Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Michael LeMahieu and Angela Naimou interview Viet Thanh Nguyen about his novels for Contemporary Literature. 


Conducted by Michael LeMahieu and Angela Naimou

Viet Thanh Nguyen is on a roll. In 2015, he published his first novel, The Sympathizer (Grove); it won the Pulitzer Prize and France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. In 2016, he published Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the

Memory of War (Harvard UP); it was a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction, and it won the Réné Wellek Prize for the Best Book in Comparative Literature from the American Comparative Literature Association. In 2017, he published The Refugees (Grove); that same year he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction and received a MacArthur Fellowship. Taken together, these three books have received more awards and nominations, more mentions in best books of the year lists, and more translated editions and foreign rights sold than can be listed here.

Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. In addition to his recent work, he is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford UP, 2002). He currently writes as a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times and as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. What might be lost in a simple gloss of Nguyen’s astoundingly rapid success is the patient, challenging work of figuring out how to write about the intellectual and artistic problems generated by national literature and geopolitics.

Nguyen notes in this interview that all his recent works explore “a core set of issues” at the “intersection of war and refugee experience.” He reroutes war stories and immigrant fictions, two genres that traditionally have mapped war and refugee experience but often have been written and read as if they were unrelated, despite their many deep and evident connections. The Sympathizer plays on the convention in war fiction of creating a story-world where the soldier stands at the center of a world marked by lines dividing friend from enemy, battle zone from home front, military from civilian. At once invoking and challenging the hold this literary convention has on the wartime imagination, The Sympathizer opens with its unnamed narrator confessing his inability to keep from double-crossing every line: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds” (1). Expansively and ambitiously, the novel goes on to spin the many ways its refugee and war story lines converge and intersect, from the narrator’s internal displacement as a nine-year-old refugee in 1954, to his escape in the 1975 Fall (or Liberation) of Saigon, to scenes of return and evasion, capture and refuge, long after the war was declared to be over.

The Refugees traces the haunts of war. Each story explores the psychic and material effects of wartime memory on Vietnamese and Vietnamese American characters in present-day Vietnam and in the United States. By casting stories of the Vietnamese diaspora as refugee fiction, Nguyen challenges the conventions of immigrant fiction in which stories of geopolitical violence and forced displacement are translated into stories of cultural adjustment and personal memories. Such fiction at times has been careful not to disturb nationalist rescue fantasies. When immigrant fiction empties a story of the geo- political forms that propel and manage migration, it risks participating in a losing game, what Mimi Thi Nguyen calls “the gift of free- dom.” As a gift that takes the form of a debt, she argues in The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Duke UP, 2012), the gift of freedom granted to refugees by the State can never be repaid: only extraordinary acts of refugee patriotism or strategically idealized goodness can hope to begin to ameliorate this debt. Rather than be uncritically absorbed by this nationalist project, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees takes up more nuanced considerations of refugee experience and thought, as characters contend with present situations in the United States and in Vietnam, partly by reflecting on ways to remember, forget, uncover, or invent their pasts.

Nguyen joins other contemporary American writers in asking what narrative possibilities open up for fiction that reckons with war refugees. Even when a particular war has been declared his- tory, to be commemorated because it is neither a lived present nor a possible future, it can continue to factor into contemporary acts of remembering wars and imagining futures. Later wars can provoke reimaginings of earlier wartimes. Explaining the impetus for her re- cent book on critical refugee studies, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (U of California P, 2014), Yến Lê Espiritu writes:

it was the U.S. war in Iraq―the shock of recognition―that brought me directly back to Vietnam and back to the figure of the refugee: the spectacle of violence; the “we need to destroy it in order to save it” mandate; the ways that peace could only come in the form of a “war without end”; and the brutal displacement of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children from their homes and neighborhoods.

War times multiply and war fronts shift―on the ground, in the mind, and through forms of collective memorialization and collective amnesia―semicentennial commemorations of Vietnam have thus far been relatively inconspicuous when compared to centennial commemorations of World War I and sesquicentennial commemorations of the U.S. Civil War. Traumatic repetition takes the form of analogy. As Nguyen writes in Nothing Ever Dies, “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory” (4).

One might describe Viet Thanh Nguyen, like his narrator in The Sympathizer, as “a man of two minds.” He writes like a novelist and speaks like a scholar, including when he is speaking about his own writing: in this interview, he refers to his attempt at “unlearning academic writing while still trying to retain academic insight.” Nguyen describes moving between different modes of writing (fiction and nonfiction) and audiences (general and scholarly) as a matter of linguistic fluency and of cultural translation. While all of his works intervene in the second battle over the cultural, contested, collective memory of war, none does so more explicitly than Nothing Ever Dies. There, Nguyen masterfully catalogs the complex and sometime contradictory significations of “Vietnam,” from quagmire to syndrome, from the Vietnam War to the American War, from civil war to proxy war to guerilla war to secret war. The name tersely lends a false coherence to an imagined referent, for the actual events resist such easy reduction, subsumption, or capture. Collective memory and memorialization similarly lend a sense of coherence and integrity to that which was always muddled and diffuse. Rather than arbitrate between competing versions of collective memories that seek to become fixed and established, in Nothing Ever Dies Nguyen calls for a “dialectics of ethical memory” (19), one that moves between just memory and enlightened forgetting, between remembering one’s own and remembering others, between recognizing humanity and acknowledging inhumanity. That dialectic is ever ongoing.

