Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses ‘The Sympathizer’ | Harvard Book Store

Viet Thanh Nguyen reads and discusses The Sympathizer at the Harvard Book Store.


Here is the transcript:

Speaker 1: My name is Marie Phillip [inaudible 00:00:01] on behalf of Harvard Bookstore and GrubStreet, I’m pleased to introduce tonight’s speaker, Viet Thanh Nguyen discussing his novel, The Sympathizer. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of California … Southern California, I’m sorry. Thank you. His award winning stories have appeared in such publications as Best New American Voices, Tri Quarterly, Gulf Coast and the Chicago Tribune. Born in Vietnam and raised in the U.S., he is the author of the academic book, Race and Resistance, Literature and Politics in Asian America. His new novel, The Sympathizer follows a man brought up by an absent French father and poor Vietnamese mother who went to University in America, will return to Vietnam to fight for the communist cause. And his political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties.

Viet T. Nguyen: So what I’m gonna do tonight is I’m gonna read a couple of excerpts from the book and in between, I’m gonna show you a little video that my friend and I have cooked up, you’ll see the relevance of that in just a moment. But the first excerpt that I’m going to read establishes the fact that this is a spy novel and a historical novel. Our character is a spy embedded in the South Vietnamese Army as Saigon is about to fall, or to be liberated. Depending on your point of view. So here we go.

Viet T. Nguyen: I’m a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m also a man of two minds. I’m not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I’m simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use not something that uses you. The talent, you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you. That is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appears.

Viet T. Nguyen: The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was a month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and a beginning of well, peace is not the right word, is it my dear commandant?

Viet T. Nguyen: It was a month when I awaited the end behind the walls of a villa where I had lived for the previous five years. The villas walls glittering with broken brown glass and crowned with rusted barbed wire. I had my own room at the villa, much like I have my own room in your camp commandant. Of course the proper term for my room is in isolation cell and instead of a housekeeper who comes to clean every day, you have provided me with a baby faced guard who does not clean at all but I’m not complaining. Privacy not cleanliness is my only pre-requisite for writing this confession.

Viet T. Nguyen: So what happens to our character of The Sympathizer is that he flees with the remnants of the South Vietnamese Army to the United States and his mission is to spy on them as they attempt to take back their homeland. And one of the jobs that he gets when he becomes a refugee in Los Angeles, is to spy … not to spy, is to become the authenticity consultant for an epic Vietnam War movie that will be made in the Philippines and that’s what this next section is going to be dealing with.

Viet T. Nguyen: So what I want to do in this next thing before I actually read to you from the novel, is to give you a sense of how it is that Hollywood has imagined and remembered the Vietnam War. When I was growing up in the 1980s in San Jose, California I saw a lot of these movies and they impacted me deeply and they were very much at the forefront of my mind as I wrote this novel and this is going to be a four minute video that will show the highlights or the lowlights as the case might be of Hollywood’s cinematic Vietnam War.

Video: Good Morning Vietnam!

Video: In 1965, Vietnam seemed like just another foreign war. But it wasn’t, it was different in many ways and so were those who did the fighting. In World War II, the average of the combat soldier was 26. In Vietnam, he was 19. In Vietnam, he was 19.

Video: What will happen to me now? You let me worry about that Green Beret. You’re what this is all about.

Video: Vietnam reminded me of a child. A developing of a child.

Video: This is my rifle, this is my gun! This is for fighting, this is for fun!

Video: And the Playmate of the Year! Miss Carrie Foster!

Video: It’s gonna be all right. It’s gonna be all right. Go ahead-

Video: Hey baby! You got girlfriend Vietnam? Not just this minute. Well baby, me so horny, me so horny. Me love you long time.

Video: (Singing).

Video: The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.

Video: My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us and little by little, we went insane.

Video: (Singing).

Viet T. Nguyen: So that was 40 years of Hollywood’s memories of the Vietnam War from 1968’s Green Beret’s to 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Everything from propaganda to comedy and every mood in between. So you can see what I’m up against and what the narrator of this novel is up against as he in this next scene, goes to meet a famous Hollywood director, known only as The Auteur. And they discuss the making of this movie, that’s called The Hamlet. And what we’ll begin with in this next scene is a description of the screenplay of The Hamlet and then he’s going to meet The Auteur and two things to know about our narrator that become important, he’s half Asian, he’s a son of a French priest and a poor Vietnamese woman and he was also in the South Vietnamese military, a secret policeman. Both of these things will come up.

Viet T. Nguyen: We own the day, but Charley owns the night, never forget that. These are the words that blonde, 21 year old Sergeant Jay Bellamy hears on his first day in the torrid tropics of Nam from his new commanding officer, Captain Will Seamus. Seamus was baptized in the blood of his own comrades on the beaches of Normandy, survived another near death experience under a Chinese human wave attack in Korea. Then hauled himself up the ranks on a pulley oiled with Jack Daniels. He knows he will not ascend any higher, not with his Bronx manners and his big knobby knuckles over which no velvet gloves fit. This is a political war he informs his acollate, the words emanating from behind the smoke screen produced by a Cuban cigar. But all I know is a killing war. His task saved the [inaudible 00:10:32] of a [inaudible 00:10:31] Hamlet, perched on the border of wild Laos. What’s threatening them is the Viet Cong and not just any Viet Cong, this is the baddest of the bad, King Kong. King Kong will die for his country which is more than can be said for most Americans. More important King Kong will kill for his country and nothing makes King Kong lick his lips like the ferret scent of the white man’s blood.

Viet T. Nguyen: King Kong has stalked the dense jungle around The Hamlet along with veteran guerrillas battled wisen men and women who have slaughtered Frenchmen from the Highlands to the street without joy. What’s more, King Kong has infiltrated The Hamlet with subserves and sympathizers, friendly faces, only masks for calculating wills. Standing against them are The Hamlet’s popular forces, a ragtag bunch of farmers and teenagers, Vietnam’s own Minutemen, trained by the dozen Green Beret’s of the U.S. Army, Special Forces, A Team. This is enough, Sergeant Bellamy thinks, alone in his watch tower at midnight. He has dropped out of Harvard and run far from his Saint Louis home, his millionaire daddy and his fur cloaked mother. This is enough, this stunningly beautiful jungle and these humble, simple people. This is where I, Jay Bellamy make my first and maybe my last stand at The Hamlet.

Viet T. Nguyen: This at any rate, was my interpretation of the screenplay mailed to me by the directors personal assistant, Violet. The thickish manila envelope arriving with my name misspelled in a beautifully cursive hand. That’s was the first whiff of trouble. The second being how the personal assistant, Violet did not even bother to say hello or goodbye when she called for my mailing information and to arrange a meeting with the director in his Hollywood Hills home. When Violet opened the door, she continued with her bewildering manner of discourse in person. Glad to see you could make it, heard a lot about you. Loved your notes on The Hamlet and that’s precisely how she spoke. Trimming pronouns and periods as if punctuation and grammar were wasted on me.

Viet T. Nguyen: Then without [inaudible 00:13:14] to make eye contact, she inclined her head in a gesture of condescension and distrain, signaling me to enter. When I crossed over the threshold into the marble foyer, I instantly suspected that the cause of her behavior was my race. What she saw when she looked at me must have been my yellowness, my slightly smaller eyes and the shadow cast by the ill fame of the Orientals genitals. Those supposedly minuscule privates disparaged on many a public restroom wall by semi-literates.

Viet T. Nguyen: I might have been just half an Asian but in America it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t. Was I just being paranoid that all American characteristic, maybe Violet was stricken with color blindness, the willful inability to distinguish between white and any other color. The only infirmity Americans wished for themselves. But as she advanced along the polished bamboo floors steering clear of the dusky maid vacuuming a Turkish rug, I just knew it could not be so. The flawlessness of my English did not matter. Even if she could hear me, she still saw right through me or perhaps saw someone else instead of me. Her retinas burned with the images of all the [inaudible 00:14:44] dreamed up by Hollywood to steal the place of real Asian men.

Viet T. Nguyen: Here, I speak of those cartoons named Fu Manchu, Charley Chan, Number one son, Hop Sing. Hop Sing and the bucktoothed bespectacled Jap not so much played as mocked by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. By the time I sat down opposite the director in his office, I was seething from the memory of all these previous wounds, although I did not show it. Still I was flummoxed by having read a screenplay whose greatest special effect was neither the blowing up of various things nor the evisceration of various bodies but the achievement of narrating a movie about our country where not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say. Violet had scraped my already chafed my ethnic sensitivity even further but since it would due to make my irritation evident, I forced myself to smile and do what I did best, remaining as unreadable as a paper package wrapped up with string.

Viet T. Nguyen: The Auteur studied me, this extra who had crept into the middle of this perfect mise en scene. A golden Oscar statuette exhibited itself to the side of his telephone, serving either as a kingly scepter or mace for braining impertinent screenwriters. In her [inaudible 00:16:17] show of manliness ruffled along his forearms and from the collar of his shirt, reminding me of my own relative hairless-ness, my chest and stomach and buttocks as streamlined as a Ken doll. Great to meet you, the Auteur began. Loved your notes, how about something to drink?

Viet T. Nguyen: Coffee, tea, water, soda, scotch. Never too early for scotch. Violet, some scotch, ice. I said ice, no ice then, me too. Always neat for me. Look at my view, no not of the gardener, Jose, Jose, got to pound on the glass to get his attention, he’s half deaf, Jose, move, you’re blocking the view. Good, see the view. I’m talking about the Hollywood sign right there, never get tired of it, like the word of God just drop down, plunked down the hills and the word was Hollywood. Didn’t God say, let there be light first? What’s a movie about light? Can’t have a movie without light and then words.

Viet T. Nguyen: Seeing that sign reminds me to write every morning. What? All right, so it doesn’t say Hollywood, you got me. Good eye. Things falling to pieces. One O’s half fallen and the other O’s has fallen all together. The world’s gone to shit, so what. You still get the meaning. Thanks Violet, Cheers! How do they say it in your country? I said, how do they say it? Yo, yo, yo is it? I like that, easy to remember. Yo, yo, yo then and here’s to the congressman for sending you my way, you’re the first Vietnamese I’ve ever met, not too many of you in Hollywood, hell none of you in Hollywood. And authenticity is important, not that authenticity beats imagination, the story still comes first.

Viet T. Nguyen: The universality of the story has to be there, but it doesn’t hurt to get the details right. I had a Green Beret who actually fought with the Montagnards vet the script, he found me, he had a screenplay, everyone has a screenplay. Can’t write but he’s a real American hero, two tours of duty, killed VC with his bare hands, you should have seen the Polaroids he showed me, made my stomach turn. Gave me some ideas though for how to show the movie. Hardly had any corrections to make, what do you think of that? It took me a moment to realize he was asking me a question, I was disoriented as if I were an English as a second language speaker listening to an equally foreign speaker from another country.

Viet T. Nguyen: That’s great I said. You bet it’s great, you on the other hand, you wrote me another screen play in the margins. You ever even read a screenplay before? It took me another moment to realize there was another question, like Violet, he had a problem with conventional punctuation. No, I didn’t think so, so why do you think … but you didn’t get the details right. I didn’t get the details right, Violet, hear that. I researched your country my friend, I read Joseph Buttinger and Francis Fitzgerald have you read Joseph Buttinger and Francis Fitzgerald? He’s the foremost historian on your little part of the world and she won the Pulitzer Prize, she dissected your psychology. I think I know something about you people. His aggressiveness flustered me and my flustering which I was not accustomed to, not only flustered me further, which was my only explanation for my forthcoming behavior.

Viet T. Nguyen: You didn’t even get the screams right, I said. Excuse me, I waited for an interjection until I realized he was just interrupting me with a question. All right I said, my string starting to unravel. If I remember correctly pages 26, 42, 58, 77, 91, 103 and 118 basically all the places in the script where one of my people has a speaking part, he or she screams, no words, just screams, so you should at least get the screams right. Screams are universal am I right Violet? You’re right she said from where she sat next to me.

Viet T. Nguyen: Screams are not universal I said. If I took this telephone cord and wrapped it around your neck and pulled it tight until your eyes bugged out and your tongue turned black. Violets scream would sound very different from the scream you would be trying to make. Those are two very different kinds of terror coming from a man and a woman. The man knows he is dying, the woman fears she is likely to die soon. The situations and their bodies produce a qualitatively different timber to their voices. One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual. In this country for example, someone fleeing for his life will think he should call for the police, this is a reasonable way to cope with the threat of pain.

Viet T. Nguyen: But in my country, no one calls for the police since it is often the police who inflict the pain. Am I right Violet? Violet mutely nodded her head. So let me just point out that in your script you have my people scream the following way. For example when villager number three is impaled by a Viet Cong pungi trap, this is how he screams. Or when the little girl sacrifices her life to alert the Green Beret’s to the Viet Cong sneaking into the village. This is how she screams before her throat is cut. But having heard many of my countrymen screaming in pain, I could assure you, this is not how they scream. Would you like to hear how they scream? His Adams apple bobbed as he swallowed, okay. I stood up and leaned on the desk to look right into his eyes, I didn’t see them, what I saw is the face of the wirey Montagnard, an elder of the [inaudible 00:23:41] minority who lived in an actual Hamlet, not far from the setting of this movie. Rumor had it, he served as a liaison agent for the Viet Cong. I was on my first assignment as a Lieutenant and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat. The necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adams apple.

Viet T. Nguyen: That was not what made the old man scream however, it was just the appetizer. In my mind though, as I watched the scene, I screamed for him. Here’s what it sounds like I said reaching across the desk to pick up the Auteur’s fountain pen. I wrote onomatopoeia across the cover page of the screenplay in big, black letters. Then I capped his pen, put it back on his leather writing pad and said, that’s how we scream in my country.

Viet T. Nguyen: Thank you.

Male: The scene as it runs through, is that purely your imagination or is it based on something you saw or were told from someone in Vietnam?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well the basic premise of the plot that there is a spy in the South Vietnamese hierarchy is completely factual. There were many such spies in the South Vietnamese hierarchy going up to the very highest ranks of journalism and politics in the military. So when it came time to write the novel, I thought this is a good anchor to hang the book on because I like spy novels and it should at least be semi-entertaining to tell that story.

Viet T. Nguyen: And though the other basic plot about Vietnamese Veterans after the South Vietnamese Veterans after the war, trying to organize an effort to take back their homeland, that’s real too. When I was growing up in San Jose as a boy I would go to the Vietnamese New Year celebrations where all the community would gather and there would be an exhibit there with pictures of these guys in camouflage uniform somewhere in the Thai jungle and the story was, they were planning to wage a guerrilla war to take back Vietnam and asking for donations. And there was a rumor, a very widely circulated rumor that the first beef noodle soup chain Pho was started in order to funnel profits to this attempt to take back the homeland.

Viet T. Nguyen: And of course the narrative about him becoming involved in a Vietnam war movie obviously is completely fictional, I never dreamt that up at all but … so much of the novel is factual in terms of the details of the plot and the character of The Sympathizer is someone I had to dream up.

Female: I love this book. I hope I didn’t misread it because I didn’t take it as a thriller, as the typical spy thriller, I took this as really fantastic literature. And I think I’m fussy, however, one of the most interesting things about it to me was this multi-dimensional character who’s displaced as a child because of this … the priest and the mother thing so he doesn’t fit in Vietnam. Then he comes to the United States and doesn’t fit in there. Then he has this other dual role and it’s all … it’s transitions very smoothly. I thought that was brilliant, did you mean it or [crosstalk 00:27:31]?

Viet T. Nguyen: I can’t take any credit for it actually, it just sort of happened. But to answer the first part of your question, I actually don’t mind it being thought of as a spy novel or a thriller novel because I actually enjoy those genres and thinking back on all the kinds of spy and thriller novels I had read was really important because it helped … even if it is a literary novel, I still want it to have a plot and I still want it to have some kind of framework, I still want it to resonate with writers like Graham Greene or John le Carre and so on. But of course, the book being marketed that way means that people were completely invested in that genre do sometimes get upset with the book because they think it sags in the middle or it’s too literary or the language is too literary for them. It’s a danger that I run there.

Viet T. Nguyen: As for the other part of the question about his multi-faceted character, that was pretty deliberate, I wanted a character who was complex, this is a very controversial war, controversial history and often times the tendency is to sort of look at it from one perspective to try to make sense out of it and that’s exactly what I wanted to rebut this idea that this is exactly what got us into trouble in the first place but I also mean not just Americans but also Vietnamese people.

Viet T. Nguyen: All the sides that were waging this war saw things through their own periscope and that was what helped them to fight a war and survive and all of that and that’s crucial to that kind of thing. But his particular insight is his capacity to see from all sides right? That’s his talent as he says at the beginning. It’s also going to be his downfall because in a world where most people see things from one side, the person who sees things from many sides is in danger right because those are the kind of people you have to get rid of if you want to keep on fighting your wars.

Male: Has the book been optioned, are you gonna try to turn it into a move?

Viet T. Nguyen: I’ve gone on record saying I will sell my soul to Francis Ford Coppola for five million dollars.

Male: Nobody’s come to you though?

Viet T. Nguyen: So far I think a B movie producer has come to me but we’ll see if anything else happens. [inaudible 00:29:42].

Viet T. Nguyen: Peter.

Peter: What is your undergraduate students impression of the Vietnam War as it influenced by any of these [inaudible 00:29:50].

Viet T. Nguyen: I think their impression is very superficial because the Vietnam War in high schools for example is barely touched upon probably in a day or something of their course work. It’s actually a lot of what they get is from the movies. They get this sense that it was a bad war, something bad happened and that’s about it. And so what I try to do and when I teach the wars is give them a much more complex history obviously but from all sides that are involved. But what also I try to do is I try to reinforce for them the sense that even though their impression is that this was a bad war, ironically what things like this genre of Hollywood movies do even though they portray Americans generally in a negative fashion, or an anti-heroic fashion what they nevertheless do is continue to recenter the American perspective.

Viet T. Nguyen: So my take away from all of that is that Americans don’t mind being the villains and the anti-heroes as long as they’re on center stage, it’s much better to do that than to be the faceless extras or the victims or the people who get killed. So that is one of the things that the book is trying to rebut, that it’s trying to get us to see that this war was being experienced by many different kinds of Vietnamese people but also get us to think that it’s necessary to see these kinds of events not just from an American perspective even an anti-heroic American perspective but to acknowledge that the people that were fighting wars with or against have their own subjectivities and often times what we need to do is recognize that their not either villains or heroes but that they’re complex people just the way that Americans like to think of themselves as well.

Male: How old were you when you left Vietnam? And were you perceptive enough to see what Vietnam had become?

Viet T. Nguyen: I was four so I wasn’t perceptive enough to do anything but I grew up as an American mostly. But strongly influenced by young Vietnamese family and living in a Vietnamese ethnic community in San Jose. But also absorbing all kinds of American popular culture about the war starting from when I was about 10 or 11 .I saw Apocalypse Now in the VCR at that age. I read everything I could find in terms of American fiction history, reportage, seeing all these documentaries and fictional films and so I sense that this was really important to Americans and that at the same time, the Vietnamese perspective of all kinds, not just you know the South Vietnamese in exile but also the Vietnamese in Vietnam that was being excluded and forgotten so that was part of the [inaudible 00:32:37] obviously for writing the book. And then I returned to Vietnam several times over the last decade so I got to see what happened to the country 30 years afterwards during a time period where it has transformed itself from being a very poor country run by the communist party to being a wealthier country run by the communist party that has embraced capitalism in everything but name.

Viet T. Nguyen: And so that’s part of the irony or the tragedy that the book wants to gesture at, at the end, we see the first glimmers of what it means for a triumphant revolutionary communist party to come to power that doesn’t live up to its own revolutionary ideals. And that to me is one of the greatest tragedies to come out of the Vietnam War, three million Vietnamese people died, 58,000 Americans died and in the end, Vietnam did not become the revolutionary utopia that the party thought it was going to become, it became another capitalist country which the United States embraces now, we didn’t have to fight a war to get to this point.

Video: I came in a little late so I’m sorry if you addressed this is in your introduction, but I know you’re also writing academically about representation of the Vietnam War so can you talk a little bit about the experiences of going between novel writing and critical writing if they ever get in the way of each other or if they actually inform and help each other.

Viet T. Nguyen: Well it’s two different languages and two different cultures. Academics and fiction writers and so it did take a long time to try to think and write in both languages and both cultures, a decade of work to try to do that. But I think it’s been a beneficial struggle because all of my academic thinking about this topic of War, Memory, Identity which is the title of my academic book informs this work. If you read it, hopefully you don’t see the academic in me in there but all the scholarship and theoretical thinking and so on really shapes the narrative, his character and the decisions that he makes. And conversely working as a fiction writer has helped me become a better writer of scholarly work so that I think that my academic work can actually be read now by people who are not academics.

Viet T. Nguyen: And that was really important to me, someone who spent ten years deeply immersed in poststructuralist, postmodern and postcolonial, Marxist theory knowing that a thousand people were gonna read my first book, I’d like to have a slightly bigger audience now for the second academic book and have intelligent people such as yourselves who are not necessarily academics read the academic stuff as well.

Video: I guess this is sort of a similar question but I was wondering in the academic community, who you think … what works that you think … let me rephrase this. When you think about your academic friends, what novels do you think they would put your novel alongside, like group it with? And also would your writer friends pick the same novels? If that makes sense.

Viet T. Nguyen: Wow, you’re asking me to place myself into a curriculum or something like that. Oh wow. My ideal curriculum, if it was a Vietnam War curriculum, Vietnam War literature, I think the companions would be things like Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters was a very important novel for me. Its … if you’ve seen Platoon, Larry Heinemann served in the same unit as Oliver Stone so the big battle that takes place in Platoon, also takes place in Close Quarters but there’s this horrific rape that takes place in Close Quarters which when I was 11 or 12 when I read it, scarred me deeply. But I’m trying to respond to all of that literature by writing a book that has resonance and echos with Heinemann, with O’Brien, with Graham Greene would be another person on that list.

Viet T. Nguyen: Bao Ninh from Vietnam, his book, The Sorrow of War is probably the most important book about the North Vietnamese perspective on the war. If it was an Asian American literature course which is my other specialty, I don’t know in what context it would be placed. I hope it would be read with like Maxine Hong Kingston and Jim Lapierre and things like that as something that has something to say about the place of Asian Americans, as refugees, as immigrants in the United States and then finally I hope it finds a place in sort of general contemporary American literature courses too.

Video: When you came to the States, did you come with older relatives who are continuing to speak Vietnamese [inaudible 00:37:07] and do you have any Vietnamese relatives in Vietnam today?

Viet T. Nguyen: Well when we came, I came with my parents and my older brother and we had a typical traumatic refugee flight story and pull yourself up by your own boot straps story in the United States, which meant that I never saw my parents, they worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, literally. So I had the Vietnamese language but really it was stuck at four years old and my life has been sort of an effort to try to get it back up to about 10 or 12 years old in terms of my capacity. Most of my family is still back in Vietnam and then most of them are poor. So to go back to Vietnam is not a pleasant experience if I visit my family. And also I discovered that one of the reasons why I had such a struggle with the Vietnamese language is that my parents spoke a really obscure dialect of the language which I never knew until I started learning formal Vietnamese and then I realized, oh my God, they come from some hick province somewhere and I went back to visit and I was all prepared, I studied Vietnamese for several years and I did not understand a word when I went back to my homeland.

Viet T. Nguyen: But I gave my novel to my dad and he was very proud which was touching to me. My middle name is his first name and he said, “Oh now something of me will survive.” And he wanted to have his picture taken with the book. But I did tell him what the book was about in a sentence or two but since he never listens to me, I don’t think he knows what the book is actually about, so I think that there will be a Vietnamese language review coming out sometime in the next month or two and then we’ll see, maybe he’ll call me up angrily and say, “What? Why did you write this book? Why did you write about a communist.”

Video: Is there any plans to translate it to Vietnam.

Viet T. Nguyen: I think that in Vietnam, a translation can’t happen because the last quarter of the book is a pretty serious indictment of the communist party and the revolution and it’s results but maybe it will be translated into Vietnamese in the [inaudible 00:38:59], I think that might be the best thing to do so that I can sort of take control of that translation and make sure it’s not edited in strategic ways.

Video: [crosstalk 00:39:10] back to Vietnam as [inaudible 00:39:11].

Viet T. Nguyen: I am perfectly fine with … first of all, if I were to publish this book in Vietnam, I would probably not make very much money out of it. I would just be happy to have it available in Vietnamese online or in pirated editions so that people would read it.

Video: [inaudible 00:39:25].

Viet T. Nguyen: Yeah you know the great mark of honor if you’re an American author writing about Vietnam is to go to Vietnam and see that your book has been pirated on the sidewalks for two or three dollars in a very thin, crappy edition. I would love it if I went back and saw that on the streets of Saigon.

Video: [inaudible 00:39:46] your character is American Asian. I’m curious on [inaudible 00:39:51] refugee, how did they see the war?

Viet T. Nguyen: The Amerasian’s? For them it was a difficult experience, you know because Vietnam is a very racist place, so to be a mixed race person was generally really negative and if you were black Amerasian on top of that, it was incredible difficult so a lot of them were really traumatized, marginalized, ostracized in Vietnam during the war years and afterwards up until the moment that the United States passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, I think it was called. It was about 1980, which allowed Amerasian’s to come to the United States and bring their families with them and all of a sudden, the Amerasian’s left behind in Vietnam became extremely valuable, literally extremely valuable either they took their families or people bought them so that they could claim kinship with them and then go to the United States where many of them were again, abandoned here in the U.S.

Viet T. Nguyen: So that was one of the reasons why I wanted to write a book, he’s not Amerasian, he’s Eurasian but it’s somewhat similar set of experiences because I wanted to draw attention to that. There’s a lot of anti-mixed race racism in this book. But also because it … his character being spit upon by all sides, the French and the Vietnamese gives him the capacity for sympathy with the underdog and gives him insight into that old idea by Kipling that east is east and west and west and never the twain shall meet. He struggles with that, he believes that he can try to do what Kipling said wasn’t possible.

Viet T. Nguyen: Thank you very much.

Video: I remember one day I was asleep and a mortar came in. It must have landed 20 or 30 meters from me, from my room. It was loud enough that it woke me up, the building shook, the dust was coming down, I just rolled over and went back to sleep. I was startled more when I came home and was hearing the imaginary mortars than the real ones there.

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