The Heartsick Diaspora, and other stories

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Shortlisted   —Mangester Fiction Prize2020

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

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

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

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.

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