Vietnam always threatens to misfit attempted acts of remembrance, to refuse to conform to a sense of mission or purpose in the national imaginary of the United States. As Nguyen notes in this interview, although “most Americans understand the war poorly, they still carry with them a sense that something terrible happened that might not be reconcilable with American ideology.” One specific way that Vietnam misfits acts of remembrance is by refusing to conform to the analogies that its traumatic effects repeatedly conjure: Iraq is Vietnam, Afghanistan is Vietnam. The war figures simultaneously as that which must be avoided and as that which might have been. In this last regard, the Vietnamese Civil War also invites analogies to the U.S. Civil War. As we discuss with Nguyen, the analogy goes beyond the fact that the two countries’ respective wars divided them into a victorious North and a defeated South. Within the South Vietnamese refugee community, there is some- thing of a “Lost Cause” mythology, subtly hinted at in Nguyen’s fiction through allusions to Gone with the Wind. In the United States, social conflict in the 1960s―over civil rights and Vietnam in particular―prompted comparisons to the 1860s, what Nguyen describes in Nothing Ever Dies as “a reaction to the civil war in the American soul that was America’s experience of the war, its most divisive since the actual Civil War” (48). From a different quarter, Vietnam continues to function in the United States as a national lost cause, not in the sense of a noble defeat against long odds but of a shameful defeat despite material advantages―of losing a war that should not have been waged but that, once begun, should not have been lost. The persistent sense that “something terrible happened” troubles putative ideological values and otherwise triumphalist cultural narratives.

All wars may be fought twice, but the repetition of battle does not necessarily replicate the outcome. As with the U.S. Civil War, the Vietnam War is often remembered in terms formulated by veterans and partisans of the losing side, as Nguyen notes in Nothing Ever Dies: “while the United States lost the war in fact, it won the war in memory on most of the world’s cultural fronts outside of Vietnam, dominating as it does moviemaking, book publishing, fine art, and the production of historical archives” (15). History is not always written by the victors. But, as Nguyen suggests, it is often mass produced: “Memories are not only collected or collective, they are also corporate and capitalist.” All of Nguyen’s works, creative and critical, testify to the powers both of art and scholarship to un- cover and to resist the asymmetries and inequalities of the cultural memory industry.

This interview took place on the lovely afternoon of March 30, 2017, at Clemson University, where Nguyen headlined the 2017 Clemson Lit Fest. Nguyen approved the transcript and generously agreed to respond to additional questions in October 2017. We are grateful to him for his good will and also to Sunny Chan, Ruth Kellar, and Laura Perry, editorial assistants at Contemporary Literature, for transcribing the interview.

Q. The first question we wanted to ask is one that you’ve likely heard before. How does one publish three books in three years?

A. I wish it was that easy, but the books really started in 2002, so that’s three books over fifteen years. The Sympathizer was the easiest one to write; it only took two years, two years three months, and I started it last: The Sympathizer was 2011 to 2013. Nothing Ever Dies was 2002 to 2016. Actually, The Refugees was 1997 to 2014, and then three years waiting to get it published.

Q. Given that these timelines overlap, how do you conceive of the relationship between the three books?

A. I think they all deal with a core set of issues, this intersection of war and refugee experience. It took me a long time to write these books partly because I was learning how to write in differ- ent modes―novel, short story, nonfiction that was not purely academic―and also trying to articulate and to theorize how we can talk about war and refugees together, because I was trying to work beyond the question of identity. The books started off as identity projects because I was Vietnamese American and I wanted to write about Vietnamese people and I wanted to write about the Vietnam War. It took a long time to figure out how to break the connection between identity and theory. It’s really in Nothing Ever Dies that I try to articulate what that theory is; The Sympathizer, I think, is the aesthetic realization of the theory that I was working out. The Refugees was the aesthetic project of learning how to write, because even as I was writing that book, I knew that my aesthetic vision was very limited; I knew that these stories were working within a certain kind of aesthetic range of literary realism, that they were very much about identity, and that I was going to try to break away from that by writing about non-Vietnamese people in some of the stories. Nevertheless, the framework was a humanistic one. Even though I knew that was limited, I didn’t have the artistic capacity to get out of it, so I was just trying to learn how to write with that project. That was a prelude for The Sympathizer. My agent told me to write a novel, so I did, and then I found out that, at the level of the art, I could finally get away from the lure of identity and humanization.

Q. You mentioned that the short story collection was nearly finished before you began writing the novel. How did it come about that they were published in reverse order?

