Viet Thanh Nguyen talks with Richard Wolinsky on 94.1 KPFA about his debut novel, The Sympathizer.
A conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, The Sympathizer. Hosted by Richard Wolinsky
Viet Thanh Nguyen came over from Vietnam with his family at the time of the fall of Saigon. The Sympathizer is the story of a Communist exile in America following the end of the Vietnam War, both a spy and in some respects, a lover of American culture.
An Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of two non-fiction books, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and just published, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a non-fiction bookend to his novel.
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Richard: This is the Area 941 Radio Wolinsky Podcast. I’m Richard Wolinsky, and we’re talking about books, about theater, about film, about television, and from time to time even about KPFA Pacifica Radio. My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose novel The Sympathizer just won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. Viet Thanh Nguyen has written two other books, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and just came out, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War and teaches at USC. Raised in San Jose, California.
Viet: Yes, indelibly marked by San Jose.
Richard: This book, The Sympathizer is the story of an unnamed individual, double agent at the end of the Vietnam War. He is a double agent, but there’s a period when you don’t really know if he is, because you don’t know how reliable a narrator he is.
Viet: It’s totally clear that he’s a spy, I think. But it’s also fairly evident that since the book is written as a confession, from him to the person who is interrogating him, that automatically he’s going to be unreliable.
Richard: What prompted you to write this. You’re an academic, and your previous book was an academic book, and then we’ll go a little into your own history as someone who came over as a refugee, what was it? 1975, at the fall of Saigon. So what brought you to write The Sympathizer?
Viet: Well, I’d always been writing actually, I mean, I’m an academic, I’m a scholar. And I take all that very seriously. And all that scholarly thinking that I’ve done, is actually present in the novel, although masked. You can just read the novel as an entertainment. Hopefully it’s entertaining but underneath there’s all these other things that are happening based on the scholarly thinking I’ve done. But I’ve been writing fiction and nonfiction since I was in college. And just now and before this book, I’d written a short story collection, which will come out next year. But then it came time to write the novel, my agent told me to do so. And I thought, “I always wanted to write a spy novel.” And it’s actually historically true, and allowed me to delve into all these kinds of historical and political issues around the war.
Richard: When you began, you also wanted to cover specifically the time when you left and your own feelings about Vietnam, right?
Viet: Well yeah, I think when people say Vietnam War novel in the United States, they typically think American soldiers of the Vietnam War 1961 to 1975. Boom, war’s over, America is done. And that’s simply not true. The war was not over for so many people, Americans, and Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians. And that was true in like psychological, emotional, cultural sense, but also in a real physical sense, that the war continued by other means after 1975. And so the time period of this novel is 1975 to 1980, when South Vietnamese refugees to the United States have continued to try to fight their war by plotting to take their homeland back.
Richard: Did you always know about that?
Viet: When I was growing up in the 1980s, in San Jose, I would go to these New Year celebrations, that did celebrations of the Vietnamese community, and I would see a table out there with pictures of guys in Fatigues in the jungle, in the Thai jungle, and effort was to raise money to send to these guys so that they can continue their counter revolution in Southeast Asia. So I did know about it was back then.
Richard: Was there a character like the General?
Viet: it’s based on the number of individuals, but most people will point to Nguyen Cao Ky, who was the vice president of South Vietnam and the Air minister, I believe, but he was notorious in the 1960s and 1970s, in the United States for being a playboy, and sort of the face of a corrupt South Vietnamese regime.
Richard: And his family, his daughter, pure fiction?
Viet: Well, yes, everybody’s pure fiction but then you’ll find models for them in Vietnamese-American culture.
Richard: This long sequence at a wedding, you are at those kinds of weddings.
Viet: This is one of the major bonding rituals of the Vietnamese Refugee Community. They lost their homeland, etc. And they would see each other periodically at social functions and weddings are really important. They’re always important in Vietnam, but then overseas in the United States, they became rituals for the community to get together and to affirm their bonds, but also to listen to pop music. So the dominant music was not really Vietnamese traditional music. It was Western cover bands, doing rockers versions of Abba and things like this. And they were a lot of fun. Although for Americans who came to attend, they were also very shocking because you couldn’t hear a word. It would just be like this huge ding from the wedding band and that’s how I grew up with a sense of what Vietnamese pop culture was like, how we loved to do the cha-cha and the twist and dance to Western music.
Richard: This reference to a Nancy Sinatra version of Bang Bang, I shot my baby down. That was interesting because in The US, the hit version was Cher not-
Viet: Yeah, apparently I screwed up on that one, because there’s only been a handful of corrections that people have sent in to me and one of them from people of your generation is like, “it was Cher.” I was like, “Okay, I thought it was Nancy Sinatra. But maybe I got my mental wires mixed up because I heard the Nancy Sinatra version, probably in the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill.” I corrected it in the paperback.
