Fictional (Auto)biography and Defaced Hybridity in Brian Castro
Hybridity was a sort of bridging and demolition.
Brian Castro, Looking for Estrellita (1999: 150)
Who are you? Why do you want to come here? Why have you left your birthplace? These are the questions migrant writers like Castro – whose ethnicity is split by ambiguities of his postcolonial Hong Kong/Macau heritage – are continually forced to address from a position of defensiveness. For the migrant writer, the autobiographical mode may re-enforce this yearning to resolve the sense of split identity, and can become a tool for ethnic self-identification, a product of multiculturalism’s others, an otherness machine, and a commodity that the host culture can consume.
I sympathise with Brian Castro’s claim that the ‘I’ of a writer of mixed ethnicity is a proliferation of selves. Such a writer invents ‘personal history in order to demolish the fixation on race and to destabilise traditional genres’ (Looking for Estrellita: 115). But I begin with the premise that my own personal history, as I write it, is not exclusively fictional. I am more inclined to Castro’s use of hybridity, quoted above, as a sort of bridging and demolition. This implies that for the migrant writer, writing is a technology for taking control of the messiness of hybridity. Writing, for Castro, does not attempt to replicate authentic and pre-existent identities, but deliberately deconstructs or defaces our concepts of identity in order to imagine new identities and human relationships. This fictionalising of identities also undermines autobiography’s illusion that any one voice can represent the hegemonic truth of identities, or that literary hybridity can represent real persons. What then are the ethical possibilities in a parody of the rhetoric of ethnicity of racism, on the one hand, and the celebrating of cultural hybridity on the other?
Gunew argues that the production of ethnicity in Australian literature is haunted by Helen Darville’s performance as Helen Demidenko, a case of an Anglo-Australian impersonating an ethnic Ukrainian author. This was an example of how an Anglo-Celtic Australian writer could invoke a theatrical display of ethnic cross-dressing, which was, like transvestism, a ‘personal and political, as well as an aesthetic and theoretical, mode of self-construction’ (Garber, cited in Gunew 1996: 165). Gunew compares Darville/Demidenko’s seduction of the Australian reading public to the impersonation of a woman by a Chinese spy, Song Liling, in David Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (1986), and Song’s seduction of Gallimard, a French diplomat in Peking. Here, the notion that the only way a man can know a woman is to pass as one parallels a related thesis: that a Westerner can only know the ethnic or gendered other by dressing and acting as one in repeated acts of identification. Whereas Hwang’s M. Butterfly can be interpreted as ‘an ironic re-presentation – a deconstruction and reappropriation’ of an Orientalist fantasy (de Lauretis 1999: 325), the Australian reading public were fooled by Darville/Demidenko’s false claim that her book was based on her Ukrainian family’s oral evidence (Gunew 1996: 163). The point is that very few readers were prepared to read Darville/Demidenko’s impersonation as a postmodern performance, or that her act of passing might highlight the performative construction of all ethnicities.
Darville/Demidenko was duly awarded the Miles Franklin award, on the grounds that it was an authentic account of ethnic migrant experience. Gunew makes a number of important conclusions; first, the reading public is unwilling to read works by ethnic minority writers as postmodern texts, but will accept an ethnic author’s text as authentic by conferring on that author an ‘unproblematic coherent subjectivity’ (1996: 164); that the public expects ethnic writers to be native informants whose texts exist primarily for the purpose of information-retrieval and not as examples of postmodern writing (1996: 165); that ethnic minority writings are read ‘for their authentic and preferably “simple” representation of the migrant experience’ (1996: 167); and that minority ethnic writers have little choice but to fulfil readers’ expectations and fit the essentialist frames of reference available to them in Australia (1996: 166 – 167). Gunew concludes that the Demidenko performance of writer as ethnic gained authority because it ‘is framed by decades-long…reception of such “multicultural” texts and subjectivities’ (1996: 168).
The Demidenko case brought up a number of questions I have addressed in my project. Is it possible for me to incorporate in ficto-critical ways the raw material of my migrant experience without becoming type-cast as a native informant or as an ‘Identikit’ ethnic (Gunew, 1996: 169) whose text is simple first-hand account of my history? By foregrounding the hybridised nature of culture and identity, and the performative rhetoric of ethnicity, can I influence readers to read my work as a postmodern text?
The question of authenticity continues to haunt the reception of minority writings. In the struggle for minority rights and the battle of who controls representation there are those who take the position that only members of such minority groups have the authority, or at least the moral right, to represent themselves. But who, institutionally speaking, decides the group membership and who interprets and legislates whether this authenticity has been achieved? Moreover, in a poststructuralist context of decentred subjectivity, one might argue that no one can fully represent anything. (Gunew 1996: 161)
If a fake ethnic is rewarded on the basis of a convincing performance of authenticity, what opportunities of recognition are open to writers such as Castro and myself who deliberately set out to destabilise these categories? Who, institutionally speaking, is delegated to speak for a community and decide the group membership and who interprets and legislates whether this authenticity has been achieved? Asian-Australian writers have had to deal with the scepticism that pervades the reception of multicultural writing post-Demidenko. How are we to represent our cultural hybridity? Should we aim for authenticity in Asian Imaginaries? In other words, are we better off drawing attention to our ethnic differences? What are the limits in my case, given that I am a kind of unheimlich or unhoused writer without close affiliations to the Laotian-Thai community in Australia? Like Brian Castro, my ethnic indeterminacy allows me to declare myself a minority within a minority, which relieves me of the burden of trying to be ethnically authentic.
Castro projects a myth of himself as a writer who ‘withdrew into a solitary way of life, abandoning both Australian and Chinese cultures: the former seemed to exclude people of other cultures, the latter became too restrictive’ (Looking for Estrellita: 52). Hybridising identity and decoupling ethnicity from its nationality can open up new creative possibilities for Asian-Australian writers. This seems a useful strategy if, as Gunew suggests, the notion of the authentically ethnic Australian writer will now be ‘drowned in the raucous laughter which has already long attended attempts to legitimate other than the familiar British and Irish–derived versions of Australian writing’ (Gunew 1996: 169).
Questions about culturally hybrid (not just ethnically mixed) characters in novels must consider the effect of literary techniques, narrative framing, and multiple points of view and voicing. Any attempt to theorise literary métissage, for example, must consider postmodern concepts of decentered subjectivity, and the writer’s intention to imagine new identities, and not just Demidenko-type parodies of ethnic stereotypes. I need not assume that my identity (authentic or otherwise) needs to justify the text; in fact my identity is constructed by the text which explicitly foregrounds such constructivism. This thesis has so far argued that writers like Teo and Sallis write about their life experiences without the sentimentality and utilise a range of fictive techniques such as parody, multiple points of view, and the frame-breaking techniques of magic realism (Ommundsen 1996: 156). Teo begins with statements of unreliability: taking a lead from Kundera, the narrator Grace writes that her story consists of ‘myths I tell about my family and, like all myths, they are both truths and lies, simultaneous buffers of love and betrayals of trust.’ Perhaps the kind of migrant story that utilises postmodern techniques can now win awards without having to claim to be transparently autobiographical.
Castro’s novel Stepper (1997) is a book that pits the notion of essentialism against cultural hybridity, and clearly speaks back to Demidenko by deliberately foregrounding the unreliability of first person narrations of experience. In Stepper, Castro fragments and undermines the prestige of autobiographical authority, a position that Darville used to great effect when duping her readers. The Demidenko affair illustrates the limits of reading such a narrow corpus of so-called ethnic literature. Similarly, Castro cannot represent Hong Kong, as I cannot represent Thailand. Migrant writers need to find a way to avoid becoming native informant directing an idealised exoticism to a predominantly middle ground of white middle class Australian readers, who have come to expect that the literature of Australian migrants is a very narrow field indeed, given how little of it is published. The Darvilles of this world are therefore easily mistaken as authentic voices of multicultural diversity.
Stepper speaks to this situation by parodying the Western romanticising of Japanese culture Castro’s protagonist is the cultural polymorph Victor Stepper, a German/Russian double agent who operates in Tokyo in the 1930s. Stepper is a subject who can be defined as having a “hyper-hybrid” or métis identity, since he is a man of German-Russian parentage but belongs to no nation, is of no fixed identity or core of Self. He speaks fluent Japanese, English, Russian, and German. He goes by various pseudonyms in his work as a double agent for Stalin’s Communist regime. Yet, Stepper is unheimlich or unhoused (Looking for Estrellita: 250 – 1). This plethora of identities leads him into the schizophrenic state of having too many personae. He also finds that writing truthfully is impossible because he has no central point of view from which to see the world. We never know if he is essentially working for the Germans, the Russians, or the Japanese, and he yearns for an appropriated Japanese identity, a yearning for all things Japanese.
Stepper represents the Orientalist who sees the exotic East as the place that will assuage his disillusionment with Western modernity. Japan’s feudal Samurai traditions, its tea-making ceremonies and other unique cultural practices, will somehow cure Stepper of his failed materialism, his lost beliefs in Marxism and industrialism. In other words, for Stepper, Japan is a good place to lose his Westernness. Stepper is a Lawrence of Arabia figure who goes native and who is marked by colonialism’s ambivalent critique of itself. This figure of the Orientalist double agent, as Steven Caton puts it, is vulnerable ‘precisely to the extent that he seems to belong to both cultures and yet to neither one’ (1999: 162).
This narrative of a European’s permanent exile to an exotic location outside of the West (and therefore beyond the West’s control) has also been a commonly romanticised trope in modernist literature. From a Eurocentric viewpoint, places like Africa provided both the image of absolute horror (as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or offered ‘an absolution from the decayed and destructive fragments’ (Ashcroft et al 1989: 159) of Western civilisation. Stepper’s arrest and death in Japan, and his abortive suicide attempt on a motorbike, resemble the kind of romantic excess of Rimbaud’s ‘heroic’ death in darkest Africa: a European’s staged ‘theatrical extinction’ (Ashcroft et al 1989: 159) in an exotic location
For Stepper, the disillusioned modernist, the Japan of geishas offers an escape from ideology, war-weariness and nihilism, and he is willing to ignore (or cannot see) Japan’s own horrors and decay into fascism. After falling in love with Reiko, a geisha/bar girl in Tokyo, Stepper’s selfless loyalty to the Communist cause dissolves in a blur of romanticised Orientalist desire. The narrative declares that ‘the moment he actually saw her, [Reiko] was the moment he discovered himself’ (Stepper: 144). The following passage typically orientalises Stepper’s Japanese imaginary:
A warm sea breeze reaches them, bringing a faint smell of rotting fruit, squashed cherry blossom. When she recovers, they walk on and stop as a leafy tea-house and sit at a table beneath a ginko tree. They tell each other about their love. (Stepper: 149)
Castro draws upon an Australian discourse of fear and ambivalent fascination with Japan’s contradictions, from its tea ceremonies to its military industrial ability, from its aesthetic delicacy to its history of cruelty. Castro’s textual Japan is a knot of beauty and ugliness, and unravelling it proves a tortuous process. The West’s anxiousness extends to Japan’s ability to outdo the West as an imperial power, as if Japan mirrors both the excesses of the West, while remaining completely other to the West. At the same time, Castro’s attempt to imagine a new cross-border subjectivity in terms of a romance thriller will find it difficult to dissolve the persistent conceptual divide between West and East. Can he move beyond a rather shallow parody of popular Orientalist stereotypes? Can a sense of authentic identity emerge from this rather melodramatic and self-consciously theatrical novel?
Re-framing Madama Butterfly
Castro has mobilised Puccini’s Madama Butterfly as the master-text behind Stepper, with the opera’s theme of miscegenation between white men and Asian women coming to the fore. Stepper projects his Orientalism on Reiko, the bar girl/geisha. Castro’s theme harks back to Australian writer Carlton Dawe’s protagonist in A Bride in Japan (1898): ‘Have I done wrong?’ asks Henry Tresilian, after falling in love with “Cho-cho San”, a geisha whom he compares to his mother and describes as ‘a mere heathen’. Stepper is however, far less guilt ridden than Tresilian and takes pleasure in fetishising Reiko’s silk garments, her sexually explicit dancing, and idealises her loyalty. In fact, she unintentionally betrays him to the Japanese secret police. She is his ‘ideal light’, but as the narration states:
[S]he was a woman, flesh and blood and not an apparition upon which he could draw, upon which he could create the classic perfection of a tea-house in the August moonlight… He was becoming like Puccini and Reiko was a woman, like any other. (Stepper: 119)
That Reiko survives and Stepper is executed is a deliberate counter-text to the dominance of the Madama Butterfly story, in which the opera singer is prepared to die for her white lover. As Castro puts it ‘Stepper falls in love with Japan, and I think Japan is able [sic] has a kind of broken mirror, mirroring other mirrors, to reflect back its own flaws, the flaws in the glass, as it were’ (Koval 1997: 9).
Stepper goes native so he can rescue Reiko from the poverty and exploitation of Tokyo’s underworld. This too is a repeat of the racist story of white men separating trophy wives from their culture. According to Werbner ‘Constructions of the self as hybrid do not in themselves guarantee and escape from prescriptive or even pernicious essentialisms that replicate structures of racism’ (1997b: 229). Castro is happy to parody Orientalist modes of description while he attempts to link postcolonial questions of power to existential concerns with identity. Castro remarks:
One must remember this is late 1930s Japan, and so there is an element of Orientalism in everything. He [Stepper] sees her [Reiko] as exotic, … he falls in love not just with her, but with her Japaneseness, and in turn with Japan, and I think that’s a deadly thing. Once you fall in love with a place, and you mythologise it to that extent, you’re absorbed by it. (Cited in Koval 1997: 8 – 9)
Reiko becomes the mother-surrogate who provides Stepper with the remainder of these fragments of Japan. But Stepper is paradoxically hostile to the possibility of fathering his own mixed race child. Stepper’s colonial paternalism is ambivalent and defensive when Reiko announces her desire for a hybrid child. For it is the hybrid that can destroy Stepper’s idealisation of pure Japaneseness: after the couple make love she states: ‘I want to have a child …’ Stepper replies: ‘No, this won’t do. Sliding himself off. Not time for this. It will be a hybrid. Won’t belong anywhere; like me. Look damned funny… The world’s not right for that yet’ (Stepper: 147).
The hybrid child invokes Stepper’s colonial fear that hybrid offspring will come to occupy his own site of power and privilege. Stepper disavows cultural hybridity when he declares the world is not ready for hybrids, by which he means his world. Stepper’s “dance” moves between Japan’s totalitarian prohibitions on multicultural imaginaries and the irruption or return of these “impurities”. At the point he denies the possibility of fathering a hybrid, Stepper himself fails to see that his obsession with the pure subject of his ideal Japan makes him blind to a more human future. If Reiko represents the promise for Stepper of a life lived in the mirror of the other, their marriage would never transcend the taboos of Japan’s mono-cultural ideology. If hybridity’s presence splits the illusion of a coherent national subject, no mixed marriage could ever be truly Japanese. Stepper’s fetish for purity is inconsistent with fathering the Eurasian child.
Reiko is Castro’s essential counter-trope to the more malicious or predatory models of the orientalised femme fatale. She returns the oppressive gaze of her nation’s herd mentality, but survives ostracism from Japanese society. Her own cultural crossing offers some consolation in that she adopts the foreign for her own advantage in a manner that resists colonial control of her sexuality and her fate. Reiko survives her affair – the original Madama Butterfly kills herself – and lives on, ignoring accusations that she was a traitor and prostitute, and supplements her income by writing hagiographies of Stepper for magazines: ‘Witness this tattered magazine, circa 1950: Stepper, my spy, my lover’ (Stepper: 300 – 1).
Isaku as postcolonial mimic
Castro’s use of multiple narrative framings and points of view is a world away from the first person confessional of Darville’s novel. The narrative structure in Stepper is enigmatic in the way it critiques its own complicity with Orientalist and colonial narratives. These multiple perspectives and framings raise questions in the readers’ minds about how identity – especially ethnicity – is represented. Since his first novel Birds of Passage (1983), we have come to expect Castro’s novels to interrogate the representation of race, colonial desire and hybridity, and deconstruct them in a playful mode.
One of the tricks in Stepper is that Stepper is an implausible parody that can only seem real through the memoir in which it is recorded, but the memoir is narrated by another, namely Isaku. Framing this story as Isaku’s memories (by telling the story from his point of view) enables the narration to return the gaze to the West in the form of a postcolonial critique. But Isaku furthers Castro’s aim of parodying the ego-driven motives of biographers. Isaku despises Stepper’s appropriation of Samurai ethics and Reiko’s hero-worship of Stepper, whom she views as the ‘true Samurai’, not Isaku. Reiko’s hero-worship is precisely the kind of attention Isaku jealously craves as a writer – the adoration of the public for a national hero. After Stepper is caught and executed, Reiko survives and keeps her version of his memory alive by setting up a Soviet style museum of Stepper’s mementoes. But Isaku holds Stepper’s own biographical memoirs and refuses to hand them to Reiko, thereby ensuring that the story of Stepper is never published. Isaku, therefore, denies Victor the immortality he craved in life, and refuses to write the fawning hagiography that would guarantee Stepper’s fame. Stepper will never be allowed to become a Japanese hero, as Isaku’s refusal to publish Stepper constitutes a vengeful deferral or refraction of Stepper’s ‘true’ identity, ‘his life was never going to be his own’, Isaku states (Stepper: 305). Why should Stepper’s story better my own vision, Isaku seems to ask?
My own biography of my parents could also be read as a parody of the family chronicle and deconstruction of the processes and motivations that underlie it. Isaku, who has lived in America, is a model of the jealous and alienated Asian modernist, or perhaps a parody of the indifferent and cynical Japanese globalist, ‘a Westerner before the term became fashionable’ (Stepper: 9). The experience of witnessing the suicide of his nobleman father during the war has persuaded Isaku to take up Marxism, and oppose Japan’s peculiar blend of feudal Samurai tradition and its military-industrial fascism. Isaku serves Castro’s critique of both Marxism and Fascism as totalitarian ideologies. But Isaku is complex and ambivalent, a man who is to some extent nostalgic for heroism and for totalitarianism, and suggestive of a peculiarly modern Japanese identity that is creolised, and such ambivalence means that between Isaku’s head and heart there is chaos. He writes coded messages embedded in fragments of T. S. Eliot. He is a creoliser of language, a border crosser without ideological convictions whose mind is filled with the archaic and the contemporary, Kabuki, geishas, poetry, heterotopias. Like Yukio Mishima (the author of the novel’s epigraph), Isaku is obsessed by death and the notion that it must be embraced with indifference and endurance (gaman). Despite his opposition to militarism and his contempt for modern Japan, the deeply ambivalent Isaku looks back nostalgically to the time of the Samurai, for he too is a failed Samurai.
Most importantly, Isaku can perform ironically as a Westerner, and wear a Western mask and thus fit into the modern Japan. Isaku typifies the myth of Japanese propensities to mimic Western culture when it suits: ‘Put on a new face; try out new masks…My new face since my return is decidedly Western’ (Stepper: 9).
The doubled narrative of Isaku and Stepper, neatly juxtaposes Stepper’s Orientalism with Isaku’s postmodernity. But most importantly, the struggle between Isaku and Stepper is a dispute over who has the right to tell their story, and who owns the right to define another’s identity for posterity. At the same time, Isaku’s account is a rather disillusioned lament for the futility of the biographer’s attempt to define the life of a decidedly fragmented person. Isaku’s antagonistic and ambivalent feelings for Stepper reflect the central issue for the postcolonial writer (and the issue at the heart of the Demidenko affair): the struggle by the marginalised for control of (public) language and for ownership over the rights for producing their particular truth. At the same time, the colonised writer must move beyond uncritically mimicking the ‘metropolitan impulse for dominance’ (Ashcroft et al 1989: 167 – 8). This is a question of how the marginalised might reterritorialise the language of the dominant metropolis and transform it, rather than be assimilated by it. This change is effected by the multiplication and fragmentation of voices, and the interruption of hegemonic discourses.
If Stepper has a theme that I wish to address in The Fire Sermon, it is the question of who has the right to tell the story and to define a person’s identity for oneself or for others. Krishna’s anxiety stems from his reluctance to reveal family secrets, though he does so, while confessing to himself that he is a parasite of some kind, living off his parents’ life-stories and secrets, much as Isaku feeds on Stepper. There is also the issue of Krishna’s reliability, and that of his parents. Are there any reliable informants left?
Looking for Estrellita: Castro’s fragmented migrant subject
Castro’s autobiographical essays and reflections on literary aesthetics Looking for Estrellita (1999) partially elucidates Castro’s approach to the question of how fiction can represent hybrid identities, and invites discussion of its strengths and weaknesses. For Castro and myself, blurring the categories of identity in the novel, and blurring the boundary between fact and fiction, creates a space in which stereotypes of the Asian migrant are displaced and diffracted. As this chapter’s epigraph suggests, Castro’s appeal to ethnic heterogeneity and unreliability creates a highly unstable basis for his postmodern theorisation of representation. As narratives form identities, identities are simultaneously demolished. Miriam Lo warns Castro’s commentaries on his own work are often unreliable and parodic of attempts to understand the work through the author, and any statements he makes about his authorial intentions need to be carefully analysed for inconsistency (1996: 83). Castro writes: ‘I come from a family whose main export is storytelling but whose main obsession is with truth… I am not only Portuguese, English, Chinese, and French, but I am writing myself out of crippling essentialist categorisations, out of the control exerted over multiplicities’ (Looking for Estrellita: 115).
Castro’s sense of identity as an inherently unstable concept is expressed through his ironic self-deprecation of the authoritativeness of his own autobiographical statements. Castro states that ‘The ‘I’ deliberately invokes multiplicity, and declares itself against authority’ (Looking for Estrellita: 115). At the same time, there is no stable ‘I’. At one point, Castro states that his own writing is part of a process of producing text for ‘export’, and writing fiction is a myth-making profession (Looking for Estrellita: 103). Writing is the commodification and trading of identities, and Castro is happy to critique his complicity in writing about and in Asia in order to meet a European readership:
I was born literally between states, on a steam ferry between Macau and Hong Kong. My father had come from a long line of Portuguese, Spanish and English merchants who settled in Shanghai at the turn of the century intent upon exporting anything and everything to Europe. (Looking For Estrellita: 151)
Castro’s self-hybridisation is consistent with his resistance to ‘being pressed into the national project’ and for Castro, hybridity can be subversive and threatening because it is ‘an impossible identity.’ His characters ‘are outsiders within a minority and who are also excluded from that minority. The tone is always minor or sad; the territory can only be language’ (Castro, cited in Barker 2002b: 243). Castro strengthens his anti-nationalist position by citing Paul De Man’s essay on prosopopoeia: if the boundary between fact and fiction is ambiguous, then auto/biography may itself be a form of fiction, and thus no nationalistic cultural project can trust unreliable narrators to fulfil the nation’s ideological aims.
Thus, it makes sense to read Victor Stepper and Isaku as metaphors for writers who resist becoming public property, writers whose hybridities amount to complex textual effects, who speak through a variety of voices, and whose lives will always have a mythical dimension. The irony in Castro’s recollection of childhood in Macau is that all biographical statements, even those that assert his hybridity, are unreliable: ‘I don’t ever once remember being overwhelmed by anybody else. There were no racial slurs in the schoolyard. I spoke three languages fluently and never had to use the word “identity” except when displaying my bus pass’ (Looking for Estrellita: 149). Such irony does, nevertheless, involve the pleasure of nostalgia: the recall of an idyllic childhood when hybridity was not an issue, and racism was invisible. This seemingly race-free childhood qualifies the other side of Castro’s own serious definition of migrant writing as a project of hybridity: the migrant experience of exile is itself a complex event that is embedded in unreliable memories, idealisations of the past, and repressed traumas. Under the logic of prosopopoeia, whether the text represents an imagined life through the figure of the migrant persona, or it presents a real migrant is a question with an answer Castro deliberately defers:
[Prosopopoeia] encapsulates the project of hybridity which is so dear to me…the crossing of two worlds and two genres; two worlds in terms of that of the mask’s and that of the author’s; two genres in terms of the autobiographical and the biographical. (Looking for Estrellita: 36)
Castro argues that biography reifies heroic national character types at the cost of marginal others: women, foreigners, and ‘hybrids of all kinds’. From the nineteenth century there has been a necessity to ‘imperialise interpretation’ and the tendency to link auto/biography with the history of the nation state and its discursive positioning of its enemies (Looking for Estrellita: 113). The hybrid writer’s life – and Isaku is a good example – is much like that of the stateless double agent whose story constitutes a text of prismatic fragments that paradoxically names, defaces and annihilates any attempt to idealise the identity of the writer with no nation (Brennan 2002: 149).
Defacing or rebuilding humanism? Hybridity’s improbable identities
The title of this chapter, “Defaced Hybridities” describes the paradoxical figure at the core of Stepper: the biographical voices of Isaku and Stepper are also the ventriloquist puppets of the author Castro who uses those voices dialogically, as voices delegated to speak for East and West respectively. Stepper resists being read as a construct that tells the truth of hybridity through one authority, one identity alone, as all declarations of identity are embedded in other discourses. If this is the situation, what are the truth-effects of fictionalising my own family history through the voice of a culturally hybrid narrator?
Both Castro’s Stepper and his auto/biographical statements address a desire to recoup a coherent subject (who possesses an identifiable ethnicity and nationality) and to find within the text a representation of the real person. But once defined, identities in Castro’s texts change their shape or deform under the pressure of competing interpretations. In Stepper, the identity of the protagonist Victor Stepper (like that of Castro himself) is densely mediated through Isaku’s memory. Furthermore, Stepper’s identity is always masked, under erasure or prone to misreading through the consciousnesses of unreliable witnesses. Read in terms of prosopopoeia, Stepper makes sense as ‘the fiction of an apostrophe to an absent, deceased or voiceless entity, which posits the possibility of the latter’s reply and confers upon it the power of speech’ (de Man, cited in Castro 1999: 119). Such a trope creates the illusion of a real life that existed prior to any textual simulacra of it, because any biography of Stepper is a parody of biography itself. Similarly, we can never know the real Castro.
However, if fiction and autobiography are therefore both impossible genres – because they cannot guarantee the truth of the subject’s life – they do produce the subject as a public commodity, a mythical subject produced by public reading. This public display of a life is always subject to ethical considerations, self-censorship and elaboration for the purposes of making it a more readable (entertaining) public text. But such a myth ought to be deconstructed, and for Castro ‘writing is anti-myth. I try to reduce myth, particularly national ones to rubble’ (cited in Barker 2002b: 243). My own aim is similar: to recuperate a family history without censoring anything, and to deconstruct family myths.
Can hybridity – as the figure that truly represents the identity of the migrant – be recuperated from this ‘rubble’ of myths? In terms of hybridity, what parts of one’s identity cohere as identity, and under what conditions? While hybridity is a trope of language, a text may recuperate these fragmented parts of the hybrid subject, and return to the subject a sense of coherence. Castro parodies and recuperates hybrid identities by representing these parts of hybridity, ‘as both a limiting yet indispensable trope of self-representation’ (M. Lo 2000: 70 – 1). Castro’s narratives push hybridity into the realms of the absurd, and deny us the illusion that “true” representations of hybridity are possible at all. When that person is hybrid, can he/she be represented in language ‘without “de-facing” or distorting the reality of hybridity?’ (M. Lo 2000: 70 – 1).
Lo attempts to resolve this dilemma in an informative reading of Castro’s novel Birds of Passage, a novel about an assimilated Chinese-Australian rediscovering his Chinese ancestry. The novel fluctuates between sections that parody racist essentialism and rhetoric, and other parts which seen to recuperate an authentic diasporic identity. The main character Seamus O’Young discovers that his Chineseness is part of a history of which he had no previous knowledge. As such, Seamus is easily defined as a hybrid whose identity is made up of different ethnic parts (M. Lo 1998: 89). Therefore, for Lo, Birds of Passage recuperates Seamus as a model of the ethnically hyphenated subject, a man who could also be for real and whose identities speak to each other in productive ways.
Extending her analysis to cover hybridity in Castro’s novel Drift (1994), Lo asks the important ethical question of what political outcomes emerge from Castro’s neat naming of Indigenous Tasmanian descendants of colonial times as hybrid, and the description of the indigenous victims of miscegenation as being of mixed ethnicity, even when many of the real descendants of Tasmanian Aborigines disavow hybrid-speak’s figuring of their traumatic experiences of rape and miscegenation. For these persons the pain of such a history cannot (and should not) be spoken about in the language of hybridity, a language that only reminds them of conquest and cultural genocide (M. Lo 1998: 102).
In answer to this rejection of hybridity by indigenous Australians, Lo defends Castro’s parody of the rhetoric of hybridity. In Drift, the Scots-Aboriginal protagonist Thomas McGann ‘revelled in complication, ambivalence, ambiguity’ (cited in M. Lo, 1998: 103). Despite his experience and memory of miscegenation and rape, McGann happily refers to himself as half-caste, and knows that his power and future depend on the skill of manipulating the ambiguous identity of his (white) albino appearance and his black Aboriginality (M. Lo 2000: 74). This confuses and deprives whites of an easy target for their racism. For Lo, Castro’s parody of the language of hybridity ‘frames the unspeakable’, ‘figures the trauma of inter-ethnic rape and violence’, and at the same time undoes its own claims to seriousness. In this way, Castro’s own personal comfort with his hybridity cannot become a justification for imposing the hybridity-speak of his characters onto real persons of indigenous descent (1998: 101). Castro’s model of hybridity can be a useful circuit breaker to those like McGann who manipulate the rhetoric of race and its representation for self-serving political ends. Castro’s approach requires appropriating such racist rhetoric, then applying to it irony and parody.
Castro’s parodic use of colonial rhetoric de-mythologises white racial discourses of nationalism but does not represent Indigenous peoples as any more or less hybridised than any other group in society. In Stepper, parodies of racism and Orientalism show how racist ideologies and fascism deface human identities, and as Stepper’s life shows, any attempt to lock oneself into racist descriptors cannot define the true heterogeneity. Castro believes that the hybrid’s disavowal of identification with ideologies of monoculturalism is part of a greater tactic of writing deterritorialised texts. The fact of being in/from a minority outside the monoculture is turned to cultural advantage (a cultural capital, a surplus) that makes possible the writing of a minor literature. McGann, Stepper, Reiko and Isaku are characters who ‘are outsiders within a minority and who are also excluded from that minority’ (Castro, cited in Barker 2002b: 243). Castro’s ideal hybrids are ‘the dangerous classes which threaten the sovereign culture of the state from within’, who do the work of undoing racism and nationalism based on race (Barker 2002b: 246), and exist ‘to counterfeit time, to demolish the fixation on race and to destabilise traditional genres’ (Looking for Estrellita: 115). Castro, following Deleuze, argues: ‘Real schizophrenia, I believe, is needed. Anti-nationalist, anti-Oedipal, anti-territorial. A flow between physical and psychological borders. Breaking new ground requires impersonation, an unstable self, a flirtatious disposition.’ Furthermore, the writer/spy, like the illegal immigrant ‘scrambles all the social codes, disrupts the enforced familial harmony of nations’ (Looking for Estrellita: 242 –3).
This epistemological uncertainty suggests that the question of what constitutes the boundary between fiction and truth in any Orientalist representation of the Asian Imaginary is deferred. Such deferral may be Castro’s way of evading the question of how marginalised Asian identities can be truthfully represented within the canon of modernist and postmodern literary texts. But to summarise Castro’s method as postmodern make fail to emphasise his concern for classical and canonical themes in literature: the ‘debate over art and life and death’, or his interest in the novel as ‘an ethical gesture towards the end of suffering’ (Looking for Estrellita: 244). Stepper speaks to public histories in ways that controversially draw attention to the fictiveness of history itself. At the same time, Castro warns that fiction should not replicate totalitarianism by claiming to represent history; fiction does not replace history and that the worst ‘sin’ is for reader or writer to confuse history with fiction. ‘To not accept the fact that novels always lie is also a mistake. In totalitarian societies, these mistakes are deliberately made for political ends’ (cited in Barker 2002b: 244).
The question remains: how does hybridity resist defacement (complete chaos and meaninglessness) under the pressure of a postmodern tendency to undermine the coherent face of the humanistic subject? Stepper exemplifies the crisis in modernism in his obsession with otherness, duty, apocalyptic endings, self-destructiveness and disfigurement of himself. Stepper illustrates the dark side of mid-twentieth century modernism: its deep pessimism with Eurocentric civilisation, with its materialism and social engineering. From such despair arises postmodernism’s rejection of humanist heroes, nationalisms and unifying ideologies. Rootlessness, performed ethnicities and border-crossing are not the conditions under which most people live and hybridity may mean little to them. Jonathan Friedman asks, in a work of increasing Balkanisation of identities and boundaries, ‘for whom… is such cultural transmigration a reality?’ In a literary context, identity is a product of the performative, an entirely elective process of self-naming, and ‘the ability to shift from one identity to another [is] dependent upon a radical distanciation of the subject from any particular identity’ (Friedman 1997: 76).
