Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bonus review: "A Song of the Wind" by Isa Kamari

Hey folks! Somehow I neglected to mention on this blog that I was dropping by Singapore for a weekend, to watch a closed-door reading of my new play SHEARES (and to be bombarded by constructive criticisms during a Q&A afterwards).

Of course, while I was there I took care to stock up on books:

Top row: Tse Hao Guang's Hyperlinkage, Amanda Lee Koe's The Ministry of Moral Panic, Jason Erik Lundberg's Lontar #01: Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, Theophilus Kwek's Circle Line.
Middle row: Gwee Li Sui's The Myth of the Stone, 24 Flavours: Dolphin Meat, Best New Singaporean Short Stories (I'm in this!!!)
Bottom row: Cyril Wong's The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza, Gregory Nalpon's The Wayang at Eight Milestone and Other Stories, Isa Kamari's The Tower.

A fair handful, I know. But today I'd like to focus on another book: a novel that was pressed into my hands shortly before my first departure from Singapore - A Song of the Wind (originally Memeluk Gerhana) by the stellar Malay-language poet, playwright, songwriter and fictionist Isa Kamari.

I've been following Isa's work for some time now: reading the novels he's had translated, trying to read his poems in Malay, watching his plays (okay, it was one play). Always, I've been intrigued by his perspectives, but also frustrated by his authorial decisions, the style he chooses for narration, the quality of his translations, and of course the pervasiveness of Islam in his works - not in a transcendental form but manifesting in the form of a structure of rules that often prevents his characters from doing and thinking truly interesting things.

These problems are here again in A Song of the Wind, but we'll focus on the positives first. Basically, this conveys more intimately than any other text I've read what it was like to grow up in a kampung in Singapore. It follows the story of Ilham, a kid who moves into Kampung Tawakal in 1967, playing war in the jungle with his friends, collecting spiders in matchboxes, building go-carts from shopkeepers' leftover crates, stealing chickens, peeping at the neighbour's wife in the bath hut. It's also fortuitous that the kampung in question is on Bukit Brown, the site of the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, now threatened by development. (The Malaysian translator, alas, has mistakenly translated this as simply "Brown Hill").

But this isn't just a record of a vanished community. It's also a memoir of the political climate of the late '60s and '70s. Ilham listens in on discussions of current events: the moon landing, the Vietnam War, Nixon's impeachment. There's not much explicit related about the PAP, but there's National Service in army and the police, and there's also the resentment of some Malays, some of who wish they'd taken up Malaysia's 1965 offer of farmland in return for changing citizenship. Plus, *SPOILER ALERT!!!!* there's a clash between Ilham's religious study group and the ISA which happens in the last section of the book, which ultimately ruins his chances of advancing in society as a smart young Malay man.*SPOILERS END* There's definitely a degree of testimony going on here - Isa wants us to remember that all this happened.

Then there's the romance stuff. Sure, I get it, sexual/romantic feelings are going to be a major part of almost any boy's adolescence. There's a place for that in a book like this. What I don't understand is why it has to be such a huge part - why on earth does he end up with three different girls from different eras of his life by the time he's doing his A-Levels in Raffles Institution? There's an ideological reason why, I suppose - each one represents a different facet of his destiny - and inevitably there's the bad Muslim girl who refuses to wear her tudung (I don't think many girls did in the '70s anyway!) and (shock, horror) kisses another boy in public. Seriously, though, these girls do not come across as three-dimensional, independent characters with lives of their own. Also, having three suitoresses does not endear us to Iham - we're alienated 'cos that sure didn't happen to us, and anyway he's a namby-pamby goody-two-shoes who can't actually do good by any of them.

The real flaw of A Song of the Wind, however, is that it's trying to do too much. Perhaps this is all stuff that actually happened to Isa (don't think the spoiler bits above did, though). Very well: then he can write a memoir about it. Otherwise, the rise and fall of the kampung is one story; the romance is another; the downfall of a promising young Malay boy is (possibly) another. The whole does not cohere.

There are probably different standards in Malay literature that render these flaws inconsequential. But in the Anglophone tradition, the book's problematic. It's only fun to read for a while before you stop caring much about the characters.

Mind you, I'm glad I read the book. It's just that I'd be more inclined to recommend it for academic purposes than for entertainment ones. That's not a good thing.

I've also got Isa's other two recently-translated books, Rawa and 1819, to review - that is, unless the publisher stops me. In case you're still stoked, he's having a launch for them on 10 November, 11:30am at the Singapore Writers Festival, Festival Green. More on the SWF here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book 136, Jersey: "Menagerie Manor" by Gerald Durrell

During my primary and secondary school holidays, my English teachers had a habit of prescribing Durrell - and why not? Kids love animals, and a bit of light, classic British humour is always a delight. Never got round to reading him, though, so it was only when I conceived this project that I realised he was the founder of a zoo in Jersey; the very first zoo to have an interest in sustaining endangered species through captive breeding pairs, in fact.

