The Lit Up Show Episode 99: Viet Thanh Nguyen on the Vietnamese-American Refugee Experience

Angela Ledgerwood interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen on Episode 99 of The Lit Up Show.

Listen to Viet Thanh Nguyen HERE.

The multi-talented Nguyen knows what it means to inhabit a life radically shaped by history. In 1975, he and his family came to The United States as refugees in the wake of the Vietnam War. His debut novel, The Sympathizer, winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize, revisited the conflict that changed the trajectory of his life and inserted a much-needed Vietnamese perspective to the largely American-driven narrative. In The Refugees, a collection of stories nearly two decades in the making, he gives voice to the Vietnamese communities in Southern California (where he grew up) and to those living in the country he fled, acknowledging that the ghosts of war reverberate for generations. Our conversation jumps right into the personal and there are surprises! I have to admit that this convo was an all time favorite. I hope you enjoy listening to it unfold.

Buy The Refugees here.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other honors include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, a Gold Medal in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award from the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association. His other books are Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction) and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He has been interviewed by Tavis SmileyCharlie RoseSeth Meyers, and Terry Gross, among many others. His current book is the bestselling short story collection, The Refugees.

The Interview

Ledgerwood: I’m Angela Ledgerwood and this is Lit Up, a podcast about books, writers, life and love and all things literary. Our guest today, the talented Viet Thanh Nguyen, knows what it means to inhabit a life radically shaped by history. In 1975 he and his family came to the United States as refugees in the wake of the Vietnam war. His debut novel, The Sympathizer, winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize, revisited the conflict that changed the trajectory of his life and inserted a much needed Vietnamese perspective to the largely American driven narrative. In The Refugees, his collection of short stories, many, many years in the making, as you will hear, he gives voice to the Vietnamese communities in Southern California where he grew up and to those living in the country he fled, acknowledging that the ghosts of war reverberate for generations. We’ve found some amazing … Is it whiskey or …

Viet Nguyen: Scotch.

Ledgerwood: Scotch.

Viet Nguyen: Macallan 17.

Ledgerwood: So cheers.

Viet Nguyen: Cheers.

Ledgerwood: Viet, for coming in.

Viet Nguyen: This makes it even better. This is the first time I’ve had a drink on an interview. I love it.

Ledgerwood: Cheers.

Viet Nguyen: We should do more of it.

Ledgerwood: Oh my, it’s delicious.

Viet Nguyen: Oh yeah.

Ledgerwood: Okay, so here we go. Instead, I’m gonna do kind of a weird thing. I always love acknowledgements in books and I kind of teared up when I read one of yours, and that was that your little boy would be about the age you were when you came as a refugee. So, when did you come here and how old were you and what do you think when you look at your little boy and imagine what … Well, you don’t have to imagine what you went through because you were that little boy, but how does that make you feel?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I was a refugee soon after I turned four years old, and actually I think when the communist invasion of my town happened, I had just turned four in March of 1975, and my memory of what it meant to be a refugee, my human memory, really began during that summer of 1975 after we came to the United States and I was taken away from my parents and sent to live with a white sponsor family. Actually I do have to imagine what my life was like because I don’t really have any memory of the details of that. So that’s why when I look at my son, who’s about three and a half right now and I see what he’s going through and I see that he won’t remember any of these things, I have tremendous empathy for him and empathy for the little boy that I once was, because I can see how emotional he is when he’s even taken away from me or when I have to go on book tour like this.

Ledgerwood: How attached.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, how attached he is, and to think that when I was four years old I was taken away from my parents for months and I do remember just crying my eyes out at that experience. That really marked me. I’ve never forgotten that, but I don’t think I really understood how that marked me for decades because I tried to avoid that experience. I tried to put it out of my mind, but I don’t think I was ever able to completely.

Ledgerwood: Why were you taken away from your parents at that point?

Viet Nguyen: In order to leave a refugee camp, the Vietnamese refugees had to have sponsors, Americans, who could guarantee that they wouldn’t be a drain on the welfare system, and typically the sponsors would take the entire family. Either one family would take a family or a church would take a family, so I really don’t know why we couldn’t find one for my entire family but that was the case, and actually I got lucky because I was taken away for a summer and I know that I was brought back to my parents because I have pictures of us in the snow. So, by the winter we were back together. My brother who was 10 was taken away and didn’t come back for two years.

Ledgerwood: At 10.

