[Review] Stories for the Unseen: Kirstin Chen’s Bury What We Cannot Take and Suchen Christine Lim’s The Man Who Wore His Wife’s Sarong

{Written by Theophilus Kwek, this review is part of Issue 41 (September 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Stories of the Unseen.jpgAlthough women writers from Singapore have received much recent coverage at home and abroad—with 2018 touted by one journalist as a “bumper year” for local female authors—it is regrettable that little critical interest has been devoted to either their highly refreshing experiments in craft, or the candour with which they have brought latent social concerns to light. In the two volumes at hand, novelists Kirstin Chen and Suchen Christine Lim deploy the genres of the historical novel and short story respectively to explore narratives and identities that have largely been neglected by the city-state’s male-dominated literary scene. The richness of these stories, and the beauty of their telling, make them welcome and ground-breaking additions to the expanding Singaporean prose canon.

If Chen’s first novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners (New Harvest, 2014) oscillates between the author’s two native cities, Singapore and San Francisco, her second delves into the engrossing history of an altogether different time and place. Drum Wave Islet, where most of the story unfolds, is a tiny isle across the busy strait from Xiamen which, for nearly a century prior to Japanese occupation, was China’s only international settlement apart from Shanghai. Bury What We Cannot Take opens in the summer of 1957, when the country is on the brink of the Great Leap Forward, and still riven with the split loyalties that characterised the first decade of Communist rule. San San, an intrepid nine-year-old, is left alone on the island when her mother is only granted three exit permits for their household of four, and chooses to escape to Hong Kong with her grandmother and older brother. Over the following chapters, told from shifting locations and perspectives, we follow San San’s daring attempts to find her family, as well as her mother’s increasingly desperate moves to extricate her from Communist China.

Constructing a survival narrative for a child (in any era) is no mean feat, and what makes Chen’s extraordinary tale believable is the depth of her historical research, as well as the expert sense of pacing she brings to the storyline. Chen has spoken elsewhere of her fact-finding visits to Gulangyu (as Drum Wave Islet is known in China today), and of interviewing an aunt who used to live on the island, and these efforts pay off handsomely in grounding the novel’s many vantage-points. From the gates and hallways of the family home, Diamond Villa, to the velvet curtains and dusty sideboards of the dilapidated house where San San takes refuge, every stop on the journey comes readily to the mind’s eye. Most vivid, perhaps, is the town square where San San’s benefactors, Dr. Lee and Auntie Rose, are subjected to a public denouncement for helping her. Each element of this scene is presented in eye-popping resolution—the policemen’s olive-green uniforms, the rows of students made to sit “cross-legged on the already sun-scorched concrete” to watch the trial and even the old oak where a “veil of leaves” conceals the terrified San San—all of which lends Chen’s imagination the ring of truth.

Such convincing detail, however, does not unnecessarily bedevil the storyline. Though the entire tale is told in the third person, Chen deftly manoeuvres each chapter (the shortest of which are a mere three pages long) to follow the thoughts and movements of different characters, such that our own perspective on the action is constantly evolving. Given that the plotline is chiefly driven by tough, resourceful and fiercely loving women, we are given to inhabit the personas of such deeply human characters as Seok Koon (San San’s mother), as she swallows her pride to persuade her estranged husband to rescue her daughter; Bee Kim (San San’s grandmother), who tries to navigate a new life in Hong Kong with dignity and of course San San, who gives selflessly to the new friends she meets, even though she has so little for herself. By contrast, Ah Zhai (San San’s father) plays the part of a passive patriarch, perpetually in debt and outwitted by both his wife and mistress. In a tradition of exile narratives that are often told from male points of view, Chen’s novel proves a distinctive and overdue contribution.

The only disappointment in this otherwise very fine book is, unfortunately, its conclusion. Where the story has up till its last chapters been told with well-timed suspense, the final sections—where the distance between San San and her family narrows, and they are reunited at last—come across in a hurry. We are left with the aftertaste of a hastily reached denouement where the loose threads of a manifold storyline are tied up too neatly: Ah Liam (San San’s brother, who was planning to return to China) has a last-minute change of heart and leaps off the train just as his frantic mother arrives on the platform, while a miraculous typhoon brings San San (stowed away on a cargo ship) safely to dock at Shantou. All this happens in less than thirty pages, with an efficiency that verges on melodrama, and one wishes that some of the story’s bittersweet complexity could have been carried through to the end.

