Asian American Literature Today: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen reads The Sympathizer and discusses his novels in a Vietnamese American context with Mimi Khùc from the University of Maryland at the Library of Congress. 


Here is the transcript:

Speaker 1: From the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

Anya Creightney: Hi Everyone. This turnout is wonderful. We’re so happy to see all your faces here today. Thank you all for joining this Thursday evening. And thanks to our presenting partners, the Asian American Literary Review. The Asian American Studies program at the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific Center. My name is Anya Creightney and I’m the program specialist at the Poetry and Literature Center which is housed in the Library of Congress. I’m also a proud partner in this series representing and celebrating Asian American literature throughout the country. Going to do a little bit of housekeeping reminders and then tell you a little bit about the Poetry and Literature Center and I’ll turn it over to Mimi who will introduce Viet.

Anya Creightney: So the biggest housekeeping item is turn off your cell phones or anything that would interrupt the reading this evening. And then also note that participating in today’s performance you agree to give us permission for future use of this recording. And the second piece of thing which you guys should see on your seats are surveys. In an ongoing effort to learn more about our audiences we are now having these surveys at the events and they are important for funding and for having these events, these types of events throughout the literary calendar. So please tell us how you came and that would be great.

Anya Creightney: And lastly, a little bit about the Poetry and Literature Center. We are the home of the Poet Laureate consultant in poetry, currently Juan Felipe Herrera. And we put on 30 to 40 public programs just like this one a year. To find out more about this particular series and also other events throughout this year, take a look at the website. You can visit us at www.loc.gov/poetry. And finally I’m going to turn it over to Mimi Khuc, lecturer at the Asian American Studies program at the University of Maryland. Mimi?

Mimi Khùc: Thank you. Hi. So I teach a course at the University of Maryland on Vietnamese Americans. Our histories, our experiences, our dreams, our nightmares. I begin with war. Two thirds a way through the semester now we are still talking about war. And in a few weeks when the semester closes we will end with war. Because as Viet Nguyen writes in a recent New York Times essay, our Vietnam war never ended. My students, many of whom are here tonight have been journeying through Vietnamese American tellings of war and its legacies. In these tellings we’ve asked not only how has war shaped Vietnamese diasporic experience but also who is doing the telling, who is doing the listening, what exactly is being remembered and what meanings are being made in these practices of remembrance?

Mimi Khùc: The politics of memory, the politics of meaning. In that New York Times essay, Viet writes that anniversaries are times for war stories to be told. And he makes that argument that family stories, the stories of refugees, immigrants, loved ones separated, homelands lost, new beginnings and new places, these are war stories rarely heard, rarely asked to be told. So this year, on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, what war stories are being told? Viet Nguyen in his novel The Sympathizer offers us a new war story. And exciting re-imagining and retelling of the Vietnam War and it’s complex aftermath. Here are new perspective offered, new meanings made, new understandings of war, its machinations, its costs, its legacies.

Mimi Khùc: Viet Nguyen is Associate Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Along with his first novel The Sympathizer, he’s the author of Race and Resistance – Literature and Politics in Asian America and has a forthcoming book titled Nothing Ever Dies – Vietnam and the Memory of War. Please join me in welcoming Viet Nguyen.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you for that introduction Mimi. I also want to thank Lawrence Memboi Davis for bringing me out here to the Library of Congress, Anya and the Library of Congress for hosting me and all of you for being here tonight. I know many of you are students of various classes and I greatly appreciate your presence. I’m going to read a couple of scenes from The Sympathizer, take about ten minutes then after that we’ll have a conversation with Mimi and the audience. I really enjoy actually talking to people and getting their questions and hearing their feedback and their other opinions about this history that we’re dealing with or with the novel. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, The Sympathizer begins in April 1975 with the fall or liberation of Saigon depending on your point of view and our hero or anti-hero is a Communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army. And his mission is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States where he is to report on their efforts to take back their homeland.

Viet Nguyen: And this is in many ways inspired by real events in Vietnamese and Vietnamese American history. One of the things that happens to him though when he comes to the United States is that he has to make a living. And one of the jobs that he gets is to become the authenticity consultant on the making of an American war epic that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now. In the first scene that I’m going to read, it actually takes place after his initial meeting with the director of this movie known only as the auteur. And he’s going to meet, our narrator is going to meet his boss, the general and the general’s wife, the madam. And they’ll talk a little bit about what happened and will also encounter the auteur as well.

Viet Nguyen: After I descended from the auteur’s home to the general’s, I reported my first experience with the motion picture industry to the general and madam, both of whom were infuriated on my behalf. My meeting with the auteur had gone on for a while longer, mostly in a more subdued fashion with me pointing out that the lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity. Did you not think it would be a little more believable I said to the auteur, a little more realistic, a little more authentic for a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say. Instead of having our your screenplay direct as it does now, cut to villagers speaking in their own language. Do you think it might not be decent to let them actually say something instead of simply acknowledge that there is some kind of sound coming from their mouths?

Viet Nguyen: Could you not even just have them speak a heavily accented English. You know what I mean. Ching chong English. Just to pretend you’re speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand. The auteur grimaced and said, very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it but I had a question. What was it? Oh yes. How many movies have you made? None. Isn’t that right? None? Zero? Zilch? Nada? Nothing? And however you say it in your language? So thank you for telling me how to do my job. Now get the hell out of my house and come back after you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas.

Viet Nguyen: Why was he so rude, madam said. Didn’t he ask you to give him some comments? He was looking for a yes man. He thought I’d give him a rubber stamp of approval. He thought you were going to fawn over him. When I didn’t do it, he was hurt. He’s an artist. He’s got thin skin. So much for your career in Hollywood, the general said. I don’t want a career in Hollywood, I said. Which was true only to the extent Hollywood did not want me. I confessed to being angry with the auteur. But was I wrong in being angry? This was especially the case when he acknowledged he did not even know that montagnard was simply a French catch all term for the dozens of highland minorities.

Viet Nguyen: What if, I said to him, I wrote a screenplay about the American West and simply called all the natives Indians. You’d want to know whether the Calvary was fighting the Navajo or the Apache or Comanche, right? Likewise, I would want to know when you say these people in your film are montagnards whether we speak of the the Bru or the Nung or the Tai. Let me tell you a secret, the auteur said. You ready? Here it is. No one gives a shit. He was amused by my wordlessness. To see me without words is like seeing one of those Egyptian felines without hair. A rare and not necessarily desirable occasion. How could I be so dense? How could I be deluded? I’m naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal. The simultaneous, lobotomization and pick pocketing of the world’s audiences.

Viet Nguyen: Hollywood did not just make horror movie monsters. It was its own horror movie monster smashing me under its foot. I had failed and the auteur would make the Hamlet as he intended with my country men merely serving as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naivete in believing that they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient imagining the countries it wanted to exploit. I was maddened by my helplessness before the auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created. With all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis who never achieved global domination.

Viet Nguyen: Hollywood’s high priests understood enabling the observation of Milton’s Satan that it was better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Better to be villain, loser, or anti-hero than virtuous extra so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe-l’œil all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly. Herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute. We were to be struck dumb.

Viet Nguyen: So he becomes involved or he is involved with the general’s family. And he falls in love with the general’s daughter which is not something he should do. And the next scene, he’s going to have, he’s going to meet this general’s daughter, Lana. And it takes place in a night club and if you know anything about Vietnamese people you know we love night clubs. We know we love music and song and dance and all that good stuff. If you grew up in the Vietnamese community you’ve seen Paris by Night videos that the Vietnamese people, one of the earliest things that they did upon coming to California, southern California not only did they start a nightclub in Los Angeles but they eventually began a song and dance venue called Paris by Night which is now in over a hundred episodes, filmed globally, available everywhere. And I saw a lot of this when I was growing up. So this next scene is inspired by Paris by Night except it takes place in a club called Fantasia.

Viet Nguyen: Now known by just one name like John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Mary, Lana stepped onstage clad in a red velvet bustier, a leopard print mini skirt, black lace gloves and thigh high leather boots with stiletto heels. My heart would’ve paused at the boots, the heels or the flat smooth slice of her belly naked in between mini skirt and bustier. But the combination of all three arrested my heart all together and beat it with the vigor of the Los Angeles police squad. Pouring cognac over my heart freed it but thus drenched it was easily flambed by her torch song. She turned on the heat with her first number, the unexpected I’d Love You to Want Me which I had 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 French and Vietnamese renditions. What the song expressed so perfectly from lyric to melody was unrequited love. And we men of the South loved nothing more that and unrequited love.

Viet Nguyen: Cracked hearts our primary weakness after cigarettes, coffee, and cognac. Listening to Lana sing, all I wanted was to immolate 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 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 Band layered English with French and Vietnamese. The last lines of the French version echoed Pháp Xưa’s Vietnamese version. We will never forget. In the pantheon of classic pop songs from Saigon, this tri-color 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.

Viet Nguyen: Bang Bang was the sound of memory’s pistol firing into our heads for we cannot forget love. We cannot forget war. We cannot forget lovers. We cannot forget enemies. We can not forget home. And we cannot forget Saigon. We cannot forget the caramel flavor of ice coffee with course 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. [Foreign Language 00:16:09] The working man who slept in their street clothes in 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 pine for more. The men who had died or disappeared.

Viet Nguyen: The streets and homes blown away by bomb shells. The streams where we swum naked and laughing. The secret groves where we spied on the nymphs who bathed and splashed with the innocence of the birds. The shadows cast by the candle light and the walls of waddled huts. The barking of a hungry dog in an abandoned village. The appetizing reek 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 afternoon. The stickiness of one’s lover by the end of love making. The stickiness of our situations. And while the list could go on and on and on. The point was simply this. The most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget. Thank you.

Mimi Khùc: Thank you of that reading, Viet. That was wonderful. I have a few questions I want to ask you. So, your book comes now 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War and after over 40 years of American tellings of the war but also after a kind of blossoming of Vietnamese American voices I think in the last decade or two. I wanted to know where you see your work in the context not just of American war stories but also Vietnamese American interventions more recently.

Viet Nguyen: Well I think one of the things I should acknowledge is that I don’t read Vietnamese so there’s a whole body of Vietnamese American literature written in Vietnamese that I’ve barely begun to get acquainted with. The Vietnamese American literature you’re talking about is written in English and it’s written by people mostly like us 1.5 generation people who were born in Vietnam but raised here in the United States. The beneficiaries of the American educational system and they write wonderful books in English about what it means to be a Vietnamese refugee, what it means to be Vietnamese American in some case they write about life in South Vietnam and what life during the wartime was like.

Viet Nguyen: So I do want to see my work as being in conversation with all of these writers. Last time you were at an event with me and Monique Truong and many other writers but you know Monique wrote The Book of Salt and another novel whose title completely escapes me at the moment, Bitter in the Mouth. And one of the things she said was she was glad that there’s more than one Vietnamese American author because there’s more than one Vietnamese American perspective. And that’s absolutely right and the fact that there are many of us writing now takes pressure off any one of us to have to speak for the entire Vietnamese American population. Because if you know anything about Vietnamese Americans we don’t really agree about a whole to of things.

Viet Nguyen: There are a lot of stories out there and we actually even though we’ve had many authors publishing I think we still need more. Hopefully there will be some among you who will be writing these other stories.

Mimi Khùc: Speaking of us not agreeing with each other very often in the community, the question that I had and my students had, we had a lively discussion about your book is, why a sympathizer? Why a person with either mixed loyalties or conflicting loyalties and somebody with loyalties that don’t align with many of the loyalties in the Vietnamese American community?

Viet Nguyen: Partially it was historical because the novel is, much of the novel was based on real historical events inspired by some real historical personages and there are many Vietnamese spies including one very famous one, Pham Xuan An, who came to the United State in the 1950s, studied in Orange County, went back and became so successful as a spy that none of his American friends were in the very highest ranks of journalism and so on and the government were aware that he was a spy who became a major general during that period. He was so good at what he was doing. But he was a sympathizer in a sense that he was very sympathetic to Americans in addition to being a revolutionary, communist revolutionary. And he could see both sides, that’s partly what made him a great spy.

Viet Nguyen: And so the novel is partially inspired by that so inspired by people who really did have sympathies for everybody who was involved. I wanted to have that perspective because growing up in the Vietnamese American community it’s very obvious that there was not a lot of sympathy going around. Vietnamese refugees, Vietnamese Americans are very sympathetic to themselves as are most people. Most of us like ourselves, we know exactly what we feel and we feel like everybody else doesn’t understand us and that’s what Vietnamese Americans go through for very legitimate reason. But that lack of sympathy for others I think is one of the things that leads us to war, to conflict, and prevents us from reconciliation. Because we don’t want to see the viewpoints of people who might be opposed to us.

Viet Nguyen: And so that’s part of the work I wanted to do in the novel is to have a character who was capable of seeing from many different perspectives because he would not be trapped in what I see as a problem in the Vietnamese American community which is that people are so focused on their own story they can’t listen to anybody else’s story. It keeps the community trapped in a particular point in the past. Now that’s not to say that having sympathy for all sides is a great thing because as our narrators says in the beginning of the book that’s his one talent but it’s also going to be the talent that gets him to a very difficult situation by the end of the book because we live in a world where people want us to take sides and if you don’t take a side you’re likely to be the first person to get shot during the revolution or any kinds of conflict.

Mimi Khùc: Thank you. Something about that, something else that my students and I have been talking about is thinking about Vietnamese American stories. And this ties into your critiques of Vietnamese American community and the ways we tell stories. But I’m wondering about the role of Vietnamese American stories in Asian American literature or Asian American cultural production more broadly. Where do you see the Vietnamese American relationship to the larger Asian American writing world?

