Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s War Years

Josh Koehn and Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses The Sympathizer in this interview for MetroActive


How the Pulitzer Prize winner found his voice, made peace with San Jose

Viet Thanh Nguyen won his war with San Jose. It was up to him to finalize the terms of the truce.

Before this could occur, of course, Nguyen heard a voice—well-known and irresistible to dissidents—that demanded release.

So he took to the podium, looked over the dais, and ever-so-gently scolded San Jose’s mayor and council, which, in honoring him for winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, had gathered in the very building that erased his parents’ American dream. Nguyen and his brother, just children when the family fled Vietnam and assumed the burdensome mantle of refugees, were just as helpless as adults when their parents were forced to sell their business and see it demolished for a gleaming $343 million City Hall tower and rotunda. Whatever is left of the New Saigon Market lies fossilized at a depth reserved for milk-carton mobsters and earthworms.

This could not be forgotten, or forgiven, without comment.

“I don’t think I did it that harshly,” Nguyen says in a recent phone interview, a lilt of humor in his voice. “But you should not invite me, a writer, anywhere, and not expect a writer to speak his conscience. ‘Oh, you’re inviting me back to give me a commendation?’ Of course I had to point out that City Hall is built across the street from what was once my parents’ store. And this is the kind of history that we need to acknowledge. My high school, Bellarmine, also invited me back to put me into its Hall of Fame. So these gestures on the part of San Jose have been important to me in terms of making me feel like I have reconciled with the city.”

The Climb
Excluding the 140-character buffoonery we wake up to in the present day, Nguyen is currently living in the “ideal years,” he says, referring to the freedom he has to write.

He has the admiration and respect of readers and peers, the hardware of winning a Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. He has reached a literary pinnacle that has no match save for the likewise daunting peak known as Nobel. And yet, the climb has always been the point.

In addition to his duties as the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and serving as a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Nguyen has toiled for nearly two decades to become the writer he is today. He has published five books—including Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a work of nonfiction that was a finalist for the National Book Award—and spent the last 17 years working on a short story collection that became The Refugees, released this spring to deserved praise.

“When I embarked on writing the stories that eventually became The Refugees, I went in with a lot of hope and optimism and this naive, idealistic belief that I could finish this book in a matter of a few years,” Nguyen says. “And it didn’t turn out that way.”

In essays, he has acknowledged the creeping doubt every writer feels when a project stalls, and the benefit that can be found in feeling inadequate.

“I think that suffering for the art, suffering for the craft, as unpleasant as it may be, is absolutely necessary to become a writer,” Nguyen says. “It’s through struggle with the form that you learn how to do it. But it’s also good for the writer’s character to go through that kind of an experience, as well. To know that writing is something that is hard-won, rather than easily won. And, hopefully, that provides us with a sense of humility, so that when the rewards do come in we’re able to take them with gratitude and to place them in a context.”

The Refugees features a story titled “The War Years,” set in San Jose and his parents’ New Saigon Market. It includes a telling quote from the character’s mother, who, in being extorted, exhibits the wisdom, strength and resolve of the region’s Vietnamese refugees. She asks her son: “Are you going to be the kind of person who always pays the asking price or the kind of person who fights to find out what something is really worth?”

“My mother never literally said that to me, but that was a lesson I learned from watching my parents,” says Nguyen, whose brother, Tung, a graduate of San Jose High, has gone to become a doctor and professor at UC San Francisco and chair the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

Unlikely Hero
In Year 14 of writing The Refugees, Nguyen’s agent recommended he begin work on a novel, a work that has won him untold fans and scorched-earth critics—that is, until the Pulitzer silenced many of the latter. The Sympathizer is not the kind of novel that would normally win praise in San Jose’s deeply anti-communist Vietnamese community. The unnamed protagonist is a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist spy in the South Vietnam Army. The nuance and duality of the character, whose mother was raped and impregnated by a Catholic priest, came relatively easily to him, says Nguyen, who was raised Catholic but rejects the faith, who along with his family fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, yet has the ability to acknowledge that not every communist was a monster and not every refugee was a saint.

“For whatever reason, I turned out to be a person who doesn’t like orthodoxy,” Nguyen says. “I was raised as a Catholic, but I’m basically an atheist. And I was raised in an anti-communist Vietnamese community and I wouldn’t say I’m a communist, but I’m certainly much more sympathetic to seeing the world through left-wing perspectives and I’ve read a lot of Marxism. I was raised as American, but I’m very critical of America’s imperial tendencies. So for whatever reason, these perspectives existed in me, so actually it wasn’t difficult to write The Sympathizer. I didn’t have to work against myself in order to create this character. If anything, the character at an emotional level—if not an autobiographical level—is an expression of me, because I do see the world from multiple points of view, most issues from multiple points of view.

“I think the major challenge, obviously, was knowing and is knowing that this viewpoint that my character expresses, and that I endorse, is one that is not popular in any of the communities I talked about: Catholics or Vietnamese Americans or Americans in general. Most communities like one perspective on the world that endorses what it is that they see and are not happy when that perspective is challenged. And I knew that my novel would challenge many deeply held perspectives. When it comes to Vietnamese Americans, their anti-communism is pretty, pretty deep. I anticipated that there would be a lot of people unhappy with me, and that seemed to be the case until the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. All Vietnamese are now very, very proud of me.”

The work is not always easy reading, almost certainly because the insights were not easily gained. Nguyen didn’t arrive in San Jose until age 7, three years after he was taken from his parents and forced to live in Fort Indiantown Gap before moving in with a white foster family in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Reuniting with family offered relief, but also a new window onto how much life had changed for his parents, who worked 12-14 hour days in a downtown that was much more skid row than Santana Row in the ’80s and ’90s.

“I grew up absorbing that and watching those difficulties and those pains,” Nguyen says. “In that sense, that was a shock. … That wouldn’t have been our lives in Vietnam.”

But in the journey of writing his stories, absorbing the pain of his childhood, separating the dogma and propaganda from truth, suffering for his art and balancing it with his work, becoming a husband and a father, and having a community he never felt quite comfortable in welcome him home with open arms, Nguyen has reconciled with a city he will likely never call home again but considers him its native son.

“A lot of it also had to do with just my own tortured adolescence and the particular fact of growing up as a refugee and watching my parents undergo what they went (through),” he says. “I just couldn’t wait to leave San Jose, and on the return to San Jose there would always be this negative association with the city. And I think that in the last decade or so I’ve come around. It doesn’t cause me pain to return to San Jose anymore. I don’t want to live in San Jose, but it’s OK to return. I think that San Jose hasn’t really changed that much for me. I’ve changed.”

And so, he will live. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below:

Josh Koehn: Okay. Here we are. We are back. It is the SV411 podcast. This is Metro Silicon Valley, the largest weekly newspaper in the South Bay. My name is Josh Koehn. I am the managing editor. I am as always joined by Nick Veronin, the arts and entertainment editor.

Nick Veronin: Hello, everybody.

Josh Koehn: Here he is. How are you, Nick?

Nick Veronin: I’m great. I’m feeling pretty good.

Josh Koehn: Are you?

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: You sound pretty mellow.

Nick Veronin: I’m a chill guy.

Josh Koehn: Chill dude.

Nick Veronin: I’m excited because I got some good news this week.

Josh Koehn: Really? What is that?

Nick Veronin: I oversaw the production of the best arts and entertainment section in the state.

Josh Koehn: Holy snap. We have so many news to announce here. Yes, Metro and the Annual State Journalism Awards was honored 10 times total, which is, we believe a company record. We would ask past employees but they’re all dead.

Josh Koehn: No, actually, we got the best investigative reporting, best front page, a bunch of second places and one honorable mention or two, but also the best arts and entertainment coverage in the state for the largest weekly newspapers of California. Congratulations, Nick Veronin.

