How Do We Remember War and Conflict?Viet Thanh Nguyen

In conversation with Andrew Kelly, Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks on the memory of war, the depiction of the Vietnam War in cinema and more in this interview for Bristol Ideas.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, looks at how we memorialise war – especially the Vietnam War – in fiction and in real life.

Nguygen discusses his new novel, The Committed; Vietnam, the US and France; how we remember war and conflicts; and French colonialism and racism. He talks about the Vietnam War in cinema; writing spy thrillers and novels of ideas; Frantz Fanon and other influences; personal identity; and refugees and immigrants. He also discusses how his books have been received; writing for peace; and what’s next, including the third volume in the trilogy that began with The Sympathizer (his debut novel) and a memoir.

In conversation with Bristol Ideas director Andrew Kelly.

Read the transcript below.

Andrew Kelly: Hello, and welcome to Festival Ideas. I’m Andrew Kelly director of the festival. We’re joined today by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Viet was born in Vietnam and raised in America. He’s the author of Race and Resistance, Literature and Politics in Asian America. His debut novel, The Sympathizer was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Andrew Kelly: He is also the author of the short story collection, The Refugees, the nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies Vietnam and the Memory of War, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the children’s book, Chicken of the Sea, and is the editor of an anthology of refugee writing, The Displaced. His new book is The Committed, the follow up to The Sympathizer. Viet is professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at the university of Southern California and a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and the MacArthur Foundations. Thank you for joining us Viet.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi, Andrew. Such a pleasure to be here.

Andrew Kelly: Can we start by just you giving us a little bit of some of the story of The Sympathizer and then The Committed?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, sure. Absolutely. Well, The Sympathizer is a novel that’s a spy novel. It’s set in April of 1975, as Saigon is about to fall or to be liberated depending on your point of view. And our protagonist is part French, part Vietnamese and a communist spy in the south Vietnamese army, and his mission is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States, where he is going spy on their efforts to take their country back. Long story short, he does go with a suicide squad back to Vietnam, gets captured, put into reeducation camp. And at the very end of The Sympathizer, we see him and his best friend and blood brother bond leaving Vietnam yet again as refugees.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that’s where The Committed picks up, on this boat in the middle of the South China Sea and the rest of the novel takes place in Paris of the early 1980s. And it’s a crime novel. So there’s a lot of drugs and sex and violence and so on. And it’s a novel also about how a revolutionary in this case, our sympathizer, who has been disabused of communism, how such a revolutionary, who still believes in the idea of revolution goes about rebuilding himself. And so The Committed is a novel, both about crime and violence, but also novel about ideas and about revolution and justice.

Andrew Kelly: Well, they’re two quite remarkable books I must say. And I’ve read them twice. I think that the way you bring in the world of ideas at the same time as pacing a spy crime novel in the way that you’ve done, is quite remarkable. What was it like to write them in that way?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I’d actually never written a novel before The Sympathizer. So is it struck me by surprise that I could actually write a novel, I’d been spending 15 years at that point, writing short stories. And then all of a sudden with a novel, it felt like this tiny box that I’d been struggling against for so long in the short story genre, suddenly blew open, and I had all the room and the freedom that I needed to engage with plot and with ideas.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so The Sympathizer, I had two years away from my teaching job to write that novel. And it was amazing. It was incredible because nobody knew who I was except my wife. So nobody bothered me. And so I had two years of total freedom to write the book and it was such a real pleasure. I’m not sure I will have that experience again, because with The Committed I had written about 50 pages in the same way as I’d written The Sympathizer, then The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize and my life changed pretty drastically.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so it probably took about two years longer to write The Committed than it should have because of all the publicity and other things that I couldn’t say no to after the Pulitzer. And so The Committed wasn’t as much fun to write, because there were so many more interruptions, but still it’s a crime novel. And I really love writing within the so-called genres of spying, crime and so on. And that allowed me a certain kind of framework. You were talking about the pacing, the framework of the plot, it’s a kind of a skeleton to hang the entire story on. And that helps a bit if you have that kind of a framework and then within that the ideas can pulse through the body.

Andrew Kelly: Now there’s many big ideas that come out when I was reading the book and obviously we can only cover a few of them here, but I just wanted to talk through some of them. The first is about the whole French colonialism in The Committed and how important it is to understanding that. I mean, The Sympathizer, crudely you could say is from the United States side of it, talking from there, but this is very much from the viewpoint of French colonialism, but also from Paris. And you contrast what we call the city of light of Paris against the colonial legacy that’s there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. I think the novelist, Paul Bailey put it best. He said, “This novel pulls the plug in the city of light.” I think that was the ambition. Let me say this, The Sympathizer is a deep critique of the United States, but also the Vietnamese of all sides, but it’s a novel that’s born out of both my very critical perception of what the United States means, but I’m also an American. I write within the United States. I have a deep love and fascination with American culture, history, politics, all of that. And when it came to France, it was a kind of a similar relationship. I didn’t grow up in France or live in France. I’ve been there as a tourist and I’ve stayed there for extended amounts of time, but I have been mentally colonized by the French.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So as many of us all over the world have been, but very directly for the Vietnamese, we were literally colonized by the French. My 86 year old father still remembers French songs from his youth that he likes to sing to me when I come home. And so I grew up with this sense that France yes, had colonized us, but the details of what that meant were very vague to me because everything had been overshadowed in my youth by what the United States did. And of course the whole world has some inkling of what the United States did because Americans have told their story about it over and over again, in these Hollywood war movies that everybody, or a lot of people have watched. Even the ones who have opposed American imperialism have watched American war movies, and some people who oppose American imperialism really love these American war movies.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And likewise with the French, the French colonized so much of the world. And yet so much of the world has a fascination with France precisely because of the imperialism and the power of French culture. So this novel was set in Paris of the 1980s, which allowed me the opportunity to do research in Paris, which is not bad, to express my fascination with French culture, but also to illustrate some of its many problems and contradictions as every culture has. And so in the same spirit as The Sympathizer, The Committed is hopefully a satirical novel that illuminates some of the hypocrisies and absurdities of the powerful, in this case the French.

Andrew Kelly: And the racism as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I’m sorry the what?

Andrew Kelly: The racism as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, the racism. Yes. How can we forget the racism? Well, if you’re following the news from France, of course, France is undergoing, as it has been for a while, some concerns about the nature of race in French society. Whether the French can even speak about race, whether it’s important to do so, or whether by bringing up race, we’re bringing up racism. It’s a dynamic that’s not that different from the United States and the French are blaming Americans for exporting our ideas about identity and race and so on to France.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I think in The Committed, what I try to make really clear is that within France, there already was a debate about race and colonialism. And that debate was being carried out by black, French thinkers, black French thinkers from the colonies or former colonies of France, people like Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire. So in fact, I think there has been a strong critique mounted of how racist the French actually are by those people who have directly experienced the contradiction between all the wonderful ideals of French civilization and democracy, and what actually happened in the French colonies, whether that was in Africa, the Caribbean, or in my case in French Ind-China.

Andrew Kelly: Now you talked about Fanon there, who’s clearly an important influence on you as are many other writers and The Committed is full of French intellectuals isn’t it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, in The Sympathizer, I made a lot of fun of the Americans, especially the American right wing, it’s kind of easy. And in France, I wanted to demonstrate that I was not just hung up on criticizing the conservatives and the right, but the left as well, because it doesn’t really matter what ideology you have. I think part of the point is that when people have too much power, of course, power corrupts, we always see contradictions and absurdities no matter what anybody’s political beliefs happen to be. And in the case of the French, the French left are ripe for satire, lots of evidence for this going on both historically, but also in terms of what’s been happening the last decade or two in France as well. So there are these French intellectuals that are there because our narrator, The Sympathizer goes and lives with his part French, part Vietnamese aunt who’s an editor for a high powered intellectual publishing house. And she knows all these French left wing politicians and intellectuals.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so he has this opportunity to show how even those people who are progressive and who have an interest in justice can nevertheless themselves be totally contradicted by their ideas about race, about the implicit superiority of white people, or also the superiority of men and sort of the toxic masculinity that courses through so many patriarchal cultures, which our sympathizer himself is enmeshed in. So the novel also criticizes colonialism, criticizes racism, but also criticizes a lot of toxic masculinity as well.

