A Meditation On Space And Self

A Meditation On Space And Self

by  Matthias Ang

Balik Kampung 2A: People and Places. Edited by Verena Tay. Published by Math Paper Press

The first line of Balik Kampung 2A’s blurb reads,
“How can you go for a peaceful walk around your home if the area is being constantly remodelled by demolition and construction?”

This sets an overarching tone for the anthology, a collection of short stories that invites readers to come and explore a multitude of neighbourhoods, lifestyles through foregrounding the space that the self inhabits, together with all the hidden, unconscious forces at work beneath. One moment the reader is walking through Upper Bukit Timah, furiously hunting for a place to read in peace while in another, he/she is treated to the simmering frustrations of a tai-tai living in Frankel Estate.

The end result is a book composed of disquieting meditations on the dynamics of how both space and self inform the other, sometimes with messy consequences. 

The stories that succeed best in these explorations are those that are driven by child narrators such as Cyril Wong’s “Mistake” and Lynn Dresel’s “Anak”. In both stories, the prosaic descriptions used by their narrators bring into sharp focus the various details of Bedok and their home, which in turn helps to compound the understated drama and tension the children face into a far more powerful effect.

The familiarity of episodes such as "a trailer on television about the National Parade, "a new National Day song" and bringing a child to the Children's Section in the Bedok Public Library all serve to accentuate the unease and shock that readers feel when both stories touch on their respective subject matter of a child witnessing a parent shoplift and infanticide.

In Wong’s “Mistake”, the child's description of his mother’s interrogation at the hands of the security guards for shoplifting lays bare the humiliation of the scene. While in Dresel’s “Anak”, the third-person narrative told through the child’s viewpoint impresses on the reader the sharp contrast between the affectionate treatment she receives from Mak Kiah and the brutal, fatal coldness she receives from her own mother. It is a familiar domestic space that both narrators inhabit and the association of such spaces with the innocence of their selves makes their experiences all the more poignant and intense. They are meditative moments that force the reader into uncomfortable positions.

Another type of story within the anthology that succeeds in affecting the reader with its interplay between space and self are stories where the primary characters are, for lack of a better word, flawed. From Hui snapping at Seng in Ng Swee San’s “Missing” that “Ma would never fall in love with a man beneath her status” to Kali’s prejudice against the trafficked Thai women in Bryant’s “Enough” to Amy’s breakdown in the car in Sharon Lim’s “Amy’s Story”, each of these flaws add on a layer of complexity to the anthology, presenting a greater variety of perspectives that are painfully human. Hui’s outburst towards Seng, the closest person she has to a parental figure in her life, and her subsequent desperation to find Seng and apologise when he disappears encapsulates in just a few pages the contradictions inherent to the peculiar nature of her family.

The parallel that Shelly Bryant draws between Kali’s irritation with the trafficked victims and her anger at the abusive relationship her sister refuses to leave—how both can be so “goondu”—subtly reveals the unconscious forces that forms Kali’s prejudice towards the victims; a refreshing portrayal, oversaturated as we are of constant images of the police always striving to go beyond the call of duty.

Then there is Amy’s reflection on her “[m]arriage and starting a family; wasn’t that all part of the rainbow-happiness, Lala Land plan? So why did it all feel so claustrophobic and suffocating?”, a momentary outburst of frustration that gestures towards the social pressures that push women towards such a space.

Admittedly, the delivery of this particular moment is slightly cliché; occurring at the wheel of a car, at a traffic light, complete with a scream, “into her mahogany dashboard of her SUV Bimmer”. But it still works, together with the first two examples, in that all three demonstrate how the space one inhabits serves to simultaneously pressure and reveal aspects of the self that are hidden or unconscious.

Such illuminations are also thrown on the spaces within the three stories, revealing that they can be just as messy and contradictory as the selves that inhabit them and in turn, raise the question that perhaps the boundaries between space and self are not as indivisible as they seem to be.

Balik Kampung 2A, then, is an anthology that is ultimately about the human condition as experienced at various times and places in Singapore. Its stories are probes into things hidden beneath the clean facade of our housing estate; unsettling but also refreshing with its portrayal of Singaporeans in all of their virtues and vices.

Balik Kampung 2A is available in leading bookstores and online from Books Actually.