Department of French Doctoral Candidate Alan Yeh Selected as 2023 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellow

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May 4, 2023

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) has announced its inaugural cohort of 2023 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellows, funded by the Mellon Foundation. Alan Yeh, UC Berkeley doctoral candidate in the Department of French, is one of the 45 fellowship recipients. 

The fellowship aims to aid humanities and social sciences doctoral students with projects that challenge traditional doctoral education structures. Selected from almost 700 applicants, the first cohort’s fellows will each receive a $50,000 award to go toward their respective dissertation projects. 

An alumnus of Hamilton College—where he received his B.A. in French and Francophone studies—Yeh then received his M.A. from UC Berkeley in French in 2021. Now a doctoral candidate, his research and teaching interests lie in 20th- and 21st-century French and Francophone literature and culture; the Vietnamese diaspora, transnationalism and migration narratives; critical refugee studies, human rights education; and food and foodways. 

“One of my main goals in pursuing a doctorate has always been to promote research in understudied fields, namely scholarship on Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora in French Studies. I have been fortunate enough to be able to dedicate a significant amount of my time at Berkeley to that,” Yeh said. 

Yeh’s project, “Con ăn cơm chưa? Refugee Lessons on Feeding and Care in the Vietnamese Diaspora” employs diasporic Vietnamese literature; archives in the United States and France; and community oral histories to construct an archive of care that foregrounds refugee experiences and epistemologies. The pronoun “con” in “con ăn cơm chưa?”, which roughly translates to “have you eaten yet?”, Yeh explained, refers to a child, a term his grandmother often uses with him. 

“My project is inspired first and foremost by a deeply personal relationship to food and feeding,” Yeh said. “[‘Have you eaten yet?’] is a question that the children of immigrants and refugees know all too well. Particularly in Asian families, love and care are typically not expressed in words, but actions. This has been especially characteristic of my experience because I came into Vietnamese quite late, only beginning to study it formally with [Vietnamese lecturer] Hanh Tran here at Berkeley.”

He elaborated that his project aims to examine refugee communities and the politics of care that emerge among them. As “the Vietnamese have had to maintain a sense of home and community in creative ways,” his project aims to reexamine the kitchen as an “analytic site for constructing an archive of care,” Yeh explained. 

“Through generations of displacement as a result of colonialism and war, the Vietnamese have had to maintain a sense of home and community in creative ways,” Yeh said in the email. “Cooking for and bringing food to loved ones signify hope, remembrance, and preservation. Feeding is also healing: it sustains life and remedies the pain of loss and nostalgia for an idea of a home to which one cannot return. For refugees and their families, like my family, who came to the US from Vietnam in 1975 after the Fall of Saigon, feeding is such a primordial act of care. Feeding is a way to not only literally take care of others (since food is essential to survival), but also communicate care when all else fails.”

To construct this “archive of care,” Yeh’s project will draw from his own personal experiences, and in particular, critical refugee studies; through this lens, Yeh seeks to challenge the traditional conceptions of archives, which he explains historically exploited refugees’ stories and experiences.

Yeh’s dissertation advisor, associate professor of French and Comparative Literature and Division of Arts & Humanities Assistant Dean Karl Ashoka Britto, discussed his experience mentoring students to help them articulate their projects to a scholarly audience while allowing them freedom and flexibility to explore their ideas.

“I believe that [Yeh’s] application was successful in part because he worked hard to frame his project in a way that was engaged with ongoing scholarly conversations while at the same time pushing against certain boundaries that have historically restricted those conversations,” Britto said in the email. 

Having received guidance from Britto—and both having served as Francophone Studies Working Group Coordinators in the Townsend Center for Humanities—Yeh discussed his experience with advisors and campus faculty throughout the fellowship application process. He noted Britto’s mentorship and feedback “which helped [him] approach [his] ideas and methodology in new and exciting ways,” in addition to other members of the Department of French and UC Berkeley community, including Debarati Sanyal, Susan Maslan, William M. Burton and Khatharya Um. Yeh noted that their “guidance as well as scholarship on migration, borders, literary history, human rights, and citizenship have been invaluable to [his] research and growth as a young scholar.” 

Yeh also discussed his plans for the upcoming year as part of the 2023 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowship’s inaugural cohort. 

“During my fellowship year, I intend to partner with local community organizations in the Bay Area that serve refugee, BIPOC, and immigrant communities to collaboratively curate a public-facing oral history archive of experiences related to food, feeding, and care,” Yeh explained. “I will also conduct archival research in the US and France, specifically attentive to how a refugee politics of care can be read in these archival materials.” 

Of the $50,000 fellowship award, there is: a $40,000 stipend for the fellowship year; $8,000 for project-related research, training, professional development and travel expenses; and a $2,000 stipend to support external mentorship and advising, according to the ACLS press release. 

Ultimately, Yeh aims to utilize his project and position as a fellow to create new pathways for research and to reexamine an archive of care that aids, rather than co-opts, refugee experiences.  

“My project’s historical overview of displacement resulting from colonialism and its legacies is not unique to the Vietnamese diaspora. Through this project, I hope to highlight the interconnected histories that have resulted in the continuous production of refugee populations, an increasingly urgent global phenomenon that demands attention and care both in and outside the academy,” Yeh said. “I believe that pushing literary studies in this direction will more deeply ground the humanities in the realities of modern human experience and reshape the academy into a more caring space. Radical care is especially important at a time when so many lives and communities are threatened by far-right politics, climate crisis, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and the disastrous effects of late capitalism.”