What the Tradition of the Oppressed Teaches

Review of Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency (Singapore and London: Epigram Books, 2017)
by Inez Tan

State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang, finalist for the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, narrates the lives of six different people across seventy years of Singapore’s history. Most of the novel focuses on the 1940s through the 1960s, as Singapore fought for independence, amidst a backdrop of violent conflicts: between parties that advocated for Communist ideology, and parties that were against it and eventually prevailed.

Jason, the first character we meet in State of Emergency, is a civil servant without particularly strong political convictions. But his wife, Siew Li, is a passionate Communist who leaves their family for the jungles of Malaya to escape being imprisoned for her political activities. Thirty years later, his niece, Stella, is detained and tortured for her alleged involvement in a Marxist conspiracy – even though she may well have been innocent. By tracing the effects that ripple through the generations to the present day, the novel seeks to assert that the past continues to affect us, even when we would rather look away.

State of Emergency boldly takes on periods in Singapore’s history that many people would prefer not to face. To what degree citizens are culpable in what they have done and what they have failed to do at the worst moments of their nation’s history: this is the vital and uneasy question State of Emergency impresses upon its readers.

But the task of a novel is not only to raise questions, nor to provide pithy political statements, such as the one by Walter Benjamin that serves as the epigraph: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” A piece of fiction, in the words of novelist Flannery O’Connor, “must carry its meaning inside it … when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action.” For a novel to carry off its persuasive and affective work, it must firstly function as a novel: an immersive experience of storytelling from which intellectual meaning arises organically.

Here, State of Emergency creates structural difficulties for itself. The novel comprises six different stories that jump back and forth in time. At best, this arrangement produces a collage that speaks to the variety of people’s experiences in a young country beset with political conflict: hope, fear, injustice, courage, love, heartbreak, helplessness. At worst, this gives the impression that these characters’ stories have been packaged and arranged in service of a thesis statement. Some readers may also find the pace of the novel jarring, given that the narration stops and starts again with each section.

Nonetheless, within individual stories, there are deeply compelling moments when characters are forced to take stock of their own lives and circumstances in order to figure out how to go on living. The most haunting story here is Stella’s. Dialogue makes up a large proportion of the novel, allowing characters to speak for themselves, in their own voices, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Stella’s section. We are privy to the long, chilling interrogation sessions she experiences, unable to know who is questioning her and why: we feel as powerless as Stella, caught in her captors’ terrible circular logic. Worse, Stella’s captors quickly succeed in making her internalize the mode of questioning, so that the most relentless questions come from within her own thinking:

“Stella, I’ll ask you again. Do you know why you’re here?”

A sudden paranoid spasm. She voted for the Workers’ Party three years ago, in 1984 – her very first election. Her vote had helped JB Jeyaretnam win his seat at Anson. Letting in the opposition. Did they know that? The ballot papers had serial numbers which they said couldn’t be traced, but what if – she shook her head, snapping the thread. Of course that wasn’t it, they couldn’t go after everyone who hadn’t voted their way, that would be thousands of people. Why would they care, anyway? There were only two opposition MPs in Parliament.

“Well, Stella? Have you had enough time to reflect?”

Initially, Stella attempts to gently turn the questioning back on her interrogators, but that tactic only gets her more stuck in their rhetorical web:

She thought about the previous day. “You said something about my outreach work for the church. Is that it? Have we done something wrong?”

“Who said anything about ‘we’? Don’t worry about ‘we,’ just think about your own actions. What have you done?”

“We help them,” she answered, deciding to take the question at face value. “There are thousands of maids in Singapore, and we give them information. Sometimes we pay for treatment if their employers don’t want to. Just last month there was this one, Sri Lankan, she’d had bad toothache for weeks. Her boss didn’t want to take her to the dentist, so we did. She had three teeth extracted. They were rotten all the way down. Some people just don’t care, they think they can treat their maids like – ” She realized she was making a speech, and shut up. It had felt good to speak without constraints, just for a minute, but she needed to be more careful. She pressed her thumbnails into the flesh of her palm, to remind herself.

“So sympathetic.”

“God tells us to help the poor. We’re just trying to do that.”

“Why don’t you help your own countrymen? Where is your patriotism? Do you think there are no poor people in Singapore? Why are you so concerned about foreigners?”

(…) “Maybe you’re right,” she forced herself to say. “We should never forget that charity begins at home. When I see my group again, I’ll tell them that. We should do more outreach work for local families.”

There was a thin hush, and she realized it couldn’t be that easy, there must be more to the story that she wasn’t seeing. What did they want? The room seemed to draw in its breath, a cessation of air broken by the tall man’s voice, now a lash.

“You think we’re stupid? You just tell us what we want to hear and we’ll let you go?”

Here, the novel is at its stylistic best, creating paranoia through the third person narration (“there must be more to the story that she wasn’t seeing”) and infecting the reader with the insidious, endless questioning that Stella undergoes. Set in contrast to the painstaking descriptions of scenery elsewhere in the novel – particularly when Tiang labors to recreate historical sights that many readers would not have encountered in their lifetime – the stark absence of scene here is particularly effective. Stella’s former life utterly disappears from view: all that she’s left with is the slow and terrible realization that she has no way to win. Her whole existence has come down to whether she will be able to survive her interrogation, and how much of herself she will still be able to preserve.

However, Stella’s story highlights another instance of the tension between individual sections and the novel as a whole. Without giving too much of the plot away, we see Stella reappear briefly in a later section, under very different circumstances we saw her last. Has she changed her allegiances – out of newfound sympathy, or out of rebellion? Or were her loyalties different than they had seemed along? The novel refuses to say, having by this point traded Stella’s point of view for another character’s, and so created an ambiguity not productive for the story. When we as readers are stuck guessing at why a significant shift has taken place – if at all – we’re left feeling frustrated, distanced from a character we thought we knew.

The novel most succeeds when it is able to align authorial project with dramatic arc, moral position with characters’ experience. It does that most clearly in the most self-contained story: that of Revathi, a young British journalist who travels to Malaysia in 1970 to cover the story of Batang Kali, a village massacred by British forces in December 1948. Revathi was born in Malaysia, and immigrated to Birmingham at age eight. Notably, Tiang himself has been geographically displaced from Singapore to London to the USA, which may explain his affinity to the character. As a half-outsider, half-insider, and professional journalist, Revathi provides author and reader alike with access to the stories of the oppressed. Revathi also models the response for the reader to emulate – respectful curiosity, followed by horror – as survivors recount their experiences to her:

“I was cooking dinner. When the shouting came, I told my husband to go see what they wanted, usually it was nothing much, just shout a bit and then go. But it continued, so I went to the door to see, and the ang mohs were waving their guns, telling us come out, stand over there. All the men were already standing in a tight group, over twenty of them. I wanted to go back inside to turn off the fire but they said no, come straight out. I went back anyway, no sense burning the house down. When I came out they grabbed my hand and said you should learn to follow orders. Guns pointing right at us, guards on the paths away from the village. As if anyone would dare to run – ”

“It was the law,” [Revathi’s interpreter adds.] “They weren’t supposed to shoot civilians, but if you ran, then you were automatically guilty. So they could shoot you.”

All writers of historical fiction have to grapple with the problem of making historical dialogue credible as well as legible to present-day readers. Tiang stumbles here – if it isn’t anachronistic for a woman living in a Malaysian village in 1948 to call British soldiers ang mohs (a Hokkien colloquialism for white people), it’s certainly odd for the interpreter to use the term while translating for Revathi. Still, the basic point gets across.

Revathi is shocked when her interpreter further explains that the Communists are still being violently persecuted, and worse, that the Communists sometimes turn on their own rather than risk their secrets being exposed:

“I didn’t know things like that were still happening.”

[The interpreter replies,] “Why would you? It took Batang Kali more than ten years to get into your newspapers, and that was with white men doing the killing. Guilt, I suppose. We kill each other all the time. No one cares about that. They declared another Emergency, did you know that? People have heard about the long one, but there’ve been more.”

“There are bandits to the north. I can see why this isn’t over yet.”

“If it wasn’t them, there’d be some other excuse. There’s always an emergency somewhere.”

Revathi returns to Britain shaken, and daunted by the challenge of trying to make indifferent readers understand the magnitude of the injustice she’s uncovered. Her section ends with her at her typewriter, wrestling with her story: “Something heavy was settling onto her, an unpleasant awareness that the world was aslant and she was at the higher end. What could she do?”

Faced with political forces beyond any one person’s control, what can any of us do? That depends very much on how much uneasiness you detect in Revathi’s conclusion: “Keep going. The world would always be unfair, and mostly unknowable, but she had the leverage to make a little more truth come to light, and that would have to be enough.”


Inez Tan is a poet and fiction writer based in Singapore and California. Her writing has appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Softblow, Rattle, The Collagist, and others. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine. https://ineztan.com/