Nick Veronin: Hey. Congratulations to Jennifer Wadsworth, and to you. Jennifer is our news reporter and she won several awards as well, California News Publishers Association, I believe is what it’s called.

Josh Koehn: Yes, the CNPA. It’s a very cool thing. We have a great show today. It is not just about us and these awards that are very political. Don’t worry, all the judges were paid off.

Nick Veronin: It’s all it’s about me.

Josh Koehn: Even the Russian ones, they were paid off double. Actually, I’m super excited about today’s show because we have a guest that is in another stratosphere than what we might normally get. We have a Pulitzer Prize Winner in fiction, Viet Thanh Nguyen from San Jose, by way of Vietnam. He wrote the Sympathizer which won the 2015 Pulitzer for fiction. He’s got a great short story collection called The Refugees.

Josh Koehn: I had a conversation with him before we did the segment. I have to say, the guy is brilliant. He is smart. He is funny. He’s gracious. He’s humble. He’s basically everything that we’re not.

Nick Veronin: Yeah. He probably wouldn’t even go out of his way to say that he won a Pulitzer. It’s a bigger deal than a CNPA.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, it’s like they’re close.

Nick Veronin: They’re close.

Josh Koehn: They’re close.

Nick Veronin: I’m almost like Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, but like, almost not in every other way. Yeah, it’s a really cool thing. We were super excited to talk him. He is actually on the cover of this week’s Metro on newsstands across the South Bay.

Josh Koehn: The headline is the War Years, which is actually the name of a short story he wrote in his new book, The Refugees. That title is in reference to his family coming over from Vietnam to San Jose, California, and starting up this market, trying to create their own American dream after the fall of Saigon and coming here with very little that they possessed.

Josh Koehn: The headline, the War Years, it says, “Viet Thanh Nguyen breaks down the dual life of refugees winning a Pulitzer and how he made peace with San Jose.” In our conversation, he told me, it took him a long time to actually come to peace with San Jose and really forgive and forget some of the things that he held on to and felt tortured about as a young man.

Josh Koehn: He went to St. Patrick’s Elementary School. I’m forgetting middle school but he went to Bellarmine and then Cal. Became the Aerol Arnold Chair of English as well as a professor of American and Ethnic Studies at the University of Southern California. He’s written five books. The Sympathizer, his debut novel won the Pulitzer. It’s a fantastic book, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Just so many great things to unpack there.

Josh Koehn: When I read it, there are few things that you just are taken aback by. One, is being an older millennial, not necessarily always thinking about what life must have been like for people on both sides of the war. What was it like from a North Vietnam perspective? Yeah, if you weren’t just this rabid killing communists? What if you were someone who could come from Vietnam and maybe not be this pure, innocent refugee? What if you were those people?

Josh Koehn: We have a large Vietnamese community here in San Jose. Viet told me so many things about how he does not subscribe to orthodoxy. We’re going to get to that interview in just a little bit here. A great conversation, a fun talk. It’s one of those things where every now and then, you speak to someone and you just walk away shaking your head like, wow, that person really lives up to the hype. Really is as intelligent as [inaudible 00:05:40].

Josh Koehn: Because, I admit, there are times I was talking to him and I was stumbling all over myself. He somehow manages to take an awfully phrased question and turn it into, just spin it into gold.

Nick Veronin: He worked with you?

Josh Koehn: Yeah, Rumpelstiltskin over here, Pulitzer over there.

Nick Veronin: The Rumpelstiltskin was the guy who’s …

Josh Koehn: Damn it, actually, see this is what I mean, he would somehow take my folly of Rumpelstiltskin and be Rumpelstiltskin but actually still be the good guy.

Nick Veronin: Was that a Grimms’ Fairy Tales?

Josh Koehn: Who cares? Those guys …

Nick Veronin: Matt Damon and the late, great …

Josh Koehn: Heath Ledger?

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, I didn’t watch it. Obviously. The point is, we’re going to get to that interview. We also are going to hit up some of the core events that are going to be happening this week in the South Bay in Nick’s hit list.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, if you get a chance, check out the literary issue that came out this week on newsstands now. We also have profiles by Tad Malone, a very talented writer who works with us. He did profiles on Kirstin Chen, a Professor at San Jose State, who wrote a book called Soy Sauce for Beginners. Very funny, very smart.

Josh Koehn: Ron Hansen, a professor at Santa Clara University. You may know him from his work. He wrote the book, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I’m pretty sure that’s close enough to the title. I may have missed a few words.

Nick Veronin: It was made into a movie.

Josh Koehn: Yes.

Nick Veronin: Very good, very good movie, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. I …

Nick Veronin: Zooey Deschanel.

Josh Koehn: Really?

Nick Veronin: Briefly. Nick Cave, very briefly.

Josh Koehn: I think we can say Nick Cannon there for a second.

Nick Veronin: No.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. It’s a movie that I went back and watch and I was like, it’s actually way better than I expected. I think, it gets better on rewatches and Casey Affleck. Great net. Manchester by the Sea. Just watched that recently. It was great again. Movie is a little bit overrated, though.

Nick Veronin: Yeah?

Josh Koehn: Yeah.

Nick Veronin: You weren’t that big of a fan?

Josh Koehn: No. It ends and they’re bouncing a ball back and forth on the street. Sorry, spoiler alert. I’m sure you’re just so upset after me spoiling that.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, it’s like it reminds me of what Viet told me, he turned in this short story to a literary magazine. The editor says, “Hey, it’s really great, but where’s the hope?” He’s like, “Hope? Who says the story needs to end with hope?” I agree with that, but for some reason, at the end of Manchester by the Sea, I just was like, oh, that’s it, huh?

Nick Veronin: You know what movies ending I didn’t get, but I’ve watched it a few times now, and it’s still one of my favorite movies because I love Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix is the end of The Master.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, well that’s a great movie. That is a great movie.

Nick Veronin: What is the ending about?

Josh Koehn: I don’t know. I don’t remember it.

Nick Veronin: I want to get you on this. He’s just singing Slow Boat to China.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, I don’t remember it at all.

Nick Veronin: Yeah, you were drinking some of Joaquin Phoenix’s little rocket booster moonshine?

Josh Koehn: Yeah, yeah, I think I was on the regimen then. Anyway, we’re going to be right back with Viet Thanh Nguyen. After that, we’re going to have some really cool events that you should be checking out in Silicon Valley. Stay tuned.

Josh Koehn: I’m now joined by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction for his novel, The Sympathizer. He also has a collection of short stories called Refugees that has just come out both great works of fiction.

Josh Koehn: Viet is also the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He’s also a former San Jose resident coming over to live here at a very young age. Viet, thank you very much for joining me.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks for having me, Josh.

Josh Koehn: I guess, we’ll just launch right into it. I’m a huge fan of your work. I read The Sympathizer on my Kindle, it’s the first book I ever read on the Kindle. It ended very dramatically for me because I just didn’t see it coming.

Josh Koehn: When you started that book, it sounds like you actually wrote Refugees before you started The Sympathizers, is that right?

Viet Nguyen: I wrote most of The Refugees before I started The Sympathizer. I spent 14 years working on The Refugees. Then, when my agent told me, I should write a novel, I switched to writing The Sympathizer for a couple of years. When I was done with that, I came back and I finished The Refugees in the 17th year after I started writing it.

Josh Koehn: Seventeen years, that’s incredible. I recently finished my first novel, it took me about 12 years to finish, and I told my wife, I was like, “I don’t think I want to do that again for a very long time.” What kind of toil and feelings went into starting this project and having it going so long?

Viet Nguyen: Hopefully it doesn’t happen to us more than once, those of us who are writers that we have a 10 or 12 or 17 year project. I think, maybe we have to go through that experience in order to become writers. For me, when I embarked on writing the stories that eventually became The Refugees, I went into them with a lot of hope and optimism. This naive and idealistic belief that I could finish this book in a matter of a few years, and it didn’t turn out that way.

Viet Nguyen: It was, like I said, a project that taught me how to write, it took me very long time, as I worked with the demands of the short story form, and also grew as a human being. Then, of course, if I knew all that in advance, I probably wouldn’t have started the book. When you’re in your 20s thinking about a 17-year timeframe is nearly impossible. In retrospect, going through all of that effort and pain was necessary to become the writer that would be able to do The Sympathizer and so for that, I’m thankful.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. Actually you had a an essay I want to say in the LA Times about kind of the meaning of what feels to be useless and the kind of troubles and complications of writing and how at times, it feels like it’s not coming to you, and how those moments are what formed the character of a writer and actually are invaluable to the process.

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. I think that if our life as writers was all about validation and success and material rewards and everything, many of us would be terrible human beings. I think that suffering for the art, suffering for the craft as unpleasant as it may be, is absolutely necessary to become a writer. It’s through struggle with the form that you learn how to do it.

Viet Nguyen: It’s also good for the writer’s character to go through that kind of an experience as well, to know that writing is something that is hard won rather than easily won. Hopefully, that provides us with a sense of humility, so that when the rewards hopefully do come in, we’re able to take them with gratitude and to place them in context.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. It’s like, if you did anything else for 17 years, you could do just like these huge ambitious projects that would probably make you tons of money. It’s like the idea of being sitting at a desk for those years and all the hours that stack up, I think, you’re definitely not doing it for the money because if you put that time towards something else, you could have a minimum wage job and you’d have just hundreds and thousands of dollars at that point.

Viet Nguyen: No, I don’t. I certainly thought about it. Given my day job as a professor and my other work as a writer, I could have become a stockbroker and done the same amount of work and like you said, made a whole lot more money. Of course, it would have been totally miserable doing it. It certainly is not about the money. I don’t really know what drives any of us to become writers, because those of us who do it for the money and the fame and whatever else, we think we’re going to get out of it are doing it for the wrong reasons, and they probably won’t sustain someone for 17 years.

Viet Nguyen: I think I did it out of a certain kind of innate emotional need to tell stories, to address ghosts from my past, to address issues that I wanted to deal with, to grapple with the way by which I felt that the Vietnamese in American society but in Vietnam, were not being adequately dealt with. There was a real sense of mission, I think, that was driving me as well.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. That’s one thing I’d love to talk to you about is you came over to the US at age three, is that right?

Viet Nguyen: Four.

Josh Koehn: Four, okay. You came to San Jose and it’s just, I’m sure this completely new world. I grew up in the Midwest, and I came out to California in my early teens. I thought California was like this whole different country from Missouri. I was just blown away by that. Coming from Vietnam, what was that experience like for you?

Viet Nguyen: First, I came to Fort Indiantown Gap and then Harrisburg in Pennsylvania for three years. It was certainly literally was a new country with snow and lots of white people and different kinds of customs and all of that. That was, I think, at four years old. Not that much of an adjustment. I think you’re pretty flexible at a young age. I think the huge shock for me was not coming to a new country, it was being taken away from my parents when I was four years old coming to this country and being sent to live with a white sponsored family.

Viet Nguyen: That was painful and traumatic. After being reunited with my parents, I was okay. Then, we moved to San Jose, when I was seven, so that my parents could open this like Gant Vietnamese grocery store in the city. That was, in some ways, a better and a worst experience, because certainly, being in California, I grew up, especially in San Jose, I grew up with this sense that diversity was a fact of life. I could take that for granted, but at the same time, the cost of that was that my parents had to undergo very difficult working lifestyle as refugee shopkeepers who work 12 to 14 hours a day in Downtown San Jose.

Viet Nguyen: I grew up absorbing that and watching those difficulties, and those pains. In that sense, that was a shock. If that was in another country, that wouldn’t have been our lives in Vietnam.

Josh Koehn: What were your parents doing in Vietnam before coming over?

Viet Nguyen: When they were born, and they were born into poor rural peasant families and then over the course of four decades, they worked their way up just through their own talent and entrepreneurship to become basically upper middle class business people by 1975 and the end of the war. They did various kinds of trades and things like that, but by the time the war ended, they were running an auto parts store and a jewelry store at the same time.

Josh Koehn: Okay. That was actually your story in your new short story collection, The War Years, talking about growing up in San Jose and watching your parents just work their tails off to create this market, which was I believe, right across the street from where City Hall is now, is that correct?

Viet Nguyen: That is correct. It was called the New Saigon Market on Santa Clara Street. I would go there sometimes after school to work. My parents mostly tried to shield me from that store because it was very difficult living to make as you might imagine, and they were focused, when it came to my brother and me, on us becoming successful students and not having to live that kind of shopkeeper lifestyle. I did see enough of it, to know that it was a really challenging thing for my parents.

Viet Nguyen: Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, Downtown San Jose around Santa Clara Street from Seventh Street to First Street was not the nicest place to live or to work. A lot of the Vietnamese refugees went to Downtown San Jose to open up businesses because they could. Now, of course, when you go to Downtown San Jose, it looks completely different. My parents were part of a generation of people that had gone to Downtown when it was a much more depressed place in order to make a living and survive.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, very hardscrabble. I hear stories about the kind of the skid row of Santa Clara Street back in the ’80s and people had to work their tails off to make a living and stay afloat. There’s a quote in The War Years, the short story about growing up in San Jose and I’m sure not all of it is verbatim or exactly what your life was like but, the quote from the mother that says, “Are you going to be the kind of person who always pays the asking price or the kind of person who fights to find out what’s something really worth?”

Josh Koehn: That one really stuck to me because that’s very much about fighting to get what’s yours and to get what’s right and to not get ripped off. It actually, was played out by the mother who kind of learns the cost of getting money to support relatives back.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. My mother never literally said that to me, but that was a lesson I learned from watching my parents. They were people who would not take no for an answer. You have to imagine that they came to the United States, they had some capital with them. They lost most of what they own but they had something that they brought with them as refugees to start a new life. They were not fluent in English. I think my mother certainly wasn’t, my dad had just enough English to get by.

Viet Nguyen: They did amazing things. If you threw me into a foreign country without a fluent grasp of the language, could I start my own business? Could I even figure out what the networks were to get my materials? Could I figure out how to buy property? My parents did all that. It was crazy.

Viet Nguyen: They raised two sons who are very successful academically but we fall into the category, I’m pretty sure, of people who take the asking price. My parents were always no, we got to fight and struggle for every penny, every dime and get the best deal that we possibly can. That kind of innate ability is what made them natural entrepreneurs. That was a skill that was really fortunate for them to have to, because it enabled them to survive in this country. Whereas many people from Vietnam who were of a much higher class, they’re better educated, for example, and better connected, didn’t have those skills.

Viet Nguyen: They were soldiers or politicians or what have you, and once they were in America, they were lost.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. Now, like you said, your brother and you have gone on to just do incredible things and become very intelligent men who are acclaimed. I think your brother is a doctor, is that right?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. He came to the United States when he was 10. He didn’t speak in English. By the time he graduated from San Jose High, which is one of the worst schools in San Jose, from what I remember, he was on his way to Harvard as a valedictorian of San Jose High, and then Stanford Medical School, and now he’s at UCSF Medical School as a professor. He co-chaired the White House Committee on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. I’m very proud of my brother.

Viet Nguyen: We chose very different path from our parents. Again, that was because our parents wanted us to. I think, we were both deeply aware that we were refugees who owed a tremendous amount to our parents and had to make good.

Josh Koehn: That must have driven you harder because I saw another quote that you gave the LA Times, which you said, your dad called you shaking with happiness when he found out that you had won the Pulitzer. You said, so I finally made my dad happy, and all it took was winning the Pulitzer Prize for my first novel.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I’ll tell you one of the incidents in War Years is true involving my dad. The dad in War Years is not my dad, I made this this figure up. There’s a moment where the dad gives the son an itemized list of all the expenses that were involved in raising this little boy who’s unappreciative of his parent’s sacrifices. My dad actually did that to me. He keeps track of every dime. I think that I was able to pay him back on his investment with winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. That was right next to my notes. I really liked that part of the father explaining how much money his son owes him, when asking for an allowance. That was a brilliant thing, and I could just … It’s one of those times where, and this is what I love about great writing is that when you’re reading it, and you can just stop and see that person and you can even apply your own life experience to it. I could see my own dad just giving me that exact same lecture.

Viet Nguyen: Not so amusing when it actually happens to you, but it’s nice in retrospect.

Josh Koehn: Let’s talk, if we can, about The Sympathizer because, again fantastic work. For those who haven’t read it, it’s about a young man who basically is in the South Vietnam Army, but is actually a spy for the North Vietnam Army.

Josh Koehn: Then, through the fall of Saigon ends up with a group of people that are kind of saved through this general’s connections to come to Southern California. He already in his youth, this main character who’s unnamed, had actually studied in the US and is, I guess, a scholar of literature is probably an okay way to say it? Basically, he’s constantly having to figure out which side he’s on because he feels sympathy for all sides because there’s just so … It’s so complicated an issue.

Josh Koehn: When I come into contact with the kind of inner workings of Vietnamese politics in San Jose, there’s so many hot button issues. The main one being if you kind of go to … if you’re too sympathetic to people who were communists or from North Vietnam during that conflict, you’ll be called a communist. I was curious how you were able to kind of navigate that and how you could express those sympathies for all sides?

Viet Nguyen: I think that for whatever reason, I turned out to be a person who doesn’t like orthodoxy. I was raised as a Catholic, but I’m basically an atheist. I was raised in an anticommunist Vietnamese community. I wouldn’t say I’m a communist, but I’m certainly much more sympathetic to seeing the world through left wing perspective. I’ve read a lot of Marxism.

Viet Nguyen: I was raised as an American but a very critical of America’s imperial tendencies. For whatever reason, these perspectives exist in me, so actually, it was not difficult to write The Sympathizer. I didn’t have to work against myself in order to create this character. If anything, the character at an emotional level, if not at an autobiographical level is an expression of me. Because I do see the world from multiple points of view, most issues from multiple points of view.

Viet Nguyen: I think the major challenge obviously was knowing and is knowing that this viewpoint that my character expresses and that I endorse is one that is not popular in any of the communities that I talk about. About Catholics or Vietnamese Americans or Americans in general, most communities, like one perspective on the world that endorses what it is that they see, and are not happy when that perspective is challenged.

Viet Nguyen: I knew that my novel would challenge many deeply held perspectives. When it comes to the Vietnamese Americans, their anti-communism is pretty deep. I anticipated that there would be a lot of people unhappy with me. That seemed to be the case until the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, in which case everybody sort of … all the Vietnamese are now very, very proud of me.

Viet Nguyen: Outside of that context, if I do things like write op-eds, or give interviews where I express any sentiment that may be the communist weren’t all bad, and maybe the southern Vietnamese or Vietnamese refugees weren’t all good, people go crazy. That deeply held anti-communism is still there. It’s likely to blow up at very small provocations. As you have gestured out in the San Jose community, sometimes the nature of these provocations is completely opaque to people who are not Vietnamese or not involved in community politics like I am.

Viet Nguyen: I am not involved in community politics, and so I stay away as much as I can because it’s such a minefield in the Vietnamese community.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. In San Jose, we had a story just recently, Vietnamese Councilman Lan Diep, he got in trouble with a Black April event for calling the Vietnam War pointless. I immediately thought of your book, because the central character is always balancing perspectives, north, south, those in Vietnam refugees here. Here’s a councilman who’s born in the US and gave a relatively benign assessment for many Americans who think first in the perspective of American soldiers who were killed. He’s labeled as insensitive and idiot and a communist.

Josh Koehn: People had to be restrained from charging the podium when he said that. He immediately apologized, but it’s like, to the average white person in San Jose, they have no idea what’s going on.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. Of course, I would agree, it was pretty much a pointless war. You can get into much more complex argument about that. At the same time, there’s a valid point to be made there. I was interviewed by the Vietnamese Voice of America Broadcast about April 30, and against my better judgment, I agreed to do it.

Viet Nguyen: One of the things that I said in that interview was, “The only way we’re going to be able to reconcile around this war is for everyone to acknowledge that we weren’t only the victims, whoever we were that sometimes we were responsible for doing bad things too, our side.” That assesses from me drew a lot of negative response on the Facebook page of the Vietnamese Voice of America with people basically saying, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. You were born after the war. We never did anything wrong. It’s always been the communist” and so on.

Viet Nguyen: I think the reason why that’s such a deeply held sentiment in the Vietnamese American community is because they lost the war, and they lost the country. Americans lost the war too, but they didn’t lose a country. As bitter as some American feelings may be about the war, it’s not as bad as what happened to the southern Vietnamese. I totally understand that the southern Vietnamese lost everything. This is why for them, the memory of the war and what it represents is so much more sacred than it is for Americans.

Viet Nguyen: That doesn’t mean I agree with their sentiments, but I understand how deeply held those emotions are. That makes any possibility of an open discussion or a discussion with conflicting viewpoints in the Vietnamese American community really hard to do.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. Those are great points. When we talk about what you can and can’t say and how things can get blown up out of proportion, maybe I mean, then we’re … it’s almost the coming a tool propaganda and I wanted to talk to you about propaganda especially because you have a character in The Sympathizer who very much calls to mind Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now. I’ve read interviews where you have some pretty firm opinions about Apocalypse Now and the way it depicts people from Vietnam and the way that the wars are kind of only been told through the eyes of American perspectives in many ways.

Josh Koehn: I’m curious, for people who don’t know, what are your thoughts on Apocalypse Now and the way that that kind of shaped your opinions on art, film and politics.

Viet Nguyen: I saw Apocalypse Now in San Jose on the VCR in 1980 or ’81 when I was 10 or 11 years old. It was a movie that was completely shocking to me because I enjoyed war movies. I was an American boy at that point. Identified with American soldiers. In Apocalypse Now, I identify with American soldiers up until the point where they started killing Vietnamese people in very shocking ways.

Viet Nguyen: Watching that scene as a little boy really scarred me emotionally for a long time because I felt divided in two. Was I American or was I Vietnamese? Was I the killer or was I the one being killed? I recognize that Apocalypse Now is, in many ways, a great movie, a great work of art, but it’s also a great work of art that is premised, that is based on silencing and erasing Vietnamese people.

Viet Nguyen: It’s also an anti-war movie and yet at the same time the anti-war aspect of the movie exists with this racism at the heart of it as well. It’s a critique of racism because it depicts this heart of darkness world that the Americans are engaged in. It’s also racist at the same time by continuing to eliminate the views and the voices of Vietnamese people who serve only as victims. I felt that this is completely representative of how Americans view the war, and completely representative of how Hollywood views the entire world.

Viet Nguyen: That’s why in the novel, I characterize Hollywood as the unofficial ministry of propaganda for the United States, for the military industrial complex. We don’t need an official ministry like a totalitarian society does, because the people who run Hollywood pretty much share the same ideology as the people who run the military industrial complex. They don’t have to be coerced into making these kinds of movies.

Viet Nguyen: The most dangerous aspect of these kinds of movies that Hollywood produces, but really the entire American cultural industry endorses, is that it seems to be on the surface of a benign liberal view of the world where Americans are able to criticize themselves. What these stories actually do is simply to return the American viewpoint continually to center stage and to marginalize or completely silence everybody else’s views. This is racist, it’s ethnocentric and it’s also the reason why it’s really dangerous is that it’s a complete mirror of how it is that Americans got involved in Vietnam in the first place.

Viet Nguyen: Good intentions that were framed completely by ethnocentrism and racism. It’s really important to take on that kind of ideology, that kind of storytelling and try to basically show it for what it is, which is what I wanted to do in parts of The Sympathizer.

Josh Koehn: As a scholar then, you’re looking at propaganda in the kind of military industrial complex, so you’re saying. Also, I’m curious, as a scholar, how do you view propaganda in this now, this time of alternative facts and the political climate that we’re in right this moment, because it’s insane. Every day is something new and something that would be totally horrifying in previous administrations, you would think.

Josh Koehn: How do you see the way that propaganda is being used right now out of the White House in greater American politics?

Viet Nguyen: I think there are degrees of propaganda, from hard to the soft. Hollywood is definitely soft propaganda, but it’s definitely propaganda for the American dream and the American viewpoint. In that sense, we have a lot of propaganda in this country, which works not so much by forcing us to believe something, but by number one persuading us to believe something. Number two, by preventing us from seeing other things.

Viet Nguyen: A tremendous amount of American media is geared towards this softer degree of propaganda by giving us stories that are only about Americans or what happens within American borders. That’s propaganda because it discourages us from seeing how deeply involved the United States is throughout the rest of the world. It insulates Americans from recognizing the degree to which the importance of American power globally makes possible their American dream.

Viet Nguyen: That being said, the harder edge of propaganda is what we see in totalitarian societies that really only gives us one point of view. Certainly, in the United States, we do have other options that help us to recognize even our own propaganda for what it is. What’s happening in the White House and in right wing media, I think is, if not completely totalitarian propaganda, is certainly a harder form of propaganda because it really only argues one viewpoint, liberal media, if that’s what you want to call it, even if it might be characterized in that fashion, even if it sways towards a more liberal point of view.

Viet Nguyen: This feels obligated to give us the viewpoints of the right. At least, they will tell us what Fox News is saying or tell us what right wing media is saying. From the opposite perspective, from the right-wing media perspective or from the Trump White House, the response now is fake news. Whenever something arises that they don’t disagree with, that they don’t agree with.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, the fake news thing. It’s, I mean, we do a lot of politics and investigative reporting at Metro and that’s kind of been an emphasis of mine. People have actually accused us of being fake news. It’s trickling down in this way where, basically, we’re losing faith in even the most local of institutions and reporting. It’s very strange the way that this tone out of Trump and his minions, the way it now has kind of infected the political discourse in a way that it’s almost like no one is willing to trust anything anymore because of just the repetitive nature of the tweets and the Fox News and those kinds of things.

Viet Nguyen: It’s an incredible act of propaganda to come up with a term or mean like fake news because it’s been so persuasive for such a significant portion of the American population. It cuts across all kinds of lines. It’s not just white people of a certain background who say fake news, but even Vietnamese people will say fake news. It drives me crazy because it’s simply a way of putting your fingers in your ears and refusing to listen to any other viewpoint besides your own. That’s deeply, deeply disturbing.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. If you see these videos, like somebody freaks out at a Starbucks because they’re not getting the service they want and then they’ll use that as a reason to basically go on some kind of racist rant against the poor cashiers. They’ll actually say the word Trump and they’ll shout it like it’s an expletive, which I think it actually says something about the guy and what he’s inspiring.

Viet Nguyen: President Obama, whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, set himself up as a role model on race relations on dialogue, for example. Trump’s role modeling is obviously, from my perspective, at least, one about the refusal to have a dialogue or to collaborate and the refusal to entertain the possibility of any other perspectives besides his own. That obviously then inspires other people to use his name as an epithet or as a rallying cry.

Josh Koehn: I wanted to talk to you about the kind of recognition that goes with Pulitzer because a lot of people don’t know what a Pulitzer is. They just know that it’s a level of greatness has been achieved. I thought you’ve really handled it quite well, in the sense that you even mentioned that a lot of people didn’t know your book before you won the Pulitzer. There was a lot of other great works that could have been deserving but you didn’t get it and deservedly so.

Josh Koehn: The fine line between recognition as a writer and not receiving it, I’m curious how that plays out in your quieter moments when you’re like, “Wow, this has changed my life dramatically.” The thin line is, it could have been razor close when somebody else gets that award.

Viet Nguyen: I think about that, not often, but it’s certainly crossed my mind many times. I think that I feel very fortunate to have gotten the Pulitzer. I think that the novel, The Sympathizer, is at least qualified to Pulitzers. I don’t feel as if I’m a fraud or a fake or anything like that. I think that what that means is, I also know that there are many other really good novels as well. I have no pretensions or illusions that in that year of 2015, when the novel was published, have no illusions that The Sympathizer absolutely was the greatest best novel ever. There were other novels that were just as good let’s say or at least by different people’s standards.

Viet Nguyen: That goes to the issue that I mentioned earlier that after 17 years of struggle in learning how to write and everything, then getting the Pulitzer, I certainly feel validation for all that struggle. I also feel that I got lucky. I earned the luck. The fact that other people have earned that luck and could have won the prize, and lends me the sense of humility in this feeling that I have to use that good luck for not just my own career and my own work, but also for advancing some of the ideas that I’ve always thought about as a scholar and as a writer.

Viet Nguyen: The Pulitzer gives me a platform because more people are interested in what I have to say simply because of having won a Pulitzer. That’s how I used the prize beyond myself, is to use that opportunity to write op eds, and essays and so on, talking about politics and writing, race and refugees and all of that. Because the mission for me as a writer, even before the Pulitzer, was always about trying to use writing to illuminate the world in a different way, certainly with The Sympathizer now, because of the Pulitzer with other works of vision and fiction, but also in my nonfiction and newspaper writing as well.

Josh Koehn: What’s your writing schedule like? Because I think a lot of people assume that a writer sits down and it just comes to him and it’s like, “Oh, there it is. Genius,” and yet again. I imagine that there is a very relatively strict regimen that you might have?

Viet Nguyen: In the 17 years of writing that I talked about, I think I only had about four or five ideal years. The unideal years involved having a day job as a professor teaching. Then, I would just find time to write whenever I was free, which would be like during the weekends, during the summers, occasional good nights during the semester or good mornings. That was really piecemeal.

Viet Nguyen: It was simply through grabbing a couple hours when I had it and just do it over and over and over again, that constituted the writing schedule, hammering away at things until I had the ideal years, the four or five years where I had fellowships, time off from teaching, where I could devote myself to teaching full time. It wasn’t that I waited for those four or five years, I was working so that when I got those years, I was ready to take advantage of them.

Viet Nguyen: Writing The Sympathizer took place under the most ideal conditions two years where I had no other obligations. Then, I would write four hours a day. I had learned through much experimentation that four hours was the right time limit for me. Sometimes, I try to write eight hours a day and it doesn’t work that way for me. You can do some kind of mindless job for eight hours a day, but writing is really exhausting. By the end of eight hours a day, I would just feel terrible about myself and what I’d written. Four hours was good, ended on a high note.

Viet Nguyen: Then, I go to the gym and run for an hour. That would also be an incredibly important part of the writing process, because I did a lot of thinking about the next day’s writing when I was running.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good time to do it because there’s nothing else going on except thinking about how tired you are.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I have another couple, a year and a half coming up that that will be those ideal circumstances again. I will try to do that. The past year since the Pulitzer has been not ideal, because I’ve been teaching and because of the enormous impact of the Pulitzer in my life. I’ve had very little time to write fiction. In order to write fiction, I at least need some mental space and being that I had very little of that, that’s why I’ve written a lot of like op eds and short pieces, things that involve writing but don’t involve a lot of concentration, which is why I’ve given this illusion of being productive in the past year. It’s not been productive in terms of writing fiction.

Josh Koehn: I think if I remember seeing right, you’d sent out to like 13 publishers and on the 13th you got your first bite?

Viet Nguyen: Fourteen publishers. On the 14th, I got the first bite, 13 rejected me.

Josh Koehn: Oh, man, I can’t even imagine the looks going on in that room after the Pulitzer announced.

Viet Nguyen: I would pay money to see those looks if I possibly could.

Josh Koehn: One thing in the book that I saw you got excerpted online and I noticed it, because I think you had sent out a tweet about it. It’s the squid scene. For those who haven’t read the book, the main character recalls a time as a young boy. The first time he basically masturbates, he uses a dead squid. You said a lot of readers had a problem getting past this point early in the book. I’m curious.

Viet Nguyen: I read every single review that’s been written about this book on amazon. com and Goodreads that’s why I came up with a figure of about 1% of readers who based on these reviews, who just freaked out when they came across this squid masturbation deflowering scene. I had an enormous fun writing it. I didn’t plan on writing it. It was not in the outline for the novel. It just came to me one day as I was cleaning squid. I thought, “Wow, this is a familiar experience.” The reactions I thought had were interesting to me because I thought, “I’m glad I shocked these 1% of readers based on what they wrote.”

Viet Nguyen: They just seem so uptight and almost all of them were women. That’s also another issue as well, that I’m sure gender comes into play. A lot of women readers have enjoyed that scene too. It was really more, it seemed like more a matter of how uptight these readers were, how easily shocked they were. None of these readers who got to that point, I don’t think any of them said, “I was offended by the violence and the murder and death of children,” that all occurred before that scene, but it was like, “Oh, squid. Masturbating with a squid. Can’t handle it.”

Viet Nguyen: The whole point of the squid scene, if you read to the end, there is one final line that says, “I would much rather live in a world where the word murder made us mumble as much as the word masturbation.” That was the point. I was like, this is not obscene, it’s not obscene. The fact that we thought of a war where millions of people were killed, that’s obscene. None of those offended readers commented that.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. I guess somebody has to get upset about something all the time. In an age when we say that we can’t be shocked anymore, at least it’s good to know that’s not true.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I’m proud of myself for doing that.

Josh Koehn: You mentioned that line, the last line of the novel and spoiler alert, but the last line is, “We will live.” I was wondering if there’s a way if you can kind of just encapsulate what that means to you and how you came to that last line?

Viet Nguyen: There was, at one moment, in my past, I had submitted a short story to this big magazine and the editor’s response was, “Good story but where’s the hope?” It was a story that was very bleak, I guess. I thought, “Why do we need hope? What’s the point of that?” I had that in mind as I wrapped up the novel because by the end of the novel, a lot of things happen to our narrator and by the end, some very bleak things have happened to our narrator.

Viet Nguyen: It wasn’t that I wanted to simply be sentimental at the end. I felt that this desire for hope had some validity and not, again, not to give false hope. It has some validity for my narrator, in a sense that after everything he’d been through, which really destroys him completely, if he would be able to get up and do what he has to do to survive, he has to have hope. It’s a hope that is extremely fragile. That last line, we will live, is hopeful but if you’ve read everything that’s happened up until that point, and if you understand what has happened to him as a character, there’s the possibility that it’s also false hope as well.

Viet Nguyen: We don’t know for sure because we live completely in his mind. He is telling himself this idea that we will live because he needs to, in order to get himself up on his feet to do what he has to do, to make his final journey in that book. That’s what the ending is supposed to signify. It is hopeful, but it’s potentially false hope as well.

Josh Koehn: There’s so much in there to unpack. Did I see that you were saying there might even be another book or a kind of a sequel, I guess?

Viet Nguyen: He does live at the end of the book. I thought when I was originally writing the novel, I didn’t think of it as having a sequel. When I reached the end, I thought, maybe there is a sequel here because number one, he lives but number two, the arc of the novel is about his confrontation with power and ideology and his own beliefs and his total disillusionment.

Viet Nguyen: By the end, I was wondering, what happens to someone after all that. What happens after disillusionment? That’s what the sequel takes up in the continuing ventures of our narrator, his engagement with the historical issues that remain unfinished by the end of The Sympathizer. Then also, his grappling with himself and his lost delusions and how he tries to rebuild himself.

Josh Koehn: I know that there’s a lot of people in San Jose who are really proud of the fact that a Pulitzer winner spent his formative years in San Jose. I don’t know. How are your thoughts about San Jose? Do you come back often at all?

Viet Nguyen: I think for a couple of decades after I left San Jose, it was very painful to come back. I just had a lot of negative, I had a lot of negative feelings about San Jose, I felt very trapped growing up there as a as a child and part of that was San Jose. I think San Jose is a certain kind of a city that was not my kind of a city. A lot of it also had to do with just my own tortured adolescence and the particular fact of growing up as a refugee and watching my parents undergo what they went.

Viet Nguyen: I just couldn’t wait to leave San Jose. On the return to San Jose, there would always be this negative association with the city. I think that in the last decade or so, I’ve come around. It doesn’t cause me pain to return to San Jose anymore. I don’t want to live in San Jose, but it’s okay to return. I think, that San Jose hasn’t really changed that much for me. I’ve changed though.

Viet Nguyen: San Jose, it’s a wealthier city, wealthier city there’s … It’s still a city of suburbs and of a particular kind of lifestyle that aren’t mine. I’ve made my peace with San Jose. I think, it’s partially because San Jose has tried to make peace with me. The city hall that’s built across the street from my parents’ store, the city hall that forced my parents to sell their property, that made me very bitter.

Josh Koehn: I was going to say, didn’t you speak at the council meeting and kind of ripped them a new one?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I don’t think I did that harsher, but you should not invite me as a writer anywhere and not expect to write or to speak his conscience. City hall invited me back to give me a commendation. Of course, I had to point out that city hall is built across the street from what was once my parents’ store. This is a kind of history that we need to acknowledge. My high school, Bellarmine, also invited me back to put me into its Hall of Fame.

Viet Nguyen: These gestures on the part of San Jose have been important to me in terms of making me feel like I have reconciled with the city. While I may never want to live here, I’m okay with visiting.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. That’s all right. All the same, you’re always welcome in Metro’s office and if you need to get away from City Hall.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Koehn: Viet, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Viet Nguyen: My pleasure.

Josh Koehn: All right. I’m glad that I did not oversell that. See, the guy really is as smart as he says.

Nick Veronin: Very cool. Very cool that we got that interview.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, I think it’s pretty neat to be very Midwest, to be Annie Hall-ish. I think it’s pretty neat that Viet Thanh took that time out to speak with us. Actually, it’s kind of a funny story because we were all over the place trying to get that interview.

Nick Veronin: Yeah, yeah, I remember.

Josh Koehn: I spent hours going back and forth with them. I was like, “All right, I’m going to meet you here.” We tried to meet at Stanford because he was doing events and it didn’t work out because we got our days mixed. Then, the next day was like, “Okay, I’m going to meet you at the San Jose airport. I’m going to block you off right before you get to security clearance. I’m going to have a photographer there and we’re going to do all this stuff. We’ll have just people looking at us. We’d do a photoshoot in front of the Southwest booth.” That didn’t work out because meetings got jammed up.

Josh Koehn: He still helped reschedule, reschedule and we got the phone call in. Thank you again to Viet Thanh Nguyen. The guy is nice as he is brilliant.

Nick Veronin: All by himself. He wasn’t going through a publicist.

Josh Koehn: No. No, that’s just it.

Nick Veronin: That’s great. That’s great when you can actually talk to the person you’re going to interview, and they’re cool enough. They trust that you’re not going to totally fanboy out. Start texting them photos of yourself.

Josh Koehn: We didn’t get to the point where we were trading texts and emojis and dick pics or anything like that. We were just emailing. Okay?

Nick Veronin: What Josh means by dick pics is, I think, in the literary sense, he just sends Viet Thanh Nguyen unsolicited manuscript for his novel.

Josh Koehn: Yeah.

Nick Veronin: He’s like, “Isn’t this great?”

Josh Koehn: It’s a picture of my big fat face next to my book, being like, “Hi.”

Nick Veronin: Can you pass this on to somebody?

