TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 3.2. Transcontinental Transfer of Literature and Arts to Transform Traditional Societies
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Hsia Adrian (McGill University, Canada)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Transforming the Diaspora’s Fictionalisation:
Re-Presenting Self-Orientalisation

Tamara S. Wagner (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) [BIO]



Cultural translation forms a central problem of, and yet also a fascinating potential for, diasporic fiction. As spaces of alterity are narrated for a readership 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 unfamiliar, or “exotic.” What I shall to focus on here, however, is the self-reflexivity, the self-irony even, that can engender some of the most intriguing fictionalisations of such impasses. Amy Tan’s China, for example, is often misread as simply a strangely inaccurate rendition of a largely historical China instead of explored as a doubly translated space of alterity that, after all, expresses best the diasporic representation of the point of origin or departure. Surely it could be most usefully examined as an imaginary geography negotiated by the Asian American endeavouring to come to terms with the vexed confines of such categories as ethnicity, alterity, authenticity. The triangulation of places outside the diaspora’s traditional dichotomous structure, I wish to suggest, allows the writer to push beyond easily streamlined ethnic alignments.

In The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), Amy 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 therefore perhaps expectedly 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, she instead accentuates the processes of cultural translation. To show that this movement away from diasporic dichotomies is by no means an isolated departure, I shall compare Tan’s fiction with the most recent novel by Asian Australian novelist Teo Hsu-Ming, Behind the Moon, published in the same year as Saving Fish from Drowning.

Teo Hsu-Ming’s first novel, Love and Vertigo (2000), closely replicates the generation-cum-culture conflict between diasporic Asian mothers and daughters made famous by Amy Tan’s fiction; Behind the Moon (2005), by contrast, suggests a triangulation of “otherness.”(1) It is propelled by the eponymous emphasis on a perpetually elusive elsewhere, a place behind the moon, over the rainbow. As I shall discuss in more detail, the novel consists of an intricate juxtaposition of three interrelated narratives of growing up, of Bildungsromane translated into the multicultural imaginary of contemporary Australia. The growing pains of the daughter of a Vietnamese mother (part Viet, part Chinese) and an American father (part Creole, part Cajun) are thus posed against those experienced by the Australian-born son of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Singapore and further of the son of a true-blue Aussie father and an English mother. The white Australian boy ironically fantasises about having a Chinese ancestor in order to fit into a society in which the multicultural is fashionable.

Most strikingly, to evade absorption into just such boutique multiculturalism, both Tan’s and Teo’s latest novels focus on Southeast Asian countries they have never lived in (Burma; Vietnam). In this, they at once deflect alignments between ethnicity and the representation of “other” spaces and reflect on the multiple translations involved in the narration of alterity. As revealing exponents of a growing literary project to “re-write” diasporic fiction, they translate established narrative practices and the cultural myths, or fictions, that underpin or are attendant to them, to rupture what have become clichéd paradigms. In both cases, this process of translation moreover includes a reworking of their own earlier novels. The subgenre of the diasporic Bildungsroman might already constitute a transformation of a traditional literary form, an essential part of the classic European novel genre. Yet as both its postcolonial and diasporic variants have become a common, indeed institutionalised, narrative, its continuous redeployment has in recent years begun to instigate a larger questioning of the writing of alterity more generally. The parodic play with cultural fictions has engendered a creatively, for self-ironically, conscious renegotiation of diasporic literature. It further reworks the cultural translations this genre inherently at once demands and helps to facilitate.

Stanley Fish’s concept of boutique multiculturalism proves particularly illuminating in this regard. It outlines the pitfalls not only of the everyday consumption of the multicultural as fashionable, but also of the literary representation of just such exotic consumption that then in turn reduces literature to an exoticised consumer product. Fish aims to provoke a re-examination of the commoditisation of the multicultural made fashionable: of “the multiculturalism of ethnic restaurants, weekend festivals, and high profile flirtations with the other” (378). Although he also suggests what he calls its “strong” and “very strong” forms as a possible alternative, they remain too vaguely conceptualised effectively to counterpoise this exposure.(2) Extending this increasingly prominent critique of the limitations of a marketable multiculturalism to the production and circulation as well as the consumption of literature specifically, Graham Huggan similarly analyses what he terms the “alterity industry”: a “global commodification of cultural difference” (Huggan vii). The “post-colonial exotic,” Huggan argues, operates within a “general mechanics of exoticist representation/consumption within an increasingly globalised culture industry” (x).

This promotion of alterity has, in fact, increasingly come under critical investigation. Perhaps most influentially, in expressing her disillusionment with “the chorus of celebrating the idea of diaspora” (12), Ien Ang condemns the fabrication of an at best limited set of identities. They are “strait-jackets” manufactured by the fashionable rhetoric of identity politics in the 1990s: “many people obviously need identity (or think they do), but identity can just as well be a strait-jacket. ‘Who I am’ or ‘who we are’ is never a matter of free choice.” (Ang vii) The search for a way to cut through just such strait-jackets in fiction is necessarily caught up in an oscillation between competing cultural fictions in that most authors find themselves juggling both the promotion of and resistance to competing forms of essentialism. Perhaps most disturbingly, the diasporic writer’s double-bind in the cultural translation of “other” places is therein contained in the expected representation of one particular “other”: the diasporic imagination’s “original” place. Simply put, the Chinese American author is associated with the representation of Asia or Asians and specifically of China and the overseas Chinese. Hence, when Amy Tan focuses on Burma, she at once ruptures the simple correlation between the ethnic Chinese writer and experiences of China (past or present) and reconfirms an equally problematic conflation of Asia and “Asian” Americans – a conflation that moreover lumps together very disparate parts of Asia.

By turning to representations of specific parts of Southeast Asia, both Tan and Teo accentuate the fallacies of conflating either Asian nations or Asian diasporic identities under umbrella terms that, they stress, are hardly helpful. Instead, they seek to translate diasporic narratives through transposition (from China to Singapore and Malaysia to Vietnam, for example) or an emphasis on the “Asian’s” boutique multiculturalism in (other parts of) Asia. On an additional level, they highlight such transposition by putting hitherto still underrepresented spaces on the fictional map. As Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Cheng Lok Chua have already deplored in their introduction to Tilting the Continent: Southeast Asian American Writing, disconcertingly little attention has been extended to the Southeast Asian diaspora even in the context of the otherwise so well researched Asian diasporas in the United States in particular. The dual diaspora of the ethnic Chinese coming from, or via, Southeast Asian nations, in fact, most emphatically necessitates a conceptual inversion of the diasporic paradigm.

In Teo’s first Love and Vertigo, the first person narrator symptomatically writes of her mother’s “roots.” Of ethnic Chinese origins, the mother has lived in Malaysia and Singapore before emigrating to Australia. Back in Singapore for a brief visit, her language “lapsed into the local Singlish patois, her vocabulary a melange of English, Malay and Chinese […]. These Singaporean roots of hers, this side of her – and possibly of me too – were unacceptable.” (3) It is, in fact, crucial to note the erasure of China in the novel. The Amy Tan-style structure may be all too seamlessly transposed into an Australian context, in which the diasporic Chinese communities of Southeast Asia translate with suspicious ease into a version of Tan’s China, while Australia stands in for America in particular and “the West” as a conceptual construct in general.(3) In what is undeniably a boutique multiculturalist’s imagination, these Southeast Asian spaces moreover become curiously fused, subsumed by a self-consciousness about what the Asian Australian daughter sees as unacceptable roots. In an excess of italicised edibles, she registers her refusal to share her mother’s comfort food. The opportunity for boutique consumption lapses into an uncomfortable pulling of roots:

She [the mother] brought us to visit the relatives and they took us to the Rasa Singapura hawker centre so that we could have satay, Hainanese chicken rice, Singaporean Hokkien noodles, tah mee, laksa, gado gado, rojak. This was my mother’s comfort food. She wanted to share it with me, but I complained about the noise, the smells, the disgusting charnel-house of the table where the previous diners had spat out pork ribs and spewed chicken bones all over the surface. […] The tug of roots, the blurring of her role from wife and mother to sister and aunt, angered and frightened me. (2-3)

The family’s diasporic history has become an embarrassment in its very hybridity, its “melange” of languages, cultures, and of course food as the most easily consumable symptom of a hybridity reduced to chopped-up mundanity. The metaphor of the doubly diasporic melange, I wish to stress here, pokes fun at a consumable multiculturalism that is then tragicomically worked into Behind the Moon. Increasing self-reflexivity therein helps constructively to disrupt dual alignments that work through identifications of the mother, the past, and roots, on the one hand, and the daughter, the present/future, and the retracing or denial of roots, on the other. For the writer attempting to reflect on a dual or triple diaspora, this at once offers an important opportunity and becomes additionally complicated. The diasporic daughter in Love and Vertigo may be disgusted both by the way her mother speaks and eats – spewing chicken bones and chopping up language – when back in Singapore, but in the later novel, Teo poses the experience of refugees and immigrants against a white Australian boy’s attempts to seek acceptance through a literal absorption, a consumption or embodiment, of the multicultural: “He sucked the skin off the claws, spat out the bones and looked pleased with himself when Annabelle [his friend’s Singaporean mother] said, ‘Wah, look. Gibbo knows how to eat foong chow. So clever!” (56) What at first appears to be simply a particularly absurd exponent of “the ethnic” as a consumer product – of what Ania Loomba has recently criticised as the usage of terms like “postcolonial” or “ethnic” as “shorthand for something (fashionably) marginal” (xii) – ultimately turns out to be a horribly sad and yet tragicomical search for identity. It is an exposure of boutique multiculturalism that plays on the potentials and problems of translating the paradigms of diasporic cultural fictions from the exoticised to shared experience. Both Teo’s Behind the Moon and Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning, we shall see, do not simply expose boutique multiculturalism as a commoditisation of the exotic, but they attempt to transform it into plots that productively call the cultural translation of narrative in itself into question.


“– lost to spontaneity, alas”: Translating the Tourist Gaze

When The Joy Luck Club became an international bestseller in the 1980s and was turned into a blockbuster movie in the early nineties, it propelled Asian American women writing into a new field and created a new visibility of diasporic literature. But if Amy Tan rendered peculiarly popular a specific structure that was premised on an often all too neat pairing of mother-daughter-relationships determined by cultural differences, generation gaps, and sharp contrasts between pre-war or war-time China with contemporary America, it had already been an established paradigm of the time.(4) In her criticism of the fiction of both Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, whose memoirs, The Woman Warrior, engendered a particular furore in Asia, Cynthia Wong has already diagnosed the “classic form of American modernity versus Asian traditionalism” (Asian American, 40) as an easily typecast narrative pattern. Mimi Chan similarly speaks of an uncanny experience of déjà vu generated by the growing sameness of generation-cum-culture conflicts (68).(5) More recently, Yuan Yuan has analysed the semiotics of the “China narratives” of Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men (1980) and Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) to show that the “nativeness” of ethnic American literature is deliberately rendered ambiguous. The Chinese plots “emerge in the ‘other’ cultural context informed by a complex process of translation, translocation, and transfiguration of the original experiences in China” (Yuan 292). Increasingly, however, self-exoticisation is represented with irony, articulated even by the characters themselves. Thus, in The Kitchen God’s Wife, the Chinese-born mother whose past is made up of the perhaps most disconcertingly sensationalised series of horrific violation is advised by a friend finally to tell the truth about her past now that such narratives have become popular: “They’ll understand. Maybe they’ll be happy to know something about their mother’s background. Hard life in China, that’s very popular now.” (80) That such self-irony is always present in Tan’s narratives is unfortunately often obscured by critics and left out by eager imitators.

An important departure from the popular paradigm of the mother-daughter dichotomy, The Hundred Secret Senses had symptomatically mixed reviews when it was published in the mid-nineties, as many readers found fault particularly with its supernatural elements (Huntley 113). What is of particular interest here, however, is that the part-Chinese protagonists, Olivia Bishop and her ex-husband Simon, travel to China as photojournalists for a culinary magazine, which identifies them in a tongue-in-cheek fashion as professional boutique multiculturalists. Kwan, Olivia’s half-sister from China, is moreover substituted for the Chinese-born mothers that usually serve as embodiments of China and of the past. Instead of a series of mothers suffering in World War II, the previous lives of Olivia, Simon, and Kwan during the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) are introduced through Kwan’s ghost-stories. Supernatural elements, in short, are no longer just the eccentric foibles of embarrassing mothers, and the resurrection of the past proves that Kwan is more than the “goofy” (114) sister, as E.D. Huntley terms her. In the first full-length study of Amy Tan, Huntley revealingly concentrates on the familiar “trademarks” of Tan’s fiction: “Readers familiar with Tan’s work will immediately recognise in The Hundred Secret Senses a number of distinctive Tan trademarks: a strong sense of place, a many-layered narrative, family secrets, generational conflict, Chinese lore and history, and an engrossing story.” (113) The supernatural falls by the wayside.