Viet Nguyen: 10, yeah. So he’s like, “Mom and dad loved you more because mom made it very clear that she needed you back but not me,” in my older brother’s case, but I think it’s okay. He went to Harvard like seven years after that, so …

Ledgerwood: I know, I read that. I was like, “Okay.” So it obviously … Maybe being detached from that family unit … I mean, we can thrive … I guess you choose to see your circumstances or you kind of absorb them and go forth.

Viet Nguyen: I think you don’t have a choice in that kind of a circumstance, but I think that we were lucky or we were emotionally equipped to deal with this in some way because we both turned out to be relatively well adjusted professionals, but I know many people who went through that refugee experience and they have been emotionally troubled ever since or just not socially equipped to succeed in the United States, so that experience impacted different people in different ways.

Ledgerwood: Another thing that I found interesting … I mean, also shocking when I wanted to get the dates right of the Vietnam war and then realizing for how long it went on, and you say that your parents were refugees twice over, once in 1954 and then again in 1975. We’ve explained the second time, but what happened in 1954 that made them refugees the first time?

Viet Nguyen: Well, what happened was that Ho Chi Minh began his revolution in 1945 against the French and in 1954 he succeeded, and the country was divided into two when the French were kicked out. My parents lived in North Vietnam and they, along with 800,000 other Vietnamese Catholics, fled to the South because they believed that they would be suffering persecution under a communist North. What that meant for my parents was that my dad went south with my mom and my mom’s family, so my dad would not see his parents or any of his siblings for 40 years until he was able to return in the early ’90s.

Viet Nguyen: My mom went south with her family but separated from them in 1975 and she wouldn’t see her relatives for 20 years, and these decades of separation were actually a very common experience for many Vietnamese refugees, and again, a lot of them were refugees twice just like my parents.

Ledgerwood: The story collection called The Refugees is about the communities that you grew up in or stories inspired by them. Firstly, just because I think we need to understand the history and I need to be educated about this part of history and I read Nam Le’s fabulous book The Boat many, many years ago, and as an Australian I remember it being … You know, when you’re just shocked that you haven’t understood a history that you’re so embedded in for so long and kind of be revolted by what … Anyway, I mean, we can go on about what is still going on there, but how many Vietnamese refugees came to the US and what was the situation? Like, even hearing about refugee camps in America seems … It’s hard for us to imagine if we’re kind of young and haven’t seen that before.

Viet Nguyen: 150,000 Vietnamese refugees fled in April of 1975 and I think all of them went to the United States. Then in subsequent years, hundreds of thousands of people would flee the country by any means possible, usually by a boat. They were scattered all over. Many of them did come to the United States and today I think we have a couple of million Vietnamese refugees here or their descendants, and then many more went to other countries including Australia, which I think was probably the third largest receiving country.

Viet Nguyen: So, to this day, I think my surname, Nguyen, is, I heard, the fourth most popular surname in Australia, so we’ve overcome certain kinds of barriers, which is important to note because I think that during 1975, a lot of Americans did not want to take Vietnamese refugees in. The majority did not want to have these refugees here, and now Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese Australians have become very successful and the Australian and American memory of these people has totally changed. Like, “Well, of course we always wanted to have them here, because they’re so good,” and that’s simply not true, and so that’s why I think it’s important …

Viet Nguyen: When I dedicated this book to all refugees everywhere, I was thinking very specifically about new refugees and about how it’s important to extend empathy to them and to remember that the refugees that we think are so acceptable today were not acceptable 40 years ago.

Ledgerwood: There’s a term that you’ve come up with and it’s called the concept of ethical memory. I was gonna talk to you about this way later, but it seems appropriate now because of the way we think of just how memory shifts and changes. Can you talk about what that is and how it relates to your book?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think memory politics are always important. Today for example … Not today, but in this era when Donald Drumpf, during his inauguration speech, says to some portion of the American people, “You will never be ignored again,” he’s engaging in an ethics of memory, and that ethics is that it’s important to remember people who are just like us, because if we don’t, who will? That’s what he’s appealing to. Hillary Clinton has a very liberal model of ethical memory which is a model of inclusion and tolerance, right? That’s certainly the model that many of us, your listeners, readers of literature would embrace.

Viet Nguyen: So, it’s important to recognize that these models of memory are taking place in order to understand even how politicians are using them to appeal to different segments of the American or Australian population.

