by Ang Jia Yun
Title: A Certain Exposure
Author: Jolene Tan
Publisher: Epigram Books
Available at Epigram Books.
In the ‘90s, Singapore did not have a Backstreet Boys or Sailor Moon that we could call our own and go unreservedly nuts about. It was, in short, pretty dull. But in the midst of all this tranquility, Singaporeans were busy latching on to their identity as a nation, and any one who deviates from this seated mentality gets the brush-off. A Certain Exposure gives a refreshingly realistic portrayal of this milieu.
The story revolves around the lives of identical twins, Brian and Andrew. Every tale written about twins is strategically inclined to discuss about the polarity in personalities. While that seems to be the case for them on the surface, you will progressively learn that their minds race towards a similar dream – freedom from this suffocating dungeon they call home.
And that was how A Certain Exposure sprung into life against the backdrop of 1998, with Andrew making his escape in the form of suicide, leaving Brian to solemnly come to terms with this life-altering loss. But that was after everything went awry, when everyone found out that Andrew was “hoh-moh-seck-shuerl”, as his cousin and God-fearing conservative Mabel would enunciate in utter disgust.
At the gawky age of 12, to a stranger, Andrew is – pun unintended – a multilayered rainbow cake, and Brian is the plain vanilla frosting on its perimeters. Where brains and brawn are the most valued assets in this society, Andrew is a hero in the eyes of many. An overseas mathematics competition sparks a do-or-die hunger for a scholarship to foreign land. Brian never begrudges his brother for it; he yields to his own unremarkable grades and fades out of the spotlight. With Jolene Tan’s history of being born and bred among the elites of the country, her condemnatory tone while speaking about this uncompromising education system seems almost personal.
It’s ironic how family, love and friendship spawn the very mistakes made in the narrow spaces leading up to Andrew’s suicide. Familiar dialogue, places, and situations are amplified in the wake of death, to grasp when it all went despairingly wrong. Utilising her involvement in AWARE, Singapore’s leading gender equality advocate group, Jolene delves into social issues, like sexism, homophobia, and racism in a manner that painfully hits home. It’s no To Kill A Mockingbird, but calling someone a “dirty fat apuhnehneh” to her face is a lynching all on its own.
Nevertheless, it is quite a shame that this book snubbed any mental development of intriguing, full-bodied supporting characters. Is that what the real world is like? Do people change in miniscule ways, but remain stubborn in convictions that count – even when the casket of their cousin, best friend, partner, nephew, or child lays before them?
Maybe, maybe not. But every subdued, recognised reminder is a punch in the gut, and it appears that’s what Jolene wishes for us to rule.