Conversations with The Nation | Challenging Colonialism in Literature

Viet Thanh Nguyen is in conversation with Katrina vanden Heuvel about his own experience as a refugee in America, the history of Anti-Asian violence, and some of the ways he thinks people can help their communities for The Nation.

Read the transcript below.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: It is wonderful to have Viet Thanh Nguyen. I don’t think he needs it. Well, a Vietnamese American writer, professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He received a Pulitzer prize in 2016 for his first novel, The Sympathizer. His published books also include Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian American, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, the Refugees, and The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: His recently released novel, The Committed, is the sequel to his celebrated debut and has been receiving widespread acclaim coast to coast globally, major literary figure, an advocate for refugees, displaced people around the world, and one of the leading public intellectuals in the literary world. It is a great honor to have him with us today. Viet, could you talk… We had some interesting chats about a number of things in the so-called green room, but could you talk a little bit about the importance of understanding the history of anti-Asian violence and anti-Asian racism in this country?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, hi, Katrina. Thanks so much for having me. Thanks to everybody who’s joining us today. Anti-Asian violence, it’s endemic to the United States. I think, obviously now with the spike of anti-Asian violence that we’re seeing, it is obviously very deeply disturbing for Asian Americans but also for many other people who are witnessing these things or reading about them. It may catch some people by surprise to see this stuff happening. But for a lot of Asian Americans, I think there’s a feeling that we’ve already seen this happen before.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: There are iconic incidents of anti-Asian violence that marked Asian-American history dating all the way back to the 19th century and the arrival of Chinese immigrants and the kinds of racists and classists violence that was directed at them. I’m coming to you from Los Angeles, for example. Here in 1871, 19 Chinese men and boys were murdered by an armed mob of several hundred. That was not the only time that happened in the 19th century. We have to remember that anti-Asian violence in this country has been systemic.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s not just been directed at individuals, so we think about things like the incarceration of Japanese Americans. That was an act of anti-Asian violence. We think about the murder of six Sikh-Americans in 2012 at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which foreshadows the killing of four Sikh-Americans just a week or two weeks ago at the FedEx plant. There have been specific incidents of anti-Asian violence that have been seared in the Asian-American memory, things like the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 in Detroit by two Detroit auto workers who mistook a Chinese-American for a Japanese person, and were taking out their frustration and their rage at Japanese economic competition on this person.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now in this era of COVID-19, part of the American imagination has been stimulated in the wrong way by people saying that COVID-19 is the China virus and the kung flu, which reawakens this deep well of both anti-Asian feeling and xenophobia and feelings that are very specifically directed at the Chinese. But of course, people who are racist can’t really tell the difference between one Asian person and another, so all Asian-Americans suffer as a result of this rising tide of anti-Chinese feeling as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We have a lot to do to counter this anti-Asian violence, both on a personal level but also on a social and systemic level to be aware of how systematically embedded this anti-Asian feeling and violence is.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: We were talking earlier about how you teach a class, and many of your students don’t really… The Vietnam war as World War II is futile. I mean, it’s ancient. In the context of anti-racist education, which you’ve spoken about, what needs to be done? As you put it so well, I mean, this is about white supremacy, and it’s a broad, dangerous force. Anti-Asian is part of it, but do you think we can do a lot better? Have we stayed back in the last few years?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely, which makes me a little bit pessimistic in some ways, because at Berkeley, I was an ethnic studies major. I was an English major because I loved literature and the Western canon and all that. I was an ethnic studies major because I really believe that we also need to talk about all the things that are not canonical, which means things like colonization and racism and white supremacy and genocide, and all these things that are fundamental to American society and to Western society, these things are not incidental.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think our challenge is that for a lot of people, the instinctive reaction when we see things like the murder of black people on the streets, or anti-Asian violence is to resort to this reflexive mythology of the United States and say, “We’re a great country. We’re the greatest country in the world. We have American exceptionalism. We just need to fine tune the system.” If we just perhaps have more diversity, and we have better children’s books, maybe we’ll solve this problem. I don’t think that’s the case. Like I said, I think anti-Asian violence is systemic and structured to this country and so is anti-black violence, so is police violence.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: At the level of education, we at least need systemic education to adjust these kinds of issues. I think that this country does not actually have that in place in most places in this country. We don’t have ethnic studies requirements. There is contestation, even though we’re saying things like critical race theory, which the right wing in this country all the way up to the presidential administration from the previous administration was demonizing as somehow being the cause of destroying the United States versus being a theory that might help us to understand how systemically embedded things like race and white supremacy happen to be.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When I teach my own students, they’re 18 to 21 years old. They’ve been born in 2000 or later. You’re right, things like the Vietnam War is ancient history. We’re talking about 9/11 as we talked about earlier in the green room. They don’t have any living memory of events like that, and so they’re getting their education just basically like everyone else from the internet, social media, things like this. So things that your generation and my generation, if we’re different generations, that we think can be taken for granted when it comes to history, for example, with the Vietnam War, that everybody knows certain things about the Vietnam War like just photographic images of Kim Phuc being burned by napalm, or General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Nguyen Van Lem in the head on the streets of Saigon during the Tet Offensive.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: My students don’t… A lot of them do not know these kinds of images. So with every generation, it’s on us as the teachers, the educators, the parents, the activists, the concerned citizens to continue the process of education, both institutionally wherever we happen to be, but also certainly individually, personally with our own children, grandchildren, and with our social circles as well.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Yes. I think you mentioned the media, not just like so… The media needs to play a role. You’ve talked powerfully about… You referred to it just now in terms of triumphalism and exceptionalism about how much of U.S. foreign policy during the period of the first cold war and afterwards has depended on a foreign other, on an other. Then you wrote something very interesting the other day about, “Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia leads to anti-Asian violence here.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Could you say a little more? I mean, we’re looking at the beginnings of a real cold war with China possibly. We don’t make the link sometimes between what comes home, what goes out. The idea of the other is so powerful. America has needed another for many, many years, and here we are.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s absolutely right. I think that the process of demonizing others overseas and other countries is completely tied to the demonization of people domestically, which is why, for example, when a war that we were engaged with overseas or even things that we don’t call wars, but just conflicts, they inevitably rebound on people within this country that are assumed to appear like or looked like those people that we’re targeting overseas, which is why after 9/11, of course, people who looked Muslim, who looked brown, who looked like they were somehow associated with the middle east, themselves became targets of racist violence in the United States.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When we talk about anti-Asian violence in general, I think one of the things that we have to acknowledge is that the greatest acts of anti-Asian violence that this country has committed have been through wars. I mean, here domestically in the United States, certainly individuals get singled out, groups get singled out. But when we’re talking about wars in Asia beginning with the Filipino-American war going through Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and so on, we’re talking about millions of people who have died in wars that the United States has instigated, helped to promote, and carried out in these countries using all kinds of weapons from carpet bombing to now so called precision drone strikes and the like.

So when we send American soldiers overseas, these American soldiers are being exposed to these populations, bringing with them already existing racial and racist attitudes, and then bringing them back again to the United States. This is why when we’re talking about the Atlanta killings, where six of the victims were Asian women, so many Asian Americans have insisted on saying that it’s not just about race, it’s also about sex. And it’s not just about what happens here domestically, but about the fact that the racist and sexist fantasies that Americans have about Asia and Asians in general rebound here in the United States in the ways that Asian and Asian American women are treated from sexual objectification to sexual and murderous violence.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s why it’s not enough simply to say, “We need more diversity. We need more faces. We need to fine tune the representational mechanisms of this country,” if we don’t understand that the things like targeting China, targeting Asian countries is a part of our military industrial complex. The last thing I’ll say about this is that I do think that even with a democratic administration in place under Obama and now Biden, who are obviously at least verbally committed to anti-racism and multiculturalism, if we, as a country, still insists on saying China is the number one enemy geopolitically, economically, militarily and so on, it’s going to have consequences for Chinese-Americans and anybody who looks Chinese or east Asian.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think it’s impossible to use this kind of rhetoric considering our racist history as a country without having racist consequences domestically.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: I mean, we had a great contributor, Jonathan Schell, who wrote Fate of the Earth, and wrote about nuclear weapons, and to think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the stain on this country, first use of nuclear weapons. There was an othering in that horrific time. You spoke of this. I’m interested in your view of media coverage because you talked of the killings in Atlanta. It seemed to me that in the first day, the authorities at least refused to address racism.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: The perpetrator had a sex addiction, but how racism and sexism intersect and the racial dimensions of the sexualization of Asian women in our culture, our popular culture. How do you see the media coverage? You’ve followed it, I’m sure, for your work and teaching and writing. How do you see it evolving in the last, say, decade degrading, improving? To me, media is not everything, but it does define reality from people.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I mean, in some ways, when we see this spike in anti-Asian hate, for example, we can look at the media and say, “Well, it has become more responsive in some ways, because there has been slowly increasing coverage of these kinds of incidents.” But a lot of it has become about because of the push of Asian-American advocates and activists, and Asian-American journalists who have been insisting that the media pay more attention. Partly, the reason why the media is perhaps more responsive is because it is looking a little bit more like the rest of the country slowly through the diversification of its newsrooms and so on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The rise of social media in relationship to media in general means that on the one hand, there’s both potential for media to get things wrong really quickly, but also for the media to respond to the social media pressure from non-professional journalists as well. Now in the age of the iPhone, et cetera, we can see that that kind of social media, everything from the video recording of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd to the many incidents of anti-Asian hatred that have been recorded by bystanders and so on, that has an impact on the professional media in a way that is a mixed blessing in terms of social media’s potential for amplifying things.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: You used the term refugee. Might you tell us your own story, your family’s own story in that context, because it obviously…

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I’m teaching a class on the Vietnam war. I have my student interview survivors, both Americans and Southeast Asians from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. One of the things they find out is that a lot of the American soldiers who were there during the Vietnam era, I mean, some of them saw horrible things and were in combat. A lot of them didn’t. They were serving as clerks and the like. Now, every single Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian person they interview, soldier or civilian has a horrifying story.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That involves being a refugee. Anybody who’s a refugee in this country has been through something horrifying or at least terrible in order to escape wherever they came from and get to this country. I say this because I don’t want to advertise my own story when… Among Vietnamese refugees, we all have these stories, and for us, it’s completely normal. When I see my students’ interviews of refugees, one of the things that really strikes me is that they’ll say, “Oh yeah, we were on the sea for three weeks.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was just like, “Okay, that’s all we have to say about it.” On the open seas, in a boat not meant for the open seas, where the bulwark of your boat is six inches above the ocean, that’s terrifying. But for all of us who’ve been through things like that, I don’t know, we normalize it because we have to survive. We have to cope, and because we recognize that everybody else in our refugee community has been through the same thing or worse. That’s my preface for what I’m about to tell you, which is that I was four years old when south Vietnam fell to the communist, and my family was on the losing side.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We had a very dramatic escape story from Vietnam, which included leaving behind my adopted sister, who my parents would not see again for 20 years, and who I wouldn’t see for 30 years. That’s one of the human consequences of a war like that. We fled along with 130,000 other Vietnamese people from Vietnam. We were very lucky to make our way out of the country. I arrived in the United States at four years old at a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. This is where my memories begin.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: What happened is that in order to leave one of these refugee camps, a Vietnamese person had to have a sponsor, an American sponsor, and no sponsor was willing to take my entire family, so my parents went to one sponsor. My 10-year-old brother went to another, and four-year-old me went to a third. That’s where my memories begin, howling and screaming as I was taken away from my parents, because it was being done for our own good, because my parents needed to have time to get on their own feet. But when you’re four years old, you don’t really understand that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I felt that as abandonment. It wasn’t totally negative. I mean, it gave me the necessary emotional damage that a writer requires. I spent my life trying to, like I said, normalize things. I thought my life is pretty boring. My parents’ lives are really interesting, but what it really meant is that I, like many other refugees, simply tried to forget about the past, tried to get on with our lives and seal over the emotional damage and trauma that resulted from that experience, which is why I know…

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because I was only away for my parents for a few months, even though it felt like years to a four year old, which is why I know that when we have people coming in at our Southern border, and families are being divided much more traumatically, and children are being lost and separations are going on for many, many months and years that these children and their parents are going to be forever scarred by this experience. I became a father, and I was able to see this experience finally through my parents’ eyes and not my own, and to understand that for my parents, having their children taken away from them, even for good reasons must have been really devastating as well, because I just couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from my own children.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: My heart goes out to anybody who’s separated from their family for good or for bad reasons. We as a country obviously should not be doing that. The Biden administration got… We need to put as much pressure on the Biden administration as we did on the Trump administration to end these policies, end these family separations, and also to let more refugees into this country. The last thing is that it’s just shocking to me that the Biden administration has not followed through on its promise to restore Obama-level eras of refugee admissions to this country.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Thank you for sharing that. You regrouped with your family, your parents a few months later.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I did. My 10-year-old brother didn’t come home for two years, and that he likes to say is how we know mom and dad love you more. Each of us bear our own particular burdens and experiences, and it’s okay. I mean, seven years after coming to this country with no English, my brother graduated as valedictorian of his high school, went to Harvard, so the all American success story, right? We talk about that, my brother and I.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In fact, I think we, together, are going to talk to the American Association of Retired Persons next week, which is really depressing, because I think I’m qualified for AARP.

Katrina vanden Heuvel:No. No. No. AARP is a vibrant, wonderful, huge group. It has super power in this country.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I agree. I’m shocked at 50 I qualify for AARP.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: No, but they have people like George Clooney on the cover. You suggest that the experience you just described helped make you a writer. There are many things that… I wondered also some of the Asian-American writers, but other writers who have influenced you. I think you were a student of the great Chinese American writer, Maxine Hong Kingston.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, yes I was. I was 19 years old at Berkeley. I got into her creative writing seminar, non-fiction seminar, which I didn’t realize was such a huge privilege at the time. I mean, classes at Berkeley, small classes were considered to be 100 students, and here was 14 students in a seminar room with a writer like Maxine who had won all kinds of awards for The Woman Warrior and China Men at that time. I was like, “Whatever,” and I went in there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I thought Woman Warrior. We read China Men in her class. I’d read the Woman Warrior elsewhere. I thought, “These books are really boring.” I went into her class, and I fell asleep every single day in a 14-person class. Maxine has been very kind. I said, “I don’t remember that, but you fell asleep in my class every single day.” I have a letter from Maxine Hong Kingston. She wrote everybody a letter at the end of the seminar. I have a letter where she says, “Hey, I noticed that you’ve been falling asleep every single day in my seminar. You should make use of excellent counseling services because you seem really alienated.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Of course, my response at the time was I’m not alienated. I’m just tired. In fact, I think she understood what was happening with me, which was that I was writing about stuff in her seminar that was so difficult for me, number one, that I tried to write about it, but number two, that I immediately forgot that I wrote about it. I mean, literally, I went back to the archives. I found her letter to me. Then I found what I had written in that seminar, which was about my mother and the traumatic effects of war and mental illness and everything.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I forgot or I repressed that I wrote about that, and just as I repressed for a long time being four years old and taken away from my parents. I mean, the point here is that individuals repress memories all the time when they’re difficult, and the challenge for writers is that our emotions are our major source for our writing. We can’t feel everything that our characters go through. We create characters, but we have to put our own emotions into our characters.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The only way to do that is to go inside of ourselves and uncover these things that we’ve repressed. I think the larger takeaway from that, when we talk about what Maxine writes about in terms of Chinese-American history and what happened to Chinese Americans, and when I talk about the Vietnam war, what we’re saying is not only that we as writers need to uncover these histories and these emotions, but the country as a whole needs to do the same thing, because countries just like individuals repress the things that are difficult and that are contradictory to their own self image.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We’re all obligated to be aware of when that happens, and we have to try to make our nation confront what it doesn’t want to remember.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: I think a Dutch historian once said that memory is to a person what history is to a country. There’s something in that, but thank you for this really powerful conversation. There are many questions, so I’m going turn this over to Erin O’Mara, The Nation’s president. Thank you so much, Viet, for spending time with us and talking about the full range of literature, politics experience. I know the questions will be very engaged. Thank you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks, Katrina.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you, Katrina. I just want to let you know that we have people tuning in from all over the United States. You’ve got California, Alaska, Washington, Michigan, Florida, New Hampshire, Mississippi, so thank you. I think this might be a first for The Nation. We have an 11th grade English class from Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Awesome. In Pennsylvania, where I first landed in the United States. Awesome.

Erin O’Mara: Terrific. I want to start with a question from Dave Zirin. Dave is the nation’s own incredible sports writer, covers sports for us. For everybody, he’s talking next Wednesday if you’d like to join us. He asks, “What have you learned about the state of Asian-American and anti-Asian racism from the response to your book, The Sympathizer?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, hi Dave. Thanks for joining. Well, like I said, I think I knew instinctively when I wrote The Sympathizer that one of the things I said here today, which is that you cannot separate what happens overseas from what happens domestically in the United States. I mean, that was the claim of Martin Luther king Jr.’s speech beyond Vietnam, that anti-black violence and anti-black racism in the United States works completely hand in hand with sending black men overseas to fight a racist war in Vietnam against Asians.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer was my attempt to try to realize that kind of argument focus specifically on Asians and Asian-Americans. The narrator of The Sympathizer recognizes that what the war in Vietnam is at least in one dimension and act of anti-Asian violence of American soldiers killing wantonly and indiscriminately all these Asians, and helping to instigate a war where Vietnamese people were killing other Vietnamese people. Then coming to the United States as a refugee, the narrator of The Sympathizer recognizes as well that he’s experiencing anti-Asian feeling here in the U.S., and that it’s systemic.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Again, it’s connected to the War Machine as well. Even though The Sympathizer is not primarily concerned with other forms of violence that are taking place, there is an awareness, I hope, of how things like anti-black violence is happening, and how there’s a history of colonization and genocide in the states, and anti-Asian violence is simply one part of this larger puzzle. In the novel, The Committed, the sequel, I try to make these things much more explicit taking it to France, but bringing up the question of colonialism, bringing in how black anticolonial thinkers were articulating theories and ideas that were completely relevant to what anti-colonial thinkers in Asia were doing as well.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you. John McAuliffe asks, “How can we support Vietnam sovereignty and that of other Southeast Asian countries without falling into a dangerous escalation of U.S.-China conflict?” He adds, “Yes, I appreciate the historical irony.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The historical irony, former enemies like the United States and Vietnam are now partnering up in an ambivalent friendship because of recognizing this other enemy, China, that they have. I hesitate to talk about state politics, because every state does terrible things, so it’s difficult to… One of the tricky things about this situation is to not to fall into supporting one country at the expense of another. For example, with China, I mean, there’s a very legitimate reason to criticize China for things that it’s doing like genocide against Uyghurs, or oppression in Hong Kong, or its threatening stance against Taiwan, or its colonization, its hostile takeover of Tibet. We need to do those kinds of things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We need to articulate those kinds of things, but the tricky thing is to be able to separate that from then falling back on the opposite, which is to support an anti-China policy by the United States or by an anti-China policy by Vietnam. I think that it is crucial to say that nation states should follow the rule of law. China should respect its neighbors and all that kind of thing. At the same time that we say that, we also have to say, “Oh, these other countries like Vietnam, for example, also needs to do things like address its own limitations and its own human rights abuses and its own restrictions on freedom.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That should be our primary focus. Our primary focus should be on the principles of what we believe in, which is to say the respect for human dignity above all much more important than the question of national sovereignties, because once you get into national sovereignties, it’s tempting to then take up one country’s flag over another country’s flag. When you do that, you tend to forget what this other country is doing. The last thing I’ll say here is that I think a lot of well-meaning Americans, when it comes to the Vietnam war, have said, “Hey, look, we didn’t know what we were getting involved here as Americans, because we didn’t know that the Vietnamese had been colonized for 1,000 years by the Chinese, and they had fought off the Chinese.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That is true. The Vietnamese will say that all the time, but the Vietnamese will hardly ever say that they themselves colonized a lot of other people in the establishment of modern Vietnam. So after 1,000 years of Chinese colonization, fighting that off, that’s a bad thing. The Vietnamese then went on to conquer the Cham and the Cambodians. South Vietnam is mostly appropriated land from Cambodia. That’s part of that complicated history that we have to be aware of that we cannot just allow ourselves to be seduced by the question of national sovereignty, because everything that the United States is guilty of in terms of a forgetful memory of their own past and their own contradictions, places like Vietnam are guilty of as well.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you. We have two questions from two different people that bring the focus back home. Martin asks or says, “The Asian communities are big in Seattle. How can we, as non-Asians, support the Asian communities in this area?” Karen asks, “How do we remove the idea of other, whether that group is of another color, religion, sex, et cetera?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Wow, that’s easy questions. I’m not from Seattle, so I can’t tell you exactly what organizations are active in Seattle, but I can tell you that I’m sure there are Asian-American organizations that are active in Seattle. Just do your Google research. I was prepared to talk about national organizations that you can turn to. Through the national organizations, you can probably get local contacts, but I was thinking on the national level, there are organizations that are doing really important work that you can donate to or [inaudible 00:29:05] for resources.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That would be aaldef.org, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has been around for a long time, very professional, very well established, leading civil rights organization, Red Canary Song, which is an organization devoted to migrant workers and sex workers. They have a lot to say about what happened in the Atlanta shooting. That’s, I believe, redcanarysong.net. Then stopaapihate.org, which is a clearinghouse for information about racist incidents of violence.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: You can donate to them to do that kind of crucial database collective information, because it’s through them that we know as of a month or two months ago, that there are almost 4,000 incidents of documented anti-Asian violence that have taken place over the last few months, so we need that data collection happening. Seattle, you won’t have a problem finding, I believe, local Asian-American and ethnically specific organizations working there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The other question, how do we stop othering people?

Erin O’Mara: This is a small, small question.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t think we can do that. I think that is a part of human psychology, human culture to have binaries, to have opposites, to have others to define ourselves against, right? In some ways, it’s not necessarily inevitably a bad thing that we as human beings need certain kinds of boundaries or oppositions to define ourselves. But when that turns into hatred, violence and exploitation, that is something we can do something about. I think there are a variety of causes for that, and so there’s no one simple answer.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: On the one hand, one of the reasons why we create others is to deflect frustrations and to have scapegoats. When things are going bad in our society, whatever that happens to be, then we amplify that othering process. One way to not have the amplification for othering is to make sure that our own society, whatever that is, is functioning properly. Going back to the China example, part of the problem with the demonization of China over the last couple of decades has been that we’ve been using the demonization of China to do things like amplify the Pentagon budget as if we needed more money going to the Pentagon when we should be doing what China is doing, which it’s investing in our people, in our infrastructure, in our economy and so on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Maybe the Biden administration is learning the right thing here by also focusing on addressing so-so economic inequality within the United States. I mean, if there’s greater wealth, there’s hopefully less friction, and people will be less inclined to seek out demons and scapegoats domestically. But there’s another dimension of othering, which is not only about that, but it’s tied to the question of culture. Now, you have these analytical studies coming out, pointing out that many of the DC capital writers were actually not poor working class people, but middle class, upper middle class people who felt themselves to be on the fringes of economic collapse.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Then they took out their frustrations not in a la Marxist direction, but in a white populace supremacist direction. As this country changes, it’s becoming increasingly clear, hopefully, that we are moving to a multicultural society that can embrace its multicultural qualities. As we move to society that might be majority minority, many people will embrace that. Then there’ll be many people who will see that as a threat to their existence, which is not just economic, but it’s a threat to their own privilege based on their whiteness and their inherited whiteness.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t know. That’s a difficult one, because then it’s not simply a question of extending socioeconomic equality to everybody. It’s a question of how do you assuage people’s fears of losing, not of having enough money, but losing privilege that they’ve been able to take for granted? I think that’s a political struggle. I think that part of how that happens is through things like elected politicians and legal acts and things like that, and through education and through cultural struggles at the level of movies and TV. All these things have to happen.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Then what we have to recognize is that generational change has to take place, that this generation of angry, white people who are not willing to give up their white privilege, we may not be able to persuade them. We have to persuade the next generation. That’s partly what politics is about. Politics is not about changing everybody’s minds. It’s about changing enough people’s minds that the next generation can see something different.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you. Two more questions. James Gustin asks what other authors were a significant influence? Laura Jeffries asks a related question, “In terms of expanding our students’ understanding of the American war in Vietnam and the Vietnamese civil war era, what Vietnamese writers would you recommend?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, there are so many American writers and also Vietnamese writers. If we’re talking just about the war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese writers I turn to often are people like Bao Ninh who wrote The Sorrow of War. He was a north Vietnamese veteran, survived a horrible war experience. The Sorrow of War is, I think, one of the great classic war novels of any war, but it’s when on the north Vietnamese perspective. Then Duong Thuhuong, D-U-O-N-G T-H-U-H-U-O-N-G, Vietnam’s preeminent dissonant writer who exiled to Paris, I mean, she wrote a lot of novels that were…

Viet Thanh Nguyen: She was a communist party cadre, veteran of the war from the north who turned against the party when she saw its corruption in the post-war years. She paid the price for writing these books, books like Novel Without A Name and Paradise of the Blind and Memories of a Pure Spring, and many other books as well. Then from the south Vietnamese perspective, Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, it’s a peasant girl caught up in the war, caught between two sides.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The war was ostensibly fought in the name of the peasants of Vietnam, who constituted 80% to 90% of the population. Yet, we have very few perspectives for obvious reasons in literature coming from that population. She’s one of the few, and is a really gripping account. Then now, I would say you can read Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing. It’s getting a lot of acclaim. I blurbed it as the Vietnamese grapes of wrath, if you want to use that comparison, but it covers everything from the great famine of 1945, which my parents lived through that killed a million Vietnamese people all the way through the Vietnam war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s a whole epic of this 30-year sweep of Vietnamese history told from a Vietnamese perspective by a writer who is completely bilingual. She can write… She writes a book in English and Vietnamese. I find that mind blowing. As for my own influences, I mean, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for The Sympathizer, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night for The Sympathizer as well. Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, all of these have been touchstones in my writing life, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for The Sympathizer as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In The Committed, the landscape moves to Frantz, and so there, I start to take on both French thinking, but also, again, these black anticolonial thinkers who have been really formative for me as well, people like Aimé Césaire in Discourse on Colonialism, and Frantz Fanon’s works Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks, and stuff I was reading in college, spent a lifetime thinking about. The Committed is my response and my attempt to engage in conversation with people like Cesaire and Fanon.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you. Theresa Mead asks, “Refugees can be lumped in a single group, especially those from a single country, but your work shows that refugees could have great differences among them. Can you talk about the political differences among and between Vietnamese refugees?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: There are so many. Thank you. Yes, we’re not homogenous, and we don’t agree. Being a refugee, just like going through a war, does not make you necessarily a better person. It can also bring out the worst in people as well. It Can bring out the best. It can bring out the worst. I come from the Vietnamese refugee community. Understandably, it’s a deeply anti-communist community. I respect that, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t disagree with them and criticize them as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But the thing that I find unacceptable is not anti-communist politics, the thing I find unacceptable among some Vietnamese refugees is that some of them have now come around to say, “We were the good refugees. These new people coming, brown people, south of the border, or people who are Muslim or appear to be Muslim, these are the bad refugees, and we should not take these people in,” which only means that these Vietnamese refugees are performing what many other Americans have performed as well. We have to remember, of course, that in the previous administration, it was the children and grandchildren of refugees and immigrants, people like John Kelly and Steven Miller who were part of the architects of developing an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee stance in the Biden… sorry, in the former administration.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s very American impulse, I think, to come to this country and then to forget where you came from to shut the door behind you, and Vietnamese refugees, as part of their Americanization process, have learned that impulse just as some of them have also learned anti-black racism as well. I think it’s absolutely necessary. That’s one of the reasons why I foreground my refugee experience, not to bring attention to me per se, but to say that refugees are diverse and that refugees can be everybody from the working class and the poor to the Pulitzer prize winning author, but you shouldn’t be letting people in just because they might win some big prize.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We should be letting people in out of the humanitarian impulse and out of a sense of responsibility for what we’ve done in other countries that has helped to stimulate the creation of refugees, everything from war to climate, to our drug consumption, lifestyle, I guess. That is important for refugees who have been refugees to speak up and to stand up, because again, part of what happens in this country is that we understand or we think we understand immigrants. We think, “Of course, immigrants would want to come to this country, the greatest country on earth, but we don’t know what to make out of refugees.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I know this, because if I’m in a cocktail party and I say, “I’m a refugee,” that’s a very quick way to kill a cocktail party conversation, because most Americans can’t relate to that. They have no idea what that means, except negatively these images that they get in the media about poor, desperate, frightened people. But if you say you’re an immigrant, Americans will be like, “Welcome to our country. Share your story with us, because you look good, and we look good, because we took you in as an immigrant.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So refugees know very, very soon that they should call themselves immigrants in this country, which is, again, it’s why it’s important for me to say and every other refugee to say we are refugees.

Erin O’Mara: Viet, I just want to, I guess, add on Robert Schaffer’s question, which I think you just addressed. He’s pointing out the difference between refugees, immigrant, but asks is that too stark a dichotomy in terms of why so many different groups of people come to the United States and how should we show both similarities and differences in these experiences?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think we should talk about the differences. I mean, obviously, there are differences, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m saying that it’s crucial for refugees to claim who they are and their experience because immigrants typically are voluntary. They’ve chosen a certain path. They’ve chosen the country they want to come to. They’ve gone through certain kinds of legal steps. Refugees are forced by circumstances to flee for any number of circumstances. Oftentimes, they don’t necessarily choose where they want to go.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: They’re just by desperation forced into a certain situation, and so this is a very crucial distinction. Also, what we have to recognize is that there’s all kinds of legal distinctions that are at play here, which become very important. So if you go to the UNHCR, United Nation’s High Commission and Refugees website, it’ll tell you there’s a counter of how many tens of millions of people fall into these classifications. Every time I check in, it’s grown by millions of people, literally. I think when I started checking in 2015, 2016, it was about 66 million people are displaced.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, something like 79 million people are displaced, but under that categorization, not everyone’s a refugee. I think it’s something like 25 million people are officially classified as refugees. Then you have stateless, asylum seekers and so on. The legal and political classifications are very important because if someone is classified as a refugee, they’re entitled to a certain kind of attention from the countries that they’re coming to, which is why for the United States, I think there’s a vested interest in not calling people refugees.

Viet Thanh Nguyen :

People coming from south of our border, for example, they’re called illegal aliens or undocumented migrants. They’re not called refugees, but why not? If you’ve been forcibly displaced by war, by anything from drug war to gang war to military war, if you’ve been displaced by a climate catastrophe, why aren’t you considered a refugee? We do have to pay attention to distinctions, but then we also have to pay attention to how these distinctions at the legal and political level can be used to obfuscate and to both stimulate certain kinds of policies, but also deter other kinds of policies as well.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you. Via Mai Nguyen asks or says, “Thank you for this wonderful conversation. How do you think Asian-American communities and other communities can move beyond representation to deeper interrogations of colonialism, imperialism, and deeper notions of solidarity? I feel a bit cynical about the tendency to ask for more diversity and inclusion in the U.S. and inside elite American institutions, which to me can leave the idea of American superiority intact.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think, one very important step is terminology like I just mentioned in the context of refugees and immigrants. I think that the terminology is actually critical, because as the question pointed out, right now, it’s acceptable in liberal circles to say diversity, equity and inclusion. In fact, you have to say it. It’s a reflexive stance. Of course, yes, our institution and stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And if we don’t, we’re going to hire the DEI consultant to come in and give us a workshop.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, all that stuff is important obviously, but to say words like imperialism, colonization, genocide, slavery, to say these kinds of things and to say that they’re still happening now is really crucial because, again, it changes the nature of the conversation. Again, the cocktail party example, refugee versus immigrant. Here, the cocktail party conversation, you can say DEI. Everything’s cool. But if you say, “We’re a nation built on genocide and colonization, and hey, we’re still colonizing people today if you ask indigenous populations in this country, and anti-black violence is not simply an accident in this country, but as an outcome of the slavery that’s helped to build this country. We’re still living in a country defined by slavery and his legacy.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s a very different conversation that you’re going to have as a result of that. I think those of us who believe that this is actually the right diagnosis need to insist on that terminology when we have the chance to speak. Specifically for Asian Americans, I’ll give you an example of this, which is that now, the preferred terminology that we are using, not we, but collectively are using is AAPI, Asian American Pacific Islander. It’s become a reflex like DEI as well in the diversity, equity and intrusion front.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Maybe we all feel better if we say AAPI, and we feel like, “Oh, now, we’re including everybody, this massive population, everybody who’s Asian-American, and everybody who’s Pacific Islander.” It fits perfectly well with the rhetoric of diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s a problem. It’s a problem when you have the rhetoric, and you don’t actually have the practice, and you don’t have the analysis of why you have this rhetoric in the first place. The reason I say that is because AAPI is actually not inclusive.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean, it’s rhetorically inclusive, but a lot of groups and organizations that say AAPI don’t actually include any Pacific Islanders, for example. What does it mean to claim Pacific Islander in your name or in your activity, but when you actually don’t acknowledge or include actual Pacific Islanders or books even, things like that. Furthermore, when we talk about anti-Asian violence, a lot of the rhetoric today is saying for Asian Americans, it’s to say, “We’re Americans. We belong here. We’ve been here for centuries. You’re not going to get rid of us.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s great in the rhetoric of American exceptionalism and inclusion and diversity. I think native peoples might hear that a little bit differently in terms of claiming a country. When you claim a country, you are claiming the act of colonization that built the United States. So going back to the AAPI problem, or not problem but example, when you say AAPI, and you say Pacific Islander, what you’re gesturing at is a history of colonization. The reason why we have Pacific Islanders as a part of the United States is because the United States conquered those Pacific islands, right?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Unless we talk about that, it’s meaningless. For AAPIs, Asian-Americans who claim the AAPI label to say that label, and to be more than just using it as rhetorical window dressing for inclusion, they have to bring up the question of colonization and their own complicity in that, or the way in which Asian-Americans can be beneficiaries of a history of colonization and conquest that is a part of the United States and how a rhetorical term like AAPI, which is seeming like inclusive, can serve as an alibi and a cover for colonization.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you. Peter asks, “What do you think is the most important thing that most Americans don’t know about the Vietnam war?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, that it was a war that actually took place in Cambodia and Laos as well. The Vietnam war as a term is obviously problematic for Vietnamese people, because as many Vietnamese people have said, Vietnam is a country and not a war. When Americans say Vietnam, they typically mean a war, not a country, right? Vietnam just becomes shorthand, and that’s offensive. It’s offensive. That means that a lot of well-meaning Americans who know a little bit about this history then say, “Okay, the Vietnamese people call it the American war, so we should call it that.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, true, and so if you go to Vietnam, it is called the American war. But when you say that, it’s also problematic, because when Vietnamese people in Vietnam say the American war, what that allows them to do is a complete reverse, and allows them to forget that the war was not only an American war fought in Vietnam, but it was an American war fought in Laos and Cambodia, and it was a Vietnamese war fought in Laos and Cambodia. In other words, the Americans are not the only ones responsible for the devastation in Laos and Cambodia.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Vietnamese, the north Vietnamese sent their troops and their material through Laos and Cambodia violating the neutrality of these countries to get that weaponry in those troops to south Vietnam. The Vietnamese bear a huge responsibility for what happened in Laos and Cambodia. So for them to call it the American war is a way for them to forget that they did these kinds of things, and that they have a complicated history that in Southeast Asia, that relative to Laos in Cambodia, Vietnam is an Imperial power. Again, calling it the American war allows the Vietnamese to claim the mantle of victimization and heroic resistance and revolution, which a lot of liberal Americans are willing to accept, and allows the Vietnamese to erase this history of conquest and imperialism.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Americans do not know any of this for the most part. If they know anything at all, they may know that some terrible things happen in Vietnam. They probably don’t know exact casualty figures, at least three million people dead in Vietnam. But then of course, in Laos, a very small country, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people who died during the years of the war and its aftermath, including the Hmong, who lost a quarter of their population.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Hmong who fought with the Americans in the secret war lost a quarter of their population. According to some estimates, that’s gigantic. Then Cambodia, hundreds of thousands of people dead during the Vietnam war, the war in Vietnam and Cambodia. Then 1.7 million out of seven million Cambodians dead during the genocide. That was a direct consequence of the war in Vietnam. Americans don’t know any of these things for the most part.

Erin O’Mara: Gia asks, “Can you tell us your thoughts on the deportation of Southeast Asian refugees, and how that’s connected to imperialist wars from the 1960s?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, obviously, a lot of people fled from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to the United States as refugees. I’ll go back to the good refugee, bad refugee thing I brought up earlier. A lot of Vietnamese people will say, “We were the good refugees in 1975.” I grew up in the Vietnamese refugee community of San Jose, California in the 1970s and the 1980s. Let me tell you, there were a lot of bad Vietnamese refugees, all right? We did a lot of “bad things,” everything from minor financial things like cash under the table economies and welfare fraud and things like that, all the way to gang violence and home invasions.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, those are bad. If you’ve ever been subjected to a home invasion as I have been, that’s not a good thing, but you have to ask why did people do these kinds of things? Was it because the Vietnamese people are just prone to corruption and violence, or were some of us conditioned and damaged by the war in Vietnam to do these kinds of things? Preexisting corruption and violence due to war was carried over to the United States. This brings up the question of deportations. People are being deported, Southeast Asians, Vietnamese and Cambodians, because these people did things that they should not have done when they got to the United States, and they served their time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Then they were caught up in the machinery of deportation afterwards, including ICE. They went straight… Some of them went straight from prison after being released to ICE custody, and then are deported. Typically, to countries, Vietnam and Cambodia in this case, that they left as infants, and obviously, they don’t… Many of them don’t speak the line language or certainly not anymore. Laotian and Cambodian, or Vietnamese in that sense, they’re Americans after having spent decades in this country.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, your stance on deportation depends. And if you’re law and order person, you’re like, “Well, you did a crime, and you should pay the penalty for that.” But even from that perspective, they already did their time. They did their time, and so why are they being doubly punished through deportation? That brings up, again, all these other issues around the identity of this country, who belongs here, and the continuing use of a penal system to continue to carry out policies that disproportionately affect people of color, whether that is the incarceration of black and brown people, or in this case, the deportation of Asians who are here as a result of American wars in Asia that damaged those countries and damaged the refugees who came to the United States.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The whole question of whether they should be punished and how they should be punished for the crimes they have committed is one issue that’s complicated, but the other issue of deportation, I think, raises this other history. Of course, my stance is we shouldn’t be deporting people to countries that they left as infants. It’s simply a repetition of an earlier tragic history that brought them here to the United States in the first place.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you. We have time for just one more question before we turn it back to Katrina. Our audiences are highly invested and energized, and would happily take words of action or advice. We also like to end with a little bit of hope. So with all of the intolerance on display and the difficult news and images that people are coping with, do you see anything that gives you hope?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean, it’s been depressing for some of us over the last few years. I think there’s a reason for skepticism about the future as well. I do have hope though, because I think that political struggle always involves low points and high points. The low points that we’ve been through over the last few years, that would include things like resentments and misunderstandings and conflicts within the progressive wing of the United States. I think it’s also led to, for me anyway and some of the people that I know, maybe a greater sense of understanding of where we’re at.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For example, in 2015, when I was going around giving talks and doing interviews, I was not for the most part saying things like colonization is the problem. Now, I’m saying colonization is the problem. The ratcheting up of political tension and conflict division in the country is depressing. No doubt, but at the same time, for me, at least, it’s allowed for a sharper understanding of where these conflicts and divisions come from. It’s lent me a greater sense of conviction in my own understanding of this country and the problems that it faces.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In some ways, saying that the problems that this country faces are due to originary histories of colonization and enslavement and anti-blackness, and in the dispossession of native peoples and exploitation of Asian labor, and these anti-Asian wars happening overseas. To be able to say that, it’s depressing, but it’s also liberating for me in the sense that it gives me a sense that now I know what it is that I need to do, what I’m up against and what kinds of solidarities that I need to help build, that we all need to help build.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For example, in this moment of anti-Asian violence, there has been cases of both white people attacking Asians, but also black people attacking Asians as well. And if you listen to the social media chatter, it goes back… It’s deeply fractious, because there are Asian people who are saying, “Hey, look, why aren’t we talking about black people assaulting us?” Then there are black people who are like, “Well, Asians have been prejudicial against us for a very long time.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When you see these kinds ends of comments, it’s depressing. But on the other hand, at the same time, you’re seeing everyday people but also activists and political leaders and community leaders stepping forth and saying, “No, we should be unified. We should be having a black-Asian coalition of solidarity because anti-Asian violence and Anti-black racism are not separate. They’re part of a system. We have to talk about the system.” That goes back to colonization and white supremacy. Even though it’s a struggle, obviously, to get this message heard and understood by a wide diversity of people, that message is being articulated.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s being said, and people are refining both their rhetoric and their analysis and their activism as a result of that. I take great heart in seeing people stepping up, everybody from major figures like Senator Warnock and Reverend William Barber to Rihanna and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coming out strongly saying, “Anti-Asian hatred is wrong. Black people need to stand with our Asian-American community and vice versa as well,” that Asian-American activists are also saying the same things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I take heart from people demonstrating that they understand what’s happening.

Erin O’Mara: Thank you. Now, Katrina.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Thank you so much for this riveting, wide ranging, brilliant talk, really appreciated your walking us through a reading list. I hope we can provide it to those who’ve come on the call, and appreciate enormously the complexity and the history you bring, because we live in this world, whereas you all know, social media. There’s not a lot of room for complexity, and you’ve walked us through it today and walked us through as you spoke of Reverend Barber, who was on one of our calls months ago, a coalition of solidarity against hate and discrimination and violence, so really enormously grateful.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: I hope you have time with the trilogy. I wanted to tell people that your first novel, The Sympathizer, is possibly going to influence our culture history through a multi-part series. But more important, I hope you have a chance to talk widely. It was sad. The other day, I was on a call with these genzers, and someone said, “So many of my generation have learned geography through war.” I think to stop war, to stop conflict is part of the work we all need to do.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Thank you so much for taking time to join us, and ironically or something, on May 26th, Daniel Ellsberg will be joining us to talk about his time as a whistleblower, the Pentagon papers, his anti-nuclear work today, which I think is so critical. Next week, someone who asked you a question, Viet, Dave Zirin. I don’t want to call him our sports correspondent because he does much more than that, and brings race and gender and all the sense of the history of this country.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Thank you so much for joining us, really, really appreciated.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you, Katrina. Thank you, Erin. Thank you, The Nation and everybody for putting up with me for the last hour.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: No, it was extraordinary talk.

Category: Interviews

 

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