by QUENTIN BOUVIER
YZ Chin, Though I Get Home (Feminist Press, 2018), pp. 224
“‘Do you miss home?’ Americans would sometimes ask Howie Ho. After years of the same question he had a standard answer, offered up automatically and without thought. ‘I miss the food,’ he would say.”
YZ Chin’s debut novel Though I Get Home paints her own life through stories about immigration, politics, and identities. In line with the ideas of many intellectuals and writers regarding migration and identity—such as the Nobel Prize Laureate Le Clézio’s—Chin uses her work to combine investigations into what it means to have a multi-faceted identity.
Through several fictional characters, YZ Chin portrays her country of origin, Malaysia, torn between the so-called glory of its colonial past and the youth fighting for democracy. So too, YZ Chin shows what it means to be a foreigner living in the United States. Throughout the novel, the reader understands that the name of the novel’s protagonist, Isabella Sin, is a mispronounced, anglicized version of the author’s own name. Indeed, despite their use of the English language, the different characters—Isabella, Howie, and others—appear to be in tension between the two cultures explaining why their identities are torn: “Argh! Fucking English! Fuck the language. It was never good enough or big enough for what he [Howie Ho] had in his brain.” This tension becomes obvious when YZ Chin explains that Americans used to call another character (Howie Ho) “Fucking Ho” due to their accent. Americans will never be able to fully understand Howie Ho, who will never be considered as completely American.
Though I Get Home is not a fictional story, but a testimony. Despite the fact that the autobiographical pact is never established, YZ Chin uses her characters to share her experience(s) as a foreigner living in the United States. Chin’s autofiction displays the singularity of the narrator’s life and makes it address the plurality, and also relates to those who have experienced similar situations—both politically and socially. More specifically, the tension between reality and fiction comes to light in the fourth chapter when YZ Chin uses Isa Sin both as witness—for the reader—and as a protestor in order to give her opinion on the protests in Malaysia following Najib Razak’s assets misappropriation while he was Prime Minister.
At the heart of the scandal, Najib Razak, who was the chair of 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund (1MDB), was accused of transferring money from the company’s bank accounts to his personal ones. Following this scandal, many protests erupted in Malaysia in 2015 and it took three years before Razak was arrested and forced to step down in 2018. Chin references the case in order to demonstrate the extent to which Malaysia still faces corruption. Beyond the story, her message is clearly political and aspires to show to the world and to Malaysians that politics can be made differently for the greater good: “Make them explain! This is our country, not theirs […] do not tolerate those who are greedy and want to suck the country dry. We love Malaysia! The PM does not love Malaysia”. The reader understands that YZ Chin does not criticize for the sake of denouncing, but expresses what is, according to her, wrong in her home country in order to be one of the figures addressing and raising the issue of democracy in Malaysia. By deploying her characters in such a political manner, YZ Chin highlights the evolution of her home country: from the “white slavery” depicted in the first chapters denouncing the extent to which Malaysia still suffers from the Commonwealth’s residuum and institutionalized racism and corruption, to the modern Malaysia which, according to YZ Chin and her characters, is in need of political reforms and democracy. From a personal perspective, YZ Chin declared in an interview that the title came from an Emily Dickinson poem which “mirror how I feel about the idea of ‘home.’” Her novel is a projection of both her ideas and her experience.
In order to open a dialogue on the matter of identity through the narratives and experiences of the different characters, YZ Chin uses Isa Sin. Sin’s name is the metonymy of her misbehavior and the poetry she wrote to criticize the corrupted and authoritarian Malaysian government, she who “told the man she had written the poems because she loved her country and wanted to see it right.” In Though I Get Home, pluralities of identity go beyond human comprehension: does it have to do with the country where you were born? The place where you live? Where you work? Or is there something deeper? Some elements such as Malaysia, Taiping (where YZ Chin is from as well), the American way of life, the feeling of being a foreigner in your homeland are part of the answer, and part of the mystery. YZ Chin shows that an individual can be a stranger to herself because she can never be fully aware of the character she embodies and represents in the public and political spheres.
However, it is difficult for the reader to access the imaginary space of the novel due to the multiplicity and the multicultural characters. Identity is a chameleon —and so is the novel. Though I Get Home requires the reader to be aware of international political issues, and forces him to take a step back from his western perspective to understand the author’s view. It is not a pamphlet regarding Malaysia or the United States, but the novel still conveys a message though some intrinsic revindications. This novel is not light reading and that is why some readers might feel confused. Its complexity is a strength but is also a weakness.
YZ Chin gives a meaningful insight regarding the identity of a migrant and all the feelings that are usually impossible to express and to understand for someone who has not experienced ‘being a foreigner in a foreign country but not a local in your home country’. The author brilliantly defines the positioning of such a character [Isa Sin in the novel] in-between two cultures that she cannot fully understand nor blend in. This is not the experience of a Malaysian woman in the United States, but rather the experience of every single emigrant.