Dayton Literary Peace Prize – Turn the Page

Viet Thanh Nguyen joins Gilbert King with Min Jin Lee to talk about the proxy Cold Wars, Asian America, and more for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

More than a book club, Turn the Page becomes an agent for change, an evolution in thought brought about by a conversation with authors who have their fingers on the pulse of history, so therefore insight in the human heart.

The first event brings two of our winning authors together to discuss a subject their works have in common. Gilbert King, a DLPP Honorary Advisory Board member, the 2013 DLPP Runner-up for The Devil in the Grove and the Pulitzer Prize winner for the same title, moderates.

The American Dream: Whose myth? Whose Reality?, a discussion between Min Jin Lee, the 2018 Fiction Runner-up for Pachinko and Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Fiction Winner for The Sympathizer was recorded October 1, 2020

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, inaugurated in 2006, is the first and only annual U.S. literary award recognizing the power of the written word to promote peace. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize invites nominations in adult fiction and nonfiction books published within the past year that have led readers to a better understanding of other cultures, peoples, religions, and political points of view

Read the transcript below.

Gilbert King: Okay, welcome to the first virtual event of Turn the Page, brought to you by the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. More than a book club, Turn the Page becomes an agent for change and evolution in thought brought about by a conversation with authors who have had their fingers on the pulse of history so therefore insight into the human heart. Each segment will bring two of our winning authors together to discuss a subject their works have in common.

I’m Gilbert King, I was the 2013 recipient of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Award, I was runner up in non fiction for my book Devil in the Grove, which documents a deadly case against four African Americans wrongly accused in the rape of a white woman, and the efforts of a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall to save them. The book was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in general non fiction that same year, and I’m also a Dayton Literary Peace Prize honorary advisory board member. I also encourage everyone to take a look at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize website to learn more about the authors, the books, and the mission of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Tonight’s conversation is entitled The American Dream: Who’s Myth, Who’s Reality? And I’m just so pleased to be joined by our two authors, Min Jin Lee, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, who are themselves recipients of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, among countless other awards. I’ll start by introducing Min first.

Gilbert King: Min Jin Lee is the recipient of fellowships in fiction from Guggenheim Foundation, Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard, and the New York Foundation for the arts. Her novel Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, a runner up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and winner of the Medici Book Club Prize, and a New York Times 10 best books of 2017. Her writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Times of London, and The Wall Street Journal. She is a writer in residence at Amherst College, and serves as a trustee of Pen America, a director of The Author’s Guild, and on the National Advisory Board of the Immigration Institute at Harvard. Min, welcome.

Min Jin Lee: Hi Gilbert.

Gilbert King: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and numerous other awards. His other books are a short story collection The Refugees, Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, a finalist for the National Book Award in non fiction, and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in general non fiction, and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is a University Professor, the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and a Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity in Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and the MacArthur Foundations, he is also 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. His next book is the sequel to The Sympathizer, The Committed, forthcoming in March of 2021.

Gilbert King: I am going to start this evening with questions for our authors, and after that we’ve opened up the questioning to the audience, who can submit questions via the chat function. So let’s start with the questioning.

A number of our Dayton Literary Peace Prize Authors have said that all immigrants are refugees who are running from the effects of war. Viet, you were born in Vietnam and came to the United States with your family in 1975 as a small child, and Min I know you were born in South Korea and came to the US with your family in 1976, yet the effects of war were ever present. I want to ask you both how does that statement about running from the effects of war apply to your books, to your lives, and to the lives of Asian American communities. We’ll start with Min.

Min Jin Lee Sure. I think what’s really interesting is when we had the Cold War in the United States, the proxy wars took place in Asia. And what’s interesting to me is that folks like Viet and I are the products of these historical legacies. My father was a war refugee from the north. He lost his entire family when he was 16 years old. He never saw his mother or his sister ever again, and he never saw his home again. And he had no idea that he would lose this.

Min Jin Lee: What was that like as an impact for me? I grew up with a person who was ready for flight. So I remember when 9-11 occurred and the towers fell and I was only living about 10 blocks away, I was ready to go. It was really interesting, as soon as it happened, my husband called me from work and said, and I had a little son then, he’s 22 now, but I had my passport ready, all my papers ready, I had the little bit of jewelry that I have I literally put it in my bag and I thought oh my gosh I can’t believe this is happening to me, but it’s almost like you have that sense of readiness, the urgency, that at any point you could be under this kind of stress, and I have a pretty decent life.

So I imagine, and I see this with my students in college, kids who are third generations from the products of these terrible proxy wars that took place in Asia, they have that sense of anxiety, and I think it’s something that I want to talk about.

Gilbert King: Excellent. Viet, what do you think?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s very resonant with me, because my parents were refugees twice actually. Vietnam was divided in 1954, and my parents were in the north, they fled south as late teenagers who had just gotten married. And then in 1975, Vietnam, or South Vietnam lost the war, they fled again as refugees for the second time and brought my brother and me with them. I was only four years old, so I don’t really have a memory of that experience but I grew up in a refugee community, in a refugee household, witnessing what WG’s eightball would call the secondhand effects of war, and people bearing the secondhand memories of war with them that they passed on to their children and their grandchildren. So the effects of war are very intimate even if you yourself are not a soldier, you didn’t live through that particular kind of experience.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s common for a lot of communities, not just Asians, obviously, but certainly among a lot of Asian Americans. Besides Korean and Vietnamese, you have Cambodians, Laotians, Filipinos, who are here in the United States because of American Wars in Asia. So to talk about immigration for many people is a complicated story, because on the one hand a lot of people are obviously very grateful to be here and feel themselves to be American, as I do, but if you have any kind of a critical historical consciousness, you’re also aware of these terrible wars that cost literally millions of lives. The Korean War cost two to three million lives, the Vietnam war cost three million lives. The tallies for Laotians and Cambodians are less precise, but certainly in the hundreds of thousands.

So this historical memory is something that we do, many of us do carry. It’s interesting that Min talked about being ready to go. I am too. When the pandemic hit and things shut down and I’m in Los Angeles in earthquake country, it was amazing how many people weren’t prepared. I’m like are you kidding me? My basement is stocked. I’m stocked for an emergency here. And I had go bags and all that kind of stuff. But I also, frankly, have a long term plan. I have emergency plans for other places besides the United States precisely because man, I think that the American sense of self assuredness, that this will never happen to the United States, is a little optimistic.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: This could happen to any country if the circumstances go wrong, and the United States has been fortunate to be insulated, or at least some people in the United States, let’s put it more accurately, some populations in the United States have been fortunate enough to be insulated from displacement, but that can change very quickly, and certainly now with climate change, you see a whole different register of effects taking place where thousands of Americans are becoming displaced, and the only thing that separates them from being called refugees is a technical classification. They’re technically called displaced people rather than refugees but the effect is very, very similar.

Min Jin Lee: I’m so glad you mention the climate issue, because I think the term is climate refugees.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: You still I think will see Americans resist that terminology. For example, we’ve had climate refugees before, so Vietnamese refugees came here in ’75, some of them made the choice to migrate to Louisiana, and so was it 30 years, 25 years later, when hurricane Katrina happens, they’re displaced again. So when the US media covered the Katrina displacement, some of the reporters described these people as refugees. And President George Bush said it’s un American to call these people refugees. And a lot of them were African Americans, and for perhaps the only time in history, Jesse Jackson agreed with George Bush and said it’s racist to call people refugees.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So there’s a real resistance to the idea that Americans can be refugees, because of all the obvious stereotypical associations that we have that refugees come from wrecked third world countries and so on, and that could never be the United States. I think the reality is obviously a lot more complex than that, but we’re talking about the American dream on this panel, and the American dream says we are an exceptional country, and we are not like those countries that produced, that can be wrecked and that can produce refugees.

