Hybrid identities: Jeune fille modèle by Grace Ly

Dervila Cooke

Dublin City University

 

Grace Ly’s début novel Jeune fille modèle (Fayard, 2018) is a recent text that may well become a modern classic, or at least a reference point, in the lineage of Faïza Guène’s 2004 work Kiffe Kiffe demain.[1] Like Doria in Guène’s text (also a début), Ly’s Chi Chi is a precocious and irreverent adolescent given to sharp social commentary. Ly’s text – which she insists is a novel, containing autobiographical elements [2] – is focused on Franco-Asian identity in an adolescent protagonist. First-person narrator Chi Chi (French-born, of Chinese-Cambodian descent) initially displays a normal teenage rebellion against her family and a desire for conformity with her mainly Caucasian classmates in the privileged “Lycée international” that she attends. The fees for this school are paid for by constant work by her mother in the family’s Extrême-Orient restaurant in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. This restaurant is initially viewed as a prison by Chi Chi, who must help out with deliveries and general preparation during any non-school time. From the desire of conformity with her Caucasian peers, she moves towards an affirmation of the more self-confident wish to “devenir moi” on her own terms (p. 98), and also towards a clear sense of the importance of her family (and of their history) in the sense of self she wishes to have.

Along with balking at the pressure of constant work (mainly the burden of labour on her mother but also on herself), there is an emphasis at the start on Chi Chi’s frustration with her family’s wish for her to succeed, both academically and in a future career. She also initially resents being expected to keep a strong sense of her heritage through immersion in language and traditions at the local Sinophone cultural centre. This acquisition and retention of heritage is expected to take place along with an integration into French society that will hopefully ensure future professional success. At roughly the midpoint of the text when her mother (“Ama”) is suddenly hospitalized, Chi Chi learns the history and context behind her family’s traumatic experiences in Cambodia under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s. This brings her to an understanding of the reasons behind her family’s wish for her to succeed, as well as of their sacrifices and their desire to blend into the background in their adopted country. Their instinct not to draw attention to themselves stems from their experience in the home country. They have lived through a highly traumatic period of loss of family members by starvation or separation, and many of them have directly experienced labour camps that discriminated against urban dwellers and business owners (both of which categories generally applied to the Chinese inhabitants), as well as attempts at forced re-education. Some, like Oncle Deux and his wife, have had marriages imposed on them by the Khmer rouge. Chi Chi’s existential doubts and ruminations on identity come to seem relatively puny by comparison.

The novel is “bookended” by two sets of peritextual thanks to Faïza Guène. Ly’s expressions of gratitude can be read both personally and as a comment on the groundwork prepared by Guène and those who preceded her. Both Ly and Guène were born in France in the 1980s, although Guène is a few years younger than Ly. [3] Guène and Ly are also linked by their use of a direct form of humour to allow serious questions of dominance and contestation to be dealt with, by their possession of a double culture, and by an emphasis on marginal spaces (the Parisian suburbs for Guène, and the towerblock enclaves of Les Olympiades in the Chinatown of the 13th arrondissement for Ly, which is less marginal, but still a defined area at the edges of Paris intramuros, and a slightly exotic area for other Parisians).

 

More important perhaps is the implicit reference to the literary and cinematic precedents of the beur generation of the 1980s and early 1990s, [4] including works by Azouz Begag and Mehdi Charef, whose first works are also set in marginal spaces (the shantytowns of 1960s Lyon for Begag; housing projects in suburban Paris for Charef).[5] The type of self-deprecating humour present in Ly and Guène’s first works is also used by Begag. The writers and artists of the beur generation were usually the twenty-or thirty-something children of those who had arrived in France after Algerian independence in 1962, or the grandchildren of earlier Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants who had come to France to find work during the post-war reconstruction around 1945. The 1980’s beur thrust towards self-affirmation thus came shortly after the Trente Glorieuses, the famous thirty year period of French economic expansion that started after 1945, greatly helped by a large immigrant labour force. [6] The critical mass formed by these children and grandchildren of what the French now call primoarrivants (the immigrant parents or grandparents) saw young writers of North African descent asserting their place in French society and reflecting on the multiple strands of their identities. As John Taylor notes, we may well soon see a similar phenomenon amongst Franco-Asians, “as the children born of parents arriving in France during the immigration waves of the 1970s and 1980s [from China and South East Asia] come of literary age.” [7]

Ly is in many senses breaking new ground in creating a very French character of Chinese-Cambodian heritage. The journalists in a 2018 radio programme for “Radio LCF, La Chine en Français”, currently available on Youtube, called her a pioneer (“pionnière”).[8] When pressed as to her role models, Ly declared having been a voracious reader in her childhood, gesturing vaguely to Franco-Chinese and Franco-Vietnamese output, without naming specific authors or works. She stressed that she was mainly influenced by Asian-American novels, where she could find heroines that resembled her: born in the country of their upbringing, but with a double culture.

