Once a young writer from the US whom I had met at a Writers’ festival in Hong Kong many years back, told me about something he had done, which made me actually blush with embarrassment for him. He had gone into a bookshop to see how his book, newly published, was being displayed. Annoyed that it was half-hidden among other publications in the display window, he immediately brushed aside its rivals to give it the most prominent spot in the window.
I suppose Singaporean writers, at least those in my generation, could never be so brazenly self-promoting!
Apart from the need to help our publishers promote our books, we are impelled by something that may be called ‘writer’s vanity’, that is, we want to have only good things said about them. We bristle at negative reviews, glow over good ones. And the one that is one hundred percent complimentary puts the writer on cloud nine for days.
I was lifted to such heights, years ago, by a review that, very oddly, comprised only one word: ‘Unputdownable.’ It was an ugly lexical concoction, an unwarrantable forcing together of different grammatical items—a prefix, a verb, a preposition and a suffix. As a rather old-fashioned teacher of English and literature, I would never have permitted such linguistic licence. But I forgave the infraction because I liked the flattery.
So with great care and eagerness, I unpacked the tributes contained in that one word. Firstly, it meant that I had fulfilled an essential requirement for novelists, as stated by a highly regarded writer and essayist, E.M. Forster who insisted that a good novel must tell a good story. Well, I concluded that since the reviewer could not put down my novel of more than 300 pages, I must have told a good story. Secondly, I reasoned, in addition to the good story, there must have been literary merit as well. For the experienced reviewer, if he found none of that after the first few pages, would have put it down. Thirdly, by using a single word, followed by an exclamation mark to emphasize his approbation of my book, he must have intended to draw attention to it.
I had thus argued myself into a state of blissful delirium that lasted for days.
But bouquets come with brickbats. Once I was in a bookshop, browsing through a magazine. A young man, looking very stern, walked up to me and said angrily, ‘I don’t like your writing. Why are you so biased against men? Why are the males in your stories portrayed in such a bad light? So you are one of those detestable feminists?’ I don’t remember what, in my surprise and shock, I had said in my reply. I only remember that days later, I had a well-prepared speech in my head that would be my answer to his questions, if we happened to meet again and he came marching up to give me another scolding.
It was an awkwardly defensive and diffuse speech which probably would not have pacified my critic: I was not against men, indeed I counted men as among my good friends, I was no aggressive, cigar-chomping, bar-crashing, bra-burning feminist, I was just feeling sorry for the poor abused women I remembered from childhood, I had actually made honorable mention of men here and there in my stories, and so on and so on.
But the criticism that sent me on a stomach-churning coaster-roller ride came, not from an individual, but an entire community in Singapore. Thankfully, a very happy event, which I counted as among the happiest in my life, had taken place prior to the hostility, as if to soften it in advance. And ironically, it was that very event that had set off the animosity.
It was the selection, in 1981, of my book of short stories, entitled ‘Or Else, the Lightning God’, by the Cambridge Examinations Syndicate as a literature text for students. I had not been officially informed about the decision, and only knew about it when a journalist from a major newspaper called me to ask for an interview. I shrieked in great excitement into the phone, probably alarming the journalist, ‘What? When? Why? Did Cambridge say why they chose my book? Did they like it? When is it going to be used in the schools? Tell me, quick!’
It was the best thing that could happen to a writer who was also a literature teacher. Perhaps the greatest thrill was in knowing that my stories might be studied not only by students in Singapore, but almost worldwide, for the Cambridge language and literature syllabi, as I understood, were more or less the same for students in the other Commonwealth countries.
For a while, I envisaged students in Nigeria or India or Sri Lanka who had never been to Singapore, indeed, might never have heard of Singapore, reading, with a mix of fascination and puzzlement, about people and happenings in an entirely different cultural and geographical setting. For one thing, I had written the book purely for a local audience and had liberally sprinkled local expressions throughout, especially in the dialogue, such as ‘tolong, tolong‘ uttered in despair by a very sick man who thinks he is being haunted by the ghost of a servant girl he had raped and who had subsequently died from a messed-up abortion.
How would my young non-Singaporean readers react to tales about the Chinese practice of conjuring ghosts up from the grave; the travails of a poor bondmaid (there is no word in the English dictionary for unwanted female children subjected to a certain system of bondage in Asia ); the young girl who surreptitiously stole a bit of durian (a tasty, creamy fruit native to SouthEast Asia) and was punished by her rich relatives who forced her to eat huge amounts of it until she became ill; the old, illiterate Hokkien woman angrily calling the curse of the powerful Lightning God upon her disrespectful, highly-educated daughter-in-law.
As I was borne along on a stream of elation at what I would regard as one of the most significant events in my life as a writer, I had no idea that resentment was building up against me in the Eurasian community. The cause of their anger was one particular story in the book, entitled ‘Kenneth Jerome Rozario.’ It is about a Eurasian schoolboy who comes from a broken home, lives with an aunt who has little time for him, gets his girlfriend pregnant and has to leave school. The story ends with him sitting on the ledge of a high-rise building, his legs dangling over the edge. There is a blissful smile on his face as he listens to a gently mournful song coming from his radio, inviting him to a happier world. His family and girlfriend are frantically pleading with him not to jump.
The community resented, not the negative portrayal of one of their own, but my inclusion of a dialogue between two Chinese teachers in Kenneth’s school, one of whom makes disparaging comments about Eurasian behaviour and propensities. I wish I had been given the chance to explain that in a work of fiction (unlike a work of non-fiction, such as a social commentary), the views expressed by the characters in dialogue are not necessarily those of the writer, but are there to serve some literary purpose, such as to delineate a character more sharply, contrast him/her with other characters, provide a local flavour and authenticity, reinforce the writer’s use of irony, etc.
The complaint against me was taken right up to the Minister of Education, together with a request for the book to be withdrawn as a literature text for the exams. I was not told about the matter, and only found out indirectly from a newspaper reporter who had come to know about it. I was very upset. Suppose that rare honour and pleasure of having my book studied by students in all the schools in Singapore was taken away from me? Suppose I had alienated my Eurasian friends, one of whom I had known for years? Most of all, I was angry that a simple literary device had not only been badly misunderstood but made the subject of a complaint that was taken up to the highest levels.
For a while, I was furious enough to wallow in the peevish self-indulgence of exaggerated rhetoric: So will the Indian community also make the request to the Ministry to withdraw my book because another story tells about a Mr Velloo who is poor, shabbily dressed, quarrelsome, his mouth permanently reddened by his ceray chewing? Will the Teochew community complain too about dialectal bias because one of my stories is about a proud Hokkien patriarch who refuses to allow his daughter to marry into a Teochew family?
But, to my great relief, the incident ended happily for me. Indeed, I could not have wished for a better ending. What happened was that the Ministry of Education had dealt with the issue in the most sensible, diplomatic, and best of all, professional manner. They had decided not to accede to the request to withdraw my book, but at the same time were quick to assure the complainants that the matter would not end there. The Ministry’s inspectors would in future conduct workshops and training sessions to help literature teachers deal with sensitive topics, such as race, religion, sex, moral traumas and social taboos, exemplified in the lives of individuals, are a staple in literature. They would hold discussions for a clearer understanding of the literary devices used by writers to handle particularly complex themes.
I had no part in all these decisions and learnt about them only much later. But I was deeply impressed by the Ministry of Education’s solution to a tricky problem. It was an ingenious move. In one fell stroke, it did the following things: defused the situation by taking away the racist element, turned a potentially divisive, emotion-charged issue into a purely academic one, pre-empted all such incidents in the future, indirectly freed Singapore writers of unnecessary constraints, and lastly, and best of all, established the basis for a sound approach to the teaching of literature in schools.
So my little book had taken me on a giddying adventure—up into the clouds of elation, down in a hard landing of anxiety, exasperation and annoyance and then back again on a smooth ride of self-pride and contentment, that continues to this day.
I am sometimes intrigued by the parallel universes that those esoteric, weird quantum physicists tell us about, where all possible outcomes of events can take place, where, for instance, John Kennedy had not been assassinated, where Singapore is still part of Malaysia. I don’t want to think of the parallel universe where the ‘Kenneth Jerome Rozario’ incident, as I have come to think of it, had an unfortunate ending. If it is true that small incidents can be the spark for a conflagration, the mishandling of a minor issue could have snowballed into a crisis. It could have been exploited by racist elements, become an openly divisive issue, and damaged the fragile bonds of our multi-ethnic, pluralistic society. In that kind of dreadful universe, the joyous celebration of a national 50th birthday would not be possible.