Born in Bình Định province of central Vietnam in 1910, Pham Van Ky was a bilingual Vietnamese-Francophone writer who published an array of poems and stories in his home country of Vietnam but also flourished as a novelist when he moved to Paris for studies at the Sorbonne (cut short by World War II). From a family of twelve other siblings, he was sent to study at a French school in Hanoi at the young age of thirteen. During this time, many placed their hopes in young intellectuals like Pham Van Ky to one day lead Vietnam to independence and bring about a new era of prosperity. At this school, he quickly developed a mastery of the French language in which he later wrote numerous works of literature and poetry. His first large-scale recognition was at the age of twenty when he won first place at the Indochina Floral Games for his French poem “Investiture.” By his mid 20’s, he was already the editor in chief of two prominent literary magazines, one in Saigon and the other in Huê.
In 1938, Ky left Vietnam to live in Paris where he attended the Université de la Sorbonne to study literature and he even pursued a thesis in religious studies at a Chinese university in Paris before ultimately halting this due to the onset of the war and the death of his advisor. He had to become a private French teacher to make ends meet all the while continuing to compose novels and poems which were sometimes published in local media outlets. His works were not only confined to novels and poetry though, as a few years after leaving Vietnam, he began writing works for theater as well.
His only return to Vietnam was in 1970, over thirty years after he left, and this trip home resulted in him writing an essay in Paris upon his return where he emphasized concerns about the structures of the socialist society he had seen in Vietnam and how things had drastically changed since he left. From this point onwards, he no longer published many of his works which had since shifted focus to cultural and political ideology. His inability to publish after this date was likely in part due to this change of focus and the uneasiness that the Parisian press felt regarding the new subjects presented in his writing. He would continue writing smaller pieces and essays from this point until his death in the Paris suburbs in 1992.
Overall, his works capture the notion of duality and the schism between “oriental” and “occidental” cultures. This is understandable given his own duality as both Vietnamese and French. One of the goals of his work was to show European readers that despite surface level differences in cultures and practices, humans are confronted with many of the same problems. His works also emphasize nostalgia for the homeland and call into question the concept and repercussions of colonialism.