Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002

Remembering Forgetting:
Love-stories by Nicholas Jose, Simone Lazaroo
and Hsu-ming Teo

Lyn Jacobs

We are free to transcend ourselves. If we have the imagination for it.[1]
Human life, unavoidably, entails a large and eradicable component which is imaginary.[2]

  1. This paper considers distances between fiction, as a site of imaginative potential, and 'social imaginaries' as dangerously misleading fictions. These tensions are evident in three recent novels portraying a Chinese/Australian experiential nexus: Nicholas Jose's The Red Thread, an aesthetic investigation of the seduction of lovers bound by textual/sexual bonds (in old and new China) is a world away from the Singapore/Australian settings of The Australian Fiancé, by Simone Lazaroo, and Hsu-ming Teo's robustly bleak Love and Vertigo,[3] Jose is a writer, sinologist and Australian ex-cultural-attaché to China. His allegorical mode pays its dues to Chinese literary and aesthetic traditions remote from first-person narratives about homelands left or revisited in the often painful translation that is migration. Lazaroo's novel is set in post-war Broome and Singapore when the 'White Australia Policy' determines Australia/Asia relations. This is a lyrical and disarmingly subtle postcolonial text which challenges historical assumptions and teleologies. Teo's novel, which is more diverse in tone but no less effective in impact, spans the lifetimes of three generations of a family which eventually migrates to Australia. In each, identity, sexual and familial love, and cross-cultural encounters are interrogated and complicated by an inability to forget the past which over-shadows the business of survival. This reading is framed by Moira Gatens' examination of difference (in Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality[4]) which, in these novels, is synonymous with fear or desire.
  2. Subjective modes, like fiction and biography, differently legitimate story-telling as they restore silenced voices and re-embody histories previously elided by the often exclusionist imaginaries of master narratives. They offer a different way of remembering. Jane Marcus argues that:

      If all history (or at least historiography) is a fiction, as contemporary theorists tell us, an interesting question for the literary critics is whether all fiction is history. It is easier for the literary critics to accept the new narrativity of historians and, since Michel Foucault, the study of history as discourse. Can historians accustomed to raiding the literature of an age for examples, accept an equal revelatory force in fiction as in events, as evidence of lived reality? ... the writing of history is all a matter of the construction of more or less plausible plots.[5]

  3. The imaginative construction of 'plausible plots' is not exclusively the business of history or fiction—witness media and political narratives which illustrate Gramsci's theories of power as commonsense values are manipulated by hegemonic networks and sold to 'imagined communities'.[6] As individuals, we constantly 're-write' the past as we represent it in a changing world. Moira Gatens (post Bourdieu) reminds us that 'whether we care to acknowledge it or not, we are historical beings whose language, stock of images and social practices constitute an unconscious dimension of our cultural heritage', that we 'embody habits'.[7] Further, Gatens argues that 'imaginary understandings of human embodiment' inevitably involve 'another kind of body, the body politic'. She claims:

      I am not concerned with physiological, anatomical, or biological understanding of the human body but rather with what will be called imaginary bodies. An imaginary body is not simply a product of subjective imagination, fantasy or folklore. The term 'imaginary' will be used in a loose but nevertheless technical sense to refer to those images, symbols, metaphors and representations which help construct various forms of subjectivity. In this sense I am concerned with the (often unconscious) imaginaries of a specific culture through which we make sense of social bodies, and which determine, in part, their value, their status and what will be deemed their appropriate treatment.[8]

  4. David Malouf rightly suggests that the imagination positively permits a rehearsal of possibilities but imaginaries may also mislead as 'plots' historically seeded or cultural representations shaped by fear or prejudice are notoriously difficult to eradicate. For example, Australian literary responses to 'Asia' demonstrate stereotypical 'imaginaries' that have proliferated like cane toads—with comparable benefit to the Australian community. On these grounds alone, fictions which interrogate imaginaries and offer alternative perspectives to challenge populist assumptions are intrinsically valuable. Fiction is a performative site where the convergent conditions of real bodies, imaginary bodies and the body politic may be examined.
  5. The three contemporary texts selected, reflect diverse temporal, historical and geographical settings and employ contrasting registers (from formality to farce) to represent the legacies and expectations of characters shaped, or bound, by shifts between Chinese, Australian, and Southeast Asian cultural mores. They draw on familiar tropes to testify to Gatens' claim that:

      Remembering ... involves great pain which could be alleviated by acts of forgetting. Yet there are some things that cannot and should not be forgotten. But how they are remembered is important for the present and the future. We need to understand and remember how we became what we are, not in order to live what we have become as our 'truth' but rather as our conditions of possibility for that which we may become. The notion of becoming something other than what we presently are is after all the sine qua non of movements for social change.[9]

  6. In each novel, the extent to which people are products of their pasts is differently treated, but all three texts consider gendered roles and responsibilities to validate Gatens' claim that 'our embodied history cannot be thrown off as if it were a coat one has donned only involuntarily ... whether we like it or not, in so far as our values and our ways of being are embodied they cannot be wished away or dismissed by a pure act of will'.[10] Such affirmations of alterities are imperative in an Australian society which has not always imagined the subjective positions of its community in other than tokenistic ways.[11] They also challenge national imaginaries by demonstrating the diversity of Australian lives.

    The Red Thread: Nicholas Jose

    The Red Thread is an elegantly structured narrative depicting a love-story which mirrors the prefiguring patterns of an ancient Chinese text, Six Chapters of a Floating Life.[12] These dual stories co-exist in a contrapuntal correspondence as lives are influenced by the prior script. The earlier narrative, like the unfolding story of the Shanghai protagonists, is incomplete—its final chapters, lost. By the time the genuine article is restored (after recovered chapters are revealed to be forgeries) the lovers' paths have diverged: in keeping with Buddhist ideas about worldly impermanence they have been returned to their individual 'floating' lives. Despite physical separation the novel sustains a central thesis about metaphysical continuities as the red/read thread, the creative force of life, fate, love or art, prevails.
  7. Jose re-writes conventional tropes: the foreigner is Australian, the setting is China, the love story is ambiguously cross-gendered and there are competing sensual and spiritual desires. What is imagined, in terms of prediction or outcome, does not match the characters' initial designs. Instead, they are subject to unpredictable turns of 'the wheel' and prior imagining as they re-embody vital forces. A contest between individual free will and the directions of 'fate' is an essential element in all three texts but in Jose's novel the lovers acquiesce in ways that their more contemporary protagonists do not as they live out a prior story 'in actuality as [their] own'.[13]
  8. The modern tale in Jose's novel has three major players: Shen Fuling, the American-educated, principled collector of antiquities, who is given an unpublished manuscript by his teacher and mentor Old Weng, Ruth Garret, an Australian artist visiting China, who perceptively values and paints the moon-shadow of the orchid rather than the solid object itself, and a singer, professional 'naughty girl', kept 'mainland wife,' and eventually, rich American widow, whose vitality proves dangerously addictive to Ruth.[14] The plot is shaped by the search for the manuscript and the fight to save Ruth from re-living her predecessor's (Yun's) fate, a life-threatening ailment. The earlier tale, of Shen-Fu, Yun and Han, serves as an enticement, warning, exemplar and inspiration offering a still-point which counter-balances the momentum of unfolding lives. It is a story written for the 'annals of the temple' in gratitude for 'the boundless compassion of the bodhisattva in defiance of death'.[15]
  9. In the ancient text the original Han is 'bound to atonement' for neglecting Yun's love, but she seeks to 'purify herself until the thread of her shame could be cut'. In retreat from life she is diagnosed by her Master as bound by 'the power of passion refined into its purest energy' and therefore released from her vows to 'return to life in the world'. In the 'modern' story, despite the intensity of her love of Shen and Yun, Ruth's reading leads her to understand that they are vehicles of a former passion, a re-embodied 'second chance' but she reverses the cycle when she adopts the contemplative life at the expense of love.[16] Acknowledging that Yun comes back from the dead because of Han's devotion and Shen Fu's love, Ruth observes:

      Granting the power of those still unbroken attachments, the bodhisattva breaks the rules of life and death for a far longer time than humans dare to ask, and still the story is uncompleted. Still our love for each other brings us back again. Still the vital flow of feeling in Han's devotion brings us back to our earthly selves. Still we are bound. Why? ... It's surely time to cut the thread. We don't lose by doing that. We only gain. [17]

  10. Jose investigates the nature of desire and the ways in which both life and art may reveal or conceal truths from the human eye. The artist similarly strives

