Jan Lowe Shinebourne, Chinese Women: A Novel (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree, 2010); 94 pages; ISBN 978-1845231514 (paper).
Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s fiction is centrally concerned with the racial tension and political conflict that have defined the postwar era of Guyana. Her latest work, Chinese Women, adapts these themes for the twenty-first century by bringing colonial race relations to bear on post-9/11 political culture. Shinebourne’s timely new novel thus offers a unique contribution to both Caribbean literature and the growing field of 9/11 literature.
Deceptively slim in size, Chinese Women balances psychological and political complexity with narrative economy. The novel is structured as a disrupted bildungsroman, tracing the evolution of its Guyanese Indian Muslim protagonist Albert Aziz from a small boy raised under British colonialism to an aging supporter of radical Islam. Shinebourne highlights two periods in Albert’s life, in particular: his childhood and adolescence, in the 1950s and 1960s, and his late adulthood in 2006, when he is living in Canada as a millionaire, a result of his lucrative involvement with Pakistan’s nuclear procurement network. By suppressing from the narrative Albert’s mid-life experiences, Shinebourne presents his radicalization as rooted in the recurring displacement and rejection he experienced as a boy in British Guiana. For Albert comes of age, as did Shinebourne, during a period of volatile social changes, a time in which overlapping Portuguese, Chinese, Indian, and African laborers jostled for class mobility and political power. As minority Indian Muslims, Albert and his family are multiply marginalized, ostracized not only by ruling whites and the black middle class but also by the colony’s Indian community, most of whom are Hindu. “I learned early not to trust Blacks and Hindus,” Albert bitterly remarks, “the two groups that ended up ruling Guiana and chasing us out of the country” (14). Albert’s resulting perspective as a social outsider frames his ardent critique of colonial racism and inspires his late-life mission to return to what he perceives to be the “true home of real Muslims,” the Middle East (79).
The direct connection Shinebourne draws between British colonialism and Islamic fundamentalism enriches the focus on US empire that often takes center stage in 9/11 fiction. Chinese Women expands this focus by sounding the echoes between British colonialism and neoliberal imperialism; both systems of power have sustained themselves, Shinebourne attests, by fostering a “culture of surveillance and division.” (33–34). By bridging these two seemingly distinct temporal moments—Guyana’s pre-independence period, and the war on terror that has shaped the twenty-first century—she shows how practices of surveillance and division rupture intimate bonds within colonial and postcolonial private spheres.
In particular, Shinebourne draws us into the domestic space of British Guiana to reveal the gendered nature of racial surveillance and hierarchy. When we first meet Albert, he is ten years old and a witness to his family’s class transition, following his father’s promotion from a mid-level manager at Bookers Sugar Estates to an overseer. Though Albert fantasizes about the freedom his new social status might bring, he is dismayed to find himself literally immobilized because of a hundred-foot fall from a tree that breaks all his bones. Resigned, as a “cripple and a spectator,” to watching plantation life through his bedroom window, Albert becomes fascinated with the neighboring overseer’s wife, Anne Carrera (30). Albert’s crush on Anne is more filial than romantic, for he watches her playing with her two young sons, and longs for the warmth he sees in their dynamic but does not experience in his own large, and often abusive, family. This initially innocent act of gazing at an idealized maternal figure spotlights the more pervasive practice of surveillance on the plantation, where, as Albert notes, everyone was “always spying on each other” (34). Though scolded by his mother for staring at a white woman, Albert later notices his mother and their family’s black servant, Mavis, also watching Anne intently. Unable to determine Anne’s racial background, the women “stud[y] her behavior to ascertain whether they should defer to her or not” (27).
Shinebourne deftly portrays Albert’s internalization of colonialism’s racial ideology and habit of surveillance, which he translates into a life-long obsession (he calls it “love”) with the novel’s titular subjects (7). Albert insists that, unlike his mother and Mavis, he was interested not in Anne Carrera’s race but in her kindness and humanity; yet, discovering that Anne is part Chinese leads Albert to read all Chinese women as a kind of “model minority” who transcend the Caribbean’s history of racial conflict. “In the Caribbean,” Albert intones, “the Chinese were the most tenacious of all the ethnic groups, in how they settled there in spite of the inhospitable conditions, and domiciled themselves stoically in a hostile society. They did not suffer the degradation of being enslaved and subjugated to regimes of brutal labour. Their women were not raped and forced into relations of sexual miscegenation with Europeans” (51). It is through Albert’s misguided fetishization of Chinese women as racially and politically “neutral” subjects that Shinebourne most chillingly conveys his unsettling and fanatical personality, as well as the enduring psychic wounds of colonialism’s racial hierarchy. “I did not like being a Muslim in the Caribbean,” an aged Albert confesses to Alice Wong, the high school crush with whom he tries to reunite in the second half of the novel. “I wanted to be Chinese like you. I idealized you” (79).
In both her adolescence and adulthood, Alice appears to be a willing recipient of Albert’s obsession. When he follows her home from school and sits with her at her family’s shop, she shares drinks and afternoon cake with him in silence, before her parents order her to stop spending time with him. Later, as a financially burdened political journalist, she entertains Albert’s efforts to marry her after her divorce, cautiously curious about his promises of houses in the country, vacations, and a “chauffeur-driven” life in Bahrain or Dubai (69). Yet, Alice’s seeming passivity is revealed to be a strategic surveillance of her own. In the process of their brief courtship, Albert opens up to her about his entire life history (including a surprising truth about his childhood fall) and shares crucial details about his “highly classified” job (78). Alice, in turn, amasses this information into a documentary exposé for British public television, entitled Nuclear Walmart. Feeling betrayed and rejected once again by Alice, Albert concedes his diasporic dream of “returning” with her to the Middle East. Instead, he remains in Calgary, rationalizing that financial success might prove a satisfactory substitute for the love and companionship that he sought across centuries, and across continents.
Readers of Chinese Women who are familiar with 9/11 novels will invariably be reminded of one of the canon’s most prominent and ground-breaking works, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007). Both books are structured as the first-person monologue of an unrequited lover-turned-radical, and position 9/11 as a catalyst for their narrators’ latent politicization. In Reluctant Fundamentalist, for example, Changez reports that he “smiled” as he watched the World Trade Center collapse, a subtle detail that anticipates his rejection of his life as a Princeton-educated finance executive and embrace of an anti-American student movement in Pakistan. Albert “jump[s] with excitement and anticipation” when he sees workers leaping from the towers, recalling his childhood accident and feeling that “the whole world was finally seeing me fall too” (90). Where mainstream public discourse on terror has presented fundamentalism as an ahistorical cultural phenomenon, Shinebourne, like Hamid, uses fiction to more fully elucidate the political and emotional dimensions of religious extremism. By offering readers an intimate glimpse into the psychic life of one of the most significant and caricatured figures of our contemporary world, the fundamentalist, Shinebourne’s Chinese Women joins Hamid’s celebrated work as a thought-provoking addition to this century’s literary landscape. It distinguishes itself, however, by drawing our attention beyond the familiar metropolitan space of New York City, and towards the Caribbean as a relevant, yet under-acknowledged site of Muslim diasporic history.
Anantha Sudhakar is a recent graduate of Rutgers University and will be joining the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this fall as a postdoctoral fellow in Asian American studies. Her current research focuses on the relationship between South Asian American cultural production and arts activism, and on post-9/11 South Asian and Arab American arts collaborations.