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Strange Country

Posts tagged Jeremy Tiang

Strange Country

by Marie Ee

Featuring
Jeremy Tiang, It Never Rains on National Day (2015), Epigram Books.

Award(s): Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2016.


The immediate themes of Jeremy Tiang’s new collection from Epigram, It Never Rains on National Day, are obvious – transience, loneliness, and emptiness. It deals almost non-stop with the idea of travel and immigration, rarely taking place in Singapore itself until well after the book’s halfway point. Yet, this collection carves out a place for itself as distinctly Singaporean, and explores that old saying “Singapore is a nation of immigrants” to its fullest.

From the very first sentence, we are already globe-trotting with Nicholas and Sophia, the two characters whose relationship bookends the collection. Interracial and intercultural, whenever one seems to fit into a place, the other is inevitably excluded – so they keep finding new locales to inhabit. Likewise, all of the other characters populating Tiang’s world are always in motion. The following story, “Trondheim”, even hurtles along aboard a moving train. Despite Tiang’s precise and deliberate prose, somehow the reader is never given a chance to pause. We end up caught between two modes, cautious yet ceaseless – perhaps a bit like Tiang’s conception of Singapore itself.

As a collection so heavily focused on the nature of transit, not much is set in Singapore. Instead, the stories prefer to vacation in Germany, Toronto, China, Bangkok and New York. But nobody ever really seems happy with the jet-set life; instead, they go through the motions, adopting the appearance of happiness rather than experiencing it as genuine feeling. Take Sophia and Nicholas: Supposedly the incarnation of the modern Singaporean couple and worldly in the extreme, they create a love that is more about the preservation of image than anything else. Initially, the reader wonders if all of these characters are trying to free themselves from a Singapore-induced claustrophobia, but unfortunately, this claustrophobia turns out to be something they can’t outrun, nestled in their breasts rather than simply nipping at their heels. 

Thanks to his own cosmopolitan background (Tiang has spent time in the UK, Germany, and New York where he now lives), Tiang’s descriptions are hyper-aware of social snags – stretching out those awkward moments rather than flitting over them. Even Nicholas, seasoned traveller that he is, “wonders how much he will ever fit into this country, how much of himself he will have to slough off before he can glide through these occasions without friction.” These moments of insight are where Tiang shines, as he presents the many shades between friends, lovers and strangers.  In “Toronto”, the protagonist speaks of her host, Aimee, as “a good enough friend not to ask too many questions, but not such a good friend that she will know the right questions to ask.” That alertness then translates to another unusual strength of the book, in that we get to see life not only from the protagonists’ perspectives, but also the perspectives of those originally presumed to be side characters – a move which often both affirms and destroys our original notions of the previous characters, as well as the concept of who or what constitutes a protagonist. Calvin might see Li Hsia as cool and confident in “Harmonious Residences”, and on the surface, she carries herself very differently from the occasionally vacant Sophia; however, upon reading “Stray”, we taste that very same emptiness in Li Hsia that we do in Sophia.

There are plenty of other nuggets that ring true, such as the wry depiction in “Trondheim” of a certain type of girl in junior colleges: “The pretty ones in the arts stream who giggled and whispered to each other during their Maths lectures, if they went to Maths lectures. In their spare time, they read a lot of Sylvia Plath and wrote indifferent poetry for the school magazine.” Here, however, is where the main tension of the book lies. Instances of satire like the above are almost exclusively targeted at those who might have experienced a particularly privileged upbringing. Tiang knows his audience well, and shows no hesitation in skewering those archetypes. But this collection is inevitably locked in its upper middle-class outlook, and it is easy to get tired of its self-indulgent cast. “Tick” in particular is a decent account of every writer’s nightmare, but at the end, we are left unengaged and unimpressed by this prolonged complaint.

It is interesting that the only story named “National Day” (and the one most closely linked to the book’s title) undertakes the difficult task of writing from the perspectives of foreign workers. One wonders whether this perhaps crosses a line in speaking for those whose voices are typically marginalised in Singaporean society, but Tiang’s sensitive language works well here. Some of the sentences cut straight to the heart: Fifty million dollar houses are as “expensive as the moon”, while another section calls attention to the sad irony of ownership – as the workers travel by ferry to St John’s Island, they stake verbal claims over the buildings they’ve helped to construct, even though they may never have stepped inside due to the unaffordable admission fees.

In many ways, this story encapsulates Tiang’s project – like the workers on St John’s Island, we may technically be in Singapore, but we are never quite there either. Instead, it exists as more of an imagined space than one of real geography. Tiang adopts the first person plural in “National Day” not, as another review suggests, to reduce the individual characters, but to make Singaporeans realise that indeed, we are a nation of immigrants in both the literal and figurative sense. As uncomfortable as that realisation may be, like the young woman in “Meatpacking”, Tiang’s collection insists on “pressing a bruise” – gently nudging us to understand that we have a heritage of immigration that we can’t shake off, no matter where we go.

It Never Rains On National Day is available online from Epigram and at leading Singapore bookstores.