Maryana Lucia Vestic interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen on behalf of Creative Writing at the New School.
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Maryana Lucia Vestic, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Viet Thanh Nguyen about his book Nothing Ever Dies (Harvard University Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Maryana Lucia Vestic: Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War is such an impressive achievement. The book clearly reveals your adept love of research and critical thinking. You make it look so easy–the analysis of such all encompassing subjects such as war, memory, time, imperialism, and what makes us humane and in-humane. Yet, your voice remains connected via your personal life experience and that of your family. How did you balance the scales so well? How did you keep your humanity in the game while not wasting even one critical moment by giving into “easy” storytelling or memoir?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s been a struggle to find a balance between my critical and creative desires, and between the demands of objectivity and subjectivity. I definitely did not want to write a completely personal nonfiction account of war and memory, because I could not give up the decade of scholarly research I had done on the topic. My solution was believing that criticism could have a narrative dimension, that it could be delivered as a story. Since I had already done all of the research for the book in the form of academic articles, I didn’t have to worry, in writing the final version of the book, about coming up with arguments. I could simply begin a chapter with an idea in my head and write it without an outline, letting myself be carried along organically by telling the argument as a story, using intuition and rhythm to tell me when to drop in a personal anecdote, and trusting that the propulsion of the story would carry me to a fitting conclusion.
MLV: I was really impressed and moved by your examination of the many forms by which the culture of civilization remembers war: the monuments, the cemeteries, the films, etc. The realization that the technological “manpower” of American (Hollywood) filmmaking vs. Vietnamese filmmaking, for example, mirrors the American military manpower during the Vietnam/American war is astounding. Did you go into this cinematic examination with the idea in mind or did it slowly reveal itself after watching multiple films and/or reading various film criticism on the subject?
VTN: The connection between industrial war-making power and cinematic film-making power grew over time, as I thought about these two things on parallel tracks. The more I thought about them, the more obvious it became to me that they are part of the same industrial society, drawing from the same impulse to use capitalist technology and defend capitalist ideology. Reading film criticism about Hollywood as an industry was helpful, but this criticism wasn’t usually Marxist. It was Marxist criticism’s impulse to see how ideology was always related to production that helped to illuminate how Hollywood, if it drew from the same industrial base as the Pentagon, couldn’t help but share in a common ideology that accepts the inevitability of a military-industrial complex.
MLV: Your first person accounts of visiting many of the war memorial/monuments both American and Vietnamese were beautifully and vividly written. Yet, you don’t include more than a handful of scenes of your visits. How was the decision to write in detail about certain visits made? How did certain locations stand out for you?
VTN: I saw a great many memorials, monuments, and museums, and it would have been exhausting for the reader to categorize them all. So I switched between summary and closeup. In summary, I talked about the major narratives that many of these sites shared, and here the sites receded into the background. In closeup, the sites that came to the foreground were the ones that were indisputably historically important, the major places that everyone, native or foreign, was likely to visit. These places always had an emotional impact on me, so they were compelling to write about. As far as the lesser-known sites, I wrote about them when they moved me. I came across a cave in Laos once that I hadn’t intended to visit, but my driver said it was on the way to another destination. Hundreds of people had died there in an American rocket strike. It was a lonely cave, haunting and unlit. I stopped at the threshold where the light died and didn’t go deeper, because I was scared. Behind me, I heard laughter. A handful of local schoolgirls was at the cave mouth, taking pictures with their cellphones. To me, this was the liminal moment between past and present, between a horrible war and a hopeful, or perhaps simply unknowing, modernity. I knew I had to write about it.
MLV: Did your initial research take you on the journey or were you at the helm the whole way through? The connections you make between winners/losers (so called), identity in war and how war is remembered and the ever present competition of who suffered most are very smooth, but I wonder if you found all the pieces with intention or certain parts of your research surprised you along the way?
VTN: My initial plan was only to write about Vietnam. Then, as I traveled in Vietnam, it seemed logical to cross over into Cambodia. Then Laos. And I became aware of how South Korea played a major role in the war, so I went to South Korea. In other words, I had an agenda but once I started seeing connections to other places that were also involved in the war, I had to pursue them. I wrote about those places in articles, but it was only in writing the book as a whole that I could see the larger story into which those places fit. That there was a larger narrative was a pleasant surprise. I assumed there would be as I wrote the small pieces that allowed me insight into one part of the war’s history, but I couldn’t be sure I’d find the wider perspective. I had to hope, and trust, that I could.
MLV: You mention the Slavoj Zizek idea of the zombie as the “monstrous living dead.” This in-between state is created for survivors of war–victims of torture, rape, trauma, those who are forced into a close up POV of death. Their world of the dead created by war is followed by the expectation to live life in the world after the fact. How does the process of healing fit in? Is post traumatic stress disorder, once called shell shock, and the expectation that survivors can move “beyond” it realistic? Is it a good or harmful thing, since it would suggest that memory can be “cured” of itself? Is this an American, Western, imperialist, or human tendency?
VTN: There are some people who can move past trauma, and there are some people who can’t. To generalize from either extreme of these populations affected by trauma isn’t useful. Just because some people are stuck forever in the past doesn’t mean all of us have to be, and just because some can move forward without being overwhelmed by their past doesn’t mean we should look with contempt or confusion at those who don’t. Strategies of healing likewise have to run a spectrum. The impulse to think that healing is only individual, which is perhaps more aggravated in western contexts where individualism is high, is likely insufficient for everyone. Trauma and psychic damage or illness can be as cultural as it is individual, and may need to be treated by a community or a culture, or might only be treatable if a community or culture changes.
MLV: (More for me) I wasn’t sure if you examined the film “The Act of Killing?” I immediately thought of it as you talk about the process of empathy and performance. By reliving the extreme violence and trauma, the main perpetrator of the characters in the film seems to be unable to breath or move another step as a human being, once he truly realizes through empathy just what he has personally done. You seem to say that true empathy is the key in the end. I wonder if you think memory assists not only victims in remembering their humanity, but the assailants in remembering their inhumanity?
VTN: I saw “The Act of Killing” and thought it was a powerful film but did not find the room to include it. I think your point about memory being necessary for assailants or victimizers to remember their inhumanity is correct. Memory can be self-serving and often is, and while some who commit brutality may not have a problem acknowledging that without excuses, it’s likely that others must invent narratives to make those acts acceptable, to make them suitable for remembering. Challenging those narratives and memories with others that bring forth the experiences of the victims is crucial for transforming the victimizer, and for making possible a more just memory, collectively, in societies struggling to cope with a terrible past.