Reading fiction often necessitates a willing suspension of disbelief. A trust in a narrator to navigate us through worlds far from our own, and even worlds that mimic reality. Speculative fiction narrators especially require this suspension of disbelief, hoping that in this inflated reality we see the things that our real world conceals.
It comes as no surprise that speculative fiction has become ripe for social commentary and experimentation in Singapore — a city that prides itself on its sanitized image of wealth, social order, and homogeneity. We’ve seen many short story anthologies and solo collections mining the genre for its artistic and political potential. The genre calls us to ask “what if?” It’s a way for us to imagine alternative planes of existence, other submerged histories and timelines coinciding with our own perceptions of reality. This act of suspension, this rising above the rigidity of the world (and also genre categories), fuels Jon Gresham’s debut short story collection We Rose Up Slowly. His stories carry a unique surreality that is refreshing to Singapore short fiction, even within the speculative genre. He never settles upon a single trope. He is always hovering, flitting from social realism to folktale to magical realism to horror.
Jon Gresham is a Eurasian author living in Singapore after having grown up in Australia. He describes himself as the “adopted son of a passing union between a British schoolteacher and a Chinese student”. Considered an ethnic minority within Singapore’s inflexible racial categories (in administrative forms we tick boxes labelled Chinese, Malay, Indian, or Others — a blanket term that includes Eurasians), Gresham’s empathy towards marginal characters imbues the collection with incredible honesty and poignancy. His work embodies the experience of feeling out of place in a society that tries to place you into boxes so that it’s easier for them to perceive (govern) you. He captures the feeling of disconnection from the world when the reality inside our heads fails to align with the one we live in.
Poet and philosopher André Breton conceived surrealism as a resolution of the dichotomous states of “dream and reality” into a kind of “absolute reality, a surreality”. Gresham’s surreality is a vehicle for the negotiation between self (internal) and world (external), the private and the public, the speculative and the real. It allows us to rise from the world as we know it and see all the boxes at once. It validates all of them without the need to commit to any.
The first story, “We Rose Up Slowly”, introduces us to this surreality. We are in a world where climate change has caused gravity to lose its hold of the earth. It recalls an apocalyptic Yeats — “the center cannot hold” — and things fall apart by floating, and eventually disappearing into the sky.
“The yellow-green leaves were falling…sure…as they do in autumn…falling to the ground, but they were falling and as though playfully resisting the inevitable rendezvous with the earth…
You said, “Is this a dream?”
And so I kissed you just to confirm we were not asleep. I said, “Perhaps it’s always been this way and we’ve never been in love enough to notice.”
Later, you said, “Of course it wasn’t a dream. When you kissed me I smelt onions.”
Gresham’s fusion of lyricism and light, earthy comedy lends the prose its fluidity, its ability to encompass dreaming and waking. The conflation of the imaginary and the everyday allows him to speak about the heaviness of global warming and its exacerbation of the tensions in human relationships. Throughout the story, the narrator chases — just as people chase after the things that rise to the sky — true connection with his lover, but is always denied complete emotional openness as she refuses to reveal what is inside her booklet-shaped locket. Even at the end, she throws the locket into the air and he follows her, rising above the earth like a grimmer and less religious reenactment of Remedios the Beauty’s ascension into heaven. He, like all of us, chases an illusion of love and a possibility of truth. We never get to see what is in the locket. It will continue rising, slipping away from our grasp. And it is this undefinable surreality that allows for the short story, the dream that we awaken from, to never really give us the answers that reality denies us.
There are other stories in the collection that are not as conventionally speculative as the first, but Gresham’s moments of surrealism are visceral, cinematic, and always straying from genre categories. Reading the collection, I experience the same sense of awe watching the “Alligator Man” episode of Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta. A hissing alligator waltzes out of Earn’s Uncle Willy’s house. The moment is suffused with a comic majesty, drawn out by the long camera pans to the transfixed faces of neighbors and policemen, and heightened by The Delfonics’s “Hey Love”. All this happens while Willy bolts out the back door. The absurd is a distraction. It enables Willy to escape but also directs the viewer to the harsher reality of a black man on the run down an empty, ominous road. In We Rose Up Slowly, similar moments of surreality mask deeper social horrors.
In “A Fleeting Tenderness at the End of Night”, Ling falls in love with Lakshmi, a lady in an outrageously galactic outfit on the dance floor of the famous nightclub Zouk. Ling thinks of her as a space princess, and the scene slows as she is suspended in Ling’s mind:
“The space princess is distant, self-contained, majestic… As the music beeps, pulses and licks Ling sees fragments of her, moments of movements, strobing in and out of view. Words don’t exist.”
The language is evocative with slightly erotic undertones. Almost inevitably, they lock themselves in a bathroom stall soon after, “seeking insulation against the surrounding chaos”. A brief moment of escape allows transgressive desires to manifest in the peripheral, queer space. A moment that temporarily distracts from the grim reality of the emotional, sexual, and possibly xenophobic abuse Ling has endured since moving to Singapore from China.
“The Finger” is an interesting play between spaces of monotony and surrealist wonder. Julia leaves the comfort and routine of an expat wife and visits a magic shop to buy a birthday gift for her son. Instead of the sleek, luxurious malls of Orchard Road, she goes to Peninsula Shopping Centre, a yellowed complex that houses a random mix of tattoo parlours, feng shui stores, and sportswear shops.
Singh’s Magic Emporium is a whacky, off-kilter space — with Billie Holiday playing in the background, a portrait of a Sikh guru hanging on the wall, and cabinets displaying a parang panjang (a machete), a porcelain dragon, and whoopee cushions. The most bizarre item that the shopkeeper presents to Julia is a miniature guillotine from Hanoi, a device that oscillates between an actual mutilator and an illusion. The scene shifts between perception and reality. The shopkeeper bangs down on the guillotine and Julia perceives her finger to be sliced off, as something falls to the ground and her finger is smeared red. The image prompts her to imagine that her finger is cut off, when actually the severed “flesh” is plastic and her “blood” is chilli sauce.
Of course, this trick works well in Singh’s Magic Emporium, a place isolated from the conventional mainstream spaces in Singapore. It has more horrific consequences once she brings it home — a space of monotony and domestic routine — where she must confront the reality of her husband’s infidelity and her unrequited desire for her escaped domestic helper, Maria.
Like a magician, Gresham is well aware of how to manipulate the eye (and the mind). His prose is controlled. He never reveals more than he needs to. He simulates a surreality that reconciles the conscious and unconscious, that fuses the realms of dream and wakefulness while teetering on variations of speculative and realist modes.
Gresham’s surrealism is a welcome mutation of social realist storytelling that dominates the short story market in Singapore. We Rose Up Slowly seems to fall somewhere on a spectrum between the speculative fiction of Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, whose work is also a fusion of Borgesian fantasy and science fiction, and Amanda Lee Koe’s blend of semi-surreal social realism and folklore. To label this collection would be doing an injustice to a work that understands the sense of displacement one feels as a hybridised individual — one that ticks many boxes on administrative forms and belongs to none of them, one that finds themselves with a more expansive sense of self and art. My ironic attempt to place Gresham’s collection on a spectrum of genre categories that I’ve tried to specifically name is testament to the futility in trying to find a home for it in Singapore short fiction. A futility that I am glad to encounter, for the short story form and the variations of speculative fiction are not homogenous; they are ripe for experimentation, for inflation, for suspension.