Feasting on Limp Biscuits

How does one review a tin of assorted biscuits? That’s essentially what anthologies of Asian short stories are: snacks for the avid reader of post-colonial literature. Welcome relief to someone stranded in an intellectual desert perhaps – but not exactly a satisfying meal for the enquiring mind or the soul in search of nourishment. Hmmm, these biscuits are either too dry or too limp. Someone must have forgotten to push down the lid.

The anthology starts off promisingly enough with a breezy, sardonic foreword by editor Amir Muhammad who invokes the memory of a 22-story compilation of Malaysian short stories published in 1968 by Heinemann Asia and the 10-book Black & White series issued by Rhino Press in 1997. What struck me as odd is that he makes no reference at all to the Skoob Pacifica series that appeared in 1994 and 1995. These were shoddily produced, it’s true, but nonetheless worth a mention in any canned history of English writing in the Asia-Pacific region.

Reading New Writing proved to be no picnic. If I hadn’t agreed to review the anthology, I would have dipped into a random selection and skipped the rest as too much effort for too little reward. In any case I’m happy to note that, contrary to popular belief, the standard of English in former British colonies remains satisfactory – more than satisfactory, in fact. New Writing proves beyond doubt that there are a few competent young writers in English with good Asian names like “Todd Crowell” and “Ray Wonderly.” But what are they writing about? When it comes to a contest between style and substance, I’d pick substance over style any day. What constitutes “substance” is, of course, an entirely subjective question.

For me, truly worthwhile writing must fulfil certain criteria: first, it must arouse in the reader a passionate sense of being alive, awake, alert; and second, it must stimulate the imagination in ways that transcend the prosaic; third, it must provoke a response beyond the mundane confines of our physical existence and initiate the reader into a metaphysical mode of perception; and, most importantly, it must undermine our complacency as regards the status quo.

Few of the selections in New Writing met all these criteria. For the most part, they appeared to be the self­ conscious efforts of young egos raised on a diet of lifestyle tabloids and music videos, with a burning ambition to have something, anything, published. As a result much of it consisted of the sort of dense, verbal mulch you typically find in short story competitions sponsored by newspapers or two-page fiction featured in women’s magazines. Fortunately, I managed to pick out some notable exceptions:

Muslin Abdul Hamid’s impeccable command of the language in This Evening Pilgrim and the cosmopolitan sophistication of her style in Plat du Jour greatly impressed me, though I found her preoccupations a tad effete, if not affected. Love in the Post-Nicotine Age, Jerome Kugan’s candid study in gay existentialism, was disarming in its unabashed decadence, but oh, how depressingly humdrum! Saffura Chinniah displayed an unerring talent for mixing the banal with the bizarre in The Tamarind Tree – but what a tame, unsubversive subject. Hand of Glory, Ray Wonderly’s titillating excursion into soft porn, might strike a chord with manga junkies but it certainly didn’t do a thing for me. Kam Raslan’s sensitive syntax in The Anarchist was aesthetically satisfying even if his concerns seemed archaic and ingrown. In 14 Leech St, Bernice Chauly succeeded in conjuring a gruesomely detailed sepia portrait of her porkseller grandfather, but ended her piece rather uninspiringly.

The inclusion of excerpts from movie and theatre playscripts struck me as purely gratuitous. Huzir Sulaiman’s Election Day doesn’t read well in print though it is highly effective as a dramatic monologue. The scenes from Akshen’s Lebih Kecoh were interesting more for their oblique political commentary than their literary quality. And I’d much rather see James Lee’s minimalist movie-to-be, The Pretenders, than read a fragment of his screenplay.

If it’s enough to be able to string a few sentences together stylishly, then we may congratulate ourselves that writing is alive and well in contemporary Asia. However, if intellectual grit is to be measured by a precocious attention to graphic grossness, one is forced to conclude that literary pretensions may well be a symptom of arrested adolescence.


First Published: 14.01.2002 on Kakiseni

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