An American Narrative: A Conversation with Author Viet Thanh Nguyen Winner of The Pulitzer for Fiction

Viet Thanh Nguyen joins JinJa Birkenbeuel on The Honest Field Guide to talk about entrepreneurship and American racism.

The impact of entrepreneurship on the America dream is too often taken for granted. Consider Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who escaped Vietnam as a refugee with most of his family in the 70s, almost immediately torn from his mother’s arms when they hit the ground in America. Then a few years later, reunited with his brother and parents who started their own successful, yet back breaking grocery store business in San Jose, California. 

An observer, Viet learned how to be and not to be, absorbing the tenacity and fierceness of his entrepreneurial parents. His journey from boyhood to manhood in a country studded at every point with racism and hypocrisy manifests beautifully in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Sympathizer.” 

Host JinJa Birkenbeuel interviews Viet on this special episode. Viet’s story will surprise you, as he unpacks and deconstructs American-style racism through his own cultural lens. 

Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcast and Google Podcast or read the transcript below. 

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Hey, everybody. I’m JinJa Birkenbeuel. I am the host of the Honest Field Guide podcast. And I want to start off saying that today’s conversation is definitely one of the highlights of my week, given the turmoil we’re having globally, nationally in the United States and locally in Chicago, which is where I am. As a city, we’re still not open. Our stores are still boarded up. Restaurants are not open. And Cook County still has the highest number of COVID-19 cases of all counties in the United States of America. But why is today a highlight for me? Because today I’m speaking with Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of many books, including Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer. The Sympathizer is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read in my life after John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a really complicated book. The protagonist is unnamed throughout the entire book.

He is in full three-dimension. His character is rich, beautiful, terrible, relatable. The character is a North Vietnamese communist spy. I related so deeply to this character, if you can believe it. I’ve always felt like a spy myself. I’m black in America. I’ve always need to find ways to learn about whiteness and how not to be noticed so I can make money and survive. Part of my learning came from my family. I’m mixed ethnicity. I grew up in a multicultural world, but I knew from a very young age that I was not the standard. My cultural education in particular around the Vietnam Mar was always from the perspective of the white American male. I think about films that I grew up watching, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning, Vietnam, Platoon films that were written and created by white men, starring white men all the time.

And even though in High Park, as a young girl, I grew up around black Vietnam military vets, guys that did freelance jobs around the neighborhood. They were electricians and plumbers and contractors. I never really heard their stories. I never saw them reflect on the big screen. I never read about them in a literary novel, especially outside of the white experience. The only time that I saw a black film about Vietnam was Dead Presidents, but that ended up being a gang and a drug film. And it felt like blaxploitation to me. The main thing though, I never have seen anything from a Vietnamese perspective. The most brutal image I’ve ever seen in my life of Vietnamese people were the famous image, the napalm girl, and then of course that iconic image of the execution. And you can look it up on Google. It shows atrocity, depravity, absolutely no humanity of the Vietnamese people.

And I never learned about Vietnam outside of films and photos. I never learned about Vietnam in school, except for did we lose? Did we win? I mean, there was never even an answer. The conversation around winning or losing was always challenging for me as a black person, because a black person, it feels like we’re always losing. But also consider in the context of that, my own knowledge around the history of black American experience outside of slavery was also limited. I grew up seeing images of slavery, lynchings, hoses, dogs on black people during the civil rights movement. I mean, those were my pictures. I saw stories about Tuskegee, things they did, horrifying things to black men, very little about, the betterment of black people outside of maybe Madam CJ Walker who invented hair straightener.

And that was when I was a grown woman. I just recently heard about black Wall Street. I’ve been on this earth for many decades. I never heard of it until this past month, I think. And then Tulsa was something that I read more deeply about last week. I mean, these are things that were never written in my history books or in any history books. And I guess if I’d gone to a historically black college, I would have learned something. But the reason why Viet is on the show is that he seems to be very conscious around the concepts and structures of race in America. He has a unique nuanced sensitivity to the constructs of race. And even when they surround black people, it’s always been fascinating to me. And the thing is I first stumbled across Viet in an article that he wrote for the Washington Post called Cannon Fodder Books by Immigrants, Foreigners, and Minorities Don’t Diminish the Classic Curriculum, They Enhance It.

And you can find this article in the Washington Post and you can look up Viet and you can read it. And at the end of the article, I was cheering. I was like, “Oh my God, this is… He knows who I am, he sees me.” And I went to look up the author and I was astonished. I was like, “Oh my God, not only is he not black, but he’s Asian.” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I swear. I thought he was a black man. I was like, “This is a black man writing this story.” So I wrote a letter to him and I said, “I’m intrigued by your article.” And he wrote me back and then I asked him, I’m like, “Are you ever going to be in Chicago? I’d love to meet you and shake your hand.”

And then he said, “You know what? I am going to be in Chicago, actually. Would you like to come to my Discussion of the Displaced, a collection of essays?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? Of course.” So anyway, I went there and here we are now. And I’m about to speak to one of my most amazing people. He’s one of my heroes. He has powerful discussions around racism and his demands for people to be anti-racist are particularly interesting. And then his insights specifically around Asian specific racism are powerful, but what’s really been fun for me, which is kind of what inspired me to invite him on my podcast was watching his son become an independent and a writer. They have a book together that they’ve written called Chicken of the Sea. And you know, everybody, entrepreneurship is my jam. That’s all I ever want to know about.

How do you become independent? How do you keep your own creativity? How do you maintain your own property and your intellectual rights and things like that? And so, yeah, I was like, “I want to talk about that, too,” but I’m first going to read his bio because it’s pretty powerful and it’s pretty strong. Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam. He came to the United States as a refugee in 1975 with his family and was initially settled in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, one of four such camps for Vietnamese refugees. From there, he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he lived until 1978. Viet Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Other honors include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the Andrew Carnegie Mellon for excellence in fiction from the American Library Association, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, a gold medal in first fiction from the California Book Awards and the Asian Pacific American Literature Award from the Asian Pacific American Library Association.

His other books are Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is a university professor, the Arrow Arnold Chair of English and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. His current book is the best selling short story collection, The Refugees. Most recently, he’s been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations for The Sympathizer. He’s a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. His most recent publication is Chicken of the Sea, a children’s book written in collaboration with his six year old son, Ellison. Welcome, Viet.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks for having me, JinJa.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: I listened to you talk in a show recently about your journey to the United States and what struck me was that you were snatched from your parents’ arms and given to white people. Can you share a little bit about your story around that and what impact it had on your childhood or outlook as a child?

Viet Nguyen: So what happened was we came along with 130,000 other Vietnamese refugees in 1975. And we ended up in a place called Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. And in order for a refugee to leave one of these camps, you had to have an American sponsor. So typically the sponsor would take an entire family of refugees, but for whatever reason, no one would take the four of us. So one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10 year old brother, one sponsor took four year old me. And when you’re four years old, you really don’t understand what’s happening. And of course, what was happening was that I was being taken away to help my parents, give them time to get on their feet. But from my perspective, as a four year old, I was being abandoned. And so, my earliest memories in the United States are being hollering and screaming as I was being taken away from my parents.

