The Quarantine Tapes 052: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen joins Paul Holdengräber on The Quarantine Tapes to talk about the cultural impacts of social distancing.

On episode 052 of The Quarantine Tapes, Paul Holdengräber is joined by author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

“For people who come from racially subjugated or colonized communities, there’s no way you can separate art from politics because your entire existence is politicized. It’s because of these issues of racism and colonization.”

On episode 052 of The Quarantine Tapes, Paul Holdengräber is joined by author Viet Thanh Nguyen. They discuss the history of colonization in the United States and how it still informs the institutional and structural fabric of American society today. Viet and Paul also touch upon the responsibility that we all have to engage in educational, anti-racist work within our own families and friend groups.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His other books are The Refugees, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is a University Professor, the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. His most recent publication is Chicken of the Sea, a children’s book written in collaboration with his six-year-old son, Ellison.

Read the transcript below.

Speaker 1: Dublab.

Speaker 2: Welcome to The Quarantine Tapes, a daily podcast from Onassis LA and Dublab. Hosted by Paul Holdengraber, this series chronicles shifting paradigms in the era of social distancing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hello?

Paul Holdengraber: Hello, can I please speak with Viet Thanh Nguyen?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi, Paul, it’s me speaking.

Paul Holdengraber: I am so happy to have you on the line. Thank you so much for taking my call and for being part of The Quarantine Tapes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Paul Holdengraber: It’s really wonderful that you can find a moment. Tell me, where do I find you at this moment?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I am in Pasadena, California, having recently moved here from Los Angeles.

Paul Holdengraber: And what are your days like during this quarantine?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I have a six year old son and a six month old daughter, So a lot of the day is just consumed with online schooling at home and sleep training at night. So I’m not getting a lot of sleep. Thankful if I can find an hour of time to write something besides emails. And just, of course, now being obsessed with Twitter, social media, the news, to follow what’s been happening for the past several days. You know, we’ve been under a curfew for three days now here in Pasadena in Los Angeles County. And of course this is all due to the completely failed response to the murder of George Floyd and the whole history of anti black violence and the deaths of so many African Americans at the hands of our militarized police. So all of these things are completely consuming my imagination at this point.

Paul Holdengraber: Many things that keeping you up at night.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely. It helps of course to have a well-stocked bar, as I do. We find ways to relieve our stress, even as we also try to do our work and to think about and to work for issues of social and economic justice and racial justice. But one of the ways in which I’m just trying to find some creative outlet besides writing is learning how to be a bartender at home and at night. That’s my way of blowing off steam along with taking walks in the neighborhood with my wife.

Paul Holdengraber: Viet, you’ve said that we only have hope if we recognize just how difficult the world is. What does that really mean to recognize just how difficult the world is?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that here in the United States, we’ve seen many crises during my four plus decades of living in this country. And at every step, I think oftentimes our leaders, but also many of my fellow Americans, want relatively easy responses. Let’s all get along. Let’s affirm our humanity or our shared Americanness. Let’s affirm this idea that the United States is an imperfect union, but is inevitably moving towards harmony and justice. And I think that those answers are too simple for the difficulties that we confront. And so, for example, just to discuss this murder of George Floyd and this long history of militarized police violence against African Americans, it’s not a simple issue. Even calling for police reform is not going to be enough to address the complexity of the issue.

We can hope, but we have to hope with an understanding of how deeply interconnected all of these issues happen to be. So we cannot actually stop the killings of black people by militarized police only by talking about the police, although that’s absolutely crucial. But by understanding how the situation that we’re in is an outcome of the ingrained racism within American society since its very origins. And that this is not an accident, this is a structure. This is part of the structure of American society since the very settling of the colonies and the origins of this country in genocide and also in slavery.

Paul Holdengraber: Complexity and not taking in a kind of cheap view of hope.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, I think that’s absolutely crucial. I think that we need hope, but the hope that we have has to be born from a recognition of not only how we’re all connected, but how each of our issues is connected as well. So in my own work, for example, I write books about refugees and war. And part of what I try to do there is to argue that the experiences of refugees and the experiences of a war like the Vietnam War, which brought me to this country, cannot be discussed in isolation either. That war produces refugees. That the experience of civilians and refugees are also war stories. And that the war in Vietnam was not an isolated circumstance.

Even if we were to look at it just from the American perspective, which I try not to do, but just from the American perspective, for me, the war in Vietnam was an episode in a much longer history of warfare that the United States has been conducting since its very origins. And certainly if we look only at the Pacific, that the United States has been waging wars since the Philippine American War of 1898 that have been designed to establish American domination there. And that are so many Asian American populations are here in this country as a result of these wars that the United States has fought. And that this extends to what the United States is doing in the Middle East.

If we understand this complexity, then going back to the George Floyd killing, we see another layer of this complexity. Because while a white policeman killed George Floyd, a non-American policeman, who was his partner, stood watch, protected his partner, and did nothing to stop the killing of George Floyd. Among Americans are here because they fled as refugees from the Vietnam War where that helped the United States fight the cancer communism. So the place of that non-American police officer is very complex and the symbolism of him standing there brings up so many issues about both Asian American-

Paul Holdengraber: No, it reminds me of the extraordinary line of Seamus Heaney who says, “No innocent bystanders.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: No innocent bystanders. I mean, and that is I think hard for people to grasp because when we say bystander, we don’t just mean literally the person who’s standing there at the moment that something is happening other that it’s true. But I think we’re all bystanders in American society now. Especially for social media. We can see all these things taking place. But to think about the complexity of both, let’s say racism at home, but also warfare abroad, we’re all complicit, because we’re all involved in this in one way or another. Whether it’s through voting or not voting, paying taxes, endorsing the American military industrial complex. By not opposing it, we’re all innocent bystanders or not so innocent bystanders in what’s happening when the United States undertakes this foreign policy. And certainly that’s what the black lives matter protest and the protest in the streets of the United States are doing right now is trying to demonstrate how not knowing about structural racism, but how we’re all complicit in what’s taking place.

Paul Holdengraber: You know, you said that a moment ago that of course hope is necessary and I’m always reminded of that line of Chomsky where he says, “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future, because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” I’m wondering about the complex relationship between knowing and action, believing that there could be a better future. You were mentioning your two children, what kind of future can we hope for them? What kind of action can we take so that we’re not just those bystanders?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think there are so many actions. In my own life, as a teacher and as a writer, I think that there are actions that I take all the time in the classroom, for example, what I teach my students, how I teach my students. As a writer, what do I write in my fiction, who do I cast as my characters, what kind of plots do I choose, what do I write about in my op-eds. These are all really crucial choices that we make. And we’re can have a whole conversation about the responsibilities of American literature, for example, and what writers write about. But I also having become a father, I think quite a bit about the actions that take place within our own homes. And while of course, nothing would change in our society without structural-

Paul Holdengraber: Viet?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi Paul.

Paul Holdengraber: Hello. So we got interrupted.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, we did. Apparently by an emergency notification on your phone, I think.

Paul Holdengraber: Yeah, that’s right. Public safety announcement telling me that I need to be home at 6:00 pm, which happened yesterday and the day before, and so on. You were talking about what you can do both as a professor, you teach at USC, and what you can do within the confines of your own home, and how that might also spill into the various ways in which you teach. And I might even ask you at this moment how both the pandemic and the consequences of what we’re living now might make you return to teaching in a different way. If so, in what way?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think before we were cut off I was talking about the need for obviously addressing structural inequities and injustice is absolutely crucial. We can’t change our society without that. But each of us also has individual relationships domestically with our friends, families and so on. And as a father, I think about what I teach my children, what my children are being exposed to. Even at the age of six years old, for example, my son has already seen and heard racist words in preschool and in first grade. It’s deeply, deeply troubling to me. We have had conversations actually about some of the things that are happening today. And I think that we as parents don’t do our children any favors by not talking to them about these types of things. And, of course, racism and other kinds of inequities reproduce themselves not only structurally and institutionally, but at the level of families and what the parents teach their children. So we’re all morally culpable in this kind of educational work that we do within our families and our friends.

But in terms of teaching, I think that I find my origins began intellectually as someone who became an Asian American, which is a particularly American kind of manifestation of race. Because when I was growing up in San Jose, California in the 1970s, 1980s, I was growing up in an atmosphere of sort of benign racism where when my friends and I would gather on campus in high school in a primarily white school, and we were Asian Americans, we had no language by which to describe ourselves. So we called ourselves the Asian invasion. An example of how we were internalizing the racism of mass culture in American society. So to become an Asian American and to have a name, to have history, to have a consciousness, was enormously important to me. And was actually part of my awakening as a writer and as a teacher and intellectual.

And in the context of Asian Americans, the idea that representation matters, and our stories matter, and our [inaudible 00:13:14] matter, has been absolutely crucial. [inaudible 00:13:17] my life. But I think the gravity of the last few years has also made me think that the arguments about representations mattering aren’t are not enough. The representations matter when it comes to racism, but I don’t know if they would have saved George Floyd. And so in the course that I’m teaching this fall, the emphasis is not on representation, it’s actually on decolonization. And this goes to the idea that I’ve heard over and over that the United States is an example of a successful colonization project, completely successful colonization project, because we were never defeated. Americans were never defeated. They were never kicked out as the French were in Haiti, for example, or the Europeans were in many countries.

White settlers came and they stayed in this country, a successful colonization project. Only we don’t call colonization by that name in the United States, because it’s anathema to how we imagine ourselves. Instead we call successful colonization the American dream. That’s how we make ideological sense out of that. And there’s no way that we’re going to be able to address all of the inequities of our society without going back to the roots of this country in colonization and realizing that all these issues that we’re confronting with violence against African Americans, anti-black violence, police militarization. The fact that COVID is taking an exceptionally high toll among African Americans, Latinos, natives, immigrants, undocumented people, all this can be traced back to the colonized origins of our country. So for me, the new emphasis at the foreground much more is the idea of decolonization. What was that mean? What does that entail? How do we articulate all of our mutual and individual projects about justice together around this idea that colonization remained at the root of this country and its inequities.

Paul Holdengraber: You know you have said about writers like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, that their model of aesthetic and political commitment was very important to your work. Can you say more about that? And I think in some way, I imagine that’s the segue to the kind of class you might be teaching. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, absolutely. I think, I was so blown away when I encountered the works of writers like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and Maxine Hong Kingston and many others, who I felt were working at the highest level of aesthetic and political commitment. And by that, I mean, of course all writers want to work at the highest level of aesthetic commitment. We all want to do the best that we can do artistically, but we also live in a country in which the idea of politics and art is a very troubled one. And this is a country with a deep anticommunist vein. And the events since the 1930s onwards, have led many Americans to associate art and politics with some kind of communist orientation. And because of that, there’s been a great rejection of the role of art in politics. But for people who have come from, artists or writers, who have come from racially subjugated or colonized communities, there’s no way you can separate art from politics. Because your entire existence is politicized because of these issues of racism and colonization.

So I think the writers I admire the most are the ones who recognize this intersection of art and politics and want to both be the best writers that they can be, but also to try to figure out how to address politics in their work and how to do it in such a way that readers, in this case in literature, are brought along with them to understand these crucial kinds of political issues. So of course works Beloved or Invisible Man or The Woman Warrior do these kinds of things. And in my own work, especially with my novel, The Sympathizer, I aspire, I hope, to try to do something of the same sort.

Paul Holdengraber: Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison are writers who will be on the syllabus for your decolonization class?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m still working through the syllabus. But I think that for me, the course is going to start off with a lot of earlier writings on colonization from outside of the United States. People like France, Denmark [crosstalk 00:17:53]

Paul Holdengraber: I was thinking of him. So important.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah.

Paul Holdengraber: So important and not read enough.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Not read enough, shockingly, and still really relevant with Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White masks, which is still completely applicable and what’s happening today.

Paul Holdengraber: Tremendous.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We’re going to start off with him. Yeah, and part of what’s important about Fanon’s work is his argument that violence in the struggle for freedom is absolutely crucial. And he was writing at a time in response to the Algerian revolution against France and the role of violence, both as carried out by French colonizers and by the Algerian revolution. I come from a country, Vietnam, in which the same arguments have been made that violence is absolutely the crucial to opposing the French and the Americans. But I want to end on the note in this course of thinking about nonviolence. Not just thinking about what Martin Luther King argued, for example, because to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., As so many people are referring to today, we have to recognize that he didn’t simply call for violence. He called for nonviolence in relationship to a socialist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-militarist revolution, which the majority of Americans don’t want to confront.

So nonviolence can be very complex. And we’ll end with Judith Butler and her newest book on the importance of nonviolence. And along the way, we’ll talk a lot about the relationships of decolonization projects outside of the United States with what’s happening here. So I want to focus on indigenous and native struggles, for example, that are very contemporary around things like pipeline issues and Standing Rock and the social justice efforts around that. And the efforts of writers to also try to imagine this history and where it can go. So the writer I’m thinking about right now, who I just most recently read, is John Payne and his book Counter Narratives, which is a brilliant work. But imagine the entire arc of colonization from the first moments of white settler arrival in the Americas to the present through these brilliant, short vignettes. And so there are writers out there who are using their fiction and their poetry to try to get us to think about this country in a completely different light.

Paul Holdengraber: And telling different stories. What is so interesting, there’s this comment you make in Nothing Ever Dies. You write, “Until those whose memories are left out, not only speak up for themselves, but also seize control of the means of memory making, there will be no transformation in memory.” Which also brings to mind a line that I’m sure you’re familiar with that haunts me of Jon Birger where he says, “Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think we’re all… I mean, I hope we’re all invested in Birger’s idea. That, of course, we need a multiplicity of stories for a multiplicity of peoples and in communities and truths that are out there. And of course all these stories aren’t being told every day in terms of the individual interactions that we have. People are always speaking up and speaking out, but the problem is, is not that the people are voiceless. Arundhati Roy, one of the people you’ve brought out to speak at the New York Public Library [crosstalk 00:21:19].

Paul Holdengraber: With you, with you, with you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, exactly. It was a great event. But it’s not that people are voiceless, it’s that they’re suppressed. It’s not that they’re not speaking out, they’re not given the chance to amplify their voices through publishing houses, through Hollywood, and things like that. So this goes back to the whole idea of representations mattering. And of course it’s important that we have multiple stories and multiple representations, but as long as the institutions that produce these stories and representations and give space for these voices and so on are controlled by a certain very elite group that is not racially diverse, not economically diverse, there’s no way we’re going to have true equity and justice at the level of stories and storytelling and representation. This inequity at the level of the structures of who controls the means of representation, again, goes back centuries and centuries to who accrued power in this country.

So writers are crucial to all of this in terms of writing stories and making representation, but of course, editors and agents and publishers, and all of that is crucial too. And we take such a long struggle in terms of getting equity behind the scenes, the means of representation as well.

Paul Holdengraber: But partly also because the writers publish books that editors take and those editors themselves come from a world, which is not necessarily not often enough diverse.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely. I’ve had so many conversations with writers who have had their own personal horror stories of confronting the inequities behind the scenes. Even well meaning editors, and there are of course many well meaning editors out there who come from a certain kind of a social and economic background, have a hard time understanding these questions of how writers from subjugated or marginalized or colonized communities or whatever you want to call them, how they articulate their visions and how those visions may be different from writers with great privilege. And so it’s challenging to be a writer committed to your own truth and your own justice, and then to go up against a publishing apparatus that is just by weight of its own inertia is going to have hard time understanding your story.

Paul Holdengraber: You know, you said the book that you’re writing now for the, I think, for the past few years, you ask yourself what would a post communist polities that is not also a pro capitalist politics look like. I’m wondering how you’re answering that question at the present moment. Must have taken on different meanings as of recently.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think for me to go back to the idea that we realize what these societies look like through the struggle to define them. And the struggle to define the society has been going on for, in this country, for decades. And so I think there’s certain things that, to me, seem clear. That with capitalism on which this country is built, is designed in order to extract profit. And in order to do so, it needs to extract labor from marginalized populations. And so to imagine a United States that is economically just and racially just, seems to me impossible to do within the capitalism that has built the United States. And the capitalism that has built the United States had only been able to do so through genocide, through slavery, through the occupation and colonization of lands held by native peoples and by Mexicans through the importation of cheap racialized labor from Asia, and slave labor.

All of these things have helped to build this country. So can we actually achieve and economically and racially just society by just trying to reform capitalism? I mean, some people are trying to do so, but we’re seeing enormous resistance to that. And so the struggle is ongoing and all the issues are interconnected. I mean, people are protesting in the streets because of black lives matter, because anti-black violence and police violence, but because all those issues are completely tied in to economic inequities and class inequities in our society as well. So we’re going to have to overturn all these types of unequal structures and to hope for this more just society.

Paul Holdengraber: In closing, sadly might I say, you mentioned Arundhati Roy and she recently wrote about the pandemic maybe being a portal. I’m curious in your more complicated, hopeful moments, what might that look like? What can we hope for?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: A portal. Well, a portal. We’re standing on a threshold. We can go forwards or backwards, or perhaps we can choose different doors. And I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing now. COVID has brought on wellness crises in many countries, and now in this country, at least, it’s compounded by this eruption of protests and these calls for a radical change in our society. And as many African American writers have already said, the return to normal is not what we should be asking for. Because the return to normal means a return to normalized conditions of oppression for so many people. And again, that we confront a society in which normal means privileged for one group of people and normal means oppression for another group of people.

So this kind of threshold means that we hopefully can actually see that these are the inequities within our society. And I think watching these protests unfold and the violent response to them hopefully is revealing that more and more to different portions of our country. I don’t know, I mean, what the answer is going to be, because it’s hard to know what the response of the Trump administration and different state and municipal authorities are going to be to these protests that are taking place. Is so far in some instances, the response has been wrong. The response has been roll out the National Guard, to roll out militarized vehicles, to roll out armored police. This is the completely wrong response. That’s an attempt to shut the door on the future. You never going to have a door that’s open.

The leadership of this country and of the cities and the states, should be out on the streets meeting with people and talking to them and proposing policies or acknowledging the inequities that exist. For the most part, especially at the national level, that leadership is not taking place. So the possible further responses are quite terrifying to contemplate. Arundhati is absolutely right. Whether she’s talking about India or whether we’re talking about here, this is a threshold moment. It’s not going to be resolved tomorrow. We’re in the middle of a crisis that will take months or years to unfold, but we have a chance.

Paul Holdengraber: We have a chance. [crosstalk 00:29:15] We have a chance and we have a chance particularly if we understand both the history of this country and of countries around the world. And if we understand, as we said at the beginning, if we recognize just how difficult this world is and don’t take the simple answers for granted.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. I think if you look historically at this country, we see that there are radical moments of opening and change from the 1930s to the 1960s which were related to each other. That’s a long historical moment. And since 1960s, we’ve been in another long historical moment, which is the efforts of certain parts of this society to roll back the openings or to close the openings that we saw in the 1960s and those efforts have been fairly successful. And so from the ’60s up until now, this concerted effort to push back against the progress that was enacted in the 1960s. And now we see, I think, hopefully the counter response to that where we’re opening another historical moment. I remain guardedly optimistic. I remain hopeful, but of course, I remain worried and scared about what the response might be as we all should be.

Paul Holdengraber: Viet, I can’t thank you enough for this call. I wish we had more time and I look forward to when we see each other again. Thank you. Thank you for taking the time and stay safe.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you so much, Paul.

Paul Holdengraber: Thank you so much. All the best to you. Bye bye.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Bye bye. Thank you.

Speaker 2: To support this show and Dublab’s progressive programming, go to

Category: Interviews


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *