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Monday, 15 December 2008

Lions in Winter by Wena Poon (Singapore)

December 16, 2008

by *Suzan Abrams

General Analysis

Introduction

Singapore: No doubt, Singapore's engaging literary manner and popular for its slightly starched, matter-of-fact writing style, is what stays immediately distinct, from the first page of writer Wena Poon's compelling short story collection.

The tales in Lions in Winter yield their sub-themes, structure, vocabulary and technique readily to general fiction and offer a mostly riveting read to any reader unfamiliar with the tangled complexities that dress world culture. However, astute readers on the other side of the fence may be baffled.

As it stands, only a stranger to Singapore literature past and present, will fail to recognize the exclusive trademark that heartily stamps its approval on the Causeway's many exciting works of fiction.

Often spelling a dry, wry approach to form, wit and style with measured simplistic vocabulary exercised at the outset, the contemplative tales of Philip Jeyaratnam for instance, the memorable plays of a prolific Ovidia Yu and the plucky plots so eagerly fielded by Su-Chen Christine Lim for the longest time; all drum up a number of shared notable writings with similar idiosyncrasies.

Of course, this signalled gift stems as a unique signature tune afforded to Singapore alone. None in world literature are known to pen narrations quite like them.

*********

Having affirmed the above however, impressions for the 11 short stories were a mixed bag.

When the Writer Should Speak Up

The Cover

For me, a serious book collector back in Ireland, the production quality of the cover conducted by a publishing house in Malaysia, was indeed poor.

There were no two ways about it. Such is expected mostly of an amateur self-published writer who ferries her manuscript to a lone printer. No London or Irish bookseller that I know stocks books with inferior covers. I'm sadly, used to those standards and I think that any publisher from the East, who wants to compete in highly-competitive bookstores in West Europe at least; should seriously think about raising their production quality value where book buyers may just prove more discerning.

So here was the enigmatic and bewitching still-life image of a solitary autumn leaf so alluringly captured, but now tragically overpowered by a weak front, that was determined to compete with the furled pose in the picture. My brand-new copy didn't take long to curl at the tips and edges and rush with intended folly towards the spine. It prepared to shape itself into a cone while challenging the book lover's irritation. On reading Poon, I fingered each precious page as if my life depended on it and still, the cover would wrestle for a bent ambition of self-destruction.

I had observed the same at the Borders bookshop on Orchard Road where I first purchased Lions in Winter. The first few copies brazenly exhibited their bruised covers. I had mistakenly thought this to be the result of gregarious browsing and carefully selected one from the far back. In this vein too, it is wise to bear in mind that a white or cream shade for a jacket design reveals every amateur flaw of the production process.


Prose

In the choice of a theme

I did not consider the stories to be specifically those of displaced Singaporeans or one of Asian emigration and felt as a longtime traveller that the theme proved deceptive. Unnoticed, it may be seen to separate stereotyped ethnicity into little boxes. Many of the fictitious characters emerged as stubbornly clinging to preferred lifestyle choices. The attempted grand ideals at carpeting this theme from start to finish, failed to command the desired effect for this reader and instead geared silent observations in the direction of the author's possible lack of exposure at a broadened lifestyle, travel and the subject of international Asian emigration, in general. In being overly-ambitious, the writer's vulnerability now in danger of slipping up halfway, is straightaway called into focus.

I was able to discern without effort, the writer's somewhat limited experiences at world literature. My instincts shouldn't have been called into question in the way that it did especially that I see Poon's art as talented if somewhat still engrossed in apprenticeship.

Most of the stories reflected nothing more than an assortment of misplaced personality traits and this, relegated to the active motion of indulging in everyday issues. In this way, the stories of resignation and sometimes misfortune, stayed sharply faithful to the universal way of life. The main emotional themes embraced Chinese customs and habits thrown in as supplementary decorative ornaments.

Travel widely and consistently and the intellect will contemplate the battle of fragile human emotions that often arrow complexities into the enduring self and tighten the durability of survival. From the North Pole to the South, customs and culture merely make for a reluctant camoflaouge.

In that sense, it proved a piece of cake for this reader to spot the forced stereotyped conclusions drawn from simply glueing a mottled pattern of American and Singaporean lifestyles together.

I couldn't glimpse the satisfying marrying of extraordinary cultures as the problems surrounding each character could just as well have affected a group of West Europeans or even Siberians.

********

I think it would have been far more honest to label the theme around Chinese stories with complex individual personalities or of how life's experiences and the pursuit of materialism may dog the modern Chinese in certain regions of the world. Throw in a new setting - suburbs instead of flats and when it comes to the cores of the plots, I could well identify my Malaysian Chinese friends with all the stories in this book. They're not Singaporean by nationality and they're not emigrants. But their stories are one and the same. Even leaving a house unclean on the Chinese Lunar Year was explained to me by my Malaysian friends and neighbours when I was little. It's still a common ritual among Chinese families from different countries all over the world.

The vast Chinese population in Sydney, Melbourne and Kolkata tell the same stories and outline identical problems. On the subject of homosexuality, Western cultures face the exact problems as the Chinese characters in the book did, on the problems of coming out of the closet. So too, the idea of suicide.


On the subject of cuisine, not just America cooks up an elaborate menu of sandwiches. So does almost every country in the West or Australia, the Middle East and even in a primitive town in East Africa where I was recently. They will ask you the cheeses, breads, gravies, sauces, salads, and all of that.

Unless an emigrant or traveller tramps a rural village, the world has globalised itself, good and proper.

The issues in this book are certainly centered more on modernism, the pursuit of materialism and generational gaps which are evident with almost every culture, all round the world and even in tribal outback regions.

The adoption scenes described in the Hair-Washing Girl are also common among Indian communities entrenched in poverty.

In Kenny's Big Break, the plot could just as well have taken place in Hong Kong, China or Malaysia. There's nothing that specifically suggest Singaporean except for the tragically unexplained initials of the HDB flat to the Western reader. It also doesn't need an American-Jew to annul a wedding from loss of face. An Indian groom would do just the same to an Indian bride. It's just a funny story but doesn't propose new conclusions to a specific culture. There is also no sense of displacement...just the reminder to the pitfalls of rudeness and greed.

Other countries besides Singapore legalise different forms of National Service too. Here Poon was a little vague and had she attempted to compare the National Service laws as opposed to say, Malaysia or Iran - where they are called Revolutionary Guards instead - then maybe the story would look decidedly Singaporean. As it is, soldiers everywhere drive trucks.

The Shooting Race admirably produced by Poon, also revealed an oaf of a boorish character who possessed nothing more than a disturbed personality trait and a trail of arrogance with varied insecurities to match. Timid succumbing wives, resigned attitudes, ignorance and a guilty conscience heaped on by a desire not to get involved at the worst of times but merely to stay on as spectators, exist everywhere in the world. Such situations take place daily and pit West against West and East against East. In what way can they be defined as Singapore stories? If the location is changed, the plot could still work.

Addiction was indeed an addictive story except that the idea of fake British accents are pretty much passe in England these days. Maybe a decade or two ago but no longer. That section feels outdated. No one bothers to put on a British accent anymore. London has changed and currently houses Europe's largest populated city. There are over 300 languages being spoken on London streets every five minutes. Also, the English from different townships and states have all moved about regionally. There really is no distinct accent that serves as news anymore.

About umbrellas not being able to sustain tropical rains. That doesn't just happen in Singapore anymore thanks to global warming. In Dublin on an average rainy day, your umbrella will be destroyed in the first five minutes of having opened it unless you're carrying a hardy one. Rains have brazenly adopted a tropical heaviness in several countries these days, not just on the Equator.

