Eastern Heathens Cover.jpeg

Folklore Renewed

Folklore Renewed

by Wong Wen Pu

Eastern Heathens, edited by Ng Yi-Sheng and Amanda Lee Koe, 2013, Ethos Books

The practice of adapting traditional folklore into new forms is not new in the history of literature: in line with the spirit of German Romanticism, Wagner transforms Strassburg’s Tristan into operatic form, while Disney’s saccharine Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs draws from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which were in turn scraped together by the brothers from oral accounts of German peasants. Folklores are routinely reworked for contemporary audiences, and the simple idea of rewriting myths is in itself not a particularly innovative one. The originality of Eastern Heathens, an anthology of reimagined Asian folklore curated by Ng Yi-Sheng and Amanda Lee Koe, therefore does not come from the immediate fact that each story in the collection is a subversion, reinvention or adaption of an earlier tale.

What is particularly exciting about Eastern Heathens, however, is the fruitful coupling of this reinvention with the form of an anthology curated through an open call for submissions. Anthologies like Eastern Heathens are a kind of experiment. They pose an open-ended question, and editors must work with the stories they receive and attempt to compile something greater than the sum of its discreet parts. In this sense, anthologies are corroborative and visionary. In Eastern Heathens, the editors’ theme of reimagined folklore, when pursued by an international cast of authors, masterfully encapsulate the editors’ vision of cultural plurality and cross-influence in our literary landscape.

Style-wise, a number of the stories are technically innovative in their reworking of the original folklore. An example would be Jason Erik Lundberg’s “Always A Risk”, which brings together the conventions of steampunk and speculative fiction in an exhilarating sequel to the Chinese folklore of Lady White Snake. Picking up where the original folktale ends, Julian meets the devil at the crossroads, and she ferries him to Leifeng Pagoda to meet his imprisoned lover from his previous life. We see the language of modernity in Lundberg’s setting of the scene, as in this description of Julian chauffeur’s car:   

 Blue’s vehicle was a beast of a hybrid automobile. Even switched off, it exuded the sharp sizzle of technomancy from several paces away, and Julian curiously wondered if its engine had been inscribed with runes of protection and propulsion. Hard-topped sloping fastback and black as the deepest midnight, the vehicle was a marvel of curved surfaces and polished chrome, its tall grille as daring a display as a tiger baring its fangs. … Etched into the lid of the car’s boot in swooping arabesques: Fleetline Couple.

Lundberg’s sequel to the classical tale is all speed and sex and mystique. But like the original, Lundberg’s sequel is a bittersweet love story. Julian, by the end of the story, opts to remain forever entombed in Leifeng Pagoda in order to remain in close “proximity to his greatest love”. The style Lundberg adopts does not alter, but reaffirms and renews, the original lore’s core message of love and fidelity. Stories that contemporalises or futurise the original lore, as “Always A Risk” does, acknowledge evolving styles of storytelling as well as changing readers sensibilities over time and place. They figure our understanding of folklore as fluidly adaptable in delivery, while keeping faith with the morals of the original tale.

Another accomplishment of this anthology is that it lends itself to a comparative reading of cultural similarities and differences between Singapore and other parts of the world. For instance, a common theme that runs through the anthology is the violence women experience from their society. In Abha Iyengar’s “The Gods of War”, the violence Indian women face is immediate: a man in the story “cut[s off a woman’s nose because she told him that she liked him”. More subtly, violence against women in Li Huijia’s “First Weave” comes in the form of body policing: the Weaver Girl’s aged body is looked upon with “pity… wariness… unspoken disgust”. As Singaporean readers, the stories highlight our simultaneous distance and familiarity with the issue at hand: distance in that most of us are not acquainted with the visceral violence in Iyengar’s story, but we also recognise that body policing is very much violence against women, in a different form, that takes place at home. By setting out these two tales next to each other, the anthology suggests that the problems women face in Singapore and India (and elsewhere, really) are not unique, that feminism has some way to go in both societies. Eastern Heathens situates a number of local discourses as part of a larger global conversation.   

Amongst the stories in this collection, perhaps the only one that did not live up to the promise of reinventing traditional lore is Jennani Durai’s “Tenali Raman Redux”. In Durai’s story, Raman, an incarcerated young man, hatches a plan that would help his aged parents water the family farm in his absence. He writes the following letter to his parents:

Some of the money that I was alleged to have “embezzled” may or may not be locked in a watertight chest at the bottom of the well. … It may take a few weeks of drawing water to get to it, but I suggest that you get a trusted friend to help you …

As Raman correctly predicts, his jailers read the letter, and in their subsequent fruitless attempt to recover the money, inadvertently till the land for his parents. If this plot sounds familiar, it is probably because you’d have encountered one of its many retellings elsewhere. I found myself wondering, as I read Durai’s story, where the twist would be, but it never came. The editors’ pick of this story, then, is unfortunate. A plot already so proliferate does not deserve place in an anthology that celebrates subversion.

Now, in recent years, the volume of literary work from local print has burgeoned, with small presses like Epigram and Ethos Books bringing a number of quality productions into our bookshops. But in some ways, the local literary scene has also become more insular. We are grown quite accustomed to the cri de coeur of some champions of Singaporean literature: buy Singapore literature, their pitch goes, because it is made in Singapore, by Singaporeans, for Singaporeans. Thing is, this is a dangerous and complacent argument built on identity politics rather than literary merit, leading to parochialism at best and bad literature at worst.    

And we critics and reviewers have been complicit in abetting the production of bad writing. Richard Angus Whitehead admits in a recent review of Lundberg’s The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories that critics could “be a little more robustly critical after years of trying perforce to be nice and positive in reviews about anything local”. Critics, reviewers, and yes, readers, need to more discriminating when choosing and buying their reads, rather than endorse works based on their authors’ or publishers’ affiliation to Singapore alone. Our literature, as expressions of our lived realities and selves, must reflect our nuanced and complex situation of cosmopolitanism and cultural hybridity. 

In this regard Eastern Heathens is right en pointe – and this is perhaps the prime achievement of the anthology. The editors’ vision of a cross-border work adroitly resists reductive definitional tags like #singlit and #madeinsingapore; it resists marketing soundbites like #supportlocal. Is it Singaporean literature? Yes, certainly, in the sense that the publisher from Singapore, and that the two editors are Singaporeans. But the stories in Eastern Heathens are excursions into other cultures, and their inclusion in this anthology reflects our cosmopolitanism and our multicultural hybridity. It pushes us out of our comfort zone of Singaporean provincialism, and encourages us to reconsider what constitutes and qualifies as our national literature.  

This is a valuable and timely discussion for us to have. Ng Yi-Sheng and Amanda Lee Koe have a far-sighted vision in the curating of this anthology, and, on this vision particularly, Eastern Heathens succeeds.

Eastern Heathens is available online from Ethos Books and at leading bookstores.