"A smart and challenging book....an exciting addition to transcultural literature." Edwidge Danticat
"The world the narrators of this extraordinary novel inhabit ours; now tries to deny them the knowledge of how much it injures them just to live in it. In voices that are lightning fast and sharply observant, that are as uncertain as they are wise, that dare to be funny even when they should not be, they struggle to take back the meaning of their lives. This in our particular moment in human history makes them heroes, and makes their story a great pleasure to read." Chuck Wachtel
"Hwee Hwee Tan, though a mediocre squash player, is a child-genius and Nobel laureate in embryo. So make up polite excuses for hitting small black balls with her, but buy her books." Larry Beinhart
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Hwee Hwee Tan
Q: To what degree is Foreign Bodies -- a novel about Singaporean culture, what it is to be an expatriate, and the intersection of Eastern and Western cultures-based upon your own life?
A: I grew up in Singapore. I left when I was 15, spent three years in Holland (Den Haag) and then went to college (University of Oxford) in England for 5 years. I now live in New York City. I've been an expatriate for half my life, so the idea of being a "Foreign Body" resonates greatly with myself.
Q. Do you ever go back to Singapore? Do you still have close family there?
A: I've been back to Singapore every year. I usually stay with my parents during that time, which can be difficult. I am very close to my sister but still struggle when dealing with my parents.
Q. Have your parents and family read this novel? How do they feel about it?
A: When the book first came out, my mother wouldn't speak to me for 2 weeks. She was convinced that I needed to see a psychologist. My father, oddly enough, had no response to the book. I don't think he even read it (but then, I don't think he's ever read a novel in his life).
Q: Why did you decide to tell your story through three rent voices? What challenges arose once you made this choice?
A: I was inspired by Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to use different first person narrators. I think the book's strength lies in the voices and it was a method to vary the range of the book by allowing different characters to speak and also making the book more interesting via unreliable narrators.
Q: While Andy is a wonderfully recognizable "type" -- the seemingly irredeemable, perpetually laddish slacker -- he's also full of surprises and charming idiosyncracies. Did his voice come easily to you?
A: I spent 5 years in England surrounded by Andys. Andy really encapsulates the twentysomething lad, so the voice came easily.
Q: You've discussed in interviews your own experiences with sexual abuse. How much do Mei's traumas -- and her way of coping with them -- resemble your own?
A: I was never raped by my father. I did have about four friends who had been raped or abused as children, but who never confronted their abusers. Hopefully, the novel will be able to give a voice to the voiceless.
Q: If you had to put up with being assigned one media-friendly, all-purpose label for yourself, which of these descriptions would you find the least reductive?: A. transcultural writer; B. Christian writer; C. the mouthpiece for twentysomething stasis. Do you object to any of these labels in particular?
A: I've always seen myself more as a retractable can-opener.
Q: Maybe not since Graham Greene has a novelist so boldly employed Christianity as her story's moral frameworkand as the engine for her characters' potential redemption. Why do you think Christianity and struggles with faith have become such unusual subjects in novels today?
A: Someone once wrote that the gospels recount a history while relating a mystery. If one sees Christianity as presenting a magic fusion between faith and fact, a presentation of truth in spirituality, rather than mere dogma, then, one can consider any piece of truthful fiction as "Christian" fiction even though it might be populated by ungodly characters.
Q: One of the things that is most striking about Foreign Bodies is your complex, highly ambivalent rendering of the mother-daughter relationship. Tell us how you set about writing Mei's relationship with her mom, what your intentions were, and how you feel about the result.
A: There was a time when I felt very close to my mother, but at some stage that feeling stopped. Writing Foreign Bodies was an attempt to explore the events that led to this shift in our relationship. Like Mel, as I was writing the book, I came to realize that my mother did not protect me from my father -- not because she didn't want to but because she couldn't.
Q: How do you explain the significance of your novel's tide?
A: The novel is structured like a metaphysical poem inspired by John Donne's Batter My Heart which is about God and spiritual rape. Just as a metaphysical poem is structured around puns and word play, Foreign Bodies is structured around the double meaning in the title.
Q: When Eugene mentions the infamous Michael Fay caning case, he says he "couldn't understand what the big deal was." Was this a common reaction among people you know?
A: It's a common reaction from expatriate kids (who tend to be over-spoilt and over-protected.) Most people in Singapore considered Fay's crime to be serious.
Q: You delightfully and invaluably skewer cultural and generational stereotypes in this novel, and many reviewers have commented upon how refreshing it is for a younger writer to abandon altogether the familiar conventions of cynical "Gen-X" writing and multicultural literature. How do you feel about these kinds of reactions to your work?
A: Characters, if truly drawn become fully fleshed people rather than cardboard cliches, so it was gratifying that the reviewers felt that the characters weren't flat.
Q: Growing up, what novels affected you the most?
A: Like Mel and Eugene, I read a lot of crime fiction, for example, the Hardy Boys and Three Investigation.
Q: And whom, among contemporary novelists, do you admire most today?
A: Foreign Bodies was probably most influenced by Amy Tan, Douglas Coupland, Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family), and Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain).
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Describe the different "foreign bodies" With which each of the novel's principle characters must contend, and explore the individual journeys each character takes. Does Loong have a foreign body? Explain.
2. In the midst of her grandfather's marathon of a funeral, eleven-year-old Mei experiences a religious epiphany in the form of an "unutterable kiss" from God. "This phrase suddenly popped into my head-Christ took my sins and cleansed every stain. Of course I always knew this ... but before today, it was nothing but a dry, empty slogan .... Under the table that day, I suddenly realized what it really meant." What does the phrase mean to Mel? How do her understandings of faith and Christianity shape the choices she makes in the course of Foreign Bodies?
3. "The good suffer and the bad go on to live happy lives." How does the outcome of Tan's novel serve to support, challenge, or complicate this statement?
4. When Mel first meets Andy in the airport, she sees him as "a baby angel, empty of guile." She instantly senses that she will end up devoting her "life to protect that innocence, preserve that purity, shelter him from an evil and cunning world." What is the author already beginning to establish only a dozen or so paragraphs into the novel? How does Mel's first impression of Andy foreshadow the major themes and events in Foreign Bodies?
5. Compare Mei's faith with Andy's. What happens to Andy the day he runs off, leaving his parents standing in the ladies' changing room at Debenham's? Consider the parallels that exist between Andy's otherworldly experience with the bright, round light and the legend of Ahmad the fisherman, which Mei tells Andy late in the novel. How might the moral of Mel's story be applied to Andy's situation?
6. What is the story of the Fisher King? Are we meant to believe that Andy is literally the keeper of the Holy Grail? What is Tan suggesting here?
7. What happens in "the story of Red Hill," which Mei's father tells Mel as a deterrent to keep her from running away? What bearing does the story have on the rest of Mel's narrative?
8. What is the significance of the caved-in sidewalk? How might the sidewalk function as a metaphor for faith? In what do Loong's parents place their faith? Loong? Eugene?
9. Mei's father accuses her of being a "banana": "Yellow outside, white inside." What does he mean?
10. Discuss the various religious allusions Tan injects into her narrative. For example, you might discuss links between the Bible's stories about various prophets and their divine visions with the epiphanies of Andy and Mel. Or you might identify the ways in which Andy's plight echoes or is informed by the Biblical story of Job.
11. In Mel's account of her rape on Red Hill, she tells us that her father "nailed me to the tree." What makes this particular description of the event so evocative and effective?
12. What are the elements and ingredients that make up Foreign Bodies? Is it a mystery thriller? A contemporary comedy of manners? A parable of faith redemption? A cautionary tale? Discuss all of the genres and literary traditions Tan is riffing on, alluding to, or updating in her novel.
13. Explain Loong's personal philosophy: he fancies himself a Nietzschean superman; he doesn't believe in God; and he totally rejects the possibility that the concepts of "right" and "wrong" possess any universal, objective meaning. Loong is wholly corrupt, but he also embodies the highest ideals of Singaporean society. What do you suppose Tan is suggesting by investing the character of Loong with so much irony and contradiction?
14. Why do you think Tan tells the story through the eyes of three different characters? How would the novel be different if it were told only from the perspective of Mel? Andy? Eugene?
15. Which character would you say is the most "reliable" narrator? Why?
16. "Going abroad was the core motivating principle of my life," Mel tells us. What motivates Eugene and Andy? What sorts of escape did they dream about when they were children?
17."The monks robe fell open, revealing -- Levi 501's." What is the effect of Tan's pointed, pitchperfect descriptions of the dual nature of contemporary Singaporean society -- where references to Robert Ludlum and REM stand beside references to the Chinese tei yuk?
18. Most Singaporeans, Mel tells us, speak "Singlish," a pidgin English that also features "Chinese, Malay and Indian words." How might Singlish act as a metaphor for Singapore as a whole?
19. By the end of Foreign Bodies, do you believe any of the characters have been/will be redeemed? Considering the fates of each of her characters, what does Tan seem to be saying about conventional notions of justice and conscience, good and evil, and morality and corruption?