Roxane Gay and Viet Thanh Nguyen at St. Paul’s Church

Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of The Refugees) and Roxane Gay (author of Difficult Women) discuss their latest books for an event with Politics & Prose Bookstore.

 

If Roxane Gay’s strong-willed female characters are “difficult,” it’s because they want things to “make sense” but are involved in relationships that don’t. They’ve had parents who walked out. They’ve lost children. They’ve been kidnapped and abused. They have sisters they love more than their spouses. One is even made of glass, but she only seems to be transparent and fragile. In her new collection of stories, Gay, author of the novel An Untamed State and the powerhouse Bad Feminist essays, continues her uncompromising look at issues of race, class, and gender.

Viet Thanh Nguyen won a host of awards, including the Pulitzer, for his first novel, The Sympathizer. In his second work of fiction he frames his exploration of home, exile, and memory in eight well-crafted stories, using the form to powerful effect as he dramatizes various types of culture shock, from the surprises of arriving in a new place to the unexpected strangeness of returning to what once was familiar. Also a noted academic, Nguyen teaches English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California and has written books on Asian American cultural identity and on the legacy of the Vietnam War.

Founded by Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade in 1984, Politics & Prose Bookstore is Washington, D.C.’s premier independent bookstore and cultural hub, a gathering place for people interested in reading and discussing books. Politics & Prose offers superior service, unusual book choices, and a haven for book lovers in the store and online. Visit them on the web at http://www.politics-prose.com/

 


Here is the transcript for the video:

Speaker 1: Our author guest tonight need little introduction, so I will be brief. I would like to make one point before we get started. Just to orient you about Politics and Prose and what we believe we stand for and try to stand for. We’re an independent bookstore, which I’m sure most of you know, and we pride ourself on being a platform for new writers and for established writers and for writers who represent a range of ideas and perspectives. We certainly are committed to promoting and celebrating works that enrich and enlarge our understanding, not only of our own immediate communities, but also the broader and much more complicated world in which we all live. Never for us who work at this store has this responsibility felt more urgent, more necessary and more put to the test than it has been these past few months. I think for many of us it just feels sometimes like our core democratic values, inclusion, tolerance, respect, civility, pluralism and diversity, are under threat.

Speaker 1: Tonight we are especially grateful to have with us two of the finest contemporary writers in America. They are simply among the very best at their craft. But as an added bonus, they are both writers whose work reminds us that there’s not just one story, not just one narrative, not just one experience, not just one tradition, or not just one identity that alone tells the American story. They’re both writers whose work gives voice to the kaleidoscope of humanity that America actually is. Roxane Gay and Viet Thanh Nguyen do this not only with luminous, powerful, evocative prose, but also with extraordinary moral clarity.

Speaker 1: Roxane Gay’s work includes short stories, novel, essays and commentary, some of which I’m sure you’ve seen on the New York Times op-ed page, nonfiction, including her widely acclaimed New York Times best-seller Bad Feminist. Tonight she’ll be reading from her new collection of short stories Difficult Women. And in case you don’t know this already, I’m sure if you are a big fan, you do, she’s got another book due out this spring called Hunger.

Speaker 1: We’re also delighted that Viet Thanh Nguyen is with us tonight too. Not too many writers publish their first novel, which we call debuts in the book business, and then see it go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But Viet’s debut The Sympathizer did just that. He also writes superb non-fiction. His book Nothing Ever Dies was a National Book Award finalist. Tonight he’ll be reading from his new book. He just told me it took years and years to produce, so he may not feel like it’s new to him, but it’s new to us. It’s also a collection of short stories called The Refugees.

Speaker 1: It is just such a privilege to have these two wonderful, exceptional authors with us tonight. Please join me in welcoming Roxane Gay and Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Viet Nguyen: Well, hello, Washington DC. I hope that applause is for my orange socks. What Roxane and I decided before the event was we’re going to read for a few minutes each from the books, but after that, we’re just going to turn it over to Q&A because as both agree that Q&A is actually our favorite part of these types of events. Start thinking about your questions. We’re going to get to them really, really soon. I have been chosen to start the reading. I’m reading from The Refugees. A funny thing happened just a few days ago. People started sending me pictures Costco stores in Northern and Southern California with stacks of The Refugees in Costco. As a refugee, I thought, “I have made it to the American dream.” There’s nothing a refugee wants more this to wind up in Costco for $13.99. I just wish it was as easy to fatten minds as it was to fatten waistlines. Another friend told me, “Well, you know, I like reading short stories because they’re like eating potato chips.” And I endorse that message to the children of America. Short stories are bad for you.

Viet Nguyen: The Refugees is mostly about Vietnamese people, Vietnamese Americans, Vietnamese refugees, and the people that they come into contact with. As I was writing them over the course of 17 years, the fact that they were refugees started to recede from my mind. Of course, they became human beings to me. Then when it came time to publish the book and we were thinking about titles last year, my editor said, “We should call it The Refugees because it seems so topical.” I was like, “Yeah, sure. We’ll call it The Refugees.” Of course, I wish it wasn’t such a topical title at this time of the year. But it seems that it is relevant that I was thinking about the experiences of one group of refugees as we are considering the experiences of new groups of refugees and we considering, we’re actually doing, preventing them from coming into the country.

Viet Nguyen: That’s part of the task of what literature does. It’s to humanize people, but it’s also to create empathy. Empathy on the part of the writer who needs to empathize with people that are vastly different from them, and empathy on the part of readers. Of course, you actually have to read the book in order to feel empathy for these characters and I’m not sure everybody who hates refugees is going to read books like these.

Viet Nguyen: I’m just going to read from the first page and a half or so of The Refugees from a story called Black Eyed Women.

Viet Nguyen: Fame would strike someone, usually the kind that healthy-minded people would not wish upon themselves, such as being kidnapped and kept prisoner for years, humiliated 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 acknowledgments, 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.”

Viet Nguyen: By the time Victor Devoto chose me, I had resigned myself to being one of those writers whose names did not appear on book covers. His agent had given him a book that I had ghostwritten, its ostensible author the father of a boy who had shot and killed several people at his school. “I identify with the father’s guilt,” Victor said to me. He was the sole survivor of an airplane crash, 173 others having perished, including his wife and children. What was left of him appeared on all the talk shows, his body there but not much else. The voice was a soft monotone, and the eyes, on the occasions that he looked up, seemed to hold within them the silhouettes of mournful people. His publisher said that it was urgent that he finish his story while audiences still remembered the tragedy, and this was my preoccupation on the day my dead brother returned to me.

Viet Nguyen: My mother woke me while it was still dark outside and said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Viet Nguyen: Through my open door, the light from the hallway stung. “Why would I be afraid?”

