Viet Thanh Nguyen | 2015 National Book Festival at the Library of Congress

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses The Sympathizer and his personal experiences at the 2015 National Book Festival. 

Here is the transcript:

Announcer: From the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Ron Charles: Good morning and welcome. I’m Ron Charles, editor of Book World at the Washington Post, which is a charter sponsor of the National Book Festival. Our guest this morning is Viet Nguyen. He was born in Vietnam about fours years before the fall of Saigon. He escaped to the United States as a refugee in 1975 with his family. They had nothing, but his parents opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in San Jose, California. He eventually went to UC Berkeley and earned a PhD in English. Now he’s an award-winning professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California and the author of scholarly books and articles about race, Asian-American culture and contemporary history. If you were paying close attention you might have caught some of his short stories over the past few years.

Ron Charles: Most of us were delighted and surprised to discover him just this year when he published one of the best literary debuts of 2015, a smart, fantastically exciting novel called The Sympathizer. It’s about a Vietcong spy who tells us that his one great talent is his ability to see things from both sides. This narrator, the Captain, he’s never otherwise named, is posing as the loyal aide to a South Korean general. Long after the war ends, he’s still secretly working for the people’s cause. The novel is presented as his written and rewritten and rewritten confession, but to whom?

Ron Charles: The story offers profound reflections about the way the United States mythologizes its innocence and its military adventures. It contains a very unsettling section on the use of psychological torture, which is so relevant to our contemporary debate. Earlier this year The Sympathizer was chosen as the Washington Post book of the month for our book club on Facebook, which I hope you’ll check out after this festival. Please join me in welcoming Viet Nguyen.

Viet Nguyen: I really do want to thank you Ron Charles of the Washington Post for being such a big supporter of the book. The review in the Washington Post that he wrote I thought was not just a very positive review for me, but also a really well-written review as well. I think Washington is very fortunate to have a book reviewer who is also a stylist as well.

Viet Nguyen: For me, it’s an incredible honor to be here in Washington, D.C. at the National Book Festival to share this moment with all of you. I came as a refugee in 1975. I was born in Vietnam, but I like to say that I was made in America, for better, for worse. To come here to D.C., to be near all these important memorials and monuments of our nation’s capital and be able to read from this book and talk to you about it is incredible. Ron already told you a little bit about the novel, and I’m just going to read one scene from this novel for about five minutes, and then mostly I want to answer your questions and have a conversation with you.

Viet Nguyen: As Ron said, this is very much a political novel, a historical novel. It’s a thriller. There’s lots of violence, a smattering of sex, good doses, I think, of black humor. If you’re offended by boy squid sex this is not the book for you. Apparently some people are, if you read Goodreads you know some people really took offense at that particular scene. I’m not going to read from that. There’s many kinds of threads that are woven into the novel, so besides those issues, which are the ones I think that are most immediately interesting to American readers who remember Vietnam as being the Vietnam War, there’s other things that concern the experiences of the Vietnamese people themselves, which are much more complex than simply what the war meant for Americans.

Viet Nguyen: Being made in America, part of what that means for me is that I grew up in San Jose, California in the 1970s and 1980s in a community of Vietnamese refugees. I grew up in an environment saturated with feelings, with memories, with stories of what Vietnam was like and what everybody had lost in coming to the United States. Everybody who made it to the United States had lost family members, had lost property, had lost positions, had lost prestige, had lost piece of mind and worse. I knew growing up that to be Vietnamese in America was to be a person who could not let go of the past, and at the same time, these Vietnamese people were trying to make a community for themselves as well. They were obviously finding jobs and doing all of that, but another way that they formed community in the United States was in terms of making popular culture.

Viet Nguyen: If you know Vietnamese people, you know that we like to, in general, I’m going to generalize vastly here, we like to drink, we like to smoke, we like to talk, we like to dance, we like to sing. All those things, for many people, were crucial to survival, not just finding jobs, but finding pleasure as well. One of the things that they did was to make a song and dance review called Paris by Night, which, by now, is over 100 episodes of Paris by Night are available. Through the 1980s and 90s, and even into the 2000s, this show, shot on video and then digital and now available on DVD, was sent all over the world. Even in Vietnam people were watching this show, Paris by Night, because up until recently the production values of the Vietnamese diaspora and their entertainment industry were better than what was happening in Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen: The scene that I’m going to read for you takes place in Los Angeles. It is my illusion of Paris by Night, except here I call this club Fantasia. Our narrator, who is this communist spy, is also a man who is ridden by contradictions. Although he’s a political purist, he’s also an alcoholic, a womanizer, and as we discover, a killer. This is not an autobiographical novel in any way. He goes to this club called Fantasia, and what you’re going to see is that he’s going to watch this performance by a beautiful young woman named Lana, who, unfortunately for him, happens to be the daughter of his boss, the General, which we won’t really encounter in this scene.

Viet Nguyen: “Now known by just one name like John, Paul, George, Ringo and Mary, Lana stepped on stage tied in a red velvet bustier, a leopard print miniskirt, black laced gloves and thigh-high leather boots with stiletto heels. My heart would have paused at the boots, the heels or the flat, smooth slice of her belly naked in between miniskirt and bustier. But the combination of all three arrested my heart altogether and beat it with the vigor of a Los Angeles police squad.”

Viet Nguyen: “Pouring cognac over my heart freed it, but thus drenched it was easily flambeed by her torch song. She turned on the heat with her first number, the unexpected I’d Love You To Want Me, which I’d heard before sung only by men. I’d Love You To Want Me was the theme song of the bachelors and unhappily married males of my generation, whether in the English original or the equally superb Vietnamese and French renditions. What the song expressed so perfectly from lyric to melody was unrequited love, and we men of the south love nothing more than unrequited love. Cracked hearts, our primary weakness after cigarettes, coffee and cognac.”

Viet Nguyen: “Listening to Lana sing, all I wanted was to emulate myself in a night with her to remember forever and ever. Every man in the room shared my emotion as we watched her do no more than sway at the microphone, her voice enough to move the audience, or rather, to still us. Nobody talked, and nobody stirred, except to raise a cigarette or a glass in utter concentration not broken for her next, slightly more upbeat number, Bang, Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down. Lana’s version of Bang, Bang layered English with French and Vietnamese. The last line of the French version echoed Pham Duy’s Vietnamese version We Will Never Forget.”

Viet Nguyen: “In the pantheon of classic pop songs from Saigon, this tricolor rendition was one of the most memorable, masterfully weaving together love and violence in the enigmatic story of two lovers who, regardless of having known each other since childhood, or because of knowing each other since childhood, shoot each other down. Bang, Bang was the sound of memory’s pistol firing into our heads, for we could not forget love. We could not forget war, we could not forget lovers. We could not forget enemies, we could not forget home, and we could not forget Saigon.”

Viet Nguyen: “We could not forget the caramel flavor of iced coffee with coarse sugar; the bowls of noodle soup eaten while squatting on the sidewalk; the strumming of a friend’s guitar while we swayed on hammocks under coconut trees; the whisper of a dewy lover saying the most seductive words in our language, ahn oi; the working men who slept in their cyclos on the streets, kept warm only by the memories of their families; the refugees who slept on every sidewalk of every city; the sweetness and firmness of a mango plucked fresh from its tree; the girls who refused to talk to us, and who we only pined for more; the men who had died or disappeared; the streets and homes blown away by bombshells; the streams where we swam naked and laughing; the secret grove where we spied on the nymphs who bathed and splashed with the innocence of the birds; the shadows cast by candlelight on the walls of wattled huts; the barking of a hungry dog in an abandoned village, the appetizing wreck of the fresh durian one wept to eat; the sight and sound of orphans howling by the dead bodies of their mothers and fathers; the stickiness of one’s shirt by the end of lovemaking; the stickiness of our situations. And while the list can go on and on, the point was simply this; the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget.”

Viet Nguyen: Obviously, the theme of memory, forgetting is a very important one in the book. Part of my purpose in writing the novel was certainly to talk about the Vietnam War, this event that most Americans think they know something about, but to do it in a completely different way because if you were Vietnamese growing up in the United States like I did watching Apocalypse Now and all these Vietnam War movies and reading all these Vietnam War novels, and I’ve read so many of them, I had the distinct feeling that, while Americans really did not forget the Vietnam War, they really did obsess about their own experiences. They had a curious blind spot about the Vietnamese, but also about Cambodians and Laotians and those lands where the war was also fought during the war and afterward.

