Why Vietnamese Francophone Literature?
Francophone literature is a unique point of encounter between history and literature, imperial desires and modernizing hopes, center and periphery. As a cultural and political vestige of French colonialism, it is a testimony of the challenges and changes that occurred in Vietnam, from Red River region to colony to socialist republic. Studying French literature, and Vietnamese Francophone Literature in particular, has offered a profundity to my understanding of Vietnamese and French culture that truly calls upon the irreducible and necessary interaction between disciplines, languages, and styles of expression.
I see Vietnamese Francophone literature as occurring in three major waves:
1. Early 20th century
Literary production in Vietnam at the turn of the century was most prominent in periodical form. While journals were an important method to disseminate the national language, quoc ngu, those written in French were also politically significant in both propagating and resisting French culture. Much of the French writing during this time appeared as essays and opinion pieces. While the French language novel would not become prominent until later, writing in quoc ngu still pulled much of its structure, style, and inspiration from French works. These writings in French in the beginning of the twentieth century, regardless of genre, are particularly revealing of the ambiguous colonial situation in Vietnam.
Some writers include: Phạm Quỳnh, Nguyễn An Ninh, Tự Lực Văn Đoàn
2. Mid-20th century
With an increase in French-educated and educated-abroad Vietnamese, written expression expanded beyond the journal and beyond quoc ngu. The francophone novel was a notable form of expression in which writers reflected upon the changes in Vietnam, touching upon themes such as nostalgia, violence, and the imminent precarity of Vietnam as a nation amidst political transition. These themes are not unique however to the Vietnamese experience, but the intersection of language and experience in this kind of writing adds an important layer to literary studies that necessarily pulls away from the classic canonization of French texts.
Consider: Phạm Duy Khiêm, Lý Thu Hô, Trần Văn Tùng
3. Late 20th – contemporary
Political and cultural transformations continue to fuel contemporary Vietnamese works today, in both the francophone and anglophone worlds. With the major migrations overseas due to the end of the Vietnam War, and generations of Vietnamese growing up abroad, literary productions by the Vietnamese in foreign languages further broach the question of identity and belonging. I mention both anglophone and francophone as examples of the transnationalism that is pertinent in this wave and the importance of situating these literatures within certain contexts as a frame of reference. For example, Kim Thuy writes about her family’s refugee experience that, while in French, is also a subject of writing seen in many diasporic works of Vietnamese Americans. In France, Clément Baloup writes about the immigrant experience through the graphic novel.
Consider: Linda Lê, Kim Lefèvre, Kim Thúy
In the academy, Vietnamese Francophone literature is not often incorporated within the French literature curriculum, especially next to literatures of the Maghreb, or the Caribbean. And while historical events and politics play a part in the trends of the academy – French, for example, is no longer widely spoken in Vietnam – we cannot obliterate the reality that literary production in French (still) exists by the Vietnamese. Such literature, while particular and important in its own way, also cannot exist only within the area studies context, as a thing to be excavated for novelty, subject to a reader’s disappointment when it becomes exhausted. In many ways, it remains marginal in the discussion of francophone literature because the moment where interesting histories and nuances emerge, it no longer remains French literature but becomes Vietnamese studies. In other words, while I have found my research to be significantly interdisciplinary, I have found that this nexus to be categorized in a way that reduces its meanings and presence in any academic space. The task remains to be fulfilled, the question remains to be answered: how then might we reinsert this literature and study into spaces that respect its nuances, without removing it from the conversation? What do these spaces look like and how can we alter them in a way that is less hierarchical or selective?