Both colonies and insane asylums are well known institutions of power. But what of asylums in Europe’s early 20th-century colonial empires? How did they operate? Who was confined in them? Who worked there? What was daily life like in such an institution? How did Western medical experts and the colonized population understand mental illness and its treatment? How did colonial racism impact mental illness? In this episode we chat with Claire Edington
, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, about her new book of Beyond the Asylum: Mental Illness in French Colonial Vietnam
(Cornell University Press, 2019).
Beyond the Asylum
draws from extensive archival research in Vietnam and France. A gifted writer, Edington is particularly good at presenting the life stories of patients, doctors, and workers drawn into French Indochina’s mental health system. She also looks at the families of patients and the Vietnamese language popular press, as they tried to make sense of troubling issues around mental health, including how the French colonizers understood and treated psychological afflictions. More than a history of the asylum as an institution, Edington uses mental health care facilities as a prism to explore crucial transformations of Vietnamese society in the era of high imperialism. This wide-ranging conversation will be of interest to listeners interested in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, imperialism, French history, and the study and treatment of mental illness. The book is an excellent complement to the increasingly rich historiography of colonial Vietnam.
Michael G. Vann is a professor of world history at California State University, Sacramento. A specialist in imperialism and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he is the author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empires, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford, 2018). When he’s not reading or talking about new books with smart people, Mike can be found surfing in Santa Cruz, California.