Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Wena's Lions and Lion City

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 in 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 the protagonist of the same story, Freddie stops for a moment to sniff the air as he goes through immigration at Changi airport, knowing that withing 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 will 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 reassimulate.

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 humourist 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 ATM's, 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 in Chinatown because he cannot speak the Cantonese which is the lingua-franca, and he finds he cannot cope with the westerners. 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 (ironically of course, a cheong sam!). 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 care 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. Ironically 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 is. 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 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 get-away 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 geisha's pictured on the front and titles written in brushstroke font. usually a bird of 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 and apartment with six others. Abandoned (out of necessity) by her Indonesian mother and made to shift for herself after her adoptive mother turned her back on her at the age of 15, she comes 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. Mina makes her first expedition into the city beyond Chinatown to see a film with a friend, while Mrs Fong makes plans for her 60th birthday celebrations.

I am so proud to have played a small part in this collection coming to print. I knew Wena deserved to be published, but this collection of short fiction is even stronger than I had expected, and I feel (honestly) that this is a book you could confidently put beside other collections by prominent Asian American short story writers. (Rattawat Lapcharoensap and - why not? - and even Yiyun Lee spring to mind.)

I'm also really happy to see that my friends at MPH went the extra mile with the production of the book, the design and the binding and the paper and the type size all meet my incredibly exacting standards. So well done too Janet and Eric!

Here's Wena at a book signing at MPH Raffles City in Singapore a few days ago.

You can meet her at MPH's Breakfast Club on the morning of March 22nd, and at Readings@Seksan's in the afternoon.


lil ms d said...

yay! march 22! we can celebrate my ahem. sweet 16th :D

bibliobibuli said...

can we fir all your candles on the cake, ms d?

gnute said...

Thanks for the heads up, Sharon. That's a very convincing review. I will be looking out for this book in the stores.

Chet said...

>> can we fir all your candles on the cake, ms d?

Big candles for the 10s, small candles for the single numbers ... will still need a big cake!

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

why do authors all look nothing like the photos on the jackets of their books?

bibliobibuli said...

if i were an author i would not want to look like myself on the cover!! (would you?)

tinling choong made me laugh when i asked her about her cover picture for "firewife". she said that her publisher had wanted to reject the picture because it didn't look like the author, and tinling had to tell her "that's the whole point".

anyway, i think wena looks gorgeous and soulful in the cover picture, and really sweet in the pic above.

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

is she, erm, single?

bibliobibuli said...

sorry, dear. we'll have to find you another one.

a very happy chinese new year anyway. hope you got lots of ang pows from the aunties and uncles. why are you on my blog instead of playing mahjong and letting off firecrackers?

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

firecrackers are illegal, and gambling is a vice. :)

gong xi fa cai!

Anonymous said...

I loved this book! It's great that you've reviewed it here, Sharon. What I liked best about it was the total lack of the kind of self-exoticisation that still, to my great chagrin, sells in the West. I hate it hate it hate it, and I laughed out loud when Wena
made fun of it herself in "The Shooting Ranch," which was also my favourite story. Enough of the temple pavillions and the fake calligraphy covers and the bound feet (oh, the bound feet! The bound feet!) and the characters with names like Snow Flower and Peony and Third Aunt and Fourth Uncle, and THREE CHEERS for writers who are brave enough to show people what Asia is *really* like these days.

And yes, Wena looks great in both pictures -- adorable, actually, in the picture on this blog. Like another person I would love to lepak with :-) .

But I don't think it's the *whole* truth that authors look nothing like their jacket photos. Sure, they might put on makeup etc. and use the best possible picture of themselves, but don't you think it's also true that most people look different from one photograph to another, let alone in real life? I think the problem is more that it is hard to have a real idea of what someone looks like from one photograph.

Anyway, Gong Xi Fa Cai, everyone! Wish I were there for the feasting and merrymaking.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Studio photography Guo. With makeup, lighting and camera angles you can change a person's look considerably. Also there's ye olde photoshop :)

Anonymous said...

Preeta, Terry Pratchett did something like that in "Interesting Times" as well :) it is better than Gerald Chuah do you think ? they should promote his books more, like DMFK. I wish I took pictures, there were banners proclaiming "the mind of DMFK" all over MPH for a goodly amount of time.

I am totally in awe of that man, he should march into MPH, tell them it's an honor to display and sell his books, and demand they do some serious promotions.

But I digress. I hope to see your book here too.

animah said...

Who is DMFK?

Anonymous said...


I'm still not sure, but I did see his face and the "DMFK" legend all over MPH.

bex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bex said...

Hey, that's a nice pic. Nice to see that you have other spies in Singapore too. :)

My favourite story is The Man Who Was Afraid of ATMs! And yes, everyone should read this book! What I liked most about it is that it was so unpretentious and Wena's style of writing is not condescending, but very accessible and light.

bibliobibuli said...

hi bex - so glad you have enjoyed the book. and this photo didn't come from a spy - wena herself sent it! thank you of much for your spy pics of wena's signings. and thanks for being my spy in singapore in general!

Hsian said...

I enjoyed it too. Good turn of phrase and also great associative descriptions (there were uite a few lines which I liked and appealed to my fetish for words :), one e.g. "New York was a balkanised world, and I liked it. I liked how the three boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan were entire big universes in themselves")

Anonymous said...

i'm a writer. what i'm sick of the trade are the people who pull strings, etc. even the most prominent authors out there 'kiss' each others' asses, with 'unputdownable' quotes.

yes, sharon, keep up e good work