5 books about growing up in Singapore August 09, 2016 11:29
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.
What to read next if you liked ... August 01, 2016 18:36
Do you read lots, love reading, but don't know what to read next? Want to enjoy a story close to home but don't know where to start? As part of the National Reading Movement (but really for the love of books, yours and ours), the team at Ethos Books has chosen some great titles you may have read, and paired them with titles we think you will enjoy.
These deeply engaging books were chosen for their varying narrative styles and scopes, from the intimate portraits of Alfian Sa'at's Corridor to the sweeping epic myth of Krishna Udayasankar's 3. We believe in these stories and want to share their wonderful worlds with you, even as they bear uncanny, thought-provoking resemblances to ones you may already know.
Do leave any other recommendations or book pairings of your own in the comments! Happy reading!
If you liked Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, you might like…
First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum
From family tensions to jumbled flashbacks, Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You and Jinat Rehana Begum’s novel First Fires are similar in more ways than one would first imagine. These two emotionally complex and multigenerational novels tell different stories of silence, alienation, lies and disorientation—giving readers a peek into the life and expectations within a minority family. Shifting between character voices that speak from both past and present, these novels show how a family makes sense of their lives after one of their daughters disappears. Pick them up if you enjoy heartfelt stories about family and culture that grip the reader with its unfolding mystery.
If you liked Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, you might like…
Blood: Collected Stories by Noelle Q de Jesus
Thousands of people migrate across the world every year but how easy is it to assimilate into a foreign land which doesn't care for the cultures you've brought along with your suitcase? Jhumpa Lahiri and Noelle Q de Jesus delve deeply into the migratory experience and how the prospects of life in new lands is not always warm like the soft morning light on one's skin. The Interpreter of Maladies and Blood: Collected Stories are also anchored by each writer's realisations to the depths of the human soul—how does a card of kindness play out in a game where everyone plays to win? The careful dealing of characters in each writer's short story leaves you with a hand of mixed cards, enough to make you stop and contemplate this particular combination of life, before you make your next move.
If you liked Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman, you might like…
These Foolish Things & Other Stories by Yeo Wei Wei
Wei Wei's short stories, like Fragile Things, are thick with the clutter (or, if you like, thingliness) of everyday life—song lyrics, food, art, household items—yet charged with the mystery of the fantastic and folkloric. Gaiman's shamanic slipping between worlds is recalled in the imagination and whimsy of this collection, where a mynah sings a Beatles' song, a ghost hides in an umbrella, and a clock tower's watchman reappears at airports. Where Fragile Things parades pop cred, These Foolish Things portrays the messy, charming detail of Singaporean life in a way that will make you smile, not cringe. Delving deep into its characters' memories and private longings, these stories are exact, darkly humorous, and unexpectedly emotive without being over-sentimental.
If you liked Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other fantasy novels, you might like…
3 by Krishna Udayasankar
Don’t venture into 3 by Krishna Udayasankar looking for the same beats and characters. 3 puts a refreshing, mythohistoric spin on an important, but rarely retold story. Instead of focusing on demigods and magical beings, 3 is a gripping, coming-of-age tale about prince Sang Nila Utama. Set against the vivid, historical background of the Srivijaya empire in the 13th century, 3’s political intrigue and sea adventures sweep us into another world and time, where the people lived and dreamed differently. Its spirit of epic adventure breathes new life into the events that happened right in Singapore’s backyard, centuries ago.
If you liked Corridor by Alfian Sa’at, you might like…
Moth Stories by Leonora Liow
How much can we know about a person when we have a glimpse of them behind closed doors? Corridor by Alfian Sa’at has been a long-time local favourite for our readers as the author explores the interiority of multiple characters in an undeniably familiar Singaporean landscape. These short stories ask us to come closer and have a listen to the voices dwelling within our HDB corridors.
In a similar but separate strand, Moth Stories by Leonora Liow distinguishes itself with its haunting stories and how it makes us feel like intruders, crossing paths with characters who have so much to hide. An old man’s muted bitterness, a mother who is unwilling to let go of her son—we catch them in their most vulnerable states as we ghost through each narrative. Leonora guides us into the individual worlds of a varied cast, whose shocking decisions and fates make us squirm with discomfort, yet yearn for more.