In her remarkable debut short story collection, The Heartsick Diaspora and other stories, Singapore-based writer Elaine Chiew takes us into an intimate world of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas.
This collection, comprising of fourteen stories, is set in different cities around the world and each of them shines a light on people who are often torn between cultures and juggling divided selves. Chiew compiles her stories based on a ten-year time frame with her initial story, Face, which won first prize in the Bridport International Short Story Competition 2008 and through The Heartsick Diaspora, which won second prize in the same competition in 2010.
In Face, it tells the story of an elderly woman, Yun, who suffers from urine incontinence and her strained relationship with her American-born Chinese daughter in-law, Karen. She lives with her son, Qiang, and his family in London. Her granddaughter, Lulu, feels uncomfortable around her, as ‘she smells like wee’. Now, Yun decides to return to her hometown in Malaysia, which baffles Karen and Qiang as both of them are able to provide care for her, unlike back home, she has no-one.
The depiction of her racist encounter with a group of drunken youths on the London tube and her reluctance to talk about this is an honest take on some of the struggles faced by South East Asian diasporas who find living abroad daunting. On one hand, she wants to be a good grandmother, but on the other, that fateful encounter cripples her.
A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin feels like an Asian version of the critically acclaimed film, The Sixth Sense. The protagonist in this story is a teenager who has the ability to see and communicate with dead people (yikes!). One evening at a laundromat, he encounters a girl-ghoul, Boo. The thing is, she has an insatiable appetite. Slowly, an unlikely friendship is formed between them. Things get complicated when she keeps asking for more food, and he has to come up with various ways to appease this confused and lost spirit, other than feeding her with joss paper food, which the Chinese burn during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Written from the first person perspective, this piece explores the theme of identity. What kind of ghost is Boo? Does she belong to the conventional race categories in Singapore – Chinese, Malay, Indian and others? In fact, does this even exist after death? Chiew cleverly weaves in the fact about the Malay ghost, Pontianak, and Chinese ghost, egui, at the beginning of the story to set the tone right.
In the title story, The Heartsick Diaspora, four writers find their cultural bond of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian writer, Wei, joins their group.
Interestingly, the narrative is written in a play format with sub-headings such as Introduction of Characters, Acts and Scenes. The writers are a motley group and when everyone gathers at the weekly writers’ sessions, their different personalities inevitably clash with one another. The palpable tension between the strong-willed Chandra and the soon-to-be divorced Phoebe towards the end of the story is expected. Yet it’s necessary to resolve the ambiguous relationship between Wei and Chandra.
Ultimately, The Heartsick Diaspora and other stories is laced with wry humour, intricate details and multi-layered characters. Chiew possesses a talent in writing lyrical prose that oscillates between humour and seriousness. She has a knack of injecting subtle humour that allows the reader to laugh and cry for the characters at the same time.
For instance, the opening paragraph of Face set me guffawing:
“‘Why should Lulu know how to roll spaghetti with a fork? We’re not Italian.’ Karen bangs the saucepan on the stove because this is how some Chinese people take out their frustrations – by abusing their cookware.”
Similarly, there’s a paragraph in A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin which I couldn’t stop laughing at:
“My other sister, Bee Khing, sleepwalks and has, more than once, scared the urine out of our neighbours by showing up in her long white nightdress at the void deck very early in the morning while old men are doing tai chi.’
Chiew doesn’t compromise the use of Chinese vernacular, which adds a distinctive flavour to her stories. She writes such vivid descriptions of the places inhabited by the characters that I feel like I have been transported to Belgravia, Singapore and New York. But what distinguishes this collection from the rest is that Chiew highlights the displacement and identity of the Chinese migrant communities. As an Asian writer straddling between cultures (the UK and Singapore), I identify with the pertinent question of belonging. Who am I in this globalised world? She’s definitely a writer to watch out for in the years to come. At the beginning, reading the book was a slow-burning process. But as each story progresses, it grows on you. And you will want to read it again.