The Heartsick Diaspora, and other stories

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Longlisted   —Fish Prize for ‘Her Fluttering Womb’2021

Winner   —Bridport Prize for ‘Face’2008

Second Prize   —Bridport Prize for ‘The Heartsick Diaspora’2018

Longlisted   —Mogford Prize2021

Special Mention   —Best Short Story Collection, Saboteur Awards 2020

Shortlisted   —Manchester Fiction Prize2020

‘Chiew’s prose is intelligent and funny and reveals a range rarely seen in story collections.’—Leland Cheuk, Hyphen magazine

imageRead an extract

Set in different cities around the world – New York, London, Singapore – this wry and playful debut collection of award-winning short stories are about emigration, identity, diasporas, family ties.

Elaine Chiew’s stories are inter-laced with humour, compassion and the importance of food and cooking, and the memories that meals evoke, as her characters negotiate unfamiliar worlds, raise children in another country or introduce parents to partners who don’t speak their language.

In the title story, four writers find their cultural bonds of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian man 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.

Elaine Chiew drills below the surface of her characters’ circumstances with exemplary narrative skill and subtlety. Her stories are as varied, worldly and emotionally resonant as the characters themselves. This is fabulous debut  collection and heralds an exciting new literary talent .

Singapore Unbound

16 June 2021

In an interview given to mark the publication of The Heartsick Diaspora, Elaine Chiew explained her interest in diaspora, geography, and culture as a product of “thinking about dislocation, alienation from homeland traditions, the metaphoric ‘return home’ … there’s a mythic odyssean element to [it].” The short story form allows Chiew to shine light on moments of subtle change and transformation in the lives of her characters. Chiew’s purpose, as highlighted in the interview, is less to instruct and more to open the reader’s mind to the often-unresolved nature of diasporic identity: “The best short stories are windows into lived lives,” said Chiew, “and neatly tied endings would, in the end, do the reader a disservice because they are gimmicky and not true to real life.” Each of the protagonists in Chiew’s collection confront their roles in the Singaporean or Malaysian diaspora through a different lens, but they encounter similar challenges and concerns. The diaspora, as Chiew aptly demonstrates over the course of the collection, confers on its members a deeply rooted yet elusive sense of belonging.

Though the stories range widely in style and substance, Chiew’s collection has a distinctive poise and insightfulness, one that breathes life into complex issues of home and selfhood. The stories in The Heartsick Diaspora span the globe, with some taking place in contemporary London and New York City, while others are set in mid-twentieth-century Singapore. The stories also encompass a breadth of genres, from historical fiction to contemporary realism to myth and fantasy. Chiew’s style is appropriately varied, often wry and sometimes cryptic and philosophical. In this sense, the collection is itself diasporic, an attribute that seems to draw on Chiew’s experiences as a Malaysian-born, U.S.-educated writer living in Singapore.

Notably, several key stories in The Heartsick Diaspora are rooted in Singapore’s history as a colony and as a major site of cross-cultural exchange in Southeast Asia. The story “Love, Nude” depicts a young artist’s experimentation with a Nanyang Style nude of a close family friend’s daughter, Yee Lan. The artist, Teck Hin, causes controversy at his art school when he submits the painting for his end-of-year folio. The examination board dubs the painting “too idiosyncratic,” too defiant of the traditional conception of the “glorious” nude:

With an unmarked oval for a face enframed by a square (could be a crate, could be a form of prison), and with her hands bearing up the weight of the frame, she is every orientalised woman that has ever been desired, and she is faceless, subject to many interpretations: conceived and yet she does not exist, unknowable and unrecognisable.

Teck Hin’s rebellion against the accepted norms of the art world is situated in the midst of Singapore’s formation as a nation: in 1963, Singapore joined Malaya and several other former British colonies to form the Federation of Malaysia, but the union lasted only two years. Teck Hin’s “unknowable” and “unrecognisable” woman perhaps taps into the anxieties and uncertainties of independence, as well as the lingering shadow of colonial rule in mid-twentieth-century Singapore. In painting this portrait, Teck Hin deceives Yee Lan about his feelings for her; in submitting the portrait as his end-of-year folio at art school, he appropriates her image to project publicly a message he has failed to understand at the personal level. Yet, in doing so, he demonstrates his willingness to depart from traditional artistic standards and creates space for the exploration of new techniques and meanings.

“Love, Nude” and its ‘homeland’ perspective are complemented by several stories that explore diasporic identity in the twenty-first century through interactions with and within the Western world. Chiew depicts one such interaction in “The Chinese Nanny,” in which the Malaysian-born Su Chin is tasked with caring for Gwenny, the daughter of a never-quite-present real estate investment consultant named Fiona. Fiona insists—for the questionable reason that “many of her clients were from Mainland China,” that her daughter must learn Chinese and that Su Chin must therefore speak to Gwenny exclusively in Chinese. Yet, Fiona’s dismissal of Chinese culture, a nebulous catch-all that includes Su Chin’s own Malaysian heritage, leads us to question her understanding of the world beyond her doorstep. As Fiona becomes increasingly consumed by professional preoccupations, Su Chin comes to occupy the role of a mother in Gwenny’s life. Thus, when tragedy strikes Gwenny, she seems like the natural person to blame, especially for Fiona’s circle of upper-class, white British women.

As Su Chin realizes at the end of the story, the lives of these women, blind as they are to their own exoticization of the titular “Chinese nanny,” are “fakery—pretend living.” They go through the motions of cultural exchange and dialogue but never care to see beyond Su Chin’s name, appearance, or language ability. Despite the long hours she dedicates to caring for Fiona as well as for Gwenny, Su Chin comes to stand for a one-dimensional notion of Oriental “otherness” in the imaginations of those around her. In the end, though, she does not allow herself to become entirely a victim; instead, having realized the meaninglessness of their lives, she leaves Fiona and her (all white) family and friends. Su Chin stands out for her humility, her consideration for Gwenny, and her realization that life is—or ought to be—more than simply a contest for status or material wealth. Her experience challenges us to humanize our conceptions of Asian women and try to understand them as complex subjects and, occasionally, agents of dislocation.

Crucially, Chiew complements the stereotyping and pigeonholing of diverse diasporic experiences exemplified by Su Chin’s story with the theme of intergenerational conflict between members of that diaspora. This theme emerges most prominently in “Face,” in which Karen and Qiang, a mixed-race couple, struggle to contend with the difficulties of caring for Qiang’s mother, Yun, and their daughter, Lulu. The winner of the Bridport Prize International Short Story Competition in 2008, “Face” is one of Chiew’s finest stories. At the heart of it is the elderly Yun, who struggles to teach herself English and quietly suffers an episode of violent racism before the start of the narrative. She wants Karen and Qiang to understand her and talk to her, but she is reluctant—perhaps scared—to be honest with them. After Yun has a stroke one afternoon and fails to pick Lulu up from school as planned, Karen lashes out at her, and Qiang doesn’t seem to show much concern, even though he senses something is wrong. Yun, like the Malaysian Chinese culture she represents, hovers in the background of their lives, shadowy and ghostlike, never quite fully there.

Yun recognizes that she is out of place in London. Yet, when she tells Karen she wants to return home, Karen expresses concern: “‘But who is going to take care of you back in Malaysia? You might fall down, or worse, die and get half-mauled by a farm dog before anybody discovers you.’” The irony, as Yun implies but never says outright, is that Karen doesn’t know how to take proper care of her in London. Worse, Karen doesn’t know how to take care of Yun’s culture—the culture that Qiang doesn’t know how to express and that Lulu, as much as Karen wants her to learn it, is struggling to grasp. Despite Karen’s best intentions, she and Yun struggle to bridge the gulf in their lived experiences:

When she first arrived, Yun had brought White Rabbit candy and haw flakes for Lulu. One look and Karen snatched away the candy and said it’d give Lulu cavities, her granddaughter’s bereft expression notwithstanding. Haw flakes? Look at the nutrition label. Full of processed sugar. Yun doubts she has anything else Lulu will want to have.

Though her intentions are not altogether bad, Karen’s unrelenting insistence on Western notions of health and family, cause more pain for Yun than anything else. Midway through the story, Karen asks Yun to pick Lulu up from school in the afternoons, thinking that grandmother and granddaughter should spend more time together. What Karen does not realize, Chiew implies, is that she has pre-emptively threatened such bonding by convincing Yun that she doesn’t have anything worthy to offer to Lulu.

Indeed, Karen’s response to Yun’s presence might be interpreted as a kind of cultural impersonation, or perhaps the forced surrender of their ‘homeland’ culture by members of the diaspora into the hands of the mainstream. This struggle is made even more tangible in “Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur,” which also touches on perhaps one of Singapore’s most important cultural domains: food. Kara Hsu, the story’s protagonist and executive chef of a new French restaurant, is forced to hire a Frenchman to pose in her place because “in this world of ours, Asian people can’t cook French gourmet.” The Frenchman’s presence attracts significant publicity, and Kara’s restaurant turns into an overnight financial success. Though she feels deeply uncomfortable at having sold her image to a white man, “amidst all the trickery and fraud, Kara had never been more undilutedly herself.” Not only does she prove to her mother that she is capable of providing for herself, but she also earns the freedom to pursue her culinary visions as she pleases. Underlying these developments is the conviction that, ultimately, her leadership will be recognized.

As exemplified by Kara’s dilemma, The Heartsick Diaspora is an attempt to reclaim identity from the shadows where it often hides in diasporic communities. Chiew’s stories bring together different stages of the diasporic experience and encourage us to look beyond misguided conceptions of any given identity or culture. The stories are often ambiguous, and most of them end unresolved, but this, too, is intentional: by declining to impose fates or decisions on her characters, Chiew allows us to imagine agency for them. Her work shines where she delves most boldly into the interstices of culture to pick apart pervasive but ill-understood representations and generalizations. Throughout the collection, she creates spaces for us to envision the ways in which contested identities may flourish in otherwise hostile surroundings. She challenges us to consider what lies beyond stereotypes and to connect past and present in our conception of what it means to be Asian. The Heartsick Diaspora is an intelligent and touching collection, and well worth a read for anyone interested in a breath of literary fresh air.

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4/5 Star Review by Yap Khai Jian, Bookstagrammer

29 January 2021

This is how a Chinese person becomes invisible, not because she is rubbed out by society or the racial elements in it, but because her face is no longer familiar to her loved ones"

Thanks to @times.reads and @putrifariza for sending me a review copy of The Heartsick Diaspora! This is a collection of 14 short stories which are all full of Malaysian and Singaporean flavors. This is my first short story read and I truly enjoyed it as each story brings out unique and different values/messages revolving around the Asian / Chinese culture.

Through this collection of short stories, the author examines the social commentaries of Asians/Chinese, the concept of cultural superiority, the cultural Western/Asian dynamic, the non-confrontational stance taken by Asians (especially in a family setting), the typical dynamics of a Chinese family as well as the search for one's identity or roots in a foreign country. As a Malaysian Chinese myself, I enjoy reading the cultural and mythological references in these stories and they are very relatable to me. I feel so proud when the author imparted the dialects, the use of Malaysian slang in conversations (for example, the use of "-lah" and "-lor"), and the Chinese rituals/superstitions and beliefs throughout the stories. This showcased the unique and distinctive Malaysian (as well as Singaporean) Chinese culture in the international arena.

My favorite stories in this collection would be Face (this to me is really a heart-aching story), The Heartsick Diaspora (this one is brilliant, clever, and witty!), Chinese Almanac, and The Chinese Nanny (this story perhaps glaringly showcased the social stigmas associated with Chinese and Asians). But as a whole, the stories herein are very personal, humorous, and moving. A minor shortcoming would be that certain stories ended loosely without an impactful punch. Nevertheless, this debut collection of short stories is a 4/5 star rating to me, and I would highly recommend this as @epchiew 's talent deserves more recognition!

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Janet Swinney for The Short Story

15 January 2021

The Heartsick Diaspora, published by Myriad in January 2020 is my ‘best read’ of the year, possibly my ‘best read’ of several years. This is a stunningly good first collection of short stories by Elaine Chiew that includes two stories that have won first and second prizes in the Bridport competition.

A short story collection that has been years in the making can reflect a profundity of thought, an acuity of observation and a breadth of life experience on the part of the writer that is lacking from many novels. And that’s certainly the case here.

If you’re not familiar with the geo-political history of South East Asia – I wasn’t – at least read the Wikipedia entry on Singapore to orientate yourself before you start. The book opens with a poignant and understated story alluding obliquely to the misfortune of the ‘comfort women’ forced into sex slavery by the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore between 1942 and 1945. It closes with an account of the lives of the Samsui women, migrants from mainland China who worked in the construction industry in Singapore between the 1920s and the 1940s, and who through their labour, helped to turn it into the cutting edge city it is today.

In between these two are stories set in London and New York, cities that are home to the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas. Chiew’s terrain is the intersectionality of migrancy and ethnicity and, in this respect, she has every angle covered.

‘The Coffin Maker’ is about power, about how things work when you’re a member of an ethnic minority community at the mercy of an incoming oppressor. A woman is obliged to leave home; the same woman returns home. Who can tell what awful torment she has endured in the meantime. Only through signs and coded actions of the characters can we begin to imagine.

‘Rap of the Tiger Mother’ is about the desire to fit in. An anxious Asian incomer to London competes with other yummy mummies, all desperate for their child to excel educationally and in their artistic and sporting accomplishments. The protagonist expresses her tension through the medium of rap. In the end, she must decide between ambition and her child’s well-being.

‘The Run of the Molars’ and ‘Face’ explore how, through the passage of time and physical separation, the older generation and their migrant children become emotionally, culturally and linguistically estranged from one another. In both these stories, things fall apart when a parent from the ‘old country’ arrives in London to visit her offspring. In ‘The Run of the Molars’ a Singaporean Chinese mother visits her three daughters following the death of her husband. She is determined to find fault with everything and fails to appreciate anything about her daughters’ new environment. In ‘Face’, a Chinese Malaysian mother tries, and fails, to bridge the cultural chasm between herself and her snippy, American-born Chinese daughter-in-law and her son. In both cases, the parent has a desperate need to be understood. In ‘Run of the Molars’, the mother longs for her daughters to appreciate how a traumatic event from the early years of her marriage has affected her whole life but she can’t express herself without antagonising them. In ‘Face’, the mother is dealing with encroaching health problems, and feels ‘like a suitcase of discarded things’. After a series of undermining episodes, all she wants is to go home. But the altered attitudes and changed lifestyles of the ‘migrant generation’ mean that communication is well-nigh impossible and that the young couple are unable to ‘hear’ her.

These are sad, painful stories which barely have an emotional resolution. In ‘Run of the Molars’ there is some limited rapprochement between the mother and Lily, the daughter who most resembles her, when a lifetime of bitter sniping gives way to a moment of insight and empathy. ‘Face’ eloquently depicts the struggle to get others to listen to you at the point where your mind begins to fracture and when the thing you most desire is the thing you are least able to have.

Language, of course, is an important aspect of communication. Part of the frustration in ‘Run of the Molars’ stems from the fact that Lily, is losing her grasp of her mother tongue. Although she ‘once spoke Hokkien fluently, after all this time the language had receded to the back of her throat, and she found disconnect between what she wanted to say and the accurate Hokkien words for it.’

In ‘Chinese Almanac’ where two migrant generations are part of the same North American household, communication is still an issue. There are important issues to be discussed. The parents’ marriage is falling apart and their offspring (not sure which gender) is trying to declare that s/he’s gay, but it’s not just that different members of the family have different customs and different belief systems, but that father and grown-up child don’t share a common language. ‘This is how we’ve always communicated,’ says the child, ‘in two languages that don’t have a common root,’ and ‘I want to talk to him in our cross-intentioned languages, but I don’t know how.’ Ironically, ‘Never say anything important with words,’ is the motto in the Chinese fortune cookie that concludes the story.

Other stories tackle other aspects of what it means to be an immigrant. ‘Florida Rednecks Love Moo Goo Gai Pan’ is about being female and trying to survive in the environment of a sleazy Florida restaurant surrounded by sexual predators of all ethnic persuasions. ‘Friends of the Kookaburra’tells of the troubled relationship between two women, one Malaysian, one white American, where a friendship between apparent equals turns out to be something else with a dynamic based on race. ‘The Chinese Nanny’ is a razor-sharp account of the painful efforts of a third-generation Malaysian Chinese nanny working in London to appear authentically Chinese while, at the same time, dependably British. This story pulls no punches about how the white British middle classes view others.

‘The Heartsick Diaspora’, the title story about an ethnic minority writers’ group that meets in a café in Notting Hill, provides a structural device that cleverly threads together a number of the stories in the collection. This tale, in the form of a playlet, provides a platform for examining how white British people view people of other ethnic backgrounds: ‘It wasn’t long before we got into what it feels like to be Malaysian or Singaporean in the UK – you’re a subset (Malaysian/Singaporean) of a subset (Chinese) of a subset (Asian) – and on a fair-weather day, the English assume you’re a tourist.’

But ethnic minority people have their own hierarchies too, and this is a point that’s made in ‘Chinese Almanac’: ‘Mrs Poon and Mom were tight buddies, since their Chinese quotient or pedigree was more questionable than [that of their other friends].’ The case is firmly made: everyone is capable of prejudice based on ethnicity and some of us inflict inferiority on ourselves because of it.

There are no easy rides here. The characters in Chiew’s stories are smart, uncertain, brittle, needy, insecure, vulnerable, ambitious, resilient, sassy, anxious and aggressive and don’t always come out of situations ‘on the up’. They are also hard-working, giving more to society than society gives to them.

The messages delivered are tough ones. These stories depict many aspects of racism from the microaggressions of everyday life listed in ‘The Heartsick Diaspora’ to the brutal racial assault experienced by the elderly Malaysian woman in ‘Face’ which has a devastating long-term effect on her. The writer touches on reverse racism and even that bizarre phenomenon where a white person demonstrates a form of cultural superiority by accumulating trophy friends with diverse skin tones like ‘notches on [a] belt’ –‘Friends of the Kookaburra’.


What we’re left with is the overwhelming impression of how wearing it is to be a migrant: ‘People lose little pieces of themselves all the time in America,’ says the first person narrator in ‘Florida Rednecks Love Moo Goo Gai Pan’; ‘Every day there are social interactions, minute as each individual episode goes, but cumulatively they begin to absorb into your tissue. Little razors handed to you every day,’ says Chandra in the ‘The Heartsick Diaspora’.

Characters have their skills devalued. A father has a degree in Mathematics but ends up working in a Chinese supermarket. A son has a degree from MIT, ‘but here [in the UK] is just another computer geek’. They may have several languages at their disposal, whereas the host community has just one. And they may be acutely aware of how they’re looked down on, as in ‘The Chinese Nanny’, where Su Chin is astute enough to catch her employer’s negative implications from ‘the verbal undercarriage, the things one didn’t say to someone of a different race’. Despite all of this, the migrant must maintain his or her confidence to be able to survive.

‘Slipping between borders, it’s what EPs [Ethnic People] like us do,’ says Chandra in ‘The Heartsick Diaspora’. ‘What a hodgepodge people are,’ she concludes, ‘what willy wonkas, what bricoloeur and collage we hide within ourselves, identities super-imposed upon one another like composite negatives.’ Yet, she adds. ‘we sometimes choose to surround ourselves with bars.’ While birds fly freely, people cage themselves and each other.

Chiew is a sure-footed writer, writing perceptively about a complex issue. Her stories cover a lot of ground and require close attention, but nothing in them is superfluous. Her range of subject matter is impressive, and the contexts in which her characters operate – whether a cordon bleu restaurant in a fashionable part of New York, or a run-down tenement in Singapore – are all rendered with absolute authenticity.

It wasn’t immediately obvious to me how a couple of the stories fitted within the overall collection. Nevertheless, one of these, ‘Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer’, deserves a special mention. This extraordinary reworking of a Hindu-Buddhist myth repaid the effort I had to invest to get to grips with it. It is a bold statement that those of us who do ‘slip between borders’, who have multiple cultural sources to draw upon have something valuable to say and deserve a voice. That’s a point that agents and publishers should not ignore.

This book is highly recommended.

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Uju Onyishi, Bookstagrammer

26 August 2020

Something I really enjoyed about the collection was how unique each story was from the writing style to the genre. There were some historical stories, reimaginations of Eastern mythology, domestic fiction and contemporary fiction and they were all written so beautifully. There is definitely something here for everyone… The way Chiew used the characters in ‘The Heartsick Diaspora’ to explain some of her writing decisions and themes in the earlier stories was pure genius. I also loved that reading this collection prompted many Google searches that led to a better understanding of Singaporean population structure.

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Huang Beihua and Mah Xiao Yu, Raffles Press

3 August 2020

By Huang Beihua (20A03A) and Mah Xiao Yu (20A01B)

A piece of toast held between two chopsticks. It is perhaps an awkward image, but certainly an appropriate cover for The Heartsick Diaspora: this is a book with an appreciation for subtle humour—and certainly much involvement of food. More significantly, however, is the cover’s underlining of the friction, and loneliness, at the core of the book, both of people struggling to come to terms with cultures so foreign to them, yet ones they are bound to pick up.

The collection—the first by Singaporean writer Elaine Chiew—unites 14 short stories across time and space, from World War II Singapore to a high French restaurant in New York City. For all their diverse settings, each one—in its unique way—captures the trials and tribulations of the Malaysian-Singaporean diaspora, caught in the eddies as they navigate the confluence of distinct identities towards love, family, and ambition.

For a piece of diasporic literature, we can often expect some touch of regret in the face of diminishing identities, of cultural roots diluted by the unfamiliar place in which the characters find themselves. The Heartsick Diaspora focuses on a particular subset of this concept, one of children moving far overseas and settling in while their ageing parents remain home. It is, then, an especially potent documentation of cultural rifts, manifested tangibly and vividly in the breaking apart of familial love. Tensions soar to heights heart-wrenching and dramatic on equal proportions as the elderly mother of Run of the Molars finds her trip to London embroiled in one quarrel after another, clinging onto a culture her expatriate daughters no longer understand. The longing of a Malaysian grandma in Face for her home away from an England of prejudice, of isolation, and, above all, where she feels out of place evokes pathos all too palpable—and only compounded by a confused son who cannot grasp her desire for home. Chiew never veers into explicit commentary, yet crafts her narration to thrust the reader into the scene itself and all the emotions that come with it. As the daughters in Run of the Molars struggle to explain the London Eye to their mother:

[T]he language they shared in common from birth had failed them. Neither of them knew the Hokkien words for backstay cables, and neither did their mother. She didn’t look like she ever envisioned she’d need a language to transcribe all that she was seeing for the first time.

Language is a foundation of identity, giving form to thought in unique, different ways that mark one culture from another. That a shared native language should both be too unfamiliar and wholly inadequate to describe what they are seeing is, then, a reflection of how fundamentally estranged their Hokkien identity (or parts of their identities) is in the face of a foreign reality. It is a sombre idea, and it is one Chiew weaves into much of the collection as the rawest experience of cultural loss, rightfully and masterfully. The visual impact is direct and jarring, for example, when she faithfully preserves terms specific to the Chinese dialects used in a sea of English words. In the case of Chinese Almanac—a coming-out story of a gay man to his father while struggling to stay true to Confucian ideals—the father’s speech is rendered often in Mandarin characters and phrases, only occasionally explained by bracketed English. This is not so much a lapse in consistency as much as it is a blunt parallel to the relationship between the generations, where both grasp to understand the increasing alienness of the other bound by blood only to intermittent success. The difficulty in communication means secrets hidden from each other, and over time, their mutual failure to understand evolves from semantic technicalities onto a more fundamental, personal level.

“I want to talk to him in our cross-intentioned languages, but I don’t know how. How do I say, ‘It’s time for you go home’ in Chinese without sounding like I’m throwing my old dad out of my apartment, like I’m that second run on the hierarchy of sin, right beneath being traitorous to one’s country—unfilial?”

The son of the Chinese Almanac

Elsewhere and just as much, food can feature as a symbol of identity. That eating is essential for the definition of a culture in the context of another is not an unfamiliar notion, yet here it is refreshing and pleasant to see the subtlety and nuance with which Chiew instrumentalises food to convey characters’ differing attitudes towards their ethnic culture. In Face, the traditional Chinese dining table being a boisterous, communal affair (where family members look out for and help one another pick up dishes others cannot reach) binds to an overarching, intense longing for the sense of community the grandmother so sorely lacks in London. The Run of the Molars mother’s indignation at a steamboat soup missing key ingredients like goji berries, jujubes, and liquorice root—she would rather chew on two slices of white bread—is best understood as a gallant, perhaps, refusal to compromise on her own culture when the practices around her are decidedly western and therefore hopelessly alien, to the point where even a family dinner intended to please her could involve such unacceptable faux pas. “You have?” She asks for the bread in defeat, no longer trying to voice her anger.

Yet, these stories are ultimately hopeful as love proves to transcend barriers erected by language and custom. In Chinese Almanac, after a week of eating Chinese food with his father every night and trying to understand not only his father’s Chinese but also the sudden changes in family dynamics, a son finally comes out to his father. In doing so, the son uses Mandarin characters and references to Chinese lore which remain unexplained, symbolising the first time the son and father have a true mutual understanding of each other—the father now understands a crucial part of his son’s identity and the son now recognises the ways his father loves him, “without ever using the words”. Similarly, the confession of a long-held secret in Run of the Molars finally reveals to a daughter the burdens her mother has carried almost her entire life and gives her a glimpse of her mother’s true feelings, concealed under criticisms and what seemed like unreasonable demands. It is reassuring, certainly, to see love hold up against the seismic forces of cultural rifts: a comforting testament to the endurance of love in situations that can, perhaps, hit very much close to home between us and the elderly generations.

The diasporic experience is far more than just strained familial ties, however, and The Heartsick Diaspora rightfully presents far more aspects of it than just complicated families. Using food once again as a central theme, Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur details the ambitions of a Singaporean chef in the world of high French cuisine, yet discovers food critics are only impressed when they are convinced a white male is behind the stoves. It is delicious, certainly, as we follow Chef Kara’s quest to create the perfect tasting menu, peppered with descriptions that reflect animatedly and convincingly the passion one would expect in a chef (that Chiew spent weeks in a kitchen to research). In between dishes she offers recollections of her determination to succeed—blend in, perhaps—in the cooking world dominated by white men, yet it is one ultimately made more complex by her attachment to her own ethnicity. She faces the glass ceiling of a minority female chef and, when difficulties arise, chooses above all a loan from “The Woon Leong Benevolent Chinese Association (benevolent, my ass)” to finance her restaurant.

“Ever since then, loose-limbed, scary-looking thugs came by once every week to eat and ‘keep an eye on things’. What did Bernard know about any of it, but the gossip-monger he no doubt was, he’d probably heard that Kara couldn’t pay her seafood supplier this week and had to resort to Chinatown garoupa.”

Kara, Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur

Such richness of meaning from such animated language peppered with fun makes for a tantalizing read in any case; to see it sandwiched between other stories equally as strong and wielding a more solemn disposition testifies only to the versatility and skill of its author. In Rap of the Tiger Mother, Chiew weaves together prose and verse through the point of view of a single Chinese mother, who struggles with not only raising her four-year-old son but also the strong sense of inadequacy born from being surrounded by “tiger mothers”. While the vernacular used in her bars already presents the narrator as an atypical Asian woman, the story can be seen as almost anti-tiger mother, flipping over the stereotypes that tiger mothers are exclusive to only Asian cultures and that Asian mothers all want to be tiger mothers.

For all its potency documenting characters’ relationships to their cultures, The Heartsick Diaspora fumbles somewhat over the very culture it references. The Malaysian- and Singaporean-Chinese culture it depicts seems, at times, no different from a generic picture of a traditional Chinese one. Indeed, apart from references to Singaporean places or cuisine, characters’ concerns and values are often applicable to the Chinese community worldwide, with little specificity to the group on whom Chiew elects to focus. Certainly, nothing inherently wrong is with this portrayal—it is neither inaccurate nor inauthentic—but one could not help but regret at the missed opportunity to explore the unique flavours of a Singaporean/Malaysian Chinese story happening in the United Kingdom. A diaspora within a diaspora, if you will.

In comparison, stories that took place in Singapore, such as The Coffin MakerA Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin and Mapping Three Lives through a Red Rooster Chamber Pot, managed to highlight the unique Singaporean experience and culture much better. For instance, A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin references not only Chinese ghosts and the tradition of burning joss paper for the dead, but also Malay and Indian ghosts (“I ask, What were you before you died, C, M, I, O—Chinese, Malay, Indian, or Other?”) as well as other typically Singaporean sights: old men doing tai chi in the void deck, HDB eateries and chilli crab, and 7-Elevens and slushies.

“It gives me the creeps, looking at all these things for the dead, but I guess the Chinese dead are also particularly enamoured of progress, because there’s an iPad, the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, even a Google Glass. Not to mention a red Ducati, and, [redacted] me, a Joe Rocket leather motorcycle jacket to go with.”

The Narrator, A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin

Overall, then, The Heartsick Diaspora is an emotional—even intimate and relatable—account of the complicated realities behind living across cultures, in a setting familiar to many of us. It could, of course, be made satisfying in ways, but that does not make it any less fascinating than it is. So, if you ever see the distinctive cover on the shelves, it is certainly worthwhile to pick up the chopsticks and savor the stories.

"Raffles Reads: The Heartsick Diaspora"5 out of 5 based on 5 ratings.

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That Other Nigerian Girl, Bookstagram

29 July 2020

The Heartsick Diaspora is a collection of 14 short stories set across New York, London and Singapore, over multiple time frames. Most of the characters are subsets (Malaysian/ Singaporean) of a subset (Chinese heritage) of a subset (Asian) and these culminate their diasporic experiences.

Chiew is a bold and experimental author. In this collection whose stories were written over the span of 10 years, we see this in full display. She switches the themes of the stories, the experiences, age, sexuality of the characters and even the mode of narration of the stories. Some were written in first person, others in second person. There is even a story (Chinese Almanac) where she briefly shifts between a first person and third person narrative and not many author can write with so much freedom to experiment.

The heterogeneity of these stories of course shoots down the Western notion that “Asian faces are implacable, austere, not easily distinguishable” by using ‘faces’ as analogy for the characters’ experiences. Interestingly, “faces” as in “honor” (re: to save face) also came up a number of times in some of the stories like Mapping Three Lived Through a Red Rooster Chamber Pot and Love, Nude.

Even as this book isn’t an historical fiction, I enjoyed how many of the characters spoke in Singlish, a hybrid that is similar to Yorubanglish (Yorùbá + English) so that even when I didn’t understand some of the phrases, I felt like I did because I could relate.
But perhaps, the most outstanding feature of this book is Chiew’s punctuation usage!
I have not read any book that made such unconventional use of punctuation marks!
I’m talking about colons, semicolons, exclamation marks, hyphens, brackets, question marks, quotation marks— even italics!

If you know me, you know about my recent penchant for punctuation so I’ll be dedicating another post to dissecting the punctuation usage in this book and how they enhanced my reading experience. I buddy read and discussed this book with @ujuonyishi

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Yin F Lim, bookstagrammer

27 May 2020

As a Malaysian Chinese migrant to the ‘West’, I very much looked forward to reading The Heartsick Diaspora, to identify with the characters. And it doesn’t disappoint.

I see so much of myself in these pages: in the not-quite Tiger Mom trying hard to fit in at the school gates, even though I’m not bringing up a child in Belgravia. In the nanny who remains silent about being ’not really from China’ when faced with snide comments about colonial nationals. In the inter-generational tensions of mother-from-homeland visits, parental expectations and familial pressures so well captured in words unsaid and emotions un-articulated. In the just-returned-to-the-homeland film producer reflecting about rootlessness and where home is for ‘hybrid people’ with ‘fluid identities that spill beyond boundaries’.

There’s so much I love about this book; the varied voices of the stories, each so different yet so rich with the lived experiences of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese. The Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay and Manglish/Singlish that swirl throughout, transporting me back to South East Asia; the food references, which had me craving for both the taste and the notion of ham jim baeng, 7- Eleven slushie (yes, the neon blue one) and cut guava from a roadside stall.

Elaine Chiew writes with such wit and humour, but with a deftness that never compromises the poignancy of the migrant experience, of being caught between the cultures and expectations of one’s homeland and the assumptions and freedoms of the adopted one.

This is a book of short stories that linger and leave me wanting more.

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The Biblio Sara, Bookstagrammer

18 May 2020

In case you didn't know, May is Short Story Month! I am so excited to share my favourite short story collections with you all. I had the pleasure of reading them this year, courtesy of @myriad_editions. I couldn't let this opportunity pass without recommending The Heartsick Diaspora by Elaine Chiew and She-Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent. Both of them were incredibly written and memorable in their own ways. I highly recommend picking these up.

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Han Clark, Lunate

9 May 2020

In her debut collection, the twice Bridport Prize-winning author conjures a wry and compelling collection of short stories

From the moment you pick up The Heartsick Diaspora by Elaine Chiew, and read the evocative title, it becomes impossible to resist its charms. The front cover depicts a slice of white toast pincered between chopsticks: a playful image which perfectly sets the wry, knowing tone of this collection of short stories.

The Heartsick Diaspora is elegantly restless. The stories contained within slip between continents, and weave between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with ease, neither hurrying the reader, nor allowing time to dawdle and gawk at the carefully expressed foreignness of the diaspora experience. This is only possible because of the humour and sensitivity of Chiew’s writing, which bestows an overarching, gentle humanity upon each story.

In ‘Run of the Molars’, an elderly mother arrives in London from Singapore to visit her three daughters. She stays with Lily, the youngest of the three and the only one with whom she has a form of open communication, due to them both being able to read expressions so clearly. Although the story is focussed on the generational and cultural differences which have yawned wide between the mother and her daughters in the time they have lived abroad, one does not need to have any understanding of Chinese or Singaporean customs to appreciate the nerve-wracking exhaustion of a judgemental and passive-aggressive parent poking at the life you have built for yourself.

In less skilled hands, this type of family dynamic could be played for cheap laughs, or rendered mournful, but Chiew navigates the slippery slope of ‘kitchen drama’ with delicate skill. Indeed, throughout the collection, the theme of complex familial bonds features prominently.

’Rap of the Tiger Mother’ follows the story of a newly single mother raising her sensitive, day-dreamer son, Ethan, amidst the viper-nest of fiercely competitive mothers, and the difficulties of playground culture—difficult not for the children, but for their adult guardians! As the children form friendships and play in harmony together, the mothers struggle to maintain civility, battling for perfect cupcakes and agonising over their children’s reading capabilities in a competition which cannot be won.

The story comes to a head when Ethan rejects the coveted role of Mary in the school nativity play, in favour of being a sheep, triggering an existential crisis for his mother who, as is her custom, raps her concerns and uses this surprising medium to confront her fears and trepidations: ‘Somethin’ be wrong when a boy of four/doubts his reading skills/learns his limits/feels he’s behind before he gets through the door.’ This endearing quirk is a cornerstone of one of the lessons Chiew teaches throughout her collection: do not determine who a character is by the mere fact of their ethnicity.

This is further explored in the titular story, which also happens to be my personal favourite within the collection. Written with biting wit, this story is set amid an ‘ethnic writer’s group that used to meet weekly at Caffe Nero in Bayswater… upgraded itself to a Le Pain Quotidian in Notting Hill.’ It is structured like a play: a reflective self-mockery which continues throughout as the character’s each reveal what they are working on, often fabricating plots to win over the newest member of the group: the handsome and elusive Wei.

It is during a conversation in this story that Chiew allows her characters to speak not only of the facts of their diaspora experience, but the emotional toll of being seen as ‘other’, and how having continual cultural assumptions made about you feels: ‘Everyday there are social interactions, minute as each individual episode goes, but cumulatively they begin to absorb into your tissue. Little razors handed to you every day.’ The softly observed truth of this statement is testament to Chiew’s unobtrusive authorial style: a signature within her writing which reassures the reader that they are in safe hands.

Written over the course of a decade, this collection is packed with prize winning stories alongside new works, and is the result of Chiew’s own journey of personal discovery and identity. In the acknowledgements, she writes about choosing which stories to include in this collection and how she chose to order them: ‘it became reflective of my own journey of “nostos” – the root word for the ancient Greek for “nostalgia”, with the emphasis not so much on destination, but the act of searching for “return.”’

This honesty is reflected upon and delivered in each story, and although every reader will have favourites which align with their own personal taste in fiction, the collection as a whole is a striking and important debut, and one which will surely hold the door ajar for whatever bold venture Elaine Chiew makes next.

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Mel Ulm, The Reading Life

25 April 2020
Olivia is very right, The Heartsick Diaspora is perfect literary company for those of us under lockdown.  There are 14 absorbing stories in the collection, read one a day and you will be done with two weeks of lockdown.
Teck Hin is an aspiring Singapore based artist.  To the chagrin of his  mother he dropped out of law school to study art.  (There are lots of references to artists and artistic movements in Singapore in “Love, Nude”.  Googling them all, looking at examples of paintings added a lot to my enjoyment of the story. If you are not familiar with post World War Two Singaporean art I highly recommend you do this.
Besides Teck Hin, there is a second paramount character, Yee Lan. Yee Lan is 16, the daughter of a very close family friend.  The year is 1961.  Politically Singapore is sort of finding its direction as an independent entity.  Yee Lan has a serious crush on Teck Hin, he wants to do a nude painting of her but is not sure how to approach her.  To complicate matters, her mother sees him as the perfect future son-in-law.  She is almost a second mother to him and he worries about her reaction if she learns he painted her daughter nude.  It might obligate him to marry her. He becomes Yee’s art tutor and thus has a legitimate reason for being alone with her in her room.
There are strong erotic undertones in the story.  Marvelous descriptions are given of his work as an art student, in various styles.
I don’t want to reveal how this works out for Teck and Yee.  The closing third of the story are just a joy to read. The account of the nude body of 16 year old Yee brings to mind the tradition of nude paintings of young women and the often sexually charged relationships involved.
There is one more story for which I still have the pleasure of reading coming in The Heartsick Diaspora.  I think I will save it for May.
Elaine is a writer and a visual arts researcher, and editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015).
Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore.
Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London.
Elaine lives in Singapore and her book, The Heartsick Diaspora, and other stories, was published by Myriad in 2020 as well  by Penquin Books.
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Jessica Tay, book blogger, 4/5 star review

25 April 2020

The Heartsick Diaspora is a collection of short stories that feature mostly Singaporeans and Malaysians as the main characters. The stories’ settings range from ancient Asian myths to the 1960s right until the present day. This book discusses about Asians’ cultures, faiths, beliefs and many more.

When I first started reading this book, the first few short stories caught my attention. The writing style was beautiful and the stories were very different from what I expected and I found that pleasing. Many aspects in these stories could resonate well with its readers, especially the Singaporeans and Malaysians. The way the author inserted different languages, dialects and slangs, including fillers into the stories is one of my favourite thing about this book.

The themes of The Heartsick Diaspora range from Asian myths, to life as immigrants, parents and children relationships and of course identity of oneself as Asian. I found many of these stories are interesting and very well written, even thought provoking.

However, since most of the endings felt rather loose to me, I felt lost whenever I reached certain short stories’ endings. I didn’t get what certain endings try to convey, it’s like an open ending that I could hardly decipher. Anyways, this point is very subjective, what I couldn’t understand perhaps understood easily by others (so don’t take what I say as it is, try flip a page or two first and see how you like it). Other than that, I appreciate that all of the stories carry meaning, history and personality.

Some of my favourite stories are:

  • The Coffin Maker
  • Run of the Molars
  • A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin
  • Chinese Almanac
  • Mapping Three Lives Through a Red Rooster Chamber Pot

Overall, though some stories’ ending didn’t sit well for me, I liked the book as a whole and I feel like everyone should give this book a try and experience the Malaysian’s and Singaporean’s life, stories and history.

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Curious Book Reviewer, Bookstagram

25 April 2020

Curiosity level: esp for the Singaporean / Malaysian diaspora

“Asian peoples have colourful ghosts.”

In “A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin”, read about the dark humor of a boy who’s able to see ghosts; he meets a gothic hungry ghost for the first time 👻 A slightly uptight Chinese chef gets served a side of accidental revenge... and then some... in “Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur”. For those who’d like something raunchy, “Love, Nude” is about a man who wants to paint a girl in her birthday suit but doesn’t want to engage physically with her... 🧐, as well as the story that earned the book’s title, “The Heartsick Diaspora”—featuring a group of writers getting distracted by a handsome new addition to their club.

I was surprised at how different her short stories were from each other! Felt like a different writer for each story—is that genius and empathy combined? The stories are full of ingenuity and heart (you can tell how she affectionately uses dialectical phases and other quirks Malaysians or Singaporeans would truly appreciate) 🇲🇾🇸🇬

I’d definitely feel homesick reading this if I’d been away from Singapore for a long time. Or not. It’s still pretty good either way!

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Look Pretty Books, Bookstagrammer

18 April 2020

Right after I bought this book both my book club and the publisher had review copies for grabs. 😂 Guess the universe really wants me to read THE HEARTSICK DIASPORA, a short story collection by Elaine Chiew. It’s been high on my TBR ever since I saw her bio. My heart went DA-DUM, COULD SHE BE A KINDRED SPIRIT? There are a number of Chinese Malaysian writers who’ve published internationally (hi Tash Aw! hi Tan Twan Eng! hi Shirley Geok-lin Lim, my first idol! hi Zen Cho! hi Yangsze Choo!), but I don’t think I’ve come across any who’ve left for the West AND chosen to return to Asia. I feel a special affinity for returnees. Elaine lives in Singapore now, close enough lah. Singapore is also a former home of mine, the place where I first studied the term “cultural schizophrenia,” and remains close to my heart.

Anyway, the book. The stories aren’t all what I expected. I mean, with a title like Heartsick Diaspora, I was kind of expecting/dreading cultural conflict, mother-daughter angst, ghosts etc. on an Amy Tan scale (sorry Amy, you’ll always be my go-to diaspora Chinese writer for comparison). But while these elements are present, there’s a refreshing spin on them. The difficult mother in “Run of the Molars” shouts in Hokkien and passive aggressively asks for white bread during steamboat, which made me snort/cringe. “Rap of the Tiger Mother” features an Asian mom who raps when stressed, and I was all, oh no is this an Asian writer appropriating Black culture, until I realized the author is aware and intentional in what she is doing. I love the titular story about the relationship between five Asian writers who are writing short stories—and their stories are the very ones in this collection, a very meta element I found hilarious, especially when they argue over them. Our one ghost story, “A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin,” is joyfully absurd and pokes fun at Singapore’s Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other racial framework.

One story was a DNF for me (Garuda went over my head) but overall I really enjoyed this collection.

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Ho Lin, Foreward Reviews Five Gifted New Authors

18 April 2020

Riffing on the collisions between tradition and modernity, Elaine Chiew’s winsome, playful, and sometimes wistful short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora hopscotches across continents and time periods, focusing on Malaysians at home and abroad.

Testy relations between parents and expatriate children get a comedic workout in “Run of the Molars,” in which a Singapore woman ignites a fracas with her three London-based daughters when she opts for toast over her offspring’s cooking, and also reveals a stunning secret. Cultural appropriation is mined for ironic humor in “Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur,” when a Malaysian American chef has her homemade recipe stolen by a diffident colleague. “Face” is a more somber take on racial issues, as an elderly Malaysian woman gets harassed during a ride on the London Underground.

Other stories cast a bemused eye on the absurdity of bourgeois life. In “Rap of the Tiger Mother,” a mother fights to maintain her kid’s confidence, and her own sanity, among other backstabbing moms at a hoity-toity preschool. The impoverished immigrant of “The Chinese Nanny” takes on a care-giving assignment with an upper-crust English family, resulting in uncomfortable realizations and a life-changing tragedy.

Chiew throws in a few changes of pace with a trio of tales set in Malaysia’s past (covering World War II as well as Singapore’s rise in the intervening decades), as human connections re-gained and lost and memories linger like aftershocks. For good measure, she goes meta-fictional in the amusing title story, in which it is revealed that several stories in the collection are the brainchild of a dysfunctional writers group mired in romantic entanglements and jealousy.

Leavened with well-observed humor, and peppered with moments of pathos and poignant reflections on cultural difference, The Heartsick Diaspora is a stimulating and varied collection.

Leland Cheuk, Hyphen magazine

9 April 2020

Elaine Chiew’s debut short story collection, The Heartsick Diaspora, lives up to its title. The stories primarily take place in three cities with large Asian populations: New York, London and Singapore. They star ghosts, tiger moms, sous chefs and even a writing group of “ethnic writers” (a term she uses tongue-in-cheek). The Heartsick Diaspora is an ambitious attempt to capture the breadth of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diaspora through time and in three of the cities (among others) in which Chiew has lived. Chiew’s prose is intelligent and funny and reveals a range rarely seen in story collections.

Aside from her recent publication, she edited and contributed to Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She contributed to One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories (New Internationalist, 2009), adopted on scores of modern literature courses. She is a two-time winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition and recently shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies in the United Kingdom, United States and Singapore. Originally from Malaysia, she graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before moving to the UK to study at Goldsmiths, University of London. She lives in Singapore.

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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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Yang Ming, 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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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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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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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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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.

Ranjani Rao, Medium

The title of the collection, The Heartsick Diaspora drew my attention amongst the various books that were showcased at the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2019. As a resident of Singapore, member of the Indian diaspora , and always interested in reading writers of the diaspora, I promptly put it on my TBR list for 2020.

To be honest, it wasn’t just the title but also the intriguing cover with its rich red tone (reminiscent of Chinese restaurants in the US) that made me look closely at this collection of short stories. The muted gold letters with a pair of black chopsticks grasping a slice of toast was a clever indication of the east-west connection, and an irresistible invitation.

However, it wasn’t until the enforced social distancing mandated by the Coronavirus that I could devote enough time to this collection of fourteen short stories written by Elaine Chiew, a writer of Malaysian origin who lives in Singapore.

Tales of the diaspora

One of my pain points when it comes to South Asian writing in English is the tendency of authors to cater to the Western gaze. In order to appeal to readers and publishers they do this by exoticising the setting using flowery and unnecessary descriptions of food, clothes, and daily life. Chiew is not immune to this tendency, especially in the first few stories in the book.

“ Run of the molars “ is a story that is filled with too much description, of food, of street names, of language, that highlight the foreignness of its protagonists instead of focusing on the heart of the story. Despite living in multicultural Singapore and being an ‘ethnic writer’ myself, I found “ A thoroughly modern ghost story of other origin “ and “ Confessions of an irresolute ethnic write r” difficult to relate to in spite of their interesting titles and magical construction.

Chiew is in her element when handling contemporary diasporic dilemmas with humour like the ones faced by the young mother in “ Rap of the Tiger Mothe r” and the funny, although not completely unexpected denouement of the story featuring the Cordon Bleu-trained chef in “ Chronicles of the Culinary Poseur “.

The title story The Heartsick Diaspora appears somewhere in the middle of the collection and that’s when I began enjoying the stories. Featuring a motley cast of aspiring writers of Singaporean or Malaysian Chinese heritage who meet at various spots to discuss their writing projects, this story delves into the dynamics of such groups, and gets the ethnic angle perfectly. It was interesting to see how Chiew alludes to all the previously featured stories in this collection by attributing them as work-in-progress scripts of the various characters.

The second half of the book is where the treasures lie. My favorite story was “ Friends of the Kookaburra “ which investigates the motivations behind a deep college friendship that arises between all-American Irene and Malaysian Chinese Sansan who feels “simultaneously grateful and like a charity case,” and wonders if her ethnicity is a factor in being chosen as a friend. It is easy to see Chiew’s intuitive understanding of these nuances comes from her own experience of having been educated in the US.

“ Florida rednecks love moo goo gai pan ,” on the other hand deals with the travails of Khek Lin (called Cake), an impoverished student who tries to make ends meet by waitressing at Chinese restaurants when her father is unable to continue funding her education. The story brilliantly illuminates the veiled racism, overt sexual harassment, and common indignities of poverty through a simple narrative.

The complicated parent-child relationship unique to Asian cultures that value filial piety is beautifully brought out in “ Chinese Almanac “ where the concept of ‘saving face’ comes up repeatedly. As the central character discloses,

There’s a hierarchy of sins: being gay is not as heinous as being unfilial.

Getting to the heart of art

Stories tell us much about ourselves as we witness the lives led by fictional characters. In “Love, Nude”, Teck Hin, the artist protagonist asks:

“Isn’t that what art is: fabricated reality? Two-dimensional illusions that attempt to impart another reality — of substance, and depth, light and color — when, in fact, all you are playing with is just surface?”

Chiew, through her writing, makes us aware of this truth in her telling of the various stories, some contemporary, some historical. Her task is not easy, considering that the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese who migrate to the West bear the burden of being ‘double diaspora”, ethnically Chinese but without pure nationalist or cultural associations.

As an award-winning short story writer, Chiew does a great job of telling these stories that need to be told. Overturning cultural stereotypes requires a multitude of stories. Despite the warning served through a Chinese fortune cookie to “never say anything important with words,” The Heartsick Diaspora is a welcome addition to this under-served category,

My opinion: An interesting and welcome change from standard, stereotypical narratives ; of particular relevance to readers interested in stories of the diaspora.

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Reads.and.reveries, Bookstagrammer

If you like short stories, I could not recommend this one more highly.

The Heartsick Diaspora is a collection of short stories set in various countries, including Singapore, the UK, the US and China, whose characters form part of the Singaporean and Malaysian-Chinese diasporas.

From the coffin-maker in search of a stolen sister, to a Belgravia-based rapping Tiger Mother, to the Chinese nanny charged with the care of a young girl, Chiew’s depiction of these very specific identities felt intimate, observant and, at times, humorous.

I particularly appreciated the integration of a number of languages including Cantonese, Hokkien and Malay, allowing the characters, and those they represent, to speak to each other and not just an English-speaking audience.
I rarely read a collection of short stories where each story feels equally solid, however, with this collection each story holds its own. Rather inventively, Elaine Chiew employs a range of genres and I suspect reader preference (if any) will come down to the genre/ form they most enjoy.The Heartsick Diaspora is a unique and imaginative collection and I’d especially recommend it to those of you who appreciate books that explore the concept of home, identity and belonging and/ or short story collections in general.

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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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