The Chinese writers working in French to which Ly refers may include famous writers such as François Cheng (the first person of Asian origin to be elected to the Académie française, in 2002) and the 2000 Nobel-prize-winning playwright and novelist, Gao Xingjiang, although both were brought up in China. A third forerunner may be best-selling writer Dai Sijie, whose rendering of Chinese labour camps in Balzac ou la petite tailleuse chinoise (2000) are echoed in Ly’s novel by the description of similar camps in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The exiled Cambodian documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh is also likely to have been an influence, [9] as might the Vietnam-born novelist Linda Lê. However, Lê, like the three above-mentioned Franco-Chinese writers, and like Canada’s Ying Chen, came to the West after formative years in the East. None of these writers therefore shares Ly’s French-born experience. [10]

It is important to stress the significance of the character Nabil, who becomes friendly, and perhaps romantically involved, with Chi Chi. Nabil mirrors Ly’s French-born hybridity from a Franco-Maghrebi perspective. While the term “beur” is unpopular nowadays, with most writers preferring the term “franco-maghrébin,” [11] Ly makes a linguistic pun on the term when Chi Chi’s grandmother dismissively calls Nabil a “petit beur” (written in the chapter title as “petit beurre”). This reference to the very French biscuit of the same name simultaneously asserts Nabil’s ethnic antecedents and affirms his Frenchness (he also loves snails with garlic and bread). Importantly, just before the dam of historical memory is opened by Tata Meng during the catalytic hospitalization Chi Chi’s mother, it is Nabil who offers Chi Chi a madeleine, the famous (and very French) sponge biscuit that allows Marcel Proust to access the past in the classic French modern autobiography, A la Recherche du temps perdu (1913).

Nabil, who also appears to live in the mainly Asian Olympiades complex, is not only an example of new, hybrid types of Frenchness, but also becomes part of the Chinese-Cambodian immigrant family. He comes to work in the restaurant as a delivery boy, and joins the family for the second set of Chinese New Year celebrations that take place after Ama is released from hospital. Although three other non-Chinese are invited to this family event, only Nabil is invited into the inner sanctum to join the family on their long-awaited holiday – the first in thirty years – to Thailand at the end of the novel. The main catalyst for Nabil’s acceptance into the family occurs when a restaurant customer (who seems to be from the majority population) shows his racism overtly in the incident when he asks for a beer instead of the set bowl of rice. In doing so, he is assuming that is acceptable to treat his Asian “servers” as submissive. When Nabil suggests that the same customer would not ask for a Coke instead of bread in a French bistrot, the customer threatens Nabil: “je connais bien les gens comme toi: je vais porter plainte” (p. 210). As part of the long-established (and some would add “long-suffering”) Franco-Maghrebi community, Nabil’s cultural and personal memory of the experience of racism is suggested here. It is at that point that Chi Chi’s grandmother comes to recognize Nabil’s worth, and to appreciate his solidarity with her family.

Importantly, Chi Chi is simultaneously invisible to the majority population and too visibly different once focused upon. Her Caucasian classmates either do not see her (quite literally) or else they shun her. Several other demanding customers from the majority population exploit the quiet and accommodating attitude they have come to expect from their Asian servers. For example, the local postman, Jérôme comes to expect special treatment, like the two nougat sweets that Ama always delivers with his coffee. (The same Jérôme expects docility from his Thai mail-order bride Busaba, and is happy not to be able to communicate with her properly through language, due to her lack of French and their shared pidgin English). However, anyone who takes a sincere and humanistic interest in the Chinese community is commended in Ly’s narrative. This is particularly true for all those who are interested in the needs of that community, particularly nurses Geneviève and Hatoumata who point out the lack of facilities for Buddhist rites at the hospital.

The important Youtube clip from 2017, by journalist Hélène Lam Trong, “Les Asiatiques de France,” resonates strongly with Ly’s text. [12] Trong’s video conveys a sense of a population with its own cultural memory and traumas, and also captures the stereotypes currently surrounding Asians in France as hard-working, and quietly acceptant of their lot, even if it includes exploitation. Ly’s text similarly upends these stereotypes and reminds us of the collective past, while also stressing some harsh economic realities. She makes clear with her ironically-titled final chapters (“La Vie en Rose”, and “Evasion totale”) that there is huge economic pressure upon families like those depicted in her novel. It is clear that the escape to Thailand for the long-awaited holiday can only exist in fiction.

