My Ministry of Moral Panic.

The reading spree I have been on since the month of February has only strengthened the feeling of a guilt I have felt since years ago, ever since I adopted “reading” as my biggest hobby, and that is the guilt that I have never read much Singaporean literature.

Oh, give me a break, some people would say. We don’t have much Singaporean literature to speak of. What can we read? LKY’s books?! (And then added as a whisper P.S.: Even if there is, it’s not very good, right…)

I’m not here to discuss the statistics of Singaporean publication. I’m sure it is not zero, not close to being zero, but certainly quite possibly considered peanuts compared to the giant powerhouses of Western literature and Asian literature. Bookstores and libraries have the one thing in common, since a long time ago. The proportion of Western literature, Enid Blytons and Sweet Valley Highs for the kids, JK Rowlings and whatever teenage fantasies that raged that year for the teens, the Jodi Picoults and Stephen Kings, and the list goes on, is so overwhelming that maybe it is wrong to use the word ‘proportion’, because the amount of local literature is so tiny in comparison that it’s like that one independent candidate who runs in the election and you always scoff at when they announce his name and the number of votes he got because you think, who cares, he never even got close to being in the race.

Instead, this is atonement, to assuage perhaps 0.01 percent of the guilt I have felt for reading truckloads of New York Times Bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize Winners and Man Bookers and never having read even half a truckload of Singaporean literature (Have you seen how thin some of those Singaporean books are?!).

You see, it wasn’t for the lack of trying, though whether I have tried enough is another matter. I have, over the decades (gosh, we’ve been literate beings for over two decades by now, did you realise?!), read several books written by Singaporean writers. I remember going through a Catherine Lim phase in lower Secondary years, because she was a fan fave of a classmate and her books were so available at the school library because nobody ever goes to the school library, though it didn’t last long, because I was (a) not a fan of wistful tales about the yesteryears and (b) thirteen years of age. Then I remember going through a Singaporean poetry phase sometimes between 19 and 20, or 21, maybe, when I chanced upon a Cyril Wong book hanging out on a wall at the public library. I remember being blown away by how easily I could connect with the imageries in his poems and the familiar associations he made between places and people that I grew up around and about. Because poetry, even after a few years of beating it up in school as an academic subject, remains a largely elusive genre I have never felt particularly connected with. Let’s face it — so little words, so much blank space on the page, plagued by seemingly inane metaphors that require so much effort on the reader’s part to “interpret and seek out the symbolism”? Get that away from my face. So then for several months, I went ploughing through the troves of Singaporean poetry and sought for more.

And then I stopped. I had to stop. I would start thinking, I would rather die than to have to read more of these. Sometimes it’s because the story is a tad too melodramatic and sometimes it’s because the writing is a bit, “Hmm…“, because somehow the vivaciousness of Singaporean English turns limp and drab when you read it in letters on a page and the sound of it gets lost and it never feels quite right.

Over the years, there must have been several more attempts, tiny ones, here and there, random bits I stumbled upon, but those were the two impressionable ‘phases’ that have stayed in my mind. One thing they all have in common is that after the initial high, they all taper off, and I always go back to wanting another New York Times Bestseller or the latest Orange Prize for Fiction. I craved the comforting long prose of those stories set in foreign lands, plump with unfamiliar details of the exciting lives of charming characters, through which I can maybe live out some kind of alternate lives vicariously through them.

I certainly feel guilty when I read articles railing about how Singaporeans don’t support local literature enough and then in turn local literature don’t get the adequate support they need to get bigger and better, the whole vicious cycle trap thing, yet I cannot bring myself to support Singaporean literature in a way that involves me actively reading it regularly. But why? Is there some genetic self-hatred gene in Singaporean youngsters that makes us automatically turn against our own just because, because of some local means lousier principle?

I now finally know why.

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You may borrow this book at public libraries across the island at the Singapore Fiction Collection shelf, under LEE.

Last week, plagued with the mounting guilt of not having read a single Singaporean book in recent times, I got a recommendation to read one by a friend who said she had read a very good one. So I went and got the book and read it, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe.

It is in all aspects a brilliant book with incisive insight of the Singaporean psyche and a good wide range of subjects and topics. There are stories that make you feel like you are watching one of those feel-good indie short films with sepia tones and that make you tear up towards the end, and then there are stories with absurd and surreal elements blooming out of nowhere that make you go what the hell just happened. And above all that good stuff, what is lethal is the clout that all the familiar scenes, places, names and social phenomena that are uniquely Singaporean has over your heart. This is a great book, but it reads so close to the heart that it hurts a little to read.

So now I know why.

Reading has been mostly for me a form of escapism, a way to get out of my head, get into someone else’s, some other place, some other family, some other life. Sometimes I wind up learning factual knowledge about that different place, which is then three cheers for my general knowledge, but sometimes I don’t care about acquiring new facts or coming to realisation some deep profound truth about the sanctity of life. Sometimes it is just good old escapism, the way some people drown their consciousness in hours of video games and the captivating sparkly walls of virtual reality.

But when I read something like Ministry of Moral Panic, the escapism quotient barely registers on the scale. As I read each chapter, I think, wow, what a great turn of phrase over there, and whoa I did not see that twist coming at all, and I think all the great thoughts I think when I know and feel that I am reading a good book.

Yet this is not a book I will re-read in a heartbeat. I will recommend it to others in a heartbeat, but it is not a book I will re-read just because, for fun or otherwise, simply because it stabs me once in about every five sentences and there are no safe corners where I get to hide and escape the way I am used to when I read novels about folks livin’ it up in changing landscapes with four seasons. Because the details of the metaphors in this book woven all over are of the foods that I eat every other day, of the bus rides I take to the mall on the weekends, and of the streets I grew up walking in. Every time I pick the book back up to continue reading after taking a break between chapters, I feel anxious because I know I must brace myself for the hard-hitting prose and the unnerving sense that accompanies the immediate recognition of familiar places, things, people and names mentioned in the stories.

I had a great time reading it, because of and in spite of the stab wounds. I cannot, however, bring myself to proclaim that I am going to, from now on, begin reading a lot more Singaporean literature. I cannot reasonably allow my biggest relaxing hobby be compromised just because there is some moral obligation to read books that hold the power to stab me. The feeling of guilt remains, though now 0.01 percent less intense because I now know one book I can confidently cite that blew me away (Singaporean lit has good stuff, I can proudly proclaim).

But I will read more, in time to come.

I will have to wait and see how long these stab wounds take to close.

Change.

The new Haruki Murakami website is just extremely nice, considering how the previous one was a sad excuse for a webpage of a critically acclaimed writer.

He continues to roll out new books and it’s making me feel increasingly anxious because I feel progressively incapable of catching up with the reading of his new books. I suppose a part of me will forever associate the reading of his books as being something pivotal in my school days and the coming-of-age period of my life, and now that I am out of school, while a part of me is hesitant to leave him behind, along with the dozens of habits that structured my school-going days, the rest of me questions how should I go about adapting that connection to my self in this new stage of life.

Also, the bus route I have taken for the past 10-odd years to get to my grandmother’s house recently changed its route and no longer goes through the familiar neighbourhood with the endearing places that house the bulk of my childhood memories.

Thank you, Transit Link, for that terrible decision.

It may be termed “progress”, “development”, “advancement”, whatever.

Change is change.

My friends from fiction.

I grew up with books. They are the oldest friends I have and will ever have.

This is why it brought tears to my eyes when I read the news article announcing that The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is going to have a third movie based on the fifth (and likely to be the last) book of the series.

I had given up hope of having another movie being rolled out after the release of the second movie that saw them merging three of the four books of the series. Because, well, I suppose movies adapted from YA novels that don’t feature any vampires, dystopian worlds or apocalypse, but instead feature the ordinary lives of simple young folks, don’t get the same royal treatment in the movie biz as those that do. (See Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent etc.)

There are many reasons why this YA tale about a magical pair of jeans and four girls has left such an indelible impact on me, and also many reasons why I enjoy reading the Huffington Post so much.

And this article can explain a bit of both.

When I first discovered The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants on the A-B shelf on the Young Adult floor of Jurong East Library, part of me could not believe that I was about to borrow a book about the story of how a magical pair of jeans can fit four girls with different body types and that it was going to “change their lives forever”.

I mean, I am a huge fan of Enid Blyton’s magical trees and Roald Dahl’s friendly giants, but that idea of a pair of magic jeans unrealistically existing in a fictional story with a realistic setting was just difficult to relate to.

But, of course, reading the book changed my life forever. (One of the rare times when the exaggerated book synopses at the back of books spoke true!)

I believe the roots of my addiction to books can be partly traced to my chase for The Sisterhood series back in the days when I was still wearing a school uniform. Before that, most, if not all, of the books I had been reading were either written by writers that are already dead, or published before I was born. The first Sisterhood book, however, was published in 2001. The humble me then was nine years old. When I finally made it onto the top elite floor of the Jurong East Library, it was already 2005. By that time, three books have been published in the Sisterhood series. So, of course, in typical teenage fashion, with nothing much to do after completing homework, I gobbled all three books up.

Like I said, it changed my life forever.

You might ask, how come? How can I relate so much to a series of books about a magical pair of jeans (which I don’t have) and four girls in a sisterhood of friendship since they were born (which I don’t have, as well)?

A friend asked me that when I told her I had stumbled upon this incredible book series that turned my mind upside down and I had highly recommended that she read them as well. Well, the me at fourteen, regrettably, did not have the words to adequately explain the inexplicable tumult in my mind. I was unable to explain to her what this Huffington Post article has done in neat paragraphs.

Even though the book summaries that you Google will tell you that this series of books is about four girls and their magical pair of jeans, it is not about the magical traveling pants. The pair of magical jeans is a literary plot device placed in a thrift store the four protagonists stumbled into at the beginning of the first novel. What began as a plot device slowly developed into “a symbol of female friendship and finding strength in those around you” (Goodman, 2014) throughout the course of the first novel. And throughout the entire series, the pair of pants is used by the author for the four female protagonists to realise their discovered confidence and self-worth — yes, in short, profound things for young minds.

The fourth book of the series was my first real novel chase. It was published in 2007. The humble me then was sixteen, well-acquainted with the top floor of the library but not old enough to spend money to buy a non-textbook book (according to the rules of my household). The day I spotted the brand new — if only books could shine like a diamond — fourth book on the familiar A-B shelf was the day my life changed forever again.

It was a bittersweet read because it was then considered to be the last book of the series. Yes, the author had planned to conclude it there at that point, hence the title Forever in Blue. (Yes, you must treat writers very seriously when they mobilise the use of the word forever.)

This is the fourth book in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series and was considered the last until Brashares published a fifth book in 2011.

– Wikipedia

I suppose, books are somewhat like babies to writers. They took time to nurture them in their mental wombs and gave birth to them painstakingly and then release them out into the world, where they meet readers and take on a life of their own.

Brashares released the fifth book in 2011. The humble me by then hit age 20, and I had enough spare cash saved up from a year of quiet university days to make my first Sisterhood purchase. It remains the only Sisterhood book I own. I bought it shining like a diamond (thanks to the shrink-wrap) from the now non-existent Wheelock Place Borders (because local bookstores are too lame-ful of assessment books and cookie-cutter fiction to stock such cool books).

A watershed book of the series, some say. I shed my own bucket of tears staying up late to finish the entire book. I don’t know why the writer did what she did — actually I think I do, but like many people, I have this insistence in my mind that fictional things ought to be untouched by the harsh realities of life at all times. But that’s not how Brashares writes her books, and I appreciate that. The way she keeps things real — she jumps 10 years forward in the lives of the characters, because that’s approximately the realistic emotional age of the fans of the series who grew up alongside the characters in the books —  not many YA writers dare to do that, because you’re not really YA anymore if your characters are going into their 30s.

But that’s how she wanted to break all of our hearts. Well, then, okay.

I can only relate to a fellow fan of the series how cathartic reading the fifth book was. People who didn’t spend hours of their teen lives reading Brashares’ profound tales for young minds will not find it possible to understand how one’s mind can possibly be changed by a story of four girls and their shared pair of magical jeans.

I cannot wait for the movie to be done and released. Even though there will always be compromises in book-to-film adaptations, I have always found the Sisterhood movies to be very well-done in terms of preserving the spirit of the novels. And now that they have gotten the director of the first film to come and do this third film, I am hopeful it will be excellent.

The thing, though, is that it hardly matters, because in my mind and in the minds of many other fans of the series, we already have an entire book-verse in our minds to fill in any gaps that the movie might present. We have grown up alongside the four protagonists in our minds. The film is just for show and an excuse for two hours of rewarding entertainment on a screen that would remind us of the bittersweet memories of when the words of the novels touched our young hearts.