Watch “Past to Present: The Echoes of War,” Viet Thanh Nguyen and others speak about war and history at the 2016 LA Times Book Festival

Viet Nguyen (USC Professor and author of The Sympathizer), Rita Gabis (Poet and author of A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet), and Dawn Anahid MacKeen (Journalist and author of The Hundred-Year Walk) discuss their latest books for the Los Angeles Times Book Festival.

Here is the transcript:

Speaker 1: Today, and this is a panel on war. These are authors who have written about war and some of the wars and you’ll hear about include World War Two and the Vietnam War live coverage on Book TV from Los Angeles.

Jim Newton: Good afternoon. Welcome everyone. Before we begin, I have just a couple of announcements. If you’ve been here all day, you’ve probably heard this a couple of times need to say, please turn off your cell phones. Just to note that there will be a signing after the session. It’s in signing area one, we just walked right by it, it’s not far from here, but if you get outside and you can’t see it on your map, there will be people to guide you.

Jim Newton: And then finally I just need to warn you, you’re not supposed to make personal recordings, these are being… This is on C-SPAN. Well that just [inaudible 00:00:52] with, my name is Jim Newton. Pleased to be with you today and to be part of this lovely annual event. This is I realized I have my 10th festival of books and the site the first one has ever rain before. Thank you for brazing the rain.

Jim Newton: I am pleased today to be able to help guide a discussion with these three superb authors and they’re fascinating new books. They’re very different books, two or nonfiction and one is a novel. Two of these are explorations of family and personal history. One is replete with history, but wrapped in fiction. Still as I had the opportunity to read them all in recent weeks. I know that they do have some things in common. All three of these books are written by Americans future protagonists who are not. Moreover as the title of today’s panel suggests all three set their work against the backdrop of war. In fact, against the backdrop of America’s three most exhaustive wars of the 20th century. The Hundred-Year Walk Chronicles, the Armenian Genocide through World War One, a Guest at the Shooters Banquet unfolds in the chaotic invasion and reinvasion of Lithuania as it changed hands between the Nazis and Soviets, and the Sympathizer tells the story of the war in Vietnam during and after America’s involvement there.

Jim Newton: Finally for each of these authors, this is their first book and this genre. Rita is a poet, Dawn, a journalist and Viet, a professor. But they’re working here in new forms and I can tell you with great success. I’m going to let each of our authors introduce themselves to you directly. And then I will ask them some questions. We’ll go for 35 or 40 minutes up here. I’ll then turn it over to you and you’ll see their microphones where you can ask a question. I will remind you at that point that I would prefer that you actually ask a question. I know the temptation when you get a microphone is to, is to hold forth. I pray, we’re here to hear from these talks today until, I hope you’ll honor that. So, with that said let’s start with you if we could Rita and how did you come to write your grandfather’s story and why?

Rita: A Guest at Shooters Banquet began really with a conversation between myself and my mother some almost seven years ago now. I come from a blended family. My father’s side of the family is Jewish. My mother’s side is first-generation Lithuanian Catholic. I had grown up with this knowledge that my Lithuanian Catholic grandfather, who I’d known in loved as a young person, was actually a hero. He had fought against the Soviet incursion before the German occupation in World War Two, and he had managed to throw his children literally in a horse and wagon, when the war was ending and Lithuania was collapsing, Germany was collapsing and take them to safety. They ended up in a hilltop in Bavaria. They hid. Later they were in a DP camp and ultimately they came to the United States. Obviously there was more to his wartime life and at a certain point probably because I think the experience of having a daughter myself and wanting to know more about a history that I could then relate to her.

Rita: I think perhaps that had something to do with it. I asked my mom the very obvious question, “Well, what did [Lithuanian 00:04:02] which is Lithuanian for grandfather actually do during the war?” And she said, she paused, she said, “Well, he was a policeman.” And I said, “For the SS?” And she said, “Yes.” I will say that I was appalled that it took me that long to ask that question. But I think all of us have experiences within our families where there things that we know we want to ask, we want to find out more about. But it takes a long time and sometimes we don’t ever get to the place where we ask the question but I asked. I came to find out that my grandfather was actually not just a policeman. He was chief of the security police for an entire region of Lithuania. The security police, the [Lithuanian 00:04:51] were the most notorious collaborative force in the country and in Lithuania as some of you may know, 95% of the Jewish population were exterminated at the hands primarily of Lithuanian collaborators. That conversation is really how my book began.

Jim Newton: How about you Dawn. There’s also a family story obviously and a long telling one for you. How did you come to it?

Dawn Anahid: Absolutely. I’m very similar to a lot of the themes that Rita just brought up. The story of the Hundred-Year Walk is based on my grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide. It’s a story that I have heard about since I can remember since I was a child, my mother would always tell me what happened to her father during World War One in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. But as a child, I really couldn’t understand it besides him crossing the desert and being so thirsty that he had to drink his own urine and as a child, what can you understand about that?

Jim Newton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dawn Anahid: It sounded really gross to me. Feel like why is my family do this. Because you’re a kid and I didn’t understand it and I truly did not understand what happened to my grandfather until I was, about 10 years ago a relative translated his journals, his firsthand account into, from Armenian into English. And I’m a reporter and I could finally read his account for the first time and since he died, when I was a kid, it was almost out of those reading someone else’s story.

Dawn Anahid: And as I was reading and I was turning the pages, I could not believe that this endangered protagonist was my own grandfather. Then it hit me that if he did not get out of this situation, my whole family line would not be here. So in my grandfather felt that he survived in order to tell his story. That became a responsibility for me. So my book alternates between World War One and it’s all based on my grandfather’s journals. And we found more of his journals once I started to look into this.