Andrew Kelly: I want to come onto a few other points about Vietnam and the Vietnam war and how that’s portrayed, but just explain why the narrator doesn’t have a name.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I wanted these novels to be novels about an everyman. So in The Sympathizer, he is nameless too, and he’s supposed to stand in his experiences, his struggles with identity with being caught between east and west, between capitalism and communism. These are supposed to be struggles that are not just about himself, but about so many people who were caught up in the middle of the so called Cold War, which was actually very hot for a lot of Asians during this time. And so I wanted people to approach The Sympathizer as a novel that was about the war in Vietnam, obviously, but also as a novel about these struggles over what it means to be free and justice and all these really universal concepts. And so that continues in The Committed with a slight twist, because in fact, he has to get a passport get into France, and he has to adopt a name, a fake name.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that name happens to be Bo Yang, which he thinks is a huge joke because the French don’t know that what Bo Yang means is nameless or anonymous. But the joke ultimately is on our narrator, as it always is in these books, because Bo Yang comes from these tombstones that you find all over Vietnam. And these tombstones are found in the cemeteries of the north Vietnamese soldiers who died by the hundreds of thousands and in every cemetery. And there’s one in every town or village in Vietnam. In every cemetery there’s always a set of tombstones with Bo Yang on them where these poor men had died anonymously. And so that name is still anonymous in a way, but it’s also a name that evokes this tragic bloody past of the war in Vietnam.

Andrew Kelly: Can we talk about the war in Vietnam? And now I’m going back to The Sympathizer in a way here, because part of the book is a narrator works on a film. It’s pretty obvious what that film is when you read the acknowledgements at the back or anybody who has followed this and would I think be able to work that out. But with The Sympathizer, you wanted to portray a very different view, didn’t you to what Hollywood has done. I mean, when I think about the kind of, and I’ve watched a lot of Hollywood movies and I think of things like Apocalypse Now, which is the film we’re talking about, Platoon, and more recently the Spike Lee films on the series and also the Ken Burns documentary as well in terms of what I… What’s your view of those? And are there any that actually, you would recommend that people watch?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, one of the interesting things about Hollywood is that as an art form, it’s incredibly expensive. It takes tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars to make a movie. And when you have that much money involved, it’s very hard to change the direction of the art and the art itself, as critical as it might be of power, is also enmeshed with power. And so that’s a very different kind of art form than poetry or the novel where it’s usually just the writer’s time or life that needs to be sacrificed and the writer’s life doesn’t cost anything. And so it’s not a surprise that poetry is usually at the forefront of social and political critique and change, and movies are at the very tail end trying to catch up. So that’s the way it is with Hollywood and its Vietnam war films.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And the contradiction there of course, is that in American war movies, such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, the American war is depicted in a very negative way and these movies depict American atrocities. And yet, how is it possible for American movies to do that and continue to propagate an American story? And that’s precisely because no matter what Americans are doing good or bad, they remain at the center of the story. And that’s the seduction of Hollywood as what I call the unofficial ministry of propaganda for the United States. And so in the United States, we don’t need an official ministry of propaganda because the ideology of the American dream and of American exceptionalism is so strong that even the liberals of Hollywood buy into it as well. And that’s what we see propagated in these movies. And so I grew up watching these movies and feeling a little bit ambivalent because I was an American who really enjoyed watching war movies about Americans.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I was a Vietnamese who felt really disturbed by watching how the Vietnamese in these war movies were completely silenced and erased at the best and massacred and raped at the worst. And so when it came time to write The Sympathizer, I thought, now’s my chance to take revenge on Hollywood. And that’s what I tried to do. And speaking about the French, I think the French got off easy because if you read about the history of French colonization, they did some really horrible things in Vietnam and in other countries as well, but they didn’t leave a visual record of it, unlike the Americans. So what we have instead for the French are a lot of black and white photographs of their time, that look kind of romantic. And I think that’s the memory that so many people have of French colonialism. And that’s partly why I felt it was so necessary to write The Committed and to bring up some of the things that the French have done.

