Discussion with Viet Thanh Nguyen at the American Literature Festival

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the American Literature Festival featured a virtual discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. Interviewed by literary critic and UCLA professor King-Kok Cheung, Nguyen speaks about his literary work and career, as well as Asian American history and contemporary issues.

Screen capture from live stream

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the American Literature Festival featured a virtual discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. Interviewed by literary critic and UCLA professor King-Kok Cheung, Nguyen speaks about his literary work and career, as well as Asian American history and contemporary issues.

Read the transcript below:

Lisa: Hello, and welcome to the American Literature [foreign language 00:00:12] Foreign Affairs Association here at embassy Beijing. In a moment, we’re going to listen and hear from professor Viet Thanh Nguyen about his writing and experiences. I’m especially interested in the conversation we’re about to have, because in part, in the 1970s, my family fled Vietnam as refugees. Professor Nguyen’s writing touches upon many of the themes of the displaced immigrants and refugees. But first, let’s do some housekeeping. Please be reminded that this program is off the record. We kindly ask the audience not to take a screenshot or record this program. That said, we’d like to let everybody know that Embassy Beijing will be recording the discussion between the two speakers. But we will not record the chat box or the question and answer segment.

Lisa: The views and opinions shared by our two speakers today are theirs alone and does not represent the US government. Lastly, should you have any difficulty with technology or if you have trouble accessing our Chinese interpretation, do let us know in the chat room so that we can resolve it. So I now present to you our embassy acting deputy chief of mission [Bill Klein 00:01:39], who will introduce our two speakers.

Bill Klein: Yes. Thank you very much, Lisa. And good morning to all of you wherever you may be, either here in China or in United States. I am very, very delighted and very, very honored to welcome our guest today, Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is most well known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer. I would also like to welcome all of you to our American Literature Festival. This is one of many events that the US embassy here in Beijing is hosting this month. This festival’s theme is books as a bridge, highlighting the ability of books to build connection between peoples and cultures. Of course, this event does just that, connecting our audience here in China to a celebrated American author, who has his perspectives to share.

Bill Klein: We also joined together to learn more about his book and experiences, appropriately during Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month. Professor Nguyen, in addition to authoring several books has also been a tireless advocate for the Asian American community using his considerable platform to increase understanding of Asian American history and to call out appalling acts of violence and exclusion that the community has faced. Interviewing professor Nguyen this morning will be another highly acknowledged expert on Asian American literature. I’m very, very honored also to welcome professor Nguyen’s colleague and good friend, professor King-Kok Cheung, who is a professor at UCLA and a literary critic specializing in Asian American literature. So again, thanks to everybody for attending today, particularly thank you very, very much for professor Nguyen and professor Cheung for joining us. And professor Cheung, over to you to kick off the conversation.

King-Kok Cheung: Thank you very much, Mr. Klein. I want to thank the American embassy in China for hosting this event and for giving me this wonderful opportunity to chat with Viet Thanh Nguyen. I believe it was mother’s day, I got an email from my colleague, [Renee Tejimapena 00:04:22] telling me that I was getting lots of love on Twitter. Well, I don’t even have a Twitter account, but Viet, you apparently tweeted that I brazenly struck up a conversation with you at the 1994 Modern Language Association conference when you were still a graduate student at Berkeley. You were dashing then, as now. So I want to say here for the record, that that wasn’t a case of sexual harassment on my part. As the only non-white doctoral student of English at Cal in the late 1970s, I knew the isolation of being an Asian doctoral student in the English department, so I felt an instant bond with you as a Cal alum.