Dawn Anahid: So you follow him from when he’s just a young man just building a new business. He’s very successful. And then the war breaks out and he’s conscripted into the Turkish army, into a labor battalion, and then the deportation order happens and then he ends up being pushed further and further east across modern day Turkey and Syria to Eastern Syria. And just he is in a death caravan and everyone is dying or being killed. A Hundred-Year Walk follows his journey and almost 100 years later, I retraced his steps from his home outside present day, Istanbul to Eastern Syria, near the Iraq border.

Jim Newton: It’s fascinating. Viet, so you’re next you’ve written about Vietnam before, but always as a nonfiction subject. And I gather you’ve written some more about it. Why novel and why [inaudible 00:08:00] that direction?

Viet Thanh: Well, I think my earliest memories are actually were as a refugee, I came to the United States when I was four years old and my first memory was from Pennsylvania being taken away from my parents and given away to a white sponsor family because that was the only way to leave the refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap. And that’s always stayed with me. This idea that even though I don’t remember the war myself, it’s been imprinted on me like an invisible brand stamped in between my shoulder blades. And my parents they survived four decades of war and famine and terrible things. Even though they rarely spoke at that, they exuded the force of that memory through their actions and their feelings. So did everyone else in the Vietnamese American refugee community that grew up here.

Viet Thanh: As an American boy growing up, I was very cognizant of the fact that the Vietnam War was something that was very important to both the Vietnamese American refugee community and the American community as a whole. But Americans only saw one side of the story, Apocalypse Now, for example, which I saw when I was 10 years old, much too young at that age scarred me for life. So why novel, well, I mean-

Jim Newton: So you’re getting even in the book?

Viet Thanh: My own personal life is very uninteresting frankly. Whereas, the novel is my revenge on Hollywood, Francis Ford Coppola, my attempt to also tell the history of the Vietnam War and the story of the Vietnam War from a perspective that most Americans have never heard of before, which is how their own allies, their friends, a South Vietnamese experience this.

Viet Thanh: My narrator is a communist spy in the South Vietnamese army. He’s also giving us the communist perspective on it. When he arrives in the United States, he is telling the… He’s giving us a viewpoint of how the Vietnamese see American culture, which is not necessarily in a positive light. So there’s a very satirical dimension of the novel as well as I get white people to think about white culture actually looks like to people from outside of this country.

Viet Thanh: But I think the topic has been really hard to exhaust for me, which is why I had to write another nonfiction book about it. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which is my attempt to situate the Vietnam War in the much larger context of a whole 100 of American warfare that’s been waged in the Pacific since 1898 when the United States usurped the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, Hawaii. I see the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and now Iraq and Afghanistan as an extension of a century long American campaign. That’s why I needed to turn it to nonfiction. I couldn’t say those kinds of things, in a novel.

Jim Newton: Go back to that for one second. Because one of the sort of contextual questions that I had for you is whether your experience writing the novel, did anything to reform your sense of the Vietnam War in any way?

Viet Thanh: Well, definitely so because I wrote the novel to criticize everybody. There’s something for everybody to dislike in this novel because it criticizes a Communist. It criticizes South Vietnamese. It criticizes the Americans. I think the main theme of the novel is sympathy for the sympathizer. What I took away from that is that the easiest thing to do in war or conflict is to sympathize only with our own side, right?

Viet Thanh: The virtue and the flaw of my character is that he sympathizes with everybody, which makes him a great spy and is also going to lead to his downfall as well. That’s what I learned from writing the novel, that if there was any hope forward for peace and reconciliation and things like that, it really requires expansion of sympathy and empathy beyond our own closed communities to much larger human community.

Jim Newton: Can I ask each of you to sort of $64,000 question of this connective tissue of this gathering is war. What is it that is so compelling about war, do you think? Since each of you have written about it in a different way that makes it such a dominant part of our narrative or cinema or our literature? You want to start Rita?

Rita: I think it’s a large question, but I’ll say a few things about it. As was said I think so eloquently, if you grow up in a family that has been touched deeply by war. In my case on the Jewish side of my family and also on the Lithuanian Catholic side of my family, my mother’s mother was swept up in Stalin’s purges when my mom was, I think eight years old. That was still in Lithuania. She was shoved in a cattle car. She was tortured in Lubyanka prison. She was banished to a prison labor camp and in the Gulag and was presumed dead. So that was part of my mom’s experience as a child.

Rita: However I understood it or didn’t understood it became part of the underpinning that I grew up with. I grew up in a household where war, whether it was discussed or not discussed was present always. As I got older and I became a writer, that was something that really interested me. How does war impact generations after. Beyond that, in the course of writing this book, which allowed me to kind of morph of into investigative journalism and do a lot more history writing and research than I’d ever thought that I would, my notion of history itself really changed.

Rita: I’ve come to see it as a fluid entity. What we think of as historical truth is hopefully always changing and expanding by virtue of people writing, rewriting, revising, revisiting. One of the things that kind of contradicts that is ever present in my mind. We all know that there are survivors of different kinds of wartime experiences, not just the Holocaust who are now reaching the end of their lives and won’t be here anymore for us to glean those firsthand testimonies from. What then will our history become? I don’t think that we have yet even begun to explore all the ways in which historical consciousness for us can grow and can enrich us and can enrich us beyond the field of literary nonfiction, but to into kind of worldview. I have a real soapbox about this and I won’t go into details.

