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The Alchemist of Exile: Writing the Life of a Vietnamese Political Prisoner

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Duration: 0:59:12 | Added: 01 Jul 2015
Dr Lorraine Paterson gives a talk at the Southeast Asia Seminar on June 10th, 2015.

Under French colonialism in Indochina, approximately ten thousand prisoners from Vietnam and Cambodia were deported to penal or exile sites within the wider French colonial world. From Gabon in Africa to French Guiana, these prisoners were transported for sentences ranging from five years to a lifetime. Many of these prisoners had committed common-law crimes but others were anti-colonial nationalists who occupied a grey area between political crimes and those considered to be piracy or banditry.

Out of this group there was one prisoner who was exiled for longer and further than any other prisoner from any background. Indeed, given that he suffered his first exile at the age of twelve, and was only at liberty for another eleven months thereafter, he was the longest political prisoner in French colonial history. Born Nguyễn Văn Cẩm in the north of Vietnam, by the age of eight his prodigious powers of fortune telling and poetry writing had become renowned throughout northern Vietnam. At the age of twelve, he became the figurehead of an anti-French uprising in the town of Nam Dinh which led to a life of forced exile spanning the French colonial empire from Algeria to French Polynesia.

This talk will explore how such an extraordinary personal life story can provide a lens through which to examine larger colonial and exilic contexts. As well as examine the possibilities and constraints of a new form of historical biography.

Lorraine Paterson is a cultural historian whose work focuses on the lives of exiles from Indochina, and their cultural production throughout the wider French empire. She has a Ph.D. in History from Yale University and an M.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University. Her forthcoming book, Exiles from Indochina in the Transcolonial World (Oxford University Press) will examine political exiles from French Indochina in various global geographic contexts throughout the French empire. She has also written various articles on Southeast Asian history including, a chapter, “Prisoners from Indochina in the Nineteenth Century French Colonial World,” in a forthcoming volume Exile in Colonial Asia: Kings, Convicts, Commemoration edited by Ronit Ricci and published by University of Hawaii Press.

She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing completing the biography of the Vietnamese political prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Cẩm.

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