Monday, April 21, 2008

Wena Poon's Lions In Winter reviewed in Time Magazine!

Migratory Patterns
Émigré tales of cultural collision are beginning to sound formulaic in a globalized world

THE STORIES OF ASIAN IMMIGRATION to America have formed a genre of their own. In the novels of Bharati Mukherjee or Amy Tan (to take two of its superstar practitioners), or in the works of lesser writers, the narrative often goes something like this: an immigrant family lands in America, pursuing economic or political freedom. Its members are dogged by battles to secure permanent residency and jobs commensurate with their sense of self-worth. As these take place, nostalgia builds for Asian traditions, from which the family’s younger generations have begun to drift. Cross-cultural and cross-generational misunderstandings multiply, but at the novel’s denouement the family learns to ambivalently accept their new country.

It’s neither an unsatisfying nor inaccurate story, but these days it sounds old-fashioned because globalization is rewriting the tale. Asians are still emigrating to America, but many are returning to Asia, pursuing the same wealth and advancement that America once exclusively offered. In fact, it’s increasingly difficult to tell Old and New Worlds apart. With their coffee chains and street-fashion boutiques, malls in Mumbai and Beijing are polished facsimiles of those in the U.S., and when half the world is tuned into reruns of Friends, or The Simpsons, who actually suffers from culture shock anymore?

Singapore-born and San Francisco-based writer Wena Poon is nevertheless banking on the continuing appeal of émigré literature with a début collection of short stories that takes as its theme the Singaporean diaspora. Given that the latter has been so infrequently explored, Lions In Winter [MPH Group Publishing, 2008] has a greater chance of being fresh than a comparable Chinese or Indian work—but instead, it lapses, at least in part, into the clichés that bedevil stories of Asian deracination.

Consider the story “Addiction,” about a gay Singaporean student in London named Alistair. Parts of it are smartly observed, but structurally Poon draws too crude a contrast between London and Singapore to power her plot of a young man’s journey of self-discovery. Alistair’s parents are caricatured embodiments of lowbrow, materialist Asia. Because she uses the abbreviation k to denote a thousand, we are asked to believe that Alistair’s mother has “a barbaric attitude towards money—reducing something vast to a small, inconsequential syllable.” His father makes bawdy comments about the breasts of “these Western women” while Alistair, rather prissily, feels his ears burn. London, on the other hand, is portrayed as a liberal haven, where artists are allowed to pursue their dreams with few worries of generating an income or conforming to social norms. If only that were the case.

Then there’s Canada. Sylvie, the Singaporean daughter of an immigrant family, adores her new Canadian school uniform because it is “of higher quality ... nothing like the scratchy, polyester-mix affairs” of Singapore, which “dumb you down.” Meanwhile her grandfather, a literary man, apparently thinks of Sylvie’s Caucasian classmates as “big, strong, beefy … like female Goliaths.” In a crowd of them, we are told, an Asian student stands out like a “gazelle among elephants.” But do Asian intellectuals really see Caucasian children this way? Such stereotyping may have occurred decades ago (although there is plenty of evidence to show that Western children were thought of as pretty), but these days, pretending that white schoolgirls are “female Goliaths” in the eyes of educated Asians is like claiming that well-read white people think of Asian schoolgirls as dainty-footed China dolls—a naive and anachronistic image.

Instead, Poon’s stories succeed when she examines Singapore on its own terms. Take the love with which she describes a Singaporean-Chinese cook in Queens: “In Singapore, there were men like him who sat around hawker centers at night over a Guinness Stout and a cigarette—men who wore open-necked shirts and small gold chains around their neck. They would sit for hours at a time, then grunt an observation, tap the cigarette on the ashtray and then shake their heads.” Images like this make the reader want to read Poon on Singapore, not London, Toronto or New York City.

In fact, by far the best story in the collection is about the very Singaporean dilemma of national service. So that their male scions may escape this obligation, some Singaporean families flee the country—like the family of Eddie in “Those Who Serve, Those Who Do Not.” In this story, as in life, an absconder like Eddie can’t return to Singapore without facing prosecution. But his sister Joanne returns from her comfortable, pseudo exile in Sydney to visit Uncle Sam and cousin Peter. They did not have the means of escape and instead relied on a powerfully Singaporean stoicism to get them through military duty, embodying qualities Joanne’s family too blithely left behind. “She looked at the thousands of HDB [Housing & Development Board] homes that fanned out from either side of Sam’s tiny flat,” Poon writes. “She suddenly felt her heart open. These were the people who will protect the country, she thought ... Against such a solid breakwater the waves of cynicism would crash, but would fail.” Here the exile returns to illuminate an intimate part of Singapore, and does so quite beautifully. One only hopes that Poon herself will make the return journey some day.

Reproduced from the April 28, 2008 issue of Time magazine


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Books published in Malaysia don't get reviewed in Time magazine. It's amazing that Time has reviewed Wena Poon's Lions In Winter. Congratulations, Wena!

Sunday, April 20, 2008 2:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strange, I thought "Those who serve, those who do not" is one of the weaker stories in the collection.

I guess a foreigner like Neel Chowdhury would like to read more about cultures outside the West. Some stories in "Lions in Winter" sound like anecdotes you might hear in a dinner party. The Singaporeans in this collection are largely "Westernized" - they embrace Western values and are more comfortable with Western culture than with Asian.

The book is well written, but I can see why Chowdhury is saying it lacks a fresh spin on emigre literature. Especially since Singapore is now so westernized, you can get almost everything you want in the West here, especially commercial goods. "Lions in Winter" could do better to explore this dichotomy.

Saturday, May 02, 2009 6:04:00 AM  
Anonymous soonhuat said...

Wena is coming to Singapore and joining us at the Heartlands Book Club discussion. The details:

Date/time: 4.00pm, Friday 29 May 2009
Venue: The Activity Room, Bukit Batok Public Library
Works to be discussed: "My Cousin Tim" by Simon Tay. After discussing the short story for the first hour, Wena will join us to compare this story with hers from the book "Lions in Winter".
Facilitator: Ms Nasreen Ramnath
Guest author: Ms Wena Poon

Hope you can drop by Eric!

Soon Huat
National Library Board

Thursday, May 21, 2009 9:22:00 PM  

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