Friday, February 28, 2014

Book 144, Sweden: "Miss Julie and Other Plays" by August Strindberg

Ah Sweden. Home of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and eight laureates thereof (they do have home advantage, after all). Also birthplace of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck detective series, John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In and Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking.

And who do I choose for this blog? A psychotic misogynistic 19th century playwright whose stuff is mostly unstageable. Ladies, I give you: August Strindberg!

Ooh, but isn't that a pretty cover?

There's five plays in here, performed between 1887 and 1907. They're The Father, Miss Julie, The Dance of Death I, A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata. They're supposed to represent his progression from naturalism - i.e. a social realism that hinges on biological premises of naturally inherited traits of femininity, psychosis, etc - to radical experimentalism.

But the truth is, even in his earlier works, I have no idea what's going on. Is the Captain really nuts in The Father, or is his wife Laura just goading him on, and does that mean that he was going crazy to begin with anyway so she had every right to send him to the loony bin? Seriously, it's quite possible to read the women he wants you to hate as strong but broken women.

This is probably why Miss Julie still gets so much play. It's a two-act piece, a three-hander, between the noblewoman Miss Julie, her manservant and lover Jean, and the servant-girl Kristin, and the big dynamic is about the dominance of Jean over Julie - and yet Kristin's level-headed sense seems to make her the ultimate moral compass of the piece, never mind that Strindberg dismisses her in his infamous preface as a "female slave", the lowest of them all. (This is seriously the only play of his in which I could be pretty sure I knew what was happening.)

It's my second time reading A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata - and I guess they are worth a reread. While there is very little linearity in these tales, there are such striking images that one wonders if Strindberg was visited by a time-travelling surrealist - the daughter of a god freeing a man imprisoned in a castle, the lovers doomed to fall out of bliss by the paralysis of a quarantine, a Sunday child student who can see ghostly milkmaids, a vampirical servant woman, a living mummy, phantasmagorical hyacinths... and no clear endings, because it was the twentieth century now, and structure be damned.

A Dance of Death I is somewhere in between. I think I know what's going on (but did the Captain's wife and Kurt actually sleep together or what?), yet that's not the point - the entire point is the mood of foreboding that casts its pall over everything...

I suppose my main worry after reading all this is whether I've made the best use of my eyeball-time. I should be reading works that'll improve my writing - what can I learn from these strangenesses?

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Representative quote: from Miss Julie:

JEAN Don't think, don't think! You're taking all my strength away too, and making me a coward- What's that? I thought the bell moved!- No! Shall we stop it with paper? - - To be so afraid of a bell! - Yes, but it's not just a bell - there's somebody behind it - a hand sets it in motion - and something else sets that hand in motion - but if you stop your ears - just stop your ears! Yes, but then he'll go on ringing even louder - and keep on ringing until someone answers - and then it's too late! Then the police will come - and then...

Two loud rings on the bell.

JEAN: [cringes, then straightens himself up]. It's horrible! But there is no other way!-Go!

Next book: Sally Salminen's Katrina, from the Åland Islands.

Monday, February 24, 2014

East is Everywhere!

Miss Julie is taking some time, 'cos I couldn't find a single-play volume - am reading Strindberg's collected works instead, which is a bit of a headache.

But this is a good time to advertise the fact that I've had some poems published at Prairie Schooner:

And a story up at The Storygraph:

Plus, I've gone and set up a Tumblr all about Asian intracultural and intercultural connections. It's called East is Everywhere. Check it out!

Sultan Muhammad
Miraj of the Prophet
Persia (1539-43)
Opaque watercolour and ink on paper
Asia Society Museum, New York

Check out this Persian miniature, by the way. It features Chinese-style clouds and angels!

Mural painting from the Fahai Temple
China (1439-1443)

More about this here.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book 143, Norway: “Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen

I’m in Paris now! Accompanying my mother on a little excursion. And while she’s been shopping in the Rue du Fauborg St Honoré, I’ve been sitting around reading stuff like this:

Yeah, I know I said I’d do An Enemy of the People, which is relevant to Singapore because it’s about a man trying to convince people that the very system of capitalism that their community runs on is poisonous. But I did so want to check out a book from the library with a properly illustrated cover, instead of the dreary cloth hardbacks that UEA tends to stock.