Ledgerwood: Well this comes to your first story, “Black Eyed Woman,” and we won’t give too much away, but it’s very much dealing with ghosts and memory and there’s a mother and daughter in it. I think we can say that there is … The ghost of their brother comes back. Firstly, it seems like … I like the mother character a lot because she seems to understand ghosts. She knows what’s up with them. She knows that they appear to you the way they were when you last saw them, and I kind of liked how sure she was about these rules. I wondered, do you believe in ghosts?

Viet Nguyen: No.

Ledgerwood: Whoa.

Viet Nguyen: Wait, no, but it’s a funny thing …

Ledgerwood: Because your story is … I’ll get in, but it has prompted conversations with me and my friends about this.

Viet Nguyen: You know, I think on the one hand I don’t believe in ghosts, but on the other hand, when I’m confronted by a dark hallway, I do believe in ghosts, so it’s one of those strange little contradictions. Rationally I don’t. Emotionally I do, and that’s what the story takes up, because our ghostwriter, who is the protagonist or the narrator of the story, doesn’t believe in ghosts, but is forced to confront a very real one who comes to her door. Her dead brother, who didn’t survive the same boat journey that she was on with her entire family.

Viet Nguyen: Of course, what I had to do in writing this story was to try to imagine what a ghost story is like, which is hard for me, because I don’t like ghost stories, but the Vietnamese people really do believe that these kinds of incidents happen, that the dead will come back to say goodbye. These ghosts are not ghosts who are there to terrorize. THey’re there as benevolent presences, and that’s the kind of ghost story that I wanted to tell in this one.

Ledgerwood: It felt like they couldn’t move on until they had seen him in the piece.

Viet Nguyen: That’s exactly right, and that’s why Vietnamese people believe that these ghosts reappear, for the ghosts to move on, but in order for their relatives to move on as well. So, in Vietnamese culture, that idea of a spirit world that is right there in your own home is a common belief.

Ledgerwood: I think there is a line … You know, when the dead brother says, “I die …” Something like, “You’re living but you haven’t been able to move forward from this moment.”

Viet Nguyen: He says that, but he also says, when she asks him why he’s here and he says to her, “Well, you died too. You just don’t know it.” Something terrible happens to her on that boat and she’s suppressed a memory of that for decades, and it’s turned her into the person that she is. I mean, she’s a ghostwriter who lives in the basement basically, doesn’t have much human contact. So, on the one hand, people literally die from the past and on the other hand, people who have survived physically have not survived emotionally. It happens to so many people who live through traumatic, difficult experiences. Not just my narrator here but so many other people who have never been able to shed the past that remains haunting to them.

Ledgerwood: I’m thinking of another young boy. Oh, is it Mrs. Hoa? Is that …

Viet Nguyen: Mrs. Hoa.

Ledgerwood: Hoa. Oh wow, I love that. Mrs. Hoa.

Viet Nguyen: It’s in a story called “War Years,” which is the only autobiographical story I’ve ever written, about a young boy and his refugee shopkeeper parents in San Jose, California, which was basically my life.

Ledgerwood: Thank you. You just hooked it back in. This idea of … The character in it is talking about how his adolescence or his childhood was just infused by this haunting. So, I guess if it is the most autobiographical story, what was it like having … You didn’t have to live through the violence at home for those first four years, but how did it overshadow everything?

Viet Nguyen: I think that the Vietnamese refugee community that I grew up in was traumatized by what it had endured during the war, and in fleeing the country and coming to the United States, and that was manifest in the way that there was a lot of violence in the community. Domestic violence, of course, but also gang violence. The Vietnamese gangsters of that time who were not that much older than I was invented the home invasion, because they knew that the Vietnamese refugees kept their money at home and they would go and they would break into these homes and hold people up at gunpoint and do terrible things to them and their children.

Viet Nguyen: So my parents were always telling these kinds of stories. They said, “Never open the door to a Vietnamese person,” and so one day someone knocked on our door and he wasn’t Vietnamese, and so someone in the family … I don’t think it was me, I think it was one of my parents, opened the door to that person and he came in with a gun. That’s a real life incident that I lived through, where someone pointed a gun at my face when I was 16 years old. That, to me, was just the personal impact of how even though the war was over, the Vietnamese refugees were repeating that violence against themselves, and the story takes up that theme.

Ledgerwood: So what happened in your real life in that scenario? Thank goodness you are here.

Viet Nguyen: What happened was what happened in the story, which is my mother saved us. The gunman said, “Get down on the ground.”

