The Corners of Our Eyes
This fiction anthology brings into focus a Singapore as seen from its edges
By Theophilus Kwek
Hook and Eye: Stories from the Margins
The short story has proven a remarkably resilient prose form in the history of Singapore writing: both in the consistency with which it has been produced by authors from different language communities over the past century, and also in its adaptability to different authorial approaches, traditions and circumstances during that time. Less closely associated with Western notions of modernity than the novel, the short story has emerged as the form of choice among many post-colonial writers, and those in Singapore are no exception.
Here, editor Philip Holden brings together nine previously published stories with two newly commissioned ones (all but one written within the last decade) in order to demonstrate an increasingly urgent aspect of the form's potential: its ability to "encourage empathy in readers", by "bring(ing) into focus characters who are marginal in today's Singapore".
How, exactly, does the short story achieve this? Holden argues in his introduction that the defining feature of the form – its brevity – is also what bridges the worlds of the protagonist and the reader, encouraging identification and self-reflection. As he writes, reading a short story may transport us temporarily, but because it "returns us to our own world" swiftly afterwards, it leaves us unsettled by the insights revealed in the story. Having glimpsed the world through another's eyes, our quotidian lives are no longer the same, and we "begin to question what we have previously taken for granted".
A sense of this re-orientation comes across in the anthology's title, which as Holden suggests, gestures to the ways in which we are prompted to "fit our own experiences into the world of each story", creating a unique, composite experience that alters each reader's reality in a different way. It is thus with great intentionality that Holden selects stories for this volume, intending not to create a catalogue of marginal experiences in Singapore, but to curate a set of experiences through which readers might be moved by, and come to identify with, the different ways in which marginality is experienced.
Each story, in his words, pursues a different balance of "what is familiar and what is unfamiliar", allowing us to reflect on marginality in a distinct way. This is a subtler and, in a sense, more challenging task, especially with how explicitly Holden has presented his vision for the volume. For it risks the charge that a set of experiences, already constructed as marginal in Singapore society, have been deliberately selected and represented as such to induce empathy or identification in readers who hail from a privileged majority. Should marginal experiences, albeit fictional, be used in this manner?
Thankfully, Holden anticipates this criticism in two ways. For one, these stories challenge the common assumption that marginal experiences are necessarily disadvantaged ones; while social inequality (along the lines of ethnic and economic difference) features strongly in the anthology, Holden deftly widens the scope of marginality to include experiences that are in turn aspirational, speculative, or surreal, so much so that the reader is often made to ponder which of the figures in any given story represents a 'marginal' experience.
To the writers' credit, the rich subjectivity of almost all the characters here play a decisive role in this process of expanding and re-situating the idea of marginality. At the same time – and building on this – Holden insists that there is a marginality "inherent in [the] experiences and sense of self" of every reader, such that no reader wholly inhabits a majority perspective, but can identity with what it means to be distinct, or distant, from what is accepted as socially normative in some way.
The two new stories commissioned for this volume reflect these concerns. The first is Koh Choon Hwee's 'Margarine and the Syrian Refugee Project', a perceptive take on how our socioeconomic identities produce different forms and expressions of empathy, brilliantly presented as a schoolyard parable. Marjorie, a girl from a privileged background (she lives, we are told, in a "mansion [with] walls so high that [one] couldn't even look into her neighbours' house"), arrives at Bukit Katak Secondary School, where she is assigned to work on a project with the narrator and her friend Nabilah.
As the girls try to decide on a topic for their project, their different concerns – which, tellingly, correspond to the different worlds they inhabit – emerge as the grounds of conflict and compromise. Marjorie wants to study the Syrian refugee crisis, and the other two reluctantly abandon their initial idea of working on Singapore's theatre scene, only to discover how each of their contrasting social positions contributes to a different understanding of where their ethics, sympathies and obligations lie. By attending to small, vivid details, Koh is able to explore the nuanced relationship between choice, circumstance and compassion in a highly naturalistic – and at times even humorous – way, keeping the story nimble and honest as we learn more about her characters.
One example is how, throughout the story, neither Nabilah nor the narrator get Marjorie's name right: first dragging it out as "Mar-jerh-ri", then shortening it to "Margy" and, only later, as the girls become friends, acceding to Marjorie's request to call her "Jo". Even Nabilah's mother calls her "Margarine" when the girls go to her HDB apartment after school for a project meeting, saying "your real name is too hard for me lah".
This seemingly throwaway detail is revealing on two levels. On one hand, the girls are acutely conscious of how Marjorie's Christian name, along with her other mannerisms, are subtle class markers, even if they do not directly articulate how alien these are to their own experience. Their various permutations of Marjorie's name also reveal the girls' difficulty in relating to who she is: her social position, and the personality it has moulded, being hard to reconcile with their understanding of the world. While she seems to enjoy a privileged position in Singapore society, then, Marjorie is the one who is in fact 'marginal' to her classmates' lived experiences, and their worlds must expand to include hers.
The other new story in the anthology is 'What They're Doing Here' by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, which follows the journey of two nasi padang sellers, Atiqah and Zul, as they try to find a new hawker centre after the landlord of their Ang Mo Kio coffeeshop decides to raise his rent. Despite drawing on such familiar tropes as the bonhomie of heartland eateries, or a shared sense of frequent relocation, the story's main protagonists defy widely held stereotypes of their profession. Atiqah and Zul are a young couple who have only been running the stall for five years, taking over from Zul's parents. Zul, who has recently been retrenched, must grapple with another blow to his pride after plans to expand the business come to nought while Atiqah, a former Singapore Girl, faces her own transition from an exciting, peripatetic career to the tight confines of the hawker stall.
But memories of their past continue to define present circumstances. Dressing up to visit prospective stalls is, for Atiqah, "just like wearing the SQ uniform", for she and Zul have an image to uphold as "responsible stallholders, the kind who would pay their rent and utilities on time, not create trouble or stir up arguments with other hawkers".
Compared to other stories collected here that focus on marginal identities, 'What They're Doing Here' tackles marginality in a different sense: as a process of departure and change. The anthropologist Victor Turner has written about how pilgrims in different cultures devote themselves to a season of marginality or exclusion before returning, transformed, into society; Balasingamchow captures in her story a similar sense of marginality not as a fixed social position, but a temporary state of transition and discovery. We encounter Atiqah and Zul in such a state of flux, as they inhabit spaces of personal, geographical, and ontological change, and are, in common parlance, 'neither here nor there'.
The story closes with a fitting image of this in-betweenness: the Ang Mo Kio stall that they are so familiar with, now stripped of its implements and hosed down in preparation for handing over to the landlord. "Empty and unrecognisable", the stall is foreign to them all over again, and they fall back on the familiar ritual of washing it to reclaim a sense of propriety, belonging, and comfort in the midst of change.
Along with the other offerings in this volume, already in print elsewhere, these newly commissioned stories reflect Holden's commitment to anthologising narratives that draw us into different experiences of marginality. If Leonora Liow's 'Rich Man Country' inhabits the consciousness of a disenfranchised foreign worker who has had a workplace accident, inviting us consider the marginality of his social and legal position (as well as that of the imminent barrier between life and death), Jeremy Tiang's 'Sophia's Party' captures the loneliness of a longsuffering expat made to endure the patriotic niceties of a National Day viewing party. Though some of these narratives are told in a more convincing way than others, they work best in concert: as a collection of variegated realities, made even more meaningful and inclusive by the diversity of their approaches. Holden's recent relocation to Vancouver, another city of pluralities, is our loss; in the face of shrill cultural disagreements and state pronouncements, we need his clear-eyed editorial perspective especially now. This volume of marginal narratives deserves a central place in the necessary project of fostering trust and empathy that must go on, somehow.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 3 Jul 2018