“Born In Vietnam But Made In America”: The Story Of A Pulitzer Prize Winning Vietnamese Refugee

Viet Thanh Nguyen is interviewed by Lieutenant Colonel David R. Siry, Director of the Center for Oral History at the United States Military Academy, West Point.

Việt Thanh Nguyễn was born in Ban Mê Thuột (now Buôn Ma Thuột) in the Central Highlands in the Republic of Vietnam. His parents were Vietnamese Catholics who migrated south in 1954 when the country was partitioned. The North Vietnamese conquered South Vietnam when Viet was four and his family fled by boat. They eventually ended up in a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania in 1975. After a few years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the family traveled to San Jose, California, where his parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store. Their goal was to provide for their two sons to give them a better life. Viet did well in school, eventually earning a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, he is a Professor at the University of Southern California in the English Department and the American Studies and Ethnicity Department. In this interview, he talks about being a refugee, settling first in Pennsylvania and later in California. He describes the challenge of maintaining family ties in a nation split by war. He discusses the normalization of relations between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the United States, and various perspectives within the Vietnamese community in America. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, he reflects on what his award means to the community he represents. Finally, he explains what America and concepts identity mean to him.

Here is the Transcript:

David Siry: Good afternoon. Today is the 28th of March, 2019. And I am here in the West Point Center for Oral History with Dr. Viet Nguyen. Sir, welcome. I’m so glad you’re here with us today to share your story.

Viet Nguyen: It’s a pleasure to be here.

David Siry: Sir, could you please spell your name for our transcriber?

Viet Nguyen: Viet, V-I-E-T, Thanh, T-H-A-N-H, Nguyen, N-G-U-Y-E-N.

David Siry: Sir, thank you. Tell me a little bit about your childhood. You were born on March 13, 1971. Correct?

Viet Nguyen: Actually, I was born on February 13, 1971. And I hope that’s reliable, but what happened was that when you’re refugees, and you’re being processed at a refugee camp, you have to tell whoever’s processing you what your birthdate was. My father apparently got it wrong as March 13th, 1971, so that is my American legal birthdate. But that is not the actual birthdate.

David Siry: How about that? That’s fascinating.

Viet Nguyen: And not unusual. Sometimes people made up new birthdates to gain themselves a few years.

David Siry: How fascinating. And tell me where you were born, please.

Viet Nguyen: I was born in Buon Ma Thuot in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

David Siry: Okay. And what did your parents do when you were in Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: By the time I was born in 1971, my parents had become successful merchants in Buon Ma Thuot. They had migrated from the North to the South as refugees in 1954. They were poor peasants, basically, and worked themselves up through various kinds of businesses. Things I’ve heard about include being tailors, nurses, jewelers. And I think their final business at the end, at the end of the war, was running a simultaneous jewelry shop and auto parts shop.

David Siry: Okay. Fabulous. Now when did your parents get married? Do you know?

Viet Nguyen: They got married in I think it was 1954, which was the same year when the country was divided.

David Siry: Okay. Did they know each other up North [crosstalk 00:02:01]?

Viet Nguyen: Yes. They were in the same, they grew up in the same rural Northern village about 30 minutes from where Ho Chi Minh was born, and so they knew each other as teenagers.

David Siry: Okay. And migrated together down South.

Viet Nguyen: My mother’s family completely migrated, which would mean all of her sisters and her parents, but my father was the only one from his side to migrate, so he left behind his parents, his brothers, and his sister.

David Siry: Okay. Do you still have family up in the Northern part of Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: My father’s family is still there, so I went back to visit. And my grandfather had a compound where he raised his family, that is his four sons and one daughter. And three sons still live there with their families, so it’s a very crowded compound at this point.

David Siry: Okay. But it’s nice that the family is able to stay together. Do you have any siblings?

Viet Nguyen: I have an adopted sister, who’s still in Vietnam, and my older brother here in California.

David Siry: Okay. How much older is he?

Viet Nguyen: Seven years older.

David Siry: Okay. All right. What do you remember about your early childhood? And you left Vietnam when you were about four. Right?

Viet Nguyen: I left Vietnam when I was four, so I actually remember Vietnam little.

David Siry: Okay.

Viet Nguyen: There’s a few images, but I have no idea if they’re actually real, if they’re trustworthy.

David Siry: Sure.

Viet Nguyen: And really the memories that I have that are narrative, that is that they constitute a story that I’m fairly certain happened, began in the refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.

David Siry: Okay. Excellent. So we can jump forward to that. Do you remember anything about the end of the war or fleeing Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: I think the earliest possible memories I have were probably on the boat leaving Saigon. So what basically happened is we were living in Buon Ma Thuot when the communists captured Buon Ma Thuot in March 1975. It was the first town captured in the final invasion. My father was in Saigon on business. We were cut off in terms of communication. My mother had to make all these terrible decisions on her own, and we fled by foot from Buon Ma Thuot to Nha Trang, which is about 180 kilometers away. Found a boat to Saigon, found my father, and then repeated the whole process again a month later when the communists came. And our way out, we tried to get by the airport, through the embassy, didn’t work. So we made it to the docks, which is where we found our way out.

Viet Nguyen: And we were separated again at the docks, so my father jumped on one barge, and my mother jumped on another barge with my brother and I, not knowing what had happened. And so we were very lucky that we were reunited on a larger ship. And this is basically where my fragmentary memories begin of being on the bigger ship and not having food and water and things like that.

David Siry: Okay. And then was your first stop Guam en route to Indiantown Gap?

Viet Nguyen: That’s a good question. I get confused whether it’s Guam or the Philippines, but I’m pretty sure it was Guam. Yeah.

David Siry: Okay. And then you ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap in ’75.

Viet Nguyen:  Yeah.

David Siry: Okay. What was it like for you? What was life like in Fort Indiantown Gap?

Viet Nguyen: Again, the memories are very fragmentary. We were in army barracks. I remember that, a lot of people. But I think at four years of age, it was a camp, so there was still fun to be had. So I think the real memories begin actually after we left the camp. And in order to leave a refugee camp, typically Vietnamese refugees had to have American sponsors. So usually a church or a family would sponsor an entire family. That wasn’t the case in my family’s situation. I don’t know why. It’s apparently a very unusual situation because many Vietnamese, all the Vietnamese refugees I tell this story to say, “This never happened to us, where our family got separated,” which is what took place. And one sponsor took my parents. One sponsor took my, at that point, 10 year old brother, and one sponsor took four year old me.

David Siry:  Wow. Okay. And did you go to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?

Viet Nguyen: Yes.

David Siry: How was the family reunited?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think the policy was the separation that happened to the family was meant to be a benevolent one to allow my parents time to find jobs and get on their own two feet. And so I think eventually what happened was that my parents wanted me back. I was four years old, so there was a reasonable request there, so I think it was only a few months. And my parents had gotten a house in sort of a working class suburb of Harrisburg, working class neighborhood. My brother wouldn’t come back for a couple of years.

David Siry: Wow. Okay. Was it a Vietnamese community that you moved into, or was it just mixed?

Viet Nguyen: It was definitely not a Vietnamese community. I think there were Vietnamese refugees in the community because, again, since Indiantown Gap was one of the four camps, there were a lot of Vietnamese refugees who ended up in Pennsylvania. A lot of them would eventually leave, but at that point in 1975, they were there in different places, so we knew some Vietnamese refugees as well. But I think the neighborhood was, from my memory, primarily white. But I could be wrong because I returned as an adult some 15 years agon and went to that working class neighborhood. Seemed to be primarily white. But we had lived in a different house, and it was a ghetto, and that was primarily African American at that point when I returned as an adult. So I have no idea if that was the case back then.

David Siry: Sure. Okay. Do you remember how you were treated in the community you moved into? Were they accepting of you?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I was there in Harrisburg from the ages of four to about seven, and attended a Catholic school there. And from my memory, it was a wonderful time. I had a lot of fun, had friends in the community. We knew kids in the neighborhood. So from that perspective, everything seemed to go fine. The only negative incident I can remember is when my brother and I went trick or treating, and these kids stole our candy. But was that just an individual thing, or was it because we were Vietnamese? I have no idea.

David Siry: Okay. And were you beginning to learn English at this time? Did you know any English prior to coming to the United States?

Viet Nguyen: No. And by the time I left Harrisburg for San Jose in 1978, I was completely fluent in English, and I was reading in English very well. So I have no memory of learning English, so I must credit my teachers, whoever they were, for giving me a crash course because that certainly wasn’t the language we were using at home.

David Siry: Okay. And you moved later to San Jose, California, and your family ended up opening up a Vietnamese grocery store. How established was the Vietnamese community in San Jose when your family moved there?

Viet Nguyen: By 1978, there was a pretty established Vietnamese refugee and Vietnamese American community at that point. We had heard about San Jose from a very close family friend of my parents, who had actually fled with my mom from Buon Ma Thuot, and she had gone to San Jose first and opened, it was probably the first Vietnamese grocery store in downtown. And she had told my parents about the better economic opportunities and a larger Vietnamese community there. So by the time we came there, my parents found initial work working with this family friend in her shop, and then opened their own grocery store sometime soon after that. So in other words, there was enough of a community to support at least two Vietnamese grocery stores within two blocks of each other.

Viet Nguyen: And I grew you in downtown San Jose, which was at that time in the late ’70s, a fairly rough neighborhood. And there were significant numbers of Vietnamese refugees in downtown San Jose because I played with them, saw them on the bus, and so on. So there was definitely a community that was already growing in downtown San Jose.

David Siry: Okay. Do you know anything about how … You mentioned this friend that your mom fled with. And then they were able to link back up while your family was in Pennsylvania and this friend was in San Jose. Do you have any idea how your mom was able to reestablish communication with this friend across the United States?

Viet Nguyen: That’s a very good question. I don’t know.

David Siry: Okay. I didn’t think you would, but I figured I’d ask. Okay. Fascinating. Did you have any role in the family grocery store as a young boy?

Viet Nguyen: Yes. I think for the most part, the running of the grocery store was a very difficult experience for my parents. They worked there constantly, 12 to 14 hour days. And it was a physically difficult experience, very stressful for them. So I think they actually wanted to shield my brother and I from that as much as they could, so they didn’t make us work there every day. I really don’t know why we worked there on certain days and not on other days. But I did spend some time there doing things like stamping prices on the products, for example. But it was not a hard labor. And I think it was something, a place that I didn’t like to be in because when I was growing up, obviously, I was growing up as an American as well as a Vietnamese.

Viet Nguyen: And so for me, the grocery store was very Vietnamese. Only Vietnamese was spoken there. Mostly only Vietnamese products. And so I thought this is a strange place compared to the rest of the city and what I was seeing on TV. But the store followed us home, and so actually, I did a lot of work for the store at home because my parents would come home, they’d cook dinner. And then we would have to process all the checks, the cash, the food stamps, the aid to families with dependent children coupons. And I was in charge of stamping all those things and doing the ledgers and doing the math, adding them up, at a very young age. So I was involved in that part of the family business, and that meant that we didn’t finish work until late at night.

David Siry: Did you draw any lessons from that work that you would do at home for the store that helped you later on in life?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I certainly think that watching my parents toil and sacrifice and exhibit great discipline taught me tremendously about the importance of all those things. My parents were certainly lecturing me about all of that, but watching them do those things was something that was crucial for me because it was very painful for me to watch that. And I had the typical refugee or immigrant child’s life in the sense that I was aware that my parents were sacrificing all these things for me, but at the same time, they weren’t spending any time with me. And so as a child, of course, you just want your parents to spend time with you. So there was an emotional cost in addition to the physical cost of this life for the family. But I also internalized all these habits as well. So I’ve grown up to be a person who toils and sacrifices, and has generally very good discipline in my life because I’ve seen that, absorbed that from my parents.

David Siry: Okay. As a young boy, what were your interests growing up in San Jose? What sort of things did you enjoy doing?

Viet Nguyen: I liked to read, that was it. And I think that was my fantasy life in stories was an escape from watching everything that I just talked about in terms of my parents existence. And so these were the roots of me eventually becoming a writer, was this total immersion in the world of books, but also of TV and the movies and TV shows on TV.

David Siry: What sort of books did you particularly enjoy, or any authors that stood out to you?

Viet Nguyen: I read everything, so I read typical children’s literature, like Curious George and the Tintin Comic Books, for example. But at a very young age, I also crossed over into the adult fiction section of the San Jose Public Library because there were no boundaries. And so I was a very good reader at an early age. So I remember, for example, reading All Quiet on the Western Front when I was in the sixth grade, and then reading science fiction and fantasy that you would expect of that age, and then also reading Vietnam War fiction, American Vietnam War fiction at a very young age, inappropriate age of 10 or 11 years old because I was curious.

Viet Nguyen: I was sort of a typical American boy who liked war stories, liked to watch these war movies on TV, and liked to read war books, and so I was drawn to this genre, which that was what led me to reading these American accounts of the Vietnam War.

David Siry: Okay. In San Jose, did you experience any racism growing up that stands out to you?

Viet Nguyen: Well, it’s hard to say. Like I said, it was a very tough neighborhood, which meant there was a lot of violence there. Now was it violence that was directed at us as being Vietnamese or Asian? Or was it violence directed at us because my parents were shopkeepers, or both? I don’t know. But there was definitely violence. My parents were robbed in their store on Christmas Eve, and were shot in their store when I was young. And then when I was in high school, a gunman broke into our house and tried to rob us at gunpoint as well. He was white. And again, whether race was involved, I have no idea.

Viet Nguyen: The rest of the racism that I experienced, I would say would be on the level of slights at the level of culture. So there was rarely, there were no instances were people were attacking me physically for being Asian or being Vietnamese, but there were childhood insults that were revolving around race that I remember very vividly, racial terms, slant eye gestures, comments about whether I had fought in the Vietnam War from kids my age. So that kind of stuff was not unusual, I think. And then of course, I grew up watching American movies, and there was a lot of racism in American movies directed at Asians. And that was sort of a generalized racism that was out there.

David Siry: Okay. Did you feel welcomed into the community you were in, in San Jose?

Viet Nguyen: Yes. Growing up in downtown San Jose, it was a neighborhood primarily composed of Vietnamese refugees, Mexican Americans, and what was probably the white working class, or lower middle class. I wasn’t totally cognizant of class distinctions at that age. I knew the neighbors on either side of our house, for example, were white. But we lived one house over from the freeway entrance on a major street. It was not a nice neighborhood. So to be living in that neighborhood probably meant you were working class at that time. And so there was never any sense of hostility from our neighbors who were white, for example. And these were people who were of the World War II generation. They treated us quite nicely and had us in their homes, if necessary.

Viet Nguyen: And the other parts of the community, the Mexican Americans and the Vietnamese refugees coexisted. I don’t know if they were friends or not, but my best friend growing up was Mexican American from across the freeway. So in general at that age, no, it was a welcoming environment generally.

David Siry: Excellent. What issues did your family experience in your first few years in America? Any particular issues, good, bad, indifferent.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think my parents were very successful in Vietnam. So then coming here in the United States, they lost a great deal of their wealth, and of course lost a great deal of prestige and status coming here as refugees who had difficulty with the language. My mother never spoke great English. My dad spoke sufficient English, so that they could get restarted. So I think the difficulties there for them were obviously just rebuilding. In Harrisburg, they were seen even by their sponsors, as Vietnamese refugees, who would probably be just doing blue collar work. My parents, my dad has spoken specifically to me about that. He was given help getting jobs, working for example in a typewriter factory, Olivetti.

Viet Nguyen: But he said, “That’s what they expected me to do. And then they were so surprised when I bought my own car,” because he had money. They had carried some of their gold over with them. So the major difficulty for my parents was reestablishing, and then moving to San Jose and rebuilding their fortunes. That was their major challenge economically. But they were also cut off from their relatives, and they left almost everybody behind. And they were sending money back to support most of these people during the ’70s and ’80s when Vietnam was starving. It was a huge challenge. And then my mother’s mother died soon after we came to the United States. That was devastating for her.

Viet Nguyen: My father’s mother would die while they were away as well. And so the only parent that they would get to see before he passed away was my paternal grandfather when my parents were able to visit in the early return to visit to Vietnam in the early ’90s. And so I think that those early years were financially, physically, and emotionally very difficult for my parents.

David Siry: Okay. How did your family adapt to life in America while still maintaining Vietnamese culture and traditions?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that it was a survival necessity that they had to accommodate American culture in certain ways. They had to speak English to their neighbors, for example. And they had to speak English in order to acquire a home and to acquire a business. But internally, in the house, it was all Vietnamese. We ate Vietnamese food, listened to Vietnamese music, watched Vietnamese videos. And then the major social function was the church, Vietnamese Catholic church. So the Vietnamese Catholic population is very devout. And there was a large population in San Jose, so we had our own masses, our own priests, done in our own language. And that was my major contact with the Vietnamese community outside of my parents store, which was all Vietnamese.

Viet Nguyen: And so every Sunday, we would go to the Vietnamese Catholic mass. And after that, we would go eat Vietnamese food. And then I would eventually be sent to Vietnamese Catholic school for language study. So they went through a lot to maintain a Vietnamese environment.

David Siry: Okay. And in your opinion, what were the most important elements of the culture in tradition to maintain?

Viet Nguyen: Well, language was certainly very important. And it was also a challenge to maintain because I think, uniquely to our family, for Catholics, we’re a very small family. We only had two children. Most of the other Vietnamese people I knew had large families, so the maintenance of Vietnamese language tradition was a little bit easier because everybody could speak Vietnamese at home. So I grew up with fairly poor Vietnamese. And I would have to spend a lot of time trying to recover that. But the other way, the other things that were important were food, certainly, and religion because it was done in Vietnamese, and then finally customs. So it was very important to learn how to be polite, to be respectful, to learn how to call your elders by certain terms, these kinds of things. And we were not unique in any way, I think, among the Vietnamese refugee families for prioritizing these things.

David Siry: Okay. Did your family earn citizenship or go down that path?

Viet Nguyen: Yes.

David Siry: Tell me a little bit about that if you don’t mind.

Viet Nguyen: So we earned citizenship, and my citizenship was tied to my mother’s. I don’t remember exactly why. But I remember having to go to the INS. INS had an office in downtown San Jose. Going to the INS with my mother, so that she could talk to the INS officer and then take her citizenship exam, which she had to do at least a couple of times, I believe, and then to be sworn in as citizens. That was probably around when I was about 12, I think. When my parents became citizens, they legally changed their names to adopt American first names. That was a very interesting step because I’d grown up with parents who would tell me that, you, as me, are 100% Vietnamese. Kind of a shock when they became citizens and they changed their names to Joseph and Linda.

Viet Nguyen: Joseph was my father’s Catholic name, which is mine too, so that made sense. Linda, I don’t know, that’s just something my mom wanted. They asked me if I wanted to change my name. I said, “No.” I thought about it. But eventually I thought, “No,” I’m attached to my name in a strange way, despite that fact that I’d become very Americanized at that point. So that is how I remember my citizenship is that choice about the name and what would happen to my name.

David Siry: That’s wonderful. For school, you first attended Saint Patrick’s school during elementary years. And later you went to Bellarmine College Prep, and then for college you started at UC Riverside and UCLA before going to Berkeley. As you were growing up and going through school, elementary school, middle school, high school, was there any aspect that was particularly challenging for you?

Viet Nguyen: I think that I was very successful in grammar school going through Saint Patrick’s. I actually skipped a grade. But then when I got to high school, sort of lost motivation. And I think it was because I didn’t … It was an excellent school, actually probably the best school in the San Jose Bay area, but I was just lacking motivation because I think that I was showing early signs of not being connected to what I was learning. I felt that it was great to learn European history and American literature. But where was I in this?

Viet Nguyen: So it would take until college before I would become super motivated. And what happened was I went to UC Riverside. That was my last choice college because I was such a screw up in high school. And that was the biggest challenge, to overcome that and to make my way to Berkeley. And then also then at Berkeley, to be exposed to ethnic studies, to learn about the experiences of immigrants and refugees in this country, especially in literature, as well as history. And that was the way that I overcome the crises in education that I had. And that set me on the path to becoming a professor and a writer.

David Siry: Okay. And as you mentioned, currently you’re a professor at the University of Southern California in the English department and the American studies and ethnicity department. Correct? Tell me about the different types of classes you teach.

Viet Nguyen: I teach everything from the freshmen general education courses for people throughout the university, to courses in my majors in American studies and ethnicity, or in English, which would cover American literature, American culture, Asian American studies, all the way up to PhD courses, PhD level courses for graduate students in literary theory and culture and in cultural studies.

David Siry: Okay. What do you see your role to be in higher education? If you were to project for yourself, this is what I want to do, what is it?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I wanted to become an established influential scholar in my fields. That seems to have happened. And I wanted to have an impact as a role model for students and for the general public. That seems to have happened to some extent. I don’t know how much. But I think that my courses are popular, for example, and I publish op eds in national newspapers and magazines and so on. And that was an outcome of how I saw myself as an undergraduate and a graduate student that I wanted to do scholarly work that was serious. But I also believe this idea of being a public intellectual in some way, and so that’s a task that I think about quite seriously.

David Siry: Excellent. Let’s talk a little bit about your writing. What work are you most proud of?

Viet Nguyen: Interesting question. Well, it’s probably a tie between The Sympathizer, my novel, because it was so much fun to write, and it’s had the biggest impact of anything I’ve ever written, but also, my companion volume to that is Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam in the Memory of War. That’s sort of the scholarly culmination of the same amount of thinking that led me through The Sympathizer. And I think I see them as two bookends of a much larger project about war, memory, representation, Vietnam. One is a novel. One is a work of cultural studies.

David Siry: Excellent. What is your motivation for much of your writing? Or do you have different motivations for different projects?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. There’s a lot of motivations. I think number one would probably simply be as a writer, the art itself, the belief in the necessity of writing, of writing well, of writing better, becoming better. That’s what I think every artist or writer has to believe in. The art has to come first. And then after that, motivations have to come with wanting to tell a great story, but also to make interventions. To use The Sympathizer as an example, hopefully it’s a good story, hopefully it’s entertaining for people. But it’s also a novel that is very deliberately designed to provoke, to make certain interventions in American literature, but also in how we understand this thing we call the Vietnam War.

David Siry: Okay. You’ve received a number of awards for your writing, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal, and too many awards to name off. Which one are you the most proud of?

Viet Nguyen: It would have to be the Pulitzer. I think that’s made everything else possible. I mean, all the other awards, many of them are very nice, very nice to get them. But there’s obviously an iconic status to the Pulitzer. It’s globally known. And just to give you an example, when I won the Pulitzer Prize, I did not actually tell my parents about it. I was on the road, literally did not occur to me to call my parents and to tell them because I think, “Well, who am I to brag to my parents?” So then a day or two later, I’m still on the road, and my father calls me. And his voice is giddy with happiness, shaking with happiness. And he said, “Relatives in Vietnam called, you won the Pulitzer Prize.”

Viet Nguyen: So that was an instance where I realized, oh, this is … I knew the prize was obviously important in the United States. But it was important outside of the United States. People in Vietnam would register this, even if, so I was told, my name was censored in Vietnam. There were some reports where my name was not censored, and some reports where my name was censored, depending on whether the state was controlling the media. But this also meant that the Vietnamese Americans, who would never read my book, because it was well reviewed in the months before the Pulitzer Prize, but very few Vietnamese Americans read it. They also thought it was so important that this book won the Pulitzer Prize, not that they were going to read it, necessarily, some would, but because I won it for them.

Viet Nguyen: This is something that that Vietnamese American community could claim, knowing that the Pulitzer was this iconic symbol of American success. And so they’re very proud of that. And so that’s why I think the prize has the most meaning, not just for me, but because so many other people are invested in this prize.

David Siry: That’s fabulous that it means something to a broader community.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

David Siry: That’s wonderful. And I know you already mentioned that you have family that remained in Vietnam after your immediate family left in 1975. How do all maintain contact with the part of the family that’s still in Vietnam? And how has that changed over time?

Viet Nguyen: I think in the ’70s and ’80s, it was for my parents definitely through letters because I remember part of the cultural fabric of our lives were the Par Avion envelopes. Okay? So these were airmail envelopes. Letters would come from Vietnam. I remember these as early as the early 1980s. And they would come with letters, and they would come with photos, so this is how we learned that people died, for example, through these letters and photos. Then phone calls, eventually, not often because people in Vietnam had to have a phone in order to make this happen, and that wasn’t actually common in the poorer parts of the country where my family were living.

Viet Nguyen: Now it’s certainly through the phone. My father talks to people in Vietnam on the phone easily enough, but also through the internet. So I’m actually not sure if he emails relatives in Vietnam. But in my case, I’m connected with certain relatives in Vietnam on Facebook, for example. And so social media has helped to establish this connection.

David Siry: Fabulous. Now in the years when you had to rely on mail, prior to being able to send a letter directly to Vietnam, I’ve heard from a lot of Vietnamese that they had to send mail through France. And are you aware of that? Of course, you were very young at the time.

Viet Nguyen: It’s a very good question, and I don’t know, actually. I wasn’t paying enough attention to figure out how that was working. And of course, what I was also aware of was that in the ’80s, my parents were not just sending mail home, they were sending whole packages home. So for example, I remember in our store, we were selling boom boxes, those big stereos, big boxes, JVC or Sony. And they would ship those stereos home. Now how they got them home, I don’t know. And apparently, it was not because my parents, my family back home wanted to use the stereos, but they were going to sell them on the black market for money.

David Siry: Okay. And this is also a question that you may not know. But your Vietnamese store, or your family’s Vietnamese grocery store, sold a lot of Vietnamese products. Were products coming in from Vietnam during that time before normalization of relations? Do you have any idea how that worked for them?

Viet Nguyen: Not very clear to me how all that worked. I do know that to initially stock the store, my dad had to drive down to LA to get stuff. And then later, I would go with him to San Francisco to San Francisco Chinatown to get things. I don’t know if the products came from … I doubt that they came from Vietnam because in the ’70s and ’80s, Vietnam again was a very poor country. I don’t know what it was exporting. A lot of the products were probably Thai, Chinese, for example, like the rice staple. We had literally tons and tons of rice in this grocery store stacked up high in these 25 to 50 pound sacks. There was mostly Thai rice, for example. So a lot of the products, they could be used in Southeast Asian food, but they didn’t necessarily have to come from Vietnam.

David Siry: Okay. While you were in college, the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam began the process of normalizing relations. How did you, or your family, or your community, view normalization of relations between US and Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: I think that the Vietnamese American community in the big urban enclaves in, let’s say California, Texas, Virginia, had been publicly very anti communist. And so the public discourse is completely controlled by the anti communist populations through newspapers, through civic organizations, through elected officials. Privately, however, while some people hold that sentiment that there should be no negotiation, no rapprochement, nothing, no economic commerce or anything like that. Privately, lots of commerce, lots of communication and traveling was taking place. And that would even include anti communist people, some of them, including my parents. My parents are very anti communist, for example.

Viet Nguyen: But when relations were reestablished in ’94 or so, my parents took that opportunity to go home right away. And then for whatever reason, they scheduled it so that I was actually in school. I couldn’t go with them. So they went with my older brother. And so publicly, they would never make a big deal out of this. And I think that was key. I think community understood. People want to go home. They want to visit their families. No one got into any trouble for that. It was only if you made a public issue out of it, like if you took a public stand and said, “Hey, we should normalize, not just normalize relations with Vietnam, but we should foster relations with Vietnam.” That was a big no no. You could not do that, even to this day. Even to this day, if the perception is that you as a public figure are trafficking in relations with Vietnamese officials, the anti communist population in the community will target you, and it will become a big political issue, as it did become in San Jose in the last few years.

David Siry: Okay. It’s interesting what you said about public versus private because the war is tragic for families who are split like your family, where you have family still over in Vietnam, and you want to maintain communications, you want to maintain ties. And that’s one of the tragedies of the war, I think. In a Time Magazine article from November 15th, 2018, you discuss ideas in nationalism, patriotism, and identity. And you describe yourself as made in America, but born in Vietnam. And your origins are inseparable from three wars, the one the Vietnamese fought against the French, the one that Vietnamese fought against each other, and the one the US fought in Vietnam. Can you elaborate a little bit on how it applies to you and to the larger Vietnamese community in America?

Viet Nguyen: I think the larger Vietnamese community in America wouldn’t exist without this history of warfare. And of course, the second and the third largest Vietnamese diasporic populations exist in the United States and France, these two countries that had very intimate histories with Vietnam. The largest diasporic community exists in Cambodia. That’s a whole separate question. So when I say that I was born in Vietnam, but made in America, what I’m trying to say very succinctly is that my identity is inseparable from having been raised here. And having been raised here would not have been possible without the war. There was no reason for my family to be in the United States without the war. My parents did not want to be Americans, did not want to come to the United States of their own free will. They fled because they feared communism and because Southern, South Vietnam was allied with the United States at the time. That was the route that we had to take.

Viet Nguyen: So history has completely shaped me. And there is not crying about it, there’s no going back on it. We are who we are because of history. We just have to confront it and to deal with it. And so that’s what I try to do in my scholarship and in my fiction, is to confront what I think of as these historical realities of how colonization and the divisions over communism and the French and American presences have indelibly shaped 20th century Vietnamese history.

David Siry: Yes, sir. And that kind of leads into my last question for you. Near the end of the article, you refer to our beautiful and brutal America, which is a fascinating phrase. What does your adopted country mean to you?

Viet Nguyen: Well, my adopted country, I’m an American. I’m an American citizen. I’m culturally American. I’m fluent in English. I write as an American writer in an American literary tradition. I’m completely American with some Vietnamese. And that’s very, very crucial to me as a writer. It’s not that I make any claim to being Vietnamese in the sense of being wholly Vietnamese, or that I believe that I’m somehow split between two cultures, that old idea that I refuse to believe in. But indelibly, the Vietnamese experience and culture has shaped me. And it has allowed me to see myself from different perspectives. So I think for a lot of people who are raised just in one culture, especially if they are a part of the majority, however that’s defined, they see the world one way, whether that’s in the United States, or in Vietnam, or in France, and so on.

Viet Nguyen: Those of us who have been shaped by other histories, refugee histories, immigrant histories, and so on, oftentimes do not rest comfortably in one position, and cannot help but see ourselves from multiple points of view, because in fact, other people see us from multiple points of view. So even if I feel myself to be, as I was growing up, American, I was reminded on a regular basis that other people did not necessarily see me in that fashion. That was out of my control. And so that meant that I’ve always had a natural skepticism towards any kind of nationalism. That would include Vietnamese nationalism, but it also includes, for example, I’m sorry, American nationalism, but it also includes Vietnamese nationalism.

Viet Nguyen: So many of the things that I express are not just potentially uncomfortable for Americans, they’re potentially uncomfortable for Vietnamese people too. So I think Vietnamese and Americans are similar in the sense that most conventionally, many people in either cultures want to believe in nationalist ways. So I, going back to the American question, am perfectly capable I think of recognizing what makes America great, what makes America beautiful, because I’ve benefited from these aspects of American culture. At the same time, I can also see, I think, the United States from the perspectives of people who did not benefit from American greatness or American beauty.

Viet Nguyen: And I have to, I think as a writer, acknowledge these and deal with these, what I think of as realities of American experience and American history. So that’s where I come up with this idea that America is both beautiful, which is what we all want to believe in as Americans, and is true, but that America can be brutal as well, which is also as far as I can tell, a definite part of our history. And as a writer, I have to confront both. I have to confront the contradiction. I have to confront the fact that these two seemingly opposite things can exist simultaneously. That’s uncomfortable for some people. For a writer, it’s the space that I inhabit.

David Siry: Yes, sir. I am so glad you came in to talk to us today. Before we end, is there anything else that you want to say that I haven’t asked you?

Viet Nguyen: No. I think you … We talked about my entire life in a way that I didn’t expect. Thank you very much for your questions.

David Siry: Yes, sir. Well, I’m so glad you came in today. Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Category: Interviews


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