In Conversation with Annette Gordon-Reed and Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen joins Annette Gordon-Reed and Kevin Young for a conversation hosted by the Phi Beta Kappa society.

Watch our conversation with award-winning authors Annette Gordon-Reed and Viet Thanh Nguyen, moderated by by Kevin Young, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard. Gordon-Reed won sixteen book prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2009 and the National Book Award in 2008, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2008). In addition to articles and reviews, her other works include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (UVA Press, 1997), Vernon Can Read! A Memoir, a collaboration with Vernon Jordan (PublicAffairs, 2001), Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History (Oxford University Press, 2002), a volume of essays that she edited, Andrew Johnson (Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010) and, with Peter S. Onuf, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (Liveright Publishing, 2016). Her most recent book is a memoir/history of Texas, On Juneteenth (Liveright Publishing, 2021).

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and numerous other awards. His most recent publication is the sequel to The Sympathizer, The Committed. His other books are a short story collection, The Refugees; Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction); and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He has also published Chicken of the Sea, a children’s book written in collaboration with his six-year-old son, Ellison. He is a University Professor, the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, he is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

Kevin Young is the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. With a stellar career leading academic and arts institutions, he recently joined the Smithsonian from his previous role as Director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Young is also the poetry editor of the New Yorker, and an award-winning author of thirteen works of poetry and prose and the editor of nine volumes, most recently the anthology African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, released in fall 2020 and immediately appearing on the year’s best book lists for the New York Times Book Review, Esquire, TIME, the Atlantic, and more.

The Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities was presented to Professor Annette Gordon-Reed. The Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities is given to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions in the field of the humanities. The award includes a cash prize and a medal named for Mr. and Mrs. William B. Jaffe, whose gift of $25,000 enabled the Society to create the award in 1970. For more information please visit https://www.pbk.org/DSHA

Viet Thanh Nguyen received the Sidney Hook Memorial Award. The Sidney Hook Memorial Award recognizes national distinction by a single scholar in each of three endeavors — scholarship, undergraduate teaching, and leadership in the cause of liberal arts education. The award was established in 1991 in memory of the distinguished American philosopher and Phi Beta Kappa member, Sidney Hook (1902-1989). For more information on the awards, please visit https://www.pbk.org/Sidney-Hook

The awards are presented every three years at the Triennial Council.

Read the transcript below.

Cristal Logan:

Welcome to the Aspen Institute’s Hurst Lecture Series program entitled, “What Every American Should Now”, in collaboration with the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program and Aspen Words. I’m Cristal Logan, Vice President of Aspen Community Programs here at the Aspen Institute, and I first want to thank our trustee, Bob Kirsten, his wife, Soledad, for their support of this program. Thanks to our audience for tuning in for this important conversation. We would like to acknowledge and honor the contemporary and ancestral lands of the Ute people on which we host events and facilitate conversations throughout the year here in Colorado.

Cristal Logan:

As I introduce our guests today, you’ll find links to their bios in the chat. If you’d like to ask questions, you can type those into the Q&A feature at any time during the event. Laila Lalami was born in Rabat, Morocco. She speaks several languages and earned her PhD in Linguistics at the University of California. She is the author of four novels including The Moor’s Account, which won several awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Her new book, a work of non-fiction called Conditional Citizens was published in September 2020. She was awarded fellowships from the Fulbright program in the Guggenheim foundation and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California.

Cristal Logan:

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the newly-published book, The Committed, which is a continuation of the story of The Sympathizer, which was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction alongside seven other prizes. He is also the author of the short story collection, The Refugees, the non-fiction book, Nothing Ever Dies, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and is the editor of an anthology of refugee writing, The Displaced. He is professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations.

Cristal Logan:

Tommy Orange is the author of There There, a national bestseller that won the Penn-Hemingway award, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard prize and the American Book Award. It was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and he was born and raised in Oakland, California. Finally, our moderator today is Eric Liu, the founder of Citizen University, which works across the political spectrum to foster a culture of powerful citizenship. He is also the director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program. He served as a White House speechwriter and later as a domestic policy adviser to Pres. Bill Clinton. His books include The Gardens of Democracy, The True Patriot and A Chinaman’s Chance. He lives in Seattle and is a correspondent for the Atlantic. We are thrilled and honored to feature you all here today, and with that, I’ll turn it over to you Eric, thank you.

Eric Liu:

Cristal, thank you so much for the introduction. I want to thank, first of all, our partners in this gathering today, Aspen Community Programs, Aspen Words, and also the program that I helped to lead at the Institute, the Aspen Institute Program on Citizenship and American Identity. Most of all, I wanted to thank our conversationists here. Our cup runneth over with prizes and awards and honors of this group of three, embodies and represents, and it’s just awesome to have the three of you here, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation. I wanted to give just a little bit of framing for the conversation before we dive in. The headline for today, the topic is What Every American Should Know, and that is indeed one of the projects of our program at our Aspen Institute Program.

Eric Liu:

The origin of that project is, on the one hand, obvious. We’re in a time right now where questions of history and belonging and identity are so hotly contested, where we are not only arguing about what to teach but arguing about whether to teach our past in certain ways, and that reality sets a context for this question, as does the obvious reality of demographic change in the United States and the ways in which the long-heralded future of a country in which the majority of people are people of color has already arrived, literally and figuratively in babies born in the last couple of years. These shifts are material but they’re having huge, deep psychic impact on our story of us.

Eric Liu:

That’s the general context, but for us as a program in this project, a few years ago I wrote a piece for the Atlantic that was looking back upon a 1987 book that the scholar, E.D. Hirsch, had written called Cultural Literacy. This book was a somewhat academic tome about the ways that readers form background knowledge, that if you’re going to read anything, whether it’s the newspaper, the sports pages, a novel, you have to have certain kinds of common knowledge, background knowledge to understand all the different implicit references that are being made. That book was, in its own right, important, but what made it a surprise cultural phenomena in the late 80s was that he had appended a list of 5,000 things every American should know. This was before [visticles 00:06:25] and the Internet, but people went crazy over this list and arguing about this list and what should and shouldn’t be included and whether it was too deferential to a dead white male notion of Americanness, whether it was too this, too that.

Eric Liu:

That, in many ways, was the beginning in the early phases of what we would now think of as a culture war part one. I don’t know what part we’re in now but that was the 80s version. What I said in this essay was that looking back a generation later, Hirsch was half right. He was right that a country as far-flung, diverse and inherently centrifugal is ours and it’s only more so now, does need common knowledge. We do need some common basis of understanding of what we’re referring to because we come from different creeds, traditions, faith, backgrounds, places of origin and so forth.

Eric Liu:

But where his conception a generation earlier had been deficient was that we have an opportunity now to make that notion that base of common knowledge far, far more inclusive and diverse, not only in looking back at our past and refusing to, again, literally or figuratively whitewash the past, but also in our present and whose voices and stories and histories and ideas should even, in the first place, have standing to be heard in the conversation about what every American should know. We created this simple project with a website, whateveryamericanshouldknow.org. Instead of inviting people to come up with lists of 5,000, because only a handful of civic literary nerds, like those gathered here today in our conversation, would actually come up with 5,000 things. But just to invite folks, come up with 10. What are 10 things you think every American should know?

Eric Liu:

Then we invited people to submit these and there is this ever-evolving crowd sourced list that has emerged and we’ve, of course, over time invited different luminaries to submit their own and you’ll see on the website people like Anne-Marie Slaughter, Henry Louis Gates Jr., David Henry Hwang and others have submitted their top 10 lists. But this conversation today is part of that ongoing project to help give all of us some tools to ask each other what should we all know and who is the us that’s talking when we talk about what we should all know. I want to begin by posing a common question to all three of our guests here today, and then from there, we might dive into some of the top 10 list that they’ve put together actually in preparation for today. But the common question is this, what does this idea of cultural literacy mean to you right now in a country that is in the midst of so much churn and change? Do you actually accept the premise that common knowledge is both necessary and possible? Laila, why don’t we start with you?

Laila Lalami:

I had a feeling. What I will say on this subject is that, since we’re talking about cultural literacy and citizenship, is that … I just finished writing a book last year on [inaudible 00:09:46] and one of the things that struck me during the writing of this book is that oftentimes we talk about citizenship in a very specific context. Typically, every two years or every four years when there are elections. In other words, it’s very much connected with the right to vote, like that’s when we talk about Americans coming together and being united or being divided and so on and so forth.

Laila Lalami:

To me, cultural literacy means like this active and constant engagement with what is happening in the country with the country in general, in between those periods. To me, what it means is really staying engaged, really staying informed, really staying curious, not assuming that no matter how well-educated one might be about history, that that’s it. To me, history is an argument. It’s something that you’re constantly engaging with, that you’re constantly in conversation with it, and so you can have the same facts, the same dates, but you’re constantly looking at them and re-evaluating them, re-interpreting them as under new lenses or using a different focus each time. That, to me, would be cultural literacy, and so I think that this very idea that the 5,000 terms created such controversy goes precisely to that, because we each one of us have a different way of looking at it and different focus that we bring to it.

Eric Liu:

Thank you, Laila. That book that you’re referring to is called Conditional Citizens, a very powerful non-fiction work of years exploring these questions of identity, belonging and who gets to call themselves citizens even in a small see sense, not as a matter of legal documentation status, but in a deeper ethical sense of being a member of the body. Viet, how about you? Cultural literacy.

Viet Nguyen:

You mentioned E.D. Hirsch in the 1980s and I remember in the 1980s, in order to be culturally-literate in popular culture, all you have [inaudible 00:11:50], all you had access to was a handful of television channels. Now, in our era, we have literally dozens and dozens of possible ways of absorbing popular culture, and I think that one is a metaphor for how cultural literacy works in this country. Historically, in order to be culturally literate, it was required that you had to do what E.D. Hirsch did or proposed, which is you had to learn the cultural literacy of the dominant class.

Viet Nguyen:

For those of us who were not of the dominant class because of gender, sex, race, or whatever, we had to be culturally literate in the dominant culture, but we also had to be culturally literate in our own culture. That is something that the dominant culture never felt the need or rarely felt the need to reciprocate, so in order to survive in the United States as an immigrant or a refugee or so-called minority, you basically had to be bilingual when it came to cultural literacy and a sign of your privilege or a sign of your dominant status was that you could be monolingual as Americans tend to be.

Viet Nguyen:

I think that, to me, is that the core of our conflicts with culture wars or core of our conflicts over what we need to know, that the people who are, I think, most antagonized by culture wars are the ones who feel they know are illiterate, they have to learn so much more and they’re not used to being required to learn so much more. For me, when it comes to this debate over cultural literacy, really is a debate over how culture is defined in our country. It goes beyond the question of a monoculture, it goes to the question of how do we negotiate between many, many different kinds of subcultures, all of whom are demanding to have their say in the national conversation.

Viet Nguyen:

It may be the case that we do have a core as you’ve talked about, but can no longer be the core defined by one group, that’s the core defined through these debates, arguments, conversations, which are at the heart of democracy. Cultural literacy will always be something that will be a site of contestation. If you ever get to the moment where everybody agrees what we should be culturally literate about, it probably is already a sign of a stagnant culture and a stagnant civilization, so I welcome the debate and the conversation.

Eric Liu:

For reasons, I’ll tell you in a moment. We do it as well and I think the idea of where you put it as history is an argument, and yet you’re saying cultural literacy is a site of constant contestation. Tommy, I’m curious, before we pick up that point about argument and contest, your take on this idea and this premise in the first place of cultural literacy.

Tommy Orange:

I have been a lover of crosswords for maybe the past seven years, and I noticed something with crosswords. As soon as I started doing them, I’m like, “This is some punishment I was doing to myself,” because there were so many things I realize I didn’t know that everybody just sort of knew, this was part of the cultural literacy to be an American. There is all these abstract things that I could tell came from a very specific educational track, and I didn’t take that at all. I went to school of sound engineering and then I went to school at an Institute of American Indian Arts very specific. It’s changed in the past, three years there’s a lot more people that represent diverse experience in this country.

