A hundred years of Han Suyin

15 Jan 2017


Aamer Hussein is a short story writer and novelist living in London.
Aamer Hussein is a short story writer and novelist living in London.

SHE was born in September 1916, she thought; history claims that she was born in Henan, China, in 1917, and named Zhou Kuanghu. Either way, Han Suyin would have been 100 this year. She died in 2012 and there were many obituaries that marked her passing, mostly remembering her role as a leading apologist for Mao Zedong’s regime. Her once-celebrated autobiographical and historical works, gradually sidelined in the two decades that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, had been called unreadable and rudely forgotten in the new millennium.

The only one of her many works of fiction, history, and autobiography to be reprinted as a modern classic in English — ironically, in Singapore, where she was once persona non grata for her left-wing beliefs and her increasingly pro-China stance — is And the Rain My Drink, a novel about the guerrilla war in what was then called Malaya. Published in 1956 at the height of the events it depicted, it didn’t quite topple the British Empire, but certainly did serve as the proverbial thorn in the side of colonial officialdom.

Han arrived in Malaysia in 1952, already lauded as the author of A Many-Splendoured Thing, the bestselling autobiographical account of her time in Hong Kong just after WWII. It was made into a film about an interracial love affair between a Eurasian doctor named Han Suyin and an Anglo-Australian journalist. The film added “Love is” to the title; understandably, perhaps, it focused on the story’s romantic potential. It is largely remembered today for its schmaltzy theme song and exotic landscape photography — unusually for the time it was filmed on location, but the author had left Hong Kong by then.

The ‘little voice’ from China, whose linguistic experiments aimed to dismiss the postcolonial legacy bequeathed upon Asians writing in English

The book has a very different trajectory. Much of it isn’t a love story, but a skilfully fictionalised memoir of a war widow and single mother bringing up her little daughter on her low wage as a doctor in a Hong Kong hospital. Attracted, against her volition, to a war correspondent with whom she eventually has an affair, she tacitly refuses the possibility of a long-term relationship because race, culture, and, above all, their politics, divide them. To complicate matters, because Han’s late husband was an army officer in the Guomintang regime, she is now unwelcome in a China in the throes of the Maoist revolution and its attendant ideological fervour.

The novel’s hybrid genres imbue it with a unique power and make it difficult to classify. It juxtaposes gritty depictions of post-war refugee life in Hong Kong with lyrical recreations of natural beauty, occasionally indulging in political disquisitions, or rhapsodic passages which at times verge on the Orientalist pastiche she later learnt to subvert. Han later explained her intentional reversal of the Madame Butterfly trope in fictions about the Far East: pretty, tragic Oriental female and dashing white male. In her version, the heroine stays alive and identifies with the greater good of her people, while the hero is killed in the Korean War. This novel also initiates her lifelong critique of racism, Eurocentric attitudes, and Western imperialist discourses. At the time, she wrote: “European writers write with great beauty and perception about Asians. I write as an Asian, with all the pent-up emotions of my people. What I say will annoy many people who prefer the more conventional myths brought back by writers on the Orient. All I can say is that I try to tell the truth. Truth, like surgery, might hurt, but it cures.”

This search for her own defining truth drove Han’s writings throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s. And the Rain My Drink, a multi-vocal epic of Malaya in the throes of anti-colonial upsurge, combines opulent description with a photographic record of contemporary events and satirical character sketches that contrast starkly with the horrors and tragedies she unflinchingly portrays in other chapters. It is a more urgent and very different performance from the leisurely unfolding tableaux of its bestselling precursor.

While she lived in British — and then independent — Malaysia, Han combined her work as a medical doctor, under her married name of Elizabeth K. Comber, for many years with a career as a controversial novelist and cultural activist. She pioneered an evening class at the newly-founded Nanyang University in Singapore, where she introduced budding critics and writers to Asian literatures in translation, including poets Rabindranath Tagore and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and novelists such as Chinua Achebe and Ahmed Ali in her curriculum. ‘Third World’ writings were studied in the context of their ‘emergence from colonialism’ — the term ‘post-colonial’ wasn’t introduced in academic circles for another two decades.

Han combined her work as a medical doctor with a career as a controversial novelist and cultural activist. She pioneered an evening class at the Nanyang University in Singapore, where she introduced budding critics and writers to Asian literatures in translation, including poets Rabindranath Tagore and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and novelists such as Chinua Achebe and Ahmed Ali in her curriculum.

Inspired by the non-aligned stance of the Bandung Conference in 1955, she visited Norodom Sihanouk’s Cambodia, Sukarno’s Indonesia, and Gen Ayub Khan’s Pakistan, befriending, among others, Mulk Raj Anand and Jamiluddin Aali. She eventually married an Indian she met on a trip to Nepal, and wrote about her experiences in novels and articles. (It was in one of her books that I first discovered Urdu novelist Jamila Hashmi’s name and subsequently sought out her work.)

Han Suyin in 1958.— Ida Kar/Alchetron Commons
Han Suyin in 1958.— Ida Kar/Alchetron Commons

In pursuit of her preoccupations, she financially supported and quietly co-edited Eastern Horizon, a Hong Kong-based journal of cultural and political writings. She wrote fiction and reportage, reviewed books and translated Chinese poetry, sometimes pseudonymously, for its pages. (A fellow-contributor was Faiz, whose — probably only — existing English poem, ‘The unicorn and the dancing girl’, the journal published.)

An ardent advocate of translation, Han also realised the advantages of English as a link language in the modern Asian context. Trilingual herself, she was fascinated with ways of decolonising the English language; she conducted her own radical and often dazzling linguistic experiments, and lauded Asian and African writers who were similarly innovative, dismissing a postcolonial legacy of “dainty attempts to emulate Jane Austen, or obeisance to the English romantic canon”.

Such issues are foregrounded in her intriguing novel, The Four Faces, which replaces the multiple narrators and structural fluidity of her earlier fictions with a tight format borrowed from crime fiction. Set in a literary conference in non-aligned Cambodia, it allows Asian voices of all political persuasions — left, right, neutral — to have their say. It concludes with a subtle but powerful plea for commitment to national independence and a “total humanity”. (Today, when festivals and conferences all over Asia serve as a platform for often dissenting ideological stances, it’s a novel worth rediscovering.)

Han was a novelist of ideas; her search for her own defining truths would lead her back to her roots in China, and to an ambivalent closeness with Mao’s regime. She claimed to not be a communist, however, and in the ’60s left Asia to settle in Switzerland, abandoning fiction for the next two decades to write documentary works engaging with the history of 20th century China and the revolutionary changes she’d witnessed first-hand and continued to observe on her frequent trips to her homeland.

I first met her in 1986 and later, at her request, interviewed her for South magazine. Not China, but our common interest in non-Western literatures, brought us together as collaborators. I reminded her of her pioneering attempts to decolonise Asian literatures; she pushed me towards a rediscovery of my mother tongue. (She held that even as we wrote in English we should think in, and evoke, the poetry of our native languages.)

I gave up postgraduate studies and started, with her encouragement, to write professionally. Our teamwork led, within three years, to two projects. Tigers and Butterflies, a collection of essays she’d written over the years about culture and society which I collected and introduced, went to press in 1989. Our second project, a conference entitled Asian Voices in English, was held in Hong Kong in April 1990. She and I had helped the organisers bring together expatriate writers such as Meira Chand, Bienvenido Santos, and Richard Kim, with Anglophone writers living and working in their own countries: Nayantara Sahgal (India), Chun-Chan Yeh (China), Kemala (Malaysia), and Edwin Thumboo and Catherine Lim (Singapore) were there among many others, including Han and myself, as plenary speakers and panellists.

On this first trip to East Asia, I felt like a character in The Four Faces. It was the first time I’d spoken at such a gathering, which today would be termed a festival. With no other Pakistanis there, I was — for the first time and almost by default — designated to represent my birthplace. The conference was an updated replay of Han’s novel: there were fierce sociocultural disagreements between East and West, along with the differences in attitude between those regions of Asia which, tacitly or openly, favoured or challenged the West.

No threatened coup or terrorist act — such as those that take place in her novel — disrupted the proceedings, but after Han departed for Beijing during the concluding banquet, I heard a drunk English academic mutter to a posse of elegant young Beijing academics: “She’s laughing behind her sleeve, all the way back to her communist masters.” His underlying implication was that she’d been there to spread an ideological taint in the air of Hong Kong. Han had actually masterminded the event for quite the opposite reason: to draw difference, eclecticism, and the literary energies of a new and cosmopolitan Asian generation into dynamic interaction.

Han’s renewed forays into the arena of literary debate were, however, too few, and came too late. Her reluctance to express unequivocal condemnation of the brutal crackdown on dissenting students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 signalled the final dismantling of her reputation. Tigers and Butterflies was published in London in May 1990 to widespread attention. There was a peak-time television conversation with the prominent public intellectual Michael Ignatieff. But a last-minute addition by the publishers of an article she’d written, about the aftermath of the events in Beijing, caught the media’s eye: they shifted their focus from commenting on the unbiased and pluralistic sections of the book to issuing diatribes about her role as spokeswoman for the Chinese regime. Again, Han’s ‘little voice’ (the meaning of ‘Suyin’, the Chinese pseudonym Zhou Kuanghu had given herself decades before) was lost in the din of partisan politics.

Today, her trailblazing works are out of print and perhaps remembered only by a dying generation. But her formally and thematically challenging fiction deserves closer attention from scholars of post-colonial writing. In these times of wars, refugees, and border-crossings, Han’s self-admitted homelessness, her huge sensitivity to population shifts and struggles for national identity, and — for me, as a reader — her maverick attitude to English and her refusal to confine her early novels to a single geographical space, are elements that outweigh the defining Chinese nationalism of her later historical works.

Han and I lost touch in the last decade of her life. But I’ve revisited her writings. And I recall, among our many conversations, her passionate and paradoxical written response to an unfinished story I’d just written, and which she’d asked to read in the first months of our friendship. It was about Pakistani student dissidents living in semi-exile during Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime. She construed it as pessimistic, and commented: “You say, ‘the relevance of a displaced, Western-educated youth in search of a political identity’. But why not accept, in the context of world history, that all of us are displaced? ... We are all nomads, shifting, refugees. Let us gather together the thousand and one bits of culture from many places we have, and go towards the future. Okay? Why must you be so colonially infected as to think you can CHOOSE? You do not choose. You are you; under a thousand masks, clothes, vestments, divestments, guises, disguises ... Can’t you just be a Pakistani who happens to live in England? And go back to Pakistan for your roots? Even if unsatisfactory. China has a proverb: You love your mother even if she is ugly. Your country may be ugly in English ways, but she is your MOTHER.”

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 15th, 2017