And that experience has actually never left me. I think I spent a lot of my life forgetting it and trying to suppress it, but I think the emotional issue there really scarred me and stayed with me. And as for my parents, I think, now I’m a father and my son turned four a couple of years ago. That was the occasion for me to think back on that time and to think about what that experience must have been like for my parents and how it must have been really devastating for, or I hope it was devastating for them. If it wasn’t devastating for them, they never told me, but hopefully it was devastating and I’m sure it marked their experience. They got me back after about three months. My brother, who was 10 and was taken by another sponsor, didn’t get to come home for two years. And so he likes to tell me, “That’s how we know mom and dad love you more.”

JinJa Birkenbeuel: You have just one sibling?

Viet Nguyen: Here in the United States, yes. We had one adopted sister in Vietnam.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Okay. Wow. So, you were apart from your brother for two years?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: How did you connect with him? Were there conversations? I mean, I can’t even imagine that.

Viet Nguyen: Well, my son is six years old now and he’s a fully functioning human being, but I wonder how much he’s actually going to remember 20 years from now because I was four to six when my brother was not really present, but didn’t really notice it or if I did at the time, and I noticed it, I don’t remember it now, what that must’ve felt like unless it left some kind of emotional residue in me, which I think it probably did, because I think I still feel the emotional ripples from that refugee experience of being displaced and of being separated and having people missing in your life, not just my brother for a while, but like I said, we have an adopted sister who was left behind in all the turmoil and she was like an absent presence in my life or throughout my childhood. And that definitely impacted my sense of who I was and who we were as a family and what it meant to be refugees from war.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Wow. I mean, it’s just harrowing listening to this. My family’s from Pittsburgh and it’s racist. I mean, it literally is. I mean, I have two aunts that grew up passing for white. That’s how racist it was. They’re like, “We ain’t black, we’re white people,” and that’s a whole other conversation, but why Pittsburgh? Why was Pennsylvania rather the place that you ended up being? You could have been anywhere in the United States.

Viet Nguyen: Well, a lot of Southeast Asian refugees came to the U.S., Not just Vietnamese, but Cambodians and Laotians, too. And what basically happened is the U.S. government wanted to assimilate everybody. So they weren’t going to allow everybody to go to California, which is where everybody wanted to go. So, these refugee programs were set up so people were forcibly dispersed. So there were four refugee camps for the Vietnamese, and Pennsylvania’s not even that bad because I thought, “Oh my God, what if I ended up in Arkansas,” which was one of the places, or Florida, and the Hmong, for example, were resettled in Wisconsin and Minnesota. And that I think is even worse from my perspective. Then we didn’t end up in Pittsburgh. We ended up in Harrisburg, which is close to Fort Indiantown Gap. And I wasn’t really conscious of race at the time.

I knew that I was Vietnamese, but at that age with my classmates who were mostly all white, in fact, I think they’re probably all white, race wasn’t an issue at the time. I had a happy childhood in Harrisburg. It wasn’t until I came back as an adult, 30 years later, that I thought, thank God we got out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because it would have been a really bad experience I think growing up in that environment where it was again, mostly white with a handful of Vietnamese people and probably African-Americans, except I conscious of it at the time, but I went back and I revisited one of the neighborhoods that we lived in Harrisburg and I don’t know what the composition of neighborhood was at the time, but now it’s almost all African American. And I wonder if it was African-American at the time and I just didn’t register it because I was six years old.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: I love that story. My mother talks often about growing up in Pittsburgh and I did know Harrisburg. You were saying Harrisburg, but I say Pittsburgh, because that’s my conscious around Pennsylvania. But she talks about not noticing either, but she wasn’t a mixed race family. And my grandfather was a Pullman Porter. So they were very well to do people of color, which is how they called themselves. But they didn’t have any black people anywhere near them except across the bridge. And the only time I heard black music was listening to the black station on the far end of the dial. So she’s a lot older than you, though, right? I mean, my mother is over 80, but what I love about your story is your parents became entrepreneurs in the United States, or were they entrepreneurs with their lives destroyed in Vietnam? What were your parents doing? Were they in business?

Viet Nguyen: Well, my parents are pretty amazing because they were born poor in a small rural village in North Vietnam without very much education. I think my dad finished high school. My mom never finished grade school. They became refugees twice because when the country Vietnam was divided in 1954 in North and South, they fled from the North to the South as teenagers, as newlyweds. And they started a whole new life down there and became entrepreneurs. Now, they had no training, they had no business school, they had no skills, but somehow they acquired these things and it became actually rich just through sheer hard work and I assume luck as well and ingenuity. And they went through a variety of businesses. But by the time we fled in 1975, they were, I believe running an auto parts store and a jewelry store all at the same time.

And they came to the United States as refugees and as Vietnamese refugees and the way my father tells a story when they came in, were resettled in Harrisburg, surrounded by white people, well-meaning white people. These well, meaning white people assume that these poor refugees should start from the bottom and so they got jobs. They were given jobs as custodians. And my parents were like, “We’re not poor people. We’re not custodians. We’re entrepreneurs. We were rich in Vietnam.” They lost most of what they had in Vietnam, but they managed to bring some golden money with them. And with that, they restarted their lives. So even though we were refugees, my parents bought their own homes. And I think back, and I’m like, “I have a hard time sewing a mask during Coronavirus.” My parents came here with limited English. They bought a house. How do you buy a house when you don’t really know enough of the language to read a mortgage document. They open up their own grocery store in San Jose where we moved to. There was no signed to advertise that grocery store, but my father tracked down the owners of this door somehow and got them to sell him the store. So they were very resourceful people. They rebuilt their fortune here in the United States. Somehow they were natural born business people and entrepreneurs.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Oh my goodness. And I do want to ask you about that because I want to understand that in the context of watching them work. I mean, so you were… I mean, what’s your age when you left Pennsylvania [crosstalk 00:15:06]?

Viet Nguyen: I was seven when we left Pennsylvania. So we spent three years in Harrisburg and my parents heard about this wonderful place called San Jose, which had warmer weather, better opportunities and a lot more Vietnamese people. And that was true. We went out there and they opened up the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California. So they’d be able to capitalize on this ethnic market of Vietnamese people who really want to Vietnamese groceries and it’s running a grocery store is a backbreaking business. And they did that for a decade. It was a horrible, horrible decade.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: And you say horrible, like you were living through this, right? So you saw, because this is kind of what I’m curious about. You saw your parents do all this hard work and struggle. You were you were refugees. I mean, what was that like for you? How did you see that?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I was conscious then at seven years old, I was starting to see what was taking place. And then of course, I passed my adolescents through this period of their struggle as well. And what I saw was they worked constantly, from dawn until dusk. I mean, first of all, I had to take care of the family. You just got to get up, take care of the kids, you come home from work, you got to make dinner. But in between there, they were running this grocery store for 10 or 12 hours a day. And then after dinner, I’d have to help them with the extra work, which was counting the cash and processing the checks and the food stamps and all this kind of stuff. So I was involved in some of that, but from a kid’s perspective, your parents are gone from your life.

