders. Here is the archiving of people and here is where we meet Lee Jing-Jing.
One look at the blurb and the impression is that of a microcosm of HDB inhabitants revolving around the suicide of Ah Tee a coffee shop boy where lives seem invariably intertwined. But as blurbs go, there is nothing but distortions. Ah Tee forms just one of the many stories of the residents of Block 204, who are all tenuously connected.
The book begins with Ah Tee having been given the sack because the Boss has decided to unwind his ageing, tired kopitiam. Ah Tee's father has died, and so has his mother (whose death he takes days to figure out while she lies rotting). He is a dim-witted but inexorable creature of habit. Parents and job gone, he is now faced with the prospect of relocating. Lost, he jumps.
It could be misguided to think of If I Could Tell You as a novella (and that at the centre is Ah Tee's story). There is no real and compelling plot that holds the whole together. Ah Tee's is just one of many. The heartlanders' stories are ruminations upon their own lives, tied loosely together by the death of Ah Tee, with whom their interactions are petty and phantasmal prayers for fortune, obligatory curiosity and disbelief, the cursory retelling of the suicide. The genre is closer to Alfian Sa'at's Malay Sketches. Each is an effort to retrieve the HDB voices siphoned away by the black holes of progress. One of them, Auntie Wong, a housewife trapped by her intellectual inadequacies, laments her inability to find words for things:
These 'other things' 'a mix of shame, anger and something else when [she sees her] child' and the realisation that her husband doesn't love her raises inchoate and ineffable monoliths in her mind. And it is these 'other things,' these other people who are not caught by the records in the English language that Lee attempts to give form, whose narratives she tries to salvage the pubescent schoolboy who wants a dog, the graduate, old and unwanted, eventually becoming a taxi driver, the itinerant lesbian woman coming out of a relationship, the Indian cleaner who is suspended between respecting the offerings made to Ah Tee and fulfilling the requirements of his job. But there is a problem.
The solitary Cardboard Auntie who keeps the habit of speaking to the "Old One" past his death is interviewed by a young woman with "broken Mandarin". She tells her story 40 years of residence in this apartment, dead husband, impoverished youth and aching legs. She sees the interviewer write her replies into words, English words and she thinks:
We're thrown into a postcolonial paradigm the inadvertent consequence of uniform education and a first, compulsory language. There is, it seems, an irreconcilable divide between the young and old, the traditional and the borrowed unbridgeable and an irony. One cannot help but wonder if Lee's endeavour to be a scribe to these lost voices has just been undermined here? She has tripped in her own imaginative leap. In this way, like the interviewer, Lee's records must be unreliable, defective. Her effort at speaking for the archetypes comes apart at the seams of translation. Indeed, apart from the things that determine these people's standing, there is little that distinguishes the supposedly polyphonous and vibrant voices in If I Could Tell You. A uniform strain of pensiveness, pseudo-poetry and a failure to individualise pervades the book. There is a fixation with chronicling the experiences and thoughts of the characters and in that, the emptiness between representation and reality only expands.
The penultimate chapter, 'Telling Time,' catalogues the aural landscape of the HDB estate birdcalls, radios, television, the meeting of children and cane, and, inevitably, rain:
The inside world untouched by the outside distance, disengagement. The insouciance of the living has a touching resonance in their tragically casual response to the death of Ah Tee. Regardless, 'Telling Time' is redolent with images preoccupied with "fill[ing] in the quiet", compensating for absence. Its homage to realism to document faithfully the goings-on of Block 204 reveals a paradoxical failure to contain appropriately, definitively that quotidian reality; an inability to connect word and thing.
After Ah Tee's death, Uncle Wong, the cabby, waits for a news feature on the television but nothing comes on:
The everyday experience slips like the rain it cannot be held by the imagination nor the interest of the world outside of Block 204; it is limited by its own ordinariness, and it falls away from representation.
But Lee, consciously or not, is aware of these problems. The poignancy of her prose pushes through with the self-recognised, flailing attempts at accurately transcribing their lives. The Cardboard Auntie "put[s] up four fingers and then made a zero with [her] fist Forty, [she] said out loud. Just to be sure." Just to be sure indeed. She is afraid of being misunderstood: How could it be the same?" and cognizant of the difficulty of translation across so many lines of power the Cardboard Auntie's (and Lee's) posture and emphasis make the gauche connection from the unknown and reveal the insufficiencies of language and necessity of instrumentalities of gestures and maybe of things, too. Lee always returns us to things things which we can touch and hold and identify; things that can be wordless, that can transcend the indescribability of experience.
At the end, before Ah Tee jumps, he leaves everything in its place. It is no mere consideration for others tied inexorably to things are our memories and self. They speak for us more than words can.
QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013