By Mitali Chakravarty

 

Singapore has completed more than half a century of independent existence. It is now a thriving country with an intrinsic personality of its own. What went into making Singapore a distinctive island cannot be just found in history books but between the borders of fact and fantasy, where lingers fiction that tunes us to the distinct flavour of this unique metropolitan city-state.

As Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father said in one of his speeches, Singapore started with people of  “many races who speak many languages, who worship different gods, who have different diet habits” and yet they all unified under the banner of a single flag. The kind of culture that evolves out of the union of these diversities is best explored in stories that are of the people, by the people and for the people.

These are some novels that showcase the culture and history of Singapore and how it evolved out of the colonial past to become what it is today. These are all books that focus on issues against the backdrop of a national landscape. The issues addressed transcend to become larger than the personal. Some of the writers are Singapore Literature Prize and S.E.A. Write Award winners and have been translated to multiple languages.

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Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

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Title: Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair

Author: Suzanne Kamata

Publisher:  Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2019

Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair by award-winning author Suzanne Kamata is more than just a memoir. It is a travelogue written by a mother about travelling with her disabled daughter, a manual on parenting, not only for a disabled child but also for a normal one, a heart-warming account of an expat well able to adjust and enjoy her life in a country where she was not born and an extensive guide to living cheerfully and with optimism despite hurdles.

Suzanne Kamata moved to Japan to teach English, fell in love and married a Japanese man. She gave birth to premature twins one of who suffers from cerebral palsy. Though Kamata’s daughter, Lilia, spends her life on a wheelchair, she loves travelling and dreamt of going to Paris. To realise her daughter’s dream, Kamata applied for a grant to travel to Paris and to write this book. She received a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation to fund her trip to Paris. In an earlier interview , Kamata explained that though for funding the writing of this book, she won the Half the Globe Literati Award in the novel category, her narrative is “actually a memoir”.

By Mariyam Haider

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Title: Becoming

Author: Michelle Obama

Publishers: Crown Publishing Group, Viking Press

Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, is powerful, personal and fulfilling. Her writing takes us with her on her journey, from growing up in Euclid Avenue on the South Side of Chicago to calling White House her home. In the course of this larger-than-life story, Michelle Obama offers her readers an insight into how a strong value-based system allowed her to take risks, commit mistakes and learn from them, address failure as a mentor, be honest to herself and develop authenticity as her crusading feature.

The book is divided into three segments: Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More. She sets the theme of the book in the preface by writing, “I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child — What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” The title of the book is thus the threadline of how each one of us is in a constant flux of evolution and rediscovery, embracing the unknown and resonating with the deeper voice that commands us to remain true to ourselves.

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Hermitage

Title: Hermitage
Author: Aamer Hussein
Publisher: Ushba Publishing International
Price: Pakistani Rs 800/-

 

In 1968, Aamer Hussein met Qurratulain Hyder, the literary stalwart from the subcontinent who was also his mother’s friend. He was 13 at the time. This meeting with Hyder – Annie Khala to him – and her presence in his life, despite the miles separating them, would become one of the defining influences on Aamer Hussein’s life as a writer. He wrote about her ‘intellectual influence’ on him in his introduction to Fireflies in the Mist, 2008 (translated by her from her Urdu Aakhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar). A decade later, he writes, once again, about the relationship and her continuing influence on his writing and reading sensibilities: ‘Annie would guide my reading, criticizing one writer and praising another in a dialogue that continued from trip to trip,’ he writes in “Annie” from Hermitage, his most recent collection of short fiction, published in 2018 by Ushba Publishing International, a small independent press in Pakistan.

‘We shared a past in three countries and two languages… I’d like her to know, I did keep the promise that I made to our shared mother tongue and, tacitly, to her, and tell her as I had at that last meeting: Annie Khala, your hand was always on mine.’

There are others who guide him, shared pasts and literary traditions – Attar, Rumi, Shefta, Ada Jafri, Hussein’s grand-uncle Rafi Ajmeri. Hermitage borrows from their writings and their lives, from stories heard and read. It spreads the oeuvre, drawing from the mystics, from traditional storytelling of the subcontinent and its tradition of storytelling through fable, myth, memoir and music. Persian and Urdu narratives and poetry inform its tonality; the structure of the stories is most often parabolic, the references inter-textual, the undertone one of deep, reflective conversations with the self woven through with a filigree of images and the restrained prose of folklore and metaphor.

Hermitage is a tribute to storytellers, to music and art from this shared past, layered with cultural memory and influenced by oral and written narratives. Love that is ephemeral is made eternal through the words on the page that not only reflect but speak of its melancholic beauty, its music clearer in the gaps and the unsaid than in what is crafted for the reader. ‘And it seemed to him that if one listened to the silence, everything sang to everything else: breeze to water and leaves, water to cloud and branch, birds to the sky…’ (“Lake”).
The larger theme of love and longing draws into itself the sub themes of exile and homelessness, migration, creativity and identity, themes that have occurred earlier in Aamer Hussein’s stories. In Hermitage, their iterations are more intense and subtle, requiring of the reader a greater engagement with the very act of storytelling.   As meaning deepens, brevity becomes meditative.

