Love, or Something Like Love


It’s thesis time, the final lap of my MA creative writing course. It’s a luxury yet also a necessity to read as part of my research for my creative portion, which I’m doing a collection of short stories.

O Thiam Chin has won numerous awards for his writing and his stories in this collection are diverse from modern to historical setting (Swordsman and The Last Voyage based on the enuch Zheng He), different genders for his protagonists, sexuality, and in three different points of view. Ann Patchett writes that short stories provide the revenue for risk experimenting and I agree.

The ten stories in this collection are very local (except for Zheng He). I had problem with one first person pov, when I mistakened the protagonist as a male (naturally equating with the writer’s gender) only to realize a few pages down in A Lost Boy that is a grandmother and not grandfather. Thus I understand now why my tutor insisted on a name for the protagonist even if written in first person pov.

When I met him a few days ago at a reading, he remembered me from years ago as the mother who had purchased two of his short stories books for her ten-year-old son, not exactly appropriate for a child. I asked about this book, as my son is now 18. He hesitated. I realised why when I read The Years on a married father’s homosexual tryst.

We are often told to not identify the protagonist with the writer. Still… I wonder…. 😃

Short stories are easy to digest in this age of short attention span in part, largely influenced by social media snap feeds. So I recommend this to those who want to read but have yet to start. And yes, please support Singlit, because I hope you’ll be reading my book soon.

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Thoughts…


It’s terrible to wake up before sunrise, when the roads outside are ghostly empty and an eerie silence cloaks my room but not my mind. My classmate Matt tells me he wakes up at 3am to do audio recording, the only quiet time he gets in Singapore. Even the birds are asleep then. I read once that Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4am to write, when his mind is the clearest. Hopefully I’m turning into Murakami because I woke up yesterday at 4am, decided to abandon any hope of going back to sleep and instead started to edit my Happiness essay for this Sunday deadline. I submitted the essay last night and had hoped I could sleep late this morning with the stress gone. Instead, I woke up at 5am despite a late night session of relaxing Yin Yoga past midnight. I know, welcome to being a senior citizen, you say. But then, although Grandma wakes up at 4.30am, I know of many seniors who are night owls and sleep until noon. So this early rising has nothing to do with age.

So this morning at 6am, a primary school classmate, another early bird, texted me that she found one of our long lost classmate in NZ and he’s now in our class chat group, catching up with us after 40 years. How did you find him? I asked. Through her elder sister who knew his elder brother’s common friend.

Way back in Nanyang (NY) Primary School during my time, most of us girls end up in NY high school and the boys in Hwa Chong(HC). This was a natural progression for the students there. With no cut off points, siblings end up in the same schools, either NY or HC, and generally know each other by name and sight. My sister knows many of my classmates and vice versa. Recently, at NY 100th anniversary, a classmate Sharon chanced upon the elder sister of our long lost classmate Jasmine, and reconnected us. Unfortunately, competition puts a stop to this and my three sons from NY ended up in three different secondary schools, and never knowing their siblings’ friends, except perhaps through social media. My late Uncle Eric was from HC, and his cousins from NY. I met them, both my seniors, recently at my cousin’s wedding and had a great time chatting, even though we did not know each other in school. Alumni connect so easily.

The ongoing debate on restricting alumni’s advantage for school registration misses this point. It’s not that we want to preserve this exclusiveness, but this was how old friendship was reestablished, when old schoolmates meet each other at their children’s school function, start connecting all the dots and suddenly, we found ourselves back together as a class after four decades. You might argue that with social media, this argument is obsolete. Perhaps. But I would still rather see familiar faces than not, wouldn’t you? It is just heartwarming to know our children shared a class, like how we once did. Right, Lilyanti? 😀

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Call Me By Your Name – Movie Review


There were so many good movies which I missed recently, as my husband has taken to watching movies alone on weekdays to make full use of his senior citizen ticket when I can’t spare the time, and thus, to suggest a movie date night on Friday nights seem extravagant if he needs to pay full price. But Friday is the only weeknight I let myself be free of all yoga classes and so I struggle with this and guess what, economy wins.

This movie was touted as the best movie in one of the Straits Times’ movie reviews and my MA classmates highly recommended it. Since it is showing at the Projector only on a very limited time slot, I decided to forego Sunday dinner with the family to catch it.

Filmed somewhere in Northern Italy, we get the full impact of a beautiful Italian summer with apricot trees and peaches (although I now can’t eat peaches without some grimaces), charming old house, Roman bath type swimming pool and scenic cycling routes.

This is a story about a romance between seventeen-year-old Elio, a highly intelligent music prodigy who seems to know everything, and Oliver, an American scholar visiting the family for the summer to help Elio’s father in his archeological research.  I wonder how an illicit romance would unfold, for example, who would confess, when the hints given are vague and ambiguous, more so if you are both of the same genders. How do you ensure your intention is not misconstrued, especially if you are the adult in the relationship, as Oliver is in this case. This was just glossed over with Oliver getting the message although Elio didn’t get the hint when Oliver first touched him.

It’s 1981 and the characters are all Jewish and homosexuality is not as open as we get nowadays. As a mother of three sons, I marvel at how liberal Elio’s parents are towards him with sex and smoking (but then the parents are both heavy smokers themselves). Elio tells the family at breakfast that he almost had sex with a girl the night before, and the father asks, why didn’t you? I can’t imagine this type of conversation at my breakfast table. (Yes, Elio goes on to have sex with the girl and then breaks her heart.)

As a screenwriting student, I note how the relationship between the parents and child are portrayed without the use of dialogues. Elio warmly kisses the mother in greeting as if they had been separated for some time instead. He lies on both parents’ knees while the mother reads. And while driving home after Oliver’s departure, Elio’s mother’s comforting silence to her son’s weeping was touching. The dialogue towards the end of the film between Elio’s father and him, while showing how liberal a father he is for accepting his son’s sexuality (‘What you do is your business’), it perhaps also reveals how Western society is different from Eastern one. Here, Asian parents would probably be worrying about what the relatives would say to their teenagers having a homosexual relationship with an adult? Elio’s family is the only Jews in this Italian village and this would not be so much of an issue with relatives, although I suspect the parents wouldn’t care less. Oliver, however, has no such option as he returns to the State and gets engaged to a woman.

This film is adapted from a book which my lecturer Dr Darryl Whetter did a glowing review on in case you’re interested to read it. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/love-speaks-out/article722617/

I can’t say I would recommend the movie. It is rather slow at times and I am a little uneasy watching two men having sex. Still, don’t let me stop you. The critics love it.

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Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen


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I signed up for a talk at my library on falling in love with classics and had to reacquaint myself with this book which I did for my O’levels literature when I was 16. I was curious too – how would reading this book as a middle-aged woman be like as compared to when I was a teenager? Would I identify more with Mrs Bennet than with Eliza? (Horrors!) I confess despite having this as an examination textbook, I didn’t read the original text but the abridged version which was used by my other classmates as non-examination text. (I was the privileged few in a Chinese school studying English as a second language to be given the opportunity to try taking English Literature in O levels. To Kill a Mocking Bird and Julius Caesar were the other two texts.)

As a 16-year-old fed on Mills and Boons romance, the English used by Jane Austen was indigestible. Writing in a detached manner in an omniscient POV also made me alienate to Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist. I can’t help but remember what I learned as a writer to always show not tell, and how much this book was telling instead of showing. I finally understood the frustration when Darcy professed his love to Eliza again near the end of the book, not knowing she has a change of heart, ‘My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.’ Here, I eagerly awaited her reply and his reactions, and wondered if they’d hug or kiss, but alas we were told, …that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. It’s no wonder when Dr Gwee Li Siu, the speaker who was giving the talk, asked the audience who preferred the movie (with Kiera Knightly), my hand went up.

But I did enjoy the book and thanks to Dr Gwee, had a better understanding of the context and historical background and the characters. One particular lesson is how a sensible man such as Mr Bennet ended up marrying a silly woman such as Mrs Bennet and we are told that he was captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in the marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever; and all his view of domestic happiness were overthrown. So if a man wants a happy marriage, don’t be fooled by youth and beauty. But I couldn’t fathom how the same set of parents could bring up five daughters which such different values – two who are sensible and smart, and two others who are vain and silly.

The most enjoyable part of the book is at the last chapter when Elizabeth wanted Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her and ‘interrogated’ him on why he hadn’t acted sooner. And here we find Darcy charmingly honest and unromantic in the exchange which I wished there were more of. Perhaps I would find it more to my liking reading Mr Darcy’s Dairy.

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At the end of this edition of the book, there is a postlude written by a J.B. Priestley which I felt was a tad defensive on a book which some might criticise when compared to Tolstoy or Dickens. Priestley clearly admires Jane Austen as a superb artist in fiction. I can’t say I agree but thanks to Dr Gwee, at least I finally get to enjoy reading one classic.

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Yoga Class


Namaste!

Inner-hale, exhale.

I close my eyes

to the instruction of the guru’s voice

and try to get in touch

with my breath.

 

The Caucasian man next to me

Sounds as if he’s

hyperventilating

as air wheezes nosily out of him.

I wish he’s not settled next to me –

far too close for comfort.

 

We move into cat-cow

as the nymph in sheer tights

thrusts her butt onto my face

tight and taut,

twin globes of muscles

gagging me with envy.

I clench my double sagging behind

without much success.

 

Downward dog provides a

new perspective:

Hey sexy lady behind me,

yes you with the skimpy bra

your breasts are protesting

to be let out of the constraint.

I see my neighbour notices it too.

 

Tree is my favourite pose

for I’m strong in balancing on one leg,

unless it’s the dreaded dancer pose

then I regress to a hippo

among the graceful flamingos,

which brings a grin from my neighbor

showing more sympathy than empathy.

 

The voice moves out of his Buddha seat

and swirls around brave warriors,

now frozen to the count of eight.

My eyes follow as the guru

mumbles encouragement into

sexy lady’s ear which earns him a smile.

He passes me with hardly a glance,

as I wobble and sway,

to straighten my neighbour’s arm.

 

I hate the nymph,

as she rises to an elegant bow,

her hands clasping her ankles

her chin high in proud glory,

while I deflate like a rubber dingy.

My neighbor grunts,

like he’s about to expel a baby,

the way I did while giving birth.

I return his empathetic grin.

Don’t think he appreciates it.

 

From a bridge to the wheel,

I pant and push

to get at least a pose

worthy of an Instagram post.

At last I get it,

as I collapse into Savasana.

I’ve known all along,

I am but a corpse living a lie.

Namaste!

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South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami


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Unbelievable, but I’m being influenced by my eldest son into reading Haruki Murakami. Unbelievable because when he was younger, I had the most problem getting him to read. His two younger brothers devoured books and scored in English, but he just had no interest. My uncle told me he could be a late bloomer. Indeed.

Now, being the kaypoh (busybody) aunt that I am, I felt my nine-year-old nephew, Seb,  is also not reading enough despite the library of books available to him at home,  and his parents are rather sanguine about it. Last week, I passed him a book by Murakami which I felt he would enjoy and whatapp-nagged him into reading it. His father told me he forced Seb to read it and Seb finished it in 20 minutes, crying in the process from the frightening story.  (https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2018/01/11/the-strange-library-by-haruki-murakami/) Although his father was skeptical if he really read it, I am happy that Seb did as we had a discussion about what was so frightening about the story.

Murakami like long long titles to his story and so do I. My MACW teacher feels I could better title my story, and I agree I could learn this from Murakami. This title is taken from two sources – South of the Order from the song by Nat King Cole, and West of the Sun, from an illness hysteria siberiana allegedly suffered by Siberian farmers who drop dead and dies from being literally sicked of the ritualistic boredom of their farming life. This is according to Shimamoto, the love interest of the protagonist Hajime, as she sprouted the title of the book during an illicit tryst in Hajime’s cottage in Hakone.

The story documents Hajime’s relationship with the opposite sex, starting when he is twelve, that’s when he meets Shimamoto and they develop a bond because both are single children, rare in those days. They separate when both go on to different high schools, where he loses his virginity to Izumi, yet breaks her heart when he starts having sex with her cousin because ‘he knew he had to sleep with her’. As a young adult working as a textbook editor, he meets his wife Yukiko, whom he has two daughters and runs two successful jazz bars financed by his father-in-law. Along the way, he has a few flings while his wife is pregnant because he just wants someone to sleep with. He is satisfied with his life, until he meets Shimamoto again and realises he can’t live without her. But she is an enigma who, irritatingly, drifts in and out of his life, making him and this reader frustrated. I wonder what is it about Shimamoto that can fill the void in Hajime’s life, which he is prepared to give his life up for her- his bars, wife, and children, just to be with her, without knowing anything about her.

Although I like the beautifully lyrical romantic prose, I am incredulous the way Murakami portrays love, and how Hajime treats women so frivolously, so much so that I pity his wife, Yukiko. Although he is remorseful about his treatment of his wife, he’s just a jerk with a warped idea of what love is.

Or perhaps men and women really view love differently. And also perhaps I am beginning to learn a thing or two about Japanese men’s notion of romance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro


Don’t you just love the title of this book? The title is taken from the last short story in this collection, where Munro writes a biography of Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician novelist from nineteen century. The story is limited to the days leading to her death, with flashbacks to her earlier life. Unfortunately, although it is fascinating to read about a talented mathematician and how she navigates her fame since getting an award from Stockholm (not Nobel Prize), I didn’t enjoy the story. Sophia is viewed by both genders as more of an outcast than admired, and so she learned, that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements. It could be brimful of occupations which did not weary you to the bone.

Thankfully I enjoyed some of the other stories, filled with honest observation of the human psyche and often ending with a twist that I need to re-read the final part to understand.

I really like how most of the stories are based on ordinary characters with certain flaws – like a facial birthmark on Face – that has inspired her. Child’s Play describes two girls who did something to a special need girl during a summer camp. The incident haunted one until her deathbed, but is forgotten by the other.

Reading Munro gives me many inspiring prompts to what I could write – an excellent mentor to a newbie short story writer like me.

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