The image above isn't of the copy I read, I'm afraid - I ended up with the UEA's mammoth compendium of Durrell's writings: My Family and Other AnimalsThe Bafut BeaglesThe Drunken ForestEncounters with AnimalsA Zoo in My Luggage and The Whispering Land, as well as this baby. Didn't feel compelled to consult the other books - they're all about his growing up amidst wildlife in Corfu, or collecting creatures in Cameroon or Argentina.

But I might read 'em someday, The animal yarns here are loads of fun - little adventure tales about escaped tapirs, nail-biting stories of charismatic gorillas on the brink of death, blunder-after-blunder anecdotes of attempting to work with live reptiles and primates on TV (for some reason, he had to crate up his animals and send them to Bristol for the recording).

And yeah, it does make you want to visit. Singapore's zoo is often ranked as the best in the world, and the scenes in the Manor of des Augres aren't a hundred percent charming - there are cages and chicken-wire mentioned a-plenty. But this was back in 1959, when Singapore was still getting its own self-rule - Durrell couldn't even figure out the sex of his lizards, and everyone in Europe was still killing their New Zealand tuataras by putting them in tropical greenhouses. Makes you want to see how they've moved on - this book was written just five years after the zoo's opening; think how many more stories have bred since then.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

I'll leave you with one of the more alarming descriptions of animal behaviour Durrell managed to catalogue, regarding that most loved of Singapore Zoo animals, the orang-utan:

Representative quote: It is unfortunate that, like many apes, Oscar and Bali have developed some rather revolting characteristics, one of which is the drinking of each other's urine. It sounds frightful, but they are such enchanting animals and do it in such a way that you can only feel amused to see Oscar sitting up on his iron ladder urinating copiously, while Bali sits below with open mouth to receive the nectar, and then savours it with all the air of a connoisseur. She puts her head on one side, rolling the liquid around her mouth as if trying to make up her mind from which vineyard it came and in what year it was bottled. They also, unfortunately, enjoy eating their own excreta.

Next book: William Shakespeare's Henry IV (Parts I & II), from the United Kingdom.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book 135, Guernsey: "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows

I've decided, with some regret, not to do Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England as separate entities. We do not have a majority of citizens in these regions calling for independence (not even in Scotland!). Also, if I did all four countries within the UK, I'd logically also have to do all seven emirates in the UAE. All fifty states in the US might be pleasant, but Emirati writing still has a long way to go.

But we're on Guernsey now! One of the two Channel Islands - and you'll see on the map below how close they are to France, and thus how understandable it is that they're regarded as a separate from the UK. Also understandable is how they were occupied by the Nazis during WWII, the Brits tactically abandoning them for the sake of their own behinds.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society is a description of that occupation, narrated through the letters and telegrams of the single, thirty-something year-old writer Juliet Ashton in 1946. She's a London girl, the recipient of recent fame and success after the publication of her humorous wartime newspaper columns - because people did need humour during the war - and now on track for her next book. 

One day she receives a letter from a certain Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey fisherman who's very much enjoyed a second-hand copy of Charles Lamb's Selected Essays of Elia which once belonged to her. He mentions the existence of the eponymous literary club during the war - at first an excuse to explain to the Germans why they were out so late during curfew, but later a coping mechanism (the pie being another such coping mechanism). The two commence a correspondence, and gradually Juliet comes to realise her destiny is to go to Guernsey and chronicle the experience of the war there.

It's honestly rather lovely to read an epistolary novel of this sort, recalling a time before e-mail and Whatsapp (though I really have no idea how one-sentence letters exchanged on the same day work - these people do not have footmen, after all). Principal author Mary Ann Shaffer has a wonderful range of voices, vivacious and folksy and prissy, bringing to life the cast of her novel. 

And what a cast it is. On the island, there's the poultice-brewing wise woman Isola Pribby, the haughty Adelaide Addison, the worried half-Jewish butler John Booker - and off the island, there's the frighteningly charismatic American publisher Markham V. Reynolds, and of course the terribly fun Juliet herself. Plus the unseen figure of Elizabeth - this young independent woman who invented the ruse of the literary club and was eventually arrested by the Nazis towards the end of the war, and who ends up being the subject of Juliet's book.

Mind you, this isn't high literature, by certain standards. The cover above shows how marketable it is as  pure and simple chick-lit - period too! An adaptation of Pride and Prejudice's love story: Dawsey is Darcy and Markham is Wickham. But it is so full of story, and texture, and joy, which is why it was a bestseller, and what I'm having so much trouble with in my own writing.

One final note: Shaffer was the original author of the book - wrote it as her first complete novel when she was an old woman, years after being stranded in a bookshop during a foggy Guernsey excursion and learning all about the occupation. However, once the novel had been optioned, changes were suggested - and she was seriously sick - so her niece, Annie Barrows, stepped in and filled her shoes, recreating the familiar style of storytelling she'd heard so much during family visits. I rather like that. Two women, one beginning a story, the other ending it. But there'll no more Shaffer novels, I'm afraid: she's dead and gone as of 2008, just before the book was published in its current form.

I actually finished this book last week - have been trying to keep up with my own reading in the meantime. It's a quick read, as is my next book, so I'll probably have my next update up pretty damn quick.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: As the mail boat lurched into the harbour, I saw St Peter Port rising up from the sea, with a church at the top like a cake decoration, and I realised that my heart was galloping. However much I tried to persuade myself it was the thrill of the scenery, I knew better. All those people I've come to know and even love a little, waiting to see - me. And I, without any paper to hide behind. Sidney, in these past two or three years, I have become better at writing than living - and think what you do to my writing. On the page, I'm perfectly charming, but that's just a trick I've learnt. It has nothing to do with me.

Next book: Gerald Durrell's Menagerie Manor, from Jersey.

Monday, October 7, 2013

I've got a gig in London!

Since I know I have a number of UK readers, I'm just gonna announce the following. 

Next Wednesday, I'll be taking the train down from Norwich, performing 15 minutes of slam with some UK artists in Forget What You Heard (About Spoken Word).  The Facebook page is here.

My fellow Singaporean poet, Stephanie Dogfoot, programmed me in - she recently represented the UK in the World Cup for Poetry Slam in Paris! It's also her farewell gig, 'cos she's returning home soon - hopefully developing our own scene.

Date: Wednesday, 9 October
Time: 19:30-23:00
Venue: Ryan's Bar, Stoke Newington Church St N16, London

That's the best photo I took of Steph when we met up in London the second day I was here. The blurb for the event's below!

Autumn is upon us, cold weather is approaching, the year 2013 is drawing to a close so what does this mean?

NOTHING! Except that the October edition of Forget What You Heard is round the corner and its the LAST ONE where we'll have co-host Stephanie Dogfoot before she moves back to Singapore....
So come down and join STEPHANIE DOGFOOT and MATT CUMMINS and celebrate/commiserate/bid farewell, and October's three spell-binding features you will definitely remember for a long time coming..fireball Anna Kahn, one of the most exciting & funny & accomplished young poets from Singapore today Ng Yi-Sheng and the tender yet ferociously compelling Alex Etchart.

and of course, YOURSELVES on the open mic! As always, entry by donation.
p.s. Since our open mic is so consistently packed out nowadays, we'll only be letting half of the open-mic slots go BEFORE the night, so that there's still room for people to rock up on the day and take part. So that means there are SIX spots up for grabs to you eager social networkers. Go, go, go!

ANNA KAHN Anna Kahn writes letters for a living and poems because apparently thinking about words for eight hours a day is not enough thinking about words. She once beat Scroobius Pip in a Golden Gun contest judged by a lady with questionable taste (true story). She writes everything from PG-rated poems about sexual deviancy to firmly 18-rated poems about her own grandmother, but she promises that if you'd ever met her grandmother this would make perfect sense. She's never been published, partly because she's one of those dreadful spoken-word impostors the Independent says is killing poetry by never actually submitting anything to anyone.

NG YI-SHENG Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean poet-playwright-journalist-fictionist and LGBT activist. He's the youngest ever winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, which he received for his debut poetry collection "last boy". Recently, he co-edited two literary collections: "GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose" and "Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore". For the past few years, he has taught in his country's only university-level creative writing program and co-organised the monthly multi-disciplinary arts event SPORE Art Salon. Right now, he's based in Norwich, doing his Masters in Creative Writing (Prose) at the University of East Anglia. He was possibly the first slam poet Stephanie ever saw and got inspired by in one of the first queer literary readings in Singapore in 2005.

ALEX ETCHART Alex Etchart is a community musician, folk singer, poet, activist, clown, drama teacher, workshop facilitator and all-round decent human being. He has been involved with and inspired by Occupy London, Friern Barnet library and Balcombe anti-fracking Community Camp. Taking a page from folk singers from Woody Guthrie to David Rovics, his poetry is urgent and unapolagetically critical of the world as we know it, and unflinching in its call to unfuck-it-up, with a solid dose of heart and humour.