Ledgerwood: Oh, so it is …

Viet Nguyen: My father and I, being the heroic, courageous people we were, did exactly as we were told and my mom, she was wearing her nightgown … You know, she just sprinted past him out into the street, and we lived on a very busy road. I never liked the fact that we lived right next to the freeway, but that was a good opportunity for us then because she ran out onto the street. There was a traffic jam. Everybody could see her, and that saved us because the gunman couldn’t do anything to her at that point. He stepped out and my father then slammed the door shut and locked him out along with my mother, right? But that was the pragmatic thing to do and they were very pragmatic people.

Viet Nguyen: That was an encapsulation of what our life was like. You know, that you had to be pragmatic. You had to do everything you could to survive and to take risks when necessary.

Ledgerwood: I just want to go back to something you said earlier because I listened to you a lot, but in the first story, going back to Black Eyed Woman, I did hear that you had planned to have it be a lesbian couple. You’re very open about saying you’re a political writer and I love that, but when you’re trying to deal with an idea and an issue as well as a poignant story, how do you make those decisions and what happened in that particular one?

Viet Nguyen: In writing the story collection, I knew it was going to be about Vietnamese refugees or mostly about Vietnamese refugees and the people they meet, but that didn’t mean that all the characters were going to be the same. Just because I was Vietnamese, that didn’t mean that I didn’t have to exert my imagination. So I wanted to make sure that a very broad swath of Vietnamese people would be talked about, so I literally had an Excel sheet where I said, “Okay, here’s young people and old people and so on and so forth. Now I want to hit a lot of demographic points,” and so I thought it would be really important to write about lesbians or just about gay people in general and there is a story about a young gay man in there as well.

Viet Nguyen: So I thought, okay, Vietnamese lesbians … Lesbian experience is very different from me. I’m gonna really have to exert my imagination and my empathy to do this and at the same time it was also gonna be a ghost story, so the premise is exactly the same about the arrival of the ghost, except he interrupts this romantic relationship between two women, one of whom is Vietnamese and one of whom isn’t. The story took me 50 drafts over 17 years to write because I was struggling to make all these plot points fit in and it just wasn’t happening. The plot just got more and more absurd with every successive draft.

Viet Nguyen: Finally at a certain point I decided maybe the lesbian thing is not gonna work out. Maybe something has to be sacrificed here. I took that out, put in the-

Ledgerwood: Your next novel can be a lesbian novel.

Viet Nguyen: Yes, absolutely.

Ledgerwood: Political lesbian novel.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, so eventually I will get to write about Vietnamese lesbians. Just not in this story.

Ledgerwood: Well, just because we have gone there, it took 17 years to write, so it’s really interesting that-

Viet Nguyen: Now I’m gonna have a drink to commemorate that experience.

Ledgerwood: Perfect, perfect. Amazing. So, what is it like to work on a set of stories for that long and then the sympathizer … I mean, as reading it, it feels like kind of a rush, but was it also an experience, like a rush of writing after this struggle of these stories?

Viet Nguyen: No. I don’t know any sane writer …

Ledgerwood: Oh, okay.

Viet Nguyen: … Who would sit down and think, “I’m gonna spend 17 years writing a book,” because if I knew that, I’m pretty certain at my very young age at that time in my 20s, I would not have done that. So, it was a very different experience than writing The Sympathizer, because writing The Sympathizer … If it was a rush reading it, which is good, it was a rush writing it as well and it took two years to write that book. A little bit over two years, but I learned how to write through writing The Refugees, and it was a very arduous experience. It was because I taught myself how to write, which meant that I didn’t know what I was doing when I was writing any of these short stories. I would just jump in on the premise of a line or a character or something small and then try to figure my way out to the end of the story. Sometimes it took 50 drafts over 17 years, but none of the stories were easy to write. They all took many, many drafts over a certain number of years to do.

Viet Nguyen: The interesting thing about that, I think from the perspective of a reader, is that you won’t notice that in reading the stories. I’m pretty sure you can read this book in a day at the most. That’s a good thing because it took me that long to try to figure out how to make something really, really difficult, easy for the reader.

