Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Maxine Hong Kingston and Viet Thanh Nguyen: Two Writers Reflect on War and Peace

Maxine Hong Kingston and Viet Thanh Nguyen share a conversation about the war and the responsibility of literature in depicting war machines and peace movements presented at ALOUD Library Foundation of Los Angeles.

Presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles

Visionary writer Maxine Hong Kingston has been writing about war and peace since her landmark 1976 book The Woman Warrior. Her lifelong efforts on this theme often touched on the Vietnam War, from China Men to The Fifth Book of Peace. These works influenced 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and critic Viet Thanh Nguyen as he dealt with the war in both fiction (The Sympathizer) and scholarship (Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War). Both writers share the ALOUD stage to discuss their own personal histories with the war, and the responsibility of literature in depicting war machines and peace movements.

Read the transcript below:

Speaker 1: Tonight’s program as you know is titled Two Writers on Reflect on War and Peace. And on the same day that our president is visiting Vietnam or perhaps has just left on an Asian state visit that also includes the first post-war visit by an American president to Hiroshima, war still rages around the world as we also know. Of the hundred and sixty-two countries covered by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s latest study, just 11 were not involved in conflict of one kind or another. And right now Vietnam along with Costa Rica and Switzerland is on the list of those 11 with the lowest score for conflict.

Speaker 1: Tell the truth and so make peace. That’s the motto of the veterans of war, veterans of peace writing group that writer Maxine Hong Kingston founded decades ago. But how do you make peace? How do you remember war? Is there an ethics of memory? Is there an ethics for peace? Where does war live in our memory? And how is the memory of war passed down through the generations? What is the responsibility of literature in depicting war as well as peace and that web of complicity that makes war possible? These are some of the crucial issues that both of tonight’s distinguished guests, Maxine Hong Kingston and Viet Thanh Nguyen, have dedicated themselves to exploring in depth in their own writing.

Speaker 1: Visionary writer, Maxine Hong Kingston has earned numerous awards for her memoirs in fiction, among them The Fifth Book of Peace, The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, I’m sure we’ve all read most of them because they’re just such great classics. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life and Hawaii One Summer.

Speaker 1: Those awards include the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, as well as the title Living Treasure of Hawaii, though Maxine says, “Everyone is a living treasure.” You are all living treasures. In July 2014, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama, she is professor Emerita at the University of California where she taught for many years and among her creative writing students was Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Speaker 1: Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1975. When Saigon fell to the communist, he fled with his family to the United States. He was four years old. He teaches English, and American studies, and ethnicity at USC. His first novel, The Sympathizer, was awarded the First Novel Prize by the Center For Fiction and The Carnegie Medal for excellence in fiction. And just a few weeks ago, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Speaker 1: The Sympathizer, his novel, is set during and just after the war in Vietnam and is told in the form of a forced confession by a spy whose crime or part of it is his sympathy for the suffering on both sides of the conflict. Nguyen’s new non-fiction book we have both of them for sale tonight is Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam in the Memory of War, just out from Harvard University Press.

Speaker 1: He noted in an interview, “I mean for The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies to be read side by side as the fictional and scholarly bookends of a critical project about our capacity to be both human and inhuman at the same time. We’re going to begin our program tonight with readings by our two distinguished guests. Please welcome Maxine Hong Kingston and Viet Thanh Nguyen to the stage of the Los Angeles Public Library. Thank you.

Maxine Hong K.: Thank you Louis. Louis herself is a writer of war and peace. And right here at the Los Angeles Public Library, she held the writing workshop for veterans. So thank you very much Louis. To write the truth of war I used realism, but permeating and underlying maybe causing history are myths and archetypes.

Maxine Hong K.: In The Woman warrior, I wrote about Fa Mu Lan and I wrote about her in prose. 35 years later, I felt that I had made so many mistakes in writing her life. And so, in The Fifth Book of Peace, I rewrote the story of Fa Mu Lan and I made it closer to the exact translation. I translated the chant of Fa Mu Lan as close as I could. And it is poetry and not prose.

Maxine Hong K.: And in the new version, I fixed all the mistakes. The main mistake was that I forgot to tell you that she was a weaver. And so, she was Odysseus and Penelope all in one. And the chant begins with the sound of weaving. Jik, jik, jik. Jik means to weave, jik means to knit, and jik means to heal.

Maxine Hong K.: Jik, jik, jik. Jik, jik, jik. Fa Muk Lan is weaving the shuttle through the loom when news of the draft comes. Each family must provide one man to be a soldier in the army. Sparing her dear father the retched life of a soldier, she disguises herself as a man and goes in his stead to war. With heavy armor and her hand-fitting sword, she fights wars.

Maxine Hong K.: Her horse’s hooves pound the earth. She cannot hear the voices of home. She is away long years and many battles. So long a time that her father and mother grow old and die.

Maxine Hong K.: At the head of her army giving chase and being chased she suffers wounds, blood drips red from the openings of her armor. Her army chasing and being chased passes her home village six times back and forth past her home, but she cannot stop to place offerings on the graves.

