Dornsife Dialogues – Viet Thanh Nguyen: MacArthur Fellow, Refugee and Author of The Committed

Viet Thanh Nguyen joins Chris Abani for a conversation about writing, academia, and more for Dornsife Dialogues, a forum by USC Dornsife.

Join a live interview of Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, University Professor, Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature, by USC Dornsife alumnus Chris Abani, Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.

Following publication of his second novel, The Committed, USC Dornsife’s Viet Thanh Nguyen has a fascinating conversation with celebrated author Chris Abani.

A Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Nguyen discusses his path to becoming a writer and professor as well as his thoughts on refugees and the immigrant experience, America, and his new novel, the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, The Sympathizer. He also answers live questions from viewers.

Abani, who graduated from USC Dornsife with a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing, is a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter and playwright. He is the recipient of multiple honors including the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Nguyen is University Professor, Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at USC Dornsife. Abani is Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.

Read the transcript below.

Amber D. Miller: Welcome to Dornsife Dialogues. I’m glad that so many people could join us because we’re in for a good one today. Many of us entered quarantine thinking that we might have more time to catch up on our reading lists, and if you’re like me that hasn’t exactly gone as planned. It’s been busier here at Dornsife than ever. But last summer, I did get to read one of the books that I’d been looking forward to reading for quite a while, The Sympathizer, by Viet Nguyen, our special guest today. And I’ll tell you, it was easy to understand why this novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was absolutely terrific. We at Dornsife are proud and lucky to have a number of bestselling authors on our faculty. In addition to Viet, Amy Vendor, Deb Harkness, Percival Everett, Maggie Nelson, Dana Johnson, and many others, just a few of our big names in the literary world.

Amber D. Miller: And I sometimes wonder how many people realize how many of America’s most celebrated novelists today are university faculty members, and what that means for our students. So many of them come to college, completely unaware that they are about to have their essays critiqued by Pulitzer prize winners, MacArthur and Guggenheim fellows, poet laureates, and others. And in fact, today our moderator, Chris Abani, was the star student in a graduate seminar taught by Viet Nguyen several years ago. So this is a special reunion for both of them. Chris is now an internationally acclaimed novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. He also serves as the board of trustees professor of English and comparative literature studies at Northwestern University. And he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent books are The Secret History of Las Vegas, The Face, A Memoir, and Sanctificum.

Amber D. Miller: Among many honors, he is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the Pen Hemingway Award, and an Edgar Prize. Through his public speaking and writing, Chris is a celebrated voice on humanitarianism, art, ethics, and our shared political responsibility. Many of these themes are similarly found in university professor Viet Nguyen’s work, as he grapples with issues like immigration, globalization and cultural appropriation. Viet offers new ways to think about issues that we typically learn about from a single subjective point of view.

Amber D. Miller: In addition to winning the Pulitzer, Viet received a MacArthur Genius Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Today, he’ll be telling us about his sequel to The Sympathizer, entitled The Committed, which was just published last month. It has quickly earned rave reviews, and I’ve heard that it contains a seven page single sentence that I’m going to personally go looking for when I read it this summer. So without further ado, please join me in welcoming Viet Nguyen and Chris Abani. I will turn it over to them.

Chris Abani: Thank you so much.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks so much, Dean Miller.

Chris Abani: Thanks Dean Miller. Hi, Viet.

Viet Nguyen: Hey Chris. Dean Miller was kind saying that was several years ago that we knew each other. It’s actually more like 20 years ago, I think, that we first met.

Chris Abani: I was doing the math today, 2001, I came into the program with [crosstalk 00:03:13].

Viet Nguyen: Right.

Chris Abani: And I think we were both in our 30s then, but now I look like an old man, and you look even younger than you did when I started.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you Chris.

Chris Abani: So I wouldn’t-

Viet Nguyen: Well, it was a great seminar. I just want to tell folks about it. That we, thanks to Carol Muske-Dukes and others in the English faculty, we started a… Not we, but the English faculty started the creative writing PhD program. It’s one of the few in the country and you were in the first cohort, and you were just a remarkable student, and you’d already come as a full grown… Right? I don’t know if full grown is the right word. But you were already a writer coming into the program, so we were lucky to get you. And I don’t know if we did anything for you, but you certainly did a lot for us, in terms of what happened with your writing career. And I remember reading your first novel, I believe. No, I don’t know if it’s your first novel. Reading one of your early novels, Graceland, in manuscript form before it was published, and became a big, big success.

Chris Abani: That’s right. Yeah. I mean, it’s funny, you did everything for me in this program. I talk about it all the time, and again, I do want to shout out to Carol Muske-Dukes, because it took quite a… It’s not easy. I started an MA, an MFA here at Northwestern, and I now realize what it must’ve taken to put together a program like that. Administratively and otherwise, and funding and everything, but also just remarkable faculty. And it was one of… And this is the thing about that program that’s so unique. It’s literature and creative writing, and so you get to do both, but you’re working with faculty who are fluid, and I haven’t encountered that anywhere else. And you in particular, Viet. Well, I had come from London, and before that Nigeria, and coming into USC was quite the culture shock.

Chris Abani: And I was often unaware of the American way of speaking, of softening. And I would go straight into ideas and I would run into all these difficulties. And I spent a lot of time in your office, where you were trying to help me figure my way around, and I’ve never forgotten that, and I really appreciate it. And I remember all kinds of things. I mean, there was a particular group of us, Bridget [Hoider-Recrete 00:05:20] and Jennifer Dobbs. And we had a really silly show, Radio Marginalia, on the USC channel, and you were the first person to come on and indulge us. And in the intro to theory class, I gave you such a hard time about derry-down, breaking derry-down down. So now that I’m teaching grad students, I’ve come to realize that there is such a thing as calm, as I’m dealing with that.

Chris Abani: But that’s amazing. But I think what people don’t really know about you, because I think that some… And I’m just jumping straight into this because it’s been so long, I haven’t had a chance to talk to you, but I mean, people, when you win a Pulitzer and you do all this things, everybody’s thinks you woke up one morning, you wrote the novel, and that was it. But they don’t know you’ve been playing in the field of fiction since 2002, that I know of. I mean, probably before then, but that’s when I became aware, and that you had such an impact on Graceland, which was really trying to deal with some cosmopolitan-ness, and post-colonial-ness, and all the things that The Sympathizer does so well.

Chris Abani: And you were so generous in how you pointed and shaped that. And have you always, before you became the literature professor, were you already writing, were you drawn to literature and to writing early? And I’m particularly curious, because I know a bit about your essays, but I’m curious about fiction. So I’m rolling three questions into one. What is it about fiction, about fiction in particular, that allows you to explore certain ideas that we may not be able to do in other forms?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. Well, let me just say that I had culture shock coming to UFC as well because I come from the Bay area. I grew up in San Jose, went to school at UC Berkeley. And honestly I had no idea what USC was about, and what Los Angeles was about. And it’s been a learning experience, and I think one of the benefits of being at USC, given what we’re talking about, is that we’re right next to Hollywood, which means that there’s a lot of permeability and we’re not like Harvard. I think Harvard would look down its nose that being contaminated by Hollywood, and by film, and by music, and by entertainment. And thankfully, I think USC professors in general are open to these kinds of things. So there’s already an air or an atmosphere of experimentation and a willingness to go across disciplines.

Viet Nguyen: And in answer to your question, I mean, I wrote my first book in the third grade. It was called Lester the Cat and I wrote and drew it for public school, and then the San Jose Public Library gave me an award. I was seven or eight years old. And that set me on the road to 40 years of misery trying to become a writer. I always wanted to be a writer, but I mean, I was a refugee. No, I don’t know who grows up saying, I want to become a professor. That just never crossed my mind unless you’re the children, a child of professors. I had no idea what a professor was when I was growing up as a refugee in San Jose. I just loved books, loved reading. I wanted to do what I could to make that happen.

Viet Nguyen: So I went to school and became an English major and an ethnic studies major. And I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t have the discipline to be a writer. And I did a very model minority thing, which is that when I turned 21, 20, 21, and I had to figure out what I was going to do after undergraduate school, I looked around and I thought, “Am I going to get into a number one creative writing program? No. Am I going to get into a number one law school? No. But I might possibly get into a number one English PhD program.” And that’s what I did, it was just very pragmatic, because I had my parents to worry about, these refugee shopkeepers. I could not go home to them and say, “Mom and dad, I’m going to become a poet or novelist.”

Viet Nguyen: It just wasn’t going to fly. But a doctorate sort of vaguely sounded like the medical doctor that my brother already was, right. So I did that, but I heard about something as a 21 year old about to go into the academy. And that was, I heard about tenure. I don’t know how many people in the audience know about tenure, but tenure this is how I understood it at 21, is when you pass this great test at a university as a professor, and then they can’t fire you after that. I thought, that’s what I want. I want to do whatever I want. So I said, I’m going to get a PhD, become a professor, get tenure, and I’m going to do whatever I want. And so USC hired me to be a literary scholar, doing Asian-American literature. No one thought I was going to be a fiction writer.

Viet Nguyen: So I kind of snuck that in. And I did, in fact, get tenure, and I did decide to become a writer. And I just had no idea how hard that actually was. So I actually, the summer before I started at USC, I wrote a short story collection. This was 1997. And if I had known at that time that it would take me 20 years to publish that book. I probably never would’ve become a writer, but by the time you met me, I was a few years into doing that and still had delusions in my mind that, “Hey, look at Chris, Chris just wrote Graceland, and there he goes, and got this great deal for the book and became famous.” And I said, “I can do that too.” And that’s not actually what writing is about, but that was part of my mindset at the time. And yeah, here we are. It did take a lot of suffering.

Chris Abani: Right.

Viet Nguyen: It did take a lot of work and suffering to get to the point of actually publishing these works of fiction.

Chris Abani: Yeah, no, I can only imagine it’s a similar story that I won a prize when I was 10 for writing. It was actually for 18 year olds. And I remember my uncle who had no idea about what writing was thought it was a handwriting competition, so he wanted to see my calligraphy. But I also, as I said, I grew up in a very middle class, African home where you’re allowed four professional choices, doctor, lawyer, engineer, or failure. And so clearly… And my brothers still talk to me about your so-called career. So I understand that perfectly. And so, I mean, this is really, it’s not such an uncommon story if you look at other writers, not just immigrants. But there was never really an expectation, I think, in the old days, that you just went straight through to publication if you were lucky.

Chris Abani: There was a sense of having lived a life, and having worked really hard to figure out the narrative structure. But so when I think about your writing, when I think about something like The Sympathizer, it’s such beautiful, expansive, but also what I think, sometimes when we live in America, we forget how international and cosmopolitan literature really is, and how so many non-American, or people who grew up outside of America, read. And so I remember all the scenes, like there’s a beautiful scene. And just the idea that there’s a screenwriter in there, and there’s movies are in there. So remind me of Nollywood and Hollywood, and the ways in which movies get exported around the world.

Chris Abani: So there are all these beautiful mediums you use. But one of the hardest things that I saw you manage so beautifully in that book was this political arc. The way the novel, for you, really is this epic, right? So it takes over from where [Bakteen 00:12:29] sees the epic poem, and it really becomes nation building. But it’s like the beautiful thing is it’s building a new America inside America. How do you juggle all these things? How do you… I mean, my process is different, but I’m just, I’m excited to hear the process you… Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: No, absolutely. I think that’s something that we share in common, given that your background from Nigeria, mine from Vietnam. We come from colorful countries, let’s put it that way. There’s a lot of stuff going on in our histories. And I think that we share a concern about how to deal with these things, this colorfulness, in literature. And I started off as a short story writer as an undergraduate, because that’s what you’re supposed to do in the United States. There’s a whole writing workshop industry set up and it’s going to encouraged you to write short stories that fit within the writing workshop timeframe. And for those of you out there who are not aware of this, a writing workshop is like a dozen, 14 students who don’t know how to write, sitting there, sharing drafts with each other, and criticizing each other’s drafts.

Viet Nguyen: And they’re being overseen by an expert, a professor who is presumably a writer. And so that’s how it started off. And the problem there for me was that I wanted to talk about everything, all that stuff you mentioned. I wanted to do deal with all of that when I was 20 years old. But how do you do that in 10 or 15 or 20 pages in a short story? And what I discovered in the world of the writing workshop, the American writing workshop, is that all the conversation about technique, or craft as it’s called, is about things like timing, narration, character, point of view, symbolism, all of which are important, but no one was talking about how do you deal with history, and politics, and theory, and philosophy, which I think are equally important.

Viet Nguyen: So it’s a little bit of a bias here in the American writing world. And so I had to learn how to do all that by myself, which is one reason it took 20 years to write my first book of fiction, The Refugees. It was trial and error. You can read a short story in 20, 30 minutes, and it takes years to write these things. And it took me years just to understand one of the most basic principles of a short story, which is less is more. You got to throw out a whole bunch of stuff and focus on something in particular. My problem is I wanted more. I wanted more is more. And so I did learn certain things in writing the short story, but when it came to writing the novel, which I didn’t know how to do, so I just sat down to start doing it.

Viet Nguyen: And all of a sudden I discovered, number one, I could write a novel. I knew how to do things like characterization, and pacing, and all this kind of stuff. But the novel as a form is vast. Hundreds of pages. And that’s exactly what I needed in order to do all the stuff that you talked about. And I just wanted to have free rein, and in The Sympathizer, there’s a backbone to the novel, it’s a spy novel. That’s the marketing pitch, the hook, and it is a spy novel. But along the way, I wanted to do all kinds of different things, like incorporate the refugee story, satire, the screenplay, politics, and a novelist capacious enough to let you do all these things. This is up to you as a writer, whether you want to do all those things.

Chris Abani: Right. Well, it’s funny that you talk about the spy novel aspect, and from that answer, I’m going to jump into the refugee question that… because we both share this. But so do you think that Graham Greene, John le Carré, other kinds of… It’s interesting how what is often considered genre work, in relation to the high and mighty other kinds of fiction, science fiction, others, allow a certain amount of slippage, a certain amount of exploration. And so were you reading that tradition? Did you look to that tradition? And particularly if you look at some of the, even the few Vietnamese novels that were available in English early on, I think one of the most famous ones was actually a kind of detective novel. So what were those influences? Were those… Did that exist for you? What was… Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I don’t know what your reading experience was like when you were growing up, but I read everything. So I read all the so-called genre stuff, that’s what you do when you’re a kid, you read comic books, fantasy, science fiction, detective novels, all that kind of stuff. I was reading that, but I was also reading the high-minded literary stuff. I read All Quiet On The Western Front when I was in the sixth grade, for example. And I read Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth when I was about 12 or 13, much too young of an age to read that book. But all that stuff was a part of my world. And so when it came time to writing fiction, it didn’t make any sense for me to think, “Well, I’m only going to be a so-called literary writer and not incorporate all these other so-called genre dimensions.”

Viet Nguyen: And of course, one of the things we have to mention is that so-called literary fiction in this country is in fact a genre. It is an unacknowledged genre, unmarked, and then literary writers of a certain kind look down on the so-called genres of science fiction, fantasy, detective romance, and all that kind of thing. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of readers want to read genre fiction because it’s fun, there’s a plot. And you like plot in your books, I like plot in my books, and I wanted to make sure that I entertained readers as much as I wanted to challenge readers. And both of those things are an operation, entertainment and challenging, in The Sympathizer and in The Committed, because I really think readers can do both. I mean, readers can both be entertained, but also ask to rise up to a certain level of expectation in fiction.

Viet Nguyen: So again, the spy novel, and then for The Committed, the crime novel as a genre, is a way of luring readers in, as John le Carré and Graham Greene do, who are also big influences on me. And then I hit them with these political questions, these philosophical questions, which I think are crucial. And when we talk specifically about spy novels and crime novels, what I think is that the very best spy and crime writers are also political writers, because they understand that through these genres, you can tackle political and historical questions very naturally. Because obviously a spy novel is going to be concerned with war and intrigue and politics, and oftentimes it’s going to be set during a certain historical time period. And the smart spy writer, or the very interesting ones, will both give us an interesting tale and then reel in all of these historical and political issues as well.

Viet Nguyen: And the last thing with The Committed, it’s a crime novel. And the reason I chose that genre is because crime novels are fun, but also, again, the smart crime writer understands that individual crime, while it makes for an interesting story, is nowhere near as compelling as social crime. And so the crime… The Committed is about drug dealing. And you may or may not be scared of your local drug dealer as you’re walking down the street, but that local drug dealer who might knife you is nothing compared to the capitalist who… Like the Sackler family, who has poisoned millions of people. I mean, that’s the true crime in the drug dealing story, and The Committed deals with that.

Chris Abani: That’s beautiful. I mean, this… and you speak to this so beautiful… I mean, this is what Walter Mosley, for instance, has done with all his work, and before him other LA writers, and speak to that. So this is so great. So I want to move just a little bit because I think people are interested in this idea of the refugee that appears repeatedly. So it’s either a refugee, state refugee, or a refugee of an idea, or form, or genre, or… And that I have a theory about America because I didn’t grow up here. I hear all the time that Americans think that this is a country of immigrants, but my theory is that it’s a country of refugees. And that when you stabilize a little bit, then you move from refugee, if you like, to immigrant, because there is not a group that arrived here that they weren’t economic refugees, fleeing some kind of persecution from somewhere.

Chris Abani: And it’s so interesting how that gets erased. But I think to me that there’s a certain neurosis to identity, before we start going down into the hyphenated ones, African-American, Asian-American, and particularities like Vietnamese. But that there is a real anxiety about proving origin, which is a problem refugees suffer, I think, from all the time. So what are your thoughts on refugee? Is it a fixed category? Does it trade after time? Is there mobility within it? Does class come into it? How expansive and malleable is your idea of what the refugee is?

Viet Nguyen: Well, Americans like to talk about immigrants because it fits the American mythology that we’re a country of self-made people. Anybody can come here and elevate themselves, and that makes Americans feel good about themselves. So when you introduce the category of the refugee, it’s very, I think people just don’t know what to do with it.

Chris Abani: Right.

Viet Nguyen: Like there’s no quicker way to kill a cocktail party conversation than saying, “Hi, I’m a refugee,” because obviously if people know it’s going to raise uncomfortable questions, like how did you get here? And then you have to talk about war, and catastrophe, which could implicate the person asking the question. Like, “Well, I’m here because your country fought a war in my country.” Again, not a great cocktail party thing. But if you say, “I’m an immigrant,” people are like, “Hey, welcome to this country. And tell me about your American dream story,” right?

