Cúirt International Festival of Literature | “Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Committed”

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses The Committed for the 2021 Cúirt International Festival of Literature.

Read the transcript below.

Rick O’Shea: Well, hello and welcome to the Cuirt International Festival of Literature for 2021, happening here between the 20th and the 25th of April online this year, as it was last year. My name is Rick O’Shea, I’m the presenter of The Book Show on RTE Radio 1, amongst many other things. And I’m genuinely thrilled to be here with you today for this event, specifically because this is a man whose previous book and whose current book I think are both extraordinary. He had a short story collection called The Refugees, one of my favorite books of recent years was the Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Sympathizer. He also is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and a Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, from where I presume he joins me now. Welcome to Cuirt for 2021, Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi Rick, thanks so much for having me.

Rick O’Shea: It’s a strange one, before we get onto anything else, in that normally this event would be happening in Galway, Cuirt. I’m in Dublin, and you are, I presume, in Southern California.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In Los Angeles, right. Yeah, I’d love to make it there in person one day, hopefully soon.

Rick O’Shea: Tell me, before we get into any of this, a bit about the last 12 months. Because obviously it’s been 12 months for everybody that have been entirely unprecedented. What’s it been like for you, both as a writer and just in your real life?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think as a writer and as a human being, I’m an introvert, so the conditions of the pandemic itself didn’t make much of a difference. I was actually happy to stay at home, I got to see a lot more of my kids because I wasn’t on the road. But of course, here in the United States, the last 12 months have been very stressful outside of the pandemic itself. We saw the murder of George Floyd early on in the pandemic. We had the drama and the trauma of the Presidential Elections and the Capitol riot, so it’s been having a big impact on my writing, both in terms of not being able to write fiction, but also compelling me to write a lot of nonfiction about the events that have been happening in this country.

Rick O’Shea: I’m going to talk to you about that perhaps a little bit later on. In terms of events like these, for instance, Cuirt last year was, I think, the first Irish festival that went online specifically because it had happened so quickly after lockdown had begun here initially. What do you make of these kinds of events and of talking to people like me through this on the far side of the world, as opposed to maybe you and I sitting in front of a room full of people?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think one of the positive things about this pandemic era, maybe the only positive thing, is that it’s allowed us to reach wider audiences so that I could do events like this with you without having to fly all the way across the ocean, and I’ve been able to do events with other authors coming in from different locations and having international audiences. So that’s been one positive, and I think some element of that will continue after the pandemic era. I think people will realize that we don’t have to do everything in person. That’s obviously great to have human contact and have human interaction, but at the same time, now we get to connect in a very different way for relatively low cost and time. So I’m looking forward to still having that international dimension after the pandemic era.

Rick O’Shea: Perhaps for those people who don’t necessarily know your story and know about you, but may have read the books, maybe tell us a little bit about your own family history and maybe about how that feeds into the story of the narrator when we meet him first.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I was born in Vietnam, and that was during the era of the war in Vietnam, the American war in Vietnam, and my family and I fled as refugees when I was very young, so we have a very dramatic wartime story, escape story. Our hometown was the first one captured in the final invasion of 1975. Had to flee desperately to try to get a boat to Saigon, and that involved trekking 180 kilometres by foot. Got to Saigon, and then a month later, the communist army caught up with us, and then we again had to try to get on a boat to leave Saigon. And of course, I think these images of the Fall of Saigon have gone global. I assume people have seen some of these images. We were caught up in all of that. And then I came to the United States when I was four, and was a refugee and that’s where my memories really begin with that kind of traumatic experience. So I think that’s definitely been formative for me, the fact that I was born in Vietnam and was shaped by this war has cast a shadow over my life, both in a negative and a positive way, because it’s certainly provided me with the requisite emotional damage necessary to become a writer. We all need a little bit of that, and I think many of my stories do explore both the war, but also the aftermath for refugees.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And part of what I insist on is that we who have… We like to imagine wars as involving only soldiers and men, or at least that’s the American point of view, but wars inevitably kill civilians, produce refugees, that’s all a part of the war experience and I think my fiction touches on all of that.

Rick O’Shea: In terms of then how that feeds into the unnamed narrator in both of the books and about his duality of personality, how did your experiences both early and then further on feed into that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I grew up in the United States knowing that I was a Vietnamese refugee and then a Vietnamese American and my parents obviously were fully Vietnamese. As I heard often throughout my life, “You are 100% Vietnamese.” And so when I was growing up, I grew up as an American, but that meant that in my parents’ very Vietnamese household I felt like I was an American spying on these Vietnamese people and their strange Vietnamese customs, but when I stepped out of that household into the rest of the United States, the rest of American culture, I felt like a Vietnamese spying on Americans. So I don’t have a very interesting life story, in my opinion, but I took that feeling of duality, of being a spy continually, and feeling dislocated and never quite at home, and I put it into the character of The Sympathizer in the first novel, and just made everything much more dramatic because he’s a spy, an alcoholic, a womanizer, ultimately a murderer, so not autobiographical.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I put that seed of that feeling in there and greatly exaggerated it and put him through some really difficult circumstances in The Sympathizer. And in The Committed, the sequel, which by the way, you don’t have to have read The Sympathizer to have read The Committed, it stands on its own, but I don’t know why you wouldn’t read The Sympathizer. But in any case, he is there, some of his personality, much of his personality is still the same, so he’s still, as he says in the first book, a man of two faces and two minds, able to see any issue from both sides. That’s also like me as well, but also like a lot of writers. So I think there is an element in these two novels both of my refugee experience of feeling unsettled, but also of the writerly experience of needing to see every issue from all sides, needing to feel empathy, and in The Committed, he is a different person in a different situation, but those elements of his personality continue.

Rick O’Shea: Was becoming a writer something that was always potentially going to be on the cards for you? At what stage in your life does that begin?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think very young. Part of being the refugee, what happened was my parents had to work a lot, obviously, they had to rebuild their lives in this new country, so they were working constantly, and we only had a very small family. My brother was seven years older, he went away to college. So I was left alone in the house, and my refuge from the loneliness and also from watching my parents go through these enormous difficulties which involved, again, lots of work, but also violence, being assaulted and robbed in their store and at home, my refuge was at the public library and reading books. So I very early on mastered English and was reading constantly, and thought maybe it would be fun to write too. So when I was very young, around, I guess, probably seven or eight years old, wrote and drew my first book, Lester the Cat, about an urban cat who suffers from urban ennui. So the themes of my life were early, present in this fiction. Runs off to the countryside, finds love with a country cat.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Anyway, the public library gave me an award for that and set me on the road to 40 years of misery trying to become a writer. So I think I had these early ambitions but had no idea what it would really take to become a writer, all the suffering necessary. Not asking for any tears or anything on anybody’s part, I think that’s just the nature of being a writer, but it was a learning experience.

Rick O’Shea: Nobody ever tells you about that at the very beginning of the process. When you were that kid, what were you reading? What did you enjoy? What did you love?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I read all the classics. For example, Beverly Cleary, recently passed away. I’m not sure if she’s famous in your world, but she was for me. So her, certainly Curious George, the Tintin comic books, Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys. Pretty much everything that was, I think, classic at this time in the 1970s, I was reading. So very non-discriminating in a lot of ways, whatever caught my attention. And I have to say, I have a seven-year-old son now and I’m exposed to a whole new world of children’s literature that’s developed in the past few decades that I was not reading. And it’s been really great because, number one, it allows me to see that some of what I was reading from the 1970s is potentially kind of complicated in our present era. A lot of assumptions were happening in that time of children’s literature that we would question for our own children or I would question for my children.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But also reading children’s literature with him, like Dav Pilkey’s, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. No, I’m sorry, that’s not Dav Pilkey, but Diary of a Wimpy Kid and then Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series, it’s so playful and so they break so many rules that I found that to be inspiring for writing as well, especially for The Committed, where I thought, whenever I had an aesthetic decision to make, I thought, “Why not break a rule? Why not?” That seems to be the ethos of children’s literature, so I really continue to take inspiration from that.

Rick O’Shea: As you said, you’ve been writing pretty much all your life from the time you were a child. At what stage then does a seed start to grow that ultimately ends up then becoming The Sympathizer?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Wow. I wrote sporadically as a child then went to college and became a political activist on campus, started reading literature basically not by white people. I basically grew up reading a lot of literature by white people, no problem with that, no problem with that. But it would be nice to read literature by people of color and women of color as well and non-Americans and that’s what started to happen in college. So that started to put the idea in my mind, and that was really crucial to me as a son of refugees that maybe literature could have not just an aesthetic purpose, which is important, but also a social and political purpose, which I found necessary to make it possible for me to decide to become a writer, because I had to feel like there was some connection between this writing and the lives of my parents and the Vietnamese refugees that I had grown up in.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So that was one seed of that. I think I wrote an abortive novel when I was in college, I think it lasted five pages, that was how abortive it was, right? And I realized, I don’t have the chops for this, but it was my attempt to write fiction that had so-called genre elements, basically lots of shooting and violence and all this kind of thing. So that was always in my mind, that I wanted to be a novelist who would not be writing sort of stereotypical literary fiction in which nothing happened. I wanted to be a writer in which action happened as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But it really took a lot of struggle to get there. I had to write The Refugees, a short story collection, took me 20 years. And that was more of the conventional literary fictional mode where I was just trying to learn how to write a story. But after that, when it came time to writing a novel, I think that was when I really made that decision that I was going to write a spy novel, because it’s a genre that I love and I think I know something about, but it was also a genre that would allow me to both incorporate these personal feelings that we talked about but then also to address the war and politics and history, and I think spy novels and crime novels, of which The Committed is also an example, in the hands of the writers that I really admire, they’re both thrillers, but also novels that tackle some very serious issues as well.

Rick O’Shea: It’s a brave decision ultimately, because as you’ve said, there’s a lot of literary fiction that falls into a very specific box. There’s a lot of spy fiction that falls into an entirely different box. It’s relatively rare that that Venn diagram then kind of meets in the middle, isn’t it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sure, but I was thinking certainly of writers like Graham Greene and John le Carre. Greene, for example, I actually was reading his novels when I was still a kid, a teenager, reading things like Brighton Rock and Power and the Glory, but then I read The Quiet American in college, which is widely considered to be this literary classic about Vietnam and it disturbed me, because I read it in conjunction with Edward Said’s Orientalism, and I wrote entire thesis on the orientalist themes of Graham Greene. But I highly respect Graham Greene as a literary novelist and as a thriller writer as well, but responding to The Quiet American was certainly going to be one of the ambitions of The Sympathizer. And John le Carre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and many other novels, of course, were influential as well, and certainly they are two of the writers I think of who both meet in the middle, as you’re saying, between the literary and the genre.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And of course, on the other side of that, as I think you’re implying, there are novels that don’t really transcend. If we’re talking about any kind of genre fiction, oftentimes genre fiction, being very entertaining, is also really forgettable. I’ll read an entire series of novels featuring one character and my problem after I leave it for a while and try to come back is I can’t remember the last book that I read and where to start over again. And with literary fiction, it’s great and I love literary fiction, but sometimes there’s a lack of engagement with plot and with the world and politics and so I like this idea that writers can hybridize, that we can bring together different and disparate elements, especially when it comes to genre. There’s nothing wrong with entertaining readers, and there’s nothing wrong with going deep into literary themes and symbols and all that, but hopefully we can find a space where both of these kinds of things can happen.

Rick O’Shea: I’m definitely going to circle around to that again a little later, but maybe before we start talking about the brand-new book, tell us a little about the first book. Because you are right, from having read The Committed recently, I had a head-on that was going, if I hadn’t initially read The Sympathizer, would this all make sense to me? And I think you’ve been very careful and very deliberate, and correct me if I’m wrong, in making sure that if people were to fall into this novel first time round that you will be able to pick up what you’re doing fairly quickly. So maybe just very briefly scroll back and tell us a little bit about how we get to the beginning of The Committed.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sure. On the question of writing The Committed as a sequel, I did do things like read other people’s trilogies. Don Winslow’s The Border trilogy, for example, is a magnificent demonstration of how to write a trilogy and deal with drugs and war and politics and be a thriller at the same time. But looking at other writers’ techniques for how they were able to, let’s say, write a second novel and put enough information in so that readers could just jump into that so that’s what happens with The Committed.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But in The Sympathizer, it starts in April of 1975 when Saigon is about to fall or to be liberated, depending on your point of view during this war, and we look at the character of The Sympathizer. He’s part Vietnamese, part French, a man of two faces and two minds, and he’s a communist spy, and he’s tasked with the mission of fleeing with the remnants of the South Vietnamese army to the United States and to spy on their efforts to take their country back. And so all kinds of adventures and misadventures ensue and he eventually does end up going back to Southeast Asia to try to invade Vietnam with this diehard South Vietnamese military squad and I’m not going to give anything away, but by the end of the novel, he’s fleeing Vietnam again as a refugee on a boat. That’s where it ends, and that’s exactly where The Committed picks up.

Rick O’Shea: You had said at the time that you intended to write the first novel just as a standalone, so what compels you then to go, “No, there’s more for this character”?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Money. Just kidding. Literary novels don’t make any money. So when I finished writing The Sympathizer, it’s a crime novel, but also a literary novel, and I had relatively low expectations for how it would do, but I did have to write another novel. My wonderful agent always has my best interest at heart, but the first thing he ever said to me in person when we met was, “We’re going to make you some money,” and I thought, “Wow, I just want to write a book, not think about the money.” The moment I finished writing the novel, he said, “What are you going to do next?” So I thought, “Okay, the easiest thing to do “would be to write a sequel.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When you’re writing in the spy or crime novel genre, it’s perfectly acceptable to write sequels and series and trilogies and all of that, but for me, there was another element to it, which was the literary element. I felt at the end of The Sympathizer, that I learned more about the character and myself, more than I thought. And one of the things that I learned was that here is a deeply committed revolutionary who becomes disillusioned with the communist revolution. This is a whole genre in Western literature, and typically the end of this genre, of this kind of book, is that the disillusioned communist spy just rejects collectivism and solidarity, becomes an individual, embraces liberalism and capitalism, and flees to the United States or Western Europe.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I thought, “This is not how I want this to go,” because I think that that simply falls into the binary of the Cold War and capitalism versus communism and this novel is about disrupting these kinds of binaries. And so I wanted to see what would happen to a revolutionary who does not give up on revolution itself. What does it mean to continue the revolutionary project? That I’ve seen less of, and so that’s what The Committed takes on. And the other thing I learned about him, The Sympathizer and myself, is that in the middle of writing the novel, as I mentioned, I constructed him as a womanizer and a bad James Bond, so he has affairs and he’s flirting and all this kind of thing, and halfway through I thought, “I’m having too much fun writing this character.” I’m enjoying his womanizing, and I’m not a womanizer, but I’m enjoying this. I participate in this narrative structure of desire that I think is very common in literature, Western literature at least.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And by the end of The Sympathizer, I had to pursue this problematic masculinity all the way to the end. I’m not going to give anything away but something very terrible happens at the end of The Sympathizer, which troubles a lot of readers, rightfully so. But I thought that I had to do that because what became clear to me was that this was not only a novel about revolution and war, this was also a novel about how masculinity and heterosexuality are tied up in the conduct of revolutions and wars. And so in The Committed, I felt that not only does he have to reconstruct himself as a revolutionary, he has to continue this interrogation of himself in terms of what it means to be a man, what it means to participate in heterosexuality and to understand that any kind of new revolutionary project has to interrogate these feelings and these desires as well.

Rick O’Shea: At the very beginning of the book, I’m just going to quote it briefly, but it’s just the first three lines of the book, and if you were somebody who had wandered into a bookstore, when bookstores were still open and we were still allowed to do that kind of thing, if you picked up a book that began this way, as far as I’m concerned, this for me immediately makes me go, “This is coming home with me.” “We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing, we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark, 150 of us sweating in a space not meant for us mammals, but for the fish of the sea.” Now, there’s a logical reason for you to start the story there, but at the same time, was it important for you to start it there and for it to be a refugee story at the beginning?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, because it picks up literally right from where The Sympathizer ends. At the end, they’re leaving the country in a refugee boat like that, and of course, that’s a real experience, that in the late 70s and early 80s, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled from Communist Vietnam on these very rickety boats not really meant for travel on the open seas, overcrowded, very dangerous. Many of them didn’t survive and many of them knew when they got on those boats that their odds were not great. I think, number one, I think it’s a very exciting, unfortunately from a novelist’s perspective, looking at all this human misery, it’s like, “Oh, that’s exciting. I can do something with this.” So there’s something callous on the part of myself that I can look at this human misery and think that I can make a good story out of it, but that was the intent.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But the other thing was that I wanted to make a political point by opening this way, which is that I think much of the world remembers these refugees as boat people. This was the term that the Western media came up to describe these people, and it was a very effective term in terms of turning it into a spectacle, their experiences into a spectacle, but also serving a purpose in terms of trying to motivate the nations of the world to do something about this humanitarian crisis, which a lot of countries did do. There’s a problem there though, because as with the Vietnam War, in the global imagination, the Vietnamese end up being turned into victims, both from the time of the war and then as refugees. And this is great, I guess, because it elicits sympathy and it allows, again, someone like me to say, “Hey, I’m a Vietnamese person writing about Vietnamese things,” and there’s a portion of the audience that says, “Oh yeah, we know all about that because we saw those pictures from the Vietnam War and from the boat people. But it’s also deeply limiting as a result.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Part of my strategy in both of these novels, The Sympathizer and The Committed, is to say, “I’m not not going to write about these things because I’m a Vietnamese and I’m afraid of being stereotyped. I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it in my own way and force readers to sort of confront their expectations and to try to change the terms of the narrative.” So The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War story but I think it totally challenges sort of the dominant American narratives. And the reason why that’s important is because dominant American narratives circulate around the world and I think most people know the Vietnam War through American stories. Even the large part of the world that thinks this was a bad war and that Americans were imperialists will still get their information from American narratives.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: With The Committed opening in this way, I wanted to contest the boat people narrative. I mean, for example, they end up in France. The French are very critical of Americans and are hostile to the interjection of English into their language and yet when it comes to the boat people, the French simply call them “Le Boat People”, which I find deeply offensive in multiple ways. And so this opening narrative is casting the refugees as heroes. I mean, they’re certainly desperate and they’re frightened as everybody would be, but they’re also heroic, and I think that’s really, really crucial to trying to reorient our understanding of what it takes to be a refugee, especially a refugee who takes to the open seas.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And of course, I’m talking about the late 1970s, but anybody who’s reading this now in our era hopefully is also going to think about the refugees today who are taking to the seas, on the Mediterranean for example, on flimsy rafts and boats and taking their lives into their own hands and that to me is heroic. It’s not anything to be considered as pathetic.

Rick O’Shea: Terminology is always important, isn’t it? And I think this is something that I’ve thought about both with you and I’ve seen you talk about the difference between using the term refugees and using the term boat people. But I was in Vietnam in 2019, I went to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the war being referred to as the American War as opposed to being referred to as the Vietnam War. And even something that simple, that use of term, can completely pivot the way you look at something.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely, and the history of the War Remnants Museum is really fascinating, and anybody who’s listening to this, if you’re going to go to Vietnam, you’re almost undoubtedly going to go to this museum because it’s a central tourist stop in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. And that museum started off as a collection of ramshackle buildings, that’s how I first got to encounter it. By the time you saw it, it’s like this massive grey structure, very imposing. So I’ve seen it evolve over the years, and just in terms of naming, that museum started off being called, I believe, the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. So it’s gone quite a long way in 40 years. The Vietnamese have recognized that you cannot go around calling something Chinese and American War Crimes if you hope to draw in Chinese and American tourists or investment money or things like that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Memory in Vietnam has evolved over the decades to both try to foreground the victorious Communist Vietnamese perspective, and yet also, and hold foreigners responsible, like the French and the Americans, but try not to offend them too much at the same time. And it’s hard because Americans are offended, as you say, because Americans are so cocooned in their own narrative of themselves and the world, that they don’t recognize that what they experienced is propaganda. They think, “Oh, it’s the Russians and the Chinese and the Vietnamese and the communists who do propaganda. We don’t do propaganda because we’re democratic. But in fact, Americans are saturated with propaganda, so when they go to see the War Remnants Museum, half of Americans, and I know this because I’ve read, they have books there where people can sign their responses. I’ve read some of them. Half of Americans say, “Oh my God, we feel so guilty for what we did,” and the other half say, “This is totally communist propaganda.” So it’s really unsettling for Americans to see themselves depicted as war criminals in that museum.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The last thing I’ll say though, the Vietnamese are getting off easy in one sense when they say this is the American War, because although it is important to unsettle Westerners’ perspectives, we have to remember the war was fought in Cambodia and Laos. The Vietnamese were responsible for that. And so by calling this the American War, they also get to not talk about Cambodia and Laos and the deeply problematic role that Vietnam has played there.

Rick O’Shea: And that’s one of those things that you managed to kind of effortlessly weave into the narrative of The Committed as well, almost in the threads in between what’s actually happening. The story is told in 1980s Paris. 1980s Paris, at least you make it seem an incredibly vivid and dangerous and alive place to be. That must have been fun both to research and to write.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, absolutely. Well, first of all, France colonized Vietnam for quite a while, and my parents were born under French colonization. So my 86-year-old father can still sing songs that he learned as a child in 1930s and 1940s Vietnam. And I grew up, I think, quite aware of this, I think all Vietnamese people grow up aware of this. I grew up, I think, even though colonization had officially ended, I think I grew up mentally colonized by the French, as so many of us are, even if we’re not Vietnamese. I think the power of French propaganda and the power of French pop culture is very, very significant. So for me to write this novel, I had to directly address this question of French colonization, and that was really one reason for setting the novel in 1980s Paris and bringing The Sympathizer there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In The Sympathizer, it’s mostly the Americans who are getting attacked and offended. The French are criticized, but I think they got off relatively easy there. So in The Committed, I wanted to make sure that I offended the French as well. We’ll see what they think when the novel’s translated in the fall. But the French got off easy because, unlike the Americans, who recorded what they did in full color and then broadcast it all over the world, and then for good measure, made movies about this and broadcast them all over the world, the French colonization period is remembered mostly through a handful of black-and-white photographs that make it look kind of romantic. And so we forget, many of the people, that the horrors of French colonization. The Vietnamese call this slavery, that was how bad it was, and the French were running opium. It was a drug-running state, forcing the so-called Indochinese to buy the opium that the French were themselves cultivating out of Laos.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Anyways, so he goes to France, and I wanted to make this a novel about Paris that was not about baguettes and the Eiffel Tower and the Seine and all the beautiful stuff that I enjoy too, but I wanted to set it in one of the immigrant and gritty parts of Paris. In reading modernist accounts of Paris from the 1920s, 1930s, written by American writers like Hemingway and Henry Miller, you realize that those guys were living in really sort of poverty. So it was romantic and not romantic all at the same time. This is part of what’s happening in The Committed as well. And I think it is, when you look at sort of the immigrant quarters of Paris and the non-tourist parts of Paris, which is where I like to hang out, there’s a whole nother dimension of life happening there, and it’s a dimension of life that I think the French themselves have a hard time reconciling with.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right now, there’s all kinds of debates happening in France about what France is and what French culture is and how should we deal with so-called these immigrant populations and their children and they’re blaming the Americans for importing or exporting ideas about race and identity politics and gender to France as if it’s our fault that the French have these issues. So the novel tries to take those issues on. It’s not a stretch because they were already happening in the 1980s.

Rick O’Shea: You illustrate it quite beautifully, and I don’t think I’m revealing anything, but there’s one moment in the book in which our narrator is at a party, he’s at a bacchanal that’s happening, and there are a group of American jazz musicians there. Maybe just tell us about that moment and how that just, you’re right, maybe potentially illustrates the nature of French attitudes towards those that they colonized.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, they’re black jazz musicians, and of course, I think, in the French imagination, to be black is to be really authentically American, especially jazz music. And when I was in Paris, of course, jazz is a big thing. The French have a big passion for American jazz and a big passion for black American culture. But I think one of the reasons why the French were so welcoming to people like Richard Wright and James Baldwin and many other black intellectuals who went to Paris from the modernist period onwards, and from World War I onwards really, was because it allowed them again to feel superior to the Americans like, “Wow, American slavery is so bad and you have all these racial problems, and so of course we’re going to welcome basically these black expatriates who are also black refugees from this horrifying United States,” which allows the French not to think about their own problems around race which revolve around their own complicated history with slavery and colonization.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So putting the black American jazz musicians in there was important because, number one, they’re authentic for this party for French people, but number two, when our narrator tries to speak to them in French, they say, “Don’t do that. Don’t make us speak fluent French. We can, but if we spoke fluent French, the French will think we’re Africans and not African Americans, and then they’ll treat us like crap.” I’m not even making that up. I think there’s an anecdote, that anecdote that Toni Morrison recounted where she was in France or Paris and lauded as she should be and invited to this French matron’s apartment, and she brought along her friend, that is Toni Morrison did, who was African, and her friend said, “Maybe this is not a good idea because the French don’t see Africans and African Americans in the same way,” and that’s exactly what happened, that it became a much more tense party with the presence of a black African person versus an African American.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so the novel brings up these kinds of issues with the black jazz musicians, but also with the presence of other black people in Paris who are from the French colonies, and whose presence brings up the fact that the French did do these things, and the French don’t want to be reminded of that.

Rick O’Shea: It’s interesting, I’m just in my own head, scrolling back to what you said about the nature of the French colonization of Southeast Asia and Americans, and that you’re right, a lot of American war movies, movies that are made about that time, they are the Oliver Stone movies of this world, they are those films that seek to shine a light on those things that had not potentially had a light shone on, but a lot of those movies that deal with French colonization, they’re a bit soft-focus, aren’t they? They’re a bit romanticized. Am I wrong in that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think you’re right, obviously. I remember I was in college when I think the renovation of French history in terms of colonization began, at least in terms of pop culture. This is when, in the early ’90s, Indochine came out with Catherine Deneuve as a rubber plantation owner, I believe. It featured the revolution against the French, but again, I thought it was very romantically shot, and of course, with Catherine Deneuve at the center, how could it not be? And I think it gave rise to a whole wave of nostalgia for French colonization. It was after this, for example, that we actually see restaurants in the United States called Indochine and Le Colonial that are basically, they serve Vietnamese food, but they’re set basically in this sort of nostalgically French colonial environment. And then of course you had The Lover, the movie adaptation of the novel as well, which again cast the colonial period in this very romantic light and I think that did set the tone for the reestablishment of relations between France and Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So Vietnam wanted to, by the early ’90s, become a capitalist country, and one of the ways that it did that was to open itself up to tourism, including tourism from the French and then from the Americans, and part of how that took place, at least with the French, is the, number one, participating in the French delusion that French colonization was better than what the Americans did. So the French could come to Vietnam and offer help and assistance as a way of trying to repair what the Americans did, and then also to participate in this nostalgia for this French period as well, which some Vietnamese also participate in.

Rick O’Shea: I think you and I were probably going to art house cinemas around the same time, I think I’m fairly sure I saw both of those when they were released as well. And just moving on, the act of the narrator’s, his duality, the two sides of his personality, his ability to see things from both angles at the same time that, as he says himself, he refers to having a screw loose that he says becomes increasingly loose as the story progresses in The Committed. That’s quite a tightrope act for him as a character, but it must’ve been quite a tightrope act for you as a writer as well to maintain across both of these novels.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think so. I think that in both these novels, there’s a lot of stuff happening. There’s a lot of plot happening, there’s a lot of genre mixing happening. So we’ve talked primarily about the spy and the crime novels, but there’s lots of other kinds of genres taking place in these books as well. And then of course, there is our sympathizer, and he’s the main force of the novel. These are very voice-driven novels because they’re basically written as confessions. So you’re inhabiting his voice and his mind entirely throughout these two books, so he better be an interesting person one way or another.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The issue with him being of two faces and two minds adds a lot of drama because, again, he’s always looking at every issue from these different perspectives and he’s always going back and forth. It’s a very dialectical kind of experience for himself and hopefully for the reader. But as I was writing The Committed, what I wanted to do was to show someone who was under great mental duress. He had been through all these horrifying events in The Sympathizer, he came out deeply traumatized, and the narration of The Sympathizer, the novel does reflect that. But it gets deeper in The Committed, and so what this meant for me was that this novel, especially since it was written as a first-person confession, could not be written from outside of The Sympathizer. We’re not looking at him from the outside, so it can’t be written in a realistic way. We have to inhabit his point of view completely, we have to see the world through his eyes, and it still has to make sense to the reader, and yet we also have to understand that he’s disintegrating or trying to keep himself together.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: As you said, the image that’s put forth is the screw that’s holding the two halves of his mind together, it’s come loose. And so his mind, they’re wobbly, he’s wobbly at this point. So hopefully I pulled it off, I’m not sure. It was certainly a challenge to try to do that and try to make it entertaining at the same time, because I think that one of the other redeeming facets of his personality is that he’s very opinionated, and he has a lot of caustic things to say, and he is also, of course, disintegrating. But at the same time, hopefully, he himself is sympathetic because he’s also very, very vulnerable as a result of what has happened to him.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So he’s constantly making satirical jokes and arguments and all of this kind of stuff, always punching up, hopefully. But at the same time, he’s always also the butt of his own joke, and that’s part of what it means to be a man of two minds whose screw is loose.

Rick O’Shea: I don’t know if you read reviews of your novels, but I read one in the Financial Times of The Committed where it said that the book was both brainy and brawny. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well sure. That sounds good. I’ve deliberately chosen not to read any reviews this time around. With The Sympathizer, my first novel, I was obsessed. I read everything. By everything, I mean not just only the professional reviews in things like the Financial Times, but Amazon.com and Goodreads, everything. And thankfully, the professional reviews were all good, and of course, with Amazon.com and Goodreads, it’s a pleasure just to read your one-star reviews and see how you really annoyed people. But with this novel, I thought it’s not going to do me any good to worry about what anybody thinks about this novel. I have to stick to my guns, to use that expression. And I think that’s an accurate description, the brainy and the brawny part, because the brawny part, I think, comes with the genre adaptations, the crime novel part, which features a lot of drugs and violence and sex and crime, and it’s a dimension in which I try to have a lot of fun. It’s a thriller.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But the other dimension, the brainy part that goes with the intellectual part of the novel, that we’re inhabiting his mind, and that he’s an intellectual kind of a person, a deformed kind of intellectual, but he always has something to say. And I created a character who was really intelligent and really informed and really kind of not inclined to pull his punches, to use the brawny idea. And so there’s a way in which the brainy part of the book is, to me, also a thriller. The brawny part is a thriller in the more conventional sense with the genre aspects, but there’s a lot of ideas that are being wrestled with in this novel around colonization and decolonization among other things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And to me, that’s thrilling. I got a PhD in English partly because ideas thrill me and I enjoy reading theory and philosophy, and that’s a real part of the world for some portion of the population out there and so I hope that it works as a thriller in both senses at the brainy and the brawny dimensions.

Rick O’Shea: Yeah, I found myself keeping a little list of notes as I do with some books with things that I should go away and look. So for some books, it’s albums. For some books, they refer to other books. Frantz Fanon’s, Black Skin, White Masks you mention more than once. Is that one I should seek out?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, yeah. If you haven’t read it, I think you should. It was a book that… Fanon, number one, was obviously a major anti-colonial thinker of the 1950s and early 1960s. Here’s an example of a French subject, colonized subject, who’s black, who completely rebels against French colonization. Number one, he goes to Algeria as a military doctor for the French, but then changes sides to join the Algerian revolution. And he wrote The Wretched of the Earth, which is mentioned, I think, at least once in the novel, which is sort of this classical account of the necessity for violent revolution against colonization, born out of his experiences during the Algerian War, which was a horrifying, horrifying war, and it’s preoccupied the French. The French, I think, have allowed themselves to sort of forget Indochina and the French colonization there, or cast it in romantic terms, partly because it’s put into contrast and overshadowed by the horrors of the Algerian War, which the French are still wrestling with.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And so there’s a necessity, I think, from Fanon’s perspective, that violence was inevitable in throwing off the French yoke in Algeria. Black Skin, White Masks was actually written before that, and I read that as well when I was a college student. I had more problems with that book because I think The Wretched of the Earth as a straightforward revolutionary account fit my 19-year-old mind. I was like, “I’m a revolutionary, I’m at Berkeley.” It offered very clear-cut answers. Black Skin, White Masks is, I think, more ambiguous because it’s about, again, the effects of colonization psychologically and culturally. And so in that book, he takes on the very ambivalence in the status of being a black man who knows he’s colonized and wants to push that away, to revoke that, but who also knows that he’s psychologically contaminated by these processes of colonization so that even his own sense of his own blackness and his masculinity, it’s a very masculine book, has been warped by colonization as well, so how can he rebuild himself as a black man and as a human being?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So both of these books I deal with in The Committed, because those questions, I think, are still totally relevant and can be easily transposed to the experiences of other minoritized and colonized populations because I saw a lot of myself in Black Skin, White Masks as well. But it was also a time for me in this novel to reconsider my thinking about both of these books and these arguments. The Black Skin, White Masks issue appears because my narrator, The Sympathizer, is also wrestling with what it means to be human. The colonizing condition is that you cannot not be colonized, you cannot not be black or be Asian, but you also want to be human just like everybody else, so how do you get there? That’s a real moment of tension.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But this novel, The Committed, is also a lot about violence, and Fanon advocates violence, and he says violence detoxifies. It’s crucial for the man of color, these are his terms, to detoxify himself from colonization through violence. And in this novel, I wanted to show that happening, but I also wanted to question it at the same time. So I wanted to raise this question of whether non-violence can also detoxify us as well.

Rick O’Shea: Just maybe before we head towards wrapping up, I wouldn’t always necessarily ask this of authors at events, but you do talk quite publicly on social media, amongst in other places, about violence against Asian Americans recently. There has been a lot of attention about it, not just in your part of the world, but in ours as well, but you’ve spoken quite a lot about how this is in no way a new phenomenon.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely not, and I have a 2,500-word essay coming out this weekend in The Guardian Review talking about the Atlanta killings, both in the context of what’s happening globally, because there has been a global rise of anti-Asian feelings there in the UK and France, Australia, Sweden, many, many places that I cite, and it’s tied obviously to this, number one, to the rhetoric around COVID-19 as being the China virus and the kung flu, but number two, to a deep well of anti-Asian feeling and sentiment that I think is also global outside of Asia. So I don’t think the United States is unique in having this. What Edward Said argued in Orientalism is applicable in many European countries and attitudes towards China and Asia in general.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: What I think is that these killings in Atlanta, which targeted Asian massage parlors, and which killed six Asian women out of the eight victims, number one, it’s both about race and about sex. The shooter has claimed that it’s mostly about his religion and his sexual desires that he couldn’t control. That could be true. But people who look at that and say “Well, then it’s clearly not about race,” completely misunderstand that these issues cannot be separated, that there is a long tradition of targeting Asian women, both for sex and for violence, at the intersection of racism and sexism through this mix of feelings that Said calls, orientalism.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I talk about that, but I also want to locate these events also in another history, which is the history of settler colonization in the United States, the American masculine desire to carry weapons, which I think comes from this original moment of European settlers coming to the United States and using weapons to kill natives and enslave blacks and build a country in that way, and we inherit that tradition in the United States with our fetishization of toxic masculinity and weaponry.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And of course, the other way by which the United States has come into contact with Asians and Asian women is through American wars in Asia, that most of the wars that the United States has fought from World War II onwards have been in Asia. And if you think about the Middle East as a part of Asia, that too. And anti-Asian violence is not just domestic in the United States, it takes place in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and you have to think that in these countries, as a result of American-instigated wars, six million people died during the years of the war and afterwards as a consequence of things like American bombing in Cambodia. So it’s absolutely necessary to connect this one incident of killing in Atlanta with this much more global history of what the United States has done, both to Asian countries and also to Asian women as well.

Rick O’Shea: You are writing constantly. Maybe before we finish, I do have to ask you, are you writing something new in terms of fiction or a novel?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, first of all, I have to finish a nonfiction book. I didn’t get a lot of writing in terms of fiction done, but before January, between the election, which set my mind at rest, the presidential election, and January, I wrote like 30,000 words of this nonfiction book. I think I’m up to like 70,000 or 80,000, so as soon as my book tour is done, got to finish this book by the summer, which will talk about some of the things we talked about today, Rick, and then after that, the third and final installment of The Sympathizer trilogy. I promise you it’ll be the final installment. I’ve watched a lot of serial TV. I know sometimes series overstay their welcome. Got to know when to leave, that’ll be the end.

Rick O’Shea: That was me fishing. I would like the rest of the story as soon as possible, please. I’m going to remind people just before we finish up that if they would like to buy a copy of The Committed, they can get it at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, which is the festival bookseller, charliebyrne.ie. There are many other events happening in the programme, you can get tickets for live or watch again or via catch-up on the YouTube channel as well. If you’d like to support Cuirt, please do. Cuirt is a charitable organization, They would be very grateful for your support. Cuirt.ie/support-us is where you will find the details for that. This has been an absolute joy and an absolute thrill, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you so much for talking to me.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It was such a pleasure. Thank you, Rick.

Category: Interviews

 

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