In this interview for The Common, Alexander Bisley and Viet Thanh Nguyen discuss The Sympathizer and the refugee crisis.
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen is on a hot streak. Since winning a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, his nonfiction collection Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War and this year’s short-story collection The Refugees have amassed acclaim. In an ultimately uplifting conversation with Alexander Bisley, Nguyen discussed America’s obligation to help Syrian refugees, writers’ political responsibilities, and why the past’s traumas endure.
Alexander Bisley (AB): Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, your impressive nonfiction work, came out last year and was a finalist for a National Book Award. “Don’t put our names in it because the history is not over,” your father said, when you proposed dedicating it him and your mother. That brings to mind William Faulkner’s line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen (VTN): Anybody who has lived through a traumatic historical event will testify to the veracity and the endurance of Faulkner’s claim. He’s talking about the American South and slavery and its ongoing impact in American culture. Many decades later, that particular past is still not dead, and it has resurged in the issues that Black Lives Matter raises.
In the case of the Vietnam War, it’s true as well. Even though the war was declared over in 1975, anybody who participated or even witnessed that war continues to be affected by it. That includes my parents, many Vietnamese refugees, and many American veterans who I encounter through my books. They’ve contacted me through emails or letters or shown up for my events and continue to tell the stories of the past that they have not been able to get away from.
Traumatic pasts need to be dealt with in complex ways. We need to be able to tell stories about this past, which is what people like Faulkner do relative to his history and what I do relative to mine. We also need to be able to confront these pasts collectively as societies, to try to figure out the proper measure of apologies and reconciliations and reparations that need to take place. And I think in both the cases of slavery and the Vietnam War, we haven’t had that just confrontation with our pasts.
AB: The Sympathizer was partly a response to Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. How about your latest book, The Refugees?
VTN: The Sympathizer is a direct rejoinder to Apocalypse Now and the whole canon of American movies about the Vietnam War. I wrote the stories of The Refugees mostly before The Sympathizer. I wrote them partially out of the same impulse, which is my feeling that to be a Vietnamese-American growing up in this country was to understand that Americans knew little and cared less about the experiences of Vietnamese people. This was exemplified in all these Hollywood Vietnam War movies, which I grew up watching. That was a very painful experience for me to see that the role of Vietnamese people in these movies was to be silenced, to be raped, to be killed, to scream, or when we had a word/words to say, it was basically to say “thank you” to Americans, for rescuing us.
Watching these movies was one of the primary motivators to want to be a writer, because I wanted to be able to tell the stories of Vietnamese people that were very different than what were being shown in these films. That was what led to writing the short stories of The Refugees; I was simply focused on humanizing Vietnamese people and telling their stories. By the time I got to The Sympathizer, I felt freed up to become a much more political writer and to directly address Apocalypse Now and what it represented in terms of the willful American ignorance towards others.
AB: Your story of coming to America as a four-year-old refugee from Vietnam is formative. Why should America take in Syrian refugees?
VTN: In 1975 when the Vietnam War ended, the United States did something really important: it took in 150,000 Vietnamese refugees, of which I was one. In the next couple of decades they took in literally hundreds of thousands more of not just Vietnamese, but also Cambodian and Laotian refugees as well. The United States has not taken in every refugee population that has asked to come in, even if they owed certain obligations to the countries of origin.
As a Vietnamese refugee, I think that it’s important to both bring up this history of American generosity, but also this history of American selectivity so that we understand now, with Syrian refugees, the United States is being selective. But that it has had a tradition of hospitality and generosity that it can draw on. It’s then the obligation of people like me who benefited from this selective hospitality to remind other Americans of what they’ve done in the past, and encourage them to continue to do that today.
AB: Do you believe American writers have a political role to play, especially at present?
VTN: That obligation to speak up as the conscience of the country or community that they live in has always been a part of American literature and letters, but perhaps it’s been a task that American writers have faltered at in the last few decades because politics have not seemed so urgent.
The only positive aspect about the Trump administration is that it has clarified the political stakes for writers. We haven’t seen this level of political commitment on the part of American writers since the Vietnam War. I’ve never seen writers collectively so angry and motivated to speak up politically, so that’s refreshing. Writers have taken to the streets, written essays, and taken a stance on being public intellectuals. It would also be really crucial to see them take those political motivations and infuse them into their own fiction writing. Contemporary American fiction is dominated by non-political middlebrow writing.
AB: Speaking of political, I interviewed The Underground Railroad’s Colson Whitehead, before Trump won: “Their chickens are coming home to roost,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see how the GOP has destroyed itself. Unfortunately, they’ll probably drag us down with them. So the arc of justice bends ever so slightly. But we’re all going to pay the price for their twenty years of foolishness.” Do you have any thoughts in response?
VTN: Before the election I probably would’ve agreed with Colson. But it seems that the GOP have [been] successful in managing their internal contradictions, at least to win the presidential election. Is the GOP going to be destroyed internally by its own internal contradictions, now? I wouldn’t be so optimistic that we can simply sit back and wait for the inertia within the GOP to lead it to its ultimate destruction, because the inertia within the Democratic Party is certainly very strong as well. If the election taught me anything, it’s that neither of the dominant wings of these political parties is speaking to core problems in the United States.
And as long as that’s the case, then it won’t be inevitable that the moral arc of the universe will bend towards justice. It could be very well the case that the arc of the universe is going to bend towards destruction. That potential has always been linked in American culture: the Obama idea and the Martin Luther King idea that we’re always gradually moving towards justice is an optimistic one. I think that ignores the fact that within American culture, as within any culture, [lies] the potential for self-destruction because of internal contradiction. In the case of the United States, that contradiction is around questions of race and exploitation. If the Democratic Party wants to see the GOP internally combust, it has to get in front of the problems of race and exploitation, and it hasn’t done a very good job of that in the last few decades.
AB: With the squid scene (a scene in which the narrator masturbates with a dead squid), The Sympathizer homages Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint liver moment. Of our current times, Roth says: “I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is.” Roth slams Trump’s “indigenous American berserk” in The New Yorker. “Ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
VTN: Philip Roth is a political writer in one sense, but not someone who has gone off on these kinds of justified tirades, so I’m happy to see it. Does Roth’s correct characterization of Donald Trump apply to this entire portion of the American electorate that voted Trump in? No. His description of Trump describes trolls, the people who write in the comment sections of newspaper articles. They are the underbelly of the American consciousness. However, what’s really dangerous is that there’s a much larger portion of the American people who are in such anger, or despair, or cynicism, that they will vote for someone who is, in effect, a troll [laughs].
AB: With regards to The Sympathizer, you’ve infamously said, “I didn’t get as much sex in as I wanted.” How do you feel you fared with The Refugees?
VTN: I think part of the point of The Sympathizer was to put as much of that as I could onscreen, and even so my editor made me take out a couple of things that were not contributing to the story line [laughs].
Sex as a part of someone’s identity and motivation runs throughout many of the stories in The Refugees. All the sex that happens in The Refugees takes place off-screen, so to speak. The tone of the book is very much about the psychic and emotional travails of refugees and the people they meet and love. The sex is important, but the actual act of sex is not that important—though I think that you can clearly see that sex is a crucial motivating factor for so many things that happen in the people’s lives. There’s a mistress in “Fatherland,” there is another man who impregnates someone’s former wife in “Someone Else Besides You,” and the confrontation with one’s own gay sexuality in “The Other Man.”
AB: In addition to writing prolifically, you’re a professor at the University of Southern California. Can you share any insights you give to your USC writing students?
VTN: What I tell my students, and just about everybody, is there aren’t many secrets to becoming a writer. Ones that have been important to me are: to write a lot, to read a lot, and to be patient. All those things are actually really hard to do [laughs], they’re simple in concept but difficult for people to carry out. You need to write a lot because basically, the only way to learn how to write is to practice.
I don’t know if I spent 10,000 hours learning how to write as Malcolm Gladwell would say is necessary, but I certainly put in thousands of hours. I also have definitely put in tens of thousands of hours into reading, because you need to read deeply and widely in order to know what not to do, what kinds of traditions that your work fits into, and how to allude to those traditions. And finally, you need patience because unless you’re one of those geniuses who scores a million dollar book deal at 25, you, and most writers, will toil in obscurity for many, many years, even decades, before recognition will happen.
AB: Tom Boyle, one of The Sympathizer’s champions, is a mentor?
VTN: When I first got to USC, where I now teach and where Tom was teaching, I was 26 years old and he was already famous. I wondered how I could inject some of his writing’s energy and rhythm, especially his short stories, into my own writing.
Even though we didn’t know each other very well, Tom gave me a great blurb for the novel. In times afterwards, we had a meal, and he shared his wisdom about what it’s like to be on the road, or how to perform in front of an audience. That was really important to me because Tom is a great showman, he gives good readings. That’s a rare talent, given the number of bad and boring readings that I’ve attended.
AB: In conversation, he certainly has remarkable energy and style. Writers can’t retire, he told me.
VTN: [Laughs] I think that professors retire, and that Tom has retired as a professor of creative writing, but he’s still out in his Montecito villa, writing away as productively as he did before he retired from teaching. I think that writers write until they’re physically incapable of writing. Writers, like athletes, probably don’t know when it’s a good time for them to retire. I think even if the public may perceive a decline in a writer’s abilities, that’s irrelevant to the writer. The writer exists by writing, and I foresee that fate for myself.
AB: And the physical book, despite having been pronounced dead thousands of times over the last decade or so, thrives!
VTN: That’s taken me by surprise. There was a period of several years where I was reading on the Kindle. What changed my mind about that was seeing my own novel come into print [laughs] and taking great delight in the physical feeling of holding the book—it brought back to me all the happiness of what it was like to be in the library or in the bookstore in my youth and young adulthood.
I think that feeling of attachment to the physical object is true for many people, that’s why we see the resurgence of vinyl, the surprising endurance of independent bookstores, and the resurgence in hardcopy book sales. I think we can take hope in the fact that we’re still human beings and not creations of artificial intelligence. That as human beings, as physical people, we still take pleasure in the tactile. There is something about that printed book that appeals not just to our minds but to our bodies as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of The Sympathizer, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and most recently, The Refugees.
Alexander Bisley is a Wellington writer.
Interview transcription credit: Petra Westropp.
Photo credit: Viet Thanh Nguyen headshot by Bebe Jacobs.