Viet Thanh Nguyen talks with Reza Aslan about his life and the sequel to The Sympathizer on Rough Draft with Reza Aslan.
2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner for ‘The Sympathizer’, Viet Thanh Nguyen, talks with Reza Aslan about what it means to be a refugee vs. an immigrant and how to write a sequel. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down perform.
Watch the full interview on Topic or read the full transcript below.
Reza Aslan: There’s this moment in the short story that launches Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection, The Refugees, in which the protagonist, a professional ghostwriter who is herself a refugee from war torn Vietnam says of her family’s arrival in the US, “In a country where possessions counted for everything. We had no belongings except our stories.” It’s a line that’s seemingly spoken in desperation, a line that indicates scarcity and want. Or is it? If you ask Viet he’ll likely tell you that stories are our most valuable possession. Stories tell us who we are, who we were, who we may become. Stories link our past to our future. I guess that means that the person who preserves those stories, who carries them from place to place, country to country, that person’s more than just a writer. He’s both historian and profit. It’s Rough Draft. I’m Reza Aslan.
Reza Aslan: Congratulations on your huge success.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you so much.
Reza Aslan: Debut novel, New York Times bestseller, basically won every award possible, the Pulitzer, the Carnegie Medal. So basically I want to start with two questions. First of all, who the fuck do you think you are?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I ask myself that every day.
Reza Aslan: I mean, come on. When you were writing this book did you have an idea of what the response was going to be?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, I had no clue. As a matter of fact, I had a great time writing the novel, but I gave my agent the first half of the novel and he said oh, I really like it but the narrator’s sort of unlikeable. My reaction was well, I like him. And my agent was like well, I think it’s a really good literary book but we just have no idea if it’s going to sell or not. I had just come off 11 years of writing the short story collection which I hated every moment of doing. And partly it was because I was learning how to be a writer but also because those short stories, I was thinking of an audience for them of other people.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But when it came time to make me The Sympathizer my thought was well fuck it. I’m going to write this book for myself. And so your question of who the fuck do you think you are is absolutely right because I had to write for myself.
Reza Aslan: What was the moment after the book came out where you suddenly kind of became aware that oh shit, this is going to be a thing?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I got really lucky because the first major review of the book was a front page review in the New York Times Book Review. Now that’s a thing.
Reza Aslan: That is a thing.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: For most writers that’s all they want.
Reza Aslan: First novel.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then, of course, it went on to sell hundreds of copies. So it was not a thing in terms of making me rich but it was a thing in terms of fulfilling this very ambition most writer’s have and it was a good omen for what happened to the book.
Reza Aslan: It’s fantastic that you have this enormous success with the first shot out. But now you have to do another one right. I mean there’s a lot of anticipation for this next novel and I guess basically what I’m asking is why aren’t you home writing. What are you doing here?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s a very good question. I have a hard time saying no. But I did write 1,500 words this morning on the sequel to The Sympathizer and, in fact, one of the key lines in the sequel is who the fuck do you think you are.
Reza Aslan: No way.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely.
Reza Aslan: So it’s a legit sequel?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s a real sequel.
Reza Aslan: Okay.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s a real sequel.
Reza Aslan: Did I just break that news? I didn’t know that.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, no. That’s been out there. And I tell people…
Reza Aslan: Can we just say that I broke that news?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, you can.
Reza Aslan: I can’t believe we broke that news.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s amazing, isn’t it. Yeah, I didn’t set out to write a sequel. I just thought I was going to write The Sympathizer and we wanted to do something else. But by the time I reached the end I thought I don’t think I’m done with this character and I don’t think I’m done with the issues that the book raises. There’s more to explore.
Reza Aslan: You know it’s funny because you and I actually have a lot in common. We both won Pulitzers. No. We both came here as kids, right. We both fled war, violence. In my case revolution.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: We both come from countries that Americans are scared of.
Reza Aslan: That’s true, very true. We both settled in San Jose.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right.
Reza Aslan: San Jo.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. Every time I meet a person from San Jose I just get so excited. Nobody comes out of San Jose.
Reza Aslan: Nobody comes out of San Jose.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Not now though.
Reza Aslan: By the way there is a difference though. I went to a shitty public high school, Del Mar. Go Dons. You went to a preppie Catholic school, Bellarmine.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes.
Reza Aslan: My real question to you is you do know what we would say about you guys, right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think we had a good idea.
Reza Aslan: Yeah, ya little Catholic boy assholes with your little douchey pants and your nice shoes. I mean…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, the thing is I was not one of those guys. I was the outcast at Bellarmine. I was a refugee nerd.
Reza Aslan: Tell me about that. What was that like?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Okay, so for people who don’t know Bellarmine I think is probably the best high school in the San Jose area. It literally produces…
Reza Aslan: I don’t know what that’s saying, but yes, yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It literally produces the leaders of San Jose. Okay, you laugh but the, okay, fine.
Reza Aslan: No, but that’s a thing.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The current mayor of San Jose was my classmate, for example.
Reza Aslan: There you go.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so the people who are in power come out of, a lot of them come from Bellarmine.
Reza Aslan: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: At the time that I went in the 1980s it was mostly a white high school. And so for people like me to come it was sort of a change for the school but also a challenge for us. There were like three Vietnamese guys in my entire school. But now when I come back there’s like a whole Vietnamese brotherhood. So things have radically changed because as San Jose has become more multicultural or as the immigrants have risen in prosperity. They’ve infiltrated into Bellarmine because they know this is a place where power gets brokered.
Reza Aslan: Talk about your childhood a little bit. From what I understand you actually spent some time in a refugee camp. Can you tell us a little bit about what that experience was like.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Basically what happened is 130,000 Vietnamese people fled from Communism at the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the United States took them in. Sort of reluctantly, but they did take us in and we got put into one of four refugee camps. And these refugee camps were just basically in American military bases. So the nearest one here is Camp Pendleton.
Reza Aslan: Okay.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I ended up in the much less glamorous Fort Indiantown Gap of Pennsylvania which no one has heard of. And in order to leave this camp you had to have a sponsor. So no sponsor was willing to take all four of us, my parents, my brother and me, so we got broken up.
Reza Aslan: Oh, man.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So my parents went to one sponsor. My 10-year-old brother went to one. Four-year-old me went to another. And when you’re four years old you don’t have any sense of what is going on. So I remember this as being a very traumatic experience being separated from my parents.
Reza Aslan: I imagine, yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It only lasted I think for two or three months but to a four year old it feels like forever.
Reza Aslan: For a four year old that’s forever.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So my 10-year-old brother didn’t come home for two years.
Reza Aslan: Jesus.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so he tells me that’s how we know mom and dad love you more.
Reza Aslan: Right, yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because they couldn’t stand being separated from them for that long. Don’t worry, he went to Harvard. I went to Stanford. So the trauma did him good.
Reza Aslan: He’s just fine.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: He had something to write about in his college application essay.
Reza Aslan: That’s a perfect personal essay. When you guys were finally brought back together as a family is that when you ended up in San Jose?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You know my parents were very successful business people in Vietnam and, of course, well meaning Americans thought well, you guys are refugees. Why don’t we get you jobs working as custodians at the nursing home.
Reza Aslan: Of course. Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s not what my parents wanted to do with their lives, right. They had their best friend move to San Jose and she called them up. This is the refugee network. Everybody’s talking about where’s the best place to go. And she said hey, the weather’s better, the economy is better. And so my parents moved to San Jose and we opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in downtown San Jose.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In the late 70s, early 80s when my parents were there on East Santa Clara Street nobody wanted to be there but Vietnamese refugees. I remember this very clearly because my parents opened this grocery store and then I was 10 or 11 walking down Santa Clara Street and a lot of Vietnamese businesses that had opened in the late 70s and early 80s. I saw a sign in a store window that said another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese. And I didn’t know the word racism.
Reza Aslan: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It stuck with me though that sign.
Reza Aslan: It occurs to me listening to you talk about this experience why it is that you don’t want to be called an immigrant. You insist on being called a refugee. It’s a pivotal foundational part of who you are, isn’t it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think a lot of people, even those who are actually technically classified as refugees don’t want to be called refugees because it’s a stigmatizing term at least in the United States. I don’t know if that ever really crossed my mind as I was growing up. Should I call myself an immigrant? Should I call myself a refugee? It’s just a part of your life that I lived through. But as I became a writer and had to think about who I was writing about and find a very specific word to describe our experience it couldn’t be that we were immigrants.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: We didn’t fit that classic immigrant story of taking your belongings and moving your family to a new country with your hopes and aspirations.
Reza Aslan: Exactly, right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: We were running for our lives and we ended up actually being technically classified as refugees. And so the more I thought about it the more I thought I have to use this word. I have to use this…
Reza Aslan: Claim it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Claim it. I’m encouraging other refugees to acknowledge who they are, what they have been through, what their history is and what their connection is to other people who are now arriving as refugees. Because there are a lot of former Vietnamese refugees who are like well, we were the good refugees.
Reza Aslan: They’re the bad ones.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: These are the bad ones.
Reza Aslan: Yeah, you get that all the time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Get it all the time and it’s a very…
Reza Aslan: Well, you know, we came the right way.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. And it’s a very American thing. Stephen Miller, his ancestors were Jewish refugees.
Reza Aslan: Fuck that guy.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, fuck that guy. But there’s a lot of them in the Trump administration, but there’s a lot of them in America too. So it’s a very American thing. It’s not just a Vietnamese thing. But for me it’s a very Vietnamese thing because I know these Vietnamese refugees. I know them intimately. I grew up with them in San Jose in the 1970s and 1980s and let me tell you something. There are a lot of bad Vietnamese refugees. So that’s a part of the American experience too.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: All that goes into my fiction, but into American storytelling. We don’t just tell stories about how we’re angels. We do some good stuff, we raise our families, but we also do some terrible things to each other.
Reza Aslan: So at what point in this childhood did you say to yourself that I want to be a writer? How did that happen?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, like most writers I was a lonely kid. Not just by the fact that I’m socially awkward or whatever, but also about being a refugee, becoming fluent in English, loving to read in English.
Reza Aslan: My experience of getting fluent in English was weird. My mom, my dad and my sister were living in like a one room motel basically. During the day we’d say in the room and watch nonstop TV which I don’t know what Vietnam was like but there was no such thing as 24 hour television in Iran. I mean we had TV. It was like three channels. It was shit. It was like six hours a day.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Instead of Hogan’s Heroes and Get Smart…
Reza Aslan: It was like CHIPS. I mean CHIPS was like mind blowing to me. I mean I was like is this what it’s like to drive on a highway in California. Like cars just flip over for no reason all the time. What was your experience like?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, the interesting thing is I don’t remember becoming fluent in English. I just remember, some of my earliest memories probably when I was five, six or seven that I already could speak English. I went to kindergarten and didn’t have any problems as far as I can remember. And one of my earliest fondest memories is the public library in Harrisburg which my parents would take me to. So that was where I began to want to be a writer. In the third grade I wrote a book, drew the pictures, wrote the words, bound the book. Won a prize from the library.
Reza Aslan: What the fuck. So every time you write something they give you a prize. Is that what happens?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was third grade. They had good taste.
Reza Aslan: They saw the talent early on.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: As a matter of fact that epic was called Lester the Cat. Lester the Cat about a really exhausted urban cat who flees to the countryside to find love.
Reza Aslan: That’s a beautiful story.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you.
Reza Aslan: I would get that…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s available.
Reza Aslan: Do you remember the first time you actually broke the news to your parents?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That I was going to be a writer?
Reza Aslan: That you wanted to be a writer.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That was never officially stated.
Reza Aslan: Yeah, that’s a smart move. That’s a smart move. Segue into it. Yeah, yeah. It’s like eventually they’ll know.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The first time I told my parents one of my short stories was translated into Vietnamese.
Reza Aslan: Wow. They read it in Vietnamese?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well so I went home and I gave it to my parents and I said hey, this is actually in Vietnamese. Now you can actually read something I wrote. My parents are devout Catholics. Super devout. This story was about a young Vietnamese refugee who comes to San Francisco in 1975 and discovers he’s gay. They never mentioned that story to me again.
Reza Aslan: Yeah, they were like, I’m curious how much of these experiences that you have make their way into your stories. I guess this is what I’m trying to say. Have you ever actually fucked a squid. For people who don’t know what I’m talking about here, obviously the protagonist of The Sympathizer quite famously fucks a squid.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s not to everybody’s taste. Apparently 1% of readers has absolutely refused judging from my Amazon.com and Goodread reviews. They absolutely refuse.
Reza Aslan: They got to the squid fucking and they were like you know what, this is not for me.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I respect that. It’s not for everybody’s taste obviously. No, I’ve not literally in the Clintonian sense fucked a squid.
Reza Aslan: This story just got way better than I thought it was going to.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But my body parts have been inside a squid, yes. I’ll just leave it at that.
Reza Aslan: There’s no way you’re going to leave it at that. Give me more.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Okay, so as a kid I don’t know if you ever read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
Reza Aslan: Oh, yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I read it when I was a precocious kid.
Reza Aslan: By the way I even recognized it as a Roth allusion.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh good.
Reza Aslan: So that’s how much of a nerd I am.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, we’re brothers in that sense. I remember reading Portnoy’s Complaint probably at 12 or 13 and the only thing I remember for decades and decades was the moment when Portnoy in that novel he’s 13 or 14. He’s super horny and he’s masturbating with everything including the slab of liver in his family refrigerator which he masturbates into and then puts back into the fridge for dinner later that night.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I didn’t intend to actually put that into The Sympathizer. It just happened to be that I finished writing one day and then I had to prepare dinner and the menu was squid which I’d never cooked before. I did not know what you did with squid. But in order to make squid you had to clean the squid. You had to put your fingers inside the squid. And at that point I though wait a minute.
Reza Aslan: Yeah, it’s coming through now.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes.
Reza Aslan: This seems familiar.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then writers have to find their material wherever they can.
Reza Aslan: Yeah, what are you going to do.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I wrote about it the next day.
Reza Aslan: The other thing that I really love about the way that you deal with craft is that you don’t bullshit about the fact that writing is a grind. It’s a grind, you know. Like it’s a job. In fact, probably the thing that I say most to my students is that if you don’t treat writing like a job it’ll never be your job.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Here’s a different way of thinking about it. It’s not like athletes go out there and they play pro ball. Like two hours out of the week.
Reza Aslan: Or it’s when they feel like it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right.
Reza Aslan: They feel like this is the time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. They’re doing like eight hours a day sweating, grunting. It’s not fun. I mean it could be fun but it’s work.
Reza Aslan: It’s work.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In order to get to that beautiful moment when you can score that basket or whatever it is. I think the same thing for writing at least for me. I really did I think put in 10,000 hours of unglamorous sitting in a room trying to figure out how to write a sentence before I could get to the moment where I could write The Sympathizer in two years and almost every moment felt like joy except for the moment when I had to think about publishing the book. But the actual moment and the art was amazing.
Reza Aslan: Speaking of The Sympathizer you referred to it as political satire.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: One of the books that I always loved a like was Catch 22. Hilarious. And I thought I could never write Catch 22. I’m not that funny, but I’m going to try because I think I’m going to write this very serious novel about some terrible things that happened in Vietnam involving Vietnamese and Americans and so on. And it’s going to be 400 pages and it’s going to be really not a pleasant experience if it’s all serious all the time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I read enough political satires, Catch 22 or Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline and I thought these books are both very serious but also very funny because they dig down deep into contradictions in ourselves or in our culture that we don’t want to confront. War is one of those contradictions. Americans think they’re a freedom loving people and yet we’re going out there pretty much invading countries every single decade.
Reza Aslan: We’re bringing them freedom dude.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right, yeah.
Reza Aslan: That’s like how we do it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, one of the things that political satire does though is that it forces us to see things that we take for granted, that we think of as normal and see them from the outside.
Reza Aslan: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. And I think for me as a refugee I never felt completely American. So that helped make it easier for me to be a political satirist because I always was looking at things from the outside even when Obama got elected, okay. I was at Harvard and it was like a holy event.
Reza Aslan: You were like racism is over.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. They were so moved and I was thrilled we elected President Obama for all the obvious reasons. But I’m sort of kind of skeptical and suspicious about what’s going to happen given what I know about American politics.
Reza Aslan: Or even more even what you know about Vietnam. I say this all the time with this kind of the Trump years that we’re in now. One thing that you hear a lot is that this is just a blip that ultimately the pillars of our democracy are permanent. Have you ever heard an immigrant say that phrase? No, because we all know it changes like that.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right. I don’t know if that’s an immigrant mentality but it’s certainly a refugee mentality. You saw your country go to shit and you don’t take nothing for granted. You know power can be abused and so optimistically we work to change our society, but pessimistically I have an escape hatch. I hope I have one.
Reza Aslan: Tell me about your escape hatch.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So it’s kind of ironic that my escape hatch cannot be Vietnam. My books are banned in Vietnam.
Reza Aslan: No kidding.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Or censored anyway. Like soft banning. I’m actually okay with the Vietnamese pirating my works because that’s what I always expected. I thought it would be a badge of honor to be pirated in Vietnam, but that’s better than getting censored.
Reza Aslan: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So basically I can’t to back to Vietnam. So where can I go? Well, I’ve spent a few summers in France now. I’m taking adult French classes. My six-year-old boy is in a French school. So my escape hatch is to go back to my other colonizer.
Reza Aslan: Right, exactly.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: This is how history fucks us, you know, because France has a lot of its own problems. But the Vietnamese got it good in France. And the French like to think they’re better than the Americans so they’re perfectly, I hoping, happy to take a refugee from the United States.
Reza Aslan: We’ll see about that. Do you see yourself as a storyteller as somebody whose doing more than just providing a narrative, but somebody who is truly kind of linking the past to the present?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: For me I was always drawn to literature that was obviously about great stories but about great stories that were connected to real social issues. This was the only way I could justify to myself my love for literature. I couldn’t be an art for art’s sake kind of person with parents who were working 12 to 14 hours a day and getting shot in their store, okay. So for me it was crucial.
Reza Aslan: It had to matter.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It had to matter. And then I was growing up in a Vietnamese refugee community for whom the war had never ended. And I was growing up in the 70s and 80s in America. You were watching Apocalypse Now. You were watching Platoon. You were watching Rambo. Americans were still fighting their wars for 10 to 15 years later and, in fact, they’re still fighting the war now because Michael Mann is making a movie about the Battle of Hue. Spike Lee is making a movie about Vietnam.
Reza Aslan: We can’t let it go.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You can’t let it go. So for my own personal experience this is totally true. We fight the war. The war takes five or 10 years. Now it’s taking 20 years or more, but regardless we will keep fighting this war in the aftermath as we try to make sense of it. Now this is really crucial because I as a professional storyteller, you as a professional storyteller we know the importance of stories. We write stories. But, in fact, for everybody stories matter.
Reza Aslan: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Trump is a great storyteller. I hate his story but he’s got a good one.
Reza Aslan: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because he seduced a whole bunch of people and the stories we tell about war are a part of that. His basic story is we good, they bad. That’s his fiction.
Reza Aslan: Behold his story.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s his fiction. And that’s how we mobilize people to fight wars and that’s how we mobilize people to stand up and pledge allegiance and all that other kind of stuff. My purpose as a storyteller is to try to make an intervention there.
Reza Aslan: I heard that you are quite adamant about the fact that you’re not writing for a white audience. Which by the way I’m sure just pleased the shit out of your publisher. But the imaginary audience that you envision, that all writers have kind of in the back of their minds. But in your case that audience is Vietnamese.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well no, it’s worse than that. The audience is me. The one Vietnamese person, me. Because if I wrote it for Vietnamese people it would actually be a very different book. Because Vietnamese people like every other people, a lot of people want the stories to flatter them in some way. They want the stories to affirm their own world view in some way. Like a lot of Vietnamese Americans will not read The Sympathizer because it’s written from the perspective of a Communist spy.
Reza Aslan: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And they’re like we don’t want anything to deal with Communism. But that’s not my problem. My problem, my challenge is to write a story that I care about and to write it in a way that other Vietnamese people who are willing to read the book will care about too. So my next audience is Vietnamese people. And I think this is very important. Toni Morrison died not long ago and one of the greatest lessons that Toni Morrison has left for us who are writers is her utter absolutely conviction that you can write for your own people whoever that is and let everybody else come along. It’s a greater challenge maybe to write for your own population, especially if they’re not in power, however you define that. But truth, beauty, universality comes out of that.
Reza Aslan: That’s beautiful.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And when people come up to me, Vietnamese people for example and they’re crying. It happens sometimes and we never heard our story. I never wanted to think about this issue and now you have talked about it. That is enormously important to me because I didn’t have that opportunity. This is where storytelling can make a difference because hopefully now there’s going to be a whole other generation of Vietnamese American storytellers and they’re going to write a whole bunch of stories that I have no understanding of. And that’s good.
Reza Aslan: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s good. I’m dealing with my own issues. I’m dealing with my past, my trauma, my war. I don’t expect the next generation to deal with this kind of stuff. I want them to be able to deal with something else because I dealt with this and hopefully I was able to clear some issues out of the way so they can go off and do something radically different.
Reza Aslan: Have you been back to Vietnam? Have you heard from anyone in Vietnam who has read the book?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The last time I was in Vietnam was 2014 and then the novel came out in 2015, The Sympathizer and I haven’t been back because I would like an invitation from the Vietnamese government and say hey, we’re not going to turn you back at the border or detain you in some way. But the interesting thing is that in my travels throughout the United States to college campuses, for example, I’ve met quite a few Vietnamese foreign students who come to my events. They tell me everybody is reading your book in Vietnam. Obviously it’s a relative term but for them what I’m being told is this kind of story that I’m telling has not been told in Vietnam because the only version of the past is the state sponsored version which is even more problematic than the American version of the past.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So there’s a hunger for a different, hopefully more truthful or at least more complex version of the past in Vietnam that The Sympathizer is helping to fulfill.
Reza Aslan: So not that long ago I saw this really fascinating short documentary called Nobody Dies. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but it’s a documentary in which an amazing musician named Thao Nguyen from Thao & the Get Down Stay Down goes back with her mom to Vietnam. She does a performance there and it’s sort of this amazing experience about that notion of going back. Like what it means to sort of connect as an artist to roots that you may or may not actually have any deep connection to. And here’s the good news. She’s actually here.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Really?
Reza Aslan: That’s right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Amazing.
Reza Aslan: So without further ado let’s bring up Thao Nguyen.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
Reza Aslan: Yeah. Come up Thao.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: All right.
Thao Nguyen: Hi.
Reza Aslan: Thao, thank you so much for joining us.
Thao Nguyen: Thank you so much for having me.
Reza Aslan: First and foremost I know you were born in the States, but you come from immigrant parents.
Thao Nguyen: Refugee parents.
Reza Aslan: Refugee parents. That’s right. How much of this sort of conversation that we’ve been having, how much of it rings true to you?
Thao Nguyen: I mean it rings so true. I don’t know if I, I hope that there’s like tears welling up in my eyes. I don’t know if they’re showing up on camera but so much of it. And I have to credit Viet and I’m sure he hears this all the time. I know he does. But his writing has helped open discussions around identity, around place. I grew up in Virginia and…
Reza Aslan: Enough said.
Thao Nguyen: There was such an emphasis on assimilation and I really think Viet’s work has helped so many people like myself engage, sort of try to talk to our families more, understand what we’re doing and what kind of shortchanging has taken place.
Reza Aslan: What did assimilation mean to you back then?
Thao Nguyen: It meant that you were obviously different but had to act as same as possible. I was an active participant in denying my heritage.
Reza Aslan: Right.
Thao Nguyen: And that it’s so easy to do. I mean I didn’t even hang out with other Vietnamese kids. There were a few. I didn’t hang out with them. And it bleeds in. If you allow it, it’s very pervasive and it’ll bleed in well into your adulthood. I still grew up in a house that was very proud to be Vietnamese, but at the same time I would see this deference once everyone left the house. Because I was born in Virginia the nuances of language, the nuances of condescension and racism they wouldn’t even know to pick up on.
Reza Aslan: You picked it up.
Thao Nguyen: You absorb all of it and I would see my dad say it’s just sir everyone.
Reza Aslan: Sir everyone, yeah. Is that what drew you to music?
Thao Nguyen: Similar to what you were saying, utter loneliness.
Reza Aslan: Man, loneliness is a really good drug.
Thao Nguyen: I mean if I could bottle that, yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You couldn’t sell it to anybody though.
Thao Nguyen: That’s right. It was a really turbulent home that I grew up in and so it was something that I could do alone. It was definitely a form of escape.
Reza Aslan: We’ve talked about having to negotiate immigrant parents and basically lie. I mean lie. I think that’s the best way to put it. Is that something that you experienced as well?
Thao Nguyen: Oh yeah, I’ve definitely lied. Also, so my mom has been incredibly supportive.
Reza Aslan: Your mom is awesome.
Thao Nguyen: She’s such a gem. She ran a laundromat so I grew up working in a laundromat in Virginia. And she worked the typical work week which is about one million…
Reza Aslan: Ninety hours.
Thao Nguyen: Yeah. And my brother and I always served as the translators growing up. There was always this tension and I was such an asshole because I always was so embarrassed by her English and I never wanted her to come to parent-teacher conferences. I couldn’t go to another country and do shit. What could I do?
Reza Aslan: I can barely speak English.
Thao Nguyen: That’s right. It was so amazing to see her in Vietnam even though it was so intense for her to go back. I had never been and this was her first time back in 43 years. And she had worked for the South Vietnamese Embassy when she was in Vietnam. And actually at the fall of Saigon she was stationed in Laos so she fled from Laos because she was tipped off that the Communist government was coming. And it took 17 tries to get her to come.
Thao Nguyen: But then to see her there and the way she, there was just this dimension of her that I had never seen before and it was so beautiful. She’s joking around. She’s leading us. We have no idea where we’re going. To see her negotiate and just haggling and ordering at the restaurant. Just all these simple things that we never got to experience in the US with her.
Reza Aslan: She was in her own element.
Thao Nguyen: She was in her own element and it was remarkable. And I don’t think she’ll go again. I think that was enough for her.
Reza Aslan: By the way I just want to say I love the fact that all three of us like later in life have realized what superheroes our parents actually were. I think that’s a very common experience. I was thinking one of my favorite parts of The Sympathizer is there’s this moment where the protagonist has this liberal arts college professor, douchey kind of guy, who reads them this Kipling line. East is east, west is west and…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Never the twain shall meet.
Reza Aslan: Which is such utter bullshit, right. I mean it’s like well then what am I? But the professor has the protagonist do something really bizarre which I just love. He has him take a piece of paper and fold it in half and on one side he writes Orient and one side he writes occident and he basically says I want you to kind of dissect your personality and categorize it. Like what part of you comes from the Orient and what part of you comes from the occident. And the whole point this is to show the sort of dichotomy. Before we came on this taping I asked you guys to do that very same thing. I did it too. Let’s share it with everyone. I’ll go first.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You go first.
Reza Aslan: I’ll break the seal.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: All right.
Reza Aslan: Orient. My refusal to talk about money. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want to talk about money. I just don’t want to have any conversation that involves money at all. My wife negotiates everything. I will literally pay a person anything that they ask just so I don’t have to talk about money. Occident. My inability to think about anything except money. All right, let’s hear your Orient and occident.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: All right. Oriental. I wash my plastic sandwich bags and reuse them. Did I steal your?
Reza Aslan: Yeah. I’ve got to come up with another one.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: We were the original green people. We don’t waste anything. Occidental I throw away my plastic bags. Okay.
Reza Aslan: All right, Thao, its yours.
Thao Nguyen: Okay. The one good one I had was plastic bags but that’s gone. Okay, from the Orient my mind being blown when I learn that people let their cat sleep on their pillows, right. I don’t have like an occidental side of that.
Reza Aslan: There’s no occident of that.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oriental. I usually take off my shoes when I enter my house. Occidental. Sometimes I’m lazy and I wear my shoes into my house.
Reza Aslan: Does your mom know?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s like you go into the garage and you forge something and you have lace up shoes. What are you going to take off your shoes just to go back into the house to get your iPhone or your keys or whatever it is.
Reza Aslan: Once I wore my shoes in the house and my mom said are you an animal. And I was like animals don’t wear shoes, but I get it. Orient. This kind of weight, this burden that I carry which is like all about whether my mother is actually happy which is impossible by the way. Nothing would make my mother happy ever. But like this constant burden that is like my responsibility to make sure that she’s happy. Occident. How quickly can I put her in an old folks home. Is that a thing that I can do because apparently that’s a thing like Americans do that. Anyway, that’s mine.
Thao Nguyen: From the Orient packing food wherever I go. The occidental. Now I put dry good in mason jars. When I was young I would go to a white person’s house and I would look in, if it was a sleepover or something and I would be, in the morning there would be cereal and I would be like I don’t know where are all the cereal boxes. And they all had been emptied from their boxes into Tupperware.
Reza Aslan: Into jars.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s true. I do that now too.
Reza Aslan: It keeps them fresh. I do that too but I also have an extremely white wife. Like translucently white.
Thao Nguyen: Me too. When I was in school I studied sociology and I had this, I’ve developed this immediate affinity for Edward Said and Oriental isn’t those ideas. Occidental side. I always want to pronounce it Edward Said. Okay, that’s all.
Reza Aslan: That’s a good one.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That was actually when I first encountered Edward Said in college that was my reaction.
Thao Nguyen: Right.
Reza Aslan: Edward Said. What is that. I’ve never heard of that.
Thao Nguyen: What do you say. I don’t know.
Reza Aslan: Part of the treat of having you here Thao, is that we get to actually hear you perform. You’re going to play a song called Age of Ice.
Thao Nguyen: I am, yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: All right.
Reza Aslan: We’d love to hear it. Everybody, Thao Nguyen.
Thao Nguyen: Upon my return, from the age of ice, I supposed I would survive, I remember you with a feeling or two, Free of hands without device.
Thao Nguyen: Slowly we all lay down, Slowly we all lay down, What of all the stone I invented? To coat my hands and face, I was made of machine and gasoline, Filled up full on just a taste.
Thao Nguyen: No, no, I wasn’t born to break such bounds, Never would I prepare to leap, No, no, I wouldn’t dare ever love you more, More than you would dare believe.
Thao Nguyen: Slowly we all lay down, Slowly we all lay down, Slowly we all lay down, Slowly we all lay down.
Thao Nguyen: Lay down, lay down, lay down! Waha-oh, Ah-ha, ah-ha, Takes a fine imagination, And a sound technology, To let loose the cold amnesia, Of all the blood that beats.
Thao Nguyen: Slowly we all lay down, Slowly we all lay down, Slowly we all lay down, Slowly we all lay down, lay down, lay down, lay down, lay down!
Thao Nguyen: Upon my return, from the age of ice, I supposed I would survive. Upon my return, from the age of ice, I supposed I would survive.
Reza Aslan: That was awesome.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That was amazing.
Reza Aslan: All right. So what’s next for you?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My son and I have a book coming out in November. He’s six years old, remember this. It’s called Chicken of the Sea. And so what happened was I took my son to an artist’s retreat when he was five years old. He met Thi Bui and Thi Bui who had just done this book called A Different Pond. And he was like totally in love with this book. And then after that he drew his own comic book called Chicken of the Sea about chickens bored on the farm who run off to become pirates. I put it on Facebook. Editor says is this a real thing? I said yes. He said can we buy it? I said yes. And so now a year later it’s coming out illustrated by Thi Bui and her 13-year-old son Hien and so that’s the next project.
Reza Aslan: Amazing. Chicken of the Sea in November. Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you so much for your voice.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks so much, Reza. It’s a real pleasure.
Reza Aslan: Thank you. We’ll see you next time on Rough Draft.