Chapter 1: Genealogies of “evolution” and la jeunesse annamite

This opening chapter traces a recurring rhetoric of evolution in early Vietnamese francophone writings to first introduce the social category of Vietnamese youth. Influenced by discourses of Social Darwinism that percolated into Vietnam through Chinese translations, Vietnamese intelligentsia at the turn of the century looked toward modernization as necessary in order to sustain cultural relevance and legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, strengthening a nation began with strengthening the youth, and the evolution of a nation became inextricable from the idea of Vietnamese youth as agents of change. In this sense, I subsequently consider Vietnamese youth as a biopolitical category able to wield subjectivity and initiate change. I also 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 the discussion of colonial modernity. 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 which change and movement was more important than any fixed end result. It was therefore distinct to live in the present moment, not in the past, nor in the future.

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: Topographies of the 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 a way that might characterize Francophone literature in the Caribbean or the Maghreb. 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. This chapter examines more closely Trần Văn Tùng’s corpus, notably Bach Yên ou la fille au coeur fidèle (1946), and his series of political essays written after 1950, as well as the extraliterary matter that surrounds and modifies the interpretation of the text. Analysis of these extraliterary matter remains very limited in English scholarship, and this chapter contributes to the layered ways that we might read a Francophone text as it seeks to enter the realm of French literature. I suggest in particular that we read these Francophone texts as a topography, the grooves of the text like the grooves of a body, equally contributing to the interpretation of the text. This is very useful for reading writers whose careers overlapped with politics, like Nguyễn Phan Long (1889-1960) and Phạm Duy Khiêm (1908-1974), in which the paratextual and contextual elements move beyond textual limitations and traditional thresholds of interpretation. Specific to Trần Văn Tùng and his Bach Yên, this metaphor of the body becomes especially evocative as he decides to tell his narrative through the incorporation of his female character.

Chapter 4: Prodigal sons and the predicament of the déraciné

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: Between expatriatism and excommunication, trajectories of liberté

 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.