In this week’s Q&A, Associate Professor Nathalie Nguyen, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Monash University, discusses how she came to research history. She explains the joys and the challenges of working with oral histories, and her desire to bring to light suppressed and silenced stories. Nathalie encourages Early Career Researchers to remain open minded and flexible in their approach to research.
Associate Professor Nathalie Nguyen’s work deals with memory, war and migration. Her research focuses on the Vietnamese diaspora and the experiences of refugees. She has held two major Australian Research Council Fellowships: an ARC Future Fellowship (2011-15) for her project on Vietnamese veterans; and an ARC Australian Research Fellowship (2005-10) for her project on Vietnamese women. She was also the recipient of a 2007 Harold White Fellowship at the National Library of Australia, and a 2011 Visiting Fellowship at the University of Oxford. Her latest grant is an ARC Discovery Project (2018-21) on the refugee legacy for second generation Vietnamese. A graduate of the University of Oxford, she is the author of four books, two of which have been translated into other languages. She is also the editor of a volume of essays on the Vietnam War, and guest editor of special issues on Southeast Asian Diasporas and Vietnam of the refereed journals Crossroads and Intersections. Her latest book South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After (Praeger, 2016) breaks new ground by shedding light on an essentially unexplored aspect of the Vietnam War: the histories of the men – and women – who served in the former Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF).
1. Tell us a bit about your background.
I arrived in Australia as a child refugee with my parents, siblings and maternal grandmother after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Our family was among the 539 Vietnamese refugees admitted to Australia in 1975-1976. My father was the last Republic of Vietnam Ambassador to Japan, and we arrived in Australia by ship from Japan, and resettled in Melbourne. Many of our relatives sought asylum in the United States while other relatives live in Europe – in France, Germany, and Austria. My father was from a Buddhist scholarly family in northern Vietnam that traces its history back to the fifteenth century. They formed part of the one million refugees who left communist North Vietnam for non-communist South Vietnam in the wake of the 1954 Geneva Accords. My mother’s family was also Buddhist, and came from southern Vietnam.
2. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
I enjoyed reading history but did not study history while I was at university. My academic background is in language and literature. After completing a B.A. (Honours) in French with Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne, I won a Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Award to the University of Oxford, where I obtained a doctorate in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. My D.Phil. thesis was on Vietnamese francophone literature, and it was the subject of my first book Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural Identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel. I examined the representation of female and male characters in novels of the colonial and postcolonial periods.
3. Why did you become an academic historian?
My path to becoming an academic historian was rather unexpected. I began my academic career as a lecturer in French Studies. My career took a sharp turn in 2005, however, when I won a 5-year Australian Research Fellowship from the Australian Research Council to work on a project on “Vietnamese Women: Voices and Narratives of the Diaspora”. I had met the Director of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne, Professor Kate Darian-Smith, and her strong interest in, and support for, my work on Vietnamese women made me shift to Australian Studies, where I had the opportunity to give those women a voice. My project involved oral history interviews with Vietnamese women, and my second and third books focused on the memories and experiences of Vietnamese refugee women. My second book Voyage of Hope: Vietnamese Australian Women’s Narratives was shortlisted for the 2007 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was published in Vietnamese in 2009. My work is interdisciplinary and I was particularly interested in the intersection between memory, narrative and trauma. My third book was entitled Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora. A 2010 Choice Outstanding Academic Title, it was published in France in 2013 as La mémoire est un autre pays: Femmes de la diaspora vietnamienne. It was after the publication of this third book that I first saw myself as “an historian”.
I spent six months at Oxford on a Visiting Fellowship in 2011, and won a 4-year Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (2011-2015) to work on “Forgotten Histories: Vietnamese Veterans in Australia”. I was based at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University for this project. The Vietnam War remains one of the most misunderstood wars in modern history, and the omission or dismissal of South Vietnam from most histories of the war is a source of considerable pain for Vietnamese refugees and for all those who served South Vietnam or believed in her. My father, for example, had held great hopes for South Vietnam. Having already lost the north, the collapse of the south in 1975 was devastating. He had in effect lost his country twice. I found the work for this project difficult and harrowing, and could not have dealt directly with the war at an earlier stage of my academic career. My work resulted in the creation and establishment of a new oral history collection on “The Vietnamese Veterans in Australia Oral History Project” at the National Library of Australia, an edited volume on New Perceptions of the Vietnam War, and a fourth book entitled South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After.
4. Is there a theme or a burning question that inspires your historical research?
South Vietnam was a central participant in the Vietnam War but its history and the histories of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians have largely been erased in the vast historiography of the war. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and the extent of state repression that occurred in postwar communist Vietnam led to the mass exodus of more than two million people from Vietnam over the following two decades. The Vietnamese diaspora and the suppressed histories of South Vietnam and its people form the main theme of my historical research. I am now working on a new ARC Discovery Project on the refugee legacy for second generation Vietnamese in Australia as well as a pilot project on Vietnamese in the Australian Defence Force.
5. A lot of your work draws on oral histories, what is your favourite (and/or least favourite) aspect of working with this type of source? And how does working with oral testimonies shape your research and writing of history?
I am genuinely interested in people’s stories, and a relationship of trust between interviewer and interviewee is vital in oral history work. The Vietnamese I have interviewed – both women and men – have in many cases had a high degree of exposure to trauma during the war and more particularly during the postwar years and the exodus. Before I was able to even start doing the oral history interviews, I had to undergo a lengthy Human Ethics process at the university. In the case of my project on veterans, this process took four months, and I had to justify my work to a panel of twelve people before I received approval to proceed with my work.
Oral testimonies by Vietnamese women and veterans, and the workings of memory have shaped my research and writing of history. My background as a child refugee has made me particularly sensitive to the implications of suppressed and silenced histories, and those of Vietnamese refugee women and South Vietnamese veterans remain under-researched.
6. What do you love about being an historian?
Oral history involves creating an archive of primary material – the oral histories themselves. This process can be time consuming but it is fascinating to be able to draw material from this archive as well as more traditional archival sources such as documents.
7. What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced as an historian?
The oral histories that I deal with involve a great deal of trauma. I have conducted oral history interviews during which the women and men I interviewed have wept quietly while they remembered and recounted their lives. They have lost loved ones, witnessed death or injury during wartime, and been subjected to political persecution in postwar communist Vietnam. They have experienced internment in the gulag, forced labour in the New Economic Zones, and family fragmentation during the exodus. While the Vietnamese community in Australia is now well established, there are many damaged people in the community. Very few seek counselling for what they have been through. It is at times difficult to deal with this, and to separate this grief from grief in my personal life.
8. What advice would you give to Early Career Researchers about making a career as an historian?
I don’t know whether I can really give advice about this, as I started in a completely different field and did not set out to make a career as an historian! My advice would be that it is important to keep an open mind, and to be flexible in your approach to research. My experiences reveal that it is possible to transfer from one discipline to another. I did not study history in the final years of high school, as an undergraduate or as a postgraduate. I was always interested in history, however, and my experience as a child refugee has certainly driven my interest in memory and in the testimony of refugees. The erasure of South Vietnam not only from Vietnamese history but also the wider historiography of the Vietnam War has also driven my research. I see my work as recording, recovering and interpreting silenced or forgotten voices and histories, and also communicating these histories to a wider public and to younger generations.