Jeyamohan's Singapore Reviews

Jeyamohan, noted Tamil writer, came to Singapore on an invitation from the NIE, conducted classes for students, workshops for wannabe writers, spoke to his readers, read various books by Singapore Tamil writers and went back to India. Nothing spectacular until then. Later, all hell broke loose when he started writing reviews of the Singapore works in his blog.

Jeyamohan, as has been his practice, didn’t mince words in his review. Mixing satire,metaphor and pun, he dissected the writers’s works and passed comments on the undue attention and opprobrium that the Singapore writers often got and wondered if the works deserved even casual attention.

Critical Reviews for books, not heard often in Singapore, when done by a foreign writer after a stint in the country, caused much consternation and heart-breaks, with the result that one even filed a police complaint alleging misuse of a photograph in Jeyamohan’s blog (the photo was subsequently removed). While the undue attention paid to Jeyamohan’s reviews was surprising, that writers should be so sensitive was equally surprising.

Three questions arise as a result of this sour tasting episode in the whole affair.

  1. Was Jeyamohan justified in such critical reviews?
  2. Did the Singapore Tamil Writer community react disproportionately?
  3. Were there personal attacks in Jeyamohan’s review of each work?

I would says ‘Yes’ to 1 and 2 and a partial ‘Yes’ to 3.

Any work, once out in the public domain, is liable for review. Anyone can review the work and the author doesn’t have any control on what the reviewer needs to opine on. This is the normal practice anywhere in the world. A casual look at reviews appearing on Amazon’s website & Good Reads would help.

In the Tamil Literary World, the tradition of critical review has been in vogue since Sangam times. Poet Kamban too had to have his works reviewed and validated before his seminal work on Ramayana was accepted as mainstream and worthy of literary merit. Even as recently as the 80s, writer K.N.Subramanian was considered an acerbic critic in Tamil. Writer Sundara Ramasamy was another literary critic who was even despised by some leading authors of his times. How that should change for Singapore’s Tamil Writers’s works is baffling.

Jeyamohan’s works, many of them monumental in nature, are available for anyone to read and review. And his works have undergone serious literary reviews too. Some of his works twist facts and he has been taken to task by readers and reviewers for that. His novel ‘Vellai Yaanai’ (White Elephant), though a notable work on the dreaded famine in India, had also distorted facts and disparaged a historical character. And rightfully, Jeyamohan was criticized heavily for the wrong and venomous depiction. As a writer, he had to stand the heat of review.

I had gone through the reviews written by Jeyamohan. I felt some were damaging for the concerned author’s current reputation. But Jeyamohan had used his usual review lenses while reviewing the works. And that has apparently resulted in these heartburns.

Jeyamohan had also praised a couple of writers and their works. It was not for painting a picture of trying to have a semblance of balance, but out of genuine interest in the direction that Singapore’s Tamil Writing needs to take.

While reviewing the Tamil works in Singapore, Jeyamohan should have applied the lens of a community that is getting to know its place in the Tamil language scene. The Tamil that is prevalent is Singapore is more a functional one. Generally the weight of literary merit that a work needs to carry is visibly absent in many Tamil works in Singapore. But that has a historical reasoning. In Singapore, since Tamil is not needed as a medium of communication and is not essential for daily existence, the need and therefore the ability to write in the language have declined. That is precisely why the government has stepped in to promote mother tongue education in a big way. The plethora of initiatives to promote the usage of Tamil is a case in point.

Tamil in Tamil Nadu is different from the Tamil in Singapore. Even if a person’s mother tongue is Tamil, he can survive in Singapore without uttering a word in the language, while that is not the case in Tamil Nadu. Jeyamohan should have taken this into account.

Would Jeyamohan’s critique deter writers in Singapore? There would certainly be implications. As a community that would want to express itself in its tongue, there would indeed be some reservations, in future, to write in Tamil. But that is an un-intended consequence.

Where would Tamil writing go from here on? Are Singapore’s tamil writers going to take these reviews in the right spirit and move on or are they going to harp on the ‘review-venom’ as they see it, and produce characteristically unsound sound-bites in social media on Jeyamohan?

The reviewer has since moved on to various other items, but the perceived victims are still nursing their wounds. The whines in social media, that too in visibly unintelligent and below the belt language that harp abuses on Jeyamohan, are going to be of zero use to writers and  don’t have any bearing on Jeyamohan or any other reviewer.

So, should all the writers, the associations and bodies that they are affiliated to, come together and pass a unilateral condemnation of Jeyamohan’s review methodology? Would passing such a declaration restore the perceived loss of face to the writer community as a whole? Should the community do more to damage itself?

What if, say, the Canadian writer A.Muthulingam had written such reviews? Would those hypothetical reviews have gotten the same response? Just because Jeyamohan had written the reviews after visiting Singapore, he has drawn such ire and retribution.

Before commenting on Jeyamohan’s review processes, one would need to go through the NYT Book reviews and see how harsh the treatment is there. And it is an honor to get reviewed by NYT, never mind the treatment given in it.

Let us take the case of acerbic book reviewer of three decades and Pulitzer Prize winner Michiko Kakutani of NYT. She has been called various names by eminent writers. But that does not deter her from being what she is. Let us look at some examples:

  1. Zadie’s Smith wrote this book ‘NW’. Kakutani called it “clunky” and “curiously haphazard.”
  2. Jonathan Franzen wrote a memoir and Kakutani called it “a portrait of the artist as a young jackass.” An irritated Franzen called Kakutani ” the stupidest person in New York.”
  3. Kakutani had angered Samlan Rushdie too and the latter called her ”a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank.”
  4. Noman Maller, another writer, having been harmed by Kakutani’s reviews, called her ”a one-woman kamikaze.”

(Ref: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/28/worst-book-reviews_n_1834631.html)

Let us look at some great classics that got horrible reviews when they first came out.

‘The Tropic of Cancer’ by Henry Miller : “Miller stands under his Paris street-lamp, defiantly but genially drunk, trolling his catch mixed of beauty and banality and recurrent bawdry-a little pathetic because he thinks he is a discoverer and doesn’t realize that he is only a tourist on a well-marked tour. We see him at last as an appealingly zestful, voracious, talented hick.”

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood: “But the most conspicuous lack… is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. … The writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality. That must be why, collectively, it is powerless to scare.”

‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway: “A master of the concentrated short story, Hemingway is less sure in his grasp of the form of the elaborated novel. The shape of For Whom the Bell Tolls is sometimes slack and sometimes bulging. It is certainly quite a little too long.”

‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov: “…two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive…”

‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that…”

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee: “Miss Lee’s problem has been to tell the story she wants to tell and yet to stay within the consciousness of a child, and she hasn’t consistently solved it.”

‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell:“I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to, say, 500 pages — but there speaks the harassed daily reviewer an [sic] well as the would-be judicious critic.”

(Ref: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/23/bad-reviews-classics_n_6527638.html)

So, it is clear that reviews fail to judge a work for its merits. But that does not mean the review shouldn’t occur according to the wishes of the reviewer.

Being not open to review would amount to authors running a warning in their books like this :

  1. ’ No part of the book should be reviewed.’
  2. ‘This book need not be read, as, reading this might lead to an urge to review it.’

A sensible course of action would be to overcome the victim mentality, get over the ‘injustice-has-been-meted-out’ feeling and continue to focus on what could be improved. One could also read Jeyamohan’s books, critically review each of them, and produce equally, if not more, ‘venomous’ reviews of those works.

Lasting literature can happen when there is struggle for livelihood. Singapore doesn’t provide such an environment of struggle. For those whose daily chores are terrible physical tortures, they don’t have the necessary physical strength at the end of the day to pursue a literary vocation. And the poems that they write would reflect what they are going through at work, the longing for getting home to India and the like, and would not, in any way, reflect the social milieu in Singapore.

For the permanent residents who attempt to write, they are ‘neither here nor there’. And under a presumably monitored environment, they tend to play it safe and vax eloquent on some insignificant aspects of Singapore life rather than concentrate on those areas that would produce works of any noticeable literary merit.

The Singapore citizen pool that attempts to write reflects on what it sees as a routine progression of daily tasks, in other words called ‘Life in Singapore’ that is mostly static, well-laid out and devoid of torturous challenges that life in, say Sri Lanka or Tamil Nadu or Mumbai, would have had.

However, from my experience, I have seen that the fast paced life in Singapore does not lend itself conducive enough to creative pursuits for a vast majority of people. This is in spite of the humongous effort of the government in promoting creative pursuits by providing a plethora of libraries, reading centers and similar such facilities across the island. For Singapore citizens, library membership is free and they can borrow 32 books and AV materials at a time. For Permanent Residents, it is 16 and for foreigners who are members, it is 8. An casual visit to the Library would provide light on the number of Tamil speakers visiting the facility, even after discounting lower demographic ratio of Tamil populace in Singapore.

So, the stark realities that stare in the face are :

  1. Those who have items to write on, yet can’t write.
  2. Those who write and do so with constraints.
  3. Those who should write are preoccupied with the fast paced daily life and don’t write.

In these circumstances, what could such  a literary review from a person of the stature of Jeyamohan result in? Would these help improve the quality of writing, if that is the case?

Questions remain.

Let us face it. Apart from ‘Puyalile oru thoni’, how many novels have been written from Singapore, in Tamil, like ‘Kaadu’ and ‘Vishnupuram’? What is the equivalent of ‘Aram’? So, there is something to learn from Jeyamohan, isn’t it?

Hence, is there any way to take Jeyamohan’s views in a constructive manner and proceed from there? I think a way exists. Here is how:

  1. Collect the reviews.
  2. Prepare an extract after going through all the reviews.
  3. Compile the constructive sections into a template. May be call it ‘Jeyamohan Template’
  4. Encourage writers to write according to the template.
  5. Send the stories to Jeyamohan and seek his review.

I am sure the stories would have improved.

What could writers do:

  1. Write. Don’t bother about reviews.
  2. Take reviews as they come for they are reviewer’s views.
  3. Improve, if necessary.
  4. Better reviews would follow, even if not asked for.

Make no mistake. There are several writers native to Singapore and Malaysia who show great promise. Some of their works, many of very short lengths though, dazzle in brilliance.Those need just a magnifying glass to be located in the maze of the plethora of average publications that seem to pervade the reading space. Sparklers such as these are bound to create waves in the near future.

Where else in the world, other than Singapore, does a government dedicate an entire month for the development of a language and spend millions for curating writers and readers? Is it not the duty of the people to utilize such opportunities and help take the language and its literature to great heights?

Once Jeyamohan was asked as to how he faced criticism and venomous reader mails.He said he addressed his writings towards an intellectual reader group and continued to do so thereby not having the time to bother about hate mail and venomous propaganda.

Time to follow Jeyamohan’s approach, isn’t it?

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2 thoughts on “Jeyamohan's Singapore Reviews

  1. Mr Devanathan: As someone deeply and widely involved in the Tamil community in Singapore, I rarely make my views known public because of the prickly nature of some of our leaders. Today I make an exception. You have written a sensible and helpful note. It offers good counsel and a way forward for those aggrieved. Likewise, your piece would inform those in government in making a nuanced judgment on this episode.
    Singapore Tamil is neither as good nor as bad as some people claim. It is currently a language struggling for survival. Many of us are trying to keep this language alive in this country of ours. We have a tremendous challenge in keeping a language that belongs to less than five per cent of the population and one that is only taught and mostly used as a second language. The greatest asset we have at the moment is a government that protects and promotes the status of Tamil in this multilingual county, dominated by English. Those of us who love our language need to work extremely hard to preserve and practice it and, wherever possible, improve our proficiency in it. Literary criticism is critical to improving our proficiency.
    Though not a creative writer, as an academic, I have always had to accept harsh criticisms of my works. Sometimes hurt, but often sharpened, I have found criticism helpful.

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    1. Thanks Sir. I know your service for the cause of Tamil – esp the digitization initiative. Yes, Tamil has to be spoken and written more, not paying attention to criticisms from abroad. I wanted this note to reach more people and help in the cause and hence wrote in English. Together, let us make a vibrant Tamil sparkle in Singapore.

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