From the archives (December 15, 2016):
Review of Jinat Rehana Begum’s First Fires (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015)
by Lily Piao
First Fires is a debut novel by Jinat Rehana Begum that is rich, complex, and beautifully written. It unfolds through different voices and intertwining timelines, revealing pieces of a picture that only fully makes sense at the novel’s conclusion. It is a novel to be read and reread, for, having seen the larger picture, its details take on entirely different meanings.
There are two different narrative threads in First Fires. The first is that of Sal’s conversation with her dead father. Begum is extraordinary in her deft depiction of the relationship between the main character and her father: Feroz was an overbearing and controlling father who told his children that they were weak, and yet still could “[coax] everyone into a romantic mould of [his] own concoction.” One can’t help but wonder at the almost irresistible pull of such a man, and First Fires is in large part about Sal’s attempt to escape her father’s shadow, and his grasp on her life even after his death. The novel ends with Sal stating that she has finally “freed [herself] of [his] doctrines.”
This newfound freedom begs the question, what exactly were these doctrines? They are statements that leave no room for dispute, mantras and commands that purport to explain the world while treading a fine line between cliché and truth. These doctrines include “a mother’s curse is potent,” “pride comes before a fall,” and most importantly, “difficulties are fires.” It is this last doctrine, Begum’s focus on this specific metaphor and the ways in which Sal grapples with the implications of such a statement, that forms the overarching structure for the novel. Begum uses this metaphor to produce language that both beautifully borders on the poetic:
The surface of my body consists of thousands of shiny grey islands whose ridges are rimmed pewter. In between these peninsulas I can see too clearly my cobalt blue veins running riot from the shame of having been exposed. There is steam too. But only I can see this coming up through the cracks.
while it also may at times feel self-indulgent. Both the reader and writer take pleasure in the richness, the beauty of the language, but at what point do these descriptions become too much, more about writing for its sake than about the novel as a whole? I do not have the answer to this question, nor do I know if Jinat Begum is even guilty of this indulgence, but when a novel is as focused on language as First Fires is, I believe it is a question worth asking.
I see the rationale behind centering the novel around a metaphor, and in large part First Fires is better for it, but Begum’s or Sal’s insistence on referring back to this doctrine that “difficulties are fires” is at times frustratingly didactic. Perhaps the constant reference to this metaphor is meant to indicate Sal’s obsession with the idea, but to me it felt more as if the author was taking on the role of Sal’s father, needing to impart an idea but doing it in a way that becomes overbearing. In fact, the novel ends with the “lesson” to be learned, or at least the one that Sal has learned.
Difficulties are fires, and some I will approach with the caution you have taught me, fanning and planning, planning and fanning, so I never again expose myself unthinkingly to danger. Some I will stoke gently, so they warm the blood and remind me that I live.
And some, I will let burn.
It is as if Begum is leaving the reader with a guide to dealing with such difficulties: do not try to avoid them, to numb yourself to hurt as Sal did, but use them to your advantage. While this is a valuable lesson, I can’t help but be disappointed that Begum ended with a lesson instead of a focus on what I found to be the emotional center of the novel, the relationships between the different members of Sal’s family.
The second and more compelling narrative of the novel is one in which Sal’s family deals with her disappearance. Her brother Adam, her sister Sarah, and her mother Begum all deal with Sal’s unexplained disappearance in different ways, in a uniting thread of a sort of forced retrospection. In their effort to understand Sal’s disappearance, Begum’s realistic, imperfect, and above all human, characters struggle to find the moment at which things went wrong. They wonder why and how they missed the signs, and whether they could have saved Sal before she decided to hurt herself. With her painstaking attention to detail and commitment to setting down every possible thought they might have, Begum allows the reader to both love and hate her characters, but makes it impossible to judge them. Sarah’s jealousy towards her sister seems unreasonable until one realizes that it stems from a desperation to succeed and a longing for the relationship with her grandmother that she has lost. Adam is seemingly uncaring until one realizes that he too is bewildered, having to shoulder the responsibilities of being the man of the household while mourning the death of a more carefree relationship with his sister.
Begum’s portrayal of Adam is sensitive and poignant, managing to be specific about the guilt that Adam feels while also instantly recognizable to anyone who has felt a seemingly inexplicable change in a relationship.
We weren’t best friends anymore. I could no longer bear to tell her my secrets so she could hold them safe for me. She seemed to have too many of her own in need of safeguarding. I had a feeling it was my turn to hold her secrets safe but I wasn’t sure how to extract them from her. I thought we couldn’t be friends because she was no longer a little girl and I didn’t really know how to play big brother to a grown woman. Perhaps if I had tried a little harder, she wouldn’t have moved so far away from us?
Adam’s language is more grounded than the metaphors Sal is so fond of, but the relative simplicity adds rather than detracts from the emotional impact of the passage. Adam is meant to be the new father figure at the head of the family, but he still yearns for his “best friend” and wishes he “had tried a little harder.” Adam cannot stop himself from imagining how things might have been different if he had felt less awkward, pushed himself a little bit more, just done something differently. It is through Adam that Begum portrays this impulse toward self-blame in the wake of tragedy.
Though Sal is gone for only a couple of days, Begum’s depiction of life spans decades and reaches across national lines. Her portrayal of the frustrations of a middle-class life, the stagnation that seems inevitable, could easily be transplanted from Singapore to any city in the United States. So can this moment in which Sal thinks about fires or difficulties outside of her own:
Like Ming, I wonder why the Indonesians burn and burn. Deep in the jungles of Indonesia, thousands of forests are burning, the heat seeping into the skins of the people, simmering within them. I imagine the blazing rage in the country and feel almost glad to be amongst such concrete sterility.
Sal is thinking here specifically about deforestation, but the description of blazing rage that must be kept to a simmer could apply to any number of marginalized groups. So could the description of the resulting apathy, the recognition of a certain privilege without the need to do anything about it. In the half-conscious management of such jungle fires are most lives forged.
Lily Piao is a freshman studying History at Harvard University. She plans on writing for the Harvard Political Review and is currently the comptroller of the Harvard International Review. This past semester, she took courses in contemporary African American literature and in the History of the Middle East.