Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Interview with Vien Dong Daily News

Anvi Hoàng of Viet Dong Daily News interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen; originally published in Vietnamese in print and online on (part one, part two).


PART 1: Some deal with it in a tangential way

Viet speaking 2 (1)
Anvi Hoàng: In your book, Race and Resistance, you said that “criticism of Asian American literature reflects the relationship of Asian American intellectuals to Asian America.” What did you mean by that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When we talk about the term “Asian America” we’re talking about two things: a whole group of people who live in the United States who are Asian descents, and that’s about 5% of the population right now – that’s many millions of people. It also refers to a group of people who identify or call themselves Asian American. That is a different population because not all the people who are called by this term would think of themselves as Asian American.

Those who call themselves Asian American already had a change in their consciousness. They see themselves differently oftentimes than people who just came to the United States who would probably think of themselves as Vietnamese, for example, rather than Asian American. That change of consciousness is very crucial because what it means is that people who call themselves Asian Americans are more likely to subscribe to a certain cultural and political viewpoint about what it means to be Asian in the United States – oftentimes that’s a fairly liberal set of political perspectives that are rooted in the idea that Asian Americans have been historically discriminated against in the United States because of race, and that they should ally themselves with each other in order to mobilize themselves politically and culturally to overlook or ignore or reconcile national differences that might have been more important to immigrants or to people who are in Asia. So it is a very different kind of self-conscious population that calls themselves Asian American.

In the book, I talk about how this is a powerful but somehow limiting perspective. It is powerful because it allows Asian Americans to organize themselves and to do things that we would not be able to do otherwise. On the other hand, it means that Asian American intellectuals oftentimes, when they study Asian American populations or try to organize Asian American populations, will overlook or try to excuse those kinds of behaviors or incidents that might contradict this idea of a unified, progressive Asian American coalition. The book itself deals very specifically with literature because literature is one of the most important kinds of Asian American cultural creations. Asian American critics look at literature because it records all kinds of political, cultural, and historical circles Asian Americans have gone through and tried to overcome. By doing so, Asian American critics have often read the literature very selectively. They don’t read literature that contradicts these kinds of assumptions about the need for fighting back against racism, or when they read a specific book they might overlook the contradictions that don’t fit with this Asian American point of view. And I argue that this is a viewpoint or practice that’s not only unique to Asian American literature critics but it’s shared by other Asian American intellectuals in other kinds of arenas that they may work in. That’s why it’s important to read literature because it tells us something political about Asian American intellectuals and leadership as a whole as they try to create this thing called “Asian America.”


AH: So what is loaded in the concept of “Asian America”?

VTN: The most important thing about it is that despite all the incredible diversity of Asian populations in the United States we can somehow form a politically and culturally unified coalition out of it. That is the most important load and the most problematic one because there are two loading sides of it – one is the huge diversity and the other the innate of Asian American populations. If we think about all the diversity that characterizes Asian American populations  in the United States, you can think about things like language, religion, nationality, or generations. But the thing that Asian Americans have had the most difficult time, given the most difficult kind of diversity, is political or ideological diversity. If you look at Asian American populations you can see that they’re demographically republicans or they’re conservative or liberal or radical. They could hold a variety of different political viewpoints on any number of different kinds of positions and they can oftentimes come into conflict with each other. One basic example would be Affirmative Action. For the most part, Asian American political leadership is thrilled of Affirmative Action but a lot of Asian Americans oppose it because they think it works against their own interest when it comes to things like college admission. This is one basic example of where the political leadership of Asian America which is invested in a certain kind of ideology has overlooked or mismanaged ideological differences or problems within this Asian America population.


AH: When does the term “Asian America” become insulting to some people at some point?

VTN: First of all, I think a lot of people who are classified as Asian Americans don’t accept the term. They see themselves in other ways, usually through ethnicity or nationality – they call themselves Vietnamese or Taiwanese or Chinese or whatever. That’s the term they feel comfortable with so they reject the idea that they’re Asian American. The reasons are: they may not see themselves as Asian – they see themselves as coming from a particular country in Asia but they are not Asian; and/or they don’t see themselves as American. For example my parents, they did see themselves as Vietnamese people. When I was growing up they always said, “We’re Vietnamese.” When they said “American” they meant somebody else. It is a huge accomplishment when that population finally acknowledges that they are American. For my parents, they go to Việt Nam a few times, they come back and they say, “We’re American. We just didn’t realize we’re American.” I don’t think that is unusual. It is very common across all Asian American populations that this happens to them.

The next step to being Asian American is much more difficult because they see themselves as Vietnamese American but not Asian American. I think the Asian American step is more common for second generation who are born here in the United States; or what the sociologist call the 1.5 generation – people who came here as children and grew up in the United States. Even for the first generation, people who become politically involved in the community, they realize that it is not enough oftentimes to be just a Vietnamese American. If you really want to mobilize your community resources you also have to become Asian American and tap into this coalition and this network.

I think it becomes insulting when people may feel that they don’t have a choice. For example when you fill out a census form up until recently, you have to check off “Asian American,” for example. And people might think, “That is not who I am so why am I forced to call myself in that term.” And that could be insulting, the realization that bureaucracy or the state is categorizing in certain ways that you don’t agree with. If we take the example of the census and look at it historically over the past century, we’ll see how the state has tried to negotiate with the populations that are called Asian American because the terms that’s used for them keep changing almost decade to decade. In the early part of the century, “Oriental” or “Mongolian” was the term. After a decade of political struggles it became “Asian American” in the 80s. Now you don’t just have to check off “Asian American,” you have the subcategories that you can check off that are specific to your nationality.


AH: What is the dynamics between the concepts of resistance and accommodation for the Asian American population?

VTN: For Asian American intellectuals when they look back on the past, they tended to look back and see history as being oriented around these two possibilities: resistance to the racism that’s directed against Asian immigrants and Asian Americans; or accommodation to those kinds of racist practices. That viewpoint is based on the idea that Asian Americans have to ally themselves politically in opposition to all these forces that are used to subjugate or discriminate against Asian Americans. So resistance becomes really important. As so, in this viewpoint, resistance becomes the positive side of things. It is important that we fight back against anti-Asian violence, for example, or anti-Asian immigration legislation, or anti-Asian practices of various kinds. If we don’t do that, if we just give in, or accommodate ourselves to these kinds of racist practices, that is bad, because that means that we allow ourselves to be pushed around in various ways.

Being pushed around could range from very very minor things to important terrible things. Historically, if we look at the Chinese when they first came to the United States, they were discriminated against in various laws. They were not allowed to testify in legal cases because they were not citizens, even in cases where they were the victims. This gave Chinese immigrants the choice of whether they were going to fight back or whether they should be quiet and give in. The whole idea of the Asian American coalition is that it is important to organize ourselves to push back against discrimination, and it is important for us to look back into history and to see those incidents or examples where Asians in the United States say exactly that. Asian American history has been focused, up until recently, for the most part, in looking for history of Asian American resistance to discrimination, which means that all those other incidents in Asian American lives that didn’t fit into that don’t get studied. That’s the self-fulfilling way of looking back into the past.


AH: When American critics look at Asian American literature, what did they overlook and still do?

VTN: If by American critics you mean those who are not Asian American, for the most part, they were  ignoring it. So the first thing to say is that the Asian American movement has been very beneficial since the 1960s. It led to the moment where it is not only Asian Americans who are concerned about Asian Americans but other populations are concerned about Asian Americans as well. For example we just talked about literature, no one cared about what Asian Americans were writing. There was no Asian American literature before Asian American movement happened in the 1960s and 1970s. Then Asian American critics started to investigate and covered all the examples of Asian American writing in English since the late 19th century. They dealt with the idea that there was no Asian American signature literature. And then more and more Asian Americans started to write. There were a handful of Asian American writings that were published in English in the 1970s, more in the 1980s, a lot more in the 1990s. And today you have literally dozens of Asian American writings being published every year, whereas in the 60s or 70s you’re lucky to get a dozen published in a decade. There has been a radical transformation that has become the Asian American movement. It is becoming of the Asian American demographics – more and more Asian Americans have gone to college and have gone on to writing programs and have had this chance. The impact has been that now, yes, people who are not Asian American read Asian American books and write about Asian American literature.

