Otherppl with Brad Listi: Episode 419 — Viet Thanh Nguyen

On the Otherppl Podcast with Brad Listi, Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about being a writer and being a Vietnamese refugee.

I want to say that Viet is the first Pulitzer winner ever to appear on the program. I could be wrong. (Am I forgetting someone?) I read The Sympathizer earlier this year when I was a judge for the Tournament of Books at The Morning News. (You can read my judgment here.) This was before the Pulitzer. Fortunately I had the good sense to pick it as the winner and advance it to the next round; otherwise this conversation might never have happened. Kidding aside, Viet was great. He showed up ready to talk and was everything one might expect after reading the novel: sharp, funny, opinionated, and full of stories.

In today’s monologue, I talk about moving. Again. I promise this will end soon.

Listen to the podcast here or read the full transcript below.

Transcript:

Brad Listi: Hey guys, just a quick reminder here at the top of the show. The Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast has its own official app, it’s the Otherppl with Brad Listi app. Go get it, it’s free. It’s available wherever you get your apps, it’s the most elegant way to listen to this program. New episodes automatically upload to the app.

Brad Listi: You can download episodes to listen to while you’re offline, you can favorite your favorite episodes. Again, you get the most recent 50 episodes for free, and if you want to get at the full archives, if you want access to everything, more than 400 episodes and counting, including conversations with authors like George Saunders, Cheryl Strayed, Hilton Als, Roxanne Gay, Tao Lin, David Shields, Sheila Heti, Susan Orlean, Aimee Bender, the list goes on, you just sign up for Otherppl Premium.

Brad Listi: It’s a subscription. It costs 75 cents a month. 75 cents a month gets you access to everything, more than 400 episodes available at your fingertips anywhere you go. The Otherppl with Brad Listi app, it’s free. Otherppl Premium, it’s almost free. It’s a great way to support the show, go do that, if you are so inclined.

Brad Listi: All right, let’s get started.

Speaker 2: You are not alone, you have found other people.

Speaker 3: You and I have good friends in common.

Brad Listi: Every stupid thing that a writer could do, I’ve done.

Speaker 4: I think it’s really beautiful.

Speaker 5: Jeez, what a struggle, you know?

Speaker 6: It was incredible, you know, it was like your head exploded, seeing what was really there.

Speaker 7: And now, here’s your host, Brad Listi.

Speaker 8: Just one person and just one time-

Brad Listi: Hey everybody, here we go again. This is it, this is Otherppl. This you and me and another person, this is made in a sweltering garage. How’s it going out there? What’s happening? I’m Brad List, I’m Los Angeles, California. It’s very good to be with you, I’m very excited about today’s program.

Brad Listi: My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, his novel The Sympathizer received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. It also happens to be his debut novel, so not a bad debut. I should mention that I read The Sympathizer earlier this year when I was judging the Tournament of Books, I was asked to be a judge in the Tournament of Books over at the Morning News, and I had to judge The Sympathizer against a book called Oreo, a novel called Oreo.

Brad Listi: And I’m very pleased to report that while both were fine books, I picked The Sympathizer as a winner, and advanced it to the next round. This was before it won the Pulitzer, and now that it has … Now that it has received the Pulitzer Prize, I’m feeling very good about my choice in retrospect. I feel like I chose wisely, not to mention, I avoided an awkward situation where I would be interviewing Viet after knocking him out of the tournament.

Brad Listi: It could’ve been awkward. In fact, I’m not even sure if this episode would’ve happened, had I done that. So, it all worked out, that’s what I’m saying. This episode is brought to you by Litbreaker. Litbreaker is an online advertising network for book people. If you want to reach book people on the internet, go to lipbreaker.com, and learn how you can advertise on a bunch of great book-related literary sites. Lipbreaker.com.

Brad Listi: Can you hear the fatigue in my voice? Can you hear the weariness? Can you feel the heat? The incredible desert heat in this garage right now, can you feel it? Couple that with the fact that we’ve moved, and I’m experiencing a unique level of full-body exhaustion. The good news is we’re in the new house, we made it, we almost made it. Not everything is moved yet, there’s still work to be done, but for the most part, we’re in. We’re living there.

Brad Listi: We got that accomplished, but you forget how exhausting moving is. I think you have to block it out, otherwise you would never do it again. The boxes, the running around, the unpacking, the bags of trash, the not knowing where things are, the accidentally throwing things away, the endless customer service calls. Endless. Multiple trips to the store, the hardware store. It’s just, it’s a process. And hopefully, it’s the last time I have to go through it for a long time.

Brad Listi: That said, I’m going to be recording in this garage, the old garage, for the next couple of weeks. I’m still on the lease here, so I’m using the garage until the very last moment, because in the new house I got to figure out how it’s all going to work. It’s not clear yet. So there’s … We’re in a state of flux, here at the Otherppl podcast.

Brad Listi: I think I mentioned in a previous episode, the show is at a logistical crossroads. Got to figure out where to record. I was thinking about maybe even trying to broker a deal with some sort of bookstore, or I don’t know, a bar, a pub. We’ll see.

Brad Listi: My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, his novel The Sympathizer is available now from Grove Press. It is the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Here he is folks, this is Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Viet T. Nguyen: I was in a hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a book tour, 3:00 PM in the afternoon and I was doing what I do in book tour, which is write emails.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: And all of a sudden, the Twitter feed starts to go, “Beep, beep, beep,” and Facebook does the same thing, and I look at it, and I was like, “No.” I actually literally start to shake, but before I can start celebrating, I have to make sure it actually happened, so I wait until my publicist calls me a couple of minutes later, and I said, “Is this really happening?” They looked on the website of the Pulitzer, and said, “That’s what it says.”

Brad Listi: My god.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: So how has this changed your life? Has it changed your life?

Viet T. Nguyen: It’s pretty radically changed my life. The past eight weeks have been crazily busy, I cannot respond to my emails, I cannot respond enough to the invitations that are flooding in. Just got one today to go speak at World Refugee Day in New York City along with some unknown high-profile goodwill ambassador from UNHCR, which I hope is Angelina Jolie.

Brad Listi: Right.

Viet T. Nguyen: So stuff like that, you know, could not have imagined that two months ago.

Brad Listi: Do you say yes to most things?

Viet T. Nguyen: No at this point. I used to say yes to everything, because I’m guy the guy said yes to everything. Now it’s physically, emotionally impossible.

Brad Listi: Okay. So do you have help deliberating, or is it mostly left to you?

Viet T. Nguyen: It’s mostly left to my wife.

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: I go and I say, “Can I do this?” She says, “Is it going to impede our relationship and your fatherhood duties, and is it worth the money?”

Brad Listi: “You’re not going to New York to hang out with Angelina Jolie.”

Viet T. Nguyen: Right. Well, actually, I ran that by her and she thought yes, even though I’m not being paid, it’s like this is an important thing, to speak with the UN and on refugees. I’m a refugee, so we’re saying yes.

Brad Listi: Absolutely. That’s a really nice invitation to get.

Viet T. Nguyen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brad Listi: So what else? Book sales are probably doing better than they were?

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, book sales are doing better. I mean, the book sales were doing well for a novel of this kind, which is literary and not a feelgood novel, as I keep being reminded by various readers.

Brad Listi: But funny.

Viet T. Nguyen: But funny, if you can get past the premise, you know. So yeah, book sales were doing pretty well, but of course they went up drastically with the Pulitzer, and they’re … You know, it’s a numbers game, so there have actually been articles gauging how the book sales have done for the Pulitzer winners, not just mine, but other books percentage-wise, sought copies, so it’s been a big boom, both for my publisher and for me, obviously.

Brad Listi: Yeah. Are you working on another book, or do you get like a … Now, do you get a new book deal on the heels of this, or is it all …

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, to give credit to my publisher, they actually offered me a two-book deal before the Pulitzer for a short story collection I’d written before The Sympathizer, and for the sequel to The Sympathizer, so the-

Brad Listi: There’s a sequel?

Viet T. Nguyen: There’s a sequel.

Brad Listi: Oh.

Viet T. Nguyen: The short story collection’s coming out in February, because I already wrote it.

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: And the sequel, 50 pages … I wrote 50 pages already, and there’s like a 25-page outline, so they … the publisher knows what they’re getting.

Brad Listi: Okay, so the … And the publisher bought all of that.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: Before you won the Pulitzer.

Viet T. Nguyen: Right.

