Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses growing up in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam, and how writing and reading helped him cope with this difficult experience in this episode of the American Masters Podcast.

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses growing up in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam, and how writing and reading helped him cope with this difficult experience. He explains how his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel “The Sympathizer” (2015) and short story collection “The Refugees” (2017) were partly inspired by his problems with cultural representation in American pop culture and literature.

Here is the transcript:

Josh Hamilton: I’m Josh Hamilton.

Joe Skinner: And I’m Joe Skinner.

Josh Hamilton: And this is the American Masters Podcast, where we have conversations with the people who change us. Today, we talk to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Great works of art can be utterly racist because they are expressions of deep racism within the culture. It took me a long time to understand my mission as a writer, besides writing something great hopefully, was to also contest this deep-seated racism at the heart of the canonical tradition.

Josh Hamilton: Viet Thanh Nguyen burst onto the literary scene with his debut novel, The Sympathizer, in 2015. The book takes place in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and serves as a critical re-examination of the American-centric view of the war. Nguyen’s work gives voice to a Vietnamese perspective in ways that he has said classic American films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon fall short. The novel went on to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

Joe Skinner: As you’ll see in our interview, Viet Thanh Nguyen is also a deep intellectual thinker. It was such a pleasure to talk to someone who is so willing to dive deep into the American literary canon, and into the politics of storytelling.

Josh Hamilton: After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Nguyen’s family fled to America, where he was separated from his parents at the age of 4. These experiences, in part, led to his most recent short story collection, The Refugees, which continues his legacy of urgent writing about underrepresented communities, whose stories need to be heard now more than ever. Joe recently met up with Viet in Los Angeles.

Joe Skinner: Thank you Viet for coming in. Can you describe the journey that your family had to undertake when South Vietnam fell to the North in 1975?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well when that happened we were living in our hometown which is Buan Me Thuot in the central highlands of Vietnam. And in March 1975, it was the first town the Communists captured. And my mom was there, my brother was there, I was there and our adopted sister, and my dad was in Saigon so lines of communication were cut off. My mom had to make a life and death decision and she decided that we were going to flee the town and try to find my father. And she took my brother and me but left my adopted sister behind and assuming that we would come back, which was a reasonable assumption during that time. Didn’t come back for 20 years. My parents didn’t come back. So we were separated. My parents were separated from her for 20 years. We made it to this, through the perilous trek on foot to Nha Trang, which is a port town, caught a boat to Saigon, found my father and a month later did the same thing all over again when the Communists captured Saigon too. And I think we made it to Guam and then took a flight to Pennsylvania which is where we ended up.

Joe Skinner: What made your family decide to go to Pennsylvania?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t think we had a choice. At that time, there were four refugee camps set up in the United States and I think everybody probably wanted to end up in California at Camp Pendleton but for whatever reason we ended up in Harrisburg at Fort Indiantown Gap. And that’s where our American lives began.

Joe Skinner: And what was it like for your family to finally go back after 20 years?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When they went back it was the early 1990s, and this was right after the United States reestablished relationships with Vietnam and for whatever reason my parents didn’t invite me to come along. I think I was probably still in school. And I don’t know exactly what it is that they saw or what they experienced, but they went back twice in the early 90s, and after the second time, over Thanksgiving, my father said to me, “We’re Americans now,” and they never returned to Vietnam after that.

Joe Skinner: Wow. Why do you think he said that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: After the war ended Vietnam went through a very difficult period that was brought about both by communist economic policy but also by the American embargo. But the United States basically continued the Vietnam War by other means. And so Vietnam was an isolated poor country, starving country. In the 1980s I believe it was the fifth poorest country in the world at that time. It was really devastating. So by the early 1990s when my parents came back, Vietnam was just starting to come out of that, and the conditions were, from what I understood, to be still really desperate. And especially if you were overseas Vietnamese, Viet Gayo, and you came back, the perception of your Vietnamese relatives was that you were rich and they were poor. And people were desperate. And so I think that was what my parents encountered and I saw a little bit of that when I came back for the first time in 2002, and it can be a very difficult emotional experience not to mention a difficult financial experience for everybody involved.

Joe Skinner: So when you went back in 2002 you visited relatives?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I went back in 2002 as a tourist for two weeks at the persuasion of my then-girlfriend now my wife. I didn’t really have any inclination to go, and so we decided to go back as tourists to have fun to get acclimated to the country. And it was a lot of fun. And then in 2004, we went back for seven months. For me, it was to study Vietnamese, and I spent four months studying Vietnamese formally in order to meet my relatives. And that was when I saw them for the first time.

Joe Skinner: Wow. In your short story collection, The Refugees, you have a character named Liem, who dreads having to tell his story of leaving Saigon or having to rehearse it – as you write. What did you tell people when you were growing up about this? About the story of your family coming over. Did you tell people this story?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t think anybody ever asked, if we’re speaking about people who are not Vietnamese. People who are Vietnamese, who are Vietnamese refugees in the United States all had the same stories of a similar kind. Right. In order to get to the United States, anybody from Southeast Asia, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, had to endure something really horrible to get here. And so it was you know we talked about that sometimes but it was very matter of fact. Because, what we went through was actually not that bad, because no one died. When we left, we left behind an adopted sister, an adopted daughter. But no one died. No one went to prison. My adopted sister had to go work as a so-called youth volunteer to help rebuild the country which is basically hard labor. But it wasn’t a prison or re-education camp. So that was a weird experience because this trauma that everybody underwent was simply normal in the Vietnamese refugee community. So you didn’t really have to explain anything. And people who are not Vietnamese never asked. I think it was because they just didn’t understand. It was a really foreign experience, Americans who knew anything about the Vietnam War knew only the American experience and were focused on that. Vietnamese refugees, the only way that most Americans had a way of making sense of that was through referencing American experience. And so I had no interest in explaining myself to Americans in that way.

Joe Skinner: When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think the first seeds were planted when I was very young. I loved to read. That was my way of coping with being a refugee. You know my parents were never at home. And so I read a lot, and in the second or third grade, I had the opportunity to write a book in class that became Lester the Cat. I drew and illustrated that book, bound it, it won a prize from the public library. And I thought wow this is this is kind of fun. And so that idea was always in my mind and I think by the time I was in high school I had some vague idea that I wanted to be a writer. And when I went to college you know I told my college classmates I’m going to, I was 18 years old I’m going to be a published novelist by the time I’m 25. And they said wow that’s really impressive. And of course, that never happened. I had no idea what it meant to be a writer. But I think from an early point I had that fantasy, and it just took a long time for me to develop the ability and the discipline to actually write.

Joe Skinner: Sounds like you were a published writer at a very young age with Lester the Cat.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t have that book anymore. I wish I did.

Joe Skinner: So if artists and cultural icons serve as a series of windows and mirrors for young people, what kind of writers were you reading when you were growing up and, or what kind of artists or cultural figures outside of writing were you looking up to and sort of seeing as potential windows or mirrors for your future?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When I was growing up in San Jose, California as a kid, and as an adolescent, I think I was reading everything I could in the public library, so you know the kinds of kid’s books I was reading were you know what probably what many others were reading you know Curious George and things like that. And a lot of science fiction, a lot of fantasy. So Lord of the Rings and Anne McCaffery’s Dragon series I mean the whole list of things. And so I think just, in general, the idea of literature as an escape, as a magical world of narrative, just captured me in general and it wasn’t really till I got to college that specific kinds of writers really gave me this idea that there was something with writing that could be a mission for me. And before then again it was all fantasy. You know when I was in high school I read the Romantic poets, memorized Romantic poetry, so I could try to seduce girls you know that kind of thing. But in college, it became much more serious. And that’s when I started to read literature by people of color; Chicano authors, African-American authors, Asian-American authors. So this is what I encountered in college. You know people like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, who were major influences on my work, or Maxine Hong Kingston who was actually my teacher as well. I was a very bad student in her writing class. But it was writers like this who could clearly connect for me the beauty of literature and all that it could accomplish in the terms, at the level of aesthetic experience. Just the pleasure of reading connecting that with the political and social possibilities of literature to address our difficult histories. It was these writers that really became my inspirations and models.

Joe Skinner: Is there an artist or storyteller from the past whose stories you feel have not been given their proper due?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s actually a hard question. I mean the writers that I’ve cited I think have all been given their proper due. And then when you look back at these literary traditions, the hard part is trying to figure out who is owed what. So if we speak just about Asian-American literature you know that’s what I did my dissertation on. I can look back at this tradition, I can name a dozen writers who were really important to me and completely unknown to anybody who’s not a specialist of that literature. And have they been given their proper due? In the context of Asian-American literature, yes, people like Carlos Bulosan who wrote, America is in the Heart in 1946 or John Okada who published No-No Boy in 1956. They are recognized by Asian-American readers, but they’re not really by the larger American context. So I think they haven’t been given their proper due. Someone like me comes along and even though it’s difficult for me or for anybody else to become a writer I recognize that my possibilities have been shaped by decades of struggle of writers who came before me who had none of the opportunities that I did. So you take someone like John Okada he came back from World War II. He actually fought in World War II as a Japanese-American even though his family was imprisoned in a concentration camp–came back, wrote No-No Boy which was the first novel by a Japanese-American to deal with the internment–by anybody–to deal with the internment. And that novel immediately disappeared because no one wanted to read it. Neither Americans nor Japanese-Americans. That takes a huge amount of guts to do something like that. This is really before the era of MFA programs or anything like that. If you’re a Japanese-American writer now writing about the Japanese-American internment, half a dozen publishers will be interested in your book. So that is what I think about when I think about writers who didn’t get their due. The difficulties that they faced, they faced a completely different world in the 19th and 20th centuries than someone like me or people of my generation have. And that’s why I think it’s always crucial you know in response to your question to always bring up these traditions of writers who basically sacrificed themselves for their art and never got compensated or recognized in their own lifetimes the way they should have been.

Joe Skinner: Are there people today that you think aren’t getting the type of interest in their work that you think maybe 50 years from now you think they will be getting that kind of recognition or they should be?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that’s hard to say. I think that now we are living in a very different environment than let’s say Carlos Bulosan or John Okada were in the 1940s and 1950s. I mean they obviously did eventually get published and Bulosan actually did get a significant amount of recognition for his work. But then he was a communist. OK so then in 1950s it became unfashionable to be communist, and he got buried basically. Today’s environment I think is different because of the mechanisms of publishing and because of the changes in our discourse about race and culture and identity. So that it’s hard to say that there would be a writer who had something worthwhile to say who wouldn’t have had at least the opportunity to be to be heard, to be to have his work or her work looked at by an agent or a publisher and so on because these publishing mechanisms are hungry for anything that constitutes new material. Right. So I think that the question of race or ethnicity or culture is not really the one that limits writers’ opportunities. I think it’s really a question of aesthetics or the politics of their work. So writers who are really avant-garde who are really pushing the boundaries in different ways. They, I think might have a harder time getting published by mainstream press or writers whose politics are completely confrontational with American culture would have a hard time. Asserting your racial identity is not problematic in the liberal world of publishing. Being a communist is problematic. Advocating for terrorism is problematic. There are still red lines in our culture that make it very difficult to cross. Now there are maybe writers who were doing all those things. I’m not sure who they are.

Joe Skinner: Do you think that there should be a change to the way artists are considered part of the canon? Like what makes somebody an American Master? Or what makes somebody an American writer or even an American?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well to answer your first question about what makes someone an American Master. I think it is usually a process of consensus after a struggle, you know like someone like Philip Roth for example. Everybody would call him an American Master now. His period of a struggle sort of happened a long time ago in the 1950s when he was emerging, he was a controversial, you know Jewish-American writer. Now he’s just an American writer. Now he’s just a global writer. You know, I went to Paris recently, and in the major department store there in their bookstore there was a whole table devoted to Philip Roth, right. So he’s an American Master. Now whether his legacy will survive, who knows? If one-hundred years from now he’ll be read in the same way and I think that’s part of the difficulty who we call, who we have a consensus about now as an American Master may not be the consensus we have from a one-hundred years ago. The struggle will continue. Right. So that’s why it’s I think it’s always critical to recognize canonization for the fraught process that it is, it’s very difficult in the contemporary moment to be sure that who we think will be a part of the canon will be a part of the canon. Norman Mailer, he was an American Master 20 years ago, now his reputation is already sort of in doubt. Who knows what it will be in 50 years. Melville, when he died nobody, thought of him as an American Master. It took until the 1920s and 1930s before he became the Herman Melville we know it today. So I think someone like me participating in the series I have to look at this in a very ironic fashion. You know this is a very contemporary kind of framing of my work, and I have no foolish belief that this will be the same consensus a hundred years from now. And part of being an American Master I think is as you said, tied into that notion of who we think of as an American. Take the Philip Roth example. In the 1950s he was Jewish-American. His reputation has changed the status of people who are Jewish in this country has changed. They’ve become white for a variety of different kinds of reasons, and I think that’s helped in the process of canonizing Philip Roth and he himself was a part of that transformation of Jewish people into white people. And so likewise someone like John Okada in the 1950s would not be considered white. He would not even be considered American by a lot of people even though he was born in the United States. But now we’re in a situation in which if you’re Japanese-American, you are an American. We’ve changed, we’ve struggled, we’ve fought. And so someone like Julie Otsuka, who published in the early 2000s a couple of really great novels about the Japanese-American internment and about Japanese-American culture. She’s automatically considered an American writer. So things have changed, and that is where canonization and the transformation of American culture go hand in hand. Right. So that literature can never be divorced from all the social and political struggles that we’ve had to undergo to contest what it means to be an American and therefore to contest who is allowed into the canon of American culture and can be called an American Master.

Joe Skinner: Wow. Can you talk a little bit about your experience watching Apocalypse Now when you were a kid?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In the early 1980s my parents brought home a VCR. I think they were actually pioneers in terms of this technology, consuming this technology. And I think after I watched Star Wars a dozen times, Apocalypse Now was one of the first movies that I turned to, and I don’t know why. I mean back in those days you actually had to go to a video store and rent the videos and there was a limited selection, you know. And I don’t even know how I heard about Apocalypse Now except that I was already sort of a war junkie at this time at 10 or 11 years of age. So anything about war interested me, and I sort of I think vaguely understood that it was about Vietnam and I understood that I was from Vietnam. I’m not even sure I’d even seen anything about the Vietnam War yet at that time, and so watching that movie was a really weird experience because my experience of watching war movies had been through watching John Wayne or Audie Murphy in these really highly sanitized versions of World War II, for example. And then here comes this really psychedelic, weird, violent, obscene film. And I think I just wasn’t ready for it. I watched it from beginning to end, and I understood very little about the beginning and the end which are very strange. But what I did understand was the middle, which is actually a little bit more conventional, and watching that movie was a really difficult experience for me because the middle of the movie is all about the American sailors massacring the Vietnamese civilians. And I know in retrospect obviously that Coppola was doing this in order to exhibit the brutality that was going on and what American sailors were doing and all of that. But from my perspective as a little kid watching that movie, I was identifying with the American sailors, as I would watching a John Wayne movie, up until the moment they killed Vietnamese civilians. Because at that point I realized I was also a Vietnamese person and that my only role in this movie was to be like those civilians on the boat getting killed. This was really my first moment of real exposure with the depths of American racism. In my own personal life, I had only rarely encountered direct racism to my face. And somehow this moment even though it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t like an individual doing this to me, it felt intensely personal because I knew that this was being directed at me. Not that I think Coppola was doing it on purpose. I think the power of racism is such that he didn’t have to do it on purpose. The assumption could simply be that Vietnamese people had no speaking role whatsoever in this American imagination. Americans don’t think of that as racist, but it is racist. And I think I understood it viscerally and intuitively at that point and it would take a very long time for me to try to work through it to understand it, to understand how popular culture can be racist, to understand how narratives can be racist, can be incredibly powerful. You know I would go back for example and I would read,  roughly around a few years later I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness on which the film was loosely based, I read Chinua Achebe’s critique of Heart of Darkness as a racist story, even if it was aesthetically a masterpiece, for Achebe, it’s still a racist story. And I think those two things are utterly compatible. Great works of art can be utterly racist because they are expressions of deep racism within the culture. And so it took me a long time to understand, to make sense out of this, and to understand that my mission as a writer besides writing something great hopefully, was to also contest this deep-seeded racism at the heart of the canonical tradition that Apocalypse Now and the Heart of Darkness both represent.

Joe Skinner: And so was this experience really the seedling for what led to The Sympathizer?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think so because–but it wasn’t the only thing. I think so because from that point onwards I began to be very interested in the Vietnam War. I read everything I could that was available in the library which meant reading things that were way beyond my comprehension and my ability at 10 or 11 or 12 years of age, and I began to realize that there was very little written or filmed from the perspective of Vietnamese people, whoever they happen to be. And this history that was so important to me was being understood and articulated entirely through the perspective of Americans and mostly of white Americans. And I was an American, but I was not one of those Americans. And that meant that by the time I got around to writing The Sympathizer, I had spent 30 years thinking about the Vietnam War in one way or another both as as someone who was reading books and watching movies for entertainment, but also as a scholar who had been grappling with it as well. And so yes I became a scholar at least partially in order to make sense out of these works of art I was confronting. And this perception that I saw in the American imagination that the Vietnam War was to be understood purely through the American point of view and that we the Vietnamese people who were the ones most affected by the Vietnam War were to be rendered secondary, if at all rendered in the American imagination. And that this for me was something that I really would have to confront both for myself as a person but for myself as a writer because I was an American and yet not an American in this experience. And I wasn’t going to let that simply happen without me protesting against it in my own way.

Joe Skinner: Well The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer in 2016. So it seems like a very successful protest at least in terms of getting the kind of cultural recognition that the Pulitzer affords to a work of art. American Masters has a film coming up on fellow Pulitzer winner, Native-American writer N. Scott Momaday. For him, it was a huge surprise, and for the Native-American community a huge sense of recognition. What was your reaction to winning the Pulitzer and what was the Vietnamese-American community’s reaction?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: My reaction to winning the Pulitzer was pretty much utter shock and astonishment, you know, and also filtered into that was this awareness again of this process of canonization and what an award means and all of that and my awareness as a literary scholar that awards are not simply given out for some kind of universal idea of literary merit. But they are deeply contextual. I think The Sympathizer is a good novel. Whether it’s a great novel, time will have to decide that. Whether it’s worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, whether it was more worthy than any other book published that year. Time will have to decide that, right? But I think it’s a good novel. But what does the Pulitzer recognize? It’s a cultural and political function for the Pulitzer as well. So I think that partly my understanding of the Pulitzer is that it is a recognition of what America has done and what America has not said about the Vietnam War and giving someone like me the Pulitzer Prize… The odds of that happening were actually pretty good. Maybe not for me but somebody would come along. This is a mechanism of American society. You know we are a society based on genocide and conquest and imperialism and slavery and all these kinds of things and we are also a society that’s based on this idea that we are above and beyond of those things and how we are above and beyond that is that we allow people like me and N. Scott Momaday to write novels that get the Pulitzer Prize. That’s the conundrum that we’re in. And I think that anybody from our traditions who gets the prize like this has to be aware of that. You know we don’t win the Pulitzer Prize in order to then keep the Pulitzer Prize for ourselves or whatever literary prize or whatever literary recognition, we don’t become American Masters simply to say we’re the masters of the universe now. No. I mean I come from a tradition that says you win this prize in order to use this prize in order to bring attention to the very conditions that make this prize a necessity and to grow to help the other writers who are part of this tradition to continue doing this work that’s really crucial. And so that’s why I think the Vietnamese-American community responded so positively to this prize because they recognize that it’s not just for me, it’s for them too. Even if most of them had not read the novel, and they probably haven’t read the novel yet, they recognize that this is a transformation. We can ride on the cultural capital of this to transform what it means when we say we’re Vietnamese-Americans. We can now point to this book and say, look you got to read this book if you want to understand our perspective on the Vietnam War. But it’s only the beginning because it really my understanding of the Vietnam War, and of Vietnamese history and there are Vietnamese-American readers who object, who don’t agree. You know and that’s perfectly fine. But what the Pulitzer Prize should enable is not simply that I should write more books but that other Vietnamese-American writers should have more opportunities to publish their works and broaden our understanding of this history.

Joe Skinner: So what led you to put together your first short story collection, The Refugees?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When I started to think that I could become a writer, this was in college and then in graduate school and I thought, well I’m not ready to write a novel yet. So I’ll just write short stories because they are short so they will be easier and they’ll be a good training ground before I get to the real serious business of writing a novel. And of course short stories are actually really really difficult to write. I didn’t figure that out until I was in the middle of it, it took 17 years to write that short story collection. And again the impetus behind it was to write about Vietnamese people, mostly in the United States but also in Vietnam. And to tell stories that were of interest to me. So it was really a haphazard way of writing this book. When I was writing it I mean, I didn’t have an overarching theme beyond Vietnamese people and then I think as the book evolved I began to see that they were about refugees and that if they were about refugees they were also about haunting and about loss because that is something that binds all refugees together, Vietnamese and otherwise. And then finally, the last step in writing that book was also to think that I’m also writing a book that I believe is about Vietnamese people and about refugees but it’s also about these universal experiences. They’re completely commensurate with each other. And I wanted to demonstrate that I could also write about people who are not Vietnamese. So that’s why the book has stories about people who are not Vietnamese written from their perspective. And that’s partially because Vietnamese people don’t live their lives simply with Vietnamese people, we interact with everybody else and the lives of Vietnamese people are completely integrated with these other people. And of course as a writer I want to demonstrate that I can do other things besides write about people who are just like me. I can write about anybody that was partly the ambition in The Refugees is to tie the lives of Americans and Vietnamese together through this universal experience of refugees and what they’ve brought to the United States and what the United States did to them.

Joe Skinner: Well I felt a tremendous amount of empathy when I read the book. And I was really surprised because I read that the stories actually came together in piecemeal from over a long period of time. But it feels so cohesive. Was there kind of an editing process to make that cohesive feeling or were these truly just disparate pieces that you then chose and collected?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well I think that hopefully if they’re cohesive part of the reason why is that there is at least a certain historical frame for them, the refugee experience. They are unified by these ideas that I mentioned about how refugees are bound together by haunting and loss so that those threads run throughout all the stories and give them that coherence even if the stories are all about different individuals who don’t actually overlap with each other. And I think that what happened in the process of writing the stories is what happens to every writer. You know you suffer through writing a story through multiple drafts like one story, the opening story, Black Eyed Women, took 50 drafts over 17 years. To the writer, to someone like me, it’s a horrible experience and it’s not a cohesive experience and you experience the story in fragments. But if you do the job right, at least for a realistic short story after that process what the reader encounters is something cohesive. The reader doesn’t see all the labor and the suffering. Doesn’t see the seams in the story and that’s the way it should be for that kind of a short story. So if in fact you did experience empathy and did experience the collection as something coherent, then I did my job and I didn’t expose you to all the nasty kinds of stuff that went on behind the scenes.

Joe Skinner: Can you talk a little bit about the difference between identifying as an immigrant versus identifying as a refugee?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Americans think of the United States as a country of immigrants whether they like it or not. Americans still fundamentally believe that immigration has happened to this country. Some Americans think it’s made the country great some Americans think it’s made the country worse. But immigration is still fundamental. So when a newcomer to the United States, or someone who’s a newcomer but who’s been here for a few decades calls herself or himself an immigrant to other Americans, Americans can immediately make sense out of that whether they like it or not. A refugee is different because a refugee is actually not a part of the American mythology, is not really a part of the American dream. Americans don’t generally think of refugees at all and when they encounter refugees they sort of automatically simply subsumed the refugee under the general category of the immigrant which then allows Americans to make sense out of them, because in the American imagination. Immigrants come to this country because of the American dream. America is a great country. The immigrants come here to try to better themselves. That affirms America to Americans, even if they want to kick those immigrants out or keep them from coming. Refugees have to be subsumed under that category for Americans because it makes that American mythology work. But if you were to actually think about the refugee and why the refugees came to this country oftentimes it’s because of desperate conditions that the United States helped to create. Right. So the Vietnam War for example, or what’s happening south of the border of the United States in terms of drug wars, in terms of American intervention in Central America in the 1980s. These all helped to create refugees. But if you call these people refugees then you have to start thinking about American culpability and American responsibility and then you think it’s easier to call them immigrants or undocumented immigrants. In the case of people coming from Guatemala for example. So that’s why it’s been important for me to say I’m a refugee and not an immigrant because I don’t want to let Americans off the hook by pretending I’m something I’m not. And I want Americans to think about why I’m a refugee. Why my family are refugees, why most of the Vietnamese people in this country who are here came as refugees. And I call myself a refugee so that other refugees can hear that happening. Because a lot of refugees, former refugees, simply call themselves immigrants without even really thinking about it. And when I bring it up to them they say, “Yeah. I call myself an immigrant because no one really wants to talk to a refugee or about what a refugee experience is like. It’s too uncomfortable. And it’s too stigmatizing to call myself a refugee.” And so I want to stand up and say I don’t care about the stigma. I want to call myself a refugee so that we can have this conversation about how I happened to come here and how all these Vietnamese refugees happen to be here.

Joe Skinner: Well thank you so much. You know, there’s one quote from The Refugees that really sticks with me because I just can’t quite figure it out. It’s at the end of Black Eyed Women, one of the stories that you wrote. The character says, “Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our own, then leave them here to be found. Garments shed by ghosts.” What does that mean?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: As a writer, I struggle constantly with the question of, are stories important? I think stories are important. Many people I think in this world don’t think stories are that important, even if they live with stories all the time. So part of my task as a writer is not simply to say, “Read literature, it’s good for you.” Part of my task as a writer is to go out there and say, “Look stories are all around us.” ‘Make America Great Again’ is a story, for example, there’s a very powerful story right. OK so there’s that going on. So I think a lot of people who don’t believe in the power of stories would simply say, “Stories are just things you guys make up. You writers, for example. They don’t really matter. You know they’re just entertainment or they’re just fictions you’re just wasting your time.” And yet I want to insist that in fact, yes we do fabricate stories, we do make up stories, and yet they’re really really crucial. They’re really really powerful. Make America Great Again is a story that is I think in fact haunted by ghosts, ghosts of the past. I mean Make America Great Again says, hey, there are all these ghosts of the past for the people who believe in Donald Trump that they believe have been suppressed and they need to come back. And there are all these other ghosts who have been sacrificed to American history that are going to be erased yet again in that narrative. And so for me as a refugee, as a Vietnamese-American, there are ghosts that haunt me as well, of my past, of history. And one of the reasons I became a writer is because of that haunting, is because of that legacy. And so in that particular story I wanted to make it literal. It really is about ghosts. I think being a writer is oftentimes about being haunted by something that’s really crucial to us and then trying to turn that somehow into a story that is a fabrication but is nevertheless absolutely crucial.

Joe Skinner: Thank you so much for coming in.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks for having me.

Category: Interviews


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