Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen: Jose Antonio Vargas in Conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Jose Antonio Vargas and Viet Thanh Nguyen discussed immigration in America at the USC Visions and Voices event.

Here is the transcript of the event:

Manuel Pastor: Thank you Noel. He first thought that I was Pastor Manuel and I was about to go preach. I want to do a thank you and an introduction. Bunch of thanks. Thank you particularly to Skylight Books, especially Kelsey Nolan and David Gonzalez, to Vision and Voices, [inaudible 00:00:22], Valeria and all the staff at Beaufort Auditorium and I also want to thank Lauren Perez and Ron Ortiz at the Center for the Study of Immigration Integration for all of their hard work putting this event together. Let’s give all of those folks a big round of applause.

Manuel Pastor: What is The Center for Study of Immigrant Integration, CSII? First, it’s not a television show. It’s not CSII, sort of a crime procedural event. It’s also not a new grito, CS-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay. CSII is a research center committed to remaking the narrative for understanding immigrant integration in America. We seek to bring together scholarship that pushes forward theory, data that counters misinformation and engagement that creates new dialogs with government, community organizers, business and civic leaders, immigrants and the voting public.

Manuel Pastor: Of all three, we may be best known for [inaudible 00:01:33] and engagement. We’ve provided estimates of undocumented Californians, pointed to how the current administration has slow-walked naturalization and hosted major conferences so that academics and activists can interact and strategize, but what we’ve learned over time, and particularly in this moment is that data only goes so far.

Manuel Pastor: After all, when you look at the heated debates of our time, the concern about a flood of undocumented immigrants when, in fact, that population has actually plateaued, the hysteria about immigrants and crime, when all research associates immigrants with lower crime rates, the charge that immigrants are dipping into public welfare when they’re largely ineligible, the worry that immigrants hurt the economy, when they actually have higher rates of labor force participation and business startups than the native born, you realize perhaps say it sadly for data nerds like me, that often, facts are [inaudible 00:02:42] this debate.

Manuel Pastor: What’s really driving this debate is fear of the demographic transformation of America into a more [inaudible 00:02:52] country, that an older and more exclusively-defined America is slipping away. Korean taco trucks may strike heart, joy in the heart of an Angelina, but apparently they’re interpreted as a sign of Armageddon in West Virginia.

Manuel Pastor: I’m not giving up on data. That’s what I do, but I’m more than aware that unless we tackle the underlying emotions by redefining what it is to be an American, by showing how we’re connected and not to be othered and by providing a new and more hopeful story of our times, we’re going to be permanently locked in a mortal combat about the soul of America. We need numbers, but we deeply need narrative.

Manuel Pastor: That’s why I’m so pleased to be introducing two of the best storytellers of our time. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and a leading voice for the human rights of immigrants. He’s the founder and CEO of Define America, American, a non-profit media and culture organization that fights injustice and anti-immigrant hate through the power of storytelling and he is the author of this great new book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, which I’m sure he hopes you buy.

Manuel Pastor: Also, to be part of this conversation, Viet Nguyen, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer and the [inaudible 00:04:30] chair of English at USC. He’s also the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War and the short story collection, The Refugees.

Manuel Pastor: My friends, get ready for what promises to be one of the richest conversations of this season and please, as you listen, listen with an ear and an eye to what you can learn here and carry forward to the other parts of your work and life to create a more welcoming America. Let’s welcome Viet Nguyen and Jose Antonio Vargas.

Viet Nguyen: That’s more like it, USC. I’m a USC professor. I’ve been here incredibly for 21 years, which probably longer than some of you have been alive, scary, but this one of the thrilling moments of my career here to be here with Jose on stage. The last time I was here at Bovard, as I was telling you, it was with John Cho, the actor. Backstage, you were talking about how unusual it is to get two Asian guys on stage at the same time and the other thing about this is that when I was here with John Cho, we were talking about how we both had very unconventional career paths for Asian-American guys. Actually, John Cho and I were both English majors at UC Berkeley and look what happened. He became an actor. I became a writer and here I am on stage with someone who took a career path that his parents and grandparents definitely did not approve of, becoming a journalist, for example, becoming a public figure, becoming an inspiration to so many people out there.

Viet Nguyen: I thought we’d start off by you sharing with the audience a little bit about your story, what it is that we find here in Dear America and what’s important to you.

Jose Vargas: First of all, thank you for coming. I wasn’t sure anyone was going to come. I don’t know why I keep thinking that in my head. This is the seventh city of this week-long book tour. You’re the … But, I’m happy to be back in California because this is where I’m from and I’m really glad to be here and really honored to be here, especially with one of the most essential writers in America today. I just want to say that.

Jose Vargas: I don’t want to assume that you know anything about who I am because why would you? A brief story, my mom sent me here. I was born in the Philippines. My mom sent me here when I was 12. This was in 1993 when I got here. I landed at the Los Angeles International Airport in August 3rd, 1993 and I thought I was in the wrong country because in the Philippines, whenever anybody thought of America, I thought it was Baywatch and Oprah Winfrey. Where I come from, every Filipino kid that I knew could sing I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston. When I landed at LAX, I saw people who looked like me and I saw all these people that were “Latino”. I didn’t know what that was, so I thought I was in the wrong country.

Jose Vargas: Really, my biggest source of fascination and confusion from age 12 to 16 was race because I grew up in a community in Mountain View, California. I went to a middle school that was a third Latino, a third Asian and then the other third is a mix of white and black. The OJ Simpson was a defining moment. Mrs. Wakefield stopped the class to listen to the verdict and the white reacted one way, the black kids reacted another way and the Asians and the Latinos looked at each other going like, “Where do we go?”

Jose Vargas: I would argue that that’s still the moment that we’re at. We live in a state where Asians and Latinos actually make up the majority in country that has been defined primarily as a black and white binary.

Jose Vargas: That was a source of confusion. Then, things got even more confusing when I turned 16 to get a, I wanted to get a license like any 16 year old and that’s when I found out that I was here illegally after I went to the DMV and the woman said that the license was fake, I mean the green card that I brought to get a license was fake.

