Chang-rae Lee and Viet Thanh Nguyen: National Book Festival 2021

Viet Thanh Nguyen and Chang-rae Lee share a conversation about constructing their novels, the relationship to history and more in this interview with Elizabeth Blair for NPR News.

Chang-rae Lee, author of “My Year Abroad” (Riverhead), and Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of “The Committed” (Grove), discuss their early experiences as immigrants to the United States, the complexities of displacement and belonging, and the various ways their novels confront history and culture, with Elizabeth Blair, senior producer/reporter on the NPR News arts desk. Bonus content: Ryan Wolfson-Ford, Southeast Asia reference librarian from the Asian Division, describes the Library’s collection of works from Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora.

Read the transcript below.

Elizabeth Blair: I’m Elizabeth Blair from NPR, and I’m here with Chang-Rae Lee, author of My Year Abroad, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Committed. Thank you. This is really a thrill. I’ve enjoyed getting to know your stories and your characters. And it’s really been quite a thrill to read both of them and to talk to you now. So this year’s theme for the National Book Festival is “Open a Book. Open a World.” I’m wondering if either of you can talk about the time or times when a book truly opened a world you didn’t know before. I’m happy to start with whoever is ready to go. Do you want to start Chang-Rae Lee?

Chang-Rae Lee: Let Viet go.

Elizabeth Blair: OK. Viet, you go.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: All right.

Elizabeth Blair: Let me think about it for a few minutes, right? This is a big question, so I’m sure there are lots and lots of answers [multiple speakers].

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, first of all, thanks, Elizabeth, for interviewing us, and it’s a real pleasure to be here with Chang-Rae. You know, I read Native Speaker when I was probably like 24 or 25, and it was a deeply inspiring model for me. So that actually opened up a big world for me in terms of the possibilities of being an Asian-American author and writing a thriller novel that also brought of issues of identity and race and everything, and it was a big influence on Sympathizer. But other books that opened up the world for me, you know, honestly, I think Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club had a huge impact on me because I read it when I was probably 18 years old, and I had never read a book by an Asian-American writer before. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an Asian-American writer or Asian-American literature. And it was a big thing for me because I love literature. I grew up reading novels, reading poems, and feeling that my life had been saved by literature because I had grown up in this refugee household, and literature was my great escape from, you know, what I was watching happening to my parents and to my family. And I have no problem reading literature by white people, which is primarily what I was reading, but it’s nice to read literature by other people. And so, to come across The Joy Luck Club for the first time was astounding. And I read it, I think, within two nights and was totally caught up in. And, you know, that opened up the possibility for me to think that I could write about people who were of Asian descent and that there was a space for someone like me as a writer who could write about my parents, could write about the Vietnamese refugee community, could write about Asian-Americans, and then that opened so many doors for me at that time.

Elizabeth Blair: What about you, Chang-Rae Lee?

Chang-Rae Lee: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, in reference to what Viet was talking about, I mean books are, you know, certain books have a radical transformation of everything that you are and around you. And that’s one of the things that I think I first felt when I read, of all things, On the Road by Jack Kerouac. You know, I’d been — before that I was just, you know, reading a lot of stuff from the Canon and the sort of typical writers that you encounter in school. And after reading that book as a — I would say I was probably 14 or 15 years old, it shook me out of a lot of sort of obviously conventionalities and expectations I had of myself and life just as a typical immigrant kid, you know, who was sort of raised to follow a certain path and to be kind of a careful person and to think the things that were going to be most efficient, profitable, you know, lead to prosperity and security. And reading that story, The Beats and their drug-fueled ecstatic journeys across the landscape and the inner landscapes that they were exploring and also just the wild, lyrical explosions of feeling and language. You know, it kind of shook everything out of me, and I thought, you know, it was probably the first time that I thought, oh, this — this world is not just about, you know, crossing your Ts and dotting your Is. This is — this world has the possibility of — and this life has the possibility of transformations that I hadn’t yet, you know, even conceived of. So it was a wonderful mix for me of the both of — a kind of lingual opening but also just kind of just a personal one.

Elizabeth Blair: I’m just curious about when you were children, was there a book — was there a first book that really opened the world — opened a different world or a different way of thinking as kids? Just curious.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think for me it was the Tintin series by Herge, which I read in English, but my public library had the complete set of Tintin comic books. And now, of course, looking back on them, there might be some — there was some problems with the Tintin books. And it’s interesting because I’m reading them with my seven-year-old son. We read them in English, and we read them in French as well, but, you know, as — as someone growing up in San Jose, which I felt to be kind of a provincial city, the Tintin books literally opened up the world because these are boy adventure books that are set in all these exotic locales all over the world, and they were just beautifully drawn as well. So I think that next adventure and travel and crime-solving and having this young boy be the hero just totally drew me in.

Elizabeth Blair: Yeah. My son was a huge fan of the Tintin books, and we did read them. There were a couple of moments where we were like, well, we wouldn’t say this that way today. But they’re super fun books. What about you, Chang-Rae Lee? Was there a book as a kid?

Chang-Rae Lee: You know, I read so many books as a kid and mostly because my teachers and my parents were not really that — that knowledgeable and comfortable in English even though my father is a psychiatrist. It was really a second language. And so I was introduced to all these books, and so I can’t really point out any classics or children’s books. I wasn’t — I wasn’t a reader of them in some strange way. I kind of leapt forward in a probably unusual way because my father was a psychiatrist, and he was studying to become an analyst, which he — he ended up failing at, but I read a lot of Freud when I was a kid [laughter]. Just because I had sort of a period interest, you know, mixed up idea of it, but I remember reading Interpretation of Dreams when I was very young not knowing at all what was going on but — but just getting into the case studies of these people and — and the kind of flights of their dreams. And I think it was just an experience to me that — that had me thinking about, again, strangeness, weirdness, you know, transgression, which I think, you know, that, of course, all children’s — all literature but particularly children’s literature tries to do. But obviously not — in a more entertaining fashion. So those — that was — I — I would say that those books of my fathers that I was just kind of noodling through, you know, kind of thinking through that kind of affected me.

Elizabeth Blair: Well, both of your most recent books have really opened up many different worlds. Each one, I mean, almost like every chapter a new world whether it’s the worst Vietnamese restaurant in Paris or, you know, Stagno, the New Jersey suburb. These are really worlds that you create, and I love the humor that you all manage to convey even while you’re keeping us moving what’s going to happen next. And I know both of you came to this — to the United States when you were very young, three and four years old, I think? Four for you. I’d love to hear a little bit more about what it was like for you and your parents, your families in those first, you know, 5, 10 — you know, what was it like growing up in a foreign culture?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I came first to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as a refugee in 1975, and, you know, it was — it was difficult because we were refugees from war, and so obviously my parents had lost a lot of things and left people behind and had to rebuild their lives. And as for me, as — as a four-year-old, you know, when you’re a child, you can make the best out of a lot of circumstances. So I actually had a good time in those first few years in the United States because ironically my — my parents were working 9:00 to 5:00 jobs. So they — those were not the kinds of jobs they wanted to have. I mean, they were doing, you know, custodial jobs and things like that and working on the assembly line. But ironically, what that meant is they had time to spend with me. So I have these very nice memories of Harrisburg and Pennsylvania and the snow and having a birthday party for the only time in my life, you know? And then we moved to San Jose, California, in 1978 so my parents could open a grocery store — a Vietnamese grocery store, and that required so much work, and it was a dangerous job too. And at that point, my happy childhood ended because my parents were no longer spending time with me, and that’s when I turned to the public library. Now, I had already been spending time in the public library in Harrisburg, and in my own mind, I just sort of emerged full-blown into English. I don’t remember learning English, and my parents didn’t teach me English. I don’t remember people teaching me English, but obviously, it must have been my school teachers. And it was just — you know, some of my earliest memories are of the public library in Harrisburg and going there and reading books and then transferring that passion to the San Jose Public Library. And, again, it was really the library that saved my life because my parents had no books in the house. They were so utterly focused on economic survival. I was what we now call the latchkey kids, that particular generation, where I was home alone all the time. And so that was what the first 5 to 10 years was like, you know, the contrast between economic survival and this other world of possibility offered by books.

Chang-Rae Lee: My experience was fairly similar. You know, we — we settled in the New York area. My father was just taking his first job as a young doctor, and they had come, you know, to the country by themselves. We didn’t have any relatives. And, you know, they were — they were not as, I suppose, economically challenged, but we certainly had no money. I mean, they were just starting from nothing, but, you know, I think they felt like, OK, things will be. So on that score, I think, you know, it was a fairly comfortable existence. Not too much — too much economic stress. What was — what was strange about it was that we lived in an apartment complex that was, and I’m writing about this now, it was so diverse back then. It was just all these races, mostly working-class, middle-class people, and there was a lot of intensity and strife in the playground — racial, ethnic strife that was just part of the language, right? You know, and it was — by today’s standards, it was just eye-watering what we’d call each other, how much we’d fight, you know? It was — it was — it was kind of fraught. And but at the same time, it was — it was loving and intense, and I think we all felt like we were newcomers and kind of struggling with each other for a little piece of comfort and a little piece of belonging. And as — in reference to reading too, you know, as — like Viet’s parents, you know, my parents were not, you know, aside from those psychology books we had, we didn’t have any other books in the house. And I remember my first real formative engagement with books, regular engagement with books was with that Reading is Fundamental van. I don’t know if you remember RIF, but the mobile van, it looked — it was — and they were very smart about it. They made it look like an ice cream truck, but then it was — it was just full of books, and it really — I don’t remember if it had a bell, but — but I would love it when it came by because you could take five or six books and then read them all, and then they’d come back a couple weeks later or the next week, and you’d exchange them. And I tell you, I mean, Viet uses the phrase “saved my life,” and that — that I think saved — saved my life in terms of just, you know, where — it sort of set me on a road of reading and loving reading that — that, you know, I never got off.

Elizabeth Blair: Oh, that’s terrific. Well, let’s — let’s talk about The Committed and My Year Abroad. I’m very curious about character development. I mean, I know The Committed, this is the character we got to know in The Sympathizer, but, Chang-Rae Lee, I don’t believe we’ve — Tiller is a new character, right? This is not — not someone you’ve written before. Where — are these characters modeled on real people? What was the genesis of these characters?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I mean, The Committed and The Sympathizer are about a Vietnamese spy in the South Vietnamese Army, and so that’s loosely inspired by a real-life spy named Pham Xuan An, of whom there have been a couple biographies written in English, and Pham Xuan An was someone who was actually educated in the United States. He went to Southern California in the 1950s to a community college in order to study American psychology and culture and came back to Vietnam — South Vietnam. And he became a journalist who was held in high regard by all the major American journalists. He was — he had access to all this information, and he fed it all to the National Liberation Front and the Communists. And in secret, he was promoted to Major General for how much information he was able to siphon off to the enemies of the United States and the South Vietnamese. And so I heard about this story, and it stayed in my mind, and I’m a huge fan of spy stories and crime stories. And when it came time to write a novel, I turned to him as an inspiration. But I took it in a, you know, very different direction than his own life, and what I did was I grafted his story with the refugee experience that I’d had. And my own refugee life is very boring. You know, my parents went through dramatic things, but my life was boring. But the only interesting thing about my life was that I felt like a spy when I was growing like I was, you know, an American in my parents’ Vietnamese household spying on these strange Vietnamese people and their customs. And then when I stepped out of that household, I was a Vietnamese person spying on these strange Americans and their customs because I took that seed, a feeling of displacement and always feeling ill at ease and always observing, and I greatly exaggerated those feelings and put them into the — the character of this spy, and I made him, you know, a very intelligent person and a very conflicted person. So in many ways, an exaggeration of me who could say many of the things I might be feeling, but if I were to say them in my own life, people would look at me askance, or if I were to say them in my academic life as a professor, I would have to footnote everything. And in the novel, you can just say whatever you want, and then people would just have to deal with that. So that was the premise of this particular character and his freewheeling personality.

Elizabeth Blair: You know, I — I did — I lived in Paris for three years a long, long time ago and, you know, I don’t even know if I should admit this as the white American girl, but the Vietnamese restaurants in Paris are the best, and — and so I was so sad that you chose the worst Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, but I — I felt like I’d never tasted Vietnamese food until I lived in Paris. But maybe I just haven’t, you know, I haven’t gone to many Vietnamese restaurants in the United States. He — so the nameless one, but he — I know he — he does go by a name in the new book. Why did you choose, you know, living in Paris and the, you know, you have the intellectual aunt on the one side and the gangsters on the other, why this scenario? Why this storyline?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean, I think it’s just fun, you know, and honestly, I’m just mentally colonized by the French, you know? That’s part of my — my legacy as a Vietnamese person. And I think we’re all mentally colonized by the French. I mean, or a lot of us are, you know, seduced by Paris and all this stereotypical stuff about French culture, but, in particular, you’ve come from a country actually colonized by the French, it’s hard to get that legacy off of your mind. So I wanted to deal with it, and I wanted to have fun with it, and I wanted to write a novel about Paris in particular that was not the stereotypical Paris of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine and all that kind of stuff, but it was about the immigrant and refugee Paris that I like to hang out in. And you’re right. I don’t think there are any bad Vietnamese restaurants in Paris, but there are really bad Asian delis in Paris. You see these Asian delis all over the place, and I’ve eaten in a lot of them, and they’re pretty bad. OK. So that was what it was really modeled on. But I thought that French culture is so right for satire as an outsider. And, in particular, in The Sympathizer, I tried to satirize right-wing pretensions and right-wing ideas, and in The Committed, I just wanted to demonstrate that I’m bipartisan or non-partisan or whatever it is and satirized the French left-wing, which I think there’s plenty to be — to be said. And also to tackle these ideas of liberty, democracy, equality, universalism that is so important to the French and to their model of civilization that they’ve exported all over the world, a model that, you know, the French like to think is a better model than the American model of pluralism and multiculturism. I think part of the point of these two novels back-to-back is to say both of these models are great. They’re great idealistic systems, and they’re completely compromised by the histories of France and the United States in practice in what the French and the Americans have done, and we’re not going to be able to realize either the French ideal or the American ideal until we confront the actual histories of both countries.

Elizabeth Blair: And what about Tiller in My Year Abroad, Chang? Where does he come from?

Chang-Rae Lee: Well, he’s the narrator of the novel, you know, young 20-year-old young man who is at sort of loose ends. But he wasn’t actually the inspiration of the novel. And it’s — it’s — it’s instructive sometimes to think about that as — when people think about how novels come to be, he was actually created — I had to create him in response to my interest in another character in the novel, which is this Chinese — I don’t think he’s Chinese-American. I consider him a Chinese businessman who lives in America named Pong Lou. And he was the original, you know, spark for me, and I wanted to write an entire book just about him. He’s, you know, kind of a world, you know, a world-viewing entrepreneur but not a billionaire, not an oligarch, just someone who is kind of irrepressible in his interests, curiosity, you know, mercantilism, and just someone that I — as — just as a person, he’s marveled after a friend of mine back in Princeton, he was just so impressive to me about how brave he was and how open he was and just curious about everything. And not just to make money, but just because he was so interested in all the ways in which, you know, the flows of commerce and people were around the world. And — but I — but I ask myself why am I so interested in this fellow now? And I guess it was part of my own, I don’t know, maybe feeling that I was becoming lackadaisical in my — in my role as a world citizen, as an immigrant. You know, maybe I felt like I was losing my drive, the drive that I had and the drive that — perhaps more my generation, my parents had, that kind of, you know, always looking for an edge, always looking for an opening, always looking for the opportunity. Maybe just because I, you know, a college professor and a novelist and just kind of settled in my ways, and so I thought should I write about this, you know, fellow Pong Lou from my point of view, another middle-aged guy? And I thought, no, that would be just too dull and deadly. So I thought I — I — I wanted to create a character who is just emerging maybe into the world, emerging into his own consciousness. Not that he was empty. He’s got lots of opinions, lots of observations, lots of sense of how things should be but maybe not quite on his own footing in many ways both ethnically, racially, just as a citizen of the world, and so in some ways, Tiller is a way to house both my interest in this Pong Lou but also I guess some of my, you know, I don’t know, just fears of innervation about living and this, you know, this want of vibrancy. It — it’s my coming age middle-age crisis novel.

Elizabeth Blair: Right. Right.

Chang-Rae Lee: All in one.

Elizabeth Blair: Pong puts most people to shame. He’s got like yogurt shops. And tell — tell us a little bit about Pong and this tireless entrepreneur slash — go ahead.

Chang-Rae Lee: Yeah, well, you know, in — in the book, and it’s — it’s, again, it’s modeled after this real-life fellow who had, you know, some eateries. He had a tofu factory in Amish country. He had — there are scenes in the book that didn’t get into the book just because there were just too many, you know? He — he had these condos that he’s renting to professors, and he — he — he’s a chemist by trade, and so he — he — he synthesizes, you know, compounds in China on pennies on the dollar and brings them over. So it, again, it’s like nothing is out of his reach, and this is something that interested me. It’s like, you know, when — when we were coming over to this country, the opportunities were just limited to what — if you were lucky enough to be able to follow an occupation given your education, great. If not, like most immigrants, they just did something else like Viet’s parents, open up a store, had a dry cleaners as my uncle did, who was a professor of Korean literature. But this fellow here, given the way the world has shrunk with technology, with data, with social media, information is readily available. And — and so I was interested in this fellow who — who felt like even though he’s not, again, a billionaire, even though he doesn’t have unlimited means feels like he can be astride the entire world. And that, to me, is an interesting idea and an idea that we’re living with both the — the, you know, the benefits of that and the severe consequences of that too in terms of our economies, the force of capitalism, inequality, all those things.

Elizabeth Blair: Something both of you do in your books is sort of point out the nuances and the contradictions of American culture and other cultures as well. Do you set out to do that? Or does the character just magically tell you this is what I want to say about the American culture here?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, the character in The Sympathizer that was very, definitely a deliberate choice because I wanted to write a spy novel and a war novel, but, you know, part of my interest in writing the war novel, in particular, with the Sympathizer is that war novels are not just action stories, but they can also be stories about the absurdities and hypocrisies of war. You think about the great anti-war novels like Catch 22, for example, and I wanted to capture some of that spirit, and at least with The Sympathizer, so much of the focus of that novel is on the American role in the war, and it’s such a big, fat target. There’s so many absurdities and hypocrisies that can be said about what the United States did there, but, you know, it’s important to point out that that novel also has a lot to say about the failures of the South Vietnamese regime and about Vietnamese communism as well. So I wanted to create a character who had the capacity to be both an insider and an outsider to all the cultures that he was in. And so, as an insider, you know, you know the particular culture very well. As an outsider, you can see some of the absurdities and hypocrisies that people who are completely on the inside have been normalized to. And I think that that is something that we should all be wary about is our internalization of whatever dominant ideology we happy to be a part of. And I can see it within myself, for example, if I’m not — if I’m not careful. So that’s one of the power — the powerful aspects of literature if we’re talking about opening a book and opening a world, one of the ways that literature can do that is to open our own world to us, not just open the world of another country or another culture but to open our own world and make us see anew the things that have become old to us. That’s one of the great impulses of modernist literature, for example. And so there’s a streak of that happening, the satirical and the modernist in both The Sympathizer and in The Committed as well.

Elizabeth Blair: What about you, Chang-Rae? Do you have some —

Chang-Rae Lee: Well, I don’t know that in this particular book, I set out to comment upon, say, suburban American culture, which I do a little bit. I think it’s just a function of having a character in situ and having that character as clear-eyed as possible about what’s going on, and, yeah, it’s — it’s mostly in good fun, satirical. But — but, you know, at the same time, it’s been a kind of pleasure for me where people will read about, say, the towns that Tiller inhabits, and they’ll say, you know, it’s — and the — the main town is based upon Princeton, New Jersey, but people from all over have written me and said, “Oh, that’s just like my town.” And, of course, I want to say, “Well, there’s a reason why it’s just like your town.” You know, this is what Viet is talking about, right, about the ways in which we’ve — we’re not seeing the ways — you know, how all these places function and why they function in those ways, why certain people are left out of those towns, why certain things are upheld as successful and noble and other things not. And so — so that’s — I think, for me, I haven’t probably been as intentional about certain kinds of cultural or political critiques of society, but I hope that my work is always on the edge of that just because of, you know, in my hope that, again, I’m trying to open up truth, I’m trying to see clearly, and if you do that as a writer, I think all those notions, they end up seeping in. If not — if not absolutely directly, then at least subtly and then, you know, certainly just by osmosis.

Elizabeth Blair: I read an interview with you where you said individuality and context are really important to me, and I can kind of assume what you meant, but the — the interviewer didn’t expand on it. Can you — what do you mean by that individuality and context are really important?

Chang-Rae Lee: Well, I think — and maybe — maybe people who aren’t immigrants aren’t as aware of this, but — but how we think of ourselves, how we think of ourselves to be, our nature is not exactly, right, it’s not something that’s ordained. Culture and context is so powerful to the formation and the development of any given human being. And I saw this firsthand in the personage of my mother. My mother, in her Korean life before she came here, was something of a celebrity. She was a very beautiful woman. She was the point guard of the national high school basketball team. She was on — in Time Magazine in 1956. And to this day, people have come up to me and said, “Oh, I –,” older people of course, but, “I met your mother, and I knew who your mother was and da, da, da.” And she was a sociable, brilliant, very gregarious woman. But in our lives in the first, I would say 10 to 15 years, in our life in America — in our life in America, she wasn’t at all that woman. She was tentative. She was often by cowed by social situation obviously because of language but also because she just wasn’t — she didn’t have a community. The community she had, she didn’t feel — she didn’t feel confident in understanding that community, made less confident by her lack of language skills. She was inside all these people, but, in fact, but — but I could see that her personality was different. And so, she had more frustrations. She had more stresses. That, to me, was an object lesson in the power of context, in the power of where you are and — and how that, you know, dynamically changes you and mutates you in — in all these kinds of ways. So, and I think I’ve always — I think in every book of mine I’ve written a little bit about that if not a lot.

Elizabeth Blair: What about you? I would imagine those were things that were really important to you as well, Viet?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I mean Chang-Rae — Chang-Rae’s story about his mother has a lot of resonance for me because that applies to my mother too. And I think, again, those of us who were immigrants and refugees and who have come from other places to the United States, I think we can see the transformations that take place in our parents who had their own lives in their other countries and who were obviously fully-fledged adults and so on. And then they come to the United States, and all of a sudden, they are no longer the same people that they once were. They’ve been taken out of one context, put into another context, so with my own mother I could see that, you know, she had become a self-made woman in Vietnam and was her own boss and was an authority figure, and then she comes here to the United States, and, as I said, in the first few years, she was working custodial jobs 9:00 to 5:00, right, and that was a huge stepdown for her. Not that there’s anything wrong with working custodial jobs, but that shift in context for her from being someone who was self-employed and powerful and all that to this other context turned her into a different person, and I could see that even ad a very young age. And, you know, what about, you know, language here, and so language is so important to literature, right? But language is important to people’s sense of themselves and their sense of authority. I’m taking French classes right now, and I can totally see that, you know, when you’re trying to learn a different language, you are reduced in a lot of ways. You feel yourself to be a full-fledged adult, and you’re trying to say these — say these things that you could say easily in English, but in French, you come off like — or I come off like an idiot or as a child. And so that makes me think about what it’s like if I was actually trying to make a life in another country and reflect on how difficult that experience must have been for my parents. So the point here is that as someone who grew up with this, I learned, I think, an innate sense of empathy for people who are undergoing transformation, who are cast on the outside, who have dual lives, and so on. And that sense of empathy is good for anybody, but it’s also particularly important, I think, for writers because that’s one of our most important tools is the capacity for empathy and not just empathy for people who are like us like our own family members but people who are not like us. And so, you know, and one of the greatest challenges and joys in writing fiction for me is not simply to write about my own family or people who are like my family but people who are so far distant and who I probably would dislike intensely if I were to meet them in real life, it’s fun to write about them [inaudible].

Elizabeth Blair: Yeah, seek those people out, right? And then you really will have done your job. How has it been for the — during the pandemic for you? Has reading, writing been different for you?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: You know, up until a few months ago, I would say the pandemic has actually been pretty good [inaudible]. I’ve been, you know, I don’t have to travel. I get to spend time with my family. I get to write. And but, you know, it started to wear me down, and also because, you know, I’ve been teaching throughout the pandemic but small classes, I enjoy them on Zoom, but this past semester, I had to teach a hundred students, and it just — things just went off the cliff. I think we were all exhausted by the middle of the semester, and I — we’ve all just had enough. So now I’m glad obviously that the pandemic is coming to an end, but in some ways, the pandemic, besides all the terrible things it did to the country, you know, for me it amplified the sense that pandemic life is actually not that different for — that the writerly life. I mean, the major difference, though, is that it — it’s nice to be able to choose your solitude and your isolation and your alienation versus being — having it being forced on you with no other circumstance.

Elizabeth Blair: How about you, Chang-Rae?

Chang-Rae Lee: Yeah, I agree with Viet. It — it did — it did actually reveal how, you know, the solitude that we enjoy, it was different in the fact that you just couldn’t after your workday, after your reading day couldn’t go out and see anybody which is, of course, a very necessary release. I actually had a little bit trouble, a little bit of trouble reading and writing at the beginning of the pandemic. I was maybe too focused on the political, you know, palabra that was going on with the election. So I stopped reading fiction, you know, big books as I usually do for a little bit, and I stopped writing for a little bit. I felt like it was, you know, I remember after 9/11 I was working on a book, and I had to put it away because I just — I — I was just in too much of a jumble of thinking about what was going on now, what’s going to go on in the future. That said, it has been after that initial period of kind of doldrum and despair, you know, it’s — it’s — it has, as Viet says, amplified, I think, you know, what we really care about, which is, for me, what books care about, which is empathy, the lives of others, and of course the lives of our beloved. You know, it — it has made me realize how much I love this world, how much even — and everything in it, even the stuff that gives me heartache and gives me rage sometimes. We need to all to make sense of ourselves. You know, so in that, I think is — is what I enjoy from a great book. It gives me a little bit of everything. You know, it — it — it shocks me. You know, in Viet’s work, I love the absurd that goes on. It’s so hilarious and brilliant — uproarious. But then, of course, the other side of that is just, you know, the shock and despair of how dire things can be, and I think that’s what the pandemic has done for me. It’s been — it’s been this long novel that we’ve all lived if you really think about it. And for those of us lucky to be on the other side of it, I hope we’ve learned something.

Elizabeth Blair: Great. Well, Chang-Rae Lee, Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you so much. It has really been a pleasure hearing you all talk.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks, Elizabeth.

Chang-Rae Lee: Thanks. Thanks, Elizabeth. Thanks, Viet.

Elizabeth Blair: It’s really been a pleasure hearing you all talk.

Chang-Rae Lee: Thanks, Elizabeth. Thanks, Viet.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks, Chang-Rae. Good to talk to all of you.

Chang-Rae Lee: OK. Bye.

LeVar Burton: We hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation, and now we’d like you to hear more from the library’s own experts on this topic.

Ryan Wolfson-Ford: [Background Music] Welcome to Library of Congress. I’m Ryan Wolfson-Ford, a Southeast Asia Reference Librarian from the Asian Division. To access Asian language materials at the library, please visit the Asian reading room located in the Thomas Jefferson Building. The Southeast Asia collection contains some of the first Asian books acquired by the Library of Congress in 1866. Today, there are over 370,000 Southeast Asian items throughout the library. This includes works from Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora, which along with the Southeast Asian collection, is accessible to the public and the Asian Reading Room. Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet Thanh Nguyen, a featured author of the National Book Festival, writes about the Vietnamese who left their homeland of South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in April 1975 at the conclusion of the Vietnam war. While his 2015 novel, The Sympathizer, dealt primarily with the U.S.-based Vietnamese diaspora, his latest work, The Committed, takes us to Paris, France, in the 1980s. Both works weave together an incredible story of Vietnamese forced to leave their country to become refugees, resettle in the West, and the many issues arising from this experience. Refugees recovering from war and dealing with cultural assimilation caught up in the Cold War while confronting contradictions between democratic ideals and the stark realities of living in the United States and France. The Asian Division has many works by Vietnamese authors writing in the diaspora, including many lively newspapers. The bilingual Vietnamese English newspaper GoodLand chronicles the daily experiences of a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, which was first established in May 1975. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s own family first settled in the same state before moving to California. At the Fort Indiantown Gap Camp, there were 26,000 arrivals in 1975 alone. While the Asian Division holds this historic newspaper, the Prints and Photographs Division has over 3,000 images taken of life at the camp by photographer Chris Isaacs [ph]. The Asian Division has other [inaudible] from the camp, like classroom documents and identification forms. Echoing this, the Asian Division has many other U.S.-based newspapers documenting the life of the Vietnamese diaspora from Seattle, Washington to San Jose, California to Arlington, Virginia, and even to Guam and Montreal, Canada. The Asian Division also has a Vietnamese language newspaper chronicling the Vietnamese diaspora in Paris, France, during the turbulent years, 1969 to 1972. These works are essential to preserve a record of events facing this community for the future.

Besides that, you will find many more works on the Vietnamese diaspora ranging from dense scholarly studies to riveting memoirs by Vietnamese authors telling their unique life experiences in their own voices. The Asian Division and Southeast Asian collection has nearly 40,000 works from Vietnam. This includes over 33,000 books and around 1,500 newspapers. Please note that there are more works in other languages and formats in other divisions of the library. The Asian reading room is a home not just of the Southeast Asian collection but the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, South Asian, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Asian American, and Pacific Islanders collections. It is a public access point for more than four million physical items held by the library in over 200 Asian languages and dialects. To learn more about Vietnamese works, please see the Southeast Asian collection research guide. To learn more about the Asian reading room, please see the newly redesigned site

Category: Interviews


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