I was a latchkey kid. I spent all my time with books and in the library because my parents weren’t home or watching television. And I also saw them suffer physically and emotionally. And of course our family suffered emotionally because the parents weren’t around, sacrificing themselves to take care of the children, a very classic refugee and immigrant story. And so of course, you can’t leave that experience unscathed. My parents were certainly damaged by that experience. And my brother and I were shaped by it fundamentally, maybe we were emotionally damaged that our wives could testify to. But I think we were also instilled with a really hard work ethic. I would never want to run a grocery store, but like my parents, I work a lot-

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:17:04]

Viet Nguyen: I want to run a grocery store, but like my parents, I work a lot. So I found other ways in which to do the same kind of work that they were doing. And I know you’re interested in entrepreneurship and I think from them, I absorbed the ability to hustle. I can’t go out and run a store, but in my own career, as a writer, speaker, professor, I hustle a lot to get the gigs and to get things done and I’m always, always working. And that, I think it’s a direct inheritance of this refugee survival experience that I had.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: When you were watching all of this unfold and it sounds like you matured earlier than you would have normally matured were it not for these circumstances. Were you an observer of all this? I’m trying to understand when did you start becoming Viet?

Viet Nguyen: I think I understood myself to be someone who is silent and an observer because in typically, in Vietnamese households, children are not meant to be heard. Parents tell you what to do, you shut up, you do what you’re told. So you sit around and you observe a lot, and especially there was a language barrier. I was fluent in Vietnamese when I came to the United States at four years old and I stayed fluent at four year old Vietnamese for the rest of my life until I went to college. And so all I could do was watch and observe and to take all this information in. And I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t really understand that I wanted to write about this life. I just wanted to get away from this life, but I was recording all of this information. And so I think consciously, I thought this is who I am. I’m an observer. I watch. And that is still true.

But as I mentioned earlier, I think what I didn’t understand was that this period also fundamentally shaped me by damaging me emotionally, leaving me emotionally … You said I was mature, which thank you for saying that. Maybe in some ways, but in other ways I think I was emotionally immature as a result of this experience because I had no one to talk to. I had no one to help me process what was happening and that affects you. That’s actually pretty good for being a writer. To be emotionally damaged, very good for being a writer. So that I think was also a part of how this refugee experience shaped me and turned me into a writer as well. An observer, trying to look back to understand the damage that was created in him.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Did you feel like you were different? Not different because you were Vietnamese and you were a refugee and your parents worked from dawn until dusk, which I really had to hold in a laugh because my six year old son tells me, “I will never open or run my own business mom because you are always working.” So I get that experience on a young child, but did you feel different at that age?

Viet Nguyen: Oh absolutely. I felt like I was a total misfit, and I was a misfit in many ways. I was certainly a misfit in the racial sense because growing up in the eighties in San Jose, California, even though it was a multicultural diverse city and I was Asian American with Asian American and Mexican friends and so on, I still felt different. I still felt like I’m not the American that I see in these movies on screen, whether it’s Vietnam war movies or whether it’s John Hughes movies. So definitely a sense of being a racial misfit in all these different ways.

But also I also understood myself to be a misfit with the Vietnamese people, so I didn’t even have that comfort because the Vietnamese people, even refugees, they were very Vietnamese. We’re Vietnamese in this particular way, we speak Vietnamese, we behave a certain way and I was the guy who didn’t fit in. So I didn’t fit in there, and then I also wanted to be a writer. So I was a nerd, so I didn’t fit into my high school. So I was a misfit all around. And again, good training to be a writer, to have this constant feeling of being out of place wherever you are.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Yeah. It’s something that I’ve always struggled with. My life, when I was a child, I never felt like I belonged anywhere except at home. I felt comfortable at home, but generally speaking, I walk out the door and I always felt like just my relationships weren’t exactly right. My girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever weren’t exactly right. I always felt different, but I think for you, I just think about the fact that you became a writer.

And so there is something to be said for people that realize that I am actually extraordinary. I am not just a misfit, but there’s something very different about me. And I’m curious, was there ever a point when you felt a spark where you thought this is it? I’m definitely not like my brother, first of all? I’m not like my parents for a number of reasons, and when you started recognizing some talent, maybe you didn’t exactly know what it was, but did you have that feeling at that age or did that come later?

Viet Nguyen: The definition of what we do as a creative person is we put ourselves out there. We share some part of ourselves and then we get rejected a lot. People criticize us, they turn us down, they don’t understand us, all that kind of stuff. So on the one hand, there’s a great degree of insecurity and then there has to be some ego that drives you forward as well. And so I don’t know where that came from because my parents are pretty humble people, but I grew up somehow with this innate sense of wanting to fight. Not physically fight, but wanting to always be antagonistic, to be critical. I had a chip on my shoulder. I don’t know where it came from but it manifests itself in my writing even now.

But a lot of my writing is very pointed, whether it’s op-eds that I write that are nonfiction or whether it’s a novel like The Sympathizer which is extremely critical of a lot of things. And so somehow, I don’t know where, this is the most mysterious part of myself as we all have mysterious parts, I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why I was raised to be a Catholic, for example, by my parents who were extremely devout and I came out an atheist. Who knows?

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Wow. Interesting. Yeah. You’re definitely unusual and different and I love the fact that you’re a contrarian. I think that is what makes great art, people that say reject standards and reject the default, however that manifests. Would you agree with that?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, and I think that contrarian is one way of putting it. I think honesty and frankness is another way of putting it. I grew up in an environment where I just felt like I was, there’s was a lot of hypocrisy. I grew up in this Catholic environment, for example. Whether it was Christians and Catholics that I could see on TV or whether it was Catholics within the Vietnamese church that I had to go to every week, I thought it just seems hypocritical. All these values that we’re putting forth and so on and yet contrast that with the lives that people were actually leading and I always just wanted to pierce that hypocrisy. And it’s easy to pierce the hypocrisy of other people. The harder part is also trying to figure out our own hypocrisies, whether it’s the hypocrisy of the people we love, our communities whatever those happen to be, or whether it happens to be your own individual hypocrisy.

And that has been a continual quest, to understand intimate hypocrisies. I’m still not sure if I can do it for myself. I think it’s what every writer has to try to do. We have to look inside ourselves and understand our own emotions, our own failures, but even trying to understand the hypocrisies of the communities that I define myself to be a part of, whether it’s Vietnamese or Asian-American or progressive, that’s really difficult because this is your family. This is your allies. If you criticize them, what do you have left? But I think that’s what also needs to be done as well.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: I grew up in the eighties as well and now I’m dating myself. I’m always really stressed out when I do that. Everybody knows that about me that’s listening. But we grew up with a lot of iconic films that were created in the seventies. What were you watching when you were young? Did you see the films that I saw? I was watching Dirty Harry and Gone with the Wind, you know what I mean? These are really old movies. Gone with the Wind wasn’t even from the seventies, but what kinds of films were you looking at?

Viet Nguyen: I was watching a lot of TV, probably [inaudible 00:00:25:05]. There weren’t that many things showing in the seventies and eighties, so probably what you were watching. Leave it to Beaver, Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart, all this kind of stuff. And then in terms of movies, my parents got a VCR very early on, so 1980 or something, and I was so excited to actually be able to watch things that I was not old enough to go out and watch in the movie theaters. So I watched Star Wars. I watched Star Wars a dozen times. That was the first movie I’ve watched on the VCR because I wanted to watch it for so long, and then Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was a big deal.

I don’t think I ever wanted to watch Gone with the Wind or things like it because I think that I had a hard time watching things that I think I intuitively knew might be racist. That’s why I never got into Western culture, American Western culture. If I was into 19th century American Western culture, I’d have to accept killing Indians right?

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Yep.

Viet Nguyen: And if I watched Gone with the Wind, I’m like, “Okay, well, it’s old. Old time America is racist,” right?

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: I think I intuitively understood that, which is why maybe I was drawn to Star Wars and Bruce Lee. These were narratives about social justice and revolution. And then, of course, at some point I’ve watched Apocalypse Now because I was a war buff, and I knew we came from the Vietnam war and here was this movie about the Vietnam war. I don’t even know how I figured it out that Apocalypse Now was an important movie. It was just something on the shelf at the video store. When I watched it, I was probably 10, 11 and the movie is deeply violent, deeply sexual and arguably racist. Whether it’s criticizing racism or just depicting racism or both at the same time, I don’t know but that movie really fractured me because I was watching it from the perspective of an American.

Yeah, I’m an American. I grew up here, I speak English and then I’m rooting for American soldiers and then the American soldiers kill Vietnamese people. I’m like, “Oh my God, who am I in this movie?” I split in two and it’s a very common experience for those of us who are people of color watching racist Hollywood movies. This happens to all of us in one way or another.

And that, I think, was a defining moment as I would spend the rest of my life trying to figure out what is happening here? Who am I and how do I fight back? How do I fight back because this is very powerful. Movies, stories, these kinds of things really shape us, empower us, and if they can empower us, they can destroy us. There’s a lot of power in stories and I believed in that. I believe in that because I’m a writer and I just figured out I have to use my own writing to try to fight back against these kinds of stories that dehumanize us and distort our realities.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: What are some of the ways that we can fight back though? We’re talking about Hollywood. Hollywood is full of incredibly entrenched bias and racism.

Viet Nguyen: So Hollywood is an industry just like every other industry that’s out there and I have a hard time thinking of any industry in the United States that is not saturated by the history of racism in this country and the embedded legacies of structural discrimination. So how do we fight back? Well as a writer and a storyteller of course, my focus is just on the creation part, the production of a story and that’s absolutely important. We need the artists to be able to do these kinds of things and have the imagination to imagine something different than what dominant power wants us to imagine. But that’s easier for me to say as a writer than for a filmmaker to say, because as a writer, it’s just me. I can write a book. I’m subjected to the publishing industry, that’s a real barrier, but it’s just me writing the book.

Now a filmmaker has to collaborate with hundreds of people, get millions of dollars and the more money you spend on something, the more difficult it is to change it. That’s why in this country, the poets are almost always at the forefront of protests because it’s just them and their lives and paper. Hollywood is always at the end because it’s hard to turn around a hundred million dollar ship or a billion dollar industry. And so how do we change it? You have to change it from the inside. And so the whole idea that if we just have movie stars in place or politicians in place, that idea of colored faces in high places, we’re going to change things, that’s the politics of representation that can only get us so far. What really matters is structural transformation behind the scenes. And that’s true, again, every industry.

So that’s why it’s a huge struggle. That’s why in the current moment that we live in, it’s great that we’re toppling statues. That’s the equivalent of the representational politics. But unless you actually radically transform the police departments, unless you radically transform the corporations, we’re not going to see real change. And so Hollywood is not immune from that kind of a problem,

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Right. In The Sympathizer, your character infiltrates a movie set and he’s struggling with how to have an impact on the vision and perception and appearance. And the book to me, The Sympathizer, it flowed like a movie. I was reading it and I felt like it was just this beautiful, flowing, horrific experience, even the store owner, which is you’re pulling from your life having parents with a grocery store. But was just thinking about you said Apocalypse Now broke you. You saw this film obviously before you started writing The Sympathizer. When it broke you, was that the first gem of a seed in your head about what you were going to start writing? And I’m trying to understand where did that first sentence come from from The Sympathizer, because you’re incorporating the themes you’re talking about now in that amazing book.

Viet Nguyen: And it’s not just Apocalypse Now. It’s like all of Hollywood’s Vietnam war genre stayed with me because I’ve watched most of these movies and it’s an exercise I recommend to nobody. It’s really exhausting, especially if you’re Vietnamese.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: It’s painful.

Viet Nguyen: Very painful and so when I became a writer, I thought now it’s my time to take revenge on Apocalypse Now, yes, specifically, but in general, this Vietnam war movie genre, and that was a huge amount of fun to do that. It was easy to write because things have not changed that much, whether we’re talking about black filmmakers trying to change Hollywood for a whole century, until they could finally, finally get Black Panther made. That’s a century of struggle to get that blockbuster made, but everybody else who comes into the industry is faced with the same problem.

So Asian-Americans dealing with exactly the same thing. And we’re barely getting to a stage where we might have some glimmer of an equivalent of Black Panther for Asian American creatives in Hollywood. So it was very easy to imagine a Vietnamese person in this industry just getting completely destroyed because he’s one man against this entire apparatus. That stands in, I think, for the reality that we’re faced with as creative artists, that our stories are powerful, but we’re facing this gigantic enemy that is not interested in us. This gigantic enemy is interested in how much money they can make out of us if they’re interested in us at all and that’s very dispiriting to confront.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: It’s been that way forever.

Viet Nguyen: Oh yeah. Forever. Right. And the irony of course is it would be better if there were more people like us, Asian Americans or African Americans in the industries. Undoubtedly, it’s going to be better. We’ll see more stories about us. But at the same time, you’ve got to realize that a lot of these people who get into the industry are completely warped by what they’ve gone through or they share the values anyway.

I’ve met Asian Americans in the industry. Most of them are not down for a cause. Most of them are not interested in power to the people. They are interested in their careers and how they move ahead with their careers, and if something Asian American or Vietnamese American come along, then that’s good, but that’s not their first priority. So the industry, whatever the industry itself is and its value system changes people. So even for the people like me who want to do something creative, but also want to work for social justice, I think we’re still in the minority, whether it’s Hollywood or something else.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Yeah. I was having a conversation with someone recently and it becomes a question of do you want to become a freedom fighter or do you want to make money? Where are we in this? How do you figure this out? It’s feeling worse to me now of course, with everything going on in the United States. And we have dump in the White House, which is causing a lot of pain and he’s insidious and saying incredible things that are just so depraved.

But I want to get back a little bit to your character in The Sympathizer, because as I was reading this, the entire time, and I said this earlier, I related to the character because he was a spy. And I have felt all my life like I am a spy. I’m a spy. I have to be. Do you feel like that was intentional? Because when I was reading this, I thought he is writing about how black people have to navigate through the world at work, play, walking down the street. We have to be alert and aware all the time-

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:34:04]

JinJa Birkenbeuel: So I’m walking down the street, we have to be alert and aware all the time to know what’s happening, otherwise we might get killed. Or we won’t get anything that we need. How did you do that? I mean, it’s almost like asking what your magical sweet sauce is, but you had to observe more than just Vietnamese culture to have really understood that entire concept of being a spy, because you’re not a white person. So you have to do something different.

Viet Nguyen: One thing, it’s gratifying to know that the novel could speak to your particular experience, but the irony of course, is that the novel was influenced by African American or black writers. So for example, Du Bois’, Souls of Black Folk, the notion of double consciousness. Always being aware of being seen from two perspectives as a black person in this country. Totally true for so many other peoples of color or minorities in this country as well. We’re always aware that we’re performing for a dominant gaze at the same time. And then, the novel that really influenced me was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which the invisible man is an observer always being observed and also being a spy at the same time.

So I think there’s commonalities in the experiences that different minorities have, and peoples of color have in this country, but I think that Black people’s experiences have been particularly aggravating given the history of this country. I mean, Asian-Americans have suffered some serious racism as well, but our structural position in this country is middle minority, model minority, the possibilities of assimilation, of being anti-black or not being black as a way of getting ahead in this country. So even if we share some similarities, an experience with African Americans, we have a way out if we want to take it, that involves allying ourselves with whiteness, that is a lot harder for most black people to do.

So I think that, for me, reading black literature was really crucial to my understanding of what art and politics can do in this country. And to understand that we are all components of a structural system in this country of race, and capitalism, and exploitation that has put us into different kinds of positions that positions us against each other, as competitors, or antagonists. And we have to able to recognize that to overcome that. And if we can do that, then hopefully we can have some commonality where I can read books by Du Bois and Ellison and write a novel, and then that novel can speak to you. And then we see this sort of thread of shared experience. That’s my hope that art and literature can do that.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Now what inspired you to read those books? And I go back a little bit to the article I read in the Washington Post. Where was the place where you said, “I have to expand some of the things that I’m learning and reading.” I mean, did you see something? Did something happen and you said, I need to understand this more?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I grew up in this multicultural city of San Jose, but then I went to very elite high school. Very elite schools in San Jose, in which I received a very canonical education. I read Faulkner, I read Joyce, I read Marks, but I didn’t read people of color. I think I read Alice Walker, that was the only person of color that I read in high school. And then I went to college, and I took Intro to Chicano Studies my freshman year. And I grew up in San Jose, heavily dominated by Mexican, and Mexican Americans, and Latinos and Intro to Chicano Studies, it’s opened my eyes to this experience of my neighbors and my best friend in San Jose. That there was this whole history of what had happened to Mexico, to Mexican Americans, the creation of Chicano people, that was incredibly important to California and to me.

So then from there it just was okay now I’m going to read African American literature. I took African American literature at Berkeley. I took Asian American studies and read Asian American literature at Berkeley. And I think that if we’re committed to the ideas of equality and justice, we’re not committed to equality and justice just for us. Just for people like us. We’re committed to equality and justice for everybody. And so we learn from other people’s experiences. I learned from what happened to Chicanos, I learned from what happened to black people and their responses to racism, and classism, and colonialism and so on. And that helps to shape my own responses. And it’s a learning experience, because I think that I’m still learning from watching Black Lives Matter unfold. I’m still learning from trying to grapple with things that I haven’t dealt with before very much. For example, the role of the Pacific Islands in the United States. We, as Asian Americans are oftentimes lumped together with Pacific Islanders, but we have nothing in common. Why does that happen? And if we investigate the history of the Pacific islands, or Hawaii, or Guam, we realize we’re still in a colonial situation in the United States. Where these territories have been appropriated for the use of American military power or indigenous populations.

I’m thinking a lot more about questions of indigeneity, native peoples, decolonization, because I don’t think we can separate freedom struggles for any peoples of color in this country, if we don’t understand that this country was built on colonization, and genocide, and the appropriation of native lands. And that all these struggles are tied together. So there’s still so much more to learn.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: There really is, and one of the things that does strike me is your being so virulently anti-racist in the Asian community particularly, right? I have been following you in these conversations, and I’ve been struck by some of your team, I don’t want to say team, but some of the camp that’s on your social says, you’re saying things that I felt my entire life, and I’ve never had the courage to say. And other people are upset with you because you’re calling out Asian racism. And I want you to talk a little bit about that because I actually have my own Asian racism. When I read that article, I did not know you were Asian. When I realized you were, I was like, “Wow,” like I stand corrected. This man is not black, he’s Asian. He wrote something that I thought was written by a black person, because of your nuanced language that you were using around things happening in literature. And I thought, “What’s wrong with me? Why is my natural assumption that this Asian person couldn’t possibly write this because Asians are racist, right?” Like, what does that mean? What is happening in that context, and how are you using your voice to sort of say, “I resist this, I refuse it, I reject it.” What does that feeling like? And how did you get there?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think one of the lessons from Black Lives Matter, of course, is that we all have to take responsibility for our own communities. There is so much anti-black racism in Asian American communities, but there’s also just a lot of general racism in Asian American communities. I mean, Asians are racist in Asia against… like the Vietnamese in Vietnam for example, are really racist. They’re racist towards ethnic minorities in Vietnam. They’re racist towards the Chinese. They’re racist towards new people who show up in the country. And so it’s easy to come to this country as an immigrant and refugee, take your racist habits, and then match them up with currently existing racisms in the United States.

And so immigrants and refugees who come into this country, no matter what their background, they may come in and they may have to start off near the bottom in American society. Right? But they know, very rapidly, possibly even before they come into this country, because they’ve already been exposed to Hollywood and to American Mass Media, that the bottom in this country is occupied by black people. And so if they can participate in anti-black racism, it brings them one step closer to assimilation. And so Asian immigrants, Asian refugees have learned this very, very clearly. And sometimes it’s just born out of a lack of humanity. And sometimes it’s born out of ignorance. I don’t think either one is excusable, but it exists.

