Hot off the press - Review of To Know Where I'm Coming From (Feb 10)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Feb 10, 2008
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

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

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.

If you like this, read: Peculiar Chris (1992) by Johann S. Lee, about
a young man coming out in Singapore. The book is out of print, but
some copies are available for loan at the National Library and at the
Pelangi Pride Centre at 21 Tanjong Pagar Road, 04-01.