Ma Sheng-Mei, by contrast, has deplored exactly the novel’s use of the “primitive a la New Age” as merely a new form of orientalism. “With respect to the multicultural nature of this capitalist society,” Ma suggests, the mixed-blood Bishops may well embody “cultural hybridization” (30), but the representation of “the Orient” is dressed-up in “the casual attitude verging on unwitting mockery that New Agers take toward other traditions” (33). Kwan, as Olivia’s sidekick (43), exhibits a “linguistic exoticism that could only stem from an outsider’s ears” (37). In a more recent article, however, Lee Ken-fang compellingly argues that Kwan’s ghosts inhabit the “in-between situation” of “those who struggle between two cultures and/or languages,” that in both Kingston’s and Tan’s more recent fiction, “ghosts represent the haunting past and the cultural memory of the immigrant sisters and mothers, waiting to be remembered and then exorcised” (106, 116). Thus avoiding the trap of self-orientalisation, Kwan attains power as a medium/translator that can straddle different times as well as spaces.

Whereas Tan’s next novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), issues a return to the mother-daughter paradigm, the daughter’s occupation as a professional ghost-writer works as an extended joke that is then taken much further – and much more literally – in Saving Fish from Drowning. The departure from the China-America structure is likewise pointedly literal in Tan’s latest novel: a geographical move that facilitates the movement away from a specific plotline. In a parody of its own emphasis on mediation and a sly stab at “the death of the author,” the novel purports to be the narrative of the late Bibi Chen. It has been noted down by a medium and stored in the library of the American Society for Psychical Research. A prefatory note reminds readers, whether they believe in communications with the dead or not, to “suspend disbelief when immersed in fiction” (xiv). This “note” is then followed by a newspaper article reporting that eleven tourists have gone missing in Burma never to be discovered again. Bibi herself, the voice from the dead, tells a different story, however. Prevented by her sudden, mysterious, death to accompany her friends as a tour-leader, she finds that she has become an omniscient narrator exploring the boundaries of her power. The novel’s parody of mediation carefully dismantles the assumed truth-value of reportage. “The Missing Eleven” are turned into a media event, and at the end of the novel, the headlines about Bibi’s own death – “Socialite Butchered in Cult Slaying” (2) – turn out to be a fabrication, based on equally bizarre deductions. What Bibi suddenly remembers is that she fell while decorating her esoteric-cum-chinoiserie shop, and fell so unluckily as to have her throat pierced by ornamental jewellery from China. It is a souvenir of her past and the last, tragicomically evoked, relict of the common China-America, past-present, generation paradigm in the novel.

What is, in fact, particularly important for the novel’s comedy of boutique multiculturalism through parodic mediation is that all the tourists have their own ballast to bring to Burma without having more than precarious connections to the region. Despite the vaguely evoked childhood in China, Bibi is, like the other boutique multiculturalists, a true American in all her eccentricities: “In a city known for its characters, Bibi Chen was the genuine article, a true San Franciscan.” (xiv) What is lost in translation, again and again in the novel, is really transformed by their comically predictable grids. Linguistic misunderstandings are only the beginning. Thus, a Karen tribe hiding in the Burmese jungle calls itself “The Lord’s Army” – a legacy of a nineteenth-century hoax – but to the American tourists, it “sounded like ‘the Lajamee’” (286): “We the Lord’s Army,” she repeated, then rolled the words around on her tongue. We the Lajamee. How wrong they had been about so many things. What else had they misunderstood?” (416) The tribe, in turn, considers the card tricks practised by one of the tourists’ son as magic, taking him as a reincarnation of the Victorian hoaxer who had set himself up as the Younger White Brother of mythology: “They believed Rupert was a deity who could save them.” (199) This easily exploitable faith, however, is pointedly paralleled by the tourists’ gullibility. When the tribe decides to kidnap them, they are lured away with suitable “magic words”: “Everyone liked the sound of those words: Christmas surprise. What a delightful combination of syllables. […] [H]ow easily they agreed to such a simple invitation. A surprise could be anything, could it not?” (232) It is the tourist gaze:

A most curious thing should be noted here: My friends never considered that this journey might possibly be dangerous. Instead, the unorthodox truck and the difficulty and roughness of the passage further convinced them that the surprise must indeed be worth the trouble, and extremely rare, that is, unavailable to most tourists. (237)

Mistranslation, wilful or inadvertent, is indeed central to the novel’s self-reflexive re-working of cultural myths. The title itself is identified as “a brain twister, one of those silhouettes that was a beautiful girl with a hat, then a crone with a crooked nose. It depended on how you viewed it.” (162) As the group’s Burmese guide attempts to explain as the tourists pity gasping fish, the fishermen “‘say they are saving fish from drowning. Unfortunately …’ He looked downward, like a penitent. ‘… the fish do not recover.’” (162) If their discussion appears to spell out any larger meaning all too clearly, it is crucial that they quarrel about their interpretations: “‘Saving people for their own good […]. Invading countries, having them suffer collateral damage, as we call it. Killing them as an unfortunate consequence of helping them. You know, like Vietnam, Bosnia.’ ‘Those aren’t the same thing.’”(162) The media circus that ensues when all but one of the group fall victim to the fictitious “Christmas Surprise” moreover capitalises just on such competing cultural myths of Burma. Bibi significantly embarks on a sarcastic discourse on her own spurious distinctions between touristy visions of ancient Burma – “the old fictions about any ancient land,” “a rustic romanticism and antiquated prettiness,” “illusions [reached] through the magic of tourism” (146-47) – and its reinvention as Myanmar by the “State Law and Order Restoration Council,” or SLORC, which, Bibi believes, “sounds like an evil opponent in a James Bond movie” (149). It becomes a doubly fictional space, dangerous to boutique multiculturalists:

SLORC also gave Burma its new name, Myanmar, and changed Rangoon into Yangon, the Irrawaddy into the Ayeyarwaddy. And thus practically no one in the Western world knows what those new names refer to. It’s true. Ask ten of your friends what and where Myanmar is, and I would wager nine would not know. But if you said Burma, they would say, “Oh, Burma!” – vaguely remembering in the way we say, “Oh, Barbara – how is she doing?” Like the Burmese dissenters who disappeared, the country formerly calling itself Burma is invisible to most of the Western world, an illusion. (150)

Familiarity breeds a patronising, if not necessarily contemptuous, attitude; the illusionary “other” makes the tourist vanish. It is therefore particularly apt that the one remaining tourist, Harry Bailley, is famous as the host of The Fido Files, a dog show named with a witty reference to the X-files that becomes poignantly unfunny when his new series, Mystery in Myanmar, capitalises on his friends’ disappearance. Myanmar’s ministers moreover appropriate the attention, “recruit[ing] Harry as their spokesman for tourism” (339). After all, “[t]he world is watching. […] Why not use this free media attention to showcase our country’s beauty, its wonders, and its friendly people – yes, even its caring and friendly government?” (336) The tribe has the same idea: “The Younger White Brother had come to make them not invisible but visible, seen by the whole world. He recalled for the tribe their wishful dream of having their own TV show.” (377) After the “rescue,” the tribe really is co-opted into “the greatest reality show of all time […] Junglemaniacs! – the peppy exclamation point capturing the excitement of watching the real perils of real contestants in a real jungle, where elimination by real and excruciating death was always a possibility and might even occur live during a broadcast.” (434-35) It is a stab at the popularity of the excitingly, exotically, excruciatingly, “real.” It depends on marketability, and “[s]oon after, the stars of Junglemaniacs! disappeared as suddenly as their American guests had on that Christmas morning.” (439)

