Toward an intellectual history of Vietnam

Carving out a place for myself in academia has culminated to something I’ll label here as establishing a subdiscipline of Vietnamese intellectual history. Intellectual history, which comes from a European tradition, has predominantly focused on ideas in relation to philosophy, reserved for erudites distanced from the masses. Only more recently has ‘global intellectual history’ emerged to valorize different sources of epistemological contribution around the world, to encourage new perspectives and connections. In the case of Vietnam, so much of Vietnamese intellectual activity (at least in the modern context) is inextricable to nationalism, cultural exchange, societal transformations. At the core of major on-the-ground transitions is in fact a negotiation and discussion of ideas both from within and without. If we return to this fundamental understanding of intellectual history, as the interpretation, circulation and transformation of ideas, then we are able to see how Vietnam’s intellectual activity offers an understanding of intellectual history that is integral to the making and shaping of social and political history.

Join us for a conversation that uses Martina Nguyen’s latest book On Our Own Strength as a point of departure for a larger conversation of what such a subdiscipline would look like.

Fiction beyond language

One of the best things about my work as an academic is getting to meet artists and writers in the community and talking about their work. Join me this Friday for a discussion hosted by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University around Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s international bestseller /The Mountains Sing/ and her venture in representing Vietnamese history in a language that is not her own.

This virtual event is open to the public and you can register here:
bit.ly/3Djxwd1

Association of Asian Studies 2022 Annual Meeting

While I didn’t make it to Honolulu, HI physically for this year’s AAS meeting, one great upside of the hybrid conference model was preparing a virtual presentation that I now get to share with a broader public. Often, the attendance for panels can vary, for a number of reasons, so getting to share a conference paper online is such a great work around. This paper is part of a larger article where I look at moral and material excess through an ecocritical lens, currently under review with Environmental Humanities.

Nam Phong Dialogues

I’ve been working on this project for the last couple of months and am very proud to finally be able to share it. Nam Phong Dialogues is a podcast with the purpose of making history (especially about Vietnam) accessible. When this project was in ideation, I thought of my adolescent nieces and nephews, my adult friends of Vietnamese descent, and thought about how they, too, would love to learn about Vietnam, if only it weren’t so seemingly obscure and distant. If there was a way to make it fun, approachable, then maybe they would feel more connected to a part of their history.

Whether you are Vietnamese or not, an academic or not, this podcast is for you. Kevin Pham (Gettysburg College) and I bring to you candid reflections but also critical ideas about political, social, and intellectual life in Vietnam.

We hope you’ll give it a listen.

Association for Asian Studies in Honolulu, HI

My paper has been accepted for this AAS Annual Conference in 2022! It’ll be my first time going to the AAS Conference, and am hoping that the pandemic does not deter too many of our plans. The paper will be an opportunity for me to workshop ideas for the article that I’m working on on excess in Dương Thu Hương’s novels, Paradise of the Blind and The Zenith, two texts that I highly recommend.

Abstract:

Exiled writer Duong Thu Huong is one of the most renown contemporary women writers of Vietnam, namely for her blatant criticism of the Communist Party. In her works, The Zenith  (2007) and Paradise of the Blind (1993), translated and published abroad, she uses the recurring themes of excess and deficiencies to comment on the political deterioration of the State, a tragedy that began just years after gaining independence from France with the land reform movement. For example, the hunger that ravages in villages is countered by the ironic gluttony of ghosts, and the performative asceticism practiced by Party members only masks the actual greed underlying their political decisions. Through close examination of all facets of human life, Duong shows how karmic energy, a major narrative force in her works, ultimately promises a restoration of equilibrium that mercilessly punishes, humiliates and educates. This paper examines how the politics of excess, playing with different human virtues and vices, reveals a deep irony in the governing systems of Vietnam and the rhetoric of independence.

INALCO Conference

In two weeks, I will be giving a talk for the first time to a French audience at INALCO (Institut National de langues et cultures orientales). It happened through an interesting turn of events, but I’m grateful for the opportunity and the chance to return to Paris, outside of the summer months! The talk takes on an intellectual history and literary approach, critiques postcolonial theory as well as linear anti-colonial narratives, to reorient the way that we view Vietnamese history: not as a series of knee-jerk reactions to external conquests, or as a teleological development arriving at the present state of Vietnam, but as continuous reflections of what it means to be a united, recognized, and ever-changing people.

Abstract (in English below, but the talk will be in French):

For early 20th century Vietnamese intellectuals, progress and evolution of the Vietnamese people were considered necessary in order to prevent cultural extinction. This perspective, greatly influenced by ideas of Social Darwinism and a colonialist rhetoric, subscribed to a historicist view of cultures existing on a linear spectrum with modernity as the end goal. With a new colonial education system and important societal changes introduced through colonial reform in the 1920s however, a new generation of francophone intellectuals would rethink this idea of evolution, no longer fixated on an independent Vietnam as an eventual, distant future, but as a reality requiring immediate action in the present. Such understanding would subsequently affect this generation’s relationship with the Vietnamese culture and with foreign ideas, as well as introduce new reflections of themselves as makers of a Vietnamese nation.

Republic of Vietnam Workshop

I’m really excited to share the upcoming workshop on the Republic of Vietnam, held at the University of Oregon in Eugene in October. Among many peers and mentors who work on Vietnam, I’ll be discussing some work on writer Trần Văn Tùng, and his idea of nationalism during the late 1950s into early 1960s. Tùng was mainly known as a francophone writer, but shifted gears in 1950, to write exclusively on the status of Vietnam as a sovereign nation. Backed by his expatriate party in Paris, the Democratic Party of Vietnam, he appealed to the French and American public regarding the dangers of the existing Diem regime, the prudent use of foreign aid, and the plan for a democratic nation founded on republican principles. This might not sound so interesting to us as contemporary scholars, but for him and his time of writing, I find it bold and forward-thinking. Throughout my research, the most interesting materials I came across were relentless letters he wrote to Arthur Schelesinger and other personnel in the Kennedy administration. These letters were unfortunately glossed over, and it makes us wonder about an interesting counterfactual: what if the Democratic Party and their outlined plan was taken seriously? In any case, the letters are currently housed in the Kennedy Library in Boston and the workshop information and sample program are included below.

Studying Republican Vietnam: Issues, Challenges, and Prospects