Lannan Foundation hosted a reading and conversation with writers Viet Thanh Nguyen and Maxine Hong Kingston at Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center.
Viet Thanh Nguyen read from his work, then joined in conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, introduced by Maxine Hong Kingston, read from his work.
Viet Thanh Nguyen in conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston
Read the transcript of the event below.
Speaker 1: This podcast is brought to you by Lannan Foundation and is email@example.com.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Thank you. I am very happy to be introducing to you Viet Thanh Nguyen. In the past year, he burst onto the literary scene as a novelist, historian, scholar and short story writer. You might call him poet too, as the language and rhythm of each sentence and line carry you into beauty and truth. The sympathizer gives us story, so that we see life and war from the points of view of many conflicting characters. We sympathize with all of them. Find ourselves switching sides in civil wars and questioning who is enemy and who is friend, who am I. In Nothing Ever Dies, Viet writes nonfiction as skillfully as he does fiction. This book is an important work of philosophy and history.
Maxine Hong Kingston: We lost a war and make memories that we won. We’re fighting the forever war. Viet offers us the hope that just memory and ethics of memory can possibly bring reconciliation and peace. Walking around Santa Fe, I see many MIA flags. It’s true, nothing ever dies. I am gratified and honored that Viet quotes from my work. He says that I capture the ethical challenge for writers who speak about terrible events. He praises my story, the brother in Vietnam, for showing that when a soldier squeezes the trigger, the entire nation is behind him, all working in conjunction with mind, memory, imagination and fantasy.
Maxine Hong Kingston: What he says about my work are challenges, standards, ideals that he sets for himself and he reaches them to capture the ethical challenge for writers who speak about terrible events. I do feel inspired and uplifted that Viet’s young generation is carrying on the work for peace and justice after me. Nothing Ever Dies was published barely a year after The Sympathizer, but it was 14 years in the writing. We are reading, reaping the harvest of 14 years of dedicated, devoted labor, research and deep thought. The refugees has come out precisely at the right time. Just the title boldly on the book jacket serves as a protest sign, our country has yet another chance to save the lives of refugees, and once again, we denied them haven.
Maxine Hong Kingston: All my life, my family has fear deportation because we were illegal immigrants and descendants of illegal immigrants. I did not think to name them not immigrants, but refugees. In The Refugees, the book, Viet gives each refugee a face and a story. The work of literature is to create compassion in the reader. With books such as The Refugees, we may have a chance to make compassionate immigration laws. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the important American and global writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Good evening, Santa Fe. It’s really wonderful to be here. First things first though. I can’t help it. I’m Asian. Well, I want to thank the Lannan Foundation for having me out here, but not just me, but the entire series that they had put on of writers, many of whom are writers that I admire, writers who carry out this work of deeply committed ethical principles in terms of approaching questions of difference, relationships, American identity, a global identity. Certainly, Maxine Hong-Kingston is one of those writers. She was my teacher at UC Berkeley as a matter of fact. It’s really an incredible moment to be back here with her.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I have to tell you that when I was a student at Berkeley and I heard that Maxine Hong-Kingston was teaching a class in creative nonfiction for undergraduates, I thought, “I have to apply for this,” and so I did. I had an essay. I think it was an essay on growing up Asian in America. It was a very angry essay and I turned it in, and lo and behold, I got into the class. This is Berkeley. You have to fight to get a seat. This was only 14 seats in the class. This was also an important accomplishment, but I was 19 years old. When you’re 19 years old, your view of the world is different, I think than when you’re a little bit older. I didn’t think of it as an incredible accomplishment. I thought, “Okay, that’s nice.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I went to her class 14 students in a very nice wood-paneled room, a library and I would sit about three or four feet from Maxine. Every single day, I would fall asleep. I like telling that story because especially in a place like this, it’s a great story to lead off with because it sets the bar really, really low, all right? All you have to do is stay awake for the next 40 minutes. I want to start off with a couple of paragraphs from Nothing Ever Dies, the beginning, because it will tell you a little bit about me and about the work that I do. “I was born in Vietnam, but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe in its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Americans, as well as many people the world over, tend to mistake Vietnam with the war named in its honor or dishonor as the case may be. This confusion has no doubt led to some of my own uncertainty about what it means to be a man with two countries as well as the inheritor of two revolutions. Today, the Vietnamese and American Revolutions manufacture memories, only to absolve the hardening of their arteries. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions or had been influenced by them in some way, we have to know how we make memories and how we forget them, so that we can beat their hearts back to life. That is the project or at least the hope of this book.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s also been the project or the hope of The Sympathizer and The Refugees as well. I think there really is hope. Even as I’m bringing up this history of revolutions that have failed to live up to their ideals, I think there is hope because these revolutions have left traces in our memory of what they aspire to be, what they can be and a record of the struggles that people in generations before us have undergone to make those revolutions happen. It’s important to have that sense of history and that sense of time and that sense of previous struggle, especially in an era like this I think when so many people of a certain inclination are shocked or taken aback that their country has turned in a certain direction that they didn’t think was possible.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: If you have a sense of history, then you know it’s very, very possible that even though we’re living in discouraging times, for some of us, for people like me, these are not new times. If we have a sense of American history, we know we’ve been here before. In fact, times before have been worse. Unlike previous generations, we have a history and a memory of the political struggles, the efforts towards progressivism and inclusion that have been bequeathed to us and that we can continue. When I think of a long struggle, instead of getting discouraged, I actually get hopeful because I think that whatever happens in the next two months, four years, eight years, God knows, it’s only a very narrow window of time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: As terrible as things are, as terrible as things may be today, even if we have a new election and a new president, that’s not going to make everything okay. The struggle will continue and the struggle has gone on for thousands of years before us. In Nothing Ever Dies, I talk a lot about cosmopolitanism, about this idea that thousands of years ago, when we thought of our community, we thought of the tribe and the village. Anybody outside of that, we’re going to kill them. That was the natural world. Now, we think of the nation as our natural world, and anybody outside of the nation, we’re going to kill them or at least not let them in.