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Classical Reception within the Vietnamese Diaspora

Kelly Nguyen

Brown University

This paper assesses the reception of Greek epic and tragedy within the literature of the diasporic Vietnamese community. Previous scholarship at the intersection of Vietnamese studies and classical reception has focused on the Vietnam War through a largely American-centric perspective. Works such as Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam and its sequel Odysseus in America, use classical allusions as tools with which to better understand the experiences of the American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. Similarly, Pirro (2011) examines the comparisons between the Vietnam War and Greek tragedies made by notable figures such as Robert Kennedy and Robert McNamara who painted the war as an “American tragedy.” There has, however, been no work exploring classical reception that extends beyond the Vietnam War and into the diasporic Vietnamese community. This is troubling because it collapses a country, its history and its people into a failed American campaign, thus ignoring the diverse narratives emerging from not only the war, but also its aftermath, from not only soldiers, but also civilians, from not only refugees, but also their hybrid-identity progenies.

This paper aims to fill this void in scholarship. It will fall into two parts. The first part will give a brief overview of classical reception by diasporic Vietnamese writers from the early 20th century to modern times. This general survey will begin with francophone writers pre-1975, such as Pham Van Ky, and move on to contemporary writers such as Linda Le, Quan Barry, and Pulitzer prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen. This section establishes the long, but overlooked, tradition of classical reception within the Vietnamese diasporic community, and assesses how it has changed over time, especially with the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and the consequent “refugee crisis.” How did the refugee experience change diasporic Vietnamese writers’ engagement with Greek literature, with works that often deal with the ramifications of civil war and the relentless desire for nostos? The second part analyzes the works of two Vietnamese-American authors, Ocean Vuong and Vi Khi Nao, in conversation with and in contrast to each other in order to demonstrate the current diversity of classical reception within the Vietnamese diaspora. While Vuong reworks Greek epic to explore his inheritance of war, Nao seemingly subverts it to dissect the more universal human struggle between death and desire. By inverting the traditional narrative, Vuong and Nao demonstrate that they are not passively receiving classical literature, but are also actively engaging with it and asserting their roles within it.

Overall, this paper will demonstrate how writers of the Vietnamese diaspora have engaged with Greek literature and ultimately with a heritage that has long been constructed and transmitted as Eurocentric in focus and content. Written by a refugee about refugee writers, this paper argues for the importance of studying classical reception through the lens of historically marginalized groups (e.g. Goff and Simpson 2007; Hardwich and Gillespie 2007; Orrells et al 2011) and to render them as active agents rather than passive/forgotten victims.

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Reception and National Traditions

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