Beyond the Color Line: Intersectional Considerations in Chuah Guat Eng's Fiction

Wai Chew Sim


This essay argues that the work of Malaysian-Chinese author Chuah Guat Enggives pause to the culturalism that dominates literary analysis. Articulatedprimarily through identity politics (the politics of recognition), culturalism’s selfunderstandingkeeps at a distance other forms of social justice commitmentsincluding class struggle. However, Chuah spotlights their intersectionality inMalaysia and enjoins us to combine the two – to see the native population’s demandfor economic parity and rural development as coterminous in some respects withthe demands for recognition made by settler communities. In particular, Chuah’sEchoes of Silence (1994) points to the commensurability between socialist principlesthat underpinned the left-insurgent activities many Malaysian-Chinese joinedor supported during the war and immediate post-war, and the social protectionprinciples that underpin post-independence programmes aimed at alleviatingpoverty. Chuah’s second novel, Days of Change (2010), in turn suggests that sharedecological conservation ideals provide an arena for redistribution and recognitioninterests to come together in Malaysia, and this again counters the prevailingtendency to prioritize the claims of cultural otherness. To use terms provided byÉmile Durkheim, Chuah highlights organic solidarity and downplays mechanicalsolidarity. In this regard, her fiction rehearses the theoretical insights of NancyFraser, who argues cogently that the framing of redistribution and recognitioninterests as unrelated or dichotomous commitments is problematic. Like Fraser,Chuah urges an expanded interpretive paradigm unsettling that assumed dichotomy.To the extent that postcolonial literary studies lacks such a focus, a new conceptualvocabulary that extends its horizons is needed.


biodiversity; mechanical and organic solidarity (Durkheim); new economic policy (Malaysia); politics of recognition; postcolonial literature; Southeast Asian writing

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