The Soul of California: Viet Thanh Nguyen – Another Perspective of Vietnam

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses the Sympathizer with Richard Walker, the host of The Soul of California, touching upon topics such as life as a refugee in America, the Vietnam genre, and the impact of literature vs. film.

Read the transcript below:

Richard: Welcome to The Soul of California. Our guest tonight is profession and writer, Viet Nguyen. Arriving in the US as a refugee, Viet first settled in Pennsylvania and then grew up in San Jose, California where he went to school and attended UC Berkeley, receiving a PhD before moving to Los Angeles. Viet is the author of a number of fiction and nonfiction works including The Sympathizer, which won the 2016 Pulitzer prize, as well as The Refugees, a short story collection. He’s most recently edited books entitled The Displaced. He’s just earned the title of professor at USC where he teaches classes related to the Vietnam era, and he joins us from Los Angeles. Viet Nguyen, welcome to the show.

Viet Nguyen: Hi Richard. Thanks for having me.

Richard: No problem. It’s great to have you. There are a number of aspects that draw on Apocalypse Now with regards to The Sympathizer. Why that film particularly?

Viet Nguyen: Oh, it’s a symbolic film for me, I think. I mean it helps that Apocalypse Now is widely considered by many people to be in America’s top 100 film list for example. And it’s a film that is globally known. So wherever I would go in the last 10 or 15 years and I would tell people that I was doing a nonfiction book about Vietnam and the memory of war, almost inevitably someone somewhere would ask me, “Have you seen Apocalypse Now?” And that ranged from a guy from India to a guy from Vietnam to a person from Italy and so on.

Viet Nguyen: And that film was the first so-called Vietnam War movie made by Americans that I’d seen. And I’d seen that on the VCR when I was probably 10 or 11 years old in Asia. [crosstalk] So yeah, it was an early example of the problem with parents leaving their kids alone with cutting edge technology. And it had a dramatic impact on me because I was an American growing up and I loved watching American war movies. And I identified as an American up until the point in this film when they started to kill Vietnamese people, and I felt myself divided in two. Was I the American killing or was I the Vietnamese being killed?

Viet Nguyen: And that wasn’t the only movie to do that. Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, many others like it did exactly the same thing. This was the first one, it stayed in my mind and it’s also the film that has the most legend built around it of all of these Vietnam War movies made by Americans. And so it was just a film that was rich for exploitation and satire given Francis Ford Coppola’s exaggerated personality and the reputation of the movie and it’s making.

Richard: No, it’s funny because I mean at times I just find the the hauteur, as you called it. And of course there were several bids, I guess you’ve also seen Hearts Of Darkness, the documentary around it, which I mean it’s hysterical the way that that movie even gotten made. It’s a miracle that even finally got made, but of course there were some really tongue in cheek or just very acerbic criticism. I guess I’m thinking of the whore in the book, and also the idea around making the movie was really like going to war itself, which I guess that’s how Coppola introduced the film at Cannes in the late 70s.

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. And that bit you can find in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Hearts Of Darkness. You can find it online too. So basically, I mean, like I said, Coppola is right for satire. And I sort of sympathized with him because he was a relatively young man making that movie. So of course he was full of all kinds of energy and confidence and sense of tragedy probably. And I share some of those elements too. But nonetheless, we’re held responsible for what we say. And so I held him responsible through the figure of the hauteur for what he said. And I don’t think what he said was actually that different from how a lot of Americans, including American artists and male artists have envisioned their role as artists in relationship to their own work, but certainly in this case to Vietnam itself. And Apocalypse Now and the making of Apocalypse Now comes to stand in for all of Hollywood.

Viet Nguyen: And the reason why Hollywood is important is not just because of Hollywood itself, but because Hollywood is basically, as I argue in the novel, the unofficial ministry of propaganda for the United States. We don’t need an official ministry like the Soviets or the Chinese do. Capitalist ideology does its own work of persuading people that capitalism is the best, and Hollywood represents that and also is that. It exports stuff all over the world. And so America’s obsessions become at least the interests of the rest of the world. So when I was in Italy, for example, we’re talking to a left wing journalist who liked my novel but also liked Apocalypse Now.

Viet Nguyen: Until she read my book, she did not realize yet that there was a contradiction between her being opposed to the American war in Vietnam and to American imperialism conflicted in any way with liking this movie in which the Vietnamese people are pretty much completely silenced and erased. I mean the very people that she would’ve been marching for in the 1960s for example. So this just goes to show the power of Hollywood movies in particular and the importance in from my point of view of drawing attention to that and drawing attention to how the making of a Hollywood movie sort of stands in for the making of American fantasies and the operations of American capitalism.

