The Affirmative Alternative -- Symbiosis

Part 6.1 of Drama in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Thiru Kandiah, PhD, formerly of the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Among the contradictions which thus get suppressed are those which seem to involve post-colonial hybridity. The repetitions in Emily do not involve a destabilising doubling, for they are quite celebratory of the elements of the coloniser's culture that have been repeated. Much of the distinction of Emily's lifestyle derives from the eager and unselfconsciously ostentatious display of the material culture that the coloniser had brought - the shopping orders, the bridge games, the ballet and riding classes, the formal dinners, the education in England and a host of such things. These are seen as defining her style of life and, more, validating, rather than destabilising, it. Thus, songs learned from the former rulers, for example, 'Old Kentucky Home', assume central symbolic meaning for Emily. Similarly, her words, in her 'best' Standard English, to the foreign Bishop's wife show an ingratiating quality that reflects an acceptance of the authority of the colonial. Far from raising self-doubts about identity, this is seen as further evidence of Emily's great ability to achieve her ends.

The hybridity and repetition in the text do not, then, seem to have the kind of effects that Bhabha talks of. Instead, there seems to be here a celebratory affirmation of a plenitudinous identity, significantly defined by elements which it has appropriated from the coloniser and which it has no wish to subvert. This appears to articulate an acceptance of the historical reality of the changes that colonialism has brought about. As Fanon (1968, pp.207-48) has pointed out, colonialism has been responsible for an inevitable dialectical reorganisation of consciousness and material culture in the colonies. To try, in pursuit of post-colonial recovery, to 'get back to the people in that (pure native) past out of which they have already emerged' is to go against the whole movement of history. What Emily seems to show in addition is that this need not necessarily place the post-colonial within a perpetually destabilising hybridity. An alternative conceptualisation of the post-colonial identity could be in terms of an ever-forming 'symbiosis' (Kandiah 1991), which recognises the dynamic co-existence and interaction of different elements within a larger whole, sometimes in creative tension with or even radical opposition to each other, at other times in a harmony based on an acceptance of the importance of all of these elements for each other.

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