Slim but strong
Chuah Guat Eng’s short story collection is both thought-provoking and enduring.
Chuah Guat Eng’s Dream Stuff is among the most impressive collections of short stories from a single writer that I have read in recent years. As Malaysia’s first female novelist, Chuah is better known in literary circles for her novels Echoes Of Silence and Days Of Change (she is currently completing the third in the series, Whispers Of Truth). With Dream Stuff, she demonstrates that she is just as adept a storyteller in the short story form as she is with the novel.
The book is a collection of twelve short stories written while Chuah was working on her novels (between the years 1992 to 2014). They reveal her interest in narratology (the study of narrative structures) and using it to address thought-provoking themes of communication, reality, and self-identity.
The opening story in this collection is The Stuff Of Dreams, which tells of a struggling novelist trying to be understood by his middle-class siblings. As the story progresses, weaving between his interactions with his siblings and his imagination, we find that storytelling is not just an occupation of eccentric and artistic individuals but an integral part of communication amongst the Malaysian middle class.
Language, communication, and the importance of narratives is a recurring idea that is found in other stories in Dream Stuff. In Bride From Ceylon, a young woman’s illiteracy influences her perception of her married life, and thus, affects the way she perceives reality.
Of Snakes And Flower Cars is a story told from the perspective of a child and presented in a stream-of-consciousness style, addressing how failure in communication shapes the truth.
Many of these stories also feature a female narrator with a strong voice. Dream Stuff falls in the tradition of works by women writers – such as Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood – who have demonstrated not only the ability to tell an entertaining story but to explore existential issues of self and society through the confident voice of an intelligent female.
The best example of this is Tell Me Something About Yourself, where a simple Facebook request to a woman to share more information about herself plunges the reader into a recollection of the events and decisions that have shaped her life and identity.
Stories such as The School Building Fund and In A Shopping Mall address aspects of Malaysian middle class life, the latter being particularly impressive because it presents the vulnerability of disability and loss of navigation in a mere 250 words.
My favourite in the collection is Poor Cousins, a story told entirely in idiolect (in other words, Manglish) about a narrator who feels that the suffering of her relatives is karmic comeuppance for their poor treatment of her while she was growing up. The first person narration and the use of idiolect gives the impression that the story is very personal, and by extension, possibly unreliable.
That said, not all the stories in Dream Stuff left a good impression on me, as some appear emotionally detached. While this worked very well for stories like Her Own Mistress (a charming love story of sorts that avoids the trap of being too cloying) and Forbidden Fruits (a Christian woman tempted by an extramarital affair confides in her wry, plain-speaking and bemused cousin), I found it to be a problem in Gardens, which tells the story of an estranged mother-and-son relationship.
The story deals with the complex emotional baggage that comes from working out – and failing at – interracial and inter-religious marriages, and being a parent to a child who emerges from that relationship. To my knowledge, there are not many works in Malaysian literature that deal with such topics, and while Gardens came close to it, the lack of dialogue and excess of narrative technique – telling rather than showing – meant that the story went around the emotional baggage of such a story instead of addressing them. Perhaps this was intentional, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was a lost opportunity.
The most problematic story is Memoirs Of An Aranean Harpist, the only one that is purely science fiction and the longest of the stories. The science of the world in this story is crafted and the themes presented, but the plot is scanty at best. As such, reading it felt like reading the world-building of a science fiction novel that is still in the process of being drafted.
To Chuah’s credit, the world of Memoirs Of An Aranean Harpist is very compelling, and has the potential to address the big themes of science fiction very well, and I hope to see this world developed in future.
Dream Stuff is not the usual fare of Malaysian short stories: there are no horrifying pontianak or scandalous thrills and spills, no sentimental nostalgia for a bygone era, and more tellingly, no overt reference to any political event. What we have instead is a slim but very substantial volume of intellectually engaging short stories that demonstrates the gifts of a brilliant Malaysian writer.
It is a collection well worth reading and digesting, and will remain so in the years to come, even as popular reading trends come and go.