Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Books & Co. 2007 Viet Thanh Nguyen

Alberto Rios discusses The Refugees with Viet Thanh Nguyen in this interview for PBS.

Nguyen comes back with a breathtaking collection of short stories, reflecting the complex lives that immigrants have to undertake, and their aspirations to “make it” in another country. From the streets of Ho Chi Ming to the avenues of San Jose, The Refugees offers a platform for people stuck between two worlds, two cultures, yet one tale to tell.

Season 20 Episode 7 | 26m 19s

Read a transcription of the video below:

Speaker 1: And now, an Arizona PBS original production.

Speaker 2: Books & Company is made possible by the Department of English at Arizona State University, and by the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of Arizona PBS who give additional gifts to support original programs. Thank you.

Alberto Rios: Welcome to Books & Company. Bienvenidos todos. I’m your host Alberto Rios and we’re joined today by Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen talking about his newest book, The Refugees. Welcome.

Viet Nguyen: Hello Alberto.

Alberto Rios: Let’s start with your name, which I think is going to be of some interest to our viewers. Viet-

Viet Nguyen: My first name.

Alberto Rios: Your first name. Thanh.

Viet Nguyen: Middle name.

Alberto Rios: Middle name. And N-G-U-Y-E-N, pronounced-

Viet Nguyen: When.

Alberto Rios: When.

Viet Nguyen: Vietnamese pronunciation is Nguyễn, but most Americans can’t say that.

Alberto Rios: A little glottal stuff.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, exactly.

Alberto Rios: Okay. So you have this wonderful book that I have to say in reading it I was compelled by its quietude, which is not to say that it’s a contemplative book or that it’s something you have to study, it is simply not full of sirens and explosions and things like that, but something more compelling, human nature. You have found these sort of cul-de-sacs in experience. Maybe we could start with you giving a short synopsis of the book.

Viet Nguyen: Sure. Well the book is called The Refugees. It’s a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees and the people they meet. Some of the stories are actually not told from the point of the Vietnamese people, but these were the stories in which I learned how to write, how I became a writer and how I honed my craft. The original ambition behind them was to write stories about people whose lives I didn’t see expressed in the popular culture around me, whether that was American popular culture or whether in Vietnam where the Vietnamese refugees are also a population that people don’t want to talk about either.

Alberto Rios:  I was intrigued. Maybe we could outline one or two of the stories.

Viet Nguyen: Sure.

Alberto Rios:  I was intrigued that so often they are universals. That is to say we’re all in one. It doesn’t matter what group you belong to, we are all going through them. Things like Alzheimer’s, where you have this wonderful story of, I have to say it was quite moving, of the woman, the wife, if I can generalize that way, whose husband has had Alzheimer’s and he begins to refer to her by another name.

Viet Nguyen: Yes, it’s a love story. It’s a sad love story obviously of these two people who have been with each other their entire lives and then what happens when one of them starts to forget not only his own identity, but his wife’s identity as well. You’re right that it’s a universal story. I think obviously Alzheimer’s is a universal predicament at this point, but I also wanted to locate that story in a very specific kind of history as well. That these are Vietnamese refugees, they fled from Vietnam, they’ve been through a traumatic history together, they’re raising American born children. It’s that intersection between the universals of a particular experience and the actual history that these people are embedded in that really fascinates me.

Alberto Rios: We see it repeated. You have all these ways of turning the prism and giving us every day quotidian experience, and delivering it to us without answers. You simply, you give us … They’re not, certainly they’re stories, absolutely, but they don’t have neat endings. They don’t have neat beginnings. We’re almost in the middle of them even as we start.

Viet Nguyen:  I think that’s what makes short stories unique. It’s not like a novel. I’ve written a novel where there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end and a fully fleshed out plot, but with short stories the biggest challenge for me was what to leave out. Because I think with any of the stories that I wrote I could have written a novel about these characters, as in the case of the Alzheimer’s patient and his wife. But with 20 pages, for example, I have to figure out what is the most important part of this life story of theirs and have to focus in on that. I can only allude to what happened before and sort of foreshadow what happens later, but I’m looking at really the most difficult emotional moment that these people are going through in their lives.

Alberto Rios: We end up being complicit. We feel it. We’re part of the story at that point. I think that’s an impressive accomplishment in the writing. As we go through these, we’re finding references of course to Vietnam, but you’re creating a third country. You have something that is not quite Vietnam, not quite the U.S., but something that straddles both and is called, it has no name, except it’s embodied in the experience of these people. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Viet Nguyen:  Yeah. I think that’s actually not an uncommon experience for people who are immigrants, or refugees, or migrants, whatever kind of population we’re talking about that’s on the move. That they live in two countries, the country they came from and the country they’ve settled in, and also a country in between because they are a very unique population who are able to see where they’re at from two different perspectives. That was certainly my experience growing up as a refugee in San Jose, California, and feeling that the space of my parents’ home and the Vietnamese refugee community was something apart from the American mainstream that we were living amongst, and also apart from the Vietnam that my parents kept talking about as well.

Alberto Rios: It makes us wonder where a wall might be placed were one to be placed in that context.

Viet Nguyen: Right.

Alberto Rios: We have a simple geographic solution, but there is no simple geographic solution. This presents us with another way of understanding that.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that human populations and human history have been marked by mobilities and of various kinds. People cross borders, things cross borders, food crosses borders, ideas cross borders. The idea that we’re going to use a physical wall to separate all these things out is a complete fiction, as you say. It might keep some people out, but it’s not going to keep out the other kinds of movements that have constituted each of our unique cultures. That’s also what the book is about as well, that the refugees are Vietnamese people, but some of the refugees that I talk about are Americans who even though they haven’t physically moved anywhere are fleeing from some kind of psychic problem or trauma of their own. They’re also traveling and in between as well.

Alberto Rios: I have to say, they are, and the idea of movement is an intriguing one, but they’re not always fleeing. They’re sometimes trying to grapple with something in which there is movement all around them. One of the ones you can’t avoid thinking about is that first story that incorporates, and I’m going to use the term advisedly, ghosts, as a real thing. Not an imagined thing. This is right out of magical realism in its truest sense. This is about a life lived, not a life imagined or decorated with something. It’s not ghosts that come to visit for whatever curlicue reason we might have. These are real. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that experience for these characters.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. Well the opening story is black eyed women. It is about a ghost writer who’s also a Vietnamese refugee.

Alberto Rios: A little pun.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, a little pun.

Alberto Rios: Big pun.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah conceptually, but she’s also a Vietnamese refugee and she’s made it to the United States and many, many years later the ghost of her dead brother who didn’t survive the journey arrives and comes literally knocking on her door. It is a ghost story. It’s a story about being haunted by the past because our ghost writer has had a terrible thing happen to her and she has not been been able to acknowledge that. I think for many Vietnamese people ghosts are real. That was certainly my experience growing up that I would hear people tell ghost stories. The idea of being visited by dead people who had just passed away was very widespread. I wanted to do justice to that idea that ghost stories were not simply fictions, but were physically tangible in people’s lives.

Alberto Rios: What’s great is ghosts in this context are as different from each other as people as they were in life. You have a wonderful … If I can read this short passage. “Ghosts don’t live by our rules. Each ghost is different. Good ghosts, bad ghosts, happy ghosts, sad ghosts, ghosts of people who die when they’re old, when they’re young, when they’re small. You think baby ghosts behave the same as grandfather ghosts.” It made me laugh, but it helped distinguish that word. It made it complex. It made it in essence, I don’t want to say I didn’t believe it, but it made it more believable in the sense that I believed the speaker giving that explanation over to the reader.

Viet Nguyen: It was interesting because you know what, I don’t like ghost stories. I’m easily scared, so I don’t make a habit of reading ghost stories. I don’t go to horror movies or anything like that. So, I had to put myself into the mindset of these people, the mother and the daughter who was the ghost writer. The daughter of the ghost writer doesn’t believe in ghost, the mother does. She’s the one giving that speech. I had to get into her mindset and think, well how does she imagine what ghosts are like, how does she tell ghost stories. The more I thought about it, the more I thought well this seems right to me that ghosts are not just like these shapeless creatures in sheets, but they must have distinct personalities that pertain to their deaths more than anything else.

Alberto Rios: No Casper here.

Viet Nguyen:  No Casper, absolutely.

Alberto Rios: It’s funny you would say that you yourself are afraid. You have this other, if I can reach this one other moment, “Aren’t you afraid of ghosts, I asked. Over the line in the silence the static hissed. You aren’t afraid of the things you believe in, he said.” It’s exactly what you’re saying. That sense of belief as a construct of reality is in evidence here and we see it’s variations. Ghosts is the extreme. I don’t want to characterize this book in any way as being like that all the way through. It’s not. This is a shift in culture. We’re watching the characters go from one gear to another, and ghosts are just simply in that mix, but they don’t, they’re not everything.

