19 Nov 2007

''to know where i'm coming from'' by johann s. lee

Johann S. Lee, author of Singapore's first gay novel, Peculiar Chris, finally publishes his second work. Reviewer Ng Yi-Sheng confesses why he hates and loves the book.

In 1992, Johann S. Lee publishes Singapore's first gay novel. The book, entitled Peculiar Chris, is an instant hit - in those pre-Internet days of mega-censorship, folks love the fact that someone is finally telling the stories of their lives, complete with moments of coming out, first love and trying (hopelessly) to turn straight. True, some consider the semi-autobiographical story trite in parts, but the author's only 19, for chrissakes, a mere army boy - who's to guess what kind of great work the boy will turn out next?

Since leaving Singapore for London for his studies in his early 20s, Johann S. Lee now works in the English capital as an accountant.
But then, silence. Just like his main character, Johann flies off to study and work in London, apparently for good. Then in July 2007, local theatre company W!ld Rice stages a Happy Endings: Asian Boys Volume 3, a dramatisation of the novel. Johann gets invited home to watch the rehearsal process and the play - and within a few months, in a case of art imitating life imitating art, he's written and published a whole new novel based on the experience.

Through a layered sequence of flashbacks, To Know Where I'm Coming From tells the story of Ben Goh, a 36-year-old gay Singaporean banker working in London, working through a doomed relationship with Rob, a white English actor, descending into drug-filled debauchery upon his breakup, and journeying home to watch a play suspiciously similar to Asian Boys Volume 3.

Refreshingly, TKWICF has a completely different focus from Peculiar Chris - rather than rehashing the hackneyed angst of the coming out story, Johann focuses on the trauma of love, from romance to heartbreak to the fear of starting anew. It's clear that he's no longer interested in the innocence and taboo of first gay love but in how we handle ourselves as a mature gay society, when the freedom to club or even marry doesn't necessarily lead to happiness.

This is a slowly absorbing novel, and I'm pretty sure most Fridae readers will like it. But I've gotta be honest here - there's a lot of stuff I personally found disagreeable about the book. While it's clear that Johann's improved his writing since his first book, his prose is still blandly direct to the point of the absurd (evidence for the prosecution: the clunky title) and I get heartily sick of the way he tries so damn hard to explain everything about Singapore and London and gay life to the reader. Because of this, big chunks of the book turn out excruciatingly forced and deliberate - the entire first chapter, chock-full of strained self-indulgent exposition, should have been incinerated before reaching the press.

Plus, I can't say I took a shine to the characters at first. Our hero Ben is a rich hunky club queen who still has men drooling over him even though he's wrecked his body with drugs. Holly, his British fag hag, keeps playing the part of the clichéd tourist half the time, gushing over the yummy hawker food and the oddities of Chinese mothers. And it's frankly a tad ridiculous how closely the minor characters are directly modeled after the cast and crew of Asian Boys - a swishy director called "Ignatius"? A subversive playwright called "Yusoff"? It makes it just that much harder for anyone familiar with the Singapore cultural scene to read the work as balanced fiction.

And yet, these flaws are in themselves reflections of one important, enduring quality of the author: honesty. In interviews, he's been quite up-front about his limits as a writer, and his reliance on real-life events for inspiration has enabled him to keep to that cardinal rule for authors: write what you know.

It's this sense of honesty that prompts him to write about the sordid bits of gay life that most of us wouldn't advertise to the straights - orgies, cocaine habits, infidelity, threesomes and bitchy 50-something tennis mavens. It's this sense of honesty that makes him dedicated to documenting our emergent culture, caught between sexual freedom and political censorship, moving between the gym and the bathhouse and the activist group. And it's this sense of honesty that allows him to capture all those precious, unstereotypical aspects of a gay life - rice-and-potato couples where the white guy prefers to bottom, HIV-positive men living healthily on medication, traditional Chinese mothers who're never as homophobic (or as supportive) as you expect them to be.

But it's not just honesty that makes this book worth reading. Though Johann may still be a writer honing his craft, he's actually a really good storyteller: as we get to know Ben more intimately, we get drawn into the novel, understanding his crabby moods from the broken pieces of his life as they get revealed, as the author's plain-speaking style lets events speak for themselves. As much as I hated the first chapter, I couldn't put this book down two-thirds of the way through, and by the end, I was in the same shoes as the first readers of Peculiar Chris, hankering for more.

Ultimately, TKWICF (I refuse to refer to it by its verbose name) is possibly just as important a novel as Peculiar Chris. While there've been gay poetry, plays and non-fiction tracts galore between 1992 and 2007, there've been pitifully few novels, and no outstanding ones at that. Johann's new work brings something quite new to the table, something extremely contemporary: shuttling between the cities of London and Singapore, torn between love and duty and oppression and lust and the desire to be loved, it speaks of a loneliness and confusion that is distinctly of our era.

Doubtless, I'm hoping for other writers to pop in and create more polished work. But for now, to read this book is not just to know where the author is coming from, but to recognise, as gay people in a postmodern Asia, ourselves. How we love, where we hope to go. Who we are.

To Know Where I'm Coming From will be available later this month at major bookstores internationally.

Ng Yi-Sheng is Singaporean playwright and poet who rose to prominence after publishing SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century, a documentary book on gay, lesbian and bisexual Singaporeans in 2006.