“Trauma structures us, so hold on to it.”
Avital Ronell to Jeremy Fernando.
(The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death, Jeremy Fernando, Atropos Press, page 193)
With all first readings, comes the trauma of virginal encounters. After being thoroughly traumatized by Jeremy Fernando’s The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death, I proceed to mull on this “structure” that has formed–my reading of the reading in hindsight.
I look up: the same manicured grass imported from Indonesia, the same going up and going down of cranes and pounders, the same Starbuck’s plastic coffee, the same humid, tropical, concrete jungle permanently stuck in the state of its own semi-upgrade. At first glance, it is hard to know what I now know, and as Jeremy Fernando posits, maybe it is impossible to actually know what we know. What difference is there from a week ago when I appreciated the gift of this book, the first page scribbled illegibly in his handwriting, said “Welcome to the fairie mountains, dearest one.”
Can I see this “fairie mountains”? Can I feel it? How, then, do I begin to review a hefty 260 pages text? Where do I even start? Furthermore, who am I to review another’s work?
To respond to the call, the only thing I can possibly do is to make three tiny scribbles:
The Shy Cat Theory;
Boat and Broken Glass;
and the Laughing Buddha.
In September 2010, dear friend Robin Skelcey, who lives in Bristol, adopted a cat. Queenie the cat was abandoned, possibly mistreated by her previous owner, for she was certainly one very unhappy, socially unadapted creature. She scratched, she hissed, she fought. One of the first things she did was to run up the chimney and got herself stuck, unable to go up, unable to go down. Caught between the helplessness of her situation, and her shyness to accept any help, she spent a long time in ash and discomfort. Robin devised a way to let his new friend adapt to her new home: he did nothing in particular.
It would be inaccurate to say he did absolutely nothing, for he left food and water for Queenie, he padded a space for her needs, left cat nibbles and toys for her pleasure- nothing particularly different from a regular pet owner. And he waited. Robin’s idea was that of the Shy Cat Theory (which I have affectionately coined for it was a very apt description.) When dealing with his new distraught cat, he did not stare the cat in the eye, or attempted to force it into its new surroundings by an overt show of affection, excessive contact, yelling, begging, or dragging the cat about. His best strategy is, instead, to respect the cat’s individuality and identity, never to look at it directly, always with a half-closed, side-long gaze; let it eat and drink at it’s own time and pleasure, and allow the cat the possibility to approach him, or not, when it feels like it. If I were to put it in a phrase, it would be this: “You are a cat, I am a man, you do what’s right for you.”
Like a shy cat, confronting the suicide bomber will only cause her to blow up, or run away, both of which defeats the purpose of getting to know her. As Jeremy Fernando feels his way through the terrain of terror, he avoids subsuming the deathly figure into his understanding, but allows this terror the space and time to acquaint herself with his paper domain. She is an individual, a singular, dead twice: once from her baptism to become a figure of death, then again from her bodily death. Her unknowability remains in the unknown; and he undressed her in his writing, and I flipped the pages of his book. As affectionate perverts, we can only, possibly, leer, with a half-closed, sideway gaze from the corner of our eye, and allow cat, book, and suicide bomber to do what’s right for themselves.
And allow ourselves the terror, the comfort, and the seduction that we can never know what the other might be thinking.
I found myself on a little boat traversing the pulpous sea of Abraham and Jesus of Nazareth, The Pope and Norma Jean, Bataille, Zizek, Ronell and Flaubert, Elton John, Mas Salamat, Amen-Ra and Amy Winehouse. Names and more names of people I have heard of, and those I have not.
With names and boats, one cannot but think of the bottle-breaking, glass-shattering, wet baptism of a ship; the naming of the little boat I found myself in while reading his thoughtful ink.
In the mandarin language, every word is a drawing, a description of an object, a thought, a feeling. By extension, the naming of a newborn child is a describing, parents’ (or parent’s) mental projection of the child’s possibility. Even simple names like 强qiáng (strength), 如莲 rú lián (like a lotus), 明 míng (bright), reveal their sense of hope for a child, a metaphor as a gift, wishing that (s)he will be strong, or have attributes of a lotus, or intelligent and jolly. With all affectionate things, we name them, and then call them out so that they reveal our hopes and dreams with their appearance. The naming can come after the child is born, or before the child is born, or right while it is happening. The act of naming is thus independent of the birth of this child. In all likelihood, the death of the name is also independent of the death of this same person.
In chapter 3.5 Requiem for a name, Jeremy Fernando posits “Identities are hinged on the existence of a name: the name acts like an axiom on which an identity is then built around.” If a name is independent of the birth of the child, what then is the identity of the child before the naming it self? Maybe it had another name, maybe it doesn’t, maybe it was only called “child” as a description of what it is. “Death” is a description of the unknowable state of death, is a name of that realm we cannot hope to understand while being alive. It exists, regardless of whether we name it thus, or not. The child exists, even if it does not have a name. Sometimes, as with imaginary friends, they exist even if they are not physically present- they exist because of their names given to them. If names are, in a sense, a description of the aspirations of others on the object it describes, then name-change–from Norma Jean to Marilyn Monroe, from Karol Wojtyla to Pope John Paul II–is just a change of description, a different set of aspirations ascribed to this same person or object.
Naming my vacuum cleaner “Jeremy”, didn’t change the fact that it was a vacuum cleaner, but only revealed the closing of distances between the namer and the named. What the vacuum cleaner thought, I shall never know.
By calling this change as death, or any change as a death of the previous state, is to describe all changes as “death”. There lies a paradox: to describe, to put things in a category, is to totalize. And with totalizing, we kill all other possibilities. How then are we to speak about things without giving them a name, changing them, killing them, from one state to another?
And if all moments in time are singular, then isn’t every moment in time a death. A second-to-second death, a nanosecond-to-nanosecond death. By living, are we not also slowly dying?
In the midst of this paradox, this living and dying, I found the desire to reciprocate Jeremy’s gift, to name the ship in which I sail.
To perform my affection, aspiration, and absolute terror for this journey embarked towards the “fairie mountains”, I shall go with a little laugh, a splash of brandy and some broken glass, and name my boat “friend”.
“At this point, can we do anything but chuckle?” (The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death, Jeremy Fernando, Atropos Press, page 223)
Budai (布袋which literally means “cloth sack”), nicknamed the Laughing Buddha, is a common figure found in Singaporean Chinese temples. His large smile, ponderous belly, and cheerful demeanor is iconic, and cannot help but be inspired to laugh when one sees such an overt display of jolliness. As a form of Maitreya (the future Buddha), the sentiment explained by fellow Singaporeans is that he is the bringer of luck and good fortune for a future unbeknownst to us. Who can say no to a laugh like that?
Now one might, with much urgency, ask me,
“What happened to Robin’s cat Queenie? Did the theory work?”
“Where is the boat named “friend” going? Did it reach the fairie mountains?”
“Who can say no to his chuckle? Did the chuckle work?”
and with heated aggravation, demand from me:
“So what exactly is your critique of Jeremy Fernando’s book?”
And this is where the problem begins, that imperative to answer, to critique, to demand; the terrifying need for answers. Can we know what we know?
Thus, I recommend, as one approaches this 260 pages of terror, to always use a half-closed, side-way gaze, a floating vessel, and an image of Budai’s chuckle.
At this point, can we do anything but chuckle?
The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death, Jeremy Fernando, Atropos Press, New York, 2010
by Yanyun Chen
Yanyun Chen is (currently) an artist-in-residence at the Tembusu College, NUS, Singapore; and a Master’s student at European Graduate School. She does a heap of things: illustration, animation, games, set-building, user-interface design, corporate design, book layouts, project management, and acts as a hunter for amazing people to work on epic projects. Recently, she began to write.
One can know more about her at www.yanyunchen.com