Wednesday, July 09, 2008

BOOK REVIEW Lions In Winter

A Magnificent Début
PREETA SAMARASAN reads Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter and is impressed by its themes

I MUST CONFESS that my first reaction to Wena Poon’s début short-story collection, Lions in Winter, was overwhelming relief. For here is a writer unafraid to leave behind silk-robed concubines and dreams sagging with symbolism in favour of unapologetic images of contemporary Singapore. While Poon is not the first young Asian writer to reject self-exoticising stereotypes, those who perpetuate these stereotypes are so numerous and so loud—one thinks of Yeats’s rueful observation about the passionate intensity of the worst—that I still celebrate every new writer brave enough to do what she does in this collection.

Wena Poon writes about the Asia that I know, and she does so with grace, insight and compassion. In these eleven stories, East and West do not inhabit one-dimensional roles—submissive versus dominant, traditional versus modern—but mingle to produce the knotty realities of globalisation. In “Dog Hot Pot,” one of the most amusing stories in the collection, an academic with Singaporean roots becomes obsessed with the Chinese consumption of dog meat, while his American vegetarian wife thinks he’s making a big deal about nothing. It’s a clever reversal of the familiar positions on this issue, and it serves as the perfect point of departure for a story that exposes the frictions between the protagonist and his native culture. In the quietly moving “The Man Who Was Afraid of ATMs,” the little granddaughter of a former Chinese teacher prefers Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables to Chinese stories because she wants to read about “people like me.” But in Canada, England and America, displaced Singaporeans discover that they are aliens after all, and then struggle to define themselves, to strike a balance between fitting in and holding on. Poon trusts her readers enough to limn these struggles with a light hand rather than dissecting them: an old man living with his son and daughter-in-law in Toronto still takes his shoes off before entering the house; when a university student who is withholding immense secrets from his parents spends his long evenings in London practising a British accent, this endeavour comes to represent a complete reinvention of the self. Of course, leaving the homeland is not the only path to cultural dislocation in these stories; that would be too easy. In the first story, “Kenny’s Big Break,” a Singaporean schoolboy, obsessed with Star Wars and comfortable with the most demotic of American registers (“it really sucked ass,” he says of a poor remake of Rashomon), dreams of moving to Hollywood to become the next Ben Affleck or Matt Damon even as his parents consult a feng shui master to schedule his sister’s wedding.

Clearly, Poon has a sensitive ear for language, which often forms the crux of her characters’ identity crises. The student who has worked tirelessly on his British accent shudders at his mother’s habit of saying “kay” for “thousand”, deciding that it was a “barbaric attitude towards money, that reduced something vast to a small, inconsequential syllable.” Yet in coming to terms with his homosexuality, he fixates on the derogatory Singaporean word for what he is: “Ah Kwa, wrote Alistair in his notebook. Or was it spelled, Ah Gua?” The narrator of the title story observes that the English he speaks in America is “too officious, too cold for our tropical clime,” and that the only acceptable way to respond to a woman’s rhetorical “do you think I put on weight?” is in what he affectionately terms “our beautiful patois”: “No-laaah, where got?” Indeed, in Poon’s hands our patois is beautiful, finely-wrought, both evocative and precise. I am prouder of it than ever, and my heart is right where she wants it to be: with the little boy who says about a big box of books, “Wah, so many, cannot read finish!” rather than with the woman who disapprovingly exhorts him to “speak proper English!”

Perhaps the greatest strength of this collection, though, is its unwavering empathy. If we side with the Singlish-speaking little boy, we also understand where the woman is coming from, why she wants him to speak “proper” English. Human frailty startles us at every turn, in understated but powerful details: an old immigrant’s loss of dignity when he is reduced to asking his granddaughter to help him communicate with the policeman who has pulled him over and a young woman’s confusion when faced with the endless options of an American sandwich menu. At the same time, Poon does not shy away from weighty subjects: sexuality, heartbreak, suicide, domestic abuse. Her characters earn our respect and our empathy precisely because she does not give them simple solutions. In “The Shooting Ranch,” arguably the strongest story of the collection, a mother and daughter, faced with a difficult decision, choose the more convenient path. In so doing, they fail those they might have helped. But they themselves are uneasy with their choice, and it is this sharp self-awareness that saves them from caricature: they are neither heroines nor villains, but something in between. As they drive away from the site of their decision, “away from our guilt,” we recognise ourselves, all our little failures and moments of cowardice, in the mother’s thoughts: “For a while, we had bristled with righteous indignation and charity, we believed in our potential to be heroic. But only for a while—pragmatism and selfishness was a habit.”

The introspection, the honesty, the elegant but unaffected prose—these are the hallmarks of Lions in Winter, and the reasons for which I eagerly anticipate Wena Poon’s next book.


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