The Heartsick Diaspora And Other Stories
The title of the collection, The Heartsick Diaspora drew my attention amongst the various books that were showcased at the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2019. As a resident of Singapore, member of the Indian diaspora, and always interested in reading writers of the diaspora, I promptly put it on my TBR list for 2020.
To be honest, it wasn’t just the title but also the intriguing cover with its rich red tone (reminiscent of Chinese restaurants in the US) that made me look closely at this collection of short stories. The muted gold letters with a pair of black chopsticks grasping a slice of toast was a clever indication of the east-west connection, and an irresistible invitation.
However, it wasn’t until the enforced social distancing mandated by the Coronavirus that I could devote enough time to this collection of fourteen short stories written by Elaine Chiew, a writer of Malaysian origin who lives in Singapore.
Tales of the diaspora
One of my pain points when it comes to South Asian writing in English is the tendency of authors to cater to the Western gaze. In order to appeal to readers and publishers they do this by exoticising the setting using flowery and unnecessary descriptions of food, clothes, and daily life. Chiew is not immune to this tendency, especially in the first few stories in the book.
“Run of the molars” is a story that is filled with too much description, of food, of street names, of language, that highlight the foreignness of its protagonists instead of focusing on the heart of the story. Despite living in multicultural Singapore and being an ‘ethnic writer’ myself, I found “A thoroughly modern ghost story of other origin” and “Confessions of an irresolute ethnic writer” difficult to relate to in spite of their interesting titles and magical construction.
Chiew is in her element when handling contemporary diasporic dilemmas with humour like the ones faced by the young mother in “Rap of the Tiger Mother” and the funny, although not completely unexpected denouement of the story featuring the Cordon Bleu-trained chef in “Chronicles of the Culinary Poseur”.
The title story The Heartsick Diaspora appears somewhere in the middle of the collection and that’s when I began enjoying the stories. Featuring a motley cast of aspiring writers of Singaporean or Malaysian Chinese heritage who meet at various spots to discuss their writing projects, this story delves into the dynamics of such groups, and gets the ethnic angle perfectly. It was interesting to see how Chiew alludes to all the previously featured stories in this collection by attributing them as work-in-progress scripts of the various characters.
The second half of the book is where the treasures lie. My favorite story was “Friends of the Kookaburra” which investigates the motivations behind a deep college friendship that arises between all-American Irene and Malaysian Chinese Sansan who feels “simultaneously grateful and like a charity case,” and wonders if her ethnicity is a factor in being chosen as a friend. It is easy to see Chiew’s intuitive understanding of these nuances comes from her own experience of having been educated in the US.
“Florida rednecks love moo goo gai pan,” on the other hand deals with the travails of Khek Lin (called Cake), an impoverished student who tries to make ends meet by waitressing at Chinese restaurants when her father is unable to continue funding her education. The story brilliantly illuminates the veiled racism, overt sexual harassment, and common indignities of poverty through a simple narrative.
The complicated parent-child relationship unique to Asian cultures that value filial piety is beautifully brought out in “Chinese Almanac” where the concept of ‘saving face’ comes up repeatedly. As the central character discloses,
There’s a hierarchy of sins: being gay is not as heinous as being unfilial.
Getting to the heart of art
Stories tell us much about ourselves as we witness the lives led by fictional characters. In “Love, Nude”, Teck Hin, the artist protagonist asks:
“Isn’t that what art is: fabricated reality? Two-dimensional illusions that attempt to impart another reality – of substance, and depth, light and color – when, in fact, all you are playing with is just surface?”
Chiew, through her writing, makes us aware of this truth in her telling of the various stories, some contemporary, some historical. Her task is not easy, considering that the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese who migrate to the West bear the burden of being ‘double diaspora”, ethnically Chinese but without pure nationalist or cultural associations.
As an award-winning short story writer, Chiew does a great job of telling these stories that need to be told. Overturning cultural stereotypes requires a multitude of stories. Despite the warning served through a Chinese fortune cookie to “never say anything important with words,” The Heartsick Diaspora is a welcome addition to this under-served category,
My opinion: An interesting and welcome change from standard, stereotypical narratives; of particular relevance to readers interested in stories of the diaspora.
Have you read this book? What other books about diasporas would you recommend? Drop me a note in comments.
Photo credit Ranjani Rao’s personal archives