If we talk about what happened in the 1990s until now when Asian American literature started to get more and more popular, what you see is that publishers and readers tend to look for certain kinds of Asian American stories. The most famous Asian American writers are people like Amy Tan who wrote Joy Luck Club. That’s one of the books that they think about when they think about Asian American literature. That means that subsequent to her, if you are a young Asian American writer trying to break into the market, you know that readers are looking for certain stories and you may attempt to write this kind of stories in order for you to get published. In general, what it means for Asian Americans is that stories about mother and daughter and their conflicts are popular; or stories about how horrible it was in Asia or whatever country that is, and how much better life is in the United States; or stories about how difficult immigrant life is; or stories about how horrible Asian men or Asian fathers are. These kinds of stories are very popular and very marketable, which means that people who are not Asian American, that is what they’re looking for, and they are overlooking all the other stories that Asian Americans are undergoing. Most specifically to your audience, if you are Vietnamese, then the pre-marketation for American readership is the Vietnam War. That means Americans expected, or you’d be more marketable if your story was about the Vietnam War in some way. Most Vietnamese American writers who got published want to, or find themselves having to, write stories about Vietnam – either the Vietnam War, or about life in Việt Nam, or about life of the Vietnamese refugees here in the United States. Those are three common kinds of stories that Vietnamese writers have been producing. Again, it is hard to tell whether because they want to or have to – because that is what American readers want to read.


AH: Can Vietnamese/Asian Americans do something to create new trends?

VTN: Yes, definitely. That is partially why, if we talk about this in the context of Asian America, Asian America has been very important to Vietnamese Americans whether they know it or not. When Vietnamese people started coming to the United States in large numbers in the 1970s, they stayed in a very different kind of United States than Asian Americans faced in the 1930s, 1940s or 50s because in between the Asian American movement and the Civil Rights movement happened in the 1960s and the 1970s. That meant that by the time the Vietnamese refugees started to come, they came to a suddenly more welcoming environment. There was not a whole lot of anti-Vietnamese discrimination or  anti-Vietnamese feelings. There is also a cultural setting where there were more possibilities for Vietnamese refugees that wouldn’t have existed a couple of decades before. So the Vietnamese American community forms and then they start to recognize that other Americans don’t understand or don’t recognize them. Then Vietnamese Americans start to feel a very common feeling which is, “It is time to organize ourselves and tell our stories because if we don’t other people will tell our stories for us, or ignore us” – the same pattern that other Asian immigrant groups have experienced before. When Vietnamese Americans start to feel this, they are not alone. They can look out there and they see that other Asian American populations have already started telling their own stories. So a model exists for Vietnamese Americans. What we start to see is Vietnamese Americans starting to tell their own stories. They do so first through Vietnamese language media – the newspapers, things like Paris By Night, even literature in Vietnamese but in the United States, and all things start to happen.

As the younger generation grow, get educated, go to college, they start to produce materials in English. That’s when you start to see in the 1990s and now more and more. There are different kinds of stories that are told in Vietnamese language media vs. English media by Vietnamese Americans, but they are both important because they are trying to move away from the trend of how Vietnamese stories have been told by Americans. These are very crucial moves by young Vietnamese American film makers, writers and so on. Their stories, unlike in Vietnamese media, are able to reach English speaking/reading Americans in a way that Vietnamese language media just can’t do.

Also, it is important to say that the kind of world now that Vietnamese Americans stay is different than the world that other Asian Americans stayed four decades ago. Now we live in a globalized age, transnational age. If you were Asian Americans back in the 1960s and the 1970s, it was important to tell stories set in the United States saying that Asian Americans were American because back then Americans saw Asian Americans as totally foreign, so Asian Americans had to say, “No, we’re American.” Today it’s very different. In this globalization, Americans still tend to see Asian Americans as foreign but they are also more receptive to foreign influences because of transnationalism and globalization. For example, Asian culture is increasingly more visible and important in the United States both in terms of material goods such as cars or appliances, but also in terms of popular culture like films and amines. It means that Asian Americans find themselves in a situation where they don’t only have to say, “We’re Americans” or “We’re Vietnamese Americans” which some of them do. Other Vietnamese Americans are saying, “No, we can do things bilingually, both in Vietnamese and in English.” So we have Vietnamese rap music in Vietnamese and English, Vietnamese films in Vietnamese and English. Or Vietnamese American filmmakers who say, “More opportunities exist in Việt Nam for us than they do here. We’re going back to Việt Nam and we’re going to write our films and shoot our films in Việt Nam with the mix of Vietnamese actors and Vietnamese American actors, with the mix of Vietnamese and American capitals. We produce films that are set in Việt Nam but are filmed in both Việt Nam and the United States.” A lot of what they do there has nothing to do with the war or communism. They are about love and music and dancing and martial arts and things like that. That is a very important way that this new generation of Vietnamese Americans, born here and grew up here, is doing something totally different than what other Asian Americans have done, totally different than what Americans think about Việt Nam, and totally different than what Vietnamese parents think.


AH: In all these new changes, could you define or describe the Vietnamese diasporic cultural identity in the United States?

VTN: One, it is a very diverse one. So any attempt to define it will tend to overlook some of the nuances. I would say that to define the Vietnamese diasporic cultural identity we have to talk about how it shares certain commonalities, but also is layered by differences. The commonality is that it shares a certain historical origins that those Vietnamese here in the United States came as a result of the war, either directly or indirectly. They came as refugees, or children of the refugees; or they came through various kinds of war-related immigration programs in the 1980s and 1990s, or any other programs that bring people here; or now they’re coming as immigrants who are sponsored by their relatives, or who come because they don’t want to live in Việt Nam, or who come as foreign students and who decide to stay. All of that is ripple effects from the history of the war, and that is why Vietnamese still come here because they have an intimate relationship with the United States through the history between the United States and Việt Nam. That is the backbone of what defines Vietnamese cultural identity in the United States. This does not mean everybody is talking about that or dealing with that, it is just the framework by which we understand all the differences that we begin to talk about, most important are the differences in generations – whether we talk about the first, second, or the third generation by now; or whether we talk about the differences in terms of experiences by the way people came here to the United States as refugees, as immigrants, or as foreign students – these are different points of views.

For my point of view, for a long time, the Vietnam War and the issue of communist politics did define the Vietnamese diasporic cultural identity. I don’t think it is that strong any more, but from the 70s through the 90s it was the dominant way to talk about diasporic cultural identity throughout the country where we found Vietnamese population. Nowadays, I think it is uneven. In some parts of the country it is still true that it is the case – it is true of places like Orange County, or Santa Clara County, maybe in some other pockets. But it is uneven now because Vietnamese people are more and more disperse across the country. The further Vietnamese people get away from Vietnamese communities or the ethnic enclaves like in California, the more flexibility you see in terms of their attitude towards what might define a diasporic cultural identity, the more individual their relationship becomes to Vietnamese identity or Vietnamese diasporic cultural identity. In literature, for example, certain writers write pretty much about the war or refugee experience; and some who, like Monique Truong, don’t deal with that at all or deal with it in a tangential way – Việt Nam is still important but not Việt Nam as defined by communism and war.


AH: Are you happy with the way Vietnamese communities are moving ahead?

VTN: I think for the most part Vietnamese American communities are moving ahead. There are Vietnamese Americans who separate themselves from the community, or at least from their family, and they go off and do individual things. I think that’s great because it means that Vietnamese Americans aren’t defined purely by their ethnicity or by the history of the war, and they go off and do remarkable things. Then there are Vietnamese Americans who stay within their ethnic enclaves and they shift the ethnic enclaves in particular ways. So there are Little Sài Gòns everywhere. Even though they’re called Little Sài Gòn they are not like Sài Gòn at all. They are very much American ethnic enclaves and they represent a very successful effort by Vietnamese people who speak literally and territorially in the United States for themselves. It is a very powerful and symbolic thing that these communities exist.

And while you could argue that some Vietnamese are living in the past or stuck in the past because their lives are defined purely by the war or by whatever happened back then, you can also argue that it is an important memory for certain groups of people to keep alive because if they didn’t do it, no one else would. The United States doesn’t care about what happened in South Việt Nam or about South Việt Nam as a country, Vietnamese government basically don’t care and erase South Việt Nam from the memory. Therefore I think one of the most important reasons for the Vietnamese American community to exist is precisely to keep alive this memory of this country. I have conflicted feelings about it myself because it can be a very negative thing, because anti-communism in the Vietnamese American community can be very repressive. But at the same time one thing it does do is to keep alive the memories of this country that is a rebuke to communist Việt Nam. It serves as a reminder to communist Việt Nam that there is something they still have to negotiate with – they still have to appease the diasporic community. That means that the Vietnamese diasporic community has some power, some leverage in terms of negotiating with Việt Nam. And I think that is a powerful thing in terms of the political, cultural, economic influences Vietnamese Americans can insert on Việt Nam.



