Viet Thanh Nguyen shares a fireside chat with Vivian Vo about being Vietnamese, his literary work, and more for the API Community Summit.
Vivian Vo: Hi everyone. Thank you for tuning in today. I’m Vivian and I am honored and equally as excited to welcome our special guest who as Tanisha and Dome have already mentioned is a Vietnamese American author. He’s a New York times best seller, his history and heritage and culture personally resonates with me. He is certainly a thought leader in the API external community. Please join me in welcoming Viet Thanh Nguyen. Hi Viet.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi Vivian.
Vivian Vo: Thanks for hanging out with me in the Facebook family today.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s an honor and a pleasure to be here with you.
Vivian Vo: Yeah, so I want to start off first by just doing a check-in, as a fellow Asian and Pacific Islander, how are you doing, especially with what has been happening in the world in the last year and a half?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think like everybody I’ve been undergoing lots of stresses, ups and downs, both the dealing with COVID having a life at home with two kids who are wonderful and adorable and also a little aggravating to be there with them for 18 months. And of course, worrying about presidential politics, the state of the country, the environment, so many things for all of us to deal with. So, it really does feel that we are at a time of crisis in both the nation and the world. And we have so much more work to do as a country to try to move forward and make things better.
Vivian Vo: Yeah. And so we’re going to dive right into some of those topics just a little bit here. But for now I want to chat a little bit about some of your work. I’ve been following your works for a while. I’ve read a number of your books, including The Sympathizer and parts of The Refugee. And for those of you who are watch and who don’t know, The Refugee is a series of essays about underrepresented communities. So, Viet, can you share what inspired or motivated you to write these types of literary works and give voice to the voiceless? Like what’s been your inspiration.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I grew up as a refugee in San Jose, California in the 1970s and I 1980s, and then became an Asian American when I went to school at Berkeley and throughout all those years, those couple of decades, what I was really aware of was how underrepresented we are as Vietnamese, as Asian Americans, as refugees in American society. I grew up at a time in which the only representations of Vietnamese people for example, were the Viet Cong in American war movies about the Vietnam war. And there were very few stories about us that weren’t about the war that weren’t being told from the American perspective. And so, I thought it would be really crucial to tell those kinds of stories. And that was especially important for me because I grew up with a love of literature, of storytelling, of books. That was my way of coping with being a refugee watching my parents struggle as refugee grocery storekeepers in San Jose seven days a week, almost every day of the year.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, I think stories are really crucial and they’re crucial both as for fun and for entertainment, but they’re also crucial for political and cultural reasons that storytelling is how we make sense out of ourselves as a community and as a nation. That’s true for the United States as a whole, where we are always fighting over the story that we’re telling about our country, and likewise, we as Vietnamese and Asian Americans also have to tell our own stories if we want to make a claim to the society that we live in.
Vivian Vo: Given that the Sympathizer, it’s great that you talk about how important it is to tell our story. And given that the Sympathizer, which is the first in the trilogy… By the way, congrats on your latest release, The Committed, which is third in this series, but the Sympathizer is about an anonymous spy, a North Vietnamese mole who relocates and lives in a South Vietnamese community in LA. And I want to take a moment to call out just how brilliant and bold this book is. And the TLDR for those of you who haven’t read the book yet, who are watching is that this was written from the vantage point of a Viet Cong or communist in who would be a Vietnamese refugees oppressor.
Vivian Vo: So, it definitely gives you a different perspective to the Vietnam war. The Sympathizer, we know the Sympathizer went on to win a Pulitzer prize and a number of other awards and not to mention a lot of your other works have also been recognized. As we talk about having a voice, what was the impact of this on you and of having your work recognized having a voice. And I ask this in the context that some of us may still struggle in finding our voice and struggle with accepting recognition and putting ourselves out there and being vulnerable.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, the really TLDR version is wait for the HBO TV adaptation then you don’t have to read the book at all. That might take a couple of years, but yeah, I mean, The Sympathizer was an unexpected success. I don’t think anybody including me expected it to win a Pulitzer prize and certainly not the Vietnamese American community. It is a book about the war and about Vietnamese refugees and eventually about Vietnamese Americans. But it’s a very complicated question that you’re raising about having a voice and speaking for people and representing the community and so on, because that’s a very ambivalent situation that many of us find ourselves in. I think we’re all familiar with this idea that our communities, our families often actually do not want us to speak the full truth about where we come from. Don’t air, the dirty laundry, don’t shame us and all of this. If you have to speak up in public, be a good representative. That obviously it means usually being a doctor or an engineer and so on. And if you’re an artist, God forbid, tell good stories.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And The Sympathizer, it does not do that. I mean, The Sympathizer, as you said, tells this history of the war from a communist perspective and a lot of Vietnamese Americans or deeply anti-communist for obvious reasons said, we’re never going to read this book because it’s from a communist perspective, even though point of the novel was we have to be capable of seeing the world from our enemy’s point of view in order if we have any hope of trying to reconcile. And I don’t think we have to go very far from that to imagine how that’s also true for the United States as a whole. So, for those of us who want to speak up and find a voice, sometimes it’s very difficult to do that, to be honest to our own self, no matter what context we’re talking about, it’s true, not just for artists and writers, but for everybody. We always have to find our own voice to find our own authenticity.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But what if that voice and authenticity is in conflict with communities and people that we hold dear, that’s a very common occurrence. And so, it takes a lot of, I think, discipline and courage and persistence, maybe full heartiness to try to do that. But I really do encourage people to try to find that voice and that authenticity, because that is actually how we move forward, by being honest and truthful, not only by telling the good stories and presenting the good face to the outside world.
Vivian Vo: Yeah. I love that. Yeah. So, on this thread of storytelling, you and I have a number of shared experiences. Actually, you don’t know this, but we both went to St. Patrick’s, you went to Bellarmine. Yeah. I was a hair away from going Notre Dame high. I fought that one because it’s an all girls high school and I had refused to go, but I was very close to going. We both grew up in San Jose, but more importantly, we’re both refugees and products of the immigrant experience. So, what does the term refugee mean to you? And can you describe the journey that you and your family undertook to come to America?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Wow. I did not know we shared that history because it left a deep mark on me, this Vietnamese Catholic upbringing in the 1970s and 1980s in downtown San Jose. And fortunately, you did not have the full experience as I did of going through single gender Jesuit or Catholic religious education really marked… But for me being a refugee and what makes being a refugee distinct from being an immigrant is that immigrants typically choose to move. They choose where they go to, they follow certain kinds of prescribed routes. They’re generally welcomed into the country they go to, and in the case of the United States, the immigrant fits into the mythology of this country, the American dream, even if we’re living through a xenophobic moment right now, or in the last few years, it’s still true that for a lot of Americans, they believe that immigrants make this country better. And that immigrants are a part of American history, a part of who we are, the American dream narrative.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Refugees on the other hand are forced to flee. They typically have not thought about this in advance. And that was true for most of the Vietnamese refugees who came, they come as desperate people. And if you remember, when the refugees started to flee from Vietnam in the late 1970s on boats, they were called the boat people. I was not part of that generation or that wave, right? But the boat people that term really put us in global consciousness. Everybody started to call us the boat people. And that was helpful in one way, because it helped a lot of refugees get resettled in different countries. But it’s also a term that is objectifying and that renders Vietnamese people or any kind of refugee as objects of pity.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I think that’s what we struggle against. This sense that we’re desperate, that we’re pitiful and so on. And much of my work is dedicated to opposing that because I think that refugees are actually heroic. And the reason when you think of them as pitiful is because we’re afraid of them. We’re afraid of too many refugees coming in and unsettling our society reminding us of the fragility of our own homes. But in reality, if we look back to the Vietnamese refugees, then if we look to African refugees, if we look to Latin American refugees, now these people are undertaking very dangerous journeys. Their Vietnamese refugees knew their chances of survival on the open sea were really, really low.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, if White people were doing this journey, let’s say, Columbus or the Pilgrims, we call them heroes, even though they’re really boat people. So, much of our effort when it goes back to storytelling and representation, speaking about who we are as immigrants, or as refugees it’s to advance our own subjectivity, the centrality of our place in storytelling and what we know about our parents and grandparents, that they were among many things, heroic in what they did.
Vivian Vo: Yeah. So, I want to connect the dots a little bit from then and now. Do you think that the refugee and immigrant experience, and now we know that they can be two separate things, right? But do you think that the refugee and, or immigrant experience back then is similar to now, more than 40 years later?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think it depends on context. Back then, let’s say the 1970s, the Vietnamese refugees were a relatively new phenomenon. I mean the United States or the world, hadn’t really seen a huge wave of refugees since the Jewish refugees of World War II. But if you go back and you look at the 1970s, part of what was happening is that Vietnamese refugees were accepted by the United States. Although it was controversial, the majority of Americans did not want to accept Vietnamese refugees. This has sort of been forgotten, but congress passed an act, we were allowed into the country. Haitians were not allowed in as refugees for the most part. And so, this distinction between who are acceptable refugees for obvious political reasons versus who is unacceptable, still continues today. So, today we’re witnessing actually even larger wave of refugee flight. The UN says that there are about 77 million officially displaced people in the world today of whom I think 23, 24 million are officially classified as refugees.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, this population dwarfs what was happening in the 1970s and 1980s. But what is still similar is the hesitation in many countries for accepting refugees and the ability or the desire to categorize refugees as acceptable or not acceptable. And in this country, we have those exact same problems. Who do we welcome in as refugees, who do we keep out, or who do we classify as something else besides being a refugee so that we can excuse ourselves from moral and political obligations for accepting refugees.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, the last thing I’ll say here is that what’s really sort of crushing for me is to see former Vietnamese refugees say, ‘Oh, we were the good refugees. These new people are the bad refugees. Don’t let them in.” And I think that is that’s completely morally indefensible, but also politically indefensible, because I don’t know when you were growing up in San Jose, but I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and there were a lot of bad Vietnamese refugees. So, it’s always been the impulse in American society. Vietnamese refugees are not new, always been the impulse to celebrate the immigrants and the refugees of the past and to demonize and be afraid of the refugees and immigrants of today.
Vivian Vo: Yeah. That’s so that’s really interesting. So, I want to have us jump back to something that you mentioned way earlier when doing our first initial check-in where you mentioned that we’ve gone through a lot in the past year and a half, right? In light of recent events, a lot of our community members have shared that they struggle with navigating conversations at home about anti-Asian hate and politics and all the things that we’ve been talking about. So, I want to ask this question, it’s two sides of the same coin kind of question, but with you being a father, how have you approached these topics as a parent? And then, on the other side, how do you have these conversations with parents and elders who may not necessarily have the same views?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think around the question of anti Asian violence, what we’ve seen historically is that one of the things that usually brings the Asian American community or communities together is anti-Asian violence. And that’s what turns us typically into Asian Americans in the first place, because most of us can agree, anti-Asian violence is bad, and we need to defend ourselves. Now, that being said, I actually don’t have these conversations with my parents because my mother has passed away. My father is 88, little too old to really worry about these things. I will say he did not vote for Donald Trump. He told me that, “This lifelong Republican voter did not vote for Donald Trump.” So, I thought we made progress there. But in the fall of 2020, I had a public Facebook page of about 84,000 followers, and a lot of them were Vietnamese people.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I got into so many fights on that Facebook page with Vietnamese people who supported Donald Trump or supported Maga or denied the existence of anti-Asian violence. And I take that as being fairly representative of what a lot of us as Vietnamese and as Asian Americans coming from certain communities, we’re dealing with talking either with an older generation or with a non-English speaking population. And you know, what I will say is, yes, I think it’s important obviously to try to persuade people, to try to be respectful, to acknowledge everything that the other generation or non-English speaking people have gone through. But at a certain point, you have to make a decision. You have to make a commitment. And so, it was my commitment to carry on some very forthright conversations and get into some very loud controversies with people on that page.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And the benefit of that was that I think a lot of people, especially younger Vietnamese and Asian Americans were really mobilized by that. They really felt that, “Oh, here we are. Someone is… I’m not the only one, here’s someone saying these things out loud that we believe to be true about our obligations as Americans and as people who believe in justice and equality.” So, with my own children, my son is eight years old. I think it’s really crucial to have these conversations with your children, because I think that if you do not have conversations with your children about the things that matter, here we’re talking about racism, for example, your child will get exposed anyway.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think about racism and its spread as not just the direct incidents of racism, but as what the epidemiologists call community spread. Sometimes you don’t know where the racism is coming from, just as you don’t know where COVID is coming from, you put your child out in the world and they’re going to be exposed to so many sources of information, whether it’s their friends or whether it’s media in various kinds of ways, they will absorb racist ideas. So, if you are not actively anti-racist, your child will absorb racist and prejudicial ideas. And so, now we are very lucky to live in an age, let’s say you’re Asian American. There are so many books and so many source resources and TV shows and out there that would help you.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, my son, for example, big comic books fan, I make sure he reads graphic novels and comic books by Asian American writers, by women writers. For example, he read Superman Crushes Klan by Gene Luen Yang, and afterwards, he had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the Ku Klux Klan, of racism, and he would ask me, “Is Donald Trump a racist?” And maybe I’ll offend some people in the audience says, “Yeah, Donald Trump is a racist. Good. You caught that information from Superman Crushes Klan.” So, it’s possible to have these kinds of conversations. And I think it’s our obligation as parents to do so.
Vivian Vo: That’s so awesome. So, great to hear that that parents are having these types of conversations. I know when I was growing up, one of the things that we just never talked about these types of things, right? I don’t think in a normal, the traditional Asian family, there’s a lot of communication in the first place about tough topics. It was… In Vietnamese there’s the saying where, “We love you so we give you bitterness,” Right? So, yeah. So, we never got these types of conversations that would educate us about these types of topics and which I do think shows up later impacts you later growing up, because I think as an API, many of us have struggled and we continue to struggle with our identity and feeling like a perpetual foreigner. And we juggle between these multiple conflicting identities, right? How you grow up, how you’re supposed to be at work, how you’re supposed to be at school.
Vivian Vo: And one of our VPs, Naomi Gly earlier, she shared that it took her a while to get to this place where she recognized that she was neither half Taiwanese, nor half Jewish, but she was 100%, both. So, specifically for you, have you struggled with carrying multiple identities that are at times conflicting and how have you dealt with it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Going back to that difficult question issue, I will say that for me, talking about racism is relatively easy. I spent most of my life dealing with this topic as a scholar and as a writer, but as a Vietnamese Catholic, what I really dread in terms of hard questions is sex. Like, how am I going to talk to this eight year old boy in about five years when sex is going to come up? My wife says, “That’s your job.” I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m terrified.” Anyway, so there are things that I find very, very challenging, but on the identity question, let me also say, as a scholar of Asian-American studies, that the issues that you raise have always been with Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in the United States.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, you go back and you read the stuff in the 19th century, the early 20th century, people were dealing with exactly the same things. I was dealing with it in the 1990s as a college student, and the sad thing is that today young college students or young students, young people in general, they’re still dealing with it based on the questions that I’m asked by them. And I think the important thing to stress here is that in Western society, whether it’s the United States or elsewhere, the idea of the identity crisis is so common. East is east, west is west, never the twins shall meet and the identity crisis is put on us as our problem, as our burden, like poor you, your torn. You’ll never feel at home, and isn’t it so bad to have this kind of cultural conflict within yourself. And so, many of us absorb that message. We blame ourselves, right? And I think that’s the completely wrong way to think about it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because the identity crisis and the cultural conflict, they may really indeed exist and be repeated from generation to generation, but the reason why they exist and the reason why they get repeated from generation to generation has nothing to do with you or any other individual. The reason why they exist is because of political forces and events like colonization and warfare, that led to the displacement of millions of people in the creations of refugee and immigrant diasporas, including the Asian American population in this country. Most Asian Americans are in this country because of wars that the United States fought in their countries of origin or because of American colonizing that took place in their countries of origin as was the case in the Philippines, for example and in Vietnam. In other words are identity, conflict, and cultural conflicts are a ramification or a consequence of war and colonization. We need to understand that history in order to frame what it is that we feel when we experience. And that allows us to find a solution because if we don’t have that historical awareness, we have no solution.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So typically, the cultural solution to the cultural identity problem is for people to say, “Well, [inaudible 00:20:32], if we just had Bulgogi Tacos, or if we had Hawaiian style pizza or whatever, if we could bring these cultures together, we would solve our problems.” Guess what? We’ve never solved our problems because of that. The only way we will resolve these kinds of crises is to resolve the political and historical and economic conflicts that led to our existence here in the first place. That’s very difficult to do. But if you know that, that’s what you have to do. It’s enormously liberating to understand that you are not the problem.
Vivian Vo: Yeah. It seems like we have a lot of work cut out of ahead of us. Any hope for us? Any words-
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, there’s always hope. Yeah, no, there’s always hope. I mean, like I said, there’s always hope because, you, for example, talked about your colleague who was saying, “I am not 50% of this, 50% of that. I’m 100% who I am.” That’s a great personal resolution to come to. And it’s been come to before. I think about the writer, Frank Chin in the 1970s, who said, “I’m not an Oriental, I’m an Asian American. And what that means is that you can’t divide me into two. You cannot say here’s my Asian half, here’s my American half. Instead, he and we are organic beings.” Once these things are mixed, you can no longer separate them out. And in writing The Sympathizer, I deliberately made the protagonist of that novel, French and Vietnamese, because I wanted to get to this issue exactly.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sometimes I said, “Oh, he’s half French and half Vietnamese.” And mixed race people have corrected me and said, “No, you can’t say that people not half and half of anything.” And they are absolutely right. If you’re a mixed race person, you are mixed. You’re not half and half of anything at all. And neither are we as Vietnamese or as Asian Americans. So, the optimistic thing to take from here is that these issues have been dealt with before, and if we look back, historically, there has always been political, social, cultural mobilization in this country of Asian Americans at various times around various groups who have sought to fight back against the discrimination that racism directed against them. If you go back to the 19th century, Chinese immigrants, they were not taking anti-Chinese discrimination lying down.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: They were taking cases of Supreme court. They were fighting legally and so on and so forth. So, we have always been fighting back. We’ve always been doing it. And I think that’s what’s optimistic. There are already organizations, there are groups out there, no matter your ethnicity, or whether you want to be Pan-Asian that are doing cultural work and political work to advance our own interests and to collaborate with other groups in this country, interested in solidarity and injustice. You have to do the work of reaching out, but there’s hope because other people are already struggling and fighting for this cause and have been for a long time.
Vivian Vo: And with that note of optimism, because I want to leave us hanging in on that hopeful tone as we move towards wrapping up this conversation, it’s in Facebook tradition, we like to close with a bit of levity because we’ve been going… So, we’re going to just now go through some fast lightning round questions. This is just quick, fun to get to know you better. You don’t have to put too much thought into it or you can if you want to, but yeah, we’re just going to get started. Yeah, ready?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Okay. Absolutely.
Vivian Vo: Okay. So, who was, or were your biggest influencers growing up?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, that had to be mom and dad, ba ma. I mean, I spent 17 years is living with them in very close quarters and like I said, they opened the second GetMe grocery store in San Jose. They worked in that store every day of the year. It was a really, really hard life, and I got to witness that up close and I was the beneficiary of all their struggles. So, in ways, mostly for the good, they really imprinted me with their belief system, their moral code, the way I carry myself, I owe a lot of that to my parents. And I wouldn’t be here where I am now without all the opportunities that they provided for me.
Vivian Vo: Yeah. Love that. And same here. So, next lightning round question fiction or nonfiction?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh gosh, it has to be fiction. I mean, I’m writing a nonfiction book right now that incorporates a lot of memoir, including about San Jose, and I talk about St. Patrick, but not Notre Dame. Although, I had a lot of stories about Notre Dame, because I always had to take the bus home and go by Notre Dame, and I would look longingly at the school and all that kind of thing. But nonfiction… I was like 12 or 13. So, nonfiction is important. I’ve written a couple of nonfiction books, but my heart is still with fiction.
Vivian Vo: Okay. Got it. Now, if you weren’t a professor or a writer, what would you be doing?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Golly, if I wasn’t a professor or a writer, I would be a very depressed, unhappy alcoholic corporate lawyer.
Vivian Vo: Okay. So, corporate lawyer, got it. Favorite API author?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Favorite API author, Maxine Hong Kingston. My college teacher at UC Berkeley. She made of so much contemporary Asian American literature possible. There would be, I think, no Amy Tan without Maxine Hong Kingston. And I would tell you a little story. I mean, I’ve told the story many, many times, but I got into a class with Maxine Hong Kingston at UC Berkeley. One of 14 students in her nonfiction writing class, it was hard to get into that class. And then, I sat, maybe 5 feet away from her every day in the seminar room. And I felt asleep, felt asleep every single day. And you know what grade she gave me at the end of the semester? She gave me a B plus, otherwise known as the Asian F.
Vivian Vo: Yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But the positive end of this story is that I am now editing her complete works for the library of America. We will do an event together in the spring of 2022. So, there is a happy ending, and the reason why I tell this story is you can never judge anybody by who they are when they’re 19 years old.
Vivian Vo: Wow. That’s a good story. Yeah. I’ll definitely have to check that out. Okay. Do you like sầu riêng and for everybody who’s watching, sầu riêng is durian in Vietnamese.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, I don’t like sầu riêng. I know, maybe I’m supposed to prove how authentic I am, but I did try it in Vietnam, in Singapore. I mean, it’s fine. I don’t look down on it. If you like it, it’s great. And I said, I’ve tried it and I can eat it in like waffles, but direct Darien by itself, no, it’s not something I would go to on a regular basis.
Vivian Vo: Okay. So then, what is your favorite Asian comfort food? What do you turn to?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Favorite Asian comfort food, excluding all kinds of chips and pron crackers and all of stuff. Favorite Asian comfort food is probably, pho, and if you really want to cause a conflict, you don’t have to choose between different kinds of Vietnamese food, what you should say to people is, Northern or Southern pho. And I will always say Southern pho is better than Northern pho and then people just get upset. They’re like, “Oh no, you didn’t go there.” So, that’s really where the dividing line is between Vietnamese people.
Vivian Vo: Yeah. Okay. I was just going to agree with you on yes, definitely Southern Pho though. So, but we might have some people here will now be disagreeing in the comments. I’ll let you know. Well, unfortunately, our time has come to an end. Thank you so much Viet for joining the Facebook APIs at community today, it was such a pleasure getting to know you and for everyone else, who’s watching feel free to check out some of Viets works. We’ll link it right in the thread chat, and I hope you’ve all been enjoying the program so far and that it resonates with you stay tuned, don’t go anywhere. We’ve got some more great sessions coming up. Thank you. And I will see you shortly.