New publication by Leslie Barnes: French Colonial Literature in Indochina

This essay draws on Pheng Cheah’s insights in What is a World? to examine the contrasting spatiotemporalities of colonial adventure and continental drift in French Indochinese colonial-exotic literature of the 1920s and 1930s. I look first at how the genre worlds in a narrow, linear sense, discursively mapping the spatialized colony in concert with imperialist projections. The focus here is on the ways in which these novels chart the advance of capital through the colony as a spatial category, a distant and subordinate appendage of France, the global center. I then consider Jean d’Esme’s Les Dieux rouges (The Red Gods: A Romance, 1923) as a deviation from the conventions of the genre and the calculated path it lays out. Equal parts colonial-exotic and speculative fiction, Les Dieux rouges tells an alternative geological history of continental drift that undoes the colonizer’s materialist assumptions about the natural world. Through the creation of a parallel, prehistoric world inside the colony but outside the reach of empire, D’Esme’s novel demonstrates a profound dis-ease with the colonial project, an anxiety that, unlike the hesitation that marked many narratives of the period, points to France’s ultimate inability to map Indochina – physically, temporally, or epistemologically – and by extension, the rest of la plus grande FranceLes Dieux rouges worlds the colony in the Heideggerian sense by opening up an alternative temporality within it, by imagining, in Cheah’s words, “a force that subtends and exceeds all human calculations that reduce the world as temporal structure to the sum of objects in space” (8). The novel returns the colonizer to the beginning of human time and the human race, not to imply simply that colonialism is a regression, but to challenge the ontological and political realities upon which imperialist assumptions are based.

See the Cambridge History of World Literature.

Image: llustration d’O.K. Gérard pour la couverture du roman de Jean d’Esme, Les Dieux rouges, Les Éditions de France, collection « Le Livre d’Aujourd’hui », 1932 (Wikimedia commons).

Elizabeth Collins wins Best article prize for “‘Le Riz d’Indochine'”

Congratulations to Elizabeth Collins, who has won Modern and Contemporary France‘s Best article prize for 2022! Elizabeth’s brilliant article, “‘Le Riz d’Indochine’ at the French table: representations of food, race and the Vietnamese in a colonial-era board game” is described by the jury as “theoretically versatile and innovative, convincing in its ethical perspective and self-awareness.”

See the announcement and click through to the article here.


In June, ASERN members, Howie Tam, Tess Do, Alex Kurmann, and Leslie Barnes came together virtually to take part in Howie’s seminar, “Transnational Southeast Asian Literatures in the World.”

Much has changed since Benedict Anderson conceptualized the idea of the nation as an imagined community nearly four decades ago. Primarily, borders have become more porous as the trans-nation emerges as the new imagined community. In the Transpacific world during the first decades of the so-called Asian Century, some old divisions have deepened while new alliances have emerged. In 2010, the U.S. Mission to the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established as China increasingly exerted itself as a global power. Though ASEAN remains primarily an economic body, its member states have increasingly become major players on the global stage as Western economies find the need to strengthen their relations with countries in the Asia Pacific region while mitigating their economic dependence on China. As such, Southeast Asian countries, many of which were once colonies of Western empires, have had to navigate the rough waters of competing geopolitical forces, all while consolidating their own postcolonial national identities in the age of globalization. As part of the 2022 ACLA Conference in Taipei, this panel invites scholars of Southeast Asian literatures and cultures to think together about major literary and artistic trends that have taken place in various national traditions of the region from decolonization to the contemporary period in the age of transnationationalism. Recognizing that the regional designation of “Southeast Asia” is itself a colonial construct that has held over with much contention in diplomacy today, we seek paper abstracts that deal with materials in any language and genre (dance, music, written and/or oral texts, film, conceptual art, etc.), though we expect all presentations to be in English. Some cultural producers from Southeast Asia and its diasporas have found international recognition. For example, Filipina American writer Jessica Hagedorn’s work has become a staple in Asian American literature syllabi at U.S. colleges and universities. Tash Aw from Malaysia has also found critical acclaim in the U.S. and the U.K. for his novels. In cinema, Rithy Panh’s work continues to bring poignant depictions of the genocide in Cambodia to the larger public’s attention. In making sense of transnational Southeast Asia and the world, we welcome papers that engage with the transnational elements of “local” movements such as Sastera Islam in Malaysia, Manifesto Kebudayaaan in Indonesia or the SingPoWriMo online writing community in Singapore, as well as those deal with broader cudltural imaginaries such as the Sinophone (Shu-Mei Shih, Brian Bernards, E.K. Tan), Arabic cosmopolis (Ronit Ricci, Engseng Ho) and the stateless Zomia (James C. Scott). We look forward to forming a panel with a diverse set of scholars from different countries working with a wide range of multilingual archives.

Here, Kurmann and Do discuss their research on the Lính Tho, the Vietnamese migrant community forced to work in, and for, France during World War II.

Alexandra Kurmann gives keynote for WiF “The Immersive Potential of Literature” symposium

Dr Alexandra Kurmann recently gave a keynote presentation for the Women in French (Australia) Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher International Symposium: The Immersive Potential of Literature and Hybrid Media in the 20th and 21st Centuries (Jan. 13-15, 2022). Alex’s presentation was titled “Immersion in Literature as Other: The Sartrean Gaze and the Production of Empathetic Reader-Consciousness.”

