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Response to Review of Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina

I wish to thank Michael Vann for his careful reading of my book. I am delighted that Vann saw Imperial Heights illustrating the many paradoxes of French colonialism in Southeast Asia, which was very much my objective. I am also pleased to see that to Vann, at least, my multi-angled approach, wrapped in a microhistory, seems to have born fruit.

I have relatively little to add here, except perhaps for a few quibbles. Vann writes: ‘Jennings notes that Dalat’s medical function may be reconsidered as a pretext to create a site of white privilege and pampering’. I feel that I do not actually answer the ‘pretext question’ so much as pose it (pp. 56–7). In many ways, the sources lead me to wonder whether Dalat constituted more of a shorthand for colonial fears and dreams of domination, an internalization, in other words, rather than a pretext per se. But the question needs to be posed, especially in light of the endurance of the myth of altitude at Dalat, a myth that flew in the face of scientific evidence at the time.

Vann is correct to point out that the chapter on highland minorities could have benefitted from an engagement with James C. Scott’s most recent book, The Art of Not Being Governed. My answer here is rather prosaic: James Scott’s latest book had not yet been published when I submitted the final copy of my manuscript to press. That said, I had read some of Scott’s material in article form. In Imperial Heights I therefore do contend, on p. 104 that Scott’s vision of Zomia as somehow beyond state control could be tempered by the case of Dalat. Indeed, at Dalat, French colonial power sought, with varying degrees of success, to drive a series of strategic wedges in the very heart of a minority zone.

I don’t entirely agree with the notion that gender is partially ghettoized in Imperial Heights. To give two examples, gender is used as a major category of analysis in the sections on hunting and on Vietnamese Dalat. To be sure, my multi-layered approach leads to the creation of a single chapter dealing with European women, children, and métis, which no doubt contributed to the sense of marginalization Vann detects. But this marginalization is actually reversed in my text, since I argue that Dalat emerged by the 1920s at least partially as a white, female enclave.

Lastly, I concur with Vann that the French schemes to make Dalat a federal capital of Indochina, and subsequently to cast the region as Bao Dai’s bastion, came too little, too late. Nevertheless, these various visions, I suggest on p. 241 of Imperial Heights, are noteworthy precisely because of their international relevance. There I write: ‘The French strategy of creating a Bao Dai state, of carving off minority zones from the rest of Vietnam, and of isolating the DRV, in many ways prefigured another elaborate partitioning, attempted by the French side during negotiations with the FLN (the Algerian Front de Libération nationale in the late 1950s and early 1960s)’.

In sum, I am pleased that Michael Vann sees my book as a window onto a host of different thématiques and disciplines. That was my hope when I set about crafting a portrait of this Southern Vietnamese city, from its inception to the present day.