Gilbert King: Viet, it’s so funny when you mentioned the naïve people of America who could never picture this happening, I remember I was on a panel in 2016 leading up to the election with Masha Gessen, and I was one of those naïve people saying I just don’t see this happening, and she just looked at me with those steely eyes and said, “That’s just a failure of your imagination.” And I realized, she’s definitely right. I have to work on it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The New York Times asked me to write something on that occasion, and the short piece I wrote for them, the title I gave it was The End of the American Empire, because I was like hey this to me is not what we’ve been witnessing in the country for the last few years is not an accident, it’s an outcome of the structural contradictions in the United States, from the very origins of this country, and we’d be foolish to imagine that’s not the case.

Gilbert King: Right. Great. In both of your books, the characters have to deal with the sense of being the other. The Sympathizer straddles the two cultures of Vietnam and the US, while Pachinko depicts a struggle with identity, being Korean in Japan. So I ask this of the both of you, could you elaborate on that sense of being the other as perceived in your books?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Min you want to go first?

Min Jin Lee: Sure. What a gentleman.

Min Jin Lee: It’s so important for me about how Pachinko is perceived in the world, because one of the things that I want to really argue is that I am the center of my story. And even if the whole world thought I’m the other, I can resist, that is my act of revolution. And I talk about this with my students, I talk about this I guess around the world at this point, because I’ve had the opportunity to share this book, and the assertion that I am the center of my story, the assertion that Koreans can be the center of their own historical interpretation is deeply offensive to people.

Min Jin Lee: And if you think about the invisibility of Asians and the way Asians are interpreted, even in conferences, like I was in Australia, it was really interesting, I was in Australia and they invited me to a panel about North Korea. And I thought to myself, that’s kind of weird, all right. I guess I have the DNA for it so I guess I’m sort of qualified. And then I was with three or four, I’m sorry it was three other “experts” and they were all not Asian, they were all white. And they’re from different countries. One was from America, an American white person, I think it was a British white person, an Australia white person, and they’re making all these opinions about North Koreans and one of them really talked about how evil North Koreans are and how they can’t be trusted.

Min Jin Lee: And then I was really quiet, because I thought that’s really interesting, and I kept thinking it’s not my turn to talk so I’m not going to talk because I only answer if people ask me. And the moderator who was African American actually turned to me and said, “Well Min, what do you think about this?” And I don’t think I realized how angry I was so I actually said, “Whenever I hear people calling an entire 25 million souls in a country as evil, I immediately question that person’s IQ.”

Min Jin Lee: I know. I was thinking we know actually maybe one North Korean person. We actually don’t know an entire country. It’s almost like saying all Americans are generous. No, some Americans are generous. Some Americans are assholes. And I think for me, I thought oh I’m not qualified to be on the panel. That was my immediate instinct, I’m not qualified because that’s not what I write about. But then I realized I actually needed to be here because I needed to assert the centrality of my point of view. And I thought okay, then I guess it was worth getting up in the morning and going to that panel in Australia the festival when I didn’t want to do it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well I’ll echo what Min said, and say it in a slightly different way, which is I think that she’s absolutely right that on the one hand, we don’t experience ourselves as others, we experience ourselves as the centers of our own stories, and yet if you are an other in a society, let’s just say an American society, you’re constantly told that you are marginalized, you’re excluded, your stories are not told, they’re erased and so on. So even if you know that you’re the center of your own story, you don’t have that reflected back to you and it’s a deeply damaging experience for a lot of people.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So what that means though is when you have the chance to tell your own stories, if you have been deeply damaged by this experience, oftentimes you feel like you have to explain yourself. I’m the other and I have to explain myself to these people who are in power, who are in the majority. And that is a position that I’ve tried to reject. I don’t deny that in one way I’m a minority in the United States. That’s not the only way I experience myself, but that’s one way I experience myself. But that doesn’t mean I have to write like I’m a minority who has to explain himself. I follow in Toni Morrison’s footsteps and think I am going to not apologize for being a minority, I’m not going to deny that I’m a minority, I’ll claim being Vietnamese and Asian American very assertively, but I’m going to write as if I’m part of the majority.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When you’re a part of the majority, you assume that your audience understands exactly what you’re talking about, so you don’t have to explain. Jonathan Franzen, he’s going to describe eating a sandwich in his novel, he’s not going to say, “I’m eating a sandwich, a delicious meal composed of two slices of bread with something in between.” Because he knows everybody knows what a damn sandwich is.

Gilbert King: That’s great.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Likewise, if you’re Korean or Vietnamese, or whatever, and you describe bibimbap or pho, you’re not going to pause and explain. So I’m just using a really stupid example that’s actually very wide spread, because you feel the need to explain the food that you’re eating to people-

Min Jin Lee: That’s a good example.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s to me one of the examples of what it means to write as if you are not the other. You write as if you do not have to explain and you create your own audience. Like when we read writers from Asia, we don’t expect the writers from Asia to explain because they’re writing to their own audiences, and the translation is the language not the actual translation of the customs, the ideas, and so on. But there’s one complication to this which is if you have been rendered as an other psychologically, culturally, politically, and you know very intimately what it’s like to be excluded and marginalized in various ways, I think one of the consequences of that is feeling that you yourself are always the victim.

Min Jin Lee: Right.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that’s also damaging but in more ways than one, because if you yourself are always the victim, it’s hard for you to imagine that you could be the victimizer, that you could be engaged in this very same process of creating others. Now that I see as very widespread and in writing my own fiction and my non fiction it’s been crucial to point out that when we claim center stage for our own experiences, we claim everything. Not just the good stuff, not just the affirmation of our culture and our history and our worldview, and not just to point out that we’ve been excluded or marginalized, but we claim everything including the terrible things that we have done or are capable of doing, which is part of what it means to own ourselves and to own our experiences.

Min Jin Lee: Also I love what you said in the New York Times piece about how we can make others other, and that somehow means that we’re more American. I mean that’s a really, really problematic thing. It also happens in let’s say camp towns in Korea, where Koreans who weren’t exposed to racial minorities besides white people actually started to think that if I want to have higher level customers, for example, I have to become more racist against blacks, and anti-blackness can be something that’s learned globally through a wish to appease people who have more economic and political power. I thought in that New York Times piece that was incredibly well stated.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you. It’s not uniquely American, as you pointed out. I go out of my way to always say Vietnamese people are really racist too.

Min Jin Lee: Some of them.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Some of them. But I happen to know a lot of them on social media. But also, at the same time it’s also very deeply American. I’m doing a little bit of research right now, came across a Ben Franklin quotation, not from the autobiography but from another document, he had said some negative things, but this quotation went even further, basically he’s saying I only like white people, and by white people he means the English. Even the Germans, he’s railing against the Germans moving to Pennsylvania because he says they’re too swarthy, the Germans and the Swedes are too swarthy. Obviously now we’d be like are you kidding me? How is that possible? But in his timeframe, that was his othering process is to define whiteness in a very narrow way, and people that we now consider to be white were just beyond his comprehension.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So that’s a very American process, and new immigrants, new refugees come in and they learn that lesson and they learn that part of the way you become American is to participate in this othering process and try to make yourself as American as fast as possible and point to someone else who’s not as American as you.

Gilbert King: That’s interesting you say that, because when I was researching my last book, I came across these stories about a German POW camp located in central Florida where they picked citrus during World War II, and how they assimilated into the culture of the south with their blonde hair and blue eyes. And at times the Germans were taken to the movies by their captives, but they were lightly cuffed, and they were brought into the main theater, yet, they’d sit there and enjoy the movie but you had World War II vets, African Americans who served the country, and they’re up in the Jim Crow balcony. And I’m just wondering from your point-of-view if there’s anything in Asian American life today regarding assimilation that strikes you as completely absurd and short sighted that you can point to in culture?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Wow. That’s a hard one to think through. But I always say that when I was growing up there was a movie and a book called Summer of my German Solider, which I believe speaks exactly to the experience you’re talking about, like a romantic story about a young American girl who falls in love with her German POW.

