Medusa in Singapore

Review of Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper (Singapore and London: Epigram Books, 2017)
by Inez Tan

 

The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid, winner of the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, tells the story of Ria, a medusa, beginning with her childhood days. As a girl, Ria lives with her beloved sister Barani on the outskirts of a human village, where they are largely regarded with suspicion and dislike. Barani begins a love affair with a human boy, but he jilts her and hands the sisters over to the authorities, who are keen on repossessing their land to make way for new developments. When policemen come to take the sisters away from their home, Ria turns them all to stone. Now wanted criminals, Ria and Barani flee to the underground settlement of Nelroote, where Nia willingly volunteers to act as gatekeeper, exercising her powers to protect them from outsiders. However, fifty years later, a human man named Eedric stumbles upon Nelroote. His fascination with Ria sets off a chain of events that brings Nelroote into conflict with the world above ground, now known as the urban city-state of Manticura.

Given that the medusa is a monster out of Greek mythology, there’s a good chance that readers will begin the novel expecting it to take place in ancient Greece or a Mediterranean fantasy setting. But Singapore readers (or broadly speaking, audiences familiar with Southeast Asian cultures) will know from the opening paragraphs that this is certainly not the case:

The interrogator switched languages. “Ria, you like to story, yah? Tell lah. Tell us,” she urged.

No clipped, controlled tones of a second tongue, learnt in schools. They were done with objectives, done with questions of what Ria did and why she had done it. They knew hurting her, only receiving silence in return, was not going to work. So they’d changed the interrogator to this one who spoke with familiarity: using Sce’ ‘dal, the lingua franca of the Layeptic region, instead of the colonial-born Ro’ ‘dal: breaking words, shortening sentences, barely obeying the laws of grammar.

In the light-hearted music of the new interrogator’s voice was the indulgence and comfort of a glutinous rice and coconut milk dessert. Ria could almost forget the tight cap suffocating her hair, the immobility of her clamped-down limbs, and the collar that was fitted just tight enough to remind her where she was every time she swallowed.

A Singapore reader will recognize the interrogator’s “Sce’ ‘dal” speech as Singlish, the English-based creole spoken throughout Singapore. The mention of “a glutinous rice and coconut milk dessert” is another swift, well-placed cue for Singapore readers to find this world familiar – and all the more disturbingly so for being told it slant.

A barrage of further clues follows over the next few pages. We are told that the state was named Manticura after the name of a poisonous flying human-headed lion, an unmistakable nod to the story that Singapura, a Malay name meaning “lion city,” came about after a Malay prince, Sang Nila Utama, spotted a lion while hunting there. Through Ria’s impressionable ears, we hear that villages like hers are being demolished because “Gavermen” are putting in place a “house in skims” – a clear reference to the housing schemes in which Singapore’s government has resettled residents in order to redevelop their land. Later on, as we view Manticura from discontented Eedric’s perspective, the critique intensifies: “Manticura was supposed to be all skyscrapers, digital and new-everything. There wasn’t even an old can to kick on the streets, and graffiti would get you fined for more than you had in your bank account (and caned too). Manticura was the antithesis of the messy animal that lent the country its name and that guarded the country’s coat-of-arms on everyone’s birth certificates. No one existed beyond the system.” Accordingly, a Singapore reader who gets these refracted references must read The Gatekeeper as allegory – that is, with the expectation that the surface story of Ria and Eedric will correspond with an underlying story about Singapore itself.

Thus, The Gatekeeper sets itself an ambitious task, and accomplishes many clever things in the process. By creating the fantasy world of Manticura, Nuraliah defamiliarizes what she knows her readers know, enabling them to see it anew. “In colloquial Sce’ ‘dal,” we are told on the first page, “the word cerita, for ‘story,’ was shortened into c’ita, ‘create.’” At the back of the book are two extensive appendices that provide a historical timeline of Manticura and a short guide to Manticura’s indigenous language. Confronted with a mythic story, readers must recognize that national narratives, too, are constructed to suit the tellers’ purposes. Along with Ria and Eedric, they will wonder if the mistakes of the past will always return to haunt the present. The Gatekeeper seeks to disenchant and unsettle, knowing that it can, and probably should, be uncomfortable for readers to consider that beliefs they’ve taken for granted could be the result of someone else’s ideology as they question the extent to which a society deals with racial difference and creates its own myths – along with its own monsters.

It is unfortunate, then, that as the novel progressed, I had more and more difficulty understanding why the characters were doing what they were doing. For example, a critical turning point in the novel occurs when Ria betrays Eedric (the betrayal is mentioned in the prologue – I won’t spoil what Ria does, but trust me, it’s big). But even after finishing the novel, I can’t make sense of her motivations. Ria and Eedric were supposed to be very much in love at the time. Additionally, in order to carry out her betrayal, Ria leaves the safety of Eedric’s protection and exposes herself to the authorities. At best, I gather that she’s fed up of hiding, but that doesn’t begin to explain why she goes out of her way to hurt Eedric the way she does.

Here’s another example. Earlier on, Ria thinks that Eedric has betrayed her. He attempts to convince her otherwise:

“Ria, look at me,” he said, and then once more, shouting, “look at me!”

She kept her gaze away, her snakes rising to start a flurry, the spreading of their hoods synced with a chorus of warning hisses.

“You don’t trust me, do you?” he demanded. “You don’t. No one does!”

“I don’t even trust myself,” she told him.

He threw his hands up, practically tossing her away from him. “Does it always have to be like this? The mistakes of another time brought up over and over? I know I keep saying this but look at me. Look. At. Me, please.” He gestured towards himself, fingertips stabbing his chest repeatedly, and so hard he could have pierced skin.

“I may not be good enough. For Father, for your sister. For you! But I am here, Ria. And I am not a stone statue.”

She looked and he saw that she could see him there. It was strange, but he felt that in that moment, she was seeing him with perfect clarity for the first time since they met. Parts of her began to unravel. He saw her shoulders droop.

“What will we do now?” she asked quietly, afraid.

Is Eedric saying that Ria can trust him because she hasn’t yet exercised her powers and turned him into stone? That is, that she can trust him because she has not yet mistrusted him? Does he mean that she can trust herself because she hasn’t lost control of her powers and turned him into stone? That is, that she can trust him because she can trust herself? Apparently Ria is convinced by Eedric’s logic, such as it is, but as a reader, I can’t see what reason he’s given to make her come around.

Although Ria’s motivations are at times unclear, the figure of the medusa in the novel is still fascinating. From the start, Eedric finds her beauty both enticing and fearsome, which Nuraliah describes wonderfully: “He watched the sleek shiny bodies of her snakes glide over one another, past her shoulders. Their movements were strangely hypnotic, sensuous against the earthy burnish of her skin, forked tongues of some flicking at the corners of her lips.” To that, Nuraliah adds still more loaded layers of symbolism. The medusa sisters call each other Adik and Kakak, Malay and Indonesian terms of address for older and younger siblings. When they walk among the humans in the village, the sisters tie headscarves over their hair in order to hide the black snakeheads that captivate and terrify the other villagers. Yet Ria shrewdly observes that doing so is “only making [their] hair more visible through the cloth.” These are just some of the provocative images that readers are invited to interpret in the opening chapters.

Indeed, it’s thrilling to see a Singaporean novel which presumes that Singaporeans are its primary audience, and calls upon them to bring to bear their literary faculties as shaped by their cultural standpoints. The novel rarely translates the Malay words it uses, and neither does it attempt to ‘translate’ the references and jokes that non-Singaporeans would not get. (My favourite example of this occurs in a scene where Eedric is running in a delirious panic and has “the suspicion that he was going to pass out, the way he nearly had when he first ran 1.6 kilometres as a chubby kid in primary school.”) In this regard, The Gatekeeper stands as a momentous undertaking in Singapore literature.

 

Inez Tan is a fiction writer and poet based in Irvine, CA and Singapore. Her writing has appeared in RattleQuarterly Literary Review SingaporeSoftblow, and the anthology A Luxury We Must Afford. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Irvine, California. (ineztan.com)