Globalization and its discontents: Narrating change and continuity in Claire Tham’s The Inlet

By Ang Jia Jin

The Inlet  is constituted of complexly interwoven narratives that accrete into the story of how the naked body of Wang Ling, a young, educated and attractive woman from a small Chinese village, came to be found in a swimming pool in a bungalow situated in an ultra-exclusive neighbourhood. The tragedy of her drowning implicates the inhabitant of the house, and the novel explores how the histories of the victim, the suspect, the case’s investigators and their associates contribute to unravelling the mystery surrounding the death of Wang Ling. Claire Tham thus limns a fascinating illustration of the psychic condition of contemporary Singapore, in the textual rendering of the existential uprootedness that attends globalization and its related contrivances to cosmopolitanism and social mobility, and I find the novel to be a highly instructive text in connection with the broader themes of this class.

The text effectively captures the irrevocable changes in Singapore society. Markers of selfhood are remarkably fluid in the novel, enabling the never-ending evolution of characters’ identities. Characters continually define and re-define themselves, jettisoning and embodying new structures of existence. Working-class figures within the novel possess the impressive capacity for social mobility, and in their pursuit of socioeconomic betterment become entirely different people, with radically changed lived experiences. The novel is unequivocal about the totality of this change: Winston, the head of the investigations and an Oxbridge scholar, abandons his identification as a person of very humble origins, his localized accent and his birth name, for an Anglicized name and the clipped tones of the educated class. Kristie, the housing agent who facilitates the sale of the Inlet, carefully constructs an image of “glossy perfection” through a laborious daily regime of makeup and grooming, while Willy Gan, the very wealthy owner of the bungalow, retains his unostentatious, modest office only as an affectation towards working-class unpretentiousness. Sociological typologies thus fail to contain and organize existences. This fluidity is propounded by the novel’s shifting, non-linear spatial and temporal boundaries, and its allusion to the variegated places of origin and inhabitation (such as Hong Kong, New York, India, the UK, and China’s rural and urban spaces) among the complex cast of characters, and the overall effect is to blur the demarcation of Them and Us, and our sense of rootedness in class identities, time and place.

The sense of a protean narrative space emerging out of the absence of fixity is supported by the motif of movement in the novel. Homes are deserted, indicative of how they are just physical spaces devoid of permanent personal attachment. The text alludes to the rapid succession with which homes are built, inhabited, evacuated and sold, then re-inhabited and renovated. The transience of space, the discarding of place, suggests that the land on which homes are built and existences are lived out is essentially developmental tabula rasa. The title of the novel, and the name of the enclave within which Wang Ling met her tragic end, also takes on symbolic value in this aspect. Inlets are apertures to the flux of the sea, and it is in this opening of possibilities that attends hyper-globality that characters of the novel are thrown into the psychic condition of transitory instability.

The articulation of the national condition of flux is the value of the text to this module. I do, however, have a few reservations. Tham, in an interview, stated that she set out to write a novel that enunciates the “change”, “tensions” and “ferment” of contemporary Singapore, and I reckon that the first goal has been adequately expressed in the text. I am less convinced of the success with which she has achieved the latter set of concerns. Despite the focus on class tensions in the novel, the discontentment of the 99% is not adequately represented, much less those of the economically disadvantaged: Wang Ling’s peasant family is represented through the vantage point of Willy Gan’s quasi-socialite wife. Additionally, the heavy-handed, belabored explication of the rather specific criticisms that have been volleyed at the establishment sits jarringly and uncomfortably with the fluid, intimate tenor of Tham’s prose, and gives the narratives within the novel a somewhat uneven quality. Tham has remarkable facility in expressing middle-class disaffection, and has in her previous works effectively limned the interiorized condition of restlessness and anomie of urban characters. (Her earlier short story collections are especially strong.) The Inlet is a marked departure from Tham’s usual approach to displacement within the sociopolitical entity, and I am not entirely convinced that this change is successful.

In all, the novel is a text in that contributes to the debate over what national literature might look like. It documents the changes to the composition of the national body and the nation-space in its construction of amorphous identities and senses of place, and is for the most part a nuanced, sensitive representation of the modern Singaporean condition.


But is the book better? : Utter 2014

Lee Jia Min

The event I will be reviewing is Utter organised by The Arts House, held on 6th September 2014.

It is an event initiated by The Singapore Writers Festival, which showcases four short films that have been adapted from books. Each film employs one of the four main languages in Singapore. As such, each film presents a snippet of the ideologies and lifestyles of varying racial communities. Together, they present a fuller picture of the multicultural Singaporean society. The film screening took place in a small auditorium in The Arts House. Each of us were presented with a book at the entrance of the auditorium, containing both the original short story taken from the book, and the treatment of the film, written in the form of a play. Since three out of four stories were originally written in Chinese, Malay and Tamil, the translated version of these texts were also included in the book. Before the screening, the audience were encouraged to read the original stories and subsequently reflect on whether the book is better than its film adaptation. Indeed, the event was a celebration of the best of Singapore writing and also its potential in being adapted into different media and across languages.

The story I will be focusing on the film “At Your Doorstep”, whereby the original story (from the Tamil book) was written by Kamaladevi Aravindhan. It is a 12 minute film adaptation directed by Don Aravind about a widowed elderly woman, Kamatchi, whose declining mental and physical health causes much tension between her and her son’s nuclear family, whom she is living with. As such, she feels isolated and grieved.

I found 3 areas in which the book differed from the film. One would be the difference in pace and mood. The pace of the written story is fast within a rather densely packed narrative. It chronicles not only Kamatchi’s loneliness in her son’s house, but also her life of newfound liberation as she independently moves into a studio apartment. The story ends with her arrest by the police upon unwittingly keeping an immigrant offender as a tenant. On the other hand, the pace of the film is much slower, whereby the melancholic inner emotions of Kamatchi takes centre stage. Even as her sorrow turns into relief when she passes away, this element of desolation continues in her family’s mourning. As such, the film sustains a much gloomier mood as compared to the book, in which Kamatchi’s diversity of emotions, both positive and negative, change the story’s mood from time to time.

Next, while the book seemed to place equal blame on both Kamatchi and her son’s family for the discord amongst them, the film portrays Kamatchi as a pitiful victim. For example, in the book, the narrator asked “who wouldn’t be angry if you asked the same question over and over again?”, suggesting that it was Kamatchi who incurred the legitimate anger of her family members. The narrator also points to her “senseless actions” as the reason for the disruptions in the family’s daily routine. Her stubborn nature also portrays her as an active agent in the conflict. For example, the beginning of the tale started with a soliloquy of melodramatic complaints against her children. There was also a sense of rebellion as she revels in her new found freedom in the studio apartment. On the other hand, Kamatchi in the film is seen as a silent, long-suffering character, the recipient of harsh scolding and disrespect. She retreats into the self for comfort, such as through her reminiscence about her late husband. While Kamatchi in the book seem like a more dynamic character, experiencing a wide range of emotions such as anger, mirth, shock and grief, Kamatchi in the film is defined by her sadness.

Thirdly, the relationship between kamatchi and the people around her seem more estranged in the film. Her isolation is also intensified in the film. In the book, her family members do express kindness in buying her an apartment of her own. Kamatchi also enjoys a close friendship built with her young tenant. However, in the film, Kamatchi lives in complete solitude. Even her grandson treats her with contempt. Upon musing about her family dynamics, I suddenly thought about the family dynamics depicted in other Indian literature that I have read. In novels such as the “Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai and Nagamandala by Girish Karnad, the wives are trapped in psychologically and physically abusive relationships with their husbands. On the other hand, in a Tamil movie “Videsh”, although the young wife is slighted by the rest of the family, there is an element of gender equality portrayed by the presence of the matriarch. However, “At Your Doorstep” subverts both these stereotypes regarding the relationship between spouses and reverence for the elderly in the family. Kamatchi shared a tender relationship with her husband, yet does not receive respect from her juniors. As such, the film gave me a refreshing perspective about familial dynamics in Indian culture, which has been a topic foreign and fascinating for me.

