In commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Third World Liberation Front Student Strike, the Department of Asian American Studies at SF State hosted a “Night with MacArthur Fellows Viet Nguyen and An-My Lê”.
Read the transcript below:
Russell Jeung: Okay. Welcome everybody to the 50th anniversary commemoration event. Thank you for coming. I’m Russell Jeung, chair of Asian-American studies and we’re delighted to have you for A Night with MacArthur Fellows Viet Nguyen and An-My Le. Just to start our celebration, we actually have two alumni from Asian American Studies who are now on the city council of Daly City.
Russell Jeung: If we just get one more member on the city council from Asian American Studies, we have a super majority and they could pass like a wall around Daly City or they can make to gala the official language, or rise the official food, but I’ll pass it over to council members Manalo and Daus-Magbual.
Daus-Magbual: Thank you.
Juslyn Manalo: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, happy 50th anniversary and really such an honor to be here today. As mentioned as an Asian American Studies major, that was my roots. I take that with me when creating policy and governing. It’s really through many of you that were the original strikers and really were on the forefront, so thank you for your legacy because from your struggle we are here and we’d like to continue that so thank you very much.
Juslyn Manalo: We do have a commendation for the San Francisco State University’s 50th anniversary of Asian American Studies. Whereas Asian American Studies Department the largest of five departments in the unit of college of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University was created as a result of the 1960 black student union Third World Liberation front students strike, the longest student strike in the United States’ history.
Juslyn Manalo: Whereas three Asian American SF State student organizations the pace Philippine American Collegiate Endeavor, I was part of that when I was here. Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action ICSA, and the Asian American Political Alliance AAPA were primary new members of the Third World Liberation front. Whereas the BSU and the Third World Liberation front issued 15 demands let picket lines, rallies, protest, and shutdowns of all the campuses which are followed by mass arrest, beatings, and the repression by … The administration and the local law enforcement and courts. Here’s my colleague Dr. Daus-Magbual.
Daus-Magbual: Thank you, Juslyn. Whereas the strike concluded with the establishment of Asian American studies in the college of ethnic studies, the only such college in the nation. Where Asian American studies in SF State has grown to become the largest Asian American Studies Department in the country currently staffed with 16 tenured track of faculty mounting over 50 undergraduate and graduate courses each semester and continuing the legacy of community engagement.
Daus-Magbual: Where Asian American studies in SF State is hosting the MacArthur Fellows Viet Nguyen and An-My Le to highlight the flourishing of Vietnamese American arts and cultures the student movements in the 1960s. Now therefore, Daly City commemorates the 50th anniversary of the BSU Third World Liberation Front strike and recognizes the historic and contemporary contributions of Asian American studies at SF State.
Juslyn Manalo: Thank you so much.
Daus-Magbual: Thank you.
Russell Jeung: Thank you council members. We also are fortune to have Alan Wong, he’s a representative from Supervisor Gordon Mar’s office. Gordon is another big supporter of Asian American study and was recently elected for this district, so let’s welcome Alan.
Alan Wong: Hello, everybody. I’m Alan and I’m here to represent Supervisor Gordon Mar who is recently elected to be supervisor for District 4, the Sunset District. I’m very honored to be here to be representing Gordon to be here to present this certificate to the Asian American Studies Department today. I know that mentors I worked with Supervisor Eric Mar and Supervisor Gordon Mar both of them have been very influenced by the work of Asian American studies and has helped developed their sensible social justice and passion for helping out our communities of color in San Francisco and across the United States.
Alan Wong: Though the work that the Asian American Studies Department here does and the strike that happened half a century ago continuous to live on in so many activist and continuous to guide the conscience for so many people across the country, across the nation. It continuous to be something that shines a light on how we can continue to move forward and fight for the APIs, fight for African Americans, fight for Latinos, and continue pushing the boundaries for our country to move forward.
Alan Wong: I remember when I took my Asian American studies class at Community College when I attended there, and it was something that made me grow as a person. It helped me become a more conscious person about social justice. The strike that were here commemorating and remembering today is so important. On behalf of Supervisor Gordon Mar and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, I wish to present your department with a certificate of honor.
Russell Jeung: Okay, if we turn up the lights up please? This is probably the largest event since the strike at San Francisco State and if we can turn up the house lights, I want to see how many of you are actually in the house. How many of you, raise your hands if you’re Asian American studies majors? Look at that. How many who have taken Asian American studies classes in general. Wow.
Juslyn Manalo: Wow.
Russell Jeung: Wow. Tonight, we’re fortunate to have two winners of the MacArthur Award and the MacArthur Award if you don’t know is actually called the Genius Grant. Every year when the MacArthur Award comes up, fellow faculty and we talk about and we’re wondering when are we going to get our award? I think something is wrong with states mail. Viet Nguyen wrote about winning the award and he said, a lot of people think of it as individualized personal award of genius but he looked at it as a different way.
Russell Jeung: He actually graciously said it’s because of the collective genius of Asian Americans, the distinctive character of Asian Americans, the spirit of resistance that enabled him to win the award. This is actually a collective genius award. All you who are Asian American studies majors, you could go home and your professor … Tell your parents your professor said you’re a genius. Tell your accounting friends they’re marketable, and your nursing friends, yeah they’re maybe competent but you guys are genius.
Russell Jeung: I’d like to start off, today is a day of remembrance and we want to recall that we’re sitting now on a [inaudible 00:08:08]. We can’t forget that we as Asian Americans are also settler colonizers and that we’re in participants of this displacement of people that’s going on even today. We also were … Want to remember as Asian American is that today is the 77th anniversary of the executive order 9066 where President Roosevelt issued the executive order to put Japanese Americans into American concentration camps.
Russell Jeung: Again, that’s going on again today with families operations at the border, with mass Southeast Asian deportations. We in Asian American Studies we remember these things, they do not leave us, they were not part of our collective amnesia but there are actually part of our collective history, part of our collective consciousness. We don’t forget because we also remember that we’re also part of a history of resistance and change. That’s why we’d like to honor the 1968 and ’69 strike and tonight and the founding of Asian American Studies.
Russell Jeung: Actually, can we turn on the lights again because we actually have a couple of people who are in the strike, [Judge Ron Kudachai 00:09:18]. He was the first chairperson of the Third World Liberation Front. If we can turn on the lights, we have [Lorin Chiu 00:09:24], if anybody who is part of the strike can you please stand up?
Russell Jeung: For me, it is a real honor to be standing among living heroes to be able to speak to them and to learn from them and so we thank you. In fact, I actually have to acknowledge [Coney and Gene 00:09:55] in the back, they’re selling books but they were actually, they said they organized the first Asian American lit classes in the Asian American women’s classes here at San Francisco State, so let’s also thank them.
Russell Jeung: We also want to thank our other co-sponsors especially the MacArthur foundation and aspire the College of Ethnic Studies, the San Francisco State School of Art, San Francisco’s Department of English. We also especially want to thank the Asian American MA students and the classes of Asian American 216, 370, and 372, they are all … They’ve been volunteering for this event and they’ll be cleaning up after you, so please thank them.
Russell Jeung: Like our council member said, this strike lasted five months and started in November 6 and ended on March 21st. It was made up initiated by the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front. Here are the three groups that were represented by Asian Americans. It was Asian American political alliance and our collegiate Chinese for social action and the Filipino American Collegiate Endeavor.
Russell Jeung: If you can see in this photo here, it’s one of the first classes. They didn’t just have classes for San Francisco State. They took the classes into the community, so this was in the basement of I. Hotel. This was the first Chinese American studies class taught by Alan Wong. They had to sit in a bar chairs. When they first started, there were 70 courses and we actually have the first professor Japanese American studies here, [Professor Matsushita 00:11:38], so go greet him afterwards.
