On Writing, Memory and Identity: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Longyan Zhang interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen about war, the ethnics of memory, and identity for Consequence Magazine.

(Renmin University of China, University of Southern California)

Abstract: Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American writer. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner for his debut novel, The Sympathizer (2015). His published books also include Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (2002), Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), The Refugees (2017) and The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (2018). Zhang Longyan, when working as a Fulbright visiting scholar in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department at University of Southern California during the academic year 2019-2020, interviewed Prof. Nguyen on a wide range of issues concerning his writing, memory and identity. In this interview, by addressing the issues of war, the refugee experience and memory in his writing, Viet Thanh Nguyen holds that ethics of memory is a just way to confront the traumatic past, preventing it from haunting the memory. He also discussed the issues concerning his current identity. He claims that his hybrid identity is closely linked with his ethnic background, the refugee experience, and social relationship. In addition, Prof. Nguyen also offers suggestions for Chinese scholars for their research on Vietnamese American literature. At the end of the interview, he also shares his progress on his new book and his son’s first literary work.

Keywords: Writing; Haunting; Ethics of Memory; Identity

AuthorsLongyan Zhang, Fulbright visiting student researcher in University of Southern California, PhD student in Renmin University of China. Her research interest include Asian American literature, contemporary American literature. Email: longyan_2017@126.com.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

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Zhang Longyan (Zhang for short hereafter):  Good afternoon Professor Nguyen. Thank you for accepting my invitation for this interview. In the introduction to your book The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (2018), you mentioned that you were too young to remember your family’s refugee flight and their later resettlement in the US. And your parents seldom talk about that traumatic history, so how did you get your inspiration for writing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen (Nguyen for short hereafter): Well, I think that the ripple effects of war and being a refugee certainly touched me, even if I did not remember the war or becoming a refugee. My parents were deeply impacted by the war and refugee experience, since they had to leave their relatives behind, and they lost a fortune due to the displacement. Then they had to work extremely hard to rebuild that fortune in the United States. I watched them undergoing that struggle. And I also was affected by the fact that my parents were so busy working and I hardly ever got to see them. That loneliness led me to spend a lot of time in libraries where I developed a love for literature, both as a form of escape and as an art. And somehow it occurred to me that writing stories might be as enjoyable as reading them. I think that the absence of my memory of the war and the refugee experience is actually tied to how we became refugees, so I tried to fill that absence by writing.

Zhang: You wrote mostly fiction and non-fiction instead of memoir. Is it because of your absent memory of the past? How did you balance the relationship between the authenticity of the history and the fabrication of the story in your writing?

Nguyen: When I wrote memoir, I felt that my life was not very interesting. And I did not want to talk about my parents’ lives, because I did not want to infringe on their privacy. So  I think I  would not exactly describe myself as a non-fiction writer the way that has been understood in the United States. Here, when people say non-fiction, they usually mean memoir or narrative non-fiction, which is something about telling stories. Previously, I read as well as wrote fiction most of the time. It was not until Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016) that I started to experiment more with narrative and narrative non-fiction. And now, I do more of that in my magazine articles and in newspaper articles where I am finally turning to my own life. I did not want to look at my own life for a long time for those issues of privacy, thinking that my own life was insignificant. Nevertheless, for those of us who are writers, our emotions are what constitute our materials. So in order to become a writer, I had to look much more at my own emotions which were tied to my personal life and to the previous answers about becoming a refugee. So up until recently, I felt much more comfortable writing either in the objective fashion of being a scholar, or in the completely made-up fashion of being a fiction writer. And I felt that I could approach the truth of my life, my family’s lives and our historical experiences in the fiction and in the scholarly work, but narrative non-fiction or memoir gives another route towards dealing with those issues.

Zhang: You have just mentioned that you went to the libraries to read books  as a way of escape. So what kind of books did you really interested in when you were in library ?

