Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 5, May 2001
Writing and Memory in Kim Lefèvre's Autobiographical Narratives

Nathalie Nguyen

Ce qu'on n'a pas écrit n'existe pas;
la mort l'a emporté.

(What is not written does not exist.
It is dead and gone.)
Mesa Selimovic,
La Forteresse (The Fortress)[1]

  1. The epigraph of Kim Lefèvre's Retour à la saison des pluies (1990) (Return to the Rainy Season)[2] is a powerful statement about the importance of writing and memory. It is drawn from a Serbo-Croatian novel about memory and war, loss and trauma. The Muslim narrator of The Fortress survives the horrors of the 1769 siege of Chocim[3] only to discover upon his return to Sarajevo that his family had died of plague during his absence. This extract from The Fortress states that the act of writing demarcates the difference between life - and therefore remembrance - and death or oblivion. It suggests that what follows is a testament, an active process of recollection and recording, and that what it reveals deserves to be remembered, not forgotten. It also implies that memory in itself is not enough, 'for time stubbornly devours human thought till all that remains of it is a skeleton; a pale reminiscence, bereft of true content.'[4] Experience needs to be recorded in order to be remembered. This echoes Pierre Nora's words: 'Modern memory is, above all, archival: it relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the word, the visibility of the image.'[5] The Fortress deals with two central issues relating to trauma and loss: what to remember and what not to remember. Although the novel begins with 'It's not worth the recalling, be it to regret or glorify. Best to forget. Let people's memory of all that's ugly die, so children may not sing songs of vengeance,'[6] the narrator cannot help but recall particular events in the war 'because, do what [he] may, [he] cannot forget them.'[7] Articulating his experience is a way for him to deal with trauma. This process is in itself linked to the spoken (or written) word. As he states: 'Experience has taught me that what you can't explain to yourself is better told to another ... The listener is the midwife in the difficult birth of the word.'[8] The Fortress was originally published in Sarajevo in 1970. Considering the violence that engulfed the city over twenty years later, the narrator's melancholic comment, 'Does every generation of us have to begin all over again?'[9] appears to have held true.
  2. In choosing this epigraph for Retour, Lefèvre calls attention not only to the importance that she places on the relationship between writing and memory but also to the validity of the narrative that follows. Her two autobiographical narratives are not specifically about war. But war and the changes brought about by war form a backdrop to Lefèvre's life, and in a way explain her very existence. Lefèvre was born in Hanoi a few years before World War II. Her father was a French officer and lived with her mother in camp before disappearing from her mother's life after she became pregnant. Lefèvre was born with a triple handicap in colonial Vietnam: she was female, illegitimate and of mixed blood.

    The first narrative, Métisse blanche (1989) (White Métisse[10]), details the difficult years of her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood before she left Vietnam for France in 1960 at the age of twenty-five, six years after the end of French colonial rule.[11] The second narrative, Retour, relates her return to the country of her birth thirty years later. Lefèvre visits the cities and towns of her youth and juxtaposes her memory of people and places with their actuality in socialist Vietnam. Most poignantly, Retour is a journey of rediscovery, the rediscovery of her mother and of her homeland. In it she retells the story of her mother's life, a life of which she has given glimpses in the earlier book. Lefèvre's life story, related through Métisse and Retour, is essentially a trauma narrative, a remarkable account of survival amidst difficult conditions, both personal and familial, set against a background of political unrest, war, constant internal migration and eventually, exile. Suzette Henke notes that 'in the very act of articulation, the trauma story becomes a testimony, a publicly accessible 'ritual healing' that inscribes the victim into a sympathetic discourse-community and inaugurates the possibility of psychological reintegration.'[12] In Lefèvre's case, this meant her psychological reintegration into her Vietnamese heritage, the Vietnamese part of her identity. Her life-writing is inevitably bound up with the issue of identity. As John Gillis writes, 'the notion of identity depends on the idea of memory, and vice versa. The core meaning of any individual or group identity, namely, a sense of sameness over time and space, is sustained by remembering, and what is remembered is defined by the assumed identity.'[13] This notion of identity is problematic in Lefèvre's case. Her mixed blood denied her full integration into Vietnamese society. Her life narratives describe the difficult process of creating and recreating an identity for herself. The act of recording her experiences attests to the continuation of this process. As Henke points out, 'Autobiography has always offered the tantalizing possibility of reinventing the self and reconstructing the subject ideologically inflected by language, history, and social imbrication.'[14] In both narratives, Lefèvre continually engages with this process of reinventing her self, demonstrating, as Gillis observes, that 'we are constantly revising our memories to suit our current identities.'[15]
  3. Lefèvre reinvented herself by assuming a number of different identities, both in terms of race and in the matter of her official identity in colonial Vietnam. As she writes in Métisse: 'My childhood is a night in my memory. A night of exile. I have fragments of images of displacements from one place to another, a package addressed to no one.'[16] Lefèvre was first of all rejected by her father, then by her mother's family, and finally by her mother, who gave her to a French orphanage when she was six years old.[17] From a young age therefore, she had a tortured relationship with a key aspect of Vietnamese identity: identification with kin and land.[18] Although she was eventually reunited with her mother, stepfather and half-sisters, her earliest memories are of feeling alien and unaccepted: 'I have no memories of the first years of my life, apart from the very early sensation that I was everywhere displaced and a stranger.'[19] Lefèvre underwent a series of official identities, 'a succession of names that marked the transitions of [her] life.'[20] Initially, she bore her mother's surname: Tran. She was then named Eliane Tiffon when she entered the orphanage. Within the orphanage itself her identity number was 238, a number that she never forgot; once returned to her family, she became Kim Tran. At the age of fifteen, a false birth certificate was officially drawn up listing her mother's husband as her father, giving her the name Lam-Kim-Thu and at last a formal legal identity in Vietnam. She acquired the name Lefèvre upon her marriage in France in 1962.[21]
  4. The issue of legal identity aside, race was the most difficult problem that the child Lefèvre had to contend with. Lefèvre's mother was ostracized by her own family because she had consorted with a Frenchman. The Vietnamese termed such women me tây,[22] signifying that they had offended against Vietnamese tradition and brought shame on their family - behaviour all the more reprehensible since Vietnamese women were traditionally the keepers of customs.[23] Lefèvre's mother had violated the ethnic boundary between Vietnamese and French, and her métisse daughter was the living embodiment of her transgression. Vietnamese hostility towards interracial relationships stemmed from a long struggle for independence against stronger occupying forces. As Neil Jamieson notes, 'Vietnamese have long had an extreme preoccupation with maintenance of the ethnic boundary, first between themselves and the Chinese, later and even more dramatically with the French.'