Monday, May 31, 2010

Book 4, Australia: "The Monkey's Mask" by Dorothy Porter

I've been waiting to read this book for two years, now.

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Two years ago I was at the WordStorm Festival in Darwin and I met the Australian poet Dorothy Porter. We'd both been published in "Over There", an anthology of Singaporean and Australian poets, and we were both gay poets who valued passion. So we hit it off rather well - she gave me a complimentary copy of "Crete", which was stunning, and I gave her a comp of my book "last boy".

The same December, the news came out that she'd died. She'd been struggling with cancer and hardly any of us knew. I wrote about it here.

"The Monkey's Mask" is the book that catapulted her into fame: took her from being a literary poet into the world of popular writing, because it was a crime thriller written in verse.

The poetry's very, very good - these short, terse pieces that don't always work on their own but which make so much more sense as a whole, as part of a character's voice. And it's a great protagonist she's got: Jillian McKenzie, 38 year-old lesbian private eye, sent down to track the whereabouts of a 19 year-old girl named Mickey - who, of course, writes poetry.

Jill (who reads no poetry of her own) ends up in readings and in bed and in knife fights with these university lecturer poets (and boy, does Porter skewer the hypocritical life of a poet; I just wonder who she based her caricatures on). And one of the great bits is how she has to go through Mickey's bad poetry - wailingly intense and cliched as it is, Porter makes it jump of the page, invests it with a startling sincerity - poetry that's good and bad at the same time.

It's an odd book, though - a little formulaic (or is it just simple, because there aren't that many twists and turns?), strangely unsatisfying with its end, though I can't give too much away. There is also no physical monkey's mask in the whole piece, which frustrates me, because as someone who holds Sun Wukong as an icon, the object of a monkey mask is sacred.

But it's still a helluva good read. And sexy.

Representative excerpt:

Dead kids upset me.

There's no drink
to take away the taste
of a fresh face rotting.

to tremble and vomit
and howl it's not fair.

You look at the spots
on the back of your hand
you look at the lines
fraying your face.

But you're still glad
it's the kid
not you.

Next book: Janet Frame's "Owls Do Cry" from New Zealand.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book 3, East Timor: "Resistance: A Childhood Fighting for East Timor" by Naldo Rei

Reading this book was harrowing. Partly because I'd met the author, and it was brain-exploding to realise I'd shaken hands with a man who'd survived such horrors and committed such acts of heroism.

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Fuck, the whole country of East Timor has gone through so much. No wonder they haven't got their act together yet; the whole country's undergoing gigantic post-traumatic stress disorder (and Naldo talks about this; how after the joyous day of independence people found themselves taken over by depression and lassitude and impotence). He estimates that the Indonesian army (under the dictator Suharto) exterminated roughly a third to a quarter of East Timorese, from direct killings, hunger, illness. Doesn't include the wounded, the raped, the imprisoned, the orphaned, the battle-scarred.

The book's a bit difficult to plough through: despite the poetic introduction ("I am kaer fatuk, storyteller for my people. I carry their stories like heavy stones, forgetting nothing") the account is one of testimony, detailing facts and dates with appendices to prove yes yes these horrors happened, I was arrested here, I was tortured here, I went into hiding here...

... and then there are the stories of being in exile, the frustration of being away from the frontlines, collaborating with pro-democracy activists in Jakarta, being freaked out by airport staff in Singapore, and negotiating with visa and university applications in Australia.

But it's especially horrific to remember that the soldiers doing this were Southeast Asians like myself, ruled by a dictator Singapore had a good relationship with, and that we and the world stood by while they terrorised a land like this.

I could give you a quote about how he was dragged through thorns or had his toenails pulled out or his teeth bashed out with a rock, but it's the living conditions that squicked me the most.

Representative quote: "The cells were never cleaned and prisoners could never shower but lived int he dark, naked and filthy. The price of deep sleep, which could only be obtained sitting upright, was to wake up covered in excrement because of accidentally leaning too close to the overflowing toilet."

Next book: Dorothy Porter's "The Monkey's Mask", from Australia.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book 2, Indonesia: "Saman" by Ayu Utami

I hadn't read much Indonesian literature before - a couple of novels by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (so overrated), the Tempo essays of Goenawan Mohamad, and some poems by Laksmi Pamuntjak, and some translated work of guys I hobnobbed with at last year's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

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However, I'd heard that Ayu Utami was da shit when she was invited for Singapore's inaugural Asia on the Edge festival. So when I noticed her novel "Saman" selling at a discount stall, I snapped it up.
What a find. "Saman" is indeed a masterpiece - and of course the translator Pamela Allen's done a fantastic job - it's shocking without being gratuitous - perhaps I'm extrapolating from the fact that Ayu's a woman, but I'm amazed at how androgynous the story is: the central character, Saman, fights a man's battle against evil exploitative oil palm capitalists who resort to rape and rapine and torture to take over a village, and yet the majority of the text is made up of intensely feminine reflections on love and lust and unsatisfied longing, the perspectives of Yasmin, the married woman who loves him, as well as her friends Shakuntala and Cok and Laila, who of course has a married heroic man of her own...

And also the strange way so much of the story takes place in New York City (once New Amsterdam; a former Dutch colony just like Indonesia), with the characters as expatriates and exiles from the horrifically corrupt and riot-torn Suharto regime.

Also remarkable is the way the story is so centered on Christianity, with retellings of Biblical tales and Saman's struggles with his choice of vocation as a celibate Catholic missionary. And of course the linkages with pre-Islamic mythologies in traditional dance and superstition. Very strange for a book that dates from the years of the Malay anti-Chinese riots of the '90s, which the book does indeed make reference to.

And it doesn't even end properly... And still it works. Amazing.

Representative quote: "When my parents discovered that I was going out with an ogre from the forest, they gave me their second piece of advice. Virginity is a woman's gift to her husband. And virginity is like a nose: once you lose it, it can't be replaced. So you must never give it away before you get married, because then you will be damaged goods. But the day before I was sent to this foreign place I made a decision. I would give my virginity to my lover the ogre.

On that last night, under a purplish moon, I crept out to the pavilion and tore it out with a teaspoon. It looked like a red spider's web. I put it in a wooden Jepara box and gave it to the dog. He was in fact a courier between me and the ogre."

Next book: Naldo Rei's "Resistance", from East Timor.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book 1, Singapore: "Trilogy" by Haresh Sharma

Being a Singaporean writer, I read quite a bit of Singapore writing, and I really wanted to begin this blog with a bang; i.e. with a homegrown book which expresses the best of what we've got.

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Unfortunately, we're not that great a city for fiction. True, we have marvellous works like Alfian Sa'at's "Corridor (which you can't find anywhere anymore) and Cyril Wong's "Let Me Tell You What Happened That Night" (buy it here). We also have internationally successful novelists like Catherine Lim and Hwee Hwee Tan. And of course, there are authors I admire but don't actually love-love-love to read, such as Suchen Christine Lim, Wena Poon and Isa Kamari.

So I decided to look outside the world of fiction. And as much as I love our poets (Alvin Pang, Koh Jee Leong, Yong Shu Hoong, Cyril of course, and the upcoming Teng Qian Xi and Grace Chua), I decided it'd be a safer bet to hop onto another figure whom I'm really, really a big fan of.

Haresh Sharma, Resident Playwright of the The Necessary Stage, is one of Singapore's most established and influential playwrights. He started out with the company circa 1987 and he's been producing plays non-stop ever since, mostly focussed on social issues. His plays from the late '80s and early '90s are fondly remembered - one of them, "Off Centre", is now a school lit text - while his plays from the late '90s and early 2000s were leaders in the experimental theatre movement (though often a little alienating, to tell the truth).

"Trilogy" marks his return to realism: a departure from multimedia-saturated pomo-land into something more traditional and emotionally moving. These works are devised through research, workshopping and audience previews: rather than being driven by concepts, they're instead driven by believable, intensely Singaporean characters, confronted with horrific, intensely Singaporean situations.

In "Fundamentally Happy", madrasah teacher Habiba collides with her ex-neighbour's son, Eric, who claims her husband molested him 20 years ago.

In "Good People", productivity-driven hospice manager Miguel and rebellious nurse Yati clash with Radha, a cancer-stricken woman who has turned to marijuana for pain relief.

In "Gemuk Girls", hippie Kartini and her MP-candidate daughter Juliana discover that Kartini's father Marzuki was held as a political prisoner under the Internal Security Act.

I'd seen all these shows during their premieres, and reading them brings back the pleasure of the individual performances - yet the text brings out the craft behind what seems like nature on stage. I hadn't noticed how Habiba spoke in half-grammatical run-on sentences on stage, because that's how real Singaporeans speak; it hadn't sunken how radically unstereotypical Kartini and Juliana are as Muslim women because they'd appeared as fearlessly three-dimensional characters before.

On the other hand, a few flaws become more apparent on reading. Eric spouts acts about pedophilia in this weird didactic fashion (social theatre's got its origins in didacticism), and there is just no good reason for the characters in "Good People" to stick together - no good explanation for why Miguel doesn't throw Radha out of the hospice when she can afford other treatment options.

("Gemuk Girls" is clearly the best of the lot, though - the dialogues are funny, the monologues by Marzuki plant their feet in Singapore's worst historical human rights abuses, and it offers up a vision of a bewildering utopian future for the country... Yeah, I wept when I watched the ending.)

Yes, this is a wonderful collection of plays; braver in its focus than any other volume of plays I can think of on the Singapore bookshelf. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like you can buy it online yet. But there's more information here.

Representative Quote:
MARZUKI: In the 1950s, the 60s, people had a voice. We came together as a community. There was protest, strike, opposition... people were politically active. Journalists would walk on the streets, different political parties were being formed - some were against merger, some for. We did all these things not because we believed in violence. We did it because we believed it was our moral right to have freedom of expression. What has happened? Why is everyone dead?

Next book: Ayu Utami's "Saman" from Indonesia.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What the hell am I doing?

Well, about a year ago, a guy/girl called Sam the copywriter began documenting a reading journey over at the Penguin blog. Basically, s/he aimed to read himself around the world, one book per country, within roughly 80 books.

Awesome idea, right? Unfortunately, within the year s/he'd only read six books (UK-France-Switzerland-Italy-Austria-Germany), and s/he'd chosen 18th or 19th century authors for four of them ("Great Expectations"!!! Honestly) and British exoticising novelists for the other two ("I Claudius" for Italy???), which is really kinda lame if you're serious about confronting world literature.

Granted, s/he was probably constrained into only reading books published by Penguin. And s/he made a cool map.

Anyhow, I've decided: I can do that too. I can do it better. I read lots of books in all genres and if I begin from Singapore, within a couple of stops I'm in Australasia already, new continent, woohoo, and next thing I know I'm in South America, which looks bloody impressive if I say so myself.

So I'm embarking on a similar journey. Rules are:

1. I can travel only between countries that share a border, or are either side of a body of water that needs crossing. (Lifted from Sam's original post.)

2. To qualify for being from that country, the book should ideally be set in that country and written by an author living in that country, although an either/or situation is acceptable when I just wanna read the book anyway.

3. The number 80 doesn't really matter so much. I just kinda wanna see if I can circumnavigate the globe with my reading habits.

Oh yeah, and this lady (her name is Shelbi) rules. I just found her blog: she started in January this year, and she's up to Book 27 out of 80, and she's going through continents thoroughly, my god, even a book for the Channel Islands and now she's all the way in Nigeria.

(One advantage of living in Singapore is that I can go the Southern route and skip Europe entirely, until the second time I try circumnavigating of course.)

Now, let's start reading!