East West Fest 2021: East-West Dialogue With Viet Thanh Nguyen & Tiffany Chung

Asian Cultural Council presents East West Fest, a celebration of storytelling—in words, beyond words, and through the senses. Featuring storytellers from across the arts, this festival questions not only how we tell stories, but who tells the story? From May 3 through May 11, this four-part series partners with artists, performers, writers, restaurants, and cultural workers with deep impact within Asian/American communities. This inaugural festival culminates in Asian Cultural Council’s fifth East-West Dialogue, featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen (ACC 2010) and multimedia artist Tiffany Chung (ACC 2015).

Watch the interview above or read the transcript below.

Chris Ignacio: Hi, I’m Chris Ignacio, and on behalf of the Asian Cultural Council, I’d like to welcome you to ACC’s East West Dialogue with Viet Thanh Nguyen and Tiffany Chung. The East West Dialogues lecture series was endowed in 2013 with a million dollar gift from ACC supporters, Tsuneko and Shoji Sadao, to engage leaders in the arts and cultural fields across Asia and United States around the importance of cultural exchange. Tonight’s event is the finale of East West Fest. The past two weeks have been a celebration of community coming together through art, giving ourselves permission to experience and express joy, and unapologetically taking charge of our own stories.

Chris Ignacio: Tonight, we hear from two ACC alumni, Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, and multimedia artist, Tiffany Chung, as they discussed the importance of storytelling and who tells the story. Thank you so much for spending your time with us. We really hope you enjoy watching from wherever you are. Please welcome Viet Thanh Nguyen and Tiffany Chung.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hey, Tiffany, good to see you here.

Tiffany Chung: Hi, Viet, nice to see you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m coming from Pasadena in my basement. I’m assuming that is not an actual museum gallery that you’re in right now?

Tiffany Chung: No. It’s actually a virtual background, is a shot of my work that I did like last year. I am in Houston where it’s super sunny right now.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We’ve known each other for a while, and I think we’re brought here together partly because we’ve known each other for a while but we’ve also been the recipients of grants from the Asian Cultural Council. Maybe you can tell us what you use your grant for.

Tiffany Chung: Actually, you were the one who encouraged me to apply for the grant. I’m not really a grant person but I took your advice, I applied for a grant to continue to do my research in Asia on the history of Vietnamese refugees, which I started a while ago, but I put it on hold until I met you again in Singapore, where we visited a few refugee camps together, in Indonesia and in Singapore. And I felt really encouraged to confront that, and also given the fact that I was working on the refugee migration of the Syrian.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: My grant was to go to Vietnam with a photographer to take photographs of memory making in Vietnam, especially related to war. So that was really interesting experience for me. Part of what we did was we traveled from north to south Vietnam and visited lots of museums and so called martyr cemeteries, and all that. That all made its way into a book that I wrote called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. And you’re right, part of that includes the discussion of the refugees who fled from Vietnam and where they ended up. They ended up in countries all over the world including the United States. But also some of them were stuck for a long time in these refugee camps in places like Singapore and Indonesia.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That was also very moving to visit these refugee camps and see the remnants of what was left behind in the case in Indonesia, or in Singapore, that had been completely erased. I don’t think we even found the refugee camp, we just found an overgrown area, but no evidence of barracks or anything like that. Whereas in Indonesia, I remember very clearly that all the buildings were still there, but they were in a state of total disrepair. There was a museum, which was great. There were Indonesians visiting, which was great, although I’m not sure what they were visiting for exactly, because when they saw the two of us, I think they might have thought that we were some kind of celebrities or something because they insisted on taking selfies with us, which I was happy to fulfill that purpose.