PART 2: I really questioned that impulse


Anvi Hoàng: How has the narrative of the Vietnam War in the United States changed over time?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The way Americans remember the Vietnam War has changed a lot. In the 1980s, the Vietnam War was a horrible thing that happened to Americans and that America needed to get over the division and the wounds that they experienced. All the movies from that time period were about being the catharsis for Americans that allowed them to confront their version of the past. What changed since then is that Americans have basically retold the stories of that war – from the dominant version of the war as a horrible thing that happened to Americans and what Americans did to the Vietnamese, to now when it is remembered more as a misguided war, but American soldiers were simply doing what they were told to do, and we should honor and respect them. That allowed Americans to avoid dealing with other issues that were much more prominent from the 1960s through the 1980s which is that maybe Americans soldiers were not following orders but they were doing evil and horrible things. That part of history has been submerged beneath other narratives that honored and respected American soldiers. And that went hand in hand with the fact that by the 1990s the United States has been gradually rebuilding relationship with Việt Nam. So Việt Nam, instead of only being remembered as the horrible war-torn country, is now more and more seen as a tourist destination, a wonderful place to visit, but also a place where the United States has economic, political and military opportunities. Now Việt Nam is seen as the potential partner for U.S. efforts to contain China. That is another major way by which the American narrative about Việt Nam has totally changed – that with the rise of China and with the gradual forgetting of the American experience in the war, Việt Nam has become a place not so threatening.


AH: How about the narrative among Vietnamese American writers?

VTN: There have been changes as well. What was published in the 1970s and 1980s in English were all memoirs about Vietnamese who were adults during the war. They talked about how terrible the war was and how conflicted the country was and how difficult being a refugee was in the United States, and how Việt Nam was a place you could not go back to. But the same narrative of returning to Việt Nam, and seeing what the country is actually like, and revising memory of the country, as Americans have undergone, has also happened for Vietnamese Americans too. It began with the writer like Le Ly Hayslip, who a lot of Vietnamese don’t like, who went back to Vietnam and said, “Look, it’s not as terrible as you think it is, look at how much the Vietnamese people have suffered, and what they’re trying to deal with.” She did that in the early 1990s. Now all the younger Vietnamese American writers who are coming up, many of them go to Việt Nam and write about the changed landscape of the country, precisely from the viewpoint that, “Our parents remember the country in a certain way but we need to go back and we need to look at what it is like for us, and tell our own version of this history between the United States and Việt Nam, between the first and second generations of Vietnamese Americans, and also between Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese in Việt Nam.” That’s what the mutual story is about – all the changed expectations, and this need for Vietnamese with different background to converse with each other, to engage in this kind of dialogue that was not possible in the 1980s.


AH: In this context, what is the importance of homeland to the diaspora?

VTN: It is important for positive and negative reasons, differently for different generations and for people with different experiences of coming to the United States. Basically it is a negative space in a sense that it is a place where many people want to leave – for some, because the communists took over and they were forced to leave; or for some, it was a difficult place to live because of ethnicity, religion, or the lack of economic opportunities; for some, every time they go back to Việt Nam they enter into a very conflicted territory – going home is oftentimes not a pleasant experience for many Vietnamese Americans. On the other hand, even for these same people, the homeland is a positive thing because it becomes symbolic of all the things that make them Vietnamese – the language, the food, the culture, the weather, all the nostalgic memories of homeland form the basis of the diaspora. Even if Vietnamese Americans have been here for decades now, they have formed a very particular kind of diasporic community that looks nothing like Việt Nam itself. The reason for that community to exist is the idea of homeland that everybody came from or descended from. And even if they have a conflicted relationship with that homeland they still need that homeland in order to justify continuing to think of themselves as Vietnamese in the United States.


AH: How come we don’t have great war novels by Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans?

VTN: It depends on how you define war. If we talk about war the way we normally talk about as shooting and bullets and soldiers, I think we do have great war novels by writers like Dương Thu Hương or Bảo Ninh. I think their works do mean a lot to readers both in Vietnamese and in English.

We don’t have many, I think it may have something to do with the politics of the country and what it means to write about an experience that is so important to the state and the communist party. Obviously the state and the communist party want to control the meaning of this very long, extended war that the Vietnamese fought against the outsiders and against each other. It is difficult for writers to write about this topic. When they do, oftentimes they find themselves being censored or imprisoned and so on. That is probably the major reason why we don’t see many great war novels.

Overseas, we don’t have great war novels in the conventional sense of bullets and shooting, but if we think about the war as something Vietnamese experienced differently than Americans then there is important literature about the war by Vietnamese refugees. Americans saw the war as a shooting war among the soldiers. Vietnamese people see the war as something that involves everybody – civilians, women and all people. So I’d argue that the literature by Vietnamese Americans, in English and in Vietnamese, is very much war literature because it is about how the war affected civilians and refugees – it affected everybody. That is one of the most important contributions that I think Vietnamese American literature can make, that unlike the way Americans experienced war, the way the rest of the world experienced the war involved civilians – very different.


AH: Other Asians and Latinos were affected by the Vietnam War as well. How are their stories different than the Americans?

VTN: Very different: for Americans, from my point of view, the war was a racial one. Americans came to Việt Nam and saw the Vietnamese as a racially different people. It meant two things: on one hand, it is benevolent racism in which the Americans thought they could teach the Vietnamese how to fight the war – they tried to equip the Southern army and so on. This is problematic because many scholars say this is how the South Vietnamese lost the war – by trying to fight the war in the American way. In a much more negative version of this racism, Americans saw Vietnamese as totally racially inferior. This justified the kinds of firepower that Americans unleashed on Vietnam, whether it was against North Vietnamese or Vietnamese communists, or whether against the Southern Vietnamese in the countryside – indiscriminate bombings that killed a lot of Vietnamese civilians.

Other Asians, Latinos and African Americans tended to see the war differently because they saw themselves as racially different already, as a racial minority, so when they went to Việt Nam they saw a similarity between themselves and the Vietnamese. They saw that white Americans are treating Vietnamese as a racially inferior population and they could recognize that this is similar to how, in the United States or even in the American army, white Americans treated minorities differently as well. In the writings of Asian Americans, Latinos and African Americans we see that – they say, “We’re like the Vietnamese because we are not white.”

The results are different. Latinos and African Americans could sill identify themselves as American and also a lot of them gave in to anti-Vietnamese racism. But it was not the case for Asian American soldiers, it was much more personal. Many of them recorded the fact that other American soldiers thought they were the same as Vietnamese and used the same racial epithets against Asian American soldiers. So for some Asian American soldiers the experience of being a racial minority in Việt Nam was totally irreconcilable. There were many Asians in Việt Nam. Japanese journalists were very important to recording the war. Korean soldiers in Việt Nam were the largest allied army that fought with the United States – the United States paid South Korea a huge amount of money to fly these soldiers out. There is literature produced by these Korean soldiers that applied to both Japanese and Korean soldiers – they recognized that the war was a racially charged war, and that they occupied a very  ambivalent situation as Asians who could be mistaken for Vietnamese. Their writing showed a lot more sympathy for the Vietnamese because they felt this racial tension.


AH: For people previously colonized by countries other than America, Việt Nam is one, what does Americanization mean to them?

VTN: It means a contradictory set of things. I think anyone being colonized is very resentful of being colonized. So the reaction is, “Let’s get the Americans out of here.” We’re talking about Việt Nam, Japan, Korea, the Philippines – you see anti-American movements all the time when people want the American soldiers to leave. Obviously in Việt Nam where the war is going on, the reaction is very strong. In countries like Japan, Korea, the Philippines where the wars that were fought were in the past, now all you have are American bases, the reaction is more in medias – no violence but there are civil protests against the  American presence.

At the same time, what happens with colonization or occupation is that you develop an attachment to the colonizer or occupier. You develop an attraction to the things that the colonizer or occupier represent because they represent superiority. If you look at all these countries, despite the fact that there is anti-American sentiment in all of them, there is also a deep affection for and identification with American culture. In all those countries, historically, people listen to American music, they watch American movies, they learn English, they wear American fashion. That is the ambivalence that colonization represents: there is resentment on the one hand, identification on the other. This is true of not just Americanization in Vietnamese history but the French colonization as well.


AH: How is the Vietnam War remembered in Việt Nam?

VTN: It is remembered as one episode in a much longer war. For Americans they think of the Việt Nam War as unique and discreet and very important. But in Vietnam the American war is simply a number of years out of fifty years. So the war is remembered as a much longer struggle against the French and the Japanese and then the Americans, and then simply as the American war. If you go there and visit the historical museums, that is how the war is commemorated. If you visit the many martyrs cemeteries, you’ll see the war is also commemorated as a long episode of half a century of war. The graveyards are separated into historical episodes of soldiers who died fighting the French or the Americans in particular battles. This is the most common way the war is remembered. In villages the nghĩa trang liệt sĩ (martyr’s cemetery) is in a central location that is easily seen.

What is forgotten is that this is also the war that involved people who disagreed with the revolutionary mission. So the Southern Vietnamese are regarded as puppets of foreign colonizers or the French and the Americans. The presence of any South Vietnamese as a population is erased. The older South Vietnamese National Cemetery can’t be seen from the road, there is no sign or anything like that, even though during the war there was. You have to go around asking the local where it is. The cemetery is there but completely over-grown, while the revolutionary cemeteries are well-maintained and the lawns are cut. But the time is changing. The name was changed from National Cemetery of the South Vietnamese Government to People’s Cemetery of a particular district. So they [Vietnamese government] are trying to rehabilitate the memory of the cemetery. The cemetery remains as a potential place where, in the future, you can hope that the communist party will allow some kind of official recognition of Southern Vietnamese soldiers and Southern Vietnamese government.


AH: What brought you to short stories?

VTN: In college, I wrote essays and short stories. Then I continue to write stories in graduate school and as a professor. My feeling about it has changed. Initially I started off thinking, “Vietnamese American stories aren’t being told so we have to tell stories about Vietnamese Americans.” This is a very common impulse among ethnic minorities in the United States. When I finished my short stories collection, I really questioned that impulse. I think it is important, but it is also important to ask why is it that ethnic minorities usually are expected to tell only stories about themselves, whereas other Americans can tell stories about anybody including ethnic minorities. By the end of the collection, I was writing stories that are told from the point of view of people who were not Vietnamese Americans but who are dealing with Vietnamese people or with Vietnam.


AH: Could you talk about the main characters in your stories?

VTN: The short stories collection deals with Vietnamese refugees who came over to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, and the people who interacted with them in the United States – other Americans like African Americans, Latinos and white Americans and so on. It also deals with Vietnamese Americans and other Americans who eventually would return to Việt Nam. Those two stories are typical ethnic stories of refugees coming here and struggling with what it means to be Vietnamese in America.

The stories in the middle are about people who are not Vietnamese Americans who are dealing with Vietnamese people in their lives and have a destructive sense of who they are as individuals or as Americans.

In the last few stories I deal with Americans who return to Việt Nam to confront their past. The final story is about this Vietnamese girl in Việt Nam and what happens when her half sister in the United States comes back and meets her Vietnamese father and her Vietnamese half-sister for the first time in thirty years. It’s about the disappointment that happens as a result. Many Vietnamese Americans have an idealized and romanticized notion of what Việt Nam is. They structure their life, their identity around the idea of a homeland and Vietnamese culture in a particular way. When they go back to Việt Nam, it’s not that way at all. It’s as much a crisis problem for them as the experiences of Vietnamese refugees who came to America – their crisis of Americanization. I think when a lot of Vietnamese Americans go back to Việt Nam they have a crisis of Vietnamization. There is a lot of joy coming out from that but also a lot of disappointment that defines what it means to be a Vietnamese coming back to Việt Nam for both Vietnamese Americans and the Vietnamese who meet them as well.


AH: What is the genesis of your stories?

VTN: It is a mixture of what goes on in my head and what is going on in the world. I have come to Việt Nam many times in the past ten years. Going to Việt Nam and meeting the people and seeing the country give me ideas, it gives me a sense of people’s characters, it gives me a sense of the physical nature of the country so I can describe it. What is going on in my head is equally important because I have imagined so many other things that I can’t experience. So if I have to write a story of a Vietnamese girl growing up in Việt Nam I have no idea what it is like. I have to imagine that based on what I could see from the outside, based on what I could see what a Vietnamese home looks like or what people study in school. For example part of the story is inspired by the fact that I went to this fancy restaurant on Đồng Khởi and they serve you rau muống for $5. I said to the hostess, a 20-something girl wearing áo dài, that,  “Sài Gòn is very exciting, isn’t it?” and she said, “Sài Gòn is boring.” That is really important because as a tourist you find this place exciting but for this girl it is nothing. So this incident makes its way into the final story.


AH: What is your intended audience?

VTN: There are many intended audiences. My ideal audience is Vietnamese Americans, people who I grew up with and who share some of the experiences. I hope they like the book. Beyond that, I think of the audience as American readers, and as, ideally someday, many Vietnamese readers who can read the book in English or in translation. I hope the book speaks across different audiences.



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