Nguyen: I think I read pretty much everything. One of the greatest things about public libraries is that they have no borders, so I could go wherever I wanted. Most of the time, I went to the public libraries by myself, even at a very young age. I would start in the children’s section and read children’s books, like Curious George (1941), and The Adventure of Tintin (1929), the sort of classics that have also become global. I read whatever was available on the shelves in terms of the Anglo American children’s literature from the start of 19th century to the 1970s and the 1980s. And then, I started to move towards the adult section, and I skipped a lot at the young adult’s section. I read whatever caught my eyes at the adult section which were oftentimes war fiction. For example, I read All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) when I was in the sixth grade and read Lord of the Rings (1968) in the eighth grade. And somewhere along the way, right around that point, I started to see the fiction of the Vietnam War on these shelves, and I read a lot of that in addition to other kinds of war literature dealing with American wars.  I was attracted to these books partly because as a boy I found them very exciting and I was also deeply in love with war movies. Besides, I also  understood that my own history was shaped by war, so intuitively I wanted to understand something about this. However, the Vietnam War fiction was very disturbing to me because unlike the fiction of earlier wars such as World War I and World War II I read, the Vietnam War fiction was usually much more graphic in terms of violence and sex. At that time, as a boy of 12, 13 or 14, I didn’t really know how to deal with these things. And since the library books had no boundaries and censorship, there was actually soft core pornography available in the library and I read that too. All that stuck in my memory along with books were too immature for me, including Philip Roth’s Portnoys Complaint (1969). And so when it came time to writing my own fiction, like The Sympathizer (2015), all those things that I just talked to you about appear and they all circulate. In this book, there are references to Philip Roth, to Vietnam War literature, and to other war literature. And the pornography that I read when I was a kid, all those images stuck in my head and they made their way, fortunately or unfortunately into the book as well, which was very concerned with war and violence in the imagination.

Zhang: You have just mentioned that you read about Vietnam war novels along with other war novels. So I am wondering how did you feel when you read the stories of Vietnamese refugees, particularly when you find American version of those stories were different from what you knew? What is the first book by Vietnamese American you read?

Nguyen: I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community, so I had already heard the stories of Vietnamese refugees told over the dinner table or in community events. Sometimes these are personal stories, but sometimes they were a part of the community events, such as the New Year celebrations in Vietnamese refugee community in San Jose. Or there would be  church masses every week if we were Catholics. So the stories of the Vietnamese people were a part of these ceremonies and events that were part of the culture. Meanwhile, I knew that we were Vietnamese people and Vietnamese refugees, and our version of what happened in Vietnam was not the same as what was happening in American war movies. It would take me decades to be able to articulate this. I understood that the war affected not only soldiers but also civilians. For Americans, when they talk about the Vietnam War or most war stories, they focus on the soldiers’ experiences, the experiences of men. But if you grew up in a refugee community that has been shaped by war, everybody’s story is a war story. That was a big difference.

And  when I came to the library, there were not much stories by Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and in the 1980s. I remember that there was one novel that I found in a library. As a teenager, I was so struck by that novel because it seemed so unusual to me. It was called Blue Dragon, White Tiger (1983), which was probably the first novel published in English by a Vietnamese writer, Trần Văn Dĩnh. He was a diplomat in the United States and fluent in English. And Blue Dragon, White Tiger was an account of the Vietnam War but it was told from a Vietnamese intellectual’s perspective. I did not really understand it when I looked at it as a teenager, but that account always stayed with me. If I remember right, it was an account of a man who was moving from Vietnam to the United States and back again. It was able to see things from two sides. So that was one of my early impressions of an account of the Vietnam War that was not in the American perspective, and was not from the Americans’ version of the Vietnamese Communist perspective. And also, it was an account that was more liberal, not as anti-Communist as the stories the Vietnamese refugees were telling. Then I went away to college before I found even more versions of the Vietnamese refugee experience in books.

