Timothy Tau interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen about writing and story-making in this article for Hyphen Magazine.
I recently got the chance to sit down and talk with Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen about his most recent book, the short story collection The Refugees, which has recently garnered the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Nguyen is known for winning the Pulitzer, among other awards, for The Sympathizer.
TT: For The Refugees, you said that there was potential interest in developing the collection into a TV series, where each story would be split up into a separate episode?
VTN: We were thinking of using one of the opening stories of The Refugees, “Black-Eyed Women,” as a frame for a series because that story is about a haunted ghost-writer who has to deal with her past as well as her literal and figurative ghosts and who also had to write a story out in order to address her history, and that task would hopefully serve as a good frame for her encounters with other refugees and their stories, which would then be personally told and examined in turn by her.
TT: So it would be from her (the female writer protagonist of “Black-Eyed Women”) point of view?
VTN: Yeah, that would then give the showrunner and writers of the show the opportunity to come up with new stories about refugees, within this framing concept, and this idea of a series dealing with refugee stories, set in L.A. L.A. is a city of refugees, filled with people from many, many different types of backgrounds.
TT: “Black Eyed Women” was told from the first-person perspective of a woman writer, and “Fatherland” ends the collection in third-person, so my question is when you wrote those stories, did you consciously choose to adopt those particular perspectives? And what informed your choice of the perspective to use for each story?
VTN: I knew that I was writing a collection of stories that was primarily about what happened to Vietnamese people. But at the same time, I tried to demonstrate that obviously, whatever population we’re talking about, it could be Vietnamese people, it could be white American, it would really be fiction to imagine that such people would be completely homogenous and never interact with anyone else. So there’s this idea that if you’re going to write about some ethnic population, for example, that it’s going to be one singular group, but in reality, it isn’t. So if you look at Vietnamese people, they are very diverse, in all kinds of different ways, and they encounter all different types of other people, so I wanted to write stories that would primarily be about Vietnamese people, but would also show them interacting with others, and you can have stories from other people’s perspectives that were about Vietnamese people. And there are a couple stories in there like that, such as a story from the perspective of a Latino guy [“The Transplant”] and another story from the POV of an African American man [“The Americans”].
TT: A diversity of views and also stories.
VTN: Right. And in terms of planning the short story collection, I was sort of systematic, because I didn’t leave everything up to chance, but had a spreadsheet where I marked out how this one story was written from a man’s perspective, and thought therefore, I should write another story from a woman’s perspective; and similarly, if I was writing a story from an old person’s perspective, then writing a story from a child’s point of view. That was actually very deliberate on my part, to have a diversity of viewpoints for a story collection: there’s men and women; and young and old; straight and gay; Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese as well.
TT: That really shows. I really got that feeling of you describing the diversity of voices within the Vietnamese American diaspora. You mentioned being true to the voice of a child, and that brings me to my next question about the story “War Years” — where you narrate from the perspective of a Vietnamese American youth growing up, and there’s that great line where you have the father ask the son to pay back all the money the father has spent on his child’s tuition and education, and I’m sure that’s an all-too-familiar scene to other Asian American readers.
VTN: That is probably the only autobiographical story that I’ve ever written.
VTN: Yeah, and it was because I had a very hard time thinking that my own life was interesting. And to write about myself … I think I only wrote this story because I wanted to commemorate San Jose and growing up there in the 1970s and 1980s, which was a very formative period in my life, and about half of the events in the story happened to my family and me, and half of it is made up, for example, the story about Mrs. Hoa, the person that is trying to extort them. And even that was loosely inspired by one thing that my mother mentioned to me: that people came to the store and asked for money to support the anti-Communist cause. So that incident just stuck with me, and I elaborated upon it in the story. The mother in the story is pretty close to my Mom; yet, the father in the story is not like my own father, but more of a comical figure — nonetheless, that line you picked out where the father gives the son an ultimatum — my father really did do that.