Indeed, the book’s adaptation is a more optimistic portrayal of the lives of the elderly in Singapore and their relationship with their family. However, I personally prefer the film’s adaptation because it portrays reality in an honest albeit depressing manner. It shows the negative effects of an aging population as not limited to the economy or workforce but occurring on a personal level. Indeed, all four stories portray strained relationships between the elderly and the younger generation, some exaggerated (Going Home), and others real and intense (At your Doorstep). Film, besides its entertainment purposes, now takes on the role of a social critique, providing a platform to discuss issues that are bleak yet pertinent. As such, topics that have often been shunned for their depressing quality are now broached on tactfully, in a manner that does not alienate the audience but instead engages with them. Also, melancholy facilitates meditation and musing, both of which are vital in reflection.

The production team did highlight the films’ segregation into distinct languages and the employment of casts of the same race in each film. This reflects upon and exposes the artificiality of mainstream television productions and its failure to represent a realistic society. Indeed, for practical reasons of catering to specific groups of audiences, television programmes of each channel (apart from those where English is the medium of communication) often use a single language and casts of the same race. Perhaps this is where Shklovsky’s theory of defamiliarization comes to play. Due to over-automatization of perception, the artificiality of this construct is hardly strikes us when we watch programs of our native language, portraying casts of our race. However, this is poignantly highlighted when we watch films of foreign languages. For me, these referred to the Malay film, “Tin Kosong”, and Tamil one, “Going Home”. An entire story in Tamil, consisting of an all Indian cast struck me as incongruent with the multiculturalism of Singapore (I do know that it portrays a home setting but yet the home can be and might be intended to be a representation of the society). It is this unfamiliarity that leads us to realise the artificiality of programmes of our own language and race, which we have accustomed to see as the “normal”. Nevertheless, the production team has countered this problem by introducing bits of cross culture, such that minor characters in each film are of a different race. As a result, the film does not fall into the small pitfall despite highlighting it. I found this method of defamiliarizing and reconciliation really clever.

For more information about similar events such as Utter, keep a look out for future events organised by The Art House!:)

Gregory Nalpon’s “The Wayang at Eight Milestone: Stories and Essays”

by Annabelle Goh

I admit that I’m totally unfamiliar with the genre of Singapore Literature prior to this module, so I selected Gregory Nalpon’s The Wayang at Eight Milestone in class at Prof Holden’s recommendation. The collection is a mixture of short stories, essays and brief sketches of life in Singapore in the 1960s. It is a fascinating glance into Singapore before my time.

Gregory Nalpon was born in Singapore and educated here, but he travelled widely following an eclectic variety of careers from disc jockey to journalist. The Wayang at Eight Milestone was published posthumously in October 2013 over thirty years later. The title of the collection was inspired by an ‘Eight Milestone’ at Seletar Road, Changi Road and Bukit Timah, a pragmatic description indicating it was located eight miles from the Singapore city centre.

One of my favourite short stories is ‘The Rose And The Silver Key’. It is a story about a beautiful rose that unexpectedly grows out of a rubbish heap and is tenderly cared for by a man Hamid, whose sarabat stall is near the rose. The rose has fantastical magical properties and a pretty young prostitute Fatimah attributes qualities such as healing to it. She wants the rose very badly and attempts to cajole and bribe Hamid into giving it to her. She wears a silver key that opens the door to her bedroom and rents it out to men. She offers repeatedly to lend Hamid the use of her key for the rose. One day Fatimah is ill used by a group of young men, badly beaten and presumably raped. Hamid comes to her rescue, caring for her, giving her his precious rose to comfort her and money to go home. He finds her silver key and buries it under the rose stem only to find a new bud blooming. I like the element of fantasy in it, prosaic street living in contrast to the fantasy and fairytale element. It contains all the elements of a fairytale told in street style Singapore. The allegory contains a moral of kindness being rewarded by the magic. Nalpon’s characteristic style of having both eye witness and omniscient narrator tell the story lends itself to this particular story by allowing us to access the dual viewpoints of Hamid and Fatimah without being too close as to lose the story in the characters. The silver key is used as a euphuism to suggest that buying Fatimah’s favors is an expensive commodity and yet even amongst the higher class of prostitutes, she is still vulnerable to abuse. Women are often compared to flowers, especially roses, which symbolize love and are often given to women as romantic gifts. Flowers are beautiful, fragile and are temporary, a plucked rose will wilt just as even women who believe themselves beautiful, treasured and secure can fall prey to abuse.