This exploration of visibility in the global media through a self-referential emphasis on mediation, however, is underscored by its intriguingly parodic version: the boutique multiculturalists’ search for “authentic” experience. In particular three key-events of mistranslation are comically ominous: firstly, a “roadside restaurant with an authentic local look about it […] which even the locals eschewed with authentic disdain,” but which the tourists declare “befitting a possible write-up in Travel & Leisure,” is preferred over Bibi’s carefully planned programme of a “Taste of Winter Delicacies”: “Sautéed ferns – lost to spontaneity, alas.” (68-69) What turns out to be a “Shigella bacillus culinary adventure” accompanies them on a road to disaster: “the bacteria had already begun their descent into foreign guts, and would wend their ways into intestinal tracts and into bowels. The bus would take a similarly tortuous, winding route along the Burma Road, where soon the forces of fate and Shigella would meet up with them.” (71) The search for something “completely spontaneous, not a tourist activity, but a real experience” (68) is combined with yet another “National Geographic moment” to throw up exotic consumption: one of the tourists receives fermented turnips as a present, but when the bag bursts on the bus, its smell lets loose a gathering feeling of sickness (166). Secondly, a Shrine to the Goddess of Female Genitalia and a grove inhabited by local demons are mistaken as outdoor toilets: “Cross-culturally, mistakes were made, unintentional to be sure.” (180) Lastly, and most detrimentally, a boy’s card tricks are considered magical, and a certain goofy innocuousness ensures that the kidnapped never notice their dilemma. Even when they arrive at No Name Place, where the tribe has sought invisibility,they continue to make “the most of this cultural activity” (268) of meeting the presumed “Lajamee.” If the novel is centrally about something lost in translation, it is certainly not restricted to linguistic mistakes. The missing tourists may get sick of their “search for alternatives that were either more ‘spontaneous’ or more ‘authentic’” (95) fairly soon, but they remain locked in their interpretative grids. It is precisely through the comical exposure of their goofiness that the novel successfully deflects alignments between ethnicity and the representation of “other” spaces.


Revelling in the “Multicultural Reject Group”

In pivoting on a similar divorce of ethnicity and authenticity, Teo’s Behind the Moon issues a threefold projection of a diasporic Bildungsroman. As this narrative, so familiar from Asian American fiction, undergoes a revealing rewriting through a juxtaposition of the stories of three Australian adolescents, the multiplicity of voices is evoked to bespeak something shared (common, universal) instead of an exoticised realisation of diasporic alterity contained within the multiethnic nation-state: what Sau-ling Cynthia Wong has called “the literary equivalent of a guided Chinatown tour” (Kingston 40). But in that the multiplication of migrations erases the often wrongly presupposed duality of diasporic experience in Teo’s novel, it does so in three significant ways: to bring out the dual diaspora of the ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia; to link together the crises of different diasporic groups, notably in a deeply controversial conflation that is itself partly foiled by the double-bind of cultural translation; to solve this very impasse by provocatively exorcising the established plot of the diasporic Bildungsroman through the white Australian boy who fantasises about his Chinese origins. The narration of the specific double diaspora experienced by Chinese immigrants from Southeast Asia, in fact, sheds different light on attempts to engage with the most typecast consumption of the exotic. A criss-crossing of trajectories works through a tightly plotted parallelism. It is premised on an emphasis on excess that brilliantly belies the dichotomies of here and there, past and present, East and West – dichotomies that are so often identified in diasporic narratives.

Although the mother-daughter narrative remains a central thrust in the novel, it is obscured both by the parallel plots and the process of projection itself. In Love and Vertigo, the Asian Australian daughter’s retelling of her Southeast Asian mother’s life-history (including her struggle with her Chinese-born mother-in-law) retains enough autobiographical detail to suggest all too easily, though perhaps misleadingly, a promising amount of authenticity. Teo’s next work of fiction takes up the same underpinning structure, but to project into the Vietnamese mother and juxtaposed with the diasporic positioning of other immigrant parents (from England and Singapore respectively). This mirrors the triangulation of adolescent Australians: Tien Ho, “whose different skin colour attested to dubious parentage and the sins of her missing mother” (23); Justin Cheong, “such a stereotypical Australian-born Chinese boy that he was virtually invisible” (13) until he discovers that he is gay; and Nigel “Gibbo” Gibson, the son of a true-blue Aussie father and an English mother. This excess of hybridities, diasporas, and triangulations of spaces and narratives explodes any reemergent dichotomous pattern. The chapter that shows the return of Tien’s absentee mother from Vietnam is tellingly entitled “A Surfeit of Mothers.” Most strikingly, however, Tien dismisses generation-cum-culture conflict as “just Vietnamese mother-daughter shit” (52). The juxtaposition extends to an intertextual working together of the mother-daughter paradigm and an Asian Australian gay novel as yet another translation of the classic European Bildungsroman.