Richard: I was wondering if that was maybe something that you picked up, one of those little weird quirks that would have happened in Vietnam because I’m sure there were cover bands, things that would be heard in Vietnam, that were not heard in the US.
Viet: Well, both. I mean, there were cover bands in Vietnam playing all kinds of American and French Western pop music as covers. And they were also playing native pop music, but they had been developing as well. And that would not be heard in America or they would be doing Vietnamese language or trilingual versions of Western pop songs French and Vietnamese and English. And some of that is mentioned in the novel too.
Richard: How old were you when you came over?
Richard: You were four. You have any memories of being in Vietnam prior to that?
Viet: I have little flashbacks, but I can’t tell if they’re accurate or not. But my real narrative memory begins pretty much the moment I set foot in the United States.
Richard: Did you ever go back to your hometown?
Viet: No. And as a matter of fact, in the new book, Nothing Ever Dies, the epilogue is devoted partially to how I can’t go back to my hometown, because I’ve been back to Vietnam many times, but I’ve disobeyed my father in many things, but the one thing he’s told me not to do that I’ve obeyed him is never go back to [inaudible 00:06:54]. That’s our hometown. That’s where I was born. The reason why is because he thinks that people will remember him and persecute me as a result, which I think is pretty far fetched. But this is the one injunction that I can’t overcome.
Richard: I have not been there yet. I have been down in that region a couple of times. Is there much sign that there was a war 30 years ago now?
Viet: Depends where you go. If you go on the tourist track, there are signs, because the tourist track includes battlefields, tunnels, war museums that Americans and French are fascinated by, and the Vietnamese tourists people think that Westerners will be interested in. But outside of that, if you ventured out into the countryside, or into the tourist resorts and things like that, no, you don’t see very much evidence of the war remaining.
Richard: Let’s get back to The Sympathizer. So you knew you wanted to write a novel, and you wanted it kind of to be a spy novel. And you wanted to create I guess, a double agent and that was at the beginning, how plotted out was the novel at that point before you started to write?
Viet: I had a two to three page synopsis. That was the broad outline of the book. And I mostly followed that. I knew even when I wrote the outline that the ending that I had plotted was not what I wanted to do. The ending was sort of a Hollywood shoot them up kind of thing with a lot of explosions and man on man conflict. And that just didn’t feel right to me. But I didn’t know what the ending was. I trusted though that if I kept writing, I would get my way to some point where I would know what the ending is. And that was about two thirds of the way through writing the novel, I realized exactly where he needed to end up and exactly what had to happen to him.
Richard: And in the center of the novel is a sojourn to the Philippines, where he is a technical advisor for a film that is loosely based on Apocalypse Now. Was that always in the story?
Viet: Yeah, it was in the original idea that I had for the book. And obviously, if you read the sources of my book, all the research is about Apocalypse Now. And, the funny thing is, I can’t even make up some of the stuff that happened or was rumored to have happened on the set. But the story of the movie that they’re making in this book is actually drawn from all kinds of Vietnam war movies. It’s a mash up of the greatest hits of the American imagination about the Vietnam War.
Richard: The Green Berets is one of the ones that came to mind.
Viet: Absolutely. Or the John Milius version of Apocalypse Now that never got made.
Richard: In an essay on your website, you talk about the Green Berets and how the ending of the Green Berets where the sun sets in the east is kind of a good metaphor for the Americans in Vietnam.
Viet: Yeah, I think that’s a well remarked upon scene, it’s an infamous movie. It really exemplifies what I think of as, Hollywood serving as the propaganda arm of the military industrial complex. And that continues even in films that are not as dumb as the Green Berets, like, Apocalypse Now and so on. And, my perception of the American understanding and memory of the war is that it’s intensely solipsistic. Americans have produced literally thousands of books, hundreds of movies, enormous numbers of political speeches about this war, and they missed the point. They think this was an American war because 50,000 Americans died in it. And that’s a human tragedy. But, 3 million Vietnamese people died too, 3 million Cambodians and Laotians died as well. Americans don’t remember that.
Richard: I was in Cambodia. And I was in Siem Reap, I went to Angkor Wat, et cetera. But I also went to a memorial, small memorial to the killing fields and talking to Cambodians, they’d harsh things to say about China, harsh things to say about Pol Pot, not harsh things to say about The US, though it’s my understanding that if the US hadn’t intervened, none of those other events would have happened.
Viet: They probably would have said harsh things about the Vietnamese too, because, Vietnam and Cambodia have a very tense relationship. And what happened in the years during and after the American period in Southeast Asia was deeply influenced not just by what America was doing, but by China and Vietnam, too. So all of these countries bear responsibility. But I think the antagonism between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese and between them and the Chinese is so intense that the memory of the American involvement is subdued. But even more than that, there is very little education on memory in Cambodia about the genocide, what happened, all that kind of stuff. So I don’t even know if the younger generation remembers that the US dropped an enormous number of bombs in Cambodia or that they had any connection to the rise of the Khmer Rouge because I have a hard time even grappling with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. So all around, it’s one of the tragedies of this war that it’s left memory in shambles in Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia too.
Richard: And in Vietnam?
Viet: And in Vietnam. Yeah. Well, the irony in Vietnam is that there’s intense memory about the war, but it’s dictated by the Vietnamese Communist Party, the State. And so, it’s no surprise that the younger generation is sick and tired of hearing about this because it’s boring. At least American memory is entertaining. It’s spectacular, lots of bombs and explosions and sex and all that kind of stuff. And Vietnamese official memory in terms of novels and films and state parades, and commemorations and memorials and museums is boring. So if you’re young, you’re already disinclined to care what the older generation says. And if the older generation’s being boring, you’re even less inclined to remember.
Richard: Does that mean that in your trips to Vietnam, trying to do research on The Sympathizer, it was almost easier to look at American sources?
Viet: No, I looked at all kinds. Obviously grew up with American sources. It was very natural and easy one for me, but I had to make a concerted effort to look at Vietnamese novels, Vietnamese films, go to Vietnam many times to go up and down the country looking at cemeteries, museums, memorials, are all over the country, if you know where to look, and I had to immerse myself in that to get a real feeling for how, why and how it is that the Vietnamese have remembered or have forgotten that war.
Richard: There is a scene in the cemetery, in a fake cemetery. It’s curious that when our hero watches the film, that scene isn’t there.
Viet: So there’s a long section in the novel about the making of this movie that’s loosely based on Apocalypse Now and it’s black satire, black comedy. It’s a satire right, about just how stupid Hollywood is, et cetera. But there’s a really deadly serious meaning to this and my perception, it is that yes, Hollywood makes dumb movies, et cetera. But these are not just stories. Hollywood’s erasement and effacement of Asians is part and parcel of the same mechanism that gets the United States ready to kill Asians as well or any other that you can imagine. Right? So there’s something very deadly serious about the erasure of foreigners and others from the Hollywood imagination that has real world consequences.
Richard: That’s actually brought up because our unnamed hero being the technical advisor notes at the beginning that despite this being a Vietnam war movie, they were pretty much no Vietnamese in the film.
Viet: They’re extras. In Apocalypse Now, there are a lot of Vietnamese people in the film, they all end up getting killed, as they did in real life, but the irony was that these Vietnamese extras were actually refugees. This is 1977 or so. And they had just fled from Vietnam, had perilous crossing by ocean, made it to the Philippines and they had an opportunity to play the very people, the communists who had forced them to leave in the first place for a dollar a day. I had to put that into the novel because irony is too rich.
Richard: As the book went on, and as you were writing the book, did your feelings change at all toward the narrator?
Viet: The whole book is told to the narrator’s point of view. So establishing his voice was really important. And getting that first line. The first paragraph was really critical, because that drove… that voice drives entire novel, and I knew I would have to live with him for the entire novel and I liked that voice. My feelings about him did change in a couple senses. On the one hand, I became more attached to him, because even my agents at an early stage of the novel said, “He’s a really unlikable narrator.” And I thought, “I like him.” and even if he is unlikable, so what? So I became more attached to him. And then also, as the novel progressed, he’s delving more deeply into himself voluntarily and otherwise, and so was I. And so the more I wrote from his point of view, the more I understood, the more I understood that there were secrets inside of him that I had only vaguely glimmered at the beginning.
Richard: Those secrets start coming out towards the end of the book, a very, very long torture sequence, which is based somewhat on your own research, I would assume.
Viet: Yeah, I mean an important book for me with Alfred McCoy’s, A question of torture, which is a short study of how the US has developed its torture techniques since the 1950s. Through the CIA’s experiments, domestically and overseas and how those techniques were refined in the Vietnam War, extended through our efforts in Latin America, Central America, and then deployed and again, in places like Abu Ghraib. So that continuum of torture was really important to me. The book is clearly about what happened during the Vietnam War, and immediately afterwards, but I wrote this during the time of Abu Ghraib. So anybody who’s reading this book, hopefully with a consciousness must see the echoes of what these types of techniques mean today.
