A man of two faces: Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen returns with ‘The Committed’ • FRANCE 24 English

Viet Thanh Nguyen shares the forces that shaped his Franco-Viet protagonist with France 24.

His tragicomic narrator dazzled the literary scene in his debut novel “The Sympathizer”, winning Viet Thanh Nguyen the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. The author’s nameless Franco-Vietnamese protagonist returns for a sequel entitled “The Committed”. Viet joins us in the studio to talk about the complex political and personal forces that shaped his fictional creation.

Read the transcript below.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: “Loving a master who kicks you is not a problem if that is all one feels, but loving and hating must be kept a dirty little secret. For loving the master one hates inevitably induces confusion and self hatred. That was why I never threw myself as wholeheartedly into the study of French as I did with English. And why ever since leaving the lycee I had hardly ever spoken a word of French. French was the language of our enslaver and rapist whereas English was a novelty, heralding an American arrival that spelled the end of our French debasement. I mastered English without ambivalence because it had never mastered us.”

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Well, you just heard from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen reading from his latest novel, The Committed, a sequel to his 2015 debut, The Sympathizer. It follows the double agent and self-described man with two faces to Paris, and is also published in French as Le Dévoué. Viet, thanks so much for being with us today.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks for having me.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Now, the passage you read conjures some of those conflicted feelings of your protagonist. A man who’s half Vietnamese, half French, describes himself as somebody of two identities. He’s talking about his relationship with the French language there, and throughout the book his identity feels a bit like a love-hate relationship. For you, was it a smooth amalgamation of two things or a contradiction in terms?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, I don’t think anything in my life has ever been a smooth amalgamation of anything. Like my narrator, I’m a conflicted person. I feel like I’m also a man of two faces and two minds. And I really wanted to write this novel about France because like my protagonist, I have some ambivalent feelings about French culture and French politics, but I’m also in love with France at the same time. So this is a novel about someone who has been physically and mentally colonized and has now come to France to confront the French legacy of his own ancestry.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Now, as I mentioned, the central character was a spy, a double agent in Southern Vietnam in your previous book, the Sympathizer, and for someone who’s seen the very worst kind of scenes of war atrocious behavior, he doesn’t seem very tough. He’s sometimes quite comically emotional. I felt quite bad laughing at him at times during the book. How did you build his personality? What sort of traits were you drawing on there?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I wanted him to be someone with tremendous political conviction and compassion and a man of action, but also someone who was deeply conflicted and tormented. And that sense of torment would give us the sense of internal drama. And then hopefully make him someone who was likable despite sometimes the terrible things that he has done or that he’s witnessed. And so there has to be a sense of his vulnerability and he is being trapped in situations that are comic and absurd, which are both tragic, but also hopefully will make us laugh a little bit as well.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Tragic comic is certainly the right way to describe him. Now, one of his most comical habits for me, as someone who lives in France was an incomprehension of certain French culture eccentricities. For example, he says in the book, “We listened to a greatest hits tape of Johnny Hallyday, the Sonic equivalent of [foreign language 00:03:25] A taste the rest of the world could not acquire.” Are you speaking from experience here?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Definitely speaking from an experience. And I think I’ve offended a lot of French people who don’t understand why other people don’t like Johnny Hallyday, for example. And I’ve tried a few times. I like other French pop singers, but just not him for some reason.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: He’s a very, very French acquired taste I suppose. Now more seriously, the book shows us the immigrant experience in France here through his eyes. He’s often referred to as [Lu Shinwa 00:03:56] or just Asian, as opposed to Vietnamese. Based on your own experiences in the US as a Vietnamese immigrant and here in France, the vast amount of research that you did about that experience, what would you say is the major difference for Vietnamese immigrants in these two countries?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, number one, the history was very different for the Vietnamese who came to France versus the United States. So in France there’s a great degree of ideological diversity among the Vietnamese-French community. You have conservatives, you have leftists and so on. In the United States, mostly anti-communist Vietnamese, very, very conservative. And then there’s two different senses of national identities. So in the United States, you can call yourself a Vietnamese-American, here in France I think saying you’re Vietnamese-French or French-Vietnamese doesn’t make any sense. And so the French of Vietnamese ancestry here really think of themselves as being French first and that’s quite a bit of a different emphasis than in the United States.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: It’s interesting because throughout his encounters with French society, that protagonist meets the descendants of Algerian immigrants here in France and gets a whole new perspective on the very loaded word Arab in French society. The relationship between France and its former colony is still very tense, six decades after Algerian independence. Now President Macron recently paid tribute to those Algerians who died due to police violence here in Paris in 1961, that was a written communique, not a vocal apology. How do you see the road to reconciliation on that issue?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, it’s an issue that’s true for every country. I think every country has had these kinds of tragedies and conflicts that completely contradict the national self image that people have of themselves. And so for a lot of French people obviously Algeria, the period of colonization, this particular atrocity have been shameful or have been difficult to talk about. So being able to even acknowledge the existence of these kinds of events is absolutely crucial. Incorporating the history into the school curriculum, making sure that Algerian voices and Algerian perspectives are also heard, these are also really crucial. And then finally the establishment of actual relations, compensations, reparations these are all kinds of acts that go beyond the important but insufficient act apology.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Both cultural and political there. Now, going back to your own personal story, you came to the United States as a refugee with your family in 1975, just four years old. It’s an experience that has fed into a lot of the literary work and certainly informed your opinion on that issue. Now in recent months you have spoken out about the plight of Afghan refugees and the responsibility of the United States. Indeed, since then, some people have been forced to live in hiding in Afghanistan, fearful of the Taliban, that includes artists many of whom have tried to flee the country, including Asita Fraduos in Kabul. Here’s more from her.

Asita Fraduos: [foreign language 00:06:48]

Translator: The motivation I had in the past doesn’t exist anymore. An artist requires a quiet and peaceful environment. So I don’t do much.

Asita Fraduos: [foreign language 00:06:58]

Translator: As I said, I’m not able to hold an exhibition off of my art and I can’t express the intentions and concepts I have in my mind. If there were no such restrictions I would love to stay in Afghanistan but as far as I know these restrictions will remain the same. So I’ve decided to go abroad.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Now in August as that tumultuous time was happening in Afghanistan, Secretary of State in the US, Antony Blinken said of the takeover of the Taliban, “This is not Saigon.” And when you think of the scenes in Kabul this summer you hear from artists like Asita, do you think the two scenarios can be compared?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think they can be compared, but of course they’re very, very different. Different Histories, different wars, different players but the fall of Kabul itself, I think was strongly reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in the sense that so many people were desperate, so many people were being left behind. I’m speaking of American allies and just as the United States abandoned so many of its Southeast Asian allies in 1975, we could see that happening in Kabul as well. Of course there was an American evacuation. It was as chaotic or more chaotic than it was during the fall of Saigon. Some people who were allies got out, some people who were not allies got out and a lot of people were left behind as we saw in the case of this particular artist.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So my heart really went out to the Afghans who felt that their lives were under threat. And for the ones who were left behind, it does bring for me echoes of what the South Vietnamese who were left behind had to contend with. Which was a radical change in their existence, the sense of a closure of possibility for them. And so many more had to flee after 1975. So I think for a lot of Americans, Afghanistan is over, but for many Afghans, it is not over and it will continue this experience of fear and the need for flight will continue for many more years.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Now, speaking of that refugee experience, one of your earlier books of short stories, the Refugees, deals with the treatment of immigrants in a host country and the perception of them as well. We saw a marked rise in racism against people of Asian heritage in the US, in France, in the UK, during the pandemic, people with absolutely nothing to do with COVID or with China. What would you put this sort of regression down to? What’s stoking it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that anti-Asian racism and feeling have been present in places like the United States from the very beginning of Asian immigration into the United States. And that well of latent anti-Asian feeling and racism has always existed to be drawn from in times of crisis or stress that can be blamed on Asians or Asian immigrants. And the United States is not unique, other countries that are not dominantly Asian that have Asian populations, as you said, also saw surges of anti-Asian feeling. And that’s because the stereotypes and the misrepresentations of Asians are global and the fear of various Asian countries. Now, China has being threatening, have been on the minds of the west for a very long time.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Now to go back to more recent work, the Sympathizer is being adapted into an HBO series. I hear with Robert Downey Jr. attached the project, Park Chan-wook directing no less. This is proper Hollywood stuff. And when you wrote your first novel, I been you were just working at the university as you still do as a professor. And you were relatively anonymous. How odd was it being propelled into this more glamorous world of new prizes, movie stars?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I live in Los Angeles and when I tell people I’m a writer, nobody cares. But when they find out there’s going to be a TV series with HBO, with Robert Downey, Jr. everybody gets excited including my own son. He is eight years old, he couldn’t care less what I do but Tony stark being in the TV series, he’s very, very excited. So I think the thing here is that I respect the artistry of Robert Downey Jr. and Park Chan-wook I trust that together they will be able to pull off something brilliant. The TV show will be its own thing, but also will bring more attention of course, to the novel and to the story that it tells about the Vietnam war, Vietnamese refugees, American society, and its contradictions and all that will be wonderful.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Absolutely. Well, finally, we ask all of our guests to give us a cultural tip at the end of the show. And you’ve pointed us in the direction of a series Reservation Dogs. It’s about teenagers in rural Oklahoma. Tell us what really sold it to you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, reservation dogs is the first TV show created by native American people. The producers, the writers, the actors are all Indigenous Americans. And it’s a very funny, very entertaining and very poignant show about the lives of these young native Americans on this reservation who are basically sort of aimless and also sort of petty criminals. It’s very entertaining to watch and also provocative because it brings up an issue that many Americans have a hard time reconciling themselves with, which is that the United States is a colonizing society built on the lands of Indigenous peoples who still exist, who still survive, and who want their land back.

Olivia Salazar-Winspear: Some very thought provoking entertainment there yet. Thank you so much for coming in today. Now we’ll leave you with a taste of that series, Reservation Dogs, available on Disney+. Otherwise, you can get more arts and culture on our website and also on Twitter, at Facebook, and Instagram. There’s more news coming up on France 24 just after this.

Speaker 1: Its been like a month.

Speaker 2: What kind of gang who’s put red and blue?

Speaker 3: In the Mafia, they couldn’t make up their minds if they want to be bloods or creeps more.

Speaker 4: Maybe they’re bleeps.

Speaker 3: Or maybe they’re creeds.

Speaker 5: It’s easy to be bad.

Speaker 6: Fight the man.

Speaker 5: But it’s hard to be a warrior with dignity.

Category: Interviews


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