Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Bay Area Book Festival 2018: Viet Thanh Nguyen and Karen Tei Yamashita in Conversation on Arts and Politics.

Karen Tei Yamashita and Viet Thanh Nguyen sit down at the 2018 Bay Area Book Festival to discuss writing and art as a political act. Yamashita and Nguyen share with the audience their formative years writing during the social movements of the 70s and 90s, laugh over their use of Lotus and Excel spreadsheets, and what they continue to learn from their own students.  

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Cherilyn P: Welcome to the 2018 Bay Area Book Festival. This is Cherilyn Parsons, founder and director of the festival. Enjoy the conversation.

Genaro Padilla: Good early afternoon. Welcome everyone. My name is Genaro Padilla I’m on the Berkeley faculty in English and it is a privileged to be here on behalf of the UC Berkeley Design Group. This is the sponsor of today’s session Berkeley Arts and Design is a campus-wide initiative led by a woman we think of as incomparably energetic, Shannon Jackson. She is the associate vice chancellor for arts and design on the campus. Our initiative seeks to feature and fortify the creative work on the campus in the greater Bay Area.

Genaro Padilla: It is our commitment to ensure that arts, and humanities, and creative work is at all times part of the university mission, and that our connection with the wider communities, in which we live, is served by members of the faculty, our graduate and undergraduate students. We are very, very happy to be part of the Bay Area Book Festival. We want to continue to reach across the communities from the university and to make events like this possible. I couldn’t be happier to be here. Viet is a former student of mine in English.

General Audience: Woo hoo.

General Audience: Woo.

Viet Nguyen: Can I just let everybody know that last year, you found one of my papers that you hadn’t graded after about 25 years.

Genaro Padilla: That’s right. That’s right. He didn’t come to pick up his paper and when he came to talk, just after having received the Pulitzer Prize, I returned it to him with comments.

Viet Nguyen: It’s actually a pretty good time for Berkeley professors.

Speaker 1: Thank you all for coming. I’ll just give a brief introduction and welcome to The Bay Area Book Festival and to this session, Art and Politics, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Karen Tei Yamashita in Conversation.

Speaker 1: An introduction to our esteemed authors, many of you already know much about them, I’m sure. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, among numerous other honors. His other books are Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, Race and Resistance, Literature and Politics in Asian America and The Refugees. He is also the editor of The Displaced, Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Viet is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and comparative literature, a lot of things, at the University of Southern California. He is also a critic at large for The LA Times and a contribution opinion writer for The New York Times. Welcome, Viet.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Speaker 1: Karen Tei Yamashita is the UC presidential chair for feminist, critical race, and ethnic studies, and has authored Letters to Memory, Through the Arc of the Rainforest, Tropic of Orange, and I Hotel, which was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award and awarded the California Book Award, as well as many other honors. He has been a US Artist Ford Foundation Fellow and is Professor of Literature and Creative Writing a University of California Santa Cruz. Welcome, Karen.

General Audience: Woo.

General Audience: Woo.

Speaker 1: Now, Karen and Viet in conversation. Take it away.

Viet Nguyen: Can I just say, it’s a real honor to be here today, especially being in conversation with Karen, whose writing I’ve admired for a very long time. The first book I read from Karen was Tropic of Orange, but I’ve read everything else.

Viet Nguyen: It’s really cool to be up here with Professor Genaro Padilla, who really was my undergraduate and graduate professor. The undergraduate course I took with Professor Padilla in 1991 perhaps. Shocking. Was on multicultural American literature. I don’t remember if that was the exact title, but that was what we were covering. It was one of the courses that really helped me, persuade me to think that I could go onto graduate school and become a professor, a scholar of Asian-American literature.

Viet Nguyen: And in the graduate seminar I took with him was on border crossings and immigrants. That course seemed very timely in ’93 or ’94, whenever I took it. And it still seems timely today. I just mentioned to Professor Padilla that I’m quoting him in an op-ed that hopefully will come out in The Washington Posts on canons, and literature, and everything. I just call him a scholar of Chicano Literature, but here I’m telling you who it is.

Viet Nguyen: I remember going to see him in office hours and we were both a lot younger back then. We were talking in private and we were talking about canons and about what we’re doing as scholars of Chicano and Asian-American literature. He said, “We have to know their literature, but they don’t have to know ours.” Which is to say, we who are in the minority, have to know what the majority is thinking, what the majority has written, but there is no reciprocity on that. It’s still sort of true today and that’s part of the motivation that helped make me become a writer and that’s partly why I wanted to have this topic of our conversation be about art and politics because I never would have become a writer if I didn’t think it could be political.

Viet Nguyen: You have to understand, I’m a refugee. I came to this country when I was four years old, and my parents were refugees obviously. They opened, perhaps, the second Vietnamese grocery store in downtown San Jose in 1978. I remember walking down the street from their store when I was 10 or 11 years old, and seeing a sign in a store window that said, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” Meaning us. That’s not just a sign. That’s a story in nine words. It’s a very age-old American story that’s still being told today.

Viet Nguyen: Coming to Berkeley was awesome because I didn’t have a way to articulate this. I lived in San Jose. It was very multicultural, but then I went to a very elite, mostly white high school and there was a handful of us who were of Asian descent. We knew we were different, and so every day at lunch, we’d gather in a corner of the campus, and we’d call ourselves the “Asian Invasion”. When I got to Berkeley and discovered that we were actually Asian-Americans it was amazing. All of that were the motivations for becoming a writer, but this idea that stories that are political. Novels and poetry are political, but certainly narratives like another American driven out of business by fill-in-the-blank. And we were fill-in-the-blank at that time, in 1978 and the 1980s in downtown San Jose. Before us, it was obviously the Chinese and the Filipinos, and the Japanese and so on.

Viet Nguyen: I really do feel that for me, that for me, the only way I could justify being a scholar of literature, thinking about my parents who are working 12 to 14 hour days in a grocery store to put me through school. There was no way I could go home to them, and say, “Mom and dad, I want to study Jane Austen and the Romantics.” I love Jane Austen and the Romantics, but I was not going to do a PHD in these topics.

Viet Nguyen: This idea that art could be political, both in terms of how we study it, but also art could be political in terms of those of us who are artists was enormously motivating for me. Being at Berkeley was perfect. The moment I saw Berkeley, I thought, I got to be here. The moment I stepped foot on Berkeley, I was immediately radicalized. The stereotypes are true and had classes with writers like Maxine Hong Kingston here at Berkeley.

General Audience: Woo.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. It’s true, I did fall asleep every day in her class. I’ve gone on record saying that, but nevertheless, she made an impression. I think of myself of writing in a whole tradition of, many traditions, but one of them is Asian-American literature, which I think, Karen, maybe you consider yourself a part of that too, but also traditions of radical writing and political writing. That’s where I’m coming from in this conversation.

Viet Nguyen: I didn’t really mean, plan to say all that. It just sort of came out.

