AMERICAN CULTURES LECTURE WITH PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING NOVELIST PROFESSOR VIET THANH NGUYEN

As a refugee from South Vietnam when he was four years old Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s work explores the convergence between politics and literature. The Sympathizer, his thriller about a communist double-agent won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. The United States Studies Centre was honoured to have Professor Nguyen deliver the first-ever American Cultures Lecture.

The lecture by Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen was followed by a conversation moderated by USSC Associate Professor of Politics and American Studies Brendon O’Connor.

Read the transcript below.

Brendon O’Connor: Studies ethnicity and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. Viet won The Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant novel, The Sympathizer, in 2016. And this year, his new novel, The Committed, has just been published. And I highly recommend that for anyone locked down or anywhere in the world. Such is my admiration for Viet’s brilliant, The Sympathizer. I’ve said it as the one compulsory text for my class of 250 American studies students this semester. Viet is also the author of the excellent nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies, which a colleague of mine in the English department, Professor Paul, said his students had studied this year.

Brendon O’Connor: So Viet, you have quite the following down here in Australia. My name is Brendon O’Connor. I’m an associate professor in the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney and in the Department of Government. I’ve just lost myself there. And I’d like to pay acknowledgement and respect to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land that I’m speaking from and the University of Sydney is built on. I hope my acknowledgement is recognition of one of the ideas in Nothing Ever Dies of just memory that Viet has written so eloquently about. And in his novels, he often refers to the notion of what is to be done to write the wrongs of the colonial period or the ongoing colonial legacy. I can’t think of anyone better to give the inaugural American cultures lecture than Professor Nguyen. And it’s the delight to have you here with us and virtually in Sydney from Los Angeles. So the floor is yours.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks so much for that introduction, Professor O’Connor. Hello, University of Sydney. Good morning. I’m coming to you from Los Angeles mid afternoon for me. I’m delighted to be here. I hope I can make it to Australia in person one day. There are a lot of Vietnamese people in Australia. And frankly, based on my experience, the Vietnamese Australians have the best accent of all in the global Vietnamese diaspora. Now, Professor O’Connor had just said that his class is reading The Sympathizer, it’s compulsory reading. And I just want to start off by saying, I apologize to all the students who are being forced to read The Sympathizer. I just wrote the book. Professor O’Connor is the one who’s making you read it. And because it’s required reading, I think that means about 25 to 50% of you have actually not read the book.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So let me just start off with a little capsule summary of The Sympathizer. For those of you who haven’t read The Sympathizer yet, shame on you. But it is about a communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army in April 1975 as Saigon is about to fall or to be liberated, depending on your point of view. And his task is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States and spy on their efforts to take their country back all based on things that actually really happened. So I was actually present at the fall or liberation of Saigon. I was four years old, which means I actually don’t remember anything about the fall or liberation of Saigon. And for that, I’m actually thankful, because the people who fled from Saigon and remember the events of March in April 1975, many of them ended up being very deeply traumatized by what took place.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And today or even in these past week or 10 days with the fall of Kabul, I will admit that watching the events in Afghanistan have been very impactful for me, very meaningful for me, because it’s brought back so many, not personal memories of the fall of Saigon, but my memories of other people’s memories. W. G. Sebald, the German novelist, has called these secondhand memories that it’s possible not to have your own memories of an event, but to have other people’s memories impact you. And that’s certainly how I felt growing up in a Vietnamese refugee community, saturated with the feelings of trauma at the worst for people and melancholy at the very least.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So watching what’s been happening in Kabul and in Afghanistan as a whole, what I’ve felt is heartbroken. And also this strong moral urgency for us that is the west, especially the United States, but also Australia, which has been involved in Afghanistan as well, a strong moral urgency and political obligation to help Afghan people, especially Afghans who are being turned into refugees. And if you actually have read the first 50 pages of The Sympathizer, which evoke the fall of Saigon, hopefully you see parallels between what happened then 1975 and what’s happening now, not in terms of an exact comparison between these two wars in these two places which are very different, but parallels in the sense of the chaos, the fear, the human urgency of people who believe their lives are in danger and want to flee.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But the other reason why I think or I hope that The Sympathizer has resonance for what’s happening today is that in my mind, The Sympathizer is not just a Vietnam war novel. That’s certainly how it’s been marketed in the United States and I think that’s how it’s been understood in the rest of the world. But in my mind, when I was writing it, the Vietnam war was one event that the novel was dealing with, but it was one event in a much longer history that concerned me. And that was the history of American colonialism, American imperialism in which the United States has been at war for most of its history, either the hot spectacular wars like what we saw in Vietnam or the many smaller occupations, interventions, incursions, manipulations that the United States has been engaged with, not simply since it’s very founding, but from the very origins of European settler colonialism in the new world.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So in my mind, the Vietnam war is simply one episode in this very long history of perpetual American warfare, which continues to Afghanistan. And that is why we see parallels, that we see a repetition in a certain sense with the American war in Afghanistan as well as with the ending of this war in Afghanistan that we can compare it to the ending of the war in Vietnam. And in The Sympathizer, there’s a line that goes, there’s nothing more American than to use guns to defend freedom and independence, unless it is to use guns to take away someone else’s freedom and independence. And as you can imagine, I get a lot of hate mail. And for some reason, hate mail or at least my hate mail, arrives in the mail. People really want me to feel the paper and feel the texture of their anger.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And honestly, I asked for it because The Sympathizer is written deliberately to offend everybody. And by everybody, I mean the Americans and the South Vietnamese, the defeated Vietnamese and the victorious Vietnamese as well. But I think I forgot to offend one group in writing The Sympathizer, and that was the French. The French actually seemed to like The Sympathizer, gave it a couple of book awards and me being the person that I am when I wrote the sequel, The Committed, I thought, who else can I offend? The answer obviously was the French. So the translation of The Committed in French will come out now or it’s coming out now. I will visit France in November and we’ll see what kind of hate mail I get there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The reason why I seek to offend and the reason why I get hate mail is that one function of literature that’s very important to me is the function of being offensive, not just for sheer pleasure’s sake, which I do in The Sympathizer. If you read around page 80, you know there’s something quite offensive that happens with a squid at that moment. But I also seek to offend by telling what I think of as the truth. And in the case of Vietnam and Afghanistan, telling the truth means that I think the writer’s obligation is to point out how every ideology in every institution of power and every revolution, no matter how ideal, at some point falls victim to human absurdity and human hypocrisy. It’s just a fact of human nature that we’re capable of creating noble things. And then we also brought those things up, because of who we are.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In the case of the United States, I bring attention to this history of US settler colonialism, a history that should echo, I think, strongly in Australia, which is also a settler colonial country that’s committed some of the same crimes that the United States has committed in its construction of a settler colonial country. But I also bring up Vietnams failures as well, whether it happens to be the failures of an autocratic South Vietnamese regime corrupted by American intervention as the Americans corrupted Afghanistan with their intervention, but also the failures of communism in Vietnam as well, which is something that the Vietnamese Communist Party is not very interested in hearing about either. I also bring up the failures of colonialism, not just in the United States, but in Vietnam as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, if you know anything about Vietnamese people or at least Vietnamese nationalism, you know that the Vietnamese are very quick to bring up that they have been colonized for 1,000 years by the Chinese. And then they were colonized or we were colonized by the French and occupied by the Japanese and occupied by the Americans. But you will find relatively few Vietnamese people talking about how Vietnam itself is a country built on warfare imperialism, conquest and colonization, that there is a reason why, for example, Cambodians don’t like Vietnamese people because a substantial part of Cambodia is now South Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In my personal family history, I’ve had occasion recently to reflect upon how colonialism has been really important to my family. My parents were born in North Vietnam. And then when the country was divided in 1954, my parents being Vietnamese Catholics, deeply afraid of communism, fled to the South. And they were resettled in the Central Highlands in a town called Ban Ma Thuot, now Buon Ma Thuot. And in finally talking to my father, my 88 year old father about this, I discovered that in fact, we were or they were aided by the South Vietnamese government and aided by American funding in terms of settling in the Central Highlands. And that the ethnic minorities, the Montangards or the Highlanders of the Central Highlands have very ambivalent outright hostile feelings about the presence of Vietnamese people like us in their land. Arguably what happened there is settler colonialism, certainly that’s from the perspective of the ethnic minorities in the Highlands.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then when we came to the United States as refugees, we ended up in a place called Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. And for most of my life, I never thought twice about why this Fort was called Indiantown Gap. But as you can imagine, it was called that because it was built to defend white settlers against the local native people, the Susquehannock. By 1763, the Susquehannock had been almost completely exterminated. And in the final act of murder, the last of the Susquehannock were wiped out by a white militia called the Paxton Boys who came from a town called Paxton, eight miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where my family was eventually resettled. So in every way that I turn, whether it’s turning back to Vietnam or turning to the United States, I find myself caught up in these comparative histories of settler colonialism.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I call myself a refugee which may seem odd, because I think very clearly I long ago made the transition from being a refugee to a bourgeoisie from camps to clubs. But I called myself a refugee, because my first memories are from that refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, and more specifically of being separated from my parents. Because what happened was that if you were a Vietnamese refugee in the United States in 1975, the only way you could leave a refugee camp was to have an American sponsor. No sponsor was willing to take all four of my family. So one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10 year old brother, one sponsor took four year old me. And that’s where my memories begin, howling and screaming as I’m taken away from my parents, because at four years of age, I did not understand that this was temporary and that this was being done to help my parents get on their feet by not having to worry about their children. I only understood that as abandonment and loss.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so when my son turned four years old, a few years ago, at the time when the former president instituted what became known as the Muslim ban, it became a moment for me to reflect on what had happened to me, which I had tried to forget. And more importantly, I think to reflect on what happened to my parents, because me being as self centered as I am, I never thought about what this meant for my parents. But now, in the situation of being a father, I could look at my four year old son and think I would never allow someone to take my children from me. And what must it feel like for my parents to have that done to them?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I know that being separated from my parents at four years of age, left a scar on me. And it’s something that I’ve never been able to forget, which is why I know that in the United States, the families that have been separated at our Southern border and the children who’ve been taken away from their parents around 350 of whom have still not been reunited with their parents. These people, even if they have been reunited, will be permanently traumatized by what has happened to them. This is another traumatic moment in the history of migrants and refugees that I feel strongly about, that I think that we as Americans have done the wrong thing and that we’re still doing the wrong thing, because these separations, these detentions are still happening at our Southern border.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In my case, I was actually lucky, because I was only separated from my family for months before I came home. My brother, who was 10 years older, didn’t get to come home for two years. And this, he likes to tell me, is how we know mom and dad love you more. But don’t feel too sorry for him, seven years after coming to the United States with no English, he graduated at the head of his high school class and went to Harvard University. And then just to rub it in, because I went to my last choice college, he went to Stanford Medical School, which is what you’re supposed to do when you’re Asian.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I don’t want to imply that it was all bad being a refugee, because in my case, being a refugee did leave me with the requisite emotional damage necessary to become a writer. And I’ve done my best to pass that damage on to my son. Like many other little boys, he loves Legos, always asking for Legos. But as a parent, you can’t give your child everything they want. So when he asks for Legos, sometimes I have to say, “No, you’re not going to get those Legos.” And then I ask him, “Do you know why you’re not going to get those Legos?” And he’ll think about it for a moment and he’ll say, “Because you’re a refugee?” I’ll say, “That’s right.” I want him to learn empathy for refugees, because both of his parents and all four of his grandparents are refugees.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And refugees, of whom there are about 26 million in the world today according to the United Nations, are deeply stigmatized population. That’s why I think I still call myself a refugee, because we who are refugees need to express our solidarity with the unwanted and we need to claim who we are as refugees. We need people to see that this is a refugee, this is what a refugee can become. Underlying that impulse for me, is my sense that my ethical moral position in life, being a Catholic is that we need to embrace the unwanted, that this is an urgent ethical and moral position. But it’s also born from empathy, human empathy, which is why I respond so strongly to what I see in Kabul and in Afghanistan.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And of course, empathy is a major part of this novel, The Sympathizer. I would’ve called the novel, the empathizer, but it’s a terrible title. So I used The Sympathizer instead, but empathy is even deeper than sympathy. And if you manage to make it to the end of The Sympathizer, you see that, in fact, empathy is something that our narrator feels very strongly, but at a very key moment. He does not actually do anything with his empathy when he’s faced with a moral choice. And this is the problem with empathy, because it’s really crucial on the one hand to, I think, our future as humanity, that we be capable of extending kinship from our own to others, that we be capable of taking the far and the feared and making them the near and the dear.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I believe that if it’s possible to hate those you’ve never met, then you can also love those you’ve never met as well. And the proponents of literature say this often, that they say literature’s great potential for humanity is its capacity or empathy. And I believe that to be true. But I also think that the boosters of literature overstate the importance of literature, because it’s totally possible to read a novel, for example, feel great empathy for the characters that you encounter and do absolutely nothing as you will see happening at the end of The Sympathizer. So what’s important to stress here is that we need empathy, but we also need action as well and that we need to be aware of things like literature that can both promote empathy, but serve as the crutch for doing nothing, because in feeling something, perhaps we’ve felt, we feel that we’ve done everything we need to do. So that drama is staged in The Sympathizer itself.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Another thing that’s staged in The Sympathizer that I think is relevant to our present moment is this impulse towards humanization. People often talk about literature and its capacity to humanize people. And at one point I bought into that, because it’s a sentimental story that sounds good. What’s wrong with humanization? Aren’t we all human? Isn’t that what literature is supposed to do? And that’s especially true for anybody such as a refugee or a so called minority of any kind who feels that they have been dehumanized by actual events, but also by representations. And they feel that it’s crucial for something like literature to serve a purpose in humanizing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I think the impulse for humanization is actually wrong. And in writing The Sympathizer, the decision that I made that I hadn’t made before with other things that I had written, is that I no longer needed to prove our humanity, that is, the humanity of Vietnamese people. Why? We’re already human, what do we have to prove? If we have to prove that we’re a human, if we have to make a claim on the humanizing ability of literature, we’ve already acknowledged our own inferiority. The people of the majority, however you choose to define the majority, take their humanity for granted. And if they do, why and what do we need to prove?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Proving humanity only agrees with colonization. Europe colonized a world for 500 years, and Europeans justified their colonization by seeing themselves as human and everyone else as less than human. And the irony of all of this is that this European belief in their own humanity justified incredible amounts of inhuman behavior towards everybody else. So when Europeans say civilizing mission, and when Americans say manifest destiny, well, the colonized here is conquest, genocide, slavery and war. And The Sympathizer deals with this contradiction in Vietnam, colonized by France, occupied by the United States.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And when we talk about people like refugees from Vietnam or from Afghanistan, there’s a real human impulse that I understand dehumanize them to make them out to be good refugees. And this is an impulse that the refugees themselves often feel that they want to present themselves as being good people. But I think this is all also a dangerous impulse. There are a lot of Vietnamese people today, Vietnamese American refugees, who are saying we were the good refugees, these new people coming from south of the border, the brown people, or these other people coming from somewhere else, the Muslims, those are the bad refugees.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in the 1970s and 1980s in San Jose, California. Let me tell you something. There were a lot of bad Vietnamese refugees. We did a lot of bad things. I don’t have time to get into all the bad things that we did. Just take my word for it. We weren’t the good refugees, we were the lucky refugees, because we fit into a particular moment in American political history where Congress and the president felt it was good politics along with good morality to accept refugees fleeing from a communist country. But the other danger of propagating this idea of the good refugee is to imply that our refugee policies, our policies about hospitality, our morality, should be based upon the quality of the people that we’re taking in that they have to be good to be admitted. However, you choose to define good.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I, for one, do not believe in that. If we’re about the United States, I believe in an America that is equal for all, where refugees and immigrants have the right to be mediocre just like every other America. And the other danger of the good refugee, the good stereotype is that it always comes with its opposite. That’s why it’s a trick for those who want to proclaim their own goodness. You don’t realize that the other shoe will drop sometimes soon. I’ll give you an example from my own life, which is that my parents eventually moved from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to San Jose, California. Opened a Vietnamese grocery store, the second one in the city, which is what you’re supposed to do to pursue the American dream.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So it was a shock for me one day when I was about 10 years old to walk down the street from my parents’ store and see in another window a sign that said, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” I was 10. So I had no political consciousness to make sense out of this sign. I think I was too shocked to really do anything or say anything. I never mentioned this to my parents or to my brother. But I think I was thinking, “Does this person who wrote this sign and put this sign in the store window know that my parents work 12 to 14 hour days every day in this store? Does this person know that my parents were shot in their store on Christmas Eve? Does this person know anything about what my parents have been through to become the people that they are and to get to this country?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And of course, the person who put up that sign knew nothing about my parents and cared to know nothing about my parents, because to this person, my parents were not human, they were just people driving this person out of business. And what I didn’t understand at the time was that the stereotypes that we were fitting into as Asians was that on the one hand we were the model minority, we were the ones you wanted to move next door versus black people or brown people. We were the ones you wanted in your schools. But if there was too many of us, we became the yellow peril. And that’s exactly what happened to my parents.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that sign, another American driven out of business by, fill in the blank, is an entire story that has existed for centuries and not just in the United States, but in every country where Asians have appeared, which is why in the era of COVID, it was very convenient for someone, whose name I will not mention, to characterize COVID as the China virus and the Kung flu, because what that implies, what that gestures at is this long, long history of the Asian as the other in Western countries that everybody understood immediately. And I don’t want to just lay blame at the foot of Americans because anti Asian violence, which spiked in the United States and is still high in the United States, spiked in every other country where Asians have appeared, France, Canada, Germany, Australia has its own spike of anti Asian violence.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, the sad thing about this was that sign, another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese, I internalized that sign. A few years later, I would go to high school, primarily a white high school. And with some of us who were of Asian descent, we knew we were different. We just didn’t know how to put it into words. So every day at lunch, we would gather in a corner of a campus and we would call ourselves the Asian invasion. That was the only language we had for ourselves, a racist language, a stereotype. And what we didn’t understand, what we could not articulate was the irony of it. We hadn’t invaded the United States, Asians have never invaded the United States. It’s the United States that has invaded Asia, invaded our countries or occupied our countries or invited themselves into our countries, Philippines, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. And if you extend beyond what is technically Asia to the Pacific Islands, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa. So the Pacific East and Southeast Asia, then the Middle East with Afghanistan and with Iraq, this is the entire orient that I’m talking about here.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I do locate myself, not just in Vietnam and Southeast Asia or even East Asia, but in the history of war, and not just in the Vietnam war, but in the forever war of the United States. Another way of putting it is that I found myself in the 1970s and 1980s as a refugee from an American war, who became a citizen of the United States and therefore became a citizen in a country waging a forever war, very painful contradiction. It was realized for me most vividly by watching this movie Apocalypse Now. If you read far enough into The Sympathizer, of course, there is the making of a Hollywood movie that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now, but if Francis Ford Coppola’s lawyers were to ask is not Apocalypse Now.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I saw this movie in the 1980s on a VCR, which the students have no idea what I’m talking about. But with this VCR, I saw Apocalypse Now, and it was an American war movie, and I loved American movies. And I was rooting for the Americans up until the moment they killed Vietnamese people. And then I was split in two, was I the American doing the killing or was I the Vietnamese being killed? And I recounted this incident later in college after I had not thought about it for many years. And as I was recounting the story, I found myself shaking with rage and anger. And this is how I knew that stories are powerful. I knew that stories could save me because, in fact, as a refugee child in the 1970s and 1980s with my parents working all the time, my only solace was in the public library and books, stories that saved me.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But this was my first encounter with the fact that stories could destroy me as well. There’s a visceral power to stories. And if you are the majority, maybe you haven’t felt that power of stories to destroy you. Maybe it’s not obvious to you, because if you’re a part of a majority, however, that’s defined, all the stories are about you. That’s part of the privilege of being a majority or a part of the majority that the majority takes for granted. That’s what I call narrative plenitude. All the stories are about you. So if you encounter a bad movie about people who look like you, you don’t care. You can literally say, “It’s just a story,” and walk away, because you know there’s 1,000 other stories you can turn to. That is not true for those of us who come from a minority. However, you choose to define that. We live in narrative scarcity. Almost none of the stories are about us. And in that case, stories really do matter. Every story matters.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So when crazy rich Asians came out, all the Asians are like, “Oh my God, there’s a story about us. Too bad it’s not a very good story. But whatever, it’s a story about us.” That’s the power and the burden of representation. It’s a dangerous power, the dangerous burden, because writers, for example, artists of the majority, don’t have to worry about that. They know no one’s going to make them into the representative of white people. But if you are a so called minority writer artist, you will, no matter what you want, be turned into a representative of your people, which is why there’s such a burden on us to tell the good stories to humanize and all that stuff.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I’m here to tell you, if you are a budding writer or artist, don’t do that. Writers and artists of the majority are not obligated to do that. And neither should we. We should tell the full truth about who we are, where we come from, our families, our communities, our peoples, our histories, even if it offends and troubles those families and those communities. Now, I believe in what Muhammad Ali said that writing is fighting. Writing is powerful. It’s why I became a writer, is that I could fight against what I felt were the injustices of history and politics, but also the injustices of stories, stories in which Vietnamese people like myself were dehumanized.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Our only place in American stories was to be silent, to scream, to speak gibberish, to curse or to say please or thank you. And I wanted to give voice to the complexity and the contradictions of Vietnamese people that were not all the same, that we have different perspectives, that we fight against each other, that we do good things and we do terrible things. And this is the stuff of literature and of art. It’s also the stuff of politics that if we want to fight to belong in whatever society we find ourselves in, we have to tell the truth, which means telling the entire truth, the complex truth, both about ourselves and about our societies.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So when it comes to the United States where I find myself as an American citizen, telling you these kinds of things, telling you, for example, what I said in The Sympathizer about the American war in Vietnam, which I think is equally applicable to the American war in Afghanistan. And this is what I said, “I was also one of the as unfortunate cases who cannot help but wonder whether my need for American charity was due to my having first been the recipient of American aid.” So I feel that while we need to help Afghan refugees, we, the United States, the West, should recognize we created Afghan refugees. And when I say stuff like this in the United States, I will get that hate mail. And the common refrain is love it or leave it, as if those are the only two choices. And of course, what I believe literature does is to refuse those two choices and to look at the complexities that lie in between love it or leave it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For me, loving one’s country, as James Baldwin said, means having the right to endlessly criticize it, to tell the truth about it. And for me, the truth about the United States is that it is a complicated country just like every other country. There is nothing unique about the United States in this regard, despite what Americans like to believe about themselves. The United States, my vision, it’s a complicated and complex contradictory country that waivers between brutality and beauty, horror and hope. And it’s our task as Americans, as writers and artists, as students of the United States, not to turn away from the brutality and the horror, even as we strive to realize the beauty and the hope. Thank you. Don’t leave me hanging, Brendon.

