Matthew Greene: Banana Children – Racialized Belonging among Vietnamese-Czechs

Since 1945, the Vietnamese have been a growing presence in the Czech Republic, at present the largest non-European minority in the country.  Arriving first as refugees, then as students, interns, and workers, and currently as immigrants, the Vietnamese have been a source both of curiosity and concern for ethnic Czechs.  Considered a model minority but also a challenge (and therefore a danger) to the ethnic Czech identity, the Vietnamese, particularly the children and subsequent generations of Vietnamese immigrants, find themselves disconnected from the imagined Vietnamese homeland, but simultaneously rejected by Czech society, unable to claim their Czechness.  In my paper, I analyze the historical development of the Czech national identity from the twilight of the Habsburg Empire to the present, founded upon the understanding of the Czech language as the core of that very identity.  I also address the racialization of that same Czech identity in interwar Czechoslovakia, the ramifications of which prove crucial to understandings of the Vietnamese-Czech population today.  From there, I present an overview of Vietnamese migration to the Czech Republic, acknowledging the rampant biases and racism extant in Czech academic discourse on the Vietnamese, despite the paucity of current studies.  With this as a basis, I then turn to the core of my argument, Duong Nguyen Jirásková’s Banánové dítě, Banana Child, from 2017.  In this collection of short stories—the first work ever in Czech published by a Vietnamese-Czech author—Jirásková details her life caught between Czech and Vietnamese identities, ultimately embracing but also rejecting both in favor of a third, that of the banana child, a reclaimed racial slur.  Along with creating a space for the Vietnamese-Czechs that incorporates but is neither Vietnamese nor Czech, I argue that Jirásková’s work reflects on the very nature of writing as a Kafka-esque torment, and in so doing delves into deeper contemplations of language, namely the power of words and of writing, and questions of who may lay claim to a language as their own.

Matthew Greene is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic. His work investigates multilingualism and linguistic nationalism in the Czech lands, more specifically the power structures of language hierarchies and the ramifications thereof in society and culture. He unites literature, linguistics, and history to examine the ways in which governmental linguistic policies impact society, especially minority groups. In this vein, his work examines both the Jewish population of the Czech lands, particularly prior to World War II, as well as the growing Vietnamese population at present, arguing that these two groups are intrinsically interconnected in a process of racial and racialized Othering. He holds an MA in German Studies from UW-Madison, an MA in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth College, and a BA in European Studies from the University of Vermont.

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