image of book goes here
Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen

Vietnamese Voices:
Gender and Cultural Identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel

DeKalb, IIllinois: Southeast Asia Publications,
Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University,
2003, xi + 239 pp., index, ISBN 1-891134-26-4

reviewed by Anne-Marie Medcalf

  1. With this new book on Vietnamese francophone literature, Nathalie Nguyen provides a long overdue contribution to a now rapidly growing, but long neglected field. Until now, for instance, the only book written in English on Vietnamese francophone fiction was Jack Yeager's 1987 major introduction, The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism.[1] Nguyen follows in Yeager's footsteps, acknowledging her debt. She also goes beyond Yeager's scope, both in terms of time span, as the book extends from the French colonial period into the post-colonial present, and in terms of her focus on gender and identity.
  2. Vietnamese Voices is the study, framed in terms of gender differences, of the novels written by Vietnamese authors educated in the French colonial system. Most are or have been part of the huge Vietnamese diaspora created either as a result of French colonialism or, after 1975, of the American war. Their cultural identity, then, has been marked by wars and political upheavals and defined by conflicts and tensions: tensions between colonial occupation and anti-colonial resistance, tradition and modernity and revolution, patriarchy and women's liberation, and of course, between cultures and languages. That these novels are written in the context of a difficult negotiation of cultural identity is also symbolised by the way the heritage of Chinese literature and philosophy, and Vietnamese popular poetry, are combined in the language of the coloniser with contemporary concerns. In this context, and as the author argues in the 'Introduction', the writing of the novels is a victory in itself. The result is a literature whose contradictions make it intrinsically subversive and whose beauty stems from conflict, alienation and pain.
  3. It is through the lens of these contradictions that Vietnamese Voices sets out to explore, in Nguyen's words, 'post-colonial concerns of place and displacement, self image and identity' (p. 8) and the way the 'treatment of these concerns differ in the works of male and female writers' (p. 8). This is analysed along six chapters through the study of several novels by both male and female Vietnamese francophone authors. The author knows these novels intimately, and one of the great achievements of this book is the scholarly but also literary way she whets our appetite. In Chapter 1, we are introduced to four modern transpositions, by Trinh Thuc Oanh and Marguerite Triaire, Tran Van Tung, Ly Thu Ho and Kim Lefèvre,[2] of the Vietnamese nineteenth century classic Kim Van Kieu. Kieu has come to symbolise, through its heroine, the brutality of the patriarchal Confucian society and the themes of conflict between duty and desire. As significantly, it has also become a metaphor for Vietnam's national oppression and survival. These elements, and others, such as those of the conflict between tradition and modernity, traditional virtues and identity, are vividly reimagined in the four twentieth century novels.
  4. In Chapter 2, Nathalie Nguyen further analyses the work of Ly Thu Ho, the only Vietnamese woman to live and publish francophone novels in Paris from the 1960s to the 1980s. Her ironical accounts of middle-class female protagonists constitute a devastating social critique of patriarchy and of the traditional feminine ideal, her most traditional women characters suffering the harshest fate. In 'Colonial Love' (Chapter 4), Nguyen shows how Pham Duy Khiem's Nam et Sylvie, and Truong Dinh Tri and Albert de Teneuille's Bà-Dâm [Madame] reverse the focus of traditional colonial literature on cross cultural relationships as they describe the union between Vietnamese men and French women. They are also relatively devoid of the exoticism which marks the work of French colonial writers on the subject. If the conclusion that such relationships are doomed to failure is nevertheless the same in both French and Vietnamese texts, the focus of the two Vietnamese novels is firmly on the description of the desperate alienation borne of such relations. For Nguyen, this alienation symbolises the political and social alienation of the protagonists in their own land and the weight of their 'divided loyalties,' a theme pursued under this title in Chapter 5 through novels written in the 1950s at the time of the demise of the French colonial regime.
  5. Indeed, some of the most powerful stories explored in Vietnamese Voices are stories of return, displacement and alienation in one's own land. In Cung Giu Nguyen's Le fils de la baleine [The Son of the Whale], explored in Chapter 6, the hero, or rather anti-hero, is washed upon the beach of his village having lost his memory. The village never accepts this outsider who finally returns to the ocean in a desperate form of escape. In Pham Van Ky's Frères de sang [Blood Brothers] (Chapters 3 and 6), written at the time of the partition of Vietnam, the hero returns from France to face the disintegration of his village. It is a story of split personality, the two sides of which are symbolised most strongly by the relationship between the protagonist and his brother. Like the main character in The Son of the Whale, the protagonist, who remains nameless and placeless, finally escapes too, but this time into crippling mental paralysis.
  6. In terms of gender and identity, Nguyen argues that the works of male writers of Vietnamese francophone novels 'indicate a much greater level of despair and fragmentation' than those of their less numerous women counterparts. The fragmentation 'that arises from male writer's novels,' she writes, 'echoes the disintegration of the colonial system' (p.174) – and the aftermath of this disintegration. This is perhaps, Nguyen advances, because their identification and involvement with this system was stronger, personally or in terms of male culture, than that of women writers. As a result, male writers show their protagonists as alienated from their own culture, becoming permanent outsiders. Often the only way out is through death or exile.
  7. Women writers, on the other hand, write of survival through conflicts, oppression and war. There is a wide range of female characterisation from victims to agents of change for instance. Central to women characters, however, is either their identification with Vietnamese identity and culture or the symbolic representation of the contrast between French and Vietnamese culture. As with the classic Kieu, there is a metaphorical identification of their experiences with that of the nation. Also, and as important is the strong sense of modern transition and change experienced by the protagonists. Whilst, ironically, it is men writers who offer the most direct and harsh critique of the position of women in Vietnam, even the strongest social critique voiced by women writers, such as that of Ly Thu Ho, is cast with a more subtle if no less effective touch.
  8. Vietnamese Voices is a book written with meticulous scholarship, providing a welcome tool of research in its field and a wealth of information and analysis. Written with empathy and passion from an insider's point of view, it is also a compelling read.


    [1] Jack Yeager, The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism, Hanover: University Press of New England, 1987.

    [2] On Kim Lefèvre, see Nathalie Nguyen, 'Writing and Memory in Kim Lefèvre's Autobiographical Narratives', and '"Métisse Blanche": Entretien avec Kim Lefèvre' (Introduction in English), both in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, Issue 5, May 2001.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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