Viet Thanh Nguyen delivers his Keynote Address at the Third Annual Conference of the Memory Studies Association in Madrid. Nguyen discusses the ethics of memories using his two books, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War to think through the issues of war and memory.
Michael R.: Before introducing Professor Nguyen, I want to take the opportunity to thank the local organizing committee for their incredibly hard work in making all of this possible. I’m also grateful to our co-presidents and to the MSA Executive Committee for all their efforts behind the scenes.
Michael R.: This evening’s session will proceed as follows. We will hear first from Viet Nguyen, who will speak for about 20 or 25 minutes about his scholarly and literary approach to memory. Next I will moderate a discussion between Viet and my two colleagues, Debarati Sanyal and Lindsey Stonebridge, whom I will introduce later. And then as we move toward the end of the session, we’ll open up the discussion and invite questions from the audience. And after our session, Viet will be signing books outside.
Michael R.: It’s an honor to have the opportunity to introduce Viet Thanh Nguyen to the International Memory Studies Community. Professor Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California, where he has also had the title since last year of university professor.
Michael R.: Besides English, he is affiliated with the departments of American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature. He’s been teaching at USC since receiving his PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley.
Michael R.: Viet Nguyen will probably be best known to you as the author of the internationally acclaimed novel, The Sympathizer, published in 2015 by Grove Press, and translated into 29 languages, from Arabic, Catalan, and Czech, to Spanish, Turkish, and Ukrainian.
Michael R.: The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Plot Prize for fiction in 2016, perhaps the most prestigious award an American novelist can win. And Nguyen did it with his first work of fiction. And I wanted to mention that there will be for long be a sequel to The Sympathizer published in the form of the novel, The Committed.
Michael R.: The Pulitzer is only 1 of 19 awards that The Sympathizer has won or for which it has been a finalist. Among those awards are the French prize for the best foreign book, second place for the German Krimi prize, and the American Library Associations, Andrew Carnegie medal for excellence in fiction.
Michael R.: The Sympathizer was followed in 2017 by The Refugees, a collection of short fiction that has been translated into many languages, and shortlisted for an international array of awards as well.
Michael R.: The experience of being a refugee, and remembering refugee experience are at the heart of Viet Nguyen’s intellectual and political work, and are also exemplified in his valuable edited collection, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which includes essays by 17 authors along with a beautiful and poignant introduction by Viet Nguyen.
Michael R.: While brilliantly successful as a fiction writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen was first known to me, and remains greatly admired by myself, and many others for his scholarly work. His first book, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America was published in 2002 by Oxford University Press.
Michael R.: His second scholarly book, which appeared in 2016 is one that is of particular interest for everyone here. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which we’ll be hearing more about today. Nothing Ever Dies was published by Harvard University Press, has been translated into several languages, and has won prestigious awards such as the René Wellek Prize for the best book in comparative literature. It was also a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Michael R.: Taken as a whole, this record of publications, which is also complimented by regular interventions in The New York Times and Time Magazine, has led to numerous other forms of recognition, including the most important ones that an intellectual based in the United States can receive, A Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Michael R.: I could go on, but more important than the well-deserved accolades is the substance of Viet Nguyen’s work, although diverse in genre, his work is also unified by certain common concerns, among them, an urgent commitment to justice that has both ethical and political dimensions.
Michael R.: In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen works through a transnational archive of what Americans call the Vietnam War, and the Vietnamese call the American War, and he develops an original and productive multiperspectival ethics of memory.
Michael R.: I won’t dwell on the particularities of that ethics now, because I know we’re going to hear about that in just a moment. Instead, let me remark how this ethical commitment also expresses itself in Nguyen’s reflections on the role of literature in the representation of marginalized subjects, refugees, migrants, and minorities of different stripes.
Michael R.: Here are a few lines from the introduction to The Displaced. “We need stories to give voice to a writer’s vision, but also possibly to speak for the voiceless. This yearning to hear the voiceless is a powerful rhetoric, but also potentially a dangerous one if it prevents us from doing more than listening to a story or reading a book.
Michael R.: The problem here is that the people we call voiceless oftentimes are not actually voiceless. Many of the voiceless are actually talking all the time. True justice will be when we no longer need a voice for the voiceless.”
Michael R.: In this brief excerpt, we find a nuanced, I dare say, dialectical vision of the possibilities and limits of literature and other cultural forms as carriers of adjust counter memory.
Michael R.: Nguyen then actualizes this vision in his own fictional works. Two dimensions of his fiction seem worth noting in this context. The first is his disjunctive perspectivalism. We see this quite clearly in The Refugees in which each story emerges from a distinct narrative point of view that cuts across gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, and more.
Michael R.: The Sympathizer takes an even more radical tack in situating that multiplicity and of perspectives in the singular voice of its unnamed narrator. In the novel’s first lines, that narrator describes himself in terms that echo the opening of Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces, perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”
Michael R.: The ability to approach violent histories like the war in Vietnam from multiple sides is an essential component of ethics of memory. But it turns out to be an ambivalent talent because the narrator’s doubleness is also a sign of his own implication in injustice.
Michael R.: Indeed, and this is the second point I want to highlight, the exploration of complicity is one of the red threads of Nguyen’s work across genres.
Michael R.: In an essay focused on his intellectual itinerary and titled appropriately, Just Memory, Nguyen describes how his first book, Race and Resistance took shape. “The book started off as a dissertation about the importance of Asian American literature in resisting the oppression directed against Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. Asian American literature spoke out against imposed voicelessness. By the time I finished the book, I had completely reversed my argument. While Asian American literature was sometimes an act of resistance against oppression, it was also often an act of accommodation, speaking out against voicelessness and assuming a voice or powerful acts, but also oftentimes complicitous or complicated acts.”
Michael R.: It is, I ultimately want to suggest in the way that Viet Thanh Nguyen’s writing across genres, foregrounds the quest for global justice and sentimentally highlights problems of voice and voicelessness, and resolutely faces the risks of complicity and accommodation that we can locate some of his most crucial contributions to thinking about the work of memory in times of war, violence, and inequality.
Michael R.: We are very fortunate to have Viet Thanh Nguyen with us today. His keynote is titled War, Fiction and the Ethics of Memory. Please join me in giving him a very warm welcome.
Viet Nguyen: Thank you. Thank you, Michael, for that really very generous introduction. Thank you to Jeffrey Olic and the Memory Studies Association for having me out here. And thanks to all of you for attending this keynote as well.
Viet Nguyen: As Michael said, my talk is going to be about the ethics of memory, and I’m going to be drawing from two of my books, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and the novel, The Sympathizer.
Viet Nguyen: I’m perhaps a little bit different than many of you in this room, in the sense that, I’m not only a scholar, but I’m also a fiction writer as well. And for me, these two books are critical and creative bookends to the same project about thinking through issues of war and memory. And while much of my work has been analytical, and critical, and scholarly in terms of dealing with these ethics of memory, I have to say that writing the novel, The Sympathizer, was also very crucial for me as well in coming up with certain kinds of insights.
Viet Nguyen: So, I’ll be weaving back and forth between these two books and stressing how’s, it’s not simply scholarly capacity to make critical and theoretical insights but creative work as well.
Viet Nguyen: Now, Mike also talked a little about my biography and that’s actually also very crucial for me. My fiction and my critical work has been deeply autobiographical, unashamedly autobiographical. I think back to Edward Said’s comments in Orientalism about how the composition of that book for him was also an index of his own self. And I feel that my critical and creative work also does the same type of indexing.
Viet Nguyen: And so, very briefly, I was born in Vietnam but came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee from what we call the Vietnam war. And so, the history of that war, how it’s been remembered in multiple countries and my own experiences as a refugee, have been something that I’ve struggled with for much of my life.
Viet Nguyen: And so, interrogating how I’ve approached my own memory has been part of what I do in my critical and creative work. So, for example, I came as a refugee when I was four-years-old, and I was taken away from my parents in the refugee camp and sent to live separately for a few months with adoptive parents. And that moment was deeply traumatic for me, but something that I spent a lifetime repressing, something that I did not want to think about.
Viet Nguyen: And unfortunately, when you become a writer, you have to go where it hurts. Most sensible people run away from the traumas of their own past, try not to think about it. In a way, that is fairly similar to how many countries try to run away from their own conflicted pasts as well.
Viet Nguyen: So, my investigation of my own pasts as a Vietnamese, as an American, as a Vietnamese American have also been tied to my investigation and my individual experiences as a refugee as well.
