Viet Thanh Nguyen on redefining what it means to be a refugee

Viet Thanh Nguyen talks with Eleanor Wachtel for CBC Radio about his life in Vietnam and what being a refugee means.

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in what was previously known as South Vietnam in 1971. Four years later, after the fall of Saigon, his family was forced to flee to the United States as refugees, eventually settling in California. His first novel The Sympathizer, is an ambitious, disturbing novel that explores the aftermath of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a Communist Party spy who escapes Saigon for California, where he carries on his double life through assassinations and the making of a Hollywood war film.

The Sympathizer was on 30 “best of the year” lists in 2016 and won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. In 2016, Nguyen spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Los Angeles.

On the degradation of Vietnamese “boat people”

By 1978 Vietnam was a poor country. People were starving, there was a lot of desperation and the victorious Vietnamese government was persecuting people who had been affiliated with the defeated regime. People started fleeing the country, and for most people — tens of thousands of people — their only option was to flee by boat.

It was a huge issue for the Vietnamese refugee community to see their compatriots going through this horrible experience. There are some estimates that half the people who took to the seas by boat didn’t make it to their destination. So as a boy, I was aware that the rest of the world saw the Vietnamese people in this way, as victims of war and as “boat people,” as the press labeled them. But this seemed really inadequate to me, because I knew the complexities of Vietnamese life and I knew that thinking of them as “boat people” automatically was demeaning. It brought pity to them and in some cases helped to rescue them, but it was also a way of relegating them to a really abject status. There had to be another way to think of these people. So I choose to think of them as heroic. They undertook a really risky journey, knowing that these were the odds, and to see them purely as victims was woefully inadequate. 

So I try to contest this term, try to get readers to think about what it was like to be a refugee. And obviously while writing that, I was cognizant of the fact that we’re still seeing refugees today, and that much of the rest of the world, when they look at refugees, they continue to see them as abject victims.

The shattering effects of war on families

I think this experience of having people separated from their families and having families divided is actually not that unusual. Many Vietnamese families that I know endured similar kinds of experiences. In some cases, families were able to reunite, but sometimes they remained divided for decades. My father didn’t see his siblings for 40 years, from 1954 until the early 1990s, when my family returned. My mother didn’t see her family for 20 years, and they didn’t see my adopted sister [who stayed in Vietnam to watch the family property when the rest of the family fled to the U.S. in 1975] during that time either. We didn’t talk about it. It was a very sensitive subject. Even today, my parents don’t really talk about it. 

A refugee child, growing up in two worlds

I was growing up in San Jose in a Vietnamese household. My world, domestically, was all about Vietnamese people. But then I had to venture out, to go to school, and I watched American movies and TV shows in my free time. So that was my exposure to American culture. It was a very bifurcated kind of existence, and I think that was actually very common for people of my generation. We had to live in these two worlds. Our parents and our grandparents were not living in the American world — they were trying to avoid it as much as they could. 

I was intimately familiar with the Vietnamese world, but at the same time I was also intimately familiar with the English-language world. So no matter where I was, I couldn’t help but bring that other world with me. Of course I would understand the customs, the history my parents were trying to relay to me. But at the same time I would also look at them as if they were foreign, because I couldn’t help but see them through the eyes of what I imagined the American world to be.

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

Transcript:

Eleanor Wachtel: I’m Eleanor Wachtel, and this is Writers & Company. Today, the Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. His ambitious, disturbing, and darkly comic novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. There is so much complexity in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s perspective that it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the simplest is also the most revealing.

Eleanor Wachtel: The war that was fought in Indochina in the 1960s and early ’70s, that took the lives of 58,000 American soldiers and an estimate three million Vietnamese in the North and South, many of them civilians, in North America, it was called the Vietnam War, sometimes just Vietnam. A country was reduced to the name of a war. To the Vietnamese, it was the American War, coming as it did after the predations of its previous colonizers, the French War.

Eleanor Wachtel: For Viet Thanh Nguyen, neither name is adequate since it doesn’t take into account the additional three million deaths and devastation in Laos and Cambodia. Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in a small town in what was formerly South Vietnam in 1971. Four years later, after the fall of Saigon and the defeat of the South, his family fled to the United States as refugees. They settled eventually in San Jose, California, where they opened up one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in the city. This was before the Silicon Valley transformation of the region, and Viet Thanh Nguyen has described the area as a rough place to grow up, especially in the downtown where his parents worked.

Eleanor Wachtel: Viet Thanh Nguyen studied English Literature and Ethnic Studies at Berkeley, and then moved to Los Angeles, where he now teaches at the University of Southern California. He’s written a couple of academic books focusing on literature and politics, and in 2017, he was awarded a MacArthur 625,000 U.S-dollar Genius Grant.

Eleanor Wachtel: The Sympathizer is his first novel. It won not only the Pulitzer Prize, but also an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award, and many other prizes. It was on more than 30 Best Book of the Year lists, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Guardian. In keeping with its phenomenal success, the manuscript had been rejected by 13 publishers before it found a home.

Eleanor Wachtel: The Sympathizer is the story of a Communist Party spy who escapes Saigon for California, where he leads a double life as an intimate of a former South Vietnamese general. He becomes involved in assassinations. More absurdly, he also acts as an advisor to an American war film with a remarkable resemblance to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Then the spy comes in from the cold, and things only get worse.

Eleanor Wachtel: I spoke to Viet Thanh Nguyen in 2016 from Los Angeles.

Eleanor Wachtel: I wanted to start by asking you about the Vietnamese creation myth. It sounds like a fantastic story involving a fairy and a dragon. Could you briefly outline it for me?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. The creation myth is that there was once a fairy and a dragon, and together they had 100 sons and daughters, and they decided at one point to separate. 50 of the sons and daughters went to the sea with the dragon, and 50 went to the mountains with the fairy, if I have that right. That’s the creation myth for how it is that the Vietnamese people ended up in the lowlands of the country by the ocean while there are other people living up in the highlands who were the ethnic minorities of the country.

Eleanor Wachtel: Was it considered an unusual mix that a fairy and a dragon would hook up?

Viet Thanh N.: Never heard of it questioned, so I think it’s simply just a part of the mythology.

Eleanor Wachtel: What do you make of this story? Are you fond of it? Is it something that you-

Viet Thanh N.: I think it’s as basic to my life as Adam and Eve is to Christians and Catholics, which means I don’t think about it a whole lot, but when it occurs, it seems very natural. This is just a story that Vietnamese people tell themselves to explain how it is that these two very different kinds of populations came to live in the same country. I also think of it as this idea that the original story of the people was one of, basically, divorce and separation, I think has a lot of resonance with contemporary Vietnamese experience.

Eleanor Wachtel: You were born in a town in the central highlands of what was the former South Vietnam. What do you know about it?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I know that it was a small town. I’ve seen pictures of it from the 1950s, Buon Ma Thuot. Those pictures featured the president of South Vietnam at the time, Ngo Dinh Diem, going to visit, and it was a dusty little village, basically. This was about the time that my parents would’ve moved there in the 1950s. It’s notable for producing coffee, so that if you drink Yuban instant coffee, this kind of stuff, beans likely come from this region. It’s also notable for being the first town overrun in the final invasion of 1975. Today, it’s actually grown into a medium-sized town, but it’s in a region that’s politically volatile in Vietnam because there are a lot of ethnic minorities who live in that area, and there are a lot of religious and land conflicts between the government and the majority Vietnamese and these ethnic minorities.

Eleanor Wachtel: Does that go back to the… When you say it was the first town to be overrun, this would be by the Vietcong in their successful takeover of the South in 1975?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, the North Vietnamese came in and took the town. The conflicts between ethnic minorities and the majority Vietnamese, of whom I am a part, have deeper roots, that basically ethnic minorities in Vietnam tend to be discriminated against, marginalized, and so on, and especially if they are Catholic, of which there are a considerable number in that area.

Eleanor Wachtel: Although you’ve visited Vietnam many times, you’ve never returned to your hometown because you say your father has forbidden it. Why? Why doesn’t he want you to go there?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I’m not certain. The explicit reason is that he thinks that people will remember him and persecute me because my father was a successful businessman, he was a Catholic, and these two identities were discriminated against in the aftermath of the end of the war. Now, whether or not people actually would remember him and remember me, and do anything to me as a result of that, I’m fairly doubtful of that, but I think his sentiments are shared by many people of his generation who fled from Vietnam for whom history hasn’t passed yet. Certainly, if you were someone who went back to the country in the 1990s and the early 2000s, what you often experienced was a certain degree of memory. If you were an overseas Vietnamese and you returned, often bribes were demanded from you and things like this, and so people rightly suspected that they were still being marked and targeted as people who had fled the country.

Eleanor Wachtel: What kind of business did he do?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, he started off poor. He and my mother had fled from North Vietnam in 1954 when the country was divided, and they came from a peasant background, didn’t have a lot of education, and they just became entrepreneurs. They worked their way up with very little capital, started off as tailors, did various kinds of jobs, and eventually, by 1975, they had become very successful, owned an auto parts business, owned a well-known jewelry store, and had property.

Eleanor Wachtel: Why did they go from the North to the South in the first place? Why did they move to that town?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, the history of what happened was that, in 1945, with the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh declared independence, and this brought about a war between his forces and the French, who were ruling the country. From 1945 to 1954, there was a big war. The French lost that war. In 1954, the United States came in in support of the French and supported a division of the country between North and South. Ho Chi Minh had the North; the United States took the South, or supported the South, basically, and installed their own president. In the North, Vietnamese Catholics were told and believed that they would be persecuted by the Communist regime, so about 800,000 Vietnamese Catholics fled from the North to the South in 1954, and my parents were among them.

Eleanor Wachtel: What was their ancestral home like, that world that they left behind?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, they lived in a hardscrabble region that was poor and known for producing two types of people, hardcore revolutionaries and hardcore Catholics. 30 minutes from my parents’ birthplace was the place where Ho Chi Minh is born. My parents, of course, did not become the hardcore revolutionaries; they were the hardcore Catholics.

Viet Thanh N.: Visiting that area now, it’s still relatively poor and agrarian compared to the rest of urban Vietnam. The compound that my paternal grandfather built, where my father was raised, is still there, but whereas my grandfather raised four sons and a daughter there, now three of my uncles still live there with their families in that same compound.

Eleanor Wachtel: When the South fell to the North in 1975, your parents fled again, to America. You capture the terror and chaos of that time in your novel The Sympathizer, but your mother made a harrowing journey with two small children, you and your older brother. You were only four years old. What do you remember of it, and what have you figured out? What have you learned about it?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, actually, I’m thankful that I don’t remember any of it. I have a few images of Vietnam in my mind, so I only know of that experience from what my parents and my brother have told me.

Viet Thanh N.: The basic story is that at that time my father had gone to Saigon on business, and my mother, my brother, and myself and my adopted sister were still in Buon Ma Thuot, and that’s when the Communist invasion happened. Lines of communication were cut. My mother had to make another life-and-death decision. She decided to leave with my brother, who was 10 at that time, and myself, and leave behind my adopted sister to take of the family property on the belief that she would be back, we would be back, because the war seesawed back and forth. Of course, that wasn’t what happened.

Viet Thanh N.: My adopted sister was left behind to take care of the family business at 16 years old, and after the Communists took over the town, they, of course, took all of the family property and sent her off to rebuild the country. As for my mother, she walked downhill with my brother and myself, I assume I was carried for a considerable part of that way, for a few hundred kilometers to the nearest port town to grab a boat to Saigon.

Viet Thanh N.: My brother wrote a short story about it, and he remembers dead paratroopers hanging from trees. When I did research on what happened in March and April of 1975, what I discovered was it was total, pure chaos. The South Vietnamese army was being routed. That meant there was tens of thousands of troops on the road and all their equipment, and hundreds of thousands of civilians, and people were getting killed. They were all trying to get on boats to escape in Saigon, and that was a mess. People were getting killed and raped by the South Vietnamese soldiers on those boats. It was a really horrendous experience, and again, I’m thankful that I don’t remember any of it.

Eleanor Wachtel: What happened to your sister?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, she was told to become a volunteer, as the euphemism went, join the volunteer youth brigade to help rebuild the country after the end of the war, came back to Buon Ma Thuot, married, had two sons, has a grandchild now. She ran a small business, and she was supported by money sent by my parents.

Viet Thanh N.: All of my aunts and uncles in Vietnam were supported, because what happened after 1975 was that the U.S. had embargoed the country, and that was compounded by the fact that the Communist Party enacted these disastrous collectivization policies. The country was incredibly poor from 1975 through 1986. It was a ration-based economy. It was a really desperate time, so people really needed that money that my parents sent back. The country only started to rebuild in the late ’80s, and that has obviously really accelerated in the last decade or two.

Viet Thanh N.: My sister was caught up in all of that, and it was hard for her, but when I communicate with her now, she’s established a life for herself. What’s incredible to me is that after all that, out of everybody in my family, she’s the one who, when I went to see her for the first time a couple of decades after the end of the war, she’s the one who’s actually fashionable and smiling and, on the surface, happy and able to have fun, unlike my entire family.

Eleanor Wachtel: Really? The rest of your family can’t have fun?

Viet Thanh N.: No. I’ve never seen my parents have fun. We don’t know how to take vacations. My brother, he’s also, like me, a very serious, hardworking guy. I think we’ve probably only been made better in terms of being able to have fun by having kids, so then we have fun through our children.

Eleanor Wachtel: Did your sister talk about what happened to her? It must’ve been so awful for your mother, in particular, because she’d be more aware of this, to not be able to go back when there was such chaos and devastation and killing and rape and everything, just to wonder what ever happened to her. It must’ve taken a while to find out.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think this experience of having people separated from their families, families divided, is actually not unusual. Many, many Vietnamese families that I know endured similar kinds of experiences due to different kinds of circumstances. I think that in some cases families were able to be reunited. In other cases, they remained divided. That was also very common, for decades.

Viet Thanh N.: My father didn’t see his siblings for 40 years, from 1954 until the early ’90s, when my parents returned. My mom didn’t see her family for 20 years. Of course, they didn’t see my adopted sister during that time either. We didn’t talk about it. It was a sensitive subject. Also, when I was growing up, certainly wasn’t in direct communication with my sister and didn’t know how to talk about it with my parents. Even today, they don’t really talk about that, so it remains a difficult subject and not something easily broached.

Eleanor Wachtel: Speaking of division, when your family arrived in the United States in 1975, just the four of you, and you were divided again. What happened?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, we arrived May of 1975 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What happened is that there were 150,000 people who were able to flee South Vietnam, and the U.S. had to handle them. The U.S. established four refugee camps in military bases throughout the country. We were sent to Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, and in order to leave the camp, refugees had to have sponsors in the American community to make sure that we were taken care of, that we weren’t going to be welfare problems and so on.

Viet Thanh N.: What happened, though, was that no sponsor would take my entire family of four. One sponsor took my parents, another sponsor took my 10-year-old brother, and another sponsor took me. We were divided, which is apparently kind of unusual. At four years old, I didn’t, obviously, understand what was happening, and this is when my memory actually begins. Now I start to have continuous stories in my own mind about this experience, and it was obviously very traumatic. The separation only lasted for a few months during the summer, but to my four-year-old self, it felt like it had lasted forever, and I think I’ve never actually forgotten the emotional imprint of that experience.

Eleanor Wachtel: Because you couldn’t speak the language either.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, I couldn’t speak the language. It was, obviously, very alien. I was living with strangers. I had no idea what was going on. Although, I learned English pretty fast, from what I could remember, because by the time I was five, I was in an American school and didn’t have any problems there in terms of communicating. I think that was a very common experience, too, for people of my age that were thrown into this very foreign situation with a totally different language, and everybody just had to adapt. Everybody had to learn English as quickly as possible and do their best to succeed in school.

Eleanor Wachtel: How did your family get out of Saigon in ’75? How did they get to America?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, my mother, my brother, and myself got on this boat from Nha Trang, this port town, and made it to Saigon, and we rendezvoused with my father because we knew he was there on business and we knew where to find him. That was in March. Within a month or six weeks, Saigon was going to fall to the Communist invasion, which had finally gotten that far south.

Viet Thanh N.: Like many other Vietnamese people, we were frantically trying to find a way to get out of the country. Tried to get to the airport to get an airplane out, and it was extremely difficult to get on an airplane. You had to have connections or money to bribe your way out. We didn’t have those. We didn’t have connections anyway, couldn’t get out. Tried to go to the embassy, couldn’t get out, because there were literally thousands of people surrounding the American embassy begging to find some way to leave the country, and many of them had American connections in one way or another. There simply weren’t enough ways of leaving the country because the U.S. had not prepared for that, or had not prepared very well for that. Both the South Vietnamese and the Americans were in denial that the end of the country was about to happen.

Viet Thanh N.: Finally, we were able to make it to the docks and get our way onto a barge, and what happened there was also really interesting because we were separated. My father was separated from my mother, myself, and my brother, and so again my mother had to make a decision. Without knowing what my father was going to do, she decided to get on the barge with me and my brother. Only later were we reunited with my father on that barge. He, too, had made his own decision to get on that barge, not knowing what had happened to us. We were very, very lucky several times in 1975.

Eleanor Wachtel: That barge was safe in getting you how far?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, the barge I think took us to Guam. That’s where we eventually ended up. There was a U.S. naval base in Guam that had been… The U.S. had gotten Guam, I think, in 1898 as part of its Pacific expansion, turned it into a military base, had used it to bomb Vietnam with B-52s and so on, and then when the fall of South Vietnam happened, converted Guam into a temporary refugee camp as part of an operation called New Life to rescue all these Vietnamese refugees. Historical footnote, the admiral in charge was Jim Morrison’s father, the rock musician. Didn’t find that out until later.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, so the barge made it there. There are obviously tens of thousands of people in Guam. There are tens of thousands of other refugees in the Philippines. And eventually got onboard a plane that took us to the United States.

Eleanor Wachtel: Viet Thanh Nguyen, your family’s next move from Pennsylvania was to San Jose, California. What drew them there?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, Harrisburg Pennsylvania, in my memory, was actually a pleasant place to grow up, but in returning to it a decade or so ago, I realized it wasn’t such a pleasant place. It was a depressed small town without much economic opportunity, and we were living in a ghetto, basically. I didn’t realize any of that. My parents were working menial jobs in 1975. No one expected much of them as refugees.

Viet Thanh N.: They had a friend, a very good friend, actually a woman who had fled with us from Buon Ma Thuot on foot. She had gone to San Jose, California, and she wrote my mom, or called her, and said, “Look, weather’s good, a lot of Vietnamese people are here, and there are more economic opportunities,” so we went to San Jose, California, in 1978. Our family friend had opened, I think, perhaps the first Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, in downtown, and my parents worked for her for a little bit and then opened up their own Vietnamese grocery store only a block or two away.

Viet Thanh N.: That’s what they did for another decade. There was great economic opportunity, they made money from that store, but it was also a very, very difficult existence trying to run a grocery store, for all the reasons that you might expect. I remember the late 1970s and early 1980s as a difficult time economically and emotionally and physically for my family.

Eleanor Wachtel: The particular reasons such as long hours, dangerous? What were some of the problems in terms of trying to run the store?

Viet Thanh N.: Basically, my parents lived the story of the typical immigrant shopkeeper, except they were refugees, and what that meant was they worked 12 to 14-hour days. They got up, got me ready for school, went to open their shop, and then they wouldn’t close until evening, and then they’d come home and they’d have to cook dinner, and then after that we would have to do the accounting. I helped out with that part of things. I was stamping checks and adding up the money and all that kind of stuff. That was their entire day. There was no break. They saw each other constantly. Get up the next day, do it again, seven days a week, every day of the year except for Christmas, New Year, and Easter.

Viet Thanh N.: It was a physically very taxing kind of work, and also it could be very dangerous. They were shot on an armed robbery on Christmas Eve when I was very young. I had no idea how to make sense out of that experience. Fortunately, they weren’t wounded badly, but they were still shot. I think it took a definite toll on my parents because they certainly had no time to spend with myself or my brother, and we were left to sort of fend for ourselves emotionally, even though they took care of everything else in terms of making sure we were clothed and fed and had an education.

Eleanor Wachtel: How did you manage? Did you rely on your brother a lot or-

Viet Thanh N.: Well, my brother was seven years older, so what that meant was… We arrived in San Jose in 1978. 1982, he graduated from high school. This guy who had been in the United States for seven years, he graduated valedictorian and went to Harvard, so-

Eleanor Wachtel: Bit of an overachiever?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, right, and set a high mark for myself. I would always see myself as the black sheep in the family because when it came time for me to apply to college, I was rejected from all the Ivy League schools and had to go to my last-choice college.

Viet Thanh N.: That meant that by 1982, I was 11 years old. My brother was gone. I was alone in the house. That was a very lonely experience, and so my way of coping was to go to the library. I just read a lot. I had always read a lot. I’d read a lot ever since I’d arrived in Harrisburg, and read even more by the time my brother left.

Viet Thanh N.: These are the reasons why I became a writer, being a refugee, growing up isolated, emotionally neglected. I’m not blaming my parents at all. This is just the realities of what it meant to be a refugee. And finding solace in the English language and in books, and just absorbing the power of the language, the power of storytelling, the canon of English and American literature. I was such a nerd. My brother had something called The Reader’s Encyclopedia. It was just an encyclopedia, but I read that book cover to cover. It was all these entries on famous authors, literary movements, technical terms. I did that when I was a kid.

Eleanor Wachtel: What was the Vietnamese-American community like there in San Jose?

Viet Thanh N.: In San Jose, California, we had either the largest or the second-largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. The other population would’ve been in Orange County, California, in the south. In the 1980s, this was a poor community. They were refugees. A lot of them had come from privileged backgrounds in Vietnam as military or political leaders. Some of them were, like my parents, merchants who got lucky and got out. But in general, everybody was trying to rebuild their lives.

Viet Thanh N.: My parents, who were not part of the elite in Vietnam, suddenly had an advantage here in the United States because their skills were transferable. They were merchants, so they could run a business and rebuild their lives. But the people of the political and military class had no transferable skills. They were ex-soldiers and senators and all that kind of stuff.

Viet Thanh N.: That was why the community felt poor and really traumatized. There were still, obviously, a lot of memory of the war that was being circulated in this community. You would go to church. You would go to New Year celebrations. You would go to Christmas celebrations. There would always be the singing of the Vietnamese national anthem and the waving of the flag and people wearing military uniforms, so it felt as if it was a community that was still focused on the past, at least for the older generation. For those people of my generation who were growing up, even if we were looking forward, we couldn’t help but be saturated with the emotions of our parents and of this older generation.

Viet Thanh N.: It was also a time period marked by violence, because I think there was a lot of domestic violence happening. That was how people were coping or not coping with the loss of their status and their poverty and all of that. And there was a lot of home invasions going on. I remember my parents always warning me, “Don’t open the door for Vietnamese people because they’re going to come in and rob you,” because that’s what was happening. Young Vietnamese men were targeting the community.

Viet Thanh N.: This was a transitional period of time. This was before Americans would start to look at the Vietnamese-American population as a model minority community. People like my brother going to Harvard as valedictorian in 1982 would be a part of this generation that would transform that perception of the Vietnamese-American community. But in the 1980s, I remember walking on the street where my parents had opened their grocery store and not far away seeing a sign in another shop window saying, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” It was a time of struggle.

Eleanor Wachtel: You trace some of the violence of that community back to Vietnam, to the experience of colonialism and the American so-called intervention. How does that work? Does violence really become so ingrained?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I believe that it does. It’s difficult to live through a period of war that saturates your entire world and not have it transform the life of the community in some way. Yeah, I think that if you were the child of a Southern Vietnamese soldier who has seen horrible things and has lost his country, and has come to the United States and is now poor and without status, and that person takes out his frustrations on his family, the children are going to absorb that.

Viet Thanh N.: Then the fact that the South Vietnamese society as a whole was a problematic society. It was one that was corrupted, both by internal issues, but also by the influx of American cash and the transformation of the South Vietnamese economy into a wartime black-market economy. Everything was corrupted, and so it’s probably not a surprise that those habits of corruption were also then brought with the South Vietnamese community to the United States.

Eleanor Wachtel: You’ve described yourself as born in Vietnam, but made in America. As the son of refugees, you felt split between two worlds, as you put it, a spy in your parents’ house and at the same time a spy amongst the Americans. Can you tell me a bit more about that split, what it meant in terms of your own identity?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I was growing up in San Jose in a Vietnamese family, Vietnamese household, where Vietnamese was always spoken, and I would go to church to a Vietnamese Mass every Sunday. My world domestically was all about Vietnamese people, but then I had to venture out to go to school. That was my exposure to American culture. Then, of course, I had a lot of free time, so I was watching American movies and TV shows and all of that.

Viet Thanh N.: It was a very bifurcated kind of existence, and I think that was actually very common for people of my generation, that we had to live in these two worlds, because our parents and our grandparents were not living in the American world. They were trying to avoid it as much as they could altogether. Eventually, they had their own Vietnamese-language newspapers, their own Vietnamese shows, and all that kind of stuff. They didn’t have to really deal that much with the English-language world.

Viet Thanh N.: Of course, what that meant was that I was very intimate and familiar with the Vietnamese-language world, and at the same time I was also intimate and familiar with the English-language world, and so no matter where I was, I couldn’t help but bring that other world with me. Of course, I would understand what my parents were saying to me and the customs and the manners and the history they were trying to relay, their concerns and everything, but at the same time I would also look at them as if they were foreign because I couldn’t help but see them through the eyes of what I imagined the American world to be.

Viet Thanh N.: When I went outside of that world into the American world of schools and libraries and what not, I couldn’t help but also think, “Well, I’m Vietnamese at the same time, and I’ve had this different history that shapes me.” That sense of always being divided, not in an irreconcilable way, but simply of having my foot in two worlds, never really left.

Eleanor Wachtel: How present is it for you, when you’re not just publishing books about it and talking about it in this way, but how present is your past in terms of your consciousness and in terms of informing your perceptions?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, it’s not a conscious thing for the most part. I don’t go around… I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “I’m a refugee.” But I think that that history is always there. It’s woven into my being, so that I see things in a certain way because I’ve been a refugee.

Viet Thanh N.: For me, I think that because I’ve been a refugee, because I’ve been an outsider, I’m still often an outsider. I’m still often the only non-white person in a room, for example, whether it’s in a faculty meeting or whether it’s at a book event and things like that. That sensation of always being an outsider never goes away.

Eleanor Wachtel: Viet Thanh Nguyen, from around the age of 12, you became an avid student of the war that brought your family to America. What sparked that interest for you?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I certainly grew up knowing that there had been a war, and that it had shaped my family fundamentally, and that it was something that was a major issue not just for the Vietnamese people I was growing up among, but among Americans as well. There was no way to really get away from that because it was so omnipresent in American culture, their perception of the Vietnam war. It was easy to, for example, see Apocalypse Now at a very young age because that was what was available in the video store to rent. It was easy to go out to the movies and watch Platoon by Oliver Stone.

Viet Thanh N.: What was not so easy was my deliberate decision to go into the library and read as much as I could about the Vietnam war. I, at a young age, was reading novels about the Vietnam War by Americans, I was reading histories, and those kinds of stories, along with these Hollywood films, really indelibly shaped my understanding of both American culture and the Vietnam War, and they were oftentimes very traumatic to deal with. Starting at 10 or 12 years old, I was reading and watching things that were way too advanced for me emotionally, and so that was the beginning of a lifelong journey, although I didn’t know it at the time when I was a kid.

Eleanor Wachtel: What did you take from the movies, for instance, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now? What did you take from that, watching that as a 12-year-old boy?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I took from it that obviously this war was enormously important for Americans. They were spending all this time making these movies and watching them and so on. I also took from it that there was no place in this American imagination, this American memory and history, for Vietnamese people like me, or that our place was a very problematic place. It was to be killed or silenced or victimized. But in any role, we were there simply as the backdrop for an American drama.

Viet Thanh N.: This was a very difficult thing to deal with because, obviously, growing up in a Vietnamese community, we were not the backdrop of our own lives. The war was central to us. I always knew that this was actually also a crucially important war for us, and that all the stories and emotions and subjectivities that I was witness to as a kid among Vietnamese people were not being heard or seen or understood by the larger American community. How Americans saw this war was also, in many ways, how the world was seeing it because of the power of American culture and the way that American stories were disseminated because of that power.

Eleanor Wachtel: Because unusually, as you point out, here history was written by the losers.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. This was one of the ironies, and I think that has to do with the unique nature of the United States and the wars that it has been fighting since World War II or the Korean War. Basically, the U.S. is a global power after World War II, and it’s fighting all these wars, and it hasn’t won a war since World War II. The Korean War was a stalemate. Vietnam War was a defeat. Every major war since then can hardly be declared as a victory.

Viet Thanh N.: What this means is that even if the United States doesn’t win wars, its global power, its military power, combined with its economic power and its soft power through Hollywood and the popular culture industry, means that it can tell its own stories in its own ways and spread them all over the world, and everybody all over the world has to confront them because that’s how pervasive American culture is.

Eleanor Wachtel: Even the naming of the war. To North Americans, it’s called the Vietnam War, but in Vietnam it’s often referred to as the American War. You say that both are, in fact, misnomers.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, they both are, I think because the war, whatever you want to call it, involved more than just the United States and Vietnam. It involved Laos and Cambodia, and these countries were not just postscripts or sideshows. They were equally involved in the war. They were devastated by what happened, and both Vietnam and the United States were responsible for extending the war into these two countries, along with China and the Soviet Union.

Viet Thanh N.: It was also a global war. This was a hot war that was taking place in the middle of a cold war. All these countries were meddling in this region, and Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia paid the heaviest prices for what happened. But for the Americans to call it the Vietnam War and for the Vietnamese to call it the American War means that both countries can forget what happened to Laos and Cambodia, and it serves both their interests to forget.

Eleanor Wachtel: Viet Thanh Nguyen, your novel The Sympathizer takes the form of a written confession. The nameless narrator, he’s called the Captain, introduces himself by saying, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.” Confession, by its nature, is a very intimate form, but it was also a tool of Communist reeducation. Can you explain what that was about?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, so this is something that both the Chinese and the Vietnamese did in their reeducation camps, which was to force prisoners to tell their life story and confess. In these confessions, what you were supposed to do was to talk about your life history and talk about how you became an enemy of the regime or enemy of Communism, enemy of the people, recount your sins basically, and you had to do it over and over again until you got it right in the eyes of your interrogator or your confessor.

Viet Thanh N.: It was not really supposed to be a confession in an honest sense where you told what was true to your heart. It was supposed to be a confession that showed that you had finally recognized what your errors were in the eyes of the Communist Party, and so people learned how to tell the right story in order to get the stamp of approval from their interrogator or their confessor.

Eleanor Wachtel: Though it seems more personal than what I imagine would be a political confession to an interrogator.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. One of the bad jokes of the novel is that he’s a very bad prisoner. He can’t tell the story. He can’t tell the confession the way that his interrogator wants him to tell it. The interrogator just wants him to tell a straightforward story, and our narrator just keeps going off on loops and digressions and playing with language in a way that’s unacceptable.

Viet Thanh N.: That is because our narrator, the Captain, is a believer in the Communist Revolution, and he sacrificed his life for it. He’s basically lived undercover most of his life as a spy. Then, instead of being rewarded as a hero, he finds himself, upon his return to Vietnam, imprisoned in a reeducation camp and forced to do this confession to recount his sins.

Viet Thanh N.: He feels betrayed, and so he is going through the motions of telling the confession, of telling his life story, as has been requested of him, but he’s also trying to undermine the very mode of that confession by injecting his own personal voice into it. Of course, as the reader will realize by about three-quarters of the way through the novel, he’s going to have to pay a price for not telling a confession in the way that’s expected of him.

Eleanor Wachtel: You’ve talked about feeling split growing up between two cultures. For the central character in your novel The Sympathizer, this split is even more pronounced. He’s the illegitimate son of a young Vietnamese mother and a French priest, so he’s marked by his appearance and subject to bullying and rejection by both sides. Whatever the psychic pain associated with this character’s divided nature, it makes him a terrific observer of people. Could you read a passage from the novel?

Viet Thanh N.: Okay. One of the things that happened to Vietnamese refugees when they came to the United States, and basically any country they arrived in, was that a lot of them experienced downward mobility. The Captain’s, our narrator’s, boss, the General, and his wife, the Madame, this happens to them too. The General ends up having to run a liquor store, and the Madame opens a restaurant. Here, our narrator is going to visit their restaurant.

Viet Thanh N.: Madame’s was the last decent Vietnamese food I had eaten, reason enough for me to call the General the next day and congratulate him on Madame’s new enterprise. As expected, he urged me to come for a welcome back meal at the restaurant, which I found on Chinatown’s Broadway, bracketed by a tea shop and an herbalist.

Viet Thanh N.: “Once we had surrounded the Chinese in Cholon, the General said from behind his cash register. Now we’re surrounded by them.” He sighed, his hands resting on the keys of the register, ready to bash out a harsh tune on that makeshift piano.

Viet Thanh N.: “Remember when I came here with nothing?”

Viet Thanh N.: “Of course I remember,” I said, even though the General had not actually come here with nothing. Madame had sewn a considerable number of gold ounces into the lining of her clothes and her children’s, and the General had strapped a money belt full of dollars around his waist. But amnesia was as American as apple pie, and it was much preferred by Americans over both humble pie and the fraught foods of foreign intruders. Like us, Americans were suspicious of unfamiliar food, which they identified with the strangers who brought them. We instinctively knew that in order for Americans to find refugees like us acceptable, they first had to find our food digestible, not to mention affordable and pronounceable. Because it was no easy thing to overcome this digestive skepticism or make a profit from it, a dimension of courage existed in General and Madame’s enterprise, as I told him.

Viet Thanh N.: “Courageous? I find it degrading. Did you ever foresee the day when I would own a restaurant?” The General gestured at the small confines of what had previously been a chop suey house, brown measles of grease still speckling the walls.

Viet Thanh N.: “No, sir,” I said.

Viet Thanh N.: “Well, neither did I. It could at least have been a nice restaurant, instead of this.”

Viet Thanh N.: He spoke with such pathetic resignation, I felt a renewed sympathy for him. Nothing had been done to renovate the restaurant, the linoleum floor battered, the yellow paint dull, the overhead lighting flat and harsh.

Viet Thanh N.: The waiters were, he pointed out, veterans. “That one’s Special Forces, and that one’s Airborne.” In trucker caps and ill-fitting dress shirts that must have been rummaged from a thrift store, or bestowed on them by a strapping sponsor, the waiters did not look like killers. They looked like the anonymous men with bad haircuts who delivered Chinese takeout, the men who waited nervously in hospital emergency rooms without insurance, who fled the scenes of car accidents because they did not have licenses or registration. They wobbled as much as the table that the General led me to, its base uneven.

Viet Thanh N.: Madame herself brought me a bowl of the pho special and joined us, both watching me eat one of the best examples I had ever indulged in of our national soup.

Viet Thanh N.: “It’s still delicious,” I said after the first sip and bite.

Viet Thanh N.: Madame remained unmoved, as glum as her husband.

Viet Thanh N.: “You should be proud of such soup.”

Viet Thanh N.: “We should be proud of selling soup?” Madame said. “Or owning a hole-in-the-wall? That’s what one of our customers called this place.”

Viet Thanh N.: “We don’t even own it,” said the General. “We lease it.”

Viet Thanh N.: Their moroseness was matched by their appearance. Madame’s hair was pinned back in a librarian’s stale bun, when before it had almost always been worn in a glamorous bouffant or beehive that recalled the go-go days of the early sixties. She, like the General, wore off-the-rack clothing consisting of a mannish polo shirt, shapeless khakis, and the American footwear of choice, sneakers. They wore, in short, what almost every other middle-aged American couple I had encountered at the supermarket, the post office, or the gas station wore. The sartorial impression was to make them, like many American adults, look like overgrown children, the effect enhanced when these adults were spotted, as they often were, sucking on extra-large sodas.

Viet Thanh N.: These petit bourgeois restaurateurs were not the aristocratic patriots I had lived with for five years and for whom I felt not only some fear but also a degree of affection. Their sadness was my sadness, too, so I turned the conversation toward a topic I knew might lift their spirits.

Eleanor Wachtel: Viet Thanh Nguyen reading from his novel The Sympathizer.

Eleanor Wachtel: The narrator describes himself and his fellow Vietnamese refugees as the greatest anthropologists of the American people, and there’s a kind of power in that, but also some anxiety and self-doubt, and, as he describes it, checking our images in the mirror wondering if that’s really who we were, if that’s how white people saw us. When does that go away, that self-scrutiny or sense of being the other, or does it ever really lift?

Viet Thanh N.: I don’t think it ever really lifts, not at least for people of my generation, I think. We become normalized to it. Again, I don’t go around thinking every day, every moment of my life, that I’m a refugee, but I never lose that sense of being an observer. Maybe that’s more acute for me as someone who became a novelist. Whoever I meet, whoever I talk to, I’m always watching them and listening to them, and I like to take the role of someone who sits in the back of the room or is silent at the seminar table so I can observe what people are doing and saying, rather than trying to speak for myself. I think that is a refugee kind of mentality, that we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. We keep silent so that people don’t notice us. That’s one of the survival strategies of being a refugee or someone who’s fled from some terrible experience.

Eleanor Wachtel: The narrator of your novel The Sympathizer is hired to advise on a Hollywood film about the war, and it’s not unlike some of the movies we talked about earlier where the Vietnamese extras, they’re mute. As the narrator says, “Our fate was not to be merely mute. We were to be struck dumb.”

Eleanor Wachtel: The Vietnamese extras on the film, shot in the Philippines, are a ragtag group of refugees called the boat people. It’s a term that many people wouldn’t think to question, but you do, or at least your narrator does. Can you talk about that?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, in the 1970s, there was this phenomenon that became known as the boat people. What happened was that Vietnam was a very poor country. By 1978, people were starving. It was a country where the war was not done yet.

Viet Thanh N.: The victorious Vietnamese government was persecuting people who had been affiliated with the defeated regime, which meant that tens of thousands of former soldiers and politicians and anybody who was affiliated were being sent to reeducation camps, and their families were being discriminated against. Many of the people who were not sent to reeducation camps were sent to these things called new economic zones, which were basically these blighted areas of land where they were basically being punished by being put to hard labor. There was a lot of desperation.

Viet Thanh N.: Also, the Vietnamese government was fighting with China, which had been its ally, and one of the consequences of that was that the Vietnamese government and the Vietnamese people were persecuting the ethnic Chinese, who were the largest minority in the country.

Viet Thanh N.: The conditions were ripe for a lot of people to start fleeing the country by 1977 or so, and the only option, really, for most people was to flee by boat. Tens of thousands of people were fleeing the country by boat and making their way to various other Southeast Asian countries, and this became a global crisis by the late 1970s. Again, the term that the press put on these people was “the boat people.”

Viet Thanh N.: I was aware of that as a boy growing up in San Jose, that this was happening, and this was a huge issue for the Vietnamese refugee community to see their compatriots having to undergo this horrible experience. There are some estimates that half the people who took to the seas by boat didn’t make it to their destination.

Viet Thanh N.: I was aware that the rest of the world saw the Vietnamese people in this way, as victims of war and as boat people. Those were the two major options in the Western imagination for Vietnam. But this seemed so really inadequate to me because I knew, again, what the complexities of Vietnamese life were like. I knew that thinking of Vietnamese people as boat people automatically was demeaning, and certainly was a way of bringing sympathy or pity to them and, in some cases, helping to rescue them, but it was also a way of relegating them to really abject status.

Viet Thanh N.: If you think about it, that up to half of the people who took to the seas died or disappeared before they made it to their destination, there had to be another way to think about these people. I choose to think of them as heroic, that they undertook a really, really risky journey, knowing that these were the odds. To see them purely as victims in that sense was woefully inadequate. I try to contest this term of “the boat people,” try to get readers to think of what it was like to be a refugee, all the kinds of choices and difficulties that people were facing.

Viet Thanh N.: Obviously, in writing that, I was certainly cognizant of the fact that we’re still seeing refugees today, and that much of the rest of the world, when they look at refugees, continue to see them as abject victims who are just poor and desperate and people we don’t want in our country, without understanding the histories that have led these people to want to flee their countries and the kind of courage that it takes to do that.

Eleanor Wachtel: I know with so many refugees flooding Europe today, we’re certainly I think more aware of the desperation and tragic stories of these perilous crossings, but no one now calls them boat people.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. I guess there hasn’t been a catchy term for that. I think the term “boat people” has just become so aligned with Vietnamese people in the Western consciousness, the term isn’t used again, and also I think partially because people are fleeing from the Middle East and Africa both by boat and by foot.

Viet Thanh N.: It’s an unfolding human tragedy that I think we haven’t learned from previous kinds of refugee tragedies about how to deal with this kind of mass upheaval caused by wars that the West is at least partially responsible for, and by historical conditions that the West is at least partially responsible for. I find it very sad, obviously. For at least the Vietnamese refugees of the 1970s and 1980s, there was some kind of a global response to help them, and that kind of global response has not been realized for contemporary refugees.

Eleanor Wachtel: Viet Thanh Nguyen, your recent nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, subtitled Vietnam and the Memory of War, is based on the premise that all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. You argue for a complex ethics of memory, a just memory. What is that?

Viet Thanh N.: In looking at this war and in looking at other wars, what I’ve come away with is that the natural human reaction is to remember those of our own side, in all their complexity, and to remember our own humanity and to forget our inhumanity, and to look at our enemies in the complete opposite fashion, that we simplify them, we stereotype them, and we think of them as inhuman rather than human, and that this is something that I certainly see in the American experience of the war, but also in the Vietnamese experience and in other experiences too.

Viet Thanh N.: This is a kind of an ethical memory, because if we don’t remember our own side, who will? Growing up as Vietnamese, I certainly felt that. The Vietnamese in the United States knew that they were excluded from American memory, and they felt the necessity to remember themselves. But in so doing, they did the exact same thing that the Americans did and the exact same thing that their enemies in Vietnam did, which is to remember themselves as human and to think of their enemies as inhuman.

Viet Thanh N.: I argue that the most difficult thing for us to remember is to remember not just our humanity, but our inhumanity, that we ourselves are capable of the very kinds of inhuman, obnoxious things that we think our enemies are doing. Now, obviously, we have a conscious, rational idea that war is hell and that we shouldn’t fight wars, but we keep doing it again and again anyway. Part of the reason why we do it is because war is profitable. That’s another issue altogether.

Viet Thanh N.: But psychologically, I think we keep going back to war because we don’t believe that we ourselves are capable of inhuman behavior. We go to war because we think the other side has done something wrong, they’re going to do something inhuman, and our conduct of the war will be just and human. History time and again proves that to be a complete fiction.

Eleanor Wachtel: You’ve described Vietnam as both familiar and strange to you. What does homeland mean for you?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, it’s familiar and strange, just as growing up in the United States I always felt myself to be inside and outside of my parents’ household, an insider and a foreigner and a spy. I feel the same way about the United States to a certain degree, always a little bit outside of it.

Viet Thanh N.: Going back to Vietnam, that condition is even more exacerbated because I go back to Vietnam, and I was born there, I have a psychic connection to the country, cultural connection that I can never quite shake, and when I go back to Vietnam, the people there see me as Vietnamese, embrace me as Vietnamese, but they also see me as an outsider. I’m an overseas Vietnamese, a Vietnamese-American, someone who grew up somewhere else, someone who doesn’t look as Vietnamese as the people in Vietnam. I’m often mistaken, for example, as a Korean, especially in North Vietnam, where they’re not as familiar with overseas Vietnamese.

Viet Thanh N.: Even if I wanted to be someone who was authentically Vietnamese, 100% Vietnamese, someone who could treat Vietnamese as home like all the Vietnamese people who live there, it would be very, very difficult to do that, I think. For now, I’m both an insider and an outsider when I go back to Vietnam as well.

Eleanor Wachtel: It’s great to have the chance to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Viet Thanh N.: Thank you so much, Eleanor. It was wonderful.

Eleanor Wachtel: Viet Thanh Nguyen in Los Angeles in 2016. His novel The Sympathizer and his short story collection The Refugees is available in paperback from Grove Press. His latest nonfiction work, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, is published by Harvard University Press.

Eleanor Wachtel: Writers & Company is produced by Sandra Rabinovitch. Mary Stinson is coordinating producer. Katie Swailes is associate producer. Technical operations by Laura Antonelli.

Eleanor Wachtel: We always like to hear from you. Our email address is writersandco@cbc.ca, and the telephone number is 416-205-6631. For news and reviews all about books, check out cbcbooks.ca. The executive producer is Tara Mora. I’m Eleanor Wachtel.

Eleanor Wachtel: Next week, American theater director and filmmaker Julie Taymor. Her work is both lavish and cerebral at the same time, from her stylish Shakespeare movies to her phenomenal Broadway show The Lion King. That’s next week. I hope you join me.

Category: Interviews

 

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