[24] This was to flare up again in 1968 as a result of the American presence in South Vietnam: 'Vietnamese girls don't like to marry a man from outside the village, let alone one from a foreign country ... The act of taking a Western husband is the act of losing one's origins; the act of going astray by someone who has severed her roots.'[25] In the 1940s and 1950s, against a background of continuing anti-colonial struggle by the Vietminh, this meant the effective marginalization of both mother and child by Vietnamese society. As Lefèvre writes: 'I inadvertantly reminded them of the arrogance of the White people who had colonized and humiliated them. I was the impure fruit of the treachery of my mother, a Vietnamese woman.'[26] Lefèvre's family reflected general Vietnamese prejudice when they attributed various evils to those born with mixed blood. She recalls: 'Strictly speaking, I was a monstrosity in the very nationalist milieu in which I lived ... All that was bad in me was blamed on the French blood that ran in my veins.'[27] Lefèvre's own uncle told her mother: 'Believe me, you're nursing a viper in your bosom, her French blood will take over despite your good deeds. She ... will betray you.'[28] In spite of all this, the Vietnamese family did shelter (however temporarily) both mother and child and provided therefore a contradictory blend of support and condemnation.
  5. This love/hate relationship with her Vietnamese family resulted in a mixed feeling compounded of yearning and denial regarding her Vietnamese heritage by Lefèvre. She oscillated between wanting to become wholly Vietnamese or wholly French. In each case, her desire to become other than herself was an unsuccessful attempt to either blend fully into her environment or to position herself within a clearly defined category, whether French or Vietnamese. Of her early years, she writes: 'as a little girl, I dreamed of providential accidents that would empty me of this bad [i.e. French] blood, leaving me purely Vietnamese, reconciled with those around me and with myself.'[29] In Hanoi however, where she stayed with a great-aunt, she states: 'I found myself ugly. I hated with a passion my straight hair, the straight hair of all Vietnamese girls. I thought my skin too dark, my lashes sparse, my eyes small, my nose flat, my lips too thick. I also dreamed of being French.'[30] Her problem was that she was French, but not fully so. As she admits: 'And French I was, but only half of me, enough so that people could distinguish me from other Vietnamese, but not enough for them to take me for a European.'[31] Later, living once again in a Vietnamese village, where she could mingle with other children, Lefèvre notes: 'I invented a story where I was the child of two parents of Vietnamese extraction. I clung to this dream of negating my birth for a long time. I had a fierce desire to forget that I was métisse. Most of all, I wanted others to forget it. I became aware of the futility of my efforts only with time.'[32] These various attempts to disappear into the background were unavailing. Lefèvre's fluctuating identity simply underscored the fact that she was different, that she was 'an alloy, neither silver nor gold.'[33] Despite her efforts, she could not deny this fundamental aspect of her identity. More importantly, she could not make others forget it. She became the unwitting victim of racist and nationalist hostility during the war against the French.
  6. The text juxtaposes the experience of the child - the early traumatized self - with the mature reflection of the adult narrator. Vietnamese anger against the French meant that anyone with French blood was a potential target for revenge attacks. Lefèvre's mother hid her in a jar whenever a stranger appeared in the village, an experience Lefèvre equates to being 'buried alive'[34]. The fear that she experienced is palpable: 'Crouched at the bottom [of the jar], my limbs numb, I was petrified with fear. I no longer knew whose enemy I was ... Pictures of French people with their throats cut at the time of the Japanese offensive came back to mind. Were they going to cut my throat as well?'[35] This recounting of a child's terror is followed by the narrator's assessment that that moment engendered the awareness that she would never belong in Vietnam: 'The injustice which I was subjected to became intolerable, and at the same time I came to realize, albeit only vaguely, that Vietnam would never want me.'[36] The feeling of being rejected by her compatriots and by Vietnam itself - the only country which the child Lefèvre knew at the time - engenders in turn a reciprocal feeling of anger and resentment and, subconsciously, of rejection, on the part of Lefèvre. Her helplessness in the face of hostility directed against her because of her mixed blood finds its echoes in the wider distress of war refugees. She paints a cataclysmic picture of the night-time exodus of civilians from the town of Tuy Hoa in 1946, as the retreating Vietminh deliberately set fire to the city.

      At the sight of Tuy Hoa burning and hearing the sound of explosions, the women, sitting in scattered groups in the night, beat their heads against the wall and wept at the destruction of the town ... It was my first feeling of the irreparable. I will never forget the agonising sight of that funerary wake in front of Tuy Hoa delivered to the destruction of the flames. [37]

    Her recounting of specific details of the French bombing of Tuy Hoa and the subsequent destruction of the town is structured around the adult narrator's assessment of the situation and her summation of war from a civilian perspective:

      I've only known war from the point of view of civilians, in the company of the sick, the old, women and children. We felt only one thing: fear. A fear that was blind and powerless. War means an interruption to life ... Walking towards the unknown, fatigue, thirst and hunger. We were afraid, always afraid. Afraid of losing loved ones, afraid of planes, of tanks: afraid of stray bullets. In this confrontation, we were always the hunted, never the hunters.[38]

    This situation sums up her own experience of the war years as one of the 'hunted' for something over which she had no control: her mixed blood. As she makes clear in her narrative, although she did not enjoy the benefits or advantages of the colonizers, she was nevertheless held accountable for the French blood that ran in her veins.
  7. Internal migration, insecurity, and the peculiar circumstances of her birth and unstable childhood resulted in a constant search for a sense of identity and belonging. Lefèvre's quest for a fixed identity proceeded through a series of negations: she was neither Vietnamese nor French, and she could not make herself into either, so what was she? Three identities were available to her: Vietnamese, French or métisse, but only two cultures: Vietnamese or French. Unfortunately, neither was accessible to her as she grew up. She did not fit in anywhere. She was neither colonized nor colonizer. She could not claim a Vietnamese identity nor embrace Vietnamese culture because she was not accepted by Vietnamese society. Her access to French culture was sketchy and transitory in nature, so she could not claim allegiance there either. Her feelings towards France were compounded of fear and repulsion. Just as her mother symbolized Vietnam for her, so did France conjure the image of her father, the father who had abandoned her.[39] As Lefèvre relates, this early abandonment engendered a profound sense of hurt and rejection: 'I harboured a violent hatred towards this unknown father, as only deeply hurt children are capable of doing.'[40] As for a world peopled by métis, this was a childhood fantasy, not a reality in colonial Vietnam. As the child Lefèvre conjectures rather wistfully: 'Perhaps I would find a new country, inhabited by métisses? I would have a métis father, a métisse mother, a métis uncle ... Nobody would notice me because I would be like everyone else.'[41] This left her all the more determined to attempt to merge into her environment and her milieu. She felt inordinate pride in those areas where she was partly successful in conforming with Vietnamese expectations: in her responsibilities as the eldest daughter of the house and in the matter of sexuality, where she was determined to stay a virgin and by this prove that she was as worthy as any Vietnamese girl. The one area where she did achieve success was in that of education, a success that finally gained her the respect of her stepfather, and enabled her to obtain her freedom and to leave Vietnam for France on a scholarship at the age of twenty-five.
  8. The writing of Métisse was a cathartic experience. It attests to a form of scriptotherapy, a process of narrative recovery, in which the earlier fragmented, traumatized self is reformed into a whole capable of embracing a more flexible identity. The narrator addresses the pain-filled memories of her early years and coalesces them into a coherent life narrative. The earlier self that had sought so unavailingly for the comfort of a recognized identity (whether Vietnamese or French) can now embrace both. France finally allowed Lefèvre a true sense of self:

      What Vietnam denied me, France granted to me: she welcomed and accepted me. When all is said and done, it does not disappoint me. Here, things appear simple. If I say that I am Vietnamese, people accept me as such, if I say that I am French, they ask me of what origin: no more than that.[42]

    At the end of Métisse, Lefèvre can acknowledge both the Vietnamese and the French parts of her identity. She no longer needs to be confined to one, but can instead lay claim to both. Robert Young suggests that 'Today's self-proclaimed and multiple identities may be a marker not of contemporary social fluidity and dispossession but of a new stability, self-assurance and quietism,'[43] and Lefèvre's new found flexibility appears to indicate this. The insecure, fragmented child eventually metamorphosed into an adult able to accept and assert the different composites of her identity. Young notes that 'Fixity of identity is only sought in situations of instability and disruption, of conflict and change,'[44] and Métisse reveals that Lefèvre has moved beyond the uncertainty and constant changes of her childhood and youth.
  9. Métisse also represents a journey towards Vietnamese culture. Despite the many reverses she suffered and the rejections she was subject to, Lefèvre carries the clear imprint of her Vietnamese upbringing in her attachment to the land of her birth. Her prose is rich in imagery. Vietnam here has the nostalgic, mythic dimension of a homeland loved and lost. She sees in Vietnam not only the distant years of her childhood, but also the source of her own existence: her mother.

      I do not blame Vietnam. It is a country dear to my heart. I have loved it with a love that it never returned. My childhood memories are impregnated by its climate, its landscapes, its smells, the music of its language. Sometimes I catch myself humming ancient airs that I thought buried in oblivion. Vietnam is the gentleness of my mother's face.

      Today, I love this land in another way, no longer like a hurt child, but like an adult capable of taking into account what she has given me as well as what she has denied me.[45]

  10. However, the journey on which the writer had embarked had only begun. Although Lefèvre may have allowed herself to claim her Vietnamese identity openly in France, she effectively cut herself off from any contact with other Vietnamese for nearly thirty years. The continuation of that journey is examined in the second narrative, Retour, in which she undertakes that most difficult task: that of going in search of her past.[46] Retour underlines the fact that not only was Lefèvre's journey incomplete, but that it was the written word which allowed her to continue on the path she had set out upon. The act of writing changed her life, firstly through the publication of Métisse, which had an immediate impact and led to her reintegration into her Vietnamese heritage, and secondly in reestablishing contact with her mother and sisters in Vietnam, which in turn led to her return to the country of her birth and the publication of a second autobiographical narrative. As Lefèvre notes in Retour:

      Everything changed with the publication of the book. By writing it I had set in motion, without being aware of it, a time machine to the past. And the light-years that I had wanted to throw between Vietnam and myself, between my childhood and myself, like a great space of oblivion, were all at once abolished.

