By Kathy Rowland
(913 words, 4-minute read)
Last November, when there was nary a thought for social distancing, and Corona conjured up visions of lime wedges and grimy bars, I reread Rex Shelley’s 1991 debut novel, The Shrimp People. Shelley was one of the literary pioneers featured in Artistic Director Pooja Nansi’s Singapore Writers Festival 2019. I had to moderate a lecture by Prof Koh Tai Ann on Shelley, leading me to revisit the novel, 20 years after I’d first read it. I was happy to find that the work had aged surprisingly well, especially in its depiction of its female protagonist.
Shelley’s work put me in mind to read Melissa De Silva’s ‘Others’ is Not a Race (2017), also a prize-winning work – it won the Singapore Literature Prize for Creative Non-fiction in 2018 – that deals with Eurasian identity in Singapore. It’s a slim volume, but like the beaten egg whites in her sugee cake recipe, volume and lightness come from De Silva’s skillful use of different modes and voices. In just 96 pages, the reader encounters nursery rhymes, oral history, travelogue, speculative fiction and more, which tell private stories that have public resonance. The work begins with the passing of her beloved grandmother, which ignites a desire in De Silva to learn Kristang, and reconnect with one of the earliest hybridised cultures in the region.
This book is more than sepia-toned nostalgia though. There is a mounting sense of injustice at the persistent ignorance faced by one of Singapore’s oldest communities. The title refers to the Singapore (and Malaysian) government’s relegation of Eurasians to the catch-all category of “Other” in racial categories. In the penultimate chapter, “Letter to Anonymous Policy Maker (RE: ‘Others’ is not a Race)”, De Silva is scathing about the way the non-category reduces the community’s legitimacy within the nation. ‘Others’ is Not a Race is a defiance of reductive categories and an assertion of presence and belonging. De Silva is proof that small voices can have big things to say.
Another short work that I recently read is Fairoz Ahmad’s Interpreter of Winds. It’s published under Ethos Books’ Orbit series, which promises works readable in the ‘span of a train ride’. This collection might just make you lose your way before you reach your final destination. I counsel against resisting.
The four stories here move between vastly different sites, taking the reader from windswept deserts to a venerated British museum to a warung in Indonesia. We meet philosophical cats, modern-day zealots, conniving imans, and a Yusof. None are linked in any discernible sense, but the tales are cut from similar cloth, giving the reader a sense of comfort even if each story takes us progressively further away from what is familiar.
The titular piece is the tale of a faithful dog, which wishes to find a cure for his comatose master. Perhaps he has brought misfortune on his master through his wish to become a Muslim? Or is this the work of the October wind? Guided by a wise camel, Ghati, the dog goes on a journey that detours into tales of deception by a Malay scholar, the bag of wind that blows Odysseus’ fleet off course, and the place of cats and dogs in the Quran.
“The Night of a Thousand Months” sees the Devil visiting a village on the most holy night of Ramadan. There is a test of sorts, pious hypocrisy, avarice and an innocent victim. These are familiar ingredients in the making of many a morality tale, but Fairoz puts them in service of a work after Sisyphus’ own heart.
In “The Smell of Jasmine After the Rain”, a witch is murdered. An old wind blows itself into exhaustion, reflecting the shift of power from feudal to ideological, signalled by a cameo by Soekarno. Two ordinary men contemplate what it all means: “I thought as I grow older, I will understand it a bit more,” says Pak Guntur. To which Pranoto replies, “It is the madness of today… It helps prepare us for the despair of tomorrow.”
Indeed, all of the tales are infused by an existential darkness, yet the net effect on the reader is a feeling of buoyancy rather than hopelessness. There is Fairoz’s writing, which made me chuckle at unexpected moments, “I knew this cat. He took his texts literally and his French sparingly”. But aside from the dry humour that sweeps through the stories, it is in the way each tale affirms something bigger than man. A sense of the almighty, of destiny, and within it, our small place.
Fairoz draws from a rich mine of influences that were somewhat familiar to me, such as legends traced back to Indian Ocean trade routes that brought Islam further East, and Dutch colonialism. The vagueness of my recognition felt like a rebuke. Why did I know so little about the stories and myths from the region or the Quran, despite being a native of the Nusantara, raised cheek by jowl with Muslim family and friends? References to Greek mythology brought instant inferences, but the rituals of keris forging required a quick Wikipedia search. The characters, the cadence of their speech, the sentiment of these stories may be embedded in our inherited memories, and our lived experiences, but they rarely ground our literary and artistic works. Interpreter of Winds does so seamlessly, and with such ambition. It’s a rewarding read because these are tales that affect us emotionally using building blocks already present in us.
Kathy Rowland is the managing editor of ArtsEquator.