Maxine Hong K.: In terrible battle, general Muk Lan defeats an enemy and the king proffers rewards. She asked to go home. The war be done. She takes her army to her home village and orders them to wait for her in the square. Indoors she takes off man’s armor. She bathes, dresses herself in pretty silks and reddens her cheeks and lips. She upsweeps her long black hair and adorns it with flowers. Presenting herself to the army she says, “I was the general who led you, now go home. By her voice the men recognize their general. A beautiful woman, “You were our general? A woman, our general was a woman, a beautiful woman, a woman led us through the war. A woman has led us home.”

Maxine Hong K.: Fa Muk Lan disbands the army, “Return home, farewell,” beholding and becoming Yin, the feminine, come home from war. Jik, jik jik. Jik, jik, jik. When I got to as literal a translation as possible, in its poetic form, I realized that this was not a war chant, it’s a come home from war chant. I also realized that in literature and entertainment there are lots of war stories and hardly any peace stories. And so I set out to write a peace stories.

Maxine Hong K.: And so, I’m going to read to you a scene from I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. And it’s interesting to me that it’s not in prose, that trying to write a peace story I write it in poetry.

Maxine Hong K.: In San Francisco, we were a peace dragon with 100,000 pairs of feet walking up and down the city heels. From rooftops and balconies rained rice as at weddings and water on the summer’s day. And rose petals and red and motley confetti in Washington DC on International Women’s Day 2003, are peace dragonets was a mile long. Winding our way to the White House, one million people matched in Rome and thousands of Shia and Sunni Muslims together in Baghdad.

Maxine Hong K.: Oh democracy, I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks. For the first time in history the area in front of the White House fence was banned to demonstrators. The U.S. Park Police stopped us at Pennsylvania Avenue. So we sat in. We sat ourselves down upon the historic ground. Our house, our street. The rangers are friendly and will converse used to being helpful to terrorists. We have a permit. Didn’t you get a copy? You promised we could parade in front of the White House. Our house, our street.

Maxine Hong K.: The permit’s for only 25 people. Okay, so let’s count off 25. One, two, three, four, five. I was ninth. My lucky number. I said my number and stepped between the rangers. Running at us, whooping, cheering came a pink-clad crowd, the tail of the dragon. They had gotten through the police line at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. We rushed to meet them, hugging, holding one another, happy, we completed the ring around our house.

Maxine Hong K.: A troupe gathers around me, some walk by my side and some behind, and some embrace my arms or neck. Thicker they come, a great crowd and I in the middle. The encirclement lasted for moments. Then the crowd cooperated with the police who asked them and ordered them off the street. They retreated to the borders of Lafitte Park, there they stayed keeping an eye on the 25 of us who stood at the kerb of the White House sidewalk.

Maxine Hong K.: In the middle of the park drummers, Native Americans drummed, banging day and night. The president won’t sleep till he calls off shock and awe. Wave to the drummers, dance to the drumming, sing and dance to our own singing ululation and give peace a chance. Wave to the peace marchers, wave to the police, wave to the children of Iraq. Everyone I saw was nonviolent. The man with a bullhorn and the blow ups of abortions disappeared. Calendar demonstrators disappeared. Everywhere I looked was peace.

Maxine Hong K.: Each woman cared for the women around her and love grew. Love and love returning. Love and returning love. Love reverberating. Love magnifying. I’ve felt love palpable and so love manifest its pink air and light turned dawn pink. The color I imagine Yin, the color of aired blood, the pink mist at explosions. I was desperate for miracle. Perhaps the reason I could open my arms wide and gather up great big pink balls of peace and hurl them east towards Iraq and turn and hurl them at the White House.

Maxine Hong K.: I’m not the only one, other women also threw pink balls of peace to the Iraqi children to protect them. And at the White House, catch George, catch Laura, the many kinds of police kept arriving, first the Law enforcement Park Rangers who I think are federal police. Then came the Metropolitan Police, which included Mounted Police and Motorcycle Cops. Then SWAT teams, tact squads easy to practice nonviolence with the friendly park rangers. How about giving me your code pink button for my wife?

Maxine Hong K.: We petted and talked to the horses, but the SWAT, tact, one way glass over faces everyone in the same robot stands. A rank of robots, weapons, any women can’t tell impervious to us. The officer shouting and giving us orders was a DC cop, “Get off the street. Arrest will begin in 20 minutes.” 20 minutes and more past. He announced again and again, “Arrest in 20 minutes.” They didn’t really want to arrest us, they hopped we would go away. We were having a standoff. Without discussion, we 25 women all together took slow steps backward through the yellow tape. We waved our arms and pink scarves and ribbons waving goodbye to our supporters who stood witness under three far sides of the park. Waving goodbye to the police.

Maxine Hong K.: We are getting off the street. We walked backward, broke the yellow tape up onto the kerb into the restricted zone White House sidewalk. Slowly imperceptibly moving so as not to provoke violent arrest. Singing salaam, peace, shalom. We reached the White House fence. Two grandmothers ago, our ancestors chained themselves to this black iron fence. I held its bars in my hands, laid my face against the barricade and felt tears rise.

