Issue Four: December Special
⇜ An NUS Literary Society Publication ⟿
Masthead ________________________________________________________________ A philosophy and theatre studies major, Isaac founded Symbal in 2011, when he joined NUS Literary Society, in the hopes of promoting and encouraging budding Singaporean writers.
Isaac Tan, Editor-in-Chief
Heâ€™s an enthusiast for all things artsy as he can be seen hanging out in theatres, bookshops, museums and galleries. He hopes to be a professional actor someday and perhaps, in some possible world, a flamenco dancer and a writer as well. In his meagre spare time, he blogs at http://pre-lude.blogspot.sg
Justin Tan, Executive Editor
Justin is a political science major and literature minor. He has served in the publications department of NUS Literary Society since 2011, and thoroughly enjoys reading every submission it receives. An orchestral film-score junkie and inveterate dreamer, he professes interest in any subject unclaimed by math and formulae. In such time as he has at hand, Justin hopes to be a writer, concept artist, amateur naturalist, and photographer. He finds aesthetic wonder in almost any environment, but is happiest amidst grand old architecture or boundless, pensive scenery.
Suranjana Sengupta, Executive Editor
A Computer Engineering major, Suranjana joined the NUS Literary Society in 2012, hoping to unite her love for Literature with Science, along with meeting fellow students who share similar interests. As a reflective poet and a passionate writer, she enjoys reading everything from Early Medieval Literature to Contemporary Fiction. She loves Nature, Classical Music and just about anything to do with History. She also has an earnest interest in Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy. Although Suranjana aspires to follow a career in Computer Engineering, she also cherishes the goal of becoming a well-known author one day. During her tenure with NUS LitSoc, she hopes to participate actively in Literary Events in hope of encouraging innovative works of fiction, poetry and plays.
_______________________________________________________ Feel free to contact us and tell us your thoughts at email@example.com ! Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Symbal-Magazine/149399518533621 Twitter: https://twitter.com/symbalmagazine
That felicitous patchwork kaleidoscope on our cover page might look as if it’d been borne aloft by the autumn winds; whirled and buffeted over vast tracts of hushed country before alighting upon the editors’ desk. As with all the works featured in Symbal it has an author, however – and a story to tell. All that one has to do is look, and permit the mind to soar…
~ Cover art: Colours by Tan Xiang Yeow
Tan Xiang Yeow is a Singaporean currently pursuing his undergraduate studies at the National University of Singapore. He currently shares his thoughts and art at www.art-xy.com.
SYMBAL MAGAZINE The December 2012 Special
Morning Rituals Artistic Expression Laurel and Front The carpet has been stealing Lee Zhi Xin The Woman from Jepara Litany Tse Hao Guang Mindtune Mabel Chan Mindtune – Reality Version Loh Soon Hui Little Shu and Old Ma Michele Lim A Review of In My Mother’s House Isaac Tan Announcements Submission Guidelines
-⋄ Editorial Musings ⋄-
Congratulations, all! We’ve made it thus far, and the world has not ended. Considering all the fuss (in inexplicably good cheer, for the most part!), don’t be too hard on yourself if you cringed inwardly when the 21st dawned. The folks in the NUS Literary Society are not the sort to leave things to chance, and we got worried enough to assemble this special ‘mini’ edition
of our online publication; ready for release upon the slightest hint of Earthclobbering ruin. For how could we allow the world to end without sharing as many new literary pieces as possible? In this we have only you, our readers, to thank. Your presence and your submissions make Symbal possible. Speaking of the end of days, it is no secret that much of life’s value derives from its very transience. The apocalyptic notion therefore
stands to induce macabre but mawkishly beautiful contemplation. Certainly it gives us pause and turns our attention upon such things in life as we find truly valuable. In the face of routine existence even a moment of such pondering can work wonders to remind ourselves of who we are, why we do what we do, and whether things would best be changed. Of course it can also cast you into a pit of despair… but that is merely the other extreme. Now, one of my guiltily trite indulgences – something I’d rather like to invite everyone to consider – is the question of where one would most rather be two days before it all ends. I propose two days because most of us would probably dedicate the last one wholly to friends and family… which isn’t particularly good for being in a place one would most rather be, because no two individuals share quite the same opinion on the matter (if you see what I mean). Anyhow, where would you rather be? Sometimes this takes a jot
of imagination. Though our partialities change throughout our lives I suppose that I, for the moment at least, wish to be in the night sky gliding behind a bird. Does this sound absurd? Perhaps you’re wondering if I wouldn’t go plummeting into oblivion, but with the end of the world approaching let us give verisimilitude the rest it deserves. As to the bird, I don’t rightly know what manner of avian he is – pelican, stork, or albatross – but it won’t do to look too much into it. It is enough to note that he is eight feet from wingtip to wingtip, that his plumage glints sleek and silver-white in the depths of night. I can see him suspended effortlessly above a calm, flat, moonlit sea. Not a feather upon his noble frame stirs: vulgar flapping is for the pigeons and the crows. Well this deity of the skies soars on amid his shimmering curtains of stars, his titanic mansions of cloud, and I am more than content to tag along. One cannot know how old he is, how many times he’s circled the globe and how many things he’s seen. He is a brave one, this creature… but he is as lonely as he is brave. At any rate he must not ever look back. We seek a tiny island now, lost out there beneath that great blue moon; the night is young, and it is to be the first of many stops on our voyage. Upon that isle there is just room enough for a tree, and when I finally tire I will set myself to rest in the pastel shade of its fine, softly rustling leaves; spread my limbs in sweet exhaustion upon grass that grows between its roots as if a thick, cool rug. A hint of mist will curl at my toes, and as I gaze out across the sea I fancy I’ll be able see every ripple that caresses its immense, silent expanse. …thank you for bearing with me. Places like these live within us all, and no two of them are the same. This, of course, can only testify to the
incredible richness and variety of the human experience. All the more discomfiting, then, to remember just how little we seem to matter amid the untold vastness of the cosmos. Human egomania and centeredness are forces to reckon with, and it is easy to forget that doomsday for us need not
be doomsday for anything remotely significant to the universe. As we are nothing to the Earth, so is the Earth nothing to the solar system; and so is the solar system, in turn, nothing to the Milky Way (and the Milky Way nothing to galactic clusters and the universe as a whole). As Ian Malcolm would assert, even the Earth lives and breathes on a much vaster scale than we do, chronologically or otherwise. It has survived environmental calamities far worse than what we credit ourselves with, and it will certainly not miss us when we are gone. Nor will the galaxy miss the Earth, should any trivial cosmic accident dispatch it tomorrow. Not when you’d need a million Earths to fill a space the size of the sun, and somewhere in the region of seven billion suns to do likewise for the largest known star. In short, then: humanity is incredibly small, incredibly transient, incredibly vulnerable, and perhaps just as objectively unremarkable. The world is really so much more than our everyday perspectives. We are but another frail narrative thread in the grand scheme of things, and on an island as small as Singapore, in a region as provincial as Southeast Asia, on a planet as modest as Earth, in a neighbourhood as ordinary as the solar system… this can be a challenge to see. So what, you ask, is my point? Is it to belittle said human experience, and in doing so dismiss literature – our collective record of it? Well, all I really hope to support is a dash of enlightening, liberating humility… as well as the understanding that the very fragility of our race makes everything we achieve just that more precious. If life were forever, we would not treasure it; if humanity were everything, we would not
matter. For better or worse, this is how things are appraised. I daresay we are valuable because our kind is unique, and can be lost all too easily. Our egotism often leads us to such intellectual barriers as the SETI-dogging carbon chauvinism (the parochial conviction that life anywhere else has to stem from that element and, by extension, require such Earthly things as
liquid water and temperatures on the lower half of the Celsius scale). It also obliges us to impose any number of unabashedly human physical and emotional traits on hypothetical aliens in our journals and fiction. This is all
very well, but it does not change how overwhelmingly likely it is that our demise would take with it every trace of what would pass today as human. …except, of course, the things we leave behind. Sweeping, decaying cityscapes swiftly assimilating into the landscape. Dark, silent satellites with steadily deteriorating orbits… fields of space trash. Maybe the odd ‘unbreakable’ smartphone case. How would extra-terrestrial archaeologists judge the primitive technology they’d supposedly unearth? Technical accomplishment is ever-soimportant, but there is no copyright for it. It can really only go forwards (or backwards, come to that). It is good or bad, archaic or relevant. It is a means to an end, and any alien civilisation may seek and surpass it. Not so, with art. Human art cleaves to a unique, one-off mould that shall never be replicated. So no, if the world were to end I will not mourn for the devices that haven’t been invented. I will mourn for the stories that haven’t been told, the symphonies that haven’t been written, the paintings that’ll never see light, the plays and musicals that will never hear applause. This is why the aesthetics are precious. Every motif composed, every stanza penned, every tribal mask painted, every cathedral carved and pieced stone-by-stone over decades… these comprise our heritage. They, as with our emotions, help make each one of us much more than a fellowship of molecules working in sentient concert for the fleeting span of a human life. And I am proud of that heritage; we all are, after our own fashion. It heartens me that those at the forefront of SETI are realising this, that they are incorporating music and artwork into radio messages beamed across the galaxy. Yes, the likes of Beethoven, Vivaldi, Gershwin, sundry cultural songs, the Beatles – they are playing in the darkness of interstellar space. They may take tens of thousands of years to
get anywhere, though. Truth be told, they look set to outlive us all. The same goes for the ‘Golden Records’: phonograph music and images enshrined in the forlorn, aptly-named Voyager probes. Let us hope any audience they might conceivably reach bears no resemblance to the Independence Day variety. “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” - US President Jimmy Carter, of the Golden Records
Allow us the honour, then, of introducing a handful of new pieces that contribute (however subtly, and in whichever way their authors
intended) to that aforementioned human heritage. The smallest collection of prose and poetry can speak volumes and go places. We are fortunate to be able to share one with you.