Abstract: Walter Benjamin holds not that ‘books come alive in’ the reader, but that the reader ‘lives in them’ (‘Unpacking My library’, p. 9). In the context of worldly as opposed to textual existence, in Being and Nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre theorizes a dyadic structure of human relations through ‘the Look’ (pp. 252-302). While effecting objectification when one is held in the other’s gaze, the Look consequently prevents us from being both known subjectively by, and knowing the subjective experience of, another. I propose that the imaginative displacement inherent in the act of reading evades this end; for reading a first-person fiction narrative allows us to say ‘I’ and yet mean another. Transposing Sartrean phenomenological ontology to the textual world produces what I call a reader-consciousness, which allows the reader to occupy the space of the narrating Other, thus explaining why fiction readers present an enhanced Theory of Mind or empathy (Mar et al.). Evincing Benjamin’s conviction that we live in literature, this paper makes a phenomenological analysis of the act of fiction reading and its corresponding potential for offering immersive experiences of otherness. In a final theoretical application, I read through the Sartrean Look texts voiced by a doubly othered Algerian-French lesbian narrator in the work of Nina Bouraoui. Such an engagement tests the limitations of a theory of empathetic reader-consciousness in relation to an intersectional autobiographical narrative.

New publication by Nguyen Giang Huong: Le Portail France-Vietnam

Le site France-Vietnam : Bibliothèque des flamboyants (Bibliothèque nationale de France et Bibliothèque nationale du Vietnam), en mettant désormais à la disposition des historiens d’innombrables documents datant particulièrement de l’époque coloniale, rappelle opportunément que la France et le Vietnam ont une histoire commune depuis le XVIIe siècle jusqu’à nos jours. Il a l’ambition de jalonner des itinéraires dans les recherches sur le Vietnam et son moment indochinois, sur la France et sa mémoire vietnamienne et sur les rencontres et imbrications des deux cultures, qu’elles soient économiques, politiques, littéraires esthétiques ou religieuses. Il s’agit d’établir une sorte de trait d’union entre les traces de deux constructions identitaires, d’établir une dynamique collaborative entre les deux plus riches réserves de mémoire nationale, de tracer les contours d’un vaste patrimoine partagé.

Après avoir présenté les caractéristiques d’un projet susceptible de renouveler l’historiographie française de l’Asie, le présent volume offre quelques exemples caractéristiques d’étude de la culture vietnamienne comme espace de transferts culturels et invitation à de nouvelles enquêtes d‘histoire transnationale. Si les interactions qu’il éclaire ressortissent souvent aux sciences humaines, elles mettent aussi en évidence les caractéristiques d’une francophonie littéraire vietnamienne.

Trouver le livre.

New publication by Leslie Barnes: The Cinema of Rithy Panh

Born in 1964, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh grew up in the midst of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign of terror, which claimed the lives of many of his relatives. After escaping to France, where he attended film school, he returned to his homeland in the late 1980s and began work on the documentaries and fiction films that have made him Cambodia’s most celebrated living director. 
The Cinema of Rithy Panh: Everything Has a Soul, co-edited with Joseph Mai and featuring essays by ASERN members, Leslie Barnes and Jack Yeager, is the first collection of essays on Panh’s rich body of work. The fourteen essays in the volume explore the filmmaker’s unique aesthetic sensibility, examining the dynamic and sensuous images through which he suggests that “everything has a soul.” They consider how Panh represents Cambodia’s traumatic past, combining forms of individual and collective remembrance, and the implications of this past for Cambodia’s transition into a global present. Covering documentary and feature films, including his literary adaptations of Marguerite Duras and Kenzaburō Ōe, they examine how Panh’s attention to local context leads to a deep understanding of such major themes in global cinema as justice, imperialism, diaspora, gender, and labor. 
Offering fresh takes on masterworks like The Missing Picture and S-21 while also shining a light on the director’s lesser-known films, The Cinema of Rithy Panh will give readers a new appreciation for the boundless creativity and ethical sensitivity of one of Southeast Asia’s cinematic visionaries.

Find the book.

Catherine Nguyen named 2021-2022 ACLS Fellow

Catherine Nguyen has been awarded an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship (2021-2022) for her project, Children Born of War, Adoptees Made by War: Vietnamese Diasporic Contestations of Empire and Race.  

Catherine’s project investigates the Vietnamese mixed-race child and the transracial adoptee as the figures through which France and the United States negotiate citizenship and refugee displacement and moreover, rewrite military loss within their history of colonial and military occupation of Vietnam. The project challenges the prevailing idea that the mixed-race child is constructed as an object of rescue and employs the conceptual framework of hospitality to reveal the impossibility of the mixed-race child’s full incorporation by way of repatriation and adoption. Reading Vietnamese diasporic works in French and English, the project explores how the mixed-race child as subject complicates the distinctions between refugee and adoptee. Attending to the failures of hospitality and acts of hostility, the project draws attention to how the mixed-race child undermines the expected gratitude and thus offers critiques against the welcome into the family and nation that serves to reconcile military violence and recuperate imperial loss. 

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