Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Vietnam war refugee Nguyen on US identity

Eve Jackson and Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses The Sympathizer as well as the Hollywood-isation of the Vietnam War for France 24. 

From ‘Apocalypse Now’ to ‘Platoon’, from Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ to Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’, when you consider the so-called ‘best’ books and films about the Vietnam War, few come from Vietnamese voices. But when our guest Viet Thanh Nguyen started writing his debut Vietnam-War-era spy novel, he was determined not to write for a Western audience or translate Vietnamese culture.Despite Nguyen’s sense he was going against publishers’ tastes, “The Sympathizer” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Viet Thanh Nguyen talks to Eve Jackson about the Hollywoodisation” of the Vietnam War, his book’s political mission and why Donald Trump terrifies most of the literary community.

Here is the transcript:

Eve Jackson: Hello. Welcome to Encore. On today’s show: From Apocalypse Now to Platoon, from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, when you look around the so called best books and films about the Vietnam War, few are from Vietnamese voices. When today’s guest started writing his debut Vietnam War novel, he didn’t write for a white audience or translate Vietnamese culture. Despite feelings he was going against the taste of publishers, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Viet Thanh Nguyen joins me in the studio.

Eve Jackson: Viet, welcome to the show.

Viet Nguyen: For having me.

Eve Jackson: Thank you for being here. Congratulations on the success of The Sympathizer.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Eve Jackson: Now when you started this novel, you were adamant that it wouldn’t fall into the minority literature written for majority audience. What was the mission of this book? Was it to fill a void?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think it was definitely to address this larger understanding of the Vietnam War that Americans have. Which is the world’s understanding. Because American culture is so powerful, like Apocalypse Now, as you mentioned, people all over the world have seen the American perspective. But not too many people have heard how the Vietnamese have seen this history.

Eve Jackson: Well there are references to Apocalypse Now in your book. So many films have been made about Vietnam. I just wanna remind viewers of some of them, then we’ll talk about it.

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Eve Jackson: To name some of them: Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, there’s so many more. Is there a Vietnamese Hollywood movie that you find accurate, is there one that you like? Or do you feel that they all missed the point?

Viet Nguyen: No, I think they are accurate in the sense that they capture some American understanding of the war, but of course they’re all based on the American perspective. And the Vietnamese are simply the backdrop for this American trauma that Americans wanna play out over and over again. But what we really have to remember is that while it was an American tragedy, 58,000 American dead, 3 million Vietnamese people died as well. It’s ironic that they would only be the backdrop to the drama.

Eve Jackson: Well in your book we discover an unfamiliar new perspective on the war. That’s of a conflicted Communist sympathizer, he was a spy for the North Vietnamese. He worked under cover and for a South Vietnamese general. Why did you wanna do the point of view of a spy?

Viet Nguyen: It’s fun isn’t it? I like reading spy novels and I wanted to write a novel that would be political, historical, serious, but also entertaining. I really love spy novels because I’m totally gripped by them. And there really were spies who were doing this kind of work during the Vietnam War, so it’s based on history as well.

Eve Jackson: Well you are a Vietnam War refugee yourself. Your parents are from the north of Vietnam, they fled to the south in the 50s, when the north took over. Then when Saigon fell in ’75, they fled to the United States. You were only four years old. Tell us about some of those memories of the war and of escaping.

Viet Nguyen: Well fortunately, I didn’t remember anything about the war and escaping because I was four. But my memories really begin when I arrived as a refugee in the United States, along with 150,000 others and we were all put into refugee camps. The only way to leave was to be sponsored by an American family. That’s when my memory begins because I was separated from my parents at four years of age and sent to live with a white sponsor family. Which I found rather traumatic. Then I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community where the stories I heard from other Vietnamese people were completely not like what I was seeing in these American Vietnam War films.

Eve Jackson: And you talked about the challenges in writing, of growing up Vietnamese in California, which happened later. Then you went to a quite posh private school. When did you realize there was this conflict in the United States about the feelings of the Vietnam War?

Viet Nguyen: I think probably when I saw Apocalypse Now. I think I was about 10 or 11 years old and I think it was one of the early movies that I saw on this new invention called the VCR. I’d been a fan of American war movies, I thought of myself as an American. Identified with these American soldiers, until the point in Apocalypse Now where they started to kill Vietnamese people, who had nothing to say. That’s when I felt that there was this split between how I was seeing this experience, how the Vietnamese refugees were seeing this experience, and how Americans were.

Eve Jackson: Now your parents are prosperous, your brother is a doctor who works for the White House. You’re a professor, also a Pulitzer Prize winner now. Do you think about what life could have been like if you’d stayed?

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. I think anybody who’s an immigrant or a refugee always has this sense that there was another possibility, another life they could’ve led. If they’d stayed behind, or if they had not survived the journey. I think in that sense, we’re all at least a little bit haunted by this other possibility. This alternate universe we could’ve ended up in.

Eve Jackson: After the novel was published, you got letters from people who accused you of being ungrateful to the United States. A vast section of rural Americans and the deep south for example, they weren’t buying the book. The day before the presidential election, a novelist told you on Twitter that you were not an American author, and your Pulitzer was an American prize that shuns the real America. What’s your response to that and what kind of political work is this, do you think?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think America has always been divided. It’s always been contradictory. There is the America of liberal hopes and expectations, the American Dream. And then there’s the America that’s more nationalist, more fearful, more xenophobic. These tensions have always existed but in the contemporary moment, because of the election of Donald Trump, we see these splits becoming even more visible. And it affects even the literary world. So I was actually not surprised to get these kinds of letters or these kinds comments, because I’m well aware that these sentiments continue to exist in American society.

Eve Jackson: Is this a political book?

Viet Nguyen: Of course. You know, I’m a believer in the possibility that art and politics can co-exist. So I wanted to write a novel that was political to demonstrate that you could write a political novel that could be entertaining at the same time. And of course, Donald Trump is entertaining. There’s a form of politics that keeps us mesmerized.

Eve Jackson: Well much of the literary world in particular, seems to be terrified by President Trump’s vision of this good versus evil, us against them. In many award acceptance speeches like the National Book Award and the winners talk about this fear, this concern about Donald Trump. What is it exactly that petrifies you so much?

Viet Nguyen: Well I think literature and Donald Trump are antithetical. Literature is premised on empathy. You know, as a writers and as readers we depend on being able to see the world from someone else’s point of view, to feel for others. Donald Trump’s vision is about closing or shrinking that empathy. When he says, “Make America great again,” and “You won’t be forgotten,” he’s not talking to all of America. He’s talking to a very specific segment of the American population. You can’t do that as a writer.

Eve Jackson: Were you concerned about your book being published at a time when America was showing these feelings of us against them?

Viet Nguyen: America’s always shown these feelings of us against them. It just goes in cycles. Sometimes those feelings are not so exacerbated, but again, from the very origins of American society, there’s always been this division between who we think of as ourselves and who we think of as others. And these feelings erupt periodically in times of war.

Eve Jackson: And you’re working on a sequel. After finishing the book, it seemed like there was an end, but tell me about this sequel. What we’re gonna see in it.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I’m gonna give away one part of the novel, which is that the narrator, the spy, lives. When I set out to write the novel I didn’t think of a sequel. But when I finished the novel, I thought, “I’m not done with him. He’s not done with me. I wanna know what happens to him next.” In fact, what happens is that he goes on to Paris. He’s half French, half Vietnamese. He’s done with the United States and he’s gonna go to Paris to try to figure out what the French side of him is.

Eve Jackson: You have quite a big love, a quite big interest just for that for example, in France. You said that you’re thinking of sending your son to a French speaking school. Tell us about this love of French.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think Vietnamese people are very familiar with French culture because we were colonized by the French for a century or so. Like most colonial relationships, it’s sort of a love hate relationship. We didn’t like being colonized, but nevertheless we’ve been deeply influenced by the French. So I think that residue of colonial history stays with me. And it’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to being here in France to try to understand what that means for Vietnamese people.

Eve Jackson: You spent a whole summer here in Paris. Tell us about your experience.

Viet Nguyen: Well I’ve been to Paris before, so I’ve done all the tourist things before. Mostly I was in Paris sitting in my apartment, trying to write. Which is also a very Parisian experience for some Americans who visit here as writers.

Eve Jackson: Now we’re gonna move on to the part of the show where we talk about your top cultural picks. What’s your favorite book of the moment?

Viet Nguyen: My favorite book of the moment. Well, I just read Abdellah Taia’s Infidels, or Infidel. I thought that was a fabulous novel about the experiences of being queer and Moroccan in France. Then I’m currently reading Laurent Binet’s, The Seventh Function of Language. Which is about Paris in the 1980s, which is where my novel is set too.

Eve Jackson: Do you have a favorite song?

Viet Nguyen: I Just Can’t Get Enough, by Depeche Mode. Which shows my age, I think. But I loved that song, when I first heard it in early 1980s. Still do whenever it comes on.

Eve Jackson: So you’re still listening to old music?

Viet Nguyen: Of course, I’m old.

Eve Jackson: Tell us, what was the last film you saw?

Viet Nguyen: Well, as you mentioned, I have a four year old son. Which means I don’t have very much time to watch movies. All the movies we watch are from his tastes. The last movie was Despicable Me 3. Which we saw in an air conditioned theater here in Paris during the heatwave.

Eve Jackson: Okay, and tell us why you like that film? Did he like it?

Viet Nguyen: Oh he loves it. He loves the minions. I think he identifies with the minions and he is a little minion himself.

Eve Jackson: Thank you so much for coming in and speaking to us here on France 24. We’re gonna leave you with that, with Despicable Me 3. Thank you for joining us. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book is called The Sympathizer. Remember our website, we’re also on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. There’s more news coming up on France 24 after this.

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