Ledgerwood: One story that comes to mind that just has so many perspectives is “Americans,” and Claire, I guess … Well, I guess Carver, which is the protagonist, but … Could you explain a bit what that story is about and then I really identified with Claire when someone who goes somewhere else and decides that they embrace and they love a place and in it, she says she has a Vietnamese soul and her father … It just ruffles not even feathers. Deep kind of concrete … How hard was it to write from the perspective of a vet who’s returned begrudgingly to Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: That story wasn’t so bad, I think. I wrote it later in the cycle, and Carver is not just a vet. He’s a bomber pilot and he’s black. Obviously all these experiences are very different from me and I definitely, certainly wanted to include all of those in the book and part of the challenge was obviously how do I not make this into a heavy handed story about the horrors of bombing and how do I make this into a story where it doesn’t seem belabored that I’m writing from the perspective of a black man? That was actually a lot of fun to do those kinds of things. I tried to figure out how to gracefully deal with these vast differences from the character in relationship to myself.

Viet Nguyen: So I only have good things to say about that story actually, and the fact is that Carver marries a Japanese woman that he meets in Japan during his tour, so his daughter, Claire, is half Japanese and half black and all American. When she says she has a Vietnamese soul, that actually came from something that somebody really said to me. I met several Japanese expatriates in Vietnam who were basically hippies from Japan who were like, “We really identify with being Vietnamese.” I thought that’s really interesting and it’s probably not unique to these particular Japanese people, and why not make this a trait of a mixed race American and then all the ensuing difficulties that that would cause with her and her hard nosed veteran father?

Ledgerwood: Speaking of hippies, you went to Berkeley.

Viet Nguyen: Yes I did.

Ledgerwood: You look like a very scrubbed, clean, you know, hippie right now, opposite me, but how did that … You’ve said that it was a transformative experience. Why so? Why specifically that period?

Viet Nguyen: I grew up in San Jose in a very mixed neighborhood of Vietnamese refugees and Mexican Americans, but I mostly went to very elite schools, Catholic schools, and my prep school was all white, mostly all white and all boys, which is a whole separate issue. There were very few of us who were Asian Americans at that time. We didn’t call ourselves Asian American, we called ourselves the Asian invasion, because we didn’t have a political consciousness. So, going to Berkeley was really transformative because I knew immediately stepping foot onto Telegraph Avenue that I was home. That this what I had always been looking for but I didn’t know how to put it into words growing up in a San Jose that I felt was really closed off culturally and I felt really confined there and going to Berkeley was literally finding an environment where everything was open. Culturally open, intellectually open, politically open, and so I took a lot of classes in ethnic studies that really put into words everything that I’d been struggling with all of my life.

Viet Nguyen: That was what was transformative. It was like being hit by intellectual lightning and also political lightning because I became immediately radicalized within weeks of stepping foot onto the campus, so within a semester I was arrested twice in political protests. We were not hippies. There was certainly the hippie counter cultural left and everything. We were the scrubbed clean, model minority, Asian American left that I got involved with. We were very polite and articulate and all of that, but we were intent on disrupting the politics of that day, and I think many of us were completely affected by that and many of my … the students that I knew from that time period have gone on to political careers in the assembly of California. One of my friends is now one of the head ACLU lawyers fighting the good fight against the Muslim ban and against anti-immigrant politics, and we learned all of that from that time as students at Berkeley.

Ledgerwood: Something I’ve also heard that’s very interesting that you’ve said, that there was a very glowing review of The Refugees in the Times and that the writer used this phrase that we hear all the time called giving voice to the voiceless, and I loved how you retaliated against that and said, “We’re not voiceless. We’ve always had voices, but no one has heard us,” and I know also that people called The Sympathizer an immigrant novel versus a refugee novel, and I’m sure it may be the same of this collection. How for you is it so important to make that distinction?

Viet Nguyen: I think they’re related. The American urge to turn all foreign stories into immigrant stories is a way to contain very difficult histories because if you were to actually acknowledge that these people are refugees, and I thought, “I’m a refugee,” you’d have to ask why. Well, because a war war fought in which the United States was implicated. That’s much more difficult than to say somebody just came here to pursue the American dream, so I have to constantly assert, “No, there’s a very particular history of war and refugees that The Sympathizer and The Refugees is dealing with,” and then to call people immigrants or in this case to call someone like me an immigrant writer fits completely into that narrative of giving voice to the voiceless, because we can only, as Americans, deal with so much difference.

Viet Nguyen: So instead of dealing with the vast diversity of Vietnamese people, for example, we just want to deal with one, and let’s give that mantle of being the voice for the voiceless. Of course that is good for the writer, I guess, because you get to be that voice for the voiceless and everybody buys your books, but it’s really, really bad politically because it substitutes one person’s voice for this diversity. I don’t represent the Vietnamese community because many people would disagree with what I have to say, and yet at the same time, so many Vietnamese people have taken tremendous pride in me winning the Pulitzer and have treated me as a representative and a voice for them, so it’s a real contradiction to be caught in, where I feel like I do have to fulfill that expectation on their part, and yet I also have to constantly undercut it at the same time.

Viet Nguyen: It’s like, “Okay, I’ll speak for the Vietnamese people as long as you realize I’m not actually their voice,” and all of us who are minority writers are caught up in this dilemma, and it’s a real trap because we might be the voice for the voiceless now, but five years from now, somebody else will be the voice for the voiceless, so we’re just the flavor of the month and it fits completely into the literary industry’s desire for a commodity, and I’m deeply aware of that, which is why I’m very, very cautious about not giving in to this desire for commodification and simplification that makes me an easier package to sell to New York.

Ledgerwood: Well, and in The Sympathizer, your take on Hollywood and filmmaking, I think somewhere you may have said that Hollywood is the kind of propaganda of America. I know you’ve talked a lot about the impact of Apocalypse Now on you, but kind of furthering on that, just to reiterate how much we need all these versions of humanity. Like, you’ve spoken really eloquently about when we see a film from any perspective, especially a war narrative, unless the country that is being invaded or the other side is given humanity and a range of emotions, then we’re not doing our jobs.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, and I think, again, this whole binary that we were just talking about, about being voiceless or having a voice, is a particular binary dilemma for minorities in this country or any other country. Either we never get to speak at all or when we do speak, we’re turned into a representative, and if you belong to the majority, you don’t have that problem, because there is always a lot of voices from the majority population talking about these experiences, so a majority writer rarely has to feel as if he or she has to represent all of America, for example.

Viet Nguyen: That’s a freedom that minority writers and artists don’t have, because for us to publish or to do our art or whatever means that immediately we have this burden put upon us of speaking for our communities. That is not something that we can change. I can bring attention to it but I can’t change it because I don’t control the industry and I don’t control racism. So, that was what that section in The Sympathizer was about, that this problem is systemic, and I wanted to satirize it in the plight of this guy who has to go and put himself into this machinery that only treats Vietnamese people as being voiceless and exploits them for that, so that they’re just a backdrop for an American drama, which is a problem that’s still happening today.

Ledgerwood: I don’t know if it’s the right kind of thread, but it’s reminding me of the last story in the book of just how we create a story that’s not true. The first sentence of this last story called “Fatherland” is, “It was a most peculiar thing to do, or so everyone said, on hearing the story of how Phuong’s father named his second set of children after his first.” These might have taken you 17 years to write but to get that so crisp and clear, who doesn’t want to read on? I guess I identify with a lot of the women in these stories because I am a woman and that’s kind of what we do, unfortunately, but it’s too … I guess would we call them … They’re step sisters.

Viet Nguyen: Half sisters.

Ledgerwood: They’re half sisters because they share …

Viet Nguyen: Same father, different mothers.

Ledgerwood: … A father.

Viet Nguyen: But they share the same name.

Ledgerwood: And they share the same name.

Viet Nguyen: What happened was I met somebody and she told me about her family, which was exactly that. The father had two sets of children. One went to the United States and then after he lost them, he was in Vietnam. He had another set and he named them after the first, and I thought, “That’s crazy,” but it’s also completely Vietnamese. I totally understand why somebody would do that, and I said, “Could I turn that into a story?” She said yes. I don’t know anything else about her family but I took that idea and then turned that into the full blown story that you have. To me, that was a good, fun story to write because it gets that sense of duality and doubleness that I think a lot of us who have survived a traumatic historical experience have, which is, “What would have happened to me if I had not left the country? What would my life have been like if I had stayed behind?”

Viet Nguyen: Certainly I thought about that because I have an adopted sister and she didn’t make it out, so she’s still there. That could have easily have been me, and her life turned out very, very differently than mine, and so I think I’ve always been haunted by that other possibility of my life, that absent presence of my sister, and I think many refugees have similar feelings and that’s what the story explores.

Ledgerwood: Why was your sister left?

Viet Nguyen: She was adopted. That was why she was left. My brother said to me … At one point someone had said to me, “Oh, there’s a rumor going around in the community that you’re adopted.” I was like, “What?” Then when I told my parents, my dad said, “I’m gonna take a DNA test to prove it to you you’re not adopted,” and my brother said later, “You know why you’re not adopted? Because we didn’t leave you behind.” That hurts. That hurts. If I was my adopted sister and I would have to have dealt with that, which I think she’s had to deal with. She was left because my mother, who in March of 1975 when the communist invasion happened, was alone. My dad was in Saigon on business and we were cut off from communication.

Viet Nguyen: She had to make a decision what to do. Her decision was, “Okay, we’re gonna leave,” and she took my brother and me and she left my adopted sister behind to take care of the family property with the understanding that we would be back, because that’s how the war had gone. It went see-saw back and forth and no one believed the war was really gonna end at that point, and of course it did, and so my sister’s fate was to be stuck there for the rest of her life.

Ledgerwood: It seems like a big theme, what I found, very specific, and it’s still in that first story, which I guess hit me hard, how children, because they sense their parents hurt or sadness, don’t ask certain questions. So you can go through growing up, you know, til you’re in your 20s and you’ve had these ideas about, “Why is the family a bit weird?” Or, “Why does mom get really edgy over this topic?” But because you don’t want to hurt them, you avoid it too. Was that a sense of what it was like, talking about your sister?

Viet Nguyen: Yes. I’ve actually never asked my mom, “Why did you do that and how do you feel?” Because what is she supposed to say and why do I want to bring that up? What benefit is there for me to force her to acknowledge this to me? I mean, I was four years old. I didn’t know what was involved, and I’m sure it was painful, and I don’t know what kinds of feelings my parents have about that, and I have no right to ask them about that, I think. They’ve lived through a lot and I want to leave them alone. If they ever want to talk about it, I want to listen, but I’m not gonna force them to.

Viet Nguyen: So there’s a way in which I do want to know about my parents’ past and periodically I’ve asked my dad, “Why don’t we just do an interview with you so you can just get this story out?” Because there’s a lot of things that happened and I have a bad memory so it’s better to have it recorded, and he says, “No, I don’t want to do it.” So I’m like, “Okay, I just have to respect that and use my imagination to tell a different kind of story.”

Ledgerwood: That feels so kind and lovely and some … I mean, I talk to so many writers and it’s interesting, that line of where different people think the boundary is between kind of interrogating a parent’s life or respecting that they have they’re an entity completely separate from you. I think there’s, especially in Western eyes or like children’s eyes who’ve had … You know, we’ve had everything and our struggle is that our parents’ narratives are ours to kind of cannibalize … I mean, I’m probably thinking, you know, selfishly of myself, just how spoiled some of us can be about what we think is our right to know.

Viet Nguyen: I think that if my parents had betrayed me in some way, if I felt that they were abusive or whatever, maybe I would want to return the favor in some way by taking their stories, but my parents, as much as I’ve disagreed with them about many things, because we don’t agree politically or religiously, socially, for example, they are not hypocrites, you know? They believe something. They’re very devout, for example, and they have lived that life, and so I respect them for people who have integrity and who I’ve felt sacrificed enormously for my brother and me, and indeed for everyone in Vietnam, because for decades my parents were the sole lifeline to so many of their siblings. They had a lot and were always sending money back, so they were sacrificing enormously, physically, by being these shopkeepers and denying themselves so many things.

Viet Nguyen: So, I respect them for what they’ve gone through and I have no desire to betray them or to force them into confession. It was hard for me to write the story, “War Years,” the only autobiographical story I’ve ever written, because I don’t want to write about myself autobiographically, but I think that in order for me to write about myself, I would have to write about my parents, and that was why it was so hard to get that store onto paper.

Ledgerwood: There are such beautiful parent and sibling dynamics in this. One story that comes to mind is about a son whose girlfriend wants to have a child and she says, “I’m 34, it’s time,” and he freaks out. I’m like, “Oh, this is such an unusual story,” you know? When I read it, I was like, rolling my eyes, going, “Here we go again,” angry at him or these things. Hitting, touching a nerve, or hitting one in my case.

Viet Nguyen: I was that guy, so, sorry.

Ledgerwood: Really?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

Ledgerwood: Okay, tell me more.

Viet Nguyen: I had to be backed into a corner before I could agree to get married, for example. I was like, “Why do I have to get married? That’s so bourgeois,” you know? But in order to keep my girlfriend, I had to get married. I was, “Okay, fine, I’ll do that.” Then in order to keep my wife, I had to have a kid. I was, “Okay, fine, I’ll do that too.” You know, but not like I really wanted either of these things.

Ledgerwood: Oh, that’s good to hear, because you seem so well adjusted and emotionally kind of intuitive that maybe this is what, you know …

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think maybe I’ve matured as a result of getting married. I’m a poster boy. Hey, if you get married and have a kid, it’s not so bad.

Ledgerwood: I didn’t know that that story had this background, because it does … We won’t give too much away, but I just love the kind of knowing parent who … Well, there’s also kind of this funny, it seems violent in just the act of it, but that I love it when parents sometimes do very odd things on your behalf. You know, lash out on your behalf, and you’re like, “Wow.”

Viet Nguyen: So, our narrator, the reluctant husband, his wife divorces him because he won’t have a kid. You know, he has a father who is a former paratrooper and he’s a hardcore Vietnamese dude. I knew or heard of people like that, and I always wondered what it would be like to be their child, because many of my friends, their fathers were military guys, including up to the rank of general, and war heroes and all that. My dad was a shopkeeper, a merchant, so I thought, “Okay, what would it be like to be the son of someone who has such high expectations at the level of masculinity and heroism and what would it be like to suffer under that kind of discipline and potential violence?” Because I knew that stuff was happening, and so that’s the basis of it, but obviously I didn’t want to demonize this father. I thought the relationship is probably very complex.

Viet Nguyen: Every culture, within its parameters, allows the possibilities of affection and emotion, even if from another perspective, it may seem very alien, and to me it seemed very alien to have a paratrooper father who is violent, but there must be bonds of affection and ways of communication that take place within that kind of a relationship, and that’s what the story’s about.

Ledgerwood: I love that one. To finish up, I have listened to you a lot talking about everything and I just want to come back to … I heard that you had said that it was very hard for you to accept someone saying they loved you, particularly around 18, like in your early years. I’m like, “What was that about?” Do you think? I’m imagining just from listening to you and reading your work, and you’ve mentioned even in the very beginning what that is, but kind of in hindsight, how has that unraveling changed your life?

Viet Nguyen: Well, when I was 17 I went to college and within the space of a few months, I had my girlfriend say to me, “I love you,” and I had a new friend at college say, “I love you,” and I froze up both times. I could not say that back, and I couldn’t say it back because I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what it meant to love somebody, and I think that that was because it goes back … Now that I psychoanalyze myself many, many decades later, it goes back to that [originary 00:40:38] moment of coming into memory as a refugee and feeling abandoned and I think that my entire life has been about not wanting to go to that moment, of wanting to be very stable and secure and all of that, but what that meant for me was that that experience was completely wrapped up with the fact that my parents never said, “I love you” either to me.

Viet Nguyen: The writer Lac Su, who’s also Vietnamese, has a book called I Love Yous Are For White People, and it’s true. Vietnamese people, Vietnamese parents generally don’t say “I love you” to their kids because it’s not expected for them to say that. Of course …

Ledgerwood: It’s all there.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, it’s all there. Of course, we sacrifice for you, is how we say we love you, but, you know, when you’re growing up as an American, there’s a cultural miscommunication because you grow up watching The Brady Bunch, or as I did, and you think parents should be emotional, and this wasn’t happening. So, it took a very long time for me to be able to say “I love you” and then it took a very long time for me to explore the depths of what that emotion might mean, which is why it took a long time to agree to get married, it took a long time to agree to be a dad, and one of the reasons why looking at my son at this age is moving for me is because he has a different future than I did.

Viet Nguyen: My future was to grow up in sort of emotional isolation, not being able to express affection because it wasn’t expressed towards me, and I don’t want him to be that way, but part of the reason why I turned out the way that I did was because I was a refugee, you know? So all that is wrapped up. The emotional isolation, the incapacity to acknowledge love, with my history, and so I want to produce a different history for my son so that he’s not the kind of person who doesn’t know what that phrase means.

Ledgerwood: I don’t think there’s a better way to end the best conversation. Thank you so much.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks for having me. It was delightful.

Ledgerwood: Let’s cheers to that.

Viet Nguyen: Cheers, absolutely.

Ledgerwood: And finish it. Whew. For more about this interview and about Lit Up in general, visit us at Follow us on Instagram and Twitter at LitUpShow and of course please don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Category: Interviews


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