Jim Newton: Let me ask you a slightly different version of the same question to you, Dawn, which is one of the things I noticed about all three of these books is they all take place in wars but kind of on the periphery of wars in a certain way in the sense that your book Viet begins really where most of Vietnam books end, the departure of Americans from Vietnam. And similarly you’re writing about World War One, but we’re not in the… What we generally think of as kind of the heart of the action in Europe. What is it? Is there something special about the periphery of war in addressing these kinds of questions?

Dawn Anahid: Well for me, I wanted to tell the story of what happened to the Armenians during World War One. Wars are often used as a cover for so many crimes, like with the Holocaust, or pick your war, or atrocity. For me, I wanted to tell the story of what happened to so many, million and a half Armenians through the lens of my family because I… Well first of all, it’s my grandfather’s story. Many people don’t know about what happened to the Armenians. So it was very important for me to tell what happened. And I just think that for people who may not be interested in the Armenian Genocide, or I’m going to pick up a book about, or I want to learn about genocide this weekend, instead of going to a really fun movie or something.

Jim Newton: It’s not a beach book.

Dawn Anahid: Right, exactly. And so I just thought if you could learn about it through my grandfather, through this hardworking guy who just has dreams like all of us and it’s a universal story of someone who has dreams and their family and their life is uprooted and then he’s just struggling to survive. I also think we think about war and if you can look at it through the prism of one person who’s going through it, is you also see people tested their emotional and physical limits tested. You see that in my grandfather’s story and you see the incredible courage that also comes out when people are in these situations and just overcoming all odds to keep just trying to live. And for my grandfather it’s timeless. He just wanted to get home to his family.

Dawn Anahid: I think if you can look at war, look what’s happening on the periphery, look at it through the lens of a person. You can connect more with that period of time.

Jim Newton: Can I ask you, I know you’ve not written a political book. It’s much more personal than that, and yet the politics of genocide. This notion of this denial that’s present even today in the international relations with respect to the Armenian Genocide, how do you analyze that? How does that controversy overshadow or haunt this book?

Dawn Anahid: Of course, it haunts just the words, Armenian Genocide and I’ve tried to stay away from it as much as possible.

Jim Newton: Sought of.

Dawn Anahid: No. Not at all because I be want it to be recognized, but my whole point for telling my grandfather’s story and writing the story is to educate others about what happened and, if they can just read. One of the things that struck me the most when… Because I’m half Armenian, I don’t read Armenian, I can’t speak it. I’m probably going to mangle some names of Armenian words. For me, I just wanted people to learn. When I started out, I just really didn’t… I was like, “Oh, it’s contested.” So there must not be a lot of primary information about it. I was just shocked as a reporter about if you just look at the newspapers of the time and just read them, look at the New York Times and look at back issues and you’ll see that it was chronicled in the world press. So anyway, I just wanted to-

Jim Newton: And yet sort of disappear off our consciousness for life.

Dawn Anahid: Absolutely. And so the politics is the hardest part. I think Armenians, we just want to heal. We don’t want to be, every year have to stand around and march and demand and we just want our families and what happened to be recognized and so we can heal.

Jim Newton: Got it. Viet, I read been preparing for today. I read a talk that you delivered last fall and what you said, I realized that some things are so nasty that writers should simply show them as they are. The ugliness is and must be unforgettable. How does that idea express itself in the sympathizer? How did you carry that out?

Viet Thanh: I remember reading a book called Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann. Again, when I was about 12 or 13 much too young of an age to be reading war novels. That novel also scarred me and I hated Larry Heinemann. And I hated that book because there was a scene in that book that I could never ever forget. As an adult, I returned to that book and I re-read that scene and I thought he did the right thing.

Viet Thanh: He did the right thing by showing all the ugliness that happened during the war. He showed how this very nice young American man, 19 years old or whatever, could go to the Vietnam war and become a killer within the space of 10 pages and a rapist in the space of 150 pages and Heinemann the novelist did not step in and during these moments and editorialize and tell the reader, “This is wrong, what these people are doing.” He simply showed it to us.

Viet Thanh: When it came to writing my own novel, I realized that’s also what I have to do as well. I can’t give the reader the comfort of telling the reader, this is right and this is wrong. I have to show what I think of as the full expression of humanity, which is also to be inhuman. To go back to your earlier question, one reason why war persists is that it’s not because war is something that takes place done by other people over there somewhere by these monsters, war takes place and war keeps perpetuating because it’s done by us.

Viet Thanh: Because all of us have the capacity for it inhumanity and that’s what fiction should reveal. It should force. It should rub our noses right in, this reality that none of us want to confront that when we say war is hell, it exists because it comes from us. And that’s what I needed to do in the novel is to eventually reach a moment where readers are forced to see something that no one wants to see, our narrator doesn’t want to see. He’s been denying it this entire time. Then he’s finally forced to recall and we’re forced to experience that with him. If we’re uncomfortable, that’s the way it should be.

Jim Newton: In fact, you alluded to it here. Rape and torture, common themes run throughout these books and seemed to be endemic to wartime. Any thoughts on why that is? Well, how is it that the at vestiges of civilization seemed to join [inaudible 00:20:49]?

Viet Thanh: I think war puts everybody into extremity. And the reason why rape and torture keeps coming back up is this whole idea that the inhuman already exists within us. When war breaks down all these boundaries and gives people the permission to do all sorts of things that are legitimated by their nation or by their community. People are being sent off to war and saying, “You’re doing this for a patriotic cause.” And then all of these terrible things happen. And because wars are being done for patriotic causes, no one wants to remember the terrible things.

Viet Thanh: When we tell war stories, we tell war stories about heroism and nobility and sacrifice and everything else. We don’t tell the war stories about the fact that our sons, our brothers, our husbands did things that they would not want to talk about at home.

Viet Thanh: It’s incredibly uncomfortable to acknowledge that possibility that your ability of that person you consider to be human might have done something inhuman. Because we can’t acknowledge that in public, then it keeps coming back up. Then that becomes a territory for historians and all of us to keep reminding us of something that we shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t need to be reminded of.

Jim Newton: It’s certainly the case your story?

Rita: Yes. I mean, one of the things I talk about in my book is that I really resisted the term monster for instance, talking about my grandfather or other people, whose participation and atrocities I learned about either firsthand from survivors or from a pretty rigorous process of documentation. I went to Eastern Europe many times during the writing of this book and I was fortunate to collect a lot of testimonies around some of the worst crimes that included rape, that included humiliations.

Rita: That for some people were almost as bad as death, humiliations before their death. Often perpetrated by people who had several months earlier bought bread from the person that they then were going to walk over before they shot them in the town square. And so the question, how could this possibly happen? But it can and it does. I focused on my grandfather as a collaborator in some depth because analyzing what brought him to do what he did and then basically shed the skin of the person who stood at a pit were 8,000 men, women and children were shot. The interior of a Jewish cemetery where 1000 non-combatant Poles, guilty of nothing were lined up and shot then to come to the US, go to New Jersey and become a tile inspector.

Rita: How does that happen? How does someone walk out of that life and walk into another life? And for me, the most important lesson there is that it can happen, and we all think of ourselves as being beyond anything that might propel us under any kind of duress to do horrible things. The kinds of horrible things that we have read about and seen movies about and studied. I’m not suggesting at all that we could all do as my grandfather did, et cetera. But humanity is a broad term and I think we don’t do ourselves any favors by limiting it and saying, “Well, the beasts are here, the monsters are there, but we’re here.”

Rita: I think a lot more needs to be learned and a lot more needs to be investigated because for instance, this is just an another side, but we’ve all been reading in the papers. There’s an attempt now to figure out how young men are recruited into Isis? What draws them to do the horrible things that they do? People have been asking for years what led these collaborators who had in Eastern Europe had no love of the Germans. They were not Nazis. They had always been antisemetic but they live next to Jews for years. What happened that allowed suddenly that population to galvanize so viciously against the Jews until 95% of the Jewish population was gone.

Jim Newton: Let me just follow up with a very brief follow up there. And this may be too high altitude, but as you come away from this experience, would you come to the conclusion that anyone is capable of these kinds of crimes? Or is there something very specific to that situation that allowed that to happen?

Rita: I don’t think anyone is possible of that kind of crime, but I’ve done some work around, scarcity of resources in the future. Just interested in it and done some writing about it. For instance, when water becomes a scarce commodity, a very scarce commodity, who will we become then around that scarce commodity. We may not dig a pit and shoot people, but we may also not offer our neighbor our water. There are degrees of humanity, that we can slowly lose depending on a situation.

Jim Newton: So Dawn. You want to take it?

Dawn Anahid: You guys touched on a lot of the points, but it’s about dehumanizing a group and to allow these things to happen. So with World War One and happened with the Armenians that there are dangerous and with World War Two, with the Holocaust, Rwanda or… It’s about dehumanizing a group and you declare them other, it only separates you from them. And you see it happening now and we talk about why do we return towards because war keeps repeating… I mean, history keeps repeating itself and you see it now with what’s happening with Muslims being declared as other and dangerous. Where many people are branding a whole group for the actions of individuals or the Islamic state. So you just see it happen over and over and it’s that dehumanizing. They’re different than me.

Jim Newton: I was wondering since we were preparing for this today whether these same kind of phenomenon, for instance, from the present the American Civil War where I would assume it was more difficult to dehumanize an enemy. Brothers and sisters in [inaudible 00:27:30] on either side of the line and I don’t know the answer to that. But I wonder if torture or rape for instance, are endemic to all conflict or if it’s easier to dehumanize in certain situations than others.

Dawn Anahid: Certainly in Rwanda there were family against family and rape as a tool of war. That’s at least a partial answer to that very good question.

Jim Newton: Interesting. Viet. Your’s novel obviously made clear, but you do draw extensively from historical record and I actually found myself looking up certain things as I was reading. How important is it to you or was it to you to be historically accurate given that you are in fact after already in a work of fiction?

Viet Thanh: Well, I grew up actually doing that research unintentionally, I watched probably every American war movie made about Vietnam. I’d read a huge amount of American literature about the war. By the time it came around to writing this book, I didn’t really need to do research about the war itself. But where I did do a lot of research was around two set pieces. The opening is about the fall of Saigon, where it’s liberation depending on your point of view. I read everything I could about the fall of Saigon in order to map out in the first 50 pages to fall of that city week by week, and day by day, and hour by hour and then literally minute by minute, by the time we got to April 30th. Because I wanted to put the reader into the perilous situation that the South Vietnamese found themselves in as they were literally fighting to get on board the last airplane or the last boat out of this city.

Viet Thanh: The other set piece that I did a lot of research for was the making of an epic American movie about the Vietnam War shot in the Philippines that my narrator, the communist spy ends up being a consultant for when it comes to the United States. There is actually some black comedy in this book, and a lot of it revolves around the fact that he goes and he helps makes make this movie. It’s a black comedy because at the same time as this movies is being shot, all of these so called “boat” people have come from Vietnam to the Philippines and they’re living in refugee camps and they’re offered a dollar a day to perform as Việt Cộng people, soldiers in this movie. So they have fled from communism, survived a horrendous journey, and then are here now to play the very people who persecuted them in the first place in order to be killed by American soldiers on screen.

Viet Thanh: That, to me, summed up much of the absurdity of the war in a symbolic way. I really needed to get the details right. In doing the research on Coppola’s film, I discovered I couldn’t even make up this stuff that was happening. In a sense, reality did exceed my imagination.

Jim Newton: Yeah. Coppola or the Coppola figure and [inaudible 00:30:01] does not come off well, I’m going to say.

Viet Thanh: That’s based on reality.

Jim Newton: That’s really good. Rita and Dawn, both of you in either order, I’m just curious, the experience of writing about a family member. Do you feel a sense of responsibility for… Your family member obviously is more heroic than any other  family member. But I wonder whether you take pride in that relationship or responsibility for it or how does your perception of your grandfather, as you’ve learned about him in the course of this research affected your sense of yourself and your place and family?

Rita: I’ll let you.

Jim Newton: Please.

Dawn Anahid: I see my family differently now. I see my mother’s story of coming here as a child from Turkey. Since I’ve learned more about the book, I learned more about the effects of war and the effects through my family and to how my grandfather was so traumatized. He used to tell my mother every year that he was going to die the next year. Then next year would roll around and then he would say it to her again. They were incredibly poor when they came here. I understand my mother more. I understand my family and their struggles and I understand also the legacy that’s been passed on to me of needing to, having a real responsibility of having to tell this story.

Jim Newton: Did you share the book? The manuscript with your family before it was published?

Dawn Anahid: That’s a good question. My mother, she was here. I shared it with her at different points and then for sure before it was published and I consulted her throughout the book because there were so many things that my grandfather wrote about and he would add onto it what he was feeling in that moment that maybe he didn’t write down in the journals. Her memory was an incredible part of reconstructing it in addition to what he wrote. I definitely see myself differently because I, my father’s side, Scottish English and Declaration of Independence and I was very proud of that as a child. I see my family background in a more nuanced way now.

Jim Newton: Rita.

Rita: Well first I just want to say that one thing Dawn does really well in her book is that she juxtaposes the story of her grandfather with the story of her journey to retrace her grandfather’s steps. That’s one of many captivating things about the book. My grandfather again, I think the fact that I knew him well and loved him made a big difference as I was researching his past. When I began to understand the scope of the killings that had happened partially under his purview I think that I was so intent on documenting it as thoroughly as I could because I didn’t want the material of the book to rest on supposition. I really wanted to double or at least triple source all the material in the book that related to his activities. That took me to Poland and Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe, many times in Israel. I think that certainly from family comes identity, and from identity also comes responsibility.

Rita: Half my family is Jewish, my Jewish grandmother, Rachel [Trigo Gebas 00:33:48] who lived to the ripe old age of 104 was the matriarch of my family. She pronounced very loudly one summer when she saw me wearing a little gold cross that all my Polish girlfriends wore in summer. My grandmother saw it on the street corner, ripped it off my neck, threw it on the ground and said, “You’re Jewish.” That sealed my identity. As I was working on this book, I was very glad that she was no longer living because I think it would have destroyed her. But she was very much in my heart and in my head. I also felt that once I learned about the major massacre called the [Polygon 00:34:30] Massacre, which is just one of the Holocaust by bullets that exists all over Eastern Europe and Western Europe.

Rita: The thing that haunted me was the anonymity of the dead. Those countless people who lost their lives. It felt to me like I wanted to write a book that would in some way make that loss manifest. Not to make anything right, not to close the circle, but just because I am my grandfather’s granddaughter. That’s simple. So that’s what I did.

Jim Newton: And did you share your manuscript with members of your family before you published?

Rita: The Jewish side of my family, yes. My mother was actually terrified about my work and I made a deal with her early on that I would not share research I found unless she specifically asked for it. She didn’t speak to me for several years. But interestingly enough I did a book expo interview with Peter Slen, C-span.

Rita: Before the book came out and my mom later asked to see that interview and we sat down and watched it together and she put her arms around me and she hugged me and she said, “I’m so proud of you.” Then she read the book. So, at 86, she did a full circle and I have incredible admiration for her for that.

Jim Newton: And what did she think of the book? 

Rita: She loved it.

Jim Newton: Good.

Rita: She said, “You did a good job.” Which…

Jim Newton: That’s what you hoped for. We’re going to the audience in just a minute here, but before we do. I just want to ask each of you just to sort of question about technique about how you did this research the whole thing and then, write. How long did it take you to write? What was your process like? Viet, you want to start?

Viet Thanh: Well, I’d spend 10 years before the novel writing a short story collection. It was an absolutely miserable, horrible experience. I was flying around, didn’t know what I was doing. When it came time to writing the novel, I decided not to do that. So I wrote a synopsis. I wrote a two page synopsis that was fairly accurate except for the ending. I knew even as I wrote the synopsis that the ending was not where I was going to go, but I needed to have a target. About two thirds of the way through the novel, I actually realize what the ending had to be. Then I was very lucky I had two years off. Actually I got a fellowship to work on my nonfiction book and instead I wrote my novel instead. But no worries. I did finish the nonfiction book eventually.

Jim Newton: You realize that we’re on TV.

Viet Thanh: I already told my sponsors that I had done this with their money. But for two years I was in a zone. I would get up, I would write four hours a day, then I would go run in the afternoon at the gym. That was a really important part to the writing process because as I was running by the time I passed, the 30 minute mark, new ideas would come into my mind that would, that I would work on the next day or the next week and so I hope, I hope at some point in my life I can repeat that experience, which is pretty rare.

Jim Newton: Did you have an outline? Just out of curiosity?

Viet Thanh: Yeah. Well, the two pages synopsis.

Jim Newton: That’s the synopsis?

Viet Thanh: Yeah.

Jim Newton: Dawn.

Dawn Anahid: Mine took 10 years. I thought it would be two years and it took a decade. A part of it is because a lot of the… I tried to do as much primary research as possible. I had my grandfather’s journals and I just went through it as meticulously as possible and he left the names of people in his caravans. What town they were from? Where he was? What month I was in this camp? So those are all clues for me. I spent years researching and I also I took out ads in Armenian newspapers to try to look for the families to see if any who survived, and if there’re any accounts out there. And then I searched for, for example, there was one man who survived the same massacre my grandfather escaped from and very few people survived. It was in Eastern Syria, the area that’s now controlled by Islamic State. I spent years searching for this man’s account because he was a writer in my grandfather’s town before.

Dawn Anahid: I finally found it after years in a Romanian-Armenian newspaper and it just described the massacre, just added on details so I could expand what happened that night and when they massacred his whole caravan. I just searched for years and it is this kind of research that took me a long time-

Jim Newton: Yeah.

Dawn Anahid: …. to finish.

Jim Newton: And language [crosstalk 00:38:56].

Dawn Anahid: Yes. There were about six different languages and I kind of have really bad high school French.

Jim Newton: Which was not one of the six?

Dawn Anahid: Which is no. I was able to go through newspapers, also the period to reconstruct my grandfather’s town. I went through oral histories of people from my grandfather’s town, because they all reference each other. When you look at memoirs of Armenians who were from my grandfather’s town or they would all say each other’s full names. This is the water carrier. I just went through everything I could about people who were from my grandfather’s town and old books and they’re all in Armenian and then just tried to at any point just expand his account with their accounts.

Jim Newton: Would you read that with a translator? How would you-

Dawn Anahid: So when I started we started with my mother’s friends and, they were all retired and would sit around and then ask me, “What are you doing and why are you single in your 30s?” I have this plan of like coffee break and so that was taking a while. I finally had an incredible intern to help me kind of read aloud just to see what was in the book. And then I would have it professionally translated, but I also took Armenian classes at night because I could not even read the Armenian script of what book I was holding and to go through newspapers and everything. So it took quite a long time.

Jim Newton: [inaudible 00:40:20] Rita, your process?

Rita: Well, so just to say, I began thinking that all my research material would be in English. It was not, it was in Polish, German, Lithuanian, Yiddish, Hebrew many other languages, Russian. I worked with a lot of translators. I traveled a lot. I found myself in dusty musty archives. I did a lot of interviews. My wonderful friend Daniel Mendelsohn who wrote the book The Lost, some of you may have read it, told me, “Record everything and video everything.” That turned out to be great advice.

Rita: I wrote the start of the book in one go and then I made notes and my notes were napkins. They were on planes on the back of the plane menu. They were in loose-leaf sheets of paper that I thankfully remembered to take with me when I left a certain hotel. Somehow they all got organized. About three and a half years after this first round of travel, I was still traveling, but I was able to sit down and really start writing. Then of course you go on deadline with your editor where you have to start giving them certain chunks of the book. For me at the beginning, much of this was about traveling, talking to people and researching.

Jim Newton: I’m going to ask you all to start lining up the microphones while I ask one last question. So we can come right to you. Go ahead and you can line up and we’ll call on you in just a moment. But before I do, I just like to ask each of you, whether you’re going to write another book and if so, whether you have an idea in mind, Viet I know you do.

Viet Thanh: [crosstalk 00:42:02] the nonfiction thing nothing ever does this came out. That short story collection, that agonized over 10 years about my publisher bought it. So turning that in end of the summer.

Jim Newton: Congratulations.

Viet Thanh: Thank you. The first 50 pages of the sequel to the Sympathizer had been written and bought by my publisher as well. So someone likes it out there.

Jim Newton: I do.

Rita: Fantastic.

Jim Newton: Dawn.

Dawn Anahid: Answer is I don’t know.

Jim Newton: It’s very answer.

Dawn Anahid: I don’t know. I’m probably going to move on to a happier topic for a little while and then think about whether or not there’s a story that’s really going to compel [crosstalk 00:42:35] me to develop myself to.

Jim Newton: And Rita?

Rita: Currently, a lot has happened after the publication of this book and I’m going to be writing about some of it in long form, whether that’s going to jell in to another book. I don’t know. There’s one character in my book who was a triple agent who under the auspices of nonfiction. I was asked not to include certain details of her life, but she’s a character who has stayed with me, who haunts me and who I think will find a life outside of nonfiction. When that will happen, in my study, I don’t know, but sometime down the road.

Jim Newton: Sir.

Speaker 6: The question is for Rita. You have stated that there were obviously pockets throughout Europe of antisemitic feelings for the war.

Rita: Yes.

Speaker 6: The Nazis enabled the locals to collaborate and bring out their monster and then do the terrible atrocities. As you reviewed all the records and done your research and countries in Eastern Europe, what does your observation today of antisemitic feelings and is there something that we should be worrying about is the reports of lot of radical right wing government activity in Poland and Germany and [crosstalk 00:43:48].

Rita: Absolutely. Look, I also want to say too, antisemitism isn’t the only horror that we’re facing, but it certainly if you’re connected to the goings on in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, it’s frightening the exodus of the Jewish population from those countries now, it’s frightening. The low population left in Eastern Europe of Jews because of the nationalism and the antisemitism, which bodes ill for the Jews who are left but also for other disenfranchised.

Rita: It’s very scary. It’s a recapitulation of something to some degree, but also to me it seems as if it is a stream. It’s a current that is just never ended. I always think about in one of my trips to Berlin, the person who was taking my husband and I around was very quick to show us all the monuments and all the ways in which Jews are honored and the devastation of the Holocaust is marked and yet casually would mention to us, “Yes, any of the synagogues, they, they always have bomb threats, every week.” That still is the way it is, and I think it’s very important for us to remember it. So yes, it’s frightening.

Speaker 7: Sir, over here. My question is for Viet, have your parents or any other relatives who lived through the war read your book and given you feedback on their opinions about your book and how accurate was to the time period?

Viet Thanh: Well, some Vietnamese people have read the book and, all the comments have been positive. But as far as my family goes, when I came home with a novel, my father was actually very proud to see it and he insisted in having his picture taken with the book. And I’ll take that. I don’t need them to, I should read the novel, but they having been proud of the book was very important to me.

Viet Thanh: When I finished, Nothing Ever Dies… As I was finishing it and I went home to see him again. And I said, “Look, you’ve sacrificed so much for me, you and my mother, and I really want to dedicate this book to you. So how should I dedicate this book to you of how should I put your names down in this book?”

Viet Thanh: He said, “Don’t put our names in that book.” That’s what the dedication to Nothing Ever Dies says to my father and mother. The reason why is because he is afraid that the history of the Vietnam War has not died. It’s still lives. There are still people in Vietnam who in his mind remember him and he doesn’t want to be touched by those passions and divisions that turned him into a refugee. So I think like the other writers here this history of warfare and other kinds of disasters that we’ve… That our families have lived through have scarred my parents and these other family members. For them, the history is not passed. And it’s still remains traumatic.

Speaker 7: Thank you.

Jim Newton: Over here, sir.

Speaker 8: So question now, primarily for Rita, somewhat for Dawn. It seems as though your research into your books was really expensive. You talk about all these trips to Eastern Europe and Syria, Turkey. How did you finance that research these years and years of expensive travel? Are you independently wealthy?

Rita: I’ll answer that first. I got an advance and that’s how I spent my advance. So whenever you hear, “That writer got a big advance.” Don’t think that they bought a big car with that advance. They’re working on their book with it. But that’s how I was fortunate enough to be able to do the years of work I needed to do. And then I have to say I had some wonderful volunteers too. There were people in Lithuania who got really interested in what I was doing and who offered their help and also some people in Israel. Dawn?

Dawn Anahid: Yes. And like Rita, I also got an advance and so it was able to fund a lot of my research and then I went through all my savings.

Jim Newton: Well, because funding a 10 year project is no small thing.

Dawn Anahid: Yes. I was very excited when I left New York and my job, I had a good amount of money saved. But this book like I said, I thought it would take two years and I was like, “Oh, this is a great advance.” Then, it just as I dug in, I realized, I just… You’d pull a string and then you look at one library for something, you don’t find it and then you just have to find it. So then I ended up going to France to look through collections there, looking through research in Armenia and having people help me in Romania and so it just ended up being very expensive. It was not the best financial decision I’ve ever done, but the best personal one.

Jim Newton: Yes sir.

Speaker 9: For Dawn. What do you think it might take for a future US Congress or president to have the courage to stand up to Turkey and declare that it is a truth, that there was an Armenian Genocide?

Dawn Anahid: I wish I knew the answer to that because we would do it now, but I think I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon because of Turkey’s military importance to this country and with the Middle East being what it is. It’s going to be a long time, I think until maybe we don’t need Turkey as much as a military partner and so they can’t exert as much influence on us here. But I’m just continuing to say what happened and so are other Armenians and other people and that’s what’s important to me is just that the story is told.

Jim Newton: One of the things I’ve learned from your book is that the author who coined the term genocide actually meant for it to me in the Armenian Genocide. So there’s something particularly perverse about the denial of it with respect to that.

Dawn Anahid: Yeah, absolutely. Hitler referenced what happened to the Armenians before the Holocaust. It’s just history repeating itself, which is why it’s important to tell these stories.

Jim Newton: Yes ma’am.

Speaker 10: Hi, as a reader, I find it really difficult when I’m reading war stories. I mean it hurts. It’s really hard and I think we all can relate to that. As a writer, you have to live in experience and then translate your own experience into words for other people. How do you cope with that? I’m sure you all had interesting and difficult times and it’s all very personal, but did you have really dark places and how did you get through it?

Jim Newton: Who wants first?

Viet Thanh: I have to admit that the two years that I spent writing this book were the best two years of my life.

Jim Newton: I don’t think you’re supposed to it.

Viet Thanh: It’s a very rare experience. That’s why I treasure it? But it’s fiction and I just took tremendous pleasure in the experience of writing in [inaudible 00:50:50] of immersion. But what you’re talking about, I did reach that point because towards the end of the book, some very terrible things happen and I had to recreate those kinds of things, or imagine those kinds of things and live with that for several months. That did mean like nightmares and things like that and also looking at things like torture manuals and doing this kind of research that led to some very unpleasant facts that I have to think about.

Viet Thanh: I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to that. I think that all of us here are committed to this idea that what we do with nonfiction or fiction is to try to investigate things that many other people don’t want to investigate. As unpleasant as it is, that’s the task that we’ve taken upon ourselves and we have to endure. The one comforting thing is that whatever we endure as writers is nothing, compared to what the people who lived this history had to go through.

Dawn Anahid: Absolutely. And I would just, second that last point and say I would always remind myself that as difficult as it is to read first count, testimony after testimony of just horrendous things, that it was nothing compared to what my grandfather or his peers went through. But what I did not say is I became a connoisseur of very light material and the fact that my husband would always walk in the room, I was watching a really bad show and be like, “What, why are you watching that? No, you’re better than this.” And I was like, “I just can’t take anything serious outside of reading these accounts and writing it.” But now I’m back to reading more serious about material.

