Author Viet Thanh Nguyen is featured on The Takeaway, a co-production of WNYC Radio and Public Radio International hosted by John Hockenberry. Listen to the full interview in the audio player or read the transcript below.
It’s the second and final day of President Obama’s visit to Vietnam. After ending a decades-long arms embargo that had been placed on the country, the president will end his trip with a visit to Ho Chi Minh City. The city was once known, of course, as Saigon — the capital of South Vietnam, and the home of French and American troops fighting the Communist North.
But that’s just one part of a history that the American and Vietnamese governments consider to be in the past.
“Over the past century, our two nations have known cooperation, and then conflict, painful separation, and then a long reconciliation,” President Obama said in Hanoi on Monday. “Now, more than two decades of normalized ties between our government has allowed us to reach a new moment. It’s clear from this visit that both our peoples are eager for an even closer relationship; a deeper relationship.”
Despite Obama’s gentle words, has there really been a reckoning with the Vietnam War? That’s a subject heavily infused in the book “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Nguyen grew up in a world divided. His parents fled to South Vietnam in the mid 1950s before moving to the United States in 1975 when South Vietnam fell to the North. Nguyen says that we all have a long way to go before we can lay the past to rest. Click on the ‘Listen’ button above to hear our full interview.
Speaker 1: Over the past century, our two nations have known cooperation, and then conflict, painful separation, and a long reconciliation.
Speaker 1: Now, more than two decades of normalized ties between our governments allows us to reach a new moment. It’s clear from this visit, that both our peoples are eager for an even closer relationship, a deeper relationship.
Speaker 2: That is a ride through space and history in sound. From a pop tune on the streets of Saigon in 1968, to a pop tune on the streets of the USA in 1970, to President Obama this week in Hanoi where people cheered when he ordered lunch.
Speaker 2: But the official reconciliation between the US and Vietnam seems to be the easy part. There is money to be made and regional politics driving the US alliance with Vietnam, it is deeper where the war still is waged in memory both in United States and in Vietnam.
Speaker 2: The book, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen is the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Nguyen grew up in a country divided. His parents fled to South Vietnam in the mid-1950s, and entered the US in 1975 when the South fell to the North. Nguyen says, to some people, he will always be a man from South Vietnam.
Viet Nguyen: I think there are many people in Vietnam, in the United States for whom the war hasn’t truly ended. They still carry an emotional residue with them, or trauma, or maybe something a little bit less. But those aren’t really the voices that are going to be asked about their opinions on what President Obama’s visit signifies for Vietnam and for the United States. So, they’ll remain quiet and in the shadows, which they’re unfortunately used to.
Speaker 2: Have you noticed in the United States that there is a kind of shadow, Vietnam War is still going on among people who were sympathizers for the cause and sympathizers for the protest movement that helped to end the war in the 1960s and 70s?
Viet Nguyen: I think that everybody who had passionate feelings about the war, whether they fought in the war or supported the war, were against the war, left the country, or have been refugees fleeing from South East Asia to come to the United States still think about this war quite a bit. And still, when the issue of the war comes up are ready to resurrect these old feelings and fight these old battles. I hear from them quite often when I’m out on the Lecture Circuit, or when I post things on social media, or if I write articles. The same arguments that they had carried out 40 years ago are still the same arguments they’re putting forth today.
Speaker 2: Why do you think it’s the case that the US and Vietnam seem to be so cordial and ready to move on, but within each country, there is really not that same kind of inclination, that, as you said, the shadow war is going on?
Viet Nguyen: Well, genuine peace and reconciliation between individuals and inside of individuals is really difficult to achieve. I mean, that calls for a kind of spiritual reclamation, a kind of confrontation and dialogue with the people with whom one has been opposed. But peace and reconciliation carried out at the level of states, which is what we’re seeing here between Vietnam and the United States, oftentimes tends to be much more pragmatic and done in the interest of leaders, governments, military-industrial complexes, rather than necessarily in response to citizens or the population.
Viet Nguyen: One of the ways by which this has become easier for these two countries is that, at least in the case of Vietnam, the greater threat is perceived to be China. The US intervention in Vietnam, the Vietnam War, or what the [inaudible] is called, the American War, even though that was a 30-year conflict, and even though it was a civil war in the American soil, for the Vietnamese, it tends to be seen as simply one episode in a much longer history of colonization and war.
Viet Nguyen: The history of the conflict with China in terms of China occupying Vietnam for a thousand years is still very much in Vietnamese mind, and China remains the neighbor, the big threatening neighbor that they have to deal with on a daily basis. The US has now gone from being an enemy to being someone or some country that can be used as an ally to help negotiate this relationship with China.
Speaker 2: Are you patriotic?
Viet Nguyen: I’m patriotic in the sense that I believe that all countries have great ideals that they have set for themselves. These ideals are oftentimes very noble and that we should aspire to them; things like freedom, and democracy, and independence which both Vietnam and the United States espouse. But these ideals are often ruined in practice or at least deeply compromised by governments, by nation states, by militaries, and so [inaudible] clear distinction between what it means to be a patriot and what it means to be someone who is doing what their country or their state tells them to do.
Speaker 2: What is your country?
Viet Nguyen: In my book, Nothing Ever Dies, I talk about how there are nations, and then how there is an imagination that goes beyond the nation. And that is something that is espoused oftentimes by artists, by activists, by religious and spiritual leaders, and that’s my country, the imagination. I think that’s where we need to think, that’s where we need to go. We need to think about how we can’t resign ourselves to the present. If we look back to the past and we see that our ancestors, for them the reality was the tribe, or the city state, and anybody outside of those boundaries was the enemy. Now, thousands of years later, we’ve expanded to the nation state and we’ve consigned ourselves, so many of us, to thinking that the nation state borders are the ultimate reality.
Viet Nguyen: For me, we really need to dream beyond that, to think about how the imagination can take us across national borders, and to bring us in the conversations, the dialogues with people who we might have once considered to be enemies.
Speaker 2: Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you so much.
Viet Nguyen: Thank you for your time.
Speaker 2: Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Professor at the University of Southern California. He’s also the author of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and The Sympathizer, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Speaker 2: What are your memories of the Vietnam War? How were you taught about it? Did you live it? Gordon on Facebook writes, “We were much more aware during those years, but I think that there is a new spirit of awareness blooming today in America. I don’t know when this phase started or when it will end, but it’s here for sure.” And Wayne says, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests,” quoting Henry Kissinger.Speaker 2: President heads to Japan tomorrow, we want to hear from you. Call us at 877-8-MY-TAKE, or leave us a comment at Facebook.com/thetakeaway.