This is an excerpt translated by Natasha Lehrer from Elvis à la radio by Sabine Huynh, published in French by Éditions Maurice Nadeau in 2022.
Read the foreword to the issue 31 literature section here.
Whenever I think of you now, my radiant, intense, yet self-effacing Nelly, with your round, pale face and halo of thick Venetian blond hair that Botticelli’s Venus might envy, it’s with a stab of sadness; you were the one who introduced me to the music of Jacques Higelin, Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine, Arno, the punk band the Béruriers Noirs, prog-rock Ange; you were my friend, two years older than me, burning with passion, you read Franz Kafka and Thomas Bernhard in the original, when we broke up you were reading Albert Camus’s The Fall. My best friend all the way through to tenth grade—and yet in my desolation I had no choice but to push you away. I gave up our friendship because the words to express the tumult that was bearing me further and further away from the life I had in common with you and our schoolmates completely eluded me, swallowed up by my solitude and shame at not being as carefree as you, at experiencing things that felt utterly unmentionable, that even writing could not summon. Such solitude as Bernhard writes about—all the more absolute when you are surrounded by other people. Such shame as Annie Ernaux writes about in her book of the same name; it was when I reread it a few years ago that I decided I had to write about my shame precisely because I was ashamed of it.
One Sunday in June in the early afternoon her father tried to kill her.
But I couldn’t get beyond the end of that sentence. I was paralyzed. I wrote June, but I could have written December, Wednesday instead of Sunday, morning instead of afternoon. I hastily closed my notebook, on the grounds that if I didn’t know precisely when this event took place, I couldn’t possibly claim to be able to write about it. It took me a long time to understand how irrelevant temporal elements were for this writing project, this wild horse that feeds on the fleeting but intense images I’ve held onto and their impact on my body. Like the screech of terror I thought I’d let out but that had stuck in my throat, even as I heard it exploding in my head and sending unstoppable chills through my whole body. I closed the notebook. I couldn’t see how I was going to be able to write about all that. I had never tried to before. I’d always been afraid of not being able to find the right words, or more importantly the right form into which to translate reality, I guess I was thinking I had to detail the year, the day, the time, how long it lasted, the characters’ psychology, their circumstances and motives, the causes and the consequences. Obviously I was no Balzac or Zola, but there was another thing: the violent, concrete, boorish acts usually bore little resemblance to what was in my head, and for me the true motivation for writing was what my head constructed out of that reality. Anyone can tell a story, but finding the right literary form to expose the intimacy that makes us who we are is much trickier. It is often said that writing nonfiction lays bare an entire world, while writing fiction constructs it. My creative project lies somewhere between the two, in its attempts to reconstitute, to recover indistinct memories that might be the fruit of my imagination. So I may as well take a leap into the void, fully conscious of the fact that it’s never as empty as you think it is.
One Sunday in June in the early afternoon her father tried to kill her.
Why was he chasing her out of the kitchen and into her bedroom brandishing the huge cleaver he used to slice the steak sautéed in butter and garlic he made once a month the day his payday falls? That was the word, falls, that flashed through her mind for a split second as she ran for her life, the image of a guillotine blade descending at full speed, because she really believed her father was going to slit her throat for standing up to him. A prisoner of her mother’s emotional blackmail, she had defended her during a fight between her parents, causing her father to turn his anger onto her. The mother had a lover, the daughter often served as her alibi, and the father had just found out. I know some might find this story sordid, but it interests me in the way that by summoning it up, thinking about it, trying to tame both the narrative and my emotions so I can write it, I sense that it is enabling me to unlock something, something in me and in the writing—maybe it’s a way of creating empathy?—and thus to alter the way I think about it, which until now has been tainted by shame, the kind of shame that clamps the mouth shut and condemns the whole thing to be buried so deep it is completely suppressed. If I am now no longer ashamed to reveal it, maybe this new perspective will also alter the way my parents are considered by a world whose rejection spawned their cruelty. This time I keep going. She ran to her parents’ bedroom where the window overlooked the car park of the apartment building. She opened the window, intending to climb over the sill and jump out. They lived on the ground floor, but because they were above the garages and storage lockups, the ground was almost four meters below. She felt dizzy and cold. She didn’t know yet that a few months later she’d escape from this same apartment by jumping from the balcony, a tatty red carrier bag containing her few possessions hurtling through the air ahead of her. The building, which overlooked a busy avenue, was opposite a bakery and a tobacconist’s where her friend Nelly, a big smoker, used to go almost every day to buy her Gitanes. As she was clambering up onto the windowsill, she spotted Nelly coming out of the tobacconist’s, clogs clattering on the asphalt, khaki army surplus bag slung across her shoulder, wearing jeans and her eternal oversized black woolen sweater studded with cigarette holes that reached almost to her knees, her long flaxen hair and the woolly coils of her purple scarf flowing behind her. She was about to open her mouth to call down to Nelly for help, nursing the crazy hope that she would hear and they would become friends again, when her father burst in, goggle-eyed with derangement, actually drooling, knife in hand. go on then, jump! what are you waiting for? jump! or i’ll kill you! Little Marguerite Duras, eight years old, at night, somewhere between Sadec and Vinh Long, running in terror from the crazy cackling Laotian beggar woman, the wandering beggar who needed ten years of walking to forget the mother who had driven her from home and destroyed her memory. She calls out, she can hear herself in her head shouting, a faint cry, a plea for help to crack the ice in which the whole scene is fatally frozen,1 but the violence of the ice explodes her brain, reason and memory, imprisoning her vocal cords, and the sound that escapes is as faint as a death rattle. The terrified cry dwindled to a plaintive moan that froze in her throat almost instantly. Our petrified cries turn to silence. Her scream was inaudible. Dialogue was snuffed out. It would be decades before the sight of a meat cleaver would no longer frighten her, filling her mouth with the taste of metal; before her voice would at last be liberated in the written word. Talking is not self-evident. Sometimes it is as impossible to speak as it is necessary—like leaping into the void. Tonight, as I write these words, it suddenly occurs to me why, almost a decade later, after I had moved to England, I absolutely had to take a parachuting course. Until now, I have never understood what it was that made me jump out of a plane, almost as if on a whim, five thousand feet above the ground. Writing enables us to become aware of things, to connect and remember, its invisible ink revealing hidden motifs or some kind of cohesion between the scattered pieces of the puzzle; this is what I want to do with this story, explore associations rather than unity. I am not seeking to establish any kind of order—I know full well there isn’t any, just as there is no logic in family stories, they are not meant to be told, life being nothing more than a nonsensical succession of events and actions—and I have to confess (I’m probably repeating myself, because I still find it hard to believe I can write like this) that I don’t have any overarching theme, I am simply following the tangle of silken thread, woven through my thick, dark hair by the spiders in the basement of the apartment block where I slept after my mother threw me out, that I find myself, 35 years on, still tugging on without quite understanding why. Coherence is mutilation.2 In traditional Chinese medicine, spider silk is used to heal wounds. There are different types of spider silk. Dry dragline silk is used to provide the framework for the web. Sticky silk captures prey. Parchment-like silk is used to make cocoons. Parchment-like—with the characteristics or appearance of parchment. Palimpsest.
A person jumps when they have to jump. But she did not jump out of the window. The mother came into the room. that’s enough now, stop being so dramatic. The girl didn’t know whom she was addressing. She collapsed onto the threadbare carpet, drained of all strength. Her body lay stiff, like a frozen river whose waters continue to bubble beneath the surface. The mother held her hand out to the father. He gave her the knife, then collapsed to the floor, wrapping his arms around her knees and wailing, I’LL DO ANYTHING YOU WANT, I’LL ACCEPT ANYTHING, BUT DON’T GO. Take my hand and guide me so I do not fall, a hand filled with fear, gratitude, astonishment, may I offer it to you?3 The mother instructed her daughter to get up and go to her room. Her voice and steely gaze pierced the girl like so many stab wounds. Shattered, with a great effort she did as she was told. She could tell her body was shaking but she could no longer feel her limbs. Her head was filled with an icy whiteness, so cold it froze her breath. She blacked out the moment her bedroom door closed behind her. From now on, this clarity and cold will prevail.4 Nelly had not been sent to save her, she had not run to her friend’s aid. And for good reason: after all, she had been shut out of her life. Despite her silent prayer, Nelly did not come out of the tobacconist’s in time, she saw nothing, never knew about that buried episode. The next day, the girl came home from school to find her father lying drunk in the hallway, an empty whiskey bottle beside him. This is as true as the words that recount it, although I am not sure it really happened the day after he tried to kill the girl one day in June that may or may not have been a Sunday. And whose throat did he really want to slit that fateful day? No one was killing anyone because they had already been killed.5 All I know is that she emerged frozen, and it wasn’t until 1995, when she made her first parachute jump, that she finally freed herself from the ice floe that had been suffocating her since that day, rendering both her and her suffering inaccessible. A cold blade plunged deep into the living flesh, night and day, and you survive.6
There was no template for what I would have liked to be able to say to Nelly; the gray zone surrounding the events grew tenfold, and all existing forms of language fractured and broke beneath its pressure. I do not know what my story might share with those of other children of the Vietnamese diaspora, but I have a sense that its darkness is born of the unconscious rage that arose in my parents and grandparents because of their subjugation to the rule of the French colonizers, which led them to side with the very people who despised and exploited them, and ultimately to abuse their own children as an outlet for their fury and frustration. How do we escape the violence that binds us, generation to generation? We are only the result of how others have treated us.7
Here’s another one from that time: one of the teenager’s aunts—summoned by the mother and her partner to be present as a witness during the visit of the social worker sent by the family court to verify the truth of the complaints made by the girl who had been banished from the kitchen where the family meals were taken (her mother had stopped giving her food and taken to locking all the groceries in her bedroom before she went out)—simply kept repeating to the official as she wrung her hands, a honeyed smile warping her face, the sentence she lies as easily as she breathes, eventually thrusting under the social worker’s nose, as the ultimate proof of her niece’s deviousness, the ring binder that contained the poems the girl had made her read that very afternoon after she told her that what she wants more than anything is to write, nothing else, nothing.8 The aunt’s betrayal took place shortly before the girl was finally thrown out of the house. What exactly did this gesture of holding up poems to illustrate her crude words signify? That if one writes poems, then everything must be fine, because writing poetry is surely some kind of luxury? Or that someone who writes poems must be disconnected from reality, lost in their imagination, and therefore their words can’t be trusted? Or that writing poems is just making up nonsense stories? I said once in a poem, a writer is essentially a crook. With used furniture he makes a tree.9 Mind you it’s only now, as I type these words, that I suddenly understand why my aunt had come to spend the afternoon with me: to make sure that I didn’t come out of my room, to give my mother and her accomplice time to move all the food back into the kitchen, thus erasing all trace of their crime before the arrival of the social worker, who, it should be noted, had foolishly phoned ahead for an appointment. And so, the unthinkable actually happened: a girl had to listen as she was accused of compulsive lying by her mother, her mother’s partner, and her aunt, and this was put on the official record by a not-very-bright social worker, while the truth—that a starving teenager, told by her mother and her partner to go to her father’s house if she wanted to eat, who every day stumbled past the locked door of her mother’s bedroom behind which was stored the food she was no longer allowed to touch—truer than the facts recorded in the report, would never see the light of day. Truth, it seems to me, is known only to the person who is affected by it; and if he chooses to communicate it to others, he automatically becomes a liar.10 The girl knew it was futile, no one would ever listen to her now, and anyway the shock of what had happened robbed her of the words to write it down, she could only dream, night after night, that she was speaking or shouting at people who didn’t care, even as the knife blade glinted at her throat they didn’t seem to hear her, like nothing had actually happened and her suffering was no more than her interpretation of a patchwork of images. Why is the pain of every day translated so constantly into our dreams, in the ever-repeated scene of the unlistened-to story?11 My reality could not be heard as something true: such a truth would have been perilous, deadly, like an augury it would have been impossible to grasp. We no longer spoke the same language, these people and I, and so I found myself a stranger in my own language. Shutting your eyes or holding your hand up in front of them might shield them a little when the truth blows up in your face, but unless you are ready at that very moment, it is better to hide or push the truth away. What the social worker didn’t know, she couldn’t see.
Whenever she happened to get home from school before the brutes did, if they hadn’t had time to lock the food in their bedroom before they left the house, the girl would arm herself with a soup spoon and gobble up some of the leftovers in the fridge, careful not to eat too much so as not to arouse suspicion. Yes, she was actually stealing food from her own mother’s kitchen, the mother who had declared that, since her daughter had told the family court that she wanted to live with her father after her parents’ divorce, she was no longer her mother. As I write these words, I am reminded of the suffering of Marguerite Duras’s husband Robert Antelme who, a few days after his return from Auschwitz, was possessed by an insatiable hunger and became completely fixated on the act of eating. Yesterday afternoon he stole some bread out of the refrigerator. He steals. We tell him to be careful, not to eat too much. Then he weeps.12 Like him, the girl rifled through the kitchen cupboards, looking for a bag of potato chips or a packet of cookies, a piece of chocolate, candy, anything she could stuff in her mouth to calm the belly that clamored constantly for a scrap of food. A box of dehydrated potato flakes: manna from heaven! She made herself a whole pan of mashed potato: plenty of meals. The day her mother happened upon the saucepan hidden behind a pile of laundry when she went to get a sheet from the linen closet (which was in the girl’s bedroom) as the girl was sitting at her desk, writing a poem. what is this? The daughter turned around, speechless at the sight of her mother brandishing the pan of mashed potato, her expression inscrutable. The mother’s eyes darkened. She strode over to the desk and yanked the large black-and-white binder filled with poems. It crashed to the floor. A dead colt with a mottled coat lay at their feet on the carpet. always scribbling this nonsense! Incandescent with rage, she turned on her heels and left the room. The girl bent down and picked up her writing, relieved. The ring binder had held, the poems had not fallen out and scattered all over the place, unlike the little cutouts of women’s lingerie she used to collect when she was younger that she would hide among her sheet music, which her mother had found one day and hurled to the floor. Strewn, orphaned, tainted by her mother’s violence, they had lost all their appeal. The poems, on the other hand, resisted, held in place by the four steel rings of the binder. Exactly one hundred poems, numbered in a neat table of contents, a column of figures in red on the left, titles in black on the right, with four lines by Jules Laforgue copied out in red ballpoint pen at the top of the page. The very first poem in the binder was called “The Fiery Hues of Immortal Summer.” The seventh, dedicated to her friend Nelly, was entitled “Objects we see, but are yet to be discovered: The Door.” The first line reads, “When I see this door, sealed off.” The door, always the sealed-off door. Images of the moon, night, death, dream, nightmare, secrecy, sadness, silence recur again and again: these are, in a way, the poems of a veteran, a Vietnam veteran who has grown shy and introverted from the crushing weight of her brief life so far.
I cannot disentangle fact from fiction: over the years, I have had to reconstruct, fill gaps—but what have I added or taken away in order to do what I was trying to do? It’s impossible for me to say. All I know is that the big binder of poems exists. I still have it. It weighs two kilos. The mottled pattern on its cardboard cover recalls the coat of a dappled horse, but also the crown shyness of a tree canopy seen from below, or a collage composed of multiple Rorschach tests: a profusion of ink and gaps that let in the light.
Let me try and link what happens between remembering and writing to something more tangible. The black markings on the cover of my ring binder make me think of tattoos. I remember reading in a magazine once that about 60 percent of the ink in the tattooed design fuses with the dermis, while the rest enters the bloodstream and ends up in the lymph nodes, which produce antibodies and memory cells—they are what never forget pathogen attacks—and the liver, which, according to traditional Chinese medicine, is the seat of anger and frustration. Everything is hybrid. Our blood, our flesh, is infused with histories of unimaginable violence, like palimpsest texts.
Art credit: Antonius-Tín Bui, “The Resounding Echo of a Revision,” 2022. Hand-cut paper, ink, pencil, paint, 34 ×28 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery. Photo by Robert Chase Heishman.