Jim Newton: Welcome back.

Dawn Anahid: Thanks.

Rita: Also we’re all writers and so whatever the material, we want to do it right. Whether the material is grim, whether it is wartorn whether it is something else. We want to give our heart and soul to it and do the very best job we can. With that is a kind of guiding force, it overrides to some degree, some of the difficulty of the material that we have to flesh out and bring alive on the page. Hopefully we do it well.

Jim Newton: Can I ask you a bit of, were you rooting for a certain outcome? Would you want to not find out certain things about your grandfather or, I mean, how did you want it [crosstalk 00:53:09].

Rita: When I started, look, obviously I wanted to find material that exonerated him. Early on, just the logistics of where he was and the time where he was these places and the things that were happening it would have been very easy for me to just say, “Well, of course.” But I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to be as methodical as I could. And work with as much research integrity as I could. I got to a point where I stopped hoping that I would find something else and then I had to deal with the reality of what I did find.

Jim Newton: [inaudible 00:53:52] did you worry that you would find something that would tarnish your grandfather’s image in your eyes?

Rita: I think when I started out, I didn’t know how reliable his account was.

Jim Newton: Right, of course.

Rita: It’s not like I went into what genocide was. I went in definitely with a perspective that this happened but I didn’t know how accurate he was and I had to find that out. And so that’s why I did such exhaustive research as the years passed, he was extremely accurate because even that man’s account, for example, that I found in the Romanian-Armenian newspaper in the 1920s it matches up within a day of what my grandfather wrote in his own journals. It’s just time and time again he would say, “I was in this camp with this family and I sold water to them.” I ended up finding that family and the mother had passed away, but she had left some journals and I go through these journals and there she’s like, “We were in [Katma 00:54:55] camp during this period. It just constantly lined up like that. They were just really small little things that I found, but that was-

Jim Newton: Am I right to assume that the journals are just indispensable for you in this book?

Rita: Absolutely. I could not have done it without his journals and not even like when I started out, I started with the account that was translated into English. Even that when I was starting, I was going to quit because it just kind of starts in the middle of World War One and you don’t know about his life beforehand. When we found more of his journals, it just detailed his whole happy time before the war and just more of his experience. So, absolutely, I could not have done it.

Jim Newton: Yes ma’am.

Speaker 12: Yeah, thanks. The scope of the genocides you two describe seem almost unbelievable. But what’s almost harder to believe is how people who survived it can keep on living. I wonder if you haven’t stories of what happened with the survivors and how did they get a normal afterwards?

Dawn Anahid: I don’t think they do. I’ll just say that there, three, three people run through my book, the threats of their lives in their survivors of this, on this [spenciana ghetto 00:56:13] which was the ghetto in the town, in the region under my grandfather’s control. They were young. They ended up becoming partisans. I became quite close to them and interview them repeatedly in Israel, in the Bronx. Their mission to tell their stories and to educate and to remember has kept them alive. They are incredibly vital people. But when you talk to them about what happened, they as shattered today as they were so many years ago. When they slipped out the back of the ghetto and the rest of their family were taken to the pit at Polygon.

Dawn Anahid: The phrase for me is war unending. People survive and they can thrive. But this, this myth, it’s kind of an American myth, we have. We start rumors and people go to war and then the war and send them people come back and it’s all over. It’s never over. I have enormous amount of admiration for these people who then, come forward and not only move beyond silence but try and do something with the horrors that they’ve lived with.

Rita: And I would just add in. And those are all excellent points that I completely agree with. It’s also, I think when you lose everything as my family did, as so many families have and you come to a new country and you’re just trying to survive again. But in another way, because you’ve lost your business, you’ve lost your community, you’ve lost your friends, you don’t have any money and you have to start over and to care for your family and continue while you’re dealing with this trauma of witness. To me, the people who went through this all these… All of our families and I just have incredible… They’re so inspiring to me because it takes so much courage and strength also for the next generation to be able to give us opportunities from all their hard work and courage.

Jim Newton: Viet.

Viet Thanh: Well, I do touch on genocide in the nonfiction work on the Cambodian genocide, which I think, it’s really important for Americans because most Americans forget that United States bombed Cambodia enormously in a secret campaign. This destroyed Cambodian society and laid the groundwork for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. To answer the question that you posed, the person that I deal with in my book is, his name is Rithy Panh. He’s a filmmaker and writer. I really recommend this book, the Elimination, his memoir and his film, the Missing Picture, which should have won the Oscar of the year it was nominated. Because he’s an example of an artist who’s devoted his entire life to confronting the genocide and its consequences and what it means for one population of people a country, they’re all Cambodians to kill another portion of that population.

Viet Thanh: That to me was as grim as the history is. His example as an artist who is relentlessly confronted that in film after film and then this incredible memoir, The Elimination that’s incredibly inspiring because he does do exactly what you two have done, which is to commit his life to the pursuit of memory and of truth and a forcing people to confront the history they don’t want to confront including Cambodians themselves.

Jim Newton: I’m afraid, I’m sorry to leave you stranded there, sir. I’m afraid we’re about out of time. You’re welcome to come up afterward and ask your question that way. I want to thank all of you for being here, but most importantly, I want to thank our panelists. I can promise you this, that as good as they are in person, they are better on the page. So enjoy the books.

Speaker 1: Now that concludes today’s live coverage from the campus of the University of Southern California. We’ll be back with more from the 21st annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books tomorrow, and our coverage begins at 1:30 PM Eastern Time. That’s 10:30 AM on the West Coast. You can watch all of our coverage from today, starting at midnight eastern time on Book TV on C-span two or 9:00 PM on the West Coast.

Category: Interviews

 

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