Tiffany Chung: And it was very interesting that they were doing picnics in this really dark place.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, yeah. And there was a cemetery there with the graves of those refugees who had either not made it or who died when they were there. I think both of us are because of our own histories as refugees from Vietnam and because of our research interests, we have a lot of concerns about refugees, both about how they’re discussed in political and popular discourse, and how they are represented or not represented in the kinds of arts that we’re engaged in. I’ve always found your work interesting. Your work hasn’t always dealt with refugees, certainly didn’t when I first met you in Saigon, but I think in the last decade or so, it certainly has turned to dealing with cartography, forced migration, and the remapping of histories and memories from official narratives. So could you explain a little bit more about your work for those who might not know what you’ve been up to?

Tiffany Chung: Sure. Let me begin by sharing some of the images, as I’m a visual artist, so I think it’s important that people see images of my work. Yes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes.

Tiffany Chung: Okay, that’s good. A lot of my projects have derived from memories and experiences, but get extended into usually larger context across time and terrain. I think one of the key aspects of my work is the interdisciplinary practice that allows me to look into historical events from multiple perspectives, and to use research material and different mediums in creating artwork. I find it very challenging to unpack historical memories or social political issues through only visual forms. So, I increasingly use text in my installation and also use writing and lecture performance to elaborate on the conceptual framework.

Tiffany Chung: As a child, I experienced the historic flood of the Mekong River in 1978 in a new economic zone, where we were forcibly relocated after the war. So, I could only write about these memories years later, but the artwork came earlier. Because of the experience, I wanted to examine flooding as natural and anthropogenic disasters, and I’ve learned that floods occurred by the hydro power developments of the Mekong and with sea level rise due to climate change, really have negative impacts on the ecosystems of the Mekong, especially the Lower Mekong basin, which is the life blood of over 60 million people.

Tiffany Chung: Why I visualize flood projections through mapping, the trauma of living through it really prompted me to propose this floating village model, which combines vernacular architectural forms of existing farming and houseboat communities in Asia.

Tiffany Chung: So, at the same time, I look at this body of water as a departure point for many of those who try to escape Vietnam after a series of disastrous social-political and economic experiments implemented in the post 1975 period. So I want to depict people’s memories of the new economic zones, of food shortages, of escaping through a theater performance. So let me play a very short …

Tiffany Chung: I find using body movements an effective way of evoking memories and emotions from the audience in Vietnam. The fact is that the refugees memories are erased into oblivion in Vietnam’s official history. And the censorship is still present in many cultural activities. And I’m also aware that in the US, the narrative of the war in Vietnam is dominated by the American perspective. Kissinger said history is the memory of state. So in both countries, the history as political narrative produced through statecraft really omits everyone else’s histories.

Tiffany Chung: I try to depict this politically driven historical amnesia using abstract forms. But at the same time, I want to counter that by being very explicit and comprehensive in mapping those memories. So, a lot of my projects are often built from one to another. So, for example, tracking the conflict and displacement in Syria brings me back to confronting the war in Vietnam and the aftermath. And I try to be conscious of how histories can be relearned to help resolve current issues. Between 2015 and 2018, with the grants that I’ve received from Asian Cultural Council, I continue to do my research on the history of Vietnamese refugees and the camps in Asia. So, I carry out a few research on the Vietnamese refugees and Hong Kong, especially those who were allowed to integrate into society in 2000.

Tiffany Chung: So we spend a lot of time talking and traveling together, searching for the site of the former detention centers and refugee camps that house most of them for over 10 years. So, their experiences of growing up in detention and organizing protests are really imperative as political agency that can help shaping the refugee discourse. So, my point is, if we see forced migration within a larger context of political, economic, and in environmental processes, then the 1951 convention and the 1967 protocols are outdated and in need of being revised.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Wow, Tiffany, that was great. I knew there was a reason why we were friends and that we can talk to each other about some things, both because of our shared heritage as Vietnamese refugees, living in the United States, growing up in the United States, and working within I think our respective artistic worlds that are I think dominated by the United States and the West in a lot of ways.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So part of what happened to me that is really resonant with what you talked about was, you were talking about how it both in the United States and Vietnam, state-sponsored national narratives have driven the way that both countries have chosen to remember the war and its aftermath, both in ways that favor the victorious Vietnamese or the Americans. And they’re really contrasting because if you go to Vietnam, the victorious Vietnamese narrative is one of celebration about the revolution and unity and all that, whereas in the United States, it’s an ironic narrative because Hollywood’s versions of the Vietnam War, talk about it as a bad war, which would seem to be sort of counterintuitive. But ironically, even though the United States remembers the war in Vietnam is a bad war, it still continues to center the American experience.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So when I was growing up, I just saw a lot of Vietnam war movies and just felt that we as Vietnamese people were erased or silenced or distorted when we did appear on screen. The term that I coined to talk about that was disremembering. It’s not as if we as Vietnamese people were forgotten, because when you watch these movies, for example, we’re always there. So we’re being remembered. But we’re being forgotten at the same time because we only appear in order to serve the American narrative. That’s being disremembered. So disremembering is a term that I that up with, and I see my own writing as a way of countering that version of American history and American culture.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And the reason why that’s important it’s not just because I’m an American and it’s an American narrative, but because the US narrative is global. The United States lost the war, in fact, but it won the war in storytelling, it got to tell the story of the war and its aftermath from the American point of view. Which means that all over the world, even people who are opposed to the United States and think of the US as an imperial power and think the United States did something wrong in Vietnam, they still love American pop culture, and will still reiterate American narratives. So, I just feel like our work is really difficult because even if we’re successful in our respective fields, we’re still up against this massive military industrial complex that goes hand in hand with a soft power complex of which Hollywood is just one symbol.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I do my best in my books and in my op eds and all that kind of stuff to counter these kinds of things. When I talk about like the dominant forms and institutions in which we work and how I think, at least in my case, I don’t know how you feel, but I’m working against, not just the way that the Vietnam War has been remembered, but the way that stories are told. So in my field of literature, especially American literary fiction, the dominant aesthetic is, show, don’t tell. I have a real problem with that. And this is where I think part of my work aligns with what you do, you said that you’re not just satisfied with visual forms, but you’re trying to incorporate archival forms, theatrical performances, historical documents, and the like.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In my own fiction, I think I try to do the same thing. At least in The Sympathizer and The Committed, these two novels, they are novels, but they present themselves as confessions, as nonfiction stories, so that I can do more than just show. I can tell in this nonfiction form, because I have so much that I want to say, and my narrator, the sympathizer has so much he wants to get off his chest, he’s constantly telling us what he thinks. And by doing that, he’s a very opinionated person, I’m a very opinionated person. And one of the opinions that I have, and I think it’s related to what you’ve been talking about, is that our experience as refugees and the experience of the Vietnam War should not be considered in isolation from other things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that Americans want to consider these histories in isolation because it serves American interests to say, oh, that was the Vietnam War. That happened in a particular place, in a particular time, and it’s over. And I don’t think that’s true. My approach to the Vietnam War is to say, it’s actually a part of a much longer history of American War. The United States has been at war throughout most of its history, and we should understand it as a war that’s a part of the history of American colonization. That’s my stance, is a stance that a lot of Americans would disagree with because they would say, wait a minute, we’re not a colonial power, and I would say, yes, we are a colonial power, we’re still a colonizing country. Ask indigenous peoples in the United States what they think about whether or not the United States is still a colonizing country.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So the United States does not use the language of colonization to describe itself. Instead, it calls successful colonization, the American dream. And that’s how the Vietnam War is understood, that’s how Vietnamese refugees are understood, we fled from terrible communism and we’ve come here to the United States, and we’re living proof of the American dream.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And when I think about the war in that fashion, which is what happens in The Sympathizer, I can connect what the United States did to what the French did. Now, the French definitely colonized Vietnam, but the United States came in and took it over. So in The Committed, I turned to Paris and France of the 1980s in order to hold the French responsible for colonization, and what they did in Vietnam I think has been sort of forgotten and re-narrated through this really gauzy romantic lens, which is extremely visual. Lots of black and white photographs of how beautiful French colonization was. And if we have full color things, we’re talking about movies like [Indochine 00:18:27] and The Lover, where the brutality of French colonization is masked through these romantic kinds of love stories.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then finally on refugees, you connect the Vietnamese refugee experience to many other refugee experiences, including what’s happening today with Syrians, I think Syria being the largest source of refugees in the world at the moment, but certainly we’re living at a time in which the UNHCR says there are about 26 million refugees out there, and they’re part of 79.5 million people that UNHCR officially classifies as displaced people. So the Vietnamese experience is not unique. If anything, it foreshadows what we see today. When Vietnamese people were fleeing by boats as you map in your cartographies, I think about, and you think about too, I think Syrians leaving, or Africans taking to dinghies and rubber rafts and so on in order to try to cross the Mediterranean to Southern Europe.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that’s why the opening of The Committed, the new novel is set on a refugee boat. And I don’t call it a boat, I call it an arc because what I want to try to convey is that these experiences should not be seen through the lens of the boat people. That’s the narrative that has been imposed on us as Vietnamese refugees. And that term is so strong an English term But even the French who don’t like English words in their vocabulary simply say [French 00:20:07], which I find doubly offensive. And so, it was really important in my work both in my Short Story Collection of the Refugees and in The Committed to cast the refugee experience as an epic and heroic experience.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Certainly the people who went to sea were terrified and frightened, absolutely. But we have to understand them I think as heroes in their own Odysseys. I use these terms both so that we can think of refugees in that fashion, but then we can also look back to European and American history and say, wait a minute, Christopher Columbus, nothing but a boat person. The pilgrims, nothing but boat people. But because they’re at the center of Euro American narratives, they get cast as heroes. And then boat people, Vietnamese and African boat people are demeaned for doing the same thing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That wraps up my portion of talking about my work. I see a lot of connections between what the two of us are doing. And I thought I would ask you to elaborate on something that I think was implied in your work, but was maybe not very as clear as I would like to see. You do a lot of map-making in your work, it’s really beautiful. So, you take these maps that are historical documents, and oftentimes maps that map terrible things like refugee migrations, and you turn them into art. And I know that you’ve also been working with refugees on this process of making maps at the workshops that you’ve conducted, so maybe you can tell us more about that part of your art process and your collaborations with refugees.

