sq21: singapore queers in the 21st century

I recently took advantage of a sale at local indie shop Books Actually here in Singapore, and one of the books I picked up was SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century by Ng Yi-Sheng, edited by Jason Wee. I was interested in learning about LGBTQ culture in Singapore. Unedited from the book’s back cover:

First published in 2006, this groundbreaking collection of coming out stories was the first affirming non-fiction volume accompanied by real names and faces. Written in light, clear prose, SQ21 shows an unabashed straightforward honesty and finds inspiration in the lives of these ordinary Singaporeans. Though a bestseller that won acclaim as The Straits Times nonfiction book of that year, SQ21 remained out-of-print for nearly a decade. This new reprint comes updated with fresh material – a new interview by Ng Yi-Sheng, and a new foreword by the editor Jason Wee.

I want to get my main criticism out of the way. I couldn’t help notice several typos and inconsistencies throughout the book. The blurb has some examples: “non-fiction” and “nonfiction,” missing commas, hyphens instead of em-dashes, and (maybe just my preference but) I wouldn’t have hyphenated “out of print” since it’s following the noun it modifies. Some missing prepositions, some repeated words. Maybe I’m being way too picky, and I realize this is supposed to be conversational, in the subjects’ voices, but when you notice enough easily correctable grammatical errors it bugs, especially in a new, republished edition. Some of the footnotes were redundant as well.

Anyway! That gripe aside, which has nothing to do with the content, I did enjoy the stories in this book. They made me feel both sad and hopeful. I was sad about how deeply ingrained some misconceptions and stereotypes of homosexuality and bisexuality existed within the subjects themselves. I had to keep reminding myself that this is only from about a decade ago, and while there has been some progress for acceptance in Singapore, it still seems like it has a long way to go. And some things confound me a bit, like the Pink Dot festival—foreigners are not allowed to attend, participate, or even watch from a distance. It oddly goes against the core messaging of gay pride festivals: inclusivity and acceptance. From what I’ve gleaned living here for a couple years, Singapore is patriarchal, conservative, and oppressive in a general, subtle sense—things appear “perfect” on the surface, but no place is perfect. There’s no country on Earth that doesn’t have shameful, dark parts of its past (and present). We are a deeply flawed species.

But I am left more with a hopeful feeling, especially reading about the gay men accepted by their fellow military servicemen, the majority of parents either understanding or coming around, and that there has been a growing number of LGBTQ groups and organizations in Singapore. Religion is a big part of many of these stories… I’m sure there are entire books devoted solely to the oppressive, hostile attitude of religions against LGBTQ people. It’s infuriating, to be honest.

There’s also insight into LGBTQ Singaporeans in the context of race, age, nationality, societal expectations, and more. I appreciated that the afterward bemoans the lack of workplace stories and accounts from the older LGBTQ generation (hopefully for the next edition!). Maybe the next edition could include some gender identity representation, that would be awesome. In one chapter, the storyteller mentions a fellow student whose “parents were a woman and an FTM,” which is footnoted as “FTM: female-to-male transsexual; a person who was born in a woman’s body but lives as a man” and I wondered if that could have gone into more depth. The term “transgender” isn’t mentioned.

I really admire the people profiled in SQ21—their courage in relaying their personal experiences with coming out, whether difficult or smooth, is inspiring. This is an important piece of Singapore’s history and social progress.

Read in March 2018.

the summer that melted everything

Another pick for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I’ve had  The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel on my shelf since it came out—even traveled to Singapore with me in the move. From the book jacket:

Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: The year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil. Sal seems to appear out of nowhere—a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings Sal home, where the Bliss family welcomes him, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town. When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome his self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperature, as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, some in the town, riled by the feverish heat, start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While members of the Bliss family wrestle with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.

