I first presented this paper at the Asia Pacific Americas Research Cluster Conference on Spatial Imaginaries and Critical Geographies Across the Pacific in Santa Cruz, CA on February 27, 2010.
Cultural Memory and Schizophrenic Identity in Hua-Ling Nieh’s Mulberry and Peach
By Yu-Fang Lin
Most of the criticisms of Hua-Ling Nieh’s Mulberry and Peach focus on the issues of patriarchy and the cultural alienation of Chinese-American persons. Generally, the argument in support of these views involves the devaluing and castigation of the titular character, Peach, because she is Mulberry’s alter identity and she appears to relinquish her connection to the past through Mulberry’s memories. However, it is the purpose of this paper to rehabilitate Peach by arguing that while sharing a past with Mulberry, she makes use of American culture and feminist politics to go further than what would have been possible had she remained in China and Taiwan. I argue that Mulberry is not, in a sense, schizophrenic, or what is defined as experiencing a split with reality. She merely experiences different social realities: East and West, China/Taiwan and the United States. Furthermore, she acculturates herself, having survived the traumatic experiences with her husband and daughter in Taiwan, to the U.S. by fragmenting her host personality, Mulberry, into the alter, Peach. This split, however, is not an aspect of disease, but instead, a sign of promise for Mulberry and Peach together to simultaneously escape a troubled past rooted in a cultural and historically specific place—China and Taiwan—while re-experiencing it through the impending U.S. birth of the “Chinese in [her] womb” (199).
Cultural Memory and Schizophrenic Identity in Hua-Ling Nieh’s Mulberry and Peach
By Yu-Fang Lin
My essay today concerns issues of Chinese immigrant subjectivity in Nieh’s Mulberry and Peach, and it is my purpose to rehabilitate the reading of the strong, central female character in the novel, Peach. For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, let me very briefly describe it to you. Mulberry and Peach is a postmodern novel by the Chinese-American writer Hua-Ling Nieh that was first published in 1976 in Chinese and subsequently translated into English. It is a story about a woman, Mulberry, who journeys from China to Taiwan, and then to the U.S., in order to leave behind a troubled past while reaching for an uncertain future. The tension from her reach, spanning from Taiwan to the U.S., results in an unexplained, yet explosive fracture, that leaves Mulberry, the host personality, largely erased by the alter personality, Peach. The novel is divided into four parts, and each part depicts stories that happen in different geographic locations: the first two parts portray her life in China during the Japanese invasion and Civil War; the third part illustrates her life in the attic, hiding with her husband and young daughter, in Taiwan; and the last part is about her experience in the U.S. as an adulteress to a Chinese professor and Peach’s affirmation of life with their unborn baby. Each part begins with Peach’s letter to the immigration officer Mr. Dark, which creates the primary narrative frame for the entire novel. For the quotes that I employ in this essay, I will use the 1998 Feminist Press, English translation of the novel.
Critics have long viewed the protagonist in Mulberry and Peach as a victim of patriarchal oppression. The setting of the first half of the novel is about political upheaval, but most critiques of the text focus on traumatized female body and its relation to nation-state: Yu-Fang Cho claims “the Chinese female body is subjected to the aggression of Japanese imperialism, the oppression of Chinese patriarchy, the hypocrisy of Chinese nationalist discourse” (Cho 169). Tina Chen also suggests, “Nieh’s text stresses the way in which the female body is constructed by and functions within the political body of the nation-state” (Chen 96). My essay today, however, focuses on the life affirming potential of the Chinese immigrant experience. It is my contention that Nieh empowers Peach to counter the culturally embedded memories of patriarchy imposed on Mulberry. I counter the claims made by Sheng-mei Ma’s critique of Mulberry and Peach in his important book, Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures. Ma argues, and I will quote this at length, “Peach . . . sole reason for existence and motion is to suggest how astray she has become from her former Chinese identity. The sketchy delineation of Peach . . . as opposed to the ‘thickness of description’ devoted to Mulberry . . . betrays the weightlessness of immigrant subjectivities in Nieh’s mind. The immigrant self is assumed to be one of voidness, at once an escape from and a pursuit of ‘Chineseness.’ Nieh’s ethnocentric view resulting in the lopsided presentation of the Chinese self and the immigrant other invalidates the possibility of fashioning a new immigrant identity anchored not in fixed locale and memories but in a series of ever-shifting subjectivities” (51). In the following essay, I will refute Ma’s claim that what he sees as “voidness” is in fact a tension, a potential energy bound into the alter identity Peach. Furthermore, I will show that Peach chooses to do those things that Muberry does not; Peach challenges Mulberry’s heritage rooted choices and endeavors to break with tradition, opting only for individual freedom and life.
I argue that Mulberry is not, in a sense, schizophrenic, or what is defined as experiencing a split with reality. She merely experiences different social realities: East and West, China/Taiwan and the United States. Furthermore, she acculturates herself, having survived the traumatic experiences with her husband and daughter in Taiwan, to the U.S. by fragmenting her host personality, Mulberry, into the alter, Peach. This split, however, is not an aspect of disease, but instead, a sign of promise for Mulberry and Peach together to simultaneously escape a troubled past rooted in a cultural and historically specific place—China and Taiwan—and re-experiencing it through the impending U.S. birth of the “Chinese in [her] womb” (199).
Peach’s speech, thoughts, and letters to the INS, the latter bracket the narrative and introduce each of the four major sections of the novel, position her as the more powerful character—the one who rises above and controls the narrative structure itself. In fact, the postmodern narrative structure of the novel presents the ending on the first pages as the novel’s “Prologue.” This structural inversion mirrors the personality inversion of Mulberry and Peach. Mulberry may be considered the first personality, or the host, because the past is predominantly Mulberry’s past, and Peach’s memories are Mulberry’s memories, which reinforces the title name hierarchy. However, within the text, Peach comes first. She demonstrates that she is not what psychologists would term Mulberry’s alter, or fractured personality. Peach, through her words, actions, and behavior convincingly show the reader that she is more than Mulberry, and unwilling to be a part of someone else. Even as a fractured self, Peach is something, someone new, but she is diachronically connected to the past through memories, culture, and historical events originally experienced by Mulberry. Peach does not lament or nostalgically long for the past, but she does emphatically work toward a new life that unequivocally cannot sever its tie to the past. Thus, Peach represents the forward energy, sprung from a tension, and not a so-called voidness, born of the dichotomies and spatial distances between East/West, old/new, and tradition/liberation.
Peach’s emancipatory character builds from her life in the U.S. and the potential freedoms of her historical moment there. Mulberry and Peach initially inhabit the same body after their arrival in the U.S.—the two personalities vying for the two potentialities of life and death. In the prologue, Peach says of Mulberry, “Mulberry was afraid of blood, animals, flashing lights. I’m not afraid of those things. Mulberry shut herself up at home, sighing and carrying on. I go everywhere, looking for thrills. Snow, rain, thunder, birds, animals, I love them all. Sometimes Mulberry wanted to die, sometimes she wanted to live. In the end she gave up. I’d never do that. Mulberry was full of illusions; I don’t have any” (6). Mulberry’s traumatic past and uncertain future weigh on her. Peach, on the other hand, thrills to all life and the wonders of everyday living. Mulberry experiences a flattening of affect bound in “illusions,” while Peach fights for life and the joy of the emancipatory experience of life on her own terms. This culminates in the scene where Peach berates Mulberry about her willingness to destroy their unborn child. Peach says, “You don’t know me, but I know you. I’m completely different from you. We are temporarily inhabiting the same body. . . . We often do the opposite things. And if we do the same thing, out reasons are different. For instance. You want to keep the child because you want to redeem yourself. I want to keep the child because I want to preserve a new life. . . . You and I threaten each other like the world’s two superpowers” (183). However, Peach transcends the superpower dichotomy and as a result assumes control of her life and her unborn baby’s future. She unequivocally says, “I’ll take the responsibility myself” (180). Therefore, Peach affirms life and a future while Mulberry loses out to the culturally embedded past.