Brad Listi: Smart move by the publisher.

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, they were also very nice and kicked up … you know, raised the advance after the Pulitzer too, without us asking.

Brad Listi: Oh, that’s nice. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you win a Pulitzer, I guess.

Viet T. Nguyen: You would hope.

Brad Listi: Without asking. Well, that’s just awesome, and how contemporary is it to find out on Twitter about your-

Viet T. Nguyen: I don’t know. With the Pulitzer people, in the literary world, we’re not dealing with the most media-savvy people necessarily, like I finally watched the Pulitzer announcement, for example, on YouTube, and it was like the most boring thing ever. I mean, it’s being twitted, but whenever … The guy who does the announcement, he just drones them off, and no one in the room says anything or cheers, so it’s all taking place somewhere else, these reactions.

Viet T. Nguyen: And I know that my publisher heard about it because their people were watching this live, I guess, on whatever people watch it live now. You know.

Brad Listi: Did you know you were nominated? Is that-

Viet T. Nguyen: No, it’s all a secret.

Brad Listi: It’s all a secret.

Viet T. Nguyen: Right.

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: Which I think is fabulous because I’ve been … I know I’ve been nominated for other awards and they just make you sweat it out, you know?

Brad Listi: Yeah, yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: Long list, short list, award ceremony, it’s pretty awful.

Brad Listi: Yeah. Well, that’s unbelievable. Is it something you ever dreamt of … happening? Was it something you had thought about ever?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, I think in the same way that somebody grows up and plays baseball and thinks, “I want to win the World Series.” So you think about it in that way, but it’s like a fantasy, versus, “I’m sure I’m going to win it.”

Brad Listi: Yeah. I guess any writer who sits down to do this, probably in some vague way crosses your mind.

Viet T. Nguyen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brad Listi: That seems like the honest answer.

Viet T. Nguyen: Right. Although, I just read some article summarizing the memoir of Salman Rushdie’s ex-wife whose name I can’t remember, but the beautiful model.

Brad Listi: Padma Lakshmi?

Viet T. Nguyen: Okay, Padma Lakshmi, and she … According to her, she says, “Salman would just … Every time the Nobel Prize news came out and he didn’t get it, he was thrown into mourning.”

Brad Listi: Oh my god.

Viet T. Nguyen: I don’t want to have that kind of attitude.

Brad Listi: But this is the thing about it though, on the one hand I sort of recoil, but on the other hand I’m like, “Wow, just to have that much,” like to hold your work in that high of regard, there’s a part of me that envies it, because I think I’m reflexively so self-deprecating, I’m like, “Oh, no.” You know? But he’s like, “Yeah, what I’ve done is worthy of the Nobel.”

Viet T. Nguyen: I think realistically he can probably say, “I’m in the top couple hundred people who might be in the running for this.” Right?

Brad Listi: Yeah, yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: But to be thrown into mourning or whatever, regret because you didn’t get it, that’s a little bit excessive.

Brad Listi: Yeah. I mean, do you have that kind of ambition, like Nobel? Now that you’ve won the Pulitzer you’re like, “Why not”?

Viet T. Nguyen: No, I don’t have that kind of ambition, and if I did, I’d keep it to myself.

Brad Listi: Right. That’s a very diplomatic answer. So let’s talk about The Sympathizer, and let’s talk about … Well, I think the two things are tied together. You mentioned earlier that you’re a refugee, and I think that the Vietnam War obviously had a lot to do with that, and was probably the impetus for … or at least some parts of the book, correct? So why don’t we start there?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, absolutely. I mean, I’ve been shaped by history, and I grew up at a very young age knowing that there was that history, and not fully understanding it, but beginning it by intuitively, before I was 10, explicitly by the time I was 10, and absorbing this kind of information through family stories, family experiences, and then starting to watch American movies and reading American books, and reading American histories, American magazines.

Viet T. Nguyen: And so I knew that I was a refugee from this war, and it’s something that is important to insist on today because I think there’s a tendency on the American readership to talk about this novel as an immigrant novel, because that’s just the … that’s a part of the American dream and American culture, we think of immigrants.

Viet T. Nguyen: But, there’s a real important distinction between immigrants and refugees that I have to draw on, and one of the important distinction is because a lot of refugees are here because of war. A lot of immigrants are here because of war too, but again, that’s another thing that Americans tend to forget.

Brad Listi: Yeah. Do you have like a visceral memory of being told that? Do you remember when somebody told you that this is what happened?

Viet T. Nguyen: I’m trying to remember if there was a singular incident, but the one that I obviously have talked about and remember is watching Apocalypse Now when I was 10 years old, and that-

Brad Listi: That’s early to watch Apocalypse Now.

Viet T. Nguyen: I guess I was precocious, you know, but there was this newfangled invention called the VCR and we got one relatively early on, probably around 1980 or so, and I’d seen what was … There wasn’t much available. You’d go to the video store and it was like on a couple shelves with the video tapes that were there. So after watching Star Wars a dozen times, got to Apocalypse Now, which is actually sort of a related film.

Viet T. Nguyen: And that was, I think, my first narrative exposure to the Vietnam War outside of the fragments of memory that were circulating in the family and the Vietnamese refugee community. And that was a narrative that I realized that I was both excited by, as a spectator, as an American spectator, an American boy watching a war film, but also a narrative that shut me out, a narrative in which people like me existed only to be killed or spoken for to be mourned, and that … I knew that that was not enough, and eventually, by 20, I knew that I had to do something about that.

Brad Listi: And you parody Apocalypse Now or films like it, it seems like an Apocalypse Now parody in the book.

Viet T. Nguyen: Pretty much.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: But as you say, many other films as well.

Brad Listi: Yeah, I mean, like I think of Oliver Stone. I mean, there’s the popular “mainstream” Vietnam War films of my youth and of the past several decades. Are there any of them that you like?

Viet T. Nguyen: I actually like Apocalypse Now. I mean, I like Platoon, I like Full Metal Jacket, a number of these films are really good artistically. I respect them technically, and I respect them … If I were to shut off the part of my brain that is the Vietnamese part that says, “Wait a minute. What happened to the Vietnamese people?” But I can’t, so then of course I have to be critical of them for that reason.

Viet T. Nguyen: And I have to feel that the novel itself is meant to engage with these works of art, as I think all works of art should. As artists, we should be responding to things that come before, and we should be able to respect them and also point out where they fail, and I think that’s one of the jobs that The Sympathizer does.

Brad Listi: Yeah, no, I know, it does. And I think that you see this so often, where it’s like a film like Dances With Wolves, where there’s a white protagonist in a Native American world, or you have the white person in Africa, or you have … It’s always the white perspective, and it’s white people making these films, which is no accident.

Viet T. Nguyen: Absolutely, and obviously it still happens today on TV shows, remakes, all this kind of stuff, and so it’s an enduring part of Hollywood as an industry, but although Hollywood is a very unique kind of thing and it’s easily mocked and satirized, I think it also needs to be taken seriously. I mean, I think it’s … What it does, in terms of erasing an effacing people of color from their own stories, and making them marginal is, for me, indicative of a central aspect of American culture and psychology.

Viet T. Nguyen: And so it’s not too far-fetched to think that Hollywood does these things in the same way that America in general does it when it goes overseas and does its foreign policy.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: And doesn’t ask questions, for example. And so, although it’s a comic part of the novel, the satirization of the film and of Hollywood, it’s also pretty serious because I make claims like Hollywood is our unofficial Ministry of Propaganda. We don’t need an official one, like the Soviets or the Chinese or the Nazis, because American ideology is such that we don’t need to force Hollywood to do these things, Hollywood willingly participates in American culture and American power.

Brad Listi: Well, and from a creative artistic perspective, like you say you admire a film like Apocalypse Now from an artistic perspective, a technical perspective, as a work of cinematic art. You can see the appeal. Correct?

Viet T. Nguyen: Yes.

Brad Listi: But at the same time, there’s this deficit and this sort of like papering over of the people of color and their experience. As a white auteur who is culturally sensitive, you know, let’s say there’s a director who’s aware of this and would like to try to make a balanced film, where there’s multiple viewpoints represented.

Brad Listi: I think sometimes the criticism could be, “Well, what right do you have to speak on behalf of these people? That’s not your experience.” You see what I’m saying? There could be an overstepping, whereas you can speak to the Vietnamese experience and the refugee experience with authority.

