Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about his debut novel, The Sympathizer with Heidi Durrow on The Mixed Experience, a podcast about being culturally or racially mixed.
Listen to the podcast here or read the full transcript below.
Speaker 1: [inaudible 00:00:03]. Recorded live.
Heidi Durrow: Hi everybody. This is Heidi Durrow. I’m your host of The Mixed Experience, the only live weekly show about being racially and culturally mixed. Brought to you by a mixed chick, thinking mixed thoughts about a mixed up world. Today we have a most excellent novelist and guest to talk to you about the mixed experience in the way that he’s written about it. I can’t wait, but I also have a couple of really important announcements to make.
Heidi Durrow: So one is, there’s this project that I do that you hear about all the time I know. It’s called The Mixed Remixed Festival and it’s happening June 13th here in downtown Los Angeles at the Japanese American National Museum and it is free. It’s totally, totally free. We have panels, and workshops, and readings, and a live performance, and a free wine and beer reception and it’s all free. And it’s all about the stories of The Mixed Experience film, readings workshops.
Heidi Durrow: We’ve got Jamie Ford coming and he’s teaching a free writing workshop. He’ll also be reading at the festival. We have Matt Johnson, the author of Loving Day. He will also be reading and speaking on a panel at the festival. We have Al Madrigal of The Daily Show coming, we’re so excited. We have Dawn T QuestLove’s sister performing at the festival. It’s an amazing event.
Heidi Durrow: Go register if you haven’t, spaces are filling up, www.mixedremix.org. And then also you know you get a Costco, we just got our first national press in the Costco Connection. It’s a beautiful wonderfully written article by Hannah Medina and she just got it right. Go check it out, you can find it online as well, lool up Costco Connection and Mixed Remixed and you can find it very easily, and watch the video too. So our really great video is also posted there on that link. All right, so that’s it. Mixed Remixed Festival June 13th, it’s next week, so get ready.
Heidi Durrow: Today I am really excited to welcome on the show, a novelist who has done something that is pretty rare by the way. It’s a debut novel, he received four PrePub starred reviews. That is just unheard of guys. And the thing is the book really lives up to it, which is very, very exciting. So I want to welcome to the show, but let me tell you first about him.
Heidi Durrow: Viet Thanh Nguyen, he was born in Vietnam and raised in America. His stories have appeared in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative and The Chicago Tribune. He’s the author of the academic book, Race and Resistance. He teaches English and American studies at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. I am very pleased to welcome to the show today, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Hello.
Viet Thanh N.: Hi Heidi. Thanks for having me.
Heidi Durrow: I’m so glad you could be with us. So I told you before the show that this is kind of a free ranging conversation about you and your work and your wonderful book. But I do have to ask the traditional first question for the show. And mind you, there is no right answer, but are you ready?
Viet Thanh N.: I am ready.
Heidi Durrow: Okay. The first question is, what are you?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think right off the bat, I would say that I’m many things. If you were going to press me further, I would say that I’m an American who is from Vietnam and who is also a father. Really new important aspect of my identity now. I’m also someone who’s a writer and a scholar and a husband. All those things wrapped up at once.
Heidi Durrow: I love your answers. I think you got it right. I imagine it would be different tomorrow, probably in some part.
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think if it was another context, like if I was on the street and someone walked up to me and said, “What are you?” I don’t think I would give that kind of a response. I would probably be a little bit shocked and probably just say, “Hey, I am an American.” If it was happening somewhere here in the United States.
Heidi Durrow: Well, one of the things you didn’t say that you were, which I find interesting is you didn’t say that you are an immigrant. But you did in fact immigrate to the United States when you were four years old. Can you tell me more about how that came to be and a little bit about your family growing up in Vietnam?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, actually, I wouldn’t call myself an immigrant, I call myself a refugee. Even though apparently I no longer look like a refugee or smell like a refugee according to other refugees who have been surprised discovering this aspect of myself. But the difference between refugee and an immigrant is really important. The immigrant [inaudible] into the American dream idea that we come here to voluntarily to remake ourselves. But a refugee has no choice.
Viet Thanh N.: That’s pretty much what happened to my family, which is that we were living in Vietnam of course. And in 1975 the country fell or was liberated by the communists, depending on your point of view. And from my parents’ point of view, they were anticommunist. So they chose to flee and took me and my brother along with them and left behind our adopted sister. We came to United States as refugees in May of 1975 and were put into a military camp in Pennsylvania. From there eventually we were allowed out and allowed to live among other Americans.
Heidi Durrow: The way you tell the story now sound just kind of bullet point by bullet point. But I imagine that there were many years of feeling unsettled in that new identity of being a refugee. I read somewhere that you actually walked many, many kilometers. Kilometers I say because you we’re in Vietnam, to go to Nha Trang actually to be able to escape.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. Well, I probably didn’t walk, I was four years old, so I’m pretty sure my mother carried. My dad was actually in Saigon on business and our town was the first one to fall. Our [inaudible] was the first one to fall to the communist invasion in March. So my mother was cut off from my father and just having make this life and death decision about what to do.
Viet Thanh N.: So she decided to leave my adopted sister behind who was the oldest to take care of the family property, believing that we would come back soon, which we didn’t. But she walked with my 10 year old brother and myself to Nha Trang and yes, we caught a boat from there. And yes, I tell it as if it was a very normal experience. And in one way it is because every Vietnamese person in the United States that I know went through a similar or even worse experience than that.
Viet Thanh N.: But that doesn’t help the fact that it was very traumatic experience for everybody involved. Even for me who was four years old when we came to the United States. In order for us to leave that military camp, we had to have American sponsors to ensure that we wouldn’t be dependent on the United States government. So in the case of my family, we didn’t find one sponsor who would take all of us. We were split up. So my brother went to one family, my parents went to another sponsor, I went to another family. I was four years old.
Viet Thanh N.: To me that was very traumatic experience and it seemed like a very long time, even though it was only a couple of months. But for other people like my mother, I think, was deeply affected by that in many ways. My brother and I think that her current medical and and emotional health issues partially stem from the difficulties of being a refugee when she was well over 40 years old.
Heidi Durrow: Wow. So I have to tell you, one of the reasons I was so interested in talking to you and reading your book is that I actually had an opportunity to go to Vietnam recently, earlier this year. Then the other part of it was that I had a very dear friend when I was young who was from Vietnam, she came at age seven and she would never talk about this.
Heidi Durrow: There was always a piece of me that wanted to be able to enter the story about what Vietnam meant in history through her eyes. But it was a traumatic experience for her and she really let go of everything that she could and in fact eventually let go of the language that she used to speak. So she no longer speaks Vietnamese either. How much of the novel is you trying to finally put the Vietnamese voice into the story of what the war meant?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, first I think I understand what your friend went through. I don’t know what her personal experience was, but I think here in the United States there’s a sense that it’s very hard to communicate what happened to us as Vietnamese refugees or to our parents or to our families, to other American. Because other Americans simply wouldn’t understand this set of experiences that all of us take to be a part of our histories. It’s something that’s quite foreign to other Americans.
Viet Thanh N.: And if you grew up feeling like you were a foreigner or an alien because you are Vietnamese and a refugee, and because you knew your parents spoke this language, one response to that history and feeling of alienation is to try to suppress it, ignore it and move on and some people do that. I’ve struggled with that myself. So for me, even though I didn’t forget the language, I forgot a lot of the language and not that there was that much to forget when I was four years old, but I forgot a lot. And it’s been a difficult process to relearn the language and go back to Vietnam many times over the past decade.
Viet Thanh N.: But I certainly thought when I was writing this novel that even though thousands of books have been written about the Vietnam War, and some of them have been written by Vietnamese Americans or people in Vietnam who’ve been translated into English, that there was still an opening where something hadn’t been said that I wanted to say. So I thought that there was something original that I could still contribute to this conversation.
Viet Thanh N.: For me what that was was to write a novel that would be a direct confrontation with the Vietnam War and its history. Would tell the stories of Vietnamese refugees in the United States, but with also most crucially be critical of everyone who was involved from the South Vietnamese to the Vietnamese communists and to Americans. And I think that’s not been done.
Viet Thanh N.: Most Vietnamese refugees in the United States feel that they cannot critique or criticized America or the United States because they owe a debt of gratitude to the US. I’m the kind of person who, even though I feel some of that gratitude, I’m the kind of person who likes to bite the hand that feeds them. So I was the right person to write this novel that would not let anybody off the hook for what happened.
Heidi Durrow: You choose as your protagonist, a biracial character. Why that?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, it has something to do with the fact that I felt by the time I started writing the novel that I didn’t want to tell the Vietnamese story. I think 20 years ago when I started writing fiction, that’s what I wanted to do. But in the years that elapsed from then until now, a whole bunch of other Vietnamese American writers came out and they told the Vietnamese American experience or refugee story or some version of it. By the time I began to write this novel, I didn’t feel that need anymore.
Viet Thanh N.: More than that, what had happened was I felt that what I was interested in was not necessarily the Vietnamese refugee or Vietnamese experience. What I was interested in was the experience of being other, of being excluded, overlooked, marginalized and persecuted for being someone who didn’t fit in. And to write a book simply about Vietnamese people would address that experience for Vietnamese people, but ran the risk of simply repeating that process of exclusion by forgetting somebody else.
Viet Thanh N.: So I wanted to pick a mixed race person because I felt that a mixed race person would allow me to talk about being caught in between cultures and histories and so on. But would also allow me to foreground this idea that what was really crucial was an identity or an experience that would never fit in and that would always draw attention to this issue of needing to have sides and identities and excluding people from these positions.
Heidi Durrow: I love the idea that he is also a spy because this is kind of the life you lead as someone who is certainly ethnically ambiguous. So in my own experience, I’m half black and half Danish and I speak Danish and grew up in part in Denmark, and so have those cultural traditions. I remember I was on the plane actually coming back from Vietnam and there were a couple of young women who are Danish and they were standing up in the aisle as they were waiting to be seated on the plane. They started talking and I could tell they were just about to start talking about people.
Heidi Durrow: Danish is a very small language, I think there are five million speakers. So I tapped one of them on the arm and I said to them in Danish, “Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you, but I wanted to let you know that I speak Danish too.” And they stopped talking immediately. But it was that wonderful moment of feeling like a spy. So I was inside and yet outside and that’s the experience that we get with your character throughout the book that well, he plays both sides in fact, which was a wonderful, wonderful choice for you ultimately, I think.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, and I have similar sets of experiences to yourself. I mean, anybody who is a minority or person of color in the United States, doing the things that we do, often finds herself or himself to be the lone person of color in a situation. And you have other people saying all kinds of things about other populations thinking that you’ll be okay hearing what they have to say. Or in the case of Vietnam, I go back to Vietnam and sometimes people think I’m Korean and they’ll treat me as such and not think I’m one of them for example, and not think I understand Vietnamese too.
Viet Thanh N.: So I think that some of those ideas and also the idea that as writers we also are spies and double agents. We’re all constantly eavesdropping in absorbing stories and information in order to do something with them. So the narrative of this novel is literally a spy in a sense that he’s a communist spy in the South Vietnamese army and his mission in April 1975 is to flee with that army to the United States where his job is to report on the efforts to take back Vietnam.
Viet Thanh N.: But he’s also a writer because this book is written as his confession. Eventually by the end of the novel we discover to whom he is writing this confession and where he’s writing this confession. But, even though he’s being forced to write this, nevertheless he is a writer and he’s going through many of the same types of experiences that all writers do. So the concept of the spy really allowed me to think about what it meant to be a little spy but also a minority in a majority culture and also a writer who is relaying information that he should not be.
Heidi Durrow: This is a political novel. Americans don’t read political novels anymore. What are you doing? What are you trying to say?
Viet Thanh N.: Gosh, thanks for telling me now.
Heidi Durrow: I mean they do, obviously you’ve received one most wonderful accolades for this book, which are so well deserved. But at the same time people are touchy about this stuff. So how are you knocking them up on the side of the head and do you think they’ll wake up with this
Viet Thanh N.: It’s interesting, the reception for the novel has been mostly very positive and I thought, “I must be doing something wrong if I’m not offending people.” But I think that for me I wanted to write a political novel because I had always been interested in where writing and politics intersect. And was struggling with my entire writing life, trying to figure out how to write about history, politics and anger, all these kinds of things that are difficult to shoehorn into contemporary fiction in many ways.
Viet Thanh N.: So that was just a challenge I wanted to set for myself, and I think one way that I made it work in the novel is that I created a narrator whose many political insights come naturally from who he is. So in other words, it’s not me using someone as a mouthpiece for my political views, but creating someone we believe has a political consciousness that allows them to see these kinds of things. Biting critiques of the failures of Vietnamese communism in the South Vietnamese corruption and American power and American imperialism.
Viet Thanh N.: I think one way that the novel has been acceptable to many readers has been because, he is clearly someone who is critical of everybody. So it’s not as if he’s partisan, it’s not as if he’s assuming one side in this political debate. But his experiences and his personality allow him to see the downfalls, the weaknesses of all the sides that he inhabits.
Heidi Durrow: You mentioned anger, which was definitely a piece of the book and it was palpable to me and I wondered if that was the starting off point for you in the writing of it. For my own book that I wrote, I couldn’t have named it as I was writing it, but it was really about grief that I was writing. Would you say that you were writing from that anger?
Viet Thanh N.: I think definitely. I’ve been angry in the last 20 years in varying degrees of intensity. Mostly it’s like a low intensity, but certainly there’s potential that, you have to [inaudible] live with it I think. But there’s certainly the sense on my part that, for someone like myself who is Vietnamese American or Asian American, American culture, American people don’t expect us to be angry. We’re supposed to be the grateful refugee or the model minority. And our place in American culture is to affirm for Americans how wonderful the United States is.
Viet Thanh N.: That’s why a lot of Asian American literature and Vietnamese American literature avoids anger or at least avoids anger at Americans. When you find anger, it’s usually directed at Asia or the Asian patriarch with Asian male or something like that. And that lets America off the hook. So with this novel, I really wanted to tap into that anger because again, this is something where I felt I had something to contribute where again, Vietnamese writers are not expected to be angry.
Viet Thanh N.: It was something that I think that a surprisingly many American readers are willing to accept because this is one incident, this one War in which I think a lot of Americans that during that time period in it afterwards, do think America did something wrong and there’s something to be angry about and a lot of Americans are apparently still angry about this War. So at least in this one case, the anger that I felt and that I transmitted in the novel has been acceptable to a lot of people.
Heidi Durrow: Well, it definitely was for me having just visited Vietnam and we traveled throughout, we were in Ho Chi Minh city and Nha Trang, and Da Nang, and Hue, and I just was constantly reminded, “Wow, why did we try to decimate this country?” Think about all the people who were so traumatized by the senseless war that led to nothing at all.
Heidi Durrow: I’m sorry, I’m just about to go on and on about it. But it was just very frustrating to be there and just see how it was such a beautiful landscape and I so enjoyed my time there that I became angrier also while I was there as well. You mentioned that you are a father. How much of this story do you pass on to your child or your children?
Viet Thanh N.: Well that’s an interesting question. He’s only two years old, but this morning, when he saw me… He wakes up first, I went out, he saw me, he ran hug me and then he ran to my bookshelf, grabbed my book and said, “Dadas book.” And brought it to me.
Heidi Durrow: Oh my God.
Viet Thanh N.: He definitely knows I have a book, he knows it’s mine. A picture from the back, he knows it’s me and then there’s a picture of a guy on the cover of the book it’s not me, but he points at it and says, “Dada.” So I think we’re all primed for a conversation later in life about this book. It’s there on the bookshelf, it’ll be haunting him. I don’t know what he’s going to think if he ever actually reads it.
Viet Thanh N.: But I think that it’ll just be one opportunity for us to have a conversation about how he came to be. That he wouldn’t be here if this War hadn’t existed, if this War hadn’t affected his grandparents and his parents. So he needs to know something about this history. But also probably about something about who his father is and why his father was the kind of guy who would write this book.
Heidi Durrow: You are a scholar by training. You’ve written many short stories that have been published, but this is your first novel. Is it your last? I hope not.
Viet Thanh N.: No, I hope not either. I’m not going to give anything away I think by saying that there’s going to be a sequel to this book. And that’s people live, that they continue on. Which I didn’t know when I started about writing a novel, I didn’t really think of it as more than one book. But by the time I got to the end, I realized that there was so much more that what’s going to happen to these characters and that the characters weren’t done with me and I wasn’t done with them.
Heidi Durrow: Oh, that’s exciting. That’s good to know. Do you have a timeline on that for us now? No pressure.
Viet Thanh N.: When I’m going to write it, or when the book is done?
Heidi Durrow: When it’s going to be done.
Viet Thanh N.: Oh, when it’s going to be done. I don’t know. I think I wrote the first sentence last week, so it’ll probably be hopefully just a couple more years before I can send my agent a manuscript.
Heidi Durrow: That sounds awesome. You have been doing a massive book tour all around the country. There’s still one more date that I know about that people can catch you in Berkeley at the Bay Area Book Festival, June 6th and June 7th. Anywhere else people can find you upcoming?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, if they’re in LA, the novelist Asali Solomon and I are going to do an event together called American dissidents at the last bookstore in downtown LA on June 17th. I think that’s a Wednesday at 7:00 PM.
Heidi Durrow: Oh, that sounds great.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. Right. Then I’ll be returning to San Francisco on June 27th Saturday, somewhere in the middle of town I think. If people check my website, that information will be up to too.
Heidi Durrow: Okay, wonderful. We have your website address on the mixedexperience.com site, so if you want to go there and also your Twitter handle. Are you much of a tweeter?
Viet Thanh N.: I’m a terrible tweeter. You must be better at than I am.
Heidi Durrow: Yeah. I’m a tweeter.
Viet Thanh N.: Oh good. I need some lessons. I did tweet something yesterday that had like six or seven retweets and 10 favorites or something. But it was about Emma Stone and the cross racial casting issue because of that new [inaudible] movies. So I guess if I tweet about something that’s topical, people are more likely to pick up on it.
Heidi Durrow: Yeah. That’s just a travesty. Right?
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah.
Heidi Durrow: But it’s going to keep on happening I think for a long time.
Viet Thanh N.: Well, yeah. She’s a hopper character, she’s mixed race. Maybe you should cover-
Heidi Durrow: Yeah. Oh, I try to go with the stories I like. That’s who I like to interview the people that I respect and the work that I admire and I so admire the sympathizers. So I thank you so much for writing it and for joining us to answer my questions today.
Viet Thanh N.: Thank you very much for having me. It was a real pleasure.
Heidi Durrow: Okay, so we will talk again soon and I hope to catch you on June 17th actually in LA. I’ll see you then.
Viet Thanh N.: Thank you Heidi.
Heidi Durrow: Okay. Bye bye.
Viet Thanh N.: Bye bye.
Heidi Durrow: So guys, seriously go get this book. It’s called The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Here’s one review, “It’s hard to believe this effort, one of the best recent novels to cover the Vietnamese conflict from an Asian perspective is a debut. This is right up there with Dennis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.” He got four starred reviews from Pre-publication and also great reviews since. My review is “Yay, it’s excellent. Go get it.” All right guys. So we’re back again next week at the regular time, 5:00 PM Eastern.
Heidi Durrow: Make sure you register for The Mixed Remix Festival at www.mixedremix.org and check out that story on Costco Connection and if you would be so kind, go on over to iTunes and write a little review, even if it’s like, “Yay, I enjoy listening to these guests that Heidi brings on. I love hearing your stories.” Yeah, something nice, that would be really cool. I also want to give a shout out to Mercy who sent me an email. Thank you so much and also thank you for your donation to the festival. My name is Heidi Durrow. This is The Mixed Experience. I’ll be back next week until then, take care.