Karen Yamashita: Yeah. My writing starts when I go to Brazil. It’s in, well, okay, it’s during this period from ’68 and through the ’70s is when things start to change for people of color, in the sense that in universities, we begin to have ethnic studies, and there are protests for, and that’s the birth of, ethnic studies. It’s Asian-American studies, African-American studies, Chicano studies, Latino.

Karen Yamashita: About this time, I decide to pursue a project in Brazil in which I look R the Japanese immigration to Brazil. So I leave The United States and I do that. I think it’s going to be an anthropological, historical project. That’s when I go to Brazil. I meet Nisei Brazilians, and I ask them questions about, “Well, what’s going on with you? Are you motivated to think about Japanese Brazilian studies in this country?” They go, “No, we’re Brazilians.” They had a very particular Marxist position about the nation and also about class. That really turned me to think about really what was going on here politically within the Asian-American community here, and that was so different.

Karen Yamashita: It shook up my word in very interesting ways because I had been a part of that whole movement in the United States. Then I got to Brazil and there was something else going on there that had to do with class, and poverty, and the Brazilian nation.

Viet Nguyen: Well, also the international as well. I think you were, I wouldn’t say you were ahead of your times, but our context is of Asian-American movement and the radical politics of the ’60s, which I wasn’t a part of, but my professors were. I was here at Berkeley in the 1990s and many of my professors had been Berkeley students in the 1960s, and their thing was it’s going to happen again, any moment, the revolution. It’s going to come. It didn’t come.

Karen Yamashita: In the ’90s? No. They’d given up by then. Come on.

Viet Nguyen: I don’t know if they’d given up, but that was what we’re supposed to working for. We were reading ethnic studies. I was an Ethnic Studies double major. It was English and Ethnic Studies here, but of course, we were besides all the various kinds of ethnic studies stuff, and minority writers, and we were reading post-colonial writers. We were reading Marxist theory.

Viet Nguyen: There was, for me, there was a couple of important things happening here. One is this idea that academia isn’t necessarily divorced from literature and art. It’s my perception that in contemporary American culture, especially with contemporary American fiction, writers are allergic to politics. They’re allergic to academics. They’re cutting themselves off from two very important sources of influence.

Viet Nguyen: For me, I always thought that all these things were happening simultaneously, politics, and art, and theory. For me, the particular convergence was the 1960s here in the United States, but also globally because domestically here in the United States, especially in the Bay Area, you see the rise of the Asian-American movement, but it takes place in conjunction with the Third-World Liberation Front at San Francisco State. My politics at Berkeley at the time were very much about solidarity. That’s why I didn’t become an Asian-American studies major. I thought that was great, but I wanted to be an Ethnic Studies major because I wanted to do my work in conjunction with African-American Studies, and Latino Studies, and Native-American Studies. All this was happening.

Viet Nguyen: Then if you look back to the 1960s and the Asian-American movement, it was a movement that was really, really radical. You talk about this in your novel, I Hotel, where it was a movement born out of anti-war concerns, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, third-world coalition politics, and empowerment of Asian-Americans or Yellow Power. There was already, back then, an international or transnational part of it because the Asian-Americans here saw clear connection between racism directed against Asian-Americans and the racism of the Vietnam War, and they were making very deliberate efforts to, obviously, reach out internationally as well.

Viet Nguyen: When you were doing your stuff in the ’70s, that had started to submerge because the rise of Asian-American Studies within the academy then became much more US focused and we sort of lost international focus for a few decades. It’s really only now starting to come back. That’s why I mean you were actually a foreshadowing of what’s happening in Asian-American Studies, but also Asian-American art and literature now with the concern about the transnational.

Karen Yamashita: Right. Well, when I went back to look and to research that period for the I Hotel, I realized that it was always an international project and that I missed that or at least, I had thought it was a project that was contained in America, The Turtle Island. That research really opened my eyes to the diaspora that was always a part of and immigration from China, from Southeast Asia, from Korea, from Japan. That was always a part of this movement. Yeah. Those things happened with that, so-

Viet Nguyen: Well, the I Hotel is really an amazing novel for those who haven’t read it. Maybe you might want to get it on Kindle so it won’t be so intimidating because it’s like this thick.

Karen Yamashita: They call it the doorstop.

Viet Nguyen: But why not? It’s like there have been a number of these door-stopper historical novels by women of color, right. I think it’s deliberate claim to the idea that the big novel, the epic novel can also be written by people of color, by women of color. The I Hotel is an epic novel about the Asian-American struggle, centered around this hotel, which you can talk more about, but it was a huge political mobilizing point for Asian-Americans in San Francisco in The Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, but I really think this is the Asian-American novel, the great Asian-American novel. Because it really talks about this formative moment in Asia, the starting of Asian-American history.

Karen Yamashita: Well, it’s not the same class.

Viet Nguyen: But it’s a novel that is very, very explicit about dealing with movement radicals, organizers, activists, theorists, the people who actually went to Asia to continue their projects of radicalization. It quotes Marx. It’s doing a lot of stuff, I think, a contemporary American fiction is, like I said, reluctant to do, and which I would hope that we would see more of it. Writers trying to be Marxist, trying to be dialectical, trying to be radical.

Viet Nguyen: You’ve always been radical in your form from Tropic of Orange and the I Hotel are experiments in form. Letters to Memory, your most recent book, is an experiment in form, which we can talk about too. There’s that sense in which, I think when we say art and politics in the United States, the conventional understanding is oh my god. It’s going to be socialist realism. It’s going to be so boring and everything, and yet, and it could be true. A lot of socialist realism is boring, but I tell you what. A lot of contemporary American fiction is boring too.

General Audience: Woo.

Viet Nguyen: So it’s not the politics that make it boring. Part of art and politics is formal experimentation. Radical experimentation is a form of politics and I think you are doing both addressing the content of revolutionary politics, but also the formal moves that need to be necessary in a radical fiction.

Karen Yamashita: You’re amazing. You’re just amazing. I was like okay.

Viet Nguyen: I can ask you a question if it makes it easier like let’s go back to Tropic of Orange.

Karen Yamashita: Okay.

Viet Nguyen: Because a lot of people have remarked about Tropic of Orange because I remember that you said you had a database writing this book. Well, you wrote it on Linux or something like that?

Karen Yamashita: I was working at a television station at the time and I was in the engineering department. I was given this project to do, an accounting project on the computer. It was then in those days called Lotus.

Viet Nguyen: Lotus, okay.

Karen Yamashita: Do you know what Lotus is now? Now, it’s Excel. I thought, this is perfect for creating the structure for my book. So I put seven days up at the top and seven characters down this way. Then I would have what’s seven times seven? I had that many chapters.

Viet Nguyen: 49. I’m Asian. I can do that. Okay, okay, okay.

Karen Yamashita: I started to fill in. What I really liked about it is that you could type in all of this stuff and it would stay in the columns. For a while, my book was on Lotus.

Viet Nguyen: I read that. I remember that very clearly because I thought, that is so weird that you would use a program to write your novel, but then it stayed with me because in my great struggle to write a short story collection, The Refugees, which took me 17 years. It was like it sucked almost every single minute. I used Excel. You can’t really tell from reading the book.

Karen Yamashita: No.

Viet Nguyen: But I used Excel because my concern, as I was writing this short story collection was I don’t want to be like that guy who writes a short story collection and all the stories are about the same person, right. You’ve all read short story collections like this, I think. Hopefully you’re reading short story collections. I thought, okay, I’m going to use Excel so that I can say, “Here, I wrote a story about a man. Now, I got to write a story about a woman. Here, I wrote a story about someone young. Got to write a story about someone old.”

Karen Yamashita: Oh, that explains that book.

Viet Nguyen: Oh, does it? Okay. Well, yeah. I try to be because it’s mostly about Vietnamese refugees and the people they meet.

Karen Yamashita: Yes, but yeah.

Viet Nguyen: But it’s not like all Vietnamese people are the same. That’s one classification and then inside, you have a whole bunch of people who hate each other. You want to be able to acknowledge all these kinds of differences. I took that away that you can be systematic in your writing. And actually, maybe you need to be systematic in your reading or writing or I do, to overcome to prejudices and assumption that I think all of us internalize in one way or another. That’s a radical step too is to be self-conscious about your choices.

Karen Yamashita: For me, what was radical, for me about The Sympathizer is that you wrote it, but I was thinking about 10 years, if it had been 10 years before, what kind of book it would have been. Because do you all remember when the Oakland Museum of California had the, it was about the Vietnam-

Viet Nguyen: It was called What’s Going On. Are you talking about that exhibit?

Karen Yamashita: Yeah. For the Vietnam War. I remember that the museum had invited many scholars and folks to come talk about it and to brainstorm what that exhibit would be about. They were very excited and they thought, well, we’re going to have schools come through. We’re going to have universities, and professors come and talk about this. But when they finally had the exhibit, I realized that the Vietnamese community had a great amount of input, which I felt was negative to the exhibit.

Viet Nguyen: You felt that the Vietnamese community’s input was negative to the exhibition?

Karen Yamashita: Well, I mean, well, was controversial. So that for example, there was no self Vietnamese–. There was no flag there. The flag of the North Vietnam was not there. I think there was no photos of Ho Chi Minh. I’m wondering how it’s been for you within the community to have written that particular book you wrote, which has a lot of difficult things in it?

Viet Nguyen: Okay. For those of you that don’t know The Sympathizer, it’s about a communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army. If you know anything about Vietnamese-American community politics, you know this is a no-no. No, no, no.

Karen Yamashita: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: Like you said, in a Vietnamese-American community, you cannot possibly put up a picture of Ho Chi Minh or the contemporary Vietnamese flag because people will call you a communist and will shut you down. I knew this personally because I was very active in the Bay Area as a student, undergraduate and graduate years with Vietnamese-American arts organizing. We were the liberal types. We didn’t care about these kinds of political distinctions.

Viet Nguyen: Once we produced a play in San Francisco at San Francisco State, The Story of Tony D. It’s based on a short story by the Vietnamese writer, Lê Minh Khuê. Now, the problem is Lê Minh Khuê is one of the most prominent Vietnamese writers today or in the ’90s at any rate, but she is a veteran of the communist army. I mean, she had literally gone to work as a communist soldier. When the community found out about this, and this play by the way is actually a play that’s sympathetic to Americans because it’s about the recovery of the bones of an American veteran. We had to have the San Francisco State Police Department protect us from the community protestors that come out to protest this play.

Viet Nguyen: I knew from very personal experience that this was a real issue. The Oakland exhibit that you’re talking about, I think it’s very interesting that yes, these signs of Vietnamese communism were not included, but the Vietnamese-American community still was upset about that exhibit because they felt there wasn’t enough representation or enough input from them. All that means is I was frightened of the Vietnamese-American community. I’ve been gradually inching closer and closer to speaking in San Jose and speaking in Little Saigon in Orange County, and just testing the waters.

Karen Yamashita: You haven’t? You have spoken in San Jose. Yes.

Viet Nguyen: But not in a Vietnamese context.

Karen Yamashita: Oh.

Viet Nguyen: I have spoken in San Jose. Basically what I’m saying is the Pulitzer Prize, I think, has insulated me from anti-communism in the Vietnamese-American community because you know what trumps anti-communism? The Vietnamese desire for American approval because the Pulitzer Prize has made everybody happy and proud of me. And now, no one talks about the fact that it’s a novel about a communist spy. It’s amazing.

Viet Nguyen: I did know, when I wrote the novel that there would be some Vietnamese-Americans who would refuse to read this novel simply because it’s from the perspective of a communist spy. And in fact, one of my very good friends, her mother emails me on a regular basis. These emails are stories of the atrocities that communists committed against the South Vietnamese. She just wants me to know. Every week, I just got to say thanks, but that’s the context.

Karen Yamashita: Okay. All right.

Viet Nguyen: Okay. The I Hotel. I just reviewed it again. I just think it’s amazing. You have to understand that when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, there were a lot of us who thought we were the radical writers and whatever, activist, and so on. But it was very clear there was an establishment, literary scene, as well. I remember I enrolled in Alfred Arteaga’s poetry writing class.

Karen Yamashita: You did.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, you know. Okay.

Karen Yamashita: Yes.

Viet Nguyen: I rapidly discovered I’m not a very good poet. That’s fine. But then there was also Robert Hass’ poetry class at the same time. It was very clear, people of color were in Alfred Arteaga’s class, and white people were in Robert Hass’ class. We did a joint reading at Le Bateau Ivre, which is near here. I think it’s still business. It was very clear. The white poets were imitating the beats and we were imitating I don’t know who we were imitating. We were imitating June Jordan or something.

Viet Nguyen: That’s what I’m saying the I Hotel, to me, is a very radical novel because it’s willing to say all these kinds of things and be unapologetic about the politics. Did you find it hard? Was it always natural for you to be a political writer or did you have to will yourself into being that?

Karen Yamashita: If you’re going to spend all that time doing the research and doing the writing, I wanted to be thinking and research of substance. Often, my husband would say, “Well, why don’t you just write it in an alias, and write some B novel, and just make some money for a change?” I thought, well, why would I put all my time into that? I’m not interested in that.

Karen Yamashita: The politics matter to me, right. If it doesn’t have political substance or a question that I want to grapple with, I’m really not interested. I don’t want to waste my time. I have very little time. Either I’m teaching or I’m researching for writing. I don’t know. I think you might feel the same way because it’s like you’re a very busy person.

Viet Nguyen: I’m a very what? Busy person?

Karen Yamashita: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: Oh, yeah.

Karen Yamashita: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: But I think you publish all your books through Coffee House Press, yes?

Karen Yamashita: That’s true.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. Did you want to get published by a mainstream New York publishing house or was it always your intent to go with coffeehouse or a small press?

