Film / Book Reviews

going home is a worthy book of letters

going home is a worthy book of letters
Jonathan Chan

From describing Greenwich, New York as “the haven of low-tax suburbia, the ballast of private equity… and the monotony of finance husbands” (“another life”), to capturing the bustle of Hong Kong in a powerful image of “heels clutched from anxious feet” (“5 foundings”), Jonathan Chan’s debut poetry collection, going home is a masterful display of sensibilities.

There is a keen sense of affection for the places he has lived in and known (the United States, Malaysia, South Korea, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and Singapore), but beyond these earthly sojourns, there are also poems of reflection on his Christian faith that shine with tender, overt spirituality. The final poem, “epistle”, calls to mind the New Testament writings of the apostle Paul, and with the repetitive phrase “I write a letter”, we get the fullest measure of his desire to express everything on his heart, while knowing that it is humanly impossible to do so. But if we consider each poem in this book leading up to “epistle” as a letter he desired to write, his valiant attempt has indeed produced a book of letters well worth reading.

Methodist Message interviewed Jonathan, 26, a graduate of Cambridge University, England to know more about him.

Are you a member of a church, in Singapore or abroad?

I grew up at International Baptist Church (IBC) and later moved to Covenant Community Methodist Church, where I remain. Prior to my NS enlistment, I attended Trackers (a 3-month church discipleship programme for youths aged between 17 and 25). I attended a low Anglican church while living in Cambridge, England and a Vineyard church when I lived in New Haven, Connecticut.

Did you attend Sunday School as a child and what is your memory of it?

Growing up in IBC, attending Sunday School, I thought of faith as primarily cerebral or doctrinal—I felt like it was something good, something for which I had to be obedient and attentive during classes, and something that required my being able to give the right answers. That sense of personal strictness began to loosen over the years as I began to better understand the complex ways in which faith takes root, becomes manifest in daily disciplines, and can sometimes feel wholly inadequate in thinking about the great cruelty and violence that patterns our world. Yet, that very inadequacy lies with us, not with God, who continues to work in spite of our partial, imperfect understandings of his nature and his being. The person of Christ is the most tangible and accessible way we can begin to understand what a life of faith means for the human person.

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What advice would you give to a 14-year-old teen searching for the truth?

In my mind, adolescence is always a difficult period. Not only is it a period of profound physical transformation, but that can be matched by periods of intense questioning that can affect you psychologically and spiritually. I think I was once that 14-year-old searching for the truth, terrified of the possibility that the architecture of the Christian faith was built on lies and was fragile enough to crumble at the slightest prod. What later helped to assuage that fear was the conviction that came from believing in the historical truth of the resurrection, though understanding the place of that truth in daily life has been an ensuing source of frustration and comfort.

My advice to a 14-year-old who is searching would firstly be to read widely. The search for truth has been conditioned in all humanity, arguably since its very inception in the Garden of Eden when the compulsion toward truth led Adam and Eve to discover sin. Yet, what makes the truth the truth is its consistency and ability to cut through abhorrent untruths. The Gospel is the Gospel, no matter how it may be misconstrued or misrepresented.

Secondly, befriend people from various backgrounds—socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, linguistic. Coming into friendship and intimacy with people who have

lived all kinds of lives can knock away narrowness and parochialism, while giving the sense that there can be an expansiveness to truth one may have previously overlooked. Within this lies the importance of finding friends and mentors one can trust—those who are open to listening to you in patient, non-judgmental ways in this journey of trying to understand and sort out the truth.

The last piece of advice I would offer is to find comfort in the fact that, realistically, few people really figure out ‘the truth’ in their adolescence. Seeking the truth is a lifelong process. We can assert that God is truth, but to know that fact, to feel that, and to live that out with depth and fullness is the central tension of this life on earth.

In one of your poems is a lovely phrase, “divine alterities”. Is there any place on earth you yearn for, where you cannot stay?

In the poem “another life”, in which I write about “divine alterities”, I’m thinking specifically about the otherness of God, the ways in which God remains totally alien to us owing to the vastness of his authority and intelligence, and my utter inability to fully understand the alternative lives he may have led me to live. I find a contentment in the divine security provided by faith through all the places I’ve known as home.

Your book is titled going home, which seems to be an allusion to the spiritual, but is it only? Where is ‘home’?

The central thrust of the book is my thinking about my own experience of coming into an understanding of the idea of home—culturally, ethnically, historically, environmentally, and spiritually. Part of me has felt at home in the places my family lives that I visited growing up—Houston, Seoul, Hong Kong. Part of me has felt at home in the places I have lived— New York, Singapore, Cambridge, New Haven. If home is defined as a place where one’s inner sense of self and one’s surroundings match, where one feels fully known and ceases to feel the need for constant self-explanation, then home is only really in Singapore with my own family. But if home is taken to be in that sense of fundamental, personal security, then the feeling of home ultimately resides in what it is for me to be a child and a follower of God.

義 (yi)

where a lamb must rest, speared straight
through, before this arrowhead was taken
for me, blood smeared to appease a pantheon
of spirits, so distant from this bloodless
ritual, told only in tones and on the tongue,
how a lamb is still broken, fragments for
all and for me, a leakage of water from
the side, how that jagged edge still finds
my being within it, the elusiveness of unasked
penance, how i still see that unmated
fleece, brightness through translucent
patches, more than what will ever be mustered
from within, no justice, no peace, but for
the lamb that rests over me.

義 or 义 : pronounced ‘yì’, spelled ‘Yee’ in my name, translating to righteousness or justice.

~ A poem from going home (Landmark Books, 2022)

going home
By Jonathan Chan

Published by Landmark Books
ISBN: 9789811847318
Cover Type: Paperback
Page Count: 96
Year Published: 2022
Size: 130mm x 195mm

The book is available at Epigram Books.

Lucy Cheng worships at Wesley Methodist Church and serves in their BeTween ministry. / Photos courtesy of Jonathan Chan