Intersections: 'An Open Wound on a Smooth Skin': (Post)colonialism and the Melancholic Performance of Trauma in the Works of Linda Lê
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 21, September 2009

'An Open Wound on a Smooth Skin':
(Post)colonialism and the Melancholic Performance of Trauma
in the Works of Linda Lê

Lily V. Chiu

  1. In his essay 'Mourning and Melancholia,' Sigmund Freud often confuses and sometimes conflates his definitions of mourning and melancholia, but there is one point in which the distinction between the two is clear: on the topic of declaration. Freud argues that mourning occurs when the object is 'declared' lost or dead; however, in melancholia this very declaration is impossible.[1] Judith Butler takes this argument further in stating that '[m]elancholia is precisely the effect of unavowable loss. A loss prior to speech and declaration, it is the limiting condition of its possibility: a withdrawal or retraction from speech that makes speech possible.'[2] In this article, I will be discussing melancholia based upon this definition of its originating in an undeclared, unavowable, and ultimately unacknowledged loss. Here, loss is not, as Dominick LaCapra argues, an absence converted into a loss in the hopes that, by marking the absence as an identifiable object (that which is lost), anxiety may be overcome and mourning occur. Neither is it a disavowal of an original (and unavowable) lack, such as homosexuality, as Butler contends in her chapter, 'Melancholia Gender/Refused Identification.'[3] Rather, I will be discussing loss in its most primary definition: that which one once had, but does not anymore.
  2. In the texts by Linda Lê that I analyse, loss is apparent in many different forms: physical and psychic, absolute and ideal, individual and collective. What is significant about all these different types of losses, however, is that they are all unacknowledged, and therefore traumatic. In that they remain unacknowledged, unavowable and undeclared, these traumatic losses can not be introjected or mourned, and thus are incorporated into the subject and become manifest as melancholia.[4] Acknowledgement is particularly important in terms of individual and collective trauma. I use these two terms based upon Jan Assmann's theory of two different types of memory: erinnerung (private, individual memory) and gedächtnis (collective memory).[5] In order for an individual loss/trauma to become collective (and therefore historical and cultural), it must be communicated and acknowledged. Without this acknowledgement, there is a danger of the traumatic loss becoming incorporated and developing into melancholia.
  3. The element of melancholia is extremely prominent in the two texts by Linda Lê I will discuss: 'Solo la marionette [Solo the Marionette],' the first story in a collection of short stories Solo; and Les trois Parques [The Three Fates], the first book in a 'triptych' on Vietnam. However, I would like to propose that the melancholia present in these texts is one specific to the (post)colonial condition.[6] During both colonialism and its aftermath, traumatic loss, as experienced by the colonised 'native,' is incurred through a variety of reasons. In the colonial period, there is a loss of freedom and individual subjectivity on the part of the colonised. In the postcolonial period, and in particular Vietnam's postcolonial period, there is a forcible and violent uprooting of the postcolonial subject who must leave her native land.[7] Not only does she suffer the physical loss of family and country, she also must bear the more psychical losses of language and culture, in assimilating (completely or incompletely) to her newfound immigrant/refugee identity. In many cases of the overseas Vietnamese, who cannot mourn the loss of their country since that country is now in the control of the very government which forced them to flee, the loss is unacknowledged and unavowed. This inability (or sometimes refusal) to acknowledge the trauma caused by the loss can be either on the part of the traumatised subject (primary witness) or on the part of another complicit in the trauma (secondary witness). In either case, the unacknowledged trauma can lead to melancholia.
  4. In the texts by Linda Lê that I will be studying, the melancholic subjects are aware of their own loss and trauma; however, they have not yet gained acknowledgement from others of their trauma, and this is the cause of their melancholia. In order to achieve acknowledgement for their trauma, they perform their losses, their psychical (and in some cases physical) wounds. Although there is very little theorisation linking performance theory with melancholia, one notable exception is Judith Butler's work on drag performers and the melancholia of disavowed homosexuality. Butler posits that '[i]f melancholia in Freud's sense is the effect of an ungrieved loss, performance, understood as "acting out," may be related to the problem of unacknowledged loss.'[8] What Butler does not quite make explicit here is the exact nature of the relationship between melancholia and performance. Is melancholia itself a performance? Or are there multiple performances that may be performed by a melancholic subject, but may not be classified as melancholia? Is there such a thing as melancholic performance?
  5. In specifically dealing with drag performance, Butler argues that 'the performance [of drag] allegorizes a loss it cannot grieve, allegorizes the incorporative fantasy of melancholia whereby an object is phantasmatically taken in or on as a way of refusing to let it go.'[9] Here, the loss is what Butler posits as the original (and renounced) state of homosexuality, and drag allegorizes 'some set of melancholic incorporative fantasies that stabilise gender.'[10] However, here melancholia equals heterosexuality: heterosexuality is the incorporative fantasy of a lost (renounced) homosexuality. What drag reveals are the 'mundane' performances that heterosexual subjectivities give in forming themselves as heterosexual. In other words, heterosexuality itself is a sort of melancholic performance.
  6. What is essential about Butler's theory of melancholia and performativity is her idea that the performance can go beyond simply 'acting out' trauma; it can also reveal the underlying incorporative trauma or melancholia inherent in any system, be it gender or colonialism. In both 'Solo la marionette' and Les trois Parques, the two melancholic subjects are driven to perform their losses and traumas. However, these performances are not mere phases of 'acting out' their traumas, they are (self-destructive) attempts to receive acknowledgement from the spectators of their trauma, and to make their traumas communicative and collective. Furthermore, by the very violent and self-destructive nature of the performances, they are also calculated to traumatise the spectators themselves, or more accurately, to expose the spectators' own unacknowledged and unavowed traumas.
  7. Finally, I want to argue that these melancholic performances in Lê's texts are symptoms of (post)colonialism. Although little has been written theorising a link between (post)colonialism, melancholia and performance, Homi Bhabha has broached the subject in his essay 'Postcolonial authority and postmodern guilt':

