Saturday, November 5, 2016

Culture class, Singapore, speaking Singlish, and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's brilliant, darkly funny, Sarong Party Girls

  • “In Singapore this satirical novel of predatory beauties would be regarded as deeply subversive – for the rest of us, and anyone familiar with life in that little island city state, it is hilarious and original.” —Paul Theroux

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based journalist and author of “A Tiger In The Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family (Hyperion, 2011). She is the editor of the fiction anthology Singapore Noir (Akashic Books, 2014). I'm so honored to host her here. Thank you, Cheryl!

I always think that an author is driven to write a certain book. What was driving you?

 This is a book I've probably had in the back of my mind for years, since I was a teenager growing up in Singapore, because I've always found Sarong Party Girls and the culture around SPGs completely fascinating. This little subculture in Singapore, to me, says something possibly significant about the ​country and the gender and racial politics of the place. “Sarong Party Girls” is a -- slightly derogatory -- term that refers to a type of woman in Singapore whose main goal in life is to meet, date and perhaps marry an expat Caucasian man. As my protagonist Jazzy and her cohorts explain in this satirical novel, the ultimate goal is to have a “Chanel baby” -- a half expat, half Singaporean child that is such a status symbol it is the “Chanel of babies.” I find that term -- which I actually heard from a girlfriend in Singapore, though spoken (perhaps half) in jest at the time -- hilarious and think it says a lot about a kind of hyper materialism you can sometimes see in modern Asia, and perhaps, how race and class fits into all of that. I often wondered, why is it that there exists a certain type of woman who sees status and material value in having a Caucasian husband or boyfriend? What are the forces of our history -- colonial or otherwise -- that have shaped this desire and belief in the value of Caucasian-ness? Seeing SPGs and peering in at SPG bars in Singapore when I was a teenager always made me ponder these questions, so when it came to writing my first novel, this very Singaporean character that had always fascinated me​ came to mind.

 I love the culture clash in your novel, the beauty of the old traditions and cultures versus the siren song of the new.  Can you talk about that please?

 Singapore is a small country -- you can drive from one end of the island to the other in about 90 minutes, perhaps even less. It’s also a country whose population has really boomed in the last several years, partly because of an influx of expats from all over -- China, the U.K., Australia. One of the founders of Facebook became Singaporean a few years ago and lives there now. Because Singapore is so small, this new wealth -- and the lifestyle that’s come with it -- rubs right up against the traditional, often conservative and still patriarchal Singapore that still forms the canvas of the country and that, to me, is fascinating to watch. Jazzy, my protagonist, finds herself jammed right between the two -- she grew up very much in the milieu of the old, traditional patriarchal Singapore in which she’s encouraged to marry a good Singaporean boy who can give her a decent home and life but at the same time there is the siren song of the new Singapore with its glitzy clubs and the specter of a glittering, modern life -- and she sees having an expat husband as being her ticket into that realm. Bettering yourself via a good marriage -- that's a story you see in many cultures, however. In some ways, so many books (Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh etc.) have explored this terrain in varying ways. This story is just painted with a distinctive Singaporean brush.

Tell us about Singlish? And how fun was it to write?
It was incredibly liberating, actually. I love Singlish and I love slipping back into it whenever I touch down in Singapore or when I bump into a Singaporean friend in New York. I often feel my truest self when I speak Singlish -- albeit not quite the hardcore vulgar Singlish that sometimes appears in "Sarong Party Girls!" So when it came to writing Jazzy, it truly was a joy. The language doesn't seem to have changed much since the time I lived there -- but then again I go back at least twice a year and spend a chunk of time in Singapore so it's not like I'm completely unfamiliar with the country and its rhythms and sounds since I'm based so far away. As I was writing though, I often wrote aloud -- this way I knew right away if a sentence or a phrase sounded off or false.

 Also, the Singapore government for many years has had a multimillion-dollar “Speak Good English” movement to encourage Singaporeans to speak perfect standard English instead -- we’ve had no fewer than two prime ministers speak out against Singlish. In a 1999 speech, our founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew called Singlish “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans.” I’ve always bemoaned this active stance against Singlish, a language that I feel reflects the polyglot that is Singapore so well. So it gave me great joy to write this book as Jazzy would speak it -- not in proper Queen’s English or somesuch, which would really have diminished her character and taken away a lot of her energy.

 What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or just hope the muse follows you?

 When I started writing SPG, I could see the first chapter and the very last scene very clearly in my mind -- I also had a very strong sense of Jazzy as a character, who she was, how she sounded, how she thought, what she wanted out of life. Apart from that, I had no idea what was going to happen between the first chapter and that last scene -- but I trusted the Jazzy I was hearing in my head to be able to lead me from A to Z and she did. (Having said that, I did make a tweak to what I had thought would happen in very last scene -- my image of it when I started the book had been just a bit more bleak. But at the end of the journey that Jazzy took me through, however, I did come to realize that the Jazzy I had come to know over all those pages would have made a different choice than the original one I had imagined.)

 Since this is my first novel, I’m not sure if I can say what my method is, really. All I learned in the writing of “Sarong Party Girls” was that I often had to let Jazzy and her thoughts percolate in my head for days or weeks before suddenly feeling “it.” I’ve told my friends it’s kind of like waiting for the right time to go to the bathroom. If I sit down and try to write a set number of words every day, the prose often feels forced or dead on the page to me. But if I let things percolate until it reaches a point where the dam’s about to burst -- that’s when I sit down to write and it comes out right. I wrote the last 30,000 words of the first draft of this novel in a three-week gush after a few months of waiting, thinking, scribbling bits and bobs here and there, and daydreaming -- and feeling frustrated that I wasn’t writing very much. Right now, I’ve started a new novel and am waiting to go to the bathroom again. Soon, I feel it.

 I’m personally always surprised at how the book I initially intend to write turns out into the book I need to write. What surprised you in writing this novel?

 The anger I felt as I was writing it. I don’t think I realized before starting this book how frustrated I was over conservative attitudes and the forms of institutionalized misogyny that can still exist in traditional cultures. The fact that some of my guy friends in Singapore go to KTV lounges -- where you can order up girls as if from a menu to “entertain” you -- because they “have to” when entertaining clients for work and their wives have to look away infuriates me. The fact that having girlfriends on the side and mistresses or second families still exists and, again, is something that wives sometimes feel they’d be better off just looking away and ignoring, is inconceivable to me. The casual cruelty against women -- subtle or unsubtle -- is disheartening. And my strong feelings about this, which surfaced as I was writing, did surprise me.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

 Social engineering.

What question didn’t I ask you that I should have?

 “How has this book been received in Singapore?” I’m not sure, entirely. A newspaper in Singapore did ask me why I chose to write a character who sets such a bad example for Singaporean women, which I found to be a very funny -- and revealing -- question. I have always found the most flawed characters to be the most interesting in literature, whether it’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita to Balram Halwai in “The White Tiger.” In fact, I find the women in this book rather sympathetic characters -- flawed, yes, but they are fundamentally good people. In fact, readers have pointed out more often to me that it’s the men who end up coming off the worst in this book. At the same time, the book currently is in its eighth week on the national bestseller list in Singapore -- so perhaps Singaporeans are enjoying the deliciousness of being subversive in reading.

No comments: