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.