Flowers for Algernon (Radio Play by Bert Coules)

Introduction

Flowers for Algernon is the title of a short story and an acclaimed science-fiction novel written by Daniel Keyes. The short story, written in 1958 and first published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. The novel was published in 1966 and was joint winner of that year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel (with Babel-17). Such an acclaimed piece of work cannot escape untouched and was hence adapted into many forms of media, among them a radio play which is what is provided in the syllabus for KSSM English Literature as of 2020.

Who is Daniel Keyes?

Daniel Keyes was a Jewish American writer. Born in New York City on the 9th August 1927, he attended New York University briefly before joining the United States Maritime Service at 17, working as a ship’s purser on oil tankers. Afterward he returned to New York and in 1950 received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brooklyn College.

A month after graduation, Keyes joined publisher Martin Goodman’s magazine company, Magazine Management. He eventually became an editor of their pulp magazine Marvel Science Stories (cover-dated Nov. 1950 – May 1952) after editor Robert O. Erisman, and began writing for the company’s comic-book lines Atlas Comics, the 1950s precursors of Marvel Comics. After Goodman ceased publishing pulps in favor of paperback books and men’s adventure magazines, Keyes became an associate editor of Atlas under editor-in-chief and art director Stan Lee. Circa 1952, Keyes was one of several staff writers, officially titled editors, who wrote for such horror and science fiction comics as Journey into Unknown Worlds, for which Keyes wrote two stories with artist Basil Wolverton.

Flowers for Algernon had earned him many awards, among them the Hugo Award (1960), the Nebula Award (1966) and a nomination for the Hugo Award (1967).

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon is written as a series of progress reports that are written down, and at times recorded, by the protagonist Charlie Gordon. Charlie was a mentally disabled 32 year old with an IQ of 68. He was working at Donnegan’s Plastic Box Company before being accepted into an experimental surgery to increase his intelligence. Algernon refers to a rat by that name that underwent a similar surgery prior to Charlie. Following the surgery, Charlie’s intelligence does increase and he begins to learn more about the world, including the ugly truth behind his daily interactions. This soon leads to increasing isolation and when Algernon’s intelligence regresses and it dies, Charlie realises that he faces the same fate. Henceforth, he goes on a downward spiral of emotional pain in a race against time, mixed with a saddening desperation and finally acceptance.

The ideas for Flowers for Algernon developed over 14 years and were inspired by events in Keyes’s life, starting in 1945 with Keyes’s conflict with his parents, who were pushing him through a pre-medical education despite his desire to pursue a writing career. Keyes felt that his education was driving a wedge between himself and his parents, and this led him to wonder what would happen if it were possible to increase a person’s intelligence. A pivotal moment occurred in 1957 while Keyes was teaching English to students with special needs; one of them asked him if it would be possible to be put into an ordinary class (mainstreamed) if he worked hard and became smart. Keyes also witnessed the dramatic change in another learning-disabled student who regressed after he was removed from regular lessons. Keyes said that “When he came back to school, he had lost it all. He could not read. He reverted to what he had been. It was a heart-breaker.” Characters in the book were based on people in Keyes’s life. The character of Algernon was inspired by a university dissection class, and the name was inspired by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Nemur and Strauss, the scientists who develop the intelligence-enhancing surgery in the story, were based on professors Keyes met while studying psychoanalysis in graduate school.

Aside from winning awards, Flowers for Algernon is also known for its extensive censorship in America and its subsequent inspirations.

The Radio Play

Flowers for Algernon was adapted multiple times after its publication, in particular a 1991 radio play for BBC Radio 4. The play was adapted by Bert Coules and starred Tom Courtenay. This adaptation was based on the short story instead of the novel itself, hence is much shorter and does not cover Charlie’s adventures in Manhattan or his interactions and flashbacks involving his family.

The Winter Hibiscus by Minfong Ho

About the author

Minfong Ho was born January 7, 1951 in Rangoon, Burma. Her parents originated from China and she was brought up in Bangkok, Thailand. As she did most of her studies in English, Minfong Ho soon mastered three separate languages: English, Thai and Chinese. She “started to write only after I (the author) left home, as a way to conjure up Thailand for myself, to combat homesickness while studying at Cornell University.” Before becoming a writer, she was a journalist at the Straits Time newspaper in Singapore and has been a lecturer as well as a teaching assistant. An award-winning author, her main medium has been short story anthologies, among them being In My Grandmother’s House, Soul Searching, Join In and First Crossings.

Synopsis

Saeng belongs to a Laotian immigrant family currently residing in the United States. Saeng is to take her driving test using the Lambert’s car, specifically the car that belongs to David Lambert, which is also Saeng’s love interest. Throughout the story, Saeng recollects her memories in Laos and their journey in America, sponsored by a Lutheran minister whose wife is Mrs. Lambert. Although life should be wonderful for them, Saeng is met with a string of events that dampens her joy: she first realises that David would have no interest in her, only heeding his mother’s instructions to lend their car; she then fails the driving test; as she is offering to buy David a meal, with money provided by her mother out of sudden generosity, David pays no attention to her and speeds off to talk to a blonde girl across the street. Disappointed and saddened, Saeng walks home alone and stops by a florist. The florist’s atmosphere reminds Saeng of home and soon, she spots the winter hibiscus – recognised as “saebba” – growing in a pot. Emotions overwhelm her and she decides to buy the flower with the money in hand. When she returns home, Saeng informs her mother that she had failed the driving test. Her mother comforts her, taking the winter hibiscus and planting in the garden. The winter hibiscus, which grows even in adversity, becomes a symbol of Saeng’s renewed hope as she promises to retake the driving test next spring.

