Note: This review is not spoiler-free!
Dinner on Monster Island begins with “Salvation” and dives right into a central theme of distortion, as the essay explores a twisted form of its seemingly sacred title. Tania De Rozario describes her grieving grandmother’s conversion from a devout Catholic to a Pentecostalist, driven by De Rozario’s evangelical mother and her church friends. She violently destroys her painting of The Last Supper and in the aftermath, only “wipes away her tears” and wears a “vacant smile.”
From there, De Rozario takes the reader through her own experience of being exorcised for hours at the age of twelve for her queerness, which she attributes to her fascination with horror movies throughout her life. She writes, “It took me years to realize that perhaps the reason I love horror is the fact that when I was twelve years old, I was subjected to it. The first time I watched The Exorcist, it never occurred to me that demon-filled Regan was the same age when she was exorcised. Like mine, her single mother did not know what else to do with her daughter’s deviant behaviour.” Well-known horror movies like Carrie and The Witch become her framework for analyzing womanhood and monstrousness.
The essay collection continues on from religious extremism to systemic body-shaming in schools as De Rozario was growing up, the complexities of families and grief, and her queerness. De Rozario’s writing is straightforward and honest, candidly breaking down the cultural and societal dynamics of the Singapore she grew up in. As a fat, brown-skinned woman, she navigates what it means to be different from institutionalized norms in her sexuality, body, and skin colour. She successfully captures the feeling of being young and learning to hold onto her own identity while, like in the horror movies she describes, she is fundamentally seen as “abnormal.”
For those not well acquainted with horror movies, like myself, De Rozario’s descriptions are detailed and evocative even without any accompanying visuals. In describing the character of Sadako Yamamura, she combines poetic and horrifying imagery with “[Sadako’s hair] covers her face for most of the film, and is pushed back only when her remains are dug up from the well. When we see her bones emerge, a thick swelling of hair slips off the wet surface of her skull, and sinks into the slide. Like the well water, it is perfect black – night, coal, sleep, expired stars.” The image of Samara from The Ring is a staple in horror, but in “Becoming Monsters (or How I Fell in Love with Sadako Yamamura)” De Rozario chooses to focus on the original 1998 Japanese movie Ringu, of which The Ring is a Western remake. As the essay’s title suggests, the character Sadako captivates De Rozario, and she takes the opportunity to bring the reader into a larger, intriguing discussion of Asian mythologies and imagery, and feminine rage.
Even for the seasoned horror movie fan, the way that she integrates these movies with her personal experience is unique and deeply engaging. For example, in the essay “I Hope We Shine On” she closely compares The Shining and Doctor Sleep, but also situates her explorations of them in the context of cults, inevitability, and estranged family. Among the horror, De Rozario also introduces commentary shaped by other media, such as an analysis of Singapore’s evolution based on an episode of Westworld and a criticism of Crazy Rich Asians for its exclusive representation of Singaporeans as East Asian people (which is far from the reality of the population).
De Rozario also explores the world beyond film, with essays like “Conflict Circle” telling personal stories from De Rozario’s life and school, and the titular essay exploring De Rozario’s adulthood and career as she navigated censorship and repression of artists and writers in Singapore. “Dinner on Monster Island” is the name of a level of a video game, but also represents the “eat-or-be-eaten” environment De Rozario found Singapore to be, and the complex emotions associated with her departure from Singapore as an adult— she is now based in Vancouver. These essays are carried by De Rozario’s unwavering tenderness and grief for her younger self, and her deconstruction of her relationship with her home country.
Sitting between 150 and 200 pages (depending on the edition) with fourteen essays, Dinner on Monster Island does not overstay its welcome. De Rozario leaves off with a final, deeply personal essay that is addressed to her mother after her passing. It is a significant moment of completion given the way the collection begins, and the horror movies are nowhere to be found. As seen in Conflict Circle, De Rozario’s writing is not propped up by the pop culture references; she has poignant stories to tell and enough haunting for herself.