Sad stories

27 Jan

When I was young and foolish enough to think that I could write for a living without much hard work, Alfian Sa’at ranked amongst my favourite authors. It started with receiving his anthology A History of Amnesia as a prize in a school competition. It may also have started with this poem.

As I grew older, I grew tired of the general tone of most local writers – cynical, often satirical and always painfully pessimistic. I felt that this was an extension of the “spoiled Singaporean” tendency to complain and then complain some more. I hungered for stories from home that captured a wider range of emotions and perspectives.

Alfian Sa’at’s pet topics – which all seem to stem from discontent and anger – appear to be the epitome of the approach I could not appreciate. But despite the angry-young-man persona, I grudgingly admit that Alfian always manages to do something more with his plays and poetry. When he chooses to be funny, he is rib-crackingly so, and he always manages to surprise you with an unexpected phrase or image.

I’m currently in the midst of re-designing an assessment based on a story of his, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Hanging”, which is sandwiched between – even more! – sad stories in the recent local compilation, Telltale: 11 Stories. After plowing through an astonishingly large number of loveless marriages, sudden deaths and dysfunctional families, I grew resigned.  In Alfian’s story, the young protagonist, Ricky, is sentenced to death after being caught drug trafficking. I decided to work on an assessment that would require students to create a box of items Ricky’s family would keep in his memory.

When I tried to envision students carrying out the task – BAM – it felt like a punch to the gut. The fictional grief silently made its way into my head and literally (!) pressed upon my temples. My first reaction was, is this a task that will create a student response too heavy and emotionally unwieldy for a classroom situation? And right away, I was ashamed. Because that’s bull. Feeling something deeply is the whole point of studying Literature, isn’t it? An honest personal response isn’t one that can be packed away tidily into an essay or exercise book.

Earlier today, I complained to my brother about how local stories are “always so depressing”. He said it could be a good thing, because such stories are deeper, more complex, require more unpacking. So I resolve to be more patient with the sad stories, not to assume that they are “emo” (I need to stop using that word so dismissively), because the stories a nation produces… says something about the state of the nation. And gives clues as to how we go about healing it, making it better.

(P.S. Something I forgot…

“Dissent can be, should be, a discourse of love.” — Alfian Sa’at)


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