Viet Nguyen: And I call myself a refugee, which can be kind of odd because when you look at me, it’s clearly the case that I’ve made the transition from refugee to bourgeoisie a long time ago. But I call myself a refugee because it seems urgent to do this nowadays, is an acknowledgement of a real history, it’s a mode of identification with other refugees at a time when many people refuse to identify with refugees, and that includes former refugees. There are refugees who are going out saying, “Look, we were refugees, we need to welcome refugees today.” And there are other refugees who deny their own identities, deny the way that they’ve received hospitality and welcome from other countries, and say, “We were the good refugees. These people are the bad refugees.”
Viet Nguyen: So, I call myself a refugee to acknowledge, to identify, and to engage in the necessary act of solidarity with other refugees, who have been formed, who have been shaped by many kinds of crises, including similar histories of warfare that my family and my community have been through as well.
Viet Nguyen: And my other identity is that of a writer. And as a writer, I’ve always been concerned with the possibilities of writing for justice. What does a literature for justice look like? And likewise, as a scholar of memory, I’ve always been interested in the question of memory for justice. What is a just memory? And so, these are the two areas I’m going to be talking about tonight, just memory, just literature, and we’re focusing on the ethics of memory.
Viet Nguyen: And with ethics of memory, one of the things I want to stress is that we need ethical memory to achieve just memory, but in ethics in and of itself is not sufficient. In order to achieve a just memory we have to achieve a just society, which requires many other forms of transformation beyond what we can do ethically. But without an ethical consciousness, we’re not going to have a just memory either.
Viet Nguyen So, in Nothing Ever Dies, I deal with various kinds of aspects of memory including industrial aspects, and aesthetic aspects. Here I’m going to be focusing on the ethics of memory.
Viet Nguyen: There are three ethical models that I deal with, and the first ethical model is, the ethics of remembering our own. And in the ethics of remembering our own, we, whoever we are, are human, and they, whoever they are, are inhuman.
Viet Nguyen: And this is the most common kind of ethical memory. It’s the ethical memory that it’s at the basis of the hard nationalism that we see prevalent in countries like [inaudible 00:14:37], it’s in the UK and in other places around the world today. It’s the ethical memory that drives warfare as well. It’s an ethical form of memory that we find in dominant populations, majority populations, but also in minority populations as well. In other words, it’s the most common form of ethical memory that we will confront.
Viet Nguyen: If we’re going to speak about this in terms of US presidential politics, this is the ethical basis for the Trump presidency. I don’t know how many of you watched, I would say, coronation speech. I’m forgetting the term for this. The inauguration speech, where President Trump looked out at the audience and said, “You will never be forgotten again.”
Viet Nguyen: Now, when he said, you will never be forgotten again, he was not talking to me or people like me, but he was talking to somebody. And in that gesture, what he was doing was expressing an ethical memory. He was saying, it has been unethical that you’ve been forgotten, it’ll be ethical that you will now be remembered.
Viet Nguyen: And so, this is one of the most complex things about the ethics of remembering our own, because if we’re not remembered, I think our impulse is to say, this is an unethical form of memory. If we ourselves have been excluded from a mode of memory, we would be tempted to say this is bad. But in fact, if we don’t remember our own, who will?
Viet Nguyen: Now, this was born from my own experience as a minority in the United States growing up in a Vietnamese refugee anti-communist community. We certainly felt that we were excluded from Vietnamese memory and American memory, and therefore it was incumbent upon us to remember our own using this ethical imperative. But in so doing, we engage in calling ourselves human, but insisting on the inhumanity of others, notably our former enemies.
Viet Nguyen: So, at the basis of the ethics of remembering our own, our impulses towards a sense of victimization and the glorification of heroism. And this is what we saw after 9/11. The ethics of remembering our own allowed Americans to see themselves as victims and as heroes, which would then lead to the tragic consequences that we see today. And the ethics of remembering our own is premised upon seeing the world in one way and one way only, which is why after 9/11 President George Bush could say, “You’re either with us or against us.” That is also the ethics of remembering our own.
Viet Nguyen: The Sympathizer is a novel that is premised upon rejecting this form of ethical memory, because the narrator of The Sympathizer is a man of two minds and two faces as he tells us in the opening lines of the novel. Now, with a character like that, you would imagine that he would be engaged in the next ethical model of memory, which is the ethics of remembering others. And there are two variations.
Viet Nguyen: The first one is the liberal version of remembering others. In this model, we are human, and they are human as well. This is the ethical form of remembering that is not quite as common as remembering our own, but still fairly common. It’s at the basis of liberal democracy. When we say words like tolerance, diversity, inclusion, pluralism, multiculturalism, generally, we’re engaging in this form of ethical memory.
Viet Nguyen: Speaking of US presidential politics, this form of ethical memory is the form that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would espouse, which is why so many of us who feel ourselves to be others felt ourselves to be recognized under the Obama administration. And yet perplexingly at the same time as diversity, inclusion, and tolerance were hallmarks of the Obama administration, it was also hallmark of the Obama administration, was the continuing exercise of warfare.
Viet Nguyen: So, this ethical model of memory, despite its stress on diversity, inclusion, and tolerance, etc., is not irreconcilable with warfare. In fact, it’s quite conducive to warfare of a certain kind, in this case, humanitarian warfare. And the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, probably put it best in his book Cosmopolitanism when he said that, “We who are tolerant will tolerate everything but the intolerant.” The very threatening line because it makes you wonder what will we do to those who are intolerant.
Viet Nguyen: So, even in this ethical model of memory where everyone is human, there is nevertheless the shadow of the other outside of it, the other that threatens tolerance, the other that threatens those who have to be rescued through the act of humanitarian warfare. That’s the political way by which the ethics of remembering others expresses itself.
Viet Nguyen: In terms of literature and culture, the ethics of remembering others is also very powerful. When we say things like multicultural literature, for example, or any type of literature that is categorized as written by ethnic minorities, other kinds of minorities, we are expressing the ethics of remembering others. It’s a powerful ethics because it gives us the opportunity to feel included, to feel tolerant, to speak for ourself or for others, to be the voice for the voiceless that Michael mentioned.
Viet Nguyen: But it’s also dangerous because what it does, especially in liberal democratic capitalist societies, is gives us the opportunity to commodify our differences, to commodify multiculturalism, to commodify tolerance, and it becomes a category that can either be assumed or imposed.
Viet Nguyen: So, there are writers out there who will express these values of diversity, inclusion, tolerance through certain kinds of categories such as my own, Asian American literature. But in other cases, those categories are imposed upon us, whether we want them to be imposed or not. And this is how a set of ethical values can become transformed into not just a commodity, but a marketplace in whole way of categorizing people.
Viet Nguyen: So, for example, The Sympathizer is written explicitly as a novel that resists the ethics of remembering others in the liberal version. It resists the idea of commodification. That doesn’t prevent readers, and critics, and audiences from trying to impose their categories on the book. This idea of embracing diversity, inclusion, and tolerance, whether we voluntarily do it, or whether it’s imposed upon us, leads to what is pejoratively called identity politics.
Viet Nguyen: The more radical version of the ethics of remembering says that we are inhuman and they are human. This is the basis of anti-war movements, at least anti-war movements that I’m familiar with in the United States. For example, in the case of the Vietnam war, the anti-war movement in the United States certainly stress the idea that the United States was the one committing atrocities, United States was the one doing evil acts in Indochina or in Southeast Asia. And it was the poor Vietnamese, and Laotians, and Cambodians who were the human ones, who were the victims of our mistaken foreign policies.
Viet Nguyen: In terms of Iraq and Afghanistan, we see some of these same sentiments expressed in the anti-war movement itself as much as it exists, but also in the work of theorists, and scholars, and philosophers. So, if you’ve read Judith Butler’s writings, for example, on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even in her more sophisticated fashion, she will resort to this ethical model of criticizing the West and idealizing Iraqis and Afghans at the same time.
Viet Nguyen: So, the problem with this particular model of ethical memory is that, even as it criticizes the inhumanity of our side or the West, it continues to recenter Western subjectivity, Western stories, Western experiences. The inhumanity of the West becomes the story that we’re engaged with. The humanity of our others isn’t very interesting. That’s what happens at the level of politics.
