|Emily Innes||Selection from The Chersonese with the Gilding Off|
|Isabella Bird||Selection from The Golden Chersonese|
|Joseph Conrad||"The Lagoon"|
|Hugh Clifford||"His Heart's Desire"|
|"Our Trusty and Well-Beloved"|
|W. Somerset Maugham||Selected Descriptive Passages|
The literary texts on this small site are produced by European writers who either visited Singapore and Malaya or were resident here for a longer period of time. Literary writing produced in the colonial period included other texts as diverse as Abdullah Munshi's Hikayat Abdullah, the short stories by the Straits Chinese writers at the end of the nineteenth century, and Wang Gungwu's poetry collection Pulse produced half a century later. There is a good case, however, for considering texts written by Europeans separately, in that they all embody--although in very different ways--features of colonial discourse which are amenable to colonial discourse analysis.
Colonial discourse analysis as a critical approach to literary texts was given a powerful impetus by Edward Said's Orientalism. Although largely concerning European and American representations of the Middle East, Said's study of European representation of the Orient has proved readily applicable to other contexts, including European representations of Southeast Asia. Said discusses individual texts not so much in terms of literary merit, but in terms of their place in a larger discourse, a term which he takes from the work of French poststructuralist Michel Foucault. For Said, such texts are not merely an objective description of a geographic area, but are also part of a system of knowledge. Through a series of binary oppositions such as those between civilisation/primitivity, rationality/irrationality, masculinity/feminity light/darkness, colonial texts create the Orient as everything the Occident is not. They thus constitute a European--here an English--identity through a process of Othering.
Much critical work after Said has recognised that colonial texts are not merely structured by crude binarisms, and that they may actually be most interesting when such binarisms fail to work. Homi Bhabha, for instance, has argued that colonial discourse is essentially ambivalent: texts which seem to express certainties are in fact riddled with constitutive contradictions. Other studies have noted the variety of colonial texts, and the need to focus on specific historical and social environments, even to the extent of questioning the usefulness of the blanket term "colonial discourse".
The five authors collected here are thus interesting both in terms of recurring thematics, and also in terms of important differences. The travel writing of Isabella Bird and Emily Innes, for example, perhaps exemplifies Sara Mills' point that "[b]ecause of the way that discourses of femininity circulated within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women travel writers were unable to adopt the imperialist voice with the ease with which male writers did. The writing they produced tended to be more tentative than male writing, less able to assert the 'truths' of British rule without qualification" (3). Yet there are important differences between the two women writers. Bird visited briefly as a wealthy professional traveller, while Innes lived in the Maly States for several years as the wife of an official.
If Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham and Hugh Clifford represent male colonial discourse, their writing also shows considerable variety. Joseph Conrad's early fiction was all derived from his experiences as a ship's officer in the Malay Archipelago. He knew little of Malay culture, but his writing is marked by an ambivalence concerning the ethics of imperialism which would culminate in his novella Heart of Darkness describing European atrocities in the Belgian Congo. Hugh Clifford arrived in Malaya as a seventeen-year old, was fluent in Malay, and spent some twenty years spearheading the British "forward movement" into the states of the Malayan Peninsula. Clifford's knowledge of Malay society paradoxically, as an appreciation of Said might suggest, does not free him from discursive constraints--in some ways it binds him more tightly. However, his short stories also express the contradictions of colonialism, celebrating Malay culture as a medieval spectacle while being written with an awareness that their writer is an agent in the erosion of that culture's autonomy. Maugham came to Malaya much later than Clifford and Conrad, and, unlike them, as a professional writer in search of material. Maugham's stories, in contrast Conrad's or Clifford's, are almost exclusively peopled by Europeans, with Asian characters relegated to cameo appearances at best. Colonial society in Malaya, however, did not receive them kindly: officials and unofficials alike were outraged by Maugham's caustic portrayal of their sexual hypocrisies, an incisiveness made more accute by the author's own closeted homosexuality.
Last updated: September 2, 2002