“The Mirage of Femininity”: Timothy Mo’s Women, Self-Orientalism, and the Margins of the Man Booker Prize

Janet Chow-Kong


     This essay will consider two novels by Anglo-Chinese author Timothy Mo—'Sour Sweet' (1982) and 'Pure' (2012)—in the context of Rey Chow’s cinematically-informed theories of self-orientalism, self- exoticization, and exhibitionism as instruments of defiance and resistance against traditional forms of Orientalism. One of the relatively few Anglo-Oriental writers who has achieved prominence in the United Kingdom (as well as globally), Mo owes much of his initial success to early recognition from the Man Booker Prize, a cultural institution that has been heavily criticized in the past three decades for furthering British imperial interests via attempts to construct a revisionist British canon. Looking specifically at the ways in which oriental femininities are constructed—often with a Western audience in mind—this investigation will demonstrate Mo’s defiance of Orientalist desires through nuanced treatments of gender, voyeurism, and power within frequently overlooked areas of postcolonial Britain: the Hong Kong diaspora and Thai Islamic culture. The often-cinematic techniques through which Mo utilizes multi-directional gazes demonstrate that these constructions of oriental femininity are, in fact, only a mirage. This confluence of gazes—whether it is East towards East, West towards East, male towards female, self towards self, or any number of other variations—has the clarifying effect of showing that none of these iterations of dominance or power is absolute nor tied to conventional historical/colonial narrative. In pushing the boundaries of oriental femininity in the context of visuality, Mo deftly illustrates the possibility for voyeurism to be reflected back at the reader. He thereby enables his audience to entertain reflexively that sometimes, it is only upon seeing our own actions that we can become aware of how we act and react. 


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