From refugee to Pulitzer-winning novelist

Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks with Christiane Amanpour about his story, politics, and his issue with John Kelly in this interview for CNN.

In this candid interview between CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winner reflects on his own experience as a young refugee in light of Jeff Sessions’ remarks regarding the separation of children from undocumented parents at the border. Viet also comments on the lack of visibility of U.S. action south of the border in comparison to the extensive media coverage that made the Vietnam War feel “intimate” for many Americans – a feeling that inspired a greater sense of obligation to help South Vietnamese refugees. In response to John Kelly’s comments on “rural” immigrants not being able to find success in America, Viet offers up his own mother’s story of strength and perseverance, stating, “Given the opportunity in the United States, these populations tend to succeed.”

In the end, he reminds us that instead of “Make America Great Again,” we should “Make America Love Again.”

Read full transcript below:

AMANPOUR: Tonight, migrants in the Trump age. The Pulitzer Prize winning author and Vietnam War refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen joins the program. Plus, allies in Europe try to fight off Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal that boosts the Revolutionary Guard’s. My exclusive interview with Kaveh Madani, a former top environmental official who’s a victim of the fierce struggle between those hardliners and Rouhani’s government. Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I’m Christiane Amanpour in London. The U.S. government says that it has lost track of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied, migrant children last year after placing them in sponsor  homes. This as the Trump administration implements even more policies that will likely led to even more children being separated from their parents. Amid this anti-immigrant sentiment that is sweeping the United States and the west, my next guest says that his family could have been the poster children for how refugees make America great. He is Viet Thanh Nguyen, a writer, professor and the winner of both of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark novel “The Sympathizer.” And, yes, he was a refugee from Vietnam. Viet Thanh Nguyen, welcome to the program.

NGUYEN Thank you so much for having me.

AMANPOUR: So you wrote, you know, an article, you’re talking about refuges and migrants and it’s caused a lot of, I don’t know, controversy, let’s say. What was it that sparked that from you? What moved you to get involved in this highly polarized debate?

NGUYEN: Well, I’ve always been interested in refugees and immigrants because I am a refugee. And, of course, right now in the United States we’re going through a moment of high anti-immigrant and anti-refugee feeling. So it was really recent actions on the part of the Trump administration, John Kelly calling undocumented immigrants uneducated and a harm to American society, and Jeff Sessions arguing for the removal of children from undocumented immigrants. And these are really crises in our society that I wanted to respond to.

AMANPOUR: And let me just, before I play this John Kelly soundbite to remind everybody exactly what you’re talking about, just remind us of your story. Obviously, it’s a long story. But you are a refugee, an immigrant. You came with your family from Vietnam, right? When was it? How difficult was it to assimilate back then?

NGUYEN: Well, it was 1975. I was four years old. My parents were in their 40s. And, of course, the Vietnam War ended and we were on the losing side, so we fled as refugees to the United States and ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania in 1975. And while it was a great gesture of hospitality on the part of the United States, what happened to us personally was that I was separated from my parents at four years of age in order to leave that refugee camp. And that’s a, you know, a very traumatic experience and it’s stayed with me for a very long time, as well as this understanding that refugees and immigrants are in need of hospitality and help. And, again, it seems like, at this time in the United States and in many other parts of the world, that that sense of hospitality has been fading.

AMANPOUR: So then I want to play the Jeff Sessions soundbite because this goes to the heart of the matter that’s a big story today as well, allegedly the U.S. government losing track of something like 1,500 kids who have come across the border from the south. But this is what he said earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

Sessions: It’s an offense to enter the country unlawfully. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you for smuggling. If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you probably as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault if somebody does that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Yows (ph). That is — that is the opposite of sympathy, right?

NGUYEN: The exact opposite. And I think that we can have a reasonable debate about borders and the legality of immigration and so on. But the idea that we’re going to take children away from their parents as a war of deterring immigration is inhumane and immoral. So it’s a moral question that I don’t think we should lose sight of. And I think too many people in this country have lost sight of that as they stick to this rhetoric of legality.

AMANPOUR: So, I want to ask you again, based on this issue and based on what happened to you, you know, in a way the U.S. did something in Vietnam. That’s why there was a need for people like you to flee and come to the United States. It was sort of a direct reaction to a U.S. intervention. So I wonder if you can comment on that? And then compare what the United States has done in Central America over the decades that might have prompted even generations since to be refugees.

NGUYEN: Well, of course the United States fought a very controversial war in Vietnam. And one of the strangest and weirdest parts of that was that it was recorded on TV and in many newspaper photographs. So that war felt very intimate to a lot of people, including many Americans. So when the war ended, I think a good number of Americans felt that there was an obligation to help south Vietnamese people for whom the United States had been fighting.Now, the situation with border — immigrants coming from south of the border is not any less complex, but it’s less visible to some of the Americans. And it comes from these issues where refugees and immigrants coming from south of the border are coming for economic and political reasons. And, in many cases, they’re fleeing from situations that the United States has had a hand in, in terms of the United States’ involvement south of the border. But these kinds of actions that the United States has been involved in have been relatively invisible to many Americans and so, therefore, I think many Americans don’t feel that they do have any obligation to these particular immigrants and so therefore it’s easier to behave towards them in an inhumane or a callused fashion.

AMANPOUR: So let’s just go back to these children. It is incredible what’s happening to them. The United States says it’s trying to place many of them with family members, if there are, or with people who are known to the children, if possible, or else they go into some sort of, you know, state control, so to speak. But all obligations end once these kids are put in so-called sponsored units somewhere. What happened to you? Just the emotion of being separated from your family, or being put in a sponsored family, who you say treated you very well, but, nonetheless it wasn’t your family.

NGUYEN: Well, now I’m the father of a four year old and I was four years old when I was separated from my parents, so I can see through him what had happened to me. And I certainly remember at four years old that this was a traumatic experience. When you’re four, you have no understanding that you’re being taken away from your parents possibly for your own good. All I felt was this tremendous loss and pain. And that has stayed with me through four decades. Now, I look at my son, and if I’m away from him for a day or two, I find that to be painful, he finds that to be painful. And so I can completely imagine that for these children who are being taken away from their parents, under situations of coercion, that the trauma is even greater, especially if they’re being taken away for many, many months. I was only gone for three months from my parents. And if they’re being taken away to sent with strangers who may not be particularly hospitable to them, which was, actually in my case, not what happened. I ended up with sponsors that were quite nice to me. But even that barely mitigated the situation of being taken away from my parents.

AMANPOUR: And you are a real success story. Obviously highly educated. You are right now a professor of English. You’re a Pulitzer Prize winning author for “The Sympathizer.” You’ve written many books. But I want to play for you what John Kelly, the chief of staff to the president, said about the quality of immigrants who are coming from — this time from south of the border, but perhaps he means in general. Let me just play this and we’ll talk on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

Kelly: Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They are overwhelmingly rural people. And the countries they come from, fourth, fifth, six grade educations are kind of the norm. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: So it’s — again, it’s pretty brutal. I mean he says that he sympathizes, but you’ve pointed out that he doesn’t empathize. He is essentially saying that, hey, they’re just — they’re not good enough for us.Your mother, she went through a hard time, right, learning English, learning to assimilate.

NGUYEN: Yes, absolutely. And it’s not as if we can simply change our immigrations so that we only admit Pulitzer Prize winners. There’s not enough of those around. And when I look at someone like my mother, she’s exactly the kind of person that John Kelly is describing. She was born poor, in a rural area and she had a — a sixth grade education. And, nevertheless, she was a heroic woman who transformed her life, both in Vietnam and in the United States. She was a refugee twice, once in — once in each country. And it was because of her hard work and survival and courage that she produced people like me and my older brother, who went to Harvard, and so on. And so we have to remember that in American history, we have had a pattern of this, which is that new immigrants, new refugees to this country have always been welcome — not welcome, but have always been greeted with suspicion by the majority of Americans. And after a generation or two, these populations actually do become Americans and do produce people, like myself and also people like John Kelly, whose grandparents were Italian and Irish working class laborers whose English was also suspect. But, of course, I think either he’s forgotten that or he thinks that Italian and Irish immigrants are somehow different from Vietnamese and Latino immigrants, but really they’re not.

AMANPOUR: Yes, you know, there is that. There’s either a collective amnesia or there is a collective sort of selection, natural selection, where they think perhaps, you know, white immigrants are better than other immigrants. But let’s face it, when the boat people, as you say, because you were all known as the boat people because of how you had to flee Vietnam.
When you came west, you were considered the good immigrants. I mean you did come here and work like the blazes and make huge successes of yourselves for your communities as well. But you take issue with that, right? You don’t think you were necessarily the good immigrants?

NGUYEN: Well, first of all, I take objection with the term “boat people,” which I find sort of dehumanizing. I think in my own work I call them oceanic refugees, for example. You have to remember that people who took to the oceans had about a 50 percent survival rate in crossing that ocean, which is much, much — much, much worse than what the astronauts have faced. Now, the other thing is that when the United States accepted Vietnamese refugees, you have to remember that only 36 percent of the American population wanted to take these refugees. The perception of us was that we were the so-called boat people, for example, and that we would bring all kinds of problems and contamination to this country. Now, 40 years later, because of the successes of many Vietnamese Americans, that whole past has been forgotten by many Americans and also by many of the Vietnamese Americans themselves, some of whom oppose accepting for — new immigrants and new refugees and so they’re repeating what John Kelly himself is — is doing.But I grew up in the Vietnamese refugee community of the 1970s and 1980s in California and I can testify that there were many of us who were actually pretty bad refugees doing things like welfare cheating and insurance scams and much, much worse. And we’ve overcome that, or many of us have. And the point is not that Vietnamese Americans are perfect or that undocumented immigrants are perfect, but given the opportunity in the United States, these populations tend to succeed.

AMANPOUR: So, in the end, you’re a storyteller and the story is very important, the narrative is very important. And you say that Donald Trump has succeeded in dominating the narrative and that people like yourself need to get better at countering the narrative and the storytelling.

NGUYEN: And we’re all storytellers. I really, truly believe that. And when Donald Trump says make America great again, he’s telling a story in four words that is very seductive and very powerful to many, many people and they repeat that story and they do so over the dinner table and over Thanksgiving and so on. And so it’s up to us to — it’s up to us who believe in a different kind of story about an inclusive American, about a welcoming America, about an America that is about all kinds of people, from working class white people to people of color. It’s important for us to give another kind of story, such as, make America love again, which is something that American has been capable of in the past and can be capable of today.

AMANPOUR: Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you so much for joining us on this Memorial Day.

NGUYEN: Thanks for having me, Christiane. It’s an honor.

Category: Interviews

 

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