King-Kok Cheung: Most importantly, I was truly impressed by your conference paper entitled Postcolonialism and the Discourse of Violence in which you talk about the thin line between criminal violence and institutionalized violence. We have found many examples today from Rodney King to George Floyd. So imagine how thrilled I am that 25 years, you are still grappling with postcolonialism and violence in your two novels and pitching nonviolence valiantly. You flip the [inaudible 00:05:53] around by saying at the End of the Committed that nonviolence could detoxify us. I really hope that everyone in the audience today would memorize these four words as I have done. Nonviolence could detoxify us. Would you consider nonviolence the primary message of your trilogy? I know the third one is not written yet. And how can we put your belief and my belief in nonviolence into practice amid the Black Lives Matter movement and the mounting waves of anti violence today?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, it’s the real thrill to be here is speaking with you, King-Kok. Of course, when I was a young scholar, reading your book, Articulate Silences about Asian American women’s literature was really influential on my way of thinking. And in my own life, I still wrestle with this problem of articulate silences. The idea that not speaking is also a form of communication that can be as powerful as speaking. And that’s also something really powerful to think about in terms of literature, what is said and what is not said, the relationship between those things. So on the question of violence, I come from Vietnam. I was born in 1971 during the the war in Vietnam, the American war there. And I feel like my own life has been completely shaped by the violence of that war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t remember the war, but I wouldn’t be a refugee to the United States, wouldn’t be an American citizen if it hadn’t been for the violence of that war. And the violence of that war came about because on the one hand, there were colonizers who believed in the use of violence to suppress the colonized people. And on the other hand, there were people among the colonized who believe that violence was absolutely necessary as a way of overcoming foreign occupation. And in the idea of [Frantz Fanon 00:07:48], the Martiniquan theorist of decolonization, violence was also crucial, not just for a political purpose, but for a moral and a personal purpose. So in the Wretched of the Earth, his classic about the Algerian war of decolonization he says, violence can detoxify us. That is, that living under foreign occupation and colonization is a toxic environment. And violence is a way of not just deposing that occupation out of transforming us personally.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so I was always wrestling with that because I always wondered what would’ve happened to me if I had been born 10 or 15 years earlier? I would’ve had to make that choice about violence. I would’ve had to decide whether I would be drafted into the army to fight a war or whether I would become a college student and a draft resistor and an anti-war protestor in Vietnam. So these questions to me of violence and what it can or can’t do are enormously personally meaningful for me. And I’ve spent my life struggling with those questions, these real and hypothetical questions, about what I would do, what any of us would do in a situation that called for violence and when violence is necessary.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So in the case of Frantz Fanon writing about Algeria’s revolution against the French in the 1950s, I think he thought that violence was absolutely necessary. And he was probably right. I don’t know if nonviolence would’ve worked in the context of what the French were doing to the Algerians in the 1950s. So for me, violence and nonviolence are always, they’re not absolutes. They’re tactical and strategic kinds of issues that every group engaged in a political conflict has to decide for itself. For me personally, however, yes I’m an advocate for nonviolence personally. I have a very hard time imagining myself now engaging in violence of any kind. And that translates into this question of both art and politics. I think of my own novels as art, but there are also a form of politics, a way for me to prod readers into thinking about some important questions.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so in The Sympathizer, it is all about the war in Vietnam and the violence that that was necessary or inevitable to overthrow the American presence there. And then The Committed, it’s a novel that deals with the consequences of violence that, in Vietnam even after the war was finished, the violence would continue. And there’s an argument to be made that violence, while it can detoxify us, violence can also simultaneously deform us too, because once we’re used to using violence to solve problems, we’re going to possibly feel inclined to continue using violence. And I think that’s what we saw in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. So in The Committed, the sequel, I wanted to take up this question, violence has been done, it’s over, so what should we do next? And in The Committed, it’s a struggle for our narrator, our sympathizer to try to reach a moment where he can articulate the necessity for nonviolence for him personally, but then also nonviolence as a basis for peaceful revolution, so that’s what the end of The Committed is about.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And at least in the context of the United States, I think we’ve seen the importance of nonviolent struggle around questions of civil rights, equal rights, and so on, around the Black Lives Matter movement. And we’ve seen the horror of violence here. We’re talking about anti-Asian violence, I don’t see a situation in which the response to anti-Asian violence in the United States should be violence on our part. I’m not rushing out to buy a gun in order to defend myself or my family. I think the resolution here should be about nonviolent engagement with the political tools that we have at hand, because we have to, in my opinion present a model to our children and to future generations about what nonviolent struggle can accomplish.

King-Kok Cheung: Thank you. My next question actually is also indirectly related to the theme of violence. I’m asking this with the Chinese audience specifically in mind, because it has to do with the blood brotherhood in your two novels. To me, the blood brotherhood of the narrator [inaudible 00:12:37].

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:12:37]. [crosstalk 00:12:37].

King-Kok Cheung: All men are brothers.

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:12:49]. [crosstalk 00:12:49].

King-Kok Cheung: Outlaws as all men.

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:12:58]. [crosstalk 00:13:04].

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think I told you, to my great shame I have not read [crosstalk 00:13:37].

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:13:37]. [crosstalk 00:14:01].

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Playing out among Vietnamese boys and men. [crosstalk 00:14:45].

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:14:45]. [crosstalk 00:14:50].

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sides of the war. [crosstalk 00:15:42].

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:15:48].

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For example, where one person would be an officer in the south Vietnamese army. Another person would be a communist guerilla. They would both know each other’s existence, but the officer in the South Vietnamese army would not turn in his brother or his cousin or his friend. And the answer to your question, I think is that it’s not simply a hierarchy where brotherhood is more important than ideology, but it’s a negotiation between the two, because I think obviously the question of ideology and belief remains crucial. We all have our belief systems and they’re important to us and they drive us. But the moral question comes up, what happens when our belief system comes into conflict with our loyalty and our love for another human being? And I think for a lot of people caught in that situation during the war in Vietnam, they chose their brotherhood.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: They didn’t betray their ideology, but they also went out of their way for example, if their friend or their cousin or their brother was in trouble, like in prison, they would go and save them because that was really crucial. So you could do both things at the same time and that’s what people did. People did not become traitors to their own side and try to undermine their own cause, but they would stop fighting for their side temporarily so that they could go save the person that they loved, who was on the other side. And so I think what that says to me is that we’re all capable of that kind of negotiation, where we always have to make a human choice, and that ideology and political belief doesn’t determine everything that we do.