Exile is not only a physical truth but also a state of mind. Aamer Hussein’s characters are exiles, belonging to yet torn apart from the very sense or place of belonging, often leading a sutured existence, giving rise to the solitude that layers many of the stories. Love and longing, unfulfilled and unrequited, whether for geographical spaces or for emotional geographies, meanders like a stream through these stories, both imprisoning the characters and releasing them.

Book review of The Magic Circle by Charmaine Chan

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Magic Circle

Title: The Magic Circle
Author: Charmaine Chan
Total number of pages: 302
ISBN 978-981-11-3996-3
Publisher: Ethos Books, 2017
Price: S$18.60

The Magic Circle is a memoir by Charmaine Chan written for her sister who died of cancer. This book was justifiably short-listed for ‘The Singapore Literature Prize, 2018’. According to Jennifer Chen, the editor of The Peak, it is ‘a breathtaking rumination’.

The book is an attempt to recreate the sister she knew for her niece, Yazmin, and to bring the youngster closer to her maternal heritage and culture. Elaine, the sister who dies of cancer, spent a major part of her life in New Zealand and eventually married a New Zealander; her daughter, born and bred in New Zealand, was merely six when the mother passed away. On the brink of death, Elaine made an impassioned plea to her globetrotting sister, Charmaine Chan, writer, journalist, editor, poet and former lawyer from Singapore. ‘Don’t let Yazmin forget her Asian side, make sure she knows all the Asian dishes I love,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t let her forget me…’

Charmain Chan kept her promise and spent a decade creating a perfect memoir for her niece. She writes, ‘For her (Yazmin), I have sealed them(memories of Elaine and her heritage)into black and white, preserved them in print.’

The book is poignant when it deals with sorrow and the impending death that looms over her sister. A skilful weaver of words, Charmaine Chan creates a tapestry of images and feelings that bring to  the fore a lively, vivacious woman cut off from her propensity to enjoy life by the throes of a lingering death, a loving family, grief, a childhood full of sunshine and youthful nostalgia about a sister who formed part of a ‘magic circle’. The three sisters born and brought up in Singapore eventually moved to different corners of the world and had what Chan called ‘a magic circle’, an invisible bond, which was sundered by the untimely death of the middle sister Elaine.

Charmaine Leung, memoir writer
Charmaine Leung, memoir writer

“17A Keong Saik Road is a memoir of my childhood growing up in the red-light district, Keong Saik Road, in Singapore, where my mother ran a brothel. I wrote this as an attempt to come to terms with my ignoble identity of being the daughter of a brothel operator—I wanted to be rid of the shame that I had felt growing up, and embrace the past that made me the person I am today.”

by Aminah Sheikh

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Writing is first and foremost a form of expression for me. I started journaling when I was a teenager—it was my way of airing the rumbling thoughts in my mind. As I grew up, the daily journals became monthly journals, and they eventually dwindled down to annual entries. Now, I just put down interesting thoughts as and when they come into my mind, it has become a lot easier with technology and easy access to apps for me to store these thoughts quickly. I’ve come to realise the spontaneous thoughts of the moment would become lost if I waited for a dedicated time to put them down, and I don’t want to lose them.

I write also because I have stories to tell. In addition to having an unusual childhood growing up in a red-light district in Chinatown in Singapore, and being surrounded by people who had interesting life experiences, I am a curious observer who enjoys putting down my observations in words. I believe everyone has a unique story.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I have just published my first book, a creative non-fiction work titled 17A Keong Saik Road. It is a memoir of my childhood growing up in the red-light district, Keong Saik Road, in Singapore, where my mother ran a brothel. I wrote this as an attempt to come to terms with my ignoble identity of being the daughter of a brothel operator—I wanted to be rid of the shame that I had felt growing up, and embrace the past that made me the person I am today.

I also wanted to share a part of Singapore history that is not commonly known, and give a voice to the things, and the people, who may have long been forgotten, or left unknown in the past.

by Chandra Ganguly

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

— Randy Pausch

paul-kalanithi-book-cover-when-breath-becomes-airIn Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air, we are faced immediately with the bane and challenge of any memoirist – how much do you give away of what you know and how soon? The question gathers a new grave importance when the outcome is a certain death, which in Paul’s story comes about with his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer early in the narrative. Paul, a neurosurgeon, is faced with the question of what he wants to do with his remaining days and he decides to write, to have a baby. He tries to practice medicine too for a while and must accede defeat to his fading body. What does a dying memoirist write about? About death, surely but more importantly what emerges is how a book about dying becomes a book about life and living and meaning. And isn’t that what we are all looking for? Isn’t that the purpose of our every day? Isn’t that our raison d’etre? A search for meaning?

Paul grappled early with meaning in his adolescence. He sought it out in literature and then channeled that search in medicine. Paul quotes Graham Greene, “Graham Greene once said that life was lived in the first twenty years and the remainder was just reflection.” (p.197) Paul spends his remaining time through the pain and treatments of his disease reflecting, trying to reflect even when his body and mind slowly gave way. These reflections at the center of his work is what makes this memoir so valuable to the readers he has left behind. Other than the insight he provides into the life of medical students and residents, which is engaging, what we as the reader are left with is a heightened awareness of our mortality and also an urgent sense of our need to give it meaning. “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” (p. 155) What does Paul find at the end of his search? These are his final words in the book, addressed to his daughter, to a future he does not have, “When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years…”(p.200)