Being Lunch

Review of Grace Chia’s Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Become Food (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2016)
by Diane Josefowicz

Housework is absurdist theater: Beds are made only to be unmade, dishes washed only to be dirtied again. Child and elder care are similarly repetitive but with the maddening addition of emotional work, the tactful management of those who naturally resent their dependency. Marx called this thankless, largely invisible, and absolutely crucial work reproductive labor, by which he meant work we must do if we as a species are not to vanish beneath our own filth. This work is mostly done by women, especially immigrants who shoulder such responsibilities—elder care, daycare, housecleaning, meal preparation—for those who can afford to offload them. Grace Chia’s story collection, Every Moving Thing That Lives Shall Become Food, explores what happens when this labor is thoroughly commoditized. Spoiler alert: The work gets done. Houses are cleaned, meals are prepared, and children survive into adulthood. Happiness, however, proves elusive.

An accomplished writer in several genres, Chia is the author of four critically acclaimed collections of poetry: womango (1998), Ajar (2011), Cordelia (2012), which was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and The Mother of All Questions (2017). In 2016 Chia’s first novel, The Wanderlusters, was published by Math Paper Press, which brought out the collection under review as well. A recipient of support from the National Arts Council of Singapore, Chia also edits Junoesque, Singapore’s first online women’s literary journal.

The title of Chia’s story collection riffs on a Bible verse: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.” (Genesis 9:13) Although omnivore status is supposed to be one of God’s blessings, like all blessings it is mixed. In the world of these fourteen short stories, appetitiveness has taken over. Chia’s characters are greedy for love, attention, sex, novelty, experience, and above all, feelings of specialness. Their greed makes them exploitive and blind. Relationships of mutual dependency devolve into zero-sum conflicts. A number of Chia’s stories focus on young adults struggling with relationships. They seem barely able to breathe the same air, let alone manage a joint bank account. Regarded in a sufficiently self-interested light, resources inevitably seem scarce. They are duly gobbled up, and the appearance of scarcity gives rise to the reality.

An alert observer of women’s lives, Chia understands how this eat-or-be-eaten world view is disproportionally disastrous for women, and she is honest about how blindess to one’s own predicament tends to worsen it. “Sixth sense is intuitive hogwash,” declares the narrator of “Galaxies,” a young woman who is on the cusp of a disastrous involvement with an elusive man. “What I have is a calculated observation of body language […] The way I know a man is by the way he pretends not to look at me.” As soon as she perceives the threat such a man poses, she seeks ways to exempt herself from it. “I was special to him,” she insists emptily, after the worst has happened. “That was the third lie I heard him say.” Doubt creeps in: “It had to be a lie […] I lied to myself that it wasn’t, that he was telling the truth.” She’s altogether lost, tailoring reality to fit her wish. “You’re special. I like you. He said to me on three separate occasions. I remembered them as a single paragraph, taking the sentences out of context. It had a nice ring to it. Like a proposition. What he probably meant was: You’re nuts. Why are you laughing like a hyena?”

Unable to avoid objectification, Chia’s heroines objectify themselves in defense, eventually seeing themselves as existing solely for the satisfaction of another’s need—that is, as food. Everything that eats knows how that ends. Sensing abandonment, a woman chases her would-be suitor to a nightclub. “He didn’t see me. Didn’t know I’d be there. He was baiting for fresh catch. I was spying on him. Sure enough,” she reports,  I caught [him] in the heat of a lambada.” In this sadly hilarious moment he becomes as inhuman she feels, “aiming his genitals at a new female host.” Her disillusionment is mixed with relief: “I had never felt more dead and alive at the same time.” That this disappointed woman feels like shit—consumed and rejected—is one thing the jerk did understand about her.

Because the ordinary pleasures of everyday life blunt its awfulness, Chia’s characters remain complacent even as they suffer. In “Berries and Weeds,” a woman finally leaves her boyfriend, a Canadian. As a stranger in his country, her vulnerability is acute. On day three of the walkout, he begs her to come back. “Being good and honest is an overrated virtue at at time like this,” she says, yet a decisive break eludes her. Returning she finds “winter had settled firmly in place, layering every window pane with a thick cushion of white.” The snow so comfortingly enfolding the house repeats the way her denial battens her self-awareness, keeping her stuck. “The ground was white, slippery for me who wore the wrong shoes, who didn’t know how to walk on snow. The treetops were wrapped in powdered snowflakes, their twigs having stopped breathing for a season.” In “The Dying of Abel,” a wife’s infidelity threatens her husband with a similar stultification. Can we ever really leave an unpromising relationship, or do we just take our blindness with us into the next one? But Abel has more resources than the traveling woman for he can call on ideals of “manhood” and “freedom” to salve his wounds. “The day the adultery was discovered was the day Abel’s voices became louder in his head. He was decisive—he usually wasn’t—for his manhood and freedom depended on the choice. To leave or not to live,” he reflects. “Isn’t that a perennial question?”

Chia’s stories are full of these sly allusions. Her riffs—on the Bible, on Shakespeare—shake the dust from familiar language, setting the reader to dreaming of worlds that might be hidden, as puns are, in the auditory equivalent of plain sight. Even if there is nothing left to do with words but play with them, such play creates possibilties.

Which brings me to “Old Man Young,” the most accomplished story in Chia’s collection. The narrator is a hard-bitten octogenarian who has had the misfortune to outlive his wife, whom he criticized mercilessly for forty years and never once called by name. “Ben’s mother,” he says, stubbornly continuing to abuse her even after she is gone, “did everything. I mean everything. All that and the cooking and the cleaning and taking the shit I threw at her.” Naturally he has no insight into how his attitudes have undermined his interests. He has no idea, for instance, why his daughter won’t speak to him; he also can’t understand why his son provides for his physical needs but otherwise keeps his distance.

A widowed Indonesian mother is hired to look after the man. Soon suitors arrive bearing gifts. One morning, she gets a curry puff. “I can smell the curried potatoes and chicken when she bites into it,” the old man reports from the outdoor bench where he’s been unceremoniously parked for the duration of the assignation with the curry puff man. The smell reminds him of his wife, who brought him curry puffs every Sunday morning, “twenty cents per piece, she’ll buy four,” and kopi, coffee, “in a reused Milkmaid can on a raffia string.” Playing with the sensual details of his remembrance is what finally undoes him. Imagine: forty years of curry puff delivery. In such gestures, a joint life is made beyond commodification, eating and being eaten. “I never thanked her for it,” he confesses. “She had always assumed I liked it and needed it. I did. I just never said anything. She never knew how much I liked and needed her; I never admitted to myself until she was gone.” Just as he’s in danger of understanding his own role in the mess he’s made of his life, Chia dials down the bathos. “Damn curry puff,” he concludes, and the next thing you know, the maid’s curry-stained fingers have left an ineradicable spot on one of his undershirts.

In an echo of the moment in “Berries and Weeds” when the woman’s return to her boyfriend marks an ominous shift in the story’s weather, the curry stain changes everything. Looking back, the narrator can no longer understand his awfulness. “How could I have taken Gek’s beauty for granted?” he wonders. Insight follows insight: her modesty in dress and behavior was not part of her character but a reaction to his controllingness; her quietness was an obliging response to his requirement that she disappear. The old man dies happily enough, once again at the center of everyone’s attention. But the fate of goodness, bodied forth in put-upon Gek, is not explored.

 

Diane Josefowicz's writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Fence, Dame Magazine, and Necessary Fiction. She lives in Providence, RI, with her family.