Viet Nguyen: At the level of aesthetics, we see this in the case of the Vietnam War, for example, in the way by which the Vietnam War movie has become its own genre in the United States from the 1970s, or the 1990s, even the early 2000s. The United States fought the war again in memory through film. And if you watch these movies, and I’ve watched almost every single one of them, which is an exercise I recommend to nobody, what you realize, the interesting paradox is that most of these movies trade in the idea this was a bad war, and that the United States did terrible things. And yet at the same time, Americans who would seemingly oppose that message continue to watch these movies.
Viet Nguyen: Why is that the case? Because it continues to recenter American subjectivity in a very powerful, in a very subversive way. I remember, for example, going to Italy, and doing an interview with a journalist who is a communist, completely opposed to American imperialism and the American War in Vietnam. And then the subject of Apocalypse Now came up, and she said, “I love that movie.” And I said, “You realize that Vietnamese people have nothing to say in that movie, right?”
Viet Nguyen: And so, the paradox is that even those who are opposed to the United States, to American popular culture can be seduced by this type of narrative that criticizes the West and recenters it at the same time.
Viet Nguyen: So, in The Sympathizer, and there’s just the one excerpt I’ll read from the novel. I had fun with this experience. The Sympathizer, for those of you who haven’t read it, shame on you, but I will tell you briefly what it’s about. It’s about a communist spy in the South Vietnamese army in 1975. And when Saigon falls or is about to be liberated, depending on your point of view, his mission is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States, and to spy on the efforts of the South Vietnamese military to take their country back.
Viet Nguyen: Besides that, he also has to become a refugee, and he also has to find work in the United States. And one of the jobs that he gets is to become the authenticity consultant on the making of a movie that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now. But if Francis Ford Coppola were to ask, is not Apocalypse Now.
Viet Nguyen: The movie is called The Hamlet, and it is about American Green Berets sent to Vietnam in order to train some of these poor defenseless villagers, who they call Montagnard, to defend themselves against communists. And in this scene, our narrator, our spy meets with the famous director of this movie, who is known only as The Auteur, and The Auteur has sent our spy the screenplay. Our spy has returned the screenplay with some notes, and they’re going to discuss these notes at this time.
Viet Nguyen: My meeting with The Auteur had gone on for a while longer, mostly in a more subdued fashion, with me pointing out that the lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity. “Do you not think it would be a little more believable?” I said, “A little more realistic, a little more authentic. For a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct as it does now cut the villagers speaking in their own language. Do you think it might not be decent to let them actually say something, instead of simply acknowledging that there is some kind of sound coming from their mouths? Could you not even just have them speak a heavily accented English? You know what I mean? Ching-Chong English, just to pretend that they’re speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand.”
Viet Nguyen: The Auteur grimaced and said, “Very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it. But I had a question.” “What was it?” “Oh, yes. How many movies have you made? None. Isn’t that right? None, zero, zilch, nada, nothing, and however you say it in your language. So, thank you for telling me how to do my job. Now, get the hell out of my house and come back after you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas.”
Viet Nguyen: Funny thing is that, since this book came out, I’ve met quite a few people in Hollywood, none of them dispute this characterization.
Viet Nguyen: I confess to being angry with The Auteur, but was I wrong in being angry? This was especially the case when he acknowledged he did not even know that Montagnard was simply a French catchall term for the dozens of highland minorities. “What if,” I said to him, “I wrote a screenplay about the American West and simply called all the natives Indians? You’d want to know whether the cavalry was fighting the Navajo, or Apache, or Comanche, right? Likewise, I would want to know when you say these people are Montagnards, whether we speak of the Bru, or the Nung, or the Tai.” “Let me tell you a secret,” The auteur said, “You ready? Here it is. No one gives a shit.”
Viet Nguyen: He was amused by my wordlessness. To see me without words is like seeing one of those Egyptian felines without hair, a rare and not necessarily desirable occasion. How can I be so dense? How can I be so diluted? I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous, the bottomisation, and pick-pocketing of the world’s audiences. Hollywood did not just make horror movie monsters. It was its own horror movie monster smashing me under its foot. I had failed.
Viet Nguyen: And The Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an Epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naivete in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient imagining the countries it wanted to exploit.
Viet Nguyen:I was maddened by my helplessness before The Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created, with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination. Americans don’t laugh at that line. I don’t know why.
Viet Nguyen: Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, better to be villain, loser, or anti-hero, than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage.
Viet Nguyen: In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe-l’œil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute. We were to be struck dumb.
Viet Nguyen: So, that’s the moment in the novel where I talk about the ethics of remembering others in this more radical version, that even the extensively anti-war movie of The Hamlet or Apocalypse Now, despite its criticisms of American brutality, American atrocities, return us again to the role of Americans on center stage as villains of their own drama.
Viet Nguyen: The other thing that’s implied in this scene is something that I deal with in more detail in Nothing Ever Dies, which is that there are industries of memory. That memory is not equal. Individual memories may be equal, but cultural memories, national memories are not equal.
Viet Nguyen: The same types of inequality that characterize global capitalism, that makes the United States a much more powerful country industrially, militarily, politically than Vietnam means that even though the United States lost the war, they won the war in memory through the export of American soft power, American stories, American novels, and so on. That’s why many people all over the world have seen at least one American movie about the Vietnam War, know the American perspective, even if that perspective says it’s a bad war. And almost no one has seen a Vietnamese movie, read a Vietnamese book, heard of Vietnamese account until they have gone to Vietnam and encountered the industry of memory in that country.
Viet Nguyen: This is why the ethics of memory are not sufficient for a just memory. Insofar as our societies are unequal, insofar as countries are unequal, insofar as there is industrial inequality, between how memories function in a collective level, we will never achieve a just memory. Well, we can get close.
Viet Nguyen: And final model of ethical memory is the ethics of recognition. Given the structural limits of inequality of these unequal industries of memory, we still need an ethics of remembering to point us towards adjust model of memory. And in this model we are human and inhuman, and they are human and inhuman as well.
Viet Nguyen: And here I have to take a break and go back to The Sympathizer and explain the relationship between The Sympathizer and this model of ethical memory. Because what happened was that I’d been working on Nothing Ever Dies for about 8 years, from 2003 to 2011, and I had worked my way through these ethics of remembering our own and ethics of remembering others, and felt that there was something insufficient about this ethics of remembering others. I knew I should have felt rewarded, I should have felt complete that I had achieved an ethics of remembering others where everyone was included, but something felt inadequate, something felt not right.
Viet Nguyen: And then I took a break for two years to write The Sympathizer. And it was through writing The Sympathizer that I think I realized the necessity for an ethics of recognition of this kind. And how was that possible?
Viet Nguyen: It was because I created a certain kind of character in The Sympathizer. Our spy is a spy, but he’s also a liar, a trader, a womanizer, an alcoholic, so he was completely autobiographical. I created this character, and I put him in situations where he would have to do terrible things, or witness terrible things, or be complicit in terrible things. In other words, he had to come to a recognition, not just of his humanity, but of his own inhumanity as well.
Viet Nguyen: And so, in writing him, I had to engage with him as a character who is also a human being. And many writers will talk about this, that we create characters, we put them on the page, we let them loosen the worlds that we create, and then they surprise us because they’re human.
Viet Nguyen: And so, even though I had constructed this character, and had a very theoretically critically worked out plot and a biography for him, I discovered something new in writing him and putting him into these terrible situations. I discovered that he had a repressed memory that I didn’t even know about. I created him, and I didn’t even know he had this repressed memory.
Viet Nguyen: So, what happens in The Sympathizer, and I have to give away the ending for those of you who have read it, is that he eventually returns to Vietnam, is captured, is put into a re-education camp, and is tortured by his best friend. And the process of the torture makes him finally acknowledge the one thing that he has not been able to acknowledge the entire course of the book. And when he acknowledged that, I realized that it had been there all along, that it made perfect sense, that there was this crime that he wasn’t able to confess to, even to himself for 300 pages at that point. And what was the crime?
Viet Nguyen: The crime was that as a spy in the South Vietnamese Secret Police, he watched other secret policeman rape a communist agent, and he did nothing. This is his trauma, he did nothing. He was complicit for doing nothing.
Viet Nguyen: And this is the most controversial part of the novel, I think. Some readers have said, “Did it have to be a rape? Did this have to be the atrocity? Does this not continue to reinforce problematic gender politics, and so on?”
Viet Nguyen: And my response to that is that, yes, this had to be the crime. This had to be the crime. It could not be any other kind of atrocity. And the reason why, is because when we look at the history of war, and we look at the various terrible things that soldiers have done, there’s almost nothing terrible that soldiers can do that can not be recuperated in these other ethical models of memory, murder, massacre, killing, all these can be discussed, even recuperated, right?
Viet Nguyen: Sexual violence and rape, however, cannot. There is no language of national discourse in which we say, it is permissible to rape people. There’s no way in which you can say, it was the confusion of war, or the stress of combat that makes people do these kinds of things. And as various feminist theorists of war have talked about sexual violence and military violence are mutual and simultaneous, but is the sexual violence that we choose to deny in our ethical models of memory.
Viet Nguyen: If you read the accounts of combat soldiers, they talk about rape, and prostitution, and things like this. If you read the accounts of generals and politicians, they never talk about these types of issues. So, it felt to me that the kernel of repressed memory for my spy had to be the one thing that he cannot acknowledge to himself, and that nations could not acknowledge for themselves either, whether it’s the enemy nation or our own nation.
Viet Nguyen: So, this is the ethics of recognition, the ethics of recognizing that we are capable of inhuman behavior as well as human behavior. And that inhumanity is not something that is other, inhumanity is not something that we project onto other people, that only the other side commits. Inhumanity is a fundamental part of our own humanity and why we go to war.
Viet Nguyen: And without that recognition, my argument in the book goes, we will never actually achieve a memory that is a memory against war. It is not sufficient simply to commemorate victims, or to commemorate the horrible past, and to say we should never forget, we will always remember. What we should never forget and always remember is our own capacity for inhumanity, not the enemy’s capacity for inhumanity, which we have no problem in remembering all the time.
Viet Nguyen: The last reason for the importance of the ethics of recognition from my own work goes back to that moment of Apocalypse Now. I’m just going to use Apocalypse Now as an example. That Apocalypse Now is about the inhumanity of Americans, and yet it’s become not just an American classic, but a global classic as well. It’s not a surprise that it has its roots and heart of darkness, which is about the inhumanity of Western colonialism, which continues to recenter Western subjectivity.
Viet Nguyen: And so, in The Sympathizer I wanted to reject these earlier ethical models of memory because I knew that where those ethical models of memory would place me and others like me is in the category of demonization or idealization as the inhuman or the human, whereas, full subjectivity is about claiming not just our humanity, or our inhumanity, but claiming both.
Viet Nguyen: And so, I wanted in The sympathizer to create a character who would be able to compete at the level of ethical recognition with the subjectivity that Americans and Westerners have always reserved for themselves. Thank you very much.
Michael R.: Okay, thank you. It sounds like the … Thank you Viet. That was a really wonderful, a really illuminating introduction to your thinking on the ethics of memory and also a great introduction to your novel.
Michael R.: Before we get into our discussion, I just want to very briefly introduce Debarati Sanyal and Lindsey Stonebridge. When Jeff Oleck asked me to organize the discussion of the Viet’s presentation, I immediately thought of Debarati and Lindsey. Not only are they two of the sharpest literary critics I know, especially among those working on questions of memory, but they also have deep and abiding interests in some of the major themes of Viet’s work, in particular, questions concerning refugees, complicity, and human rights.
Michael R.: Debarati Sanyal is professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s the author of The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony, and the Politics of Form, and of Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance. And she’s currently working in the field of critical refugee studies.
Michael R.: Lindsey Stonebridge is chair of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Among her recent books are, The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremberg, and Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees. She has many ongoing projects, including a collaboration called Refugee Hosts, a project that works with refugee communities in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
Michael R.: So, I’m going to pose the first question and then hand it over to my colleagues after that. I had originally wanted to ask a bit about your intellectual itinerary and how you came to the question of memory, and how you came to this position of combining critical work with creative work, and now increasingly public intellectual work, but you, sort of, addressed that in your opening remarks.
Michael R.: So, let me ask a slightly different question. One of the things that struck me in thinking about both these, Nothing Ever Dies, and also The Sympathizer, and your other work, is your invocation of African American culture.
Viet Nguyen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael R.: So, as I mentioned, the opening lines of the Sympathizer are an homage to Ellison’s Invisible Man. The title of Nothing Ever Dies is taken from Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, in particular from the famous scene where she discusses rememory, right? And that’s an interesting instance also of a fiction writer, whose work has been generative for thinking critically and theoretically.
Michael R.: So, I just wonder if you could say a little bit about your relation to African American cultural production, and maybe situate the kind of memory work you’re doing around Vietnam, and that war in Vietnam with a kind of memory work that a writer like Morrison does around slavery and around racism in the US?
Viet Nguyen: Well, I was an English major in college, and I’m an English professor now, so the question of literature was always very important to me. And as I said, at the very beginning, the issue of how … Literature relationship to justice has always been crucial.
Viet Nguyen: And if we look at American literature, which was my specialty as a PhD student, we can see that there are many literatures committed to justice in the United States. Most of the literature is written by peoples of color, for example, in the United States has that orientation towards justice as one of their primary commitments. And in that range of literature, African American literature has certainly been the most visible, the most vigorous in its critique of racism, of American forgetfulness.
Viet Nguyen: And so, when I was learning how to be a writer and learning how to be a scholar, the model of African American literature and African American scholarship was very crucial to me because of these commitments. So, besides the writers that you talk about, obviously, W. E. B. Du Bois was a major component of my training, and my thinking as well.
Viet Nguyen: And with someone like Morrison, I felt that in a novel like Beloved, putting her entire body of work, she expressed a highly sophisticated approach to history and to the art of writing as well. And I wanted to set myself a very high ideal, I did not want to be the so-called minority writer who would only write about so-called minority topics, but to be a writer who would also not run away from history but run into history, but also run into the canon as well. And I felt that the works of Morrison, and Ellison, and other writers like that were doing that. They wanted to both criticize the United States, but also transform American literature at the same time through their artistry.
Viet Nguyen: And so, the end of Beloved is really crucial for any of us who do memory work, whether it’s in literature, or scholarship, because the end of Beloved is premised on a paradox. If you remember, there’s a phrase that’s repeated three times, “This is not a story to pass on in regards to slavery.” Meaning this is not a story that we should ignore, but it also means this is not a story that we should continue to transmit.
Viet Nguyen: And that paradox, seems to me, is the central paradox of memory studies for any of us who deal with memory. What is the proper ratio between remembering and forgetting? That’s certainly at the heart of the book like Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer. And ethical memory is crucial trying to figure out what that ratio is.
Viet Nguyen: But what’s also crucial is an acknowledgment that we’re not going to resolve that paradox without material transformation, which is why today in the United States reparations for slavery have now made, I don’t know if it’s a comeback, but have now become front page news, meaning that there is no way to adequately address the paradox that Morrison or so many other African American writers opposed without material reparations without structural transformations to address the inequities of the past that are now embedded in our present.
Viet Nguyen: And so, I think that model of African American cultural and political commitment to readdressing, not only representation, but material redistribution, is absolutely critical.
Michael R.: That’s great. Lindsey, do you want to follow on that?
Lyndsey S.: Yeah, yeah. I want to follow up with evoking another kind of tradition from one end or outside of the nation state. I was so pleased that you mentioned Edward Said’s biography, and the way that life and biography come to be a critical position. Because as you were talking I was remembering as I have been remembering quite a lot in the last five years, Said’s classic bitter, beautiful 1984 essay Reflections on Exile, which was written just after the Sabra and Shatila massacre at a desperate time, another desperate time in Palestinian history.
Lyndsey S.: And you remember at the beginning of that essay he says, basically, literature is it’s doing something wrong. It says, “You’ve got to put away ideas about the literature of exile.” You’ve got to put away your Nabokov, and your Proust, and all that. And he said, I think it’s something like, “To objectify an experience that most people don’t have, which literature can do, and to try and think of it as beneficially humanistic is,” and I’ve always remembered this, “is to banalize its mutilations, is to make it into something banal.”
Lyndsey S.: And I think what Said was doing, was kind of throwing out the gauntlet at that moment and to say, “Okay, we’ve got to write about this new experience of refugees, and this new experience of mass displacement.” And it’s not the same kind of literally exile that boosted up notions of the nation state earlier.
Lyndsey S.: So, as you were talking, I was thinking actually you’re someone who has taken that challenge in the way … and you explained it beautifully in your lecture … the way you refuse literary humanitarianism when you say, “I’m not writing to humanize the Vietnamese, I’m doing something else.”
