Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

state of emergency

 

Title: State of Emergency
Author: Jeremy Tiang
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2017
Number of pages: 245

Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency won 2018’s Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) for fiction. Kate Griffin, one of the judges for the award, wrote in an article, “Erasing Histories” (https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/erasing-histories/): ‘State of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang’s beautifully written first novel, highlights a lesser known side of Singaporean history, exploring the leftist movements and political detentions in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1940s onwards, through the stories and memories of an extended family.’

Focused mainly within the local and Malayan Chinese community, the Communist movement found refuge in the jungles of Malaysia. The novel traces the development and then the quelling of this movement through the stories of three generations of Jason Low’s extended family. Jason’s wife, Siew Lee, chooses Communism over her family and leaves for the jungles of Malaya, partly to save herself and partly to live by her beliefs. Jason loses his sister in the 1965 Konfrontasi terrorist bomb blast in MacDonald House where she worked in a bank. The Konfrontasi was an Indonesian reaction to oppose the colonial decision for the formation of a separate Malaysia (of which Singapore remained a part till August 1966). These political movements in the ASEAN rip through the fabric of the Low family, tearing it apart.  Though his daughter continues to work as a Singapore government official, his son leaves him to immigrate to the United Kingdom and Jason Low finds himself in a ‘C’ class geriatric ward.

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By Mitali Chakravarty

He wears a tattoo of a typewriter on his right arm as a mark of his trade, as his “stigma”. He wrote a poem about his tattoo. He writes what he believes, no longer with a typewriter (as he did when he started to write in the 1980s). This is a writer, who, despite staying rooted to his surroundings, sees no boundaries in literature. He reads what comes his way and does not specifically think of literature in terms of regions, like ASEAN. That writing is universal and remains borderless is well borne out in his interview as in his writing and the influences they have had…

The author of 13 books across multiple genres, including five volumes of poetry, two children’s detective novels and a trilogy of humour stories, Felix Cheong has been invited to perform his works at international festivals all over the world, including Edinburgh, West Cork, Austin, Christchurch, Sydney, Bangalore, Hong Kong and Ubud. Cheong is the winner of Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2000, and holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. In 2010, he was named by Readers Digest as the 29th Most Trusted Singaporean. He is currently an adjunct lecturer with the University of Newcastle, Murdoch University, Singapore University of Social Sciences and LASALLE College of the Arts. Felix Cheong’s latest collection of poetry is B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018.

Felix Cheong
Felix Cheong

 

Mitali: You have been writing poetry for more than two decades now. What made you start writing poetry?

Felix: Like sex, you always remember the first time. It began innocuously enough when I was in junior college (high school in Singapore). As a geeky teen blessed with all the social skills of a wallflower, I could only impress a classmate, on whom I had a crush, by writing her a Valentine’s Day poem. It was handwritten on a card I had made; such was the entrepreneurial spirit I had back then. But as Auden famously says, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’; so nothing happened. In any case, it was bad poetry at its finest hour, which I would have cheerfully disowned now!

Mitali: In your latest book, B-Sides and Backslides, you have spoken of how both T. S. Eliot and Beatles fascinated you. What is it in T. S. Eliot’s poetry or in the Beatles’ compositions that had this effect on you? Do they still draw you as much or do you feel that you have got over your fascination? In “We are the Salary Men”, you say that while ‘We may be the hollow men but the least we own is our honesty to know…’

Felix: Beatles’ music was instrumental in making me pay close attention to words and by extension, poetry. I remember spending hours – talk about the devil finding work for idle hands to do! – trying to write down what they were singing (thank goodness there was no Google back then).  Through the sheer act of transcription, I had my first lesson in poetic rhythm. I loved – and still do – the musicality of their lyrics, such as “A Day in the Life”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”.

Eliot’s poetry, particularly “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, affected me in a different way when I read it at the still-impressionable age of 22. It sprung me into a modern diction that spoke to my sense of alienation. It was also Catholic in the way it articulated spiritual emptiness. I recall memorising parts of the poem while preparing for my first-year university exams. His cadences and imagery would imprint themselves on my early poetry.