Maxine Hong K.: The other women were crying too and cheering and dancing. Now the police saw we had unambiguously broken a law. Time to start the arrest. All the police came to attention. The rangers blocking the left side of the street, the tact squad at the right and the city cops in a blue line facing us. The width of the street between. On the White House roof, a man in uniform aimed a high-powered, long, range, sharp-shooter riffle at us. He aimed it, put it down, aimed, put it down. A van drove into the cordoned area. I think the insignia on it said federal prison.

Maxine Hong K.: Two or three cops unfolded a tarp and taped it onto the side of the van covering over the words. I got afraid, they’re hiding the place where they would take us. They would disappear us, they’re going to drive us through the streets of the capital in an unmarked white vehicle. No one would know what became of us. Keep singing, keep loving, say in unequivocal words I love you. Hear, I love you Maxine. The metropolitan police, the men, stood in one line formation. The women, we the demonstrators drew one another close. We were a bouquet knot of pink roses.

Maxine Hong K.: How can it be that all the cops are men and all for peace women. I can’t live in such a world. I don’t want to keep living out the myth that men fight and women mother. We regressed the junior high dance, one boy cross the wide floor chose one girl, escorted her back to the other side where he arrested her.

Maxine Hong K.: “My wife is going to kill me,” said a black cop. “I’m arresting Alice walker.” “Don’t hold hands with me,” said a white cop shaking off his partner who was smiling up at him. Don’t take my arm either. They had each one of us stand by herself alongside the van and took our pictures.

Maxine Hong K.: “Quit smiling, what are you smiling for? This is an arrest, this is your mug shot, not your prom photo. I was smiling from happiness. My government will not disappear me. The tarp was but backdrop for shooting pics. And the beautiful pink arrow was still upon me. My cop and I did not speak. A woman officer in casual uniform, no gun, took my purse, hair clips, pink poncho, my earrings and put them in a plastic bag.

Maxine Hong K.: Ready for handcuffing, I presented my hands, wrist together in front but my arresting officers signaled in back. I won’t be able to write, to touch, to catch myself, and will fall on my face. I turned about held my arms behind me as high as I could bending way forward, making my gestures large for the witness to see.

Maxine Hong K.: Handcuffs in this age of new plastics work like the ties for bread and trees. My arrestor could have tightened the cable tie so that it cut into the skin. The hands turn blue, burst. These police were kind to tie us loosely, our belongings taken, our pictures taken, handcuffed, we were made to get into a paddy wagon. About eight per wagon. There are cages, like dog cages between the front seat and the side benches.

Maxine Hong K.: I sat in the middle of a bench, my shoulders touching women’s shoulders beside me, my legs touching women’s legs before me. Women outside pounded, drummed on the van. Through the windshield we could see them uploading. Somebody said, “There’s my daughter.” The van started up, the crowd parted. Let the van through. It got quiet. We were driving away from the magic.

Maxine Hong K.: The rose light went out. Actually we were all very happy because we thought that we had vantage shock in awe. But two weeks later, the bombing started. And so, there I am. I am in despair and doubt. Is my faith in nonviolent actions a mistake? Were Gandhi and Martin Luther King merely magically thinking?

Maxine Hong K.: Do nonviolent tactics work? So, my task as a writer making peace through art is to answer those questions.

Viet Thanh N.: I’m going to read two short excerpts from the two books, the first excerpt is from The Sympathizer which is definitely a novel about war, peace hardly ever comes up in that book. But also a novel about war and memory and that’s what this passage is going to be about. Our protagonist is a communist spy in the south Vietnamese army. His loyalties are divided. He comes to the United States as a refugee, and he comes to Los Angeles to California. And this is partially based on a true story that the Vietnamese refugees really had their priorities straight.

Viet Thanh N.: One of the first things they did when they got here was to open a night club and that’s where this scene is set. Now known by just one name like John, Paul, George, Ringo and Mary. Lorna stepped on stage, clad in a red velvet bustier, a leopard print miniskirt, black lace gloves, and thigh high leather boots with stiletto heels.

Viet Thanh N.: 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 all together and beat it with a vigor of a Los Angeles police squad.

Viet Thanh N.: I thought that would be too close to reality for you, but you’re from a different part of Los Angeles, I guess. Pouring cognac over my heart freed it, but thus drenched it was easily flambeed by her torture song. She turned on the heat with her first number, the unexpected I’d love you to want me, which I’d heard before sang only by men.

Viet Thanh N.: I’d love you to want me was the theme song that the bachelors and unhappily married males of my generation, whether in 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 love nothing more than unrequited love.

Viet Thanh N.: Cracked hearts, our primary weakness after cigarettes, coffee and cognac. Listening to Lorna 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. I knew I shouldn’t have that drink before this reading. Her voice enough to move the audience or rather to still us. It was a Cambodian meal, by the way, at café [Pennoz 00:26:24], I’ve never had that before. I don’t recommend it after this reading.

Viet Thanh N.: Nobody talked and nobody stirred except to raise a cigarette or a glass and utter concentration. Not broken for her next slightly more upbeat number, bang bang my baby shut me down.