Lyndsey S.: So, I was wondering, especially in the light of your, kind of, fourth type of ethics of memory, whether you see yourself or your writing in a long tradition of the humanism that comes out of no choice from outside the nation state or to one side of the nation state, but is coming from elsewhere? And is that the kind of a thing …
Viet Nguyen: No, I think that’s absolutely wonderful, because certainly Reflections on Exile by Said was a major influence on me. Otherwise, maybe as a graduate student, my capacity to read was not as sophisticated as yours, because my reaction to the essay was, “It’s such a beautiful essay, it’s such a beautiful writer, exile is so beautiful.”
Lyndsey S.: It’s done exactly … Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Viet Nguyen: And then I felt … But Said’s world is not my world, in the sense that, I am a refugee. Even in that moment, in reading that essay, I felt, I am a refugee and Said is an exile.
Viet Nguyen: Recently I had the opportunity to give the Edwards Said’s lecture at Columbia, and I thought, “I’m not worthy,” because Said, for me, embodied this cosmopolitan sense of exile. It was only written in a book like his memoir, Out of Place, that he stresses has refugee origins.
Viet Nguyen: And there’s a distinction there between that, sort of, individualistic sense of cosmopolitan exile that Said couldn’t seem to escape from probably through his own inclination, and the mass politics of refugee displacement, and the ignominious existence of people in camps, who never have the opportunity to talk about opera like Said would, for example.
Lyndsey S.: Yeah.
Viet Nguyen: And I’m not criticizing Said, I’m simply saying that the paradox that he leaves out there about the insufficiency of humanism is something that he himself couldn’t escape, that I myself can’t escape. It’s related to the paradox that Morrison brings up, right? Because literature in and of itself, or criticism, or scholarship can point us towards the problem and be enmeshed in the problem at the same time.
Viet Nguyen: And so, just as we can never fully address the legacies of slavery in reality and in memory until we have reparations or more, likewise with the problem of humanism and literature, it doesn’t even matter if we have a consciousness that we should simply be humanists. As long as we produce books, and stories, and scholarship in the environment that we are in, liberal democratic capitalist societies, humanism will be contained through these mechanisms of appropriation and corporatization of the university, and so on.
Viet Nguyen: The humanism that comes from outside that you’re talking about embodied by someone like, Said, for example, or by me to a lesser extent, only finds expression through these apparatuses of corporate publishing, and corporate universities that are the vehicles of containment, right?
Viet Nguyen: So, that’s why wherever I go, I didn’t have to say today because Mike already said it, I always stress that I and many other writers are seen as voices for the voiceless even if we actively disavow being voices for the voiceless, even as we at the same time have to be voices for the voiceless. Why did Said have to become a public intellectual? Why did he have to become a part of the PLO? Is because, his work as a scholar and as a writer was insufficient to address the material conditions that he was concerned with.
Viet Nguyen: So, that’s what happens to humanism from the outside. Humanism from the outside brings with it the recognition, the acknowledgement that we’re stuck unless we radically transform the legacies that slavery or that colonization have left for us. Unless we can think outside of representation, we’re going to be stuck within these limits of humanism.
Michael R.: That was beautiful. Debarati.
Debarati Sanyal: Yeah. I guess I wanted to come back and continue this reflection on humanism. And also you give such a thorough going critique of the humanitarian impulse, right? Well, obviously the history of humanitarian violence and war, but also just in terms of, as a representational investment, whether it’s in criticism, or memory studies, or a narrative.
Debarati Sanyal: And it’s interesting because you’re also really, sort of, working with complicity as a very enabling concept. I mean, complicity means a state of being complex, of being involved. You were talking about enmeshment just now, and it comes from the Latin root of [Latin 00:54:49], which means fold together. So, I’m curious about, coming back to representations with all of its insufficiencies to actually make radical change, how it is that you see complicity as that kind of vector in the experience of literature for instance?
Viet Nguyen: I think of complicity as a universal experience. Speaking about literature from the outside, right, those of us who are writers from the outside, who come into a dominant society, where we are not a part of the dominant class, oftentimes feel ourselves to be marked as people who are not universal, whether or not we should aspire to the universal is a different issue, but we feel ourselves to be marked as not universal, as our concerns are not the concerns of the dominant society that we’re in, because there are concerns from the outside, or from the margins, or from the subordinated realms of the society. And one way to contest that is to try to rework what it means to be central, rework what it means to be universal.
Viet Nguyen: So, complicity is one way of doing that, because I think all of us are complicit in one way or another with some kind of problem. And most of us, or all of us deny that complicity. We have to deny that complicity just in order to survive because the things that we are complicit with are oftentimes out of our control, right?
Viet Nguyen: And so, in Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer, complicity becomes a major theme for me because it is how most of us become involved in atrocity. Most of us are not involved in atrocity by directly committing atrocities, most of us are involved in atrocities by being members of our societies, by being citizens who pay taxes, by being people who watch things on television and doing nothing.
Viet Nguyen: And so, in The Sympathizer, I make that much more extreme by putting the spy at the very scene of the atrocity that he witnesses and does nothing. But as he points out in the novel, that is simply the most extreme version of the complicity that we’re all complicit in, which is watching the spectacles of atrocity in other places that our countries that helped to produce. So, complicity, for me, is not something that is marginal, it’s something that’s absolutely essential to our existence.
Debarati Sanyal: Can I …
Michael R.: Do you want to follow up?
Debarati Sanyal: Just quick follow up, because I’m also really curious to know a little bit more about, when you’re talking about the recognition of the human and the inhuman simultaneously. So the inhumanity is the capacity to either inflict pain by proxy or actively inflict pain. Is there a sense in which the inhumanity also has to do with vulnerability? In other words, is there a way in which, say the humanitarian impulse is itself a form of dehumanization through, I guess, you said idealizations, so I was kind of curious about the valences of inhumanity.
Viet Nguyen: Right. Well, I think inhumanity in human behaviors exist across that spectrum, from directly committing an atrocity, for example, to simply being complicitous in that by being a member of the society. And if we were actually to confront our inhumanity in that way, it would be deeply damaging for many people. If we speak about vulnerability, we don’t want to acknowledge this inhumanity because it would make us acknowledge our own vulnerability in that circumstance. And so, we deny our inhumanity as a way of denying our vulnerability.
Viet Nguyen: Another example, refugees. Why do we reject refugees? I mean, there’s various kinds of structural, economic, political reasons for doing so. But at the psychological, the affective level, I think many people reject refugees because they don’t want to acknowledge their own vulnerability, both to the possibility of becoming refugees, but also to the material realities of being in the same global system that produces refugees, that, that same global system might turn against us at any moment, and turn us into refugees, whether it’s through war, or whether it’s through climate catastrophe. So, instead of recognizing our own vulnerability in that system, we would rather reject those who are already explicitly vulnerable. And deny any connection to that vulnerability ourselves.
Lyndsey S.: Yeah. Can I follow through on that? There’s a great quote from Michael Barnett in his history of refugee humanitarianism, it says, “The only kind of culture, a system that’s fixated on the category of the citizen and the nation state could produce the category of the refugees.” So, I think you’re absolutely right to say it’s that vulnerability that’s tapped into it.
Lyndsey S.: And I was also thinking of Hannah Arendt saying, I think it’s in 1943, that the word exile used to mean something, or inspiring. It now means someone who’s poor, pitiful, and suspicious.
Lyndsey S.: But that also reminded me of her essay, which reminds me a lot of your work, We Refugees, your use of “we” and “us,” well “we” in particular, your master of pronomical mystery is very, very important to you. And in We Refugees, at the end of that, she says, if you recognize that you’re being designated as a refugee as the other, and you recognize the racism in that, that’s one moment where you start to unpick the whole edifice, which ends with the kind of category of the citizens. So it’s that kind of …
Viet Nguyen: Right. That’s a moment of invitation at that point, right?
Lyndsey S.: Yeah.
Viet Nguyen: Are we going to acknowledge that we are a part of this collective, or are we going to deny it?
Lyndsey S.: Yeah.
Viet Nguyen: And so, that’s why at the very beginning of the talk, I invoked that example of the necessity of both identification with refugees and solidarity with refugees, because that moment of invitation can be refused even by former refugees themselves, who would seek to deny their past vulnerability.
Viet Nguyen: And so, another thing that Nothing Ever Dies deals with is empathy, the idea that simply that we’ve been through a personal experience ourselves would render us inevitably empathetic to other people who’ve been through that experience is a false one. I think many of us would like to think, well, experience would breed empathy. But there’s as much evidence for against that as there is evidence for that.
