Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Stories Of ‘Refugees’

Viet Thanh Nguyen and Leonard Lopate discuss The Refugees in this interview for the Leonard Lopate Show. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen joins us to discuss The Refugees; his new collection of eight stories exploring immigration. Set in the United States and Vietnam, Nguyen gives voice to an array of people including a young Vietnamese refugee who lives with two gay men in San Francisco, and a Vietnamese writer who is haunted by the ghosts of civilians and soldiers killed in the war.


Here is the transcript of the interview:

Speaker 1: You’re listening to the Leonard Lopate show on AM 820 and 93.9 WNYC.

Leonard Lopate: This past March, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a nationwide order blocking President Trump’s revised travel ban, which would have shut off entry for 90 days from Muslim majority nations and suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days. At a time when millions of Syrians have been forced out of their home country by war and violence, Viet Nguyen’s new collection of short stories called The Refugees gives voice to the Vietnamese refugees who sought shelter in the United States during the final days of the Vietnam War. Mr. Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His debut novel, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Leonard Lopate: We spoke in March, and we are rebroadcasting that conversation for you now. I began by asking about his book’s dedication. You dedicate your book, “to all refugees everywhere.” Is there something universal about the refugee experience?

Viet Nguyen: I think so. I think those of us who have been refugees have never forgotten that experience of being unwanted and displaced and scrambling for our lives and having lost so many things. When I see the plight of contemporary refugees today, I see the pictures of what’s happening to them, my heart goes out to them.

Leonard Lopate: Are the ways that Americans think about refugees from Vietnam different from the way Syrian refugees are perceived?

Viet Nguyen: To some extent now, I think so, but you have to remember that in 1975 when Vietnamese refugees were hot news, the majority of Americans didn’t want to take Vietnamese refugees, and it took an act of Congress to welcome Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees. Now 47 years later, we look at Vietnamese refugees and we think they’re our success story, but they must be unique. They must be different than Syrian refugees or other Muslim refugees. I don’t necessarily think that’s true.

Leonard Lopate: Do you think there’s more fear today?

Viet Nguyen: Oh, there’s definitely more fear today. It’s wrapped up with the contemporary phobias around immigration but also especially Muslim immigrants in the war on terror and all that.

Leonard Lopate: There were fears earlier of Chinese swamping. American laws were passed to prevent that from happening. The Vietnamese, were they able to avoid that sort of thing because they were coming later after the laws about the Chinese had been changed?

Viet Nguyen: You look back on the depictions of the Chinese in the 19th century and they were awful. They were incredibly racist, worse than what we’re using to depict Muslims today, but by the time the Vietnamese refugees came, that had been abated a little bit. I remember when my parents opened a store in San Jose, California in 1978, another store down the street had a sign that says “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” Some of those fears were still there.

Leonard Lopate: Do you think readers will pity your characters?

Viet Nguyen: I hope not.

Leonard Lopate: Should they?

Viet Nguyen: They shouldn’t. What they should do is they should empathize. They should recognize the common humanity, and they should recognize that what happened to Vietnamese refugees could just as easily have happened to them in similar circumstances.

Leonard Lopate: How old were you when you and your family left Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: I was four.

Leonard Lopate: Where did you live when you first arrived here?

Viet Nguyen: We went first to Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, which was one of four military bases that were used to resettle refugees.

Leonard Lopate: It was a refugee camp.

Viet Nguyen: There was a refugee camp in the base. In order to leave, you had to have a sponsor to guarantee that you wouldn’t be a drain on the American welfare system. My parents went to one sponsor. My 10-year-old brother went to another. Four-year-old me went to a third. That was a very traumatic experience for a four-year-old.

Leonard Lopate: Was life okay in the refugee camp? Because when we talk about the Japanese internment camps, we find out that they were rather unpleasant places.

Viet Nguyen: They were very different kinds of camps, and you have to remember that Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the internment camps concentration camps when they were first founded before it became bad, not to use that term, but the refugee camps were different. They were definitely temporary.

Leonard Lopate: Your parents decided to move to California. They could have gone to other places. A lot of Vietnamese people went to the American south, to Houston and parts of the Gulf Coast because-

Viet Nguyen: Where it was warm, where there was good benefits, where there was good economic opportunities, and they heard about California, which is still really like the mecca for Vietnamese refugees.

Leonard Lopate: Did you ever feel like you were an outsider when you were growing up?

Viet Nguyen: To some extent, I think that I certainly grew up as an American, but if you watched American movies about the Vietnam War as I did, you realize that the Vietnamese did not belong in the American consciousness.

Leonard Lopate: In your book’s acknowledgements, you thanked your parents, Joseph and Linda, who were “refugees in 1954” and again in 1975. Why were they refugees in 1954?

Viet Nguyen: Well, the country was divided into north and south. What happened was that 800,000 Vietnamese Catholics, of whom my parents were a part, fled from the north to the south because they were afraid of communist persecution, which meant that my dad did not see his relatives for 40 years until he was able to return to the north.

Leonard Lopate: When you look at what’s going on in Korea, do you see any similarities?

Viet Nguyen: Well, that was the great what-if, the parallel history, like what if the United States had been successful and North and South Vietnam had remained divided? Would South Vietnam have turned into South Korea? It’s possible that that could have been the case. You have to remember that South Korea during the 1960s was poorer than South Vietnam, and it was because of the South Korean participation in the Vietnam War that helped to turn them into the global economy they are today.

Leonard Lopate: You told your novel, The Sympathizer, from the perspective of a South Vietnamese captain who was secretly working as a spy for the Viet Cong. In this book, the stories are all seen through the eyes of refugees fleeing the Viet Cong.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. These stories were actually written before The Sympathizer, and the intention of the stories was to humanize Vietnamese refugees, to look at their domestic lives, to look at how they were suffering and how those emotions were similar to what we all feel.

Leonard Lopate: In our first story, Black-Eyed Woman, it’s about a writer who is haunted by ghosts. Who is the ghost that visits for mother?

Viet Nguyen: What happened is that the family has fled as the so-called boat people, and one of them didn’t make it, her brother, and 25 years later, he returns to them after having swam across the Pacific and arrives on their doorstep that night, dripping wet. The reason I wrote this story was because these kinds of stories of ghosts visiting Vietnamese people after they’ve passed are very, very common.

Leonard Lopate: She thinks her mother is starting to become senile when she talks about the ghost.

Viet Nguyen: If my mother told me there was a ghost knocking in the door, I’d either be frightened or I’d have to think that my mother is senile.

Leonard Lopate: Of course, there’s almost like a word play here because the narrator has resigned herself to being a ghost writer and not putting her own name on her work. She’s writing a memoirs for survivors of disasters and other traumatic events.

Viet Nguyen: It’s a nice little plot, but I was also thinking about the fact that many of us who are writers who deal with traumatic events or historical events, we are ghost writers because we have to confront the ghosts of the past.

Leonard Lopate: Including our own pasts.

Viet Nguyen: Oh yeah. I think I’m certainly haunted by the ghosts of my own past, even if they’re not as dramatic as that. Those who remember the trauma and the suffering that they’ve been through, they find it very hard oftentimes to let go.

Leonard Lopate: She says, “Looking back however, I could see that we had past our youth in a haunted country.” What did she mean by that?

Viet Nguyen: I think that Vietnam during that time period, whether you’re living in the north or the south, was undergoing tremendous difficulties because of the war. There were already people who were refugees and who had lost loved ones during that conflict.

Leonard Lopate: It sounds as if she wants to forget what she’s been through, but at the same time doesn’t want the memories of her brother to fade. Some people are haunted by the past whether they want to be or not.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, and it’s a dilemma. Of course, we have to forget in order to move on, but what’s their proper balance, the proper ratio between memory and forgetting? That’s partly what the story explores. She has to confront her own path, what happened to her on that boat before she could move on.

Leonard Lopate: She says, “Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our own and then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.” What purposes do stories to serve?

Viet Nguyen: I think that stories keep the past alive. They keep the dead alive. For many of us who are writers and lovers of literature, stories are real. They’re materials. The ghost, which we may think of as a fiction, stands in for the fact that this past actually is material and substantive for many of us.

Leonard Lopate: My guest is Viet Nguyen. His latest book is a collection of short stories called The Refugees. The story called War Years deals with a young boy and his parents who owned a Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose. Should I assume that was inspired by events in your own life?

Viet Nguyen: It’s the only autobiographical story I’ve ever written.

Leonard Lopate: A neighbor, Mrs. Hoa … Am I pronouncing that right?

Viet Nguyen: Hoa.

Leonard Lopate: Hoa repeatedly asked the boy’s mother for donations in support of anti communist guerrillas back home. We’re talking about 1983. Is she struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her husband and son? In other words, back to the ghosts in a way.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. She comes off initially as a terrible figure because she’s trying to extort money, but we find out that she’s lost all the loved ones in her life to this war. I knew many people or heard of many people like that.

Leonard Lopate: She’s extorting money. She’s not really ready to send that money back.

Viet Nguyen: The extensible purpose is to fund the Vietnamese effort to take Vietnam back, which was a real effort, and I talk a lot more about that in The Sympathizer, but nevertheless, when you’re telling people you either have to give money or we’re going to call you a communist, that’s extortion.

Leonard Lopate: In the story, Fatherland, Vivien, a young woman living in the United States visits her father and his family in Vietnam for the first time in her life. What does she expect from the visit?

Viet Nguyen: Well, what she expects is to reconnect with the land of her origins and this father who she hasn’t known for 20 years. The other part of the plot is that the father has had three more children, who he’s named after the first three children who have left. That’s actually based on a real anecdote that someone told me about her own family.

Leonard Lopate: They were all named Wong.

Viet Nguyen: Phuong, I believe.

Leonard Lopate: P-H-U-O-N-G. It’s hard for a non-Vietnamese to know how to pronounce these things.

Viet Nguyen: I know.

Leonard Lopate: Would somebody do that, to name all of his daughters the same name?

Viet Nguyen: It happened. That’s the true anecdote that was told to me, and then I made up the rest of the story to try to explain why someone would do that.

Leonard Lopate: What does her half-sister, Phuong, who grew up in Vietnam, think of her?

Viet Nguyen: Well, she has grown up with this fantasy about this other sister who has her name first, who has gone to the United States and has lived this glorious, glamorous life. That was true for a lot of Vietnamese people in the 1980s and 1990s that were suffering under poverty and so on. They thought that the relatives who had fled were living this American dream.

Leonard Lopate: Vivien is also disappointed.

Viet Nguyen: Well, number one, Vivien is not living the American dream. She comes back, and it’s revealed that her life is not as great as everybody has believed it to be.

Leonard Lopate: Their father works as a tour guide in Saigon mainly for American tourists. What are those chores like?

Viet Nguyen: This is also based on a true story, on one of these tours to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, which is a site that all American tourists got to go visit. My tour guide said, “We won this war.” Well, the thing is I had a coffee break with him and he said, “Oh yeah. I actually fought for South Vietnam,” but for him to make a living, he had to pretend that he fought for the victorious side. That to me just brought up … That’s an ironic situation that so many Vietnamese people are caught up in.

Leonard Lopate: Well, I would assume a great number of the people who are living in what was once called South Vietnam were opposed to being annexed by the north and now they have to live as citizens of this unified country, whether they like it or not. They all have to say I’m loyal to my current country.

Viet Nguyen: Right. They have to make a living. When tourists encounter them, they only encounter the persona or the story that’s being fabricated. This story looks behind that at the more difficult lives that these people are living.

Leonard Lopate: Phuong goes on one of those tours, and we hear her reaction at one point. She says, “We’re all the same to them.” Phuong understood with a mix of anger and shame, small, charming and forgettable.

Viet Nguyen: I went to this restaurant that’s featured in the story, and I talked to this very pretty young woman who’s a hostess there, and I said, “Hey, Saigon is really exciting.” She just looked at me and said, “No, Saigon is really boring.” That always stayed with me that the lives that these people are living, the ones we encounter, tourists, are very different than what the tourers themselves see.

Leonard Lopate: You’ve gone to Vietnam as an adult.

Viet Nguyen: Five or six times, yeah, five or six times.

Leonard Lopate: Is it changing or has it pretty much become solidified since the communists took over the whole country?

Viet Nguyen: It’s changed drastically over the last 40 years. Year by year, it becomes more and more developed, at least the urban and the tourist and coastal areas. You can go to Vietnam and even though it’s officially a communist country, you would never know that, as long as you didn’t deal with politics.

Leonard Lopate: Would it be different if you’re going to the south or the north?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, there are cultural differences, but ironically, the north, even though it’s the center of the Communist Party, is extremely capitalist.

Leonard Lopate: Really?

Viet Nguyen: Yes.

Leonard Lopate: The same as China in a way?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. Basically, there a lot of regional stereotypes, and the southerners really don’t let the northerners, because I think they’re hypocrites, that they’re talking the Communist Party line but they’re the worst capitalists of all.

Leonard Lopate: You wrote these short stories and then published the novel, got the Pulitzer Prize, now the short stories can be published. What are you working on now, more stories or another novel?

Viet Nguyen: The sequel to The Sympathizer. He lives. I’m interested in what happens though after that.

Leonard Lopate: Does that happen with the stories as well? Because writers often have told me that just because they’ve finished something, a story or a novel, that doesn’t mean that that character has stopped talking to them.

Viet Nguyen: I don’t think so. You have to end the story somewhere in a short story, but their lives go on, and I’m certainly very curious about some of the characters, what happens to them later.

Leonard Lopate: Viet Nguyen, his latest book is a collection of short stories called The Refugees. It’s published by Grove Press. Thank you so much for being on our show again.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks for having me, Leonard.

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