Viet Thanh N.: Lorna’s version of bang bang layered English with French and Vietnamese. The last line of the French version echoed with Vietnamese version, We will never forget. In the pantheon of classic pop songs from Saigon, this tricolor rendition was one of the most memorable, massively 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 Thanh N.: Bang bang was a sound of memories pistol firing into our heads, for we cannot forget love, we cannot forget war, we cannot forget lovers, we cannot forget enemies, we cannot forget home, and we could not forget Saigon. 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 [inaudible] under coconut trees. The whisper of a dewy lover saying the most seductive words in our language, [Vietnamese 00:27:50].

Viet Thanh N.: The Vietnamese people are there. The working men who slept in their sea clothes 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.

Viet Thanh N.: 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.

Viet Thanh N.: The shadows cast by candlelight on 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 can ever forget was that we could never forget. Thank you.

Viet Thanh N.: So, I still had more to say after writing that book about war and memory and it went on to write Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. I’ll just read a brief part from the beginning and the end to give you a sense of what this book is about. It’s about the Vietnam war or the American war as the Vietnamese and Vietnam call it. But it’s also about how the Cambodians and the [inaudible] and the South Koreans and the South East Asians diasporas in the United States have remembered this war in many different ways.

Viet Thanh N.: Starts off this way, I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe in its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and what to know what to make of it. Americans, as well as many people of the world over tend to mistake Vietnam with the war named in its honor, with dishonor, as the case may be.

Viet Thanh N.: This confusion has no doubt led to some of my own uncertainty about what it means to be man with two countries as well as the inheritor of two revolutions. Today the Vietnamese and American revolutions manufacture memories only to absolve the hardening of their arteries. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions, or who have been influenced by them in some way, we have to know how we make memories and how we forget them so that we can beat their hearts back to life.

Viet Thanh N.: That is the project or it is the hope of this book. And then this is from the end. Remembering if we’re getting entwined together, a double helix making us who we are. One never without the other. I want to remember but so much has been forgotten or silenced. My own personal memory is faulty. Through my youth I had a memory of soldiers firing from our boat onto another boat as we floated on the South China Sea.

Viet Thanh N.: I was four. My brother, seven years older, says the shooting never happened. As an adult I remembered my mother being hospitalized when I was a child. A few years ago, when I discovered a memoir that I’d written in college, here, in Maxine’s class and she’d been in the margins. Stop using cliches.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, sometimes it requires teachers to tell you the things you really need to know. And it took me 20 years to stop using cliches. I read in my own words that she was in the hospital at that time not years before. Her illness in that strange word with its mumbling patience had made me feel like I was a frightened child. That feeling was what I remembered. As for my father it’s pointless to ask him about the past. His relationship to the past is to muffle it, at least in my presence.

Viet Thanh N.: Although I visited his homeland, I’ve never visited my own origin, the town where I was born because he has forbidden it. More than once he has said to me, “You can never go back there.” Too many people will remember him and persecute me, or so he believes. I think of what the cartoonist Art Spiegelman said of his father who survived The Holocaust. “I hadn’t a clue as to how to find the places my father had been telling me he grew up in,” says Spiegelman. “And he wasn’t of much help except to tell us not to go at all because they kill Jews there, using the present tense, they kill Jews there don’t go. He was afraid for us.”

Viet Thanh N.: Like Spiegelman’s father, my own must believe in memories that do not die. Those pneumonic [meneses] that retain their fatal force. And while I’ve disobeyed my father in many things, I cannot in this one thing. The paternal injunction is too strong, the spectra of the unknown past to unsettling. What is it that he remembers of this place? What will he not tell me? What if he is right? This absence as a forbidding presence is the opposite of memory. Perhaps some things will never be remembered and yet also never forgotten.

Viet Thanh N.: Perhaps some things will remain unspoken and yet always heard. Perhaps I will only visit where I was born after my father has passed on. Then it will be too late to see what it is he remembers, the real memory having at last expired. This is the paradox of the past, of trauma, of loss, of war, a true war story where there is no ending but the unknown. No conversation except that which cannot be finished.

Viet Thanh N.: I think back to my fathers’ father and what happened to his remains. The Vietnamese believe a person should be buried twice. The first time in a field removed from home and village, the earth eats the flesh. The second time the survivors must disinter what remains. If they have time to correctly there will only be bones, if they have timed it wrong, there will still be flesh.

Viet Thanh N.: Regardless of what they find, they must wash the bones with their own hands. Then they bury the bones once more. This time closer to the living. Thank you.

Viet Thanh N.: I want to start off with a question about writing.

Maxine Hong K.: You know Viet, I had wanted to do the first question.

Viet Thanh N.: Oh you want to do the first question.

Maxine Hong K.: I want to do the first question.

Viet Thanh N.: Oh, okay.

Maxine Hong K.: Because I have a question that I think everything here is thinking. So may I-

Viet Thanh N.: Sure, please.

Maxine Hong K.: … do the first question and you can do the… You know nobody wants to hear about writing. Everybody wants to know about fame.

Viet Thanh N.: Fame.

Maxine Hong K.: Fame.

Viet Thanh N.: Okay.

Maxine Hong K.: So my question is how are you taking this fresh, new, big fame that you’re going through right now, the palates of praise.

Viet Thanh N.: Thank you.

Maxine Hong K.: I want to know how you’re taking it, I want to know how you’re enjoying it, and what I’m thinking about was when I first became famous. So there’s the prizes, there’s the attention, there’s the readership, but then there’s a tax. I was called a race trader, I was called a cast trader, I was called a liar, that I got my facts wrong. That my grandmother couldn’t possibly have two slaves because nobody has two slaves, you could have one, or you could have three, you could have a hundred but you can’t have two. And so, I want to know how are you taking your fame and are you enjoying it?

Viet Thanh N.: Well you know what, no one has offered me free drugs yet. I’m waiting for that. Where are they? I don’t know, but I mean, it’s been crazy, it’s been a month and I have a day job I’m a professor, I’m a department chair. Some of the students of the department are here. American studies and ethnicity USC, we’re one of the best. Well, anyway like the day after I was up to 4:00AM writing emails, managing department business. And the day after that I was literally running through the shoots of Brooklyn to try to make a phone meeting to my department for a meeting that I was chairing. So it kept everything very real. And then I came home and I said to my son, “Hey, I have a prize,” he said, “Hmm.” He’s three years old, he didn’t care. He’s just mad that daddy is away on the road trip and everything.

Viet Thanh N.: But the best result of this all was two days after the prize I was on the road and my dad called me. And he’s not an emotive man, he’s not an emotional man, but his voice was shaking with happiness. He was giddy with joy. Because his relatives from Vietnamese had called him, and he said, “Hey, he won the Pulitzer Prize.”

Viet Thanh N.: And so if they know about it in Vietnam, then it must be real. So, I was really happy to make my dad happy and all it took was winning the Pulitzer Prize. That’s a model minority story for you right there. But outside of that I have… I know the stories you were talking about in terms of the criticism that you received, it’s part of literal history and Asian-American law now. It hasn’t happened to me in that same way because I haven’t, I don’t know, I’m sure it’s going to happen because I have a social media presence that I’m very active and I talk about very political things.

Viet Thanh N.: And now people are starting to throw shade. I did this interview with Terry Gross on NPR and Fresh Air you go do the online… I’m told you should never read the comments but I always read the comments. If you want to stab me in the back just go write something in the comments I’m going to read it. But the comments are horrible. And now Vietnamese people I think you got the worst from other Chinese-Americans, right?

Maxine Hong K.: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes. They’re the ones, yeah. They’re the ones.

Viet Thanh N.: Right and so the Vietnamese-Americans are so proud of me for having… and Vietnamese people also for having won the Pulitzer. They never read the book. They haven’t read the book and so now they’re trying to read the stuff that I write online which is very much an expression of who I am as a writer and they’re like, “He’s left us, he’s Komi.”

Viet Thanh N.: He’s ignorant and he doesn’t know his history. He didn’t have this experience. How can you write about this when he was barely born during the war? So I have a question for you now.

Maxine Hong K.: Okay.

Viet Thanh N.: Okay. So, then you have in your earlier work, you deal a lot with all these Chinese history and the experience of Chinese immigrants, most of this happens before you yourself were born too. And so, I’m sure some of the critics that you were getting were precisely around this issue, but you were running out of time when there were very few role models in terms of being a Chinese-American or Asian-America writer, I think you mentioned Jade Snow Wong, for example, as one of your influences. That’s just one.

Viet Thanh N.: I grew up with you, Amy Tan, numerous other Asian-American writers as I was a student. So what was that like trying to curve your own path knowing that there wasn’t a huge body of scholarship for you to draw on a huge body of writing for you to model yourself on? Did you find that to be daunting or did you find that to be a real challenge that you rose up to meet?

Maxine Hong K.: Well, I feel that I was always a writer, and incarnations ago I’ve been writing, and the stories would come and I would write whatever came. And I knew that I was different from anybody else. From my reading, I could tell that there was nobody like me anywhere. And so, I just thought, “Okay, I’m just going to do whatever I need to do and we can think about publishing some other time.”

Maxine Hong K.: I tried not to let the publishing or getting a readership breathe down my neck. I had to write whatever was real. And I had made up my mind that I would never get published in my lifetime. And I would save all my work and it was really okay with me that they would find my writing a hundred years from now. I also had the thought of, I thought American publishing isn’t going to do it, so I’ll send it to Britain and to Hong Kong. And I didn’t know that they’re even worse than American publishers.

Maxine Hong K.: I did have role models, James Baldwin, it was very important to me to read the African-American writers. And I also read The Beatnix because here’s people just setting out in an entirely different direction.

Maxine Hong K.: I just thought of another horrible criticism that we get is, “Oh, you got published because you pandered to the white audience.” So, after you win all the prizes and everything, you still get from your own Chinese community that you distorted everything so that you could get the white mainstream audience to like your work.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I have a question now, the topic of this evening is war and peace, and as Louis mentioned President Obama’s on tour in Vietnam and Japan and obviously, all the stuff about war and peace is really crucial because he’s not apologizing for Hiroshima even though he’s visiting Hiroshima and he’s in Vietnam but he’s obviously not really talking about the war. And tying it back to the question of fame, President Obama hung a medal around your neck, The National Humanities Medal, is that the right award?

