I know there are a bunch of people out there who think I’m a good writer. I’m not. I’m competent at best, but I count among my friends a writer who must become famous if there is any justice in the world.
Yeoh Jo-Ann’s short story “Delivery” was quietly published in 2021 in the anthology A View of Stars: Stories of Love, so quietly that I only learnt of it today (quite literally). I think I might start using it as material for my stronger students, because it conjures such intense worlds of feeling in only a few pages of real and imagined found material like letters, advertisements, and newspaper articles from 1933.
Yeoh tells me that during the early days of the 2020 pandemic, she was reading the archives of the Penang Echo (or the Straits Echo), and was coincidentally invited to write for the anthology around the same period. The resulting story is based on a kernel of historical reality, with the late Mrs B. H. Oon — the first woman called to the Malayan Bar in 1927 — making the most delightfully snarky cameo. She writes to the Echo to suggest that perhaps some men would “prefer it if we [women] all returned to binding our feet — that would certainly make us easier to contend with”. I can reveal that this letter does not actually appear in the Echo (it’s fictional), but that the newspapers of 1933 really did contain such drama — and killings, uprisings, and other exciting things.
The characters of the story are written with such economy. Without giving too much away, we learn of a shoe craftsman who has learnt how to read from his favourite customer, an English-educated young woman with a penchant for shoes (“dreadful shoes”, according to her sister). We must remember how much of a scandal this would have been in the Penang (or Singapore) of 1933. It was a world where the slightest misstep — say, being seen in public with shoes that were too “ornithological” for certain English men — would cause a stir that would echo (sorry) into multiple letters sent by one’s social network.
For the students looking to become good readers, I highly recommend reading this story with your full attention, piecing together what genre of writing you’re looking at as you proceed through the story, and not letting yourself move on without appreciating what piece of writing is appearing in what context. You have to understand the text as fully as you can to create the imaginary world in your head as you read! And what a world it is.
I sometimes feel that it’s pointless to learn how to write a letter without first receiving one. If no one’s writing you letters, perhaps take a peek into a world where people used to write letters to each other as a matter of everyday communication. It’s a joy!
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