A. Market issues. It was mostly finished. I wrote almost all the short stories between 1997 and 2011, and then I wrote The Sympathizer. After The Sympathizer was done in 2014, I finished “Black Eyed Women,” which was the first story that I started writing. So “Black Eyed Women” took seventeen years, fifty drafts. But its delayed publication was really marketing. My agent had the collection of short stories, and he said “Oh, I love it, but you really need to write a novel to sell in New York,” which is what everybody says, so I wrote the novel. He said, “Write fifty pages of the novel, and then we’re going to go out with a partial and the short story collection, and we’ll get a two-book deal,” which I’d heard about before too, so I said “Okay, I’ll do that.” I wrote fifty pages and he was like, “These are so good! You gotta write the whole novel, because if you write the whole novel, it will be much easier to sell.” So I said, “Fine,” and to this day I’m pretty sure he was just luring me along. Then I finished the novel and I assumed he went out there with the two books to publishers, but he only sold one. I was like, “What happened to the short story collection?” At that point, I was actually very de- pressed; I was elated that the novel was going to come out, but I was very depressed that this short story collection that I had spent seventeen years on was not going to get published. When The Sympathizer was successful I think I resigned myself to the idea that the short story collection was not going to see the light of day. Of course, the fact that the novel was successful helped me to accept that the short story collection had simply served its function in teaching me how to write. What happened was that the novel was so successful that my editor wanted to buy the short story collection. And I said, “Didn’t you already read the short story collection?” He said no. So now I’m almost certain that my agent did not send out that damn short story collection because of marketing. He knew that the short story collection would be worth a lot more as the second book, and he was absolutely right.

Q. Rebecca Walkowitz writes about contemporary novels that are “born translated.” Did you imagine an international and multi- lingual audience when you were writing these works? Now that they’ve begun to appear in various translations, has your conception of your audience changed?

A. The question of translation was already on my mind in writing the novel. My feeling is that minority writers are expected to be translators to majority audiences, either linguistically or culturally or both. So I wrote The Sympathizer in a way that refused minority-to- majority translation (it’s a confession from one Vietnamese person to another Vietnamese person). Instead the novel’s story is, in one dimension, a translation of American culture to a Vietnamese person. Of course, the novel is also a book that must itself be translated into other languages. I was certainly thinking about my novel as a minority novel, a national (American) novel, and an international novel. I hoped that it would function as all three, and I was aware that in choosing to write in a way that some readers would feel is complicated at the level of narrative and language that it would not translate easily internationally. I’m well aware of the arguments out there that someone like Haruki Murakami is internationally popular partly because his prose is clear and accessible, which are supposedly features of a global novel. But I was also hoping that an American novel that was also an anti-American novel would make a claim on international readers who might feel a similar ambiguity about American culture and politics. It’s been interesting to see how different international audiences react to the novel. Besides different national reactions, there are also different readerly reactions. Generally, the critics have been very positive, but I’ve discovered that the average readerly response varies just as much as it does in the United States. So the novel remains a very literary novel by most people’s standards globally.

Q. You talked about switching between modes of writing and the kind of training one uses as an academic and as a fiction and essay writer. There’s a lot of discussion about contemporary creative writ- ing in terms of NYC versus MFA, or through the lens of what Mark McGurl describes as the “Program Era,” but your own situation, as an academic writing criticism and fiction and journalism, seems different from those frameworks. Could you say more about how you move between these various modes of writing?

A. For me, it’s truly interdisciplinary. I think in our context as academics, when we say “interdisciplinary,” we mean shifting between academic disciplines, and fairly similar academic disciplines that share the same language and, roughly, methodology too. But for me, to go between fiction writing and nonfiction, academic work, that was really interdisciplinary because those are vastly different methodologies, worldviews, and languages, and it was really like learning two languages. And I’m not good at learning languages, so it took a really long time to learn how to be able to be fluent in both and to be able to move back and forth. I think if you’re fluent in two languages, then it’s not an effort, but to get to the point where you’re fluent in two languages takes a tremendous amount of work. Now it’s actually not a difficult thing for me to switch between one or the other, or to switch more to writing journalistic kinds of work―the op-ed, for example, or the magazine essay. After The Sympathizer was successful, I was still on the hook for a few academic works, and that was painful. I could still do it, I knew how to do it, but I didn’t want to do it! I had written a bunch of academic articles around Nothing Ever Dies while I was writing the short stories, and then I paused and I wrote The Sympathizer. When The Sympathizer was done―here’s another marketing issue―we sold that in October or November 2013, and I told my editor “Let’s not publish it until April 2015 because that’s the fortieth anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam War and it would be a great marketing hook,” and it was. But then I had all this free time, so that’s when I wrote the Nothing Ever Dies manuscript from beginning to end, and I said I’m not going to just take all these academic things and put them together into a book. I want this book to be a narrative. So I was very deliberate in writing that: I was not going to use jargon; it would still be an academic work and I would engage with serious theory and all that, but on my terms; and I would cut out all the typical academic reflexes that we would do. That was part of the process of unlearn- ing academic writing while still trying to retain academic insight, and that’s still the project I think I’m engaged in. Now I’m trying to take the opportunity of writing for the New York Times, for example, to interject some theoretical thinking into a journalistic format. Speaking of NYC versus MFA, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Book Review that’s an attack on the writing workshop. It’s partially inspired by Mark McGurl’s work and by Eric Bennett’s book Work- shops of Empire, and by Junot Díaz’s article “MFA vs. POC,” but with a critique that I think you would recognize, which is that we have to recognize that this is an institution that produces discourse, and the discourse is called creative writing. So I think that there is still valuable academic work to be done in different registers, which is what I want to do because I can do that now, I have the opportunity to do that, and I want to see if I can write it for GQ. GQ contacted me yesterday and I said “Okay, I would love to write for GQ.” It’s also more fun, how about that? It’s just more fun.

