In a welcome development for new voices and regional literature, Penguin Southeast Asia began publishing in Singapore in May. Among its first titles are two collections of short stories, The Heartsick Diaspora by Elaine Chiew, and Cursed and Other Stories by Noelle Q De Jesus.
Chiew is ethnically Chinese, but she grew up in Malaysia, speaking Malay, and she has lived and worked in the USA, the UK and Singapore. De Jesus is Filipina, but she was born in America. She grew up in Manila, and she has lived in Singapore since 2000. Both authors explore the lives of people living in a diaspora, and so, by implication if not directly, what it means to talk of home, in our globalized world where people are constantly on the move.
Chiew’s stories mostly concern a subset, or subsets, of the Chinese diaspora, the Singaporean-Malaysian, or Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese. They play with a range of forms and genres. Rap of the Tiger Mother concerns an “Asian mother” whose child is at a ghastly-sounding school in London, and who raps when stressed. A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin is a ghost story, more comedic than chilling. It is set in Singapore and concerns a young man haunted by a ghost that could either be a pontianak, or an èguǐ, or hungry ghost, but whatever its classification, it is certainly always hungry. Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer draws on mythology, giving a starring role to Garuda. The Chinese Nanny could almost be chick lit—except it’s truly horrific, and in one of the most powerful scenes in the collection, it sees a Chinese nanny kowtowing to the mother of the dead child who was once her charge.
Chiew’s willingness to engage with a range of different genres gestures, I think, to the fragmented nature of diasporic lives, and the difficulties faced by “ethnic writers” in finding an authentic authorial voice, or in unraveling what it means to be an “ethnic writer”. These are themes addressed more directly in the title story, The Heartsick Diaspora, which explores the shifting relationships between the members of an “ethnic writers group” who meet in London, and who are all writing short stories. Chiew slips into her stories recurring characters, or motifs, or ideas, and she presses this device as far as she can in The Heartsick Diaspora, where the short stories the writers are writing all refer back to earlier short stories in Chiew’s collection—and glance forward, too, to the stories to come. This self-referential element could have been twee, but in Chiew’s hands it is sometimes funny, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes startling, never gimmicky.
Chiew is hyper-aware of the languages her characters use: Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay. In one story, The Chinese Almanac, a coming-out-or-not story, the dialogue often breaks into Mandarin. Meanwhile her use of English is inventive and vivid. Here, from Run of the Molars, is a daughter who has just heard her mother reveal an abortion in her youth, and who is about to be distracted by a traffic accident:
Lily bent her gaze, like bending a steel ruler, and it landed with stretched tension as far as it could, out the window.
Similarly arresting images and similes are found on every page.
Fiction from the Philippines, or exploring the experiences of Filipinas and Filipinos, is under represented in the English-speaking world, and it is encouraging to see Cursed and Other Stories begin to redress the balance. I think it’s fair to say that readers in Asia are likely to associate diasporic Filipinas with domestic helpers. De Jesus emphasizes that Filipinas have many other reasons for leaving home, while acknowledging that many of them are indeed domestic workers. She even has non-domestic workers and domestic workers come face-to-face.
Rosario is the American-born Filipina protagonist of the title story: she has an office job in New York City, where she lives with her American boyfriend, Jon. Here, she is sitting on a bench in Central Park with her Filipino ex, who has just turned up in New York. Rosario
watched a nanny playing with her two charges, twin girls of about five, blonde and blue-eyed. The little girls squealed as the woman pushed them in their swings. A hot gust picked up leaves on the pavement in a small, quick swirl. The woman was Filipino. She had seen them earlier. Their eyes had met, and they had exchanged the little nod, slight smile and the raising of the eyebrows, silent recognition that required nothing more. It was enough to share in that knowledge; we – you and I – we are both from home.
Like Chiew, De Jesus is hyper-aware of which language her characters are using—often, dialogue that the reader knows to be in Tagalog, is reported in English, and when characters do use English, De Jesus will often comment on their accent: “un-com-fort-able with the accent on the third syllable, instead of the second”. Many stories include footnotes to explain Tagalog terms.
Posing concerns another Filipina living in the States. Pilar is married to American Frank Stone, but he has betrayed her in a most horrible way, and the story concerns her groping attempts to assimilate what has happened, and to remake herself in ways which defy him, but which do not at the same time destroy her for good. Along the way, the English-speaking reader learns, from the footnotes, many Tagalog terms, including daw, that indicates something was said by someone else, and malandi, that means sexually aggressive.
Most of De Jesus’s stories focus on the humiliations, betrayals, confusions and losses of day-to-day lives, but she is also fiercely aware of the current political situation in the Philippines, and one story, Michael, about a blogger whose nightmares are populated by visions of the victims of political killings, is a sustained attack on the regime in Manila. There are two men named “Michael” in the story. One, Michael Siaron, was a real pedicab driver who was shot in the head. His common-law wife was photographed holding his body in a Pietà pose, and he thus became a symbol of resistance to Duterte’s deadly war on drugs.