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But if we look back into the past and we see how our horizon of the near and dear has expanded to include more of the far and the feared, then there’s hope. There’s hope that we at least have a vision that our horizons can extend to the world and beyond. That’s what I hang on to. The passage that I read to you was also about duality, the sense of being both Vietnamese and American. When I was growing up as a refugee in San Jose in California, I felt that duality every day because when I was home in a Vietnamese household, I felt like an American spying on my parents. The strange customs, the strange things.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Maxine in The Woman Warrior talks about how her mom would like chop up skunks and raccoons and bring them home to eat, right? Well, my parents never did that, but boiled liver and boiled stomach and boiled tongue every single night for dinner, that was pretty weird. I just wanted a hamburger. Then I would go outside into the world of hamburgers and I would feel like I was a Vietnamese spying on Americans. I lived that sense of duality every day of my life. It wasn’t much of a stretch to take that sense of duality, that sense of feeling like I was a spy no matter where I was and harnessing it with the story of a real spy and exaggerating tremendously to get to the plot of The Sympathizer which is not in any way an autobiographical novel.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m not a spy, not a traitor, not really a liar most of the time, possibly an alcoholic, but not definitively, not a womanizer, not a killer, but it was fun to imagine all those things and it was fun to take the emotional core of who I was, that sense of duality, that sense of being a spy, and expanding into the plot of a spy novel and a thriller. For those of you don’t know, The Sympathizer is a novel about a communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army, and in April 1975, as Saigon is about to fall or to be liberated, depending on your point of view, his task is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States and spy on their efforts to take their country back which really did happen.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: He gets to the United States and he is a refugee and he ends up in a refugee camp in San Diego or outside of San Diego. This is going to be the first passage that I read you set in that refugee camp since, as Maxine said, so much of my work is concerned with refugees, a problem that was there in 1975, for me very personally still with us today. That’s set in this refugee camp and he’s writing a letter to his aunt in France, describing what life in a refugee camp is like. “‘If allowed to stay together,’ I told my aunt, ‘We could have incorporated ourselves into a respectably sized, self-sufficient colony, a pimple on the buttocks of the American body of politic.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sufficiently collective to elect our own representative to the Congress and have a voice in our America, a little Saigon, as delightful, delirious and dysfunctional as the original which was exactly why we were not allowed to stay together, but were instead dispersed by bureaucratic fiat. Wherever we found ourselves, we found each other. We did our best to conjure up the culinary staples of our culture, but since we were dependent on Chinese markets, our food had an unacceptably Chinese tinge, another blow in the gauntlet of our humiliation that left us with a sweet and sour taste of unreliable memories. Just correct enough to evoke the past, just wrong enough to remind us that the past was forever gone, missing, along with a proper variety, subtlety and complexity of our universal solvent, fish sauce.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, fish sauce. How I missed it. How nothing tasted right without it. This pungent liquid condiment of the darkest sepia hue was much denigrated by foreigners for its supposedly horrendous reek. Lending new meaning to the phrase, ‘There’s something fishy around here,’ for we were the fishy ones. We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers wore cloves of garlic to ward off vampires, in our case, to establish a perimeter with those Westerners who could never understand that what was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese. What was fermented fish compared to curdled milk, but out of deference to our hosts, we kept our feelings to ourselves sitting close to one another in prickly sofas and scratchy carpets, our knees touching under crowded kitchen tables, chewing on dried squid and the cud of remembrance until our jaws ached, trading stories for its second and third hand about our scattered countrymen.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: This was the way we learned the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto and the naive girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesota winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen and he regretful refugees on Guam, who petitioned to go back to Vietnam, never to be heard from again and the spoiled girl seduced by heroine who disappeared into the Baltimore streets and the devout Buddhist who spanked his young son and was arrested for child abuse in Houston and the husband who slapped his wife and was jailed for domestic violence in Raleigh and the men who had escaped but left wives behind in the chaos and the women who had escaped, but left husbands behind and the children who had escaped without parents and grandparents and the families missing one, two, three or more children.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sifting through the dirt, we pan for gold. The story of the baby orphan adopted by Kansas billionaire or the mechanic who bought a lottery ticket in Arlington and became a multimillionaire or the girl elected president of her high school class in Baton Rouge or the boy accepted by Harvard from Fond du Lac, the soil Camp Pendleton still in the tracks of his sneakers, or the movie star you love so much, Dear Aunt, who circled the world from airport to airport, no country letting her in after the fall of Saigon. None of her American movie star friends returning her desperate phone calls until with her last time, she snagged Tippi Hedren who flew her to Hollywood.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It was that we soaked ourselves in sadness, and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refuse to believe that our nation was dead.'” The story about Tippi Hedren is a true story. The movie star was Kieu Chinh, the most famous Vietnamese movie star of the 1960s and 1970s. Tippi Hedren took such pity on the Vietnamese refugees that she encountered, that she had her personal manicurist come and train some of these women in the arts of manicuring which is how 40 years later, Vietnamese refugees have come to own 51% of the nail salon industry in this country, which is either a pro refugee story or an antirefugee story depending on your point of view.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I am very much concerned with war and with refugees. That’s my history. My history leads me, I think, to a different understanding of war than what many Americans have and possibly many people the world over. I think for Americans, and for many people the world over, war is something typically fought by men and soldiers. For Americans in particular, war is something that’s fought over there somewhere else, but for most people in the world war is fought in their own countries, in their own land. For those people, war is not only about soldiers. It’s about civilians too. You have to remember that the Vietnam War was not unusual in the fact that more civilians died during that war than soldiers did. That’s a fact of the 20th century.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: How can we imagine that war is about soldiers when more civilians die than soldiers in war? We imagined war in that way in order to contain the meaning of war, in order to segregate it, in order to understand it, in order to allow us to say, “War is hell,” and understand that rationally and yet with every generation go to war again because we believe we’re not implicated in it. We, as in those people who are not in the military, because it’s the soldiers who fight war, but my understanding of war is very different. My understanding of war and I share this understanding with Maxine is that war is total. War is the military industrial complex.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: There’s a great passage in the brother in Vietnam from China Men in Maxine’s book where she describes how opening the door of your refrigerator means that you are involved because the companies that manufacture the refrigerator, the manufacturer, the coolant that goes into the refrigerator, the manufacturers, the plastic vending cases, your food, those companies are part of the same corporations that manufacture Agent Orange and the bombs that go out to do carpet bombing. We pay our taxes. We’re involved in war, but we don’t want to think about that.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: There’s a great chapter in Tim O’Brien’s the things I carried, which I think many of you have probably read and the chapters had to tell a true war story. He gets at some of the truth of the war story. He talks about how war stories are contradictory. They’re terrible, but they’re also fascinating. They’re dangerous, but they’re also thrilling. That’s why we go to work. We go to war over and over again. That’s why we’d like to hear war stories, but he doesn’t tell us that war is also really boring. That’s the war story we don’t want to hear. We’ll watch antiwar movies forever and we’re going to keep on going to war because we’re thrilled by the spectacle for that’s found in antiwar stories, but a true antiwar story, which show us how boring war really is and how implicated all of us are in war and we don’t want to watch that kind of story.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Much of my work is about bringing attention to this much more total complicating, contradictory, uneasy dimension of war that involves soldiers and civilians and war machines and all of us and involves refugees as well. I teach a class on the Vietnam War and my students go and interview survivors of the Vietnam War of all backgrounds. One of the things that they discover is that when they interview American veterans of the war, they discover that the majority of their interviewees never saw combat. Some of them did see combat, saw terrible things that disturbed them to this day, but the majority went to Germany or sat on a base in the United States or on a ship in the Navy or guarding a base somewhere in Vietnam. They never saw combat.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Southeast Asian refugees who survived the war that my students interviewed, every single one of those people has a horrible story, has a traumatic story, have suffered much more than those soldiers who never saw combat. Those are war stories, and yet, we don’t think of them as war stories. That’s why it’s been really important for me wherever I go to repeat again and again, that I’m not an immigrant. I’m a refugee. The Sympathizer is not an immigrant novel. It’s a war novel because when the novel came out, there were a lot of reviews that said, “This is a novel in the great tradition of the immigrant story. He is an immigrant writer.” I said, “No, that’s not true,” because using that idea of the immigrant also contains unpleasant meanings for Americans as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because even if today the pendulum has swung, so that we are as a society leaning against open immigration, nevertheless the idea of the immigrant is absolutely a part of the American mythology, a part of the American dream. We welcome people here and they can be upwardly mobile and they can fulfill this American dream that makes us feel good as well. We look at Koreans, we look at Filipinos and we think, “Those are just immigrants,” and we forget that the reason why Koreans and Filipinos are here in this country is because the United States colonized the Philippines for 50 years and carpet bombed all of Korea during the Korean War and that war killed 2 million Koreans which most people don’t know about. To think of people as refugees brings up histories of war that make us uncomfortable. That’s why I insist that I’m a refugee and that I tell war stories.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Many people have also asked me to talk about my personal biography, to get a little bit of a clue as to why I write the things that I write. I’ll share a little bit of my story with you from an essay called America and Me that I published in The Financial Times a couple months ago. “I’m a refugee, an American and a human being which is important to proclaim as there are many who think these identities cannot be reconciled. In March 1975, as Saigon was about to fall, my humanity was temporarily put into question as I became a refugee. My family lived in Ban Me Thuot, famous for its coffee and for being the first town overrun by communist invasion.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My father was in Saigon on business and my mother had no way to contact them. She took my 10-year-old brother and four-year-old me and we walked 184 kilometers to the nearest port in Nha Trang. I admit to possibly being carried. At least it was downhill. At least I was too young, unlike my brother, to remember the dead paratroopers hanging from the trees. I’m grateful not to remember the terror and the chaos that must have been involved in finding a boat. We made it to Saigon and reunited with my father, and a month later, when the communists arrived, repeated the mad scramble for our lives. That summer, we arrived in America.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I came to understand that in the United States, land of the fabled American dream, it is un-American to be a refugee. The refugee embodies fear, failure and flight. Americans of all kinds, black and white, believe that it is impossible for an American to become a refugee, although it is possible for refugees to become Americans and in that way be elevated and one step closer to heaven. The average American or European who feels that refugees or immigrants threaten their jobs does not recognize that the real culprits for their economic plight are the corporate interests and individuals that want to take the profits and are perfectly happy to see the struggling pitted against each other.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The economic interests of the unwanted and the fearful middleclass are aligned, but so many can’t see that because of how much they fear the different, the refugee, the immigrant. In its most naked form, this is racism. In a more polite form, it takes the shape of defending one’s culture where one would rather remain economically poor but ethnically pure. This fear is a powerful force and I admit to being afraid of it. Then I think of my parents who were younger than me when they lost nearly everything and became refugees. I can’t help but remember how, after we settled in San Jose, California, and my parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store in the rundown downtown, a neighboring store put a sign up in its window, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese,” but my parents did not give into fear, even though they must have been afraid.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think of my son, nearly the age I was when I became a refugee, and while I do not want him to be afraid, I know he will be. What is important is that he have the strength to overcome his fear and the way to overcome fear is to demand the America that should be and can be, the America that dreams the best version of itself.” Another way to overcome fear is to tell stories, to tell stories about what we can be, what we should be and that’s what I do. I’ll continue the story of my parents. They were part of this wave of Vietnamese refugees who came into downtown San Jose when no one else wanted to be there in the late 1970s and they built these shops and they struggled and they survived.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My parents worked 12 to 14 hour days, almost every day of the year. They were shot in that store. Downtown City Hall couldn’t care less until Silicon Valley money flooded the valley. Then in the late ’90s, they decided that they needed a new city hall to reflect the grandeur of Silicon Valley. They picked the property right across the street from my parents and they built City Hall there. They took my parents’ property and they used eminent domain to take it away and my parents had to sue to get a fair price in that property. I thought for years and years that they built a parking garage on my parents property.