Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Viet Nguyen at the Literary Arts

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen joins Dave Miller of Think Out Loud in front of an audience at Literary Arts in downtown Portland. They talk about Nguyen’s personal life as a refugee and writer.

Here is the transcript:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We are coming to you today in front of an audience at the Literary Arts Space in downtown Portland in conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The best kind of truth,” says the narrator in Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, “is the one that meant at least two things.” It’s a good description for so much of Nguyen’s writing, which can tickle with one hand and punch with the other. That same narrator tells us that colorblindness is the willful inability to distinguish between white and any other color, the only infirmity Americans wished for themselves. And he warns, I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.

Dave Miller: Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for that novel, The Sympathizer. He’s also the author of the nonfiction books Nothing Ever Dies and Race and Resistance, as well as a short story collection, The Refugees. He is the editor of the new essay collection, Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, that focuses on, as he writes, “Displaced persons who are mostly unwanted where they fled from, unwanted where they are, and unwanted where they go. Viet Thanh Nguyen, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Viet Thanh N.: Thanks so much for having me, Dave.

Dave Miller: I want to start with part of your personal story. You were four years old, your brother was 10 when your family arrived at a refugee camp near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As you’ve written, you had to have sponsor families that would take you away from the refugee camp to be no longer in a camp, and no family would take all of you, so you were split up. As a four year old, you spent a couple months with some other family. How much do you remember from those months?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, that’s really when my memories begin, because I don’t really remember anything about Vietnam. And my first memories really start to emerge in the refugee camp, and then being separated from my parents, being taken away from them. And I have some vivid memories of the sponsor family that I was with. And they were obviously very kind and well meaning family, but it’s a very difficult situation for a four year old to be put into that place. And I remember they tried to make me feel welcome, for example, by providing me with chopsticks. And then I remember them asking me, “Can you show us how to use chopsticks?” And I was petrified because I actually did not know how to use chopsticks because Asians are not born with the innate ability to use chopsticks. So that experience of being taken away has never really left me, even though as you said, it really was only for a couple of months. But when you’re four years old, that’s a very long time.

Dave Miller: A day can be a long time when you’re four years old, it seems like from watching toddlers. You’re a father now. Has becoming a father affected the way you think back on that time?

Viet Thanh N.: Of course. I look at my son, and I thought I was empathetic before I had a child, and I wish it wasn’t the case that having a child would make someone more empathetic, but it did for me. And looking at him, I feel immense love, but I also track my memories of myself through him. So when he turned four, and that’s really when my memories begin, I couldn’t help but look at him and think, “Well, this is the age I was when I became a refugee.” We were in Vietnam, I was four years old. Our town was the first one captured by the Northern Communist Invasion. And my mother had to make this life and death decision about what she was going to do because my father was in Saigon. We were cut off. And she took my brother and me, left behind our adopted sister, and then we went downhill about 187 kilometers to the nearest port town, which was Nanjing. And I obviously was not walking that much. I couldn’t walk that much.

Viet Thanh N.: And my brother says my mother hired people to carry me. So I look at my son, I’m thinking, “I just can’t imagine this sweet little boy having to go through that.” I don’t know if I was a sweet little boy, but I was a little boy, and it must’ve been horrible for her and for me, by looking at him.

Dave Miller: Have you also thought more about what that meant for your parents, for your mom at that time, and your day, who you later met up with?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, of course. I am older now than my parents were when they had to make these decisions. They were full grown adults with careers and property and families and identities, and everything was taken away. And I don’t think any of us in this room, most of us probably, are not prepared to deal with that. So I just can’t imagine really how overwhelming that must’ve been. And just speaking about the issue of parents and children, yes, of course I look at my son, and I think it would be unbearable if someone had to take him away from me, and send him away somewhere else because we had to do it to survive for whatever reason for two months. It would’ve just been impossible. And I would’ve done everything in my possibility to get my son back if I was in my parents’ situation. And that’s pretty much what happened. And my brother, who was 10, says, “Well, you know why I know Mom and Dad love you more, because you only got sent away for two months, and mom couldn’t stand it, but I got sent away for two years.”

Dave Miller: So he was with some other host family for a full two years.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. But it’s okay. He went to Harvard. Whatever happened was good for him.

Dave Miller: That’s your parents’ line?

Viet Thanh N.: No, that’s my line.

Dave Miller: Okay. How much have you talked to your parents about all that, everything that they went through?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, you have to understand that my family doesn’t talk. So I grew up in … And that’s partly due to just our family genealogy. My brother went back to visit our ancestral village where my dad was raised, and encountered all of our uncles, and I did too eventually. But he said, “Yeah, now I realize why we don’t talk. Nobody in the family talks.” And so when I was growing up, it really wasn’t my habit to ask my parents stuff, plus in a Vietnamese household, in Vietnamese culture, children aren’t supposed to talk. Children aren’t supposed to ask questions. And so I would just sort of have to wait, and wait for my parents to say stuff.

Viet Thanh N.: And of course, whenever they would talk about what life was like back in the old world in Vietnam, I’m sorry to say, but most of the stories were horrible. I’m sure they had good stuff that happened to them, but mostly they just wanted to convey to me, yes, we were starving at this time. Or yes, there was this war going on. Or if we had stayed in Vietnam, you’d be off fighting the war in Cambodia. There’s basically just bad, bad stuff.

Dave Miller: How did you become a talker then? I mean, if you grew up in a family, if not secrets, then at least reticence? When did you become somebody who talked and wrote?

Viet Thanh N.: When I became a professor and I had to speak. For example, I barely said a word in undergraduate or graduate school, which is not what you’re supposed to do because when you’re in graduate school, you’re supposed to fight in seminars. I was at Berkeley. You had to fight to survive. And I fought through writing, but I wasn’t really … I felt very shy about speaking. But I became a TA as a graduate student, and if you don’t speak in front of a class, you’re dead. And so actually, it’s because I have to get up in front of all of you to talk that I developed this ability. Otherwise, I never say a word.

Dave Miller: So I was assuming that your answer would be something like because you are so overtly a political writer in so many ways, among other kinds of writer, but you’re unabashedly a political writer in your fiction and your nonfiction. And I was thinking that you were going to say, “I had to speak up because I felt passionately about these issues.” That’s not what you just said, that you sort of, you learned it as a professional part of your craft.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I have to speak up through the writing. That was always a part of it.

Dave Miller: That’s the distinction.

Viet Thanh N.: I was always a polemicist as a writer. So I’ll give you an example. Went to school at UC Berkeley. And I took a class with a very famous professor there. And what did I do? I wrote a paper criticizing that professor’s book, which is an exercise I recommend to nobody. I don’t even know where this came from. I genuinely disagreed with it, but it takes some gumption to decide that you’re going to do this. And so I always felt the need to speak up through the writing, but the speaking up through my own personal voice in front of an audience was always much more difficult for me.

Dave Miller: How much have you thought about sort of walking this line between wanting to write about potentially painful pasts to better understand them, and not wanting to re-traumatize the people who lived those lives? Whether it’s your parents, your family, or anybody else, how much do you think about that?

Viet Thanh N.: I think about it all the time because, obviously, I would like to know more about my parents and what they’ve been through. And sometimes I’ve asked about that. And the answer almost invariably is they don’t want to talk about it, and especially my dad. My mom is not really capable now of giving her life story. But my dad is, but when I ask him, he says, “No, I don’t want to do this.” So again, it was really when I was growing up and living in my family’s household, and also living in the Vietnamese refugee community of San Jose, it was really a matter of understanding that what I had to do was just to listen and wait for the opportunity to hear what people had to say. And I felt that that was the respectful thing to do because obviously, for all of these Vietnamese refugees who were able to leave Vietnam and get to the United States, they all went through something traumatic. They all lost a lot of things, and had very difficult experiences adjusting to life in the United States.

Viet Thanh N.: And I thought it was invasive, as you’re implying, to just prod and probe, especially if, like I already knew from a young age that I was in political disagreement with most of these people. I respected what they’d been through and everything, but I was already sort of a budding radical or liberal, for whatever reason. My parents tried their best to make me into a Catholic and it didn’t work, and into an anticommunist, and it didn’t work. So there’s this need to balance those inclinations in myself with a respect for what all these people have been through.

Dave Miller: What did stick? I mean, if they tried to make you a devout Catholic, which they were, and an anticommunist, that didn’t stick, as you said. What of that is inside you, whether you like it or not?

Viet Thanh N.: I know how to suffer. If you know anything about Catholics, they love to suffer. We’re basically geared to be martyrs, one way or another. Maybe not necessarily nailed to a cross, but we really do carry our individual crosses. And I saw my parents doing that. They suffered in that they had a grocery store for the formative years of my life. It was a brutal, physically, emotionally brutal, experience, dangerous experience. They were shot in their grocery store. And I knew that they were doing this for my brother and me, and for all the family in Vietnam because Vietnam was basically starving from the ’70s through the ’80s. And my parents were sending money home to support all their relatives, most of them whom had stayed behind.

Viet Thanh N.: And so I learned suffering from that. And they would never have wanted me to work in a grocery store, for example. And I don’t want to work in a grocery store. But I’ve learned from their example that I should be working 12 to 14 hours a day every day of the year. And if I’m not, I feel terribly guilty. So yes, guilt and suffering are what I’ve absorbed from watching my parents.

Dave Miller: But that’s also, it seems like it’s fully tied to helping your family. It’s not suffering for suffering’s sake. But in this case, it’s sacrificing for your family.

Viet Thanh N.: Yes, I’m not that much of a masochist just to suffer for its own sake. But I think my parents really, they’re good Catholics. They’re not hypocrites. They say all kinds of stuff I don’t believe in, but they follow what it is that they say. And they’re very devout, and they’re not lavish. And they give away a lot of things. And they’ve devoted their life to this idea of servicing, serving others, both within their families, but also the larger community. And that’s what I’ve taken away from my Catholic education, because I was in Catholic schools all the way through high school. So even if I don’t believe in Catholic doctrine, I do believe in these Catholic principles of service and sacrifice for a greater cause and for other people, and empathy for others.

