Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

A Conversation with Author Viet Thanh Nguyen: Vietnamese Diaspora in the United States and France

Viet Thanh Nguyen shares his books and his projects including “The Displaced” that was recently published in the US. The book is the result of his collaboration with 17 fellow refugees writers across the globe. More particularly, Viet Thanh Nguyen will start a conversation with the Vietnamese diaspora in Paris on their reading experience. The event is organised by Café Sách Robooksta in collaboration with Officience.

About Café Sách – Robooksta

Café Sách Robooksta was established in early 2016 in Paris. We are an open group where people share and discuss about books and about their reading experience.
Until July 2018, Café Sách hosted 27 events, introduced 67 books and involved 20 speakers. The Sympathizer was presented in April 2017.
The group are mainly composed of native Vietnamese speakers, but events can be in both Vietnamese, French and English.
Viet at Officience in Paris with Vietnamese audience

Here is the transcript:

Nhat Cuong: Officience, this place is related to the community. We have five principles and among them: the development of Vietnam and the sharing of knowledge. Today, in cooperation with Officience, we are very excited, pleased, honored and delighted to receive Viet Thanh Nguyen, author Viet Thanh Nguyen, or just Viet, as we’re going to call him.

Nhat Cuong: The books are not only related to Vietnamese refugees, not only refugees, but to the Vietnamese diaspora in general. That’s why we are very happy today to have this event with an audience, with a group of Vietnamese people, and also with people who are interested in French Vietnamese. And those of Vietnamese descent who are interested in Vietnam.

Nhat Cuong: For this program we will have Viet, first, share with us about his book, his visions, and his upcoming projects. And then we’ll have a talk about our reading experience of his books. And then for the main part of the event, it will be an open conversation with Viet and the whole audience. Liem Binh will animate the conversation today. Of course, at the end, you can have your book autographed by Viet Thanh Nguyen Now, thank you very much, and now please welcome author Viet Thanh Nguyen …

Viet Thanh N.: I can’t help it. I’m Asian. I have to take pictures. I really am very excited to be here to talk to all of you. There are a lot of French people of Vietnamese descent here and other French people who are curious about, I think, the Vietnamese experience. I’m very curious about the experiences of the French of Vietnamese descent in this country; because, my first novel, The Sympathizer was mostly about the Vietnamese who came to the United States. But of course, my main character in The Sympathizer is half French.

Viet Thanh N.: There is a sequel to The Sympathizer. My protagonist, my narrator, comes here to Paris from 1981 to 1984. I have a lot of questions about France and that time period, and also about the experiences of the French of Vietnamese origin. In my time here in Paris I’ve been having many conversations with people in person like Nhat Cuong and Liem Binh. But also on Facebook and Twitter with my French friends of Vietnamese descent. I have to tell you, we have very different viewpoints on many different things, which is good.

Viet Thanh N.:What I want to do today is explain to you my story, my life history as a Vietnamese American, and how that shaped the books that I wrote. Perhaps I will give you a sense that maybe we share some things in common but maybe we are also very different. I’m very interested again, in trying to think about how the experiences of the Vietnamese who came to the United States may be similar or different to the Vietnamese who came to France.

Viet Thanh N.: In one of my books, I said that I was born in Vietnam but made in America. That’s true, I was born in Vietnam but I came to the United States when I was four years old. I grew up as a Vietnamese American. I became an American citizen, I speak fluent English, but part of me never forgot that I was Vietnamese.

Viet Thanh N.: For example, when I became a citizen, my parents changed their names to American names. They asked me if I wanted to change my name. Even though I grew up in the United States and I feel very comfortable as an American, I could not bring myself to change my name. I think even at that age I realized that there was something inside of me that was very Vietnamese and that if I ever became a writer, which I wanted to become at a very young age … if I ever became a writer, I would force Americans to say my name, my Vietnamese name. I would make my Vietnamese name a part of American literature.

Viet Thanh N.: I think that’s happened. I went to LE BHV recently for example and I was very happy to see my book Le Sympathisant under the category of Anglo-Saxon literature. That’s good. It’s a good thing. But for me also, I’m also a refugee. In the United States I think the situation is different than here in France. In the United States it’s a good thing to be an immigrant, because Americans believe that they are a country of immigrants. Maybe not so much today, but generally, it’s been true that Americans like to believe that they are a country of immigrants.

Viet Thanh N.: Americans, however, don’t really understand refugees. They don’t understand that there is a difference between refugees and immigrants. In the United States, even for those people who came as refugees, many of them don’t call themselves refugees. They call themselves immigrants because it’s easier for Americans to understand this. Because, immigrants who come to the United States affirm the American story of the American dream: that everybody wants to come to the United States and make their lives better.

Viet Thanh N.: Americans don’t know what to make with refugees, because refugees, I think were … for example, if we’re Vietnamese, we’re boat people. When you say the word “boat people,” many people, Americans, maybe also French; the images that come to mind are horrible images of suffering, of death, of terror. A lot of Vietnamese who are refugees don’t want to be associated with that.

Viet Thanh N.: In my case I have no problem. I claim being a refugee because that is what I am. I became a refugee because of the wars that happened in Vietnam, which include what the United States and the French did to the Vietnamese. So for me it’s very important to tell refugee stories, not because I want to prove that I’m an American, but because I want to make sure that Americans and Vietnamese people don’t forget this history of what happened in Vietnam.

Viet Thanh N.: Also, I can never stop calling myself a refugee because my memories begin with being a refugee. I came to the United States when I was four years old in 1975. My parents are very devout Catholics, very devout anticommunists. They were born in North Vietnam in a small core village about 30 minutes from where Ho Chi Minh was born. That area is famous for producing hardcore communists and hardcore Catholics. My parents were the Catholics, and so they, of course, fled to the South in 1954, and then they fled in 1975.

Viet Thanh N.: We ended up in a refugee camp in the United States. My first memories are being separated from my parents. Because in order to leave one of these refugee camps–there were 130 thousand Vietnamese refugees in four refugee camps in the United States–for any of us to leave these camps, we had to have an American sponsor us. One American family took my parents, one American family took my 10-year-old brother, and one American family took me at four years old.

Viet Thanh N.: My first memories are of being taken away from my parents howling and screaming. In order to survive as an American, I had to suppress that part of my experience, but part of me never forgot. To become a writer, what that meant for me was to confront the trauma of being a refugee. I don’t know what that means here in France, but in the United States I think many Vietnamese Americans, in order to survive have had to try to forget their refugee past, to forget the trauma of the war, tor forget what happened to them when they came as refugees to the United States.

Viet Thanh N.: But for me as a writer I can’t forget. I have to tell these stories, and I have to go to that part of my own history where it’s very painful for me to talk about. I grew up in the United States. I grew up in San Jose, California, which is the second largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam; the largest is in Orange County.

Viet Thanh N.: San Jose, in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up, had a large refugee community and this was a very angry Vietnamese refugee community. They felt that they had lost their country, they had lost their war, they had lost their identities. Of course, many of them were very accomplished people in Vietnam: they were generals and officers and politicians and so on. My parents were unique because they were business people. Almost everybody that we knew were associated with the South Vietnamese government were army. They were very angry with what had happened to them.

Viet Thanh N.: I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community where I was very Vietnamese. I went to Vietnamese church every weekend. I spoke Vietnamese at home. We ate Vietnamese food. We had Vietnamese Tet celebrations, and it was always anticommunist. We never forgot that we were against communism. We hated the communists, and every Vietnamese house that I visited would always have pictures in black-and-white of the people who had been left behind in Vietnam, either because they had been killed, or because they died trying to escape the country, or just because like my sister, they were left behind.

Viet Thanh N.: We left behind my adopted sister who was 16 years old. I grew up always knowing that there was a ghost in my family of a sister who never made it, and I grew up in a refugee community where there were always ghosts of the past. I wanted to tell these stories, even if I didn’t agree with them. Even at a young age I knew that my parents had failed. They wanted to raise someone who was a Catholic, and who was an anticommunist. I grew up an Atheist and as someone who’s actually sympathetic to Communism. I imagined that if I was in Vietnam, I too, would be opposed to the French, and I too, would be opposed to the Americans.

Viet Thanh N.: I was very different compared to many other Vietnamese Americans. But what was not different for me was that even if I did not agree with everything that my fellow Vietnamese Americans thought, I still thought it was important that we tell our stories. I grew up in the United States and the word Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s was very common. Americans would say “Vietnam” a lot. But when Americans say “Vietnam,” they mean the Vietnam War. When they say the “Vietnam War,” they mean the “American War,” and what the war meant for the Americans. Americans could not care nothing about what happened to Vietnamese people.

Viet Thanh N.: In fact, Americans care more about their Vietnamese enemies than they care about their Vietnamese friends. Americans are much more curious about the Vietnamese Communists, for example, and hearing the Vietnamese Communist story, or the story of the National Liberation Front of the South than they care about hearing the stories of the South Vietnamese who were their friends.

Viet Thanh N.: I grew up watching a lot of American war moves about the Vietnam War, like “Apocalypse Now” and so on, and I was an American; I identified with the American experiences. But then I also saw that the only place for the Vietnamese people in these American stories was to be killed, and that we would never have a chance to speak in these stories. To me this was racist.

Viet Thanh N.: When I grew up in the United States I hardly every experienced direct racism. In fact, during my time in France, I’ve spent about maybe 10 to 12 months in France. I’ve been called racists terms as often in France as I have in my entire life in the United States to my face. But; nevertheless, I believe that the United States was racist when it came to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people because the stories that Americans told were racists. This made me very angry. From a young age I thought, I have to tell Vietnamese stories because if we don’t tell our own stories, no one will. That’s the only way to change how Americans stories about the Vietnam War are told.

Viet Thanh N.: The reason why this was important was obviously because it’s important for all Vietnamese people to tell their stories, but also as an American I knew that American stories have global impact. I think many of you probably have seen American movies about the Vietnam War. But ironically, even though the Vietnamese in Vietnam won the war, most of the world doesn’t know those Vietnamese stories; because Vietnam is a small country, Vietnamese is a small language, very few people outside Vietnam know how to speak it. But if I became an American writer, I knew that one day my books would be here in France under Anglo-Saxon literature.

Viet Thanh N.: That was my way of trying to change the American story and the Vietnamese story and have an impact all around the world. When I was growing up … what I’m telling you now I could not say these things, because I did not have the language to say these things. I was just angry. Or actually no, no. I was not yet angry. I did not yet know that I was angry. Then I went to college and then I became very angry. I went to college and then I started to read the history of Vietnam, what the French did to Vietnam, what the Americans did to Vietnam, what the Vietnamese did to each other in Vietnam. I also started to read about what the experiences were of Asians in the United States.

Viet Thanh N.: To me, the moment I became very angry was when I was able to connect what happened to Asians in the United States with what the French and the Americans did in Vietnam. For me, I became something that doesn’t exist here in France; I became an Asian American, and I became a Vietnamese American. I believe that it was possible to be both Vietnamese or Asian and American at the same time, and that this could be a radical act. That this was the way I could tell my stories so that I could both tell American stories, but continue to insist on the importance of Vietnamese and Asian experiences.

Viet Thanh N.: In the United States, to call yourself Asian American is not just a matter of identity. It’s also very political. In the United States Asian Americans began to call themselves that in 1968; it’s a very important year. They called themselves that to claim their identity in the United States, to be anti-racist in the United States, but also to be anti-racist in terms of what they saw happening in Vietnam. In other words, the Asian Americans in the United States saw the Vietnam War that the Americans were doing as a racist war against the Vietnamese. And that the racism against Asians in the United States was the same racism directed against the Vietnamese in Vietnam.

Viet Thanh N.: For me to become Asian American, it was to be anti-racist, but it was also to be anti-war and anti-imperialist. To be Asian American meant that I would also actively seek alliances with other people of color, other minorities in the United States, but also to connect the experiences of Asian Americans and Vietnamese Americans and the Vietnamese in Vietnam with other anti-colonial, anti-imperial movements in the rest of the world.

Viet Thanh N.: That’s why I became interested in France, and what the French did in Vietnam and what the French did in Africa, North Africa and so on; because I felt that the history of anti-colonial efforts against the French were directly connected to the anti-imperial efforts against what the United States was doing in Vietnam.

Viet Thanh N.:The last thing I’ll say about my history here is that, what I’ve learned, I think, so far in talking with the French of Vietnamese origin here in this country is that they or you think that we in the United States think too much about race; and we in the United States think that you don’t think enough about race. But also the advantage here in France, I think is that in France, you think a lot more about , if I understand the situation correctly, you think a lot more about class, about class struggle.

Viet Thanh N.: Here it’s possible, it’s socially acceptable here to be a socialist or a communist. In the United States there is not enough emphasis on class analysis or class struggle. It’s absolutely forbidden to be a communist in the United States. It’s only now in the last few years that people dare call themselves socialists in the United States. That hasn’t been possible since the 1930s in the United States.

Viet Thanh N.: For me, yes, race in the American sense is very important to me, but it’s not the only thing. For me, I think it’s necessary to believe that race, class, gender, and sexuality and many other things, anti-colonialism, they all exist at the same time; and that if we want to engage in struggles of liberation and equality and justice, we have to engage in all those struggles at the same time. That’s the context for my books, because I hope that my books are doing that. I hope that my books are not just about identity, not just about race, but that they’re also bringing attention to the necessity for anti-colonial struggle to the necessity for thinking about gender and sexuality at the same time.

Viet Thanh N.: The first book that I wrote was The Refugees, even though in the United States it came out after The Sympathizer. Right now The Sympathizer has been published as Le Sympathisant here in French, and next year The Refugees will come out in French. My other book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam And The Memory of War will come out in French as well. All from BelfondBut I wrote The Refugees first.

Viet Thanh N.: I wrote The Refugees because I wanted to tell stories about Vietnamese people. I thought, I want to tell stories that show what the Vietnamese refugees in the United States have been through, and to show that Vietnamese refugees in the United States are very different. We’re not all the same just because we’re Vietnamese. It was very important in The Refugees to write about men and women, to write about…straight people. Is that the same thing? Straight people and queer people, to write about the old and the young, to write about the military and the civilians and so on.

Viet Thanh N.: Even as I was writing those short stories, I knew that what I wanted to do was to make sure that the people who read these stories knew that the Vietnamese were human, that we felt things, that we suffered and all that. Even, as I was writing those stories I knew that that was not enough. So, after I wrote The Refugees I wrote The Sympathizer.

Viet Thanh N.: In The Sympathizer, I was not interested in showing that the Vietnamese people are human or in trying to make people feel sympathetic to the Vietnamese. Instead, I wrote The Sympathizer because I was very angry. I intended The Sympathizer to be an angry novel … I wanted The Sympathizer to be a novel that would be very critical of the Americans, but also to be very critical of the communists, and to be critical of the Southern Vietnamese who are anti-communist as well.

Viet Thanh N.: Because I felt that in looking at our history in Vietnam in the 20th century, every side had done terrible things. Every side only wanted to talk about how the other side was doing terrible things. The purpose of The Sympathizer was to show: yes, we are all human, but we’re also all inhuman too. Some people were not happy with that because there’s still a lot of people who only want to hear that we are good and they are bad.

Viet Thanh N.: I knew the when I wrote The Sympathizer, which is written from the perspective of a communist spy, that there would be a lot of Vietnamese Americans who would refuse to read my novel because they wanted nothing to do with communism. I also knew that there would be some Americans who would be very upset with me. In fact, I’ve gotten messages from some Americans telling me to go home to Vietnam, and take my son with me. They say: “You must love Vietnam, you must love communism if you wrote such an anti-American novel.” Which means they never finished my novel, because yes, it is an anti-American novel. But if you finish the novel, it’s also a very anti-communist novel too. Because it shows the worst things that the communists did in Vietnam as well.

Viet Thanh N.: Nothing Ever Dies, I’ll mention it very briefly. If you want to understand what I’m doing in my fiction, Nothing Ever Dies will tell you. Nothing Ever Dies is a nonfiction account of how the war in Vietnam and in Laos and in Cambodia has been remembered in those countries; and in the United States. It is a book that asks whether it’s possible to have justice in memory. How do we remember the past when the past has been horrifying? When we have killed millions of people?

Viet Thanh N.: In my experience, in the United States, and in my research in Vietnam, and in my experiences with the Vietnamese refugee community in the United States; my experience has been that for most people, a just approach to memory is a history that will remember what happened to us, but not what happened to everybody else. Nothing Ever Dies is my attempt to try to remember what happened to all these different populations. To argue that we cannot have a just memory, we cannot reconcile with the past until we have knowledge not just what was done to us, but what we did to others. That’s still very hard for most people to do. In my fiction, that’s what I try to do with something like The Sympathizer.

Viet Thanh N.: Finally, The Displaced, which may come out in French; we haven’t sold the book yet, but The Displaced is about refugee experiences from all over the world. We have 17 writers in that book. They talk about a dozen different countries and nationalities. My introduction is in there. Again, this book is my statement that I am a refugee. I will never stop calling myself a refugee, because right now we have 66 million refugees in the world. That population is I think larger than France.

Audience: Same.

Viet Thanh N.: Same. Okay, same. Alright, roughly. That’s a very large population. In the United States the reason why I felt this was urgent in the United States is that, of course in the United States we have a refugee crisis and there’s a lot of anti-refugee feeling. There are some former refugees in the United States, including Vietnamese refugees who say: “We are the good refugees, we were the good refugees. It’s good the United States let us in. But these new refugees are the bad refugees. We shouldn’t take them.”

Viet Thanh N.: I have a problem with that. Because I grew up in the United States among Vietnamese refugees, and there were a lot of bad Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. But all that has been forgotten. Of course I’m a good refugee. I won the Pulitzer Prize.

Audience: You stole it from an Americano.

Viet Thanh N.: I stole it! I’m like that immigrant from Mali who climbed the building to rescue the child, right? That’s what you have to do to become French, that’s what you have to do to become-

Audience: Win the World Cup.

Viet Thanh N.:  Yeah, to become an American.

Audience: Win the World Cup!

Viet Thanh N.: I do not even agree with the language of good and bad refugees, because that is used to divide us. That is used to encourage us to say: “I’m the good refugee. I’m not the bad refugee.” I’m much more interested in asking: If there are bad refugees, why are they bad? I grew up in this Vietnamese refugee community in the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, there were bad refugees. They committed crimes. They cheated the government, they stole from each other, they abused each other, they attacked each other. The worst crimes that they did, they did to other Vietnamese people; not to other Americans. They did to other Vietnamese people.

Viet Thanh N.: Why did they do that? Maybe because they were refugees who came from a country that had been bombed by the United States and where they saw a lot of violence. Where they saw their fathers and their brothers and their uncles committing violence. Where they saw a South Vietnam that was totally corrupted because of the war. They brought all of that with them to the United States.

Viet Thanh N.: As for the good refugees like me and my family; we are good refugees, okay. My brother: he went to Harvard, he went to Stanford, he became a doctor. My parents became successful business people. There are a lot of Vietnamese Americans like us. But I look at them and I wonder: You’re very good, but what good are you doing? You’ve become a doctor, you’ve become a lawyer, an engineer, whatever. All good. But are you helping people? Are you helping the Vietnamese community? Are you fighting for justice? Or are you the one saying: “We’re the good refugees; don’t let in any of the bad refugees”?

Viet Thanh N.: I refuse that. I believe that those of us who have been refugees, who are refugees need to stand up for other refugees. We need to keep calling ourselves refugees to remind everybody that this is what a refugee is like. Simply trying to shut out refugees from our countries is not going to solve any problems because we have 66 million refugees. The way the world is going now because of war and climate catastrophe and all these other things, there will be many, many more in the future. We need to solve the problem rather than try to shut refugees out. Thank you.

Nhat Cuong: In the second part of the event, I’ll have a part where we talk about-

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:32:04]

Nhat Cuong: the reading experience of the books of Viet. This is what we do our reading group. We share books and we also share the reading experience and I think that it is valuable things to share, to exchange about. So, I do it briefly, with all the humility I have with Viet here.

Nhat Cuong: So about myself, I was born in Vietnam, and I came here, in France, at the age of 18. I read The Sympathizer last year, like I think a lot of people here. It had very big impact on me. He said about the book having impact on people, it had [an impact] on me. The most important subject in The Sympathizer was for me the question about representation, of course, of the South Vietnamese people, and the South Vietnamese soldiers. Because before that, when I lived in Vietnam, we talked about the war. I would call it the American War, of course. It was the war where we fought the Americans, and we won, of course. Outside of Vietnam, the American had all the rights and the means to narrate, to tell the stories of the war in their version, and in their version it was a war with Americans fighting Communists.

Nhat Cuong: So, inside, outside of Vietnam, South Vietnamese people and South Vietnamese soldiers had no existence to me. What exists is, from time to time, news on television and on the internet about some military parade of ex-South Vietnamese soldiers in California. All the time, every time, I found that very futile and very meaningless. I can see the hatred and the anger, but nothing more.

Nhat Cuong: What I see in The Sympathizer, there is a character who is actually the best friend of protagonist, he’s [Unclear 34:39]. He’s a typical South Vietnamese soldier, refugee in America. Along with other characters, all South Vietnamese soldiers and the general and Madame, which means the wife of the general. I started to understand them better. I see that these people, they are soldiers, and they define themselves, their identity as soldiers. When they became refugees they lost their identities. They lost what they are. They lost who they are. They had to live on social welfare. They needed to have American sponsors to leave refugee camps.

Nhat Cuong: What they do, it was not only anger. It was not only hatred, but also they need to do some military parades, they need to make up impossible operations, military operations against the Vietnamese government, in order to fight back [for] their identity. Based on that, based on that understanding, I was able myself to have compassion with them, with the character and our people. I was able to think of them as my fellow Vietnamese. It was very important to me. So that was the first point about well representation.

Nhat Cuong: The second part I want to talk about that really impacted me is the work of, in the books of Viet, about duality and identity. Of course, he implies a lot the protagonist, his boss, friend, is half French half Vietnamese. His boss: Communist and South Vietnamese officer, but I would like to talk about another story. This is a small, short story in the Refugees called “I’d Love You To Want Me.” It’s about an old couple, an old refugee couple. The husband started to have memory troubles, so he started calling his wife with a different name, with a different name of another woman. He started to talk with her about things they did in Vietnam that never happened before. That never happened.

Nhat Cuong:  For the wife, it was of course some awkwardness, but she also showed a lot of love and compassion. Of course, curiosity too for this interior life of her husband because I think she discovered that her husband, this man, lived his life in Vietnam, and now his life in America. He has this duality that lived inside his mind all these years, and it only showed up with his memory trouble at the end of his life. The story really, this duality can be like positive or beautiful, but in the context of war, I think this duality always come with a lot of loss. I really like the story was very poetic, very romantic, but also very strong and very touching.

Viet Thanh N.: Shall I say something?

Nhat Cuong: Please.

Viet Thanh N.: The experience of duality is central to my life because I grew up being raised very Vietnamese by my parents, but of course the rest of my life outside of my parents house was American. That meant that I always felt uncomfortable in my parents’ house. When I was at my parents’ house, they wanted me to be Vietnamese, but I was American. When I was outside of my parents’ house, I was American, but I could never forget being Vietnamese.

Viet Thanh N.: I think that’s not uncommon in the United States, or maybe here too, but for me it was also related to the fact that personally, I always feel uncomfortable. That’s why I became a writer because I always feel like I’m out of place. I always feel like I’m looking at something from the outside. That’s a good thing for a writer. Not a good thing for most people, but a good thing for a writer.

Viet Thanh N.: But I also think it’s a very universal human condition. I think if you are an immigrant, or a refugee, or a minority of some kind, the duality is heightened. You’re reminded of your duality on a very regular basis. But, even if you’re not, even if you’re part of the majority, I think occasionally you experience that duality. But, for you, for the person in the majority it’s unusual, but it exists. For someone like me, duality is normal.

Viet Thanh N.: Part of the duality was related to what it means to be Vietnamese. So, it was very clear growing up as a Vietnamese refugee that there was duality. There were the Vietnamese refugees, and then there were the Communists. We hated the Communists. They were not human. It’s very easy for me to feel sympathy for my fellow Vietnamese refugees because I heard their stories all the time.

Viet Thanh N.: But, I also knew that the Vietnamese people in Vietnam, the ones who were the Communists, people like you, you would just be a Communist. I don’t know what you believe, but from the perspective of Vietnamese Americans, you were just a Communist, okay?

Viet Thanh N.:  But, to me that was never enough. To me, I’m like, “They must be human beings.” That meant when I was growing up I read a lot about what the experiences of the Vietnamese Communists were, their beliefs, their histories, and I went to Vietnam to study Vietnamese. Everybody I met, most of the people I met were sympathetic to Communists, or they were Communists, or they were at least a part of the victorious country. That was very important for me, as it is for you, to see that the people who my fellow Vietnamese refugees would consider not to be human were very human. That was very important. That was I wanted to demonstrate in Le Sympathisant.

Viet Thanh N.: That was why I created a set of characters in The Sympathizer that come from all different kinds of beliefs. You had people who believe in Communism, and people who don’t believe in Communism, just to show that there are real reasons why people chose the different paths that they took, and we have to understand what those reasons are.

Liem Binh: I think it’s my turn to make some comments. My name is Liem Binh. I was born in France. I am from a very different background actually from Viet because my parents came to France to study. Actually, my grandparents came to France to study, so they’re from the south. There were anti-Catholics, there were pro-Communists. They actually, although, they were very proud southerners when the war ended they were stuck in France; or Switzerland for my mother.

Liem Binh: So, it was not a traumatic journey from Vietnam to France. It was more like something happened. Something that we’re wishing that happened. So, they called it “liberation.” But, at the same time, they are from the south, so they have also this very proud routine in this region. My father because he was supporting the Communists, he went to Vietnam in ’77. I think it was a privilege for very few foreigners to be allowed to go to Vietnam and to be able to witness from their own eyes what was going on in the country. That’s actually when he decided to stay in France, but he kept his passport, his Vietnamese passport, for a very long time.

Liem Binh: Although, he grew up in the south French colonies. He could get the French citizenship very easily. But, so, my first time to Vietnam was ’92. It was controversial. My grandparents live there. So, I think, when I grew up I was always told that the right side won, kind of. Although there was some, at least, even though now I know they have more mixed feeling, I think that’s what they wanted their children to think, and to see that the country’s united and that’s for the best.

Liem Binh: I actually first met Viet in Boston because I was living there for two years, and I actually met you the very day when you got the Pulitzer Prize.

Viet Thanh N.:  Oh, you were there?

Liem Binh: I was there, oh yeah.

Viet Thanh N.: That whole day is a blur.

Liem Binh: Yeah, that day was a blur. That day you were in Boston.

Viet Thanh N.: I remember. You were at the Harvard bookstore.

Liem Binh: Absolutely.

Viet Thanh N.: I was in a state of shock when I walked into the bookstore.

Liem Binh: You were, you were. And so a lot of people had like 50 copies of your book, and made you sign so they could sell on eBay. Surprise! I should say after spending two years in the US, and I was there during Ferguson, and the shooting, and also the Black Lives Matter movement started. I just felt like after two years in the US I still don’t get how you deal with race. I still don’t understand, although … I mean, I understand, but I still don’t buy it, or can’t really see all the implications. Because for me, like the cause of racism, that comes from more race. I met a lot of very angry Asian people also. It made me also realize like what about in France? I think it’s very different.

Liem Binh: So, when I read The Sympathizer, actually I was really happy to read a book about the Vietnamese community, the diasporic Vietnamese community, because for me, up to very recently, there was no diasporic Vietnamese community as such. Meaning that an independent cultural mindset from the native culture. In France, most of us refer still to Vietnam. And people, French white people, still refer us to Vietnam, okay? They would say, “Although I was born here, I’ve been to good school … ” When they say, “Oh, I’m from Vietnam.” I say, “Oh, I’ve been there,” like I’m supposed to know the country, I’m supposed to know the culture.

Liem Binh: I was really happy to know…to read about the Vietnamese community in the US. To follow the thread about representation, I could see also the differences of how you represent your community in the US. I think it is in a very accurate way how I feel like here in France because also I’m from a pro-Communist background. This fact that there’s so many Vietnamese in the same place recreating a little Vietnam was very strange.

Liem Binh:  Meaning, like if you go to the 13th district here, they call it, like French people call it Chinatown, but if you go to London or to any US city, you can see what is a real Chinatowns. Like the native sub china regions. They’re mainly Asians in those Chinatowns, whereas in France they’re like Asian restaurants. It’s actually a lot of non-Asian that live in this district.

Liem Binh: Also, the recreation of South Vietnam was a very, very strange. As I told him a few minutes ago, when I first joined Facebook it was in 2006, 2007, and I looked for Vietnamese groups, it was only anti-Communist groups that talked about Vietnam.

Liem Binh: For me, so instead I learn something new about South Vietnam, Communism, and the community because being in France and being raised the way I was, I think I knew all this bad sides of each side. But, the way that you describe diaspora, I think it was more like a very comfy. It’s like the chocolate you eat when you feel bad, it’s like, oh, there’s people out there who like…Especially when you mention readings about when Lan sung the song like Bang Bang, really powerful.

Viet Thanh N.: I think that you both talked about representation, and implicit in that is how important stories are. I think that people who read The Sympathizer like you, you say we know many of these stories already. It’s not as if I’m telling you something new, but what is new is that it’s in a book. It’s in a novel. Because again, when it comes to representations, Vietnamese stories at least in the United States are not told. In Vietnam, the stories of the South Vietnamese who left are not told. In Vietnam, we are the traitors. So, the power of stories that are not told that get to be told even if they tell us what we already know is really important.

Viet Thanh N.: That was why I thought it would be crucial to write The Refugees and The Sympathizer because I’ve gotten many messages from Vietnamese readers, Vietnamese Americans, who say: “These stories are meaningful because they haven’t been told, and because I know them. I know people like this. I know that these events happened.” Actually, for some of my Vietnamese readers they say, “It took me a very long time to read The Sympathizer because it’s too painful. It’s because I know these stories. I know this history happened, and I don’t want to relive it.”

Viet Thanh N.: The other dimension is that, you know, in the United States when The Sympathizer came out, and even today, there will be Americans who will say to me, “I never knew any of this.” For us as Vietnamese people, these stories are very common. We know them. But for the overwhelming majority of Americans, they don’t know any of it. I’m assuming for most French, they don’t know these stories either.

Viet Thanh N.: So, in order for the situation to change so that you don’t get the kind of questions, and it happens in the United States too, about where are you from, and tell me about Vietnam, and all that. My belief, and maybe it’s a very American belief, is that we have to be assertive. We have to be angry. Not all the time, sometimes. To tell our stories.

Viet Thanh N.: Anyway, so it was very important for me to go to Vietnam to learn more about Vietnamese experiences because I didn’t know anything about it. It took me 12 years to write Nothing Ever Dies because I spent a lot of time thinking about that. It was a very challenging book for me to write because I had to leave the United States. I had to question my American assumptions. I had to question my Vietnamese refugee assumptions. That’s how I learn. That’s why with the sequel to The Sympathizer, and maybe now we can hear from the audience. The reason why I wanted to have it set in France was because I knew it was a very different experience here. I wanted to force myself to confront that, and to be challenged by the French here.

Viet Thanh N.: But, also because for me as a Vietnamese person, I feel that my history has been shaped in Vietnam in the United States and by France. Even if French colonization ended before I was born, I’m still colonized. Why do I love Paris? Why? Americans love Paris, but the Vietnamese really love Paris. I feel we’ve been colonized. I feel that I’ve been mentally colonized by the French even if I’m not actually colonized. In fact, the history of French colonialism is not that far away because my parents were born in the 1930s, and they remember French colonialism. My father still sings French songs. The impact of French colonialism was very directly related to what happened to me. That’s why the sequel to The Sympathizer is set in Paris in the early 1980s so that I can deal with this other very important part of Vietnamese history and to compare the French and the American perspectives and experiences. Yeah. Anyway, so now it would be wonderful to hear from the audience.

Liem Binh: Yeah, because I think it’s a good transition to talk about duality and identity. I think two things struck me, first, about you being called an Asian American and when you suggest there is no such thing in France. I think we can have a discussion on that. The second thing, is when you say you felt a lot of racism. When you said you got more racism in France from 12 months here than your entire life in the US. And when you ask the Vietnamese French do they feel racism, they say, “No, not for me.” I think it’s a good approach to have not only a biased point of view of me with my personal history and background, but also with you. I think we could take sets of question, maybe two or three, and Viet will try to answer.

Viet Thanh N.: Or comments.

Liem Binh: Not necessarily only questions.

Viet Thanh N.: You can tell me what you think from the French point of view, or French points of view.

Nhat Cuong: So officially it’s open for open conversation, yeah.

Liem Binh:  Just say if you want to, if you understand better than you speak, you can ask your question in French. I can translate, in Vietnamese or in French.

Audience: May I start first?

Liem Binh: You can start first.

Audience: All right, I have one comment and one question. Maybe I start with the comment first, and I think I really loved The Sympathizer. One of the things that was very entertaining for me was to learn about the other portrayal of the South of Vietnam. I grew up in North Vietnam. Spent some time in the States, spent some time in France now. I’ve been trying to understand, so what was Saigon, or what was the South of Vietnam around that time. Basically, as I tried to reach out there would be three sort of information I got, those that I got in Vietnam would be mostly from say official sources, and you don’t want to believe that.

Audience: Then you go to US, and it’s mostly about the American this or that, winning hearts and mind strategy, and very little about the local community. On the diaspora then I tried to look at what people, mostly refugees, right? It’s usually a great representation of the South of Vietnam. I tried to understand that maybe it’s a selection process, that maybe Southern people got to go because when you read their stories usually they are pretty rich, or like they was having a pretty good life.

Audience: But it could be a case of we all have our own selective memory. We always want to just believe what we want to believe, and remember what we want to remember, right? It comes through now as I have all my North Vietnamese friends, and very often you see the photos that they got with just the great Saigon with high school girls walking around in white dresses. It create in me, like, so what was the real side of Saigon or South of Vietnam, and I think your book maybe it’s too much sarcasm, but that’s always what everyone’s lacking, right? It’s surprising. I really appreciate having a different voice of South Saigon from that side.

Audience: That is for the comment. I talk too much. On the second one about your last notion on colonialism, which is for me very interesting because for the past five years I’ve been working in a lot in communities, and there basically at every conference you go to you hear about anti-colonialism. But, in Vietnam we rarely ever talk about it anymore. Mostly from propaganda, again, the hero thing, and that is the past. I have some hypothesis myself, but would you mind elaborating why is that so? Why is anti-colonialism got talked so little in Vietnam?

Viet Thanh N.: Or here? So one thing that I’ve been hearing very often from the French of Vietnamese origins here is that, yes, colonialism happened in Vietnam. It wasn’t so bad. It happened a long time ago, and yes, the French did some bad things, but the French also did a lot of good things.

Liem Binh: They were not as bad as Americans.

Viet Thanh N.: Yes, always blame the Americans.

Audience: And there’s a happy ending because we won.

Viet Thanh N.:  My response to this is I think that both the French and the Vietnamese seem to be very good at putting the past behind them. From the Vietnamese perspective, I think it’s because yes, the Americans are more recent in memory. But, if you go back, and you look at the anti-colonial discourse of the Communist party and the Viet Minh, and all that, they were very critical of French colonialism. But now, I think what’s happened is that the Vietnamese really don’t want to bring up the past, of the anti-colonial past, because what’s happening today? Is Vietnam being colonized today? It’s a very complicated question. So to bring up the anti-colonial past about fighting against outsiders, about liberating the country too much, might make people ask questions about what’s happening in Vietnam today. I think that’s one reason why the Communist party has a very ambivalent relationship to bringing up the past.

Viet Thanh N.: My reading of the French situation is that the French are very lucky that there were no movie cameras in the 1800s in Vietnam. The Americans made movies about the terrible things they did in Vietnam. Okay, so now everybody all over the world knows about it. What the French did in Vietnam, from everything that I’ve read, there was some very terrible things, we have some historical sources, but we don’t have very many photographs. It’s easy to forget, and the situation for the French of Vietnamese origins in Vietnam is that, my reading, is that it’s also easier for them to forget because it makes it makes it easier for them to become French. The rest of the French like the people of Vietnamese origins here, and the people of Vietnamese origins here like being French. That’s just what I’m hearing.

Viet Thanh N.: Partly, it’s because the Vietnamese who came to France who didn’t like France, they left. They became Communists, and went back to Vietnam to fight the revolution. The ones who liked France stayed. So, that must have some impact on shaping the French community of Vietnamese origins here.

Viet Thanh N.: So, both the French and the French of Vietnamese origins have a mutual interest in forgetting about colonialism. My final interpretation is that the question of race in France is very different than the question of race in the United States. The French don’t seem to like talking about race here, right? But, for me, the history of colonialism is a history of racism. That’s how we see race. That’s how I see race in France. That the people of Vietnamese origins here have told me over and over, that they get along here, that race is not a problem for them. Of course not, because the colonialism that is remembered here in France is not the colonialism in Indo-China. It’s the colonialism in Algeria and North Africa and so on. That’s where the history of anti-colonialism becomes more evident, and that’s where the racial problems become more evident through that legacy of colonialism.

Viet Thanh N.: The final thing, and then you can tell me if I’m wrong, okay? Is that the one thing I really don’t understand about France … I can accept everything else that I just described to you. The one thing I don’t understand is why, in the United States as I brought up, I really believed that my fate is tied to the fate of other minorities. For me to be Asian American in the United States means that I get a lot of privileges because generally Asian Americans in the United States are like the Vietnamese here in France. We are well-liked. But, we cannot separate how well-liked we are from the fact that we are not black. We are not Latino. The racism directed against African Americans, for example, in the United States, benefits Asian Americans because we are not black. I have to remember that because that means that I am not interested just in telling Vietnamese American stories or Asian American stories. I’m interested in justice, which means justice…

Viet Thanh N.: …for everybody. So here in France, talking to these French of Vietnamese origins, almost no one has ever brought up the fact that maybe they’re well-liked here at least partly because they’re not Arab, or they’re not Muslim, or they’re not North African. To me, it seems obvious. But maybe I’m wrong. I’m ready to be corrected if I’m wrong on this issue.

Liem Binh: There is another question from the back.

Viet Thanh N.: You pick.

Liem Binh: You have a question.

Audience: Hi, thanks for your talk. It was really interesting. A question that I had from reading your book and from the previous conversations that it sparked was … sorry if I don’t articulate this properly. But what do you think of the limitations of national identity, and of even a hyphenated identity, whether it’s Vietnamese-American, Vietnamese-French, in terms of the lived reality of people having multiple … Chinese-Vietnamese, Chinese-Vietnamese then Australian, because they migrate. What do you think of the limitations of this, in terms of political demand? And I think in terms of myself.

Audience: So I’m Chinese-Cambodian, Australian, with a Vietnamese grandmother, and now French, because I have French citizenship. But also the Vietnam War impacted my family very strongly in Cambodia, and then in the subsequent migration to Australia. And so even the Vietnam War, calling it the “Vietnam War,” when … and you mentioned this in one of your chapter in Nothing Ever Dies, about the impact on Cambodia and Laos. And in Cambodia, how more bombs were dropped on Cambodia than all of World War II by the US. So how do we talk about it so that it’s not linked by this notion of the nation-state, which is modern and political construct in itself?

Viet Thanh N.: So I think that hyphenated identities and national identities, they’re very limiting. Obviously, I’m a utopian believer. I believe, one day, we should live in a world in which borders don’t matter, and national identities are just like being from a city. It shouldn’t make a big difference. But in order to get there, we still have to work through the realities that we have today.

Viet Thanh N.: So, for me, I exist in a country, in the United States, where the hyphenated identity is necessary. For me to be able to speak in the United States, I could say that I’m an American, but there’s much more force if I say I’m Vietnamese-American, or Asian-American, because that’s how racial politics work in the United States.

Viet Thanh N.: Okay, so that being said, I look at France, and I can definitely see that there are some advantages to the French system, because, here, for example, if I were to be a famous writer in France, I would just be French. Is that right?

Audience: Yeah.

Viet Thanh N.: In the United States, I have to be Vietnamese-American.

Audience: One thing is that I think hyphenated identity is great, but just wondered how can we expand it, because can I claim to be Vietnamese-American, even though my mother tongue is Chinese dialect? Do you see what I mean? What about the others…

Viet Thanh N.: I’m going to get to that right now. I think the question of identity is often times very limited, because often times the question of identity is demanded of us. Someone will go up and say, “Are you French, or are you Vietnamese? Are you Vietnamese, or are you American? So you’re given two choices. That’s very confusing, because it’s very common to feel, “Well, I’m not sure. Am I one or the other? Am I both?” So we have to refuse that question. That’s why you went through all your list of identities: Chinese, Cambodian, Australian, and so on. And that’s exactly right, because we have to say, “I refuse your question about who I am. I’m going to tell you who I am.” And so I say, “Sometimes, I’m Vietnamese-American. Sometimes, I’m Vietnamese. Sometimes, I’m American. Sometimes, I’m a human being.” It depends on the context. It depends on the context.

Viet Thanh N.: But the second issue is, again, that identity itself can also be very limiting if our only project is to be talk about identity. If our only project is to talk about identity, no, we will never solve the problem that you’re talking about. That’s why, in my comments, I was saying my books are not just about identity. I hope that they’re also about justice, and revolution, because unless we actually have true justice, where we no longer have borders, where we no longer have class exploitation, we’re going to have identities. We’re going to be forced to choose these identities.

Viet Thanh N.: So we have to both claim our identities, no matter what they are, and we also have to look to the future, and think, “How do we get to a future where identities no longer matter.” We only get to that future when we have a much more just society, which would require much more radical kinds of political organization and activity. We’re not there yet, whether it’s France, or the United States, or Vietnam, or Cambodia.

Audience: Yeah I would also like to say something very quickly maybe I’m wrong. The enemy has no identity, and identity is a construction. The enemy is the enemy for economical reasons. And there is no democracy in identity. That’s difficult to explain.

Audience: But when they do wars, like the Vietnam War, it’s economical reasons. And it will be Vietnam. any country, the country the enemy as an identity.

Viet Thanh N.: I think is always-

Audience: Not to say that … but you see what I mean?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, yeah.

Audience: For the war not for me.

Viet Thanh N.: I think there’s always an enemy. There’s always an enemy. We always need an enemy, right? But the enemy is always defined through our own history. So I would disagree that the Vietnam War was only about economics. It was very definitely about capitalism, and communism, and the struggle over markets and economies, absolutely. But it was also about race. It was also a racist war. It was very much a war about culture. The United States fought that war for complicated reasons, which includes the economy, but which also involved the fact that the Americans did not believe that the Vietnamese people had the right, or the ability, to control their own future, to control their own country. That’s racist.

Viet Thanh N.: And so, likewise, French colonialism was not just about economic profits for France. That was true. It was not just about extending French culture to these poor people. The French believed that. And some Vietnamese people believe that. But in order for the French to believe that, they also have to be racist, they have to believe that the French culture is better than Vietnamese culture, and Vietnamese people have so much to learn from the French.

Viet Thanh N.: I will admit that the Vietnamese people have learned a lot from the French. I love baguettes. There’s so many things that we have learned from the French, good things. We learned communism from the French.

Audience: But Germans created it.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, yes, but through the Vietnamese students who came to France, yes. It would be interesting to know whether the Vietnamese and the Cambodians who came to France studied Marxist theory in French or in German.

Viet Thanh N.: But one thing I’m very curious about is whether the French learned anything from the Vietnamese. It seems to me that the knowledge has all been in one direction, that the civilizing mission that the French did, and that many Vietnamese accept, was only about absorbing the greatness of France.

Viet Thanh N.: But my interest is also in showing that the struggles of the Vietnamese who are the revolutionaries against the French, and the Vietnamese who fought against the Americans, and the Vietnamese who came to the United States: we have changed our host countries, too.

Viet Thanh N.: I believe that part of the reason for me to become a writer is to fight my battle in the United States, is to say, “Look, it’s not just the case that America changed Vietnam, but Vietnam changed America, too. And in the United States, as an Asian-American, or Vietnamese-American, I believe that we have changed the United States with our struggles.”

Viet Thanh N.: So today, for example, all this anti-immigrant feeling that’s been encouraged by Donald Trump, many Americans are pushing back, but they’re pushing back at least partially because, in the past, Asian-Americans fought back against these racist feelings. And, again, unless we tell those stories, Americans would never know about that.

Viet Thanh N.: More questions?

Liem Binh: There was a question there.

Audience: It was more of a comment on our current conversation. You asked about if in France there are Asian identity, or Asian-French. Unfortunately, what I’ve perceived up to now is that too many French people, or from my experience, they group all Asian people as Chinese. So there’s no Francais-Asiatique, there’s Chinoise. So it’s racist to Vietnamese, it’s racist to Chinese, because come on we are … if you look at restaurants, there’s Chinese, Thailand, Vietnamese all grouped in one banner. I think that’s kind of expected from us that we are from that corner of the world, so we’re Chinese. On the street, we’re greeted with “Ni hao,” and sometimes we’re angry.

Audience: And myself, as a woman, I’m double angry, because I’m expected to be an Asian docile woman, who is obedient, who is kind, who is caring to others, and when you see I’m actually angry: “Wow, who are you?”

Audience: So before coming to France, I was in the UK, and I worked, sometimes, part-time, as an interpreter for Vietnamese refugees, in London. It was around 2008, so they were different types of refugees than the ones you talked about in your books. It was very tough. It was very hard, because I come from a village background, where I was a student, I came there by plane, and I was confronted with these horrible stories. And more than Vietnam, I thought it’s peaceful now in the country. I didn’t know that they were still a lot of terrible stories that existed.

Audience: And in the UK, there’s a lot of Vietnamese gangster dealing heroin, and human trafficking, and children trafficking, children and women in particular. And then I went to France for an exchange, and all of sudden, the Vietnamese are well-liked in France, whereas in the UK, they’re trouble makers there, drug dealers, and children traffickers.

Audience: And I was amazed. I’m like, “Wow.” All of a sudden, I’m proud of being Vietnamese. I was no longer ashamed. So because in France, the immigrants, or the refugees like in France are different. So I would love to read your book, the sequel of The Sympathizer, about the French experience relating to the war.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, your first example about the restaurants, I see that all the time. I find it very weird.

Liem Binh: I think there’s an explanation for that, because there’s a lot of Chinese from Vietnam, that actually left South Vietnam, that ended up in Thailand refugee camps. So when they go to France, they can say, “Oh, I can be Vietnamese and Chinese, because I was there, I can cook Thailand food because my refugee camp was there.” I think that’s really what they think they could do.

Viet Thanh N.: But hearing what you say about the different communities, and how they’re racist against each other, that the Vietnamese don’t like the Chinese, and the Chinese don’t like the Vietnamese, for example. I mean, some of that exists in the United States too, especially with people who are first generation immigrants.

Viet Thanh N.:But the interesting thing about the United States that, again, seems to be different than France, is that by the second generation, by the American-born generation, we forgot that. So in Asia, the Vietnamese hate the Chinese, the Chinese hate the Vietnamese, the Japanese hate the Koreans, the Koreans hate the Japanese, all that is happening, but in the United States, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, we’re all Asian-Americans. That’s very powerful, because it allows us to have a relatively large community. About 5% of the American population is Asian-American.

Viet Thanh N.: And going back to the question about hyphenated identities, that’s partly how we get power, gain power, in the United States, is by not saying we’re only Japanese, or Chinese, or Vietnamese, but by saying we’re actually all Asian-American.

Viet Thanh N.: But, again, here in France, from what I understand, that’s not socially acceptable to do that, okay. But that means that my reading of the situation is that, again, if you identify with being Chinese, or Japanese, or Vietnamese, it’s sort of negative, and it’s much more encouraged to leave that all behind, because it’s racist, and to become an individual French person. And that can be very powerful. I don’t like it, but it can be very powerful for French people.