If Castro is simply celebrating nomadism and exile for its own sake, then Friedman’s critique is valid. But Friedman wrongly assumes that literature’s role is to represent identities that exist prior to their representation in literature. For me, literature opens up the space of new subjectivities. Should we accuse Stepper of failing to represent hybridity truthfully, or is this question beside the point? I agree with Nicholas Thomas’s observation that novels are a form of ‘unofficial’ documentation that is often produced to contest shared criteria and classifications – they do not generate information of a stable kind. Thomas writes that ‘colonial discourse cannot be construed as a unitary or stable archive’ (1994: 46), and novels of a postcolonial kind lead us to the wider questions of how literary texts and other representations of colonial culture are implicated in imperialistic governance. To ask if hybridity can be represented truthfully or not is perhaps too much a question of colonial governance: a ‘problem in managing social and cultural relations’, as Thomas puts it. We can read such texts as productions, exacerbations and exhibitions of social tensions and conflicts but not as the resolution of those conflicts. The truth effects of the rhetoric of hybridity, therefore, are embedded in other discourses. The question then is the degree of power invested in speech acts: who has the right or authority to tell stories and to represent (or frame) identities?
I have argued that constructing performative hybridity refuses to foreclose on the question of how hybridity represents a truth in sociological terms. If hybridity cannot ascribe a subject with a coherent (or recognisable) identity, hybridity is nothing but a series of contingent costume changing performances of identities. But it is precisely these ritualised performances that constitute subjectivity, rather than the other way round. Judith Butler describes performativity as ‘cultural ritual… the re-iteration of cultural norms, and the habitus of the body in which structural and social dimensions of meanings are not fully separable’ (2000: 114 – 5). Furthermore, the re-iteration of identities consolidates the subject. In this respect, performativity is the ‘pre-condition of the subject’ (Butler, 1993: 95). Rather than pursuing the true identity of a subject in any performance, we should ask instead: what subjects are constituted from the re-iterations involved in any performance of hybridity? What taboos are activated when certain limits are violated? As with Victor Stepper, the spy’s most serious crime was to assume contradictory identities based on mutually antagonistic political positions, and then to use those identities to gain and sell secret information. The spy may be executed or made a national hero, depending on the skill of his biographers. Similarly, as the case of Helen Darville reveals, impersonation, or performing ethnicity in Australia – or to appropriate an identity in order to deceive – elicits a range of passionate responses, some condemnatory, others celebratory.
Castro’s fiction is difficult to theorise about because it is in fact hostile to the dominance of theory over fiction, and as Castro puts it:
[T]heory has the presumption of destabilising an authoritative system by appropriating that authority, something which fiction cannot do. In attempting that, fiction destabilises its own speculative and destabilising force. It remains viable only in its mandate as a game …Yet it is a game of empowerment. (Cited in Barker 2002b: 246)
If Castro’s game playing seems absurd, it is openly ludic and not deceptive, as was Darville’s exercise. If Castro’s game playing with identity seems excessive, one can agree with Miriam Lo that
without his obsessive explorations of the limitations of fictions like hybridity, the comfortable inhabitants of relatively unproblematic (hybrid) identities would have less awareness of the many conditions that make their fictions of representations possible. (1998: 105)
For me, Castro’s ludic hybridity parallels my own sense that as a writer, what defines me is not the consciousness of being hybrid; rather my identity merges with my practice as a writer and consists in having the ability to draw upon multiple cultural resources. Gayatri Spivak argues that ‘There are many subject positions one must inhabit; one is not just one thing. That is when a political consciousness comes in’ (cited in Harasym 1990: 60). The aim is to interrupt those authorities who have been delegated to speak in reductive ways about migrants, ethnics, hybrids, refugees and so on. If the truth of ‘who we are’ is the result of re-iterated impersonations, these are performances and conscious acts of intentional hybridity motivated for political ends, and such performances can be exposed (and enjoyed) as aesthetic and rhetorical mechanisms for the making of identity.
As the forces of cultural purity attempt to cleanse themselves of ‘fakes’ and personifiers, hybridity’s refusal to commit to fixed positions may threaten these forces. Hybridity’s productivity is not a matter of happy hybrid bridging or synthesis, but in Castro’s fictive histories, human relations are caught in many forms of struggle, a condition of history that teaches us that all humans have been compelled at some time or another to demonstrate their identity and suitability as citizens of nations by passing as that nation’s acceptable racial/national type. Cultural essentialisms are therefore varieties of ethnic performance that carry great authority as a result of their reiteration in public discourse. This argument does not intend to celebrate unreservedly Stepper or Isaku as the paradigms of radical rootlessness, and the fact remains: not everyone has equal access to the resources for self-realisation, or is allowed to change identity at will, or is able to pass when they need to, especially when race and ethnicity are invoked as a break on human freedom. The power and means for defining ethnic solidarity and representation are not equally distributed. For Castro, hybridity is a strategy for critiquing the fetishisation of a hegemonic national style, for protecting nations and recycling their stereotypes is not a writer’s role. I agree with this, for as Castro puts it, with obvious suspicion of militant nationalisms: ‘If you cross borders regularly you don’t really have to defend them’ (Looking for Estrellita: 122).