A valuable pointer when producing multicultural fiction from the Far East

Always remember that China and India started tackling emigration themes and individual identity first of all and that these topics had already reached their peak in the West from about 3 to 4 years ago. This is how the West draws on the Chinese and Indian population on general terms. That is where the majority of readers still turn to when they want to dip into multicultural fiction. The Far East currently dogs the larger footsteps of West and South Asia in aspects of literature produced in the English Language. Japan has also made a tremendous impact with fiction in the English Language but always in the nation's famous unhurried way.

In Europe, scattered countries like Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia are often referred to as the Far East. Malaysia is sometimes remembered first as Malaya.

Emigration issues are already considered a stale theme by South Asian writers of the diaspora in the States and the West. Writers from China and the Indian sub-continent have been at the game a very long time. They have had a progressive foot in the door of big publishing houses in the States and New York for the last three decades.

Almost as if to prove a point, Jhumpa Lahiri hardly touched on emigration in Unaccustomed Earth. She concentrated on newer modes of lifestyles for Indians in the West. Others have fervently turned to thrillers.

To be distinctively Singaporean-Chinese or Malaysian-Indian means having to unearth even deeper extraordinary or unusual traits that only one country in the world could boast about. That a situation could happen to no Indian in the world except in Malaysia or that a situation could happen to no Chinese in the world except in Singapore. That without that situation or the character's identified nationality, the character simply ceases to exist.

So far, successful Malaysian novels in the West have drawn on history as a shield to separate their plots from the ordinary, a technique that has always worked. Because history straightaway says who you are and defines the country's personality for what it stoutly is.

Touching on modernity after you have stripped away history, customs, traditions, superstitions, folklore and the very gift of exotica that together shape Asia for what it is and this simply because the writer finds these areas too tiresome, suggests a dicey venture. If a writer lacks the adequate harmonious balance, the plot turns up in nothing more than a masquerade of wobbly fragments.
As an aside, a Helpful Checklist for Chinese & Indian writers from Singapore & Malaysia submitting international multicultural fiction.

a) Read contemporary new fiction from India & China to see what's selling around the world.

b) Read critical essays and interviews on authors to see what's gone before and to understand present trends by publishing companies. Sometimes, themes simply die out and the demand for them disappears.

c) See how you can write a manuscript on Chinese or Indian culture in South East Asia (if that's your preferred choice, so that the Chinese & Indian titles/themes/execution techniques are not rehashed from a bigger region and that the Western audience sees the difference.

d) Writers from the Indian sub-continent are known for their natural exquisite prose. They command a smooth mastery in stringing long lines together when they have to. Not many writers can do this. Make sure your manuscript is equivalent with those standards if you're an Indian writer from this part of the world and choose long passive tenses over shorter active ones. When it comes to Indian stories, the West stays intimate mostly with writers from the Indian sub-continent where a trusted reading relationship has already been formed.

e) Chinese themes are constantly different and changing. Know the authors and works that have gone before in the last 10 years.

f) Read as much challenging serious fiction as you can so that your vocabulary is enriched and your form and style progressively determined.

g) Make sure that your manuscript has a strong foundation and exceptional identity if you are writing international multicultural fiction to from the Far East, with which to sell in the West. One of the following will help you:

  1. history
  2. build on a vast geographical landscape
  3. tradition
  4. generational habits attributed to family sagas in a particular location.
  5. folklore
  6. fashion, cuisine, unusual regional occupations
  7. extraordinary sport for eg. a plot wound around the *sepak takraw in Malaysia. A clear speciality.
  8. a celebration of a universal festival/wedding/thanksgiving/orientation in a particular regional location that makes the universal feasting suddenly appear unusual, odd, interesting, fascinating and exceptional.
  9. nostalgia i.e. Wena Poon's excellent tale in The Man Who Was Scared of ATMs exhibited oldtime Singaporean nostalgia as a sound framework. This foundation in turn, resulted in outstanding storytelling.

*sepak takraw: a sport similar to volleyball and popular in SouthEast Asia with the exception that the ball is a rattan one and that players only use their feet, knees, chests and heads to touch the ball.

