Worn lightly, my tongue is a passport riddled with RNA
Transplanted beings of unknown origins: Notes on Linda Lê and translation
Author: Christophe Robert
Published on: 11/23/2017 7:55:56 PM

Human transplants  

In a text published in French in 2010, Linda Lê describes genealogies of her writings and her work as a writer. She proposes a definition of humans as transplanted beings – at least for the humans she creates in her books.

Transplants observe and listen. In new environments, they encounter different constellations of thought images, radiating from foreign words and stories, from the sounds and mysteries of strange conversations. Transplants sometimes are shipwrecked and resurface in new places and times, with few tools at hand to explore novel surroundings. These don’t have to be islands: to pass from shore to shore while registering new memories is one of Linda Lê’s main images of identity.

For her, identity sways. “Tangages”, the title of her text in French, means the rocking motion of a boat in calm seas. Identity builds on fragments and imprecise memories, and such “swaying” knowledge. It is in flux, in movement. Sometimes migrating, sometimes getting lost, it returns and moves on. This leads in time to writing: writing about exile, foreign languages and translation, for instance.

Linda Lê begins Par ailleurs (Bourgois, 2014), her reflections on writers in exile, by analyzing Joseph Conrad’s short story “Amy Foster”, about a shipwrecked Polish sailor who seeks refuge in an English coastal town. He is isolated. Locals do not mingle with him. They see him as malevolent, savage, barbarian, because they don’t understand his language or his gestures. In the wake of the sailor’s marriage to Amy Foster, the resistance of the locals is simply too strong to enable him to settle in town. In turn, the stranded sailor’s attempts to communicate backfire disastrously. Lê begins her reflections on exile with an extreme case, a real shipwreck and its ramifications in confrontations over otherness in a small town. This is her territory in all her writings. In Par ailleurs, she ambles from Edward Said to Anna Seghers, Georges Perec, Blanchot and Artaud and others. One fragment at a time, she assembles a mosaic of her reflections from writers writing on exile. I imagine this recent book as continuing the fascinated explorations of foreign literature she began as an absolument moderne school girl in Saigon, in wartime Vietnam during the early 1970s.

I translated this text to explore Linda Lê’s perspectives on translation, her obsessions with language, with foreign grammars, and alternative modernities. She outlines creative pathways for exploring mobile selves and identities connected to new speech, locales and customs. Very little can be taken for granted, all positions are shifting. Feeling adrift is a distinct experience; it can also be linked to seagoing, exploration, and shipwreck. Since Antiquity, shipwrecks with spectators have been matters for philosophical reflection, with Robinson Crusoe the best-known literary example.

I translated this text by Linda Lê because she imagines identity, based on language as translation, as similarly fluid, open and multiple. She rejects false boundaries and definitions of identity resting on exclusion by geographical and cultural origins, since these are always in flux.

Linda Lê writes in French. She has met with critical success in France since the publishing of her first books, has appeared regularly in the press, and has earned the attention of prestigious editors. In the text that follows, she explains the emergence of her desire to write in French during her childhood in wartime Saigon. The French language in her is anchored to deeper strata of memories, grounded in experiences of translation, displacement and exile. Some of her works have been translated into Vietnamese, and she found positive critical feedback in Vietnam. She occasionally visits Vietnam, as she did in 2013, and translations of her work into Vietnamese are under way.

Her notions of identity and subjectivity sidestep binaries of self and other. She rejects the “us and them” type of oppositional thought based on friend/enemy dichotomies. Instead, she proposes movement, translation, flows of images and ideas along pathways of displacement, migration, and exile.

The experiences of Linda Lê and her fictional characters echo throughout world literature. She openly acknowledges her debt to other writers and scholars. In Par ailleurs (2014) she notes she is especially indebted to Edward Said and his reflections on exile.


Unknown origins

In the 1970s, because of the war, Linda Lê fled Vietnam, the country of her birth. She now writes in French, the colonial language of Indochina but also the language of the elite French schools where she was enrolled in post-colonial Saigon. In her writing life she confronts the vagaries of unconscious memories. Fragments of Vietnamese images surface unannounced and unsettle her fluency in French language and writing. Suddenly, something blurry catches, holds her back or paralyzes her temporarily.

Identity sways, akin to the rhythmic roll of ships in sea waves. Nothing fixed and classifiable; she seeks for disruptive narratives and complex translations. These movements are not simply chaos, but exploration and discovery of new shores, new languages and new narratives of decentered identity.

In this short text, Linda Lê describes how, since the time of her childhood, she felt different, other, foreign in her own culture. The “strange mixture” of Vietnamese and French spoken at home, the languages read and heard at school, in the streets, on cinema screens and in pages of poetry and novels created new potentials, new images, new experiences. The new emerged rapidly and in apparent chaos. For her the French language was wrapped up in family hopes and dramas. Her father was disappointed that his daughters never developed a deep appreciation for Vietnamese literature and poetry. As an adolescent she felt that she was betraying her father as she became more deeply immersed in French language and literature. Unbearable pain is how she describes the experience of leaving her father behind in Vietnam, when she and her kin emigrated.

She moved to Paris. When she began to write, images and fragments of memories and stories of Vietnam surfaced in her writings. While trying to remain unclassifiable – a position of full openness – she gradually began to draw on unconscious images and motifs she felt were no longer linked to specific origins of birth and family, of language and belonging defined in cultural terms (terroir, in French; partly similar to the Vietnamese notion of quê hương).

Linda Lê experienced these disruptions personally, and yet she points out the sheer pleasure of getting lost in a foreign medium, through the mazes of foreign grammar and old texts. Fragmentary memories that surface unannounced bear witness to intimate displacements – translating one’s selves when living and writing in other languages.

In her essays on exile, Linda Lê calls attention to the role of distant witnesses who create spaces of wonder and daydreaming out of the wreck through literature, essays and philosophical reflection. Writers figure less as towering, ego-driven individuals of note than as ephemeral companions encountered on side paths. We stop by to converse with them and reflect on exile, writing, and journeys.