by Inez Tan
After Mary Szybist
My tragic flaw was to believe I could leave home behind, and then think I could never return.
My tragic flaw was that I imagined myself as an orphan from nowhere, ground zero for self-development.
Which is also Pip’s tragic flaw in Great Expectations, and the impetus behind theories that something can come out of nothing.
That most enduring origin story.
That most untrue.
Pip is not really an orphan from nowhere.
He is raised by his sister and her husband Joe in marsh country down by the river.
It is his homeland, yet not home.
Like Pip, my tragic flaw was to think I could establish myself as self-made using the resources others had given to me.
A beaver damming itself with the tragic debris of hubris.
There are no beavers where I grew up, which is Singapore.
Yet like many Singaporeans, I speak of things I have never seen: elm trees, starlings, ginger beer, a blazing hearth, geese, spotted dick, the wild and windy moors, lacrosse, goblins, mountains, boiled sweets, nightingales, holidays by the shore, snow.
We read of them in books.
We were stunned to discover, upon traveling overseas, than some of those things were real.
It had never occurred to me that you could write about things that were real.
There were no books describing Singapore.
Which is strange.
People from Singapore are strange.
Their tragic flaw is that they tell themselves they are not.
They are very educated.
My tragic flaw, like Pip, was to trust too much in my education.
I studied in Singapore as well as overseas.
This is getting to be quite common among Singaporeans.
I did not like to say I was a Singaporean, and I taught myself not to sound like one when I spoke.
Still, I gave myself away.
In London, one of my teachers said that I was like a little doggie who had been trained to do tricks by people putting bacon on its nose.
Now, it was time I learned to put the bacon on my own nose, she said.
No Singaporean teacher would have said such a thing to me.
For one thing, bacon is not commonly eaten in Singapore, by dogs or otherwise.
Nor does it enjoy the kind of cultural status that it does in the UK.
Furthermore, it is “western.”
Making it especially fitting for the point I am trying to make.
My tragic flaw was that I was forever trying to make points.
For this I blame my mother.
But unlike my mother my tragic flaw does not arise from feeling for one’s family, which is a fearsome and magnificent force.
Even in adoptive families.
Ask Magwitch how he shackles Pip with his own societal aspirations and the means to make them come true.
Ask Miss Havisham how she came to create Estella in her own ruined image.
Ask Joe how he finds it within himself to forgive Pip his loutishness.
All things done in the name of parental love will stand.
In any case they cannot be prevented.
My tragic flaw was that I related too much to characters in old British books.
It is dangerous to relate to literature.
It is dangerous to think you are like another person at all, just as it is dangerous to think other people could be like you.
Upon such tenets are societies built.
People from overseas are confounded by the kinds of liberties that Singaporeans cede to the government.
The more discerning among them note that they do so in exchange for considerable civil assets, including clean streets, low crime, good public schools, stable economic dealings, advanced military defense, the world’s highest trade to GDP ratio, the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, and soon, universal healthcare coverage.
The most discerning among them will see that this is the wisest course of action.
This is my father’s view, anyway.
His tragic flaw is that he has no tragic flaws.
That is another thing he will tell you.
Irony is lost on people like him.
My father is not at all literary, but he bought me books.
My mother is too pragmatic to have studied literature, but she taught me how to read.
My parents say, you could call home more often if there wasn’t a seven hour time difference.
But we will get up early, they say.
Or we will stay up late.
I am less willing to do either of those things.
For them, anyway.
I am busy pursuing my dreams.
I am busy becoming cruel.
I am busy trying to cover up my tracks.
My tragic flaw was that I tried to hide the people and the place I had come from.
Which is Singapore.
For the person I became was ashamed to recall them.
Which is the most Singaporean experience of all.
Failing to realise that was yet another tragic flaw.
For I thought it made me different.
And I thought no human had felt so alien.
And I thought that was my secret.
I tell you, it’s damn tragic sia.
Inez Tan grew up in Singapore and the United States, where she is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her writing has appeared in Fare Forward and The Irish Literary Review, and has won an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train.
Read more about The Singapore Poetry Contest.