Andrew Kelly: I think it’s a really interesting point you make about when the poets and then the writers, and then the films come right at the end because obviously the films need certainly the writers to have written the books to make the films. And you compared say the first world war and the way that’s seen in literature and Hollywood. You had the war poets, and then you had the great memoirs, of which All Quiet on the Western Front is probably the best known and the best perhaps. And then you’ve got the films that followed them, which have brought down to us this view of the first world war as pointless slaughter, really, although there’s now a slightly more nuanced development of those views of the war

Viet Thanh Nguyen: If you read the poetry, I think one of the things you get versus the movies is that it’s not just pointless slaughter, it’s pointless slaughter carried out by these clueless generals and politicians in power who have betrayed an entire generation of young men across all kinds of national boundaries. And in the Hollywood versions, I’m less familiar with the European versions of this, but in Hollywood versions of world war one, it’s still cast as part of a romantic story. Usually, I mean, because the only way Hollywood can make sense out of history is to put a love story in the middle of it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So yes, all these men are dying in trench warfare and so on, but we have a love story and it’s very romantic and gauzy and all of that. So again as you invest more money in a production of art, the more the critique of power tends to get blunted, for obvious reasons.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so for writers, I think it’s our task to speak the truth if that’s what we believe in. But part of the hard recognition of this is that even a bad television show or a bad movie will have millions of viewers. And even an incredible novel, I’m not saying my novels are incredible, but even an incredible novel will get hundreds of thousands, possibly millions if the writer is really lucky, but even now for example, the test apparently of the success for a book is, are you going to get it adapted for television, or the movies? That’s what people really want to know. So, I work within this framework of humility, knowing the actual impact that literature can have in our present day, but also in it’s sense of optimism. For example, even now over a century later, we’re still talking about these world war one poets like Siegfried Sassoon and and Wilford Owen, because their work endures.

Andrew Kelly: Now, what about literature then? I’ve read a few novels about the Vietnam war in addition to what you’ve written, like the Sorrows of War, for example, and the big books, like A Bright Shining Lie and so on. Do we suffer from having not enough of these works from actual Vietnamese authors translated into English and so on?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I forgot to answer your question by the way about any movies I would recommend. Let me just say, I am actually an admirer of Apocalypse Now. I think it’s a great work of art. I also think it’s racist. I think these two things could absolutely exist simultaneously. When we go back to the earlier issue, the totally pertinent issue, of Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness, I think a great work of art, and [inaudible 00:17:47] take down of it as a racist depiction of Africans, which is also true at the same time. That’s part of the contradiction that I’m involved in, but I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t watch Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket or Platoon we should because they’re well done, but we should recognize what exactly is happening at the same time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And in terms of films, I would recommend, again, I admire those movie as movies. I just think they’re real failures in terms of depicting the complexity of the war that would take into account all sides. The movies that I think actually managed to do that are the ones that cost a lot less money. So documentaries like Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds from 1974 or Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig from, I think it’s 1966 or 1968 really amazing documentaries in which the Vietnamese perspective is being brought out. So when it comes to literature, yes, I think we have more of a possibility of both the brutality of the war being depicted and the failures of the Americans, but also some possibilities of seeing how the Vietnamese experienced this war as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So [inaudible 00:18:49] war is I think one of the great war novels, not just one of the great novels about the war in Vietnam. But one of the interesting things about this experience in terms of literature and representation is that the Americans lost the war in fact, but I think they’ve won the war in memory globally. Because most people, I think if they know anything about the war in Vietnam have read a book or watched a movie from the American point of view, but very few people have done the same for Vietnamese perspectives, whether that’s the victorious Vietnamese in Vietnam, or whether it’s the defeated Vietnamese outside of Vietnam in the Vietnamese diaspora. So when I started to write in English, I knew that when it came to the war in Vietnam, at least I would have an advantage over all those writers writing in Vietnamese because their works tend to not get translated and tend not to get published outside of Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And whereas me writing in an Imperial language would have that capacity. So there is in fact, quite a significant body of literature written by the Vietnamese about this war. So [inaudible 00:19:55] also a dissonant writer from Vietnam, who’s in exile in Paris now, because the works for two scandalous for the Vietnamese Communist Party to allow. And then literally dozens of Vietnamese writers writing in English, outside of Vietnam of which I’m proud to be a part of this diaspora generation that is trying to tell these stories.

Andrew Kelly: Is your book available in Vietnam?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: [crosstalk 00:20:21] The short story collection, The Refugees was translated into Vietnamese and at the cost of removing an entire short story from that book, because apparently it had too many critical things to say about communism. And The Sympathizer, we have a publisher, we have a translation, we just don’t have permission to publish that book in Vietnam. So it’s still a very complicated situation in Vietnam when it comes to literary and artistic freedom and freedom of speech.

Andrew Kelly: One of the things which set me thinking, we have our own issues in the United Kingdom about how we remember things like the second world war, how we deal with a leader-like Churchill, who for many people is a great hero, but obviously there were many problems with his life and work as well. And we have our own particular issues in Bristol, which I don’t know whether, you know, but Bristol was a prime slave trading city and we have our own statue wars that have taken place and so on. What do we do about remembering and forgetting these things, really for how we can all move on, learning but also putting these things behind us. Because the narrator, and I know there’s a third volume coming I think isn’t there another volume coming, which maybe will tie up some of these things that go through your mind when you read these two marvelous books.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I grew up steeped in the history of the war in Vietnam, because I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community. So I was always aware of how deeply that war impacted the Vietnamese refugees and the way that they tend to remember the war is in a very either or fashion, which means that the Vietnamese refugees and the south Vietnamese were the heroes, they were the peered, they were the virtuous, and the communists were the devils. I mean, they weren’t just the enemy, they were the demons and the devils, capable only of evil. And some part of me really rejected that, I didn’t feel that the world could be so easily reduced into good and bad in that way. And I think that came out of my experience as an American, watching the Americans depict the war in this way, where the Vietnamese were simply bystanders to their own war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So when it came time to writing The Sympathizer, I wanted to create a protagonist who, who understood both sides, but also understood the limitations of both sides and existed in a gray area. So he says at the beginning of The Sympathizer, “I’m a man of two faces and two minds, I’m able to see any issue from both sides, it’s my only talent.” And I think that is hopefully what people get from these books, The Sympathizer and The Committed, the importance of this kind of perspective.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And it addresses directly the issues that you’re talking about. Because I think that when it comes to things like statue controversies, whether it’s the Bristol statue or whether it’s Confederate statues in the United States, for the defenders of these statues there’s often a desire to see the world in this either or fashion. That someone like Churchill, for example, can only be a hero.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And if you bring up what he did in India, it’s like, well, that besmirches our image of this hero. When in fact we shouldn’t have these hero images in the first place. I mean, we should recognize that people like Churchill I’m sure did great things. He did great things, but yet at the same time as a person of his time, and as an imperialist, he did express racist ideas and committed genocidal policies. These things can happen simultaneously. And that’s true in the United States, I go around the United States giving lectures, and I say, this is a country of beauty and a country of brutality. This is a country of democratic possibility and a country built on genocide, slavery, occupation, and war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: These two things exist at the same time. That’s the kind of complexity that I think a lot of people are afraid of embracing because it invalidates this idealized worldview they have of their country, their heroes, and by extension themselves. And so, again, the role of poetry and literature and art is to challenge these kinds of uniform modes of thinking that are threatened by the gray zones and by the inconsistencies and hypocrisies and contradictions that make up all of us.

Andrew Kelly: And your narrator exemplifies those inconsistencies and complications and contradictions in a non-binary view of, it’s not capitalism versus communism and so on. [inaudible 00:24:42]

Viet Thanh Nguyen: He’d be very irritating protagonist if he was so virtuous and he was going around making fun of everybody. So it’s obviously absolutely crucial to make him a deeply flawed human being, who himself is saturated by some of the same contradictions that he himself is going around criticizing and making fun of. And so that’s why I think one of the reasons why he’s an everyman, it’s partly his capacity to make fun of the powerful, which I think is really crucial, but also his inherent humanity, which is also his inherent inhumanity. And again, I think that for so many people, when they talk about humanity, it’s sort of a sentimental concept everybody wants to embrace. We’re all humans. And people have a very hard time acknowledging that within humanity, there’s always inhumanity, whether it’s ourselves as individuals we’re talking about, or whether it’s our collective societies.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so it’s that kind of complexity that he both illuminates in his capacity to show what the Americans are doing, what the French are doing, what the victorious Vietnamese have done and the defeated Vietnamese, but it’s also his embodiment of both humanity and inhumanity simultaneously that has any potential of making him into someone who could be an everyman or someone who’s experiences might be construed as being relevant in so many different contexts.

Andrew Kelly: Can we talk just a little bit about identity and about you as well, because you were born in Vietnam, you came to the United States at the age of four and your protagonist when he arrives in Paris, doesn’t really seem to know who he is any longer. I’m not asking you about how autobiographical this is, because I think it’s not in that, but in terms of thinking about issues of identity and how complex that is these days, what are you in America now?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I mean, for me, I think oftentimes the question of identity becomes very monolithic. I mean, people are supposed to choose one identity and stick with it, and that’s deeply limiting, I think, to all of our experiences, because no matter who we are, I think we, adopt different identities, different masks based on the situation that we find ourselves in. And so for me I think I have many possibilities to choose from. I can be a Vietnamese, Vietnamese, refugee, Vietnamese, American, Asian American, American, hopefully writer as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So there’s a range of these identities that I think are crucial and necessary to acknowledge. So I think that for me, identities, especially in the context of the United States, where I think I understand the politics the best, identities are crucial to getting things done. That form of politics has been derided as identity politics, but I don’t know how we can get to a politics that deals with economics and power, for example, without also going through identity. Because the United States has built its unequal society, not just around the question of economic inequality or exploitation, or who has money and power, but also around the questions of identity. So that these things happen simultaneously, race, class, gender, economic, exploitation, and so on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so the key there is to acknowledge that one identity is never sufficient. So the worst form of identity is when people retreat, just a singular identity. And we see that happen today. It’s not just people of color, for example, or trans people or women or feminists who can be subjected to this. But now in the United States, the most pernicious form of identity politics is white nationalist identity politics in this country. So I think identity is really tricky because I think it’s necessary, but it’s also potentially dangerous. And it always involves a constant negotiation, which is why I say I have multiple identities that I’m always trying to negotiate across. And the situation is very fluid.

Andrew Kelly: Now, one of the reasons I read about why The Committed took longer to write was you were doing obviously a lot of promotional work and you won the Pulitzer Prize and so on, but you also became a big public speaker on a lot of the issues, which we’ve talked about here, about refugees and about issues of identity and so on. What responsibility do you think the writer has in these times? I hesitate to use the term public intellectual but I read in the New York Times interview you did, you talked about admiring, particularly John Berger for the way he wrote, but also commented about contemporary issues and so on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t know that writers should be obligated to do anything. I don’t believe in the idea that the state needs to come in and set up a writer’s union and tell writers what to do, but the tradition that I’ve chosen, or the one that I’ve identified with ever since I was in college, is certainly the tradition of the committed writer. The writer who is both committed to the art, whatever the art is, but the writer is also committed to the idea that art has a relationship to justice, and that the writer has a role to speak out, not just about the necessity and the power of art, but also about whatever issues are pertinent in her or his day or their day, around injustice.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I think there is a relationship between the necessity for empathy on the part of writers when it comes to creating their characters and imagining other people and disorientation towards justice, where empathy is required for those who are out of power. And the critical of distinction here again, is not about ideology or specific partisan politics and so on, but the commitment to recognizing injustice, no matter where it occurs. Which means including among our own allies, because sometimes the writer will be called on not just to attack the enemy, but also to criticize his own side when it fails. And sometimes writers are not good at that task, it’s a very tricky kind of ethical and political task to carry out. Then the danger of the committed writer is that the writer is also committed in the struggle against injustice, oftentimes committed to a kind of power himself or herself or themselves.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so we see that in the complexities of a career of someone like Jean Paul Sartre for example, the ultimate committed writer of the second half of the 20th century, both a model for what to do, and sometimes a model for what not to do in terms of being blinded by certain kinds of ideological inclinations. And so again, it’s always a tricky situation to be a committed writer. So that’s why the novel, The Committed is given that title, because ultimately it is a form of writing because he is writing a confession as you discover. It’s not a big secret to talk about that. And part of the confession is talking about the complexities of commitment, that being committed in The Sympathizer’s worldview is absolutely necessary. But at what point does commitment to a belief, to a system of belief become a form of insanity if taken too far. And there’s at least a couple of examples offered in the book about when that happens and we should all be wary of that.

Andrew Kelly: And my final question is, you both publish scholarly books and also the novels and so on, how do you navigate that kind of writing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s very difficult. I think so. I mean, both of those forms of writing are hard, whether it’s fiction writing or scholarly writing, they’re their own languages. And that’s what I thought about. That’s how I thought about them, that these are different languages I needed to acquire. And so it took a decade to acquire academic language through getting a doctorate and writing a first book. And then it took another decade to unlearn that language, to allow myself space to learn the language of writing fiction, which is very different. And now I feel like I’m bilingual, like now I can do both and I can choose and move between the languages and combine them as necessary. That’s a very, for me empowering situation to be in, but it took like two decades to get to that point. So it was really difficult at the same time, but I think they’re both necessary.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I can do things in the non-fiction and scholarly worlds that would be more difficult to do in fiction and vice versa. So The Sympathizer and The Committed are these novels that I think of as entertainments in the Graham Greene sense, they’re supposed to be spy and crime novels that are fun, but they’re also supposed to be intellectual provocations where I can bring in some of these ideas from the non-fiction and scholarly side. But the key is I don’t have to footnote my arguments. So if some of the things I say in these two novels would require extensive footnoting and research to demonstrate, to be convincing to the scholars out there, but in fiction you can get away with just creating a character and making them, or having them express themselves. And that’s exactly what happens in these two novels

Andrew Kelly: And a nice after word which just mentions a few of the influences and so on that you [inaudible 00:33:25].

Andrew Kelly: [crosstalk 00:33:28] So we mentioned that there’s a third novel coming, that presumably is a few years off yet, is there a memoir as well did I read?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sure. I’m writing a memoir that talks about a lot of the things we talked about today, Andrew. So it’s, it’s a memoir, which I find to be very challenging because I spent most of my life thinking I don’t have a very interesting life. So here I am writing a book about parts of my life, it’s not exhaustive. It’s mostly very spare, but also bringing up how my life as a Vietnamese refugee growing up in the United States, has intersected with some of the, I think, crucial political issues around war, memory, representation, refugees, racism and the state of the country and its history. So I have a lot to say about these kinds of issues. Hopefully it will be done soon, and then I can turn my attention to the third and final installment of The Sympathizer trilogy, where our anti hero returns to the United States, to Los Angeles, to make amends and seek revenge.

Andrew Kelly: Well, we look forward to both the memoir and the third part of the trilogy. Thank you all for watching The Committed, The Sympathizer and The Refugees are all published in the United Kingdom by Corsair Publishing, do read these brilliant, wonderful books. Thank you for joining us today and thank you most of all, to Viet for joining us today in Festival Ideas. Thank you very much.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s been a real pleasure, Andrew.

Category: Interviews


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