Richard: Is that to some degree, why he responds the way he responds to think.
Viet: Yeah, I mean, this was not going to be Rambo type of torture. If you’ve seen like the First Blood movies, he’s tortured on a rack or whatever. It’s all very physical and all that. This type of torture that he endures is actually mostly psychological. It’s isolation, sensory deprivation. Again, these are all things that CIA developed and has continued to use today. And what that leads to is the destruction of your character, of your psychology, of who you are. And this book is very much concerned with the self and duality, and being forced to comprehend the thing inside of you that you least want to understand or confront.
Richard: Did the Vietnamese use these same techniques in the reeducation camps?
Viet: Now that, they used to some extent. Now this part is I think fictional, the techniques that I have read about and have were tend to be much more physical, but they did use also sensory deprivation as well. Not in quite as refined a way as it’s depicted in this novel. So I took poetic license, I took the idea that at the end of the war, the Vietnamese captured the documents that the CIA used. The report that I cite in the novel is a real CIA report that you can find online that details all of these techniques or at least gives you hints of them. So the fictional devices, they found this and they used it.
Richard: Is there, an analog to the book and the author that the General is espousing about the role of America in Vietnam?
Viet: The title, if I remember right is Asian Communism, and the Oriental Mode of Destruction, right. So the guy who wrote this is a pundit named Richard Head, and I made all that stuff up. But it’s obviously inspired by a number of different things, which is that we have no shortage of pundits who say a whole lot of things about Asia, who don’t know anything about Asia or other parts of the world. And they write books about them and they become bestsellers and they’re ensconced in think tanks and everything. And this kind of instrumental thinking about how to conquer Asia and rule it for the sake of the West was personified in someone like Henry Kissinger, he was definitely on my mind, but also in The Quiet American if you read that novel, he also has a similar pundit figure, York Harding, who writes a book that The Quiet American character religiously follows as he pursues his misguided policies in Vietnam.
Richard: In the Vietnamese community, when you were talking to the people in the community, particularly people of your own generation, how did they view all this? How do they view that previous generation, and particularly the way the American media and pundits looked at that generation and the war?
Viet: Well, that generation, the wartime generation is still very much alive. And I’ve grown up with them and what they’ve had to say, and I’ve grown up with their children. The children tend to feel obligated to carry on the memories of their parents, because what’s become obvious to anybody who’s Vietnamese in the United States, is that America as a whole cares nothing about Vietnamese Americans, cares nothing about the Southern Vietnamese, cares nothing about the people for whom they supposedly fought this war and know nothing about the experiences and the history of the South Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans, so they’ve been forgotten. And that means that they feel the burden of carrying those memories very, very deeply. Which means that anything that deviates from their memories is oftentimes viewed with skepticism or hostility. And by that I mean this novel, The Vietnamese American community has received it with open arms now that it’s won the Pulitzer Prize, but almost nobody’s read it, I think, from what I can tell. So I’m telling them wait until you read this book about a communist spy before you start embracing me with open arms.
Richard: Before we went on the air, I asked you if this was being translated into Vietnamese in Vietnam, and you said it’s in the process, but you also mentioned a couple of the issues.
Viet: In any kind of translation, you worry about whether it’s going to be a faithful translation, just in terms of language and humor. Apparently, this is a very difficult book to translate because it’s not straightforward. There’s a lot of wordplay in this book, there is a lot of situation specific comedy, et cetera, that’s in there. And there’s also the fact that the Vietnamese language has changed since 1975. When the new regime came into place, they literally obliterated a good portion of the Vietnamese language that was too Southern, which is to say the language of the losers and replaced it with a new kind of Vietnamese language that was more Chinese influenced. So we have to worry about the quality of the translation.
Viet: But the second issue, is that the publisher who is going to do this translation, promises me that they’ll do it faithfully, but they don’t control censorship, the state controls censorship. So the last quarter of the novel is a very strong critique of the Communist Party and communist policies after the war. I’d be surprised if they let this through intact, but I have some people who think that may possibly happen. So we just have to wait and see.
Richard: Were there reeducation camps similar to what appears in the book? I know that a lot of people got out thinking they might be killed. How did that really work in the real world?
Viet: Oh no. They really existed and hundreds of thousands of people got sent to these reeducation camps. And I’ve actually gotten in trouble on Facebook for saying reeducation camps because there are some people who have lived through them or who have friends or relatives who’ve lived through them and insist they’re concentration camps. And I understand the distinction. The things that happened in this camp, they’re mostly drawn from things that I’ve researched on and heard about and all of that and this was a punitive policy carried out by the victorious Vietnamese regime against their former enemies. Everybody from prime ministers and Justices down to sergeants, prostitutes were sent to these camps and sometimes for months, oftentimes for years, sometimes for 15 or 20 years and many people died in these camps from overwork, disease, stepping on landmines, this kind of stuff. So the Vietnamese Overseas Community really views its history with immense bitterness and anger, that this was for them, a further sign of how evil communism is.
Richard: Did you get anybody to vet the book afterward, pick up on things that you might have missed?
Viet: No, I had to trust that I had done literally decades of reading and thinking about this that I’ll get most of this right. And again, only handful of people have come forth and said this, this or this is wrong but they’re very small details like I misspelled the word of the name of a Vietnamese Street, for example, or where I got this Nancy Sinatra thing slightly out of sequence.
Richard: When you went back, were you looking at some of the locations in Saigon?
Viet: I wrote the novel mostly after the research trips to Vietnam. And the one time period where I was there writing the novel, actually, I was actually in Hanoi for three months. And that had nothing to do with this book. So most of the subsequent, follow up research was done online, for example, looking at old maps of Saigon, to make sure I got the street names, right and the route that they would take and things like that.
Richard: When I talked to people who say you’ve got to go to Vietnam, but don’t go to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, it’s really boring. Go to Hanoi. It’s really beautiful. And the food is great.
Viet: No. So when I first went to Vietnam, I thought, “Oh, yeah,” I’m an quote unquote, “intellectual,” Therefore, I’m going to like Hanoi better, because it’s the intellectual city of the country.” But I was raised in the south. And as it turned out, that imprinted itself on me much more deeply than I understood, so that I found Hanoi to be stuffy, cold. The people were hard to get to know, the dialect was hard to understand, the food sucked. All that kind of stuff. And I found Saigon to be lively, energetic. Yes, it’s messy. It looks like Los Angeles, but that’s fun. And I’m from Los Angeles now. So I responded to the nightclubs. And the and the food and the fast paced lifestyle and the decadence and all of that. So it really depends on your personality,
Richard: The decadence. This is still a communist regime, though.
Viet: In name only. No one’s a communist in Vietnam except a very small fraction of the Communist Party, even most of the communists are not communist anymore. So the reality of it is that it’s a capitalist country, all the state run enterprises are capitalist enterprises, except they’re explicitly owned by the state, but they’re also so many private enterprises that are just basically capitalist all the way through. So the contradiction for this country is that it’s communist in name, capitalist in practice, and it has almost zero interest in the ideology of Marxism.
Richard: Well, for somebody who actually thinks about such things, there’s some really strange ironies in there but I guess most of the people don’t.
Viet: Oh, I think the Vietnamese people are really cognizant of the ironies. I mean, if you’re a college student, you still have to take Marxist-Leninist Theory, for example, but nobody takes that seriously. Everybody knows this is just some stupid requirement. And you become a member of the Communist Party because you need to get ahead and how this society works. Now there is still a faction of people who really do believe in more communist ideology and so on. But they have to still occupy some powerful positions. But there’s nobody who can look at this country and think it’s not a capitalist society at heart.
Richard: Looking at your website, I found some interesting quotes from various blogs and articles you’ve written. To be Vietnamese in America, to be Asian in America is to benefit from the racism against Blacks. This was written around the time of Ferguson.
Viet: I guess you could include Muslims in that as well now. To benefit from not being Muslim, right?
Viet: Well, I think everybody in the United States who is not Muslim benefits from not being Muslim, right? After 911, African Americans had a small window of time where they were welcomed into America without suspicion because now we got these evil Muslim people to blame instead, and that window has closed obviously. To me, it seems like a factual reality that, to arrive in this country as a refugee or an immigrant who is not Black, already means that you have Some advantages that have accrued to you. You’re not White, but you’re not Black. This is a racist country and that is a significant benefit and especially that Asians nowadays benefit because of the reverse rhetoric, which is that Asians or Asian Americans are somehow innately superior in some way, which causes ambivalence among White people. And it’s also a completely miscast perception.
Richard: You do make a distinction that I found interesting. That it used to be White versus people who weren’t white. And now it’s more if you’re not Black versus people who are Black.
Viet: Yeah, to me, this speaks to how racism is deeply embedded in American society. We’ve never gotten over slavery, the legacies of slavery are visible everywhere. And now, its most visible in this and again, in the sense that this is a changing multicultural country. Hopefully, Donald Trump is the last gasp of the old regard of White America. But, that doesn’t mean that racism is over. It simply means that racism is transformed. White people now have to form alliances with other people, Asian Americans, for example, or just basically any good minority, Latino minorities. And it’s still easy to resort to anti Black racism as the ultimate bedrock of negative thinking in the United States.
Richard: There’s also discussion in The Sympathizer, which I didn’t even think about it, but it makes sense about racism among Vietnamese toward both Chinese and toward Amerasian or Eurasian people.
Viet: Yeah, the Vietnamese people are racist. How about that? I grew up in a Vietnamese American community. I heard racism against Latinos, African Americans all the time. We didn’t like white people too much either. And now we don’t like Syrians very much. I’m just generalizing. But these sentiments exist in Vietnam itself. Yes, definitely. Vietnam is a multicultural country. It has 52 ethnic minorities, and it mistreats all of them. And it particularly hates ethnic Chinese. And in the years after the end of the Vietnam War, the communist regime actively persecuted ethnic Chinese and so many of the so called boat people who left the country, were actually ethnic Chinese, who were fleeing because of various kinds of persecution. And because of French and American colonization or occupation of the country, there was a significant Eurasian and Amerasian population, and they were all mistreated badly. And so I wanted to incorporate some of that history into The Sympathizer by making my narrator half French and half Vietnamese.
Richard: The book has come out in paperback, but you have a new book out, titled, Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and The Memory of War. It seemed to me from looking at descriptions of the book that in some respects, that book grew out of your research on Sympathizer.
Viet: Yeah, well, actually, it’s more probably more accurate to say The Sympathizer grew out of the research for Nothing Ever Dies, because I started doing the research for Nothing Ever Dies around 2003. So that’s a 13 year, 12-13 year project. Basically what happened is that The Sympathizer is the fictional book end of a project of which Nothing Ever Dies is a nonfiction book end. And so, The Sympathizer’s hopefully an entertaining novel about war, memory, et cetera. Nothing Ever Dies makes all these issues that are latent in The Sympathizer very explicit, as I try to think about what does this war mean to all of us Vietnamese and Americans? But what is war in general mean? Why do we fight wars? Why do we keep on fighting wars even though we know that war is hell? How do we confront the inhumanity that’s latent within humanity? And how do we forgive and forget and achieve reconciliation?
Richard: We also have to look at what you call the Military Cinema Industrial Complex and the propaganda thereof that goes out to the entire world.
Viet: So yeah, the Americans lost this war, in fact, but won the war in memory. And it’s the first time that the losers I believe, have ever gotten to write the history. And if you’re in Vietnam, obviously, you read Vietnamese history, but outside of Vietnam, you encounter American memories. And anywhere I go, and I bring up this war, people almost… one of the very fast, earliest responses is, “Have you seen Apocalypse Now? I love Apocalypse Now.” Even in Vietnam, I’ll find people who say, “I love Apocalypse Now.”
Viet: So it’s just a symbolic of the way by which American cultural memory has come to dominate globally, and it speaks to how memory is unequal, just as the rest of society’s unequal, countries are unequal, memory is unequal too.
Richard: Are there any films about Vietnam that would be more accurate than what we’re seeing?
Viet: That’s hard to say. I mean, it depends on what you’re looking for. I’ll give an example. The director, Dang Nhat Minh, who is the foremost director of the revolutionary generation got an honorary Oscar here. His film, When the Tenth Month Comes, is widely regarded as one of the most sensitive explorations of post war impact on the Vietnamese people, on Vietnamese women. Hardly anyone saw it outside of the country, it’s black and white film in 1982. And then he made another film called Don’t Burn, based on the true memoir of a North Vietnamese doctor killed by American troops, which became a best seller, and then in Don’t Burn, he tried to tell the story of both sides. He told her story and he told the story of the American soldier who found her diary and then eventually brought it back to her family 30 years later.
Viet: It’s meant to be a film of reconciliation. Well, he said, “Our film, Don’t Burn opened the same weekend in Vietnam that Transformers Two opened and we were crushed like a bicycle.” I thought that’s a perfect metaphor. And that’s the problem that the Vietnamese people have in terms of trying to produce their own cultural memories about the war. Even Vietnamese audiences would rather watch Transformers Two than watch this native Vietnamese film.
Richard: That also extends to a lot of these bigger movies and the comic book movies, which of course, brings up the controversy that’s been hitting now about the use of White people in Asian roles in films like Doctor Strange.
Viet: It’s not a new phenomenon. Hollywood has been erasing and effacing Asians since almost its beginning, with like Broken Blossoms, for example, the D.W Griffith’s fil, from 1920 or so, where a white actor played an Asian in yellow face and so yellow face has been absolutely central to Hollywood and now it’s white washing Asians in addition to doing yellow face.
Richard: There’s a big difference I think between seeing an American movie, Luise Rainer, in The Good Earth, and changing a character who was clearly Tibetan in Doctor Strange to Tilda Swinton in order to avoid antagonizing the Chinese government.
Viet: It’s a very strange politics because it’s not just that obviously, but Ghost in the Shell was other recent film that’s been causing controversy, clearly a Japanese anime, and Scarlett Johansson is playing one of the major characters, the major character in that film. So basically, it doesn’t really matter what excuse Hollywood uses. They’re racist, they don’t want to cast Asians period, and they’ll come up with any kind of excuse, economic, political, whatever. They just don’t want to do it.
Richard: What I find interesting is that we’re seeing a lot, particularly around the Oscars of Black people not being cast. And yes, the number of Asians given the population of the world and even in the United States, hardly any are being cast. You have like one TV show that’s about an Asian family and I don’t recall anything about Vietnamese families.
Viet: Yeah, I can’t recall anything about Vietnamese families either on TV. I think the most famous Southeast Asian family ever on TV was in King of the Hill, the Laotian family in that show, right? The answer is yes. You need to cast Asian Americans on TV and Hollywood. What else can I say?
Richard: As somebody who was teaching this as an academic dealing with culture, do you feel you have any influence?
Viet: It’s a collective effort. I mean, things have changed a little bit. There are some Asian Americans out there, there are enough Asian Americans in the industry to make a noise about this so Hollywood can’t pretend that they’re absolutely ignorant. And so hopefully, this incremental change, leading to some moment where you can break through and you have breakthroughs. Justin Lin directing Fast and Furious franchise, for example, things like this have happened. So we just have to hope that we reach a tipping point where there are enough Asian Americans and ready to direct, to act and so on and given the opportunity to do so. But in the context of Vietnam, I’ve known so many Vietnamese American actors, directors, who hit the wall of racism in Hollywood and have gone back to Vietnam and there, have become the stars of the Vietnamese film industry ironically enough.
Richard: We did see for a time, at least a lot of Hong Kong people coming over. And it is true that Fast and Furious, though it’s a popcorn movie, is one of the best movies out there. That series out there about races getting along.
Viet: Yeah. And it’s obviously made a very deliberate point of casting diversely and so on and movies are huge hits. So Hollywood has just decided to ignore that kind of model and instead keeps giving movies to White actors who bomb on a regular basis.
Richard: Be a time when, has The Sympathizer been optioned?
Viet: Before the Pulitzer Prize, my agent took me out to a very LA lunch at the Four Seasons and said there’s no way Hollywood’s going to make a movie out of this book. I thought it was because, the book is too long and complicated and he said, “Nah, just because you make fun of Hollywood too much in this book.” But after the Pulitzer, his Hollywood co agent has caught up and asked for lunch. So we’ll see what happens from there. I mean, I’ve joked about it. I said, the price of my soul was $5 million, Francis Ford Coppola, if you want to have it, you can do whatever you want with my book, as long as I get to be a writer for the rest of my life.
Richard: Tropic Thunder pretty much handled some of that.
Viet: It does. I mean, the first 10 minutes is terrific and Tropic Thunder, and then it loses its courage and descends into some kind of stupid action movie.
Richard: Where do you plan to go with this now? You’ve written one novel, and you have your books, you’re working, I assume on the second novel?
Viet: I have a short story collection, and that should come out next year through my publisher. And then they also bought… the publisher also bought the sequel to The Sympathizer. And I’ve written the first 50 pages of that, there are excerpts forthcoming in Ploughshares and Freemans, so people will see what happens to him early on. Then in the novel, he goes to Vietnam, and then he leaves Vietnam. So many people have assumed that when he leaves Vietnam, he goes to America, although I never say that at the end of the book, but the assumption of the American Dream is so strong that people think, “Oh, if you flee from a communist country, you must be come to America.” And so it’s very deliberate that the sequel actually happens in Paris, because I want to tackle this other dimension of Vietnamese history, which is what happened because of France.
Richard: Was there a second wave of boat people around 1980 then?
Viet: Yeah, so 1975 with the Fall of Saigon, from the American in South Vietnamese point of view, 150,000 people escaped the country in that last month, in the late 1970s, because of various kinds of things that were happening in Vietnam. You start to see this phenomenon of the so called boat people, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing by boat. And that continued through the early, mid 1980s. And lots of these people were trapped, let them die basically, on the open sea, but then a lot of them ended up being trapped in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia and took a long time to process them out. And some of them never got out. And some of them were sent back to Vietnam and some of them emulated themselves in protest. It was very difficult and complicated, terrible history.
Viet: And then there are other kinds of programs throughout the 1980s to get more Vietnamese people out. The Amerasian Homecoming Act, which finally allowed for Amerasians to leave the country. They were the trash of the streets. That’s literally, the dust of life is what they were called. And all of a sudden, all these families that had cast them out because they were mixed race people, when The Amerasian Homecoming Act, scrambled to welcome them back into the fold, because these kids then became their ticket to America. Really tragic, because then a lot of them once they got to America were abandoned yet again, by these racist families. And then the other thing that brought Vietnamese refugees to this country was the Humanitarian Operations Act, which brought reeducation camp survivors to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.
Richard: Your parents were put into a camp and you were raised for a brief period by a White family?
Viet: In 1975. All these 150,000 refugees who came to the states were put into four refugee camps throughout the country. And we ended up in Fort Indian Town Gap, Pennsylvania. And in order to leave any of these camps, you had to have a sponsor take you, to make sure you didn’t become a ward of the state. The problem was that no sponsor would take my entire family of four, so I was separated and sent to a white family by myself at four and that’s when my memory begins. I was only separated for a few months, but when you’re four years old, a few months seems like forever. So, that was really traumatizing. And that was my initiation into memory and into Americanization.
Richard: Were your parents on the airplane at the beginning of The Sympathizer?
Viet: No. We tried to get onto the airplane, to get out of Saigon. And we couldn’t make it. So we ended up on a barge getting out of Saigon. And I don’t remember any of this. But my brother says, well, there were four of us. And my mom, my brother and myself got on one barge, my dad, we got separated, and not knowing what was going to happen to us. He also got on that same barge, but not knowing that we were there too. And so we were just really, really lucky and not to be separated and divided as so many families were but as a matter of fact, we left my adopted sister behind in the first stage of the evacuation process because we, like I said, we’re living in this small town called [inaudible 00:37:47]. My dad was in Saigon. And so in March 1975, when he was in Saigon, the communist army took [inaudible 00:37:54]. We were cut off. So my mom had to make a decision. What was she going to do. She decided to leave with my brother and me and leave my adopted sister behind to take care of our property, thinking we would come back, which we never did.
Richard: You got to Saigon, met up with your dad, got on this barge Where did the barge go?
Viet: Long, which was a military base. It was a base that had been used to launch the B 52 attacks on Vietnam, and then in Cambodia, and Laos, and then it was reversed in 1975. It became a refugee camp for hundreds, over tens of thousands of these refugees.
Richard: Which is in the book?
Richard: And then you were flown from there to Pennsylvania.
Viet: I believe that was the case.
Richard: How you were reunited with your parents?
Viet: After a few months, they got me back. My brother tells the story about how… my brother was sent to another sponsor family for two years and he’s written about this. He says, “Yeah, my mom tolerated that from me. But for my baby brother, she demanded that he come back after three months.”
Richard: And then you all moved to San Jose.
Viet: After a few months, we moved to… a few years, late 78, 79, we moved to San Jose because of the promise of better weather and better economic opportunities, which was right because I went back to visit Harrisburg where we had settled and I realized, “Oh my God, we lived in a ghetto.” Which I didn’t realize at the time. I had a happy childhood in Harrisburg, but we went to San Jose, they opened probably the second Vietnamese grocery store there and had the typical refugee shopkeeper stereotypical work till you die lifestyle.
Richard: And your parents are still in San Jose?
Viet: They’re still in San Jose. They’re retired. I’ll tell you a story though, that they had their grocery store on Santa Clara Street. And in the 1980s, it was a deprived area. So the Vietnamese came in there, revitalized it, the city, when Silicon Valley money flooded in, used Eminent Domain to force a lot of these Vietnamese people out, including my parents, and on my parents property, they built a parking garage. And across from that parking garage, they built the brand new City Hall, that was made possible by revitalized San Jose. And this month, I will be asked back to that City Hall, So then give me a commendation. And I’m going to point out to them that, “Across the street, you guys took my parents property.”
Richard: The Sympathizer is now out in trade paperback. Nothing Ever Dies Vietnam and The Memory of War, has just been published by Harvard University Press. To listen to more of these interviews, go to my website, bookwaves.com, or find the Book Waves and Arts Waves podcasts at KPFA.org or you can subscribe to both podcasts via iTunes. Until next time, I’m Richard Wolinsky on the Area 941, Radio Wolinsky podcast.