Yen Ooi reviews Elizabeth Wong’s debut novel, which explores the complicated relationship diaspora communities have with culture and identity.
Elizabeth Wong, We Could Not See the Stars (JM Originals, 2021), 336pp.
No fish in the river mouth – what you expect lah? his cousin Tan Yong Han thought. Water stagnant here, never move wan, and the river silt blooms in clouds. Only the small kecik-kecik fish come here to hide. Waste of time. But he kept silent. Chong Meng would never listen to him, anyway. Instead Han said, ‘Yah lor, so hot, no fish in the nets somemore. Let’s go back.’ (3)
Within the opening paragraphs of the book, Elizabeth Wong splits her readership into two camps: Malaysians and non-Malaysians. Using Manglish, an informal form of Malaysian-English that can be understood as an English-based Creole, Wong firmly sets her novel in a post-colonial Malaysia (or Malaya). Though we learn as we read that the place and period in which the story is told are both fictional, it is difficult for a Malaysian reader like myself to be able to disengage from expecting the people and culture in this made-up world to be anything but familiar. For a culture that is rarely found in mainstream literature (though this is changing thanks to authors like Elizabeth Wong, Hanna Alkaf, and Zen Cho), reading her words made it seem nostalgic, as if I was back in the hot and humid Malaysia and my friends and family were talking to me.
We Could Not See the Stars is a work of speculative fiction that follows the main character, Han whose mother died when he was very young, leaving him to live with his stepfather and step-grandmother. Life in the sleepy fishing village for Han was quiet until a Mr Ng arrives, asking questions about his dead mother. Han and his father do not trust Mr Ng, but his cousin Chong Meng is taken by Mr Ng’s tales. Together, Mr Ng and Chong Meng steal the only thing that Han has of his mother’s – a spade.
For me, the story is shaped in three acts (though the book has eight parts). The first act reads like a crime novel – the sneakiness of Mr Ng’s actions and the questions he asks that unearth further questions to be answered. Here, I found myself just settling in to the language, the characters, and the world of the novel.
In the second act, Han leaves the fishing village for a job in the capital, which would bring better opportunities, though it is mostly a guise for Han to find Mr Ng and get his mother’s spade back. The pace picks up here and my reading becomes unrestrained, as Han learns that Mr Ng works for Professor Toh, who has been researching the forest of Suriyang. Han befriends Professor Toh’s housekeeper, Min, from whom he learns that the Professor, Mr Ng, and Chong Meng, with his mother’s spade, were travelling to Suriyang for another expedition. Han decides to follow them, now also to find his cousin who is in grave danger.
In the final act, Min decides to go with Han, and together they unravel the secrets of Suriyang, its ancient civilization and mysterious golden tower. They end up discovering more than they seek. In this last part, Wong’s writing becomes magical, dreamy and at ease in the fantastical world that she has built.
We Could Not See the Stars is Wong’s lament on the effects of migration and colonialism on cultural identity. She talks about a sense of ancestral loss in a guest post that she wrote for Asian Books Blog, something that is clearly reflected in the novel through the stories of the ‘flower people’, which, in Mandarin, hua ren 花人 is also a transliteration of Chinese people 华人.
For a book that is so heavily invested in the exploration of identity, my only complaint is in the lack of diversity in its characters that would truly highlight the multi-culturalism of Malaysia. Using a Creole language that is so rich while having characters who are mostly recognisable as Chinese creates a sense of void, of something missing. The writing, though, is beguiling:
I am not just losing my memory. I am losing our collective memories. The home-world names that I did not have, the home language that I hear in dreams, the stories of our home worlds, of who we are and how we came to be. For we are stardust – we are merely a minuscule physical manifestation of larger processes, planets forming from bits of rock and dust, plants generating oxygen, comets and asteroids delivering water, volcanoes spewing aleum, creating homes for humans to find and populate; we are one sentence in a larger story, one whose ending has not been written yet. To lose this history is death. (297)
Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher who explores East and Southeast Asian culture, identity and values. Her projects aim to cultivate cultural engagement in our modern, technology-driven lives. She is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. She writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and computer games. Her latest book, Rén: The Ancient Chinese Art of Finding Peace and Fulfilment will be available in February 2022. www.yenooi.com