Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Synchrony and Diachrony: Philip Holden's Heaven Has Eyes

by Michael Tsang


Philip Holden, Heaven Has Eyes, Epigram Books, 2016. 272 pgs.


The meaning of the Chinese saying "heaven has eyes" is that people doing bad deeds will get their karmic due one day because transcendental Heaven above is watching. Naming both the eponymous story and the collection Heaven Has Eyes shows that Holden is using his proficiency in Chinese to give the phrase multi-layered meanings. In this his first collection of short fiction, he combines his mastery of literary techniques and his power of observation to reveal nuanced aspects of Singapore that lie beneath its neoliberal glamour.

In the context of a country that has a controversial reputation about freedom of speech, the expression "heaven has eyes" may remind one of Big Brother-type surveillance and censorship. This is an especially sensitive issue for "foreign" workers who need to apply for permits to stay in Singapore. The story "It's All in a Dream" captures the anxiety of an academic who, despite having permanent residency and contrary to usual practice, has to wait for weeks for his re-entry permit to renewed. At one point, the anxiety triggers the academic's self-reflection about his life's trajectory, his academic work and his outspokenness against the country's higher education policies:

He had always thought that he was safe. Lucky. He had come to the Island two decades ago, […] had grown with the universities he worked at, moving from a teaching institution to a "world class" establishment that rose higher each year in global rankings. […] He found himself leading a strange double life. On the Island, he worked, as well as he was able, inside and outside university to help establish dialogues for the future, and for change: he was critical. When he travelled to conferences abroad, he continually found himself having to correct stereotypical views of the Island. Was it true that chewing gum was banned there? […] Could he really say, with hand on heart, that he had academic freedom? To the last question, taken off guard, he'd replied, Yes. Afterwards, thinking of a better answer, he thought he should have said, Do you?

Here, the academic's inflated view of his contribution to education in Singapore stands in contrast to the desperation he feels in the rest of the story as he waits for his permit renewal. In light of the recent spy controversy surrounding Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Holden's story seems more poignant than ever.

Many of the blurbs on the first page of the book highlight that its stories are both authentically Singaporean and global. Many of Holden's narrators and characters reflect his own experiences, as an academic, as someone who knows England and Canada and as someone from the "West" that has settled in Singapore. To be sure, Singapore has always been a migrant city, but some have been there longer than the others, and came at a time when the postcolonial nation-building exercise was in full swing. Despite clues that point to long-term residence in and extensive knowledge of the city-state, Holden's characters still sound distant. After all, if these stories have managed to pierce through "the placid surface of Singaporean life," it is because piercing is possible only when one starts from the external and progresses towards the internal. The difficulty of completely immersing oneself into the internal—to become completely Singaporean—is clearly communicated through the "eyes" of the insider-outsider Singaporean in many of the stories. The academic in "It's All in a Dream" romantically believes in a Chinese saying which goes: "The place where my coffin is sealed is my home." Such faith in traditional wisdom (also eerily ringing the bell of postmodern identity politics) is tested by a hiccup in the country's socio-political scene. To take another example, the protagonist in "Library" has already spent more than fifteen years in Singapore before the start of the story and is married to a Singaporean man. Thus: "She had thought that she belonged. Culturally Singaporean, one of her students had said. Never easy, but possible." But the next sentence viciously refutes the possibility: "But if she looked at the photograph [of her husband's family] again, she didn't fit in: she stood awkwardly at the periphery of the group, as though she had been photoshopped in as an afterthought." It is easy to convince oneself of the illusion of belonging, but such an illusion may crack at the most unexpected times. Perhaps this distance with Singapore is why Holden's characters often speak with a relatively careful tone—usually in standard English and only occasionally peppered with Mandarin or Singlish—compared to, say, Amanda Lee Koe's fiery narration in Ministry of Moral Panic (reviewed here). Even Lee Kuan Yew is cautiously and euphemistically addressed as "the Great Man" at times, as his legacy and death loom over several stories.

There is no doubt that Holden is an expert writer, particularly good at digging out his characters' innermost thoughts and psyche. For this reason, free indirect thought and omniscient third-person narrators are frequently deployed across the collection. But modes of narration are still varied, sometimes to good effect. Consider the following passage from "Library":

She was spellbound. She wanted to tell him, of this secret she had discovered, and that she would share only with him. And so she turned round, but could no longer find the door she had entered through. Only panels of marble. Touch it, and it is cold. Push, and it resists you, indifferently. Scratch at the surface, and it still reflects yourself back at you, unchanged save for your bleeding hands. Shout at the top of your voice, as loud as you can.

In this quote, the narration subtly switches from third to second person. But the transition feels natural, because at this point, the drift of the story is to draw the reader into the hallucination of the female character.

At a narrative level, such literary techniques help tease out new meanings for "heaven has eyes," in terms of the relationship between the reader, the narrator and the characters. In "Two Among Many," a story about Southeast Asian drug trafficking originally published in Cha, part of the narrative uses the future tense to foreshadow the fate of the drug trafficker, an ingenious method to highlight how one's future may be determined by a casual decision years earlier. While foreshadowing plays to the conventional understanding of karma or "heaven has eyes," the story itself does not judge the drug trafficker, and, in this sense, works against conventions: fiction—especially that told using an omniscient narrator (which is comparable to an all-knowing Heaven)—reminds readers that sometimes it is not about judging, but about using your "eyes" to read/see other people's stories and understand their experiences. This is why the story is titled "Two Among Many," for while each individual has a story, drug trafficking is a phenomenon that involves many individuals and facets. Like many other works in this collection, this story, to me, exemplifies the ideal function of literature: to articulate how one's lived experience, while connected to many other people's, is also complexly embedded in broader local and international processes—the synchrony and diachrony of life.


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