French author, blogger, and producer Grace Ly wants to change the way France talks about race matters. In a country built upon notions of égalité and universalisme, she knows that discussing race is complex.
Through her first novel “Jeune fille modèle“, podcast “Kiffe Ta Race” (which she co-hosts with journalist Rokhaya Diallo), and a web series “Ça reste entre nous,” Grace Ly, a French of Chinese-Cambodian origin, gives voice to the French Asian community, one that is largely invisible in national discourse and underrepresented in public life. In short, she makes the invisible more visible.
She was most recently featured on the March 8, 2021 special edition cover of Marie Claire magazine as the “anti-racist author,” one of eight French women profiled in their fight against discrimination for all.
A long-time fan of her work, I recently invited her to co-interview Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen in a virtual event on June 2 that will be hosted by the American Library in Paris. In the meantime, I caught up with Grace in a candid interview to talk about her family, her childhood, her work on cultural identity and racism, and how she is coping with the surge in anti-Asian hate and violence in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In your book “Jeune fille modèle,” your main character, Chi Chi, would rather be called Marie or Isabelle or Sophie, so she can erase her Asian identity and just be French. How much of that feeling to not be Asian did you have growing up in Paris?
I was born in Grenoble, but grew up in the suburbs of Paris, in an environment that was diverse, but still predominantly white. My parents were refugees from Cambodia who fled the Khmer Rouge regime forty years ago to come to France. Cambodia was part of Indochina, the French colonized region of Southeast Asia that also included Laos and Vietnam. So growing up, we would speak Chinese and eat Chinese food at home. For me, I felt blending in and being French meant rejecting my Chinese side. Integration in France suggests that we shed parts of our identity in order to become one, universel, with the French, meaning white French of Christian heritage.
For the longest time, I really felt I wanted to be white, thinking I would be more successful, attractive, and accepted. My life would have been better if I was not who I was. This was a painful realization, and ultimately useless because of course, I cannot change who I am. I will always be a child of refugees. People still ask me today where I really come from. So this wanting to be white is something that I have dealt with, and come to terms with.
It is commonly perceived that first-generation immigrants feel very grateful to their newly adopted country, and many want to quickly forget the past and move on. Was that the case for your parents when they came to France?
France really put out the welcome mat for les boat people, which is what they called refugees coming from French Indochina. This welcome was unprecedented in the 1980s in France, nothing was ever done this way again for another immigrant or refugee group. French magazines like Le Nouvel Obs showed photos of a young Bernard Kouchner, the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, lifting Vietnamese refugee children onto the French hospital boat L’Île de lumière in the South China Sea. It was an emotionally effective marketing campaign showing how the French saved us. When the refugees arrived in France, they were given housing, working papers, and jobs. There were local committees in rural French towns that were charged with helping the refugees. It was a tremendous feeling of unity and solidarity. My parents never had to line up for hours at the préfecture to get their papers. So it was absolutely right for my parents to feel very grateful, after escaping near death, when they arrived in France.
However, it should not be expected that they would be grateful forever. My parents became model French citizens – they worked hard, paid their taxes on time, and never took anything that was not due to them. They were grateful for the chance at life when they arrived, but then they evolved. They had dreams, started a family, and became naturalized French citizens. Now, forty years later, they really do not owe anything to anyone. We have to allow immigrants and refugees the chance to change over time, like we all do, to be complex people with dreams and contradictions. People are never frozen in time.
You studied law in university, however, you gave that up when you realized you wanted to write. You started your blog La Petite Banane in 2011 to write about Chinese food. How did writing about food lead you to combat the stereotypes of Asians in France?
My parents were very hurt when I told them I was giving up law to become a writer. They felt it was thoughtless of me to just give that up for something that has no secure future. It was not an easy decision to tell my parents, who diligently provided for my education, but I needed to do it. In the end, they knew I was old enough to make these decisions, and they are proud I finished my law degree. It will always be there in case I ever need it again.
When I started blogging, I felt that writing about food was the connection to my heritage. My parents never said, “I love you,” they would instead ask me, “Are you hungry, have you eaten yet?” Maybe food is the universal language of love! So writing about food connected me instantly to a land and history that I never really knew.
I did not know at the time that writing about food would be the premise for this anti-racist fight. Food is the embodiment of culture. Food also embodies many of the Asian stereotypes. When I started writing in my blog, I stepped into the larger context of Asian identity, and anti-Asian sentiment. All the negative stereotypes we might have about Asian food, which reflect the culture and people, came out: Asian people eat dogs, and now they eat bats and pangolins. Hardly anyone ever writes about how unappealing it is that French people eat snails or raw oysters. They’re called delicacies, which have a positive perception. We project our own biases from the way we describe food, something that is delicious becomes accepted and familiar. The opposite of that is true for certain Asian food. It is important for me to explore these issues.
Your podcast “Kiffe Ta Race,” which you co-host with Rokhaya Diallo, explores race and race-based issues in France. What is the most challenging aspect of this need to talk about race in a country that prefers everyone to be French?
It is harder to fight race indifference than fight mean, racist people. If you think racism is just being mean to others, then you overlook a sea of race indifference, the feeling of otherness that one can feel in their lives. France has, especially in the last 30 years, put racism and race as issues within the Far Right. You are racist if you vote for the Front National or other far-right groups. However, this is not what everyday racism looks or feels like. The indifference to race is what will challenge this country’s unity.
In France, we have a hard time even saying the word race. The National Assembly agreed to remove the word “race” from the French constitution, stating that race does not exist. So they take the word out, which means we do not have to address it. However, it is important to name things, in order for us to come to terms with them. The French are far from being done talking about race, we have hardly begun. The indifference to race means that it becomes the least of our priorities every election year, as we continue to sweep all that under the rug.
And then, on the other hand, the French like to talk about race and racism when it comes from America. Racism is seen as an American problem. We do not see our complicity in being part of the race problem, never mind what happened in colonial Indochina and other countries that France helped “civilize.” There is much to be done, and it starts with naming the problem, talking about it, and coming up with solutions.
How has the recent surge in anti-Asian hate and violence in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic affected you?
The pandemic has really shown us many things, one being how racism is persistent.
One minute the Asians in France are the model minority, and the next, we are the virus. And we have done nothing in between.
Many French people used to ask me: does that really exist, anti-Asian racism, are you sure, because we really love you, Asian women are all so beautiful! All this was coded under positive stereotypes of the model minority – that Asians are hard-working and we are not dangerous like the “other” immigrants.
For a long time, I really believed in the model minority, because my parents were very hard working. And I thought, of course, they are, we are Asians, and it is true what they say about us. Then I saw other people working hard too, who did not have any Asian “genes,” and I realized, it is not just us. The model minority was a political instrument to divide us, and the pandemic came and really just finished the job.
I do not know anyone who has not been affected by the anti-Asian sentiment after the pandemic started.
Even my aunt and cousins, who would be so eager to say that they never felt any racism in France their whole lives, realize now that it had been there the whole time. They were maybe protected by their social status, their education, work, and living in neighborhoods that were not “difficult,” but that was just a shield over their eyes. The conversation has changed since the pandemic. People are no longer asking me if I think anti-Asian racism is real, now they ask me how I am coping and dealing with it. So this is a start, changing the conversation and naming the problem is a start.
The guilty verdict for four of the five French students who were accused of racism and inciting hatred after tweeting they blamed Chinese people for the coronavirus lockdowns in France was handed down on May 26. What are your thoughts on the trial and what do you hope French people will take away from this?
I have had mixed feelings about the trial and the upcoming verdict. I think it is very important that the French are angry with people who display racist behavior and use hateful words, and will bring them to justice. Naming the problem and holding people accountable for their actions and words is a huge step in fighting racism. Of course, it is necessary that these students know that what they did was wrong, even if they kept saying that their racist tweets were just a joke. It is not a joke if other people get hurt and assaulted by hateful words.
However, judicial action is not the only solution. The issue of race and racism needs to be seen as a French societal issue. It is much more widespread than just these five French teens. There are French journalists who made anti-Asian remarks, French actors who play “yellowface,” live on French TV, and they have not been reprimanded beyond a forced apology. Some do not even have to apologize, but rather regret that Asian people have no humor in their offensive jokes.
The activists of Association of Young Chinese in France were the ones who flagged the racist tweets of the five French students, and they have been very vocal about the need for the French to work collectively to combat these issues. I agree that we need to do this, on a national level, through education and dialogue.
Join Grace Ly and Pauline Lemasson as they co-moderate a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen on Wednesday June 2 at 19h30 hosted virtually by the American Library in Paris. Register for the event here.
As a writer, what do you think is the responsibility of literature?
Literature in France is considered one of the noble arts. It is very prestigious to be a writer in France. We, the public, feel like when they write, they speak the truth. So writers have this tremendous responsibility to represent the world in their words. This is why I appreciate writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen who will write their truth, which will inspire other minority writers to do the same.
I know we have a lot to learn from each other.