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30 Dec 2011

Book review: I will survive

Social worker Leow Yangfa's first book explores the lives of 21 GLBT people in Singapore, focusing on their struggles with abuse, illness and prejudice. Ng Yi-Sheng reviews.

Meet Elle. She’s a queer Singaporean woman who lives in Australia with her girlfriend. She’s still waiting for her parents to accept that she’ll never marry a man.

Meet Thomas. He’s a bisexual man in his fifties. He came to terms with his desire for men a few years ago, but he’s already married to a woman. He doesn’t dare to consider divorce till his kids are grown up.

Meet Lance. He’s a gay man who suffers from bipolar disorder. He’s been hospitalised multiple times, survived one suicide attempt and endured lengthy unemployment due to his depressive attacks. He says he lives in a “double closet”, trapped by two social taboos: being gay and being mentally ill.

I Will Survive: Personal Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Stories is a collection of real-life stories of 21 LGBT Singaporeans by social worker Leow Yangfa (above).

These people are just some of the subjects of the new non-fiction book, I Will Survive: Personal Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Stories in Singapore. It contains 21 tales based on interviews with queer Singaporeans, and it’s written by social worker Leow Yangfa.

As you can tell, these aren’t comforting stories. They’re sober, somber, sometimes even painful. They tell the unvarnished truth about the anguish some of us have to endure because of our homophobic, transphobic society, and this makes them precisely the kind of stories that need to be shared.

I’ve a personal connection with Yangfa, because I interviewed him for my own book, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century. He’s actually a perennially cheerful, unabashedly out and proud gay man, and he was glad to display his real name and photograph next to his coming-out story.

However, as he states in his introduction: “I was also looking back on a life that had been relatively smooth but for a handful of creases. Five years on, I’ve become even more aware that not every gay person is like me.” This is why he’s created a book of queer life stories that aren’t focussed on the coming-out process – instead, they examine the very real social problems queer people face: prejudice, abuse and illness.

Here, we’ve descriptions of bullying both in school and in the army. We’ve stories of religious pressure to lead heteronormative lives, told by Christians, Muslims and Hindus. We’ve accounts of clinical depression made worse by guilt for being gay. We’ve also a number of mentions of counsellors who haven’t a clue about GLBT people – well-meaning authority figures who just make everything worse.

Some tales have happy endings, of course. The stories of transgender people are mostly told as narratives of triumph. Yet the author doesn’t flinch from telling us sad endings: at the end of a positive tale by a woman named Frances, he reveals that she’d just broken up with her girlfriend at the time of publication.

In fact, Yangfa doesn’t sugarcoat the GLBT experience at all. He dares to include tales that make us look bad: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sex addiction, cheating. Lester, the sole HIV-positive interviewee, reveals that he was only 18 when he got infected. A young man named Wee Lee describes being in a physically abusive gay relationship. A transgender woman named Stefanie acknowledges the impact on her spouse and kids when she embraced her female identity.

I’m supremely impressed by the book’s honesty, as well as the courage of the interviewees in sharing their darkest moments. This has been possible for them because they appear under assumed names. Some aren’t completely out of the closet, and those out of the closet are sharing secrets that could end up hurting them.

For more information, and to read more stories of queer people in Singapore, please go to the website http://iwillsurvivesg.wordpress.com.

Still, I’m unsure about the writing style. The stories are gripping because of their subject matter, not because they’re beautifully told. Although we’re often given the age and racial/cultural background of the subjects, it’s surprisingly hard to recall them individually: they’re stripped down to being victims of their circumstances rather than having distinct voices and personalities. And despite the focus, I’d argue it could have been made more readable by giving a little more attention to moments of sweetness in queer people’s lives, reassuring readers that being gay isn’t always about heartache.

I’ve also wondered who the book’s written for. It should certainly be compulsory reading for counsellors and therapists, both queer and straight. It’ll acquaint them with the kind of problems they’ll encounter when they treat GLBT people. Casual readers should be more wary: despite the uplifting title, this is a text about gritty, often unresolved social problems, not Chicken Soup for the Gay Singaporean Soul.

Nonetheless, I’d also recommend buying the book for its introductory essays alone. These are written by four local activists who’ve contributed greatly to the queer cause: Christian minister Reverend Dr Yap Kim Hao, women’s rights spokesperson Braema Mathi, entrepreneur Leona Lo, and lawyer Siew Kum Hong, who fought to repeal Section 377A in parliament. (Interestingly, all four are straight, though Lo happens to be transgender.)

Ultimately, I Will Survive is a vitally important addition to the gay Singaporean bookshelf. Through its tales of troubled spirits, it gives perspectives on GLBT life here that have never been documented elsewhere. It also reminds us how far off we are from being a place where you can raise a young queer child without fear of psychological scarring.

If we are to develop as a society, these stories must be shared. As for the men and women behind them, they must be acknowledged for their bravery. Love and peace to them all.

You can buy copies of Leow Yangfa’s I Will Survive at Skoob, Amazon, Amazon UK and ebooks.com. (See http://iwillsurvivesg.wordpress.com for links.) A book launch will be held shortly. The author is also looking for opportunities to publish the work in hard copy. 

For more information, and to read more stories of queer people in Singapore, please go to the website http://iwillsurvivesg.wordpress.com.

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