Jose Vargas: I’m going to be honest, the moment the woman at the DMV said that it was fake, I thought she thought I was Mexican because even back then in 1997, whenever anybody said anything about fake papers or illegal people, it was about Mexico. It was about the wall. It was about the border. I had already internalized that back in 1997.

Jose Vargas: I thought she was wrong, but then when I got home, I confronted my grandfather, the person that brought me to this country and that’s when I found out that the green card was fake and, I guess the plan for him was to smuggle me here because he couldn’t bring me here legally, it’s not a close enough of a relationship for a grandfather to petition a grandkid and his plan was I would work at the flea market as a janitor and I would marry a woman, a US citizen and be a citizen, you know like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, but years, years ago.

Jose Vargas: That was when the lying started, the lies of what my grandfather had to tell to bring me here. I actually thought, I had just seen a movie called “Goodfellas”, Martin Scorsese. Did you see that movie? I thought my family was a part of a mob because why did they not, what else did they not tell me?

Jose Vargas: Thankfully, I was introduced to a thing called “journalism” by my English teacher who said I asked to many annoying questions. Went to journalism camp and figured out that when you write a newspaper article, that means you get a byline, so your name would be on a piece of paper. My 16 year old naïve self with no Google and no hashtagging on social media, my plan was if I couldn’t be here legally because I don’t have the right papers, what if my name was actually on the piece of paper, the newspaper. That was the only reason why I became a journalist. I figured if I could write perfect English, speak perfect English like this, whatever that even means, how could they question my actual physicality? Then, of course, as many of you may know, seven years ago, I decided that I was done lying, passing and hiding, which is the structure of the book and I outed myself as undocumented against the advice of a lot of lawyers who said that “You can’t do that. The moment you do that, we can’t help you.”

Jose Vargas: That’s when this journey began. What I did not realize, I never prepared myself to be a public person, whatever that even means. What I didn’t realize in the past seven years, I’ve actually started hiding from my own friends and my own self because this has been so hard to do. The pressure from the right and the left and from immigrant rights activists, from people who think you’re not radical enough or you’re not doing enough. This book is, for me, I’ve never had therapy, so it’s the closest I ever got to it. That’s what you’re in for tonight, FYI.

Jose Vargas: The goal of the book is, I was talking to a reporter today, this morning and she said something interesting. She said, “I read the whole book yesterday.” She said she couldn’t find the phrase “immigration reform” anywhere in it. She thought that was so interesting. “Why did you not talk about immigration reform?”

Jose Vargas: I didn’t know that I didn’t put the phrase “immigration reform” in the book, but my whole goal though was, how do we take this issue out of this immigration reform, DACA, [inaudible 00:12:48] acronyms that people don’t even understand and laws we can’t even pass and how do we start a conversation about what this means psychologically to be in this condition, what the toll of it is and how heavy it is to carry around? That was my goal.

Viet Nguyen: I think we’re going to have a lot of time to talk about questions like immigration reform and being undocumented and all these political, legal, social, cultural issues that I’m sure are on a lot of people’s minds here, but first I wanted to start off talking about your book as a book.

Viet Nguyen: I’m an English professor. I’m a writer and one of the …

Jose Vargas: A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

Viet Nguyen: My parents love to say that. Yeah.

Jose Vargas: Actually, wait, wait, wait. I’m sorry, I’m going [crosstalk 00:13:32]. What’s unique is fiction and non-fiction. I can’t wait to, I can’t even imagine that. This was hard enough for me as non-fiction. I can’t even imagine writing fiction. I just wanted to [inaudible 00:13:46].

Viet Nguyen: I can’t imagine writing journalism either, so you have something on me, but thank you.

Viet Nguyen: One of the dilemmas that writers of colors face is that we’re so often identified with our issues or our color, whatever that is. Then, when we have an opportunity to talk about our books, we’re expected first of all not to talk about the books, but to talk about the social issues with which we’re identified. Yes, you are undocumented. Yes, you are gay. Yes, you are Filipino, but first I want to talk about the books, about the act of writing.

Viet Nguyen: I think you gesture very early on to the importance of literature, to the importance of literature, to the importance of a [inaudible 00:14:22] of writers for you because your epigraph in your book that, these are the words that come at the very beginning, a quotation, are from a Filipino-American writer named Carlos Bulosan. How many people have heard of Carlos Bulosan?

Jose Vargas: Yay, there [crosstalk 00:14:36].

Viet Nguyen: I’m glad. There should be more, but Carlos Bulosan wrote a book, he wrote many books, but his best-known book was America is in the Heart, 1946. In that, by 1946, Carlos Bulosan was actually a pretty well-known American writer. America is in the Heart was a very important book to me because of its topic, as you can imagine and here’s your quotation from Carlos Bulosan that starts the book: “America is not a land of one race or one class of men. America is not bound by geographical latitudes. America is in the heart.”

Viet Nguyen: Of course, when you title your book “Dear America”, I think it is addressed to America, but also a reference to America is in the Heart and I think the reason why Bulosan is important is not only because he is probably our most important Filipino-American writer up until now perhaps, but because he provides a direct link to history that many Americans have no idea about, which is that Filipinos have been a part of American history since 1898, when the United States came to the Philippines and engaged in the Philippine-American War, which killed anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 Filipinos depending on whose estimates you’re talking about, colonized the Philippines until 1946 and Bulosan came interestingly enough as something like a legal immigrant. The reason why he was able to do that is because the United States had colonized the Philippines, which meant the Philippines were a part of the United States.

Jose Vargas: We were a protectorate.

Viet Nguyen: Right, but what that meant was that the United States was a racially exclusionary society from 1925 or 1924 onwards. If you were Asian, you could not come into the United States, but because Filipinos were wards of the United States, they could get in.

Jose Vargas: That’s why I found out too that that’s why a lot of people who are wards at the White House are Filipinos. Actually, if you go the White House, apparently the people who open doors, a lot of, the people that make the White House run are Filipinos. I did not know that.

Viet Nguyen: And they became part of the US Navy. [crosstalk 00:16:44] You find this tradition of Filipinos serving in the US Navy and so on.

Viet Nguyen: Interestingly enough, the United States decided to give independence to the Philippines not because loved Filipinos, but because Americans hated Filipinos and they didn’t want to see any more of them coming into the country.

