Academic journal article British and American Studies

Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet: Diasporic Identity and the Claims of Reality

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet: Diasporic Identity and the Claims of Reality

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The migrant experience being among its major themes, postcolonial writing has used diaspora as a key concept which, according to Avtar Brah (2005:16), reexamines the notions of fixed origins and unchangeable identities in a world defined by, among others, the processes of migration and transculturation. In the context of literatures of the European nations with colonial histories, diaspora constitutes a concept in relation to which the ideas of nation and national are redefined through the processes whereby, as Homi Bhabha (1994:243) writes, the former metropolis is forced to face the migrant as a reminder of its colonial past and incorporate the narrative of the former periphery (s)he embodies into its own narrative; this has made the multicultural project fundamental in present day discussions of the nation and national in post-imperial Europe. One such example is the United Kingdom, where the processes of facing its colonial past and redefining Britishness have been taking place in various fields. Literature has produced numerous diasporic voices that have expressed their own vision of Britishness as a multicultural concept.

One such figure on the British literary scene is Timothy Mo, who added the 'Chinese contour' (Ho 2000: 2) to the already diasporized literature, facing the former center with the "fears, joys, biases and aspirations" (Ramraj 1991: 481) of the immigrants; the presence of the latter not only transformed the demographic image of Britain, but also pointed towards new perspectives and ideological positions from which the concept of Britishness was to be redefined within the multicultural framework. "A novelist of two empires" (Bradbury 2001: 473), the Chinese and the British, Mo sees his identity as not only marked by his own migration from the 'periphery' to the 'center', but also by his bicultural origins: he comes from a Chinese-British family. He speaks about this double identification in his autobiographical essay Fighting Their Writing (1996), highlighting his experience of constant balancing between two traditions - rigid Confucianism, epitomized by the Cantonese nuns at the Convent of the Precious Blood, and the Western free-mindedness he found in works by R.L. Stevenson, Graham Greene or Bruce Lee's films; these were crucial in the development of his awareness of the necessity to adapt and of the danger to adhere rigidly to a single pattem of fighting, called by Lee a state of 'vertical death', of 'unreflective reverence for style and master' (Mo 1996: 316). In his second novel, Sour Sweet (1982), Mo approached the postcolonial diasporic experience in a balanced way, considering it essential for reexamining and adjusting the normative ideas of one's cultural and national identity in an intercultural context.

In so far the only monograph on Timothy Mo, Elaine Yee Lin Ho (2000: 4) points out that the concepts of identity and difference occupy the central position in Mo's writing. Their uneasy relationship, as Ho identifies it, could be viewed in the context of migration, networking and consequential erosion of the categories of organic and self-contained collectivities, on which contemporary narratives of culture are based. The relationship can be explored, Ho argues, using Stuart Hall's approach, through the prism of conceptions of identity that view it either in an essentialist way as 'one, shared culture, a sort of collective' (qtd in Ho 2000: 4) or an anti-essentialist one, acknowledging not only, as Hall puts it, 'ruptures and discontinuities' (qtd in Ho 2000:5) effected by global dispersion and heterogenization of identities but also an absence of natural or other essential guarantees of identities (Hall 1995: 257), approaching them as mere discursive constructs. This article, however, takes a third approach, contending - along the lines of Satya P. Mohanty's postpositivist realist theory of identity - that, although always discursive, identity is inevitably determined by social and historical realities within which it is conceived and shaped as a hermeneutic narrative that interprets and explains them. …

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