From the archives (August 19, 2016):
The critical survey below is the last part of our Special Focus series on Justin Chin.
Excuse Me, Are You a Singapore Poet? The Poetry of Justin Chin
by Jee Leong Koh
When Justin Chin died on Christmas Eve in 2015, the newspaper obituaries that remembered this poet, essayist, memoirist, and performance artist were all from San Francisco, Chin’s adopted home for 25 years. SFGate, the sister website of the San Francisco Chronicle, headlined its obituary “Justin Chin, S. F. poet who incorporated complex themes, dies.” San Francisco News announced, “SF Poet Justin Chin Dies After Massive Stroke.” San Francisco Weekly added, “S.F. Poet Justin Chin Taken Off Life Support After Stroke.” The Bay Area Reporter followed up a week later with “Memorial announced for gay poet Justin Chin.”
Singapore newspapers were uniformly silent about his death. This would have been no surprise to Chin, who had naturalized and become an American citizen. He began and ended his writing career in San Francisco. All seven of his books were published in the USA, including Bite Hard (1997) nominated for the Lambda Literary Awards, Harmless Medicine (2001) nominated for the Lambda again and for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Awards, and Gutted (2006), winner of the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. To my knowledge, he did not publish any work in Singapore. Though he visited Singapore regularly to see his family, he did not participate in the local literary scene. The few Singapore poets who knew his writings reckoned him to be an Asian American writer of the West Coast breed.
He was not even born in Singapore. Originally from the town of Kuantan, in the Malaysian state of Pahang, he was sent as a child by his parents to Singapore to receive a “useful” English-language education. He had little interest in his formal studies at Anglo-Chinese School and Anglo-Chinese Junior College, and bombed his GCE ‘A’ Level Examination. As a result, he could not enter any of the local universities, but enrolled at Hawaii Pacific College in the journalism program, before transferring to the University of Hawaii.
There, Chin signed up for a writing class and met the instructor Faye Kicknosway. She was tough on his work, and then invited him to read with her upper-level class. At the dry run for the reading, he met his closest friends for years to come—Lois-Ann Yamanaka and R. Zamora Linmark. Joined by Lisa Asagi, the aspiring writers assembled every Sunday afternoon to discuss their writing. What Chin described as their “tits to the wind abandon” (“Hid and Found” in Burden of Ashes) made him believe that he was a writer, and not just a dabbler.
San Francisco, with its countercultural vibe and bohemian literary culture, beckoned. He made his way to the city in the summer of 1990 and went to as many readings as he could. On this short jaunt, he heard Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Robert Hass, Allen Ginsberg, and Diane Di Prima, the Beat poet who edited the literary magazine The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka. In an essay he remembered his great happiness on reaching the gay mecca Castro: “I bought Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library at A Different Light Bookstore, ate at Without Reservations, and was hog-happy watching the homos come and go.” The summer visit made Chin determined to live in San Francisco, and on Christmas Day, he boarded the plane on a one-way ticket for the city of dreams.
The bare facts, recited here at a trot, hide the real truth. Singapore had a profound impact on the writer that Justin would turn out to be. Yes, he was a San Francisco writer, an Asian American writer, but he was also a Singapore writer, as well as a Malaysian one. What makes Justin Chin so interesting a writer is his hybrid identities, partly chosen, partly foisted on him, as he moved from Malaysia to Singapore to the USA. He was a transnational writer, before the description came into fashion.
Born in Singapore, Chin’s mother Evelyn was a Singapore citizen, a status that facilitated the enrolment of her son in the Singapore school system. She herself could not leave Malaysia for a long time, as she would not have been allowed to re-enter the country; she had given money to missionaries in China and the Malaysian authorities were wary of communist ties in their Chinese population. She was apparently a feisty young woman. At a time when good girls with an education were expected to become teachers, she defied her father to take up nursing. She met Justin’s father while he was a resident in the hospital and she the night nurse on the ward. When her husband opened his own clinic in Kuantan, she left her job to work with him.
