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In Which I Scratch the Wall of Literature and Discover Whitewash Under My Nails

I recently began reading The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw, a Malaysian writer.

I usually look for titles at book stores that betray their affiliation to the genre we call “Post-Colonial” as it is my favorite.
But as I began to read, I ran into a few problems.

There are two separate moments in the reading of the first two chapters that made me think: 

  • The narrator mentions that he was educated in a school for the rich where they read Dickens.
    The next line reads, “For the boys, life is good, but not always. They have the best of times, they have the worst of times.”
    I smile at the reference to A Tale of two Cities, you know, one of those smirky moments you get when you catch the author’s humor.
    But of course, this is only possible because I know the famous opening line of this particular Dickens book.
  • The protagonist mentions that his father Johnny Lim’s real name is in fact Lim Seng Chin.
    My immediate response as a reader to this name is one of disconnect.
    As it is with most post-colonial texts, we just have to move past the fact that much of the book remains deeply steeped in a context we cannot understand. Right?

The problem lies here: This IS my context. 

Lim Seng Chin is not a name I am unfamiliar with. I AM from Singapore. He is from a region I grew up close to, speaking dialects that my parents speak, in a climate my body knows in full, and a culture that runs deep in my veins.
How many people do I know with names that are composed entirely out of a different language, with no English equivalent?

And yet, when I encounter a reference to Dickens, I feel more comfortable with it than I do with the protagonist’s non-English name.


And then I understood what literature has told me about the world.

It is a bitter process, to realize that within the pages of the books I read, I have never seen a central character with the name Lim Seng Chin. Give me Johnny, give me Seng or Chin or even just Lim, but the combination thereof into a full Chinese name is too foreign for my whitewashed eyes to read.

It is sad, to find myself more comfortable reading post-colonial texts from the African continent, India, and countries in the Middle East, than to read a fictional world spun from my own geographical region.

How can the familiar seem so unfamiliar to me? It’s simple.

Literature has taught me that books are not about where I’m from. In fact, they are about everything except where I’m from.
Literature has shown me that what I’m familiar with is not their area of interest. Literature reveals, not relates.
Literature has pushed my reality into the margins for its “grander, political, historical narratives” and told me

Of course, of course, literature transcends boundaries and speaks deep truth that is what we identify as universal.
But the truth is also this: 
Lim Seng Chin could be an uncle of mine, he could be a father, or a friend, but never a protagonist in a book. 

The historical power of colonialism has never been more tangible.

And although I’ve learned it plenty as an English student, although I’ve identified and seen myself in its theories, and explained my life through its arguments, it took a book that offered me an alternative, and my knee jerk discomfort to it, for me to realize that just because I know, doesn’t make me immune, doesn’t remove me from everything I’ve learned.

But all this just makes everything come full circle.
Because this is why I started reading post-colonial to begin with.
To find myself in my books.

And now I have come so much closer, and it is scary because literature is shifting its position in my life.
But it is empowering, because Lim Seng Chin – strange on the tongue, but close to the heart – will become familiar over the next 300 pages, and lose his “exotic” status. He will grow flesh not so white, speak with different inflections, and come from an agricultural background full of rice paddies, and rubber tappers. I will see it all for the first time rising out of words not from a history book, a non-fiction biography, or a political narrative.


 He will be thematic. He will be a catalyst. He will be tragic. He will be a symbol.

And literature has to make room for him,

because I am reading.

*disclaimer, i am aware of my personified treatment of literature as a singular blob which is too simple of an explanation, but i think for the purpose of this musing it is sufficient. 

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