Zhang: War and refugee experience have been playing important roles in Vietnamese refugee life, which certainly influenced Vietnamese American literature from its very beginning. However, I also found an interesting trend that second-generation Vietnamese American writers tend to avoid direct confrontation with war and refugee. For example, the memoir Stealing Buddhas Dinner (2007) by Bich Minh Nguyen is narrated around the narrator’s fascination with food, and her life in a complex family relationship. And she did not talk much about war and her family’s refugee experience. So how do you respond to this tendency in Vietnamese American literature? Do you think that war and refugee continue to be the center of Vietnamese American literature in the future?

Nguyen: I think it is hard to predict, but I would say that while the war and refugee experiences will continue to be important, we already have writers, especially younger writers, are writing about different experiences. They may be affected by the war and the refugee experience because it affected their parents and their grandparents. But some of these younger writers, especially poets I think, are writing about whatever concerns them as human beings, minorities, women, race, gender and so on. And I think that is healthy and good. And I think that while the war and refugee experiences are absolutely crucial and we should write about them, we can hardly let them define us forever. Vietnamese American writers of my generation and older generation writing in English have been much better writing about the refugee experience as a war experience than they write about wars or combat experience. These writers grew up in the United States and they have absorbed one of the basic imperatives of American writing, which is to write about what you know and about personal experiences, and it obviously generate very powerful literature. So a lot of the writers have not tried to write about things they do not know, things that their parents went through. So it is left up to the writers who actually were old enough to live through the war to write about it. People like Le Ly Hayslip and Mai Elliot in English, who were adults or writers writing in Vietnamese before they came to the US. Some of these writers also include the soldiers who lived through the war. By that time, the  people with direct experience of the war oftentimes never or have not written in English. So this is the real problem in terms of how Vietnamese American literature is understood since so much of it is filtered through the English language experience. It was one of the reasons why I thought was important not to write about what I knew, but to write about war in its totality, both for soldiers and for civilians as well in The Sympathizer and in Nothing Ever Dies (2016).

Zhang: War brought pain and suffering for both soldiers and civilian. So you came up with an idea of haunting as an approach to deal with those disturbing feelings. Crapulent Major’s ghost in The Sympathizer haunted the spy, provoking guilt and fear in him. In the short story, “Black-Eyed Woman,” ghost of the brother came to his family and made the living suffer. What inspired your creation of haunting in the story?

Nguyen: When I was growing up, I remember very clearly being terrified by ghosts, terrified by ghost stories, and hated being alone at night in the dark in my house. I would always stay up later than my parents. By then, they would be asleep and I would have to go out into a dark hallway to get some water or go to the bathroom, and I was very frightened. For me, writing about ghosts and haunting is perhaps, a way of trying to control that fear. As a scholar, I have read a lot of the theory and the criticism around haunting and ghosts, which have been a very prevalent theme in the area of the humanities in which I work. Literary and cultural criticism also deals with trauma and the trauma of historical events, including war, so I certainly took those ideas by scholars and tried to enact them in my own writing. I certainly had also read the other writers whom literary critics were writing about and saw how they were dealing with ghosts and haunting as well. So the appearance of ghosts and haunting in my work is certainly there as a way of being a part of this conversation that other writers had already started, and that critics had seen and elaborated upon. Plus they are also fun to write about.

Zhang: Previously, It also appeared to me that ghost stories or thrillers were too frightening to approach.  The absent presence of the ghost is inevitably powerful. In your non-fiction, Nothing Ever Dies, you have mentioned that “sometimes the ghost assert their authority, in consecrated spaces of memory yet to be fully industrialized”(187).  So where did the ghosts get their authority? and how do you view that memory of the Vietnamese refugees is haunting?

