My mild infatuation with Fixi Novo's short story collections continues, bringing me to this triptych of "urban anthologies" which reach beyond Malaysia to encompass the rest of Southeast Asia. It's an ambitious project, containing fifty-two short stories and essays spread across six countries and more than 650 (admittedly smallish) pages. The titles are inspired by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey's similarly named movie collaborations, and these books have a seemingly comparable concern for the seedier aspects of human existence. The frontispiece to each volume states, "We chose to interpret 'urban' as a state of mind rather than population count or infrastructural development," and after having read all three I can only conclude that this "urban state of mind" is much like pornography: one can't offer a precise definition, but one knows it when one sees it (there are also other, more corporeal, points of correlation).
At a rough estimate, about half the stories could be classified as SF, fantasy, or some sort of magical realism. I hedge that claim so extensively because what marks all three books is how deliberately they fuzzify their boundaries, be they generic, ethnic, or political. Some of the most engaging pieces are, a touch unexpectedly, the non-fiction essays. Or what I assume to be non-fiction; while Barokka and Ng spell things out in their introduction to Heat, the other editors are less concerned with delineating between fiction and fact, leaving the reader to rely instead on intuition and Google. What's especially notable is that all the essays are by writers who are, to various degrees, outsiders to the areas they discuss. All are also laments of one sort or another, mourning the losses incurred in the ongoing churn that is globalization. This is most clearly laid out in "Boracay Island: Postcards from the Past and Present" (Heat), as Maffi Deparis and Ivery del Campo depict the largely negative impacts of increasing tourism on an island idyll. Timothy L. Marsh's "How to Make White People Happy" (Trash) is a more ambiguous take on the same subject; while not blind to the problems of the commercial tourist industry, it also suggests that it can have real benefits for (some) locals.
The boundaries are most thoroughly blurred by Bonnie Etherington and Sokunthary Svay. Etherington, in "A Farewell to an Adopted Nation" (Heat), evocatively and painfully describes a farewell tour of her Indonesian hometown as she gets ready for her return to New Zealand; the kicker being that she hasn't lived in the Land of the Long White Cloud since she was a toddler but, at the age of twenty, is no longer covered by her parents' visas and so is forced to return to a "home" which is anything but. Svay meanwhile is, as best my research can tell, a first-generation American of Cambodian descent, and in "Flesh and Family in Phnom Penh" (Flesh) she makes something of the reverse journey, negotiating the familiar-yet-not customs and perceptions of her extended family's nation on a visit "home." As my use of scare quotes in the last two sentences may suggest, both essays make clear that individuals' conceptions of their positions on the continuums of nativeness can be very different from the cut and dried binary distinctions wider society has a habit of imposing.
The fiction pieces run the gamut from straight-up mimesis, through allegory, and into the fully fantastical. Favorites from the more true-to-life end of the spectrum include Eliza Vitri Handayani's "Higher" (Trash), which feels like an Indonesian Human Traffic in the way it juxtaposes hedonistic youth counterculture with the need to maintain a respectable façade for the out-group norms of the nine-to-five, while the MacGuffin of a kidnapped dog frames Hồn Du Mục's sharply drawn vignettes of life in Hanoi's growing suburbs ("Astray," Heat). Peter Zaragoza Mayshle earns major brownie points by harking back to one of the more criminally underappreciated heroes of eighties Saturday afternoon television in "MacGyveratics" (Heat), which is a funny, tragic, and yet still sweet commentary on the impact of the global culture and labor markets on Filipino family life.
Also of note are "A Different Way to Burn" (Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Heat) and "If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands" (Teo Yi Han, Flesh), which rake through the kindling and embers of two romances, being respectively heartwarming (literally) and heartbreaking (utterly). Both stories depict gay relationships in societies whose mainstreams are, like many mainstreams around the world, not noted for their tolerance of such. Both are also, for all their tentativeness and fleetingness, undeniably tender. These stand in marked contrast to some of the more "traditional" heterosexual relationships in the collections, with Tina Sim's "Her Lot" (Flesh), M. SHANmughalingam's "Flowers for KK," and Dipika Mukherjee's "Baby's Breath" (both Trash) showing us the degree to which women may find themselves trapped and ultimately damaged by patriarchal expectations of marriage and motherhood. The resolutions to all three are, in different ways, resolutely chilling as misery hands itself on, Larkin-style.
As we move away from realism towards allegory we encounter stories marked by a sort of metaphorical recursion: metametaphors, if you will. Benjanun Sriduangkaew's beautifully crafted "In Them the Stars Open Like Doors" depicts a woman whose cycle consists of birthing entire galaxies, and on its first page insists that "These are not metaphors" (Flesh, p. 217)—which all but demands we read them as exactly that. Nin Harris's "Auto-Rejection: An Outro," meanwhile, movingly conflates the immortality of penanggalan (Malay vampires, more or less) with a writer considering her legacy while coming to terms with some medical test results, chewing over, "the painful reality of cancer versus the eternal exquisite torment of a career of murder and pickling your own entrails" (Trash, p. 182).
"Cherry Clubbing" by Kenneth Yu (Flesh), further confuses the reader's perception of allegory with a tale of sex tourism in the Philippines. (Trigger warnings here, for both the story and to a lesser extent the rest of this paragraph.) Yu’s tale is made all the more uncomfortable by the device wherein its narrator addresses the reader as the other half of a conversation between two experienced sexual predators. Those being abused are repeatedly referred to as "elves," which, despite early reference to their "pointy ears," I initially assumed was some kind of paedophile slang. It's only with the later appearance of mermaids, satyrs, and the like that the penny dropped that they ("we") are talking about actual mythical creatures. Except of course we're not. It's an intentionally nauseating story which questions, among many other things, the ease with which people use othering to willfully misalign their own moral compasses, to deeply disturbing effect.