And Hedda Gabler... well, I've heard about it for years. My old playwriting mentor Robin Loon told us in Writers Lab how beautifully she manipulates other people; my old drama club teacher Nicola Perry played her in a production by the Stage Club; I've even read a book on directing way back that cited a version of the play in which she rides a colossal pistol like a mechanical bull.

And you know what? The story lives up to the hype. Almost sad I didn't watch it on stage first. It's a classic drawing room drama, with all the action set in the salon of her villa on the western side of Kristiania (now Oslo). She's just come back from her honeymoon with her new husband, the mediocre medieval material cultures academic George (Jørgen) Tesman, who's fully expecting to receive a professorship that will enable him to pay off the debts he's incurred to buy and redecorate said mansion, just so he can please his glamorous twenty-nine year-old wife, whose life as a General's daughter has been parties and libertinism, who wants a place where she may entertain guests and live out a little more of her fading glories...

But that's a much too romantic portrait of Hedda. She is a great Freudian neurotic, according to the Wikipedia article about the play, and the truth is that she loves Tesman not at all, and has already lost her fascination with the house, and now the only pleasure she can find in life is to seek power over others, and so when it seems Tesman may not get the professorship after all, as his former rival Eljert Løvborg has bounced back with a brilliant publication, Hedda glides into malicious action, destroying, burning, blasting...

God, it's so wonderfully dramatic. Everyone talks about A Doll's House when they speak of Ibsen, but the fact is that Nora is quite in possession of her senses, even when she's dancing the tarantella, and her tale of feminine liberation is a little out of date today. Hedda's firing off her pistols in the garden, boom boom, feeding pages of manuscript into the fire. She's whacko. She's the madwoman who's in the living room but is dying to rise up to the attic.

I've actually read a fair bit of Ibsen for a Modern Drama class at Columbia - we read A Doll's House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and the crazy-weird-wonderful Peer Gynt. And this seems to have been the last of his major works, and it's possibly one of the most thrilling, for its brilliant depiction of nihilism in corsets. But I'm honestly feeling a tad guilty for selecting just this one play, rather than a collection to wade through. The Lady From the Sea, The Master Builder, and of course An Enemy of the People... ah, why do libraries not simply stock the volumes one hasn't yet read in the same book?

Anyhow, next week we'll have our hands on another great nineteenth century dramatic portrait of a lady from Scandinavia. Can it stand the comparison? We'll see.

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Representative quote: 

MRS. ELVSTED: You've got some reason for all this, Hedda!

HEDDA: Yes I have. For once in my life I want to feel that I control a human destiny.

MRS. ELVSTED: But surely you do already?

HEDDA: I don't, and I never have done.

MRS. ELVSTED: But what about your husband?

HEDDA: Yes, that would really be something, wouldn't it. Oh, if only you knew how destitute I am. And you're allowed to be so rich! [She passionately grips MRS EVLSTED in her arms.] I think I'll burn your hair off after all.

Next book: August Strindberg's Miss Julie, from Sweden.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book 142, Faroe Islands: "The Kingdom of the Earth" by William Heinesen

It's frankly kind of crazy that it's taken me a month to finish this book. It's really not that long - finished a third of it over breakfast today. But what with my university reading and travel and ADD and sudden Seasonal Affectivity Disorder (with attendant writers' block!) kicking in, I've had a bunch of trouble hunkering down with a book I can call my own.

But I suppose a preamble is in order, regarding why the Faroes should be regarded as a country, when it's under the Danish crown and most of us have never even heard of it before. Fact is, Wikipedia says it's a self-governing country, and it happens to have an established literary figure who's enjoying something of a comeback on Goodreads. Why not?

Initially, I was going to do one of Heinesen's better-known works - the National Library in Singapore has a copy of Laterna Magica, and the UEA Library has The Black Cauldron. But when I picked up The Kingdom of the Earth (the original title, seen above, translates to "Mother Pleiades"), it spoke in such mythic language of absolute wonderment that I decided, yes, this *must* be the book I read, because that is precisely what I'm trying to achieve in my fiction: a sense of wonder.