Growing up in Malaysia in the 70’s gave Justin a degraded sense of his race. The Malaysian New Economic Policy was implemented in 1971 after the 1969 racial riots. The policy was a set of affirmative action programs designed to increase Malay ownership of the economy. It was widely resented by the Malaysian Chinese. At the head of his first book Bite Hard (1997), Chin placed the poem called “Bitter,” a dream-like narrative suffused with racial resentment. In the poem, because of mandatory mourning for the death of the sultana, the speaker’s Father has to wear a black armband even while playing golf, which elicits from him the bitter words: “to be Chinese here is a bloody crime.” A very different incident in the poem speaks similarly of racial shame. Arriving on the train platform, the speaker sees his white lover attacked by a swarm of brown skinned boys proffering all kinds of services, from taking him to lunch to letting him take them to dinner. The shame infiltrates the body. The tadpoles that the neighbor’s children catch will turn into ugly “brown toads with lumps and peeling skins.”
Although bitterness is an “incriminating” root, yet the poem acknowledges that it is also “valuable.” His Malaysian childhood gave him the most powerful of his recurring images. Chin’s writings, from the first to the last, are infested with images of tropical insects. In “Zoo Animals,” from Bite Hard, the speaker compares himself to the Malayan beetle in ugliness. In “Gutted xxxviii. The Last,” from Gutted, the speaker lands on his lover’s skin like the Anopheles mosquito. One of the most ravishing passages of description in Chin’s prose has to do with the moths that visited his Kuantan home every March.
Cancerous is all I remember about the moths. Every year, around March, hundreds of moths would suddenly appear out of nowhere, somehow get through the screens—perhaps through the gaps where the elastic band holding the green netting flat against the walls was sagging—and flutter madly around the house before settling down like big black handprints on the ceiling and walls. Moth wings are nothing but millions of dusty scales held together by the finest of tendons. One swat and their insidious furry bodies become limp, scraggy legs curl, toes touch underside of abdomen, and the wings burst into ashes—a noseful as lethal as a toke of pure 10-grade 1960 asbestos. (From “Burden of Ashes”)
The insects that appear in his works are always in danger of being swatted or crushed into nothingness. They are also often toxic. They lend to Chin’s work its paradoxical qualities of vulnerability and danger.
Besides images, Chin’s Malaysian childhood also provided a fund of stories to be used in the poems and essays. His lifelong fear of snakes was developed from very young. Snakes were believed to be so powerful that it was not enough to kill them by beating them with bamboo canes. Their heads had to be chopped off, the heads and bodies bagged separately, and the bags disposed of in the forest to warn off other snakes. In the essay “Horehound” (from Burden of Ashes), the speaker describes feeding on his lover in the heat of desire. After drinking his fill, he would curl on his belly and wait for his crime to be discovered, and “take without flinching what they do to snakes who dare to bite humans.” The bitter root of the past is valuable precisely because it is incriminating.
If sex is often figured in terms of crime and punishment in Chin’s writings, it is just as often compared to sin and redemption. Chin grew up in a deeply religious household, and when he went to live with his Aunt Jessie in Singapore, the religious atmosphere turned oppressive. A memory that Chin repeated in two different essays was that of an extended exorcism. When a demon possessed a secretary of Aunt Jessie’s church, Prinsep Street Presbyterian, Aunt Jessie took her in and every night for weeks, church elders and deacons gathered to pray over the bedeviled woman and cast out the demon. Anything with satanic images was thrown out: wood carvings with the faces of gargoyles, an Air New Zealand plastic tiki keychain, an antique cast-iron teapot encrusted with images of dragons and phoenixes.
The Singapore household, comprising Chin’s grandmother, his older brother, and two abandoned cousins, was rancorous. Jessie, also called “Jamesy,” was a thyroid sufferer and a lifelong spinster; she was also a very angry woman. She forced the young Justin to practice violin, although he was tone-deaf, and when he made yet another mistake, she rapped his knuckles with a metal ruler. Every Saturday morning, when there was no school, she set him and his brother to scour the driveway with coconut husk brushes and Vim. Her enemy was the little black dots left by the fruits and flowers of the sea almond trees lining their cul-de-sac. Once, when Justin vomited out some inedible carrots, Jamesy whacked him with her bamboo cane, scrapped the vomit off the floor, and forced him to swallow back the mush. Sunday morning was, of course, church.
The Bible offered Chin another fund of stories, these ones to pervert and transform. Alluding to Elijah’s vision of the resurrection of bones, the speaker in the poem “Gutted xxxviii. The Last” gathers together “vertebrae by tendon by cartilage,” “tablespoon of blood and semen,” “milliliter of spit by tablespoon of bile and sweat,” “bone ounce by organ once,” “skin gram by gram of flesh” to start again. The body is made up of so many visceral parts, the poem insists, and it takes an extraordinary long time and great patience to rejoin them.
The biblical story to which Justin’s imagination returned over and over is that of Lot’s Wife. The story has plenty to thrill and horrify. The angelic strangers. The threat of same-sex rape. The fiery destruction of two cities. The escape that is also an exile. The backward glance and the transformation into salt. The wittiest revision of the story occurs in the poem “Gutted xxxvi. Leaving Sodom and Gomorrah.” Upon leaving the cities associated with homosexual sin, the speaker anticipates a celebration, with Triple Sec & the Cuervo Gold, and lime from the lime grove. All he needs for the margarita is some salt. Slyly he tells his companion to look back.
the Triple Sec
& the Cuervo Gold.
When we get
to that lime grove,
can you look
back and see
how many guests
we might expect?
The poem is at once a campy take on a familiar story, and a telling critique of Christian conversion therapy targeted at gay men.
“Saved” from the collection of essays Mongrel (1999) is an insightful work of investigative journalism. To write on Exodus International, a web of Christian ministries claiming to lead gays and lesbians out of their sinful lifestyle, Chin attended the drop-in groups and talked to the leaders and members. He observed the commercial emphasis of these programs, and the different forms of emotional manipulation employed to extract revenue from participants. He also noted the ambiguous position of these programs in the Christian world. Ex-gay ministries find themselves in a limbo between conservative churches embarrassed to have homosexuals on the property, and liberal churches fearful of backlash from gay church members.
Perhaps sensitized by his own minority status as a Chinese in Malaysia and the USA, a Malaysian in Singapore, a Singaporean in the USA, a gay man in a straight world, Chin was particularly penetrating on subcultures. “Being ex-gay is fast becoming for many ex-gays, a subculture in itself,” Chin wrote. “Everything in their lives revolves around homosexuality and avoiding it.” The conference and media circuit worked to maintain this subculture. The ex-gays tried to deny their homosexuality by committing themselves to ex-gay programs, therapy, marriage, and family, but their homosexuality stayed with them. “Ultimately, the difference between gays and ex-gays,” Chin concluded, “is like the difference between cheese and cheddar.”
If Hawaii was where Chin found his vocation as a writer, Singapore was where he discovered his love of writing. English was the only school subject that inspired him. In his poem “Gutted lxii. Narrowing” he remembered being assigned in primary school “English compositions where we had to write the ‘autobiography’ of an inanimate object, like a pen or a kite or a pair of shoes.” English instruction focused, however, on mastering grammar and idiom, and not on the cultivation of the imagination. Chin remembered in his essay “Hid and Found” (from Burden of Ashes) that “there were even English Composition books, in which the publishers would print examples of exemplary compositions, all written in crisp, perfectly constructed English sentences. No run-ons, no complex sentence constructions, no postmodern meanderings, just perfect little clause-phrase or phrase-clause sentences, with one exclamation point thrown in somewhere to give it a spark of life.” It would be too much to suggest that Chin derived his meandering complex sentences as an act of rebellion against primary-school English instruction. The class exercises might have even provided a solid foundation for his mature style. Still, in the mind of the adult writer, these “exemplary compositions,” like the sample answers given out to Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and Chinua Achebe for literature classes, are to be avoided. Chin preferred the raw to the polished, the messy life to the “jeweled truths” (“Gutted xlix. Scenes from the Oncologist’s Office”). Chin must find his own style, just as he had to find his own way. That style would include expletives, obscenities, invectives, juxtapositions, improvisations, Fluxus-inspired conceptualism, brattiness, and camp.
