Tom Lutz interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen about his life and how that has influenced his writing and world-view for this episode of LARB Radio Hour.
LARB Editor-in-Chief Tom Lutz is joined by author and USC Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Sympathizer, at a recent LARB Luminary Dinner. Viet begins by talking about his family’s experience as refugees, and how that informs his writing; as well as his understanding of globalization, American politics and contemporary Vietnam. They then discuss the breadth of Viet’s writing, how he approaches his fiction vs his non-fiction vs his academic writing; and his latest work too, Chicken of the Sea, a children’s book – with powerful detours along the way on the importance of both Paul Ricoeur’s concept of “enlightened forgetting,” and the absent presence of ghosts, for our fraught times.
Listen to the podcast at the LARB website or read the full transcript below.
Kate Wolf: Hello, and welcome to the LARB Radio Hour, brought to you by reader-supported LA Review of Books. I’m your host, Kate Wolf, editor at large for LARB. I’m joined in the studio today by my cohost, LARB’s managing editor, Medaya Ocher.
Medaya Ocher: Hi, Kate.
Kate Wolf: Hey, Medaya. Tell me about the show this week.
Medaya Ocher: This week, we’re going to be airing a conversation between Tom Lutz, who’s the editor in chief of LARB, as our listeners probably know, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He’s the author of The Sympathizer and a collection of short stories. Most recently, he published a children’s book with his son, which I believe is called The Chicken of the Sea. I think it’s about a few pirate chickens. This is a conversation that we had at an event in Silver Lake, in Los Angeles.
Kate Wolf: Was this a LARB Luminary Dinner?
Medaya Ocher: This was a LARB Luminary Dinner, yes. Viet is a LARB Luminary, among his many other accomplishments. I would say this is probably at the bottom of the list.
Kate Wolf: Don’t sell yourself short. I don’t know. Right up there with that Pulitzer.
Medaya Ocher: Right. Well, and Viet, as listeners will hear, is a very, very interesting man to listen to you. He’s very articulate, and he’s extremely smart. He’s also a professor at USC. Not only is he an accomplished fiction writer, but he is an English professor. He has a PhD in English literature.
Kate Wolf: Wow.
Medaya Ocher: I know. As I said, the Luminary thing is probably at the bottom of that list of that CV. But they discuss his writing, the way that he approaches his work. I think I throw in a question there at the end-
Kate Wolf: Really?
Medaya Ocher: … from the audience.
Kate Wolf: Can’t wait.
Medaya Ocher: Yeah. It’s a great conversation.
Kate Wolf: Good. Well, let’s listen to it.
Medaya Ocher: Let’s do it.
Tom Lutz: I wanted to start by asking you, Viet, you say in your nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, you talk about your statistical luck, your bureaucratic luck of being part of the Vietnamese diaspora rather than the Haitian diaspora or any of the other kinds of diasporas that would have made it impossible for you and your family to be here. Can you talk a little bit about that bureaucratic luck?
Viet Thanh N.: Sure. Absolutely. Yeah, I count myself as being very, very lucky. I was lucky for many, many reasons, the first being that I was the son of parents who are risk-takers, because my parents were born in North Vietnam in the 1930s and they grew up in a time of deep trouble in Vietnam because the country was undergoing colonization. They lived through a terrible famine in the North in the 1940s, and then of course they lived through war through the ’40s and the ’50s. The country was divided in 1954, and they fled as refugees for the first time then, moving from the North to the South in 1954, and then building up their lives again, and then, in 1975, being forced to flee again as refugees, ending up in the United States.
Viet Thanh N.: We were very lucky because, in 1975, maybe most of us don’t remember this, but the majority of Americans did not want to accept refugees from Southeast Asia for all the same reasons many Americans don’t want to accept refugees today from any corner of the world. But Congress did the right thing, as it occasionally does, and decided to accept Vietnamese refugees, refugees from Laos and Cambodia as well. The reason why I think that we were lucky is because there were other refugee crises happening at the time and in the years afterwards. Of course, we remember what was happening in Haiti and Cuba, and refugees trying to come across during that time period as well. In Haiti, at least, they didn’t have the benefit of fleeing from a communist country. It was politically opportune for the United States to accept refugees fleeing from a communist country, as ours had become at that time.
Viet Thanh N.: The reason why I stress this is in my line of work as a novelist, one of the most basic skills that we have is empathy. We have to learn how to empathize with all kinds of different characters, including characters who are very far removed from us by geography or culture or ideology. We might have to imagine ourselves as Donald Trump, Stephen Miller, these kinds of characters, because they too are human beings. All right? I am sure they are human beings. Sorry.
Viet Thanh N.: You would think that because you have been through an experience, you would be empathetic to other people who have undergone that experience. That is actually not true. There are actually quite a few Vietnamese refugees who are opposed to accepting more refugees at this point, and their line is “Well, we were the good refugees, and the people who are coming today are the bad refugees. We shouldn’t take those people in.” My response has been “No, we were not the good refugees,” because I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in San Jose, California, of the 1970s and 1980s, and let me tell you something, there were a lot of bad Vietnamese refugees who did a lot of terrible things.
Viet Thanh N.: All of that has been forgotten because Vietnamese refugees and past refugees benefit from not being the refugees of today. Of course, when we look at the refugees of today, for many people, it’s easy to give into our fear and our xenophobia and to imagine that these people are not assimilable and will do terrible things. Those are the same things that were being said about Southeast Asian refugees. We were not the good refugees. We were the lucky refugees, beneficiaries of an accident in American policy at that time.
Tom Lutz: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned empathy, because I was in Cambodia maybe 15 years ago, a while ago, and one of the things that struck me about Cambodia was that empathy seemed to have been used up. I asked everybody, “How did your family fare during the Khmer Rouge?” and one guy, I will always remember, said, “Yeah. No, we were fine.” I said, “Oh, that’s great.” He said, “Well, my father went away, and he never came back. Oh, and my uncle. Oh, and a couple of my brothers. Oh, and cousins.” He was remembering on the spot this vast trauma in his family, that when asked, his first response was to think, “Well, no, I’m fine. We’re fine.”
Tom Lutz: It seemed to me that part of what your work is interested in philosophically in the nonfiction, and in the fiction as well, is what happens when trauma becomes normalized, when war has been forever, when trauma has been forever, and it touches everybody and everything, and therefore it’s just background rather than foreground, and empathy is evaporated as a result.
Viet Thanh N.: I don’t know if empathy has been evaporated, but people have to cope. People have to cope. The gentleman you were talking to, of course, knows that these people were lost to him forever, but unless he wants to be sitting there in his room crying and unable to move on, he has to somehow compartmentalize. My example from my own experience has been that if you were to ask me what it’s like to be a refugee, and I told you the truth, most of you would have no idea what to say to me, because there’s no quicker way to kill a cocktail party conversation than say, “Hey, I’m a refugee,” and you go through all the trauma and all that kind of thing, so you have to make jokes about it or you have to compartmentalize it.
Viet Thanh N.: For example, the things that my family went through would be, for most Americans, very shocking. We left an adopted sister behind. We lost most of the family property. My parents wouldn’t see their brothers and sisters and parents for 20 to 40 years. They would lose their own parents in a remote country and not be there to be able to mourn. These things are completely normal from the Vietnamese refugee experience. I could talk to any Vietnamese refugee, and I could say any of these things and they’d be like, “Yeah, that happened to us too.”
Viet Thanh N.: When it’s a normalized experience, you just have to accept that those are the way that things are. That doesn’t mean you’re not traumatized by them, but you have to contain them to move on. What that means is that a lot of people have buried trauma, or they would be technically diagnosed as having PTSD, except in the Vietnamese refugee community, PTSD is not a part of the language. Instead of dealing with PTSD, you have domestic violence, you have fractured families. You have all these terrible consequences of the war and the refugee experience that people just have no other way of coping with, except to take it out on each other.
Viet Thanh N.: The gentleman you’re talking about, I have no idea what’s going on in his life, but I don’t imagine it’s that easy. I imagine there’s many other consequences and ripples.
Viet Thanh N.: I’ll give you another example. So many Americans I’ve met have been to Vietnam, and they want to tell me that their tourist experience there was awesome, which is true.
Tom Lutz: It was.
Viet Thanh N.: I highly recommend you all go to Vietnam and have a tourist experience because now it’s awesome. Whatever your price level is, there’s a package for you.
Viet Thanh N.: Universally, all these Americans will say to me, “I was so worried about going to Vietnam because I thought people would hate us or there would be tensions, obviously, because of the war and all that.” They would all say, “But the Vietnamese were so gentle and kind and friendly and smiling.” I’m like, “That’s because you’re a tourist, and you’re not Vietnamese or Chinese.”
Viet Thanh N.: If you’re a Vietnamese person who goes back to Vietnam, it’s a much more fraught experience because there was a civil war. You go back, and it’s not friendly. It’s like an emotional minefield, where people are looking at you as the refugee who has returned. Their mindset is “You’re a fat American, and you were on the other side. We welcome you as a long-lost cousin or brother, but we want your money and your guilt as well.” That’s something that foreign tourists are absolved from because you represent something different.
Viet Thanh N.: I think there’s something analogous happening there in the Cambodian situation, because if you have been to this horrifying experience, what are you going to say to somebody who is there for a week in your country? You’re just going to try to put the best face on things because there’s all these other considerations going on.
Tom Lutz: The return of the refugee is an interesting trope, I guess you could say, as well as a fact for you, for lots of people. There’s a whole school of novels… I’ve studied the American novel of immigration from the 19th century through the present, so it’s something that I know a little bit about. The latest version of it, it seems to me, is the return narrative. Sometimes the actual refugees return. Sometimes the second generation returns. Aimee Phan’s The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, any number of novels, The Wangs vs. the World, are novels of the return. Is that simply a fact of our historical economic moment in which that can happen, or is there something else going on there?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think there’s a couple of things. One of the things we forget about our country is part of our dominant mythology, which is in trouble, but it’s still part of our dominant mythology, is that we’re a country of immigrants. But we forget that a lot of the immigrants who came to the United States went back to where they came from. I think something like a third of European immigrants, for example, returned to their countries of origin. We don’t talk about them because they don’t fit into our mythology. If you return to your country of origin, you’re a loser. We’re only interested in winners and people who’ve picked our side, so we only tell these kinds of stories.
Viet Thanh N.: I think in the past there certainly have been people who have returned to the homeland, or if we look at the experience of Chinese immigrants, for example, in the 19th century, they came here, they tried to make a life for themselves, but they were forbidden from bringing wives into this country after 1882, and so a lot of them went back to China and had wives there, or had two families, and they went back and forth.
Viet Thanh N.: What’s changed now is, obviously, it’s much easier to do this kind of thing, to go back and forth, but also now we have a publishing industry that cares about these kinds of stories. They didn’t care about these kinds of stories in the 19th century. Now the whole idea of the global citizen, the transnational person, the person with two homes, that is very affirming to many of us, because even if it’s being done by refugees or immigrants or people of color, for Americans who don’t happen to have any of those backgrounds, it’s affirming to read these kinds of stories because it affirms our identities as American global citizens who can partake of the multicultural wonders of this country and the diverse wonders of the world as well. Even if these refugee return experiences might be traumatic, etc., They still fit into this other larger palette of the desire on the part of many Americans or Europeans to sample this possibility of mobility.
Tom Lutz: Of course, in any list of those narratives, the last story in Refugees would count, right?
Viet Thanh N.: Right.
Tom Lutz: That’s a story in which a Vietnamese man has two families, one based in America, one based in Vietnam, and he gives the three kids in each family the same names. The story is the story of, I guess it’s the oldest daughter, who goes back to Vietnam, meets her sister for the first time.
Viet Thanh N.: Who has the same name.
Tom Lutz: Who has the same name.
Viet Thanh N.: That’s based on a true story.
Tom Lutz: Okay. I wondered.
Viet Thanh N.: I was just at some event, and I like to talk to people. I like to hear what kind of stories they have. If you talk to me, you never know what’s going to make its way into the fiction. But I talked to this one young Vietnamese-American woman, and she told me this exact story, that her father, they were in Vietnam, and her father had been put into a reeducation camp. And while he was in the reeducation camp, his wife found out that he had a mistress. She was so upset that she just left the country, taking the three kids with her. Then the father eventually gets released from the reeducation camp, discovers that no one’s left, marries another woman, has three kids, names them after the first three kids who left the country. That’s a true story.
Viet Thanh N.: That’s what I’m saying. This might strike people as a strange or odd situation here, but when I heard it, I was like, “That is odd, but I’m not surprised that someone would do that.” Then my task as a writer was to imagine what would happen if one of these siblings met the namesake.
Tom Lutz: It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. In Yerevan, it felt like half the people I met had lived in Glendale previously. It happens everyplace I go, it seems, that there are people that used to live in San Jose. In the Philippines, there are lots of people from San Jose as well.
Tom Lutz: But that story had… It’s a true story. It’s based on this thing. But as you worked it through, what did it mean to you about return? When she returns, it doesn’t end well, particularly, for anyone.
Viet Thanh N.: Well, there’s two dimensions to a story. One is what actually happens in the story, and the other is what does the writer go through to be able to write a story. For me to write that story, I actually had to leave Vietnam, because when I was in Vietnam, and I went there many times, I felt I was taking in so much new information, and everything was new to me. That’s one kind of a story, but for people who live there, that’s not the story.
Viet Thanh N.: For example, there’s a scene in the story where the Vietnamese-American returns and goes to the fanciest restaurant in Saigon, which I went to, and talks briefly to the hostess who is there, a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman wearing the áo dài, who… If you go to Vietnam, you will encounter many of these women wearing the áo dài. And the protagonist says to her, “It’s such an interesting city.” The hostess responds in exactly the same way as the hostess I talked to when I said that to her, and she was about 25 years old. She said, “No, it’s really boring here.”
Viet Thanh N.: I had to get to the mindset where I could understand Vietnam as a boring country, because if you go there as a tourist or as a returnee for the first or second time, everything’s new, everything’s exciting. You see the oddness of everything. But for that story and for many stories, you had to see the lifestyle there as a local person would, which is that none of these things are interesting.
Viet Thanh N.: It reminds me of Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place, about tourism. In A Small Place, which is a great book, very short, you can all read it in a day, she takes it from the perspective of the people who are living in the small place where the tourists visit. For the tourists, everything’s awesome. We got our mai tais, our all-inclusive resort. Everything’s a lot of fun. And for the person who lives in the so-called small place, it’s totally boring, including you, the tourist. There’s that tension there between the novel and the tired.
Viet Thanh N.: To write that story, I had to get away from the novelty and to put myself in the perspective of the people who lived in that country, so the story is told from the perspective of the sibling who didn’t get to leave Vietnam. She’s looking at this Vietnamese-American returning, the rich foreigner, and of course the rich foreigner is not as rich as she seems. It’s a classic narrative of the person in disguise, especially the person from the new world, or America, where all this mythology is built around, who goes back to Vietnam, and the Vietnamese discover that all is not as it seems in the land of the American dream.
Tom Lutz: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t mentioned The Sympathizer. I am assuming that a lot of you will have questions about The Sympathizer, so I’m going to continue on a couple other little paths first.
Tom Lutz: One is you’re a scholar as well as a novelist, a scholar of a number of different things, war and memory among them. Of course, I started my life as a scholar as well. One of the guiding principles of LARB was always that it’s such a shame that so much great, interesting work is happening in academia, and so little of it is readable, and so how can we make that stuff available to people?
Tom Lutz: Nothing Ever Dies is a great book on war and memory, and I recommend it. It’s not hard to read. It’s a beautifully written book. But you also have done academic articles in academese. You can speak academese as well. I found when I tried to make the switch from academic writing to writing for a general audience, that I had been kind of professionally deformed and had lost my ability to understand how to talk to people in any other language than the one I had acquired in graduate school. Did you have trouble making that move yourself?
Viet Thanh N.: Okay, so I don’t know how many of you know anything about academics and everything, but basically all the stereotypes you have are true about academia.
Tom Lutz: That’s unfortunate, but true. Yes.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. Basically, as an academic, it’s like every other kind of bureaucracy and discipline. You spend a decade or two being immersed in it, and then once you’re done doing that, it’s really hard to speak another language. It’s really hard to break out of the culture that you’re in. I feel a little bit of sympathy for that, but at a certain point I also feel you’re responsible. You can’t keep blaming other people for your issues. A lot of academics know that they cannot speak another language besides academese, they know they have a small audience, they know they have a comfort zone, but they won’t do anything to break out of it.
Viet Thanh N.: Those of us that do make these kinds of efforts to acknowledge that academia does something wonderful, which it does… Most people don’t want to spend 20 years of their lives delving into archives, but that work is crucial for doing things like finding out facts and truths. We need academics for that. But because of that training, academics have a really hard time talking to normal people, but it’s our obligation, at least for some of us, to do it. But when we do, we don’t get any rewards for it, unless you get the Pulitzer Prize. But that’s not a fair standard-
Tom Lutz: That does help.
Viet Thanh N.: … to hold people up to. Honestly, when I wrote The Sympathizer, I had been keeping my writing secret from my fellow academics for a long time because I thought, “They’re not going to understand.” And it’s true, they didn’t understand, because when The Sympathizer came out, people were like, “Oh, you wrote a novel. That’s nice.” Then it won the Pulitzer, and people were like, “Why aren’t you a full professor yet?” I was like, “Because you didn’t give me a promotion based on the novel. You didn’t think it was worthy enough.”
Viet Thanh N.: It’s that kind of a catch-22. It’s really up to us to break out. But when we do it, we recognize that we have to become independent actors, and that we’re not going to get rewards from within academia. It’s a really difficult situation that academics are in when they actually want to be able to speak to non-academics.
Kate Wolf: You are listening to the LARB Radio Hour. We now return to a conversation between LARB’s Editor-in-Chief Tom Lutz and author Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Tom Lutz: It’s so tempting. One of the concepts that you bring up in Nothing Ever Dies is Paul Ricoeur’s notion of enlightened forgetting. Once you have that concept, once you’ve read Ricoeur and you’ve got that concept, then you can just say it to everybody else that has that concept and you’re done. But if you’re talking to people who have not read Ricoeur, which is, I assume-
Viet Thanh N.: Almost everybody in this room.
Tom Lutz: Most everyone, yeah, in the world. Then you need to explain it; you need to work through it. You need to earn it. But it is a great concept. It’s a really interesting concept.
Viet Thanh N.: Paul Ricoeur wrote one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read called Memory, History, Forgetting, which is 1,000 pages on memory, history, and forgetting.
Tom Lutz: And we read it so you don’t have to.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, and I only understood maybe half to two-thirds. Going back to the beauty of academia, there’s something about plowing through that, and the difficulties, that really transforms your mind when you’re wrestling with someone else’s really deep thinking. The challenge with a term like enlightened forgetting, like you were saying, it’s like IED. Okay, so IED, improvised explosive device. That’s jargon too. It’s a popularized jargon that many of us have heard, although apparently not the editors of a recent magazine article where IED appeared as IUD, and they had to print a retraction. “Oh, we meant IED instead.”
Viet Thanh N.: Every bureaucracy has its own jargon. You’re right, that there’s a reason for the jargon to exist, because it’s simpler when you’re inside the bureaucracy to say IED or to say DP, or what other term exists in your individual fields. But when you’re speaking to people who are not in the field, you have to explain. You have to narrate.
Viet Thanh N.: What jargon does, it’s not just shorthand. Jargon, actually, the problem with it is that it prevents us from thinking. When academics trot out the jargon, like enlightened forgetting or deconstruction or whatever, they assume everybody knows this, which is great for making the conversation move along faster, but it means that people don’t have to think anymore about why they use these terms. Now even Woody Allen can use deconstructing in his movie Deconstructing Harry, which has nothing to do with the original intent. It’s our obligation to translate these terms and to put them into stories and to narrate them so that people understand what something like enlightened forgetting is.
Viet Thanh N.: Just briefly, what Ricoeur means by this is he wants to know, when is it right and just to forget? We have to forget. Terrible things have happened, but we have to forget, to live and to move on. Unfortunately, most of the forgetting that we do is not enlightened. We have plenty of evidence of this in this country. Let’s not think about slavery or genocide or colonization, and pretend that we’ve forgotten. In Ricoeur’s argument, what this means is history will come back to bite us in the ass because we actually have not dealt with the past. Enlightened forgetting is when we have fully confronted the past, acknowledged it, atoned for it, told stories about it, embedded it into our contemporary understanding, then we can move on. But it’s very difficult to get to that point.
Tom Lutz: Yeah. In the meantime, before that point, you say at one point that the millions and millions of lives lost cry out for commemoration, for consecration, and even, you say, if you believe in ghosts, for consolation. There’s a thread of discourse about ghosts and about the undead that runs through all of your books. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you?
Viet Thanh N.: I think anybody who’s lived through a traumatic history deals with ghosts and, at the very least, with absent presences. That’s a jargonistic term too. What it means is that there’s something missing in your life that you may or may not be explicitly aware of, but it continues to haunt you. You may not be aware of that haunting either until, again, history comes back.
Viet Thanh N.: My personal example of that is, as I mentioned, I had an adopted sister and she was left behind when we fled from Vietnam. I was four years old, so I had no living memory of her. But my parents had one photograph of her, which is a black-and-white wallet-sized photograph. I grew up aware of this one photograph of this young woman, she was a teenager, knowing that we had left her behind, knowing her name, and knowing absolutely nothing else. To me, this felt, in retrospect, like the absent presence, like there was somebody missing in our family. There was a haunting in our family. No one would talk about her. That’s a ghost, even though she was alive.
Viet Thanh N.: Of course, I knew many people and many families and many stories of people who had really lost people, to prison, to reeducation camps, to war, to the experience of fleeing the country and being lost along the way. Every Vietnamese household that I would go to would have these black-and-white photographs of the people who had been left behind, and these were ghosts. These were all absent presences.
Viet Thanh N.: I grew up with a sense of being haunted by the past in a very personal, intimate way, and then looking out at the actual landscape of the rest of the country in the United States, knowing that many Americans, and us collectively as a country, were also haunted by this past of the Vietnam War, the most immediate haunting. But of course, the further we go back in our history, the more ghosts, the more absent presences we see the further back that we go, and they’re always waiting there to be reactivated.
Viet Thanh N.: When Charlottesville happened, it was like, “Oh, the Civil War is not over yet.” It was an absent presence. It was a ghost ready to be reanimated, ready to be brought back to life. There are so many of these still waiting for us because we haven’t dealt with the past yet.
Tom Lutz: I read somewhere that you have done 75 articles and op-eds in these last four years and sat for 200 interviews. I just want to know, is this the best one?
Viet Thanh N.: You did one of the early ones-
Tom Lutz: I did.
Viet Thanh N.: … at Chevalier’s Books, by the way, who are also selling books tonight, and it was actually one of the best ones, absolutely. I judge interviewers too. You pass the test, Tom. We share a lot in common because, like you said, you’re a scholar and a novelist and a travel writer as well. I share some of those aspects. And we’re weirdos in the academy.
Tom Lutz: Absolutely. It seems to me you have really taken to this role as a public intellectual. The idea of the public intellectual is thrown around in academia quite a bit. Laila is one we have. We have a number of… Jon Wiener is one. Jody Armour is one. We have a number of them with us tonight. But I feel like you’ve really taken this new job, it’s a voluntary job, to heart and are doing wonderful things with it. Did this surprise you that this was going to be part of your life moving forward?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, what happened was, when I went to college, I was doing the same stuff. I went to Berkeley as an undergraduate. Best thing that ever happened to me, transformed me intellectually. The moment I stepped foot on the Berkeley campus, I was immediately radicalized. Within like 10 weeks of arriving at Berkeley, I was arrested twice, all the good stuff. It’s all true about Berkeley. I was an English major and an ethnic studies major. Back then, the idea was not public intellectual. The idea was organic intellectual. I had a very Marxist education, all that kind of stuff.
Viet Thanh N.: My personal passion was this idea that I could become a writer who had a public purpose. I was never interested in being the writer who did art for art’s sake. I wanted to be the writer who was publicly engaged, and so I did that my entire life. The issue is no one cared. Then, all of a sudden, you win the Pulitzer Prize and people are like, “Oh, we care about your opinion. Do you want to be published in the New York Times?” etc. I was like, “Of course.” In other words, it didn’t transform what I was doing. To use a horrible-
Tom Lutz: Gave you new outlets.
Viet Thanh N.: I like that term better than branding or a platform, because that’s the unfortunate language that gets used.
Viet Thanh N.: Once the opportunity existed, then I had to take advantage of it, because I still believe it’s true that writers can be engaged. Obviously, in Los Angeles, we have to take this with a grain of salt, because in Los Angeles, when I say that I’m a writer, I have to realize no one cares that you’re a writer in Los Angeles, especially if you’re a writer of fiction. That helps to keep you humble. Nevertheless, there’s an opportunity there to speak out. I feel like it’s necessary for us, that when we have passions, to speak out whenever we have the opportunity to do so.
Tom Lutz: Great. I want to turn it to The Sympathizer next and your questions. I did want to mention that you have a new book that got published yesterday, which people may not know about.
Viet Thanh N.: Yes, the first children’s book I’ve ever done. It’s entitled Chicken of the Sea. Briefly, it’s about bored chickens on the farm who decide to run away and become pirates. In case you think that’s strange, I take no credit for it. It was my five-year-old son who wrote the comic book Chicken of the Sea. I put it on Facebook, and it turns out an editor, who’s a Facebook friend, saw it and said, “Is this for real? Can we publish this?” I said, “Of course.” I never miss an opportunity to make money off my son. It happens so rarely. The whole plot is his. What I did was I wrote 40 lines of dialogue, which include very highfalutin allusions to Hamlet and Heart of Darkness. But if you’re six years old, you don’t need to be aware of that.
Viet Thanh N.: Then I asked Thi Bui, who had illustrated a children’s book that he had read, A Different Pond, and Thi Bui did a beautiful book called The Best We Could Do, which you should all read, a comic book memoir that was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She said she was too busy to do the book, but she said, “I have a 12-year-old son who’s very talented.” Hien, her son, did the illustrations, and Thi did the coloring.
Viet Thanh N.: The final product is this beautiful book called Chicken of the Sea. We debuted it yesterday at Vroman’s to a standing-room-only audience. I’m very proud of my six-year-old. And if you go to one of our launches or events, he will sign it, and he will do a customized illustration for you.
Tom Lutz: Of a chicken?
Viet Thanh N.: If you’re lucky, of a pig butt. But yes, chickens are the normal thing. Yeah.
Tom Lutz: Albert had a question about The Sympathizer that maybe could start us off. Are we going to pass the microphone around or are we going to-
Viet Thanh N.: I’m going to go mobile if I can.
Tom Lutz: Okay, yeah.
Viet Thanh N.: Okay, Albert.
Albert: My question, Viet, is the central premise, or one of the central premises, of this central character, whose fatal flaw is that he can see things from all sides or from several sides, what inspired that idea?
Viet Thanh N.: That is the only autobiographical aspect of the novel, because if you read the novel, the Sympathizer is a womanizer and alcoholic, ultimately a murderer. I can take credit for none of those things.
Viet Thanh N.: But when I was growing up in San Jose, I grew up in a very Vietnamese household, very Vietnamese refugee community. When I was in my parents’ household, I would feel like I was an American spying on these Vietnamese people doing these strange things, eating these strange foods, speaking this strange language. Then when I would go out into the rest of the city, I would feel like I was a Vietnamese spying on these strange Americans and their strange foods and their strange customs. I always felt like I was a spy, so I took that very emotional, personal aspect of myself, of always feeling like a person with two faces and a spy, and then I just put it into a much more dramatic plot with a much more interesting person.
Viet Thanh N.: All right. I can roam as far as my cord will let me, but I want to make sure I see the people in the back as well. John has a question.
Jon: I read in your excellent Twitter feed that you have just finished the draft of a new novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
Viet Thanh N.: I’m giving nothing away by saying that The Sympathizer lives at the end of the novel, and you find him… He’s on a refugee boat leaving Vietnam. Some people thought that he must be going to the United States, because where else would you go if you’re fleeing a communist country? In fact, he ends up in Paris of the early 1980s, and it continues his misadventures in Paris. It involves a lot of crime, drugs, violence, sex, rock and roll music, all the good stuff, and a lot of satire of the French, unfortunately.
Viet Thanh N.: In The Sympathizer, I set out to offend everybody, including Americans. I succeeded. In this novel, I try to offend the French, and I think they’re easily offended, so we will see about that.
Jon: Is there a pub date?
Viet Thanh N.: Is there a pub date? I turned in the full draft last week. Hopefully, we’ll finish the edits in a couple months. If I do it fast enough, we’ll publish it before the elections. If I don’t do it, we’ll publish it in 2021. Yeah.
Viet Thanh N.: Other questions? In the back? I don’t think the cord is going to reach, so have to shout it out.
Viet Thanh N.: That was a very good and complicated question, but I think the core of it was, when I’m writing these stories, am I trying to capture the emotions of the subjects who are undergoing the actual incidents or the emotion of the writer who’s going to have to do it? It’s a little bit of both. To go with the example of the story from The Refugees where I heard it from a real person, I did not try to interview her and get her to cry and break down and find out those kinds of things. In that respect, I’m much more interested in my emotions as a writer, because the whole truth, and maybe Tom knows who said this, but no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
Tom Lutz: Yeah, I don’t know.