Nguyen: Well, ghosts exists because they died in the first place. Particularly when we are talking about war and refugees, oftentimes those deaths are directly related to violent events of the war, to the fleeing of the refugee experience, to all the terrible things that happen to refugees, or to the difficulties of their trying to survive in the new country. So when the ghost appears, if it is a literal ghost, their authority comes around from the fact that we are terrified, because they are other than us. They exist in a world, in a realm that we do not understand, and they are terror themselves. The fact that they hold fear over us is what gives them power. If ghosts are figurative, they may or may not exist but they haunt us through or in our imagination. They derive their power partly still from that fear, but also maybe from guilt, the survivors’ guilt. We are alive, but they are not. We went through to some of the same experiences they did, or they sacrificed for us in some way. How come they died and we did not? So I do not think we should underestimate the power of that guilt. When we read the literature of combat soldiers, even if they are oftentimes not literal ghosts, the soldier or the veterans are oftentimes haunted by the memories of their dead comrades or by the people that they killed or saw being killed. In this perspective, it is tied very much to not just trauma, but to survivors’ guilt. I do not think it is that different for refugees as well, since refugees are survivors of war and they bear with them some feelings of guilt too.

Zhang:  Memory or ghost brings back uncomfortable feeling in the survivors, just as you said “Remembering becomes imbued with the dead, freighted with their weight, a risky and burdened act” (Nothing Ever Dies 194), so the they intuitively resist the urge to remember it, in other words, disremembering (40). However, Toni Morrison also said “past has not vanished but it is solid as a house, present in all its trauma” (qtd. In 65 ), making disremembering and forgetting difficult. How did you negotiate the relationship between remembering, disremembering and forgetting in your writing?

Nguyen: For me, forgetting is in some ways very easy. I forget a lot of things, either deliberately or accidentally. And as I said earlier, being a writer is at least partly about dealing with one’s emotions. I have forgotten a lot of things because I do not want to deal with the events that cause pain. Whereas I had to go back and try to remember the things that I have forgotten, and that have been painful. Also there is a whole another set of things that I have forgotten and they are not painful. I have a terrible memory. So these two ways of forgetting for me are emblematic of some of the things that I have talked about in Nothing Ever Dies. In fact, we do have to forget. Forgetting can sometimes simply be a necessary clearing of memories, so that we can remember new things. We cannot possibly remember everything, so we have to forget. In this case, forgetting is not deliberate, and it constitutes the majority of our forgetting. I have done a lot of that. However, part of the forgetting is willed, whether we know it or not. We want to forget certain things that cause us pain or contradiction in some way, which is an unhealthy way of forgetting, because we have not dealt with the significance of the things that have caused us pain, contradiction or difficulty. It happens for individuals in other countries.

So the writer goes back to deliberately remember things that he or she has forgotten, that have caused pain, difficulty or contradiction, in order to wrestle with them and make sense of them in writing. This is a model for how to deal with memory and forgetting. Once we have confronted the things that we have tried to forget, we may work through them and may honestly forget them. Then put them behind us in such a way, so that they will not come back to haunt us. And that is also a way to deal with the authority of the ghost. I mean, the ghost is there because we feel guilty of the fact that we live while they died. It is also the case in our nation’s history. We actually confront that ghost, deliberately remember the ghost and deal with that history, but we will not be able to honestly forget the ghost and lay it to rest. That is the theory. So we will see if it works for me, personally.

Zhang: The act of remembering and forgetting respectively also engages in an imbalanced and dialectical relation internally. As you said, “The basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is instead more fundamentally about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and forgetting their humanity”(Stealing Buddhas Dinner 19). So you put forward “just memory” and “just forgetting” to negotiate this issue. Could you please explain the ethical significance of the term “just” here?

Nguyen: I think the “just” has two meanings in English. In the previous answer, I talked that forgetting is an inconsequential and unintentional act. But forgetting can also be a significant act that we engage in willfully, both as a form of denial and as a form of confrontation. So for me, “just” is related to these forms of forgetting. To just forget is to simply forget. Just forgetting or just memory, in the more complicated sense, is a deliberate confrontation with memory and forgetting as a way to enact justice. Forgetting acts not as a form of denial, and memory not as a form of obsession, but trying to figure out a just way of doing memory and forgetting and trying to figure out how to confront our past, and how to deal with its implications and its consequences in our present, trying to ensure what created this terrible event that we cannot help remembering, so that these types of events will not happen again. That is the complicated sense of a “just memory” or a “just forgetting.” But I think for most people or for many people, “just forgetting” simply means letting the past slide and going by without confronting it.

Zhang: “Just memory” and “just forgetting” also show your unique skills of seeing things from different perspectives. In Nothing Ever Dies, you presented us the different aspects of memories. In The Sympathizeryou created a two-faced or multiple-faced spy. And in The Refugees (2017), your characters also seem to have conflicting personalities. How do you view this duality ? What do you think is the relationship between this duality and ethics of memory?

Nguyen: Well, I think duality is something very personal to me, because I have always felt that I have had to wear masks wherever I am, whether it is with Vietnamese people or Americans. It is part of what it means to be a minority in this country, is to be capable of putting on masks for different situations. Besides, I also was a person who always intuitively wanted to see every issue from both sides, so I put these impulses and these characteristics into The Sympathizer and into Nothing Ever Dies. For many other people, regardless of whether they are minorities or not, have some of this duality inside of them. They have to have this duality in order to try to cope with their existence. And this sense of duality might be necessary for  the soldiers who went to war and combat. They have seen or have done terrible things, which can be, to some extent, seen as a way of survival. When they return to civilian life, they need to continue living, and have to put aside and contain those terrible things that they have seen or done. But for all of us, even if we have not gone to war directly, we know that we live in societies in which our countries, our militarily are doing things overseas, or even within our borders, in which we are potentially complicit.

And, the duality helps us to ignore our complicity. As far as the United States is concerned, it has been at war since 2001. For most Americans, they have a sense of duality because they can contain the war and they do not have to think about it in their everyday lives, even though all they have to do is to watch the news and realize that we are bombing other countries, or our soldiers are killing people, and so on and so forth. So it can be seen that duality is actually a very basic human mechanism of coping. And in fiction, we bring that mechanism to the forefront. For most people, the mechanism is in the background of their lives. Fiction dramatizes it and pushes the circumstances of containment and duality at the forefront, that is where the drama is, when someone is brought into a crisis, because what they have contained has erupted. That is also where the ethics of memory comes into play. For many of us, our relationship to memory is unethical. We have not confronted what is causing us trouble. And the duality is a way of containing or preventing an ethical confrontation. If we deny or pretend that we are not at war, if we pretend that our country is not subjugating or enslaving people, it allows us to carry on an existence that seems guilt-free. That is not ethical. So fiction is enacting an ethical confrontation with memory by bringing what is problematic to the forefront as a part of a character’s drama. How well the writer deals with it is another question. but without that ethical confrontation with memory, fiction would lose one of its most basic ways of creating drama, especially around these complicated questions of power, warfare, complicity, all these kinds of things that are universal, whether we happen to be Vietnamese or American or Chinese.

Zhang: Now, let us talk about identity. The first question I would like to raise is the one about your name. Your name exist in different ways and it has raised many confusion in terms of its pronunciation, spelling and translation. Your Vietnamese name and your American name are different. Thus in China, we have two translated versions of your name. One is “阮越清”, translated from your American given name Viet Thanh and place the family name Nguyen first. The other is “阮清越”, translated from your Vietnamese name Nguyễn Thanh Việt. Which one do you prefer? Why?

Nguyen: It is interesting. I think these questions have always come up for me. Americans want to know how to pronounce my name. The Americans who think they know something about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture will say, “Oh, the Vietnamese order their names differently than we do. When I go to Vietnam, the Vietnamese pronounce my name in the Vietnamese way, and they arrange my name in the Vietnamese fashion. Now my work is getting to have an international presence, especially in Asia, Asians are confused because they, like the Vietnamese, want to put my name into a sequence that they understand.