Integral to Peach’s affirmation of life for herself and her unborn child is her revolutionary project. Her personal revolution creates a synthesis of East and West—borrowing and using each in order to create something new—affirming herself as a strong, radical woman. First, she calls on Eastern myth to explain her birth—as mystical, timeless, as other than flesh—all of which adds some explanation to her diametrically opposite perspective to that of Mulberry. Peach says, “I was born in a valley when heaven split from the earth. The goddess Nuwa plucked a branch of wild flowers and threw it to the earth. Where the flowers fell, people sprang up. That’s how I was born. You people were born from your mother’s wombs. I’m a stranger wherever I go, but I’m happy” (6). She was goddess and Earth born. Significantly, she accepts her otherness, and is happy despite, or perhaps because of, her separation from everyone else who was woman born and as a result, tied to tradition rather than the libratory natural.
As goddess born and of the Earth, Peach aligns her rebelliousness with the pro-Earth and ecological movements, which began in the 1960s with Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring (1962). Furthermore, Peach serves as a fictional representative for Second Wave Feminism and the emancipation of women’s bodies. She is unafraid of hiding her body for anyone who may harbor traditional beliefs about women and their bodies. Like her Earth nurturing mother, she and her sexuality are natural, unconfined, and everywhere. In opposition to the traditional woman such as Mulberry, Peach is an openly sexual body, that is, her sex and her identity are one. She demonstrates this explicitly when the INS officer Mr. Dark visits her: “she is dressed only in skin-colored bikini panties and a peach blouse” (3); “her blouse half-open, her breasts full” (7). Strikingly a nontraditional woman, Peach goes on to tease the apparently asexual husband of her friend with her exposed body (192). And most significantly in regard to her liberated sexuality and the idea of space, she shares her personal liberation with the institutionalized State power at the INS by mapping her travels and sexual encounters with strangers: “Mr. Dark, you can see this trailer from far away. I’m sending you a map, too, to show you where I’ve been and where I’m going. If you want to chase me, them come on” (61). Peach has moved beyond the ideas of East and West. The map and space represent her experiences melded with place. Her liberated identity is a kind of geo-location of her powerful identity. The map does not contain her, but it unfolds her liberation in direct opposition to the effects of tradition and power contained in the INS.
And the last, yet possibly most affirming, evidence has to do with the baby that Mulberry and Peach cooperatively carry, which I mentioned earlier. After arriving in the U.S., Mulberry and Peach enter into a relationship with a Chinese professor with whom she/they become pregnant. Tellingly, Mulberry, even in the New World, cannot release or at least reconsider her ties to the past, home, and tradition. Mulberry says, “When I think of the child’s fate after birth—an illegitimate child with no roots I don’t have the courage to keep it” (193). This idea of roots is important in Chinese culture. And it is because of the child’s rootlessness that Mulberry wants to abort it. Peach, the prototypical Earth goddess, will have none of this. She says, “I want to keep the Chinese in my womb” (199). Roots are a cultural idea, and Peach understands that life is beyond culture, and more important than tradition. Peach, using her developed sense of a liberated self, protects her unborn child, not as a tie to the past, but as a personal revelation and understanding about life’s importance.
In conclusion, Ma claims in his analysis of Mulberry and Peach, “This chapter . . . tries to rehabilitate the metaphor of schizophrenia in ethnic studies without being weighed down by its ‘baggage’—the stigmatization of mental disorder” (45). It is my belief that he does not truly acknowledge the potential bound into the split identity of Mulberry and Peach, because he cannot see past the “stigmatization of mental disorder.” I disagree with his claims that all elaborations of split identities and its potential correspondence with ethnic identities is necessarily a bad thing, or one that is not emblematic of the experience being Othered, whether it be here in the U.S. or even back in Taiwan or China. I believe that Ma ignores the fact that one can be Othered at home or abroad, and that the deployment of fictional characters with dissociative identity disorder can represent a double edged sword of promise and peril. In the case of Mulberry and Peach, I see much more promise in Peach’s future than in Mulberry’s past.
Chen, Tina. “Bodily Negotiations: The Politics of Performance in Hualing Nieh’s Mulberry and Peach.” Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2005. 89-112.
Cho, Yu-Fang. “Rewriting Exile, Remapping Empire, Re-Membering Home: Hualing Nieh’s Mulberry and Peach.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 5.1 (2004): 157-200.
Ma, Sheng-mei. Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Nieh, Hua-ling. Mulberry and Peach: Two Women in China. New York: The Feminist Press, 1998.