Q. And is playing with the constraints of these forms part of the fun?

A. Yeah, the constraints can be fun, but also the audience is fun. Part of being in academia for me was that on the one hand, as people have said a couple of times to me, I’m a natural born academic, I know how to work in this environment, but that’s half of me. An- other half of me is a sort of showman, and now I have the opportunity to be the showman, and it’s fun. But then I have to go back into academia, and people are so boring in academia, you know?

Q. Are there any virtues of academic writing that you take with you when writing a piece for the New York Times or GQ, or is it all a process of unlearning?

A. I think the thinking is there, but the language is not. There’s no attraction to try to write like Judith Butler for the New York Times― that’s a particular kind of style that’s suited for a different kind of venue. But in writing pieces for the Times or for other magazines, I’m always trying to think about how to argue theoretically. For ex- ample, the piece that I sent to the New York Times Book Review about the writing workshop was inspired antagonistically by a piece that they had run by a novelist that I knew―I think he’s an American but he teaches in the UK. He was complaining about some of the limitations, but it was completely untheoretical, and that’s not useful. I read a lot of journalism and it’s shallow. They write well, but it’s shallow, so I think there’s a huge opportunity to write in a way that a nonacademic audience can comprehend and slip in some Marxist theory. When I write about writing, I don’t write about it in terms of the individual or the art and, if I do in fact do that, I always try to connect it to what I call the literary industry, code words, for how do we talk about economics and structures in relationship to cultural production, which I also never use either, but the whole point is to try to get people to think about what we do as writers, reviewers, agents, editors, and so on, as part of a process of production. So that’s the challenge: can I make it in one case relatively straightforward for the Times, or can I try to make it entertaining for GQ?

Q. The Kirkus Reviews blurb for The Refugees uses a persistent model for marketing immigrant, refugee, and ethnically marked authors when it notes that the “stories, excellent from start to finish, transcend ethnic boundaries to speak to human universals.” How do you feel about this aspect of marketing, from your position as both an academic who’s written about the burdens of the “ethnic writer” and a writer whose fiction is marketed as ethnic literature?

A. I think that I recognize that process happening, and I also recognize who I am. I’m not Theresa [Hak Kyung] Cha, I am not the avant-garde artist from the margins who’s going to try to destroy the center from the outside; I’m the corporate guy, I’m the guy from inside-out―and that’s just my personality, my aesthetic, and I recognize the aesthetic in which I work. The aesthetic in which I work is prize-winning, highbrow literature, I think, I hope―so I under- stand that I tried to write a subversive novel, and I got the Pulitzer Prize. Now how does that work? I think I understand how that works as a critic and as a scholar―and likewise I understand when my own work is put into a particular kind of box or a category that clearly serves ethnicity or commodification, or whatever―and my challenge then is to disrupt that categorization however I can by being a critic. So I’m not the kind of writer―fiction writer―who’s going to let other critics speak entirely on my behalf or speak about my work. I have the capacity to try to intervene in the interpretation of my own work, which I’ve been doing very actively, as much as I can, and creating my own archive on my website with all the re- views and interviews and everything. And I do as many interviews as I can because it’s a way of getting the interpretive arguments out there that lie behind these kinds of projects. At the same time, as I’ve already confessed, I’m also very market savvy―I think―but I’ve been market savvy since I was a graduate student, for better and for worse, so my relationship to academia was always, again, that of someone who thought he knew how the system worked from the inside and therefore could be a successful professional academic― and then got disillusioned by the professionalism that I was so good at. Writing fiction was about passion and vocation. And that’s why I don’t really identify as a creative writer, because if I identified as a creative writer then I’d have to be like a “professional” creative writer, which I don’t want to be―I’m already a professional academic. So―what that means is that I am aware of how we operate in a corporate environment, either as academics or as writers who publish in New York with these mainstream places. And yet, it’s a framework that allows me to be heard and to be seen. That’s a problematic framework to which I have to draw attention. It’s a contra- diction; it’s part of the dialectic, of cultural production, in which I recognize I am engaged.

Q. Could you say more about your attempt “to work beyond the question of identity” and the need “to break the connection between identity and theory”? And how does this question of identity in- form the distinction you make between the immigrant story and the refugee story?

A. For many of us working in minority discourse or postcolonial studies, “identity” is a theoretical mode of practice, and a political one, too. The limitations of such practices are usually summarized under various critiques of “identity politics.” Now I believe that identity remains important, and that it can’t simply be dismissed because it is not sufficiently class-based or revolutionary. But there are undoubtedly limitations to identity, and so my work is about how to incorporate identity and examine its limitations at the same time in order to imagine a politics and aesthetics that gets us to revolution. That’s why The Sympathizer is based on a narrator whose identity is always in question, even as he moves through various identities. Making him mixed-race and ideologically ambidextrous was crucial to such a project. He doesn’t fit in to existing categories of identity, and the unease that this generates is marked by how he is called a “bastard.” Of course, novels are almost always about people who don’t fit in in some fashion, and novels of identity are certainly about that, but removing the possibility of an existing identity that can be assumed prevents the possibility of identity closure, which is part of what happens in identity politics. Once that closure happens, the revolutionary potential of identity is dead, and identity becomes complicit in power. The “immigrant” as a model has the danger of leading toward this closure, as the immigrant be- comes an American. The “refugee” model can lead to closure, too, if the refugee becomes a citizen, but the experience of being a refugee is closer, perhaps even worse, than a bastard. Like a bastard, a refugee confuses and threatens existing categories. By bringing situations into crisis, bastards and refugees offer the possibility of a radical future―or provide incentives for retreating into the categories of the present.

Q. Your discussion of The Sympathizer as a war story rather than immigrant story has consequences for how we understand the stories of refugees created in our current geopolitical moment. These refugees come from other wars and carry other ghosts, other memories, but refugee stories can affect each other in unexpected ways―as when a patriotic Vietnamese American refugee is credited as the architect of the Patriot Act (something Mimi Thi Nguyen discusses in Gift of Freedom), or when tens of thousands of Cambodian permanent legal residents who arrived in the United States as child refugees get deported decades later, in part because of immigration policies revised for a post–Cold War, and then post–9/11, globalized war on terror political framework. How do you see your work in relation to these issues of ongoing wartimes and the myriad forms of refugee politics and refugee stories they spur?

A. I think my work is born out of my particular history. I’m not surprised that the architect of the Patriot Act is a Vietnamese American, you know, because I grew up with people like that, and so for me, there was no purity in being Vietnamese or Asian American. Part of my problem with Asian American studies―and why I wrote the first book, Race and Resistance―was that I was so annoyed with the quest for purity and resistant political practice in Asian American studies, which is still a problem in Asian American studies, still a problem in American studies, and it’s part of a leftist ortho- doxy that I think is really limited―limiting. It’s very enabling, too. I mean, I’ve been empowered by it. It’s produced critical insights. I’ve used it in the very conversation that we’re having. But that orthodoxy is also frustrating, because of its blind spots, and so I felt that part of my work was to develop the kind of insights I could glean through writing―through fiction writing. The practice itself is resistant, hopefully, to orthodoxy, if you do it right. Obviously, it can be orthodoxy too, that’s part of the problem with the writing workshop, but if you do it right, then you should inherently, as a writer, be resistant to all kinds of orthodoxies, and that was part of the spirit that I took from writing into being a critic and a scholar, in addition to my own historical experiences of being part of a refugee community that was really conservative. And so, for me, it was not a surprise to see these kinds of uneven developments across the American political terrain―that people from Southeast Asia could be impacted by the War on Terror, for example, in radically different ways, because that’s also the history of colonization and power and racism, that it doesn’t operate uniformly at all; it operates through a series of overlapping contradictions. The problem with the kind of cultural studies that we do here is that it’s very good at analyzing power in one sense, but it can also be very limited in dealing with the contradictory subjectivities of populations that it wants to study, that it wants to represent.

Q. This dealing with―and dealing in―contradictory subjectivities runs through The Sympathizer, of course, but it’s also a call made explicitly in Nothing Ever Dies, where you talk about the need to recognize that our inhumanity has always been part of our shared humanity. We had a question about your work’s response to the decidedly Anglo-American perspective through which Vietnam is imagined in this country. There’s Apocalypse Now, Graham Greene, Tim O’Brien. But there may be even one more level to that: when a Western audience tries to understand Vietnam from a non-Western perspective, the audience has often been asked to understand the war from the perspective of the North Vietnamese―from Muham- mad Ali identifying with the Viet Cong to Bảo Ninh’s The Sorrow of War (1990), a novel that some readers may know. And this move is in line with certain Anglo-American attempts at non-Western think- ing and a kind of glorification of a certain leftist radicalism. You see it in writing about Nicaragua in the 1980s, for example, or about the Spanish Civil War earlier on. What particular opportunities and problems are presented in writing from a specifically South-Vietnamese refugee perspective?

A. It’s an interesting situation to be in, because, as you said, Americans and the Western World in general are interested in the “other,” whom they construe as the enemy, right, and obviously this is a binaristic, antagonistic relationship. But one of the ways that that works, in all of the examples that you cite, is that these people who are our enemies are very good at PR. They’re very good at reaching out, constructing a narrative that speaks to left-wing, radical impulses in the West, and that was a very deliberate kind of a strategy. And so that puts, in this case, the South Vietnamese at a disadvantage, because, number one, they’re the corrupted ally―that’s a narrative too, which doesn’t appeal to the conservative Americans, for example―and yet they’re also not radicals, they’re too conservative, which means they’re also not interesting to the Left. But I think it’s the fact that there is no purity in this population―and it’s the population from which I come, so I owe them some allegiance―that makes them interesting to me, because the allure of the romantic revolution in the North or in the Viet Cong was already problematic for me, coming from a South Vietnamese point of view, and I think because it was problematic for me that I could see some of the limitations in Western Leftist approaches to third-world revolution. And as you point out, it wasn’t just because of Vietnam, it wasn’t a romanticism that was attached only to Vietnam, but to many other places as well. I think one of the other consequences is that, in our contemporary situation, it seems like this model doesn’t necessarily apply to the confrontation with the Middle East, or Muslims or Arabs or whatever this construction is in the Western imagination because there seems to be a whole new level of “alien-ness” at this stage that’s different than how the West has dealt with Latin America or with Asia.

Q. Let’s move through the books and talk about The Sympathizer, The Refugees, and Nothing Ever Dies. First question: we want to know about the moment you decided to pastiche Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

A. It wasn’t a part of the plan! I only had a two-page synopsis for the novel; I didn’t plan in advance many of the details that actually take place in the novel, so a lot of the small-detail planning came literally the day before they happened, or the week before they happened. In the case of this incident―well, what happened was that I had read Portnoy’s Complaint as a boy, and the only part I understood was the liver. I was like, I get that; the rest of it, I don’t know what’s going on, but that scene stayed with me. When I was writing The Sympathizer I had a whole list of books I wanted to review, books that had been influential for me, or were memorable in some way, and I think I went back to Portnoy’s Complaint precisely because it left such a vivid stamp on me. All I remembered from the book was that it was funny, and I wanted some of that in my book. And so when I wrote the novel and got to the moment where the squid was going to happen, I stopped writing, I just stopped writing, and I did not think about a squid―I just stopped writing at that particular moment. I think what happened in that chapter was that he was about to go to the liquor store with the general, right, the liquor store opening. I stopped writing for the day, and then I had to pre- pare dinner―and dinner was squid. I had never made squid before, so I read the cookbook, and it says okay you gotta clean the squid, and the way you clean the squid is to put your fingers into it and slip the guts out. And I thought, “This seems familiar.” Everything happened after that, so I thought, I gotta write about this the next day. Sometimes that’s how stories get written.

Q. One of the things we really admire about The Sympathizer are the various literary resonances and echoes, which never seem contrived or heavy-handed. The first paragraph sounds in its rhythm like In- visible Man; the second has a little bit of A Tale of Two Cities (“it was the April of this, it was the April of”)―there’s Beloved, Midnight’s Children, Portnoy’s Complaint. Could you talk a little bit about the strategy there, because it seems like there might be a risk: you’re an academic writing a novel, and what everyone’s going to expect is that you’ll be wearing your learning on your sleeve, that there will be allusions on every other page. There are allusions, but you man- age not to be ham-fisted about it. We wonder if you wavered back and forth about how to make it work.

A. That problem was certainly with me, because I’ve read books by academics who wanted to break out of the academic mold, and it was always kind of sad, because they would do something in their academic work, they would do something creative or experimental, and then they would explain to you what it was they were doing. That’s not the way to do it. And then of course there were novels written by academics that were not necessarily very good. And then there’s the stereotype of leftist novels as being ham-fisted and didactic in a bad way. I was very cognizant that that could be a real problem for me and that that could be a charge levelled at me. It was necessary to construct the novel in a certain way so that, number one, within its world―the diegetics of the novel―there would be a reason for our narrator to say the things that he says. I had to construct a narrator who would be intelligent enough to say some of the things that he does and would have the opportunity to say the things that he does, which is a confessional mode. It didn’t have to work like a realistic novel. It’s not a realistic. . . . It’s not supposed to be a realistic novel. It’s supposed to work as a confession, where he can lecture, he can engage in monologue―it’s one big monologue, basically. And then the novel also had to work as a novel. At that level, it’s a game, where readers may or may not get the allusions, but you never want to announce them, because then it gets ham- fisted. You want the allusions to be, most of the time, embedded in the texture of the prose and in the riffs on the incidents. If you’d never read Portnoy’s Complaint, you would never know that this is an allusion to that. But if you do know Roth’s book, then it’s hope- fully even funnier. And, hopefully, it doesn’t get in the way of the book because you know it’s a novel. It’s inevitably a novel. So you can’t pretend it’s not a novel. That was why, in writing the novel, it was important to me, for example, to have a first-person narrator. But I had to think, why do I have a first-person narrator? That’s one of the things that’s always bothered me about first-person novels. Why do we have a first-person narrator speaking? What’s the occasion for this? I felt like there had to be an occasion. There had to be a logic to why that would take place, which was the confession. I did not know it was confession until two-thirds of the way through the book, but I knew he was speaking to somebody. And yet, at the same time, even as, in the world of the novel, where you set up a logic for it, you can’t escape that it’s a novel. You can never escape that it’s a novel. So, knowing that, the system of allusions can work.

Q. Just thinking about the confessional mode: the narrator’s ventriloquizing can be a way of counteracting the imperative that he confess. This interest in characters performing the voice and show- ing those voices to be fake or transplanted also comes through in The Refugees: in “The Transplant,” for example, the main character is himself a transplant and has undergone an organ transplant. One way that allusion, voicing, and transplantation come together is when narrators seem to make allusions to the U.S. Civil War when talking about the Vietnam War, as when a character in “War Years” says: “I hate the Communists as much as Mrs. Hoa, but she’s fighting a war that can’t be won. I’m not throwing away my money on a lost cause” (57). Later in that story, we see the narrator sitting “astride a dike of rice sacks, reading about Reconstruction” (65). Then, later in the book, in “Fatherland,” we meet the character Vivien, whose name alludes to Gone to with the Wind, “her father’s favorite film” (182–83). What analogies do you think might obtain between the U.S. Civil War and the Vietnamese civil war, and how those connections play out in your work?

A. By the way, the allusion there is actually to Jhumpa Lahiri. In Interpreter of Maladies (1999), there’s a story, the second story, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” where she makes a very deliberate analogy between the division of Pakistan and India and the American Revolutionary War. I admire Lahiri’s writing, if not necessarily her politics. I admire the craft, and that was very much hanging over The Refugees, as I wanted to try to write well-crafted stories. So that comparison between the Civil War and the Vietnam War was an easy one, actually, because many people have made that comparison before, I think primarily because the whole idea that there was a North and South in Vietnam too just lends itself easily to that issue. There are other registers, of course, if we’re talking about the Civil War in the American context. We acknowledge that we haven’t for- gotten it. We have a very problematic relationship to this past. Just as the Vietnamese people have a very problematic relationship to their own civil and revolutionary war.

Q. Would you say there’s something like a lost cause mythology that exists within South Vietnamese refugee communities?

A. Oh, yeah. Very, very strongly. That this was a war that could have been won. This was a war that was fought for good reasons. It wasn’t about colonization; it wasn’t about being traitors or puppets or allies to the oppressor. Which is all, of course, the narrative of the victorious Vietnamese. Obviously, a huge sense of loss and aggrievement. The attachment to the flag and other kinds of symbols. The residues of military culture. All of that is there as well. I think for me that’s where there is an uneasy parallel with the American South.

Q. In the “Aesthetics” chapter of Nothing Ever Dies, you write that “a vast territory exists where war story and immigrant story overlap” (220). One name for that overlap is the refugee story―but, as you discuss, the war story also structures our understanding of a national history of victimization. We’re thinking especially here about your discussion of James Baldwin and Junot Díaz in Nothing Ever Dies, when a war analogy helps connect “there” to “here.” Could you say more about your thoughts on how representations of the Vietnam War are used as analogies for other instances of violence, displacement, and victimization?

A. The Vietnam War remains an analogy for Americans, but I’m not sure that’s true for countries outside of the United States. Other countries do generally see that the Vietnam War was a Vietnamese and American tragedy, but they are not deploying the Vietnam War as an idea for how to make sense of other wars and conflicts. The Vietnam War remains a very specifically American experience in the United States, hence its durability as analogy. Underlying all that is the uneasy sense that this was one really horrific war where Americans did horrific things, and despite all the attempts by presidents and the Pentagon to spin the war in a more positive fashion, the bloody core of it won’t disappear. Even if most Americans understand the war poorly, they still carry with them a sense that something terrible happened that might not be reconcilable with American ideology. I think that sense will persist over time, which makes the Vietnam War continually useful for those of us interested in critiquing American power. But there is also, of course, the problem for Vietnamese people that we will continue to be associated with this war.

Q. That brings us to a question about forms for representing the impurity and complexity of the people you write about. In addition to the reference to Gone with the Wind, at certain points in The Sympathizer and The Refugees you refer to the idea of the pastoral: from the former, “[t]hey belonged to some pastoral, pure vision of our culture” (124); from the latter, “Carver, however, cared little for pastoral fantasies, having passed his childhood in . . . rural Alabama” (125). It seems very much like you write against notions of purity that you associate with the aesthetic form of the pastoral.

A. Yeah, because I think that in Vietnamese culture, the pastoral exists as well. There’s a certain set of visual tropes that are very stereo- typical within Vietnamese culture that gets marketed to foreigners. Tourist exotica. But which the Vietnamese themselves buy! You go into Vietnamese homes and you’ll see the lacquered watercolor of a boy on a buffalo, for example, or very slim young women wear- ing the white áo dài in front of a riverbank. Very standard kinds of images. I grew up in a household where my parents were always reinforcing the idea that the Vietnamese people are the best, and the purest. Or that Vietnamese women are the best and the purest, that you’ve got to marry a Vietnamese woman. That was part of the pastoral. I knew all that was not true, even as it was also very seductive at the same time. Those notions of the pastoral are completely tied up with authenticity and origins. I resisted all of those things, almost reflexively. Even when I went back to Vietnam for the first time, I thought very deliberately in my mind, “I am not going to go there and feel like I’ve come home.” I’m not going to do the equivalent of falling down and kissing the soil. Because that’s also a trope that’s in the immigrant story of return to the country of origin. I’d already absorbed enough poststructuralist theory to be suspicious of that.

Q. You would not have been able to believe yourself. One of the most wrenching scenes in The Sympathizer was the first attempted airlift out, when Bon’s wife and child die. It was a moving scene, and we would like you to discuss it a little.

A. I think that when I wrote that scene, it was actually very manipulative. Because I was thinking “how do I make people feel bad about this?” I was already hoping that just the narrative of the fall of Saigon would be at least compelling to read. But how do I make people feel the pain of the situation? How do I humanize the characters here? Bon is not a nice guy, in many ways, but he has to be rendered understandable in some way. And he has to be given motivation. That was a plot issue as well. So, as god in my own book, I could decide, OK, I’m going to take away his wife and his child―the things, the people that he cares about the most―to give him the motivation, to give him the pain, and also to give the narrator of the novel some of those emotions too. Because he has to feel for other people for us to feel something for him, I think. Otherwise he’s just kind of this cold, manipulative bastard, but he has to love his blood brother and love his godson too. So that was the motivation for doing that. But strangely, or not, because I said it was manipulative, I wasn’t that moved by it. I thought, OK, these are the various kinds of plot pieces I have to put into motion to make this thing happen. The part of the novel that moved me the most emotionally in writing it was the scene in the graveyard, the making of the movie, with his moth- er’s tombstone. I actually felt very moved writing that, and several readers have told me that they were moved by that too. If we want to talk about authenticity of emotion―does the writer have to feel something in order for the reader to feel something?―well, that was an incident where that actually was true.

Q. And yet the reader is set up to be manipulated. The brief bio for you on the book cover notes that you were four years old when you left in the airlift, and this character is four years old when he dies in the airlift, so a reader might think “oh, this is heartfelt,” because it’s his alter ego, his doppelgänger.

A. But you know when you kill a child―that’s very manipulative! That’s why I felt very cynical about doing it. Also, I didn’t have a son yet. In The Refugees, what people have talked about, sometimes, is that the final line of the acknowledgements, which is the last line of the book, is about my son. And me. Him being nearly the same age I was when I became a refugee. Now that is actually very heart- felt. That is actually very sincere. But it was also because I have him. So you want to talk about authenticity and origins and emotions. Well, unfortunately or fortunately, human relations do make an impact on me as a writer. And so having him as a person in my life has had an impact on the writing, too.

Q. You’ve done a lot of these interviews now. Do you find yourself answering the same questions over and over?

A. I think just having to talk about my biography is probably the most annoying thing. Because I don’t find that to be very interesting. Although, ironically, if I do tonight what I did the last two nights, I will talk about my biography. And then the second question is, talk about Apocalypse Now. Even though if I do tonight what I did the last two nights, I will talk about Apocalypse Now, too. Because tonight is about speaking to nonacademics, a nonacademic audience. Tonight is about being the showman. And I’ve got to try to entertain in order to set up a context where I can also try to get some of those theoretical points in.

Q. Speaking of audience, social media provides you with the means to interact directly with your readers. Could you tell us more about this experience?

A. I was never a big social media person until I had to publicize my- self as an author. Then I discovered that social media is a kind of literary form, or forms. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram are all different kinds of media that require different kinds of authorial strategies. Unfortunately, they can be very time consuming, but they are also fun in their own different ways. A writer crafts an authorial persona in each of these media, and it’s interesting to see what kinds of personae are successful. All that being said, I had to deactivate my Facebook pages. After I won the Pulitzer, I wrote only five pages of fiction in a year, due to all the new demands. One way I compensated was to write a lot of posts on Facebook. They were helpful in promoting my books and me, and sometimes the things I wrote on Facebook became the basis for pieces elsewhere. But writing for Facebook also became a way of not writing fiction, so Facebook had to go, for a while at least.


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

More Interviews