King-Kok Cheung: But judging from the two novels, it’s very, very hard.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Of course, yeah.

King-Kok Cheung: Yes. And [Bon 00:17:43], I mean, I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s certainly not a case in which you feel that oh, the brotherhood prevailed over ideologies because it was very, very sad to me, the way … I won’t give it away, but I would move now to our mutual hobby horse, which is Asian American literature, because I have many colleagues in ethnic literature in the audience who signed up via WeChat. I got tickled every time I come across a nod to [inaudible 00:18:14] or [John O’Connor 00:18:18], but none of your critics ever mention any of these writers. And even your blistering humor is somewhat reminiscent of [inaudible 00:18:29]. So I want to ask what is the impact of Asian American literature on your writing? And are you bothered that no one ever talk about that, all these raves about your work, no one ever said how you were like making so many illusions to ethnic literature, including Asian American original?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think hopefully time will catch up and people will have younger critics, younger scholars who, who know exactly what you’re talking about will eventually write articles or whatever on these books and bring up these points. But Asian American literature was absolutely crucial to me because I had grown up with a love for literature in general, and the world of fiction and poetry when I was a boy were things that saved my life. I think pretty literally, because I grew up as as a refugee, and the son of refugee parents, and they were working all the time, and I was basically left alone. So my escape was to the library and borrowing books and reading books. And these were my entertainments, but also my escape from this very difficult, emotionally difficult world of refugee existence.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But at the same time, when I went to college, I became an English major because my only talent was to read. That’s all I knew how to do. But I couldn’t figure out how to make a living out of that because I had a hard time thinking about going home to my parents and saying, I would love to spend my life studying English, romantic poetry, because that’s all I knew, because I have a deep love for English romantic poetry. I memorized the poems of Percy Shelly and Lord Byron, and all that. But I could not go home to these Vietnamese refugee people who are my parents who were working in a grocery store and tell them this because it would just be completely beyond their comprehension.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So in college, I discovered that there was other kinds of literature besides the literature that came out of Europe and England and or written by white people, literatures of African Americans, Black people, Latinos, Chicanos, and Asian Americans. So I remember very distinctly the first Asian American book I ever read was Amy tan’s The Joy Luck Club. And I was about 18 years old, found the book in a bookstore, read it in I think two nights. And I was just completely blown away because the only other time I’d ever encountered Asian people in literature was in the comic books of [Tintin 00:21:00] and in Pearl Buck, The Good Earth. But I had never seen a book by an Asian American. As a matter of fact, I had no idea what that term was, Asian American.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so reading this book, number one, it’s really entertaining, so it’s really compelling to read. And number two, it was like it featured Asian Americans not exactly like me because they’re Chinese-American, but close enough, close enough, so I could recognize what was going on. And that was my introduction. And then I took courses in Asian American literature with our colleague, Elaine Kim, my mentor, and [Sau-Ling Wong 00:21:32] at Berkeley. And I became a student of Asian American literature, its entire history, all the people that you talked about, read most of it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And now we’ve reached the point where I can honestly say there are so many books being published by Asian American authors in the United States, I can’t even keep up. But up until about the late nineties, early two thousands, I was reading everything that Asian American authors wrote. So I do think of these novels as being a part of Asian American literature and a part of American literature and a part of hopefully world literature, whatever that is because there’s a lot of allusions in these novels to all these different kinds of literature, but for Asian American literature specifically, Yeah I think it’s part of the fun of being a writer is to know a literary tradition deeply so that you can play with it. And you can do allusions, and references, and all these kinds of things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So you mentioned Maxine Hong Kingston, for example. When you read her work, for example, Tripmaster Monkey, that novel, it’s an Asian American novel in the sense that it references Asian American literature and Asian American characters, Frank Chin, for example, Sean Wong. And that’s part of the fun. When we read quote unquote canonical literature and we see that European American or white writers are referring to other European or American or white writers, it’s awesome. It’s a lot of fun to play that game. So likewise, for us as Asian American authors, I think it’s fun, and as Asian American readers, or readers of Asian American literature, it’s fun to see these allusions working out within our particular tradition.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And if there are readers out there who don’t see those allusions, it doesn’t matter. You gain more if you understand the allusions, but you don’t lose anything if you don’t see these allusions taking place. And as you said, there is in Asian American literature, a lot of humor, a lot of satire. You’ll see that in Tripmaster Monkey, you’ll see that in the writings of Frank Chin, for example. And then there’s a lot of anger as well that’s equally important. And anger and humor have a distinct relationship to each other. And where they meet is in satire and parody. And there’s a lot of that happening in The Sympathizer and The Committed. So I think that part of how these novels function as Asian American literature, besides featuring Asian American characters, is that there a distinct sense of this anger at being excluded, at being erased in various ways. And that the writer is going to take revenge.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s a theme in Maxine Hong Kingston’s work and Frank Chin’s work, Writing is Fighting from Muhammad Ali, that Frank Chin quoted through Ishmael Reed. And then Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior talked explicitly about writing as a form of revenge against injustice and the abuses of power. So I really see work fitting very much in that tradition, except with an even greater amplification of the humor that is found in those books.

