History Lessons in Vietnamese Francophone Literature1
Jack A. Yeager
Colonial history and Vietnamese Francophone literature are inextricably linked and intertwined, “co-figured” to cite Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox’s term in his edited collection of essays Vietnam and the West. 2 Put simply, French colonialism in Indochina created an education system that enabled some Vietnamese to learn French and become proficient enough to create literary texts. In this way the literature in French from Southeast Asia resonates significantly, for example, with that from the Maghreb, from Sub-Saharan Africa and from the Antilles. At the same time, this body of work connects with larger world contexts through such universal threads as coming-of-age stories, the issues of gender and sexuality, and intergenerational and familial conflict against a backdrop of documented historical events.
Emerging somewhat later than colonial literature in Indochina, a Vietnamese literature in French first appeared in 1913, with the publication of a collection of poetry and another of folktales and legends.3 In the1920s the first novels were published, setting the stage for a narrative productivity that continues to this day. Many of these texts are autobiographical, told in the first person. Many are also set in the context of the history of colonialism and war. Many also read like ethnographies in their presentations of Vietnamese culture. And finally, many tell of the evolution of Vietnamese from traditional to modern through their women characters.
In Viet Nam the appearance of Francophone literature and narrative texts in particular had indigenous cultural anchors: the folktales and legends as part of an oral tradition, the composition of poetry in Chinese and verse romances in demotic characters, and the Confucian value placed on learning and on literature. The appearance of prose novels was in some measure thus a logical development, and these fictional works de longue haleine, lengthy, particularly, often act as historical narratives on multiple levels as well and might serve as examples of what Gadkar-Wilcox has pointed out as hybridity, co-figuration and localization.
Some Vietnamese writers consciously underpin their novels in French with the facts and details of documented history. In Printemps inachevé (Unfinished Spring, 1962), for example, Ly Thu Ho sets a family story against the backdrop of the turbulent years of 1935 to 1955 in Viet Nam, citing specific events such as the Japanese interregnum during World War II, the war for independence from the French and the Geneva Accords at the end of that war in 1954. 4 Nguyen Tien Lang in Les Chemins de la révolte (The Paths of Revolt, 1953) launches his novel with the abdication of the Vietnamese emperor at the end of the World War II and the ensuing armed conflict, relating the impact of the coming era through the story of a mandarin tried as a traitor for serving the French. 5 Finally, Cung Giu Nguyen in Le Domaine maudit (The Accursed Land, 1961) focuses on the same historical period and casts a landowning family from the colonial era, and in particular, the daughter Loan as she struggles to save their tea plantation against the overwhelming odds of social change. 6 Those readers familiar with Régis Wargnier’s Indochine (1993) starring Catherine Deneuve, or Claire Denis’s more recent White Material (2009) starring Isabelle Huppert will recognize that saving the plantation with all its possible overtones has ongoing power.7
To some extent modern ideas reaching Southeast Asia acted as a liberating force for women subject to traditional patriarchy in Viet Nam. In another kind of historical narrative, the conflict of tradition and modernity is foregrounded in the novels of Trinh Thuc Oanh and Marguerite Triaire who collaborated in the writing of two such texts around 1940. The first of these, En s’écartant des ancêtres (Leaving the Ancestors Behind, 1939), features a constellation of women characters and generational tensions.7 In this novel Mai, the protagonist who is educated and becomes a doctor, longs for a marriage based on love and has exalted dreams. Mai’s mother blames the French for the degradation of indigenous moral codes and the corruption of society, opposing views seen in other mother-daughter relationships. Tran Van Tung puts this generational conflict in high relief in this novel Bach-Yên ou le fille au coeur fidèle (Bach-Yên or the Girl with a Faithful Heart, 1946).9 The text captures the tensions of a society in the midst of profound change through the love story of a student named Van and the eponymous main character, pitted against the mother who believes in traditional arranged marriages and that her daughter’s love for Van is nothing but a “folie de jeunesse”, a folly of youth. 10
While these novels point the way to new possibilities for women in Viet Nam, however, the work of Kim Lefèvre and Linda Lê extends, complicates and reworks expectations. Lefèvre, particularly, offers an illuminating case study connecting literary texts to world history in her best-selling autobiography, Métisse blanche (1989; White Métisse, 2018).11 The French word métisse is retained in the English title as most equivalents in English are freighted with negative connotations unlike the French word, derived as it is from the word tisser, to weave, which shares the same root as “text,” and refers to cloth woven of two different threads, such as silk and linen.
Métisse blanche which Lefèvre herself has called a roman or novel recounts the childhood and adolescence of a bi-racial girl in colonial Viet Nam. 12 “Je suis née, paraît-il, à Hanoi un jour de printemps, peu avant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, de l’union éphémère entre une jeune Annamite et un Français,” “I was born in Hanoi or so it seems,” she writes in the opening lines, “on a spring day, shortly before the Second World War, from the ephemeral union of a young Annamite woman and a French man.”13 She never knew her father, identified with France in the narrative, and was raised by her mother and other members of an extended family. In colonial Viet Nam during a period of resistance and revolution, the Métisse child becomes the sign of betrayal and collaboration as well as of her mother’s moral downfall and shame. Essentially, the mother’s story appears to be another in a long series of colonial con gái or concubine novels with Kim as its constant reminder. I would add that the word con gái, the Vietnamese word for girl or daughter, becomes “concubine” or “mistress” when used in French, taking on pejorative overtones much in the same way as the Arabic words souk and bled in French.
I have written about Métisse blanche once before, exploring the floating and shifting identity of the biracial child who acts as a lightning rod for anti-colonial resistance, to be despised and distrusted. Her mobility—she is constantly on the move—is one way of capturing an identity that cannot be pinned down.14 Family circumstances—Kim’s early years include the crucial period of war, hardship and famine in Viet Nam—take her from north to south and back, to an orphanage, to the homes of her mother’s relatives, to cities along the south central coast, and eventually to boarding schools in Saigon and Dalat, and finally to Paris on scholarship in 1960. This trajectory moves Kim progressively away from her family and toward educational institutions, the key to her freedom and her transition from traditional to modern. Through the lens of Marjorie Garber’s writing on cross-dressing in her famous Vested Interests and the presence of a third that disrupts and disorders and points to what she calls a “category crisis elsewhere,” Métisse blanche includes moments of same-sex desire, most often in educational settings.15 This sexual métissage doubles and reinforces the racial uncertainty of the text, reflected in the blurring of other borders such as fiction and autobiography, explored so perceptively by Françoise Lionnet and others. 16 Métisse blanche effectively clouds notions of race, gender and genre. I turn to this autobiography/novel again now because of the timely way in which history, both political and personal, are intertwined and because of the intriguing ways in which Kim Lefèvre sets up parallels between her educational development in formal settings and the development of her physical body and her affective world.
Kim Lefèvre is specific in evoking known historical events as a background, typical in Vietnamese Francophone narrative texts, as we have seen. She mentions being born before World War II, the open conflict between Vietnamese and the French after that war, the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the division of the country in 1954, for instance. These events impinge on the narrative, showing the effects of political history on Lefèvre’s personal history: in one example, the young narrator’s return to her mother results from the decision of the nuns at the orphanage under the threat of the war coming to their town to contact parents who gave up their children irrevocably to see if they would want to take them back; in another example, the narrator expresses deep concern at the moment of the division of the country that her family will end up on one side and she on the other. In this way, the backdrop is illustrated on a micro level, humanizing larger events and teaching its own lessons. The political uncertainty reflects the narrator’s unstable identity and family situation and thus on one level her mobility, her move away from her family. She writes: “How I loved to be on the way somewhere. What did it matter that I had left the South to return to the North. I was leaving a place without happiness, and nothing good seemed to wait for me at the end of the road. I was perfectly happy on the moving train. My whole life was there, in that warm atmosphere, in that community with no tomorrow, protected by strangers who would be my guardian angels for as long as the trip lasted.”17 For the young child all is transitory, changing, and unreliable, “with no tomorrow.”
Her physical displacements tell us much about her move away from tradition, from the social space of community toward the affirmation of her identity as an individual. Immobility could characterize, say, Confucian filial piety, hierarchy, and patriarchy, all focused on the family as a basic social unit. Confucian values, on the other hand, also include scholarship, and the narrator’s education in both Vietnamese and French schools and in the French language then become like the train, her modes of transportation toward the future. She writes of her joy at being in school, even during her years in the orphanage, separated from her mother, and of her first contact with the French language: “I studied easily and made rapid progress. I finally got to know the joy of having access to knowledge. My French improved day by day.”18
Circumstances prevent regular attendance in school; later in the narrative her mother realizes that education will be the key to her daughter’s success, and her mother manages to convince the principal of the school in Nha Trang to accept her child. The results are stunning and marked what lay ahead: “Despite the considerable academic delay accumulated by years of wandering from north to south, I had no trouble following the lessons that were given to me . . .” And: “[m]y years in the orphanage also gave me advantages, for French, learned not long ago and which I thought I had forgotten, gradually came back to me.” And finally, “I filled up my brain in the way geese are force fed, gulping down notions of history and geography at breakneck speed, trying to fill in several years’ gap in two months.” 19 This is the path that transforms adversity into advantage with an intriguing comparison with precious foie gras. It is also the path that will lead the narrator to the Couvent des Oiseaux, the renowned boarding school for girls in Dalat, sponsored by her godmother, subsequent to Kim’s conversion to Catholicism and her baptism, then advanced study in Saigon as part of the first class of Vietnamese teachers trained in Viet Nam under the French system, and finally, a full scholarship to study in Paris.
Other kinds of education take place in informal settings, of course. When living with a relative and her four biracial daughters, all from different fathers, the narrator comes to know a version of French culture for the first time and writes: “[My aunt’s] daughters opened my eyes to an unexpected universe, one in which you could aspire to individual happiness,” 20 a universe that includes multi-faceted mirrors on dressing tables, make-up, and a dizzying range of nail polish colors as well as pictures of French women as representations of beauty, an early sign of Kim’s emerging desire: “On the walls were photographs of French women with huge eyes bordered by eyelashes so thick you could hardly believe it. Their mouths, outlined in lipstick in the shape of hearts, seemed to smile at me with imperceptible irony.” These images are “extraordinarily attractive” to her.21 Eventually, she becomes aware of her own attractiveness and will dress in adult, form-fitting clothes, a tight Western skirt or an aó dài. Her mother will improvise make-up for her for the first time prior to a choral performance, and “Cinderella had become a princess,” she writes. 22 Still, the narrator, in her desire for acceptance as a child, will also be drawn to traditional Vietnamese conceptions of beauty, captured in black lacquered teeth. Admiring her grandmother’s, she says: “I promised myself that I would have teeth as beautiful as hers when I was old enough to tint them.” 23 This kind of ambivalence, blurring, becomes then another dominant thread in Métisse blanche, reinforcing the narrator’s unstable, shifting identity.
Her educational arc parallels, naturally enough, the development of her physical body and the discovery of an emotional world as well as that of sexual pleasure. These aspects of her future are foreshadowed in her appreciation of the night, on the train to the north, noted earlier: “I’ve always liked the night, its caress and its feeling of calm solitude which fills the soul.” 24 Unsurprisingly, the narrator’s physical presence is constantly at issue because of her métissage. And her body also changes in the course of the narrative as one might expect. In a chapter titled “Now That You Are a Woman,” a third of the way into the text, she experiences her first period and thinks she is dying: “’Stop whining,’ scolded her mother. ‘You’re having your period; you have become a woman!’[ . . . my mother] explained to me that I was no longer a child and that I was not to run around in the streets and play like a little kid any longer. From now on I had to change my behavior, speaking in a soft voice, making slower gestures, and lowering my eyes with modesty, especially in front of men; in a word, constructing my femininity. She told me that a woman’s life is full of pitfalls, which was why her foremost quality must be suspicion. ‘Believe me, my daughter, I know what I’m talking about. Don’t make the same mistakes as your mother.’ [ . . . ] ‘A woman has only one treasure, her virginity,’” she warns, burdening her daughter with fear. 25 The narrator later acknowledges her transformation: “’My mother was right. I’m no longer the same.’” 26 This admission comes after her surprising reaction to meeting the eyes of a young man for the first time and her wanting to cry afterwards without knowing why. A new emotional world is opening up for the narrator, tempered by the fear of losing her only “treasure.”
The child’s physical development accentuates, in fact, her biracial status: “A stranger to myself . . . I was also a stranger in the eyes of others,” she recalls “a bitter memory of an afternoon of swimming.” Being taller than Vietnamese girls her own age, with growing breasts and body hair, make her the subject of ridicule as she and her peers enter the water naked. “They formed a circle around me, dancing, laughing and making fun of me as if I had been suffering from a shameful disease.” 27 Here, the narrator is the first to leave the world of childhood where her peers remain, an additional difference that sets her up for another round of humiliation.
Her physical transformation thus distinguishes her further, and reaching puberty opens up an exploration of her own sexuality. She is sold by her stepfather to a young couple who sleep in the next room: “I would overhear their whispering, their panting, then the soft moaning of my mistress. I felt the birth inside me of a kind of delightful agitation and at the same time a wave of warmth moved through my lower abdomen. I wanted to take her place, on the other side of the partition. I liked their love-making very much, their ardent whispering which I couldn’t make out, the strange sound I had detected in their moaning which seemed to indicate a pain they wanted to feel with all their heart.” 28 In this way sexual pleasure, here associated with pain, expands and complicates the multiple ambiguities and ambivalence in Métisse blanche, revealing new facets of the complex narrator.
As the narrator’s sexual education develops, so does her emotional world: “ . . . I, too, dreamed of love,” she writes. 29 Later, the man glimpsed on a balcony attracts and enchants her: “In raising my eyes, I was, at that very instant, enchanted by the handsomeness of a young man leaning over a book with a writing brush in his hand. Our eyes met.” 30 She encounters a first sweetheart on the street and with him finds platonic companionship. She confides in a girlfriend who is a bit older and thus helps her “give a name to the emotions of my young, inexperienced heart.” 31 The end result is a realization of a certain degree of satisfaction: “I was discovering the advantages of being considered a pretty girl, the happiness of being appealing. I knew now that being Métisse didn’t entail only disadvantages. My affective universe had also broadened: I had a girlfriend and an admirer, and I was no longer dependent solely on my family environment. I viewed my family with more distance.” 32 Each stage in this transformation creates and nurtures the narrator’s self-esteem, in essence a radical shift from the rejection, contempt and distrust she experienced as a child. One might well liken this evolution to that of the colonized’s analogous discovery of self-worth that will eventually lead to revolt and liberation.
The distancing from family reflects a similar trajectory in the narrator’s formal education. She falls for the music teacher at her school. During an audition for the youth chorus, the teacher’s violin accompaniment carries her along to a successful outcome, even to a position as a soloist, 33 and leads her to a teenage crush: “From the first meeting of the Musical Youth Chorus, my feelings and dreams had crystallized around one image, that of the music teacher.” Her love is “ . . . solitary, platonic. . . .” And “ . . . the teacher was just a subject around which I could spin the threads of a novel’s imaginary adventures. . . .” 34 “I was helpless before his power,” she admits. 35 Taking a cue from the young couple, she confesses: “ . . . I simply wished to live in his atmosphere, like an object, like that violin that he held absentmindedly in his hand and which moaned under the pressure of his fingers.” 36 “I had never experienced anything as intense.” 37 She is in effect authorizing herself these feelings, a reflection of her growing sense of her own value as a young girl who happens to be Métisse.
In fact, much of her attractiveness as an object of desire, it turns out in an ultimate twist of irony, is grounded in her very state as Métisse. Even the music teacher’s interest in her focuses on her difference: “ . . . if I’m not Vietnamese, how could you like me?” He looked at me without understanding, then burst out laughing. ‘But I like you precisely because you aren’t entirely Vietnamese. You see, you are Vietnamese without being Vietnamese; that’s what’s attractive about you. When I look at you, you are at once familiar and strange. And I like that. You should be happy rather than sad about that. Don’t be silly.” 38 The music teacher is suggesting a complete reversal of how she should consider her bi-racial status and her difference from those around her. In this way this exchange builds on the earlier moment of self-authorization above that points toward an emerging self-esteem, a moment that again resonates with the similar prise de conscience experienced by the colonized. Both scenes foreshadow a realization near the end of the autobiography when she takes stock of her past, acknowledges its humiliations, rejections and challenges, and turns toward an unknown but promising future.
This exchange immediately precedes the discovery of the narrator’s platonic ‘affair’ with the music teacher when the stepfather finds her love letters in her notebook by accident. He and the narrator’s mother’s meeting with the principal to lodge a complaint against the teacher’s involvement with a minor leads to severe punishment at home and rumors in the public sphere that confirm the questionable character of the young Métisse, deemed typical behavior and seeming to undercut any positive effect of what was, in fact, her last conversation with the music teacher. And yet this sudden reversal paves the way for an opportunity. A meeting between the narrator’s mother and the teacher’s wife results in an offer by the latter to help fund the young girl’s education at a boarding school in Saigon. 39 This face-saving measure benefits all the parties involved and removes Kim from having to confront her peers at school, let alone the glares and insults of people in the street, because as her mother told her, “ . . . no one will believe a woman who proclaims her innocence” if there are questions about her virginity, but by extension in all sexual matters. 40
The various strands of the narrator’s educations—formal, informal, cultural, emotional, sexual—thus converge toward the end of the narrative in a moment of realization: “I was thus worth something,” she writes. 41 This new awareness signals her overcoming the litany of adversity that characterizes her childhood and adolescence and marks the appropriation and valorization of her multiple, co-existing identities: Métisse, woman, speaker of French and Vietnamese, birth in Viet Nam to a single Vietnamese mother and an unknown French father, diverse, parallel learning tracks . . . and with these identities, the attainment of a kind of freedom, a capacity for love and pleasure, leaving behind family and homeland for school, arriving in cities with potential, and finally life abroad.
