[Book Review] Panama and Beyond by Debby Detering

Panama and Beyond: Letters from Cuba, Panama, and by steamship to and from Panama 1907–1914
Debby Detering
Self-published (2019)/ 259 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Letters and journal entries are useful sources which reveal the everyday lived experience of people who lived in the past. But a detailed chronicle of the construction of the Panama Canal and the going-ons of a ship does feel repetitive to the lay reader after a while.

In Panama and Beyond, Detering circumvents this by guiding the reader through assiduous research. Drawing from a variety of sources, she furnishes us with pictures and quotes to bring the minutiae in letters and journals to life.

Through a passage of eight years (1907-1914), we embark on a vicarious voyage through the letters and journals of Detering’s relatives. From a family gathering in Cuba; to the author’s grandfather, William Hobby, working on the Culebra Cut, the central section of the Panama Canal; and the return trip from Panama to San Francisco through Hobby’s journals.

Nothing seems to escape the letter-writers as they detail anything that catches their fancy; working conditions, foods, styles of dress etc. Paired with Detering’s research, we learn of interesting factoids such as Dr Gorgas’ hypothesis of fever being transmitted by mosquitoes and his work in preventing transmissions in Panama; Satsuma buttons; and a newsletter which details the amount of excavation done in the canal, thereby sparking a healthy competition amongst the workers.

Such details not only entertain the general reader with a healthy curiosity, but they also provide excellent starting points for research into a history of engineering, trade, labour, transportation, travel, and many more.

Additionally, the pairing of source material and research does not feel like a bombardment, but more of a knowledgeable aunt guiding you through the unveiling of her family album. This makes it easy to dip in and out of the book.

More importantly, despite a clear effort in the curation to produce a coherent timeline, Detering does not attempt to sanitise history despite it concerning her relatives. The sheer racist disdain of the other workers by Charles Potter may be hard to read, but it something we all have to come to terms with.

Ultimately, Panama and Beyond is an insightful read about an important slice of American history and expansion, while providing us with details about the sights and sounds of other countries in the South America in the early 1900s.


This review is made possible by Reedsy Discovery. 

[Book Review] A Cheeky Memoir That is a Basis for an Exposé

Guards Gone Wild
Loh Teck Yong
Self-published (2018)/ 200 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Security guards often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are sometimes viewed as lazy or ineffective given that most guards one sees are either rotund or getting on in their years. For those who carry out their duties assiduously, they are seen as party-poopers.

Their situation is not helped by the powers that be thinking that the security industry can be improved by slapping individual guards with fines and jail time, thus perpetuating the idea that the problem lies in the individual.

Cue Guards Gone Wild by Loh Teck Yong.

Either by coincidence or telepathy, Loh seemed to have anticipated this change in the security industry by writing about his experiences as a security guard which spanned decades.

Mirroring the cheekiness of the title, Loh’s writing is exuberant, making the book an enjoyable read, which can be devoured in a couple of sittings. One could almost imagine the twinkle in his eye as he scribbles down his first draft.

With anecdotes about know-it-all superiors, uncoöperative colleagues, and impenetrably bureaucratic management, it feels like Loh is shooting the breeze with his readers over post-work drinks.

Hence, imagine my surprise when the second half of the book comes around. While retaining its breezy tone, Loh candidly reveals the tricks security companies get up to make up for the chronic problem of a lack of manpower.

From staging a charade by co-opting guards from other posts during audits to allowing guards to go on 24-hour shifts, these scams—as Loh calls it—are worrying and indicates an underlying systematic problem in the security industry, rather than a problem with a few bad apples.

If any of this is true, Guards Gone Wild must be an initial prescribed reading for lawmakers to rethink their strategy, and an extensive surprise audit is in order for the security industry.

That said, this book will benefit greatly from the guidance of a publishing company to par down certain excesses and correct the inconsistencies in typesetting.

With this book being an entertaining and educational read, it is hard to see why any publishing company would not want to republish this book.

Mini Reviews

Last year, I applied to be a social media intern  with Asymptote, which is a literary journal that focuses on world literature and its translations. As part of the application process, I was asked to pick a few pieces and explain my choices. Having read through them, I found it a waste to leave it in the recesses of my sent mail. As such, here are some of my thoughts about some of the works featured.

Ermanno’s Breath by Fabio Pusteria (translated by Damiano Abeni & Moira Egan), Jan 2011

I am struck by the exploration of breath as a metaphor to describe a poet’s voice, presence and legacy. This simple tribute to a poet who died too young, with an inter-textual reference to another poem, is really clever. Just as the father’s breath gave life to the mattress in the other poem, Ermanno’s work thus brings to life certain things for Pusteria. I love the economy of the last line – “a breath and some lines” – which points to a variety of things but it most centrally suggests the lingering presence of the poet and his work.

Views and Testimony of a Sheep by Tan Chee Lay (translated by Teng Qian Xi), Jan 2011

Being a Singaporean, it is understandable that any work of local literature being featured will immediately catch my attention. This work was simply refreshing for me. There is a certain gentleness to the poem despite containing some biting criticism and fierce images such as war drums, annunciation and drawn-out screams. Portraying the voters as sheep is a very interesting choice for me as it contains a lot of connotations – from meekness and gentleness as marks of a civilised person to passiveness and helplessness as one is being shepherded around. Tan displays an acute awareness of this as evident from the direct juxtaposition in the line. “little lambs/must rule their homes”.

A lingering thought after reading the poems was how will Singapore solve the various problems of our politics? Do we need a sort of a Messiah figure to shepherd us? While there are no biblical allusions in the poems, it is to be expected that some readers would immediately connect it in such a way. But a further thought came to mind, if we need a shepherd, what are our roles as citizens and voters? This brings me back full circle to the complexity of the image of the sheep. If a poem could inspire such afterthoughts on first reading, what fruitful conversations are there to be had with closer readings and more in depth discussion? Of course, the accompanying essay by Teng made me appreciate the craftsmanship on part of the poet as well as the translator which further deepens by impression and admiration for the set of poems.

Only in New York by Jonas Hassen Khemiri (translated by Rachel Wilson-Broyles), July 2011

The sheer creativity of this piece caught my attention from the first few sentences. The structure of this fiction is a manifestation of what happens when we travel to another country or attempt to write about it; we engage in constant conversation with it. I love how through New York’s voice messages, one can see a variety of experiences one can have in the city. On the other hand it can remain impenetrable as evident from the persona’s failure to have a direct conversation with New York and a great deal of what the city says are stereotypes or idealised. After reading the piece, I found myself forgetting that this is a translation from Swedish. This leads me to wonder if Khemiri was spot on with the Americanisms or was this a voice of Wilson-Broyles coming through which reminds me of Susan Bassnett’s comments (in her interview from the previous issue) that “translation is effectively rewriting”. Whether it is the former or the latter, the co-authorship of two writers has provided me with a wonderful reading experience.

Mulberries by Massimo Gezzi (translated by Damiano Abeni & Moira Egan), July 2011

For some reason, this poem took me on a road trip. What spoke to me in this poem was that the reader was made to go through the exact same experience as the persona. I thought the first four lines were referring to the mulberries stretching out its branches to touch the car window as it drove past. This seemed to be further established by how the persona looked and counted 8 mulberries. It is only in the last lines that the hands and gestures refer to the passenger in the car. Just as the passenger is able to create an “illusion of redemption” for the persona, the carefully crafted words of the poet and translators gave us an illusion of the seeming personification of the mulberries. Really cleverly written.

HOTEL by Lin Yaode (translated by Lee Yew Leong), July 2011

Speaking of personification, I imagine the hotel heaving and breathing while reading this piece. I love how it casts a brilliant new light upon a venue that we are relatively familiar with. It also possesses a sensitivity in addressing the politics of space – from how the buildings around it are affected by its presence to the interaction between people and the hotel. It also compels us to think about how we conduct ourselves in different spaces as well especially in Singapore when the landscape is constantly changing and important buildings and social spaces can be demolished for the most banal of reasons.


If you’re wondering, I didn’t get the job.