Set in post-Colonial Malaysia, Kim Edwards’ short story “The Invitation,”* which appears in her 1997 collection of stories, The Secrets of the Fire King, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, beautifully illustrates the corrosive effects of lingering imperialist attitudes through the simple retelling of an encounter of two very different women.
Edwards tells the story using a third-person limited point of view, which both builds sympathy for the main character and shows the extent of her self-deception and the folly of her pride. Her very name, Joyce Gentry, underscores her elevated position in the expatriate and local Malay communities as the wife of a factory owner.
Edwards is careful to create sympathy for Gentry by portraying her as a childless older woman who has led a lonely life in a remote part of Malaysia. Her husband, consumed with making his business a success, appears as a largely absent figure. Over the years as more company executives wives have arrived, Gentry has taken it as her duty to befriend them by sharing her knowledge of life in Malaysia. She considers herself something of an expert on the topic due to her many years living in the country.
Her other great consolations are her garden, which is envied as the most beautiful in the expatriate community, and the fact that she was invited for the first time to the sultan’s birthday party during the previous year. She recalls with pleasure the hushed “admiration” as she arrived at the party in a gold silk dress that she had made especially for the occasion.
At the beginning of the story, Joyce is having a serious problem with ants attacking the mango trees in her garden. She has called in her gardener for help. She had discovered him “quite by accident when she had gotten lost in a poorer part of the city.” There, she had come upon a garden so enchanting that she stopped her car: “Hibiscus and bougainvillea flamed behind a wooden railing, and hundreds of flowers bloomed in window boxes, in tin cans, and neatly tended beds.” At the center of it all was the gardener Jamal. She had hired him on the spot.
Much to Joyce’s delight, Jamal knew just what to do about the invading ants. “You are so good,” she exclaims. “I would be simply lost without you.” But the hiring of Jamal without going through the normal channels or even requiring references irked her husband Sid, and his dictums about the Malays run through her head. He believes in keeping his distance to preserve authority. “I deal with these people every day, and once you cross that line with them, you’re lost,” he says.
Once Jamal has finished dealing with the ants, Joyce suggests staking the mango trees in advance of the monsoons. Jamal responds by saying it wasn’t a good idea to do so today, but lacks the English to explain why. Joyce recalls that Jamal has always been right in the past about matters of the garden, but in her mind she can here Sid’s judgment: “He’d say it was laziness, pure and simple, Jamal’s ingenious way of getting out of work.”
Joyce has a choice to take the advice of her trusted gardener or to follow the assertions of her bigoted husband. When she then orders the trees staked, it is more an arbitrary assertion of authority than a reasoned decision.
When the latest wife to join the expatriate community, Marcella Frank, shortly thereafter arrives for tea, Joyce is in for some unpleasant surprises. Again, the last name of this character, “Frank,” is an indication of her role in the story. She is a truth teller that will inadvertently disabuse Joyce on many of her preconceptions about Malaysia and her place in it.
Frank is a different sort of person than the wives that have come before. She is a teacher who works in the local Malay school teaching English. Her husband is an ecologist working on soil conservation instead of a company executive.
Joyce’s first glimpse of Marcella was as she interacts with Jamal on the way in the door. “They were speaking Malay, and Joyce, who understood only a few words, was amazed.”
This is just the first of many surprises for Joyce. When Joyce shares a story that she must have told many times before she is met with an uncomfortable silence: “My husband always says he was born in the wrong century. He’s always saying to me, “Fifty years earlier, old girl, and we’d still have had an empire.”
Joyce has been anxiously waiting for an invitation to the sultan’s upcoming birthday party. She shares the story of her social triumph at last year’s party and cautions Marcella that “it takes quite a look time to really be accepted her.”
Marcella is quite interested in Joyce’s story about the dress she chose to wear to last year’s party. Instead of the immediate admiration she expected, Marcella cautiously asks how the gold dress had been received. “I was told that gold is the sultan’s color. That no one else is allowed to wear it in his presence.”
While initially Joyce brushes the comment aside, it is the first inkling that she was mistaken about the reaction at last year’s party. She wonders if what she took for stunned admiration was indeed simply shock at her enormous social error.
An inadvertent comment about the sultan’s youngest daughter’s pet monkey leads to the revelation that Marcella has been tutoring the sultan’s children at the palace three times a week. Afterward, the sultan’s wife often comes by to practice her English, and her sisters sometimes join them. Marcella confides that “Last week, they wove jasmine through mine [hair], and piled it up on my head. I thought I’d never get the pins out!”
The description of the newcomer’s informal, friendly relations with the royal family and her regular visits to the palace is enough to cause Joyce’s emotions to go into tumult. After 30 years, she has only been to the palace once and doesn’t know the sultan’s family personally at all.
When Marcella reveals that she is thinking about wearing her hair in the same style to the sultan’s upcoming birthday celebration and that she has already received her invitation Joyce is all but undone. That fact that she hadn’t receive an invitation seems to confirm that she had been “uninvited” after wearing the gold dress the previous year.
Joyce feels faint and suggests that Jamal give Marcella a tour of the gardens before she leaves. From inside the house, she hears the easy familiarity between Jamal and Marcella, who, it turns out, teaches Jamal’s daughter at the local elementary school.
When Joyce calls out to Jamal to be sure to show Marcella the maze, she sees “a flicker of pure contempt–of hatred almost–that surfaced in the brief seconds before he lowered his gaze.” She wonders how Jamal could hate her after all she had done for him. She wonders, if he truly hated her, why would he have built her such a lovely garden.
Only then does Joyce see the “dark, quivering line.” The ants are walking up the strands of fishing line that Jamal had used to stake the mango trees at her insistence and against his better judgment. The trees are destined for destruction because of her earlier arbitrary act of authority. The ants “were working very hard, each one excavating, then carrying away, the very heart of her trees.”
The generational contrast between Joyce and Marcella highlights the differences between an older imperialist mindset and a newer, more egalitarian one. Joyce’s world is dominated by formal interactions, rules of behavior and a sense of superiority most fully articulated by her husband Sid. Marcella’s world is filled with a commitment to bettering others quality of life, spontaneous interactions, a deep interest in other people, and the ability to move between classes of people and treat them all with respect and appreciation.
Ironically, it is Joyce, the wife of the prosperous factory owner, who falls victim to her own social pretensions. The corrosive power of her attitudes is apparent in the destruction of her trees by the ants as a result of her needless exercise of power. The newcomer Marcella in just a few months has succeeded in getting to know Malaysia better than Joyce has in all thirty of her lonely years in the country.