I was initially drawn to this book by the title and cover. And the title sort of aptly describes how I feel in the perpetual Singapore heat—the never-ending summer that’s melting me. I was pretty excited seeing a mention of Wisconsin on page 7 (“But did you know that in Wisconsin, there is a lake, a wondrous lake, called Devil?”), and I love Devil’s Lake! It is beautiful and clean with wonderful hiking trails and camping. So, I figured this will be right up my alley. Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I did enjoy this debut novel. This is a Southern Gothic novel and it is dark, definitely not a feel-good, summery story, despite the title and cover art.

When I say it wasn’t what I was expecting, I mean that I thought there was a supernatural element to the book, that Sal really was the Devil. But he wasn’t. But actually no wait, was he? See, I’m still thinking about it after finishing. That’s always a good sign. More magical realism then, but the story was entirely real. I thought McDaniel did a great job of giving individual personalities and life to her characters, especially the Bliss family and Sal. I was captivated throughout, wondering what was going to happen by the end (because it’s pretty clear something major will happen).

I do have this in hardback, but I ended up listening to the audiobook on a whim since it was available. I really enjoy Mark Bramhall’s narration, but for this one it was a little too Southern for me—yes, ultimately this is a Southern Gothic story, but it was set in Ohio. I’m not sure why the accents were rendered as so deeply “South,” like an Alabaman or Georgian dialect. It’s very folksy and distracted me a bit.

I said this wasn’t what I expected, but it ended up being more. McDaniel incorporates social issues that were (and are still) super relevant—racism, homophobia—which gave Summer a depth I didn’t see coming. And classic, good-vs-evil kind of parables. Even though the premise of the actual devil accepting an invitation may seem out there, the rest of the story was sadly and upsettingly believable. While the plot is dark and unsettling, it’s also a novel about acceptance and love. I’m glad I finally got to it!

The Summer that Melted Everything is my second of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

mini-reviews: fire shut up in my bones and drinking

I’m a big fan of memoirs, and this past year I’ve been reading some really excellent ones of all kinds of different lives. These two were powerful, personal, raw, and will stay with me a long time:

Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones was a pick for my Best Friends International Book Club with Anthony earlier this year. In this memoir, Blow recounts his childhood not quite belonging in a rural small town in Louisiana, where slavery’s legacy still loomed large and violence was commonplace, as well his deep connection to his mother, and years of confusion and anguish following sexual abuse by a family member, and finally his escape from this life into college (where he endured brutal fraternity hazing) and, later, success as a journalist. Blow’s writing is expressive and I found his descriptions of places and scenes beautifully constructed. I was let down by the book’s blurb, which is a little misleading, but I was still certainly intrigued and hooked anyway, especially by his personal introspection and revelations about his sexual orientation. I thought the book ended abruptly—I would have loved to read more about his career path after college—but maybe that could be another book altogether. I find Blow to be an impassioned and eloquent writer, and this was a wonderful, insightful, inspiring memoir. [Read in February 2017.]

Caroline Knapp’s painful, honest memoir of her alcoholism and related struggles, Drinking: A Love Story, really touched me and made me take a deeper look at my own relationship with alcohol. Knapp was a successful journalist from an upper-class family, and also a functioning alcoholic for 20 years. She used alcohol to escape her daily realities and relationships, until personal crises and family issues force her to examine her lifestyle and quit drinking. She doesn’t glamorize her addiction—her downward spiral into alcoholism is chronicled in a clear way and you understand better how it can happen to anyone. She makes it clear that this is a disease, one that is possible to flow through families for generations. She has some interesting insights about her complicated relationships with her parents and partners. Though it can be a little repetitive at times and contains a few generalities about alcoholics, this was overall a great book. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

hunger: a memoir of (my) body

I have been waiting with bated breath for Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger for a year! The day it came out in June this summer I was in Madison and promptly picked it up at A Room of One’s Own, one of my favorite bookstores. Edited from Goodreads:

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Gay explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

This memoir wrecked me. It’s about body transformation, but not in the typical way you might expect. It’s about rape culture, race, societal expectations and pressure, familial expectations and pressure, addiction, body image, self preservation and acceptance, gender and sexuality, relationships, and more. This is not a feel-good tome, and Gay doesn’t want your pity or to be called a “survivor.” She doesn’t pull punches or tug at heart strings in Hunger. She is self-aware and brutally honest about the way things are for a person her size, which is technically categorized as the horrible term “super morbidly obese.”

Although I have never experienced the same kind of specific hardships and trauma that Gay has (in fact, I’d say I’ve been blessed to live a fairly charmed, happy life), her personal experience of wanting to hide from the world and finding a way to do that with her body resonated with me in my own way. Even though I was (and am) slender and “normal” weight, I was very self-conscious and protective of my body when I was a kid and teenager. I wanted to be noticed, but I also didn’t… and either way certainly not for my body. Thank goodness for grunge—baggy flannel was my armor in the 90s. It was still years into my adulthood before I felt okay about wearing a bikini and also realized that I have had advantages in society because of what I look like (sometimes I’ve heard this called “pretty privilege”). I wish the world weren’t like this, but I think acknowledgment is better than denial and can help people (me) work towards changing it. I cannot sit here and honestly say I’m ugly or unattractive, certainly not by current societal and cultural standards. This privilege has been magnified a thousandfold to me after living in Singapore for a year, where I’m experiencing a strange mix of benefiting from white privilege (which I know I had in the States, of course) and also being a minority. It’s an uncomfortable, conflicting feeling of which I’m hyper-aware, which I think is a good thing.

In Hunger, Gay’s writing is unapologetic, and while she says she is not brave for putting out this memoir and speaking her truth, I have to disagree. Laying bare her rape and its physical and mental consequences, and then the consequences and daily issues of her resulting weight gain after that trauma, share with the reader and emotional rawness I’ve rarely encountered in any other book, if ever. I think releasing a book like this in today’s image-obsessed society and rape-apologist culture is brave as hell.

Read in July 2017.

the argonauts

After a year-long hiatus from regularly posting, I’m picking up where I left off on my little book reviews, starting with The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson! From Goodreads:

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of “autotheory” offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.

The Argonauts was my introduction to queer theory and identity politics. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, and I don’t think I can say those sections of the book are easily accessible for everyone. She relentlessly delves into the topics of sexuality, gender, individuality, parenthood, and partnership. I appreciated this depth and how Nelson relates the words of famous theorists to her own personal story. I listened on audio, read by the author, and I think I liked it much better this way than I would have reading on paper. The book has a stream-of-consciousness feel, with no clear chapter breaks nor chronological order. However, what really stood out to me was Nelson’s relationship with Dodge and her experience with pregnancy and motherhood. The way she drew parallels between the birth of her child with Dodge’s mother’s death was heartrending, as well as comparing Dodge’s top surgery to a woman recovering from a mastectomy due to breast cancer.

I admit, writing this 13 months after reading it, my memory is fuzzy on many details, especially her commentary on theory. But this book was fundamentally a love story, and an “unconventional” one, so to speak, and this relationship at the center in all its complicated rawness and vulnerability makes The Argonauts memorable and worthy of discussion.

Listened to audiobook in March 2016.

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?

Happy Pi(e) Day! Happy St. Patrick’s Day Week! (Yes I know it’s “just a day” but I can’t wait to listen to my Irish music and cook shepherd’s pie, colcannon, and soda bread). Anyway, the last week or so during my orchestra commutes I’ve been listening to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. It’s a really fantastic memoir about Nelson’s experience creating a non-gender-normative family with her artist-husband Harry Dodge, who is gender-fluid. Some of the language might be graphic, but it’s real and true life. I’m enjoying it and already about 70% finished. I also started reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel before bed, but only a few pages in so far! I can already see why everyone raved about it last year.

Side note: I’ve noticed that in 2016 so far I’ve only been reading books written by women. Not a bad trend! I could probably keep it up for a while longer this year, I have a bunch more on my shelf that have been sitting and waiting to be read.

What are you reading this week?