Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9 - 11 december 2005

<< Models of Victimization in Contemporary Cultures

Victims of Boutique Multiculturalism: Malaysian Chinese and Peranakan Women Writers and the Dangers of Self-Exoticisation

Tamara S. Wagner (School of Humanities & Social Sciences at Nanyang, Singapore)



The proposed paper takes up Stanley Fish's concept of "boutique multiculturalism" to reinvestigate the problematic imposition of ethnic categories, or their ideological re-categorisa­tions, on minority communities. Literary self-representation, often insistently autobiographical in nature, by Chinese women writers in Malaysia and, more generally, by Peranakan (locally-born) "Straits Chinese," the descendents of intermarriages over the last centuries in Southeast Asia, at once demands and importantly assists in a much needed reassessment of the ideological groundworks that underpin and exploit different concepts of multiculturalism or multiracialism. How do national and international discourses on identity politics make and constrict minorities? How do they direct and confine "the minority writer" even as they seek to propel him or her into the international marketplace? Why exactly is writing in and about multiethnic nation-states like Singapore with its official "CMIO" (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) policy doubly conflicted by issues of representativity, and what can this tell us about the most disturbing output of, yet also about possible solutions to, a growing demand in vaguely defined "exotic" literature that simultaneously promotes and victimises its authors? Most strikingly, what happens when dwindling minority groups - like the Peranakans and Eurasians of Southeast Asia - fall into the fissures of ethnic policies and, with a particularly disconcerting irony, are elided by the very discourses on multiracialism that seek to prevent the recurrence of racial discrimination? Especially the race riots of 1960s Malaysia still operate as a multiply exploited trauma in cultural policies that indicates a disturbing flexibility of narratives of national, ethnic, and personal victimisation - a co-option of (self-)victimisation to which recent novels by diasporic Chinese Malaysians like Asian American Shirley Lim's Joss & Gold (2001), Asian Australian Teo Hsu Ming's Love and Vertigo (2000), and the three most recent novels (1994, 2002, and 2005) by Chinese Malaysian Josephine Chia, now residing in Britain, testify in significantly revealing ways. In order to illuminate the internal and intertextual conflicts of what are primarily narratives of multiple victimisation (by foreign and local men, by colonial powers and nationalist governments, by traditional mother-in-laws and "Western" feminist paradigms), this paper will focus specifically on autobiographical fiction by minority women writers from Malaysia and Singapore who publish internationally. Even as they draw different rhetorics of victimisation and their appropriation into question, their narratives tremble on a self-exoticisation that exacerbates a sense of alienation, at once continuing their victimisation and undercutting their project of "re-presenting" it.

Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-10-10