Lyndsey S.: But also it’s that, whether a different type of politics or solidarity would, kind of, break out of that. I mean, listening to you again, I think you said at one point, when I say “we,” as in We Refugees, I mean even those who were once refugees, including the invisible. And it seems to me that the work of memory and history there becomes terribly important, because it’s not just around empathy, or the kind of magical production of refugees without any reference to any kind of state intervention or politics. It is about a kind of now long history of contemporary refugee doom, that your work seems to be talking to very directly and in quite tough, tough ways.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah. Well, I think to put, to put a more positive spin on things, I think what we’re seeing in the United States today is at least the capacity for empathy to turn into action. Empathy without action is meaningless, and this is obviously the greatest danger of any kind of literature that believes itself to be committed to justice. Is that simply picking people feel empathetic in response to an image or to a text is insufficient if there’s not action implemented as a result of that.
Viet Nguyen: And so, if we talk about this long history of refugee doom, at least since World War II, I think what we do see is that connection between empathy, and literature, and policy, that all of these things are working together at the same time. Writers are telling stories about refugees, or centering refugees either autobiographical or not, in the hopes of cultivating an empathetic reaction. And the most powerful indicator that, that actually works is the fact that people who are not refugees can be empathetic towards refugees. So that’s the reverse of the idea that refugees are inevitably empathetic towards other refugees.
Viet Nguyen: And so, that long history of refugee doom is something that is both inspiring, and not inspiring at the same time, because we see a greater cultivation of empathy towards refugees, and yet at the same time now, we’re looking at a moment in which we have 70 million displaced people in the world today, around 24 million of whom are officially classified as refugees. So, despite our greater capacity of empathy for refugees, or refugee problem, or refugee crisis, whatever you want to call it, has gotten worse.
Lyndsey S.: Which suggests that we might want to start not seeing refugees as a problem.
Viet Nguyen: Right.
Lyndsey S.: And to actually start with that outside perspective as a way of seeing the whole thing. I mean, because if we keep on kind of naturalizing citizenship and other refugee doom, you’re just going to replay that entire scenario.
Michael R.: So, these are obviously very urgent questions. I want to step back for a moment and ask a question, sort of, a methodological question that I think might be of interest especially to people in memory studies based on your work. One of the major tensions I think in the last decade or two in memory studies has been around questions of national versus transnational approaches. And the opening keynote a couple of nights ago, Aleida Assmann, kind of called for a return to the nation or taking seriously of nationalism and the nation in our approaches to memory.
Michael R.: And it feels to me like your book, Nothing Ever Dies, has some important things to offer us there. And I connected to the kind of perspectivalism that I see in your fiction, that your critical work there is also based on a kind of perspectivalism.
Michael R.: And I think until you read the book, you don’t quite realize what would be … how you can mobilize so many different perspectives to think about what we in America call the Vietnam War. And so, it’s not just that you look at US memory and representation, and Vietnamese memory and representation, but for me, one of the most surprising, South Korean, Cambodian, Laotian. So, I wondered if you could say a little bit about your methodology in the book as it pertains to this question of kind of the national context and this kind of transnational movements.
Viet Nguyen: Well, that’s where the first ethical model of remembering our own is crucial to the first keynote, because it is premised on nationalism. And it’s premised on this idea that nationalism is based on an ethical memory, a difficult memory of recalling what was done to us.
Viet Nguyen: And this, obviously, can be enormously damaging in the sense that it then justifies turning ourselves into victims, who can go out and wage wars that we believe are legitimate when they may not be. But it’s potentially also really necessary because, if we don’t remember ourselves, who will?
Viet Nguyen: And I grew up with that memory very vividly as a Vietnamese refugee, and this is where the transnational part comes into play, because transactional memories or having the capacity to think about memory in a transnational comparative fashion means that you can see the limitations of national models of memory. So, living as an American citizen, for example, it’s very clear to me that most Americans can’t see outside of their own nationalist model of memory.
Viet Nguyen: Many American readers have come up to me and said, “We had never thought about the issues that you raised in The Sympathizer, for example. Never.” It comes as utter shock to them to be forced to confront a different approach to essential element of American history, this war from the perspective of those that they were considered to be the enemy.
Viet Nguyen: And for me, as a Vietnamese refugee, that was obvious because living in the United States, I bore with me the experiences of other Vietnamese refugees, and it was very clear to us that the United States would rather completely forget that we existed except when they needed to have us say thank you for being rescued.
Viet Nguyen: Going to Vietnam was interesting because the Vietnamese model of nationalist memory is exactly the same as the American model except reversed. But even there, there was no place for Vietnamese refugees. We were the others, whether it was the American model or the Vietnamese model, we were the ones who were cast out and erased.
Viet Nguyen: So, what that demonstrated for me is that nationalist models of memory are absolutely crucial. Vietnamese refugees have to be nationalist because if they were not, their stories would be completely forgotten. But that can’t be the final answer, because if you compare the nationalist models of memory, you obviously see the blind spots, the oversights, the demonizations that take place. And so, transnational models of memory are still absolutely crucial as well for understanding nationalists limits and for ever achieving the possibility of memory against war, because I don’t believe that a nationalist model of memory would ever allow us to have a memory against war.
Debarati Sanyal: Yeah, I guess following up on the question of memory, I’m really intrigued by the French historian Jean Ricœur, he calls memory an organization of forgetting.
Debarati Sanyal: And when we think about various forms of manufactured or unintentional oblivion, you actually introduced this other term, I think it’s disrememberment, which has very interestingly this idea of dismemberment in it. And so, I was kind of intrigued by that, and would love you to say something more about this question of disrememberment, and maybe relate it to that. I mean, yours is a very spectral literary landscape. You have ghosts everywhere, whether in the literal sense of ghost coming back to haunt the living, or more ghost writers, refugees as ghosts. And I’m wondering if the ubiquitous ghost has something to do with your reflection, I mean, a resistance of the kind of disremembering.
Viet Nguyen: Well, the opening line of Nothing Ever Dies is, all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. And growing up in the United States, I certainly felt that to be true, about the Vietnam War, I talk about all these American movies about the Vietnam War.
Viet Nguyen: But what was obvious to me growing up watching these movies was what I would later call disremembering, which was that, in these American movies about the Vietnam War, Vietnamese people were not forgotten. We were actually visible all over the place. But just because we were not forgotten, it doesn’t mean that we were remembered. We were rendered visible onscreen only in order to serve as the background for this American drama, and only to serve a one-moment in the spotlight in every movie where we were raped, or killed, or made to say thank you, okay?
Viet Nguyen: And so, this is disremembering. Disremembering is not being forgotten and not being remembered. It’s being remembered in order to be forgotten at the same time. It’s being seen on screen, for example, and unseen at the same time. Is to be visible and invisible at the same time. So, that paradox is something that’s also there in the opening of Invisible Man, for example.
Viet Nguyen: And for me, that connection between what happens in the opening of the Invisible Man, where the narrator, the Invisible Man encounters a white man who refuses to see him, and then the Invisible Man beats him. And even after beating the white man, the white man still refuses to see him for who he is. That for me is the connection that I made between that experience, and the experience of the Vietnamese in American memory, that we share that common paradox of being disremembered, of being remembered only to be forgotten at the same moment.
Debarati Sanyal: That’s really moving. I have one really short … So, just this question of being unseen, sort of remembered to be forgotten, I mean, you give this critique of the Hollywood industry, and its complicity with military industrial complex, and you read out that passage about The Auteur. But it’s interesting because in The Sympathizer, for instance, the moments of the greatest artifice like this fake tomb, or this fake torture scene are also triggers for real morning or a real reckoning with complicity. And so, I was just really curious about that and …
Viet Nguyen: Well, this is my response to all these arguments about postmodern memory and simulacra, right? That at a certain point our memories are based on other people’s memories, or our memories are based on simulations. So, for many people, they don’t actually remember the Vietnam War. They were not there, either in Vietnam, or they weren’t alive during that period. So, their memories of that war are based purely on what they have seen usually, right?
Viet Nguyen: I’ve actually lost my train of thought in response to your question. But that’s what led me to create these scenes in which simulacra simulations like a fake cemetery can lead someone to have a real memory. In the absence of an actual place, of actually being there, of actually had to experienced something, the simulation can provoke a memory as well.
