Quebec Studies

Rewriting Les Lettres chinoises: The Poetics of Erasure

Quebec Studies (2003), 36, (1), 83–91.


83 Rewriting Les Lettres chinoises: The Poetics of Erasure Emile Talbot University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign In 1998, Editions Leméac (in a co-publication with Actes Sud) reissued Ying Chen's highly regarded Les Lettres chinoises, which it had originally pub­ lished in 1993. This reissue, which carries the same copyright date as the original (though with a different ISBN), indicates in a small italic font on its title page the notation, "nouvelle version." This virtually unnoticed re-edi­ tion1 represents an important revision of the novel, reducing the number of letters from 69 to 56, suppressing all the letters between Yuan and his father, eliminating material from other letters, and expunging all references to characters such as Tante Louise, Nicolas, and Marguerite who, while not themselves writers of letters, played roles in the original edition. This essay will argue that these revisions of 1998 significantly alter the reading experi­ ence of this text while marking an important shift in Chen's creative trajec­ tory. For purposes of clarity and economy, I shall refer to the 1993 edition as version 1 and the 1998 edition as version 2. In version 1, Tante Louise, a relative, and Nicolas, a classmate who quickly becomes a friend and mentor, facilitate Yuan's adjustment to his for­ eign surroundings, sparing him some of the anomie experienced by isolated strangers. Tante Louise, his mother's cousin who has lived in Montreal since childhood and who is referred to in Yuan's first letter, meets him at the air­ port and provides food and lodging for him until he is able to live indepen­ dently. It is she who sponsors Sassa's planned trip to Montreal, she who immediately contacts her notary to restart the process after Sassa's papers are lost, she who sends her the new documents, and she who offers to help Yuan and Sassa financially until they complete their studies. Hers is a sig­ nificant role, but she is eliminated from version 2, her sponsorship of Sassa replaced by that of an anonymous "on" (1998, 35). Nicolas, whom Yuan meets when he is registering at the university soon after his arrival in Montreal, occupies a no less important role. Realizing the newcomer's con­ fusion, Nicolas takes him to the information desk, gives him other pertinent advice, and they exchange telephone numbers. Solicitous for Yuan's welfare, Nicolas shares his class notes with him, invites him for coffee, then to a movie and, later, asks him and Da Li to join him and his French girlfriend, Marguerite, for entertainment and relaxation. This kind of relationship does not exist in version 2, from which Nicolas is expunged, his role reduced to a single passing allusion to "l'un de mes camarades" (1998,28), an expression that indicates not much more than a classroom acquaintance. Towards the end of the book, what had been a reference to Nicolas's lifestyle in version 1 is simply attributed to that of Americans in general (1993,164; 1998,133). Eliminating these two characters is not without discursive losses. Tante Louise's presence had strengthened the novel's important probing of the theme of cultural hybridization. Born in China of a Chinese mother and Québec Studies, Volume 36, Fall 2003/Winter 2004

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Author details

Talbot, Emile