The key to their parody is Gibbo’s fantasy of his great-grandfather’s arrival from China during the Gold Rush. Becoming part of what he eagerly endorses as a “multicultural reject group” (61) is Gibbo’s way of trying to adapt to a self-consciously, primarily consumerist, multiethnic society. As a child, he feels most at home with Justin’s Singaporean parents, whose variety of English he thinks “hauled him right into [their] kitchen” (88). Later, he spends increasing time with Tien’s mother in their kitchen and begins to stalk here until the police becomes involved. Meanwhile, Justin is rejected by other Asian Australian homosexuals, abandons his futile chase after “traditional Asian roots via Malaysian students” to escape instead into an empowering white multiculturalism” epitomised by “the yeasty smell of fresh-baked bread” and, revealingly, “boutique shops” (328). It is a multiculturalism in which consumerism is “the price of belonging” (328). But just as he celebrates the very incommensurability of “the external markers of identity,” the fact that he is “not reducible to his ethnicity or his sexuality or his occupation or geographical location or even to his family” (333-34), he is beaten up for being gay and/or Asian and falls into a coma. The end of the novel leaves him – in a form of metaphorical excess – hanging in limbo.

Tien’s search has not been any more successful. To escape from her suburban upbringing, she marries Stanley Wong, a Chinese Australian medical student who reads the Good Food Guide and Gourmet Traveller. What appeals to her is a particular form of sophisticated consumable exoticisation: “she liked the fact that every restaurant he chose was right at the other end of the city from where she grew up – a constant affirmation to her own success.” (127) Such consumption spins out of control, however, precisely as it moves beyond mere purchasing power. It is the ultimate translation of diasporic narrative patterns into a parody of bourgeois boutique multiculturalism: “the cultural and class migration eastwards into hip, cosmopolitan Sydney life” (127). Yet Stanley collects a “motley multicultural crew of arty friends, […] like cosmopolitan accessories” (173), and dedicates himself to boutique multiculturalist artwork such as his “Multicultural Austral-Asia II, which consisted of a tangle of piss-coloured plastic strips copulating on top of a badly soldered bronze box” (167). Once they emigrate to California, Tien believes she has finally reached “this land over the rainbow” (305). But when Stanley abandons his studies for more artistic renditions of the boutique multicultural – a high-class flirtation with alterity is art – Tien has to face “the banality of her husband’s artistic vision: spiny assemblages of corroding steel, large canvases slashed with faecal colour, a squat stump of terracotta turd” (307).

When the consumption of the multicultural becomes reduced to food, its regurgitation, or end-product (the faecal, the piss-coloured), a “motley multicultural crew” is appropriated as an accessory, and desire to belong to a “multicultural reject group,” to incorporate alterity once again primarily in other houses’ kitchens, turns into an obsession that is literally policed, then the literary/artistic translation of identity politics is perhaps most effectively exploded. The excess of interlocked narratives throws up any attempt to slot the protagonists or their multiplied crises (crises of identity that range beyond issues of diaspora or hybridity). In markedly different ways from Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning, Teo’s latest novel nonetheless likewise takes up the double-bind of cultural translation to generate a self-reflexive re-plotting of often heavily autobiographical diasporic fiction. While pointedly provocative, what simultaneously forms a rewriting of the authors’ earlier fiction is indeed part of a much larger rethinking of both diasporic narratives and recent critiques of self-exoticising translations of authenticity or alterity.


Works Cited:


1 The reference to The Wizard of Oz is of course particularly pointed in an Australian context, but it also importantly accentuates desire for “other” spaces as a shared longing.
2 Multiculturalism, Fish, argues “comes in at least two versions, boutique multiculturalism and strong multiculturalism,” but whereas “the boutique multiculturalist resists the force of culture he appreciates at precisely the point at which it matters most to its strongly committed members,” “very strong multiculturalism” depends on an intensive identification with other cultures may erase the very difference that underpins the multicultural (378-79)
3 This is precisely what singles out the novel as such a revealing exponent of what I have elsewhere termed the “Amy Tan-Syndrome” in recent local and diasporic novels of Singapore (Wagner passim).
4 Ironically, Tan had not originally intended The Joy Luck Club to be a novel, but was preparing a collection of short-stories when her publisher suggested that she write a novel instead. See Huntley 19, 43.
5 Compare Ho on the “consumer market for Tan’s mother-daughter text that the major publishing houses were happy to accommodate (the nature of the beast) and the mainstream, sometimes tributary, media were happily recommending to readers, unfortunately in rather stereotypical ways.” (44)

3.2. Transcontinental Transfer of Literature and Arts to Transform Traditional Societies

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For quotation purposes:
Tamara S. Wagner: Transforming the Diaspora’s Fictionalisation: Re-Presenting Self-Orientalisation - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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