Transforming the Diaspora’s Fictionalisation: Re-Presenting Self-Orientalisation
Tamara S. Wagner (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) [BIO]
Cultural translation constitutes a central problem of, and yet also a fascinating potential for, diasporic fiction. As spaces of alterity are narrated for an audience that sees them – indeed, expects to see them – as irrevocably and exotically “other,” the writer in the diaspora has to engage in a double translation of the familiar and the alienated. Their processes of translation therefore renegotiate, firstly, the very experience of diaspora and, secondly, its reconstitution as a fiction of redefined place: of the transformation of home and homing spaces. Stanley Fish has influentially explored such consumption and repackaging of otherness as “boutique multiculturalism,” and novelists that exploit growing demand for vicarious visits to a fictionalised other space may well be culpable of self-exoticisation. But can the diasporic Asian American or Asian Australian writer really be a boutique multiculturalist in representations of Asia? To what extent could their fictional spaces even only be engendered in the diaspora? In other words, is Amy Tan’s China a creation of her (Asian) American-ness rather than of her ethnic origins? Is it perhaps too often misread as simply a strangely inaccurate rendition of, largely historical, China instead of explored as the translated space of alterity, as an imaginary geography negotiated by the Asian American trying to come to terms with the vexed incommensurability of ethnicity, origins, and identity?
In The Hundred Secret Senses, Tan’s first novel to feature contemporary China in some detail, the half-Chinese protagonists are symptomatically self-conscious photo-tourists in China. The novel is, however, also Tan’s most misunderstood work of fiction. In her most recent novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, published a decade later in 2005, Tan counters this failure to substantiate the ethnic Chinese’s boutique multiculturalism as a metonymy of diasporic writing by bringing a multiethnic group of tourists, accompanied by the disembodied – in fact, dead – Chinese American narrator, to Burma. Tan thereby effectively moves away from the China-America dichotomy with which her fiction has so long been associated. By turning to Southeast Asia as a hitherto little explored fictional territory, or imaginary geography, she instead accentuates the very processes of cultural translation that the ethnically Asian writer has to perform when “re-presenting” Asia for the international book market. To show that this emphatic movement away from diasporic dichotomies is by no means an isolated departure, this article compares her latest work with the most recent novel by the Malaysian-born Asian Australian novelist Teo Hsu-Ming, Behind the Moon, published in the same year as Tan’s. While Teo’s first novel, Love and Vertigo (2000), closely replicated the mother-daughter conflicts of diasporic Asian women made famous by Tan’s fiction, Behind the Moon, with its eponymous emphasis on a perpetually elusive elsewhere, a place behind the moon, forms a triangulation of otherness: it juxtaposes an immigrant Asian Australian, daughter of a Vietnamese mother (part Viet, part Chinese) and an American father (part Creole, part Cajun), with the Australian-born son of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Singapore and the son of a true-blue Aussie father and an English mother, yet who ironically fantasises about having a Chinese ancestor in order to fit into a multiethnic society. Most strikingly, both Tan’s and Teo’s most recent novels focus on Southeast Asian countries they have never lived in (Burma; Vietnam), at once deflecting any easy alignments between ethnicity and the representation of “other” spaces and reflecting on the multiple translations involved in the narration of alterity.