Heron x Instagram

No photo description available.A very brief post to say that I’m now on Instagram as @acertainjol. I will be using the account mostly to post my attempts (such as they are) at drawing and painting.

Here is a heron I made on an iPad with Procreate.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters

I absolutely devoured THE UNLIKELY ADVENTURES OF THE SHERGILL SISTERS. Of course Balli Kaur Jaswal has always been a damned fine writer, but this is simply a masterwork. Imagine the most supremely elegant juggling act, in which a dazzling palette of scenes and a four-course meal’s worth of emotional flavours and exquisite comedic notes all make intricate sweeps past one another and then fall back into her hands, one, two, three, with perfect timing and unerring control. You will gasp and nod and laugh and learn; you will exhale and then realise you’d been holding your breath and–is that a tear? Surely not, when it’s been so much fun? p.s. in case you couldn’t tell, I loved it.

How much is enough?

How much income does an older person in Singapore need for a basic standard of living? Researchers have addressed this question using Minimum Income Standards methodology and the answer is… well, watch this cute video to find out! (I’m very glad to be able to share this after working on concept, script and overseeing development!) For more information, including the full report, see here.

For me, the most poignant part of yesterday’s launch event for the report was when someone asked the panel about differences observed between the focus groups in Singapore and other countries where similar research has been carried out. We heard that participants in Singapore expressed much more anxiety about healthcare costs–“preoccupied” was the word the researcher used–and fears of falling down, while in the UK healthcare barely rated a mention because of the NHS. The concept of being old and therefore a burden on others also came up repeatedly in Singapore, whereas (we were told) participants in Japan and the UK did not emphasise these ideas and regarded a much wider range of activity as part of their ordinary living. The older people in Singapore were also especially concerned about saving for their own funerals, in order to avoid inflicting expenses on others.

I found myself thinking about the way that economic insecurity casts a shadow over the whole life course in Singapore. Our country is so rich, but we are told to act as if someone is always out to steal our lunch. To many, childhood is merely a preparatory stage for what they call “the real world”, i.e. your place as an economic cog. The actual business of life is, it seems, spinning as that cog, as hard and fast and productively as you can; after that comes the time of being a burden. Extraordinarily, to simply enjoy oneself is seen as a waste of time (instead of, I would argue, the highest expression of what time is actually for). Is this really the best way for us to expect people to live?

They Told Us To Move

Last night I finished reading THEY TOLD US TO MOVE, edited by Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team. What a fabulous volume, ranging over so many different registers, scales and subjects–illuminating so much about connection, history, poverty and space. I particularly enjoyed Neo Yu Wei’s essay “Reclaiming the community spirit in the iron cage”, but really, all of it is essential Singapore reading. My brain feels shifted.

Amal Unbound

In AMAL UNBOUND by Aisha Saeed, an academic young girl dreams of becoming a teacher, but is forced into indentured servitude for the wealthy loanshark family which dominates her small Pakistani village.* Heavy stuff for a children’s book, perhaps, but the difficulty of reading it is almost entirely emotional, as broader issues are made vividly concrete: local power dynamics come alive in a tussle over a pomegranate, sophisticated dissonances echo in the division of chores. The inner voice of Amal, her web of familial and neighbourly intimacies, and a strong flavour of village and estate life, are all rendered with remarkable economy. The book insists–to a rather impressive degree–on nuance and humility. If it falters anywhere, it is perhaps that I at least found it hard to be quite as convinced by the hopeful resolution of the book as by the bleakness of the realities it conveys. I also felt that certain narrative threads got a little lost along the way–were the early scenes with Omar, or even Amal’s mother’s post-natal funk, perhaps, destined to go somewhere else? But overall, a powerful volume well worth the time to introduce to children–and while the experiences depicted do not map exactly onto those of live-in domestic workers in Singapore, there are significant parallels which give the book some additional relevance here.

*I see Elena Ferrante in everything now, of course, but the Khans very much put me in mind of the Carraccis and the Solaras; and both Amal’s bookishness and moments of defiance were likewise slightly reminiscent of Lenù and Lila.

Acts of quarantine

Here is an extra spoiler-filled Byatt/Ferrante-off that nobody asked for.

It is unsatisfying to me that the (largely excellent) My Brilliant Friend adaptation gives Antonio short shrift, to the detriment of the characterisation of Lenù. On screen, Antonio is played for cringes. Lenù becomes a passive recipient of the semi-wanted attentions of an over-eager bumbler, who makes shallow jabs at the grooming of his rival, the cool intellectual, Nino. But in the novel, Lenù is actively, if ineptly, manipulative. When Antonio appears after school it is at her request, in order to rub Nino’s face in it. Moreover, it is she who asks that they attend Lila’s wedding as a pair, and because Antonio reasonably takes this as a willingness to socially cement their relationship, he goes into debt to get a new suit—an expense which the show presents as a spontaneous vanity. These changes rob the relationship, and consequently Lenù, of considerable complexity.

