Anne Mai Yee Jansen interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen for Kartika Review.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is an award-winning Vietnamese American author and the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His first novel, The Sympathizer (2015), won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His subsequent exploration of the Vietnam War, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. The Refugees (2017), a short story collection Nguyen wrote in the years prior to The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies, was released earlier this year. He is also the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (2002) and co-editor of Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field (2014).
Nguyen, who was born in Viet Nam, arrived with his family in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania in 1975. A few years later, they relocated to San Jose, California. He has dedicated much of his authorial career to exploring the impact of the Vietnam War on Vietnamese refugees in the United States and on others involved in that war in various ways. His tremendous respect and appreciation for his parents’ generation and everything they experienced as a result of this conflict is evident not only in his writing but also in the way he speaks about them in our interview.
Nguyen’s thoughtful intellectualism, so prevalent in his writing, is evident from the moment our interview begins. He approaches each question with great care, taking his time and delivering mindful responses. His obvious investment in the political aspects of being a writer is inspiring, and is one of the aspects of his writing that has drawn me to his work over the years. His dedication to speaking up on current political issues manifests itself in the many critical pieces he’s written for publications like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and other public venues since his writing has gained him such widespread attention. His sharp wit and generous spirit made our interview a thought-provoking and enjoyable experience that gives me a new layer of insight—one that informs how I will approach and interpret his writing in the future.
Kartika Review: I was looking at Nothing Ever Dies, and in that book you write, “The problem of war and memory is […] first and foremost about how to remember the dead, who cannot speak for themselves. Their unnerving silence compels the living […] to speak for them.” I couldn’t help but notice that The Refugees is full of hauntings—both literal and metaphorical. Even The Sympathizer has elements of hauntings. In your writing, how are you thinking about the role of ghosts? Is it connected to this problem of war and memory, or is it something else entirely?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Ghosts do not belong solely to war and memory. You can be haunted by many different kinds of ghosts from many different kinds of histories, but certainly those three books that you’re talking about are all deeply concerned with war and memory in ways implicit and explicit. The idea of the ghost comes from Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters where she talks about the ghost as a sign of an injustice needing to be addressed. That idea is certainly influential in my work; when these ghosts appear, that’s what’s happening. I just treat them in different ways in the different books, so Nothing Ever Dies offers the most explicit theorization of that. With a couple of characters in The Sympathizer and certainly with the opening story of The Refugees, I make the ghosts very literal, as in real ghosts. Obviously, what the real ghosts gesture at are the metaphorical implications of ghosts as well, this idea that people can be haunted by their pasts in different ways. That is a very strong theme in The Refugees and in The Sympathizer, too. In The Sympathizer, for example, our narrator is haunted by things he knows he’s haunted by—explicit kinds of atrocities committed during the war—but he’s also haunted by something he doesn’t know he’s haunted by, which won’t be revealed until close to the end of the book.
KR: Avery Gordon’s idea about that particular burden calls to mind Kathleen Brogan’s idea of “cultural hauntings,” especially in The Sympathizer, and I’m interested in this potential connection between the idea of sympathy and what it means to be haunted—especially when one does know one’s haunted.
VTN: In order to be haunted, perhaps we have to have at least a degree of sympathy—if we’re talking about metaphorical hauntings versus literal hauntings. If it’s a literal haunting, you have no control, the ghost is going to show up. If it’s a metaphorical or symbolic haunting, then I think that you have to at least have sympathy for the situation from which the ghost comes in order to even be aware that the ghost exists. In other words, if the ghost is a metaphor for some kind of psychic process by which we who feel haunted haven’t fully addressed our past, it means that we at least have some sense of connection to it: articulate or inarticulate, guilty or not, there’s some degree of sympathy. If we think about other examples, our relationship to slavery, for example, liberals are certainly haunted by the legacies of slavery—feel tremendous sympathy for the people involved and their descendants. But even people who are racists might feel some degree of that which they repress, and the manifestation of the ghost becomes evidence of that repression.
KR: Thinking about The Refugees, your new collection, a lot of the stories there involve intergenerational relationships and conflicts. What is it about the Vietnam War and its aftermath, especially for refugees, that makes explorations of intergenerational dynamics so important—or is it not the war or a refugee situation but something else entirely that leads to this focus on the intergenerational?
VTN: It’s hard for me to imagine many kinds of historical events that aren’t intergenerational in some way, but certainly if we’re talking about Vietnamese culture, then the notion of generations is really crucial to the culture in general. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Vietnamese person who’s been raised in a Vietnamese culture who isn’t in some way aware of the importance of generational difference because, obviously, those generational hierarchies and forms of etiquette and obligation are based on generations. Given that, what The Refugees deals with is the intersection of a preoccupation of generations that is a part of Vietnamese culture with traumatic events that get passed on through generations, as well. Whenever we’re dealing with trauma, we have to talk about generational inheritance. Whether it’s war or being a refugee or some other kind of traumatic experience, oftentimes that trauma is passed on explicitly, but sometimes implicitly, unconsciously, inarticulately, silently—and it’s that spectrum of possibilities of transmission of trauma across generations that concerns much of The Refugees.
KR: I can see that in stories like “The Americans” and “Fatherland.” Kind of related to that, you’re often talked about as the first Vietnamese American to win a Pulitzer Prize, and you’ve also spoken about the fact that the publishing industry is 87% white—and I know you’ve talked a lot about audience. Do you consider your work to be part of the Asian American literary tradition, in some ways (partially or wholly)? How does that label “first Vietnamese American to win the Pulitzer” resonate with you? Or does it?
VTN: That title certainly resonates with me. It means a lot to other people: Vietnamese people in Vietnam and especially in the United States have taken immense pride in the prize and, through the prize, me, which I find very endearing and surprising—that the Vietnamese people who have some negative traits have overcome those traits to embrace someone like me whose work can be characterized as ambivalent about Vietnamese culture, history, identity, and some politics. While I, as a writer and a critic, resist the idea of being a representative of Vietnamese America or Asian America, I recognize that the mechanisms of representation are beyond me—that people have seized this book because of the Pulitzer because they see it as a mode of representation for the Vietnamese, and people who are not Vietnamese have done the same thing for exactly the same reason. That means that, as much as I don’t like that mechanism of representation, I have to acknowledge that it has existence, just as I don’t like race, I have to acknowledge that it exists. Therefore, I have to grapple with both race and representation, which means that I have to draw attention to it constantly and critically, so I’ve talked often about my relationship to race and representation, either via the Pulitzer Prize or through literature and all the various complications when we talk about literature, race, and representation.
In relationship to the Asian American literary question, I think that The Sympathizer and me are part of many literary traditions, and Asian American literature is one of those. All this is to say I don’t deny Asian American literature, and I also don’t see it as the only category by which to see this work. But in that category, The Sympathizer is very self-consciously an Asian American novel. If you’ve read any Asian American literature, you can see very clearly how the novel is alluding to Asian American literature, Asian American politics, Asian American history, and so the novel is meant to insert itself into that genealogy and it’s also meant to rebut certain kinds of Asian American literature that I find problematic—usually implicitly. The novel is doing different things than what some Asian American literature (that I find problematic) does, so if you know what those things are, then you can see the novel as a rebuttal and as an alternative to some of these more problematic Asian American literary strategies.
KR: Related to that, in Race and Resistance I know you talk a lot about the different, and sometimes limited, ways that various authors have tried to grapple with the dominant modes of portrayals of Asian Americans in literature by Asian Americans. In that text, you focus your analysis on the body in Asian American literature, specifically its relationship to politics and American racism, which you talk about as tending to represent Asian Americans as either “bad subjects” or “model minorities.” Can you talk a little bit about how you would read your own works of fiction through your own earlier critical lens?
VTN: The way that I read the two works of fiction, The Refugees and The Sympathizer, is through my own biography as a writer and also as a critic. In terms of writing The Refugees, which came first, I wrote those stories deeply aware of the various kinds of issues that I already talked about in Race and Resistance and aware of the difficult place of Asian American literature, but also aware that I did not have the real capacity to do what I wanted at the fictional level that I understood at the theoretical level. In other words, (laughs) I was not as good of a writer as I wanted to be when I was writing The Refugees, at least in my own mind. These stories in The Refugees, if I were to address them as a critic, are meant to work in a mostly realistic vein and are meant to work in a humanist vein, so the project of the stories is to humanize Vietnamese people and Vietnamese Americans and to enable their voices to be heard through literature. I knew even as I was writing the stories that this was a limited aesthetic strategy. It’s not that it couldn’t be a powerful aesthetic strategy, it’s just that politically it’s a limited strategy because it means that the stories can be framed in a particular literary and political moment in the United States that privileges realism and that privileges the aesthetics of voice, and that any minority writer who does these two things finds an entree into contemporary American literature. In other words, these stories are easily understood. That doesn’t mean they’re not emotionally powerful, because there are some readers who prefer this book over The Sympathizer precisely for the reasons I just outlined. But it means that The Refugees, while it can make a political intervention in content—it can make a political intervention in the discussion of refugees, which is why the book was topical for a while—it may not do so at the level of aesthetics, at the level of form, because it concedes to realism and the aesthetics of voice and humanization.
If I were to situate it in relationship to Race and Resistance, it’s a book that’s only moderately resistant. By privileging the idea of refugees, it is acknowledging that we have to resist a certain kind of racism and ethnocentrism and exclusionary politics, but it’s accommodationist in that its aesthetics are easily reconciled with the dominant aesthetic moment that we have in American literature. The Sympathizer is a much more radical book, politically and formally. It’s because I got better technically as a writer in terms of the art of writing, and therefore I was able to more closely approximate the critical vision that I had for myself in my work. I explicitly set out to write The Sympathizer in a mode of anger, and The Refugees was not written in a mode of anger. The Refugees was written more in a mode of melancholy, and that’s an emotion that’s easily reconciled with the dominant aesthetic and political moment. But The Sympathizer is angry, and it’s anti-humanist—it refuses the project of humanization by deliberately foregrounding a protagonist who is ambivalent (laughs) at best in terms of his morality, and it devises various kinds of formal strategies to undermine the project of voice. I’ll give you one example of how it does that: the accommodationist kind of minority narrator, in terms of having a voice, is often meant to use that voice to humanize himself and his own people, and how the narrator does that is through translation—translating and explaining the narrator’s culture in a way that makes it more human and understandable to other people. The problem with that, obviously, is that there’s an issue of audience there. Who’s hearing this voice? It’s not primarily going to be the narrator’s own community; it’s going to be dominant society. The Sympathizer is structured as a confession between one Vietnamese person and another Vietnamese person, which means that it’s not written to dominant society. Of course, this is a fiction; dominant society is still the ultimate audience beyond the book—or at least one audience beyond the book—but within the confines of the book, it’s not. That means the aesthetics of the narration are shaped by this Vietnamese-to-Vietnamese structure, and that was a very deliberate choice on my part in order to ensure that at least the first intended audience within the diegesis of the novel was Vietnamese. This completely changes the inflection of the voice. To go back to Race and Resistance, it also changes the issue of race and resistance because race and resistance—if we talk about it in the United States—is oftentimes oriented toward dominant society—(laughs) racists. But if it’s Vietnamese-to-Vietnamese, then where’s the access to resistance? Where’s the problem of race? It’s completely recast. It is an internal discussion versus a discussion oriented outward toward dominant society.
KR: In an interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro this February, you mentioned that you don’t think your life is “particularly worthy of writing about.” So I’m curious, to you, what makes a person’s life—or a subject or an event—worthy of being written about?
VTN: Well, I think that, obviously, everything is worth writing about. It’s really a question of the writer: Can the writer make something interesting, and does the writer want to make something interesting? So I guess a refinement of my response to Shapiro is to say, my life could be interesting in the hands of the right writer, but that writer is not me because I don’t find it interesting. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be interesting, I just don’t have the motivation to try to make myself interesting. In the mode of nonfiction and memoir—and going back to the idea of generations—I’m shadowed by my parents. They’ve had interesting lives; there’s a lot of raw material there that a writer could use, and why bother with a life like mine that’s really a subsidiary life to theirs. My struggle as a writer, while it was difficult and all that (laughs)—there’s no way that I’m going to pretend that somehow it’s as mortally dangerous and threatening as the situations that my parents underwent. That’s why I would not consider my life worth writing about.
KR: With regard to your characters—I love your characters because of how complex they are, which you’ve spoken about. I know you’ve talked about the importance of writing characters who defy flat or easy understandings. I’m thinking of characters from The Refugees like Louis and Liem and Carver. Could you say a little bit about what makes a character interesting to you—interesting enough that you want to write about them?
VTN: They have to be a combination of virtue and vice, or failure. They have to be contradictory because, obviously, it’s not very interesting to write about people who are purely virtuous or purely evil—although if I had to choose, I’d rather write about the evil than the virtuous. It’s the tension in these characters that I find interesting. So in the case of Liem, for example, he’s mostly a person trying to do good but ultimately engages in acts of betrayal—with his host couple, for sure, but also with his family. Now, that act of betrayal he does to his family, some of us may think it’s something he should have done, but within the world of his family it still amounts to a betrayal. He’s tormented by that. All those characters that you mentioned are people who, consciously or unconsciously, know that they’re in situations of ambivalence in one way or another. It’s how they cope with their flawed characters that I find to be interesting in a dramatic way.
KR: At this point, you’ve published a novel, short stories, nonfiction, and literary criticism. What, if anything, do you consider to be the unifying threads across your body of work so far—or does each text have an individual purpose or nature all its own?
VTN: Maybe on the surface, the works might be different. But underlying them all is my interest in the writer and commitment, whatever that means, because for me, to become a scholar and then a writer were always acts that involved both the art of writing or criticism (which I think is of as a form of writing) and their relationship to political and aesthetic commitments. Now, I think every writer is aesthetically committed, or should be. Not all writers are politically committed, and for me the lifelong project is to figure out how to do those two things at the same time: the art and the politics. Each of these projects is, in their own way, engaged with that—either in terms of content, like Race and Resistance, or in terms of being formal projects, like The Sympathizer. Even if I already characterized The Refugees as not being as radical as The Sympathizer, nevertheless it is a form of political writing in a more moderate sense than The Sympathizer is. Nothing Ever Dies is an investigation of both art and politics in terms of the various examples that it deals with, but it’s also my best attempt (at the moment) to write as a critic who is politically committed, but also artistically committed as well. I couldn’t say that of Race and Resistance. Race and Resistance is a conventional academic book and the writing there was not art; it was academic. At least with Nothing Ever Dies I tried—whether I succeeded or not is a different issue—to at least make the writing an aesthetic project as well.
KR: My final question comes out of that tension between art and politics. Now that you’ve won the Pulitzer, has that changed how you approach your writing? As an author who certainly doesn’t shy away from politics, does the power that comes with this kind of recognition change anything about how you grapple with political matters in your fiction, or in your nonfiction?
VTN: In terms of my fiction, it’s interesting. In the year since I’ve won my Pulitzer, I’ve only written ten pages of fiction, so it’s hard to say how much the Pulitzer has impacted the actual writing. It’s certainly impacted my capacity, my time, to write fiction. But in terms of what I’ve written so far, I haven’t shied away from the project I laid out in The Sympathizer. The Pulitzer validates that project and is certainly encouragement for me to do more of the same, so I don’t have any doubt about that project that I set out to do and am continuing with the sequel to The Sympathizer. (pauses) Okay, I have some doubt. (<em<laughs< em=””>) But mostly I have no doubt.</em<laughs<>
In terms of my identity as a writer in general and all the different kinds of writerly tasks that I do, I think the Pulitzer has given me more notice. My ideas haven’t changed, but the degree to which people are willing to listen to my ideas has changed drastically, and I find that to be an opportunity and an obligation at the same time. It’s an opportunity because now I can write articles and get them published in the New York Times or what have you, and I want to use that platform. Ever since graduate school, the question of how to become a public intellectual has always been of concern to me, and now it seems that I have the opportunity to do that. But I think of it as an obligation because when I think of myself as a writer, I don’t think of myself as an individual. I think of myself as an individual and as someone who is a part of a collective and a community—or multiple collectives and multiple communities—engaged in multiple solidarities and beholden to previous legacies of struggle by other writers and other literary movements and other political movements before me. So winning the Pulitzer Prize, I can’t claim that as an individual accomplishment, as I think many writers might, given the way I see myself as a writer.
I see that as the culmination of many different things that made that have made me possible: many kinds of aesthetic histories that turned me into the writer that I am, and political histories that created the conditions to have something called Asian American literature, Vietnamese American literature, or minority literature and created the conditions by which the Pulitzer board would be responsive to writers of color. Junot Díaz is on the Pulitzer board, and Edward Jones was on the Pulitzer fiction judging committee—in other words, even winning the prize is made possible by other writers of color who have played some role in this process, so we’re all the inheritors of these kinds of legacies and histories. Therefore, I don’t see winning the Pulitzer as an individual accomplishment—not only as an individual accomplishment. (laughs) I did work hard to write the novel! I also think of it as a collective recognition, and therefore I have to use the prize to address that collective history. Also lurking in my mind is the issue that it takes tremendous luck to win a prize of any kind, including the Pulitzer. You make your own luck, obviously, so if I didn’t write at least a decent novel, I wouldn’t be a viable candidate. Nevertheless, it takes luck to go from viable candidate to winning the prize. There’s a way in which I think I also have to pay back the luck as well. The luck is partially randomness, but the luck is also the confluence of all these histories that made it possible for this book to be considered for the Pulitzer. That’s what the nonfiction work that I’ve done in the past year has been oriented toward: using the opportunities given to me to write all kinds of nonfiction essays about politics and literature and refugees—issues that have been enduring concerns for me and that I now have the chance to say something about to a larger audience.