Viet T. Nguyen: Right.

Brad Listi: Do you think it’s okay? Do you think people of different races or cultural backgrounds should make a greater effort to extend themselves and to try to give voice to those things? Do you think they lack a certain authority? I feel like I could see that being something that holds them back.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, and obviously that’s an important question. It goes to these issues of authenticity. Who has the right to speak? And so on. I don’t take a blanket position on it. I don’t say that if you’re white you can’t make work about some other culture, and vice versa, right?

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: I want to reserve the right to write my great urban novel about divorce in a New England town if I ever want to get to doing that, but-

Brad Listi: A Cheever novel.

Viet T. Nguyen: Right. But I mean, I’ll do my research, but partially, one of the things I say in the novel is if you’re a person of color in American society, you’ve already done your research by living here. You know-

Brad Listi: Yeah, yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: By being exposed constantly to what white people think about themselves.

Brad Listi: Right.

Viet T. Nguyen: So it’s not that … Let’s say Hollywood. It’s not that Hollywood can’t do these kinds of things, but it’s that Hollywood has often done them so badly that you wonder, “Have they done their research? And have they actually addressed the way that they make movies so that they could try to at least get a little bit closer to,” I don’t know that authentic is the right word, but how about a better representation?

Viet T. Nguyen: Hire screenwriters, hire actors, put them on … At least make one of the stars a person of color from the culture you’re talking about. So there’s, between not doing something, and exploiting something, there’s this whole range of things in between that we often don’t do.

Brad Listi: Right. Well yeah, and I think it’s like there was the whole thing last year with the Oscars, like, “Oscars is so white,” or whatever the hashtag was, and it just struck me that like the … it’s a systemic thing.

Viet T. Nguyen: It is systemic, and that’s why it’s important not to think about a work of art, whether it’s literature or film in these examples, simply as the work of art itself. We buy a book or we watch a movie, and it’s only the end product that matters, but it’s the entire production chain, it’s the entire industry, whether it’s the literary industry or the cinematic industry that we need to pay attention to.

Viet T. Nguyen: And so, there’s … Other discussions have been happening in the last year too about how the literary industry is 89% white. And I assume, primarily upper class, upper-middle class people, that inevitably is going to affect the books that we get at the end, right? So we can’t only talk about the books, we need to talk about the entire industry, how they express inequalities that are deeply embedded in American society.

Brad Listi: Yeah, yeah. I mean, do you have any ideas on what the solution is? I mean, like these big corporate publishers need to have imprints that are devoted to writers of color? They need to reallocate resources? All-

Viet T. Nguyen: I would say Communism has some clues that you know, I mean, seriously … It’s neat actually to talk about systemic inequality throughout American society and how it impacts everything. So on the one hand, while we can say, “Yes, a particular industry needs to have … pay its interns, needs to have affirmative action,” these are just bandaid measures that can’t really stem the flow of blood from a society that’s weakened by inequality.

Viet T. Nguyen: So vote Bernie Sanders, vote whatever you think … Today is June 7th, it’s the California primary, too late for your audience perhaps, but … I mean, we really need to think about art and its location to society as a whole, and that we can’t change art without changing society.

Brad Listi: So, let’s go back to you arriving in America. You were born in Vietnam.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yes.

Brad Listi: Where in Vietnam?

Viet T. Nguyen: I was born in a little town called Buon Ma Thuot, which is in the central highlands, and it’s famous for coffee, so if you buy Yuban today, it probably has beans from this area, and famous for being the first town overrun in the final invasion of 1975. In our case, the town was taken in March, and that was about a month or six weeks before the final end of the country, of the South Vietnam.

Brad Listi: And then, when did your family decide that it was time to flee?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, my dad was in Saigon on business when the town was taken, so the lines of communication were cut off. So my mom had to make that decision, and her decision was, “Okay, we’re going to run right now,” not knowing where my dad is, and not knowing what the future held, thinking that this would just be another seesaw battle as it had been in the past and that we would return home.

Viet T. Nguyen: She left my oldest sister, who was adopted, behind to take care of the family business and house, took my older brother and myself, and we walked downhill, a few hundred kilometers through a battle-torn landscape-

Brad Listi: A few hundred kilometers.

Viet T. Nguyen: I think, my geography is bad, but it was long. I mean, I’ve driven that route uphill-

Brad Listi: It was days, not hours.

Viet T. Nguyen: I’m pretty sure it was days. By car, up the mountain, it was half a day of driving, so by foot, through that war-

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: … it took a lot longer, and we made it to Nha Trang, which was the nearest port city, and took a boat to Saigon, fortunately found my dad, and then there was yet another terrible story to get out of Saigon, as well.

Brad Listi: God. And what about your older sister and the family business? Did she get out too?

Viet T. Nguyen: No, she was 16, and the Communists, when they took over, of course, took everything away, and made her volunteer, that was the term, for a youth brigade whose job was to go and help rebuild the country, you know, and then she came back and she was … She found a husband, raised kids and everything, and I went to see her, I met her in Nha Trang, 2003, so that is about 28 years after I left.

Viet T. Nguyen: And the great joy of that was to find out that even though she had endured all these kinds of things, and even though she was nowhere near as prosperous as my family had become, she was a person who unlike everybody else in my family, knew how to have fun. She looked good, she wore makeup, she was fashionable, and so that was actually one of the ironic outcomes of that history.

Brad Listi: Where does she live now? Same town, or-

Viet T. Nguyen: Same town.

Brad Listi: Oh, wow.

Viet T. Nguyen: You know, which I’ve never been back to.

Brad Listi: When you guys parted ways, that was the last time you saw her until 2003?

Viet T. Nguyen: Yup.

Brad Listi: Wow.

Viet T. Nguyen: But you know, my parents … My dad didn’t see his relatives for 40 years, my mom didn’t see her relatives for 20 years, and these stories of separation are really actually quite normal.

Brad Listi: That’s what I was going to say, like this is the refugee experience, families get torn apart. It’s just commonplace.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah. Everybody I know has stories like this.

Brad Listi: And like most people who have no real contact with this sort of reality, that seems unfathomable.

Viet T. Nguyen: That’s why I don’t generally go around talking about it, at a cocktail party where you talk about this, people are like, “Oh, wow. Sorry.” You know? So it is unfathomable, I think … Again, I think for many Americans what’s fathomable is when they think of this particular war, they obviously have some sense of what American soldiers have been through, and so even as difficult as it is for a lot of American soldiers to talk about their experience to civilians, at least the gist of their experience has been turned into movies and books, and so on.

Viet T. Nguyen: But for most Americans, I think, they have no understanding, recognition of what happened to Vietnamese people of all kinds, but including the ones who made it to the United States.

Brad Listi: Until they read The Sympathizer.

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, let’s hope.

Brad Listi: Yeah. And you know, it’s funny just … We’re talking just a few days after Muhammad Ali died, and I’ve been seeing endless things about him on the internet and TV, and reading in the paper and … His stance on the Vietnam War back in the day really … it’s aged well, I feel-

Viet T. Nguyen: It does, I mean, yeah.

Brad Listi: He’s a really special guy, and like the … Some of the quotes from him. I don’t know. I don’t know everything about it, but I just found myself moved by the things he was saying back then, which made him very unpopular with a lot of people.

Viet T. Nguyen: I think it was 1965 when he refused the draft? Was it ’67? I can’t remember the exact … It was fairly early on, so if it was ’67, this was before 1968, the Tet Offensive, when things really went south for the American public opinion, which actually supported the war before 1968, so his stance to refuse to be drafted was extremely unpopular.

Viet T. Nguyen: It’s of the same decision that made Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 deliver a speech about Vietnam saying, “We shouldn’t be there.” And connecting the experience that poor people of color, Black and Latino men in particular, are suffering here in the United States, and yet they’re being drafted and sent to fight this war that in King’s opinion and Muhammad Ali’s opinion was racist against Vietnamese and other Asian people.

Viet T. Nguyen: So, they were really at the forefront of radical Black consciousness, and you have to understand that there were a lot of African Americans besides other Americans who didn’t support this position. They said, “You know, we should focus on civil rights domestically, in the US.” And Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. were saying, “No, we need to be international.”

Brad Listi: It was globalizing it.

Viet T. Nguyen: It was globalizing, right? And the only … the good thing about this is … about Muhammad Ali, he stood up for what was right, and he was validated, which should be a clarion call for all of us to heed our genuine beliefs that often simmer inside.