      The armour that I'd forged, year after year, behind which I shut away an acute sensitivity to all that had to do with the past, cracked silently.[47]

    Writing enables her to acknowledge and recreate her past, to reclaim Vietnamese culture, and to reacquaint herself with the Vietnamese language. As she explains: 'My personality consists of two successive layers: Vietnamese during my childhood, French subsequently. Sometimes they mingle, but most of the time they are strictly cut off from one another, eclipsing the Vietnamese part in me, at least until recently.'[48] It is also through the written word, in the form of letters exchanged, that she forges anew her ties with her mother and sisters in Vietnam. After nearly thirty years of non-communication, Lefèvre's mother writes to her daughter every day, a hectic stream to make up for the silence of the past.

      She writes every day, without fail, as if she wanted to make up for lost time at any cost. Her letters follow one another at such a rapid pace that I don't have time to answer them....

      Now that the barriers of silence have fallen, and that she thinks that not much time is left her, she releases on a blank page all the moments in her life that I did not know, those that predate my birth and those that postdate my departure.

      She writes: 'I want to tell you these before I die....'[49]

  11. Lefèvre's mother speaks to her through her letters. She seeks to heal the rift between her daughter and herself and to reinforce the forging of new bonds. Lefèvre in turn reconstructs this link with her mother through her own writing. Retour records the process of recovery between mother and child and is a tribute to her mother's life. Writing of the mother/daughter relationship in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, Marina Heung notes that:

      storytelling heals past experiences of loss and separation; it is also a medium for rewriting stories of oppression and victimization into parables of self-affirmation and individual empowerment ... The construction of a self in identification with a maternal figure thus parallels, finally, a revisioning of the self through a reinterpretation of the past. [50]

    In retelling her life and her mother's life, Lefèvre is reconstructing her origin and reviewing her identity. Her mother enables her to do this by filling in the blanks from her past and from Lefèvre's childhood. Retour retells the story of her parents' relationship, which becomes a tale of ill-fated young love, rather than simply that of a brief liaison that ended with her mother's abandonment. As Lefèvre acknowledges: 'I confess that I prefer this version, that of a child born of love.'[51] She presents a kinder portrait of her mother's life, one which reveals that her mother's actions were motivated by love of her daughter. Lefèvre is now in a position to comprehend this. She writes: 'I understand your torments now that I am in turn a mother.'[52] In Retour, Lefèvre rewrites her mother's life within her own. She presents a biography of her mother within her own autobiographical narrative, a narrative that also includes the lives of her sisters. Jack Yeager observes that 'the narrator, her mother and sisters, weave their story together, their common history, moving toward the goal of recording and thus rescuing the past.'[53] The bonds of affection between them are unabated after thirty years of separation and near lack of communication. Lefèvre's sisters understand that she had to leave Vietnam in order to make a separate life for herself. But the ties of kinship are still as strong as ever. The mother and sisters not only recall but in the process reinvent their shared past. Lefèvre notes: 'Day after day, we search the past. We feel the need for this bridge thrown between the past and the present, for this imaginary path to pick up the thread of a conversation interrupted a long time ago.'[54] She is conscious of the distorting effects of memory: 'I had the impression that I had nourished this past so long, had reinvented it so often, that it had become an island unknown by those who inhabited it.'[55] As the Vietnamese theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests, 'Words empty out with age. Die and rise again, accordingly invested with new meanings, and always equipped with a secondhand memory. In trying to tell something, a woman is told.'[56] The narrative reveals the process of psychological discovery and recovery that Lefèvre experiences while re-immersing herself in a Vietnamese environment after so many years. She needs to adjust her perceptions of the present to her memories of the past. Writing allows her not only to rewrite the past, but also to structure the present. It forms the link between the narrated past and the narrative present. The past however, continues to exert an endless fascination. As Steven Rose observes: 'Memories are living processes, which become imbued with new meanings, each time we recall them.'[57] The women's narratives form a shared story of survival through war, exodus and long years of privation and separation. Retour shapes a story of female survival and within that shaping Lefèvre finds a measure of peace. She has found her mother again, the mother whose beauty and suffering encapsulates the tragedy of Vietnam and also the will and impetus that led to Lefèvre's escape to freedom. As Lefèvre relates:

      Here you are, my mother, just as I have kept you in my memory, just as you will always be in my thoughts ... No woman's face has surpassed the beauty of yours. Useless beauty that no poet has sung, that no artist has painted. Beauty that you have always carried like the seal of misfortune.

      My humiliated mother, my distressed mother. My mother of nocturnal tears, my mother of solitary nights. My mother of the broken nails, the bent back, the face of dried clay. It's to you that I owe what I am at present, since, like a mole, you dug without respite the tunnel of your life, pushed by the will to hoist your daughter up to the light of the sun.[58]

    Through her mother Lefèvre is reconciled to her country, her culture and her past: 'I see the hidden soul of this country in the gentle face of my mother ... I know that the threads are tied again from now on ... Do not torment yourself, my mother. Now that we have found each other again, you will never lose me.'[59] Lefèvre's background is no longer a handicap, but a source of inspiration. It provides for the extraordinary colour and interest of her account.
  12. 'The colonial experience,' writes Jill Ker Conway, 'is a forcing ground for women's literary consciousness.'[60] Lefèvre's life story, begun in colonial times, has an added sense of deviance because of her unusual experience as a métisse. She was not only female and illegitimate, handicaps enough in Vietnamese society, but she bore the added burden of her mixed blood during a period of colonial conflict and amidst the broader setting of World War. Her rejection on a number of different levels, racial, political and social, led her to a constant search for a sense of self. She was animated by a desire to give voice to Eurasian women. As she states in Retour: 'above all, I felt the need to speak on behalf of all the Eurasian women I had known, of all those who, like me, had been despised and rejected by the French in Vietnam as well as by the Vietnamese, who now live somewhere and whose voices have never been heard.'[61] Lefèvre's narratives reveal a flexible identity, one that is imaginative, invented and which, after initial struggles and attempts to 'fit into' a recognizable mould, whether Vietnamese or French, is no longer confined by any boundaries. This reinvention was a lifelong process and is presented to the reader through the act of life-writing. The process that the narrator thought was completed at the end of Métisse was only the beginning of a journey that continued in Retour. The second narrative reveals that Lefèvre had in fact denied her Vietnamese self through the long years in France. There were aspects of her past that she could not yet deal with. She writes: 'for many years, I wanted to protect myself against everything that could touch, from close or afar, the past.'[62] She was afraid of 'opening wounds that are still raw.'[63] Retour records this fresh attempt to grapple with past trauma and Lefèvre acknowledges that the only way for her to remember it is to write it:

      The past endures in the receptacle of my memory. There, it lives in the secret of my memory, always as coloured, as rich in emotions. But, like those prehistoric caves where rock art fades when the light of the present is introduced, so is my past dissolving. The movement and the noise of everyday life have taken it away. And I cannot resurrect it in any other way except on the paper on which I write.[64]

  13. Paula Hamilton endorses the notion that 'in an autobiography, you are not reading memory, but its transformation through writing.'[65] It is through this process of remembering, writing, and transforming her life story that Lefèvre comes to terms with her past. She says of Métisse: 'I did it to exorcise the past.'[66] Retour was the continuation of that process. As Henke observes, 'It is through the very process of rehearsing and reenacting a drama of mental survival that the trauma narrative effects psychological catharsis.'[67] However, the process is an ongoing one for Lefèvre. She has yet to fill in the missing years between her departure from Vietnam and her return to the country of her birth. Apart from a few brief lines in Métisse, she has revealed very little about her life in France and her experiences there as a Eurasian woman. Lefèvre is working on a third autobiographical narrative, but is not satisfied with its progress to date.[68] She states that she still unreservedly hates her father[69] - the symbol of that earliest rejection of all. Over the past few years, Lefèvre has translated several Vietnamese novels and collections of short stories into French and continues to engage in this activity.[70] Her work maintains an active link between the two cultures and two languages and may provide the necessary bridge that will allow her to produce the third part of her life story - the missing section between her first and second autobiographical narratives.


    [1] All translations, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.
    This quotation is drawn from the following passage in Mesa Selimovic's The Fortress:
    'I can't tell you what it was like at Chocim, in that far Russian land. Not because I don't remember, but because I will not. It's not worth telling of dreadful slaughter, of human terror, of atrocities on both sides. It's not worth the recalling, be it to regret or to glorify. Best to forget. Let people's memory of all that's ugly die, so children may not sing songs of vengeance. All I'll say is that I got back. Had I not, I'd not be writing this and no one would know that all this really was. What's not written down doesn't exist; it's past and gone.' Mesa Selimovic, The Fortress, trans. from the Serbo-Croatian by E.D. Goy and Jasna Levinger, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999, p. 3.

    [2] The epigraph appears in Kim Lefèvre, Retour à la saison des pluies, Paris: Bernard Barrault, 1990; La Tour d'Aigues: Editions de l'Aube, 1995, p. 9.

    [3] 'Chocim: A fortress town on the east bank of the Dniestr and the scene of famous battle, in 1621, during which the Poles and Cossacks defeated the army of Sultan Osman II. In 1769, the Turks, who had occupied Chocim, tried unsuccessfully to raise the Russian siege of the fortress.' Goy and Jasna Levinger, 'Notes,' in Selimovic Fortress, p. 402.

    [4] Selimovic, Fortress, p. 45.

    [5] Pierre Nora, 'Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,' special issue of Representations, No. 26, Spring 1989, p. 13.

    [6] Selimovic, Fortress, p. 3.

    [7] Selimovic, Fortress, p. 4.

    [8] Selimovic; Fortress, p. 13.

    [9] Selimovic, Fortress, p. 28.

    [10] Métisse is translated as 'half-breed' or 'half-caste' in English, which carries a different connotation to the French meaning. Françoise Lionnet has written at length on the issue of métissage. 'The word does not exist in English: one can translate métis by 'half-breed' or 'mixed-blood' but these expressions always carry a negative connotation, precisely because they imply biological abnormality and reduce human reproduction to the level of animal breeding ... That is why a word like métis or mestizo is most useful: it derives etymologically from the Latin mixtus, 'mixed', and its primary meaning refers to cloth made of two different fibers, usually cotton for the warp and flax for the woof: it is a neutral term, with no animal or sexual implication. It is not grounded in biological misnomers and has no moral judgements attached to it. It evacuates all connotations of 'pedigreed' ascendance, unlike words like octoroon or half-breed.' Françoise Lionnet, Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989, pp. 13-14.

    [11] Kim Lefèvre, Métisse blanche, Paris: Bernard Barrault, 1989.
    The French took control of South Vietnam in 1862, while Central and North Vietnam became French protectorates in 1883. French colonization lasted eighty years and ended in 1954, after the French defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Following the Geneva Agreements of July 1954, Vietnam was partitioned into two separate states north and south of the 17th parallel.

    [12] Suzette A. Henke, Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women's Life-Writing, New York: St Martin's Press, 1998, p. xviii.

    [13] John R. Gillis, 'Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship,' in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, ed. John R. Gillis, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 3.

    [14] Henke, Shattered Subjects, p. xv.

    [15] Gillis; 'Memory', p. 3.

    [16] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 15.

    [17] In Vietnam, métisses children were often placed in orphanages, either by their white family or by their Vietnamese family or mother under pressure, as was the case with Kim Lefèvre. Clothilde Chivas-Baron reports the establishment of an orphanage founded specifically for abandoned métisses children as early as 1874, and that of a refuge for abused indigenous and métisses girls in 1875. See Clothilde Chivas-Baron, La Femme française aux colonies, Paris: Editions Larose, 1929, pp. 92-94. On a personal note, my mother's family (from South Vietnam) has a positive history relating to interracial marriages and the métis children born of such marriages. This is in contrast to my father's family (from North Vietnam), for whom marriage to foreigners was considered unacceptable. My maternal grandmother was born Nguyen Thi Duon, the second child of Nguyen Van Bau and Bui Thi Guong. Three of her brothers married European women. Two married Frenchwomen, and one an Englishwoman. These marriages took place in Europe in the 1930s and early 1950s, since the men had all studied overseas (two were doctors and one a diplomat). Although the family accepted these marriages with some reluctance initially, the personality of the women led to them being fully accepted. The children, it should be noted, were mostly brought up overseas rather than in Vietnam. The next generation saw daughters being sent overseas for their studies as well and several of my aunts have inter-married with European and American men.