Russell Jeung: There are 17 courses. Today we’re the largest department in the nation with 61 courses offer this semester. San Francisco States are really fortunate to have such a range. We teach Filipino classes, [inaudible 00:11:55] classes, I teach a class in environment justice. It’s really specific. We teach over 2500 students this semester. We have 67 majors, 17 MA students, and our MA students, a third of them go into PhD programs and they teach most of the classes here. Our lectures are mostly from our program.
Russell Jeung: We’re teaching ethnic studies at City College at Laney and so we’re the primary pipeline for ethnic studies in the region. We have 16 tenure track faculty, please greet them and thank them as well. To show again a little bit more about the growth of Asian American studies, the book on the right Migrant Returns was written by Professor Eric Pido and just won the National Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies.
Russell Jeung: We also have on sale on the back by Third World Liberation Front Striker Juanita Tamayo Lott, one of our distinguished alumni. She wrote a book called Golden Children: Legacy of Ethnic Studies. Again, you could get that book here and actually meet her live in person, have her sign it. She’ll be in the back. Yeah, this is our commercial break. Were also for sale showing the growth of Asian American Studies, we have this entrepreneurial spirit. One of our faculty Valerie Soe is featuring, is producing a full-length feature film called the Love for Taiwan. To help fund that film, we’re selling boba at good prices.
Russell Jeung: Finally, to illustrate how Asian American Studies continued in the spirit of solidarity and collaboration, our department San Francisco State is working with UC Berkeley and Harvey Dong up there who’s selling the books and B. Dong. They started ethnic studies at Berkeley so I’m writing a book with Harvey and we have collaboratives with UCLA. Together we’re writing a book that’s called Mountain Movers, Student Activism and the Emergence of Asian American Studies.
Russell Jeung: This book is actually targeted to be for ethnic studies curriculum on the statewide level. That shows the growth of ethnic studies that now is going to be a statewide requirement and soon its need to learn about our histories and we’ll learn about our histories. Congratulations for being part of the 50th birthday of Asian American Studies grown a lot and we want to continue on the legacy of our founders. We want to really acknowledge them that without their work, without their struggle, without their perseverance, we won’t be able to sit here today to take all these classes and to learn to the agents of change like they were, so thank you.
Russell Jeung: To moderate our program we have our Professor Isabelle Pelaud, she’s a full professor teaching Vietnamese American studies. She’s also the co-director of DVAN with Professor Viet Nguyen, so let’s welcome Professor Pelaud.
Isabelle Pelaud: Thank you for being here. I will try to be brief. One thing I want to say, I teach Vietnamese American literature and one of the premise of ethnic studies is as colors we have to identify some problem, right in our communities. I teach literature, do that to literatures but it’s not enough right? Once we identify the problem, we need to fix the problem.
Isabelle Pelaud: In my scholarships, well Vietnamese American stories are not always visible, not often heard, and sometime writers feels that pressure to write about the refugee experience in the way that serve as resolutions from the outcome of the Vietnam War. Ten years ago, and then teaching at San Francisco States, one thing we’re trying to do is to be relevance to the communities and also what we teach to be relevant to our students.
Isabelle Pelaud: When I started to teach here 20 years ago, it was really nothing in San Francisco in the Bay Area about Vietnamese American cultural productions. I say, well how I’m going to practice ethnic studies? Actually 10 years ago, what I did I say well, I call Viet Nguyen here and before I make the formal introductions, I just want to share with you something very few people know about Viet Nguyen is that I call him and I say, “Well, Viet we both understand these problems.
Isabelle Pelaud: Can you join me to try to fix these problems and start an organizations that make visible Vietnamese Americans stories and also to create space so that writers can create in their own terms? Are we going to do this by promoting writers and cultural producers from all over the world outside of Vietnam? Are you game? Are you in?” Viet said right away, he said yes, I’m in. This is a Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network so I’m just going to go very quickly to what we do now because for 10 years we did a lot of film festival, art exhibit, publications, and readings throughout the country and outside these countries and now we’re focusing on writers.
Isabelle Pelaud: Very quickly, DVAN … Our goal in purpose 20 great Vietnamese American perspective in society about promoting and supporting writers and reports of the diaspora. We value self-determinations, empowerment, education, and healing. We emphasize collaboration, dialogues, and explorations. We do public events like in San Jose last summer in the art museum. This one at the first Asian American literary festival in the Smithsonian, we had two panels.
Isabelle Pelaud: The next events will be in New York in March. We have a group that support Vietnamese Women Writers specifically. This is a picture of our last event, also at the San Jose Museum. This one is the group of women writers at the public libraries in Paris and we have yet stand as a babysitter and introduce to us. We also have writing retreats for group of writers to engage in dialogue. We have one month writing retreats for emerging writers.
Isabelle Pelaud: This is the first one, this one is going to be for Hieu Minh Nguyen in June. We publish traveling borders, bringing together Southeast Asian women writers and artists in this book, it’s right here. We have new publication project. We have this blog that Viet started and managed for 10 years and now [inaudible 00:19:30] managing it. We cannot do this without interns, volunteers who are here, you’ll see them.
Isabelle Pelaud: Of course, all our public, everything we do is free to the writers and to the public. We have fundraisers, if you want to participate you can go to the table over there after we’re done and participate. If you want to have a private dinner with Viet Nguyen in May you can also sign up. Okay, I’m going to be done with this. Thank you.
Isabelle Pelaud: This is say like Viet Nguyen is in ethnic studies person, he works to work. He’s putting tier into practice. As you know, his novel Sympathizers, he’s a New York Time Bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I’m not going to read all his award because it’s too many and we want to hear from them. His other books are Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, and Race and Resistance, Literature and Politics in Asian America.
Isabelle Pelaud: He’s a university professor the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and the professor of English American Studies and Ethnicity and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. His current book is the bestselling short story collection, The Refugees. Most recently, he has been the recipient and fellowship from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations and le Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger.
Isabelle Pelaud: For The Sympathizer is a critic at large for the Los Angeles Time and the contribution opinion writers for the New York Time. Viet Nguyen invited An-My Le to participate in this dialog. An-My Le is a Vietnamese American photographer who was born in Saigon, Vietnam. She was evacuated as a political refugee to the US in ’75 at the end of the war. Le studied biology at Stanford University then receiving an MFA from Yale University 1993.
Isabelle Pelaud: Between ’94 and ’98 she made several trip back to Vietnam to rediscover and photograph her native countries in peace time. Since then Le has explored the military conflict that have frame the last half century of American history, the war in Vietnam, and the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan where she approached these events obliquely instead of addressing a subject by creating reportage of actual conflict, the photograph places where war is psychologically anticipated, processed, and relieved.
Isabelle Pelaud: Vietnam War reenactment in Virginia and North Carolina and event show explores coastal and maritime location around the world when the US Navy stations to train for and deploy in current and potential conflicts. Latest work challenging role it’s inspired by Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days and is hybrid mix of journalism poetry, and autobiography. This project was introduced by [inaudible 00:22:55] in 2017. She also have several solo exhibitions.
Isabelle Pelaud: I think I’m going to stop here because we really have a short time and I really want to make space for our speakers to present today. Some of their work and then we’re going to have discussions.
Viet Nguyen: Thank you so much for those introductions. Good evening, San Francisco State. It’s such an honor and a privilege to be here tonight participating in the 50th commemoration of the Third World strike and the founding of ethnic studies and I speak about that because when I went to school at Berkeley a long, long time ago, I was also an ethnic studies major. I have grown up in San Jose which is really diverse multicultural neighborhood but nevertheless I did not know what I was missing until I came to Berkeley.
Viet Nguyen: I step foot on the Berkeley campus and I was immediately radicalized, okay, because I received a very similar education to what Asian American studies majors and ethnic studies majors receive here at San Francisco State so I came to Berkeley. I immediately started taking Asian American studies classes, I learned about concentration camps for Japanese Americans which I never even heard of before. I joined the Asian American political alliance and I was immediately arrested engaging in political protests an invitation of the Third World strike.
Viet Nguyen: We honored our forebears in the Third World strike and I credit what they were doing 50 years ago with the intellectual transformations and the political transformations that I underwent as a college student that help me turn me eventually into a scholar and a writer. I want to talk a little bit about what the Third World strike meant to me back then and still means to me today. Thinking back to what the students then were doing, it was radical back then, it’s still radical today because what they were arguing for?
Viet Nguyen: They were arguing that the Vietnam War was wrong, that the Vietnam War was morally wrong, that it was politically wrong, that it was a racist war. They were connecting everything that was happening with the Vietnam War with what was happening here in the United States. They were arguing that there was racism here in this country, that this was a country that was built on a legacy of colonization that there was still radical inequality and that somehow what was happening here was directly feeding into the Vietnam War as well.
Viet Nguyen: We tended to forget about that. We tended to forget that back then what Asian Americans stood for and what the people who are participating the Third World strike stood for was not just anti-racism, it was also anti-war, anti-imperialism, and it was radical. It was deeply influenced by Marxism and Maoism as well. Now, for me I found that to be tremendously inspiring but there was also something of a conflict for me because I had come to this country as a refugee from the Vietnam War.
Viet Nguyen: I was born in 1971 and in 1975 when the war ended, my family happen to be on the losing side of the conflict so we came here as refugees. If you know anything about the Vietnamese refugees who came here to this country you’ll know they’re deeply anti-communist. For me, growing up in a deeply anti-communist community and feeling tremendous empathy for everything that had happened to southern Vietnamese people and to Vietnamese refugees made me feel conflicted when I became an Asian American studies major and ethnic studies major who’s dealing with Asian Americans.
Viet Nguyen: What I was thinking about the legacies of the Third World strike because there was some people in Asian American movement and in the Third World strike who are deeply opposed to South Vietnam and felt that the South Vietnamese people were puppets of the Americans. These were two radically opposed visions and I had to try to make sense for myself how to reconcile these two competing vision that it would take me a long time to do that, a long time to work through that as a scholar and as a writer.
Viet Nguyen: I just want to lead you through a few points that I arrived at after a lot of struggle and conflict with myself. Through this book called Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam in the Memory of War, and this where I talk about one portion that I deal with memory which seems very relevant today as we’re remembering the Third World strike and everything that it represents. For me what I was trying to do in this book was to think about how do we ethically remember, because I grew up feeling that as a Vietnamese American, as a Vietnamese refugee I was living in this country where Vietnam was the name of a war in other country.
Viet Nguyen: In other words when American said Vietnam, they didn’t think of Vietnamese people, they didn’t think of a country, they thought of a war. I thought that was unethical growing up among Vietnamese people, I cannot help it feel what they felt. Everything that they had lost, all the people, all the memories, all their identities have been lost with the end of the Vietnam War. It was unethical I thought that Americans were remembering it in this way. I had to think through that, I had to think through what that meant.
Viet Nguyen: For me when I think about ethical memory, the first model of ethical memory that I think of is the importance of remembering our own. This is a very natural and human tendency. Americans want to remember their own, that’s why when they think about the Vietnam War they don’t think about Vietnamese people, they think about Americans. Irony is that the Vietnamese refugees who came to this country and who are forgotten here by Americans, did exactly the same thing. They were only interested as far as I could tell in remembering their own as well.
Viet Nguyen: I had to come to grips with that, I had to recognize that this was ethical too. If we did not remember our own, who would? If Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese Americans did not remember their own history and what had happened to them, who would remember them, because Americans have forgotten them. If you go to Vietnam, you’ll realize that the Vietnamese people there, they also want to remember their own which means that they want to obliterate and to erase the South Vietnamese who fought again for them.
Viet Nguyen: This was a very compelling model, because this is also what I think many of us engaging as well when we celebrate the Third World strike. We want to remember our own, we want to remember our heroes and everything that they had gotten and that’s a normal human tendency but it’s not enough. I felt that there was another model that was important to memory. The ethics of remembering others and this I felt was very central to Asian American studies and to ethnic studies that much of our work is not just about remembering us, it’s about remembering others.
Viet Nguyen: Our project in ethnic studies is about solidarity. It’s not just working for us and who we are, it’s recognizing that Asian Americans have connections with African Americans, with Chicanos and Latinos, with Native Americans were all in this together in the struggle to liberate this country and to gage in a project for more just and equal society. In the ethics I’m remembering others the liberal version, we remember that we are human and we remember that others are human as well. If you want to think about this in terms of presidential politics, the ethics of remembering others is the ethical model of Obama and Clinton, right.
Viet Nguyen: The problem with the ethics of remembering others in this liberal version though is that it never stops us from going to war. Under the Obama administration, despite the fact that we remember others, despite the fact that we embrace diversity and multiculturalism which are values that Clinton and Kennedy embraces as well, we’re still a country that is built on a military industrial complex, we’re still a country that engages in strong strikes, we’re still a country that has 800 military bases all over the world.
Viet Nguyen: The ethics of remembering others in this liberal version even though it’s good for us who believe in diversity and multiculturalism is still perfectly capable of being used to wage war. There’s another model of remembering others, the radical version. The radical version is what motivates the anti-war movement. We see it in the movement against the Vietnam War, we see it again in the movement that against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and so on.
Viet Nguyen: In the ethics of remembering others, we are the ones who are inhuman whereas they are the human ones. By this I mean, the anti-war movement in the United States did a very powerful thing. It reminded Americans that they’re not the good guys. It’s impossible to be the good guys and we dropped more bombs on Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War then was dropped on all of Europe during World War II, and so the anti-war movement and the Third World strike was arguing that this was inhuman behavior that we were engaging it, we were killing civilians and this was very powerful.
Viet Nguyen: For me as a Vietnamese person, I had to wonder, where do I fit in into this ethical models of remembering. Because in this ethical model of remembering others where we are the inhuman ones and they are the human ones, I was one of these Vietnamese people who were the others. I was one of these Vietnamese people who was being told you’re the ones who were the victims of the Americans. I thought to myself, that’s not completely true, that doesn’t feel right to me because there still something problematic about this model of remembering others Americans have used this model to anti-war movement has used this model to continue the center over and over again the American experience.
Viet Nguyen: Even as we remember Americans as being inhuman and others whether it’s Vietnamese, or Iraqis, or Afghans as being the human ones we continue to return to the central drama of the American story. That’s why even today, for those who oppose, Americans who oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they still want to talk mostly about Americans. How much do we know about Iraqis or Afghans today? We probably know as little about them as the Americans of the 1960s knew about the Vietnamese people.
Viet Nguyen: Even if I’m oppose to the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can’t participate in this model remembering others in this way because I have to remember that those others don’t see themselves as others. The Vietnamese never saw themselves as others. The Vietnamese saw themselves as the center of their own story. The Iraqis and Afghans see themselves at the centers of their own stories as well. One of the problems with these models of ethically remembering others is that the others never come across as fully human.
Viet Nguyen: The Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and the American imagination were either the Viet Cong, the villains, or they were the innocent victims. That was not reality to me, I grew up in that Vietnamese refugee community knowing that that kind of polarization did not speak to how the Vietnamese saw themselves as human beings. If I stand in the light, I’m going to block your view, I’ll be at the center, that’s fine for me. I had to come up with something more complex for myself as a scholar and for myself as a writer as well because when I thought back to the Vietnam War, what did I see?
Viet Nguyen: I grew up in the Vietnamese refugee community in which I saw Vietnamese people believing themselves to be utterly innocent. They looked at the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese refugees here and they thought to themselves as the victims, that they were the victims of Vietnamese communism, they were the victims of American abandonment, and they were. I knew that couldn’t be the full story. If you know anything about war, you know that no one is ever … No side is ever, hardly ever, only the victims.
Viet Nguyen: Everybody in a war does terrible things and everybody in a war has terrible things done to them. I wanted to come up with an ethical model of remembering that would embrace that complexity and those contradictions and that’s the final model. The ethics of recognition, what do we recognize that we are human and inhuman and they are human and inhuman as well. I wanted to talk about Vietnamese people not as victims or victimizers but as both. I wanted to look at the Vietnamese refugees that I grew up with and recognize everything that they had suffered and been through but I also wanted to talk about everything that they had done to other people as well.
Viet Nguyen: I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in which we weren’t just the victims. I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in which we were traumatized, people were traumatized and they did terrible things to each other. I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in which I knew the Vietnamese soldiers that we celebrated who are marching around in their uniforms at all the traditional events. I know that as soldiers, they must have done things that they didn’t want talk about. I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in which the violence of the war reverberated throughput that community and manifest at itself in violence within our communities and within our homes, the violence that we did to each other.
Viet Nguyen: That complexity was not recognized in American society, that complexity was not recognized in Vietnam and that complexity was barely even talk about within the Vietnamese refugee committee. I wanted to talk about that in my own work. Recognizing that people are human and inhuman gives them full subjectivity. When we think of ourselves only as victims or victimizers, we don’t give each other that kind of subjectivity. When we think about Iraqis and Afghans as being only the victims of American bombing, that’s only part of the story, we need to think more about their full complexity.
Viet Nguyen: Looking at this model, this is a way by which I try to understand my own work. The refugees, my short story collection is really something that fits under the category of the ethics of remembering others that we are human. I want to emphasize the humanity of Vietnamese people. By the time I got to writing The Sympathizer that was a novel that embraces the ethics of recognition. I wanted to write a novel in which the Vietnamese were the center of their story but what does it mean to be at the center of our story?
Viet Nguyen: To be at the center of our story doesn’t mean that we’re simply people who are things done to us. We are people who do things to others as well which is why at the center of The Sympathizer, we have a spy who is an alcoholic, a liar, a womanizer, and ultimately a murderer, so it’s completely autobiographical. I thought when I was writing that novel, I was watching a lot of TV, I was watching the Sopranos, I was watching Mad Man, I was watching Breaking Bad, I was watching The Liar, I was like “Wow, these shows that Americans are watching about themselves are full of terrible human beings.”
Viet Nguyen: No one would look at these shows and think, well that represents all of America. We recognize that this represent individual flowed people and all of their magnificent tragic complexity. That’s what I wanted to do in a sympathizer and I think ultimately the project, for me the project with ethnic studies should be about that. The project that ethnic studies and the Third World strike isn’t about talking about ourselves simply as the victims of American racism or American imperialism, it’s about claiming full subjectivity which means saying that were not angels, which means saying we’re not one dimensional, which means recognizing our full subjectivity means claiming for ourselves the full agency of what it means to be human and inhuman at the same time, no population has ever been innocent.
Viet Nguyen: If we are to claim our place in American society, it’s not simply by opposing the racism in the society is by recognizing that we ourselves are capable of doing terrible things as well. For me that was a legacy of what it meant to struggle through the Third World strike, what it meant to think about everything that ethnic studies and Asian American studies had done and it was thinking through these kinds of issues, thinking through the stakes of a Third World strike that let me write the books that I did.
Viet Nguyen: I thank everyone in this room who is an activist during that time, who put their bodies on their line, who were visionaries, who imagine the better society, who imagine the more just society, who were radicals back then or is still radicals today, is we still live in an unjust country. Thank you very much.
An-My Le: As a visual artist, I’ve had a pretty a different kind of trajectory. I pretty much work on my own, and it’s been a long journey but I’m sort of glad to find that I think I’ve joined the resistance. I wanted to thank Viet for having invited me to join him for this panel. I’m so glad to meet everyone and to know so much more about what you guys do here.
An-My Le: The flood gate for me was when I went to graduate school in photography. I was not trained as an artist, I was trained as a biologist. When I arrived in graduate school, the big question was well, you put a great photographer but you’re a Vietnamese woman, you’re so interesting, where’s your autobiography in all of this and it was very confusing for me at that point. This is 1991. My autobiography so I think of Vietnam, it was so painful, I think of being a refugee, I think of the war. It was very confusing.
An-My Le: I had a mixture of memories, I had a mixture of experiences, I had a mixture of movies, text, the news, it was all mixed up, and I couldn’t make sense out of any of it. I think the big step for me was to realize that Vietnam was an idea, it was a place, it was a war, it was a sign of signifier, and it was a real mess, and the best thing was just to embrace the mess. I put together a slideshow that is a mixture of pictures that have influenced me and then pictures that I’ve made and you can see that they kind of all joined together in this chaos.
An-My Le: This is a news pictures from the war and I was more interested in the landscape, in the trees, so how do I … I’m sorry, I use a Mac normally so just hit the slide. Just press the arrow key, okay, all right. No, that didn’t work. No, I did that too. I need to get this out. Next? No, and then just use the arrow. This is one of the first pictures I made when I returned to Vietnam in the mid-1990s when Clinton renewed relations with Vietnam and lifted the embargo. This was in the Delta of the Mekong, so these were the trees, it connected to me with the pictures of helicopters taking off and GIs being airlifted but instead I put a fictional family together in this arbor of trees.
An-My Le: A lot of pictures of children of course, so I looked for what I thought would be life of peace in Vietnam. I think a lot of people really didn’t understand, they try to encourage me to look at the sequels of war. They tried to encourage me to look at modern Vietnam but I was interested in something that was barely probable but I managed to find and it was about a way of life. This is a family picture, this is an orphan evacuation by the Australians during the Vietnam War.
An-My Le: This is a portrait I made of a young woman who was working in the fields in Northern Vietnam. I just love the plastic jewelry that she wore and then of course the pith helmet which reminded me of the war. This is a picture from platoon. This is a family picture of me and my kids. We were visiting some friends and they had tons of guns from when they were growing up and my kids just pull them all out. It was really extraordinary and somebody made a picture and I think it all make sense to me if you understand that within this mess, it’s a well spring of inspiration.
An-My Le: This is another picture made in Vietnam in the early 1990s. Moments that I remember or that I was told about, my grandmother of course like you all know should bead the leaves and the areca nuts and this is the way they’ve grown and I’ve never seen that before. The gracefulness of this young woman and her mother growing this community garden was very impressive to me. The way we work the land, I always thought that the land carried the history, carried the culture, in ways that perhaps a person may not be able to doing so well.
An-My Le: I spent quite a number of years photographing in Vietnam and the obvious elephant in the room was the issue of war and I had awarded it. I came across … I learned about these guys who reenact the Vietnam War in North Carolina Virginia and I approached them and wanted to photograph them. I have no idea what I would do with it, I thought it was a scary thing. It took me really long time but I was finally invited and I had to being character. I think they gave me various choices, you could be a photographer, you could be a nurse, you could be a Viet Cong and I asked them, what would give me the most flexibility.
An-My Le: They said if you’re a Viet Cong and you cut and you go in the other side then you can see both sides. I said all right, tell me what to do. You’ll see what I end up having to do. Once I get there, I have to decide what kind of pictures do you want to make and of course we all these picture and those guys reenact the picture and of course you have to make the picture. I realized that I was not interested in recreating this horror that we grew up with. I was looking for something else and so what is it that I’m looking for.
An-My Le: I think I’m looking at the way the Vietnam War was a myth, how it was misunderstood, these guys actually reenacting it because it was so seared in their imagination, they grew up watching the Vietnam War movies. All of that was very interesting to me and that’s what I wanted to explore. This is me as a Viet Cong. It was one of the creepiest things that I had to do. I mean once you start doing it then it’s not a big deal. This is of course a real Viet Cong much more confident. This is one of the more complicated pictures that I was able to setup with them.
An-My Le: They would come in the weekends, reenact, and then go back to whatever they were doing. I think that they were looking for something and I was looking for something else and we sort of came together and made these pictures. The very pastoral, I was again not interested in recreating this horror of war but I was interested in exploring their psyche, America’s psyche, the fascination with the war. I was also interested in this idea of strategy and terrain and landscape because landscape was something that we talked about a lot when we spoke about Vietnam.
An-My Le: This idea of tourism in Vietnam and the popularization of this Cu Chi tunnels was very impressive to me. Those tunnels came back in a lot of the work that I did. This is one of the more recent pictures from a recent project called Silent General, they are civil war trenches that I’ve photographed and they’re part of a larger project. News pictures of the bombing of Vietnam and of course I was very remarked by those as well as living through Tet 68 in Saigon.
An-My Le: Pretty much after I got tired of working with the reenactors and thought that I was at some sort of Disneyland, I was craving for something more real more serious, we invaded Iraq. Immediately, my instinct was that I needed to go to Iraq and be there and witness the moment and … I was thinking, I’m barely getting over Vietnam and I think we’re getting into another war and bringing all these young people there. I’m thinking of the Iraqis and it was a really big mess.
An-My Le: Fortunately, I made … It was a little late in the game when I decided to go to Iraq. Everyone had been there previously waiting in Kuwait and I was on a waitlist for becoming an embed. I was still hoping that I would get to go at some point but while I was waiting, I came across pictures of the Marine Corp training outside of Los Angeles in 29 Palms where [Joshua Trias 00:49:51] and I thought that it could look like part of Afghanistan so after doing Vietnam in North Carolina, why not do Iraq outside of LA.
An-My Le: This was my first experience with gaining access to a military compound do something that’s difficult to have access to. I wrote to 29 Palms and asked to be invited to photograph and develop relationship with them and I work there for about three years. Working there was really important for me and I sort of completely lost interest in going to Iraq. It was important because I was photographing training and so I had physical and emotional distance from real war.
An-My Le: I realized how important that was, I had read Suisan Sontag and she in the pain of others and she wrote so well about how sometimes when something is too horrific and too painful, you just close your eyes and you can’t think. In this place, I felt that I had the space to think about how we get into a situation that leads you to war, how we prepare for war, or are we prepared to deal with consequences. All of those things I felt that we could think about and I thought that these pictures could bring a different perspective of war.
An-My Le: Perhaps, this is also the area where Walker Evans surveyed the west. I’m sure where conflicts with Native Americans and I think the idea of history, the history of war could also be another element in his work. This is me and my camera on the helmets. Catherine Leroy was a French photographer during the Vietnam War, woman at war, woman at work. The next project I travelled with the military, I became interested in the Maritime and coastal operations after leaving 29 Palms, one of the generals told me would you want to come see us practice at sea before we go to Iraq?
An-My Le: I said sure, why not? I still think of myself a landscape photographer so after the desert I thought that I would look at the ocean. I embarked on this nine year project where I followed the Navy and the Marine Corps all over the world in all the continents. Of course I didn’t think about it but my obvious reason for doing that was that my mother was evacuated on an aircraft carrier and I went on aircraft, Paris destroyers, I was in Antarctica, I went to the North Pole in a submarine.
An-My Le: I did it all but it’s just not for traveling for traveling sake, I wanted to understand what this huge military complex was, this industrial complex I was interested. I found out that they’re just not out there for conflict, they’re also trying to collect information, humanitarian missions, they support science. A lot of great efforts but also a lot of wonders, the idea of how the military controls its image. This is in Guantanamo Bay, the irony is all over.
An-My Le: They try to do a lot of great things but they miss the mark often. I also tried to … I think we’ll be talking about it later, the pictures on 29 Palms a little further back and here is I got to know the military a little bit more. I was interested in the personal stories and wanted to get closer, wanted to make more portraits. I’m also interested in the way of the military deals with other cultures in Africa, in Asia, but also civil and cultures. This idea of coming to help, it’s a fine line between helping and invading perhaps.
An-My Le: This is right after a huge earthquake in Haiti. I think that it’s the way the American military behaves the physicality, they come to help but I think the way they inhabit the space, the way they invade the space is so obviously. It’s a really small fine line. I stuck around long enough for the military to actually return to Vietnam and train with the Vietnamese and so it was a kind of opportunity for me to create so many pictures and pour from my memories of growing up in Vietnam.
An-My Le: This is of course formidable jacket. It sort of like you remember things and you pull it out and you look for something else and so it’s never quite a direct line as to how something inspires you but they do inspire you. I was too young to remember this, it was 1963 and I was born in 1960 but it’s an image that was seared in my memory. I have to say I had not seen it for at least 10 years but I made this picture and it was on a hospital ship off the coast of Vietnam.
An-My Le: The Americans were going back to Vietnam to try to win hearts and mind and brought a number of patients on and this young nun came on the ship and I kind of follow her and I wanted to photograph her and then I put this soldier next to her. You can see what sort of relationship is created here and the relationship between what subjective and what’s objective in a picture.
An-My Le: I was interested in the gestures, the uniform, the way their heads are shaved, the way they represent opposite things, but I’m also interested in what could be suggestive beyond the frame with the picture. I think this is like the closing of the circles at the formal ceremony of the Americans returning to Vietnam and this idea about lessons learned or not learned. I think I will stop here so we can start our conversation.
Isabelle Pelaud: Thank you very much. Can you hear me? Yeah? No, you can’t hear me? Hello? Yes, okay. Well I had a lot of questions but I think we’re running out of time so we’re just going to narrow down to three questions right, and then open for Q&A. Some of the questions I had were answered. I just want to start with you Viet. In your book Nothing Ever Does, you call for an oath that is you say that celebrate the humanity of all side and acknowledge the inhumanity of all side including our own.
Isabelle Pelaud: You want all to enact powerful memory and to speak truth to power even when outside exercise and abuse that power. You borrow from [inaudible 00:57:16] phrase nothing ever dies, by using that phrase you remind us that his insight is both terrifying and hopeful. This deep effective stands and to our vision seems like [inaudible 00:57:29] especially in the world in which we are continually force to live intimately now with fear and hate and those are the risks to accept this as normal and eternal.
Isabelle Pelaud: I’m going to ask to please extend on this vision and explain how you arrived at this clarity? Some of which you gave a little bit but maybe a little bit-
Viet Nguyen: Eventually I became a writer, when I was a student I was a scholar. Even as a scholar with the tradition of ethnic studies, one of the things that I struggle with was that there’s still ideological conformity even within academia. Ethnic studies raise great scholarship but it also produces a certain kind of ideological conformity where we’re opposed to American imperialism for example we’re opposed to racism, but we’re not necessarily so good at looking within ourselves and looking within our own contradictions.
Viet Nguyen: For me, that’s actually necessary when you’re a writer, you have to confront contradiction, you have to go to unpleasant places, you have to go to … You can’t be aligned, you can’t be a conformist right? That means that you have to be critical at everybody, critical of your opponents but you’re also critical of your own allies because your commitment is to truth or to art, whatever idealistic notions that you have.
Viet Nguyen: I felt that that was the breakthrough that I needed to make was again not simply celebrating humanity but to recognize inhumanity at the same time. It’s easy to recognize the inhumanity of our enemies, it’s a lot more difficult to recognize our own inhumanity whether it’s within us or within our family or within our country. The sympathizer for example, it’s a novel that works with some people and doesn’t work for others because every side in the Vietnam War has found a reason to hate it.
Viet Nguyen: There are some Vietnamese Americans who refuse to read the book because it’s written from the perspective of a communist spy. They just won’t engage because communist are evil, how come we possibly read a book by communist and that communist are not evil. There are some communist who are evil but not all of them, they’re human beings just like the South Vietnamese. The book is not being translated in Vietnam because the Vietnamese government doesn’t want to hear the critic of Vietnamese communism and I still get letters from Americans saying if you hate this country so much, as in she wrote this book why don’t you leave?
