Language and the Witnessing of Trauma in Breaking the Tongue by Vyvyane Loh

ZOË MCLAUGHLIN, U-M Center for Southeast Asian Studies



Zoë received her Bachelor’s in biochemistry and creative writing from Oberlin College before spending three years in Central Java, Indonesia, first as a Shansi Fellow and then as a participant in the Darmasiswa program. She received her Master’s from the University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies with a focus on Indonesian literature and translation. She is currently studying library science in the University of Michigan’s School of Information.



Teaching trauma in the classroom can be a difficult task. However, one method that can be used to open discussion in the classroom is through the use of literature. This paper focuses on Breaking the Tongue by Vyvyane Loh, which tells the story of Claude Lim, a young man living in Singapore during World War II. Incorporating world literature into the study of trauma can make students more aware of the universal experience of trauma as well as the specific circumstances of a certain limit event. Breaking the Tongue focuses on Claude’s reaction to trauma, both his own and that of his friend, Ling-li. The final section of the novel concerns Claude’s inner turmoil surrounding the act of witnessing about Ling-li’s torture and rape at the hands of Japanese soldiers. This paper examines how Claude’s witnessing and non-witnessing are tied to language. Claude’s lack of ability in Chinese mirrors his lack of a desire to witness. Similarly, his halting abilities to learn Chinese, spurred on by Ling-li’s insistence that he do so, mirror him slowly coming to terms with the idea of witnessing. Nevertheless, the novel ends ambiguously and mostly in Chinese, leaving readers who, like Claude, do not speak Chinese, without a sense of closure. This, too, illustrates Claude’s own lack of closure regarding the trauma which he has experienced. This novel can serve as a means to open discussion in the classroom on the ways in which we can and are able to bear witness to trauma.



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