Ben Tran

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Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question: 


Provisional sketch of essay

I’d like to use this occasion to further my thinking about a series of articles that examine conceptualizations of environment in Asian fictions and religions. These essays explore forms of fiction that bridge the disconnect between the genre of the novel and nature—what Amitav Ghosh has recently called the “great derangement.” Following Ghosh’s claims that the bourgeois novel’s rationalization of modern life fails to account for improbable environmental events, I study forms of fiction more capable of integrating the foreground of human activity with the background of nature—and this leads me to literary and religious texts and conceptualizations from a broad range and historical contexts—often going beyond the religious/secular binary.

While I am interested in the analyses of language as constitutive of geopolitical economy and connected histories, I am most concerned with the conditions that form the criteria of such an analyses—and what forms of analyses and language have been displaced due to the predominant criteria and methods.

I am thinking about an essay that would engage with recent discussions of “fiction,” shifting the debate to French colonial Vietnam, a period often understood as one of accelerated modernization and Westernization. This essay would attempt to decolonize the notion of fiction. Despite the influx of European influences, including the European novel, the notion of “fiction” underlying the modern Vietnamese novel derives from Buddhist traditions.  While it follows the lead of recent scholarship and distills “fiction” as an object of study, the article would trace an intellectual history of the Yogācāra Buddhist concept of thurification, as a way to understand fiction’s power to pervasively cover and influence society over space and time like the atmospheric pressure that envelops a heavenly body. To flesh out this claim and its implications, I will look at the connections of modern Vietnamese fiction and Buddhist tales surrounding Kuan-Yin or Avalokiteśvara—a boddhisattva whose tale and influences

spans Asia.