Special Focus on Justin Chin – “Quietus”

Part Three of our special focus on Justin Chin brings you his short story “Quietus” collected in his book 98 Wounds (San Francisco: Manic D Press). Part One reprints his prose piece “Buffed Fag” and Part Two his poem “Poison.” Born in Kuantan, Malaysia, Chin grew up in Singapore, before migrating to San Francisco, where he rapidly gained a reputation for his highly provocative and intensely lyrical writings. For details of his memorial reading in Singapore on Saturday, July 23, please contact Jee at jeeleong.koh@gmail.com.

 

17. Justin reading at museum 2

Photo provided by Dave Thomson

 

To introduce Chin’s story “Quietus,” here is an extract from an as-yet-unpublished essay on Justin Chin by Jee Leong Koh:

“Chin’s very last book 98 Wounds (2011), published four years before his death, seems to have little to do with Singapore. It is a mixed bag of writings, consisting of erotica published in long-ago 90s, a work of speculative fiction, seemingly autobiographical essays about life in San Francisco, and Chin’s take on the zuihitsu, the Japanese essay form characterized by lists in the pioneering work of Heian-era Japanese author Sei Shōnagon. She named her collection of court anecdotes The Pillow Book. Chin named his post-HIV/AIDS epidemic vignettes “Bolster.”

And yet Singapore, and Malaysia, stays in the writings like a smell that cannot be washed off. It is not only in stray references like the one to a Dayak word that could mean either nausea or affection, depending on context (“King”). It is also in the memory of cutting up rats with cancer for a school science lab. In “Woo,” the sketches made of the rats’ diseased guts were discovered to be unutterably beautiful:

It was as if the slicing into the low, and the lower still, in disease and rot; there, in the leak of failed organs and foul blood and stink, there in the face of a corpse or a suitor without eyelids, his holes perpetually pus-infected, one might witness a vision where angels of every order kiss one another secretly to their God’s displeasure.

Not the actual guts, but the sketches of them were the things of beauty. Similarly, Chin’s language sketches, and so uplifts, his vision of beauty through the repetition of syntax and sound (the “o” beginning in “low” and ending in “God”; the “ea” insisted upon in “there” and everywhere, including “displeasure”). The beauty is secretive and heretic. The angels kiss “to their God’s displeasure” in at least two senses, the kissing causes displeasure to God, and the kissing is done in tribute to God’s displeasure, a kiss off.

The discovery of beauty in the sketching of disease and death explains the paradoxical effect of the “stories” in 98 Wounds. Their subject matter is off-putting, if not downright revolting. “Burn” is about a crack user who leaves his dying mother and goes off with a similarly addicted lover on a road trip. “Goo” wallows in the sexual fetishes of dog play and fisting. In “Sugar” the protagonist debases himself to his crack dealer and anyone who can offer him a hit, including one who is into scat.

And yet the debasement is described in glorious language. After taking a hit, the unnamed protagonist “can feel it spread through him as if every capillary was trying to go neon. This must be what it feels like to be pickled, what a beetroot or an onion or a cucumber undergoes.” As his trick swallows the shit oozing from him, the trick’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, watches them and pours satchels of sugar, one after another, into her gaping mouth, until “the front of her housedress is dusted with so many sugar crystals that it looks as if it is a frumpy sequined gown made for some low-rent suburban drag queen.” The juxtaposition of the two feedings is stomach turning and gut wrenching, in a word, inspired.

By the devil, presumably. A strong spirit of transgression possesses 98 Wounds. That spirit was born and raised in Malaysia and Singapore, and then freed in San Francisco. The title itself is blasphemous, recalling the stigmata of the Savior, the sick surgeon. Chin must know that his initials, JC, also stand for Jesus Christ. Matters are not so simple, however. Another spirit, a gentler one, inhabits the book. This spirit can be seen in the tender piece “Quietus” about the last days of a friend dying from AIDS. This spirit appreciates the understated courage of the dying man, who writes, with a Hamlet-like levity, a last text message to all his friends…”

 

Quietus
by Justin Chin

“How would you like to die?” he asks.

“How anyone would,” I say. “In my sleep, in my own bed.” I could turn the question around back to him but the answer was, if not obvious, then at least suspended in our air. So I say instead, “How would you not like to die? What’s the worst death?”

“Anything involving lava, or quicksand,” he says.

“Is there still quicksand? Didn’t the U.N. and the World Health Organization eradicate that in the late 60s?”

“No, they gave up after polio and smallpox,” he says. “Your worst death?”

“Animals,” I say. “Being eaten by some wild hungry animal. What would be really awful is if the animal had a small jaw, and so it has to take lots of little bites to finish you off.”

“On the flip side of that, can you imagine being mauled by panda bears?” he says. “Wouldn’t that be the cutest death ever?”

“Or else,” I offer, “a headline in the newspapers might read: Autopsy reveals that man killed by three-toed sloth actually died of late stage cancer.”

A week ago, we watched a TV movie on cable called Strays. A family—father, mother, young child, and newly born infant—moves into their dream home out in the woodsy suburbs. And then the nightmare begins. They are stalked by a colony of feral cats. The alpha male cat, the principal evil who’s supposedly afraid of water (obviously), looked like he had been dipped in a bucket of K-Y jelly and barely towel dried. The tag line for the movie was Cats have nine lives, you only have one. There was a lot of clawing and scratching and more clawing until their victims inexplicably died. And not to mention with inflamed sinuses, too. I believe one victim even threw himself off the third floor balcony to his death just so the awful mewing and clawing would stop.

It is a cliché in horror movies when, during a suspenseful moment, a cat would suddenly fly, or rather be flung, screeching and meowing across the screen. In this movie, however, that tired ruse made perfect sense and it happened quite frequently as well.

“What’s the collective noun for cats?” he asks.

“A bunch of cats? A furby of cats? A plié of cats? An allergy of cats?” I say guessing, but he’s already dozed off. Then, now, it’s darkening in gradual sheets outside and in here, and he’s getting tired. When I leave, I will go to his apartment and attempt to tidy up, put things away, pack things up. What more can I do? Twelve days ago he left for his medical specialist’s appointment and never came back, sent straight to hospice care, and his apartment is evidence of that. Everything—every object and piece of furniture, every wall hanging and scrap of paper, every appliance and implement, every book and record, every withering houseplant and all the pillows on the bed, even the air aswirl with particles of dust and dander—hangs as if in mid-sentence. It’s a kind of heartbreak I never knew I could or would ever recognize.

It is mid-day, an ordinary unsurprising type of mild any day, when I get an text message from him which reads This is kind of it, kiddies. I’m feeling one fry short of the Happiest Meal. I feel like I’m underwater more and more each hour. Thank you for everything. You are all precious to me.

A whole lot of cats is a clowder, a clutter, a cluster, a colony, a glorying, a pounce, a kindle, a litter, a dout, a parliament, a seraglio, a glaring, a destruction.

 

End

 

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“Quietus” from 98 Wounds (Manic D Press: San Francisco) © 1997 by Justin Chin. Used with permission of publisher.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

2 comments

  1. earozoo@adam.com.au

     Good Afternoon from a Wintry cold Adelaide I’m an ex- Singaporean who left Singapore in 1977 now fully retired I have taken up my pen to dabble in poetry once more. I always look forward to receiving your emails and reading the poems. Could I share one with you – one that I wrote after my trip to Japan in 2014. RegardsEdmund Arozoo

    Like

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