With the support of Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, Jack Wang and Viet Thanh Nguyen talk about The Displaced at Buffalo Street Books
A reading of “The Displaced” by Viet Thanh Nguyen in conversation with Jack Wang at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, NY on May 18, 2019. “The Displaced” is a collection of essays by refugee writers on refugee lives, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen. He is the author of numerous other works and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Jack Wang is the Associate Professor and Chair of the Ithaca College Department of Writing and an author as well. This program premiered on the Public Access Television Channel at the PEGASYS Community Media Center in Ithaca NY as part of the series Over the Shoulder.
Read the full transcript below.
Jack: The Displaced is a beautiful, sometimes harrowing, but always perceptive and deeply moving anthology. So let me just begin by asking simply, how did this book come about? What was the genesis of this project?
Viet Nguyen: Thanks Jack. And good afternoon, Ithaca. It’s such a pleasure to be back here. The genesis of the book is actually pretty interesting because it wasn’t my idea. It was actually the idea of Jamison Stoltz, who is the editor for Abrams books. What happened, if you remember, was that there was the effort to do a Muslim ban a couple of years ago, and Jamison lives in New York city, he was quite upset about that. He participated in the protests that were happening at the airport at LaGuardia in New York. Then he discovered something that he didn’t know, which was that his wife was a refugee from the Soviet Union. I think he knew that she was from the Soviet Union, of course, but the whole issue of her technically being a refugee had just not come up, which meant that he was married to a refugee, his boys were the children of refugees.
Viet Nguyen: So this intersection of his own personal beliefs, but his family history turned the question of refugees into an urgent matter for him, maybe more urgent matter than it already was. So he approached me and said, “Do you want to do a book on refugee writers?” And I said, “Of course.” And so he found half the writers, I found half the writers. But the really crucial decision that we made is that this would be a book by refugee writers, about refugee lives. So it would not be a book of interviews or oral histories of people who are refugees. Because if we took that route, we would have an unlimited number of sources that we could draw from because the UNHCR, UN High Commission on Refugees, estimates that there are around 69 million displaced people in the world right now, which if you think about in terms of countries is a population larger than the size of France. Of this 69 million people or so there are about 23 million people officially classified as refugees.
Viet Nguyen: Now that classification is a very, very, very important one because what’s the distinction between a displaced person and a refugee, is a sort of a crucial issue to figure out. And who do we even think of as refugees? So when we put together this book, we thought about that, like, “Who is officially classified as a refugee?” So in considering these writers, one of the people I deliberately asked to be a part of this is a writer named Reyna Grande, you know, author of several books and technically would be classified as an undocumented immigrant. She came across the border from Mexico. But I asked her to write because for me that line between an undocumented immigrant and a refugee is a very thin one, right? We as a country do not wish to classify many of these people coming from south of the border as refugees because if we did so, we would grant them a certain kind of status under the UN conventions. We would acknowledge that they are fleeing from conditions that are akin to war.
Viet Nguyen: As a matter of fact, in Reyna’s piece, she points out that she comes from Chiapas where the death rate from various kinds of violence around drug warfare and things like this, is actually higher than it is in many war torn countries. So we wanted to get people who actually live these kinds of lives and who could write about them. Because one of the ways by which refugees become refugees is that they lose their voice. Not that they can’t speak, they speak all the time like we do, but they aren’t heard. Part of the way that they become dehumanized in the eyes of those who are not refugees is that they don’t have the capacity to speak for themselves.
Viet Nguyen: So it was important not simply to have people who are witnesses to their own experience to tell us their terrible life stories, or their dramatic human stories, but to have writers who could write their own stories and in that way assert what they already had, their humanity, which was a point that would need to be reinforced, right? So we have writers, we have 19 different contributors in the paperback edition writing from, it’s coming from the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Chile, Mexico, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Hungary, Iran, Ukraine, Zimbabwe and Laos. That doesn’t include the countries they had to cross in order to eventually make it to their countries of settlements.
Jack: So these essays, some of them were written, were they commissioned or both?
Viet Nguyen: I think we only reprinted a couple of essays from other sources, but otherwise they were all commissioned. They were all original work done by these writers. They share, despite the fact that they’re coming from all these different historical experiences and countries and cultures, there are common themes that emerge through their work. So for example, you know, if you read my opening, one of the themes in there is memory and not just what we remember, but what we don’t remember, and this is a big theme through many of these works, many of these writers came as refugees when they were children, right? So their memories are often inadequate of what they’d actually been through. So writing becomes a kind of a reconstruction. A reconstruction both of what they remember and what they don’t remember. So one thing, for example, is a recitation of what it is that the writer doesn’t remember of what they’ve been through, but what their families have been through.
Viet Nguyen: I do this, Meron Hadero does this in her essay about coming from Ethiopia and going to Germany. Then her essay is about reconstructing her trip. She went to Germany as a child of about four years old, and then she, in her essay, returns to the place of her transit through Germany, through a small town [inaudible 00:06:12] can’t even remember, and visits the landscape that her parents had remembered, her parents that experienced, but what she could not recall.
Jack: So can I ask you so that everyone here gets a sense of both the book and your experience, to read the first two pages of the introduction?
Viet Nguyen: Yeah. So here it is.
Viet Nguyen: I was once a refugee, although no one would mistake me for being a refugee now. Because of this, I insist on being called a refugee, since the temptation to pretend that I am not a refugee is strong. It would be so much easier to call myself an immigrant, to pass myself off as belonging to a category of migratory humanity that is less controversial, less demanding, and less threatening than the refugee.
Viet Nguyen: I was born a citizen and a human being. At four years of age I became something less than human, at least in the eyes of those who do not think of refugees as being human. The month was March, the year 1975, when the northern communist army captured my hometown of Ban Me Thuot in its final invasion of the Republic of Vietnam, a country that no longer exists except in the imagination of its global refugee diaspora of several million people, a country that most of the world remembers as South Vietnam.
Viet Nguyen: Looking back, I remember nothing of the experience that turned me into a refugee. It begins with my mother making a life-and-death decision on her own. My father was in Saigon, and the lines of communication were cut. I do not remember my mother fleeing our hometown with my 10-year-old brother and me, leaving behind our 16-year-old adopted sister to guard the family property. I do not remember my sister, who my parents would not see again for nearly 20 years, who I would not see again for nearly 30 years. My brother remembers dead paratroopers hanging from the trees on our route, although I do not.
Viet Nguyen: I also do not remember whether I walked the entire 184 kilometers to Nha Trang, or whether my mother carried me, or whether we might have managed to get a ride on the cars, trucks, carts, motorbikes, and bikes crowding the road. Perhaps she does remember but I never asked about the exodus, or about the tens of thousands of civilian refugees and fleeing soldiers, or the desperate scramble to get on a boat in Nha Trang, or some of the soldiers shooting civilians to clear their way to boats, as I would read later in accounts of this time.
Viet Nguyen: I do not remember finding my father in Saigon, or how we waited for another month until the communist army came to the city’s borders, or how we tried to get into the airport, and then into the American embassy, and then finally somehow fought our way through the crowds at the docks to reach a boat. Or how my father became separated from us but decided to get on a boat by himself anyway, and how my mother decided to do the same thing. Or how eventually we were reunited on a larger ship. I do remember that we were incredibly fortunate, finding our way out of the country, as so many millions did not, and not losing anyone, as so many thousands did. No one, except my sister.
Viet Nguyen: For most of my life, I did remember soldiers on our boat firing onto a smaller boat full of refugees that was trying to approach. But when I mentioned it to my older brother many years later, he said the shooting never happened. I do not remember many things, and for all those things I do not remember, I am grateful, because the things I do remember hurt me enough. My memory begins after our stops at a chain of American military bases in the Philippines, Guam, and finally Pennsylvania. To leave the refugee camp in Pennsylvania, the Vietnamese refugees needed American sponsors. One sponsor took my parents, another took my brother, a third took me.
Jack: Thank you. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’d like to come back to the experience of being separated from your parents, but I wanted to start at the beginning of that section. There are symbolic and legal distinctions between the terms refugee, migrant, immigrant, as you suggested. Why is it that some categories are less controversial, less demanding, and less threatening as you say? What is it about refugees in the popular imaginary that makes them different?
Viet Nguyen: Well, you know, we call ourselves a country of immigrants. That’s a part of our mythology that’s a part of the American dream. Even though as a country, we’ve gone through moments of intense xenophobia against immigrants, such as this very moment that we’re living in, that mythology of immigration is still very strong. I think even for those Americans who oppose immigration, they recognize the importance of that mythology. But they have to work against that mythology in order to create exclusionary laws or exclusionary policies. I think Americans understand the idea of immigration, because we of course think immigrants want to come to this country, we’re the land of the American dream. Of course people would want to be here. So the idea of immigration into the country is something that we’re capable of accepting.
Viet Nguyen: Refugees are different, and refugees are different, not because they’re migratory beings who want to come here, but because they embody something that is antithetical to the American dream. So if the American dream is based, at least partly on immigration, it is also based on rejecting the very possibility that Americans can become refugees. I’ll give you an example of that, which is that a 130,000 Vietnamese refugees came to this country in 1975 and some of them were resettled in Louisiana. Then 30 years later, Hurricane Katrina happens. Tens of thousands of people are displaced. And some of the American media has called these people refugees. President George Bush says it’s un-American to call these people refugees. A lot of them are African-Americans, so for perhaps the only time in history, Jesse Jackson agrees with George Bush and says it’s racist to call African-Americans refugees.
Viet Nguyen: I thought great, we refugees have succeeded in bringing America together in hating us. So when we think of refugees, what did we think of? We think of people who are coming from broken countries, from failed states. Therefore we, as Americans, can never become refugees because we as a country can never be a failed state. Now, history would seem to indicate otherwise. If we think about Katrina and what happened, if we think about Hurricane Maria and what happened in Puerto Rico, we are perfectly capable as a country of collapsing in various ways. But refugees are dangerous to us. It’s even more than the threat of contamination that they bring in terms of illness or disease, or things like this. Refugees are dangerous psychologically because they bring a fear that we might one day ourselves become refugees. So I think we want to keep them out. We want to keep them out of our country, but we also want to keep them out of psyche as well.
Jack: So in the Venn diagram of identity there’s overlap between immigrant and refugee, and person of color and so on. You know, as an immigrant reading this book, I recognize many of the feelings of longing and loss, for example. But is there something that is unique to the experience of being a refugee that distinguishes being a refugee from those other categories? Is there something about being a refugee that psychologically or otherwise, that marks the refugee differently?