Richard: No, it really does. One question, is there one American producer directed film that you find, I mean, forgive the word halfway acceptable? Or is there a book that really… Halfway.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I mean I think, and it’s easier in literature. Basically what I think is that we’re talking about the impact of finance on art here. And the more expensive things get, the more difficult it is for an art form to actually really be contradictory to the world that makes it. So the first American artists who really responded negatively to the American war in Vietnam were poets because poetry costs nothing. So it doesn’t [inaudible] write a poem, except to you and your own life. And then you get the novelists and the journalists and the memoirs, and finally you get film. But film is a behemoth. So the constraints upon filmmakers is tremendous, and their capacity to be genuinely critical I think is really, really hard.

Viet Nguyen: But in the realm of poetry, you have people like Yusef Komunyakaa. And in fiction, people like Tim O’Brien, who I have some issues with, but generally I think that they’re doing great work and sensitive work and work that’s aware, even if Vietnamese people don’t necessarily appear in these types of things. But in terms of American movies, what I’ll say is that I enjoy watching movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, all these classics of American war cinema about Vietnam. But I don’t think any of them really succeed in representing Vietnamese people. And in fact, they’re all built upon the violent erasion and silencing of Vietnamese people. And a movie like Good Morning Vietnam, which tries to give voice to Vietnamese people, the problem there is that it’s full of sentimentalism.

Viet Nguyen: So it’s really hard for me then to answer your question about whether there was an American movie that’s halfway good because I don’t think there are any from my memory. And the best American made movie about this thing we call the Vietnam War is actually, in my opinion, not one of these big feature films that everybody knows, but a smaller film. And not even technically about Vietnam, but a film called The Betrayal, the documentary about the war in Laos and the creation of a Laotian refugee population in the United States. And of course the war in Laos is the Vietnam War. We just don’t know about it. Yeah. And The Betrayal was shortlisted for an Oscar for best documentary a few years ago, should’ve won I think. But it’s a terribly moving documentary about the Laotian character Thavisouk and the white American woman he meets, Ellen Kuras, who’s a cinematographer. And over something like 20 years, they collaborate and make a documentary together about Thavisouk and his family’s lives. It’s really an amazing documentary.

Richard: All right, I’ll check it out. Here we are. We’re speaking on the 30th of April. Is it black April or is it reunification liberation day for you? Or is it a bit of both?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think for your viewers who don’t know, April 30th is the official end of the Vietnam War when communist forces overtook Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. And of course for the South Vietnamese, who lost that war and who fled, that is black April. And every April 30th especially in the anti-communist strongholds of Southern California, there’s a huge Memorial rally for the fallen country and the lost cause. And of course the victorious Vietnamese, it’s liberation day and unification day. And in The Sympathizer, what I say is well on April 30th Saigon fell or was liberated depending on your point of view. So it’s both at the same time. And of course that’s what the novel explores, which is the tragedy of history that one event factually took place, but it means radically different things for different people. And in my own work in that novel in particular, I’m interested in looking at this history from both sides, not just from from one side. But in so doing of course, I find myself in a problematic situation to either camp.

Richard: No, I understand. And of course with both your fiction and your nonfiction, you’ve increasingly become, shall we say, a voice of the Vietnamese. Do you feel that there are other voices as well that are increasingly, for example, if I look at books that are increasingly being published and also being received and positively received and really I guess also being read?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. I think that whether we speak of Vietnamese language, literature, which is published in Vietnam and then is translated over [inaudible 00:10:26], or with thinking of Vietnamese American or Vietnamese writing in English or French, there’s a big body of literature out there. And really what you have to do is Google to find these writers and their works, are still in print. If you don’t want to go to your local bookstore, you can go to and order a lot of these books from Bao Ninh who wrote The Sorrow Of War, which is one of the great was novels of all time in this case from the North Vietnamese perspective.

Viet Nguyen: Or Duong Thu Huong, or I guess Westerners would pronounce her name Duong Thu Huong, who is North Vietnam’s probably greatest dissident writer who’s exiled to France. Her books such as Novel Without A Name and Paradise Of The Blind are classics about the North Vietnamese experience. To today’s writers. I endorsed a book recently called The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, which is a comic book memoir about her family’s experience as refugees in San Diego. And that book just blew me away. And it was shortlisted for national book critics circle award, It’s gotten a bunch of other things and totally accessible, totally moving. And there’s literally dozens of other authors I could name.

Richard: All right. And I’m just curious, could you tell us a little bit about The Displaced and how that’s come around? Who’s involved with that?

Viet Nguyen: So The Displaced subtitle is refugee writers on refugee lives is a compilation of 17 refugee writers who are really writers. We decided that we wanted to address this contemporary refugee crisis, not by doing oral interviews, for example, in which case we could find millions of people literally. But instead focus on people who actually had established writing careers. And so people, for example, like Alexander Hayman, he’s probably one of the better known writers in the collection. He was from Bosnia. Or David Bismosces who was originally from the Soviet Union living in Canada.

Viet Nguyen: These people have been published in the New Yorker and had mainstream books and all that other kind of stuff, and 15 other writers. And each of them address some aspect of the refugee experience from their own lives or from their interaction with contemporary refugees. And the impetus for the project is that the editor at Abrams press who came up with it, Jamenson Stults, is married to a refugee from the Soviet Union. Of course he knew that she was a migrant from the Soviet Union, but the fact of her being a refugee didn’t really come up until the so called Muslim ban of a couple of years ago.

Viet Nguyen: And that was the impetus. And then both he and I are concerned with addressing this really horrendous fact that the United Nations classifies about 66 million people as being displaced today, of whom the UN officially calls 22 and a half million refugees. But 66 million people together would be larger than France, smaller than Thailand or the 21st largest country in the world.

Richard: That’s amazing of course because refugees… The official definition is that they’ve crossed the border and IDPs haven’t. Viet if we look at your own arrival, do you remember much, if anything? I mean you were very, very small. Any initial thoughts, any initial memories when you were in the states?

Viet Nguyen: Well, my memory is… I came when I was four years old back in 75. And my memories actually really began in the United States as a refugee. There were flashes of memory before that, but I have no idea if most of those memories mean anything or are real. But my first coherent memories are of being taken away from my parents. We were in a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, and to leave this camp or any other camp Vietnamese refugees had to have sponsors. And in my family’s case, it seemed to be a very unique case, no sponsor would take the entire family. So one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10 year old brother, one sponsor took four year old me. That’s the beginning of my memories, and that was kind of a traumatic experience as you can imagine. So my memory begins with trauma. Memory begins with separation, with this vague sense that somehow something called the Vietnam War had to do with this. And I’ve been sort of dealing with that my entire life.

Richard: That’s amazing. Of course in Germany now there is quite a big discussion about whether those who come, whether they have the right to have their families with them or not, or whether they’re split up. So it unfortunately hasn’t changed for the last four decades.

Viet Nguyen: It’s not just Germany. It’s happening here in the United States where people who cross the border to the South are interned and children are being taken away from their parents and sent to separate detention centers. Sometimes in other states. Whatever you think of migration and people who are crossing borders, it’s inhumane policy and it’s really, really, really, really horrifying and heartrending.

Richard: No, it certainly is. It is taking place all over. Now you and your brother have done very, very well to say the least. Could you tell us a little bit about him and whether you have a, what he’s turned out to be, so to speak. And also do you have this friendly competition on when you sort of… You guys are both pretty high achievers.

Viet Nguyen: Well he came when he was 10 like I said, and I don’t think he spoke any English. And lo and behold, I think seven or eight years later, graduates head of his high school class. And he makes it a point that he got sent to the worst public high school in San Jose by my parents, but I got sent to the best private high school by my parents. Seven years later, my brother will keep saying, “Oh, it’s because mom loved you more.” [crosstalk] So Bellarmine is like a very elite high school in San Jose. But also for example, when I was taken away from my parents, I was only away for about three months. My brother also got taken away. He was away for two years. He said, “That’s why we know mom loves you more.” But then again, maybe it gave him motivation for getting into Harvard.

Viet Nguyen: After seven or eight years after he arrived in United States and then just to rub it in, he went to Stanford too. That’s just what you’re supposed to do when you’re Asian. In my case, I was a total screw up in high school and I ended up going to my last choice college, which my dad was very annoyed about. So I guess there has been this friendly rivalry. And my brother I’m pretty sure by anybody’s definition was winning that rivalry up until the Pulitzer prize. But he’s been great.

Viet Nguyen: He’s been very supportive and very proud, and I think the rivalry works both ways because throughout most of our lives I was the radical in the family doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to do. And he was the good liberal. He became a doctor, and middle of the road kind of guy politically. And he, under the Obama administration, had a white house post as cochair of the white house committee on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. And then when Donald Trump won the election, my brother completely freaked out and became a radical. So now he’s much more radical than I am. He resigned his post in protest and he’s leading the Vietnamese American resistance at this point.

Richard: Good for him. All right. Viet, if we switch a little bit to writing and teaching, how do you write normally? Is it quite methodical or is it on occasion when it comes to you? I mean, some really say, okay, I’m going to start at eight or nine in the morning and I’m just going to write for four or five hours regardless or number of words. Do you find yourself doing that or is it a little bit more shall we say free?

Viet Nguyen: I think that’s ideal. I mean, the daily regimen and I have had that for four or five years in my adult life altogether, which means most of my adult life as a writer I haven’t had that. Because I’m a professor, there’s so many obligations on my time. And I’ve always mostly written in the margins when I’m not grading or teaching or during the summers and so on. And I think the important point here is for writers not to get hung up on this idea that you have to write every day in order to become a writer. Obviously if you can, that’s great. But I think what’s more important is that we have a wider understanding of discipline. You need to have discipline as a writer. But ultimately for me, the reality is I had to put in that whole 10,000 hour number that Malcolm Gladwell Plains-

Richard: I was just going to say the experts at 10,000 hours.

Viet Nguyen: And I think I really did. I quantified it last year for my accountant for tax purposes and I…

Richard: Is that a write-off?

Viet Nguyen: Yes, yes, it’s about intellectual property and how much time I’ve invested into this work, which I think is a fair question. Because for most writers when you do those 10,000 hours, for most of us, that’s unpaid labor. You hope you get paid for it eventually, but most of us never will. So the point is, whatever that figure is, 10,000 hours or whatever, the point is, you’ve got to do it. And it’s great if you could do it in five years or 10 years, but if it takes you 20 or 30, I think that’s still fine. We all do it at our own pace. And so I think for me that’s really much more of the reality that I wrote The Sympathizer under ideal conditions where I wrote every day for two years and three months, finished the novel in a two year spurt of inspiration. But even now today, mostly I’m writing in the margins of my life.

Richard: All right. And do you prefer short stories to novels?

Viet Nguyen: I hate short stories. I mean I love reading short stories, but I hate writing short stories. I hated every minute of writing my short story collection. And I think it’s because I don’t really have an intuitive grasp of the form or didn’t when I was working on it. Maybe I do better now going back to it, but I’m so damaged by my experience in writing the short story collection that I’ve…

Richard: I thought it was quite nice. I mean this sort of the description of… I don’t know, almost this sort of banal existence in Southern California or just outside of Los Angeles for, I mean you really had an idea of what it’s like. I mean, this very ordinary life in a way.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that I’m glad if anybody likes the short story collection, there seem to be people who like it, who told me so. And I think awesome. That’s the reader’s experience and that’s the way it should be. But from my own experience, it was really, really difficult. And so I’m just frightened of going back into that form. But I think going through all those struggles in the short story collection prepared me to write the novel, even though I’d never written a novel before. And so when I got to writing The Sympathizer, it was really like a magical moment where I felt like I had broke through and I understood very intuitively and rationally the form of novel writing or this novel in any case. And so it felt great. And so I think that’s my natural form and what I feel most comfortable in and what I’m doing now.

Richard: All right. And if we switch over a bit to teaching, is there, I remember I took a class on the Vietnam War. I went to UCLA. And I think of what we read and it was really best and the brightest, Dispatches, Fire In The Lake, et cetera. And of course it was all written from an American perspective. Have you found that there’s an increasing interest or there is more of an interest because they’re getting it from somebody who’s actually lived it or knows far more about it? Are you finding them in your classes?

Viet Nguyen: I think that, I teach a big class on the Vietnam War, 150 to 200 students. And I find that the students generally have an extremely superficial knowledge about the Vietnam War. I mean, some of them know a little bit more. Most of them just sort of know just the biggest stereotypes about the war. And the interesting thing about that is that these stereotypes are mostly all negative. So they don’t know much, but they know that this was a bad war. So despite all of the efforts on the part of the Pentagon and bi-partisan presidential leadership to turn the memory of the Vietnam War into something noble, it hasn’t really worked that well. I mean here again you see the impact of popular culture of the Hollywood movies, which have generally been negative in their depiction of the war.

Viet Nguyen: And the legacy of really powerful visual imagery from the journalists of the Vietnam War have really helped to shape American memory even if in a very superficial way. But there’s still a lot to be done. And my course on the Vietnam War spends the first third on American perspectives and the last two thirds on Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Mung perspectives. And the gratifying thing is that a lot of students say in their evaluations, we actually wish we had more of that even though they already had two thirds of the semester on that. So I think there’s a hunger and a knowledge for that on the part of many people about the Vietnam War. And unfortunately, I think in most cases people are just passive. They know they need to know more, but they don’t know where to start and so they’re not going to do anything.

Viet Nguyen: Which is why people will watch the 18 hour Ken Burns and the Novick documentary on the Vietnam War, but not necessarily go on [inaudible] that would take them just half that time from a Vietnamese or Cambodian or Laotian perspective. And anyway, the last thing about your question, I want to have my research assistant do an exercise for me, which is now that you know The Sympathizer’s won the Pulitzer prize, I’m going to have the RA go and look for all the Vietnam War syllabi taught in the United States and see how many of them are like that UCLA course that you had where there’s [inaudible] material in there. Now there’s no excuse, but I just want to see if people are still doing that.

Richard: That’s true. This is early 90s. This is 90, 91, but hopefully that’s changed. Tell us please, Viet, a little bit about another war memorial was of course a little bit… It’s related to your class, isn’t it?

Viet Nguyen: What I could have my students do in my Vietnam War course is to interview survivors of the Vietnam War, both American veterans or even American civilians of that time period and Southeast Asian Americans, basically Southeast Asian refugees. And then what we do is they interview them and then we upload all the interviews and transcribe them on a website called And what the students find in these interviews is that for the American veterans, they discover that some of these veterans have been through horrible things, done terrible things, seen terrible things, but a good number of them have not.

Viet Nguyen: They were actually soldiers or sailors during the Vietnam War period, might have even been in Vietnam, but they never fired a shot and never got shot at. They were guarding camps or sitting on ships. And yet when they interview Southeast Asian refugees, whether they interview men or women, civilians or war veterans, what they discover is that every one of them has a horrible experience to tell about how they got to the United States. And for many of them, these were deeply traumatizing experiences. It’s actually not all about soldiers because part of the point of their discovery is that a lot of terrible things happened to civilians as well.

Richard: So how is the book received in Vietnam? Do the Vietnamese or generally do people see you as an American, as a Vietnamese American or as somebody who just left?

Viet Nguyen: I think that when I go back to Vietnam, I mean before I became a writer, I think people saw me as what the Vietnamese called Viet Kieu, which is overseas Vietnamese. And that implies is yes, born in Vietnam, natal connection to Vietnam, but still overseas. And which means me and everybody else like me are sort of ambiguous figures, because we’re not completely Vietnamese, even if we were born and raised in Vietnam, and we’re not completely foreigners either, which means that we occupy sort of a fraught position to the Vietnamese people in Vietnam around questions of emotions and relationships and also in terms of like money.

Viet Nguyen: So basically I felt like when people wanted my love, they treated me as a Vietnamese person, called me out as a Vietnamese person. But when they wanted my money, they said I’m an American with an American wallet. As a writer, I think that because of the Pulitzer prize, which has meant a lot to Vietnamese people in the United States but also in Vietnam, I guess because of the validation of American culture and American approval, people are very proud of me now. What that means is that they very much treat me as Vietnamese now. Even if they say Vietnamese American, it’s still very, very Vietnamese, their level of identification with me.

Richard: All right. Do you feel that the duality that your protagonist has in The Sympathizer in your own life, is The Sympathizer part autobiography?

Viet Nguyen: The Sympathizer is autobiographical emotionally in some ways. It’s not autobiographical in terms of my life. And I very deliberately wanted to write a spy novel that was clearly fictional and not about me, but The Sympathizer and the spy who is a sympathizer is a man who as he tells us from the very beginning is a man of two faces and whose only talent is to see every issue from both sides. And I felt that that was me. That when I was growing up in the United States, in San Jose, I felt like an American spying on my parent’s Vietnamese household. And when I was outside I felt like I was a Vietnamese spying on the rest of America. I gave that personality to the sympathizer, put him in much more extreme situations than I experienced in order to exaggerate his capacity to observe, to divide and to comment.

Richard: All right. Viet Nguyen, thanks very much for being on the Soul of California. Congratulations on your various, I guess just making professor at USC, but also on The Sympathizer. And also I look forward to hearing more about The Displaced and your future writing. Thanks very much for being on the Soul of California.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks for having me here, Richard.

Richard: All right.Viet Nguyen: [foreign language 00:28:38] the Soul of California. This is Viet Thanh Nguyen, and you’re listening to the Soul of California.

Category: Interviews


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