The Heartsick Diaspora, and other stories

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Shortlisted   —Manchester Fiction Prize2020

Set in different cities around the world, Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas to explore the lives of those torn between cultures and juggling divided selves.

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In the title story, four writers find their cultural bonds of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian writer joins their group. In other stories, a brother searches for his sister forced to serve as a comfort woman during World War Two; three Singaporean sisters run a French gourmet restaurant in New York; a woman raps about being a Tiger Mother in Belgravia; and a filmmaker struggles to document the lives of samsui women—Singapore’s thrifty, hardworking construction workers.

Acutely observed, wry and playful, her stories are as worldly and emotionally resonant as the characters themselves. This fabulous debut collection heralds an exciting new literary voice.

Deborah Edgeley, Ink Pantry

31 March 2020

In her remarkable debut short story collection, The Heartsick Diaspora and other stories, Singapore-based writer Elaine Chiew takes us into an intimate world of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas.

This collection, comprising of fourteen stories, is set in different cities around the world and each of them shines a light on people who are often torn between cultures and juggling divided selves. Chiew compiles her stories based on a ten-year time frame with her initial story, Face, which won first prize in the Bridport International Short Story Competition 2008 and through The Heartsick Diaspora, which won second prize in the same competition in 2010.

In Face, it tells the story of an elderly woman, Yun, who suffers from urine incontinence and her strained relationship with her American-born Chinese daughter in-law, Karen. She lives with her son, Qiang, and his family in London. Her granddaughter, Lulu, feels uncomfortable around her, as ‘she smells like wee’. Now, Yun decides to return to her hometown in Malaysia, which baffles Karen and Qiang as both of them are able to provide care for her, unlike back home, she has no-one.

The depiction of her racist encounter with a group of drunken youths on the London tube and her reluctance to talk about this is an honest take on some of the struggles faced by South East Asian diasporas who find living abroad daunting. On one hand, she wants to be a good grandmother, but on the other, that fateful encounter cripples her.

A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin feels like an Asian version of the critically acclaimed film, The Sixth Sense. The protagonist in this story is a teenager who has the ability to see and communicate with dead people (yikes!). One evening at a laundromat, he encounters a girl-ghoul, Boo. The thing is, she has an insatiable appetite. Slowly, an unlikely friendship is formed between them. Things get complicated when she keeps asking for more food, and he has to come up with various ways to appease this confused and lost spirit, other than feeding her with joss paper food, which the Chinese burn during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Written from the first person perspective, this piece explores the theme of identity. What kind of ghost is Boo? Does she belong to the conventional race categories in Singapore – Chinese, Malay, Indian and others? In fact, does this even exist after death? Chiew cleverly weaves in the fact about the Malay ghost, Pontianak, and Chinese ghost, egui, at the beginning of the story to set the tone right.

In the title story, The Heartsick Diaspora, four writers find their cultural bond of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian writer, Wei, joins their group.

Interestingly, the narrative is written in a play format with sub-headings such as Introduction of Characters, Acts and Scenes. The writers are a motley group and when everyone gathers at the weekly writers’ sessions, their different personalities inevitably clash with one another. The palpable tension between the strong-willed Chandra and the soon-to-be divorced Phoebe towards the end of the story is expected. Yet it’s necessary to resolve the ambiguous relationship between Wei and Chandra.

Ultimately, The Heartsick Diaspora and other stories is laced with wry humour, intricate details and multi-layered characters. Chiew possesses a talent in writing lyrical prose that oscillates between humour and seriousness. She has a knack of injecting subtle humour that allows the reader to laugh and cry for the characters at the same time.

For instance, the opening paragraph of Face set me guffawing:

“‘Why should Lulu know how to roll spaghetti with a fork? We’re not Italian.’ Karen bangs the saucepan on the stove because this is how some Chinese people take out their frustrations – by abusing their cookware.”

Similarly, there’s a paragraph in A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin which I couldn’t stop laughing at:

My other sister, Bee Khing, sleepwalks and has, more than once, scared the urine out of our neighbours by showing up in her long white nightdress at the void deck very early in the morning while old men are doing tai chi.’

Chiew doesn’t compromise the use of Chinese vernacular, which adds a distinctive flavour to her stories. She writes such vivid descriptions of the places inhabited by the characters that I feel like I have been transported to Belgravia, Singapore and New York. But what distinguishes this collection from the rest is that Chiew highlights the displacement and identity of the Chinese migrant communities. As an Asian writer straddling between cultures (the UK and Singapore), I identify with the pertinent question of belonging. Who am I in this globalised world? She’s definitely a writer to watch out for in the years to come. At the beginning, reading the book was a slow-burning process. But as each story progresses, it grows on you. And you will want to read it again.