Jose Vargas: Because we’re too much fun. We’re too much fun for America. They just couldn’t handle all the vinegar. They’re like, “What’s this vinegar thing and the [inaudible 00:17:07].”

Jose Vargas: There’s enough Filipinos here. [inaudible 00:17:11], which is like fish sauce, there was just too much of that.

Viet Nguyen: Now, Filipino cooking is hot. Now Adobo is common.

Jose Vargas: Let’s talking about Anthony Bourdain actually. Sorry, I have to bring this up. I’m saying this Anthony Bourdain was really an exception to the rule. He was the straight white man who went to these ethnic places and knew what his place was, which meant not at the center. That was what was so fascinating about him.

Jose Vargas: I don’t know. I didn’t realize that his death would impact me so much. Bourdain was the one who actually predicted that Filipino food was going to be the next big thing.

Jose Vargas: One of my dearest friends, Nicole Ponseca, who literally started the Filipino food movement, she started the restaurant in New York called [inaudible 00:17:56]. She has a book coming out later this fall, a cookbook that is really more a manifesto and she ended up dedicating it to Bourdain. I was literally finishing my book sleeping in her living room, because it was a one bedroom when we found out that Bourdain died and we were just talking about how, here was Bourdain, knowing exactly who he was. Kitchen Confidential is Orwellian in the way it really depicted what happens in the kitchen.

Jose Vargas: Now that Filipino food is hot, but it’s always been hot to us, we’re just like, “It took awhile for people to find out”, actually this is connected to the book because when I was writing this book I was trying to ask myself who was my audience.

Jose Vargas: I didn’t because I’ve been traveling the country nonstop for the past seven years, 48 states, maybe 1,000 events, 400 colleges. I felt like I’ve been explaining myself to people so much. Why do I look this, why my name is Jose, why does my resume look like that and I still don’t have papers. Justifying, explaining all of that. I hadn’t realized that the cost of that has been I didn’t know who I was. I wanted to understand and place myself at the center, not as this undocumented person or this illegal alien that needs explanation to other people, but as a human being who doesn’t know what happened to him.

Jose Vargas: By the way, I have to say this. Again, this is my seventh, my sixth book event and you’re the first person to ask me about the actual writing itself and the craft of it because yeah, for many people, I am just an issue. I’m like, “My resume doesn’t matter.”

Viet Nguyen: You’re absolutely right. We have to go and we have to explain ourselves in forums like this. Here, you happen to have a very sympathetic forum. It’s Los Angeles. It’s a place where there are a lot of Filipinos.

Jose Vargas: Wait a second. If you want me deported, speak now. It’s okay. We can talk about it. Okay, hold your question. I’ll be right here.

Viet Nguyen: LA has a long tradition, obviously a history of Filipino, Filipino-Americans here and to go back to Bulosan and to this question of the audience, I feel so much for Bulosan. Can you imagine being a Filipino writer in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and he was a Communist? He was a labor organizer.

Jose Vargas: Really, I found out about him because I was obsessed with the New Yorker since I was kid. I thought once you get published in the New Yorker, you’ve made it. Once you write those long ass sentences and ten-dollar words, you’re good to go. It was like [inaudible 00:20:33]. It was Whole Foods to me. The Yorker was like Whole Foods. It was like this grocery store with asparagus and Filipinos don’t have asparagus. I was like, “What is thing? Are those cartoons supposed to be funny? What’s irony? Oh, my life is ironic. I’m just living it and you’re just looking at it and to you, it’s ironic. It’s actually my life.”

Jose Vargas: The New Yorker was something I wanted to master and when I was looking at the archives, you know [inaudible 00:21:00] was actually the first Asian writer to be published in the New Yorker. Then, when FDR was looking for writers to write about The Four Wants, The Four Freedoms, he was asked, he was asked, he was commissioned to write the freedom …

Jose: … Want. Yet, I had just gotten somebody from The Seattle Times calling us, who wrote about the book and actually made a direct connection between Bulosan and I. Part of the connection that was made was that Bulosan died never becoming … Never seeing his home, never seeing the Philippines and never being a U.S. citizen.

Viet Thanh N.: Bulosan was famous in 1946. His stance was acceptable to Americans, but by 1956 when he died, McCarthyism had arisen, so his communism was no longer acceptable. He died a broken man and neglected, died in neglect and obscurity. I bring it up because “America Is in the Heart,” it’s a book that … I wrote one chapter on Bulosan. It’s an incredible book because it speaks to both the aspirations of what America should be, but also he spends most of the book showing how racist America was towards Filipinos in the 1930s and 1940s.

Jose: He was intersectional before we even started really talking about that. Like how he related to African Americans, how he related to Native Americans and indigenous people. I thought that was really groundbreaking in the way, in how quote, unquote woke he was to that. For me, an epigraph, people would say is like …. It’s as writers, we only have words as musical notes. An epigraph is kind of the key that you play in. That for me, picking that quote from Bulosan, I wanted to signal right away what this was about and what the language had to be about.

Viet Thanh N.: The question of audience becomes really crucial for both him and you because America is the audience, but what is America? I think that is at the core of both his book and your book because when he says, “America is in the heart,” he raises a question of, “How do we define what that is?” Is America this racist country that is beating and murdering Filipinos and exploiting them? Or is America this “America Is in the Heart,” that I just read from, that is aspirational, that is idealistic, that is a project we should be working for?

Viet Thanh N.: I think your book is engaged in the same territory because when you say, “Dear America,” people could reasonably ask, “Well, are you talking about the white person’s America. Or are you talking about the America that belongs to so many other people? Or are you talking about the America that we should, as Manuel was saying, we should be struggling to make in our own image? I think it’s a great title because it’s a direct address to all of us, but it makes us think, “Well, what is America supposed to be?”

Jose: Also, a conversation of what America is. Like I was, the writing of this book, for me, the hardest thing was not to overwrite. I don’t know why, I was just, that was like the thing that I had read so much about, because I feel … I started writing this book January of this year. I had been thinking about it through the fall, and mind you the context here too is after the election. As I write in the book, I was living in downtown LA in a really amazing apartment. Like, you know Frasier? Like Frasier’s apartment. I was living in one of those apartments that I’ve always wanted to have since I was a kid. After the election, the building manager of the apartment said, texted me and said, “Hey, I don’t know what we would do if I showed up. It may be better for you and for us if you moved out and found another place.”

Jose: It was interesting that he texted that. Then, of course, I went knocking to like the office and said, “What was that about?” I could see the confusion in his face, going like, “What do we do, Jose?” This guy likes mel. Like he was the person who would text me whenever he saw me on [Talk Crossing 00:03:47]. “Good job, Jose.” I’m like, “Oh, thanks Mel.”

Jose: I had to really face, out of this … I thought, you get a big place, you put up photos of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Mia Angelo and Carlos Bulosan, and you’re like you pretend that you like settled and that you have a place, and you buy really nice furniture from like La Cienega, all those like wooden furniture places over there. Like you buy that, you buy benches. You pretend that you’re comfortable, that you have created a home. The moment he said that, it became very real that I’m not. Like that safety, as Baldwin would say, is an illusion. Then I packed everything up, I put everything in storage, they’re still in storage now. I have been living, since the first time since I graduated from high school, I don’t have a permanent address. I’ve been living in Airbnb’s, hotel rooms and friends’ places. My dear friend, Cristela Alonzo, amazing comedian, is here. There she … Where is she? She’s here somewhere.

Jose: I drafted a lot of the outline of this book kind of in her spare bedroom. I finished the book at Nicole Ponseca’s place. Parts of the book were a lot … Parts of the book, the longest parts of the book were written in airplane rides between either East Coast to West Coast or West Coast to East Coast. In the writing of the book, I also wanted to capture my life and the tempo of my life, and how quick it is. That’s why, quick chapters. Then you get to like these long, more legato kind of passages that were written when I’m on an airplane and no one can bug me. I wanted to kind of capture my own rhythm in the book, but then no one has asked … I’m like for people, “Oh, he’s an immigrant dude and he just wrote this book.” People don’t really care about craft. Craft matters a lot to me, as a writer and as someone who’s … To me, a book is the most intimate thing you could give anybody.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, there’s a different structure to the book, and we’ll get to the ending of it. It proceeds, there’s a rhythm, there’s a narrative. There’s a rising action, there’s a climax, as we’re going to see. Then there’s an emphasis on home. That’s one of the big themes in your work in homelessness. When I inscribed my book, “The Refugees,” which is a short story collection, my inscription is, “May you always be at home.” Because I think refugees, immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, we don’t take home for granted. We’ve been forced to leave home, our homes have been destroyed and so on.

Viet Thanh N.: We can’t take for granted what the middle class does in whatever country we come from or whatever country we come to, so the question of home is really important. For you, one of the things that you say in your book is that … I think you implied this, that you found home through the act of writing. You said you found freedom through the act of writing, but freedom is a space of home. I think that’s the same thing for me too. I think, for me, the most important home that I’ve had is my capacity to express myself through the things that I write. That’s the same claim you’re making for yourself as well, so there’s a power to writing, there’s a power to words, and there’s a power to storytelling.

Jose: The freedom of it, the freedom of it. The fact that you can’t … Again, this is where when I was a kid … There’s a chapter in the book that’s basically a dedication to Toni Morrison’s influence. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with PBS. The first thing I thought of when I found out I was here illegally was to get rid of my thick Filipino accent, which was kind of like that. I had this thick Filipino accent. The way to do that was watch a lot of PBS and listen to a lot of R&B and hip hop. I figured, “I sound white and black, no one is going to wonder where I’m from.”

Jose: I was watching Toni Morrison talking to, I think, Charlie Rose at one point, She said, “My mind is the freest place. My mind is free.” I’m listening to that as this illegal faggot and internalizing when people say that. They didn’t know both, they only … In my head, that’s what I heard. When people said, “Illegal,” or people used the F-word. Power belongs to the definers, and I always wanted to make sure that I was defining my own power, even though I felt powerless.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, one of the things that Morrison … She’s been a big influence on me to. One of the things that Morrison has said is that she writes books about black people and about black women. She’s never not done that.

Jose: Yeah.

Viet Thanh N.: She’s not been apologetic about it, and she’s been very assertive about it. One of her assertions is, “This is a universal experience, to be black, to be a woman, to be a black woman.” These are universal experiences. These are not marginal experiences, these are not minority experiences. One of her most powerful, political and aesthetic moves for me, which I’ve tried to imitate is, I think, her basic assertion that if you happen to be a minority writer or however you choose to define the word minority, you can’t write as if you’re a minority writer. You can’t write from a space of apology. You can’t write from a space of translation. You can’t write from a space of being off the center. You have to write as if you are a part of the majority without renouncing the fact that you’re a minority. In her case, she had to write from being a black woman, while claiming that as a universal experience.

Jose: I don’t even know how many times I said this to myself. I think I watched every single YouTube video with Toni Morrison in it. One of the quotes that I said to myself as I was writing this book was, she said, “I stood at the border, I stood at the edge and claimed it essential. Claimed it and forced the world to go where I was.”

Viet Thanh N.: Right. That’s why, you heard us talk about another aspect of the book, the subtitle, “Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.”

Jose: Yeah.

Viet Thanh N.: Now, explain to us … Is that the subtitle?

Jose: Yeah.

Viet Thanh N.: That’s right. Explain to us what that means, and the related term that you come up with in the book, the assertion. I mean, you’re struggling with what it means to be a citizen, what citizenship is. Obviously, because so much of the discourse around undocumented immigration is that these undocumented immigrants are not legal, they have no right to citizenship, and so on. You’re countering that by saying you’re an undocumented citizen, that you’re engaging in what you call, “a citizenship of participation,” which is different than the legal citizenship that so many people are relying on, and instead you’re defining it your own way. Tell us what that is.

Jose: Well, let me just say a couple of things. You see this thing up here? I know you’re going to get your phone out, you’re going to text to it. This is the organization I founded, Define American. Today was important to us because we actually launched a campaign today to question anti-immigrant hate groups that have placed themselves at the center of this conversation, NumbersUSA, Center for Immigration Studies and FAIR. You won’t read a single article in The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR that talks about immigration that doesn’t quote those three groups. We have said, we have now challenged these news organizations, that when they’re quoting those groups, they’re actually not being objective. They’re actually picking a side, and they’re picking an anti-immigrant side. What’s interesting about that is today, when we started it, one of those groups said, “Now you’re a citizen?” Because that was actually my goal, is to provoke, and use the word citizen to kind of have a conversation, not only with the Conservatives, but with all Americans about what citizenship means.

Jose: Clearly, the title, the subtitle is also a nod to “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin. More than that, for me, it really crystallized when two episodes I was in, I put this in the book. I was in North Carolina. This elderly woman said she saw me on PBS with Tavis Smiley. This was a few years ago, 2013. She came to this event and she said, “Young man, I’m not an immigrant. My ancestors were brought here as slaves,” she said. Then she pulled out this piece of paper that was really old, which was crumpled. She opened it up and she said it was a bill of sale. Have you ever seen one? I’ve never seen a bill … It’s a bill of sale. Then she goes, “Can you connect the piece of paper that my great-great-grandmother got when she landed here as a slave to the pieces of papers that you and your people can’t seem to get?”

Jose: Then she goes, “This is more than about papers, young man. Think bigger.” She walked away. I was like … She kind of looked like Cicely Tyson a little bit. I was like, because she would say that. I was looking at her going like, “What?” Then about a year ago, after Hurricane Maria, I got an email from a young man in Puerto Rico, from San Juan, who emailed me and said, “Hey, Jose. I know you’re not a citizen, but I’m a citizen.” Because Puerto Rico is actually a part of the United States, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, man. Then I remember a conversation I had with Alicia Garza. A friend of mine, amazing woman who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement. She said that the Black Lives Matter movement is actually about citizenship. Not citizenship papers, but citizenship as dignity. You connect those three experiences. I’m not even bringing up what the Native American experience was, when I visited a Reservation. I’d never been to one before.

Jose: Meaning, who gets to be a citizen has always been a function of what was legal and who determined what was legal. You cannot separate immigration from race, and you cannot separate race from citizenship. Because the first time this country determined who could be a citizen was in the … Right after this country was declared independent, and they said that the only people who could become a citizen in 1796 were white people of good moral character. We did not give Native Americans citizenship until 1924. To me, I just wanted to bring up this question of what that even means.

Jose: We’re in LA. What, 800,000 undocumented people in the LA area? I would argue that they exhibit a greater amount of citizenship than most Angelinos, Because they have to get up every day, they have to get up every day, go to your schools, because we’re students. Be lawyers, be everything else. They also have to get up every day and take care of other people’s kids while they struggle to take care of their own kids. They have to clean your houses and mow your lawns, under a Presidency that talks about them like their insects on people’s backs. Yet, they show up and they participate. I would argue that we are more citizens than citizens that don’t even know what that is and take it for granted. To me, that’s the conversation.

Viet Thanh N.: Your project, Define American and your book are very much about defining America, redefining America, re-narrating America, telling a different story about America. I do something a little bit similar to what you’re saying, which is I go around the country doing events like this. One of the things I tell audiences is that we’re all storytellers. Some of us are professional storytellers, but we are all storytellers in the sense that we go out into the world. We go out to the dining table, we go to the cafeteria, we go to our dorm rooms, and we’re always telling stories to each other about who we are, because we make certain assumptions.

Viet Thanh N.: The Administration can say, “Make America great again.” It’s only four words, but it’s a tremendous story and a lot of people accept that story. I don’t accept that story, but a lot of people accept that story, and they go home and they tell that story in one way or another to their families. It’s your job, my job, writers’ jobs, but all of our jobs to tell our own stories, to redefine what America means.

Jose: Define American started the moment I came out as undocumented, because I felt very strongly that mine was only one story. Like we cannot fall into one single narrative of anything. A big part of what we do at Define American is we collect stories. The question then becomes, “How do you operationalize that?” A big part of what we do is we use stories to challenge how the news media talks about us, and how television shows and movies talk about us. I did this film for MTV a few years ago called “White People.” The genesis of that was I was at the University of Georgia in Athens, which is a Conservative school. I didn’t know, I just went. Then I got heckled by like a college Republican, which is great. I love getting heckled, because it gets uncomfortable.

Jose: This young man, you know how people of color, we always get asked, “Where are you from? Where are you from, from?” I’ve got into this habit of like turning the question around to white people so I asked him, “Hey, where you from?” He said, “I’m white.” “Okay. Where are you from?” “I’m American.” “Okay, but white is not a country. Where are you from?” Then you know when people get kind of aggressive with you, and then they realize that they don’t know anything. Like they kind of get into this … No really, but I mean he had this look of like, “Oh my god, I don’t know,” and all of a sudden, he got vulnerable. He was like, “I don’t know.” “Well, can you like find out?”

Jose: Because wait a second. I mean, unless you’re a Native American, unless you’re an African American, you came here from somewhere, and you have to answer three fundamental questions. “Where did you come from? How did you get her? Who paid?” “The Philippines. Smuggled. $4,500.” If you can’t answer those three questions, then you don’t have any right to question a border that you don’t even really understand. When my favorite, cranky, Irish-American uncle named Bill O’Reilly, when he says that my great-great-grandparents did it the right way, what right way? What version of U.S. history is that from? As I remember it, and as I’ve confirmed, because I’m a journalist so I like confirming things, after the potato famine, the Irish people showed up. Many of them actually died in coffin ships because they didn’t make it. I’m obsessed with like just the imagery of that. Then when they got here, there was no border patrol, there was no green card, there was no visa process, they showed up.