Gilbert King: Right, right, right. I was just going to say some of the things that strike me as rather odd is you see these lawsuits aimed at elite universities about Asian quotas, like we have too many Asians being accepted into the school, they’re too smart, that kind of thinking. And so it’s led to these very strange lawsuits that are argued by NAACP legal defense is one of the defenders, and so that to me strikes as something you wouldn’t normally expect, the absurdity of this kind of situation. I’m just wondering if there’s anything you’ve noticed in life.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well the only thing that immediately comes to mind, for me, what’s very personal is that a lot of Vietnamese Americans who have been refugees are saying things like, “Well we were the good refugees. It was right to admit us, but these new refugees who are coming in because they happen to be brown or black or Muslim and so on, those are the bad refugees.” Based on no evidence, except for the fact that they happen to be black or brown or Muslim. So the height of that, that to me is the height of irony, hypocrisy, contradiction, it’s a very common sentiment though. And it’s sort of up to us to speak out against those kinds of things. And thankfully there are Vietnamese Americans who do speak out against those kinds of things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I don’t think we’re unusual in that respect, but that is something that I take very personally. But in regards to the affirmative action lawsuits that you’re describing, it’s important to point out that obviously there are some Asian Americans who are opposed to affirmative action because they feel they’re being discriminated against and singled out in the way that Jewish Americans were from an earlier generation in the first half of the 20th century in Ivy League admissions. But the majority of Asian Americans actually support affirmative action, because they see that this is part of a much larger discussion, a much larger set of issues and programs in which affirmative action is one tactic or tool and a situation in which it’s hard for Asian Americans to complain.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: If you look at the University of California where I went to school, campuses have 40 to 50% Asian American representation, and I as an Asian American will say that’s too many. I don’t want to go to any school that has 40 to 50% of anything, whether it’s Asian American or white. So affirmative action is one tool out of a whole set of tools for trying to achieve a greater equity. That would include exposing all of us to different faces, different populations, different cultures from which we would benefit.

Gilbert King: Interesting.

Min Jin Lee: I guess I have to weigh in here because my next novel is about education, and I attended the Harvard trial, and I attended it because I wanted to get the primary experience of the arguments. And I have to say that I believe in affirmative action whole heartedly, absolutely, and it’s really important and I’m the beneficiary of affirmative action in many different ways.

Min Jin Lee: That said, I am unequivocal in saying this, and I will go to the mat with anybody about this, the process of admissions in elite universities is utterly unfair, utterly opaque, and there’s a lot of deception about how kids get in. And I think that the frustration that Asian Americans feel when they’re trying to be “good Americans”, when they’re trying their hardest to perfect their children in order to be bought by the buyers market which is these elite universities, it isn’t fair. And I think the kids aren’t being told this, and I personally don’t think that 40% of Asian Americans are too many. I mean I went to the Bronx High School of Science and it’s an elite high school which you know about, which is based on testing, and there is no admissions policy except for this number.

Min Jin Lee: When I went there, the way these elite schools have turned out, the complications and the way Asian Americans are the dominant majority now have very little to do with, it’s not the fault of Asian Americans kids. It’s actually the fault of the New York City public school system and also school choice, it’s a really complicated issue. And I’m going to say something on behalf of Asian American children, it is incredibly hurtful to them to be told that they’re not good enough. It is really hurtful to them to be told that somehow if they could just do one more thing, if they could become better debaters, better swimmers, better comedians, something that’s less Asian, when they have to turn against their own parents and say “I’m not going to be an engineer. I’m going to be an actor.” In order to become more acceptable to some elite institution.

Min Jin Lee: It’s really troubling, it’s really, really troubling. And I see it around the world when I meet these Asian kids who are trying to get into these elite schools, how they’re turning themselves inside out and I wish somebody would just come and say, “You know what, it’s not fair, it’s not fair.” And it doesn’t mean that those kids who are getting in are all bad, it’s a really wrong system. And I would like to protect these kids because I care about them just as much as I care about all the other kids. And I don’t know who’s speaking for them. I don’t care if anybody is mad at me about it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well I think it’s really interesting. The Harvard professor Jeannie Suk who’s in the law school wrote an article about the Harvard case where she said it’s possible to be pro affirmative action and still be really critical of Harvard, it’s still possible to accept the idea that Harvard is in some ways, if I’m paraphrasing her correctly, still actually does discriminate against Asian Americans in the application of this. Essentially, this is actually a very good American dream kind of scenario.

Min Jin Lee: Right.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It touches all these buttons, emotional buttons and so on, it stresses the idea that we’ve got an economy of scarcity and we have to fight and compete and that there’s fair play involved and you can’t change the rules in the middle. I think Asian Americans are rightfully mad if they have been told you’ve got to get 1600s on the SATs, they got 1600s on the SATs and now they’re told SATs are not that important anymore.

Gilbert King: Yeah.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then at the same time, the flip side of it is, it’s also very damaging in the other way that Asian Americans kids and Asian kids are being raised to feel that unless they get into Harvard they’re a failure. That’s also to me deeply problematic as well. So it’s not only that there may be an institutional problem. Obviously unfair admissions that are biased towards the wealthy and the white and so on, but that a lot of Asian Americans and Asians buy into that idea and I have deep problems with that. I’m just speaking as someone who was rejected by Harvard, by all the Ivy Leagues, I’m a total failure, I went to my last choice university, so I’m like screw this process. You can still be successful even if you get rejected by the Ivy Leagues.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But there has to be another, there’s a two part conversation about the American dream idea, one about this really screwed up idea of the meritocracy that is not a meritocracy, and that in fact contributes deeply to divisiveness and inequality in American society, and the flip side which is a fantasy of the American dream which is internalized so strongly by a certain kind of immigrant that can be emotionally damaging. We have so many stories of second generation Asian Americans who are just totally screwed by this narrative. And it’s not necessarily because the Ivys only, but because their own parents did this to them.

Min Jin Lee: I sat next to Jeannie when we were attending the Harvard trial, who wrote that essay, and she’s amazing. But you did a really beautiful tweet the other day, I think the day before yesterday, I can’t remember, when you talked about Jared Kushner and the imposter syndrome. I wish, could you say it because I’m going to get it wrong.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh yeah, I think I basically said, look if you feel like you’re an imposter and you can’t do something, just think of Jared Kushner and if Jared Kushner can do this, so can I.

Min Jin Lee: I was thinking can we put that embroidered on a pillow, because it is so smart. And I want to say, I don’t care if Jared is listening, I don’t think he’s listening, but I want to say it because we’re always told that somehow we’re not good enough and then there are all these people out there acting as if, what’s that expression? You’re born on third base but you think that … you know.

Gilbert King: That you hit a triple home run.

Min Jin Lee: You hit a triple, right, or a homer. And yeah, a homer would be actually even some of it merit, but you think you hit a triple. I see it all the time. I’m astonished, and at this point I feel like I have been given certain goodies because I have gone to elite institutions, and every single time my resume gets a little bit better, I do get more stuff. I’m always amazed, because you do want to tell kids, yeah definitely work hard, try to get these little laurels and distinctions, they’re helpful, you can earn more money, you can get better jobs.

Min Jin Lee: So I understand that, and yet, it’s really not available to everybody at the same rate. It isn’t. And people have said this to me and it’s really upsetting, “Well you went to public school and everything worked out for you.” And I kind of think it’s insulting in two ways, one is I have two college educated parents. So even though they had working class jobs, they were college educated and they knew that I would get advantages of being pushed, and they didn’t actually push me but I would get all these other things. But I think what was really troubling was then it takes away any of my effort, or whatever I did, because I do think when the kids are not getting the same access to education, and the New York City public schools is one of the most failed places in America, one of the most segregated places in America, they’re really missing the point.

Min Jin Lee: I really hate the fact that model minority behavior is somehow used against the person who’s achieving these things as well as being used as a wedge against other people of color. But I think that Viet and I agree on this.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: This is going to be a great novel, Min, because you’re going right to the pulse, of something that really troubles a lot of Asian Americans but also a lot of other Americas too.

Gilbert King: Min, I’m going to ask you, in Pachinko, a dying Korean man tells his young Korean-Japanese son that “living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.” Despite living in Japan for generations, they are considered foreigners, subject to discrimination, deportation at a moments notice, permanent guests in a land that is their home. When and why does an adopted country become home?

Min Jin Lee: I think safety is helpful. I think when African Americans in this country are really upset because they can get arrested for watching birds in Central Park, right? And you can have these dog whistles, I think it makes perfect sense that they feel rejected by a place that they’ve been maybe four generations, five generations in. So I think safety, and how about the equitable application of the law. That would make you feel like that’s home. And then of course I can say it in a novelistic way, personally, I feel like I’m home when I’m with my family.

Min Jin Lee: So I can say technically I’m at home in an airplane above the earth just by being with people that I love. So I could give that answer, but the reality is, I’m a former lawyer, I think the law and it’s equal application is incredibly important.

Gilbert King: Viet, can you answer that maybe from the point of view of your parents who came here, when or why not did America become home for them?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I grew up in San Jose, California, in the 70s and 80s, in my parents household, feeling like I was an American spying on Vietnamese people and their strange customs, and then I would step out into the rest of San Jose and feel like I was a Vietnamese spying on these strange Americans. So always had that sense of division and biculturality and everything. And my parents were constantly telling me, “You are 100% Vietnamese.” Which they might have been protesting too much. But anyway, that’s what I felt. That if I didn’t feel 100% Vietnamese, that something was wrong with me, the whole guilt complex about that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So then in 1994, my parents having claimed American citizenship in the 80s, but not having been back to Vietnam for 19 years, go back to Vietnam to see the country and to see their relatives who, in the case of my mothers side, they hadn’t seen in 19 years, and in the case of my fathers side they hadn’t seen in 40 years. So I wasn’t invited on that trip. They come back, it’s Thanksgiving dinner, and over Thanksgiving dinner, my father says to me, “We’re Americans now.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So something happened on that trip, which I can only speculate about, but I think it’s very common among immigrants and refugees to hang on to these identities, even as they become Americanized. They have to become Americanized in order to survive in this country, to some extent, they have to become Americanized, it’s just a matter of degree. But they hang on to this idea of themselves being Vietnamese or whatever national origin they happen to be, because that’s who they are. And lo and behold, 20 or 30 years later, after having been in the United States, they go back to the country of origin, and it’s a reverse kind of culture shock for them to discover that their country of origin has changed.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So a lot of Vietnamese refugees who became Vietnamese Americans by citizenship, went back to Vietnam as people from 1975 and they encountered Vietnam in 1995 or 2005 or 2015 and they discovered that everything, or so many things have changed. And then they not only have to revise the sense of who they are as a Vietnamese person, but they have to revise a sense of who they are as Americans. And that’s what happened. That affirmed for my father that he was now, he had now been changed. And it’s very Vietnamese thing to want to go and to be buried in their homeland, but I’ve asked them, I said, “Hey, do you possibly want to consider being buried in the homelands?” “No. Absolutely not.” Even if he could, he doesn’t want to. He’s here, this is his country now. He’s still Vietnamese but he’s also, whether he actively says it or not, an American. And that’s time and culture doing their work on people, plus 45 years of living in a country.

Min Jin Lee: I was just recently reading Eddie Glaude’s book Begin Again about James Baldwin and about his ex patriot period, and Glaude is talking about, I’m not sure if I’m saying his name correctly, if it’s Glaude or Glaude, and he talks about how Baldwin when he went to France, he became more American. He was able to see it more clearly. And I guess to me, when I moved to Japan for four years when I was working on Pachinko, I was so struck by how American I felt in contrast to the Americans I met who felt that they were more cosmopolitan Americans. Very often it was the fashion of white Americans who I knew who were living abroad, to say terrible things about Americans. And I would go to a cocktail party and embarrass my husband by actually arguing in defense of white Americans.

Min Jin Lee: They would just say these things that were so kind of like oh we’re so cool for school, and I would say, “No, actually I disagree, and I think that Americans are really wonderful in XYZ.” And it was interesting, and until recently, until this administration, I never really felt embarrassed about being an American. I never really felt embarrassed about, not like in a consistent, thorough way, in the way that I am now. Because I did know there were republicans that I may disagree with politically, but I didn’t think that they were evil. Now it’s really scary to me how we live in a polarized world where I can’t get over my emotional response to certain things, where I felt incredibly committed to America, and I still do, but it’s disturbing, what’s going on right now about how, my emotional tenor about America has changed.

Gilbert King: I just want to remind the audience that if you use the chat function, you can ask some questions. We’ll get to them later on in the evening. So use that chat function and fire up some questions if you’d like.

Gilbert King: Viet, I’m just curious, because of California’s history of anti Asian sentiment, one of the largest if not the largest mass lynching in the United States occurred in Los Angeles in 1871, there was a backlash against immigrants, dozens of Chinese immigrants were lynched, you’ve written about that history and the ease of blaming foreign countries or minorities, rather than identifying the real power, corporations or economic elites who profit from cheap labor. Can you talk about that a little bit more?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, America is a complicated country. We are a country of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and so on. And America is also a capitalist country. And these things are in tension and in contradiction with each other, and from my perspective, these tensions have been in existence since the early 1600s when first Europeans, English settlers came to this country, and what happened? It was not just white folks who were coming to settle in this country, but they brought African slaves with them as well, or African indentured servants initially. And there was early alliance between poor black people, poor Africans, and poor white people who were also indentured servants. So the institution of slavery as it developed, developed to divide poor white people from poor black people.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now that basic paradigm of dividing the poor in order to serve the interest of the plantation class, the capitalists, the owners, has persisted and the only thing that has really changed is that other kinds of racialized populations have been brought in to take the place of black people at periods, different parts of the country at different times in history. And that’s what happened to Asian immigrants. They came into the 19th century in large numbers to fulfill a need for labor. And they should have had common interests, the Chinese for example who came in to build the railroad, with the Irish who were building the railroad from the other side of the country. And the Irish if you remember were racialized when they came to the United States. They were not seen as white by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, they were caricatured in ways that we would call racist now, and they were depicted in ways that bordered on blackening them.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And they learned that one way for them to assimilate and become white in this country was to engage in racism against others. How this worked was that big businesses that were dependent on Chinese immigrants to build the railroads were also dependent on white working class labor and had to play it both ways, and in the end they chose to exploit the Chinese and then to demonize them. And so this pattern is what we have now. We need Asian labor, we need Asian capital, and so on, but when push comes to shove we will also demonize the relevant Asian population. This is a tried and true American pattern.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So that happened to my parents. They did exactly what they were expected to do to pursue the American dream, they opened their own business, a Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California, and lo and behold, within a year or two, I was walking down the street, I was a kid, saw a sign in another shop window that said, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” But the reality of it at that time was that nobody besides the Vietnamese wanted to open businesses in downtown San Jose, because it was a disaster. So we were helping to revitalize the economy, but we were being demonized for it by other people. And so another American driven out of business by the blank is an American story.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But the problem is a lot of Americas will fill in the blank by saying some particular ethnic or racial group without realizing that the real American business is driving other businesses out of business, that’s what we do. That’s capitalism, and then it’s easier to blame the newcomer, versus blaming or understanding how capitalism operates in this country.

Gilbert King: Really interesting. Viet, you live and work in Los Angeles, and Min you live and work in New York City and Boston, both coasts have diverse cultures, yet the Asian American communities feel the effects of COVID-19 being called the Chinese virus, or the Kung Flu, what is the impact of these kind of epithets on the Asian Americans in your vicinity?

Min Jin Lee: I feel like in a way this profoundly nationally sanctioned racism, which is coming from the bully pulpit of the White House, has politicized a lot of Asian Americans who felt like they were somehow immune from being treated this way by their wealth or their education. And when I hear really elite Asian Americans acting as if they’re scared, they’re finally shaken to there senses, I kind of think it’s really interesting because they’ve been deprived, I think Asian Americans have been deprived of their own history. It’s not taught in secondary schools, and if you don’t have history being taught in secondary schools you pretty much can skip it in college. And therefore they don’t know the things that are really rudimentary, the foundational aspects of Asian American history, and about the lynchings that you mentioned, that’s pretty foundational for Asian American history, however most Asian Americans and also first generation immigrants have no idea.

Min Jin Lee: They keep thinking if they keep their heads down and they keep doing their work then everything is going to be okay. And now they’re having acid being poured in their faces in Brooklyn, 21st century, this is what’s happening right now. People are being attacked in the subways regularly. And this is where it gets really complicated. The people who are attacking Asian Americans are not uniformly white. They’re not. Very often it’s people of color who are attacking the Asian Americans, and it’s making it really uncomfortable for progressives to talk about it, because you can’t just say it’s just them, they’re attacking us, it’s actually everybody is attacking Asian Americans and Asians, and no one wants to tell the difference.

Min Jin Lee: What I think that’s really interesting for me to see in generation Z, the Zoomers, is that if you go on college campuses, there’s a real divide between international students and Asian Americans. Ones a cool group and one isn’t. And they will not even meet. As a matter of fact, you’ll have affinity groups that will say we’re the Chinese international students, versus Chinese American students, and all this is happening, and all I can keep thinking about is we’re not learning more about each other and as a matter of fact, we’ll always have less power because we keep separating. But I do believe that these epithets in a way, ironically, are politicizing Asians and Asian Americans.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I affirm everything that Min said, and of course, the Trump administration will say that it’s not racist to call COVID-19 the Chinese Virus, or the Wuhan Virus, but Asian Americans for the most part do perceive it be racist, because they see the effects of that rhetoric. And in fact, throughout American history, we have so many instances where something is not explicitly said to be racist, but in effect is actually really racist. So, for example, in California, Asian Americans couldn’t own land for a good part of the 20th century, but there was no law on the books that said Asian Americans can’t own land. What it said was that only free white people, I believe, could own property in the state of California, sorry, only citizens could own property in the state of California.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: However, if you go back to the 1790 naturalization law, only free white people could become citizens, so in effect it was racially discriminatory. So we I think are very sensitive to this kind of idea that people can be racist and deny their racism at the same time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ll note one other thing, which is there was a report that just came out yesterday that said that Filipino nurses comprise something like … they’re comprising like a quarter of COVID deaths, even though obviously Filipino nurses are some fraction of the population. And the reason why we have a lot of Filipinos in the nursing profession, and in the medical profession in general is because of this longer history of the United States being involved in the Philippines and in Asia and the reason why we have a lot of the medical profession being Asian is the same reason.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So we as a country have a need, for again, for this Asian labor that we bring in, in this case, higher end labor, but we’re quick to turn against them, to use a racist rhetoric that tars them too, or there are cases of people refusing or being afraid of being seen by Asian American medical people because of this racist perception that they also carry the virus with them.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So again, COVID has brought out really deep fractures in the body politic that have been hidden under better times, but the racism has come out.

Gilbert King: I just want to remind people, you can send your questions in chat to either the host, or to Sharon Raab and they’ll get them here, I’m starting to see some show up so that’s great. I wanted to follow up with the COVID, Min, in your piece, What I Want the Woman Behind the Counter to Know, you write about not only your own family working in New York, but also Asian Americans working here during COVID, and I’m wondering if you can talk about that and what you wanted that woman to know.

Min Jin Lee: You know, I wrote that piece because I’ve been here the entire time in New York and I really like being here, and whenever I was out, the people that I would see working were immigrants that I grew up with in Queens. And of course, if you look at the zip code and it’s attribution of how many people have suffered, the people who have died the most have been from corona in Elmhurst which is exactly where I grew up.

Min Jin Lee: So I felt this sense of New York City has been abandoned by the well off, and then those who are left to do all the work, to deliver the groceries in order for us to flatten the curve, were people from my community, and what I really wanted to say was thank you but how do you say it without seeming ridiculous? So I created a narrative based on something that actually did happen where if I could I would thank that person, and I said it in my native language, and I said [inaudible 00:48:07], which is really, it’s a lovely idea, is to say I really appreciate your labor. If I could encourage your labor, I really appreciate it. Because so often we don’t think about how much people work in order to do something, especially because it’s not just labor for $12.50 an hour, $15 an hour, now you’re risking your life, and you don’t have a choice, and your bosses do not care.

Min Jin Lee: I’m just so astonished by these wealthy companies who do not care about their employees and their lives, and they weren’t providing PPE or safe environments, and now looking at the anti maskers, we’re actually asking working class people to police the behavior of their customers. That’s insane. I mean that is completely insane.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Here’s the statistic that I wanted to mention, Filipino nurses comprise 4% of the workforce, but are 31.5% of COVID deaths in the medical field. I mean …

Min Jin Lee: That’s insane.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s insane. Right? It’s not an accident, it’s a structural aspect of why it is that Filipinos are here in the United States.

Gilbert King: Wow. That’s amazing. Viet, in your essay for Time Magazine, you write very movingly about Tou Thao, the Minneapolis policeman who was Mung who stands with his back to George Floyd as he’s being killed by the policeman Derek Chauvin, can you talk to us about how that affected you and why you wrote about him in your essay?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well obviously I’ve seen other instances of black people being killed by the police on video before and I was deeply disturbed by them too, I didn’t feel it was my place necessarily to write anything about those incidents, but when I saw Tou Thao’s face, I was shook. Because I thought okay this guy is southeast Asian, number one, I’ve got to find out a little bit more about what’s going on. But he’s Asian American too. And it just made it immediately clear that Asian Americans could not avoid this issue of where they stood, literally, in regards to this other kind of pandemic that we have of black people being killed by police.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I wanted to go a little bit deeper than simply to say we’re both Asian American but he’s not like me, which I think would be a common impulse, to disavow Tou Thao in what he did. Instead I wanted to go into the history of how it is someone like Tou Thao was born in the United States and ended up in the police force. He’s the son of Mung refugees, and if you know anything about the history of what happened during the war in Vietnam, the war was not only fought in Vietnam, but it was fought in places like Laos. The CIA went there, conducted a secret war during the Vietnam war, and they staffed that war with Mung soldiers.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Something like a quarter of the Mung population who sided with the United States died during that war, and the United States mostly abandoned them in 1975. Some of them eventually made it to the United States and Tou Thao is the descendant of that generation.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So here you have a moment where I believe you see American history really compressed, literally. The fact that there’s a white policeman killing a black man, goes back to the very roots again of our country as being born out of slavery and white supremacy. And the fact that you have a son of refugees from Asia standing there in the police force means that we as Asian Americans have to have a very sophisticated understanding of why we’re here. We can claim immigrant and refugee pride, but what does that mean? It means we can claim to be a part of the American dream and the American story, but as I said earlier, we have to claim everything. That means if we claim the American dream, we have to acknowledge the American dream was born out of slavey and genocide and white supremacy, and that if we choose to align with power we’re aligning with that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And we have to get even more specific and acknowledge that the United States has been a country that has been at war for most of it’s existence, and in the 20th century, most of those wars have been in Asia broadly defined. And that’s another reason why we’re here.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So that’s why I had to write about that, because I thought this compressed so much of American history, both in terms of foreign policy, but our very complicated domestic history into one horrifying incident.

Min Jin Lee: It serves as a really good primer, I think. And I think that it should be shared with a lot of students.