Themes

A. Determination and Perseverance

The story revolves around Saeng’s challenges and ends, aptly enough, with renewed determination to take them head on in the future. Saeng, as an immigrant in a foreign country, is obviously anxious about her appearances and about fitting in. She worries that she might not belong as an American despite being there legally: to resolve that – rather, change herself unnecessarily – she adopts the local language, English and uses it daily; she studies diligently for each test conducted in English using a worn Laotian-English dictionary; she combs her hair straight down her back to mimic the cheerleaders, the image of American “perfection”; she takes the driving test, not just to help her family, but also to increase her standing and maybe, just maybe, draw David’s attention. As the story shows, life doesn’t always go your way, and fitting in does not come easily. Saeng fails the driving test and her attempt at gratitude, to get closer to David is dismissed nonchalantly and casually as David drives away, talking to another girl across the street.

At this point, Saeng had finally broken. She perceives herself as failing at fitting in, deciding to give up on retaking the test, lowering herself into despair and sorrow. After her previous diligence, never once failing a school test despite her difficulty in understanding the language, to fail here, in front of David was a disgrace too heavy to bear. To kick her when she’s down even further, she is reminded of how faraway she was from her home by the saebba – the hibiscus. She is taken aback by how lost she is, hopelessly isolated in a foreign land. She had lost so much and broke down crying.

Yet after bringing home the hibiscus, Saeng does not spiral into despair. Instead she is reminded of how far she and her family, immigrants from beyond the ocean, had come in this land of opportunity. Her mother comforts the crying Saeng and brings the saebba to the garden to be planted. As she digs up the cold soil and sets the hibiscus into the ground, she hears and smells the cooking of bitter melon in the pan, another symbol of her individuality. Despite leaving her hometown, she did not leave herself behind and this new home has become so much more familiar. Hope is brimming in her heart now as she swears to retake the driving test in spring, just when the hardy winter hibiscus begins budding.

In a way, the theme represented here is in close relation to the winter hibiscus itself. The hibiscus, coming from a foreign land just like Saeng was at first alone in this harsh world. But it does not give up, growing up in the harsh, grey winters and soon becoming familiar with them after years of living, adapting to its surroundings yet retaining its distinct petals and leaves. No matter how isolated you are, and how many foreign obstacles hamper and surround you, there is always hope to survive. This determination to survive and succeed is what sets people apart and is what pushes them further to strive for a better life. This is reflected in Saeng’s final declaration; despite her not belonging like David and the cheerleaders, she still loves this new home and will do her best to survive in it, overcoming whatever challenge may come her way.

B. Life of An Immigrant Family

We have all heard of immigrants in Western countries, in particular Asian families that end up in America, the promised land of opportunity. The Winter Hibiscus depicts such a life splendidly, from the initial aid they receive, to the desperation to earn for themselves, independence and the desire to fit in. Saeng’s family has shown us what it takes to survive in a foreign country, without any prior knowledge of the language or the country itself.

From the first summer when they had went smelting and combing the golf course for nightcrawlers, to sending out for seeds in Chinatown and having their own garden, Saeng’s family is a representation of the desire to be independent, possessed by many immigrant families there. Many strive to work hard for themselves and craft a future in this promised land, struggling to learn the language just like Saeng and her parents. There are also those who are desperate to fit in like Saeng, changing their own appearance to be accepted by others and striving to fit in by partaking in what might give her her American identity and look, such as a driving license and cheerleader hair.

Yet, these immigrant families do not separate from their original identity. Just as how Saeng remembers her home and her past, it is part of who they are. No matter how hard they try to fit in, there will never be an American as seen on TV – white, pure and smiling. It is their origins that make them special – despite all their discrimination and setbacks, they choose to look forward and live on. Their strength and determination is something to be admired.

Characters

  1. Saeng
    • Disciplined/Diligent
      • Studies hard for each of her tests, be it school tests or driving tests, despite her lack of fluency in English as the primary language in America
    • Determined
      • This can be seen through her diligent studying and her strong will when it came to taking the driving test, albeit for a very brief moment. However, she regained this determination from the inspiration of the winter hibiscus – saebba – and decides to retake the test in spring even though she had suffered humiliation just earlier.
    • Low self-esteem
      • This is seen through the emphasis by Saeng that she felt that she did not belong despite living in America for four years. She sees herself as different from the typical teenage American despite being the same age and the image of perfection was unreachable to her.
      • This changes when she accepts America not as a shelter but as her new home, having familiarised herself with her surroundings and life and America, shown in the last two paragraphs of the short story.
  2. David Lambert
    • Indifferent
      • Could not care for Saeng’s driving test outcome, only doing what he was told to lend the car to Saeng
  3. Saeng’s mother
    • Caring
      • Cares about Saeng and her social life. Hands her a twenty dollar note to treat herself and David to Big Macs
      • Cares about her family’s welfare, hence works hard to support them independent from government aid
    • Diligent
      • Works hard after arriving in America. Goes smelting, gathering nightcrawlers and studies English under a government program. Also works as a dishwasher along with her husband as a janitor.

Quotations

  • Saeng glanced down at her own clean clothes. She had dressed carefully for the test – and for David. She had on a grey wool skirt and a Fair Isles sweater, both courtesy of David’s mother from their last jumble sale at the church. And she had combed out her long black hair and left it hanging straight down her back the way she had seen the blond cheerleaders do theirs, instead of bunching it up with a rubber band.

