Nostalgia, Historicity, Hybridity: Representations of Asian identities in the historical novels of Kazuo Ishiguro and Catherine Lim

Tamara Wagner, University of Cambridge

Hybridity is a major concern in the "new literatures" in English -- the hybridity of multiethnic cultures, of expatriate writers and expatriate protagonists, and of the texts themselves as a form of writing that is firmly inscribed by the traditions of the English novel. What I intend to map in this paper are representations of Asian identities -- and hybridities -- in contemporary historical novels.

Focusing on the clash of nostalgia and cosmopolitanism with which their fictional spaces are riveted through, I shall look closely at the works of two significantly different "Asian" authors who both negotiate the problematics of writing personal memory within the historical contexts of multiethnic societies and globalisation. Kazuo Ishiguro, a self-styled international writer who emphasises his engagement with universal themes, linking expatriate experiences to a psychological sense of exile, and Catherine Lim, who explores the social structures of a multiethnic nation, offer intriguing points of entrance to cultural, personal, and generic hybridity.

In his introductory chapter of New National and Post-Colonial Literatures, Bruce King makes a distinction between commonwealth post-colonialism and new diasporas. "The new English literature", he emphasises, "is not just the Empire writing back; its authors include Eastern Europeans and Asians, whose origins are outside the English-speaking world. [ . . . ] Current discussions of post-colonialism and multi-culturalism seldom face this" (10).

A juxtaposition of Ishiguro's bilingual international background with Lim's self-conscious focus on Chinese Malaysian or Chinese Singaporean politics of identity to some extent epitomises this distinction. Their treatment of nostalgia focalises the differences of new diasporic experiences, while they stress the international problematics -- and potentials -- of multiple nationalities or identities.

Ishiguro's novels affirm the creativity of nostalgia while questioning the frameworks of personal and collective memory. The historical contexts of his narratives are more than a backdrop for his representations of the formation of personal, cultural, or national identities and the formulation of "home". In When We Were Orphans (2000), the writing of historical places that are spaces of personal nostalgia couches the search for origins and identity in a "detective plot" as well as in a historical novel.

Catherine Lim's historical fiction, The Bondmaid (1995) and The Teardrop Story Woman (1998), and her most recent novel, Following the Wrong God Home (2001) -- and I shall return to its "historical" setting in the 1980s -- similarly negotiate the protagonists' personal histories while deploying the strategies of representing familiar "otherness" that have dominated historical novels in English ever since Sir Walter Scott. Yet Lim's engagement with hybridity is an analysis of a multicultural society in which the collective memory of the past is crucial, while personal nostalgia protests both against limiting conventions of the past and against the vicissitudes of a process of modernisation that disrupts traditional solutions without offering alternatives. Thus interracial relationships are freed from the stigma with which colonial discourses used to invest them. Yet instead they are enmeshed in the equally damaging racial politics of a nation in which the preservation of ethnic distinctiveness breeds a xenophobic divisiveness among "discursively produced groups" -- "Chinese", "Malays", "Indians", and "Others" -- deployed as "administrative racial categories" (Huat 35). As Nirmala Puru Shotam has pointed out in an essay on "Disciplining Difference: Race in Singapore", this classificatory system is a legacy of colonialism. In "Tourism and the State: Ethnic Options and Constructions of Otherness", Robert Wood similarly speaks of a "taste of domesticating ethnicity", suggesting that in both Singapore and Malaysia, "the state actively sanctions particular ethnic labels and makes them the basis for policies aimed at both citizens and foreign tourists" (12).