Critically, the television series also downplays their mutual physical chemistry. This seems a small matter in the first book alone, but their connection presents a significant comment on sexuality in the wider arc of the four novels. Aside from the creepy elder Sarratore (who is an awful bag of shit), to the best of my recollection only Antonio is strongly presented as offering a woman sexual satisfaction. (For the most part, the books’ descriptions of sex echo Lila’s: “Fucking is overrated.”) In this respect, Antonio is specifically contrasted favourably against Lenù’s other, highly intellectual, middle/upper-class partners, even as union with him represents the danger of being trapped in her origins. Only with Antonio, a man of the neighbourhood—and only after social climbing renders Lenù utterly outside the power of the neighbourhood—do we see in any detail an honest and non-threatening consummation of mutual desire. As is often the case, the neighbourhood is both a source of vitality, as well as inhospitable to it.

I find it fascinating to juxtapose this against (what else) the early loves of Frederica Potter, and her philosophy of “lamination”. Frederica’s compulsive drive to keep everything separate—love, sex, affection, thinking, reading, home—her need to hold all experiences at an analytical distance—is her safeguard against being swallowed whole by local domesticity. For both Ferrante’s and Byatt’s young women, there is a kind of satisficing going on, with their hunger for things that come into conflict—for status, for independence, for knowledge, including sexual knowledge. A major part of how they handle this problem is to quarantine sexual exploration from emotional vulnerability, in defiance of societal (and perhaps also readerly) expectations.

In Frederica’s case, this centres, perhaps counterintuitively, in the character of Alexander. Alexander begins in many respects as a Nino-esque figure, embodying a quiet cultural and intellectual glamour, and inspiring painful desire of an impossibly compound nature: Alexander is sex, he is writing and reading, he is romance, he is social advancement, he is intellectual worth, he is clever company, he is metropolitan escape from Blesford and kitchens and curates. Yet when he is finally within reach, the very completeness of Frederica’s devotion to him repels her. Any possibility of total intimacy is a trap, here signalled by the appearance of the trimmings of domesticity, the chops she can’t cook. She runs away in favour of a lower-stakes, almost clinical—laminated—tryst with the reassuringly unexciting Wilkie.

There are curious parallels between the consensual sexual encounters that both Lenù and Frederica hold at the greatest distance. Both take place outdoors, with older men of extremely peripheral relevance to their lives. Both men seem at first to be safely left behind as private biographical footnotes, until the moment of the women’s first public artistic triumphs, when they reappear in a strange mixture of comedy and threat. Ed, the “traveller in dolls” whom Frederica meets on a bus, comes pushing through the crowd after she performs in Alexander’s play, and has to be hastily evaded. Lenù, cannier and in more control in many ways, successfully transforms her own incident into literary material, and finds her work at the receiving end of a bitter review from the man in question.

Quarantine is a strategy for a rigged world. Marriage, the ultimate running-together of things, simply doesn’t work for the women of these books. Not for Stephanie Potter or Lila Cerullo, with their romantic visions of package deals of love, sex and meaning. Not for Frederica, gambling somewhat incoherently on maintaining emotional and social independence with a sufficiently alien man. Not for Lenù, compromising on social ascension with an inconsiderate sexual damp squib. I’m glad she gets to enjoy Antonio after making it out the other side, and I hope the television series stays true to that, at least, when the time comes around.

The Emperor’s Riddle

Last night I raced through the final chapters of THE EMPEROR’S RIDDLE by Kat Zhang, a rollicking treasure hunt and rescue mission in which eleven-year-old Mia, reluctantly dragged on a summer holiday from the US to her family’s hometown of Fuzhou, goes in search of lost riches said to be hidden by Ming dynasty emperor Zhu Yunwen–a search which she believes will also save her missing aunt.

The book has a slow start but really takes off after the first few chapters. There is a wonderful interweaving of riddle-solving with real historical and cultural sites around Fuzhou, and a clever interdependence between the treasure hunt and Mia’s family dynamics. The adventure is launched because of Mia’s singular trust in her aunt (who co-parents with her mother); the enterprise tests the endurance of her sometimes troubled bonds with her cooler older brother and her harried, practical mother; and success is only possible in part because Mia overcomes her natural reticence to build bridges with her “stranger-uncle” in China.

Somewhat irritatingly, I had to order it online (an indie bookstore in Cardiff said they couldn’t even order it in–and it’s hardly an old book, published in 2017). Obviously I’m far from the first to observe that Anglosphere children’s publishing and bookselling is far more eager to promote books about non-humans than it is about non-white/non-western characters and settings; and that the exceptions are often Books About Issues. Those very much have their place, but one does wince at the idea of implicitly teaching children that there are Fun Whites (boy wizards! girl pirates!) and Worthy Others. Given that, part of what is refreshing about this book is its both gentle and informed use of elements such as a diasporic family’s homecoming and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (which has a major impact on Mia’s aunt’s past) in what is first and foremost a very enjoyable adventure story.

If I had one criticism: the gloomy villain is a bit of a flat plot device. That said, the book already has so much on its plate that to give him more psychological depth might have needlessly complicated matters. It was fun. I think kids would like it.