The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

I

Dante stood alone in the dark wood. Which way should he turn? Instinct told him that stepping forward would surely lead somewhere of consequence. Midway in his life, he thought how he might never achieve the goals he had set for himself as a public figure, a secular Church scholar, and laurel-wreathed poet of his city. None of it would happen. Banned from his city and society destiny was a messenger pigeon with a broken wing. His life shifted in flux. A squadron of soldiers had not set out to find his hiding place beyond the city gates this fine spring morning, no Guelph guards from his White faction or Black Guelph supporters of Pope Boniface VIII. The Pope’s agents were more bent on bringing Florence to heel since his banishment. False corruption charges for awarding plum positions with garnered bribes weighed upon him. Yes, the name Dante Alighieri was as good as dead to the city. He could never go back to prove his innocence in a court of law. The arrow of exile had left the bow. Where would it land?

By Ranga Chandrarathne

chameleonChris Mooney-Singh’s new collection of poetry The Bearded Chameleon is the work of a new voice engaging with the “diaspora discourse”. As a Caucasian Australian who has converted to Sikhism, his is a kind of reverse-diasporic point of view. Mooney-Singh’s close empathy with the land of his adopted way of life and philosophy creates in the reader the impression of a second-generation “returnee” to a familiar time and place, when in reality, he is a son of Antipodean soil. This is evident from the dropped hints in selected poems throughout the collection. Otherwise, this is poetry that could have been written by an Indian with all its insider knowledge.

The title itself hints at Mooney-Singh’s chameleon-like position within the Indian landscape and the agility with which he writes about it. Thus, his example as a cultural convert needs its own reverse-diasporic category to differentiate it from mere travel writing.

It is evident that he has lived and breathed long and deep in Northern India and his considered work codifies the vivid and changing reality of the diaspora as he commutes between Australia, Singapore and India; along the way, he deals extensively with prominent themes such as nostalgia, memory and the imaginary homeland.

Ethnic, cultural and the micro-observation of regional diversity are some of the hallmarks of Mooney-Singh’s India poems.

As in the classical description of diasporic writings, this poetic exploration is not only a codification of individual experiences but also a poetic documentary of the “collective voice” in a highly hybridised milieu. In a way, this hybridity is manifested in Mooney-Singh’s mixed genealogy: his Australian-Irish descent, a work life domiciled in Singapore (evident from his previous collection The Laughing Buddha Cab Company) and his ongoing transnational experiments with the Sikh way of life.

Deprivation

Poverty and deprivation in a typical North Indian village is brilliantly captured in “Punjab Pastoral”, the opening poem of the collection. Poverty is coupled with an inlander naivety on the part of the villagers who think the village tank is like “the Ocean” that nobody has ever seen.

In fact, this is also a classical allusion to medieval Bhakti and Sikh poetry where the metaphor of the “Ocean” represents eternal consciousness and is often applied to any body of water at hand.

In a traditional Punjabi context, a tank was a flat ocean-wide expanse of water, rather than a small-mouthed well. In the Post-Partition days, however, the Central Indian Government created irrigation canals with pumps controlling irrigation within Punjab and controversially to other neighbouring states such as Haryana and Rajasthan, negating the old system of using village tanks for human and animal consumption:

I cannot hear the mermaid singing here

beside this irrigation channel, dug with hoes

and feeding sugar cane – a sudden crop

of sweetest cash, yet magical as staves,

and green-checked lungi, that is now hitched up

above my knees, so that my own wet soil

can drop and find its way back into landfill.

It sounds quite pastoral and yet

a place without a latrine, without a job

for every man, a place of raw mixed opium,

strained through muslin cotton, squeezed and drained…

The only way a young man gets to leave

is selling his plot for an agent’s dicy promise

of a stamped visa to a foreign sweatshop.

Yes, they all want to leave and yet I’ve come

to squat and shit and chew the grass and spit

like village elders by the Panchayat tree.

For what? A cultural look and see and then

To fly back when the travel cash runs dry?

They look and talk of me, the grubby kids,

Dragging a stick of sugar cane in dust,

and mothers loading grass onto their heads…

…I hear no mermaid singing by the canal.

Interview with the Australian poet in the Ceylon Today

Chris MooneySingh“Having returned to Australia after two decades to complete a creative writing Ph.D, I now see that identity and adoption of other cultural influences have been concerns of mine from an early age. They led me away from Australia to seek a more integral understanding of myself in the light of Eastern philosophy, and other traditional life and culture.

Chris MooneySinghIt was a rare sight. When a ruddy Caucasian Sikh with a full flowing beard, dressed in loose Punjabis and wearing a turban, comes on stage and full-throatedly recites divine poetry – one sits back feeling that things must still be somewhat well in the world. Enter Chris Mooney-Singh, another revelation of The Goa Art and Literary Fest 2013. Poet, novelist, dramatist, musician, teacher, events organizer, journalist and broadcaster; life as led by Mooney-Singh seems to be a wonderful example of how following one’s passion can lead to a very broad band of experience.

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When Ivan Seow saw a hand-sized bag on the side table he couldn’t resist grabbing it. There was a camera inside. Conscience told him to hand it in, but the tag attached read: Journey beyond your expectations. Use me and upload to freecamera.blogspot.com. Afterwards, relinquish me at any airport. ‘Timesparks’ was written on the flipside. Ivan accessed the site on his phone. Yes, there was a blog and this was the password.
Now his flight was being called. He quickly popped the camera into his bag, intending to use and pass it on, honouring the instructions.