Though I Get Home

Though I Get Home

by YZ Chin


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“A welcome read in American contemporary literature. Though I Get Home is an intimate and complex look into Malaysian culture and politics, and a reminder of the importance of art in the struggle for social justice.” —Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God and prize judge

In these stories, characters navigate fate via deft sleights of hand: A grandfather gambles on the monsoon rains; a consort finds herself a new assignment; a religious man struggles to keep his demons at bay. Central to the book is Isabella Sin, a small-town girl—and frustrated writer—transformed into a prisoner of conscience in Malaysia’s most notorious detention camp.

Winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, YZ Chin’s debut reexamines the relationship between the global and the intimate. Against a backdrop of globalization, individuals buck at what seems inevitable—seeking to stake out space for the inner motivations that shift, but still persist, in the face of changing and challenging circumstances.

YZ Chin was born and raised in Taiping, Malaysia. She now lives in New York, working as a software engineer by day and a writer by night.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936932160
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 04/10/2018
Pages: 220
Sales rank: 803,632
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

YZ Chin was born and raised in Taiping, Malaysia. She now lives in New York, working as a software engineer by day and a writer by night.

Read an Excerpt

Over two weeks elapsed before Isa was told to expect her first visitor. Paperwork, the prison guard had explained regarding the delay.
When the day of visit came, she did her best to tidy up with the limited tools available. They had yielded to her repeated requests for a mirror, which had been accompanied by sworn avowals not to kill herself. When the hard-won victory was finally delivered, she held in her hands a child’s mirror made of plexiglass or similar, a toy with a skinny pink plastic handle.
In this mirror she discovered cheekbones.
Impossible to grant her makeup, Encik Yas’ emissaries had said. She might try to kill herself by eating lipstick or eyeshadow; women products all contained toxic chemicals, they solemnly informed her.
What about organic brands? She asked, almost— almost for the fun of it. She called out after their backs: Did you know there are face creams made from aborted fetus placenta?
At least she had been exempt from fretting about what to wear. The clothes available to her were all soft and shapeless, including the bras— no lining. No belt. On the inside of the shirts and pants, where a manufacturer’s tags usually went, were words rubber stamped right onto the fabric: Property of Kamunting Detention Centre. She had three changes of clothes, identical.
She slowly swept the handheld mirror up and down her body, as if she were using a metal detector on herself. She wanted to know what she must look like to others, these days. That was how she found four loose threads, two paint chips and an unidentified substance that was slightly gooey, ensnared in the insufficiently washed nooks and folds of her flesh.
The guards came and escorted her out of her prison block. They walked past the ugly, squat office building. Even here, where the director and his staff worked and ate, the ground was arid.
The entrance was marked with a sign saying “Visitors’ Block.” She made a point of glancing at the clock hanging crooked in the foyer. It was a full thirty-one minutes before the appointed visiting time. That was good. She wanted to be composed. Then again her hair, slicked back with tap water from the bathroom, would not stay flat in place for too much longer.
They sat her down in an empty chamber divided into halves by wire mesh screens. Of course, more fencing. The halves were uneven. The side she was ushered into was smaller. There were no windows anywhere, but on the other side was a door and she stared at it, waiting, trying to empty her mind.
When she was eleven, her parents had sent her to the Buddhist equivalent of a summer camp. It was four days and three nights of prayers, mess halls, small group discussions and sleeping on floors. Could it be — had it really been that long since she had last heard a person pray?
Eyes closed, alone but for a guard standing right behind her, she tried hard to retrieve the passages of prayer spoon-fed to them. Only two bits came: one word and a rhyming pair of phrases. Her eyes opened in dismay. She felt like a hunter who had found just a bloody paw, or a scrap of torn ear, lying limp in the traps by which she had set such store.
The one bit of word was “Sarira,” and it described bone fragments left over from cremation, the bits that wouldn’t burn away. She simply could not remember the connection between this macabre image and the holiness of the lesson she was taught.
And the sole snippet of prayer she could recall went like this: Color is Emptiness, and Emptiness, Color. A woman with a gentle voice had decoded that phrase for the children. The word “Color” symbolized worldly possessions and concerns, as well as lust. Isa felt something shift, like a Jenga tower of memory giving way all at once when someone nudges a key piece that should have been left alone. But no more phrases or events materialized; what descended in an overpowering rush was a feeling that had visited her repeatedly, back in her childhood. It was hard to describe, like yearning and scorn kneaded together, fingers throttling, furious mashing.
The guard behind her made a noise. It sounded like he had scraped his shoe against the featureless gray floor. Then she heard it too, sounds of an argument from the other side of the visitors’ door.
She leaned forward in her chair and strained her ears, feeling her shoulders and back stiffen. She must look like a person fighting wind, tacking against invisible force. The harder she focused on the door across the airless room, the less she registered the wire separation in the foreground, her eyes blurring out the mesh.
The medley of arguing voices separated into their components. She recognized the higher pitch as her mother, trying in her typical way of maintaining the upper hand by keeping up an unceasing torrent, as if by refusing to hear what her opponent had to say she would eventually exhaust the enemy into submission. The person she was bombarding was Encik Yas, the prison director, whose voice cut into hers now and then.
There was this nature documentary Isa had seen once, alone in the dark. It was about the ocean, and there was a scene, played out over unnecessarily dramatic music, that depicted a few huge tunas torpedoing into whirling schools of tiny silver fish. The tuna seemed to be head-butting the twister made up of thousands of little fish, which had looked playful until the documentary revealed the end of the carnage: a whole tribe of sardines swallowed whole, eaten with their kin, nothing left but scattered scales.
She tried to rehearse how she would behave with her mother. More than anything, Isa wanted to portray a woman holding her head high under the tyranny of injustice, a poet warrior persevering in the face of dark forces. But it stabbed at her now, the idea that she could apply her free will and choose to react this way or that way, given any scenario. Color is Emptiness, and Emptiness, Color. She was in prison garb clutching her head and shifting uncomfortably on a metal folding chair. What was the point of trying to outsmart the future? Forever, always, there was only one outcome. The choice was between seeing that lone option as choosing, and not.
The door yawned, then hesitated. She could see a loose fist around the outside knob. The volume of arguing voices dialed up sharply mid-sentence.
“… doing this to us?” her mother wailed.
“We will be including this in our affidavit to the court,” said a third male voice.
Encik Yas jutted his head in, jerked his chin a few times, then left, slamming the door behind him. Isa froze in terror, not knowing what the chin jerks meant. Then she realized that he must have been giving a signal to the guard behind her.
“Mei!” her mother cried out before she reached the wire mesh screen. It was a nickname she’d used when Isa was a child, a generic label that meant nothing more than “little sister.” Isa had not heard anyone call her that for many years, and now she was sobbing. She felt ashamed and broken. She hadn’t cried like this in front of other people, not since the rattan cane thrashing, that awful snap of the instrument. Had she lost even her sense of pride? Would it never end, this taking away of her bit by bit? The acceptance of loss itself a loss, the broken spirit’s brand of Zen.
“The director would not let us all see you at once,” the stranger beside her mother said. “It’s the rules, he said. One person at a time, only. But we convinced him.”
She stared at him, still crying.
“My name is Surendran Subramaniam. I’m your lawyer.”
“But I didn’t hire you,” she said stupidly.
Her mother curled the fingers of one hand through the wire mesh, looking as though she were hooking on for support. Without thinking, Isa covered those fingertips she could touch with her own palm.
Mr. Subramaniam leaned sideways and came back up with a folder of papers. His eyeballs were not white but dull yellow, made the more pronounced by swells of purplish folds creased under those eyes. His jowls were fleshy and loose, and yet he was a thin man when he stood up.
When speaking at high speed he seemed experienced enough, briskly explaining that they didn’t have much time due to visiting limitations, which was why he chose not to go through the trouble of dismissing the eavesdropping guard this time — he delivered this with a glare at the guard, whose presence Isa had forgotten.
The lawyer started discussing next steps and plans, both short- and long-term. These were the first strands of hope that had been extended to her, yet Isa’s eyes kept straying and locking on to her mother’s while he walked through actions and counter-actions, sounding for all the world like he was in control. She could see that her mother wanted an entirely different kind of conversation.
“Luckily you don’t live far away,” she said, addressing her mother when the lawyer wrapped up.
“Can’t you just say you’re sorry and ask for forgiveness?” her mother blurted out, her fingers’ grip tightening. The screen’s wire bit into Isa’s finger pads. She winced.
“Can’t she just say sorry?” Isa’s mother turned now, appealing to the lawyer.
Before Mr. Subramaniam could answer, Isa said, “No, I have to do this. I know I can encourage other people to fight this way. We cannot give in to evil, Ma! Let them do what they want to me. For every me, there are many other people waiting to stand up for what’s right! I can inspire them!”
Her voice echoed in the closed room. Mr. Subramaniam nodded solemnly, while right next to him, Isa’s mother shook her head in spasmodic, violent jerks. It would have been an almost comical sight.
After a long, painful silence, her mother started telling her about a tiger that had escaped from the zoo not far from Isa’s old house.
“What happened to the tiger?” Isa asked.
“They should have shot and killed it!” her mother suddenly burst out. Isa’s heart beat faster; she didn’t know why.
“They chased it into an abandoned taman and cornered it there,” Mr. Subramaniam said.
“Which one?”
“The one with all the, uh, prostitutes at night.”
“And then?”
“And then they sent some soldiers in, but they were worried they would accidentally shoot each other because of their camouflage uniforms — you know, they also got jungle stripes like a tiger?”
Isa nodded, mouth open. “Then what happened in the end? Did they catch it?”
“Yeah. They didn’t have to do anything. The tiger got hungry and just walked out by itself.” He even shrugged.
“Nothing to eat in the taman mah,” her mother said, sounding wise. “Just like how the communists eventually walked out of the jungles all by themselves, back when I was a little girl growing up. By the time they surrender they were all skinny skeletons. You can’t eat bullets, you know.”

Table of Contents

Strike 1

The Butler Opens the Door 5

A Bet Is Placed 23

Though She Gets Home 29

The Olympian 63

When Starbucks Came 79

Kamunting I 89

Just How the Fire Will Burn 93

Kamunting II 101

A Malaysian Man in Mayor Bloomberg's Silicon Alley 109

Bright and Clear 167

Taiping 173

Duty 183

So She Gets Home 209

Acknowledgments 215

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