First published in The Star on 13th March, 2016
Review by DAPHNE LEE
AUTHOR: Chin Ai-May, Jenny Ng, Shazwani Abdul Kabur, Shazra Aishath, Tan Yet Mee, Teja Salehuddin Tan
PUBLISHER: Silverfish Books
TWENTY-FIFTEEN was a quiet year for Silverfish’s publishing arm. In January of that year, it produced Rumaizah Abu Bakar’s A Call to Travel. Bunga Emas, originally published in 1964, was re-issued mid-year, and in December, Faultlines, a collection of all-new short stories by six new writers, appeared. Of course, in the 10 months between the publication of the two Silverfish originals, the bookstore moved from Jalan Telawi to the Bangsar Village II shopping mall. No doubt that transition meant an adjustment period for all concerned, and an understandable slowing down in its publishing schedule.
In any case, Silverfish Books has never been the kind of publishing house that spits out books on a monthly basis, and to hell with whether what’s published is fit for print or not. With Silverfish, books are, at very least, edited and proofread – that’s what I’ve always believed in anyway.
That’s why I was very taken aback by Faultlines. This collection, comprising 24 stories, four from each of six writers (all alumni of Silverfish’s popular writing programme), is choc-a-bloc with grammatical errors, typos, inconsistent tenses, wrongly-used words, and other mistakes. Were these stories published in a hurry? They don’t seem to have been proofread, and I must say that most of them read like they’ve not been edited at all.
Publisher and editor, Raman Krishnan, says, in his introduction to the book, that the absence of language skills shouldn’t stop a good storyteller from writing. I agree that some people just lack the ability to present their stories coherently, in the written form. While this shouldn’t stop them becoming writers, I do think that when their badly-written sentences get in the way of their reader’s pleasure and comprehension, an editor has to step in and do something about it. I know Silverfish has done this with a few of its writers, so I’m surprised and disappointed that it hasn’t happened here.
Also, a good premise doesn’t always mean a good story. The ideas behind the 24 stories in Faultlines are interesting enough, but, in the telling, most fail to live up to their promise.
In my opinion, to work, a story has first to make you curious. Then, it has to make you want to keep reading. Finally, it should mean something and not be merely a series of events. It should reveal something about human nature; it should make connections – between characters; between the characters and the reader; or between the reader and the rest of humankind.
Most of the stories in this collection succeed in the first instance. If they don’t have appealing titles, they have interesting opening lines or paragraphs. Many of the tales also hold your attention in as much as you turn the pages because you want to find out what happens to a character or how a tricky situation is resolved. However, in 99 percent of cases, the stories left me wondering what the point was, or if final paragraphs had been accidentally deleted.
In Tan Yet Mee’s Shame Girl, overhearing gossip about a neighbour’s shotgun marriage, teenage Ah Moi muses about abortions and fallen women. A clumsy link is then made to the fact that she was molested as a child.
Although the abuse is at the centre of this story, even more important, in my opinion, is her mother’s (non-) reaction when told about it.
However, although the reader is both told and shown how Ah Moi responds to the abuse, her reaction to her mother’s betrayal is not remarked upon at all. This, I feel, is a glaring omission and the main reason why the story fails.
Another story that misfires is Albinism by Shazwani Abdul Kabur. In this tale, a young woman called Sally is confronted by her prejudices about albinism when she meets Ahmad, a thirteen-year-old boy with that condition. The reader is told how Ahmad appears to Sally; how Sally and others react to him; how Sally’s preconceived notions are challenged and changed. What is not addressed is why Sally feels certain things, for example, why albinos make her feel “all weird” and why she didn’t think Ahmad would have a good sense of humour.
Rather than it just being an anecdote about a chance encounter, this could have been a meatier story if its themes of prejudice and guilt had been explored. Perhaps Ahmad’s condition reminded Sally of another person whom she had once treated unfairly. And perhaps how she chooses to act at the story’s conclusion is her way of making amends for past mistakes. I think this story could have been a whole lot more interesting if it had been expanded on.
Most of the stories in this collection do not achieve their full potential because the writers do not look beyond the surface of their simple plots. So much more could be made of many of these tales if characters were explored more fully; if the authors had examined their weaknesses more closely; if their frailties, their doubts and fears had been mined more ruthlessly for motives and motifs; themes and subtext.
In The Day the Pigeons Moved In by Tan Ai-May, is the husband’s obsession with pigeons a symptom of the fissures, sensed yet denied, forming in his marriage?
How does the central character in Jenny Ng’s Friday Afternoon Specials reconcile his transvetitism with the loss of his son?
Does the structure of Day in the Park by Shazra Aishath prevent the possibility of exploring the fascinating perversities of adolescent rivalry?
And would Teja Salehuddin Tan’s Kasut Manek have been more interesting if its author had looked more closely at the emotional consequences of the Wees’ decision, from either their point of view, or their child’s?
These are just some questions that came to me when I read Faultlines and asked myself what was missing about the stories. I think all have enourmous potential, and it is just unfortunate that no work seems to have been done to make the best of them.
I must, however, mention that Teja’s One Two Three Four was a pleasure to read. This subtle sketch of a man in decline, his passions burning fiercely despite the degeneration of his mental faculties, suffered only slightly from one overly-sentimental line. In fact, the style of this story and Ikan Puyu leads me to think that Teja would fare well as a personal memoirist.
Nevertheless, all the writers have a way to go in developing their craft. I think Faultlines is a premature showcase of their work, and although they do show some promise as storytellers, it remains to be seen whether they will, in time, produce work worthy of publication.