Gilbert King: Yeah, I thought it was a great essay. I have just one more question and then I’m going to go to the audience questions because some that I’m seeing are really terrific. But I sort of want to end on something that maybe gave you an opportunity to reflect on the future. So the year 2020 will go down as obviously as one for the ages. So much has happened, very little of it positive, and yet we still have this looming and no doubt contentious election ahead that could potentially threaten our democracy. The both of you are important voices in America today, and I’m wondering if you could each talk a little bit about what it means to you to see an American awakening to racism like we’ve had this year, and if you’re optimistic about the nations future?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m terrified. I don’t know if optimism’s the right word, because obviously I think that we are at a very pivotal moment in American history, and it can go either way, it could go in many directions. I have literally no idea what’s going to happen between now and the inauguration. And like so much of all of American history, again, we as Americans have always had the choice between two contradictory aspects of the United States, and one is a reality that don’t Americans don’t want to confront, have a hard time confronting, have a hard time talking about, which is my belief, that we’re a country born from slavery and genocide and conquest and white supremacy.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The other contradictory aspect is we’re also a country that has born itself, seen itself as a bastion of freedom, democracy, and equality and justice. And that has been true for some populations and for some parts of our history. That’s the choice that we have in this election, in this pivotal moment, and I just cannot be Pollyanna ish and say yes of course we will triumph for the forces of good. I think, like I said, as a refugee, I’ve seen or I’ve been a part of a history where things do not always turn out well, and if you look at world history, there are places where things do not turn out well, unless the people themselves choose their own fate.

Min Jin Lee: You know, when I was in law school 100 years ago, I think it was 1992 when I did some phone banking for the Clinton-Gore campaign. I did it as an outreach to the Asian American community. So they give you this kind of dot matrix print out of all these names, and because I was in DC, there were a lot of southeast Asian names, as well as east Asian names, because there’s a huge Vietnamese community in Virginia. And there’s also Chinese American names, and I can kind of parse out who’s who a little bit based on their names and where they live. And when I phoned them, everybody’s voice was different, and very often they were perfectly nice when they picked up the phone, they weren’t rude, they didn’t hang up on me.

Min Jin Lee: When I started to ask them specific questions about the democratic party or who are you leaning towards, just so I was kind of polling it at the same time trying to persuade, I really sensed a real strong fear. And one of the reasons I’m mentioning this is because I want to have compassion for people who are afraid to be political. They come from nations that are still today where people are disappeared and people are terrified of the consequences of resisting and being rebellious or saying the right thing. However, I am really optimistic about generation Z, in terms of I believe that they have their hearts in the right place, I believe they really tend to be kinder, they tend to be more inclusive, and if they really go out to the polls as poll watchers as well as voters, we have a shot.

Min Jin Lee: There are two humongous problems, I mean there are so many problems about the way we vote in this country, the first thing is electoral college is garbage, but I think my only optimism, if I had any optimism at all, is generation Z, and as we speak to different communities of color, for Asian Americans, I think if we can try to remember that there’s a reason why they’re afraid, it makes it easier to speak to them about trying to get them to decide towards I think to saving democracy. Whatever you feel about Joe Biden, I believe that he is more democratic than Donald Trump, and I’m willing to say that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And by the way, my post script is just because I’m terrified doesn’t mean I’m not going to participate.

Min Jin Lee: Right.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: There’s a difference. Being terrified is actually a really good motivator to do something. So being terrified does not mean giving up. It just means, I think, facing the complexities that we have.

Gilbert King: Great. Well we’ve got some really great questions here and I’m going to start with [inaudible 00:57:59] who says that Min mentioned that Asian Americans are deprived of their history, how can or should a host country as diverse as America better address the cultural needs of immigrant students?

Min Jin Lee: I wasn’t kidding when I said that Viet’s essay in Time, it’s a really great primer. So let’s say you can put an entire book about the Vietnam War, right? Or you can’t put an entire book about Asian American history, I think that you can have, how many words is that, 2500?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: 5000.

Min Jin Lee: Sorry, 5000 words. It felt like 2500. So you take a 5000, that’s an easy thing to assign, and I think it can be read for a college level student and a high school level student like in AP history class. I think doing things like that, changing your syllabus in some ways is not only just responsible, it’s really smart, because the reason why I think America in some way is being left behind globally is because we don’t understand some really basic things like, we don’t understand Islam. If we understood Islam, we wouldn’t be having most of the problems in the Middle East.

Min Jin Lee: We have so little respect for religion in this country, and most people around the world have a very strong faith system, and they use that faith system to make decisions. And because we don’t teach religion, for example, we fall behind. So yes, I’m really glad that this teacher is asking this question, and I kind of think it is about having an updated syllabus constantly.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well as an undergraduate at Berkeley I majored in both English and in Ethnic Studies, and now in the state of California, we just passed legislation that requires Cal State University system to have an ethnic studies requirement, and there is discussion about having a high school ethnic studies requirement too. I’m a believer in ethnic studies. It can be done badly obviously, like everything else, but it can also be done really well. And ethnic studies saved my life by giving me an understanding of this country that was about the people who had been marginalized and erased in narratives of our country.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I think that would include the immigrant experiences from all over the world, not just certain parts of the world. So that’s really crucial, the curricular reform to acknowledge that we as a country do a fairly poor job in a number of different areas from civics for example to ethnic studies. So curriculum reform needs to be undertaken all the way throughout. And to see the experiences of immigrants are inseparable from the experiences of everybody else. Part of the issue that we have is we have a really unjust public educational system that does a disservice to immigrants and to a lot of poor people.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So we have to be careful that we don’t just try to put a band aid and say okay we’ll have an ethnic studies requirement, which I think is crucial, but that’s not going to solve the problem. That would be important, but the fact that we have a system in which immigrants are treated poorly in a lot of ways, reflects upon the fact that we as an entire society are not going a great job of taking care of the marginalized, including in our education.

Min Jin Lee: Also … I’m really glad that Viet talked about capitalism, because I really love economics. I study economics pretty seriously just because I’m fascinated by it. Because it’s a philosophy, it’s a social science and it’s a philosophy. And I always kind of think it’s weird to me that Americans, who are so proud of being capitalists, are in some ways really dumb capitalists, because if we had a better educated workforce, and a globally educated workforce, we’d actually do better in markets.

Min Jin Lee: Very often our exceptionalism and our naïve pride very often makes us very blind business people. So I kind of think if we make public schools really great, if we stop doing voter suppression and actually have more engaged citizenship, we’d actually be a better economy.

Gilbert King: And more capital to spend on things, obviously.

Min Jin Lee: Yeah. You’d have a middle class. Because we’re losing our middle class.

Gilbert King: I have a question, this one is sort of anonymous, but it says how do you cope with fellow Asian Americans who were dismissive of your choice to be a writer, especially before you received accolades and mainstream attention?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Look at me now!

Min Jin Lee: As I’m laughing. Go ahead Viet.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t know if it’s unique to Asian Americans, I don’t think there’s some kind of fantasy world out there where if you’re not an Asian American and you say I want to be a writer, everyone else around you says yeah go for it, do it. I think it’s general incomprehension across the board. But there’s no doubt that there’s probably more of it in Asian immigrant environment or Asian Americans stereotypically speaking. And when I was at Berkeley, I was one of two Vietnamese American English majors out of a department of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. And now there’s many, many more.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But it was no doubt that it was a lonely road, and is less lonely now because one of the ironic functions of Asian Americans being really successful in academia at the collegiate level, is that not all of them went to engineering. A lot of them went into the arts and English and so on, so back when I was trying to be a writer, you would have a new Asian American book coming out once every year. Now you have a new Asian American book coming out every week, every month, and it’s partly a function that a lot of people are learning how to write in college and then there’s a track for them now. So things have changed, but if there is resistance, I don’t know. I take pride in it, in American society which is deeply materialistic and capitalistic, there’s always been a denigration of the artist and the intellectual. Take pride of being a part of this resistant minority.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But ultimately you have to, for me, do this because you deeply believe in it, you deeply love it, even if it brings you pain, you write because you have no choice, you write out of conviction and a belief in the art, and it’s not because of the capitalism. So ironically, when I won the Pulitzer prize, all these Vietnamese people and Vietnamese Americans who couldn’t have cared less about me the day before I won the Pulitzer Prize were like oh my god we’re so proud, Vietnamese American wins the Pulitzer Prize. I’ll take it. I know they haven’t read my book, I know they have still not read my book, but I’ll take it. And I know I’m doing something for them.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But the point is, they were proud because it was about prestige and status and all the kind of material things that come with that, but honestly by the time I wrote The Sympathizer, I couldn’t have cared less about any of those things. I wrote that book because I believed in the art, genuinely, seriously, and my mentality was screw them. I’m going to write this book for myself, regardless of the marketplace or what people want or the world of vanities and things like that. So that in the end is the ultimate strength, is to not care about what other people want and what other people say even if they’re your own family who are saying these things.

Min Jin Lee: I so completely agree with this. One of the things that I talk to my Asian American young people about, because they’re usually asking me this kind of question, I actually get a lot of letters. I don’t know, Viet, do you get a lot of letters?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I get hate mail in the letter form. Yeah, but not love letters.

Min Jin Lee: I get a lot of letters from young people saying, “Oh what do I so? My parents want me to be XYZ, and you did this, blah blah blah.” And of course, I’m very clear, I turn 52 in November, and I didn’t publish my first book until I was 38, but I started writing very seriously at age 26. I quit being a lawyer, and I hunkered down and I was like I am going to learn how to write these books, and I did. However, it took me 11 years to publish my first book. And in that time, I didn’t have money to meet my friends for lunch, we had trouble meeting the mortgage, there were so many things we couldn’t do and it was really embarrassing because a lot of my friends just thought I was insane. And it wasn’t just Asian Americans who thought I was insane, everybody kind of thought I was kind of crazy, and also they didn’t understand what I was trying to do. And I think that I had to keep saying to myself, I don’t care.

Min Jin Lee: I want to talk about mental health for a second, because one of the things that has been really kind of comforting for me of having depression and anxiety, is that I realize that because I had a difficult childhood, and because I still feel difficult around people, I’ve always liked writing. So for every kid who asks me should I be a writer, and what do these people say, I always ask do you like writing? Do you like it so much that you’d do it no matter what? Do you have things to say? Because if you want to be famous, this is a dumb way to do it. If you want to be rich, this is even a dumber way to do it. If you want to have people adore you, good luck, because Viet just says he gets hate mail. Gilbert do you get hate mail too?

Gilbert King: Yeah, I get a lot of it, yeah.

Min Jin Lee: You write about social justice, so of course you’re going to be targeted. So, I kind of think do you like writing? Do you like rewriting? Do you like it so much because you’d rather be alone at your desk than anywhere else in the world? Because if you don’t like that, I don’t think this is a good job for you, because it’s not really a job, it’s more like a nutty calling, and if you don’t respond it it emotionally that way, all the voices of disapproval are going to affect you more than it affected me. I didn’t think I was going to be approved of anyway, because I was socially rejected so much as a young person, so I felt like they’re not going to like me. Oh well, I might as well just do what I want to do, and you do have to develop, I don’t want to say a thick skin, because I still don’t have a think skin. I’m really sensitive, I can cry at the drop of a hat.

Min Jin Lee: But I really love the writing more than the approval. Because I don’t think the approval is going to come. And if you look at how many Asian Americans women who are successful as writers in America, you could probably raise a hand. So clearly, I would have to be delusional to think that I’d ever be successful.

Gilbert King: Right. And I think the idea that you mentioned, Viet, of trying to figure out what the market wants, I don’t know a single writer who’s ever been able to say I’m going to target this because I think that’s what people want to read. It’s impossible.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It occasionally happens and I hate those people. I’m on Min’s side, it’s a calling. So Malcolm Gladwell has this idea that you have to do 10,000 hours of something to be really good at something, to excel at something. I don’t know if that’s an exact number that is true, but for me that’s pretty accurate, and for a writer, 10,000 hours means you’re sitting in a room by yourself for 10,000 hours. There is no social aspect to writing. You can go sit in a café, or you could have a writing group, but you’re still writing by yourself for 10,000 hours, and that’s a calling. You have to be willing to do that. You have to have, I think, some kind of personality that suits you to do that. Maybe it’s a strength or a weakness to have this kind of a personality, because I would tell you honestly, if you can do something else besides writing, do it.

Min Jin Lee: Right.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because if you did 10,000 hours of anything else, like tried to be a stock broker for 10,000 hours, you’d be rich. If you spent 10,000 hours on the piano, you’d be a classical pianist. But there’s no [inaudible 01:10:10] if you spent 10,000 hours writing that anything great is going to come out of it. You would be a competent writer after 10,000 hours I could probably guarantee that for you. Doesn’t mean that you’ll be published, or that even if you’re published you’ll be successful. So you do it for the writing, because you have no other choice. That’s just the brute reality, I think.

Min Jin Lee: Gilbert can I ask you a question?

Gilbert King: Go right ahead.

Min Jin Lee: When you wanted to be a writer, did people around you say that it was a good idea?

Gilbert King: Well I started writing in my 40s, it was a very different calling for me. But no, people were like what are you doing? It doesn’t make any sense. I was a photographer at the time, I was doing fine as a photographer, but I realized I was getting a little older and I didn’t like that as much and I wanted to do this, something I liked when I was young but never really knew how to pursue it, just had to pay bills and everything.

Min Jin Lee: How long [crosstalk 01:11:04] first book?

Gilbert King: I would say a couple years. I got rejected everywhere. Even my second book was rejected everywhere, Devil in the Grove was rejected I think 39 times, nobody really wanted it. So all it takes is one yes, right? That’s what you shoot for. Also you have to believe in what you’re doing. Why would you spend those 10,000 hours working on something if it’s just not going to see the light of day. It’s just going to go in your drawer. I think it’s an admirable thing to do, but it’s a fools errand. It would be better to be a banker I think.

Min Jin Lee: Viet, don’t you have a story like this? Wasn’t The Sympathizer rejected by everybody?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well The Refugees, which was the first book I wrote, even though it was published after The Sympathizer, took me 17 years to write. I hated every single moment of it. And then The Sympathizer was rejected, not as much as Gilbert’s, but 13 times. That still hurt. 13 times in one day.

Gilbert King: Just because one of these questions came over here, it’s another anonymous one, but I think just we’ve been talking about this, would either of you like to share favorite books that you’ve read this year?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sure, Min you go first because I’ve got to pull up my Excel sheet. I have a really poor memory of what I’ve read.

Min Jin Lee: Oh, golly.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: This is a hard question.

Min Jin Lee: I’ve been reading Begin Agan by Eddie S. Glaude. I don’t know if it’s Glaude or Glaude, and he’s a professor at Princeton, and it’s a book about James Baldwin, a writer I just really, really adore. So I can recommend that whole heartedly. Imani Perry has a wonderful book as well that I’m literally blanking right now, that’s a memoir, and it’s a letter to her son which is really quite beautiful. And I’m teaching this year, so I’m going to recommend something a little … Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, it’s an incredibly short book. So beautiful.

Min Jin Lee: And lately, I teach an incredibly diverse syllabus, and I teach a lot of dead white people as well, and it’s kind of strange because my students have never heard of Saul Bellow, they’ve never heard of George Orwell, they’ve never heard of Virginia Woolf, or if they’ve heard of it they haven’t read it. And I’m always kind of like, seriously? And I say you can’t read my creative non fiction class without having read some Joan Didion, are you kidding me? So I’m re reading those again, and of course I can’t recommend them enough.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Okay, I just finished listening to The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson because I’ll be interviewing her for her new book Caste, so if you haven’t listened or read to The Warmth of Other Sons, highly recommend it. If you’re into thrillers, I listened to all of Don Winslow’s the Cartel Trilogy, which I thought was fantastic, especially as an audio book about the drug wars. If you’re into mystery novels, a new favorite of mine are Attica Locke’s novels, Bluebird, Bluebird and Heaven is My Home, about a black Texas ranger.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then I’ve read a whole bunch of other things, but just because I think Americans should probably read more international literature, I’ll mention a few non American books. I read this great novel by David Diop, D-I-O-P, about Senegalese soldiers during World War I, and the title is really fantastic, All Blood is Black at Night. And one other book I will mention, this is a Greek book, also very short, by Cristos Ikonomou, I-K-O-N-O-M-O-U, called Good Will Come From the Sea. These stories about life in Greece during the financial crisis. Just really, really incredible writing.

Min Jin Lee: Also, I’m sorry, Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.

Gilbert King: Oh yeah, okay.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ll put the names in the chat.

Gilbert King: That’s great. I’m looking through, getting a lot of questions here. This is a question that just came through, it’s anonymous, but it’s interesting. Do you think the American dream is dead? It’s heartwarming to hear from someone who has faith in generation Z when many of us have no faith in the American dream.

Min Jin Lee: I recently had the opportunity to write the introduction for the Great Gatsby for Penguin Classics and it’s going to come out in January, so I’ve been thinking about this question quite a lot about the American dream, and one of the things that I have made a conclusion of is that I believe that the American dream is an evolving model. And also you have the American dream for white people, for black people, for Asian people, for Latin X people and again, it’s an evolving model.

Min Jin Lee: So one of the things that I really want to stress is that before we think that we stick a fork in it and say it’s done, I’m kind of hoping that now that we have this terrible, terrible barn burning, maybe we can begin again. Maybe we can recreate something good out of all the horrible lessons that we’re learning about inequality in this country. And I have to believe in generation Z. I’m a parent to somebody who’s a generation Z, and I think it’s my responsibility to be encouraging, to be hopeful, and to say this is what I’ve learned, what can I do for you? How can I make you feel safe if the world makes you feel unsafe? And I have to believe that, otherwise it would be really hard for me to teach. It would be really hard for me to continue writing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean I think the American dream is a mythology, and myths are hard to die. So is the American dream dead? No, I don’t think so because it’s a myth. The reality that it’s supposed to express that everyone can climb the ladder and so on, if you actually look at academic studies, it’s not true. Other countries have greater possibilities of socioeconomic mobility than we do, but we cling to the myth, and to the extent that they myth is a very powerful motivator, a very powerful source of stories, a very powerful form of seduction that brings many people to the United States, it’s not dead. People still want to come here even though we as a country through government policy are doing our best to keep them out, people still want to come here even witnessing what they see on television.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That may change. We’re losing, for example, foreign graduate students. Not as many foreign students want to come to the United States anymore. That’s a pretty good sign that the dream is getting kind of tarnished. And so I don’t think the dream is dead, the mythology, but my political position is four more years of this administration would do a lot to kill it, because much of the dream is based not just on internal mobility for people who are already here, but bringing people in that will rejuvenate the country and we’re focused on cutting off one half of that dream, and for the other half of that dream we’re enacting policies that are not really designed to help people succeed.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So we have to fight for it if we want to keep it alive.

Gilbert King: Yeah, and I also want to mention, because you were talking about writers, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize has a really great list of award winning writers from international backgrounds. If you go onto the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s website, you can see so many novels, non fiction, a great collection. It’s a really great starting reading list, by the way. Let me ask you this one question, Joe Biden apologized for his mistake in saying that the Hispanic communities were more diverse than the black communities. Do Americans make the same mistake by labeling immigrants and refugees from many diverse Asian countries as Asian Americans?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I don’t think so. I think that the reason why we have Asian Americans here in the United States, but not Asians in Asia because people in Asia do not identify first and foremost as Asian, but with their nationality or ethnicity first, the reason why we have Asian Americans here though is that it’s a self defensive response in the face of American racism, where it was Americans first and foremost who couldn’t tell the difference between one Asian group and another. So we made a strength out of something out of a necessity, out of something terrible. Now the consequences of this can be problematic.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For example, when we describe Asian Americans, when we’re talking about Asian Americans, we’re talking about a population that comes from over a dozen countries, many, many languages, different kinds of cultures and historical experiences, so the Asian American as a model minority, that’s very successful, they’re engineers, doctors and lawyers, they’re only one part of this population. So then obviously we can overlook the many Asian Americans who are living in much more difficult circumstances, economy, mental health, and so on and so forth. But that is something we can work with. I mean, there are measures out there, there are policies out there that say we need to break down the data, we need to disaggregate data so we know the distinction between Chinese Americans and Mung Americans, for example, and there are people who resist that kind of data disaggregation.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But that doesn’t mean that we should do away with the Asian American category, it just means that we need to refine it in terms of how it’s being understood and implemented.

Min Jin Lee: I like the Asian American categorization. I think that it makes me feel more powerful and I think that if I have something to celebrate, or a grievance, I like to think of us as a larger family. That said, what’s really amazing to me, as large as this family is, it’s still politically ignored. And they are taken for granted, we are taken for granted, and it’s very disturbing to me. So I think if anything we have to be more vocal and more willing to say that there’s more power in this group than the hope that being white adjacent will actually give us some crumbs from the table.

Min Jin Lee: So I have I guess a very strong feeling about this. I think the representation of Asian Americans, in the humongous tent that it is, there’s so much misinformation within that group. And then the thing that I caution is Asian Americans themselves are making these stupid claims about who we are, rather than talking about our heterogeneity, and our political power in the collective, the thing that I really wonder is when I hear Asian American kids say things like, well you know this is what an Asian American dad does, or what an Asian American mom does, and I kind of think seriously? That’s the dumbest thing you could possibly say, and I will call out my students when they say stuff like this, because they’re making a racial generalization and they’re allowing non Asians to perpetuate this.

Min Jin Lee: So one of the things I have spoken about around the world, literally, is how much I hate the term Tiger Mother. For me, if you say that to me, or to say that about somebody that I know, you might as well have used a very serious racial epithet, because it’s making Asian American parents unable to advocate for their children in their schools. So I don’t know what your kid is like, but your kid has a right to have an active parent, and anytime an Asian American parent actually has enough courage to go to a school, especially if they’re immigrants, to advocate for their kid, and to have their wishes and their grievances be dismissed by a racial epithet created by an Asian American, I find that to be deeply disturbing.

Gilbert King: Well I just want to thank both Viet Thanh Nguyen and Min Jin Lee for joining us here tonight, and I want to thank you, the audience, for stopping by. Again, I encourage you all to take a look at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize website for more information about great writers, great books that promote peace and understanding.

Gilbert King: The second Turn the Page event scheduled for November 16th at 7 PM will feature a discussion between Richard Bausch, the 2009 fiction winner for Peace, a novel set in the mountains of Italy with US troops during World War II, and Andrew Krivak the 2012 fiction winner for The Sojourn, set in those same mountains during World War I, with a young man from Colorado who was a sharp shooter in the Kaiser’s army. Both writers used family stories of war as the basis for their books and their springboards for their imagination. Richard’s book as been made into a film entitled Recon that will debut in theaters November 10th, and will be streamed beginning on November 13th. He will also discuss the experience of having his work translated to film.

Gilbert King: Again, thank you to Viet, Min, and to all of you for joining us at home. And hopefully we’ll see you at the next Turn the Page event. Thank you guys.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks Gilbert, Thanks Min. Thanks Literary Peace Prize.

Min Jin Lee: Thank you so much. Bye. Thank you.

Gilbert King: Bye bye, great seeing you.

Category: Interviews

 

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