Viet Thanh N.: I don’t know. Some famous writer said this, all right. And it’s true, because the whole stereotypical Hemingway idea that you have to go out into the world and seek experience before you can become a writer, is only I think partially true, because the real experience that matters is what happens inside. If you don’t have emotional capacity to feel things, to feel deep things, it’s going to be very hard to put that into your fiction and get readers to care emotionally about what’s happening.
Viet Thanh N.: That’s why I think, for a lot of writers, they become better writers the older they get, when they get more mature, when they’re able to deal with their emotions in a different way. I don’t think I could have written The Sympathizer, for example, when I was 25. I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with many of the kinds of issues that the novel approaches. And it’s not that I went through any of them. I didn’t go through war or torture or any of these kinds of things. But 20 or 30 years of living, of engaging with people, even in a very mundane way, allows you to think about certain things like love and loss and loyalty and all of these kinds of things. Then the task of the writer is to feel those things and then to translate them and put them into another character.
Viet Thanh N.: Frank?
Viet Thanh N.: Okay. The question is from Frank Snepp. The reason I made the CIA joke is that he was in the American embassy in the fall of Saigon. You can see him in documentaries. Were you in the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about Vietnam? That’s the first time I saw you, was in another documentary earlier than that.
Viet Thanh N.: The question, to paraphrase, is, I think, how do I in The Sympathizer give credence to Vietnamese perspectives, and either acknowledge or not deal with American traumas like the My Lai massacre without demonizing the Americans. Yeah. Okay. So how do you centralize the Vietnamese perspective without demonizing Americans? Right.
Viet Thanh N.: Okay, so the answer to that is by demonizing Vietnamese people. That’s a short answer. Okay, so the reason why I say that is because Americans prefer to be the heroes of their own story. But if they can’t be the heroes of their own story, they want to be the villains of their own story, as long as you are the stars, right? Okay.
Viet Thanh N.: That’s why in the American genre of the Vietnam War Story, the movie, the Hollywood version is really interesting, because Americans generally come off badly, but that’s okay because the drama is still theirs. Instead of dealing with their virtuousness, you’re dealing with their Shakespearian drama of being the bad guys. But as long as you’re being paid $20 million, that’s fine.
Viet Thanh N.: That puts us, as in the so-called minorities or others, whomever have come here to this country because of some accident of American foreign policy, into a difficult situation, because the easiest way to get published or have our stories told is to play the virtuous victim and to fill in the gap of the American story. This is called multiculturalism. That’s our opening, is to peddle our grief and play on white American guilt.
Viet Thanh N.: I decided, being a scholar, as Tom brought up, knowing full well how this dynamic works, I was not going to do that. I looked at a film like Apocalypse Now, and I said, “Okay, so Francis Ford Coppola made this classic of American film by treating the demons of the American psyche.” Even though I admire the film, I find it very problematic in regards to the Vietnamese people, I thought, “That is the right thing to do.”
Viet Thanh N.: For me, I thought, “I don’t want to write a novel in which I just talk about how poor and how heroic and how nice the Vietnamese people are, and let me introduce you to the customs of my rural people whom you have violated.” My point was, this is our story. Three million Vietnamese people died during this war, 58,000 Americans. That’s a huge tragedy for Americans, but you’ve got to put it into context. But if I’m going to foreground the Vietnamese story, I’m going to foreground something that I wrote about in the sequel. The line in the sequel, The Committed, is the people who most hate Vietnamese people are other Vietnamese people. That’s our drama. That’s what The Sympathizer is about, by foregrounding the good and the evil that Vietnamese people have done to themselves and to others.
Viet Thanh N.: That’s the response. There’s no need to demonize Americans. It’s just that the sympathizer puts Americans on the sidelines of the story, which is highly offensive to many Americans. It’s worse to be marginalized than it is to be demonized, as long as you’re the central demon of the story. That’s why I think, for a certain portion of American readers, they have a hard time dealing with the novel, because number one, it has some offensive things to say about Americans. But number two, they’re not in the center of the story. Any reader who approaches the novel has to confront another culture or peoples’ subjectivity. That, for many Americans, is really weird because they’re used to having the world brought to them one way or another.
Viet Thanh N.: How has the book been received in Vietnam? Well, the book has a publisher, has been translated into Vietnamese, but it’s not allowed to be published in Vietnam. It’s sort of in limbo right now. Every time I see something like, “Oh, Colson Whitehead just got his novel translated into Vietnamese,” I’m like, “God damn it.” Colson deserves it, it’s true, but I wish my novel could be translated into and published in Vietnamese too. The reason for that is obviously…
Viet Thanh N.: I’ll give you another anecdote. I got a hate mail a year or two ago, and funnily enough, hate mail usually arrives as snail mail. I don’t know why, but usually people want to write it out and put it in the post office to me. This gentleman was an American veteran of the Vietnam War, an educated man. He’s a doctor, a dentist. He said, “I read your novel, and you seem to love the communists so much, why don’t you just go back to Vietnam and take your son with you?” I thought, “You didn’t finish reading my novel, because if you actually read the novel to the end, the whole last quarter is a serious condemnation of communism and the Communist Party,” which is why it’s not allowed to be translated and published in Vietnam.