Viet Nguyen: Right. They’re only physically present in the first story, but I think all the other stories are characterized by haunting. I think that for Vietnamese refugees, who fled from war, who’ve had terrible migratory experiences, who’ve lost people, lost their country, they’re definitely haunted by the past, but so are many other people with various kinds of backgrounds. In the collection there’s a story of an African American bomber pilot who returns to Vietnam, and there’s a story of a Mexican American man who gets a transplant from a Vietnamese person, various kinds of hauntings characterize the people in these stories. That’s one of the unifying themes of the book.

Alberto Rios:  Yeah, haunting is a great word. It is absolutely throughout the book. It makes me think that the title itself, The Refugees, we could make a lot out of that. We have the basic idea that people came from Vietnam and came here, but there are so many people who in one way or another are so tethered to Vietnam that they almost become refugees from the U.S., even if it’s just for a short while. There’s this need to know where did I come from, who am I, what is that, why does everybody talk about it in my house. Yet, it doesn’t mean people come back with the truth.

Alberto Rios: You have the one story in which you have a relative coming back and everybody thinks that she’s done all these great things, and I won’t give the story away, but it’s not 100% accurate, and yet how could they not want to believe that. So, the idea of what are we running from, moving from. It’s interesting to watch the cross platform of what a refugee might mean.

Viet Nguyen: Right. The story, the collection as a whole opens with this idea of a ghost traveling across the Pacific Ocean from Vietnam to the United States. The last story, the one you’re talking about is about a Vietnamese American who has settled in the United States and then goes back to Vietnam to visit her family and her half siblings. That’s a nice closure. There’s a circular pattern to the book. But I really wanted to write that story because I’d heard so many accounts in Vietnam from Vietnamese people, Vietnamese Americans who had gone back and were not the people they pretended to be. It was definitely an instance of the American dream gone awry, like these people who had come back to Vietnam felt that they had to present themselves in a certain way because they had made it to America. Yet, they weren’t as successful as they made themselves out to be. I thought that was a great story of cultural misunderstandings and about human frailty and failure as well.

Alberto Rios: There’s an an economic edge to that in that somebody from the U.S., presumably with dollars, can go back and mount that perception that they have power and influence and that they can do it. It just, it’s a little bit sad that it’s money that allows that to happen sometimes.

Alberto Rios: I’m going to interrupt you just for a moment and remind our viewers you are watching Books & Company. I’m your host, Alberto Rios. We’re joined today by Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, talking about his latest book, The Refugees.

Alberto Rios: When we go and think about these people as family, I began to read this book, even though they’re separate short stories, you mentioned you’ve written a novel before and of course you’ve worked in longer form, I read this as a novel. I did not find that the parts were necessarily fragments at all, but that they end up coming together in a kind of nice choreography and that they create a whole, something much bigger. Not satisfying in the ways that perhaps a novel proper would be, but in some ways better.

Viet Nguyen: I think of a book called Lost In The City, which is a short story collection by Edward P. Jones. I read it during a very cold winter in Provincetown, Massachusetts on a writing fellowship as I was working on the stories that would become The Refugees. I love Lost In The City and I think the reason why is because I felt that the whole book was more than the sum of its parts. It’s a book of short stories about African Americans in Washington, D.C. But I found that book to be so emotionally moving because even though the stories are all about different characters collectively, they added up to a portrait of this community in Washington, D.C. It was very powerful. I wanted my book to have some of that shape, as you’re talking about, where it could be looked at as a whole in which the individual characters would be part of a larger mosaic or whatever you want to call it, and that hopefully the putting a title like The Refugees on it would give you that sense that it is talking about this larger population of which these individual characters are just a part.

Alberto Rios: have to say too that along with with having the story told to us, it is given to us. There’s a difference. It’s shared with us. I don’t know where you get these stories. I don’t know how you found them. Maybe you can talk a little bit about them and how it is that you get to write them.

Viet Nguyen: Sometimes the story ideas are delivered to me. Like the story about the Vietnamese American who returns to Vietnam, the underlying premise of that is that she shares the same name as her half sibling, that their father had two wives. When the first wife took the kids to the United States and abandoned him, he married another woman, had another set of kids, named them after the first. I didn’t come up with that. I met a woman and she said this is what happened to me. I thought that’s a great idea, can I have it. She said yes. The rest of it I made up. Sometimes it’s these ideas that are out there because so many interesting and weird things have happened to people in general that sometimes authors can’t make it up.

Viet Nguyen: Other times I’m very systematic. I had an Excel spreadsheet for this collection. I thought, okay I’ve written a story about a woman, time to write a story about a man. I’ve written a story about an older person, time to write a story about a child. Because I wanted the collection to have a breadth of depictions, so that even if they’re mostly about Vietnamese people the point is that even within that community there’s a diversity of experiences. I wanted to capture that diversity.

Alberto Rios: It’s an architectural idea that you’re looking for something that’s going to stand and rise and be able to support the high tower, which I think I think you end up doing here. Along with that, as you give us these stories, you do it often in casual poetic ways that are just slyly, casually, they just they’re there, but they’re wonderful. Let me read one just for a very, just as an example. “The hypnotic sound made by the scratch of a hundred pens on paper as students took their exams.” It’s very simple, prosaic idea, but elevated in that moment into something both for the the viewer, he’s watching this happen, here’s it, and we hear it. We hear something else taking place as those students are taking exams.

Viet Nguyen: Sure. I mean, part of what I do as a writer if I’m writing a story is I’m worried about plot and character and things like that, but after that I have to worry about what happens at the level of the sentence, what’s the rhythm or what kind of images are going to be deployed there. I think what I want to conjure up for the reader is a sensory experience, whether it’s visual or in this case whether it’s oral, or both at the same time. That’s what makes the, the prose comes alive. It pulls a reader in and that’s absolutely crucial.

Alberto Rios: And it’s fun. It’s not only important, it’s fun. I think as I get those moments, I get a little smile. I just like it. It’s an interesting thing for us to know as writers, all of us, it makes a reader want to keep reading. I don’t know where we get that impulse of compelling anybody to be interested in what we’re saying, except these are the things.

Viet Nguyen: That’s that whole idea that the opening line of a book or a story has to grab you and that’s true for me. Maybe I’m being really crotchety as I get older, but I open a book and if the first line doesn’t grab me in some way, whether it’s the image or the rhythm or the sound, I usually put the book down because there’s not enough time in my life anymore. I feel like every sentence of what I write has to do that same thing. It can’t just be the first line that pulls us in, although that’s crucially important, but every line should be reeling the reader along through its sound, through its imagery in addition to how it meshes with the entire plot.

Alberto Rios: It’s just what I tell my students when they asked me, “Professor Rios, where should the best line in a poem be?” First line, the journalism students. Last line, science fiction writers. I say well the best line in a poem better be the line I’m reading, which is an impossible measure, but isn’t that what we want and isn’t that what we’re trying to do. It’s just what you’re describing.

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely.

Alberto Rios: When we talked about ghosts earlier, it’s bigger than ghosts. You have persuasively conjoined the human and the nonhuman in a lot of ways, not all of them easy to read. There are some very uncomfortable moments. Those are in some sense guessable, but let me refer to one thing. “But I guess oil was to be found in every part of the world, just like anger and sorrow.” You take this very physical sense of oil and the human anger and sorrow and it’s, again, a slight economic edge. You’re finding the human in something that we find hard to explain, even to ourselves.

Viet Nguyen: I think the specific inspiration with that line is that the story is set in Los Angeles in a neighborhood called Baldwin Hills. If you live there, it’s weird if you drive through it’s really interesting because there are oil derricks in this neighborhood. When I first encountered them I thought why are there oil derricks in the middle of urban Los Angeles, but as a writer you need to work with your physical landscape. You need to pay attention to what it looks like. In that case, I thought how can I avoid this remarkable physical feature. Then, of course, you tie it to the story itself and to the emotions that these characters are feeling. I think that’s part of what we do as writers is to ground the stories in physical environments and details and so on. That actually brings out the emotions or the ideas that we’re engaged with.

Alberto Rios: And it leads us to others. We talked about the juxtaposition perhaps of the human and the nonhuman, but there’s something else that’s even more complex than that. If I can just keep going in that direction for a moment, you also join simultaneously what is and what isn’t. Now that seems like not possible, but I think you do it in a lot of different ways. One of the instances, “Above the relentless hammering of the rain a high pitched woman’s voice whined in accompaniment with what sounded like a xylophone. The music pregnant was sorrow, although perhaps it was only Carver who heard a lamentation where there was none.” Loud, loud sound, maybe not. How can you balance those two things? But I think that’s largely what the book is trying to do too.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean we work with presence and absence all the time. When we acknowledge certain things that are happening in front of our eyes, for example, or the words on the page, but behind that there’s enormous absence. That’s what I meant that when I was writing short stories I had to figure out what was not in each of these stories. Behind what’s physically present in each of these stories there’s a huge amount of absence, that’s the background that I wasn’t able to introduce. In that particular instance, Carver is the African American bomber pilot who’s been in denial of his past that he’s bombed Vietnam, now he’s forced to go back there for a particular reason, and because of the absence that he won’t confront, the absence of his own past, what’s in the present, in front of him, is charged with all kinds of meanings that he himself has not really been able to work through.

