Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Thor's Silk Factory Grouch

Not everyone in the Malaysian litosphere is going gaga over Tash's Whitbread win. Just caught up (mucho belatedly) with Thor Kah Hoong's columns in the Star and he had a cumudgeonly go at The Harmony Silk Factory in last Tuesday's paper . His honesty though, is refreshing.

A FEW months ago, a few people discovered a perverse streak in this writer. They, believing in the opinionated voice that has filled this space for two years, thought I would be able, glibly, to summarise Tash Aw in a couple of sentences.

My reply: Nope, haven’t read it, haven’t thought of picking up a copy.

No immediate curiosity. I feel compelled to turn away when the fuss is heated. Particularly when the Malaysian connection whips up populist froth. Somehow, the occasions always feel tacky like a longest lemang applicant to the Malaysian Book of Records.

Sure, Aw grew up in Malaysia. But he was born in Taiwan. He lives in London. So who’s arbitrating for the claims of Taiwan and Britain?

I am reading Hsu-Ming Teo’s Australian Vogel (year 2000) winning novel Love and Vertigo (Allen & Unwin). Should we stake our claim on her as a Malaysian writer? She was born in Malaysia in 1970, but emigrated to Australia when she was seven. The narrative voice of the novel, Grace Tay, in Singapore for her mother’s funeral, asserts she is Australian. Does it matter?

Perversity has its limits. I did pick up Aw a couple of weeks ago, fortuitously just before the announcement of his winning a Whitbread.

Am I going to give my five sen worth?

No. I’m not going to sound like a sour grouch in the week of his success. My opinion doesn’t matter to him ? and really, good for him. The award will open more doors.

It’s just that I don’t know what the fuss is about because I’ve set aside the book. Another time ? maybe.

Well, okay, since it’s only worth five sen, my response was similar to the time I first read Amy Tan and her Joy Luck Club. I found myself being irritated and eventually skipping bits whenever Tan paused to explain the quaint exoticisms of Chinese culture and home to her primary readers, clueless ang moh.

Even if instruction in cultural oddities had been necessary, I believe it could have been weaved into the narrative more subtly. (Ref: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; National Book Critics Circle Award; for an adroit mixing of fact and fiction.)

Her explanations were clumsy and obvious, but excusable because it was her first effort. Her subsequent works have matured in this aspect. Culture has become an integral motive in her narrative, not an exotic gloss to attract tourists curious over chinoiserie.

That was Tan then. Aw’s instruction is even more clunky. In the second chapter, four pages are devoted to a paraphrase of Unwin’s 1954 study Rural Villages of Lowland Malaya.

What’s clunky? This is clunky: “I have paraphrased his words, of course, in order to avoid accusations of plagiarism, but the source is gratefully acknowledged.”

Excuse me. Is this a novel? Reads like one of my students’ essays. (Well, alright, a good student’s essay. Most of my college students would have problems spelling at least four words in that sentence.)

And then when the third chapter, titled The Kinta Valley, began in this fashion: “The Kinta Valley is a narrow strip of land which isn’t really a valley at all. Seventy-five miles long and twenty miles wide at its widest, it runs from Maxwell Hill ? etc,” my will to carry on reading started flagging.

I tried to detect some post-modernist irony beyond my antiquated radar. Maybe those passages were supposed to read like the primary school textbooks we had in the 1950s.

Then there are the details, the lack of. I couldn’t get a whiff of smells, a feel of lives fleshed fully.

Aawww, put my lukewarm snarl down to my senses blocked, clogged in the miasma of my year-end grouch.

Why am I persisting with Hsu-Ming Teo’s novel? I’ll let you know when I’m done with it.

Hadn't heard of Hsu-Ming Teo, but here's some information about her novel.


Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...

i've read other books by authors of other nationalities, and they also describe places and locales that way. if this is something to snarl at, then Mr Thor would not be reading 95% of books out there.

Anonymous said...

Writers like to have a go at other writers. It's like the witches in Discworld.. you don't like them but in a way you're glad they're there so you're not the only one.

Anonymous said...

hmmm... the best way to see this, i suppose, is to say, "bad publicity is still publicity".

besides, most times, when reviews are bad (especially where movies are concerned) i find that the material in question is usually great.