Interestingly, Ly makes sure to show that racism is not the sole domain of the majority French population. Chi Chi’s Caucasian crush Dylan immediately thinks of the Disney character Mulan when he finally properly “sees” her after a long invisibility (he needs a cigarette). Even Nabil thinks of a manga character on hearing her name and declares that he loves “Asian women”, lumping them all into the same de-individualizing category. Yet Chi Chi is no stranger to stereotyping behaviour herself, initially assumes Nabil is part of the gang who she thinks stole her bicycle and imagining that, since his mother is a cleaning lady, they must live in a hovel. Her mother and grandmother at first have a dismissive attitude to Nabil too. This makes it all the more ironic when Chi Chi commits the theft of the Eastpak backpack, with Nabil teasing her in backslang that she is “une Chinoise caillera” (p. 95). The reference here to the infamously dismissive racialized name-slinging of “racaille” (“scum”) in the Northern Parisian suburb of Argenteuil by soon-to-become prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005, reminds us of the historic denigration of banlieue youth more generally. Although Chi Chi is not from the banlieue, Ly was, and Chi Chi’s Treizième arrondissement is geographically and culturally peripheral, as mentioned above.

Most of the characters of immigrant origin or extraction are in some way culturally hybrid (in the cases of Nabil and Chi Chi, this hybridity infuses their lives entirely). There is cultural hybridity even for the older characters, such as Nabil’s mother, who is capable of making equally delicious couscous and boeuf bourguignon. Even Oncle Deux, who like Chi Chi’s mother, speaks halting French with a strong Chinese accent, is in some way culturally hybrid, as evidenced by his liking for porc au pastis – Chinese pork infused with the well-known and very French Mediterranean aniseed-flavoured alcohol.

The most important factor in saving the characters from a simplistic portrayal is the explanation of history. Oncle Deux appears initially as a self-effacing taxi driver who cannot pronounce the letter “j” (“Bondour, Je m’apppelle Dac, et on va où audourdui?”) and who nostalgically listens to Hong Kong singer Jackie Cheung on a loop as he drives. Yet when the dam of historical memory opens, we learn that the same man lost his brother, Oncle Cinq, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge through their refusal to give him a proper blood transfusion, and had to keep his head down in the labour camps so that his typically Chinese features and Chinese accent would not be recognized by the Khmer ruling forces. As mentioned, he was also forced into marriage by the same forces. Tante Brigitte is also more rounded than initially portrayed (as a Chinese imitator of Brigitte Bardot). Chi Chi learns that she has been married (for love) and separated, and that she spent years looking for family members in refugee camps in Cambodia. Her separation occurred due to her French husband’s inability to cope with the influx of refugee Chinese-Cambodians to their tiny apartment after Brigitte managed to repatriate them to France. Historical and personal details like this “round out” the characters, moving away from stereotypes and simplistic dismissals of the racialized Other, and lend the text its poignancy.

The portrayal of Sovann, Chi Chi’s missing father, of whom she initially knows nothing, also plays on simplistic expectations. We first encounter him speaking in Khmer. As a person of Khmer ethnicity, he is therefore theoretically part of the “in-group” under the Khmer rouge. However, we learn that he risked his life in the 1970s (and was imprisoned) for trying to save Tante Trois’ baby Ling, stealing rice rations for her. On his release, he became (or continued to be) Ama’s lover (thinking his wife and children were dead) and became part of her family, carrying Grand-mère on his back to a refugee camp on the border. Sovann is then brought to France as part of the “regroupement familial” by Brigitte, makes Ama pregnant with Chi Chi but does not know this, and moves to America when he realizes his wife and family are alive and living there. These details (which are perhaps a little too hastily sketched in the book), are vitally important for the question of the complexity that often underlies over-simplistic assumptions. We start with an assumption that Sovann may be a hostile figure (as a Khmer) – heightened by the fact that he is banging violently on the metal shutters of the closed restaurant –  and that he abandoned Chi Chi (who herself admits late in the book that she had always assumed this: p. 225) . However, we move to a much more nuanced and human picture, coloured by history.

Many other upendings of expectations take place in this text. Most obviously, Chi Chi is far from the jeune fille modèle of the title. Expected by her Asian family to grow up without calling attention to herself, like a pure and graceful lotus flower demanding no particular care (p. 24), she commits a theft (paradoxically out of a desire to fit in), and is thrown out of school temporarily, apparently deciding not to go back, at least not at present. This is in stark contrast to the expectations and hopes of her family for brilliant studies and progression to traditionally prestigious professions, voiced by both her mother and Oncle Deux. More importantly perhaps, she is not afraid to shout (“gueuler”), both when she decides to “devenir moi” and in the hospital (p. 97, p. 236). By contrast, her mother and family keep everything to themselves, in line with stereotypical Asian restraint or “retenue” (pp.123, 126) but also because of their personal and collective history.

