Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Squid and Prejudice

Racist Sandwich interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen about his book and Vietnamese background. 

RS interviews Pulitzer Prize winning author and USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen about his new short story collection, what it was like working at his parents’ Vietnamese grocery store, and why he doesn’t write for white readers.

Produced by Juan Ramirez. Music by AF the Naysayer and Blue Dot Sessions. Additional music by  Mobb Deep.

Here is the transcript:

Soleil Ho: This episode of Racist Sandwich is supported by Abbey Creek Vineyard, a winery committed to supporting minority winemakers in Oregon, and embracing all customers from veterans to beginners. Abbey Creek invites you to come sip on a glass of wine at The Crick in North Plains, Oregon. Find them at That’s A-B-B-E-Y

Soleil Ho: You’re listening to Racist Sandwich, the podcast on food, race, class and gender. This is Soleil Ho. I went to San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles for the first time last week, and this is relevant to the interview, I promise. And it was the first time in a long time that I had felt so normal, because San Gabriel Valley has a lot … I mean, I don’t know. It has a lot of Asian people. I don’t know how else to say it, and it’s amazing, because it’s Asian-American people, and those are folks that I’ve never really spent a ton of time with, relatively speaking.

Soleil Ho: I went to the Asian AF comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade thanks to my friend Jenny Yang. I went on a giant food tour with my friend Quincy, who’s a producer of Asian Americans and Good Muslim Bad Muslim, two really great podcasts, and he took me to Koreatown. He took me to dim sum, just everywhere, and I was amazed at how entrenched Asian America was in this area. I never really grappled with it before, except as this abstract identity that I happen to fall under, but I never really, I never really interacted with it as a culture, and going there made me realize just how different my upbringing was.

Soleil Ho: My family’s Vietnamese, and after they escaped from Vietnam in ’75, they were able to get sponsored by someone who lived in Freeport, Illinois, which isn’t a big town. It’s in the middle of America, and maybe two other Vietnamese families got sent to that area. I recently had my aunt interview my grandfather and grandmother for me about their experience, and they said that they had too many kids so that the waiting lists for Houston and L.A., for people like them, were too long, and so they just opted for Freeport. I just couldn’t help but wonder, “How different would life be if we actually were able to go to these hubs of Vietnamese culture?”

Soleil Ho: There’s actually this story … I don’t know. I think of all these, “What if’s,” right? There’s a story that I’ve probably told on the podcast before, but I’m going to tell it again, that’s pretty apocryphal in my family. I don’t know if it’s real, but I like it because it perfectly encapsulates who we are, and also just the weird hand of fate that put us where we ended up. My grandfather got to choose between Taiwan and the United States when they were on the boat that rescued them when they were floating off the coast of Vietnam, and he got asked, “Taiwan or the U.S.?” He put the question to the family, my aunts and uncles and my grandmother, and he asked them all, “Would you rather eat hamburgers or dumplings?”

Soleil Ho: And the story goes, obviously, as I’m speaking to you in perfect American English, they chose hamburgers. Yeah, I don’t know. Something about that and something about how so much of my identity is rolled up in these really big choices that I had no control over is really interesting to me, and so going to the San Gabriel Valley, going to L.A. and just interacting with all these Asian-Americans who grew up around other Asian-Americans who weren’t related to them was amazing. So much of what I know about Vietnamese culture is through my family, their friends, and Paris By Night, which is, if you haven’t seen it, it’s this totally ridiculous variety show that Vietnamese-Americans love that’s based out of California, entirely produced by the Vietnamese-American community.

Soleil Ho: It’s this really, it’s interesting. There’s a lot of music and dance, and it’s also very culturally conservative, especially with regard to gender, but my grandparents and my family watched it all the time, and my friend Quincy pointed out too how funny it is that it’s Paris By Night, and not even California By Night, but Paris, to Vietnamese people, represents so much, so much cosmopolitanism and being really cultured and sophisticated, despite the fact that there was this huge war for independence from France that sparked the American war as well. That’s pretty interesting.

