A Shattered Kaleidoscope
Amanda Lee Koe paints daring, splintered psychological portraits of urban malaise
By Sam Ng
Ministry of Moral Panic (Stories)
In late September 2013, Amanda Lee Koe asked me if it was possible to provide a cover quote for her soon-to-be-published debut collection of short stories entitled Ministry of Moral Panic. She had found out that I would be reviewing it for this publication and wanted something more 'objective' (her word) from a respectable literary journal, as opposed to a congratulatory line from a fellow author friend, to grace her book. Finding it most commendable — while suitably idealistic for a new writer — to seek out that ever-elusive objectivity, I agreed. My quote reads:
In the quote I had wanted to emphasise the lyrical quality of the stories and their curious relationship with melancholy, malaise, and the yearnings and desires of their individual characters. Three months later, as often happens with re-readings, I have revised certain aspects of my understanding of these stories. I still believe in the importance of its lyricism, but other equally skilfully handled aspects deserve to be mentioned as well, and in the same breath: the kaleidoscopic range of subject matter, the use of estrangement, and the depth of emotional and psychological understanding.
Broadly speaking, Ministry of Moral Panic is a collection of fourteen short stories that delineate the various ways in which individuals are seen to break or elide conventional or public moral codes. This book cuts across a wide swathe of traditionally uncomfortable subjects, such as masturbation, incest, pornography, lesbianism, transsexualism, racialism, terrorism, psychopathy and more. The following extract from 'Chick', where the private, perverse imagination of a pubescent schoolgirl is exposed for all to see, illustrates the point:
My first caveat to readers: one will encounter many such 'twisted' episodes throughout the collection. And anyone who is not willing to accept that such things, like the scene described above, do happen in real life — any prudes, that is — will find it difficult to complete the book. But to read these episodes as mere titillation will be to grossly misinterpret their intentions and methods, and to give up reading this book based on moralistic assumptions about the characters will be a misjudgement on the part of and a loss for readers. What they offer is a pathway into the complexity of the characters' psychological worlds, crucial in aiding us piece together honest, searching portraits of these players.
On the Facebook page for the book, Koe writes: "MoMP is in equal parts a cahier, and a love letter." This could be read in different ways, but I think of it firstly as a declaration of the collection's double aims: both as a record of or report on society, and as a private, emotive letter from an individual/s. I came across the author's quote only after having read the collection, and it accords happily with my general understanding of its concerns. Hence my second caveat: I suggest reading the stories with a bifurcating lens in mind, with one eye focused on the characters' personal and psychological struggles, and another on their cultural, social, economic and political overlays.
I should also append Koe's definition of 'moral panic', also found on the Facebook page:
Here, I want to take a detour to discuss an incident which happened about two months after the publication of the collection. It started with notable writer Alfian Sa'at giving a scathing review of the collection on his Facebook page, after reading only its first three stories. He was appalled at what he called "thoughtless [racial] stereotypes". This drew support from his followers, with one suggesting that Koe was a racist and that she would not buy such a book. Others also expressed their disgust at the "stereotypes" in the collection, probably without having read any of the stories. To his credit, Alfian recanted his views the following day, replacing his first review with high praise and apologising for his hastiness at judging the whole collection without reading it through.
This was quite an interesting example of how 'moral panic' could have started in a society such as ours, where matters of race and religion remain hypersensitive and little-explored publicly. Alfian's hasty judgment, an attempt based on insufficient material and a narrow focus, and the blind support his 'followers' gave to his judgment, are indicative of a larger problem in our society: the problem of judgmentalism. In this light, Koe's definition seems to be especially prescient when her stories successfully provoked an example of such a moral panic. However, it must be said that Alfian's objection to racial stereotypes is not the issue here — because indeed, racial stereotypes in stories can be very damaging — but that the automatic assumptions latent in his followers' comments, that Koe's racial privilege and 'racism' (instead of inexperience or other less damning reasons) had something to do with the racial 'stereotypes' need to be examined carefully and challenged. I would argue that this is also why stories such Koe's, which bravely explore taboos, are especially relevant to our society and should be read more widely.
'Love is No Big Truth' ['Love'] traces the troubled marriage of a conservative middle-aged Chinese woman from the baby-boomer generation. Written in the first person in a somewhat confessional mode, it sheds light on the deeply personal struggles and choices of a woman from a generation that is often not forthcoming about emotional and domestic issues. A wide range of issues is uncovered, ranging from the intensely private, such as the narrator's sexual life, to the domestic power dynamics between wife and husband, to cultural peculiarities such as the paradoxes and hypocrisies latent in a conservative Asian family. A counterpoint to this story is possibly 'Alice, You Must Be the Fulcrum of Your Own Universe' ['Alice'], which features a quite different middle-aged Chinese woman: a woman who has remained in a marriage (the female protagonist in 'Love') while having a liberal view of what constitutes love and relationships. Unlike 'Love', 'Alice' is told from the perspective of a younger woman who becomes attached to the older woman. Read together, these two stories seem to break some of our assumptions about the domestic lives of middle-aged Chinese women in Singapore.
Koe continues to broaden her landscape by looking at the problems of late-stage capitalism and globalisation and their effects on individual relationships. Narrated in third-person aligned perspectives, 'Pawn' takes us through the increasingly perverted relationship between one Singaporean female office worker and her boyfriend, a guest worker from China. Set in contemporary Singapore, the story moves through a disconcerting social and economic milieu, where the characters' moral choices and actions are increasingly taken to the limit. Other stories that seem to share some affinity with this story are 'Two Ways to Do This' and 'Every Park on This Island' ['Every Park']. 'Two Ways to Do This', like 'Pawn', considers the interaction between a foreign worker and a Singaporean family. While 'Pawn' relies predominantly on the Singaporean female worker's perspective, the perspective is switched in 'Two Ways to Do This' to the Indonesian worker's, a maid, who gives us a different view of Singaporean society. This story also travels to Indonesia to further explore problems of class, patriarchy, superstition, and their relationships to exploitation and self-delusion. 'Every Park', about the curious romantic relationship between a male exchange student from small-town America and a quirky female student from the HDB heartlands, further expands the possible canvas of relationships onto a more globalised stage. These three stories, read together, have a magnetic relationship to one another. There is indeed something "prismatic" (Alfian's illuminating word) about how these stories are told or used in productive relation to one another.
Stylistically, Koe is also equally adventurous, creating highly productive re-imaginations of Singapore myths and historical narratives, such as in 'Siren' and 'Fourteen Entries from the Diary of Maria Hertogh' ['Fourteen Entries']. 'Siren', an allusion to the femme fatales of Greek mythology, borrows from the pastiched motifs of the Merlion tale to produce strangely gender-indeterminate figure by the name of Marl, a street-walker, whose unusual private parts become a source of desire and conflict for an ostensibly heterosexual narrator. The story intertwines the narratives of Marl's father's life with a mermaid on an unknown island with Marl's own life — at first as a misfit in school, and later as a prostitute. It can be variously read as a fantasy tale on one end, or as an artistic project to subvert the national narrative (a remythologising) on the other, since, as the beginning of the story tells us, physical tampering with the Merlion "could result in a $1,000 fine per artefact". Read both ways, the story explodes gender categories and the possibility of desire, pushing one to look beyond already liminal categories such as transgenderism and hermaphroditism.
In 'Fourteen Entries', the political drama of Maria Hertogh's life (a Catholic Dutch girl who converted to Islam under the care of a Malay-Muslim family during World War II, and the source of a custody battle between her adopted and biological parents) and her connection to the 1950 racial riots in Singapore is given a highly personal inflection through a series of imagined diary entries by Hertogh. This story is an empathetic exploration of Hertogh's struggles with her fractured identity and her relationships with both her families, countries and religions. Through the diary entries, we are telescoped into her private worlds and desires where the collisions and fissures between a national, political narrative exist side by side with a more personal, spiritual one.
It must be noted that while Koe's stories are concerned with diverse subjects, her methods for evincing these are often not heavy-handed and direct, but covert and subtle. I will give an example, just to show how 'incidental' details can be woven into the fabric of the story as implicit criticisms of society, from 'The King of Caldecott Hill':
The survey above of the collection seems to testify to the importance of Koe's concerns with the destabilising, broader structures of society and culture. Yet, the emotionalism of Koe's stories, their pinpoint individualities, must not be understated and should be explored carefully by readers. Indeed, what we are most affected by in these stories, first and foremost, are the disquieting psychological struggles that the characters are made to go through. I would argue that Koe's surges of lyricism become especially useful here in drawing out the conflict between the elegiac and the yearning in individuals, especially the sense that an individual character can be isolated, bewildered, and grieving, as well as hopeful, desirous and wilful.