Viet Nguyen: When she said my brother’s name, I did not think of my brother. He had died long ago. I closed my eyes and said I did not know anyone by that name, but she persisted. “He’s here to see us,” she said, stripping off my covers and tugging at me until I rose, eyes half-shut. She was 63, moderately forgetful, and when she led me to the living room and cried out, I was not surprised. “He was right here,” she said, kneeling by her floral armchair as she felt the carpet. “It’s wet.” She crawled to the front door in her cotton pajamas, following the trail. When I touched the carpet, it was damp. For a moment I twitched in belief, and the silence of the house at four in the morning felt ominous. Then I noticed the sound of rainwater in the gutters, and the fear that had gripped my neck relaxed its hold. My mother must have opened the door, gotten drenched, then come back inside. I knelt by her as she crouched next to the door, her hand on the knob, and said, “You’re imagining things.”

Viet Nguyen: “I know what I saw.” Brushing my hand off her shoulder, she stood up, anger illuminating her dark eyes. “He walked. He talked. He wanted to see you.”

Viet Nguyen: “Then where is he, Ma? I don’t see anyone.”

Viet Nguyen: “Of course you don’t.” She sighed, as if I were the one unable to grasp the obvious. “He’s a ghost, isn’t he?”

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Roxane Gay: Hello, Washington DC. I’m back. I was just here like three weeks ago and I was reading from this book. If you were here, you’re going to hear the same story again. You’re welcome. This is my newest book. It’s called Difficult Women because people always tell me that I’m a difficult woman and so I decided to embrace it. This was the first book I ever tried to have published seven years again and it took a very long time to get published. Now I get to tell all those editors who turned the book down to suck it. I got to tell you, that’s the best feeling. I’m just now trying to this story. I had it dog-eared and it’s like my dog-ears disappeared. I’m going to read is story called Open Marriage. The first time I read this story several years again, a woman in the audience got sick and threw up. Let’s see what we can do tonight. Here we go.

Roxane Gay: We are having a heated debate about whether or not yogurt can expire when my husband suggests we stay together but see other people. He says open marriage intrigues him, that he couldn’t be happier but he read this article online. I tell him yogurt cannot expire because it is filled with bacteria. I do not know if this is true but I have seen commercials about yogurt that mention things like bacteria and the word probiotic so I feel like I have a sufficient command of the topic. I give him a look. I say that he’s welcome to try and find other women to sleep with but I’m fine and his face falls because he thinks I’m playing a trick on him. I’m not. He has no game, none at all. If I hadn’t taken matters in hand, we would still be sitting on his couch in his bachelor apartment, his arm snaking around my shoulders after every yawn. I am not worried. He’s the kind of man who gets ideas but is largely unable to follow through on them.

Roxane Gay: As we’re talking, he shoves his hands into his jeans. This is something he does often, wearing right through the pockets of most of his pants. He leans against the kitchen counter. He says he wants cultivating an open marriage to be something we do together. I politely decline once more and say I’m not inclined to open my half of the marriage, which only confuses him further because I’m quick-tempered and what he calls feisty, which only means I talk back to him and give him road head once in a while and I’m the first woman who has ever done that in his limited experience so it’s still something of a novelty, it’s still something that requires terminology.

Roxane Gay: I take a bite of the yogurt that started our scientific debate. It expired more than two months ago but it appears edible. When I dip my spoon into the plastic container, the yogurt gives way easily. It’s sour. My husband’s face is red and sweat beads on his upper lip. He asks if I would seriously be fine with him having no-strings-attached sex with another woman and I say, “Yes, baby, of course.” He tells me I’m amazing in bed, that it’s not about being unsatisfied, and I say, “Yeah, of course.” I rock his world on the regular and we both know it. He can barely string three words together after we make love. He just lies there, trying to catch his breath, muttering, “Goddamn,” over and over.

Roxane Gay: I say, “Good luck and be safe and don’t you break my heart, baby, don’t you break my heart.” His eyes widen. I eat the entire container of yogurt, even going so far as to scrape the sides until it is clean. I vocalize my appreciation for the expired yogurt and do a lot of elaborate spoon licking. I hold my husband’s gaze the entire time. He was a virgin when we married. He looks away first.

Roxane Gay: Thank you.

Roxane Gay: People always ask where that story came from. They always want some really meditative answer. I was watching a commercial with Jamie Lee Curtis. She was extremely happy about yogurt and I just thought, “I want to be that happy. I want to be that happy.” So I wrote a story.

Roxane Gay: What we’re going to do is just take questions and have a conversation with you. There is a microphone at the front and we ask you to use the microphone because this is being live streamed and recorded. So it’s easier that way to hear your questions.

Viet Nguyen: My turn. Sorry. Can’t help it, I’m Asian.

Roxane Gay: That’s a good idea. I have to Snapchat it.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

Roxane Gay: I Snapchat everything. Boom.

Speaker 4: God, I’m on your Snapchat. This is horrible.

Roxane Gay: Yes, it is.

Speaker 4: I’m mostly going to kick things off by talking about the experience that you both have of being full-time academics and full-time literary rock stars and very [inaudible 00:15:32]

Roxane Gay: Well, it’s not full-time anything. It’s difficult. It’s difficult because the time demands of teaching are many. This is the first year I’ve reduced my teaching load, where I asked Purdue, where I teach, for a reduced teaching load, because I couldn’t do it all. It’s much better this year. It’s really interesting because I go to work and I teach my classes and my students are like, “Whatever. It’s her.” Then I go on the road and I do these events and women ask me to sign their bras. It’s awesome. It’s just really interesting. My teaching is very satisfying and my students encourage me to take chances, because I see the chances that they’re willing to take in their work. It’s just still pure joy. The only thing I don’t like about being an academic is the term academic and the committee meetings of which there are many.

Viet Nguyen: My story’s pretty similar, actually. Although, I’ve only been promised a reduced teaching load. They haven’t given it to me yet. But, yeah, you’re juggling several different things and the administrative part is the worst. I mean, the whole idea about petty politics ruining your life in the academy is pretty accurate. In my case, I don’t actually teach creative writing. I think that’s what you do, right?

Roxane Gay: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: I’m actually a scholar. I have a PhD in English and I do a lot of the criticism and theory. I hate writing workshops. I refuse to teach writing workshops. It really is the case of the blind leading the blind in my experience. I actually benefit much more from engaging with criticism and theory and using that in my fiction. I believe that fiction can be more powerful if we are aware of the literary traditions that we’re coming from and that we’re engaging with and that we’re aware of the theoretical implications of what it is that we write as stories. Then outside of that, it is powerful to have students in my class who … For example, I teach general ed courses. Almost none of them are English majors. They’re from all the sciences, STEM fields, a lot of military veterans, people are about to go off to war.

Viet Nguyen: I think that that’s part of what we do as teachers is to take these values that we hold so dear about, like I said, empathy and curiosity and all that, and history, and try to communicate that to people. It’s a very rare opportunity to get that chance. So I try to make the most of it that I can.

Speaker 5: Hi.

Roxane Gay: Hi.

Speaker 5: It’s really scary [inaudible 00:18:05]

Roxane Gay: It is. I feel so bad because I’m shy and I would just be like whispering my question from the last row.

Speaker 5: There’s a lot of conversations happening right now about new responsibilities for journalists in this kind of new world. I just wondered if you guys have been thinking how that reflects in a fiction writer’s life or life of a writer who writes other genres. Or if you’ve had conversations with your peers about that.

Roxane Gay: Well, that’s a good question.

Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:18:39]

Roxane Gay: Okay. The question was given the current political climate, are there new responsibilities that writers are facing and have we had conversations with our peers about these new responsibilities. Is that a good paraphrase?

Speaker 5: Yeah.

Roxane Gay: Yes. You know, I think this is new reality for some people, but for marginalized people, this is the same reality we have long known. For me, I don’t feel any sort of new responsibilities, because as a woman of color and as a queer woman, I have long had to negotiate a world that is very hostile to nearly everything that I am. I do think that this is a moment for white writers to start to realize that you can’t hide behind your whiteness any more. I think that we’re seeing some people having that conversation but not enough. I think some people don’t even realize that they need to be having this conversation and they think that we’re all in a new moment together. I’m like, “No, we’ve been here.” I’m not stressed because I’m used to this.

Viet Nguyen: I think in my case, you know Roxane has been famous for along time, but once I got the Pulitzer people are like, “What is your opinion on these kinds of things?” My opinion hasn’t changed, except now people want me to write op-eds and essays and all that kind of thing. I think Roxane’s absolutely right that, yes, of course, we’re in a crisis. For some of us, maybe not everybody thinks we’re in a crisis. I think we’re in a crisis, but it’s not a new crisis. This stuff against refugees, for example, it’s not new. For much of American history we’ve been a racially exclusionary society. For much of American history we’ve been a slave owning society. For much of American history, all of American history, we’ve a society built on genocide. Some people now are getting awoke to this, well, this good for them and they’re responding, “How do I respond to a crisis?” Well, you should be responding to a crisis by having been preparing for that crisis your entire life.

Viet Nguyen: I think that’s what some of writers feel like. We’ve been spending our lifetime getting our craft together, thinking about politics, thinking about theory, thinking about history in order to ready for moments like this. But we’ve always been struggling with the same issues that are now just coming to a head. Hopefully, the writers who feel that they’re getting woken up stay woke even if a Democratic president gets elected four years from now, because the issues won’t go away.

Speaker 5: Thank you.

Roxane Gay: Thank you.

Speaker 7: You both are obviously very experienced, fearless writers. I’m curious at what point you found your voice and really came into your own as an author and were able to speak up about such controversial, thought provoking topics. It’s a big question to put you on the spot.

Roxane Gay: 2010.

Speaker 7: Thank you.

Roxane Gay: I’m sorry. That’s a great question.

Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:21:54]

Roxane Gay: Oh. You guys still can’t hear?

Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:21:58]

Roxane Gay: Okay. Her question was how did we find our voice and when did we find our voice essentially. I said 2010. That’s also the truth. I have been writing since I was four years old. My early writing was exactly what you would expect from a four year old or a 12 year old or a 19 year old. But I’ve just kept at it for a very long time. I realize now that I’ve always been developing my voice and that it was a question of when my voice matured. I think my voice really matured in 2009 and 2010 when … I’ve been writing fiction all along and I think of myself primarily as a fiction writer, but the world thinks of me primarily as a non-fiction writer and that’s fine. But I started writing non-fiction in 2009 and 2010 and I started to articulate the way I see the world and my opinions about gender and sexuality, sexual violence, race and ethnicity, being the child of immigrants, and things like that.

Roxane Gay: I just realized I have a right to speak. I have a right to have opinions and it’s okay if they’re flawed, because I’m coming from a good place and I’m willing to learn and grow. Ever since then, I’ve continued to cultivate my voice and I think that’s a life-long project. I’m always going to be working on my voice. Not even on my voice, but how I use my voice. It’s work in progress.

Viet Nguyen: I’m just going to repeat everything Roxane says from now on. The stories of The Refugees were written from 1997 to 2014. Through the writing of those stories, it’s how I learned to become a writer and it’s a really difficult and agonizing process, at least for me. The story that I read from, Black Eyed Women, took me 17 years and 50 drafts. It was a horrible process. You won’t feel it when you read it, but it was a horrible process for me, but that’s what turned me into a writer. As I was struggling with the art of the writing, I was also trying to find my voice. There is a voice here. There’s a voice that’s about humanizing refugees and humanizing Vietnamese people. After I finished this book, I wrote The Sympathizer 2011 to 2013, so right after Roxane found her voice, I found my voice too. I found another voice. In The Sympathizer, I said, “I don’t about making Vietnamese people human. Why do I need to prove my humanity or our humanity to anybody?”

Viet Nguyen: If you’re a part of dominant society, you never have to prove your humanity. You take it for granted. It’s only the people knocking on the door who have to prove their humanity. That automatically puts us in a position of supplication and of weakness and I didn’t want to be that kind of a writer. I thought with The Sympathizer I’m going to prove not the humanity of Vietnamese people, but I’m going to prove our inhumanity. It’s being able to fearlessly talk about the inhumane things that we do that make us fully human. That’s a paradox. And realizing that paradox is also what enabled me to come to a different kind of voice in The Sympathizer. But as Roxane says, I think the voice continually evolves so now it’s about how to do I take that voice and do things like write op-eds and speak to a different audience altogether. The voice shifts depending on the audience.

Speaker 8: Hello.

Viet Nguyen: Hi.

Speaker 8: Can you hear me? Okay. This is very exciting to be able to ask a question. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is my own identity as an American and I’m realizing now I don’t feel very American. I feel like a Chinese woman, I feel like a people of color, and I have an Asian American identity, but the American identity part isn’t very strong with me. I think it’s because of all the other ways that people see me and that the American-ness doesn’t come to the top I think. I’m wondering with both of you, do you see yourselves as Americans and can you … I guess it’s a question about what is your identity and how does that clash or meld with the American identity that you feel?

Viet Nguyen: I am an immigrant. I’m a refugee. I’m a Vietnamese American. I’m an Asian American, I’m an American. It just depends. But I’m all these things at once and I think all of us are. It doesn’t matter whether we recognize those things or not. Like you, I feel like these identities are always shifting and they’re always prioritizing in different ways. Because I have these multiple possibilities, I’m sort of like you. At a moment when I’m disappointed in my country, then it’s a little bit harder to be proud to be an American, but nevertheless this where I live, this is where I have to fight. Because so many of the people that I love are not going to be able to leave this country to they want to stay in this country. It’s not enough simply to say that I’m not an American, it’s just saying I’m an American but I’m going to define it in a different way than, let’s say, the current administration defines it. I have to stress that, not in order to simply make people feel better, but to make people live up to the rhetoric that they think America is supposed to embody.

Viet Nguyen: In terms of context, it’s easier to do that when I can also claim the American identity too. But when I go to Vietnam, I’m very definitely Vietnamese American but also very much an American there as well, because that’s how people see me. Our contexts are continually shifting. Our battle continually shift. My battle in Vietnam where my book is banned is different than my battle here. But it’s important to have these multiple identities because our priorities change depending on the identities that we claim.

Roxane Gay: I would say I identity first and foremost as Haitian American because my parents are from Haiti and I was raised very much knowing that. Our Haitian identity was a cornerstone of how we were raised. That helped because I had this very specific history. My parents were very mindful of reminding us that we came from the first free black nation and that our ancestors were free and means that we could do anything. That helped to instill in my brothers and I a lot of confidence and a lot of sense of person. I also do think of myself a black American because I am. I think of myself as American mostly when I’m outside of America. I find that when I travel abroad, people ask me a lot of questions and see me as American. They don’t see the gradations of identity that we have here in the United States. They just see it as a country and they’re not interested necessarily in some of the other identifications. That’s really interesting to me as well.

Roxane Gay: It’s hard at times to feel American because this idea of America is supposed to be inclusive, but it is not. I find that there are often times barriers to who I am and people who want to delegitimize my American-ness until April 15th comes around. And then I’m an American and I better pay up and pay up I do. It’s interesting and so it’s a challenge. I refuse to let bigotry deny me identity and deny my rightful place in this country and a place that my parents sacrificed quite a lot for me to have. In honor of them I claim American-ness.

Speaker 8: Thank you.

Roxane Gay: Thank you.

Speaker 8: It’s wonderful to see other people of color [inaudible 00:29:54] so I appreciate your being here.

Roxane Gay: Thank you.

Speaker 9: I’m going to get a little greedy and ask a two parter.

Roxane Gay: Okay.

Speaker 9: [inaudible 00:30:10] Since November I actually have tried multiple times to start a book club, but sadly no one ever wants to do it with me until November rolled around I finally got some folks to do it. The whole premise of my book club is we read books written by people who are not white men. Preferably people of color regardless of gender and all of that. With that, I have already run into some difficulties with people deciding to read the book that we’re reading because they touch on difficult topics. Right now we’re reading Ghettoside and someone said they don’t want to read something so depressing with the state of the country right now. How would you … Do you guys have any advice of pushing people to read outside of their comfort zone, but not being like, “You got to read this or else you’re going to to look like a big dumb …” You know like in a nicer way, a more civilized way, than just yelling at them which is probably more of my approach.

Speaker 9: Then the second question which might be harder is what would you recommend as your favorite book written by a person that is not a white man?

Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:31:22]

Roxane Gay: Yes. The question is essentially she started a book club and a lot of people in the book club don’t want to read books that tackle difficult topics, so how can we give her a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. The second question was what books written by people of color or women would we recommend most? You can’t force people into the light. Most people go to book clubs to drink and gossip. I think you might just need to shift your expectations for what your book club can do. You need to find people that want to do what you want to do. You have a very specific project and you’re trying to make everyone get on board with your project. It’s not going to work. I don’t want to crush your dream.

Roxane Gay: At the same time, you can tell people that the world is horrible so let’s understand exactly how horrible it is for different kinds of people. That can help. It can also help to maybe offer pairings. So something that’s a little easier to read, even if it’s a essay or a short story, alongside the book. It might also help to have directed conversations. Okay, so here is this book. I recently read Evicted, which everyone should read. It is by a white man, but it is an amazing book about eviction in America. You can just come up with discussion questions about how do we become more aware and make more people aware, so that people can feel more productive. Because oftentimes we don’t want to read difficult things because it makes us feel more helpless. How can you shift that so that there’s empowerment in reading this material.

Roxane Gay: In terms of the second question, The Refugees.

Viet Nguyen: That’s a great answer. You know what you should really do is become an English professor because your classroom is just like a book club except everybody has to read the books that you assign. I think there’s also the possibility of … Everything that Roxane said is true, but then also maybe there should be books that tackle serious subjects but still do it in a way that hopefully are entertaining. The Sellout, right? There are these books that strive to integrate humor and satire into what they do and maybe that should be a way to ease people then into books that don’t have a sense of humor. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, but demonstrate to people that there’s a variety of different ways to deal with difficult problems.

Viet Nguyen: Also, maybe shift gears to do audio books. Maybe audio books are an easier way to deal with difficult subjects than written books. Recently I listened to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man on audio. I read it a couple of times already on the book form. Joe Morton, the actor, does an incredible job with Invisible Man. I never realized the vast diversity of voices that exist in that book until Joe Morton did them all. Men and women and people from all different kinds of regions of the country. That brought the book alive in a completely different way, right? So that might be a way to alleviate the sense that … Because it’s a passive form of listening versus having to turn the page and get to another difficult part.

Viet Nguyen: As for books to read, Difficult Women.

Roxane Gay: Nice. Thank you.

Speaker 10: Thanks to you both. My question basically focuses on there’s a saying sometimes that the best writing is when you write what you know and you both in different ways pull from very personal experiences. Roxane specifically in Bad Feminist and An Untamed State. I wanted to hear from you how do you negotiate how much of yourself to put into your work?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think it’s true that you’re supposed to write what you know, but that depends. It depends on what we mean by what we know. Obviously, no knock against that. I’d you only wrote about you know, it would be a very narrow demographic thing that you would be writing about. But what you know is also what you know emotionally. I think it took me a long time to try to figure out what it is that I knew emotionally. Then it took a long time to look into myself and see what it is that caused me pain and to go there. That took 20 years of relentless writing, of practicing and practicing and practicing, so that the formal issues became easier to deal with and then I could feel with the emotional part of things. But even outside of that, even though I have written books about Vietnamese refugees and about the Vietnam War, that doesn’t mean that research wasn’t required.

Viet Nguyen: I mean, I wrote about what I knew and in a sense writing The Sympathizer was a way of getting to that. Because I had been avoiding writing about the Vietnam War explicitly for 20 years. I was writing stories about Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese American civilians and so on. Whereas the real wound was around that Vietnam War and I had to confront it. But even in order to confront that, I had to a lot of research in order to bring those emotions and that story out as well.

Roxane Gay: I think that the idea of writing what you know is very good advice but it’s also very dangerous advice, because it can create all kinds of limitations. Oftentimes I find myself writing what I want to know and the act of writing is me answering a question or seeking the answers to a question I have. So I do pull from my life and I pull from my life primarily because my background … I actually got my PhD in rhetoric and technical communication. Who knew? It also got me my first job, because I wanted to be employed after going to school for that many years. I have a rhetorical background and thinking about ethos, pathos, logos and the various rhetorical appeals. So I find that when you pull from your personal background, you can speak from a place of authority. Saying, “I know this because I have lived this.” Then I also look to other sources of course, because sometimes, oftentimes, as a woman, that’s not enough.

Roxane Gay: I do make judicious choices about how I pull from my life. I always want to make sure that I’m not cannibalizing my past and exploiting myself just to make a point. I just try to have boundaries and I try to really stick to them. I must say, I’m very good at that. There are things that I will talk about until the end of time and there are things I have never written about and never will. You just have to make those decisions for yourself. I have no problem pulling from my life. I have lived a long time and I have lived through a lot. I think that makes me a better thinker and a better writer and I like to put that in my work.

Speaker 10: Thank you.

Roxane Gay: Thank you.

Speaker 11: Hi. I have a freedom of speech question. There have been some new discussions in this town about how accommodating private businesses should be to groups promote some kind of hate theology. Recently there was a deplorable ball called Deploraball at the National Press Club the day before President Trump’s inauguration. I’m a member of the National Press Club and there was a big debate among members about whether we should rent space to this organization. We receive revenue by being a private event space in addition to a gathering place for journalists. Many journalists were opposed to it, but then other journalists were like, “We are the press. We are for freedom of speech. We cannot be ones who curtail it. We need to trust to the people to be able to hear ;its kinds of speech and make decisions for themselves about what they want to associate with and what they don’t.”

Speaker 11: But I also recognize that historically freedom of speech in this country has been conceptualized by white men and it’s still in journalism today overrepresented by white men. I would really like to hear your thoughts on that balance that we find in our society, especially right now. Thanks.

Roxane Gay: I think it’s absolute nonsense and a cop out these private businesses want to talk about freedom of speech. The point of being a private business is that you can make decisions about the kinds of things that you’re going to promote and support. Freedom of speech exists whether or not the Deploraball is held at your venue. This was a financial decision. The organization wanted to make money. Let’s not use freedom of speech as the banner for what’s happening there. I personally run into this a lot because of this thing I did recently.

Roxane Gay: For those who don’t know, I had a book with Simon & Schuster and Simon & Schuster’s publishing Milo Yiannopoulos who is a racist hate monger. I didn’t want to publish with a company was willing to give him a quarter of a million dollars to promote hatred. It’s not about the freedom of speech because he is welcome to his ideas and he’s welcome to speak about them and share them. But it doesn’t mean he’s entitled to a quarter of a million dollars and he’s not entitled to publish with a major publishing house. I think that people are like, “Oh, we should hear all sides.” But racism is not a side. Racism is not an opinion.

Roxane Gay: I think that we have to … I our rights are important. I believe in the Constitution and I believe in rights. It’s always white men that are crying about their rights while they sit silently while the rights of people of color and the rights of women are trampled over and over legislated every single day. I want to have more nuanced conversations. I think freedom of speech is sacrosanct, but business is not the place where we should be litigating freedom of speech.

Viet Nguyen: Well, you know I’m a Berkeley graduate and the Milo Yiannopoulos thing hit Berkeley and became big national thing when the students and possibly others shut that event down. For all the reasons that Roxane said in the context that it’s not about business, which was your question, but in a context of places that are supposed to be about free speech like the university. You run into this issue where it is always about, it’s a rhetoric of, uniform access to freedom of speech. Yes, we can have Nazis on campus, but then we’d have everybody else on campus too. But I’m proud of those Berkeley students. I was a Berkeley student myself. When I was a Berkeley student, I was doing those types of things also. I think the point there is that freedom of speech, like everything else in this society, applies differently with different kinds of access, different kinds of structural inequalities and being that, and going out and marching, protesting, presenting different voices that can overshadow the voices that we object to is a part of what freedom of speech is supposed to be in American society.

Viet Nguyen: Freedom of speech doesn’t preclude fighting over freedom of speech and that’s what we need to also do as well. We really are in a time where these types of battles are going to happen more and more often, especially if certain kinds of legislation gets enacted allowing people to discriminate. It’s going to be up to us to fight for that right to be just as vocal as those who are given a quarter million dollars and a corporate platform.

Speaker 12: I appreciate the opportunity as minority member here tonight of a old white male to ask a few questions or to ask a question about The Sympathizers. I’m a veteran, a Vietnam veteran, and what came across to me amongst many other fine qualities of the book what once again emphasizing how little we knew about the people of Vietnam as we fought a war;are for a long, long time. And if we could divorce ourselves just for a little bit, and it’s hard, from the current political atmosphere, or circumstance we’re in, I wonder if you might comment about what advice you would give to Americans as they try to deal with the world, addressing issues whether it be in Syria, other Middle East, Haiti, and we can better relate to people where we try to further our own ambitions, if you will, and approach that for me.

Viet Nguyen: I think that part of what I was trying to deal with in The Sympathizers what that there is a distinct connection between what we know and what we don’t know and why it is that we get involved in wars that we shouldn’t get ourselves involved in. That pattern of … And it’s not just Americans, obviously, it’s other countries too. But in the case of the Vietnam War, the United States getting itself involved in this conflict when it knew almost nothing about the country or the people, is something that we actually have been doing over and over again. We did it before the Vietnam War as well. That goes back the earlier point about the ongoing crisis. It’s not the fact that we’re entrenched in a perpetual war at this moment, is a sign of that ongoing crisis. It’s not a new problem, right? We’ve been in a state of perpetual warfare for at least a century, except that most Americans don’t know it. But if you’ve been on the receiving end of American power, you’re quite well aware of how much military power the US has been using for at least a century and longer than that.

Viet Nguyen: I think the crisis is that we have to continually struggle to get our society to build institutions that would prevent us from going to war in such a fashion. That’s why we are trying to defend public education, we’re trying to defend universities, because it’s in places of learning like that, that we get aware, become aware, of the necessity of understanding other people’s histories, of people’s perspectives, and humbling ourselves by listening to those perspectives and voices rather than only foregrounding our own. It’s tied into free speech issue as well. Getting people to listen to other people’s voices and stories is really a crucial task. That’s why I think the work that storytellers, of readers, of critics and of publishers does actually serve it really valuable democratic purpose, because our ignorance is tied to our tendency to go to war.

Roxane Gay: What he said was just phenomenal.

Speaker 13: Hi, thank you so much for being here. I’m usually shy but [inaudible 00:47:05] tonight would be a good night. When I was reading The Sympathizer, the ending really still stands out for me. I guess when I was reading it I thought, “Okay, he must have had this ending planned from the beginning.” I guess my question is when both of you write, do you have your ending first? Is that something that you start writing your ending or does it sort of just develop organically as you write? I have a second question, please. How important do you think an MFA is to finding your voice, for lack of a better phrase? This is a question I ask friends who are in MFA programs or writers I’ve done workshops with and I always get different questions. Just how important is community to finding your voice and how important is isolation?

Roxane Gay: Every book is different and every story is different, so I don’t have a prescription for how I find the ending. Sometimes I know the ending and I write toward it and sometimes I find the ending by writing toward it. I don’t have a specific … Every book is different so far in my career.

Roxane Gay: In terms of the MFA, I teach in an MFA program but my students, my thesis students in the third year are unhappy. The joy is gone. I hate that. I hate that this is what the academy has done to creative writing. So, no, don’t get an MFA to find your voice. You will lose your voice in the MFA and learn about craft. When you graduate and go out and live in the world, that’s when you’re going to find your voice. Your mileage may vary. Everyone is different. This is not to say that we should disparage MFA programs, but I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with MFA programs right now. The joy is gone. In my MFA workshops, I don’t follow any of the rules because I’m not interested. I’m interested in having my students create work that people will actually want to read.

Roxane Gay: So I don’t let them write about sad white people in unhappy marriages and things like that, because that’s nobody’s voice. I find that it helps and I make them read a lot. I make them read far more than ever want to. They get very angry about the amount of reading I make them do. I find that it helps. There it certain programs where you might be able to develop your voice, but in general, you’re going to develop your voice after you finish the program.

Viet Nguyen: When I was writing the short stories, I didn’t have the ending of any of the stories, when is probably one reason why it take me 17 years to write one story. When it came time to write The Sympathizer, I did want to have an ending. I did want to have an outline. It was a spy novel. I had to know where I was going to go to try to figure out how to maneuver the plot around. Although I had the ending in mind, I knew it was not the ending that I really wanted. Because the draft ending was there was going to be a big shoot them out at the end of the novel. That wasn’t going to happen. This is a Hollywood ending.but I had to aim for something. I had to trust that I would figure out what the real ending was. As Roxane said, at about two thirds of the way through the novel, I finally realized, oh, I know what the real ending is. It’s the one that you have.

Viet Nguyen: That real ending was due to the fact that I understood who my character was. I understood that his struggle was purely internal, so an eternal ending with a big gun battle and whatnot wasn’t going to work. It had to be an ending that was purely inside of him, which is what you get.

Viet Nguyen: As for the MFA program, I didn’t do an MFA although I did some writing workshops and I’ve already expressed my own skepticism about writing workshops. I also am not a believer in the MFA as well for that reason. I think that if you have funding and you can get there without getting in any debt, maybe it’s worthwhile. Maybe if I had gone into a MFA program, I wouldn’t have spent 20 years writing a short story collection. Maybe it would have just been five or ten and I wouldn’t learned faster. Whenever you enter an institution, you risk being institutionalized. If you enter an MFA program, there’s all kinds of conventions and expectations that exist in them that are accepted by people as universal truths when they’re not. So show don’t tell, find your voice, these are things that I really have problems with because show and tell, show rather than tell, leads to a kind of de-politicized fiction, because you don’t want to tell people what you really think.

Viet Nguyen: The Sympathizer is really a case of show and tell. It actually does didactic things, but those are things that you’re not encouraged to do in the writing program. I was someone who didn’t want to write only domestic stories, but also wanted to write about politics and history. Get I’ve never heard of an MFA program that taught people how to do deal with politics or history. It’s always about the craft. As if craft is only characterization, setting, time, and not about politics and history. Those of us with backgrounds that don’t match sort of normalized criteria of MFA programs often find ourselves to be poor fits. Not just because we look different, but because our own concerns that are shaped by our history are different.

Viet Nguyen: Yes, regardless of whether you go to an MFA program or not, I mean, the brutal reality is that to be a writer you have to do two things, maybe three things. You have to read a lot, you have to write a lot, and you have to develop a very thick skin. No one can teach you that. You can to two years in an MFA program and you can learn none of that. Because you have to write a lot, that’s how they teach yourself. You have to read a lot so that you know what’s good and what’s bad. And you have to know what other alternatives exist outside of what’s being given to you in just the MFA program. You have to have a thick skin because most of the time people will be telling you no. You have to lean how to endure over decades to become a writer. Thank.

Roxane Gay: Thank you.

Speaker 13: Thanks so much.

Speaker 14: My question is specifically for Viet. But first I actually wanted … I came here to say thank you. My parents are Vietnamese refugees me father’s never talked about it. It wasn’t until this past Christmas I brought The Sympathizer home and I was reading it and my mother finally spoke to me about her experience. I came to learn that she left the night of the fall of Saigon. She spent a couple of months in hiding in Thailand and four actually I believe at the same time [inaudible 00:53:44]. The refugee camp there. I didn’t realize until I actually finally got the story how important it was to me to hear that story. The point is I was 27, now I’m 28, I was 27 by the time I finally heard it. My question for you is, obviously, you’ve shared this story now with the world, but what, if anything, is different about sharing that story like with your son? And specifically about talking to him about what it means for him to share in that history.

Viet Nguyen: My son’s only three and a half so it’s a little bit heavy to lay on him right now.

Speaker 14: Maybe when he’s 28.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. He already learning about what it means to be writer because I had my book launch in LA and I took him. It’s the second time he’s been to one of my book launches. I was doing the reading and I had him with me hanging on to me. Then afterwards he said to me, “Your book didn’t have any pictures.”

Viet Nguyen: I said, “No, it didn’t.”

Viet Nguyen: He said, “Will you come to my book launch?”

Viet Nguyen: I said, “Yes.”

Viet Nguyen: He said, “My book will have pictures.”

Viet Nguyen: “Okay.”

Viet Nguyen: I do think that when he’s old … Right now, for example, when I ask him, “What’s Thanksgiving?” He says, “Genocide.”

Viet Nguyen: I’m already working on deprogramming him from the indoctrination that he gets. I fully expect we’ll talk about the Vietnam War and Dad’s history and the grandparent’s history and all of that. What you’re talking about is the power of silence. It’s not even just a matter of whether or not people are telling you stories about their past or telling you lies. It’s that people can sense I think when things are not being said. They’re absent presences. I think that’s a very common experience. Not just for Vietnamese refugees, but for other people from traumatic histories. Vietnam veterans, I’ve from plenty of children of American veterans that they knew something had happened to their father, for example, but the dad would never talk about it, but the silence shaped them because they wanted to know why. What happened? Likewise with Vietnamese refugees, I mean, so many of us … I’ve met so many people who did not even know that their parents didn’t come over on a boat. “I think this is what happened but I’m not sure.”

Viet Nguyen: Obviously, people who’ve been through traumatic experiences don’t necessarily want to share them even with the people who are close to them, because you and I don’t know anything about what that means. For them to tell that story it to take something that’s completely out of context and hope that we will understand. They withdraw into silence and that harms them, it harms us. I’m glad that the novel has been the occasion for many people who have want to been told for some of these stories to emerge. I hope it convinces people, especially Asian American and Vietnamese parents, that there’s value to becoming a writer to telling stories and not just to being a doctor or a lawyer, because we need to have these stories come out. Not just in a book, but within our own families and our own communities as well. Thank you.

Speaker 14: Thank you so much.

Speaker 6: We’re just going to take these last five questions before signing.

Speaker 15: All right. First off, thank you guys. Your books are powerful and I really feel important right now. My question is on just the medium of books themselves. I know both of you guys have an obvious book form and audio book. I listened to The Refugees and I felt like you were telling me the story. I got the different voices and it was at a speed where I could hear every single line. I really enjoyed that. With Bad Feminist I was able to enjoy it with other friends and we wrote all over it. And I loved that experience to be able to see what stood out for me and what stood out for them at the same time. When you guys are writing, do you imagine someone reading the book or is your head also thinking about that voice if someone were to listen to it? Is there a pure form I guess is the question.