    [18] 'Attachment to our native land is as strong as to our kin.' Nguyen Trieu Dan, A Vietnamese Family Chronicle: Twelve Generations on the Banks of the Hat River, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 1991, p. vii.

    [19] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 15.

    [20] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 14.

    [21] Confirmed during a telephone conversation with Kim Lefèvre on 11 April 2001.

    [22] Literally 'Vietnamese woman married to Frenchman (sic).' Nguyen-Dinh-Hoa, Vietnamese-English Dictionary, Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle and Co., 1966, p. 272.

    [23] 'The main keepers of customs, tradition and oral history have been women.' Nguyen, Family, p. 143.

    [24] Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. 339.

    [25] Quoted in Jamieson, Vietnam, pp. 339-40. Jamieson points out that the large American presence in Vietnam in the 1960s led to 'the reemergence of a hypersensitivity to maintenance of the ethnic boundary' amongst the Vietnamese.

    [26] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 409.

    [27] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 14.

    [28] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 33.

    [29] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 14.

    [30] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 30.

    [31] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 30.

    [32] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 119.

    [33] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 29.

    [34] 'I hated that jar which gave me the feeling of being buried alive.' Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 102.

    [35] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 97.

    [36] Lefèvre, Métisse, pp. 97-98.

    [37] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 133.

    [38] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 129.

    [39] 'France was the image of the father who had abandoned me.' Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 405.

    [40] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 14.

    [41] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 41.

    [42] Lefèvre, Métisse, p. 405.

    [43] Robert J.C. Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, London: Routledge, 1995, p. 4.

    [44] Young, Colonial Desire, p. 4.

    [45] Lefèvre, Métisse, pp. 405-406.

    [46] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 130.

    [47] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 18.

    [48] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 122.

    [49] Lefèvre, Retour, pp. 89-90.

    [50] Marina Heung, 'Daughter-Text/Mother-Text: Matrilineage in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club,' Feminist Studies, 19.3 (Fall 1993): 607.

    [51] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 79.

    [52] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 73.

    [53] Jack A. Yeager, 'Kim Lefèvre's Retour à la saison des pluies: Rediscovering the Landscapes of Childhood,' L'Esprit Créateur, XXXIII, 2 (Summer 1993): 54.

    [54] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 169.

    [55] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 157.

    [56] Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 79.

    [57] Steven Rose, The Making of Memory, London: Bantam Books, 1993, p. 2.

    [58] Lefèvre, Retour, pp. 68-69.

    [59] Lefèvre, Retour, pp. 221-22.

    [60] Jill Ker Conway, 'Introduction' in In Her Own Words: Women's Memoirs from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, ed. Jill Ker Conway, New York: Vintage Books, 1999, p. vii.

    [61] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 16.

    [62] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 17.

    [63] Lefèvre, Retour, pp. 37.

    [64] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 220-21.

    [65] As expressed by Stephen Owen. Paula Hamilton, 'The Knife Edge: Debates about Memory and History,' in Memory and History in Twentieth-Century Australia, ed. Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 16.

    [66] Lefèvre, Retour, p. 16.

    [67] Henke, Shattered Subjects, p. xix.

    [68] Interview with Kim Lefèvre in Paris on 15 January 2001.

    [69] Interview with Kim Lefèvre in Paris on 15 January 2001.

    [70] For example, Duong Thu Huong, Histoire d'amour racontée avant l'aube, La Tour d'Aigues: Editions de l'Aube, 1991 and Nguyen Huy Thiep, Le Cœur du tigre, La Tour d'Aigues: Editions de l'Aube, 1995, among others.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 6 March 1609 by: Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright