I’d been waiting since May to read Jeremy Tiang‘s debut novel, State of Emergency (Epigram Books, 2017) and finally had the chance last week. His translation of Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed is one of my favorite books, so I was eager to read his own novel.
And it didn’t disappoint!
The novel is set mainly in Singapore and told through a number of points of view, starting with Jason, the aging patriarch of a family torn apart by the leftist movement in the middle of the last century. Jason not only lost his wife to the leftist guerillas (she was one of them and left her family to “go inside”), but his sister was killed in an Indonesian terrorist bombing in Singapore not too long after that.
We also learn about Siew Li, Jason’s wife, before and after she left her family. From the beginning, her relationship with Jason was difficult even if the couple didn’t really understand it at the time. They came from such different backgrounds–his an upper-crust, English-speaking Chinese family; hers a working class Chinese family that didn’t speak English–which became all the more apparent when Siew Li became more involved in the leftist movement. She was a student activist when they met, but Jason figured she would settle down after they married and had twins.
The book also tells the story of Jason’s niece, Stella; another guerilla from Malaysia; and a London journalist from Singapore who returns to her birthplace to uncover the Batang Kali massacre when British troops murdered unarmed male villagers during the first “Emergency” from the late 1940s until 1960 in then-British ruled Malaya. A second Emergency started later in the 1960s. Singapore had been part of Malaya, but became an independent city-state in 1965.
The story line I enjoyed the most was that of Jason and Siew Li’s twin children, Henry and Janet. Henry left for England decades before his father passed away, but Janet stayed in Singapore, becoming the dutiful daughter. Janet also became very religious and worried about Henry, her gay twin brother back in London. After all their family had been through, something as personal as someone’s private affairs continued to be an issue for Janet, despite the bonds twins are supposed to have. I’ve become fascinated and worried by the evangelical stronghold in former Asian colonies like Singapore and Hong Kong vis a vis the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. Jeremy Tiang addresses this dichotomy, which one could compare to the mid-twentieth century tensions between the establishment and those who wanted equality across the board. Same struggle, new parties.