Honestly for me, I’m curious about all these things, but I do not take them very seriously. My name exists in multiple ways, because it goes back to that issue of duality, of being a minority. My sense of always having multiple identities depend on the situation I find myself in and who I am talking to. That sense of myself makes its way into The Sympathizer, where my character, my protagonist, the captain, has no name and many names all at once, and he has many identities. And what name or identity he chooses depends on his context. In the United States, I have an Americanized version of my name, Viet Thanh Nguyen, with no diacritical marks on it. Even when I say my name, I Americanize it, because I do not want to deal with the hassle of explaining myself to Americans. When I am in Vietnam, I am Nguyễn Thanh Việt, the Vietnamese sequence with the Vietnamese accent marks. Sometimes in the United States, I am Việt Thanh Nguyễn when I speak to other Vietnamese people. I use the American sequence of my name with the accent marks.

So the Chinese question is very amusing to me, because apparently the way that my name appears on the Chinese covers of my book The Sympathizer, may be inaccurate. It may be Nguyen Viet Thanh, from what I understand, which is completely wrong. I mean, actually I am not that offended, but that  is causing problems for the Chinese and for me now in this situation. Then in Vietnam, The Refugees, which is the only book available in translation, has my name in the American way, Viet Thanh Nguyen, without any accent marks. When I saw that I was very surprised, because I thought for sure the Vietnamese would put my name in the Vietnamese way, Nguyễn Thanh Việt. I was amused that they saw me in this way, as an American.  I think I am fine with it appearing as Viet Thanh Nguyen, the American way, with Roman alphabet letters, and then if they Chinese want to have the name rendered in the Chinese with Chinese ideograms, then I would say, use the Vietnamese sequence and the Vietnamese accents, Nguyễn Thanh Việt. If people use Roman alphabetical characters, it should be like the Vietnamese have done, just use the American version, Viet Thanh Nguyen, with no accent marks on it. That would be consistent across Vietnamese, American and English publications, that is how my name appears.

Zhang: In previous answers, you also said that when you first came to Vietnam, some Vietnamese  treated you as an American, and even fashion your name in American way. How did you feel when you first encounter that situation? And why you insist on your refugee identity and your link with Vietnam?

Nguyen: Going back to Vietnam for the first time, I did not think that I would feel wholly Vietnamese in Vietnam. When I went back to Vietnam, I was 32 years old, and already had a PhD. By the time, I had done a lot of reading about ethnicity, race, cultural difference and authenticity, so I did not believe in an authentic identity. And there are not many people, go back to their countries of origin or the countries that their ancestors lived, would feel whole and restored, especially if they happen to be racial minorities in the United State. So I went back to Vietnam thinking I was already a person with hybrid identity and culture, and it would only be confirmed in Vietnam. Sometimes the Vietnamese would treat me as a Vietnamese person, and be very affectionate and treat me like a long-lost member of the family who had come back to the homeland. And sometimes the Vietnamese would treat me as a foreigner, as an outsider and a curiosity, and that was fine for me, because all those things are true. So I just feet that my existence in the United States is already multiple depending on the context, and it would be no different in Vietnam.

Zhang: How do you view your identity as a public intellectual?

Nguyen: I think that ever since I have been in college, I have been attracted to the idea of being a public intellectual or another way to describe it, is as an engaged writer. Those were the types of figures that I admired in literature, were writers who were not just writing fiction, poetry, or non-fiction, but who were also in their public lives, engaged with serious political and cultural issues. And those were the writers that I admired and aspired to become. Then I tried and experimented with how to do that in college, by writing newspaper articles, op-eds and things like that, by getting involved in political organizations in college, by joining in arts organizations after college. I thought that it was important for writers not just to write but to organize and to be involved in political  and cultural activities. Then there was a change when I won the Pulitzer Prize. All of a sudden, people actually cared what I had to say. But what I had to say was not any different from what I used to say. For me, it was simply an opportunity that I had to take advantage of, and I think I have taken a lot of advantage of the Pulitzer Prize by giving many public speeches, writing many op-eds, doing many interviews. I also feel that this is an opportunity now for me to say the things that I have always believed, and they would get a larger audience for them.

