How Viet Thanh Nguyen found his voice

Colleen Walsh writes about Viet Thanh Nguyen’s discussion about identity, politics, and politics in his books Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. 
Image result for How Viet Thanh Nguyen found his voice

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Sympathizer’ novelist returns to Radcliffe for reading, discussion

He is haunted by conflict between country and culture, revolution and redemption, embrace and exclusion, and, perhaps most of all, between a yearning to remember and the urge not to. And his prose brings those conflicts to life.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen was 4 when he first started trying to forget. After fleeing war-torn Vietnam with his parents for the United States in 1975, Nguyen was sent to live with a white sponsor family near Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. Eventually he reunited with his mother and father, but that early experience as a refugee marked him “indelibly.”

“That’s when memory begins, and that’s when forgetting begins for me as well, because I spent much of my life trying to forget that experience of separation and of trauma — and trying to forget what it meant to lose a country. And then as a writer and a scholar I have been trying to remember what those things mean.”

Nguyen blended memory, political critique, and history in “The Sympathizer,” his debut novel about a double agent who escapes Vietnam to Southern California during the fall of Saigon. The book was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer for fiction.

Nguyen, a Radcliffe fellow in 2009, returned to the institute last week for a discussion with Gish Jen ’77, also a former Radcliffe fellow. As part of the visit he read from his 2016 nonfiction work “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.”

“I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it. Americans, as well as many people the world over, tend to mistake Vietnam with the war named in its honor, or dishonor as the case may be. This confusion has no doubt led to some of my own uncertainty about what it means to be a man with two countries, as well as the inheritor of two revolutions.”

Writing down the stories he wanted to forget was always a dream, but how to give them the voice he felt they needed remained a mystery, said Nguyen. His time as a Berkeley undergrad — specifically exposure to Asian-American literature and his work in ethnic studies — helped. These encounters were “crucial to my sense that writing stories could also include the history, the identity, the politics that was so fundamentally important to me, that had shaped me.”

Gish Jen (right) applauds Nguyen as he takes the stage. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

A long spell in literary purgatory helped shape his voice and style. Nguyen pursued his Ph.D. at Berkeley, became a professor at the University of Southern California, and toiled for years trying to teach himself the craft while developing stories that would be published years later in his 2017 collection “The Refugees.”

He called the experience “horrible.”

“I didn’t have writing teachers … so I was learning how to write and I was also trying to learn how to be a human being, trying to learn what it meant to be emotionally mature, to try to investigate how I felt about things.”

The struggle paid off. “Through that banging my head against the wall, the frustrations … when it came time to write a novel it felt totally natural,” said Nguyen.

The author opted out of an M.F.A. program and turned to academia, he told Jen, because he “didn’t believe in how writing is taught in this country.”

“Fiction that prioritizes the intimate, the emotional, the realistic, and all those things are important as aesthetic features, but they weren’t necessarily what I wanted to do,” he said. “I couldn’t see how I could take those kinds of aesthetics and write a novel like ‘The Sympathizer,’ that wanted to be an angry, in-your-face novel about politics, and a novel that would leave some room for ambiguity but that would also make perfectly clear what my critique of ideology, revolution, and America and Vietnam were all about. So yes, I had to become a scholar in order to write that kind of a book.”

Jen and Nguyen discuss his writing following his talk. “I didn’t have writing teachers,” he said, “so I was learning how to write and I was also trying to learn how to be a human being, trying to learn what it meant to be emotionally mature, to try to investigate how I felt about things.” Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nguyen said he wasn’t interested in writing the great American novel, but a European version of the great American novel, modern and more skeptical “of this American way of being, of this American ideal” that tends toward romance and hope. He suspects his modern take is why “The Sympathizer” was rejected by 13 of 14 publishers and only accepted by an English editor who was of mixed race.

“That’s what it means to challenge majority privilege,” said Nguyen. “If you don’t force the majority to question itself, they are much more likely to give you a very nice book deal.”

During a question-and-answer session after the talk, an undergraduate from Afghanistan who had lived in a refugee camp said Nguyen’s work “helped her make sense” of her own writing and the world.

“How did you come to reach that emotional maturity [that enabled your writing] and what did that process look like?” she wondered.

The frustration and failure that accompanied his early years of writing helped him divorce himself from the drive for fame and success, Nguyen said, and left him only with “the importance of writing itself.”

The other key to unlocking his emotions was personal, he said.

“Getting married and having a child … that brought me outside of myself, that made me think about others.”

Here is the transcription of the video:

Liz Cohen: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m delighted to welcome you here to the Radcliffe Institute. I’m Liz Cohen. I’m Dean of the Institute, and I’m glad to see such a great crowd here today. I’d like to extend a special welcome to a Harvard Advanced Fiction Writing class who is here with their teacher, Claire Messud, who is also a novelist, well-known and respected novelist, and a former Radcliffe fellow. Where is that class? There they are, great. Happy to have you here. This afternoon for our annual Dean’s Lecture in the Humanities, I am delighted to have Viet Thanh Nguyen, also a former Radcliffe fellow, back at the Institute to delve into the topic of history, identity, politics, and the art of writing. Viet has set out quite an agenda for us to contemplate together.

Liz Cohen: After his talk, Viet will engage in a conversation with yet another distinguished writer and former Radcliffe fellow, Gish Jen. I am grateful to both Viet and Gish for joining us here today. As Harvard’s Institute for Advanced Study, Radcliffe fosters interdisciplinary inquiry, innovative research, and the creation of art in many forms. We are also dedicated to sharing that work with the public through lectures, through conferences, panel discussions, and exhibitions. Today, we are fortunate to have with us two writers whose work demonstrates remarkable breadth and depth, and who exemplify the kind of boundary crossing that we take pride in at Radcliffe. Both Viet Thanh Nguyen and Gish Jen write fiction and nonfiction. They are scholars and artists, and they are just as adept at scouring the archives as they are at mining their own experiences and imaginations.

Liz Cohen: Viet is a professor, a cultural critic, and a fiction writer. He earned his PhD in English from the University of California at Berkeley, and he has spent the last two decades at the University of Southern California where he holds the Arnold Chair of English, as well as professorships in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity and the Department of Comparative Literature. Viet also serves as a member of the steering committee of USC’s Center for Transpacific Studies. Viet is a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. His essays have appeared in publications, including Time Magazine, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.

Liz Cohen: Viet is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is co-editor of the anthology, Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field. He is editor of a forthcoming collection of essays, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Viet’s debut novel entitled The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, and too many other awards to list here. That same year, he published the nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Then in 2017, Viet released a critically acclaimed short story collection entitled The Refugees, and received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Genius Grant. I’d say that makes for a pretty impressive couple years, Viet, and I wonder, do you ever sleep?

Liz Cohen: Joyce Carol Oates has described Viet as, and I quote her, “one of our great chroniclers of displacement.” It’s a fitting characterization. Viet, who himself came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam at the age of four, has dedicated much of his life’s work to probing how the Vietnam War is remembered and represented, and to investigating the experiences of those displaced from that war. In Nothing Ever Dies, Viet observes, and I quote, “all wars are fought twice. The first time on the battlefield and the second time in memory.” Much of his writing interrogates that latter fight. He sheds light on aspects of the Vietnam War’s social and political history that might otherwise have escaped critical analysis. That includes collective remembrance of the war in both the United States and Southeast Asia through forms of popular culture, such as literature, film, and memorials.

Liz Cohen: In doing so, Viet shows us that memory is dynamic, and that the way we come to understand war is shaped by ideology, by individual and national identity, by power structures, and by the industries of war and memory. Viet grapples with these issues using the distinctive lenses of different kinds of writing, the short story, the novel, the essay, the op-ed, and more. With so much nimbleness as a writer, he strategically selects the form best suited to his message and to his audience. Viet’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, captures the experiences and the perspectives of Vietnamese soldiers, Vietnamese refugees, and Vietnamese Americans. He develops the full complexity of his characters and his plotlines to avoid exaggerated [heroism 00:05:53] and simplistic motivation.

