Reading Fascist Rock
An essay by Sam Ng
I was thirteen years old when I first read Claire Tham’s Fascist Rock. It was her first collection of short stories, published when she was twenty two. I did not know her then, but I knew her friend, Fiona Soh, who went to school with her. Fiona Soh and Claire Tham had gone to Hwa Chong Junior College together, and later to universities in the United Kingdom. Fiona Soh to York for English Literature, Claire Tham to Oxford for Law. Fiona Soh was the one who introduced the book to me.
Fiona Soh was my tuition teacher who gave us weekly English language lessons. My cousin and I called her Miss Soh. Miss Soh was different from most teachers I’d met at that time. Those teachers tended to be two decades older than me and acted the part too. They spoke from a stern, authoritative distance and maintained a prim and proper, no-nonsense attitude. Not Miss Soh. She was young, and casual in the way she conducted herself. She wore loose, faded T-shirts and shorts at home. She didn’t mind our presence or attention, and she affected an air of ease and comfort about her. You were comfortable with her although you knew she was not your peer. Once, at the end of our lesson, she gamely sight-read on the piano an entire Bach invention from the score I brought along when I asked her to. That was the sort of relationship we had.
I remember the episode quite clearly. It was eight in the evening, the usual starting time of our lessons, after a long day at school for all of us, Miss Soh being a Junior College teacher. She assigned us a composition to write and went to sit on the couch in the living room to read a book. For some reason, on that night, I was more drawn to her book than my own composition title. It had an intriguing cover: large red scrawls on a gritty sort of background. It made me think of graffiti on a wall in an old neglected school compound. But I could not make out the words. She was sitting too far away.
I made little progress with my composition but Miss Soh was fully absorbed in her book. Her unobtrusive page-flipping only made the silence around us more palpable, more mysterious. After twenty minutes or so, she came back to our table, with the book in hand. I asked her what she was reading. She flipped the cover towards me and told me its title. There was an edge of determination in her usual soft consoling voice. She said her friend had written it. Her friend. On the cover, which I could see clearly now, the words: Fascist Rock. Stories of Rebellion. I handed in the composition to her at the end of lesson, dissatisfied with my own performance. My attention was elsewhere. The word Rebellion rang in my ears.
Something about Miss Soh. We had been going for her classes for a few months now and I was already fairly impressed by her intelligence. She had taken a first at York and it was clear her facility with words was many notches above us. She awed me especially with her marking, which was rigorous and merciless. I can see it now in my mind’s eye, all my compositions written, one after the other, in jotter books. Words crammed tight in the pages, designed to impress or even to bewilder. But to no avail. Around my words, always, a surrounding sea of red – her squiggles falling over the words, like marauding, conquering tentacles.
I was never a star student, neither in school nor in tuition class, but I hadn’t expected my grades to be so appalling, in the range of B4 to C6. Maybe not appalling, but truly disappointing. My grades in school were better, much better, A1 to B3 most of the time. Maybe the shock and awe was part of her strategy, or it was just how uncompromising she was about her standards. Or it was how her mind worked. It worked for me although it might not have worked for other students. I braced myself every time she returned my compositions, her words a fresh cold shower.
What Miss Soh did in the compositions: she struck out any awkward expressions and replaced them with her own more idiomatic phrases. She fussed over my work. Her corrections were useful. Her mind opened up to me in those corrections, like a rich, ancient city. Her vocabulary fantastically sprawling over the pages. I was an archaeologist of this city. My process of internalizing her words intense and self-involving.
Another thing. She made use of dictionaries all the time. The round wooden table we worked on was colonized by stacks of newspapers and dictionaries. Oxford Advanced Learners, Collins Cobuild Learners, Webster, you name it, if it’s not on the table, it’s lying somewhere else in the house. The dictionaries stared back at me, lugubrious tomes of meticulous knowledge. I loved the immensity of worlds they contained. Reading Fascist Rock, she checked the dictionary often enough. Reading our compositions, she also checked the dictionary, just to be sure. Her dictionary checking made a deep impression on me. It showed how important words are, how important to make distinctions, to understand nuances. She checked the dictionary as she discussed words with us, with no sense that the act would in any way diminish her authority. She was right.