Tommy Orange:

But it was my entrance into what does everybody think or what do the creators of the New York Times crossword think everyone should know came through crosswords. As a native person, that’s my lens, or as a biracial person, that’s my lens and this idea that like Viet was saying, we’re expected to know everything about our own culture, as well as the one that we belong to. As a native person, we very much struggle with belonging to either side. We’re not all hyper-educated on what it means to be from our specific tribe. I grew up in a city, Dad’s fluent in a language but he didn’t teach us. I had a very American experience in the sense that he wanted us to assimilate on TV and video games, and I grew up wanting to play sports and all these things are very American and they’re very typical American. I think it’s an ever-expanding thing like both Laila and Viet said, you need to fight against ignorance because of how much it’s always changing.

Tommy Orange:

I think it’s an active thing. It’s an active curiosity. If you think you’ve learned something that will remain, will keep you culturally literate, then as Viet said, you’re going to become stagnant because of how much it’s growing. But most of all, it’s about this idea of belonging to this country and who gets to dictate what it means. We’re so far behind, and like you said, which culture war is this, it’s definitely an identity crisis for Republicans and white Americans facing the reality of the diversity and competing histories and who gets to tell it how it all went down is up for grabs right now, and we’ll see in the next election if whiteness continues to be in its death throes against what a diverse country could mean.

Eric Liu:

One of the things that is already a common thread across your three responses is this tension between argumentation on one hand and invitation. Tommy, you just named the central fact of our times right now, which is that whiteness and Americanness, which used to be just by default synonymous have been delinking our entire lives, but now they’ve reached a critical mass of delinkage. That creates a lot of the angst and anxiety and upheaval in our political culture, but it also creates opportunity and a word that at least two of you used, curiosity. If it’s possible to foster in a way that Viet is reciprocal in not only one way, not only from the subdominant toward the dominant, but toward the people whose dominant position is shifting itself toward others.

Eric Liu:

This question of how do we simultaneously argue it out, have the good fights about, “Hey, your conception of what America is and what it should be is stuck in a past that doesn’t include people like me,” and arguing that out on the one hand, and on the other hand inviting people in and saying, “Hey, you know, there’s a … you may not have thought about this much and I, as in my case, child of immigrants, I as a native person, I as a person of this particular descent or faith, I’ve had my entire life to have to be bilingual to have to be able to navigate both these worlds, and I want to invite you into that skill set. It’s awesome.” In that tension between arguing it out and inviting people in, where do your instincts take you right now? This can be anyone who wants to jump in first.

Laila Lalami:

I was just going to say, because when you talked about arguing things out I was thinking about things like the 1619 project, which when it first dropped seemed to me a very … to me, it seemed to me a very non-controversial point to make, which is that African-Americans have had a role to play in the history of this country since before the revolution. Here are some of the ways in which they have that role to play, but the huge backlash, and in fact, I would say that … I would even say the single-minded obsession over this project, which has now even turned into efforts at legislation against teaching it in schools, really it brings home the point this idea that there is a kind of defensiveness around history because history and the teaching of us really go to the narrative around who is American and that defensiveness to me, how do you invite someone to discuss something when they’re being so defensive and reach to legal means to try and avoid this having this discussion?

Laila Lalami:

I think that there is a limit to how much you can discuss this. People actually have to want to discuss it and they have to want to be involved in that discussion rather than try to shut it down, including through these legislative efforts that are going on in some states.

Viet Nguyen:

Just jump in here and say, I think Laila is obviously right that much of the debate around anything like 1619 or any other issues that we’re implying, devolves really rapidly into this binaristic either or a situation, where one side feels attacked by the other side, and then that one side becomes very defensive as Laila was saying. If the attacks on something like 1619 project or any other kind of projects we’re invested in are borne out of pure politics, sheer cynicism and all of that. It’s very hard to argue against that. It’s very hard to debate against that, because what we’re really dealing with there is political conflict.

Viet Nguyen:

But if there is actually even the possibility for a discussion, how do we get there, and I’ll just propose one way. I don’t know how successful it’s going to be, but we who are critics of other people also need to be self-critical at the same time, and we need to able to model that capacity not to be defensive, and to be able to investigate our own limitations. I remember once, I was a very active and woke Asian-American college student, political leader. There was one moment where at a meeting of the Asian-American Political Alliance, of which I was the chair, half the people in the room, all women, stood up and said, “You are sexist, all the men in the room, and we’re going to leave you to deal with your sexism. We’re not going to educate you. You educate yourself,” and they all left.

Viet Nguyen:

That was a huge educational moment for me, because I thought, “Yes, this is actually true. We are sexist and we need to do something about it. We can’t blame them. We can’t be defensive.” I’ve always taken that lesson to heart, especially in my own experience as a Vietnamese-American, I’m very critical of what the United States has done in Southeast Asia around issues of colonization and warfare and on and on and on. But I also stressed all the time, we Vietnamese people are not just the victims here. If we look at our own history, we did some terrible things in terms of colonizing and conquering what became Vietnam in terms of our treatment of the indigenous peoples in what has become Vietnam. That complexity in history exist, I think, pretty much everywhere.

Laila Lalami:

Everywhere, everywhere, yup.

Viet Nguyen:

To be able to be aware of that and to constantly be self-reflexive even as we critique other moments when we are subject with some domination.

Eric Liu:

Tommy, that complexity is literally what you’ve been writing about and even within indigenous communities that tension or that difference of perspective from being someone who is steeped in and rooted in place in a certain way and someone whose concept and conception of things comes as an urban Indian, these questions of how we embrace not only the complexity Viet’s talking about, but that circuit breaker when you have the defensive reflex. The flip side of the defensive reflex, of course, is the attack reflex. Tommy, what is your take on how we navigate the inner work of that?

Tommy Orange:

It can feel really frustrating and things like this can feel like preaching to the choir and the people that need to hear this stuff and are interested are not the people that we’re trying to reach. It can be really frustrating to understand, how do you reach the people that are ignorant about their own ignorance and really proud of that? I worked at an Indian center in Oakland and there was this big, there was a culture war that happened. They were firing native people and they were bringing in a lot of white leadership, and we had to bring in an outside consultant who did this racial tension work as his job. His name is Ken Hardy.

Tommy Orange:

He gave his big presentation and we were trying to find a way to come together with all these power dynamics happening and somebody asked the question, “Why, if you’re in a position of privilege, what is the incentive to give that up to change? What is the incentive for people who were privileging from their white Americanness and the mythology that’s been allowed to thrive for a century, at least if not more, what is the incentive to educate yourself and to change fundamentally to bring in things to include other things and to become curious about people who make up this, the fabric of this country? It’s frustrating because I don’t know what the incentive would be if you’re benefit in return.

Laila Lalami:

I don’t think there is any. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Eric Liu:

I think one of the things, I was saying earlier the topic of argument brings up a different project of ours in our program called The Better Arguments Project. It’s premised on the idea that as toxically polarized as we may be right now in the United States, we don’t necessarily need fewer arguments, we just need less stupid ones. I don’t mean to be glib, like less stupid arguments are arguments that contain everything you all been saying. A certain measure of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, a certain measure of awareness of power dynamics, a certain understanding of history and the fact that this argument didn’t plot. The 1619 argument didn’t plop down from the sky with no context and no prior history of similar such arguments whether done in good or bad faith, and so understanding that.

Eric Liu:

But I think one of things that we’ve done in this Better Arguments Project is to articulate that one of the principles of a better argument to the extent that it is possible, and Tommy, I grint that human nature says that when you have relative privilege you do not have strong incentives to seed it or to yield it. That maybe is people’s conceptions of self-interest and that will never change. But what can change is their conception of what self-interest is. If they think it is actually in their longer-term mutual interest to learn a little bit of something about the lands we walk on, to learn a little bit something about the history of refugees and immigrants in this country and the ways in which this country has been shaped and molded by that.

