by Arielle Stambler
Frank Stewart (Series Editor) and Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Guest Editor), Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore, University of Hawai'i Press, 2014. 240 pgs.
At first glance, the man swims towards civilization through a boundless ocean. Mid-front stroke, his arms stretch toward the skyscrapers of a distant harbour.
But upon looking more closely at the photograph, it becomes clear that this ocean is in fact the Marina Bay Sands resort pool.
Nina Papiorek's photograph "The Swimmer" plays with our depth perception and, in turn, captures one of the most pressing concerns of the writers anthologised in Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain's Starry Island, a collection of new fiction, nonfiction, poetry and photography from Singapore. It is an ambitious anthology, but the quality of the work is high and the questions it asks are important. In particular, a grouping of stories and poetry explores the responsibility of art to reflect on the potential losses endured by a society that has so thoroughly tamed its wilderness—a society dotted with infinity pools and skyscraping resorts instead of rough ocean harbours and dark jungles.
In the anthology's first story, Philip Jeyaretnam's "Painting the Tiger," a father takes his toddler son to the zoo to see the Sumatran tiger up close, compelling him to reflect upon the extinction of the wild tiger in Singapore. For Ah Leong, an insurance salesman and amateur painter, the tiger is the icon of Singapore's original wildness, its "dark jungles all around." For Ah Leong's son, David, however, seeing exotic animals at the zoo feels akin to seeing them on television—a glass screen alleviates all of the boy's primal fear.
After a disappointing visit, Ah Leong dreams that the captive Sumatran tiger escapes from the zoo and finds its way to his condo. He tells the policemen who have come to recapture the tiger to let it go free but realises a cruel irony: the only place in Singapore for the tiger to live is the zoo. There is no viable wilderness left for the tiger. He is so disturbed by this realisation that he sets to work on a painting of a real wild tiger, a painting that he wishes will "bring [the tiger] back to life on our soil." He feels a responsibility to fellow Singaporeans to create a concrete representation of the tiger that will last beyond the real tiger's extinction.
Wong Yoon Wah's personal essay "Cast from Paradise" shirks the idealism of Jeyaretnam's story and owns up to the irreversibility of man's domestication. Although he grew up near a Malaysian jungle, as an adult, Wong has become accustomed to Singaporean city life. During an overnight stay in the jungle with friends one summer, he realises that "those who tumble into the city and stay there for too long are unable to return to the mysterious embrace of the great natural world."
The pitch dark of Wong's cabin induces him to reflect upon his "early years in the mysterious jungle." The chief entertainment of those years was instigating fights between jungle creatures—mostly fish, spiders and ants. But Wong remembers that the ants seemed offered up by "nature … as toys for village children." Wong tamed nature at the edge of the jungle as play. Although not as distant as David's, his interaction with the natural world was also safe.
But for the adult Wong, the jungle is no longer so enjoyable. After his trip, he reads an article about a tiger that killed a man in the same jungle he had been visiting. Wong interprets the article as a warning to "never try to return to the natural world or the amusements [he'd] enjoyed as a schoolboy." It is dangerous for both man and tiger to trespass on the territory of the other. Humans no longer belong in the wild just as tigers do not belong in civilization. Wong is locked out of his childhood Eden, and Singapore is locked out of the romantic, Edenic notion of the wild that Jeyaretnam's protagonist yearns for.
But even Ah Leong eventually realises that Singapore's wild origins are long gone, choosing midway through "Painting the Tiger" to paint not a real wild tiger but an imagined ideal tiger—the "archetype of all tigers that have ever lived, just as its creator pictured it, unchanging and eternal, the ideal that even extinction will not erase." By trying to depict not a real tiger but this ideal tiger on canvas, Ah Leong becomes less concerned with the loss of the tiger and more concerned with the fate of his people and the "loss of spirit that follows the destruction of wildness." What is this "loss of spirit?" This is a question that Ah Leong's art and many of the works in this anthology try to understand.
David offers Ah Leong some optimism. Through his innocent eyes, "the tiger's majesty was irrefutable." When Ah Leong finishes his painting of the ideal tiger, David sees it and cries, "Tiger … King Jungle." In the boy's eyes, the work of art is equivalent to the animal itself. Can art overcome the psychological loss left by the destruction of wildness? Jeyaretnam seems to think the situation is bleak but that art may provide hope. Although in losing our connection with the wild, we too are becoming tamed like the zoo tiger, art, at the very least, awakens us to this reality.
Many other works in this anthology engage with this power of art to contemplate (and perhaps compensate for) loss—whether it be of the wilderness, of one's home country or of one's native language. A number of these are selections from books of flash fiction, such as Alfian Sa'at's Malay Sketches and O Thiam Chin's Under the Sun (both of which have previously been reviewed in Cha). These selections, often taken out of the context in which they were originally published, provide illuminating new juxtapositions, asking readers to put together their own pictures of the worlds these authors describe. In fact, the entire anthology can be viewed as a collage, displaying Singaporean writers' work in multiple narrative forms and engaging readers to see Singapore as itself a pastiche of different cultures and international influences.
But, to its credit, the anthology does not push any one definition of Singaporean literature and contains the musings of authors who struggle with this definition. In Jee Leong Koh's twenty prose poetry selections from The Pillow Book, an excitement about "the efflorescence of Singaporean poetry in the last two decades" is combined with an anxiety about the fragility of this very literature. Through his work, we can see a connection between the tiger and the Singaporean writer: both are mythologised; yet, both struggle to survive in modern-day Singapore.
Koh certainly sees himself as part of an endangered breed, fearing "that, like my country, I am too small to survive" and that Singaporean poetry has "sprung up like wildflowers on a hillside, [but] it may die without altering the landscape." Ah Leong fears the loss of wild things, Wong accepts the loss of his childhood Eden and Koh worries that the recent flowering of Singaporean poetry could lead to nothing lasting, that the nation's literary voice is searching for staying power.
Starry Island explores the possibilities for that voice to reflect upon loss and change. It is a collection that has and creates momentum.