I’m Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, refugee, and featured participant in the PBS documentary Asian Americans. I’m staying at home. AMA.

Viet Thanh Nguyen held an AMA on Reddit. Read the discussion thread and questions below or on Reddit.

THANKS EVERYONE!!! I loved answering your questions and hope my answers were helpful.

PLEASE WATCH THE “ASIAN AMERICANS” DOCUMENTARY on PBS on May 11-12!!! I’m in episodes 4 and 5 and the whole series is terrific.
Hi Reddit, I’m Viet Thanh Nguyen, an author and professor at the University of Southern California. I’ve written both nonfiction and fiction books – from “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” to “The Sympathizer,” which won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. My latest is the children’s book “Chicken of the Sea, which I co-wrote with my son, Ellison. My story as an Asian American will be featured in the new documentary series “Asian Americans,”which premieres May 11 and 12 at 8pm on PBS (check local listings). #AsianAmPBS

Ask me anything!

Proof: https://twitter.com/viet_t_nguyen/status/1256327605852106753


cantonking: Hi Viet!

Big fan, thanks for doing this! I’m curious about your revision process, how do you know as a writer when something is complete? And what does your revision process look like? I have this habit of writing drafts of stories and then moving on to other projects because I don’t know how to revise…

P.S. – big fan of your writing, “The Sympathizer” was fantastic. Thanks for being an inspiration to Asian-Am writers and folks in general 🙂

A: Thanks for reading! Knowing when something is done is very hard. When I wrote The Refugees, I knew when a short story was done when I was exhausted with it and couldn’t do anything more. And, ultimately, when a journal accepted the story. So sometimes you do need an external person–a reader, an agent, an editor–to make the decision for you. With The Sympathizer, I knew it was done because I have a better understanding of a novel and could articulate why all the different elements are there and what function they serve. But there still has to be room for mystery and feeling that can’t fully be logically articulated. I know a story is good when it moves me, when all the elements click. If your own story can do that for you, it works. What you are doing in terms of putting stories aside is good. Return later and you should be better able to look at it with distance. And having multiple stories or writing projects means you can work on several at a time, which is what I do.

infinitealchemist: In your opinion, what separates a decent book from something that is a great piece of literature?

A: Time? It’s hard to know what’s really great until everyone involved is dead and all the human vanity and hype is done. But what separates a decent book from at least an excellent book…a few things. Depth of emotion that the book can get into and draw out of a reader. Willingness to speak about the unspeakable, whatever that is. Ambition, which doesn’t necessarily equal number of pages. Doing the unexpected, which means that the author has to know what is expected. So, for example, the author needs to know what “genre” they are working in and do something new, whether that genre is science fiction, or Asian American literature, or the coming of age novel and so on.

Diadema11: Hi Viet, really enjoyed Refugees and really enjoying Sympathizer now (am halfway through).

Sorry for the clichéd questions but I really like reading writers’ answers to these:

What are your all time favourite books and which books had the biggest impact on your development as a writer?

Did you always write stories with the aim of becoming a writer? I know you studied English Lit, but I’m intrigued by what separates someone who appreciates reading good writing from someone who makes a conscious effort to produce a novel.

Thanks!

A: Thanks for reading! All time favorites–Beloved, Invisible Man, The Woman Warrior, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Midnight’s Children. Those are my “adult” type books that helped me as a writer. Children’s and young adult books were also very meaningful to me at those ages (I list them in another response). For The Sympathizer, I was very inspired by Antonion Lobo Antunes’ The Land at the End of the World and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

I knew I wanted to write by the time I was very young, and so I was sometimes thinking about what it took to be a writer. But at a younger age, I mostly read just to absorb and enjoy the stories. Only later, as a scholar, did I look at works and how they did what they did, thematically and structurally. Then, as a writer, I paid attention more to what the writers did as writers–language choices and rhythm, for example.

redboy128: Just a note that I read and really enjoyed The Refugees!

What’s your opinion on the various ways people write their ethnic language in their stories? E.g. romanization in italics, or footnote translations?

Do you think certain styles cater more towards american audiences?

A: Thanks for reading! I think whenever a translation appears, or romanization, it’s a sign that the book is drawing a distinction between languages: the native language and a foreign language. Which could be fine, unless the writer or reader happens to be someone who straddles languages, cultures, nations. Then the use of translation forces the writer or reader into being a translator, which a “native” writer or reader hardly ever has to do, except by choice (as a tourist or as a writer visiting a foreign country, which is just fun). So there’s a big difference between voluntarily translating or not being able to translate (as a tourist or visitor) versus having translation imposed on you (as a minority). And this problem of translation radiates outward from just word choices to being a translator in general, which many of us experience even if we aren’t writers. We are expected to translate our cultures, customs, foods, etc., either in our books or in real life interactions. That can be very wearying, and of course for literature it’s absolutely detrimental. If majority writers never have to translate anything, except for fun, why should minority writers be any different? The unfortunate reality, though, is that it’s easier for a minority writer to sell if they translate and cater to non-minority expectations. My stance has been to write about my “minority” experiences as if I were a majority.

rainy_windy: Hello Viet!

I’m really happy to see you prosper and bloom in your literary career. It’s very inspiring reading your Facebook posts, be it just a few brief lines.

I have some questions to ask you in the position of a young writer myself who has yet to live long enough to define “life” in my own terms nor figure out the style truest to my soul:

  1. How do you start a book? Is the inspiration rooted in a particular detail/character/etc. or you already pictured something bigger first?
  2. Do you feel that authors should expand their works with sequels and prequels? I know this question is a bit more personal but I would really like to hear your take. Personally I believe that the story is constructed on both ends, authors and readers, so in some cases leaving the story as it is might be a better choice.
  3. Have you ever got so tired of an idea in your head that you must write it down but then it turns to be so mundane that you scraps the paper immediately? But then you kinda learn something from that time and move on? How do you feel about spontaneous writing?
  4. Do you read a lot from your same generation writers, other people around your age? How do you feel about their writings? I heard somewhere that most authors have enough ego so they just avoid compare themselves to their peers and aspire to be on the same level with older masters on their own. What do you think?

Thank you so much for being in AMA. Have a great great day!

A: Thanks for your questions!

  1. It varies from book to book. With The Refugees, I just wrote stories (each inspired by many different things–a voice, an incident, a character) and the book was assembled from the stories. With The Sympathizer, I knew I wanted to write a spy novel, and spent a summer trying different openings until I found the exact right opening line. That line was the “voice” for the novel, which I felt was just as important as the plot in carrying the reader forward. With Nothing Ever Dies, I had a whole bunch of academic essays and then decided that I didn’t just want to collect them. So I threw them out, kept the ideas, and wrote the book from scratch as a narrative, again propelled by an opening line and voice (“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory”).
  2. Sequels/prequels–if the story justifies it, there’s no problem. I didn’t set out to write The Sympathizer with a sequel in mind, but when I reached the end of the book, I felt that I had more to say about the narrator and that he would change over time. Some sequels are all about plot and not so much about character, like a spy who just gets into more missions, but that wasn’t the incentive for The Committed, the sequel. The primary incentive was to see how the character would change.
  3. I don’t do spontaneous writing. I’m not personally into writing exercises, but they might work for some people. I keep lots of ideas– write them in emails, jot them down in Evernote, save articles and so on. I keep all the old drafts of unpublished stories and revisit them sometimes to see if there’s anything there that can be of use.
  4. I read from everybody. I think it’s important to read the “classics” and “masters,” because you want to aim high and you want to see how your work fits in a tradition, which you may want to expand or challenge. But why not read the contemporaries? The only problem here is that the classics at least have been filtered so you know you’re getting something that is “good” according to some consensus, while reading contemporaries can be an exercise in reading a lot of mediocre work. But there’s no reason why you can’t drop books or make early decisions about a book. I stop reading a book if I’m not interested after the first page or even first few lines. But I also read for scholarship and research, which means I often have to read books I don’t enjoy that much all the way to the end. There’s learning there, too. It helps to see what you don’t like so you don’t do it yourself.

schlong_way_home: Thanks for taking the time to answer some of our questions!

What are your thoughts on non-Vietnamese (specifically white) people creating critical, scholarly works focusing on the American War in Vietnam and its aftereffects? There are clear issues with white scholars taking credit for the accounts of survivors – what, if anything, can be done to appropriately combat this?

A: Do you have specific works in mind? I’ve learned from some of them, although I do think that Vietnamese American scholars bring a different affect and approach. That’s clear in how so much of Vietnamese American scholarship is focused on refugee or return experiences, but also in the work of someone like Lien-Hang Nguyen, whose HANOI’S WAR is really, really good, and which I felt had a refugee perspective, given how she makes Le Duan–a migrant from south to north–the central figure of her book. Hue-Tam Ho Tai, too, is crucial here. The Vietnamese American scholarship seems like an effort to counter the general appropriation of which you speak, or at least the foregrounding of non-Vietnamese voices in the scholarship.

Twisty_McTwist: Chào Chú Việt! I’m a big fan of your works and all that you’ve done to give our community a voice!

As a younger progressive second-generation Vietnamese American, I often have trouble reconciling my political views with the views and experiences of my family members, and vice versa. My older family members associate anything having to do with socialism with the communist government from which they fled, and my support for Bernie Sanders, an avowed Democratic Socialist, worries them immensely.

Conversely, many leftists and progressive (non-Vietnamese) Asian Americans revere the North Vietnamese as liberating heroes against Western imperialism. This irritates me because the Vietnamese anti-imperialist movement did not start and end with Hồ Chí Minh’s communist movement, and my family’s experience (and many others’) show that the conflict was not black and white. However, many people will accuse me of being an imperialist sympathizer for criticizing the North Vietnamese.

As a leftist Vietnamese American yourself, how do you navigate these discussions within Vietnamese American, broader Asian American, and leftist/progressive spaces? What advice do you have for progressive young Vietnamese diaspora?

A: Hello fellow progressive! I feel your pain, and have been there. With family members–I just stay away from topics that might be too hot. I don’t like interpersonal confrontation and would prefer to keep the peace in the family and among the in-laws, who can be very anticommunist. But I don’t hold back on the written page or in speeches, and so have said plenty about the limitations of anticommunist thinking and pro-revolutionary idealism that you mention. And I participate in organizations that have likeminded views, such as the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Netowrk. I created DVAN’s blog, diacritics.org, to help give voice to the nuances and complexities you mention (PIVOT, VAALA, Viet Unity come to mind). There are other such organizations out there for progressives. So the choice about family is very personal and only you can manage, but it’s crucial to build these public organizations and spaces so that people don’t feel alone and feel that they can be part of a community.

ouroboro55: Which city has better Vietnamese restaurants in your opinion, San Jose or Westminster?

A: You’re trying to get me in trouble! I think Westminster has many more restaurants, which means greater regional diversity in the food, and maybe more cutting edge stuff happening. But I’m from San Jose and so some of the restaurants there have nostalgia value for me. Still love dropping in on Vung Tau whenever I’m in downtown San Jose, for example. That’s been around since my childhood.

vagabond008: Hi chú Việt,

What are some good English translated works you would recommend for the learning Việt kiều Mỹ of Vietnamese classics like Truyện Kiều by Nguyễn Du? Thanks! 😊

A: You mean English versions of Vietnamese literature? The gold standard for Truyện Kiều by Nguyễn Du still seems to be Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s Tale of Kiều from Yale University Press. John Balaban’s translations of Hồ Xuân Hương.

Chtorrr: What were some of your favorite things to read as a kid?

A: When I was very little, Curious George, the Tintin comics, Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys. As an early teen, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, early Robert Heinlein novels, Isaac Asimov, fantasy and science fiction in general.

anusgun: Just wanted to say I really loved reading The Sympathizer and The Refugees!! They got me back into reading last summer! Is there anything you can share about the Sympathizer sequel or the future Sympathizer tv show? 👀

A: Thanks for reading! The Sympathizer sequel was set to come out in October but is delayed to March 2021 due to COVID. The novel is titled THE COMMITTED and begins exactly where The Sympathizer left off, on a refugee boat. Our narrator ends up in Paris of 1982 and he is not in good shape. He and Bon fall in with an ethnic Chinese Vietnamese gang, and there is lots of drugs, violence, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, and satire about French race relations and French colonialism.

trainnoi: Huge fan of your work! There’s so many questions I want to ask…

My parents immigrated from Vietnam in the mid-70s. I feel like a lot of second-generation immigrants (me, my friends and cousins) have trouble communicating and understanding what our parents, aunts and uncles have gone through. How do you think we should begin learning?

A: Thanks for reading! That’s a tough one. I think we can learn academically, so it helps to read or watch what’s available, to know the history, even if it’s only in English. Visiting Vietnam helps too, because until you’ve been there, the academic stuff can’t tell you what the country is like in terms of taste, heat, smell, touch, all of which is part of what it means to be Vietnamese or to remember Vietnam or to feel it, which is what our parents do. In the end, though, the challenge is communicating one on one with our relatives. It’s a life long process. Hopefully both sides can find mutual acceptance. Which doesn’t mean that people have to change. I do my thing and my dad does his (my mom passed away) and these things are not really reconcilable (he’s a Catholic, I’m an atheist, for example) but I “communicate” by not bringing these differences up. I go home, I’m the dutiful son, and I listen to all the stories he has to tell. It’s like fishing. You wait and wait and wait and hope for the bite, the moment when something happens. I think the experience of being there and listening is a kind of understanding, even if you don’t fully understand all the words or feelings. And then finally maybe having some self-forgiveness about the lack of complete understanding. I know our condition is aggravated by language, history, war, the immigration or refugee experience, which throws up all kinds of borders between generations, but it’s also a fairly human experience not to understand the older generation (and vice versa).

hllyhng: May I ask two questions?

  1. In what do you find the most peace? Where are you most centered?
  2. What is one piece of advice you have that you’d share—about literally anything in life?

P.S. Have been a huge fan since reading The Sympathizer when it first came out. I was in undergrad at the time and convinced my advisor, an Asian American studies professor, to read it as a summertime book club endeavor with other folks. We’ve been raving about you ever since :’) When this is all over, I hope I’m able to attend one of your events in person one day.

A: Thanks for reading!

  1. In my writing, even if it torments me sometimes.
  2. Endure. Writing, for me, has been about endurance, past isolation, rejection, disappointment, and so on. There’s a spiritual element to writing which is analogous to spiritual experiences elsewhere. We all have to learn how to endure life, and if we care about something passionately and want to be good at it, we have to endure the process of learning that thing. That’s why writing is centering, because it is a spiritual as much as an artistic practice.

ChaseParnell: Did you consider any other seafoods besides squid?

A: What would you suggest? I’m eager to try!

I have a hard time imagining what other kind of seafood could, you know, work.

tamnguyen1024: Hello Anh Việt! What was your experience growing up as a first generation Vietnamese American? Did you have any role models and have always aspired to become a writer?

A: I had a challenging time. I felt like an outsider in both Vietnamese and American worlds. And the Vietnamese world, while full of love and hospitality, was also a place full of anger, melancholy, bitterness, and violence. The American world had the English language and literature, which I loved, but also constant reminders of me being a foreigner, outsider, Vietnamese (which was bad to many Americans). And this discomfort and this anger at how the Vietnamese were erased or misrepresented by Americans is what made me want to become a writer and tell my stories and hopefully our stories. I don’t think I had role models as writers when I was young. It wasn’t until I got to college and I encountered Asian American and African American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison that I thought I could really be a writer and aspire to do what they did in expressing themselves and challenging dominant American notions.

nayapapaya: Hello! Thank you so much for doing this and for putting your voice into the world. I’m actually just about to start reading The Sympathizer!

Who are your current favourite Asian American or Asian authors? Do you have any favourite books by Asian authors that you would recommend?

A: So many…classics like Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, John Okada’s No No Boy, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone; entertaining popular novels like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere; new important books like Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Elaine Castillo’s America Is not the Heart, Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto or Gun Dealer’s Daughter; critical smashes like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters; avant-garde works like Theresa Cha’s Dictee … you have so many to read!

rosaguac: Hi Viet! This might be a loaded question, so I understand if it’s a lot to tackle in just 1 AMA.

When I think of the term ‘Asian-American’, I can’t help but to think that while there’s merits to a pan-asian identity as a political bloc to generate solidarity with movements, there also exists dangers with casting a monolithic idea of what Asian-American means/looks like. Which makes me challenge myself as to the origins of why this term came to be and how we can develop a politic moving forward that pays homage to its radical roots?

I’m a first-gen Korean-American, and I just feel like East-Asians hold a lot of power, benefit/maintain structures of oppression, and when I hear stories of a stinky lunchbox narrative, it seems like a circuitous, trite story of how many of them want to pursue assimilation / approval from white people more than anything. And so I question what it truly means to be Asian-American? Should we throw this term out all together?

I want to believe it’s more than East Asians bonding over a story of stinky dumplings in elementary school.

A: I just turned over a 4500 word essay to a magazine that deals with this. I hope it will be published. Keep an eye out on Twitter for any notices.

CateinMexico: I was really glad to see you among the authors asking Oprah Winfrey to reconsider her selection of “American Dirt”. Are there any current campaigns aimed at diversifying the publishing industry and opening up opportunities to authors that we, as fans of your books, can help support? Any other actions as readers?

A: That’s a good question. I’m not aware of actual campaigns, except for the Vida count of awards and publications in American magazines, journals, etc. Vida keeps track of how many women are published and awarded, and the count seems to have at least helped raise consciousness about gender inequity on the publication side. But the equally big problem is diversity in the publishing companies, about who makes decisions and so on. If people know of any such campaigns to do something here, I’d be happy to learn of them in the responses.

I_love_to_read01: Hi, I love your work. You are an incredible writer. What are the best things about being a writer and what are the worst things?

A: Thanks for reading! Best things…finishing a book or story or article and feeling that sense of completion and creation. Hearing positive feedback from readers, either in written form or in person. It’s terrific to know that readers are sometimes deeply moved or affected by whatever I’ve written. Knowing that my words can have a wide reach. It’s really great to to Italy or France to meet readers, for example, or to get messages from Turkey or Iran. I am also very happy to meet Vietnamese readers who have been touched, because I do think that is my first audience (after me). As for worst things–when a story is not working, or taking too long, like the entire book The Refugees, which took 17 years start to finish. One story, Black Eyed Women, took 50 drafts over these 17 years. That was an awful experience. And just as bad is the sense that a book might never be published, or that I might be just a mediocre writer. Lots of self doubt and anguish. All very typical for being a writer.

I_love_to_read01: If your parents had stayed in Vietnam and you were still to become a writer, would you write a novel such as the Sympathizer? If not, what type of stories do you think you would be writing?

A: If I were in Vietnam, I don’t know if I would have become a writer. Could I even have gone to college, given the discrimination that southerners, Catholics, and capitalists experienced (my parents were all three)? And if I did become a writer…I know I can’t be in Vietnam writing now because of the censorship. So I could never have published The Sympathizer. Or I would have ended up in house arrest or worst. Or I would have written it and it would never have been published. Or I’d be a totally different person and writing something I can’t imagine now.

JackSquip: Hi Viet, are there any books you can recommend about the country in the context of the war in Vietnam, that somehow avoid negatively characterizing or pigeonholing Vietnam? It seems an impossible question, don’t know if you covered this in Nothing Ever Dies.

A: Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name, Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram

pokingyourcheeks: How do you see the anti-Asian discrimination related to COVID-19 affecting Asian-American identity and literature in the next several years?

(By the way I had the pleasure of hearing you speak last year and it was amazing!)

A: thanks for being there! Anti-Asian racism is what makes Asian Americans. It seems that the past couple of decades have been pretty good, in general, for Asian American inclusion in the US. That would include the rise of Asian capitalisms that have rubbed off on Asian Americans (Korean pop making all Asians a bit cooler, for example); and Asian Americans making inroads in different fields that don’t demand being Asian American. So maybe that has lulled a lot of Asian Americans into thinking that they have been accepted by, basically, white people (and as far as literature goes, we see some of this effect in more Asian American writing that doesn’t stress race very much or holds forth the possibility of inclusion). But anti-Asian racism is cyclical, structural, and related to America’s relationship with Asian countries. So now we’re back in an anti-Asian moment and I can’t help but think that if this crisis persists for a few years that the literature will talk about this. What would be really interesting is if Asian American writers did not only dwell on the anti-Asian racism but connect it to all the other social and economic problems that are being brought to light by COVID.

arielfaulkner: Hi chu Viet! I’m a huge fan of your books and articles. Discovering your works makes me so proud to be Vietnamese. Thank you for giving us a voice. My family is also from Ha Tinh and they speak a strong dialect. I was wondering if you grow up learning that dialect too and if you know much about your parents’ hometown? Even though I was born and raised in Saigon, I have a deep connection with Ha Tinh (or Nghe Tinh)’s culture so you could imagine how proud I was when I told my dad about you.

A: I grew up with parents who spoke a mixed accent, having been raised in Ha Tinh, then moving to Ban Me Thuot, and probably mixing with southern Vietnamese dialect. I also heard a lot of the conventional southern dialect in the refugee community. I went back to Vietnam to study Vietnamese and heard fairly academic or northern Vietnamese. Then I visited my paternal relatives in Ha Tinh and had a very hard time understanding them; no one had told me about the regional dialect! Then again, even after more than twenty years, I had a really hard time understanding my mother-in-law, from Hue.

lorig3833: Hi, Professor Nguyen. I was wondering what it was like to write as The Narrator again in “The Committed”? It’s been 5+ years since “The Sympathizer” was written, and I’m wondering what it was like for you to go back in time, so to speak, when you were (presumably) a different writer than you are now? Thank you so much!

A: Writing The Sympathizer was one long ecstatic trip, this one for The Committed was much more interrupted because my life had changed (due to the Pulitzer) and there were so many more obligations on my time. Also, the narrator had changed and I had to understand how and who he now was. That being said, the beginning 50 pages went quickly; then I won the Pulitzer and the next two years were hard writing the middle; and the last year writing the last quarter was great as I figured out my writing rhythm and got used to dealing with all the interruptions.

treesachu: As a first generation, Vietnamese-American thank you for all of your work. I firmly believe that books allow people to view and experience lives of others who are completely different from them which, one can hope, leads to greater empathy. How do you feel your work will contribute to how other Americans and non-Viet people will view our country and community? I’m thirty something and it’s still stuns me to hear peers only think of Vietnam and war.

A: I do hope my books and the works of many other Vietnamese American writers can help to shift American, Vietnamese, and global views of the war in Vietnam and the country itself. But the sad reality is that even a novel like The Sympathizer is read by, at most, hundreds of thousands of readers, while even a crappy Hollywood movie is seen by millions. We’re up against an entire apparatus, an industry of memory as I call it in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. And that industry is built from the military-industrial complex and centuries of ingrained racism and American ethnocentrism and the dominance of American power, of Americans making their stories the central drama. It’s going to take a lot more effort by creatives and by people in the industries of memory (Hollywood, TV, publishing, journalism) to budge that image of Vietnam as a war.

redconditco: Hi Viet, what are the most advantages for foreign writer to live in America? Do you have any plan for writing something in your mother language?

A: Thanks for your question. However, I don’t see myself as a foreign writer in America. I came when I was four and grew up here, so I’m an American, even if one with some differences. And some challenges, like what is a mother language? It is Vietnamese, but like many immigrants and refugees who came when they were young, this mother language was rapidly displaced by a new language, English. English feels like a native language to me. And Vietnamese, while my mother language, is very hard to write in. Perhaps that says something about my relationship to mothers and the maternal! I really don’t have any ambitions to write in Vietnamese, although I don’t reject the label of being a “Vietnamese writer.” People can call me whatever they want, as long as they acknowledge that there are multiple labels that can be put on me. So I’m also a Vietnamese American/Asian American/American writer. In France, my books are under “Anglo Saxon literature.” All that is fine, as long as ultimately I am also just a writer.

I_love_to_read01: Now the sequel of The Sympathizer (the Committed) is done, what are you working on? Do you make a plan for the plot for your novel before you write it?

A: I did plot out both The Sympathizer and The Committed in advance, because they are plot-driven books. Right now, I have a nonfiction book I’m working on, about a whole mess of things–memoir, writing, storytelling, America, decolonization. No outline for this. I just have to feel my way through it.

samp_sun: Hello and thank you so much for your incredible writing and the work you’ve done for the Asian American community! So glad you’re here for an AMA.

My question is, do you know if Diane Nguyen from Bojack Horseman was based off of the ghostwriter from Black Eyed Women?

A: I have no clue! Never seen Bojack Horseman. I kind of doubt it.

evilxmaven: Thanks for doing this Viet! Huge fan and happy to have heard you in person a few times at NYPL in talk with Arundhati Roy and at City Arts and Lecture in SF. Also a fellow East San Jose native and parents came on a boat in 1979 and I feel so proud to have that connection with you.

My question is in regard to the Medium post you shared from Kamau Bell. I thought it was such poignant and elegant piece about how to stand together against racism but also stand up for the racist things that POCs may perpetrate against fellow POC. Would like to hear your thoughts on how you manage these dualities and reconcile the challenges and conflicting views.

A: Thanks for attending my lectures! As for your question–it’s tough. I do rely on community, whether it’s Vietnamese or Asian American, and take pride in them and want to support them. Sometimes that can blind me to the community’s failures (0r my own). But when I am aware of them, I do my best to call them out or acknowledge them. It’s a learning process and the only way to learn is to engage with people who see the limitations from the outside as well as the inside. So, it’s possible to both support a community and challenge it. I think my writings on Vietnamese Americans, for example, implicitly affirm the community, even if I often criticize Vietnamese Americans.

piecesfalling: Do you think the best art comes from the toughest moments in life?

A: Yes. I think that all artists have to go where it hurts. We draw from emotion to give our work meaning and force. Most people want to run away from what hurts, so it’s not an easy thing to do.

MisterAlaska: Hi, and thanks for doing this! My longstanding bourbon and book club read the Sympathizer a few years ago and loved the mix of intrigue, authenticity, and gorgeous writing. If you had to pick our next book to read knowing that we’re a group of seven 30-something seven American men, what would you recommend and why?

A: So I hope I don’t stereotype what books-and-bourbon men would read but…I think Don Winslow is excellent. Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole thrillers. I’ve revisited Hemingway not long ago, A Moveable Feast. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is a hoot and a perfect companion to The Sympathizer. War classics like Dispatches, The Old Breed, Goodbye to All That, Goodbye Darkness.

Assymptotic: Hi Viet, this is a touchy question to answer, but I hope you’ll have more insight since you’re part of the older generation.

My family left N.VN after 1954 and went south, just like yours. My family (and I suspect yours) came from the affluent, land owning, mandarin class. After the advent of the internet, I wanted to know what Vietnamese people think of Việt kiều families like ours who fled after 1975. And it seems like they see our families (especially families that fly the old VNCH flag) as the white imperialist’s coolies. I can’t help but shake this feeling that they are right, and I feel kinda guilty like I’m the descendant of traitors who refused to give up their affluent lifestyle while other Viet people were suffering. Naturally, I’m scared to bring this up to my family. Have you felt like this, and if so, how did you reconcile these feelings? Have you ever brought it up with family?

A: Well, my parents came from the poor rural northern class, but became successful merchants in the south. They were also Catholics, and Catholics in general opposed communism. Not sure if that means they always supported the French and the Americans, but at least Catholicism is associated with an outside culture and religion. So is there validity to charges of complicity and collaboration with colonialism and American interference? Yes, in many cases. HOWEVER, Vietnamese communists have a lot of things that they are responsible for as well, including atrocities and war crimes and human rights abuses. Their charges of the southerners and Catholics being traitors ring hollow to me when they themselves do not acknowledge what they did. Reconciliation with one’s enemies and the past involves mutual acknowledgment and fair, just investigation of the past. That being said, southern Vietnamese Catholics and nationalists are no more capable of doing this, for the most part, then their communist enemies.

CryingDullahan: Hello Viet!

This semester in my graduate program, I have been taking a Refugee Literature course in which we read Black-Eyed Women and I absolutely was captivated by that piece! I’m currently researching the role that trauma studies plays in refugee literature — mainly how narrative writing can aid in working through trauma associated with refugee experiences. The narrator of Black-Eyed Women and how she works through her trauma over the course of the story played a big role in my interest in this subject.

So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on using writing to cope with trauma, and do you think narrative writing would be beneficial in trauma recovery, specifically for those who have experienced life as a refugee?

A: Thanks for reading! Certainly art of various kinds has been used to treat trauma, including dance and writing. I’m sure there are studies about this, and I assume narrative writing would help deal with trauma, because, as Jenny Eakins argued, trauma is about the interruption of narrative. That’s why the circle, rather than the line, is the form of trauma. The traumatic event is something that can’t be resolved, that we circle around and return to over and over again. Telling a story about it to put it in its place–with a resolution, with moving on–can help. That being said, a lot of writers, myself included, resist the idea that writing–for writers–is about recovery. Art is not necessarily instrumental for the reader or writer, outside of the pleasure/experience of writing/reading. And perhaps the trauma is the point for a writer–to have something to dwell on, to work through, to work with, as the substance of the art itself. If we healed ourselves, perhaps we could no longer write.

jameees261: Hi Viet!

Thanks for your time in answering these questions. I’d like to ask how you think other ethnic groups like the Hoa people were or were not implicated in the Vietnam War. I’ve been trying to learn more about the Hoa only to find that there is very little work about them.

Also, given that the Hoa make up a significant portion of those who left Vietnam after April 30, 1975, how would you interpret their incorporation into monolithic categories like “Vietnamese refugees” / “Indochinese boatpeople” when many of the Hoa had in fact left after the ensuing Sino-Vietnamese War, which scholarship tends to dissociate with the West?

A: Good questions. I don’t know if there is much scholarship on Hoa people regarding the Vietnam War. Most of what is written about them deal with their postwar status, being persecuted and driven from the country. On the one hand, I think they are “Vietnamese,” since that is a national, not ethnic, category. The problem here is that the Kinh, like other majority groups, appropriate the national category for themselves. Vietnam has about 53 minority populations including the Hoa, and they should all be “Vietnamese” in addition to their ethnic specific identity. On the other hand, Vietnam doesn’t really have a discourse of multiculturalism, so a lot of these groups also see themselves as ethnic first, if Vietnamese at all. So some Hoa people do call themselves Chinese and see themselves as Chinese, including in the diaspora. But some see themselves Vietnamese or ethnic Chinese Vietnamese. I think the first obligation is for the Kinh to own up to their majority status and revise “Vietnamese” identity to be inclusive of other groups, and to recognize the imperialism of the Kinh.

an_ordinary_platypus: Hi Viet. I read The Sympathizer last summer as part of my summer reading assignment, and ended up reading it twice. It’s a really interesting book!

Actually, now I’m writing a final paper for my literature and composition class and have to write a fictional story about characters from books we’ve read in class this year being isolated in quarantine. One of the characters I chose was the unnamed narrator of The Sympathizer– I’m sure after his experience towards the end of the book he’d hate being in quarantine!

A: maybe, but he’d be happier if he had an unlimited supply of cigarettes and booze

vitsensei: Hi Viet,

What is your favorite Vietnamese literature? I came across this question as a Vietnamese myself some time ago and can’t think of a good answer. What’s yours?

A: you mean like a book or author? I suppose Huynh Sanh Thong’s translation of Tale of Kieu and Bao Ninh’s Sorrow of War.

jeanniekn: Totally follow you on Twitter and glad to see you’re on reddit! Going to watch the doc now!

A: thanks!

Category: Interviews

 

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