Viet Nguyen: Asian Americans have been writing for a long time, since the late 19th century and publishing in English and the diversity of Asian American stories is incredible. It’s really hard to say that there’s one kind of Asian American story but the way that it’s tended to be read, well there’s two ways that it’s read. People who are not Asian Americans say, when they discover that you or I are doing Asian American literature they say, hey Amy Tan, right? So that’s the Asian American story for most of America I think. The Amy Tan kind of story where, Asia bad, Asian men bad, Asian fathers really bad. White guys good. America good. We come to America to succeed. That’s not this book and so the book is definitely a reaction against that.

Viet Nguyen: But then those of us who specialize in Asian American literature, our version of it is that Asian American stories are important because they express a history that many Americans don’t know and they are important for carrying out social justice. A lot of horrible things have happened to Asian Americans in the last century and a half and most Americans and a lot of Asian American don’t know anything about that. But the problem with Vietnamese American literature is that it does do all the kind of stuff. It does do the Amy Tan stuff, some of it, and it does do the social justice storytelling aspect.

Viet Nguyen: But another thing that Vietnamese American stories tell that I think Asian Americans are perhaps uncomfortable with is that a lot of it’s sort of anti-communist because a lot of, many of Vietnamese Americans are here because they objected to the communist regime. That’s a little bit more difficult for many Asian American academics or critics to deal with because a lot of us have these Marxist leanings because of the history of how Asian Americans were formed. So the Vietnamese American literature really exists at a juncture of a lot of different contradictions because it also appeals to wider American audiences who want to hear the stories of Vietnamese Americans and want to hear and anti-communist story. So Vietnamese American literature is caught under different kinds of pressures from different kinds of audiences including Asian Americans.

Mimi Khùc: For me as a Vietnamese American writer myself, my graduate work was also thinking about the Vietnam War and they way that’s it’s remember, memory practices. And part of my reasoning for why I chose that for my graduate work was thinking of myself very much as a Vietnamese American daughter. As Vietnamese American from the community and how do I pay homage to my parents and to the community and what they’ve experienced, and in some way I think of this book a little bit is about you being a Vietnamese American son, coming from a Vietnamese American family. But both of us became parents recently ourselves and now my writing has definitely shifted in terms of becoming a mother and thinking of myself as a Vietnamese American mother now and what does that mean? So I’m wondering, I love your last sentence of your book in the acknowledgments. You mention your son and how he came right on time and last night you mentioned that you finished the draft the day before he was born?

Viet Nguyen: Two days.

Mimi Khùc: Two days before he was born. So I’m wondering for you, in writing this book and writing about the community, how does that play into your fatherhood? How does being a Vietnamese American father relate to the kind of work that you’re doing?

Viet Nguyen: That’s a good question because it’s an emotional question because I grew up in a Vietnamese American community in San Jose and all of us who did that we grew up surrounded by the stories of our parents and our elders and often times very tragic and horrible stories. Certainly the sense was that the stories of our community and especially of our parent’s generation weren’t being heard by the larger American community who didn’t care about these people. So for many of us who became writers the idea was we’re going to carry out this storytelling partially for our parents or our elders and this Vietnamese American community. But at the same time, I think it’s also a risky kind of work that we do because we’re quite aware that sometimes our parents don’t want these stories told or not told the way we want to tell them or that when we tell stories or anything else, who cares what you have to say, etc.

Viet Nguyen: So it’s not just a virtuous thing that we do. It’s a very fraught thing that we do. Partially it’s fraught because I think there’s a whole other discourse that’s happening. Vietnamese, the language itself, versus in English and that community our older generation have a different set of concerns so when I went home after the book was published and I gave my dad a copy of the book, I told him dad, this is the plot. It’s about a communist spy in Vietnamese.

Mimi Khùc: You said that in Vietnamese?

Viet Nguyen: I said it in Vietnamese. But my dad didn’t say anything because I don’t think he ever listens to me, right. So it didn’t register. And then later he said I want you to take a picture of me with our book. Because he was proud of the book and proud of me as a writer who had gotten this sort of attention. But even to this point, I said to him-

Mimi Khùc: Has he read it? That’s the question.

Viet Nguyen: I said, and I sent him a Vietnamese translation of the New York Times Book Review that talks about the plot of the book. He never responded so I have no idea what that means. This is the typical relationship between me and my dad, right? He claims I don’t listen to him but I claim he doesn’t listen to me. And then in terms of my son, I think that, I found out we were going to have a kid in the middle of writing the book and I thought oh my God, I have got to finish this book before he comes out because after that I’m not going to get anything done. And so that was the real deadline, I managed to do that. So being a dad wasn’t really on my mind as I wrote the book even though as you get to the end of the book there’s all this talk about a baby. I completely imagined that. But lo and behold it all came true. Because baby’s really suck sometimes and they really do scream constantly sometimes and that happened to me and I thought, oh I was right imagining this.

