5 books about growing up in Singapore
Part of the Ethos Books National Day 2016 Spotlight (sale ends 21 Aug)
When it comes to memory, it's natural to recall the big milestones and indulge in nostalgia: childhood games; the terror of PSLE; the joy of the first job; holding your first newborn... the rest of the details are lost and scattered in the wind of memories blowing by. But look closely at the discreet details of our lived experiences; each one moulds us like the single, gentle stroke of the potter’s finger, turning clay into pottery—the particular neighbourhood you grew up in, your parents' beliefs, the band of friends you hanged out with when you were 17…
Here are 5 titles that tunes the mind to focus on the details of growing up in Singapore:
1. Pulse by Lydia Kwa
Tucked neatly along Joo Chiat Road is an old and boarded up Cosmic Pulse, the only outfit in the area that sold traditional Chinese medicine back in the day. Though it has faded with age, Natalie cannot forget the childhood she spent growing up there among the shelves of herbs, the chanting of her fortune-telling grandmother, and the asthmatic rasp of her Conrad-quoting grandfather. She mustn’t.
We find ourselves drawn into Natalie’s story as she retraces her life in the past in order to understand the death that has assaulted her in the present. Accompanying her, we revisit Singapore through the eyes of someone who has spent almost twenty years beyond its shores, practicing acupuncture far, far away in Canada. Natalie recounts her memories without waxing lyrical about ‘the old times’ in Singapore. Instead, we see how each precious detail of her past—from her habit of peeling the skin off her hands to her gawky but heartwarming crush on her classmate Faridah—holds a key to answering the mystery at the core of Pulse.
The dark truth that was bound up while she was growing up, must become unbound in order for her to set herself free.
2. Gone Case by Dave Chua
One phrase that often pops up about Dave Chua’s novella is “quietly disturbing”. What does that say about this story of a young boy, living in Singapore’s heartlands, and going to take his PSLE in a year’s time?
Yong is at the top of his class in Primary 5. His best friend compulsively steals stones out of their neighbour’s garden. His grandmother wears angel wings to sing in the choir at church. He wishes he knew why his father had to move out, and why a strange man from China has taken a room down the hall. He fights with his brother when he makes too much noise, and he can’t take his eyes off his best friend’s sister.
Yong is, by all accounts, an average Singaporean boy who is learning to grow up in the 80s, and Gone Case is his unsentimental and unromantic story.
3. No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry
If you cannot learn to love
(yes love) this city
you have no other.
—Simon Tay, "Singapore Night Song"
No Other City stands at the turn of the millennium, with one eye on Singapore's morphing landscape and another stealing glimpses into deeply personal vignettes—be they on the MRT or in the parents' bedroom. Works of established poets are placed in dialogue with those of students, creating a richness and discernible warmth. Re-reading this anthology 16 years after it has been published is a nostalgia trip, as acts of looking back are compounded, illuminating lost details of city life then—giant trees, IRC, walkmans, Marine Parade beach and playing police and thief. The grandeur and dazzle of urbanity is offset by tiny, intimately felt moments: time spent at a jazz bar, contemplating the skyline, or sitting in an empty cinema. Such poetry will delight in its simplicity, honesty and timelessness, now and always.
4. First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum
Does the ridiculous squeaking of slippers that toddlers prod around the playground in sound familiar to you? What about the cross-stitch puzzles your home economics teacher used to assign to the class? Such insignificant memories are littered throughout First Fires, allowing us to experience a very familiar Singaporean childhood through the characters’ eyes. It becomes hard not to grow with them as they move from fearing the longkang, to lighting cheap paper lanterns in the park, and to protecting each other from their mother’s bamboo cane. First Fires portrays a very real family, where the tiniest pieces of each characters’ story make up the most significant parts of their Singaporean childhood.
5. They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue by Theophilus Kwek
They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue follows Theophilus Kwek when he is transiting from the young innocence where the world blurs by to becoming keenly aware of the people and places he's surrounded by. Theophilus walks to observe the city but the poems suggest more than just a passing observer—something has clicked and changed within the poet with each scene that he chances upon: the quiet family dinner after the passing of a relative, hostility towards foreign workers on a train; the diverse paths of a tourist, a mother and a maid on leave at a Orchard Road crossing ... each poems ends like the quiet contemplation that descends a late-night conversation with a friend at a park bench.
Check out the full National Day 2016 Spotlight Collection here.