Monolingual Exile: Language, Autobiography and Exteriority in Shirley Lim
Joanne Leow dissects the enforced exile of language in Shirley Lim
By Joanne Leow
In writing about the language choice of the post-colonial African writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o questions the "acceptance of the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English" in African literature. He writes, "How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble towards the claims of our languages on us and so aggressive in our claims on other languages, particularly the languages of our colonisation?" Shirley Lim, an Anglophone Malaysian writer based in the United States, seems to exemplify the very writers that wa Thiong'o is critiquing. In her essay "The Scarlet Brewer and the Voice of the Colonized", Lim writes, "Claiming English as my own was my first step out of the iron cage and into a voice, and who is to say it is not my language and not my voice?". Yet, upon closer examination of her situation, we find that it is significantly and problematically different from that of the writers of the so-called "literature of the petty-bourgeoisie born of the colonial schools and universities" that wa Thiong'o describes. Firstly, she is effectively monolingual, having no recourse to a native language that wa Thiong'o's essay, "The Language of African Literature" would privilege. Furthermore, in expressing her 'decision' to write in English, she recognizes that it is not her decision to make, but that she has the ability to make the language 'her own', to use it for her own ends, to try to express her life and conditions with eloquence and sophistication. This, I would argue, is her ultimate goal in her memoir Among the White Moon Faces, as well as in some of her more personal critical essays and her poetic œuvre.
While she does not hide her love for the English language and its literature (the "lines of English poetry, seemed to glow in [her] brain even in the brightest of languid steamy afternoons"), Lim is conscious of and careful to note the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in her education in the British canon and her subsequent foray into American literature. The most interesting aspects in her work are the self-conscious manner in which she addresses her hybrid upbringing, education and origins, and her coming to terms with the anomie that comes from being monolingual in the colonizer's language. Perhaps her situation can be well articulated by Derrida, who expresses a similar ambivalence in his book Le monolinguisme de l'autre (The monolingualism of the other). In it he writes about the formation of the self in a seemingly alien language, or rather in a linguistic situation that cannot be found:
Derrida seems to be expressing the same sentiments as Lim in her poem "Lament", a summing up of her relationship to the English language. As a Francophone Algerian theoretician and writer, Derrida writes about his own relationship to French:
For Lim, English is the language that she inhabits and that inhabits her, it is "before what eyes see", "language of [her] dreams", she believes that "reading it and writing it is the closest experience [she has] ever had to feeling infinity in [her] presence".
Indeed, Lim seems to be a classic case of a British (post)colonial subject, unable to relate to what would have been her mother tongue, Hokkien; she calls it "a language of exclusion, the speech act which disowns me in my very place of birth". This is very similar to the remark that Derrida makes, "La langue dite maternelle n'est jamais purement naturelle, ni propre, ni habitable." (The so-called maternal language is never just purely natural, nor one's own, nor inhabitable.) Lim believes that her alienation from the language of her origins calls "into question the notion of a mother tongue tied to a racial origin", since she says,
As a child of a Hokkien community, I should have felt that propulsive abrasive dialect in my genes. Instead, when I speak Hokkien, it is at the level of a five-year-old... Hokkien remains for me an imperfectly learned system of grammar comprised of the reduced nouns and verbs of a child's necessary society...
What is unusual here is that, although this feeling of alienation from Hokkien is arguably retrospective, in her mind, Lim puts it before her immersion into the British education system. She acknowledges that for her, "Hokkien had never been a language of familiarity, affection, and home" and that it "laid out a foreign territory, for I was of the South Seas Chinese but not one of them". Before this, however, there already occurs an initial linguistic displacement: "I spoke Malay, my mother's language... the language of assimilated Chinese who had lived in the peninsula, jutting southeast of Asia, since the first Chinese contact with the Malacca Sultanate in the fifteenth century". Speaking Malay is not to be considered as a substitute mother tongue for Lim, since even at that early stage there is an awareness that it is foreign and outside the community: "Chinese-speaking Malayans called me a "Kelangkia-kwei, - or a Malay devil - because I could not or would not speak Hokkien.". It appears that her diasporic roots already predispose her to becoming monolingual in the colonizer's language, since she is unable to find any "home" in the language of her racial and community history or that of her geographical situation.
All this linguistic confusion and uneasiness seems to be resolved immediately by one thing: "And once I was six and in a British school, I would speak chiefly English, in which I became 'fluent,' like a drop of rain returning to a river, or a fish thrown back into a sea". This is strikingly similar to Derrida when he writes about how the already displaced and alienated are faced with the ineluctability of choosing the colonizer's language as one's own; they are searching for a language that has been
Like Lim, Derrida is quick to note the fact that here the colonial language is not replacing or becoming a primordial language, a mother tongue, since in some cases for the colonized, this elemental language has never existed. However, it is becoming a language that is indispensable, if only to fill the void of "des traces négatives". To describe her own experience, Lim uses the imagery of water to represent language and portrays herself as completely in her element. Here, she wants to emphasize the fluidity of the English language, which can bend and yield to accommodate her, another "fish" or a "drop of rain".
Yet, as Sneja Gunew writes in her essay, "Technologies of the Self: Corporeal Affects of English", while English as such does not automatically convey an imperial or colonizing charge, its embeddedness within various pedagogical and disciplinary regimes of subjugation (whether these relate to colonization, neoimperialism, or migration) and its attachment to a tradition of English studies mean that it cannot function neutrally as a worldwide lingua franca. Even before Lim became attached to English as embodied in her love for its grammar, syntax and literature, as a little girl, she already had cultural imperialism embedded in her playtime. She writes of an episode in which the incongruity of her toys with her surroundings becomes sharply apparent upon adult reflection:
This disjunction between her everyday experience and the images originating from the colonizer, and her subsequent identification with the colonizer's modus and behavior are carried over and preserved in her relationship with the English language and literature. This episode from her childhood that Lim chooses to recreate is a precursor to her experiences with the colonial education, which almost replicate this discontinuity of experience. Derrida writes about his discovery of French literature in almost the exact vein:
There is clearly a sense of this in Lim's reflections on her early childhood and her exposure to British culture, through the English language. She makes the link between the two very clear when she describes the effect of her brothers' textbooks, "British readers with thick linen-rag covers, strong slick paper, and lots of shorts and poems accompanied by color pictures in the style of Aubrey Beardsley". Although the pictures of "Wee Willie Winkie...wearing only a white night cap and gown" makes a firm impression on her, it is also the story that holds a "disorienting power", since
Another clear example she gives of this effect is the first English poem she memorizes, "The Jolly Miller", whose lyrics ultimately deliver a message encapsulated in the last two lines, "I care for nobody, no not I, /And nobody cares for me". Lim plainly points this out as a summation of one of the fundamental cultural differences between the British and the Malayans:
It is in retrospective, as an adult, that Lim acknowledges the way this "ideological subversion" has permeated her entire childhood, and to explain how she was perhaps more susceptible to its influence, she points to her unique position as one who has been marginalized by her own already hybrid Malay-Chinese culture as playing an equal influence on her evolution. It is not "colonialist corruption of an original pure culture" that she is writing about here; she notes quite astutely that:
Lim also situates her love for English literature as something not dictated by the colonial system, but as subjective in her own physical body situated outside the system,
Yet, what Lim is experiencing is not "l'amour du colonisateur et la haine de soi" ("Love for the colonizer and hate of oneself") that Albert Memmi writes about in his groundbreaking work "Portrait du colonisé". It seems that the feelings towards the British colonial education and power, and herself, are more complex for Lim. Memmi writes:
But this is not the case for Lim; even though she acknowledges her utilization of British colonial culture as a means of liberation from what she feels is a rigid, stifling "familial/gender/native culture that violently hammered out only one shape for self". What is crucial is that she sees herself as an active agent, "actively appropriating" only the aspects that she needed for her emancipation. There is no sense of the sharp hierarchy and self-deprecation that is so evident in Memmi's work. There is also a sense, very different from Derrida, that there is a self that exists before language. Thus Lim sees her education in the convent as giving her "weapons with which to wreck [her] familial culture", it is not the education that is doing the wrecking, but herself as an active participant and decision maker in her development. In her narrative she is not at all subjected to the colonizer in the traditional sense, she is the Subject.
