The J o u r n a l o f S o u t h e a st As i a n S p e c u l at i v e F i c t i o n
M AT H PA P E R P R E S S
Jason Erik Lundberg
LONTAR welcomes unsolicited fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and sequential art through our
online portal located at lontarjournal.com. We accept submissions on a rolling basis.
Kristine Ong Muslim
LONTAR is published and distributed by Math Paper Press in Singapore.
(Philippines) For information about how you can carry LONTAR, please contact Kenny Leck via email Publisher
at email@example.com, or via post at BooksActually, No. 9 Yong Siak Street, Tiong
Bahru Estate, Singapore 168645.
(Singapore) C o n ta c t Art direction
Please send any general queries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do not send submissions to
Sarah and Schooling
this address as they will be deleted unread; please use our submissions portal instead.
LONTAR is not associated in any form or fashion with the Lontar Foundation. While we admire their ongoing work to translate Indonesian literary works into English, our mission statement is very different from theirs. We wish them well in their endeavors.
All pieces copyright ÂŠ 2013 by their respective authors ISBN 978-981-07-7171-3
Etching the Lontar by Jason Erik Lundberg
Departures by Kate Osias
Love in the Time of Utopia by Zen Cho
Philippine Magic: A Course Catalogue by Paolo Chikiamco
Jayawarman 9th Remembers the Dragon Archipelago by Chris Mooney-Singh
The Immortal Pharmacist by Ang Si Min
Stainless Steel Nak by Bryan Thao Worra
The Yellow River by Elka Ray Nguyen
The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
E DITORI A L : E t chi ng the L o ntar Ja son E ri k Lu ndberg
Right away, Iâ€™ll try to anticipate your first question: why LONTAR? Lontar is the Bahasa
Indonesia word for a bound palm-leaf manuscript, which is among the oldest forms of written media, dating as far back as the fifth century BCE and possibly earlier. These manuscripts were used to record Buddhist sutras, law texts, epic mythic narratives, and treatises on a host of subjects such as astronomy, astrology, architecture, law, medicine, and music. The palm leaves were bleached of their chlorophyll, dried, trimmed, flattened, and polished smooth. Characters or images were etched into the surface with a sharp metallic stylus and filled in with a dark pigment to enhance the contrast and legibility of the script. In order to construct the leaves into a book, holes were drilled in both sides, and the stack was bound together with cord or string.
This ancient form of writing is the perfect inspiration for the collation and curation of
Southeast Asian speculative fiction. It was an early technology that revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge (it no longer had to be handed down primarily in oral form), and it was used predominantly in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia. In addition, lontar were used as a vehicle for both epic and more mundane narratives, as well as an early form of graphic literature.
So why devote a quarterly literary journal to Southeast Asian speculative fiction? Arenâ€™t
there enough venues doing this already? It is indeed true that Western publications such as The Apex Book of World SF and Expanded Horizons have created friendly venues for SEA writers in English, and it is also true that anthologies published recently in Malaysia*, the Philippines**, and Singapore*** have addressed an increasing interest in speculative fiction in the region, but I believe that even more can be done, especially for countries and cultures that remain under-represented within the field.
LONTAR is my response. One-off anthologies, and anthology series, are fantastic for
accruing a representative sample of works in a given year, but it is even more important to keep 1
JASON ERIK LUNDBERG
the conversation going all-year round. By providing a regular venue for this particular flavor of writing concentrating on this particular part of the world, it is hoped that 1) SEA writers working in the English language will have an ongoing platform in which to express their cultures, traditions, mythologies, folk religions, and/or daily lives, and 2) non-SEA writers will see Southeast Asia as a fertile ground for storytelling and move beyond the touristy exoticism that frequently pervades the minds of those unfamiliar with the region. Above all, LONTAR is engaged with publishing speculative fiction, non-fiction articles, poetry, and sequential art from both SEA and non-SEA writers, in order to spread awareness of this literature to readers who might not normally be exposed to it, and to celebrate its existence and diversity within the region.
This premiere issue of LONTAR presents speculative writing from and about the Philippines,
Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam. Showcased are a post-apocalyptic Manila from Kate Osias, a utopian Kuala Lumpur from Zen Cho, a haunting military excursion down the Yellow River from Elka Ray Nguyen, and a reprinted novelette about a young Laotian journalistâ€™s place in the sensationalist future of news reporting from award-winner Paolo Bacigalupi; speculative poetry from Chris Mooney-Singh, Ang Si Min, and Bryan Thao Worra; and an unusual exploration of Philippine magic systems from Paolo Chikiamco.
This venture would not be possible without the assistance of poetry editor Kristine Ong
Muslim, the wonderful art direction of Sarah and Schooling, and the support of publisher Kenny Leck and Math Paper Press. Its continuance depends on the enthusiasm of its readers, so if you have bought this first issue of the journal, then you have already joined the conversation, and I thank you. Please spread the good word. Those wishing to contribute content for future issues can do so via the submissions portal at our website, lontarjournal.com.
* Malaysian Tales: Retold & Remixed, ed. Daphne Lee, ZI Publications. ** Philippine Speculative Fiction 7, ed. Alex and Kate Osias, Kestrel DDM; Alternative Alamat, ed. Paolo Chikiamco, Rocket Kapre, Lauriat, ed. Charles Tan, Lethe Press. *** Fish Eats Lion, ed. Jason Erik Lundberg, Math Paper Press; The Ayam Curtain, ed. JY Yang and Joyce Chng, Math Paper Press; The Steampowered Globe, ed. Rosemary Lim and Maisarah Bte Abu Samah, Two Trees Pte Ltd; Eastern Heathens, ed. Ng Yi-Sheng and Amanda Lee Koe, Ethos Books. 2
D EPA RTUR E S K a te Osi as
Kate Osias (Philippines) loves reality shows, cheap chocolate and diet carbonated drinks. She has won two Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the GIG Book Contest, and the Canvas Story Writing Contest, and has earned a citation in the international Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. She has stories published online and in print. Recently, she co-edited the sixth and seventh volumes of Philippine Speculative Fiction with Nikki Alfar and Alex Osias, respectively.