And so I open up these conversations or when other people open up these conversations, it’s an opportunity for the flood gates to open. So I talk about anti-black racism in Vietnamese communities, and all of a sudden Filipinos are chipping in, Latinos are chipping in Arab Americans are chipping in. They’re like, “Yeah, it’s the same issue in all these communities.” And so we have to hold our own communities accountable.

Viet Nguyen: And I talked earlier about the hypocrisy of Catholics. That drives me crazy because I’m in that community. So the hypocrisy that’s closest to me really drives me crazy. And we have to lead the fight against the hypocrisies and the racisms within our own families, within our own communities, and when we do that, it allows people who are opposed to these things to cohere, and to find solidarity, and to establish their own communities. And so, what’s really empowering at this moment, despite all the horrible things that are happening, is seeing Mung for Black Lives Matter, Vietnamese for Black Lives Matter, and these social political networks suddenly exploding all over the place as these young people, and older people, suddenly discover they’re not alone and that they can take a public stand against the entrenched racisms of their communities.

And Asian Americans have been doing this for forever. We have a long anti-racist tradition. Unfortunately, your perception that Asian Americans or Asians must be racist or inclined to be racist, is not wholly unfounded because so many Asian Americans are not cognizant of that anti-racist tradition and are very willing, maliciously or just innocently, participating in racism. So it’s a huge struggle to try to, first of all, demonstrate that we have an anti-racist tradition in Asian American communities and Asian Americans, as a term, wouldn’t even exist without the anti-racist tradition. And yet acknowledge that there is a lot of anti-black and other kinds of racisms that are existing that we have to fight against.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Wow. I mean, it’s incredible. I didn’t even know there was an anti-racist tradition in Asian culture.

Viet Nguyen: So I post on Facebook, for example, that Ho Chi Minh was the original Black Lives Matter activist for Vietnamese people, because he literally did, as he was flamanting revolution against the French, he was deliberately building an international coalition between Vietnamese people suffering under French colonialism and Africans suffering under French colonialism. He was making these very deliberate kinds of gestures that says okay the anti-imperialism can’t be separated from anti-racism, right?

In the American context, if you go back and you look at what happened to the Chinese immigrants of the 19th century, they were already fighting against racism back then. There were all kinds of racist things being done to the Chinese and that anti-racist tradition expanded over the decades as more and more different populations started to come in. In Hawaii, for example, all of these different Asian populations started to get mixed on the plantations and so on. They developed an anti-racist coalition against their white plantation owners. In California, the Filipino workers, who were working in the grape fields alongside the Latino workers, formed an anti-racist coalition to fight for their rights. Led by Cesar Chavez, yes, but also by Filipino Americans as well. And then the whole idea of Asian Americans, the very term was started by college students saying we’re against racism, we’re against the Vietnam War. We’re against imperialism. We stand with our Brown brothers and sisters, our black brothers and sisters. It was all the third world strike of the 1960s.

Viet Nguyen: That is the Asian American narrative of resistance. And that then hits our current reality where we still have these kinds of beliefs, but we have a lot of Asian Americans who are like, “Well, I just want to get my paycheck.”

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Yeah, yeah.

Viet Nguyen: “I want to work for a corporation and make money.”

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Right, right. So speaking of that, it makes perfect sense because right now we have toxic leadership. I thought everything that’s gone on, all the horrible things that have happened, not only black people, which have been going on forever, but to the immigrant population. The horrifying things we’re hearing come out of their mouths, and I don’t even want to say the name of my podcast, because it’s poisonous about COVID-19. Those were moments when I believed, if this doesn’t help people understand that we are one people, and we have to fight against this. I don’t know what will, but it didn’t really seem to bring us together. How does that not change your perspective and your opinion about white people as a writer? I know for me, especially now with Black Lives Matter, I feel much more unapologetic now about some of my thoughts and ideas. I feel like you’ve always been that way, but has this made it even more for you? Are you just like, “Yes, I’ve been validated. I’m going to go harder now!”

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think revolutions happen in society is based on very specific circumstances for each society. Right? So we look at different societies, look at Egypt, we look at South Korea, these societies were under dictatorships for long periods of time. Right? People had to swallow all kinds of injustices that they knew were unjust, but they felt they couldn’t do anything about it. Or there were eruptions here, eruptions there, and then all of them, at some point, the dam breaks, and you have uprisings. In Egypt, in South Korea. I mean South Korea, for example, they’ve deposed presidents. We haven’t been able to do that. They’ve prosecuted their own presidents. We haven’t been able to do that. From their own tradition, all right.

So here in the United States, I get what you’re saying. We see all these terrible things that have accumulated over the past three years, for example. I mean, people went out on the streets in marched for women’s rights, for immigrant rights. I marched in those poor protests too. They never reached that same mass as what we’re seeing today, and why is that? And I look back for example, to the last period of major social unrest in the 1960s, and the catalyst there was the war on the one hand, because it got white people scared. They didn’t want to go fight in the Vietnam War. But the other catalyst was what was happening in the inner city and with black populations. This I think is a foreshadow of what we had today. The depth of anti-black racism in this country, and violence in this country is completely intertwined with the American character. And so maybe it’s not a surprise that this is what was the trigger to really unleash all the pent up feelings that accumulated around every other thing as well.

I don’t I think people have forgotten about children in cages. I don’t think they’ve forgotten about COVID necessarily, but it’s all interwoven right now with the major flashpoint around what has been happening to black people and black violence, anti-black violence. And I think it’s because we’ve seen many incidents. Videos here, videos there, and you would hope for justice at each occasion, it never happened, but after 20 or 30, you lose track. And now this was a trigger that just blew everything up. So I’m cautiously optimistic that this is not only about Black Lives Matter. I think it’s crucially about that. But in the wake of all that, where everything is connected, we have the opportunity to make other kinds of changes as well.

But there’s no doubt then when this was being called the Chinese virus and the Wuhan virus, and so on, Asian Americans really did feel alone. But in that situation-

JinJa Birkenbeuel: But you weren’t though.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: That’s kind of what I’m saying. You weren’t alone, because it wasn’t true. It was a lie. I mean, you weren’t alone. And I think that’s kind of what I’m saying, I feel like something has happened where we’ve become so siloed and so isolated from each other’s humanity and our shared sacrifice, and shared pain that we’re not looking at everybody together and saying, “We really are in this together because we’re the ones that are suffering under all of this quote, unquote tyranny.” I mean, it really is tyranny in some ways. I mean, not in the ways that it would be in countries, like you said, they have dictatorships, but there are so many things that are very special to the United States of racism, American form of racism that are very different from other countries. And I feel like I’m waiting for the moment when there’s a collective sort of togetherness of all people of color, but especially black people where we start to just sort of say, “You know what? Enough is enough,” and not stop with the enough is enough.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Don’t let any distraction stop you. I hope that all these amazing companies that are giving away free money for black people now, black business, hiring black people, we’re going to invest X, Y millions of dollars in this particular thing to help the black community. I think that’s great, but that needs to continue happening because when there’s recognition of the people at the very bottom, which you’ve talked about in the very beginning of their humanity, that will lift everyone else up. I mean, that’s always the way it works.

PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:51:04]

JinJa Birkenbeuel: … that will lift everyone else up. I mean, that’s always the way it works.

Can you talk about where you are right now? The Sympathizer’s amazing, and of course I want to ask you if it’s going to be a movie. Is it?

Viet Nguyen: We’re negotiating for TV. Actually I watched a lot of serial TV, the classics, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad as I was writing The Sympathizer. Was not so much influenced by movies as by TV, so that’s where we’re at.

It’s such a long protracted process, at least for me, to try to get this deal advance, so we’ll see. Exciting people are involved, so if it works, it’d be really amazing. Then I finished the sequel to The Sympathizer, which will come out in March 2021, delayed because of COVID. Then I am writing a nonfiction book, which I was going to start before all this stuff happened with COVID and George Floyd and all that. Now I’m writing it in the middle of all that, and I have to take all this into account.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Your book is coming out March 2021. Wow, are you excited about it? I love your face right now.

Viet Nguyen: Yes. I want it to be out, I want to talk about it now.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: I wish people could see the face.

Viet Nguyen: It’s probably a good thing that it’s delayed because oh my God, can you imagine publishing a book in this environment? No one’s going to pay any attention to what’s going on.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Yeah, it is true. Right now it’s really tough, and that’s, that’s kind of why I love your Instagram. It’s so funny because back when we met two years ago, I remember telling you, “You got to get an Instagram”, and you’re like, “No, why? What’s Instagram? Why should I do that? I love Twitter.”

I was like, “Because Instagram gives you a visual of the person, it humanizes you.” You can relax a little bit and show beautiful things. Your Instagram is great because for everyone listening, you’ve got to follow Viet’s Instagram channel because he posts the most beautiful, amazing pictures of cocktails. They’re always paired on a beautiful backdrop, with beautiful ice cubes, and colors, and just descriptions of things. It’s just so amazing. Of course, your topics around race and then images of your child, Ellison who … Wait, you have another baby now too, right? You have another baby, a little girl.

Viet Nguyen: Simone, partly named after Nina Simone, but other famous Simones in history too.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Which other Simone are you thinking of in your head?

Viet Nguyen: Oh, well Miss Simone de Beauvoir. Who else we were thinking? Simone Veil. There’s various famous French Simones there.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: To be the child of a brilliant writer, what is that like? It’s amazing to have a dad like you.

Viet Nguyen: Ask him in 20 years. Right now he’s very sweet and everything, maybe he’ll hate me in 20 years for whatever’s happening.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: You know what? I have three sons, so I can tell you that I was looking back at some pictures when they were little and they were sweet times. Right now I’m dealing with teenagers and it is a really harsh.

I want to ask you about your son and trying to maintain your culture with your children. They’re American, they’re Vietnamese. What kind of world are you creating for them so that they’re shaped to have anti-racist feelings? Are you talking about these things now?

Viet Nguyen: Oh yeah. Our first impulse obviously was to give him an international experience because growing up in the United States is so provincial in a lot of ways. People only speak one language, and have never even left the country, and those kind of things.

He was in Singapore by the time he was a year old because we were doing a fellowship out there, in Singapore for three months. We’ve been in Paris a few times with him for many months. Now he’s like, “When are we going back to Paris? I miss Paris.” He’s in an international school learning French.

At the same time, we want him to learn Vietnamese obviously. We have a Vietnamese language parent group, which I helped to put together because I didn’t want to send my son to Vietnamese school. Vietnamese school is usually conservative, authoritarian. I hated every moment when I was in Vietnamese school, I didn’t want that for my son.

I found my group of progressive Vietnamese American artists types, and we do Vietnamese lessons this way. Our last lesson was Black Lives Matter. We had slides with the key words of George Floyd, police, justice, equality in English and in Vietnamese with pictures so the kids can learn this kind of thing.

We had a dance instructor among the parents, so we had a social justice dance set to James Brown. You want to make the education fun for kids, not just lecture to them all the time. You want to model social justice for the kids as well. He’s been with me to the women’s rights marches, for example, in the last couple of years as well.

We’ve had conversations about colonialism, war, genocide. He knows these words, and part of this is because he lives with parents who do this as a living with our research. Sometimes he’ll just sit down and say, “What did the French do to us in Vietnam? Was it bad things?” Oh my God.

Then yesterday I was watching Da Five Bloods and he just walked over and started looking. I’m like, “Get out of here, this is way too violent for you to watch.” He’s grown up around that kind of stuff.

Viet Nguyen: I think that we’re not doing our kids any favors when we shelter them too much from the world, we want to sort of expose them to it gradually a little bit. At six years old, he’s already had two anti-black incidents in his schools, which are progressive schools.

I’m like, your kids are going to learn racism, whether you want them to or not, because we live in a racist country, racist ideas circulate, kids are just going to repeat these kinds of things. Unless you step in in advance to talk to them about it, they’re going to get screwed up, just as they get screwed up about sex. You’ve got to talk to them about these things, right?

He knows the name of George Floyd, he knows some of the basic details and everything like that, we’re not going to show him the video or anything. Yeah, it’s important to expose kids to your beliefs and to counteract the deeply entrenched hate that is circulating as platitudes in our country.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: One thing that you should not do as a parent is turn away. You can’t turn away, you have to talk about it, you have to look. If nothing else, you have to look at it and your child needs to see you watching it so that you can understand what’s going on. You can’t not watch it either.

It’s a real struggle. My children, they were already black, so we already are dealing with all kinds of things. It’s an ongoing challenge whether your children are in private school or public school. How do you navigate these conversations? They never stop, they never end. They go on forever and they end up showing up throughout life in the workplace.

It does get exhausting, and I really do commend you for being able to continue the relentless conversation and process around being anti-racist. There’s people like you, that this is something that drives you, and there’s other people that they’re upset by it, but they can’t really continue to manage it on an ongoing regular basis.

Viet Nguyen: Right now there’s no excuse not to do it. For example, you could read Jason Reynolds and Yvonne Kendall’s new book about how to be anti-racist with your kids for example. There’s all kinds of books, just go out there and look. People who think they have no resources, just are lazy. They’re not doing the work to go out there, because people have been producing these kinds of books and resources for forever.

On the question of the video, just want to ask you this. I’ve seen two of these videos and every time I see it I think to myself, “I’m not going to watch these videos.” Then I watched them, Walter Scott, Ahmaud Arbrey. Then I watched them and I’m like, “I wish I had not watched them.”