      ... to show the small in the big, and the big in the small, and provide for the real in the unreal and for the unreal in the real. One reveals and conceals alternately, making it sometimes apparent and sometimes hidden.[18]

  11. The imagination is celebrated as a regenerative force. For example, Sun Da's painting of the moon and the red thread (of life, passion, prosperity) symbolises attachment at the (1780) wedding of Shen Fu and Yun and this painting seen by Ruth and Shen after their first night together. Similarly, Ruth re-creates Yun's embroidered slippers before she inherits the originals and throughout the text, art objects outlive or 'choose' sequential owners. The imagination also transforms ordinary sights: mosquitoes become storks, two beer drinking women are viewed 'like agitated birds of a different plumage'.[19] Throughout, story-line and life-lines are interwoven so that the red/read thread (and the red print of the ancient text within the tale) is the creative stimulus for both art and love.
  12. Jose's love story is a heterosexual one complicated by a triangular affair which does not simply locate the two women as polar, complementary halves of a masculine idea of the feminine. While the gendered hierarchies and conservative imaginaries of this society curtail Han's freedom (she sells herself in order to survive) Ruth is freed by her ethnicity (as Australian) to travel independently and although Shen's love of a foreigner challenges the rules of the patriarchy, he survives when his father's house falls, literally and metaphorically. In the old story the wife exercises her limited influence to choose her husband's mistress 'for her beauty and charm'. In the next incarnation, the unmarried lover, who is also attracted to another woman, chooses Buddha. The narrative functions at an operatic distance from the 'mad turmoil' or 'floating dream' of life. Interestingly the male protagonist, in both stories, remains omniscient but bound by love. Jose is less concerned with inhibiting social imaginaries than with imaginative liberation of his protagonists. This is not the case in The Australian Fiancé by Simone Lazaroo where the characters do not inherit their names but remain 'un-named' except for the generic titles of the roles ascribed to them as 'the Eurasian woman' or from the mirrored gaze, 'the Australian fiancé'.

    The Australian Fiancé: Simone Lazaroo
  13. The Australian Fiancé is narrated by a Singaporean, Eurasian woman whose world is over-shadowed by her past, until she gambles on a new beginning with the Australian heir of a wealthy Broome pearling tycoon. As desired lover and idealised image of her missing father he embodies a potential 'for capturing distance'.[20] Despite his Orientalist imaginaries (his fascination with her physical frailty and inscrutable 'toughness') and her mother's warnings about pontianak possession and 'The Fall' of 'young women too hungry for what their prettiness can bring them' she accepts work as his 'guide.'[21] But the terms of engagement quickly broaden to encompass familiar and foreign territories:

      They approach each others' bodies as if they're approaching new countries, skins jumping at changes of climate, ears and eyes overwhelmed ... It's as if the young woman's afraid he will see something about her she wishes to keep concealed from him ... She has heard about foreigners falling for the Orient before. Here today, gone tomorrow. But it is not just her body she is concealing under the sheets. She is afraid he will see what she really is.[22]

  14. Newly impelled by her 'bring-me-back-from-the-dead' post-war hunger, she travels with her fiancé to Australia to his 'land of forgetting' and to a house ironically called 'elsewhere'. She has divorced body from self to survive the brutalisation of her prior war experience in a Japanese brothel—where other women prisoners held up pictures of 'elsewhere' to distract peers being raped (Lau Siew Mei notes that 'she wears her body as if it has nothing to do with her until the Australian falls in love with it'[23]). Later, when in his blithe ignorance the fiancé tells the woman 'it is ok if [she] has had other lovers', she weeps, silenced by immeasurable hurt. The novel reflects physical trauma, both corporeal and psychological and formative Australian/Asian sexual and social attitudes. Despite physical proximity and shared appetites, the couple remains worlds apart. The plot articulates colonial views that prohibit border-crossings: attitudes to race, class and gender which ultimately represent an undesirable alternative to the would-be migrant, despite her new-found love.
  15. On the journey to Australia the woman describes herself as 'suspended in the State Ship between my two lives. I do not know where on this ocean I am. It is like vertigo'.[24] In an article entitled 'All Owning Spectatorship' Trinh T Minh-ha suggests that:

      In a society where they remain constantly at odds on occupied territories, women can only situate their social spaces precariously in the interstices of diverse systems of ownership. Their elsewhere is never a pure elsewhere but a no-escape elsewhere. [25]

