The Body In Flight
Shirley Lim's novel is a diasporist analysis of selves in transition
By Kao Jong-Ee
Flight and the body are both harnessed to the concepts of transition and the larger concern of diasporic identity. The idea of employing diaspora as a tool for discourse in the novel is problematic. It is arguable if the characters of Swee and Yen can be considered diasporic because unlike most diasporic individuals, who are often socio-economically underprivileged, the Wing sisters have the requisite education and wealth which enables them to cross borders and boundaries with ease. In fact, Lim explores the Wing sisters' movement between places in the light of diasporic phenomena but her focus is really on the psychological states of diasporic transition. Perhaps what Lim intends is for the reader to broaden her concept of 'diaspora', to include people who choose to leave their homes (with or without the push of political or ideological oppression behind them) but still maintain ties with their families while overseas for protracted periods of time. Such diasporic émigrés may return periodically to their countries of origin with no problems. Their 'exile' may be self-imposed, but their experiences of being marginalised and existing in 'in-between' states are equally multiple and conflicted as those of involuntary émigrés. Lim defines émigrés like Swee and Yen first as individuals, and then as representational figures of an Asian-American community that is culturally distinct within the historical context of postcolonial and postmodern experiences of displacement. The novel potentially challenges notions of conventional diasporist discourse, specifically in three major areas: the significance of movement with regard to the characters' physical and psychological journeys and transformations; the female body as a site of contest for autonomy; and the interrelatedness of past and present, home and adoptive country, and their bearings on the characters' cultural identity.
The story opens with a secret-the accidental death of Ah Kong whose daughters by his second wife (Mama) do not address him as 'Father' but have been raised to call him 'Grandfather' ('Ah Kong') instead. The absence of affection and intimacy in their relationship with Ah Kong results in the alienation between him and both Yen and Swee. Pearl, on the other hand is doted upon due to the compliance she shows and which Ah Kong expects. Even after he dies, Swee is still haunted by his memory, even after she has left for America. Ah Kong's ghost appears in Swee's dreams, leaving his mark in the realm of her memory and a reminder of the patriarchal society she escaped from when she left Malacca.
Swee is the first to leave after her father's death. Since the age of seventeen, Swee 'became impatient for something to happen'. She uses her inheritance, which she refers to as 'blood money', to begin her studies in New York and then California. Her departure is an escape from the guilt of being responsible for her father's sudden collapse after his witnessing Swee and Yen examining their genitals one night. Swee's nickname, 'Sister Swing', signifies her sisterly bond with Yen and the playtime they shared as children on a swing. It was a name bestowed upon her by Yen, who playfully compounded Swee's name and the family name, 'Wing'.
As the middle sister, Swee takes on the unenviable role of mediator between the older Yen and younger Pearl, whose differences often lead to tension between the two. Swee is a mediator in more than one sense of the word: she does not relate to Pearl's conservatism and religious piety, while not being drawn completely to Yen's carefree nature and open-minded approach to life. Instead, as a young, educated Chinese woman whose exposure to the English language and Western culture has become a source of curiosity for the wider world outside of Malaysia, Swee's search for a place located beyond the prescribed boundaries of the Malaysian Chinese patriarchy leads to her being in a constant state of movement. Swee's actions while abroad in America, however, speak of a certain naiveté and need for acceptance by the other. While in New York, Swee has her first sexual encounter with her history professor, Manuel. After his rejection, Swee returns to Malacca after a year to bring Yen with her to America. Her subsequent rejection by her boyfriend, Sandy, who turns out to be a member of a militant white supremacist militant group, sends Swee into a spiral of emotional conflict and a quest for selfhood and belonging.
The Wing sisters' mother, Mama, and amah, Ah Chee, also embark on journeys of their own, making an extended pilgrimage to various Buddhist shrines all over the world after Ah Kong's demise. For the women of the Wing family, travel is akin to freedom. It is also associated with a search for home, which is not so much a physical place as a set of conditions conducive to living comfortably within one's skin and with others.
