The Present is a Foreign Country
Homecoming is a mixed bag in this uneven short-story anthology
By Stephanie Ye
The concept of home has been a hotly debated one in our young, immigrant nation; recent controversies over the perceived opportunism of 'foreign talent' and the gaucheness of 'new immigrants' have only added fuel to the fire. Balik Kampung, an anthology of eight short stories edited by Verena Tay, is thus promisingly timely: stories inspired by places in Singapore where the writers have lived at least 10 years. The use of the Malay phrase 'balik kampung' — meaning 'to return to one's village' — establishes a local context and creates an air of nostalgia. 'Villages' in Singapore these days are more along the lines of Holland Village than Kampong Buangkok.
It's not a bad premise, and, to her credit, Tay makes it clear that she is not simply jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon, but rather, setting out to explore the impulse behind such longing for days gone by. In her foreword, she describes walking around the new Marina Bay financial district and feeling "like a total foreigner in my own country". She admits that her sense of alienation could be due to "middle-aged intransigence", the resistance to change that comes with getting older; but she notes that her dislike of certain developments could also be cast in terms of having a stronger self-identity, that she has "gained a sufficient maturity to decide myself (and not be forced by external circumstances) whether or not to accept new environments as part of my evolving sense of self".
Whatever the case, the anthology's concept has clearly resonated with the book-buying public, or at least that portion of the book-buying public that also supports Singapore literature: Math Paper Press' Kenny Leck tells me that Balik Kampung is one of his best-selling titles. Indeed, nostalgia is big business, as is evident from the proliferation of spanking-new restaurants and food courts done up to resemble traditional kopitiam. But as many a disappointed diner can tell you, looks are one thing, but taste quite another.
As editor, Tay proves a canny saleswoman, placing the stronger stories in front and the weaker ones (including her own) towards the back. By strong, I mean not only that the story fulfils the basic requirements of using language well and having an interesting narrative, but also that, given the premise of this collection, it conveys a strong sense of setting. By this measure, the strongest story by far is the one that opens the collection: Yu-Mei Balasingamchow's 'Lighthouse'. Told from the perspective of a young girl sent to stay with a nanny in Marine Parade while her parents work, the story captures the vague sadness and mystery of childhood, while also incorporating a unique feature of the neighbourhood as a key plot element.
Rather than "the shiny white totems depicted in her storybooks", the lighthouse of the title refers to a beacon located at the top of a housing block in the seaside estate — unromantic, pragmatic and oh so Singaporean. It is an apt symbol of the disillusionment that is the central theme of this story, as Ying finds out just how much life does not resemble that charmed world depicted in her storybooks. It can be challenging to write child characters — there's the danger of the kid coming across as too precocious or too dense — but Balasingamchow manages to strike just the right balance, portraying Ying as a perceptive girl who yet is still too young to fully comprehend the tragedy in everyday life. The writer has a particularly good ear for dialogue, such as in this exchange when Ying asks her nanny's son, Justin, if he can see the light from his room:
In that "little deflated", she deftly conveys how children sometimes treat the sharing of knowledge as a kind of one-upmanship, while hinting at Justin's sadness regarding his distant relationship with his father.
Also exploring the darker side of childhood is Yeow Kai Chai, known for his lyrical, lucid music reviews and experimental, baffling poetry. Here, he offers up the most innovative story in terms of plot. In 'Tahar', his subject neighbourhood is 'Changi Point circa 1975'; but instead of going the obvious route of setting a story there, he builds his tale around a modern-day National Museum diorama of the place, lovingly (or rather, obsessively) put together by a curator who used to live there.
A museum, an institution that ostensibly aims to preserve the past but which often ends up revising and reinventing it for contemporary purposes, is a brilliant setting for an examination of nostalgia; the past literally comes to haunt the curator in the form of a mysterious, monkey-like creature that begins messing around the museum. The chaos wrought by this supernatural being is an apt metaphor: We can idealise and compartmentalise the past all we want, but the messy, savage truth is always there, lurking just out of sight.
The last of the strong stories is Yong Shu Hoong's 'The Great Dying', which manages to be the most fun to read despite involving a 16-year-old girl's untimely death. In a Lovely Bones-style account from beyond the grave, the unnamed teenager finds herself sticking around to observe the aftermath of her death, which occurred while she was jogging along Old Holland Road near her family's Ewart Park bungalow.
Yong quotes copiously from various songs and poems in this story, something I ordinarily detest — it makes me feel as if the author borrows the words of others to convey certain feelings because he is unable to muster up any his own. However, the frequent use here of quotations suits the thoughtful, if somewhat sheltered, nature of the character, a privileged young girl whose knowledge of the real world comes from the books and music she consumes (though the choice of music and poetry — Elton John, David Bowie, Arthur Yap, Muriel Rukeyser — is perhaps more reflective of the tastes of a middle-aged literary practitioner than that of an iPod-toting, Chad Michael Murray-adoring girl). All in all, the writer successfully creates a likeable narrator whose wry sense of humour makes her ghost-girl schtick less precious: "I guess if I have to be a victim, the death might as well have been more tragic."
Several of the stories in this anthology are not so much stories as character sketches masquerading as stories. That said, not all character sketches are created equal. Gwee Li Sui's "fiercely autobiographical" (as he puts it in an author's note) piece is the most engaging. Though titled 'Grandfather's Aquaria', the notable characters are two women, trapped in their own versions of fish tanks:
This story has the distinction of being the origin of the red plastic bag featured on the anthology's cover. The antithesis of Mary Poppins's bottomless carpetbag, it holds the one change of clothes Grandmother brings with her from Yishun when she visits the narrator's family in Toa Payoh: "It was all she needed." A humble carrier, a potent symbol: of all the stories, Gwee's is perhaps the one with the most evocative and moving imagery that feels, to use his own word, fiercely authentic; it is a pity that he did not come up with more of a plot to hang these descriptions on.
Dora Tan's 'Seven Views of Redhill' does what it says on the tin, presenting the life of a family in the eponymous housing estate from the perspectives of seven family members. But rather than being a contradictory, Rashomon-style deal that makes you feel intrigued about what really happened, the story looks like the notebook of a Straits Times reporter who has dutifully interviewed almost every single member of a 'representative' family (mum and six kids; drunkard dad not available for comment) for a feature story she has been assigned to write about low-income families. The story leaves you with the general sense that growing up in a large, blue-collar family is vaguely depressing, without convincing us that this family was, as Tolstoy put it, unhappy in its own way.
Kudos to Wong Shu Yun for telling a story from the underrepresented perspective of a foreign maid — also an apt choice, given the key role such domestic workers play in making a house a home. In 'Beginnings', she addresses the fact that emotional ties sometimes form between the maid and the children of the family, the employee filling in for absent parents; but the sentimental story is also devoid of any real narrative tension, making it something of a chore to plod through.
The weakest story of the lot is 'The Flowering Tree' by Rosemarie Somiah, which certainly could have done with some cutting, pruning, and even those wires that guide young trees as to which direction to grow. The narrative jumps between different points in time, and it is a headache just to figure out from which point in time the narrator is speaking. Even if you manage to make sense of this tangle, the tale itself is a bland moralisation of how a home is more than just its property value. The narrator bewails the felling of a tree in her neighbourhood; I equally mourn the trees that died to produce the paper on which this story is printed.
Tay's concluding story, 'Floral Mile', is fortunately an improvement, though a far cry from the stronger stories at the start of the collection. The setting is a Goldhill Drive house that is too big and cumbersome for the elderly couple living there, especially now that the wife is suffering from dementia. Rather ironically, given her preoccupation with the past, Tay's story betrays a shaky grasp of when to use past perfect tense rather than simple past: "A moment ago, his second-floor study was filled with sunshine. Now, the room was gloomy…"; "A moment ago, Geok Neo sat on the grey massage chair… Now, the chair rocked and hummed…". Still, the story is a competent enough meditation on the topic of letting go, the last line infused with a melancholy that reiterates Tay's own bittersweet inspiration for this anthology.
One of the special features of the book is a section after each story called "About my connection to (place)". Unsurprisingly, the writers of the stronger stories have the better write-ups, telling you something about what their chosen neighbourhoods mean to them. For example, Yong writes that the jogging route his unfortunate narrator uses is one he himself pounded when preparing for national service; also, that mentioning the now-defunct KTM railway track in his story was a chance for him "to link up the stomping ground of my teenage years and my 20s, with a residential estate (Bukit Panjang) that I had moved to in my 30s."
Other write-ups are more cursory — a wasted opportunity, given that one of the selling points of the anthology is that the writers have deep roots in the places they write about. For example, Tan's write-up in its entirety reads: "Dora was born in Redhill Close, one of six children. She lived there till she was 15. One of her dreams is to have as many cans of longans as she wants. But even though she's achieved it, she keeps them in the pantry, unable to open them." The mention of longans refers to how one of her characters complains about having had to share everything with his siblings, even the canned fruit; this statement is presumably supposed to make the author sound quirky while commenting on the dissatisfying nature of wish fulfilment. However, it simply sounds like another Facebook status update you didn't need to read, without revealing much about Tan's attachment, or lack thereof, to Redhill. (It also irks me that not all the write-ups are in the first person, given that the section is called "About my connection…" rather than "About the author's connection…".)
I wonder if this anthology might have benefited from, well, more time. A number of books, this one among them, were launched at last year's Singapore Writers Festival to take advantage of the buzz; no doubt some editorial corners were cut to meet the event deadline. The relatively small number of stories in the anthology also suggests that Tay might not have had time to seek out more contributions. That said, eight is not a bad number for a collection, as long as all the stories are good — which, unfortunately, is not the case here. Also, at the risk of sounding like a quota-minded civil servant, it is a pity that no Malay writer was included in the project, especially given that the anthology's title is a Malay phrase. Just as Tay describes feeling alienated in a shiny new Singapore, a story from a Malay perspective might possess a particular tension, given that this is a country where the region's indigenous ethnic group is now a somewhat sidelined minority.
While I am heartened to hear that a work of Singapore literature is selling well, I only wish that this particular collection had been better curated and edited. Much like returning to a beloved hometown after years away, this anthology is great as a concept, but in execution is something of a letdown.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013