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.
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.