Flight and movement are explored further throughout the novel. Swee and Yen are dependent on their boyfriends, Sandy and Wayne, for transportation and road trips out of the city. The motorbikes are Harley-Davidsons, huge machines which are a metaphor for Sandy and Wayne's physical build and their dominant presence in Swee and Yen's American lives. Swee's flight to America was filled with hope and expectation of a life apart from what she has known, and America and/or Sandy offers the plenitude or fullness that Swee seeks, to fill the lack which has been created by life back in Malaysia. With Sandy, Swee is able to explore her sexuality and participate in biker culture, giving her a leather jacket with the name 'Sue' on the back. The gesture is an imposition of sorts - Swee does not need a new identity but Sandy seems to think that changing her appearance would make Swee more of an American who would fit in better with the other bikers and their female companions. Swee's happiness with Sandy is short-lived, as she begins to feel repressed by pretending to conform to Sandy's mental image of her. In the end, the Harley, Sandy and the other bikers come to represent oppression.
The most vivid image of flight that Lim employs in the novel is the ghostly bird-like figure of Ah Kong, first as a sharp-beaked predatory bird and as a 'poor bird father' or messenger pigeon at the end of the story, emphasizing Ah Kong's distance with the humans in his family who surround him. Feeling trapped by Ah Kong's chauvinistic attitude, Swee speaks of her sentiments upon his death: "I wasn't sad when Ah Kong died. What was the good of being a Wing if you couldn't fly?... Ah Kong tied us to him, we were his fledglings. But he was the eagle with his hawk nose and white hair feathers."
The body is also a central theme in the novel, and is a site of power and a struggle for autonomy, as well as a site of tension between the sexes. How each of the Wing sisters regards her body and responds to the body of others is different. Swee and Yen's level of ease with their bodies and exploration of their sexuality in America are contrasted to Pearl's sexual awkwardness and inhibitions within her marriage. While the novel does not speak directly of Ah Kong's hold over his daughters' images of themselves and their bodies, it is telling that while Ah Kong refers to his own body as the source of life for his daughters, it is the sight of Yen and Swee's naked bodies that strikes him dead.
It is Yen, the outspoken sister, who first shows signs of physically distancing herself from Ah Kong. At age fifteen, she pushes him away when his bristles tickled her cheek, calling him 'Itchified', which connotes lechery and a breach of the bounds of propriety which are maintained between parent and child. The fact that Ah Kong kept his distance from Yen since then signifies the break between Yen's identification with her father's body and need for his approval. In fact, Yen's first reaction to Ah Kong peeping at her and Swee is to stick out her tongue at him in defiance. She says, "What right he has to walk into our bedroom every night? ...Maybe he won't do it again after tonight. We're big girls now!" Later on in America, Yen enjoys a comfortable sexual relationship with Wayne, showing little or no inhibitions about her own body.
Swee, on the other hand has a harder time recognising her body a part of herself she has power over and which does not require Ah Kong's acceptance or affirmation. She contemplates running after him to explain that she and Yen were "simply learning about our bodies" but her embarrassment and shame at being discovered prevents her from doing so: "How was I ever going to show my face to him again?" Swee wishes she were "anywhere but in Ah Kong's house." Swee blames herself for Ah Kong's sudden death and thinks his ghost will harm her, so she flees to America: "Where else should my wings have carried me?"
Yen and Swee's idea of femininity and female sexuality probably originate from the images of "modern Western women... who leaned into each other and on the arms of tall white men" which they find in Cosmopolitan and Vogue. Their high school English teacher, Mrs Hughes, introduces a book entitled Our Bodies, Ourselves, a feminist book on women's health which was revolutionary when it was first published for its stance on women's sexuality, self-image and health. Neither the magazines nor the book address a Malaysian Chinese female sexual identity specifically, so in the absence of a discourse which is culturally relevant to them, Yen and Swee absorb the range of ideas offered to them readily. It is also these 'Western' notions of female sexuality and identity which Yen and Swee will later live out in America. It is difficult to judge, however, how tightly Yen and Swee adhere to the lessons learnt in their youth. Though seemingly more helpless than Swee, Yen finds love more easily and does not struggle as much with her sexuality or who she is. In contrast, Swee cannot be completely at ease with Manuel or Sandy, as if she does not trust their foreignness. Their bodies offer her a sexual connection but no emotional or spiritual intimacy.
One could think of the novel as belonging to a larger discourse on the diaspora which aims to construct what may be described as alternate spheres and forms of consciousness which allows the individual to live with and within herself. Swee's social life is limited to home, work and school, with only the occasional road trip out of the city. Her contact with other people is circumscribed by a routine that is supposed to affirm her new 'American' identity, which is consistent with Yen's desire to blend in and avoid being singled out as a foreigner. Although outwardly, Yen does her best to look, sound and behave like an American, her thoughts and feelings still cohere strongly with her sense of self as an educated, English-speaking, well-to-do Malaysian Chinese woman, which renders her out of place in America.
The idea of self put forth in the novel defies the Cartesian notion of identity. The latter entails a unitary, immutable self that is fixed in time and space. However, Lim seems to agree with Stuart Hall's notion of identity, that is, that the self is never static but always 'becoming' or transforming within an ongoing and interactive play of history, culture and power. Lim demonstrates through the characters of Yen, Swee and Pearl that rootedness is something that is not originary, but remains elusive as a destination. Belonging is ultimately linked to purpose. While Yen is happy to get married to Wayne and live in America, and Swee resettles in Manhattan to continue her studies after Sandy's death, Pearl abandons her Christian project in California and returns to Malacca disillusioned. There is no indication that home in Malacca is unpleasant or oppressive after Ah Kong's death. In fact, the Wing sisters maintain their links to their country of birth by travelling back and forth between Malaysia and America, and their three trajectories illuminate the paradoxes inherent in the diaspora.
Swee's life is especially illustrative of these paradoxes, as she invariably experiences separation and entanglement, loss and hope, suffering and redemption in America. The girls' cultural identities oscillate between a longing to be acknowledged and embraced by American society, and a self-conscious resistance to losing their sense of difference through assimilation. It is in the final chapter, where Swee's thoughts on her efforts to cope are captured in a letter to Yen, that the reader gets a full sense of Swee's journey, both inwards and outwards. Swee has struggled with assimilation, with pretending to 'be' American: "I did it to pretend that I was like all the immigrants coming to California". The aimlessness of her life in America and her eagerness to please Sandy and accommodate him are a source of struggle and conflict within herself.
Paule Marshall writes in Brown Girl, Brownstones (1981): "Diaspora women are caught between patriarchies, ambiguous pasts, and futures. They connect and disconnect, forget and remember, in complex, strategic ways. The lived experiences of diasporic women thus involve painful difficulty in mediating discrepant worlds." This speaks of women's diasporic experiences which are doubly painful because of the insecurities and hardships of adapting and confronting old and new patriarchies. Swee's rejection of the Chinese patriarchy in Malaysia and her need for acceptance by Manuel and then Sandy in America speak volumes about the conflicts encountered by Marshall's 'diasporic women', and when she does find comfort it is the company of the Cuban Pinny and other émigré women with whom Swee makes meaningful contact with in America and with whom she shares a history of displacement and survival, regardless of their diverse places of origin.
Even as Swee decides to put an end to travel, to give up her 'feathers and lie in a nest of ice', Ah Kong's bird-ghost continues to appear in her dreams. This is reminiscent of Jessica Hagedorn's remark about her childhood spent in the Philippines: "But some ghosts will never be laid to rest, and my memory is still jogged by the most unexpected things." (Time, 18-25 Aug 2003). It also suggests an ongoing connection between Swee and Malacca, her father and the past. As Swee asks: "Which one of us an American?", one senses a hesitation to arrive at a definitive resolution to the diasporic condition as expressed by Lim. Bodies and selves simply adapt to the changing conditions.
Lim writes as a diasporic Chinese woman of Malaysian origin, whose concern with diasporist discourse arises from a desire to advance interest in women's bodies, identities and transnational movements. By placing Malaysian women in the context of emigration and emotional/psychological journeying, Lim mimics and validates aspects of her own diasporic experience after leaving Malaysia to live permanently in America with periodic visits to her community of family, friends and colleagues in Singapore and Malaysia, which she documents in her autobiography Among the White Moonfaces: Memoirs of a Nyonya Feminist (1996).
In the final chapter, Swee likens her experience to "...a long journey, longer than when I had first travelled all the way from Malacca." If Stuart Hall is indeed right to call identity "a production which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation," then Sister Swing has helped to redefine diaspora to include those like Lim who are voluntary exiles who spend their lives in what Robbie Goh calls a 'third space', perpetually swinging between countries, states and notions of self. Swee, as it might be for Shirley Lim, the body is one which is always in flight.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 3 Apr 2006