The common expression “yeux bridés” is used to denote orientally slanted eyes. The fact that there is no corresponding expression in Western languages for non-slanted eyes normalizes the eye shape of the majority population and draws attention to any deviations. The French term “brider” also means constraint and restriction in one’s development or behaviour. Constraints on her developing identity as an assertive young French woman are Chi Chi’s main target. While she initially displays a normal teenage desire to fit in, she is unusual in that she refuses to rise to the taunts of older (Asian) women who suggest she will not attract a husband if she eats too much and gets fat. Similarly, she seems to agree with her friend Kim-Ay who tells her sister not to be obsessed with having Western shaped eyes (p. 55). In deciding to “devenir moi”, it is clear that Chi Chi has decided to be her own model, following her own “recette personnelle.” (p. 246)

More than just a “banane” (yellow outside and white inside) as her mother sometimes disparagingly calls her, Chi Chi is a “banane flambée”, a more fiery and feisty manifestation of the concept. Metaphors of food strongly mark the sense of self in the novel. Connoting comfort and nostalgia, food often conveys cultural hybridity here (Franco-Asian for Chi Chi, who loves bread as well as rice and Franco-Maghrebi for her new friend Nabil).Yet perhaps the most poignant association with food in the text is an economic one: the spectre of starvation. Grand-mère’s insistence on eating every scrap of food, even those deemed inedible by visiting Parisian customers, takes on a poignant note when we learn that her granddaughter Ling succumbed to starvation under the Khmer rouge dictatorship, and that her daughter, Ling’s mother, died of grief thereafter. Little by little, such details take on a strong emotional resonance, adding to the complexity of selfhood (French, Franco-Asian, Sino-Cambodian and more) and of personal and cultural memory that Ly gradually uncovers. For all its occasionally slapstick tone, this is a provocative and important novel.

Grace Ly, Jeune fille modèle, Paris: Fayard, 2018; Livre de Poche, 2019.

NOTES

Author’s note: A version of this text with further detail and additional close text analysis is planned for publication in a monograph entitled Writing Transcultural and Minority Youth in France and Québec, 2000-2020, forthcoming with Palgrave MacMillan in 2021.

  1. Kiffe Kiffe demain  (Paris: Hachette, 2004) was Guène’s first novel, about a girl of Moroccan descent in the Paris suburbs.
  2. “La jeune fille modèle se raconte,” Radio LCF- La Chine en français, 29th November 2018.
  3. Guène was born in 1985, just as the beur movement was getting properly under way, and is therefore too young to have been part of this writerly emergence. For an indication of Ly’s age, see Jean-Pierre Montanay, who indicated in 2018 that Ly was 37 at that point: https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/societe/grace-ly-contre-les-cliches-sur-les-asiatiques_2026088.html 18th July 2018. Consulted 21st February 2020.
  4. “Beur” is of course “arabe” in backslang or verlan, which Alec Hargreaves describes as “a form of slang practised initially by members of the French underworld and more recently by urban youths”. Immigration and Identity in Beur Fiction: Voices from the Immigrant Community, New York and Oxford: Berg, 1991,  p.29. Hargreaves notes that the emergence of Radio Beur in 1981 marked the first recorded usage of the word, and that it emerged as the chosen term for self-description in the 1970s among younger members of the North African immigrant community in the Paris area.
  5. Azouz Begag, Le Gone du Chaâba, 1986; Medhi Charef, Un thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed, 1983.
  6. The French economist Jean Fourastié coined the term “Trente Glorieuses” in a study of the same name in 1979. The economic boom ended with the downturn caused by the oil crisis and the increase in global competition of the early 1970s.
  7. John Taylor, “Three Chinese Francophone Writers: François Cheng, Dai Sijie, Gao Xingjian.” Michigan Quarterly Review, Volume XLVII, Issue 2 (China), Spring 2008. [Online] http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0047.233
  8. “La jeune fille modèle se raconte,” Radio LCF- La Chine en français, 29th November 2018.
  9. On Rithy Panh, see Sylvie Blum-Reid’s chapter entitled “Khmer Memories” in her monograph East-West Encounters: Franco-Asian Cinema and Literature, London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2003 (pp.106-119).
  10. For more transcultural writers originally from China and writing in French see Chapter 3 of Ileana Chirila, La République réinventée: littératures transculturelles dans la France contemporaine, PhD dissertation, Duke University, 2012 [online].
  11. See Najib Redouane and Yvette Benayoun-Szmidt, Qu’en est-il de la littérature beure au féminin?,  Paris: Harmattan, 2012, for more on the term “beur” and the preferred expression“franco-maghrébin”.
  12. Hélène Lam Trong, “Les Asiatiques de France,” 23 March 2017  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wniW8ISPEJg Accessed 20 March 2020.  For more on cultural expectations pertaining to Asians in France (from their families and from the majority population, for example regarding appearance and professional choices), see the excellent six-part webseries by Ly, “Ca reste entre nous,” for example part 1, “L’image de la femme asiatique,” 19 Feb 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSmiEcyWW8c  accessed 15 March 2020.
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