Soleil Ho: When I first heard that Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer for his novel, I had actually never heard of him, but I was like, “Wait, a Vietnamese person, and he wrote about the Vietnam War. That’s so …” I couldn’t even imagine that being recognized by an institution like the Pulitzer committee, and so I read The Sympathizer as soon as I heard, and I bought it, and his depiction is mostly of the Vietnamese-American community in SoCal, and it was the first depiction that I’ve ever really grappled with in literature. It seemed like a fantasy world. I was like, “Wow, all these Vietnamese people hanging out together, going to events, still talking about Vietnam and wearing these military uniforms and parading and being really political still.” Whereas my family is just, I love them and they’re very much just assimilated, because they had to be, and they didn’t really have that political base. Vietnamese politics is so apart from my experience, but that’s what I found so fascinating in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s work. It almost felt like a fairy tale of what life would’ve been life if we had made slightly different choices, and I love that.

Soleil Ho: Enjoy this great interview between Zahir and Viet Thanh Nguyen, the acclaimed author of both fiction and non-fiction. Right now, I’m reading through The Refugees, but I can’t finish it, because my mom stole it for a trip. That’s also a really fantastic book, so enjoy.

Soleil Ho: This episode of Racist Sandwich is supported by People’s Food Co-op and their 4000+ community members, offering responsibly sourced produce, groceries, and bulk items at fair prices since 1970. People’s works with over 40 local farms and runs Portland’s oldest farmers market every Wednesday from 2-7 PM. Visit them at Southeast 21st Avenue, just south of Division Street in Portland, Oregon, or visit That’s peoples dot C-O-O-P.

Zahir J.: Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of The Sympathizer, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. His non-fiction book, Nothing Ever Dies, was nominated for the National Book Award, and his most recent book is the short story collection The Refugees, which is getting rave reviews. This past week, he was shortlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award, and at the moment, he is in Portland receiving the Creative Writing Book Award from the Association For American Studies. Welcome to Racist Sandwich.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you so much for having me, Zahir.

Zahir J.: Racist Sandwich basically is a podcast about food, race, gender, and class. Soleil is a chef and I’m a journalist and writer, and the idea of the show came about when Soleil, who’s as I said Vietnamese-American, was a head chef at a restaurant, and her menu was criticized for being too Asian. She had three dishes out of 35, and I thought that’s something that I relate to a lot as a writer, where I write a few stories about being Muslim and people say, “Is that all you do?” And so I thought, as a writer, I’m always thinking about audience, who do I write for, and chefs have to think about as well, if an Indian cook cooks for a predominantly Indian audience, and so the podcast really is about food and race, and we explore these themes.

Zahir J.: I know you wrote a terrific piece in the L.A. Times about cultural appropriation, but I wanted to start, if you don’t mind, with your childhood. I know you grew up partly in San Jose, and your parents owned a grocery store. Can you explain about what that experience was like growing up?

Viet Nguyen: My parents opened perhaps the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California, and the store itself was pretty much what you would imagine a so-called ethnic grocery store would look like. It’s function was to sell goods that Vietnamese people would identify with home, with their home cuisine, everything from candy to various kinds of meat, cuts of meats in particular, diverse kinds of goods that they would need to make their food, like fish sauce obviously, but other kinds of spices as well and rice. They lived the typical refugee or immigrant shopkeeper lifestyle, which is that they had to work really really hard every day of the week, 12-14 hours a day. For the most part, I didn’t have to go work there, so I was spared from that kind of an experience. I just had to go occasionally to help them do things like stamp cans with prices, but my real work for that store was to do the accounting at night after they came home. After dinner, the work for the store would continue, because we’d have to process all of the checks and food stamps and everything for that.

