Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills in relation to; home, national identity, time and space, geographical borders
Timothy Mo’s representation of national identity and ‘home’ in Sour Sweet (1982)emanates largely from the use of food as a cultural marker. The title of the novel itself would suggest a reversal of an intrinsic cultural identity, and Mo employs linguistic domestication in Sour Sweet to construct juxtaposing cultural identities within the same geographical border – but to create an image of transnationalism and post-colonial cross-culturality, or to highlight confusion of identity?
To understand the food is to understand the society – at least to the extent that those born in it ever do. The food metaphor and imagery in Sour Sweet therefore seems to support a plural mosaic model of the post-colonial world where adaptability and flexibility is achieved through an acceptance of differences rather than through a forced synthesis or melting pot.
The body in Sour Sweet is also a subject that determines the cultural identity of the immigrant Chen’s in England. Mo utilises the differences in physical forms of the Chinese and English to emphasise the disparities between the two cultures, and to ultimately present the duality of the two cultures – the ‘Yin’ and the ‘Yang’. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills (1982), the national identity of post-war Japan is remembered trough the protagonist Etsuko’s narration, but can be applied universally. Etsuko narrates from a position of reconstruction after a personal trauma that emanates from a wider public and universal concern. With the strong thematic representation of time and space in A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko’s aim to reconstruct the past is the catalyst for the reconstruction of herself – including the potential fruition of a singular cultural identity, but an ultimate failure to realise this. Though the duality of her identity throughout the novel (represented by Sachiko), is Ishiguro’s method of constructing parallel cultural identities in Etsuko, and her struggle to adopt either identity can be seen through Ishiguro’s subtle representation of Japan as both a traditional isolationist country that is represented by the wooden cottage sitting in the vast expanse of wasteland, but also a juxtaposing ‘westernised’ Japan – represented by modern apartment blocks.
The themes of national identity, home, geographical borders and time and space in Mo’s Sour Sweet and Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills are inter-textual because of the similarity between the backgrounds of both authors. Both are critically identified as transnationalist post-colonial writers – Timothy Mo was educated in Hong Kong and England, and was the son of an English mother and a Cantonese father. Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, and came to Britain at the age of five – and his work has been translated into twenty-five different languages. But Ishiguro himself admits that he represents a ‘personal Japan’, a country that he is not wholly familiar with, stating that “If I wrote under a pseudonym and got somebody else to pose for my jacket photographs, I’m sure nobody would think of saying, ‘This guy reminds me of that Japanese writer.’” (Ishiguro, 1994). Mo appears to have more affinity with his ‘native’ country than Ishiguro, stating that he finds Britain “antiseptic – a slow, safe, orderly society”, and prefers societies “glowing with decay…I feel so much more at home in an Asian street”. Perhaps this is simply a desire to be associated with his country of origin in an attempt to gain cultural acceptance and national identity? Each year he spends “three months in Hong Kong; four split between Bangkok and Phnom Penh; and five in the Philippines” (Mo, 2000), but is still widely regarded as an Anglo-Chinese transnationalist author. In order to study the authors’ representation of national identity and time and space in Sour Sweet and A Pale View of Hills it is undoubtedly necessary to first look at the validity of their position as cultural writers – freedom of movement and lack of original ethnicity is often problematic in utopian transnationalism, as it distorts the trustworthiness of a writer without a ‘true’ ethnicity. How far do Mo and Ishiguro have the authority to comment on either culture? Also, do their representations of these contemporary/postcolonial cultures adhere to British stereotypes of foreign cultures? Or are they accurate in their depictions? Once these questions have been answered, then the legitimacy of their interpretations can be utilised in the examination of the predominant thematic devices in each novel.
But these [Ishiguro and Mo] are not members of a group who feel displaced, who feel that return is difficult or impossible, who identify in various symbolic or ethnic ways with a diasporic community. They may identify with no ‘nation’, ethnic group, cultural or immigrant group completely, if at all. Yet they announce the vibrant, productive and exciting circulation of global transformations and above all of the creative potential of ‘in-betweeness’ (Ashcroft, 2010).
Ashcroft is highlighting Mo and Ishiguro’s belief that this ‘in-betweeness’ found in transnationalism can only be beneficial with regard to artistic potential. ‘In-betweeness’ arguably gives the author a more global perspective and less biased objectification when writing on each culture. In Ishiguro’s admission of writing about a ‘personal Japan’, he is stating that the representation of Japan in A Pale View of Hills can only be from his perspective – but does this really affect the depiction of Japanese culture and national identity? How is it possible for one person to accurately depict the cultural identity of an entire nation? The only possibility in place of this is to represent the culture concerned through the memories, feelings and thoughts of the author. But this is what gives a novel integrity and individuality – the bringing of a new insight and context of a society or culture to an audience that may not be familiar with it. Surely it does not matter if this insight is entirely accurate? Unless it professes to be a historical almanac of a given culture/country, a narrativised reading of cultural identity through the eyes of a transnational author will only ever be a perspective, inter-laced with some factual information. Though it could be read that although this wider understanding of cultural identity permits the author to write from the position of two cultures, it might seem to saturate the strength of his/her ability to represent either culture accurately. However, the role of a transnationalist author in modern literature is not simply to aim to truthfully portray a specific culture, but to represent a contemporary global culture, separate to either ‘side’ that holds its roots in plural ethno-cultural allegiance, as Maria Cuoto states:
The artist of mixed sensibility has an important role in today’s frontierless world where sensibility is not longer closely housed. The strength of the multicultural artist… is that he realises and conveys the sum of worthwhile experience in terms of interconnecting worldviews (Cuoto, p.64).
Authors such as Mo, Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie have discarded traditional values of cultural identity in literature. They are the vanguard of a new literary society – forming a faction that holds a strong appreciation for multiculturalism, universal communication and transnationalism. Mo and Ishiguro’s writing highlights cultural differences by juxtaposing them, and the subtle motifs they employ emphasise these differences in order to instil a desire for transnational communication in the reader.
For example, the linguistic domestication of the Chen’s ‘Dah Ling’ restaurant (the name coming from the home village of Lily and Mui), soon becomes ‘darling’ restaurant to the English customers, with Lily and Mui as the ‘darlings’. The subjugation of ‘Dah Ling’ seems to both anglicise the Chens, but also simultaneously alienate their place in society, as the very act of ‘translating’ draws attention to the etymology of the original, and in turn highlights the ‘origins’ of their Chinese identity. Mo therefore places the Chen’s in the limbo of two cultures, as they are away from their country of origin, but simultaneously isolated from the society in which they are currently living. However, the Chen’s (whom “had been living in the UK for four years, which was long enough to have lost their place in the society from which they had emigrated but not long enough to feel comfortable in the new” (Sour Sweet, p.1)) soon adapt their food to suit the tastes of the English in an effort to inaugurate some sort of communication between themselves and the gwai-lo (‘foreign devils’ (p.137)). Although this adaptation is initially for financial gain, it provides the platform for their subsequent infiltration and transformation into English society. However, the ‘nouveau’ cuisine that they produce forms something that is neither Chinese nor wholly English – “The food they sold, certainly wholesome, nutritious, colourful, even tasty in its way…bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine” (Sour Sweet, p.105). Mo consequently emphasises the Chen’s transnationalism, but also their inability to obtain a specific national identity. Like the food that they serve, they are neither Chinese nor wholly English. In this sense, their family unit has become a hybrid of two cultures – echoing the rejection of traditional values, and inability to conform to new cultural values seen in the actions of Mo, Ishiguro and Rushdie. The adjustment to British culture in the Chen’s life is also seen through food – when they first try fish and chips they are (pleasantly) surprised by the taste, “And the food was quite good, really not bad at all” (p.159). Lily soon learns that Man Kee’s meals at school consist of mince and jam tart with custard, and even serves it to the grandfather’s aged English friends in place of barbeque pig or sweet and sour pork. By the end of the novel, English culture has penetrated the home of the Chen’s, and co-exists with them comfortably. Man Kee eventually learns ‘I’m a little teapot’ at school and Lily is delighted, “Imagine the English having a tea song. This was really quite civilised of them – for a change” (p.212). The comedy that Mo uses acts as a device for Lily to contrast her initial opposition to English culture with her consequent attraction and acclimatisation to it.
Every aspect of the Chen’s life seems to uphold the notion of ‘Yin-Yang’ that Mo employs in Sour Sweet to highlight the family’s ‘in-betweeness’. “Yin-Yang is used to describe how polar opposites…are interconnected and interdependent…they give rise to each other in turn. Opposites thus only exist in relation to each other” (Wikipedia, 2012). Even the grandfather in Sour Sweet wears two watches – one to tell the time in London, and the other telling the time of his hometown in China. This duality in Sour Sweet echoes the main plot, the Chen family is representative of ‘Yin’, and the Triad ‘family’ represents the ‘Yang’. Mo directs us to meander through the novel between the two eclipsing plots, and we find ourselves confronted with two opposites – relationships within the quiet Chen family, and an insight into the violent destruction involved in Triad life.
The body is used similarly in Sour Sweet to echo the contrasts created by the use of food. The English customers see Lily as an object of sexual desire, but the prerequisite for this attraction is that she is a form outside of her own cultural context – she is exotic. Lily’s body is unusual for a Chinese woman – she “…had a long, thin, rather horsy face and a mouth that was too big for the rest of her features. She was also rather busty and her hands and feet were a fraction too big to be wholly pleasing to her husband” (p.16). These features are typically characteristic of English women, and Lily therefore adheres to the ‘in-betweeness’ Ashcroft describes – she is physically representative of two cultures. Furthermore, her cultural heritage has given her the ability and strength to survive in England. Trained in martial arts as a child in China, coordination has enabled her to become a proficient driver, balance has given her the capability to wait tables efficiently and the self-defence her father taught her has been dutifully passed on to Man Kee. Like Mo himself, Lily therefore represents both Chinese and English identity – there is a balance between her inherited cultural identity, and a new identity – although this seems to deconstruct authenticity, it arguably creates a hybrid that could be accepted as individual and separate identity from the ‘normal’ socially constructed ideas of identity. This cannot be said of Mui though – despite her slow integration into British ‘culture’ through watching episodes of soaps on the television – she is subject to cultural ‘contamination’ through her body; she becomes pregnant by an Englishman out of wedlock. However, by the end of the novel, the balance of Yin-Yang is restored and the family cell is no longer one thing or the other – the Chens represent the notion of transnationalism – that two seemingly conflicting cultures can inhabit the same ‘space’ despite obvious geographical boundaries:
But distance, physical distance anyway, had nothing to do with the change in the amorphous but tough-skinned organism their family had been. There had been parturition, the single cell had contracted, swelled, and through the wall had escaped matter from its very nucleus. Now there were two cells, sharing the same territory, happily co-existing but quite autonomous (p.277).
In Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, there is a subtle evocation of universal human concerns of tragedy, and although the description of the bomb is not present in the novel, it is still ‘there’ – its effect resonates in Etsuko, through her memories and thoughts. The absence of the description of the atomic disaster seems to draw attention to it, and in turn the disaster seems to assert itself. In this sense, Pale View of Hills can be seen as post-modern as it narrativitises history in a new sense. It does not simply “supply reality but invents allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented” (Lyotard, 2005). This new narrative, though, is affected by the trauma surrounding the history of Nagasaki, and the reliability of Etsuko’s memories is questioned. We do not necessarily receive an accurate description of Japanese culture, but rather a compound of memories of culture. This fusion of things echoes the hybridity seen in Mo’s Sour Sweet, and the trauma that Etsuko is left with intersects with the composition of historically specific gender constructions. Ishiguro’s method of contrasting the traditional values of Japanese femininity and motherhood with contemporary British values involving motherhood makes for a particularly disturbing narrative that comments on maternity. Etsuko’s memory introduces a changing, modernised Japan. Through these reflections of the past, we are able to see the way in which she constructs her new identity. Caught between traditional Japanese wife, and modern English woman, Etsuko even directly warns the reader that her memory of the events in the novel ‘grows hazy in time’ (p.41). Her ambivalence towards motherhood is seen in Mariko – whom is partly employed by Ishiguro as a prognosticator of Keiko’s suicide. Mariko’s mother Sachiko, serves as Etsuko’s alter ego, on whom Etsuko projects her own guilt. But maternity is subject to variation in A Pale View of Hills, and Etsuko is aware of ideological constructions of motherhood, but doesn’t realise that motherhood has changed. Etsuko’s eldest daughter Nicki wants to re-invent herself in London, and perhaps Ishiguro creates this desire to offer some hope for the future? Ogata-san is able to look forward to the future, and expects Etsuko to bear a child, as a ‘progression’ of the archaic Japan that he has inhabited – despite the current Japan resembling something entirely dissimilar – it is the modernised apartment blocks, not the old wooden cottage. However, it is impossible for Etsuko to function in the Japanese role left for her. Like the violin that is left un-played and the chessboard that is swept away, perhaps Etsuko is rejecting traditional values in place of a new identity that is closer to what her daughter Nicki and her doppelgänger Sachiko desire.
Time and space is possibly the more presiding motif that Ishiguro engages with in order to create Etsuko’s sense of self. Though time and space, and indeed memory, bring about the unreliability that is seen in A Pale View of Hills, it is these subjects that force us to questions Etsuko’s identity. Her ‘suppression of memory’ (Shaffer, 1998) leads to our ultimate ambivalence towards whether or not she is reciting the truth, and indeed how reliable is her memory of these events? The idea that memory is selective further fortifies the reading that Etsuko’s recollection of her past is in fact a portrayal of the identity that she wants to create for herself in the future. But her unreliable memory is undoubtedly a result of the trauma of her past:
The aftermath of trauma watermarks a major departure from the familiar uniformity of mundane perceptions, often, to the alien and uncertain grounds of the surreal. It leads to a differential interpretation of reality and the reformulation of memories and identities. It affects our perception of history and the past in ways that may not always be immediately apparent (Roy, 2011).
Time and space therefore plays a major role in A Pale View of Hills in that it not only provides a platform on which we can assess Etsuko’s construction of identity, but also provides Etsuko herself with the foundations for this construction. The ambivalence of the ending in A Pale View of Hills fails to come to the conclusion as to which of the two identities Etsuko will choose, which is undoubtedly comparable to the vanguard of the post-colonial transnationalist literary ‘society’ (Ishiguro and Mo). Although this ambiguity of identity is seen in both A Pale View of Hills and in Mo’s Sour Sweet, it is undoubtedly clear that Ishiguro and Mo are drawing attention to it not to fuel criticism, but to present it as an alternative to singular identity. It is not ambivalence and ambiguity, but certainty and assurance. Instead of ‘choosing’ one identity, the Chens therefore represent both their own Chinese cultural inheritance, and the new cultural identity that they assimilate. In this sense, both Ishiguro and Mo have create parallels of their own lives, through the use of time and space, home, national identity and geographical boundaries. Although each novel suggests a confirmation of cultural stereotypes and strong cultural identity, this is a necessary catalyst for the conclusion of commenting on plural ethnicities in a post-colonial contemporary world.
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