A Hearty Collection of Singaporean Literature

A Hearty Collection of Singaporean Literature

by Caterina Poh 
11 April 2018

"The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories Volume Three" (2017)
Epigram Books
Edited by Cyril Wong
Series Editor Jason Erik Lundberg

This ambitious anthology is a collection of 26 stories by a range of writers in different voices, and it includes some names familiar to followers of Singaporean literature, and some a little less so. This makes for a collection which is slightly uneven, especially when there is no running theme for the reader to understand how it all fits together. One could start by dipping their toes into the 329-paged book and picking a short story with an intriguing title, or by reading it from the start, including the preface by Cyril Wong, who is the guest editor of this edition, to get a glimpse of the thought process behind the collection.  

The beauty of this anthology is that it introduces readers to new names which may include surprising results. A particular gem is ‘Falling Water’ by Leonora Liow, a story which slowly unfurls and unfolds, and draws the reader into the life of the narrator as she recounts her story. Like following the trail of Hansel’s breadcrumbs, the writer drops key information bit by bit throughout the story. At the end, the reader may realise that they are reading a story which is quite different from what they might have imagined it to be.

When we sit across from each other I want to tell you all these things, I want to ask you, do you think about what’s happening at home? The last visit I wanted to say, to that high blank wall of your face, you don’t have to receive a visitor just because everyone else does. But I know that even getting this message to you is trying to shout across continents. So we sit there, you looking at some point over my shoulder, I looking at other families.

My second-most favourite story in this collection is ‘The City Beneath The City’ by Jason Wee, which imagines a world underground that is unchanged by the modernisation and constant redevelopment we have gotten used to in Singapore. Apart from nostalgia, this story can be relatable to city dwellers in other modern metropolises who lament the frequent struggle of keeping up with ever-changing landscapes.

Beneath the earth, the portholes of Katong Shopping Centre remained, its vessel above sold and demolished. They stared out from the vacant glass skull of the new mall built in its place, replicated below. Orchard Road had seen so much construction it was difficult for the archaeologists to make out the individual structures from the surrounding gravel.

The ‘Singaporean’ in this collection, according to Cyril Wong, “has also been expanded to include authors whose works here first appeared in Singapore-based publications, or who have been published by Singaporean publishers”. This means that some stories are not based in Singapore, and can feel slightly less relatable when put alongside others which have strong Singaporean flavours, like ‘Love in a Time of Dying’ by Andrew Yuen. This is a story of young lives changed and mangled by war, although the length of the short story also means it can get difficult to feel for the characters as there is little room for them and the story to develop.

            Later, moving along the mountain trails, our saddles clinked in unison. I thought of Father, and the many trips we took together when I was a child. I realised I had no one here to share this memory with. We rode on in silence; Father’s visage accompanied me in my head -- unsettling, painful. The problem with pain is that it is often vague in its terror, making one feel even lonelier.

It is interesting to also note that Cyril Wong decided to include and highlight stories about death and the supernatural, “... I could argue that a solid Singaporean story sometimes doesn’t feel right if a dead body doesn’t make an appearance.”

This is displayed in ‘These Foolish Things’ by Yeo Wei Wei, a romantic story about a lovelorn ghost; ‘Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hill’ by Jon Gresham, a story of a jaded older couple who may or may not been attacked by a werewolf-type creature; ‘Salvation Solution’ by Ovidia Yu, with a narrator who lives in a three-room flat in Ghim Moh, and whom we later find out has a sinister side; ‘Dark Shades’ by Yeow Kai Chai, a story about a mysterious vampiric movie star; and ‘Baba Ganoush’ by Eva Aldea, a story of a new immigrant to Singapore with a penchant for blood; amongst others.

All in all, this is an important collection which showcases the  gamut of writers and works available in Singaporean literature, and is a book worth recommending to both seasoned and and occasional readers of Singlit.

The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories Volume Three is available at leading bookstores and online here