Viet Nguyen: But the store itself, I do remember when I would visit, how intensely it smelled. It had the odors of these foods and these odors were not the odors of Safeway, for example, which was two blocks down the street. For me, the idea of so-called ethnic food or ethnic grocery stores was always associated with alienness and foreignness, because it smelled different, it looked different, the foods were different, and I knew that we were in this very small enclosed claustrophobic space overcrowded with things, unlike the brightly lit Safeway with the wide aisles and the shopping carts and all those kinds of things.

Zahir J.: Interesting. Did you feel ashamed about your food growing up? I grew up nearby in Sacramento, and I used to beg my mom not to put Indian food in our lunch, because it’s like, “Mom …” and I distanced myself. I didn’t even want people to come over, because I didn’t like them making fun of my mom’s food. Did you feel that sense of shame around your food?

Viet Nguyen: Partially, although I think it was also just puzzlement like, “What is this stuff that we’re eating?” It wasn’t as if we were eating really interesting exotic foods or anything. We were eating the most fundamental kinds of food items you can imagine. My parents, because they worked 12-14 hours a day, didn’t really have a whole lot of time to work. They would come home, and they would most oftentimes boil things, and they would boil cuts of meat that I thought were really strange, like tongue, liver, tripe, things like this, and that was my perception.

Viet Nguyen: I wasn’t really ashamed of it. I just thought, “This is weird, and I probably would not see this in the homes of other people,” but since it was not really a custom to invite people over to our house, I thought, “That’s not really such an issue.” I did have a good friend who was Mexican-American. I got invited over to his house quite often, and his mom would make beans and tortillas and stuff like that. I don’t know if he felt ashamed of this food, didn’t seem like it, but this to me was actually perfectly normal. I think that if my mom was a person who had stayed home and made Vietnamese food, I don’t think I would’ve felt embarrassed about it. It was a situation in which I just knew that this food was different and strange, but not necessarily shameful.

Zahir J.: Growing up, was … Of course you’re a refugee, and you speak a lot, very powerfully about displacement. Was food a type of home for you? Did you ever see food as … you know?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, food was home, but I think we have to qualify what homes means. I think, for me, home does not mean a sentimental thing. It doesn’t mean that home is the place you always feel at home. For me, home was a place where I often felt uncomfortable. I mean, I did feel at home at home. I had my own room, which was a luxury, given my background. It was a place of solitude, because my parents were always off working. But that was also uncomfortable, because I actually wanted the house to be full of people. I wanted friends, and noise, and relatives, and all of that. I didn’t have that.

Viet Nguyen: Then when my parents were home, it was an uncomfortable space because, oftentimes, there was a lot of tensions, because they were tired after working 12 to 14 hour days. I had, obviously, the sense that they sacrificed enormously to make this home possible, and then there would be all kinds of cultural conflicts at home, too. So for me, home was always this very diverse space of everything ranging from comfort to conflict. So food represents that as well. That food can be a comfort food … I grew up eating pho, for example, and I’m very familiar with that, but then food was also eating this boiled tongue that hadn’t been scrapped yet, and dipping it in the blandest possible concoction of fish sauce. It’s all of those things at once for me.

Zahir J.: Hmm, interesting. I know you studied at UC Berkeley. I came in a few years after you. You studied with Maxine Hong Kingston. I was in her class, as well, too, although I was one of those freshmen, and didn’t get a chance of much interaction with her. Her book is celebrating its 40th anniversary. I know she’s had a big impact on you. Can you describe about the experience of studying with such a seminal author and how she influenced your writing.

Viet Nguyen: Well, at the time, I think I knew that she was a famous author, but I was 19 or 20, so “Famous author. Blah, whatever. Whatever the hell does that mean?” I took it for granted that I got into her class. I had a smaller class than you, apparently, but I had the Creative Nonfiction Writing Seminar, which was 14 students. My experience in that class was that I sat as close to her as I am sitting from you, which is a couple of feet, and I would fall asleep every single day.

Zahir J.: Really?

