Intersections: 'Departure as Return: Kim Doan's <i>Sur place</i>
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 21, September 2009

Departure as Return:
Kim Doan's Sur place

Jack A. Yeager[1]

  1. In the past two decades many new writers have produced narrative texts in French which in some measure come 'from Viet Nam.' In his novels Nguyen Huu Khoa imagines a distant past, far removed from colonialism and the wars that followed in Southeast Asia.[2] In two autobiographical narratives Kim Lefèvre recounts her childhood as métisse in Indochina, then her return to Viet Nam as an adult.[3] By far the most prolific of these writers with links to Viet Nam is Linda Lê; in some fifteen books she traces a trajectory that first distances her origins in Southeast Asia, yet spiraling ever closer to a direct examination of her own connections to the context of war and destruction that marked her childhood.[4] Lê especially sets herself apart in rejecting 'francophone' as a descriptor of her as a writer and of her work. Recently, Kim Doan has added her voice to those connected in some way to Indochina and Viet Nam.
  2. Kim Doan was born in Saigon in 1965 and has lived in Paris since 1976. Work in the visual arts led her to narrative literature and the publication of Sur place (Right Here/On the Spot) in 2003, followed by L'arrivée (The Arrival) two years later.[5] Both are novels of return: in L'arrivée the first person narrator, diagnosed with terminal cancer, travels back to the land of his birth to find his daughter. As an entry into Kim Doan's literary exploration and excavation of the past, however, the first novel merits special attention for its parallels with and divergences from other texts and particularly for its presentation of the dilemma of the 'Việt Kiều,' a controversial term freighted with connotations to designate the 'overseas Vietnamese' of the diaspora.[6] In this article I will examine Kim Doan's multifaceted presentation of this dilemma: Việt Kiều as outsider, tourist, and stranger as related to solitude and the breakdown of language; the repetition of flight, exile, and return; a recurrent water imagery that will reveal family secrets which can function as metaphors for larger political and social questions of control and power; and finally, how the narrative circles in on the issues of identity and place.
  3. This third person narrative told from the point of view of Loan,[7] the novel's protagonist, seems straightforward enough at the outset of the text: Loan is aboard a night flight carrying her from Paris back to Viet Nam after nearly a quarter century abroad. Sections of Sur place in the narrative present which focus on this physical displacement provide the primary plot thrust in the opening pages and alternate with a series of scenes recounted in the past that lead up to Loan's decision to return and eventually to the departure itself. Once in Ho Chi Minh City, Loan avoids her family without understanding why, and leaves Saigon for Hanoi,[8] making her way slowly overland back to the south, essentially a second return. The road home clearly involves more than simply setting foot on Vietnamese soil for the first time in decades, as Loan gradually comes to terms with the deeply submerged secrets of her past on the way back to the city of her birth and childhood.
  4. Surface elements in Sur place set the text clearly in contemporary Viet Nam. In Saigon, English is automatically used with foreigners by a customs agent[9] and by a young street vendor[10] early in the novel. Tourists from Europe, Asia and America, including ex-GIs from the United States, are common, and they are often the object of solicitation in the streets and elsewhere.[11] The effects of chemical weapons and war are seen in the numbers of the disabled in public spaces. Crossing the street with the heavy and apparently chaotic flow of bicycles, motorbikes, motorcycles, and the occasional car is intimidating for Loan.[12] Books may be photocopied for sale,[13] the trains tend to run late,[14] and foreigners may be charged different prices from locals.[15] Some have come to Viet Nam to adopt orphan children.[16]
  5. This is clearly no longer the land of Loan's childhood during the war years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s; in fact, having been far from Viet Nam for two thirds of her life, she has brought along tourist guidebooks purchased in France, the first signal of her acknowledging an unreliable memory after decades of exile and of her discomfort at the loss of cultural fluency. Her awkwardness and lack of confidence are but two markers of being an outsider, stared at by locals who identify her instantly as 'Việt Kiều.' Linguistically and culturally 'out of practice' and relatively well-to-do, Loan will be constantly reminded that she is no longer Vietnamese, from the young girl who tries to sell her a Coke on Dong Khoi Street in Saigon and speaks English to her even when she answers in Vietnamese with a perfect southern accent, to the hotel receptionist who proposes that his daughter 'accompany' her to Sapa,[17] to the catcalls and graphic propositions from local men she endures in Hanoi when she and her new friend Phuong enter a restaurant together,[18] to Bao, the guide in Hue who tells her of trying to escape during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 and his hard years in a reeducation camp afterwards.[19] Loan is disoriented from the moment she steps off the plane, in fact, claiming to the immigration officer not to know Vietnamese when she has just filled out the disembarcation card in her native language. Her identification as 'Việt Kiều' coupled with the mode of tourism emphasises her status as 'étrangère' (foreigner) once she arrives back in Saigon. She feels unauthorised to take a cyclo, so easily and comfortably done long ago, and takes a walk in the seemingly deserted city when everyone else is inside and out of the sun during afternoon nap time.[20] At the main post office she calls her grandmother, and when her uncle answers, is incapable of responding to his questions, becoming physically ill in the suffocatingly-small phone booth.[21] Without knowing the reasons for her psychological and physical distress, she resolves to fly to Hanoi and make her way gradually back to Saigon to deal with her family.
  6. The touristic aspects of the narration thus underline Loan's being an outsider. In fact, she has planned a common tourist itinerary, from north to south, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and points in between. However, when visiting the marketplace in Sapa,[22] she is embarrassed at having taken out her camera to take a photograph, trying to distinguish herself from:

      cette clique de voleurs d'images [sur la place du marché], qui lui renvoie comme une troublante caricature d'elle-même (this clique of picture-takers, of image robbers [in the marketplace] who reflect back at her a troubling caricature of herself).[23]

      Elle s'est toujours crue différente du voyageur ordinaire qu'elle regarde de haut, du sommet de sa sensibilité exacerbée; or ce qu'elle découvre, et ce qui la mortifie, c'est qu'elle ne l'est pas autant qu'elle a bien voulu l'imaginer (She always thought herself different from the ordinary traveller whom she saw from a position of superiority, from the vantage point of her exaggerated sensitivity; what she in fact discovers and which mortifies her is that she really isn't as different as she wanted to think.[24]

    She realises then that she is the same as any other tourist even if she can recognise the images around her as those of postcards,[25] even though she was born and raised in Viet Nam.
  7. A tourist identity is closely linked to that of étrangère, emphasised by the distancing reactions of locals. In Hanoi, '…des têtes se retournent…pour la dévisager…' (…heads…turn to stare at her…).[26] In these stares, however,

      Il lui semble que les gens ne la regardent pas uniquement avec de la curiosité, mais avec une suspicion doublée d'hostilité, comme si elle n'était pas seulement étrangère à leur ville, à leur région, mais aussi à leur race [emphasis added] (It seems to her that people are looking at her not only with curiosity but also with suspicion coupled with hostility, as if she were not simply an outsider to their city and their region but also to their race).[27]

    The tensions and conflict she experiences in Sapa and Hanoi could be a manifestation of a north-south difference which would situate the Saigon-born Loan at an additional remove. Or it could be a surfacing of generalised resentment toward 'Việt Kiều' at their having left in the 1970s when others had to stay behind. Upon hearing Bao's story in the boat, she reflects on being labelled 'Việt Kiều': 'Pourquoi lui jette-on toujours à la figure ces deux mots, comme si c'était une maladie honteuse' (Why did they always throw these two words in her face as if they were some sort of shameful disease).[28] With Tuan, a man she meets on the train to Hue, this resentment is clear and direct. En route he quizzes Loan about her travelling alone, an implicit criticism of her behaviour outside the norm. The story he tells seems to mirror that of many others, allowing for an interpretation that he could represent the Viet Nam left behind by the 'Việt Kiều':

      Il a l'air…de lui [Loan] demander des comptes, comme si ses actes ne regardaient pas qu'elle, mais aussi le clan, la communauté dont il est, entre les cloisons de ce compartiment, à la fois le représentant et le juge (He seems…to be asking Loan for some kind of accounting, as if her actions didn't simply concern her alone but also the clan, the community for whom he was both the representative and the judge there within the walls of the train compartment).[29]

    Loan, doubled by Phuong, a fellow traveller she meets in Hanoi, likewise, then, could represent the complicated and fraught relationship of many 'Việt Kiều' with their homeland.
  8. What results is a feeling of complete solitude for Loan, '…dans un pays…qui est pourtant le sien' (in a country that was hers, too, after all).[30] After days of speaking to no one, she realises that:

      Elle n'est pas à sa place ici. Les attitudes et les regards des autres ne cessent de le lui signifier. Elle a beau être née du même sol qu'eux, elle est désormais une Việt Kiều, une Vietnamienne de l'étranger, et les Vietnamiens du pays le lui font bien comprendre en lui adressant la parole en anglais ou en français ' (She is out of place here. The attitudes and the gaze of others never stop telling her that. Never mind that she was born on the same soil as they; she would always be a Việt Kiều, a Vietnamese woman from overseas, and the local Vietnamese would make this clear to her in speaking to her in English or French).[31]

    She is relegated by others to a '…catégorie bâtarde, ni vraiment étrangère, ni vraiment vietnamienne' (an illegitimate category, neither truly foreign, nor truly Vietnamese).[32]
  9. Her situation, however, is much more complex as Loan can at the same time be open for criticism for not being Vietnamese enough. In fact, the narrator tells us:

      Si encore ils la prenaient réellement pour une étrangère, elle serait à l'abri de leurs jugements… Or, tout en la mettant à l'ècart, ils la considèrent toujours comme une des leurs et il ne s'est pas trouvé un instant, depuis qu'elle est revenue, où elle ne se soit sentie exposée aux critiques (If they really did consider her to be a foreigner, then she would be protected from their opinions… While keeping her at a distance, however, they also consider her as one of their own and there hasn't been a single instant since she returned that she didn't feel exposed to their criticism).[33]

    These criticisms remind her of her grandmother who could well have said to her: 'Une femme comme il faut ne sort pas seule. Une femme comme il faut ne fume pas. Une femme comme il faut ne se montre pas au café' (A proper woman doesn't go out alone. A proper woman doesn't smoke. A proper woman would never show up alone in a café.),[34] echoing the examples cited earlier. This double standard manifests as verbal and physical aggression in Sapa. When Loan lights a cigarette in the street, she is attacked as if she were Vietnamese.[35] Those around her accuse her of being a whore,[36] spit on her, and throw rocks at her.
  10. This episode seems to contradict what Phuong told her in their first conversation in Hanoi where in a café Phuong engages Loan in conversation, in French: '—C'est la première fois que vous revenez au Vietnam?' (Is this the first time you've come back to Viet Nam?)[37] in what will be Loan's first verbal interaction outside a tourist context since her arrival in Southeast Asia. Herself a 'Việt Kiều,' Phuong explains that she has returned to Viet Nam to stay, but admits that she will never feel at home: 'Ici, je suis une étrangère comme vous. Ce pays n'est plus le nôtre…' (I am a foreigner here just like you. This country is no longer ours…).[38] 'Si je me sens étrangère ici, c'est uniquement parce que les gens me le font sentir' (If I feel like a foreigner here, it's only because people make me feel that way) responds Loan. However, Phuong reassures her new friend: 'Même s'ils vous souriaient tous, croyez-moi, vous continuerez à vous sentir étrangère' (Even if they all smile at you, you will continue to feel like a foreigner).[39] This initial conversation and their developing friendship, if not to say mutual support and solidarity, set up the attack in Sapa. Loan lets down her guard. Phuong thus reminds Loan afterwards: 'Si tu veux passer pour une Vietnamienne, tu dois te comporter comme telle' (If you want to pass for Vietnamese, then you need to behave like you're Vietnamese). 'Mais je suis vietnamienne!' (But I am Vietnamese!) Loan responds. 'Tu es une Việt Kiều, Loan, il faudra bien que tu l'admettes…' (You are a Việt Kiều, Loan, and it's about time you admitted it).[40]
  11. Phuong and Loan both smoke, which sets them apart.[41] As Việt Kiều, however, they also seem to have a certain mobility and access. This playing of both sides mirrors the paradoxical expectations of the Vietnamese they meet. Both conspire to blur identity. On one occasion, for example, Phuong and Loan eat dog and snake in a restaurant and drink too much. An awkwardness and disorientation thus prevail; their situation is complex and ambiguous, even difficult to articulate. For Loan especially, 'Une sourde tension intérieure la travaille sans cesse…' (A muted internal tension gnaws at her constantly).[42] Feverish, worried, and exhausted, she wonders: 'Qu'est-elle venue faire dans ce pays?' (What did she think she was doing by coming to this country?)[43] and has the sensation of walking '…dans un rêve, sans rien voir que le sol qui fuit sous ses semelles, sur une route sans fin, toute droite, qui ne mène nulle part' (in a dream, without seeing anything except the ground under her shoes, on a road without end, straight ahead, which leads nowhere). Destabilised and lost, she will return to her hotel, likened to a home but pointedly coded as a transitory space, symbolic of the denial-refusal-inaccessibility of her origins.[44]
  12. A recurring failure of language underscores Loan's distress and predicament. She is unable to say goodbye to Phuong at the Hanoi train station upon leaving the city.[45] In her first meeting with her father in Paris, he seems foreign to her: '…cet étranger…était son père' (…this stranger…was her father);[46] he has aged, is no longer the father she knew as a child in Saigon before he left alone for France.[47] They have nothing to say to each other. Lying and mask act as variants of the breakdown of communication in Sur place. In the train on the way to Hue, Tuan asks Loan if she is Vietnamese; she says yes, but from abroad, then assumes the name of her friend in Hanoi, reinforcing the doubling of her role with Phuong.[48]
  13. In this context of ambiguity and ambivalence, the act of flight takes on additional meanings. In the most obvious instance, Loan flees to the north from Saigon, but this is not the first time she has fled. She convinces her husband Basile to ask for a transfer from Paris to New York but she can only tolerate life in the United States for a year before wanting to return to Paris. Her trip to Viet Nam could be read as a flight as well as a return, because she leaves behind Basile in France. In Southeast Asia she admits to herself that she is, in fact, not at home anywhere, in Paris, Viet Nam or elsewhere: 'Elle ne se sentait plus chez elle nulle part' (She didn't feel at home anywhere).[49] Loan is, in fact, often on a train, in a plane, or on a bus, in transit, recalling Kim Lefèvre's being constantly 'on the move' in Métisse blanche. At one point, Loan expresses the desire to spend her life on the minibus she happens to be taking at the moment.[50]
  14. Flight takes on added dimensions as well, in the assuming of identitary masks—that of her friend Phuong with Tuan, or that of a Japanese tourist with a cyclo driver—anything to avoid the label of 'Việt Kiều.' Instances of being watched—spectacle and gaze—deepen the meanings of the act of flight through performed alternative identities. In attempting to lose Tuan, Loan accosts a couple speaking French at the Hue train station as if they were friends, playing a scene to divert the man who seemed to interrogate her during the trip.[51] In her hotel in Hue, Loan finds herself watching the neighbours across the street through their windows.[52] The scene in the streets of Saigon at the end of April 1975 is termed a 'spectacle extraordinaire' (extraordinary spectacle) in a move that psychologically removes Loan from the total breakdown of urban life as the Viet Cong enter the city, the impetus for leaving Viet Nam in the first place when she was still a child. Alone in the hotel room in New York where she and Basile live, Loan's automatic gestures seem strange to her to the extent that she has the impression of watching herself.[53] In these ways, theatre and spectacle have a distancing effect that heightens the register of 'étrangeté' (strangeness, foreignness) in Sur place.
  15. Water imagery also reinforces the threads of ambiguity, miscommunication, and mobility, the 'fuite en avant,' the relentless evasion, in this novel. When Loan's mother leaves for the last time on a rainy day at Tan Son Nhat airport, she seems to dissolve in the downpour.[54] In the fog of Sapa, even the mountains appear to move: '…rien n'est fixe…' (nothing is stable).[55] Loan drinks too much in the restaurant in Hanoi[56] and experiences:

      …une impression de roulis qui lui fait tourner la tête…elle repousse, les cils papillotants, la vision qui lui vient, tout à coup, d'une petite fille de six ans qu'on écartèle sur une barque perdue en pleine mer' (…an impression of the rocking of a boat that makes her dizzy…her eyelashes fluttering, she resists the vision that comes to her all of a sudden of a little girl of six they held down spread-eagled on a boat lost in the high seas),[57]

    a transformed allusion of the adult Phuong who has just told Loan her story of escaping from Viet Nam by boat and her rape by pirates at sea.[58] The moment Loan learns how to swim at the Club sportif recurs as a nightmare.[59] An overly damp hotel room in Sapa is uncomfortable. The kitchen in her childhood home in Saigon the evening she learns of her mother's suicide is: '…un univers trop fluide…' (…an overly fluid universe…).[60] Once back in Ho Chi Minh City after her trip to the north,

      Encore et encore, elle plonge dans cette épuisante somnolence, dans ce glauque entre-deux où flotte, intermittent comme un rappel, le sentiment d'une menace proche, d'un danger imminent' (Again and again she plunges into that exhausting drowsiness, into that dull, half-lit in-betweenness where a feeling of a nearby threat, an imminent danger, surfaced intermittently, like a memory).[61]

    These references underscore sensations of floating, of instability, and of a rocking boat that conceal the deepest secret of Loan's past, her sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's brother, Vinh. Obsessive repetition of traumatic moments—being abandoned over and over by her mother—hide a darker past.
  16. The narrator foreshadows this secret in passages that hint at Loan's fear of her uncle. In remembering him upon her return to Viet Nam, Loan '…ne gardait qu'une impression lointaine, une silhouette épaisse aux muscles houleux' (…only retained a distant impression of him, a thickset profile with rippling muscles),[62] a dark, foreboding, physically imposing presence. The narrator first suggests that a terrible secret lies buried in Loan's past in recounting a nightmare in Sapa,[63] triggered in some way by the dampness in the hotel room and a conversation with the driver of the bus to Sapa who made a pass at her. Vinh returns as a more ominous figure in this dream, tempting his young niece with Tintin and Astérix books. The night Loan learns of her mother's death, '…Vinh en profitait pour l'attirer à lui…' (…Vinh took advantage of the moment to pull her toward him…).[64] It is Tuan's aggressive behaviour on the train to Hue, however, that unleashes the full scene of Vinh's first assault on his niece.[65] In this passage, we see a doubling common in incest victims, for from the young Loan's point of view, what is happening to her is part of another world, 'très lointain, auquel elle ne participait plus' (far away, [a world] in which she was not involved),[66] an experience that recalls Phuong's on the boat, her 'sister': '…elle vécut comme en dehors d'elle-même' (…she existed as if outside herself),[67] as if the rape were happening to someone else. Images of unmade beds will prompt a flashback of the young Loan's insomnia as she waits for the regular nocturnal visits of her uncle[68] or the nightmare from which Basile tries to awaken his sobbing wife.[69] Finally, when Loan does return to Saigon, she continues to defer as long as possible the inevitable encounter with her grandmother, visiting her old school, the Club sportif, then the cemetery where her mother is buried. At her hotel she further postpones calling her grandmother, engaging in conversation an American named Tom who was in Viet Nam during the war. A search for an available telephone in a nearby hotel ends up in a bar, another detour, where over drinks Loan presses him to talk about his experiences and from her own imagination, memory and history, evokes shocking, graphic images of his war crimes to confront his silence.
  17. This pivotal scene frees Loan's ability to articulate the impact of the horrors of the war upon her young self. In this way Loan then stands in for all innocent civilian Vietnamese who suffered at the hands of American soldiers. The exterior destruction of, say, a My Lai, reflects an interior devastation; in effect, in a kind of act of vengeance, Loan would seem to torture Tom with her graphic suggestions of his own atrocities.[70] In yet another instance of doubling, Tom becomes Vinh, and his rape of Loan obtains a complex symbolic value, suggesting parallels from the obvious coloniser/colonised, North/South, American/Vietnamese dichotomies to the complicated effects of the betrayal of home and homeland, of the longing for safe haven, a refuge, family, and of the trauma of exile for the 'Việt Kiều'.
  18. When at last Loan brings herself to call her grandmother, she cannot manage to answer her questions, imagines herself doubly as the young girl and the adult, and hangs up without saying a word.[71] Only then does she realise that her own silence has in fact answered her grandmother's when confronted by the reality of her son's assaults of her granddaughter.[72] The grandmother's failure to hold her son accountable, another failure to articulate and thus of language that fits into a larger pattern, recalls the scandal of her calm in a bathroom scene from twenty-four years earlier: 'Encore aujourd'hui, après vingt-quatre ans, elle est scandalisée par le calme de sa grand-mère' (Even today, after twenty-four years, she is still scandalised by her grandmother's calmness)[73] writes the adult. Upon discovering Loan in the bathroom trying to pull herself together after the initial assault by Vinh, the grandmother wordlessly washes the bloodstains from her granddaughter's body and her underwear, as if nothing out of the ordinary had really happened. The running water in the washbasin, the gradual disappearance of the stains, the blinding whiteness of the walls and her newly-washed clothing all mark Loan indelibly and reveal to the reader simultaneously the reasons for the negative coding of the sea, a river, humidity, and rocking boats throughout the novel.[74] Normal routines then take over as the grandmother draws a veil over what has just happened in a resounding imperative directed at her granddaughter: 'Viens, Loan, c'est l'heure de ton goûter' (Come, Loan; it's time for your afternoon snack).[75]
  19. If silence can speak, then Loan has answered her grandmother in kind[76] during her final call from the post office. And if silence has been Loan's prison,[77] then breaking that silence by speaking and by writing is her liberation and her redemption. Her ability to articulate and understand her past and its effects on her present come together in the final pages of Sur place. In this way the identities of child and adult merge. The first intimation of this outcome surfaces in contemplating the landscape at Sapa where, despite her perceived rejection as 'Việt Kiều,' she is aware of a 'sentiment de parfaite adhésion avec les paysages de son pays... [emphasis added]' (a feeling of complete belonging in the landscapes of her country...).[78] Indeed,

      Ces paysages, elle réalise qu'elle les porte en elle depuis longtemps (These landscapes…she realises that she has carried them inside her for a long time);[79]

      …ce Vietnam qu'elle est venu chercher, ce Vietnam de son origine, a toujours été là, caché au plus profond d'elle-même. C'est un Vietnam intérieur, un Vietnam personnel, et c'est à ce Vietnam de son imaginaire et de sa nostalgie, elle le sent confusément, qu'elle appartient, bien plus qu'au vrai Vietnam (…this Viet Nam she came in search of, this Viet Nam of her origins, has always been there, hidden in the deepest part of herself. It is an interior Viet Nam, a personal Viet Nam and she has a vague feeling that it was to this Viet Nam of her imaginary and her nostalgia that she belonged, much more so than to the real Viet Nam around her).[80]

    The disconnect between her memory and her experience as a tourist, as 'Việt Kiều', as an outsider will persist until the secret of her grandmother's silence becomes clear. At that moment in the phone booth and in the way that Phuong has chosen Hoa Lu as her new homeland,[81] Loan will appropriate her own life and see its continuing and changing narrative as a more comprehensible story.[82] Loan thus accepts her identity as 'Việt Kiều' after the phone call and a moment of reflection in the Saigon cathedral across the street from the post office.[83] A drenching rainstorm that was just beginning as she entered the church where she would come to mass as a child seems to have washed the sky clean when Loan emerges, reversing the coding of liquid images in the novel. She understands that her own Saigon is within her as is her Viet Nam[84] ; and they always will be.
  20. Two symbolic acts then confirm Loan's realisation about 'place', her identity, and her self-acceptance. She eats a bowl of phở in the street and purchases a red áo dài that fits 'comme une second peau' (like a second skin).[85] In the mirror she looks like any Vietnamese woman and in a brief moment sees her mother's face over her own, a recognition of their resemblance, surely, but also of her own origins and identity.[86] In that last moment of doubling, Loan also realises '… la singularité des ses origines …' (the remarkable nature of her origins...),[87] her multiple identities as 'Việt Kiều'[88] and as simultaneously Vietnamese and French,[89] as unique with '…deux points d'ancrage…' (…two sites of anchoring…)[90] and none at the same time: '…chez elle, tout compte fait, ce n'est ni au Vietnam ni en France. Chez elle, c'est dans sa propre peau' (…all things considered, her home is neither in Viet Nam nor in France. Her home is within her, inside her own skin).[91] As the narrative threads come together, so does everything seem to fit into place in her baggage: 'Progressivement, les choses reprennent leur place' (Little by little, things fall back into place).[92] Inevitably, this new departure, likened to a 'return,' recalls another from over two decades ago when she had to leave most everything behind, carrying not much more than a deeply buried secret unknown to her in a flight into exile nine months after the fall of Saigon, a departure that marked the end of childhood and her break with Viet Nam.[93] Both ruptures are 'sans retour' (without the possibility of return).[94] Loan leaves the tourist guides in her hotel room. Home may no longer be Viet Nam, but it hardly seems to matter. She has accepted her hybridity, her instability, her mobility. Her identity is not a question of exterior roots; her identity is within herself like her Viet Nam and her Saigon.
  21. Loan's second departure from Viet Nam is then a kind of rebirth, alluding to the meaning of her own name, the phoenix.[95] Kim Doan's novel allows Loan's past to emerge and take shape as a voyage of realisation, recognition, appropriation, and acceptance. Speaking out and writing suggest an autobiographical impulse in Kim Doan's narrative, as noted by several reviewers[96]; the novel we read is the response to the grandmother's silence which stands for other silences to be broken. The narrative fragmentation of shifting time frames reinforces esthetically Loan's own doubling as child and adult, her identitary journey of discovery, and her coming to terms with her past. Loan's diasporic identity finds its anchors elsewhere, but remains full of potential and possibility.[97] In these ways, Kim Doan problematises anew the duality and life 'entre deux mondes,' between worlds—conventional in Francophone texts—in Sur place.


    [1] My sincere thanks to Nathalie Nguyen for encouraging me to write this article. I would also like to thank Elizabeth Kovacs, Attachée de presse, at Plon, for providing me with the full press dossiers on Kim Doan archived there. Finally, I dedicate this reading of Sur place to Timothy Cook, in memory.

    [2] Nguyen Huu Khoa, Le temple de la félicité éternelle (The Temple of Eternal Happiness), Paris: La Différence, 1985; La montagne endormie (The Sleeping Mountain), Paris: La Différence, 1987. All translations from French to English are my own. I take full responsibility for their shortcomings.

    [3] Kim Lefèvre, Métisse blanche (White Métisse), Paris: Editions Barrault, 1989; Retour à la saison des pluies (Return to the Rainy Season), Paris: Editions Barrault, 1990. Both are now available together in a new edition from Phébus, 2008.

    [4] Examples would include: Linda Lê, Les évangiles du crime (The Gospels of Crime), Paris: Julliard, 1992; Calomnies, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1993; Slander, trans. Esther Allen, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996; Les trois parques (The Three Fates), Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1997; Voix: une crise (Voices: An Attack/A Fit), Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1998; Lettre morte (Dead Letter), Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1999; Le complexe de Caliban (The Caliban Complex), Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2005; In memoriam, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2007.

    [5] Kim Doan, Sur place, Paris: Plon, 2003; L'arrivée, Paris: Plon, 2005. Autobiographical details on Kim Doan are sketchy, largely limited to those on the covers of her books, repeated in the reviews of the novel (see note 6). Le figaro littéraire (28 août 2003) mentions her 'écrivains préférés' (…preferred writers), Don DeLillo, Erri de Luca and Yasunari Kawabata, as well as her 'livre culte' ('cult' book), Roland Barthes's Fragments d'un discours amoureux. Information online is similarly brief.

    [6] Sur place was mentioned widely in the press at the beginning of the school year, fall 2003. Comments on narrative flaws (Elle, 8 déc. 2003) and 'quelques longueurs et des lourdeurs de style' (some longueurs and stylistic heaviness) (Atmosphères, sept. 2003, see also Livres hebdo, no. 517, 6 juin 2003) are offset by positive responses elsewhere; for example, 'un excellent roman' (an excellent novel) (Le magazine littéraire, déc. 2003); 'une oeuvre dense et forte, remarquablement aboutie' (a dense, strong book, remarkably accomplished) (Le nouvel observateur, 30 oct-05 nov. 2003); and 'Un roman qui touche juste' (a novel that is spot on) (La vie, no. 3035, 30 oct. 2003). Some note the strong autobiographical impulse of Sur place (Le bien public, 18 juin 2004; La Provence, 28 sept. 2003; Livres hebdo, no. 517, 6 juin 2003). On balance, the novel was judged a highlight of the fall 2003 season. Press dossiers for both Sur place and L'arrivée are archived at Plon in Paris.

    [7] The third person narrator creates an implied reader as exterior to Vietnamese culture from the outset, explaining, for example, that Hoi An is 'un port ensablé où s'étaient amarrés jadis les navires marchands du monde entier' (a silted-up port where merchant ships from the world over would tie up long ago) p. 12. Later, the narrator describes Sapa as '…une petite station de montagne près de la Chine…' (…a little mountain station near China…) p. 75. And again: '--Et moi qui me croyais du même sang et du même pus, dit Loan amèrement, en faisant référence à une célèbre expression vietnamienne' (--And me who thought I was of the same flesh and blood, said Loan bitterly, making reference to a well-known Vietnamese expression) p. 107. This is also a common technique in what I called the Vietnamese Francophone narrative some twenty years ago; see The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism, Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1987, especially Chapter 3. Also of note, the use of diacriticals on most Vietnamese words in Sur place. In Vietnamese, of course, the diacriticals indicate phonemic vowel, consonant, and tonal differences, but traditionally in Francophone texts, only the easily reproduced accents from European fonts were included, if in fact any were included at all.

    [8] While the official name of the former Saigon was changed Ho Chi Minh City (Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh) after 1975, many still refer to the city as Saigon. The airport code remains 'SGN.'

    [9] Doan, Sur place, pp. 18–19.

    [10] Doan, Sur place, p. 26.

    [11] Doan, Sur place, pp. 28, 90–92, 96–97 passim. For example, 'Depuis qu'elle se trouve au Vietnam, pas un jour ne s'est passé sans qu'elle soit sollicitée' (Since she has been in Viet Nam, not a day has gone by that she hasn't been asked for something) (p. 90).

    [12] Doan, Sur place, pp. 37–38.

    [13] Doan, Sur place, p. 76.

    [14] Doan, Sur place, p. 146.

    [15] Doan, Sur place, p. 226.

    [16] Doan, Sur place, pp. 194–95.

    [17] Doan, Sur place, p. 77.

    [18] Doan, Sur place, pp. 126–27. Upon recognising Phuong and Loan as Overseas Vietnamese, a male restaurant client calls out: 'Une Việt Kiều! On baise, petite soeur? Tu me suces?' (A Việt Kiều. Wanna fuck, little sister? [em]. Will you suck me?) (p. 127).

    [19] Doan, Sur place, pp. 205–09, 215–25.

    [20] Doan, Sur place, p. 24. In addition, Loan's body will no longer easily assume a common position for relaxing, crouching down in a squat. She is uncomfortable on the crowded bus to Sapa, with her knees are up against her chin for example, (pp. 78–79), while as a child in Saigon, the pose seemed normal (p. 125).

    [21] Doan, Sur place, pp. 29–31.

    [22] Doan, Sur place, pp. 94–95.

    [23] Doan, Sur place, p. 95.

    [24] Doan, Sur place, p. 96.

    [25] Doan, Sur place, p. 99.

    [26] Doan, Sur place, p. 36.

    [27] Doan, Sur place, p. 36.

    [28] Doan, Sur place, p. 226.

    [29] Doan, Sur place, p. 176.

    [30] Doan, Sur place, p. 44.

    [31] Doan, Sur place, p. 44.

    [32] Doan, Sur place, p. 44.

    [33] Doan, Sur place, p. 44.

    [34] Doan, Sur place, p. 44.

    [35] Doan, Sur place, pp. 101–03.

    [36] . '--C'est une Vietnamienne, je l'ai entendue. --C'est une honte. --On ne veut pas de putes chez nous!' (--She's Vietnamese, I heard her. --She's shameful. --We don't want any whores in our town!). Doan, Sur place, p. 102.

    [37] Doan, Sur place, p. 5.

    [38] Doan, Sur place, p. 47.

    [39] Doan, Sur place, p. 48.

    [40] Doan, Sur place, p. 106.

    [41] Doan, Sur place, p. 107.

    [42] Doan, Sur place, p. 117.

    [43] Doan, Sur place, p. 118.

    [44] Doan, Sur place, p. 143.

    [45] Doan, Sur place, pp. 144–45.

    [46] Doan, Sur place, p. 149.

    [47] Doan, Sur place, p. 151.

    [48] Doan, Sur place, p. 155.

    [49] Doan, Sur place, p. 199.

    [50] Doan, Sur place, p. 237.

    [51] Doan, Sur place, pp. 186–87.

    [52] Doan, Sur place, pp. 191–92.

    [53] Doan, Sur place, p. 197.

    [54] Doan, Sur place, pp. 52–55.

    [55] Doan, Sur place, p. 98.

    [56] Doan, Sur place, pp. 123–30.

    [57] Doan, Sur place, p. 141.

    [58] Doan, Sur place, pp. 134–40.

    [59] Doan, Sur place, pp. 130–34.

    [60] Doan, Sur place, p. 163.

    [61] Doan, Sur place, p. 240.

    [62] Doan, Sur place, p. 73.

    [63] Doan, Sur place, pp. 83–87.

    [64] Doan, Sur place, p. 167.

    [65] Doan, Sur place, pp. 182–86. In her autobiographical narrative, Métisse blanche, Kim Lefèvre alludes to incest. In Linda Lê incest recurs as a provocative narrative thread. See, for example, Calomnies.

    [66] Doan, Sur place, p. 186.

    [67] Doan, Sur place, p. 110.

    [68] Doan, Sur place, pp. 240–44.

    [69] Doan, Sur place, pp. 244–49.

    [70] Doan, Sur place, pp. 265–70. This scene bears a strong resemblance to that in Marguerite Duras' Hiroshima, mon amour during which the Japanese lover forces the French actress to relive her youthful love for the German soldier in Nevers. She becomes her younger self, and he becomes the German.

    [71] Doan, Sur place, pp. 276–78.

    [72] Doan, Sur place, p. 278.

    [73] Doan, Sur place, p. 280.

    [74] Doan, Sur place, p. 283. After spending the night with Tom, Loan washes herself in the bathroom: 'Cette sensation d'absence, d'extériorité à elle-même, elle la retrouve à cette minute, en se lavant l'entrejambe. Comme dans un double miroir qui multiplie son reflet, elle se voit reproduire les mêmes mouvements, répéter les mêmes postures, devant des centaines de lavabos identiques' (This sensation of absence, of feeling outside of herself, she recalls it again at that instant, washing herself between her legs. As in a double mirror that multiplies its reflections, she could see herself reproducing the same gestures, repeating the same body positions in front of hundreds of identical wash basins) (p. 272). At this moment, too, the image of the naked body of a young girl returns.

    [75] Doan, Sur place, p. 284.

    [76] Doan, Sur place, p. 288.

    [77] Doan, Sur place, p. 279.

    [78] Doan, Sur place, p. 99.

    [79] Doan, Sur place, p. 99.

    [80] Doan, Sur place, pp. 99–100.

    [81] Doan, Sur place, pp. 61–62.

    [82] Doan, Sur place, p. 291.

    [83] Doan, Sur place, p. 293.

    [84] Doan, Sur place, pp. 300 and 308.

    [85] Doan, Sur place, pp. 293 and 294.

    [86] Doan, Sur place, p. 294.

    [87] Doan, Sur place, p. 296.

    [88] Doan, Sur place, p. 293.

    [89] Doan, Sur place, p. 304.

    [90] Doan, Sur place, p. 302.

    [91] Doan, Sur place, p. 304.

    [92] Doan, Sur place, p. 297.

    [93] Doan, Sur place, p. 298. Everyone around Loan on the plane is crying, including her grandmother, a reflection of their traumatic departure into exile. By contrast, the young Loan is happy to be leaving Viet Nam, explained perhaps by the escape from Vinh's abuse (pp. 112–15).

    [94] Doan, Sur place, p. 298.

    [95] Upon their first meeting in a café in Hanoi, Loan attempts a connection to Phuong saying that their names both mean 'phoenix' in Vietnamese. Phuong corrects her: 'Non, c'est "Phụng" qui signifie "Phénix", et non "Phương"'(No, it's 'Phụng' that means 'Phoenix', not 'Phương'). Disappointed, Loan responds: 'Vous avez raison, bien sûr…C'est moi qui perds mon vietnamien' (You're right, of course…I'm the one who has forgotten my Vietnamese). 'Phượng' also means 'phoenix' in Vietnamese (p. 46).

    [96] See note 6.

    [97] Doan, Sur place, p. 308.

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