Dave Miller: If you’re just tuning in, I’m talking right now with the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose work includes the novel The Sympathizer, and the nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies. He’s also the editor of a new collection of essays by and about refugees called Displaced. You’ve said before that when you were growing up, you sometimes felt like an American spy in your family’s home, and a Vietnamese spy when you were in other places, more full of white people. Do you still feel that way, like a kind of double agent?

Viet Thanh N.: All the time because despite the fact that when you look at me, clearly I have become very assimilated into American culture and all that kind of stuff. I still feel my otherness on a regular basis. Whenever I publish something in the New York Times, or the Washington Post, I’ll get hate mail. Okay, that reminds me that I’m an other in this country.

Dave Miller: Hate mail based on your being Vietnamese American.

Viet Thanh N.: Oh, yeah. I published a piece in the Washington Post this week about the necessity for opening the canon of literature, and the necessity for white people and non white people to share a similar space, literarily, or politically, or socially, and so on. And literally, I got an email that day that Washington Post was published. And the writer said, “Go back to Nam.” And that’s not unusual. So I know that there’s a good portion of this country who still thinks that way. And I’m not talking just about the red states. I’m talking about the red portions of blue states I’m getting some of this as well.

Dave Miller: Or red portions of blue people.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. I mean, look, we’re all … I’m a conflicted person. I generally think that most people are conflicted in various ways and struggling with inner issues. Or maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. But when I write things like this, and I challenge notions that people hold so intimately that they feel it to be natural. America’s a white country. A lot of people just, this is natural for them. And they’re not used to questioning their whiteness. They’re not used to being called out, especially by an Asian American, or by a Vietnamese refugee, whom they expect to be grateful. And I’ve gotten this too. I’ve gotten many messages from especially American veterans of the war, saying, “We sacrificed for you. You should be grateful. Go back to Nam, and take your son with you.” And that’s an actual letter that someone wrote to me.

Viet Thanh N.: So I know that that provocation is happening. But even in safer spaces, like in the university space and academia, it’s still a regular occurrence that I’m the only non white person in a room. Okay, so I’m used to it, but I can’t help but just sort of register it at one moment in my mind, that I have to be a little bit on guard. I have to be a little bit cautious here. I have to maintain this mask because I’m just not quite certain how far I can go in this environment.

Dave Miller: Do you feel that at this moment, as you and I are speaking?

Viet Thanh N.: Oh, yes, of course, as I look around this room. Why not? I think that I can maybe safely assume that in this space, we have a liberal audience, people how love books and love conversations and all of that. But how far can I push? What can I say? How deeply are people’s assumptions and prejudices held? I don’t know.

Dave Miller: Where would you go? How far would you push if you didn’t have that concern sitting on your shoulder? What do you feel like you’re potentially being held back from talking about?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I’m always trying to figure out how far I can go. And I test audiences as I go around the country, and the lectures that I give have changed over time as I’ve gotten more comfortable with my voice and speaking in front of an audience and doing different things. So for example, I’ll tell a story. I have my son, and when he was about three years old, he came home from preschool in liberal California. And he was talking about Thanksgiving and pilgrims and Indians. I thought, “Okay, I think it’s important now for me to teach you a new word.” I said to him, after I taught him this word, I said, “Now do you know what Thanksgiving means?” And he looked at me and he said, “Genocide.” Oh, my God. So half the room is thinking, “Oh, this is an oversimplification of history.” Or maybe they’re just thinking, “Why would you teach a three year old the word genocide?”

Dave Miller: Just so I understand, when you asked him that question, that was following the lesson you’d given him?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, yeah.

Dave Miller: Okay.

Viet Thanh N.: He didn’t come up with that on his own. We went through a little bit of preparation for this.

Dave Miller: I wasn’t sure if he got that at preschool.

Viet Thanh N.: But I think, “Okay, so is it an oversimplification of history, as many people would say?” I’m thinking, “Well, pilgrims and Indians is an oversimplification of history that’s being given to my son and to most children in this country.” And it’s an oversimplification that will never be corrected for most of these kids. And it’s an oversimplification that’s still true, I think. Right? So that’s an example. I didn’t always go around saying this stuff. But I may or may not tell this joke tonight. I published it in the New York Times, for example. I got hate mail about that too.

Dave Miller: When you get that kind of hate mail, do you engage at all?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, when The Sympathizer first came out in April of 2015, I published an op-ed in the New York Times about the 40th anniversary and about my family’s experience and what we’ve been through, and holding America to some account for what happened during the Vietnam War. And I got a very angry letter from an American veteran, again saying, “We sacrificed for you. You should be grateful.” And I actually wrote him back. And I said, “Look, I think you’re really angry. And this rage that you have is actually more damaging for you than it is for me. And maybe you should learn to let it go, as some other American veterans of this war have, and it’ll be better for you if you do that.”

Viet Thanh N.: Then he wrote me back an even angrier letter on top of that. So for a long time, I didn’t respond to people. And then a few days ago, I did an interview on Democracy Now. And I said some of the same things I’m saying. And I got a very angry email, literally a 1200 word email written on his iPhone, filled with anger and insults and name calling. And this guy, he’s a white guy, lived in Lake Arrowhead, California, saying, “You totally mischaracterize white people. You’re generalizing. This is why Trump won. This is why the Democrats are losing. You’re just a stupid liberal.” So then I actually wrote back, just one line. And I said, “You have a lot of time on your hands, sir. Instead of just responding, I’m just going to send you my Washington Post op-ed.” That’s all I did.

Viet Thanh N.: And then he immediately writes me back another 1200 word email on his iPhone. And he does a complete 180. And he’s completely civil now. First of all, he says, “I’m amazed you wrote me back. And number two, I just had to get that off my chest. And number three, I actually think a lot of your points in this Washington Post op-ed are good. I don’t agree with everything, but here’s what I agree with.” And he went on and on and on. And I thought, “Oh, this is actually hopeful.” I really thought he was just going to get mad at me again, but he actually responded. And so that’s a sign of hope that when we try to have a conversation with people of opposite political beliefs, sometimes the response will be rage. But we hope that sometimes the response will be a dialogue. And so I’m now actually a little optimistic after that.

Dave Miller: Going back to this sense of being a spy and of being a, whether you want to or not, a very successful anthropologist of, in some ways, a foreign culture, in other ways, culture that’s completely your own. How much has that led to you being a writer?

Viet Thanh N.: A lot. I mean, I think that I’ve always felt uncomfortable accepting the privacy of my own mind or my own bedroom, because my parents gave me my own bedroom when I was growing up. But when I stepped out of that bedroom into the kitchen, I immediately felt a little bit alien here among my parents. And I’ve always felt like both recognizing that the Vietnamese refugee community is my home, but also recognizing that I feel uncomfortable in this home. So home for me has never been an easy thing. I mean, people sentimentalize home all the time. But for me, home is the place where you both feel at home and uncomfortable at the same time.

Dave Miller: And that has stayed to this day? What does home mean to you now?

Viet Thanh N.: Home means to me now the home that I’ve created with my family. I feel comfortable in my own house with my wife and my child. And that’s because that’s something that we’ve determined for ourselves. But again, in the Vietnamese refugee community, in Vietnam, it’s a moderate degree of discomfort, and even some parts of the United States, there’s a moderate degree, sometimes a large degree of discomfort.

Dave Miller: Even among people of your generation, people who, not to generalize, but I can imagine that there are other people of your generation who grew up with some kind of similar issues and similar family dynamics that they fought against, and all kinds of questions about Americanization and acculturation, and being other. Have you not found common ground among your generation?

Viet Thanh N.: Yes, there’s certainly a lot of that. The moment I stepped foot on the Berkeley campus, for example, I felt I’m at home. And I was immediately radicalized. But always at some point, there would be a recognition that there is a difference here, where actually I’m not quite the same as everybody else. So obviously, yes, I find a space of comfort with people of similar intellectual and political beliefs, for example, like in my intellectual profession as a professor, and as a critic, and as a scholar. But at a certain point, I recognized that the fields that I worked in, that I trained in, Asian American studies and ethnic studies, I recognized that actually a lot of them are ideological conformists. And now at many moments in my life, I share that sense of ideological resonance with them. But I can also see when I think they’re wrong, when they’re being conformist. And I feel out of place.

Viet Thanh N.: My first book that I ever published, Race and Resistance, was actually a critique of the field of Asian American studies. And I send the introduction to that book to one of my dissertation committee members, who’s like a key figure in the field, and she wrote back, and she said, “Why are you wasting your time?” And so I’ve always at some point felt out of step. As a professor, I felt out of step because I’m a fiction writer. And when you’re a fiction writer, you’re supposed to question all conformities, all orthodoxies. And as a fiction writer, I feel out of step because fiction writers in this country are generally kind of suspicious of academics and theorists. And I don’t understand why. So there’s never been a space I’ve felt, outside of my own house, where I felt completely in accord with everybody at all times.

Dave Miller: We have to take a quick break, but we have a lot more coming up from Viet Thanh Nguyen in a minute and a half, as well as hearing from our audience here at Literary Arts. Stay tuned. I’m Dave Miller. This is Think Out Loud. We’re coming to you today from the Literary Arts Space in downtown Portland. It’s a conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. He’s the editor of a new collection of essays called Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. He’s also a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Let’s take a question from our audience. What’s your name?

Anna: Hi. My name’s Anna. Thank you for being here. I was struck by your comment saying your parents wouldn’t speak about their experiences. My grandparents fled Germany because Jewish background, went through the blitz in England. Immigrated, my grandmother immigrated alone with a baby and a toddler, while her husband was interred in Australia. They refuse to speak to me about these experiences because they didn’t want to talk about their pain. Do you think that our culture would be more sympathetic now to current immigrants and refugees if we had more of our parents’ experiences?

Viet Thanh N.: I would hope so. If you look for example, at the folks who are leading some of the anti immigration moves in this country, for example, and you go back one, or two, or three generations, they all came from Europe, some part of Europe, for example, or even some parts of a non white world as well. And for them, perhaps these origins have been completely forgotten. They really do see themselves as completely American. Or perhaps, the hopeful idea of course is that if we expose people to these kinds of histories, they would feel more empathy. But part of me thinks, even if we did, maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they wouldn’t.

Viet Thanh N.: So for example, Vietnamese refugees who came here, and who obviously remember their experience as refugees, some of these people are actually anti refugee now. So it’s not as if they’ve forgotten. It’s just that they think that they are better than those other newer refugees, which is completely outrageous to me.

Dave Miller: How do you explain that?

Viet Thanh N.: I explain that by understanding that human beings, no matter who they are, have the capacity to be inhuman. Now we’re all empathetic. Most of us are empathetic to one degree or another. But the range of our empathy varies. So I think for a lot of people, their empathy extends to their family. Or it extends to people who are just like them, whatever that means. Right? So let’s say these Vietnamese refugees are empathetic towards other Vietnamese refugees. It’s self interest, a self interested kind of empathy. But then once you push beyond that, and you ask them to identify with people whom they see as more and more alien-

Dave Miller: Like from, Syria, say, or Guatemala.

Viet Thanh N.: Right. No, exactly. That’s the point. The Vietnamese refugees can look at themselves and see themselves as complex human beings and deserving of assistance. But they look at these other people, and all they see are … It’s the standard rhetoric. These people are Muslims, or these people are potential terrorists, or these people are going to downgrade our economy, or what have you. And many of these fears were projected onto Vietnamese refugees as well in 1975 because they’ve just forgotten about that.

Dave Miller: After your novel came out, you wrote that often people would characterize it as an immigrant story and characterize you as an immigrant. And you pushed back. You said, “No, my novel is a war story. And I am not an immigrant. I’m a refugee.” What do you think is behind those mis-characterizations? Why is it that people want to see you as an immigrant, as opposed to a refugee, or the book as a story about immigration as opposed to a story about war?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I’ll tell you there’s no quicker way to kill a cocktail party conversation than to say, “I’m a refugee.” People are like, “What? Did you get off a boat? I’m so sorry for you.” Most Americans just can’t relate to this experience. But you say, “I’m an immigrant.” And they’re like, “Oh, cool. Tell me your heartwarming American dream story of how you came here and became a credit to the American dream.” So for example, I went and did a talk at a high school yesterday. And I was told in advance that some of these high school students were refugees. So I asked the class, I asked these students, “So who among you here are refugees?” Nobody raised their hands. I said, “Who here are immigrants?” And some of them raised their hands.

Viet Thanh N.: There’s a huge disincentive to identifying as a refugee in this country and probably many countries, and specifically in the United States, I think the reasoning behind that is that we see ourselves as a nation of immigrants. Even people who are anti immigrant today and don’t want more immigrants still believe that immigrants want to come here for good reason because we are awesome. So they accept that idea of immigration. Now the refugees are different because they’re unwanted where they come from, and they’re unwanted where they go to. They bear a lot of stigma. And so even those people who are refugees know that it is in their better interest to call themselves immigrants. And that’s why it’s a necessity for those of us who are refugees, or have been refugees, to assert that identity, to claim that identity, to demonstrate that in fact, a refugee can look like me. Right? But even if a refugee didn’t look like me, and a refugee looked like whatever we think a refugee looks like, it doesn’t mean they’re not human.

Dave Miller: You’re an American citizen, an English professor, a recipient of all of these accolades and prizes and honors, the subtext of some of them is, we care about what you have to say. We welcome you in some version of the American club. Will you be a refugee for the rest of your life?

Viet Thanh N.: In a political or a legal sense, no. I ceased being a refugee the moment we were settled in the United States, and I became a citizen and all of that. And the UN would never classify me as a refugee. The UN says there’s 66 million displaced people in this world. But even looking at those displaced people, the UN will only call 22 million of them refugees. So it’s a highly restricted classification because it’s a politically loaded category. The United States, for example, will not call anybody who’s crossing from south of the border into this country a refugee. They’ll call them undocumented migrants, even if some of them could probably have a legitimate reason to demand themselves to be acknowledged as refugees.

Viet Thanh N.: So in a sense, no, I’m not a refugee. But I will probably still call myself a refugee until the day I die because the refugee crisis is not going away. And there’s still a need for the advocacy for refugees. And there’s still a need for people who have been refugees to keep insisting that their identity has been defined as such.

Dave Miller: What was it like for you in the last couple years to steep yourself in a whole new series of global refugee stories as you put the book together? What was that experience like?

Viet Thanh N.: It was a sobering experience. It was humbling experience in the sense that it taught me, again, even myself being a refugee and having empathy for refugees, how little I knew about the specificities of different kinds of refugee experiences. So that was why I didn’t want to write a whole book myself. Instead, I and Jamison Stoltz, the editor at Abrams Books, came up with this book, The Displaced, and got 17 different writers to talk about experiences as diverse as those refugees from Southeast Asia, Vietnam, and Laos, for example, and refugees from Russia, from Ethiopia, and on and on and on.

Viet Thanh N.: And so what that impressed upon me was that when we’re talking about 22 million refugees, or 66 million displaced people, we’re talking about a population that’s larger than the country of France. And there’s just still so much to learn about that for all of us.

Dave Miller: Let’s take another question from our audience. Sir, what’s your name?

Speaker 4: My name’s [inaudible 00:31:21]. And my question actually relates to something you just mentioned in this last section. And it has to do with the otherness and the particularities of the otherness when it comes to, for instance, how your father, who came here, who was born and raised in Vietnam came here, and the otherness that that person feels. And given your sensibilities and empathy as a writer, how do you see that versus the specificity of your otherness?

Viet Thanh N.: I’ll give you an example. In 2003, my parents finally took an international vacation. Being a refugee is not an international vacation. It’s a little bit of a different experience. All right. So they went to Europe. I was in Paris for seven months, and they came, and I took them around. So anyway, we went through the customs thing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. And the visa officer asked me regarding my dad, “Does he speak English?” Yeah, did he speak English. And I said, “No, he doesn’t.” So then 10 years later, my dad says to me, “Do you remember that time when you said I don’t speak English?” “I do speak English,” he said. And he said it with a smile on his face, but he was hurt. And he’d been waiting 10 years to tell me this.

Viet Thanh N.: And he said … For whatever reason, we had Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City, a short story collection, there. And he picked up the book and he said, “Look. I can read this title.” He flipped the page to the first story, The Girl Who Raised Pigeons. This is what it’s about. He translated this to me in Vietnamese. And this is what the story’s about. And I thought it was really important for my dad to tell me this because obviously he understood that I saw him as other, that I underestimated him. And he was absolutely right because when he came to this country as a refugee, he had to start over. He had some English. But imagine if you were just thrown into another country. Could you buy a house? Could you buy a store? Could you establish a whole life for yourself? Could you even figure out how to send your child to school? And so he and my mom did all that. And I don’t think if you just threw me into France, for example, or any other country, I would freak out about how to do that.

Viet Thanh N.: And yet, he and my mom and everybody else of their generation had to do that. And they feel probably very legitimately that their children don’t understand, and that their children see them only through the lens of this fluency of English. And the children have become very assimilated into American culture, and just out of that cultural reflex, underestimate their parents.

Dave Miller: I’m curious about the flip side of that, which we were just getting to there. Do you know what your parents think about your career? Obviously, now you’re getting all kinds of awards, and you’re a literary star. But before that, you made a decision to focus on English and American identity and ethnic studies. But all things that are about this new world, how’d they feel about that?

Viet Thanh N.: When I was growing up, they clearly sensed that I was slipping away from them, that my Vietnamese was sort of stunted at a very young level. And it didn’t help that the only things my parents wanted to talk to me about were religion, education, and food. And I was like, “This is kind of boring.” We talk about the same things every night. And so they sent me to Vietnamese Catholic language study. It was horrible. I just rejected all that kind of stuff. And so then when I went to school and became an English major, I just sort of fended them off. My brother, who became a doctor, but was a philosophy major, just said, “Just tell them you’re pre med.”

Viet Thanh N.: And then when that failed … I did pre med for 11 weeks. When that failed, he was like, “Tell them you’re pre law,” so I did. And so I just fended them off. They’re just a little bit liberal in the sense that when I went to doctoral school in English, they just said, “Okay. It’s kind of a doctorate. It’s not as good as a medical doctor.”

Dave Miller: We can still tell our friends our son is a doctor.

Viet Thanh N.: Exactly.

Dave Miller: You got one anyway.

Viet Thanh N.: We got one medical doctor out of it. And so I think for them, what I was doing was just sort of alien to them. They just wanted to make sure I got a degree and I got a job. And when I got a job as a professor, they were fine. That’s fine. We don’t know what you’re doing, but you got a job. And I never told them that I wanted to become a writer. I just said, “I’m a professor of English,” or whatever, literature. And so the whole writing thing just sort of emerged gradually. And not that they knew what to make out of that either, but winning the Pulitzer Prize solved everything. That’s all you’ve got to do. That’s all you’ve got to do.

Dave Miller: I wonder if we could hear a little bit from the book that did win you that prize. The narrator in The Sympathizer ends up as a kind of consultant to a movie that’s based very thinly on parts of Apocalypse Now. He takes a job because he wants Vietnamese people to not just be sort of cardboard cutouts that are cannon fodder, but to be three dimensional human beings. The part I’m going to ask you to read is when he starts to realize that he may not be able to accomplish what he set out to accomplish.

Viet Thanh N.: I had encroaching sense of the meanness of my accomplishment that I had been deluded in thinking I could affect change in how we were represented. I had altered the script here and there, and incited the creation of a few speaking parts. But to what end? I had not derailed this behemoth, or changed its direction. I had only made its path smoother as the technical consultant in charge of authenticity, the spirit haunting bad movies that aspired to be good ones. My task was to ensure that the people scuttling in the background of the film would be real Vietnamese people saying real Vietnamese things, and dressed in real Vietnamese clothing right before they died.

Viet Thanh N.: The swing of a dialect and the trim of a costume had to be real. But the truly important things in such a movie, like emotions, or ideas, could be fake. I was no more than the garment worker who made sure the stitching was correct in an outfit designed, produced, and consumed by the wealthy white people of the world. They owned the means of production, and therefore, that means of representation. And the best that we could ever hope for was to get a word in edgewise before our anonymous deaths.

Dave Miller: So that’s the voice of your narrator talking about Hollywood in the 1970s. Has anything changed in your mind 40 years later?

Viet Thanh N.: I think things have changed a little bit, but not as much as anybody who’s Asian American would possibly want. So now we have Crazy Rich Asians coming out in a month or two, I guess. And that’s a big deal, obviously. It’s a huge advance upon what’s been done before. But as recently as this year and last year, we’ve had cases of whitewashing in Hollywood cinema, where roles that were made for Asians were turned into roles for white people. That’s still the common practice. So yes, things are changing, but they’re changing very, very slowly when it comes to Hollywood, primarily I think because it’s a very expensive art form. And the more expensive an art form becomes, the more entrenched it is with a dominant ideology of its society.

Viet Thanh N.: So that’s why, for example, when it came to the Vietnam War, the first antiwar sentiments that were expressed by artists were not by the movie makers, that would take an additional 10 or 13 years. The first people to speak out who were artists against the war were the poets because poetry costs nothing except your own life.

Dave Miller: Have you felt like that character, in the world that you spend most of your time in, in the literary or academic worlds, where you tried to make a change from inside the system, but then you realized that your effort had been either subsumed by the system, or tokenized in some way?

Viet Thanh N.: I think anybody who has any sense fears that. I think that the way, one of the ways by which American society and other societies, like France, or England, manage their very complicated histories of racism and Colonialism and slavery and genocide and so on, is not necessarily to solve the outcomes of that history, but actually materially redressing that history, because that would just simply cost too much money and infringe too much on the prerogatives and the privileges of people who have benefited from those histories.

Viet Thanh N.: So instead, what happens is that we create cultural systems to acknowledge those histories, like literature. And we appoint a few people from these particularly marginalized communities to be the designated speakers, to be the voices for the voiceless. Now on the one hand, that’s important because if we didn’t have these voices, we wouldn’t hear anything at all. But on the other hand, it’s really problematic because you haven’t actually changed the conditions of injustice that continue to reproduce voicelessness every day for the majority of these communities. Instead, you’re just elevating a handful of people to be their representatives or their voices. And unfortunately, some of these people who’ve become elevated to be the representatives or the voices take themselves really seriously.

Dave Miller: Do you worry about that? Because everything you just said could be … We could use that to describe you, as somebody who has gotten these awards, and now is a very popular writer and speaker. Do you worry about mistaking your politics and your experience for a more universal experience?

Viet Thanh N.: Absolutely. And that’s why I talk about it because when I’m describing the system, I’m talking about me too. But I’m also saying, look, there are some people who take it too seriously. They really believe I’m the voice for the voiceless, and they behave that way. I’m not going to name any names. So it’s important for those of us who become elevated in this way to understand what’s happening to us, and to understand that we ourselves are trapped. We can’t get out of it. This is a dilemma that goes back way before me. James Baldwin was already talking about this kind of stuff. Anybody who’s self conscious understands what’s going on. But you can’t refuse it.

Viet Thanh N.: What am I supposed to do then, not speak up because of the problems of this system? No, I have to speak up. But once I speak up, I’m caught in the system. So what am I supposed to do? Number one, I have to also acknowledge and advocate that the system doesn’t change through literature itself, or the arts itself. We help. We expand the imagination. But the system changes when we have actual social and political movements that transform these conditions. And the people who are appointed as these voices need to be self reflexive. They need to be aware of what’s going on so they don’t replicate the imbalances of power that have let to their profit. And there are people out there who take these things too seriously, and who may be advocating for the powerless. And yet, in their own personal lives, behave as if they’re the powerful.

Dave Miller: What does that mean in practice? What kinds of decisions do you find that you’re making because you’re trying to be conscious of these issues?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, number one, you talk about them. So that’s why I had to write an … After I got the MacArthur grant, which is awesome, it’s a huge amount of money, all good. But then people would go out introducing me as the genius grant. Everybody knows it’s a joke. Right? But at the same time, I got so irritated by it.

Dave Miller: You wrote a whole op-ed saying, “Don’t call me a genius.”

Viet Thanh N.: I didn’t write that title. I did not write that title. The op-ed editor wrote that title. I got some grief for that from people. Of course, you’re not a genius. What do you think you are? And that was the whole point of the op-ed. The whole point of the op-ed was the notion that individual genius is really problematic because it overlooks the importance of solidarity and collectivity and community, which is also a part of the history of genius that we’ve forgotten. And it also lures people who are designated as geniuses or voices for the voiceless to believe in their own hype. We need fewer of those individual geniuses and more people who believe in the collective genius of their communities.

Dave Miller: Was that the piece where you also tried to explode the whole idea of voicelessness to begin with?

Viet Thanh N.: Yes. And I realized afterwards that I just stole that idea from Arundhati Roy. Arundhati Roy in a Guardian interview, right when the Ministry of Utmost Happiness came out, said essentially the same thing. What she said, I’m paraphrasing here, is that there is no such thing as a voiceless community. There are only unheard communities. And when we say stuff like a voice for the voiceless, we deceive ourselves into believing that these people can’t speak, when what we’re really masking is that we’re participating, we’re complicit in a system that prevents them from being heard.

Dave Miller: You interviewed her, or talked to her on stage at the New York Public Library just a couple days ago. You asked if it was exhausting for her to be a writer who’s constantly engaged and committed. It seems like a pretty good description of you right now going all over the place, talking at conferences, writing op-eds, or writing fiction, writing essays. Do you see exhaustion on the horizon?

Viet Thanh N.: After that question, she said, “No. It’s exhilarating.” I was like, “Oh, my God. You’re Arundhati Roy.”

Dave Miller: Now I have to be exhilarated.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. But I am exhilarated. I don’t do half the kind of stuff that she does. But I do find it exhilarating to go out, engage with audiences and so on. But honestly, it is also exhausting at times. It enacts a tax on my family, my emotional life, my writing life. When at event doesn’t go well, I feel like, “What happened here?” And I blame myself and all this kind of stuff. And when I get hate mail, it’s not like I enjoy getting hate mail from people. There’s a little bit of a nick there when I get one of these things. But at the same time, I’ve always, ever since I became a politically conscious person at 19 years old at Berkeley, I’ve always been doing this. So it’s not as if it was a new thing, that when the book won the Pulitzer Prize, I just like, “What am I going to do now? Should I be the voice for the voiceless?”

Viet Thanh N.: I mean, I was getting arrested at Berkeley when I was 19 years old, talking about these kinds of things, advocating for greater justice, greater equality, advocating for greater representation, advocating for greater equity, advocating for the need for more minority writers of all kinds. So I’ve been doing this basically my entire adult life. And it just felt like when this moment happened with the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur and stuff, that this was an opportunity for me to say the exact same things that I’ve always been saying, except now more people will listen, and more people will have access to what I’m writing and what I’m saying.

Dave Miller: More people are also sitting where I am asking you questions. Are there questions that you never want to be asked again?

Viet Thanh N.: That’s a hard question. The question that I always hate is: Who’s your favorite author? Or what’s your favorite book? I’m like, “Good God, that’s impossible to answer,” because I don’t have one at any one time. It depends on context.

Dave Miller: Have people been asking you about the 10 part, 18 hour Ken Burns series? That came out after your book. You made a very loud impassioned plea to pay more attention to Vietnamese voices everywhere when it comes to the American War, or the Vietnam War. Then his documentary comes out, and he went around the country talking about how he had done this. Have people been asking you about that documentary?

Viet Thanh N.: You are right. For about a few months after that documentary came out, every single event I did, someone would ask me, “Have you seen that 18 hour documentary about the Vietnam War?” And inevitably, that person had not read a single book by a Vietnamese or Vietnamese American writer. And I thought, “Gosh, if you have 18 hours to watch a documentary from the American point of view about the Vietnam War, you have time to read one book by a Vietnamese person or Vietnamese American person.” So that question really, really irritated me. And you know what though, I never showed it. I just kept on smiling because I still have to wear that mask. And maybe I should let the mask slip, but I never did.

Dave Miller: What do you think would happen if you let the mask slip?

Viet Thanh N.: It would probably cost the hosting organization some donations because these are rich white people [crosstalk 00:47:49].

Dave Miller: Why would you bring that angry Vietnamese guy here?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, exactly. Why was he so rude? Why didn’t he just answer my question? It was such an innocent question. Yes, of course, they’re not innocent questions. Of course, people think they’re well intentioned. But good intentions oftentimes just mask the benefits and the profits that we receive from systems of power that privilege us. And I can tell you just about any person of color, any kind of minority person that you ask, will recount similar experiences. Our lives are built around oftentimes trying to accommodate people with good intentions, who are just trying to be nice, and yet who will ask some really, say some really insensitive things, or ask questions that simply reveal their ignorance. And ignorance itself is not the problem. I’m ignorant of a lot of things. But the problem is when we just luxuriate in our ignorance, and we expect other people to perform the work for us.

Dave Miller: What has it been like for you to work tirelessly for, what, 20 years to get some acclaim, but then to truly burst on the international stage after having toiled with a much lower level of fame for a long time?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I can say that for the first year, I didn’t enjoy it at all. I wrote five pages of fiction in the first year after I won the Pulitzer Prize.

Dave Miller: After you wrote your book in just two years or so.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. I wrote the book in two years. And I’d written 50 pages of the sequel. Everything was going great. And then of course it’s great to win the Pulitzer Prize. I’m just saying that there was a negative effect in the sense that I literally could not enjoy it because I wasn’t writing fiction. I was really stressed out. It actually had a bad effect on my family life and everything because I was running around doing all these interviews and whatnot and lectures. And so now it’s been about trying to live with this.

Viet Thanh N.: And there’s a great essay that just came out by Ta-Nehisi Coates on Kanye West, where he talks exactly about this. Number one, he says, “Why is Kanye West so screwed up by his celebrity? And number two, here’s how I almost got screwed up by my own celebrity.” And I just got a smidgen of that. But even so, it was still hard to deal with.

Dave Miller: Viet Thanh Nguyen, thanks so much for coming here. It was great talking to you.

Viet Thanh N.: Thank you, David, Dave.

Dave Miller: And thanks very much as well to our audience here, and the folks at Literary Arts, who keep inviting us back here to talk to some of the most fascinating writers alive today. We’re going to join you tomorrow. There’s information on our website about a live show we’re doing from Grant’s Pass that is at Facebook. We’ll join you tomorrow. Thanks very much for tuning in.

Speaker 5: Support for Think Out Loud is provided by the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust, Susan Hammer and Lee Kelly, and Ray and Marilyn Johnson.


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