    This demonstrates Saeng’s attempt at fitting in, a clear sign of her discomfort of being alienated in this foreign country. She copies the local’s appearances and tries to blend into the background of this nation.

  • There were certain words that held a strange resonance for Saeng, as if they were whispered echoes behind them. Luuke, or child, was one of these words. When her mother called her luuke in that soft, teasing way, Saeng could hear the voices of her grandmother and her uncle or her primary-school teachers behind it, as if there were an invisible chorus of smiling adults calling her, chiding her.

    This shows that Saeng was quite fond of her former home and that her native language is one of the ways Saeng recalls Laos. It also gives us insight into Saeng as it tells us that she had left home as early as primary school, and that not all of her family and friends could make it to America with her, foreshadowing Saeng’s sadness at this loss later on in the story.

  • It had happened so quickly. Saeng felt limp. So she had failed. She felt a burning shame sting her cheeks. She had never failed a test before. Not even when she had first arrived in school and had not understood a word the teacher had said, had she ever failed a test.

    Saeng’s shock at failing the driving test can be felt here. She was extremely ashamed in herself, as seen in the phrase “burning shame” and immediately considered herself a failure. Despite working so hard, one mistake had managed to ruin a significant part of her American life, seen as crucial for her to fit in there.

  • Saeng looked at the white bud in her hand now, small and fragile. Gently, she closed her palm around it and held it tight. That, at least, she could hold on to. But where was the fine-toothed comb? The hibiscus hedge? The well? Her gentle grandmother?

    A wave of loss so deep and strong that it stung Saeng’s eyes now swept over her. A blink, a channel switch, a boat ride in the night, and it was all gone. Irretrievably, irrevocably gone.

    And in the warm moist shelter of the greenhouse, Saeng broke down and wept.

    The climax of Saeng’s suffering. Overwhelmed first by her first failure in the land of opportunity, she is painfully reminded of how far she was from her original home and the world she had lost, including her own grandmother. She grieves this loss that was held back for four years and lets her tears pour forth. She could never feel the same way she had while living there, her childhood robbed and replaced by this new, strange and foreign life in America.

  • When they come back, Saeng vowed silently to herself, in the spring, when the snow melts and the geese return and this hibiscus is budding, then I will take the test again.

    The conclusion to this short story. Shows the renewed hope and determination Saeng has for her driving test and the rest of her future. The hibiscus – a symbol of her home and determination – serves as a another inspiration for Saeng to keep going, regardless of the prejudice she faces as an immigrant.

This is one of the six short stories that is provided through the short stories anthology for English Literature KSSM.

Sambal Without Anchovies by Chua Kok Yee

About the author

Chua Kok Yee was born and raised in Ipoh, before coming to Kuala Lumpur to pursue an accounting degree at Universiti Malaya. His short stories have been published in various anthologies and periodicals including Black and White and Other New Short Stories from Malaysia (CCCPress 2012), KL Noir Blue (Fixi 2014)Selangor Times, and Esquire Malaysia. He co-authored News From Home with Shih-li Kow and Rumaizah Abu Bakar in 2007, and his own collection of short stories, Without Anchovies, was published in 2010.

Synopsis

Pak Samad has been running the family business of selling nasi lemak for a long time. His son, Hanif tries to make the stall more profitable as a business by suggesting measures to cut costs, among them halting the use of banana leaves for each plate, refurbishing the furniture and cooking sambal without anchovies so that it can be kept overnight. However, Pak Samad has always turned a blind eye to his suggestions and this causes tension between the two. They argue constantly, both stubborn in their own way and causing their relationship to falter. Nora, Hanif’s wife steps in to resolve the issue after seeing Pak Samad’s reasons for not listening to his suggestions. Pak Samad merely wants to treasure the memories and love he shared with his now deceased wife through the nasi lemak stall that they set up together. Nora helps Hanif see reason and make it clear that proving his worth, through application of his business experience, is not as important as cherishing those you love.

Theme: Love and Remembrance

Sambal Without Anchovies is based around the love the main protagonists have, albeit displayed in different ways. Hanif’s love for his family business has led him to try and elevate it via cutting costs or business acumen he had procured from his restaurant businesses, as if he was “the anointed successor of the family business”; Pak Samad’s display of love is different and clashes with Hanif’s thinking: he wishes to preserve the original state of the nasi lemak stall, refusing all of Hanif’s suggestions and constantly arguing with him. To understand how this love came about, we need to look into both characters.

Why does Pak Samad wish to preserve the nasi lemak stall as it was 25 years ago, refusing to compromise even once despite having done so in the past? This is because of his deep love for his wife who had passed on in an accident. As mentioned in Thieving Daughter, people grieve in different ways, and this is no exception. The stall was started up together – Pak Samad, his wife and his children – and it was something everyone loved equally back then. It was Pak Samad’s pride and joy to have such a business with his wife and it was precious to him. That could explain why Pak Samad had left the hospital immediately after her death without displaying any grief: he wished to continue treasuring his wife through the nasi lemak stall, the one thing that was left behind as her legacy besides his own children. 25 years later, Pak Samad is seen refusing to even give the stall a fresh coat of paint, let alone change the recipe of the sambal or remove the banana leaves from his plates. Each of these were started by his wife, so by keeping them as they were, he was preserving his wife’s memory in each and as the story quips, “the banana leaves were his parents’ love letters.” This same concept can be seen in Hanif’s actions of preserving material items from his courting days with Nora: email printouts, ticket stubs and birthday dinner receipts all represented his deep love and it is this realisation that allows Hanif to finally understand his father.

