by Kevin Tan Kwan Wei
Verena Tay, Spaces: People/Places, Math Paper Press, 2016, 184 pgs.
2016 has been a productive year for Singaporean author, Verena Tay. Apart from starting a PhD in creative writing at Swansea University, she also edited four anthologies of short fiction (three in her ongoing Balik Kampung series and one entitled Singapore Love Stories).
Oh, and she also found time to publish her second short story collection, Spaces: People/Places. As the title suggests, it focusses on how evolving times and spaces affect our emotions and experiences. In Tay's own words, the collection "explores in different combinations the interior landscapes of the various protagonists and the exterior settings amidst which each protagonist functions."
I take issue with Tay's own evaluation of her work. While it is true that the stories in Spaces: People/Places feature both characters and their "interior landscapes" as well as the "exterior settings" and environments in which they operate, this is could be said of almost any work of fiction. But apart from being vague and sounding slightly pretentious, the real issue with her statement is that does not do justice to the originality and creativity found of her work in the collection.
The most ambitious story, "Femme Fatale," comes in at twenty-six pages, and is the longest of the eleven entries. It explores the line between fact and fiction, as it is told from the perspective of the cabaret star Mimi Wong, who in 1970, was found guilty for the murder of her Japanese lover and became the first woman to be executed after Singapore's independence.
In this story, Tay uses the lyrics of old ditties like Grace Chang's "Ja-ja-jam-bo" and Teresa Teng's "The Moon Represents My Heart" as poetic introductions to the tale's different sections. Both songs are famous for their catchy tunes and wistful lyrics.
I found the use of "Ja-ja-jam-bo" particularly apt. The song first appeared in the 1960 film The Wild Wild Rose, featuring Grace Chang in the role of a charismatic nightclub singer, not unlike Mimi Wong herself. Tay's decision to use the song is ingenious, as it not only provides a superficial reference to the story's historical setting, but also a way to reveal Mimi's innermost feelings and thoughts, thus helping establish Mimi's motivations and subsequent actions. The lyrics of "Ja-ja-jam-bo" preface the entire story like a poetic prologue:
You see me, I see you
You keep looking at me, I'm so happy
You see me, I see you
You keep looking at me, I'm so proud
You don't have to ask me why I'm so happy, so proud, so alive
So why on earth do you ask me
I don't want to, I also won't, I can't honestly say to you
Not only do these lyrics provide a nice reference to Mimi's job as a songstress, but they also reflect her coquettish behaviour throughout the short.
Tay achieves a similar effect with Teresa Teng's "The Moon Represents My Heart":
Your soft, soft kiss, has moved my heart
That feeling so deep I long for to this day
You ask me how deep is my love
I love you so much
Think about it, take a close look
The moon represents my heart
This time round the emotive lyrics offer a soft foreshadowing of the obsessive love that will possess Mimi. Tay's meticulous efforts in these song choices, and in the crafting of the story itself, elevate a simple crime of passion into a dark tragedy. As the longest of the stories, Tay is patient and confident in letting the details and drama slowly unspool.
"Femme Fatale" is reflective of the book's core thematic concern: change is an inevitable, and at times volatile, force. Mimi is particularly unable to cope with change and uncertainty. The sudden announcement by her Japanese lover that his wife and child will be coming to Singapore sends her fairy tale existence into a violent tailspin. Her once seemingly perfect love story has been tainted, and Mimi responds with a misplaced sense of self-righteousness. As her obsessive love is transmuted into jealous hatred towards her lover's wife, we, like Mimi, are rendered helpless in the face of events. We can only watch as her life hurtles towards self-destruction.
This thematic exploration of change as an uncontrollable and intrusive force is evident elsewhere in the collection. In "The Sensualist," Tay writes from the perspective of a man with a hair fetish. Although he is drawn to female hair for the sexual pleasure it brings him, Tay describes his fascination in dangerous and morbid terms. For example, the female victim of his obsessive attentions is said to be "Medusa-like" with hair that resembles a "dancing snake."
It is in such descriptions that the reader begins to suspect that the protagonist is motivated by more than a simple sexual predilection for hair. We later learn that he was abused as a child, and that his only solace was his mother's love and the protective embrace of her long, luscious locks. And like with Mimi, we discover that he is helpless in the face of change and unable to cope with the loss love. The death of his mother from cancer is the birth of his fetish, transmuting his affection for her into an odious lust for another woman's maternal-like mane.
The similarities to "Femme Fatale" do not end there. "The Sensualist" also displays Tay's ability to turn plausible events into scaffolds for tales oozing with melancholy. Although not strictly based on actual events like "Femme Fatale," the incidents of "The Sensualist" are highly similar to sexual harassment cases we read about in the news. Likewise, the protagonist's Oedipal nightmare in "The Sensualist" is much like the tragedy in which Mimi Wong finds herself drowning. Finally, both stories are able to elicit sympathy for the otherwise detestable characters (a deranged maniac and crazed homewrecker respectively).
Spaces: People/Places is essentially a collection of stories on the feeling of helplessness that is inherent to the human condition. It is about men and women who are unable to control the mercurial environment around them and thus become slaves to circumstance. But Tay's commentary on helplessness is not just brought out through intense melodrama as in the "The Sensualist" and "Femme Fatale," it can also be found in relatively more meditative pieces. In "The Building," she turns the modern world into a dystopia in which we have ceded control of our daily lives to technology. The comical description of an auto-flush toilet and how "every slight movement of your body induces the automatic censor" or "how taking an elevator is akin to placing "your life totally in the control of an anonymous computer" are some examples of Tay's technophobia. But unlike the external emotional pressures that encroach upon the characters in "The Sensualist" and "Femme Fatale," in "The Building" it is technological change that is presented as the all-consuming and overwhelming force.
This is not to say that Tay explores this theme as effectively across all the stories, and I found the cohesiveness of the collection wanting at times. To be fair, she has assembled this anthology from her past writings, and although she has tried to group them under the title of Spaces: People/Places, it is unlikely she wrote all eleven stories with a fixed theme in mind. If anything, the pieces here are a reflection of her authorial interests.
The weakest point in the Space: People and Places is probably "The Road," which tells the story of a girl's supernatural-like encounters with violent mongrels and a ghostly Ferrari driver. It is an odd addition to an otherwise coherent collection, and I found its the vivid descriptions of location particularly jarring. Tay lavishes detail on the setting, telling us how "tightly packed modern housing and concrete pavements give way to trees, vines and shrubbery gone lush and wild" and how "the trees arch over the road in an imperfect canopy." Yet when one finishes the story, one cannot fathom its meaning at all. In particular, it lacks the focus on the "interior landscapes" that Tay promised in the introduction, but which can be found be in the insightful observations of "The Building" and the intense character studies of "Femme Fatale." Indeed, its focus on locale makes "The Road" more of a fit for Tay's Balik Kampung anthology.
Personally, I would not have included "The Road" at all, as its presence subtracts from the thematic heft of the collection. Its effect is rather like a misjudged cameo in an otherwise engaging film, an unnecessary distraction that momentarily takes one out of the world on the screen. Nonetheless, the addition of "The Road" into a generally homogeneous mix is not fatal. At eight pages, it is the shortest story in the collection, and as such, relatively forgettable.
Perhaps it is best that the reader ignores the collection's somewhat deceptive title, as well as Tay's introduction, as both are generic and could probably apply to any literary collection. Tay's authorial interest in studying the powerlessness one faces as he/she wrestles with our mortality is what truly defines this collection.
Kevin Tan Kwan Wei currently contributes articles to Your Commonwealth
, a youth blog supported by The Commonwealth Youth Programme. He has served as a volunteer judge for The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition, and is one of the inaugural participants of the Young Critics Mentorship Programme. He was recently awarded the Leading Change Journalism Bursary 2017 by the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust.