Raffles Reviews – National Knick Knacks

by Calista Chong (18A01A), Grace Lau (18S03I), Sheryl Gwee (18A01D)
with guest contributions by Harshini Rayasam (18S06B), Sun Shuwei (18A01E) from Writer’s Guild

This year, Raffles Reviews is honoured to receive books and support from the Literature-loving folks over at Singapore’s beloved local bookstore, BooksActually!

We thought we couldn’t be happier receiving books from our favourite independent bookstore until the folks from Writer’s Guild — RI’s very own club for all things Lit –agreed to contribute to these monthly reviews.

In this joint effort to promote Singaporean Literature, we have reviewed three local books from BooksActually, and our Guild collaborators have recommended a SingLit Pick of the Month for our beloved readers.

Rain Tree — Mahita Vas

Mahita Vas’ debut novel Rain Tree follows the journey of Ani, a spirited sixteen-year-old from Malaya as she is coerced into an arranged marriage with her uncle. Arriving in Singapore with her new husband, Ani must abandon her dreams of becoming a teacher to work as a servant in the colonial house — Rain Tree — where he is employed.

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Rain Tree by Mahita Vas [Photo: BA]

Set against the backdrop of Singapore’s struggle for independence, Rain Tree provides a worm’s eye view of the lead-up to merger, interweaving historical developments with a fictional plot. Though somewhat lacking in the emotional intensity of accomplished literary works, Rain Tree remains a tale of hope, loyalty and love, told in straightforward and accessible terms, and makes for a light, entertaining read.  

Bang My Car — Ann Ang

“One experiences a range of stories that freely embraces the language, without calling attention to it. Simply by surrounding us with its presence, Ang has made it become practically invisible.”

Dave Chua, on Bang My Car

Diving into the plot with a seemingly innocuous collision between two vehicles, Ann Ang seeks to portray the inner psyches and contradictions of Singaporeans and aptly utilises Singapore’s trademark tongue, Singlish, to accentuate her ideas.

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Bang My Car by Ann Ang [Photo: BA]

Ang explores the language from the unorthodox perspective of a paradoxical and somewhat queer Singaporean Uncle. By describing the way the Uncle handles various situations, Ang presents the logical argument that Singlish may be used as a disarming weapon for the passive-aggression epitomised by the Uncle.

Amongst the many short stories, ‘Fair is Fair’ and “Imaginary Geographies of the Singapore Heartland” left the deepest impression on us. The former broaches the subject of Singapore politics and elections from various relatable viewpoints, while the latter pieces together a tapestry of ground-level interpretations to explore if modern living for the average person in Singapore is defined by postmodern notion of hyperspace and liminality.

Unlike mainstream fiction plots, Bang My Car is thought-provoking and a force of contemplation. Look no further for an engaging and deeply meaningful read.

Perfection — Debbie Lee

Debbie Lee recounts her tumults and struggles with self-doubt and self-love in this honest and evocative memoir. The book shares plenty about issues otherwise regarded as taboo, such as sexual abuse and mental illness.

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Perfection by Debbie Lee [Photo: BA]

Lee frequently breaks the fourth wall by addressing her readers directly at the end of each chapter. The lack of aureate diction makes it accessible to a wide range of readers, and the vivid dialogues accompanying the narrative manage to construct vignettes of the past and allow readers to embark on the author’s journey of recollection and retrospection.

“Writing can actually be very therapeutic as you transfer all the painful memories to what you have learned down into a piece of paper. My writing is my voice.”

Lee treats her work as catharsis, but also as succor for those who are entangled in their own struggles, just like she once was. Perfection is a Bildungsroman meant to inspirit and inspire.  

Guild’s Singlit Pick of the Week — It Never Rains on National Day

“I don’t really think of Singapore as home anymore. I don’t really know where I belong, but I like to be far away.”

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It Never Rains on National Day by Jeremy Tiang [Photo: Ploughshares Blog]

A collection of eleven short stories published in 2015, Jeremy Tiang’s It Never Rains on National Day explores the aspects of being Singaporean that are usually swept under the rug. It fascinates with a sheer plethora of narratives, spanning the mundane to the macabre. One of the short stories deals with an aimless Singaporean traveller wandering around the world after fleeing from home; another, a bureaucrat having to respond to the accidental decapitation of a foreign worker.

Where the collection especially shines, however, is in its characterisation. Veering away from stodgy Singaporean caricatures, it presents an assortment of fresh, compelling, and quirkily complex characters.

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It Never Rains on National Day by Jeremy Tiang

Moreover, the stories are intertwined and contained within the same fictional universe – most stories’ protagonists make appearances in other stories, where their own narratives are challenged by other characters. Far from being off-putting, the equally flawed nature of all of these charactersfrom the foreign worker to the government official conveys a sense of yearning and desire for an escape from the archetypal.

For those who want to try reading something new but aren’t ready to commit to the Dickensian novel, look no further. A very concise 185 pages, with each story taking no longer than the duration of a MRT ride to read, it is perfectly suited for the busy reader.

Jeremy Tiang’s It Never Rains on National Day is available in the Shaw Foundation Library and the Hullett Memorial Library.

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