Roxane Gay: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think a lot about audience when I’m writing or what’s going to happen next. I really lose myself in the act of writing itself. Then once I’ve written a draft, I do read it aloud. I read everything I write aloud be I find that I can listen and find the places where an argument is weak or where a character is unbelievable or where a sentence is not as beautiful as I want it to be. That’s when I do start to think about what is the experience of reading this going to be like for someone who is not me and who is not as attached to these words as me. So for me, it comes in the revision process that I really start to look beyond what I’ve done on the page and consider the audience. But I never really allow that to influence what I’m doing beyond just making sure that I’m putting my best work forward.

Viet Nguyen: In writing The Refugees. I did some of that reading out loud and so on to hear what was going on. But in writing The Sympathizer, the voice of the protagonist was so strong that I heard it my head as I was writing it. So I didn’t need to read it out loud. I actually felt like I heard the voice all along the way. I heard The Sympathizer being read on audio book by a very good actor, Francois Chau, and it was great. Then I heard Nothing Ever Dies being read on audio book and I thought, “I don’t like this guy.” The actor who’s reading this. I thought, “I can do better.” So then I did The Refugees myself. That had been after I had done many book readings and everything and I’d gotten used to the sound of my own voice and it didn’t sound horrible any more.

Viet Nguyen: That’s something interesting. When I sat down to do the audiobook, I realized, “Oh, my god, there are accents in this book. There are English accents and Australian accents and I can’t do either of them.” Maybe that would take the reader out of the book if they heard me do a terrible Australian accent. So you’re going to have to tell me whether or not that passed muster for you.

Speaker 15: Way, thank you guys.

Roxane Gay: Thank you.

Speaker 16: Thank you for being here. I think it this most current occupant of the White House is not a reader of books. So I was wondering just as a thought exercise asking you both, not only as accomplished writers, but as teachers as well, before you leave town you get to go to Politics and Prose and pick up a few books to put on the bedside table of the current occupant of the White House. I was wondering what you might choose apart from the Constitution.

Viet Nguyen: I already went on the record of the New York Times by the book profile whereas I recommended the Bible for both President Obama and President Trump. In the case of President Obama I recommended the Old Testament rather than the New and for President Trump the New Testament rather than the Old. In the case of Trump, he’s got the Old Testament down cold. Fire and brimstone, smite your enemies, love your friends, but he really needs to learn the New Testament Jesus and the values of washing the feet of the poor and respecting women and taking care of the sick and the elderly and rejecting the corruption of the establishment. I figure that’s not asking too much. Right? He’s a Christian. He should be reading the Bible or at least just the gospel. Hopefully one day Mike Pence will put that on his bedside.

Roxane Gay: Also in my by the book, I said that anything I would recommend is beyond his reading level. I honestly … He is not worthy of any book I would recommend. I can’t even think of … When I answered that question, I spent hours thinking of trying to figure out what would I recommend to him. I thought like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The thing about him is that he’s just a vapid and self-involved narcissist. He doesn’t care. There are presidents that we’ve had in the past who were not good who we could put books in front of to help. But he’s beyond redemption, he’s beyond education. I take your question very seriously but I genuinely believe that he’s just not worthy.

Speaker 16: Thank you.

Speaker 17: [inaudible 01:02:21] begin your essay about privilege with a very motivated and telling account of visiting Haiti as a child. That really resonated with me as a Diasporan Indian who’s been a first generation American who’s been able to visit India several times. I was wondering along those lines whether you could comment on, and also Dr. Nguyen, if you could comment on the ways that you relate to Haitian and Vietnamese social movements and also how they talk about social justice in American Diasporan communities.

Roxane Gay: Haiti is a complicated thing for me. Because as a child when I went to Haiti I had a wonderful time and I enjoyed a very privileged existence amidst a shocking amount of poverty. It was in Haiti that I learned about the difference between absolute and relative poverty. That has changed my life in every way and in good ways, because it has opened my eyes to how lucky we are here, how lucky every single person in America is, no matter what they’re dealing with, because at least there’s infrastructure. We take infrastructure for granted. But let me tell you, in a country without a sewage system in 2017, infrastructure is everything. I always am very clear about my subject position when I write about Haiti. As a first generation American, as a child of privilege, as someone who has the luxury of going in and out of Port-au-Prince and the rest of the country at will. I definitely work to not speak over people who are more equipped to discuss what’s actually happening in terms of activism in Haiti. I try to support as best I can and to magnify the voices of people there.

Roxane Gay: It would be so easy for me to pretend that I could be a figurehead for Haitian women. I cannot. But I can lend my voice, I can lend my privilege in ways that are going to be useful to what’s going on there. What I try to do is stay informed. I really just try to stay informed and know where I can pitch in.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, the first line of my book Nothing Ever Dies is, “I was born in Vietnam but made in America,” and it goes on to talk about how I’m the inheritor of two revolutions, the Vietnamese and the American Revolutions. I’m a part of two countries that have very strong traditions of fighting for justice, independence and all these high flown words that when they’re actually put into practice are not quite as beautiful. So see in getting on the revolution has actually led to deep inequality and repression. A situation in which, again, my own book can’t really be published or brought into not country at this point. For me, these questions of social justice are so dependent upon the context. We can’t rest on our laurels. We can look at Vietnam and say, “Wow, those are hypocritical Communists,” but in our own society today, we have the same, not the same, but we have parallel problems of hypocrisy and inequality in the United States too.

Viet Nguyen: I feel that I have such a deep sympathy for social movements in both countries because they’re both trying to get the nations to live up to their histories and to their ideals and to their rhetoric. That’s what we as writers are also supposed to be doing. That’s one of the tasks of writers is to help those movements along. That’s what I try to do in the books. Try to talk about how there’s this necessity for social movements in Vietnam to redress inequality for political freedoms, for religious freedoms. And here in the United States to talk about how in the case of … Your question was about diasporan communities, just to use that example, there are Vietnamese refugees who are er today in this country who say, “We’re not like the Syrians.” You know. But you are. You are exactly like the Syrians. You just got lucky. You came here at a time when the United States was willing to open its door, forget its racist history for a while, and open its door to Vietnamese refugees. Then these Vietnamese refugees like to believe somehow they deserved it when they didn’t.

Viet Nguyen: Rather to put it a different way, everybody deserves it. Everybody deserves hospitality, right? And now it’s simply a case of Vietnamese refugees got lucky. They need to actually recognize the justice they received and fight for justice for others and that’s what writers can also do to encourage that recognition.

Speaker 18: First of all, thanks for writing The Sympathizer. I just finished it and I thought this is a very different book from what I’ve ever read. It’s the first book I actually saw where it was critical on both sides. I was also surprised to see and read when I saw it. At first it took me a while to open up to the book, then once I got into the book, I really liked it and it gave me a different perspective from what I haven’t seen before in the past. That’s my perspective. I think my kids are very far removed from the war. They’ll have no problem with the book at all, they’ll warm up to it right away. But for my parent’s generation, I’m a little worried that when they read the book, if they do read the book, if it’s translated into Vietnamese, that they will very critical on the book just because of the things that they’ve seen and how they’ve always talking one way about the Vietnam War. Having written the book, have you received special criticism from people of our parent’s generations?

