Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Writing the South Seas

Brian Bernards' Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature is an exciting study of the archipelagic trope and the activity of creolization in the context of postcolonial literature in Southeast Asia. Drawing on Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, and Edouard Glissant, Bernards distinguishes the archipelagic imagination from the continental one, as the former prioritizes "contact, exchange, heterogeneity, and creolization instead of racial, ethnic, or linguistic uniformity and singularity." Drawing on Benedict Anderson, Thomas Eriksen, and the Cuban poet Nancy Morejon, Bernards distinguishes creolization from both hybridity and multiculturalism. Creolization "recognizes culture as an ongoing process that cannot be reduced to a singular outcome, offering neither a finished product (hybridity) nor a composite portrait of separate, immutable entities (multiculturalism)."

Chapter 1 looks at "Modern Chinese Impressions of the South Seas Other" through the lives and works of Chinese Sinophone writers Xu Zhimo (1897-1931) and Xi Dishan (1893-1941). It concludes that "The South Seas color of New Literature, representing a quest for enlightenment, follows a discrepant cosmopolitan itinerary that challenges some basic assumptions about modern China's literary history," namely Chinese ethocentrism and the ideal of "national salvation" in New Literature.

Chapter 2 "Transcolonial Challenges to Diasporic Ethno-Nationalism" looks at Lao She's fiction and Yu Dafu (1896-1945)'s editorial and organizing work for a strong critique of the ways "in which diasporic nationalism slipped into an ethnocentrism that reinforced the divide-and-rule strategies that Western colonizers [and national governments] used to legitimize their exploitative presence.

Chapter 3 "Creolizing the Sinophone from Malaysia to Taiwan" follows the influx of Malaysian students to Taiwan after the 1969 Kuala Lumpur ethnic riots and their political consequences. Bernards' exhibit A is Ng Kim Chew (1967- ), whose "creolized aesthetics of Malaysianness and his transnational rewriting of the Nanyang imagination offer insights into how Sinophone Malaysian literature also functions as a Taiwan-based practice." According to Bernards, "Malaysian recuperations of creolization reverberate in analogous post-martial law treatments of Taiwan's complex history of colonialism, multiculturalism, multilingualism, and settler-indigenous politics.

In Chapter 4 "An Ecopoetics of the Borneo Rainforest" Bernards examine the fictions of Pan Yutong and Chang Kuei-hsing. In their ecopoetics, "Malaysia and Taiwan are no longer the margins of China and continental Chineseness, but rather island and peninsular centers of creolized Sinophone cultures formed from interactions with non-Sinophone cultures and native ecologies in a South Sea network."

Chapter 5 "De-Racializing Cultural Legibility in Postcolonial Singapore" looks at Sinophone writer Yeng Pway Ngon and Anglophone writer Christine Suchen Lim for the ways in which they challenge the state-authorized framework of multiculturalism.

Chapter 6 "Popular Sino-Thai Integration Narratives" teases out the tensions in the exemplar of Chinese integration that Thailand is supposed to represent.

In his concluding chapter, Bernards frankly admits that there is more work to be done on the archipelagic imagination in the region's literature, in particular, the Malay-language writers of both Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as the writers of the Philippines. His study has focused mainly on fiction, and so has little to say about the region's poetry. After learning so much from this book, I look forward eagerly to his new work on East Asian and Southeast Asian cinema.

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