Kim Lefèvre’s Métisse blanche/White Métisse stands, then, as a compelling story of transformation and possibility. It stands, too, as the history of the trajectory of an individual that tells of many others. A friend from the Couvent des Oiseaux, quoted in Lefèvre’s sequel, Retour à la saison des pluies (Return to the Rainy Season, 1990), tells Kim: “Vous avez parlé pour moi” (You have spoken for me), 42 extending these lessons beyond her own personal history. Indeed, Métisse blanche/White Métisse with Kim Lefèvre’s life as example enters into dialogue with other lives of the mixed-race children born to French fathers and Vietnamese mothers who are the primary focus of Christina Elizabeth Firpo’s landmark history of this population in The Uprooted: Race Children, and Imperialism in French Indochina, 1890-1980. 43 And finally, that Kim Lefèvre’s book is still in print and is included in courses focusing on autobiography, race, women’s writing and colonialism, as well as diasporic and Francophone studies clearly suggests a transnational reach beyond Southeast Asia.
Jack A. Yeager is professor of French Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. His research and publications focus primarily on the Vietnamese novel in French from Southeast Asia and on narrative texts by writers abroad with connections to Viet Nam. Yeager holds a PhD in French with a minor in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has lived in Paris and Hanoi.
1I presented the earliest version of this article at the conference “Love, Sex, Desire & the (Post)Colonial” under the title “Colonized Bodies, Modernity and Métissage as Refracted in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel,” University of London, 28-29 October 2011. I delivered a second, recast version of this piece under its current title at the World History Association Symposium, “Southeast Asia and World History” at Pannasastra University of Cambodia in Siem Reap, 2-4 January 2012. I wish to thank the attendees and fellow presenters at both these conferences for their questions and feedback and especially Rachel Harrison, Ben Tran, Tony Day, Janit Feungfu, Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox, Michael Vann, and Marc Jason Gilbert.
2Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox, Vietnam and the West (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Publications, 2010).
3These two publications were, respectively: Nguyen Van Xiem, Mes heures perdues (Saigon: Imprimerie de l’Union, 1913) and Le Van Phat, Contes et légendes du pays d’Annam (Saigon: NXB Nguyen Van Cua, 1925, first published in 1913).
4Ly Thu Ho, Printemps inachevé (Paris: Peyronnet, 1962).
5 Nguyen Tien Lang, Les Vietnamiens I: Les Chemins de la révolte (Paris: Amiot-Dumont, 1953).
6Cung Giu Nguyen, Le Domaine maudit (Paris: A. Fayard, 1961).
7Régis Wargnier, dir., Indochine, with Catherine Deneuve, Vincent Perez, Jean Yanne and Linh Dan Pham, Paradis Films, Bac Films, Orly Films, Ciné Cinq, 1992; Claire Denis, dir., White Material, with Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, and Isaach de Bankolé, Why Not Productions, 2009.
8Trinh Thuc Oanh and Marguerite Triaire, En s’écartant de ancêtres (Hanoi: Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient, 1939). 9Tran Van Tung, Bach-Yên ou la fille au coeur fidèle (Paris: J. Susse, 1946). 10 Tran Van Tung, Bach-Yên, 139. For more on this literature, see Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural Identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, Southeast Asia Publications, 2003); Karl Ashoka Britto, Disorientation: France, Vietnam, and the Ambivalence of Interculturality (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004); Pamela Pears, Remnants of Empire in Algeria and Vietnam: Women, Words, and War (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004); Michèle Bacholle-Boškovic, Linda Lê: L’écriture du manque (Lewiston, ME: Edwin Mellen, 2006); Ching Selao, Le roman vietnamien francophone: orientalisme, occidentalisme et hybridité (Montréal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2010); Leslie Barnes, Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014); Alexandra Kurmann, Intertextual Weaving in the Work of Linda Lê: Imagining the Ideal Reader (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016); Nguyễn Giáng Hương, La Littérature vietnamienne francophone (1913-1986) (Paris: Editions Garnier, 2018); the following dissertations: Sharon Lim-Hing, “Vietnamese Novels in French: Rewriting Self, Gender and Nation,” Diss. Harvard University, 1993; Michael O’Riley, “Discerning the Empire’s Other: Literary Interventions in the Culture of French Modernity,” Diss. University of Oregon, 1998; Lily Chiu, “Alter/Native: Imagining and Performing the Native Woman in Francophone and Vietnamese Literature,” Diss. University of Michigan, 2004; as well as my The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism (Hanover and London: University Press of New England,1987). 11Kim Lefèvre, Métisse blanche (Paris: Editions Barrault, 1989); White Métisse, trans. by Jack A. Yeager (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2018). 12During a reading from her newly-published autobiography followed by a question and answer session at the Viet Nam House (Nhà Việt Nam) on the Rue Cardinal Lemoine in Paris on 28 May 1989, Kim Lefèvre used the term “roman” to describe her text. In her introduction to the various editions in the original French, Michèle Sarde uses the same word. Lefèvre, Métisse blanche, 9. 13Lefèvre, Métisse blanche, 17; White Métisse, 1. Kim Lefèvre’s text was translated into Vietnamese in the mid-1990s. The opening lines read as follows: “Tôi được sinh ra, hình như ở Hà Nội, vào một ngày mùa xuân, ít lâu trước cuộc Chiến tranh thế giới thứ hai, từ cuộc hôn phối chốc lát giữa một cô gái An-nam và một người Pháp.” Kim Lefèvre, Cô gái lai da trắng, người dịch [trans. by] Dương Linh and Hoàng Phong (Hà Nội: NXB Hội Nhà Văn, 1995), 9. 14See my “Blurring the Lines in Vietnamese Fiction in French: Kim Lefèvre’s Métisse blanche,” in Post Colonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers, Mary Jean Green et al., eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 210-26. 15See Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992) as well as my “Blurring the Lines,” 220-223. 16See especially Françoise Lionnet, Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989). 17Lefèvre, White Métisse, 11; “Que j’aimais être en partance. Que m’importait d’avoir quitté le Sud, d’aller au Nord. Je quittais un lieu sans bonheur et rien de bon ne semblait m’attendre à l’autre bout du chemin. Je me sentais parfaitement heureuse dans ce train en mouvement. Ma vie toute entière était là, bien au chaud, dans cette communauté sans lendemain, protégée par des êtres étrangers, mais qui constituteraient mes dieux protecteurs tant que durerait le voyage,” Métisse blanche, 27-28. 18 Lefèvre, White Métisse, 33; “Je connus enfin la joie d’avoir accès à la connaissance. Mon français s’améliorait de jour en jour,” Métisse blanche, 54. 19Lefèvre, White Métisse, 124; “Malgré un retard scolaire considérable accumulé durant les années d’errance du Nord au Sud, je n’éprouvais pas de difficultés à suivre l’enseignement qu’on me dispensa . . . ”; “ [m]es années d’orphelinat aussi m’avantageaient car le français, appris naguère et que j’avais oublié, revenait progressivement à ma mémoire”; “Je remplissais mon cerveau à la manière dont on gave les oies, ingurgitant à toute vitesse des notions d’histoire, de géographie, essayant de combler en deux mois un retard de plusieurs années,” Métisse blanche, 172-173.
8Trinh Thuc Oanh and Marguerite Triaire, En s’écartant de ancêtres (Hanoi: Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient, 1939).
9Tran Van Tung, Bach-Yên ou la fille au coeur fidèle (Paris: J. Susse, 1946).
10 Tran Van Tung, Bach-Yên, 139. For more on this literature, see Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural Identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, Southeast Asia Publications, 2003); Karl Ashoka Britto, Disorientation: France, Vietnam, and the Ambivalence of Interculturality (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004); Pamela Pears, Remnants of Empire in Algeria and Vietnam: Women, Words, and War (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004); Michèle Bacholle-Boškovic, Linda Lê: L’écriture du manque (Lewiston, ME: Edwin Mellen, 2006); Ching Selao, Le roman vietnamien francophone: orientalisme, occidentalisme et hybridité (Montréal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2010); Leslie Barnes, Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014); Alexandra Kurmann, Intertextual Weaving in the Work of Linda Lê: Imagining the Ideal Reader (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016); Nguyễn Giáng Hương, La Littérature vietnamienne francophone (1913-1986) (Paris: Editions Garnier, 2018); the following dissertations: Sharon Lim-Hing, “Vietnamese Novels in French: Rewriting Self, Gender and Nation,” Diss. Harvard University, 1993; Michael O’Riley, “Discerning the Empire’s Other: Literary Interventions in the Culture of French Modernity,” Diss. University of Oregon, 1998; Lily Chiu, “Alter/Native: Imagining and Performing the Native Woman in Francophone and Vietnamese Literature,” Diss. University of Michigan, 2004; as well as my The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism (Hanover and London: University Press of New England,1987).
11Kim Lefèvre, Métisse blanche (Paris: Editions Barrault, 1989); White Métisse, trans. by Jack A. Yeager (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2018).
12During a reading from her newly-published autobiography followed by a question and answer session at the Viet Nam House (Nhà Việt Nam) on the Rue Cardinal Lemoine in Paris on 28 May 1989, Kim Lefèvre used the term “roman” to describe her text. In her introduction to the various editions in the original French, Michèle Sarde uses the same word. Lefèvre, Métisse blanche, 9.
13Lefèvre, Métisse blanche, 17; White Métisse, 1. Kim Lefèvre’s text was translated into Vietnamese in the mid-1990s. The opening lines read as follows: “Tôi được sinh ra, hình như ở Hà Nội, vào một ngày mùa xuân, ít lâu trước cuộc Chiến tranh thế giới thứ hai, từ cuộc hôn phối chốc lát giữa một cô gái An-nam và một người Pháp.” Kim Lefèvre, Cô gái lai da trắng, người dịch [trans. by] Dương Linh and Hoàng Phong (Hà Nội: NXB Hội Nhà Văn, 1995), 9.
14See my “Blurring the Lines in Vietnamese Fiction in French: Kim Lefèvre’s Métisse blanche,” in Post Colonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers, Mary Jean Green et al., eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 210-26.
15See Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992) as well as my “Blurring the Lines,” 220-223.
16See especially Françoise Lionnet, Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).
17Lefèvre, White Métisse, 11; “Que j’aimais être en partance. Que m’importait d’avoir quitté le Sud, d’aller au Nord. Je quittais un lieu sans bonheur et rien de bon ne semblait m’attendre à l’autre bout du chemin. Je me sentais parfaitement heureuse dans ce train en mouvement. Ma vie toute entière était là, bien au chaud, dans cette communauté sans lendemain, protégée par des êtres étrangers, mais qui constituteraient mes dieux protecteurs tant que durerait le voyage,” Métisse blanche, 27-28.
18 Lefèvre, White Métisse, 33; “Je connus enfin la joie d’avoir accès à la connaissance. Mon français s’améliorait de jour en jour,” Métisse blanche, 54.
19Lefèvre, White Métisse, 124; “Malgré un retard scolaire considérable accumulé durant les années d’errance du Nord au Sud, je n’éprouvais pas de difficultés à suivre l’enseignement qu’on me dispensa . . . ”; “ [m]es années d’orphelinat aussi m’avantageaient car le français, appris naguère et que j’avais oublié, revenait progressivement à ma mémoire”; “Je remplissais mon cerveau à la manière dont on gave les oies, ingurgitant à toute vitesse des notions d’histoire, de géographie, essayant de combler en deux mois un retard de plusieurs années,” Métisse blanche, 172-173.20Lefèvre, White Métisse, 12; “Les filles de [ma tante] m’ouvrirent les yeux sur un univers inespéré celui de l’aspiration au bonheur individual,” Métisse blanche, 28.
21Lefèvre, White Métisse, 12-13; “Sur les murs étaient accrochées des photographies de femmes françaises aux yeux immenses, bordés de cils si épais et recourbés qu’on avait du mal à y croire. Leurs bouches peintes en forme de coeur semblaient m’adresser des sourires d’une imperceptible ironie”; “extraordinairement attirantes,” Métisse blanche, 29.
22 Lefèvre, White Métisse, 138-139; “Cendrillon était devenue princesse,” Métisse blanche, 192.
23Lefèvre, White Métisse, 16; "Je me promettais d’avoir des dents aussi belles que les siennes quand je serais en âge de les teindre," Métisse blanche, 32.
24 Lefèvre, White Métisse, 10; "J’ai toujours aimé la nuit, sa caresse, la sensation de calme solitude qui emplit l’âme," Métisse blanche, 26.
25Lefèvre, White Métisse, 76; ’Crois-moi, ma fille, 'je sais de quoi je parle. Ne commets pas les mêmes erreurs que ta mère.’ [ . . . ] ‘Une femme n’a qu’un trésor, c’est celui de sa virginité,’Métisse blanche, 110.
26Lefèvre, White Métisse, 83; ’Ma mêre a raison. Je ne suis plus la même,’ Métisse blanche, 118.
27Lefèvre, White Métisse, 100; “Étrangère à moi-même, je l’étais également aux yeux des autres. J’ai le souvenir cuisant d’un après-midi de baignade”; “Elles formèrent autour de moi un cercle dansant, riant et se moquant comme si j’étais atteinte de maladie honteuse,”Métisse blanche, 137.
28Lefèvre, White Métisse, 91;“ J’entendais leurs chuchotements, leurs halètements puis les doux gémissements de ma maîtresse. Je sentais naître en moi un trouble délicieux en même temps qu’une onde de chaleur me traversait le bas-ventre. J’avais envie d’être à sa place, derrière le cloison. J’aimais leur amour, les chuchotements ardents dont je ne saisissais pas le sens, le son étrange que j’avais décélé dans leurs gémissements et qui semblait exprimer un mal qu’ils souhaitaient de toute leur âme,” Métisse blanche, 127.
29Lefèvre, White Métisse, 73; “. . . moi aussi, je rêvais d’amour,” Métisse blanche, 105.
30Lefèvre, White Métisse, 83; “En levant les yeux je fus, à l’instant même, charmée par la beauté d’un jeune homme penché sur un livre, le pinceau à la main. Nos regards se croisèrent,” Métisse blanche, 118.
31Lefèvre, White Métisse, 116; . . . nommer les émois de mon jeune coeur inexpérimenté, Métisse blanche, 161.
32Lefèvre, White Métisse, 117; Je découvrais l’avantage d’être considérée comme une jolie fille, le bonheur de plaire. Je savais maintenant qu’être Métisse ne comportait pas que des inconvénients. Mon univers affectif aussi s’était élargi: j’avais une amie, un admirateur, je n’étais plus tributaire de l’unique atmosphère familiale. Je regardais ma famille d’un oeil plus distant,”Métisse blanche, 162.
33Lefèvre, White Métisse, 129; Métisse blanche, 178.
34Lefèvre, White Métisse, 130; “Depuis la première réunion de la chorale des Jeunesses musicales mes sentiments et mes rêves s’étaient cristallisés sur une image, celle du professeur de musique”; “ . . . platonique et solitaire . . . ”; “ . . . le professeur n’était qu’un sujet autour duquel je brodais les motifs d’une aventure romanesque imaginaire . . . ,” Métisse blanche, 181-182.
35Lefèvre, White Métisse,, 138; “ . . . j’étais sans volonté devant son pouvoir,” Métisse blanche, 190.
36Lefèvre, White Métisse, 139; “ . . . je souhaitais simplement vivre dans son atmosphère, comme un objet, comme ce violon qu’il tenait distraitement de la main et qui gémissait sous la pression de ses doigts,” Métisse blanche, 191.
37Lefèvre, White Métisse, 144-145; “Je n’avais jamais rien éprouvé d’aussi violent,” Métisse blanche, 199.
38Lefèvre, White Métisse, 162; “’ . . . si je ne suis pas une Vietnamienne, comment pourrais-je te plaire?’ Il me regarda sans comprendre puis éclata de rire. ‘Mais tu me plais justement parce que tu n’est [sic] pas vietnamienne tout à fait. Vois-tu, tu es vietnamienne sans l’être, c’est là ton attrait. Quand je te regarde, tu m’es à la fois familière et étrangère. Et j’aime ça. Tu devrais t’en réjouir au lieu de t’en attrister. Que tu es bête!’”Métisse blanche, 217-218. The encounter with the music teacher is exceptional, as the narrator writes earlier in her memoir: “In the earliest stages of my adolescence, when I was being wooed by schoolmates, I had discovered that the flame that lit up their eyes was destined for the métisse. This discovery left me completely stunned. How could anyone desire what was scorned? Far from flattering me, their attentions left me cold. I had the feeling that they were lusting after me like some forbidden fruit, like some strange object that they would like to possess once, just to see. It would never enter their minds to put me on the same level as their mothers or sisters. That feeling was confirmed over and over the entire time I lived in Viet Nam. The men might change, but their deep-seated attitude toward me was always the same. That’s why, even though I was born in Viet Nam and my being was shaped by its culture, I never once had sexual relations with a Vietnamese man. Except for the fact that every false step on my part would have been considered a vice rather than a mistake, their desire cheapened me. In order to make myself respected, I had to feign total indifference. But I suffered from this artificial behavior, for I, too,” she writes (as cited above, note 29), “dreamed of love.” Lefèvre, White Métisse, 73; “En ma prime adolescence, lorsque j’étais courtisée par des camarades d’école, j’avais découvert que la flamme qui s’allumait dans leurs yeux était destinée à la métisse. Cette découverte m’avait jetée dans le plus grand étonnement. Comment pouvait-on désirer ce qu’on méprise? Leurs hommages, loin de me flatter, me glaçaient. J’avais le sentiment qu’ils me convoitaient comme un fruit défendu, comme un objet étrange qu’on aimerait posséder une fois, pour voir. Loin d’eux l’idée qu’ils pouvaient me placer, au même plan que leur mère ou leur soeur. Ce sentiment, je n’avais cessé de le vérifier tout au long de la période où j’avais vécu au Viêt-Nam, que mon être fut façonné par sa culture, je n’avais jamais eu de relations sexuelles avec un Vietnamien. Hormis le fait que tout faux pas venant de moi aurait été considéré comme un vice et non une faute, leur désir me rabaissait. Pour me faire respecter, je devais affecter une indifférence totale. Mais je souffrais de ce comportement factice car moi aussi, je rêvais d’amour,” Métisse blanche, 104-105.
39Lefèvre, White Métisse, 162-169; Métisse blanche, 218-225.
40Lefèvre, White Métisse, 77; “’ . . . personne ne croira la femme qui proclame son innocence,’” Métisse blanche, , 111.
41Lefèvre, White Métisse, 195; “Je valais donc quelque chose,” Métisse blanche, 259.
42Kim Lefèvre, Retour à la saison des pluies (Paris: Editions Barrault, 1990), 23.
43Christina Elizabeth Firpo, The Uprooted: Race Children, and Imperialism in French Indochina, 1890-1980 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016).
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