Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Refugees

Doug Fabrizio and Viet Thanh Nguyen discuss lives of refugees and the stories of war that they bring in this interview for RadioWest.

Thursday, we’re talking about the lives of refugees with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen came to this country when he was four, and he says there’s a tendency to separate the stories of immigrants from the stories of war. The people who seek refuge here though, he says, often have war stories to tell. Nguyen is in Utah, and joins us to explain what it’s like to be an outsider.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books include his novel The Sympathizer [Independent Bookstores|Amazon|Audible], which earned him the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War [Independent Bookstores|Amazon|Audible], and his new collection of short stories The Refugees [Independent Bookstores|Amazon|Audible]

Thursday, March 9 at Noon, Viet Thanh Nguyen will lead a discussion on The Sympathizer. It’s part of the city-wide Hivemind Book Club and will be in the 4th floor conference room of the Salt Lake City Public Library. [More Information]

Thursday, March 9 at 7:00 p.m., Nguyen will give a reading from The Refugees. That’s also at the Salt Lake City Public Library – this in the Main Library Auditorium. [More Information]

  • Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech Beyond Vietnam. It connects racism to the war, and Nguyen says very few Americans confront themselves with it

Here is the transcript:

Doug Fabrizio: From KUER News in Salt Lake City, this is Radio West. I’m Doug Fabrizio. The writer Viet Thanh Nguyen came to this country in 1975 with thousands of other Vietnamese refugees displaced when South Vietnam fell to the north. He was only four, so he says, while he was born in Vietnam, he was made in America. He assimilated, like others, learned English. But, he says, he was always really defined by his experience as a refugee. In fact, he says, he wishes everyone had the chance to experience what it’s like to be an outsider. It makes you see the world and yourself differently, he says.

Doug Fabrizio: Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. He’s just published a collection of short stories and he’s going to be in Utah today. He joined us earlier to talk about the experience, and the stories of refugees. Viet Thanh Nguyen, after the news.

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Doug Fabrizio: This is Radio West, I’m Doug Fabrizio. When Viet Thanh Nguyen was four years old, he and his family had to flee South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese Army overtook Saigon. They tried going to the airport to get out, but like thousands and thousands, they were turned away. Somehow, they managed to get on a barge, and eventually they ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania. Those are Nguyen’s earliest memories, that camp. And, he said, his life was defined by the experience of being a refugee.

Doug Fabrizio: It’s a theme that makes its way into much of his writing. Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. It’s a spy novel, and the main character, the spy, is a also a refugee in this country. Nguyen is a professor of English and American Studies, and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He’s in Utah today. We’ll tell you a little more about that later on the program. He joined us earlier this week from the Marketplace Studios, in Los Angeles.

Doug Fabrizio: You’ve written that there’s a tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories, and I wanted to begin there. Why do you think that is?

Viet Nguyen: I think war stories are potentially very troubling stories. If we listen to war stories as the stories of our own soldiers fighting battles for, you know, the glory of our nation or for defending us, they’re very acceptable. But, if think about war stories, or war, as an event that hurts and displaces civilians, and an event in which our own soldiers, and own government, and we ourselves are complicit in these types of actions, that’s much more troubling.

Viet Nguyen: So, when immigrants show up in our country from countries where we have fought wars, we like to separate those two things. You know, we don’t want to think, for example, that there are a lot Korean Americans in this country because we fought the Korean War. Or, that there are a lot of Filipinos, because we fought the Philippine-American War.

Viet Nguyen: That’s why, when my album The Sympathizer came out, there was a tendency among reviewers to call it an immigrant story, instead of a war novel. Which, I thought, was really strange.

Doug Fabrizio: You write that your family’s war stories, mostly, remained … And, I guess, all families war stories remain unheard and unread, except, as you put it, by people like us. And, what do you mean by that? That, refugees share these stories among themselves, but they generally don’t share them with others?

Viet Nguyen: It goes both ways. I think that there is that tendency for refugees to share the story only among their own community. But, in partially, that’s because refugees oftentimes speak in a language that’s not a part of the mainstream. In this case, English. So, even if they wanted to tell their stories to a larger community, they oftentimes can’t. Because, other people simply aren’t able to listen, or don’t want to listen.

Viet Nguyen: That was certainly my experience growing up as a refugee in San Jose, California. That, I was hearing all these stories that other refugees were telling about their wartime experience. And, I knew that Americans, as a whole, could not understand these stories and did not want to understand these stories, if the kinds of stories that Americans were telling about the war, that I was reading or seeing in the movie theaters, was any indication of where American interests lay.

Doug Fabrizio: Yeah.

Doug Fabrizio: I want to come back to what you were seeing in movie theaters, here in a moment. Let me back up to March, of 1975. Your father, you were living with your family in the central highlands of Vietnam. Your father goes away, I think, for business to Saigon. And, it just so happens that while he’s away, the Communist Army invades. You’re cut off from your father. So, you have to flee with your brother and your mother. Your brother is 10, you’re four at the time. And, your mother decides to leave behind your adopted sister, not abandon her. Leaves her there for understandable reasons, to look after the family home.

Doug Fabrizio: I just wanted to ask you about that. Because, you write about the fact that you didn’t really get to see your adopted sister again until, I think, it was 2004, when you returned to Vietnam, which we’ll talk a little about. But, you say you had always seen this photograph of her, and how you had always been haunted by that face. And, this idea of haunting and ghosts does seem like an important image for you, and the work you do. Would you say something about that?

Viet Nguyen: When I was growing up, I knew that we had left behind an adopted sister. I knew her name, and we had one photograph of her in the family album, and that was a black and white profile shot of her. I thought she was a beautiful, young girl. And, I always wondered what had happened.

Doug Fabrizio: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: It was not something, I felt, that we could talk about in our family. I knew the bare bones of the story that you had laid out in your question. But, I thought it was a very sensitive topic, and I didn’t want to go there and possibly bring up something difficult for my mother to talk about.

Viet Nguyen: But, that photograph functioned as a haunting presence in my life. It indicated that there was an absence at the heart of our family, and it troubled me. It was my own sense, that the war had left a very personal imprint within our family. I knew that we weren’t unusual. I knew that this was, actually, a very typical experience for many Vietnamese refugees. That, they had suffered some terrible loss, sometimes through losing actually family members.

Viet Nguyen: This was a shared sense of having the past haunt us, that was very typical for Vietnamese refugees. And, something that set us off from other Americans.

Doug Fabrizio: You included, in The Refugees, an epigraph from a James Fenton poem. Which says, “It’s not your memories which haunt you, it is not what you have written down. It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. What you must go on forgetting all of your life.” Would you talk about that? The things that you’re haunted by, and why you chose this particular piece? Again, this gets to that idea of memories, again.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I’ve always loved James Fenton’s poetry. And, I thought that particular excerpt that I chose was perfect for the short story collection. Which is, you know, very much about memory and forgetting, as is much of my work about Vietnam. When it comes to memory and forgetting, of course, there are things that we know that we remember, that are at the forefront of our consciousness. And, that there are things that we would like to forget, that we know we remember and we want to forget.

Viet Nguyen: Yet, there are also things we have suppressed, that we have forgotten. We may not even be aware that we’ve forgotten them. Or, they may be lingering right at the edge of our consciousness. It’s been my experience that, sometimes, in my own life, things that I hadn’t thought about in a long time would surface in my memory. And, I would realize that, I had never actually forgotten them. But, I had actively not thought about them for, sometimes, decades at a time.

Viet Nguyen: I thought that this is the most interesting dynamic of memory and forgetting, for me. These experiences that were very crucial to me, at a certain time, which oftentimes were very troubling. And, which somehow, my mind was able to suppress, to allow me to function. But, of course, it seems a very common experience. That, for many of us, those troubling memories will eventually surface, and we’ll have to confront them. That’s partially what the book is about.

Doug Fabrizio: Right.

Doug Fabrizio: I want to ask you about the first in the collection. The first story, Black Eyed Woman, or Women, forgive me. It’s a story of a woman who has, I guess, a similar kind of experience to your own, comes here, flees war from Vietnam. In some ways, in the way you write it, her life was saved by her 15 year old brother. Who, at this point in the story, as you tell it, has returned as a ghost. And she, herself, is a ghost writer. Talk about where this story began for you, if you would. Say something about it.

Viet Nguyen: This story began in the summer of 1997, when I first started to work on this short story collection. And, I did not realize, in 1997, that it would take me 17 years to finish the collection. This story was at the heart of the difficulty. It began in ’97, it ended in 2014. First story I wrote, and last story I finished. It took 50 drafts to write this story. It almost broke me, because it was so discouraging and so difficult to work on.

Viet Nguyen: But, I think, because I survived, because I persisted, because I figured out what the story was about, it was one of the key lesson for me in learning how to be a writer. Partially, what it means to be a writer is to persist, to be patient, to overcome difficulty and obscurity. And, this story symbolizes all of that, for me.

Doug Fabrizio: Why? Why did it take so long? What was the thing that you had to work out, before you could finally finish it.

Viet Nguyen: Writing short stories, for me, is about discovering what doesn’t belong in the story, as much as what does belong in the story. My problem is that, as a writer, I’m very concerned with history and politics. I want to figure out how to incorporate these things into my fiction. In which, I was able to do much more easily in The Sympathizer, because I had a large canvas to work with. But, in a short story, you have a few thousand or, maybe, 10 thousand words, at the most, usually.

Viet Nguyen: What was hard for me, was to figure out how to gesture at the history and the politics. But, not to put them in directly, because there often wasn’t enough space to work out all of these historical and political issues that I wanted to deal with. So, for me, the major challenge of writing The Refugees, was about how to figure out what to, just, imply when it came to history and politics. And, what small elements, what fragments to allow into these stories.

Doug Fabrizio: When does she come to you, in 1997, as a character of this woman? I mean, how was it? Do you remember when she first emerged as an idea?

Viet Nguyen: I was sitting in my first apartment in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1997. Because, I had just arrived there to take up a job, my first and only job, as a professor at USC. I spent the summer before that working on this short story collection. What I wanted to do with this short story was to write about two lesbians and their love affair. And, how the arrival of this dead brother of one of them, the ghost, disrupts their relationship.

Viet Nguyen: The reason why it was about two lesbians was, because I was very deliberate in writing this short story collection. That, I wanted to map out a diversity of Vietnamese experiences. So, even though the collection is mostly about Vietnamese people, it was going to be people who are not like me. And so, it was important to have older people, younger people, men, women, and straight people, and gay people. So, I wanted two lesbians. I wanted to challenge myself as a writer to write about this kind of relationship.

Viet Nguyen: Many of the 50 drafts were about trying to figure out how to work the lesbian relationship into, or in relationship with this disruptive ghost story. Finally, at a certain point, many, many drafts later, I had to decide, lesbian relationship has got to go. It’s not working here. And, the key relationship is simply between the sister and the dead brother who returns. Organically, what will work better, in terms of a triangle, is to have their mother in the story. So, the lesbian lover disappears, the mother appears to take her place.

Doug Fabrizio: I don’t want to make all the stories you tell autobiographical, in any way. In some ways, they may not be at all. Did any of that relationship that she has with her mother, in this story, did that relate to your own relationship with your own mother? Or, even your own father, I guess?

Viet Nguyen: There’s only one really autobiographical story in the collection, which is war years. Which, is based on many things that did actually happen to my parents and me, in San Jose, California. But, the rest of the stories are not autobiographical. Except, in the sense that slivers of my emotional life may appear in certain characters.

Viet Nguyen: So, in this relationship of the mother and the daughter, in Black Eyed Women, that’s not really the relationship I have with my mother. But, there are some aspects of my mother that appear in this character. The fact that they like to repeat themselves as they drive, in order to drive a lesson home. That’s my mother. You know, and the fact that the daughter and the mother might have some difficulties in communicating. That’s probably true about my mother and me, as well.

Doug Fabrizio: There’s a section from this story, if you wouldn’t mind reading. There’s a reference in this, particular, where you refer to. It’s, obviously, a reference in the title, “The women with their black eyes and black teeth.” Do you need to say something about that before you read this part?

Viet Nguyen: What happens is that the narrator of the story is a ghost writer. And, she has been exposed to the stories that have been told by these old women in Vietnam, that gather in the marketplace. And, these are the black eyed women of the story. In hearing these stories that these women tell, she realizes that they’re ghost stories. They’re stories about terrible things that have happened to the people who have invaded Vietnam. And, in her own mind, she thinks, “I will never be one of these women, I will never tell stories like these.” And, of course, that’s exactly the kind of story that she ends up telling in this short story.

Doug Fabrizio: Read this for us, if you would.

Viet Nguyen: Was it ironic then, that I made a living from being a ghost writer. I posed a question to myself as I lay in bed in the middle of the day. But, the women with their black eyes and black teeth, heard me. You call what you have a life? Their teeth clacked as they laughed at me. I pulled the covers up to my nose, the way I used to do in my early years in America, when creatures not only lurked in the hallway, but also roamed outside.

Viet Nguyen: My mother and father always peeked through the living room curtains before answering any knock, afraid of our young countrymen. Boys who had learned about violence from growing in wartime. “Don’t open the door for someone you don’t know”, my mother warned me once, twice, three times. “We don’t want to end up like that family tied down at gunpoint. They burned the baby with cigarettes until the mother showed them where she hid her money.”

Viet Nguyen: My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this. All of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.

Doug Fabrizio: That’s Viet Thanh Nguyen. He’s the author of Nothing Ever Dies, and the novel, The Sympathizer. His latest is a collection of short stories called, The Refugees. Today, at noon, Nguyen will lead a discussion on The Sympathizer, as part of the Hive Mind Book Club. And then, at seven o’clock, he’s giving a reading from The Refugees. Both of those events are going to be at the Salt Lake City Library. You can get details about all of that on our website, We’ll take a break and come back in a moment. You’re listening to Radio West on KUER.

Doug Fabrizio: This is Radio West, and I’m Doug Fabrizio. Today, in the program, we’re talking about the lives of refugees with the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who came to this country from Vietnam, when he was just four years old. Nguyen is in Utah this week, reading from his latest book. It’s a collection of short stories called, The Refugees. He joined us earlier in the week to explain why he thinks everyone should understand what it’s like to be an outsider.

Doug Fabrizio: You talked about how your initiation into memory, and into consciousness happened when you were in the refugee camp in the United States, when you finally made your way here. This was in Pennsylvania. What do you mean by that? That, your initiation to memory didn’t really come, I guess, until you came here, into a refugee camp.

Viet Nguyen: People have often asked me if remember anything about Vietnam. And, the truth is, no. I was four years old when I left. I have no memories, except these very faint flashes and fragments that may, or may not even be true. So, narrative memory, the ability to look at my past, and to construct a story about what happened to me really begins in the United States, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Viet Nguyen: We had been put, initially, into a refugee camp at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. But, in order to leave a refugee camp, Vietnamese refugees had to have a sponsor that would take them. In my family’s case, no sponsor would take all four of us. So, my parents went to one sponsor, my brother went to another sponsor, and I went to a third. Unfortunately, I think, for me and for many other people, memories are sometimes associated with pain.

Viet Nguyen: We remember things that are burnt into us, as Nietzsche said. That was what was burnt into me. Being taken away from my parents was a very painful experience, and that was the first thing that I remember. And, being taken away, sent to live with another family, being thrown into a strange environment, that’s the story that I’m able to remember first about my own experiences.

Viet Nguyen: So, memory begins with being taken away from my parents, which is a consequence of being a refugee and of fleeing a war. That’s why, even today, I feel that I’ve never really escaped from being a refugee. I may have all these material trappings of a professional life, but the psychic experiences, that psychic damage of being refugee remains imprinted on me.

Doug Fabrizio: You write about how you figured when you were here, when you got here, that you couldn’t live a life of two languages. So, you figured, “I need to pick one. I need to learn to master one.” And, you chose English. It makes sense, I guess, as a refugee, I suppose. But, you said, you put it this way, you said, you chose English at some unspoken, unconscious level. What do you mean by that?

Viet Nguyen: I don’t remember learning English, how to speak it, or how to read it. But, at some point, I did. Some of my earliest memories were of going to the public library in Harrisburg. I must have been five, six, or seven, getting books and being able to read them. And, it wasn’t my parents who taught me how to read English or taught me how to speak English. It was the Americans in whose world I lived.

Viet Nguyen: And so, somehow, like other children, I unconsciously, un-deliberately learned this language. And, it felt very natural to me, obviously. Whereas, Vietnamese, at some point, had also felt natural to me, because I did speak Vietnamese when I came to the United States. But, at some point after that, it felt unnatural to me. It became increasingly awkward to use, as my ability in English got better. And, as I became more distanced from my parents, who were working very, very hard to make a life here in the United States, and didn’t have a lot to say to me when they came home.

Viet Nguyen: That was a very, very, I think, painful experience. But, also a very natural one. That’s what I mean, that I made some kind of decision that I didn’t fully understand when I was five, six, or seven, that I was going to acquire English, and that it would require me to make a choice.

Viet Nguyen: Now, there are other people I knew who were able to be fluent in both languages. I did not, that did not happen very naturally for me.

Doug Fabrizio: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: So, if I had more of a natural inclination to being bilingual, I would have tried to pursue that. But, I think, at a certain point, the better I got at English, and the more I realized that language was the key to assimilation and acculturation, I decided I was going to do my best to become an American. Language was the way to do that.

Doug Fabrizio: You say that by mastering English, you learned how Americans view the Vietnamese. And, one of the experiences that you’ve written about, watching films about the war in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, Platoon. Both of those films, we should say, you mention in one of your books. Those films left you shaking with rage. So, how did you see the way Americans were seeing people from Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: I certainly watched a lot of American war movies about the Vietnam War, when I was growing up. I think that, for many Americans, when they watch these movies, they form a kind of entertainment, maybe a kind of history about the past. But, they’re just another set of stories for most Americans, especially those Americans who have never been to Vietnam, or gone to fight in the Vietnam War. But, for me, those stories were traumatic, because they symbolized the way by which I was not an American. And, that my country of origin, Vietnam, was a very foreign experience for many Americans, and a place that only existed as a place of war.

Viet Nguyen: I realized that my existence for other Americans, who had never encountered a Vietnamese person, would be transmitted through these kinds of stories. And, these kinds of stories depicted people, like me, as being silent. Or, whose only capacity to make noise was, usually, to scream. Or, to speak in a language that no one understood. And so, I was on the one hand, trying to become an American by mastering English. And, I had mastered English by the time I was watching these movies.

Viet Nguyen: The irony of it was that through learning English, I could understand these movies that were telling me I was not an American, that I was foreign, that I was voiceless. And, this was the price of assimilation. Right? The price of learning a language was to discover that I was an alien. This was a very difficult experience, for me, as a child. But, absolutely crucial for me, as a writer.

Doug Fabrizio: It’s interesting, that in The Sympathizer, your book which won the Pulitzer Prize. It seems like a version of Apocalypse Now, your fictionalized version of the film called, The Hamlet. And, the narrator in The Sympathizer, a North Vietnamese spy who infiltrates a South Vietnamese General. Anyway, he turns out to be an advisor for this movie. And, you talk about how Vietnamese people were just used as these stage props for this American film. But, that the narrator, who’s this former spy, knows this and he sees it for what it is. And, he sees it as a kind of propaganda. Talk about that, if you would.

Viet Nguyen: It’s probably no surprise that Hollywood movies don’t really tell the truth, when it comes to history. And, what they do is to present, relatively, self-serving version of history for American audiences. In which, it is white people and, oftentimes, white men that take center stage, even when the story is set in a non-white country. And, even when the events impact the people in that country, more than they do Americans. So, the reality of it, if we would just want to talk to numbers, is that 58 thousand plus Americans died in the Vietnam War. And, three million Vietnamese people died in the Vietnam War. And, three million, or so, Cambodians and Laotians died during and after the years of the Vietnam War, as well.

Viet Nguyen: Yet, all the American, almost all the American movies about the Vietnam War focus on the experience on white, male American soldiers. The place of Southeast Asians in these movies is usually, again, to be silent, to scream, or to say thank you, if they are given any words at all.

Viet Nguyen: I decided when I became a writer that, first, I would correct this. That, I would tell stories that would humanize the Vietnamese people, and give them voices. And then, secondly, after I finished writing those stories that comprise the refugees, I decided that I was through with trying to humanize us, the Vietnamese people. We shouldn’t need to humanize ourselves. You know, Americans don’t want … When Americans tell stories, they don’t need to humanize themselves. They know they’re already human. So, to feel the need to humanize oneself is to put oneself into a position of weakness.

Viet Nguyen: So, in The Sympathizer I was done with that. And, I decided that I would tell a very angry story, where I would not say thank you, and my characters would not say thank you. And, we would not humanize ourselves. Instead, The Sympathizer, the novel, is about Vietnamese people who are both human, implicitly. But also, very inhuman at the same time, because they’re very capable of doing very terrible deeds. And, this is exactly the type of portrait of humanity and inhumanity that Americans reserve for themselves, through telling stories like Apocalypse Now. And, I wanted to claim that same type of subjectivity.

Doug Fabrizio: I’m wondering what your conversations are like with your wife, who is a professor at UC Riverside. And, she studies Vietnamese cinema. What’s the comparison when you have, on one hand, Apocalypse Now or Platoon? I mean, what’s the comparison in the way they portray the people of Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen: I’ve learned a lot from my wife through these conversations.

Doug Fabrizio: I’ll bet.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I sympathize with her project tremendously. She’s a scholar of Vietnamese cinema. What that means is that she works in a field that almost no one knows anything about.

Doug Fabrizio: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: So, when I’m writing about the Vietnam War, the irony is that I can go anywhere in this world, and I’ve mentioned that I’m working on this project. And, one of the first questions that people will say is, “Have you seen Apocalypse Now?” And, that may be true even in Vietnam, where people have seen Apocalypse Now.

Viet Nguyen: So, the power of American storytelling, of Hollywood, of American soft power, is so tremendous that people all over the world have to grapple with American movies, even if they don’t like American politics. Now, the Vietnamese won this war. Or, at least one portion of the Vietnamese population won this war. But ironically, the Vietnamese don’t get to tell their own stories to the world. They get to tell their own stories within Vietnam by making movies. But, no one besides Vietnamese people watch these movies, usually. And, even in Vietnam, Vietnamese people oftentimes don’t want to watch these movies. They’d much rather watch Terminator or Transformers.

Viet Nguyen: And so, the Vietnamese movies about the war, in particular, are oftentimes state sponsored movies. Which means that, they’re not that interesting to watch. They are a kind of, they are a propaganda, oftentimes. The people in Vietnam recognize them as such, and don’t want to deal with them. American movies are a kind of propaganda, too. But, the difference is that Americans bring greater production values to their enterprise.

Doug Fabrizio: Right.

Viet Nguyen: And, the kind of propaganda that Americans is more sophisticated. You know, Vietnamese or communist propaganda needs to hit you over the head, whereas American propaganda persuades you with the power of its storytelling.

Doug Fabrizio: But, it’s propaganda, nonetheless.

Viet Nguyen: The reason why it’s propaganda is that, even though American movies about the Vietnam War oftentimes depict Americans in an anti-heroic fashion, that is they do bad things. The propagandistic power is that it puts, these movies put Americans in the starring roles. And, the bargain that Americans have made with themselves when it comes to their soft power is that, it’s okay to show us negatively as long as we’re the stars of our own movies. So, people all over the world constantly have to deal with Americans as the stars of their stories.

Doug Fabrizio: Let’s talk about another one of the stories you referred to in the book, your new collection. I say new, even though you’ve been working on it for almost 20 years. The Refugees. War Years is a story that’s set in the summer of 1983. And, you write about a young person. I’m not sure if it’s exactly you, or a version of you, anyway, learning English at summer school. Your parents, who are owners of this store, which of course is the experience if you’re a [natural 00:32:18] parent.

Doug Fabrizio: And, there’s a woman named Mrs. Hoa, who comes into the store one day. And, she’s raising money for a guerrilla army to launch this counter attack in Vietnam, to kick out the communists. That’s a quixotic idea, kind of unrealistic. But, she’s trying to get your parents, your mother in particular, to give them some money. Was this based on something that actually happened? Just say something about this plot for this story.

Viet Nguyen: My mother did mention to me, at one point, that there were people who would go around asking for donations to support this anti-communist cause. She never said it was extortion or blackmail. But, I think there was certainly that implication that there was pressure to conform to the anti-communist cause, and to donate money.

Viet Nguyen: Actually, I have no idea whether she did or did not donate money to this cause. But, that idea stuck with me for a long time, obviously. I was also aware that there really was this movement to donate money to a guerrilla movement located in the Thai jungle that was attempting to take Vietnam back. I would see picture of these men in their jungle fatigues when I would go to the New Year celebrations that the community would stage. And, there would be a table, or exhibition, devoted to raising this kind of money. That idea, also, stayed with me for a very long time.

Viet Nguyen: And, anti-communist politics in large Vietnamese communities in places like San Jose or Orange County, in California, are often dominated by these anti-communist movements. Which, are often quite vocal and quite dogmatic. That’s the sub, that’s the background of what’s happening in War Years.

Doug Fabrizio: Mrs. Hoa, she is angry that this mother in the story will not give any money, at first. And so, she threatens to really destroy the reputation of this family, as being somehow soft to communists. The mother in the story is angry about that, and takes her young son and follows Mrs. Hoa to her home. I wanted to ask you about this particular experience and have you read something from this moment. The mother in the story follows her to her house with the intent of confronting her. But, things then change. I don’t want to give too much away in the story. But, I think the moment when they finally do see her in her house, things begin to change a bit.

Doug Fabrizio: Would you say something about that, and set up this reading for us, if you don’t mind?

Viet Nguyen: In the story, Mrs. Hoa appears to the mother and her son as a very threatening figure. And then, when they tail her to her house they discover that she, like many refugees, is living in fairly difficult circumstances. She’s a seamstress, and she runs her business out of an apartment that she shares with a large family that is not hers. And, if you go to San Jose, California where this story is set, you will see in the working class communities of San Jose, these homes that have been converted into businesses. So, people will live in a house, for example, and they will run a tailoring shop out of their garage.

Viet Nguyen: I knew that so many Vietnamese people, who were refugees, were living these kinds of lives. They were doing piecemeal work like this, or doing assembly line work out of their house for Silicon Valley. And, they would crowd into these homes, because it would be very cheap to do so. You could pay a few hundred dollars for a room. Many of these people are struggling to survive economically. But, also struggling to survive emotionally, because they’ve been damaged in some way by the circumstances of being a refugee. And, that’s what they discover about Mrs. Hoa.

Doug Fabrizio: Yeah. Her husband was a commando. He was dead, at least it seems like he might be dead. Her eldest son, her youngest son, all killed in the conflict, although she’s not convinced they’re all dead.

Viet Nguyen: I’ll tell you one thing about this story that’s in the background, that never becomes explicit. Which is, it really was true that the CIA dropped hundreds of South Vietnamese commandos into North Vietnam during the war. And, those guys all disappeared. And, the CIA would keep on dropping these guys in there, even though they never came back.

Viet Nguyen: The irony was that many of those guys actually lived. But, they were caught and kept prisoner, and they wouldn’t be released for decades. So, in my mind, that’s what happened to Mrs. Hoa. Her husband disappeared in one of these commando missions. Everybody thinks he’s dead. That’s what the CIA told these families, that these guys were all killed. In her mind, he’s not dead, and she’s actually right. One day he’s going to return as a living ghost to her. But, that’s all in the background of the story.

Doug Fabrizio: At this moment, the young boy and his mother, they’re leaving Mrs. Hoa’s house. Read this section for us, if you would.

Viet Nguyen: Her voice was urgent. And, when she suddenly leaned forward, I was afraid she was going to reach across the sewing machine and grasp my hand. I willed myself not to back away from her fingers. Two of them bandaged, as if she had pricked herself with needles. I felt that I had to say something. And so, I said, “I’m sorry.” I meant that I was sorry for all that happened. Not only to her, but also to my mother. The accumulation of everything I could do nothing about. My apology made, utterly, no difference. But, Mrs. Hoa nodded gravely, as if understanding my intentions. In a subdued tone, she said, “I know you are.” Those were her last words to me. She did not say goodbye when we left. And indeed, did not even look at us.

Viet Nguyen: For, as my mother closed the bedroom door, Mrs. Hoa was gazing down into the box. Her bent head revealing a furrow of white roots running through her scalp, where the hairs natural color revealed itself along the receding tide of black dye. It was a trivial secret, but one I would remember as vividly as my feeling. That, while some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.

Doug Fabrizio: Viet Thanh Nguyen. His latest book is a collection of short stories called, The Refugees. Today, at noon, he’s going to be leading a discussion on The Sympathizer. That’s his book that won the Pulitzer Prize. This is part of the Hive Mind Book Club. Then later, at seven, he’s giving a reading from The Refugees. Both of these events are at the Salt Lake City Library, the downtown library. You can find details about that on our website, We’ll take another break and come back in a moment. You’re listening to Radio West, on KUER.

Doug Fabrizio: This is Radio West, I’m Doug Fabrizio. Back now to our conversation with the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. His book, The Sympathizer, earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. He’s just published a collection of short stories called The Refugees. He’s in Utah today, we’ll tell you a little more about that later on the program.

Doug Fabrizio: One more story I wanted to ask you about from the collection, I’d Love You To Want Me. We don’t need to say too much, I don’t want to give too much away about it. But, it’s a Vietnamese professor of physics, who has early onset dementia. And, is coherent enough, is aware enough about his dementia. But also, starts mistaking his wife for another woman, a woman named [Nguyen 00:40:38].

Doug Fabrizio: Where did this story come from?

Viet Nguyen: I wanted to write a story about Alzheimer’s, because it’s a powerful experience that these people afflicted with that go through. And, it’s a tragic experience, but also a powerful one emotionally for them, and for the people who love them and who have to take care of them. And, of course, talking about Alzheimer’s brings up issues of memory and forgetting, which are core to the collection and core to the Vietnamese refugee experience. So, the trauma of what would happen to this man and his wife, would allow me to deal with the themes of memory and forgetting.

Viet Nguyen: What happens is that, as he is forgetting so many things, he is, also, remembering fragments from his past in Vietnam, before he became a refugee. His wife, likewise, is provoked into remembering her past, as well. And, also provoked into wondering if her own memories are reliable, because he will talk about things that she has no memory about. And, he will call her by the name of a woman who she cannot be certain exists. So, her own sense of identity, her own sense of a path is thrown into crisis by his crisis.

Doug Fabrizio: In a review from The New Yorker, the writer Joyce Carol Oates, she reviewed the collection of stories. She says she sees this recurring theme in the book that, she refers to this particular story, and the moment where the woman, the wife, reads to her husband, these stories out loud. As you put it in the book, “As if every letter counted, page by page, and word by word.” And, Joyce Carol Oates says that, the theme in your writing, in this particular book, is that the traumatized individual must make his way slowly, word by word. Do you think that’s right?

Viet Nguyen: I think so.

Viet Nguyen: Part of what it means to be traumatized is that one cannot get away from the trauma. One constantly circles the traumatic experience, trying to make sense out of it by constantly talking about it. That’s why trauma, trauma’s consequences are repetitive. People who have been traumatized tell the same story over and over again. So, they are trying to work out what has been done to them, or what they have done to others, word by word. They’re trying to find a narrative that will let them cope with, deal with, get away from the traumatic experience.

Viet Nguyen: That’s why storytelling is so important to coping with trauma, both for people who are literally dealing with it as an actual experience, and for writers who are trying to deal with trauma as a narrative moment. And so, it’s important that in this particular story, the professor is deeply attached to his library, to his books. Part of his tragedy is that he can no longer read. He can no longer, he no longer has enough memory to narrate the story to himself. So, his wife has to take over for him. And, books then become, books and stories become their relationship.

Viet Nguyen: And, of course, that also is a commentary about what it is that stories, the stories in this collection, and stories in general can do for us to maintain, to establish relationships, to cope with the past, and to try to offer new stories about the past that will allow us to acknowledge that past, and to move forward.

Doug Fabrizio: In your book, Nothing Ever Dies, you write about how you are born in Vietnam, but made in America. A man of two countries, you say, an inheritor of two revolutions. And, neither country, you mention, has lived up to the principles of those revolutions. You say, you’ve spent much of your life sorting through this confusion. Explain that, if you would.

Viet Nguyen: I think of myself as an idealist, as someone who does believe in the rhetoric of revolutions. Of course, in the United States, even though, generally, now we’re not a country that believes in revolutions, we’re also founded on a revolution. And, that revolution is core to central to our mythology of ourselves. In Vietnam, it’s the same thing. The Vietnamese revolution against the French and the Americans is fundamental to the story that the communist party and the government tells the people. Yet, at the same, if you spend any time in either of these countries, as an outsider, you see very clearly how it is that these societies don’t live up to the rhetoric of the revolutions.

Viet Nguyen: If you’re an insider, if you’re someone with privilege whose benefited from living in these societies, it’s very difficult to see the outside, I think. That’s probably more true in the United States than in Vietnam. At least, in Vietnam, people are much more cynical about communism than Americans are cynical about democracy, and their own revolution. And, while it’s easy for Americans to go to Vietnam and say, “Of course, these are communists, they’re not even living up to what it is that they profess.”

Viet Nguyen: Me, as someone who is both of Vietnam and of the United States, I can live in the United States and believe that we should have these democratic ideals. But, I can also easily see the many ways in which this country constantly fails to live up to these democratic ideals. Especially, for people who don’t have privilege, people who are not a part of the majority or the mainstream. That perspective of being able to both, understand what it is that dominant society in the United States tells about itself, and being able to criticize that, has been really important to me as a writer.

Doug Fabrizio: You write about the fact that the most … This was in Nothing Ever Dies. You write about that the most succinct explanation that you’ve even found on the meaning of war, came from Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King said that war in Vietnam was a symptom of, here’s how he put it, a deeper malady in the American spirit. What is that?

Viet Nguyen: Martin Luther King, Jr. gives this speech, Beyond Vietnam, on April 1st, 1967. And, exactly a year later, he’s assassinated. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, because Americans choose to remember, for the most part, Martin Luther King, Jr. as the man who gave the I Have A Dream speech, which celebrates American possibility, in 1963. But, four year later, the Vietnam War has completely radicalized him. And, in this speech, Beyond Vietnam, what is does is that he connects the experience of racism directed against people of color, especially black people in the United States, to what he saw as a racist war in Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen: He argued that this connection was not an accident, but a structural problem in American society. That, racism was deeply rooted in the United States. And, it was manifest in the drafting of poor men, and poor men of color, in particular, to go abroad and to fight a racist war against Vietnamese people who are being dehumanized, in the same way that these same men of color were being dehumanized in the United States. And, he said that if we don’t recognize what he called the evil triplets of racism, militarism, and capitalism, that we would be, as a country, condemned to repeat this pattern of behavior over, and over, and over again.

Viet Nguyen: From my perspective, this is an accurate prediction in his speech. And, it’s a speech that, I think, is not known by most Americans. To me, this is a sign of how America does have a propaganda system. You know, we choose to teach, and remember, I Have A Dream. And, we don’t choose to remember and teach, Beyond Vietnam. Even though, it’s a very profound, and truthful, and difficult speech to confront, because it’s telling us something very painful about American reality. And, most Americans don’t want to confront that painful reality.

Doug Fabrizio: You’ve written about your experience, as you mentioned earlier, being taken from your parents and put into this household of American strangers. But, you said that you did wish that everyone had a chance to experience what it’s like to be an outsider, to be an ‘other’. I wanted to ask you, do you think it’s possible to imbue the values of that experience onto someone who hasn’t experienced it. Like your son, who you’ve referred to, is now four, same age as you were when your family left South Vietnam. Can you pass that along?

Viet Nguyen: That’s the great hope of education and of art. That, the people who go into education and art, generally, have a tendency toward empathy, empathy with strangers, empathy with others. You have to have that sense of empathy in order, I think, to be a good teacher, or a good writer, or a good artist. You have to understand and want to know what people who are different than you think and feel.

Viet Nguyen: That, I think, is the possibility of salvation for any society, including the United States, is to privilege the educational system that is an open-minded one, and to privilege the arts, and to encourage the propagation of these values of humanity, and openness, and inclusiveness. I think these things can be taught, this idea of empathy for others, and for strangers. But, there’s also a great degree of resistance to doing that, in any society, including in the United States.

Viet Nguyen: Of course, my view is that this is why the current administration would want to transform the American educational system to make it less feasible to encourage empathy, and to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities. Because, empathy and inclusiveness for an ever expanding circle of people is threatening to those people who want to narrow the circle of empathy to those who are just like them.

Doug Fabrizio: That’s Viet Thanh Nguyen. Today at noon, he’s joining the Hive Mind Book Club for a discussion of his novel, The Sympathizer. Then, at seven o’clock, he’s giving a reading from his latest collection of short stories called, The Refugees. All of this is at the Salt Lake City Public Library, the downtown library. You can get information for all of that on our website,

Doug Fabrizio: Radio West is a production of KUER News. The program produced by Benjamin Bombard and Elaine Clark. I’m Doug Fabrizio.

Category: Interviews


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