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That idea was so painful for me, not because of the money, but because of the symbolism of everything that my parents had gone through, that all that would be gone and you would have a parking garage, which is about a very unique American contribution to the world, right? For years and years, whenever I would go back to San Jose which is also a very painful experience for me, I would never go to that part of downtown. I would always avoid it. Then last year, I won the Pulitzer Prize and then San Jose City Hall remembered that I’m from San Jose, “Viet come back to San Jose. I’d like to give you an award in City Hall.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’d never seen City Hall. I went and I stood outside City Hall and I realized that they did not build that parking garage after all. They built a parking lot to add insult to injury. My parents had not driven out Americans from downtown. They had rebuilt downtown. They had made downtown great again. When I hear the phrase, “Make America great again,” I hear a story. It’s the same story as another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese and it’s a story that I need to fight everywhere I go. Because for people like me, America wasn’t great before. It could be great in the future, but only if we fight for it, only if we remember a certain kind of history, only if we dare to tell the stories that would make America great.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Even when I finished writing this essay about America and Me, I hesitated at the end because even saying the word America is hard. You know why? Because the American mythology is so powerful. You say, “America,” and all of that mythology about immigration, upper mobility, the American dream pours into people and it makes them forget that you can actually say all these wonderful things about America, about democracy, diversity, inclusion, welcoming people like me and welcoming refugees, you could say all those kinds of things and then at the same time authorize drone strikes and carpet bombing overseas that would create the refugees that need to be rescued by America. That contradiction is also part of America as well. It’s very hard truth for many Americans to face, but it’s the truth that I deal with in my work.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: With two readings, that reflect or express how I’ve tried to approach this truth in different ways. As I was falling asleep in Maxine’s class, I did have a sense of mission. I did want to write stories about Vietnamese people. I was writing stories about Vietnamese people in Maxine’s class. I was writing about my mother in Maxine’s class because what I wanted to do was to humanize Vietnamese people because in the 1970s and 1980s, I read a lot of books about the Vietnam War because I wanted to know what it brought me to this country, what it shaped me and I watched I think almost every single movie Hollywood made about the Vietnam War which is an exercise I don’t recommend anybody.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s especially painful for a Vietnamese person like me because I realized that when Americans say Vietnam, they mean the Vietnam War, and when they say the Vietnam War, they mean the American War which is to say what this war meant for Americans. It’s an irony because 58,000 Americans plus died in the Vietnam War and this is a tremendous human tragedy, but 3 million Vietnamese people died in the Vietnam War and 3 million Cambodians and Laotians died in the Vietnam War, but I bet that most Americans would be hard pressed to even know that Cambodia and Laos were involved in this.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: This is bipartisan. Jimmy Carter in 1978 said, “This was a war of mutual destruction.” You can only say that through an act of willful amnesia or blindness. I thought I have to humanize Vietnamese people. They don’t even exist as human beings for Americans because if you watch these Vietnam war movies, most people have any sense of what Vietnam even means. The role of the Vietnamese is to be silent, to be shot, to be killed to be raped, to scream or when they have something to say thank you.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I thought, those are not the stories that I’m hearing from Vietnamese people in the Vietnamese refugee community of San Jose. These were stories of loss and bitterness and sadness and melancholia. I thought, “I have to tell stories about that.” That’s why I began writing the short stories that became The Refugees. This is the opening few pages from the book from a story called Black Eyed Women. “Fame would strikes someone, usually the kind that healthy minded people would not wish upon themselves, such as being kidnapped and kept prisoner for years, humiliated in a sex scandal or surviving something typically fatal. These survivors needed someone to help write their memoirs and their agents might eventually come across me.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: ‘At least your name’s not on anything,’ my mother once said. When I mentioned that I would not mind being thanked in the acknowledgments, she said, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ It would be the first time I heard this story but not the last. ‘In our homeland,’ she went on, ‘there was a reporter who said the government tortured of the people in prison. So the government does to him exactly what he said they did to others. They send them away, and no one ever sees him again. That’s what happens to writers who put their names on things.’ By the time Victor Devoto chose me, I had resigned myself to being one of those writers whose names did not appear on things. His agent had given him a book that I had ghostwritten, its ostensible author, the father of a boy who had shot and killed several people at his school.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: ‘I identify with the father’s guilt,’ Victor said to me. He was the sole survivor of an airplane crash, 173 others having perished including his wife and children. What was left of him appeared on all the talk shows, his body there but not much else. The voice was a soft monotone and the eyes on the occasions they looked up seemed to hold within them the silhouettes of mournful people. His publisher said that it was urgent that he finished his story while audiences still remember the tragedy. This was my preoccupation on the day my dead brother returned to me.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My mother woke me while it was still dark outside and said, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Through my open door, the light from the hallway stun, ‘Why would I be afraid?’ When she said my brother’s name, I did not think of my brother. He had died long ago. I close my eyes and said, ‘I did not know anyone by that name,’ but she persisted. ‘He’s here to see us,’ she said, stripping off my covers and tugging at me until I rose, eyes half-shut. She was 63, moderately forgetful, and when she led me to the living room and cried out, I was not surprised. ‘He was right here,’ she said, kneeling by her floral armchair as she felt the carpet. ‘It’s wet.’ She crawled to the front door in her cotton pajamas following the trail.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: When I touch the carpet, it was damp. For a moment, I twitched in belief and the silence of the house at 4:00 in the morning felt ominous. Then I noticed the sound of rainwater in the gutters and the fear that it gripped my neck relaxed its hold. My mother must have opened the door, gotten drenched, then come back inside. I knelt by her as she crouched next to the door, her hand on the knob and said, ‘You’re imagining things.’ ‘I know what I saw.’ Brushing my hand off her shoulder, she stood up, anger illuminating her dark eyes. ‘He walked. He talked. He wanted to see you.’ ‘Then where is he, Ma? I don’t see anyone.’ ‘Of course you doubt,’ she sighed, as if I were the one unable to grasp the obvious. ‘He’s a ghost, isn’t he?’
