Chapter 1: Youth and Genealogies of Evolution in 20th century Vietnam

This opening chapter traces a recurring rhetoric of evolution in early Vietnamese francophone writings to first introduce the social category of Vietnamese youth as agents of change and to secondly divulge the influence of Social Darwinism in the intellectual mindset toward modernization. I examine in particular Đào Đăng Vỹ’s L’Annam qui nait (1938) and Evolution de la littérature vietnamienne depuis l’arrivée des Français jusqu’à nos jours 1865-1946 (1949) to raise the larger question of temporality that is inherent in these 20th century concerns. I argue that the critiques posited in postcolonial studies regarding modernity and political delay are relevant to challenge temporal impositions of one culture onto another, but become limited to the Vietnamese colonial context in change and movement was more important than any fixed end result. What I characterize as the “predicament of the new generation” is the conflict they encounter between their colonial education and the expectations of society, that is, between surveilled intellectual development and the ambiguous push to build their nation. In addition to situating my work relative to postcolonial studies, this chapter also sets the stage for the contradictions in colonial discourse addressed in my second chapter, and the identity conflicts explored in the fourth chapter.

Chapter 2: Colonial Irony: Going in, through and to the other side

Considering Homi Bhabha’s structure of mimesis, as a forked or split colonial discourse in which “post-Enlightenment dreams of civility” exist simultaneously with a distorted version of mission civilisatrice, this chapter investigates the irony of these Enlightenment values of freedom appearing in the writings of the Vietnamese intellectual. By examining the inherent paradox within this discourse of freedom, as universal but also specific to each individual, I first establish how the vision of colonial reform, premised on these values, were flawed in their execution. A better understanding of this paradox however reveals it to be a necessary process, that requires “going in, and through” in order to emerge on the other side, transformed. In other words, the Vietnamese intellectual necessarily needs to ‘speak’ the foreign language of French and of freedom in order to negotiate a freedom of his own. I draw upon essays in the journal Cahiers de la jeunesse (1935-1938), as well as Vietnamese Francophone writer Cung Giũ Nguyên’s Volontés d’existence (1954) to illustrate how these ideas of freedom emerge. While they might explicitly abide to “humanism,” opening many venues of critique in the term’s ambiguity, these ideas are not mere importations of language or values. I argue instead that they demonstrate a shift in perspective or ‘attitude,’ bringing in Foucault and Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” This nuance is crucial to conceptualize how these Vietnamese intellectuals apprehend freedom, their selves in relation to that freedom, and their social and political contemporary.

Chapter 3: Integration and para-text, corps and corpus

 The particularity of the Vietnamese intellectuals is that they are not concerned with writing against or resisting the French or the French language, in such a way that might characterize Caribbean francophone literature. Both writers Phạm Văn Ký and Trần Văn Tùng strategically navigated the French language and writing system, receiving recognition and support via journal publicity and prizes from the Académie Française. I contrast the work of the two writers by first examining the traditional paratextual elements of Trần Văn Tùng’s work, including prefaces and periodical advertisements. I argue that these strategies in introducing his work facilitated Vietnamese francophone literature visibility but limited its scope for signification beyond a Vietnamese and therefore non-French text. On the contrary, the way in whichPhạm Văn Ký “writes” beyond his text through his radio shows (Les méconnus dans la maison 1949-1963) and theatre pieces (Ceux qui ont faim), allows him to move beyond these textual limitations and thresholds of interpretation. I redefine paratext and make a case for integration of the physical body, or corps, in order to make space for one’s corpus in a literary tradition.

Chapter 4: Prodigal sons and disparate selves

This chapter traces the trope of the “prodigal son” to describe Vietnamese youth abroad who return to Vietnam. For scholars Huỳnh Kim Khánh and Huệ Tâm Hồ Tài, it refers specifically to a generation of Vietnamese youth who would be the source and energy for anticolonial revolution and the Communist movement. I turn away from this revolution-bound narrative to consider two francophone versions of the trope, Phạm Văn Ký’s Frères de sang (1946) and Nguyễn Mạnh Tường’s Sourires et Larmes d’une jeunesse (1937), to highlight the idiosyncrasies that mark this new generation of Vietnamese. Not only did they have the privilege to travel, they also incarnated a cultural, temporal, and linguistic break from earlier generations because of their education in romanized Vietnamese and French rather than literary Chinese. Contrary to the proverbial parable, the narrators in the imagined returns of these francophone texts are never quite met with forgiveness and resolution. The romanticized reunion between father and son and by extension, the harmonious coalescence of Orient and Occident, is instead thwarted by the reality of competing references for identity: Vietnamese and French, ideogram and alphabet, tradition and modernization. This complication of identity echoes Karl Britto’s study of interculturality, and also engages with origin and ontology through via André Gide’s sincerity and Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of authenticity, ideas that would become very important in 20th century Vietnam. The complexity of these returns therefore describe the political reality and intellectual preoccupations of Vietnamese youth as they mediate the transformations in society and its reflections on Vietnamese origin, identity and national belonging.

Chapter 5: Liberté and the choice of French expression

 As an extension of chapter four, I explore more directly the looming question of the politics of writing in French for a Vietnamese intellectual. For Nguyễn Mạnh Tường, who played an important role in the 1950s Land Reform as well as the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm arts movement in Vietnam, the French language becomes a language of confidence in which he relates some of the most politically striking events of his career, as well as those that mark the Vietnamese transition out of colonialism into Communism. Revisiting his first work Sourires et larmes d’une jeunesse (1937) in a larger scope, and reading it alongside his last text, Un excommunié (1992), I examine his particular understanding of intellectual freedom and its affinity to Western philosophy, including an overlap with a Nietzsche’s ‘free spirit’ and a loyalty to Montaigne’s rejection of a systemic philosophy. Such freedom challenges the political restrictions on literary and artistic expression at the time, and gives insight into the possibility of being aware of the colonial situation without being weighed down by its binaries. The chapter also delves into the ability for language to liberate as much as it confines; the mediation of this ambivalence remains a pertinent question, among others, for the study of francophone literature.

Full chapters or samples available upon request.