“Breaking the Tongue”: Hybrid Identity of the Protagonist

By Svetlana Fenichel

Hybridity appears to be one of the most controversial terms in the postcolonial context. Young referred to “hybridity” as part of a colonialist discourse of racism. Homi Bhabha explained the concept as “the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonization” (118). (More on hybridity: see “Postcolonial Feminism and Hybridity” by Stephanie Cawley).

“Float, Fly, Flame up.” (Loh 21). The opening sentence of Vyvyane Loh’s book Breaking the Tongue is a metaphoric catalyst suggestive of the important transformations that would occur on the consecutive pages of the novel. Tan Eng Kiong interprets this sentence as the following:

[The definition of sublimation] in the context of the novel is described specifically as sensational and transcendent. Even though the process and the sensation it arouses is delineated in the passage by the verbs such as “float,” “fly” and “flame up” which imply a sense of liberation and freedom, the subject of the experience is unknown to the reader. (59).

The opening sentence could be viewed as metaphoric of identity construction of the protagonist. The fragmentation of the sentence explicitly points at the fragmented cultural identity of Claude Lim. The dualism of Claude’s identity is rooted in his upbringing as a submissive British subject. It as well could be attributed to  the presence of the concealed desire for the cultural belonging within the fragmented identity of Claude. The split of Claude’s identity would be further asserted in the novel, when the reader is introduced to the Claude’s alter ego, Claude the Body.

As a literary device, the identity split of the protagonist allows for a vivid description of war trauma and colonial experiences. As Tan Eng Klong further states, “I posit that the narrative in The Breaking the Tongue functions as a talkative sure for the protagonist Claude Lim, who struggles the repercussions of a war trauma and an identity crisis caused by the hybrid ethnic, national and cultural backgrounds” (62-3).

Vyvyane Loh constructs the protagonist conflicting with his conscious. Tan Eng Kiong asserts that the novel primarily “depicts the coming to terms of an individual with his hybrid identity” (63). The coming to terms is triggered by many factors faced by Claude, an English-educated second generation immigrant to Singapore. One of the main factors contributing to his identity search is the lack of access to his ethnic roots, the other being the lack of self-knowledge. Throughout his life he had been carefully “protected” from any traces of Chinese culture, viewed by his parents as unworthy. With the only source of ethnic education being the powerful figure of Grandma Siok, Claude is culturally deprived. “Through the recollection of traumatic event and the reconstruction of the event as a self-serving, therapeutic narrative, Claude the protagonist acquires autonomy by embracing his fragmentary and hybrid identity,” asserts Kiong.


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