Justin Tan Executive Editor 24th December, 2012
In the dim of the morning, my roommate stands in front of the full-length mirror.
I wish I could draw my eyes the way she can,
But I am always late for class the back of my hair flattened from my bed.
- Lee Zhi Xin
Artistic Expression It is like a dotted line, I tell my hand, which wields an eyeliner. But it is an artist, it tells me,
who must break out of boundaries.
Lee Zhi Xin
Laurel and Front
A woman stands on the corner of Laurel and Front,
Her ear bobbing as she examines the inside of her takeout box,
Gives the flap a last lick before dropping it in the bin.
- Lee Zhi Xin
The carpet has been stealing
How many hairpins have dropped on the grey carpet?
Today I picked up yet another, gleaming too much to camouflage.
Lee Zhi Xin
Lee Zhi Xin loves the plush dripdrop of words, and the flicker of scenes in the resulting puddle. An alumni of the Creative Arts Programme, she has been published in its annual anthology, Eye on the World, in 2009 and 2011. She was the winner of the Singapore Lit Up! Poetry Writing Competition (Category D) in 2009 and sampad's international writing competition, Journeys, in 2010. She also received a commendation in Foyle Young Poets of the Year 2009 and Poems on the Underground 2010. She sometimes blogs in http://melodily.wordpress.com and would not bite if you said hi.
The Woman from Jepara
From the same soil that nourished
the hardiest, most beautiful teak in all the land grew the woman from Jepara. Destined to cook and
clean, a rich lineage and a loving
father educated her for twelve years. Then she brought herself up like no cash crop could, letters
flying back and forth across seas;
her alphabet diaspora tended by pen-friend gardeners burst into full flower. "From darkness into
light", she uncurled like a fern and
dreamt of building schools. But teak does not unfurlâ€”grafted as one of several wives to fulfill the
last wishes of a loving father she
passed away one year later at twenty-five. A glass house was built to honour her possessions
and highlight important people in
her life. Oils of various local men sit next to illegible letters from Dutch pen-friends. I guess there's
little sense in making paper out of
teak when it is almost always used in furnitureâ€”chairs, a matrimonial bed, a sewing-machine stand.
- Tse Hao Guang
Litany There are many mantras in the blade of a kris. A kris might move about, might stand on its tip if possessed by a strong spirit. A strong spirit is trapped through the deployment of many mantras. There are many mantras in the blade of a kris
- Tse Hao Guang
Hao Guang is interested in form and formation, creativity and quotation, lyrics and line breaks. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ceriph, Coast, QLRS, OF ZOOS, The Ayam Curtain, This City is a Strange Song, Microcosmos, After | Thought and LONTAR. He is involved in the Mentor Access Project under the guidance of Alvin Pang. A chapbook, hyperlinkage, is forthcoming from Math Paper Press. He can be found online at www.vituperation.wordpress.com
~ Mindtune ~
It was her third time visiting this corridor. She knew it because everything was in the right place. The wall was lined with oil paintings of herself, and right behind her was her bed, taking up the whole width of the corridor, illuminated in a faint glow that allowed visibility in such dark surroundings. She turned around and crawled up on the bed, feeling its sinking softness beneath her hands and knees. It was with some difficulty that she scrabbled to her pillow – for her bed was simply so soft she couldn’t quite reach the other end – but the moment she rested her head the bed began moving. Her body jerked suddenly; the bed was falling forward. Goodness, and she had been looking forward to a good rest too. But of course, why was she sleeping? It was time for school. She could not be late. Maybe she ought to climb out of the bed and get to school quickly. It would be terrible to be late. She had never been late for school before, except for perhaps one or two occasions which she could not remember at the present moment. But the bed was falling and showed no sign of stopping. Surely it was dangerous to try to get out of a freefalling bed? She started to feel very anxious. Her heart raced. Could she phone the school to inform them she would be late? But where was her phone? It wasn’t under her pillow. She didn’t need to feel for it to know it wasn’t under her pillow.
