Bonnie Boswell Reports – Viet Thanh Nguyen

In this interview with Bonnie Boswell for PBS SoCal, Viet Thanh Nguyen describes The Sympathizer and the art of story telling.

Here are the transcriptions of the interview:

Part 1: 

Bonnie Boswell: Hello, I’m Bonnie Boswell. According to the latest census, there are nearly 20,000 Vietnamese-Americans living in Los Angeles. Many of the first came after the end of the war in 1975. Others followed, bringing with them stories, stories of conflict, courage, and insight.

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, The Sympathizer, is a historical spy novel. Its author is Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor at the University of Southern California.

Give us a synopsis of the book.

Viet Nguyen: The Sympathizer is a novel about a communist spy in the south Vietnamese army, and when Saigon falls, or is liberated, depending on your point of view, his job is to flee with that army to the United States where he’s gonna spy on their efforts to take their country back.

He’s a spy who actually sympathizes greatly with his enemies as well as his friends, so that’s the drama of the entire book. How does he survive being a Vietnamese in America, a communist who actually love capitalism at the same time.

Bonnie Boswell: Why did you have to write this book?

Viet Nguyen: I wrote this book because no one else had written it. I came as a refugee from the Vietnam War to the United States when I was four years old, and grew up here in the U.S. as someone who is both Vietnamese and American.

When we first came to the United States I went first to Pennsylvania, to Harrisburg, where there was a refugee camp. And in order to leave that camp you had to have a sponsor, so one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10-year-old brother, one sponsor took my four-year-old self, and that was the beginning of memory and the beginning of being an American for me.

When I was about 10 or 11 I saw Apocalypse Now for the first time, and I was an American boy and I was rooting for the Americans, and on the other hand I was Vietnamese and watching Vietnamese people get killed. That memory of being split in two was one of the inspirations for wanting to write The Sympathizer.

Bonnie Boswell: On the next edition of Bonnie Boswell Reports we’ll talk to Professor Nguyen about the irony of being both a part of a culture and outside it.

For PBS SoCal, I’m Bonnie Boswell.

Part 2:

Bonnie Boswell: Bonnie Boswell Reports continues our interview with University of Southern California Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Dr. Nguyen is the author of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Sympathizer. This political thriller is about a communist spy embedded in the South Vietnamese Army. But he sympathizes with his enemies and is a communist who loves capitalism. Dr. Nguyen knows something about irony. As a 10-year-old Vietnamese American boy watching the movie, Apocalypse Now, he identified with people on both sides of the battle.

Viet Nguyen: That memory of being split in two stayed with me for a very long time and was one of the inspirations for wanting to write The Sympathizer.

Bonnie Boswell: Let’s talk about this idea of two-ness.

Viet Nguyen: Because I’m very intimately familiar with American culture and assumptions, but as someone who has a little bit of a foothold outside of America, just by being born outside, I also have a lot of skepticism. Immigrants and refugees can always take that state of being ambivalent and they can turn that into moments of insight into both cultures.

Bonnie Boswell: Let’s talk about the idea of doing nothing, as a concept.

Viet Nguyen: I just wanted to bring out how so much of our political debates are about responsibility and action and commitment and doing something. And what I think for most of us, when we’re faced with a difficult situation, like World War II or the Holocaust or the Vietnam War, we don’t do anything. And then just the greatest kind of inaction that most of us find difficult to own up to, to confront.

Bonnie Boswell: Tell me what you think about when you see the refugee and the immigrant situation in America and the world now.

Viet Nguyen: We’ve seen this moment before in American history where refugees and immigrants have been the unwanted, but I take inspiration from the fact that however difficult our moment is today, it’s not as difficult as it has been in the past.

Bonnie Boswell: Dr. Nguyen says, “Knowledge of the past should encourage us to move forward.”

For PBS SoCal, I’m Bonnie Boswell.


Category: Interviews


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