Han Suyin and the Literature of Anticolonialism
Erik Linstrum on Han Suyin's lost epic of anticolonial politics
“It was said that some European soldiers were catching people at night and having taken them to the forest would release them and ask them to find their way back home. But when their backs were turned they would be shot dead in cold blood. The next day this would be announced as a victory over Mau Mau.”
Both in form and in content, this language recalls the radical pamphlets that circulated in London in the 1950s, when the British Empire waged a brutal war to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, along with parallel bloody counterinsurgencies in Malaya and Cyprus. The most detailed of these atrocity reports infuriated officials. Some went so far as to ask, ineffectually, whether charges of sedition could be leveraged to censor them. But the reception that greeted this particular account of the Kenya war was rather different. It came not from a pamphlet, but from the debut novel of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Weep Not, Child, published in 1964 by the British publisher Heinemann as part of its hugely influential African Writers Series. Now, the disturbing descriptions that once threatened the empire’s moral authority could be praised, as the Times Literary Supplement did, for capturing “the brooding atmosphere of fear and cruelty” in counterinsurgency.
The violent end of British imperialism left a literary legacy. But it is a legacy that should not be conflated with political resistance. Even Ngũgĩ’s damning portrait of reactionary violence, in Weep Not, Child and again in his third novel, A Grain of Wheat, published three years later, could be folded into the emerging project of “postcolonial” literature: an attempt, among other things, to preserve the global standing of British culture by elevating the voices of the empire’s former subjects. While one might expect that the 1960s heyday of liberation movements afforded fiction a newfound freedom to expose the recent history of oppression, the reality was less clear-cut. British writers had been meditating for years on the violence committed in the name of their empire, coupling sometimes graphic portrayals of brutality with an unsettling sense of moral ambiguity.
Perhaps best-known are the quasi-autobiographical novels written by British men who spent time in Malaya during the Emergency: Anthony Burgess with his Malaya Trilogy (1956-1959) and Leslie Thomas’s The Virgin Soldiers (1966). These narratives shared a satirical edge that took aim at blimpish colonels, alcoholic settlers, and other quick-tempered, epithet-spewing colonial types. The books displayed notable differences as well: Thomas, the young National Service veteran, blended a bawdy coming-of-age sensibility with flashes of anticolonial politics, while the already middle-aged Burgess tended toward a world-weary ironic detachment. But both treated the violence of decolonization less as tragedy than as farce. This tradition reached its apogee with Peter Nichols’s 1977 play Privates on Parade, the story of a song-and-dance troupe of flamboyantly gay soldiers serving in Malaya who fall in and out of love with each other while rehearsing Marlene Dietrich tunes.
It is tempting to see the conceit of laughing off colonial war as somehow emblematic of British culture’s dealings with the conflicts themselves: by ignoring, or even denying, their brutality. Yet this serves to misrepresent the literature which warned that the shambolic jollity of their characters could have deadly consequences, as well as the extent of contemporaries’ real-world engagement with violence in the colonies. The use of torture, summary executions, collective punishments, mass detentions, and other unsavory tactics by British forces in the colonies became a pervasive and discomfiting topic of discussion at home. Soldiers wrote letters to their families about it. Ministers preached sermons on the violence. Newspapers and newsreels covered it (though in fragmented and uneven ways). Even stage plays and television dramas showed cracked-up interrogators and traumatized conscripts descending into brutality.