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Ever since my father died a few years ago, my mother and I lived together politely. We shared a passion for words, but I prefer the silence of writing while she loved to talk. She constantly fed me gossip and stories. The only kind I enjoyed concerning my father back when he was a man I did not know, young and happy. Then came stories of terror like the one about the reporter, and finally, there was her favorite kind, the ghost story of which she knew many, some firsthand. ‘Aunt Six died of a heart attack at 76,’ she told me once, twice or perhaps three times, repetition being her habit. I never took her story seriously.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: She lived in Vung Tau and we were in Nha Trang. I was bringing dinner to the table. When I saw Aunt Six sitting there in her nightgown, her long gray hair, which she usually wore in a chignon was loose and fell over her shoulders and I her face. I almost dropped the dishes. When I asked her what she was doing there, she just smiled. She stood up, kissed me and turned me toward the kitchen. When I turned around again to see her, she was gone. It was her ghost. Uncle confirmed it when I called. She had passed away that morning in her own bed. Aunt Six died a good death according to my mother, at home and with family, her ghost simply making the rounds to say farewell.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My mother repeated her aunt’s story while we sat at the kitchen table, the morning she claimed to have seen my brother, her son. I had brewed her a pot of green tea and taken her temperature despite her protests, the result being, as she had predicted, normal. Waving the thermometer at me, she said he must have disappeared because he was tired. After all, he had just completed the journey of thousands of miles across the Pacific. So how did he get here?’ He swam.’ She gave me a pitying look. ‘That’s why he was wet.’ ‘He was an excellent swimmer,’ I said humoring her. ‘What did he look like?’ ‘Exactly the same.’ It’s been 25 years. He hasn’t changed at all. They always look exactly the same as when you last saw them.’
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I remembered how he looked the last time and any humor that I felt vanished. The stunned look on his face, the open eyes that did not flinch even with the splintered board of the boats deck pressing against his cheek. I did not want to see him again, assuming there was something or someone to see. After my mother left for her shift at the salon, I tried to go back to sleep but could not. His eyes stared at me whenever I close my own. Only now was I conscious of not having remembered him for months. I had long struggled to forget him, but just by turning a corner in the world or in my mind, I could run into them, my best friend.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: From as far back as I can recall, I could hear his voice outside our house, calling my name. That was my signal to follow him down our village’s lanes and pathways, through jackfruit and mango grooves, to the dikes and fields, dodging shattered palm trees and bomb craters. At the time, this was a normal childhood. Looking back, however, I could see that we had passed our youth in a haunted country. Our father had been drafted and we feared that he would never return. Before he left he dug a bomb shelter next to our home, a sandbag bunker whose roof was braced by timber. Even though it was hot and airless, dank with the odor of the earth and alive with a movement of worms, we often want to play there as little children.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: When we were older, we went to study and tell stories. I was the best student in my school, excellent enough for my teacher to teach me English after hours, lessons I shared with my brother. He, in turn, told me tall tales, folklore and rumors. When airplanes shrieked overhead and we huddled with my mother in the bunker, he whispered ghost stories in my ear to distract me. Except, he insisted they were not ghost stories. They were historical accounts from reliable sources, the ancient crones who chewed betel nut and spat its red juice while squatting on their haunches in the market, tending coal stoves or overseeing baskets of wares.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: ‘Our lands confirmed residents,’ they said, ‘included the upper half of a Korean lieutenant, launched by mine into the branches of a rubber tree, a scalped black American floating in the creek, not far from his downed helicopter, his eyes and the exposed half-moon of his brain glistening above the water and it decapitated Japanese private groping through cassava shrubbery for his head.’ ‘These invaders came to conquer our land and now would never go home,’ the old lady said, cackling and exposing lacquered teeth or so my brother told me. I shivered with delight in the gloom, hearing those black-eyed women with my own ears and it seemed to me that I would never tell stories like those.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I ended up being the one telling stories like those, and after The Refugees, I decided that I was done trying to humanize Vietnamese people because I realized people from the majority from dominant culture never have to humanize themselves. They take their humanity for granted. They’re so comfortable with our humanity, they can acknowledge their inhumanity at times. I felt that if I were to run a novel in The Sympathizer that could aspire to change the American story or change the world story of the Vietnamese, I had to claim both humanity and inhumanity which is why I made The Sympathizer the person that he is.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In this last episode that I’m going to read, you’ll see perhaps a little bit of that inhumanity in an episode where he gets a job as the authenticity consultant on the making of a movie that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now, but if Francis Ford Coppola were to ask, it’s not Apocalypse Now. He’s going to meet with this famous director not only as auteur. “My meeting with the auteur has gone on for a while longer, mostly in a more subdued fashion, with me pointing out that the lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in the movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: ‘Do you not think it would be a little more believable?’ I said, ‘A little more realistic, a little more authentic. For a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct as it does now, cut to villagers speaking in their own language? Do you think it might not be decent to let them actually say something instead of simply acknowledging that there’s some kind of sound coming from their mouths? Could you not even just have them speak a heavily accented English? You know what I mean? Ching-Chong English, just to pretend they’re speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The auteur grimaced and said, ‘Very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it. But I had a question.’ ‘What was it?’ ‘Oh, yes. How many movies have you made?’ None, zero, zilch, nada, nothing and however you say it in your language. So thank you for telling me how to do my job. Now get the hell out of my house and come back after you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas.'” Since I published The Sympathizer, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a few Hollywood people and none of them dispute this characterization.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: “I confess to being angry with the auteur, but was I wrong in being angry? This was especially the case when he acknowledged he did not even know that Montagnard was simply a French catch-all term for the dozens of Highland minorities.” The movie is called The Hamlet and it’s about American green berets who were dispatched to this Highland’s Hamlet where they’re going to train the Montagnards in defending themselves against the Vietcong. “‘What if,’ I said to him, ‘I wrote a screenplay about the American West and simply call out all the native Indians. You’d want to know whether the calvary was fighting the Navajo or Apache or Comanche, right? Likewise, I would want to know when you say these people are Montagnards, whether we speak of the Bru or the Nung or the Tai.’
Viet Thanh Nguyen: ‘Let me tell you a secret,’ the auteur said. ‘You ready? Here it is. No one gives a shit.’ He was amused by my worthlessness. To see me without words is like seeing one of those Egyptian felines without hair, a rare and not necessarily desirable occasion. How can I be so dense? How can I be so diluted? I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. Hollywood did not just make horror movie monsters. It was its own horror movie monster, smashing me under its foot. I had failed and the auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I pity the French for the naivete in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit. I was maddened by my helplessness before the auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance sparked something new in the world for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most recent efficient propaganda machine ever created, with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis who never achieved global domination.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Better to be villain, loser or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe-‘oiel, all the Vietnamese have of side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute. We were to be struck dumb.” Thank you.