Time is different in Manila.
This is the thought that occurs to her, even as something large and wet slams her to the
ground. Random bursts of sensation follow, permeating the fog of her thoughts. The sound of people screaming. The feel of the hard, uneven stone against her back. The dark expanse of her sightlessness. The sense of drifting, leaving, fading from the present.
When the last realization settles, a small flame of panic flares from deep within her,
disrupting her mental lethargy. Fading is bad, she tells herself, and without understanding why, she’s convinced. Time is different in Manila, she tells herself again, because her inventory of cogent thoughts is limited, and it’s important to make do with what she has.
There’s a ground made of stone. There are people screaming. Fading is bad.
Again and again, she repeats her meager list of things she knows to be true, until that
which was distant draws near, draws even nearer still, draws so close to her that the noise blares against her ears with painful immediacy.
The small flame of panic explodes into a chaotic conflagration. Still blind, she’s scrambling
onto her feet; running, tripping, falling; crawling away. Something growls, and she stills.
Panic, at its zenith, lends her strength. She forces her eyes open.
A large, scaled tentacle registers. Shadows flit in and out of her line of vision. Just beyond,
a vivid blue sky pockmarked with symbols that hang low, like rain clouds. Remembered epiphanies
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come in bursts. Some of those symbols are there to trap. Some of those symbols are there to compel. Some of those symbols are there to make her forget.
The angry distrust that rises in her throat temporarily alleviates the debilitating terror.
I will not forget, she tells herself. I will not fade. She stands up then staggers, when the
ground trembles. Various experiences erupt from the recesses of her subconscious, superimposing themselves upon the present:
a gigantic eight-legged wolf’s hairy hooved shanks, kicking people with focused violent force,
a mud-colored dragon’s foul breath, surrounding her in a burning green mist,
an ivory serpent’s shimmering underbelly, a few heartbeats before it falls on her.
Another growl shatters the illusion of memories. She knows it’s behind her, whatever it is. A
part of her wants to understand it, to comprehend the futility against an insurmountable horror. But she’s paralyzed by a sense of preservation that she struggles to shake off.
When she’s able to finally turn around, she sees a demon protruding from the stony
pavement, taking over most of an intersection, tentacles whipping, pounding, slithering at odd angles. She sees human-shaped shades laying siege to the beast, using their teeth, their nails, the impact of their weight from a fall. She sees the deteriorated landscape—vine-crusted buildings, mangled street sign rods, shards of glass reflecting prismatic sunlight everywhere—an almost careless footnote to the confusion of events, but it’s that, more than anything else she has seen, that triggers an important remembering.
She’s dead. They all are.
Something gleams from the sky and she feels a weak impulse to fight the demon; but this
is easily crushed by another remembered truth. This truth emerges and spreads from her mind to her limbs, amplifying her panic, imbuing her with purpose: there are worse things than death.
Letting terror propel her into action, she runs away. –––––
Everybody in Manila is dead.
She finds her way to an empty alleyway, where the growls are muffled by walls and distance,
where the shades on the street that the alleyway intersects are expressionless and inactive, where she crouches and tries to catch the breath she does not need. 4
I am a rock in a storm. I am a mountain against the wind.
Only when the world stops shaking, only when the distant sounds die down, only when the
blaze of fear and panic have been doused by prolonged silence and an extended stillness, does she stop trembling.
When there’s nothing else to do, she moves.
She stays close to the buildings, avoiding the other shades and the glare of symbols.
She notices that not all shades are motionless; some move, aimlessly, some stop suddenly, as if something occurred to them in their wanderings. A few evaporate into thin air, but not before a light emerges from one of the symbols in the sky; not before the shade is illuminated by a welcoming glow; not before their lips form an enviable smile.
Disappearing is good. Everybody in Manila is dead. Fading is bad. Time is different in Manila.
She has a horde of disjointed memories now. A flash of light just before she died; the
face of a man, smiling; the sound of a child laughing; the taste of chocolate; a plethora of demonic encounters; a dead man who is her friend, who is in Manila, who is her trusted companion, who is called—
He appears in front of her, as though summoned. His eyes slowly become alert. When he
finally acknowledges her presence, his brows furrow, his face grimaces. Eventually, he’s able to spit out her name.
She remembers the deal: to hold each other’s name, because names are important in the
ghost city of Manila even if names are the first to fade, followed by a sundry of details that relate to their sense of self. But memories of another, these, they have found, these don’t fade as easily. And so they secreted other things in each other as well.
A flurry of words tumbles past their lips, as they try to fill up the blanks of their lives.
“We’re dead. We’re in Manila. Stay away from the demons. You like guavas and beer.”
“We don’t belong to Manila. The Catastrophe was unexpected, instantaneous. You love
coffee. Don’t eat crabs.”
“You love Leslie. She wasn’t in Manila. She hates roses.”
“Outside, you have a husband and a son—Mark and Joseph? Or is it—?”
Suddenly, Enzo is bathed in warm light. He looks at her, and Carla looks at him, and in a 5
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moment, a memory of a conversation resurfaces. Just before he disappears, she reaches her hand out to him; he takes it, then pulls her close into a tight embrace. –––––
The tunnel that is not Manila but is not not-Manila is called the Outer Rim.
She and Enzo appear in front of one closed, square panel. The tunnel that is the Outer Rim
is barely lit—one small yellow bulb caged in metal to illuminate several yards of space, just enough light to show various symbols on walls that are peeling paint. There are no chairs, no tables, no other furniture except the yellow light bulbs, empty spaces, and silence.
Carla barely moves, aware that her presence is forbidden, terrified of the unknown,
unremembered consequences, if they’re found out. But they have done this before; she knows this. She remembers the first time when she (or he) curled up into the smallest possible of seemings and came with the other as an illicit companion. She also knows that it used to be impossible, and then difficult, and now, just uncomfortable to perform such a feat. And she thinks, we are diminishing, because there was a time when they were too large and couldn’t fit, back when the walls were not crumbling in decline, back when the symbols in the sky hung higher than clouds. But she does not say this to Enzo, who is about to put his hand on one panel.
Instead she says, “Time is different in Manila,” because beyond the Outer Rim is a petitioner
who remembers them—oftentimes loved ones, sometimes family, rarely friends, and people change.
Enzo nods. But she knows he still hopes; expectation lines the ghost of a smile on his lips.
When the panel opens, they see an old woman, seated on the other side of a dirty sheet of glass.
The old woman speaks, before either of them can react. She speaks slowly at first, her
syllables drawn out and measured, as if her words have been considered and are being reconsidered, even as she utters them. The old woman punctuates her phrases with heavy coughing that wracks her body; later into the monologue, she starts slurring her words, as if she is simultaneously trying to clear her throat and speak.
Despite this, Carla and Enzo understand. They’ve heard most of it before. This is what the
old woman says:
I’m not Leslie. I’m not your mother, your sister or your cousin. I’m a woman your parents
hired, thirty years ago, to remember you. 6
There was a Catastrophe. You died, along with an entire city. But you and the city did not
move on. Instead, you have remained, and there are many attempts to determine why.
(You had your own theories before, but in the fifteenth year of my service, you told me to
stop enumerating them to you. ‘It doesn’t matter anymore,’ you said.)
There are portals in the ghost city of Manila, where monsters come out, which you fight,
to keep the world outside safe. Do not go into these portals. You have seen friends lost in the world beyond those gates. You have seen them suffer.
(You told me that, should you ask for their names, to refuse to give them to you. Remembering
is a different sort of pain, you said, and you insisted that any version of you will understand that.)
Your parents are dead. You have no siblings. Leslie is married, with grandchildren. She
doesn’t want to see you. She wrote you a letter, which your mother read, which I’ve never read, and things between you and her were over, before I was even hired.
This is the last time I will visit. I’m very sick. I know you don’t even remember my name, but
in the years that have passed, you’ve become important to me. You are my responsibility, my burden, the one constant in my life.
I’ve come to say goodbye. I’ve come to say I love you.
My name is Natalie.
The old woman coughs again, and does not stop. She starts heaving, spittle dripping down
the sides of her chin, blood splattering against the glass.
Several things occur to Carla in the confusion of the moment:
the old woman is dying,
the defenses aren’t as formidable as they once were, when she and Enzo had first tried
there’s a place other than Manila, other than the Outer Rim, a place where demons don’t
protrude out of intersections, reeking of violence.
Carla looks at her companion.
“Do it,” she says, because Natalie is his.
When Enzo turns to face her, she doesn’t see excitement. He seems even less now,
dimmed and shadowed. His stillness is saying there’s nothing left for me out there and slowly, even the despair in his eyes drains away, as if even that is fading.
There’s nothing left for me out there. There is nothing left. There’s nothing. 7
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Carla feels a spark of irritation that quickly turns into urgent anticipation. She doesn’t
hesitate. She reaches out again, this time to the old woman, then imagines herself small, smaller still, then as tiny as she is able.
I am a grain of sand on the beach, she says to herself, I am a teardrop on the glass, and this
time, she knows she’s being foolish, but the foolishness helps her focus.
There’s only a barely audible pop, accompanied by a sudden heaviness that must be the
sense of loss for Enzo and everything he must have been to her, and then she’s out. And just when the old woman draws her last breath, Carla takes over Natalie’s body. –––––
Carla staggers out of the wooden enclosed space.
At first, Outside Manila seems like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle of mismatched parts. The trees
are in the sky, the ground is an endless blue, a dark wall becomes the ceiling becomes the floor and becomes the wall again with each blink of the eye, and the unforgiving sun is everywhere, making everything too bright. Carla’s instinctive response to confusion is to get away, because demons (or monsters, or beasts) are always lurking in the spaces created by chaos. Carla forces the body that is not hers, that is heavy and exhausted, that sometimes still coughs, that moves too slowly, to go forward and away, just away from Manila.
It is so odd to be alive. So odd, and so painful.
When the world finally makes sense—when the trees find their place on the ground, when
the blue returns to a sky unblemished by symbols, when the dark wall disappears into a thin outline in the horizon—Carla is beset with another type of assault.
Memories come in relentless waves, most of them about her time in Manila, some of them
about her life before she died. Because of the volume, the memories are nearly indistinguishable from each other and the quality of information she’s able to obtain is vague and imprecise. She only knows she’s been dead for some time. She knows Enzo is important. She knows there are others with them who are lost, attempting an escape from Manila through the portals. She knows, even if she doesn’t remember their names, they mattered. She knows there is a Husband and there is a Son, though she can’t even determine which one’s Joseph, which one’s Mark. She knows there were arguments that grew out of hand; trips taken or forgone; routines and schedules and an ever 8
expanding grocery list. She can glimpse fragments of conversations, tail ends of tantrums; the comfortable and uncomfortable types of silences; all indications of an imperfect happiness.
She doesn’t know if Husband and Son ever visited. They must have, she tells herself. They
must have come and she must have let them go, as she imagines someone who loves deeply would have. If they’re still alive; if they’re both well; if she sees them now, will she be magnanimous?
The words that come to her mind are far from noble:
Where have you been? Why haven’t you visited me? Why have you forgotten me? Help me.
The hubtrain complex that materializes in the distance anchors Carla against the deluge of
her past and the emotions that come with it. Though it is large and smooth, when she expects the complex to be less sprawling and sharp-edged, Carla recognizes it, in the same way, she supposes, one would recognize a parent in a child. When a symbol gleams on its façade, she stops.
That’s when Carla notices the other paths that are running parallel to hers and how all these
roads will eventually converge. On these paths are a handful of people, most of them gray-haired and thin-boned, sweating and slow-paced, smelling of an unforgiving heat and confined spaces, all of them coughing. They walk, unperturbed, toward the hubtrain complex. Carla reminds herself that not all symbols are there to entrap. Carla reminds herself she’s no longer in Manila. Carla reminds herself that for now, she’s alive.
The memories pounding in her head make the decision for her. They’re all screaming,
asking to be recognized, demanding that she make herself whole. The hubtrain complex is one step toward that goal because it is a place to go to other places where everything she remembers will somehow make sense. With nothing more than fragile hope, Carla follows the other people to the imposing monolith. –––––
The hubtrain complex is air-conditioned and bright with artificial light.
There are digital billboards, flickering, shifting, screaming their importance in white against
black. Crowds of commuters are going up escalators, turning corners, coming out of elevators, obscuring painted symbols, drowning out announcements made on shattered speakers. The whole complex throbs with impatient energy, as if trains and people and data cannot wait to depart or arrive or move on. 9
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Carla disrupts the intricate choreography of commuters going up and down, in and out,
to and from, when she stands still in the middle of a crowded tunnel, then on top of an escalator, then just before the bend of a narrow corner. Most people make space for her; others push her in annoyance. Carla barely notices them. She’s wading through memories, trying to fish out a place that is somehow connected to the hubtrain complex, that is somehow very important to her, but is somehow blurred by the ceaseless ebb and flow of crowds.
You must be my home, she tells the hazy image in her mind. Where are you?
Carla abruptly starts walking again. She bumps into one of the commuters who pushes
her back; she staggers into someone else who shoves her away. When the crowd settles again, Carla finds herself engulfed in a sea of dark shoulders, expressionless profiles, words dropped without context as an overheard conversation drifts away from her, momentary blasts of music from curiously shaped headphones, a miasma of different smells—sweat, mint, cigarette smoke, deodorant, smog—making Carla feel as if she’s so small and irrelevant, tinier than when she slipped past glass. She gasps for breath, coughs, panics then coughs some more.
I am a leaf in the wind. I am a lily on a river.
Carla is pushed out of the throng.
She leans back against a cold, tiled wall. After the coughing fit subsides, she starts feeling
through her pockets, compelled by an instinctive general wariness of pickpockets and thieves that thrive in the hubtrain complex chaos. She finds a rectangular laminated piece of plastic, with an intricate emblem embossed in gold in the corner. In bold letters, it tells her what it is: HUBTRAIN CARD.
When a list of stops starts scrolling down the card, she almost drops it.
The surprise turns into fascination, as stops on the schematic blink in concert with the
names. And then a familiar string of letters brings a smile to Carla’s borrowed face.
Carla finally knows where to go. She’s going to Ortigas. She’s going back home. –––––
Ortigas gleams in neon lights, despite the afternoon sun.
Carla can hear singing in the distance, vendors shouting their wares, flyers being thrust
upon her by people wearing ill-fitting suits, and Carla thinks, maybe not everything has changed. 10
And then she sees egg-shaped vehicles zoom and hover at intersections, dirty, mechanical golems bearing the logo of the police casually marching alongside pedestrians, while buildings shimmer symbols and advertising and propaganda. She feels foolish for even momentarily believing that some things have remained constant.
Carla’s memories weave in and out of the present, providing outdated,contextual information:
a street’s name and its applicable traffic laws: left turn only here, u-turn slot there, a stern
traffic enforcer always behind a particular tree,
a favored street food vendor, selling the most delicious fried squid balls, three corners from
where she stands,
a parking place not known to too many people, behind a large building two blocks away.
None of the memories that come tell her how to get to her home.
Carla takes a deep breath and cautiously steps onto a tiled pavement. Something appears
beside her, and Carla nearly screams.
The hologram starts talking about insurance.
“Thank you for stepping into MetroFil Insurance today. My name is Holly, and for just a few
minutes of your time—”
Carla has a vague recollection about holograms. The holograms in her memories were
static-ridden, with limited range. She remembers thinking how wonderful the holograms were; how exciting. The hologram in front of her is crisp, leagues away from what she remembers it to be. The image is that of a cheerful young woman, wearing a blouse with a large ornate logo, nearly indistinguishable from a flesh and blood human.
“—we have a host of different benefits to suit your needs—”
For the first time in what seems like ages, Carla laughs. At least she can count on insurance
spiels to remain unchanged. Carla suddenly remembers having to memorize one and she thinks to herself, I must be an insurance agent which doesn’t quite fit and she amends it by telling herself I must have been an insurance agent in my youth and that feels more true, so she laughs because she feels she’s claimed one more piece of information about herself.
Carla is still in good spirits several meters afterwards, even with Holly the hologram still
tailing her, trying to enumerate the benefits of financial protection, when a man offers her tasters of a particular drink.
“Are you real?” she asks the man. 11
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The man laughs, because he sees Holly, and Carla laughs again some more, because it is
the first conversation she’s had, that she initiated, and though brief, she feels all the more alive for it. Carla tries to think of something else to say as she picks up a cup from his free samples tray and takes a sip.
It’s a chocolate drink, mildly cold, somewhat sweet, a little too watery. But as the liquid
travels down her throat, it triggers, in the irrational way the Carla’s memory seems to trigger, an image of a kitchen, where the fridge door needs to be closed gently, where the tap water is too strong, where tiles don’t match the cabinets, because it was too expensive to change the tiles, after the cabinets were replaced, where an oven sits, old but in good condition, a relic passed down from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law.
And then the image explodes into a house, into a street, into series of roads, into a map,
startlingly clear in Carla’s mind.
Carla drops the cup and tries to run. –––––
When she finally arrives at the gatehouse of the small community where her house is,
where her kitchen is, where she irrationally believes the oven she inherited still sits, she looks more bedraggled cat than human. She’s been scrambling, walking, avoiding swerving hovering cars that she does not recognize, contending with a landscape that has become unfamiliar to her. The coughing fits come more frequently now but somehow, despite her trials or perhaps because of it, the weight of the body has eased.
I am a pebble in an avalanche.
She’s hurtling to her end, propelled by an image that becomes more glorious with each
labored breath. Memories taunt her, pull at her, urge her forward. The road she walks is the road of her past, the houses that she passes by are the houses she knew, the trees that loom like leafy sentinels are smaller, thinner, younger.
Carla does not even notice the security guard who waves her on—perhaps deciding she’s
no threat, perhaps recognizing her desperation—she just keeps walking, as quickly as the body that is not hers, that is still dying, that is tired and light and weightless, is able.
This is where I live, she tells herself. This is where I will die. 12
And she tells herself she’s happy.
One memory becomes even more prominent, as she walks closer to her home. The memory
is of Carla, fixing a tilted, framed picture on the wall, picking up the keys on a side table, locking the door twice. There was a seminar in Manila that she had to attend; it was important for her career. And so she left early in the morning, while Husband and Son were still asleep.
It has taken her a long time to make it back.
The house that is Carla’s house, regardless of who thinks they own it, looks remarkably the
same. It is a narrow off-white structure, two stories high, gated with red metal. The sameness of it jolts Carla out of her euphoric determination. I must be remembering it wrong, Carla thinks, because the off-white is still the same shade of off-white in her memories, and the red, same shade of red, and things don’t stay the same, because time is different in Manila, and people, and things, and places change, even if insurance spiels don’t.
There is the sound of a door closing; footsteps; someone struggling with iron that needs
oiling; then the gate swings open. A gray-haired man stands half turned toward the house.
“We’re going to be late!” says the gray-haired man. Someone responds from inside the
house, which satisfies him. He turns around.
The impact of seeing him brings Carla to her knees.
There’s no reason to expect that he is still here, that he hasn’t changed houses, that he
hasn’t moved on. But he is here. He is different, and yet the same. And he is coming closer and saying, “Are you okay?”
Carla is drowning in memories, gasping for breath. Through the blur of tears she sees his
face, lined with age, bearded where it used to be smooth, gray where it used to be dark. But his eyes, the shape of his lips, the size of his ears—it’s all him, so him that Carla laughs, then coughs in the attempt.
This is what Carla wants to say:
I remember you.
I don’t remember what we last said to each other on the night before the morning of the
day I didn’t come back. I don’t remember if we fought, or if we laughed, or if we said something meaningless but truthful. But I remember that you like your coffee sweet in the morning, your eggs barely cooked and slightly salted; sometimes, you smoke; when you’re tired, you snore.
I remember you like running your hands through my hair, and I like running my hands down 13
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your back, and we like running our hands on each other a lot. I remember the way your eyes would squint when I’d say something you don’t understand, the sharp edge of your voice when you’re upset. I remember how you looked the first time you saw our son.
I have to believe that you’re happy. Just as I have to believe that our son is alive and happy.
I have to believe that you’ve moved on, and you have to believe me, when I say that this belief brings me happiness.
Now I know that not all things fade. I love you, Joseph.
The body that is not hers cannot comply. Her borrowed lips can barely move; her borrowed
voice nearly inexistent. It seems like the more Carla struggles, the more difficult it is to focus. Joseph is saying something; that much she can discern. But the words themselves are lost in a waterfall of memories. Joseph morphs into other Josephs, all of them laughing, as the pasts layer themselves upon each other, obscuring the present:
Joseph, saying you are the rainbow in my sky, after she teased him about his lack of
Joseph, saying you are the mango in my fruit salad, to which she replies there are no
mangoes in fruit salads (to which he then replies, there should be),
Joseph, saying you are the pickle in my cheeseburger, because Joseph loves pickles with
his cheeseburgers, and Carla is genuinely flattered.
Carla coughs as the pain in her chest intensifies. In the reflection of his eyes, she can see
the body of Natalie, dying all over again. With all her remaining strength, she reaches up to him and whispers, “I’m home.”
LO V E IN TH E TIM E O F UTO P I A Z e n C ho
Zen Cho (Malaysia) is based in London. Her short stories have appeared in publications in the US, Australia and Malaysia, including Strange Horizons, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and the Selangor Times. She was a finalist in the Selangor Young Talent Awards 2011 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her work at zencho.org.
Feisal found out about his heart when he met Xinya. The lesson was unexpected. He met
her at work, which was such an unsuitable venue for intimacy.
Like everyone else, Feisal had attended the classes in right thinking and right feeling at
school. He knew feelings were creations of the mind. Armed with a proper understanding of their true basis, one could create appropriate feelings where they should exist, and snuff out inappropriate emotions when necessary.
But when it happened, love was like a tsunami, or a bird dropping on the head. It struck
him unawares out of the bright blue sky. –––––
The small branch of the regional cosmetics business where Feisal worked was only
beginning to extend its scope to research. Xinya was the first biologist they hired. She was young, only a couple of years older than Feisal, with a round pleasant face and narrow eyes that gave it a look of friendly cynicism.
Her hair was mostly hidden by a scarf, only a few brown curls escaping to frame her
forehead. This confused people, who thought she was a Muslim despite the eyes, until she explained she was a Latter Day Izzahite.
This was accepted without surprise. It was extraordinary how these cults that had sprung
up in the wake of the Crisis had become so respectable—though he should not think of them as 15
cults, Feisal reminded himself; that was hardly affable. The new religions were no longer proscribed, as they’d stopped attracting dangerous enthusiasm. These days there were as many indifferent Izzahites as there were half-hearted Catholics and lackadaisical Muslims.
Apart from the minor eccentricity of professing a religion, there was nothing out of the
common way about Xinya. It was easy to be affable with her—she didn’t push to make space for herself in the conversation, but asked Feisal questions about his work and listened with apparent interest.
Feisal was nominally the company’s graphic designer, but he also wrote copy in the
national language and in English, produced fervent testimonials from happy customers, managed the advertising budget, organised marketing events, and kept the key to the kitchen cupboards. He felt embarrassed about talking so much about himself, and asked Xinya why she had chosen to be a biologist.
“I liked studying Bio at school,” said Xinya. “The university offered me a place to study
medicine. But I didn’t want to be a doctor.”
Feisal had never heard of anyone who’d been good enough to get a place on the ferociously
competitive medical course and yet rejected it. “Why not?”
“I like cells better than people,” said Xinya. This was not strictly affable but she made it
sound as if it was, her voice was so full of suppressed laughter.
It was only after Feisal fell in love with this hidden laughter that he noticed Xinya’s dimples,
the soft velvety down on her cheeks, the way her eyes got lost in sweet curves when she smiled. It was only after he was in love that he saw Xinya was beautiful. By then it was too late. –––––
Feisal decided to confide in his sister. Muna was no more a bangsawan than he was,
having failed the state examinations and gone contentedly on to make a living as a hairdresser. Her profession gave her the opportunity to converse and deepen affability with a wide range of people, so she had a better understanding of the world than he did.
“Kak, how ah, if—” Feisal hesitated. “If you want to approach terms of intimacy
love in the time of utopia
Muna was delighted. She showed it by saying in a lecturing tone, “Oh, finally you listen to
me? You’ve met somebody? Why never tell your family?”
She’d always bemoaned the fact that Feisal showed no interest in the state-organised
affability events where most people found their intimate partners: “You’re missing out. At least love is available to everybody, high station or low. It’s the one thing you can get without having to sit exam.”
Feisal hadn’t wanted intimacy as an abstract concept, but since he’d met Xinya he was
starting to see its appeal.
“There was nothing to tell,” he said now. “We’ve talked a few times only. But she’s the kind
who’s affable to everybody. I thought maybe if we meet in a bit more personal setting, we could, you know, bonding more. Then can find out if—if maybe—” He blushed.
“If intimacy is suitable,” finished Muna. “That’s right. Why don’t you message her on
This struck Feisal as a good idea. If he could talk to Xinya via text instead of in person
perhaps he’d have a better chance of impressing her with his intelligence and charm. In their conversations so far they had played strict roles: she was amazing, and he was an idiot.
“Just find her in the event forum, lah,” said Muna. “They always set up a forum with all the
attendees. If you search by date and time you’ll find it.” She sat down at the computer. “When did you go?”
“We didn’t meet through the affability events,” said Feisal innocently. “I met her
Muna took her hands off the keyboard slowly, as if she thought any sudden movements
might trigger an explosion.
“You want to approach your colleague on terms of intimacy?” she said. “Adik! Did you even
check if she’s our station or not?”
It hadn’t occurred to Feisal to wonder. “I don’t know,” he said. “She’s our biologist.”
“Then must be she’s a graduate,” said Muna. “That means bangsawan. How come that
also you don’t know? How can you live for twenty-three years and still be so ignorant?”
Feisal set his teeth and called up Xinya’s network profile on the computer. Muna was
right—she had a degree from Universiti Kebangsaan Tanah Mas. In the picture she was still wearing the gold pin with the national symbol of twin tigers that each graduate received the day they were welcomed into the elect. 17
“You still want to message her?” Muna’s voice rose, wobbling; she always shouted when
she was about to cry. “You’ll look so stupid, you know or not?”
“Never mind,” muttered Feisal. He felt unutterably pointless. “Forget about it. I just
Muna softened. She patted Feisal on the shoulder, wiping her eyes with her palm. “We all
sheltered you too much. We should have forced you to pay more attention to the outside world, not just spend so much time drawing pictures.” On the screen Xinya’s face smiled up from her profile, a distractingly sweet dimple indenting her left cheek. “She’s pretty,” Muna conceded. “If not for the station thing...”
“She was offered medicine but she chose biology instead.”
Muna snorted. “A doctor! Imagine you approaching a doctor.” She shook her head. “Don’t
think I’m scolding you. It’s good you’re thinking about entering into this kind of relationship now. At your age it’s very natural. Why don’t you go for an affability event for our station punya people? You’ll see what I mean. It’s more comfortable. You might meet some nice girls there. If not, at least make friends, lah.”
“Maybe,” said Feisal. Disappointment lay sour on his tongue. –––––
The affability event was on a boat on the Klang River. It had become a terrifically desirable
area following the post-Crisis cleaning programmes; most of the river was now blocked off for exclusive use by the elect.
“So lucky!” squealed Muna. “You know how many people apply to get on the perahu
events? Must be they gave it to you because you’re a first-timer.”
First-timers got special perks—with an aging population and a falling birth-rate on its
hands, the state was anxious to encourage young people to get together and do what came natural. Feisal’s dinner was free, and he was almost certain to get into the next affability event he applied for.
On the perahu, Muna-handled into the stiff cloth of his best suit, Feisal felt like an alien
anthropologist. He’d always been a bit of an outcast at school. He wasn’t like all the other kids, who had friends and signed up for more extracurriculars than they had to—he found affability hard work. It was easier to live in affability when you didn’t actually hang out with other people. 18
love in the time of utopia
But he’d promised his sister he’d take it seriously. He worked up the nerve to talk to, in
succession, a former secretary who had set up her own garden utensil business which she ran from home, an inventor who was trying to get an administration contract to sell his patented bottle caps (“They won’t even look at you if you’re not married, though,” he said, shaking his head), and a woman in construction who gave violin lessons on the side. “How come you’re not higher station then?” said Feisal.
“I only got up to Grade Two,” said the woman, a gentle note of apology in her voice. “I can
play when it’s just playing, but when it’s exams, forget about it. I only teach small children. I’m not, to say, very good.”
“Then why do you keep on doing it?” said Feisal without thinking.
“Because I enjoy it,” said the woman.
Maybe Muna was right, Feisal thought. He had never met so many people who cared about
something other than excelling. The former secretary cared about spades and flowers. The inventor did not care about bottle caps, but he clearly enjoyed the idea of himself as an inventor, and it didn’t seem to bother him much that he was not a particularly successful one. It was relaxing to speak to such people.
But he’d noticed Xinya because she cared about something other than excelling. He
remembered that intensely amused wobble in her voice, and no longer felt like drinking his mocktail and making small talk. He went out onto the deck and watched the stars until it was time to return to land. –––––
Something unprecedented happened to Feisal, in a time of unprecedented things. He
began to think.
It seemed to him that while the affability events were an eminently sensible thing, and it
was right and appropriate that people of a similar station should be joined together, the system did not take sufficient account of the waywardness of the human heart.
“But that’s what the system’s for,” Muna said when he put the thought to her. “People
are very stupid when they fall in love. They don’t make the right choice for the future. They don’t consider the correct things—the education, the mentality must be the same. They only think of all the wrong things.” 19
“But if their preference is not related to—” Feisal went pink. He wasn’t used to discussing
such things with his family. “If it’s not partiality, shouldn’t that be allowed?”
“Don’t kid yourself. Humans are always partial,” said Muna. “That’s why we had the
Crisis, what. Enthusiasm, communalism, all this. At least now we all know we’re doing good for the society. Society benefits if the best join together and have children who can lead, and everybody else focuses on their own role. ‘Acknowledge difference to avoid conflict.’ They taught us at school also, what.”
“I didn’t listen,” said Feisal. “I was too busy drawing pictures. Anyway, we don’t acknowledge
difference. When was the last time you heard someone admit to being Izzahite or something like that?”
“So what, you think it’s better if we go back to the old days?” said Muna. “Everything also
based on you know what. Even somebody kena accident also must ask: eh, orang Melayu ke Cina ke?”
She was very angry: she would never have used the taboo language of communalism
otherwise. “At least now we know what is the important differences.” Feisal said no more to Muna, but it seemed to him there was something missing in the stories he’d been told about the world.
“I know we need the elect,” he said to Xinya at work. “We need leaders to run the country
and teach schools and develop technology all that. But would it be so bad if some people want to be less than all they can be? Do we always have to maximise?”
Even as he said it, he knew it sounded stupid. “Never mind—” he said, but:
“I know what you mean,” said Xinya. “But bangsawan don’t think that way.”
“But you’re a bangsawan.”
“A second class Bachelor’s in plant biology from UKTM hardly makes me one of the elect,”
Xinya said, smiling.
Feisal had come to realise that Xinya’s smile was as much a deflection tactic as it was an
expression of friendliness or an indication of her mood. Xinya never smiled with only one meaning.
She said, “But it’s not very affable of us to be talking while our colleagues are so busy. You
want to continue the conversation after work? Or are you busy this evening?”
“No,” said Feisal. “No, no, I’m free.”
“I’ll come by your desk when I’m about to leave,” said Xinya. “I’ve got a meeting at six,
though. Don’t worry about waiting if you want to go home.”
“I’m going to be working late today anyway,” lied Feisal.
Xinya reached out and brushed his knuckles with the tips of her fingers. “I’ve been thinking 20
love in the time of utopia
I’d like to get to know you better.”
Me too, Feisal wanted to say, but she was walking away—having been, Feisal was almost
certain, delightfully, inappropriately anything but affable. –––––
Xinya only glanced at him as she was leaving, but Feisal was ready. He’d been unable to
work for the past half-hour, loose-limbed and distracted with the conviction that something lifechanging was about to happen.
The area immediately outside their office building was pedestrianised, like the rest of
central KL. In the evenings it filled up with crowded humanity: office workers surging homewards, teenagers and yuppies strolling between the malls, people handing out flyers for the newest tuition centre promising to teach foolproof exam techniques. Above their heads the electronic display flashed with a brief reminder that it was Maghrib—at home Feisal’s grandfather would be praying, a practice he persisted in despite the family’s embarrassment.
Xinya waited till had turned off the main road before speaking.
“Sorry I didn’t stop at your desk,” she said. “Didn’t want everybody to gossip. You know
how people are. If you want to meet outside the usual venues, they think you’re going to go find a bush so you can roll around behind it.”
“Ridiculous,” Feisal agreed.
“I know, right? I’d want to have dinner first,” said Xinya. She watched him blush, then she
bought them both dinner at a hawker centre.
It turned out Xinya liked cells better than people because she was skeptical of affability.
This took Feisal aback. He couldn’t help imagining Muna’s expression: Of course this is the kind of girl you’ll find if you go with people who don’t mind stepping out of their station.
“You don’t think people should be affable?” he said.
“Being affable is one thing. Affability imposed from above is different,” said Xinya. “I can’t be
affable with people I don’t like, or people I don’t even know. Why should I? This fake neighbourliness all the time. It’s like drowning in gula melaka.”
Feisal felt uneasy. “But we need affability. If not—”
“I know, I know. If not, what’s to stop the Crisis from happening again?” Xinya picked at her 21
noodles, looking morose. “It’s just all this—smiling lah, talking to people like they’re my best friend. You cannot even show if you have bad mood in the mornings. Just because I don’t want to make small talk before I have coffee doesn’t mean I’m going to start race-rioting.”
Feisal was trying his best to be cool, but he couldn’t help flinching. He’d grown up in
a decent household; nobody had ever said the word race. Xinya looked at him and put down her chopsticks.
“Now you’re uncomfortable,” she said penitently. “Don’t bother about me. I’m like this,
one. If I was living pre-Crisis, I’d be scolding people for not being affable enough.”
“No,” said Feisal. I like how you are, he wanted to say, but that was too far past the bounds
of affability. He said: “It’s good to be honest.”
Dinner came to an all-too-early conclusion. Feisal felt as he used to as a child when
the closing jingle of a favourite TV show began to play. He blurted, “You want to go and walk by the lake?”
It was late, ten-thirty. Hardly anyone was about. Reflected in dark waters, the glowing
buildings of the city were imbued with a new mystery. The twin monuments of the former government were a darker patch of shadow on the skyline.
Feisal could remember the days when the monument was still lit up at night, and you could
see the towers, rearing up above the other buildings, wherever you were in the city. But that was now proscribed: a state-sponsored study had concluded that it encouraged positive associations with the old government and so increased the likelihood of a recurrence of the Crisis.
“I used to think I can escape,” murmured Xinya. “When I was small, I thought: I won’t live like
other people. I’ll go overseas and meet different kinds of people and never worry about excelling.
“But I did well in my first screening. Gone case. Stupid lah, I should have fail it—but I didn’t
know. I was only five. Later only I learnt they don’t let you go overseas if you’re on the uni track.”
