“Letters to Singapore” by Kelly Kaur

Calgary (Wikimedia Commons) Calgary (Wikimedia Commons)

Epistolary novels can be hard to pull off: backstory and other details wouldn’t ordinarily be part of a letter. Kelly Kaur is aided in this in Letters to Singapore, her novel centered around a young university student who—paralleling the author’s own life—leaves home to study in Calgary, by setting the story in the mid-1980s, a pre-Internet, pre-mobile phone time when people actually still wrote letters. 

Simran departs Singapore shortly after nixing an arranged marriage. Her parents aren’t thrilled with her decision to study overseas, but figure it will just be three years until she returns to Singapore and marries a nice Indian man there. Simran’s mother left India at the age of sixteen for an arranged marriage to Simran’s father and a new life in Singapore when she was still just a teenager. Yet Simran’s mother never spoke much about this until she and her daughter, now apart, start writing letters.


I had no one. No family. No friends. I was a foreigner. I did my duty and followed your grandmother like a puppy. She was very strict but nice as well. As a young wife, I couldn’t talk or do anything without her permission or your father’s permission. It was double jail for me. Your father was worse. He had a hot temper and shouted if I did anything wrong. On the second day he screamed at me because the roti was cold. I knew I was in hell now.


These details are new to Simran and her mother’s letters make her feel less alone in a strange country without family or friends. And it is strange from the very beginning. Simran’s father accompanies her to Calgary and they immediately meet an Indian taxi driver who promises to drive Simran’s father back to the airport on the day of his return. He also promises to look after Simran in case she needs help. But the driver is a no-show for the airport and arrives later to make the moves on Simran. Her sojourn doesn’t get off to a good start.

Acclimating to the Canadian way of doing household chores like clothes washing comes with some hard lessons. One of Simran’s dormmates wonders why Simran keeps close tabs on her in the laundry room. It turns out Simran doesn’t know how to use the clothes dryer, something she had never encountered in Singapore where:


We washed our clothes by hand. Very few of us had washing machines. We hung our closes on 10-foot bamboo poles; then we leaned out the windows of our flats, and we put the poles into the round bamboo holders attached outside the windows way high up in the sky. The clothes dried naturally.


Letters to Singapore, Kelly Kaur (Stonehouse, May 2022)
Letters to Singapore, Kelly Kaur (Stonehouse, May 2022)

Simran has problematic experiences in Calgary with dating less-than-savory men and getting along with her Chinese Malaysian roommate, but her friends’ and family’s issues back home are what keep the narrative moving.

Simran’s sister, Amrit, is a young mother of two children, married to a man she chose to marry for love. But all is not well at home when her husband starts to stray. It’s suspected he’s back with his Chinese girlfriend from the past. Even though Simran escaped marriage on her own terms, their mother doesn’t think Amrit will fare well if she gets a divorce. Their mother writes to Simran:


I told Amrit to give her husband Manjit a chance. If she doesn’t go back, she won’t find any freedom in this house either. Worse in father’s house. Back to childhood prison. She has to go back to her husband and manage her house there. There she can be a memsahib. Learn to take charge. Manjit won’t marry that Chinese girl. She is only good for playing. Not marrying. He will change. Now he knows Amrit is strong and won’t take his bekuash anymore. Love, love. What is love? That disappears. Only in the movies. Now is time to raise the children.


Simran’s letters extend to friends in Singapore. Anita is a young mother of two married to a husband who turns out to have anger issues. Early on in the book, Anita, in a letter sprinkled with Malay, writes to Simran and asks if she misses Singapore.


Apa khabar? Semua bagus? How, lah? Are you missing our Singapore slang, already? For some reason, we called each other true pigs—babi betul. That makes me smile. How is Calgary, man? Can you believe I’ve heard about that place?


Simran finds that any choices are hers alone. She knew this when she left her fiancé just before their wedding, and through her experiences in Calgary feels reassured forging her own future. Texting might not have worked as well.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.