Literary production played an important role in shaping this culture of uneasy awareness; but it is a role we can truly appreciate only if we look far from the canon. The contemporary novels with the most to say about violence owed stylistic debts more to genre than literary fiction — including crime, mystery, and juvenile adventure — which favored sensationalism and sharply drawn lines between heroes and villains. They had titles like Kenya Mystery, Spearhead in Malaya, and Violence in Paradise.Some were written by actual veterans of the conflicts. Many indulged in graphic fantasies of racial vengeance, offering the vicarious thrill of seeing enemies punished at a time when British power looked ever more precarious. This is how James Macdonald’s Malaya story My Two Jungles (1957) described the cathartic thrill, if not the sexual release, of killing a long-sought foe: “The Combat Section joyfully opened up, ridding themselves of the hours of idle frustration in the ceaseless pressure of their fingers on the triggers . . . . When I had pumped those bullets into Chong Choy, I had also released in myself my hatred for the terrorists. I felt too empty to hate anyone.” While some readers expressed distaste for this brand of sado-pornography, others embraced it as affording a rare, “authentic” glimpse of the strange combat waged by British sons far from home. Reviewing another gory Malaya title, the Manchester Guardian enthused that “the grim beastliness of the limited but hideous war is made to hit one hard in the face as no documentary film is ever likely to do.”
It is fitting, then, that the novel that responded most effectively to this wave of reactionary thrillers was the work of a woman who moved in the circles of the imperial elite without ever belonging to it: Han Suyin. Though little is known about her early life, Suyin, the nom de plume of Rosalie Matila Kuanghu Chou, was probably born in Henan province during the First World War to a Chinese railway engineer father and a Belgian mother. She attended Catholic missionary schools in Beijing before training as a doctor in Brussels and London. A passionate affair with Australian war correspondent Ian Morrison was cut short by his death in the Korean War, an experience that inspired her best-selling autobiographical novel A Many-Splendoured Thing, published in1952. That same year, Han married Leon Comber, a British Special Branch officer stationed in Malaya, and it was there while caring for patients at Johore Bahru General Hospital and hosting a steady stream of intelligence and military officials at home, that she was plunged into colonial war. “We lived and breathed it,” she later remembered, “it penetrated our pores, we chewed it with every mouthful of food.”
Already in A Many-Splendoured Thing, Han had signaled her sympathy with Chinese Communism and her distaste for the cloistered world of British expatriates in Hong Kong; sentiments that deepened on contact with Malaya’s age of emergency. Leveraging her connections as a Special Branch wife, Han gained access to the dark recesses of the security apparatus and paid weekly medical visits to one of the “New Villages,” militarized settlements where the British forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of people to isolate them from insurgents. While her husband’s colleagues maintained that the British presence was “necessary to protect the good people against the bad ones,” Han ferreted out dissenting voices. “I have had many talks with army officers,” she wrote in an unpublished manuscript from 1954, “who over a beer, in the quiet evenings, deplored the acts they were forced to commit, like rounding up whole villages.” Malaya was “a country in a stage of siege,” she wrote that same year, in a dispatch for an American newsmagazine. Crushing curfews, confiscations of food, and ubiquitous armed patrols created an “atmosphere of resentment and hostility.” Rather than winning hearts and minds, the British “exhibited a fatal tendency to emphasize and to evaluate success in terms of ‘kills.’” As shooting competitions between regiments “became a kind of sport,” violence was unmoored from any political objective. “Once you give small men who have no understanding of Asia authority, they all turn into small sadists,” she told her American publisher. “I am upset and sick with horror nearly everyday.”
Like her earlier work, the novel that Han wrote about her time in Malaya, And the Rain My Drink,is rooted in personal experience. Published by Jonathan Cape in 1956, the novel’s protagonist shares a name as well as many biographical facts with the author, yet it is hardly a straightforward first-person narrative. The character of Dr. Han Suyin, a Chinese-speaking doctor recently arrived in Malaya, drops out of the story for long stretches, sometimes yielding to a third-person omniscient narration, sometimes introducing faux-documentary sources, such as an insurgent’s diary, a police report, and a questionnaire distributed by propaganda officers. Han also shifts the setting repeatedly, moving from the bureaucratic warren of the interrogation centers where captured fighters are questioned to the insurgent hideouts in the jungle, and then to the detention camps where suspects are held without trial, the “New Villages,” and the government ships that carry deported subjects to China. As critics noted at the time, most characters surface for a only few pages and then disappear, thronging a punctuated series of episodes little in the way of continuous narrative. And the Rain My Drink often reads less like a fiction than a reporter’s notebook, a loosely stitched assemblage of quotes and color.
While this fragmented style was criticized on the book’s publication, it succeeded in portraying a vast, impersonal system at work. In the novel, individuals and their moral sensibilities do not count for much; the war machine grinds on. The characters who thrive are those who internalize its values, most conspicuously an ex-Indian Army officer and Palestine veteran named Tommy Uxbridge, who takes command of a New Village. “His notion of the world, like Mont Blanc,” Han writes, “consisted of a white top and a submissive yellow-brown-black base.” The “war-not-war” prosecuted by men like Uxbridge flattens lives and landscapes with Olympian indifference. Armored cars topped with machine guns rumble down streets, barbed wire converts productive land into sterile surveillance zones. The resettlement process encapsulates this bleak inhumanity: “In six hours the whole population had been carted away, the pigs slaughtered, the crops smashed, the whole area destroyed by fire.”
And the Rain My Drink was not the only novel of the 1950s to offer a harshly critical view of colonial war, but those writers who rejected the overwise prevalent jingoism usually did so as disillusioned imperialists rather than champions of insurgency. If they were not mining the wars of decolonization for black comedy, as Burgess and Thomas did, they treated them as occasions for contemplating universal dilemmas: morality in warfare, the responsibility of individuals within institutions, and the relationship between means and ends. What is more, novels like Michael Cornish’s Introduction to Violence (1960) and George Target’s The Missionaries (1961) employed a style that anthropologist Michael Taussig once described, in reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as “hallucinatory filminess,” containing trance-like flashbacks and surreal touches wrapping the narrative in an aesthetic of mystification. These were uncomfortably hybrid narratives, steeped in the consciousness of empire’s abuses yet clinging to old-fashioned themes of moral extremity in the tropics.
Han’s novel, though, followed a different path. There was nothing hallucinatory about its clinical dissection of the counterinsurgency apparatus. Emphasizing social roles at the expense of psychological interiority left little room for the moral quandaries of lonely heroes. Above all, Han sided unambiguously with the insurgents rather than savoring the gray tones of ambiguity and fatalism. The title was taken from a Chinese Communist anthem celebrating the jungle as a utopian refuge from British oppression: “I will go to the forest for justice / . . . The wind for my garment and the rain my drink, / We build a new heaven and earth.” Unsurprisingly, Comber lost his Special Branch post and Han her hospital job when the book was released. One ex-official critical of the war had half-jokingly warned Han about the backlash: “The only ones who will dislike it will be the Tommy Uxbridges and admirers of General Templer!” But in Britain, as opposed to Malaya, the book was hardly treated as the stuff of sedition.
Even the harshest criticism of colonial war, it turned out, could be enjoyed as an object of ethical consumption. The Book Society, a leading arbiter of middlebrow literary taste, ensured the commercial success of Han’s novel by naming it a monthly selection, mailed automatically to thousands of members. The Tatler praised it for showing a “terrible situation” “without prejudice.” The Birmingham Daily Post suggested that Han’s background made her more objective than “an English novelist” and able to “see beyond the headlines.” The Illustrated London News wallowed almost masochistically in Han’s flaying of “half-hearted liberalism and grotesque, inevitable injustice” in the prosecution of the war as well as the “Führer complex” that possessed characters like Uxbridge.
In confronting the dilemmas thrown up by empire, Han’s readers could imagine themselves as protagonists in a drama of conscience. If some contemporaries found satisfaction in vicarious violence, others found it in the contemplation of moral failure. Feeling uneasy about brutality proved that, even if British rule was devoid of humanity, at least some British individuals were not. Neither the absence of knowledge nor the absence of concern explains acquiescence in colonial violence; this was, rather, a highly conscious process of wrestling with the suspicion of complicity. But learning to living with wars that appeared both unacceptable and unstoppable could only result in a sense of helplessness. While Han may have hoped that And the Rain My Drink would set readers on a longer journey of political action, many were content to treat it as a destination instead.
Erik Linstrum is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and the author of Age of Emergency: Living with Violence at the End of the British Empire (2023).