The first sorting by ability level happened in the first year of school, with exams that tested
intellectual, artistic and athletic capabilities. Children who scored well were funnelled straight into the university track. Children who did not excel had another chance to prove their worth at the second screening, at age seven, but if you failed that, you would never be accepted into the elect.
“You should go overseas,” said Xinya. “You can.”
Only on this upside-down day would this have seemed an ordinary thing to say. Feisal
had always accepted that the New Federation was the best country to live in. You could leave 22
love in the time of utopia
your wallet on the table in a restaurant and come back from the bathroom to find it still there. Your education was paid for, provided you were good enough to benefit from it. Free universal healthcare, low unemployment, practically no crime, diversity without conflict—what more could you ask for? No one could accuse the country of the various ills that had hag-ridden the old Malaysia. They had made use of the painful lessons taught by the Crisis.
He said only, “I have a lot to stay for.” He hadn’t meant to be looking at Xinya when he said
this, but he found himself doing it anyway.
Feisal was the one who leaned in—the first thing he’d ever done in his life that took courage.
A sharp voice said, “Excuse me, sir!”
In a minute, the voice would ask for their marriage certificate. Xinya stayed where she was,
her face upturned and the lashes lying dark on her cheeks, but Feisal stepped back. Already his instinct for self-sacrifice had begun to emerge. –––––
The officials didn’t waste much time on Feisal once they’d established that he was neither
married to Xinya nor a bangsawan. They took Xinya aside for an hour and Feisal sat in the waiting room, twisting his hands. At the reception desk an official ignored him with the stony inhumanity of the law.
He wished they’d let him attend the interview. He might have been able to ameliorate the
worst, persuade Xinya to hide the flame of rebellion that burned under her scarf. She’d been furious when the officials had asked them to come with them: “You don’t have any other work to do, ah? The burglars taking holiday, is it?”
She might mention that she was an Izzahite. That wasn’t proscribed, but who knew what
affronted authority might choose to take offence at. She might explain about choosing biology over medicine. Such signs of heterodoxy were best saved for the ears of friends.
Feisal was less naïve than Muna knew. He understood more than even he had known
himself, and this unacknowledged understanding of the world he lived in made that hour a terrible one for him. When Xinya came out, nothing was to be gleaned from her expression. The officials were courteous enough. She might have been saying goodbye to her hairdresser.
The officials told Feisal he was free to go. They would let him off this once because it was 23
a first offence, and it would be a shame to tarnish an unblemished record.
“Remember, you are your mother’s only son,” said the official who had caught them. He
patted Feisal on the shoulder awkwardly, as if he was sorry to have to make these coded threats.
“I’ll take a bus to go back,” said Feisal, having already decided that whatever bus he took,
it would be different from Xinya’s bus.
But Xinya was taking a cab. “They’re free,” she said, avoiding his eyes.
Of course. For the elect.
When Feisal was at a door, she said: “See you at work,” not looking up. In this way she
passed from his life. –––––
“Exciting times,” said Joshua the next day. He leaned over the walls of Feisal’s cubicle and
picked up a stick of his keropok lekor. Joshua was one of many obstacles on the long hard path to achieving affability.
“Oi,” said Feisal automatically. “What’s so exciting?”
“You didn’t hear?” said Joshua. “See lah, when you skip out on office breakfasts, you miss
all the news.”
“Xinya’s left, is it?”
Joshua was disappointed. “Hai, if you knew already, say lah! You know why she went?”
Feisal shrugged. He was acutely conscious of the skin on his face. It was important that it
should not wrinkle, that his face should not be betrayed into any kind of expression.
“Official line is she’s been posted to Region because of urgent business need,” said
Joshua. He lowered his voice. “But they all were saying actually it’s the authorities request, one. Xinya was caught in flagrante with a lower-station person.”
“What was she doing?”
“Flagranting, lah,” said Joshua. “Bangsawan like her, must be she really overstepped the
line. They only send elect overseas as a last resort.”
Something was wrong with Feisal’s eyes. He couldn’t make out the images on the
screen before him. He moved a style element a few pixels to the left to make it look like he wasn’t really listening.
“Can’t believe Xinya risk it like that,” said Joshua. “She seem so sensible. This kind of thing 24
love in the time of utopia
can really mess up your life. No more housing grant, no pension, children not included in the school quota. Private sector also won’t touch you if the admin blacklist you already. Like that, it’s like you never pass the exam in the first place.”
“We are OK, what,” said Feisal. “Who needs to be elect?”
“We’re OK because we’re used to a shitty life,” said Joshua. “Once you’re elect you
don’t want to stop, one. At least Xinya still has a chance. If they’re sending her overseas instead of downgrading her, means they’re going for reeducation. If she’s smart, she’ll hang on to her special rights.”
“She strike me as being smart.”
“More than that. Xinya’s ambitious,” said Joshua. “She told Shazrina she didn’t plan to
spend more than one year in this company. Too small for her. Oh, you won’t see her giving up her future for some random rakyat. Pretend only she doesn’t want to excel. Underneath she’s like all the bangsawan.”
No, thought Feisal. There was something restless about Xinya, a striving quality, but
she dreamed of different things. Not the upward climb, but the meandering path, curving into the unknown distance.
“Is it?” he said. “She seem laid back. But I don’t know her well.”
“If you survive the screenings to get to uni, you’re not going to be laid back, one,” said
Joshua. “She’s very clever, she won’t show people she’s ambitious. But at end of the day these people all want the administration job, the car, the housing grant. I’m just surprised she was so careless to let herself get caught. You never know people, ah.”
“Yeah,” said Feisal. “Who knew.” –––––
The details of what had happened to Xinya filtered down to Feisal over the next few weeks.
There was no mention of his name, or indeed much curiosity about who the rakyat was who’d caused her fall. To Feisal’s surprise it was assumed that anyone of a lower station would leap at the chance of a liaison with a bangsawan. The scandal was that Xinya had been willing to lower herself in that way.
It appeared that the state Family Planning Unit had slipped a word to management: the
company must be alert to prevent undesirable fraternising among its staff. Foreign businesses could 25
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