Redolent of the ubiquitous Indonesian kreteks, Cigarette Girl follows three generations of two Javanese families from the time of the Dutch surrender to the Japanese in 1942, via the crackdown on the communists and the massacres of 1965, to the present.
Marlene Dietrich famously sang of still having a suitcase in Berlin, a wistful testament to the evocative power of memory and the hold that people and places can have on us. In many ways the unnamed Korean female narrator in Bae Suah’s novella A Greater Music has left her own suitcase in the German capital, one packed with scraps of memories from a broken intimate relationship with an older German woman and the morning-after emotions that surface when reflecting on a life lived elsewhere.
If Mannequin is any evidence, Ch’oe Yun is a writer’s writer. This 2003 novel, only now released in English translation, is a dreamlike reflection on beauty and human existence.
Both challenging and subtle in construction, the novel deals in impressions rather than plot. The story, to which atmosphere clings like mist on a hillside, centers around Jini, a young (teenage) advertising model and the mannequin of the title. A commercial success, she has been been used to promote products since she was a baby, lifting her family out of poverty in the process. Cherished yet controlled, she finally throws it all over and runs away.
Outsider views of Singapore suffer from numerous preconceptions and generalizations, many the result of sometimes humorous foreign venting in online forums about the city-state’s overweening legal apparatus and legal codes. Yet Singapore is affluent and materially developed by any measure.
Nor is Singapore is widely known as a place of literature, but that is at least in part because much of the city’s life lies behind language barriers. This perception is exacerbated by a national campaign, promoted by the city to advertise its strength as a destination for foreign investment rather than a cultural hub.
After the 2011 tsunami, TV commercials were, out of respect, replaced with public service messages. One was the following poem:
If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”
If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”
If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
And then, after a while,
I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”
Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.
The times are a-changing for superheroes. Weary, doubtful and even hated for their supernatural aptitude of putting the world’s needs before theirs, our 21st-century champions are in the middle of a mid-life crisis that is spurning countless books and Hollywood box-office hits. Now the rave is all about bringing them back into the Xanax realm of anguished souls they were supposed to look after.
And that is why Captain Corcoran and his 19th-century confidence in his ability to wow the crowds —especially the ladies—is exactly the kind of hero we want to read about.
Unlike his Malaysian-Chinese compatriots, Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng who have become well-known for novels which fit pretty squarely into the English-language, Ng Kim Chew writes in Chinese from a base in Taiwan. Slow Boat to China is a collection of his short stories, the first book of his—as far as I can tell—to appear in English.