Presented in partnership with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen will discuss his two latest books, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies, at the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Here is the transcript:
Speaker 1: Book TV on C-SPAN2’s live coverage of the Wisconsin Book Festival at the Madison Public Library continues now. Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses his books, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s a finalist for this year’s National Book Award and The Sympathizer which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This is live coverage on Book TV.
Joe Salmons: Tonight’s Wisconsin Book Festival, I’m Joe Salmons. I’m here as a member of the board of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, and it’s really a tremendous pleasure to be able to introduce the next speaker, Viet Nguyen. And to thank, first of all, the Madison Public Library, the Library Foundation, Humanities Council, all the other sponsors. This is probably a good time to remind you to check and make sure that your cell phone is silent. Everybody reaches for their cell phone immediately. The Book Festival is asking people to talk about their experiences using the #wibookfestival, so #wibookfast-… sorry, bookfest, all one word. Books are for sale afterwards out just on the other side of this wall. Viet Nguyen is a really remarkable author. You get people who are accomplished as literary authors and people who are accomplished as nonfiction authors.
Joe Salmons: He has actually pulled off major accomplishments in both realms within, basically, the last year with another book coming next year. The two books he’ll talk about tonight, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies. Of course, he’s the arrow owner chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His books, he’s not only won a Pulitzer Prize, but his books, you read the reviews and they’re just stunning on both of them. New York Times called The Sympathizer a remarkable debut novel and kirkus talks about Nothing Ever Dies as a powerful reflection on how we choose to remember and forget. In addition to buying his books, I would urge you to read the blog that he edits, diacritics.org. But you’re here to hear, yeah. Welcome.
Viet Nguyen: Thanks, everybody, thanks for coming tonight. Well, that was last year in Madison in 2008 when I was here for the entire summer actually studying at the university, studying Vietnamese. Back then I was living in this undergraduate’s apartment. It’s nice to be back on a slightly different scale. Actually, when I was here in 2008, what I was doing, the reason I was studying Vietnamese was because I was working on these projects about Vietnam. I was traveling to Vietnam, I was doing field work there, and of course, I was writing short stories, but I had not yet started reading The Sympathizer. I thought I would start off reading the first paragraph, or one of the first paragraphs from Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Because it’ll give you a sense of who I am, what I’m doing, and this is actually a commentary on both of the books.
Viet Nguyen: I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds, attempted 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. Americans as well as many people the world over tend to mistake Vietnam with the warden in its honor or dishonor, as the case may be. This confusion has no doubt lead 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, and only to absorb the hardening of their arteries. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions or who’ve 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.
Viet Nguyen: That is the project or at least the hope of this book. Those words actually are pretty good description of what I’ve tried to do in The Sympathizer as well. Nothing Ever Dies is really the nonfiction sequel to The Sympathizer. There are a lot of things that I couldn’t say in The Sympathizer because it’s a novel and you really can’t step out of character. You’ll find that in Nothing Ever Dies, which is really a study of how we remember, how we forget, why do we go to war, the importance of recognizing our inhumanity as much as our humanity, and what are the possibilities of peace and reconciliation. In The Sympathizer, I try to address those questions too but in a more dramatic and a more fictional way. Of course, in The Sympathizer, writing a novel, I can get away with saying a lot of stuff without having to engage in footnotes, right?
Viet Nguyen: Saying some outrageous things and you just have to accept them, and that’s just part of the joy and the liberty of writing fiction. The Sympathizer is a novel about a communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army in of April 1975. He’s in Saigon as it’s about to fall or be liberated, depending on your point of view. Because he’s a communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army, he does see both perspectives, and he tells you from the very first paragraph that that’s his one talent, the ability to see any issue from both sides. His mission is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States and spy on their efforts to take their country back, which this really did happen in this time period. What happens when the Vietnamese refugees get to the United States is that they are put into refugee camps before they can be dispersed and resettled.
Viet Nguyen: He ended up in Camp Pendleton in Southern California, and I ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap. Wait, with Camp Pendleton in Southern California, I ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. This next part of the reading comes from The Sympathizer when he’s in that camp, and he’s writing a letter to his supposed aunt and he’s going to tell her what life is like for these new refugees in Southern California. “If allowed to stay together,” I told my aunt, “we could have incorporated ourselves into a respectively sized, self-sufficient colony, a pimple on the butts of the American body politic.” I think that’s pretty funny, but that’s just me. Sufficiently collective to elect our own representative to the Congress and have a voice in our America. A little Saigon, as delightful, delirious, and dysfunctional as the original, which was exactly why we were not allowed to stay together but were instead dispersed by bureaucratic feat.
Viet Nguyen: For example, to places like Madison, Wisconsin, this is one reason why you get so many among people here, they didn’t choose to come here, but the powers that be thought it’d be nice to get these people all over the country so they’ll be integrated. Wherever we found ourselves, we found each other. We did our best to conjure up the culinary staples of our culture, but since we were dependent on Chinese markets, our food had an unacceptably Chinese tinge. If you know anything about Vietnamese people, they hate Chinese people. Okay, so this is a serious problem. It was another blow in the gauntlet of our humiliation that left us with a sweet and sour taste of unreliable memories, just correct enough to evoke the past, just wrong enough to remind us that the past was forever gone. Missing, along with the proper variety, subtlety and complexity of our universal solvent fish sauce.
Viet Nguyen: Oh, fish sauce, no, none, how we missed it. How nothing tasted right without it. This pungent liquid condiment of the darkest sepia hue was much denigrated by foreigners for its supposedly horrendous reek, lending new meaning to the phrase, “There’s something fishy around here.” For we were the fishy ones. We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers wore clothes of garlic to ward off vampires. In our case, to establish a perimeter with those Westerners who could never understand that what was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese. I guess I should say cheese curds, and then little digression. I’m staying at this very nice hotel, Edgewater, and the people that are there, they’re very kind in some ways. They delivered a plate of food to my door when I got there, and of course, there was cheese, okay.
Viet Nguyen: What was fermented fish compared to curdled milk, but at a different store host, we kept our feelings to ourselves. Sitting close to one another on prickly sofas and scratchy carpets. Our knees touching under crowded kitchen tables chewing on dried squid in the cut of remembrance until our jaws ached. Trading stories heard second and third hand about our scattered countrymen. This was the way we learned that the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto. The naive girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart, and was sold to a brothel. The widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and laid down in the snow and his back with mouth open until he’s buried and frozen. And the regretful refugees on Guam who petitioned to go back to Vietnam never to be heard from again. The spoiled girl seduced by heroin who disappeared into the Baltimore streets, and the devout Buddhist who spanked his young son and was arrested for child abuse in Houston.
Viet Nguyen: The husband who slapped his wife and was jailed for domestic violence in Raleigh, and the men who had escaped but left wives behind in the chaos, and the women who had escaped, but left husbands behind. And the children who had escaped without parents and grandparents, and the families missing one, two, three, or more children. Sipping to the dirt we pan for gold, the story of the baby orphan adopted by Kansas billionaire or the mechanic who bought a lottery ticket in Arlington and became a multimillionaire, or the girl elected president of her high school class in Baton Rouge, or the boy accepted by Harvard from Fond du Lac. The soil of Camp Pendleton still in the tracks of his sneakers, or the movie star you loved so much of Dear Aunt, who circled the world from airport to airport, no country letting her in after the fall of Saigon.
Viet Nguyen: None of our American movie star friends returning her desperate phone calls until with her last dime she snagged Tippi Hedren, who flew her to Hollywood. It was that we soaked ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope. For all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead. The story about Tippi Hedren is true, the movie star Lindo Jong, she was a very famous movie star in Vietnam. Then you might have seen her in the Joy Luck Club. Side note, footnote to this, Tippi Hedren took so much pity on the Vietnamese people that she met that she thought it would be a great idea to take her personal manicurist to the refugee camps and teach these poor Vietnamese women how to manicure so they would have the potential of earning a living in this country. Lo and behold, who now own 51% of the nail salon industry in this country.
Viet Nguyen: On the one hand, that is a positive advertisement for immigration, on the other hand, it could end up on a Trump campaign ad. I’m in Madison, right? Okay. She has to make a living, our narrator, and one of the things that Viet does, he gets out of the camp, he goes to Los Angeles and he becomes the authenticity consultant on the making of a movie about… and that’s going to be epic Vietnam war movie shot in the Philippines and this is completely made up in my imagination. In this next scene, he meets with the director of this film, and he’s giving the director some notes, as we call them in Hollywood. The director is only known as the Auteur. My meeting with the Auteur have 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.
Viet Nguyen: “Do you not think it would be a little more realistic,” I said, “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 pretend they’re speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand.”
Viet Nguyen: The Auteur [greenist 00:14:26] ends and said, that was Trump, and said, “Very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it. But I have a question, what was it? Oh, yes, how many movies have you made? 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 when you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas.” I confess to being angry with the Auteur, but was I wrong in being angry? This was especially the case when he acknowledged he did not even know that mountain yard was simply a French catch all term for the dozens of highland minorities. The movie is called The Hamlet, and it’s about Green Berets who are defending these mountain yards in a central highlands Hamlet from the Vietcong, who are known in the screenplay as King Kong because they’re so bad.
Viet Nguyen: This goes on, what if I said to him, “I wrote a screenplay about the American West and simply called all the natives Indians? He’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 mountain yards, whether we speak of the Brew or the Nun or the Tae.” “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 it’s 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 diluted? I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences.”
Viet Nguyen: Hollywood did not just make horror movie monsters, it was its own horror movie monster smashing me under its foot. 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 pity the French for their naivety in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, inventing 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.
Viet Nguyen: I’m in Madison, right? Okay. Hollywood’s High Priest understood innately the observation of Milton Satan, that it was better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Better to be villain, loser, or anti-hero than virtuous extra. So long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In his forthcoming Hollywood Trump lay, 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’ve had several meetings with Hollywood people, I’ve asked them, “Are you offended by this characterization?” They said no, okay, there you go. Seems to be accurate, all right.
Viet Nguyen: One last reading from this book. If you know anything about Southern Vietnamese people, and I’m going to grossly stereotype them because I’m one of them, you know that we loved to sing, to drink and to dance. Soon after arriving as poor refugees in Southern California and getting out of the refugee camp and moving to Los Angeles, one of the first things that my people did was to open a nightclub, true story. That nightclub became the basis of Paris by Night, which is a song and dance extravaganza which is now in about 130 iterations in video and DVD and shot in locations like Paris and Las Vegas and so on. Where the Vietnamese sing and dance. It’s really a spectacular show, and through the 80s and the 90s, it was better than anything produced in Vietnam. These things were being smuggled back into Vietnam and Vietnamese people were watching them there on the gray market.
Viet Nguyen: In this next scene, our narrator goes to this nightclub and encounters the one woman he should not fall in love with, the daughter of his boss, the General. Here you go. Now known by just one name, like John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Mary, because I’m a screwed up Catholic, Lana stepped on stage clad in a red velvet Boostie-Yay, a leopard print mini skirt, black laced gloves, and thigh high leather boots with stiletto heels, but that apart. My heart would have paused at the boots, the heels, or the fat, smooth slice of her belly. Naked in between miniskirt and Boostie-Yay. But the combination of all three arrested my heart all together and beat it with the vigor of a Los Angeles Police Squad. They don’t laugh about that in Los Angeles, it’s a little too close to reality.
Viet Nguyen: Pouring cognac over my heart freed it but less drenched, it was easily flambeed by her Torch Song. She turned on the heat with her first number, the unexpected, I’d Love You To Want Me. Most people think, most Americans, think I’m referring to I Want You to Want Me by Cheap Trick but that’s not the case. I’d Love You To Want Me was sung by Lobo, and if you are a Vietnamese person of the 1970s and 1980s, you knew who this person was. I’d heard this before sung only by men. I’d Love You To Want Me with its theme song of The Bachelor of 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. We men of the South love nothing more than unrequited love, cracked heart’s our primary weakness after cigarettes, coffee, and cognac.
Viet Nguyen: Listening to Lana sing, all I wanted was to emulate 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, and other concentration not broken for her next, slightly more upbeat number, Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). Lana’s version of Bang Bang layered English with French and Vietnamese. The last line of the French version echoed the 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.
Viet Nguyen: Bang Bang was the sound of memory’s pistol firing into our heads. For we cannot forget love, we cannot forget war, we cannot forget lovers, we cannot forget enemies, we cannot forget home, and we cannot forget Saigon. We cannot forget the caramel flavor of ice coffee with course 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 singing the most seductive words in our language, Hanoi. The working man who slept in their sick cloths 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.
Viet Nguyen: The shadows cast by candlelight on the walls of waddled huts, the barking of a hungry dog in an abandoned village, the appetizing reek of the fresh during one went 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. While the list could go on and on and on, the point was simply this, the most important thing we can never forget was that we can never forget. I’m going to end with a couple of paragraphs from the very end of Nothing Ever Dies. It’s a narrative, it’s a nonfiction critical work but it’s also the narrative. It’s partially about my life and my family and this is how it ended.
Viet Nguyen: Remembering and forgetting entwined together a double helix making us who we are, one never without the other. I want to remember but so much has been forgotten or silenced. My own personal memory is faulty. Through my youth, I had a memory of soldiers firing from our boat onto another boat as we floated on the South China Sea. I was four, my brother seven years older says the shooting never happened. As an adult, I remember my mother being hospitalized when I was a child. A few years ago, when I discovered a memoir that I had written in college, I read in my own words that she was in the hospital at that time, not years before. Her illness in that strange ward with its mumbling patients had made me feel like I was a frightened child. That feeling was what I remembered.
Viet Nguyen: As for my father, it’s pointless to ask him about the past. His relationship to the past is to muffle it, at least in my presence. Although, I visited his homeland and I’ve never visited my own origin, the town where I was born because he has forbidden it. More than once he has said to me, “You can never go back there. Too many people will remember him and persecute me or so he believes.” I think of what the cartoonist, Art Spiegelman, said of his father who survived the Holocaust. Art Spiegelman says, “I had no clue as to how to find the places my father had been telling me he grew up in. He wasn’t of much help except to tell us not to go at all because they kill Jews there. Using the present tense, they kill Jews there, don’t go. He was afraid for us.”
Viet Nguyen: Like Spiegelman’s father, my own must believe in rememories that do not die. Those demonic menaces that retain their fatal force. While I’ve disobeyed my father in many things, I cannot in this one thing. The paternal injunction is too strong, the specter of the unknown past too unsettling, what is it that he remembers of this place? What will he not tell me? What if he’s right? His absence as a forbidding presence is the opposite of memory. Perhaps some things will never be remembered, and yet also never forgotten. Perhaps some things will remain unspoken, and yet always heard. Perhaps I’ll only visit where I was born after my father’s passed on, then it will be too late to see what it is that he remembers the rememory having it last expired. This is the paradox of the past, of trauma, of loss, of war. A true war story where there’s no ending but the unknown, no conversation except that which cannot be finished.
Viet Nguyen: I think back to my father’s father and what happened to his remains. The Vietnamese believe a person should be buried twice, the first time in a field removed from home and village, the earth eats the flesh. The second time, the survivors must disinter what remains. If they’ve timed it correctly, there will only be bones. If they’ve turned it wrong, there will still be flesh. Regardless of what they find, they must wash the bones with their own hands, then they bury the bones once more and this time closer to the living. Thank you. We have a little bit of time, and this is actually my favorite part of reading is hearing questions from the audience and engaging with your concerns and questions. Please feel free. In the front.
Speaker 4: You’ve been very thoughtful nonfiction and fiction. I’m curious if you could respond to a thought I had. We haven’t reconciled here in the United States. I’m curious if you see that the same way and what’s it like for reconciliation in Vietnam?
Viet Nguyen: I think there’s a distinction between forgetting and reconciliation. I think people in both countries have forgotten or have tried to forget, and that itself is problematic. Because if the history of slavery tells us anything, you can try to forget, it’s going to come back at you. Likewise, that’s the history of war too. We look back on our own civil war and that was over 150 years ago. I don’t know if you’ve forgotten, and the legacies of that war remain entrenched in various ways in our society, in our feelings, in our structures, in our systems. When it comes to the Vietnam War, I don’t think Americans have reconciled with the past at all, I think they’ve tried to forget, they’ve tried to rewrite the past. It’s gone from being a bad war in American memory to being a not so bad war, maybe a good war, you know.
Viet Nguyen: Now, the narrative, and this is a bipartisan narrative, Democrats and Republicans, President Obama too, is that this was a failed war, “Sorry, we lost but we tried our best with the best of intentions, noble intentions and we should remember soldiers because they fought for freedom and for each other.” That’s literally what President Obama said. This kind of a narrative is now being used, I think, it’s increasingly dominant in popular culture and politics and government, state department. It’s really, really strong. I go to Washington, D.C., I’ve given talks there, I sat next to an American ambassador. The American policy people really do believe in American exceptionalism. Okay, they really do. The practical impact of that is that what this means is now instead of learning negative lessons from the Vietnam War, 20 years ago it was, “Don’t get involved in any more foreign wars.”
Viet Nguyen: Now, the lesson that the Pentagon and State Department wanted to extract from Vietnam is, “Well, we can do this better. We can learn from our mistakes and we can do better.” So now we don’t carpet bomb anymore, we do drone strikes, for example, right?” I don’t think there’s reconciliation. In Vietnam, a lot of American tourists and veterans go back and they’re all struck by the fact that Vietnamese people welcome them with open arms, including veterans, okay. I’ll give you an example, I went back with a gentleman of your age, but he was not a veteran, he was a photographer and we did a tour together and went to what they called Martyrs’ Cemetery where the dead calmness soldiers are buried. He was taking pictures and there was a family there celebrating a death day, so one of the relatives had died in the war as a soldier.
Viet Nguyen: They saw him and they had alcohol because I said, “Vietnamese people have to drink, okay?” They were like, “Hey, come have a shot with us American veteran of the war, let’s make peace.” They ignored me, all right, and that tells you something. Yes, Americans are welcome back with open arms because, yes, Vietnamese people generally and the state have reconciled with Americans because they want your money, okay? Don’t be naive about that. But there was also genuine friendship. But if you’re a Vietnamese American who overseas Vietnamese who fled the country and you’ve come back, it’s much more problematic. Okay, much more problematic. It’s like the Civil War, war between brothers and sisters, we haven’t forgotten that and that’s what it is like there as well. Yeah, in the back. There’s a Q&A mic, I guess you’re supposed to go up there and… I guess that means if you have a question, you should probably go try to line up. Thanks.
Speaker 5: You teach writing?
Viet Nguyen: I don’t writing, I don’t teach writing.
Speaker 5: You don’t teach writing?
Viet Nguyen: No.
Speaker 5: Well, the question is what do you do? Does that entail an individual relationship with every student or there’s some universal lessons you preach?
Viet Nguyen: Well the thing is, is that writing, if you’re talking about fiction writing or nonfiction writing in this country, it’s generally taught through the writing workshop model. Which it’s a professor and a bunch of writing students and you read their work and then all the writing students criticize that piece of work. I follow Flannery O’Connor and thinking that this is a model of the blind leading the blind. In the end of The Sympathizer, I have a little joke in there where one of the things that happens in reeducation camps, Chinese or Vietnamese, is that if you’re a prisoner, you’re forced to constantly write your confession. Then you have to self-criticize, and then everyone listens to your confession, they’ll criticize you. I thought, “This is similar to a writing workshop.” Coincidentally, they both developed at roughly the same time with the rise of communism in East Asia and the rise of the writing workshop in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.
Viet Nguyen: I’m not making this up, and there’s a book out there called Workshops of Empire by Eric Bennett, which argues that perhaps the CIA had a hand in the development of writing workshop just… No, no, this is serious. The CIA, for example, had a hand in promoting modernist art in Europe, there’s books about this, because modernist art in Europe would exemplify the possibilities of artistic freedom and democracy. In other words, you should be paranoid. If I were to teach, and I don’t like writing workshops. If I were to teach writing, it would be in the context of a larger goal. I really don’t like the writing model in the writing US writing workshop because I think it’s an apolitical form of politicized instruction. In other words, in the writing workshop, your technique likes character or narration, time, setting.
Viet Nguyen: For me, I was interested in history and politics. No one taught me how to write about history and politics, that’s why it took me so long to learn how to write. It took me 20 years to be able to write The Sympathizer because there is no instruction for how to deal with these kinds of things. In other words, that’s why I think it’s in apolitical form of instruction that believes that you can separate a technique from the history in which technique is developed. When I teach writing, I teach it in the context of theory and criticism. So students can write, but we also read criticism and theory. I argue that you really need to think of yourself, not simply as someone who’s going to tell a story, but someone who has a point that they want to make. If you’re not that kind of a writer, I’m not really that interested because there’s plenty of other professors who will teach those kinds of writers who only want to tell stories. Hopefully, that answers your question.
Speaker 5: Is there a book you recommend on writing?
Viet Nguyen: Stephen King is actually pretty good, yeah, no seriously. Yeah.
Speaker 6: With a couple of the books that I’ve read about Vietnam and the wars there and some of the people, one of them he channeled both his father who fought with the South Army and he channeled his own personal experience. Is there any any person or any individual with which you drew inspiration for your characters in Sympathizer?
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, you’re talking about when Andrew Pham’s book, right? The Memoirs-
Speaker 6: Oh, it was the one, Where the Ashes Are.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I’m friends with him too. Yeah, great book, those are great books.
Speaker 6: Yeah.
Viet Nguyen: When I was writing this book, I had a short list of novels that were important to me. The most important one actually is a novel and an author that whenever I talk about him, no one has ever heard of this man except for a Polish journalist who came to interview me. His name is António Lobo Antunes, and the Portuguese think that he should have won, some of them, think he should have won the Nobel Prize instead of Jose Saramago. The book is called The Land at the End of the World. Lobo Antunes was a medic who fought in the Portuguese war in Angola which was their version of the Vietnam War, a war of decolonization. He was so traumatized by it he wrote this novel about that experience. I was deeply influenced by by the tone, it’s a novel that’s completely about being soaked in melancholy and sorrow. But even more than that, I was influenced by the style, and it’s a very short novel but I could only read it two or three pages at a time, because the writing is so dense, it’s like poetry.
Viet Nguyen: I wanted to try to approximate that in my own writing. I would read two or three pages of that every morning before I started writing, and then when I started to feel really, really excited, then I could sit down and write. I was channeling Lobo Antunes but I’m not as good. But this is one of the reasons why the pros in the book I think some people can… It’s dense, it’s dense with images, it’s very attentive to language and wordplay and that was one of the reasons why that particular book.
Speaker 6: Thank you.
Viet Nguyen: Thanks.
Speaker 7: Viet, what a privilege to hear you read and speak. My question is really about wanting to hear more about your views on how traumatic events in history should be commemorated or not? This comes from, as you know, the discussions on a lot of campuses, including mine, where there’s a fraught discussion on who should be recognized and what lens we should use, the lens of today, the lens of then to figure out what should be remembered and what should be forgotten. I’m just curious to hear given that you’ve thought so much about this, what your views are?
Viet Nguyen: Okay, thank you Priya. I’ll give you a good example and a bad example. The good example is that one of the very rarest of memorials that I’ve encountered is the Okinawan Peace Memorial, think of the official title, but if you go to Okinawa. Well, basically, in Okinawa, there was a huge battle fought in Okinawa during World War II and something like 200,000 people died, Japanese and American soldiers and the Okinawa and civilians who were living on the island. It’s a beautiful memorial and you know what it commemorates, every single person. You very rarely encounter memorials and monuments to war that remember more than one side. The reason is obvious, we want to remember our own side and what happened to us and screw the other guy, those are our enemies, we don’t need to remember them. Memorials and monuments always, always, always help us to remember and to forget at the same time.
Viet Nguyen: Remember our own humanity, forget the humanity of the other side. I’ll give you a negative example. Bob Kerrey, former Senator Bob Kerrey, Governor Bob Kerrey, Presidential Candidate Bob Kerrey, was forced to confess in the early 90s because he was a navy seal in the Vietnam War. He was forced to confess because the New York Times is going to report on this incident, so then he owned up to it, that he led a team into this village in South Vietnam and they killed 20 unarmed civilians, women and children and old people. This really happened, it’s not a matter of dispute. Recently, the Harvard University wants to start up the first private American University in Vietnam called Fulbright University in Vietnam. Bob Kerrey was the person they selected to be the head of the Board of Trustees, and the way that it was pitched was that this is a gesture of reconciliation. Because look at this guy, look at this poor guy, he suffered.
Viet Nguyen: Yes, he might have been responsible for this but wouldn’t it be great if then he came back and was the head of this gesture of peace and reconciliation in terms of a university. It really deeply divided the Vietnamese people. Some people said, “Yes, that is reconciliation.” And some people said, “No, that’s not reconciliation.” I wrote an op-ed in New York Times and I said, “Look, okay, if this were to happen, here are some things that would make a genuine reconciliation. First, Bob Kerrey should go to the village and apologize to the survivors. Never done that. Give these people scholarships to the university. If it’s important to have Bob Kerrey as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for your university and you really want to reconcile with the past and what he did, put a monument on the grounds of your university to the people who died. Never going to happen.”
Viet Nguyen: There were like five recommendations all together, never heard back. The overall, in Nothing Ever Dies I argue, basically, it’s universal that we want to remember our own humanity and forget the humanity of others. If we’re really good liberals, we want to remember our humanity and the humanity of others. But the most difficult thing to do and the thing that I think could actually move us towards peace and reconciliation is to remember our humanity and our inhumanity. But this is what makes us human beings. We like to think, “War is savage, war is brutal, it’s something that these evil terrible people do.” But why do we keep on fighting wars? Over and over we say, “War’s hell but every generation we fight wars again, or multiple times in one generation as is the case now.”
Viet Nguyen: The reason why is because we don’t believe we can be inhuman. For example, drone strikes. From the American perspective, this is a very humane operation, who would disagree with getting a drone strike? We didn’t carpet bomb you, so you should appreciate that. But from the perspective of getting hit by drone strike, no, no, no. Right now we’re doing joint strikes in seven different countries, apparently, and this is not a state of war for us. But if someone would have put a drone strike onto US territory, that would be immediately a state of war. This is the kind of thinking that’s propagated by thinking we’re human and they’re inhuman. Very, very difficult to think of ourselves as human and inhuman at the same time. If you could actually do that and acknowledge that it’s not simply other people that do terrible things, but that our side does too, our family members too, our country has done this, and not just America, all countries. Vietnam, can’t acknowledge this either.
Speaker 8: I haven’t read the entire Sympathizer but I’m reading it, and what I really noticed at first off it is really funny and it’s also like a thriller as well, a little bit, especially in the early chapters. I’m wondering if you could comment on that, how that plays together? Because it’s, it’s a little unique.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, well, I wanted to write a serious novel, but serious novels are boring. I admit, I’m a professor of English, I read boring books for a living, okay. I acknowledge that a lot of things that we call serious literature can be boring and I also am a fan of genre, so-called genre literature. I’m a believer in the idea that we have a genre that doesn’t call itself a genre, which is literary fiction. That’s not a genre, but if you read enough literary fiction, you realize it is a genre because it’s really boring. There’s certain kinds of aesthetic things that this genre is supposed to do. But if you read explicitly described genre fiction like detective novels, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, you realize that the best of these books are better than the average of literary fiction, and they’re very entertaining. I don’t read these books anymore because if I did, I’d literally be up all night reading them.
Viet Nguyen: It’s really bad, it’s like candy, I have to stop myself from reading these books. Genre fiction, actually, in this country, on the average, is actually more political than literary fiction. I think that’s because there’s no… but, again, going back to the idea of that the writing workshop propagates a certain kind of aestheticized literary fiction, one of the ways that that happens is to remove politics. In science fiction, for example, I just read 20 Years Later, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s a novel about the colonization of Mars, it’s a great novel. That book is a full blown political manifesto about what it would mean to rebuild human civilization on another planet and how it is we’re going to fuck that up anyway, okay. It’s a really interesting book and it’s much better than most of the literary books I’ve read this year.
Viet Nguyen: I wanted to do that, I wanted to write a serious book that was also entertaining. There’s certain out writers who used the spy genre like John Le Carre, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad that have done that too and that was part of the genealogy that I wanted to see myself fitting into. That was very explicit from the very beginning. I knew it was going to be a spy novel. What I didn’t know was that it was going to be funny. I’d read like Joseph Heller, Catch-22, loved it. Never thought that could be funny. I’d read Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, which is a major influence on me too. I thought that was pretty funny. Then I created this character and I started inhabiting his voice and writing in his voice. Basically, the narrator of the novel is an alcoholic, he’s a womanizer, he is half Vietnamese and half French, so everybody calls him a bastard and he’s internalized that.
Viet Nguyen: He’s torn up, he’s ambivalent, and he’s very sarcastic and he’s very smart or at least he thinks he’s very smart. Then we discover that he’s too smart for his own good. But the whole combination means that he actually turned out to be pretty funny. I think the reason why is because there’s a lot of things that are funny, in our world, we just have learned not to laugh at them. Because we’ve grown up, we’ve become adults, we’ve become normalized to the hypocrisies and absurdities of our culture. He’s someone who because he’s half drunk and bitter and cynical and full of himself is able to see these hypocrisies and absurdities and to call them out and hopefully that’s fine.
Speaker 9: Hi, I feel like I read this book and I actually learned a lot about the Vietnam War, which I didn’t learn in school. I was wondering if there was a message or ideas that you had for the younger generations that might be reading this book?
Viet Nguyen: You’re making me feel old. I don’t like pieties, that’s why I never thought of an answer to that question. Like who cares what I think of passing onto the younger generation? There are different things. I think part of it I’ve already said, refuse to believe the absurdities, refuse to believe the hypocrisies. When you hear Presidents speak, even if you like them, you know that they’re full of… whatever it is the cows produce here in Wisconsin. Yeah, be cynical, be sarcastic, be skeptical. I’m a professor, I’m a figure of authority and I’m saying to the younger generation don’t believe it because authority invests in itself. Part of what the novel does is to debunk that authority. I believe C-SPAN wants you to do that, yeah. I’m sorry, you’re on TV and I’ve said four letter words. I don’t know what that’s going to happen to that.
Speaker 10: So you made some comments about Trump earlier, and I know that you’re pretty active on Twitter. I’d like to hear some more commentary if you’re willing to on, no, on how maybe some of the threads in your book are political or what you think about contemporary politics?
Viet Nguyen: Wow. Yeah, you know what, I blogged for the New York Times for the presidential debates, all three of them, and it hurt, it really, really hurt. The first, and I swear to God, the first two times I was sober, I was very serious. I had never done this before, I was like, “Got to take notes, got to take notes.” Then by the third debate I had my bottle of scotch by my elbow and it helped because it’s just, basically, my thinking is that, obviously, I don’t like Trump, obviously, I think he’s very bad for our society. But he does articulate and represent something like 40 to 45% of the American population, which goes to show that we have a lot of work to do. I think it’s important to have these dialogues, important to have these conversations, important to respect people and listen to what they say, I believe in all that. But then it’s also important to struggle and make change because if we listen to people from 150 years ago, we still have slavery. We kept on having conversations all the time.
Viet Nguyen: At a certain point, we all have to make a decision, yes bipartisanship, yes get along with our fellow citizens. But we also have to work for change. My greatest fear is that now the contrast is so bad that people will simply accept Hillary Clinton. I hope she wins, I really do, I really do hope she wins. But I’m of the political, I’m on the political spectrum that thinks that Hillary Clinton, like President Obama before her, will probably be very good for civil rights, human rights, domestic rights, equality, social quality, and so on. But her economic policies may not do that much to redress the deep seated grievances that have angered supporters of Trump and angered a good portion of the Democratic Party. I’m almost certain that she’ll continue the same kinds of foreign policies that mean that we’re conducting drone strikes in seven countries.
Viet Nguyen: That’s something that I think the domestic political scene in this country really helps Americans forget, is that America is a global power and what it does has global ramifications. In America, at the United States of America, accidents own self-interest when it comes to what’s happening overseas. The ending of the novel is about complicity and we’re all complicit, and that’s actually how wars propagate. But citizenry goes along with leadership.
Speaker 11: It’s been a couple minutes since you said what I wanted to respond to. I’ll paraphrase, you said that maybe you’re a little ambiguous about imparting your wisdom to the younger generation. But I can’t help but believe that possibly some of your drive to write these stories has to do with the stories you were told about your history. I think that sometimes, as the older generation, we don’t necessarily tell the stories of our family’s histories as much as maybe I was told from my parents’ generation. I’m wondering whether or not you felt a responsibility to somehow pass along the information that you were told about your history?
Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I know, that’s absolutely right. I think that growing up in the United States and with my own family who were refugees in the Vietnamese refugee community in San Jose, I was deeply aware that they had a lot of stories and they have a lot of pain, and they’d lost a lot. I was also aware that American society as a whole did not know these stories and did not care to know these stories. When Americans speak of the Vietnam War, they are really speaking of America’s Vietnam War. Americans, on the whole, are empathetic with Americans. That’s why Americans will remember that 58,000 American soldiers died in the Vietnam War, and have no idea that three million Vietnamese people died and have no idea that the war was fought in Laos and Cambodia, and that three million more people died in those countries.
Viet Nguyen: Yes, I felt that it was important for me to become a scholar and a writer who could tell these kinds of stories in fiction and nonfiction because so much more needed to be said. Even after The Sympathizer came out, people would come up to me and say, “You know what, we had Vietnamese neighbors and we had no idea that some of these things happened to them. Even 40 years later, this work still needs to be done and it connects to this larger sense that I have about what writing can do. I never would have become a writer simply to be a writer for writing sake. I became a writer and a scholar, because I believed in justice and I believe that storytelling and talking about stories as a scholar and a critic can be acts of justice.
Viet Nguyen: Because one of the ways by which we commit injustices anywhere, in this country and elsewhere, is by erasing people from stories and by using stories to shape a very self-serving narrative about our country and our culture, whatever that happens to be. Then it becomes an act of justice to tell different kinds of stories, and that’s what I hope that I can do. Yes.
Speaker 12: I think I want to challenge something you said or disagree with it. I was a high school English teacher for 30 years, and I wanted my students to be skeptical. I taught a unit I used to call a literature of war and that included a lot of stories about Vietnam and other periods of war. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Butler, those types of stories. I wanted my students to be skeptical, but you said cynical too. I have to disagree with you on that, because I didn’t want my students to be cynical because I always felt that was a dead end. It’s one thing to be skeptical and move on, or look for the truth, or to look to change things, but cynicism was a dead end because it’s too easy. Do you want to give your take or respond to that?
Viet Nguyen: I respect high school English teachers, they periodically email me and chastise me
Speaker 12: I’m retired now.
Viet Nguyen: … mistakes in my grammar.
Speaker 12: I missed that, what did you say?
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, they periodically email me and chastise me for my mistakes in grammar. These are very long emails.
Speaker 12: Okay, I didn’t notice that in your book.
Viet Nguyen: Not all English teachers. No, I think you’re right, I think you’re right. But I think a dose of cynicism is healthy because a dose of corruption exists in our society and you need the cynicism to recognize the corruption. That it’s not simply so called third world countries that are corrupt, we’re corrupt too except our corruption works in a particular fashion so that it’s acceptable. You buy your golf club membership so that you can pile up to the Senator and get your deal or whatever. But you’re right, I think you need to be able to hold two ideas in your mind at the same time and you need to be able to recognize corruption and injustice and being cynical and enraged about it and periodically given to despair. It’s human, and you need to have a sense of justice and hope and a sense of a long view. In my response, I was tilting too far towards one side and not the other. So thank you, sir.
Speaker 12: Yeah, then we agree.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah.
Speaker 12: Thank you, it’s a great book.
Viet Nguyen: Thank you. I think we’re done, right?
Speaker 12: Yes, thank you so much.
Joe Salmons: Well, thank you so much, thank you to Viet. Thank you to all of you for coming tonight. We will be back in half an hour with Ella Morton on Atlas Obscura. Viet will be outside signing books and books are for sale. Thanks so much.
Speaker 1: You’ve been listening to author Viet Thanh Nguyen discuss his two books. His nonfiction this year is a finalist for the National Book Award. Book TV will be covering the National Book Award ceremony in November, and it will air at 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time on November 19th. Now in about 30 minutes, we’ll bring you the final author event of the day. It’s Ella Morton talking about her book, Atlas Obscura. But while we wait for that event to begin, let’s go back over to the author signing area and watch Viet Thanh Nguyen sign some books. After that, we want to show you another interview from the University of Wisconsin.