Contesting Chineseness in Vyvyane Loh’s Breaking the Tongue
In Vyvyanne Loh’s Breaking the Tongue, language and identity are entangled in the struggle to articulate seemingly authentic versions of histories. Set against the backdrop of World War II, Claude Lim’s and Han Ling-li’s torture at the hands of Japanese soldiers, and their attempts to bear witness to the war crimes inflicted on the local citizenry are associated with the trauma of war. To interpret Claude’s need to express his traumatic experience as a response to Ling-li’s torture is to overlook the complexities of how the idea of the mother tongue is intrinsically linked to ideas of pre-histories, and the role early histories play in the making of new ones. Loh’s novel depicts Claude’s “awakening” to his Chinese ancestry as a kind of triumph over his father’s fetishization of the West and a redemptive homage to Ling-li’s hatred of the Japanese. However, I argue that the structural elements that bind these ideas together appear to, but do not, render Claude a “reborn” Chinese. This chapter examines the versions of Chineseness in Loh’s novel, and how Claude must break away from assumptions and expectations of Chineseness that are linked to China in order to develop a unique Chinese identity that is more in line with the history of British Malaya, and later, an independent Singapore.