Viet Nguyen: It sounds like I’m so … such an ingrate. But what teachers do for you is oftentimes something that you don’t recognize immediately. What I mean by that is that I have been dealing with the lessons of her pedagogy, and her writing, for decades. Now, we have a very cordial relationship. We’ve done several appearances together, and everything, and I’ve had an opportunity over decades to reflect upon the power of the writing that she’s done, and things like the Woman Warrior and other books, and about her presence as an anti-war activist, peace activist, teacher, writer.

Viet Nguyen: I think that great teachers and great role models sometimes work on you immediately. You’re immediately inspired. And sometimes they work on you gradually, because the model that they offer is in contradiction to so many of the assumptions that you have. Obviously, when that happens, there’s friction. You may not like the friction, but if you reflect on that over time, you may discover that in fact the friction is actually what’s really crucial. So for me, I’ve always valued friction. I’ve always valued the idea of challenge. Sometimes you need to challenge people at their deepest assumptions, and that means that you have to be okay with them being uncomfortable with you.

Zahir J.: I know for me, when I was at Berkeley, reading Edward Said, as a freshman, just completely … In Gene Irshick’s class. He’s a history professor. I don’t know if you remember him. Just completely changed my life. I see a lot of Edward Said in you, as well, too, in your writings. I’m just reading this non-fiction book. Because the way in which … People always forget that Edward Said talks about there’s two forms of Orientalism, both the West when they orientalize, but also the ways in which we internalize. It seems like that’s also a conversation that you’re also having as well, too, the ways in which we internalize this Orientalist narrative. Was Said a big influence on you?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I read Said. Not as early as you did, but probably in my junior year, I think. I used Orientalism to criticize, in one of my senior theses, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The framework that Said provided was there from a long time ago, as well as his general model of intellectual and political critique. Orientalism, I’d realized even at the time, even though it was rather a challenging read for me as an undergraduate, I’d realized it was also really a well-written book, from my perspective, and that he was an engaged political activist.

Viet Nguyen: I thought this is, again, a good role model for me to aspire to. Not just the intellectual arguments that he was making, but his general model of political commitment, as well. I did want to … I mean, I’ve always referenced Said throughout my career, but I did want Nothing Ever Dies to aspire somewhat to what he was trying to do, which was to make a major intervention in the problem that he was facing, and the problem that I was facing, with the belief that you could take very complicated theory … I was working with Gramsci and Foucault … and yet apply it in such a way that would be relevant not just to academics but to people outside of academia. Certainly Orientalism has had a life outside of academia, as well.

Zahir J.: Let’s go back to food, and to your books. I love The Sympathizer, and I’m sure you probably can anticipate this question. You posted this really funny quote on your Facebook, if you don’t mind me reading. It’s a rather critical review of this book. It’s about a famous scene, which is, “I hate this book with a burning passion. It is impossible to follow, and overly disgusting. In chapter five, the main character, who does not have a name, has sex with a squid, then eats the squid. I read and take notes, that this book makes no sense. SMH.” That scene is awesome. I don’t know if it is an homage to Philip Roth’s-

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. Yeah.

Zahir J.: It is an homage? Can you tell us a little … I mean, I think that quote’s hilarious. I think it’s even funnier that you posted it to your Facebook. There are several other quotes that you posted on that same page.

Viet Nguyen: I’ve received a few of those. I read every review published, of this book, on and Goodreads, and the professional reviewers, like The New York Times or whatever, they’re not bothered by this, because I think they all understand that it’s literary, and it’s an allusion to Philip Roth. But the non-professional readers are like, “Ugh.” There’s one percent of readers who just will not go past this episode, which I find very amusing more than anything else. I’d like to provoke those people. I’d like to think, “Oh, man. I got that person.”

Zahir J.: Is it white readers and Asian-American readers, just all across the spectrum, or …

Viet Nguyen: I can’t tell. I think they’re mostly all white readers. White women, too, as far as I can tell. But I-

Zahir J.: Friends of calamari, perhaps.

Viet Nguyen: There was no plan to do that. What I did do, in writing The Sympathizer, I reread a bunch of books that had been important to me in some way beforehand. [inaudible 00:18:47] maybe I can reference them, or think about why they’re influential on me, or why I didn’t like them initially. So Portnoy’s Complaint, I wanted to reread because I’d read it when I was a little kid, 13 or something. The only thing that had stayed with me over decades was the scene where the narrator, Portnoy, masturbates with the family’s slab of liver, then puts it back in the fridge for their consumption later that evening. I thought that was hilarious and disturbing back then, but I didn’t remember anything else about the book. But I thought, “I would like to try to write a comic book, so let me see if I can learn something from this.”

Viet Nguyen: I reread it. It was a much more sophisticated novel than, obviously, I understood when I was a kid, but I didn’t think that I would put the liver scene in my own novel. But as it happened, I had finished my writing for a certain day, stopped the scene that was going to be the meeting in the general’s liquor store, and then I had to prepare dinner. I’m the kind of person who needs to follow recipes, so I had a cookbook. Thought, “I’m going to challenge myself. I’m going to cook squid.” I had the squid already, and then I didn’t know how to prepare squid. So I read the cookbook, and it said, “Oh, you’ve got to clean the squid.” The way you do that is by gutting the squid, taking the guts out with your fingers. So you have to put your fingers into the squid. I put my fingers into the squid … two fingers. And gutted it, and I thought, “Wait a minute. This feels kind of familiar.” Of course, the whole scenario popped into my mind, and I thought, “I’ve got to write this scene the next day.”

Zahir J.: Did you write it right then, or do it the next day?

Viet Nguyen: I wrote it the next day. I just incorporated it in there. Sometimes writing doesn’t happen by design. It happens by inspiration or accident or whatever. I just went with it. On the one hand, it was just totally gratuitous. It was just a lot of fun to write. I knew, as I was writing it, that this was perverse, but that it was also an homage to Philip Roth, and that I was having fun writing it, and hopefully people would have fun reading it. But there’s a political point at the end, which is … It says very explicitly, “Maybe some people would find this scene obscene, masturbating with a squid. I don’t find it obscene,” my narrator says. “Murder is obscene. Massacre is obscene. Three million people dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly non-consensual squid, not so much. The world would be a better place if we lived in a world where the word ‘murder’ made us mumble as much as the word ‘masturbation’.” It’s all there in the scene, but the readers who don’t like it just freak out.

Zahir J.: Which is so interesting, because sometimes when I recall … I tell people the plot of The Sympathizer. If I were to include that as part of the summary, I could be like, “It’s about this war, it’s about torture, I mean, among other things, about identity,” and if I said, “And it’s also about this squid scene,” they’d be like, “Oh, that’s too much, I won’t pick it up,” which is insane. “Hold on, the torture part thing gets you is the squid?” This week, when I was preparing for this episode, people kept saying, “You’ve got to ask him about that.”

Zahir J.: The second Sympathizer food-related question is about there’s a restaurant in the book. Is it called Madam’s or …?

Viet Nguyen: Actually, it’s never given a name, but it’s run by the General’s wife, who’s only known as Madam.

Zahir J.: Oh, Madam.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

Zahir J.: Okay great, great. There’s a scene in there, and forgive me if I’m wrong, because I read that a while back, and then I read these two, The Refugees and the non-fiction book this week, where it said the narrator had wished the décor had looked nicer, I think, right?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

Zahir J.: And what interesting commentary. That’s something that I think comes up again and again on our show, where a lot of chefs said, “I grew up and Korean restaurants never looked nice. I wanted to grow up and make a Korean restaurant where I didn’t feel ashamed of it. Nice tables, clean bathrooms, no linoleum floors, no tube lights, etc. What does that scene say to you?

Viet Nguyen: It speaks to how food is an index for economics and culture in probably every country, but here we’re talking about the United States, so that the so-called ethnic restaurant is devalued in so many ways from the labor that you can’t see to the ingredients to the prices, and then to the general environment, so obviously for Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese restaurant scene in the 1970s and 1980s was pretty bare bones. You can’t sell expensive food to refugees, so there’s already a cap there, which means that the restaurants are never going to be nice.

Viet Nguyen: They’re never going to be elegant, and so I think that aspiration that you would want to have a restaurant that serves your food that is elegant means that you don’t want to retreat from your culture. You still want Vietnamese food, but you would like to have it be someplace you would want to take people who are not a part of your family or your culture, and the underlying issue there obviously is about value. The better the physical environment of your restaurant, the more valuable it is, the more you can charge, and the more you can charge is an index of how valuable or successful your group is in American society.

Viet Nguyen: The Vietnamese restaurateur Diep Tran already wrote this whole article about how we had an ethnic and racial hierarchy of food and value in this country that reflects racial hierarchies in general. The idea is that you can’t charge more than $5-8 for a bowl of pho, for example, but you obviously can charge a lot more for bouillabaisse. You can charge $25 for bouillabaisse. Why is that the case? It’s because French people or French food is valued more than Vietnamese food, but this is a racist hierarchy that unfortunately Vietnamese people themselves also buy into.

Zahir J.: I was going to say absolutely. My parents, they complain when Indian food is too expensive, and we don’t feel … Do you ever have to apologize for calamari lovers when you’re …?

Viet Nguyen: I never apologize, but I think people are always making jokes about the calamari and everything. I totally relish eating it myself.

Zahir J.: Really?

Viet Nguyen: Never had a problem.

Zahir J.: No issue with your wife in the end? I know we’ve just got a few more minutes. It was really moving and actually difficult to read Nothing Ever Dies this week, just given the news about the U.S. dropping the mother of all bombs, as it’s called, which is absurd. I was just thinking that the Gulf War started when I was 13, and in many ways, we’ve been at war throughout my adult life with the Middle East. We’ve been bombing the Middle East since then, and this book is such a … all these books, but particularly I love the non-fiction book. Such a haunting memorial to the war, and I’m wondering how do we write about a war that doesn’t seem to have an end?

Zahir J.: It seems like we’re engaging in constant warfare, and do you ever wonder what the war book will look like about the current war that we’re in right now? Given that many people even dispute the fact that we’re at a war, where at least with Vietnam, it was a war. We can debate about the time frame, but there was a war, whereas now, that term itself is debated.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think that we do have books about the wars that we currently fight, and those books are typically about the experiences of American soldiers or the perspectives of American journalists writing about these extended wars and everything, but they still follow the conventional mode of the conventional war story, which is battles and foreign places and things like that, but I think what you’re getting at is really important, which is that we are engaged in a war that has seemingly no boundaries over space or time. That does, I think, require a new kind of book, and I think Maxine Hong Kingston was trying to get at that with her book The Fifth Book of Peace, where her argument is that we really need to have a global understanding of both war and peace if we want to make any kind of a difference or if we just even want to understand what war is.

Viet Nguyen: And I think that, for so many people including Americans, our understandings of war is really restricted to stuff on the battlefield, so if we’re not actively bombing people, we’re not really at war. Or even if we’re actively bombing people, unless we have troops over there, we’re not really at war. We need a new kind of war novel that actually talks about how war is sometimes the boring stuff that doesn’t happen. War is ongoing. It’s a hum in the background. That’s what I talk about in Nothing Ever Dies. We need to have a war novel that is about those kinds of things, but that would entail also a radical shift in understanding in the American mindset as a whole about what war looks like.

Zahir J.: Absolutely. It seems like that’s one of the things that … One of the things I think you did so beautifully is also in centering these stories around the Vietnamese experience. You spoke in the past about how these books are not written for a wide audience. On a practical level, how does that live out? I know you spent 17 years writing The Refugees. Were there ways in which you held back some of your material to say, “Well wait a minute, it’s not right because I’m not writing for the right audience?” That’s a thing that chefs and writers struggle with all the time, which is, “Who is this for?” Has that been a struggle for you in writing, “Who is this for and …?”

Viet Nguyen: When I was writing The Refugees over 17 years, I wrestled with the question of who it was for, because I wanted it to be for Vietnamese people, but I wanted it to be for Americans in general as well, because I knew this was people buying the books and publishing the books and everything. I could not find a way to address that problem at the level of the writing of the stories, because I was mostly concerned with just, “How do I write a story?” If I had to throw on top of that the question of audience, it just was beyond my capacity to address, but after finishing those stories, I thought, “I do have the capacity now formally to move on to the next challenge, which is to not write for white people explicitly.”

Viet Nguyen: The Sympathizer is a very different book in tone and perspective because I’d already worked out a lot of the technical issues of simply how to put a sentence together, for example. I think that’s not that different from being a cook. When you’re learning how to cook, you’re just trying to master a recipe, and if your recipe … You’re trying to run a restaurant, and you know your survival is dependent on white people, you’ve got to address white people. And then you reach a certain level of confidence and stability, and maybe then you can do more experimental things, or maybe you’re confident enough to start from that position at the get go, which I would really admire.

Viet Nguyen: I think we’re all struggling with that issue of the marketplace of our readership or our consumers or our customers, and of the aesthetic challenges in creation, whether it’s food or whether it’s literature, and we have to, I think, reach a certain level of political and technical competence and confidence before we are really able to do disruptive things like throwing into doubt the very assumptions of the marketplace and the discipline that we’re involved with, whether it’s literature or whether it’s food.

Zahir J.: Yeah. The one thing I respect is that you are a writer that inhabits so many worlds, and we’re so much better for all the conversations that you’re leading both through your novels but also through your non-fiction. Last question is I know you’re writing a sequel to The Sympathizer. Does the squid make a reappearance in it? Is it true that they go off in Paris and they live …

Viet Nguyen: You put a thought into my head, oh my God. Maybe I should just make a, you know how you have a little signature scene across books. Maybe he has to have another sexual encounter with a baguette or something like that.

Zahir J.: Seriously, are you really writing a similar scene?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I’m writing-

Zahir J.: Really?

Viet Nguyen: [crosstalk 00:29:32] The Sympathizer and a baguette really does appear in the first 50 pages. There’s food, there’s French food-

Zahir J.: A baguette in a sexual way?

Viet Nguyen: No, it’s just a baguette, but is a baguette always a baguette? I guess now you’ve just put some thoughts in my mind.

Zahir J.: Thank you so much, Viet Thanh.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you so much. It was a lot of fun.

Zahir J.: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Soleil Ho: This episode of Racist Sandwich is supported by People’s Food Co-op and their 4000+ community members, offering responsibly sourced produce, groceries, and bulk items at fair prices since 1970. People’s works with over 40 local farms and runs Portland’s oldest farmers market every Wednesday from 2-7 PM. Visit them at Southeast 21st Avenue, just south of Division Street in Portland, Oregon, or visit That’s peoples dot C-O-O-P.

Soleil Ho: You’ve been listening to the Racist Sandwich Podcast, the podcast on food, race, class, and gender, and this is Soleil Ho. You can find more of our work on our website, You can find us on social media @raceandfood on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, whatever. And you can also email us your comments, suggestions, complaints, did we blow your mind, anything at Our show is produced by Juan Ramirez. Music is by AF The Naysayer and Blue Dot Sessions. Our logo is by Jen Tam. You can find more of her work at And please, if you have any inkling to do so, you can contribute to us, donate to our Patreon at Any amount helps a lot. It helps us continue the show and put out the quality content that all y’all enjoy, I would think. Thanks for listening.


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