Viet Thanh N.: I go around the country doing a lot of speaking engagements at universities, and there’s almost always international students from Vietnam there, and they come up to me and they say, “Everybody’s reading your book in Vietnam” I’m like, “Everybody must be a very small crowd.” Nevertheless, in their social circle, the ones who can read English are finding access to the book, which is sort of in the gray market, and their reception has been very positive because I think the story that The Sympathizer tells is a story that’s not really allowed to be told in Vietnam.
Viet Thanh N.: The way that the Communist Party has very cleverly dealt with history in Vietnam is to make it so boring, no one wants to deal with it. The younger generation is not interested in the past because their only exposure has been through official education and boring state-sponsored movies about the history. They just don’t want to deal with that state-sponsored version. Then to get this other version that actually talks about the good and the evil that the Vietnamese people have done has been a novel experience for them.
Tom Lutz: Follow up on that?
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah.
Tom Lutz: How has it been received in Orange County?
Viet Thanh N.: How has it been received in Orange County? Well, the context there is that Orange County is the heart of the resistance against communism in Vietnam. That’s a good question. I have appeared in Irvine, for example, but Irvine is the liberal part of Orange County. I have not dared to appear in Little Saigon itself.
Viet Thanh N.: When I published the book, I knew because I wrote it from the perspective of a communist spy, that there would be many Vietnamese-Americans who would refuse to read the novel simply for that reason, and that was actually what happened.
Tom Lutz: Interesting. Should we do one more?
Viet Thanh N.: One more. There?
Viet Thanh N.: As a public intellectual… I put this in quotation marks. You said this and Tom said it, not me. What are the things that I find most urgent to address right now? For example, the article that probably drew the most attention that I wrote recently was a cover article for Time magazine last Thanksgiving, which was on America, the beautiful and the brutal, these two very contradictory aspects of our culture, our nation, our history. That was really interesting to write that, because I write for The New York Times too, but The New York Times just basically goes to liberals. I went home to San Jose and my high school friend said, “Hey, I subscribe to Time magazine, and we read your article.” This is a guy who would never read my books. I thought, “That’s urgent,” that there is an audience out there that can read to and listen to these kinds of arguments.
Viet Thanh N.: I went to West Point soon after that article came out, and I had to give a lecture to 1,000 plebes. I was terrified. Beforehand, two cadets took me around, they were English majors, and I said, “Look, you guys read the Time magazine article. Should I talk about this? Because that’s what I’m going to talk about.” They said, “Yes, you have to talk about this to these cadets.” And so that’s what he did. 1,000 cadets, they come from all kinds of persuasions and regions of the country and so on, I don’t know if they agreed with me, but they gave me a standing ovation. They listened.
Viet Thanh N.: I think that’s the obligation that a so-called public intellectual has. If we’re public, we can’t just keep talking to our own niche of the world. We have to put ourselves out there and deal with the hot-button issues, and believe that we can have a dialogue or a conversation with people who come from very different kinds of places. That’s the most urgent work, I think, for me publicly is to write what I believe in and put it into the venues where the most people can get access to it, whether it’s Time or West Point or Idaho, where I went to lecture a few weeks ago. That’s urgent.
Viet Thanh N.: The other urgent thing is the personal. Probably The New York Times op-ed that I get the most responses to is an op-ed I wrote about losing my son to reading when he was about four years old. Three or four, he started to read, and I was very proud as a parent, but then part of me felt very melancholic because I thought, “This is the first sign of his independence, and eventually one day he won’t need me to read to him anymore.” That was a very personal essay, and it got a lot of personal response because I think that is something that many people who have kids have felt. That’s still important work for me to do too.
Viet Thanh N.: I just published this book with my son, and with an eye to monetization, I thought, “I’ve got to write an op-ed about this and put it in The New York Times and talk about what it means to create something with your six-year-old child,” because I think these issues are crucial to all of us. Of course, the danger for all of us who happen to be so-called minorities is we’re just going to be stuck talking about our niche issue, whatever that happens to be. These are crucial issues, but nevertheless we’re full-fledged human beings with many other concerns besides whatever personal trauma or tragedy that we have. And it’s crucial that that’s part of our work, is to both address the central issues of the country and also to address our own humanity as well.
Viet Thanh N.: Thank you so much, everybody. Support Los Angeles Review of Books.
Speaker 7: You’ve been listening to the LARB Radio Hour. Subscribe to our podcast in iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher. If you like the show, leave us a comment and tell us what you think. The LARB Radio Hour’s executive producers are Eric Newman, Medaya Ocher, and Kate Wolf. Our engineer is William Broughton. Production assistance is provided by William Broughton, Eleanor Duke, Lauren Kinney, and Jake Levens. Our theme song is by composer [Imogen Teeza 00:44:52]. Special thanks to Alan Minsky, who is no one’s moral conscience, for production assistance, and to Emerson College for the use of their studio in Hollywood. Tom Lutz is the publisher and editor in chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books.