The relationships of both Ying Ling and Ben in Following the Wrong God Home and of Mei Kwei and François in The Teardrop Story Woman are doomed by the hypocrisies of international relations that sanction business contacts while frowning on sexual "creolisation". A sustained connection between aberration and hybridity is epitomised by Mei Kwei's albino son, mistaken as the result of her presumed adultery with a French priest, though revealed to be the offspring of her husband's "bad seed". As Robert Young puts it in Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, "in the nineteenth century [hybridity] was used to refer to a physiological phenomenon; in the twentieth century it has been reactivated to describe a cultural one" (6). In The Turbulence of Migration, Nikos Papastergiadis calls hybridity a "multi-purpose globalising identity kit" (169), as it functions as "one of the most useful concepts for representing the meaning of cultural difference in identity" (14). The contemporary usage is affirmative; yet its restriction to cultural internationalism becomes ominous as it displaces the somatics of hybridity. Lim's historical novels explore the evolution of racial politics of identity, drawing attention to the sublimated issues of race, while Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans exemplifies what Young terms the contemporary understanding of hybridity as a cultural issue. Locating private redefinitions of home and homesickness in the contexts of nationalism and internationalism, these texts shed an intriguingly different light on the generic and cultural hybridity of literary nostalgia. The writing of nostalgia vice versa forms an adequately ambivalent articulation of the increasingly international hybridity of creolised and rooted selves.

Reading these historical novels against the background of classic English novels set in the recent past, I shall focus on the postcolonial significance of the spaces of nostalgia in the texts. The tripartite concern of this paper is, in fact, firstly, the importance of variations of nostalgic desire as creative and subversive impulses; secondly, the legacy and redeployment of the genre of the traditional historical novel as originally made popular by the Waverley-novels; and thirdly, the personal, romanticised, engagement with cultural hybridity. Before I proceed to analyse the texts in detail, I shall briefly explain what I understand by variations of nostalgia. The etymological origins of nostalgia are significant not only in that they emphasise the connection between homesickness and nostalgia, but also for their implications for the politics of identity. Coined in a Swiss medical treatise in 1688, the term is inextricably intertwined with the problematics of nationality and exile. In search for a medical term for a malady to which expatriates appeared to be particularly prone, a Swiss doctor combined Greek nostoV "return home" and algoV "pain", diagnosing nostalgia as a disease caused by "the sad mood originating from the desire for the return to one's native land" (381). Suggested alternatives included "nosomanias" and "philopatridomania" (381). As a medical term, nostalgia denoted a physical disease, frequently conflated or confused with melancholia or versions of hypochondria. The diagnosed victims of nostalgia comprised predominantly soldiers stationed abroad or dislocated servants. The lines of demarcation became blurred by what has been termed the "demedicalisation" of nostalgia (Flinn 93), though the distinction between pathological nostalgia or home-sickness and a wistful longing for the past is sustained at least in dictionary definitions. According to the OED, the meaning of nostalgia is still essentially twofold:

1. Path. A form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one's home or country; severe home-sickness.

2. transf. Regret or sorrowful longing for the conditions of a past age; regretful or wistful memory or recall of an earlier time.

Studies of literary nostalgia reflect the variety and versatility of the analysed material. By contrast, a contemptuous dismissal of nostalgia based on its exploitation by reactionary politics is a constant topos in the diatribes of cultural historians. As David Lowenthal puts it, nostalgia today is "a topic of embarrassment and a term of abuse. Diatribe upon diatribe denounce it as reactionary, repressive, ridiculous" (20). In an article on "Nostalgia and the Scene of the Other", Ban Kah Choon, on the other hand, speaks of the surplus energy created by the "dislocation between event and recall" (2) that is intrinsic to nostalgia. Re-configuring the inner landscape as the repressed returns is seen as an underlying condition of the nostalgic drive: "To be nostalgic is to be more than ourselves, more than our past, it is to confirm another presence, the other, that has yet to be adequately accounted for and which demands a re-arranging of our past as it returns" (3).

What I shall focus on here -- and this justifies my lengthy introduction to the cults of nostalgia -- is the intermingling of personal nostalgia and postcolonial historicity in Lim's novels and the endorsement of both hybridity and nostalgia in Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, which transcends his analysis of the unreliability of memory and the distortion of histories in his earlier works.

The pathologies of nostalgia as home-sickness and of the multiple or split identities or personalities of the cultural hybrid clash in fruitfully ambivalent texts that are in a sense "about" forms of hybridity, transcending allegations of morbidity by, as it were, cancelling each other out. In cementing the fissures of hybrid selfhood, nostalgia becomes its own cure as well as that of the expatriate's schizophrenia; and in embracing the intrinsic diversity of an international identity, multiple hybridities, endlessly bifurcated and doubled, resolve the sickness for home. Exposing the idea of the nation as an -- as it is put in Benedict Anderson's useful phrase -- "imagined community", this endorsement of multicultural identity dismantles nationalist xenophobia and thus creates private nostalgic spaces that are far from being racist or reactionary precisely because "home" is reconfigured as a trans-national locality. This acknowledgement of the creative potentialities of nostalgic hybridities is borne out in the textual or generic hybridity of contemporary fiction. In Ishiguro's work, the tensions between personal versions of history, nostalgia, and psychological -- and often real -- exile tend to remain unresolved, investing searches for origins or memories with a sense of belatedness and sadness. The drifting memory and identity of Ryder in The Unconsoled (1995) are an extreme example, as he traverses the streets of an oddly familiar city in Central Europe as well as blurred landscapes of overlapping memories, in which faces become strangely "more familiar, until [he] thought [he] could even remember vaguely some earlier [events of the past]" (ch.3,34). I shall return to Ishiguro's fascination with memory in my analysis of the cultural hybrid Christopher Banks in When We Were Orphans.

First, I want to emphasise Catherine Lim's postcolonial deployment of the inherited literary cults of nostalgia, through which the strategies of the historical novel are adapted to negotiate the politics of identity and collective memory in a multiethnic society. I see her historical novels as creatively reworking the traditions of the novel while representing the clash of traditions in Singapore and Malay(si)a. In The Teardrop Story Woman, storytelling and (hi)stories form a central theme and design, emphasising the creation of stories -- and of history, canonised or otherwise -- out of the patching up of "the stories we save and tell". The rich symbolism of the "perfection of design and riot of colours" of Por Por's patchwork blanket links the making of stories to the creativity, attraction, and resilience of nostalgia:

If [Mei Kwei's] life moved inexorably through its prescribed stages of daughterhood, dreary marriage and motherhood, she could try to save some of her dreams and smuggle them in somehow. She could then spin the dreams into stories for her own private enjoyment. Life is made bearable by the stories we save and tell. Mei Kwei remembered that when she was a little girl, a friend of Second Grandmother, whom she called Por Por -- an old woman, almost blind and bent double -- saved every bit of cloth [Š], amassing over the years, a veritable mountain. Sorting out the pieces, cutting them into precise shapes to sew together, she turned out the most beautiful patchwork blankets. [Š] But the greatest thrill of Por Por's patchwork blanket was its richness as a source of stories. [Š] Mei Kwei determined to make her own patchwork blanket of secret stories (ch.42,280).

That "life is made bearable by the stories we save and tell" is, in fact, also the book's motto. A similar connection between patchwork and the creation of narratives structures the juxtaposed accounts that make up Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996), externalising the self-reflexivity and conscious creation and embellishment of memories, stories, and histories. In Lim's The Teardrop Story Woman, however, the emphasised usefulness of storytelling comprises both its nourishing significance for the imagination and its commercial value as a desirable commodity that can be exchanged against other objects of desire or used to exact compliance. The child Mei Kwei exploits both acquired stories and fantastic embellishments to appease Big Older Brother, just as she offers fruit or rubber-seeds in exchange of the stories and knowledge her friend Polly has acquired at school. Yet storytelling also functions as a locus of intimacy, informing happy childhood memories of Second Grandmother's tales and the lovers' exchange of stories. Stories are retold in "that later time of their joyful secret meetings": "Stories were safe, free of the insinuations of past, present and future; stories were innocuous" (ch.47,297). Mei Kwei decides "to make her own patchwork blanket of secret stories" (ch.42,280). The meetings with François yield "rich, tender memories. [Š] She would call forth these memories again and again and lay them, a fabric threaded with her dreams, against her cheek, and press them to her heart" (ch.42,281).