Jose: A lot of white European immigrants who showed up actually got like the largest Affirmative Action program there was. They just got land. I mean, that’s the history of the Midwest, that’s the history of Manifest Destiny. Yet, when we move, when people of color move, it’s not about Manifest Destiny, it’s not about white man’s burden, it’s not about courage. It’s about, “Is it legal? Is it a crime?” I think it’s so important that we really interrogate what even the construction of whiteness is and where it belongs in this conversation when …

Jose: Manuel brought it up very, very clearly here. What’s at stake really in this country is, how are we going to deal with the fact that this country is not what it once was? It looks different, it feels different. You have more vinegar because of Filipinos. Your food is much better because of all the Latin people and Asian people that are here. It’s not just exotic and cute and ethnic. It’s not just like for foodies. It’s not like some fetish. It’s like a thing, a central, living thing. As we claim our center, it doesn’t mean we’re putting you off-center. It just means that it was never yours to begin with. I wonder though, when I talk like this …

Jose: I was just in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m too busy to try to talk to other people in different voices, so I’m pretty consistent. The way I’m talking to you is the way I talked to Tulsa. When I’m saying this to Tulsa, Oklahoma, they’re looking at me and they’re like, “What? What is he saying?” It’s mostly white people, wonderful white people. I am not here as a threat. Like I am not taking away what is yours. I’m not here with like a stopwatch saying, “Oh my god. Look, your time is up.” Like that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to just say that we actually share a space, and we are accountable to each other you and I. It’s a marriage and we have to figure out like, “How are we going to live together?” I think that’s the conversation. Too often, unfortunately, we don’t want to have conversations anymore. We just want to react to each other.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, as Manuel said, there’s a great demographic change happening in our country, and for some people that inspires fear. We’re almost out of time for our portion of the interview. I want at least talk about fear and go back to the writerly question, because fear becomes a part of your book. The part about, what you talk about is how what you were afraid of is yourself. Who you were afraid of was yourself, because you were undocumented, when you found this out, this was a revelation. You didn’t know this, for example. You didn’t choose to be undocumented, this was thrust upon you. Then you hid from yourself. To become a writer, as I’ve discovered too, is that you have to confront yourself.

Viet Thanh N.: I mean, you could write about any number of different things, but in order to be a writer that moves people, you have to be able to feel something within yourself. For you, as you described it in the book, you went into a long process of hiding from yourself, hiding from your feelings to prevent yourself from feeling anything. You can’t be a writer when you do that. Part of what was interesting in reading your book is that there a narrative here about confronting the fear. Because you can’t be a writer until you confront the fear, until you confront yourself, you can confront your deepest pains and the thing that hurts you. Of course, what hurts you is your sense that you have to be in hiding. Also, as you said, that you have been in an abusive relationship, a codependent-

Jose: A codependent, toxic, abusive relationship.

Viet Thanh N.: Which is with America.

Jose: With America.

Viet Thanh N.: You’ve addressed this to your toxic lover.

Jose: By the way, after I wrote that line, I just had to watch like the Real Housewives, I think. Because it was so heavy after I wrote that, that I needed to watch popcorn. Because it was like, it was just like when, the moment I wrote that, and the moment I think I wrote a line about, “Home is not something I should have to earn.” Because we are always thought of that we have to earn this. In the book, as you know, like there was this moment in the book when I’m talking to my mom on the phone and I asked her if she had any regrets, like sending me here. Then she said, “How can I have any regrets, given how well you turned out? Looking at you now, how can I have any regrets? The person you’ve become.”

Jose: I didn’t have the heart to tell her on the phone that I didn’t know what I had become. That I’m not sure the price of being separated from a mother, who … We used to sleep together in the same bed. I’m not sure if that price was worth it. I’m not sure, but I couldn’t tell her that. Because I could tell that that was the hope that she was holding onto, after not seeing someone for 25 years. She thinks, “Oh my god, you wrote these articles, you got some awards. He’s on TV. He’s become this person.” I didn’t have the heart to tell here that I didn’t know who that person is, and I’m trying to figure it out. This is probably, this book is the closest for me to figure that out.

Viet Thanh N.: You didn’t choose to be an undocumented immigrant, I didn’t choose to be a refugee, but as I go around saying, “It wasn’t all bad being a refugee.” It gave me the requisite emotional damage necessary to become a writer.

Jose: Wait a second, wait a second. He just said something that’s really interesting. Pain, which I’m very afraid of … I actually think pain is powerful. I actually think accessing pain and seeing pain in other people makes you more connected to other people. I didn’t realize that, really. Because I thought you hide from your pain, that you just busy it away. I mean, I’m surprised … A lot of people use drugs, people use alcohol. I just never, that was never my thing. My thing was, “You juggle five things at once, you busy yourself. You just, you just work.” That was my way of handling pain. Then writing this book, having to face that, and realizing that I am now closer to myself than I’ve ever been. I’m saying that as like a 37-year-old, which is, that’s not a young adult, that’s just an adult, adult.

Jose Antonio: Thankfully Asian people age really well, so I’m very happy about that.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I’m like 80 years old. Can’t even tell.

Jose Antonio: He’s not, but yes.

Viet Nguyen: Well, as I told you when we talked yesterday, our conversation would go by so quickly.

Jose Antonio: And it did, yes.

Viet Nguyen: That I overly prepared like the Asian that I am and I didn’t even get to have my questions, but I have questions from the audience. Let’s hear from the audience here, via me. We’re going to do it through note cards here.

Viet Nguyen: The first question is, “As a middle school teacher at an LAUSD school with 99% Latinx students, I undoubtedly have students who may or may not be aware of their immigration status. What is a concept that you suggest I intertwine into my curriculum to empower students of immigrant communities to be successful here?”

Jose Antonio: I think just representation and visibility is so important, like seeing people, and so I would urge you to go to We have so much content, so much video content, and just content that you can share. That’s actually one thing that I’m really proud of about the organization, as so many educators are using what we’re doing, so I’m really thankful for that. So Please do that.

Viet Nguyen: “What role do writing programs have in shaping the immigrant narrative in America?”

Jose Antonio: What programs?

Viet Nguyen: Writing programs.

Jose Antonio: Oh, writing programs. Oh gosh.

Viet Nguyen: MFA programs, Master’s of Fine Arts, Creative Writing.

Jose Antonio: Oh gosh.

Viet Nguyen: Or maybe Journalism, the question wasn’t specific-

Jose Antonio: This is why again representation is so important, right? I’m new to this book thing, so I didn’t really know the blinding whiteness of books in literature until I entered this space. This is unique to see two Asian American men talking about writing. Anything that we can do to support programs and to support curriculum in which we actually, you know, Celeste Ne, for example, is a fantastic writer. What is the new genre, who are the next Sandra Cisneros, who are the next Diane Alarcón? There’s so many writers out there. At Define American we had an artist and residence Jose Maldiaz, who is just fantastic. The other day I was talking to a poet who has TPS, Javier Zamora, another fantastic poet. When I was talking to them, when we’ve been working with Jose [inaudible 00:02:27].