The merging of the mythical and the mundane continues as we broach the realms of SF and fantasy proper. Alexander Marcos Osias and Eve Shi both use the tried and tested vehicle of shapeshifters for their explorations of liminality. In "The New Teacher" (Heat) a Filipina schoolgirl must deal with both a string of mysterious deaths and her beguiling new schoolmistress, and Shi's gorgeous and affecting "The Skin Shimmers" (Flesh) gives us tiger spirits of Indonesian conflicts past haunting present-day Jakarta. "Itches" (EK Gonzales, Flesh) exploits the pathetic fallacy to full effect, personifying Manila's districts to explore the city's history of intermixing and expansion, and Julie Koh takes this personification a stage further in "The Procession" (Heat), which is an oddly captivating story featuring a parade of gods and an underappreciated girlfriend making a decision about where her priorities lie: flashy wealth and empty promises or disheveled but vital humanity?
Taking girlfriends for granted is a theme that is explored in more direct fashion in one of the collections' few out-and-out science fiction stories, Nikki Alfar's "Appliances" (Heat). It's is a witty take on an admittedly well-worn trope, critiquing the consumerist approach to dating as a benignly narcissistic everyman works his way through a series of synthetic partners. Ted Mahsun also forays into traditional SF territory to explore the disjunction between the synthetic and the real, while displaying enviable chutzpah in basing it all around a truly terrible pun. "And The Heavens Your Canopy" (Trash) gives us a "window cleaner" data jockey who graduates from providing nice views for people's artificial skylights to reprogramming the heavens themselves. (Your favorite slightly behind-the-curve software megacorp is conspicuous by its absence.)
These, then, are some of the more notable pieces in the collections, organized into what I hope is a vaguely illuminating thematic order. Herein lies the problem: if done even half-competently (and this is done much better than that), a project like this should showcase the diversity of a region containing a good 10 percent of the world's population, but it is in the very nature of anthologizing to encourage generalizations to be made; for all the disruption of boundaries within the books, the books themselves unavoidably act to bound that which they contain, to more or less implicitly impose a certain unity on their contents. The reader (to say nothing of the reviewer) must take pains to guard against the ecological fallacy. I reiterate this seemingly obvious disclaimer because at this point in reviews of short story collections it's traditional to claim that some stories don't work as well as others, and the sheer number of entries in Heat, Flesh, and Trash means that this statistical truism holds here as well. While the good far outweighs the bad, I think what's more interesting here is how those stories that didn't work didn't work, because, in an inversion of Tolstoy's Law, if all the successful stories here are successful in their own way, then all the unsuccessful ones are somehow alike.
These weaker stories are so because they almost universally rely on bald exposition and reported emotion, leaving very little room for the reader. The curiosity is not so much that these limitations affect individual stories but that they are so consistently displayed across all three books; if these volumes' strengths are varied and manifold, then their weaknesses feel strangely uniform. This is all the more apparent in that the best entries' merits are almost the exact opposite of the worst entries' flaws. Take Marcel Barang's English rendering of Rewat Panpipat's original Thai in "It Looks Like Rain" (Heat), which is, perhaps significantly, the only translation in all three books: it's mesmerizing in the imagery it evokes, but in terms of plot it borders on the incomprehensible. I think it's a tale of familial revenge, but while reading it I was often unsure of exactly who was doing what, where, when, and to whom, and this didn't matter a jot. It's curious that a collection containing something as gloriously unconcerned about holding the reader's hand as this could also repeatedly countenance lines as prosaic as "she was determined to be the best damn teacher the Malaysian education system had ever seen" (from "Going to the Sun at Night" by Joseph Ng, Heat, p. 74).
The consistency of these weaknesses across several stories, especially in comparison to the one translation, means that it's tempting to fulfill the "qualitative assessment" aspect of the reviewer's role by drawing some wider conclusions about the whole they form parts of; to question whether the narrative traditions and conventions I've grown up with in the Anglophone West necessarily translate to other societies and cultures; whether the generally accepted metrics for "good" English style remain valid when most English users around the world use it as a second or foreign language, and so draw from different linguistic hinterlands. I think these are valid and necessary questions to be asking, but to do so here would be to risk imposing a (cultural, generic, stylistic) homogeneity on the variety portrayed, and so work against the very diversity that's notionally built into the project. In all honesty sometimes clunky writing is just clunky writing.
The majority of it is most decidedly unclunky, however. Of the three volumes, Trash is probably the best, or at least the one that most closely chimes with my own personal tastes (read into that what you will). It opens with three very strong stories (Zedeck Siew's "Mrs. Chandra's War Against Dust," Raymond G. Fagui's "The Hunger House," and Lyana Shah's "Trash Talk") exploring the negative, often forgotten, often hidden impacts of change, be they gradual or sudden, societal or personal. It's also the most overtly political collection, with a perhaps inevitable focus on the region's undesirables and underclasses. Heat is a more domestic affair, concerning itself with people living their day-to-day lives and all that that entails, and Flesh explores exactly what you would expect, being by turns both sensual and disconcerting. Images of durian—the infamously noisome fruit long since banned from tourist hotels and backpacker hostels the region over—in various stages of consumption feature on the cover of each book, and this feels entirely appropriate. For while I've only ever seen (and smelled) durian from afar, after reading "Tempoyak" by Ari Abraham I'll never be able to look at one in the same way again ("… the rounded edges, curved and primed for slipping into the most intimate of crevices." Flesh, p.96). The risk in pressing and mashing up against boundaries is that the results can be messy, sticky, and undifferentiated, but the take-home message of Heat, Flesh, and Trash is that the literalization of this concept can come in many forms, very few of which are suitable for the squeamish.