      The melancholic discourse, Freud says, is a plaint in the oldfashioned sense; the insistent self-exposure and the repetition of loss must not be taken at face value for its apparent victimage and passivity. Its narrative metonymy, the repetition of the piecemeal, outside the sentence, bit by bit, its insistent self-exposure, comes also from a mental constellation of revolt: 'The melancholic are not ashamed and do not hide themselves, since everything derogatory they say about themselves is at bottom said about somebody else' (1917). This inversion of meaning and address in the melancholic discourse—when it 'incorporates' the loss or lack in its own body, displaying its own weeping wounds—is also an act of 'disincorporating' the authority of the Master. [Frantz] Fanon, again, comes close to saying something similar when he suggests that the native wears his psychic wounds on the surface of his skin like an open sore—an eyesore to the coloniser.[11]

    Bhabha's theorisation of melancholic performance as a kind of revolt against the Master is central to my analysis of 'Solo la marionette,' which I will read as an allegory of colonialism and the awakenings of the anti-colonial resistance. Colonialism and its aftermath cause a trauma of their own: the loss of freedom, individual subjectivity (and later, the loss of country, family, and culture), which results in a trauma. This trauma, if unacknowledged, becomes incorporated and becomes melancholia, which then is performed in the hopes of achieving acknowledgement of the trauma. The achievement of acknowledgement is the only way of resolving the melancholia, and it also serves to expose the underlying and unacknowledged traumas of the spectators of the melancholic performance; unfortunately, however, the performance may result in the self-destruction of the original melancholic subject, as is the case in 'Solo la marionette.'

    The apprentice of anguish: 'Solo la marionette'
  8. Linda Lê's third book, Solo, is a collection of thirty vignettes divided into four sections: 'Les doublures' [The understudies], 'Les complices' [The accomplices], 'Le soliste' [The soloist], and 'Les revenants' [The ghosts]. 'Solo la marionette,' the title story and the first story in the first section ('Les doublures'[12]) of the book, may be read as an allegory of French colonialism of Vietnam. Solo the marionette is one night awakened from his slumber in his trunk by an unfamiliar sound: the lighting of a match:

      Solo has lost his sleep. He is an apprentice to insomnia at the same time as to anguish…only three months ago, Solo the marionette loved to fall asleep, huddled in a corner of the trunk, surrounded by his friends, rocked to sleep by their regular breathing. He sank into sleep and he forgot even his own existence. But one event had ruined his tranquility, had uprooted him from the bedding that he shared with the other marionettes: one night, a light sound had woken him up. He believed that he heard a match being lit; it seemed to him that someone was prowling around the trunk and was preparing to light it on fire.[13]

    At first terrified that someone is trying to set fire to the trunk in which he and all the other marionettes lie asleep, Solo is surprised to discover that he is not disturbed by the thought of impending death, but that rather, he is waiting for his death with a 'joyous resignation' and 'indifference.'[14] After that night, Solo cannot sleep anymore, a trait that sets him apart from his puppet companions.[15] Sleep is equated to a lie which consoles and leads him through life; more than that, however, sleep is that which contains and embalms the inherent rottenness of his being into a psychic tomb: 'his intrinsic decay that he tried to preserve by embalming it in the philter of sleep.'[16] In losing his sleep, 'he lost the thread of the lie that had helped him to orient himself in the labyrinth of life.'[17] Here, Solo is presented as a melancholic figure who has so entombed (incorporated) his loss of freedom, to the point that he does not himself realise what he has lost until he experiences this catharsis of insomnia, brought on by the (imagined) realisation of his impending death. During these white nights,

      Solo the marionette witnesses, helpless, the laceration of his own body, whipped, stabbed, shred to pieces by this anguish that comes to visit him at sunset and leaves him, bloodied, in the small hours. Before his friends, who are protected from the assaults of anguish by a layer of lies, wake up, Solo has just enough time to dress his wounds and cover the traces of his cuts. His friends perceive nothing; they have lost the habit of opening their eyes.[18]

    In his insomnia, Solo has several revelations, including his recognition that their life is such that 'the marionettes need to tell themselves lies'[19] and that they have lost the ability to truly see and perceive. Controlled by a detested puppet-master, whom they call '"Chiffe molle" [Milquetoast] to get back at him for the power he has over them,'[20] the marionettes have fallen into a deep lethargy in which they no longer care what they do or who they are; they have forgotten that they do not even belong to themselves: 'that their voices don't belong to them, that their movements are directed, the state of their souls borrowed. The marionette people, thinks Solo during his white nights, live in too carefree a word, in their perverted somnolence; so are they doomed to extinction.'[21] Lê uses the state of the marionettes as a metaphor for the resigned hopelessness of colonised peoples who have become so inured to their life without personal freedom and individual subjectivity that they are indeed like puppets who forget that they are being controlled by a 'Master' puppeteer.
  9. The marionettes have lost themselves so much that, when they are not performing for their audience, they only sleep. When they speak, it is not in their normal voices, but in a perverse travesty of speech. Solo however, faces a different fate. Because he is constantly racked with anguish (angoisse) as a result of his 'awakening,' his inability to 'perform' satisfactorily leads the puppet-master to suspect him of organising a treasonous uprising against his authority:

      As for Solo, he is so worn out by his struggles with anguish that he takes advantage of a few hours reprieve from the morning's work to doze off. 'Chiffe molle' gives him a few kicks in the ribs to wake him up: Solo, his favorite marionette (in making him, 'Chiffe molle' had the idea of giving to this puppet who serves as his son the features of his own face), is pronounced, in his eyes, guilty of treason. Perhaps Solo is even suspected of organising the resistance against his creator.[22]

    That this suspected subversion is centred on Solo is a particularly bad blow to Chiffe molle, as Solo is the puppeteer's favourite (or double), the one modelled after him. Solo is the son-twin figure gone horrifically wrong. This calls to mind Homi Bhabha's theoretical model of the colonial hybrid: the mimetic monster created by the coloniser in his own image, but whose repetition is imperfect and therefore terrifying to the colonial authority. As Bhabha argues, this 'display of hybridity—its peculiar 'repetition'—terrorises authority with the ruse of recognition, its mimcry, its mockery.'[23] Solo's refusal to perform, which is in reality a symptom of his melancholic discovery of his own subjugated state, is interpreted by the (colonial) authority figure Chiffe molle as a sign of resistance, which terrifies him.
  10. To counteract the suspected revolt against his authority, the puppet-master replaces Solo with Trombino, an ambitious puppet who both entertains and disgusts his spectators, to the point of finally usurping the authority of their gaze: '[T]here is in his voice something unrefined, lively, and authoritative that provokes first laughter, then curiosity; finally, the spectator abdicates, he no longer feels anything but a vague perplexity, mixed with an unavowed repulsion.'[24] However, instead of using his subversive capabilities to help the other marionettes revolt against the puppet-master, Trombino becomes a terrorising authority figure himself. If we persist in analysing the story as the allegory of Vietnamese colonialism, then the figure of Trombino may be plausible as the Communist, who, although he succeeds in dismantling the colonial system, merely proceeds to replace the old power structure with a new, equally repressive, regime. To Solo, Trombino represents the fear and anxiety that has been feeding upon him: 'he sees in Trombino the incarnation of the anguish that comes every evening tearing him to pieces to revel in his flesh and his blood.'[25] Perhaps he sees Trombino as his impending doom, the lighter of the match (Communism) that threatens to engulf the entire trunk (Vietnam) in which the marionettes live and burn all its inhabitants (the Vietnamese people) alive.
  11. The climax and resolution of the story come in the form of a marionette performance, called 'La chandelle' [The Candle], in which Solo is forced to perform against his will. In this spectacle, each of the marionettes holds a candle (symbolising life) and together form a circle around Trombino, who plays a god-like inspection figure. From puppet to puppet Trombino turns, finally stopping at one piteous, shaking figure. Without saying a word, Trombino takes a pair of scissors out of his pocket and in one movement, severs the marionette's strings. The victim crumples, her candle falls out of her hands and is extinguished.[26] At this, the crowd goes wild and Trombino insults Solo, causing the audience to go into further hilarity and the other marionettes to snigger. Finally, Solo realises that 'in this type of combat, one cannot destroy the enemy without destroying oneself.'[27] Taking his candle, he sets himself alight and throws himself against Trombino, thus annihilating both of them in the very blaze he had dreaded.
  12. As a result of witnessing the self-destructive spectacle, not only the puppet-master but also all the surviving marionettes lose the comfort afforded to them by their sleep of lies:

      The fire is extinguished. A pile of ashes and charred wood lies in the middle of the stage. With the help of a few spectators, 'Chiffe molle' gathers up the ashes, he fills a metal casket with them, which he places at the bottom of the trunk.

      Since that day, the marionettes have lost their sleep: they are woken up in the middle of the night by the noises of struggle that come from the casket. Since that day, 'Chiffe molle' has closed his theatre: he has no more energy, he says, because during the night he must wage battle against the anguish that comes to visit him in the form of a two-headed puppet. These twins, he says, lead him every evening to the stake.[28]

    The sounds of battle that emerge from the casket of ashes placed at the bottom of the trunk (in an attempt to forget about it, perhaps) keep the surviving marionettes awake at night, and refuse to let them sink back into their complacent ignorance. The performance of Solo's trauma and melancholia in turn traumatises both the spectators as well as the other puppets. In fact, for the other puppets, Solo's self-destructive performance does not so much traumatise them as awaken the inherent trauma of subjugation lying hidden underneath the somnolence of the puppets. Solo's act awakens them to the reality of their situation in the same way that the sound of a match being struck woke him up from his sleep of ignorance. In this way, Solo's performance can be seen as a transmission of trauma. Now his trauma, which had been unacknowledged, unavowed, and undeclared (as attested by Solo's need to hide his wounds before his friends woke up), has been acknowledged, and furthermore transmitted. It is now fully recognised as a collective trauma, shared by all the puppets, as well as by the puppet-master himself.
  13. In the allegorical terms of colonialism and its aftermath, Solo's performance is reminiscent of the self-immolation by Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam to protest the American war.[29] Their performative acts of self-immolation were also attempts to transmit trauma to spectators. The conflagration that engulfs both Solo and Trombino may be read as the war that was born as a resistance to the colonial system, but turned into a battle between North and South, brother against brother. This may be the explanation for the figure of the 'two-headed puppet,' the twins who return to haunt and terrorise Chiffe molle in the night. Solo and Trombino are twins, both revolting against the puppet-master (the figure of colonial authority), but in doing so, destroying each other. It is no far stretch to hypothesise that Solo represents South Vietnam, and Trombino communist North Vietnam. In their struggle with each other, they traumatise not only the French colonist (who withdraws, closing his puppet theatre, in 1954) but also the Vietnamese people, the other puppets who can never sleep again, for the sounds of the battle raging on inside their trunk (Vietnam), and for the fear of the conflagration that threatens to engulf them as well.

    Multiple losses, multiple trauma: Les Trois Parques
  14. Although her first publications only hinted at her native land ('la terre natale'), Lê later clarified (in Les trois Parques) that many of her characters are Vietnamese immigrants living in France. Her three novels Les trois Parques, Voix [Voices], and Lettre morte [Dead letter] are a cathartic trilogy in which her (semi-autobiographical) characters deal with the death of their father. In the fascinating postface to Les trois Parques, Lê discreetly reveals her own private trauma:

      Written in great isolation, finished 1 April 1997, submitted to, then withdrawn from Saint Catherine of Sienna, before the decision, taken to Saint Solomon…to let it see the light of day, this book has found, in the weeks following its completion, a somewhat dramatic epilogue—three months of stupor and confusion—that I would never have been able to face without the help of several friends and a doctor. Thank you, therefore…[to] Olivier Rolin, who responded one Sunday to a call of distress. And to the absent one, whose murmur knew how to dominate this 'horrifying voice that one normally calls silence.'[30]

