Short Story Review – Ho Sok Fong – Dark as a Boy (trans. Natascha Bruce)

 

He said he was from a human rights group. He said he could help us.

To say that puberty is tough is something of an understatement.  Hormones rage, boys look, girls talk.  Virginity is offered, taken, snatched, stolen, given.  Bodies change and shift.  And it’s not just your peers who notice.

Ho Sok Fong’s short story, Dark as a Boy (trans. Natascha Bruce) navigates the intricacies of female puberty through the unsettling lens of the threat of exploitation endemic to developing countries.  These young girls are forced to deal not only with the permanently tumescent boys in their classes, but also their teachers, and also, it becomes clear, tourists and other foreigners.  They aren’t safe.

And they live in a world where dead girls don’t mean much.

Saw Ai’s sister’s case was mentioned in a tiny square at the bottom of the local paper, but there was no photo and she wasn’t named. My cousin said it was a shame. “I heard she was pretty,” she said. “I want to see how pretty she was.”

Saw Ai dreams of bigger things, grander places.  She wants to escape, and wants to use her body to do so – to be a model.  She’s a vulnerable girl in a vulnerable situation, and unfortunately her parents push her, her teachers threaten her, and it’s all going over her head.  She isn’t bright enough to navigate these waters.  Sharks circle.

When it was Saw Ai’s turn, I could hardly look. Her Europe page was empty. So were the pages for India, South America, North America. All she had managed was Africa. Her class notes were so scattered that they weren’t even full sentences; in some classes, she had only jotted down a couple of lines. We were in high school now, where all the textbooks used the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet. Saw Ai’s Malay and English were terrible, and she never understood what the teachers were saying.

Menace hangs heavy throughout the paragraphs of this story.  Here and there are dropped details of another woman’s murder, or a missing girl.  It’s commonplace and routine.  Saw Ai and her friends do not see lessons or warnings here – they don’t see anything.  It won’t happen to them.  And even when it happens to Saw Ai’s sister, it still won’t happen to them.  It’s always someone else.

“You don’t even know the Western alphabet.”

“So?”

“Top models have to speak English. You have to go to university, and ideally take art and dance classes.” 

That was what the magazines said.

It was a sore point for Saw Ai. She was failing every subject. She said that sooner or later she was going to pack up her schoolbooks with all the old posters and magazines and go to trade them in.

This story is long, and awful, and ever paragraphs promises something terrible.  It’s always girls and it’s always women – Saw Ai and her friends have internalised the fact that they will die in poverty, they might be raped, they won’t be looked after by their parents or teachers, authority figures are there to exploit them, and their bodies have value for a short period when they are young.

Saw Ai is almost, but not quite, an effective product of her environment.  Instead, she shows what it means to be a girl who is pretty enough, but not clever enough, to make her way through a system designed to exploit her.  This isn’t her fault – this particular system shouldn’t exist at all.  But it does, and though she’s attractive enough to gain attention, her other talents are sufficiently small that we know she is destined to become a meal for the hungering predators all around her.

This is a harrowing story.  The menace doesn’t quite arrive, but it’s there, always, circling and present.  Her friend, who narrates the text, knows this, and though she tries to warn Saw Ai, the warnings fall on deaf ears.  It’s too exciting to be watched by boys when you dance.  And, sure, perhaps, it is – but there are others watching, and they are even less positively inclined than a teenage boy.  Imagine that, if you will, and shudder.

Dark as a Boy is a short story by Malaysian writer Ho Sok Fong (trans. Natascha Bruce)

Author Ho Sok Fong
Title Dark as a Boy
Translator Natascha Bruce
Nationality Malaysian
Publisher Words Without Borders

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