The story's set in a small town based on Tórshavn, which is now actually the capital of the Faroes - but we're in the 1910s, in the years leading up to and during the Great War, so it really is a minor seaside outpost still, far from anywhere, where the young passionate people can't wait to run away to America or England or Denmark. We start with the birth of a young, unnamed boy, then we draw out to see the society he's growing up in (among all the brutish Nordic fishermen, there's an Italian pastry chef called Chamisso, oddly enough), and the passionate loves of his grandfather Jacob Sif and mother Antonia and everyone else, which ultimately come to nothing amidst misunderstanding and death by disease or being lost at sea...

As he's born out of wedlock (there's a ne'er-do-well called Eggersten, amongst others, who absconds to the States), he's brought up by Trine with the Eyes, his grandfather's former housekeeper. And she's a hardline pious Baptist or Millenist or something, who tells him that his dead mother isn't in the Kingdom of Heaven at the right-hand side of God's throne, but on a bench by the door of Heaven, watching as more worthy souls pass through before her.

And she tries to exorcise all the lovely visions of Egyptian gods and vaetter and make-believe creatures who populate his imagination (not least because one of his childhood friends, Rita, the corpse-bearer's daughter, was honest-to-goodness mad and had to be locked up in an asylum).

But in the end... but I shouldn't spoil the ending, should I? The truth is, the story doesn't quite end: the boy's still a boy by the last pages, and the fate of his imaginative world is uncertain. It feels like the first part of a novel, though it's in fact a novel in four parts, with all these divergent strands woven together. And it's "an ode to the imagination", according to (once again) Wikipedia, subtitled "A Story From the Beginning of Time". Set in the mortal world, but through a child's eyes, conveying the strangeness and magic of it all: fireworks, baby seals who are really mermaids, magic lanterns, glass eyeballs found washed up on the beach: look closer and you'll see a cross in the pupil, look still closer and you'll see naked Christ on the cross, holding a candelabrum, no, a reed.

Worth it, basically. I should've brought this into class on Wednesday, when Margaret Atwood (yes, THE Margaret Atwood) was giving us a masterclass on first chapters and we were all supposed to bring in some work of contemporary fiction we liked. I was patriotic and brought in Rawa, only to realise that it may have a beautiful first chapter, but its foreword is weak, and when you confess a book is by your friend and fellow countryman, no-one's necessarily going to believe it's that good.

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Here's the opening:

Representative quote:
In the beginning heaven and earth and tangible things did not exist. There was only an immoderate yearning for warmth, nourishment, and sleep. Life was showered upon you in great torrents. Storms of tenderness filled your primeval darkness- wild floods of milk and cleansing water, uncasing fountains of good and pleasant sounds that had not yet become words. And by and by your eyes gained their first soul, and you perceived the shadowy outline of the great giver of life, the source of all things, the one who creates and upholds - the Everlasting One.

Yes, long before you knew the sun and the day, the light within you was lit - in the hour when you met the human eyes of the Everlasting One.

Next book: Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, from Norway.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Happy Chinese New Year!

Though unhappily, I've been much too busy reading and writing to finish my Faroe Islands book, which is actually turning out to be pretty good.

I'll leave you instead with a link to Roderick B. Overaa's review of Eastern Heathens that came out in Asiatic, Vol 7 Number2, Dec 2013, plus an article I wrote for The Online Citizen about the new year and racial issues:

The Lion and the Peacock

By Ng Yi-Sheng

I didn’t enjoy Chinese New Year much as a kid. I was awkward around my relatives, who always made fun of me by calling me the “angmoh kia”, the white boy, because my English was so much better than my Mandarin or Hokkien. Angpows didn’t matter much to me, either, since my parents always collected the money afterwards to save in my POSB account. Most of my holiday memories involve sitting in the back of the car, queasy from motion-sickness, stiff scratchy in my newly bought clothes, trying to act as a buffer between my squabbling sister and brother till we got home.

But I did enjoy the lion dances. My uncle was a contractor with one of those monster houses in Bishan, and every year he’d hire a lion dance troupe to perform in his courtyard. Throughout the ceremony, I’d gaze at these bizarre artificial beasts, jumping and strutting, batting their huge eyelashes, spitting out cabbage leaves onto the floor.

The Lion and the Peacock

Even more than the acrobatics, I remember the music: the clashing cymbals and thumping drumbeats so loud you could feel the vibrations in your very chest. You’d hear it blocks away, or else on the street as one of the lorries went by, with the entire troupe hanging out in the open-roofed back. A proud music, so ebullient that it didn’t care if the neighbours were going to complain. A joyful noise. A feast of sound and spectacle, so intense that it becomes almost holy.

Over the years, I’ve had the fortune to witness many other traditional rituals in Singapore, often more explicitly spiritual, with just much jubilant noise. I’ve applauded for kompang bands at Malay weddings, listened to Buddhist chanters at Chinese funerals, once even walked alongside the statue of a Hindu god, fanning him with horsehair, while my boyfriend’s family carried him through his temple to the sound of trumpets.

I’ve seen kuda kepang performances, firewalking, tang kees going into trances. They’ve left me awed, mystified, and proud. Proud that these centuries-old ceremonies have been able to survive, even in the obsessively efficient, culturally ambivalent, urban jungle that is my home. Proud that this – all this – is part of my heritage, as a Singaporean and a Southeast Asian.


I’m telling you all this so I can explain why I’m so upset about the ban on musical instruments at the Thaipusam parade. It got a fair amount of publicity this year (the festival took place on 17 January, in case you’ve forgotten). But in fact, it isn’t a new thing. Back in 2011, the Hindu Endowments Board laid down new guidelines that forbade singing, beating of drums and gongs and playing of recorded music at the event. This year, signs went up that explicitly forbade the carrying of any instruments in the procession.

In case you didn’t know, Thaipusam is a festival in honour of Lord Murugan, the handsome war god who is always shown riding a peacock. It’s not actually a big event back in India. It’s the South Indian diaspora that’s really blown it up. The processions in Singapore and Malaysia have no equal in any other part of the world, which is why photographers come specifically to our shores to witness the display. It’s an almost unique part of our culture, and everyone on the island should be proud of it.

Taking away the music doesn’t just take away some intangible magic from the event. It also causes real physical suffering. The men who carry the kavadis, who perform the superhuman feats of piercing their bodies with hooks and skewers to carry the peacock-like floats on their backs – they use loud music to hold them in their trances, to block out the pain in their bodies.

In short, the ban is harmful and stupid. It castrates a part of our culture. And it didn’t get imposed because of the Little India Riots. It came about because some lawmakers were worried that neighbours wouldn’t like the noise.

My Hindu friends – and some non-Hindu friends – have pointed out how Chinese lion dances and funerals make just as much noise, and are held in closer proximity to residential areas, throughout the year. Why haven’t they been banned?, they ask.

The simple answer is, because of racism. But it’s a very specific form of racism that’s at play here. It’s about a failure to understand that your heritage isn’t just limited to the culture and customs of your own race. Our heritage is a patchwork of cultures, covering all the ethnic communities on the island and then some. What more lawmakers need to see is that marginalise any one culture among us is to impoverish oneself.

I know I’m behind the times here. I should’ve written an opinion piece on Thaipusam, or shortly after Thaipusam. But I figure this shouldn’t just be a seasonal complaint. It should be kept on our agendas throughout the year as evidence for the government’s mismanagement of ethnic relations. It should be raised by every political party at the General Elections in 2016 – unless the PAP gets its act together and reverses it before then, of course.

Of course, there are many other issues of racism that ought to be addressed – the potential for racial profiling now that the police have these awful expanded powers to strip-search innocent subjects in Little India, for example, and also the sheer cluelessness of Chinese Singaporeans boasting that we live in a racism-free society when there is barely any Muslim soldier who’s allowed to be a tank driver or a fighter pilot. But for now, in the run-up to Chinese New Year, I’d like to just think about the rights that we all should enjoy to freely express our culture.

This weekend, on 31 January and 1 and 2 February, you’ll hear a lot of lion dance music. You might get to watch a show, marvelling at how young men can transform themselves into animals, just by wearing costumes of cloth and sequins and moving to the sound of drums and brass cymbals. Don’t put your hands over your ears. Let yourself bathe in the noise. It’s the voice of a culture, proudly proclaiming that it is still here.

And as you watch and listen, remember that you have a responsibility to defend every culture in this country, no matter what your race is. The voice of the peacock god deserves to be heard, just as much as the music of the lion.