‘Glass Cathedral’: Gay in the Glass House August 27 2013
One of our more controversial books is Glass Cathedral by Andrew Koh.
Winner of the Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award, Glass Cathedral’s sensitive depiction of homosexuality in conservative Singapore is a landmark in local literature. This novella was part of a small wave of gay and lesbian – themed drama and fiction that appeared in Singapore during the early 1990s.
The following is a translation of an article by Edith Werner in LiteraturNachrichten Summer 2013.
Gay in the Glass Cathedral
Being homosexual in glitzy Singapore, one sits in a glass house. And if on top of that one is attracted to his priest, it becomes a glass cathedral. Andrew Koh has distilled his experience of running the gauntlet in the Asian Tiger’s conservative climate into a short novel. The classic love triangle is somewhat different: it involves two men and one man of God. Edith Werner spends time with the author and his book.
For the launch of the reprint of Glass Cathedral at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2011, the author flew in from Sydney. Shortly after the first publication of the novel in 1995, he immigrated to Australia and he does not want to come back. “I don’t want to be startled every time I am together with my boyfriend and the doorbell rings”, he explains. Even after a couple of loosening-up exercises during the past few years, Singaporean society is still quite conservative, and homosexual practices remain an actus reus. Surprisingly, Edmund Wee, director of Epigram Books, an ambitious, small literary publisher, dared to republish the book and put Andrew Koh in a series with Singaporean greats like Robert Yeo.
The back story of Andrew Koh’s alter ego, Colin Tan Seng Kuang, already greatly sets him apart from the Singaporean mainstream. He comes from a humble background and belongs to the catholic community of faith, a minority within his ethnically Chinese environment, which is predominantly influenced by Buddhism and Taoism. Accordingly, his ‘coming out’ also takes place in the strongly religiously moulded milieu of family, church, school, and youth groups. On the day of his communion, he sings “Onward, Christian Soldiers” with a burning heart, while the bearded, white-skinned Christ and the saint of the Asian mission, Francis Xavier, looks down upon him and the bishop blesses him. Come and experience God’s grace. All are welcome in the house of God, but is he welcome as well? On that very day, the rather shy boy has his first epiphany. Sitting a few rows ahead of him is another boy, who draws Colin’s gaze. They look at each other. A first fresh breeze. Not so in the catholic boys’ school. Sex out of wedlock is a sin, teaches Sister Mary, and Brother Cedric responds to one schoolboy’s question of whether masturbation is also a sin with lengthy passages from the Bible.
Pressured by the expectations of his loving but conventional parents, by the orthodox beliefs of his peers in his church’s youth group, and by his awakening sex drive, the adolescent flees to the charismatic, young Norbert Lim, a Franciscan priest who is known for being open-minded, sympathetic, and undogmatic. Concerned about the self-satisfaction and narrow-mindedness of Singapore’s catholic circle, the Father tries to push open as many doors as possible. He can even make Colin’s experience with the other boy in the pews compatible with his religious beliefs. God wants to show him beauty and love. Yet soon Colin is labeled a homo by his youth group peers, since one sees him together with Father Lim too often. And he is so sayang, so lovable. The future emotional storm makes itself known.
Relief is only first brought about by Colin’s entrance into university. Out of the cramped familial and church circle. New thoughts, new friends. Rani, the lively Indian girl who has already long cast aside her sari, could be his spouse if he had not realised in the meantime that he will probably never be together with a woman. James, the cool guy from one of Singapore’s most happening neighborhoods, whose openness and bluntness renders Colin speechless. Allurement, bliss, hidden joy. For the overbearingly curious Rani, they fabricate a girlfriend for James. The author truly unfolds a paper chase. Rani wants to meet Rose, and the two lovers are constantly forced to invent ever more far-fetched stories as to why Rose never shows. It is as enjoyable as it is oppressive. Even the bravest can’t afford openness if they don’t want to become outcasts. James is no longer as cool when he has to explain to his mother why he still has not brought a girlfriend home. For, a son and heir is required, without whom the well-to-do Chinese family would be lost, which despite also being catholic is prostrate to the veneration of the dead that pervades the island state’s syncretic faith-environment. James has as much trouble evading the net of lies as Colin.
Colin continues to keep in touch with Father Norbert. The Father is his confidant, his emotional support. He reveals himself to the Father—and vice versa! “There is nothing wrong with being gay. You, James, I, we are equally the church”. In view of his defiant avowal, Father Norbert is now just as helpless as Colin, since his church, his superiors still see it differently. And he loves Colin. But he must renounce, a word that for us sounds like it belongs in a 19th-century novel, but is by no means outdated in the prude Chinese milieu, where one tends to hide feelings rather than openly acting on them. The end strikes the reader unexpectedly. “Cool” James ultimately submits to the familial pressure and breaks up with Colin. “There is no future for us here”, is his resigned conclusion. He doesn’t only choose the convention. He also chooses the family. “One cannot experience the kingdom of God outside of family ties”, is the self-evident insight, given the strong family ties of the Singapore Chinese, that he finally manages to reach. And soon he runs into Colin with his arm around a smart, Chinese girl, naturally from the best circles of society. Rose, the white lie, once invented for Rani, has become flesh and blood. Does a real life exist within a wrong one? From now on James will avoid this question. The comforts of his home city’s well-coordinated social life will help him in doing so. There will be a glamorous wedding, the ancestors will be satisfied. Only Father Norbert frees himself from the shackles of convention and bigotry. He steps out of the Order and takes up a teaching job. Our shy hero remains how he has always been—completely at a loss and under the church’s bell jar. At least he now knows that he feels more than just emotionally attracted to his own sex. Will he also be able to finally free himself? The author does not divulge it to us. An open end.
His own response to the societal pressure—emigration—came much later. The thin novel’s publication caused a stir in Singapore. Andrew Koh went out on a limb with his brave literary ‘coming out’ and probably saw evasion to Australia as the only option; there he found enough countrymen. For many Singaporeans that feel penned up at home, even if they are not gay, Sydney is the preferred emigration destination. Andrew Koh’s own liberation was his deeply autobiographically tinted novel.
All of this has been put into the limelight a little too obediently, as is proper in Singapore. Even he who lives outside of the norm, always behaves nicely and dapperly in the Asian paragon country. Extremes are detested. Emotional releases are considered bad manners. Yet the conflict within the family, within groups of peers, and above all within the church is real. Even the unprejudiced Rani acknowledges the limits of her understanding in the first open conversation with Colin. “I can’t pretend that I share your experiences as a homosexual […] It is always easier to belong to the majority.” When Colin points out that as an Indian woman she also belongs to a minority, she draws the line between ethnic and sexual minority. For her, the sexual exclusion is tougher than the ethnic exclusion, at least in Singapore’s ethnically tolerant environment. Last but not least, what makes Glass Cathedral an unusual reading experience is the contrast between the light parlando of learned narrative tradition overflowing with hinting undertones and the severity of the conflicts that are dealt with. The confines are narrow, not just geographically, but also aesthetically and morally. The passion is tamed, the form agreeable, but the explosive force suffices to advise the author that emigration is the best solution. “It was not the best time to be catholic and gay”, sums up Robert Yeo in his preface.
Translated from the German by Jakob M. Jürgensen