Liz Cohen: In Viet’s hands, people are rendered with subtlety, and the Vietnam War becomes the multi-faceted, political, cultural, and historical confrontation between the US and Vietnam that it truly was. Take as an example his debut novel, The Sympathizer. The protagonist and narrator in The Sympathizer illustrates Viet’s ability to explore complex dualities within a single individual. This nameless double agent, undercover as a South Vietnamese Army captain, flees Saigon and resettles in Southern California. He is torn not only between his covert mission and his cover identity, but also between his homeland and the United States, between his French and Vietnamese ancestries, and between his position as the betrayer and the betrayed. For Viet, these personal dualities powerfully illuminate larger complexities of ethnic identity, of war displacement, and of the refugee experience.

Liz Cohen: Gish Jen has explored closely related aspects of identity, culture, and history. In her novels and short stories, she has written about immigration and the hyphenated American experience, while also challenging what typically has been characterized as ethnic writing and what has not. Gish grew up as the child of Chinese immigrant parents and went on to graduate from Radcliffe College and to earn an MFA in fiction writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she was the recipient of the Academy’s prestigious Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award and many other top honors. Most recently, she received a Legacy Award from the Museum of Chinese in America in New York.

Liz Cohen: Gish was in residence as a bunting fellow here at Radcliffe when she wrote her first novel, Typical American. She returned again, this time it was the Radcliffe Institute, in 2001-2002 to work on her third novel entitled The Love Wife, and I was lucky enough to be one of her fellow fellows that year. Gish has authored two other novels, Mona in the Promised Land and World and Town, as well as a short fiction collection entitled Who’s Irish? Her short stories have been anthologized in many textbooks and collections, including multiple anthologies of the best American short stories, including, most notably, The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Liz Cohen: Recently, Gish has turned her talents to nonfiction, including Tiger Writing, Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, and just last year, The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap. In these books, Gish brilliantly probes differences in Western and Eastern conceptions of self and their implications for identity, family, and community relationships, for art, and for much more.

Liz Cohen: I am thrilled to have both Viet and Gish with us here today in dialogue with one another as two exceptional writers who focus our attention in a very nuanced way to both fiction and nonfiction on compelling issues of history, identity, politics, and the art of writing. Now, please join me in warmly welcoming Viet Thanh Nguyen to the podium.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you so much for that introduction. Thank you for that incredible introduction, Liz. Such an honor to be here and a real pleasure to be back here after having been a fellow here several years ago. Now, the most important thing I got to do, though, before everything starts … I can’t help it. I’m Asian. I’m not going to actually exhaustively talk about history, identity, politics, and so on. I’m really going to talk for just about 15 or 20 minutes about how those things have intersected with writing and with my life, and how I’ve become a writer and a scholar who has tried to take all of those things and work with them, simultaneously. The reason why history, identity, and politics have been so important to me as a writer is not simply because I’m Asian, but because I’m a refugee.

Viet Nguyen: The history of being a refugee and the impact of that experience on my family and my life has been something that has marked me indelibly from the moment that my memory has begun. My memories began as a four-year-old coming here to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania as a refugee with my parents. Being separated from my parents at four years of age and being sent to live with a white sponsor family, that was the way to get out of the refugee camp. That’s when memory begins, and that’s also when forgetting begins as well for me, because I spent much of my life trying to forget that experience of separation and of trauma and trying to forget what it meant to lose a country. Then as a writer and as a scholar, I’ve been trying to remember what those things mean for me.

Viet Nguyen: I’ll just start off with the couple of first paragraphs from this book, Nothing Ever Dies. I will tell you a little bit about me and what I think about my work. “I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe in its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it. Americans, as well as many people the world over, tend to mistake Vietnam with the war named in its honor, or dishonor as the case may be. This confusion has no doubt led to some of my own uncertainty about what it means to be a man with two countries, as well as the inheritor of two revolutions. Today, the Vietnamese and American revolutions manufacture memories only to absolve the hardening of their arteries. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions, we have to know how we make memories and how we forget them, so that we can beat their hearts back to life.”

Viet Nguyen: For me, my journey into being someone who could write these past three books has been an intensely personal journey. It’s not only been a journey as a writer and as a scholar, but it’s been as someone who has never been able to forget the questions of history, identity, and of politics, and how to try to bring all those things together in the act of writing itself. The reason why it’s personal is because I was never at a time in my life when I wasn’t being reminded of history and of difference in one way or another. After we had settled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for about three years, my parents made the wonderful decision to move to California. We settled in San Jose, California in 1978, and my parents opened, perhaps, the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California.

Viet Nguyen: We lived in downtown San Jose, and downtown San Jose is not like downtown San Jose of today. Back then, it was a very rough and violent neighborhood. I remember walking down the street from my parents’ store and seeing a sign in another window that said, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” I was, perhaps, 10 or 11 years old, and that was one of the things that I both remembered and forgot. I put that away in my memory for many years, because I didn’t know what to make out of that sign, and I’ve spent many years trying to make sense of what that sign meant. That sign, as short as it was, contained an entire epic story about what America was, who belonged to this country, and the fact that Vietnamese people did not belong here. Not just Vietnamese people, but, obviously, it was a matter of fill in the blank. Another American driven out of business by fill in the blank, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and so on.

Viet Nguyen: Well, what happened was that the reason why my parents opened this grocery store in downtown San Jose was because no one else wanted to open a grocery store in downtown San Jose. In the 1970s and the 1980s, many of the businesses that were opened were opened by Vietnamese refugees, and the city didn’t care about downtown San Jose. Then something called Silicon Valley happened, and all of a sudden, tax money started to come in to San Jose, California. In the early 2000s, San Jose City Hall thought, “Well, maybe we should transform San Jose downtown into something more worthy of the Silicon Valley, so they decided to build a new City Hall.” Where do you think they decided to put the new City Hall? They built it right across the street from my parents’ store.

Viet Nguyen: Now, in order to make that happen, City Hall had to dispossess many of these Vietnamese refugee shopkeepers, including my parents. I thought for many, many years afterwards that what they did was to raise my parents’ store and build a parking garage. This was a store in which my parents had been working 12 to 14-hour days, every day of the year, except for Christmas, Easter, and New Years. This was a store in which my parents were shot on Christmas Eve. To think that the city had erased this business where they had sacrificed themselves and had erased their legacy was very painful for me. For many years, whenever I would return to downtown San Jose, I would never actually go to this location. I would always drive around it. Well, then something else happened, was that I won the Pulitzer Prize.

Viet Nguyen: Then City Hall thought it would be a great idea to invite me back and give me a commendation. I thought, “Great, I’ll take it.” I always take every award that’s given to me. But I’m going to tell this story. I finally went back to downtown San Jose, to this location where my parents had shed their blood and their tears, and I realized there was no parking garage there, there was a parking lot. There’s a line in The Sympathizer where I say, “America’s most original contribution to architecture is the parking lot.” I thought, this was why I became a writer. It wasn’t simply that we had been erased in some abstract way from American history, or that we’d been erased in an abstract way from Vietnamese history in Vietnam, we had been erased in very concrete ways in our own history here in this country, my parents.

Viet Nguyen: As I was growing up in San Jose in the 1980s, I knew that these stories and these erasures were enormously meaningful, but I didn’t have a way to give articulation to them. For example, I remember in the 1980s, there was something called the VCR. My parents bought a VCR, and because they were working 12 to 14-hour days, they used a VCR as a way of babysitting me. After I watched Star Wars a dozen times, I went out, and I got a movie called Apocalypse Now. I was about 11 or 12 years old. I watched many inappropriate things when I was 11 or 12 years old on this VCR, and I was an American. I grew up feeling that in my parents’ very Vietnamese household, I was an American spying on these Vietnamese people. When I was outside in the American world, I was a Vietnamese spying on these Americans.

Viet Nguyen: When I was watching Apocalypse Now, I came to it as an American, as an American boy who loved American war movies, and I identified with American soldiers. In this case, I identified with the American soldiers up until a point they started killing Vietnamese civilians, and then I was split in two. Later, I would go to a very elite high school in San Jose that was mostly white, except for a handful of us who were of Asian descent. We would gather in a corner at lunch and call ourselves the Asian invasion. At least it wasn’t the yellow peril. It wasn’t until I got to Berkeley and became instantly radicalized, literally, the moment I set foot on campus. But I learned that there was something called Asian Americans. It’s only a name, but it’s an entire story, it’s an entire narrative, and it totally transformed my sense of who I was and my place in American society and the possibilities of me being able to tell stories.

Viet Nguyen: One of the first books that I encountered when I stepped foot in the city of Berkeley was Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. Then just a couple of years later, I found Typical American by Gish Jen. These were momentous events in the life of someone who had called himself part of the Asian invasion. No, we were Asian Americans. This is what I mean by history, identity, politics, and the art of writing. To become a writer, I had to try to figure out not just how to write stories, but how to talk about history, identity, politics, simultaneously. The challenge was that these were not things that were being taught to us as budding writers. What was being taught to us was the art of writing and the beauty of literature. There’s no doubt that all those things are important, that’s why I became an English major when I was at Berkeley.

Viet Nguyen: But there was no way that I thought that I could become a writer. There was no way that I thought I could become an English professor. I would have to go home and tell my parents who were working 12 to 14-hour days, “Hey, mom and dad, I want to spend my life studying Jane Austen and the Romantics.” It wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t going to work. Encountering Asian American literature and becoming an ethnic studies major as well were enormously crucial to my sense that writing stories could also include the history, the identity, the politics that were so fundamentally important to me and that had shaped me. I had set out on a quest then to try to figure out how to put all these things together, because it seemed to me at that time that the state of contemporary American literature, dominant contemporary American literature, wasn’t that interested in history, identity, or politics.

Viet Nguyen: I was a writer who wanted to try to figure out how to do these things simultaneously. I became a professor. As a professor, you could talk about history, identity, and politics. But if you’ve read any recent works of literary criticism or cultural criticism, you’ll know that they’re also not about the art of writing. Part of my challenge to become a writer, my kind of a writer, was to be a writer who could be both a novelist who could write critical fiction, and a critic who could write creatively as well. That’s how I came to the book Nothing Ever Dies. I’m just going to read you an excerpt from this book that talks about all of these issues in a very, hopefully, personal way and about the memory, the act of remembering that is so crucial to that book and to my life in general.

Viet Nguyen: “As a Gook, in the eyes of some, I can testify that being remembered as the other is a dismembering experience, what we can call a disremembering. Disremembering is not simply the failure to remember. Disremembering is the unethical and paradoxical mode of forgetting at the same time as remembering, or from the perspective of the other who is disremembered, of being simultaneously seen and not seen. Disremembering allows someone to see right through the other, an experience rendered so memorably by Ralph Ellison in the opening pages of Invisible Man. His narrator, the titular hero, runs into a white man who refuses to see him, and enraged, strikes back to force the white man to see him. Even beaten, however, the white man refuses to see him the way he wishes to be seen. That is because the other’s use of physical force may make the other visible, but only to turn him into a target.

Viet Nguyen: The other must deploy the psychic forces of remembering, imagining, and narrating if the other wishes to transform the ways of seeing. Not satisfied with being disremembered, we, who are others, find that it is up to us to remember ourselves. Having carried ourselves over or been brought over from the other side, we Gooks, we goo-goos, we slopes, we dinks, we zipperheads, we slant-eyes, we yellow ones, we brown ones, we Japs, we Chinks, we ragheads, we sand niggers, we Orientals, we who cannot be distinguished between ourselves because we all look alike. We know that the condition of our being and our self-representation is that we are both ourselves and others. We are never without identity and never without ideology, whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. Those people who believe themselves to be beyond identity and ideology will, sooner or later, charge us with identity and ideology if we dare commit that most unnatural act of speaking up and speaking out.”

Viet Nguyen: My work as a scholar and as a fiction writer has been about trying to think through identity and ideology, simultaneously. This belief that we are never without an identity, even if we refuse to acknowledge our identity, and this belief that to be a writer who believes in history, identity, and politics is to believe in the act of writing as an ideological act as well. That identity is important but insufficient. That ideology is critical but also insufficient without identity as well. I’ll end with an excerpt from The Sympathizer where I try to bring these things together through the act of fiction, because I imagined the novel The Sympathizer as a novel that is about history and identity and politics and writing, and is a novel that is also an act of criticism as well. Hopefully, you’ll also have some fun along the way.

Viet Nguyen: For those of you who don’t know, The Sympathizer is about a communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army in April 1975. His mission is to flee with the remnants of that Army to the United States where his task is to spy on their efforts to take their country back. In order to do that, he has to become a refugee. Then one of the things that he has to do is survive in the United States. One of the jobs that he gets is to become the authenticity consultant on the making of a movie that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now. But if Francis Ford Coppola or his lawyers are to ask, it’s not Apocalypse Now, and it really isn’t. Apocalypse Now is an easy target for me, but that really is an example of what I mean by disremembering, because it wasn’t as if in looking at that movie or any of the American movies about the Vietnam War, of which there were dozens in the ’80s and ’90s, and I saw most of them, which is an exercise I recommend to nobody.

Viet Nguyen: In seeing them, it was clear that the Vietnamese were not invisible. We were totally there, we were seen, but we were seen through, and that’s the act of disremembering. But it wasn’t just Apocalypse Now that did that, it was also all these other movies. In this excerpt, the movie is called The Hamlet, and it really is a compendium of all of this entire genre of the American Vietnam War movie. The reason why I felt necessary to write four chapters of the novel about this was that no matter where I went in this world, and I told people I was working on the Vietnam War, sooner or later someone would say, “Have you seen Apocalypse Now?” They had never seen a Vietnamese movie, and we’re still dealing with that today. Let me tell you, don’t ask me the question I’m about to give you.

Viet Nguyen: In the last few months, no matter where I went, somebody would inevitably ask me, “Have you seen that 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War?” Guaranteed, they had not read my book, had not read any book by a Vietnamese person, any book by a Vietnamese American person, and not seen any movie from Vietnam. That’s what we’re up against, seen and not seen all at the same time. Here, I take my revenge on that perspective. My narrator meets with the famous director known only as the Auteur. “My meeting with the Auteur had gone on for a while longer, mostly in a more subdued fashion with me pointing out that the lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity. Do you not think it would be a little more believable, I said, a little more realistic, a little more authentic for a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, cut to villagers speaking in their own language?

Viet Nguyen: Do you think it might not be decent to let them actually say something instead of simply acknowledging that there is some kind of sound coming from their mouths? Could you not even just have them speak a heavily accented English, you know what I mean, ching-chong English, just to pretend that they are speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand?’ The Auteur grimaced and said, very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it. But I had a question. What was it? Oh, yes. How many movies have you made? None. Isn’t that right? None, zero, zilch, nada, nothing, and however you say it in your language. Thank you for telling me how to do my job. Now, get the hell out of my house and come back after you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas.”

Viet Nguyen: Funny thing is that since this book came out, I’ve spoken to quite a few Hollywood people and none of them dispute this characterization. “I confess to being angry with the Auteur, but was I wrong in being angry? This was especially the case when he acknowledged he did not even know that Montagnard was simply a French catch-all term for the dozens of Highland minorities.” The movie The Hamlet is about American Green Berets who go to the central Highlands and train the so-called Montagnards to defend themselves against communism. “What if, I said to him, I wrote a screenplay about the American West and simply called all the natives Indians? You’d want to know whether the cavalry was fighting the Navajo or Apache or Comanche, right? Likewise, I would want to know, when you say these people are Montagnards, whether we speak of the Bru or the Nung or the Tay.

Viet Nguyen: Let me tell you a secret, the Auteur said. You ready? Here it is. No one gives a shit. He was amused by my wordlessness. To see me without words is like seeing one of those Egyptian felines without hair, a rare, not necessarily desirable occasion. Have could I be so dense? How could I be so deluded? I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. Hollywood did not just make war movie monsters, it was its own horror movie monster, smashing me under its foot. I had failed, and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pity the French for their naivete in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient imagining the countries it wanted to exploit.

Viet Nguyen: I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created, with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis who never achieved global domination. Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. Better to be villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute, we were to be struck dumb.” Thank you.

Gish Jen: Viet, let me just say, first of all, that was just wonderful, and welcome to Cambridge.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Gish Jen: It’s great to have you here. I think we’re all interested in how you got to this point where you’re able to make us all give a shit. In your journey, so I’d like to talk about that journey today, starting with, if I may, start with your days at Berkeley and your grades. You did take a class with Maxine Hong Kingston there, and creative writing class, and you did get a B.

Viet Nguyen: A B-plus.

Gish Jen: A B-plus. Now it comes out. I was really worried. I don’t know if you have great inflation there the way we do here. But a B here is not an F, but it is a C. I’m relieved to hear that you got a B-plus. A very interesting part, I think, of the story is also that you slept in her class every time it met.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think the important part to acknowledge is that it was a class of 14 students, in which I sat here, and she sat there, and I fell asleep every single day in that class.

Gish Jen: You sat next to her, and you fell asleep. She also did say that you never contributed, because that goes along with being asleep.

Viet Nguyen: Right. Well, she wrote me a very long note at the end of the class.

Gish Jen: She had a little advice to you in that note, right?

Viet Nguyen: Well, she said, “You seem to be very alienated,” which I was. She said, “Maybe you should make use of Cal’s excellent counseling services.” Thankfully, I did not take her advice. Part of how I get anybody to give a shit if they do is that I stopped giving a fuck. I was alienated when I was an undergraduate, because I was confused for all the reasons that I talked about. I was trying to make sense of myself as a person, as an Asian American, as a student, as a writer, as a son. All of that was wrapped up in so many kinds of anxieties, and that was about caring about what other people thought. I got a B-plus. That’s unacceptable, right?

Gish Jen: You don’t have to be so defensive, because I’m just ripping you.

Viet Nguyen: No, but it’s useful, right?

Gish Jen: It’s funny today. But it actually gets to something. I think there are a lot of students here in this crowd, and it’s always very interesting what works in the classroom and what doesn’t. What I’m wondering today because, of course, we could say, “Oh, he was a bum. He slept every day. What’s the matter with him?” But I have to say that today, I wonder whether really sitting there at your young age, were you 19, 20, where you were already feeling some anxiety of influence. You weren’t just a bum. There you were. I don’t need to explain to this crowd how anxiety influences Harold Bloom’s idea that we need to kill our predecessors. I, myself clear across the country, felt this with Maxine, and I think I said so in an interview with the result that the first time I met her, she said, “I had read that you wanted to kill me.” I said, “Oh, God, no. I’m so sorry, Maxine.”

Gish Jen: But in fact, of course, many writers have had this feeling. It’s just the Southern writers feel this way about Faulkner. Flannery O’Connor previously said, we have to differentiate ourselves from Faulkner. You don’t want your mule and cart on the same tracks that the Dixie Limited came down. I wonder if for you it was a supremely bad choice for your first creative writing class to be in a class where you’re not only with the preeminent Asian American writer, but a woman who, because of her peace work, whose name was synonymous with Vietnam. There she is, and she owns Vietnam, and she’s not even Vietnamese. I’m wondering if that was a contributor to why you shut down.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that may definitely be the case, but it wasn’t articulate for myself at the time. We read Chinaman, for example, in her class. Chinaman, part of it is very much about the Vietnam War. There’s a great chapter in there called The Brother from Vietnam. But the funny thing was I didn’t remember that. It took me many, many years to come back to that book and to realize that the Brother from Vietnam is absolutely crucial to my own thinking. Maybe you should put a seed in my head by having me read that work. I think that anxiety of influence is definitely there, because she represented Asian American literature. She represented a particular approach to peace and reconciliation.

Viet Nguyen: At the time, I was trying to be an Asian American writer as you were saying, but also rebelling against this notion of peace and reconciliation. I was an angry Asian American activist. I was storming the president’s office. Now, I’m sitting with the president, so it’s a really weird transformation. But at the time, I was like, “Let’s have a revolution.” I’m not interested in nuances and ambiguities. I want some clarity at 19 years old. It took a couple of decades of revisiting her work to understand that it was enormously influential, enormously important. That part of why it took so long to become a writer for me was about learning the art, but of also learning emotional maturity to be able to confront some of the things that she was talking about.

Gish Jen: But it’s such a great example, I think, when people think, who should I study with? On the surface of it, it would have been what a perfect match. Maxine Hong Kingston is there. She’s so gentle. She’s so loving. She’s interested in Vietnam. On the surface of it, it would seem that there could be no better teacher, and yet, actually a disaster, right? Then exactly as you said, you get this committed pacifist. There you are, and you’ve talked about your journey as a writer is really being an emotional journey. You are trying to get in touch with yourself. You have a lot of violence in you. She is so adamantly anti-violence to this day, that when she read your book in order to blurb it, she did give you the blurb but without reading the violent parts, right?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. She told me that later.

Gish Jen: The first time this has ever happened, of course, that a writer has blurbed a book without reading it. There you are. In a funny kind of way, it is a perfect mismatch. Then you go on, and you do, of course, what I will say many failed writers do is you become an academic. It’s always very funny how many, every year at Radcliffe, there is a number of fellows who applied to do such and such a project, but then they spend the year writing novels. But there you are. You become an academic like these many academics. On the side, even though you’re doing very well as an academic, you persist at this writing thing for 15, 17 years, writing the same short stories, right? The stories that we now see in The Refugees. You wrote them for 15, 17 years. You go about it in a very rational way. You have an Excel spreadsheet for the writers and the audience. This is not the recommended way. But you’ve got this spreadsheet. You’re having no fun. Of course, I think you’ve said yourself that you don’t do fun.

Viet Nguyen: No. Well, I grew up in a very Vietnamese Catholic household, we don’t know anything about fun. We only know about sacrifice and torture, so that was perfect for being a writer.

Gish Jen: You’re having no fun, but you’re sticking at it 15, 17 years, rewriting, rewriting with your spreadsheet. This goes on while your academic career is going on. It seems like these two tracks are completely separate. But I guess what I’m wondering today is actually if the academic track was key to your finally getting unstuck. You’ve talked about the whole idea that your journey was really an emotional journey. If, in fact, especially the kind of academics that you were doing over there in California where it is so radical, whether it gave you scaffolding for all that anger.

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. The real challenge was to try to figure out how to work emotionally in both areas. As a writer, you’re supposed to work emotionally, that’s the substance from which you draw. I remember another writing teacher that I had at Berkeley, Bharati Mukherjee, reading one of my short stories and saying, “You know what, you don’t cut close enough to the bone.” I was like 19 or 20 years old. I was like, “How do you do that? If I could just take a knife to myself, I would do it.”

Gish Jen: Is that going to hurt?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. But I think what she was getting at is that what a writer needs to draw from is the internal emotions that go deep into your own feelings. Fiction doesn’t have to be autobiographical, but the emotions that you put into it come from within you. That’s what I was talking about at the beginning of the talk, is that I spent a lifetime suppressing those feelings, suppressing those emotions, trying to approach my past rationally as a scholar. That approach did have some benefits, because I couldn’t have written The Sympathizer without all the rational work of going to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, thinking about the politics and ethics of memory and so on. But I also couldn’t have written Nothing Ever Dies without writing The Sympathizer, because I was able, in Nothing Ever Dies, to also tap into my emotions. As a scholar, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to be objective.

Gish Jen: It’s a very emotional book. The whole tone of it is a very take no prisoners type tone. This is not the dispassionate scholar writing. It’s very interesting. But I was just interested in your journey, because it’s so opposite the way that most writers have … and I think that probably what Maxine, I think, has spoken about her, she starts with the emotion. I would say that many, many, many writers would say, well, they start with some kind of feeling. It’s just so interesting that you went a completely different way. You needed the Excel spreadsheet, and then you needed the academia, you needed the scholarship. Then what happens after 15 years of scholarship and 15 years of banging your head against the wall, and you’ve described this period of your life as completely miserable.

Viet Nguyen: Yes, it was. In 1997 to 2011 when I was writing the bulk of The Refugees, it really was a horrible experience, because I was learning how to write. I didn’t do an MFA, I didn’t have writing teachers and so on. I was learning how to write, and I was also trying to learn how to be a human being, and trying to learn what it meant to be emotionally mature, to try and investigate how I felt about things and why I was not feeling certain kinds of things. That’s a very difficult thing to do. But I think that it prepared me for writing The Sympathizer. It was like that moment from Karate Kid, wax on, wax off, you do this endlessly over and over, and then, all of a sudden, you become the karate master. Writing The Refugees was nothing like writing The Sympathizer, but somehow, through that act of banging my head against the wall, of frustration and so on, when it came time to write a novel, it felt completely natural to do it. I could do that in two years.

Gish Jen: Well, right. It was that on one hand, but also your life as an academic, which I will say you started off as someone, you’re sleeping in Maxine Hong Kingston’s class, you don’t say one word, which suggests a certain kind of shyness, too, I will say. Then from there, I will say, it seems that it’s your academic life that gave you the confidence to come to the novel, knowing what you wanted to say.

Viet Nguyen: Well, let me just put it this way. I think that one of the reasons why I did not go do an MFA was that I just didn’t believe in how writing is taught in this country, and maybe it’s a stereotype. But my understanding of contemporary American fiction, like I said at the beginning, is that it wasn’t the kind of fiction that I wanted to write. It was a fiction that prioritizes the intimate, the emotional, the realistic. All those things are important kinds of aesthetic features, but they weren’t necessarily what I wanted to do. I couldn’t see how I could take those kinds of aesthetics and write a novel like The Sympathizer that wanted to be an angry, in-your-face novel about politics, and a novel that would leave some room for ambiguity. But it would also make perfectly clear what my critique of ideology and revolution in America and Vietnam were all about. Yes, I had to become a scholar in order to write that kind of a book, because it’s a very different kind of book than what might have been produced out of a conventional MFA program.

Gish Jen: Right. But I think what you’re also saying is that … I told you and I think we agreed. I said, “Well, let’s talk about your nonfiction.” You said, “No, we’re not going to talk about my nonfiction, there isn’t time.” But I think what you are also saying is that in your heart, you knew that the American MFA program and approach is too individualistic for you, that it started from the self in a way which you understood was not going to work for you.

Viet Nguyen: Well, let me go back to the idea of the fact that I was both an English and an ethnic studies major as an undergraduate. English is great for reading books and is great for cultivating this idea of the individual literary talent and the romantic genius, and all that is important, right? But being an ethnic studies major was about being a part of a collective, recognizing myself as a part of something, of a group in solidarity that’s having a lineage of resistance and revolution, third-world solidarity, all these kinds of things that do not get talked about, generally speaking, in English department writing programs.

Gish Jen: Right. You went around the MFA, very Western-oriented MFA program, and you went the other way, and then you came back. Then you came back. You came back, and you came back with the kind of confidence that came from being academic. You revisited one of your great heroes, Ralph Ellison, right? I wonder if you could just tell everyone a little bit about when you came to Invisible Man again. You had written a lot about Invisible Man as an undergrad, and then, now what?

Viet Nguyen: Well, it was a very important novel for me. There’s a lot of African American literature, Chicano literature, Asian American literature, and so on that was important to me as an undergraduate and giving me a sense that these types of narratives about history, identity, politics had already been … People had already started writing these kinds of things. Invisible Man was particularly important, because number one, it’s a masterful novel. But number two, because Ellison’s arguments about the invisibility of African Americans and their hypervisibility were very applicable to other minority populations, including Asian Americans in this country. When I set out to write The Sympathizer, Invisible Man was a model, because he set out also to write an allegory for African American experience, and I wanted to write an allegory for Vietnamese experience as well.

Viet Nguyen: But speaking about the anxiety of influence, I also wanted to draw a distinction between me and Ralph Ellison in the book without picking a fight with him. I think one of the reasons why Invisible Man was successful, besides being a great book, is that in the end, the narrator of Invisible Man becomes a revolutionary and then renounces it and then emerges out of his hole and declares the possibility of hope as an individual. For me, I thought, “Well, that’s one narrative that’s very powerful in this country, but it’s not the narrative I want.” My narrative is about how, yes, revolutions do lead to disillusionment, but that doesn’t mean we give up on revolutions. It doesn’t mean we give up on collectivities and solidarities. My narrator, actually, after his failure with revolution, says, “Let’s recommit to another revolution.” He embraces not the individual I at the end of the book, but uses we instead. Now, that’s either a sign of collectivity and solidarity, or it’s a sign of its insanity. It works either way, right? Then that’s another other way in which it also aligns with Invisible Man and our doubts about his sanity as well.

Gish Jen: Thanks to your work as a scholar. When you come back and you’re looking at your models for your novel, you have a kind of confidence there. There’s a way in which you know what you’re going to do, right? It’s very interesting what you pick for your models. Do you want to talk about that a little bit, the big novels that you were looking at when you were sitting down to read The Sympathizer? You’ve got Celine. You’ve got Grass.

Viet Nguyen: Right. Well, I was certainly looking for big novels that tackled the big questions in society and that were dealing with war and its fallout and the possibilities of reconciliation and so on. For example, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night was really crucial, because that was a landmark novel of French literature in the 1920s. When I read it for the first time in getting ready for The Sympathizer, I saw that in the first 50 pages, it opens up in a Paris cafe during World War I, then moves the trench warfare, then goes to a French African colony, then crosses the Atlantic to Detroit and goes back to France, all in 50 pages.

Viet Nguyen: I thought, “Okay, if he can do that, I can try to do that as well.” It was important to try to find these aspirational models, or Dostoyevsky of Crime and Punishment, and Brothers Karamazov, the interrogation scene in that, Antonio Lobo Antunes, The Land at the End of the World, which no one, apparently, has ever read besides me. Part of what it is to be a writer is not just to renounce influence, but also to acknowledge and to seek out influence as well. It’s crucial to see that other people have been trying to do this and successfully have done this work before.

Gish Jen: But what’s so interesting is that none of those models are American.

Viet Nguyen: I didn’t think that I was writing the great American novel. I thought I was writing the European version of the American novel, because to me, that was much more interesting. For me, the great American novel, whatever that means, does typically mean something that’s more realistic, something that affirms the American dream. When I say that, I don’t mean that it affirms the American dream in some kind of propagandistic fashion. These novels often talk about disillusionment and alienation and so on, but they still affirm an American way of being. I wanted to do something that was much more modernist, hopefully, and also something that was much more skeptical of this American way of being, this American idea. That’s why I think that the novel when we sent it out to publishers was rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers.

Gish Jen: Why don’t you tell people about that? You did succeed in writing your book. Let’s not skip over that wonderful period, though, when you’re writing, right? Your academic career has given you the scaffolding. The emotion is coming up, and then it is coming up big, right? There you are writing, and it’s ecstatic, right? First, you find your first opening line. Maybe you could share with us what that was like and how long it took.

Viet Nguyen: Well, it’s important to note that I wrote The Sympathizer in two years, and it was an ecstatic experience for the most part, except for when I talked to my agent, and then I started worrying about, am I ever going to sell this novel or not?

Gish Jen: But it’s never the highlight of anyone’s life.