Arrangement of Stories

The arrangement of the short stories in Lions in Winter were disjointed. Some were strong and others weak so a talent for placement was very important. Shouldn't each story read like parts of an aria to a dramatic or flamboyant opera or even a harmonious orchestral composition where no hint of a haphazard arrangement that make for straggly threads, occurs? It should leave the reader at the close of the book with a sense of wholeness or fulfillment.

It also did not help that amateur and misplaced editing techniques that served to lace some of the stories like a fatal touch of poison would only serve as a raw injustice to Poon's very promising talent. A good editor is a jewelled asset. This absence was sorely felt for some of the episodes.

I thought the first story although spunky and slightly colourful, to be the weakest from the collection, serving best as adolescent fiction. This story also employed lazy editing techniques.
Please see tomorrow's entry under editing flaws.

The witty tale of a little boy who plots against his sister is a right lark no doubt and well recounted in the Just William series, mastered by the British novelist, Richmal Crompton.

I had read it happily at 13. It reflects an identical storytelling description served on a platter of easy vocabulary. Like Kenny who banters with his schoolfriend in the bus, so too does William lost in tomfoolery with his friend while they walk home from school. Like Kenny, William too plots with cunning to triumph over an older sister he considers to be much too self-righteous for her own good. And like Kenny, William too takes revenge on an even more annoying suitor for the sister, with a prank except that it's not a wedding scene as such. I had read a similar tale at 13. Having said this the satire and humour were ticklish - a strong showing from Poon as characterization over events is where she excels.

Another story, The Toys, immediately brought Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window to mind.

******

Strengths

Poon's highly-skilled stories definitely had to be Mrs. Chan's Wedding Day, Dog Hot Pot and The Man Who Was Scared of ATMs. In these episodes, she was brilliant and I will reaffirm the fact that if Poon could keep up with tales like these with specific attention to detail on everyday topics and on more modest themes concentrating mainly on a motley of eccentric individual characters surfacing from their ordinary lives, she could be up and running as a distinctive writer over time.

Poon is marvellous at spinning the longer short story.

In Mrs. Chan's Wedding Day which was superbly edited, the tenses were simply perfect. The story read like a wonderful dream. Dog Hot Pot commanded an exciting storyline where Poon was honest even about the careless ugliness that threatened to mar the strange justification of human nature and habits, and the narration proved oddly striking. However, there lay a few editing flaws. The Hair-Washing Girl turned out to be sensitive and enlightening. The Man Who Was Scared of ATMs, revealed Poon at her best...her excellent acumen at tapping into a web of intricate feelings, distressing emotions, harrowing reflections and an agonizing sadness, that revealed contrasting generations bearing the wounds of nostalgia and their complicated wants. The fascinating comparison with Canadian uniforms for instance, remained the skeletal qualities that unearthed and moulded the story's distinction. This was one of the fraction of tales that came closest to being uniquely Singaporean.

Weaknesses

The schoolgirlish voice evident in several phrases featuring explanatory prose and not slang/dialogue lay in words like mind-numbingly dull, sort of, kidding me, really absolutely...
are what robs prose of its sophistication, grace and elegance.

In parts, the lucid introspective pieces were made severely handicapped by childish phrases. With each deformity, I stopped being mesmerised.

Words like rather which is very British seemed out of place in this book. Also, a line which has words in it like rather pregnant. A woman can only be slightly pregnant, pregnant or very pregnant but rather pregnant dangles in the sentence without achievement and stays meaningless in its interpretation.

Too many repetitive words locked to a single line. From Kenny's Big Break, They were sticking stickers into sticker albums. There are many more lines like these splattered across the other stories. Is it supposed to be a genius technique, meant to create some kind of impact?

2 thoughts spring to mind for this reader. That the writer must surely own a limited vocabulary range and what a betrayal indeed for the English Language as the keeper of one of the broadest vocabulary choices in the world.