TT: I feel that’s important as a writer because you talk about that tone and trying to find a voice, and I noticed in another story, “The Other Man,” that there were some stylistic similarities with stories from James Joyce. For this collection, specifically, did you find any author, writer or style that influenced The Refugees? Or was it a conglomerate of different types of writers?
VTN: You mentioned James Joyce. “The Dead” was a story that I had looked at — initially, I had looked at it to figure how it worked — and that style led to thinking about how it was shaped, elaborate Joycean descriptions on the surface that still had a complex interior, and a story that was oriented more towards interior characters, moving towards epiphanies, and so on. I think “The Dead” was undoubtedly influential in terms of contemporary modern fiction but also influential on me — because in writing The Refugees, the challenge I had was just learning how to write. Because I didn’t, for example, go through an MFA program, and I was mostly self-taught as a writer, aside from a few early writing workshops. So I really was looking for models and trying to find a voice, and the type of short fiction that I was drawn to probably descended from someone like Joyce and became manifested in contemporary writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, whose Interpreter of Maladies I admired a lot, in terms of the short story form, and also Edward P. Jones’ Lost In The City, which I think is one of the perfect short story collections, like an African American version of Joyce’s Dubliners, and I wanted to do something similar. I really didn’t want to write Dubliners, but I wanted to write something more like Lost In The City, which is one of my favorite books and probably my favorite short story collection. That bears on who Edward P. Jones is — he writes stories that are completely about African Americans, all set in Washington D.C. — stories that are very intimately focused on the lives of all kinds of African Americans, men and women, young and old, and are all very emotionally moving. The book as a whole is greater than its individual stories. And that is what I wanted to do. I don’t know if I pulled it off, but that was sort of the ambition in The Refugees, and The Refugees was one of those books where I was learning how to write, where I was looking for a voice and also looking for approval from the literary establishment. And in essence, it’s quite a different book than The Sympathizer.
TT: I definitely got that sense, that it was very similar to Dubliners and Lost In The City or even Yoknapatawpha County for Faulkner, Winesburg, Ohio for Sherwood Anderson, or Don Lee with Rosarita Bay in Yellow, but in this case it would be Little Saigon in Orange County — and I was curious, since you said you grew up in San Jose, which has a sizable Vietnamese American community, but there is probably a larger one in the OC in Little Saigon, so I was wondering what is your motivation for setting “The Transplant” there?
VTN: For “The Transplant,” I was thinking about where the setting should be. And because it was obviously very important to me that the story would be about Vietnamese people but also evoke specific kinds of places at the same time, e.g., where Vietnamese people or the diaspora currently lived, and the homeland as well — so the question became, well, should the setting be concentrated in one place, or should it be collectively dispersed across different places, as I was trying to give a sense of the heterogeneity of the Vietnamese American experience? And I ended up deciding on the latter option of evoking several places, whether if it was in Vietnam or in the United States, so I think the one concession I made in trying to focus things was that at least all the settings I wrote about were based in California. So I set stories in San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Little Saigon in Orange County, Los Angeles because these were the neighborhoods that I had lived in — or were familiar with, in terms of concrete settings in my mind — where Vietnamese people were living and settling, and I think the reason why I picked Little Saigon in and of itself is because I thought, well, some writers have already written about Little Saigon like Aimee Phan, and people already knew about Little Saigon, so I wanted to try to at least acknowledge it. And since I had stories already in San Jose, I thought I should set other stories elsewhere, and that was really the impetus for having a diversity of settings. And of course, the contrast between Little Saigon and Saigon itself was something that the collection deals with as well.
TT: Talking about setting brings me to my next question about “The Americans,” which I was really blown away by. I just feel that the writing was amazing and the characters were just so unique, adeptly-crafted. It was just a very virtuosic story. With characters like the MIT Robotics researcher boyfriend, you have a bunch of different cultures — the African American father, the Japanese wife — and I was doing research on the story and found out that there was maybe a previous version of it that won an award from the Chicago Tribune, and the setting was not Vietnam but somewhere else like Cambodia or Laos? So what prompted you to make the change of setting to Vietnam in the second revised version?
VTN: The story was originally set in Cambodia, and it was published in that manner in the Chicago Tribune, and the reason for setting it there was that I wanted to demonstrate — in talking about Vietnam, and talking about the Vietnam War, which is omnipresent and sort of more like a shadow in the book — and invoke the fact that the Vietnam War happened in other countries. That’s what a lot of my research is about — in my [nonfiction] book Nothing Ever Dies, which is about the Vietnam War, and also how the war is remembered in other countries like Cambodia, Laos and South Korea — and so I wanted to enact that fictionally as well. So aside from that, the challenge I had in writing “The Americans” was that I wanted to write a story about people who were not Vietnamese. And for example, there is a story about a white guy that never made it to the collection.
VTN: It just didn’t make the cut. But the Mexican American character of Arthur Arellano in “The Transplant” made it, and I wanted to write about an African American character from his POV because number one, it was an important technical and cultural challenge, and the political point which could be made there was that we, as Vietnamese or Asian American writers, can write about different kinds of characters, and not just about white people. Often times I feel that when Asian American writers feel the need to not write about Asian Americans, they write about white people because that’s the racial binary that’s given to us, and that’s what people accept, so it’s crucial to show imagined and actual acts of political solidarity with other people of color. That’s why I feel it’s important to have characters like Arthur Arellano and James Carver (in “The Americans”) in the book. So after I made that decision, it became a question of “how do I handle his blackness?” And in the Chicago Tribune version, the fact that he is black, I’m not sure is even said, but my editor for the book said you might just want to mention it once that he’s black. Just to orient the reader. So my agent made that concession to my editor, who then relayed it to me, just to use the word “black” at least once in the book version vs. the Chicago Tribune version because I wanted to see if you could write a story about someone who was black without ever saying it. And then of course at that point I then wanted to make it as challenging as possible for me as a writer and give him a Japanese wife and a mixed-race daughter, and have the daughter fall in love with a robotics researcher from MIT.
TT: Did you know any robotics researchers?
VTN: That was actually a true story. When I was at the institute [the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard] where I was writing this story, one of my fellow fellows was a Sri Lankan robotics scientist who had devised this mongoose device to aid in the demining of mine-ridden lands in a poor country, and so that whole bit about the mongoose and the robot is lifted entirely from his research.
TT: Back to something you were mentioning before about how Asian Americans have an obligation to write about certain types of characters. I really enjoyed the story about the father-son relationship, “Someone Else Besides You,” and part of it — and I’m not sure if this was deliberate or unconscious — I thought it was very much inspired by the Neo-noir genre because it was set in L.A., since a lot of the tone and the mood of the piece reminded me of Neo-noir films and stories and especially The Sympathizer being within that sort of hardboiled detective genre because it also won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. So my question for that story is if those genre influences from noir or Neo-noir conscious and/or deliberate? And maybe when you were writing about L.A., did you ever have any interest in doing a homage or doing references to detective fiction or crime fiction that the city is sort of known for via Chandler, Ellroy, Cain, etc.?
VTN: I think you’re absolutely on-target, and that was very much on my mind. A noirish tone, and it fit with the character in that story, someone who is sort of detached and also in a quest for something. In this case, venturing within himself. But also, as we eventually discover, engaging in the mystery of his ex-wife’s pregnancy that he uncovers throughout the course of the story. And I think in writing the story, I very deliberately set it in L.A., and I very deliberately made it a story that traversed L.A. and went all over the place in L.A. So he lives in Echo Park but he works in Burbank and goes to the Wilshire Corridor, and his father’s girlfriend lives in San Gabriel Valley, so he has to drive all over L.A. and all over the freeways because his ex-wife lives in Baldwin Hills. And so it’s supposed to be a story about living in the diversity of L.A. neighborhoods as well. In one way it can be read as a mystery story, because again there are those mysterious encounters with his ex-wife, but also there’s a mystery with his father, and the father’s relationship with his dead mother, and her sort of haunting that pervades the story.
TT: Have you ever thought of writing more of a formally genre-oriented mystery or crime story?
VTN: Oh yeah, because I’m a big fan of noir, whether if it’s in film, or books, or novels. But I don’t think I’ll ever write a straight noir, even though The Sympathizer is that; one of the genres that The Sympathizer very much takes from is noir writing, and the narrator is very much meant to evoke a kind of noirish detective-like narrator as well, and one of the reasons why noir is interesting to me is because of the political connotations that are in the genre — for example, many of the noir practitioners were expatriates of Europe, escaping from Nazism, blacklisted from Hollywood during the McCarthy era, and so on, and the stories in noir often are deeply political, concerning various nefarious plots and evildoing that are really not being carried out by the working class but by the elite and the powerful. So it’s very much a genre that is exportable and exploitable by someone like me as a writer with political concerns, but I probably won’t write straight genre fiction because I feel that it is probably not my strength. And of course there are people who are really, really good at doing it and working within the constraints of the genre, but because I also have a lot of other interests that exceed genre, it would likely be hard for me to keep working within one genre or framework.
TT: You speak about genre, and this is more of a question about your daily practice as a writer and how you approach the craft of writing. The Sympathizer was a really amazing novel, and The Refugees was a really incredible collection of short stories, but novels and short stories are two completely different types of literary forms. So I was wondering what you viewed as the challenges in writing a novel vs. writing a short story? And could you also speak on your daily routine or daily approach, craft-wise, to the writing of both?
VTN: The background to the answer is that I learned how to write through struggling with short stories, and there’s not really a neat answer to your question; so it was really trial and error, literally over a period of 14 years. The stories in The Refugees were written from 1997-2011 for the most part, with a brief return in 2014 to finish “Black-Eyed Women,” which is the story that I started with in 1997. So that’s literally 17 years from beginning to end. And because I was also a working academic at the same time, it was really difficult to live the ideal writer’s life and get up every morning and write four hours a day or whatever, so all the writing would come in spurts. I’d write whenever I had free time from teaching or grading. Or write much more during the summers. I wrote a lot when I had a year to do a [MacArthur “Genius”] fellowship and things like that. And it was really trial and error, in terms of learning the art of writing the short story and also in terms of how I worked as a writer. So for example, from 1997 until 2004, I was an assistant professor and I was writing fiction in the margins because I was mostly trying to survive in an academic career, and then I got a [MacArthur] fellowship for something, just to write fiction, and I thought, great, I’m going to be able to do what I couldn’t before and write eight hours a day. I tried to do that but it was a total disaster. Too much time! So I figured out that the most I could do was four hours, and for whatever reason that’s my ideal time limit.
TT: Everyone has their own process.
VTN: So by the time it came to writing the novel, I was tired of writing short stories, I hated writing short stories and never wanted to write another short story again, partly because I felt it was a huge struggle but also because I felt I didn’t truly understand the form of the short story. And I think the stories in The Refugees, they work, but if you were to ask me to explain why they work or why I made certain choices versus other choices, it would be very hard for me to explain that to you. When it came time to writing The Sympathizer, even though I had never written a novel before, it felt really natural. I realized that was my medium. And partly that was because I had struggled for 14 years up until that point writing short stories. And also struggling for 14 years with thinking of various theoretical and academic concepts. But I wanted to put out more fiction, I just didn’t know how. And there was a great period of time from 2011-2013 when both of those things came together. I somehow knew how to write fiction, through sheer dint of struggling with short stories and knew how to integrate the theory that I was concerned about because I had struggled with those theories and theory in general for so long. So I can’t really give you a rational answer about how those two things were able to come together except that the best explanation is from The Karate Kid: “Wax on, wax off.” You do that long enough and hopefully at some point you become proficient. And the question of technique begins to recede into the background. And you can let your consciousness and your unconsciousness flow. That is how it went for me because when I was struggling with technique, you know, that’s all in the foreground — e.g. how do I craft a scene, how do I write a sentence — all your energy is devoted to doing that. It’s much harder to have to think about how to veer towards something, how to break away, how to do other things, and that was what happened to me — I got into a moment where I could just write a sentence and not worry about it. Write the scene, not worry about it. Handle dramatic structure fairly intuitively, and at that point, be compelled about (my writing). Some parts of The Sympathizer had ideas and a voice that was able to emerge as a result of that process. And writing The Sympathizer, in regard to your question, I had a really ideal moment — where besides the art and the voice really coming together, I also had two years off in which I didn’t have to do anything — I literally wrote for four hours every morning, then I would have lunch, go to the gym and run for an hour, and that’s when a lot of the thinking for the next day’s writing came into play. And so all of that was a part of the writing process.
TT: So after the publication of The Refugees, is your view on short stories more favorable? (Laughing)
VTN: I wouldn’t say never, but currently I have little desire to write short stories right now, but maybe at some point I’ll come back to them. I think that it’s mostly novels at this point. Right now it’s the sequel to The Sympathizer. And in the free time that I have, instead of writing short stories, which consumed a lot of my attention, it’s a lot easier to write nonfiction pieces, Op-Eds, those kinds of things, and to try to work out some other kind of writing life in nonfiction that way. But I think short stories are really, really difficult to write. At least for me, it’d be difficult to do short stories and long fiction at the same time because short stories — as I’ve discovered at the cost of great pain — require just as much attention, if not more, than the focus you give to writing a novel. And since the novel has to take priority in my life, I find writing nonfiction much less distracting compared to short stories.
TT: Certainly. And the discipline you need for short stories; I remember reading somewhere about a writer saying that writing short stories was like writing music, where the focus is so much on the rhythm, the pacing and the subtle nuances such that it’s way more intense versus writing a novel. Maybe it’s just as intense but you have to focus your energy for a shorter time frame.
VTN: I’ve always thought of short stories as “pop songs.” A great pop song is two to four minutes long, and they’re incredible, right? And I have the same feeling when I read an incredible short story. Everything worked. And one of the reasons why I love Lost In The City is because not all the stories are equally great, but they add up to an amazing album. And that is more than can be said for other albums, where you might have two or three “great” pop songs, but seven or eight you don’t want to ever hear again (laughing). So when I was writing The Refugees, I was working on that concept in that I’d rather write a book that would be a cohesive album, rather than have two or three great singles, which wouldn’t be as interesting. So that was the ambition — not certain if that worked out or not, but to use your musical metaphor, that was my image of a short story, and The Sympathizer was more like something on the level of a symphony, using the music metaphor, and I was listening to a lot of this kind of Philip Glass minimalist symphonic music while writing it because that musical rhythm was something that matched the narrative rhythm of the book.
TT: You mentioned you are writing the sequel to The Sympathizer; what else are you working on as your next projects?
VTN: That is pretty much the next project. It picks off where The Sympathizer leaves off, literally on the refugee boat, and the journey takes them to Paris of the 1980s. It’s the most important project for me because there are things that are, to me, unfinished with The Sympathizer in terms of the narrator and the larger story I wanted to tell. But as for other projects, as you know I have an active academic teaching schedule, so that’s a project where I’m going out and going to different parts of the country, meeting audiences, people I’ve never met before, grappling with ideas from some of the stories that I’ve dealt with or never dealt with before, and for me, that is sort of an extension of my pedagogical work, being able to reach these kinds of audiences through the speaking circuit. And the work in nonfiction — currently I’m working for The New York Times as a contributing Opinion Writer for a year and trying that out. And that’s another kind of audience, another strategy to try and understand how that feels because that work is critical too; it’s not as critical as writing fiction for me, but I think it’s important, in terms of the kinds of issues that are important, as Asian Americans and as progressive people, to express to a national audience.