King-Kok Cheung: Yeah. I’m actually offering to give a talk in China called the two great nonviolent American novels, talking about Maxine Hong Kingston and you together, in two days actually. But you were lucky enough to actually take a course from Maxine. Is that correct? I thought you wrote in one of your blog calling The Woman Warrior and China Man the great American novel. And you said that, but you were not ready for her, but do you actually take a classroom Maxine Hong Kingston at Berkeley?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. I went to Berkeley and if you know anything about Berkeley, it’s a very big university, lots of students, and it’s very hard to get into small classes. So Maxine taught a very small class on creative nonfiction, so it’s a writing class. So I submitted my nonfiction essay. I was lucky enough to get in. The class only had 14 students. I was probably 19 years old and I get in and every day I would go to the seminar room and I would sit about five feet from Maxine. And every day I would fall asleep. So I was like probably the worst student in the writing seminar. I exhibited, I think, zero talent. I gave no signs that ever would one day be a serious writer. And Maxine, bless her heart, has said in public, I thought Viet was a good student. Either she forgot or she’s lying. I don’t know what, but I was definitely not a good student.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I tell this story to encourage writers, young writers out there, whatever you were doing at a certain point in your life is not going to influence your future as a writer. There’s always time to develop the commitment necessary to become a writer. But Maxine was important to me also in the sense that in her books, especially The Woman Warrior, is a book that I teach every time I teach a course on Asian American literature. And so her work is really deep, very sophisticated, very layered, and it rewards constant rereading and constant teaching. And so that’s one of the goals I have for these novels that I’ve written in that they have that same kind of layering and complexity.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Anyway, I’ll write more about my relationship with Maxine because I’m writing a memoir and I have … At the end of my seminar with Maxine, she wrote me a letter, a one page letter. And basically she said in that letter, you seem very alienated and depressed. You should make use of our university’s counseling services. And of course I never made use of our university’s counseling services. Instead I became a writer. So that was my way of trying to cope with whatever I was going through at that time. And so in the nonfiction book, the memoir I’m writing, I talk about that and the letter, and basically the fact that Maxine was right at that time, that I was alienated and depressed and it’s taken me decades to figure out what was wrong with me.

King-Kok Cheung: Okay. Well, now I want to go from Asian American literature to world arts and culture. No one can fail to notice your very expansive literary, philosophical, political, and musical repertoire. All the rock and roll, Elvis Presley, country music, everything you name it is there, Beatles, everything. And your defined command of Anglophone and Francophone canon would impress any academic. But I’m much more fascinated by your esoteric references that no one notices probably except me. For example, I learned from The Sympathizer that the Vietnamese army defeated the Chinese in [Cafu Heran 00:28:16]. I was invited there at some point. So I thought, that is so fascinating, and that there’s even a statue of this Vietnamese soldier.

King-Kok Cheung: And then I also learned about the Vietnamese songster, [Trịnh Công Sơn 00:28:32], called the Bob Dylan of Vietnam by Joan Baez. And then I ran across in The Refugees, the Chinese writer called, I don’t know how to pronounce it in Vietnamese, but you call it [Chin Dao 00:28:45]. But I know her as [inaudible 00:28:48] in Cantonese, who is the very popular forbidden writer during my high school days in Hong Kong. So how is that feat accomplished? Are you yourself a man of simultaneous minds that you can conjure such an array of references? Are you consciously trying to stretch the American heritage, or do you see yourself as a writer without national borders?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The question of identity is interesting because I have no problem being called a Vietnamese American writer or an Asian American writer. I don’t have any problem with that as long as I’m also considered an American writer or as a writer without any adjectives. The only time I get irritated at being called a Vietnamese American writer is when someone else is called just a writer. If I’m sitting next to someone and I’m being called an Asian American writer, and this person is being called a writer, I think that’s deeply problematic. So there’s no problem with identity. It’s just that when identity is applied, obviously unequally, that it’s an issue for me. And I grew up, as I said, as a Vietnamese refugee in the United States. And I always felt myself to be a person of duality, a person of two worlds in my parents’ household, which was completely Vietnamese, I was an American.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then when I stepped out of that house into the rest of the United States, I was a Vietnamese spying on Americans. And that experience I think, is very common for refugees, for immigrants, and so on. And it’s an experience that I think a lot of people are very uncomfortable with. I think most people reasonably, want to feel at home wherever they happen to be. And for me, I just had to get used to this feeling of constant discomfort. And it’s a sensation that I still experience today. And it’s a very good emotion for a writer. If you’re completely at home, you’re probably not going to become a writer. What are you going to write about? But if you feel this tension, this conflict, this discomfort, it’s a stimulus for thinking about the differences between cultures.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And if you let yourself, you can see both the inside and the outside of whatever culture you happen to be in. And so I took that sensation and I just amplified it greatly in these novels by putting these emotions into the figure of our spy, a man between worlds. And in that sense, I think he, the sympathizer, is omnivorous. He is curious about everything. He absorbs everything and nothing is alien to him, and everything is alien to him all at the same time. And I hope that my mentality is the same, to be endlessly curious and to be willing to read, or to listen to, or to watch anything. So I don’t have any problem reading the classics of American and European literature written by white people, for example. But I have no problem reading the literatures of other countries and the literatures of peoples of color in the United States as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I compare and contrast that with the fact that in the United States, there are people, our colleagues, English professors, who only read the literatures of white people. But they will never say that because for them, that’s their norm. Why would they ever read anything else? And I think that that’s a very disabling perspective. And so I don’t think that I’ve tried to set out to be omnivorous, I just don’t understand why people are not omnivorous and try to absorb everything. And so I think all the illusions in these books are simply references to things that I’ve read, I’ve listened to, I’ve heard, and to put them in-

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:32:55]. [crosstalk 00:32:55].

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For example, that exists by itself. It’s always published in a universe of literature, so why not make references to other literary things that are out there? And I think that’s due partly to my scholarly mindset, that I did a PhD in English, with my specialization being 19th and 20th century American literature. And so when I wrote The Sympathizer, for example, I had two folders on my desk. They were about this thick altogether, which were my notes on 19th and 20th century American literature. So I very deliberately wanted The Sympathizer to be read, not only as Asian American literature, but as American literature, that it should be understood to be in conversation with Melville, and Faulkner, and Morrison, and Ellison, and so on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s a very deliberate strategy on my part. I don’t know why any writer wouldn’t want to aspire to be in conversation with these kinds of writers. And then finally, I thought of The Sympathizer, and The Committed too, not as great American novels, but I thought of them as European modernist versions of the great American novel. And so there’s a whole inheritance from European modernism that’s really important for me in constructing the aesthetic style and worldview in these books,

King-Kok Cheung: But the span is not just literature. I was just very impressed by how many political philosophers, [inaudible 00:34:27], and all the French [inaudible 00:34:35]. So I just feel, it’s this really sheer, like omnivorous writing, reading, or do you have like a network of friends who is always discussing these ideas? I’m just very impressed by this really tremendous repertoire. People say that a woman had to do twice as hard or whatever, to be like a man. I think your stuff just encompassed twice as much anything as any white writers that I have read, maybe with the exception of Shakespeare. Just such a span of everything. And the music, my students just love it, whether they love rock and roll, Beegees, Marvin Gaye, anything. So is it your own totally all over the place mind? Where is that coming from?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, with the music it’s partly it just the music I grew up with. But the other issue is like, with both of these novels, I was very self-conscious to construct soundtracks for the novels, because my narrator loves music. He’s always in nightclubs and listening to bands and listening to the radio. And of course, music is one of the great forms of cultural imperialism that the United States, part of its reach all over the world has been through the soft power, if it’s popular culture, including rock music, rap, and so on and so forth. So anybody who’s been subjected to long distance Americanization is going to know American music. And likewise, in The Committed, which is set in Paris, he’s going to be listening to French pop music.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, I actually did not know that much about French pop music besides a few classics, so I am very deliberately set out to listen to as much French music as I could. And likewise, in the American context, I was out there investigating different music, different songs, that I could reference to, or just to have a soundtrack that could inform my feeling as I wrote the book so that the rhythms of the music would also inform the rhythms of the prose as well. So partly in response to your question, it’s this natural curiosity, things that I already listened to, but then partially very deliberately trying to construct a sonic dimension for the novel as well. And as far as the various theoretical and philosophical influences, I did a PhD in English, so I was like of course I read all these people. And so The Committed, where most of these references take place, The Committed is really my novel, not only about 1980s Paris, but my novel about my own education into the philosophies that were being circulated in the 1980s in France, and in the United States, and the UK in particular.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And the people that are being cited in this novel are the people that were being read by the professors in the English department and in cultural studies and so on. These were the ideas that we were wrestling with at that time. So The Committed really bears that, it’s kind of a timestamp of these ideas that I was initially introduced to as an undergraduate and a graduate student. And then these ideas that I’ve spent a couple of decades trying to understand their complexities and their nuances.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The last thing to say about this is that The Committed is a crime novel. It’s a thriller. But for me, ideas are thrilling as well. So it’s a novel that is a thriller about crime and thriller about ideas. I don’t know what the situation is in China, but in the United States, I think our readership, American audiences, tend to be a little anti-intellectual. Some of the reviews of The Committed, I’ve tried not to read most of the reviews, but a few of them have reached me, some of the reviews have said, we’re a little confused by all the philosophy in this novel. As if novels shouldn’t deal with philosophy or shouldn’t deal with ideas. I find this very disturbing because number one, why can’t fiction deal with philosophy and ideas? That’s a very artificial constraint on fiction. And the other thing is that if we think about ideas, ideas are not the realm of intellectuals only. If we think about the great social movements and revolutions that have taken in the 20th century-

King-Kok Cheung: I think they want to remind us trying.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right? So it seems obvious to me that ideas have impacted these ideas about revolution and justice and all that, they’ve impacted all of our lives, so why can’t we talk about them in fiction?

