Is Catherine Lim's The Bondmaid a Postcolonial Novel?
George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University
One might rephrase the question asked by the title of this document as "In what senses, if any, is Catherine Lim's The Bondmaid a postcolonial novel?"
Here are some possible answers or approaches to that question:
- The Bondmaid is literally a "postcolonial novel" in the baldest, most literal sense of the term since it was written after Singapore ceased being a colony of Great Britain. It is therefore by definition postcolonial. But does the term apply to the novel in any more meaningful way?
- Except for the brief prologue, set in the late 1980s or '90s, the remainder of the book takes place in colonial Singapore and, moreover, inside the experiences of a protagonist (Han) almost complete isolated from ruling British culture. What does Lim's novel imply by means of such a protagonist and such a cultural situation?
- The novel dramatizes the flaws of traditional Chinese culture, particularly as it was experienced by women of the lower classes. Does The Bondmaid therefore implicitly argue for the superiority of modern, post-independence Singapore?
- One of the problems faced by contemporary Singapore involves the relations of the ethnic Chinese population to Chinese culture, tradition, and language. Within this context does The Bondmaid undercut the position of those who argue for more connections to traditional Chinese culture by emphasizing its harsh side?
- By making The Bondmaid's main character, Han, a kind of proto-modern woman of independence and strong will, does Lim write a kind of book that could only win an audience in the 1980s and '90s? (That is, within an earlier cultural context might not many readers see Lim's heroine as a justly punished upstart ?)
- By casting The Bondmaid as a novel that combines the techniques of Victorian social and psychological realism -- a very Western, and in that sense colonial, form -- does Lim produce a work that is unintendedly "postcolonial" -- that is, so heavily influenced by British and other Western forms that, consciously or unconsciously, she produces a work that reproduces a foreign civilization.
- Or, on the other hand, since she so successfully approporiates and deploys forms originally developed by the authors of a colonizing power, hasn't she approporiated "English" literature, providing another example of the "Empire writing back." In other words, isn't she postcolonial in the sense that her work implicitly asserts that the former colony now has much as much claim to British culture as Britain itself does?