Occidental Echoes: Beth Yahp's Ambivalent Malaya

By Pillai, Shanthini | Hecate, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Occidental Echoes: Beth Yahp's Ambivalent Malaya


Pillai, Shanthini, Hecate


This paper discusses the novel The Crocodile Fury (1992) by Beth Yahp, winner of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, Sheaffer Pen Prize for First Fiction, 1993, and the New South Wales State Literary Awards, Ethnic Affairs Commission Award for Literature in Australia, 1993. One of the objectives in the establishing of the Victorian Premier's Awards in 1987 was to 'assist cultural groups to maintain their diverse literary and cultural heritages and present them to the wider community.'1 The establishment of the Ethnic Affairs Commission Award for Literature was primarily to 'promote cultural diversity through the arts' as part of its larger objective of 'promoting the unity of all ethnic groups in the community as a single society while recognising different cultural identities.'2 These awards suggest that the novel is deemed to have adeptly presented the features of a Malaysian cultural heritage and, more specifically, its Malaysian Chinese subject matter to the Australian community, as well as fulfilling its role in presenting one of many ethnic strands that make up the nation.

However, I argue that there appear to be distinct echoes of occidental myths and metaphors that shape the discursive space of the novel, echoes that suggest the tinge of colonial stereotypes of Malaya. The novel is narrated from the perspective of a young girl who is a boarder at a convent in Malaya3 and articulates the stories of a number of women whose paths intersect in and around the convent that is set on top of a mysterious hill at the edges of what is presented as a menacing Malayan jungle.

Yahp has asserted in an interview that the concept of family for her is 'a very fragmented and scattered one' and 'not connected to place.'4 In the same interview, she also states that despite The Crocodile Fury (and some of her other works of fiction) being set in South East Asia (more specifically Malay(si)a), she sees herself as an Australian writer because 'all the support networks came from there, the encouragement to begin, and continue, and the landscape has affected me greatly, not in this particular novel, but elsewhere in my work, in quite a fundamental way.'5 These two comments are highly significant to my discussion of ambivalence in The Crocodile Fury. The first highlights the sense of a disconnectedness from ancestral heritage, a part of that being Malaysia. Yahp was born in Malaysia in 1964 and went to Sydney, Australia in 1984, at the age of twenty. The Crocodile Fury was published in 1992, eight years after she left Malaysia. This eight year break from Malaysia was in all probability one that was disconnected from the nation's evolving history and its culture. It is this sense of disconnection that I see as mostly reflected in the narrative space, a disconnection with the cultural and linguistic landscape of the Malaya which she attempts to portray. It is within these gaps in her memory that Occidental echoes appear, resonating in the setting, the various characterisations that are shaped, and the myriad patterns of allegorical devices that emerge throughout the narrative: images that are shaped from external sources such as the texts that she identifies in the acknowledgment page of the novel, naming among others The Book of Chinese Beliefs, Malay Superstitions and Beliefs and Ghost Stories of Old China. Yahp's second statement above, regarding place, is significant for its expression of her sense of affinity with Australia and the Australian landscape. The novel does seem to echo a number of myths and metaphors connected to Australian literary traditions. At the tail end of my discussion, I will discuss the ways in which Yahp's novel reflects motifs common to, in particular, Australian women's writing. In this way, Malaysia becomes a shadowy presence that is articulated more for an Australian than a Malaysian audience.

The Crocodile Fury could be categorised as a postcolonial novel by virtue of its being written in the era after the departure of the British colonisers from Malaya, as well as its attempt to engage certain postcolonial issues such as clashes with colonial ideology, as articulated in the rebellious thoughts of the main character and narrator, a young Chinese girl who lives in a convent run mainly by European nuns and whose life is dominated by the strong presence of her Chinese grandmother who scoffs at the European world view and imparts a largely Asian and Chinese world view to her granddaughter. …

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