In writing that represents ‘the other,’ what is often hidden – or unacknowledged – are the boundaries that limit the construction of difference itself. These boundaries inform aspects of writing and reading from what constitutes an ‘authentic’ as opposed to ‘inauthentic other,’ to the intelligibility of a writer’s voice within the context of English language literature and publishing, to the way a narrative view can complicate ethnicity. In this paper I theorise the process of representing mixed-race subjectivity (specifically Anglo-Burmese) as writing the limit where skin, non-essentialised, is such a limit. Drawing from the work of psychoanalyst, Didier Anzieu and filmmaker, Trinh T Minh-Ha, I will examine the affects of limit on writing in George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days and explore the ethical and aesthetic implications of writing as limit. The writerly skin: the potential of the limit in representing Anglo-Burmese mixed-race subjectivity
In my writing I represent the Anglo-Burmese in colonial Burma and thus, I begin this paper with a question: how does a writer represent mixed-race subjectivity within the English-language literary tradition in a way that is ethically and artistically satisfying? To address this problem, it is necessary to be cognisant of how this mixed-race identity is understood within the context of publishing in Australia and within the English literary tradition.
In his article, Historicising Hybridity, the academic Adrian Carton observes that mixed-race narratives are ‘often lost to the whitewash’ or ‘deemed too inauthentic to represent the voice of alterity (2007, p.144)’. In this respect, it would seem that ‘authenticity’ functions as a limit describing who is permitted to write a culturally authentic text. The filmmaker and postcolonial critic Trinh T Minh-Ha challenges the prescribed nature of authenticity asking whether an authentic view can only ever be presented by an ‘insider’ and, if this is the case, then who might qualify as ‘inside’ (1991, p. 73). As such, Minh-Ha raises an attendant question; for whom are narratives of alterity written?
Those voices that do represent an ‘authentic alterity’ are also limited by the concept of the authentic in terms of their literary value and form. In his review of The Boat James Ley praises the author Nam Le for writing that could not be ‘pigeonholed as [that of] an ethnic writer (2008)’. If ethnic writing is a pigeonhole, then it is clearly perceived as restricted possibly by a lack of aesthetic and formal ambition or content that is predictable. Authenticity then, is a hidden or unacknowledged boundary that limits the construction of difference and frames its intelligibility among readers and writers.
Perhaps the intelligibility of ethnic writing relies on presenting forms of difference that are new but nonetheless conform to accepted taxonomies and orthodoxies; that is, representations that do not seek to complicate ‘the other’ or dwell on the complexity of its construction. In which case, the problem for creative writers is to find a way to represent mixed-race subjectivity that is both ethical and aesthetically satisfying. Or, as Minh-Ha writes, a way to ‘re-create without recirculating domination (1991, p.15)’.
My own response to this difficulty is to theorise my creative process as writing the limit. In this paper I will consider how the limit (of intelligibility, or identity, the idea of limit) affects writing, as well as examine the possibilities writing the limit offers for ‘recreating without recirculating domination’. By limit, I mean the tropes, myths and ideologies that intersect with subjectivity, as well as the literal boundaries, such as the skin. Writing the limit would aim to expose, interrogate and reconfigure. Drawing on Didier Anzieu’s concept of the skin ego, as well as the ideas of Trinh T Minh-Ha, I argue that it is a position with aesthetic potential that also enables an ethical approach to writing practice.
One such limit is the stereotype of the mixed-race body as corrupt, both biologically and morally. In George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days (1934), the boundary between corruption and purity informs representations of racial position as hierarchical, yet the border figure of Rosa McFee complicates this schema.
Anglo-Burmese is one of several terms denoting a mixed-race identification invented by the British for their census of Burma during the period of high colonialism (Koop, 1960, p.1). It describes a person of European and Burmese or Indian parentage. At the time of colonisation, Burma was administered as a province of India and, in the colonial taxonomic system founded upon the binary of white / black or European/Indian, Anglo-Burmese was and remains an identity both ambiguous and excessive – it is outside of (i.e. exceeds) the taxonomic frame 1.
Anglo-Burmese excess or ambiguity begins with the skin. In contemporary readings, skin is seen as a phenotypic marker of race, but Anglo-Burmese skin is not homogeneous from person to person. In appearance, it can be mistaken for, or inflected as Burmese, European, something in between blended and diluted, or something else altogether. The term Anglo-Burmese functions as a limit of language that explains as well as contains; words seek to explain the body, specifically the skin. Thus, in Anglo-Burmese identity, skin and writing are mutualised (the word points to the skin, the skin points back to the word). And yet, despite this explanation, Anglo-Burmese remains racially, culturally and politically ambiguous: a border identity.
