Reviews / June 2014 (Issue 24)

A Test of Authenticity: Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction

by Grant Hamilton


Jason Erik Lundberg (editor), Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction, Math Paper Press, 2012. 436 pgs.

In the introduction to his collection of new Singaporean short speculative fiction, Jason Lundberg tells his reader that "what you hold in your hands is a compilation of the best original speculative fiction being written in Singapore today." It is a bold claim, but one that might just be true. Lundberg continues:

Here are tales that are recognisably science fiction and fantasy, and others that blend genres and tropes, including absurdism, police procedural, fairy tales, steampunk, pre- and post-apocalypse, political satire and first alien contact. These twenty-two stories … explore the fundamental singularity of the Lion City.

Indeed, the collection casts a wide net and in so doing boasts an impressive array of writing styles and concerns. However, I suspect that for anybody who is holding the book in their hands, it is not so much the eclecticism of the collection that is of interest, as it is the implicit claim that these texts are representative or indicative of a specifically Singaporean speculative fiction. Put another way, the question one asks as one turns the volume over to read on the back cover that "this book is a celebration of the vibrant creative power underlying Singapore's inventive prose stylists" circles around how these stories can be marked as quintessentially Singaporean. What is it about these stories that allows one to say this is Singaporean speculative fiction rather than speculative fiction from any other territory?

The obvious answer is that these pieces display a good deal of local knowledge—whether that is knowledge of the geography of the city and its immediate surrounds (such as the street names that are ubiquitous in the collection); the sporadic but liberal use of various Chinese dialects; the use of "typical" Singaporean names or genuine local knowledge of the quotidian aspects of life (the most impressive to my mind occurring in Isa Kamari's "Green Man Plus," in which he writes of his main protagonist: "He pulls out his purple Senior Citizens Concession card, which allows him to travel at a discounted rate by bus and MRT train"—senior citizens planning a holiday to Singapore take note!)

I think it is fair to say that moments such as these in Lundberg's collection produce a certain aura of Singapore for the reader. But, equally, I think it is fair to say that today such explicit shows of cultural specificity are no guarantee of authenticity. If it were true that Singaporean writing could be recognised simply in terms of such displays of local knowledge, then one could turn Herman Melville into Singapore's greatest author simply by changing the first line of Moby Dick—"Call me Grandmaster Tang" (to borrow a character from Yuen Kit Mun's "Feng Shui Train"). Of course, anyone can play the game of substitution—a European name for a Chinese one; an American avenue for a Singaporean street; a hamburger for char siew bao—but I don't think that anybody can write Singaporean fiction. The problem here is with the notion of authenticity itself. Either one accepts that in this age of the global village authenticity is something that belongs to history, or one believes that authenticity itself has changed shape and has been driven into subterranean spaces away from the casual gaze.

If one accepts the death of authenticity, then a collection of Singaporean speculative fiction—or any other kind of fiction qualified by region—is an anachronism that displays a way of thinking about literature that globalized society cannot with any sense of honesty facilitate. However, if one believes that authenticity is something that can be retrieved against all odds, then one must be prepared to interrogate the less obvious spaces of literature. This, I think, is where Lundberg would position his collection.

Read together, the stories certainly enliven an unexpected image of the Lion City—from the repetition of the iconography of the fish, captured most explicitly in Shelley Bryant's "Rewrites," grows a genuine interest among the writers in the marine (Wei Fen Lee's "Welcome to the Pond" and Noelle de Jesus' "Mirage"). Stories such as these exhibit an eco-critical voice that allows one to bring this interest in the marine into the wider context of a concern for the natural world—something that in this collection is often put in contrast to the cancerous form of the concrete city. While one might expect Singaporean fiction of all kinds to exude a strong scent of the mistrust of authority—and, indeed, one smells it in Lundberg's collection, too—it is this turn to the aquatic that is fascinating. Why the fish rather than the lion? Why the sea rather than the jungle? Why the natural world over the world of Man?

This last question is a little easier to answer than the others. In a world of human devising—a world in which, it has to be said, Singapore has fared well—it is easy to forget Man's place among the natural. Science and society have their ways of confining the individual to a particular way of thinking and acting. But the natural world breaks this internment of spirit and allows us to be "new" in our lives—to experience again the world like a child. This is why stories like Stephanie Ye's "The Story of the Kiss," Marc de Faoite's "Last Time Kopitiam" and Carrick Ang's "Waiting for the Snow" will always be popular not only in Singapore but in every society crafted by capitalism—for a brief moment the "real world" of inhibition and commitment reveals its essential magic and the reader becomes a child entranced. And this tells us much more about authentic life (if it exists at all) under capitalism than any political or historical tract could hope to muster. The question is whether this eco-critical voice is comparatively stronger in Singaporean fiction than in other national literatures. If it is, then it gives one an excellent way into thinking about a unique Singaporean fiction, especially if it is put into conversation with the aquatic elements that one finds in this collection of short stories.

To my mind, there are some stories that clearly stand above the rest in this collection, but I will keep them to myself. Lundberg should be congratulated for bringing these works together and seeing the project through to completion. On the whole, I think this collection of short stories heralds a bright future for speculative fiction in Singapore.

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