Thursday 30 September 2021

Singapore At Home: Life Across Lines — A Review by Elaine Chiew

Singapore At Home: Life Across Lines (Kitaab, 2021), edited by Pallavi Narayan and Iman Fahim Hameed (cover artwork by Pallavi Narayan), blends fiction and biographical accounts in an anthology that explores the idea of home from a variety of perspectives: from home-grown Singaporeans to more uniquely, the current diasporic Indian community in Singapore (arguably, a different metaphysical state from Indian migrant labour a century ago). An exemplar of current Indian diasporic consciousness in this anthology is Aparna Das Sadhukhan’s wonderfully touching story, ‘The Gardeners of Lim Tai See’, in which a new bride from India draws unexpected comfort from her elderly Chinese neighbour with the green thumb, more so than from her Singaporean-Indian husband.  

Any anthology set in Singapore does need to pay heed to issues of diversity in voices, and there is a healthy cross-section here in terms of geographic area (from shophouses in Geylang – Ken Lye’s ‘Her Father’s Business’ – to condo units in Tanjong Rhu – Payal Morankar’s ‘Aaji’s Vicissitudes’) as well as social lines in terms of race, age, class and culture (though not enough on sexual orientation). 

Contributions are predominantly from women writers, and gender issues figure heavily (even in Ken Lye’s story), showing up frustratingly that the home is still a negotiated, even contested space, even as traditional gender roles and expectations rub up against newer faultlines such as #MeToo. Cecilia Mahendran’s ‘Merdeka’ demonstrates the struggles of three generations of women within the same family negotiating unwanted male attention at work. Long hair is still considered the standard of beauty in Surinder Kaur’s ‘Papaji’s Desire’ as a mother pressures the protagonist to marry. In Kaur’s and several other stories, an unmarried woman remains a threat to society that cuts across racial lines: in Azeena Badarudeen’s ‘A Bold Crossover (The ABC of a New Beginning)’, a Muslim daughter subscribes to a matchmaking website for a decade to please her mother; in Phyllis Wong’s ‘Home Without Walls’, a woman, no matter how much she achieves in her career, pays the price of loneliness in choosing singledom. Quotidian chores such as ironing, cooking and cleaning remain a woman’s lot, and gender intersects with class lines in stories such as Ranjani Rao’s ‘Memsahib’ when working women have to lean on the support of their domestic helpers. Several other stories feature migrant female domestic workers, such as ‘November Hope’, by Rolinda Onates Española (herself a FDW) which offers an actual, affecting glimpse into dormitory living of female domestic workers. Juxtaposed against Audrey Tay’s ‘Maid in Singapore’, the differences are stark between authenticity and representation. Divorce still taints a woman, as in Ilya Katrinnada Binte Zubaidi’s ‘Roses’, and sometimes, women themselves are complicit in enforcing these moribund gendered expectations, as in the carping mother-in-law in Clara Mok’s ‘The Pushover’. The invisible hand of a patriarchal system resides in the irony that women spend the most time at home, they are dignified as  ‘homemakers’, but they are still not the boss of the home or even themselves. 


The strong guiding hand of both editors are evident in the academic editorial that introduces the anthology, as well as the organisation of stories into headings that veer from concrete to metaphysical, viz. ‘Neighbours and Relatives’ to ‘Comfort and Sustenance’, to ‘Precarity and Tenacity’, concluding with ‘Home and Away’, the last of which interestingly illuminates the anxieties of those who left Singapore, and returned, only to find they no longer fit as neatly into their metaphysical homes as they did before. A sense of suffocated displacement permeates this last quintet of writings, dealing in different ways with cultural slippage upon return, and revealing how these sojourners seek different escape routes rather than confront parental cultural expectations, be it moving out, buying their own HDB flat, or going on a trip with friends rather than family. The slight outliar here is Dia Feng-Lowe’s ‘Rock’, in which an Asian-American expat tries to fit into a Singaporean environment and finds she doesn’t quite belong either despite being Asian. 


Though there is a sense that more was promised than was delivered, and a sense of squandered opportunity or truncated development in some of the stories, home as an intersecting zone of contact in all its rich and challenging confabulations along race, gender, generation, culture and class lines is this anthology’s undeniable strength. As with any anthology, the collated stories have an uneven quality; the offerings in the first section ‘Neighbours and Relatives’ are more focused on fictional story-telling, while others under the other categories clearly read more as essays and memoir extracts, and appear tonally more generic than intimate, contradicting somewhat the editors’ self-professed mission in its submission call for ‘strong plot, interesting character development, tightly drawn scenes and gripping dialogue’. One area where judicious economy would have been beneficial is in the heavy-handed footnoting, explaining not just unfamiliar Indian dishes such as chanachur, but also local dishes and customs, Singlish and acronyms that should have been familiar to any Singaporean, leaving me perplexed as to who the majority envisioned readers of the anthology are. Post-post-colonial writing also rejects italicisations of words in common parlance, regardless of whether the Oxford Dictionary deems it English, especially in this corner of the world. 


Despite the banding around the sociocultural theme of gender and home, particularly welcome are the dashes of surprising whimsy that reveal a seam of poignant depth: in Anna Onni’s ‘Potted in Place’, a woman encounters her delinquent young neighbour abusing her plants; in Anjali Patil’s ‘Knock Knock! Who’s There?: Work From Home Stranger’, the domestic helper’s angle on a couple forced to work from home during the pandemic is refreshingly voyeuristic; and finally, a cross-dresser’s encounter with a pangolin in Euginia Tan’s ‘The Pangolin’ is uncanny and his loneliness saddening – these stories seem to whisper that Singapore’s home spaces may not be at all what you may expect. 

NB: Singapore At Home: Life Across Lines may be purchased at Kinokuniya Singapore and Kitaab.