Meet Jazzy, a sassy Singlish-spouting 27-year-old whose biggest ambition is to marry an ang moh (Caucasian) husband and bear the ultimate status symbol – Eurasian offspring, which she terms Chanel babies. Sounds familiar?
While Singaporeans might know of someone like her, Jazzy is actually the fictitious protagonist of Sarong Party Girls, a new novel by author and journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. Published by Harpercollins and released in the United States, what may be the most surprising aspect about the novel is that it is written almost entirely in Singlish, the beloved, commonly used patois of Singaporeans that is often incomprehensible to non-locals.
But the New York-based Tan, who also wrote the 2011 memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, says she would not have had it any other way. Tan, who proclaims Singlish to be “one of the most beautiful things about Singapore”, says: “Jazzy’s voice came very clearly to me from the very beginning and I realised immediately that there was no point trying to write this in proper Queen’s English or American English. I simply wouldn’t be doing her justice.”
Based on early responses, Rachel Kahan, Tan’s editor at Harpercollins, says concerns that international readers would not understand Singlish have been unfounded. “Of the Americans who’ve already read SPG, none have reported any problem understanding Singlish, and most say they are really charmed and intrigued by it,” she says.
“Many recent acclaimed novels make unapologetic use of dialect, like Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. As both a reader and editor, I love the immediacy and authenticity of writing that speaks the way living, breathing people do.”
Making Waves Abroad
Sarong Party Girls is certainly not the only piece of Singaporean literature to have made an international splash in recent times. Perhaps riding on the country’s increasing prominence on the global stage, the global fascination with literary works that depict life in Singapore appears to know no bounds, with many Singaporean writers gaining international recognition for their books.
Kahan, who has also published playwright-novelist Ovidia Yu’s work, says: “As Westerners realise how dominant Asia is and will continue to be, it seems to me that they’re increasingly curious about different Asian cultures and Singapore, as a very Western-friendly city, is a good, easy point of entry for the curious.”
One runaway hit is US-based Kevin Kwan’s voyeuristic Crazy Rich Asians series about the lifestyles of Singapore’s uber rich, with the first two books becoming instant international best-sellers. Kwan also signed a movie deal recently and the final book in the trilogy, amusingly named Rich People Problems, is slated to be released next year.
History and comic book buffs have also had a field day with The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, a poignant and unflinching graphic novel about Singapore’s history as told through the eyes of the lead character, comic artist Charlie Chan. On the back of a controversial withdrawal of a National Arts Council grant and having garnered rave reviews by critics globally, the book made it to best-seller lists on Amazon and The New York Times and has been reprinted five times in Singapore.
“I was of course worried that it might be a hard sell to readers who weren’t interested in Singapore’s politics or history, and I think that does in fact limit the market to some degree,” says Liew. He sent drafts to friends living abroad to “get a sense of their reactions”, then found ways to explain nuances they did not understand, such as by introducing more chapters, using endnotes or even drawing explanatory comic strips within the graphic novel itself.
He points out: “But the book works on other levels as well, so for many international readers, it may be the formal experimentations or the stylistic shifts of the drawings that appeal. Charlie Chan’s journey as an artist, I think, helps ground the work on a more personal level – it’s a journey that anyone who’s struggled with the consequences of idealism would be able to relate to.”
Finding Common Ground
Exotic as Singapore may seem to a Western audience, there are nevertheless common themes that international readers can connect with. For example, Yu’s Aunty Lee trilogy centres around a feisty Peranakan chef who has a knack for solving murder mysteries. While Yu was on a book tour around the United States, she noticed that her readers could largely be divided into those who have visited Singapore and those who had not – with each group discovering their own ways to identify with her stories.
“Singapore, as a very Western-friendly city, is a good, easy point of entry for the curious.”
– Rachel Kahan, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s editor at Harpercollins, on interest in an increasingly dominant Asia.
Yu says those who have been here spoke about how safe and clean Singapore is and how they could recognise some of the places they had visited through her descriptions. Those who had not visited before had different questions. She says: “They asked about how I learnt to speak English or say they heard Singapore was really authoritarian, with strict fines on spitting and chewing gum and persecution of gay people. They would ask how I dared write my books!
“But I think what struck both groups most was the food – and Aunty Lee’s aunty qualities which seemed to be both exotically different and familiar at the same time.”
Her agent Priya Doraswamy, of New Jersey-based Lotus Lane Literary, says of the heroine: “Aunty Lee is completely lovable and completely relatable. We all have an Aunty Lee in our lives. Also, writing about food in cozy mysteries is very much the genre norm, and thus resonates with readers. My American friends who’ve read Aunty Lee ask me for Singaporean restaurant recommendations in NYC or in New Jersey, as they want to try all the food Ovidia mentions in her books.”
But, while some sceptics may pick a bone at the exoticisation of life in Singapore, Koh Jee Leong, New-York based Singaporean poet and organiser of the independent Singapore Literature Festival in New York City, suggests that this international popularity – essential for a small market like Singapore – speaks of the depths of talent found here.
He says: “To be published overseas is a real honour and shows an appreciation of the strength of writing available in Singapore. It is not necessarily the knee-jerk inferiority complex of needing to find affirmation abroad, but a recognition that, yes, we have some very good stuff here in Singapore.”