Besides writing, school also introduced him to the first gay people he knew. They were the drama queens, “Nellie boys” who lived for the annual music and drama night when they could put on drag and strut their stuff. The constant teasing and torment attracted by these boys made Chin stay in the closet. Swimming was a totem sport at Anglo-Chinese School and he was on the school’s swim team. Chin wrote perceptively about how his butch image as a swimmer deflected any hostility against his campier side. He could do a great impersonation of Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” and still be accepted as straight.
The same essay “Monster” (from Mongrel) described briefly but clearly an incident of sexual trauma. On his way to school, a man sat beside Justin and touched the boy’s crotch. Chin, with painful honesty, wrote that he was ‘shocked, frightened, and excited at the same time.” Getting off the bus, he was led to a bathroom and raped. As if to deflect the pain of the memory, Chin wrote humorously, “All this should have soured me somewhat on men’s penises.” It did not but made him “more confused and needful.” The world of bathroom sex was opened to him at the age of thirteen when a man at a urinal turned to the boy and played with himself. Chin started to haunt shopping malls, looking for sexual encounters. In the poem “Smooch” (from Bite Hard), the speaker compares having sex with old men in bathroom stalls to the censor’s cut of kissing on TV: “it can mean nothing but a means to fill a space.” Here, the writer insightfully links the precocious sex to the repression of sex, especially male-to-male sex, in the wider culture. Radically deprived of information and guidance, obscurely shamed by what he was feeling, the boy could only seek enlightenment in the limited, and dangerous, ways that he knew how.
In 1987, when Chin was eighteen years old, the Singapore Film Society acquired a print of Kiss of the Spider Woman, and every “art-fag” showed up for the screening, even though they knew that the censors had snipped the kiss between Raul Julia and William Hurt. The queers were treated only to “a loud scratch and a bad edit.” In his essay “The Endless Possibility of A Kiss in a Fevered Faraway Home” from Mongrel, Chin insisted, however, that “in that brief unseen gap, we saw that kiss, and for many of us, it was deeper, longer, wetter, and more meaningful than the director, the actors, the writers, and censors had ever imagined.” A gap could be fantastically productive. Instead of curtailing desire, the censors had fired up the imagination. It is significant that the essay title referred to Singapore as “Home.” His essay “Return to the Mall” from Mongrel deals most directly with his relationship with Singapore. “Having spent twelve years living and studying and growing up there,” Chin wrote, “I very much consider Singapore my home.”
Chin did not want to be a writer at first, but rather an actor, after playing brooding Peter in a school production of The Diary of Anne Frank. He started hanging out with the theater crowd, and getting to know other gay people. “I wanted the kind of adoration and power they wielded,” he admitted frankly. In the 1980s, the Singapore authorities were highly suspicious of writers and artists. A theater company Third Stage was producing socially conscious plays that criticized government policy and economic inequity. In 1987 four members of the company were among the 22 people arrested and detained without trial for an alleged Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state. Chin had front-row seat for the unfolding drama. In his reference to this event, he highlighted the irony that a play about the plight of Filipino maids in Singapore (the play was “Esperanza”) received rave reviews at a local arts fest but got the playwright Tay Hong Seng into trouble. Chin also linked the detention of Third Stage company members with their attendance of Augusta Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed Workshop in New York City.
