Longing for Belonging

  • Rosalind Silvester
    Ying Chen’s Fiction: An Aesthetics of Non-Belonging. Legenda (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gilles Dupuis

Ying Chen’s Fiction: An Aesthetics of Non-Belonging is the first monograph to appear in English on the work of Asian Canadian author Ying Chen. Written by Rosalind Silvester, Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Queen’s University Belfast and renowned specialist in migrant and francophone Chinese writing, it sets a hallmark forurther studies of Chen’s fiction. By focusing her attention on the aesthetics of non-belonging rather than the poetics of identity, as many scholars tend to do when approaching Chen’s novels, Silvester not only coined a felicitous expression, but also chose an ideal thread in order to explore the labyrinth of Chen’s writing, from the first published novel, La Mémoire de l’eau (1992), to the last—at the time of publication of the book—Blessures (2016). Prior to my own essay in French, which deals mainly with the seven novels revolving around the poetics of reincarnation, Silvester’s study offers a detailed account of the poetics of “non-belonging” or, as she dubs it elsewhere, the “belonging-in-transience” (3) common to all of Chen’s fiction and non-fiction.


After the theoretical introduction, in which the main concepts for the analysis of the novels are announced and briefly discussed, and a first general chapter devoted to Chen’s aesthetics in relation to non-belonging, which also provides a thorough critical review of the existing output on Chen’s fiction, each following chapter is centred around one or two main concepts and the works they serve to enlighten. Thus the second chapter, which focuses on places and border crossings in relation to migrant writing, is devoted to the first three novels: La Mémoire de l’eau, Les Lettres chinoises, and L’Ingratitude. Chapter three is centred on “unnatural narratives” and the appearance of the figure of the reincarnated narrator in Chen’s fiction: L’Ingratitude (even though the narrator of that novel is not yet reincarnated), Immobile, and Le Champ dans la mer. Querelle d’un squelette avec son double is also examined in this chapter, albeit from a different perspective: rather than just another avatar of the narrator, the “other” in that novel is considered a “doubled narrator.” Chapter four is concerned with non-human and posthuman figures, such as “monstrous others,” as they pertain to Le Mangeur et Un enfant à ma porte, and “becoming-animal” in Espèces. Finally, and somewhat awkwardly—as Silvester herself is fully aware: “Portraying the endgame for both the narrator and the husband, it seems fitting that, although against convention, the text is analyzed in the first part of this Conclusion” (121)—La rive est loin, which in my view still belongs to “the reincarnation cycle,” is examined in the conclusion alongside Blessures (a novel initiating a new cycle in Chen’s writing), before a general assessment of the author’s “reinvented aesthetics” is offered.


As the reader familiar with Chen’s fiction will notice, the novels are examined in strict chronological order, L’Ingratitude being the only work re-examined in a new light at the beginning of the third chapter, which underlines Chen’s shift from migrant writing grounded in realism to what could be called transmigrant surrealism or rather surreal fiction (“unnatural fiction’” in Silvester’s terms). I fully agree with the pivotal function of that novel in Chen’s work, although I offer a slightly different interpretation of its status in regard to the figure of the dead or reincarnated narrator. The narrator Yan-Zi is already dead at the beginning of L’Ingratitude, but she is not yet reincarnated, nor does she pretend to have been reincarnated in the past. It’s only in Immobile that the anonymous narrator of the novel initiating the reincarnation cycle subtly hints at the fact that Yan-Zi was (or may have been) one of her avatars. Yet that fact remains uncertain, from a strictly narrative point of view, so that L’Ingratitude can be seen as a case of “uncertain” rather than “unnatural” narrative. On the other hand, the chronological order in which the novels are analyzed may have led the author to believe (or at least make believe to the reader) in some sort of evolution in Chen’s aesthetics, a point of view I would disagree with. But the way in which Silvester subtly varies the lighting for her methodical examination of the novels reflects effectively what takes place in each one of them specifically: migration, whether between generations, spaces, or even worlds, is the common denominator of the first three novels; unnatural narratives regarding time and space, analyzed through the figures of the reincarnated narrator or her fictitious double, are shared by the next three; as for the following three, if they still belong to the reincarnation cycle, they do offer new paradigms of fiction revolving around the “monstrous other,” in relation to Monster Theory, and “becoming-animal,” a concept borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari, and to some extent Derrida. The analyses provided for each novel in the final chapter are quite compelling from a theoretical and methodological point of view, and feature among the most original of the entire study. Other critics had started to explore these multiple facets of Chen’s later fiction, but none presented an in-depth analysis of their function or meaning as convincing as Silvester’s.


Finally, I cannot but agree with Silvester that the last novel of the reincarnation cycle, La rive est loin, offers a glimpse of hope through a form of “reconciliation” between the narrator and her dying husband, and even more so between the narrator and herself. I came to a very similar conclusion in my essay, even though the end of the cycle remains open to discussion and reinterpretation. As for Blessures, without breaking with “unnatural narratives,” which became the hallmark of Chen’s writing since L’Ingratitude, it does introduce the figure of the “spectral other” at the beginning of a new cycle in the fictional work and world of the francophone Chinese author. It also provides, along with the preceding novels, an insightful reading of what is at stake when longing for belonging becomes a work of art.


Works Cited

Dupuis, Gilles. Le Cycle des réincarnations: l’œuvre transmigrante de Ying Chen. Classique Garniers, 2021.

This review “Longing for Belonging” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 9 May. 2022. Web.

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