The dangerous absence of footnotes/glossary when writing about foreign cultures.

To not take the trouble to explain Asian terms to an unfamiliar European reader - to not even bother with an index - is risky to say the least. It says that the reader is automatically expected to know what you are talking about which of course, the reader won't. It also speaks the silent language of a writer's arrogance, rudeness or laziness.

Some quick research will show that publishers invest weeks to create indexes and footnotes as they represent an intense scholarly approach and are often handled with meticulous care. The labour abroad for this process alone, is also deemed expensive. That's how essential it is.

In this visual, digital age, the writer loses out in the long run.

Simple logistics and common sense. The reader will simply let the foreign line/words slide over with scant interest and any desired impact or effect meant for the reader would be lost in the process. As regards to any unexplained Asian term, the unfamiliar worldwide reader is also unlikely to retain that section in the memory. Explain nothing and the writer's effort would have been totally wasted. Remember that we live in the 21st century, a readymade technological age where readers expect things instantly.

Recently, an Irish writer on television complained about the speedy mechanical functions of The Sony Reader. He remarked that it took "a good few seconds" for the next page to load up. A few seconds is still a slight delay, he had grumbled while looking aggrieved.

In this aspect, popular Singapore poet ng yi-sheng demonstrated humility in his description of the odd, perplexing poetic term or two , on the last page of last boy. The reader was saved the inconvenience of further inspection and too, the indignity of closing the book while feeling sheepishly ill-informed.

A few editing flaws from the many I found but I think you get the picture.

I wonder if when stories are gathered together from different media sources that editors in a publishing house don't have a responsibility to clean them up instead of leaving terrible straggly ends. I felt that a prominent lack of deserving editing industry certainly did not do Poon's stories any favours, especially in the tale below.

****
Kenny's Big Break ran up a loose and clumsy copy because of a nonprofessional and mostly, lazy editing effort. Remember that a good editor always aims to make a writer's work sparkle and not leave it sedate as in a coma.

They got onto the train: (Me: They got on the train. Otherwise, 'they climbed onto the train.') A toddler was swaying up and down the train. - Why would an editor allow a passive approach that makes a line sag? Much of modern fiction published in the UK today, including translated fiction use short tight lines. Very few settle for present continuous or past continous tenses because these often drag down prose. Such techniques went out of fashion a long time ago.

Why not the active approach? Me: The toddler swayed up and down the train. Reads just as well, is tight and crisp. Strengthens the prose. Always choose the active over the passive if possible. That's how the award-winning Lahiri wrote her stories in Unaccustomed Earth. She used short active lines for almost page.

His mother harangued him constantly to get back to his seat.
(Me: Get like got is such a stagnant word and doesn't paint any picture in a reader's mind).
Look at the marked difference. Me: His mother... him... to return to his seat.
(Straightaway, you picture the little boy running to his seat.)
Me: Harangued: means long, tedious and without stopping: a diatribe... This makes the word constantly redundant.

Me: Do understand that I like many readers, want to be seduced by prose and not made to feel that we were reading a textbook.

Kenny pointed out, with t..... revulsion of a .... teenage boy... with his head firmly on his shoulders...
Me: My God! Where else can a human head possibly be? Why if not firmly, will it come loose?
Also one already knows that Kenny is a boy. So why the repetition?But now when I think about it, isn't the head firmly on the neck?

A head leans against the crook of a shoulder but it cannot sit firmly on it. Or someone else may lean on your shoulder.) Maybe the writer is trying to say ...with his head held stiffly upwards. (fullstop). Or ...with upright shoulders (fullstop). Metaphorically speaking, there is a famous proverb. He has a good head on his shoulders. But that is abstract of course. It means that the person is highly sensible and adept at showing responsibility in life. (Not the same thing at all.)

And now at age 34... (Me: And now at 34...

("I already told her.... " said Kenny, boredly. Me: Boredly? It makes the line sound really odd and echoes of teen language. But this isn't dialogue. I also think it reads badly.
If you want sophistication, eloquence or a correct version, say something like this:
.... said Kenny, bored. ... said a bored Kenny. ... said Kenny with a bored look. ... said Kenny, wearing a bored look. .... said Kenny wearing a bored expression

He didn't mind going to ... the M..., he told CB on the b...ride home, before it disappeared under the rising tides of global warming. Me: Wrongly constructed.

Correct version: He didn't mind going to ... the M before it vanished under the rising tides of global warming. He said as much to CB on the bus ride home. (2 different thought patterns so 2 different lines.)

Their whispering attracted the men, (wrong tense). Me: Their whispers attracted the men

Nothing grand. But far more effective.

There are dozens more wrong tensing, strange lines and repetitive words locked to a single line, splattered here and there in certain stories. For example too, from Dog Hot Pot: I went to visit a Ma... journalist friend of mine. Me: A friend indicates that the narrator already knows the individual personally. Thus, the words of mine, are redundant.

**********

By contrast,

last boy by ng yi-sheng - winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2008

  1. sophisticated production value for book
  2. elegant cover design that lived up to a hilt thanks to the quality of production
  3. good quality paper
  4. meticulous polished copy from start to finish.
  5. no editing flaws at all.
  6. no typos at all.
  7. graceful and splendid underlying symmetry that held each poem together although they were written at different times. Perfect synchronisation of poetry.
  8. Provided the overall impression of a class act.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - winner of the Frank O'Connor International Irish Prize & where the judges felt that even a shortlist was pointless.

  1. excellent production process for book
  2. faultless to any editing flaws. no such visibility apparent.
  3. prose employed the active approach over the passive approach.
  4. no long tensing unless for applied intricate wordplay.
  5. rich vocabulary but discreetly peppered about the lines.
  6. no excessive adjectives.
  7. no unnecessary descriptions.
  8. creative structure and techniques now and then. This prevented the stories from sounding dull.
  9. easy-to-read
  10. short tight lines used mostly.
  11. a highly elegant symmetry that blended all the stories together into a neat composition. Nothing appeared weaker or stronger than the other. Nothing appeared messy or out of place. Fictional characters provided an easy recognition of a refined style.
  12. Provided the overall impression of a classy prose.

The Lies That Build A Marriage by suchen Christine Lim - shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2008.

  1. Thoughtfully and carefully produced by Monsoon Books, Singapore.
  2. Presentable quality for book.
  3. No editing flaws.
  4. Highly confident writing established in prose.

Rainbows in Braille by Elmo Jayawardena - shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2008.


  1. Self-published by the author. Book production could have been of better quality. So too, the cover design. However, quality of book cover still exceeded that of Lions in Winter. Expert choice of colours for cover design.
  2. Long clever lines. Humorous and philosophical.
  3. No editing flaws.

A few of several recent book reviews from The Iranian magazine and Cafe Arabica:

Yasmina Khadra's The Attack.

Afsaneh: Short stories by Iranian women
Let it be Morning by Sayed Kashua
1) De'Niro's Game & 2) Ramallah Diaries
SuChen Christine Lim


*Suzan Abrams whose real name is Susan Abraham is a Malaysian writer based in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland. She has straddled cultures all her life. She was born in Malaysia to a mother from the Punjab and a father from Kerala, South India. She lived an early childhood in Singapore and grew up in Malaysia. She has had several radio plays aired over Radio Malaysia and worked as a copywriter in advertising for then AP Foote Cone & Belding in Kuala Lumpur. Later, in the mid-nineties, she worked as a fashion journalist and eventually assistant editor, for Female Magazine Singapore/Malaysia. In 1999, she began travelling to the world's outback regions, from the South Pacific, West Asia and Africa to minor regions of the Arab world and Europe. She has also been several times to Hong Kong. As a traveller for nine years, she lived in Melbourne, Australia for five of this and in London for the next 3 years, using these countries as a base. She currently divides her time between the African continent and Ireland.

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