Looking to ‘Other’: The Optics of Consciousness

Review of Though I Get Home by YZ Chin (USA: Feminist Press, 2018)
by Ian Tan

In a famous section of his magnum opus Being and Nothingness, which takes as its main thrust the fact that man is condemned to be free and thus accountable for the shape and purpose of his life, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes the objectifying look of the Other which functions as the limit to the individual’s phenomenological sense of his absolute freedom. Contrary to the fundamental will to negate and thus transform the prior conditions of existence, which allows consciousness to transcend itself, the look reminds us that our existential projects of self-definition run up against the other person’s attempts to frame us as determined by our past, race, religion and sexuality. The oscillation between foundation-less subjectivity and the ossified objectivity leads to a tragic dehiscence in consciousness where one experiences oneself both as complete and fragmentary, powerful and vulnerable.

Sartre’s uncanny description of the look as emanating from a source outside of the individual, which is then internalised by him, can be read as a description of how ideology functions by constituting the subject through inserting him into a political community defined by arbitrary norms and mores. The individual accepts his freedom at the price of a more fundamental ideological disenfranchisement which is operative the moment he articulates his understanding of symbolic structures of meaning. The clearest link between language and ideology is thus manifested when the subject is complicit in directing his ‘look’ outwards at other individuals and in that act, reinstating the parameters of social discourse. In this way, power is (re)established and consolidated through the empty repetition that structures many acts of daily life, performed as they are for someone who looks on.

Chin’s exploration of the consciousness of her characters in Though I Get Home evinces this drama of division and splitting, for they act and speak as though the look of the Other constitutes their integrity. Written in a style which is sensitive to both the brutality of oppression and the lyricism of art that seeks to transcend social conditions, these stories offer an uncanny perspective into the faultlines of Malaysian society while escaping the labels of realism and allegory. The first story in the collection “Hunger” portrays the rupture in consciousness through the experiences of Isa, a poet who is being incarcerated and interrogated for allegedly penning a seditious poem about sodomy. Her deprivation is starkly depicted through the personification of her hunger as an adversary who is torturing her:

Hunger pinned her to the bunk. Starvation impaled her through the stomach, keeping her down on the thin mattress, resisting the momentum of her feebly raised head.

Although it becomes a metaphor later for how the postcolonial psyche is divided against itself, this schism is firstly important in introducing the shady presence of the Other, who confirms Isa in her helplessness through the food they bring her, and which she refuses. The more Isa tries to resist the force-feeding of food in an attempt to maintain some modicum of integrity, the more she instantiates the power her captors have over her.

This look from the Other which not only objectifies the self, but determines the parameters of discourse and forms the conditions of articulation, finds trenchant expression in the next story “The Butler Opens The Door,” which takes its departure from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in its ironic depiction of Grandfather as the kindly subaltern to a dysfunctional British family. Chin manages to deftly revitalize the worn trope of master-servant relationships in colonial narratives by modulating the social comedy in the first half of the story into macabre farce through Grandfather’s staging of funeral rites for the missing Miss Lily. Under the gaze of the colonial master, the ceremony presents itself as intrusive and grotesque:

Then, without warning, stentorian streams of chants emerged from him, accompanied by spasmodic handbell rings. It must have sounded like a strange tongue to the outsiders, its long plains of steady tones suddenly giving way to peaks of plaintive cries. The hired mourners got to work almost immediately, echoing parts of the voodoo sounds at intervals.

The counter-pressure of the ironic voice of the narrator succeeds in turning the reader’s look back to the British attendees, who are revealed to be patronizing and intolerant. Indeed, as postcolonial theorists like Franz Fanon and Homi Bhabha have argued, there is nothing outside of the intersubjective matrix of the gaze, which structures the relationship between colonizer and colonized. What the colonized offers in resistance is the act of mimicry, which parodically repeats the political and social gestures of the master in order to suggest their empty performativity. As if to underscore this point, Chin’s story highlights that the actual body of Miss Lily is absent, and thus nothing lies at the heart of the ideological structures undergirding colonial authority. In fact, what the story uncovers, in its juxtaposition of the British family with the narrator’s, is the neglect and loneliness inherent in the former. If political ideology tries to instantiate the flimsy truth of its being by constituting its subjects and affirming their powerlessness under its totalizing look, art’s utopian impulse lies in turning the direction of the look back to those in power, and by this gesture, undermining and unsettling their contingent hold on authority.

Although there are disparate stories running through the collection, Chin’s main narrative arc follows Isa and her experiences in prison. Set against the backdrop of a political protest, Chin describes no less than the political awakening of consciousness. The strength of this awakening first finds its correlative in an apocalyptic deluge, which forces her away from her home in Taiping to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia:

Under the surface, the flood smelled at once rotten and too alive. The urgent gushing above turned into a dull gurgling below, like someone trying to rinse with a chunk of food wedged in one cheek pocket.

As seething ferment turns into vitriol against the Malaysian government for severe social inequality and endemic bureaucratic corruption, Isa finds herself politicized. Chin’s imagining of this awakening is captured in direct and vivid prose, conveying the public chaos of the political riot before depicting the private hell of police interrogation and its attendant savagery. The political consciousness which follows this awareness is necessarily split between righteous satisfaction at the acts of resistance which the self performs against the state, and a crippling paranoia that the state will react through brutal reprisals against the assertion of the self. It is thus a consciousness which is in dialectical tension with the Other who by trying to negate it ironically confirms its dependence on it. Isa senses this logic when she reads the words written at the entrance of the prison camp:

Our country, our responsibility. The pronoun was inclusive of addresses, referencing a burden shared. 

In this utopian vision which is yet to come, the emphasis is placed on the role of the self in defining its political stance. In his creative works dealing with French involvement in World War II, Sartre supplements his earlier philosophical stance of freedom with a focus on commitment as a crucial way in which freedom is anchored responsibly. Like Chin’s faith in the act of literary writing as commitment, Isa founds the enunciation of her authentic self on her role as a writer:

My name is Isabella Sin, she murmured. She had read that prisoners kept in isolation often lost their minds. I am twenty-eight. I thought I was a writer, then I thought I wasn’t, but now I know I am one.

In this way, writing emerges from within the self, allowing it to understand, negotiate and change reality in a way that ideologies like ‘racial harmony’ cannot, since the latter have to be strategically managed and packaged by the government. Just as Isa’s name is a powerful claim to authorship (and thus to responsibility for the work), the work is the one thing which cannot be separated from the self. Chin’s writing finds its resonance in its urgent understanding of the relationship between politics and literature, power and art.

And yet, Chin’s other stories show how the Other always threatens to impinge and delimit the self’s expression of freedom. The narrator of “The Olympian” learns to regulate her desires in order to fit the image that the Divine Leader imputes to her, and the death of romantic love in “When Starbucks Came” shores up parochial assumptions about social class and gender. Chin’s deft use of political satire and social comedy in these two stories modulates her characters’ frustrations and barely-concealed repressions, presenting a peculiar vision of life in which something is deeply wrong with life as it is experienced. If the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is right to argue that we desire what the Other desires (and indeed desire as the Other desires), Chin offers the reader despairing snapshots of how assuming your place in the social order comes at the cost of dispossession.

Probably the most ironic instance of this cost arrives at the conclusion of Isa’s story “So She Gets Home,” which is the last story in the collection. Isa’s poems, which have erstwhile been central to her identity as a creative artist, have been claimed by an Other (here imagined as a pretty white woman). Her safety is thus bought at the price of an ineluctable alienation and further disenfranchisement. Isa looks at a picture of the woman and is looked at in turn, a return look that imbues her with a sense of inadequacy and self-loathing. In a similar way, by displacing the origins of the sodomy poem onto a Western other, the ideological apparatus has framed the poem as stemming from Western decadence and moral permissibility, taking away its overt political meanings. Just as the protagonist in “A Malaysian Man in Mayor Bloomberg’s Silicon Alley” struggles to negotiate between Eastern and Western ways of living, the characters in Chin’s stories live in the interstices between conformity and change, stultification and radicalism.

However, the chance for autonomy still remains despite the crushing framing. Chin’s last paragraph returns us to Isa’s consciousness, which has been irrevocably changed by her experiences. The signifiers of identity encapsulated in the phrase “poet and revolutionary” are assumed by her as necessary but not sufficient markers of her sense of self. Beyond the dichotomy of self and Other that lie behind these terms, she intuits that her identity is to be born in creative acts of fashioning and re-fashioning:

            Now she simply had to become who she was.

Chin’s stories bear the similar promise that political idealism can become reality when language is used not as a tool of the Other’s oppression, but when it is engaged in shaping and engendering political and personal commitment.


Ian Tan is an educator based in Singapore, who teaches Literature at Raffles Institution. He is interested in the relationship between literature, philosophy, and film, and has written and spoken widely on these topics. His essays on film has been published in the journals Senses of Cinema, Offscreen, and Bright Lights Film Journal. He has written two student guidebooks on Literature texts and has won the Inspiring Teacher of English Award, a nationwide award given to outstanding teachers of Literature.