Michael R.: I think we all have many more questions we’d love to ask, but it is obviously time to open things up to the audience. Three quick notes on that, people who are watching remotely can use the app to ask questions, and we’ll take a couple of those. I ask you to keep your questions short please, and maybe you could say who you are when you ask the question, identify yourself. I see Dave there and then Marianna in the second row.
Dave: [inaudible 01:13:07] Just a brief question, when you introduced your fourth ethics of memory that our own humanity and inhumanity, and their humanity and inhumanity, I thought immediately about complicity. And I anticipated, so to speak, that idea, this is a type of memory that recognizes that things cannot be settled in memory. That there’s always a remainder that cannot be recuperated.
Dave: Hence, I was wondering and a little bit puzzled when afterwards talking about how you thought you had to end the book, you seem to differentiate between different types of violence in warfare, differentiating between violence that can be recuperated, for example, because politicians seem to be able to acknowledge it, and violence that cannot be recuperated I.e., in your example is sexual violence. I wonder if you can expand on that because it seems to … I wonder who makes that decision and how is that seen, for example, from this perspective of victims of non-sexual violence who might also feel or think that what they have suffered cannot be recuperated?
Michael R.: If we can collect a couple?
Michael R.: I think we’ll collect a couple just in the interest of time. So, Marianna.
Marianna: I am Marianna [inaudible 01:14:35], and my question is on [inaudible 01:14:36], because I’m wondering who the “we,” and the “us,” and “them” are in this fourth model exactly. Following on Wolf’s question, aren’t you by making sexual violence the one crime that can’t be recuperated at risk of recentering masculinity, or aren’t you recentering masculinity by doing that?
Michael R.: I should let you go ahead and talk.
Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. And this is where myself as a writer and myself as a scholar came into conflict because I created a setting in The Sympathizer in a character of the narrator, of the spy, with a certain kind of biography, the alcoholic spy, womanizer, traitor, the bad James Bond in my imagination.
Viet Nguyen: And in writing the book, I had a great time. I was laughing, enjoying myself. And at a certain point in the book, probably about halfway through the book, I realized, oh, he’s kind of a misogynist. He enjoys the objectification of women. And this was an interesting moment for me, because from my scholarly perspective, I thought this is wrong. This is something that should be criticized. But from my perspective as a novelist, there was no way to actual … since it was the first person narration, it would have been very difficult to somehow deny that masculinity and that misogyny.
Viet Nguyen: So, the book in the end became an exploration of a particular kind of inhumanity, the inhumanity of misogyny and a certain kind of masculinity from the inside. The moment of revelation, the moment of him finally being able to remember the atrocity is the moment of his own confrontation with both the kinds of nationalist memory that would deny sexual violence and his own memory as a masculine subject that would deny sexual violence as well. That was the climax from, or actually that was the denouement of the novel.
Viet Nguyen: Now, at that point, as a novelist, I had a choice. I could end the novel and leave readers possibly unsatisfied at having been left with a masculine misogynist narrator, or I could write a sequel. And that is what is taking place.
Viet Nguyen: And it was interesting because in conceiving the novel, The Sympathizer, I wanted it to be a dialectical novel. I wanted it to be a novel that was political, that was explicitly materialists, that would talk about communist politics, and things like this, that would have a critique embedded in it of various forms of capitalism and power. So, I think the novel did accomplish that.
Viet Nguyen: But at the same time in finishing the novel, I realized that in and of itself was only one part of a dialectic, which is a dialectic for our own narrator, that he has come to a moment of, he thought he was politically conscious without realizing what he was not conscious of, his own masculinity, misogyny, enjoyment, and sexual objectification.
Viet Nguyen: So, for me, was a learning experience because I was focused on one dialectic, the dialectic of Marxism, and I was not focused on another dialectic, which is the dialectic of the critique of patriarchy and of decolonization, that for our narrator, decolonization for him was purely about Marxism. It was purely about the revolution.
Viet Nguyen: And the revelation, for him, was that the revolution was deeply flawed both in terms of how it addressed politics, but also in terms of how to address sexuality and gender as well. So, the larger project had to be about decolonization, both in terms of not just nations, but individuals. So, that’s what I hope to try to move forward on in The Committed.
Viet Nguyen: And so, it was a humbling experience as a novelist to realize that I couldn’t implement everything that I knew I needed to do as a scholar in one book.
Viet Nguyen: To address the first question, I’m not sure I entirely understood the question, so you’ll have to forgive me if I get this wrong. The recuperation of certain kinds of inhuman behavior in the other ethical models of memory, for me, were based on this idea that nations can acknowledge certain kinds of atrocities. We can talk about certain things that we have done as nation. So, if we were to talk just about the United States, for example, of course, we can acknowledge that genocide has been committed or slavery has been committed. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we fully addressed these kinds of atrocities structurally or even completely throughout our society.
Viet Nguyen: And yet, there are also other kinds of crimes that I think that the details of these atrocities are even more difficult to acknowledge. So, if we were to talk about genocide and slavery, for example, in the abstract sense, many of us can mention these kinds of things. Can we get into what genocide and slavery actually entailed? Can we get into the details of the crimes that have been committed, which are oftentimes not the sexual crimes, but also crimes of sexual violence, as well.
Viet Nguyen: And so, this is where the ethics of recognition I felt was crucial. The ethics of recognition is an ethics that is personal, but it’s also something that has to be enacted collectively. And that is more difficult, I think, for nations to exercise than an ethics of remembering others. And ethics of remembering others can be incorporated into national discourses, again, of multiculturalism, and tolerance, and pluralism. But an ethics of recognition would require that we actually delve into some of the details of what kinds of crimes were carried out.
Viet Nguyen: So, in The Sympathizer, conceptually, our narrator is fully capable of recognizing things that rape existed, for example, or that prostitution happened. He engages in some of these behaviors, but he cannot personally acknowledge to himself the crime that he was a personal witness to.
Viet Nguyen: And for me, this is a metaphor for the problems that nations have in terms of being able to conceptually address crimes, atrocities, versus being able to actually acknowledge the specificity of how these crimes were carried out at a very minute level. And this is where something like a tribunal for reparations, for example, could be very meaningful or could not be. If a tribunal for reparations talks only at the conceptual level of how much money should be dispersed, or very broadly what kinds of evils of slavery were entailed, that’s different than actually acknowledging specific moments, specific details, specific people, and the things that were done to them, because these things are actually oftentimes unspeakable. That’s why they remain unrecognized.
Michael R.: Nice. Let’s collect a few more. We have a few more minutes and maybe bring in … If there are some coming in on the App, maybe someone can tell us about that. But here, yes, over to the left.
Rebecca Wentz: Rebecca Wentz. I’ve got two questions. That was absolutely brilliant. My first question is into subjectivity, and my second question is about implication. So, you touched on this a bit in the discussion about collectivity and vulnerability, but I was wondering, is it possible to move beyond “we and they,” “us and them,” and what about the “we within the they,” and the “they within the we?” That’s my first question.
Rebecca Wentz: And my second question is whether the concept or the reality of implication is a useful one in kind of tandem with complicity or in opposition to complicity? Thank you, very much.
Viet Nguyen: I’m not sure I heard the keyword in the second question. Implication?
Rebecca Wentz: Yes.
Viet Nguyen: Implications. Okay.
Michael R.: That’s something I’ve been working on, but I don’t know that we can expect Viet to actually be able to address that or maybe another.
Rebecca Wentz: Yeah.
Viet Nguyen: Okay.
Michael R.: But let’s collect another question or two. [inaudible 01:23:02]
Speaker 8: First of all, I would like to thank you for opening my eyes at least to this totally other meaning of recognition, because the way it is used generally, is to crave recognition from others for either pride or dignity. But in this case it is a very different demand for self recognition. And that I think it terms around the whole vocabulary of recognition. So, thank you very much for that.
Speaker 8: My question relates or connects to the fake idea that a fake image or whatever can generate real memories, but the real issue here in our conference, and in the various panels, and also in this country is a historical truth. Is historical truth of any relevance for you in this context?
Viet Nguyen: Well, first of all, on the on recognition, I was thinking as you might be thinking about Charles Taylor’s work on recognition and the importance of recognition of others for multiculturalism, and tolerant, and diverse society, which is exactly what I was rejecting. It’s not that that mode of recognition is not important. That mode of recognition is absolutely crucial.