That this oppressive environment affected Chin is quite clear from his poem “A History of Geography” (from Bite Hard). Labeling Singapore “what price paradise,” he describes the cost of this regimen of political cleansing:
This town so clean and green, everything wiped over with Dettol every week,
wiped so clean, they take away your insides
& give you dog biscuits & standard rations to replace what
and he links this political suppression powerfully with the suppression of queerness:
They want to distill me,
take the queer sky out of my body.
Singapore was homophobic but Singapore also turned Justin Chin gay. Its love affair with American pop culture was the gateway of sin. Chin felt the first stirrings of same-sex desire while reading a Buck Rogers book. When the author described Buck’s torso, the boy experienced “strange feelings deep in [his] gut.” The feelings returned when he saw Harrison Ford, as dashing space bounty hunter Han Solo, on the cover of a magazine. By the time Tom Selleck came along in the TV detective series Magnum PI, Chin could recognize those feelings. The poem “Smooch” lists the American TV series popular in 80s Singapore: The Love Boat, Joanie Loves Chachi, Knightrider, The A-Team, The Facts of Life, Hart to Hart, Dallas. The movie Flashdance, with its catchy song “Maniac” and ballad “Back When I Knew Who I Was,” was a touchstone, appearing in Chin’s first and last books of poems. When Chin left Singapore to go abroad for his studies, he did not go to the UK or Australia, as so many Singaporean students did; he went, instead, to America.
Coming from Malaysia and Singapore gave Chin a special perspective on American society. Being Chinese, he faced discrimination within the queer community. In the poem “Phone Sex” (from Bite Hard), the speaker knows that you’d get more traction if you lie that you are “5’10’’, 185 pounds, muscular, works out, blond hair, blue eyes, 8 and a half, 6 around, cut with low hanging hairy balls ready to pound your ass and fuck your face” instead of admitting that you are “5’5’’, 120 pounds, skinny, shaved head, tattoos, piercings, regular Masters & Johnson’s 6 (depending on where you start measuring from) and the accent is because I’m a goddamn faggot chink.” The accent marks the speaker as different even from the Chinese Americans who grew up there.
By the same token, Chin’s immigrant status gave him greater sympathy for other Chinese immigrants in the States. The poem “Chinese Restaurant” (from Bite Hard) depicts this common American scene from the perspective of the kitchen staff, who mocks non-Chinese customers for their naïve condescension. The poem also humanizes the workers by pointing out their long working hours, their fear of deportation, their inability to participate in the political process, and their knowledge of someone who has AIDS at home or abroad. Their lives are nothing like the Orientalized depiction of Chinese in books and documentaries such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and PBS’s A Thousand Pieces of Gold.
Chin was not slow to call out racism in the queer community. The essay form afforded him the space to respond in detail and reflect in depth. In a letter to the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, one of the area’s gay weeklies, someone complained of being treated rudely by an Asian-owned business in the Castro, and concluded hissily, “Perhaps they will feel more comfortable in Chinatown.” Justin tore into this incident in his essay “Currency” from Mongrel:
In this person’s mind, and he possibly represents many, there is a they and an us. He feels that they treated him rudely because he was white? gay? Why else would he wish them to relocate to Chinatown? Is it then okay to be rude to white gays in Chinatown? We see each other and we don’t see each other at the same time, and for those of us who live in more than one world, we perhaps see too much.
The response was clear-eyed about the sad advantage in straddling the worlds of race and sexual orientation: we see too much. The white gay thinks that he is marked out only for his sexual orientation but is otherwise unmarked. His race is unremarkable. Queer people of color know, however, that they are doubly marked, in sexual orientation and in race. In the same essay Chin pointed out very perceptively that the rage of white gay men, like that of the letter writer, stems from the denial of access to full white privilege because of their homosexuality.
Chin was being prescient when he wrote about the struggle for gay rights: “So we’re told that gay rights are important, and we’re asked to fight fight and fight for it. But when there are gay rights, people of color will still be people of color and women will still be women and they’ll still be fucked while the happy white fags run off to the disco.” Instead of accepting the civil rights struggle as promoted by gay leaders and pundits, “we need to look at these issues and understand how they affect us, how they are intertwined with other issues and other peoples.” What Justin argued in this essay first published in a 1999 anthology titled Queerly Classed: Gay Men and Lesbians Write About Class goes by the name of intersectionality now. In the dash for marriage equality, we have ignored voices such as Chin’s.
Why was Chin so acutely aware of the intersections between race, class, gender, and sexual orientation? It is mostly because of his social background in Malaysia and Singapore, and his leaving that background behind. In Bite Hard, the poem “Tied,” about a woman confined until death to a small tin-mining town as the first wife of a bigamist and mother to both broods of kids, is based on Chin’s paternal grandparents who lived in the failing town of Sungei Lembing, 50 miles from Kuantan. Chin’s father was the first person in his family to go to college and become a doctor. Justin’s family was not rich (the clinic was small) but it was well respected because of his father’s profession. Chin brilliantly compares this upward mobility to exile, turning class alienation into geographical displacement, and so stresses the body’s investments and divestments.
Being the first person in generations to break out of one class and into a more privileged one is a very strange thing. It is very much like immigration and exile: Unless you’re there for a long, long time, you remember too much of where you came from. You start to get nostalgic, you start to describe so you won’t forget, you visit a lot and think that maybe one day you will return, but most of all, you realize that too much of your body is invested in too many places, too many memories and warnings flow in your blood. You never really fit in, you’re always a stranger in a familiar land. You can try to pretend, you can be comfortable in your disguise, no matter how brilliant it is, but you know you still can’t buy your way out. (“Currency”)
The analysis is remarkable for its weaving together of class and immigration status, money and blood. Its very language speaks of intersectionality.
The racism Chin found in the queer community afflicted also the supposedly more democratic, but really more competitive, world of slam poetry, which he wrote up in his essay “Slammed” (from Mongrel). At the Nationals, disaffected white poets accused poets of color of “playing the Race Card,” winning by stressing social discrimination and striking at the sympathies of the (mostly white) judges. The poet in Chin was horrified by the uncritical adoption of an insidious catchphrase from the OJ Simpson trial. Chin the cultural analyst pointed out that the argument was not at all new. It was the same argument advanced by self-styled defenders of the literary canon against cultural diversity, by conservatives in education over the content of school textbooks, and “by white writers who shriek and holler that they do not get enough publishing and performance opportunities because of multiculturalism.” Chin acknowledged his own discomfort with the “commodification of oppression” when, for instance, a poet of color read a gut-wrenching poem about being abused and then expected to get a high score for the performance. However, the general suspicion against all poets of color who speak of their oppression, Chin argued, “serves to silence sexual and racial minorities and make them mistrust and internalize their experiences of oppression.” It is the self-distrust that is so damning.
Chin was particularly sensitive to the over-compensation that results from such self-distrust. The hyper-competitive world of slam poetry took on, for him, the air of high-school debating contests, as if these grown men and women were still making up for failures at an earlier age. Chin saw the same over-compensation at work in gay men. The poem “Buffed Fag” (from Bite Hard) mocks the desire to pump up one’s masculine image, even at the expense of “a dick shrunken to the size of a Vick’s inhaler” due to steroid use. Over at the Asian American male beauty pageants, Chin found the same dynamic at work. The avowed aim of these pageants was to change the stereotype of Asian men as effeminate and sexless. Like the slam tournament, however, there was “a high-school quality” to the Mr. Asian of Northern California pageant, Chin wrote in his essay “Pardon Me, But Are You Mr. Asian?” The earnest contestants came off as boys trying to be men. They were half-naked but they were not sexy. Chin criticized both the worlds of slam poetry and Asian American pageants for the arrested development of their participants. Both sets of contestants were still making up for psychic wounds inflicted by high school.
Chin’s most substantial journalism is collected in Mongrel, published by St. Martin’s Press, but the collection is titled so for a very good reason. The subtitle “essays, diatribes + pranks” explains the book’s hybridity. The pranks include a chain letter that satirizes his own and other writers’ desire for fame, a jokey piece about his fissurectomy, and a sex advice column titled “Don’t Ask Isidora, Ask Me!” The diatribes rant against Ass Tactics, or Aesthetics, and White Buddhists. These pieces are spirited, inventive, and funny: they are comic diversions from the more serious business of the essays. Trained from young not to argue with his elders and challenge authority openly, Chin confessed in his self-deprecating “Mangy Afterword” that he was “terribly nervous and apprehensive” about inviting argument through these essays. At the same time, he also wished to make a political stand, to assert an opinion, to “claim authority.” He opposed his essays to the wave of Asian family memoirs being churned out in America and abroad. For him, these memoirs, with their focus on the personal sphere, “attest to a fear of claiming authority.” Chin’s essays are everywhere acutely aware of the limits of his subject position. The ambition to claim authority, however, also charges these essays with energy in their engagement with American society.
His last book of poems returns both literally and imaginatively to Asia. Justin spent more time there to look after his dying father. Gutted is dedicated, in memoriam, to his doctor father, Dr. Chin Jeck Soon (1940 – 2003). Imagery of disease and medicine had run through Chin’s books. In the poem “Risings,” from Bite Hard, the first book, Chin declares that “this writing is our medicine” in a poignant comparison of writer to doctor. It is a moving tribute to his doctor father whose work saved the lives of so many, and gave them the divine hope of “more night and more day,” as the poem “Poison” (from Harmless Medicine) puts it. But now that the father was dead, not only was the hope gone with him, but also the sense of home. The loss is a powerful admixture of exile and sickness. The last section of the title sequence “Gutted” begins, “The other night, I dreamt of a father who lasted forever.” The poem explains why: “He soothed my homesickness; he was my home, I his sick.” This is the voice of an exile who has come to the end of his tether.
Chin’s very last book 98 Wounds (2011), published four years before his death, seems to have little to do with Singapore. It is a mixed bag of writings, consisting of erotica published in long-ago 90s, a work of speculative fiction, seemingly autobiographical essays about life in San Francisco, and Chin’s take on the zuihitsu, the Japanese essay form characterized by lists in the pioneering work of Heian-era Japanese author Sei Shōnagon. She named her collection of court anecdotes The Pillow Book. Chin named his post-HIV/AIDS epidemic vignettes “Bolster.”
And yet Singapore, and Malaysia, stays in the writing like a smell that cannot be washed off. It is not only in stray references like the one to a Dayak word that could mean either nausea or affection, depending on context (“King”). It is also in the memory of cutting up rats with cancer for a school science lab. In “Woo,” the sketches made of the rats’ diseased guts were discovered to be unutterably beautiful:
It was as if the slicing into the low, and the lower still, in disease and rot; there, in the leak of failed organs and foul blood and stink, there in the face of a corpse or a suitor without eyelids, his holes perpetually pus-infected, one might witness a vision where angels of every order kiss one another secretly to their God’s displeasure.
Not the actual guts, but the sketches of them were the things of beauty. Similarly, Chin’s language sketches, and so uplifts, his vision of beauty through the repetition of syntax and sound (the “o” beginning in “low” and ending in “God”; the “ea” insisted upon in “there” and everywhere, including “displeasure”). The beauty is secretive and heretic. The angels kiss “to their God’s displeasure” in at least two senses: the kissing causes displeasure to God, and the kissing is done in tribute to God’s displeasure, a kiss off.