Karen Yamashita: Well, there was a moment when I was working for the television station and I thought that I would lose my job. It was a PBS station, and if you don’t subscribe, they don’t get enough money. I thought, well, they’re losing money, so I’m going to lose my job. Then at that moment, I called up Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press and I said, “Well, I have this new book. I’m going to try to go out and get a mainstream publisher because I think I need to make more money.” He said, “Fine. That’s very good. We’ll be very proud if we have launched your career and you can go on.” But I wasn’t able to sell it. Nobody wanted Tropic of Orange because it was such a weird construction of a novel. You know. It was on Lotus and …

Viet Nguyen: But I mean-

Karen Yamashita: One person said, “We don’t publish books with agendas.” It was a difficult sell. Other folks would say, “Well, why don’t you take out these two characters? Can you have these two characters fall in love? We want a love story.” And I couldn’t do it in seven days. It was impossible.

Viet Nguyen: None of this shocks or surprises me because when we sent my novel out for auction or whatever, there was no auction, okay. We sent it out to 14 publishers and 13 turned us down, so there was no auction. They were like, “Thank you.” For the 14th publisher–, who as I turned out, the editor who bought the book was English. As it turned out, I couldn’t tell, but was mixed race. I couldn’t help, but feel that these were things that helped the Grove Press, my press to understand what I was doing.

Viet Nguyen: I remember that before we put to book out for auction, I had a long conversation with an editor from another press who I was very hopeful for because I thought, oh, you’re publishing this person and this person, whose work I admire. We had an hour-long conversation. He said, “Well, you need to do a couple things with your novel.” I don’t remember thing two, but thing one was, “You should put in a significant relationship. Your narrative has to have a relationship.” He asked me, “Who do you think your narrator is having a relationship with?” I said, “Himself?” Which is true. I mean, it’s basically him and himself arguing, internally divided.

Viet Nguyen: I’m pretty sure the editor meant a romantic relationship because he had just edited a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, a political novel, but at the core of it was a romantic Casablanca type of relationship. I thought, I’m not doing that because for the reasons you’re implying. Not everything has to boil down to heterosexual romance or anything like that. We want to talk about politics here. Politics, yes, politics is an agenda. Everybody has an agenda. Some people get to hide their agendas and say they’re a-political. Those are the people in power. The rest of us are stuck with agendas.

Viet Nguyen: Let’s talk about memory because I think we have maybe 10 minutes before we’re going to switch to audience Q&A.

Karen Yamashita: Oh, yes. There’s a word in Nothing Ever Dies and my sister had said, “What is this word and what does it mean?” Mnemonic.

Viet Nguyen: Related to memory.

Karen Yamashita: Yes. Can you talk about it?

Viet Nguyen: Really?

Karen Yamashita: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: It’s a Greek word.

Karen Yamashita: I know. I know. But she wanted to know. She’s looking it up in Google and saying, “Well …” and she says she bets that it’s in the book a lot.

Viet Nguyen: Well, it’s because I’m a professor and I like to use big words.

Karen Yamashita: Yeah, yeah, so-

Viet Nguyen: No, but I mean, it’s the study of memory and the tricks of memory, and memory devices. The pneumonic device is how do you try to remember things. Back in the ancient days, people didn’t have books. They used to be really good at just remembering things. They could train their minds to remember vast amounts of information. Now, we have iPads and iPhones. We don’t have to remember anything. We’ve diverted everything into this instead.

Viet Nguyen: The reason I bring up memory is because you also have a book called Letters to Memory that just came out, which is a great book. I think we are working in some of the same issues because Letters to Memory is very much about the Japanese-American internment and the consequences of that on your vast, extended family who were put into a concentration camp, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it before it became unfashionable, thanks to the Nazis, to use such a term. The letters of your family—your entire archive of your memory of your family.

Viet Nguyen: Likewise for me, the fact that, my family was shaped by the Vietnam War and we were turned into refugees had a huge impact on me. I spent many decades of my life trying to make sense out of that, both on a personal and on a scholarly level in my fiction. I’m concerned with how we remember the Vietnam War in this country, in Vietnam, all over the world, but also with how we remember or don’t remember war in general.

Viet Nguyen: I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in the ’70s and ’80s where it was clear that even though the war was declared over in 1975, it wasn’t over for anybody. All these people had lost everything basically, and they were deeply traumatized. I grew up in a community steeped in ghosts, and hauntings, and loss, and anger, and bitterness, and melancholy. None of that really made it outside of the Vietnamese-American community except when people were protesting who they thought to be the anti-communist. In that case, the rest of Americans looked at the Vietnamese-Americans as if they were crazy like why are you still fighting this war?

Viet Nguyen: The thing is that Vietnamese-Americans, as angry as they were inside of the community, were not angry outside of it. If you understand Vietnamese, you can understand that there are Vietnamese people who will say, “The Americans betrayed us. They came in. Told us to fight this war, fight this war in their way. Then when push came to shove, they left and left us hanging.” In public, in English, what they’ll say is, “Thank you America.” Okay. That is the nexus of problems about memory, and what we can say, and not say that I’m trying to grapple with in Nothing Ever Dies, but also in The Sympathizer as well.

Viet Nguyen: In Letters to Memory, I don’t know. I mean, I think-

Karen Yamashita: Yeah. For my generation, I was a third-generation. I was born after the war. There were so many things that the Japanese-American community never talked about. I lived in Los Angeles in a very confined community in Los Angeles around a Japanese-American church that my father pastored. For many years, I think people my age of that generation, we really didn’t know what our parents were talking better when they got together and said, “What camp were you in?” My sister and I would remember, and my cousins, that we thought that our parents went to camp. Yeah. They had friends and relationships that were special because of camp. So yes, there’s a silence.

Karen Yamashita: I think, the way we were raised, and the way that, I think, the Nisei generation was very protective of us, had very much to do with the trauma of the camp, and to protect us and to make us–. For instance, my mother was very, very aware that I had to speak good English. She would always correct my grammar. She wanted to make sure that my English was good, and I could go out in the world and be an American. I don’t know if you would say that now, but as the years went on, and she died when she was almost 99. The things that she remember late in life, and talked about, and was most fiercely angry about was that experience in camp, and losing her freedom for those years.

Viet Nguyen: I think in the Letters to Memory, you mention a specific Los Angeles neighborhood that your family was in. Is it Jefferson and Normandie that-

Karen Yamashita: Yes.

Viet Nguyen: You said there was like three or four blocks of Japanese-American businesses there.

Karen Yamashita: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: I mean, that’s actually not far from the University of Southern California, where I teach, and as far as I know, there’s no marker of that. That neighborhood, that’s not Japanese-American anymore, is it?

Karen Yamashita: No, no.

Viet Nguyen: Right. Okay. I bring it up because as I mentioned, my parents opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose downtown in 1978. It’s similar that in that neighborhood it was like several blocks with many Vietnamese-American businesses despite what … Well, I guess it’s true, that sign, another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese. I guess we really did take over downtown San Jose, but that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s the beauty of capitalism. You’re supposed to go in there and revitalize neighborhoods and everything.

Karen Yamashita: Well, we’re part of the gentrification of any space, right.