Jose Antonio: I kept thinking about What scholarships, fellowships … What kind of programs help them out? And I started challenging. When you look at a lot of writing, programs and writing awards, there is this called Censorship eligibility. And one of the things that we are actually doing at Define American is openly challenging that. For so many of Arts program and writing programs, like how do they determine their eligibility status.

Viet Nguyen: In just close to writing programs. Writing programs, like every other parts of this country like the publishing issue we talked about, are shaped by dominant culture. Just because people are writers, or faculty or publishers, or editors or agents doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sensitive to these various quite issues that we’re talking about. So every story that we get out there, every book that we publish, every author that emerges who is an immigrant or undocumented or a refugee, or Asian American, or person of color, or trans or wherever changes the culture. Because I’ve heard from so many people who have attended these writing workshops and writer programs as well, “I try to tell my story and people just didn’t get it.” Like they never heard of whatever their story happen to be.

Jose Antonio: Which is again, it’s a question of who is at the center. And we are in the story telling capital of the world, Hollywood. And the stories that Hollywood decides to be the center, to be the default. Thankfully we are seeing this really… I’m stopping calling it a renaissance, it’s more a re-emergence of black storytelling and art. It is amazing to see what Eve Deroney is doing and Ryan Kruger and seeing all these just fantastic story tellers. And to me what is fascinating about Eve is that not only see succeeded, she opened the doors for other people to succeed. And I wonder where the Latino community is on that, where the Latinx and the Asian community is when it comes to that. How do we really support each other. I would love to see much more support and engagement between Asian and Latinx people in all these places, and determining what that looks like.

Viet Nguyen: And the point that you raised that we need to help each other is so crucial. This is one of the things about being a writer of color, or a minority writer. We didn’t make it on our own, we wouldn’t you if we didn’t have Carlos Bulosan to begin with. So if you become successful as a writer, or as a representative, or as a speaker, it’s your obligation to help others and not just help yourself.

Jose Antonio: Absolutely.

Viet Nguyen: This relates to the next question. “Why did you feel the need to start Define American? What gap did you want to fill?”

Jose Antonio: Well, I still remember very vividly what it was like to be gay in the 90s. And seeing [inaudible 00:05:20] on the cover of Time magazine [inaudible 00:05:23] before I emerged with CVS. And I actually bought it at [inaudible 00:05:29] and I hid it on my backpack as I didn’t want my grandparents to see it, because I was still in the closet about that. And then I remember two years later [inaudible 00:05:39] became the number one show in television. I’m still getting whiplash about what Lavane Cook, Janet Mook, Jeane Losero, all these trans women of color have done for trans issues, and making it mainstream and making it human. In this country I’m proud to say that for the most part, it’s not perfect, when you say something homophobic, it’s now culturally unacceptable. Alec Bolk would say something homophobic, he apologizes the next day and gives money to Glad.

Jose Antonio: In this country to be anti-immigrant is not only culturally acceptable, you win the White house. That is a cultural shift, that is like what conversations are we having across the country. I hope that everybody sighs up for Define American, because thanksgiving is right on the corner, and we are preparing. Every year we have this thing called, The gift of a comfortable conversations. You know how we live in a culture now where it’s much easier for you to call out some stranger on social media because you want to be woke and you want to resist. Can you resist your own relatives? The racist uncle that says … I want you like resist your family members, and your friends and your co-workers whenever they say something anti-immigrant or whenever they say something bad about Latinos or Asian people. Be woke on that. And we are going to give you tools to help you do that, and in an effective way that you don’t lose your shit. You know what I mean? Sorry. Please check that out. For us, for me from the beginning we have always been in the middle of a cultural war in my opinion. It just took Trump being elected President to realize that.

Viet Nguyen: When my son was three years old a couple of years ago, he came home from Preschool talking about pilgrims in Indians as we talk about thanksgiving. So I thought, “Okay, I’m going to teach you a new word.” And so I asked him, “What does thanksgiving mean?” He thought about the word I told him and he said, “Genocide?”

Jose Antonio: Wow! Okay.

Viet Nguyen: Now you may think three years old is a little younger to start learning those words.

Jose Antonio: Can we film a video for Define American with him? That will be great.

Viet Nguyen: He is really harm, he might get into it. He is five years old, he sold his first book already. That is another story. But talk about changing stories. But we live in a country in which kids will be taught about Pilgrims in Indians and they will never be taught about genocide. So that [inaudible 00:08:09] a kid reaches three year old that word. All right. I can see I have set up the mood for the inter-audience.

Viet Nguyen: “How can I get one of those cool Define American T-shirts?”

Jose Antonio: I’m going to do something right now that my colleague Noel has looking for me to do, so hold on. When you look back, we have Source matters card. Did you see that tape in your thing? Can everybody please hold it up. Can we put the lights a little bit up please, just so that we can see a little clear. All right. Everybody look at my colleague here. And Noel come.

Jose Antonio: With a picture of it. Hey, it look great. Okay

Noel: I will wait till they finish the picture. Got it? Mike we got it? How is it going, do you want me to get a selfie with you guys?

Jose Antonio: I’m good.

Noel: Hi everyone . I’m Noel [inaudible 00:09:06], I am also part of the team at Define American. And really quick. I want to say I have two free books that have been signed by Jose to give away.So to win one of these two books, I need you all to do something very important. I need you to take out your phones and and go to Define American twitter page that is at Define American with an n on it, not Define America, Define American. And once you get there, there is a pink tweet right at the top. I need you to go and retweet that tweet with comment, it’s important to do that will a comment so that we see it.

Noel: And the first person who does it with a hashtag Sources matter, the first two people who do with the hashtag Sources matter Jose will announce it at the end. You are going to get a free signed copy of his book. Everybody got that? If you don’t have twitter use your friends, I don’t know, and put your name on it. But we’ll make it work, we’ll make something happen, at Define American, they give us a follow too, why not. All right

Viet Nguyen: I got one question, they get harder. The next question is, “How do you validate your life in a political climate that invalidates your very existence? How can you feel proud of who you are when people refuse to see past the label ‘Undocumented’?”

