dissertation overview

In search for freedom: Vietnamese francophone youth and intellectual thought, 1922-1954 


Michel Foucault wrote in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” (1984) that it was not a set of values to be retained from this period, in the same way that modernity is not to be considered a period in time, but rather that the Enlightenment marked a change in attitude, a relationship with and a mode of thinking about contemporary reality. This relationship begins with /returns to the self, for the “Modern man,” citing Baudelaire as a quintessential example, “is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not ‘liberate man in his own being’; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.” In other words, the Modern man is a man of his time, in which the constant negotiation between reflection and creation, in relation to his contemporary society, defines him, rather than any preset truths he needs to learn or discover.Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 10.15.57 PM.png

And so what does this mean for Vietnam two centuries later? Foucault’s reflection on a question that Kant took on during the Enlightenment redirects the importance of the era away from its characteristics to a shift in perspective. For scholars, this becomes critically relevant as a mode to think about intellectual activity in the colonial context beyond apparent colonial paradoxes. And for the Vietnamese intellectuals of the era, this “new” way of thinking of one’s relation to contemporary society opened up questions that would lead to the formation of Vietnamese national consciousness and identity.


My dissertation traces ideas of freedom that run through the socialization of Vietnamese youth to the choice of written French expression, focusing on novels, essays, and journals by five francophone writers: Nguyễn Mạnh Tường, Cung Giũ Nguyên, Phạm Văn Ký, Trần Văn  Tùng, and Đào Đăng Vỹ.  I first explore how Vietnamese youth become politicized by different aspirations of independence to critique the temporal quality of an evolution toward modernity and nationhood. My second chapter engages with postcolonial criticism of the Enlightenment and examines the Vietnamese exposure to discourses of freedom and equality, in order to argue for a “necessary” colonial irony. Among other Vietnamese intellectuals, I dedicate a chapter to two writers, Phạm Văn Ký and Trần Văn Tùng, who were both recognized by the French academy for their work, and contend that their literary integration into France magnified the postcolonial French desire to tame and frame francophone writers. I also compare Vietnamese writers to Black postcolonial writers including Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon to critically inquire into the Sartrean metaphor of “Black Orpheus” and the myth of an origin, for what is a Vietnamese origin if its historical documents can be traced to three languages of literary Chinese, demotic Nôm characters, and romanized Vietnamese? This relationship between language and identity is revisited in my final chapter, where I look at francophone writing under the subsequent Communist regime and what it meant for a symbolic search for freedom.

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Disciplinary questions

When the study of “Vietnamese literature in French expression” appeared for the first time in the 1980s, it was characterized as an ethnographic presentation of Vietnamese culture for a non-Vietnamese, French-speaking other. But there are also political stakes and colonial ambivalences to account for that help take this peculiar corpus of literature beyond area studies. Central to my research more generally is therefore the question of situating Vietnamese literature, including its francophone, anglophone, and Vietnamese ‘varieties’ in relation to a discipline or field. How does it respond to post-colonial or colonial identifications, what is its role in understanding complex colonial relations beyond human interaction, where does it stand now in a curriculum?