Insider chat with… Kaliane Ung

Insider chat with… Kaliane Ung


Insider chat with… Kaliane Ung

17 June 2018

“I feel at home in literature”, says the young artist of Khmer descent, born in France and raised in the West Indies, now completing her PhD dissertation in New York after studying in Paris and Edinburgh. Within the span of three continents, she keeps exploring the multifaceted cultural references that define a citizen of the world in our times. Excerpts from her conversation with Latitudes.

Healing Wound, Take 1.

My Cambodian parents escaped from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975. My text Fracture/Malaise was inspired by the 5-minute interview I was given by the authorities in Cambodia in 2007, who then declined to grant me identity papers in spite of my filiation, stating that I was not fluent enough in the Khmer language.

“The country is a wound”, I remark at some point, and that is how Cambodia often comes across–a wounded nation in its phase of rebuilding-healing.

Yet the “injury” also lies in post-traumatic silence, since decimated, torn-apart families do not easily share memories.

For me, the pain of not being able to put the pieces together doubles up with the one felt when experiencing the banishment of a poetic voice. To quote French philosopher Gilles Deleuze,“everyone is looking for roots”, yet I am more into rhizomes…

Healing Wound, Take 2.

My PhD thesis explores different types of wounds in 20th century French literature, be they literal (Bousquet’s war wound, Guibert’s AIDS), imaginary (Leduc’s paranoia about her illegitimacy as a bastard), or self-inflicted (Weil’s hunger strikes). These authors have different approaches to suffering and different ways of staging the pain through language.

My project also elaborates on definitions of the body: Bousquet’s horizontal body, Leduc’s abused female body, Guibert’s illness, the link between individual commitment and collective narrative in Weil’s political writings… It investigates resilience and plasticity (not going back to one’s original form but evolving from the wound), and the healing powers (or not) of language.

I explore beauty as an ethical imperative in art, and I am very much inspired by Japanese literature. I have been extremely moved by the works of Cambodian authors such as Soth Polin, Loung Ung, and Rithy Panh.

However, my poetic account of my trip to Cambodia features lyrics written by Alain Chamfort, “as an alien I feel I am / ill-at-ease in Asia”, just to show you can feel at home in a chorus, as Cambodians do when they draw from an international musical repertoire to create popular songs.

Healing Wound, Take 3.

Performing can be suffocating when you are forced to mould yourself into formal, rigid clichés that pretend to represent “Asian beauty”.

Auditions have always been stressful to me – I was expected to talk with a fake Asian accent, even if my generation was born and raised in France… Asian performers should fight against this kind of alienation by calling for unprejudiced representations of Asian characters.

Similarly, the recent manifesto by black actresses in France under the motto “Being Black is not a job” is a great achievement.

As a Buddhist, I see the human body as essentially transient, however plentiful the joys it brings to us. In performing arts, the body is merely a tool, a medium, and that is why I find Asian theater forms and their elaborate codes so fascinating.

In 2015 at Oxford University, I participated in a workshop directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, whose international company works with Commedia Dell’Arte and Balinese masks. We can also notice that Indian and Cambodian female dancers embody both male and female characters.

Even the “woman” category is in constant mutation these days; an example could be Netflix series Altered Carbon. Genuine Asian voices are now rising – in the States, Anna Akana on YouTube or comedian Ali Wong of Fresh Off the Boat, in France, Grace Ly and her remarkable web series Ça reste entre nous, dealing with the challenges faced by Asian communities there.

Kaliane’s writings and videos are at

An English version of her Fracture/Malaise text is to be soon published in Manoa, Pacific Journal of International Writing, University of Hawai.

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