The Skin We Live In
By Stephanie Ye
A Fickle and Restless Weapon
Recently, a classmate from graduate school wrote me an email. She has just finished a draft of her first novel; but instead of the usual request to read, she had a question for me: Do I have any discomfort with the fact that she writes from the point of view of Chinese people?
My friend is white British. Her novel is set in mainland China and the characters are all Chinese. She worked in Beijing for years as a journalist with international broadcasters, and her Mandarin is better than mine (and I would guess, that of at least 50 percent of Chinese Singaporeans). She teaches contemporary Chinese fiction at a university in London, and most definitely has a deeper understanding of Chinese history, culture and politics than I would ever bother to acquire.
Maybe ten years ago, maybe just five years ago, this would have been enough in the way of bona fides. But it is not surprising that in 2021, she reports that an agent got back to her, saying that they really love the writing, but could my friend please rewrite the manuscript from the point of view of a Westerner? Because, otherwise it is cultural appropriation.
I completely understand the concerns of the agent, from a PR perspective. Look at the pushback from the Latinx community against American Dirt (2020), a novel about a Mexican mother-and-son duo who undertake the dangerous journey to the US border in hopes for a better life. The author: Jeanine Cummins, a white American (who, despite no doubt rigorous research and great writing skills, did not perhaps herself demonstrate the greatest empathy for the real-life people facing her fictional characters' plight when she tweeted a photo of her book launch party, complete with floral table settings decorated with so-on-theme barbed wire).
I mention all this as a background as to why questions as to who gets to tell which stories, and why, were certainly pricking at my mind as I read Jason Erik Lundburg's first full-length novel, A Fickle and Restless Weapon. Set in the same universe as his 2019 novella Diary of One Who Disappeared, it is set in a not-Singapore-but-pretty-much-is-based-on-Singapore equatorial island nation of Tinhau, which is ruled efficiently and iron-fistedly by a not-PAP-but-pretty-much-PAP, peopled with characters who speak Singlish-but-not-really-Singlish-since-this-country-is-Tinhau-and-not-Singapore.
Lundberg is a white American who has lived in Singapore since 2007. He is very much an active figure in the Singapore and South-east Asian literary scene in general, and the spec-fic crowd in particular. The founder of the must-missed LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction (2013-2018), he has also edited several anthologies including the spec-fic anthology Fish Eats Lion (2012), and helms the Best New Singaporean Short Stories anthology series (2013-present). (Full disclosure: Some of my stories have appeared in anthologies he edited.) His day job as fiction editor at leading Singaporean publishing house Epigram, where he's worked since 2012, means he plays a key role in discovering, nurturing and promoting Singaporean writers.
Again, great bona fides, and he has the advantage of operating in the realm of speculative/science fiction, where he isn't bound to the same standards of realism as that of my friend or Cummins. Yet, the question remains: why read a white man's version of an imagined Asia, when we have a growing number of exciting voices coming from our own shores, the Asian continent, and the global Asian diaspora as a whole? (Notably, one of the most prominent members of this club, the China-born American writer Ken Liu of The Paper Menagerie fame, has penned a glowing blurb for Lundberg's novel, featured on the back of the book: "Thrilling, textured, fantastical".)
Liu's gush isn't unwarranted. A Fickle and Restless Weapon is an intriguing, at times uneven, but ultimately delightful and immersive universe, brought to life by Lundberg with verve and affection. Set in an alternate universe not dissimilar to our own, in the recent pre-Covid past (if indeed, the coronavirus exists in this alternate universe), it opens with a prologue that describes the first attack of the Earth by the Range, an "amorphous, inverted mountain structure" which, one day in 1999, appears from the clouds to blast Disneyland USA to smithereens by way of green lightning.
This 9/11-magnitude event is witnessed from afar by a holidaying Tinhaunese family driving in a rented Toyota, and with them the author also deftly introduces the second unusual element in this universe: some people are "swee", born with strange physical features and/or talents, a phenomenon recent enough that people still remark on it, but common enough that these X-men are integrated into society rather than, say, packed off to special schools or experimented upon.
The novel proper begins in the mid-2010s. The attacks by the Range are a recurring occurrence across the globe and have reshaped the geopolitical system, for example by destabilizing the United States such that it unites with Canada and Mexico to form the North American Union (though this does not explain why some countries in this universe go by, charmingly, an older or less-used version of their name, for example Japan as Nippon, Sri Lanka as Ceylon, and Thailand as Siam).
But life goes on, and in the eternally sunny and prosperous island-nation of the Republic of Tinhau, a prodigal son arrives home after many years abroad. Zed, known to some as Quek Zhou Ma, eventually known to one as Zuma, is a swee whose gift is the ability to change his physical appearance, a talent he has spun into a career as an internationally acclaimed "body artist", putting on specular Cirque-du-Soleil-esque shows where he plays multiple characters. Having lived abroad long enough to acquire a British passport, he returns to his homeland for the funeral of his sister Elisha, who was plagued by mental health issues all her life and died by suicide. In Tinhau, he finds a gahmen (yes, they use this nickname in Tinhau too) less worried about attacks from on high and more concerned about attacks from within by what they call penderhaka, a domestic terrorism movement which, of course, will come to feature prominently in this tale.
Lundberg has created a cast of characters as carefully diverse as a CMIO model, albeit ones who have done time in the Western world: an intelligent way for the author to compensate for any hesitations he might have of attempting an entirely "Asian" voice without going the white-people-in-Asia route. Besides Tinhau émigré Zed, there is Goan-born, American-bred, green-skinned Tara, by day a graphic designer, by evening a lay instructor of Zen Buddhist meditation, and by night a foreigner interfering in domestic issues; and there is Vahid, a puppeteer and theatrical partner of Zed's, born in Iran, raised in London, four arms. The most prominent middle-aged white man (alive) in this storyline is Trent Reznor, who in this alternative universe is still doing his good work with Nine Inch Nails.
It's said that science fiction isn't really about the future but about the now, and Lundberg uses the circumstances of his alternative universe to examine gender and sexuality, politics and power, resistance and extremism. For Singaporean and Singapore-based readers, the parallels between Tinhau and some other city states we might know give an added frisson to many events, while also providing the funhouse pleasure of experiencing a fantastical version of one's everyday world. Tinhau is a Singapore with a bit of Hong Kong old-school glamour and sci-fi embellishments: the efficient TMRT trains studded with surveillance "scunts", alongside street cars that still take cash; the officious civil servants who adhere religiously to feng shui; the Pohonorang underclass of menial workers who silently do all the jobs no one else wants. There is a leisure island, Nova Kaulun, open only on weekends, where the good people of Tinhau can briefly escape to enjoy pleasures not seemly enough for the mainland; there is a red-light district with its legally protected sex trade, the workers holding special ICs that offer an endless scroll of their health records.
Some of my favourite parts of the novel are when Lundberg describes a distinctly Singaporean, I mean Tinhaunese, characteristic or scene, but then coyly slips in a fantastical element. Take this description, at once exquisite and grotesque, of fish head curry: "Inside the bubbling bowl rested the head and front parts of a red snapper, cooked whole, eyes blinking emptily, pointy teeth bared."... "The fish blinked again.".... "Neither of them spoke while they ate, engaged in the act of concentrating on the proper way to eat the fish, and as more and more of the flesh was consumed, the fish's eyes grew cloudy, and soon stopped blinking."
The reproduction of Singlish/Tinhaunese is generally convincing, with the most cringe-inducing rendering of speech patterns actually that of Vahid's Guy Ritchie-wannabe cockney (thankfully dropped as the novel progresses). Indeed, even an experienced editor like Lundberg needs good editors when it comes to one's own writing, and there are parts of the novel that felt uneven. There are whole chapters framed in past perfect tense, when simple past tense would have made the numerous action-heavy scenes feel less inert. There is also the usual novelistic clumsiness of people delivering paragraphs-long speeches of exposition. And characters have the tendency to fall in love quickly, in ways that feel seem less organic and more narratively expedient. There is also one groan-inducing mention of a woman urinating from her vagina – an ignorance of anatomy that I will generously try to attribute to the point-of-view character's special circumstances, rather than poor science education.
But these are nits being picked off what is otherwise a fully-formed and fantastic beast. It is logical and fair to want to read about Asia as written by Asian writers; it is heartening that agents, editors and publishers are increasingly careful to demand authenticity, if only to stay on the right side of the liberal minded folks who, to make a broad generalisation, tend to be the kinds of people who buy and read books anyway. Yet, as a Singaporean reader, I will say that if you skip this novel merely based on these concerns, you would be missing out on this loving, uncanny take on our country by an insider-outsider who, in creating a fictional version of ourselves, ultimately also reminds us how we are indeed, as a shrewd gahmen once declared us to be, a city of possibilities.QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021