The romantic encounter that challenges conventions is of course an established topos: "Lovers claimed their own universe, a cosmology of two" (ch.47,296), explaining why geography is "especially innocuous" (ch.9,86). The same phrase is invoked to describe Yin Ling's secret romance with the American exchange lecturer Ben in Following the Wrong God Home: "Yin Ling liked the Œwe' of their growing closeness, the Œothers' of its exclusiveness, making their world a precious cosmology of two" (pt.1,ch.13,109). In Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night (1961), Howard W. Campbell speaks of his "nation of two", which similarly falls victim to the clashes of the nations of canonised history. Invoking a reading of Romeo and Juliet, The Teardrop Story Woman emphasises that the topos of the lovers divided by their background is both a perennial theme and particularly associated with English literature. Mei Kwei's Anglophone impulses are significantly restricted to the "rich narrative sources, which she had greedily and surreptitiously absorbed [Š]. ŒLove stories of men and women.'" (ch.42,279) English becomes a language of storytelling as well as a language of love -- and it is significant that her foreign lover is not English. The "stories we save and tell" both make the life of the individual meaningful and nurture the collective memory in a multiethnic society through a creative incorporation of various foreign stories.

The Teardrop Story Woman and The Bondmaid are couched in the telling of colonial and postcolonial historicity. The personal history of the bondmaid Han ends with her transformation into the subject of stories, which become popular myth, part of the intricate network of stories that lies hidden beneath the modern city of Singapore: "Stories began to spread of a goddess residing in the pond, who worked miracles" (Epilogue). In trying to protect "a little dilapidated shrine [Š] in the way of a three-hundred-million dollar industrial development project" (Prologue), her aged lover is killed by fire, which unites the dead lovers, as it had been foretold. Mei Kwei emphasises that her secret romance is her "story": "This is my story, they will never take it away from me" (ch.70,384). Years later, François remembers "with an ache of longing, every syllable of her story; he would remember it all his life" (ch.72,389). Dreams, premonitions, miracles, mysterious tokens, and "coincidences" dominate the plots and are interwoven almost at random with historical and ethnographic detail, creating something like "the perfection of design and riot of colours" of a patchwork blanket.

In fact, frequently deploying digressive anecdotes and endlessly retold myths, Lim's fiction deserves Arthur Yap's arraignment of what he terms "surrogate or proxy descriptions" that occur "with high-order probability" (49). It has been pointed out that her earlier novel The Serpent's Tooth (1982) is "almost ethnographic" and that its interest in the characters is weak as they "fall neatly into the two partitions of Chinese (old) culture and Westernised (new) society" (Lim 138-142). Her most recent novel, Following the Wrong God Home, partly constitutes a return to such ethnographic mapping. As her two historical novels, set predominantly in the fifties, it transposes contemporary problematics into the recent past while representing personal stories enmeshed in history. Published in 2001, the novel spans the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, locating conservative politics of national identity firmly in the past, thus rewriting the clear-cut clashes between modernisation and tradition treated in The Serpent's Tooth, published in the early eighties. Yet the old servant's search for a home for her god-with-no-home in Following the Wrong God Home focalises metaphysical dimensions of homelessness and homesickness that transcend a social critique of the particular by stressing the universal.

