Dawn Ng, “Situating Linda Lê: a problem of categorisation and nomenclature”

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Dawn Ng is a PhD candidate with a doctoral contract at the University of Paris 8.

The work of Linda Lê, who is known as a Vietnamese-born naturalised French author writing in French and living in Paris, escapes definition. What appears to be part of “postcolonial Vietnamese literature in French”, “Franco-Vietnamese literature” or “migrant literature” is in fact a body of texts that are too complex to fit into such critical categories. Attempts at locating its textual space create categories of knowledge that essentialise the other with identities constructed through difference, offering only limited and limiting interpretations of the texts.

The “post-colonial dialectic” opposing the dominant to the dominated is not only, according to Salman Rushdie, “peripheral to the problems of literatures”[1] of settler societies, but also a form of reductionism, reducing a body of texts to its extraliterary, sociohistorical context. One can also see in the classification of Lê’s work in the category of “Franco-Vietnamese literature” what Rushdie calls “the folly of trying to contain writers inside passports”[2] and to territorialise literature in the Nation by the centripetal force of language. Furthermore, the trait d’union in the “Franco-Vietnamese” couplet conceals, behind the appearance of a unified identity, violence inherent in the imperialist dichotomy between France and other Francophone countries reinstated by the term “Francophone”. As for “migrant writing”, which places emphasis on the signs of textual hybridity displayed in the writing of those who have chosen to write in a “host” language, it still refers to the act of migration that reduces a writer to the status of a migrant and denotes writing by emigrants or immigrants as “migrant writing”. What better describes Lê’s writing is perhaps the term “migrancy”, which defines a permanent state or mode of being of mobility. It implies a “dwelling-in-travel” which, according to James Clifford, has been a mode of being “for centuries”[3]. Indeed, exile is of all times and of all places, but it is mystified, too often seen in a romantic and negative view. The critical trope of exile and loss in postcolonial studies creates a binary opposition between the placeless (post)colonial who has lost his sense of belonging and the non-colonial who already has a sense of place, self and belonging.[4] It is therefore also closely associated with the generalised idea that no emigrant or immigrant is free from an existential unease discernable precisely in migrant writing.

If Linda Lê has written about the pain of emigration, of being suspended between the home country and the host country, the past and the future, death and life, in the in-between space where return and reconciliation are impossible, her texts also evoke resistance and the overcoming of the negativity of exile, without negating the exilic, liminal condition in which she is placed.[5] Writing performs the transformation of the traumatising non-place of postcolonial in-betweenness into a non-place where tension is no longer negative but creative, a source of freedom associated with rootlessness. Linda Lê dwells in writing, in crossing, transgressing not only national, ethnic, cultural and linguistic borders but also antagonistic literary and theoretical boundaries inextricably tied to the politics of inclusion and exclusion. The porosity and artificiality of such epistemological constructs are made apparent by such crossings, but so is the impossibility of these very crossings and hence of the identification of the textual space, situated as it is in a boundless and unlocatable world of imagination, both in the world and outside of a well-demarcated “inside”.

[1] Rushdie, Salman, “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist”, in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, London: Granta, 1991, p. 65.

[2] Ibid., p. 67.

[3] Clifford, James, “The Transit Lounge of Culture”, TLS 4596 (3 May 1991), p. 7.

[4] See Fokkema, Aleid, “On the (False) Idea of Exile: Walcott and Nichols”, in G. Collier, et al. (eds.), Cross/Cultures: Readings in Post/Colonial Literatures and Cultures in English, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998, p. 102.

[5] See Lê, Linda, Calomnies, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1993; Voix : Une Crise, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1998; Lettre morte, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1999.