“Breaking the Tongue”: Postcolonial Reading

by Svetlana Fenichel

Breaking the Tongue, the book by Vyvyane Loh, an author of Malaysian-Chinese descent, addresses a number of issues widely discussed within the postcolonial discourse. The events in the book are placed in colonial Singapore, on the eve of the World War II. The protagonist Claude Lim is brought up by his parents Humprey and Cynthia who strongly identify with the British colonialist culture and are proud of the fact that they abandoned ties with their ethnic Chinese culture. Athley refers to such practice as “deracination,” the process of denigrating all things Asiatic “achieved and maintained <…> through psychic an physical violence over a long period of time” (17).

Claude’s slowly metamorphosis from a culturally detached colonial subject to a young man with strong sense of belonging to the Chinese cultural identity is the focal point of the literary work.  Gradually Claude comes to realization that he can never belong to the British culture. He is merely a colonial subject, a mimic man blindly following the national identity mirage created through the colonial power structure. Loh stresses the problem of nationalism faced by a hodgepodge of people of different ethnic dissent inhabiting colonial Singapore. Tan Eng Kiong interprets the problem as following:

Claude grows up as a cultural schizophrenic in a consolidated space of coloniality, cultural crossing war and national building. The collision of experience spawned by the contact among these spatial and temporal discourses leads to Claude’s feeling of being an outsider in the environment he perceives as home. Malaya, the specific locale that he regards as home, is a no-man’s land to most of the people around him. (66-67).

Loh exposes Singapore as transformed in a “no-man’s land” because of its colonial experiences. On one of the occasions in the book, a chauffeur Muthu passionately states that Singapore “it’s not India, it’s not China, it’s not even Malaya. It’s nothing” (Loh 31). And this is the place that Claude has to culturally identify with. Unlike the servants that fled to this country but have strong cultural ties with their ethnic motherlands, Claude is trapped in the ethnic and cultural emptiness of Singapore, the vacuum created through colonialism.

The novel climaxes in the torture scenes performed by the Japanese invaders. These scenes most importantly uncover the identity split of the protagonist stemming from his position as a colonial subject. Claude has blindly embraced the subordinate relationship with the colonial power to secure an advanced position in Singaporean society. Now he finds himself marginalized and alienated from every tangible aspect of his life. This results in the emotional and sociological split within the protagonist: Claude the Body and Claude.

Tan Eng Kiong refers to the definition of identity by Stuart Hall. According to Hall, along with the main purpose of identity as a force of unity, it also involves a process of identification, which “leads to the active positioning oneself in history, culture and power” (70). Taking that aspect of identity into consideration it becomes apparent that Claude is lacking fluidity and fragmentation of his identity becomes apparent. The identity split he experiences as a result of torture allows him for self-questioning, the necessary compound of identity construction process.

The novel concludes with Claude learning Chinese language. When on the torture cell, interrogated by the Japanese, Claude also realizes that his spoken English and lifestyle didn’t transform him into an Englishman, but rather placed him into the in-between social group of neither English nor local, a rootless person whose believes in the colonial power turned to be false. As Athley explains it,  “… Loh attends to family, language, and the making of race under colonization where only control of the tongue can produce a good or loyal subject” (21). Ultimately, it is through the acquisition with the Chinese language that Claude reestablishes his cultural heritage.

 

 

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