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Message to Readers

This was actually based off a theme, "Letters to the Dead". It was written in response to an open call (for an inaugural lit mag publication), which this didn't make it for; it is bittersweet to read this again.
I was dealt a heavy blow when I found out that my friend's two pieces got accepted. It had me in a period of dark, doubtful times about my writing ability.
So TL;DR: what do you think of this piece? I would love to hear your thoughts, be it in the form of a favourite, comment or review.

Speaking to the Living

December 24, 2016


“Papa, where is Nai Nai[1] now?”
He grunts as he lifts the soon-reaching 20 kg girl Rose, holding her tightly against his rumpled coffee-stained work shirt, letting her toy with his scratched glasses. “Gone.”
She scrunches up her face, so strange-looking that Papa lets out a rumble of a laugh that tickles her as well. “Then where did she go?” She points at the serious, monochrome photo of Nai Nai framed by fresh white flowers. Papa tweaks her forefinger gently, “Not nice to point,” he chides. “She’s everywhere. Her spirit is free now; she will talk to you when she can.”
Papa pinches her cheeks playfully. It doesn’t hurt, really, but she wriggles her face away. “How?” she repeats.
“Small messages, every day. All bits and pieces of a letter she’s trying to send you.” He winks conspiratorially, whispering, “Heaven’s reception not that good.”
She giggles, “Has she sent one yet? Will she send me a present?” Papa scratches his whiskery chin, stalling. “Eh…not yet, soon.” He earns a glare from Mama who has been leaning closer and closer.


Papa finally sits down to explain.
“Your Nai Nai loved flowers, because she grew up with a lot of plants and animals —”
“— flora and fauna.” Mama supplies helpfully.
“Ya, those cheem[2] words Papa never learnt also.”
“They mean plants and animals, dear,” she laughs softly, picking up Rose’s hair to braid them.
“Okay, okay. So Nai Nai loved flowers, and she loved cooking, especially for you. She wanted to name you after a flower, and even though she didn’t know English, she learnt how to speak your name perfectly.”
Papa tweaks her nose as he went on, “Why you so picky, never learn to eat good food. We hardly get to eat her famous drunken chicken[3] and Buddha Jumps Over the Wall[4]. Anyway, when you see it you will know. A flower beginning to bloom, a bird singing a song or a butterfly that comes to make you happy, they are all letters from Nai Nai.”


I grew up watching flowers and the sky. Maybe because of Papa’s stories (which he likes sharing, different ones every week), but mostly because it makes me happy. It was like shade under the unforgiving sun, iced kopi[5] in the sweltering afternoons, all very refreshing.
I recently started a small plot of garden on top of our Housing Development Board (HDB) flats. The neighbours are quite friendly, offering to help me water my flowers when I’m busy or away for business trips, but I like doing it myself. It feels like having a conversation with Nai Nai.
I began taking photographs of nature when I was Primary 5, to keep her letters. At times, I think Papa regrets telling me that story because of the money spent developing them. “Must you take three photos of the same flower,” he mourns. Those terrible photos sparked my interest in photography and after taking innumerable snapshots, each a frame in time, it has got me thinking about the meaning of life and death many a time as I was growing up.
In some ways, I am fortunate to have experienced a loss so early in life. Nai Nai taught me to treasure the family that is still with living me. Life is easy to see, I think. Every time you see happiness, hope, a future, you know it will live on. “Also depends on luck,” Papa insists, so it’s hard to say.
Death, not as simple.
Death is a petal, falling from its flower. Death is still a long way to come although it is now inevitable, but accidents happen, life is shortened, when people trample on them. Some petals, weaker in constitution, are snuffed out like a gasping flame.
Sometimes, death has no form. Death is choice, hurtful words. Not immediate, and almost always not obvious, but like a disease, if not addressed soon it ravages the host — inside out.
Death, though, comes with tears, sometimes heavier than it should be because of regrets. Papa tells me Nai Nai had one single wish, her wanting to see me grow up and have kids — which might be his own not-so-subtle hint.
But…I think Nai Nai had none, because her letters often make me smile, radiating love and contentment. Who says the dead can’t speak?
The dead speak softly to the heart.
[1] "Nai Nai" is how you address your paternal grandmother
[2] “cheem”, borrowed from the Hokkian dialect, meaning “deep”
[3] A dialect dish
[4] Shanghainese soup that is expensive but said to have good properties for the health
[5] “Kopi” is a local way of saying “coffee”


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  • December 24, 2016 - 9:15pm (Now Viewing)

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