Home, Truly? by Inez Tan

(Photo by Marc Nair/Mackerel)
Inez Tan has been writing poetry and fiction, and her stories have appeared online as well as in publications such as Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Softblow, and the anthology, A Luxury We Cannot Afford. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the University of Michigan, and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine. Here, she talks about what inspired her debut collection of short stories, This Is Where I Won't Be Alone

 

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When you’ve grown up in many different places, a question that gets harder for me to answer each year is “Where are you from?”

It feels wrong to leave any of them out, so sometimes I say, a little too cheerfully, “I’m from all over!” and see if I can get away with changing the subject.

But most of the time, I end up saying something like: “I was born in the USA, lived there until I was six, moved back to Singapore and attended local schools between the ages of seven through fifteen, moved back to the US for high school, and have been living there since, while spending most summers in Singapore, where my family is now.” Which is factual, but dull, and pretty unsatisfying.

Something I’ve realised is that many of the stories I’ve written have been attempts to answer some of the questions I’ve been circling my whole life: Is home the place you come from, or is it something you make for yourself? Does a sense of belonging come from a place, the people you were with, who you were when you were with them?

I think all of the above is true. But for a long time, I didn’t know anyone else who felt that way.

 

The title of my first collection is This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone, which is a line from the chorus of the song, “Home”, written by Dick Lee and made popular by Kit Chan:

This is home, surely
As my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone
For this is where I know it’s home

It’s a strangely melancholy song. I think that’s why it strikes a chord with so many of us. “Alone” and “home” are sung on the same note, but one line sounds secure, while the other is a plea full of yearning. And the two words aren’t perfect rhymes, so we end on some lingering uneasiness – is the question of home really as resolved as we want to say it is?

For years, I had grown up in Singapore feeling that because I had also lived elsewhere, I didn’t quite fit, I didn’t quite belong. But the more I’ve talked to family and friends, the more I’ve come to realise that is an experience many in Singapore share.

Living and travelling overseas is a significant part of Singaporean culture, and longing feverishly to belong somewhere and someone comes with the territory(ies).

Beyond that, the country changes so rapidly that the Singapore of my parents’ childhood was incredibly different from mine. It took me a long time to realise the extent of that. When I was growing up, very little local literature was available. I didn’t have stories about what living in Singapore was like, and I never thought I would see any.

 My own stories are a little weird and unconventional. Many of them are set in Singapore, with kiasu and kancheong characters navigating intergenerational conflict, struggling to stay sane in school, falling in and out of love, and trying to hold on to something while everything around us keeps moving.

But the story, “Oyster”, is narrated by a dried oyster who watches a Singaporean mother and daughter relationship; while in “Crawling” an unhappily retrenched man conducts a social experiment with ants. And another story, “On the Moon” is set in a future when we’ve colonised the moon.

The search for home is real, but it also requires the imagination, and that’s what I try to do in my fiction.

I think of these stories as stories about home and belonging that I would have liked to have when I was younger. I hope they can be that for someone else.

I wrote the stories in my debut collection over eight years of moving between Singapore and three different cities in the United States. Along the way, I discovered that home is something you make for yourself. It's more than a place - it's the people you're with, and the people you miss.

Here's a playlist for everyone caught between worlds, yearning for connection, and searching for who and what to call home.

Get your copy of This is Where I Won't Be Alone here.

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