The works of both Ishiguro and Lim, in fact, negotiate the protagonists' personal stories against the backdrop of -- intriguingly -- vaguely invoked events of canonised history. In Lim's fiction, the problematics of colonialism, post-colonialism, and neo-colonialism -- incorporated by the petrochemical complex in the framestory of The Bondmaid -- as well as the Japanese occupation or the Emergency are evoked; and yet they are only significant as they frame the protagonists' own stories. Evoking Austen, Lim stresses in a recent interview that she prefers "to stick to [her] little square inch of ivory", hoping "to chronicle the human condition, not just that of Singapore" (56). Ishiguro similarly emphasises his commitment to universal themes and what has been called his "exasperation with [critics'] stereotyping of his ethnicity" (Wong 11). His subtle analysis of the workings of memory and the comforting processes of redefining the past, of the forgetting and self-conscious recollecting of nostalgia as a survival strategy, sets the narrators' struggles to come to terms with their past mistakes against the background of global calamities. Ono in An Artist of the Floating World (1986) indulges in self-consciously dignified self-deception, disrupted by a paranoia that reads the misfortunes of the present always as results of the mistakes of the past. Yet his salvaging processes of his memories do not only invoke nostalgia, but also negotiate a coming to terms with past mistakes, which is pitted against an equally self-deceiving denial of the past. Ono asserts his dignity with touching pathos:

I must say I find it hard to understand how any man who values his self-respect would wish for long to avoid responsibility for his past deeds; it may not always be an easy thing, but there is certainly a satisfaction and dignity in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one's life. (124-25)

Commenting on The Remains of the Day (1989), Ishiguro focalises the pathos of nostalgia as a survival strategy: "I do feel it is somehow pathetic, that kind of cheering up of oneself. But on the other hand, I have a certain kind of admiration for the human capacity to do just that. There's something admirable and courageous about it, even if it seems completely futile". The writing of stories becomes to the nostalgic narrators a way to regain their dignity and to achieve both catharsis and consolation. In this reconstitution of the identity of the former present, nostalgia becomes its own cure. That Ishiguro's novels deal with the unreliability of memory and the ambiguities of nostalgia as well as of narrative has been widely acknowledged, as has been his negotiation of the nature of national consciousness and identity. When We Were Orphans takes this meditation on the divisions of remembering and past selves into the realm of cultural hybridity and multicultural identity. In his 1996 book on the modern and postmodern historical novel, Steven Connor asserts that "Ishiguro does not give the question of divided cultural identity visibility as a subject in his work" (104). When We Were Orphans not only disproves this premature claim, but also transcends expected paradigms of cultural clashes in its combination of a detective's investigation of a personal past with the delineation of the hybrid identities of expatriates.

The reconstruction of the personal past, of origins and identity, is central to the novel. Both the vividness and the haziness of memories engender a preoccupation with the past and with nostalgia -- with the homesickness of metaphorical and literal "orphanhood" -- that channels an investigation of the mysteries of the past into an exploration of personal memory and identity. Nostalgia is explored in all its ambiguities, emerging as a constructive and creative emotion: "Nos-tal-gic. It is good to be nos-tal-gic. Very important" (ch.20,263). As the narrator's Japanese childhood friend remarks when they meet again among the ruins of war-torn Shanghai, "when we nostalgic, we remember. A world better than this world come back again. So very important." (ch.20,263) In addition, the novel negotiates what it means to be "a bit of a mongrel" (ch.5,76) -- a cultural hybrid caught up in the clash of nationalism(s) and impending international war in the 1930s.

In both Lim's and Ishiguro's historical novels, the fictional spaces created out of the landscapes of the past and of memory and its constructive deficiencies map out the creative forces of nostalgic desire as well as of the personal perception -- and its filtering in retrospect -- of "factual" or canonised history. The generic hybridity of their texts moreover articulates an informing concern with contemporary politics of hybrid identities. When We Were Orphans deconstructs its own detective plot by filtering the narrator's delusions, created out of traumatising childhood memories, through his own construction of events. On the brink of the Second World War, Banks believes that his mission to save his parents will have vast implications for world politics; and the expatriate community at Shanghai welcomes and fosters his belief and what Ishiguro himself has termed Bank's "rather odd logic deriving from childhood". What is of particular significance for my analysis of the function of personal nostalgia within historical contexts is the hybridisation of genres within the innovations of the historical novel, which can serve to externalise the problematics of the representation or fictionalisation of cultural and multi-cultural hybridity. Genres -- like identities -- are constructs that are more than simply hybrid, incorporating multiple aspects creatively, thereby transcending both homogeneity and hybridity.


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Last modified 19 December 2001