Jose Antonio: This is why I wrote the book, because this is the reaction I’ve heard from so many depressed people, because foundations don’t find mental health. Thankfully the California Endowment, which supports Define American looks in a health in a broader context, so mental health is something they take care about it, but that is an exception. I would argue that we are facing a mental health crisis in this country in immigrant communities, and in this book the question I wanted to ask myself was, “What happens when the government doesn’t recognize you, and doesn’t see you. Like how does that severance of the government impacts the self, the relationship between the government and the citizen?” And I think when you read the book you will see what I’m talking about. So that is what I wanted to understand what the emotional toll of that is,

Viet Nguyen: Being recognized, being seen, being visible is something that many people take for granted. But for people who have marginalized identity, who are invisible, so they can’t take for granted. So it’s incredibly damaging not to be recognized, and it’s going to take a toll on who you are and how you see yourself.

Viet Nguyen: Questions get harder. “How do you sustain hope in challenging times?”

Jose Antonio: The easy way out is Baldwin. I cannot be a pessimist because I am alive. To be a pessimist means that life is nothing but an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to know that we will survive what we must survive. That is Baldwin. The Jose answer that doesn’t use Baldwin. It occurred to me when I was on the flight from Tulsa to Houston the other day, how powerful I feel with this book. That I actually can name what I am and who I am, and have it be in bookstores across the country in that airports that people like me are exposed to fly in. And the book, even though I don’t have a green card or the US passport, has a library of Congress number.

Jose Antonio: And I’m thinking about all those especially undocumented young people who just feel alone, or not seen or not heard, and I would hope that they see the bright yellow cover and the name, and how imperfect it’s written, and know that it’s for them. So thinking about just that gives me a sense of not just hope, but a sense of joy that I can do this, that I was free in my mind to do it. And that I’m hoping that because of that, that is how we feed off each other, whenever someone says to me you inspire me well. I hope you all know that we can only be alive if we inspire each other. Again, we have to do that for each other.

Viet Nguyen: That is really strange. But you don’t have to clap, but thanks. I hope your book ends up in [inaudible 00:13:51] Because that’s how I knew I made it. I saw my book in [inaudible 00:13:55] and was like, Oh my God, you can find the book. It’s perfect for Americans.

Jose Antonio: You mean it, you can find the book.

Viet Nguyen: Two more questions. “What is one piece of advice you want to give to a female college student?”

Jose Antonio: To make sure that you keep saying yes to yourself. And to make sure that when doors close you find windows that you can open. And to make sure that you realize that mentorship is secret, And you have to find mentors. You have to find people who will open doors, windows for you wherever they may be. That is one of the things I love about actually, whatever is happening with the book is it became very clear that lying, passing and hiding didn’t happen alone. That there are people who lied for me, who helped me pass and who hid me. And my life in many ways is connected to their life. And even calling them allies is not enough. Ally ship, that’s too reductive for what they have done for me, and to me. So please mentorship. Find people who can mentor you.

Viet Nguyen: That was a very powerful part of the book, because you were saying you met a lot of people who knew they were newly teachers for example, and they were white people, I assume, right?

Jose Antonio: White people [inaudible 00:15:22] and then black women at Washington post.

Viet Nguyen: And they were strangers who became friends. They were strangers who became mentors, and I think that is very powerful. But let me just add one additional thing, which is that we can’t take mentorship for granted. You would hope that if you yourself were a minority or a person from a marginalized background, that when you have an opportunity to be a mentor, you would be a good mentor. But it doesn’t always happen. So we need good mentors but when you have the power to be a mentor, you have to be a good mentor. Because it’s so easy if you have been hiding, or passing or lying to turn into that kind of person who is a terrible mentor and who reproduces inequalities, and who reproduces the hierarchy.

Jose Antonio: I’m actually trying to figure that out because at Define American we hear from so many undocumented artists from all disciplines. Film makers, writers, poets, graphic designers. So how do we provide them with kind of professional mentorship? So we’re trying to figure that out because we don’t have that much stuff. Feel free to donate to Define American if you want. Parts of the proceeds of the book goes to Define American.

Viet Nguyen: It’s really crucial to find that and moral mentors and to be one yourself. Here is the last question. “What you hope for people to always have in their mind?” I told you it would get harder.

Jose Antonio: Did you hear [inaudible 00:16:47] laugh. I heard my [inaudible 00:16:49] he has the best laugh. That we are enough, that I actually don’t need papers and the law that won’t pass to make me feel that I’m enough, I’m enough to myself. Sometimes I’m too much for myself. Before we go, I need to ask you a favor, one more. It’s my mum’s birthday today. And as I wrote in the book, my mum turns 61 this year. And I am now 37, I’m a year older than what she was when I left her when we separated.

Jose Antonio: I called her this morning while I was on my flight from Houston to here to say Happy Birthday. And she wanted to face-time. And I really don’t like facetiming with her, because I don’t remember her face like that. I was 12, so when I look at her, I don’t see the woman I saw when I was 12. And I could sense on the phone today when I said, “Oh I think you know”, I said a little lie, “The Wi-Fi isn’t strong at the airport.” It was strong at the airport. So now before we sign books and everything, I’m going to turn my phone on and I just want, if possible, for you to sing happy birthday to her. And we can like do it together.

Viet Nguyen: Okay.

Jose Antonio: I call her mama, like mother in the Philippines. So you’re just going to say happy birthday mama, with me. And we are going do it together. Okay, shoot. Wait a second, how do you do this? Hold on

Jose Antonio: Hi mama, I’m here. We’re doing this book thing and I know I didn’t say happy birthday this morning on the video, but now we are going to do it together. Okay 1, 2, 3

Jose Antonio: [singing]

Jose Antonio: Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: All right. USC, Los Angeles, let’s give it up Jose Antonio Vargas.

Jose Antonio: Sorry, the winners of the book are Alice and Jas John. Awesome. So please get the book over there.

Speaker 4: Let’s also thank Viet. Thank you so much for all of your work. And this is why they have won Pulitzer-prizes. This is why they have won both the prizes.


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