Viet Nguyen: Well, it’s cycles. What happened is then in the 1970s, and ’80s, and ’90s, downtown San Jose was a very rough place. My parents got shot in their store on Christmas Eve. The worst incident of police death happened in front of my parents’ door when I was away in college. I didn’t find out until like two years ago. My classmate from high school, who is now the mayor of San Jose, said, “Yeah, did you know that these two cops were shot to death outside your parents’ store?” It’s like, “What?” Of course, my parents didn’t tell me. It was a very rough place.

Viet Nguyen: Okay. City hall in San Jose couldn’t care less about this neighborhood until Silicon Valley happened, and all this money starts to come in. They thought, wouldn’t it be nice to build a brand new city hall to reflect the brand new San Jose? Which they decided to build right across the street from my parents’ store and forced my parents to sell their property, forced many of the other Vietnamese-American businesses to sell their property for revitalization. Now when you go to downtown San Jose, you will never know that at one point, for a couple of decades, there was a thriving Vietnamese-American community here because there’s no memorials. There’s no plaques. There’s no markers of any king.

Viet Nguyen: I feel like this is one of the reasons why I became a writer because I was very upset by what happened to my parents’ business. Not because of the money, but-

Karen Yamashita: But the erasure of the space and the memory.

Viet Nguyen: The space. Yeah, the memory.

Karen Yamashita: Yeah, right.

Viet Nguyen: For the longest time, I thought, whenever I go to downtown San Jose, I would never drive by Santa Clara Street between Third and Fourth Street.

Karen Yamashita: But there is a Little Saigon now, no?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, there’s a couple. That’s a whole other problem that we can get into, but this particular place was what the beginning of the Vietnamese-American commercial presence in San Jose. I bring it up because, again, I think lots of changes happen in Los Angeles to the Japanese-Americans as you mentioned during the World War II with the internment. They were forced to leave and then their places were taken over. Ironically, in many cases, by African-Americans, but the Japanese-American history in Los Angeles is in many ways has been forgotten except by Japanese-Americans. This is part of what, I think, I do, and maybe you do. I don’t know. As a writer too is like this is why it’s important to engage in the work of memory through writing. I think that’s part of what you do in Letters to Memory is to commemorate this particular time and place.

Karen Yamashita: Well, in the Bay Area, there’s the Chinatown and also the Japan Town that exist as tourist locations, but the Japantown in San Francisco was where my mother grew up. Our family was there. It was much larger and it was a contained sort of ghetto community. At wartime, the Japanese all left Japantown. The African-Americans had another migration that came because they were able to work in the factories in California because of the Executive Order that allowed them to work and people of color to work in American industries. They came and they made it the Harlem of the West, right.

Karen Yamashita: Then after the war then, there was this meeting of many cultures in the Fillmore district in that area that were both African-American, Filipino, and Japanese. That, I think, was a rather exciting period where people came together to work out the post-war, I would say, and to revitalize their lives, especially the Nisei who came home again. Those things, I wanted to also remember, how people came together, and how they cared for each other.

Karen Yamashita: I would say that there’s a story about my mother’s family had the Uoki Sakai Grocery Store on Post Street. That was open for 103 years. My cousin finally decided that he couldn’t do it anymore, so he closed the business. I think it’s now a Korean spa. I really want to go try it, see what it’s like there now.

Karen Yamashita: My uncle boarded that place up during the war and they left for camp. Then when they came back, in 1945 after the war, my uncle had left a truck in the store. He had left it on his axles, and he took it off, put it back together again, and he started to go to the produce markets, and he started the store up again. My mother said that she was the first person who was at the counter of that store. She was at the counter of the store and the first person who came in to buy anything was this tall, elegant African-American man, who was actually the neighbor next door. He bought a big watermelon and he put it on the counter. He said, “I really don’t need this watermelon, but I just wanted to come in to welcome you back.”

Karen Yamashita: I thought that story was very special because that was Jimbo Edwards. Jimbo Edwards ran the jazz joint next door. It was a waffle and chicken place called what? Jimbo’s, I think. Those were encounters, I think, in community, and also encounters in which people helped each other.

Karen Yamashita: One group of people who were especially helpful to Japanese who left, who were forced into camp during the war, were the Quakers. They quietly did that and I don’t think people know their story, but they were there with packages of artwork, and art utensils, and supplies to help the school, and the children. Then they set up a program to help young students who were at Berkeley. My mother graduated at Berkeley in 1941, just as the war broke out. Many people couldn’t continue their educations. They set up a way in which people who had lost their educations in California could take them up in other places in the country.

Karen Yamashita: I guess, for me, the politics of that particular book is actually about why people come to help other people at a time that is difficult in war, and against the notions of everyone else, where there was so much hatred and racism for Japanese people at the time. People thought they should leave. The small group of people came forward. I think that’s what I wanted to explore. Why do people come forward to help in a time in which they might be physically attacked? It would be politically antithetical to the current place and the spirit of the politics of the time.

Viet Nguyen: Maybe we can end at that note of solidarity and take questions from the audience. I just want to say that one of the reasons why I find your work really compelling is because you are not the writer who only writes about the internment. That’s one issue. Japanese-American literature, Japanese-American culture, at least of the stuff that makes it out to a wider audience, oftentimes seems to be obsessed with the internment, which it should be. But your work is also about connecting that to the experiences of others, Quakers, African-Americans in the case of Letters to Memory. Also in your entire body of work, again, you’re bringing the Japanese diasporic experience in Brazil and the Brazilian-Japanese diasporic experience in Japan. You connect the history of internment camps in Tropic of Orange to migration across borders.

Viet Nguyen: So many things are going on and I think I find that very inspiring when we’re talking about art and politics that one of the things that really moves me is not simply to be hung up on our own wounds. I mean, of course it’s important for me to talk about the Vietnam War, about the Vietnamese refugee experience, but I know a lot of Vietnamese-Americans who do that and they turn around, and they’re completely racist to other people. Or god forbid, former Vietnamese refugees who made it over here as refugees, some of them are now saying, “We can’t take any Syrian refugees. We’re the good refugees. The Syrian refugees or Muslims or whatever, they’re the bad refugees.”

Viet Nguyen: I’m telling you something. I grew up in San Jose in a Vietnamese refugee community in the 1970s and 1980s and I can tell you. There were a lot of bad Vietnamese refugees. Okay. Welfare fraud, insurance scams, cash under the table, economies. We invented the home invasion. I mean, seriously, Vietnamese gangsters were robbing Vietnamese homes at such a rate that the San Jose Police Department had to come up with this term to come up with this whole new phenomenon. It’s not enough to be concerned about us and what’s happened to us, whatever us happens to be, but for me, part of the politics of art is about connecting what’s happened to us to what’s happened to others, and to imagine that people who have done things to us. Yes, we should hold them accountable, but we should hold ourselves accountable for what we’ve done to others. That’s very hard for people to do. That’s one of the things that political arts should do.

