New Straits Times
Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Fine Cuts from three Generations
This anthology, The Merlion & the Hibiscus, as the name suggests, brings together a collection of short stories from 17 established Singapore and Malaysian writer’s. Unlike the curate’s eggs, all the stories in the collection are both well-written and well crafted and make without exception an entertaining read.
The editors have, with uncommon sense, chosen writers who span three generations, from post-Merdeka writers such as Lloyd Fernando to Lee KuanYew babies Hwee Hwee Tan and Alfian Sa’at, giving the reader a panoramic view of 50 years of Malaysian/Singapore literature.
The writers deal with a myriad of subjects from colonialism (M Shanmughalingam’s Victoria and her Kimono which struck a much welcome humorous note in the anthology) and the Japanese Occupation (LlyodFernando’s engaging Surja Singh and Gopal Baratham’s The Interview) to the loss of innocence (Kee Thuan Chye’s A Sense of Home, Ovidia Yu’s Kimmy and Chua Guat Eng’s Seventh Uncle) and one of the more immediate issues facing Generation X, the search for individuality within a constricting family/societal structure (Simon Tay’s My Cousin Tim).
While the subject matter and the narrative technique vary, many of the issues central to the works are similar. Not surprisingly for writers from two relatively young, multicultural nations, issues such as identity and displacement, whether racial, social and emotional were common themes. There is an immediate resonance between K.S. Maniam’s Mala which tells the story of a young Malysian-Indian estate girl and Zuraidah Ibrahim’s story of an unemployed Singapore Malay (Hamid and the Hand of Fate) because of the similar problems facing the two marginalized communities that serve as background to these stories. This is even more interesting when juxtaposed with Karin Raslan’s Neighbours which resolves around the shallow lives of well-heeled Bumigeosie living in the metropolis. The role of women, as mother, daughter and wife, was also well-explored with 11 of the 17 stories choosing female characters to be the main protagonists in their stories.
If there was an award for the best story to be handed out, it would have to be given to Alfian sa’at’s Bugis. While all the stories were interesting, there wasan originality and a core of truth in this deceptively simple story of a teenage girl’s coming of age which engages the reader from the start and makes the work stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. While the work also discussed wider issues of religious and social conformity, it also more significantly told the story of being a young Malay in Singapore with all its underlying social and political implications. There are many reasons to buy this book, if for nothing else than to read this piece of work by an important new writer.
By Rahel Joseph