Viet Nguyen: But I think that being a dad certainly has been transformative and I’m writing another novel and it’s a sequel and I feel like I do have to take different types of emotional things into consideration now for my protagonist because of the things that I’ve experienced, too.

Mimi Khùc: Would you want Ellison to read the book? When he gets older. He’s only two.

Viet Nguyen: When he gets older. There’s stuff there that’s definitely R rated in the book. But as I was telling some of the students in the class, when I was ten or twelve I was reading stuff I should not have read. And it scarred me for life.

Mimi Khùc: It made you a writer.

Viet Nguyen: It made me a writer but it was actually important that that happened I think. It’s important that we expose our children to stuff that we think they might not be able to handle because that’s the way the world is. And I did it on my own I went to the library I read all kinds of stuff that if my son was reading it I’d be like, do not touch those books. But that made me who I am. It probably would’ve been better if I had the kind of parents who knew that I was doing that and who could have a conversation with me. So I would rather that Ellison read all kinds of terrible stuff as long as he could talk to me about it.

Mimi Khùc: I like how you refer to your book as terrible stuff for Ellison to read.

Viet Nguyen: I wouldn’t want to see him doing some of the stuff that my narrator does in the book.

Mimi Khùc: Thank you. Okay so let’s open up to the audience for questions. So we can have a larger conversation.

Audience 1: Yes, in your opening remarks you mentioned that, used the phrase that we should never forget. So I was thinking, given that this is the 40th anniversary of the war and your book came out on the anniversary, what lessons of these should we remember when we think about the Vietnamese War?

Viet Nguyen: Wow, that’s a hard question. Well I’ll give two, I think. One is that it’s important for us whether we’re Americans or Vietnamese or some other population to be capable of seeing from the perspectives of others. This is not just an American problem. Americans are self-centered and they’re ethnocentric and all of that kind of stuff but so is everybody else. I’ve never gone to country where people weren’t ethnocentric and self centered including Vietnamese people and yet the lessons of war tell us that this is partly why we go to war is that we don’t see from the perspectives of others. Every was teaches us that same lesson new never learn. So I don’t think the Vietnam War did teach us that lesson. It’s out there but many of us chose not to study it.

Viet Nguyen: The other lesson is, we’re fighting wars today, Americans are, and that’s partially a consequence of not having studied american history in Vietnam and Indochina. But it’s true for Vietnam, too. Stuff is happening in the south China Sea now that involves Vietnam, China, and the United States. And it’s bringing up not just the past 40 years of, 50 years of Vietnamese and American history but a thousand years of Vietnamese and Chinese history. So the same lessons are applicable there, too. You would think we would learn our lesson after the thousand years of conflict but we haven’t really. I don’t think anybody actually going to get that lesson out of reading this book but that’s what I would hope.

Audience 2: Mr. Nguyen, early in your book I felt like you were trying to, and you alluded to social justice earlier, I felt like you were trying to make a point of Vietnamese Americans had difficulties trying to be themselves and adjusting to being in America because of the various social pressures. Whether it’s being model minority or the perpetual foreigner, yellow peril and so forth. How important is it that you make this point in your books? Did you do this on purpose? Is this kind of based on our own life experience, growing up as a Vietnamese American? Following question, I hope you don’t mind. Is it, some of your characters use the term Oriental in referring to Vietnamese and other Asians. I think it’s not quite as demeaning as a lot of racial slurs but I think it is somewhat derogatory to a lot of Asian American. I wanted to know why you used that term.

Viet Nguyen: When I was growing up one of my dad’s businesses was called the Oriental Funding Corporation in the 1980s. Didn’t strike me as a problem at the time. I think I looked at it and I was like, interesting term. But I didn’t have a political consciousness when I was ten, right. And so the novel, because it’s a novel and not my academic work, I’m kind of bound by the realities that my narrator confronts in the world that he’s living in. And so this is a world in which it’s perfectly acceptable to call people a negro which happens in the book or an oriental and that’s not meant as a derogatory thing. So that’s the major reason why it’s there. Just to capture the flavor that time. One of my friends who grew up in the 1970s in the United States said, hey this is what it was like if you were an Asian American. People called you an oriental and had all kinds of stereotypes and it was meant to be complimentary, these kinds of stereotypes, right?