Viet Nguyen: Because the book is only available in English right now, I think for the people of that generation, the book is not very accessible except for what they hear. Of course, I know that there is some criticism in the community Vietnamese about this book, because who am I to write about this history that they know so well and I’m totally ignorant from that perspective. Although, winning the Pulitzer silenced everybody for a while, right? Because the Vietnamese are very proud of that. I’ve gotten periodic hate mail from Americans, American veterans, who say, “You’re so ungrateful. You’ve been welcomed into this country and this is how you pay us back.” I’m just waiting for when the book is translated into Vietnamese, I’ll get Vietnamese hate mail from people saying, “You have a Communist spy for your narrator. How could you do something like that?”

Viet Nguyen: I think in both cases, the problem is that people didn’t read far enough. The book is critical of everybody and part of the point of the book is not to hold up one group of people as a special set of victims. Everybody who went through that war thinks that they’re victims. The Vietnamese think they’re victims, the Communists think they’re victims, the American veterans think they’re victims. When in actuality that may be true, but they were all part of some side or some machine that also did terrible things as well. And the novel is really about that. It’s about how we’re all complicit, how we are all corrupted by power, how we’ve all done terrible things, and how we’ve all turned our eyes away from the terrible things that our own side has done. It’s a human tendency I think that when you’re criticized, that’s all you focus on. You don’t notice that there’s criticisms directed at others. So the book makes a demand on people to actually put their guard down and recognize that this novel is about all of our mutual responsibilities and faults.

Viet Nguyen: Because the novel is not an essay, I can’t write something in the forward that says this is what the novel’s about. But the novel is a book, the novel is a work of art. It has to challenge the reader and get them to think. Some people don’t want to think past their initial hurt feelings. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do as a writer about that.

Speaker 19: First I want to thank you both so much for coming together for this event. As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and as a woman of color who has been called difficult many times, this is honestly the first event that I felt was made for me. I read an article recently in which, Viet, you said that your parents aren’t really aware of your work. They’re more aware of the recognition around it and they haven’t necessarily read it. I was curious to hear talk about that more and to both of you, how important is it for your loved ones and your family to know the part of you that exists in your work.

Roxane Gay: It’s complicated. My parents have always known that I’m a writer and they’ve always supported my writing. But they’ve also wanted me to become a lawyer, doctor or engineer, the Haitian trifecta.

Viet Nguyen: Sounds just like the Vietnamese one.

Roxane Gay: Absolutely.

Viet Nguyen: We’re related.

Roxane Gay: We totally are. For a long time they just wanted me to become a doctor, which I did. And stop wasting so much time with the writing hobby. As I’ve gotten older, I just didn’t give them any of my writing, but I told them, “Oh, I just a short in,” this magazine or in this anthology and I was very proud. One day I was like, “Mom, I have a short story coming in Best American Short Stories.”

Roxane Gay: She goes, “Roxane, what is that?”

Roxane Gay: I was like, “Oh, it’s nothing.”

Roxane Gay: I took my parents to a festival I was speaking at a couple years ago. This was right before An Untamed State was about to come out. We were walking around and they saw my first book on the table. My did was like, “Roxane, that book has your name on it.”

Roxane Gay: I was like, “I wrote it.”

Roxane Gay: So that’s how my parents found out that I write books. Because I didn’t want to have the awkward conversation. Even with that I did tell them about the two books that were about to come out. They found out via Time Magazine, which was super uncomfortable. I have few regrets in life, but it is one of my regrets that I did not better prepare them for an An Untamed State and Bad Feminist, because it showed them a side of me that they did not know. I must say that in the wake of that, our relationship has actually gotten much better. They understand me a lot more and they’re my biggest cheerleaders. My dad in particular, which is one of the greatest, most glorious surprises of my life. He has always been supportive, but he goes to the airport and rearranges the shelves. He travels a lot because he commutes between here and Port-au-Prince. He talks to people on the airplane about his daughter and shows them articles and he carries them. Just like, “Here’s my portfolio of my child.”

Roxane Gay: It’s been wonderful. I should have trusted them all along. I told them not to read my books, but they have. That ship sailed as well. It’s just great to be able to share this with them. We had a few awkward conversations in 2014 and then now it’s just wonderful. It’s been great this year. Finally An Untamed State is going to be translated into French. It took a long time. Now more of my family will be able to read the book and I’m very excited.

Viet Nguyen: I also became a doctor by the way. The PhD doctor-

Roxane Gay: We are so good to our parents.

Viet Nguyen: I know, right? I figure my brother became the medical doctor and I thought that’s enough and he married a medical doctor too.

Roxane Gay: Oh, you’re good.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

Roxane Gay: You’re good.

Viet Nguyen: We’re golden there. Writing was not something that I really ever told my parent about because I knew it wouldn’t make any sense to them. But I did remember that I had a story published and it was translated into Vietnamese and it was a story called The Other Man in this book. Which is about a Vietnamese refugee who comes to San Francisco in 1975 and is welcomed by two gay men and discovers that he too is gay. I gave that to my dad, who is a devout Catholic, and never heard from him again about that story. Part of the difficulty is that they can read business documents in English, but they’re not going to read literary fiction in English, right? So I never really felt the need to have them understand my stories. I would always give them copies of my books. I think part of the reason why I didn’t need them to read my stories is because I thought, “Oh, my god, they’ve been through so much. They’ve worked so hard their entire lives. Do I really want them to work more for me?” Like to read my books just to validate me.

Viet Nguyen: So I didn’t need that part. But I wanted to give them the material objects of the books to show them that in fact I actually have done something and it’s for them too. When Nothing Ever Dies was about … It’s complicated because when Nothing Ever Dies was about to come out, I went home and I asked my dad, “Look, I want to dedicate this book to you. It’s a book about war and memory and I know this is a part of your history. How do you want me to write your names in these books?” Because you’re Vietnamese, you can do your names in different ways depending on the context.

Viet Nguyen: He said, “Don’t put our names in the book because that history is not done yet.”

Viet Nguyen: So I have to recognize that for my parents they have a very different relationship to their lives, to their histories, to the war, to literature, than I do and I have to respect that. I have to be happy with what they’re happy with. While Roxane didn’t tell them about her books, I didn’t tell my dad about the Pulitzer. News of the Pulitzer came and I was traveling. It didn’t even cross my mind to call my dad. Because I think in my mind I thought, “Well, of course, I should have won the Pulitzer. I’m the son of an Asian immigrant shopkeeper. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Viet Nguyen: He called me a couple days later and he said, “Oh, the relatives in Vietnam called. You won the Pulitzer.” His voice was giddy with happiness. He was the happiest I’d heard in forever.

Viet Nguyen: I was like, “Okay, that’s all I need from him. I don’t need him to read my books. I just need him to be happy for whatever makes him proud.” So now I give him things that are written in Vietnamese about me and he’s very, very happy about that. And I’m fine with that.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Speaker 6: Thank you so much.

 

Category: Interviews, Videos

 

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