Viet Nguyen: That’s what it means to be critical of everybody’s inhumanity is to bring all of that up because people don’t want to hear about their own contradictions. Again, that’s one of the … And Nothing Ever Dies was a section where I talk about An-My Lê’s work because I see some of this in action but there’s this willingness to engage in a sort of deep empathy with all sides. You go to Vietnam you deal with Vietnamese people, but you also engaged with the American military.
Viet Nguyen: That I think would throw some people off. They’re like, “How can you do this? How can you both empathize with the Vietnamese and also empathize with the soldiers?”
An-My Lê: The world is so horrific. How could you even-
Viet Nguyen: Yeah. That was one of the reasons why I love [Hubert 01:00:36] so much and why I thought it was really exemplary of the kind of art that I’m interested in, the art that’s committed to not the ideology but to looking at empathetically at the complexity of human beings.
Isabelle Pelaud: You mean like empathy to understand others but also being very honest about one set and which is some kind of even the hardest to do. This is a dialogues and then you refers also to An-My Lê’s work. I’m going to read a little bit of something you wrote about her work and maybe you have a chance to response. In the Nothing Ever Dies yet reads your photograph as taken from the military points of view and by doing so it says, you capture in this image of essentially inhuman face of the war machine which transcends human being and human bodies into something sublime, something seductive and this man-made beauty and horror.
Isabelle Pelaud: You also add that your gaze marked by wide angle is important because it confront war by taking a high ground both morally and strategically. By morally means one that call for forgiveness while being reflective of one’s own capability in the past, present, and future conflicts. By strategically it means to bring to consciousness the vastness of a war machine as well as the one of the enemy in conjunction with peace. I just wanted to know, was this your intent in taking those photograph? Did you agree with his readings? You would like to add something to Viet Thanh’s interpretations?
An-My Lê: Yeah. I think I never got a chance to properly thank Viet for writing about my work. He was one of the first people who seriously thought about it and of course as a scholar and as a writer, who wrote so elegantly about it. I just speak about my work through process. It’s much more intuitive. It’s much more about how do I feel about something and how do I want to make it work. I think for me it was always the fact that I didn’t want to be a victim.
An-My Lê: I was not interested in making work that was about trauma. I think visual arts what we call political work used to have a much more simple message. You made work about politics in the ’70s. You need to be against war or for war. Or you need to be for this or against that. You couldn’t really talk about a subject in complicated ways. I wanted to talk about it in complicated ways because I think I was very conflicted about everything.
An-My Lê: I think 29 Palms allowed me to do that. I think just being in the middle fine line it was not acceptable to a lot of people. They really wanted to know at the end of the presentation was, how do you feel about the war. I think using scale and that’s what Viet speaks about so elegantly. In terms of my process it’s the idea of using scale that allows for that. Actually, pulling back, pictures that I saw growing up in Vietnam because Americans wanted to show that … Wanted to end the war was so close up when than they were about the personal stories.
An-My Lê: I was more interested in military activities as they displayed over a landscape. It’s about context. I think by stepping back you need to take responsibility for the action. You can’t just focus on the action. You need to take responsibility for your origins or your history. I think Viet talks about that so well.
Viet Nguyen: One thing you said that I want to pick up on those you didn’t want to be a victim. I don’t want to be victim either. Yes, all these Vietnamese died during the war but are we just victims. I wanted to resist that but to resist that means again that you engaged with what it means not to be a victim, not to be an object of pity.
An-My Lê: But did you know what you would find? I wasn’t sure what I would find. I just knew I didn’t want to be a victim and that was scary, to just go down that road and-
Viet Nguyen: No, I didn’t know what I was going to find either. That’s why I think at the end it was important to see the full agency of the Vietnamese and also the Americans. We have a very good sense of the full agency of Americans because we’re constantly exposed to American stories. We know that Americans can do a good things and bad things. That again, you can’t reduce Americans to one or the other.
Viet Nguyen: Likewise, that’s eventually what I have to discover about the Vietnamese too. Then you said you’re in the middle. I think most artists find themselves in the middle because we can’t be only committed to ideology. I mean, many of us do believe in things but we believe in the practice and the art first and foremost that has to come first.
An-My Lê: That’s right.
Viet Nguyen: That means we have no allegiance in the end of being Vietnamese first that come second, right. We end up being in the middle because we can’t participate in these slogans about the war.
An-My Lê: Right. [crosstalk 01:05:43] I’m not interested in being right either. I’m not interested in debunking somebody else’s story. They have their own story. This is my own story. It may not give you all the answers. I think also I’m interested in making people ask questions and I’m not interested in necessarily giving answers.
Viet Nguyen: Also about being in the middle the population that I find myself most empathetic with when I think back to like the Vietnam war, any other conflict or the people who are caught in the middle. I mean, war does terrible things to everybody but at least if you choose a side you have the comfort of the side. You’re in the middle like you can see how both sides are flawed you’re really in a tough situation.
Viet Nguyen: You go back, look at what happened to Vietnamese people it was once in the middle I thought that was most tragic whether it was a North Vietnam or South Vietnam, there were people who didn’t want to choose either side because they could see that both sides have deep problems. These were the people who are the most screwed base like [crosstalk 01:06:43].
An-My Lê: Right. Who suffered the most. Yeah.
Isabelle Pelaud: You have like the choice between like represented as victim and say, don’t want to be represented as victim. You want to search for truth. I mean, I’ve seen in Asian-American movie I mean, I heard actor saying, “Well, if I don’t want to be a victim then I’d rather be a bad guy, because I only have the choice between a victim and the bad guy.” It seems like … And then war is seeing as something very ugly and you find some ugly also it’s beauty.
Isabelle Pelaud: It seems like both of you in your search for truth and not being bound by the pressure for acceptance and not bound by the pressure of the communities to silence you. You have opened both of you a third space when you find those complexities. I remember Viet I mean, your work Race and Resistance, right, like talk this Asian-American studies calling to a question, the framework of examining in Asian-American text when in term of resistance, accommodations and say, that’s can be a problem.
Isabelle Pelaud: Let’s find in the complexity. Now with the sympathizers too, looking at this, talking about different access of powers from all side as they say well is haven’t always been as you say it popular or accepted by all side. Your work too, right. Sometimes you showed the missing beauty of war and that must not always been-
An-My Lê: It doesn’t sit right.
Isabelle Pelaud: Yeah. I mean, so it’s not … And then yet you kept going with it you have your call. I just wanting to know where do you find that convictions? You being informed by the strikes, by ethnic studies and by the movement of resistance but you made it your own. This framework we didn’t seek your experience and your subjectivity. What have you pushed boundaries with the ethnic studies and in the communities and in society. Then also I wanted to say where does that come from? What kept you going? Also how is it now that you in such a demands in the space that was not always were coming of you, right? How is it?
Viet Nguyen: Well, I think for me ethnic studies in the Third World strike was very much about claiming agency. We were not going to be defined anymore by racist definitions of being a person of color or being Asian-American in this country. A powerful political platform was enacted. The problem with political platforms again is that they demand conformity. You look at the history of the consequences of the Third World strike and all that there’s a lot of tensions and all these other things that are going on.
Viet Nguyen: For me as a Vietnamese refugee one of the things I could never forget was, well, look, the Third World strike is supporting the Vietnamese revolution in Vietnam, right. Well, does everybody even remember what happened after the Vietnamese revolution? I mean, the Vietnamese revolution was from their perspective a great revolution independence, freedom, all these other kind of things. Then the Vietnamese revolutionaries win and what do they do, they put all their enemies in prison.
Viet Nguyen: That’s wrong. I was always … That model of political conformity carried too far always stayed with me and thought, “Well, how do we prevent ourselves from doing that?” The Third World strike never ever got to that moment where that capacity. Maybe it did it in a small scale within its own movement. I always worry like what happens if our revolution is actually successful. Will we repeat the mistakes of other revolutions? How do we not repeat the mistakes of other revolutions?
Viet Nguyen: We do not repeat them by being aware of these ethnics we’re talking about but we also don’t repeat them if we pay attention to our artists. Our artists are not committed to ideology. Our artists are committed to truth and part of the truth is we abuse each other even in the name of good intentions. What happened in Vietnam, they put artists in jail too. The writers and the artists who questioned ideological conformity they all went to jail.
Viet Nguyen: That I think was a really crucial lesson for me is again, that we have to do, those of us who are artists, who also believe in things like ethnic studies we have to walk a very difficult line. We’re still inspired by ethnic studies. We’re still committed to it. We’re also committed to truth, which means sometimes telling the truth about our own colleagues and our own collaborators and so on.
Viet Nguyen: Yes, that makes for an uncomfortable relationships sometimes with our allies. We have to be committed that if we tell the truth our allies will come along and understand that too. One thing I’ll say about your work is I think that even if you depict the American military I don’t see that necessarily as an endorsement. There’s a distinction between-
An-My Lê: Oh, no, no.
Viet Nguyen: I think some people get confused like-
An-My Lê: People get confused. Yes.
Viet Nguyen: You take pictures of the American military you must support the war machine. That’s not the same thing.
An-My Lê: Yes, I have had a number of people coming up to me and telling me I’m glorifying the military. I don’t see it that way. I think people also confused beauty with a more complicated beauty because the pictures seemed beautiful. It is sometimes very beautiful like a huge piece of steel, like those aircraft carriers are amazing. Why should I make them uglier than they are? It doesn’t mean that it’s all.
An-My Lê: It’s always about complicated beauty and about showing something but then pulling you back in a different way. I’m always looking for the frontline. In terms of persisting for me it just felt right. What I do so different from Viet, I don’t have all the words and I chose to only photograph and use very simple titles. It just felt right. I think I did photography because I wanted to understand things and see things for myself and this idea of bringing truth to power and witnesses something.
An-My Lê: I always felt like I was excited to go somewhere new, to ask new questions, to perhaps get an answer. I just continued. I think even when things don’t work out something good does pop up. They sort of encourages you to continue. I don’t do any kind of radical type of photography. I work with the large format view camera and it’s pretty much what we call straight photography or documentary style of photography. It’s not that radical. It’s within a tradition. I think I just felt kind of embolden into continue the work.
Isabelle Pelaud: In a way the ability to sit, to tell your truth, I think so they provide this form of resistance of white hegemony. It was more complicated for you guys. You were able to bring that into your work. I have to say it’s cool, right, that we’re sitting here today to 50 years later because even the beginning of ethnic studies a lot of people who are here were anti-war. Here when South Vietnamese came here and was really a pro-war I think those people lost their home because the US help the war, right, the war was ended.
Isabelle Pelaud: It was a vex relationship with ethnic studies between Vietnamese-American and Vietnamese-American with ethnic studies. Here 50 years later we’re all sitting here. This is amazing moment. Here, taking this space, taking these moments as leaders, if you can say something about the next 50 years of ethnic studies since you have the space here. How you will like the fear to go toward because now you’re saying … Some people can say, “We can afford to talk about the complexities of who we are.”
Isabelle Pelaud: Right now we also have the time when we have big bullies telling the world of who we are and some people will say, “Well, we can’t afford to talk about this complexity. It’s time to fight.” I wanted to know within this context today how do you see yourself? How you see your role as intellectual as visual artists, as writers? To guide also for all of us to imagine how the next 50 years may want to look like with your leadership? Last question.
An-My Lê: Maybe I’ll start. I think it’s actually it can be good to be misunderstood. I think that today in a lot of universities you have the safe spaces and areas where everyone is represented and everyone has the ability to speak and be understood or you want to be understood. I think being misunderstood can be great because it forces you to be more self-introspective. I mean, and we’ve all had to content with being gage by stereotypes and to be packaged into simplified understanding of something.
An-My Lê: I think being misunderstood forces you to be to ask yourself questions, to try to understand what your position is. That’s how you step up as well. I think that we need to have safe spaces but we still need to struggle. I think learning from the struggles can be a great thing. No matter how much we’ve progressed I think we need to remember that struggle is a great … Gives you momentum.
Viet Nguyen: Well, I think in the next 50 years some things will stay the same and some things will change. I mean, what’s going to stay the same? Is racism going to go away? Is the military industrial complex going to go away? Is war going to go away? No, they’re not going to go away. They’re not going to go away because all these things are a part of the United States, deeply embedded in our country.
Viet Nguyen: All of the contradictions that led to the Third World strike and the conformation of ethnic studies in the first place they’re still going to be there. That’s going to make ethnic studies continue to be relevant because our commitment is speaking truth to American power and to American inequality and to American injustice. We’re still going to do the same work. What’s going to change? What’s going to change is that the people who ethnic studies’ deals with will change.
Viet Nguyen: When Vietnamese refugees came here in 1975 there were some Asian-American activist who didn’t want to accept Vietnamese refugees because they thought, “Those people are fleeing from a country, from a war that we opposed. These people are South Vietnamese soldiers. These people are South Vietnamese puppets. They are our enemies we shouldn’t take them into the country.” Well, the point is we did take them into this country. The confrontation with Vietnamese refugees helped to change what we do in Asian-American studies and in ethnic studies. Why is that the case?
Viet Nguyen: We had to listen to what these people had to say. Ethnic studies has to listen. They’re going to be new … There are new populations coming in that are not the same as previous generations of immigrants and refugees and colonized people and natives and indigenous people. They’re going to come in with new histories, new problems, new struggles and we have to listen whether we’re artists or academics or activists our practice has to be transformed by paying attention to the histories of these people bring with them.
Isabelle Pelaud: Thank you very much. Well, I think we have some time from questions from the audience. Anybody has questions. Do we have question … Time, Russell for questions? What? Any questions from the audience? No? Okay. Russell is coming. Oh, yes.
Male: Hello. Hi. Thank you both for being here tonight and just sharing your stories and your truths. My questions for An-My Lê. I’m really fascinated by your experience in North Carolina with the soldiers who were reenacting the Vietnam War. I’m curious what was their motivation for reenacting the war? Did you ever fear for your safety playing the enemy?
An-My Lê: I fear for my safety on my first trip because I didn’t know them. The motivation, they called themselves living historians. Sorry. They grew up collecting badges and they knew everything about war histories. I think this was a way for them to live out some of these fantasies. They felt that they did the Civil War. They did the Indian War. I think some of them did World War I and World War II and they felt it was too far back in history.
An-My Lê: They wanted to do something more contemporary. This was 2000 before we invaded the Iraq the second time. They chose Vietnam which is really odd because it’s such a controversial war. Americans were not the victor. They played Viet Cong and they played Americans. It’s so interesting in a way economically who plays what is replicating in real lives. The kids who had more money would play the Americans because the American gear was more expensive.
An-My Lê: They also tended to be less fit. They were always like up on the hill, sleeping on air mattresses and eating C-rations. Then us North Vietnamese army over Viet Cong we were down sleeping on the ground or in the hammocks. We were always hiking up and ambushing them. It was very, very strange in the way we came together. Obviously I needed their help to make the pictures because I was working with the view camera, so you couldn’t really run after them and just snap pictures.
An-My Lê: I would have to ask them, can you do this, can you do that and pose and do the whole thing. They complied because they were happy to do it. It was a very strange experience I have to say especially being a Viet Cong and being captured. I think it became very … It was very subversive because they would say, “Okay, scream something in Vietnamese.” I would scream something. Then they’d scream back because they were in character. They’ll say, “Kill that bitch.”
An-My Lê: Then I was, “Oh, my god.” Then the guy who said that would walk around the whole week in apologizing to me. He said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” It was very, very strange. Of course I never told my father about doing this. Some of the Vietnamese that I knew who liked my work, that I made in Vietnam, when they found out I did this work, completely ignore me from there on. I think [Zhung Tehung 01:22:29] the author had used some of my work for her books. As soon as she found out about this work she just stopped talking to me.
Viet Nguyen: Great story.
Isabelle Pelaud: Any other questions for … Yes?
Male: Yeah, well, I want to thank you for doing this work, the pictures and also your book The Sympathizer which is successful in humanizing the story. I think that’s valuable. I think today 50 years on if you want America is in another imperialist crisis with Venezuela attacking countries and also the attack on people in Asia, China as the big enemy. I think its 50 years on the United States is in decline as an empire and it’s striking out. That’s how you look at Trump a reflection of the decline people wanted to make America great again.
Male: I think that we were successful in winning some things in our strike including the ethnic studies, so that the story of immigrants and not Native Americans, all people could be told. People will come to this country, who are in this country. The other issue that I think has to be addressed is the privatization and corporatization of colleges because that was one of the issues of the strike for open admissions. Now the ability of working class students to go to college is threatened. I mean, students are in depth.
Male: It’s a struggle to go to college. I mean, $72 a semester when I was going to San Francisco state, it should be that way today. It should be that way today. I mean, young people should have the right to go to college in this wealthy state, in this wealthy country. I think the struggle really continues to get our identity, our history up but also the struggle of the right for democratic rights for education which we are fighting for 50 years ago. That’s going to happen again. It is going to happen again with the teachers and the struggle just to get a public education. Thank you.
Viet Nguyen: Well, I agree. I think that when I was saying that nothing has changed in the certain sense that’s what I was talking about. Like I think much about what you’re talking about today it’s the reaction I guess what happened in 1968. That there were these radical movements, implementing a more radical vision about American society, more access, more equality, anti-war and all that kind of stuff. Make America great again is a response to all of that.
Viet Nguyen: We’re still living with the history that was unleashed by the Vietnam War and by the anti-war movement in this country. Doing things like making college more expensive is precisely designed to keep people from coming to college and becoming more interested and in a more just country. Yes, we have to fight in all those kinds of fronts as well.
Isabelle Pelaud: The question in the back over there.
Isabelle Pelaud: Oh, over here. Over here.
Female: One of the things that struck me about South Africa and it’s coming to terms with its history of apartheid was the truth and reconciliation of process. I’ve often wondered whether that kind of a process, how that could possibly be replicated and the extent to which it’s been replicated in other places and perhaps replicated here. I was wondering if you have thoughts on that.
Female: You folks are in the process of trying to show the truth from the perspectives but to think that was critical about the truth and reconciliation process is that it was a communication process not just to tell the truth but to accept the truth and the telling and to be respectful whether or not you agreed or disagreed with the speaker. Do you think that model might have some potential here or in Vietnam?
An-My Lê: I’m not a photojournalist but we all know photography is not about truth it’s all fiction. I mean, the pictures I make are just reflection of the way my confusions and my conflicts and the way I feel every day. I can’t say it’s the truth but it’s a description of something that-
Male: [crosstalk 01:27:04].
An-My Lê: Yeah, well, it’s a description of I tried to describe something I see in the world very well. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it still exists. Like the nun and the soldier it’s not truthful. It’s in a way a pigment of my imagination. I saw something that made me want to turn it into something that was not pleading and immortalize that. Maybe it has, so.
Viet Nguyen: Well, you know it’s about some brought up today is the 50th Anniversary of Executive 9066, right? The consequences of the interment are one of the few instances in American history where I think we actually had something like a truth and reconciliation process through redress and respirations and through getting some kind of symbolic acknowledgement to the Japanese, American community of what happened. We look at other things like genocide and colonization and slavery we are far from reaching that moment of consensus in this country.
Viet Nguyen: We just look at what’s happening with confederate memorials today that we have debates about whether or not we should have confederate memorials. The fact that we have debates about whether or not we should have confederate memorials is testimony to the fact that a large portion of the American population was not come headed to the truth of acknowledging slavery and its aftermath and it’s interested in reconciling. I think we as a country are having a very difficult time reconciling with some of the most grievous parts of our history.
Viet Nguyen: You look at Vietnam it’s the same thing. The Vietnamese government is not interested in truth and reconciliation that Vietnam is interested in or at least the government and the communist party is economic reconciliation. They want to sort of just vaguely acknowledge the past and move on, so that they can build more skyscrapers and get more capital investment and that kind of stuff. The way forward in Vietnam is to actually acknowledge that there were many people who were opposed to the current regime and to acknowledge that there were many Vietnamese patriots who died on the other side.
Viet Nguyen: Can Vietnam ever get to that stage? I’m not sure. Likewise you just get mirrored here in the United States the Vietnamese refugee community is not interested in truth and reconciliation with their enemies in Vietnam. It’s not just the Vietnamese and Vietnam it’s the Vietnamese here as well because they’re stuck on the ethics of remembering their own. They want to remember only their pain, only what happened to them.
Viet Nguyen: They’re not interested in what happened to the other side. The Vietnamese people in Vietnam and all over the world are very, very far from truth and reconciliation. The model exists but as a whole the communist party and the exile Vietnamese are not interested in truth and reconciliation.
An-My Lê: I mean, Americans are more up for their head reconciling with the Vietnamese. They get their ships are repaired there in strategy of course. Then they started training together.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I mean, ironically that’s one of the things that’s interesting is that United States is at least a little bit more interested in confronting the atrocities that happened there because of the United States. We don’t have the consensus of that but there’s much more openness and much more willingness to explore that. Only through centering American experiences and not through acknowledging what the Vietnamese did or what’s done to them.
Isabelle Pelaud: All right. We have time for one last questions. This person over there was very persistent in the back. Yes. Okay. This is the last questions. Yes.
Male: Thank you. I just want to thank both of you guys for being here. I’m Vietnamese as well. I just want to say how do you really cope with being American and being Vietnamese in the same time, doing your art you might get shunned by the Vietnamese community in San Jose or everywhere in the US. How do you cope with that?
An-My Lê: Well, I think, again, it’s not about being right. Someone is not going to like your work, right. Everyone likes your work it’s probably not good. It’s something you have to deal with. I don’t-
Viet Nguyen: I mean, I’m sure I think number one you want to be [inaudible 01:31:34] an artist, you have to have a very thick skin.
An-My Lê: Yeah.
Viet Nguyen: You’re going to get a lot of rejections starting with your own family probably. You have to live with that. Besides that I think two things are important. One is vision. You have to vision that you believe in. I think part of what sustain me over the years as I knew I was not working in lockstep with my own communities was my belief in what I was doing.
Viet Nguyen: I think all artists have to have a strong vision about what they believe in in terms of their beliefs but also the artistic practice. The other thing is solidarity. I mean, it’s tough to be an artist at any circumstance. It’s even tougher when you’re alone and you think you don’t have a community. What you’re pointing towards is well, reason to be stuck in between different communities.
Viet Nguyen: Well, how do you resolve that?” You form your own communities. That’s one of the reasons why Isabelle and I started Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network is to build that artistic community that could tell other Vietnamese and Diasporic writers and artists that they’re not alone out there. There are a bunch of other weirdos who don’t fit in. Join us and we’ll be a bunch of weirdos together. That could be a model for DVAN. You don’t see a community out there for you make your own community.
An-My Lê: Yeah. The community can be very small. It could just be three people. It works.
Isabelle Pelaud: Started two people. Want to be part of this weirdo community please sign up over there at the DVAN table. You want to say hello over there. Yes. You can sign up. We get all newsletters and letters you know when there’ll be other events. We have the done the program and then Russell, our chair is going to close.
Russell Jeung: On behalf of the Department of Asians American Studies we’d like to thank again Professor Lê and Professor Nguyen for coming. Let’s give them a big round of applause here. I think they really do illustrate the maturation of Asians American Studies just the courage with which they write and do their art, the courage with which they developed their own voice and their own artistic vision. We thank you for being models for us here at the San Francisco State.