Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

First Draft- Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen and Mitzi Rapkin of the First Draft discuss the Refugees in relation to Nguyen’s personal immigration story.

Read the transcript below:

Mitzi Rapkin: This is First Draft, a Dialogue on Writing produced at Aspen Public Radio. I’m Mitzi Rapkin. First Draft highlights the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft and the literary arts.

Mitzi Rapkin: My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the novel The Sympathizer and short story collection The Refugees, and nonfiction books Nothing Ever Dies and Race and Resistance. His novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Nguyen teaches at University of Southern California. He was born in Vietnam and raised in America.

Mitzi Rapkin: His short stories focus on various Vietnamese refugees making their way in the USA. The characters are haunted by their histories, their memories, their dreams and the ways in which they cannot make peace with the various past and present ghosts in their lives, be it metaphorical or actual.

Mitzi Rapkin: We began the discussion, which was recorded via Skype, about The Refugees, talking about the 20 years that took Nguyen to write them and if his thoughts changed over those two decades about his work or his own refugee status.

Viet Thanh N.: I learned how to write through writing the short stories. And that was a long, agonizing process of trial and error. And learning how to become a writer was definitely integral to how I thought of myself as a refugee and as a writer.

Viet Thanh N.: When I set out to write the stories that became The Refugees, what I wanted to do was to humanize Vietnamese people because I grew up in the United States well aware that most Americans knew nothing about Vietnamese people and that this was really devastating because the American perception of Vietnamese people would have an enormous impact on how Americans told stories about the Vietnam War. And these stories were getting exported all over the world. So I thought writing these stories was important.

Viet Thanh N.: The problem was that learning how to write was then wrapped up in this problem of trying to write stories about Vietnamese refugees. By the time I came close to finishing the collection, I knew that perhaps the collection might have some kind of limitation because I was trying to humanize these people. That’s why I felt like I needed to write The Sympathizer, which is a book that is very, very different because its ambitions are quite different. It doesn’t try to humanize Vietnamese people, for example.

Viet Thanh N.: So for me, the craft and learning, the short story was wrapped up with this project of humanization. And to be honest, I did not go back and edit the stories very much because by the end of 20 years of working with them, or 17 years of working with them, I was completely exhausted.

Mitzi Rapkin: I’m wondering about your path to being a writer because from what I’ve found of your background, you’re more of an academic.

Viet Thanh N.: I did take a few creative writing workshops as an undergraduate and a graduate student, I think three altogether, but I did not go down that road to get the MFA for a number of reasons. I think probably the primary reason was that I knew back in my 20s, early 20s, that I was a much better scholar than I was a writer. I’m a very cautious person so I’m not one to suddenly decide that I’m going to throw away everything and just try my best to become a writer and starve. So I became an academic partly because I really care about scholarship, but also partially because I needed a job and that was my attitude, that being an academic and doing scholarship would be my day job and writing fiction would be my passion.

Viet Thanh N.: I think that was, for me personally, a wise choice because I think it kept writing fiction as something that was not my profession, but my vocation. So I’m not immeshed in the whole professional world of creative writing. I write because I want to do it. And even though I might have learned how to write a little faster if I had gone down the MFA route, I think I might’ve become a very different writer at the same time because it’s hard to go through an institution like the creative writing programs and not be transformed.

Viet Thanh N.: For me, being an academic and being a scholar at the same time has been really productive for being a writer because I think it’s made me a very different kind of writer than most other writers who have only gone through the creative writing programs. And especially in The Sympathizer, I think it’s very evident that the academic knowledge that I’ve had is present there. But even in The Refugees, I think even though the stories themselves are not as political as a sympathizer, I think a lot of scholarly thinking on my part went into some of the choices that I made in writing those stories.

Mitzi Rapkin: You said earlier that you’re a cautious person. Sometimes we don’t think about how we get the way we are. But I know you’re also the father of a young child and so you’re seeing personality develop. I’m wondering if you could tell me about being a cautious person and where do you think that comes from or do you think it’s just your nature?

