Piper French interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen about his books, The Sympathizer, The Refugees, and The Displaced in this article for Asymptote.
In his nonfiction treatise on memory and the Vietnam War, Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen invokes the German writer W. G. Sebald’s concept of “secondhand memory”—the impact of war and trauma on those “seared at too young an age to know exactly where the scar is.” For Nguyen, these “intimate legacies bequeathed to us by families and friends” are part and parcel of the refugee experience. Like Sebald, whose career was devoted to chronicling the damage done by a war that ended when he was one year old, Nguyen was born too young to remember the events that shaped his life, country, and time. Only four years old when his family fled Vietnam, eventually settling in California, he recalls almost nothing of their journey.
Literature and film, too, are a form of secondhand memory, lending us knowledge of a place or time that we haven’t experienced directly. But that knowledge is never neutral, as Nguyen shows in Nothing Ever Dies. Tim O’Brien, Denis Johnson, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Dispatches—for a long time, these were the scripts by which Americans understood our involvement in Vietnam. The story was the war’s impact on the American psyche (and, more tangibly, its veterans, irrevocably compromised by the horrors of combat, suffering from PTSD and addiction). Within this canon, Vietnamese people—fighters and civilians alike—are ghosts: out of focus yet still indelibly present. Even when they are afforded some measure of humanity, their subjectivity remains elusive.
Nguyen aims to reconfigure this canon entirely—both by chipping away at the stone edifices of American representations of Vietnam (even as he occasionally pays homage to them) and conjuring new possibilities in their place. The war figures heavily in his writing, but he accesses it by and large from the perspective of the Vietnamese people affected by it. The narrator of his debut novel The Sympathizer, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, is unparalleled in recent memory—alert, acerbic, mordant, leaving nothing and no one unexamined and found lacking.
The Refugees, written laboriously over a period of seventeen years but ultimately published two years after The Sympathizer, explores the aftermath of the war from a range of perspectives: a ghostwriter who writes accounts of the traumatic experiences of ordinary people while struggling to repress her own trauma; a black American veteran, reluctantly returning to Vietnam to visit his daughter who has fallen in love with the country; and, in what Nguyen has called the only autobiographical story he has ever published, a young boy caught up in the complicated politics of his parents’ market.
Nguyen has an uncanny talent for repeating genre-specific variations on a theme throughout his work. One of The Sympathizer’s most trenchant subplots, involving an American movie set where the narrator has been called in as a consultant, is a viscerally funny and disturbing fictional riff on many of the same dynamics that he discusses from a theoretical lens in Nothing Ever Dies. Nguyen’s Twitter observations—he is an active user—may end up as kernels of future essays or motifs in an upcoming novel. As a public intellectual, he constantly seeks to trouble assumptions about himself and his work, taking issue with the way that people categorize “immigrant” or “minority” fiction and rejecting the notion that he should, as a writer of fiction about Vietnamese refugeehood who is a Vietnamese refugee himself, be made to speak for an entire diaspora.
Most recently, Nguyen edited The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, a collection of short essays. He also curates diaCRITICS, a blog dedicated to a new generation of Vietnamese American literature, and teaches at the University of Southern California, where he is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity. We spoke in early March.
In the introduction to The Displaced you talk about not actually remembering so much of your own refugee journey. Issues of remembering and forgetting pervade Nothing Ever Dies and The Refugees. How did this inability to recall such a foundational experience compel you to grapple with the dialectic of memory in both your fiction and nonfiction?
It’s not unusual for someone whose life has been shaped by a particular history to become rather obsessed if they don’t remember what that history is. In my case, the issue was that no, I did not remember what had happened to my family in Vietnam, nor most of the details of the experience that had brought us to this country. And yet, that history had really been fundamental to my family’s life, and to my own. So I felt that it was necessary for me to dwell on that history, both the history that I could research and the history that I could not remember. It’s preoccupied me ever since I was a child.
When I became a writer, it was a matter of bringing a lot of focus to that history—to approach it from different angles, whether it’s a scholarly one in Nothing Ever Dies or an attempt to connect to other people. In editing a book like The Displaced, what was really crucial was for me to make very explicit that this history that had shaped me had also shaped many others. It was important for me to gesture at how critical it was for refugees to share in each other’s experiences and each other’s histories. We could present a model for other people. How can we expect people who are not refugees to think about these experiences of displacement if we didn’t think about our own mutual experiences of displacement as well?
Do you feel like there’s an essential continuity between your experience and the experience of the other writers who you feature in The Displaced?
As different as they are, we still share this same history of displacement. David Bezmozgis talks about being an expert witness in a court trial—that wasn’t something I had to do, to take up the role of witness for somebody else’s experience. But I think there are thematic continuities, even if there aren’t necessarily historic continuities. Some of the most basic continuities are around this sense of displacement, this sense of loss, this necessity of looking back at the past and retracing footsteps—either literally, in some cases, or figuratively. Also, again, this sense of empathy that so many of the writers have—certainly for their own families and communities, whatever those communities happen to be, but also a very deliberately cultivated sense of empathy for other displaced peoples.
One thing I’ve been really consistently struck by when speaking to asylum seekers as well as resettled refugees is how this internal logic of the refugee journey is something that lends itself to traditional narrative. There’s this equilibrium at the beginning, then an event happens that shakes that equilibrium, leading them elsewhere, and so on. And of course, this narrative potential can be weaponized in a really troubling way—in the asylum interview, for example, refugees have to “prove their trauma” to gain asylum by telling this story that’s sufficiently convincing to the asylum officer. Even well-meaning narrative versions can sometimes treat the lived experiences of refugees as trauma porn. I’m curious—how have you navigated this dilemma in your own work?
I think it’s easy to recognize undersung heroic dimensions when writing the stories of refugees—either autobiographically or as a journalist or novelist. Refugees have to overcome huge obstacles, and their very identities are challenged; they have to come up with new identities.
By definition, they have to embark on these very difficult journeys. Of course, the degrees of difficulty and trauma and so on will vary, but they’re nevertheless journeys that lend themselves to narrative, as you say, and sometimes it’s a very heroic narrative. I think part of the power of refugee experiences is that on the average, these are very normal people who didn’t choose their lives. They didn’t choose to become heroic.
So all of these [challenges] are very powerful for narrative. But when these very personal stories become very public stories—when refugees write their stories as books, for example—they become sucked up into the machinery of representation, what you called potential trauma porn. I’m very cognizant of that, and in fact I’m in the middle of writing a piece precisely about this. My mother died recently and she had a very heroic life, from my perspective, but from somebody else’s perspective who didn’t know her but happened to come across her, she would just look like a normal person, an Asian woman, not heroic at all.
So how does one tell that kind of story? That’s the challenge that I’m facing. I resist the temptation of representation—of trying to turn her story into something for publication. All that is potentially very dangerous. Especially when somebody like me is telling her story—speaking for her. So how do we get around that? For me, part of the key is to transform the story of an individual like my mother or any other refugee into a larger story about the history that produces refugees. My mother’s story is interesting beyond its own personal relationship to me, for what it has to say about how millions of people were drafted into histories that they did not want.
The responsibility lies not just with telling the story of the individual refugee but with laying the blame, or at least the assessment, with these larger forces—these countries, militaries, exploitative bodies that forced the production of all of these refugees in the first place.
You consider yourself a Marxist. How does that identification inform your fiction and critical writing on memory? I’m thinking of this line in Nothing Ever Dies: “Until those whose memories are left out not only speak up for themselves but also seize control of the means of memory making, there will be no transformation in memory.”
That’s a directly Marxist argument, and it relates to what I was just talking about, which is that the lure of humanism is both very powerful and very dangerous for writers. As writers, of course we’re interested in human beings, human stories, human trauma, and all that is very compelling for readers. But when we write these powerful stories about individual people, we have the illusion that we’ve made a difference. And of course we have—people read the books, they’re touched emotionally by these kinds of stories, and that’s great. But to the extent that the stories that we’re telling are about people who are weaker, in some way—they come from a small country, or a forcibly removed population, they’re underrepresented collectively—individual stories don’t change the conditions that produce those refugees in the first place.
Publishing is an industry like any other. Well, it’s different than others in that it’s staffed by liberals, but it’s still an industry marked by inequality. That inequality is an outcome of colonization, of racism, of structural forces that are also related to the very kinds of histories that have produced refugees. So there’s a contradiction there: these individual stories that we tell about refugees or other exploited populations are being produced by a publishing industry that itself is the outcome of exploitation and inequality. Unless we actually change that, we’re still going to keep on telling very human stories about very human beings, and yet, the conditions that have dehumanized them are not going to change.
I think for me, being a Marxist and a writer means that I’m not only interested in telling individual stories, I’m interested in drawing attention to the mechanism of how we tell stories: who gets to write them, who gets to read them, how they circulate. Also, that we resist sentimental humanism. I just read a Korean writer, Han Kang, whose novel Human Acts is about the Korean uprising in Gwangju in 1980. It was suppressed by the Korean military dictatorship, who massacred many of the civilians there. The “human acts” of the title is partially about the resistance of these civilians who were rising up, but it also refers to the massacres. For Han Kang, these are both human acts. For me, one of the things that a Marxist aesthetic draws our attention to is that there is nothing sentimental about the human at all.
Speaking of this question of sentimental humanism, I’ve noticed that much of the critical response to your work relies on stock language that’s used to talk about the work of “minority” writers, and you’ve been very resistant to this. The construction “giving voice to the voiceless,” for instance, is something you’ve pushed back on. I was struck by this line in the introduction to The Displaced: “Many of the voiceless are actually talking all the time. They are loud, if you get close enough to hear them, if you are capable of listening.”
In an essay for the New York Times, you wrote on this same subject: “That’s the problem with being called a voice for the voiceless . . . we would rather deal with a solo voice than a chorus, or cacophony, of voices.” Do you ever have doubts or fears that people read your work as a stand-in for actually engaging with these communities?
Yes, of course. It occupies my mind because I think it’s still very prevalent, unfortunately. The means of literary production and representation are out of the hands of any one writer, including myself, and that means we are subjected to all kinds of easy, sentimental, stereotypical ways of reading our work and our being, which includes that whole trope of being “the voice for the voiceless.” And so there has to be a constant, exhausting effort at pushing back against these notions—and it’s constant and it’s exhausting because we don’town the means of representation. The machinery of literary production will keep on rolling on and publishing bestsellers and selling them under the same tropes, and of course there’s a marketing mechanism built especially for so-called minority or underrepresented writers.
For me, there’s two ways of dealing with that. One is to continue to bring up these kinds of issues in my nonfiction voice, through interviews and essays. It’s also necessary to try to do this through fiction, to make sure that readers get it, that they’re at least confronted with an awareness of how representation is working, how it’s a mechanism of power. In The Sympathizer, there are some very deliberate chapters where I draw attention to the mechanism of representation.
Fiction that doesn’t draw attention to these issues, no matter how powerful it is at the level of drama and identification, can be very easily consumed by readers who are not very self-conscious about these issues of representation and inequality and reading books from writers who talk about cultures these people don’t know about, treating these writers as if they are voices for the voiceless, as if representation was a transparent act. It’s just a huge battle. It’s a constant fight until the day that we actually own the means of production, which is a very, very long way off.
You’ve said that you don’t want to be a translator of the refugee experience or Vietnamese culture. I’m curious how that principle, which makes a lot of sense to me, fits into the role that you have taken on as a “public intellectual”—writing essays for the New York Times, for Time magazine. Do you feel the burden of constantly explaining these things—which you write about so well, but that do seem like basic truths that I suppose might feel radical to some readers—my son is an American citizen, it’s possible to love your country and criticize it at the same time, this is how you pronounce my last name?
The work that I’m doing in the public world—writing op-eds and magazine articles and going around the country giving speeches—is work that has been done before me, by other writers; it’ll be done after me by other writers. This is because the inequalities that I’m looking at, the injustices, are borne out of some very fundamental contradictions in our society and in the world, which are the outcomes of colonization, war, racism, slavery, and so on. We as writers are completely embedded in the contradictions.
On the one hand, I can say I don’t want to be a translator or I don’t want to be the representative, and on the other hand I’m going to go out and write these kinds of op-eds, which some people will treat as if I’m translating or representing, even if I say at every opportunity: I’m not the voice for the voiceless. But if I don’t do these kinds of things, who is going to do them? There may be other people, but there aren’t that many. Sometimes I look at those people who do become anointed as “voices for the voiceless” or the representatives of, let’s say, the Asian American community—and they’re wrong! So now that I have the opportunity to say something, I can’t let this go unchallenged, right?
I suppose the way out of it would be not to take up the opportunity—not to write the op-eds, not to do the speeches. And that, to me, seems like a concession.
Right—that’s not a solution either. There’s no right answer.
The answer, unfortunately, is to inhabit the contradiction. I think a lot of people are confused by contradictions. I mean, no one wants to feel contradictory. People want resolutions, they want clear-cut answers. But if you live in a contradictory society, there will be contradictions. You can’t run away from those—you have to go directly into them. That’s what it means to occupy this very ambiguous position of being a representative who doesn’t want to be a representative, of speaking of issues for other people, even though I don’t want to claim that position as a voice for the voiceless. And my solution for that—my temporary Band-Aid solution—is to both speak and at the same time say, I am not the representative.
I want to turn to The Refugees. You told Paul Beatty that The Refugees was very much shaped by a sense of pressure of what was or was not publishable, an awareness of the audience, that you didn’t necessarily feel by the time you wrote The Sympathizer. How do you feel like that sense of obligation or constraint comes across in the text?
I think The Refugees is a more earnest book than The Sympathizer, a more modest book. It’s not necessarily a flaw, I guess—for example, The Refugeeshas been adopted by more places for their book clubs, or campus reads, because The Sympathizer is probably a more challenging book—a more obnoxious book, in some ways. So there were some advantages to The Refugeesbeing a more earnest and quiet and readable book. I’m happy that there are readers out there for The Refugees who are moved by it for various reasons.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to have struggled through The Refugees and to have written it in such a way where the struggle is not evident to readers. I think that the book has its function; it does its work of talking about refugees and their experiences. There are readers out there who need these kinds of stories.
A running theme of The Refugees is money—lacking it, trying to get it, pretending you have more of it than you do. So many of the collection’s characters are basically presenting a façade to the people around them, and often that’s in large part related to economics. In “War Years,” for example, Mrs. Hoa is pretending to be richer than she is; the narrator’s mom is pretending that she has less money than she does. Vivien, who goes to Vietnam to meet her Vietnamese family, is painting this American-dream success story for them that turns out to be completely untrue. Was this a comment on the requirements of identity-construction for Vietnamese refugees in the U.S., or the way social class functions more broadly?
I think there’s two answers. If I were a critic reading The Refugees, I would talk about all these manifestations of money and materialism as signs of immigrant and capitalist and refugee anxiety. If you’re an immigrant, and particularly a refugee, money is going to be a huge issue—because you don’t have it. And you want it. You need it. That’s how you both survive, wherever you happen to be, but in particular, in the United States, that’s how you become American. That’s how you make your claim on this country—to prove that you can be a capitalist, even at a small level.
So all these characters are on the hunt for money for various reasons, or they’re trying to pretend that they have money because they know that’s what other people value. There’s a way in which you could read The Refugees in this fashion, as a book that reveals the contradictions and anxieties of capitalism, particularly around the experiences of refugees, who have been produced by a war that was waged, at least in one sense, for capitalism.
I don’t necessarily think that that is what the average reader who reads The Refugees is going to get, because the stories themselves, at the level of fiction, certainly express deep concerns about money and materialism and capitalism and assimilation and upward mobility—because that’s the way life is. The stories are a depiction of what it means to be a Vietnamese refugee, but also what it means to be American. It’s realistic because this is pretty much a very significant portion of what American life is like: the anxiety around making it—and keeping it. Most Americans engage in this capitalist lifestyle, and newcomers like refugees know that they have to do so as well.
I’m thinking of your discussion of the scholar Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire in Nothing Ever Dies, and your close readings of various works of literature and film and actual memorials that aim to reflect or preserve some aspect of the war. Reading The Refugees, I saw an interesting corollary in the specific landscape of California and these spaces that refugees have carved out for themselves in a strange land: the New Saigon Market, the banquet hall, or the Vietnamese restaurant that the general’s wife opens in the midst of LA’s Chinatown in The Sympathizer, or their home, where the narrator tastes her pho and has a sort of Proustian recollection of his mother’s kitchen. In your fiction, you’re also reshaping—or at least adding to—the cultural mythos surrounding the state: the California of The Refugees is not really the California of Didion, Thomas Pynchon, of Hollywood, of the Doors or the Grateful Dead, even if it sometimes shares space or overlapping edges with it.
The comparison to other Californian writers and the way they have imagined Californian spaces is an interesting one for me, because I’ve certainly read those writers and knew that I wanted to have The Refugees set mostly in California, especially in the urban spaces that I lived in and was familiar with, from San José to Orange County. That’s what we do, right? We’re deeply rooted in place and when it comes to writing realistic fiction, we evoke those places, which Didion was doing with Southern California as well.
I specifically wanted to lay claim to those spaces because they were very particular and important to Vietnamese refugees, and therefore to me. And yet, they had not registered in the writings of so many other Californian writers. I don’t think that I was making a polemical point necessarily, but simply by focusing on the lives of Vietnamese refugees, I was going to illuminate these spaces that they lived in—the lieux de mémoire that you were talking about.
And yet now, these spaces that the Vietnamese diaspora in California created for themselves are gone, as you note in your introduction to The Displaced. In your opinion, what has been the effect of this secondary wave of change and loss on the Vietnamese community in California—one borne not of a transnational displacement but rather driven by urban policy and investment?
I’ll use my parents’ store, which I wrote about in the story called “War Years,” as one example. They opened the store in 1978 or so, and so much struggle and sacrifice happened there. That shaped my life, watching what my parents went through. When they retired, they rented the store out, and then the city forced them to sell that property so that the city could develop the area. They had to band together with other property owners who were also being forced out by eminent domain and sue. That was a very American experience!
San José built the brand-new city hall right across the street from my parents’ property and then put a parking lot on my parents’ property, which upset me. It was just a parking lot for literally over a decade. Recently, I discovered that the city sold the land to property developers for a very large sum of money—and now, the property developers are building a very luxurious condo complex on top of my parents’ property.
Now, this is the normal cycle of redevelopment and gentrification that you gesture at—and the Vietnamese are a part of it, because when my parents and I came in the 1970s to downtown San José, no one wanted to be there. It was a rundown place that the Vietnamese really helped to economically develop. Now, most of those stores have been erased, replaced with fancier cafés and bars and things like that. On the one hand, it fills me with pain to see that taking place. On the other hand, I reflect upon the fact that Vietnamese Americans, including myself, participate in that same process of gentrification. To be a part of the gentrifying process and also to be a victim of the gentrifying process means that we, as Vietnamese Americans, are squarely within this ongoing transformation of the urban Californian landscape, with all of its pain and all of its profit at the same time.
Was that something your parents expressed a sense of loss about—this first place where they had been able to make something of their own in the United States, razed and turned into a parking lot?
My family didn’t talk about it so much in terms of loss. What we talked about was the injustice of the city basically taking my parents’ property by eminent domain and offering them a pittance. I think both my parents’ focus was to make sure that they at least got a fair price on their property. Not surprisingly, it’s the second generation, my older brother and I, who were more incensed about it on their behalf.
Even if you were too young to remember it, your generation grew up in the shadow of the war. Do you have the sense that a third generation of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American writers are resisting or moving away from a literature focused on the war’s impact—or are there still too many ghosts?
For the generation that preceded me and for my generation, the war is definitely a preoccupation because people lived through it or the direct outcomes of it. As for the younger generation, it’s a little harder to say. The younger writers who are writing fiction—people like Ocean Vuong and Violet Kupersmith—are still shadowed by the war. For the writers who may be a little less so, this is partially due to a generational effect—but also due to a difference in genre. The young poets, I think, are not as concerned. There are writers who aren’t doing anything with the war at all. And that’s fantastic. There is something about poetry—because it’s not necessarily based on narrative—that allows poets to not think about war, which is deeply narrated. I think that’s exciting. That’s not something to be resisted—it’s something to be welcomed, because it will change the direction of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American literature.