To know where I’m coming from


10 February 2008
Straits Times

Hot off the press
By Stephanie Yap

By Johann S. Lee Cannon International/Paperback/ 280 pages/ $21.40/(with GST)/ Times The Bookshop/***

First, let’s make it clear where this review is coming from. This novel is not a work of great literature, at least not in the lyrical sense.

Diary-like in its artless, earnest tone, a typical sentence goes like this: ‘The memories which washed over me came not in a gentle cascade but in a drowning torrent, not so much in a montage of images as deep stirrings in my consciousness.’

But as Lee has said numerous times in interviews, he has no illusions of being praised for his prose style, but is more concerned with writing a novel which speaks to people.

With that in mind, it’s safe to say that he has succeeded. As his cliched but generally likeable characters undergo soap opera-worthy trials, readers will quickly find themselves invested in their lives and rooting for them to find happiness, or at least hope.

Our hero is Ben, the son of a wealthy family who has lived in London since his university days. Recovering from a bad break-up with his partner of seven years, he heads back to Singapore in an attempt to heal himself.

On touchdown, he catches up with his old friend Yusof, a renowned playwright who has written a play based on Singapore’s first gay novel. In a rather self-deprecating moment, the writer has his narrator comment: ‘The author left the country immediately after the book’s publication. So he was a quitter, just like me.’

What he was quitting and whether things have changed since then is revealed as the story shuttles between London and Singapore. The development and breakdown of Ben’s long-term relationship is contrasted with his budding relationship with Peter, an actor in the play.

This is not a novel for those who appreciate subtlety. It has plenty of overtly cinematic and symbolic bits, such as a climatic conversation between Ben and a lover which takes place on National Day, with fireworks and fighter jets whizzing overhead.

As the novel is a semi-autobiographical examination of the writer’s own experiences as a gay emigrant returning home, it unabashedly draws on real life for major characters and events. Arts lovers will enjoy the thinly veiled representations of local theatre personalities, from an enfant terrible named Yusof to a flamboyant impresario named Ignatius.

It is also no-holds-barred in its critique of a perceived lack of freedom of expression in Singapore, particularly with regard to gay pride. Lee disapproves of heavy-handed censorship, citing examples such as the bans slapped on events such as a picnic and a lecture.

Yet, amid such pointed criticism, the writer also presents the perspective of a pragmatic older person, and how someone like that can appreciate the Singaporean brand of freedom.

At one point in London, Ben hears on the news that a gay man has been badly beaten up in what is obviously a hate crime: ‘I said to Holly the first thing that came to my mind: ‘This would never happen in Singapore.”

Indeed, one of the book’s strongest points is its ability to capture the conflict of being caught between worlds – a universal, yet at the same time uniquely Singaporean, condition.

There is the despair of a lost love warring with the hope of loving again. And there is the yearning to escape a suffocating environment for the larger world, yet the inescapable desire to be drawn back into the embrace of home.


1 Response to “To know where I’m coming from”

  1. 1 lgbtculture 28 December 2009 at 5:51 am

    Thank you for you sharing your story.

    Would you be willing to share your story as a gay emigrant? This would be part of a collective wisdom?

    We wish to know more about and conduct research on the challenges and experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender immigrants. Story telling as an educational tool is a wonderful thing. So what we are proposing is to put out a request that gives the identified population a chance to share their stories through collective wisdom. Our reason for approaching the subject in this manner is to give a nurturing space for creating community and access to information that will support others during a time that could potentially by one of the most stressful and difficult transitions in their lives.

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