Tiffany Chung: Sure. Well, thanks for summing up really well the parallels between our practices. And I think I find myself constantly agreeing with a lot of things that you said. In terms of thinking about US, whether US is a colonial power or not, I think for me, I look at the military presence all over the world and I think there’s a lot of places, for example, Okinawa, those are totally US military colony. The fact that US have, I mean, has over 800 bases in over 80 countries right now, and there’s like a network of shadow bases in Africa. So think about it, right? Think about it and think about whether the US is a colonial power or not. That’s very interesting.

Tiffany Chung: But anyways, getting back to the question that you posed on the ways I use maps, I think I mentioned earlier that I find using the language of abstraction helps, but at the same time, is a constant negotiation, because I know that this kind of historical amnesia pretty much is depicted through the language of abstraction, and this is good, but on the other hand, I want to be explicit. So it’s a constant negotiation. And I find that maps operate really well within that. I also see maps or cartography as a discipline that draws on the realms of perception and fantasy as much as geography.

Tiffany Chung: An example of the work that I did was the large scale map that I tried to map all the flight routes of the Vietnamese refugees to all over the world. I mean, it was based on archival record and oral histories, but it’s also research analysis and even estimation, because the near impossibility of reassessing the past really creates that kind of negotiation. So, we would have to settle for certain estimation and guesses. Map is really a colonial tool and power, and how do you reclaim that power? By also using maps but telling our own stories.

Tiffany Chung: So, when I work with the young refugees from Syria, from Middle East, and from Africa, I got an opportunity to work with them in 2016 and 2017 in Denmark. I thought about using maps because as a person, as a former refugee, we just get them right and nobody else could, the moment I set my foot into a room full of them in Denmark, we clicked. So we just connected, we got each other. Using maps, to me is a way for them to really tell their own stories without being asked. We have to be very sensitive to what they have gone through. I don’t ask questions ever. Later on, some of them told me stories after three years knowing each other, but at the time, they were just doing their maps. Is a way for them to stay focused, using an art form like mapping.

Tiffany Chung: So a lot of the maps, the experience of leaving their home, leaving their countries, and then also talking about their dreams, wanting to go to certain places in Europe. So, given the turbulence of their situation, I think mapping is a way for them to really remember where they came from. A lot of talk about going back afterward. I guess that was the experience of working with them. And there are a lot of really tragic stories coming out when they started looking at their maps and started talking about it. But overall, I think the experience was positive in a way that it gives them a tool to stay focused, because imagine how all over the place their mind would have been.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Reminds me of something that happened to me. I went to give a talk at a school in Boise, Idaho, high school, and I was asked to speak specifically to a refugee program. So these were all teenage refugee kids who came from all over the world from all the places you might imagine. And so I thought I’d start off with an easy question. And I said, How many of you here are refugees? And almost nobody raised their hands. And I said, how many of you are immigrants? And then they started to raise their hands. So they’d already absorbed this idea that being a refugee is a bad thing, that it’s a stigmatized identity, and that being an immigrant in the United States in the context of the American Dream is better.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so, that’s really crucial to acknowledge because even when we’re trying to do what you’re doing here and some of the work that I do outside of my own writing, I think we’re both interested in encouraging refugees and other people with stories to tell their stories in whatever format they’re doing it. Part of that acknowledgement needs to be, also to acknowledge the validity of their own historical experiences, their own historical trajectories, because at least from the perspective of narrative and literature, if you say I’m an immigrant versus a refugee, you’re going to produce a very different kind of a narrative, because the immigrant narrative ends in the American dream, that’s the American mythology. It’s really hard to dislodge that narrative, it’s so deeply held within the American imagination, that you try to go against it, you just get confusion from the part of many Americans.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And in my case, I insist on calling myself a refugee and foregrounding refugee experiences because that raises uncomfortable questions, like how did the refugees end up here? Maybe because of a war you fought somewhere, or maybe because of these climate disasters that American capitalism and consumption habits are partly responsible for. So foregrounding the refugee experience is really, really crucial. And I’m interested in the fact that you’re also interested in helping to cultivate the opportunities for new voices because sometimes I’ve been called, not by my own request, a voice for the voiceless. It’s meant as a compliment, bit I think it’s really deeply problematic because we’re Vietnamese, and you know as well as I do, that Vietnamese people are not voiceless, we’re really, really loud. It’s just that we’re not heard. And in fact, we’re silenced, as so many other populations are that are not a part of some kind of majority or dominant culture. Dominant culture is designed to silence us.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so, that’s why it’s crucial to do things like what you’re doing and have these workshops and to encourage new people, new younger people to speak out and find their own voices because I think what really we should be doing, whether it’s the Asian Cultural Council or we as artists with some kind of public inclination, is to encourage more voices and to abolish the conditions of voicelessness. In my own capacity as someone who has an interest in the public sphere, my friends and I started an organization called [inaudible 00:29:40], Vietnamese Artists Network, designed explicitly to promote the fact that there are artists and writers of Vietnamese descent all over the world working in different languages and medium, media, and part of that program includes things like scholarships for college students and workshops for young writers.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I want to talk about something that I think also unifies us as well. You mentioned the question of censorship in Vietnam that I think it was difficult for you eventually to do everything you wanted to do in the political climate there. And in my case, I find it kind of hurtful that my own work is censored in Vietnam. The Sympathizer, for example, is not allowed to be published in Vietnam I think because it says some challenging things about Vietnamese communism. And my book, The Refugees, has been published in Vietnam, but one story was removed, and that story, War Years, number one, I think was removed because it talks about anti-communist feeling in the Vietnamese American population. But it’s the only autobiographical short story of I’ve ever written. And it’s kind of hurtful, I felt like my own personal experience was erased in Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And you alluded to the fact that the official narratives in Vietnam do not allow for refugee narratives and the narratives of people from the south who like you, many of them were sent to reeducation camps or to new economic zones. Maybe you can talk about what your experience was like working there as an artist in Vietnam, and what drove you eventually to leave?

Tiffany Chung: It’s good to hear that you also shared your experience of being censored, oh my God, it makes me feel a bit better. When I came back to Vietnam and I co-founded an art space called San Art in 2007, we really set out to bridge the local art community with the international community that we were able to bring to Vietnam. And of course, we had to go through that whole nine yards of censorship. And for myself, being there, I also know that I have to be very careful. And I think most artists in Vietnam, if not all, are always very careful at everything we do to the point that sometime I see it as self-censorship. But the fact is that they do censor you.

Tiffany Chung: So maybe it’s not about self-censorship but about strategies, coming up with strategies that could enable you to live there. So for me, I just try it out after a number of years, and when I started making work about refugees, that’s when the government started paying attention very closely. Several occasions when I knew that they would send government [inaudible 00:32:49] to follow us everywhere we went, when there’s like, for example, Bloomberg TV crew came to Vietnam in 2016 to do a mini documentary on my work, of course, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assigned someone to follow us and to go with us, to accompany us everywhere. And the funny thing is, even the local authorities would question the government officials, our right to be there and filming certain things. So it’s a very interesting dynamics in Vietnam.

Tiffany Chung: But in 2017, when I was about to go to Tokyo to install my work on the Vietnamese refugee history at the National Art Center in Tokyo, I got a call from the organizers saying that Vietnam actually contacted Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting the organizer to remove my work from the exhibition because they think it makes Vietnam look bad. To me, it was hilarious because it’s like, well, I’m not that dangerous, and this history is slowly known. It’s not like people don’t know about it, so what are you doing. But it has got to the point that I felt that I just did not want to deal with it anymore, just one after another. So that’s how I decided to go back to the US. So, that was the experience. And I think people who continued to stay there, they are really brave. Either you have to come up with strategies to survive or don’t deal with politics at all.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: As I said, I’m a very opinionated person, so I have to deal with politics, and it’s one of the reasons why I haven’t been back to Vietnam since 2014. I was writing The Sympathizer there at the time, and I feel like it’s hard for me to go back to a country that won’t allow my novel to be to be published, and I certainly could not make a living as a writer there because if I was there, I’d have to feel obligated to comment about what’s happening in the country.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So there is hard censorship in Vietnam, and you said that some artists self censor. And in the United States, I don’t think we have censorship per se, but I think there is self-censorship that takes place, it becomes deeply ingrained because you grew up in this country, you absorb American ideology, and it may prevent you from thinking outside of American ideology, going back to that refugee versus immigrant and the American Dream issue. So I think it’s really crucial for us to be aware how even in our country, there may be soft mechanisms to discourage thinking critically against dominant American culture and dominant American assumptions.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, one of those assumptions, and maybe we’ll end with this, is what I’ve described as the difference between narrative plenitude and narrative scarcity. Who gets to have their stories told? So in Vietnam, we know that it’s a hard censorship that some stories are forbidden, but in the United States, I grew up feeling that I lived in narrative scarcity, that I looked around and there weren’t very many stories about Vietnamese people certainly, but also Asian Americans in general, people who looked like me. That this was harmful, that this was damaging. There’s worse things I guess that could happen than not having stories told about you, but not having stories told about you is also psychologically and culturally damaging as well, and that incited me to become a writer and to tell my story and our stories. Whereas narrative plenitude is the condition to the majority, whoever that majority is. All the stories are about you, and you take it for granted, that’s a sign of your privilege that you’re not even aware of it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So if there’s a bad story about you, you don’t care because there’s 1000 other stories about you. And we who live in narrative scarcity freak out whenever one story about us appears. If it’s great, we’re so grateful, and if it’s bad, we’re so upset, and things shouldn’t be that way. So, narrative plenitude or narrative scarcity is not just about stories but these are signs about how accepted we are in our society, how many opportunities we have, are we a part of dominant apparatuses that allow us to tell our stories.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I feel that in literature, it’s a mixed bag. I can’t complain, I’ve done okay as a writer, but we’re also looking at a literary industry that is at the editorial level at least 85% white. So even if the literary industry espouses multiculturalism as part of its rhetoric, in practice, it’s still dominated by white assumptions, and this has a distorting impact on what gets promoted, what gets published, what kind of stories are favored. I’m wondering if you want to wrap up by talking about that set of experiences in the art world with which I’m less familiar.

Tiffany Chung: Well, I can tell you that it’s not that much different in the art world compared to what you just said about a literature world. The Smithsonian magazine reports a new study in 2019 which analyzed 40,000 artworks detailed in 18 major US museums online catalogs. And they found that 85% of artists featured are white, and 87% are men. So this result is not new but it shows that we have not progressed that much since the time I was in art school. It’s beyond the racial issues. As women artists, we are aware that the international art scene is also dominated by white male and male artists. A 2017 report by Art Net shows that only 13.7% of living artists represented by European and North American galleries are women.

Tiffany Chung: I don’t know about museums and art estates, but let’s look at New York, the center of contemporary art. Artists from China, Japan and even India have more presence in most institutions than contemporary artists from Southeast Asia. So this perhaps happened due to the economic power that shapes the art market in those country. And to go back to what you said earlier about growing up in the US, I went to El Camino College, and I only learned about the Vietnam War through The Things We Carry, Tim O’Brien. And the only book written by Asian American that I learned throughout my years in college was the Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, and that was it. It feels like it’s a long uphill battle.

Tiffany Chung: And I wonder, as somebody, I know you don’t represent or you don’t represent the voiceless. You speak within the proximity, you speak together with the rest of us. But do you have any advice for the young Asian Americans? A lot of them ask me that question, and honestly, I don’t have the answers. How do we start? What do we do to reclaim the narrative [inaudible 00:40:26]

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that’s probably the hardest question I get from young Asian Americans when I do the college and university circuit. Part of what’s depressing is usually it’s couched in relationship to another issue, which is, my parents don’t want me to be an artist, or my parents don’t want me to be a writer. They want me to do the model minority kind of thing instead. So it’s sad that 30 years later after I went through this, maybe you went through it too, it’s still happening.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think we’re living at a time in which obviously the specter of anti-Asian violence is really real in the United States and elsewhere. And it’s due to a lot of factors, but one factor is about narratives and about storytelling. It’s great that we have doctors and engineers and lawyers, that’s all very noble. But they’re not helping us out when it comes to combating narratives that say, hey, you’re the Kung Flu or you’re the China virus, and then therefore, it’s okay to demonize you and possibly harass you and threaten you and kill you, which is exactly what’s happening. Here, we need our activists, we need our politicians, we need our community leaders, and we need our artists and storytellers to help change the narrative.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so, I think that it is extremely difficult because you cannot address these questions of art or narrative in isolation. And that’s why I brought up the issue of the literary industry. It’s important to have writers, but you also need to have the agents and the editors and the publishers and so on to make these institutional changes. And that’s true in every industry, which is why I asked about the art world because I’m assuming that behind the scenes in the art world, even if you happen to have one or two Asian superstars and some other Asian artists, I’m assuming that most of the world is still dominated by white people and European people and all that. And that’s a function of social and economic inequality throughout our societies.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So what I would say to young people is we need all of you. We definitely need you to be the writers and the artists and the storytellers. But if that’s not your inclination, we also need you to become the people behind the scenes. We’re not going to change Hollywood just by getting more actors, that’s the more glamorous part, we also need the producers and the agents and the financeers in all of that. So, in all of our respective worlds, we need to be cognizant of what’s going on at the level of representation, which is what we see, and the level of the industry, which is what we don’t see that goes on behind the scenes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And we make our own change, you do the refugee workshops, but I as a college student, help to start an organization that eventually became the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists network, because even back then, I recognized, hey, there’s a problem, we don’t have enough Vietnamese voices and we don’t have enough support for Vietnamese Diasporic Artists. That organization didn’t exist, I helped to start it. That’s on all of us. If you see something not happening, you got to go out there and start your own organization, and know that it’s a lifelong commitment. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, as a writer, as an op ed writer, and as an arts organizer. You eventually reach a point where we’re able to have these conversations between you and me.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I can’t help but think, there’s lots of younger people out there who are like, who are these two, what they’re doing is not important to me. Which is fine, which is fine. That’s why we need the younger generation to go out there and do their own hard work, hopefully with help from us. But I hope that when you have the refugee workshop, and then I have Diasporic Vietnamese Artist Network, is not simply about encouraging new voices that will say what we say, but it’s encouraging new voices who will say what they want to say, which may be very different from us.

