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   Sample Abstract: French    

Katherine Gracki
Department of French and Italian
MLA Chicago 1999
Division of Francophone Literatures and Cultures
Session: L’Asie francophone, Chair: Jack Yeager

Autoethnography and the Interview in Mai Thu Van’s Vietnam: un peuple, des voix (1983)

Julia Watson has defined autoethnography as "an ethnographic presentation of oneself by a subject usually considered the ‘object’ of the ethnographer’s interview." Francophone women writers, in particular those whose heritage is rife with the legacies of French colonialism, often employ autoethnography as a strategy to write themselves as subjects embedded in specific cultural contexts. This strategy enables women who belong to cultural groups that have, in general, been the object rather than the subject of representation to contest fixed categories of self and other as well as the aesthetic boundaries between autobiography and ethnography. A hybrid genre that amalgamates the concerns of autobiography and ethnography, autoethnography empowers the female writing subject to reconfigure both individual and collective identities and to question the fundamental assumptions of Western subjectivity.

The ethnographic interview has traditionally been a research tool used to gain data about cultural differences. Yet the interview has the potential to be more than methodological tool. The interview process involves interrogation, exchange, and performance in a face to face meeting between people. In this paper, I will evaluate the interview’s role in Mai Thu Van’s autoethnographic representation of Vietnamese women in Vietnam: un peuple, des voix (1983) and consider how selfhood is paradoxically drawn out in the process of describing otherness. Mai Thu Van’s collection of interviews with Vietnamese women is framed by an autobiographical introduction in which she foregrounds her coming to writing and to autoethnography within the context of exile from Vietnam, from her mother and ultimately from the very culture she identifies with. Moreover, in the interviews she conducts with Vietnamese women, she is repeatedly labeled l’étrangère, the westernized outsider with idealized notions of feminist solidarity among ‘third world’ women. Seen through the eyes of the ‘others’ she interviews, Mai Thu Van’s position as ethnographic interviewer is complicated and called into question by the otherness she discovers within herself.

Trinh T. Minh-ha’s filmic adaptation of Mai Thu Van’s collection of interviews, Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) will further inform my analysis of otherness within the self by revealing the constructed nature of both categories of self and other. Trinh stages Mai Thu Van’s autoethnographic interviews in the first part of her film in order to challenge the traditional use of ethnographic interview as documentary truth. Ethnography has made a claim for itself as a scientific discourse based on the assumed authenticity of interviews conducted in the field: Trinh’s critique demonstrates how it has been used to keep the ‘Other’ in an objectified position. Yet Trinh also highlights the enormous potential of the interview to forge a relational form of subjectivity in autoethnographic work. We will ultimately argue that this alternate form of subjectivity providses the foundation for a respectful and reciprocal exchange that iss not based on hierarchy or power. Francophone women like Mai Thu Van therefore reevaluate traditional notions of selfhood and otherness by reclaiming the interview as a model for dialogue and exchange between women of diverse backgrounds and affiliations.

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