“Mum! Mum!” Calling out for Mum always worked. Except for some reason she couldn’t hear her own voice, but it did not matter as long as Mum could hear. “Mum, toss my phone down here please! I must call the school to tell them I’ll be late!” She could have sworn the prison wardress had turned her head. Shouting was not allowed in jail, for obvious reasons. She couldn’t remember why she had shouted, but she was very relieved the wardress did not seem to have heard, or else she would be caught and flung into the pool, where she had nearly drowned back when she was six years old. She sat on the dusty cement floor, as still as she could, trying not to breathe. If she was inconspicuous, they wouldn’t pick on her. She had succeeded so far, for the past few days. She had hardly breathed a word even though her black-and-white stripy pyjamas were stinking. Houseflies were buzzing around her long black hair, which was so long and untended it reached down below her shoulders. Once in a while she could hear the irritating buzzing noise. “Eeeeeee,” the houseflies said. People began trooping into her prison cell, books in hand. She was starting to worry that she had lost her books, but when she looked down she was relieved to find they had been in her hands all along. The books were thin, mouldy and red, and had the picture of a girl and an old woman doing something she couldn’t discern. The title of the books read “Civics and Moral Education” or something like that. The letters were mysteriously blurry. “Today, we want to learn about repentance,” said the deep
booming voice in her head. It was a man’s voice, but the kind that must have been amplified by some sort of audio system because people didn’t naturally have such deep booming voices. She had always found the voice odd, the way he spoke. “Today we want to learn about” sounded like a pretty awkward topic opener to her. She certainly didn’t want to learn about any of these, but school was school. People always learnt useless things in school. “Today we want to learn about regret and apology, and other emotions that you are supposed to feel after you have done wrong,” added the voice. “As good citizens of the country, who will serve society and contribute to the benefit of the nation, mistakes are inevitable but we have to learn from them and know that we have done wrong. We have to feel shame and want to atone for our mistakes. This is the good response to have after we have done wrong.” The voice was switching from second-person to first-person narrative. She wondered vaguely what it signified, but dismissed it as unimportant to the message. “Atoning for our mistakes will purge us of the feeling of guilt that we should have, and will also be fruitful to the country. We can start by working at the shops that we stole from, receiving no pay. We can run errands for the people whose pockets we picked. This will reduce the sense of shame that we have.” Those sounded like good ideas. Yes, she would get to doing that after school. It would reduce her sense of shame, which she hadn’t been aware of before the lesson began, but was now burning in her chest like acid backflow. She needed to purge it to get better.
“We did wrong, and made people sad. This is bad for our family, bad for society, bad for the government which has pinned great hopes on us. Think of the people we are affecting with our thoughtless acts.” She had never thought of it this way before. “We can stop ourselves. We can atone for our past actions. We can do even better things to prove that we are not beyond hope. We should-” She couldn’t listen anymore. Her vision was black and the voice was getting increasingly softer. She clutched her chest, trying in vain to squeeze out the burning sensation. Her guilt was simply too strong! She couldn’t steal anymore. She couldn’t do all those stuff she did, or else the guilt might just swallow her alive. And she couldn’t die, because she needed to prove herself to the country. In fact, why didn’t she get to that right now? The shop was empty, save for the shelves of CD-ROMs and game cartridges. The shopkeeper was a woman with the word SHOPKEEPER written on her forehead. “I’m Tammara Howe,” she told the shopkeeper, feeling embarrassed that she was still in her smelly prison uniform, but at least the houseflies had left her hair. “I’m here to work.”