Tiffany Chung: Right.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t know if you have any last words of wisdom to close this out?

Tiffany Chung: Sure. What you said makes a lot of sense, and I think we do need them to really start. You can start small, you don’t need to start big, thinking about somebody is going to be another Viet Thanh Nguyen. Yeah, that would be great if there’s more people can be like you, but at the same time, starting by supporting each other, by supporting the people who need help. And another thing that I really think your advice makes a lot of sense in terms of working in the industry behind the scene. Because one thing I forgot to mention is that as much as we know that the system is so broken, institutional system is so broken that it doesn’t really include a lot of voices, they are still a very powerful force.

Tiffany Chung: And the reason I’m saying this is that when I show at museums, so it depends on where I show, I can show at little hole in the wall galleries or I can show in a big institution like the Smithsonian. And what I learned is that at the Smithsonian because the federal institution and the fact that they don’t sell tickets, there’s more people would go in and look at the artwork that we do. So the show I was exhibiting at the Smithsonian got a lot of visitors, not because, of course, I’m doing important work, but it’s not because I’m so famous and everyone had to go see it. It’s not the case. But it’s about where the show was. We got almost a million viewers, and why is that? Because it’s Smithsonian. So, that really attests to the power of institutions. And that goes back to your advice of working in the industry, working behind the scenes, making that happen.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I hope there are people who are inspired by what you’ve said, and by your work as well. I’m inspired by your work always whenever I see it. I’ll never forget being able to have a chance to visit your working studio in Singapore and seeing the behind the scenes kind of creative processes, which are so fascinating. Anyway, it’s been really great talking to you here in this virtual space. I hope we’ll have a chance to do it in person, but I do want to thank Asian Cultural Council for having supported both of us and for giving us this opportunity to talk to each other and to our audience.

Tiffany Chung: Well, thank you. Thanks Viet for having this conversation with me, is really good reconnecting with you. And also, thanks to Asian Cultural Council for providing the grants and this opportunity for us to reconnect and also to speak to our audience. Thank you.

Chris Ignacio: Hey, everyone, and thank you again for joining us over the past two weeks for East West Fest. If you missed any part of the festival, you can find links to watch on ACC’s website. Telling our own stories and having a say in who tells it is something that I am passionate about. I know that I would have loved to see more role models and stories like the ones we’ve just seen that reflected my experience growing up as a child of Filipino immigrant parents. Please join us in continuing to uplift diverse voices. It only adds to the rich, complex narrative of our collective human experience. We hope you keep in touch. To learn more about Asian Cultural Council or any of the folks you’ve seen in this festival, just visit ACC’s website or reach out to us at our email and social media handles below. On behalf of everyone at the Asian Cultural Council, thank you.

Category: Interviews

 

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