Becoming a public figure also shapes how my own work is read. I think a lot of writers who are not very good at speaking publicly about their writing for obvious reasons, because it is not where their skills and interest lie. As a result, for a lot of writers, especially minority writers, or writers who are trying to do more non-normative things artistically, their work can be misunderstood  and they need people to speak for them. But I do not need anybody to speak for me. I want to be able to shape how my work is understood. I do not mean to dictate how it is understood, I want people to understand that I can speak about my work as well as any critics can speak about my work, and probably better sometimes. So that means that I want people to understand  my work has a certain kind of artistic and political ambition and agenda that needs to be confronted.

Zhang: The Pulitzer Prize did facilitate your international presence. And  increasing number of Chinese scholars are paying attention to you and Vietnamese American literature. So could you please offer some orientations for Chinese scholars in terms of  their study on Vietnamese American literature?

Nguyen: Well, I think that for a lot of Chinese scholars, there is already familiarity with Chinese American and Chinese diasporic literature obviously. The Chinese diaspora has existed for centuries, and the Vietnamese diaspora has only existed in the last few decades. Another key difference is that China is a much larger country, so the scale of the Chinese diaspora is much larger in terms of sheer numbers than the Vietnamese diaspora, and probably the same is true for literary production as well. However, if we look specifically at what happens in the United States, there are certainly many similarities between Chinese diaspora and Vietnamese disapora, Chinese American literature and Vietnamese American literature. Many of the themes of Chinese American literature already echo in Vietnamese American literature as well. That is because in the United States, the Chinese Americans and Vietnamese Americans share many overlapping concerns, and they are all classified as Asian Americans. So many of the experiences that the literature deals with are fairly similar. Here we are talking about immigrant experiences, downward mobility, racism, generational conflict, gender role conflict, conflicts with American Nationalism and so on. All these things that are very powerful themes, can be found in Chinese American literature as well as in Vietnamese American literature.

Another set of overlapping concerns are war, national division, and refugee experiences. And here, we get into probably the controversial territory for Chinese scholars, for the same reasons that these topics are controversial for Vietnamese American literature. So almost no Vietnamese American literature written in English has been translated into Vietnamese and published in Vietnam, because these topics of war, national division and refugee experiences are inevitably political. And they are tied to  the central events of Vietnamese national history in the 20th century in which one side won and one side lost, and the Vietnamese refugees happen to belong to the losing side, so their take on history is very problematic in Vietnam. And likewise, in the Chinese case, a similar set of issues, a parallel set of issues around national conflict, national division, winners and losers happens. And some of the Chinese American literature does touch on these kinds of issues, and I assume might be controversial, depending on what they say about this issues. Take Maxine Hong Kingston for example, she talks explicitly about her family having been on the losing side or the wrong side rather, of the Chinese cultural revolution. There is also another body of work that the Chinese world might consider to be Chinese, while here in the United States would be considered Taiwanese. That would be very controversial too, I would assume. So here, I think some of the difficult political issues that Vietnamese American writers deal with should probably be resonant for Chinese scholars as well.

Zhang: You mentioned that you’re writing the sequel to The Sympathizer, so how is the process going? And what compels you to write a sequel instead of starting a new story with new features?

Nguyen: Well, I did not plan to write a sequel. When I wrote The Sympathizer, I thought it would simply be a unique novel. Then when I finished The Sympathizer, I felt that there was room for a sequel, for a number of reasons. One is that The Sympathizer was deliberately written as a spy novel, as a so-called genre novel. And in the world of spy fiction and genre fiction, sequels, trilogies and series are very common. The adventures continue of our protagonists. So that was one reason why I thought that I can make case for this. The second reason is that I wanted to write a dialectical novel with The Sympathizer and to write a novel deeply influenced by Marxism and  Marxist theory. And I think in The Sympathizer itself, there is a movement of the dialectic for our protagonist, our narrator, and for the situations that he encounters, in terms of war and revolution in Vietnam, and revolution in general. But I also felt that even though The Sympathizer is a dialectical novel internally, the novel itself is only one part of a movement of a dialectic for our narrator, for our spy. The narrator moved from idealization or idealism with the revolution to disillusionment, and that was one movement of the dialectic. But I was curious about, what happens after that? What does the disillusioned former revolutionary do with himself? What is the next movement of the dialectic? These questions are very important theoretical justification and artistic justification for writing a sequel. So the genre justification is simply to continue telling a good story, and the sequel continues hopefully to do that. Moving to Paris, the narrator continues to do bad things with drugs and crime there, where the presence of the Chinese actually becomes more important in that book.

In addition, theoretically and dialectically, the novel continues to be engaged with politics, because he has to confront French Colonialism as well as his own sexism, which is a  feature of The Sympathizer and becomes very crucial by the end of the story, but he does not really deal with it. And so, another movement of the dialectic is that The Sympathizer reveals how deeply sexist he is, how deeply sexist revolutions are, and how deeply sexist war is. Well then, what do you do after that recognition? So there is also a movement in that direction of the dialectic in The Sympathizer. So anyway, all that stuff is happening in the sequel, The Committed, which is I think as complicated of a novel as The Sympathizer is.

And the big struggle in writing it was two-folded. One was how to make all these complicated issues clear, because I think The Sympathizer for many readers, despite all of its complications, struck a lot of readers as being a very clear novel. And then the other issue was that in writing The Sympathizer, nobody knew who I was, so I wrote that novel in peace and quiet, whereas with The Committed, there are so many demands on my time that it is taking me twice as long to write The Committed as it took to write The Sympathizer, simply because there have been so many interruptions, and that has made writing the novel more challenging.

Zhang: So when do you expect it to be published?

Nguyen: Well, hopefully by fall of 2020, because I am wrapping it up right now.

Zhang:  I am also interested in the graphic book Chicken of the Sea (2019). You together with your son Ellison, another Vietnamese American writer, Thi Bui, and her son Hien collaborated this interesting book and it was published on November, 2019. I am wondering what inspired you to initiate this collaboration? And how do you view this book’s impact on your son Ellison?

Nguyen: First of all, the book is about to come out and I will say that I would love to see it published in Chinese, if  Chinese publisher happen to read this interview. It is an universal story about chickens who are bored with their life on the farm, and who decide one day to become pirates and go off seeking adventure when a pirate ship visits. So I think that is a story universally understood. It is not my story, but my son Ellison’s. He came up with the story when he was five. He, like most children, has a very vivid imagination, and likes to tell stories and to do art. It is a sad thing that when most of us become adults we have forgotten how to tell stories and we no longer love to be playful with art.

The publication of the book was completely accidental. I took the comic book that he had created and put it on Facebook. Then there was an editor on Facebook said, “Is this a real book? Can we publish it?” And I said, “Sure.” And of course, we had to do more work to make it publishable, so I took his six-page comic book which had the entire story. The entire story was in six pages, and I wrote 40 or 50 lines of narrative for the book. Thi Bui and her son Hiển, came on board to do the art for it. I think It is a happy accident and a happy collaboration, because I think both Thi and I are artists and writers, which seems true for me and for her. Thus one of the ways that we connect with our children is through the art. She spends a lot of time with her son Hiển drawing, and I spend a lot of time with Ellison talking about stories that he has come up with. And so, it was really a lot of fun to do this, and hopefully, even if he does not become a professional writer or artist, he will always have this book to remember our relationship by. I find that very moving myself.

Zhang: Thank you once again Professor Nguyen for taking this interview.

Nguyen: Thank you.

Category: Interviews

 

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