Viet Thanh N.: I blame my parents. When I was growing up, my parents were very, very cautious people. They’re very devout Catholics, very, very hardworking, very cautious in the sense that they want to make sure everything’s safe and that everything’s taken care of, that the family was going to be stable and my brother and I would be provided for and all that kind of thing. And that was an outcome of a very difficult life that they had in Vietnam.

Viet Thanh N.: But the thing about my parents is that at the same time as they were very cautious, they’re very pragmatic, they also could take risks when the occasion demanded. So in 1954 when the country was divided in two, they took a risk, they decided to leave North Vietnam and go South. And then when the country was divided again in 1970, well, when the country felt communism in 1975 they also took a risk and fled. I learned from that. One thing I learned from my parents was you need to be cautious. You need to take care of things. You can’t take unnecessary risks, but when things really matter, you need to take a risk.

Viet Thanh N.: So that was my strategy with writing, that I would take care of myself, my family and so on by having a job, by being a professor. And I would create the time to be a writer. And that was where the risk was involved. Because even though it wasn’t a matter of me quitting everything just to devote myself to writing, it was a matter of me sacrificing almost all of my free time for 20 years to the art and the craft and the discipline of writing without any guarantee of an outcome. That’s a huge risk. The risk of not just failure, but the risk of failure in the eyes of others because I think that many of my fellow academics had very little understanding of why I was doing it. And I think that many creative writers looked at me fairly skeptically as an academic who they thought, in the words of one, was a literary dabbler. So I knew I was taking risks, but as long as I had made everything, everything else in my life secure, then I could undertake that challenge.

Mitzi Rapkin: You’re listening to First Draft, a Dialogue on Writing produced at Aspen Public Radio. I’m Mitzi Rapkin. My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer and the short story collection, The Refugees. Our interview was recorded on Skype.

Mitzi Rapkin: I don’t want to be glib because I know what your parents went through and many people of your generation from Vietnam went through, but was there laughter in your households?

Viet Thanh N.: No, that’s not glib at all. There was very little laughter in our household, and that was partially because they were very devout Catholics and very serious and stern people, but it’s also because they were just very preoccupied with the challenge of survival in a new country.

Viet Thanh N.: I remember when we first came to the United States and my parents were simply working menial jobs, it was actually sort of a happy time for me because they actually had free time to spend with me. But once they became self employed and they opened up their own business and then they became your stereotypical refugee or immigrant shopkeepers who worked endless hours almost every day of the year and I never hardly ever got to see them. When they’re working like that, when people are working like that, they really don’t have a lot of time for laughter or joy in their lives. And that was a true emotional consequence of what it meant to be refugee, but also a personal fallout of the war’s history.

Viet Thanh N.: After they retired or semi retired and they weren’t working like that, then they actually became much more joyful. Then there was actually some laughter in the household. I got to see a side of my parents in their semi retirement that I really had not seen most of my life. Of course that makes me think how different our lives could have been if the war had not happened, if we had stayed in Vietnam, if the communists weren’t there, if my parents were as prosperous as they were before the end of the war, maybe I would’ve had a happy childhood. But in that case I probably would not have become a writer.

Mitzi Rapkin: There is a lot of storytelling, the first story it opens and the narrator writes stories and her mother tells her stories. I’m wondering about the role of storytelling in your childhood, in your history, and you were saying this book is also interested in memory, which a lot of times goes back to storytelling.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I grew up with two kinds of stories. One kind of stories were what I heard from American culture, watching American movies about the Vietnam war, for example, and realizing that there was no place for someone like me in these kinds of stories, and that these stories were memories. These were how Americans were choosing to remember their past and there was a tremendous consequence to that act of storytelling and memory if they serve to do things like erase or efface people like me and other Vietnamese people.

Viet Thanh N.: So then it became very urgent to tell my own stories in order to address the memories that I knew were circulating among the Vietnamese refugee community and to transform American memories, and then through transforming the American memories, hopefully the worlds memories because American storytelling is so powerful and so pervasive that how Americans choose to remember their past is oftentimes how the rest of the world does as well.

Viet Thanh N.: The other set of stories I grew up with where the stories being told by parents and by other Vietnamese refugees. In the opening story of The Refugees, Black Eyed Women, when the narrator says her mother would tell her stories once, twice, three times, that was certainly the case with my own parents. They didn’t tell me a lot of stories, but when they chose to tell me stories, they would choose to tell them over and over and over again to make sure I understood and that these stories would become ingrained in me so that they also would become memories.

Viet Thanh N.: Oftentimes these stories were about terrible and painful things that they wanted me to know about or that they wanted to serve as cautionary tales. So I also knew from that experience that, again, here it is, stories and memories intersect, because my parents were successful. Some of those stories they’ve told me I’ve never forgotten. And the the way that they told stories, they would tell me stories to warn me not to do things. That if I did a certain thing I would be in danger or I would lose my life or something like that. And that’s one of the reasons why I become a cautious person, is because of these constant stories as warnings that my parents have told me, which have now become a part of my own memory.

Mitzi Rapkin: In this first story, when I started reading it, you don’t give away that the narrator is a female until a little bit into the story. I was interested to see my own reaction when I found out it was a female because I just assumed it was a male because you’re a male, which is absolutely a false road to go down. But I’m curious if that’s something that you noticed and were conscious of.

Viet Thanh N.: It was very deliberate. There’s another story in The Refugees called The Americans, which features James Carver who is African American, but we don’t find out until relatively late in the story that he is in fact black. In stories like this, what I was interested in was markers of identity and difference. Exactly as you say, why do we think certain characters have certain kinds of backgrounds? And why is it that someone like me, for example, who’s Vietnamese might be expected to write only about Vietnamese people? And what if I did something different, or as a man, what if I wrote as a woman?

Viet Thanh N.: It always seemed to me that there was some kind, one of the things I object to in literary realism is how identity and difference can be handled very awkwardly and bluntly. A character will appear and we’re given a description of a character, which includes gender and race and so on. And that’s useful, I guess, for the reader, but it also reinforces this idea that we have to immediately notice or identify what someone’s identity is.

Viet Thanh N.: And if the story’s being told from a particular character’s point of view, as it is in the case of the opening story Black Eyed Women, it’s told from our narrator’s first person perspective, that narrator is not in reality probably go around thinking, I’m a girl, I’m a woman. And that’s what I wanted to deal with. I wanted to not avoid the fact that she was a woman, but I didn’t want to be awkward in signposting or declaring what her identity was and I wanted to let that emerge in as subtle of a way as possible and to try to use various sets of clues or signs to indicate to the reader that gender might be an issue here.

Viet Thanh N.: Or in the case of James Carver, the African American, even before we find out he’s black. I think there’s certain kinds of signs that appear that maybe he’s not white or that he’s coming from parts of the country or with certain kinds of history that could imply that he is African American.

Mitzi Rapkin: You’re listening to First Draft, a Dialogue on Writing produced at Aspen Public Radio. I’m Mitzi Rapkin. My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer and the short story collection, The Refugees. Our interview was recorded on Skype.

Mitzi Rapkin: A lot of your stories that had children, because they were these refugee stories taking place in America, it’s the children that are really straddling both worlds. Is this how you felt and do you feel like that’s important to include in your stories?

Viet Thanh N.: Certainly when I was growing up, I felt like I was an American. I was constantly exposed to American culture and all the related things that go with that. But I also felt that I was Vietnamese. I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community, went to Vietnamese Catholic church, my parents were Vietnamese. We ate Vietnamese food all the time. So there was always certainly that sense of duality and a sense that when I was in my parents’ household, I was an American spying on them. And yet when I stepped outside until the rest of the American world, I was the Vietnamese spying on Americans. And that duality has been very productive for me as a writer, if uncomfortable for me as a person.

Viet Thanh N.: And certainly a part of my own personal trajectory or struggle has been to try to figure out how to reconcile those two identities into something that we could call Vietnamese American identity or Asian American identity. But even though I think that’s possible, I think that for many people who don’t have that vocabulary, who don’t have the idea of being Asian American or Vietnamese Americans, some kind of hybrid, they do experience themselves continually as being split and struggle with that sense of duality and that the lack of ability to reconcile. And that’s a classic immigrant experience that still endures today to different degrees for different kinds of populations.

Viet Thanh N.: So it was absolutely important for me to deal with that in The Refugees because I think that it is a widespread experience for the, for the second generation or for people like me who sociologists call the 1.5 generation, born elsewhere, but raised in the United States. It’s a struggle that’s, I think, a core part of the American identity and certainly a core part of mine.

Mitzi Rapkin: One of the things I noticed, and I didn’t really count them, but I think more had a dominant father figure. More of the angst and the tension was between a child and the father. I’m wondering if I’m accurate in that and if so, why?

Viet Thanh N.: I actually am not sure. What’s interesting is that when I wrote the book, I had an Excel spreadsheet where I mapped out all the demographics of my stories because I wanted to make sure that if I wrote a story about an older person, I’d write one about a younger person, man, woman and so on. So actually I don’t really remember what the quantitative aspect of this is. But I think that there are certainly stories that do deal with significant mother figures like Black Eyes Women, the opening story, but it’s nevertheless true that that father figures and the struggle with them are crucial too.

Viet Thanh N.: I think that’s definitely because of my own life. I had significant relationships with both a strong father figure and a strong mother figure and both of them were powerful and loving figures for me. But they were also figures that I was struggling against because they wanted me to do certain things, believe certain things, become a certain kind of person that I was always rebelling against.

Viet Thanh N.: So whether it’s mother or father, I think there’s definitely a generational tension in these stories as children and parents wrestle with each other about the choices that they’re making, either in regards to the past, Vietnam and its history, or in regards to the present and how to fashion a new life in the United States.

Mitzi Rapkin: Some of the fathers that you did write about that I loved, one of the things I loved, is that they were really strong. Like one would get up and have his kids do calisthenics and another one had really big muscles. I’m wondering if there’s some link of that to your life.

Viet Thanh N.: I thought my father was very strong. My mother too, but since we’re talking about fathers, I thought my father was very strong because he would go and he would work 12 to 14 hours a day, just like my mom, and do that everyday of the year of the week. And then he would still take me to school and he would come home and he would be the man who would actually cook dinner a lot of the time and he would do a good amount of the cleaning.

Viet Thanh N.: And that was actually very significant because Vietnamese culture is generally fairly patriarchal and sexist and men don’t do those kinds of things. We’re not expected to do the domestic chores. So he offered me an example of someone who could do the work that was expected of him, yet also helped my mother do the domestic work and also go to church every week and be a strong Catholic. Even though I don’t believe in Catholicism, I respect the fact that my father is very devout and he follows through. So he’s not hypocrite and that’s part of his strength.

Viet Thanh N.: And at the same time I don’t agree with them on so many kinds of issues. We had some strong conflicts over certain things that I wanted that he didn’t want and vice versa. So to have a strong father figure, I think for me it’s always wrapped up in with the potential for conflict at the same time.

Mitzi Rapkin: Did he ever do sit ups and pushups with you on his back?

Viet Thanh N.: No. I made that part up, but I think that he did the Christian or the Catholic equivalent spiritually, which was to make sure that I became a Catholic and make sure that I went through all these rituals, which I thought to be just as punishing as a physical rituals that my character is put through in that story.

Mitzi Rapkin: You had one story that was specifically dealing with memory and it was about a married couple, the Khans. The male, the husband was starting to lose his memory and act a little strange and started to be combative. And Mrs. Khan was helping him and he’s calling her by another name and she’s trying to figure out who this female is, of the name that he’s calling her, because if she feels like maybe she wasn’t his first love and who was this woman. And she never really knows. He writes in his notebook one night, she’s responding to the wrong name, I better watch out for her, something’s going wrong. And it made me think a lot about memory and stories and relationships and who is deemed crazy.

Viet Thanh N.: I think what he says about her specifically is that she may not know who she is anymore. And obviously the irony from Mrs. Khan’s perspective is that she thinks she does know who she is and that is her husband who’s losing his identity through losing his memory. But perhaps maybe he’s right. And so the story is about memory’s relationship to identity. And obviously there’s an allegorical dimension to this in the nations remember history, how the cultures remember history. But it’s a very specifically personal story about these two people and the impact that dementia has on them.

Viet Thanh N.: The fact is that without our we lose our identities. And yet at the same time, any easy assumption that we know who we are must be put into a question. So it’s not simply the person who is subject to dementia who may not have a sense of who they are anymore. But even people of good mental faculties may not truly understand what’s happening inside of them.

Viet Thanh N.: So identity becomes a much larger problem than simply for those who have Alzheimer’s, for example. And so that’s what I’m really wanting to explore in the story, if we’re talking about thematics. The other thing I wanted to explore with just simply at the level of emotions, how painful it is to lose someone who you’ve known for your entire life and what would that look like at the level of a story? What would someone who cares for and love someone has had to do to take care of that person whose identity is slipping away? So there’s great drama and great pain to be found in that.

Mitzi Rapkin: There’s a moment where she had this certain feeling, I think it was a sweating in her palms when she first saw him come into the house when she was going to marry him. And she got that feeling one more time and it was very visceral.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. So what’s happened is that he’s left the house. Mr. Khan has left the house and it’s wandered off and she’s gone desperately in search of him in the neighborhood, can’t find him. She comes back to the house and discovers that he’s already there. He’s come back. And at the moment that he turns around and sees her, she recalls meeting him for the first time in her parents’ house. And so the nervousness that she felt that first time returns to her this new time, because it is as if he’s seeing her anew, because his memory has vanished. And so every time he sees her, it’s as if he’s seeing her new.

Viet Thanh N.: And at that moment, she makes a very crucial decision, which maybe I shouldn’t give away what’s going to happen, but she makes a decision that she’s been struggling against the entire story. She makes a sacrifice for her husband at that moment because she loves him, even though by making this sacrifice it completely contradicts everything she’s been trying to do throughout the story.

Viet Thanh N.: And so I, at that point I wanted to try to convey that this is what we do when we’re in love, whether we’re in love as teenagers as they were at the beginning or whether we’re still in love hopefully when we’re 65 or 75 or 85 as she still feels that she is. But love inflected by many decades of experience and loss and a sacrifice.

Mitzi Rapkin: You’re listening to First Draft, a Dialogue on Writing produced at Aspen Public Radio. I’m Mitzi Rapkin. My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer and the short story collection, The Refugees. Our interview was recorded on Skype.

Mitzi Rapkin: Another theme that came up in a few of the stories, and I know it happened in your life too, with a break in in your home, but was just the violence that some of the racism can cause. One of the fathers punch someone who wasn’t treating his son right. I know that there was fear when you come to a new country. I’m wondering if you can speak to that.

Viet Thanh N.: I think one of the things that happened to the Vietnamese refugee community when they came to the United States is that they brought with them the residues of war, which would include trauma and depression and all these kinds of things, but also violence. When I was growing up in San Jose of the 1970s and 1980s, the threat of violence was omnipresent. We had Vietnamese youth gangs in the second and third grade. Where did we as second and third graders come up with the idea that we should have gangs?

Viet Thanh N.: My theory is that a lot of these young boys that I was hanging out with, their fathers were soldiers, were veterans. And I’m sure that the legacy of violence that they experienced and they carried out must have been imported into their households. Because obviously the rates of domestic violence and abuse and all these kinds of things were high in the Vietnamese community and the phenomenon of home invasions, which were apparently invented by a Vietnamese gangsters in the 1980s, were a direct threat to the community. And my parents were deeply afraid of it. I think that those young men who became those gangsters must have been shaped by the violence that had been inflicted on their parents’ generation.

Viet Thanh N.: And so my sense of San Jose of the 1980s, my hometown, my youth was that there was always that lurking potential of violence and danger, whether it was going to be coming from the Vietnamese community or whether it was going to be coming from the fact that my parents as refugees from the war were working in a neighborhood in which the threat of violence was already high because of the particular climate of downtown San Jose at that time. So I wanted to convey some of that in the stories of The Refugees because that presence of violence in a refugee community is something I think that was visceral for us and what’s probably unknown to so many of the Americans that we encountered.

Mitzi Rapkin: Well, I thought you were really adept at ending your stories. I’m wondering what your concept is of what a short story should do and how difficult for you are the endings to write?

Viet Thanh N.: I have a very weak sense of what short stories should do. For me, the short story was a format that I took on in order to learn how to write, but the real natural form for me is the novel. So when it came time to The Sympathizer, I had a great time and now I can explain to you in great detail why made all the choices that I did in that novel. I feel very sure footed in the realm of the novel.

Viet Thanh N.: When it comes to the short stories, I struggled with all of these short stories. None of them, I think, came easily to me. I struggled because I was trying to figure out how to do plot and how to do character and how to do theme and how to do language and all these kinds of things.

Viet Thanh N.: So ending short stories was very challenging because I didn’t know intuitively how to do that. How do you wrap up the plot and the character and the theme all at the same time? Especially since, for me, short stories are so often moments in a life versus an entire life. That was a tremendous challenge for me because I think that as a writer, I’m interested in the entire life. I’m interested in big stories and big narratives that take time to unfold. And in most cases, short stories are about doing that on a very small scale, about finding some important moment in someone’s life, the most important moment in their life probably and focusing on that and building the beginning, the middle and end around just that moment. That’s the tension.

Viet Thanh N.: So I think for me, ending short story is about understanding emotionally what the moment of that story is about. So in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Khan and the the dementia and the Alzheimer’s and everything, for me, I think I had to realize that the core of the story was not just about his memory and its lost, which is the plot, but about the love that the two of them had. And I had to find an action at the end of the story that would convey both the theme of memory and loss on the one hand and the theme of love and sacrifice on the other. That’s always a challenging part. I think an ending of a short story has to resonate at both the level of the plot and at the level of the theme that the story is dealing with.

Mitzi Rapkin: You’re listening to First Draft, a Dialogue on Writing produced at Aspen Public Radio. I’m Mitzi Rapkin. My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer and the short story collection, The Refugees. Our interview was recorded on Skype.

Mitzi Rapkin: Can you read a passage from something that influenced you as a writer?

Viet Thanh N.: I’m going to read a passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which was an enormous influence on me as a writer. And if you’ve read Invisible Man, then you’ll be able to hear the echoes of that book from The Sympathizer. So this is the opening paragraph of Invisible Man.

Viet Thanh N.: “I am an invisible man. No, I’m not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe, nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see some times in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard distorting glass. When they approach me, they will see only my surroundings themselves or figments of their imagination. Indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Mitzi Rapkin: Do you have anything you want to say about why you chose that? Anything else?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I chose this opening passage of Invisible Man because it’s very striking, very powerful, and because it completely inspired the opening paragraph of my novel, The Sympathizer, which is also about someone who is struggling with his identity and with his mind as well.

Mitzi Rapkin: Can you read something that you wrote? Maybe it was something that changed a lot from the first draft, something you like how it turned out.

Viet Thanh N.: I’m going to read the first paragraph of the opening story of The Refugees because this story, Black Eyed Women, took me 50 drafts over 17 years. The first lines of this story were put down in the summer of 1997 when I had just come to Los Angeles and become a professor and started writing fiction. It looked nothing like the story that it eventually became.

Viet Thanh N.: “Fame, which strikes someone, usually the kind that healthy minded people would not wish upon themselves, such as being kidnapped and kept prisoner for years, suffering humiliation in a sex scandal or surviving something typically fatal. These survivors needed someone to help write their memoirs and their agents might eventually come across me. At least your name’s not on anything, my mother once said. When I mentioned that I would not mind being thanked in the acknowledgements, she said, let me tell you a story. It would be the first time I heard this story, but not the last. In our Homeland, she went on, there was a reporter who said the government tortured the people in prison, so the government does to him exactly what he said they did to others. They send him away and no one ever sees him again. That’s what happens to writers who put their names on things.”

Mitzi Rapkin: Tell me about that.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, this was a story that was very, very painful for me to write because it took 50 drafts and it almost broke me as a writer. And the reason why I became a writer is because it didn’t break me, because I persisted to the end. And the 50th draft looked nothing like the first. So in a way, the story that eventually emerged was nothing like what I had originally in mind, except for this idea that there was a ghost who was going to come back from the past and haunt someone. That was there in the first story. And the protagonist being a woman who would be deeply disturbed by her past. But almost everything else is different.

Viet Thanh N.: And reading this opening paragraph, I just feel a sense of relief and delight that I persisted and that the story was finished and that I could look at this paragraph and think that this was how I became a writer.

Mitzi Rapkin: So tell me where do you write?

Viet Thanh N.: When I had an office, I wrote in my office. That’s where I wrote the stories and then where I wrote The Sympathizer. But since then, I’ve had a son and now he owns that room. So I write in a desk by my bed or more often now I just write at the dining room table.

Mitzi Rapkin: And what do you do or where do you go to get away from writing?

Viet Thanh N.: I can’t do a whole lot because my a writing occupies much of my life and then my family does and then my life as a professor. So mostly to get away from my writing or to get away from all these pressures, I go on Facebook or I have a cocktail.

Mitzi Rapkin: Who do you show your work to first to get feedback?

Viet Thanh N.: My partner [Lan Yung 00:34:06] who’s read, I think, every word that I’ve written oftentimes more than once.

Mitzi Rapkin: And how have you dealt with rejection?

Viet Thanh N.: Sleep. I think that when the rejection notices come they’re hurtful and devastating, of course. I just feel awful for the day and then I go to sleep and the next day I wake up and I discover that I’ve gotten over it. At least I’ve gotten over that immediate rejection. And so sleep helps me to maintain my resilience.

Mitzi Rapkin: And what is your favorite word?

Viet Thanh N.: Asking me about my favorite word is like asking me about my favorite book or favorite author. It’s an impossible question to answer, but I’ll give it a shot. My favorite word is yes. I like to hear that. Probably my favorite word that is not yes would come from The Sympathizer for the moment, and that’s crapulent, which I use to describe the character, the Crapulent Major. It’s just a word that when I saw it stuck in my head and thought I thought it was so wonderfully appropriate for this character. I loved using it over and over again.

Mitzi Rapkin: You’ve been listening to First Draft, a Dialogue on Writing produced at Aspen Public Radio. My guest was Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer and the short story collection, The Refugees. Our interview was recorded on Skype.

Mitzi Rapkin: You can follow First Draft on Facebook. Just look for First Draft, a Dialogue on Writing, and click like. And on Twitter, @firstdraftapr. You can email me at The theme music for First Draft was produced and performed by Murph Mahaffey. I’m Mitzi Rapkin. Thanks for listening.


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

More Interviews