    Les trois Parques—as well as its traumatic epilogue and the writing of Lê's following two novels—is purportedly the result of the death of Lê's own father, who was left behind in Vietnam when Lê emigrated to France with her mother and sisters at the age of fourteen.[31] In this novel, the main narrator, 'la Manchote' [the One-Handed Woman], and her two cousins prepare for the visit of the cousins' father, 'King Lear,' who had stayed behind in Vietnam while his daughters and his niece left for France with their grandmother. The three cousins are different in both demeanour and in the way they have adapted to life in France: the eldest, married to a Frenchman and living in a sparkling new house, is pregnant with 'the little prince' who will carry on the traditions of the family; the second-eldest, la Manchote, is a one-handed self-viewed freak, who rather prides herself on her melancholic disposition; the youngest, 'the cute one' constantly obsessed with her own beauty, is established as a kept woman in an attic apartment. The two sisters have in one way or another 'fitted in' to their new identities as immigrants, both adopting dominant clichés of Vietnamese femininity: the eldest as the Confucian housewife confined to cooking, cleaning and childbearing; the youngest as the congaie (or mistress)[32] exchanging her sexual affections for a roof over her head. La Manchote, on the other hand, rejects these easy identifications; she refuses to let go of her traumatic losses, and in doing so, incorporates them and becomes melancholic.
  15. The cousins gather every Sunday in the eldest's shiny new kitchen to prepare for the arrival of King Lear. They discuss recipes from the old country for dishes they will cook for him to eat, they read his letters (written in their native language of Vietnamese, which only the eldest cousin now knows how to decipher), and they make plans about what sights they will show him when he comes. It is unclear over how long a period of time the narrative stretches, although it is possible that it is completely contained within a single day. The narrative is non-linear, fragmentary at times, and temporally fluid (often cutting between flashbacks and the present). The narrative voice is also fluid: although there is a primary first-person narrator, la Manchote, much of the narrative is third-person, sometimes omniscient, sometimes from the perspective of one of the other characters. At other times, the narrative point of view belongs to la Manchote, but she refers to herself both in the first person and in the third.
  16. As with all the characters in this novel, 'la Manchote' is only one of many names given to this figure. She is also called 'l'Albatroce' [the Albatross] by her younger cousin's boyfriend, Théo, on account of the burden of melancholia she bears. Her younger cousin thinks of her in several instances as a 'chauve-souris' [bat], the moniker referring to the black cape worn by la Manchote. La Manchote often sees herself as a Cassandra figure, always warning her cousins of impending disaster (as indicated to her by the tingling of her stump), but suffering the dire fate of always being ignored. However, her most prevalent identity is as 'la Manchote.' Being manchote means, of course, that she has experienced at least one loss: the loss of her hand. As I stated earlier, this is clearly a loss and not a lack. It is a physical loss, yet it carries heavy psychic implications. We are never told exactly how la Manchote lost her hand. The only reference to the act itself is oblique: 'La Manchote, who wasn't so at that time….'[33] Here we see la Manchote before she is Manchote: that is, before she has assumed the (melancholic) identity of la Manchote. It is possible that the loss was self-inflicted, as an act of physical disincorporation (the act of getting rid of the hand), which is in reality an act of psychical incorporation. This, however, is a theory that I will deal with more fully in the last section of this article.
  17. The loss of her hand is not the only loss la Manchote has experienced. We are never told what happens to her parents, but it is quite likely that she had left them behind when she left Vietnam with her cousins and her grandmother. In addition to her parents, she has also lost her uncle, King Lear. As a Vietnamese immigrant living in France, and having left her parents and uncle behind in Vietnam, la Manchote experiences the additional trauma of dislocation. Yet underlying this is another trauma, which ultimately is what led to her rupture with her family: la Manchote was involved in an incestuous love affair with her twin brother, who is considered crazy. Although this event is not revealed until about three-quarters of the way into the novel, it has been obliquely referred to throughout the novel, through la Manchote's periodic cries of 'He'snotcrazy! He'snotcrazy!' The episode is presented as a rumination by the youngest cousin, but at the same time perceivable as a flashback by la Manchote:

      The purehearts were only fifteen years old, when they were found behind their parents' armoire, in the act of fornicating against the wall. There was blood on the ground, blood on the cousin's thighs, blood on her sucked lips, bitten by the lunatic…The voices behind the door signaled the enemy's approach. But when the door opened, when footsteps approached the armoire, instead of turning away, he continued to push himself in, his mouth inhaling his twin's lip. The cries did not tear them apart…It was necessary to hit them, to pull the lunatic from behind to finally uproot the bemuddied twins from each other. And crack! Another great love broken in two.[34]

    The scene is inherently violent, with blood all over the ground, the brother biting his twin, the discoverers hitting at the two to separate them. It is an intensely traumatic scene, and one that may be compared to the other trauma of leaving Vietnam: the word arracher (literally, to uproot) is used to describe the cousins being wrenched apart from each other. It is also a word that is often used in accounts of emigration: one is uprooted from one's land, family and culture and transplanted. In the case of la Manchote, both arrachements are forced. She is literally torn from her brother's embrace and then taken to her grandmother's house: 'La Manchote, who wasn't so at that time, was sent to her grandmother's house to separate her from the rutting imbecile, the twin taken by madness.'[35] From there, it is assumed that she was taken along to France when the grandmother left with her other two granddaughters, King Lear's daughters. While one uprooting leads to another, both are violent and traumatic.

    Being and performing the wound: la Manchote's act of (dis-)incorporation
  18. Although it is never revealed exactly how la Manchote loses her hand, it is fairly safe to speculate that it was lost as a result of her traumatic separation from her brother. Of the brother, we know that he is locked up in an insane asylum despite his sister's protests that he is not crazy. After the separation, when la Manchote is sent to her grandmother's house in Vietnam, we know that she is not yet one-handed. There, however, la Manchote's grandmother tells her stories of witches who have the power to detach their own hands at will at night

      to go out and seize souls…[I]f the witches fell in love, their hand would stay clinging to the heart of the sleeper and, instead of burning him, let itself be consumed until the early hours, when there would be nothing left of it but a handful of ashes. The witches in love never saw their hand again, but it was rare: they never fell in love except with their equal, their human half; and, if they gave him their hand, love would reduce them to the ranks of the disabled, they would lose everything, their hand, their powers, and even their human half.[36]

    It is unclear whether these stories are before the fact or after the fact, that is, if la Manchote had heard these stories and then cut her hand off herself, or if she had somehow lost her hand (after the incident with her twin) and then used these stories as a psychical fantasy to rationalise her loss. The former reading seems more persuasive, since it would be in keeping with the self-destructive performance seen in 'Solo la marionette' and elsewhere in Les trois Parques. As a deliberate self-destructive act, la Manchote's loss of her hand acts as a (dis-)incorporation of the loss of her brother.
  19. In their essay on incorporation versus introjection,[37] Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok argue that incorporation is the refusal to mourn a loss: 'Incorporation is the refusal to reclaim as our own the part of ourselves that we placed in what we lost; incorporation is the refusal to acknowledge the full import of the loss, a loss that, if recognised as such, would effectively transform us.'[38] La Manchote does not incorporate the loss of her brother in the sense of Abraham and Torok, but rather embraces that loss and makes it part of her own identity. By cutting off her hand, she literally dis-incorporates herself: she removes part of her own body. At the same time, she becomes 'la Manchote.' Her entire identity as 'la Manchote' is based upon a physical trauma/wound (the loss of the hand), which is the embodiment of a psychical trauma (the double arrachement of brother and home).
  20. What happened to the hand? In the stories about the sorceresses, the lost hand would let itself be consumed by flames, and nothing would be left of it except a handful of ashes. This is strongly reminiscent of Solo's self-immolation: after the fire, there was nothing left of the two marionettes except a heap of ashes. This consummation by flames seems like a metaphor for the psychical consummation of the losses suffered by la Manchote. She eats at both her hand and her heart: 'And now she was nibbling at her stump, she was eating her heart bitter, bitter, but she loved that, because it was bitter and because it was her heart.'[39] La Manchote takes pleasure in her stump, the physical marker of her trauma; she manically rubs it against everything new in the eldest cousin's new house, a habit that disgusts both her cousins, who feel that la Manchote is somehow infecting everything with her stump.
  21. This, however, is exactly how la Manchote wants them to feel. She glories in her own repugnance and melancholia. Her ostentatious display of her stump is a way of getting her cousins to acknowledge her (and their own) traumas. As discussed earlier, melancholia (in the Freudian and Butlerian sense) is the effect of unavowable, unacknowledged loss. La Manchote's traumatic separation from her twin is never spoken about; her loss is never acknowledged. Her cries of 'He'snotcrazy! He'snotcrazy!' are taken to be the rantings of a melancholic, and are ignored by the cousins. La Manchote feels that her cousins are ignoring too many things; they are, in effect, refusing to acknowledge their own traumas of arrachement from their home and family. The eldest, although preserving the culture of the Country, sees only the future and her petite famille, choosing to forget the loss of ones left behind. The youngest, sexually overcharged and self-satisfied, nonchalantly plays the scripted role of petite épouse [mistress], kept in an attic studio by a Frenchman. Both perform (or coercively mimic) two separate stereotypes of the Vietnamese woman: the eldest a model Confucian daughter and wife, the youngest the (neo)colonial congaie.
  22. Unlike her cousins, only la Manchote sees herself as self-aware of her trauma: she is 'a wine stain on a clean façade, an open wound on a smooth skin.'[40] Far from falling prey to coercive mimeticism[41] as her cousins have, la Manchote has been unable and unwilling to become interpellated into either the French or the Confucian cultural system. Her lack can also be interpreted as a manifestation of Slavoj Žižek's traumatic kernel: 'a residue, a leftover, a stain of traumatic irrationality and senselessness sticking to it…this leftover, far from hindering the full submission of the subject to the ideological command, is the very condition of it.'[42] La Manchote's agency comes from the performance of her gaping wound, her traumatic kernel. She has embraced and become her wound, her lack, her trauma. Thus the disincorporation of her hand (the lack) becomes her interpellation and incorporation of an abject identity.
  23. Like Solo the marionette, la Manchote wants to make others (namely, her cousins, her fellow immigrant Vietnamese) aware of their shared trauma. In order for her to do so, in order for her to achieve transmission of her trauma and make it collective (as Solo did by his act of self-destruction), she must first receive acknowledgement for her losses. To do so she adopts the same tactics as Solo: performing her melancholia. Everything she does is in some way or another a performance: her constant cries of 'He'snotcrazy! He'snotcrazy!,' her mania of rubbing everything with her stump, her way of dressing in dark, depressing clothes. However, the most striking performance she gives in the novel is indeed a self-destructive one:

      Like the night when la Manchote had arrived with her witch's face made up in razor cuts [maquillée au rasoir]. She was capable of everything, Miss I've-got-tragedy-in-the-blood, to show that she has gone far excavating the ruins of her soul. She had rung at the door of the little attic studio in the middle of the night, all rushed to give a lesson in morbidity to her little cousin, with her innocent head filled with whims and fairy tales.[43]

    Arriving in the middle of the night at her youngest cousin's attic studio, la Manchote seeks to traumatise her cousin by making her witness to a violently self-destructive act. This is the only means by which la Manchote can 'wake up' her cousins, the same means by which Solo woke up the other puppets. Unlike Solo, however, la Manchote takes pleasure in her melancholic performances, which suggests that, in the act of performing her traumas, she is in actuality re-living the pleasure and erotic desire inherent in her original trauma: the act of sexual intercourse with her twin brother.
  24. This is perhaps the most ineffable quality of la Manchote, that which separates her from both her cousins. In choosing to lead a melancholic life, la Manchote uses her entire identity—her maimed body, her drab appearance, and her frankly crazy speech—as an eyesore, not only to the former colonisers, but also to the former colonised, who perhaps have forgotten that they once were colonised, even to the point of becoming neocolonised. It is an existence she purposely cultivates in order not to forget her traumas, but also to relive the unbearable pleasure those very traumas afforded her.
  25. Another trait la Manchote shares with Solo is her insomnia — an insomnia that, like Solo's, is quite possibly a symptom of her (post)colonial condition. Towards the end of the novel, a long soliloquy (possibly by la Manchote, although it is not very clear) berates the 'cancer of communism' and blames it for the persistent insomnia which has plagued the narrator ever since the division of Vietnam in 1954:

      Thirty years since she's lost her sleep…The sleep that had left her with small steps the year when the land in the shape of an S was sectioned off just under the jugular vein S, a necklace of barbed wire separating the head, red with communist fever, from the weakling trunk, standing firm to meet the foreign rabble of soldiers as good servants of imperialism…Ten thousand white nights. Thirty years of salivating insomniac rage.[44]

    As the thought of impending death kept Solo awake in his trunk, so does the enraged thought of communism invading her country keep the narrator (la Manchote?) unable to sleep as well. The link between melancholy and insomnia is clear in 'Solo' but is less so in Les trois Parques. Both the marionette and la Manchote, however, are in the same position. Both suffer from unexpressed, unacknowledged traumas that threaten to engulf them if they do not act. They turn to melancholic performance as their means of traumatic transmission. For Solo, this performance is ultimately a sacrificial act, yet it succeeds in making his trauma (and his insomnia) collective: the other puppets, as well as their master, are now self-aware. For la Manchote, the melancholic performance is embraced, internalised, and in the end becomes a marker of her own abject identity: the open sore on the otherwise smooth façade so willingly cultivated by her cousins.
  26. Like her narrators Solo and la Manchote, Linda Lê continues to try to shock and traumatise us, not only through the presentation of her texts, which are often fragmented, non-linear, and distressing to read, but also through the characters she fills them with: decaying corpses, eerie mannequins, vampires, and combusting ghosts, to name but a few. Through her writings, she implicates us in her (post)colonial traumatic melancholia, and also perhaps wakes us up to the possibility of our own unacknowledged and unavowed traumas.


    [1] Sigmund Freud, 'Mourning and melancholia,' in The Standard Edition of the Complete Pyschological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, ed. and trans. James Strachey, London: Hogarth, 1957, pp. 237–58.

    [2] Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 170.

    [3] See Dominick LaCapra, 'Reflections on trauma, absence, and loss,' in Whose Freud? The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture, ed. Peter Brooks and Alex Woloch, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 178—204. In this paper, I will be appropriating Butler's theory of performativity linked with melancholia, but not specifically dealing with gender and disavowal of homosexuality.

    [4] See Freud, and Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, Volume 1, ed. and trans. Nicolas A. Rand, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    [5] See Jan Assman, 'Collective memory and cultural identity,' in New German Critique, vol. 65 (1995):125–33.

