16 February 2009

Sunday Times review of Quiet Time

Heart of a family man
Quiet Time tackles an aspect of gay life rarely talked about publicly in Singapore - the desire to be a parent

By Stephanie Yap

(Photo caption: Johann S. Lee continues with the topic of homosexuality in his third novel Quiet Time, which ends on a triumphant note that love is stronger than prejudice.)

QUIET TIME By Johann S. Lee Cannon International/ Paperback/338 pages/ $21.61 at Books Kinokuniya/*** 1/2

In his groundbreaking debut novel Peculiar Chris (1992), author Johann S. Lee wrote about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in conservative Singapore.

In the unrelated follow-up, To Know Where I'm Coming From (2007), he captured the dilemma of the gay Singaporean emigre, who finds acceptance in the liberal West, yet somehow feels drawn to return home.

As with the previous books, the author's third novel, Quiet Time, is not a book you pick up for its stunning prose. As Lee himself has declared, he is a storyteller, not a writer, and it shows.

The novel is heavy on dialogue, clarified by adjectives: Every few paragraphs require characters to 'say plaintively', 'interrupt beseechingly' or 'ask curtly'. But to dissect the novel's literary style is beside the point.

Quiet Time is a remarkable book because it presents, with compassion and humour, a dimension of gay life rarely talked about here - the desire to settle down and start a family, despite the inability of a gay couple to produce biological children.

The prologue opens in the not-so- distant future of 2018. Kuang Ming has been summoned to meet his son Aidan's principal due to a heated episode of name-calling the boy participated in.

He had verbally defended himself and his parents after a classmate's taunt that he was 'raised by a couple of homos' and 'faggots'.

His retort: His opponent's parents were 'bigoted, Bible-bashing fanatics'.

This is a future Singapore which 'decriminalised homosexuality years ago'. However, when we jump back in time to 2007, the law - and society, it seems - is still very much hostile towards gays.

Kuang Ming is a 37-year-old gay man in a decade-long 'open' relationship with his partner Josh, the high-profile editor of the leading gay website in Asia. As in many other countries, the gay scene in Singapore is hedonistic and youth-obsessed, filled with numerous parties where Kuang Ming is known as Josh's less famous, sometimes even nameless 'sexy boyfriend'.

But time and tide wait for no man and Kuang Ming has begun to tire of Josh's wild ways and promiscuity.

His angst is intensified when he meets Ethan, a doctor 'whose rugged, thirty- something skin is glowingly tanned'. Sexual attraction aside, they soon bond over their shared desire for a calmer and more settled life than is the norm in the gay scene.

The author gives us a peek into a lesser- known but just as vital aspect of the gay community - and the Christian one, for that matter - in a scene set at the Free Community Church, where religious and/or family-oriented gays meet.

Kuang Ming comes to realise that what he yearns for is 'quiet time' - taken from the term a friend, a lesbian mother, uses to indicate that it is time for the children to settle down after a day of play.

But even as he drifts towards the idea of starting a family of his own, the gay community is staging a passionate but unsuccessful attempt to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between mutually consenting men.

Meanwhile, the family he was born into is torn apart by differing beliefs as his younger brother Shaun, fresh out of national service, announces he is gay too, much to the horror of their elder sister Min Li, a fervent Christian who belongs to a church with vehemently anti-homosexual views.

These extreme opposites allow for a great many sibling confrontations, complete with tears and melodramatic statements such as: 'Because you chose God and I chose to live my life.'

But the anguish rings true in this tender portrayal of a family whose disagreements and reconciliations show that, firstly, you do not have to form a conventional family unit to be a family and, secondly, love is stronger than prejudice.

If you like this, read: Peculiar Chris ($19.90) and To Know Where I'm Coming From ($21.40), both available at Books Kinokuniya. In Lee's previous novels, he depicts the doubts and hopes of gays making their way in Singaporean society.

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