Viet Nguyen: The other question about social justice in literature, I was an English major as an undergraduate. But I never would’ve gone on to study literature professionally which I did do to get my PhD without the belief that social justice could be a part of the world of literature, of literary critics and of writers. So what I did was I became an ethnic studies major as well and it was really through ethnic studies, studying the experiences of Asian Americans, Chicanos, Latinos that I felt that I could see that the study of literature and the writing of literature could be more than aesthetic. Could be more than artistic. All of that is important. Being able to write a good sentence or plot, do a good plot that’s really important. But what was important to me also to tell a story that I felt mattered historically and politically. That a story could do justice for people who had no justice done for them.

Viet Nguyen: That’s always been my conviction since I was 20 years old and I’ve tried to carry that through in the writing of the novel, in my work as a literature and cultural critic and in my work as a teacher, too because I think that that kind of conviction does matter for a lot of people, for a lot of students, especially minority students of any kind. Whatever, however you define minority. And it’s not true in general I think for the larger literary world at least in the United States where to talk about politics, to talk about social justice, to talk about race, that’s not actually something that most people in the literary world want to do. So it’s still necessary for those of us who believe that literature and social justice intersect to keep on with that work.

Audience 3: One of the most fascinating parts I found about your book was that one of the most blatant racist characters, the professor is also gay and there’s a lot of sort of underlying homoeroticism between the sympathizer and some of the other male characters in the novel. So I’m wondering what if any commentary sexuality can provide on construction as it relates to identity?

Viet Nguyen: Good question. I think really important because it’s impossible to extricate sexuality from anything. Half the people in this room ar having sexual fantasies right now. Maybe that’s just me. I just had a sexual fantasy. No, I mean sexuality is intrinsic to so much of what we do and how we view culture, how we view class, how we view race. A considerable portion of you are Naval Midshipmen at the military academy and for me when I look at how wars are conducted, even just talking specifically about the United States, it’s impossible to extricate sexual fantasy from how it is that Americans have seen their wars and seen their others. And often times that’s very explicitly imagined in heterosexual terms, right. There’s all kinds of heterosexual and heteronormative stereotypes and imagery that we have about the people we go to world with and we colonize, etc.

Viet Nguyen: So if we’re dealing with the Vietnamese, we’re Asian American context obviously Orientalist kind of fantasies about Asians being submissive and weak whether they’re male or female are prevalent. But underlying all of that is also homoerotic tension as well. And sometimes that very explicit as in homosexual relationships or homosexual fantasies between people of different cultures but often times it’s implicit that the homoerotic becomes coded, not allowed to be expressed explicitly. And so becomes homosocial or becomes suppressed homoeroticism which manifests itself in very terrible ways.

Viet Nguyen: In the novel, again there were certain boundaries I thought I couldn’t cross because who my character was. It would probably be too much to make him actually bisexual or too much to make him latently gay. But I never the less wanted to acknowledge that homoerotism, homosexuality exists and that’s why certain kinds of characters are in this book and certain kinds of gestures are being made.

Audience 4: One of the things I noticed the most about the sense of namelessness that you really created. The narrator doesn’t have a name and there’s these generic terms for each of each character, the auteur and the general. I was wondering if you can expand on that and if that’s a commentary on greater movements or forms in the 70s.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think that writing the book I was really focused on the question of style. How is the prose going to be read? What’s the texture of the prose going to be like? And I really wanted it to be sort of very smooth on the surface, not to have any kinds of interruptions. So that’s another reason why there’s no quotation marks for example. Some people are really irritated by this. Why don’t I have quotation marks? Well, when we speak we don’t have quotation marks, I’m going like this all the time. And the namelessness is partly a function of that is to continue that kind of smooth discourse and seamlessness at the level of the prose.

Viet Nguyen: It’s also philosophical to some extent. These characters, and especially my narrator feels anonymous. He feels like he doesn’t really belong anywhere. And that’s reflected in the fact that he’s never given a name. What’s also happening is that the movie plays a significant part in this book and as you see when the credits of the movie rolls, the Vietnamese people don’t have names in the movie. They’re cast as crazy whore, guy in whorehouse, VC terrorist #1. That’s pretty much how it works even today, right? In movies about other people who aren’t white that Hollywood makes.

Viet Nguyen: So that’s also what the namelessness is a commentary about. And the fact that people are given titles rather than names is an expression of that. It’s also the ability to give names is powerful and the ability to take names away is powerful. So in a sense that’s what the narrator is doing even if he’s rendering himself anonymous, he’s also taking away the names of not just Vietnamese people but of Americans and white people as well. And that can also be something that I think people find uncomfortable because they don’t want to have their names taken away from them but here it’s kind of his revenge also.

Audience 5: Hey, how’s it going? It’s a quick question back here. Hi, I’m Barry London. I was wanting to know if you had any regrets after publishing the book or any thematic concepts that you wished you had pushed more. I guess that’s it.

Viet Nguyen: I think truthfully I can say no I don’t have regrets. I know what some of the criticisms of the books are, the book is, because I’m an obsessive reader, not just of reviews that are published in the newspapers and so on but of Goodreads, amazon.com. Many authors hate reading these things because they’re like, oh my God, these readers are stupid. How could they misread my book in this way. I have no idea if the readers on amazon.com and Goodreads are misreading the book. They have their opinions and they think I did a bad job in this respect or I did a bad job in that respect but it hasn’t changed my mind. I think that the book can’t really please everybody. There’s certain kinds of aesthetic decisions that I make that I know are going to push people’s buttons. And we can run done the whole list if you want. But I don’t regret many of those kinds of decisions because I think the book is designed to make people uncomfortable.

Viet Nguyen: Some people will enjoy that feeling of discomfort and some people won’t. I think the issues that I worry about have to do with representation. Like you brought up the question, the Vietnamese daughter. And I worried in writing the book about half way through I realized, oh my God, my narrator’s a sexist pig. But that’s who he is so what am I supposed to of about it? I can’t all of a sudden make him into a feminist simply because I think that’s the right thing to do. So I had to try to figure out how to deal with these questions of example, gender and representation and feminism in other ways by having other characters in there. So one of my big questions about the book is even though he’s a sexist pig and there’s a lot of sexism and a lot of terrible things that are happening to women, and about women, whether or not the representations of women are still compelling. Whether or not there’s a justification for the book to depict gender and gender-relations in this fashion.

Viet Nguyen: So it’s not a regret. It’s a question that I have. And I don’t know what the answer is for that.

Audience 6: As a reader, there have been obviously perspectives of both the North and South Vietnam. And this was the first compared to other narratives that I’ve read so my question is, as a writer what did you anticipate the initial reaction of the Vietnamese community to be trying to capture both of these perspectives and was the reaction to what you anticipated?

Viet Nguyen: Again, I think there’s two, at least two Vietnamese American communities. One that speaks mostly in Vietnamese and the one that speaks mostly in English. I was hoping that for the community that spoke in English that they would be really receptive to the book. Because I feel that we shared generational sympathies, right? And that seems to be true for the most part that the feedback that I’ve gotten from Vietnamese American readers, that generation, my generation and younger has been really good. I think that many of us come from the situation I feel, we grew up in situations where people were just shouting at each other all the time and not listening to other people’s points of view. So we didn’t want to read another book that typically asserted one perspective. I thought that was important for this book to assert the comparative perspective. That that would be important in and of itself.

Viet Nguyen: What didn’t know is how the older Vietnamese community or the community that’s speaks in Vietnamese, how they would react to the book. I’m still not certain because I think it’s only beginning to be read or it has been read by a small number of people from that population. And the ones who can read it in English are already of a certain kind of background where they’re already sort of literary, inclined to be open-minded about certain kinds of issues and those people have been very enthusiastic about the book, too. And I think Vietnamese people have no problem telling you to your face if they don’t like you or your work so the fact that that hasn’t happened yet is a good sign. It’s not just silence, that they’re being polite.

Viet Nguyen: But I think that there’s still a larger audience out there who may have head of the book but haven’t read it yet and then I don’t know how they’re going to react once the book maybe, might be translated into Vietnamese.

Audience 7: As I was reading the book I sensed throughout this kind of pervasive Nihilism that the protagonist was constantly cornering in. As I was reading and you reach the end and he really reaches his enlightenment, he realizes there’s nothing or he confesses that there’s nothing and that kind of stuff. I was wondering if this was one of those books that was intended to warn us against Nihilism as kind of an ontology that ultimately lead towards corruptions of all sorts? Or if it’s something that kind of exposes to say, hey we are Nihilistic so make it what it is? I wished you put it and the book, I actually wrote in my little notes, like really? As I was disappointed with protagonist. If you don’t mind let me read just a little bit.

Audience 7: It says, why do those who call for independence and freedom take away independence and freedom? And is it sane or insane to believe as so many around us apparently do not? And so far so good. And then this is the line. We can only answer these questions for ourselves. Which is ultimately a Nihilist answer. It’s ultimately kind of a Nietzschean response to what the world is. And I’m wondering if you were trying to warn us or prompt us towards that or say hey this is what we got it’s up to us to form our own identities or so forth? Do you have a comment on that?

Viet Nguyen: Well you know I love Nietzsche because I began my book with, my epigraph is from On the Genealogy of Morals which I only discovered about two thirds of the way through the book I thought, oh that’s perfect. I gotta put that in there. But honestly when I wrote the novel I had no idea how it was going to end. Only about two thirds of the way through did I realize how it was going to end. And I think the book fits into one of the genres that it fits into to is the genre of disillusionment with ideology. You know there’s a lot of books like this. And typically how these books end is the narrator is disillusioned and he has to start over. And that’s exactly what happened here in this book.

Viet Nguyen: So in ne sense I don’t think the book is an endorsement of Nihilism. It ends on that note but the book, his story is not finished yet. I realized that when I finished the book. I got to, I need to keep on running with this guy because what happens to him, it’s a good ending to end with starting over. But I wanted to see where he would go after that and what he would do with this knowledge of nothingness. That’s where I think the book is not Nihilistic ultimately because the fact that he realizes there’s nothing and that nothing has, a duality of meaning is what prevents it from being Nihilistic. If we only think Of nothing as one thing, there’s no God, we’re fucked. Yeah, okay, that’s Nihilistic. But his point is that nothing is actually something. Doing nothing is actually doing something for which you’re responsible. He does nothing at a crucial point in the book and he’s held responsible for that.

Viet Nguyen: All of us have done nothing at some point. And we get away with it often times. So he realized that nothing is nothing but nothing is also something. And that’s what I think prevents the book from being Nihilistic in the end.

Audience 8: Hello. How are you? Earlier you said about representation and when I was reading the book I was really excited to see how much commentary you had on the film industry. I saw the Full Metal Jacket references as well, good joke. I just have a question. Seeing in your story how the film was handled and I see kind of historical taxidermy with the gutting of our culture. The auteur putting on what he thinks of our culture. I was just wondering what your opinion was on the film industry now and if there is any space for us as Asian Americans to exist within this Hollywood structure? You could just give your opinion on it because I saw your [inaudible 00:51:43].

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that in many ways things obviously haven’t changed in Hollywood. We just have new villains, new minorities and so on and Hollywood does exactly the same thing that it’s always done. And that’s partially because a lot of money is involved in Hollywood. A lot of people have their preconceptions about what films should do. So it’s hard to be an independent artist in Hollywood. If you’re a poet no one cares. You can say whatever you want. You can do the most radical, empathetic kind of work and it’s partially because no money is involved. But once you get involved in Hollywood then you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. And that totally constrains your aesthetic ability, our artistic vision. So that being said, I think there’s still hope.

Viet Nguyen: A lot of Vietnamese Americans I know who have a hard time getting ahead in Hollywood decided we’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to go to Vietnam and make movies instead. And lo and behold, they’re movie stars, they’re making big budget movies in Vietnam. Some of the most successful filmmakers in Vietnam are Vietnamese Americans. Now, that’s a bad thing in a sense that they didn’t do it in Hollywood but on the other hand they showed they can do it in other kinds of places. And so we’re not really bound anymore to this idea that the United States is our only destination. That in a globalized world for Asian Americans for example it’s possible to imagine our destinies elsewhere. That we can be global instead of being stuck as if Hollywood was the only option.

Viet Nguyen: But even within the context of the United States and Hollywood, there’s still possibilities for maneuver, for struggle. And we still need people to stay here and to work within the industry. And as I was talking about with some of the other folks upfront, Aziz Ansari, great example. Netflix Master of None, you should all watch it. Episode 3 or 4, 3 I think is his meditation on what it means to be an Indian American actor in the film industry and it’s both a condemnation of it in some of the similar terms as to what I do but also because he exists and was able to make this series is an example that there’s possibility for transformation to happen.

Audience 9: Do you think a film version of The Sympathizer itself could be the answer to that?

Viet Nguyen: That’s like the devil asking a question. Then he’d be like, hey Sophia Coppola is giving you $5 million to buy your movie rights will you do it? Will I do it? I would say yeah, I’ll do it. And then it would be a totally horrible movie. I don’t know. I think it’s really hard because there’s so much happening in the book. I have a hard time imagining a two hour, three hour movie being made about it. Someone else told me who has more experience in writing screenplays, well what would happen is they would just make a movie out of one part of the book. Which to me would feel like a total violation but maybe you could make a good movie out of that. Or else, the real fantasy I have is HBO will buy it and then they’ll make a ten part series out of it. That would make much more sense to me. But again this is all in the world realm of wishful fantasy.

Mimi Khùc: So I think we’re out of time. Thank you so much for coming and joining and listening and having a great conversation.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Speaker 2: This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

 

Category: Interviews

 

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