Hanif’s love for his family is shown through his decision to not abandon the business, despite being told to do so by his elder brothers. He feels that he was “the anointed successor of the family business” and had to keep his parents’ dream alive by using his business acumen. The day his mother passed, he was shocked that Pak Samad had left silently to open the stall without any outward displays of grief. This could be his turning point, where he dedicates the rest of his life to preserving the stall and making it a success, just as his mother would have wanted (or so he assumes). It is his love for his mother and the family business that motivates him to clash with his father – after all, he just wants the business to be a success and for his father to be happy that his mother’s wish had come true.

In a nutshell, this short story is showing us how people remember their loved ones differently and the love they show through their actions, despite being not as clear and affectionate as many would imagine. Both Hanif and Pak Samad’s attitudes do not actively display their love for their mother and wife respectively, yet it is clear to any outsider that both of them are trying their best to preserve their loved one’s legacy, as Nora has observed herself. While it may not be clear to both these prideful men, it is clear that deep down, they both love their family deeply.

Characters

  1. Pak Samad
    • Loving
      • Although not displayed outwardly, it is understood that his practice of preserving his wife’s traditions and recipes is his “love letters”, a way of treasuring her even after her passing.
      • When Nora observes him cutting square banana leaves, his eyes are “bright and alert” and he was beaming, looking “younger, more alive and happier than Nora has ever seen.” This shows that Pak Samad’s actions have all been about preserving his wife’s memory in that nasi lemak stall and keeping his loved one close to him was all the joy he needed. Material possessions like money have no meaning to him.
    • Stoic
      • He endures his son’s constant arguments and does not reprimand him for them, instead understanding and accepting without displaying his own hurt. The smile he gives Hanif is his way of hiding the sting of Hanif’s suggestions that only serve to rob him of his memory of his wife. Yet, he doesn’t complain and remains the same as usual on the outside, only saving those tender and emotional moments for when he was alone, such as the time he was cutting the banana leaves.
    • Compromising
      • As mentioned by Nora, Pak Samad had once settled a feud between Nora and Hanif’s families over a bersanding date. His resistance was also surprising to Nora, which indicates that there are many more incidents where Pak Samad had been very compromising in.
  2. Hanif
    • Determined
      • Hanif is determined to make the business a success and constantly provides suggestions to his father as to improve the nasi lemak stall. This includes the omission of banana leaves, cooking anchovies separate from the sambal and refurbishment of the stall itself. He tries to use his business acumen which he procured from his restaurant business to cut corners and increase the profit of the stall.
      • Despite being rejected multiple times, he persists on giving these ideas to the point of coming into conflict with his father, always thinking that his suggestions are the definite, right action to take.
    • Loving
      • His love is demonstrated through his determination to make the stall a success. Refer to theme above.
    • Loyal
      • Despite being told to abandon the stall and leave Pak Samad to it by his older brothers, Hanif still remains in his hometown and tries to persuade Pak Samad out of his love for the stall. He decides not to leave home for good, instead always returning to the stall of his childhood and supporting his family as long as he can.
  3. Nora
    • Nora is the resolution of this conflict. By observing Pak Samad and drawing parallels to Hanif, she was able to understand the root of the conflict and convince Hanif of the true reason behind Pak Samad’s defiance. This leads to Hanif’s realisation and regret, prophesising a reconciliation between father and son.

Quotations

  • For the longest five seconds in the life of Pak Samad’s family, the man’s eyes examined the contents of the containers of food. Then he turned towards Pak Samad, nodded and ordered a plate of nasi lemak with fried chicken. They had their first customer! Hanif remembers how his father’s face had lit up. That is a memory Hanif would always treasure.

    This demonstrates how fond Hanif was of his childhood stall and gives a small context as to his determination to make the stall even more successful. In his own way, his methods were always in the pursuit of his parents’ assumed dreams and that Hanif had wanted to recreate the happiness he saw Pak Samad have on that day.

  • For a few moments, Pak Samad appears to give this suggestion a thought. Then he looks at Hanif and smiles, shakes his head and walks out of the kitchen. Hanif rests his clasped hands on top of his head in annoyance. It is not the rejection, but the way his father dismisses his idea that makes him angry. He finds that smile on his father’s face cynical, sarcastic and patronising. Does his father still think of him as a clueless kid, instead of the successful restaurateur he really is? Or, does his father believe that only his own opinions count?

    The rift between Hanif and Pak Samad widens. Without truly understanding Pak Samad’s intentions, Hanif begins to take even the simplest of smiles as an offense towards him. He believes that his father was not proud of him and was self-serving at that moment, drawing his own conclusions without knowing that Pak Samad was hurt by his suggestions as well. It is also hinted that Pak Samad may have intended to compromise and mend the rift between them by taking the suggestion. However, his deep love for his wife override this decision and he dismisses Hanif, despite knowing that it would hurt Hanif as well.

  • She sees Pak Samad sitting there cutting the banana leaves into squares, but there is something peculiar about him. His eyes are bright and alert as he holds a leaf up to examine it before he slices it with a graceful and fluid motion and stacking them in the container next to him. The corners of his mouth curve up in a smile and his wrinkled face glows. The old man looks younger, more alive and happier than Nora has ever seen.

    The hint as to Pak Samad’s true motives. This practice of cutting the banana leaves was something Pak Samad had probably undertaken with his wife, and by continuing this practice, it was as if his wife was still there with him. This brings him immense happiness and as Nora observes, she finally understands Pak Samad’s current stubbornness. His deep love for his wife has brought him immense joy and he was not going to let that go for his son’s “business acumen”.

  • The banana leaves were his parents’ love letters.

    Hanif’s realisation as to the true significance of all those mementos Pak Samad has kept for 25 years. It is not the practicality of it, as he was taught in school, but rather the sentimentality of these simple objects that Pak Samad treasures, even more than the money he could earn. There were thousands upon thousands of memories of Pak Samad and his wife contained within those pots and pans, that sambal recipe and the square banana leaves that it is near impossible to give them up without hurting Pak Samad himself. Hanif’s ideas had no meaning to Pak Samad: all he wanted to do was preserve the stall and the true motive of his actions in the short story is encapsulated in a simple and conclusive sentence, leaving the readers to imagine the continuation of the stall’s tradition and Hanif’s support for his father after the truth has dawned upon him.

This is one of the six short stories that is provided through the short stories anthology for English Literature KSSM.

Thieving Daughter by Chua Kok Yee

About the author

Chua Kok Yee was born and raised in Ipoh, before coming to Kuala Lumpur to pursue an accounting degree at Universiti Malaya. His short stories have been published in various anthologies and periodicals including Black and White and Other New Short Stories from Malaysia (CCCPress 2012), KL Noir Blue (Fixi 2014)Selangor Times, and Esquire Malaysia. He co-authored News From Home with Shih-li Kow and Rumaizah Abu Bakar in 2007, and his own collection of short stories, Without Anchovies, was published in 2010.

Synopsis

Kak Noor has aged; gone are her youth, vitality and beauty that she once wore with pride years ago. Her daughter, Aisya still possesses these features and this has made Kak Noor jealous, to the point of considering Aisya as a “thieving daughter” who stole those features from her. The story shows Kak Noor trying to take back what she considers to be her own, sparked by what she considered to be ungratefulness towards her cooking of mee hoon; next, she talks to Aisya’s boyfriend, Kamal alone, which provokes anger and conflict between them; finally, the black dress which Kak Noor insists on having despite it being Aisya’s possession. They argue and tensions flare, resulting in the dress being torn in half and Aisya stepping away teary-eyed. Kak Noor attributes this attitude to her husband’s death; without anyone to appreciate her, she thinks that she is losing her attractiveness to her daughter. In the end, she mourns the loss of the dress, attributing it to the endless list of things she has lost in the past.

Theme: Grief

Grief is the main concept behind this short story as the characters, Kak Noor and Aisya live together in the aftermath of the breadwinner’s death in an accident, that is Kak Noor’s husband and Aisya’s father. As the story unfolds, we realise that Kak Noor is now a lonely widow who lost her emotional support suddenly and without warning. All people grieve differently and that is certainly seen here, albeit in a negative connotation. Instead of moving on and embracing the present, Kak Noor focuses on what she is without her husband and feels lost, imagining that she is losing everything in her life and eventually pinning the blame on her daughter. Upset about her current circumstance, she strives to take revenge on Aisya, who she deems as a “thieving daughter”.

Among the things Kak Noor assumes to be stolen are:

  • Appreciation towards her cooking. Assuming that Kak Noor’s husband was very appreciative of her cooking and especially enjoyed her mee-hoon, it is clear why Kak Noor despises Aisya’s emotionless response to her cooking. She misses the praises that her husband once gave her and blames Aisya for perhaps not filling that void as her own daughter.
  • Companionship of a man. Kak Noor invites Aisya’s boyfriend, Kamal without her permission and dines alone with him. It was only natural that Kak Noor would miss the companionship of man, especially after losing the one man who loved her to the moon and back. To compensate for this, she spends some time with handsome Kamal alone.
  • Her youth and beauty. Her husband’s words used to reassure her as she grew older, yet after he died, those words seemed to carry no meaning. As she battles age, she views her physical beauty as precious and siphoned off to her young and beautiful daughter. Later on, she argues with Aisya over the black dress, which made her “look and feel younger and sexier”, and after it is torn apart by Aisya, Kak Noor cries over it despite it not belonging to her in the first place. This opportunity to look younger and more attractive has been robbed by her daughter and Kak Noor places the blame on her once again.

As Kak Noor grieves, she attempts to return to normalcy, or at least what life was like when her husband was around. Yet because Aisya is not complying – or rather does not realise her motives – Kak Noor goes on a downward spiral, treating her daughter as unloving and “thieving”. The grief has overwhelmed her and her connection to her husband has led her to believe that not just her daughter, but her husband was also responsible for this pain she is in.

Of course, it should not go without saying that the grief from losing him had impacted Aisya as well. Aisya is assumed to wish to avoid these conflicts with her mother, as any good child should wish to, and to provide a period of peace for her mother to recover from this staggering death. However, the above events have only served to worsen the relationship between the two. Aisya is also baffled by her mother’s behaviour as she continues to lay claim to everything that is hers, desiring what she once had that is now possessed by Aisya herself. The black dress was the last straw that broke the camel’s back – the one incident that permanently scarred their relationship. Even as she tore the black dress, Aisya was clearly hurt by her mother’s actions as well as her own, shown when she had cried and her body “trembles with emotion”.

Grief, if not handled carefully, can lead to grave scenarios. A family can be torn apart and one could slip into the darkness. This is definitely what we witnessed in this short story. It can be concluded that the love between one another is what can keep a family together in times of grief: understanding, openness and caring behaviour is what is needed to overcome such troubling times and avoid the fallout between each other like Kak Noor and Aisya.

Characters

  1. Kak Noor
    • Attention-seeking/Demanding
      • Expects appreciation or encouragement of her behaviour towards her daughter, as if to justify these actions. Can be seen as a direct result of her grieving.
      • As mentioned above, all three scenes play their individual part in defining this trait.
    • Stubborn
      • Kak Noor refuses to compromise, specifically when it comes to the black dress, in order to get revenge on her daughter for “taking” everything away from her. What she defines as her determination is a farce for her stubbornness. She also refuses to listen to the advice of her husband (her conscience, if you will, since it was conjured up by her own imagination and is least likely to be a ghost) and continues hurting Aisya despite being told the obvious.
    • Jealous
      • Jealous of her daughter, Aisya for having everything she once had, seeking to recover it by hurting her. With reference to the three incidents mentioned above.
  2. Aisya
    • Compromising
      • With reference to the Kamal incident and the black dress. It can be seen – and implied – that Aisya always had the intention of forgiving her mother regardless of whatever happened. A small confrontation would ensue after any disagreement but she loved her nonetheless and understood – to some extent – her mother’s actions. This can be seen when Aisya does not pursue the Kamal incident after a small exchange and was willing to give her mother full ownership of the dress after her office party.
      • Her comprising nature can stem from her desire to avoid any conflict after her father’s death. The black dress was the breaking point for her and to avoid this situation from worsening, she decided to get rid of the one thing they were going to argue over.

Quotations

  • Her beauty, youth and vitality are familiar. She has got them from me. It is odd though, because I don’t remember giving them away

    This particular quotation is important because it is present in the very first few paragraphs of this short story, establishing Kak Noor’s contempt towards he daughter as something deep instead of a feeling that only developed later on. This contempt was ingrained since before that morning and Kak Noor had felt that her daughter was already a “thief” before the documentation of the short story itself.

  • My nonchalance consigns her discomfiture into pettiness. That would make her blood boil, for sure, but I do not care.

    With reference to the Kamal incident. It is clear that Kak Noor had intended to hurt Aisya with her actions and that it was not a spur of the moment action. However, Kak Noor was preoccupied with her “revenge” to not care about her daughter, showing the reader how deeply rooted this grief was and how afflicted Kak Noor was by her husband’s death.

  • Why do you want my dress so much?

    Because it’s the one thing I can take from you.

    What? Why must you take anything from me?

    Why shouldn’t I? You have everything: youth and beauty that you have stolen from me, a career, and Kamal. You can’t have it all!

    With reference to the black dress incident. Kak Noor’s grief has misled her into believing that Aisya was at fault for everything she has lost, particularly her youth and beauty and her love. Jealousy fills her heart and to satisfy herself, Kak Noor resorts to these desperate actions to hurt Aisya and take supposed revenge. This emotional exchange that takes place in her head shows the reader her desperation for what she once had and provides further context for her actions up until this point.

  • I drop to my knees, and hold the cut-up dress to my chest. Its texture feels cold and coarse; lifeless. My daughter has murdered the dress. Something inside me is broken, and I can hear myself sobbing.

    The little black dress, like so many important things in my life, is gone.

    The conclusion to this short story, it shows Kak Noor cradling the black dress as if it was her own dress and it can be seen how possessive she was of it despite not belonging to her in the first place. She implicates her daughter as more than a “thief” now, instead picturing her as a sinister “murderer, as if Aisya had planned to continuously hurt her mother. Her grief has finally overtaken her rationale as something inside her breaks, sadly solidifying her stance against her daughter. One can only imagine how much this fallout will affect them after the story, the readers themselves wishing that this not happen to their own family through the explosion of emotions that are witnessed towards the end of this short story.

This is one of the six short stories that is provided through the short stories anthology for English Literature KSSM.

Turning Thirty by Minfong Ho

About the author

Minfong Ho was born January 7, 1951 in Rangoon, Burma. Her parents originated from China and she was brought up in Bangkok, Thailand. As she did most of her studies in English, Minfong Ho soon mastered three separate languages: English, Thai and Chinese. She “started to write only after I (the author) left home, as a way to conjure up Thailand for myself, to combat homesickness while studying at Cornell University.” Before becoming a writer, she was a journalist at the Straits Time newspaper in Singapore and has been a lecturer as well as a teaching assistant. An award-winning author, her main medium has been short story anthologies, among them being In My Grandmother’s House, Soul Searching, Join In and First Crossings.

Synopsis

Ah Liong’s birthday is coming up. His wife, Beverly plans to throw a grand birthday party to celebrate this occasion and his success as a lawyer. However, Beverly’s plan is thrown into disarray when the video camera goes missing as she intended to film the birthday party with it. Beverly suspects that the foreign maid, Rosa had stolen it and repeatedly confronts Rosa, often forcing her to the verge of tears. Meanwhile, The Old One had been watching this unfold silently and when her joss sticks go missing, she finds them being used by Rosa to pray. After a brief conversation, Rosa confides that she had stolen the camera to help fund her family back home and had pawned it off. The Old One is sympatising and decides to help Rosa by pawning off her jade bracelet to buy a replacement video camera. As she is returning it to its original location, Ah Liong confronts her. The Old One sternly tells him off, implying that his wealth, career and its blindfolded figurehead have blinded him, causing him to lose compassion. In the end, Ah Liong does not spill the beans on where the camera came from, silently acknowledging The Old One’s point and becoming compassionate towards her and Rosa’s plight.

Theme

A. Humanity

This theme revolves around the actions of three characters, namely Rosa, Beverly and the Old One. All three are mothers with children to love and care for. However, Beverly herself does not have the humanity to care for and understand others, especially those that do not benefit her ambitions. It is shown in the story that Beverly is a very material person: she perceives her husband’s wealth and profession as her only source of pride, constantly fussing over their outward appearances and only using her son, Billy as a social convenience in front of dinner guests. Meanwhile, Rosa and the Old One both dote on Billy, treating him as if it were their own child. This is especially prevalent during the bath scene, where Rosa seems to be the only one able to comfort Billy while Beverly does not wish to get herself in a mess just to ease Billy’s panic. Billy as a child is most comfortable around Rosa and this shows how caring and humanitarian Rosa is towards others despite them not having any blood relation to herself.

The conflict between Rosa and Beverly is also another example of the lack of humanity in Beverly and its strong presence in Rosa. Rosa had stolen the video camera to pawn it off and send money home. This was to ensure that her children could survive despite being separated for what might have been years, leaving them in the care of her drug addict husband. Rosa had taken this desperate action only after asking for a raise from Beverly herself, making this theft only a last resort. Beverly does not treat this kindly, instead dismissing her and immediately berating Rosa without inquiring about her personal problems, focusing her attention on the whereabouts of the video camera and threatening Rosa until she broke down in tears. This shows that Beverly is a cruel person and is indeed material and the Old One, able to empathise with Rosa having been a maid herself, decides to help Rosa out of this tricky situation by pawning off her jade bracelet and purchasing the video camera.

The confrontation by Ah Liong is the final point made on humanity in this short story. As the Old One is caught placing the video camera back, Ah Liong is only focused on bringing the culprit to justice and satisfying his wife despite having argued with her countless times before. However, the Old One reminded him to have a liong-sum – a kind heart – in his profession as a lawyer and, understanding Rosa’s plight and the necessity of this lie, covers up for them both and protects them from Beverly’s wrath. This action is what the Old One takes as a sign of final maturity – after 30 years, her son has finally grown into a compassionate and caring man.

Through the use of a setting designed to appeal to Asian families, Minfong Ho has instilled the values of humanity through these instances in the short story. The compassionate actions of Rosa, the Old One and Ah Liong are an example to others to be compassionate and humane when treating others. Similarly, Beverly is an example of an inhumane person, perhaps sharing character traits with certain Disney villains. This serves as a reminder to society to embrace compassionate ideals in their daily interactions: people should care and love others just as they love their own children instead of embracing a cold stance towards others unfamiliar to yourself. This can improve how people treat each other and contribute to the foundation of a loving, harmonious society, where people are treated equally and their hardships are tended to.

B. Filial piety

Filial piety is a Confucian principle referring to the virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders and ancestors. This is clearly shown in the interactions between Ah Liong and the Old One. Among these interactions include:

  • Ah Liong bringing the Old One along to his graduation ceremony where he received his diploma. Despite the Old One’s worries that her being there would be an embarrassment to Ah Liong, he had not shown such discontent, instead proudly introducing her to his classmates’ mothers, who were dressed flamboyantly in contrast to the Old One’s grey samfu.
  • Ah Liong still practices the simple gesture of helping the Old One to food before taking any himself. This is a simple sign of respect in Chinese households.
  • Ah Liong argued against moving the altar or the new CD player, stating that it was a central piece wherever they lived and that it might hurt the Old One’s feelings to disrespect it in such a way.
  • Soon after Ah Liong returned from his overseas studies, he brought the Old One to “the biggest goldsmith shop in People’s Park” and “asked – no, demanded – to see the most expensive jade bracelet in the shop”. Jade bracelets are a common accessory among Chinese women and, expensive as they are, they are ultimately very prized possessions. The Old One felt honoured by this show of respect.
  • Ah Liong covers up for both Rosa and the Old One with a lie to protect them from Beverly’s wrath. Ah Liong finally understood what the Old One had meant and decided to have compassion, just as he was taught to.

It is through these actions that proves Ah Liong’s filial piety towards the Old One. As a whole, this reminds the readers about their own families in their individualistic ways, emphasising the need for them to understand their sacrifices and cherish them, especially as a grown adult with the financial means to support them.

Characters

  1. Ah Liong
  • Has filial piety.
    • Takes care of the Old One’s feelings and welfare, especially in spite of his wife. Beverly’s difference in opinion and behaviour towards seniority.
    • Prioritises the Old One during dinner by helping her to food before eating; defends the Old One’s practices and protests Beverly’s desire to move the altar in favour of the new CD player; defends the Old One from being attacked (figuratively) by Beverly when in possession of the video camera.
  • Not hasty when making decisions. Calm and collected.
    • Thinks rationally and takes his time before jumping to conclusions.
    • Does not agree with Beverly’s accusations towards Rosa when the video camera goes missing as there is no substantial proof.
    • Does not immediately berate the Old One when seen with the missing video camera, instead gently asking her about the reasons behind it.

2. The Old One

  • Story is told from her perspective.
  • Compassionate/Sympathising
    • Is compassionate towards Rosa’s situation/dilemma and sympathises/empathises with her, having gone through the same situation as a single mother working as a maid back then.
    • Pawns off her jade bracelet to help buy a video camera and save Rosa from her plight; does not mind Rosa using her joss sticks when praying to her own deity, instead supporting her through her dilemma; defends Rosa in spite of her son’s justifications.
  • Loving
    • Cares for her grandson and Ah Liong.
    • Loves Ah Liong and tried to support her family single-handedly, devoted to giving Ah Liong a loving childhood.
    • Tries to support Ah Liong’s marriage and avoid further discourse. Seen when the Old One defuses their argument over the altar by insisting it was more convenient to have the altar in her room.
    • Dotes on her grandson, Billy, carefully bathing him and enjoying the process of taking care of him; tires to console him when he begins to cry.
    • Still cares about Ah Liong when he is an adult, convinces him to be compassionate and think with his heart instead of blindly abiding by the law.

3. Rosa

  • Loving mother
    • Willing to do anything to ensure her children’s welfare is taken care of.
    • Steals the video camera to send money home, tries to make sure her husband does not waste it all on drugs.
    • Begs/pleads to Beverly to obtain some money to send home and take care of her family.
    • Takes care of Billy as she would her own child, carefully bathing and soothing him.

4. Beverly

  • Selfish/Materialistic
    • Cares more about her reputation/image than anyone’s welfare.
    • Dolls up Billy as a showcase but puts off caretaking work to Rosa; argues for the moving of the altar without considering the Old One’s feelings; relentlessly accuses Rosa of theft and threatens her to hand over the camera just so she could videotape a party and boost her ego; turns a blind eye to Rosa’s pleads, even when breaking down into tears and practically begging.
  • Hasty
    • Immediately goes after Rosa after losing the video camera, repeatedly attacking her without possessing any proof

5. Billy

Billy is the connection between the three women. Their interactions with him help develop the women’s individual traits and demonstrates clearly who is loving and who is not. It is a child’s tendency to show affection to those they feel comfortable with – in this case, explicitly calling for a certain person, namely Rosa – as a sign of closeness and proof of compassion.

Quotations

  1. Seated at the dining table, her son helped her to a piece of chicken before taking one for himself. When she had first moved in with them, he had tried to talk his wife into such a gesture – the token serving of the morsel to her plate before they started to eat. But Beverly had raised her eyebrows and said, “We never did that in our family.”

    “I did,” said Ah Liong, “when I was growing up.”

    “Well I didn’t,” Beverly said and that was the end of that.

    This among the first developments of the character of Ah Liong and Beverly. It is shown that Beverly clearly has a distaste for such traditions whereas Ah Liong still respects his own mother and has not let his wealth get to his head. Beverly can also be seen as disrespectful towards elders, especially the Old One and this distinction defines Beverly for the rest of the story.

  2. “I don’t like it,” Ah Liong said. He spooned up a piece of pork bone from the soup and sucked the marrow noisily.

    Beverly winced. “But think of how far you’ve come, Leon. Twenty, even ten, years ago, you were just a nobody, fighting to survive in a rough world, barely scraping by enough to live on, let alone live graciously.”

    “There’s a difference between gracious and ostentatious,” Leon said, in his serious, lawyer-like tone. “I don’t like things ostentatious.”

    “Well, like it or not, there’s going to be a party. The caterers are coming, the people have all been invited. And I want that video camera to record everything.”

    The difference between Ah Liong and Beverly’s attitude is demonstrated here again. Ah Liong/Leon prefers to be humble – he does not wish to celebrate his wealth and success because he had worked hard for it and it was not something worth showing off; Beverly is a materialistic person and only view success through the presence of wealth and assets. Beverly is also much more stubborn and it can be implied that there have been many arguments where Beverly forced her own way in their life.

  3. But she had missed bathing the baby, missed soaping his thick black hair and running her hands down his smooth round belly. It reminded her of the times she had bathed Ah Liong when he was a little boy. So when she realised that Beverly and Rosa were engaged in a long, serious conversataion, she quietly – almost stealthily – ran the bathwater and started to undress Billy.

    This demonstrates the Old One’s immense love for her family. Despite growing old and losing most of her strength to do house chores, she is still eager to bath her grandson as it reminds her of when she took care of Ah Liong herself. Her “stealthy” movements may also indicate that she did not wish to have Beverly see her attending to Billy and hints at a possible discourse or disagreements between the two, also showing how Beverly does not interact well with mother-in-law due to her horrid attitude.

  4. It was strange yet oddly natural, that the two of them could communicate so easily in a language that was so foreign to both of them. In a way, it was perhaps that they spoke English in defence, as the enemy tongue, that the sense of sympathy arose.

    Rosa and the Old One grow closer through this small interaction. Both have been through the struggles of being a maid and feeling like an outcast – Rosa who is a foreigner in Singapore and the Old One whose Cantonese and old traditions do not immediately fit into Ah Liong’s household. However, it is through these differences that they could understand each other, not purely by means of language but through an emotional level as well.

  5. “More things,” the Old One said. “When you have everything you need already.” Pointedly she held out the video camera and handed it to him. “Everything, Ah Liong, except a kind heart.” She had used the Cantonese term, liong-sum, literally a kind heart: ‘liong’ as kind, the same word that his name was based on. She reached over to the fallen statuette and set it upright again. “This goddess of yours, this one that your lawyers worship, has she no liong-sum?”

    This is from the climax of the story, where the Old One confronts Ah Liong over the video camera fiasco. Ah Liong is convinced to be compassionate through this confrontation and covers up for both Rosa and the Old One. The deliberate use of ‘liong’ here reinforces the message: Ah Liong, whose name was based on that word, is meant to be kind-hearted t everyone and not his selective clients and is reminded of this fact by the Old One. He remembers that he should be defending the weak and unfortunate, so by means of this realisation and his filial piety, he decides to help Rosa and the Old One, an action that the Old One is certainly proud of. The readers are also reminded of how superficial material things are; what is important is your actions and attitudes towards others, not your material possessions. Only then would you have matured.

This is one of the six short stories that is provided through the short stories anthology for English Literature KSSM.