Tan Guan Heng’s My Love is Blind

November 7, 2017

My Love is Blind

Tan Guan Heng’s groundbreaking novel My Love is Blind first appeared in 1995. Its twenty-second anniversary edition published by Asiapac Books in 2017 has a new foreword by Tommy Koh and the following afterword by me.

Tan Guan Heng’s My Love is Blind is one of those intriguing works in Singaporean literature that write themselves. By this, I do not mean that the writing sprang from a moment’s urgency or that it has been effortless. Rather, I mean that the content has come from a source that already knew it intimately, lived it like its draft.

This extraordinary, semi-autographical novel first saw print in 1995, when Tan was fifty-eight of age. As he has been blind since twenty-nine, the publication year was also when he had spent as many years without sight as with it. There may be a second novel called Night Butterfly six years on, but Tan’s first literary effort is more symbolic of what he needed to overcome.

Inner imagination and the blind life intertwine thoroughly here. Tan hides his name in his hero’s name in the way the latter hides his lover’s name in his poem’s title, also the book’s title. Lim Choon Guan himself has two names: one belongs to his old life while the other, Samson, signals the biblical extent of his struggle in blindness.

My Love is Blind further carries a curiously vivid geography, with roads and buildings, from the 1950s. This feature plays on a trope of orientation, but it truly represents the last things Tan saw that got etched into his memory. The trope highlights his and his hero’s journey into unfamiliar terrains as well as their difficult navigation in relationships and at work.

Tan’s story thus anticipates Choon Guan’s story, which itself teems with foreshadowing. Very early, before his complete loss of sight, Choon Guan has already encountered a brief scare. His hospital visit acquaints him with a couple coping with the blindness of one, preparing us for his later issue of emotional hurt.

There are basically two ways a novelist can create a narrative bond with his or her readership. One way is to start from a shared world and to steer readers towards what is being imagined. The other assumes no such common ground: the challenge is to take the imagined world into the readers’ own range of experiences.

Tan’s novel has a mixture of both ways since he once knew his seeing readers’ reality but now lives in another they are clueless about. His writing is defined not so much by imagination and sight as by imagination and memory. On top of relating the blind experience, Tan has to remember sight in terms of how it used to inform his impressions of life and self.

For this reason, My Love is Blind is a deeply rational book because the writing involves distinct technical questions about constructing reality. It explains a quality of composure where, even at his lowest, Choon Guan entertains neither despair nor death. Ultimately, we must see the heart of this work as a great belief in life, what can hold together and transform all the fragments of self.

Gwee Li Sui

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