Beyond the First Decade: A New Strain in the Singapore Short Story

Mary Loh, MA (National University of Singapore)

There are attempts to turn the tide away from sensationalistic pop-writing in favour of the higher forms of literature. The most notable has been the publishing of Stand Alone, a first collection of prose writing from Singaporean poet, Simon Tay. The twelve stories are well-crafted in terms of plot, theme and character. In "A History of Tea", Tay plays upon his own surname which sounds like the Hokkien word for tea. Just as the taste of madeleines evokes memories for Swann in Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a hot mug of tea taken on a quiet afternoon with his cousin Beverly evokes memories for the protagonist, memories which are somehow connected with the partaking of a cup of tea. [Readers might wish to comapre this technique as it is found in other postcolonial authors.] The story examines the subtle complexity of human relationships through different generations all held together by a common surname.

Tay's skill at characterisation is seen dearly in his sensitive portrayal of women. In "Catherine Listening to the Rain", a young wife recalls memories of her mother on other rainy days. In Ivy's Rice Bowl", Ivy grows increasingly resentful of her brother as she slowly realises how her family have subtle means of unequal treatment. Girls have been told that they should not eat the last piece of food on the table because they would end up being spinsters. Ivy's belief is that they have been so told because mothers want to reserve that last piece of food for their sons. The truth is tested when at lunch, Ivy's chopsticks poise above the plate where the last piece of chicken sits. In this little fragment of time, Tay shows that though mentally we dissent, we have been already conditioned to believe what our mothers tell us.

Tay's sense of confidence is reflected in his use of language. In a small note before the preface, Tay states without apology that "Some of the words, usages and syntax in this book do not conform to Standard English. There are words borrowed from Chinese dialect and Malay and some of which are neologised from the vernacular. These words are not italicised to further reflect the flavour of Singapore English."

Tay writes with the clarity of mind of a Singaporean who is at peace with himself and who knows his own place. There is a centre of experience from which Tay draws to craft his characters, a centre which is identifiably Singaporean and yet which possesses the breath of vision of the universal. Such is the quality of writing that made the anthology extremely popular on the mass market, even when there was no sex or horror in its content.

Stand Alone apparently marks the beginning of a new literary wave. Not since First Loves has a book of such literary standard attracted readers. While there is perhaps no means to stem the profusion of sensationalistic literature, something can be done to continue to promote writings of merit. Good writers need good readers; the reading public has to be educated in their tastes. This is perhaps the long term goal that educationists and academics themselves need to consciously set, if Singapore literature is to develop highly professional standards of writing. When such standards have been accomplished, Singapore writing will assure itself a place in world literature.

Looking back to the landmark year of 1978, it is now twenty years since the beginning of a consciousness of what a Singapore Short story might be. Yet Singaporean literature continues to be still in its infancy. While there have been positive signs of growth and development and greater confidence in writing today, there are fewer published writers who are producing collections of short stories.

While there is longer the National Book Development Council's National Short Story writing competition, there is the biannual Golden Point award and the biannual Singapore Literature Prize for short fiction. Regrettably, these have had response that has been less than enthusiastic although there seems to be more interest in writing in general. Part of this problem may be ascribed to the perception that a short story is less than a novel and writers are now in pursuit of writing The Great Singapore Novel. Many of the established short story writers have in recent years graduated to writing exclusively novels and other prose works. These include Catherine Lim, Gopal Baratham, Philip Jeyaretnam and Simon Tay.

The short story is a significant genre in Singapore because it marked the flowering of a generation of truly-Singaporean writers. In the first decade, the writers sought to establish what it meant to be Singaporean through the themes the short story explored and through character and setting. The second wave of writing began ten years after the first and took up the position of looking at the world from a perspective of a global citizen who is living in Singapore. Perhaps, today ten years after the second wave, with the even-increasing globalisation, Singapore can look forward to yet another season of excellent writing, one which one can chart the deeper growth of the Singapore short story through the synergy between culture and change.

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