Heng Siok Tian, Phan Ming Yen, Yeow Kai Chai, Yong Shu Hoong
The Adopted: Stories from Angkor (2015), Ethos Books.
In journeying to Cambodia, a land dense with history and symbolism, the four authors of The Adopted: Stories from Angkor have clearly gleaned more than a little inspiration from this foreign land. In this neat collection of stories, Yeow Kai Chai, Yong Shu Hoong, Phan Ming Yen, and Heng Siok Tian offer their own encounters with Angkor Wat as foils that provoke examinations of a more intimate kind, much closer to home. Though bearing structural resemblances to an anthology, this is perhaps too crude a description for what its quartet of co-authors have endearingly christened a “writing project”. This turn of phrase carries with it a sense of craft, that the authors sought to be precise in the way they attempt to combine their voices into one greater than the sum of its parts.
Indeed, it is within this frame that The Adopted manages to flourish. The authors have taken deliberate care to abide by certain thematic, visual, and structural parameters that keep the four sections cohesive. Words and characters become motifs that recur throughout the book in various forms, keeping the stories in constant conversation with each other. Even if this demands some sacrifice in terms of spontaneity, The Adopted cannot be accused of being a formulaic or burdensome read - any lull in the narrative manages to pick itself up again with surprising turns in its ebb and flow between and within the sections. For instance, Yong is often sensitive towards the dramatic tension that exists within the unsaid, and in doing so, entices us with the unexpected. His section prepares us for Heng's rousing dream-like narrative that offers us this deft piece of introspection: "would we experience lost wats... to leave behind histories on memory's walls?” In drawing this comparison between the individual and the temple as the site of legacy, Heng reflects upon the desire to have our own stories told and remembered, but also acknowledging the possibility that those stories, like the temple ruins, will eventually become estranged from those who originally created them. This anxiety is carried all the way through to the end, culminating in Yeow's final section in which stories like "Green Mansions" and "White Roots" bring Cambodia and Singapore together in a chimerical confluence of both human and spiritual.
In purposefully allowing reality to steadily seep into fiction, the experimental essence carried at the heart of this piece of fiction is reflected within each author's repertoire of stories. It reminds us of Yong's preface to his section in which he recounts an experience that is at once foreboding and inspiring. Realising that their hotel was built atop the corporeal ruins of a Khmer Rouge Killing Field, Yong becomes the first of the four to break the silence with this poignant revelation: "we had been sleeping over history and past atrocities without any knowledge or care in the world".
It is perhaps with this in mind that we see each author take their turn to awaken those who are slumbering by exploring the fragile human conditions within a city-state that often glosses over the individual in favour of the communal. In Phan's “The Teacher” for example, he delves into the story of a disillusioned teacher's adoptive relationship with her impaired nephew. The possibility of losing custody of him in spite of her dedicated love triggers her descent into emotional instability, and her grip on reality becomes increasingly tenuous as she dreams a memory of another loss – that of a lover who had betrayed her eight years ago in Ta Prohm. Here, the images of Cambodia, whose allure is of the unknown, begins to conjure up feelings that are strangely familiar as the untold narratives within each individual begin to surface.
Phan’s story is but one of many instances in which the authors demonstrate how cultural landmarks like Angkor Wat can become a versatile literary tool when taken metaphorically instead of literally. The Adopted therefore cannot be critiqued as a case in point for the argument that modernisation has left Singapore bereft of cultural anchors to latch onto as a source of inspiration; the collection's strength does not come from using Angkor Wat as a casual substitute, but as a conduit through which the forgotten may be revived. That which the authors rediscovered on their journey, we now adopt as part of our own.
It is perhaps an ambitious task to condense the diverse offerings of The Adopted into this short reflection. Nevertheless, the meandering interaction of words, themes, and personalities conjoin and diverge in unpredictable ways that create a literary experience worth paying attention to. Joss Whedon once described his cult sci-fi series Firefly as "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things"; the same can be said for The Adopted in which four individuals wander through the temple corridors of Angkor Wat, rendering four different perspectives captured in imaginative writing. This brave foray into experimental fiction may understandably be met with initial uncertainty. When given a fair chance however, The Adopted leaves us with many great thoughts to ponder about.
The Adopted: Stories from Angkor is available online from Ethos Books and in leading bookstores in Singapore.