(Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash)
“How do you think books sell?," Kenny asked me when I first started writing fiction. "Do you think a book sells itself?"
I had no idea. And until a fateful conversation seven odd years ago with Kenny, co-founder of Books Actually, Singapore's largest independent bookstore, it was not something I had ever thought about. How, and why do we come to read what we read?
"This book is amazing. You have to read it." He pulled a random book from the shelf and pressed it in my hands. "Books don't sell themselves."
Kenny opened my eyes to the magic of bookselling. Book displays, how titles are curated on a shelf, how we shape the conversation around a book: every little thing counts. The invisible work that goes into pushing one book above the rest, in an unending pipeline of ever newer and more exciting reads. The art that makes the process of a customer encountering a book in a bookstore feel like serendipity. Almost like love, actually.
This week, I was horrified, along with many in Singapore's literary community, to learn that a safe space like Books Actually could also have been a place where young, vulnerable women were exploited. I consider Kenny a friend, and while I was never part of the circle of writers that congregated around Books Actually and its related imprint, Math Paper Press, I did for a time hang out with him and Renee while they were engaged. I did not witness or notice any of the abuses alleged in the Rice Media story. But I know enough to believe Renee, and the women who came forward.
Kenny's contribution to Singapore's literary community is indubitable, and the pressures and constraints he worked with to build up Books Actually are and continue to be immense. He has devoted his life to promoting literature in Singapore, and putting Singapore on the global literary map. But that is no excuse and should not provide any sort of cover for taking advantage of the labour and emotions of the young women, girls really, who worked alongside him in building his dreams.
Women like me don't often get to meet young women like Renee. We have opportunities. We come from good homes. Government approved, standard definition families. We're drafted from an early age into the best schools, funded to study at top universities abroad, and on our return, are ushered into jobs that perpetuate the very meritocracy and oil the capitalist machinery which granted, and continues to sustain our privilege. Young women like Renee and their struggles are never featured in our national broadsheets or shows, not unless there's a morally proselytising take or feel-good story. In Singapore, we pretend they don't exist.
None of that mattered at Books Actually, the physical store, and that was probably its biggest draw, especially for Singapore's marginalised communities. It was a class-fluid space where you could meet people from all over the world, of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, where we shared what felt like a universalising love of books. Stepping into the now-defunct store at Tiong Bahru felt like getting away from the most unbearable parts of living in Singapore. A piece of Singapore, that made you feel—if even for a moment—like you were not in Singapore.
It was in other words, an illusion, specifically designed to seduce readers and writers like me. Where we could feel good about ourselves. Where we would have no reason to pay any attention to anything going on behind the bookshelves. Where no one would even notice the illusionist.
No one ever knows the truth of a relationship except the two people involved, and under normal circumstances, it shouldn't concern the rest of us. Kenny and Renee looked, to me, like a couple in love. That was how they probably appeared to most of their customers. "Wasn't it consensual?" another writer who had hung out with us back then asked me, as though he too was trying to verify his memories.
But I remember what it feels like to be young and in need of love and validation. I remember what it feels like to have older men, men with power, take advantage of me at my most vulnerable. I remember how easy it is to mistake emotional abuse, especially in relationships where power is deeply imbalanced, for love. Or more precisely, the illusion of love.
And that, ultimately was the illusion that Books Actually sold, to its employees, to its customers, its writers, and fans. That love, our love for books, our love for literature, was enough for us to suspend our own ethical standards. No one makes money writing or selling books. Especially not in Singapore. And so we come to accept what we would not accept in any other part of our lives. We romanticise unacceptable as unconventional, blinded by the thrill of becoming part of something that feels far greater and more purposeful than anything else in our daily lives.
I am sure many other writers are questioning their own memories. But not seeing is not an excuse. Not knowing, as I have written before, is both a privilege and a form of complicity. Especially if you were right there.
I was right there, even if very briefly. To Renee, and to all the women whose pain we did not see, I'm sorry. We failed you, and we need to do better.
The real conversation we need to have here, the one we aren't having, is about power. How none of the women felt safe enough to say anything for years, how many years it has taken for this story to come out, and how no one except Renee felt safe enough to use their real names or identities, thus giving those who are looking for it, sufficient room for doubt. How almost none of the 18 local writers the Straits Times contacted were willing to speak on record, and almost none of those who did had been published with Math Paper Press. And how I was urged, as "an internationally represented writer", to say something, because I'm not beholden to Kenny in the way many other local writers are.
"Don't you feel bad?" I said to the writer friend who had hung out with us back in the day. "We were not the ones without power."
"What are you talking about?" he said. "I have no power."
He is right, to an extent. The way Singapore as a society, as a government, thinks about sexual assault, consent, and exploitation is so problematic it is not something any one person can solve. The overhaul required is massive. We need to fundamentally rethink how we think about women—and how we women think about ourselves. We like to boast of Singapore as a crossroads between East and West, but the status of women's rights here is caught in a peculiar trap where feudal-era Confucian beliefs and traditional, albeit moderate Islamic beliefs about the family have met their perfect match in American Christian right-wing conservatism, and our political leaders believe they should never be seen to be taking the lead on any form of social progressiveness, and effectively, do nothing.
But as writers, I would like to believe we march to a different beat. We do have power. We write because we believe our voices need to be heard. By writing, we take up space not accorded to us in the mainstream conversation. Writing is power. We need to speak up, because unless we do, men with power, anyone with power really, are never held accountable for their actions. Until we do, we will continue to be a society which places an outsized moral weight and responsibility on girls to be "good", while shifting the blame from our boys and sons onto the girls who got them in trouble.