- Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature by Brian C. Bernards
This is a nuanced and wide-ranging study of the literary representation of the South Seas throughout the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. Combining literary analysis and cultural history, Writing the South Seas conceptualizes "the Nanyang" (p. 3) as a trope that pulls together a vast range of different forms of expression. Nanyang, the South Seas, denotes an area in Southeast Asia that is also "an archipelagic trope" (p. 13), yet Bernards goes much further than simply using the geographical boundaries of the archipelago as a framework for comparative literary studies. Instead, the Nanyang is at once a "postcolonial literary trope of Chinese travel, migration, settlement, and creolization in Southeast Asia" (p. 3) and "a literary trope [that] moves between different national literary contexts" (p. 9). Most importantly, as a literary trope it "crosses colonial, national, and linguistic borders" (p. 8), while denoting "symbiotic, [End Page 711] interdependent relations" (p. 19). Bernards speaks of "the Nanyang imagination" (p. 4) as he endeavours to trace its "evolution" (p. 4), with a focus on the twentieth century. The "nautical" (p. 14) approach allows a "tidal flexibility" (p. 14), facilitating also a comparison that ought to have been obvious, and yet has seldom been made; the juxtaposition of the East Indies with "other archipelagos, such as the 'West Indies'" (p. 14).
The introduction contains a useful overview of the shifting terms that have largely been synonymous with the Nanyang—including also Dongnan Ya (Southeast Asia)—but which denote different agendas as well as viewpoints. The Nanyang, by contrast, means an itinerary of trade, travel and migration, and as a trope it works across—and thereby connects—different traditions and literary articulations.
The theoretical framework is chiefly informed by postcolonial studies, including recent trends in reassessing Sinophone and Anglophone literature of the diverse diasporas. Bernards is well-versed in the theoretical discourses and utilizes a nuanced approach to the main concepts currently in vogue within diaspora and postcolonial studies. In fact, while he admittedly utilizes a plethora of very specific terms—creolization, translingual, ecopoetic—he explains each term succinctly, stressing the ways they are useful in his study. The book is therefore also accessible to the non-specialist reader who might be interested in the history or the changing literary representations of the region, while it contributes to current developments in postcolonial studies, diaspora studies, as well as comparative literature, and more particularly the conceptualization of creolization and the trans-colonial.
Bernards convincingly illustrates the need to read the divergent representations of the region in tandem with each other. He maintains that criticism has hitherto almost exclusively focused on Anglophone literary works—and how they negotiate mainly Anglophone traditions—which is ironic given that the area is particularly suited to a "multilingual, 'multisited' close reading" (p. 14). Bernards suggests that it is precisely the area's "daunting diversity" (p. 14) [End Page 712] and "instability as a regional concept" (p. 14) that provide intriguing venues for a redirection of postcolonial studies. Hence, he utilizes creolization as a central concept in exploring the different forms in which the Nanyang has been imagined in the literature of the region. As a postcolonial trope, the Nanyang is thus appropriated across colonial, national and linguistic boundaries.
The organizational framework of the study is at first chronological before it then shifts to a juxtaposition between contemporary literary developments in the separate nations and diasporas located within the South Seas. Bernards begins by locating the Nanyang as a region and a trope at the historical confluence of multiple forms and periods of imperialism. He distinguishes between the South Seas as a motif evoking maritime lineages in early twentieth-century Sinophone literature and the way in which writers in different languages evoke the South Seas as an imaginary that is adapted to –– or viewed through ––– different, largely imported literary traditions. In particular, the...