Viet Thanh Nguyen on ‘The Sympathizer’ | AACES at Yale University

Viet Thanh Nguyen reads The Sympathizer and discusses his books at the Asian American Colloquium and Event Series held by Yale University. 


Here is the transcript:

Jing Tsu: Welcome to the second to last event from our Asian American Colloquium Event Series of this year. My name is Jing Tsu. I’m the Chair of Council on East Asian Studies, sponsor of this event. Our cosponsor’s actually Yale College this year, as well. Very happy to have them on board. We have a really special treat today, and I’m personally thrilled to have our guest here, for many reasons. First, let me give a proper introduction. Professor Viet Nguyen, who is here in capacity as a novelist, is a associate professor, English and American Studies and Ethnicity, at the University of Southern California. He is a Berkeley product, B.A. and Ph.D. Today he is here to talk about his novel, The Sympathizer, as well as a new work that just came out, which is meant to be an academic companion to this novel, called Nothing Ever Dies, which he will be talking about. The novel Sympathizers has won so much acclaim it’s actually been thrilling and very exhilarating to follow Viet’s career since the past year or so. It is on the bestselling list of 20, 30 newspapers.

Jing Tsu: It’s won the Best or Notable Book of the Year from New York Times, Guardian, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly. It’s a winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, winner of the Center for Fiction’s first novel prize, and winner of the Asian Pacific American Literary Award, and also was a finalist, I’m very happy to say, for the PEN/Faulkner Prize, so on, and so on. Without further ado, today our format’s going to be, Professor Nguyen is going to do a reading from his novel, for about 20, 25 minutes or so, also from his new book. Then he and I will sit down and I’ll ask him some questions of my own, but also on behalf of some of the students here, who have read his novel, very recently. Then we’ll open the floor to general questions and answers around five o’ clock or so. Please join me in welcoming Professor Viet Nguyen.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you. Well, thanks for that very kind introduction Professor Tsu. We knew each other when we did a fellowship together at the Radcliffe Institute and that was certainly one of the best times of my life and one of the reasons why I was meeting incredible people like your professor who’s had an amazing career of her own. Today, what I thought I would do, I’m probably not going to go for 20 minutes, more like 15. What I thought I would do is to talk about the novel and also about this other book, Nothing Ever Dies, in the context of my relationship to the Vietnam War, which is certainly the historical event that shaped my life and left its imprint on me. I came as a refugee to the United States in 1975 when I was four years old. My first memories were actually of arriving in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, which is one of the four refugee camps that were setup in this country to handle Vietnamese refugees.

Viet Nguyen: My first memories were being taken away from my parents as a four year old and sent to live with a white sponsor family. No sponsors would take our entire family. That was the beginning of my narrative memory and that was the beginning of my experience with the Vietnam War. I grew up really aware of the fact that this war had shaped my life. I wanted to try to make sense out of what that meant. As a young boy growing up as an American in San Jose, California, I read everything I could about the Vietnam War and watched all the American movies about the Vietnam War. When it eventually came time to write a novel I wanted to write a novel that would deal with the history of the Vietnam War, but from an angle that I had not seen when I was growing up, which is basically the Vietnam War as seen by Vietnamese people of all different kinds of backgrounds. This novel is my attempt to do that. It’s written entirely from the perspective of a Communist spy in the South Vietnamese army. He’s half French half Vietnamese.

Viet Nguyen: It begin in April 1975 with the fall, with the liberation of Saigon, depending on your point of view, and because he’s a Communist spy he does see this event from both sides. His mission is to feel with the remnants of that army to the United States where he’s going to spy on their efforts to take their country back. This really did happen. The first passage I’m going to read though, deals with something else, which is that when these Vietnamese refugees got to California … if you know anything about Vietnamese people you know that we love, besides wallowing in misery and melancholy we also love to sing, dance, and have fun, so they started a nightclub. This is actually also true as well. They started a nightclub in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. This eventfully would become something called Paris By Night. How many people have heard of Paris By Night? Only a handful.

Viet Nguyen: If you were Vietnamese or know anybody who’s Vietnamese you know that Paris By Night is a song and dance extravaganza that is now in about 120 episodes and is shot in tons of exotic locals from Las Vegas to Paris and so on. It had very humble origins in a nightclub like this. Here it is. The passage is from his point of view and he’s looking at this young woman who’s the forbidden fruit, the daughter of his boss, the general. “Now known by just one name, like John, Paul, George, Ringo and Mary; Lana stepped on stage clad in a red velvet bustier, a leopard print mini skirt, black lace gloves and thigh high leather boots with stiletto hills. My heart would have paused at the boots, the heels, or the flat, smooth slice of her belly, naked in between miniskirt and bustier, but the combination of all three arrested my heart altogether and beat it with the vigor of a Los Angeles police squad. Pouring cognac over my heart freed it, but thus drenched it was easily flambéed by her torch song.

Viet Nguyen: She turned on the heat with her first number, the unexpected I’d Love You to Want Me, which I had heard before sung only by men. I’d Love You to Want Me was the theme song of the bachelors and unhappily married males of my generation, whether in the English original or the equally superb French and Vietnamese renditions. What the song expressed so perfectly from lyric to melody was unrequited love, and we men of the south loved nothing more than unrequited love, cracked hearts our primary weakness after cigarettes, coffee, and cognac. Listening to Lana sing, all I wanted was to immolate myself in a night with her to remember forever and ever. Every man in the room shared my emotion as we watched her do no more than sway at the microphone, her voice enough to move the audience, or rather to still us. Nobody talked and nobody stirred except to raise a cigarette or a glass, an utter concentration not broken by her next, slightly more upbeat number, Bang Bang My Baby Shot Me Down.

Viet Nguyen: Lana’s version of Bang Bang layered English with French and Vietnamese. The last line of the French version echoed Pham Duy’s Vietnamese version, We Will Never Forget. In the pantheon of classic pop songs from Saigon, this tricolor rendition was one of the most memorable, masterfully weaving together love and violence in the enigmatic story of two lovers who, regardless of having known each other since childhood, or because of knowing each other since childhood, shoot each other down. Bang bang was the sound of memory’s pistol firing into our heads. For we could not forget love. We could not forget war. We could not forget lovers. We could not forget enemies. We could not forget home, and we could not forget Saigon. We could not forget the caramel flavor of iced coffee with coarse sugar; the bowls of noodle soup eaten while squatting on the sidewalk; the strumming of a friend’s guitar while we swayed on hammocks under coconut trees; the whisper of a dewy lover saying the most seductive words in our language, [Vietnamese 00:08:36].

Viet Nguyen: The workingmen who slept in their [see-kl-os 00:08:39] on the streets, kept warm only by the memories of their families; the refugees who slept on every sidewalk of every city; the sweetness and firmness of a mango plucked fresh from its tree; the girls who refused to talk to us and who we only pined for more; the men who had died or disappeared; the streets and homes blown away by bombshells; the streams where we swam naked and laughing; the secret grove where we spied on the nymphs who bathed and splashed with the innocence of the birds; the shadows cast by candlelight on the walls of wattled huts; the barking of a hungry dog in an abandoned village; the appetizing reek of the fresh durian one wept to eat; the sight and sound of orphans howling by the dead bodies of their mothers and fathers; the stickiness of one’s shirt by afternoon; the stickiness of one’s lover by the end of lovemaking; the stickiness of our situations.

Viet Nguyen: While the list could go on and on and on, the point was simply this; The most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget.” Memory and forgetting are big themes in the novel and in the nonfiction book that I’ll talk about in just a minute. Certainly when I was growing up I was very aware of how Americans were remembering and forgetting the Vietnam War. That was primarily through watching a lot of Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War. There’s a big chunk of this novel that deals exactly with that, with satire of what looks like Apocalypses Now, but which is really a compendium of all these Vietnam War movies that I had grown up watching. One of the other things that happens to the narrator is that he gets a job. That job is to be the authenticity consultant on the making of a Vietnam War epic to be shot in the Philippines. In this next bit that I’m going to read he meets the director of this film, who’s known only as the Auteur. A couple of other characters are going to appear. The General and the General’s wife Madame.

Viet Nguyen: “After I descended from the Auteur’s home to the General’s I reported my first experience with the motion picture industry to the General and Madame, both of whom were infuriated on my behalf. My meeting with the General had gone on for a while longer, mostly in a more subdued fashion, with me pointing out that the lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity. ‘You don’t think it would be a little more believable,’ I said. ‘A little more realistic, a little more authentic, for a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, cut to villagers speaking in their own language? Do you think it might not be decent to let them actually say something instead of simply acknowledging that there is some kind of sound coming from their mouths? Could you not even just have them speak a heavily accented English? You know what I mean, ching-chong English, just to pretend they are speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand?’

Viet Nguyen: The Auteur grimaced and said, ‘Very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it, but I had a question. What was it. Oh, yes. How many movies have you made. None. Isn’t that right. None, zero, zilch, nada, nothing, and however you say it in your language. So thank you for telling me how to do my job. Now get the hell out of my house and come back after you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas.’ ‘Why was he so rude,’ Madame said. ‘Didn’t he ask you to give him some ideas?’ He was looking for a yes man. He thought I’d give him a rubber stamp of approval. He thought you were going to fawn over him. When I didn’t do it, he was hurt. He’s an artist, he’s got thin skin. ‘So much for your career in Hollywood,’ the General said. ‘I don’t want a career in Hollywood,’ I said, which was true only to the extent that Hollywood did not want me. I confess to being angry with the Auteur, but was I wrong in being angry?

Viet Nguyen: This was especially the case when he acknowledged he did not even know that Montagnard was simply a French catchall term for the dozens of Highland minorities. ‘What if,’ I said to him, ‘I wrote a screenplay about the American West and simply called all the natives Indians?’ You’d want to know whether the cavalry was fighting the Navajo or Apache or Comanche, right? Likewise, I would want to know, when you say these people are Montagnards, whether we speak of the Bru or the Nung or the Tay.’ ‘Let me tell you a secret,’ the Auteur said. ‘You ready? Here it is. No one gives a shit.’ He was amused by my wordlessness. To see me without words is like seeing one of those Egyptian felines without hair, a rare and not necessarily desirable occasion. How could I be so dense? How could I be so deluded? I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pick-pocketing of the world’s audiences. Hollywood did not just make horror movie monsters, it was its own horror movie monster, smashing me under its foot.

Viet Nguyen: I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naivete in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit. I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created, with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination. Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage.

Viet Nguyen: In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb. I had a lot to say in the novel, but then after I finished the novel I realized I had more to say, so I wrote another book called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s a cultural histor about how the Vietnamese, the Americans. The Laotians and all the Southeast Asian diasporas in the United States have remembered this war over time. I took everything that I learned from writing fiction, about dealing with emotion, rhythm, narrative, themes and put it into the writing, of what I had thought would be a narrowly academic study when I started 13 years ago, and which then grew into what I’m thinking of as a culture history that’s aimed for both a general audience and a scholarly one as well.

Viet Nguyen: I’m just going to read a paragraph from the prologue and that will give you a sense of how the book is written and it will give you a little bit of insight perhaps into how or why the Sympathizer was written too. There’s a little bit of my authority woven throughout Nothing Ever Dies. “I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds, but tempted to believe in its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it.

Viet Nguyen: Americans, as well as many people the world over, tend to mistake Vietnam with the war named in its honor, or dishonor as the case may be. This confusion has no doubt led to some of my own uncertainty about what it means to be a man with two countries, as well as the inheritor of two revolutions.” Today the Vietnamese and American Revolutions manufacture memories only to absolve the the hardening of their arteries. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions, or who have been influenced by them in some way. We have to know how we make memories and how we forget them, so that we can beat their hearts back to life. That is the project, or at least the hope of this book. Thank you.

Jing Tsu: Take that one. I think that has a better view.

Viet Nguyen: That has a better view, okay.

Jing Tsu: Better lighting for you. Thank you for the Viet. I have quite a few questions. To start the Vietnam War is very resonate for our generation. I think for a lot of our young readers here it is not so clear why it was important, why is such a difficult history for America to come to terms with, with Vietnam. I was wondering if you could just start by just telling us what it was and was the significance of this war.

Viet Nguyen: Well, the way that I think about it, the reason why it’s important for Americans is that Americans have remembered this as a Civil War in the American soul. It was obviously, from my perspective, a war that was deeply meaningful for Vietnamese people of all backgrounds. For Cambodians and Laotians too because the war spilled over into those two countries, instigated by both Vietnam and the United States and Soviet Union and China. From my perspective the war was a global war. It was really a condensation of the Cold War into this particular region and what I argue is that it’s also one episode in the century long history of American expansion that began in 1898, went through World War II, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam and now into Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s my argument in Nothing Ever Dies.

Viet Nguyen: For the United States, the way that it’s been remembered has been in a much more narrow fashion. It was really a war that took place from the 1950s to 1975. Then it was over. During that time period it was a war that was vastly divisive for Americans and that’s how they’ve chosen to remember it. They choose to remember it as a war that cost 58,000 American lives, which is a real human tragedy. They’ve forgotten that it’s a war that also cost three million Vietnamese lives of all backgrounds and three million Cambodian/Laotian lives too. That’s the dynamic of memory and forgetting for Americans about this particular war, that Americans have been able to focus very intensely on their own experience at the expense of forgetting what the wars meant for Southeast Asia.

Jing Tsu: There are many ways in which the Cold War did [inaudible 00:20:04] between the former Soviet Union and United States had completely transfigured parts of Asia. Including the splits where you have North/South Korea, indirectly the Communist/Nationalist split of the mainland China and Vietnam. It seems that there is, apart from the historical duality or polarity that’s created this idea of doubleness and of course as we know from being good students of Asian American studies and I think about identity; That’s very key to your novel from simply being a bastard, half French, half Vietnamese, to double legions, double roles, everything. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about how that particular narrative device was useful for you? If I could just add one more it’s that recently a number of Asian American writers have opted to write about spies. There’s Susan Choi, which is based on Store When Holy and then there’s Ha Jin’s Map of Betrayal. In some ways, your novel really, it’s not just that you’re talking about as such, but your character really inhabits. It. I was wondering how you could tell us about that as part of the writing process?

Viet Nguyen: Well, basically my agent said, “You have to write a novel.” I said, “Fine. I always wanted to.” I wanted to write a spy novel partly because it allowed me to deal with history, because I there really were spies in South Vietnam who rose very high in the hierarchy, partly because I really like the spy novel genre and I wanted this book to work as a genre book too in addition to being so called literary novel. Then also I had these literary ambitions where I wanted to get at these questions of what it means to have a feeling of duality. Partly it’s in response to what you’re saying, which is that the Cold War produced this feeling of duality. Now with the so called War on Terror that feeling of duality has been transformed into a confrontation with a different kind of other. Now we’re focused on radical Islam and so on and the fear of Communism seems positively quaint today. If you were growing up during this time of the Cold War it was really intense.

Viet Nguyen: It really produced a [spiner-istic 00:22:09] vision of the world where you were either on one side or the other. For so many people they were caught in between. In Vietnam there were so many people who did not fit easily into either side of this Cold War split. They were the people who got run over, basically, during the war and after. I wanted to capture that sense, but not simply to talk about externally, but to have someone who really embodied that split. The spy role was perfect for that.

Viet Nguyen: Also, as someone who’s growing up as a refugee, an immigrant and as an Asian American I felt that duality too that I always felt as if I was observing. Both in my own home, I was an American observing my Vietnamese parents. Then outside I was a Vietnamese observing Americans. Then I never lost that sense of duality no matter where I was. The experience of the spy really allowed me to speak to that personal sense of duality as well. As you were hinting at I think that’s an experience that many Asian Americans in general have felt that different part at times in their lives when they have felt themselves to be outsider no matter where they happened to be. Whether it’s domestic in their own homes or whether it’s in their workplace or in their professional lives and public personas.

Jing Tsu: I want to pick up on that a little bit. In one of the interviews that you did recently, I think it was Tavis Smiley, you talked about how, as you said, you came at the age of four. You were taken from your family. You were separated from your family, you live with a white sponsor family for a while and then you were reunited with your family later. In some parts you’re not one of the Asian Americans who never lived through that particular history in the home country, but you also caught the tail end of it. Then your parents didn’t talk about in your growing up.

Jing Tsu: This is the phenomena we all know well where children tend to … they inherit what their parents could not say. That becomes, in some ways, their own sense of challenge or their own sense of unsettledness, like a nameless history that they think they’re part of, but they can’t put their finger on it. I was thinking how that might have motivated your writing. Also, I’m sure it’s a short answer to explain to people, yes, you were a Vietnamese refugee. At the age of four you didn’t know that, so I’m wondering when you made that transition to that particular mode of consciousness and then from that to this stage where you feel you want to write about it instead of just a question of figuring out who you were from watching Hollywood films and reading all you could.

Viet Nguyen: Well, there was both that internal and external pressure happening. You could not grow up in the United States as a Vietnamese American without being aware, again, of Hollywood movies. Everybody I talked to said, “Yes, we’ve seen Apocalypse Now or Platoon in the movie theaters and it was a weird experience to feel this split happening.” I would love watching World War II movies for example, and cheering for the Americans. The problem with watching a Vietnam War movie is you’re cheering for the Americans when they kill the Vietnamese people. Suddenly you’re in an impossible situation as a Vietnamese person. In my own home my parents did sometimes speak of the past. Not enough, but enough to make me know that this was a real history for them. For example, when I was growing up if I did something wrong they would say, “Hey, you better be happy that we’re not in Vietnam anymore. If we were you would be sent to Cambodia to fight in this war.” Instead of boogie man stories it would be, “You would be in Cambodia getting blown up by a landmine.” That was my childhood.

Viet Nguyen: I was very aware of things that were unsaid because I have an adopted sister that we left behind when we fled. We had one picture of her and I grew up looking at that picture of this beautiful young woman. She was 16 when we left, and having no idea who she was. That was just one symbol of how the past came to haunt the house. Periodically the past would come to haunt the house when things like my grandparents would die. My father left the North in 1954 and left his parents behind. He wouldn’t see his brothers for 40 years. That’s very painful. I just got a sense of that when I was growing up, not really comprehending what they were feeling when they were crying and wanting their parents. I absorbed that and I think that’s part of the emotional material that had the mind for the novel.

Jing Tsu: When did you start going back to Vietnam to visit?

Viet Nguyen: I went to back to Vietnam 2002 for the first time, which is sort of late. My parents went back in the early 90s as soon as diplomatic relationships were reestablished. That was a difficult time to go back. My parents, they always told me, we’re 100% Vietnamese when I was growing up. After the second trip to Vietnam my dad came back and during Thanksgiving he said, “We’re Americans.” That’s a very common immigrant experience. You grow up and you don’t go back to your homeland and you have this very particular notion of what it means to be of this particular background and it’s a static notion.

Viet Nguyen: Then you go back to your origins and you realize things have changed or you realize they haven’t changed and you have changed, or both things are happening at the same time. I think it was really hard for me to go back. I had a lot of fear about going back to Vietnam. It took me a long time to do that. The first time back I just went back as a tourist. Then the second time back I went back as a student of Vietnamese language. Then I went back many more times over a decade to do research. I have to say it was not like going back to the motherland and feeling Vietnamese. If anything I went back and I felt I’m not that Vietnamese compared to these people who had never left.

Jing Tsu: I remembered, actually when I asked you about 08, 09 I just remembered this now that you were telling me you’d go back and there’s this expectation you have to bring all these presents for all your relatives. There’s 20, 30 different relatives. That was a very interesting thing to think about now almost six years later with you having written this novel already. There’s so many ways in which one could pivot from the premise of this novel. Of course the focus, front and center, is really about being Vietnamese in America, Vietnam in America. I was wondering if we could shift our focus a little bit to talk about what the Vietnam meant War in Asia. Not even just Southeast Asia, but that it was really the ground on which the major Cold War powers did a little joust like the way they did in Korean War. Also, relation between Vietnam and China. Can you just talk a little bit more about that?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think for the Vietnamese people this is a real history. The American war was an interruption of a much longer history of struggle in Southeast Asia with China and with the other neighbors and so on. We see that now with the fact that the Pacific pivot of the Obama administration is pivoting back exactly towards Vietnam and the South China Sea, which was the territory of this war in the first place. That really makes you reconsider the Vietnam War in this global context. Besides being a war of independence and liberation and so on for the Vietnamese people it was also a war for establishing global strategic interests on the part of the Soviet Union and China versus the United States. The United States, the reason it staked so much interest on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was not only because it had interest in these particular countries, but because it saw that it wanted to protect its part of Asia for the development of Capitalism. This has begun with the American occupation of Japan.

Viet Nguyen: America wins the war in the Pacific, occupies Japan, rebuilds it into a capitalist power that is its ally in the Pacific. In order to protect Japan it has to build a [inaudible 00:29:39] around it to prevent Communism from reaching Japan or other Southeast Asian nations. This is why the war in Vietnam was so important. That was also why China and the Soviet Union were also interested in Southeast Asia as well. With the end of the Vietnam War, even though the United States is no longer there, these interests have come back. Both China and the United States are still struggling over this are as a focal point of conflict for their different national interests.

Jing Tsu: Yeah. There’s the sentiment of brotherhood is very rife throughout the novel. Of course the three men, with this unbelievable friendship and the very unexpected twist at the end. One could scale it up and think of this, this is also a particular moment where the idea of the third world alliance, which people don’t talk as much now, was really alive and well. There’s a real aspiration and belief in the idea that Asia, Latin America and Africa were really going to rise up. We think of the [Bun-dong 00:30:40] Conference. I see in your novel very much a gesture towards that. I think almost the etiological, the romantic etiology in the novel is very much suffused with Marx, who I know you read, and this type of thinking.

Jing Tsu: I don’t hear it come up very much in the interviews that you have done, or maybe the people who interview you have not picked that up. I was wondering how you fit that in here? It’s almost again back to this duality where you’re addressing on one hand the history of Vietnam War, was sufficiently complex in itself. Then there’s this whole other half of the tube that you don’t address this particular context. I was just wondering if we could ask you to share with us?

Viet Nguyen: Part of the spine of the novel is this brotherhood, this relationship between our narrator and his two blood brothers, or best friends, Man and Bon. Actually, the impetus behind that was when I was growing up I noticed that my Vietnamese male friends, we were all very much into brotherhood, blood brotherhood, which meant forming gangs when we were in the second grade. Literally we had gangs in the second grade fighting this other Vietnamese gangs. Very sort of innocuously. Then when I was growing up I also watched a lot of Hong Kong gangster films, John Woo films.

Jing Tsu: That will do it.

Viet Nguyen: There’s that intense homo-erotic, homo-social brotherhood in there between good guys and bad guys. That was definitely informing the vision of this trio. The [inaudible 00:32:11] stuff the whole idea of third world struggle and liberation and so on, that was certainly something I was aware. It was not that explicit in this book, but it was explicit in my thinking about how to frame the book. In Nothing Ever Dies I try to make that much more explicit. One of the things I want to try to stress in that book is the importance of a sense of shared suffering. Vietnamese people, but American people too. Everybody. We don’t want to share our suffering. We want to believe that any kind of terrible experience that we’ve been through is uniquely our own and makes us uniquely different from other people.

Viet Nguyen: It’s the notion of being able to build an affinity with other people’s suffering and oppression and exploitation that’s really the beginning of political consciousness and political alliances that are really critical. That’s true in terms of looking at writers like Junot Díaz, for example, who footnotes the Vietnam War in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. There’s a moment where he talks about the American invasion of the Dominican Republic. Then in the footnote he says, “So then these troops were sent immediately to Saigon to begin an American invasion. We were Iraq before Iraq,” talking about the Dominican Republic. I point to writers like that who are also very explicitly thinking about the possibilities of shared suffering post-colonial alliances, building historical connections that are submerged in the American consciousness.

Jing Tsu: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). As you know many of your students have read your novels just very recently and we focus on chapter 11 particularly. It’s the middle of your Hollywood extravaganza. There’s a passage that is very clever. It’s actually about the definition of a mole. When the protagonist first beard about that’s going to be his assignment he wasn’t sure what it was. Is it an animal? Is it a part? Is it mole? I found that really interesting because one of the things is that it’s about how to be in broad daylight and be able to conceal yourself.

Jing Tsu: To me that is very resonate of what we know and learn and absorb about what it means to be an immigrant. One of the first things you do is that you figure out how things work without being in the know. You learn how to pose and you learn how to imitate. You can walk the walk and talk the talk, but you’re always at a distance from what is going on. I picked up on that in your novel where it doesn’t matter what … of course I should say your protagonist. That’s what’s also really clever about this protagonist who’s a double agent. There’s a lot that, as an author, I imagine you can disavow by speaking through a double agent like that. I was wondering if I could ask you to talk a little more about … I hesitate to press you on this. It’s this idea what do you think you actually beared in this novel that you don’t think people noticed.

Viet Nguyen: What have I beared that people haven’t noticed?

Jing Tsu: Yeah. What is something that you think is just in plain sight in the novel, but you don’t think anyone has picked up on it yet?

Viet Nguyen: Wow, that’s a tough one. I think you’ve already picked up on it, which is that on the surface the novel is not autobiographical, which you’ll all be relieved to know, given that he’s an alcoholic, a liar, a womanizer, murderer and all that kind of stuff. It is autobiographical in the sense of what you’re talking about, which is autobiographical in an emotional and a political way. Which was that I did want to write a novel that was not autobiographical on the surface. The common knock against minority writers or immigrant writers is that we write what we know, so we write the family drama, for example. I didn’t want to do that. The spy novel plot was just a narrative that would distract from that. I also wanted to write a novel that would allow me to say a lot of things that were on my mind. That meant coming up with a character who could plausibly say these things and wouldn’t simply seem as if the professor was coming in to give you a lecture about various kinds of things.

Viet Nguyen: I constructed this character, who would have this kind of a background that would give him the kind of consciousness to be observant and to have all these kinds of political comments that he could make. That sense of the duality that you’re talking about it being a mole out in public, that’s pretty much what it feels like for me to be a minority in American society like you’re saying, or minority in academia. There have been so many occasions where I have walked into a room and I look around and I realize, “Oh, I’m the only non-white person in this room. I better not make a big deal out of it even though I’m both visible and invisible at the same time as a minority in that context.” That is part of the autobiography that makes its way into the book. I had to exaggerate all these feelings that I’ve had about being invisible and hyper visible, about being a mole in American society and trans-meet them into this much more exciting action figure of a spy.

Jing Tsu: Now if I could ask you, as you said, “This novel is meant to be entertaining and dramatic. I think the ways to catch people’s attention, so they start understanding, and you draw them into the significance and the pain behind this, what is it about the novel in itself that … you said that you realized you had more to say. What was insufficient, do you think, about having put it in a fictional voice, as opposed to the companion that just came out, Nothing Ever Dies, which you can get a copy later today. What do you think was unsaid that you wanted to recapture or say again in a different way?

Viet Nguyen: Well, the novel can only do so much because it was written from our protagonist’s point of view. I’ll give you an example; I really loved writing this novel. I had two years and I wrote the novel. For most of it I was having a great time. Then at a certain point, about two thirds of the way through, I realized he’s a misogynist and I’m enjoying writing from the point of view of a misogynist and a womanizer, someone who objectifies women. There’s no way out of that because I’ve already committed to this first person point of view. I can’t step out and say, “You’re a misogynist, or I’m a misogynist. It’s awful that I’m doing this.”

Viet Nguyen: I had to persist in that vision and it leads to very awful and terrible ending, which some readers have rightly felt upset about. Did I have to do this at the end? Did I have to lead to this particular atrocity? Did it have to be a woman? Did it have to be rape and all of that? In my mind it had to be. There was a real reason why it had to be this particular atrocity directed against a woman and so I had to write the nonfiction book to make that explicit. I had to explain why I thought that rape was just as critical as combat to the experience of war. I couldn’t say that in the book.

Viet Nguyen: You can’t have people step out and say, “Rape is something that always happens in war. It’s fundamental to what brings us to war. It’s fundamental to what makes people kill each other and it’s unavoidable. It’s inescapable. It’s absolutely intertwined with combat, but only men get remembered for their trauma.” Rape victims, male or female, don’t get remembered for the trauma that they experience and more even though that trauma is fundamental to the nature of war and we disavow it. I talk about that very explicitly in Nothing Ever Dies along with a bunch of other stuff. I needed to have that book to be the scholar and the professor that I am, to talk in general about why war endures in our memory and why we choose to forget it in certain ways and justify it in other ways that I couldn’t do in the novel.

Jing Tsu: Actually, I’m really glad you segued into that, because one of the passages that our students asked is actually about the betrayal of women, where they do feel, someone did feel uncomfortable. I think in some ways you tried to mitigate that by when the agent, when she was about to be raped, they asked her, “What’s your name?” She said, “First name Viet. Last name Nam.” This is reverting back to the idea that in times of war or the rhetoric under which vengeance [inaudible 00:40:22] is that your mother land has been raped and you need to somehow avenge her. That’s very prominent. Can you talk a little more about … Actually, one question I had was after all we are talking about protagonist who has been violent, is an assassin, why do you decide to make him a bystander as opposed to a participant in this horrific scene?

Jing Tsu: What he recall in the end is that I should have done something. That’s the guilt. Then there seems to be two consist he [inaudible 00:40:59] guilty he also killed the Sergeant, or Sonny and it’s all rolled together. There was something about the treatment of that last scene where I imagine it was also jarring to you to write. Can you tell us about actually how you wrote about it and whether that was one of the most difficult parts of the novel for you?

Viet Nguyen: It was definitely that and the torture sequence were obviously the most difficult parts of the novel to write from an emotional point of view or the point of view of inhabiting the character. It was actually not the most difficult scene to write in terms of the technical stuff. The most difficult parts, technically, actually came earlier, but that’s a separate issue. Rape is something that we can’t reconcile with as a society. When we go to war we know that terrible things happen. We say that war is hell and we send off people to go and fight. They come back and we know that they might have done things like kill people or other terrible kinds atrocities.

Viet Nguyen: All that is actually reconcilable within nationalist and patriotic narratives. We know that when we send young people off to fight war terrible things are going to happen. We can justify that under certain kinds of narratives of heroism and all that. We don’t have any narrative that can justify rape. We can’t welcome people back into the fold and say … There’s no logical explanation for why a soldier would go and rape somebody. If my narrator had done that, that would have transformed him into a completely different kind of person. It would have made him much more difficult to accept for audiences.

Viet Nguyen: Already, by page 50 or page 100, my agent had said, “He’s not a very likable character, is he?” Well, if he was actually a rapist he would be a completely unlikable character, which can be done. One of the novels that really scarred me, as a youth when I read it, was Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann. That scarred me because of a rape scene in that book where our young white average American guy, who’s really a decent person, goes to war in Vietnam and becomes a killer and a rapist. Heinemann portrays that unflinchingly. That’s a really difficult thing to acknowledge and to confront. It’s very hard to like this narrator. He does it in another novel too called Paco’s Story. It’s not that I couldn’t have done that it just it would have been a very different narrator. I wanted-

Jing Tsu: Difficult to redeem him.

Viet Nguyen: Difficult to redeem him and plus I wanted to bring up the question of complicity. For me, it’s yes it’s terrible to do things and be the actual agent of terrible things, but for most of us the way that war affects us, especially in our contemporary American society where very few people are in the military, the way that war really matters to us is complicity. We have been fighting a perpetual war for decades now. We’re all complicit with it. That is the most difficult thing to confront. It’s not that war is hell. We make all kinds of movies about that and we have all kinds of speeches and stories about that. We don’t have narratives about our complicity in warfare, which is what actually allows war to take place. That’s something I deal with more explicitly in Nothing Ever Dies, and here symbolically in this moment, when he’s complicit with this horrible thing and he can’t acknowledge it. It takes him the entire length of his confession before he’s finally able to confront that.

Jing Tsu: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). Is there something that, now looking back, even though it’s still very fresh, that you wish you had done with the novel? That you actually had an academic version of it as well.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I don’t know.

Jing Tsu: We don’t want to give ammunition to any of your critics, although so far, as far as I can see you don’t have any critics.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I will tell you that I believe in criticism. I’m a critic and I believe that if I can dish it out I should be able to take it too. I read every single comment that’s been written about this book on and Goodreads. That’s an exercise in masochism. I feel like I should and there are quite a few criticisms that have been leveled at the book from readers who are not professional critics. We can talk about all that kind of stuff. I know that there are things that some people might consider to be flaws in the book, like pacing or … I don’t know what else.

Viet Nguyen: Even if I had a chance to rewrite the novel I don’t think I could. I think the novel is what it is. If I were to go back and fiddle with it, it would lose something else in it. It’s a novel that some readers would consider excessive. The Hollywood scene some people would consider excessive. The rape scene some would consider excessive. The dealing with all different kinds of narratives some people would consider excessive. What gives the novel its life and its energy and maybe it’s flawed character is it’s excessiveness and I have to keep it in there.

Jing Tsu: Thank you. I think we can open up the floor now to general questions from the audience.

Viet Nguyen: That’s the best part of the day for me. I love talking to the audience.

Jing Tsu: I see quite a few hands already. Do you want to field your own or should I?

Viet Nguyen: Sure. We’ll start over there.

Speaker 3: A colleague has done a study of US high school textbooks. I’m a loud projector. Okay. A colleague has done a study of the US high school textbooks. In some of them the war is not mentioned at all. In some of them it’s reduced to a paragraph. He found one where the US won the war. He’s now writing a book. It’s about to come out. He uses the name, the American War. That seems to have become kind of popular in a certain left analysis. I’m just curious about your thoughts about the American War versus the Vietnam War.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think that’s true. For a certain segment of the liberal and left American population the way that they address the memory of the Vietnam War is to very pointedly say the American War, to gesture at the fact that that’s what the victorious Vietnam call this war and to point out the fact that Americans are responsible for this conflict. In the introduction to Nothing Ever Dies I deal with that and I argue that this is actually still a problem. Whether we call it the Vietnam War or the American War, what it really does is to repeat the idea that this was a binaristic conflict between two countries; Vietnam and America. If we understand it in that way we can reconcile and that’s the way that Americans have experienced it. So many Americans go back to Vietnam. They say, “I was really afraid of going to Vietnam. Then look all the Vietnamese welcomed me with open arms.”

Viet Nguyen: That’s the narrative of binaristic conflict and reconciliation. What it overlooks is that the war took place in Cambodia and Laos and involved all these other countries. Vietnam wants to forget that too. Vietnam wants to forget that it, itself is its own imperial country with its own imperial past and that it invaded Laos and Cambodia as well. It was really important for me to point that out and to point out that simply calling it the American war may address American ethnocentrism, but it lets the Vietnamese off the hook for the terrible things that they did during and after the war as well. Yeah.

Speaker 4: [inaudible 00:48:12] one of the dualities that was produced was the duality between the north and the south. I was just wondering just how real that was. Is there any basis for making that distinction or was that simply a product of the Geneva Convention?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that there’s some basis for this idea of a division and regionalism. I didn’t grow up in Vietnam. When I went back to Vietnam to study the language my teachers would repeatedly bring up this idea that there was a north, a center, and a south with very distinct cultures and dialects and characteristics and all of that. Even the Vietnamese people themselves seem to believe that there is this division in the country that’s not simply induced or imposed because of 1954, but that the Vietnamese people themselves believe the northerners have a certain character, the southerns have a certain character. The history of the war simply seems to have exacerbated that.

Viet Nguyen: The aftermath of the war has continued to exacerbated that. Even the northerners and the southerners continue to hang on to these different perceptions of each other. The northerners being the traditional ones and the reserved ones and the literary ones and so on. The southerners being the lazy capitalistic decadent ones. When I went back to the country I thought, “I’m going to be a northerner because I believe in literature and high culture.” As it turned out I’m just a southerner because I’m lazy and decadent and capitalistic. I like to go to nightclubs and things like that. I think these are real divisions that have become embedded in the psyche and the geography and the political operations of the country. Yeah.

Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:49:59] Thank you. The narrator shows, probably for one of the only times in the book, genuine sadness and emotion when he’s grieving over the tomb of his mother, yet that tomb is fake and that isn’t actually his mother. Just that concept of genuine emotion, but yet in a fake reality, and yet for the rest of the book we see this real, real reality and a fake character. I’m just wondering what that scene does to the book, what the purpose is.

Viet Nguyen: That was one of the more emotional scenes for me to write in the book actually when I was writing that scene. I almost cried as he cried. I think that was actually really genuine. He’s a really emotionally repressed character in a lot of ways. He’s had to repress so much of himself to function as a spy and as a mole and constantly being duplicitous. This is one of the few moments in the book, and it’s always around his mother or his friends, where his emotions get to erupt. The irony that you’re detecting between the genuine quality of the feeling and the fact that it takes place in this fake setting is absolutely right. That’s him. He can’t distinguish anymore between what’s real and what’s fake, what he genuinely feels or believes and the production and the representation of history and feelings. That was also part of my own experience growing up as well. I would watch these fake Hollywood movies and they would produce some real emotion in my.

Viet Nguyen: When I watch Apocalypse Now that also seriously scarred me. I was 10, I think, and I watched it on the VCR on video tape. You don’t even know what this is most of you. I remember even 10 years later talking about it in a college class and physically shaking with rage over that movie. There is a way in which what is fake can still nevertheless produce real feeling. That is something that I think writings can take hope in. We’re basically fabricating things. We’re fabricating stories. They’re fake, but we hope that we can induce real emotions and so that’s what happens to him in this fake cemetery. It’s just a Hollywood simulacra but it’s the occasion for real feeling. There is something that is, for me, powerful about that possibility that representation can produce genuine emotion and feeling. Right there.

Speaker 6: I have two questions. The first one is about we talked about the nature of being a spy or this kind of duplicity in between nature that’s made emblematic in the fact that the character is mixed race. I feel like there is often that sense in the Asian American identity in literature, but this is the first time that I’ve personally read about it as a literal being mixed race. I wonder if there is, for you, a distinction between being mixed race as a metaphor and a reality. Maybe you could speak to that.

Speaker 6: Then the other question is that it’s very clear that you think a lot about the politics of representation in this book. There’s the movie scene, there’s the quote that we’ve talked about in my class as either from Marx and or Sayid, about who can represent who. I wonder, if when you were thinking about … you said you had this moment of, “Oh no! He’s a misogynist.” How did you think about representing women in this book? Is there a way to undercut the … you have the narrator, but then you have the author. Can you undercut a narrators misogyny as the author? I’m thinking about a lot of metaphors that are very gendered in the book. What do you think about the [inaudible 00:54:10] representation of women?

Viet Nguyen: Okay. The first part of the question about the mixed race issue; I thought about it both as an important historical reality and also as the metaphorical literary possibility too. Your Asians and then Amerasians are a critical part of Vietnamese history, but of any place where American soldiers or British soldiers, or French have shown up and either raped or mixed with the population. The outcome of that is a population that is discriminated against by all sides. That is something that doesn’t get addressed very often either in American literature or French literature or Vietnamese literature. I really wanted to foreground that. I knew that I was taking a risk with that for exactly the implication your question is.

Viet Nguyen: Am I exploiting this experience of the mixed race person for literary purposes? If you had any awareness of American literature you’d know about the tragic mulatto and the terrible fates that befall people of mixed race heritage who become symbolic of the irreconcilable realities of being mixed race and of two populations. Certainly that whole Rudyard Kippling idea of, “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet,” is often times visited on mixed race Eurasian or Amerasian characters who suffer terrible things. My narrator suffers terrible things. As I was writing it I was thinking, “Oh, shoot. Not only is he a misogynist. He’s also become and excuse for the author to play out these cultural arguments.” I don’t know.

Viet Nguyen: I hope I succeeded by both acknowledging that, but also not turning him into a stereotype or a tragic mulatto at the same time. I think how he isn’t a tragic mulatto is that he doesn’t die and that he’s imbued with a lot of self consciousness about his situation. That may be the only saving grace for his representation and my representation of women in the book too. There is some self consciousness about their depiction and their objectification in the book. There’s clearly quite a strand of enjoyment for our narrator in talking about women in a certain way and looking at their bodies. That’s part of who he is a man. That’s part of masculinity for a lot of men as well. It’s part of my own masculinity that I had to confront as I was writing the book, that certainly these elements of objectifying women are something that I grew up with and that I internalized as well. Yet, at the same time there’s a feminist consciousness that I have that I wanted to try to put into that novel in as realistic of a way that I could.

Viet Nguyen: That was through a character like Sofia Mori, who is clearly a feminist, clearly a radical, has book on her shelf that he looks at that he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t read these books, but he sees their titles. There’s that awareness that’s interjected in there by his characters. There’s no easy answer to your basic question though about he representation of women. That’s why I felt like I had to write a sequel. I had to put him into another situation where there’s going to be more explicit dealings with these issues of Ban Dung and third world alliances and so on in Paris. Also, a confrontation with his own misogyny and his relationships with women. I’m not going to give away the plot, but basically I knew that in finishing the book that I had to go into a different kind of history and it wouldn’t be about the Vietnam War. It would be about other things that would allow him to be transformed as a character even more than he’s been transformed by the end of the book.

Speaker 7: I had a very specific question about the scene, I think, where they assassinate the crapulent major and there’s this very salient image of a yellow happy face that’s splattered with blood. I was wondering, “Is this a reference to the graphic novel Watchman? If so, is it because of the way that the graphic novel engages with Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: Right, the typical novelist answer would be to say, “Yes, absolutely. I foresaw every possibility.” It’s funny because I did read the Watchman. I did see the movie the Watchman and the Vietnam War comes up in that in a very horrible way, in that book too. In that movie as well. I don’t remember the yellow face actually, so you got me there. What I was thinking of was that you really do see shopping bags with the yellow faces on them. It’s innocuous, but in this book it takes on a racial connotation. I think that was my thinking about that. Thank you, now I will reference the Watchman in future discussions of that scene.

Speaker 8: [inaudible 00:59:02] of us. There were many men who went to Canada and went to jail. One of those was named Muhammad Ali, but refused to succumb to the draft. The duplicity, we can blame it on the government, but can we under the fear of being arrested, if you didn’t succumb to the draft. Also, I’d like to just mention to movies I saw. One’s called Heaven and Earth Change Places, about the American War in Vietnam, by a woman called Le Ly Hayslip. They made it out that she was rescued by a GI Sergeant. That was not the fact. She was rescued by a civilian. The other movie was a Vietnamese propaganda movie, which I didn’t see, called The Bicycle Doctor, where the Amerasian children were used to play American soldiers. I don’t really have a question, but the duplicity thing is hard to understand. I’m a veteran of the American War in Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen: The duplicity of the narrator?

Speaker 8: [inaudible 01:00:04] otherwise they go after our families.

Viet Nguyen: Okay, right. No, I understand that. I think that my experience is that there is a diversity of American and Vietnamese experiences that tend to get overlooked in the way that both Americans and Vietnamese have remembered this war. I’m not going to talk about the Vietnamese example here, but in terms of the American experience part of how that’s happened is things like antiwar movement and people who have resisted the war and fled to Canada and so on have been erased from American memory. There has been a very conscious effort on the part of various interests in American society to recast this war from a bad war into a noble war that went wrong and the antiwar movement. This various related issues that you’re talking about is one of those things that has been obliterated in American memory. There wasn’t much room for that in this novel, but I do talk about it in Nothing Ever Dies.

Viet Nguyen: As for Le Ly Hayslip and her book When Heaven and Earth Change Places, which was made into that movie Heaven and Earth, one of the reasons why it became really popular was because it emphasized the theme of reconciliation and emphasized the theme of forgiveness. In the beginning of the end of the book Le Ly Hayslip, who I’ve met and who’s spoken in my class, says, “You are not to blame.” She’s addressing American veterans and she’s addressing the audiences in general by saying that we were all victims in this war. I think that’s a very powerful message and it’s not a message that I put forth in this book. The reason why is because I don’t want to give people that easy route out of resorting to reconciliation and forgiveness. Actually, in the middle of her book she actually says, or actually in one other part of the conclusion of the book she says, “We peasants were what this war was all about. We were the ones who were the victims, but we were also the victimizers.”

Viet Nguyen: Now that part tends to get overlooked in discussions of the book. That is actually the more important message of her book, that I pick up on, in Nothing Ever Dies, but the most difficult part of remembering war, for most of us, the confrontation. Not with being victims, which we’re very willing to acknowledge our own victimization, but our capacity for victimization. I think that inability to reconcile with our capacity to be inhuman and to victimize others is a thing that we have chosen to forget. I’m not just speaking about Americans, but Vietnamese. Any side that has fought a war has chosen to forget it’s own inhumanity. I think there was a question in the back there.

Speaker 9: I think this is related to the Eurasian question. I was wondering how you chose to make the narrator Eurasian as opposed to Amerasian and if you think that you’ve already answered it that’s fine. I was wondering if it’s related to my second question, which is what’s the role of Catholicism in the novel?

Viet Nguyen: Well, he had to be Eurasian because of the timing of the book. He had to be old enough at a certain point in history to participate in the war and everything. That meant having a French father. The Catholicism is related to that because his father is a priest, and it’s related to me because I grew up Catholic. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but I grew up saturated with Catholicism. It’s a rich source of literary imagery, of symbolism. There’s a rich literary history around it. It was something that I was imbued with and is a part of me.

Viet Nguyen: It was very easy to resort to religious imagery of the Christian and Catholic kind in the book. One of the other dimensions of that is that there’s a connection being made in the book between Catholicism and communism. At a certain point in the novel he has to undergo the Catechism, the Q & A structure of being interrogated as to who is God, that all of us who were Catholics had to deal with. Then by the end of the book he’s interrogated again and the Communist vein in the Q & A mode is repeated at that time as well. I wanted to draw a connection between these two very different kinds of ideologies that are also based on power, on obedience, on repetition, on submission. He ends up fleeing one, Catholicism, and running into another, Communism. Yeah.

Speaker 10: Hi. Thank you so much for coming today to speak with us. We read your novel in our class, in professor Tsu’s class. I ended up talking with a lot of my friends in the class. We ended up talking about how the book was very moving, but at the same time it was very dark in many aspects. I was wondering what was the most difficult thing for you to write about within this novel?

Viet Nguyen: Well, as you implied the darkest part of the book is towards the end when he’s being tortured. I think it’s a dark book because I’m a dark person inside somewhere. Before I wrote the novel I spent 11 years, or I spent my entire lifetime thinking about the war, but 11 years as a scholar really thinking about it really deeply. It’s hard not to see the darkness of this particular time period. Both in terms of what was happening to Americans and Vietnamese, ut also to Cambodians and Laotians as well. I felt like I had to confront that in this novel. I didn’t set out to write a novel that would lead towards this particular conclusion. I had an outline of the novel in advance. The ending of the novel was actually, at that time, much more Hollywood esque. There would be a big shootout and “mano y mano” confrontation and everything.

Viet Nguyen: About two thirds of the way through the book I realized that wasn’t the needing. The ending had to be this other thing where he ends up being interrogated. Not just by anybody, but by his best friend, his other half, and where he has to confront his own other half internally as well. That felt to me like that was the right ending. That was the inevitable ending that he had to go towards. When he go there, when I had to write that, it was difficult in some ways emotionally to do that.

Viet Nguyen: I had nightmares for a while when I was writing that. Actually, it was also fun in a weird way. It was technically challenging. I continually wanted to up the ante as I wrote the novel. I wanted to make the novel more interesting for me to write and hopefully more interesting for readers to read. By the time we got to the end of the novel for three or chapters I had to figure out how am I going to make this compelling for the reader? How can I make it compelling for me as writer? That was, in a strange way, a really exhilarating part of the novel to write as well, to try to figure out how to depict torture, how to depict its experience, how to do something formally different in the novel than what I had done before. Over there.

Speaker 11: Hi. I just have two questions from trying to connect Nothing Ever Dies and your novel. I think one of the issues in Nothing Ever Dies you spend quite a bit of time on is how memories of the American or the Vietnam War or whatever war you want to call it, has been shaped by American media and how this has had a disproportionate influence on the way people remember it. I wonder how you would see your novel in this light, if your novel is an extension of this trend? It is published in American in English. [inaudible 01:07:38] novel captures Vietnamese voices from Vietnam today or from Vietnam 10 years ago, or people who have been through it in Vietnam. If I may, a second question is, something else you dwell upon in your book is the idea of ethnicity and an ethnic writer. I wonder how you would think someone would read your book differently if you had a western name or [inaudible 01:08:05].

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think all those issues are actually wrapped up together. When the novel was reviewed in the New York Times for the first time, I think in the second paragraph the reviewer said, “He gives voice to the voiceless.” I was like, “No! I don’t do that. I never make any claim to do that. Why are you saying that I do that?” It was a positive review, but it’s an easy trope to resort to every time there’s a hot new writer of some particular background, who’s not white, the urge is to say, “He or she gives voice to the voiceless.” It’s a trope that’s meant to be a compliment saying, “This writer has so much talent. He’s revealing to us,” white people basically,” something that we don’t know before. Even thought, as a matter of fact, if you do a google search for Vietnamese American writers you’ll find 10 or 20 within five minutes. I knew when I wrote the novel that this was going to happen to me.

Viet Nguyen: I knew that if the novel was any good this was going to happen to me. There was absolutely nothing I can do about it. That’s why I had to write the academic book. Heres another reason why I wrote the academic book; In the novel I can’t say, “Don’t read my book in this way. Read my book in this other way.” In the nonfiction book I can take control, I think, of the critical framework by which this war is remembered and by which this novel should be read. There’s a whole chapter on Vietnamese American literature in this book, which is also a chapter about ethnic or minority literature in general. Which is saying, “Don’t say we give voice to the voiceless.” It’s a very dangerous trope that is a trap. It privileges minority writers who become representatives for their communities, which then allows structures of inequality to remain utterly untouched. Once you have a voice for the voiceless you can say, “Oh, we’ve heard this person. Now we can forget about the rest of the population that he or she deals with.”

Viet Nguyen: The boot itself is totally caught up in this literary industry, which is a part of structural inequality in the United States, which is connected to the operations of war and memory. Whenever we fight a war with somebody within a couple of decades we want to hear the voices of the voiceless. We have Korean American literature, we have Chinese American literature, we have Filipino American literature. All these literatures exist because we fought wars in these countries and created the conditions for bringing these immigrants here, or refugees, into the United States, where eventually they would produce a second generation that would write books that would give voice to the voiceless. All these things are wrapped up together.

Viet Nguyen: You’re right, as I was writing the book I was like, “Oh my God. I am just another American writing a book about the Vietnam War, even I am a Vietnamese American.” I’m not a Vietnamese person and I don’t make any claims to be, but I will be treated as a Vietnamese by this literary industry that won’t see a distinction between Vietnam or Vietnamese person and a Vietnamese American. There’s nothing I can do about that either. I do think about how is this book read in Vietnam by people who can actually read english. There have been reviews of this book published in Vietnamese. There have been Vietnamese people in Vietnam who have read this book in english. So far the reaction has been pretty good, I think. That doesn’t mean that the book escapes from the basic problem of what you’re talking about, that it is itself a part of an American memory industry that foregrounds American memories of the war, even if it is minority American memories.

Viet Nguyen: What I say in Nothing Ever Dies is you can’t change this by being a critic or a writer. You can’t change the problem of representation simply by producing another representation. You actually have to change the system of representation itself, which is tied in to all these other systems of ownership and production and inequality, which is why you need an entire social and political movement, Bernie Sanders, to change the way that things operate. That’s a factitious answer, but that’s partly what he’s getting at. Question in the back.

Speaker 12: [inaudible 01:12:03] I’m curious [inaudible 01:12:07] you’ve noted at least one way that writers of color are held to a different sort of standard, that you’re meant to be speaking as the voices of the voiceless at all times. I think that’s very much a trope in the reception of the work by writers of color. What other kinds of standards do you think your novel has been held to? I was really interested in the pushback on the rape scene. There are lots of misogynist narrators written by white writers. Do you think that your book has been criticized or held to a higher moral standard because you’re a writer of color, than the writer David Foster Wallace, for example? Do you feel that differential reception in other ways?

Viet Nguyen: The interesting thing is that I don’t read the Goodreads comments on David Foster Wallace, so I don’t know. You know what I’m saying? The professional reviewers like the book critics and the scholarly reviewers and so on have not been critical of the rape scene. I have not read that. I think that what Goodreads and does, it gives voice to the voiceless. All these book club readers and every day readers who would never be heard in the university audience, for example, now get their chance to say what they like or don’t like about a book. If we were to read the comments on Philip Roth’s writing we might see a lot of people saying, “I don’t like these particular kinds of representations of women,” and so on. I don’t know if that has been as much of an issue. I think that there is possibly other kinds of expectations that are put on this book around the question of my identity as a minority writer taking on the Vietnam War and questions of race that were raised in your question where maybe I don’t get the same … I get some privileges for doing it.

Viet Nguyen: I get to be the voice for the voiceless, which is it’s own little entrée into being reviewed in New York Times, but I also potentially get pigeon hold as well for being someone who writes about his experience. That’s a common standard against which writers of color are held. Which is why there’s no way in this book that I could overcome that problem. It’s still a book about the Vietnam War and I knew that writing the book. I knew that if I wrote a book about the Vietnam War I would be talked about as a Vietnamese or Vietnamese American writer writing about the Vietnam War and that would be an opportunity and a closure at the same time. I had to take that chance to introduce a story that I didn’t think had been told before. Which is why then it’s also important for me to write this sequel to the book that continues this critique of power, but in a different context in France in the 1980s. Then we’ll see how that book is received.

Viet Nguyen: Then I’ll be writing something that’s not expected of me as a Vietnamese American writer in the United States. That would be something that David Foster Wallace could do. As a white writer you have the privilege to write about whatever you want. Robert Olen Butler can write about Vietnamese Americans and win a Pulitzer Prize for it in Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. If I were, as a Vietnamese writer, writing about that same subject, I would simply be seen as writing about my own experience. Can minority writers do the reverse? Can I as a minority writer write about something that’s not about the Vietnam War? I’m going to try. We’re going to see how that’s received and then we’ll have a test case for the question that you’re asking.

Jing Tsu: If I actually can ask a followup question to that. Nothing Ever Dies is very much concerned with larger issues, ethics and responsibility, which are basically probed in every instance in this book. It brings me to the title, The Sympathizer. What is the object of sympathy here? We know from Adam Smith and [Ter-oo-so 01:16:06] admittedly these European philosopher who talk about sympathy in an asymmetrical way. Sympathy is not so much that you … it’s not an outpouring of emotion. It’s actually a stop. It’s a distance that you are worthy of my pity. There’s always a slippage between sympathy, empathy and pity. I’m wondering why you picked this title? It seems like in the novel you are really exploring putting forth a different idea. One might even say a philosophical premise on which to probe what that really means in a world that is so horrifically torn as a permanent condition. I was wondering if you could maybe segue into Nothing Ever Dies.

Viet Nguyen: Sure. Well, it couldn’t be called The Empathizer. That wouldn’t really work. I was stuck with The Sympathizer. Yeah, there’s all these gradations of pity, sympathy and empathy that you talk about. Empathy is obviously the gold standard of feeling as someone else or feeling as an other. In the book I think that’s what he tries to do. He tries to feel for other people. That’s his one talent, as he tells us at the beginning. He can’t completely do that and that’s why by the end of the book he’s confronted with the limits of what sympathy can actually do. As a sympathizer, as someone who feels sympathy, he’s been a good spy. There’s a limit of action that can take place simply through that emotion, so he goes and he witnesses this terrible thing that happens. He’s sympathetic with the victim of this crime, but he can’t or won’t do anything about it.

Viet Nguyen: The book does explore what it means to feel, but the limits of feeling at the same time. That’s a dilemma for the revolutionaries that he thinks about at the end of the book. You feel sympathy for these poor oppressed people, but then you have to translate that into action. At that point all the good feelings, all the good intentions in the world have to run up against the realities of taking power and trying to make change happen. That’s where corruption and realities occur and where these questions of ethical conduct arise. Again, in Nothing Ever Dies, I try to make that problem more explicit. To ask whether sympathy and empathy are enough when it comes to the project of peace, of the antiwar movement, of ending war, of engaging in a more ethical memory for recalling the past.

Viet Nguyen: I think my answer is no. It’s not actually, it’s not enough to feel. You have to actually do something. You have to engage with power. It’s not enough to write a book. If you want to change the way that memory works, if you want to change the way that the conditions by which warfare could happen, you actually have to go out there and turn feeling into action. That’s when ethical compromises or questions of ethical conduct arise, but that’s when we have to confront systems of inequality, systems of production, means of ownership and things like that.

Jing Tsu: Okay. Are there any other questions?

Viet Nguyen: There’s one in the back.

Speaker 13: Hi. You talked about being aware of what or how this book would be received or how it would reflect upon writers of color, being aware of how that would have happened if the book was a success, which it has been. I was wondering if you were also aware during writing the novel of how it might reflect upon writers of color had it failed? Was that something at the back of your mind? Did you feel as if you were responsible for a larger community of writers and if so how did that affect your process?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think every writer who writes a book is aware of failure. It’s always lurking. Throughout writing the book I was worried about failure. I was worried simply about the failure of writing a decent novel that could be sold and be published someday. I had to suspend that fear. I had to block that out and I was pretty successful at doing that. I hadn’t been successful before. I had spent well over 10 to 15 years, depending on how I pars it, I spent 10 to 15 years writing the short story collection, which is an absolutely miserable awful experience. That was miserable and awful partially because of the fear of failure and wrestling with failure constantly and worried about how critics might read my writing and so on. For the two years of writing the novel I was able to suspend most of issues, except for the moments when I talked to my agent.

Viet Nguyen: He was a very supportive guy, but he was always about, “Are we going to sell this book?” I was like, “I don’t want to talk about whether we’re going to sell this book. I just want to actually write the book.” The other issue is that I’m a scholar. I’ve read many bad novels by writers of color. If you read enough of any category, Asian American literature, which was my first specialty for example, you realize most of any category is not good. It’s mediocre to bad. When I started to write the book I was worried that my book would fall under the category of the mediocre and the bad. To compound matters I knew all of the critics who would attack me if that was the case. There was that other element of the fear of failure that my friends would turn on me for having the hubris of trying to write a novel and then writing a bad novel.

Viet Nguyen: I hope that answers the question, that it was actually quite a frightening endeavor to try to write the novel. I felt that there wasn’t any other way. I had committed so much of my life to the act of writing fiction that I had to take the risk of failure, take the risk of people that I respected with a great degree of taste of literature and literary history rending judgment upon my book. That was really just a magnification of what all writers undergo. That we always have to confront failure every time we sit down to write something.

Jing Tsu: Can I ask how your family thinks of this novel? Did they read it all along?

Viet Nguyen: I think the first person who read it was probably my sister-in-law, who’s a very smart woman and a doctor. She said, “Wow, that’s a lot of terrible things that happen in this book.” I think my family is proud of it. My brother is proud of it, I think. He Tweets about it, so that’s a good sign. Then when the novel came out I gave it to my dad. It’s not that he read it, but he was so proud of it as an object that he wanted to have his picture taken with it. In general I think that’s how the Vietnamese American community has reacted to it. I think a lot of people have not read the book, but the fact that it was reviewed in the New York Times, that’s cool. People want to take my picture with them simply because I’ve been reviewed in the New York Times.

Viet Nguyen: When I wrote Nothing Ever Dies I actually went home before it was published and I said, “Dad, I want to dedicate the book to you and to my mother. You have suffered so much and you’ve made this book possible. How should I write your names? How should I put your names in the book?” He said, “Don’t put our names in this book,” because he thinks the history has not died. That’s part of what it means that nothing has ever died. The war still lives for him. He didn’t want to be associated with a book about the war. The dedication of the book is to my father and mother. I think that’s part of the reality of what it means for me to have written these books. I touch on these wounds that for my own family are still very vivid. Especially for my parents. I talked to my dad a couple weeks ago and he said, “You’re done with writing books, right? You’ve written enough, haven’t you? You should take care of your family now.” That’s what the books mean to them.

Jing Tsu: Thank you Viet.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you very much.

Jing Tsu: Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you too.


Category: Interviews


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