I've sat on this review of Shirley Lim's Sister Swing for an awful long time, but because Shirley is back and launching her next book Princess Shawl at Silverfish today, it seemed an appropriate time to actually put my notes together. I've also noticed that I get an awful lot of hits from folks - students? - looking for information about the novel so I get very guilty when I spot those visitors on my site meter! Here 'tis then :
Some years ago Shirley Lim wrote a story called Mr. Tan’s Girls which won the Asiaweek short story contest and found its way into several anthologies, including The Merlion and the Hibiscus which is where I first came across it.
In Sister Swing, she picks up the same cast of characters and replays the short story in the first chapter. But this time the father, Ah Kong, meets his end in a rather more shocking manner - he dies after seeing his two elder daughters examining their private parts in a mirror! (It's a terrible secret the elder sisters share and I was surprised Lim didn't make much more of this later in the novel).
The novel is the story of three sisters, Yen, Swee Yin and Paik, and the narration moves between them with Lim inventing a separate voice for each of them.
Swee Yin, nicknamed Sister Swing, is really the character at the centre of the story. She sees the family name wing as “an occult name … conjuring feathers and flight" and the metaphor is a fitting one because she does indeed test her wings and is the first to fly the nest.
The sisters are left a tidy sum of money in their father's will and Swee decides to take up a course in New York State, where she is incredibly lonely. She's also the first sister to discover love, and has an affair with her lecturer, Professor Lopez.
The complex relationship between the sisters and their various rivalries is very well drawn. Yen, whom Swee refers to as "my oldest sister who grew up to become younger than me" grows up a little lazy, more laid back than Swee Yin, and very much dependent on her younger sister.
Lim spoke at a reading at Silverfish some time ago about the problems that writing the voice of this characters in such a way that it retained something of the quality of Malaysian English, yet was intelligible by American readers.
I was interested to see how Lim rises to the challenge she sets herself, particularly as other Malaysian and Singaporean writers will find this an issue that they also need to resolve.
In Yen's case, though, I must confess the voice does not entirely convince. It is somewhat uneven – some complex constructions are perfectly grammatical, yet in other places phrases in broken English are scattered in and seem a little jarring.
The third sister, Peik, is their father’s favourite child, the one who tries hardest to please. After the father dies she feels left out when Yen becomes Swee's closest confidant, and finds consolation in religion, turning to an evangelical church and changes her name to Pearl. Lim convinces rather more with this voice, particularly with the way her speech is peppered with biblical expressions. (One can't help feeling very sorry when she tells Swee later in the novel that her husband “did not want to make me big with child”.)
I must say that I like the colour and humour of the Malaysian chapters better than those set in an America which is quite cold and distancing.
Yen decides that she also would like to study in the States and the sisters take up courses in Long Beach, California where Swee becomes quickly involved with Sandy, ex-military and studying welding part time, while Yen becomes involved with a biker called Wayne. I really felt frustrated that the girls take up with such obvious losers! Sandy turns out to belong to a white supremacist group, although Swee is very slow to pick up on this.
Central to the novel is the theme of Asian identity, which Lim handles very well. Everyone in America seems to have an idea about what Asians are, or what Asians should be, and seem to want to put everyone together in the same box.
Swee finds herself lumped together with all other Asians, regardless of nationality, and subject to all kinds of preconceptions. Her first lover, Lopez, himself only too aware of racism, urges Swee to "find her community".
Mrs. Butler, her lecturer for Race in America, teaches her about slavery and the history of the blacks, but shows her resentment against the upstart Asian immigrants who “aren’t willing to wait their turn”, and in a clever kind of reverse racism, Swee is not given the A for an assignment she so clearly deserves. “I know you fresh immigrants” says Mrs. Butler “you’re pushy”.
Swee is criticised by a driving instructor who says Asians are too timid and cause accidents by going too slowly. And the sisters are called “gook girls” and “sluts” by the child-wife of Keith, Sandy’s welding teacher (but actually the leader of the white supremacist group). Pinny, a Hong Kong student Swee remembers from her first college, adapts to fulfil racial stereotypes perfectly, and plays the part of a Vietnamese “mamma-san” in a bar for Vietnamese veterans .
Swee is forced to lead an uneasy double-life. As she grows more aware of how Asians are perceived in America, and begins to write articles to give a voice to the wider Asian community, with whom she finds herself identifying increasingly. At the same time, she finds herself increasingly pressurised by Sandy to reinvent herself as "Sue" and dye her hair brown, so as to appears almost white.
In her naivety she cannot see Sandy for what he is, or the danger he poses, and this ignorance has tragic consequences.
Paik also ends up in California, running a mission with her husband Robert and his father Pastor Fung to minister to a congregation of mainly Latinos and Asians. She decides that she wants to spend her portion of the inheritance installing a huge cross atop the makeshift church which uses the premises of a disused furniture warehouse - but like Swee she is impossibly naive and good intentions backfire. Both girls really are unequipped to really cope with life in America, and the novel is really a journey for them to find themselves.
While the plot, in the wrong hands, could have been fodder for melodrama, Lim's writing shows just the right of amount of restraint.
If anything I would have liked the novel to be have been longer and to have explored Paik's story rather more. And the tying up of ends in the last couple of chapters seems rather too neat.
It's almost as if the novel it could have developed into something really good but got reigned back abruptly before it could quite get there ... and one wonders why. Sister Swing comes close being the kind of novel that might have found commercial success in an international market, which is no less than Ms. Lim deserves.