Brad Listi: It’s a good blessing. It’s weird, with like political courage, or if that’s what you want to call it, courage just generally, but courage of one’s convictions or like you said, the courage to stand up for one’s deepest beliefs. It can be hard, to have clarity, and to then be willing to speak and to take a stand. I think there’s a tendency on my part sometimes to be like, “Am I right?” I wobble. You know what I’m saying?

Brad Listi: And I think watching that makes me want to do less of that. Do you know what I’m saying? Watching those old clips of Muhammad Ali, reading those quotes, seeing the fact that he was willing to stand, makes me want to do the same.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, and-

Brad Listi: And that hopefully you’re right.

Viet T. Nguyen: Hopefully, you’re right. Right? You could take … you have the courage of your convictions like the governor of Alabama-

Brad Listi: Yeah, right?

Viet T. Nguyen: Ended up on the wrong side.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: So yeah, you hope you’re right, you hope that your moral and political consciousness is right, your ethical sense is good, and it’s rate. It’s rate in athletics, obviously, he still stands out today, it’s relatively rare in literature, you know, that we have writers who speak truth to power. I wonder what your opinion is about this, I just had this conversation the other day, but we look at other countries like Chian, for example, and whenever a writer stands up as a dissident, we say, “Of course, that’s what writers should do.”

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: And then I think, “In the United States, what does it mean to be a dissident? What is it that we’re supposed to stand up against? Do we have political writers? Do we have a political literature?”

Brad Listi: Every once in a while there’s like a group letter signed, like the undersign, and it’s like 500 writers who put their name on a thing, which isn’t nothing but it’s not … It seems less involved, there’s less risk involved.

Viet T. Nguyen: I just did that for the … There was a letter about Donald Trump-

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: So this one, right? And so I did that knowing exactly what you’re saying, right? But I think Aleksandar Hemon wrote a response saying, “Well, I didn’t sign this because this is,” exactly what you’re saying, “not much of a response.” And where’s American literature as a whole in terms of its political stance? So that’s something that’s always on my mind, because I do think that we need a political literature, I do think we need writers to be political in their everyday lives, but also just in writing books, what they do best.

Viet T. Nguyen: And I wonder, “Do we do that?” Hemon doesn’t think so, the guy who runs the Nobel Prizes doesn’t think so, as he slammed American literature a few years ago. But then, the nationalist in me sort of like trickles, I’m saying, “Well, is Hemon right? Is the Nobel Prize right?” Depends who we’re looking at in terms of American literature.

Viet T. Nguyen: If we look at the literature of people of color in the United States, there’s been a lot of political commitment. But the tendency is not to see that as American literature as a whole.

Brad Listi: Yeah, I mean, it’s … When it comes to political … You talk about being political in literature and writing books. There are those, I don’t know if they get maybe the airtime or the readership that they deserve all the time, but in our everyday lives as writers … It almost seems to me to be effective politically. This is where I stand on it right now, and my views are always changing, but it’s like …

Brad Listi: I can be of the mind that being political on social media is annoying, but right now I’m like, “Fuck it.” I feel like that’s where people are, and I think that to say that Donald Trump is mentally unwell and should be nowhere near the Oval Office is a very obvious thought.

Brad Listi: And if I drop it into my Twitter feed or I retweet somebody, it’s probably just an echo. But the analogy I use is they’re like drops of water in a river. They do add up, and I think it’s important to chirp. I’d rather chirp than say nothing.

Viet T. Nguyen: Right.

Brad Listi: You know?

Viet T. Nguyen: I mean, I think obviously the dream of so many of us one day we’ll become Roxanne Gay and have annoying Twitter followers or whatever, and in that case your opinions do matter in that sense. And in the meantime, we as our … with our small Twitter followings or whatever, social media followings, must do our best and hope that one day lightning will strike, and that we will have that platform that we’ve already been developing. You know?

Viet T. Nguyen: Like, with the Pulitzer, for example. Now people care about what I say. What I say has not changed, but now they care, and so I feel as if I’m not saying things that I haven’t thought of before, I’m saying things that I’ve always thought of before, but now the difference is all of a sudden I have this platform, and I better well use it.

Brad Listi: Well, yeah, and I feel like you have a unique viewpoint, you know? Your refugee experience … Different from the immigrant experience, but I think that, like you said, the two can get conflated, even opportunity like with the … Forgive me for forgetting the acronym at the United Nations. What is it? The UN-

Viet T. Nguyen: UNHCR. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Brad Listi: Yeah, like those kinds of invites, you have an opportunity as a writer to communicate certain things that you wouldn’t have before.

Viet T. Nguyen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brad Listi: That’s pretty awesome.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, and I hope I get to sit next to Angelina Jolie, that’d be super awesome.

Brad Listi: So where did you guys land when you first came here? Did you come to Los Angeles or Southern California?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, you know, what happened was that there were four refugee camps set up in this country to process the 150,000 or so Vietnamese refugees in 1975. There was a camp, Camp Pendleton in San Diego, but we ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap in Harrisburg or near Harrisburg, and that’s where we were-

Brad Listi: In Harrisburg-

Viet T. Nguyen: Pennsylvania, I’m sorry.

Brad Listi: Pennsylvania.

Viet T. Nguyen: Pennsylvania, yeah.

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: Which was not the first choice of any Vietnamese refugee, you know? Which was proven by the fact that in the years afterwards, so many people who were scattered throughout the country, like in Florida and Arkansas and so on, a lot of them migrated to California or to Texas, someplace warm, basically.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: But yeah, we ended up there, and my experience was that in order to leave the camp, you had to have a sponsor, but no sponsor would take my entire family of four, so one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my older brother, and then one sponsor took me at four years old, and I was separated from my family.

Brad Listi: God.

Viet T. Nguyen: My parents. That was hard, you know, and-

Brad Listi: Oh my god.

Viet T. Nguyen: I think it’s left a deep imprint on me.

Brad Listi: Well, I would say so. My daughter’s five, and she has separation anxiety. She’s going through a phase. I can only imagine being dislocated from your home country, and then being in some strange camp, and then being dislocated from your family.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, I think that’s basically true, and I have a three-year-old son, and I … exactly what you’re saying. So I think, I look back on myself through his eyes, and I think I … I do remember feeling traumatized, but I think I put it all behind me for decades, because you have to. What are we supposed to do, dwell on this experience? And in the long run it seems inconsequential, I was separated from my parents for a summer.

Viet T. Nguyen: But when you’re four, that’s forever, basically. So now I have to go back and think about that, and think, “Well, maybe it did matter to me psychologically more than I ever really fully realized,” and as a writer, you’ve got to take whatever you can. You have to mine the emotional territory, wherever it happens. And so, I’ve had to go back and look at that experience and other ones that happened in the years afterwards and think, “These actually really mattered more than I thought they did at the time.”

Brad Listi: Do you see manifestations of it? Do you have like an unusual level of attachment to like your … I don’t know. Are there ways that you can see it?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, I think so. I never had an analyst, which means it has taken me years to figure things out, and I’ve done it mostly through writing, but I think … I have looked at myself and I think … By the time I was 18 and going away to college, I was a person who did not know how to say I love you, did not know how to respond when someone said I love you, which happened to me twice in the space of a year, at 18 or 17, and I was just flatfooted.

Viet T. Nguyen: I was frozen, and various other emotional issues, and I think … I have to think, “Yeah, that’s what happened.” I was afraid, I was afraid of connecting to people, I was afraid of being alone, all these kinds of things, and that was very much … been a part of the particular nature of my refugee experience.

Brad Listi: Yeah. Okay, so you reunite with your parents after that summer. Your brother too?

Viet T. Nguyen: My brother has gone on record saying, “Well, it was too much for our mom to be separated from the four-year-old kid for more than a couple months, but for the 10-year-old brother, he’s been away for two years.” So he was living with another family for two years.

Brad Listi: Oh, wow.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: And where did you guys go?

Viet T. Nguyen: What do you mean where did we go?

Brad Listi: After you guys got back together-

Viet T. Nguyen: Oh, right. Well, my parents, you know, we bought a little house in Harrisburg, and so that’s where we regathered-

Brad Listi: With what? You had some money from Vietnam, or you had like assistance?