Another favourite is ‘The Hunter Lays Down His Spear’. It is a critique of employment policies, taking into consideration the economic climate and the effects of unemployment not just in financial hardship but also in emotional cost and loss of respect. This resonates powerfully with a Singaporean audience who are always concerned about the assuredness and stability of their jobs and worry about being unemployed. This is very much in the point of view of its time, when men were expected to be the head of the household and provide financially for the family in a patriarchal society. This is still true to a large extent today, but not so much as it used to be. Nalpon asserts that Man’s self-respect and self-worth is intrinsically tied to his ability to provide for his family and that nothing is worse than social handouts. Nalpon scorns the Western welfare states, stating that going on the dole, receiving money without working is tantamount to being emasculated, using the image of a hunter, the atavistic original Man laying down his spear, his weapon as the cost of being provided for. Nalpon laments that ordinary people desperate for work to avoid such a fate are taken advantage of by employment agencies. He suggests strongly that the law is being circumvented by the unfair actions of these employment agencies in spite of the Employment Act meant to protect the citizens and that it would be better if the government took over these employment agencies to offer honest help to people who are willing to work to maintain their self-respect. I agree with Nalpon about the unfairness he perceives and while this is still relevant and interesting, I believe that employment agencies are much better regulated today, hopefully at least in part due to his works and those like him who believed in fairness and a better life.

In conclusion, Nalpon’s collection was an easy enjoyable read that managed also to be deeply meaningful in spite of the limitation of short stories in conveying characters. I will definitely go back to finish the collection and reread my favourite stories.


Cyril Wong: Unmarked Treasure

By Casey Ang

Cyril Wong is often described as a confessional poet, who explores the self and identity through personal narratives. Readers feel an intimacy with the poet, even if it seems difficult to point on why. In this collection he looks back on his past, using literary devices like becoming a ghost who looks back at his life, or flitting among surrealistic dreams. Despite writing the hurts – his uncertain boyhood, distant father, unaware mother – Wong’s poetry is remarkably even-tempered, clean and flowing, light and full of ease. The passion in this collection (and others perhaps) is delivered with a coolness highlighting the poetry’s control and restrain. It does not boil over and jar one’s senses. His poetry is almost pictorial, as if he stands quite far from himself with enough distance, assembling his thoughts and feelings into clean frames. There are fine shades rather than dramatic contrasts or outbursts, even as the poems are highly emotional.

Unmarked Treasure charts the persona’s dwellings on the past, ranging in themes from love to death, to family. A particular string of poems littered throughout the collection starts with “Invisible Snapshot”, an imagined sketch of death and suicide (The poem’s “For Leslie Cheung”). Variations follow on this title. It sets an ominous tone. Flirtations with suicide such as “notes to a suicide” are also present.

One wonders then what the deal is with these poems. They are balanced in the collection by poems like “flight dreams”, the persona exploring an imposed identity, breaking away from said impositions. Parent issues appear in “the affair” or “mother doesn’t get it”, suggestive of dissatisfactions in familial relationships. “religion”, despite its title, is an argument for faith as love, likened to music, at once decipherable and indecipherable. Love becomes more explicit with “heavy silence” or “promiscuity”.

These themes are disparate and fragmented within the collection and the reader will be tempted to ask: how do they come together? It seems that what pulls these poems together are not the themes themselves, but the persona who writes them (or poet). With multiple themes at play, and without strong or deliberate connections among them, it’s conceivable to put the persona at the centre instead, and be satisfied with it. Wong’s language as mentioned, is even, clean and light. From the first to the last, he maintains this style, offering a consistency that can work at pulling the poems together.

Or one may detect that the poems on death and suicide and their variations are strategically placed in the collection such that they continue to haunt the reader till the end. The curious thing is that death is not viewed with conventional fears, but the poet is rather nonchalant about it – almost celebratory with the very first poem, “end song”. The first line: “So I am finally dead. I sang a song…” The second stanza continues with “I hope to sing again after my coffin / closes like a mouth…

The merits in this collection are perhaps that Wong takes heavy themes and writes them with the lightness already noted above, resulting in the effect that they can be easy to ‘digest’. The even and smooth style allows for a more reflective reading, and hopefully, a more critical one. On the flipside, readers might prefer more impassioned poetry; who knows? The calm and easy tone with death can be unnerving.

Unmarked Treasure offers explorations on themes that are relevant to readers. Coupled with Wong’s poetic style, it makes for a highly accessible and pleasurable read. Wong’s poetry contrasts greatly with other poets like Edwin Thumboo or Arthur Yap, with his concentration on the personal, commitment to examining one’s thoughts and feelings. His output comes at a time when Singapore society undergoes significant changes, and the freshness of such content is highly appealing.

The Week Before SWF…

Before Singapore Writers Festival Starts, there are still a few upcoming events. Some of these  I’ve mentioned before:

Today, there’s the next instalment of Living With Myths, which reappraises the commonly-told stories of Singapore’s history. This month is on multiculturalism, and if you went you could make a very interesting post reflecting on how some of the insights transform your understanding of Emily or Kuo’s Plays. The speakers are Imran Tajudeen (who’s really good!) Elaine Ho from NUS’s Geography department, and Lai Ah Eng from USP. Thursday night, 7.00, Space 3, TheatreWorks – 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road.

On Saturday, there’s a session with Claire Tham on October 25 at the National Library. I very much enjoyed her recent novel The Inlet, and she’s also an important short story writer, starting out with her first collection Fascist Rock over twenty years ago. In the evening at 7.30, Books Actually are having a discussion with various people shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize: the panel might be particularly interested because it also includes nominees for the English non-fiction prize.

On Wednesday 29th October, Joel Tan (another ELL graduate) and Joshua Ip will be performing at Speakeasy#15 at the Artistry Cafe.

And then, of course, we bringPooja Nansi and Erin Woodford to you next week. SWF starts the same day.

If you haven’t blogged yet, I’d suggest attending an SWF event, although note for most of them you’ll need a pass. The last date you can submit is November 14th, and remember that you can “review” a book if you want to if you’d prefer.

Moving Forward

Some interesting events coming up this week, in a lull before the Writing Festival Starts. If you’re still searching for copies of the Epigram Best Short Stories Collection for Week 12 apparently there are some copies at our very own Bookhaven in UTown!

It’s that time of year, and Etiquette SG are putting on, A Certain Sort of Hunger, an evening of poetry and performances looking at an reimagining the role of female spirits and the supernatural in Asian cultures and folklore. 7.30 on Thursday  at Singapore Art Museum on Bras Basah Rd. One of the performers I’m interested in seeing is Stephanie Dogfoot, whose performance poetry I’ve heard good things about. My generation will be represented by Dana Lam, a former president of AWARE among many other things.

On Friday, there’s the next instalment of Living With Myths, which reappraises the commonly-told stories of Singapore’s history. This month is on multiculturalism, and if you went you could make a very interesting post reflecting on how some of the insights transform your understanding of Emily or Kuo’s Plays. The speakers are Imran Tajudeen (who’s really good!) Elaine Ho from NUS’s Geography department, and Lai Ah Eng from USP. Thursday night, 7.00, Space 3, TheatreWorks – 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road. If you want to go do make sure you’ve got a ticket in advance, because these events are massively oversubscribed.

A more unusual event, but something with definite connections to what we’re doing, is Story Slam Singapore 8 – The Weirdest Stuff I’ve Seen at the Artistry Cafe on Tuesday October 21st. From what I can tell, this seems to be a variant of Poetry Slam, with people telling stories rather than reading/performing poems: this might make an interesting contrast with performance poetry, which we’ll come to in a couple of weeks’ time in discussions with Pooja Nansi.

Upcoming Events

I’m sure I’ve missed a few upcoming events, but here are some possibilities! On this Saturday, there are a series of events surrounding the launch of Text and the City, a campaign to popularise Singapore poetry through a competition and an app for smartphones. Check out the link for a number of events during the day at the Arts House.

The following week (October 11), at the same venue, there’s a symposium on Reinventing English Language and Literature for a New Generation, with speakers from NIE: this might tie in nicely with the upcoming Week 10 session in which Pooja and Erin come in to talk to us about their teaching experiences. On the same day, the Book Council are featuring a panel of writers whose work has been shortlisted for this year’s Singapore Literature Prize.

Back at the Arts House, on 16 October, the mother of all Singapore writers, Catherine Lim, is launching a new book.

Looking ahead a bit further, there’s an upcoming session with Claire Tham on October 25 at the National Library. I very much enjoyed her recent novel The Inlet, and she’s also an important short story writer, starting out with her first collection Fascist Rock over twenty years ago…

Over the break…

Quite a few events coming up that are worth checking out. Tonight, there’s an event called Travel Special ++ at Artistry Cafe on Jalan Penang. Jerrold Yam again, and also Zhang Ruihe, who has done interesting work in creative non-fiction. Towards the end of the break, there’s something more open-ended, on Saturday, 27 September  there will be a Singapore Dreaming Project Workshop, in preparation for a conference in 2015 that will look at alternative ways of imagining Singapore: several speakers, including Colin Goh of fame, and Wee Wan-ling, will certainly touch on the arts and literature. And, then, of course, the mother of all events, Singapore Writers Festival, begins in a month’s time. I’m involved in two sessions, on Pinoy Poets and on Arthur Yap, but there’s a huge menu of possibilities, and it’s worth booking ahead. A warning, though–if you leave it until then to post on the blog, you’ll be cutting things fine timewise. It might be best to post in the next couple of weeks: remember you can also review a book. My post on Christine Chia is getting a lot of hits–partly because the poet herself discovered it!

More Upcoming Events

This week, I thought I’d cast the next a little wider. One event that would certainly be worth going to is the September After Words panel organised by Ethos Books. There are two separate discussions, each focusing on a book. INSIDE/OUTSIDE: REVISITING PASSAGES features Yong Shu Hoong, Dave Chua and Wong Shu Yun, talking about a project that they worked on in writing stories that evolved from the lives of people marginalised in Singapore society. Jerrold Yam’s TRAVEL POLITICS: MAKING HOMES OUT OF PEOPLE & PLACES is very different in focus, exploring the theme of travel in his latest poetry collection. The event’s at 7.00 on Friday September 12th at Marine Parade Library.

Also coming up towards the end of the month is the third talk in the Living with Myths series, which asks us to look critically at the stories we tell about Singapore’s past. Three very good speakers, including NUS’s own Huang Jianli. This is an example of an event that isn’t explicitly about literature, and yet which would be really useful in making intellectual connections. We’ll be talking in the next few weeks about literature’s role in re-imaging the past, and the historians will cover some of the history that we’re looking at in the next few weeks. This isn’t until 22 September but do book your ticket now, if you can–the sessions have been very popular and massively oversubscribed.

If you aren’t the event-going type, and would like to review a book instead for your post, I’ve got three spare review copies of recent Singapore writing: Lydia Kwa’s new novel, Pulse, Tania de Rozario’s poetry collection Tender Delerium, and a blast from the past, The Wayang at Eight Milestone, an edited collection of the work of a forgotten writer from the 1960s and 1970s, Gregory Nalpon. You get the book, free, but the deal is you post on it in return!

Happenings this Week

This isn’t a usual review post, but just a listing of interesting things that I’ve come across this week that you might be interested in following up.

  • First of all, Grace Chia, who has published two very interesting collections of poems — her poem “Starfruit” is in Writing Singapore — has launched a journal of women’s writing, with a suitably punning title JUNOESQ. Several interesting things here: new fiction from Amanda Lee Koe, poetry and an interview with Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, and an interview with Jolene Tan, as well as an excerpt from her novel  A Certain Exposure, which I enjoyed reading recently.
  • Second, two launches of new poetry collections at Books Actually. On September 3rd, it’s THE CONFUSION OF HAPPINESS by Michelle Tan, and on September 4th WE WERE ALWAYS EATING EXPIRED THINGS by Cheryl Julia Lee. I don’t know either of the poet’s work, but Books Actually and their associated Math Paper Press are known for bringing new voices to our attention. Either of these launches would be good blogging opportunities!
  • Third, some of my own reflections on reading. Things are slowing down for me a little, but I’m half way through Claire Tham’s new novel The Inlet. It’s based on a real incident a few years back, when the naked body of a woman was found floating in the pool at one of the luxury residences at Sentosa Cove. It’s a detective story with both an engaging plot and a very intense exploration of the internal lives of some of the characters. So far it’s turning into the best novel I’ve read this year. I do have the library copy, but will return in due course!