YELLOW CHAIR: The Last Immigrant

I read THE LAST IMMIGRANT by Lau Siew Mei when I was exhausted by a day of human interaction. Was the best solution to go ahead and read a book that was filled with human interaction? Perhaps not. But I did.

My eyes were nearly shut, so I essentially read the first few chapters of THE LAST IMMIGRANT half-lidded – but Lau Siew Mei’s writing eventually drew my eyes wide; wide-wide-wide-and-awake for the rest of this page-turner of a novel.

The Last Immigrant was the first novel I had designated myself to read from my SingLit haul. But it seemed heavy – not just in size, but in subject-matter. The lazy piece of shit in me reared its head and I left the book untouched for two weeks as I wasn’t ready to comprehend a story-line that talked about characters broken from within.

I wasn’t wrong when I said it was heavy, but I was wrong when I said that The Last Immigrant was difficult to comprehend, because I could. As a human being myself, I could. Lau Siew Mei wrote wonderfully and terrifyingly about the supernatural world and the treachery of our own internal mind’s workings, creating an entrancing narrative of a neighbourhood that charted each other’s lives and were interconnected by voids meant to be filled, or that had been haphazardly filled.

I identified with this novel backwards. The book is about a Singaporean who migrates to Australia – Brisbane – to live with his American wife, Nat. I grew up overseas – California – and came to Singapore as a teenager. Hence, I relished in the feelings of detachment, loneliness and identity crisis brought about by cultural cross-over that left me feeling like a figurative fish out of water – as an ABC brought to Singapore.

Lau Siew Mei quietly and carefully makes the arching flaw in the societies that Ismael, the protagonist comes across to be the fact that individuals need to function as outcasts in order for an inner community to be forged. Ismael’s story of being an outcast is told backwards – it is revealed that his source of lingering guilt and unease was due to a regretful incident of the past, where he’d created the need for such an outcast to feel included. In the beginning of the book, we see Lau Siew Mei artfully craft out a familiar arc of Ismael, a Muslim-Singaporean and a doubly-discriminated foreigner receive predictable treatment when ‘transplanted’ into a society where he was the only one with a different shade of skin.

This is a good novel written about Singapore, but I’d say that a more accurate description would be that The Last Immigrant is a great novel written about a Singaporean’s limits and about how it takes the crushing of a soul to understand the mind and self.