Maxine Hong K.: Medal of the Arts.

Viet Thanh N.: Medal of the Arts.

Maxine Hong K.: Bill Clinton gave me the humanities.

Viet Thanh N.: All right, there you go. Absolutely. So you’ve been very close to power, they’ve touched your neck. And you have some sense of presidential power and all that, but you also work… you write for peace, you work for peace, you’re very critical of war, I’m just curious how you… because I’ve been critical of President Obama. And whenever I’m critical of President Obama, people are like, “Appreciate what he’s done domestically.”

Viet Thanh N.: And of course I appreciate what he’s done domestically and I appreciate that he’s not as bad as George Bush overseas, but should we settle for not as bad as or what he’s done for us? Because I feel like if we really want to critique war, we really need to understand, I think, and you can correct me and I’m asking a question too.

Viet Thanh N.: For me war integrates what happens domestically with what happens overseas. So, it’s perfectly possible for a president to be great domestically for American citizens but still do their own strikes or still sell bombs or still bomb other countries. How do you negotiate that as a writer who has been close to power but also I think has been very critical of power as well?

Maxine Hong K.: You need to work on all of it. You write about the whole world, and you write about your own world. It always bothered me studying civics in high school, how did we end the depression? Oh, we did it by going to World War II and that solved everything.

Maxine Hong K.: So, it all goes together and you write about the whole thing. Everything causes everything, and you just need to… I mean, the challenge is so big because the feet is to write all of history, all of human evolution. I’m thinking about when I wrote about the Chinese men coming here to build the railroad and I was going to write it. And I felt that putting the words down was as difficult as actually building that railroad with the sledge hammers and the dynamite and the building of the rails. But I did it in words but it seemed as if I took that same energy.

Maxine Hong K.: I have a related question for you, in reading The Sympathizer, by the end of the book the country is lost, war is lost, peace is lost, war is useless, and it’s impossible not to take sides. And the story ends with the narrator in his rucksack, but I picture it as a backpack and he’s got his manuscript in the sack. But just like in the Woman Warrior where she has the words carved on her back and he’s got his words and they’re in this rucksack and they’re getting out of the country. And the story ends where they’re just going to escape and they’re just going to wait until a just cause comes again.

Maxine Hong K.: But we don’t know that a just cause will come because one hasn’t come before and then, in italics, we will live. And that mirrors survival. And then by your second book you have… in Nothing Ever Dies, there’s profound hope, there’s faith, there is, you write methods for how to get to peace, and reconciliation, and justice, and truth. And so, how did you get from that book to that book?

Viet Thanh N.: Actually the question I was going to ask you is a very similar question because, no, no, for example, war novels and peace books, right? And I know you’ve written The Fifth Book of Peace, it’s a marvelous book. And you’ve done lots of other peace work. But I was trying to think, “If I was asked to name great war novels, I can name a whole bunch of great war novels, if I was asked to name a great novel about peace, it would be harder for me to think…”

Viet Thanh N.: First of all, what is a novel of peace and what it would be like and I think The Fifth Book of Peace was definitely your version of that. But I think in my case The Sympathizer was definitely a war novel, I thought of it as a war novel. It was my attempt to argue that, number one, Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans haven’t had their opportunity in English anyway to tell the great war novel of this particular war.

Viet Thanh N.: But then also peace was in the background but they never achieved it, despite all these aspirations that all these people had. And it was easier to write a non-fiction book, a critical book, where I could think about peace, how do we get from war to peace. And for some reason I think that non-fiction format works better. Maybe there’s some kind of didacticism about peace.

Maxine Hong K.: I know why it works better. Because the Aristotle told us that drama is conflict, and action, and we’ve all… the whole of civilization, all our civilizations when we write the plays, the novels, the movies, the drama is in violent action. And for the peace story, is it possible to write drama and to have a great climax, which is nonviolent?

Maxine Hong K.: So, I was attempting that with even in Tripmaster Monkey, I was trying to, can we get through an entire story without a fight? And so, the risk that one is taking is that it’s not exciting enough. It’s not dramatic enough. And this isn’t just in arts, I think this is in life too. Haven’t you heard, “Oh, what if we had peace? It’s going to be boring.” It’s our work to see how can we have a beautiful, dramatic, engaging life without hitting each other?

Viet Thanh N.: I hope so. But you know, we’re also supposed to take questions from the audience, which I think will be really lovely. So, let’s do that, and of course, you can ask questions of both of us, or one or the other of us, and we’ll continue to engage each other in conversation on this topic as well. So, is there anybody who wants to ask a question, there’s a microphone in the back?

Speaker 4: What’s one of your memories that you recall as you were walking to your country to here that you still recall sometimes?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think I only had flashes of memory that aren’t very reliable. So I wouldn’t know if they were true or not, but my real memory, and we fled by land and by boat in 1975, but my real memory begins once I get to the United States where we were sent to a refugee camp in Pennsylvanian. And my first real memory is being taken away from my parents and sent to live with a white American sponsor family, because that was the only way you could get out of the camp.