Boundaries are employed to define and clarify, to simplify and make intelligible. Yet they are themselves complex. A boundary is also a potential site of transgression that can be crossed and exceeded. The critic Leslie Hill argues that the writer Marguerite Duras saw writing as a ‘fundamentally transgressive activity’ that undermined the status quo of ‘established discourses and ideologies’ and ‘push[ed] narrative and human experience’ to the point where ‘meaning falters and yields to an ecstatic otherness (Hill, 1993, p.36)’. Such writing, according to Hill, is apocalyptic; it destroys what has gone before, refusing intelligibility.
It is also an irony of the boundary that while it marks the point where one thing becomes another, it is in itself a site of mingling and corruption. The border is ambiguous. Skin is such an indefinite border because it both connects and separates the body from the world. Skin contains all the sense organs, upon which consciousness in part relies and in the work of philosopher Michel Serres (2008) the mingling and mutuality of the senses on the skin is important. Encounters at this border are complex and the border itself threatens to engulf meaning, for example, in the phrase ‘only skin-deep’ the essential or true is obscured by the superficial skin.
In the context of national, English language literary traditions, the border is also aggregate. At the centre of Western canons, there is an ostensibly neutral and objective self that can be defined simply as ‘not other’. This self offers a lens through which writing becomes intelligible, has meaning and value. In American literature, Jeff Karem associates this point of view with white, heterosexual males from the north-eastern states (Karem, 2004). Balanced against this neutral self is all that is ‘other’ – and as a result, other becomes a crowded, complex category.
Thus, the limit between self and other is an aggregate border; shifting ideologies, myths and discourses collect here, complicating the other in an attempt to simplify or explain. A limit becomes a collection of limits. Hybridity is an example of a limit that is aggregate because its usage as a universal identification is at odds with the variety and complexity of lived experiences to which it might refer. In the article mentioned earlier, Carton argues that hybrid identities such a ‘Eurasian’ or ‘Anglo-Indian’ must be analysed within their specific historical and geo-political contexts, and show that in colonial India, mixed-race identities could be read across a range of ‘material axes’ apart from race or racial embodiment, such as religion and economic standing (p. 146). Similarly, Anglo-Burmese in Burma could be perceived as privileged and/or disenfranchised, complicit with colonialism or ‘native’ and ‘otherly’. At times, such readings intersected with one another. Thus the limit can actually be limits. This distortion of limit is related to the so-called ‘slipperiness’ of in-between identities, which are difficult to deal with or make sense of, particularly in the context of literature and publishing.
Within postcolonial debate, a mixed-race Anglo-Burmese identity could be described as ‘hybrid’. As such, it is a subjectivity framed by stereotypes of physical and moral degeneracy: discourses related to anxiety over racial purity and corruption.
Robert Young traces the origins of hybridity back to 19th century debates in racial science (1995). The stereotype of the degenerate cross-racial body stemmed from questions such as: are humans one species or several, divided along lines of race? Is there a ‘natural’ hierarchy of races? How is cross-racial fertilisation possible and where does the hybrid offspring fit in racial categories? Is the hybrid offspring sterile where sterility is a sign of biological weakness or inferiority?
In the face of empirical proof separating race from species, racial stereotypes cementing difference were perpetuated through theories of types, where a ‘type’ was marked by specific traits that were hereditary and governed physiology, intelligence as well as character. A hybrid, then, inherited traits from two ‘types’ but in a diluted, weakened and possibly even incoherent form. ‘Types’ were connected with specific spaces and places – for example a country or climate. To leave the ‘native habitat’ would be to deny one’s nature with the consequence that, when transplanted, even a partial exotic would, ‘like all exotics, have degenerated’ (Knox in Young, p.16).
Stereotypes of the corrupt mixed-race body are based (in part) upon the idea of racial dilution, and the anxiety over the heterogeneity of a ‘hybrid’ appearance that is at odds with the ‘essential’ biology within. In his 1937 book Half-Caste, Cedric Dover refuted mixed-race inferiority but nonetheless addressed the ‘blended appearance’ of skin with biological explanations (p.23). This anxiety around racial corruption and purity and its manifestation on the skin – for example, they mythic beauty of Eurasian women – is connected with (male) heterosexuality and interracial sexual longing. In the debates around hybridity, the emphasis on fertility and reproduction and the results of heterosexual encounters, is marked. As Young writes: ‘[t]heories of race were also theories of desire’ (p.9). Such desires transgressed racial limits and as such, could be read as corrupt.
Corruption – racial and moral – is a driving theme in Burmese Days, George Orwell’s 1934 novel that critiques imperialism in colonial Burma. The text opens with the rivalry for membership of the European Club between U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate, and Dr Veraswami, Civil Surgeon and Superintendent of the local jail. The Club, exclusively white, is under pressure to open membership to non-Europeans, but only one so-called native will be admitted. Coveted by both men because it confers the status of a white man, membership also promises a sense of superiority, of a better, more ‘elevated’ life lived among ‘higher things’ (p.146). To secure his ambition of membership, U Po Kyin plots to ruin the Indian doctor’s reputation by exploiting the European’s racist attitudes towards Burmans and Indians. The Doctor instead relies upon his friendship with Flory, a white Timber Merchant.
The novel’s subplot concerns an unsuccessful love affair between Flory and Elizabeth Lackersteen, a nearly destitute young Englishwoman who has come to the East to find a husband. A long-standing Burmese resident, Flory privately loathes the racist codes of behaviour practised by the club members, yet he cannot completely abandon the colonial point of view. Although he often debates the inherent corruption of the colonial system with his friend, Dr Veraswami, he nonetheless hopes to find a partner with whom he can share his love of Burma and who will also enable him to regain a certain purity of character and spirit – an idealised form of Englishness. Flory mistakes Elizabeth for such a potential partner, fatally misunderstanding that her aim is not to marry for love or a meeting of minds, but rather for economic security and to access a life of privilege. The novel ends with Flory’s suicide, Veraswami’s demotion, U Po Kyin’s admission to the European club and Elizabeth’s marriage to the District Commissioner, MacGregor.
In the novel, race is schematised. The European club is a racially exclusive space. The mixed-race Anglo-Burmans Samuel and Francis inhabit the fence line and so, are associated with Europeanness but cannot pass the gate, while the so-called natives work in the club but are refused membership. When it becomes politic to allow a Burmese or Indian member, the scheming and corrupt U Po Kyin is ultimately elected. This is an ironic move – the Burman’s manipulations and lies make him the equal of the white colonials who are described as ‘corrupt (ed) in ways you cannot imagine’ by living ‘…the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them (p.37)’.
European corruption is represented as not only moral, but also related to being out of place. All the Europeans in Kyauktada are physically marked by their time in Burma; Englishwomen are ‘yellow and thin (p.83)’ instead of robust and pink. Flory, the novel’s moral centre, already marked by a port-wine stain on his face that is associated with his cowardice and hypocrisy, is corrupted to the point where Burma has become his home superseding England, the land of his birth, which is now strange and discomforting to him. He is between or across cultures. These representations are informed by the ideology around the transplanted exotic.
Corruption by dilution is a different matter. There is a further irony associated with this resolution of the novel; those of pure race (the Europeans and the Burmans) now occupy the privileged space of the club while the mixed-race Eurasians remain (forever) at the perimeter. While all corruption results in degeneracy, dilution contained within the body, read as a biological dilution, is literally ‘beyond the pale’. Thus, Orwell’s racial schematic conforms to a binary of purity / corruption where the corrupt is dilute as opposed to merely displaced.
However, the figure of Rosa McFee, ‘the Eurasian girl’ seduced by Flory ‘in Mandalay (p.127)’ is an exception to this racial logic. Rosa is presented as a memory, brought to mind as Flory explains the social and racial position as of Samuel and Francis to Elizabeth:
He thought of Rosa McFee … [t]he way he used to sneak down to the house in a gharry with the shutters drawn; Rosa’s corkscrew curls; her withered old Burmese mother, giving him tea in the dark living room with the fern pots and the wicker divan. And afterwards, when he had chucked Rosa, those dreadful imploring letters on scented notepaper, which, in the end, he had ceased opening (p.127)
Rosa is by no means a figure of power or agency. She has been used and discarded by Flory and has been reduced to writing begging letters (although for what is not clear; Orwell leaves this ambiguous but Flory’s memory is prompted by a conversation about who fathers mixed-race children). The affair with Rosa is the crossing of a boundary; he remembers in particular drawing the shades on the gharry (a horse-drawn taxi) during journeys to Rosa’s house to hide his actions, and, in the present, realises that the affair will be seen as an serious transgression by the white woman, Elizabeth Lackersteen. Unlike Burmese women, mixed-race females were considered potential marriage partners and so, particularly dangerous to white men. This is mentioned near the beginning of the novel when it is revealed that Maxwell has had to be transferred from Mandalay lest he marry the Eurasian Molly Pereira (p.23).
Unlike Samuel and Francis, Rosa is not so easy to account for. Flory omits her from his explanation out of his own shame. She complicates the divide between racial purity and corruption (and the attendant cultural, political and ethical complexities) and thus, it is only the men who inhabit the perimeter.
Rosa is presented not as a whole body, but as fragments and textures – corkscrew curls, withered skin, fern fronds and wicker. All of these details evoke the sense of touch and what Orwell prsents in his representation of Rosa is a skin, not solely her skin, but a skin associated with sexual desire, with darkness that enfolds, reveals and obscures (the screen of fern fronds, woven wicker that can be pierced by light, a dark room, a shuttered gharry).
The only physical description of Rosa is of her ‘corkscrew curls’. Curly hair is a racial signifier identifying Rosa as not purely Burmese, unlike her mother. Hair, according to the critic Steven Connor, is also an avatar of skin (2003, p.32). As a sensory apparatus, it heightens touch. The psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu writes that fur as hair masks genital organs and so impedes the recognition of sexual difference (1986, p.45). Yet, the inclusion of her hair is an erotic detail. This representation of Rosa then, points to the nature of desire, formless and highly specific, overwhelming and partially or unsuccessfully suppressed.
Skin is central to the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu’s ‘skin ego’; his theory explains how a child separates self from body by projecting ‘a mental image’ of itself – an ego – onto the skin as surface (1989, p.40). In Anzieu’s thinking, the capacity to develop an ego is based upon experience of the skin and he describes the process as a sort of writing that takes place between two skin envelopes. One envelope is external and consists of a porous membrane that enables environmental material to pass through (for example, cultural myths a mother’s touch). The internal envelope can shut itself off from this stimulation and contains the material of the psyche (affects, gesture and desire). For Anzieu, skin is the material of the ego, but it is also a metaphor for the world and the limits within the world that enable meaning.
Orwell’s fragmentary representation of Rosa has parallels with Anzieu’s process of ego formation. In his description, the internal (affects, desires, formless and confused) meets cultural myths (the Burmese mother serving him tea, complicit in her daughter’s seduction, like a bordello madam). It is an intricate representation, despite its brevity.
The final image of Rosa is a pile of her scented letters, pleading for Flory’s attention. These letters are excessive, romantic gestures, pathetic and comic like Samuel and Francis’s outsized topis (sunhats) and idiosyncratic English, which are lampooned in the text. These gestures are imitative and blundering and so mark Rosa, Samuel and Francis as culturally inauthentic. Thus the letters make Rosa intelligible in the context of purity/corruption as a limit and so, she can be dismissed and contained. The letters become a technical full stop to her memory.
Orwell’s representation of Rosa McFee is at the border between the intelligible and unintelligible. Although she can be dismissed as a pile of letters, she nonetheless complicates the novel’s racial schema and the binary of purity and corruption by presenting ‘irreducible difference’ (Hill, 1993, p.30). It is this difference that exceeds, and ironically inspires overwhelming and transgressive desire. What is desired, among other things, is voice.
At the beginning of this paper I proposed an approach to representing mixed-race identity which I described as writing the limit – exposing, interrogating and reconfiguring the borders the delineate subjectivity. In this approach, I hope to find a position to write from that is ethical but also rich and aesthetically satisfying.
Writing the limit is to question the ways in which a particular subjectivity is made intelligible within the literary tradition in which I am working. In terms of mixed-race representation, it enables a challenge to the accepted constructions of difference by exposing hidden or obscured boundaries such as authenticity. Central to intelligibility is the point of view of both the writer and the reader for whom the text is intended. What is glimpsed and repressed in Orwell’s erotic evocation of Rosa’s skin, for example, is the possibility of another point of view, separate from the colonial perspective. Thus, exposing the structures of intelligibility can disrupt ingrained points of view.
To write the limit is to deal with the complex nature of borders and resist the simplifications that universalize an identity. As a borderline identity, mixed- race is complicated by Carton’s ‘material axes’, those multiple circumstances and values that shift how identity is read. At times, these axes intersect and so, are simultaneously meaningful. For example, in Burma as a colonial context, the mixed-race ‘other’ could be associated with both privilege and economic disenfranchisement. Writing that examines the specificity of experience can challenge the orthodox readings of mixed-race which may dismiss or gloss over such political inequities.
By focusing on the skin, non-essentialised, as a limit, it is also possible to examine the way power relations are embodied. Skin is touched and inscribed by culture, the political, the social and the physical world. Steven Connor observes that, in this touching, something is always disclosed. Thus, another aspect of writing the limit is to examine what happens in the meeting and mingling at the border when skins touch.
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(1.) Although Burma refers to the Burmese people, the colony contained numerous ethnicities including Shan, Karen and Arakanese. Today Burma is known as Myanmar.