Josh Koehn: Yes. What’s your agents name again? No, I didn’t do that.

Nick Veronin: I think they’d really like.

Josh Koehn: We did actually mention that I wrote my own novel, but we don’t even need to talk about that out of catastrophe. Let’s talk about the head list and what is coming up in Silicon Valley this week. Nick, let’s start with the first event. It is FanimeCon and while you shouldn’t fanboy out on people that you want … That you admire and that you want them to respect you. I think it’s totally appropriate to be a fanboy or a fan girl.

Josh Koehn: At FanimeCon that’s what it’s all about. It is an anime convention here in San Jose, happens once a year at the Mcenery Convention Center.

Josh Koehn: Right. This year, it’s going to be Friday through Sunday, May 26th to 29th. It’s like everybody does cosplay which is where you dress up as your favorite character in some kind of fantasy style show or video game or board game. I guess even now, can you do board games or is that another thing?

Nick Veronin: I think so. Yeah, I think there’s going to be an area actually in the convention for people to play video games and board games.

Josh Koehn: Okay, cool. Cool. Board games are coming back big.

Nick Veronin: Yes, Settlers of Catan. I don’t know. That’s the only one that I know.

Josh Koehn: There’s bars that now just host board game. Just playing around not chess, not checkers, not Chinese checkers, which is what my grandma and I played.

Nick Veronin: I lost in chess to my roommate last night.

Josh Koehn: Really?

Nick Veronin: I’d had more drinks than him and he plays people online. I hadn’t played in months. I didn’t say that out loud but I’m saying it now, and in my mind, I was like, “I got you next time.”

Josh Koehn: Yeah. If you’re in great in chess, pretty much the only acceptable the way they’d call yourself a grandmaster. Otherwise, you’re edging on dangerous territory. You know what I actually was thinking when we mentioned FanimeCon was coming up is that my mom was a huge nerd. She still is.

Josh Koehn: When we were growing up, she would take me to Renaissance fairs. I thought that Renaissance fairs are the coolest. She also took me to kind of the sci fi conventions every now and then. You had like the Trekkies and you had the Klingons and you had these D&D folks who were dressing up. If I were them, I’d be pretty pissed off that like, now it’s like galvanized into this totally socially acceptable movement. Whereas, back then, they were constantly being made fun of. Now you can talk about cosplay and everybody’s like, “Oh, yeah. Cool, man. That’s great. How much time did you work on your costume?”

Nick Veronin: Is that uniformly the case across the country? I think here in San Jose, especially like in this neighborhood living downtown, right near the convention center. We are just completely, I don’t want to say desensitized because that make it sound like it’s bad, but we’re just used to it. We get Furries coming in. We get Comic-Con, that just happened. We’re getting now it’s FanimeCon.

Nick Veronin: People really pull out all the stops. The featured photo in this week’s arts lead, which is all about FanimeCon are newest intern use of Khasab is actually a regular attendee of FanimeCon. He was stoked to get the assignment. He told us all about all the cool shopping. He says, “You got to go to the swap meet. That’s where you’re really going to get the cool stuff.” He told us about the gaming, there’s going to be Super Smash Bros. There’s going to be board games, like I said, Settlers of Catan and card games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering.

Nick Veronin: He said there’s going to be rooms for watching the latest and greatest anime and then and then some of the classics.

Josh Koehn: All I’m thinking is, the difference from what it was 20, 30 years ago is that it went online with the advent of the internet. All these people got together in chat rooms and started like geeking out and having fun and exploring their interests and all that. Now, in the last 10 years or so, things are going offline, the internet of things, so to speak, in a totally bastardization of that term.

Josh Koehn: The idea being that you don’t have to just be stuck in a chat room being anonymous now. I was on a flight back from LA after seeing a band over by Coachella not Coachella but by Coachella and she was coming up to fly here just for Comic-Con. She was telling me now we covered that. I knew all the things that she was saying only because we had had just a big week’s issue on the event.

Josh Koehn: I don’t think she would have been as comfortable talking about these things 15, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. I think there would have been more closed mindedness of the general public.

Nick Veronin: Sure.

Josh Koehn: I mean, the fact that someone can go out in public now and proudly proclaim, “I’m a gamer, I spent 40 hours a week playing video games.” That wasn’t cool that long ago.

Nick Veronin: Right.

Josh Koehn: I mean, I play video games every now and then. I don’t go around bragging about it because I’m not any good. Usually, it’s not productive and I don’t talk to anyone.

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: I just really keep it low key. I think I’m going to stop talking about it now.

Nick Veronin: You should have.

Josh Koehn: The idea being that there is a sense of pride that now comes in doing it. Actually, I’m not to dog on them because either because these costumes are really intricate. They’re really well done. There’s a ton of money and time put into it.

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: I think it’s great. It’s just, I think, that we have evolved as a society where the fashion of everything is in now. You are allowed to totally be yourself at least especially here in California, like I said, we are in a bubble, can’t get away with that shit in Nebraska or Iowa and a lot of places.

Josh Koehn: I think its spreading and, before you know it, people will be as proud to be as nerdy and geeky as they want without even realizing what it was like in the ’80s.

Nick Veronin: Because the internet.

Josh Koehn: Because we have advanced as inclusionary society. I think I rolled the word into one, but …

Nick Veronin: I looked away because I thought you were making up a weird important mantel. I looked away because I was thinking of Johnny Mnemonic which came out, I don’t know many years before the Matrix, but it’s interesting that like why did Keanu Reeves become the Silicon cowboy? Why was he the guy? Did I just blow your mind, man?

Josh Koehn: I like Keanu Reeves. I think Keanu Reeves is actually, we’ve come a long way from Bill and Ted. My dad actually took me into Bill and Ted, that’s how old I am. He was like, “We’re going to see Bill and Ted in theaters.” I was like, “What’s Bill and Te?”

Nick Veronin: It’s an Excellent Adventure or was it a Bogus Journey at that point?

Josh Koehn: It was an Excellent Adventure. The Bogus Journey came second.

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: He also took me to see Wayne’s World. I also saw White Men Can’t Jump in film in the theater. I got the poster hanging up in my apartment right now. We grabbed it on the way out of the theater. He asked, it was the last night showing, he was like, “Can we have it?” The guy was like, “I’m not sure why you would want it but sure.”

Nick Veronin: You’ve kept it ever since.

Josh Koehn: I have. My wife got it framed actually.

Nick Veronin: That’s nice of her. Speaking of Wayne’s World, let’s jump ahead to another event that’s coming out next weekend. Not this coming weekend but the next weekend, June 2nd and 3rd and that is the Colossal Clusterfest and it’s a little bit out of our coverage area in San Francisco but Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson is that right? The girls from Broad City.

Josh Koehn: Broad City, I love that show.

Nick Veronin: They’re going to do a stage reading, a gender bent stage reading of Wayne’s World for the 25th anniversary of that iconic Saturday Night Live inspired film. They’re going to play Wayne and Garth respectively.

Josh Koehn: What?

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: What?

Nick Veronin: Who else is going to be? Tig Notaro was going to be part of the stage reading and so is Ron Funches.

Josh Koehn: Okay.

Nick Veronin: Many, many more.

Josh Koehn: I like it.

Nick Veronin: There’s a ton of funny people at this Clusterfest. It’s organized by Comedy Central, Jerry Seinfeld is one of the headliners.

Josh Koehn: Great.

Nick Veronin: What’s the deals with that?

Josh Koehn: What’s the deal?

Nick Veronin: Serenity Now, so many great moments. There’s also going to be music. Before I even get to the music, let’s just say also …

Josh Koehn: Bill Burr.

Nick Veronin: … Bill Burr, Kevin Hart, Sarah Silverman, Hannibal Buress. All these really, really …

Josh Koehn: Yeah, I don’t know if Bill Burr still has the title but just a couple of years ago, he was pretty much the funniest person in the world.

Nick Veronin: He was great. I went and I saw him at the Center for Performing Arts here in San Jose.

Josh Koehn: Yeah.

Nick Veronin: I showed up just a little bit late and realized that my friend and I were basically in the front row.

Josh Koehn: Shit, you don’t want …

Nick Veronin: Then, we weren’t really in the front row. We were like a few seats back. We took the wrong seats, we got there on time. We took the wrong seats then we had to move, and Bill Burr was already on stage and we had to move, and we are right there.

Josh Koehn: Did he lay into you?

Nick Veronin: No, it didn’t. I was freaked out. I was like we’re going to get rimmed right now.

Josh Koehn: You should, he should’ve rimmed you.

Nick Veronin: Yeah. We got away with it. Also, music at this Colossal Clusterfest, Vin Staples one of my favorite rappers, Les Claypool of Primus has his new sort of side project there. Who else? Who else? Ice Cube?

Josh Koehn: Ice Cube.

Nick Veronin: Ty Segall and then a combination of comedy and music and Lil Dicky.

Josh Koehn: I think that’s going to be a great show even though it’s outside of the coverage area, it’s worth checking out that’s the kind of star power that you rarely get all in one event.

Nick Veronin: Right.

Josh Koehn: Seinfeld, I mean say what you want. The show is just … it’s still amazing. I can watch the show and it’s still great mainly because when your show was about nothing, it is timeless.

Nick Veronin: Right.

Josh Koehn: You know what I mean? It’s like it’s about interactions with parents and weird friends and exes, and relationships and the rosies, I mean these are things that we can all get down with. I think you’d see like actually that Twitter account where like Seinfeld in like present day.

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: Who’s just freaking all the time.

Nick Veronin: I think there’s a few things that fall apart in the modern era because it’s easier to get a hold of one another now and a lot of the sign…

Josh Koehn: Yeah, just communications of just missing people by…

Nick Veronin: Yeah, because you didn’t have a phone.

Josh Koehn: Yeah.

Nick Veronin: I mean, there are episodes that are sort of base on that. People are waiting for people to call them back. There’s an episode in the Chinese restaurant where George keep trying to use the payphone.

Josh Koehn: Yes, but…

Nick Veronin: Or like when Susan dies because she keeps looking in the envelopes and like nowadays, you would just keep that little sponge thing.

Josh Koehn: Right, right.

Nick Veronin: Nobody likes an envelope anymore.

Josh Koehn: Are we certain that he didn’t actually try to kill her?

Nick Veronin: I don’t know. That might be a little unclear. Maybe that’s ambiguous on purpose.

Josh Koehn: I freaking love Larry David too. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Those shows are great. All right. That’s going to be cool, we also have Collie Buddz. Tell me about Collie Buddz.

Nick Veronin: Yeah, Collie Buddz. Collie Buddz, the way I was introduced to him was in 2007 when that song came out. Every time the herb come around, bom, bom, bom, bom. It’s like a dance hall. It’s a reggae tone song. He’s an American-born guy but like live in Bermuda for a lot of his life. He’s got some understanding of Caribbean culture and all that. He had a big hit with Come Around.

Josh Koehn: Okay, where he’s going to be?

Nick Veronin: He’s going to be at Los Gatos Bar & Grill and he’s got a new album coming out called Good Life.

Josh Koehn: That’s Thursday May 25th, right?

Nick Veronin: Yes. Last thing I leave you with this to think about.

Josh Koehn: I don’t know.

Nick Veronin: You should smoke weed before you think about this. We’re not advocating doing drugs, but you know what I’m saying.

Josh Koehn: It’s medicinal.

Nick Veronin: Collie is a slang term for weed.

Josh Koehn: Its weed buds.

Nick Veronin: Yeah. Its weed, weed.

Josh Koehn: Because buds is also reference to weed.

Nick Veronin: It’s Marijuana Marijuana. His first name is Marijuana and he’s last name is Marijuana.

Josh Koehn: My corner store guy that I used to live by, his name is Marwan and for the longest time I just thought it was Marijuana.

Nick Veronin: Nice.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. I was like, “Marijuana what’s up man. Man, look you have really stocked this place out without any buds.”

Nick Veronin: Do he have blunts?

Josh Koehn: They have blunt wraps but I don’t smoke blunts. I swear that off in college.

Nick Veronin: Yeah, after you have that encounter with Nickatina.

Josh Koehn: Oh, yeah. Andre Nickatina.

Nick Veronin: Refused to smoke your bong.

Josh Koehn: I’m not …

Nick Veronin: He’s like, you got a blunt?

Josh Koehn: Yeah. It’s like, no, I don’t have a blunt. Find your own blunt.

Nick Veronin: You’re a rap star.

Josh Koehn: Yeah, you’re a rap star. Why do you need some college kid to get you high? I made a lot of mistakes in college but that wasn’t one of them. We also have a couple other events. We have Super Soul Brothers who are going to be in town Friday and Saturday, where at Nick?

Nick Veronin: They’re going to play in a Café Stritch, right next door here to the studio, to the Metro Headquarters. That’s going to be a good show for anyone who enjoys sort of jazz funky tunes or who played video games growing up because … or both, because there a jazzy funky band that plays video game inspired music. You can hear the Mega Man theme at the beginning of one song and then it will transition into this big long jam sessions.

Josh Koehn: Mega Man, sweet. I hadn’t heard that in a long time.

Nick Veronin: They’re hoping to catch some of the Fanime crowd.

Josh Koehn: Okay, all right. I can dig it. I like the name, Super Soul Brother is cool.

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: I mean I’m always a fan of any music that repurposes those classic Nintendo games of the ’80s and ’90s.

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: Particularly the 80s though. The really like early stuff.

Nick Veronin: Super Mario One.

Josh Koehn: Super Mario One, a Metroid is like my thing. I love Mesometroid. I love Nes Double Dragon.

Nick Veronin: Double Dragon, Battleloads.

Josh Koehn: Contra.

Nick Veronin: Oh yeah, Contra.

Josh Koehn: I even add Ice Climber if you remember that. I believe that was the first game.

Nick Veronin: I did not. I only …

Josh Koehn: Donkey Kong.

Nick Veronin: … had those Ice Climber characters, I only played them in Super Smash Brothers.

Josh Koehn: Okay, and Super Smash.

Nick Veronin: That’s all I know.

Josh Koehn: Yeah. I used to play that in college. I was such a screw up.

Nick Veronin: People get really good at that game.

Josh Koehn: I got so good at it, that there were times …

Nick Veronin: You were one of those people.

Josh Koehn: … I couldn’t fall asleep because I was just thinking of like how good I was at the game.

Nick Veronin: Combinations.

Josh Koehn: Captain Falcon, I would just like dominate people. I just had the quickness. It was like cat-like reflexes.

Nick Veronin: Yeah.

Josh Koehn: I don’t want to brag, but I was the best.

Nick Veronin: All right, that’s enough for that I think.

Josh Koehn: Super Soul Brothers, they’ll be there Friday, and Saturday, May 26 and 27th. Yeah. Anyway, I think we’ve taken up enough of everyone’s time here.

Nick Veronin: Probably.

Josh Koehn: This is the SV411 podcast. You can find stories in Metro on You can find us of course on, the blog. We also have some great dine-in write ups on you should be checking out. If you want to know about local news and politics, checkout, some really interesting stories on there.

Nick Veronin: You want to go and play Super Smash Brothers?

Josh Koehn: I do not.

Nick Veronin: You think you still got it?

Josh Koehn: I think I need to just never play that game again and focus on the important things.

Nick Veronin: I’m just going to say that that means that I won the round of Super Smash Brothers by default.

Josh Koehn: All right. Captain Falcon, that’s my character.

Nick Veronin: I’m Luigi.

Josh Koehn: All right. This is Josh Koehn for Nick Veronin and this is the SV411 podcast. We out.


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