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French Forum 28.1 (2003) 140-142
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Winston, Jane Bradley and Leakthina Chau-Pech Ollier, eds. Of Vietnam: Identities in Dialogue. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 280 pp.
Of Vietnam is a welcome addition to the growing field of Francophone Vietnamese and Vietnamese American literary and cultural studies. It provides readers with a collection of critical essays accompanied by a selection of creative pieces. The critical articles cover a variety of topics ranging from colonial, cultural and ethnological history to the analysis of literary texts, films and painting. The majority of the works discussed in the critical section are produced by French and diasporic Vietnamese writers and artists from France and the United States. The issues treated include questions of identity, hybridity, the Vietnam War, globalization, and gender politics. Most of the pieces are clearly written and their close readings successfully bring out the complexity of the polyphonic colonial and postcolonial voices. Students interested in colonial and diasporic Vietnamese literary and cultural studies will find these essays immensely valuable.
The collection of creative pieces comprises works by Vietnamese and diasporic Vietnamese writers some of whom compose in English and some in Vietnamese. Works written in Vietnamese are translated into English. While it is undeniably a wonderful idea to incorporate Vietnamese pieces in the selection, one would wish that more information were provided that would make these texts more user friendly to the non-Vietnamese audience for whom the volume is intended. For readers not well versed in Vietnamese culture and literature some footnotes providing explanations of Vietnamese cultural and literary references will certainly be most welcome. Otherwise, a great deal of the signification of the works may be missed or misunderstood. To illustrate my concern, I would cite here my own experience of teaching David Henry Hwang's M Butterfly to my Hong Kong Chinese students. At one point in the play, to show the absurdity of the Madame Butterfly plot to Gallimard, Song, the transvestite singer, gives a modern American version of the Orientalist opera to the French diplomat: "Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which she prays to his picture and turns down a marriage proposal from a young Kennedy" (17) [End Page 140] . The majority of my students did not understand the American cultural references of "homecoming queen" and "young Kennedy" and as a result they missed the sarcasm in Song's response to Gallimard. Reading Vo Thi Xuan Ha's short story "The Sparrows Fly Across the Woods," I likewise wonder what American students who are not familiar with Vietnamese culture would make of the relation of the dead brother Nam to the two protagonists and the scene of the birth of the twins at the end of the story. An exemplary annotated translation is the one done by Greg and Monique Lockhart for Nhat Linh's travel narrative, "Going to France." The Lockharts provide detailed notes that help situate Nhat Linh's piece within the Indochinese colonial context and provide very useful linguistic and cultural explanations that richly enhance the readers' appreciation of the text.
While Jane Winston gives a highly systematic account of the critical essays in her introduction, she says rather little about the creative pieces. For example, it is not clear what criteria are used in the editors' selection of the texts. Were those pieces chosen because of style, periods or themes? Why is preference given to mostly contemporary writers? It would have indeed been interesting and elucidating if works of the colonial era were also sampled so that readers could see the changes in the style and concerns among writers of different generations. Besides providing a historical comparative perspective, the inclusion of earlier writers in the volume could also further illuminate some of the issues discussed in the critical essays themselves. For example, the short story by Tam Lang, "I Pulled a Rickshaw" (1932), which offers a deeply moving account of the Hanoi rickshaw trade, and that of Nguyen...