Karen Yamashita: Yeah. I think your work, the new edited book that you’ve just done, in which you edit stories by other folks about their refugees experiences, I think it’s really important. I think one of the things that is of concern right now is that there have been Executive Orders and tweets about banning Muslims and Muslim travel. Then we have the situation of undocumented children, whose legal status in this country is at risk. I think that the experience of both your community and my community are very similar, and that we need, at this moment, the politics of it is to create an outreach for another group of community, of people, who are facing the same troubles and dangers.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you. There’s a mic that’s going to be passed around. Just raise your hand if you’re interested.

Audience 1: Hi. Were you able to see the Ken Burns’ special in Vietnam? And I’m wondering if that has altered either your opinions or the way people are looking at your situation in general. I’ve learned a ton of things that I had no idea about and I’m 62.

Viet Nguyen: Do you want to answer that question?

Karen Yamashita: No.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I saw 45 minutes of the documentary.

Karen Yamashita: I learned a ton of things too.

Viet Nguyen: Because Lynn Novick, who is the co-producer is a fan of The Sympathizer and invited me to the New York production studio while they were doing post-production to watch clips. I think that they were watching me as I was watching the clips because I think they were anxious about what I thought. What I thought in the 45-minutes of clips was that number one, it’s beautifully shot and edited. Number two, I think, they made sure to show me the Vietnamese clips, to show that there were North and South Vietnamese voices in the documentary.

Viet Nguyen: I did not watch the entire 18-hour documentary because I don’t have 18 hours and because I knew that if I watched it, I would have to say yes to all the invitations that I knew were going to come in, and they did, for me to go on talk shows or whatever to talk about the documentary. My thinking was–, and from what I can glean from Vietnamese-American writers who have watched this documentary, their sense is while yes, there are more Vietnamese voices in here, but it’s still an American-framed narrative. That’s not the kind of project that I’m interested in or we’re interested in because the project on inclusion where the frame has not changed or the center stays the same is not sufficient. Then we’re only included, in order for our experiences, to affirm what it is that the mainstream or dominant society wants to understand.

Viet Nguyen: I have to tell you, in the few months that that documentary came out, wherever I would go, people would ask me, “Have you seen that 18-hour documentary about the Vietnam War?” And I would say, “Have you read a book by a Vietnamese person?”

General Audience: Woo.

General Audience: Woo.

General Audience: Yeah.

General Audience: Woo hoo.

Viet Nguyen: And almost inevitably, this, I think it would be different here in Berkeley. You’re all good Berkeley people, but almost invariably, the answer would be, “No.” My answer is if you have 18 hours to spare on an American documentary, you can read a book or two being Vietnamese people either here or elsewhere. That’s still the challenge that we’re facing when it comes to art and politics is that it’s the mainstream of American society is still very reluctant to take on the voices and experiences of others.

Audience 2: I have two questions. The first of which is what did your family think of The Sympathizer? The second question is will you ever translate any of your works into Vietnamese?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I can’t do it myself personally, but The Refugees, the short story collection was just translated into Vietnamese in Vietnam. They censored an entire short story, which I could sort of, I agreed to that because I thought, okay, I really want Vietnamese people to be able to read this book. If you take out a short story, the collection still survives. Ironically, the short story that the government decided was not permissible was entitled “War Years,” and it’s the only autobiographical short story I’ve ever written about San Jose, about my parents’ grocery store, about me, and some of the things that happened to my family.

Viet Nguyen: Which means to me, I think, well, San Jose City Hall erased my parents’ store and the Vietnamese government erased my parents’ store, so this is part of the challenge that we’re facing here.

Viet Nguyen: The Sympathizer, the translation is done and is currently under review for government permission. I’m like, well, this is interesting because I was surprised anybody even wanted to buy that novel, given that the last quarter of the novel needs to be censored, I think, for it to be acceptable to the communist party in Vietnam. So I have no idea what’s going to happen.

Viet Nguyen: What did my parents think? Well, at one point, one of short stories before I had a book published, was translated in Vietnamese. The story is about a Vietnamese refugee who comes to San Francisco in 1975 and discovers that he’s gay. Well, you have to understand, my parents are devout Catholics. So I gave my dad a story and I never heard from him again. I have no idea if he read it. He has my novel. He says, “I’m trying to read it bit by bit.” Again, I think, what really made the difference was the Pulitzer Prize. When the novel came out, I took a picture. He was very proud. He said, “I’m going to walk down the stairs with the book. Take a picture.” Then I knew for sure he was just going to put the book away.

Viet Nguyen: But I won the Pulitzer Prize and I was on the road when it happened. You know what? I didn’t even call home to tell my parents because I think, I mean, literally I never thought about it. I think I thought, I’m Vietnamese. I’m supposed to win the Pulitzer Prize. We’re Asians. That’s what we do. As it turns out, two days later, I’m still on the road. My dad calls me. He’s a very unemotional man, very stoic. His voice, this time though is shaking with happiness. He says, “The relatives in Vietnam called. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” So that changed everything.

Audience 3: Hey. Hi. I’ll stand because I can’t see you. I was hoping you could both maybe speak to if you see or purposefully think of your work as protest or if it becomes protest because of the topics that you’re grappling with or showing us as readers?

Karen Yamashita: When I, in writing Letters to Memory, I had thought of the writing more as a kind of reconciliation. A reconciliation, I think for my person who were incarcerated and a way to put to rest that episode in their lives, but to also think about it for myself. When it came out last year, you know what happened last year. With our president, government, and regime, and the things that have been happening every day that we have to listen to. The hatred of refugees, of immigrants, of migrant workers, the people who are honest and hardworking people who come to this country to work and to contribute. I realized that when I started to take that book off on the road, I would have to think about it in a different way because everything has begun again. It’s very, very sad and very painful to me to see that. Those are things that have happened.

Karen Yamashita: I think of my other work, for instance, the first book is about the rainforest in the Amazons, right. Well, that’s part of the story. When I took that out on the road in the ’90s, all of a sudden, the Amazons were the lungs of the earth, and all American children were drawing pictures of the forest being destroyed. All of a sudden, I had to speak to that, even though that’s not exactly what that book is about. Then, again, I entered into a political moment that was on the minds of folks, even though many people don’t believe in global warming, do we?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that The Refugees was sort of a protest. I wrote that book in the 1990s and the 2000s. It was a very quiet protest. It’s basically a book that says, “Okay. You know what? You’ve got to have some stories about Vietnamese-Americans, Vietnamese refugees, and the people who love them because we’re not hearing enough of these voices.” That’s not much of a protest. What happened was that in writing that book, I really felt constrained because I was trying to learn how to write short stories and I taught myself how to write through writing that book. It’s really hard to write short stories, especially when you don’t have a lot of talent for them, like I don’t. I wasn’t worried about protesting. I just had to write the goddamn short story.