Alberto Rios: ou have the converse where you’ve got the Vietnamese family, the man and the woman, husband and wife, who’ve got a garage full of illegal contraband. It’s not drugs or anything, it’s just goods, but it’s enough that … It’s again, here’s everything I wanted, only not really. I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s suddenly tinged with something. That’s also the immigrant experience. You never know if you can have what you have. You’re never quite comfortable with it.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. Those contraband goods in their garage are these fake Louis Vuitton products, Prada products, things like that. It’s like those oil derricks, if you’re in LA or probably any city, you’re going to encounter these if you go to certain alleys or shopping districts and so on. People are trying to make a living. They’re trying to appeal to our capitalistic desires and so on. So that story is as much about desires for consumption as it is about wholeness and identity. We buy these things because they fulfill some kind of spiritual need in us. It’s not just because they’re a material good. So you have a garage full of them, but your soul could still be empty at the same time. That’s the absence and presence contrast going on there.

Alberto Rios: And so near and so far, and all the other liminal things that we can use to describe that, but it’s a good moment. It’s a good sense of the immigrant in all sorts of ways everywhere.

Alberto Rios: Let me ask you a little bit about research. You of course maybe have a reservoir of people you know, stories that are told to you, maybe some family stories. What kind of research did you have to do on top of that?

Viet Nguyen: Well you know these stories took me 17 years to write. In some ways, I mean the core of the stories emotionally I didn’t have to do research. I mean, except to live. Like, how am I going to write about Carver, the African American pilot from rural southern United States. I had to imagine those kinds of things, but emotionally I think I knew what I was doing. Sometimes I had to do research in terms of the plot, like the contraband story. I had to figure out how to people make these things, how would you transport them back and forth. That story also involves an organ transplantation. How do organ transplants happen?

Viet Nguyen: Sometimes I need to do research on these mechanical things, make sure the stories work. Then I’ve been to Vietnam many times as well over the course of a dozen years. That constituted research too because then I was able to bring in all those physical details, sensory details from Vietnam, which appear in some of those stories. When Carver, the African American pilot, goes to Vietnam, he’s a foreigner. All these things that he sees for the first time are things that I have to fill in, what does the country smell like, what do the streets look like, things like that. I think that’s partially part of the fun. You learn new things as you’re writing these stories too.

Alberto Rios: I imagine too it’s also you have to take what the reader is not going to take. That is that you have to take in everything so that you can give back something. You have to trust that you will remember what that is.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, and you have to know much more than what actually appears in the story, like I can’t put in all those details. Maybe 5% of the details that I’ve researched might appear in the short story, and so as a writer you have to be comfortable with that. You have to be comfortable with feeling that sometimes I have to write 50 drafts of the story before the story is done, which is what happened to Black Eyed Women, the opening story there.

Alberto Rios: 50 drafts?

Viet Nguyen: 50 drafts. That was the most painful, difficult writing experience of my life, but it made me into a writer because it didn’t break me as a writer. I didn’t give up on that story. I persisted to the bitter end. That was 17 years from the first draft to the last draft.

Alberto Rios: That’s a very exciting statement. Let me just push that slightly farther. Why didn’t it break you?

Viet Nguyen: Because I … Well, what I’ve said is that being a writer is partially about acquiring technique, like how to craft a story or whatever, but being a writer is also as much about character, like can you sit in a room for thousands and thousands of hours with nobody caring about you and what you do and possibly facing oblivion because your stories might never get published. Can you do that? If you can, then you can become a writer. But it takes a lot of character to be able to sit in that chair for thousands and thousands of hours with no material reward.

Alberto Rios: Well, you are that character and you have that character. I want to thank you for joining us today, and I want to thank our viewers. You’ve been watching Books & Company. I’m your host, Alberto Rios. We’ve been joined today by Viet Thanh Nguyen talking about his latest book, The Refugees. Please join us again next time when we’ll be bringing you another good book. Viet.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks Alberto.

Alberto Rios: Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: It was wonderful.

Speaker 2: Books & Company is made possible by the Department of English at Arizona State University, and by the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of Arizona PBS who give additional gifts to support original programs. Thank you.


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