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Aiden O’Reilly, Litro

31 March 2020

Elaine Chiew is ethnic Chinese from Malaysia; she was educated in the USA and then moved to the UK. She is currently living in Singapore. Her debut collection of short stories reflects this background. The stories examine the lives of the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese diaspora across the USA, Britain, and internationally. These are doubly hyphenated identities: the immigrant children of a Chinese community that established itself in the Straits Settlements in the early twentieth century. At one point a character’s mother visiting from Singapore is impressed by London’s Chinatown. “It’s just like China!” Her daughter wryly remarks, “Although she’d never been to China.”

The diversity of voices across the collection reflects not only Chiew’s talent, but perhaps also the long span of years over which they were written. The earliest published piece won the Bridport International Prize in 2008, a feat nicely bookended by the title story winning Second Prize a full decade later in 2018. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and in Unthology 10. She edited the anthology Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World, and this familiarity with food culture makes more than a cameo appearance in this collection.

Chiew writes with equal facility and insight from the perspective of the older generation of immigrants who never became proficient in English, and the younger, college graduates and professionals, whose comprehension of the Chinese vernacular is increasingly sketchy. In the drama-filled “Run of the Molars”, a mother arrives from Singapore to visit her three daughters in London. It’s a recipe for much concealing of secrets, putting up with whining, and unsolicited moral judgements. The reader need know nothing of Chinese culture to appreciate the sheer passive-aggressive contrariness of a mother who, when served platters of (London) Chinese food by her daughters, narrows her mouth and asks for two slices of white bread. All the repressed family dynamics seethe to the surface in this story of great heart and sardonic observation of cultural differences.

Lily is portrayed as the most progressive of the three daughters. Her sister, despite at one point referring to the mother as a “hillbilly”, launches a caustic attack on Lily for becoming too westernised: “Why do we have to talk about everything? You’re so fierce westernised, just because you’ve married an ang moh. Put you on a couch, Freudy-dreudy, this solves everything, eh?”

In this piece as with several others, food is metonymic for fidelity to one’s heritage.

In the mythology-warping satire “Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer”, the writer-narrator gazes in the mirror examining his zits and trying to descry his true face: Model-Minority face, Fresh-Off-The-Boat face, Charlie Chan face. A little later he ponders over whether it is ever permissible to use the description “nice sloe eyes”, even in jest. The farcical tribulations of our Ethnic Writer should serve as a caution not to read these stories too reductively as explorations of ethnic identity. They are stories of family bonds and friendships and struggles to establish one’s place in the world. Often a wry distance is maintained from the characters, allowing space for the reader to revise their opinion and see the larger picture.

This authorial skill of allowing room for differing perspectives comes to the fore in “Friends of the Kookaburra”. Sansan receives a surprise call from an old college friend, the Madonna-idolising Irene, seeking to renew contact. Twelve years before they had been “thick as thieves”, done voluntary work together, camped out cramming for exams. But they grew apart: Irene began to hang out with the more popular students. “Irene’s wild talk, throwing around buzzwords like ‘sectarian politics’, ‘cultural hegemony’, ‘power dialectic’.” Fast-forward the years, and this friend comes across as effusive and presumptuous. Given the nature (and title) of the book, the reader may be disposed to sympathise with the Malaysian-Chinese Sansan. It’s a finely balanced portrayal, but we begin to warm to Irene’s brash frankness. “Her eyes scan Sansan’s face for residual historic friendship.” The vexing and elusive question intrudes nevertheless: is the tension between these old friends a clash of Western individualism with Confucian values, or is it a personality clash?

Irene turns the tables in a dramatic fashion – no spoilers here. If the modern short story is frequently charged with a lack of narrative and contrived subtle endings, Chiew is never guilty of this.

“Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur” is a comedy, verging on tragicomedy, about the Chinese owner/chef of La Lumière – a French restaurant in Manhattan. Due to a sequence of events involving a lethally bilious food blogger and the local loan-shark goons, Kara finds herself pretending the vacuous, Grecian-god-looking Bernard is the executive chef. It’s a role Bernard takes on with panache and a splash of cologne (in the kitchen!). This might not be the outstanding story of the collection, but it shows the range of Chiew’s voices. Another story gives us a would-be “tiger mother” trying to integrate with the other fearsome moms hot-housing their kids through an intimidating prep school. In a nod to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, this mother composes extempore rap, not hymns, to express what she dare not speak aloud.

