Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Holding Hands: Five Singapore Poets on the first digital #SWF

The Singapore Writers’ Festival kicks off this week – and for the first time in its history, will be taking place entirely online. In these tumultuous times, we asked five Singapore-based poets about why literary festivals are important, what a successful literary festival looks like (to them!), and what they’re most looking forward to at this year’s #SWF:


Wednesday, 21 October 2020

The Girl who did a Strip-Dance, by Wang Bang, translated by Nicky Harman

 In this post, Nicky Harman translates an article by Wang Bang, a writer, film-maker and translator based in the UK and featured here in September 2020. Wang Bang says, ‘I agreed to write for Love Matters because I think it is all about the making of girls, daring, dashing unconventional girls, about how our girls break away from social norms, toxic masculinities and a rigid, patriarchal society. …The results have been great. Most of my articles have been well received, with some of them getting more than 3,000 likes.’


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The thing that completely changed my relationship with my body was not losing my virginity, but watching a private striptease. It happened one hot day during the summer holidays, when I met Star. We had a lot in common: we were both at the ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ age; and she, like me, had dark skin, and came from a single-parent family. From then on, I used to tell my mum that I was going to a classmate's home to do my homework and hang out with Star instead.

There was something particularly fascinating about her body. It seemed to be softer and lither than anyone else's. I remember we found a dress in the suitcase her mother had left behind – round-necked, with an A-line skirt – and took turns to try it on. I got it tangled around my neck and then my elbows got stuck, but she just wriggled like an eel and the woollen fabric, shrunk from the wash, slid down over her body.

That summer holiday, Star seemed obsessed with trying on clothes. It was as if she was desperately trying to find her grown-up self in this jumble of fabrics and fibres. One evening, she drew the curtains and whispered to me that she was going to show me something special. With a mischievous smile, she began to pull her shirt up, then stopped half-way, pouted, and made a pretence of pulling her shirt down again, all the time swaying her hips. Finally, she pulled it up to reveal her small, flat belly… And she danced her way through taking her clothes off. There was no soundtrack, but her body seemed to open and close rhythmically, the way a seashell does. It was its own musical box. There was no stage lighting, but countless beads of sweat at her hairline caught the light instead.

Her dancing was naughty and provocative. It seemed to me then that she had made it up herself, though thinking back now, it was a lot like the striptease in a black and white photo of the American burlesque dancer Mae Dix. Mae Dix wears a hat with sparkly tassels, and holds a slender wand between her fingertips. Her silky dress has fallen to her hips, showing her alabaster backbone, her pert, fleshy buttocks, shaped a bit like a French snail, and her bum crack. She wears a neat pair of dance shoes, with copper-plated soles designed for tip-tapping around the dance floor.

Mae Dix’s act became a sensation. In those days, few women even wore trousers, and hardly anyone had heard of ‘striptease’. Instead, the mainstream media dubbed her teasing, flirty dance moves ‘burlesque’. The male reporters sent to cover the shows practically mobbed the stage, even if afterwards, they wrote about it with scorn. 

As girls, Star and I were separated from Mae Dix by nearly a century, but the society in which we lived did not seem to have grown much more tolerant towards women. My space, growing up, felt flat, crude and rigid, like a cardboard straitjacket. After I developed physically, I seemed to lose any right to do anything with my body apart from gymnastics to the radio broadcasts, sprinting and skipping. We had to sit bolt upright, walk with our toes turned in, and wear skirts down over our knees. It was a sin to touch ourselves in private, let alone make a spectacle of ourselves in public. Only the beautiful were allowed to dance, because only they qualified to join the dance troupes that added glamour to every public celebration. And only bad girls combed their hair into giant quiffs, wore bat sleeves and jeans, and sneaked into pop-up discos in basement fire tunnels. Our bodies were controlled, as rigidly as if we were statues of women displayed on the square, by a hidden but highly effective mechanism which reached right down to the micro level, to our families.

‘You should stop showing off your body every time you go out, okay?’ my mother would say, casting a stern, anxious eye over the sleeveless top I liked to wear because it was hot. ‘You’re asking for some hoodlum to slash your back. Have you any idea how many perverts there are out there, just waiting to slash a girl who’s showing a bit of back?’ My mother tried to teach me that clothes fell into two categories: ordinary, workaday, old clothes, were one sort. The other sort were for special occasions, when it was permissible to wear something a bit prettier. Jeanette Winterson writes in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal about her mother: ‘She had two sets of false teeth, matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for “best”.’ Every time I read this, I smile wryly.

If I hadn’t met Star, I would never have had the guts to stand in front of the mirror, examine my body, caress it, dance with it, go with it, let alone set off with it to cross continents and find my own way in life. No matter how critical other people are about my body, I have learned to accept it. I’m in love with all the ways it allows me to express myself. I think of it as a musical instrument, its every movement performing a dance. And I am the only person with the right to play it. 

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Wang Bang’s column was written for RNW Media, Netherlands radio station, Love Matters Chinese website

 

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Popular Filipino author/columnist & podcaster, Jessica Zafra's first novel, The Age Of Umbrage

That Jessica Zafra is a great writer goes without saying; but her wit and acerbity, her idea (only somewhat facetious) of world domination via yaya and domestic helper make the notion of a novel from her irresistible. Only consider the volumes of Twisted columns she’s sold over two decades, apart from three short story collections, and it's understandable that The Age of Umbrage (Bughaw, an imprint of Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2020) could not have come soon enough.
A slim book with easy-on-the-eye-catching cover art by Bianca Alexandra Ortigas in bright Crayola red violet, its slightness in my hands is disconcerting. Flipping through, I note the book’s entire six chapters ending at a petite 126 pages. That's thirty pages fewer than one of my all-time-favorite novels: Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (which a few critics have called a novella). And then there is her very first sentence, a wistful, heartrending line with hardly a pause for a breath through a substantial paragraph that recalls Nick Joaquin. 

From the outset, we sense a master in command of language, smooth as milk, and so all-knowingly authoritative, we relax, confident we won’t be jolted out of the reverie by awkward diction, an inorganic sentence or an overwrought adverb. We turn ourselves over, the way we might turn over in a dream. It’s hard not to hear Zafra’s voice in our head. The buy-in is immediate. 

We enter the familiar yet strange world of the unfortunate Siony, her wayward Hernani, and their extraordinary daughter, Guada, the life they live, the class differences they negotiate, their struggle, their pathos, their lunacy in the every day, and the all too surreal hilarity of living in the mansion of Don Paquito Almagro, close friend to the President, in the wealthy, high-walled subdivision of Almagro. Zafra takes such palpable pleasure in the selection of details for this world—quoting dialogue from movies, pop and classic, making references to books, from Thomas Hardy to Frank Herbert, the music of Madonna and Prince, and the 55-volume The Philippine Islands by Blair and Robertson, included for texture and the nifty little inside joke. 

We feel for Siony, grim-faced and resigned, as she accepts the only chance she has for herself and her child. We sympathize with Guada and understand her ambivalence, her reluctant acceptance of the way things are, that she is her mother’s one and only reason for living. And through it all, in the background, the events of recent Philippine history unfurl in like swathes of indigenous fabric, its designs always apparent. We delight too in the large, motley cast of vividly named characters—each so real, they might be someone we once encountered in our life. Don Paquito, who loves pork stewed in coconut milk, Dona Consuelo, distant but not unkind, Guillermo, the forlorn and flailing Almagro son, Lennon, the driver (named for his father’s favorite musician), Ding-Dong, the village security guard who runs marathons and is sleeping with the maid, Teresita, and so many more. 

 “Ding Dong was a common name in the Philippines, where people were routinely named after doorbells, TingTing, BongBong, JengJeng and so on.” 

 Zafra sifts funny lines throughout the book like pinipig—crunchy sweet toasted rice—on suman—steamed glutinous rice cake. 

 “It is a truth acknowledged in the Philippines that a single man in possession of good looks and no fortune must be in want of a benefactor, an older person of the female or homosexual persuasion. In the case of the latter, it did not follow that the party of the first part was himself homosexual or even bisexual, merely in need and pragmatic.” 

 “Rich girls could wear whatever they wanted… they could parade themselves like hookers and people would call them fashionable. If a girl from the middle class went around in shorts so tiny they were more wedgie than pants, she would be called a slut. If a girl from her barrio appeared in public undressed like that, she was a hooker.” 

 “Eventually, she came to the conclusion that only the sane worry about going crazy. The truly insane have no minds left to lose.” 

 “Pedestrians are a lower life form in Manila, destined to become roadkill, deprived even of sidewalks, which are appropriated by vendors of radioactive-looking fried snacks.” 

Her deadpan humor is the essential layer that cushions us against the stark and massive disappointments in Guada’s sad life. It is self-deprecation as self-defense, and it resonates, matter-of-fact, quintessentially Filipino. For where would we all be if we could not laugh through our tears and our rage, if we could not make fun of and mock our own mindless folly, our own contrary, superstitious, religious culture, and our now almost unsurprising, pathetic outcomes? 

Whatever it might be for Guada, the book ends bleakly…and well, with umbrage. However, it is an open end. The cruelty of The Age of Umbrage is its brevity; “age” is a misnomer. That’s it. No more. Finished. Zafra leaves us like Guada, bereft upon a precipice. To be sure, she has created a heroine to love. We root for Guada, we wish her the happiness she deserves, but we do want another six chapters to find out what happens next. Instead, we can only turn the book over and read it again. 

It is a flaw, but a bearable one and bittersweet. I will wait for Zafra’s second novel and her third and her fourth, and hope that one of them will take up the rest of Guada’s tale, which after all, has only just begun.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

10 Junji Ito Horror Manga Recommendations

Since it's spooky season, I wanted to highlight one of Japan's most famous horror manga artists/writers - Junji Ito. For those not in the know, manga are Japanese comics, and Ito's realistic and hyper-detailed artwork, combined with his macabre and haunting plots, are a perfect nightmare cocktail. Here are ten recommendations to start you off, from his longer-form works to short stories. Also, to existing Junji Ito fans, yes, there are plenty of well-known recommendations here, but if I didn't list your personal favorite, well, there's always next Halloween...

Friday, 2 October 2020

Tsundoku #14 - October 2020

 In England i've lit the first fires of the autumn and settled down to read. It might not be so chilly all over the world but whether by the fire or the pool, here's some Asia-related books that caught my eye and built my tsundoku for this October. As ever fiction first....