By Caitlin Clay
When Elizabeth Collins took her first undergraduate course in French literature, she was fascinated by France’s extensive colonial legacy. She began researching literary works by French writers of North African origin and focused on reading texts that represented the perspectives of those living on the so called “periphery” of metropolitan France. When she discovered an album of Indochina-era photographs in the special collections of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, her interest in French influences on Vietnamese culture began to take shape.
The photographs, taken by a French naval pilot and amateur photographer, portrayed Vietnamese women fearlessly returning the colonizer’s gaze. Impressed by their bold expressions, so contrary to the familiar portrayals of women as submissive in Asian literature, Collins began to delve more deeply into the subject. After taking a few Vietnamese language courses, she visited Vietnam thanks to two consecutive Foreign Language and Area Studies summer fellowships, in 2014 and 2015. Her experiences there had a profound impact, and she began investigating France’s colonial legacy in Vietnamese culture.
While living in Ho Chi Minh City, where street food vendors are plentiful and propaganda posters feature women harvesting the fields, Collins learned “how the symbolic importance of food pervades not only everyday life, but also political discourse, folklore, and literature written in Vietnamese as well as in French,” she recalled.
Currently a third-year doctoral student in French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Collins was awarded the 2016 Walter J. Jensen Fellowship to continue research for her dissertation, “Culinary Expressions in Contemporary Francophone Vietnamese Women’s Literature.” The Walter J. Jensen Fellowship is awarded for at least six continuous months of study in France. The purpose of the award is to help educators and researchers improve education in standard French language, literature, and culture and in the study of standard French in the United States.
Her dissertation explores how food is a language of self-expression for women immigrants in novels written by Francophone authors of Vietnamese origin, and she argues that through references to cooking and eating in these texts, “female characters express themselves, deal with trauma, challenge authority and colonial power dynamics, and effect change.” Her research focuses on contemporary novels written in French, most notably those by Minh Tran Huy, Linda Lê, Anna Moï, and Kim Thúy.
Collins is excited about the academic opportunities that will be available to her in France. She plans to attend classes and conferences, as well as analyze important texts that she cannot access from the United States. In addition to furthering work on her dissertation, she will use her research to create a college-level or advanced-level secondary school syllabus for a French course in Francophone identity through gastronomy. Collins believes her research will provide “fresh insights on issues of food in postcolonial contexts” and allow Vietnam to be better represented within the greater field of Francophone postcolonial literary studies.
Caitlin Clay is a senior at the University of Dallas majoring in Art History. She is most interested in studying and researching Modern and Contemporary Art. The University of Dallas is home to the Eta of Texas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.