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, well, basically my parents … they were peasants. Their origins were as peasants, literally with nothing, and then they built up through sheer acumen and entrepreneurial skill, because they had very little education, through sheer talent, they turned themselves into successful merchants in Vietnam. And they were lucky that my dad went to Saigon to buy a house, and we had money in Saigon, so he had some of that. My mom had some too, when we fled, so that’s what we used as capital.

Brad Listi: Okay, okay. And so then you built a little house in?

Viet T. Nguyen: Harrisburg. We bought a little house, moved to another little house. I had a good time in Harrisburg for the three years or so that we lived there, and then I went back a few years … seven or eight years ago, to look at Harrisburg, those same homes again. The first house was a little tiny suburban thing, the second house was in a ghetto, but I had fond memories of that house too.

Brad Listi: Yeah, well things change.

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, things could’ve changed, but I don’t think it was that great of an area even when we were living there, now that I look back and think about certain clues, but I’m so glad that my parents got us out of Harrisburg because that town has gone nowhere.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: And in fact, I think actually a few months after we left, Three Mile Island happened, the reactor meltdown, and I realized it was only like 17 miles from Harrisburg. Good timing.

Brad Listi: I was going to say, good timing. So from there, you came to …

Viet T. Nguyen: San Jose, California.

Brad Listi: All right.

Viet T. Nguyen: Which is I think even today the home of the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, and my parents opened a second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, and had the typical refugee immigrant shopkeeper experience, which is to say an extremely difficult experience, which I was an eyewitness to, and I left San Jose in 1988 to go to college, and I could not wait to go.

Brad Listi: Was that what they were doing in Vietnam? Were they shopkeepers there? What kind of merchants were they? Food merchants, or?

Viet T. Nguyen: They were initially tailors, that was my dad’s special skill, and then they graduated to running an auto parts’ shop, and then to running a jewelry business.

Brad Listi: Okay. And then came to the states and suddenly were shopkeepers.

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, we know … That was the business that was available to them.

Brad Listi: Right.

Viet T. Nguyen: And they saw that they could make money that way, and it’s a brutal way to make a living. It was literally 12 to 14 hours a day from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to sleep.

Brad Listi: Yeah, the grocery business is difficult. The restaurant business is difficult too. You always got to kind of be there.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: You’re constantly stocking and restocking, and it’s a lot of work.

Viet T. Nguyen: I hadn’t thought about that, but I think at least if your parents own a restaurant, hopefully you get good food. My parents were working all the time, they came home, they had to cook, right? And it was like the most awful food, but at least it was food, but you know, growing up I was like, “Oh my god, this is not good.”

Brad Listi: It was a difficult life for them. Was your childhood difficult?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, it was emotionally isolated. My brother was seven years older, so he was in college by the time I was 11. I thought that … When he left, I don’t cry very often, that was one of the few times I cried. I think he still feels guilty about that. And then, it was an emotionally isolating experience. It was an experience in which violence was present. My parents were shot on Christmas Eve and had armed robbery at their store.

Viet T. Nguyen: We had an armed invasion in our house-

Brad Listi: They were both shot?

Viet T. Nguyen: I think it was only like flesh wounds, but still, they got shot.

Brad Listi: Jesus.

Viet T. Nguyen: People broke into our house, put a gun on our faces-

Brad Listi: You were there.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, I was there.

Brad Listi: What happened? Why did they break into your house? Just-

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, the whole idea of the home invasion was very common in San Jose in the 1980s because people knew that these Vietnamese people kept money and gold in their houses, and so this guy … I remember that my parents said, “Don’t ever let a Vietnamese person into the house,” because these were the people doing the home invasions.

Viet T. Nguyen: So the irony was this white guy came knocking on our door. One of my parents let their guard down, I think it was my mom or dad, let the person in, guy had a gun, and pointed it at all of us, and thank god for my mom because she was the one who saved us. She ran, pushed past him and ran screaming out into the street, in just that split-second decision, you know, prevented that robbery from going to its logical conclusion-

Brad Listi: So wait, she runs out into the street and then he takes off?

Viet T. Nguyen: He turns to go after her, and my dad … The other survival instinct kicks in, he slams the door shut on that guy and locks the door, so my dad … My mom is out there on the street with that guy, but we lived right next to the freeway, which meant there was always traffic on our street, and so when she ran out into the street everybody saw her, and so that guy … the gunman took off.

Brad Listi: Jesus.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: And then there was just a robbery at the store, on Christmas Eve.

Viet T. Nguyen: On Christmas Eve. I was watching A Scooby-Doo Christmas, so that was roughly around 10 years old, and then my brother took the call, maybe I was younger. And you know, I had no idea how to process that information. I wanted to watch my cartoons.

Brad Listi: “Mom and dad just got shot.” It’s Christmas Eve.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, “I don’t know what to feel about that.” You know? I felt guilty for that, about that-

Brad Listi: Your brother was babysitting you?

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: What did he do? Could he drive? Did you like driver over, or-

Viet T. Nguyen: No, no. I mean, he yelled at me for not crying. I felt bad about that, but again, at that age, I don’t know how you’re supposed to process that information.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: So these were all signs of what life was like in San Jose in the 1980s for me.

Brad Listi: And you wanted out. High school, was it kind of the same thing? Did you have a good time, or?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, ironically, my brother … Okay, my brother, you know we had no … We were saving money, my brother got sent to the local public high school, which is not a great high school. Seven years after getting to the United States, he graduates valedictorian from this public high school, goes to Harvard.

Brad Listi: Damn.

Viet T. Nguyen: My parents saved their money. By the time I go to high school, he says … Well, they sent me to the most expensive, elite all-boys high school in San Jose, and it was basically also a primarily white high school, so I got a great education. I’ve read like Joyce Faulkner [crosstalk 00:38:42]-

Brad Listi: I thought you were going to say, “I got a great education in white people.”

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, yes, basically, because all the … There were a handful of us Asian American kids, we didn’t call ourselves that, we had no language for that, so we gathered in a corner and we called ourselves the Asian Invasion, and the Yellow Peril. You know? So on the one hand, I got a great education. I learned how to write, I read modernist literature at 17, I was …

Viet T. Nguyen: I read Ulysses, I read The Sound and the Fury. But, I did not get … But I was also surrounded by white people, and so going to Berkeley and college was really transformative, because I was an ethnic studies major in addition to being an English major, and that … The combination of the two was really transformative. Gave me the sense that I could write, what I should write, but that-

Brad Listi: That’s when it happened.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: At Berkeley.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: Because in high school, I was memorizing the Romantics. I thought, “Oh, I’m going to memorize Shakespeare and Shelley … Shakespeare, Byron and Shelley, so that I can seduce girls.” And so when Dead Poets Society came out in 1988 I was like, “Those guys, they’re going to quote the Shakespeare and Byron when they memorize the poetry, and they did.” I was that guy, except I wasn’t white.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: But I knew in college I could not do this as a living. I had to have a purpose, and I had to do justice to everything my parents had been through. I couldn’t go home to shopkeeper parents and say, “I’m going to write a thesis on the Romantics,” you know. And discovering African American literature, Chicano literature, Asian American literature and all the histories affiliated with that gave me the sense words can matter in a different way.

Viet T. Nguyen: Words can connect to the world and now I have a mission, both as a budding critic and as a budding writer, and that was really a salvation for me.

Brad Listi: And I think it also … The work can be difficult, as I’ve talked about on this show countless times with people, like getting in the chair, doing the work, struggling with it, getting the rejections, all that comes with it. Having a sense of mission probably helps with that, because I don’t know if a lot of writers do.

Brad Listi: I think a lot of writers love to do it or have some impulse to do it, but I don’t know how many writers have a true sense of mission, and like a clear sense of why they’re doing it.

Viet T. Nguyen: I think I learned from my parents, watching them do what they did, they walked the walk. They said, “Work your ass off,” and they did. And so I learned from that, so I don’t want to do what they do, but I discovered that I can take a vacation. Basically, writing, for me, is sitting in a room like this … We live in California, right? There’s always good stuff happening outside, but for 20 years all I did was sit in a room and write, and deal with the rejection, like you said.

Viet T. Nguyen: And the work ethic that my parents instilled was really crucial for that. As for the sense of mission, I think partially it came up from being a Catholic. I’m an atheist, but my parents are incredibly devout Catholics, made me take a Catholic education, and that sense of Catholic sacrifice and devotion and mission has stayed with me, even if I don’t believe in God himself.

Brad Listi: I have a little bit of that too.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, right? I think a lot of us Catholics do.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: But then also, yeah, having that political education gave me a renewed sense of mission, and it stuck with me, and I think that … When you were talking about the Twitter stuff, it’s important to know about writers who have a sense of mission, and readers who have a sense of mission, because they remind us of what that mission is. And sometimes it’s hard to follow through when you feel alone and isolated and all that, because it wasn’t as if I went to school and took writing workshops and people were teaching mission.

Viet T. Nguyen: They were teaching how to write a character, develop a scene, but there was never any discussion about how to write about history or how to write about politics.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: I had to educate myself on how to do those kinds of things.

Brad Listi: So yeah, let’s stop there, because I was thinking about this just the other day. And maybe in the context of this show, like wanting to have political writers on the show more often, especially since it’s an election year, but struggling with how difficult it is to communicate about politics. I find it really onerous trying to talk about politics, and I feel like I’m relatively politically aware.

Brad Listi: And when I watch it on television or I listen to it on podcasts, like a lot of times the conversation seems circular or grating, you know? It’s a hard thing to talk about incisively and well, and the same goes with writing about it. Do you have any lessons?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, I think so many writers I know are at least Democrats, Liberals, Leftists and so on, and of course, on their non-fiction platforms, media platforms, they would talk about politics, right? But it’s really hard to translate that, as you say, into literature without being didactic or boring, and that is a huge problem.

Viet T. Nguyen: So yeah, I spent 20 years trying to figure this out and realizing that the short story was a really bad format for doing that for me. I really needed the capaciousness of a novel to do it, and the challenge then was to try to figure out, you know, “I’m going to write a novel about the Vietnam War, about all this kind of history, but I also want it to be a very political novel. How do I do that?”

Viet T. Nguyen: And I had to come up with a formal device that would allow me to aesthetically justify didacticism.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: Okay? So, if you read The Sympathizer, there’s many moments in the novel where our narrator will say very didactic things, you know, being critical of all kinds of different people and things like that. Now, in many cases, that would just be boring. You don’t want to sit next to this guy who’s doing that, right? And especially in a book, a novel. It just seems like a thinly veiled excuse for the novelist.

Brad Listi: I was going to say, it feels like you can see the puppet strings.

Viet T. Nguyen: Right. So, how do you do that? And I’d read books like that, right? So how do I do this? Well, I had to come up with a narrator who, number one, would plausibly be able to have these ideas, so I created a biography for him that allowed that to happen.

Brad Listi: You wrote it, like a mini biography kind of, or-

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, I mean, yeah, I thought through it in my mind, you know?

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: Okay, so he would be an educated guy, he would be torn between two worlds so that he would constantly be forced to reflect, and he would have been educated in Vietnam and the United States and by a French priest father, so he had all these reasons. And he also would’ve had a Marxist education through his radicalization process, so he had all these ideas.

Viet T. Nguyen: But then, why would he have that reason to say it? So that was the other aesthetic decision, so then I … The premise of the novel is that he’s caught up in this interrogation. The whole thing is a confession. And so, as a confession, the novel is a confession, which means the novel is not a realist novel. It’s not a novel that’s going to be bound by the conventions of certain kinds of staging, or dialogue, or anything like that.

Viet T. Nguyen: It’s essentially a monologue, and-

Brad Listi: I was going to say memoir, but I mean, I think a monologue memoir.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah. But you know, the idea of the confession is real, that people really were forced to write these confessions in reeducation camps in China and Vietnam, so I wasn’t making it up. And what I was going to do is I was going to take a preexisting form and rework it. But the form itself demanded didacticism, because the form of the confession is that your interrogator, the Communist interrogator, is saying, “Confess to me your sins and your crimes.”

Viet T. Nguyen: You know, “We don’t want a novel from you. We want a straight confession.” So it has to be confessional, and the thing that my narrator does is that he turns the confession around. He’s not just confessing to what he’s done, but he’s also going to use it as an opportunity to say things very explicitly that are pointed critiques of his own interrogator, and the Communism that he represents, in addition to the American culture and the South Vietnamese government that the interrogator also wants him to criticize.

Brad Listi: And that was the first thing that you … All of that work, all of that thought work, conceiving of all this, came before you sat down to write. Or did you try to write, struggle, and then finally get it?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, I knew who he was, I knew the narrator, so I came up with that much, and I knew that it was going to be a monologue, and I knew that it was going to be a confession. I was thinking obviously of things like … a novel like Invisible Man, which does many of the same things, but I didn’t know who he was confessing to, and I didn’t know who he was confessing to until about two thirds of the way through the book.

Viet T. Nguyen: And that point I realized, “That’s it, that’s good.” To go back and rewrite it to accommodate that was actually very minor work. But the reason why having the Communist interrogator be the person that he’s confessing to, be such an ideal relationship, was that it allowed me to aesthetically construct the novel as a conversation between two Vietnamese people.

Viet T. Nguyen: Two radically different Vietnamese people, but Vietnamese people nonetheless. And what that meant was that I was freed from worrying about an American readership, or any non-Vietnamese readership to a certain extent. I did not … Because it was two Vietnamese people talking to each other, I didn’t have to translate certain things. Like, a lot of minority literature in the United States is implicitly written for an American audience or … which is to read a white audience.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: So you see a lot of implicit and explicit translation happening, like the writer will say something about her/his culture, or use a word from her/his mother tongue and then translate it automatically into English, or translate it for people who don’t know these kinds of things. That is automatically a sign of disempowerment and who the writer is writing for, and I didn’t want to do that.

Viet T. Nguyen: So this is another aesthetic decision that had political consequences, because to write from one Vietnamese person to another Vietnamese person is a calculated political and aesthetic choice. And I was always thinking of Toni Morrison. She’s gone on record saying many times, “I write Black novels, Black fiction for Black people, not for white people. Now, white people can listen in, they can read, but they’re not the primary audience.” And I thought, “She’s right, and I need to figure out a way to make this happen.”

Brad Listi: Yeah, well it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, and extends to now with respect to the … As a white person, you can sort of take for granted how easy it is to see yourself reflected in movies, novels, et cetera. And I think it can be hard in the presence of that privilege to realize what it would feel like to not have that, like to not be able to turn to the movies and not be able to turn to popular fiction, or mainstream fiction, and to see yourself reflected.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, and I think that’s why for so many people who don’t see themselves reflected or represented in mass culture in the United States, whether it’s literary or film or at the level of politics, not to be represented really hurts. And so, when Americans of a different background, white Americans say, “Just get over it. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just a story,” they’re speaking from the position you’re speaking of, which is they can rest assured in their privilege that there’s literally thousands of stories about people like them.

Brad Listi: More than thousands.

Viet T. Nguyen: More than thousands, you know. And so for them to dismiss a story as not mattering is because if someone were to actually make that story about them and be insulting, they can just sort of like take comfort in knowing there’s, again, millions of stories about them.

Viet T. Nguyen: Now, ironically, even when that is the case, when you write a story that’s critical of white people and point that out, sometimes people do get insulted anyway, which is a thing that’s happened sometimes in the case of The Sympathizer, that you know, there are some Americans who have been offended by this book. Not as many as I thought would be, but some. So anyway-

Brad Listi: And you’ve heard from them?

Viet T. Nguyen: Oh yeah, I mean, I read my amazon.com and Goodreads reviews religiously, I’ve read every single one. And then, there’s a generation of Americans who still write letters, I get those.

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: And the ratio of angry letters is much higher. Take from that what you may.

Brad Listi: The ones that … Maybe could be because of demographics or age, or?

Viet T. Nguyen: I think so.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: And typically, American military veterans will write me letters, rather than communicating via email or something like that. The angry ones will. You know? And so I have all that in my files.

Brad Listi: And you read them. Do you respond?

Viet T. Nguyen: I responded once to one person. I had written this New York Times editorial on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war talking about the necessity of remembering Vietnamese refugees, among other things, this guy wrote me … And he was angry, he was really angry. And basically, the gist of all these letters from American veterans who are critical of me is, “You don’t appreciate our sacrifice.”

Viet T. Nguyen: Which is not true, I do appreciate that sacrifice, but I feel like I’m living in a culture in which that sacrifice is actually constantly validated now. It wasn’t in the 70s, right? But it is now.

Brad Listi: Right.

Viet T. Nguyen: And in contrast, the experiences of Vietnamese people, but also of all these people in the countries where the United States has fought wars, that’s not validated. So I have to compensate for that. So this person writes me the letter, and then I respond. I respond not trying to argue with him, I say, “Look, I’m sorry that you’re angry, but maybe you should try to address the roots of the anger, because being angry only affects you. It doesn’t affect me.” And he got angrier writing back to me, so I was like, “Okay, I’m not going to continue this conversation.”

Brad Listi: It’s hard to … I always say, “Don’t feed the trolls,” on Twitter, because somebody can say something really outrageous or angry and there is the impulse to respond, but then I always find myself thinking like, “Okay, this is just going to spiral. I’m going to lose time. This is going to be like an hour of my life, trying to go back and forth.” It doesn’t seem worth it to me.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, so I have a Facebook page that I’m very active on, an author page, and all that happens. I write stuff that’s very political, people respond positively or negatively, and I oftentimes don’t respond to the comments for the exact reason you’re saying, but instead I will just write another Facebook post to address the general tenor, because …

Viet T. Nguyen: I mean, the gist of that, from this critique, the gist that American veterans are … need to have their sacrifice appreciated, it’s a valid point, but let me address it to a larger audience and try to affect the larger audience versus every individual person.

Brad Listi: Yeah, like it’s tedious.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: So you were born what year? Do you mind me asking?

Viet T. Nguyen: It’s on the copyright pages, so what can I say? It’s 1971.

Brad Listi: Okay, so ’71, so you’re in your 40s. This is your debut novel?

Viet T. Nguyen: Yes.

Brad Listi: Not a bad debut.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, not shabby.

Brad Listi: Not shabby. But it took you a while, it’s not like you cranked this out when you were … I mean, you were working for a long time. You spoke earlier of sitting in a room for 20 years and doing rejection. How long did it take you? How many false starts were there? Do you have multiple novels in a drawer that never made it out?

Viet T. Nguyen: Okay, so the story about this novel is that I wrote it in two years.

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: And it was actually really relatively easy to write, not totally easy, but relatively easy. But, the context is that I had spent more than a decade writing a short story collection, that was an awfully miserable, horrible experience. But it was lots of rejection, 99% bad stuff, and 1% feeling good about myself.

Viet T. Nguyen: The outcome of that though is that when my agent said, “Hey, it’s time for you to write a novel because that’s the only way we’re going to sell the short story collection too,” and I said, “Okay, I always wanted to write a novel,” the great thing was, when I sat down to write the novel, after a couple months hesitation and trying to figure out the beginning, once I got into it, it was actually an incredibly great process.

Viet T. Nguyen: But it was only possible, I think, because of all the suffering that had gone on before. Somehow, beating my head against the wall in writing those short stories led to the breakthrough, when I found the novel, when I found … The form of the novel, like I said, was to write form format, I needed all that space. But if I had tried to write that novel when I was younger, I probably would have suffered through 10 or 15 years as well-

Brad Listi: Oh, I was going to say, because was it just a situation where the novel’s maybe your more natural form and when you were trying to write the story collection you were inside of a structure that wasn’t quite suited to you, or do you think that that just happened to be your apprenticeship?

Viet T. Nguyen: I think it was a natural form, and the short stories were the apprenticeship, but if I had tried to write the novel, a novel, as an apprenticeship, it would’ve probably been just as difficult as writing the short stories.

Brad Listi: Yeah, you learned a lot.

Viet T. Nguyen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brad Listi: It’s painful-

Viet T. Nguyen: I never want to write another one though, short story.

Brad Listi: Right. From here on out it’s novels?

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: That’s it?

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, [crosstalk] the short stories.

Brad Listi: You’re like, “Oh, it’s just, you know, it’s a really tough form.”

Viet T. Nguyen: It is. And I respect poets, I respect short-story writers, there is something inherent about the forms that are very, very difficult, and I think they probably think the same way about the novel, so I’m lucky that a novel works for me … I tried writing poetry in college, I sucked, but I recognized that early on, didn’t sacrifice my life for that. Did not recognize that about short stories.

Viet T. Nguyen: And there is something about the short story that I understand sort of in a technical way, like I can read a short story and admire how it worked out, but I can’t figure it out myself. I mean, I can figure it out, like I can write short stories that pass a certain kind of judgment that have been published in recently respectable places, but I don’t get excited about it.

Viet T. Nguyen: I don’t feel like I can … I don’t think I can possess that short story and blow it up in a transformative way like I can with the novel as a genre. There’s just something about it that I don’t truly understand.

Brad Listi: And with the success that The Sympathizer is having and with the things that you were able to express in it, which like you said were sort of brewing inside you for a lifetime, really, I mean, it’s something that you were building towards. Has it changed your sense of mission at all as an artist and as a writer? I mean, I know that you have these things that …

Brad Listi: Once the light sort of went on in college, and you all of a sudden clarified for yourself what you were doing and why, and you’ve done it. It’s won the Pulitzer Price. Now what?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, you know, I think number one, there’s a fear that I don’t have to do a darn thing again. You know? I can just eat off this prize for the rest of my life, is what people are telling me. But I don’t want to do that. And then the other thing is … The question is what next, right? But then, so then what next? I mean, I don’t want to write another Vietnam War novel.

Viet T. Nguyen: Obviously, the fear of people who are of a minority background or even American veteran writers is you’ll be classified in a certain way. So you’ll be the Vietnamese American writer, or there’s a whole genre of Vietnam veteran writers too. Right? And so that’s the temptation.

Viet T. Nguyen: But the difficulty is that, at the same time, I think it’s still actually a really crucial history to address, the Vietnam War. So my solution to it, hypothetically, theoretically, is that I … My understanding of the Vietnam War is that it needs to be situated in a much larger, capacious history of America.

Viet T. Nguyen: And the fact that for me the Vietnam War is one episode in a much larger history of warfare that begins … 1988, for example, when the US took the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, continues today in Iraq, Afghanistan, et cetera. That’s my understanding of war, and that’s a mission, that’s a lifetime project, to try to figure out how to deal with that.

Viet T. Nguyen: So I think that the sequel to The Sympathizer is not about the Vietnam War as Americans understand it, but is about Vietnam and the war in a much more global sense as I understand it, so it takes place in Paris, because I want to deal with the French aspect of the Vietnam War and the colonization and so on. And I want to be able to encourage my readers to think more capaciously about what this war has meant to many different countries in a much wider timeframe than how Americans have generically or typically understood it.

Brad Listi: Do you speak French?

Viet T. Nguyen: Badly.

Brad Listi: Badly.

Viet T. Nguyen: But better than many Americans.

Brad Listi: I was going to say, yeah. And then, have you spent time over there? Are you going to go over there to research and …

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, my wife and I have spent about a year over there altogether, and she actually does French and Vietnamese, that’s her specialization as an academic. And our fantasy is to retire to Paris. We love Paris and all of that. So I think I’ve done enough research, although I’d certainly love to go back as an excuse-

Brad Listi: Sure.

Viet T. Nguyen: … to do more. Why not? But I think I’ve seen enough of Paris and France to understand their state of racial relations, their remembering and forgetting of their own colonial history and their own wars, and I think that’s really fascinating, to be able to try to see how my narrator, who lives at the end of The Sympathizer, is going to cope when he goes there to try to find his father’s family, for example, to try to get recognition from this horrible father figure, and confront other colonial histories in Paris, like what happened to the Algerians, for example.

Brad Listi: So is this a series of novels? I mean, if you’re going to go … If this is a lifelong project and you’ve got all these different countries and cultures that were touched by the war in Vietnam and all these different countries and governments who are engaged in imperial behavior around the globe … I mean, can you see this stretching out into a series of novels? Five, six books long, or?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, you know, one of the things that I love is thriller literature and spy literature, that’s why I wrote this novel as a genre novel. And in the world of the genre fiction you do that, you write trilogies and tetralogies and series and all of that, and it’s totally common. Apparently not so common in literary fiction, so sometimes when I mention a sequel people are like, “No, don’t do that, you’re just going to,” again, “feed off your prize and feed off the novel.”

Viet T. Nguyen: But I don’t see it that way, I do see it as part of the larger mission, but I also see it as part of genre, and I don’t have a problem with genre. So, I don’t think of it as five or six novels though, I have a hard time thinking of it pas three, because I think I know what’s going to happen, but I do want to-

Brad Listi: Can I say this? Trilogies are good, and once you get into the fourth, it gets tough.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, unless you’re J.K Rowling. Why not?

Brad Listi: Yeah, right?

Viet T. Nguyen: If you have seven novels in you, why not? But I don’t have that, but I think after I’m done with The Sympathizer, I mean the character, there are other novels that I’m thinking of that allow me to take this larger history, this larger mission from different angles.

Brad Listi: And what about war? Not to put too big of a question on you, but you mentioned all these foreign adventures the United States has engaged in and continues to engage in. Is there ever a good one? You know what I’m saying? It just seems like in my lifetime anyway there’ve always been bad mistakes, and yet I also can find myself nodding when I hear …

Brad Listi: For instance, I thought Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech had some hard truths in it that I couldn’t entirely refute about the necessity sometimes of military intervention or the use of force. I thought that was kind of an honest response, you know? You can’t be a pacifist when you are entrusted with power, when you’re … You know, we have executive power and you’re in charge of the military in a country.

Viet T. Nguyen: I’ve been thinking about false choices over the last few days, I think there are a lot of false choices that are offered to people, as if A and B are the only options you have, and I think the whole issue of, “Is there a good war or not?” Is a part of this idea of the false choice, because oftentimes, and people will say, as your … the example that you’re giving, “Well, if we don’t fight wars, we’re going to have this horrible thing happen, so we have to fight wars sometimes.”

Viet T. Nguyen: And that is a false choice, because it’s going to lead us … it already has led us, and not just us Americans but all countries, into a path where we think warfare has to be a part of the solution. We have to build a military industry. And that leads, in the case of the United States … It does not lead to the logical conclusion that we have to have 800 military bases all over the world, we have to spend trillions in our “defense,” and gear ourselves into the military industrial complex.

Viet T. Nguyen: Let’s think about another choice. Instead of thinking we have to be prepared for war or its consequences, why can’t we think, “Well, we also have to prepare for genuine peace”?

Brad Listi: I was going to say, what about a department of peace? I know people are like … Dennis Kucinich used to say this, and people would laugh him out of the room. And I was always like, “Yeah,” I mean think about all the, like you say, trillions of dollars we’ve spent on weapons and militarization, military technology, military strategy, all of it. What if we put even a fraction of that into, “How do we create and sustain peace? How do we resolve conflict peacefully, diplomatically, and in a way that’s lasting?”

Brad Listi: That’s not silly, right?

Viet T. Nguyen: Right. I don’t think that’s unimaginable, but as you’re saying, there are people who laugh and say, “Oh, it’s completely unrealistic.” But it’s not, I mean, it’s a failure of the collective imagination. We’re all partially responsible for it, which is why you can hold President Obama up to a certain standard and say, “He should do more than he does,” which I think is true.

Viet T. Nguyen: But for each of us, that drop of water that you’re talking about, each of us also has to say it out loud, because if we don’t say it out loud in whatever form, we’re never actually going to get to the point where we have the mass movement that could actually make that possible, where we could argue we haven’t actually done the hard work to build peace in the same way that we’ve done the work to build a war machine.

Brad Listi: Yeah.

Viet T. Nguyen: Because it’s easier to build a war machine, it’s easier to destroy. Look at your own children, it’s easier to have them destroy things than to teach them how to create things.

Brad Listi: Right. They are destroyers.

Viet T. Nguyen: Right.

Brad Listi: Well, but it’s like … And I forget, I’m going to totally botch this because I’m paraphrasing and also drawing on like a faulty memory, but I seem to remember like Franklin Roosevelt talking to a constituent or talking to someone like a politician who was lobbying him to … I don’t know what it was. Enact some law, some sort of social justice, and his response was, “Make me.”

Viet T. Nguyen: “Make me.” Right, but that’s right, that’s our obligation.

Brad Listi: You know what I’m saying? He can’t do it alone.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: Politicians can’t just unilaterally … In our system, can’t just unilaterally do it, you have to create a political environment that would allow … And I think maybe an example of this was, at least to a certain degree, was gay civil rights during Obama’s term, where the polls … It can seem crass to reduce it to that, but yeah, eventually the polls creep up, and eventually the politicians act.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah.

Brad Listi: And that’s what has to happen. Public opinion sort of has to beat them to it.

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, the gay rights, queer rights, all that kind of stuff, part of what … You can call them new social movements, right after the 1960s, and the one advantage that they have is that they can mobilize people around identities and around rights, right? But it’s not always about like money, like investment. When we think about the military industrial complex, that’s a gigantic boulder, so many …

Viet T. Nguyen: It’s so heavy, so many people have invested in it that it’s a lot harder, I think, to move that boulder than it is even to fight for HIV treatment or gay marriage. Those are hard enough, right? But comparatively, to then try to think of radically transforming American society around its entire economic base, that’s what’s so challenging.

Brad Listi: Well, and yeah, and it’s like you know, it’s really hard to convince somebody that what they do for a living, what earns them their bread is morally bankrupt. People can convince themselves, when that’s how they make their money, and good people can convince themselves, well-intentioned people. It’s a tough thing to turn people around on.

Viet T. Nguyen: You know, there actually is a United States Institute of Peace in D.C. and I think it’s government funded, so-

Brad Listi: They should ask you to speak.

Viet T. Nguyen: They did.

Brad Listi: Oh, they did?

Viet T. Nguyen: They did.

Brad Listi: Good.

Viet T. Nguyen: It was really interesting because out of the entire day’s worth of speakers, I believe I was the only one who even, very politely, hinted at the possibility that a US-sponsored peace was not always necessarily a beneficial thing, but everybody else, they were all congressmen, parts of think tanks, they were all part of the Washington establishment or NGOs and so on.

Viet T. Nguyen: They were all basically, “Yeah, American exceptionalism, that’s what peace means.” And so, even peace can be appropriated by the government.

Brad Listi: Yeah, everything can. Well, listen, it’s such a pleasure and an honor to have you here, I’m really happy for you. What an amazing year you’re having. Congratulations, and I wish you luck on, I guess the trilogy? Can we call it a trilogy?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well, let’s just call it a sequel right now.

Brad Listi: A sequel.

Viet T. Nguyen: Let’s see how I do with that.

Brad Listi: Okay.

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah, but thanks for having me here. For those listeners who’ve never seen the inside of Brad’s garage, it’s like something out of Wayne’s World.

Brad Listi: Basically, that’s about it. Well, thank you so much.

Viet T. Nguyen: Thanks a lot.

Brad Listi: Okay, guys, that’s Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winner. Go get his novel, it’s called The Sympathizer, available now from Grove Press. You can find him online vietnguyen.info. He’s also on Twitter, his handle over there is @viet_t_nguyen. Additional, he’s on the Facebook.

Brad Listi: Thank you to Kill Rock Stars for all the music. Be sure to check out killrockstars.com. Don’t forget about that app. The app is free, go get that app, sign up for Premium to support the show. If you would like to email me, the address is letters@otherppl.com, letters@otherppl.com. You can tell me a story, you can complain, you can shower me with praise, whatever you like. Letters@otherppl.com.

Brad Listi: I have some great shows coming up. Did I mention that I booked a very-hard-to-get major American author? Very nervous about it. Got to get going on preparation, got to be ready, got to figure out where I’m going to record. It’s weird now, doing this in the garage. The house is empty, people are coming over into an empty house, it’s like I’m squatting.

Brad Listi: I’ve talked about this before, it makes me feel awkward. Maybe I always should have felt awkward about inviting people into this garage. What am I doing? This isn’t proper. It’s a violation of social norms. Please remember that Edith Wharton was buried in Versailles and that the word plagiarism is derived from the Latin word for kidnapping.

Brad Listi: That’s it for now, huge thanks to Viet Thanh Nguyen for coming over, sitting down, and so generously talking with me. He’s a busy man these days, he made time for the Otherppl podcast, I appreciate that. Thanks to you guys as well, as always, for making time for the Otherppl podcast, for making part of your weekly media diet.

Brad Listi: Hey, you could do worse, right? Thanks for listening, thanks for spreading the word about the show. Twitting about it incessantly, posting it on your Facebook wall. All right, it’s very hot. I have a guest coming over momentarily, like right after I finish this, I have to interview somebody, big-time author too.Brad Listi: Welcome to my empty house, welcome to my filthy garage. I feel like people are going to … Publicists are going to get fired over this. Please accept my apologies, preemptively. (singing)

Category: Interviews

 

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