The Gatekeeper, by Nuraliah Norasid. Read July 2018.
An urban fantasy novel set in a world heavily reminiscent of Singapore. Norasid is a Muslim Singaporean author, and this novel won two literature prizes in 2016 and 2018.
The story follows Ria and Eedric, two characters who, amongst other things, are racial minorities – Ria is fully non-human, and Eedric is of half-human, half non-human parentage. Both characters face ongoing prejudice and ostracism that comes from being of an unacceptable, defeated bloodline. The story is about their struggle against a ruthless world and the increasing gulf between the majority culture and their minority status. While there are moments of brightness and hope, the story has a fatalistic overtone and ends bleakly. But not unsatisfactorily – this bleak ending is a prompt for reflection about one’s own assumptions about race, culture, and the position of minorities within a majority culture.
This book is of particular interest to me because I was Norasid’s countryman. The Gatekeeper is steeped in South-east Asian culture: the history and setting of Manticura is reminiscent of Singapore’s own history, Ria and Eedric are representations of the indigenous Malay people prior to Chinese and European colonization. The novel contains a subtext of highlighting and critiquing the progress of Singapore from pre-colonial to colonial to independence to modernity, and also the social ills and complexities of inter-cultural and interracial matters in modern Singapore. The dialogue is written in the colloquial English of the region, rife with “Singlish” grammar and Malay words. When I read the dialogue, in my mind I also heard it spoken out loud in an accent well familiar to me.
Reading this book was an interesting experience. Norasid uses a fantasy setting to put distance between the reader and the cultural commentary on the real-world, to “make strange” the reality of the world so that we can see issues that would otherwise be camouflaged in normalcy. The cultural commentary was clarion and prompted my own reflection (I’ve experienced both sides of the racial-cultural majority/minority divide), but more than that, I was captivated by the juxtaposition of familiarity and strangeness of Manticura-Singapore. In some ways, that’s how I feel every time I go back to the region: it’s familiar, but also strange, and I’m now a foreigner in a place where my roots were – and perhaps, still are.