    Arriving in Broome, the fiancé's birthright, wealth and status subverts the immigration department's immigration policy as a 'white certificate of exemption' is bought. The racism of the immigration officer's eugenics agenda is scathing. Other borders prevail. The woman's hopes of emancipation are met with cultural prejudices, sexual double-standards and the gendered politics of ownership which see this exotic import from 'Asia' start life in a new/old country identified as 'the boss boy's flank'.[26] In a mirrored assessment of disempowerment, the woman identifies with all the 'Margarets and Bettys' of the world including the rejected Indigenous woman who was once the lover of her intended's father.[27] The fiancé's mother's subjection and insecurity is manifest in her need to exile this foreign intruder from her son's life. Gatens observes that:

      The problem, as I see it, is that dominant masculine sexual imaginaries are politically, legally, economically and socially legitimated through existing networks of power, whereas women's imaginaries about men are not. Such legitimation entrenches sexual imaginaries that tell us not only about the affective relation in which men stand to women. They tell us nothing about the various powers and capacities which women possess independently of their power to affect, or be affected by, men.[28]

  16. Lazaroo's novel uses and implicitly condemns the treatment of women bound by European dominant discourses. Singapore and Australia have both been shaped by racist and misogynist attitudes[29] and Gatens' argument about the 'masculinity of the political body' exercising power is validated. But Lazaroo also indicates how masculinist regulation is met by feminist resistance. In a shrewd assessment of colonising powers, this 'Asian' immigrant is alive to the double vanquishment of the country itself as its skin is overlaid by both convict inscriptions and the prior ownership of the Indigenous dispossessed. Subversively, in a land of forgetting remembering begins.
  17. The woman's future is not mapped by her fiance's will or her own desires but by his parents' conspicuous prejudices: the mother reads her as a 'peril' while the father, with capitalist and racist arrogance, diagnoses her as 'available' and 'cheap'.[30] These imaginaries are hideously familiar and the son, despite his 'offshore' discovery of love, has only temporarily forgotten them. The couple retreat from hostile territory to island themselves in the blue boat offshore. Adrift, but sexually attuned, he describes the wider world to her as she learns to trust, sleep soundly and momentarily behave 'as if it is safe to stop forgetting'.[31]

      Dropping twice daily through ebb-tide closer towards land, rising on high tide back into deep sea. The smallness of our boat, our happiness, when measured against this and my past, when measured against my unseen future. I sense our boat's vulnerability when the tide drops or rises suddenly. I sense it when the fiancé and I make love. So that often, all he touches is my fear.[32]

  18. But a transformation is taking place as the woman reclaims feeling (the fiancé is 'as water, gently working at her shore' [33]) as he is 'her only loving experience of man'.[34] Initially seeing him as her last chance: 'I am stateless and borderless. I am in so many pieces after so many invasions. I have nothing but you to surround myself with'[35] she lives to understand her desire, to have this man 'finish me', as other than sexual—as a desire 'to complete my idea of myself'. This change is prefigured by her mother's ghostly visitation, and the migration of the child she has called her 'sister', and her subsequent death just at the point of her recognition of her as a daughter. This is a radical 're-membering' of her body, her past, her unwanted child and her motherhood.
  19. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone has argued against much contemporary theorising of the body as imaginary or essentialised because visualising the body in those ways has led to privileging an abstract impoverished image at the expense of the lived body, the corporeal reality that is animate and far more important.[36] In Lazaroo's novel, real and imagined bodies are examined and inequities of power in lived cross-cultural spaces are revealed. But it is through the re-claiming of the abused and once-rejected body that permits emotional and spiritual growth—the woman's image, racialised and sexualised, by rape and later by the European gaze, returns 'home'.
  20. The parents re-invoke the authority of the Immigration department and the threat of scandal to force their son's compliance. Regrettably, like his father and other powerful men in Australia, the fiancé fails the imaginative test of human compassion beyond self-interest. However, the woman's reconciliation with self, as she disinters her buried truths to tell him of her past, is more significant. It has been claimed, I think inaccurately, that:

      Despite the novel's more overt concern (and Lazaroo's stated intention) to engage with the issue of racism, it's the dynamic of popular romance, it's the helpless woman awaiting salvation from the hands of the potent male, that drives the book ... that the cataclysms of history—the cruelty of the white Australia Policy, the humiliating abuses of the Japanese occupation of Singapore—shrivel to little more than the backdrop to a failed romance.[37]

  21. This diminishes, in fact overlooks, a complex foregrounding of a painful recovery of self which begins with capacity to feel, until love is achieved as something powerfully imagined against the odds. Its subsequent loss does not 'diminish' the woman's journey or achievement. This fictionalised life speaks of the humiliations of surviving 'comfort women' (military-sex-slaves) whose stories were suppressed amid the much publicised 'cataclysms of history'. It is the reading of this transition that is deficient here as the woman's new agency has little to do with the 'stories' that have 'located' her in a white, racialised hierarchy. There is the liberation of learning to love but this novel reverses European assumptions of what constitutes 'Romance' and its 'telling' reconsideration of the effects of history is imperative in enlarging the world's social imaginaries. In the interval between her dismissal and departure the woman is further empowered by her own vision and agency:

      I see that my translation of the child and myself to the Australian has made the photograph true. I see that I have captured distance not with the image, but by owning the child in it as mine. It is this owning that the lie—the incomprehensible land of forgetting that lay between the woman I was and the woman I have become—comes at last to its end.[38]

  22. It is the lover's limitation, his/story, his reading of her which leaves her 'unmet'. She locates him as distant in acknowledging that his desire for her has made him 'vulnerable and mutable'. She also understands the power of the social imaginaries that have rendered her a 'fiction':

      His parents have made her past more real to him than she is now, as if her history is a bogus True Body masquerading as her. So that in the land of forgetting, the privilege of making herself anew, is not for her.[39]

  23. History is not a backdrop here. It embodies the set of ideological forces that gives rise to prejudice, violence and war but Lazaroo's text subverts its insidious power. The woman's return to Singapore and resumption of a life beyond forgetting is an act of redemption. She rediscovers her humanity and, through her use of the camera, the humanity of others beyond the images she 'captures' and restores to them as symbolic gifts. In an Australian culture which now claims to be inclusive, Lazaroo tests her readers' imaginative capacities. While some offending policies have been dismantled, residual 'social imaginaries' shimmer here like stored heat. There are racist legacies in attitudes (resulting from Australia's history) that have affected the treatment of asylum seekers that extend back before September 11. The damage such social discriminations still inflict is explicit in Hsu-ming Teo's novel, Love and Vertigo.

    Love and Vertigo: Hsu-ming Teo
  24. Gatens' view of women's disadvantaged place is expressed by her assessment of the 'damaging sexual imaginaries in which we currently live'.[40] Hsu-ming Teo's novel further illustrates this view. In Singapore, 'determined not to belong', Pandora Lim's Australian daughter, Grace, narrates her family's story on the eve of her mother's wake to comment on the changing conditions of being an Australian of 'Asian' descent in the twenty-first century. Revisiting her mother's birthplace she neatly distinguishes between reality and history by observing that, 'This is not the Singapore my mother told me about. Her stories are a world apart from this: no longer reality but history. Just like my mother herself'. [41] Gatens has claimed that:

      To address the tension between the political and familial spheres is to address the tension between conceptions of 'men and 'women' and so ultimately to address the tension within the present politico-ethical structuring of the 'universal' human subject.[42]

  25. This text is also profoundly concerned with effects of gendered inequalities of power within family life and social imaginaries. Grace, who sees her mother as 'history' not simply because of her death but because of the nature of her life, initially wrestles with patriarchal authority and despairs of her mother's and grand-mother's conditioned subservience. But the girl's life remains tainted by the long battle to penetrate what she calls the 'steel grille of her mother's heart'.[43] The family story of a deteriorating parental relationship is punctuated by the stories of Grace's and Sonny's immigrant discoveries and maladjustments. They are not compliant or 'slipper fetching', but rebellious and critical children. Their family is increasingly dysfunctional as Jonah controls things at work while Pandora retreats into alienation at home. His desperate response to her mounting hysteria, 'I love you, I'll bring home take-away', is symptomatic of her role and consumption. Grace observes that 'in his unrelenting quest to make her into the kind of wife that he wanted, he forgot the woman with whom he had actually fallen in love'.[44] The family's love, described as a merry-go-round, 'each one loving the one who refused it'[45] is pathos in evident need for love and this family's inability to express it. Beyond this the experience of being 'othered' by Australians is traumatic but by the end of the novel bi-partisan identification is possible as the youngest generation moves beyond angst and disorientation into their hybrid inheritance.
  26. Teo's novel is framed by Grace's desire 'to live without ghosts' and her eventual return to Sydney to care for her once coolly efficient, but now 'hungry ghost' father (the dentist and Patriarch).[46] Belatedly she recognises the living's 'debt to the dead' but not until the grandmother's (Mei Ling) and the mother's (Pandora) recessed stories have been told. An unwanted girl child, Pandora is born (literally) as the Japanese invade Singapore. She is given to Madam Tan who returns her like an unwanted parcel when her own child arrives. The chapter heading 'The Melodrama of the Life and Lims' indicates the satiric tone of this generational saga and thwarted 'love' story. As a girl child, Pandora's family life is wholly miserable. Having been rejected by her father, fondled by Mr Tan, marketed by her brother Donald and sequentially tormented, exploited or ignored by other family members, Pandora learns to expect and be surprised by nothing. She was 'born to be a victim and everyone knew this'.[47] Sisters, Percy-phone and Lida, the servant Por-Por, and education offer some respite but 'Pandora led a schizophrenic life throughout her school years. She was a dutiful Chinese daughter at home and an absurd lampoon of an English schoolgirl outside'.[48]
  27. Pandora and Jonah Tay meet after he saves Percy-phone from drowning in a canal—resulting in the latter's lifelong affection for Jonah. Singapore is harrowing because of Jonah's possessive mother and Pandora's daughter-in-law role in her house. After the loss of her first child, escape to Malaysia initially brings prosperity and further children, but it is not until the family (Pandora, Jonah, Sonny and Grace) emigrate to Australia to escape racial violence that some unity in their 'otherness' is forged. Years later Grace observes:

      It's funny. She had wanted to come, the Patriarch wanted to stay behind. Now that they were here, she wanted to be somewhere else. These days she stayed in the house and wandered in her mind so that when I found her, she was just gone. Somewhere. Over the rainbow. Into the land of Oz.[49]

  28. When her ex-tormentor Madam Tay visits Sydney, Pandora metes out justice worthy of the brutal paradigm by which she was raised. Grace is further thwarted by her newly-converted mother's startling ability to 'love' all the Christian brethren. The increasingly resentful girl observes that:

      All my life I've had to compete against men for my mother's attention. First it was the Patriarch and, of course, Sonny, whom I really liked so I didn't mind that much. But then I had to compete against God. I as fourteen when Mum discovered God and started speaking in tongues.[50]

  29. Her mother's actual fall from grace into the practised arms of the evangelical preacher Pastor Rodney Phillipe prefigures her vertiginous leap to death from her brother's balcony in Singapore. In an echo of Madam Tay's terror Pandora fails to negotiate the complex cross-cultural map of her life's experience in her once home territory on her final day's disorientation:

      Nobody ever found out what had happened on that last afternoon in Singapore. Eventually she was brought back to Uncle Winston's apartment, distraught and barely intelligible, her speech reduced to a stuttering patios in which English, Malay, and Teochew nouns had been erased from her vocabulary to be replaced by the word 'thing'. Lost and disoriented, unable to see and frustrated by her inability to communicate, she found herself suddenly surrounded by an alarming world of unnameable Things. She phoned the Patriarch in Sydney that night and irritated him with her incoherence, hurt him when she forgot his name.[51]

  30. In a bizarre protest against materialist dominance and belated demonstration of his love, Pandora's Sonny slays the Uncle's amazon prize cod (devourer of his mother's guppies - the last thing she touched with feeling) and ensures the family's severance from most of the Singapore relatives. Grace, still seeking her elusive mother, claims 'I stitch down words to the page but your life unravels as soon as I grasp the fraying threads'.[52] In a final act of contrition she performs appropriate memorial rites belatedly acknowledging something other than immigration as the family's 'irredeemable debt'. Despite the family's obsession with inherited imaginaries, lives are commemorated and remembering lays some ghosts. There is a diminishing alienation as Grace belatedly comes to know and love her mother's city (if not her relatives) and in her reviewed assessment of her father. Katherine England has nicely observed that, 'Grace grows up to witness, but for many years not to understand, the ... relationship between her parents, and the agonisingly twisted ways in which love can be given and received, sublimated and denied'.[53]
  31. There is an extensive analysis in the novel of the trauma of the children's attempts to adjust to academic and social life in their Australian schools where deliberate and inadvertent racism makes their 'translated' existence a kind of hell. There is also considerable pathos in the father's determination to 'Australianise' the family while clinging to the patriarchal role and ideas of family that has shaped his prior life. Teo employs comedy and farce to offset the tragedy of chronic displacement.

  32. Malouf has claimed that:

      There is only one way of experiencing the reality of the world we live in—that is through our bodies, our senses. But we ... are fortunate in having two ways of attaining that experience; either through actual events or, when it is working at its most powerful, through the imagination.[54]

    Contemporary Australian writers of fiction have begun adjusting discourses to re-configure embodied cross-cultural experience. They are subverting clichéd binaries: mind/body, male/female, white/black, Asian/Australian dichotomies, testing transformative power through polyvocality, hybridisation, manipulation of agency and transgressing generic boundaries. They are using, but also deconstructing, cultural myths. By reading history as negotiable testimony, by redefining the parameters of personal, regional and national space, they are challenging dominant social imaginaries. These novels have begun remembering in a land of expedient forgetting. They represent an amplification of the 'stories, images and repertoires' of contemporary Australia. Chambers rightly claims that:

      Much of what passes for history is trapped in a continual exchange between realism and representation that relies on a naive metaphysics of truth (absolute, total complete) as though it were the property of the West. Yet representation is not a natural or obvious thing. It is, in both its political and aesthetic dimensions, a process of continual construction, enunciation and interpretation. The multiple representations and voices of the once excluded ... for example, do not simply exist in creating a space for them, of widening academic disciplines, political institutions and adopting a pluralist gaze. It lies, rather in reworking the very sense of history, culture and society and language that had previously excluded or silenced such voices, such a presence.[55]

  33. Jose celebrates links between East and West and between the past and the present as his characters transcend literary discourse to find a life pattern to harbour them. Lazaroo's and Teo's protagonists travel even further, weighing the competing claims of the social discourses they inherit, but refusing to be read by them. The 'Eurasian woman' takes pictures of moments she finds significant but does not label or catalogue them, while Grace, who has sustained her losses by hate when her family fails her, finally looks at her father and in saying 'there is nothing to forgive' is astounded to find that [she] actually means it.[56] The refutation of history's domination in these texts—in these liberating fictive spaces—represents a powerful re-claiming and re-articulation of identity and individual prerogatives. They speak of reasons to live and love, beyond narrowly prescriptive collectivising narratives of time, people or place.


    [1] David Malouf, An Imaginary Life, London: Chatto & Windus, 1978, p. 67.

    [2] Moira Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality, London: Routledge, 1996, p. xiv.

    [3] Nicholas Jose, The Red Thread, San Francisco:Chronicle Books, 2000; Simone Lazaroo The Australian Fiancé, Sydney:Picador, 2000; Hsu -Ming Teo, Love and Vertigo, St. Leonards:Allen & Unwin, 2000.

    [4] Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality.

    [5] Jane Marcus, 'The Asylums of Anteus: Women, War and Madness - is there a feminist fetishism', in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser, New York: Routledge, 1989, pp. 132-51, p. 133.

    [6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1983, p. 6.

    [7] Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality, p. x.

    [8] Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality, p. x.

    [9] Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality,p. 77.

    [10] Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality, p. 105.

    [11] Lyn Jacobs, 'About Face:Asian Australians at Home', in ALS 20, 3, (2002):201-214.

    [12] Jose advises in his acknowledgements that his 'adaptation is based on [my] own translation from the Chinese and Lin Yutang's translation Six Chapters of a Floating Life, first published in Shanghai in 1935-36. Further, 'that the original of Shen Fu's memoir, was written in 1808 and published without the two final chapters in 1877', p. 255.

    [13] Jose, The Red Thread, p. 217.

    [14] Jose, The Red Thread, p. 46.

    [15] Jose, The Red Thread, p. 241.

    [16] Jose, The Red Thread, p. 89.

    [17] Jose, The Red Thread, p. 249.

    [18] Jose, The Red Thread, p. 76.

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This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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