A Lust for Bothness

Illustration by Sonia Ruiz

Illustration by Sonia Ruiz

Kit Lea Cheang

Delayed Rays of a Star, by Amanda Lee Koe, Penguin Random House, 400 pp., $27.95

On the frontispiece of Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star, three party-goers pose for a photograph. The first, sashes criss-crossing her robe, holds a pipe between her teeth as she confronts the viewer with a mischievous gaze; the second, wearing a simple dress and a long pearl necklace, smiles amicably; the third, in a glittering long-sleeved gown, bears an unreadable expression. But these women are not just any women. They are Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Reifenstahl, captured in the early years of their careers. Marlene, a German-American actress, would go on to become one of the greatest luminaries of classical Hollywood cinema, Anna May would achieve celebrity as the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star, and Leni would produce the Nazi propaganda films that made her Hitler’s favorite filmmaker.

In this photo, it is still 1928 Berlin, the heart of the Golden Twenties in the Weimar Republic. The era was a heyday of decadent nightlife, cabaret shows, Bauhaus design, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin adventures and the rise of talkies in film. It was also the calm before the storm of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the dark period to follow of Hitler’s rise and rule. It is from this chance encounter between these three women that Lee Koe’s sprawling narrative unfolds, crossing oceans and charting decades from the thick of World War II to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1991.

To attempt to identify what Lee Koe’s novel is about would be to miss the point. Instead, there is a sense in which Lee Koe’s novel is elusive, escaping fixed notions of genre, theme, stylistic conventions and character. Lee Koe’s novel is historical, yet she takes the license to fill in the gaps in our collective  record. She imagines the precise details of the relationships among her protagonists—conversations in a Berlin powder room, stories of adolescence over espresso in an old dance hall restaurant, gleeful late-night shrimp cocktails in the backseat of a Vegas cab. Lee Koe’s novel is as much a romance as it is a tragedy, as much a travel documentary as it is a political commentary, as much about the quotidian troubles of being a celebrity as it is about the marvellous banality of ordinary lives.

The novel’s organization is reflective of its dizzying scope and geographical immensity. Lee Koe refuses to place any culture, tradition, or character at the center of her novel. Each chapter opens with titles like, “The Malayan Orangutan Has The Key To The Basement Of The Leipzig Zoo” and “Marlon Brando Lays An Egg As News Of Pearl Harbor Reaches A Chicken Coop In New York,” a quirk representative of Lee Koe’s playful irreverence: in this novel, the Malayan Orangutans are as deserving subjects as Marlon Brando. Similarly, although Lee Koe sets up her novel to be about Dietrich, Wong and Reifenstahl, she gives significant air time to secondary characters—Dietrich’s Chinese immigrant housemaid Bébé, a German soldier Hans, and even the wolf Reifenstahl acquires to be featured in her film—blurring the distinction between main and secondary characters. 

Just like the formal characteristics of Delayed Rays, Lee Koe’s characters embody contradiction and multiplicity. The notion of “bothness” first appears when character Jo von Sternberg, an Austrian-American filmmaker, reflects on the ever-shifting personas he inhabits as he moves between cities:

“And so with gusto and glee Jo exploited different aspects of himself, improvised in loving accordance with his environs. In Berlin he thought like a New Yorker, talked like a New Yorker, moved like a New Yorker. In L.A. he thought like a German Jew, talked like a German Jew, moved like a German Jew. Was it pompous and pretentious to say he was as influenced by Japanese kabuki as he was by German expressionism as he was by Hollywood Prohibition gangster flicks? He was pompous and pretentious then… Perhaps, this, too, was what he liked best about Marlene, her lust for bothness.”

In Delayed Rays, Lee Koe’s female protagonists aspire to “bothness”—the ability to be more than one thing, to constantly morph and self-reinvent, to hold seemingly contradictory truths in a person. 

For Lee Koe’s fans from her previous work Ministry of Moral Panic, a short story collection first published in 2013 that made Lee Koe the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, Delayed Rays may seem like a deviation in topic and theme. While Ministry of Moral Panic was all about Singapore—its heartlands, its hawkers, its celebrities, its household maids—Delayed Rays, is vaster in its transatlantic reach. Yet “bothness” is a thread that holds Lee Koe’s nascent œuvre together. Like Delayed Rays, Ministry is populated with people who refuse to be boxed into archetypes. In one story, Marl, a streetwalker whose gender remains unknown, leads the narrator to question his own conceptions of sexuality and desire. In another, a younger woman becomes attached to a woman old enough to be her grandmother, challenging our stereotypes of intimacy and closeness. Lee Koe also gives voice to Maria Hertogh, a girl who features indelibly in Singaporean history textbooks for being subject to a custody battle in 1950 between Muslim adopted parents and Catholic biological parents that provoked violent riots. Lee Koe’s insertion of Hertogh’s private feelings and reflections into a well-known narrative portends her project in Delayed Rays, where she intervenes in and reinterprets dominant historical narratives, especially those about famous women.  

Even if Delayed Rays seems distinctly transnational in its scope, its animating spirit of “both-ness” arguably speaks to the Singaporean condition, as one might call it, to the way Singapore is both an island and a country, is deeply Asian yet is shaped by Western influences, is cosmopolitan and provincial, is developed and yet still maturing. Lee Koe’s author biography include the fact that she was born in Singapore and has lived in Beijing, Berlin, Bangkok and New York, which puts her in symmetry with her characters in Delayed Rays

In Delayed Rays, Lee Koe lifts the veil of a social world determined to fix her female protagonists in the image of sex symbol, exotic Asian woman, and morally despicable Nazi collaborator to reveal the “bothness" these women embodied and expressed. Lee Koe demonstrates the agency Marlene, Anna May and Leni exercised in their time—privately and publicly—to resist their social roles and to allow themselves the luxury, relief and pleasure of being “both.” Under Lee Koe’s careful hand, Marlene, Anna May and Leni are neither glorified nor condemned. Instead, they are allowed to be complicated—lovable and unlikeable, at times big-hearted and at times cruel, simultaneously anti-heroes, leading ladies and ordinary women. 

At every opportunity, Lee Koe’s Marlene complicates Hollywood’s vision of her as a shimmering blonde on legs. She reads Schiller and Holderlin; she loves Rilke. She weaponizes her sexuality without trying, seducing Anna May in a bathroom stall and inspiring von Sternberg to write entire scenes just to watch her put on a hat. She covers her breasts with Swarovski crystals for a sold-out cabaret show before changing into an all-white men’s tuxedo suit and rocks both. Even in the last few years of her life, which she spends secluded in her Paris apartment with her household maid Bébé, she retains her sumptuous sense of humor and appetite for life, settling for nothing less than mauve panties and silk dressing gowns and jokes about how her funeral must smell “fresh and green as a Saint-Laurent fougère.”

In one event that Lee Koe resurrects from the archives, German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin interviews Anna May for German film magazine Die Literarische Welt. Even as he acknowledges and admires Anna May’s ability to interpolate multiple identities—actress, Chinese, American, “flapper who had Europe wrapped around her little finger”—his interview, of which Lee Koe offers the first English translation, reveals his inability to understand her and their encounter through anything but romanticised visions of the exotic Asian woman. “May Wong,” he writes, “the name sounds vibrantly edged, robust and light like tiny chopsticks that unfurl into moon-filled scentless blossoms in a cup of tea.” Benjamin’s descriptions are exemplary of Wong’s time, when white actors portrayed Asian characters through yellowface and Wong herself was dismissed by a director for being “too Chinese to play a Chinese.” Yet, while Anna May was understood through racialized caricatures by her Western peers, she was shunned or looked down upon in the East: ”Anna May Wong Loses Face Again For China!” headlines read. Lee Koe poignantly captures the liminal space between cultures Wong occupied, where neither side offered her full acceptance nor understanding.

In a world determined to box women, especially non-white women, into easy categories, Anna May’s exercise of self-definition is an act of creativity. She finds subtle and powerful ways to exert agency over her sense of self and over her craft. Even as she is constrained to roles like the Chinese side character and relegated to lines such as “Me likey chop su-ey, you no likey?”, Anna May carves out a private space of creative freedom for herself, where, a counterpart to Charlie Chaplin, she performs abjection with dignity. “The world is not as you want it to be,” Anna May says, “but it is still the one you wake up to and conduct yourself through with dignity.” Later, she steals the show from Marlene when they co-star in Shanghai Express: reviewers from reputed magazines like Vanity Fair praised her for “outclassing” the rest of the cast.

Where Anna May holds in her person a cultural “bothness”, Lee Koe’s Leni stands out for her moral complexity. Lee Koe is careful not to characterize Leni as hero or villain; instead, she renders the question of Leni’s moral status an intricate one. On the one hand, Lee Koe movingly depicts Leni’s unwavering dedication to her craft and outsized ambition for her art in a way that conjures admiration, even adulation. Leni’s commitment to total authenticity in her films manifests in her demand that a wolf be procured for her film, rather than a German shepherd. She doggedly films Tiefland in the Italian alps through brutal weather conditions and poor health as her wartime staff dwindles. 

On the other hand, Lee Koe reveals Leni’s collaboration with the Nazi project, even as Leni outwardly disavows her complicity. In one scene true to the historical record, Leni uses children and adults of Roma and Sinti descent who were held in a Nazi concentration camp as extras in her film. When one of these adults—Leni’s body double—begs Leni to help her and the other extras avoid being delivered back to the camps, Leni dismisses her pleas. Later, we find out that these twenty-three extras tried to jump off the back of the moving truck sending them back to the camps, but were caught in time and tied down to the truck with rope. In another scene, Leni denies the occurrence of Kristallnacht, where hundreds of Jews were murdered and where two hundred and sixty synagogues were destroyed; in the same breath, she maintains to the media that “radiance streams from [Hitler].”

These scenes depicting the human cost of Leni’s ambitions color how we read and understand Leni. It is hard to know whether Leni was wilfully or genuinely ignorant, whether she would have adopted a different stance had knowledge under Hitler’s regime been less distorted by propaganda and ideology. Instead, Lee Koe underscores the tenuous position Leni occupied, where the actualization of one’s desires and the pursuit of ambition was made possible only by complicity in a regime responsible for the massacre of six million Jews. Lee Koe invites readers into a place of ambiguity, compelling readers to sit between certainties and considering that, perhaps, ambivalence and “bothness“ are equally profound forms of truth. 

On the last page of Lee Koe’s novel is another photograph, a coda to the first. It must have been taken mere seconds after the first, yet the delay makes all the difference. In this second photograph, Marlene, Anna May and Leni are caught mid-motion: Anna May playfully sticks Marlene’s pipe into her mouth, Marlene grins unguardedly, and Leni, a blurred figure, watches. The three women are no longer posing, no longer waiting for the camera’s flash. Instead, they are caught up in each other and in themselves. It is in this image, not the first, that we find the radiant core of Lee Koe’s project: her conviction in recovering what is forgotten and fleshing out what is simplified when we remember and tell history. Unmoored, her subjects are moving, living, complicated people, unfixed by time.

Kit Lea Cheang is a recent Yale graduate.