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Graduate Student Spotlight: Yen Vu, Ph.D. candidate, romance studies

Yen Vu headshot

The student activists with which I surrounded myself during my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley have a motto: “No history, no self; know history, know self.” A witty slogan that justified many of the teach-ins and workshops that were constantly going on at the time, it has far more than one meaning. It captures not only a general idea of the role history plays in the making of identity, but also how the degree to which history determines identity, or vice versa, varies greatly for everyone, not only for the self-searching college student. When I heard the motto for the first time, it was ingenious and immediately personal: it prompted me to ask questions about my family’s history and offered a model by which my struggles of the past could be validated through their incorporation into my present identity.

Growing up in Southern California, a haven for many Vietnamese immigrants after the end of the war in 1975, I had a very particular idea of what Vietnam was, the past tense looming indefinitely. For a long time, it was more than enough for me to know the stories my parents didn’t often discuss, and I was grateful for the opportunity to understand the reason for our arrival to the United States. Yet, I felt loss–not because Vietnam was no longer the country I inhabited, but because surrounded by other Vietnamese immigrants of different generations, and my father’s own military involvement in the Vietnam War as a South Vietnam lieutenant, I had inherited a certain nostalgia with which I deeply sympathized and identified.

While it was not quite complacency, I never wondered about the stories that existed other than the ones I knew. Even in college when I was actively involved in the Vietnamese Student Association, our emblem was a three-striped flag, and April 30 was a commemoration of the Fall of Saigon. For as long as I stayed within this context, physically in California and temporally in the past, I could not see past a Vietnam that no longer existed, unable to establish for myself a relationship with my country of birth in the present, independent of these inherited ideas.

Seeing “No history, no self; know history, know self,”a contemporary scholar might critically ask: which histories? The idea that more than one narrative makes up different histories marks an important shift in scholarship today, but this idea is still something we take for granted. Assuming that there is a one-to-one relationship between a history and a people or an individual, why wouldn’t there be plural histories to represent so many different peoples in the world? To what extent do we, as a single individual or a community, take into account more than one narrative in order to shape what becomes our history and our identity? We may find many versions of a similar experience, but do we also find the courage to listen to stories that undermine those we know, that come from our historical enemies, or that are conceived from a completely different perspective and background?

Such understanding of history is not only applicable to the construction of identity, but it also seeps through what we do as scholars—our research—extending into the construction of an entire academic field. In the case of Vietnamese studies, I am not alone in recognizing that much academic scholarship has been dominated by American perspectives, experiences, and sources, in part due to the American investment in the war. Recognizing the importance of bridging a widespread scholarship of Vietnamese studies, three history Ph.D. students: Alex-Thai Vo, Hoang Vu, and Sean Fear, each coming from a different personal background and a different investment in their study of Vietnam, decided to organize a forum in order to bring together diverse voices about Vietnam. The result was Voices on Vietnam, a biannual speaker series that incorporates perspectives that include Vietnamese voices and sources without being limited to them.

The idea for the speaker series drew from the success of the Voices from the South symposium, held at Cornell 2012, which gave many military, civilian, and opposition leaders from the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) a chance to share their experiences living under South Vietnam’s Second Republic (1967–1975). The inaugural Voices on Vietnam event took place on April 29, 2015, a date that marked forty years after the end of the war. In an open forum Professors Fredrik Logevall, Harvard University, and Keith Taylor, Cornell University, two leading experts in the field, shared their latest research and thoughts on the current state and future prospects of the field of Vietnamese studies and history. This event set a precedent for the series and the Voices on Vietnam mission in general, which is to acknowledge that different perspectives, while contentious, can be productive in nuancing the examination of history. My own investment in Voices on Vietnam draws upon this very mission that opens up a space for dialogue among these perspectives.

Since its inauguration, Voices on Vietnam has received an incredible amount of support from the departments of History, Government, and Asian Studies, as well as the Southeast Asia Program and the East Asia Program, allowing us to hold a series event each semester. In fall 2015, Southern Vietnamese writer Nha Ca and Professor Olga Dror shared insights gained from their collaboration in the translation of Nha Ca’s book Mourning Headband for Hue (Indiana University Press, 2014). This account of what is known as the 1968 Tet Offensive reoriented the idea of war away from the view that it is a battle between opponents and instead captured the precariousness of human life amidst violence. Nha Ca’s anti-war stance did not hold a political agenda, for her intention was to portray how loss of human life and dignity is not relegated to any one side. This was one voice that had not been heard in American anti-war narratives.

In spring 2015, in collaboration with the SEAP Gatty Lecture Series, Voices on Vietnam invited Professor Chris Goscha to speak about his latest work, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam (Allen Lane, 2016). Moving away from a history bound to Cold War tensions in this general account intended for both specialists and nonscholars, Goscha portrays a wide cast of characters, from kings to priests to revolutionaries, but also those often marginalized in accounts of Vietnam such as the highlanders and ethnic minorities. This overview of modern Vietnamese history sheds light on the complexities of histories by examining themes such as periodization, questioning what “modern” might mean, and exploring the possibility of multiple and divided Vietnams.

The suggestion that there could be Vietnams in the plural is a reminder of the irreducibility of different experiences in what is to be roughly considered history. For me, I didn’t begin to hear stories other than my own until I chose to study Vietnam in graduate school at Cornell. It is a privilege as a scholar to have access to stories other than one’s own and to be able to draw from these different experiences in a critical way in order to understand one’s own. We all have distinct relationships with our research and unique ways in which we construct our identities. Assuming we take k(no)wing history, k(no)wing self as one formula, we might arrive at one conjugation: while we might not ever know enough history to say we know ourselves, the way in which we value history to be shared, exchanged, and opened up is already revealing who we are.