by Isabelle Lim
Philip Holden (editor), Hook and Eye: Stories from the Margins, Ethos Books, 2018. 216 pgs.
In his introduction to Hook and Eye, editor Philip Holden describes his collection of stories as encapsulated by the visual metaphor of the titular garment fastener—always with an implied dependency and always an act of completion. The hook and eye closures so commonly found on clothes, particularly formalwear, require the delicacy of partnership (the closures often needing someone else’s help to fasten) that render, in the end, a seamless garment, a whole. Likewise, the stories in Hook and Eye are stories of completion, where individuals depend on each other and play parts in a larger whole. Yet, these vignettes are not simple allegories nor unfettered idyllic tales. For what lies beneath these woven semantic tapestries is often something more barbed. One thinks of a different hook and eye rendered in Margaret Atwood’s 1971 poem “You Fit Into Me”:
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
The implied violence of the image pierces what we might have assumed was romantic completion. In Holden’s edited collection containing stories by the likes of Balli Kaur Jaswal, Clara Chow, Jeremy Tiang, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Philip Jeyaretnam and Alfian Sa’at amongst others, these same jagged cruelties flow as an undercurrent throughout the collection of stories based in Singapore. Tracing lives that traverse the island-nation and that re-centre the margins as the collection’s subtitle suggests, a reader is introduced variously to the domestic scenes of a recent émigré family from India, a British spouse who finds himself inexplicably in the reveries of Singaporean nationalist fervour, a foreign migrant worker in delirium, and a young couple who face the threat of their hawker stall shuttering. While no doubt stories that bear the imprints of wholes, they are also littered with moments of spikey dissonance, where the individuals that inhabit spaces of marginality fail to tesselate smoothly into a whole, be it domestically, fraternally, or nationally.
In a collection of stories based primarily in Singapore, the question of the state and nation looms large. Though often unspoken, the strictures of the Singapore state stalk the edges of almost all the stories, serving as a spectral tenement in which we locate the characters on the page. The opening story by Balli Kaur Jaswal demonstrates this to haunting effect: In ‘Everest’, a family of four emigrate from India to Singapore, the father figure insisting that the country is a mere stop in the path to eventually settling ‘further west: Toronto, London, Chicago.’ Regardless, they rent a flat in Ang Mo Kio and paradoxically attempt to insulate themselves within the four walls of the consummately Singaporean HDB flat. The mother stays at home, paints the walls in a small act of defiance against their landlord, and tries to navigate making a home in uncertain circumstances where one is unsure whether they belong or want to belong.
Yet, senses of belonging are fickle things. Part inheritance, decision, and acquirement, they fade or grow, often unwittingly. The family, in their evening meals of chicken rice, the siblings’ movements—Meena’s trips to the provision shop and Mahesh’s training schedule that sees him scale the HDB block daily—betray already a ‘Singaporeanness’ that they are unsure if they want. The story traces the family through the central drama of Mahesh, the son’s, stated ambition to become a mountain climber. And it is with a physical moving toward this ‘big dream’ that the story ends, Mahesh ascending steadily up HDB steps in seeming pursuit of the story’s titular mountain. One wonders if these steps will ever take him to the imagined summit. But it doesn’t seem to matter, of course. In the ascending into momentary oblivion, we might do well to simply lose ourselves in the moving.
In a different story, however, an abdication into unthinking moving is precisely what bristles. Jeremy Tiang’s ‘Sophia’s Party’, which lies nestled in the middle of the collection, is perhaps one of the most striking stories in the book for its depiction of the subtle barbs that arise in spaces of polite sociality, particularly when it comes to nationalism. It’s Sophia’s annual National Day party and the object of critique is patriotism. Gathered again in the perennial Singaporean space—the HDB flat—a group of friends watches the parade on television and participates ironically in the day’s festivities, though the irony is less certain as the prose continues. Nicholas, an Englishman and Sophia’s husband, is seated in the living room, confined to passivity ostensibly since ‘the operation’ a few months ago. As the guests arrive, the pitch of nationalistic fervour, perhaps satirical, perhaps not, rises. Singapore’s National Day parade in all its militaristic pomp and ceremony is broadcast on television. The friends make jokes about the procession, but when Nicholas, the only non-Singaporean of the group, chimes in, it’s met with a quick rebuke. Calvin, a civil servant and seeming representation of Singaporean toxic masculinity as his drunken advances on another party guest reveal later, tells Nicholas: ‘If you don’t like it, feel free to leave.’ There is a pause. Then, the episode is smoothed over by Sophia.
In that pause however, all is momentarily shattered. The veneer of cosmopolitan liberalism that the party of overseas college-educated friends possesses dissolves as nationalist lines are drawn once again, even in the drunken slurs of a small party, even in the company of those who should have known better. In his own flat that he lives in with his wife, Nicholas, the Englishman, will never be, as Calvin seems to say, at home. He will never be quite Singaporean enough. Later, in a calmer hour of the party, Nicholas will recount the story of how he had once left Singapore in an unsuccessful breakup with Sophia: ‘I’d had enough—this country, it suffocates you, if you aren’t careful.’
Tiang’s story tells of an uncareful but comfortable existence. Sophia and her friends are familiar: a brand of overseas-educated, liberal, invariably Chinese friends of whom a good portion are in the civil service. It’s a pointed critique of the Singapore dream; who it works for and who it excludes. Yet, it also seems to say, how warm and wonderful it is if only you fell within its embrace.
Of course, not everyone can. Nicholas, non-Singaporean but English, white, university-educated, an ‘expat’, is marginal in ways radically different than other stories in the collection depict. One of the graces of Holden’s book is that his collected ‘stories from the margins’ are shown to have shades. In Leonora Liow’s ‘Rich Man Country’, which follows the story of an unnamed foreign migrant worker in the construction industry, the social discomforts that can be smoothed over by alcohol and small talk at a party, by the commonality of class, are absent. Instead, the story opens with searing physical pain. The protagonist is in the back of a lorry with a head injury, a workplace accident, and in his delirium recalls his road to working in Singapore. What follows is the unfolding of a rarely-told narrative for the average Singaporean, perhaps purposefully so, for to face up to the humanity of a vast exploited laboring population on which national development depends so fundamentally upon would require us to do something about it. Nevertheless, Liow’s story attempts a chipping away at this task in fiction, tracing the road that one man takes from a rural village in India, to a crowded worksite in Chennai, and then finally to a similar construction site in Singapore. From the pedestrian cruelties of supervisors, to the profound loneliness that coexists with forged friendships in cramped dormitory spaces, Liow’s story describes the very human motivations and narrow material circumstances that push someone to leave home, to pursue work in more-than-treacherous conditions.
A particular moment stands out in the story, nothing more than a modifying clause in a two-sentence section, a mere blip, but telling in its forgettability. When introducing Ah Bey, a supervisor, he is described as having ‘asked for their passports. To make papers, said Ah Bey.’ The narrative moves on briskly from there to a description of the worksite in Chennai so that the confiscation of passports—that method of entrapment in the first phase of human trafficking—is obscured. How casual the predation of industry can seem even in fiction. The unnamed man is rendered dispensable by the end of the story, a teleological trajectory ending in a dumped body, screams that fade into the burbling of a stream, into the flow of development.
While stories ‘from the margins’ like that by Liow’s function most powerfully on the level of narrative sympathy if not empathy, others in the collection draw your attention to the limitations of precisely such identifications. The last story in Hook and Eye by Alfian Sa’at wrests one from the comforts of charity, an impulse that shares much ground with literary empathy, to expose the hypocrisies of such a gaze. In ‘The Borrowed Boy’, a family ‘adopts’ a boy from an orphanage for the duration of the first day of Hari Raya, allowing him to participate in family visits and festivities—a charitable act. Junaidah, the matriarchal figure who first spies the advertisement to foster orphans for the day on television, relates this initial sympathetic drive:
It made her cry just to relate to her husband when he later got home from work: all those children without parents, whose Hari Raya would painfully remind them only of what they lacked, no jars overflowing with cookies and biscuits, no filling their pockets with crisp, folded dollar notes, a festival of absence. Her family members didn’t know how fortunate they were, it was an obligation to let others partake of their privilege.
And partake Mydeen, the borrowed boy, does. Through the course of the day, the family of three (Junaidah, her husband, and their son, Haikel) gifts him a new baju kurung, takes him with them on family visits to Teban Gardens and Yishun, and otherwise includes him in the festivities. Mydeen seems to bring out a competitive streak in Haikel, a burgeoning sense of sibling rivalry if only lasting for a day. More significantly, his presence unearths a kind of human ugliness within her family that Junaidah hadn’t previously seen so starkly. In the hours before she picks up Mydeen from the orphanage, Haikel demands the orange baju kurung made for Mydeen instead of the sky blue one meant for himself. There’s a brilliantly rendered back-and-forth as Junaidah negotiates with Haikel. The baju kurung takes on significance in this exchange—no longer just a garment, but something symbolising a charitable promise, now under threat of corruption. Haikel prevails. When the newly-formed family of four arrive at their first house visit, Mydeen is dressed in sky blue. The story proceeds in this manner, each slight to Junaidah’s initial charitable effort further jolting her into a slow realisation of the fraught qualities of charity, of the complexities of attachments however temporary, and of the hypocrisies of aid.
Sa’at’s ‘The Borrowed Boy’ ends in a scene both conflicted and tender. In a mirroring of the formalised ritual of asking for forgiveness from elders performed during Hari Raya, Junaidah steps into the room an hour before midnight and wordlessly kneels before a sleeping Mydeen. She is asking for forgiveness. No words come.
Hook and Eye leaves the reader with this scene from this story: at a moment when language fails and what needs to be expressed cannot be said. In these curated visions from the periphery, the stories in the book explore the margins of a national community and in doing so re-examine the assumed veracities of those boundaries. Lingering in the margins, it prods us to look, though it may be uncomfortable as a hook to an open eye. At the end of it all, like Junaidah, we might seek forgiveness as well, but we might also seek change.
Isabelle Lim is a graduate student with the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge working on postcolonial studies and ecocriticism. Her research involves the environmental imagination in Singaporean poetry. She is also an editor for Mynah Magazine, an annual longform publication that focuses on Singapore narratives.