The title story is meticulously structured and a deserving winner of the Bridport Prize, but it’s in “Chinese Almanac” that Chiew pulls out all the stops. The writing here buzzes with just the right amount of confusion. Fragmented syntax, untranslated Chinese characters, and unexpected bawdiness depict, and replicate in the reader, the feeling of joining the festive table of the extended family of one’s new girlfriend/boyfriend. The necessity for slapstick should rightfully trump any writer’s notions of keeping the writing restrained. Manboobs, dildoes, death, and Jesus all find their way into the dinner-table conversation. When the egg foo young lands on the floor and the meal comes to an abrupt end, the daughter hesitantly asks her bashful beau if he would like to visit again. “He gives an emphatic nod.”

The writing is exquisitely precise. The narrator’s father, a mathematics graduate who came to America and always worked at menial jobs, is now going through a process of estrangement from his wife. In a sentence to make any writer envious, the son describes the attempt at flirting with the middle-aged Korean woman who runs the drycleaners: “I watch this interaction with a portion of incredulity, a portion of amusement, a portion of ineffable catch-in-my-throat.”

A recurring theme is the dual nature of family bonds, on the one hand supportive and on the other hand they can be stifling. On the whole such bonds come out positively, even in the case where a young man hides his sexuality from his parents. “There’s a hierarchy of sins: being gay is not as heinous as being unfilial,” he says.

A calmly optimistic humanist view of human nature informs the fictions. An immigrant in dire straits steals twenty dollars from the cash register only to replace it the next day. The revelation that an uncle sought to have sex with a transsexual is regarded as a perplexing disorder of the libido. A mother whips her piteous, ghost-haunted son and the ensuing scandal forces her to publicly apologise to him. A Confucian worldview, perhaps, but Chiew has already cautioned us against seeing characters as determined by their ethnicities.

Chiew also works as a visual arts researcher. She has written elsewhere of being attentive in her fiction to the potential and meanings of objects, events, and dialogue, and to their linkages and echoes off each other. As well as food, a chamber pot or dialect phrase can become a recurring motif and resonate with meaning.

Three of the stories are historical fiction, written in a more classic style of prose. These stories, for this reader, seem to show that the generational divide rivals that of the east-west cultural divide, though this may not have been the writer’s intention.

Geopolitical realities are changing rapidly. Singaporeans are now the sixth richest people in the world. The world of Amy Tan’s novels is gone. Chiew’s characters are university students (fees for international students are notoriously high), accounts managers, restaurant owners, insurance underwriters – global nomads as one character says. In two stories they are low-wage workers. “The Chinese Nanny” is perhaps the sole story where ethnicity feels like a limitation to be overcome. It’s a good story, though without that feeling of entanglement the others induce, where the reader is unsure where to commit their sympathies.

In a collection with such a range of themes and styles, there’s going to be something that’s not to the reader’s taste. For me it was the mythological parody “Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer”, which hardly deserved so many pages, clocking in at the second longest.

These stories do what short fiction does best: point a light at lives rarely given voice, and depict dramatic situations which involve and vex the reader.

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Eric Page, Gscene magazine

12 March 2020

Set in different cities around the world, Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas to explore the lives, both past and present,  of people experiences the pressure of living lives between cultures and juggling divided selves.

Her characters intersectional experiences are written with an everyday obviousness which allows those of us who don’t share this heritage to feel the experience keener; there are also some fierce pokes from the daft cultural fabrication stick.  She wrapped curious and thought provoking narratives around the central theme of motherhood, from pressured rapping confessionals to surrealist dreams we are kept connected to the authentic voices in these stories.  Chiew gives us quite the breadth of stories in this wonderfully cheeky collection and I enjoyed the change from style that each new story presented, but always appreciated Chiew’s seriously delicious word play and brisk similes.

This is an author for whom words dance, and often with a wonderfully rich self-awareness to the steps.  There’s a tart edge to her writing, it feels fresh and fun and although the subject matter is both serious and sometimes dreamlike, the ghost story being an exercise in humour and honour, the Nanny just pure horror, Chiew manages to convince in narrative beat and human heartfelt engagements and her stories stick around, bringing a familiar smile in an unfamiliar world. She does funny as well as sad, sometimes serving up a bittersweet combination of both superbly. The stories inhabit a world where they reference each other, and I loved this meta-story,  bringing us back to the title of this collection, scattered, but joined by a beating thread of common experience.  Recommended.

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Eithne Farry, Daily Mail

27 January 2020

The characters in Chiew’s stories are often far from home, caught between worlds. Part of the Singaporean and Malaysian diasporas, they’ve headed to the U.S. and UK, but are tied to the family and values they’ve left behind, a push-pull of re-invention, cultural expectations and obligation.

In the funny, fantastical A Thoroughly Modern Ghost Of Other Origin, a libidinous teenage boy is haunted by an international, constantly hungry ghost whose mantra is ‘feed me or you die’.

In the utterly heartbreaking The Coffin Maker, food is used to smuggle clues to the whereabouts of a missing sister forced into sexual slavery in World War II.

On a lighter note, Rap Of The Tiger Mother deliciously debunks the myth of strict Asian mothers, as Charlotte gangsta raps the story of her abandonment of the overly ambitious demands of her son’s prep school in favour of his happiness.

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NB Magazine, Hilary White: 5/5 Review

26 January 2020

Given a set of rules it can sometimes be hard to review a book – and ironically when you have just read a collection of 14 stories – all of them brilliant, challenging, really speaking to a reader and often with wry humour – this is just the case. Chiew’s The Heartsick Diaspora was a wonderful read throughout and is here definitely recommended.

The title speaks for itself: Diaspora – of the Chinese communities from China to Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere in the Far East to both the US and Britain. With family memory the tales spread from before the Second World War to the present – a very different type of world (urban, multicultural, mobile and high-tech led). Immigration brings its own challenges with families (who might have generational differences of their own anyway) dispersed, living apart and meeting rarely. Immigration means adapting to host communities – communities that might have distinct expectations (often distorted) of the Chinese immigrants. And of course with Chinese dispersal for many hundreds of years “Chinese” background has come to mean many different things.

Chiew is able to address all these issues in her fiction form. She portrays a broad range of people of all ages with assurance and total believability. Her approach is largely sympathetic while not hiding difficulties of character or behaviour and when the situation is not all her characters might want wry humour often surfaces. It should be said that in this collection she quietly inserts two stories about the writer’s experience: “Confessions of An Irresolute Ethnic Writer” and the title story “The Heartsick Diaspora”. External expectations of “Chinese” are pinpointed in “The Chinese Nanny” and “Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur”; both challenge the scale of silliness immigrants of any nation might be expected to deal with. Of course, when the challenges of life are possibly already hard – extra difficulties and nonsense are really not needed.

But behind these themes and more too – and often less than savoury realities – are people; easily recognised people who might well be our neighbours. People calling on their deep resilience, trying to get on with their lives, make a living, maintain friendships and relationships and cope with family expectations that are often still firmly bedded in increasingly foreign tradition and often “face”.

To carry all the history, the changes, the diversity of location, people and families and do it faultlessly through a series of stories with barely a flicker of fault in any is a major achievement. Each story is a dense little gem in itself, a meaty little tale packed with so much information, hinting at so much more. As a collection – building the foundations of the others even deeper – they are outstanding. I will be seeking out anything else Chiew is writing – she is a very, very, good writer.

Hilary White 5/5

The Heartsick Diaspora by Elaine Chiew
Myriad Editions 9781912408368 pbk Jan 2020

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The Biblio Sara, Bookstagrammer

26 January 2020

There's nothing more pleasing than kicking off the year with an incredible read. The Heartsick Diaspora includes short stories of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diaspora. I absolutely loved it from the start to the finish. Each story was special in its own way. 'Run of the Molars' is tender and beautifully written. 'Rap of the Tiger Mother' revolves around a tiger mother who raps when stressed about her child. The title story 'The Heartsick Diaspora' takes us on a journey through the lives of five Asian writers with their bonds constantly changing. This was probably my favourite one because it referred to most of the stories in this book. 'The Chinese Almanac' is a moving story ending with an essential message, 'Never say anything important with words. Chinese fortune cookie. Always believe a Chinese fortune cookie.' 'The Chinese Nanny' is a poignant and horrific tale which left me speechless. All of these stories as well as the rest of them hit home. The representation of the cultures, the varying themes, the recurring characters, the subtle writing style - everything was stellar. I am out of words to describe this title but in three words, it is witty, dynamic and thought-provoking. I'd give this book a bazillion stars and highly recommend you to add this impressive debut by Elaine Chiew to your reading list.

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Liz Robinson, LoveReading

6 January 2020

This debut collection of fourteen fascinating and diverse stories plays out in different countries around the world. At the centre of each story sits the very nature of what it is to be an expatriate or migrant in a different country, and the sense of torn values and feelings between cultures. Author Elaine Chiew was born in Malaysia, graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a lawyer in New York before studying in London. She now lives in Singapore. Her writing ranges from thoughtful to provocative, pithy and vibrant observations bring these short stories to life. She has the ability to transfer emotions from the page, straight into my heart and mind. You can either throw yourself in from the beginning or take a pick and mix approach. The Heartsick Diaspora is a wonderful, thought provoking collection of stories, I can highly recommend.

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Rosie Milne, Asian Review of Books

25 November 2019

Chiew is ethnically Chinese, but she grew up in Malaysia, speaking Malay, and she has lived and worked in the USA, the UK and Singapore.

Chiew’s stories mostly concern a subset, or subsets, of the Chinese diaspora, the Singaporean-Malaysian, or Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese. They play with a range of forms and genres. Rap of the Tiger Mother concerns an “Asian mother” whose child is at a ghastly-sounding school in London, and who raps when stressed. A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin is a ghost story, more comedic than chilling. It is set in Singapore and concerns a young man haunted by a ghost that could either be a pontianak, or an èguǐ, or hungry ghost, but whatever its classification, it is certainly always hungry. Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer draws on mythology, giving a starring role to Garuda. The Chinese Nanny could almost be chick lit—except it’s truly horrific, and in one of the most powerful scenes in the collection, it sees a Chinese nanny kowtowing to the mother of the dead child who was once her charge.

Chiew’s willingness to engage with a range of different genres gestures, I think, to the fragmented nature of diasporic lives, and the difficulties faced by “ethnic writers” in finding an authentic authorial voice, or in unraveling what it means to be an “ethnic writer”. These are themes addressed more directly in the title story, The Heartsick Diaspora, which explores the shifting relationships between the members of an “ethnic writers group” who meet in London, and who are all writing short stories. Chiew slips into her stories recurring characters, or motifs, or ideas, and she presses this device as far as she can in The Heartsick Diaspora, where the short stories the writers are writing all refer back to earlier short stories in Chiew’s collection—and glance forward, too, to the stories to come. This self-referential element could have been twee, but in Chiew’s hands it is sometimes funny, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes startling, never gimmicky.

Chiew is hyper-aware of the languages her characters use: Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay. In one story, The Chinese Almanac, a coming-out-or-not story, the dialogue often breaks into Mandarin. Meanwhile her use of English is inventive and vivid. Here, from Run of the Molars, is a daughter who has just heard her mother reveal an abortion in her youth, and who is about to be distracted by a traffic accident:

 

Lily bent her gaze, like bending a steel ruler, and it landed with stretched tension as far as it could, out the window.

 

Similarly arresting images and similes are found on every page.

 

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Charles Lambert

12 December 2018

The Heartsick Diaspora is thoughtful, complex, emotionally resonant, both aware of the need to establish its own truth and of the danger that need involves, of the ‘wildness’ of truth, as Chiew says in one story, ‘like a foraging animal’. Like the lives they present, these stories are multi-layered, with a knowing intertwining of reference, as much a ‘hodgepodge’ as the people in them, a perceptive fusion of ‘bricoleur and collage’. The stories are as deeply felt as they are, on occasion, playful; there’s a kind of impertinence of tone, a lightness to them, belied by the seriousness of the material they handle and the respect that’s given, a creative intelligence that lets Chiew get up skin-close and yet maintain a distance that allows her, and us, to see the larger picture. A picture as heartfelt as it is heartsick.

The Strait Times, Olivia Ho

A teenager is plagued by hungry ghosts who follow him around his Housing Board flat, demanding blood and forcing him to buy them kim zua (joss paper offerings).

A "tiger mother" copes with the stress of her child's London prep school by rapping.

An American doctor finds out more than he would like about the dysfunctional sex lives of his Singaporean immigrant parents.

This debut collection looks at Singaporeans and Malaysians living in diaspora in short stories that are wickedly funny or melancholic.

The title story is about a writing group that is upended when a handsome young man joins their number.

The collection's other stories are attributed to these writers.

"Having the stories written by different members of a writing group in the eponymous story - when, of course, they were all written by me - showcases how a diasporic person's 'authorial voice' is perhaps polyvocal," says Chiew, 50, a British national and former lawyer who was born in Malaysia and is now based in Singapore.

"I wanted to explore the metaphysical, historical and social routes a diasporic person takes to reconnect with 'root culture' or to formulate a sense of integral identity. Where does one locate 'home' when one is 'unhomed'?"

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