Viet Kieu professor brings Vietnamese literature to American students

September 14, 2006


17:09 13/09/2006

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Prof. Van Phu Quang (right).

VietNamNet Bridge – Working as a professor of philosophy and Southeast Asian studies at Yale University, Van Phu Quang has introduced Vietnamese literature to many American students.

Arriving in the US when he was only 17, Quang pursued his PhD studies at Oregon University. Since 1999, Quang has been professor of philosophy and Southeast Asian studies at Yale University. In his trip back to Hue, Quang spent time talking to the press about how Vietnamese literature was introduced in American universities.

Quang has selected many aspects of Vietnamese literature to introduce to his students such as wars, post war time, poems for meditation from historical periods.

Quang also talks to his students about the images of Vietnamese farmers in literature, female images through the symbolic wings of storks in Vietnamese folk poems.

What Quang desires is to give American students chances to make comparisons between different cultures. Through his lectures, American-Vietnamese have been given opportunities to learn about their origin and their homeland.

Which Vietnamese books or works of literature are American students most interested in?

When talking about Vietnamese literature, American people usually think of Truyen Kieu by Nguyen Du (The Tale of Kieu), and poems written by the famous female poet Ho Xuan Huong.

In the late 1950s, Yale had a Vietnamese professor, Huynh Sanh Thong, who was the pioneer in introducing and studying Vietnamese literature in America. He was the founder of Vietnam Forum magazine which has been published by Yale’s Council of Southeast Asian studies. Truyen Kieu, Cung Oan Ngam Khuc and a collection of Vietnamese poems were well translated by Huynh Sanh Thong.

Many American readers have not only been surprised by the great content of the book but also by the wonderful translation. For his efforts, in 1996, Prof. Huynh Sanh Thong was awarded a McArthur Fellowship, a prestigious award granted to people who have made great contributions in the field of social sciences and humanities in America.

Many Vietnamese and American readers know about Prof. John Balaban, who successfully translated Ho Xuan Huong poems into English. 20,000 books of the English version of her poems have been sold, which is seen as a great record in the selling of books of poems in America.

What about Vietnamese contemporary literature, including overseas Vietnamese literature?

Vietnamese contemporary literature is not yet popular in the US as the number of books having been translated is very limited. In my opinion, we now can rely on Vietnamese-American authors who can write books in English.

During the last 15 years, many books have been written by Vietnamese-American authors like Nguyen Kien, Monique Truong, Andrew Xuan Pham, Le Thi Diem Thuy, Uyen Nicole Duong, Andrew Lam, Nguyen Quy Duc.

They are the new generation of professional Vietnamese-American authors and have been well trained with writing skills in America. They are not just refugees or Vietnamese-American as their thinking is not limited to that degree.

In their stories, I can sense that they have overcome the boundary of just describing the successes of Asian legends in American society to console the sorrows of being away from the homeland that at the early stage of integration into the American community.

They have mentioned the obsession of losing their origins but at the same time they have the feeling like they want to lose it. In the words of post modernism they have crossed the border of the tradition frame.

While contemporary Vietnamese literature is not yet popular in America, what have you done to introduce prominent issues of contemporary Vietnamese literature to your students?

I think it is most effective if we introduce Vietnamese literature from different angles to best describe smaller parts of such topics. Issues to be spoken about should be placed in appropriate contexts. For example, it would be too rambling if in only one lecture we talk about Vietnamese culture in general. But if we just talk about Vietnamese culture which is described in the Tale of Kieu then students will have a better focus.

In America, professors are solely responsible for their lectures. For example when I gave lectures on the poems on meditation issues in the historical time I had to select poems myself to prepare for my students. At the end of each semester, students give assessments on the lectures that their professors prepare for them. At Yale, assessments are open for all students so that they can decide which classes and which lectures they want to attend.

Which aspects of Vietnamese culture impress American students?

As I have experienced, I think the Vietnamese concepts of family would be the most impressive issue for American students. Second is the Vietnamese culture of food. Many students have told me that they learn about the Vietnamese cultural identity from the culture of dining. Besides that they are also interested in tones of Vietnamese language. That is why I have come back to Vietnam many times since 2000 to study and find more examples of sound, voices of different dialects of Vietnamese language in the north, South and the central region to introduce to my students.

I have done this because I realised I had ignored the tones of different Vietnamese dialects while paying too much concentration on the popular language of Vietnamese only. Because of this many Vietnamese-Americans found that their original language had not been respected.

Currently in America, 14 universities and colleges have Vietnamese language training programmes. These universities and colleges have gathered and formed an association called “GUAVA”. The association grants 12 scholarships for teachers and students of Vietnamese language to study in Hanoi and Saigon every summer.

What would help exchanges between Vietnamese and American students to be developed?

I believe that Vietnamese-Americans will never forget their homeland, even if they were born in America. In my case, as I wish to have more opportunities to communicate and work with Vietnamese universities, I decided to work for Yale University.

 

It was lucky that Yale and Hue Universities had a memorandum for an exchange programme between the two. The cooperation has enabled students of the two universities to learn about the two countries. It has especially helped Vietnamese-American students to have chances to study and experience Vietnamese culture in their home country.

Yale is one of the 10 universities in America which decides whether to accept student’s before assessing their financial availability. 50% of Yale students get support from the university. Currently one of the university’s interests is attracting Vietnamese students and I will try my best to provide support to Vietnamese students who wish to pursue their studies at Yale.

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One Response to “Viet Kieu professor brings Vietnamese literature to American students”

  1. Huong Nguyen Says:

    Truyen Kieu was not written by poet Ho Xuan Huong. It was written by poet Nguyen Du. Please correct.


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