It must have been within the same week of seeing Miss Soh with Fascist Rock that I went down to Popular Bookstore to purchase a copy myself. I read it with a stubborn, even a muscular kind of relish. I wanted to know what Fascist Rock meant, such strange, violent clashing of words it was. I wanted to know what it had to do with Singapore, this orderly but increasingly confounding society, made up of an unending stream of tests and homework and parents’ protests. I wanted questions neatly packed and answered, like Miss Soh’s corrections on my jotter books or answers provided at the back of assessment books. But the book didn’t speak back to me in that way, not yet. I had the aspiration but not the mind to grasp such aspects of the world.
What I did find: strange and complicated words and sentence constructions. I remember discovering and loving ‘incipient’. It looked different from the other words I knew. This led me to ‘nascent’ and ‘burgeoning’ – interestingly, all Latinate words. Still later on, another one of Claire Tham’s words, ‘inchoate’. Did Claire Tham herself have a fascination with Latinate words, or was this more a product of her legal training in school?
A biographical detail not on my mind at that time. Then I was only interested in one thing: how to put the words into service in my own compositions. I was ravenous for adjectives. I used them indiscriminately and with perfect callousness. For instance, Her incipient anger made me want to smack her. Or, His nascent nastiness was horrible. And, Her belly was burgeoning (She was pregnant, no doubt). It was clear I had not developed my ear for the music of language nor my understanding of the logic of emotions. But it didn’t matter. What was most important was to impress, to make an adult sit up and take note. Beyond that, a growing wide-eyed wonder about meanings and the routes they take. But still, absolutely no respect for words. No respect at all.
That same year I wrote a play for my literature class. It included words from Claire Tham’s Fascist Rock, but also from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I had set the play at the turn of the century. Whatever that meant. It meant to me that it was long ago enough to include Shakespearean words. To my knowledge, I never got back the play. Maybe the teacher was too traumatized or bewildered to return it to me without some chastisement of my brazenness. There were words like ‘ere’, ‘poppycock’, ‘harberdasher’, ‘inchoate’, lurking in dark corners.
I met Claire Tham twenty odd years later at the launch of her new novel The Inlet at The National Museum at last year’s Singapore Writers Festival. She was walking towards the seminar room just before the launch itself when I caught up with her. I could recognize her from afar and I introduced myself. She was smaller than I remembered.
In my memory Claire Tham stood at the door waiting for Miss Soh. It was a Saturday morning, bright and sunny, and we had just come to the end of our lesson. Miss Soh went upstairs to change, leaving her friend alone. Our eyes met for a moment. I found her familiar but could not remember who she was. I did not associate the person standing at the door with the writer friend who wrote the book. This may well be a false memory, but in my mind it seemed real enough. The Claire Tham who stood in front of me now looked just like the person I saw many years ago at the door. I asked her if she knew a Miss Soh. Her eyes lit up. “Fiona Soh?” she asked without hesitation. Yes, Fiona Soh. Oh yes. Yes. The second yes was softer, cushioned. The soft consoling voice they share. They have kept in contact. She told me Fiona is now the Director of Resource Development and Communications at World Vision. Later in an email she repeated the fact. I think I detected a lilt in her voice when she said that. It equalled that edge of determination in Miss Soh’s voice many years ago.
My thirteen-year-old compositions must have had been a torture for Miss Soh to plough through. That was the befitting phrase she – Miss Soh – had used. I think of them as quiet monstrosities, relentless in their unwieldy and reckless experimentations with words. But the words from Miss Soh’s corrections, like the words in Claire Tham’s first stories, have stayed with me. They imbued in my young mind the sense of the writer’s serious duty towards words. Miss Soh and Claire Tham’s relationship made me conscious that there were writers among us, writers who were friends. And there were friends who were writers. In that way, one could also harbour the not-entirely-vain hope of becoming a writer oneself, if only one tried hard enough. I continued to read Claire Tham’s stories, whenever they appeared in the newspapers, as they did for some time. And I bought her second book Saving The Rainforest and Other Stories when it came out three years after Fascist Rock.
Sam Ng graduated from the University of Kent, Canterbury in 2003 with a master’s in English literature. From 2005 to 2008, he taught English literature in Anglo-Chinese Junior College, Singapore. His recent work has appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Ceriph.