This is further evidenced by her atypical reading of English books and its consequent effect on her world view. She writes that she "never surrendered [her] freedom to an author but always asked how what I was reading related to my observations, the people around me, and my surroundings. Knowing that children elsewhere read these books, I assumed that they would also want to know about someone like me". The view of herself as a "singular subject", an "I [that] signified" is something that she feels particularly strongly about. Her early sense of geography, placing herself at the "hub of the universe, was more than childish egocentrism". She is fully conscious of her individuality and her worth, even at this intersection of her native culture and her colonial education:
Later in her life, when she is taking her national standard exams, "set by British teachers and professors and administered from Cambridge University", she sees them still as an audience, albeit a formidable new one, "for, reading as fast and tediously as they had to, only a different voice could reach them through those fortress walls of exam booklets". And it is this voice that Lim is conscious of possessing and wanting to cultivate:
This did not mean that everyone succeeded in this struggle; Lim observes fellow classmates whose lives and experiences [were] mismatched to the well-oiled machinery of the English-language essay. The irony was not that my companions were uninteresting or unlearned, but that what they learned was so far removed from their senses that their learning remained separate, unvivified and undigested: many of them did regurgitate class notes, lectures, and globs of memorized passages for the exams, an undifferentiated vomit of words, dates, ideas and scrambled facts.
Certainly, what really set Lim apart from her peers was her personal conclusion that to her, in spite of all its cultural burden, English was a set of tools which she could not only use to liberate herself but also to further her potential for expressing herself. She writes in her essay "The Scarlet Brewer and the Voice of the Colonized", "English was also a language that the English had to learn [...] [its] poetry was socially constructed, not innately inherent in race and genius. The respect for craft that breathes in a book of forms [...] is also the respect for any reader who will study it". Her conception of English poetry as that of a "craft," demystifies and demythologizes "the mysterious English poetry of the British imperialists". While of course English poetry is not just form and structure, Lim sees how helpful it was for her to deconstruct it to its parts and treat it as "a material body of social language". Here again she diverges from Derrida by seeing language as being secondary to the formation of the self, seeing language as in fact a tool with which to "craft" expression.
An important discovery for Lim comes when she realizes that Malaya is a country worth poeticizing in itself, bringing it in some ways on par to Wordworth's England. Derrida makes a similar statement when he writes about his relationship with French literature and its assertion of its superiority through Paris over Algeria:
Like Lim, Derrida has a very strong sense of the native land, of its singularity and centrality. Accordingly, Lim cannot comprehend the alienation that some of the early Anglophone-Malayan poets like Ee Tiang Hong and Wong Phui Nam felt from Malayan society. These poets are her first introduction to a local literature in English, yet their displacement motivates her in an opposite direction. She writes:
What is important in Lim's stance is the fact that before she is led to believe otherwise by political turmoil, she firmly upholds the view that one can and must write poetry in English to do for one's country what English poets have done for Britain itself. In doing so, she is claiming the English language to express ideas and landscapes that might otherwise have been alien to the language. She sees post-colonial societies that try to reject their English Language writers as suppressing "the lyric voices of their free men and women celebrating their past and inventing their future". This standpoint, is of course, extremely problematic, eliding issues such as the significance of writing in the colonial language, and overlooking what historical and literary legacies in the language itself.