The Man Who Wore His Wife’s Sarong is an expanded edition of Lim’s first book of short stories, published as The Lies The Build a Marriage in 2007. This volume, however, contains four additional pieces in the same spirit as the earlier ones, of celebrating identities that are “unsung, unsaid and uncelebrated” in Singapore. It thus represents the sustained efforts of one of our foremost fiction writers in achieving greater inclusivity through her work, and is worth our renewed attention.

The most arresting feature of this collection is the structural variation across its stories, a quality that has deepened with the four new inclusions and bears out the volume’s emphasis on narrative diversity. If the third-person omniscience, lively plotline and fast-paced final reveal of the first piece in the volume (“Mei Kwei, I Love You”) resembles Chen’s style in Bury What We Cannot Take, Lim swaps this for a coy story-within-a-story in the second (“Ah Nah: An Interpretation”) and transitions to the raw emotion of a first-person account for the third (“The Morning After”)—particularly effective for juxtaposing the tumult of family confrontation with the storm of the narrator’s own internal dilemmas. Most inventive, perhaps, is the form of “The Cleaner’s Son,” one of the recent additions. Told in sixteen sections that switch between the perspectives of Ah Gek, a low-wage cleaner and Kow Kia, her HIV-infected son, it ends with a final “Addendum” revealing that the whole story has in fact been written by Kow Kia (now called John) as part of a plea for clemency for his mother’s death sentence. The story itself thus comes to represent the reversal that must take place for Kow Kia to plead on behalf of someone who has, throughout the narrative, fended for him; this reversal also effectively challenges us, as readers, to consider what prejudices we might set aside to plead for those we love, when the time comes.

How effectively, one might ask, does Lim inhabit the identities of the marginalised persons who form the central cast of this book? In one sense, there is no definitive answer to this question save that which can be arrived at when readers, who may be marginalised themselves, connect with the individual stories in this volume. Nevertheless it is possible to make two observations. The first is that Lim wields the language in the full dynamic range that it enjoys in Singapore, with the confidence and colour that comes with loving attention. Reading these stories, one gathers that Singlish is not, for Lim, merely another effect in the writer’s toolbox, but a breathing patois that her characters think and live in: she modulates between different registers for a domestic helper at the wet market in “Gloria,” an irate mother-in-law in “A Chinese Stepfather” or the middle-aged narrator of the title story. This intimate grasp of each character’s voice makes the empathetic leap a far more manageable one for any reader.

The second observation—and in this regard, a crucial one—is that regardless of the persona she has invented in each story, replete with their social circumstances and familial histories, Lim’s characters are never simply cut-outs of their sexual, ethnic or legal identities, but utterly human constructions with their complex joys and foibles. Moreover, their stories are told in such a way that we almost always encounter their personalities first, followed by their social or secret identities, some of which (like that of the narrator in “Usha And My Third Child”) are only revealed at the close of the narrative. To craft characters of such depth, at once composite and charismatic, takes plenty of experiential wisdom and generosity of spirit, and Lim’s book brims with both. Whether she successfully reconstructs particular identities may thus be the wrong question to ask: Lim’s larger project—to fashion, and make us fall in love with full, flawed human characters—is a more expansive, and arguably more powerful one.

Whether by exploring the condition of exile and abandonment, or by observing and presenting the narratives of those whose identities are side-lined in contemporary Singapore, both Chen and Lim have crafted powerful tales that tackle issues of social exclusion in our world. By doing so through the strengths of their respective genres, both have also reinstated such stories from the margins into the literary mainstream, where they will hopefully pave the way for greater inclusiveness. May their fictions of the unsaid remind us of those who too often pass unseen. And may we read and see with new eyes.

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Theophilus Kwek .jpgTheophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry, most recently The First Five Storms (2017), which won the New Poets’ Prize. He came Second in the Stephen Spender Prize in 2016, and is shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize this year. He is currently based in Singapore as a writer and researcher on history, migration and other issues, and his poems and essays have appeared in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Irish Examiner, and the Asian Review of Books, among other platforms. He serves as Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry and Editor-at-Large for Singapore at Asymptote.

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