Viet Nguyen: But where does it lead us? If it leads us only towards a politics of tolerance, for example, that doesn’t address the underlying fundamental problems by which we could have a perfectly tolerant multicultural society that bombs other countries with military officers and soldiers who are subjugated minorities from our tolerant society. So, we had to get beyond that.
Viet Nguyen: And the recognition of our own capacity for conducting inhuman behavior is something that the United States, in my case, United States has great difficulty in addressing. So, we need both forms of recognition. It’s not that this particular ethics of recognition invalidates Taylor’s model. It’s simply to say that a multicultural recognition without the recognition of the capacity for a multicultural society and minority people inflict violence is a deeply limited political model.
Viet Nguyen: The second-
Michael R.: Historical truth.
Viet Nguyen: … the historical truths, right.
Viet Nguyen: Yes, there are historical truths. Yes, there are historical truths. Unfortunately, most of us want selected historical truths, and this gets again into the ethics of recognition. We want the historical truth to be recognized about things have been done to us. But those historical truths are oftentimes wrapped up with the things that we have done to others, for example.
Viet Nguyen: I’ll give you one example. Martin Luther King Jr. has a speech called Beyond Vietnam, which I think is one of the best documents ever about the American experience of the war in Vietnam. And there he uncovers two historical truths, which seem to be in conflict. One is historical truth that the United States as a racist society, especially against African Americans, which we would expect someone like Martin Luther King junior to talk about. So, he’s talking there about how poor black men are being sent to fight a racist war in Vietnam as a continuation of racist policies in the United States.
Viet Nguyen: But the other historical truth that he brings up is that the United States is an imperialistically, militaristic, capitalistic society that is waging this racist war in which poor black men have been drafted or volunteered to fight. And so, poor black men who are victims of racism in their society are engaged in a war in which they are forced or want to carry out racist policies in another country. These are complex historical truths that we may not want to recognize.
Viet Nguyen: And so, that’s what the ethics of recognition is about, is to say, yes, we need to excavate for historical truth, but we shouldn’t be satisfied with either sentimental or self-serving versions of the historical truth, which other people will very quickly point out the limitations of.
Viet Nguyen: The first question-
Michael R.: The “we” and the “them,” and the …
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, the “we” and the “them.”
Viet Nguyen: The, “we” and the, “them,” absolutely. I mean, the ethical models that I’ve laid out here are binaristic, and they’re premised upon … They’re binaristic in the sense that they identify oftentimes how it is that we choose to remember and to forget. Even the language of remembering and forgetting is as binaristic. And so, of course, we want to have the interest objective experience that you’re talking about, the idea of multiple experiences, multi-perspective modes on memory.
Viet Nguyen: And so, that was why in Nothing Ever Dies, actually, it was crucial for me to go beyond the binaristic model of remembering war. So, oftentimes when we talk about war, we are tempted to simplify and talk about two sides in conflict with each other. And certainly that was the case for the Vietnam War, Vietnamese, Americans.
Viet Nguyen: And yet, for me, it was absolutely crucial in the book, not just to talk about Vietnamese and Americans, but to talk about Cambodians, Laotians, South Koreans, and Southeast Asian refugees, diasporas, precisely to point out the limitations of a binaristic model that continues to reinforce power.
Viet Nguyen: So, for example, in the United States, liberal Americans will say, “Well, wait we shouldn’t call this war the Vietnam War. That’s going to approach the war from the American perspective. We should call it the American War, which is what the Vietnamese call it.” And then they feel very happy with themselves because they’ve gotten beyond American nationalism.
Viet Nguyen: Well, they wouldn’t have gotten beyond American nationalism in order to submit to Vietnamese nationalism, because the Vietnamese are perfectly happy calling this the American war, partly because it deflects the blame to Americans, but also because it allows Vietnamese people to forget the atrocities that they’ve committed in Laos or Cambodia, or the way that they pulled Laos and Cambodia into this war as well. And so, the Vietnam War is not usual, this is probably perfectly typical of most wars that they go beyond the simplicities of binarisms.
Viet Nguyen: And so, there’s a tension in the book between the case studies, which are premised upon going beyond binaries and ethical models, which are premised on binaries. Which to me, seems still to be fundamentally useful because what these ethical models express and reflect is our own tendency to see the world in binaristic ways. Which is not to say that we can’t use a binaristic model to get beyond a binary understanding of the world at the same time, which is what I tried to enact in Nothing Ever Dies.
Viet Nguyen: Actually I did not understand the implication question, so I will pass on that.
Michael R.: Yeah, we’ll talk about that later. Next here. I think we have time for really one more question. I see [Nico 01:29:58] down here.
Nico: Yes. So, maybe, somewhat in the vein of my latest question. I want to push you again on the question of historical truth or specific circumstances. Because if you remember Primo Levi in The Grey Zone, actually he resists that notion of non-binary visions of victim and the aggressor. I mean, he says something like … I mean, I was looking for the quote. He says, “I do not know whether in my depth there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim, and I was not a murderer.”
Nico: I’m just wondering also how you negotiate the non-binary model, which I’m completely sympathetic with specific historical circumstances that you write about in which can be binary.
Michael R.: So, there’s one last question, and then we’ll let Viet have a final word. So, in the back. Yeah.
Speaker 10: Thank you very much for that presentation, the really powerful presentation. The idea of complicity has been very-
Michael R.: Speak a little louder.
Speaker 10: … important for us in South Africa of enabling us to move away from that binary of perpetrator and victim, and just to think of the complexity of implicatedness. But how can we think about complicity over generations, and whether the idea of beneficiary and beneficiation enables us to take complicity across generation?
Viet Nguyen: Well, I think the second question helps me to address the first question, which is that the notion of a binary doesn’t automatically mean a simple division and separation. It can mean also the mutual implications that the second question raised.
Viet Nguyen: And I think that was what I was trying to get at in the ethics of recognition when I’m saying we are human and inhuman, and they are in human and inhuman, whatever binary that speaks to. That even as we’re using a binary, we’re recognizing that mutuality, that mutual sense of implication and complicity, right? That we are not divided by this binary, but we’re related because we recognize our mutual capacity both for human and inhuman behavior.
Viet Nguyen: That model of recognition would help us to get to the second question about complicity, and beneficiaries, and the transmission of legacies, not just post memory, for example, but also the transmission of post profits. I don’t know what you want to call it. But the way by which we are all inheritors in some way of previous historical kinds of changes.
Viet Nguyen: If we had a model ethical recognition, where we were capable of recognizing that we are complicit in structures and histories of violence, then it would be easier for people to acknowledge that they could be the beneficiaries of past atrocities or past crimes that they themselves obviously did not commit, or even their parents, or their grandparents didn’t commit.
Viet Nguyen: But I think because most people, or many people rather would refuse this idea of inhumanity that they themselves did not commit, that the discussions over reparations, just to use that one example, are difficult, because it’s perfectly reasonable for people to say, “Well, I’m not going to pay for reparations, for things that I did not do myself.”
Viet Nguyen: But then ethics of recognition would promote this idea of complicity, of implication of inhumanity being something more than just an act of an individual, which is how we would prefer to think about it in a critical society, in which we want to know who should be convicted for a certain crime, or who should be rendered guilty.
Viet Nguyen: Inhumanity in a broader sense, in which we’re all implicated, means that, in fact, none of us are guiltless murderers. All of us are implicated.
Viet Nguyen: And I think I’m going to end with an invocation of a writer, W. G. Sebald, who was a major influence on me, besides Postmemory, he coined Secondhand Memories, which is something I also quote in Nothing Ever Dies.
Viet Nguyen: But in a novel like Austerlitz, for example, the entire novel is a meditation on implication, on complicity, on not just the inhumanity of people who were murdering others, but the inhumanity of an entire societies that were complicit in that murder, and not just Germans, but Belgians as well. And the final scene of Austerlitz is about the inheritance of past crimes that have led to the building of Western and European civilization.
Viet Nguyen: So, that’s the very difficult move, obviously, that we have to make as we think about what would constitute a just memory. Many people would resist a just memory, that requires us to think about how all of the beautiful things that we have today, in terms of museums, and monuments and the very cities that we live in are built upon these past crimes that our ancestors have committed, and that we have inherited. Thank you very much.
Michael R.: This has been a really thrilling discussion.
Michael R.: I thought I’d take the opportunity to thank Lyndsey Stonebridge and Debarati Sanyal for joining me up here, and once again Viet Thanh Nguyen went for a really wonderful talk.