Book review, from Singapore – Sharon Ismail’s What Sallamah Didn’t Know (2007) tells the heartwarming story of a girl growing up in a kampung (Malay for village) with the people she knew as her family, but later finds out that some things are not what they seem. Painting scenes of life in Singapore from a bygone era vivid in largely monotone palettes, Khairudin Saharom places his illustrations at a comfortable yet accessible distance, rousing both nostalgia and imagination.
The story begins in the night. A sleepy newborn girl bundled in white cloth is given away to a Malay family. We are told that other families in the village had seen this before, and that the receiving family would magically have a new member the next morning.
This new member is named Sallamah.
Sallamah grows up with her siblings in a Malay family. She has a kind elder sister, Muna, who always looks out for her, and a mischievous elder brother Dollah who always picks on her.
At the age of twelve, Singaporeans get their identity cards, or ICs. As a child, I remember this year of my life well – preparing for PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination), a centralized entrance exam for entry into secondary education, that big BCG vaccination needle, finally seeing the last of someone in class, having to part with best friends, and the customary rite of getting my IC, my official photo ID with information based on my birth certificate.
For Sallamah, this rite of passage throws her into confusion – she receives the card of a Chinese girl with an unfamiliar address. Dazed and lost, she stumbles into a game of marbles that Dollah was on the verge of winning, and he says something that strikes deep into her heart. Unable to sleep that night, she overhears her parents talk about not telling the children know.
She turns to her elder sister, who reveals her memories of that night many years ago. Sallamah then realizes that her siblings, and some other children around her, did not really look like their parents either. What she knew and saw was that they lived together, played together, fought with each other, laughed and cried, like children, like family.
Touched by this simple truth that draws on the joys of having family and family life, Sallamah’s story also reminded me that we do not need blood ties to share such moments together.
Adults choose who to marry, to become family. Blood ties are created with offspring. Those lineages continue with children bringing together two formerly separate families, but children have neither the choice of which family to grow up in or of who to have as siblings or parents. That is where, I believe, lies the roots of parents’ responsibility to their children, and how they fulfill that is a journey the family takes together. Simply taking the blood out from the equation does not change it; blood ties are not essential, it is, essentially, a choice.
For Sallamah, her Chinese birth parents chose to give her away, because they had too many mouths to feed, and she was a girl, after all. Because they found this kind Malay couple in a far-off village, Sallamah was able to grow up in the shelter and guidance of her loving parents, the comfort and company of a gentle elder sister, and a place among bickering siblings, the only family she ever knew.
In relation to adoption, in Japan, I hear of a movement to help working parents look out for children, to build a caring community to help nurture the country’s next generation while parents work. The idea is comforting but also worrying because of the inkling that it might fester misguided thoughts of letting parents stay at work and leaving their children to others in the community. Perhaps what it does is to propose an actual, proper safety net, one that Kore-eda’s Shoplifters seemed to promise, but a public movement telling people to do so would have raised some alarm bells. It certainly made me think of social pressure, norms and morals.
Sallamah also prompted thought of how I spend time with my closest and dearest in my busy life. It paints the home as a safe harbour to return to, for company, sympathy, relaxation and a good recharge after a long day’s toils. For this working parent, this is a seemingly insurmountable goal , and at the moment more of an occasional, fleeting hurrah than any hint of a permanent sanctuary. Home is proving to be a marathon, an extended work-in-progress that might just be its own end product some day.
Littered with snippets of Singapore’s past that still ring relevant today, Sallamah has also started filling a gaping gap of images of old Singapore in a growing collection. Surely, their place on my shelves will grow, hopefully as quickly as the country’s urban landscape changes.
Title: What Sallamah Didn’t Know
by Sharon Ismail, with illustrations by Khairudin Saharom
Publisher: Candid Kids, 2007
Malay, simplified Chinese, and Tamil language editions launched 2015 under the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism.
(I had the pleasure of hearing Sharon Ismail speak at AFCC 2018 about writing for multicultural readers, where she mentioned this book and the myth of blood being thicker than water, which led to the title of this post. This review is based on a reading of the Chinese edition of the book.)