[Book Review] Beyond The Village Gate by Tan Mei Ching

Beyond The Village Gate

Mei Ching Tan

Ethos Books (2012, 2nd ed.)/ 148 pp.

SGD 20.01 (local)/ 18.70 + shipping costs (overseas)

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today I’ll be encountering Beyond The Village Gate by Mei Ching Tan, published by Ethos Books.

When I was on my usual visit to the bookshop, the cover of this book caught my eye and I thought it was a new novel by a local writer. I was surprised to find out that this novel was awarded the commendation award in the 1992 Singapore Literature Prize and was first published in 1994. The copy I have is a recent reprint under the Ethos Evergreen series. Considering that it received some attention when it first came out and a publisher would take the risk of reprinting it as an evergreen title, I decided to give it a shot and was rewarded in a few ways.

The story is set in a fictional village in China and revolves around an orphan, Shi Ying (which translates as Lost Child) who was abandoned as a baby, found by a villager, and was given to a family of fisherfolk. Growing up, she has always felt distant from her adoptive family and wonders who her biological parents are. An incident with a village outcast, who was pregnant out of wedlock, led Shi Ying to form a bond with her. This interaction sparked off her journey in search of her identity.

The novel excels in dealing with the theme of escape in a nuanced manner while telling the story through the child’s perspective. To give you a sense of the effort and sensitivity that goes into developing this theme, here are a few things that really struck me.

Names play a big role in the book. We can easily understand why the protagonist is named 失婴 shī yīng (“Lost Child”). But the name is also a pun on something else that symbolises freedom and escape. As Tan chooses to disclose this intended pun towards the end, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Another pun, which I’m unsure if Tan intended it or not, is 适应 shì yìng (getting used to something). The conflicts between these puns encapsulate the main thrust of the plot beautifully. It is because she’s not used to her situation and feels isolated that she dreams of escape. Names come into play yet again when she asks her friend to give her a new name; a new identity.

One of the key features of the story is how myths and legends make up the cultural fabric of society. Shi Ying is very taken with such stories because her own origin is a legend which keeps changing every time it’s retold. Her unknown origin gives her the possibility of rewriting it and determining how her future will unfold.

They also capture Shi Ying’s child-like wonderment which gives the novel hints of magical realism. Whenever she’s out in the fields working or running away, the lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred. While we may disregard it as childish hopes and fears, that is the reality of her experience. Tan did well to maintain that and not let the adults correct that or offer the “truth” as such.

Tan cleverly uses myths and legends to give Shi Ying complexity as well. It presents her desire for escape not simply as running away or waiting for her parents to take her away. Escape can also be a form of transcendence. Shi Ying often wish that the wind would take her away or she could ride on the back of a wild creature.

As with myths and legends, the supernatural and death loom in the background. Death can also be a form of transcendence as Shi Ying would even welcome it if it provided her an avenue of escape. This reveals the extent of her desire to be somewhere else and someone else. One should not paint it with a broad stroke and view it as depression or having suicidal thoughts.

I love how Xiao Ling, the outcast of the village who is pregnant out of wedlock, complements Shi Ying. Her tragic situation is a counterpoint to that of Shi Ying as she has to deal with her child while Shi Ying wonders about her biological parents and deals with her adopted ones. The strange bond that both characters form allows Tan to showcase her sensitivity of language as she develops certain metaphors throughout the whole novel to great effect. I shan’t cite any examples now for it’ll give away too much of the plot.

Speaking of other characters, I can see why most of them are less developed. This is how Shi Ying views them which explain her loneliness and isolation. The only exception was when she had to take care of her father and she bonded with him when he talked about his love for his wife. It is unfortunate that it was only a chapter long as I often wondered why the couple agreed to adopt her in the first place. Having extra help on the farm is hardly a strong incentive as compared to the large responsibility one has to shoulder to bring up a child.  I sometimes wished Tan could leave a couple of hints for the readers without Shi Ying knowing. I would definitely enjoy this novel even more if it were a couple of chapters longer.

That said, I’m surprised how Beyond The Village Gate has so little mention and I would have missed it had it not been the chanced encounter at the bookstore. To end this review, I shall read the last paragraph of the first chapter just to give you a taste of all the points I’ve mentioned thus far. This paragraph really sets the stage for the novel and it’s worth noting that this is not even the best passage.

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.