By Mitali Chakravarty
What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.
— Suchen Christine Lim, Second Fragment, A Bit of Earth
She wanted to run a chicken porridge stall in Singapore. Instead, she wrote about the coolies, the illiterate and the chicken porridge stall owners. Meet Suchen Christine Lim, an established voice in ASEAN literature with multiple awards and fellowships to her credit.
The first thing I notice when we meet is her humility. I remember listening to her during a panel discussion on ASEAN literature where Suchen said that she picked up bits of garbage and put them together to make a story. To me, her stories are anything but a bit of garbage. They record the history of Malaya and then, Singapore and Malaysia. Her works have been lauded by The Straits Times as ‘worthy literary landmarks that capture a slice of South-east Asian history’. Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University, Malaysia, sees her works as ‘brilliant stimulating and a compelling read’; Lily Rose Tope, PhD, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Phillipines, says, Suchen makes ‘history personal… a joy to teach and a riveting read’. Martin Marroni, a Scottish poet wrote to Suchen: ‘Astonishing tour de force. You have created a physical and social landscape and peopled it with characters with real human feelings on issues of political import as well as on the strains of personal and social survival.’ Yet, when I ask her where she sees herself in the ASEAN literary context, her response is that it is for the critics to decide. ‘I don’t see myself as anything except being able to write.’
Her passion for writing developed in the course of her teaching career. The characters she wrote about in her novels and short stories came to life for her as she went about her daily chores. She became the weaver of tales for these imaginary personas who led her through their adventures. She talks of her works in terms of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) based on the belief that puppets have a life of their own and their needs must be respected. She sees herself as the dalang, the puppet master, not a puppeteer, she emphasises. ‘And to me, the relationship between a novelist and a character is that of the dalang and the puppet, which eventually evolves a life of its own.’
Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The River’s Song
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Aurora Metro Books
Total number of Pages: 306
Price: Pounds 9.99
The River’s Song is an epic novel by the ASEAN award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim about people living in and around the Singapore River, from the mid-twentieth to the start of the twenty first century. Published in 2013, it spans an era of change and development in Singapore, which could be compared with the passing of an age as in Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone with the Wind. The story begins with the portrayal of people who lived by and around the water body for generations prior to the 1977 Singapore River cleanup. The cleanup changed the way of life irreversibly for immigrants who lived by the river, as did the American Civil War for the American settlers.
Most of the river dwellers prior to 1977 are shown to be immigrants from China or Malaya. Among them are the protagonist, Ping, and her mother, the pipa songstress, Yoke Lan. Yoke Lan insists that her daughter address her as Ah-ku, aunt in Cantonese, because she does not want to divulge her maternal status to her fans and customers. Ah-ku’s attempt to rise above poverty and move to respectability defines many of her actions. Ah-ku is more passionate, more like Scarlett O’ Hara, a colourful persona vis-à-vis her timid daughter, who is befriended by Weng, a dizi player. The story revolves around Ping and Weng till Ah-ku, who disappears from Ping’s life for some years, reclaims her daughter as a poor relative. Ah-ku returns to visibility as the wife of a rich and powerful towkay (a rich businessman), moving around in more educated circles. The ascent to a better life removes both Ah-ku and her daughter from the proximity of the river. Ultimately, Ping goes to university in USA, where she spends the next thirty years of her life away from family and friends. She flits in and out of a marriage with an Indian who wears pink pants and calls himself Jeev. She befriends braless feminists and learns to call their country her home.
‘The River’s Song’ takes on many themes and it would be worth the reader’s while to step into this absorbing, engaging story, says Anuradha Kumar in this review of The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim (Aurora Metro Press, 2014, pp 363).
In Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, there is an entire section of photographs and wall displays that show how the Singapore River was transformed in the 1970s. The river was once famous for the hawker stalls along its banks that drew people from all over the city, the shanties that ran along, the vegetable plots sustained by those who lived by it and the fishing and other bumboats that plied at all hours. Yet all this was to change in the 1970s, soon after Singapore came into being as an independent republic. Now besides the museum, there is the lovely much sought after Clarke Quay area, where people hang around at riverside cafes, the only boats that ply are those that take tourists around, and down the many bridges that cross the river, while glass-fronted tall buildings stare down at all this. But the river changed around the 1970s and Suchen Lim’s book writes of this as a time crucial to Ping and Weng, the two characters whose intertwined story drives much of her book.
Ping’s story begins a decade or so before this. As a young girl she is subjected to routine humiliations by people who refer to her derogatorily; she also realizes that she must refer to her mother as Ah-ku and never acknowledge their relationship, neither openly nor to herself. Yet she also sees a fiery side to Ah-ku, who marches to the house of wealthy state official when he has chosen to insult her despite seeking her favours. Ah-ku, meaning aunt in Cantonese, is a popular songstress who performs in the city’s clubs, and has wealthy clients who she has to please. Ping, though, also knows the terrifying insecurity that haunts her, should her little success vanish.
One of the best literary novels of this year, The River’s Song
, by award-winning novelist Suchen Christine Lim (who is also one of Kitaab’s Advisory Board members) is in the running for this year’s Popular Bookstore’s Readers Choice Awards
The other important work of fiction that is also vying for the same award is Singapore Noir, a collection of stories edited by Cheryl Tan (read the Kitaab interview with Tan).
Popular is Singapore’s largest bookstore chain, the Barnes & Noble of Singapore, if you will.
Here is the full list of nominated titles (adult category):
Born in Malaysia but educated in Singapore, Suchen Christine Lim was awarded the Southeast Asia Write Award 2012. In 1992, her novel, Fistful Of Colours, won the Inaugural Singapore Literature Prize. Critics have described her first novel, Rice Bowl, as “a landmark publication on post-independence Singapore”, and A Bit of Earth as “a literary masterwork as well as a historical document”. One of her short stories in The Lies That Build A Marriage was made into a film for national television.
Awarded a Fulbright grant, she is a Fellow of the International Writers’ Program in the University of Iowa, and its International Writer-in-Residence. In 2005, she was writer-in-residence in Scotland, and has returned to the UK several times as an Arvon Tutor to conduct writing workshops and read at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Her new novel, The River’s Song, will be launched in London and New York next spring.
Kitaab recently interviewed Suchen Christine Lim after her novel The River’s Song was released at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival.
You recently released a new novel, The River’s Song, at the Singapore Writers Festival. What inspired you to write this novel and how important it is for you?