I was invited to speak at an innovative event on translation and creative expression organized by the scholar Catherine H. Nguyen from the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature and the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights at Harvard University. Together with poet-scholar Quan Tran, we shared our scholarship and arts practice. I spoke about my scholarly research and its intersections with artistic expression and personal history. It was a refreshing and radical opportunity to speak honestly about my ‘historian-artist’ identity and diverse body of work–from research essays and teaching on Vietnamese history to film-poetry on translation and feminist performance art.
It’s been hard. My mind, heart, and body have been on overdrive. I made the film “NONFUTURE, Meditations on Time” to make sense of it all. If this strikes a chord with you, please share.
I hope that this film
- brings moments of lightness in a very dark and difficult situation
- inspires creative experimentation to make meaning of our changing realities
- reminds us that we are all connected in our collective struggle
- sparks playful movement, gratitude, and laughter
- moves us to be resilient, brave, and kind to each other
Update 4/10/2020: Thank you so much for the kind and loving words of support! As a grassroots deployment of our skills during this difficult time, we have now started a “Long Hai Feeds You” Campaign to feed frontline medical workers. Read more and donate here. Thank you for the love and stay safe!
As a historian, I analyze continuity and change. How do moments of upheaval affect people, states, institutions, across time and space? I consider the nuances of change for certain communities—the degree of rupture from previous ways of life and the resiliency of individual lives, social practices, and cultural norms.
I examine the history of Vietnam, where war haunts all aspects of life and sense of temporality. Disruption was the only constant, and fear functioned as a stimulus for survival. The prolonged state of uncertainty led to the utter abandonment of all trust in the socio-political fabric of governmental systems, economic stability, and sense of community. Vietnamese lived at the boundary of divine intervention and fated misery. A sense of a non-future and the loss of human agency shrouded the everyday. I have come to understand this reality through my mother and father’s life. They were kids forced to become adults in the midst of war, created a family out of tentative dreams and functional necessity, and escaped their war torn world in hopes for any kind of future for their family. I am deeply embedded within this traumatic history as a child of the Vietnam War, born in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and growing up in America the land of promise, hope, and hypocrisy.
Yet, it was not until COVID-19 that I now know what it means to live through history. While this moment is not the same as war, I have become familiar with its symptoms and side effects. The loss of human agency in everyday action. The inability to fathom a future. The surrender to fated defeat and existential misery.
I recently delivered a talk to 150 college students at Middlesex college through the Asian Studies Development Program. I was encouraged to prepare a talk which spoke to diverse students who might not have a background on Asian history. In preparing for the talk, I took a long time reflecting on the simple question, “Why study the history of colonial Indochina.” In the talk I explain three reasons:
- It is important.
- I am constantly learning and unlearning.
- It is hard.
This is a teaching module I designed for my course, “Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina” at Brown University, Fall 2019. [See below for full teaching module or Download Teaching Module>] I connected with an ambitious, award winning project “Virtual Angkor” which brings the 13th century Cambodian metropolis of Angkor to life through virtual reality and 3D simulation. Led by the talented team of Tom Chandler, Adam Clulow, Bernard Keo, Mike Yeates, and Martin Polkinghorne (SensiLab, Monash University, UT Austin, Flinders University), Virtual Angkor allows students to experience and pose questions about Angkor’s social life, trade networks, structure of power and kingship, as well as architectural layout.
History 1978D – Fall 2019
Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina: Culture, Power, Change
Instructor: Dr. Cindy Nguyen, History Postdoctoral Fellow
This seminar explores the history of French colonial Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) from 1858 to 1945. Challenging Euro-centric narratives of colonialism, we will critically analyze the colonial encounter as complex exchanges, geographically diverse, and socially uneven. We will examine the mechanisms and limitations of the colonial state, capitalism, administration and institutions, and science and technology (maps, communications, transportation, medicine). Rather than position colonialism as an external agent of change, this seminar dedicates attention to local agency, and social and cultural transformations. We will focus on the creative production of new ideas, print media, and urban and religious communities especially in 1920s to 1940s Hanoi, Saigon, and Phnom Penh. By reading primary sources, we will consider how historical actors experienced and understood colonialism and social transformation. Key historical and theoretical debates addressed include the production and legacies of colonial knowledge, construction of modernity and civilization, development of civil societies, transformations of religious communities, and articulations of identities around gender, class, revolution, and nation. The final session will consider the legacies of colonialism on language, race, nationalism, and identity. A close analysis of French colonial Indochina will serve as a framework for a cultural and politically situated history of empire in Southeast Asia and beyond.
This paper was presented at the 13th Annual Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asian Studies on July 25, 2018 at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
Presentation title: Reading and Misreading: From Temple of European Knowledge to Public Space of Vietnamese Modernity and Social Life, 1919-1941
Please cite all images and parts of the paper to Cindy A. Nguyen
Video of Presentation:
This talk examines the transformation of library reading in colonial Vietnam from a symbol of French modernity to an everyday practice of Vietnamese modernity and social life. Focused on the 1920’s and 1930’s Central Library Reading Room in Hanoi, I demonstrate the ways in which Vietnamese students, urban readers, and administrators challenged and redefined the meaning of the library into a Vietnamese space of public sociability, self-learning, and global knowledge.
**A Note: This summary of key debates between Orthodox, Revisionist, and Vietnam-Centrism understandings of the Vietnam War will without a doubt, be interpreted as contentious. My aim here is not to cast value judgment on the ethics of war, but to push further the responsibility towards understanding HISTORY and its actors.
For your summer reading pleasure and in the context of the ever rising importance of critically thinking through classification, here is my complete qualifying exam list on HISTORY OF CLASSIFICATION AND INFORMATION.
Examiner: Cathryn Carson
Second Field: History of Knowledge Systems
History of Classification and Information
1. STS & Memory Practices: Classification, Documentation, Catalogs, Libraries, Archives
2. History of Information, Information Age, Enlightenment Institutions
3. History of statistics: governance and discipline
4. Data Science: theory, explanation; experts
Today I started writing the beast of the dissertation on Vietnamese libraries. “Builders and Users: Creating the Vietnamese Library 1887-1986”
The Vietnamese library was never quiet.
Readers flooded the reading room of the Central Library to escape the heat in the summers, and lovers huddled in corners during the unforgiving Hanoi winters. Frequent library patrons complained loudly to library staff and the public press about the lack of chairs for readers and unfair borrowing privileges between Vietnamese and Europeans. Everyday incidents between workers and readers, French and Vietnamese, coalesced into the ever so frequent epic library drama: a slap to the face, a lifetime revocation of library privileges, and a mysterious death reported as a suicide.