Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Asian Lions in Wintry Climes


By Wena Poon
(MPH Group Publishing, 234pp)

SHARON BAKAR dives into Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter and is especially impressed by her themes

ALTHOUGH several of the stories in Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter have been published in different places and at different times, the collection as a whole is unified by the common thread of displacement. Like the Chinese lions amidst the snowy New York landscape in the title story, many of her characters are Asians transplanted to the west.

Sometimes they also make the journey back to Singapore, giving us the chance to see the country through their eyes. There is a very telling moment when Freddie, the protagonist of the same story, stops for a moment to sniff the air as he goes through immigration at Changi airport, knowing that within twenty minutes his nose would have got so used to the distinctive “warm, seeping, slightly musty smell of earth, tinged with the faintest hint of diesel ...” that he would fail to notice it: it is in those first moments of homecoming that we see everything with a sharp clarity that we quickly lose as we re-assimilate.

Poon’s great gift, though, is to keep that freshness of vision and to bring out the extraordinariness of the ordinary lives she describes, looking not only at immigration and the sometimes painful path to assimilation, but also questioning just what it means to be Singaporean. She writes beautifully in a style that is both informal and conversational, and there are clever little asides thrown into the narrative that really tickle the funny bone. This made me chuckle as I read “Those Who Serve, Those Who Do Not”: “National Service was the male equivalent of having one’s period—predestined to occur at a certain age, repeated throughout the most productive years of one’s life, and entirely and relentlessly gender specific. Like menstruation, it was an inscrutable rite of passage about which one gender hardly shared notes with the other.”

I’d had Poon down as a clever humorist after enjoying her two stories which appeared in the Silverfish collections. “Kenny’s Big Break,” in which a boy snaffles the ang pow money at his sister’s wedding to finance his education, made me laugh as much as ever (and how many times have I read it?). “Addiction,” the story of a Singaporean medical student in London who decides to defect to do a fashion design course while stringing his mother along on the end of the phone, was another complete delight.

But it is the poignancy of the other stories in the collection that hits home. In “The Man Who Was Afraid of ATMs,” an elderly Chinese teacher finds his confidence and, in fact, his whole identity, eroded after emigrating to Canada with his son and his family. He doesn’t fit with the crowd in Chinatown because he cannot speak the Cantonese dialect which is the lingua franca, and he finds he cannot cope with the Caucasians as well. A moment of crisis comes before an ATM machine as he struggles to make a withdrawal to pay for his daughter-in-law’s dress (a cheongsam, of course!). For me, the most moving part of the story is the description of this scholar’s old Chinese books which he almost had to leave behind, and which represent a heritage that not even his own family cares to share.

“Toys” is a particularly interesting story as the Asian character remains just outside the frame of the story throughout. The story is written from the point of view of a bed-ridden American woman recovering from a serious car accident. With little else to do but look out of the window, she becomes obsessed with the toys in the back of an Asian neighbour’s car, giving each one a name and becoming upset when the toys slowly start to disappear. The neighbour is never named, and lumped instead with all other Asians in an all-encompassing they. We do not even learn what race she belongs to. We can only wonder at how events might have turned out differently if that first impulse to invite her to Thanksgiving dinner had not been stifled.

My favourite story though is “The Shooting Ranch” in which a mother and daughter, Cynthia and Anouk, drive to Nevada to visit the daughter of an aunt who lives on a ranch. They imagine some pleasant getaway but instead they find themselves marooned in a situation of almost unbearable social awkwardness, and participating in one of the most uncomfortable meals I think I’ve ever read about in fiction. It turns out that this isn’t even a ranch in the true sense, but a place where tourists come to shoot pheasants and rabbits released into the woods for their sporting pleasure. The characterisation in this story is masterful, particularly in the contrast between sophisticated ‘screenager’ Anouk with her terminal fear of the uncool, and Nancy’s terrified and deprived twin daughters who undertake only the quietest form of rebellion, gathering the injured animals and nursing them back to health.

Poon doesn’t surrender to the kind of sentimentalised depictions of heart-wringing deprivation which are the hallmark of much Asian-American writing. In “The Shooting Ranch” she even takes time out to make fun of the stereotypes. As Cynthia tells Anouk: “In America, Asian means we’re the kind of people who live between the covers of books with geishas pictured on the front and titles written in brushstroke font. Usually a bird or flower forms part of the title. Memories of Lotus Leaves. Grandmother’s Peony Diaries. Palace of Dreams and Wild Cranes. My Hurting Achy Bound Feet. That kind of thing.” A case in point is “The Hair-Washing Girl,” a story which centres on a hair salon in New York’s Chinatown. Mina works long shifts in conditions too cramped to allow her space to rest for just $8 an hour and shares an apartment with six others. Abandoned (out of necessity) by her Indonesian mother and made to fend for herself after her adoptive mother turned her back on her at the age of 15, she goes to work in New York as an illegal immigrant after being made unemployed in Singapore. Her employer, Mrs Fong, has a life story even more heartbreaking, yet as we eavesdrop on their lives for a few hours we realise that neither of them cast themselves as victims.

I am so proud to have played a small part in this collection coming to print. I knew Poon deserved to be published, but this collection of short fiction is even stronger than I had expected, and I honestly feel that this is a book you could confidently put beside other collections by prominent Asian-American short-story writers. (Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing and—why not?—even Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers spring to mind.)

Book review courtesy of Sharon Bakar


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