Far Away Right Here

It is a very strange thing to be living more than 15,000 kilometres from Singapore during a global pandemic, and then to take up the task of reading just about every short story published by my fellow Singaporean writers in the last five to ten years, sometimes earlier, in order to create a selection that—taken together—says something interesting and perhaps surprising and insightful about our strange little city-island-nation-state. I’m not talking about feeling homesick or merely enjoying the rhythms of Singlish. I think I’m trying to describe what was an unanticipated imaginative immersion, a taking-over of my headspace by ideas and characters that were at once familiar and not, real and not—far away and also right here with me.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, millions of people were (and still are) dying from COVID-19, vaccines weren’t (and still aren’t) reaching the countries most vulnerable to the virus’s depredations, and the worsening climate crisis manifested itself (still does) in extreme heat waves, storms, flooding and fires that exacerbate human-made conflicts and inequalities. It has become painfully clear, if it wasn’t already, that individual societies respond to these same epic challenges in vastly different ways, which begs the question: why do we, in Singapore, live like this?

I think the question matters. When an action or behaviour becomes a convention, habit, social expectation or common sense, it runs the risk of becoming invisible, overlooked, unquestioned. We may not even realise it’s there, yet it makes our world smaller by closing off possibilities for other ways to live and thrive. I recently read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), a dynamo of a novel about a thirtysomething-year-old woman who has spent her entire adult life working at a convenience store. The book is also about the many unspoken social norms in modern Japan, sharply revealing that some, at least, are oppressive, unfair or just plain silly. The main character is endlessly puzzled why her colleagues, friends and family live the way they do. Through her, we might ask that question too—and turn it upon ourselves and our social worlds.

I have no easy answers. I think the asking is the key, which is why I write fiction and why I enjoy reading it. Even more thrilling when I’m moved by it the first time, and then discover new insights—and more questions!—upon rereading. I’ve read the ten stories in How We Live Now a number of times over the last twelve months, and still they prompt me to see Singapore afresh. They leave me thinking about what else Singapore could be—more compassionate and less suspicious, less impatient, perhaps? I don’t know, but I dream.


Editor of How We Live Now: stories of daily living

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