Neil Lazarus argues that African anti-colonial activist writers "tended to overvalue the emancipatory significance of independence. One consequence was that, as their hopes were punctured in the years following decolonization (as they invariably were), a rhetoric of disillusion began to replace the earlier utopian rhetoric in their work: it emerged as fatalism or despair or anger or the accusation that postcolonial leaders had betrayed the 'African revolution.'" (See Activism & Illusion in Africa; Neil Lazarus, Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction, New Haven: Yale UP, 1990; p. ix; [added by GPL]) The fundamental problems of this situation revolve around the concept of independence. All of the people involved--from revolutionaries to those who criticize the new government--agree that independence, as they conceive of it, is a realistic goal. The problem, however, lies not in the failure of the government but in this concept of independence.
What is independence? If it is the absence of the oppressive colonial power, then what, in positive terms does it consist of? "Utopian rhetoric," as Lazarus says, rests upon an ideal future state, a utopia, a heaven. In reality, when one moves from one relationship into another, a new dynamic arises. So then, should we blame the revolutionaries for having a faulty idea of how human beings behave? Blame is not a useful course of action, either. The nature of such relationships needs more elaboration before we can arrive at a better model for thinking about social and political reform. To this end, we can turn to many postcolonial authors, who do elaborate upon them, in order to come to terms with the nuts-and-bolts of human relationships.
The model of independence has fundamental problems. African revolutionaries seem to have adhered to strict definitions of the dominant and the subservient. The rhetoric of independence depends upon mutually exclusive binarisms: bad and good, colony and colonizer, dominant and oppressed, enslavement and freedom. We could say that this binary model consists, fundamentally, of the subject position and the object position, which are terms from linguistics and literary theory (link to definitions). The post-colonial authors make a departure from these strict models. One need not accept these definitions of the subject and object. The ruler (subject) is not all-powerful all the time and the slave (object) is not all powerless every moment. Allowing for inequalities, we can take another viewpoint and say that two people existing within a relationship are differently empowered. This means Person A might lead the way in one context and Person B might be the authority in the next. The roles of subject and object are "travelling" (like a travelling trophy).
The travelling is exemplified in the relationships in Sour Sweet, especially those between Chen, Lily, and Mui. These positions are also what I call "slippery," because where they are depends upon who perceives him or herself as empowered or not. I find this slipperiness best exemplified in Oscar and Lucinda. The problem with the revolutionary rhetoric lay in its inability to deal with the complexity of power dynamics. When the underdog goverment starts to gain power, then what is this new cross-breed? He (or she) is more powerful and less oppressed, sliding into new types of relationships as he goes. How should people relate to him? What should they be able to expect? And what roles should they play in relation to the new power structure in which everyone--from president to shopkeeper-- is partially responsible?