Viet Nguyen: So to be an immigrant typically means you’re making a very strategic choice over time. You’ve thought about why you want to leave your country, where you want to go, and you’ve gone through various processes of making that happen. Legal processes, right? So an immigrant is a person who moves voluntarily and strategically. If done legally, the immigrant is someone who is technically welcomed into the country that he or she chooses. So a refugee is different than that. So a refugee is related to an undocumented immigrant because in both cases, oftentimes there is no choice. The action is not voluntary to leave. In the case of my family, obviously we fled wartime conditions. So you’re driven out oftentimes by desperation, whether it’s hunger, or whether it’s war or other causes like this. Oftentimes the arrival in another country is not so much a choice, but at best, a desperate choice.
Viet Nguyen: You just just want to go anywhere. You may or may not want to come to the United States. You just want to end up anywhere. Then maybe the last condition is that to be a refugee is oftentimes you’re moving as part of a large mass of people. It’s not just typically one person who becomes a refugee or doesn’t, it’s tens of thousands of people who become refugees. So this distinguishes us, for example, from exiles. You know, exiles are a little more glamorous, right? You’re forced out of your country, but you, you know, you’re forced because you’ve done something individually that makes you victim to the state. Like you’re a dissident writer or something like this, so there’s more glamor associated with being an exile. But with refugees, it’s these mass conditions of forced displacement, and there’s nothing glamorous about that.
Viet Nguyen: So part of what we associate with refugees is not, you know, Ellis Island or Angel Island, but refugee camps. Refugee camps are very different than Ellis Island or Angel Island. Even though these places also have their histories of detention and some very negative experiences too. But refugee camps, if you think about it, what kinds of images do we have of refugee camps? We have mass tent camps of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who are living under desperate conditions. Maybe people out there believe that somehow in a refugee camp it’s a vacation, and you know, you’re being given stuff. But if you read accounts of refugee camps, what you hear is that these are conditions of bare sustenance, of bare life. Where people are being given barely enough food to live. You know the social structures of the family are being destroyed by these mass conditions.
Viet Nguyen: Everything that we take for granted as human beings beginning with adequate sewage and toilets do not exist in refugee camps. This is a common theme of people who come out of refugee camps, what they talk about. You know, part of the dehumanization is being forced to live with your own filth and being aware that this is a reminder of the fact that you’ve been degraded, and the people who are in charge of your existence do not think more highly enough of you to allow you to have the same kind of conditions that we would take for granted in our privileged lives as citizens.
Jack: Some of the things you’re saying reminds me of a line from Lev Golinkin’s essay where he says, “It’s the brutal little difference between subjects and direct objects. Once you’ve made the transition from, ‘When are we eating to?’ To, ‘When are they feeding us?’ You know you’re a refugee.” So it seems like it goes to the question of agency, right? There’s a difference.
Viet Nguyen: And that’s why the question of writing was so important because the images that we see of refugees in mass media, on TV or, documentation, documentaries and so on, render them as objects. Writing is an act of agency, is an act of subjectivity, is an act of voice. In these mass media depictions of refugees they have no voice. They’re being talked over by the journalist who’s telling us something about these refugees. You know, even as we’re trying to, you know, maybe they’re being shown as objects of pity, but they’re still objects. So from my own experience, for example, I look back on on the last major refugee crisis we had, which was my refugee crisis, the crisis of the Vietnamese, but also the Cambodians and the Laotians from the 1970s, and so many of these people, especially the Vietnamese and the ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, fled by boat from Vietnam.
Viet Nguyen: And what were they called? They were called boat people. So even to this day, globally, they’re known as boat people. Even I went to France, the French don’t like, you know, using English language words, but they will use boat people to talk about the Vietnamese refugees. I resist that so much because of its objectification of the people who are fleeing that country. Because you have to remember most of the people who decided to flee by boat from Vietnam knew in advance that the odds were terrible. They knew that their odds were probably about 50/50 of surviving this trip, which is actually true. You know, UNHCRs estimates that only half of the people who set out by boat made it to another shore. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people who disappeared on the seas.
Viet Nguyen: That’s a heroic decision, from my point of view. If we were to approach it from the refugees point of view, they would see that as heroic as well. But rendered from the outside, from the perspective of the journalist, or from those of us who are watching from other countries, they become pitiful objects.
Jack: Right. Chris Abani touches on that in his essay, The Road, where he asks, “Have you ever noticed that the quintessential image for the refugee, the photographs we have come to identify with the condition always has the refugee in flight? The refugee is always on the road somewhere, on a boat somewhere, in a plane somewhere, on a train somewhere, never arriving.” Lev Golinkin again, to quote him, he says, “The drastic images which make newsreels create the impression that people turn into refugees overnight. In my family’s experience that isn’t true, becoming a refugee is a gradual process, a bleaching out, a transition into a ghostly existence. With the exception of those born in refugee camps, every refugee used to have a life. It doesn’t matter whether you were a physician in Bosnia, or a goat herder in a Congo, what matters is that a thousand little anchors once moored you to the world. Becoming a refugee means watching as those anchors are severed, or a new life.”
Jack: So do you think we focus too much in the popular imaginary on the journey, on the escape story, and what does that obscure?
Viet Nguyen: Well, I think we do because that’s where most of the drama lies, right? The story of life and death, and it makes for good images, obviously, as Chris brings up. What is more difficult to deal with is the life in the refugee camp, which can last for months to years, or decades. For example, is that we included an account of Palestinian refugees as well. That’s the most volatile refugee issues that we have in the world today. Where people have literally been born into camps and stayed there for decades. So that experience of the enduring existence of refugees, I think is even more disturbing than the voyage. Because when we see the voyage, you know, we can feel pity. When we see a boy lying face down on the beach, we can feel pity for a moment. But if we have to think about people living in these in between conditions of the refugee camp for decades, it’s more disturbing, because we have to try to figure out a solution, and the solution can be very terrible.
Viet Nguyen: Or when the refugees actually come to their country of settlement, like here in the United States, their resettlement process, their extended journey into becoming a part of this country can also be very arduous and very difficult. And if we look at that, it might make us even more uncomfortable. So for example, like a lot of refugees who come to this country have already been subject to the narrative of the American dream. They watch Hollywood movies too. They have this fantasy of what life is like in the United States. What life is like in the United States, in Hollywood, is not what life is actually like in the United States. Refugees usually do not get put into Beverly Hills. You know, refugees usually get put into the so called inner city, so-called ghettos. And it’s a shock for them to discover that this is where they belong, or where this is where Americans think that they belong.
Viet Nguyen: So their account of these experiences, it can be disturbing to us as well, as we’re forced to confront the existence of ghettos, of inner cities, which are homologous to refugee camps, right? But in fact, it’s not such an easy boundary between the United States and some other country. Other countries have their beautiful metropolitan urban areas and terrible areas of poverty, and so do we. And we route refugees from one country, no matter where they came from, maybe they were doctors or whatever in this other country, but we put them into initially, oftentimes a ghetto instead.
Jack: So to go back to your introduction and your own resettlement experience, you talked about being separated from your family and it was under more benevolent circumstance, perhaps you can tell us about that experience of separation.
Viet Nguyen: So in order to leave these camps as refugees you had to have a sponsor, like I said. The point of that was to prevent us from becoming drains on the American welfare state. And to, in the case of my parents, allow them time to get back on their feet. So what happened to our family was apparently pretty unusual because I’d tell this story to other Vietnamese people and they were shocked too, they’re like, “That didn’t happen to us.” Because usually what would happen is that a sponsor would take an entire family. The sponsor would be another American family or American individual or a church, something like this. So for whatever reason, I still don’t understand to this day what happened, but my parents went to one sponsor, my brother to another and I went to a third. I was four years of age, and so this is where my memories begin howling and screaming as I was taken away from my parents.
Viet Nguyen: Obviously when you’re four, you do not understand what the bureaucrat is telling you, that this is for your own good. You only understand the separation. That experience I think has always stayed with me, even though I tried to deny it. So, you know, to function, after this experience, I think for many people we, we try to put the trauma behind us. We try to live normal lives and so on. We try to forget the past. Yet I think for whatever reason, the memory of that always stayed with me like an invisible brand stamped between my shoulder blades. If I were to psychoanalyze myself, which I don’t do because I’m a writer, if I were to do that, if I look back, I think this is one of the originary moments that produced the screwed up person that I am, that turned me into a writer.
Viet Nguyen: You know, I’d like to say that, you know, being a refugee wasn’t all bad because it gave me the requisite emotional damage necessary to become a writer. I’m grateful for that. But I think when my son was born, and then he turned four years old about a year and a half ago, looking at him was the occasion for me to see myself in him, and to think back on that time and to think how painful it must have been for me to be separated from my parents, as it would be for him to be separated from me. But also more than that, I could finally see my parents in this whole experience. You know, if my son was taken away from me, it would be incredibly painful. So that allowed me to empathize even more with my parents, and what they must’ve been through. Even though the separation was only for about three months on my part.
Viet Nguyen: But my brother, who was 10 years old, didn’t come home for two years. This is how, he likes to say to me, “We know mom and dad love you more.” But he was fine. He was fine. We went to Harvard, so it’s all good.
Jack: And you’ve written about this, but obviously this experience informs your own reaction to the policy of family separation at the US/Mexico border.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, it’s very interesting. I was at the State Department, because I was invited to go to the State Department to talk about … It’s Asian Pacific American heritage month, so I was invited to speak about that. It was very interesting. They wanted to know what I was going to talk about, so I said, “I’m going to talk about this.” A variety of things, including what we’re just discussing. You know, comparing what happened to me, the emotional pain of being separated from one’s family, with what’s happening at our southern border and separation of families from their children. I said, “I’m also going to be talking about genocide, slavery, and colonization.” And they said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t talk about all those things.” So I said, “Okay, fine, I won’t talk about genocide, slavery and colonization.” They said, “No, maybe you shouldn’t talk about separating families from their children.”
Viet Nguyen: I thought, “That’s what you’re upset about?” That’s what I can’t say at the State Department because a deputy secretary of state was going to be present. And in fact, he was, he introduced me. So it’s weird how that is the policy that is too politically sensitive, too uncomfortable to raise at the State Department. But I think it’s true. I think that, and maybe this is why it’s sensitive, we know that whatever bureaucratic legal justification we have for doing this, we all know that this is incredibly emotionally destructive to do to people. To separate families, to take away children, and more than that, to lose children as well. I mean that’s still an unsettled matter. There are still thousands of children who have not been reunited with their families.
Viet Nguyen: So to me, the fact that this policy even happened, that people thought this would be a good idea that people implemented this, means that the bureaucrats who came up with this do not think of these people as human beings. You know, for them it’s a technical matter. It’s like, well you know, we’re just going to think of these people as a category, as undocumented immigrants or illegal immigrants, whatever they want to call them. And because we think of them in this way, we don’t have to think of them as human beings who can feel things just like we would.
Jack: So I want to make sure there’s time for all of you to ask questions and a time has gone by really quickly. I’ve only asked a few of the things I hoped to talk about, but on that subject of the perception of refugees and their humanity, something that was really interesting when you wrote The Sympathizer is that you said you did not want to write the book as a way of explaining the humanity of the Vietnamese. You said that rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then it goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time. So you know, by showing the inhumanity of all the characters you’re revealing by extension their their full humanity.
Jack: But I wonder in this moment in this current political moment where we have all of this bad hombre rhetoric in the air, is it possible to do that fully? To show the inhumanity of the refugee? Or is it still a strategic necessity to argue for their humanity? Because you know the beginning of your introduction you say I was born a citizen and a human being to remind us, can you do the same thing as you did in The Sympathizer with all representations of the refugee in this current political climate?
Viet Nguyen: Well I think basically the answer is no, okay? So I occupy different functions in my life, whether I happen to be a professor or an editor or a novelist, or an advocate, or someone writing for the New York Times, and so on. So as a novelist I can be as difficult of a human being as I want to be, right? This is my artistic vision, I’m going to insist on the simultaneity of humanity/inhumanity. I’m not going to translate for you’ve got to come and meet me where I’m speaking from. That doesn’t work so well when you’re trying to be an advocate for refugees, right? And when you’re also trying to edit a book with 19 other writers involved in it. So I think the displace exists on the borderline between what you’re talking about. It definitely veers towards asserting humanity, asserting advocacy for refugees. Telling you 19 individual different stories from very different places about the humanity of these people.
Viet Nguyen: But let me point out that there’s also pieces in here that bring up the inhumanity that refugees do to each other, or people who from the countries of origin, the inhumanity that gets done there. So for example, you know going back to Reyna Grande’s piece her piece is entitled The Parent Who Stays, what she’s talking about there is that her parents made this very difficult decision to leave Mexico to become undocumented immigrants, to come to this country as laborers in order to try to make a better life for their family in Mexico. The irony of all that, is that they destroyed the family in the process of trying to save it. All of the familial bonds between parents and children that you would normally expect have been eradicated because the parents were not there while the children were growing up.
Viet Nguyen: The father is a laborer in the United States and becomes an alcoholic to survive. Finally they get Reyna to come to the United States, it’s over by then, there are no more emotional bonds left. The father’s an alcoholic, they’re no longer close. The upshot of all of that is the final affirmation of her story is that she gets to be the parent who stays. She gets to have children, have them live with her in her house, but the memory of what her father had to go through, and the destruction of the family bond, is completely wrapped up in this.
Viet Nguyen: Or Aleksandar Hemon’s account, Aleksandar Hemon is a Bosnian refugee, excellent writer but his project is actually one of the few in the book that is an oral history. So he goes and he interviews all these Bosnian refugees and the one that he has for this book is an account of a man who lives basically the story of Job from the Bible, or Candide by Voltaire. You know, an unimaginable string of horrifying things. Unbelievable this could happen in one person’s life. But the fact that these things happen means that you know, somebody did very inhuman things to him. People from his own country, right? So these stories can force us to confront the inhumanity that people have done to each other. Which is no different than the inhumanity that we have done to others, the humanity that we’re doing at this very moment on our border.
Jack: Thank you very much. I’d like to open things up for questions from the audience. Harriet?
Harriet: I’ve always had the sense that there was a spectrum of how people were described depending on who they were fleeing, so that traditionally people who were fleeing communism were refugees publicly because they were fleeing something awful and seeking freedom in the United States. Whereas, you mentioned Palestinian refugees, and that term is very rarely applied in public discourse, because it would both raise the question who’s persecuting them, what are they fleeing from? Also it would undo the whole idea of them as menacing terrorists. So the word “refugee” is not used for them. I was just wondering [inaudible 00:34:30].
Viet Nguyen: That’s what I’m saying, refugees on the one hand, it’s an official classification by the UN, there’s various conditions you have to meet to be a refugee, but it’s obviously also, it’s deeply politicized, right?
Viet Nguyen: I’ll give you another example that’s related to what you just brought up, which is that many of those people who have come here officially as refugees are not actually sympathetic to new refugees trying to get into this country. David Bezmozgis brings this up in his bit on refugees from the … Is it David Bezmozgis? Somebody brings this up, talking about you know refugees from the Soviet Union who have no sympathy for new ones that are coming over, because they say, “You know, we were the good refugees, these are the bad refugees.”
Viet Nguyen: Vietnamese people will say exactly the same thing. I know this, I take this very personally, you know, because I’m Vietnamese too, and when I look back at our history, what I point out is in 1975 the majority of Americans did not want to accept Vietnamese refugees, or Cambodian, or Laotian refugees. Only through an act of Congress where we allowed into this country. And why did Congress pass this act? Probably because they were feeling guilty, but also it was good politics, we were going to accept refugees from Vietnam, just as we accepted refugees from Cuba, because we would prove that we’re awesome, communism is bad. Now of course, it’s not awesome to take in brown, red-brown skin refugees, or Muslims, or Arabs, and so on. The politics are different in this regard.
Viet Nguyen: So yes, the refugee exists in a very political environment, both in terms of whether or not we as a country call people refugees, and whether we ourselves call ourselves refugees. Many refugees besides denying entrance to new refugees, don’t want to call themselves refugees either, because they know it’s a stigma. They know it consciously or unconsciously. That’s why many refugees pass themselves off as immigrants, and may themselves not really understand the distinction between the two. Which is even more of a reason for me to call myself a refugee.
Viet Nguyen: Yes?
Speaker 4: What do you think about children that are unaccompanied minors? I know in the parents might think they’re going to give a better life to their kids. I know there was something in the 60s called Operation Peter Pan, where the children from, boys I guess, from Cuba were sent to the US to live with families away from their parents. So I just want to know your views on these children that are sent by their parents in the hopes of a better life.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, and it happens all the time. So in my history, for example, what happened in Vietnam in the late 70s and early 80s, what these children were called, these unaccompanied minors were called, they were called anchors. And that’s still used today, right? Anchor babies. But anchors in the sense that a family would send one, two, or more children by themselves off in a refugee boat in the hopes that this child, or children, would eventually make it to a safe haven, and be the anchor that would pull the rest of the family across. Sometimes this was successful, I mean there are success stories that have happened as a result. Sometimes it is not. Because as you can imagine, it’s terrifying to show up in a foreign country not speaking the language when you’re 12 years old, let’s say.
Viet Nguyen: In the success stories, you know, combination of luck, perseverance, finding someone, a sponsor who who will help this person. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, and sometimes it doesn’t happen because of other complicated reasons. I’ll give you another example. Some of these unaccompanied minors, for example, were mixed-race children. Now if you’re a mixed-race child and your father was white, your fate was better than if your father was black, you know? So a lot of these Amerasians who were African-Americans basically, discovered in this country that not only they’re subjected to anti-refugee feelings, but they’re subjected to anti-black racism, both on the part of Americans, but also on the part of their their fellow Vietnamese refugee community.
Viet Nguyen: So the whole issue of unaccompanied minors is exactly this. It’s a situation born out of desperation. No family wants to send their child off, you know, by themselves or with a sibling in order to do this. Many of them don’t survive the journey, and then when they get to the country of origin they face very, very daunting odds.
Speaker 5: Many refugees wouldn’t be refugees if it weren’t for things that America had done to their own countries. Such as Vietnam, the so-called hill people of Vietnam who were employees of the American government. So they abandoned the translators and other employees of the American armies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and so on, and so on, and so on. What is the experience of people who have to get out of the country, because of things Americans have done to their countries, then they come to America.
Viet Nguyen: Well that’s actually, you know, a very common experience. Where to begin? I mean some refugees would say, and immigrants too, you know we would not be here if you weren’t over there, right? So I think for Americans, it’s hard to recognize that relationship, okay? Because obviously if Americans were to recognize these kinds of relationships, Americans would have to confront their own wars overseas, and the consequences of those wars. And so much of my work has been to say that we can’t separate war stories from refugee stories. As a country, we want to because it makes it easier for us, as a country, if we separate war stories from refugee stories because it allows two different mythologies to exist at the same time. You know, one mythology around war stories is that wars happen over there, and that they’re easily contained.
Viet Nguyen: So for example, the Vietnam war begins for Americans in 1964 ends in 1975 that’s it. That allows us to contain the meaning of a war geographically and temporally, so that we can move on. Then we as a country don’t have to deal with our own consequences because wars in fact don’t end simply because we say they do. If they ended simply because we said they do, then we wouldn’t have PTSD, we wouldn’t have thousands of American soldiers committing suicide in the decades after the war. If we acknowledge these things we would have to take the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and build a couple more walls to consecrate all the names of American soldiers who killed themselves later.
Viet Nguyen: So by separating wars from what happens here we make it easier for us to both mourn the wars of the past and to fight the wars of the future. Refugees, by cutting them off from the history of war, what we also do is turn refugees into immigrants. So we can just deal with Vietnamese or Cambodians or Laotians, just to use your example, from the moment they arrive on American soil. And then we can just put them in the narrative of the American dream. We don’t have to think about the fact that they were here because we fought wars over there, and then we broke our promises to them and didn’t actually stay until the bitter end, which is what the United States said that it would do, and rescue them, which is what the United States said they would do. So the United States rescued hundreds of thousands of people and left behind millions of people who had fought on the side of the United States.
Viet Nguyen: So I think it’s absolutely necessary to bring together war stories and refugee stories in order for us to understand that we can’t separate the so-called civilian consequences from the consequences of war. Whether we’re talking about civilians from other countries coming here or whether we’re talking about soldiers of our own side who become civilians and then whom we conveniently forget about once a war is finished.
Speaker 5: Anybody here that’s got Irish blood in them have to realize that the Irish were refugees too. They came due to violence and famine, that’s why they came here. Then they were restricted here if you see an Irish Settlement Road that’s where they were allowed to live. So they had very restricted areas where they were allowed to farm and live. But what’s going on in Honduras is very much for what was going on in Ireland in the 1800s. So I recommend everybody here refer to their Irish friends as being refugees, because there’s a wake-up call needed there.
Viet Nguyen: Right, right. Well it’s part of that narrative of assimilation and amnesia that you’re talking about that obviously turn-of-the-century, or whatever, late 19th early 20th century Irish were racialized in their own way here in the United States. We see the residue of that in certain kinds of Irish stereotypes. But never the less, 50 or 60 years later you get John F Kennedy. So then everything’s cool. So the erasure of that history that you’re talking about, the poverty, the famine, the refugee experience, has become simply a part of the ethnic charm of the Irish. The question is whether, you know, what happened to the Irish can happen to other populations. This gives the distinction of race versus ethnicity. The Irish became white-
Speaker 5: About 1910 they became white. When the Italians started coming.
Viet Nguyen: Right, right. This is how whiteness works, whiteness is very flexible. You know Ben Franklin was upset in the late 18th century about the Germans coming to Pennsylvania. So the flexibility of whiteness has meant that newer ethnic groups from Europe could become white and so long as there were other, darker ethnic Europeans coming right after them, with the Greeks and the Slavs and whatnot, and of course after all that, everybody who was from Europe became white because now we have Latinos and all these so-called darker populations. So the whole issue is whether, I think this is one of the core questions for this country, is whether this process of assimilation works just as well as you’re implying for people from Honduras, for people from south of the border, for people who are Arab refugees, Arab immigrants, Arab Americans. That is precisely what’s fracturing this country right now.
Speaker 6: In your own life, I’m wondering how for this book, for this project, if you interviewed your own parents. And how they feel about the refugee situation for them. Did they ever wish that they hadn’t come? That if things had been different they could have stayed in Vietnam, and that they … Did they go back, and did they visit the farm? Did they go back and … How does it feel for them?
Viet Nguyen: You’re asking me to talk to my parents, [crosstalk 00:45:40].
Speaker 6: I know I never talked to my parents as adults, I always thought of them as parents and never as … You know? They were always my parents so I never talked to them. I’m just wondering if you have those in-depth conversations with them, and how they felt about the whole situation.
Viet Nguyen: It’s interesting because I think at one point in the last few years you know I asked my dad, “Maybe we should do an interview.” He said no. So growing up over time, over my time as an American, I would hear stories from my parents about the life in Vietnam, and about the journey over. They would always tend to be sort of the same stories over and over and over again. They were almost always bad stories. So I think it left me with a very ambivalent relationship to my parents’ past, in the sense that when I would ask them to elaborate or tell me certain things, sometimes they wouldn’t. I just didn’t really understand what was permissible to ask them, and what wasn’t permissible to ask them. What did they want to talk about what did they not want to talk about?
Viet Nguyen: The traumatic stuff that they told me was pretty traumatic. Was there more traumatic stuff that they weren’t telling me? Or why were they not telling me about the more banal stuff? And so one of the reasons why I became a fiction writer first and foremost, and not a journalist, is that I don’t like to talk to people, you know? I like to imagine people instead, and it’s much easier when they don’t talk back to me and contradict my version of things. But you know, my parents … The question of whether my parents would have wanted to go back is an interesting one that I think was settled by the early 90s. Because what happened was from 1975 to 1994 the United States maintained an embargo on Vietnam, and there was no legal way to go back to Vietnam directly from the United States.
Viet Nguyen: But in 1994 that embargo was ended, my parents immediately went back to Vietnam twice. They had told me over the years that I was 100% Vietnamese, okay. So they go back twice. After the second time they returned and over Thanksgiving my dad says to me, “We’re Americans now.” So whatever they had seen in Vietnam had transformed their understanding of themselves, and I think that’s not unusual. Refugees and immigrants, especially refugees perhaps, because they’re forcibly cut off from their countries of origin, are very nostalgic about the countries of origin. Nostalgia is literally homesickness, right? So they create a certain vision of the country of origin that’s fixed in time, in this case to 1975. That vision is fixed of themselves as to who they are. Then when they go back to these countries of origin 20, 30 years later they discovered that the countries have changed and they have changed, and the people have changed.
Viet Nguyen: So they have to give up that attachment to that original vision of the country. So I think that’s very … That’s why I think the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese refugees have not gone back to Vietnam to live. I mean some have, a handful, some, a minority have gone back. But very, very few have done that. They’ve been so utterly changed by their American experience, and when they go back to Vietnam for a lot of them I think they see a country that was even more complicated than the one that they left. At least complicated for them. You know, in my family’s case most of our relatives are poor. So it’s not a fun thing to go back to visit your poor relatives, because your emotional relationships are saturated now by this complexity of resentment and obligation and expectation. So we don’t get the fun tourist experience of Vietnam.
Viet Nguyen: All of you who go to Vietnam, you will get the fun tourist experience of Vietnam. You will enjoy the country much more than I can, because I have to go visit my relatives. That I think is why it’s not a sentimental experience for a lot of Vietnamese refugees.
Speaker 7: You started to talk about why having refugee writers actually be able to write their own stories was important. I wondered if you could just say more about that.
Viet Nguyen: The way I became a writer is probably not unusual. I’ll tell you my experience of how I became a writer. Number one, the first reason why I became a writer is because I was a refugee. I was a refugee, my parents worked all the time, they had no time to spend with me, so I grew up in the library. I read a lot of books. These books had nothing to do with refugees, for the most part, or being Vietnamese or Asian. As a matter of fact, there was no children’s Asian-American literature back in the 70s and the 80s. Very, very little of that. So I just fell in love with stories, as a whole. That was the first impetus for becoming a writer. The second impetus is also very common for people like me who are so-called minorities in this country, which is the shock of discovering that I was different.
Viet Nguyen: The love of literature I think is the love of discovering that you’re the same, because you you get immersed in this world and you identify with somebody else, some other character, and you’re lost in this journey. But the shock of difference is to discover that you’re not a part of the story that you thought you were a part of. For me, that was discovering the history of the Vietnam War. For me, that was watching a lot of American movies about the Vietnam War. I loved war movies. I love American war movies. I identified with Americans, didn’t care that they were killing Krauts or Germans, you know, that’s not me. But watching American movies about the Vietnam War was very difficult because then the American soldiers were killing Vietnamese people, and then I was separated in two.
Viet Nguyen: I was no longer the same. I was also somebody different from Americans. So that shock of recognition or miss recognition of my own difference was the other impetus for becoming a writer. So one impetus, the love of stories, that’s love. The other impetus was hate. I was like, “I hate these American movies about the Vietnam War, and I’m going to take my revenge. I’m going to become a writer so I can write against these misrepresentations.” That is, again, a very common experience. This depends on what your so-called minority experience is, but we all experience that shock of understanding that we’ve been mis-recognized, misrepresented, and we’re going to have to become writers in order to fight against those misrepresentations.
Speaker 8: I’m just wondering about the Vietnamese refugee community, let’s say, around the world. Are you all like Bosnians, and do you know fellow Vietnamese refugees who live in France? Fellow Vietnamese refugees who live maybe in South Africa? Fellow Vietnamese refugees who are in Norway? Or do you just know American ones?
Viet Nguyen: Oh no, I think it’s definitely global diaspora. I think the figures are around four million Vietnamese people live in literally dozens of countries. The largest concentrations are in the countries you would suspect, the countries that have had intimate relations with Vietnam, for example. So surprisingly the largest population is in Cambodia, because Cambodia is the neighboring country, and we have a very complicated … Vietnamese people have a very complicated history with Cambodia because we took half of Cambodia into modern Vietnam, we colonized them. No one wants to talk about that. But then France, Australia, Canada, Germany, these are the other major countries with significant Vietnamese refugee populations. So yes, of course we’re well aware of these other populations. We often have relatives in different places.
Viet Nguyen: In my capacity as an editor and as an advocate, you know, my organization Diaspora Vietnamese Artist Network is built specifically around the idea that we have to make these connections between writers here, and writers in other countries. I think what’s really perplexing for most of us who live in these major, support major countries, is the fate of those Vietnamese people who ended up in places like Israel, you know? I mean literally dozens of countries and Vietnamese people have ended up in Israel, have ended up in small Pacific Islands, and their populations are in the hundreds. At least here in the United States we have the comfort of a million and a half or two million Vietnamese people.
Viet Nguyen: So here in the United States, for example, we have actually very vibrant Vietnamese-American literature in English. There’s literally dozens of authors of Vietnamese descent who have at least one book from the major publisher, we’re making big inroads. We’re all, the so-called 1.5 or second generation. We were born here, we were raised here. So as displaced as we might feel at least we get to speak in English, and write in English, and be published by major New York publishing houses, and get all the recognition that you would expect. Then you look at the fact that there are many Vietnamese writers in the United States who write in Vietnamese. They’re read only by their fellow Vietnamese people, here or online in the Diaspora. But they can’t get published in Vietnam, and they don’t get translated here.
Viet Nguyen: So ironically, the American publishing industry only translates 3% of its books per year, right? That’s almost completely from the countries outside of the United States. Well what about all the countries inside the United States? I mean we’re a multilingual country. Actually, you know, we’re a country that has a long tradition of people writing in languages other than English in the United States, but these literatures don’t get translated into English. So that’s, I think, part of the pain of refugee and Diasporic experience for people who speak, who live in the originary language, you realize that now you’re language is a minor language. In your homeland your language was the major language, in exile, your exiled language is the minor language, read and heard only by your fellow exiles, or refugees, or displaced people. Not even by your own children, or grandchildren. That’s another level of pain in the refugee experience.
Speaker 9: I’m thinking about climate refugees. I’m thinking if say the New York Times started referring people in Honduras that are fleeing gang violence, not as immigrants, but as refugees. If we just started using that in normal conversation, or in the newspaper articles, if we could just switch the narrative from something that sounds like they’re coming here because they want to, instead of they’re coming because they have to [inaudible 00:56:42].
Viet Nguyen: Right, go back to George Orwell in his essay, Politics and the English Language, about the importance of choices of words, right? Actually The Guardian, that newspaper, just published an article about its climate language. It says we’re going to make a very conscious decision now that we’re not going to refer to global warming anymore. We’re going to refer to global heating. Because that one shift from warming to heating indicates the severity of what we’re facing here. And we’re not going to refer to climate skeptics anymore, we’ll refer to climate change deniers. So I think you’re right, word choice reflects politics, which is what Orwell is talking about. But maybe the last thing we can end on is this very difficult issue of climate change and refugees, and the relationship between the two.
Viet Nguyen: Because it’s obviously so much of our focus has been on refugees who are fleeing starvation, poverty, war, and so on and now we’re confronting the reality that whole nations might be moving because of climate change, and we’re in denial about that. So I think the thing about both climate change, or climate catastrophe, and refugees is that they force us to recognize connections that we want to deny. We’re responsible for climate catastrophe, we want to deny that. We want to deny the fact that when we turn on our engine the consequences are going to be felt around the world. When we look at refugees we want to deny that they’re here because we were there. So our ability to deal with either of these human crises is going to be based on our capacity to recognize our human connection, which so many of us would rather deny. Thank you very much.