Viet Thanh N.: And there was no sponsor that would take all four of us. My brother went to one family, my parents went to another family and I went to another one. And so, that to me even though I’m a civilian, I’m a refugee, I’m a child, that to me is the worst story because why would that happen unless it was a consequence of war and it was a part of the great escape from the country. Except in this case it was what would happen to these refugees and to me once we came here?

Viet Thanh N.: And for a four year old that’s a really traumatic experience even though it only lasted a few months, in my memory it lasted a very long time. And I just tried to put that in context by thinking so many other people who were refugees to this country went through much worse in terms of their migration here and certainly from El Salvador you know that the experiences of Central American immigrants to this country have been awful, have been terrible. And the last thing I’ll say about this is that I do a classroom in Vietnam war. My students go out and interview people who’ve lived through this time period, and they interview a lot of American veterans, American soldiers.

Viet Thanh N.: The interesting thing is a lot of these… some of them had a very traumatic, combat experience. A lot of them didn’t. They sat in the rear front somewhere. My students also interview South East Asian refugees who have made it to the United States, every single one of these refugees has had a horrible experience to come to this country, regardless of whether their soldiers or civilians. And to me this would then really blur the line between what being a soldier and what being a civilian means when it comes to war. So we can talk about war and peace. So crucial technology is not only soldiers who are affected by war. But oftentimes almost civilians through being caught in war and being forced to flee from it.

Speaker 5: I maybe misremembering, but because it’s been over 30 years, but Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, the book on Vietnam, and one of the things that fascinated me was there is a passage about how language changed. And we think about how war changes our identities, but it also changed apparently the identity of language as well. And people didn’t use the first person pronoun I until later in the war. Do you have any thoughts about that? About how war affects the aspect of language as identity?

Maxine Hong K.: In trying to write peace stories, I was very aware of how much daily language is war language and… we will fight our cancer… And I in writing about any situation I was very conscious to choose a word that was not war. It’s not just that language does change from one period to another, but in general our language is very war-like. And it takes a conscious effort to be aware that you’re doing it and then to find the right word.

Viet Thanh N.: Vietnamese language has changed overtime and certainly the war impacted that in the way that I describe, but in a very particular way there are different dialects in Vietnam, north, central, south. And what happened in 1975 when the communists were victorious is that they not only took the country, they also took control of the language.

Viet Thanh N.: So, they changed a lot of the vocabulary so that now if you go back to Vietnam as someone who left as a refugee in 1975, for example, people will know who you are simply because of the language that you speak because people don’t use that language anymore.

Viet Thanh N.: So, the words for things like airport, for example, you arrive at the airport you have to get to the airport it’s [Vietnamese] in Vietnamese before 1975, or at least in southern Vietnamese [Vietnamese 00:55:14]. And that was an attempt to eradicate [inaudible] meanings on the part of the communist government of what they saw as a contaminated regime and a contaminated language. So even my hometown it was [Vietnamese] before 1975, now it’s [Vietnamese 00:55:30]. Right?

Viet Thanh N.: So the control of language is absolutely crucial to war whether it’s in Vietnam or in any other country as well. And now of course, in our case, we don’t change the words we just simply use different words as euphemisms colorectal damage, things like these to get us to have distance from the meaning of war.

Speaker 6: Thanks. So, I’ve basically started crying the minute you started reading professor Kingston, I’ve been a wreck since you read. Something resonated in your reading I think as the grand-daughter of Palestine refugees I’m just stunned by how acutely you express this pursuit of peace. And the everlasting hope in it that you register this devastation where you thought that you stopped this in 2003.

Speaker 6: But even upon realizing you didn’t, you told us that your job, your pursuit is to continue writing, expressing peace. And my question, I’m sorry I’m incapacitated sometimes. I guess my question is how do you keep doing this? How do you keep writing peace stories despite what I feel like is sometimes an overwhelming sense, that it’s not attainable. And when you read I think the emotion here is that, the sense of hope was not, did not disappear even at the moment of your arrest it was funny and a reverend and you knew you had to keep going. So how do you keep that energy up?

Maxine Hong K.: Well, I do go into despair, and let me read you something, which gives me hope. I remember where I’d said, “Oh, could it be just magical thinking that when we’re very loving and peaceful, we saw peace as this beautiful, miraculous balls. And then it didn’t work, and then I go through despair, and then I remember certain myths and hopes.

Maxine Hong K.: And there is an idea that, a Chinese idea that time isn’t just forward where there’s cause and effect. And the despair in going on a peace demonstration and it doesn’t work, it comes from thinking, “I just did this little nothing thing, it’s just a little gesture. I’m just standing there. And it’s nothing. How could it possibly bring peace?”

Maxine Hong K.: Do our small gestures have any effect at all in the big world? And it gives me a little hope when I think about the Chinese way of thinking about karma, about cause and effect. And also about time, that it’s too late when you do a demonstration and they’re starting to bomb two weeks from now and you do a demonstration now, that’s not going to work.

Maxine Hong K.: You have to constantly live peace and then maybe it stops a war a hundred years from now. So, I wrote a few lines like that in the same book. Oh, but the true poet crosses eternal distances. Oh, this has to do also with, if you’re a writer and you’re writing something and it will never get published, and the Chinese are very happy if you get it published a thousand years from now.

Maxine Hong K.: And if you just get one reader they’re happy. The true poet crosses eternal distances, perfect reader come the 1000 years from now. Poem can also reach reader born 1000 years before the poem. Wished into being, Libby and Duffy lucky sea turtles found each other within their lifetimes. Oh, the hopes of Chinese time and Chinese poets. You don’t have to be a poet you live in the turning and returning cosmos this way.

Maxine Hong K.: An act of love I do this morning saves a life on a far future battlefield. And the surprising love I feel that saves my life comes from a person whose soul somehow corresponding with my soul doing me a good deed 1000 years ago.

Speaker 7: How do you view adopted Vietnamese within the historical context of the war?

Viet Thanh N.: Adopted Vietnamese?

Speaker 7: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Viet Thanh N.: Again, that’s one of the consequences of war that becomes really evident when you look at Vietnam or any other kind of conflict, it produces casualties who are not just soldiers. These children who were left without parents there were so many of them, right? And some of them were taken in by Vietnamese people and others were sent abroad. And that’s a phenomenon that we see also from Korea, for example.

Viet Thanh N.: And they become living traces of war here in the United States, if we just talk about this country. They become living traces of war and of forgetting because so many of them don’t know that the reason why they’re here in the United States is because of war. Their parents are not Asian, let’s say oftentimes. And from what I’ve heard, from what I can tell, they raise their children as Americans. And they think that they’re doing their children a favor by not talking about the past. But I think that’s a big mistake because by not talking about the past you’re denying adoptees their history, denying them a sense of what brought them here.

Viet Thanh N.: And the fact that what brought them here are these wars that the United States fought in Korea or Vietnam, for example. They’re intimately tied with racial difference in the United States.

Viet Thanh N.: The same kinds of racial fears that Americans have here in the US are constitutive of why they have gone to Asia to fight foreign wars. So the adoptees are here because of these wars and then they’re treated in a racist way because of these same attitudes. So Americans are not doing adoptees any favors and they’re not doing themselves any favors by not talking about this horrible history that have brought adoptees into existence. That’s why I think of them as living traces of both war and forgetting.

Speaker 8: Going back to what you guys were discussing earlier about receiving criticism from other people of your same ethnicity, and just in your opinion, why is there such a visceral reaction when it comes to people who writes about their ethnicity or if you go to college and you’re of this ethnicity you’re a sellout, which is a term I hear it gets thrown out a lot.

Viet Thanh N.: You want to handle this? Oh, okay. Actually I use Maxine’s book and Maxine’s situation as an example in my Asian-American literature course and we talk about the various criticisms that have been leveled at the book when it first came out and I talk about it as the burden of representation. Okay look, if you are of the dominant culture in any society, you live in an economy of narrative plenitude. There are all kind of stories told about your culture, your personality.

Viet Thanh N.: So if you tell a story no one judges your story on the basis of the entire culture, like if the son of Marlon Brando wrote a novel no one is going to say, “Oh my God, he’s bringing disrespect to the American people.” He’s just Marlon Brando’s son writing the novel.

Viet Thanh N.: But when we’re writing books then all of a sudden we become the people who represent our particular minority cultures, and that expectation comes from both dominant culture and from our own communities. Dominant culture typically expects minority writers to tell the entire story of their communities, and so do those communities, right?

Viet Thanh N.: So we live in an economy of narrative scarcity and that’s why there’s so much value and pressure placed upon the one story. And that means that we can’t actually address that problem simply by turning to authors. There’s never going to be an author that’s going to come out and write a book that somehow solves this problem. Toni Morrison can’t solve this problem even with the Nobel Prize.

Viet Thanh N.: And the reason why is because these conditions are tied into much larger social conditions of inequity. The reason why we have narrative scarcity is because we have economic scarcity and people don’t have equal access to modes of storytelling, that’s just one function of economic inequality in this country.

Maxine Hong K.: Maybe the readers who don’t see themselves represented in western literature when they see one of us come forth with a story, the expectations are so high and then you read it and you have your own story and it’s not the same as my story. And then you think, well… And then there’s this big disappointment of like you didn’t tell it right, you didn’t tell my story. And then you write this story, which everybody puts expectations onto and then you become very successful with it.

Maxine Hong K.: And so, I think there’s envy, and there’s jealousy, and also another part is that the readers expect us to tell a story that flatters them, and to tell what great people Chinese-Americans are, and their success stories. I’ve gotten this from a lot of readers, “Why did you say such bad things about us? You didn’t even write about one good successful person, there’s nobody like that in your books.”

Maxine Hong K.: And I think that this comes from people who have been so prejudiced against, they’re such a bad image and they expect the writers to write praise, and to write a good story, and they expect us to do good PR. And I get also the thing like, “You exploited us. You exploited our stories and then you got all these credit for it.”

Maxine Hong K.: At the same time that I hear people say you exploited, I think, “Wait a minute, I thought I was honoring you.” And so, that line between honor and exploitation, it gets really mixed.


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