Hosted on The Asian American Literary Review, in an interview with Michael Collier, Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about his short story collection, The Refugees.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees was selected as the
University of Maryland’s First Year Book for 2018-19, and as part of a two-day series of events launching a “Year of Immigration” initiative at UMD, Michael Collier, Director of the Creative Writing Program, interviewed the Pulitzer-prize winning author and critic. The hour-long public interview took place on October 24, 2018 in the English Department’s Ulrich Recital Hall and was followed by an open question and answer period with students and faculty. The previous evening, Nguyen had filled to capacity the 626-seat Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, where he delivered the Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture entitled “Refugees, Immigrants, Americans: Changing Our Stories.” Nguyen’s visit to UMD was made possible by the College of the Arts and Humanities, the Office of Undergraduate Studies First Year Book Program, and the English Department’s Bebe Koch Petrou Speaker Series.
Read the transcript below.
Michael Collier: I want to focus on the stories, The Refugees, but we’ll probably do some wandering. First, can you talk about your path to becoming a writer? There’s an essay in the back of The Refugees that talks about it, but I’d be interested to hear you tell us.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, the path to becoming a writer probably began when I was in the second grade. I wrote a book and drew the pictures in it. It was a little contest—not a contest, a class exercise—to make your own book. It was wonderful because we got to do everything from writing and drawing to binding.
This epic was called “Lester the Cat.” [audience laughter] It was about—wow, I have no idea how this got in my head—a city cat who got bored of city life and ran to the countryside and found the love of his life. It was entered into a public library contest, and it won a prize, and I will forever remember this because my parents were working constantly, so they had no time to take me to the public library to pick up this award, so my school librarian, bless her heart, took me there on a weekend, on her day off, and that put the seed in my mind that maybe I would want to be a writer. And that led me to a lifetime of misery, basically. [audience laughter]
When I was graduating from college, I had to decide where I was going to go, and I was writing some stories at the time, but I had a pretty good understanding that I was a much greater critic than I was a fiction writer, so I decided to go get a PhD. I also had heard about something called tenure. I’ll let you guys know what tenure is. Tenure is what some professors get, and it basically means you can’t get fired. Even if you sometimes commit a crime, you can’t get fired. I thought, This is amazing! I’m going to get tenure as an academic and then I’m going to do exactly what I want to do, which is become a writer.
So that’s what happened. I got tenure. I’d been writing short stories for a decade on and off, on the backburner of my academic life. I had decided to write short stories because I figured they’re short, they’re easier to write than novels. Of course, poets know that isn’t true. Poems are short. They’re even harder to write than novels. That’s why I never became a poet. So I got tenure and I thought, I’ve been working on these short stories for going on a decade, I’m just gonna go off and write for a year or two, and I’ ll write a short story collection and I’ ll publish it and then I’ ll be famous. That was the thinking.
I was awarded a Fine Arts Work Center seven-month fellowship, and I got there, and as it turns out, it was seven months of mostly misery. I did not finish a short story collection. I did not become famous. [audience laughter] Instead, I spent most of it working on the story “Black-Eyed Women.” I had started that story in ‘97 and then it was 2004, 2005, when I was at Fine Arts Work Center, and I didn’t finish it until 2014. So basically, I spent 17 years working on that story and this short story collection and that’s how I became a writer.
For me, becoming a writer was partly about learning the art of writing, but mostly it was about suffering. It was about discipline. It was about acknowledging finally that writing was not about fame and success, all that kind of stuff. Although it’s nice! It was mostly about enduring and learning that being a writer is a very lonely experience. [laughs] That’s the core of it, despite all of the external recognition and publication. I sold The Sympathizer and I didn’t sell The Refugees. I thought at that point, I just spent 17 years of my life working on this book and I couldn’t sell it. [laughs] Okay, I can live with that. That’s the moment that I really understood what writing is about. In the end, it’s really about the writing and not about the publication.
MC: You were also being thwarted by the literary market because nobody wants to publish a collection of short stories and take a chance on a first-book writer. But if you have a novel to sell, then it’s a credential you can use to leverage the sale of the stories. I’m imagining that’s probably how it worked out for you?
VTN: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. I had the short story collection and my agent found one of my short stories in a small journal Triquarterly. He says, “Do you have a book?” I give him the short story collection and he says, “It’s great, but in order to sell your book in New York City to one of the big houses, you have to write a novel.” He says, “Give me fifty pages.” I always wanted to write a novel. Amazingly, after fifteen years of struggling with a short story collection, I discovered I could write a novel. I had no idea I could. I’d never tried it before. I wrote fifty pages.
He says, “It’s really good, but it’s so good that you need to work on the entire thing. You’ll get a much better deal.” So I write the whole thing [audience laughter] and we send it out and it’s rejected by thirteen out of fourteen publishers, but we do manage to sell it to the fourteenth publisher, but we don’t sell the short story collection. I think, Oh my god, I can’t believe this has happened. The Sympathizer comes out. It’s a success. My editor says, “Do you have any other books?” I say, “Well, I gave you that short story collection.” [audience laughter] He says, “I never saw a short story collection.” What?! I think my agent, he decided not to send it out and he never told me.
MC: Oh wow. What a coward.
VTN: No, I think he was a very good marketer. He knew we would sell the book for more after the novel.
MC: Oh, I see. Good point. I had been imaging you’d struck a deal for both books.
I want to go back to becoming a writer and learning the craft. In your essay, you talk about the patience you needed and the time you spent to learn technique, but you also talk about “a habit of mind.” And there’s another phrase you use, “enduring the grief of writing.” As a writer, I understand what grief is, but there’s something in the way you use that phrase that made me think you have something more particular in mind. I wonder if you could talk about what it means to you to endure the grief of writing, and also “habit of mind.”
VTN: When I took time to write The Sympathizer, I had the best time of my life. I had two years off and the novel just sort of poured out of me. It was sort of ecstatic and that was wonderful. But before that, in writing The Refugees, it was mostly pain. Literally it was 99% pain. I sat in a room, staring at a wall. And I’m not an interior decorator. It’s just like a bare box, okay? [audience laughter] And it was mostly rejection. The only person who really cared about this book besides me was my wife, and she didn’t really have a choice, I guess. When I was writing, there was no sense that the writing would actually ever lead to anything. I had the fantasies about prizes, publications, and agents and all that kind of stuff, but mostly when I say “enduring the grief of writing,” it was the sense that I could write a story for dozens of drafts. It was fifty drafts for “Black-Eyed Women,” which was the hardest story. The grief was knowing that this may never see the light of day.
Also the grief of not knowing that it would ever be any good. Outside of whether it would see the light of day, would I ever become a writer? Would I ever become good at what I was doing? I really wanted that. There’s no consolation for that kind of grief when you’re going through it. I had the fairytale ending when the book got published and so on, but as you’re undergoing the experience, there’s no guarantee. I had a fairytale ending, but what if I didn’t? What if the book had never sold? What if it never got published? What if I never became a published writer? That is the fate of so many writers. That’s why when people ask me about publication, I feel for them.
But I also feel that we’re doing it for the writing itself. The habit of mind is the discipline and the sacrifice that writers undergo for their art. I feel that if I hadn’t become a writer, I would’ve learned how to suffer at something else. I would’ve tried to become a chef or a gardener or something. A golfer. I don’t know. Something that requires the sacrifice and the discipline to some higher calling that requires grief, without the knowledge that you would become expert or good or famous or anything like that. I think there’s a certain personality that’s drawn to that habit of mind, and that’s what distinguishes writers, for example, from other people. There are many people who want to become writers. They fantasize about being writers. But can they endure the grief? Can they develop the habit of mind that requires them to just be alone, by themselves, and realize that they’re cut off from the world? Because that’s what writing or what any other art is about: doing it for that art and not for the world.
MC: Viet and I both went to Jesuit high schools, so we’ve had a particular kind of training or way of thinking about the world. [audience laughter]. When you just said, “to do something larger than yourself,” is that something the Jesuits taught you?
VTN: Were you raised a Catholic as well?
MC: Yes, yes.
VTN: Well, if you were raised a Catholic, then you know we were born for suffering and sacrifice. [audience laughter] The whole idea of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross for the greater good, for those who do not care, for those who do not know—that’s basically what it means to be a Catholic. I grew up being taught these kinds of things, but also watching my parents endure it as well. My parents are diehard Catholics. They wanted two things for me: to get a good education and to become a good Catholic. They got one out of two. [audience laughter] I’m not a good Catholic in the sense that I don’t go to church or do any of these rituals, but the spirit of Catholicism, its mythologies and its ritual of sacrifice and so on, the lessons of endurance and dying for the greater cause, to be a martyr—I totally internalized all of that.
MC: You can tell.
VTN: Oh you can?
MC: Yeah, it’s all over the work.
VTN: Oh good.
Another good thing about being a Catholic is that we remember mythology
that we can refer to in the symbolism of the work. Becoming a Jesuit, or going to a Jesuit school—their motto is being a man for others. It’s sort of hokey in some ways, but if you look at the Jesuit tradition, there is a tradition of being martyred. I think I really did internalize this idea of justice and the belief in Catholic sacrifice—as long as it’s divorced from the actual Catholic church. Art became a form, for me, of working for justice.
MC: Right, right. It’s very prominent in the work. Also, in Nothing Ever Dies, there’s a spiritual aspect running throughout that’s very subtle. It didn’t surprise me once I had sussed out you had gone to a Jesuit high school. Does the notion of spirituality in your work make any sense to you?
VTN: Even though I think of myself as an atheist, I think of myself as someone who also wants some answers to the big questions. That’s coming from my own particular background of the Vietnam War and thinking about how that War cost so many people on all sides. I couldn’t find that answer in God except through the characters in my fiction who were questioning God. But I could try to find it through our own secular quests, trying to find meaning in the sacrifices that people have endured through war whether they wanted to be sacrificed or not. Nothing Ever Dies was
trying to tackle these big questions, not just of memory and forgetting, but also of reconciliation and forgiveness. These are all obviously very religious questions, but they’re also very secular questions about how nations and peoples can confront their tragic pasts and atrocities. When we’re faced with this horrendous past of millions of people having died and people doing terrible things, what can actually lead us to reconciliation and forgiveness if it’s not God?
The answer in the book, briefly, is the necessity to confront not just our
humanity and the humanity of the people we’re at war with, but also our own inhumanity. This is something we have great difficulty doing. We have a hard time thinking of ourselves as capable of inhuman behavior. It’s much easier to project that out onto others. Yet if you’re a Christian or a Catholic and you actually take your religious teaching seriously, you know that it’s not just about “we’re all going to go to heaven,” but also “we have to confront the original sin.” I try to do that in the book through my own version of philosophy and criticism. For those of us who are in literature, there is a strain of literary and cultural criticism influenced by Derrida and
Levinas and deconstruction and so on that is actually analogous to religious practice.
They’re also trying to find their own secular way, through language and through the confrontation with our own interiors, a way to confront these larger spiritual and philosophical issues.
MC: Let’s talk about the book of stories. I’m curious to know about its composition and when you finally finished it. Is “Black-Eyed Women” the last story you finished?
VTN: The first one I began with and the last one I finished.
MC: Really interesting. Because I know that you started the stories twenty years ago, one of the things I was trying to follow as I read them was your development as a writer. It seemed to me that “Black-Eyed Women” because of its complexity had to be the most recent story you wrote. I didn’t realize it was also the first one. That makes lyrical sense to me as a poet. As you were putting the collection together, did it click into place that “Black-Eyed Women” would be the way to start?
VTN: Yes, ironically so. What happened was I graduated, got my PhD in ‘97, went to USC for my first job. I had the summer off, so I thought, Okay, I’m gonna write my short story collection now. Three months. No big deal. I did actually manage to pump out like fifty to sixty thousand words in one summer. They’re awful [audience laughter], but nevertheless I did it. “Black-Eyed Women” had a very different title, but the genesis was there.
Part of the problem was, as a writer, I was an academic and I had so many things I wanted to say and so the original story of “Black-Eyed Women” was just way too complicated. I was trying to pack in all these different issues. I think part of the experience of learning to become a short story writer was to realize that less is more, that with a short story you can deal with one fragment of whatever larger picture you want to deal with and the short stories as a whole can add up to something larger. But I couldn’t figure that out. I just wanted to do everything in one short story. That’s why it took fifty drafts for “Black-Eyed Women.” The story wasn’t working, so I thought, Okay, I’m gonna put in a murder. I’m gonna put in a car accident. [audience laughter] I didn’t understand that plot was not the solution. The solution was about character. It took me fifty drafts to figure out what was really at the core of the story, this character of the ghost writer and what she was undergoing and then trying to make, understanding that the plot would follow from this character. In between the forty-ninth draft and the fiftieth draft is when all the other stories were done.
My ambition in writing The Refugees was yes, I was going to write about
Vietnamese people, but with the caveat that we’re not all the same. There was actually an excel spreadsheet. Here’s a story about a man. Now I have to write a story about a woman. Here’s a story about a straight person. Now I have to write about a gay person. That’s why there’s a diversity of characters and viewpoints in the book. Then also I wanted to write stories that were not about or from the perspective of Vietnamese people. There’s a story from the perspective of a black bomber pilot. Another one about a Latino man who gets a transplant from a Vietnamese person. Again, the point was Vietnamese people know other people besides Vietnamese people. Also, as a writer, I wanted to demonstrate that I could write from other perspectives as well.
By the end, the agent and editor and I, we looked at the spread of stories and tried to figure out the narrative arc of the entire collection, the sequencing of the stories in a certain way. The collection begins with the spectral return of the refugee who didn’t make it, then goes into the arrival of the refugees with “The Other Man,” and then, by the end, with “Fatherland,” we see the return of the refugees to Vietnam, to meet the people who were left behind.
MC: One of the things I became aware of in The Refugees is that you found a variety of elegant structural solutions for many of the stories. In “Black-Eyed Women,” you have plots running in parallel that also mirror each other. There’s the plot about Victor Devoto who has survived a plane crash and lost his family in it. He has hired a ghostwriter to tell his story. Victor is haunted by ghosts the same way the narrator—his ghost writer—starts to become haunted by the ghost of her dead brother. These stories running parallel, feeding each other, provide a way around having the car crash, murder, and all those other things you mentioned. Also, what I noticed in your stories is their balance and proportion. What I call elegance. When you were working on the stories, how aware were you of their various structures?
VTN: For me, the short story writing process is very intuitive, which is one reason why it took so long to write the short stories. Basically I had no idea what I was doing. I’m sorry this is a terrible answer, but I would just write a draft, look at it, and say, “This is awful. How do I try to make it more graceful?” There’s no single answer for any of the short stories. Each story required its own form to achieve a certain kind of grace. You know as well as I that the writing process is ugly. You, as the reader, don’t get to see that ugliness. You just get to see the final product. Again, just to use “Black-Eyed Women” as an example, this thing that took fifty drafts and seventeen years, you get to read in about thirty minutes. That’s the way it should be because, as the writer, you’re just trying to figure out what narrative is going to serve the purposes of the characters in the story.
With The Sympathizer, I had no such problems. With The Sympathizer, I think I can explain any of the formal questions to you and how I devised the book. It was a very articulate process and for whatever reason, the short stories were a very inarticulate process. This is one of the reasons why I don’t teach creative writing. I don’t know how to talk about how to write a short story.
MC: What were some of your influences? Who were you using as models when you were writing the stories?
VTN: When I was writing the short stories, I was focused on writing them as realistic short stories because that’s what my poor little brain could understand. I knew there were other short story traditions—the avant garde, the surrealistic, and so on—but I was like, How do you even do that? I wanted to learn to write within a certain set of constraints that were more visible in the realistic short story, the kind of thing you would find more typically in the New Yorker. My influences were emerging from this kind of tradition, influenced by James Joyce in Dubliners, people in the contemporary period like Jhumpa Lahiri.
I’ll use Lahiri as an example because I really respect her book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. Each of these stories is so wonderfully done, but even as I read them—Lahiri is not a political writer, and I wanted to be a political writer, and the gap between Interpreter of Maladies and what I wanted to achieve was this gap of the political. I could not figure out how to write a political short story. That’s why, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to pack so much into these short stories. History and politics and everything else. In the end, I think the politics never got in there because it was such a struggle to write the stories, and if I just kept them less political, they’d be easier to write.
I read a lot of the stories in Best American Short Stories, Best American Short Stories of the Century, and so on. They follow a general lane of realism where the politics are kept to the margins if they appear at all. It wasn’t until I wrote The Sympathizer that I finally busted out of that mode and I really could claim a different set of influences that were drawing more from modernism and European literature.
Whereas The Refugees was definitely my bid to be—not just to be—but my bid to be an American writer of a realistic tradition.
MC: But because you use more conventional forms in The Refugees, there’s dramatic tension created between the conventions of realism and the lives of your Asian American characters. Another thing that creates tension with the conventions you employ is the appearance or introduction of the escape narrative, the story that relates how the refugees came to the United States. Almost every story has one. As a reader, you’re waiting for that, not in a predictable way, but in a dramatic and emotional way. When the escape narrative is told, the conventional framework of the story is reframed. I see why you would talk about the stories in relation to The Sympathizer as being more traditional, but I find they push back against the conventions they use and ask us to rethink the way we look at the experiences of refugees and our recent wars.
VTN: That’s a very generous way of putting it. Escape is fundamental to a lot of the stories, and this is where the stories are autobiographical. Oftentimes, we get asked as writers, “Are these stories autobiographical?” They’re not—except for the one story “War Years,” which is half about my life and my parents’ lives in San Jose—but the autobiography comes in through the emotional part of things and my own personal experience. I talked last night about how I felt like a spy in my parents’ household and how I felt like a spy in the larger American world. That was the autobiographical genesis for The Sympathizer, which is about a real spy. As a writer, where do we get our experiences from in order to do our writing? When I was younger, I would read about people who would become lumberjacks or join the military or do whatever. That was not me, but the experiences are the emotional experiences that I can draw from.
I remember I took a class once from the writer Bharati Mukherjee writing short stories. One short story, she said, “You’re not cutting close enough to the bone.” I think I was nineteen or twenty. I was like, “What does that mean?! How do I do that?” If you could just take a knife to yourself, it’d be easy. But I think what she was saying was, you have to look inside of yourself to where the pain is and draw from that. That is a very hard thing to do. I think most people sensibly run away from that, but as a writer, you have to run into that experience. You have to find a way into the pain. For me, growing up in San Jose was painful, and all I ever wanted to do by
the time I got to adolescence was escape. Get out of there as fast as I could. And that was a direct consequence of our own escape as refugees. Yes, so I think the stories are oftentimes about the physical escape of refugees, but also about the emotional escape that so many of these people are trying to make as well. That’s why a book called The Refugees could also be about people who are not literally refugees in the case of James Carver, the African American bomber pilot, and Martín Arellano, the Latino person who got the transplant. They also are struggling with their own lives and
trying to escape from the constraints they find themselves in.
MC: I want to ask you about a couple of particular stories, and one of them is “I’d Love You to Want Me.” For me, it was the most poignant and emotional story in the collection. It’s about a professor and his wife. The professor has dementia, and the arc of the story is how their lives are distorted by his deteriorating condition; not only do their domestic lives begin to change and warp, but they begin to doubt their shared cultural memory. The narrator’s distance to the subject in this story is different than in some of the other stories. I’m interested to know how the story was written.
VTN: Sometimes I write stories setting out with a deliberate plan. Sometimes I write stories because some line or some character has struck me. In this particular story, I simply wanted to write about this idea: someone loses his memory and it causes a disruption to everybody else in his family. But what if in losing his memory, he also starts to mistake his wife for another woman? How do we know that this is really what is happening? Did he or did he not have a lover in the past? That’s the crisis his wife is undergoing. In this case, there was no political point I wanted to
make. It was simply I was drawn to these characters and I wanted to feel what they feel. That, again, is something very hard to teach. It’s hard to teach people how to feel. Yet that’s been one of the two most important things to have occurred to me as a writer.
This is also autobiographical. I spent most of my life running away from feeling. I had a sort of painful childhood. Not due to anything my parents did. It was painful to be a refugee, painful to be an adolescent. While I never forgot any of the things that happened to me, I survived those things by not feeling anything about them. And by not feeling anything about them, I was not feeling anything in my own life as well. So to become a writer was partly about learning the art, but also learning how to feel. Which meant to go back, to confront these things from my past. Many of these stories, including this one, are about me, simply as a writer, trying to inhabit empathetically these characters, what they’re going through and who they’ve been. This is part of the act of imagination. It’s not simply to imagine another life as a plot.
It’s to imagine another life as a feeling or as a set of feelings. Some of these realistic short stories that I’ve been talking about—I don’t mean to demean them formally because I really love these kinds of stories as well. Because a great short story, in the end, makes me feel something. That’s really hard to do. To create a story and then to put it down and to be deeply emotionally moved by that story. As a writer, you’re struggling with these formal problems and these technical issues and trying to figure out what word where, what the solutions are, but in the end, at least with the realistic short story, the solution is to try to arrive at a moment of feeling. Both for the writer and for the reader.
MC: In listening to you talk, it occurs to me that even though The Sympathizer was published first, the stories in The Refugees were written out of an obligation to your parents and community as a way to honor all the people who told you their stories as you were growing up. It’s as if you needed to fulfill this obligation before you could go on to write a book like The Sympathizer. One of the things you say about the process of writing is that it requires you to enter into something like a fog. Were you in a greater fog, let’s say, when you wrote The Sympathizer than when you wrote
VTN: Describing The Refugees as an act of obligation or as an act of honor is accurate. The mode I’m operating in during these fifteen or twenty years when I’m learning how to be a writer is this mode of thinking that because we had been erased as Vietnamese people in various ways from different kinds of histories and stories, it was an obligatory act for me as a writer to address that erasure and tell stories about Vietnamese people, which would include my parents and my community and so on. That’s a powerful motivation for many of us as writers. It’s also a motivation that can be deeply limiting. The sense of obligation, the sense of honor, honoring people and communities and all of that—I was perfectly willing to do, but I was also aware, as literary critic, that this is deeply limiting. Because writing should also be an act of freedom or an act of destroying obligations or an act of dishonoring or an act of acknowledging that honor may not be the best mode to operate in. But as a good Catholic, as a good son, I still felt that I had to do this book. Then, when that was done and I didn’t sell the book, I was like, Okay, I did it, the equivalent of going to medical school. This was the equivalent of going to medical school for me. [audience laughter] Maybe my parents didn’t say that, but that’s how I felt. Now I can do whatever I want.
MC: So they’re not hoping for it any longer. You’ve already done it.
VTN: Well, the good thing about winning the Pulitzer Prize is that it beats going to medical school. [audience laughter]
MC: Takes the pressure off.
VTN: With The Refugees, I felt that I was wandering through a fog, trying to find the story, this pathway. With The Sympathizer, I actually felt that I had absolute clarity. Also, I shrugged off the sense of obligation and the sense of having to do honor. I felt that now I could do what I really wanted to do, which was just to offend everybody—the real ambition—and have a lot of fun. I couldn’t say that writing The Refugees was fun, but writing The Sympathizer was a lot of fun and hopefully readers will feel that as well.
MC: There are wonderful moments in it. Your whole take on the making of Apocalypse Now is terrific, your description of fish sauce is great as well, and literary allusions you employ constantly enrich the texture of the narrative. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is hugely important to the book. The scene when they’re trying to take off from the airport—an escape story—is one of the most gripping war scenes I’ve ever read.
VTN: As I was setting off to write The Sympathizer, I knew it was going to be a spy novel and a war novel and a historical novel and a refugee novel. The war novel part was probably the most daunting because I’ve never been to war, never been a soldier. As a writer, I think we have to believe that we can write about things of which we know nothing. Stephen Crane never went to war, and he wrote the one book most of us read about the Civil War. So it’s possible for people who have not done something to be able to write about something. But again, referring to the talk last night, I was also convinced that war novels and refugee novels overlapped, that our experiences as refugees and civilians were also war stories as well.
In the opening fifty pages of the Fall of Saigon and the escape, as a writer I also wanted to make the reader feel what that experience was like. The only way to really do it was to find out what happened. I read every book available and every article I could find about the Fall of Saigon so I could have enough information to map out the space of the city and the timeline. It went from months to weeks to days to hours to minutes because I found the accounts of what the last twenty-four hours were like during the Fall of Saigon. I could accurately describe how people were trying to escape the city, how they were trying to flee the airport, how the rockets were raining
down on the tarmac. Likewise, with the beginning of the Apocalypse Now satire, I read everything there was to read about the making of Apocalypse Now. It was part of what we have to do as writers. Not just feel for characters, but do the research necessary to recreate settings and people. That gets ultimately to another issue: can writers write about anything and anybody they want to? It’s a topic today, a fraught territory. I think the answer is yes, as long as you do the work. I think some writers don’t want to do the work in order to imagine these characters in these settings that are so different from them. But that’s our obligation.
MC: Yes, it has to be in good faith. I have two more things I’d like to get to. In “The Americans” and “Fatherland,” the two last stories in the collection, there’s mention of the war museum in Saigon and the tunnels the Viet Cong used that are now tourist attractions. Since we’re near a city that has a lot of war monuments, including the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, I’m curious to know how you see the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. How do you think about that in relationship to your reframing of war and the Vietnam War?
VTN: I assume most of you have seen it, but it’s the black wall with the 58,000-plus American names of the dead engraved on it. It’s obviously become, I think, the preeminent memorial to war and soldiers in this country and, of course, I find it to be a moving experience too. Also, Maya Lin’s own observations on the design of that memorial are moving to me, and she’s clearly thought out the design. Even though the design is formal and abstract, if you read her autobiography, it’s hard to imagine that her experiences growing up as a young Chinese American woman in the midwest did not have a role in her trying to figure out her formal approach to questions of history, which are not formal. Maya Lin decided that she was going to take her experience as an other and not recount that literally, by injecting realism into the design, but try to take the experience of otherness and render it formally, in a way that makes us all feel our own otherness. That’s my interpretation of it. When you go to this wall and you experience the otherness of thinking about these soldiers who have died and what happened to them, you also hopefully experience your own otherness, in looking at your reflection in this black wall.
Aesthetically, I think it’s fabulous, but politically, it’s problematic. Because
politically, however Maya Lin may have intended it, the reality is that it foregrounds the 58,000-plus American dead and relies on the absence or the forgetting of everyone else who died in that War, including the South Vietnamese soldiers and also all the civilians involved. Deliberately or not, the memorial becomes an expression of the processes of memory and forgetting that are always intertwined and that are definitely inevitable in any kind of war memorial. Almost inevitable because I’ve visited a lot of war memorials across the world and almost all of them do the same thing, which is to foreground what the nation wants to remember, typically its own dead, and to forget the dead of every other, of their enemies, including the civilians.
MC: Or their allies.
VTN: Or their allies. There are only a couple of exceptions to this. There are some memorials that are devoted to civilians. In China, there’s the Nanjing Massacre Memorial which is dedicated to remembering the Chinese civilians who were murdered by the Japanese. Great, but of course, it’s also there to oppose the Japanese. Really, one of the few memorials that I’ve seen that tries to talk about everyone is in Okinawa. The Okinawa Peace Memorial commemorates the battle there in World War II in which about 200,000 people died, and of all sides. It commemorates the Japanese soldiers, the American soldiers, and the Okinawan civilians. That’s very
rare to see, something that actually tries to acknowledge that people from all sides suffered in any conflict.
MC: That kind of acknowledgement is something you’ve done with your students and the archive of interviews they’ve created with people and their accounts of the Vietnam War. The archive supplements traditional war memorials.
VTN: I teach this class on the Vietnam War, and I created an online site for it called anotherwarmemorial.com. It has 150 interviews. It’s meant to deliberately reference the Maya Lin design, but we have faces instead of names. Unlike her memorial, it includes not only American soldiers, but also Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, both military and civilian, men and women. I just wanted to get the students involved in this kind of work where they would see the scholarship they were doing could have some kind of public legacy and public impact. Even to this day, a few years after we finished, I will still get comments on the website as people randomly find their high school classmates, for example, and leave messages about
their shared experiences.
MC: It’s really impressive. I want to ask you if you were writing Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer at the same time? Perhaps you were already deep into writing Nothing Ever Dies before you started The Sympathizer? I’m asking because the research you did for each must
have fed the other.
VTN: Basically, I got tenure. I published my first academic book, Race and
Resistance, and at that point, I said, “I hate myself.” [MC laughs] Because tenure is an awful experience to undergo for most, and also writing your first academic book was, at least for me, a misery. I looked at that book and thought, I did everything I was supposed to do to get tenure as an academic, and I hate myself because I cannot bring myself to write another book like this. It’s a great book by the way. [audience laughter]
If I have to write another book like this, I will quit academia. I wanted to be a writer, and the notion of writing in academia is very different from the notion of writing that other writers have. I thought, Why is it that I have to look forward to this future of misery of writing academic books if I want to get promoted?I need to be able to write my next academic book my own way. I need to set off on my own journey to find that.
We don’t get taught this in graduate school. We get taught how to write the
conventional way. It took me thirteen or fourteen years to write Nothing Ever Dies, and the reason why it took so long was I wasn’t going to do the conventional second academic book. I wanted to write a book that was very personal to me, and I wanted to write a book that meant something to me, not simply a book that would get me promotion to the next level in academia. This meant I had to follow the book wherever it led me and unfortunately, where it led me were several different countries. I set off to write a book about Vietnam and Vietnamese Americans. I ended up writing about Cambodians and Laotians and South Koreans and Americans as well. That was where the book took me, the argument and the spirit of the book.
Also, I wanted to write the book my own way narratively and stylistically. That meant I had to take myself apart as an academic. It took me a decade to learn how to write as an academic; it took me a decade to learn how not to write as an academic. So I just wrote a bunch of articles as I did my research where I tried different styles and tried to bring myself down as a writer. Then, I was writing The Refugees at the same time, and then I wrote The Sympathizer over a couple of years. We had about fifteen months between finishing The Sympathizer and publishing it, and during those fifteen months, I went and I wrote Nothing Ever Dies, the final manuscript. I wrote that having finished all the research. I wrote that without an outline. I wrote it with all the lessons I learned about narrative from The Sympathizer. I just let myself go and tried to tell a story. I tried to allow myself to be carried by the rhythm of the stories and the rhythm of the emotions that I was trying to feel and trying to capture.
This is not how we write academic books. We write academic books setting up to make an argument. Of course, there’s an argument in Nothing Ever Dies, but we don’t set out to write academic books thinking about rhythm and narrative and emotion and character and setting. I had learned how to internalize all of that in writing The Sympathizer, and it was so invaluable then to take all those lessons that I had learned from being a novelist and put them into Nothing Ever Dies.