With George Floyd, I actually have not watched the video. I don’t think I’ll watch it. I talk about it with my son and I know that obviously this video transformed this country, but at the same time, I just have a hard time.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: It’s horrifying, but I also believe that this is America. That is the truth, we have to keep talking about it. Maybe one day you’ll come to look at it and be able to adjust, because it does take an adjustment after you watch it.

I think that at some level, I don’t want to be the person I was before that video because I was walking in a fog, a lot of us were. Being in a fog, you have to for some level of survival. We can’t keep walking the way we were walking before no matter what.

I’m not going to let anybody try to make us stop that walk, we have to keep moving forward. If it means we have to realize how absolutely depraved our people are in the country that we live in, then so be it. Let’s just accept the fact that this is a horrible place. We’re going to fix it, it’s not going to stay like this forever.

It’s because people like you that are allies. You’re an ally, and there’s a lot of other allies out there. You just have your way of expressing your allyship and holding truth to power. We have to continue to do that.

The way that I do it is the way I’m doing it right now, and the articles I write on LinkedIn, and my social media posts, and the conversations I have in the workplace and corporate spaces, the ways that I push back. Everybody has their own way of answering the call.

Viet, what was the last thing you saw or heard about any type of technology, new, old, or repurposed that surprised you or made you hopeful for humanity?

Viet Nguyen:  The smart phone, as problematic as it is, as negative as it can be, has nevertheless let this transformation of our world happen. People refused to believe what black people have been telling them for centuries until they’re given video evidence that can’t be refuted. Rodney King got beat in 1991 on video, that was the first time so many people had seen that. That was just an accident for so many people. Well, now you have dozens of these videos, all made possible by the smartphone.

Yeah, it’s a technological tool that can damage as much as it can transform, but it is the thing that has really I think changed our society in such a radical way. I wish I was less addicted to it, but nevertheless, yes it has made change.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: I agree with you on that. I love what’s going on, and I do think that having all of these images is transformative. Thank goodness we have this to document. Where would we be if we didn’t have it? What is the one piece of technology you’d like to see come to fruition that could change the world?

Viet Nguyen: Electric motors. Wouldn’t it be great if people could just get over this stupid hangup about combustion engines and so on, and if we can all just drive electric cars and electric vehicles, and ultimately hopefully electric airplanes that we could still travel to France and have a good time without feeling guilty. That’ll at least do something.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: I love it. I always love to ask questions about powerful brands. For you, I want to ask about Disney. If you had one question to ask Disney, what would you ask?

Viet Nguyen: I would ask what are you doing to transform the kinds of stories that you tell to the public through all of your many different ways of doing that, animation, movies, the park and so on. Can Disney make Black Lives Matter work for social justice at the level of animation and entertainment? Are you radically transforming how you hire, promote, recruit people at all levels, whether it’s an intern or whether it’s at the corporate board?

JinJa Birkenbeuel: No, they’re not.

Viet Nguyen: You asked me, I’m telling you.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: All right. If you were stranded on an island and technology was not a barrier, would you rather pass time listening to hip hop or watching anime? My kids are obsessed with both, and now there’s of course hip hop samurai.

Viet Nguyen: It’s a hard choice. I’d have to pick anime unfortunately. As you’re suggesting, hopefully there are crossovers of course, animes that to hip hop soundtrack.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Oh my God, no, there absolutely is a crossover. There’s, there’s an anime right now, the son of Muhammad Ali is being trained by a Kung Fu master. You would pick anime over hip hop? Tell me, why would you do that?

Viet Nguyen: You know what? I grew up in the eighties and my best friend in high school was totally into hip hop, into rap. Too Short, Too Short was his thing. He was into Bruce Lee and Too Short. I just didn’t get into it. I was just not into hip hop in the same way.

My musical thing was much more like electronica, new wave. The Vietnamese refugees had a very particular taste for European disco. I don’t know, it’s something genetic or cultural where it’s not the beat, but it’s the melody instead that we were into. Now that’s obviously all changed, a lot of Asians and Asian Americans are totally in hip hop. For me anyway, it was not my, my thing when I was growing up and that imprint has stayed with me.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: I love that answer, but I will tell you, your son is still very young. My love of hip hop, Public Enemy, is probably the best example of a band that I came to love before I had children. Now that I have these three boys, especially my oldest one, he’s into Black Panther. He’s also into Fred Hampton, the real Black Panthers.

He turned me on to hip hop and now I have a completely different opinion about it. I have totally changed how I feel about hip hop because of my older son. Wait until your son gets a little older, and by then it’s going to be a whole nother level of hip hop anyway. It’s going to be all wild.

Listen Viet, thank you, thank you, thank you for coming on to talk to me. I love you, I love how you write, I love your stories. The Sympathizer, everyone needs to read this book. It is complex, it’s rich, it’s beautiful. It is so nuanced and so tender and brutal at the same time, and so visual. You don’t want to miss this book.

I can’t wait to get your followup to this book, and I do hope they make it into a TV series, that would be a miracle. Let me know if you need some social media strategy around that, I will absolutely help you Viet.

I want everyone to follow Viet on Twitter and Instagram, his handles are exactly the same. It’s Viet V-I-E-T underscore T, underscore Nguyen, which is N-G-U-Y-E-N. You can purchase the book, The Sympathizer, everywhere in book and audio. You can also get the book that he wrote with his son, Ellison, Chicken of the Sea, which is an amazing, cute book. I have to get what I want you to sign it. How do I get one and get you guys to sign it? What do I need to do?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I’ll send one to you.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: I want to talk to you later about that, because that that whole process to me is fascinating. To decide you’re going to teach your child how to be an independent writer and entrepreneur and write a book. That must have been so much fun.

Viet Nguyen: Oh yeah, and we made some money off of it.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Where can we find that book? Where can we find Chicken of the Sea?

Viet Nguyen: It’s the same. Don’t go on Amazon anybody. For buying books, go to bookshop.org, which is the Amazon replacement. Same thing, you can buy any book you want through there.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Please follow our show on Instagram, The Honest Field Guide, it’s @honestfieldguide. We would love for you to also leave us a review, we’d love to see how you felt about our podcast. You can find all of our other episodes there. Thank you, thank you to our audience for listening to the Honest Field Guide today. I’m JinJa.

Viet Nguyen: I’m Viet.

JinJa Birkenbeuel: We’ll talk to you next time.

Speaker 1: The Honest Field Guide podcast is produced by Burke Creative, written and created by JinJa Birkenbeuel and Esther Ikoro. The podcast is recorded in the innovation and technology capital of the Midwest, Chicago

JinJa Birkenbeuel: Original music is written by and provided courtesy of Utah Carol. Follow Honest Field Guide on Instagram and Twitter. The opinions expressed on the Honest Field Guide are opinions only and only represent the views of JinJa Birkenbeuel and Esther Ikoro.

Category: Interviews

 

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