Rage + sin = freedom

Dinner on Monster Island: Essays
by Tania De Rozario

Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2024
$17.99 / 9780063299665

Reviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic


Although Tania De Rozario has resided in Vancouver for about a half-decade, in her electrifying collection of fourteen essays, Dinner on Monster Island, Singapore lingers in her mind.

She pines for her homeland. She’s incensed about it too and an absolute assassin as she speaks her piece. With a subtle voice—the author has honed an enjoyably pared-back style—De Rozario (Somewhere Else, Another You) revisits a past she’s left behind in all but memory. 

Attuned to pain and anguish in the revelatory essays but also wielding sly humour, she jetés (let’s anoint it a verb) from topic to topic, elegant and droll and candid. Aware that the personal is political, she shares episodes of home and school and beyond—from childhood to thirtysomething—and ties them to wider cultural phenomena: gender, body size, sexuality, racism, family, religion, government, self-censorship, capitalistic exploitation.

To begin, though, there’s Mother. 

Dinner on Monster Island opens at home with an astounding family portrait in “Salvation” and concludes thirteen essays later with “Letter to My Mother.” 

De Rozario launches “Salvation” with an arresting paragraph:

The year 1993. That’s when it happen. Two months after your twelfth birthday. It’s a sweaty afternoon. This day which blisters you with possibility. This day you learn there are demons inside you.

De Rozario’s not being figurative here. She recounts how her mother, possessed of a “Stepford Wife smile” and an inflexible Pentecostal fervour, worried about her daughter’s affinity for masculine clothing and unladylike behaviour. She arranged for a house-call from an exorcist. 

As De Rozario touches on filmic and literary depictions of witchcraft and demonic possession, she meditates on both her mother’s death three decades later and her own escape from the woman’s avid grasp: “You don’t know yet,” she tells her younger self, “that you are on the brink of freedom. That your rage is what will get you there.” 

In the essay’s last segment, De Rozario discloses the following: “Seven hours into the exorcism, you understand you are gay—a label that will eventually become too reductive to encompass everything you desire but for that moment, is more than enough to fill your child-self.”

To the exorcist’s question, “Do you understand that you are a sinner?” bewildered tween De Rozario answered “Yes.” Decades later, that child’s adult incarnation adds,

What you keep to yourself is the fact that you don’t care…. You will revel in your rage. Be consumed by the jaws of your own wild hunger. And it will be delicious. And there will be salvation yet.

Poetic, almost incantatory, the writing suggests the wondrous sensation of a purge. 

Cleaning her deceased mother’s apartment and musing on her father’s suicide in “Letter,” De Rozario’s prose is chilling but incandescent. Alone and talking to walls—and to “the ghost of the woman I hated so much that the first thing I said when heard she was dying was, ‘Good. I hope it’s slow, and I hope it hurts’”—she confesses, “I’ve learned to hone my anger like a knife. I carry it around for self-defence. My anger at you, at this homophobic country.” 

Author Tania De Rozario (photo: courtesy of the author)

Profoundly conscious of how Singapore’s “culture of uniformity finds its way into one’s flesh, embodies itself in how we think,” De Rozario opens her eye to change: “Perhaps this rage needs to die with you. No point, after all, stabbing the air.” Perhaps, yes, but she remains skeptical. 

With similar charisma, essay after essay proves magnetic. Raw, unapologetically direct, and intensely personal, the essays elicit gasps, induce chills. There’s such power in their words. 

In “One Size Fits Small,” for example, the author recalls the unfathomable shame she felt for being overweight in a country with a dictatorial, government-authorized “Trim and Fit” program. Returning to “the trauma of being my mother’s daughter” and being fed diet pills, De Rozario looks outward to school. And to the street:

The sheer volume of advertising focused on everything deemed wrong with our bodies was astounding—an absolute verb salad insisting we tighten, lighten, shrink, straighten, whiten, tone, pluck, enhance, smooth, shave, laser off parts of ourselves for the greater good, for our greater good.

Cannily intuitive, teenage De Rozario—a convent school pupil where a program called LES (Lesbian Elimination Squad) was a daily reality—began to model in life drawing classes, simultaneously antagonizing her mother and learning to appreciate herself and the value of a supportive community of the like-minded. 

Beneath the pecking order at school and increasingly wary of the “well-oiled machine of polite society,” she (with newly shorn hair) learned to scavenge for morsels of queerness, catching songs on the radio and savouring glimpses of rebels adorned with a single pierced ear. She learned to revel in what her mother deemed “filth” and her culture termed “abnormality.”

Whether De Rozario addresses self-harm (“I Hope We Shine On”), excessive drinking (“A Year of Magic”), the “dreaded, foreign world of sport” (in “Conflict Circle,” which is a funny and sweet until: “the school counselor gets up onstage and announces that there will be a ‘hunt’ for lesbian couples and that all of them will be sent for mandatory counseling”), or a broken heart (“How to Forget”), De Rozario relates damaging hardships and consequential missteps, but transporting emotions as well. Such as elation, joy (“I remember practicing witchcraft as an act abundant with joy”), pride, and freedom. Plus, the radical delights of sin: “I sin so hard the pleasure comes full circle and feels holy and I am not sorry, not sorry, not sorry. 

And all her essays range and rove. They reveal a restless magpie intelligence that pieces together experiences and observations and readings to impressive, activistic ends. There’s drinking, witchcraft, hope; montrosity, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu films, women dispensing justice; Westworld, Singapore’s urban progress, dystopian spectacle; censorship, art-making, the ‘gay agenda’; foreign workers, racism, Crazy Rich Asians, media representations. 

In the title essay De Rozario darts from her mother’s notion that Singapore was “the safest place in the world to live” and Zombies Ate My Neighbors (a video game whose Level 15 is titled “Dinner on Monster Island”) to William Gibson’s 1993 essay, “Disney With the Death Penalty,” the price paid for collective safety, and arrival in Canada (“I cried. Every night for a month. Not from homesickness, but from relief. Thirty-seven years of rage, resentment, and exhaustion, all of which seemed to sink soft and slow into the carpet of the dorm room floor”). 

The collage of ideas, images, and perspectives befits De Rozario’s disparate experiences. The true talent, however, is twining them, shaping them to become a cohesive piece. And De Rozario does that, as though she was born for it.


Brett Josef Grubisic

My Two-Faced Luck, the fifth novel by Salt Spring Islander Brett Josef Grubisic, published in 2021 with Now or Never Publishing, is reviewed here by Geoffrey Morrison. A previous novel, Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O (2018), was reviewed by Dustin Cole. [Editor’s note: Brett Josef Grubisic has reviewed books by John Metcalf (ed.), Brandon Reid, Beatrice Mosionier, Hazel Jane Plante, Sam Wiebe, Joseph Kakwinokanasum, Chelene Knight, Lyndsie Bourgon, Gurjinder Basran, and Don LePan for BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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