Viet Nguyen: No, most writers think, I just got to get an agent, but then when you get the agent, there’s a whole other set of anxieties. But I spent a summer trying to find the opening line in the opening sequence of the novel, because I knew that that would then set the tenor for the entire book. That was when reading Antonio Lobo Antunes’ The Land at the End of the World was really crucial for me, because it’s a novel about the Portuguese war in Angola, which is somewhat similar to the Vietnam War for the Portuguese. But it’s also a novel that is intensely about the voice and the style. I knew in writing The Sympathizer that it was not just going to be a novel about the Vietnam War, it would be a novel about voice and style, because my feeling was that I had to prove something. I had to prove something, not just about the Vietnam War. I didn’t have just an argument to make about the Vietnam War. I had an argument to make about what it meant to be an Asian American writer.

Viet Nguyen: That argument was, I can do it just as well as any other American writer, and I can demonstrate this through the language of the book. We were talking about the anxiety of influence. If there’s any anxiety of influence that’s really evident in the book, it’s in the very language of the book itself. It’s possible the book is overwritten, because I’m too anxious about trying to prove that I can master English and write just as good as any other American author. That to me was the very self-conscious moment of me working through what my anxieties were and what I was trying to both prove and reject.

Gish Jen: This goes back to what you were saying earlier about never being able to forget that you are in this context. It’s a great luxury to be able to forget that context, and I will say that, just as an aside, very similarly when I sat down to write Typical American, which was right here at Radcliffe, but also, at a time when people did not believe that Asian Americans could write novels. That novel just says, I am a novel in every line, because every single moment, I was asked, “Isn’t that immigrant autobiography?” Do you know what I mean? I was like, “No, it’s a novel.” The same way you have anxiety today, well, maybe I overwrote the voice as I’m struggling to say, “I can do this.” Today, I think, well, I wonder if I overdid the novelness of the novel, because I was in reaction to something.

Viet Nguyen: But even the title, Typical American, when I encountered it, it was clearly a statement, typical American, native speaker, things like this. We as Asian American writers are oftentimes worried about that anxiety of do we belong, or do we not belong? How do we assert our Americanness? In The Sympathizer, because things like Native Speaker and Typical American had come along, I didn’t feel I needed to do that work. I could do something else. I could write about from the perspective of someone who was not clearly an American, someone who was ambiguously Americanized, but who was also very clearly Vietnamese. To assert that this was not just an American novel, but again, a European version of an American novel that took into consideration international politics and the international arena, which is something that many Asian American writers before me and the generations before me might have been reluctant to do, because they didn’t want to be tainted with that association with the foreign.

Gish Jen: You so often call yourself a Vietnamese writer, which I find very interesting. In my generation, if you will, we were always very careful to say we’re Asian American, we’re Chinese American. But you often will refer to yourself as Vietnamese.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think the whole dilemma in this, through your generation and whenever I would go see-

Gish Jen: I’m not that much older than you.

Viet Nguyen: Let me just say, though, when Typical American came out, it was a landmark, every time an Asian American novel came out, it was a landmark, because they only came out like once a year or once every two or three years, right? I’m living in a moment where Asian American books are coming out every week. I think there is a generational shift in that.

Gish Jen: Absolutely.

Viet Nguyen: But I forget what we were talking about.

Gish Jen: Well, you were talking about … I don’t remember what you were talking about.

Viet Nguyen: The Vietnamese American writer [crosstalk 00:55:43].

Gish Jen: Why do you call yourself Vietnamese? I’m in great pains to sort of say, we’re typical American. You call yourself Vietnamese, even though you go to Vietnam, and you don’t get the Vietnamese price, right? There it is, right?

Viet Nguyen: Writers of your generation, I remember this going to many writers’ readings, would often get the question, “Are you an Asian American writer, or are you just a writer?” I think that’s a loaded question. That’s a no-win situation whichever one you choose, because it implies that if you are an Asian American writer, you’re not a universal writer. But I think that for me, I’d already seen enough evidence of people disputing that, so I don’t have that anxiety. I can say I’m a Vietnamese writer, and I don’t care whether people think, “Oh, he’s not just a writer. He’s not a universal writer,” because in my mind, I am.

Gish Jen: But you want to say Vietnamese American.

Viet Nguyen: I say that sometimes.

Gish Jen: You see, they’re interchangeable.

Viet Nguyen: I say Vietnamese, Vietnamese American, Asian American, American, or just a writer. I think part of what’s different for me as a writer in this moment is that it’s possible to claim a multiplicity of possibilities of identification as a writer and to think of a novel that I write as being able to function in different kinds of traditions. Yes, it works in an American tradition, but, hopefully, it works in Vietnamese literature. Hopefully, it works on an international context as well. We have to be defiant about that.

Gish Jen: You have this novel, and it’s written, as you have said, it was written by a Vietnamese writer, addressed in Vietnamese. Other people are allowed to eavesdrop. But fundamentally, to the degree that the white audience is included, they can eavesdrop but the purpose is to show them their privileges and assumptions, which they don’t see, right? It’s very much in-your-face. This novel is in-your-face, Apocalypse Now loving, white America, right? Take that. Lo and behold, you put up for auction and what happens? Because it is in-your-face, white America and [crosstalk 00:57:51] the books.

Viet Nguyen: Well, it was rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers.

Gish Jen: There you go.

Viet Nguyen: I’ll tell an anecdote, which is that I had higher hopes for the novel. I knew in writing the novel that I was deliberately not doing what I was supposed to do as an Asian American writer, which is, it’s okay to talk about communist disillusionment and all that kind of stuff, but you have to end on a note of Americanization, right? You have to end on an embrace of the American dream, explicitly or implicitly. The novel does not do that. He does not go back to the United States.

Gish Jen: But he said, “We will live.”

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. But where? Where is he going to go?

Gish Jen: I know. As he heads off to America.

Viet Nguyen: But he doesn’t head off to America.

Gish Jen: He was just getting on a boat.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. He’s getting on a boat. But, yes, American audiences will assume, “Of course, he’s going to the promised land, America,” but it’s never actually said in the novel. There’s a lot of very critical things that are being said about Americans in that book. But about anxiety of influence, while I was writing The Sympathizer, a novel called Orphan Master’s Son came out by Adam Johnson in 2011 or 2012, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. I read it. I thought it was a very good book. It’s a book about North Korea and a communist spy, so you can see why I was very concerned about this book. But I read it, and I thought this book is written for Americans, because all the references are oriented towards an American audience. The ending of the novel, sorry to give it away, is that the people who survive are going to America. I thought, I don’t want to write that kind of a novel, because I can totally see how it’s placating an American audience, saying North Korea is crazy, we’re great, et cetera.

Viet Nguyen: I had a conversation with the editor of that book. I thought, “I really would love you to buy my novel.” He said, “You should do a couple of things with this novel, including putting in a romantic interest.” In Orphan Master’s Son, there’s a romantic interest like Casablanca. I said to him, “I can’t do that,” and lo and behold, he didn’t buy the book. I think that’s what it means to challenge majority privilege. If you don’t challenge majority privilege, if you don’t force the majority to question themselves, they’re much more likely to give you a very nice book deal. I ended up being very lucky in getting a book deal, wasn’t that great of a book deal. Lo and behold, the editor who bought the book was not an American, he was English, right? It turned out he was also mixed race. I didn’t know that. There was something, I think, about just the inherent power of majority privilege and identification that often makes it very difficult for the majority to see past their own assumptions and prejudices.

Gish Jen: Yeah. I will say that I’ve had a very, very lucky career on the publishing front, but I am convinced just because IMA Knopf, Knopf is headed by Sonny Mehta, who is an Indian American, Indian British, right? But he’s not American either. But lo and behold, you wrote this angry book. It was in-your-face. It’s not written for Americans. You refused to conform to the American standards, and you win the Pulitzer Prize. Now, what, right? It’s kind of a disaster, right?

Viet Nguyen: Well, it makes up for the fact that I didn’t get into Harvard, and my brother did. You would imagine one person getting into Harvard for a family is enough, but it’s not for an Asian family. You both have to get into Harvard. But it was funny, because after I got the Pulitzer Prize, and I learned about it, actually, here in Cambridge, I didn’t tell my parents. Actually, it literally never occurred to me to tell my parents, because I thought that’d just me bragging. But a couple of days later, my dad calls me on the road, and he said, “Hey, the relatives in Vietnam called. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” But I don’t know. How do you read the politics of prizes? It’s very, very difficult. But one way to read it would be that, yes, the novel is very angry and in-your-face, and there’s a lot of critiques of the United States and so on. But giving it the Pulitzer Prize legitimates American culture as well. We’re in America that allows writers to write these kinds of things.

Gish Jen: We love it, actually.

Viet Nguyen: We love it. We love it.

Gish Jen: We love the angry young man. We love the in-your-face, self-righteous anger. We actually love that. We don’t love it commercially, but we love it in the literary world.

Viet Nguyen: Right. But if you look at some of the writers of color who’ve won the Pulitzer over the last few decades, we’re talking about Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, me, three out of four are very fairly political writers who are very critical of different aspects of American culture. There is a certain kind of genre of the writer of color.

Gish Jen: There is a kind of genre. It’s interesting to hear you acknowledge that there is a kind of genre. I don’t mean to take it away from you because-

Viet Nguyen: I’m taking it away from me.

Gish Jen: No, but there is a kind of genre, and it does serve America, finally. But at the same time, it’s a great story. Here you are. You resist the idea that this is an American dream, rags to riches thing. Then you have to hear from Terry Gross. You’re like, “I’m a refugee. This is not a rags to riches story. It is not. It is not. Is it not?” She says, “Yeah, but your brother did go to Harvard and Stanford Medical School, and you did win the Pulitzer.” Here you are now having a great life. You’ve got this wonderful son. You have a wonderful new project that involves a lot of research in Paris. Many would say that’s pretty nice. Let’s talk a little bit about your new project.

Viet Nguyen: Well, yeah, it’s the-

Gish Jen: I’m so sorry, we just have to wind up-

Viet Nguyen: … the sequel to The Sympathizer, and it’s set in Paris in the 1980s. It confronts the fact that my narrator is half Vietnamese, half French. I wanted to talk about the French side of colonialism and the fact that for the French, what they did in Indochina is something they’ve basically, completely forgotten and romanticized. It’s interesting being a Vietnamese American writer, because at least here in the United States, Americans have confronted their past in the Vietnam War. Now, we can debate how well they’ve done that, but they have confronted it. But that’s both an opportunity and a trap. I knew as a Vietnamese American writer that if I wrote a novel about the Vietnam War, there would be interest in that, right? But that’s a trap too, because that’s our only way of entering the American conversation as Vietnamese Americans, is to play on American guilt, right?

Viet Nguyen: Could I write a novel about the Vietnam War that was not simply about being Vietnamese but was also a critique of American culture as well? That was one of the challenges. Now, the problem is with writing another novel, the issue is, do I stop writing about Vietnam and the Vietnam War simply because it will simply reinforce my status as a Vietnamese and Vietnamese American writer? Or do I attempt, again, as with The Sympathizer, to write a novel on my own terms, that is, yes, about Vietnam but is also about reimagining what that means for the Americans, the Vietnamese, and the French? That’s what’s, hopefully, going to happen in the novel.

Gish Jen: Yeah. I think the truth of the matter is that every writer has some kind of donnée with which they must grapple. The question is, what did you do with it? What did you do with it? But I don’t think there’s getting away from the donnée. But in any case, I just have one more question. I know everyone’s very amped up about the time. But just one more question, and that is, since we’re here at Radcliffe, I wonder if you could say just a word about your Radcliffe year and how it contributed or didn’t to-

Viet Nguyen: Oh, it was a great year. I got very lucky to get the Radcliffe fellowship. The fellowship was for me to work on Nothing Ever Dies. Of course, what do I do? I don’t work on Nothing Ever Dies, I’m sorry. What I did was I spent most of my time writing The Refugees. But I also spent a lot of time thinking about the book that would become Nothing Ever Dies and doing a lot of reading for that. Eventually, I did write that book six years later. The Radcliffe fellowship and other fellowships that I’ve gotten were absolutely crucial, because what they do is they provide time and space where the crucial work of thinking is allowed to happen. Unfortunately, you can’t legislate that. You can plan for it. “Oh, I’m going to finish this book within a year.” We say that in our applications, even though, realistically, we know that’s probably not going to happen. But we need that year of freedom.

Gish Jen: Excuse me.

Viet Nguyen: Oh, you did it. You did it. Well, that’s great. You probably got an A in every class you ever took.

Gish Jen: No, I’m the one who dropped out of Stanford Business School, so let me just-

Viet Nguyen: But you got into Stanford Business School.

Gish Jen: Of course. I got into Harvard Business School as well.

Viet Nguyen: Wow.

Gish Jen: I’m just that kind of irritating person.

Viet Nguyen: I was rejected by every college I applied to, except one.

Gish Jen: It doesn’t matter, you only need one. You only need one. Anyway, you had a good year at Radcliffe and here you are back. I think on that note, it’s time to take questions.

Viet Nguyen: Jim Haber was one of the Radcliffe fellows of my year, too.

Gish Jen: You know him as well.

Speaker 4: As a Vietnamese writer, I guess it would be interesting if you talked about your reception by by the Vietnamese government and by Vietnam in general.

Viet Nguyen: Well, The Refugees was translated into Vietnamese. The interesting thing was that the censorship mechanism removed an entire short story from the book, War Years, which was the only autobiographical story I’d ever written. The overseas Vietnamese edition will have War Years in it. I’m aware that censorship politics and suppression of dissidents and all that kind of stuff is a very real issue in Vietnam, which is why I can never go back to Vietnam and be a writer in Vietnam. The Sympathizer, when we sold the rights to another Vietnamese publisher, I thought, “Why would they buy this book, because how do you translate this book into Vietnam?” The last quarter of the novel is a very serious critique of Vietnamese communism. They’d have to cut out the entire quarter. You can cut out a short story from a short story collection, and it can still work. But you can’t cut out a quarter of a novel and make it happen. I don’t know. I really don’t know whether the translation would ever be allowed and whether the government will allow it to be published in an uncensored manner.

Speaker 5: Hi. I’m a high school teacher, and I taught The Sympathizer last year to 11 and 12th graders, and it was a wonderful experience. One of the things that we talked about as we were discussing the book was the role of gender. I just so appreciated the interviews that you did where you talked about how you realized your writing of gender and the way you wanted to potentially revisit some of those gender dynamics in the sequel. I wonder if you could speak to how you came to discover that about your own writing, because it was just such a beautiful public acknowledgment of that and where you are now with it.

Viet Nguyen: Well, going back to the anxiety of influence question and being Maxine’s student. Looking back upon myself as a 19- or 20-year-old, I think there’s no doubt that part of what I was struggling with was masculinity, Asian American masculinity but just masculinity in general, and trying to become this angry writer and revolutionary and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t interested in, again, ambiguity or nuance or feminist politics or anything like that. That’s a real problem. I took great enjoyment in reading books that were very masculine. That’s why I like the spy genre and the detective genre and so on. In writing The Sympathizer, I chose the spy genre, because I like that genre. But once I chose the genre, I was locked into many of its conventions, especially after I constructed my narrator the way that he was.

Viet Nguyen: But I didn’t feel that I was locked in when I was writing the book. I just felt pleasure. At a certain point after having constructed a character who is an alcoholic and a womanizer and a very masculine person, about two-thirds of the way through the book, I also realized, he’s a misogynist. He enjoys his pleasure of women too much, and perhaps he does because I enjoy it too much. At that point, it was not possible to reconstruct the novel in a feminist fashion. But I had to think about how to work out the gender dynamics in the frame of the novel. That’s why the last third of the novel turns out the way it does, which is not only about an interrogation of himself, literally, but also about how that interrogation pivots the treatment and the spectacle of women.

