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)

Not really. The ban is only effective (not official), according to Time.

Hillary-Clinton--Hard-Choices-jpgChinese publishers have declined to distribute Hillary Clinton’s new book, Hard Choices, which includes anecdotes that are critical of Asian superpower, reports the Time magazine.

Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, which focuses on her tenure as U.S. secretary of state, will not be sold in mainland China, according to her publisher in an interview with BuzzFeed.

A former Pakistani minister surveys the quirks of his office and country with wit and self-deprecation, but doesn’t flinch from skewering those who’ve earned his ire: Mani Shankar Aiyer in The Outlook

South Asian politicians do not keep diaries. Most Western politicians do. And a great deal of history is written on the basis of the immediacy that is offered by the word written in the white heat of the moment. Which is why Neville Cham­berlain’s letters to his sister are a more authentic record of the appeasement of Hitler than the bland official record. Or the gossipy diaries of Chips Channon of the Churchillian milieu more than the grandiose (and self-serving) grandstanding of Churchill’s own magisterial works. And the master of all diarists is surely Alan Clarke, whose delightfully indiscreet observations and naked but innocent ambition mark his Diaries as the authentic voice of the Thatcher years.

FortofNineTowersMonideepa Sahu reviews A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar (Picador UK;  14.99 Pounds; Rs 599, Pp 396)

Qais Akbar Omar was born in an Afghanistan where “our neighbours were like us, quiet and educated people. When there was a wedding or engagement party in one of their houses, everyone in the neighbourhood was invited, along with their kids and servants.”

This remarkable memoir brings to life a complex and at times strikingly beautiful Afghanistan beyond the news clips of war and violence the rest of the world has seen since decades. The author remembers the society of his early childhood as warm and benign. As a respected citizen without any elected position, young Omar’s grandfather talked after prayers at the mosque on how to keep the neighbourhood clean, solve civic problems, and create better facilities for the children to play together.  People listened to him, and he discreetly helped neighbours in financial straits.

Omar’s extended family of around fifty members lived together in happy harmony in his grandfather’s house. Kabul in those days was “like a huge garden. Trees lined the wide streets and touched each other overhead in tall, leafy arches… Every house had a garden with pomegranate, almond, or apricot trees.” Yet even in those times of relative peace, when the Russians were the only intruders the Afghans had to worry about, danger already lurked around the corner. Omar’s uncle, a military officer and father of Omar’s favourite cousin Wakeel, suddenly vanished forever.