Speaker 1: That concludes the reading for this event. Up next is the conversation.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Cheers. It really should be Scotch up here. I really wish they would make that a tradition.
Maxine Hong Kingston: The Sympathizer begins with a narrator identifying himself as a spook, a spy, a sleeper. At the end of his confession, he writes of awaking. You slept in my class, which I did not see. You might have slept with your eyes open.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I have another story by the way. You have to finish the question then I’ll tell the story.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, you inscribed my copy of The Sympathizer, saying like my narrator, “I took a long time to wake up.” Please speak to us about waking. Is it like becoming conscious? Is it like enlightenment?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The other story is that at the end of the semester, I don’t know if you remember this, but I think you wrote all the students a note.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. I have the note. I have the note. It’s a page long. In the note acknowledges that I was asleep. I think you did notice. You kindly have forgotten over time. The final recommendation is that “Kao has excellent counseling services. You should make use of that,” which is actually accurate. You know what? I never made use of the counseling services. I became a writer instead. It’s much cheaper, but for me to be a writer, to become a writer, which took a long time, I think it took 20 years before I could call myself a writer, 20 years of writing and writing and struggling and struggling and that was a process of waking up. Not just waking up intellectually, which had already begun at Berkeley in your class and in many other classes, I was struck by intellectual lightning and political lightning at Berkeley.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I became radicalized, became an Asian American, became politically committed. I thought I was awake. This is what means to be woke, right? That’s the metaphor that’s in the novel and that is often used to describe the coming into political consciousness, but what I wasn’t awake to was my emotions. That’s a different kind of awakening. That’s why the reason I was falling asleep in your class was because I was going out and doing all this political activism and staying up late and didn’t have the energy for the class. That was probably because I was also avoiding what it is that writing provokes, which is not simply political consciousness, but emotional consciousness.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that that has been really crucial for me as a writer to try to figure out how to do these two things at the same time, that one of the reasons why revolutions fail is because they’re all about politics and they’re not enough about emotions. That’s what the ending of The Sympathizer is about. He recognizes that to become a revolutionary, you have to have sympathy for people. You have to feel for people who are lacking justice. Then you come into power as the revolutionary, and then, you want to enact justice and you have to stop feeling for people, because you have to put them in reeducation camps or execute them or whatever. That’s the contradiction at the heart of the novel and also at the heart of my own struggle to become a writer as well to talk about politics emotions at the same time.
Maxine Hong Kingston: But how does writing get the emotions flowing? Because for me, emotions come first and the emotions are chaotic and wordless. My task is to find the words for them, but the way I hear you speak, the writing evokes emotion. How does that work?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think our process is very different. It’s probably grounded in who I am as a person, my inclination to be political inclination to be academic and then all the schooling that I did to get a PhD. It’s hard to remove that from me. I think I did approach writing rationally. Writing The Refugees for example, I had an Excel sheet where I said, “Okay, I have a story about a woman and I have a story about a man, older person, younger person.” It was very politically, very consciously crafted and so was The Sympathizer. In terms of writing what I had to do to try to allow, get deep enough into a character or a story to find the emotions that are there, but I didn’t start with the emotions.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: For me, I’m still learning how to do that and it’s through becoming a father which has tapped into all kinds of emotions I didn’t know I had, through meeting other writers. I did this reading with Ocean Vuong at the LA Public Library. He’s a great poet by the way, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, you really should read his book, and you should really see him in person. You should bring him here to Lannan because when I saw him read and speak, he’s very emotional. That’s who he is. That was very powerful, but I’ve always spent a lifetime trying to repress that because it allows the emotions to come out. You saw that. It’s like, this is a new thing for me to talk about my parents, to let myself feel that emotion on stage. It’s very scary. It’s very frightening for me because I’ve spent a lifetime trying to contain those emotions and to be a writer means to try to excavate them.
Maxine Hong Kingston: The last sentence in The Sympathizer, “We will live.” It’s in italics. It’s exclamation point, “We will live.” At the end of the book, the refugees are on a boat. They’re at sea. We don’t know what will become of them. Then throughout the book, there are spies and counterspies and counter-counterspies, frenemies and they’re betraying one another. They’re torturing one another. To me, that sentence, “We will live,” it rings out of nowhere. Where does it come from? Where does that hope come from?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Once I submitted a story to the Atlantic Monthly and the fiction editor wrote back and said, “Where’s the hope in this story?” I was like, “Why do you need hope? This is some kind of silly humanistic ideal.” When I reached the end of The Sympathizer, I thought, “Oh, shoot, where’s the hope in this book?”
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, God. You shoehorned it in?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right, yes.
Maxine Hong Kingston: That’s a phrase that I learned from my editor. You just shoehorn that thing in.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, but there is a dramatic justification for it. I felt like, “Yes, it is me the author putting that in, but in the guise of this character, The Sympathizer, and basically by the end of the novel, he’s a destroyed person. He’s not healthy. We spent 90% of the novel watching him gradually unravel and be destroyed. Then in the last chapter, he’s trying to put himself back together. There’s no way he’s going to be able to put himself back together in the space of a few months after what’s happened to him, but he is trying. He’s trying to hold himself together, all these fragments have now been blown out.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That last line, “We will live,” that’s his attempt to be hopeful. It’s meant to be desperate because he’s trying to hang on to this last fragment of hope before he gets on that refugee boat and sets out on the open sea for a journey that he knows is at best a 50/50 chance, but he has to tell himself that we have to tell ourselves. If we actually think how the forces that we’re confronting, we have to tell ourselves that.
Maxine Hong Kingston: I didn’t like you’re explaining it to me in this nonpoetic, layman’s language and I think it’s a wonderful way to end that book because it’s mysterious. We don’t know where it comes from and it forces us to try to work it out. Now, I’m going to ask you a question that … Well, it’s a question I would have asked you in class.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ll try to do better this time.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes. He never spoke in class.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So you do remember.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes, I do.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You do remember.
Maxine Hong Kingston: That’s not the same as being asleep. Not talking is not the same-
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, I remember the letter was actually much more cutting than that because you actually said that, “You did not say a word in class.”
Maxine Hong Kingston: That’s true. You didn’t.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I didn’t. You said, “You have to give more of yourself to your fellow students,” and you were right.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yes, I did.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I was also very shy. That got me.
Maxine Hong Kingston: You might remember that in this class, which was called Reading for Writers, I assigned William Carlos Williams’ In The American Grain, did you read it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I did. I did. There were four books and I read all four of them
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, very good.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I didn’t get it. I did not get it, In The American Grain.
Maxine Hong Kingston: In the book, William Carlos Williams, he gives the mythic history of America. He has Ponce de Leon comes to the Caribbean and he just slaughters the Caribs. He unpeoples those islands and Williams is saying, “The people that were slaughtered, they had a language. How can you they do this?” There’s a bloody scene where they’re fighting at sea. The water is turning with blood and the dogs are killed. The sharks are there. Women, babies and blood. Williams says, “We are the slaughterers.” Then he says, “Do these things die?” Men who do not know what lives are themselves dead. In the heart, there are living Indians once slaughtered and defrauded. Do these things die?” Then you come up with this book, which I thought this … William Carlos Williams asked the question, “Do these things die?” and Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Nothing ever dies.” Was that your answer to Williams and tell us about your way of thinking of history.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think now that I’m a teacher too, I can say, we as teachers have to believe that sometimes we plant a seed in students and it will grow later even if they don’t know it that the seed was planted. No, I don’t remember that scene from William Carlos Williams’ In The American Grain. You know what’s … But I remember the book.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Do you know that question, the question “Do these things die”?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t remember any of that, but you know what? I remember the book because in writing, Nothing Ever Dies, I actually went and got the William Carlos Williams’ book, In The American Grain. I thought, “I’m going to have to reread this book,” and then I ran out of time. I didn’t reread it. Now I will, but I think the point is that it must have stayed with me. As writers, we absorb all kinds of things that we don’t know. This is my excuse. It must have stayed with me. I did read it. I saw the words and somehow they lodged somewhere in the back of my mind, but also William Carlos Williams, you and he and Toni Morrison are asking some of the same questions. You’re investigating the same history.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Even if you’re dealing with Chinese Americans or Chinese immigrants, you’re investigating the same America that he’s talking about, so is Toni Morrison, right? I’m a part of that quest too which is why I could turn to Toni Morrison and get Nothing Ever Dies out of Beloved. I don’t think that’s a coincidence that this is the group of writers that I affiliate with, you Morrison, William Carlos Williams, people who acknowledge ourselves as Americans, but not just for the American dream, but for the blood as well.
Maxine Hong Kingston: You named your son Ellison. Is it because of your admiration for the African American writers?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. I think when I was at Berkeley, I took African American literature with Professor Barbara Christian. I don’t know if you knew her.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, yes. I do.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: She’s incredible. I learned so much in that class just as I learned so much in all the ethnic studies courses on Chicano literature, Asian American literature and so on that I took, but African American literature made a particular impression on me because of the combination of anger, critique and art that was happening in that tradition. The peak of that in her class for me was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wrote a very long paper on Invisible Man for her in that class. That book made such a huge impression because I thought it was narratively a great read, and politically, it was very, very compelling. I thought somewhere in me at that time, I thought, “Maybe one day I could hope to aspire to write something like this”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: When it came time to plot The Sympathizer and to try to figure out what the architecture of the book was, I very much thought about Invisible Man. Then I went and reread Invisible Man. Then I realized, I still love that book, but I also disagree with it too with the maturity or the difference in me of being 20 years older. The difference was that, you know, an invisible man. It’s about a guy, a man, a young man who isn’t every African American every man. He goes through his political consciousness and then his disillusionment and then he retreats into a hole. Then he emerges at the end of the book, thinking he has something to contribute after all as an individual.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I thought that’s where I disagree with Ralph Ellison. I think this is one reason why Invisible Man was as recognized as it was in the 1950s because it spoke to the political mood of the day that had grappled with communism and rejected in favor of the American individual. I knew that in writing The Sympathizer, I was dealing with some of the same territory, about a communist idealist who is going to be disillusioned. The ending that the American publishing industry wanted from me was to say at the end, “Goodbye communism. Hello, America.” That was the end and I wasn’t going to give them that.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Did they actually advise you to how to end that book?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No one is so crass as to say something like that, but-
Maxine Hong Kingston: They do it subtly?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. As a scholar and as a critic, I read the signs. I read the evidence and the evidence is 13 out of 14 publishers rejected the manuscript, including the editor who edited another Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son which has something of the same plot and The Orphan Master’s Son is written for Americans. It’s about North Koreans, but it’s written for Americans, because at the end, it’s, “North Korean communism is terrible. American dream is good.” That book came out while I was writing The Sympathizer. I liked that book a lot. Narratively, it’s a great read, but ideologically, I’d completely disagree with it.
Maxine Hong Kingston: These 14 times that you sent it out, did you send the same manuscript out or did you change it before the next one? Did you change it before somebody actually accepted it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s an interesting alternate universe. That would have been really a miserable experience and would have tested my integrity, but no, what we did was my agent sent it out to all these editors who had handpicked. He’s a very smart agent. He said, “These are the editors who are most likely to like your book for what it is.” Then on one day, he said, “This is the auction, and now, we’re going to wait and we’re going to wait to see what people say.” He warned me in advance. He said, “Sometimes these auctions happen and nobody bids on the book.” I said, “Okay, I understand that’s a reality,” but inside of me, I thought, “No, that’s not going to happen.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Here’s more backstory. I love Ellison, right? Ralph Ellison. There’s a deadline for finishing my novel, which was that my wife was going to give birth. I finished the first draft of the novel two days before my son was born and we named him Ellison, very deliberately after Ralph Ellison and African American literature. My son, three months old at the time that we send this book out, I had the morning shift. I would revise the novel until about 3:00 in the morning while I’m watching over this lump, that’s my son, a lump, didn’t do much. Then 3:00 AM, I would start drinking scotch, 5:00 AM I would fall asleep and my wife would take over.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Anyway, so that’s my schedule when we sent the book out, the manuscript out. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to fall asleep at 5:00 in the morning, and then when I get up, it will be 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon and that’d be like 4:00 or 5:00 PM New York time and the auction will be over,” but my son, of course, chooses that day to be really disturbing wakes me up at 10:00 in the morning. I’m in bed from 10:00 until about 2:00 as the rejections come in one by one. My agent, bless his heart, sends each one to me. I was like, “This is the worst day, almost the worst, possibly the worst day of my life.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No one says, “It’s because it doesn’t affirm the American dream,” but when they say stuff like, “I couldn’t crawl into the voice of this character,” or, “I just didn’t like the language.” It’s hard to not to think that I didn’t give them the happy ending, the hopeful ending which is the American ending, that Americans want.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Then you put in italics, “We will live.” That’s it. Does Ellison also have a Vietnamese name?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Ellison Tai Duong Nguyen. Duong is the last name of his mother. Tai means fortune. No, wait, what does it mean? Tai means talent in Vietnamese. My dad didn’t like that name. I thought, “Why? I went with all this effort to come up with a Vietnamese name for him.” I don’t know, I think maybe we understand the name literally, but we don’t understand what it means connotatively, whatever, however. Maybe it’s an old-fashioned Vietnamese name and he didn’t want that. We thought it meant literally talent. I think it means financial talent.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, it could be both.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hopefully.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Now my husband, Earl, he wants to ask this question. He’s just delighted by an image that you have in one of your short stories. It’s in Saigon and we are seeing the streets and there are lots of street businesses going on. There is a masseur. Is that same as a masseuse?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Male version.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Same thing?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I think so.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Masseur. He advertises his business by having … He’s shaking a bottle and there’s pebbles inside. Earl finds that just delightful. I do too. Did you make that up? Did you have witness it? Do they actually do that? Also, what I wonder is what is shaking that bottle have to do with massage?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I got to Vietnam and I think the second time I was there, we stayed for seven months. At night only, by the way. At night, I would see these young men, neatly dressed, slacks, white shirt, riding their bicycles on the streets, shaking this bottle with the pebbles in it. I was like, “What is that? I don’t know what that means.” Many things in Vietnam, I didn’t understand the meaning of. I finally figured it out when I went out onto the street once and I saw one of these men had parked his bike, put down his bottle and he had spread a reed mat onto the sidewalk and there’s another guy lying on that reed mat with his shirt off and the other man was giving him a massage. I thought, “That is so Vietnamese. This totally makes sense to me.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s such a vivid detail that embodied the country at that time and possibly it still does about just what people had to do in order to survive in the makeshift ways in which they found ways to make a living.
Maxine Hong Kingston: But what about the bottle?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s how they announced that they were traveling through the area and that was their call.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, it’s just to make a sound.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah.
Maxine Hong Kingston: And is for other businesses too?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I only saw it with those guys. I don’t know. Maybe there’s another business underneath that, I have no idea.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, I heard you tell Terry Gross that you’re not good at having fun. Is that true? Can you tell us one fun thing that you have done lately?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, I am not good at having fun. I blame my parents, devout Catholics, who-
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, did you hear her say, “Oh, dear”?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, one day my son will say, “I blame my dad,” for whatever it is, but devout Catholic, you have to understand Vietnamese Catholics are a special breed of Catholic, special breed of Catholic. My parents were born in the same region as Ho Chi Minh and that region is famous for producing hardcore revolutionaries and hardcore Catholics. My life could have taken a different direction, but whatever direction it took, I would have turned out hardcore. I grew up just watching them not having fun, just working all the time and sacrificing themselves one way or another to God or to capitalism.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ve absorbed that spirit. Even though I’m pretty much an atheist, I work really, really hard. When I don’t work hard, I feel really bad. The last fun thing I did was probably go out on a date with my wife. I do, but it’s part of work. We [inaudible 01:19:01] the calendar. I have a date with my wife. Three hours, we go to dinner, hire the babysitter. That’s as much fun as I can allow myself.
Maxine Hong Kingston: I did hear you use the word fun at the beginning of your talk. It was something about the fun of writing The Sympathizer.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. In order to get to the fun, let me put it into context, I had to work really, really hard. I set out to write short stories at Berkeley as an undergraduate because I guess I thought, “Oh, they’re short. It’s going to be easy.” I graduated from Berkeley. I became a professor in ’97. The summer before I started being a professor, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to get serious about writing short stories. I’m going to write a short story collection.” I wrote an entire short story collection in three months and then it would take 17 years to revise that short story collection. Almost none of it was fun. 99%, it basically sucked, okay?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The only pleasure I ever got was when one of these stories would be accepted for publication. That was about it, but everything was drudgery and agony and misery and despair. I’m not even exaggerating. It was really, really, really, really hard. The Black-Eyed Women story, the one that I read, 50 drafts over 17 years. This is not unusual for writers. It happens to many of us, right? I was a good Catholic. I thought, “Jesus Christ died on the cross. I can write this for 17 years.” That’s what good Catholics say to themselves to justify whatever it is that they’re going through, right?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The reward came, which is then my agent found and got the collection and said, “Hey, I love the collection, but you got to write a novel because short story collections don’t sell in New York City.”
Maxine Hong Kingston: No, they don’t.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I said, “Fine. I’ll write a novel.” It was fun to write. It was really, really fun to write. Two years and mostly it was a lot of pleasure, even writing the torture scenes was fun. I had some sleepless nights imagining what was going on, but I have to say, as a technical challenge, “How do I do?” it was fun and I enjoyed it.
Maxine Hong Kingston: I got to tell you about your torture scenes. I wrote a blurb for your book and gave you praise and I never confessed to anybody. I just gave them the impression that I had read the whole book. I skipped the torture scenes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I know.
Maxine Hong Kingston: How do you know?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You said it in an interview.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Oh, I did. I did. I did. I confessed. I confessed to The New York Times.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think so. I think so.
Maxine Hong Kingston: I told them I didn’t read the torture scenes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, we’re even.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Yeah, okay, we’re even. I am like you. I don’t have fun either, but I’m having fun right now.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Good. I’m glad. We’ve come full circle.
Maxine Hong Kingston: Well, are you?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I am. It’s fantastic. Thank you so much. Thank you.
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