    [6] By the term '(post)colonial' I mean that which pertains to colonialism, but extends to include its aftermath, or postcolonialism.

    [7] Here I am referring particularly to the phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s of the boat–people, Vietnamese refugees forced to abandon their country and family in order to escape the Communist government of the newly re-unified Vietnam.

    [8] Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, p. 145.

    [9] Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, p. 146.

    [10] Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, p. 146.

    [11] Homi Bhabha, 'Postcolonial authority and postmodern guilt,' in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg et al., New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. 56–68, p. 65.

    [12] The word 'doublure' literally means 'understudy' or 'stand–in,' yet has undeniable connotations of 'double,' as in the trope of twinhood which appears both in 'Solo la marionette' and Les trois Parques.

    [13] Linda Lê, Solo, Paris: La Table Ronde, 1989, p. 9. This and all subsequent quotes from Solo are my own translations from the French.

    [14] Lê, Solo, p. 10.

    [15] The trope of insomnia reappears in a passage on the rise of communism in Les trois Parques: in the passage, an unnamed character becomes insomniac at the division of Vietnam in 1954. As with 'Solo,' here insomnia is presented as a prelude to some sort of (self-)destructive disaster; in the case of Vietnam, it is the war with America.

    [16] Lê, Solo, p. 10.

    [17] Lê, Solo, p. 10.

    [18] Lê, Solo, p. 11.

    [19] Lê, Solo, p. 10.

    [20] Lê, Solo, p. 12.

    [21] Lê, Solo, p. 12.

    [22] Lê, Solo, pp. 12–13.

    [23] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 115.

    [24] Lê, Solo, p. 13.

    [25] Lê, Solo, p. 15.

    [26] This scenario strongly reminds me of the slave-market inspection scene in Régis Wargnier's film Indochine, in which the lives of the Vietnamese 'natives' were in the hands of the French colonial who, indeed, killed a whole family for almost no reason. It can equally be read as an allegory for the communist regime, which applied similar intimidation tactics as did the French.

    [27] Lê, Solo, p. 17.

    [28] Lê, Solo, pp. 17–18.

    [29] The most famous of these acts of self–immolation was performed on June 11, 1963, when Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk from the Linh–Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam. Although Duc was not protesting the war but rather the treatment of Buddhists by the Catholic Diem regime, many of the self-immolatory acts that followed in his wake were indeed anti-war protests. See 'The self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc,' in Quảng Đức Homepage, ca. 2002, online: BoTatQuangDuc/01selfimmolation.html, accessed 29 June 2009. Self-immolatory acts by Buddhist nuns and monks continued to be a means of protest (against the Communist regime) after the war. As Thich Quang Do notes in 'Identification of the many serious damaging errors committed by the Communist Party of Vietnam in its dealings with the people and the Buddhist Church of Vietnam' (ca. 1992), 'The first major act of protest against religious persecution was recorded in Can Tho in November 1975, when all 12 monks and nuns living at the Thien Vien Duoc–Su (Duoc Su Zen Centre) staged a collective act of self–immolation,' online: identifTQD.htm, accessed 29 June 2009.

    [30] Linda Lê, Les trois Parques, Paris: Christian Borgois, 1997, p. 249. This and all subsequent quotes from Les trois Parques are my own translations from the French.

    [31] Marion Van Renterghem, 'Le sabbat de Lady Lê ;,' in Le Monde des Livres, 31 October 1997, p. 1.

    [32] For further discussion of the Vietnamese congaie, please see my 'Camille's breasts: the evolution of the fantasy native in Régis Wargnier's Indochine,' in France and 'Indochina': Cultural Representations ed. Kathryn Robson and Jennifer Yee. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1995, pp. 139–52.

    [33] Lê, Les trois Parques, p. 203.

    [34] Lê, Les trois Parques, p. 181.

    [35] Lê, Les trois Parques, p. 203.

    [36] Lê, Les trois Parques, pp. 231–32.

    [37] Abraham and Torok, 'Mourning or melancholia: introjection versus incorporation,' in The Shell and the Kernel, pp. 125–38.

    [38] Abraham and Torok, 'Mourning or melancholia,' p. 127.

    [39] Lê, Les trois Parques, p. 181. La Manchote is quoting from a poem by Stephen Crane, in which a creature is eating his heart. When asked how it tastes, he replies: 'It is bitter — bitter…/But I like it/Because it is bitter,/And because it is my heart.'

    [40] Lê, Les trois Parques, p. 15.

    [41] See Rey Chow's discussion of coercive mimeticism in the chapter 'Keeping them in their place: coercive mimeticism and cross-ethnic representation,' in her book The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

    [42] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, New York: Verso, 1997, p. 43.

    [43] Lê, Les trois Parques, p. 55.

    [44] Lê, Les trois Parques, pp. 219–21.

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