By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Felix Cheong - B-Slides and Backslides

Title: B-Sides and Backslides: 1986-2018
Author: Felix Cheong
Publisher: Math Paper Press by Books Actually
Pages: 95
ISBN 978-981-11-7304-2

B-Sides and Backslides is the award-winning Singaporean poet Felix Cheong’s collection panning the development of his poetry from 1986 to 2018.  In the foreword, the poet writes, ‘These are pieces which… could not find their place in my published volumes.’ The title alludes to ‘the flipsides’ of his poetry. He compares them to the B-Sides of Beatles’ albums, which often had songs that were really interesting but not top of the charts. They remain an interesting part of a creative process. However, he claims that he has not ‘blackslid even if it might appear so,’ and in that spirit, his poetry touches our lives with its humour and variety.

The book is divided into different periods of his development as a poet. In “Juvenalia”, the section tracing his development as a poet for the first nine years, he says, ‘In various voices and versions, I have been trying to rewrite Prufrock the past thirty years…’ However, through the course of his poetry we can see how he transcends the torpor of the procrastinating Prufrock (“Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, T. S. Eliot, 1910) and the angst generated by Hollow Men (T. S. Eliot, 1925) to become a caricaturist of Singapore life, politics and culture. In “We are the Salarymen”, with an epigraph of the first two lines of Hollow Men, he concludes,

We maybe the hollow men,
but the least we own
is our honesty to know
we have the means to fill
and fulfil this emptiness,
unlike you,
stuffed fool and full of yourself,
little more than moans and bones
on a high horse galloping
with the weight of a lost world.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Senserly Amako 3

Title: Senserly Amako
Author: Anita Thomas
Total number of pages: 269
Publisher: Simurg
Price: Rs 249/-

 

Senserly Amako by Anita Thomas has been described by the author as a ‘scrap-book journal of the “growing up” years (seven to eleven, in this instance)’. Written in the epistolary technique, it consists of a series of phone messages, sketches and emails from a young boy who calls himself Amako, a name he has devised for himself, derived from the ‘mackerel shark’. Drawings of the shark splatter the book and give it an interesting perspective.

Amako grows up with loving parents, a house help from Philippines called Essie, a dog, and a cat. He writes of his life in Singapore, travels in Australia, England and India. The author has taken the persona of a young boy to give a child’s perspective of the world around him, which is refreshing and humorous; for instance, the child defines ‘amber’ (pg 52) as ‘that spewy thing that catches flies’. There are bad jokes as only a child would crack, his reaction to his mother disciplining him, his perception of his school, teachers and friends, religion, his immense love for his father and his interactions with grandparents living overseas.

Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Horizon Afar

Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Pages: 230

Horizon Afar is a collection of twenty-one translated short stories from the Singapore-based Tamil writer, Jayanthi Sankar. Spanning the last two decades, the stories shuttle between life in Singapore and India, creating links between the two countries and drawing on the writer’s multicultural experiences and interactions in the country where she lives.

Often her stories centre on teenagers and young people. The title story is about a teenager who shuttles through a surrealistic experience to find his footing in junior college (high school in Singapore). The most interesting read was a darker story, Mother’s Words, which deals with a reformed convict who is ostracized by the world yet loved by the mother.

A Few Pages from Yuka Wong’s Diary depicts the changing mindset of a multicultural population and their ability to transcend hatred to discover a fascination for a country that had unscrupulous expansionist ambitions in the 1940’s Japan.  The story is told through the pages of a young girl’s diary and makes an interesting and effective use of the device.

Melissa’s Choices is about a young man’s discovery of the fickleness of a young girl’s choices. School Bag, Revelation and Rehearsal are stories about teenagers’ journeys of discoveries in a multicultural society. Seventy Rupees, set in the midst of an auto-rickshaw strike in India, is a glimpse of the apathy of middle class towards the plight of the poor.

The stories often circle around the tedium of modern day existence and focus on the darker aspects of life. The issues faced by workers ‘imported’ from small villages of Tamil Nadu are dealt with in a couple of stories. While Cycle focuses on a flesh trader located in Singapore preying on an innocent Tamil migrant woman, Migration deals with an Indian domestic helper’s inability to adjust in Singapore. There are stories about unwed mothers, a girl who rebels to adopt a trans-sexual lifestyle, university life, school life and marriages arranged within the Tamil community in Singapore.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Secret Sorrow of Sparrows

Title: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows — A Collection of Lives
Author: Siddhartha Dasgupta
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
Pages: 316
ISBN: 978-981-11- 4966-5

The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows is a collection of ten short stories by Siddhartha Dasgupta that seem to be created out of a gossamer web of words flung accidentally into the right place. The writer’s artistry and skill lies perhaps in recreating an aura of ephemerality and serendipity, the two elements that are part of the wonder of everyday existence.

The book is structured into a prelude and ten stories. In the prelude, the author explains, ‘…these aren’t particularly sad stories. At least they weren’t mean to be.’ Yet, there is often a lingering sadness – though not despondency – that strings together the stories in this collection. The sadness is tinged with hope and the stories build up to a crescendo leading to the exposition of the author’s worldview in the concluding story. The stories are best experienced if read in order though they can stand as independent vignettes of poetic prose.

The book starts with “The Baker from Kabul” and his reactions to his family, from whom he has been sundered by the Afghani unrest. Located in Dubai, the story gives an insight into the life and thoughts of a common baker who found refuge in this affluent city. “The Train Rolled through the Night” is a recap of two brothers who return home, where they had slept as children ‘to the sound of Indian local trains’, to uncover a murder mystery in their past and reach a surprise conclusion that scars them forever with a tinge of sorrow.

“Gulmohar Drive” delves into the grief of Shenaz Wadia. Shenaz returns to Pune to visit the home of her beloved dead grandmother. As she tries to come to terms with her loss, a brief, intense, incomplete romance evokes a sense of longing in the reader… a longing like Shenaz feels for the wet Gulmohur flowers. “Dawn’s Fatal Betrayal”, while glancing at life in traditional Lucknow, imparts a deeper sense of loss, except the mystery of death is left untouched. The reader is left wondering if this is done intentionally to emphasise the uncertainty and whimsicality of existence.

“Once Upon a Mystic Sky” is the story of the poignant reunion of a qawal, his childhood sweetheart and their child… a story par excellence, one of the best in the collection. It has pathos, love, tolerance and what could be seen as a satisfying ending, with mystic music and qawali ably highlighting the values within the narrative arc. “The Thousandth Bridge”, set in Isfahan, Iran, explores creativity beyond destruction. At the end of the story, though the bridges that are painted by the protagonist are destroyed in an earthquake, will the artist draw from the ‘light’ that glows within her to recreate what was? The ‘light’ within her in Isfahan is touched upon in the last story by the narrative of a Sufi dervish who whirls through the world  peopled also by the characters from the book.

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.

By Mitali Chakravarty

Jayanthi Shankar

A small, vibrant woman full of energy comes to my mind when I think of Jayanthi Sankar. Born and brought up in India, she has been writing for the past twenty three years. She has been published in several magazines and ezines including the Indian Ruminations, Museindia, The Wagon and InOpinion. Loss and Laws and Horizon Afar are two collections of her Tamil short stories that have been translated into English. ​Her works of short fiction have been included in various anthologies including The Other. She has been invited to participate in the panels of literary festivals such as Singapore Writers Festival, Seemanchal International Literary festival, Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival.

Jayanthi was effusive and generous with her responses to the questions we put before her.

 

Mitali: Tell us a little about when, why and how you started to write.

Jayanthi: Looking back, I feel it is all like a dream – nothing was planned. It just happened. I was not a serious reader till my mid-twenties. In the1990s, when we migrated to Singapore, what attracted me the most were the libraries with their generous shelves of books – I’d found my world, and undoubtedly, I owe it to the National Library Board that paved the way for me to evolve as a reader and subsequently a writer.

I read passionately for four to five years, only for the joy of it, both in English and Tamil. A natural critic was born in me. I was not even aware of it for long. At one point of time that voice started getting too fuzzy about style and narration of some of the fiction that I often chose randomly and soon I asked myself, ‘Isn’t it always easier said than done?’

That’s how in 1995 I tried to craft a short story in Tamil – ‘Turning point’ – which I never thought would lead me to discover the creative ability in me. A very simple, amateurish narration based on an early morning dream of an incident that I’d had, ended up being published that weekend in the only local Tamil daily and the editor called to appreciate and encourage me to continue.

I recollect now, I had to try a few more stories in the next several months before I could actually believe that I really could pursue writing. I have always loved fiction, both to read and to write. For the next couple of years I experimented aimlessly in both the languages.

Suddenly, one fine day I thought, should I focus in one language first, English or Tamil?

I had known of a few senior writers like Ashokamitran, Indra Parthasarathy who wrote first in English and took up Tamil soon to last longer. But nonetheless, I decided to focus first on Tamil.