by Arthur Lewis Thompson
Heng Siok Tian, Phan Ming Yen, Yeow Kai Chai, Yong Shu Hoong (authors), The Adopted: Stories from Angkor, Ethos Books, 2015. 176 pgs.
Four Singaporean writers set off on a five-day trip to tour the ancient temples at Angkor. Inspired by their surroundings, they compose one short story per day. Each author thus contributes five stories to the anthology. A set of recurring motifs are agreed upon, apparently for the sake of coherence, as if the common setting of Angkor, or the shared vacation to Cambodia, is not enough to justify or unify this collection of short fiction.
The motifs are important to the authors. Phan Ming Yen makes this excruciatingly clear in his introduction. It feels pedantic, as if one might not pick up on the, at times forced, repetition of garish quotations, such as "the universe just vanished in front of me and there was only one thing I could have done," or the verses from Ecclesiastes (3:1–15), or the fact that many characters throughout The Adopted: Stories from Angkor are adopted, disabled and preoccupied with the spirit world. The authors themselves seem preoccupied with vanity. One recurring motif is an absence of mirrors. Phan wants you to know that this was inspired by their Siem Reap hotel room having only one mirror, in the bathroom. It is something so unremarkable that I had to laugh. Immediately, I pictured the writers animatedly discussing the greater significance of this interior design quirk whilst on vacation in a country fraught with poverty and scarred by genocide. Perhaps if Phan had allowed the readers to discover these motifs on their own, they would not sound so ridiculous. But, just in case you were skimming, these motifs are once again outlined in the Postscript.
A self-congratulatory tone is palpable throughout the introduction and prefaces. The authors are proud of this laundry list of motifs, proud that they are able to use them in different contexts, as if this regurgitation of cheap symbolism instils the anthology with some deeper meaning or higher purpose. It is a funny thing, since it is made so blatantly clear that this anthology was forged on a whim during a vacation. What these motifs actually bring to mind is high school exams. Reading The Adopted is perhaps how an examiner feels when grading a pile of essays composed on a list of common topics.
Using recurring motifs to build bridges between unrelated characters is nothing new. Haruki Murakami, Ruth Ozeki, Mo Yan and David Mitchell all do this convincingly. The writers of The Adopted, however, do not. Here, motifs are strung together simply for the sake of justifying the anthology's existence. There is no overarching link, no greater purpose. Both Yong and Yeow admit that they conducted almost no research on Angkor or Cambodia—which may be the reason why their motifs amount to nothing more than empty labels applicable to any setting. Phan explains that these motifs were chosen to challenge the writers' creativity, much like an exercise from a creative writing course. Indeed, it was a challenge. As you read, you cannot help noticing that the authors constantly bend over backwards to incorporate recurring themes, resulting in muddled storylines and stunted character development.
The back cover invites readers to "enter a labyrinth." This description could not be more accurate. Writers of The Adopted mostly publish poetry. Short stories are not their forte. Apart from Yeow, whose work is comparatively more plot-driven, the prose throughout is clogged with distractions. Plot defines the short story. Writing a short story is knowing how to fuse the plot with descriptions and visuals whilst moving the narrative along. The Adopted is saturated with visuals and symbolism but has lost the plot.
Journeying through the labyrinth is made even more treacherous by poor word choice. This is mostly an issue for Yong and Phan. Yong seems very comfortable with adverbs yet ill-at-ease when it comes to the verb said. He is determined to use any other word: mutter, curse, complain, correct, mumble, grunt, suggest, etc. It's as if Yong doubts whether the reader will grasp the nature of his dialogue. Then there's his constant reference to mainstream films: Crash, Friends with Benefits, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Exorcist, etc. This is how Yong adds depth to his characters. Another way he does this is by having them talk about sex. It makes you wonder if his stories are narrated by a group of sex-deprived film critics. Phan's prose, on the other hand, is less cluttered but still problematic. As with his introduction, his stories are full of unnecessary explanation, both in narration and dialogue. He seems worried that readers will forget what is happening, or who the characters are, from one page to the next. If his prose were clear or inspired, then he would have no need to worry. Phan must sense that his audience is on the brink of sleep while reading his so-called horror stories.
Phan's work is slow-paced. He calls it Chinese water torture. This is not an exaggeration. However, it is not clear what makes these horror stories scary. "The Tenant" holds promise with a skull found in a vacated apartment, but this is quickly abandoned. A ghostly girl appears here and there in others. But the old women, the central protagonists of his work, have zero personality. They are caricatures of Chinese stereotypes. It is difficult to feel their fear. Meanwhile, Yong gets preachy as his portion of the anthology goes on. Just when you think he is going to reveal a big secret that ties up all his sex-obsessed, film-loving characters, he ends everything with a political rant. Yong's portion is also crammed with social issues. He touches on miscarriage, infidelity, divorce, homosexuality, racism, xenophobia, and (of course) adoption all in the span of thirty-two pages. It is noble. It is confusing.
Heng and Yeow's work has more potential for further exploration. They need only abandon the laundry list of motifs. Heng should also drop her first piece, "Asparas on Wat." It bears no relevance to the otherwise engaging plot in her subsequent stories about Singaporeans working shady jobs in Amsterdam. Despite their slow uptake, Heng and Yeow succeed at creating characters with voices which are unpretentious and real. The movie stars, extra-terrestrial tourists, sage macaques, drug dealers and archaeologists are all relatable, no matter the reader. Heng and Yeow do not rely on labels to create characters but allow the voices of characters to be heard instead, to speak for themselves. Characters build rapport with the reader as they reveal themselves within the context of the story. At the same time, the plot moves steadily forward.
The Adopted is a collection of stories written on a whim, inspired by a historical site in a foreign country during a short vacation. As with their vacation, the writers' inspiration also seems to have been fleeting. This is probably why their work comes off so forced. It feels like the writers are trying to convince themselves that they have something to say, when really they are grasping at any leads, hence, the preoccupation with motifs. These stories, like the writers, possess only a superficial connection with Cambodia. Any other poor country with religious historical sites could easily replace the current setting. Take your pick. The title is The Adopted, but really it should be The Appropriated. A premise (Angkor) and a stereotype (of Cambodians) has been appropriated at the writers' convenience, without any desire for further understanding. This is all done for the sake of recreating a tourist experience. What you end up with is a glimpse into how a group of educated Singaporeans fantasises about poverty and lost culture.
Arthur Lewis Thompson is a member of the editorial team at the London Journal of Fiction. Born and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, he now lives and works in Hong Kong where he conducts linguistic research. Like everyone else, he too keeps a blog and is working on a novel. Visit his website
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