Viet Nguyen: Then I was done and then I had to write a novel, The Sympathizer. And all of a sudden, I broke through. Then formally, I felt like I was Superman. Like oh my god. I don’t know what happened. What happened? But I can really write a novel. Then that was really liberating. Then finally, and part of what was liberating was to say to myself, “I don’t give a fuck.” With The Refugees it was like, “I do give a fuck. I give a lot of fucks. I want to get published.” But that didn’t seem like it was going to happen. That allowed me to write The Sympathizer as a very angry novel. I mean, plenty of people have remarked to me, “God, it’s a really angry novel.” It’s like, “Well, there’s a lot to be angry about. Maybe you’re just not used to Vietnamese or Asian-Americans being angry, but trust me, we’ve got a lot of anger issues. We just internally direct them rather than externally direct them.”

Viet Nguyen: The Sympathizer was very much an externally directed novel in that sense. So it is a protest. In Nothing Ever Dies, I think it’s a companion book. It’s also a protest book in the sense that to me, as a scholar, I look at the American memories of the Vietnam War and I see that there are literally thousands of books written and hundreds of films made, and countless speeches and newspaper articles written. And 98% of them are focused on Americans. The reason this is a problem is not because of ethnocentrism. Everybody’s ethnocentric. The problem is the American point of view is globally exported because of American power. That’s what the world gets to hear outside of Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen: Inside of Vietnam, you get to hear Vietnamese communism. The South Vietnamese are erased everywhere. The irony, of course, is that the Vietnamese of one kind won this war and yet, their version of history is not heard outside of the country. There’s a lot–.

Viet Nguyen: That book, Nothing Ever Dies, is a protest against all of that and this argument, that we need to, again, shift away from the American point of view. It’s also a protest against the Vietnamese, against Vietnamese-ethnocentrism because the Vietnamese, when they’re given the opportunity, are just as ethnocentric. That’s why Nothing Ever Dies is actually a book about Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia because the last thing the Vietnamese people of any kind want to remember is that the war was also fought in Cambodia and Laos. Because the Vietnamese have been screwing around with Cambodia for centuries and the Vietnamese dominate Laos right now, but the Vietnamese don’t want to talk about that. They want to talk about the evils of the French, and the Americans. That work is a work of memory and protest against all of these kinds of exclusionary memories.

Karen Yamashita: Yeah, I’d also say when I did Tropic of Orange, which was about Los Angeles, I was looking at Los Angeles literature. And what Los Angeles literature was thought to be was detective noir by white detectives on black streets. I thought, where are all the colored people? I put all colored people in that book. I remember there was one agent who said, “There’s a problem here. There’s no white people in this book.” I said, “I mean, they’re all around.” That book was written because I wanted to read the folks that I knew and the LA that I knew into a literature that would reach out to different community of folks. Yeah, I made, probably a protest in that sense.

Audience 3: Oh, okay. First, I would like to say that I really enjoyed your novel, The Sympathizer and my question is Asian-Americans are definitely underrepresented in American literature, but I also think there is a problem of Asian experience assimilated into Asian-American voices because they don’t have the access to the international stage because of their lack of English or fluency in their native language rather than English. I would like to know what kind of efforts you put into your novel while writing it, in order to bring in the local and Asian voices and memories without assimilating into your own words?

Viet Nguyen: I don’t know if that’s possible, actually. I understand your question. I think that it’s partly true that, especially in The United States, where I think only 3% of what’s published in this country is translated literature. We’re not getting a whole lot of voices from anywhere in the world, not just Asia, right. Of course, in Asian countries, all you got are these Asian books. That’s an unequal terrain because the power of countries helps to determine the power of their literatures. People care about American literature because we’re a global power, right.

Viet Nguyen: People don’t care about Vietnamese literature because it’s a small country. People care about Japanese literature, Haruki Murakami et cetera because Japan is a global power. When we say Asian voices, we have to recognize that there’s this inequality there.

Viet Nguyen: In my case, I felt that there is actually a lot of Vietnamese literature in translation into English, but it’s not really widely accessible because it’s mostly done through small presses and so on. Only a few books have been published by mainstream New York publishing houses. I know that obviously a lot of Vietnamese people in Vietnam and here feel that inequality, and that puts a lot of pressure on anybody who makes it as an Asian-American writer. I think in most cases, I don’t think Japanese people are worried about Japanese-American literature. I think Haruki Murakami just blows everything else away, so they don’t have worry. We got Haruki Murakami. We can argue about Haruki Murakami or whoever.

Viet Nguyen: In the Vietnamese context, it’s very different because a lot of Vietnamese people, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not even joking. A lot of Vietnamese people feel pride in this Pulitzer Prize. Not because of me, but because it represents something for them on the American stage and the global stage. No doubt, there must be some resentment there that all these other Vietnamese writers, who are really, really good, and are writing about different things, are not widely accessible. And I can’t do anything about it.

Viet Nguyen: But in writing The Sympathizer, I thought, okay. This is not just a Vietnamese-American novel. It’s not just going to talk about the Vietnamese refugee or the Vietnamese-American experience because that would entail just resentful anti-communism. Instead, that’s why I wrote it from the perspective of a communist spy because I wanted to challenge Vietnamese-American perspectives. I did not want to write the Vietnamese-American novel that just affirms Vietnamese-American experiences. I wanted to write a novel that offended, everybody except the Pulitzer Prize committee. It worked.

Viet Nguyen: That’s what I’m saying. It was important to do this double move of it’s a Vietnamese-American novel, but it’s going to be one that subverts it by taking on the point of view, the very point of view that Vietnamese-Americans hate, because that’s the point of the novel. The point of the novel is we’ve gotta get out of our own viewpoints. A lot of people just don’t want to hear that.

Audience 4: Hello. I’m an Arab-American writer and I really appreciate the intersectionality and awesomeness that you’ve brought today. Can you share with us what sort of movement and revolution do you envision now for writers, and especially writers of color in America?

Karen Yamashita: Revolution, I don’t know. Do you have something to say about that?

Viet Nguyen: Oh, you go first.

Karen Yamashita: I don’t know. No, I don’t. I can’t think of anything.

Viet Nguyen: I don’t know. It’s a really hard one because I think what you’re implying is that the politics of writing, when we talk about it as revolutionary, really can’t be separated from other kinds of politics like movement politics, right. I think it’s a really important recognition to make because all so often when we talk about literature in this country, those of us who believe in literature, who love literature, invest it with so much like, “Oh, literature saved our lives.” For example, or, literature can really transform our understanding of whatever situation that we’re talking about. Of course, that is all true for people who love literature, but literature itself isn’t revolutionary.

Viet Nguyen: Literature can depict revolution. Literature can gesture at hopes for a revolution, but literature itself is not revolutionary unless it’s partnered with these social and political movements. That’s why I began by talking about the Asian-American movement and by talking about student politics on this campus, and by talking about the third-world strike in 1968 in the Bay Area because all these things were events that helped to lay the ground for someone like me to get to Berkeley in 1990 as a student, and then become radicalized, and to imagine myself as an activist and as a writer because of what had happened before. And so that I understand my literature, my writing to be an outcome of that previous history. In turn, I hope that my books can help feed into not just literature, but also to this revolutionary imagination that you’re talking about. It goes in cycles like that.

Viet Nguyen: It’s important, that context because otherwise, we put too much weight on what literature can do, and we put too much weight on individual writers. So the effort continues to partner literature and the arts with social and political movements and to build organizations that can support, if we’re just talking about writing, support writers of color, and to give them platforms. That’s why, when I was an undergraduate as an activist, besides doing stuff like getting arrested on campus, which I did for various kinds of political reasons, my friends and I were building Vietnamese-American Arts Associations because we thought it’s important not just for us to write, but to create platforms, to do things like poetry readings et cetera, to give people the opportunity to hone their work, and to share their work. Low and behold, we still exist 25 years later as a diasporic Vietnamese artist network and that’s exactly what we do.

Viet Nguyen: In other words, revolutions are also small. We each have to do our bit. That helps to make everything more manageable because we think revolution is how we’re going to change everything. We’re not going to change everything until we change everything. That’s a huge thing to think about, but in the meantime, we do our bit to work on our own art, build our own solidarities, and to build our own arts organizations, and other kinds of social and political movements in the hopes that when the big moment happens, we’ve gotten ourselves ready for it.

Audience 5: This is actually a related question. You each spoke of your own cultural moments in the ’70s and the ’90s. I’m wondering now what the translation process is for you as teachers in 2018, meeting students wherever they are, and I don’t know where they are now. Because this comes from my own experience, having worked with many others to found the Women’s Studies program at Berkeley in the ’70s, and my sense is that we have to keep doing it over, and over, and over again. I’m wondering how you are meeting the students of 2018, what the translation process is for you.

Karen Yamashita: I teach creative writing at UC Santa Cruz. What I find is that many of my students are writing in the speculative genres. They’re writing science fiction, and fantasy, and magical realism. I was trying to think about why that’s happening. I think that because in speculative genres, they can think about what the future might be. Also, they can use those genres to critique what is happening now, and to imagine it in different ways. Sometimes, the imagination is apocalyptic or it could be post-apocalyptic. I’m meeting my students in these new genres. I’m trying to figure out for one thing why they’re writing. It has a lot to do with the media and where they’re reading, and the films they’re looking at, and also it has to do with technology very much, and their interfacing with technology, and what that means for them.

Karen Yamashita: It also has to do with changes in how we think about gender and transgender. That thinking speculatively helps my students to think about what is a transgender or other person or human being or what is a human being. What is a human being? What do we think about that in this day of robotics and artificial intelligence? One of the things that I worked on with a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz was a festival or a bringing together of writers over a period of an entire quarter. We brought writers of color, who are now working speculatively. It’s very interesting to see what writers of color are doing with the speculative genres, how they’re thinking, using folklore and folktales, and speculative thinking in their own cultures, and how they’re using that in their writing. And to open up this space of thinking about the future. Maybe something like that.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think there’s a give and take in teaching between professors and students. For me, I’ve learned a lot from being a teacher. I’ve learned that I hate grading. Don’t like doing that. But everything else about it is pretty cool. It just depends on the situation. I teach a general education course on the Vietnam War. It’s 150 to 200 students. It’s a very important course for me because almost none of these students are humanities majors. Most of them are in the sciences, pre-med, business. A lot of them are veterans or they’re training to go to war. I feel like here, I am doing what you’re talking about, which is starting over. Teaching them about something that they only have the vaguest knowledge about and doing valuable work there, including, engaging with people who are military.

Viet Nguyen: There’s that kind of a context, but there’s another context where I’m learning from my students. If I didn’t have my graduate students or some of my undergraduates, I would not have any idea what transgender is. They force me to think about issues like indigeneity, like Palestine. How are these things connected to the legacies and the histories that we’re talking about with Japanese-American internment? I know I know students who are working on Native-Americans and Japanese-Americans, and talking about that convergence, right. That war relocation authority was also responsible for Bureau of Indian Affairs, right. Or how questions of Palestine might be related to all kinds of questions about occupation and military industrial complexes, in which The United States is engaged, and which is therefore connected to the Vietnam War.

Viet Nguyen: That’s what I think is really powerful about teaching is that we as teacher, yes, we need to do the same things over and over again to a certain extent. I’m really bored teaching Asian-American literature class because I’ve got to do the same things over and over again, but then the students themselves are a new generation and they have a completely different perspective on things. For them, it’s natural, some of them, natural to think about transgender issues or Palestine at this moment. And it wasn’t natural for me in the 1990s. That’s not a good thing.

Viet Nguyen: I think we’re out of time or do we want one more question? One more, okay.

Karen Yamashita: He’s going like this.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

Audience 5: Man, I don’t want to be that person. Okay. I’ll make it really quick. Just speaking of future generations, I know we started out talking about the Asian-American movement, but I’m wondering what would the I Hotel in 2018 look like? How has Asian-American activism changed? How have you seen it changed, at least?

Karen Yamashita: What I noticed, and this is because of the formations of Asian-Americans Ethnic Studies in universities is that universities co-opted in many ways the Ethnic Studies because they said, “Here’s money. We’re going to throw money at you. Now, you divide it among yourselves.” What happened, I think, was a lot of conflict on all campuses nationwide to divide the small, meager funds for Ethnic Studies. I think there are places where Asian-American studies still is fledging. You’ll be surprised to know that at UC Santa Cruz, there is no Asian-American Studies. Students there are still trying to struggle with how to bring that aspect into their educational sphere.

Karen Yamashita: What’s happening now? The other thing that had happened, I think, with Asian-American Studies is that it became balkanized, whereas in the ’60s and the ’70s, there were so few Asians on any campuses that they had to create a group that there was an Asian-American in solidarity. Now, what you see on campuses, the Chinese-Americans over there, the Taiwanese. I mean, even the Chinese are all split up, mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese. The Japanese-Americans are probably very small. There’s a Filipino group, the Korean group. They’re all separate and balkanized. If you want something to happen, you got to come together. You just do.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I think my answer will echo in the sense that I think Asian-Americans in the sense that I think Asian-Americans have to a certain extent been victims of their own success, because now there’s many more Asian-Americans. There’s many more Asian-American activist groups and organizations out there, but what that means is that back then, if you were Asian-American, you were radical. There weren’t that many self-identified Asian-Americans, right. Now, there’s a lot of self-identified Asian-Americans. Some of them are radical. A lot of them are mainstream, liberal types doing mainstream liberal things, which are all important otherwise we wouldn’t have Crazy Rich Asians. Okay. I haven’t seen it yet.

Viet Nguyen: Then you have Asian-American who are conservative. Some of the most vocal proponents, antagonists of affirmative action now are Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans. This is now the new terrain of Asian-American politics, which is no longer centered around I Hotel type politics, even though those still exist. Now, there are all these different kinds of competing political visions, which means it’s even more important for us who believe in the I Hotel and its legacy to speak out for it.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you so much. It’s been a wonderful conversation with Karen. Thank you to Karen Yamashita for engaging with me today.

Karen Yamashita: Thank you Viet.

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