- Mabel Chan
Mabel is 1 of the 2 vice-presidents of the Literary Society, though most likely not chosen for her writing ability. She has mainly roleplaying experience on forums, and thus enjoys writing short pieces. She has only contributed once to Symbal and is deeply ashamed, and will try to write some more if the faceless editors do not mind. She can write in any genre and is keen to experiment, and would greatly appreciate feedback and criticism, even though they tend to make her feel forlorn for a few days. She suggests that everyone in the world should read Anne Tyler.
~ Mindtune: Reality Version ~
So much paperwork to get through. Gideon typed at his keyboard blearily, pausing occasionally to rub at his eyes or to sip from the mug of coffee that has long gone cold. He shivered and grabbed one of the wads of spent tissue littering the desk to blow his nose with. The room was freezing and smelled faintly of socks and mildew. It was also dark; the lights were necessarily switched off, as his colleague was fast asleep in the adjoining room. The only sources of luminance in this dark little space were the twelve flat screens arranged in a neat array on the wall before him, and it was these forty-inch screens that he now regarded. Each display was a window into a different space, each of which housed a solitary subject. Roughly between 12-20 years of age, each of them was undergoing a process of rehabilitation. The process varied for each of them, of course. After all, every one of them was there for a different reason. Just as different diseases required different treatments, and different crimes necessitated different punishments. Right in the centre of the array, 19-year-old Tammara Howe was dutifully rearranging the shelves and sorting through the merchandise of the very shop where she had attempted to steal from. A quick scan of her profile informed him that it had been her first offence, so he did not imagine that she would be here for too long, only long enough to create a lasting impression in her mind. Likely only a week more, although it will seem like months to her.
To the left of Tammara’s display was 13-year-old Richard Newtown. His crime: bullying. His penance: to perform acts of kindness in one classroom setting after another for his fellow students. Currently, young Richard was being thanked by one of his faceless classmates after helping said classmate with a math question. As Gideon watched, the perspective zoomed in on the ex-bully’s plump face. He seemed dazed, as though in a trance, but then so did the others. Then there was Mill Beleren, tucked away at the leftmost edge. According to the report, the 16-year-old teenager suffered from acute depression and had attempted suicide more than once. Gideon wasn’t privy to the full report, so he wasn’t certain how or why. However, The Powers That Be had apparently decided that poor Mill’s interests would be better served if only he had a robust, spiritual belief to guide him and so they had designed a religious form of therapy instead. Christianity, with its strong views on the sanctity of life and its purposeful doctrine, was selected after due consideration. The audio feeds from the recordings were turned off, but from what Gideon could see, Mill was in the middle of a confessional with the Reverend program. Gideon wondered if Mill’s parents would be surprised when their son returned to them a staunch Christian, but what did he know? He was just an assistant here after all. Maybe they’ll be happy simply to be able to get their son back safe and sound and normalized. Yawning suddenly, he turned his attention back to his duty report. Since nothing had changed since the past 24 hours, he would just copy the relevant passages from the previous report and be done with it.
The subject, Mill Beleren, exhibited minimal deviance from the projected behavior as hypothesized in the TURNING model. The subject is compliant. The learning schedule is valid for at least another 48 hours. Further review recommended at 20/12/2018, 0300 hrs (UTC -08:00). With that and a couple of edits, he was done. All that was left was to upload the file into the patient registry and to print a hard copy, sign on it and put it away for filing. Slightly more energized now that his work was finished, Gideon checked the digital clock on his desktop. Fifteen minutes before his partnerâ€™s turn to take over the shift. Enough time to grab a quick bite from the sandwich machine. While his sandwich was being heated up, he distracted himself by staring at the noticeboard next to the vending machines. There were information brochures, excerpts from journals and newspaper clippings. Headlines and headings jumped out at him. Virtual Reality Breaks Into Gaming Market. VR Gaming Equipment may have therapeutic possibilities, psychologists claim. Shooting in School kills 28. Mental Illness and Violence. Youth Violence: A Malaise of Our Times. A New Form of Psychological Therapy? Violence as a Public Health Problem. He shivered and rubbed his hands together. The airconditioning in the corridor was very strong, much more so than the room had been. He could hear the humming of the system working to circulate the air throughout the building. The logic of dreams, if logic is the right word, is vastly different from the logic of reasoning and of reality. Highly particular to the individual, understanding oneâ€™s dreams could provide a means of understanding the workings of the mind. What makes it tick? What makes it sick? There are-
Twenty seconds more. A transcript from an interview with a Ryodai Kurisu. The issue that psychologists face is that we are twice removed from the core of the being. We are separated from the sub-consciousness by the layer that is the conscious mind. And then there’s the whole difficulty in that we can’t access the mind directly, the brain, yes, but not the mind, so we have to resort to external cues like body language, interviews, behavior and so on. Which are all roundabout ways of getting at the psyche. But dreamsWith a small shudder, the sandwich was finally deposited into the chute. As Gideon gingerly juggled it between his fingers and teased open the paper packaging, his focus was snagged on the title of another paper. René Descartes and Mind-Body Dualism. He stopped reading there. Making his way back into Dendrite, he bit into the sandwich without thinking, and spat it back out promptly when it scalded his tongue and cursed. We must not swear nor use profanities. It is offensive to others and degrades he who utters them. Civility is the bedrock of society… Gideon shook his head unsteadily. It was really late and he was fatigued. It was time to sleep. He wondered what would he dream about tonight. ***
He had been successfully rehabilitated. That was what the counselors had told him before they let him leave the centre. “But for what?” he had asked, but they merely smiled and told him not to concern himself about the matter anymore.
- Loh Soon Hui
Soon Hui is the current president of the Literary Society. He loves cats, running and asking people to write his bios for him. He can take hours or even days to write a sizeable passage, but once he gets started words flow from him like water from a tap badly in need of plumbing. His greatest dream in life is to be able to watch every film in history. He likes to sound posh, so he calls himself a film “consumer” and uses words like “perfunctory” on a regular basis.
~ Little Shu and Old Ma ~
My name is Little Shu and I kill crocodiles for a living. They hide in our rain canals, hissing and snapping their snouts, waiting for the next person to throw himself in. You see, there’s been a new fad, a game really, where youngsters place bets to see who can prove the existence of Old Ma, the grandmother lizard who’s said to have been haunting our watery catacombs for centuries; impossible, since the city is built on reclaimed land. But I digress. In this game, the kid who gets the short end of the stick has to venture down into the heart of the city’s underground drain network. They are forbidden to return until they’ve retrieved a scale from Old Ma’s flaking skin. Needless to say, if you have any brains you could probably sniff out why this game’s so damned stupid: there is no Old Ma. But young people don’t have brains, see. That’s why I’ve got my job: I keep crocodiles from eating those screaming nitwits by keeping them well out of the way of each other. I reside in a hammock, tied precariously between a pair of parallel ladders that lead to dead ends; expired manholes long patched over with bitumen up-top. Faint electric lamps illuminate the tunnels, their tiny wires webbing the concrete walls like ivy. My uniform is a loose grey leather shift that dries easily when hung. Slipping it on, I fire up my modified Swiss knife, and, after clipping it to my waist, slide quietly into the dark fetid shallows. My fingernails are thick and sharp, and I use them to gain purchase on the slippery tunnel interiors that have grown soft and crumbly with brown moss.
There had been no major incidents in years, ‘til that one time. I’d just finished chasing away a young croc when I heard someone shout. It was a boy. His screams reverberated like the screeches of a million hell-spirits storming downstream. In response, three large crocodiles came a-crashing, gnashing their yellow teeth. (They’re curious creatures, you see.) I looked about wildly for the source, and found him standing just metres away. His eyes were wide, slack jaws trembling as he pointed shakily behind me. I turned, knife brandished, but found only my shadow. In the hazy light, my diminutive frame had been amplified. Plastered to the wall, an enormous grey hag bared its fangs, its pelvis fusing with the thrashing limbs of the nearest reptilian monster. “Old Ma,” stammered the youth. Before I could reply, the nearest misbehaving animal snapped at my shoulder, and I turned and smacked it across its tiny eyes. By the time I was done taming the beasts, the boy was gone, and so was a sizeable portion of my uniform. His feverish victory chants echoed quietly down the tunnels – I got it! I got it! – as his bare feet and hands slapped wetly up the nearest ladder, scrambled to the surface, and pushed the groaning lid back into place. - Michele Lim
Michele is in her third year as an English literature major at the National University of Singapore. Her favourite genre, by a wide margin, is fantasy/sf, and when she can she spends her free time reading, watching, and writing similarly themed fiction.
~ A Review of In My Mother’s House ~ By Isaac Tan, Editor-in-Chief
I find it difficult to review Joni Cham’s debut novel. The back cover of the book is filled with high praises by esteemed judges who awarded her book a special jury prize. What can I, a mere sophomore who is not even reading Literature, offer that would be of any value? On the other hand, when I flipped the cover and look at the title page, I am reminded by Joni, in a little note that accompanies her autograph, to “be nice.” So what am I to do? Thankfully, I just needed to be sincere in my responses. This novel is a treat. To be honest, the first chapter appears as a standard exploration of strained mother-daughter relationship as well as a search for identity. Coming from a country who is constantly in search of an identity, I thought it would be ‘one-ofthose-books’ and I just have to grin and bear it as I had to “be nice.” Thankfully, the chapters that ensue stand as a brilliant testament to Cham as a novelist. While the book is focused on Nina returning to care for her dying mother as she is constantly reminded of incidents in her childhood, the novel also deals with other characters well. From Yaya Pasing (the family’s nanny) to Ayi (Nina’s aunty), these characters were not merely there to uncover more of Nina’s character but they stand well as characters in their own right. As a reader unfamiliar to the Chinese community in the Philippines, the interactions between these characters proved to be valuable as they often serve as a social commentary and it gives us a little insight into the Philippines.
As for the treatment of Nina, the complexity of her character is not developed through the readers merely finding out more about her past as the story unfurls. Instead, one is given a kaleidoscopic view of Nina as she is reflected and refracted in all sorts of directions throughout the novel. This is done through the seamless meanderings between the past and present as the readers will be faced with two narratives running at the same time. This is certainly Cham’s crowning achievement in writing this novel as it was easy to follow the two narratives and the transitions between the two were often done creatively – not always depending on Nina seeing something or an incident being casually mentioned for the flashback to happen. This multifaceted portrayal of Nina also means that the various sides of the character may not necessarily form a coherent whole. I saw this when I found myself being unconvinced by Nina’s reasons for her actions at the end of the novel. As such, the choice to develop Nina in such a way is not only an avenue to display Cham’s skill in handling the narratives of the past and present but it makes the novel even more intriguing. Cham also proves to be adept at the use of images and metaphors in which some are constantly developed throughout the novel. The most striking of them all would be the religious images. These were used to emphasis Nina’s sense of guilt as a child for unfortunate occurrences as well as to highlight the inherent tension between mother and daughter since her mother is a Buddhist while Nina identifies with Christian images as a child due to the influence of her nanny. This became a tool not only to emphasis on the obvious themes but one that also explores the psychology of Nina.
On the whole, the novel is truthful in its portrayal as readers
cannot help themselves but to be drawn into Nina as a person. Sympathies for Nina would be easily offered as we learn of her troubled childhood, her sense of self-blame and the struggle to break away from the grips of her domineering mother. Yet, some of it may be withheld towards the end of the novel thus leaving us in a very ambiguous relationship with Nina. This certainly makes for a good read and Cham’s current position is certainly not an enviable one as anyone who has read In My Mother’s House will carry rather high hopes for the next novel that she writes. The only regretful thing about it is that it is not easily available in Singapore because anyone who is interested in Asian literature should pick up a copy.
To find more about Joni Cham, visit https://www.facebook.com/jonilimcham?fref=ts If you would like to order a copy of the book, feel free to contact the author through her Facebook page via the link above.
Intrigued by the premise of her book, I interviewed Joni when she visited us in August to promote her book. How did you start to write the novel? JC: My pre-writing stage consists of producing an outline for the novel which served as a proposal for my thesis. (Editor’s note: In My Mother’s House is Joni’s thesis for her Masters in Fine Art). Once the pre-writing stage is done, I started by writing scenes I wanted in the book. After which, I’ll make revisions, rearrange them and rewrite the portions in between. In my first draft, chapter 2 was the first chapter. However, as I was writing the next few drafts, I felt that something was missing and decided to add the first chapter you now see in the book.
In the midst of writing, I realised that the novel I wanted to write was very different from the outline and decided to deviate from it. However, the outline was still important as it served to clarify my thoughts when writing.
Where do you draw your inspirations from in creating the characters as well as writing about tensions between mother and daughter? JC: Inspiration comes from a variety of places. The strong female characters were created out of combining various aspects of myself and people that I know but none of the characters are exact copies of anyone in real life. It is important to fictionalise these things because one can only write clearly after internalising any raw emotions one is tapping into as a distance is created yet authenticity is preserved. This is an important lesson that I learnt from my thesis advisor at the time. As for portraying a tensed mother-daughter relationship, it is similar process that I just described. As children, we may occasionally come into conflict with our parents and we know how that feels. So this portrayal comes from experience and the stories of others. All I had to do was to extrapolate from there and create this intense relationship that you see in the novel.
Is writing a cathartic experience for you? JC: In a way, yes. When I was writing certain scenes, I had to stop after the scene was done and cry my heart out. While the scenes may not have happened to me in real life, I know how it feels. I felt that I could continue writing once the crying has stopped. As such, the writing process has allowed me to purge any raw emotions that I bring into the novel.
What are some of the difficulties of being Chinese in the Philippines? JC: As children, we werenâ€™t Chinese children and were not the time. So I grew up with others. I was not aware of it at out as I matured.
allowed to socialise with nonallowed out of the house most of very different experiences from the time but was shocked to find
Aside from family dynamics, the main difficulty is that people always perceive the Chinese in Philippines to be rich. And people will treat you differently for that. But it gets better after a while. As with other places, cultural misunderstandings are common.
Which writer influenced your style the most? JC: I would say Charlson Ong. He writes a great deal about the Chinese-Filipino experience. Reading him not only informed me how to write but it told me that it is possible to write a story based on a Chinese-Filipino theme; something that I am familiar with and from which I can produce a work that is credible. Unfortunately, his readership is rather a niche one and I wished he could gain more recognition that he is currently getting. Some people often jokingly say that I could be the next Amy Tan of the Philippines. While I admire her work, I would prefer to be myself.
Is the mother-daughter theme an important one in Filipino literature? JC: Not really. Politics would be a more popular theme. I tried adding some political elements to the novel but it wasnâ€™t very successful. So I decided to stick to what I know best.
What are the difficulties of being a Chinese-Filipino writer whose works are written in English? JC: The main thing is that there aren’t many Chinese-Filipino writers around. There are so many languages and vernaculars being spoken in the Philippines which result in us only having a niche readership. However, I’m glad that there now seems to be resurgence in the promotion of regional writing. More often than not, we have to make a name for ourselves overseas before being recognised here. Aside from these factors, the biggest difficulty lies in the fact that literature is seen as a luxury since 30% of the population is stricken with poverty. Did your experience as a China analyst influence the way you view yourself as a Chinese. If so, is this change in your concept of being Chinese reflected in the novel? JC: That’s a tough question. In the Philippines, I feel more Chinese but I can still blend in as I have a dark complexion. In China, I feel more Filipino as I realised that the Chinese practice at home is very different from China. It’s hard to say how my concept of Chinese-ness changed has but I am aware of the differences in terms of cultural practice. But my stint in China also made me realise that the problems Philippines face occurs there as well. As such, I became more attuned to human nature rather than cultural differences. Another interesting titbit from my time in China is that there seems to be a premium placed on knowing English; people who do are accorded some kind of prestige. This is somewhat similar to the Philippines and I wonder if China will start speaking English in the long run. As for how it’s reflected in my novel, I am not really sure. But my experiences in China would be an interesting resource for future novels.
Finally, what advice would you give for aspiring writers out there? JC: Three things: 1. Read a lot – read what you enjoy; books, magazines, websites, newspapers. But it is important not to stick to the simple stuff. Do not be afraid to read stuff that seems to be too difficult for you. It’s also important to read for pleasure and technique. 2. Go out and live life – Be adventurous and experience as much as you can. This will be an important resource for your writing. Having said that, please exercise some discretion; do not be overly adventurous at the expense of your own safety. 3. Just write – It’s not enough to talk about how much you want to write. You need to sit down, face the blank screen (easier said than done... but trust me on this) and just write. Don’t be intimidated by the blank screen or the quality of your first draft. The work needs to come out before revisions can be made.
Announcements Regular Writing Competitions Calling all NUS students! â€“ ever thought you could use a couple shades more motivation to keep writing during your semesters? If so, do keep an eye out for our regular series of writing competitions! Stacks of Kinokuniya vouchers are for the taking, as well as the opportunity to recite (and plug!) your work in reading sessions towards the end of each semester. All winning submissions will also be guaranteed publication in future issues of Symbal. For updates on themes and details, simply follow us on Facebook : (https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/SymbalMagazine/149399518533621) Or Twitter: https://twitter.com/symbalmagazine
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Alasâ€Ś that is all we have for this Special. Stay tuned, though, for our February issue is in the offing! It will feature winning pieces from the Creative Writing Competition (CWC) 2012. In the meantime we highly encourage all our readers to write on â€“ as always, it is our goal to provide a stable platform upon which you may feature your work. The NUS Literary Society wishes all an agreeable, rewarding year ahead!