Viet Nguyen: The history of what happened in Indochina and Southeast Asia was so complex, and I felt that most of the literature out there wasn’t doing it justice the way that I wanted to have it done, so I wanted to write that novel myself. Ron alluded to how the ending of the novel brings us up to the present in terms of questions about torture and interrogation, which my novels deals with too. Of course, these kinds of issues about war torture and so on that were so important during the Vietnam War have actually not been forgotten because they return to us in the contemporary moment in the way that we conduct our policies in the Middle East, which I feel strongly about is a consequence of the United States not really grappling with its past, even though at the same time it’s constantly talking about the Vietnam War.

Viet Nguyen: Then also recently, of course, we have the Syrian refugee crisis. I’m sure all of you have seen the pictures, heartbreaking pictures. It’s really been affecting me deeply for the last few days because, although I was not technically one of these so called boat people, which is a term I really hate because I find it to be so dehumanizing, I did escape on a boat and then by plane. Many of my friends actually were a part of this group of so-called boat people, and have never forgotten it, how horrible it was. I feel that this is also a consequence of this longer history that we haven’t grappled with, that we’re certainly talking whether the European Union owes something to these refugees. But I think the United States owes something to these refugees as well for the implications of our own foreign policy in the Middle East, helping to create these kinds of crises.

Viet Nguyen: At the end of the novel, I’m not giving too much away, I hope, there is a boat. There are people who are desperately trying to flee the country. I return to that scene in my memory as I think about the Syrian refugee crisis and think, unfortunately, things haven’t changed that much in the past 40 or 50 years. Now, I would just love to answer any questions that people might have about the novel or about the history or any of those other kinds of issues and engage in a conversation with you. There are two microphones up here for anybody who wants to come up and ask questions.

Speaker 4: Hi. We were in Vietnam a few years ago, and I was struck by the people, the people’s forgiveness of Americans over the war. Is that a cheap impression, a false impression, or do you think that’s true? What does that say about kind of the character of Vietnamese people?

Viet Nguyen: I think it’s generally true. It’s a common place that many Americans who go to Vietnam or return to Vietnam, as the case might be, are just so struck by the fact that, typically, they expect recrimination or bitterness or something like that, and they usually don’t get it. That’s, I think, partially a function of the fact that for Vietnamese people the American period in Vietnam was about 30 years, and really intense for 10 or 15 years. For Americans, that’s a long period of time. For Vietnamese, they contextualize that against the previous 150 years of French colonization and the thousand years of Chinese colonization. It’s a little bit easier for Vietnamese people to put that experience in perspective, whereas for Americans it’s a bitter, bitter trauma that’s completely unique in American history.

Viet Nguyen: I also want to say that the reconciliation that Vietnamese people offer to Americans needs to be complicated because it’s a reconciliation that takes place in relationship to two things. One is that Vietnamese people want to move ahead and make money, and remaining enemies with the United States or Americans, individuals in particular, isn’t going to help that. The individual American tourist who goes back to Vietnamese, you’re a walking wallet to Vietnamese people. Okay? It’s in their best interest to be nice to you, that’s one thing. In general that’s symbolic of the fact that Vietnamese and the United States have a [inaudible 00:15:49] economically and politically, which is a reconciliation of a sort, but of a kind that papers over the past.

Viet Nguyen: The United States wants to have Vietnamese in its partnership against China, et cetera, and then that’s reciprocated by the Vietnamese, but this is not really an adequate way of dealing with the past for either country. I’ll give you one example of that, which is for Vietnamese-Americans or other overseas Vietnamese in the dozens of countries where Vietnamese refugees fled, when they go back to Vietnamese they don’t get reconciliation so easily. It’s a much more fraught experience. Sometimes they do find reconciliation, sometimes they do get a happy homecoming, but often times it’s emotionally difficult, it’s financially difficult, it’s politically difficult. For a lot of Vietnamese people it takes a lot of will to overcome their fear of the country and to go back and to overcome the idea that they might be persecuted on their return.

Viet Nguyen: Even in my case, for example, I was born in a small town called Buôn Ma Thuột, which was famous for its coffee and for being the first town overrun in the 1975 invasion. My dad, although he went back to Vietnam a couple of times, my dad, after the second time he came back and said, “We’re Americans now,” never heard that before from him, and then, “You can never go back to Buôn Ma Thuột.” Because he believes that I will be persecuted as his son, which I don’t know if that’s true or not, but even for me, and I’ve disobeyed my father in many things, I cannot get over that command not to go back to my hometown, so I’ve never seen it. Over there.

Speaker 5: Thank you for your book. I’m about halfway through it, and there are moments that it’s so painful that I say, “I don’t know if I can go on,” and then you make me laugh, and it is a dark humor. It’s a remarkable book.

Viet Nguyen: All right, go ahead.

Speaker 5: Okay. Throughout the book the narrator, it talks a lot about his being a bastard, and not being accepted for who he is because of his Vietnamese mother and his Anglo father. Could you talk a little bit about, number one, how your experience may have informed as an immigrant who came to the U.S., may have informed that character, and, secondly, what we could learn from that as we become increasingly a diverse country?

Viet Nguyen: Okay. Thank you for that question. I wrote this novel in a couple of years, but before I wrote the novel I had been working on short stories and fiction about Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnamese people because I felt that there was a need to tell these kinds of stories. Then by the time I finished that short story collection I looked around and realized, “Wait a minute, there are all these other Vietnamese-American authors who have already told these stories.” That was actually a good thing because it freed me in terms of writing the novel because, although the novel is about Americans and about Vietnamese, I also wanted it to be about more than just Vietnamese people because often times if you’re a minority author in this country, the expectation is often that you will tell the story of your minority people, however you define minority. That’s an opening into publication, but it’s also a closure as well because people are like, “Well, we only want to hear from the Vietnamese guy about Vietnamese people.” It’s very limiting.

Viet Nguyen: It was really crucial, then, for me to be very deliberate in writing this novel broadly so that it wasn’t just about the Vietnamese story, but it was also a very strong satire and critique of America also, and also that my character is not 100% Vietnamese, whatever that means. When I was growing up my parents would tell me repeatedly, “You are 100% Vietnamese,” and made me think, “Maybe they’re protesting too much. Maybe there’s something I don’t know about my past.” Then it was very deliberate for me to choose a character who was Eurasian, as these people were called back then, who was mixed race, French father, Vietnamese mother because, number one, that person is not like me, not exactly like me, and, number two, the experiences of mixed race people in Vietnamese and elsewhere, here in the United States included, have often times been very, very difficult precisely because they don’t fit into anybody’s easy identity categories.

Viet Nguyen: At a certain point, Americans didn’t like Vietnamese people, didn’t understand Vietnamese people. Now we’ve reached the multicultural moment where you can be a Vietnamese-American author, and people are like, “Okay, we like Vietnamese food. We like pho. We’ll read his book.” I want to disturb those categories through the novel, through a mixed-race character and so on. Yes, the novel is a contribution to these Vietnamese stories, to how Americans remember the Vietnam War, but it’s also meant to unsettle these identities because they’re the offshoot of how it is that Americans got into the Vietnam War in the first place. The United States and many countries, all countries, have very clear identity categories, us and them. It actually doesn’t help us much to simply tell stories about them and making them like us. Really what I wanted to try to do in the novel was to make us think, “Why do we even have these categories of us and them in the first place?”

Speaker 6: This book is one of the most amazing books I’ve read this year. It’s really haunting, and it’s so rich a concept and idea, but, yet, it’s a great story. I wanted to ask you was it really driven by the Captain, like, where did it kind of begin? The fact that you wrote it in two years blows me away because it’s so well-delivered. Could you talk a little bit about how this came together as a great story? Because you didn’t want to be do didactic, and if you haven’t read this book, I don’t say this lightly, get this book.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you. Well, the impetus was that my agent had the short story collection, and he said, “Hey, great short story collection, love it, but you really need to write a novel.” I was like, “Okay, I always wanted to write a novel.” The reason why he said that is because the lore is that it’s very hard to sell a short story collections to New York publishers. You need a novel, so, ironically, I wrote the novel, I sold the novel, I didn’t sell the short story collection. Although I wrote it in two years, I have to say that it was something that I had thought about. The history, all the stuff in the book, most of it I had thought about since I was 10 or 11 years old, realizing that I was a refugee, realizing that I thought I was an American until I saw Apocalypse Now, and being a fan of John Wayne movies and war movies and identifying with American soldiers, it was awesome until they killed Vietnamese people. Then I’m like, “Wait a minute. Where am I supposed to belong in this particular moment?” It was really a traumatic moment of being split.

Viet Nguyen: From that time period onwards through adolescence, college and my professional life I’ve read a lot of material about Vietnamese history, the history of the Vietnam War, etcetera. I was really prepped to already write the book. When my agent said, “Hey, write a novel,” the first thing that came to my mind was, “I want to write a spy novel,” because I like detective novels, thriller novels, spy novels. As a writer I’m really committed to the idea that literary fiction doesn’t have to be just literary with a capital L, but it can be entertaining as well. Obviously, if you read the novel there’s referenced to Graham Green in there, and here was a novelist who was also committed to the idea that literature could be entertaining. You could write sophisticated literary fiction in the guise of a thriller. I’m someone who doesn’t believe in the distinction between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction. I think a lot of important things are being done in genre fiction that a lot of so-called literary authors could benefit from.

Viet Nguyen: The whole point of having a plot-driven novel is for me to seduce the reader, hopefully, and by doing that get the reader to confront, to see certain kinds of things that many readers don’t want to see. Even so, I think there’s some readers who reject that. They pick up the novel, they think it’s a spy novel or a thriller novel, and then they get to the squid moment and they’re like, “Wait a minute. This is not what I’m expecting in a spy novel.” Or, they get to these horrible moments of violence and so and like, “This is a little bit too real. This is not like thriller violence. This is sort of metaphysical and philosophical and all of that.”

Viet Nguyen: Using the genre really allowed me to plot the novel in advance. I wrote a two-page synopsis that I was fairly faithful to in terms of writing the novel up until two-thirds, three-quarters of the way in. The ending that I had in the synopsis I thought, “It’s not really satisfying. I don’t know if that’s really how it’s going to happen,” but I just had to keep on writing the novel with the hope that I would get to a certain moment where I would understand where the novel was taking me. Two-thirds or three-quarters of the way in I thought, “I realize now what has to happen at the end of the book.” The ending of the book, the last four or five chapters, is a divisive moment in the book for many readers, I think. Some readers really accept that moment, other readers think, “He went off the rails. He went too far,” or something. I accept that there are different reactions to it, but for me personally I felt this, inevitably, was where my character, the Captain, had to go.

Speaker 7: Hi, thank you so much for being here. I’m actually from Little Saigon, California, which is the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. Growing up what I noticed is people within my generation and below my generation we try to really shy away Vietnamese culture I think because of the memories that our parents and our grandparents had. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you see people dealing with this conflict of culture, trying to acclimate to American culture, while still retaining that Vietnamese culture. Something that I’m really worried about is that dilution because, although Vietnamese is my first language, even though I was born here in the United States, I’m losing a lot of that language and I’m losing a lot of that culture, and then I worry about my children beyond that. I’d love to just hear your thoughts on how young people can preserve that culture and moving forward.

Viet Nguyen: In the 1980s these were big questions. Vietnamese refugees were in the United States, and that parents and the younger generation were worried about losing the ability to speak Vietnamese, to understand Vietnamese customs, Vietnamese history and all of that. Every college campus had its Vietnamese student association, and they would put on their annual culture show, which would do exactly what you asked, which is to put on for a couple of hours a night once a year the parade of Vietnamese culture, like, “This is how we wear the ao dai, and these are the kind of jokes we make, and these are the customs that we have.” I think that’s important, but it’s also really static. It’s really limited, it doesn’t recognize that culture is a changing phenomenon.

Viet Nguyen: I felt really out of place during that moment of the 1980s because I was someone who was growing up in a Vietnamese ethnic enclave, but at the same time really separated from that as well. I went to private Catholic schools, and was often times the only Asian guy in the room and things like that. It was really hard to retain Vietnamese culture when you’re the only Asian guy in the room. For me, I think I developed this idea that, while retaining culture is really crucial, it has to be situated against the idea that cultures change, people change, and that not one idea of culture is enough for everybody because if you retain this idea that culture is something concrete, anybody who doesn’t fit that model is an outcast. That’s not just Vietnamese people, it’s American people too.

Viet Nguyen: American people had a very fixed notion of what American culture is for a long time, and then you reach the moment of the 1950s through the 1980s with the social and political struggles for civil rights, black power, Asian-American movement, multiculturalism, all that. The country was going through a real crisis, what is American culture? Are we being divided because all these minorities are suddenly asserting themselves? No. From my perspective I thought, “This is a part of our struggle to make American culture change, to make American culture realize that it’s not static, but that it’s moving, and that we can only be stronger if we understand that diversity helps us.” Likewise, talking about Vietnamese people here or in Vietnam, it’s important to acknowledge the same thing, that Vietnamese culture is not one thing, it’s many things.

Viet Nguyen: If you go to Vietnam, all that stuff about Vietnamese culture that the Vietnamese-Americans like to talk about, it doesn’t happen in Vietnam. Like the equivalent of Williamsburg, people aren’t going around wearing tricorn hats every day to try to remember their American culture. They’re eating hamburgers and pizza and getting fat. That’s American culture. If you go to Vietnam, Vietnamese culture is they want to buy the most expensive car or motorcycle they can get. They want to make a lot of money. They don’t want to remember history. Is that Vietnamese culture? That’s really problematic, but that’s what it is, and we have to be able to confront that changing reality of culture wherever it happens to be.

Speaker 8: Unfortunately, I have not yet read your book, but I was talking to a friend of mine just two days ago, and she mentioned your book. She said, “It has your name written all over it. You must read this book.” But she said, “It’s kind of difficult to get through in terms of the structure.” I looked at Kindle, and I saw what she was talking about. I want to ask you since there are these very, very long paragraphs without any breaks, was there a reason for formatting and structuring your novel, your prose in that particular way?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, so if you open the book, long paragraphs, no quotation marks. One voice the entire time throughout the book. For me, I never thought about difficulty. When I was reading the book I was having a great time. I was totally into the voice of the narrator. I was writing fairly quickly. I was getting through these chapters, and as I was rereading them I was captured by my own story. That’s a good thing for an author, I think. If I’m bored, god knows how you would feel. For me, the question of difficulty became a moot question.

Viet Nguyen: I think my agent asked me, my wife asked me, “Who are you writing the book for?” And I thought, “Honestly, I’m writing it for me.” That’s not the answer an agent or an editor wants to hear. They want to hear, “I’m writing it for two million people.” It was for me, and my belief was I’ve spent my life doing so many things for other people, as many of us have done, and this was my opportunity to do something that was true to my convictions. I had to believe that other people, some group of other people, could understand and follow along.

Viet Nguyen: I was influenced by particular kinds of writers who deployed some of the same aesthetic strategies, so Céline, Journey to the end of the night, António Lobo Antunes, The land at the end of the world, W.G. Sebald, a number of his works. These are writers who are concerned with the impact of history and politics on national cultures and the devastation that war wrecks, and how I this that literary form can bring us closer to historical realities that most people don’t want to look at, or if they want to look at it, look at it in very kind of contained, generic ways. The way that those authors wrote their books, I think, was to force the reader into a slippage between the present and the past so the line between the present and the past is always wavering.

Viet Nguyen: In the scene that I read he begins in a nightclub watching a sexy woman singing a song, and all of a sudden he goes on this journey back into the past. Perhaps that’s why some people think it might be a little bit difficult because the timeline does exactly that, there’s always a forward motion of a spy-driven crime novel plot, but at the same time there’s always these digressions and divergences and so on and trips back and forth because that’s the way people experience their world. I wanted the novel to be very fluid in that sense. Thankfully, I had an agent who edits a lot of bestselling crime novelists, and he pulled me back at certain points. He said, “You’re going too far,” and that was actually very useful, but he let me do a certain amount of what we’re talking about here.

Viet Nguyen: There’s a moment in the novel where I talk about it’s important for writers to believe that they can use popular forms, like a spy novel, but elevate that form to bring mass audiences along with them, to challenge large audiences. I had to have faith that a good percentage of the audience could do that, could look at this book and think, “Well, it looks kind of challenging, but if I go along with the author he’ll take me somewhere worthwhile.”

Speaker 9: Your book seems to have a lot of detailed and accurate history of the fall of Saigon and then the refugee community in Southern California. How much of that did you know from family and friends, and how much is old-fashioned research into the newspapers and texts of the times?

Viet Nguyen: Well, all the stuff about the Vietnamese community, that stuff I knew. Like I said, my parents watched Paris by Night, I grew up watching that in my house. All that stuff about the melancholia, the bitterness, the regret, the anger, the pain, the rage of the Vietnamese refugee community, I knew that very intimately. Seeing relatives go through those kinds of things, seeing Vietnamese veterans of the war experiencing that in public. Everybody who was a Vietnamese-American in the 1970s, 80s, 90s knows these kinds of emotions.

Viet Nguyen: What I had to reconstruct were two things that I had to do a lot of extra research on. One was the fall of Saigon. I read pretty much everything I could find on the fall of Saigon, or the liberation of Saigon, depending on your point of view. The first three chapters is, literally, a day-by-day, and then minute-by-minute reconstruction of the events of April 1975. I had to make sure that, “This is the moment when the rockets hit. This is the moment when the planes were destroyed on the airstrip and so on.”

Viet Nguyen: The other section where I had to do a lot of extra research was the satire of Hollywood. There’s a four chapter segment or so where our narrator, he comes to California as a refugee, and he finds work as an authenticity consultant on the making of a movie that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now. It’s really a conglomeration of all Vietnam War movies, which I had seen, but the actual making of the movie was based very much on Apocalypse Now, and I read all the books that had been written about the making of Apocalypse now.

Viet Nguyen: I could not make this stuff up. Most of the stuff in there, I was like, “Oh, my god. Did they actually use real corpses in this scene?” According to a couple of the books they said, “Yeah, they dug corpses from the graveyard in the Philippines and put them there in that infamous scene where Martin Sheen’s character goes to the jungle lair of Marlon Brando’s character and you see dead bodies hanging around. There were things like that I discovered that I really helped use to enliven the Hollywood satire. A lot of that was also my own pure anger at Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam War movies that I wanted to make manifest. It’s really my revenge on Hollywood for everything they’ve done to Vietnamese people.

Speaker 10: I read the book and I thought it’s hysterical, it’s very funny. Obviously, it’s very poignant as well. My favorite parts were part of what you just discussed, the movie section, and I did want you to talk about that a little bit more if you would, and just how it looks at American culture and how American culture is viewed in other countries and how we don’t think about that, or even the directors, and how this character is trying to get the director to think about it and couldn’t. Then, the whole idea of using his mother’s death in all of that, I don’t know, I thought it was all very interesting.

Viet Nguyen: Again, here’s a moment where things haven’t changed. There was recently an article in GQ by John Ronsen, a very funny writer, but it was about the plight of Muslim and Arab actors in Hollywood. If you can imagine, they’re in a difficult situation because their main role is terrorist. I read the article and what these actors were talking about, and I thought, “Wow, that’s exactly what I’m satirizing in the section on Hollywood’s treatment of the Vietnam War, both on screen, but also in how minority actors and extras are treated behind the scenes.” This is another moment where I thought, “Oh, the satire is still valid, unfortunately, for minorities, people of color, others in Hollywood.”

Viet Nguyen: Hollywood becomes a symbol in the novel of American culture, both in terms of what American culture projects on screen domestically and overseas, but also Hollywood as a small slice of how the American economy and industry and global capitalism operates. That’s why it’s important for me not just to satirize the movie as it appears, but the making of the movie, the exploitation of the Vietnamese people and the Filipino people who were paid like a dollar a day to do this movie.

Viet Nguyen: Part of the tragedy and the humor from that scene comes from the fact that, “Well, if they want to be killed, we’ll pay them two dollars a day on screen.” That’s where the satire is aimed at, is trying to argue that there is a Hollywood industrial complex that is crucial to the military industrial complex, that we don’t need a ministry of propaganda in this country like the Nazis did. We have Hollywood, and Hollywood is better because the Nazis put a gun to your head. Hollywood persuades you to just give them their money, and they do it all over the world.

Viet Nguyen: Hollywood’s treatment of history and war is a way of preparing the American people to forget their past, or to remember their past in a certain way, and to get them ready to fight another war because the kinds of war stories that Hollywood tells is that war is hell, which, for all the times that we’ve told the story war is hell, it’s never prevented us from going to war. I think one of the reasons why is because it focuses on the experiences of American soldiers. Even if we know that war is hell for American soldiers, it doesn’t prevent us from thinking it’s still a glorious, necessary enterprise. Whereas, if we told war stories that actually showed what happens in war to the lands where we go, the people that we kill, the civilians who suffer, the children who die, the orphans that are created, if we actually saw that, that would be an anti-war movie, but Hollywood doesn’t make those kinds of movies.

Speaker 11: Mr. Nguyen, I appreciate your remarks on being made in America and your answers to your questions that have been given here about your identity. Makes me know that you are aware of your identity as a Vietnamese-American. You said you wrote short stories about the Vietnamese-American experience, and were not generally not satisfied that that’s where you wanted to go. I don’t know, why is it that you decided that you wanted to expand beyond just telling the Vietnamese-American story? Do you think it’s important to show this duality that Asian-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans live with every day in their lives, and which a lot of people are not aware of? Do you want to go expand this definition of what Asian-American literature is becoming and Asian-American authors are supposed to do?

Viet Nguyen: Great question. I wrote a whole book on Asian-American literature. Again, this whole category of Asian-American literature or any other ethnic minority literature that you want to talk about, we fought for that. It’s really kind of fairly recent that the American publishing industry has opened up to the idea that minority literature can be something that should be published and should be marketable. It’s a really problematic category because even though, again, it gives us an opening, “Oh, you’re the next Amy Tan,” for example. It really closes things off because, wait a minute, you didn’t write the mother-daughter story.

Viet Nguyen: For me, the whole category of Asian-American literature has suddenly become very tremendous because now we have very prestigious authors, and they’re getting a lot of recognition and so on, but there is this expectation that Asian-American literature will tell the story of Asian-Americans. For many Americans, what that means is Asian-Americans are good, hardworking people, they’ve sacrificed, they make great Americans. Too bad we mistreated them in the past, or too bad we fought wars overseas, but no matter, they come here, and they prove the American story. That’s not what this novel is about because, from my perspective, too much of Asian-American literature is too quiet. We want to tell our stories, but we’re forced to tell stories the way that the American publishing industry wants it, and the way that the general American public perceives us as being the model minority.

Viet Nguyen: This book is not about a model minority. Again, he’s an alcoholic, a womanizer, a killer, a spy, a communist. Wow, I don’t know which one I worse for the American public. He’s angry, and that is something that makes some people uncomfortable. It’s also something that, I think, that people aren’t used to hearing or seeing from Asian-Americans and, hopefully, that also actually makes the book more compelling, is to not have sort of the stereotypical quiescent Asian-American man or person telling this story, but to have someone who’s willing to not just hold Vietnamese people and Vietnamese culture accountable, but to hold America accountable as well. Do we have time for one more question? One more question, then.

Speaker 12: I want to thank you for all of your responses today. It’s a fascinating discussion. I have many questions, but I’ll ask one. You started with a reading that I found incredibly eloquent, so I began to wonder what it would be like to listen to your book rather than read it on the page. As a writer, do you think about audiences, given this era of, who are hearing your book instead of reading it, and whether there’s any difference in how you approach your work?

Viet Nguyen: The actor who reads the book for is named Francois Chau. I never watch Lost. I’ve seen him in stage productions, but if you watch Lost he’s Dr. Pierre Chang or something like that. He’s got this great gravely voice, and sounds much better than I do, probably, reading my own work. Also, he’s actually Vietnamese, which, he has a very complicated history of being Vietnamese but born in Cambodia and so on. He’s actually sort of the perfect person to read this book in terms of being someone who also has been shaped by the history of the war.

Viet Nguyen: I do think about how the book impacts people when it’s heard. I’ve listened to about four chapters of the book on Audible, and then I had to stop because I couldn’t take it anymore. The reading is great, it’s that I’m sick and tired of hearing myself, or even hearing myself as translated by Francois Chau. In terms of writing the novel, obviously, as a writer you also think, “If I were to read this out loud how would it sound to people?” To respond to another earlier question, the book is written partly the way that it is because the stream of the author’s voice just carries us along, hopefully. When you read the book out loud, as Francois does, or I do at these kinds of readings, hopefully you’re carried along by that stream of words as well. Thank you so much for your time.

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Category: Interviews


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