[Saturday Reads] GatheringReaders at NIE Dive Deep into Singapore Short Story Collections in Sa’at’s “Malay Sketches” and Koe’s “Ministry of Moral Panic”

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Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just booklove miscellany in general.

GatheringReaders at NIE: Malay Sketches

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Not in photo: Asst/Prof Chin Ee Loh from the English Language and Literature Academic Group who was responsible for securing us copies of the books via Ethos Publishing.

I have been very remiss in posting our book club meetings here at GatheringBooks what with my recent travels and quite a great deal of university commitments. So this is a much-delayed posting of our group’s thoughts about two award-winning short story collections written by respected authors here in Singapore.

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Malay Sketches

Stories by: Alfian Sa’at Illustrations by: Shahril Nizam
Published by: Ethos Books, 2012
Copies provided by Ethos Books. Book photos taken by me.

This was the first local book that we read as a group, and we were one in noting that it provided deep illumination about contemporary realities in Singapore as well as the various spaces that locals had to navigate culturally, socio-linguistically, and as citizens in an increasingly-cosmopolitan city-state. We also wondered as a group what the Malay community’s reaction was to this collection of stories, meant to provide a snapshot, portraits really, of the Malay experience – whether they felt it was an authentic representation of their lived realities.

We seem to be having a great time in our discussion. :)

We seem to be having a great time in our discussion. 🙂

Reading the Foreword written by Isrizal Mohamed Isa provided a historical context of the title Malay Sketches, which was apparently in reference to the original 1895 volume written by British Resident-General Frank Swettenham. One may even regard this as reclaiming the Malay experience as perceived finally from an insider’s vantage, told with a great command of the language of the colonizer. The brief stories, with black and white portraits by Shahril Nizam, were spoken with truth (oftentimes in tired resignation or just a simple matter-of-fact tone really) and distilled insightful observations that constitute daily life.

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We also enjoyed sharing our personal favourites from the stories – and just like all short story collections, there were those that resonated with us deeply while others did not really speak to us that much. A socio-linguist friend of mine mentioned how he plans on using one of Alfian’s stories, “The Barbershop” in his own linguistics class as it explored the acquisition of language in a starkly-real social context and how the use of language demonstrates the not-too-subtle representation of social class and one’s standing, acceptance, belonging in a cultural community.

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I personally sensed the disciplined restraint in the writing which for me influenced my affective response to the book, as the writing felt so detached and with marked blunted affect that I felt distinctly like an outsider looking in. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the stories do provide gleaned realizations and examined awakenings unpacked with what our local friends refer to as typical-Singaporean-pragmatism. Really worth a read to get a sense of the varied faces of this vibrant city-state.

GatheringReaders at NIE: Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe

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There were actually five of us who came to discuss this Singapore Literature Prize Winning Novel in 2014, but our colleague from English Language and Literature, Chin Ee, left early so was not part of this we-fie moment. Mark Baildon also came late due to a misunderstanding about the timing of the book club session – too bad, really as we would have loved to hear his thoughts about this sizzling-hot short story collection.

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Ministry of Moral Panic

Stories by: Amanda Lee Koe
Published by: Epigram Books, 2013
Book borrowed from a good friend.

Admittedly, I do judge a book by its cover. And while this title won the Singapore Literature Prize Award for Fiction for 2014, it was really the glaring pinkness of the cover that made me very reluctant to pick it up from the shelves. I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t the only one who had the same book-cover-issue in our book club, as another one of my good friends also mentioned that the cover did not work for her seeing how the red of the eye does not really match the overall visual design that perhaps the book designer was aiming for. That being said, I found myself drawn to practically all the stories in this collection. While there was also that studied restraint in the writing, I felt that Koe was boldly reshaping boundaries in her narratives, pushing and pulling into issues otherwise perceived to be too controversial to be articulated – be it maid-employer dalliances and same-sex relationships.

The group also talked about whether readers’ responses will differ had the novel been written by a man and whether the reader can tell by the writing style whether or not a man or a woman has written the story. We all had differing views about this, but I also argued that Ministry of Moral Panic couldn’t have been written by a man at all so it is a moot question and our sociolinguist member concurred which validated my response. Stereotypical notions aside, one of the reasons why I felt so certain was because I felt that the novel had such an intimate and intuitive understanding of the female psyche (from childhood to old age) for it to be written by a man. I also saw the male characters as mere foils, just spineless posterboard cut-outs, with hardly any conviction – nothing but background noise, really, for this full-bodied excavation of the female consciousness and all its affective entanglements.

This was a sizzling exciting read that I would perhaps go back to again and again. Amanda Lee Koe is a new favourite and I would definitely read more of her novels/poetry in the future. I am excited to see how she would push the boundaries of Singapore literature further in her fearless and intelligent writing.

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Ministry of Moral Panic: Singapore Literature Prize, 2014; Longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2014

#AWBRead2015 Update: 88 (35)

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