King-Kok Cheung: I think Lisa wants to remind us that we want to leave time for questions, but I don’t want to end without asking you to comment on the title, which to me is such a lovely and pregnant pun, The Committed. I think the novel breaks new ground in having a quote unquote, crazy bastard as a narrator. So the man of two minds in The Sympathizer becomes like a man of four minds in The Committed. So to what extent is this a conscious narrative strategy intended to multiply the double consciousness of the narrator? Would you say that the narrator’s mental illness, be it PTSD, bipolar, schizoaffective, or schizophrenia, is both a handicap and a talent, an advantage that allows him to see things outside the box?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yesterday I received an email from a colleague of mine who’s a Black scholar and he was talking specifically about this. And he was saying, me, myself and I, the refrain that takes place in The Committed, is a way of amplifying the double consciousness that WEB Dubois talked about in the Souls of Black Folk, and going beyond the duality of double consciousness. And I think that that was great. I was so appreciative getting that email because in fact, The Sympathizer starts off with duality. A man of two faces, a man of two minds. And in The Committed I wanted to complicate the duality and the binary, because when we talk about wars, the cold war, hot wars, they’re all constructed around these extreme opposition. And if we want to try to get beyond that, to another space, like the space of nonviolence, for example, I think we have to go beyond dualities and binaries to something with more multiplicity.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so in The Committed, it’s a Trinity of positions that he’s working through. And of course when you do that, when everyone else is thinking in a dualistic or binaristic fashion and you’ve gone in some other direction, you’re going to appear crazy or out of step with what’s taking place. That’s one dimension. On the other hand, he really is crazy. He’s been terribly tormented in The Sympathizer. And he’s dealing with trauma and it’s aftermath in The Committed. The word never comes up I think. He’s not diagnosing himself with post traumatic stress disorder, but he is definitely screwed up. And in the novel, the challenge was, how do I convey this without saying it? And how do I convey the fact that he’s destroyed psychologically by what he’s been through and is not aware of being destroyed psychologically?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so that accounts for this part of the style of The Committed. The multiple pronouns, the way he shifts between one pronoun and the next. So it is both a disability for him, because it does impair his ability to function with other people. And at the same time, it is a moment of insight for him as well, that he has a different capacity to see things unlike other people. So I think about Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky is the major influence in my work. And poor man, he probably had epilepsy. He was stricken with seizures and all of that. Obviously a terrible thing. On the other hand, some critics think that this is partly how he got insight into doing the things that he did with his incredible fiction. And so The Sympathizer, our narrator, who is a writer of these confessions, I think has a similar affliction.

King-Kok Cheung: Well, thank you very much. I think I do now turn over the forum to Lisa, because she has gathered a lot of questions from the audience. But I would love to talk with you about both of the books at some point. I definitely want to write about it when I retire. I don’t have time right now, but you know, when I retire, I definitely want to write about your trilogy. So I’m still waiting for the third one.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you so much, King-Kok.

Lisa: Thank you Dr. Cheung, we look forward to your writing about it. And thank you professor Nguyen. We have a series of questions that we’d like to, time permitting, ask you. Let’s start with this one. Do you think America is the melting pot that combines different cultures? How are you affected by other cultures and how do you stick to your own values?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Is America melting pot? In some ways, yes, for certain people. If we look at the United States and American culture for white people in particular, we see that people can come from different parts of Europe and they have all their ethnic differences and national differences. And they come to the United States, and after a generation or two, they’re just Americans. So the fact that they were Irish, or Italian, or Spanish, or what have you doesn’t really matter anymore. This is how we can see people with Irish, and Italian, and Spanish surnames functioning as if they were just complete Americans who are not different from each other. It’s a little bit more challenging for those who are not white in the United States. There’s a certain kind of melting that takes place in the sense that we can look at American culture and see very distinct traces of cultural influence from people from non-white countries.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So American food, if we use this melting pot example, American food for example, is much, much better because it has melted down and absorbed all different kinds of cuisines from all over the world, not just from Europe, but from Vietnam, for example. And so we’ve made our contributions that way. But it’s more difficult for the people from these countries to melt down completely and become like every other American, because there are so many reminders that were not the same. And that’s why we’re going through this moment of anti-Asian violence right now. That’s a pretty distinct reminder that Asian Americans don’t completely belong to the United States. And I don’t think that the United States can ever be this idealistic melting pot that the questioner raised because the United States is built on a fundamental contradiction.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think all countries are built on fundamental contradictions, but for the United States in particular, it’s contradiction is that it’s founded through conquest, and colonization, and slavery, and genocide, and war, and so on. And it is a country with all these great ideals about democracy, and Liberty, and assimilation, and the melting pot. These two things are in conflict with each other. And that’s one reason why anti-Asian violence is systemic, and endemic, and cyclical in the United States. What we’re experiencing now is not new and will probably happen again. So until the United States can resolve that contradiction, it’s not going to be a melting pot in the absolute sense, and we’re not going to be able to get away from some of these problems.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That being said, I’m an American. My English is perfect, I believe. But my resistance to assimilation is signaled by the fact that I refused to change my name. I could have changed my name when I became an American citizen. But I think I had both a tie to Vietnam, and I think I felt an implicit resistance to complete assimilation into the United States because I could look around and see that American culture did not accept people like me. All I had to do was turn on the TV and watch movies to see that Asian Americans and Vietnamese people in particular were not completely accepted and welcomed into the United States.

Lisa: I agree. I think that’s shifted, the idea that we can change our name or not have to change our name, to blend in and to be an American.

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:47:09].

Lisa: So you touched a little bit on this already, but-

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:47:28]. [crosstalk 00:47:28].

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I took a very strong position and said American writers have been very politicized in the era of Donald Trump. So what’s going to happen after the end of his presidency? Are all these writers simply going to relapse back into their normally apolitical mode? And a lot of people did not like this essay because they felt that I was demanding that all writers do a certain kind of thing, which I was not. But they’re all so upset because they didn’t think that politics should have a space in American literature, that if you introduce politics into American literature, you’re automatically going to introduce orthodoxy and doctrinaire kinds of ideas, which basically gesture to the fact that in the United States in particular, when we’re talking about mainstream prestigious American literature, the impulse is, in general, to be apolitical. That’s particular issue in this country.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I don’t agree with that. I draw my inspiration from a tradition of committed writers. That’s partly what the title of the novel The Committed alludes to. And so I do believe there’s social and political responsibilities that authors should have, but it’s up to each of us to make of that what we will. I think our greatest responsibility is to the art of what we’re writing. And if we can create great art, we will have a social impact. That being said, there is nothing contradictory about having an intense commitment to the art of our writing, and also having a commitment to social and political causes or ideas. Again, in the United States, that connection is discouraged. And in my own work, I try to bring them together.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: My genealogy as a writer is partly sketched out in the committed with all the writers I’m citing. These are writers I admire. Not that I agree with everything they say, but I admire their engagement, both with art and with the world. And I feel like my own sense of myself as a writer is deeply connected to my refugee history. My sense of both being an insider and an outsider to the United States and American culture, and my sense of being an insider and an outsider to the canon of literature and everything that it embodies. Because when we talk about the canon of American literature, or Anglo American literature, it’s a white canon for the most part. So what does it mean to want to be included in that canon? Should we even want to be included in that canon? It’s a complicated question. I feel desires within myself to want to be a part of this. And yet I recognize the exclusionary elements of canonical literature. So always, that inside outside tension plays out, that commitment to the aesthetic, and that commitment to politics, which is oftentimes contradictory.

Lisa: Thank you. I think we may have time for one more question. Yeah. As a writer, how do you deal with truths that are difficult to face, but necessary to express?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that’s what all literature should be dealing with. Is there a truth out there that is not difficult to confront? I would love to have easy truths. I think every writer knows, or should know, there is no such thing as an easy truth, because if there was, there would be no basis for literature. Imagine picking up a book in which the whole point is to reveal an easy truth. Where’s the excitement in that? Or where’s the dramatic possibility in that? You have to, as a writer, put your characters into difficult situations. For a lot of writers, that just means a difficult plot. Here’s a character he’s stuck in a room. How’s he going to break out of the room?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Okay. That’s interesting. But here’s a character, and he or she or they, are stuck in a difficult idea. How do they resolve or confront that difficulty? That to me is much more interesting. And so that’s why in The Sympathizer, I make a very explicit gesture at this problem by citing the philosopher Hegel. Hegel’s definition of tragedy is not that it’s a conflict between right versus wrong, but that it’s a conflict between right versus right. And I think that’s absolutely correct. If everything was right versus wrong, it’d be very easy. We’d pick the right side. But the real tragedies of our history are when two different people or two different sides are equally convinced of their rightness. And there’s an element of truth to both of their perspectives. And from that, you get great human and political drama. So I think that it is my obligation to try to find these difficult truths and talk about them.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For example, I said the United States of America is both a country of great ideals, and Liberty democracy, and so on. The American dream. And it’s also a country built on genocide, slavery, and colonization. This to me is a difficult truth. And I have never been shy about talking about it, no matter where I am, whether it’s with the state department … I went to West Point, our military academy. I said this to a thousand military cadets who probably, good number of them disagreed with me. But that to me is the truth. And when you say the truth, a lot of people will not want to listen, because I think it’s a common condition that for a lot of people, they don’t want to face a difficulty.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When faced with a contradiction, they want to choose one out of the contradiction, because it’s easier for them to deal with. So for Americans, a lot of Americans would just want to hear the positive side of the American story, about the American dream, and the American ideal, and all that. And when someone like me comes along to tell them what I think is a difficult truth, a good number of people will send me hate mail as a response to that. So if you are going to be engaged in difficult truths, be ready to hear some difficult responses from people. But I don’t know, that makes writing worthwhile for me.

Lisa: Okay. Thank you. I’ve been told that maybe we have time for one more question, pushing the time limit of it. Okay, so your statement, revolutionaries can never be innocent, left a deep impression on many audience members and led them to think about whether justice still exists when everyone is burdened with crimes. What is your yard stick for justice?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m sorry, what is my what for justice?

Lisa: Yard stick. What is your yard stick for justice?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, revolutionaries are never innocent. I think that when we think about … Who’s been an innocent revolutionary? The only person I can think of is like Jesus Christ. From my tradition, my Catholic tradition, Jesus Christ. I don’t think he did anything for himself to be ashamed of. But in every other secular instance of revolution, and in a lot of religious instances of revolution, you have all these high minded ideals about liberation, and justice, and all that. And then inevitably, you find that people corrupt these ideals. In the name of their idealism they go too far and they commit things that in retrospect, we would call crimes. And that’s the very much the subject of the novel, The Committed. It brings up the issue, you can be committed to a cause for all the right reasons, and then in the name of all these right reasons, you do terrible things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I think we see that as far as I can tell in every revolution that’s ever taken place. The only issue is that in the aftermath of these revolutions, the inheritors of revolutions are very sensibly tempted to write a version of the past that erases all of the crimes and all of the contradictions. So in the case of the United States, the American revolution, I’m pretty sure some bad things happened during the American revolution. It’s inevitable. But we don’t learn those things in the United States for the most part, because obviously, that is our revolution.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We have sanitized it. We have turned it into an ideal for all the obvious reasons. Likewise, in the case of Vietnam, the Vietnamese have done some terrible things too. But the way that the Vietnamese usually cope with that is to point to other countries and say that country, that country, that country, they colonized us, we’re the victims. And our own revolution, the Vietnamese revolution is lionized and enshrined in Vietnam as having done no wrong. When in fact, we know, or I know, that they have done wrong things, which does not make them any worse than the other revolution.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So what is the yardstick then for justice? I think for me, obviously, when we’re looking at an ongoing revolution or the aftermath of a revolution, the yardstick for justice is very clear. It doesn’t matter who commits a crime, it’s still a crime, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s our side committing the crime. It’s not justified. It may be justified for the purposes of winning the war or winning the revolution. I understand that. But it’s not justified in any moral sense. But then the revolution has been carried out. The revolution is done. We can’t go back into the past to raise people from the dead who are murdered in the righteous cause.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So what would then be the yardstick for justice? And for me, I deal with this in my book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, the yardstick for justice is about acknowledgement, atonement, reparations. Can we look back to the past and say we are people, whoever that is, our side had committed crimes? And we have to make up for that. And that is the yards stick for justice. And in so many countries, not just the United States, but in Vietnam as well, and in many other countries, I think there’s been a failure in terms of justice in that sense. If we look at the United States, for example, we have not, as a country, atoned for things like slavery, or genocide, or colonization. And so we are living with the consequences today of eruptions of racist violence and of marginalization and exploitation and things like that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In Vietnam, there has not been a measure of justice for the failures of the Vietnamese revolution. In the case of Vietnamese refugees in the United States, there’s not been justice because I don’t think most Vietnamese refugees would acknowledge that their own side in Vietnam might have committed crimes too. I say these kinds of things. This is why people from all sides attack me because it’s a very sensible human reaction to just see a conflict and it’s aftermath from our own side, and to measure justice from our own side. And I think if you do that, you can never actually have justice.

Lisa: Thank you for that. Unfortunately we’ve run out of time. And I wanted to thank the audience for your participation and for your questions. If you’re interested in additional literary events between now and June 26th, please check out our website, Americanliteraturefestival.com. I’m sorry. I’m still a little bit awe struck by the conversations that we’re having and need to pull myself together. So if you’re interested in additional literary events, please consult our website, Americanliteraturefestival.com. Our sincere thank you to both professor Nguyen and professor Cheung for your contribution today and your participation. It’s been such a privilege to hear you engage, and for our audiences to hear the conversation between the two of you. Thank you for participating in the literature festival and exemplifying its theme, books as a bridge, connecting us here in Beijing and in the us. Thank you again profusely for your time, and take care. And may you get lost in a good book.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you, Lisa. Thank you, DCM Klein. Thank you, especially professor Cheung, and thanks to all of you. I wish I was there in person in China.

Lisa: Thank you.

Category: Interviews

 

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