Nevertheless, Lim has already had to deal with the pressures of being a Malaysian writer in English. As Koh Tai Ann points out in "Literature and Society", a post-colonial writer in this sense is:
She further notes that it is not just a "western-oriented... education" but it is a "previous experience of literature" that "conditions him [inescapably]". Koh argues that to counteract and escape this "colonial" influence, the writer attempts to concentrate on content or subject, specifically to commit "to his immediate local cultural environment and its demands". Koh sees this as the manifestation of "a felt insecurity of cultural identity and affiliation marked by an embarrassment with his Western literary and cultural heritage to which he feels a 'psychic accommodation' is required". While it is not evident that Lim suffers from this "insecurity" or "embarrassment", Koh's argument is useful in pointing out what the two conflicting influences that Lim has had to deal with in her writing. Furthermore, as Koh points out:
What happens then when the post-colonial writer writes for a Western audience as Lim does? Her memoir is written for a primarily American audience (she subtitles it "An Asian American Memoir of the Homelands"), and in an interesting development, one notes that the language she chooses to use when writing about Malaysia borders on a kind of orientalism of "tropical languor and heightened sensuality". The problem is also raised in Michael O'Riley's essay "Specters of Orientalism in France, Algeria, and Postcolonial Studies." He outlines how the potential for "specters of orientalism" often returns to haunt post-colonial texts with "its images, exoticism, and cultural conflicts".
I believe that this problematic of secondary orientalism in Lim's writing, is inextricably linked with Lim's position as an exiled intellectual. While she has chosen her "language" "before country", she writes:
Here, Lim seems to be reproducing what Ella Shohat has noted about post-colonialism, that it "implies a narrative of progression in which colonialism remains the central point of reference". It also marks a step away from the emotions she expresses in the poem "Lament". Here Lim seems to come to a realization that language stops being enough. While she continues to claim her roots in her country of origin, because of the choice of language she has made, she now seems unable to move beyond her position of exile and to be in a position of constantly looking back, nostalgic, always painfully aware of the experience of rupture, unable to be at home in either Malaysia or the United States. Edward Said discusses this in his essay "Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals". He writes "there is no real escape, even for the exile who tries to remain suspended, since that state of in-between-ness can itself become a rigid ideological position, a sort of dwelling whose falseness is covered over in time, and to which one can all too easily become accustomed". However, bringing Adorno into his dicussion, he envisions that one must find a place to live in writing itself, something that Lim appears to be trying to do. All the same, she has placed herself in a rigid position of "in-between-ness", a median state of "restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others". It is in this liminal state that the problematic of secondary orientalism arises for Lim. Said notes that:
Although Said goes on to say that this might provide a more "universal idea of how to think", in Lim's case, this seems to bring her on the brink of viewing her past and country of origin through the lens of the colonizer, simply because of the language she chooses to use in depicting her own history. One of her early writing ambitions is to "write a literature like Wordsworth's Prelude, but overflowing with native presence", because "writing should be an act of dis-alienation, of sensory claims". Yet within this aspiration, we already see the problem of the post-colonial writer defining herself simultaneously in opposition and alliance with the colonial language and literature (as embodied here by Wordsworth). Her use of the term "native presence" is loaded with cultural meaning that cannot be avoided.
Thus, the "double perspective" that Said describes, is for her inherent already in her choice of language and further augmented by her exilic position. While I am not suggesting that she is consciously orientalizing her past and her origins, I would argue that she seems to think this is an almost necessary move in order to address her international audience, predominantly in the United States. In an interview with the "Women's Review of Books" she says:
Gunew points out that the inherent unsettling problematic of the English language itself is the cultural imperialism it has embedded in its vocabulary and literary history. Similarly, Lim writes, "We were caged in British colonial culture and like the mynah learned to repeat the master's phrases", thus also echoing Koh's idea of how a post-colonial writer is conditioned by the Western literary experience. Lim, having been educated in the British canon while continuing to claim her roots in her native culture, has acquired a "double perspective" that has become a permanent filter in her writing about her past. It appears that the only vocabulary available to her, and the stance she needs to take to address her international audience appears to be that of an insidious orientalism, an exoticization of her biographical narrative. She is, of course, to some degree aware of this problem, as she writes:
Lim appears to understand the paradox of writing in the colonial language that liberates and traps at the same time, and it will be especially interesting to see how she intends to move her writing beyond these limitations.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 2 Jan 2007