Viet Nguyen: Even so, that’s still problematic, of course, because you’re caught in this issue of acknowledging that sexual exploitation and rape and sexual violence have always been a part of war. But how do you talk about it without exploiting it? But if you don’t show it, how do you talk about it? The end of the novel can be read in different ways, whether it successfully tries to depict that, or whether it simply continues to reinforce that exploitation. I don’t know. But again, that was one of the reasons why I felt like I needed to write a sequel, not only to talk about what happens to a revolutionary who’s been destroyed and how he rebuilds himself, but what happens to a man who’s forced to confront his own masculinity as well.

Speaker 5: Thank you very much.

Speaker 6: You mentioned your parents several times in the podium and in the chair, and you said a cliffhanger that I wanted to resolve for us. You said, “Imagine telling your parents you want to become a writer.” Well, I can’t imagine. How did you tell them or ask them? What did they expect you to become? How did they react?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I never told them I wanted to become a writer. I told them instead, I’ll become a professor, and I’m going to get a doctorate in English. Fortunately, I had Vietnamese parents who were liberal in just one respect, and that was around education. They said, “Okay, it’s not as good as a medical doctorate like your brother, but it’s still a doctorate. Now, all you have to do is get a job.” Literally, I thought of my academic work as my day job, my fantasy life. What I really wanted to do was to become a writer. That was how I held off my parents for a long time. It’s like the fact that my parents are devoutly Catholic, they don’t know I’m an atheist. I don’t go home and tell them, “I’m an atheist, mom and dad.” That was my way of negotiating these dynamics with my parents.

Speaker 6: Thank you.

Gish Jen: If you could please identify yourself.

Dan: Sure. My name is Dan. As a second generation Vietnamese American, I have to ask, do you think the role of memory will change or be different between the first generation and second generation in how subsequent generations will relate to the fading memory of the war?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think it’s inevitable that as right now, for example, we’re dealing with third generation Vietnamese Americans. In Vietnam, we’re dealing with a majority population that was born after the Vietnam War. They have the right to imagine a different kind of future that’s not tied to the past. For me, I don’t have that choice. I feel like I’m psychically connected to Vietnam in some way, because I was born there. That was one reason, for example, why I never changed my name to become Troy, for example. I’m still Viet. I’m indelibly marked by that past. I think any movement towards the future has to be that negotiation between turning away from the past but also confronting the past, simultaneously.

Viet Nguyen: The reality of it, I think, for Vietnamese people in Vietnam or the country of Vietnam, for example, is that that’s not actually happening. The country is completely future-oriented, for the most part, in terms of building a capitalist society but at the expense of actually dealing with its past. The past that it has is completely ossified into a celebration of communism, which totally erases people like you and me and our families and so on. We haven’t yet reached that point of being able to both go towards the future by having acknowledged the past.

Dan: Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks.

Hyun Nguyen: Hi. My name is [Hyun Nguyen 01:14:31] and I’m a Vietnamese American, was born in Vietnam and moved here when I was 10. Actually, it’s interesting he asked that right before me, because our questions share similar themes. My question revolves around the trauma that’s so tied to immigrant identities and how with your family was tied to the war. But with the word Vietnam shifting every day because the country in and of itself and its culture and its people shifts every day, how do you personally reconcile the Vietnamese part of you that’s obligated so much to the past? How do you look forward to the other aspect of it that’s still continually shifting?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that that’s why I look to the next generation, because I don’t think I can. I think that, for me, the past is going to remain continually important. But what’s critical for someone like me is to not obligate the next generation to continue to genuflect before my past, because that’s what I encountered in the Vietnamese community. You would go to Vietnamese events, and they would be completely dominated by the perspectives of the previous generation who would talk on and on and on about culture and tradition and remembering what was done to us, et cetera, et cetera. I was like, “When do I get a chance to speak?” I got my chance to speak, which means that I have to then allow that there will be a new generation that’s going to be saying things that will completely catch made by surprise, right? That’s necessary. That’s absolutely crucial. But also in my own work, I think that’s why I think that it’s important to write fiction that both addresses the Vietnam War, for example, but tries to shift our understanding of that as well, so we’re not stuck in the same definitions of the past.

Hyun Nguyen: Thank you.

Dolores Johnson: Hi. My name is Dolores Johnson. I write essays on mixed race. My father’s black, my mother’s white. I have a manuscript, which is a multigenerational memoir on the evolution of mixed race placement in America that was turned down by your editor.

Viet Nguyen: I’m sorry.

Dolores Johnson: He told me that it was too soft. My question is, how did you get in touch with the anger and get it on the page so that you could let it rip? How did you get in touch with that?

Viet Nguyen: Well, the anger was actually always there. The essay that I gave to get into Maxine Hong Kingston’s class, for example, was about being Asian in America, and it was really angry. Then what happened was I became a professional academic, and you can’t be angry as an academic, it is not going to work. You need to tamp things down, keep things under control. What I also recognized in reading a lot of, for example, Asian American literature was that there was not a lot of anger there. I think people had tamped it down. They recognized that it would be easier to function as Asian Americans in American society if they directed their anger inwards towards their family, for example, or towards whatever their community happens to be. It was liberating for me to think that. It was crucial to not only do that work, which is necessary. You have to be angry at wherever the trauma comes from, even if it comes within your own family or your own community.

Viet Nguyen: But you have to be angry at the external forces that have led to that situation as well. You have to be angry at structures and societies and dominant culture. That’s a little bit harder to do, because if you do that, you’re opening yourself up to greater punishment and censorship by the people who have that kind of power. Not having read your manuscript, I don’t know where the softness is that the editor detects. But another way of putting it is that idea, to use a whole bunch of cliches, cut closer to the bone, don’t pull the punches, say the things that you’re afraid of saying, find out what it is you’re afraid of saying, and decide why, figure out why you’re afraid of saying those kinds of things. Oftentimes, we’re afraid of saying these things, because we’ve been told not to say them by our families, by our community, and by dominant society as well.

Dolores Johnson: Thank you.

Layla: Hello. My name is Layla. I’m a student in Professor Claire Messud’s Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop. Before I ask my question, I just wanted to say thank you for all the work that you’ve done. I used to be a refugee as well from Afghanistan. I grew up in a refugee camp until the age of six. At age 10, we returned to Afghanistan, and that’s where I’ve been living until the age of 18. Being at Harvard has been very strange, but it’s been books like yours that have really helped me make sense, especially your book Nothing Ever Dies. It has informed the way that I think, the way that I write. I just wanted to say thank you for that.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Layla: As for my question, you talked about how you lacked the emotional maturity in the beginning to confront the things that you were writing about. I wanted to ask, how did you come to reach that emotional maturity? What did that process look like?

Viet Nguyen: There’s many, many ways that happened. But for example, when I was your age and trying to be a writer and everything like that, yes, I believed I wanted to be a writer because of the beauty of the art and everything. But I also wanted to be a writer because I wanted to be famous. Wouldn’t it be cool to be a writer? I don’t know exactly what that meant. But after 20 years of struggling to become a writer and confronting failure and everything like that, which was a very discouraging experience, the positive outcome of that is that it boiled away all the unimportant things, prizes, vanities, success, all that kind of stuff, publications, and left me with the importance of simply the act of writing itself. After writing The Refugees for 17 years, for example, I thought, “I can let that go. If that book never sees the light of day, oh, I should be okay with it, because it taught me how to write The Sympathizer.”

Viet Nguyen: That was emotional maturity, because it was about … Part of the emotional maturity is hopefully being able to divorce oneself for a while from the contaminations of the world, even if one has to return to them, eventually. The other emotional maturity was getting married and having a child and becoming a father, all that kind of really personal stuff. That brought me outside of myself. That made me think about others. I think that is one kind of emotional maturity, and it’s completely related to the task of writing that set for myself, which is about writing about others.

Layla: Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Liz Cohen: Well, that was a fabulous conversation. Thank you.


Category: Interviews


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *