Approaching Literary Multilingualism

Arin Alycia Fong

Mar 9, 2018 | News

What does it really mean to be multilingual and multicultural in Singapore? Terms like “multiculturalism” and “bilingualism” have become convenient buzzwords plucked from a political vocabulary used to promote social harmony. Many forget, or ignore, how the language policies of the late 1970s that made English the primary language of instruction and commerce have resulted in a largely monolingual mode of approaching language and identity. Vernacular schools were closed as a result of this switch to English and this in turn alienated many non-English speakers from society.

Associate Professor Sim Wai Chew’s research engages with these political and social realities. He notes that much of Singapore literature written in Chinese not only mourns the political and economical changes that deprived many non-English speakers of opportunities for social mobility but also demonstrates how these linguistic changes created and reinforced a divide between English- and Chinese-speaking factions.

In his seminar “Becoming Other: Literary Multilingualism in the Chinese Badlands”, Assoc. Prof. Sim argues that the study of Singapore literature remains largely monolingual and focused on East-West and Anglo-Chinese antimonies. These antimonies, he says, have the potential to create restrictive essentialist modes of thinking about identity in “Anglo” and “Chinese” cultural domains.

Assoc. Prof. Sim uses the term “badlands” as a means of “designating the imaginative terrain” created by writers of Chinese descent who write about Southeast Asia, which can appear in a number of languages including English, Chinese, Malay, and Thai. We can view “badlands” writing as literature that sees these languages in relation to one another, shifting the discussion from East-West grand narratives to an East-Southeast Asian cultural dialogue. In this way, he calls for critics and writers to view ethnic identities and languages in a horizontal relationship with other cultures in Southeast Asia, rather than perpetuating a “vertical hierarchy of spatial and temporal signification”.

Assoc. Prof. Sim analysed two Singapore works of literature: Chia Joo Ming’s Exile or Pursuit (2018) and Vyvyane Loh’s Breaking the Tongue (2004) which at critical moments, switch from Chinese to English, and English to Chinese respectively. These linguistic experimentations, he argues, point to a rapprochement of the English- and Chinese-speaking factions and the need to move beyond essentialist dichotomies.

In Exile or Pursuit, set in 1970s Singapore, Chinese-speaking Hok Leong (福良), whose father owns a hawker stall, forms an intimate relationship with Chiu-yun, a well-to-do English-speaking Indonesian. She introduces him to English pop songs, and teaches him the lyrics to “Yesterday Once More” by The Carpenters. The untranslated English lyrics appear amongst the Chinese text, marking Hok Leong’s first exposure to English pop culture. The song appears again at the end when he hears it being played on a plane. Hok Leong’s aversion to the English language is altered by his love for Chiu-yun, and his changed attitudes towards the language allow him to climb the social ladder.

In Breaking the Tongue set during World War II in Singapore, Claude, an ethnic Chinese raised in an upper-class Anglophone household, falls in love with Ling-li, a Chinese nationalist. The text switches from English to Chinese at the height of the plot when Ling-li is captured by the Japanese and Claude conveys how she is tortured by the soldiers. The untranslated Chinese text is interspersed with Claude’s speech in English so that the memory of Ling-li’s debasement is preserved in Claude’s multilingual testimony.

The linguistic experimentation in these two texts affirms multilingual social realities and in this way, Assoc. Prof. Sim argues, points to new ways of approaching Sinitic literary and cultural studies as well as Singapore and Southeast Asian literature in general. As Anglophone literary studies move towards considerations of multilingual fiction, Assoc. Prof. Sim believes that it is only fitting that other areas of cultural analysis follow suit. He hopes that critics and writers of Singapore literature and Southeast Asian literature can adopt a Sinophone-plus approach, a form of literary multilingualism, to move beyond cultural essentialism. In doing so, this mode of reading may flatten any perceived aesthetic differences between works of different languages and perhaps make literature more accessible to—and representative of—a wider multilingual audience.