Brendon O’Connor: Sorry, I typically had some problems with the unmuting element. I love the complexity of your characters, I love your honesty as well. Your novels are a joy to read. I remember lines like a puppet so sweet, my teeth hurt just on hearing it. And your character, the crapulent major has been haunting me or at least the tight his name. You combine this combination of this necessary brutality in your novels with humor. And I want you to talk about how these alcohol sort characters with their brilliant humor that you bring forward can be combined with the brutality of war and the legacy of war. This is something I think you do brilliantly, but it’s something I’d love to hear you talk about.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, thanks for all the kind things. I think that there’s something innate in me that has led me in this direction, which is really weird, because before I wrote The Sympathizer, if you ask my friends, nobody would ever have said, Viet’s a funny guy. I just was a very serious person. But I think somewhere inside of me, there was this person who was very polemical, who’s very satirical, just waiting to come out. But of course, if you are in the academy as a professor, it’s pretty hard to be satirical and polemical. You’re not going to last very long. So I suppressed all of that for quite a long time to become this academic and this scholar. But in order to become a writer, I think I really had to unleash what it was that was inside, buried inside. And that’s what I was gesturing at, that I also buried those refugee experiences that I had that I found so troubling and so emotionally difficult in becoming an academic was a way of containing all that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So to become a writer, and especially this novel, The Sympathizer, I looked at specific examples of other writers before me who had dealt with similar situations, writers, like for example, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Journey to the End of the Night or Joseph Heller and Catch-22, who saw that war was something that was obviously tragic and terrible. But within war, there was also the absurd and hypocritical, because that’s what human beings do. Again, it’s not unique to France or to the United States or to Vietnam that the absurdity and the hypocrisy happens, the corruption of ideals, it happens everywhere. Human beings organize themselves together and particularly, possibly around war, because there are all these high minded ideals about war, but at the base, what you’re doing is you’re killing people or you’re taking away people’s territory, you’re conquering in the name of nationalism and self interest and greed.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And underneath that, there’s even more that as I discovered by writing The Sympathizer, that it’s not just conquest of land and male to male fighting that happens in war, it’s also sex and sexual violence and prostitution and rape. All these things that no general, no president will ever discuss in their accountings of war. But if you read the accounts of soldiers, who’ve actually gone to war and read what they’ve been through and what they have done, you will often narratives that are deeply saturated in eroticism, masculinity, heteronormativity, prostitution and rape. So all of that had to come out in The Sympathizer as tragedy, but also again, as far if you think about the gap between what we say, what we do as human beings and what we actually do, it’s also hilarious that we deceive ourselves not only so much, but so often that we do it over and over again from generation to generation, which is why every generation finds its own satirist, who can reveal the particular ways by which these ideals have collapsed for their society.

Brendon O’Connor: That’s great. I think you’re a very funny guy. So your friends are… You have this great line in The Sympathizer that this was the first war where the losers would write the history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever, of course, namely Hollywood. Your books point to the injustice of this by securing a film like, as you say, Apocalypse Now with its lack of Vietnamese voices. Do you see your role as pointing out the self importance and in some ways the neocolonialism of liberal Hollywood? And how will the television version of your book help us move beyond this patronizing American centered tradition?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: First of all, if the TV series is a big hit, I take all the credit for it, and if it’s a disaster, I’m not involved. Okay? Because I’m the writer, I’m just there to give my opinion. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this, I’m going to get on a phone call with the whole team that’s involved with the production of this TV series. So with the TV series, it was initially optioned by a Canadian, which I felt was the right move, because I’ve talked with enough Hollywood people, I’ve known enough stories about Hollywood people to realize that Americans would totally screw me on this story, because Americans have such ideological hangups about the Vietnam war and about American exceptionalism that they have a really hard time not making Vietnam war films that are centered on Americans and American preoccupation.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So something like The Sympathizer comes along and it’s really disruptive to American expectations, which is why it was rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers. And the 14th person who actually bought the book was not an American, but is actually British and also of Malaysian mixed race descent. So I hope that the fact that we have Canadian producer and that the director is Park Chan-wook, Korean director with a very sharp political and aesthetic sensibility and a deep satirical bent means that we might have a shot at doing exactly what the novel itself sets out to do, which is both the absurd, excessive, over the top, and also really, really poignant at the same time about the tragedies and the failures of all the sides, the Vietnamese of all the sides and the Americans as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, about the Hollywood and propaganda and all that, I’m not joking when I say that Hollywood is the unofficial ministry of propaganda for the United States. We don’t need an official ministry as in a totalitarian society, because the power of American ideology is so strong that people go along with it consensually. So Hollywood might be full of liberals, which is the stereotype, but you have to understand that the United States as a military industrial complex is bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans participate in the military industrial complex. Democrats and Republicans believe in American exceptionalism that we are the greatest country on Earth and that everybody must want to be a part of the American dream. And Hollywood perpetuates that ideology.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So the contradiction here is that Hollywood can make seemingly anti war movies like Apocalypse Now that show the terrible things that Americans do, but are actually pro American, because in the end, it’s still all about Americans. That’s part of the power of the American global pop culture industry. And it’s not to be shrugged off, because I think it’s enormously seductive. For example, I went to Italy, was interviewed by communist who was deeply opposed to American imperialism in the war in Vietnam. And then she said, “I love Apocalypse Now,” but she didn’t see the contradiction between these two kinds of things that American imperialism is not only about the warfare and the occupation, although those are the most crucial things, but it’s also about the propagation of an American worldview all over the world. And so in my own little way with The Sympathizer, I’m trying to show how that ideological process as operates.

Brendon O’Connor: That relates to a great question from a colleague, Bruce Isaac. Many of us probably worry that we become what we watch. We are locked down, many people are using the very easy to get platforms of Netflix to get through this. But you have this great line in the character, the sympathize the nameless man. You are able to deliver all the great lines of movies, where America’s way of softening up the rest of the world, Hollywood relentlessly assaulting the mental defenses of its audiences with the hit, the smash, the spectacle, the blockbuster, and yes, even the box office bomb. It mattered not what the story these audiences watched, the point was that it was an American story they watched and loved up until the day that they themselves were bombed by the planes they had seen in American movies. Man, not surprisingly understood Hollywood’s function as the launcher of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile of Americanization.

Brendon O’Connor: So my first question is really when will America start paying the rest of the world for the unrequited love of watching all of these films and Netflix shows, and in some ways, as part of the solution to hear Vietnamese voices, Vietnamese books, the stories of war? I remember reading that story of Vietnam war, Vietnamese cinema, Asian cinema obviously is on the rise that this is sacrilegious for a person teaching American studies to say, but we need in some ways more affirmative action for other cinema and literature. Is that part of the solution that in some ways you’re pointing to?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that’s a complex situation that you’re pointing out, because given all the examples that you brought forth, the issue is how much change can we really effect by working within the machinery? And that’s a troubling question for me, obviously. For example, I set out to offend everybody with a sympathizer and then they give me The Pulitzer Prize, very confusing that, that is the case. But that’s a condensed illustration of the power of American ideology that it absorbs critiques of it eventually. And then that serves us further proof of the power of American ideology that we can let people criticize us.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so within that machinery, if Hollywood, for example, allows the production of something like Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes, which is a four part documentary about white supremacy and the history of colonialism over the past 500 years and it’s a really powerful documentary. HBO produced it. So on the one hand, HBO’s producing The Sympathizer. So on the one hand, you have this opening where you can tell stories like The Sympathizer and Exterminate All the Brutes about imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, but it’s one story within a much larger constellation of corporate power, most of which is geared to propagate entertainment and to do exactly what we just talked about in terms of American ideology. So I’m actually rather pessimistic about it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, the rise of other forms of pop culture, like K-pop and K-drama and so on, the ambitions of China to develop its own global pop culture industry, these are not accidental or incidental. We’re watching K-pop, we’re listening to K-pop and watching K-drama, not simply because many inherent goodness of Korean popular culture, but because Korea has become I think the seventh most powerful economy in the world. Historically, when we look at pop culture or literature, there’s a very direct correlation between the global power, economic and military and political power of a country, and the reach of its popular culture. So the downfall of America as a pop culture power, I think is going to be related to its downfall, it’s decline as a global power. And likewise, with the emergence of Korea and China and so on and other countries, we will see corollary changes in the global composition of pop culture too. So they’re really in inseparable.

Brendon O’Connor: We’ve got a great question from another colleague. Rodney Teva has asked a question about France for non informing your idea of subjectivity, but also this notion of the failures of empathy, particularly when you’re talking about the scenes in the re-education camp, the failure to act, doing nothing in that sequence towards the end of the novel, not to spoil it. It clearly comes in, in the second book, The Committed, that was Fanon, underlying your thinking and your writing there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. And I read Fanon when I was at 19 as an undergraduate at Berkeley. And then I come back to him periodically. And I’m actually teaching Fanon again in my decolonization seminar for grad students this semester. And I think that, his thinking in Black Skin, White Masks about the subjectivity and psychology of colonization, especially for black men, and then his theorization of national revolution and arm struggle in The Wretched of the Earth is still very pertinent, especially his analysis of what can go wrong with these types of things. Like his prediction toward in The Wretched of the Earth about the failures of the national bourgeoisie that takes over or the revolution, for example, in these, the corruption of the postcolonial nation, all of that is so widely applicable.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And the dynamics of arm struggle and colonization and the return of authoritarianism in the postcolonial moment, these are things that I take on in The Sympathizer. And the question of how armed struggle itself for Fanon is for him, constitutive of masculinity is necessary in order to detoxify, in his words, the colonized from the influence of the colonizer. All that stuff I’ve struggled with, because I came from that same situation in Vietnam, where I had the luxury of not having to participate in arm struggle. I was born in generation too late to have to make the moral and political choices that the Vietnamese of all sides had to make in the generation before me. But I’ve always thought about what would I do if I was in that situation? What choice would I make

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so I have the luxury of looking at these choices from retrospective perspectives and try to think through them. And so I think in The Sympathizer, what I stage in regards to Fanon is the moment of armed struggle and the detoxification, and then the immediate consequences of that. And in The Committed, I take up the long consequences and I wrestle with Fanon. And I say, look, I think Fanon is absolutely powerful, but maybe because of his moment, because he was participating in the Algerian revolution against a French in the 1950s, maybe he was too close to that revolution to see its limitations and other alternatives that maybe it’s not only violence that can detoxify us as he says, but maybe non violence can detoxify us as well. And that’s what The Committed takes up.

Brendon O’Connor: You’ve really in the New York Times last week brilliantly and thoughtfully about the comparisons between the fall of Kabul and the fall of Saigon. Do you think attitudes in 1975, they certainly weren’t perfect in Australia, in the United States towards Vietnamese refugees, but are they better than the attitudes we see today with this bureaucracy that refugees have to go through that deliberately attempts to make it incredibly hard, near impossible to get out of countries and unwillingness to airlift people from Afghanistan to Guam, because then they’ll be able to claim American citizenship potentially, so they’re being airlifted to the Middle East or to the Balkan state. So making that comparison has two generations of anti immigrant politics, in some ways, made things even worse than they were in 1975.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. It’s really hard to quantify that. I would say that if you look at the polls of American public opinion about our receptivity to refugees from non white countries, they have been uniformly bad, no matter who you’re talking about, what population you’re talking about, whether it’s the Vietnamese back then or Syrians and Afghans today. The majority of American public opinion is like we don’t want to take refugees. But in retrospect, when Americans look back at the Vietnam war and at Vietnamese refugees and now Vietnamese Americans, they’re like, “Well, yeah, those people did pretty good. Look, we got Viet here, we got his brother, two doctors,” and all that kind of thing. So it’s easier after 30, 40, 50 years of living with somebody to recognize that they’re not as dangerous as you thought they once were.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So now, of course, with every new refugee population, we have the same battle over and over again that these new people are going to be the dangerous ones, because they’re foreign to us, whoever we happen to be. But I do think you’re right that the situation is more grave now, because I think the way that Muslims are represented in the political and cultural imagination of the west is much more toxic than even the way communists and Asians were represented in the past. So that was pretty bad already. But with Muslims, I think it’s another degree of objectification and demonization that we’re witnessing compounded by, of course, the forever war that we’re living through.

Brendon O’Connor: There’s a great question here from Khan Tran, that memory is subjected to revision. And as you’ve noted, there’s an obsession with trauma of revisiting the Vietnam war while paradoxically knowledge about contemporary Vietnam lags behind. The term Vietnam is often in America, of course, this notion of the war rather than the country tragically and wrongly.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, absolutely, right. And that is the paradox in the contradiction that I think Vietnam and every other country that’s gone through a horrific war and aftermath struggle with, which is how much do we remember and how much do we forget now. I think that you cannot say, “We have to remember everything, we have to remember all the time,” because that’s not how we function as human beings. In fact, there’s always this balance, this tension between remembering and forgetting. And in fact, you do have to forget in order to remember and to move forward. Now, the only issue there is, how do you do that? What is the proper ratio? What is the ethical way of remembering and forgetting?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I think in both the cases of Vietnam and the United States, to talk about these two countries, I don’t think either country has achieved that ethical way of grappling with the past and moving on. Now, both countries are, in fact, moving on. They have trade relations with each other, they have military relations, all kinds of political strategizing, economic strategizing going on. And of course, many of the people in Vietnam were born after the war. They don’t want anything to do with that past for a number of different reasons and they want to move forward and they want to make money like everybody else and take care of themselves and their families. And you can’t blame them for doing that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But that is a forgetting that I think is dangerous because the past will come back in the United States, for example. So in the beginning of my book, Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam in the memory of war, what I say is all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. And in the case of the Vietnam war for both Vietnam and the United States, I think that’s true, we’re still fighting these wars in memory. Now, if we look at the United States, we fought our civil war 150 years ago, and we’re still fighting it today, literally, over the symbols, the histories, the meanings of the civil war and has a huge impact on the contemporary politics and economics and culture of the United States. And the reason why we’re doing it is because, in fact, we’ve never actually properly forgotten it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And fear that for Vietnam and the United States, when it comes to their own history together, that same situation will arise for the United States, the fact that the United States has not, I think, really grappled with what the Vietnam war meant is why we’re still where we were in Afghanistan for 20 years. If we had seriously understood what the war meant, we would never have gotten involved in Afghanistan. In fact, the lessons that the United States took from the Vietnam war was let’s double down, let’s increase the military budget, let’s do everything we can to put the war into a sanction memory, let’s eulogize and turn into hallowed objects of veneration our soldiers so that the anti war movement can be cut off of the knees before it can even get started. All these strategies were designed not to remember the war in Vietnam, but to forget it so that the United States could continue on the path that it was already on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, in the case of Vietnam, I think the danger is that the memory of the war in Vietnam has been given over to the Communist Party, that the Communist Party gets to dictate the terms of memory. And I’m very biased here. Like I do believe that Vietnam should be a free independent country. I do believe that the communists were probably the best people to do it, but in the aftermath, I think that the handling of memory has been really, really problematic. And the fact that the Communist Party dominates and controls the memory of the Vietnam war is one reason why I think a younger generation wants nothing to do with it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ve seen some of the movies that have been produced about the Vietnam war from the victorious perspective. They’re really boring. So if that’s history for you, you want to turn away and move on to something more exciting. But in so doing then, a very of static version of that war’s history has been accepted as the past. There’s so much more that can be done in Vietnam to allow for more ethical memory, to talk about what does reconciliation involve? What should both sides do in terms of acknowledging the wrongs that they did? I think both sides did wrong, but neither side wants to admit it. How do you get to the point where both sides are able to confess, to acknowledge the failures of their own projects? How do you accommodate for of the remembrances of your enemies on both sides? Neither the defeated Vietnamese, nor the victorious Vietnamese have gotten to this point.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So capitalism will continue in Vietnam. That’s going to happen, but this troubling memory is going to stay there and no effort to say, well, we just are not going to think about it, is going to prevent that troubling memory from continuing to exist.

Brendon O’Connor: I’ve got to have to thank you here for an incredibly wide ranging and very generous talk. For those who read the books and all of them, I commend to you phrases like America is not a welfare state, but a dream state, eternal innocence. And as I was thinking of Kabul over the last week, the notion that it would take six months for the Taliban to take over rather than a couple of weeks, there’s a line in The Committed, which says Americans are manically optimistic. And that has been ringing in my ears. A brilliant talk.

Brendon O’Connor: We’ve got another event next week at the US Studies Center, commemoration of the Anzus Alliance where Julia Gillard and John Howard are speaking. So I’d like you all to register for that. But I’d like you to thank Viet Thanh Nguyen for a brilliant talk. Just wonderful to have him with us and a treat for our students and audience. So thank you very much.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks, Brendon. Thanks, everybody. Bye, Sydney.

Category: Interviews

 

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