The extract above describes the infatuation and preoccupation of a female fan (who remains nameless throughout the story, a fact interesting in itself) with an ageing TV actor. On the surface, the warm gush of words suffuses the scene with a strong sense of the female fan's adoration. However, this adoration is made to chafe constantly with the reader's actual understanding of the cruel reality depicted beforehand: the actor's comatose state and disfigurement, the female fan's sad background of child abuse, and the fact that her efforts in taking care of the actor will go unappreciated. Taking these hard facts into account, the lyricism produces an ambivalence in our attitude towards the female fan's self-delusion.
If we are inclined to mock the female fan, we would view the words as heady self-delusion. The image evoked is that of a slow-mo, soft-focused, self-dramatising lens of a television melodrama, where the female fan is like the cameraman who pans across the trajectory of the actor's career slowly across the horizon of her mind's eye. This has the effect of emphasising her warped sense of awe. The use of the anaphoric 'at' and 'the' and the conscious valuing of adjectives like 'skilled', 'patient', and 'stoic', also help to slow down the pace of the text considerably, bringing us closer to the contorted fabric of the female fan's dreamworld. If we are inclined to sympathise with the female fan, the lyricism becomes a sort of slow caress across the actor's body of work, where the female fan's listing of the actor's various roles can be seen as both romantic and elegiac. In this interpretation, the female fan is not so much a fan as an ex-lover. In both readings however, the reader is made to see a strange but inextricable connection between the female fan's past trauma, the actor's comatose state, and her self-delusions. There is both grieving and hopefulness, both real adoration and self-delusion.
Another example, from 'Two Ways to Do This':
Note how the enchanting wave of lyricism found in the tautological exaggeration of phrases like "placid forever" and "the impassive calm"— rides above the psychological rifts and violence experienced by the gang-raped victim who is the subject of this extract. There is both hopefulness and a wilful projection of a calm future, but also a sense of desolation and of being buried.
The second form of lyricism is explorative in nature, the beautiful cadences of words are used to search for or explore subtle tones of an individual's complicated emotions. In 'Alice' for example, the relationship between a young woman and an elderly lady is expressed in the evocative metaphor of a canoeist and her canoe on a lake.
The use of such a metaphor conveys to us the central conundrum of the story, which is the strangely discomposing relationship that Alice, a young woman, has with Jenny, the elderly woman. The mutually dependent relationship is expressed clearly enough: the canoeist needs the canoe to float on a lake. However the interdependent relationship is further complicated by the sexual undertones — "on me, into me" — sufficiently but lightly buoyed by the lyrical turns of phrase. This prepositional change from "on" to "into" seems to be indicative, signalling a movement from the romantic to the sexual, at least within the internal emotional landscapes of the two characters. It also conveys not just mutual reliance, but a sense of imposition ("on") and intrusion ("in"), which marks their strange relationship. The 'doubling' of the concern of Alice to be"nothing like an old lady" clearly is another interesting layer to the textures here, positioning the relationship between Alice and Jenny as not just being between two lovers, but also one between teacher and student, or even analyst and analysand.
Another example, from 'Siren':
Note the complicated outlines of sexual pleasure, power, justice, regret and consolation of both characters, as well as the complicated positions of their relationship: lover and beloved, fucker and fuckee, client and prostitute, bully and bullied. Also, the sense of an unburdening of the past, gracefully captured by the description of the aftermath of and exhaustion after sex.
Reading Koe's stories, one often feels as if one is close to a panther about to be let loose from its cage. Koe's stories are never tame, quiet or reserved. Many of her characters have a daring, almost wild intensity about them. Their emotions sizzle on the page, and one smells danger lurking in every corner and manoeuvre. If a Koe story is like a panther, then what Koe's craft allows us to do is to see this beauty of a beast in action from a safe distance, where deft shifts in plot parallel the slow and not-quite-circular dance of stealth, where surges of lyricism alternate like breaths of danger and whispers of warm intimacy. And, almost with unfailing constancy, yellow orbs with an inner, pensive fire stare out in defiance.
This sense of danger is often accompanied by a belief that the characters themselves are either deluded or not quite in control of their actions, or in control but in a state of removal or estrangement from their environment or reality. (Note, however, that Koe seldom, if ever, spells out any moral judgments of the characters. By staying out of the picture as far as possible, Koe is able to shine a light deep into the psychological caverns of her characters.) A scene from 'Every Park' encapsulates a sense of danger, estrangement and the characters' psychological depth :
'Park' is a touching story about the love affair and friendship between an American exchange student, Bear, and his Singaporean friend, Sledge. Just before the extract, Bear and Sledge are having a casual if unconventional conversation. When Bear points at a woman whose boyfriend is actually a gangster, the situation quickly escalates out of control. His gesture provokes the gangsters into beating him up. This violent episode quickly resolves itself. Soon after, Bear makes unsuccessful advances on Sledge in a taxi.
Three things point to the author's nuanced insight into both human psychology and culture. First, the observation that the woman, an 'ah-lian', stands beside Sledge "without animosity" after slapping her. Both of them impassively bear witness to the fight, which are 'performed' by male participants. This is a shrewd observation that seems to say a lot about gender dynamics and the tacit acknowledgement of assumed roles in Singapore. A less experienced writer could easily have made the situation more melodramatic: have the two girls fight each other amid caterwauling, for example. This would have eliminated the cultural and social nuances expressed here. Second, the episode functions as a counterpoint to Bear and Sledge's own rather touching struggle to understand and love each other, while in a certain sense inextricably trapped in their cultural wells, alienated from each other. Third, the swiftness in the transition of the episode from violence to lust and longing brings into sharp relief also Koe's depth of understanding of human psychology and estrangement. Two observations: first, Bear makes advances on Sledge right after the violent episode. Second, Bear's inexplicable advances are just as inexplicably rejected by Sledge. Why? Without going into yet another close reading, I would say Koe's narrative decisions about both of these characters reveal a maturity in acknowledging the essentially fluid, mysterious nature of human behaviour. By making her characters take sudden U-turns, cross rough terrain, or change gears abruptly, Koe's characters achieve some kind of psychological dexterity.
Now, this is not to say that psychological dexterity and realism can be achieved through arbitrary narrative decisions, sort of like doing a writerly version of a Salvador Dalí splash on the textual canvas. Koe's craft is more artful than that. For one thing, she gives us good reasons to believe that Bear and Sledge's relationship is marked by unresolved sexual tension; but it is also more than that, and here the critical explanation becomes more difficult or tedious to adumbrate, but what I say is this: that the ways each character is steadily built up in the story — through action, thought, image, symbol, and their productive interactions — and how they react and respond to each other, including the wax and wane of sexual tension, are wholly dependent on a carefully calibrated artistic valve that Koe controls. In this way, the mystery of human behaviour, its fragmentedness, its elusiveness, or what Joan Didion calls "the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience" is offered its closest cloak of resemblance.
Koe's stories trundle through a wide terrain in terms of subject matter, historical period and geography. For a debut collection, this is very ambitious, because it necessarily stretches the author's own canvas of experience and imagination. One of my first questions for Koe when preparing to write this review was to ask whether she had depended heavily on imagination and the internal logic of narrative, or had drawn from real life for her fiction. Koe replied that besides 'Fourteen Entries' and 'Love' (the first few sentences of the latter: "There is no such thing in the world as I cannot live without you, you cannot live without me. The earth spins. Rice is eaten. What is there to disprove" come directly from an old lady the author knew), the rest are derived from her own imagination. In this light, the range and depth of her imaginative grasp are evident, given the minimal material borrowed from real life.
However, perhaps also because of this, some of Koe's stories can be guilty of cultural exoticism. In particular, I point to an example which I am not comfortable with: the ways in which Zurotul, the Indonesian maid, her village and the village hag are described in 'Two Ways To Do This'. The convenient trope of mysticism, superstition and false hope versus pragmatism and exploitation is too easy a method of drawing a Third vs First World scenario (if we agree on these problematic categories to start with). In the story, Zurotul's subjectivity becomes highly exoticised, what with her belief in the village hag, her superstitions, as well as the story's insistence on her psychological affinity with Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. The village hag is also histrionically presented, lacking in psychological depth. These various cardboard portrayals are unfortunately, in my opinion, not accompanied by a convincing presentation of the complex, inner subjectivities of the characters in other areas of the story, despite the author's commendable attempt to give Zurotul a much-needed emotional core.
Another reservation I have about Koe's stories is linked to her uneven use of authorial commentary and the insertions of intellectual references. Koe seldom intrudes upon her stories — usually a good practice which allows characters and situations to speak for themselves. But, whenever one does intrude, such an intrusion should feel absolutely necessary and natural; the nature of short fiction does not lend itself to a more casual or indulgent style, which is possible in a longer form like a novel. Admittedly, it is not something that can be easily avoided, if one is eager to draw intellectual connections that might not otherwise be so easily inferred through the usual narrative principle of 'showing' rather than 'telling'. An example of clumsy, indulgent authorial commentary is found in 'Two Ways To Do This':
This is what Theravada Buddhist monks give up verbal speech for. This is why Hindu ascetics put up one arm for ten years and allow it to atrophy. The piety of transcendence conferred upon Zurotul through utter violation – not the violation in and of itself but the verity that after the most painful and demeaning thing in the world had happened to her, she was still there [clause italicized in text] – not devotional apotheosis; by a crime of opportunity – that the four men had probably already forgotten about, that no one in her village was going to be punished for – not self-cultivation.
Koe wants to make a connection here between Zurotul's experiences with those of Theravada Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics. But what is the point of this juxtaposition? While it is possible that this is Koe's way of underlining her empathetic position — the narrative assertion that all kinds of people, even or especially people like Zurotul, who come from a socially and intellectually underprivileged background, should be capable of having deeply spiritual and complex experiences that are as complex and acrobatic as the language used to describe it — I'm not convinced that this is the best way to convey her intention.
One would be prepared to accept this position if the complexity of the language was handled well and added to Zurotul's character. However, the convoluted and stilted language used to explain "the piety of transcendence conferred upon Zurotul" does little to advance our understanding of Zurotul's psychological state. The use of negatives here — "not the violation", "not the devotional apotheosis", "not self-cultivation", also does not shed light on Zurotul's psychological state.
Moreover, this excursion into philosophy is not pursued or consolidated elsewhere, which can only make us think that this element is not essential. To a lesser extent, there are similar unnecessary intrusions in 'Pawn' — the authorial commentary in the ending seems superfluous or too forced (which makes it sound like a cautionary tale and too old-fashioned) — and in 'Chick', where there are references to Slavoj Žižek and Virgil's Aeneid, have limited resonance. As such references invariably invoke intertextual currents, the author has to think carefully as to whether they produce meaningful intertextual relationships with the story.
My last reservation has to do with the extent to which the logic of a story could or should be pursued, and the choice and use of motifs. In 'Pawn', the pursuit of the theme of capitalism's ruthlessness to its logical extreme actually creates a shocking and effective ending, barring its use of authorial commentary. We are convinced things found in the ending of this story do happen. And we are taken aback and saddened by its undeniable truth. However, in 'Siren', its ending takes on an almost emotionally absurd aspect because the logic of Marl's father's love and lust for his object of desire has been pursued to its rather comical conclusion (I shall try very hard not to give away the ending). I understand that the phallic symbol and the motif of penetration are integral to the story, but one has to make a decision as to the emotional significance of the story in the end, and the absurd situation presented — the fetishistic nature of Marl's father's love — makes it difficult for me to decide if the ending is supposed to be comical or heartbreaking.
I have come to the end of this review without having chosen any favourite stories. I love many of them for the emotional journeys they have taken me on and their wonderful, baroque nature, so it is difficult to find one that actually stands head and shoulders above the rest. If forced to do so, I would pick 'Fourteen Entries' for its sensitivity and generosity in the treatment of its protagonist. I also love 'Pawn' for its relevance and sharp insights into late-stage capitalism and exploitation, although the masturbation scene seems to be also another example of taking a metaphor to its extreme.
In conclusion, Amanda Lee Koe is a frightfully talented writer with a unique voice and style. Her stories are perverse, defiant, shocking, intellectual, sexual, historical, emotive, and breathtakingly diverse. They are like torchbearers who bravely accompany individuals down the Montaignean spiral staircase into the hall where they — and we — are made to look upon the refractive mirrors of their internal selves. What surfaces in the end are daring, splintered psychological portraits. Koe also belongs to a new generation of writers who are constantly trying to challenge, dissect, and interrogate the old ways of telling a story. This collection is definitely a much-welcome addition to Singapore literature, and is also quite a convincing refutation of William Gibson's pronouncement that Singapore is 'Disneyland with the death penalty', which Koe quotes in her epigraph. Do read her – she will not disappoint you.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014