Viet Thanh Nguyen: By the Book

The author, most recently, of “The Refugees” says the Star Wars stories are relevant to our age, “where most people identify with the rebels but so many in fact are complicit with the Empire.” The following interview was originally published by The New York Times.

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

What books are currently on your night stand?

You mean my leaning pile of guilt? If a book is on my night stand, it means I haven’t read it and feel like I should. I’m too embarrassed to name them, as some are written by people I know. As for the books that have come off my night stand recently, they are all forthcoming. Here are some books worthy of reading in 2017: Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do”; Charmaine Craig’s “Miss Burma”; Don Lee’s “Lonesome Lies Before Us”; Bao Phi’s “Thousand Star Hotel”; Vaddey Ratner’s “Music of the Ghosts”; and Akhil Sharma’s “A Life of Adventure and Delight.”

What has your post-election reading looked like?

I’ve been reading news and opinion pieces on Facebook and Twitter. They’re utterly terrifying and depressing, since my social circle basically thinks that a Trump presidency spells the end of the world. To get out of the echo chamber, I read Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. It’s utterly terrifying and depressing, and I run back into the echo chamber.

I take comfort in the children’s literature that I read to my 3-year-old son. He will tolerate the tales of Beatrix Potter, which I find soothing, but mostly he wants to hear about Batman, Superman, Ghostbusters and Star Wars. The moral clarity of these stories is comforting not just for a 3-year-old, but also for many adults. This is why they are relevant in our divided age, where most people identify with the rebels but so many in fact are complicit with the Empire.

What’s the last great book you read?

Kia Corthron’s “The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter.” This big, ambitious, challenging novel should have gotten much more attention. It tells the 20th-century history of the United States through the intersecting lives of two white brothers and two black brothers. It is, by turns, tender, brutal and redemptive.

What’s the best classic novel you recently read for the first time?

Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” on audio. I had read it a long time ago, but hearing Joe Morton’s stupendous performance was like encountering the novel for the first time, again. The Morton version is absolutely riveting.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“The Land at the End of the World,” by António Lobo Antunes, beautifully translated by Margaret Jull Costa. This novel about an old man reflecting on his experiences as a young medic in Portugal’s colonial war in Angola was my touchstone while I wrote “The Sympathizer.” Every morning I would read two or three pages of its magnificent prose, dense with striking and unexpected imagery, until the moment arrived when I was so seized by the novel’s spirit that I was motivated to turn to my own. I wanted to imitate Lobo Antunes, and I failed.

When do you read?

On a stationary bike, sweating. In my car, on audio. At the dining table or my desk, with a pen in hand. Best of all, in bed, at night, with a double of Scotch, neat. O.K., sometimes it’s a triple.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

The sentences, which include the rhythm, word choice and images. I will put a book down if the first sentence doesn’t immediately thrill me. Since I don’t get to read very many books purely for pleasure, I have no time to waste on a book whose every sentence isn’t a delight.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

The genres I most enjoy reading are the ones I try and avoid, because I love them too much. As a child and teenager, those beloved genres were comic books, science fiction, fantasy and war stories, both fiction and nonfiction. As an adult, I added crime stories. The problem is that if I pick up a crime thriller by Jo Nesbo, Walter Mosley or Don Winslow, or a science fiction novel by Octavia Butler, I’ll be up until the early hours of the morning to finish it, and I don’t have the time. That’s likewise the case with comic books when I give in to them, whether they are by the Hernandez brothers, Alan Moore, Rumiko Takahashi, Osamu Tezuka, Adrian Tomine, Gene Luen Yang, or many others.

Besides the fact that these genres provide gripping storytelling, I also love them because they oftentimes have more to tell us about our larger contemporary world than so-called literary fiction (which doesn’t acknowledge that it’s a genre as well). Comic books long ago predicted presidents like Donald Trump, in series like Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’s “Give Me Liberty.” Crime fiction, which often connects low-level crime to high-level corruption, can help us understand the operations and effects of a Trump presidency that unabashedly favors strongmen of all kinds. Science fiction likewise often speculates on grand political questions. Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars,” for example, is about the colonization of that planet and the ensuing tragedy wrought by human politics, greed and ambition. It takes place in the future but is really about our eternal human strengths and weaknesses. I like it when literature gets political, and contemporary literary fiction is more often apolitical than not.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously?

I love paper books, but traveling with them was a pain, because my luggage could only accommodate so many books. When the Kindle came along it solved that problem of portability and was my favored reading mode for several years. Then I published my novel and rediscovered the fetish of the physical object. I wanted to hold my book and enjoyed seeing it on bookstore shelves, and have returned to the thrill of buying and reading paper books. I still read on the Kindle, however, and also listen to books on audio. It doesn’t matter how I’m reading as long as I’m reading. I read several books at a time, which mirrors to some extent how I always have more than one writing project that I work on simultaneously.

How do you organize your books?


What’s your favorite book to assign to and discuss with your students?

Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior.” I find the book endlessly rewarding to teach, because it’s so rich and layered and still relevant to the lives of students. In addition, it’s a powerful book about the necessity and dangers of storytelling. The first line is “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you,’” and the rest of the book is about the author telling everyone what her mother said. Telling what must not be told is one of the writer’s primary tasks. It is also a difficult and dangerous one.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was a lonely boy and a voracious reader who treated the library as my second home. I loved Curious George and Tintin, although I see their problems now as an adult who’s more sensitive to racial and colonial connotations. I wouldn’t want to reread the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift or “Tom Brown’s School Days,” but I liked them as a child. Other favorites that I have not revisited for fear of spoiling their memory are Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”; “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths”; Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”; Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robot books; Frank Herbert’s “Dune”; early Robert Heinlein novels; Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”; Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”; Audie Murphy’s “To Hell and Back”; Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia; and many, many superhero and war comic books. A curious child can read whatever he or she wants in a good library, which has no borders and stands up for the First Amendment. That meant that by the time I was 13 or 14, I had access to lots of war books filled with sex and violence, as well as trashy, soft-core porn paperbacks featuring detectives, medieval knights and hit men. This probably goes a long way toward explaining how I became the writer that I am.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

For President Obama, the Bible (the Old Testament, not the New). For President Trump, the Bible (the New Testament, not the Old).

President Obama has a great degree of the compassion recommended in the New Testament, but many of us who admire him wish he would sometimes, like the Old Testament God, figuratively hurl fire and brimstone at his domestic political opponents (I recognize that the drone strikes he has authorized are a literal kind of fire and brimstone, but at least he’s not playing with the idea of pre-emptive nuclear attacks). President Trump has no problem with loving his followers and smiting his enemies, but he needs to learn humility, generosity and self-sacrifice from the New Testament Jesus, who washed the feet of the poor, fed the hungry, respected women and rejected the corruption of the establishment.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Haruki Murakami, since it seems unlikely I’ll ever meet him. He can curate the music and cook spaghetti. Carrie Fisher, for her wit and bravura. Lastly, John Berger. I love that Berger gave half his Booker Prize money in 1972 to the Black Panthers, and used the other half to fund the research for his next book on migrant laborers. Berger was the kind of writer we need more of — politically committed, aesthetically serious, always curious.

What do you plan to read next?

Roland Barthes’s “Writing Degree Zero,” which I sadly have not read yet. Paisley Rekdal’s forthcoming “The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of the Vietnam War.” Jeff Chang’s “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation,” since I want to learn what we need to do to make everything alright. Linh Dinh’s “Postcards From the End of America,” which chronicles a declining America through the author’s travels among the down and out. Perhaps many liberal and leftist writers think they should reach out to this part of our country, but Linh Dinh is one of the few to do it. Solmaz Sharif’s “Look,” a work of poetry that is about war and language, drawing partially from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (I’ve been reading a bit at the intersections of war and poetry, most recently the excellent volumes “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” by Ocean Vuong, and “Hardly War,” by Don Mee Choi). Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Black Panther,” because the character and the author are an awesome combination. Perhaps I’ll find inspiration for the comic book I would love to write someday about Agent Orange, an anti-imperialist crime-fighter who is simultaneously superhuman and disabled, born as a result of the dioxin that the United States sprayed in Vietnam. I promise it will be funny.

A version of this article appears in print on February 5, 2017, on Page BR6 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Category: Interviews


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