For a long time, all I could write about was the pandemic. I wish I could say this was a writerly, artistic response to the times, a wrangling of crisis, but the truth was, I found myself stuck, unwillingly, in the mental prison of the pandemic’s disaster. Later, I began to explore this prison, apply it to different scenarios, different people. No experience is homogenous, and despite the immense global trauma the last year has wrought, I’ve found the pandemic to be immensely isolating in how specifically it hit every last one of us. If there are two identical experiences of pandemically induced pain, I haven’t seen it.
“In Just Thirty Minutes” explores how the pandemic might pressurise estranged family relations, as catalysed by different units of time. So much of fiction is essentially time control, and I wanted to take the Scheherazade model of storytelling as a means to stay alive, and twist it in a more literal, yet futile way. The father cannot trick Death into staying away with an unfinished story, of course, and both main characters know it. Given the way his character has solidified in certain traditional, generational beliefs, he has not been able to have a straight conversation with his daughter June in years. Yet, stories have given him a second chance: a way in which to have a conversation without having a conversation.
Structurally, the fragments are numbered according to relational time. The story triggers from section 1, you see much of the action clustered in the span of fourteen units, and then it picks up much further in the future. The piece can be read either in the order I’ve presented it, or in ascending numerical order—both options will cohere narratively. The reader can opt to rearrange the fragments in their attempt to find a better ending for June and her father, to locate where things went wrong, where there might have been missed opportunities for reconnection, much like June does at the end of the story. Perhaps the reader will succeed where June has failed.
There’s also a more immediate time crisis within the piece, of course, the idea of the father’s time running out, as well as June’s daily visitation allowance with him, as mandated by the authorities and marked out by the ankle trackers. (This is not too far from the little contact tracing trackers we all have here!) If June goes over her allotted time, her subsequent visiting privileges might be revoked. So, the threat and consequences of time, to her, are very real. I imagine that June’s return to Singapore must have happened sometime early in the pandemic, perhaps in March or April, when things were at their worst here. Now, life in Singapore is essentially back to normal, but our normality today directly follows nine months of strict, regulated behaviour. What were the more minute human costs incurred in the pursuit of this greater good? Who bears these costs? Could we have gotten here in any other way? These are questions I ask, not only in this piece, but of Singapore at large.
JEMIMAH WEI is a writer and host based in Singapore and New York. She was recently named a 2020 Felipe P. De Alba Fellow at Columbia University, and is a Francine Ringold Award for New Writers honouree. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, received support from Singapore’s National Arts Council, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Smokelong Quarterly, and AAWW’s The Margins, amongst others. Presently a columnist for No Contact Magazine, she is at work on a novel and several television projects. Say hi at @jemmawei on socials.