Viet Nguyen: So it’s a very mythological story about the immigrant, whereas the refugee punctures, the mythology, because it introduces very difficult histories. So that, for example, if we talk about people coming from south of the border into this country as migrants, that’s one kind of narrative. But if we talk about them as refugees, it’s another kind of narrative, which is why the United States has a vested interest in not describing people coming from south of the border as refugees. Because then we would have to talk about America’s drug wars, and drug consumption habits, and the export of American bred gangsters back to Latin America. All of these things, Americans are responsible for. Climate catastrophe, Americans are very much responsible for this, that it’s helping to produce the conditions that make refugees come from south of the border to the United States.

Viet Nguyen: So refugees are very antithetical to the American dream, which is why when hurricane Katrina happened, many people were displaced, and some in the American media called these people refugees. George Bush said, “These people are not refugees. It’s un-American to call these people refugees.” And a lot of them were black. And Jesse Jackson said, “It’s racist to call African-Americans refugees.” It’s like, how is it racist to call someone a refugee? And it’s because the implication is refugees come from broken countries. They’re a certain kind of stigmatized people. Americans can’t be these people, when obviously Americans very much can be these people from hurricane Katrina to hurricane Maria. So I assert the importance of refugee experience, refugee identity for myself, and also to draw attention to the implications for the United States in creating refugee conditions in other countries. And the last thing I’ll say, because you said that refugees become immigrants in this country.

Viet Nguyen: Yes, absolutely. We forget that, for example, that some of the first English settlers were refugees, technically fleeing from political, religious persecution. And in The Committed, I bring up the fact that we Vietnamese people who fled by boat have been called the boat people, which I find to be a totally stigmatizing term, and a term so powerful that in the committed, the French who object to any kind of Anglicisms in their language, simply call boat people, le boat people, and continue this kind of objectification and pitying. And let’s just remember that Christopher Columbus and the pilgrims were boat people.

Chris Abani: Boat people!

Viet Nguyen: Okay? They were boat people, all right?

Chris Abani: Right.

Viet Nguyen: The pilgrims were just lucky. The pilgrims were lucky there was no cameras waiting on the shores of their so-called new world to take pictures of them, because they were a nasty looking lot, I’m sure. Unshaven, unkempt, their hair all over the place, lice ridden, but we don’t have that photographic evidence. Instead they become the pilgrims and we erase this refugee boat people history from them.

Chris Abani: Right. Right. And so, this takes me to another part of that too, which is by… So in a sense, being a refugee, or a certain refugee narrative, it seems also politically it’s such a powerful idea because it forces us away from economic questions, from questions of ease into ethical questions. Because if people coming across the borders are arriving here, and they’re not migrants, they’re refugees, then like you said, we have to ask these other questions. But then you do something… And this is just the power of language at work, right? How we don’t talk about dead Iraqi civilians. We talk about insurgents and things like this. So, but one of the things you really do really well, and in some of your essays and some of the ways you’ve spoken in public, you talk about the use of language.

Chris Abani: And we see this particularly in communities that are Vietnamese, and in LA with the Korean communities, and parts of Chinatown, the sort of neon inscription of language everywhere. Can you talk about this kind of colonizing effect? Because in The Secret History of Las Vegas, I basically in a lot of my novels, it’s all about Africans colonizing America in these different ways. And so I wanted to talk about how that’s operating, both as a visual metaphor and linguistically within the work you do. Whether it’s essay and all these other… I don’t know if I’m making sense about this, the way language and the visual impact of that. And almost there’s a kind of insistence in certain places to erase that. Can you talk about that?

Viet Nguyen: Well yeah, absolutely. And you know, one of my colleagues here at USC, Tridib Banerjee in architecture, says that one of the ways that immigrants really make their presence felt in the United States is doing exactly what you just said, which is buying storefront property. So we assert our belonging to this country by becoming capitalists, but also by buying businesses or renting businesses, and putting the names of the businesses out there so that everybody can see it. This is our claim to public space. And this is something my own parents did as a refugee shopkeepers in San Jose in the 1970s. 1978, they come to San Jose, they opened perhaps the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose in downtown. And they called their store, The Saigon [foreign language 00:27:15], The New Saigon. In Vietnamese though, there is no translation.

Viet Nguyen: And at the time it didn’t really occur to me to think twice about this. It was just natural that they had this business called by this name. And in retrospect, I think that this was a really compelling move because they didn’t seek to translate themselves in the public space. And I think that they would pay the price for that because not long after that, I was walking down the street, saw a sign in another window that said another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese. My parents. And so my parents were being associated with this Asian invasion, this foreignness to this country, and I’m sure it had to do not just with having a Vietnamese business, but the sign that was untranslated. And we see this happening over and over again I happened nearby here at Monterey Park, lots of Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants, all of a sudden Chinese signs everywhere.

Viet Nguyen: People feel, some Americans feel, that they don’t recognize their own country anymore. It’s a common refrain. Well, in fact, it is still their country. It’s still our country. We’re just doing it in different languages. And we’re revitalizing. I mean, my parents and all the other Vietnamese shopkeepers who opened up businesses in downtown San Jose did so because no one else wanted to do that back then. We revitalized downtown. And then when Silicon valley happened and tax money came in, the city thought it would be a great idea to kick out all these Vietnamese businesses, take their property under eminent domain, and literally across from my parents’ store, build the new city hall. And what was supposed to go into my parents’ store was the new symphony, which as an artistic person, I’m actually sort of okay with that. Because I think that’d be awesome if they actually built a symphony on my parents’ property. Instead, what did they do?

Viet Nguyen: They built a parking lot. They literally built a parking lot. And now they’re building, and it’s happening, I took photographs, a gigantic condominium complex. Gentrification, the American way of life. We participate in that. And so people get scared of seeing these non-English presences in the storefronts, transforming downtowns and all that kind of thing. Get a grip. This is actually for all of our own good. This is part of the capitalist way of life. And we do it with a particular kind of cultural, ethnic, linguistic inflection. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. It’s all going to be churned over in the capitalist machinery. Everybody will profit from it eventually. And the immigrants that are coming here, they’re not trying to take over anything, they’re just trying to become Americans.

Chris Abani: Right. Right. And also I think what is often forgotten is that if you’re here, it’s because America took over your country. Didn’t register your storefront, right? So that’s part of it. Well, this is beautiful then. So it brings, still keeping with this theme and then this idea, because I think Americans are always… It’s such a historical country. And so people forget New Amsterdam became New York and all this, so that even within the colonization of America, there have been erosions of languages, and invasions. And there is a tendency towards what we might call the more visible, or the more acceptable American that’s almost [inaudible 00:30:28] itself on everything, right. Putting their names up. And even with the idea of the wars fought to subdue Mormonism, and to bring everything into… And so I remember early on in some of the theory classes you taught, you’d introduce this beautiful book, The New Science, by Giambattista Vico, which is all about the archeology of language.

Chris Abani: And so when I read your essays, when I hear you speak, when I read your novels, and even just now with this anecdote about what is built on top of what, there is an urgency, it would seem for those of us who are not part of what we may think of as a mainstream narrative, that our storytelling, while maintaining a forward propulsion and an idea of integration or some kind of a merging into a larger culture, it’s vital that it’s also in a way accounting almost archeologically. So it’s both performing archeology to excavate and reinstate what has been erased, but also to create it in such a way that it’s a living archive. Is this, I mean, I struggle with this all the time. Is this something you struggle with? Or it just comes much easier to you?

Viet Nguyen: I think it probably comes as a natural impulse. That we understand as storytellers that obviously what we want to do is we want to tell our stories, our individual, very personal kinds of stories, claim our voice, all that kind of thing. But for a lot of us, at least for me, let’s say, I felt like my story was inseparable from my parents’ story, from the story of the Vietnamese refugee community. And that when I wanted to write fiction, my impulse was to talk about Vietnamese experiences, both in Vietnam, but also as a part of the refugee experience. Because when I started writing the book The Refugees in ’97, there weren’t that many Vietnamese-American literary works out there. And so there was still room to say, “Let’s have Vietnamese voices.” By the time that book got published in 2017, after 20 years, there was so many Vietnamese-American voices out there, just dozens, literally, dozens of poets, and memoirists, and novelists, and short story writers, getting their work out there.

Viet Nguyen: And I think we were all, many of us, not all of us, but most of us were drawn to this idea of what you’re talking about. That we are compelled to speak about ourselves, but also speak about our families and our communities. And in that sense, accrue those layers that you’re talking about. Both to excavate the past and what happened to our parents and what happened in Vietnam, and then what happened here in the immigration and refugee experience, but also to add our own layers to it with our own stories.

Viet Nguyen: And one last thing I’ll say about this is that I think part of this impulse is to do justice to our communities, and our families, our personal stories, whatever that means, which is an important impulse. I participate in that myself. But one negative possibility here is that this idea of justice and being representative, while being very powerful, can also inhibit us from saying everything that we know happens either within our communities and families, or in relationship to the United States as a whole. Certain things are considered impolite to say out loud, both in terms of what happened within our community, but why we’re here, and what the United States did.

Viet Nguyen: So for example, a significant number of, I think, Vietnamese refugees feel the United States betrayed them in 1975. The United States came in, helped to instigate this war, told the Vietnamese people, “We’ll always be there for you. We’ll fight for you. We’re never going to let you be taken over by the communists.” And then the United it’s left.

Chris Abani: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: But the Vietnamese people will never say this. The refugees will never say this in English. They’ll only say it in Vietnamese.

Chris Abani: Right.

Viet Nguyen: Because they feel like they have to perform gratitude to America as a whole for rescuing them from communism. So as a writer, you’re faced with this, and you’re faced with your family saying, “Hey, don’t talk about this issue. It’s too private, too personal.” But writers, it’s like we have to talk about these things. I mean, we have to. When we say we want to do justice, we have to be honest about everything. That’s hard to do, I think, for all of us really, but especially for writers, because we feel this tension between truthfulness and justice, and the possibility of being ungrateful, or betraying our own families and our own communities.

Chris Abani: I can totally identify with that. And that’s why almost, in a way, Graceland was about this Elvis that you know was an impersonator. It’s a book about dancing, it’s sort of like, what is the Africa I’m expected to perform? What are my readers expecting to perform, and what does the story itself want? And I think this is something that, and this is moving a little bit into these unspeakable areas, because there’s something I’ve always found even on a personal level, really intriguing and ethically powerful about you is this.? So when I grew up in Nigeria it was all still in the era of Pan-Africanism. I remember pocket money being donated to the ANC and all this stuff. And even when I lived in London for years, the term black, just meant not white, right? So all black caucuses were made up of Asians, and specifically like Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Jamaican, Nigerian.

Chris Abani: And so when I arrived in America, I wasn’t quite expecting the balkanization of experience. And I understand of course that in places like, particularly London, for instance, it’s about the size of Maine, right? So there is a way in which you can get away with it. And also the importance that we don’t… That individual communities suffering individual difficulties in silences have to speak up. And I’ve always been intrigued by the way in which you would call out, in a way. Like you would speak this truth about what was happening to [inaudible 00:36:25] communities or to other kinds of communities, but also then call out, within your own community, any sort of gesture, is sort of… And this beautiful essay, which was redacted and done on a little bit. Like there’s one… I’m just putting this out there so people can actually just find it and watch it.

Chris Abani: On the morning television show, you talk, it’s so subtle, but beautifully powerful. The way you mentioned that, where you talk about many within now, this refugee community are now feeling overwhelmed by what they think of is another invasion of refugees, which is sort of almost really American when you think about it. How do you actually navigate? And I’m saying this because I’m hoping that a lot of young writers of color, and by young, I don’t mean age, I just mean experientially, are watching this and trying to figure out how much do you… What are the risks? What are the real risks that you have to take as a person? And what are the risks you… Where do you stop as a writer before you start undoing the work? Almost like there needs to be a building before we can even talk about how to reshape it. So I don’t know if this makes sense, what I’m asking, but how do you deal with this?

Viet Nguyen: I think that there are many things that go into writing. Well, one of the things that goes into it is honesty, I think. You have to be honest about yourself and your own feelings. That’s really hard to do. When I was struggling to be a writer, Bharati Mukherjee, one of my writing teachers, read one of my short stories and she said, “You’re not cutting deep enough. You’re not cutting to the bone.” And I was like, “Okay, that’s great advice. How do I do that?” It’s like, how do you… Physically, it’s one thing to cut to the bone. I think if any writer, if you told them, “Hey, here’s the knife cut to the bone, you have a story,” they’ll do it. But how to do that actually emotionally is really, really, really hard, took a long time and I’m still learning how to do that.

Viet Nguyen: Being honest with myself, how I feel. And that’s a source of power in the writing. Because most of us are not going to have all the experiences that we actually write about in our books. We create worlds, we create characters, but we have to invest those characters with emotions of some kind that come from within us. So that’s one challenge about being honest. But for those of us who imagine ourselves as being writers with a social and political commitment, and it’s not everybody, but for those of us who do, then we have to be honest about the worlds that we’re writing about, the communities that we’re coming from, the communities that we’re in. And that can be hard to do because there’s penalties involved with being honest, obviously. If you decide to betray something, a secret, or a norm, or a custom that the powerful, or even just the people in the community don’t want to have spoken about, you’re going to take a risk.

Viet Nguyen: So there’s one layer of risk when you’re punching upwards. I think it’s crucial that those of us who are engaged in social and political critique always have to remember, you have to punch up, you have to talk about the more powerful. So if we’re in the United States, we have to talk about white supremacy, and militarization, and capitalism, you got to talk about the people who have the real power. Now that doesn’t leave you off the hook about talking about your own community. And I’m just going to talk about Vietnamese people here. Vietnamese people, they can be racist. Look what I’m talking about. I mean, we’ve been victims of racism, both through colonialism and through the refugee experience, but honestly I grew up also hearing a lot of anti-black, anti-Latino sentiments expressed in Vietnamese, in the refugee community.

Chris Abani: Right.

Viet Nguyen: And so you have to expose that. You can’t just talk about white people being racist. You have to talk about your own people being racist too. You brought up the issue of some Vietnamese refugees now saying, “Hey, we’re the good refugees. We were the good refugees. These people coming from south of the border, or these Muslims, these are the bad refugees. We shouldn’t let them in.” That’s wrong, okay? That’s wrong. You got to talk about that. But when I say this kind of stuff, obviously there are Vietnamese people who don’t like it when I say these kinds of things, and I’ll get pushback from it. And hearing that from your own people, your own community, can be very painful because they know how to hurt you. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say about that. I mean, it’s like, I just feel like we as writers, you and I, I think we feel compelled to talk about these kinds of things. Not everybody does, but it’s difficult to do. But it’s important to do as well.

Chris Abani: Essential to do. And yeah, I think I just say buy a good Kevlar vest so that you don’t bleed out so much. I mean, I could just ask you and talk to you all day. But I’m going to start moving a little bit into the community and some of the questions. And so one of the questions that’s come is from [Anneun 00:41:23] is what kind of books do you recommend people read to learn about the Vietnam War? I don’t know. I mean, I think there’s so much already available, but do you want to speak to that?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I’m part of an organization called Diasporic Vietnamese Artist Network, DVAN. You can find it easily online. We do a lot of advocacy work, a lot of community building around encouraging diasporic Vietnamese voices in many, many different disciplines. And the organization is composed of writers and artists and all that. Anyway, go to the website, because on there, we have a link to bookshop.org. In other words, don’t buy your books. If you have to buy books online, number one, buy them first from your local independent bookseller. If you can’t do that, go to bookshop.org, because bookshop basically does what Amazon does except only with books, and the profits are shared with independent booksellers. Anyway, we have a bookshelf on bookshop.org with dozens, literally dozens, of books by Vietnamese American, and Vietnamese diasporic, and Vietnamese authors.

Viet Nguyen: The great thing about this and the challenging thing is that there’s more than just a handful. I mean, you can take your pick. So that being said, here’s a few that I can think of that have been important or useful to me. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing just came out last year. I call it The Grapes of wrath for Vietnam. It covers everything from this horrendous famine that no one outside of Vietnam has heard about that killed a million people in the 1940s, all the way to the American war in Vietnam. It’s a historical epic, it’s really moving. If you want the narrative account of Vietnamese history told through one family’s life, Mai Elliot’s Sacred Willow is about four generations of Vietnamese people through the era of colonization, up until the present. From the Northern Vietnamese perspective, Bảo Ninh’s, The Sorrow of War is a war classic of any war that’s really super powerful.

Viet Nguyen: If you object to reading anything by a communist, okay, I’ll give you some anti-communist narratives as well. Andrew X. Pham has really his memoirs, there’s a couple of great books, Catfish and Mandala, and then The Eaves Of Heaven, which is his collaborative memoir written with his father, who was a South Vietnamese army Colonel. And then [inaudible 00:43:44] Chronicle is the history of South Vietnam. And then last, okay, two last books, Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, cartoon memoir.

Viet Nguyen: I love cartoons. I love graphic novels. It’s not demeaning a book to say it’s a cartoon. But it’s a graphic memoir of the Vietnamese refugee experience, really wonderful. And then Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, don’t watch the movie, read the book. The movie was by Oliver Stone, but read her memoir. Really gripping account of the war in Vietnam told from a Vietnamese peasant’s perspective. I mean, this war was ostensibly fought for the peasants who are 80 to 90% of the population. So few stories come out directly from this population. Le Ly Hayslip actually grew up in a Vietnamese village, caught in the middle of the war, became a memoirist, and wrote a really moving book.

Chris Abani: Thank you. August Miller wants to know a particular thing because of France’s historical relationship to Vietnam. How do you think your life and your family would have been different if you ended up in Paris instead of Southern California?

Viet Nguyen: Oh man. If I was in Paris instead of Southern California, wow. My name would probably be Pierre for one, and then… Okay, so here’s what happened. In order to write The Committed, I went to Paris a couple of summers, and talked to as many French people of Vietnamese descent as I could. And almost everybody, except one person, said to me, “We’ve got it pretty good here. Like, the French like us, they think we’re hardworking, good neighbors, the whole model minority package and everything.” So that’s probably what would have happened. I probably would’ve gone down that route. And almost none of them said, “Hey, the French like us, not just because of who we are and what we do, but because of who we aren’t. We’re not Arab, we’re not black, we’re not Muslim.”

Viet Nguyen: And this is like such a basic thing that’s ingrained in my consciousness, this idea that our identities, race and so on, they’re always relational. They’re always intersectional. But obviously France has a lot of problems in this regard, where France is going through all these paroxysms about identity, and race, and blaming it on Americans of all people-

Chris Abani: I know.

Viet Nguyen: For importing or exporting these ideas when honestly, it’s like the French people themselves that colonized and the decolonizing French peoples themselves were already talking about these kinds of things. I’ve been deeply influenced by those ideas. And the last thing to say here is, I love France. I’m mentally colonized, honestly, I am. I am easily seduced by French culture just as I am by American culture. Both France and the United States have incredible ideals in their own ways, about democracy, equality and all that. And both of them are destined to fail if they cannot address the systemic problems of colonization slavery, genocide, in which both countries have participated. Simply talking about multiculturalism or universalism, not going to solve the problems. So both of these countries have issues. And the wonderful thing about writing The sympathizer and The Committed is that I get to offend both the French and the Americans equally in these two books.

Chris Abani: My mother was English, so anything that offends the French, I’m down for it. So another question that comes in, and this will be interesting too, because Percival Everett, for instance, who made me, I think, in many ways the novelist I am today, has kids and Amy Vendor, also one of my former professors. But Chris [Munis 00:47:12] is asking, as a parent and faculty member with a heavy teaching load, how you balance in time. Because also your son is also about to win the Pulitzer, because his output is astounding for his age. How do you balance being a parent, a teacher, and then finding time for, especially the weighty… You’re not writing novels that you can farm out. So how do you find the time? This is the question.

Viet Nguyen: Well hey, Chris. Chris is also in our PhD program as well. You know, honestly, I never wanted to be a father. Never wanted to be a father. But my wife wanted kids and I wanted to keep my wife. So that’s what happened, okay. But honestly it’s been probably the best thing that’s happened to me, to become a father of two kids at this point. I mean, last night I was with my a 16 month old daughter putting her to bed, and she was here on my shoulder, and I sang her lullabies. And then after every lullaby she clapped. I was like, awesome, that’s awesome. But the reason why I didn’t want to become a father was not because I had a bad father, I had a great father, but he was an emotionally reticent man.

Viet Nguyen: Now he’s 86. Now he’s very emotional with me. But I grew up in a very emotionally reticent household, which is just being Vietnamese. And I just thought, I’m emotionally… I recognized that I’m an emotionally stunted person, okay. And I thought, I don’t want to become a father because I don’t want to pass on my emotional problems to my kids. I’m not sure I can be a loving human being. I was deeply terrified of this. So becoming a father showed me, I think, you’ll have to ask my kids eventually when they grow up, I think I am capable of being an emotionally loving person, as was revealed to me. And going back to the honesty issue and the emotions, as a writer, I feel like we have to expose ourselves to new feelings all the time. New ideas, too.

Viet Nguyen: So it’s been, honestly, as a scholar, it’s been hard for me because I’m just used to the ideas part. To think of myself as a person who also has to be emotional, was really, is really hard for me. So being a parent really forced me to do this, and it’s better for my writing, I think. Now, honestly, my kids, I think, have cost me at least two books. I could have had two more books instead of two kids, but they wouldn’t have been as good. They wouldn’t have been as good, so more quality, less quantity. And finally to address the very pragmatic part of Chris’s question, how do I do it? Honestly, my wife and I were talking about this yesterday and we don’t eat dinner together at the same time.

Viet Nguyen: It’s like, my son is off in one place. My daughter is off her own place with a nanny. My wife is trying to teach her Zoom class. I’m trying to teach my Zoom class. We each grab dinner whenever we can. So our life has been kind of messed up. So we’re still trying to figure out the right way to do it. But I spend quality time with my kids, and I also have nannies, and that’s just an economic reality of life that makes certain things possible. And then I work a lot. And like I said, sometimes it has an unfortunate, work-life balance goes askew. So last night I told my son, “Look, this has been going on long enough. You’re not going to eat dinner by yourself, watching TV. Pretty soon, we’ll all get together as a family.”

Viet Nguyen: And he was like, “No, I don’t want to do that. I want to watch TV while I eat dinner. I don’t want to be dinner with you.” And so it’s always a struggle.

Chris Abani: It’s always a struggle. Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: It’s always a struggle. Yeah. So my heart goes out to everybody who’s doing all these kinds of things. We’re all imperfect kinds of creatures. The last thing I’ll say, as a writer, as a writerly tip, I’m always writing. So even when I’m not writing a novel, I’m writing op-eds, or I’m writing in my mind, I’m taking all these notes. I send myself all these notes on email about the next project. So as soon as one project, writing project, is done, I get to start on another writing project or when teaching is done. Like, I didn’t write at all for three months in the fall of 2020 because of the presidential election and because of teaching. But once that was over, I had a month before the spring semester started, I wrote 30,000 words. So just don’t knock yourself out if you’re not writing every day. I don’t write every day. What matters is writing over time and always having projects to turn to.

Chris Abani: All right, brilliant. I’m keeping an eye on the time. So I’m going to compress some questions. There are about three or four questions asking how you’re able to balance the humor and the deeper work you’ll work in. There are moments of lightness, dark humor, comedic terms within the work you’re doing. Conscious? Unconscious?

Viet Nguyen: Oh that’s very deep.

Chris Abani: Do you play it by ear, do you have a formula?

Viet Nguyen: I mean, maybe you remember this, Chris, but nobody would have ever said, “Hey Viet’s a funny person.”

Chris Abani: Well, you keep saying this, but I have a different experience of you. I also have a different experience of you as being quite emotional and very kind. If I remember that as a student, then I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t. But yeah, but you are funny. You’ve been funny.

Viet Nguyen: Okay. Well, I don’t think so, and thank you very much. The emotional work is an ongoing project. Honestly, it’s an ongoing project. So no one, I think, I don’t think I exhibit much of a sense of humor in my writing until I wrote The Sympathizer, and then I set up the conditions for humor. I created a certain kind of character who was acerbic, sarcastic, witty, and I put them in situations in which he would see the absurdity and the hypocrisy of things. So I think there is, in terms of writing humor, you have to set the conditions for it. You can’t just be writing a very serious novel and then drop in a joke. It may be totally wrong. So you have to set up certain kinds of conditions where humor is going to logically emerge. And then once I did that, it was sort of just, oh, I do have a sense of humor.

Viet Nguyen: I have this sympathizer locked within myself that’s been waiting there for decades, but he’s been tamped down by, honestly, by being a professor. I mean, because humor does not fly in the academy.

Chris Abani: No. Not very much.

Viet Nguyen: It does not fly in the academy. So most of the things… Here’s the great thing about writing a novel. You don’t have to footnote it. You’re a scholar, you’ve got to footnote everything, you got to prove your points. You can’t make jokes in scholarly work. So in The Sympathizer I could really let rip with this inner person that I’d been suppressing for so long in academia. And there’s a… Once that happens… So I don’t know. I mean, the strategy? The strategy is that once you are in a satirical mindset, everything is ripe for satire because you see the absurdities in everything.

Chris Abani: Right.

Viet Nguyen: And so that’s really liberating, to take the blinders off, because I think what satire in humor does is to show us that things we take for granted, things that have become normalized to us, are actually totally embedded with things that are funny at the least, and painfully ironic at the worst.

Chris Abani: That’s beautifully said. And again, I’m going to combine a bunch. Just I think there’s a writer that both of us have been influenced by Ellison, and particularly Invisible Man. Graceland opens with it, and it’s in the beginning of sympathizer. So one of the questions, or several of the questions, they’re talking about A, does that continue into The Committed, a sort of reference to this? Or are there other ways you’re doing the little nods and gestures to other writers who have either influenced you, or who you think can open up in an elusive way, the work you’re doing?

Viet Nguyen: Well, obviously The Sympathizer is very much in indebted to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but I depart from Ellison’s Invisible Man by the end of that book, because if you remember, in Invisible Man, it’s a novel published in the 1950s, it critiques communism. And then it turns away from the collectivity of communism, or what’s called the brotherhood in the novel, towards an assertion of liberal individualism by the end. And I thought, that’s not what I want to do in my own works. So there’s a strong assertion of the collective at the end of The Sympathizer. And so I really wanted to learn what I wanted to do that I thought Ellison didn’t do was, in his novel at the end, the invisible man comes out of this hole, literally, ready to embark on whatever project of liberal individual renewal that he’s on. But we don’t know what happens.

Viet Nguyen: And I wanted to know what happens, except I wanted to know what happens when the revolutionary continues to be a revolutionary. That’s what happens in The Committed. And although Ellison doesn’t factor into play, I think the global black project of decolonization and liberation continues in The Sympathizer, because… excuse me, I’m sorry, The Committed, because The Committed is deeply engaged with the thinking of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, for example, these two black intellectuals who were colonized by the French, and who revolted against French colonization. And I thought that they were doing the more radical steps that Ellison couldn’t bring himself to do.

Chris Abani: Right. But also maybe the situations were different. And this is where it’s sort of this beautiful international-ness of it comes. One of the other things that has come up is sort of, you’ve spoken a little bit, because I asked you, but it has to do with identity and this notion of othering. So, I mean, I don’t know about you, but as a writer, I just feel like I can’t really hold on to… Like, there’s a Chris and then there’s a Chris Abani, and this is sometimes difficult, I think, to explain.

Chris Abani: And I think that my biggest way of disappointing people in the world is that I’m always Chris, so I’m never this. But do you find that as you evolve your own thinking, as you explore these in your novels, that your own central identity is this kind of almost like Homi Bhabha would say, right, it’s in flux, it’s not a destination. You don’t arrive anywhere. How do you deal with that? Are you othered from your own community? Are you othered from yourself? Are you othered from the expectations of a certain kind of whiteness or institution, or… This is a purely multiple question, so I’m curious if you think being a writer is its own ethnicity. This is just my question.

Viet Nguyen: That’s great. No, no, I think everything that you’ve mentioned. I think that I have always until recently felt not at home, no matter where I was. In my parents’ home, I felt like I was an American spying on my parents. Outside of my parents’ home, I felt like I was a Vietnamese spying on Americans. In the academy, I felt like I was a writer instead of a scholar, and as a writer, I felt like I was too much of a scholar. So always out of place, and that’s uncomfortable, but also good for being a writer, this other identity. I think I worry that if I ever felt too comfortable, my writerly abilities would be really shifted in a different direction I may not like. So now, I feel at home finally with my family, the fact that we… God.

Viet Nguyen: Okay, so I’ve lived in LA for more than 20 years and in Silver Lake for most of that time. And in 2005, I thought about moving to Pasadena and I went to visit and I thought, oh God, this place is so nice. It’s so boring. It’s not for me, got to move back to exciting Silver Lake. Now I live in Pasadena and I like it. What I’m saying is I feel at home, okay. I’m scared that this may be the worst possible thing that can happen to me as a writer is to feel comfortable. And so I think that I want to keep challenging myself to continue to feel that sense of otherness. And I think there’s room for that. And not just that of some deliberately rebellious gesture, but because I think we live in a society in which the depths of power, and inequality, and exploitation that produces otherness is really deep.

Viet Nguyen: I mean, it’s not that… I mean, when we talk about identity and I say, “Oh, I’m a Vietnamese-American,” or something. People sometimes think of that as a cultural issue like, oh yes, it’s like, you’re torn between two worlds, right? And if you can just bring them together, like have a taco or something like that, then everything will be cool. But that’s not going to solve anything, because it’s underneath it’s warfare, it’s colonization, it’s genocide. It’s all these things that unite us together. That’s what I’m trying to understand as a process. And that is still ongoing.

Viet Nguyen: And thinking of my own location in things like settler colonization, like, what does it mean? Now, let me… What does it mean for Asian-Americans today in the face of anti-Asian hate to say we belong to this country and we are never going to leave?

Chris Abani: Right.

Viet Nguyen: And this very powerful assertion that belongingness and identity that is built on the processes of settler colonization that allow Asian immigrants and refugees to come here and to become Americans as settlers.

Chris Abani: Right.

Viet Nguyen: So we can, at one time, be anti-racist and yet participate in colonization. That’s something that I’m trying to work through and think through now that produces unease.

Chris Abani: That’s brilliant. Thank you, Viet. We’ve run out of time. We could have done this for much longer, but thank you so much for this, and for the invitation for me to do this with you. I’m truly grateful. To everyone watching, if you want to revisit this, there are going to be recordings on the website. Just follow the links, and thank you Viet, I hope we hang out again.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks so much. Yeah, it was awesome. I love having conversations with writers, but especially with you, couldn’t imagine a better interlocutor. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.

Chris Abani: Thank you. Bye-bye everyone.

Category: Interviews

 

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