The discovery of beauty in the sketching of disease and death explains the paradoxical effect of the “stories” in 98 Wounds. Their subject matter is off-putting, if not downright revolting. “Burn” is about a crack user who leaves his dying mother and goes off with a similarly addicted lover on a road trip. “Goo” wallows in the sexual fetishes of dog play and fisting. In “Sugar” the protagonist debases himself to his crack dealer and anyone who can offer him a hit, including a trick who is into scat. And yet the debasement is described in glorious language. After taking a hit, the unnamed protagonist “can feel it spread through him as if every capillary was trying to go neon. This must be what it feels like to be pickled, what a beetroot or an onion or a cucumber undergoes.” As his trick swallows the shit oozing from him, the trick’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, watches them and pours satchels of sugar, one after another, into her gaping mouth, until “the front of her housedress is dusted with so many sugar crystals that it looks as if it is a frumpy sequined gown made for some low-rent suburban drag queen.” The juxtaposition of the two feedings is stomach turning and gut wrenching, in a word, inspired.
By the devil, presumably. A strong spirit of transgression possesses 98 Wounds. That spirit was born and raised in Malaysia and Singapore, and then freed in San Francisco. The title itself is blasphemous, recalling the stigmata of the Savior, the sick surgeon. Chin must know that his initials, JC, also stand for Jesus Christ. Matters are not so simple, however. Another spirit, a gentler one, inhabits the book. This spirit can be seen in the tender piece “Quietus” about the last days of a friend dying from AIDS. This spirit appreciates the understated courage of the dying man who writes, with Hamlet-like levity, in his last text message: “This is kind of it, kiddies. I’m feeling one fry short of the Happiest Meal. I feel like I’m underwater more and more each hour. Thank you for everything. You are all precious to me.” The spirit of reconciliation is glimpsed again in the satirical piece “Marriages,” at the end of which the narrator asks his lover for unconditional love and forgiveness, for then the lover will smell like “home.”
Home is both the place of love and the locus of repression. Chin gave more attention to one side than the other in different works, but he never forgot that both sides are inextricably tied. His essay “Hid and Found” from Burden of Ashes provides a major statement not only of his poetics, but also of his politics.
Growing up in an atmosphere of censorship and repression, where one generation who learns to keep silent and play safe passes those fears on to the next generation and the next, takes its toll; it does what it’s supposed to do. Writing is an ongoing risk. And it is a risk that I take on, maybe because I know no better way to make sense of this mud of life. Every day I have to fight my feelings that what I do is trivial, frivolous, and meaningless. And in the end, in the dustbin of my history, when all is decaying and rotted, composting to bits, whether my work survives after me, or even survives the next few years, will remain to be seen. What I know is what this work did. It gave me the courage to speak, and to find some semblance of myself worth the words. And that act has in no small way loosened the straps on that old muzzle made in the government store and sent to every home and every parent who willingly, or perhaps not so willingly, put it on themselves and their children, and their children after that.
Is Justin Chin a Singapore writer? Perhaps the more vital question is what Justin Chin’s body of work has to tell us about Singapore literature. It tells us, I propose, that we are far too timid in writing about sex. It tells us that we cannot be pragmatic in attacking the politics of pragmatism. It tells us that we are overly certain of our pieties. It tells us that we are still married to the ideal of “jeweled truths” in literature. It tells us that we worship to our own detriment the idol of success. It tells us that we are not sufficiently intimate with death. It tells us that we need Justin Chin more than he needs us. We need a writer who keeps bragging of “My spectacular failures, my holy spooks, my brilliant bugaboos.”
Chin, Justin. Bite Hard. San Francisco: Manic D Press, 1997.
—, Mongrel: Essays, Diatribes + Pranks. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
—, Harmless Medicine. San Francisco: Manic D Press, 2001.
—, Burden of Ashes. USA: Alyson Books, 2002.
—, Gutted. San Francisco: Manic D Press, 2006.
—, 98 Wounds. San Francisco: Manic D Press, 2011.
Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of 2015 by UK’s Financial Times and a Gay Poetry Finalist by Lambda Literary Awards. Originally from Singapore, Jee lives in New York City, where he heads the literary non-profit Singapore Unbound. The above essay is collected in a volume of prose, Bite Harder: Open Letters and Close Readings, forthcoming from Ethos Books (August 2018).