Viet Thanh N.: And it is one way to overcome the shame that you’re talking about, because until the last few decades, in the United States, it was actually pretty common for people of Asian descent to feel a lot of shame about being Asian, because they couldn’t speak up in public, they couldn’t fight back against … speak out against the racism directed against them. And so, in order to stop feeling shame, you have to be angry, you have to feel that, “I’m not the one who should be ashamed. The racist is the one who should be ashamed. I’m not to blame. The racist society is to blame.” So you’re doing the right thing by saying that. But, again, I think strategies here in France are quite different, for how to cope with these kinds of things.

Liem Binh: Grace.

Viet Thanh N.: Hello.

Grace: I want to discuss this relationship with you because I think French universalism makes it very difficult for the French to have a real conversation. As you may know, the French National Assembly just suppressed the word “race” from the Constitution, as well as social security.

Grace: And you see, here, white supremacy, no one talks about it. Actually, I think most Asian people even everybody, most French people think the word “white” is a bad word. Most French and most Asian people refer to white people as French, and they refer to themselves as Asians.

Grace: So I think the French universalism makes the model minority myth very strong, and the duality you were talking about is very uncomfortable here for the Asians. And I think even the Vietnamese community, it’s very strong within the Vietnamese community. Most Vietnamese people I know are doctors and pharmacists, and they’re very proud of working hard. And whenever we talk about Arabs, and black people, and the movements, and equal rights, they all think, “Oh, we don’t need that, ’cause we’re so much better than them. We never got police controls, because we’re not bad people, right? So if they got controlled, it must be because they did something bad.”

Grace: So this is really very strong within the communities. The racism that I encounter most these days is internalized racism, within our own communities. And we have to ask ourselves … we need to deconstruct the stereotypes we have within our hearts and our past, in order to go forward.

Viet Thanh N.:  So I also hear, besides the internalized racism, internalized colonialism, because obviously the way that French colonialism worked was to say some countries are better than other countries, so in Indochina, the Vietnamese were better than the Cambodians, and the Laotians, and then the Indochinese were better than the Africans, for example. And it seems to be that those French attitudes have been internalized by the Vietnamese, and expressed the way that you’re talking about.

Viet Thanh N.:  And the other way that both colonialism and racism work is to divide people. So, again, for colonialism to be effective, the colonizer has to tell the different colonial populations, “Okay, you’re African. You’re Arab. You’re Indochinese. But you guys have nothing in common with each other.” So these people are discouraged from seeing any kind of affiliation between their situations.

Viet Thanh N.: But to be anti-racist, or to be anti-colonial, genuinely, means that you make those connections. So to be anti-racist cannot just mean that you say, “We’re only interested in what happens to Vietnamese people.” So if that is the case, then, of course, well, Vietnamese people are doing fine; therefore, there’s no racism. To be anti-racist means to say, “I’m against racism everywhere,” which means that if there’s racism against Arabs, for example, then I have a personal interest in that, because it benefits me. I have to recognize that. But the people you’re talking about don’t recognize that, right?

Viet Thanh N.: And same thing with anti-colonial efforts. As people from a former colony, we have to say, “Look, we have a very distinct relationship with what happened in Algeria,” for example. When we make that step, then we recognize that, in fact, from what I can tell, dominant French culture is white culture, okay, from my perspective. You’re not supposed to say this in France. I understand that, that, here, it’s the common culture. It’s just French. There’s no whiteness involved. I’m a racist for saying there’s whiteness involved.

Viet Thanh N.: But in the United States, it’s absolutely obvious that there is white supremacy, that there is white privilege, and that the way that American society has evolved has been very much about whiteness. And the reason why many people, who support Donald Trump, don’t like people of color is because they are challenging white privilege, and white supremacy.

Viet Thanh N.:  Now, here in France, again, I don’t completely understand what’s happening here, but it’s hard for an outsider to look at French society, and not see that there is a hierarchy here, and people at the top are white, and the people who are at the bottom tend more to be people of color.

Audience: I would like [crosstalk 01:25:02]

Liem Binh: So let people have a … those who haven’t ask a question yet.

Nhat Cuong: Can I just say a thing here, because it’s funny that you say that people in France don’t say, “un blanc,” anymore, don’t say, “white.” In French, it’s white, un blanc, anymore. But I’ll also remark that we stopped saying, “un noir.” Instead of that, we say, “un black.”

Nhat Cuong:  We say, “un black.”

Viet Thanh N.: That’s an American word.

Nhat Cuong:  Yes. [crosstalk 01:25:33] French.

Audience: It’s a euphemism.

Nhat Cuong: When you say, “un noir,” it relates to race. But if you say, “un black,” it’s more like style. And so it’s more okay. And people are more … today, we’re always say, “it’s a black,” but “c’est un black.” So just one comment.

Liem Binh: Lady at the back.

Audience: Hello. My name’s [crosstalk 01:25:58]. I’m a student in Paris. I have comment on The Sympathizer, and one question. So first, I’m talking the comments. I’ve not finished reading the novel, but I really like it. And the first thing I want to talk about is that I really like the part when you wrote about Linh Đức and the spy from Vietnam. It was so touching, and I cried so much, when you wrote about the death of Duc, of Linh.

Viet Thanh N.: Good. I’m glad.

Audience: I think that you must be violent and cruel to start the novel so strictly like that. However, I expect much, much more in the following chapters, and that’s what happens.

Audience: And the second thing I would like to talk about in The Sympathizer, is that there were so many expressions that you used that made me think that maybe it’s just a translation from Vietnamese thought into American language. One example is when you talked about the thinking of Americans, about Vietnamese refugees, you said that American people thought about Vietnamese refugees as someone who pick pocketed the American purse. And the expression made me laugh a lot. And I wonder if it’s Vietnamese thinking translated into American language, or really American think like that?

Viet Thanh N.: No, Americans would never say that.

Audience: Yeah.

Viet Thanh N.: And I think that it’s not a translation from the Vietnamese. But what it is is that, going back to the duality question, I wanted to approach the English language as an outsider to the English language, because I grew up speaking bad Vietnamese, but enough Vietnamese so that I was always aware of moving between languages. And so in writing The Sympathizer, part of the point was to foreground the language, and to show … There’s two reasons why the language is foregrounded. One, within the novel, the narrator himself, as you will … if you haven’t reached the end of the novel, you don’t know yet, but the narrator is being tortured while he’s writing the book. Okay, so his relationship to language is very tortured.

Viet Thanh N.: But the other reason is because, for me to be an American author, really when I wrote The Sympathizer, besides telling the Vietnamese story, I really wanted to challenge America, and American literature. I did my doctorate in American literature. And my ambition was to write a book that would be a part of American literature, which would include showing that I have a lot of command over the English language.

Viet Thanh N.: It’s, of course, one of the stereotypes against Asians, in the United States, maybe here too, is that we don’t speak the language very well. But I do speak the language very well.

Audience: You can write.

Viet Thanh N.: And I can write. There’s a Chinese-American writer, Frank Chin, and he says, “writing is fighting,” and, for me, that was true. I’m a writer. I’m not a real fighter. I’m a lover. But my writing is my fighting. And that means the language itself is where I demonstrate that fight.

Audience:  Viet, Thank you for your answers. The most important part of the novel that made me interested in…so my question is very simple: What makes you feel Vietnamese?

Viet Thanh N.: What makes me feel Vietnamese? I know there’s something innately Vietnamese inside of me, because, for example, in America I went to a store, just a normal store, forget what it was, a drug store. This man next to me, he’s Asian. He’s probably Vietnamese. I can look at someone, and think, “You’re probably Vietnamese.” But he called someone on his phone, and it was his child. He is speaking Vietnamese. He said, “Con oi, Ba day. Con an com chua?” This was a guy who looked like he was probably working class: not handsome, kind of rough looking. But when he spoke to his child in Vietnamese, it was very tender. And you can’t translate what he said. You can translate it.

Viet Thanh N.: Okay, so for those of you who don’t speak Vietnamese, he said, literally, “Hello, child. This is your father. Have you eaten yet? Have you eaten rice yet?” That means nothing in English. But in Vietnamese, it means everything. “Con oi, Ba day. Con an com chua?” These are things that are things that are loaded with enormous emotional meaning for a Vietnamese person, and I grew up with that.

Viet Thanh N.: So when I heard him, I almost cried. And that’s how I know I’m Vietnamese. And those of you who went to my American Library in Paris reading, I cried when I talked about the … I spoke much more about The Displaced there. And I told the story about my adopted sister, and I cried. That’s how I know I’m Vietnamese, because my history still has meaning for me. My culture still has meaning for me. Even if my Vietnamese is imperfect, which it is, I’m still connected to Vietnam and to the Vietnamese refugees worldwide.

Viet Thanh N.: When I was growing, there were some Vietnamese-Americans who would say to me, “You’re not really Vietnamese, because you don’t speak perfect Vietnamese.” That’s a horrible thing to say to somebody. And I felt that there are many ways of being Vietnamese, just as there are many ways of being French, many ways of being American. And that as long as I felt I was Vietnamese, as long as I was moved by Vietnamese things, I was still Vietnamese. So that’s how I claim my Vietnamese self.

Liem Binh: Yeah, I think when she asked that, I really hear what you’re saying, because I think my Vietnamese is bad, worst than you. I feel we can be Vietnamese, but not directly connected to Vietnam, the land. And that’s how I think that’s how we can become diasporic.

Audience: I have a question Do you feel at piece with your reading? If you do, will you stop writing? And do you have advice or recommendations for the next generation, and the immigrant children, for the next generation? What would be your advice for them to feel at peace with this reality with all of us? And would you recommend for them to really leverage this reality as a strength, or rather focusing, building themselves as an individual, a human being, beyond the single origins?

Viet Thanh N.: Every time I feel like I’m at peace, I think, “Don’t be at peace,” because it’s bad for me as a writer to feel too comfortable, because I think that everything I’ve ever learned has been through conflict, has been through friction, has been through not feeling at peace. And some people don’t want that. Some people want to feel very comfortable. They always want to feel at home. They never want to be challenged. I don’t see how you learn anything from that. And I feel that there is no reason to be at peace, because there is so much that is wrong with our world.

Viet Thanh N.: I come to Paris, and when I first came to Paris, it was like everybody who, as a tourist, comes to Paris, it was because Paris is wonderful. Everything’s great. But after a few times going back to Paris, especially last summer. I was here 14 weeks last summer. I was like, “God, Paris can sometimes really be terrible,” for all kinds of reasons. But that was a very important thing for me, because then I could see Paris is just normal for everybody who lives here. And what “normal” means is that there are a lot of problems, just like in the United States. And if we open our eyes, we have to see the problems. And if we see that there is racism, or inequality, or injustice, we can’t be at peace.

Viet Thanh N.:  My life is pretty good right now. I have nothing to complain about, personally. So I could just stay happy for the rest of my life. But that would be wrong, because, if I believe that injustice is wrong, I have to believe that injustice is wrong everywhere. And that if I see injustice, I cannot be at peace with that.

Viet Thanh N.: So yes, I think the answer to your question is: to be happy, I have to be at peace, so I am. But to do my work, to do my writing, I can’t be at peace. And both things have to happen at the same time. As for my son, I have a five-year-old son, I want him to be at peace. He gets a lot of good stuff. He gets to go to Paris. He has visited more countries than most Americans ever have. He has everything. But I have to teach him that he can’t be at peace with what he has.

Viet Thanh N.:  So I’ll tell you a story that many Americans object to. In America, we celebrate Thanksgiving. Do you know what that is? Yeah? Okay. Alright. So when he was three years old, he comes home from school, and he says, “Oh, look, I learned about the pilgrims and the Indians celebrating Thanksgiving, at school.” And I know that, here in France, you probably know about it, because I’ve seen books here, for children, with Indians, American-Indians, dressed as they were…

Viet Thanh N.: …300 years ago, so I told my son, “I’m going to teach you a new word. Do you know what Thanksgiving means?” and I told him the word. I said to him, “Do you know what Thanksgiving means?” And he said, “Genocide?” Now you might think this is way too early for a three year old to learn the word genocide, but in the United States, everybody learns about pilgrims and Indians, but most people will never learn about genocide even though that’s what actually happened. My son, he knows about refugees. He knows about the Vietnam War.

Viet Thanh N.: We come here to France and he says to me … I never told him this, okay, so he’s just hearing what my wife and I are talking about. He says, “Why did the French come to Vietnam and steal things?” He’s five years old. I think that it’s important. When you ask about the next generation, my feeling is we have to teach them these kinds of things. Of course, we want to love them and give them everything, but we also have to teach them that there are things that are wrong in the world and they have to care about those things. They have to be aware of those things. Otherwise, they just grow up to be people who are perfectly happy with how terrible things are and that’s wrong.

Audience:  I was very inspired and empowered by The Sympathizer. I’m American, but of Indian descent. I’m from India. I was born in Chinya. I lived in England and now I live in France and I am French, as well, so the idea of a dual and even a multiple identity really resonates with me. I thought when talking about the Vietnam War, one of the most powerful things I’ve heard you say is one of the biggest most persistent lies about the Vietnam War is that it was a war of 7th century.  You’ve also said that Hollywood is the unofficial propaganda ministry of the American military industrial complex. This is from your Twitter feed and I’m going to ask you a question that I think you’ve said you don’t want to answer, but my master’s thesis is on a documentary by Ken Burns and I really want to bring in your perspective.

Audience: You said that you don’t want to answer questions about the documentary because you want other Vietnamese experts or other Vietnamese to step forward and say something about them, but I just want to know if you’ve seen the documentary and I’ve seen the documentary. I’ve read your book and I read … I’m halfway through Nothing Ever Dies and I have your other books, as well, but I have no time to read them yet.

Liem Binh:  What is the question?

Audience: Sorry. The intentions of Lynn Novick and Ken Burns, even though it’s a very American documentary, they were trying to put their arms around everything. They were trying to represent as many voices as possible including the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese, and Lynn Novick, in any case, she read your novel. She talks about Nothing Ever Dies and she said that all wars … You say that all wars are fought twice on the battlefield in our memory and so, yeah. Have you seen the documentary and what is your …

Viet Thanh N.: For those of who don’t know, Ken Burns is a famous American documentary filmmakers. He’s made a lot of famous documentaries about very American things like baseball and jazz, so then this past year, he and his co-producer, Lynn Novick, produced an 18 hour documentary about the Vietnam War. I think they produced a 10 hour version for the European market. Anyway, I actually met Lynn Novick. I never met Ken Burns, but before they finished the film, I went to their studio to watch 45 minutes of clips from the documentary with Lynn Novick and that’s all I’ve seen.

Viet Thanh N.: The clips were great. They’re beautiful and I think as I was watching them, I was very aware that Lynn Novick was watching me watch the documentary because she wanted my approval and I approve. It’s a beautiful documentary, okay, but the reason why I refuse to watch it is because I don’t have 18 hours to spare and because I knew, and it happened to me, in the few months after the documentary came out, no matter where I go, people were going to ask me, “What do you think of the Ken Burns documentary?” And almost always they were people who had never read a book about the Vietnam … They had never read a book or a watched a movie by a Vietnamese person, but they’re willing to spend 18 hours watching another story from the American perspective about the Vietnam War and I just refused to participate, because I think if you have 18 hours to spare to watch another American story about the Vietnam War, you have to spare to read one Vietnamese book or watch one Vietnamese movie, but it doesn’t happen.

Viet Thanh N.: I’m just tired and when that documentary came out, I got all these requests from American TV stations to talk about the documentary as the professional Vietnamese person that I now am and I could say, “I can’t do it because I haven’t watched it.” That’s one reason I didn’t watch it and it’s very complicated because I get a lot of requests now that are very similar. Will you help us with our Vietnam War project? These are very important projects. Will you help us shape the entire curriculum of New York state about the Vietnam War and I said no because this will never stop.

Viet Thanh N.: Instead of just asking me, there’s a whole bunch of other Vietnamese people you can ask, but the dilemma is always the same. The dilemma is they just want one guy, me, because now I’m the person that they know, but they’re like hundreds of other Vietnamese people who could talk about this, but we don’t want to talk to them. We will have endless numbers of American stories about the Vietnam War, but we only want to hear one Vietnamese person’s opinion about the war. That’s wrong.

Viet Thanh N.: As to the question of is it a good representation, all I can say is I read a lot of Facebook comments by Vietnamese Americans who watched it and their consensus was, yes, it covers a lot of different perspectives, but it’s still an American framework and it’s still an American framework that, from the perspective of the Vietnamese refugees who watched it, still was much more sympathetic to the Vietnamese communists than it was to the Southern Vietnamese, and it was still a documentary that refused to make a judgment about the Vietnam War. In other words, it was a documentary that said, “History is complex.” That’s not a good answer. Yes, history is complex, but we have to make a judgment about what happened.

Viet Thanh N.: When we say history is complex but we make no judgment, it only benefits the people who are the powerful and so in that sense, I think it’s a potentially very problematic documentary not because it doesn’t tell Vietnamese stories, but in the end, it allows Americans to feel that, well, it was just a tragedy. Sorry.

Liem Binh: Just to follow up comments on you because when I talk to you, you say I’m Asian American and I’m proud to be a public voice of this community and here you kind of push back, so is it because they’re white or because you want to go to do other things? Where do you draw the limit between you as being a voice of public figures of this community and when you say…

Viet Thanh N.: Okay, number one, I never say that I’m the voice of anybody or anything. That’s just other people say that about me and I understand why because there are a lot of Vietnamese and Asian Americans who say, “We’re really proud of you. You’re telling our stories. You’re our voice,” and I’m happy to do that for them. I believe that that should be done, but the reason why they feel that way is because there are not enough Asian American or Vietnamese voices out there. I would bet that if you come from the majority in your society, in America for example, you are never expected to be the voice for Americans. You’re just telling your own story, so the whole idea of having a voice is fundamentally unequal and it’s fundamentally tied to our existence as minorities in whatever society we come from.

Viet Thanh N.: When people tell me you are the voice for a community, I feel that it’s important for me to do that, but I also know that it’s a way to continue to keep us in the minority, and that’s why I’m saying with your example, why just talk to me? I’m not the only voice. There are hundreds of voices out there that could say something about the Vietnamese history or community or experiences, but Americans don’t want to do the work of finding these people. They just want the one voice they can go back to over and over again and that’s no good for anybody and it’s no good for me because I get tired. It’s no good for the Vietnamese people because not everybody’s going to agree with me. There are many, many other Vietnamese voices out there that need to be heard, so I refuse to do this because I don’t want to make it easier for Americans to ignore the rest of the Vietnamese population.

Audience: Hi. I have a few questions. I’m half-French and half-Vietnamese and as I come to France, I actually was 17, so when I read Le Sympathisant I loved it, so I hope you can sign it. You talk a lot about sarcasm and critical look, but what struck me as a French and Vietnamese person is really empathy that also is in the book and the way you said that the hero can see both sides of all the situations and as you say, it’s very important also to fight and to also know why Vietnamese people took this past and see both sides. My question is you talk a little bit about being a voice but also it’s so very important to be a community of people against racism and as I am white, singled out in the Vietnamese, but also being with a larger community of writers and fights against this kind of racism. I want to know a little bit from you, books like you spoke about Asian Americans also the Afro American speakers. I know a lot about some of them like Americans and book and I think there is a lot of similarity in terms of you want to be singled out to be part of our history, and do you think there can be some links between such writers to and fear and the larger community of writers?

Viet Thanh N.:  Sorry. Sorry. I have to send an email to somebody. I was supposed to meet him at 5:30. Yeah. We’re going to a very exclusive club and … let me just … Okay. Okay, so I have talked to a few French writers of Vietnamese origins here in France and it’s very interesting to compare our situations in the United States and in France, because in the United States, because we have Asian American and Vietnamese American identity and because we believe in the importance of alliances and solidarity and coalitions and because we are not afraid to get together as a big group … Which apparently, many Asians are afraid to get together. Too many Asians here. We support each other, so we advance the idea of Vietnamese American and Asian American literature. We read each other’s books. We try to help each other get published and all these kinds of things.

Viet Thanh N.: Here in France apparently from what I hear, that does not happen as much. At least from what these French writers are telling me is they’re very much left as individuals to write their stories. For me, I believe very much in my own voice as a writer. That’s why I wrote The Sympathizer the way I did because I knew that the only way to make a mark on American literature was to be just myself, but I also believe in the cause of growing more Vietnamese and Asian American voices and encouraging other writers, so these two things are completely related. It was because I went to college and I read for the first time Asian American authors and African American authors and I realize, oh, there is a history before me. I’m not unique. I’m not new. But in fact, in the United States, writers have been writing as Asian Americans and as African Americans for a couple of centuries, and so that meant there was a tradition for me to pull from.

Viet Thanh N.: That’s the balance. There was a tradition and a community of struggle and support and there’s the individual voice and both things are related. It was absolutely important for me to know that there were already Asian American writers and it was absolutely important for me to read African American writers because they have had the strongest voice in the United States as American writers, but also as people opposed to America.

Viet Thanh N.: We absolutely need African American literature. We need Asian American literature, too, so I channel all of those influences in a book like The Sympathizer and my book Nothing Ever Does, the title, actually, comes from Tony Morrison’s novel, Beloved, so it was a very deliberate gesture to African American literature and to the idea that this struggle for memory and voice is something that is not uniquely my own or not even uniquely Vietnamese or Asian American, but it’s completely related to the struggles of African Americans and other people of color in the United States, as well.

Liem Binh: Okay, so you have a half an hour? Maybe you take a few …

Liem Binh: Can you speak loud?

Audience: I would like to question in Vietnamese?

Viet Thanh N.: In Vietnamese? Okay. I’ll try. Okay. [Vietnamese 01:52:52]

Audience: [Vietnamese] *How is the reaction of the Vietnamese Government?*

Viet Thanh N.: Censorship?

Audience: Censorship.

Viet Thanh N.: Okay.

Audience: [Vietnamese] *How does censorship in Vietnam work for you book. *

Viet Thanh N.: [Vietnamese 01:53:11] Okay, so I think the question was about censorship in my Vietnam in my own works? Is that correct?

Audience: Yeah.

Viet Thanh N.: Okay, so for example, all three books that I talked about have been sold in Vietnam to Vietnamese publishing houses and  the first book to come out was The Refugees translated as] ,người tị nạn but there are two editions. In Vietnam, người tị nạn is censored, so [Vietnamese 01:53:44] *So they check the books. In the Vietnamese edition, one short story has been removed.

Liem Binh: Who decided to remove this?

Viet Thanh N.: [Vietnamese 01:53:58] *It’s the government* I don’t have a choice. Of course, I don’t want to be censored, but I felt that  người tị nạn, The Refugees could exist as a book missing one short story. I could live with that and I tried to negotiate. My publisher said, “Look, the other …” Apparently in Vietnam there’s another publishing house that gives you, your publisherm the permission to publish your book, so censorship is a little bit indirect. It’s not the government that says it. It’s this other publishing house. So I told my publisher, “Okay, all right, let’s say we agree to that, but instead of having the short story just being cut, we have 20 blank pages in the short story collection?” They said they won’t agree to that, but my publisher said, “But maybe they will agree to having a few blank pages.” I said, “Okay, let’s go for that,” and he comes back and says, “No, they didn’t agree to that, either.”

Viet Thanh N.: All they agreed to is a footnote that says there is a story that is not included. Ironically, the story is called “War Years” and it is the only story I have ever written that is about my life and my parents. The edition that’s in Vietnamese that’s published for overseas markets is not censored, so you can find that story in there. Now, The Sympathizer has been translated in Vietnamese, but for the last four months, it’s been waiting for permission. I don’t know what’s happened and in the case of The Sympathizer, I can’t allow that book to be censored because if you remove a chapter or three or four chapters-

Audience: Save the last chapter.

Viet Thanh N.: The last four chapters. The last four chapters. The book makes no sense, so that fight over the censorship of The Sympathizer is still … I don’t know. It may still happen. And Nothing Ever Dies…Again, I am amazed that anybody bought this book in Vietnamese because it has a lot of negative thing to say about communism, but they bought it, and they’re trying to find a translator for it right now.

Liem Binh: She had another question.

Viet Thanh N.: Sorry, sorry. Finish your question.

Audience: [Vietnamese 01:56:32] *I am a writer and my work has been censored in .Vietnamese and certain words are simply censored in French. I cannot call the word in certain terms.

Viet Thanh N.: So I think the question was that you are a writer, too, yes?

Audience: Yes.

Viet Thanh N.: And your work has been censored in Vietnamese and certain words are simply—[censored] in French. Okay, certain words are not allowed. You can’t call the war by certain…

Audience: Certain terms.

Viet Thanh N.: You have to use the official Vietnamese term: which is the war to rescue the country and fight off the Americans, whatever. I think, yes, absolutely, I think the reason why người tị nạn or The Refugees, was censored was because the one story, “War Years,” talks about … I don’t know why. I’m guessing this is the reason why. It talks about how after the war, the Vietnamese communists erased the memory of the South Vietnamese from Vietnam, so there’s a very specific story in this short story where someone says, “Oh, my husband and my son both died in the war. They’re buried in the cemetery and when the Vietnamese communists came in, they destroyed the cemetery,” Okay. And the story is very much about how angry this woman is and how she’s trying to continue the war against the communists in San Jose.

Viet Thanh N.: I think that was why. You can’t talk about these things in Vietnam. That was too explicit of a story for the censors. So I think censorship is obviously still very strong in Vietnam. I think I’m relatively lucky because I won the Pulitzer Prize. People in Vietnam know what that is. Maybe the censorship is a little more gentle in regards to me. I don’t know. I will only find out if I go back to Vietnam, which my publisher wants me to do. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to find out when I get there that maybe what I write about is too sensitive.

Liem Binh:So you have question for

Sorry, only one question. No, excuse me, because there is only one question because then he have to sign the books, so if you want your books to be signed, we take a question from someone who haven’t speak yet. Sorry. You.

Audience: I love The Sympathizer. It was an amazing book. What I want to ask is so there’s a lot of young Vietnamese people who were born and raised in Vietnam and at the moment they feel like it’s … In the same time, they’re proud to be Vietnamese, but they’re also ashamed to be Vietnamese, and maybe it’s a bit of a regret to be Vietnamese because they’re born in a beautiful country, but it’s small and poor. They speak a beautiful language, but nobody else speak it. So what do you feel about that? Have you ever experienced something like that? What do you feel that those people can do to feel with that problem because that’s a real thing. There’s a lot going on with the youth in Vietnam.

Viet Thanh N.: That’s a great question because I feel exactly the same way as Vietnamese in the United States. We’re a small population. It’s large compared to the Vietnamese in France. There’s a million Vietnamese in the United States, but still, we’re a small population. Nobody knows who we are. Everybody stereotypes us, etc. I know a lot of Vietnamese Americans who grew up feeling ashamed of being Vietnamese, ashamed of being a refugee, ashamed of the Vietnam War, all that kind of stuff. So how do I deal with it? I got angry.

Viet Thanh N.: Like I said, why should I feel ashamed? It’s not my fault that these things happened. It’s not my fault that we are a stigmatized community in the United States. That’s the fault of racism. So the response to shame is, first of all, anger. Righteous, righteous anger, because we shouldn’t blame ourselves. We didn’t do anything wrong. We’re in the situation we’re in because of colonialism and because of racism and because of war and because of things we didn’t choose, so then we have to speak up. The only way to dispel the shame is to be angry and then to turn that anger into a voice.

Viet Thanh N.: But, the difference between what you’re describing and what I’m describing is that I’m not purely Vietnamese. I’m Vietnamese American and I knew that I would write in English. I didn’t really have a choice because my Vietnamese was not good enough to write in Vietnamese, but part of me knew that if I were to write in English, I would write as an American author, too. What that would mean is that I would be writing in the language of the empire, right? If you write in Vietnamese, like you say, you are writing in the language of a beautiful language, a beautiful country, but small country, small language, so there are lots of great Vietnamese writers, but nobody reads them outside of Vietnam.

Audience: I don’t think that’s a problem with being racist. It’s not racist. It’s just more an identity crisis as in a small nation with…

Viet Thanh N.: Yes, but you said that there’s shame attached to that and I’m saying there should be no shame. Maybe I’m too angry, but there should at least be some questioning as to why we should feel ashamed from coming from a small country or a small language. We should be fighting back and speaking out in that language for our country. But again, for me, I know that my relationship to what you’re saying is different because I can write in English and I can be … Now The Sympathizer has something like 27 foreign editions. But there a lot of great of Vietnamese writers who don’t get translated because they’re from Vietnam and that’s a huge difference that is absolutely related to, for me coming from the United States, which is an imperial country that has a lot of power which I criticize, but I benefit from that, too.

Liem Binh: Okay. Thank you.


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