Whose Home?

Review of And the Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania De Rozario (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2016), 123 pages
by Siham Karami

 

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The title of this compelling memoir, an allusion to the fall of biblical Jericho, is both tragic and triumphant. And the Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania De Rozario charts an odyssey—away from home to a larger sense of Home. On the way, the turmoil of heart and hearth reveal their entanglements with social struggle—with religious fundamentalism, sexual prejudice, and the unique political experiment of Singapore itself—in order to find a Home that can be experienced not as a prison but as a place of liberation and welcome.

De Rozario begins by addressing a “you,” who, we soon learn, is a lover who has left the author/protagonist, now alone in a home being devoured by termites. She recalls times when they were together, living in the same house and sharing a life.

There you were, curled into yourself, hair askew, covered in blanket and sleep. There you were, in my paintings, in my words, in my bed, in my arms, under my skin, inside my head, tripping accidentally into parts of myself I had no idea existed.

And now here you are, leaving me at the airport.

De Rozario’s first book, which was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, was a work of poetry. In this sophomore volume, a work of prose, she brings to bear her poetic gifts. One of her signature poetic devices, repetition is used effectively throughout the book. In the passage quoted above, repetition is deployed with a subtle difference. “There you are” becomes the closer “here you are” but “here” is actually the airport where her lover will leave her. The passage also demonstrates De Rozario’s ear for what I call “list cadence.” It is the skilful manipulation of rhythm that elevates the passage into a prose poem.

And as often is the case with poetry, language itself figures prominently as an essential symbolic element. In describing her lover, she says:

I know the shape of you and it has no name. I know the sound of you and the smell of you and the touch and sight and taste of you. But language departed the same day you did, leaving my mouth empty.

In a later description of how they first met, she portrays again the relationship between love and words:

I asked your name. You told me. My life hovered on the edge of a syllable. My mouth had found its purpose.

Notice “mouth” comes into play again, an image at once oral and sexual. By such repetitions across the book, words acquire accumulative and associative power. Interestingly, we never learn her lover’s name, and yet this anonymity doesn’t detract from her value at all. On the contrary, it feels like a kind of reverence, like keeping her name sacred, between each other, an attitude hinted at in the above quotation. As in poetry, the interplay between what is said and what is not opens an interpretative space for the reader to draw their own conclusions.

And there is something unusually comprehensive about this love affair. For example, in describing how she feels toward her lover:

Everything about you leads to home. Veins visible like tributaries running up your forearm. Skin mapping scars, creases, bends. And beyond the armour of your teeth, visceral constellations.

The author uses similar images, as in this excerpt, which quickly move from the quotidian to the cosmic. For her, the Lover, as the embodiment of Home, takes on qualities that are not only physical but also metaphysical, almost divine. For a sense of the latter, and it is important, we look at her description of her first love, a rebel girl from her secondary school when she was thirteen years old.

If she was the sun, I was Icarus in love. If she was the stars, I was a story mapped out. If she was a tornado, I was Dorothy, lifted, house and all, and dumped promptly into a saturated reality not my own. I was outside myself, beside myself, all feeling and no words with which to explain what had just happened. She was an alternate universe and the beginning of language.

It was of utmost importance to De Rozario to find an “alternate universe,” her family life having been far from fulfilling. She describes a mother who, despite working such interesting jobs as disc jockey, television personality, and travel and food writer, still “longed to be ornamentalised.” Her daughter “became an ornament… Something that needed to be shown off.” The chasm between this maternal objectification and her romantic passions echoes off the page.

As the breadwinner of the household, her mother took “ownership” of the roof, symbolic of shelter and also of control, as a means of asserting her supremacy over the household, forcing her religion on the author and the author’s grandmother against their will. The cause of much agony, this tyranny culminated in the choice of an arbitrary and distancing ideology over her own daughter. De Rozario describes the conversion to fundamentalism as a kind of death:

When my mother grew tired of dealing with life, she too killed herself, in order to get reborn. This involved joining a NeoPentecostal church, much to my grandmother’s Roman Catholic despair.

De Rozario’s beloved grandmother was “the one who held our family together,” with whom she felt closest, whose Catholicism, associated with her warm and open concern, seemed to the author far more humane than her mother’s Pentecostal faith with its hypocrisy and cruelty, its force-fed Bible study.

From that study, however, she brings a surprisingly religious way of describing her first love, a way immersed not only in the Bible’s diction but also in its cadence:

She was the word. And then we were the words. Hello. Goodbye. Now. Wait. Please. No. Yes. Don’t. Hear. Sshhh. Come. Go. You. Me. Us. Love. Every word was new. Every word had weight. Everything that came from her mouth was something holy I could live on and feast on and pray to until I was whole.

What survived that childhood pain was the child’s innocence, passion, and love for life, a rebellion in full force. For De Rozario, the ultimate soul-saving rebellion is to be in love, a state that replenishes her love-deprived self and illuminates her creative mind, both in her art and writing, and in her social consciousness.

Love and identity intersect at the crucial moment when she came across a front-page news article “proposing that all-girl secondary schools turn teenage girls into lesbians.” It was the first time she saw the “L-word.” It is also the first time the reader sees it in the book, perhaps to let us feel it the way she did, as a place of exclusion from general society, and simultaneously a place of inclusion for her battered self. A moment of shock and liberation, a naming of something she needed to know. Yes, the article said, society will condemn you. But her free self replied, this is who I am. It is a moment when the walls come crumbling down. No more speaking around the walls. Now she speaks and lives fully what was behind them.

Or as much as one can. As she states:

But our parents never leave. The ones who gave us names, fed us, clothed us, put language in our mouths and limits around our hearts.

So her mother’s tyranny is still with her and the child within still struggles with it, both in love and life. And that struggle leads to a more incisive understanding of her wider home, Singapore. Her mother’s tyrannical power is not only compared to the absolutist power of the state, but is shown to flow from the latter. She dominates the public apartment into which the state herds its people.

Put the people in their flats, the leaders said. All that is wild must be contained.

That meant eradicating neighborhoods, extended family structures, and the whole ecology surrounding them. This effort required, and still requires, foreign workers too, who were underpaid, and lived in filthy and cramped quarters walled off from the rest of Singapore. It was a war on dirt, but also a war on compassion.

The author points out:

Singapore’s obsession with cleanliness is a lot like Lady Macbeth’s repeated washing of hands: Memories of the crimes we committed in the name of progress, caked underneath our fingernails. Because even when the streets sparkle with the sweat of underpaid cleaners, even when our galleries glisten with the impotence of regulated art, even when our sterile hearts are dubbed the least emotional in the world, still we obsess ourselves with the eradication of mess: Out, out damn spot!

That the heart of the plan for Singapore was to “build houses,” which were really large apartment high-rises, a plan that tore families apart and rearranged them, is highly emblematic of De Rozario’s theme. Artificially imposed housing perverts its inhabitants.

The day we were put into flats, we consented to being controlled. …Communities were disrupted and disempowered….The multifamily networks in which children were once raised were broken up, and could now be micromanaged.

Publications told people how to live:

Our Home, it was called. … Not my home, not your home and certainly not theirs…. These are the sorts of families you should have. Look at these smiling children. Don’t you want this? Who doesn’t want this? You must want this. We should want this.

De Rozario brings us her life as proof of the opposite, living in crumbling rented shelters instead of owning a Housing Board Development apartment, pursuing the twin passions of love and art instead of producing the state quota of children. In a sense, she is doing what author Ursula K. Le Guin in The Wave of the Mind sees as the purpose of literature:

… to dislodge … the reader’s mind from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

For De Rozario, the question is whose home is Singapore. It can properly be called Our Home only if everyone has a say in building it. When the state decides on its own, it prevents a collective sense of ownership and belonging that it tries in vain to promote through propaganda, a lame attempt at mind control. “You must want this. We should want this.”

James Baldwin wrote in his essay “The Creative Process,” “The precise role of the artist…is…to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Being able to choose is at the heart of what it means to be human. De Rozario emphasizes her desire to write her own history, to present her real self with her desires, heartaches, and struggles, not those of a tyrant, be that tyrant the state or one’s own family. A history rich in its own messiness, the unpredictable complexity of following one’s own path to one’s own place, including

… the moss that grows on walls, wounds that scar the skin, wrong turns, cracks in the stone, archaeologies of desire dug up like dirty laundry and flapping like wings in every back yard…

Maybe that is why De Rozario puts up with all the imperfections—the termites and spiders, the holes in the walls, the infidelities, the lies. She has the dream that behind all of this is, somehow, a welcome sign. Home. Free will. Not for some ideal flawlessness but for a messy wholeness. For a place where one can feel and imagine that beautifully unkempt human wholeness, I’d recommend reading this book.

 

Siham Karami

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Siham Karami lives in Florida and co-owns a technology recycling company. Her poems have been or will be published in The Comstock Review, Measure, Think, and Right Hand Pointing, among other places; reviews in American Book Review, The Rumpus, The Gay and Lesbian Review, thethepoetry, and elsewhere. Her website is sihamkarami.wordpress.com.

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.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Review in Singapore Poetry | Siham Karami

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