Eric Liu:

I think that conception of how do we change people’s sense of their own self-interest is made possible where it can happen. Viet, a little bit by that self-awareness you’re talking about, but also principle number one of The Better Arguments Project is, take winning off the table. If you engage in an argument not to win but to understand like, “I’m not here to dominate you, to crush you in debate, to make you feel you’re an idiot. I truly, dude, I want to understand why do you see the world this way?” Is that going to work? Maybe that will only work one out of five times, one out of ten times, but the fact that it can work one out of five or ten times suggest that what you all have been touching on here, which is that this is work that is only secondarily work of the intellect. It is primarily work of something deeper going on and heart about this zero-sum fear that we have about who we are. Laila, looks like you’re bursting to say something.

Laila Lalami:

No, I’m just amused because my cat is insisting on getting on the camera.

Eric Liu:

We’re inclusive of all species in the conversation.

Laila Lalami:

I think what you’re getting at is something that’s very beautiful, and I think that it is possible, but I don’t think that it is possible in some of the media platforms. For example, when I’ve been live events and there have been people in the audience who may not share anything at all of my political views and we’ve been able to have conversations in this live conversations. But what you see in media debates is typically debates that are specifically designed so that one side comes out as the winner and the other side comes out as the loser. You don’t see that free-flowing conversation that you’re talking about anywhere on the media. I don’t think on cable news or anything, it’s not what it’s designed for. You might be able to see it in live events or around the kitchen table where people are talking to one another as individuals, but I don’t think that on the media it’s being modeled anywhere on our media, and I think that’s a big part of the problem.

Viet Nguyen:

I’ll add one other note to this which is, I think it’s really important for us, as important as debate, conversation, literacy and all this to stress these things, I think these things are difficult to isolate from other factors. I think about just the literal idea of literacy. How do people read? What do they get exposed to? Can we address education purely through the schools? We can’t address education purely through the schools. Number one, our schools are underfunded, unequally funded and so on. But the idea that if we simply address what happens in our schools will create more literate people ignores the fact that people don’t come to schools as if all they exist are as students.

Viet Nguyen:

They live in a poor neighborhood, they don’t have enough food, the home life is unstable, it’s going to impact what they can learn. Like everything else in this country, literacy can’t be disattached from questions of poverty and all these other kinds of socioeconomic issues that are structural to this country. You can’t win an argument with stupid because the people who are in this condition don’t have access to so many things and it’s so much easier to exploit fear and ignorance and on and on and on. Before we can ever get to cultural literacy, we actually have to have a country that’s even more socioeconomically equal than it currently exists now. That’s part of, I think, the debates over education and what can be taught in schools, critical race theory and so on, it’s inseparable from these other arguments about what access and what kinds of equity people should have in this society. To keep people ignorant of things like race, for example, to try to forbid the teaching of race in Texas, for example, is not purely an educational issue, it’s tied to keeping people ignorant so that don’t contest the inequities in our society.

Eric Liu:

I’m going to start actually to pick up on that. There’s a word that you can boil that down to, and that is power. These conversations cannot be had in a vacuum about power. There’s a whole adjacent, I think Viet, you’re suggesting entwined body of work to really equalize power, cultural power, economic power, political power in this country in order for the cultural literacy conversation to unfold in a more fair and meaningful way. Tommy, I want to start something with you here. Your book is called There There. The reference that it makes, speaking of cultural literacy, is to the figure of speech, there’s no there there, which is you unpack that, I can’t remember who it was actually, here’s my cultural literacy, Gertrude Stein. I can’t remember who it was, I think it was in the Bay Area.

Eric Liu:

Even that title as a little example of a reference, and this is not like some old school English thing. Hip-hop and rap are filled with referential salutes or nods to other prior works. Why did you choose that title? What window does it open up into your conception of what you’re referring to, your crossword level cultural literacy and everything else that you’ve just absorbed by being in Oakland?

Tommy Orange:

I can’t claim to be a Gertrude Stein reader and that’s definitely wasn’t one of my reference points. I was researching what other Oakland authors had to say about Oakland. There’s Jack London, who’s writing about the wild. I was concerned with urbanity, and he mostly was concerned with the wild and known for that. Gertrude Stein only literally only writes about not writing about Oakland. All I had to see was that quote and immediately I saw through this different cultural lens, there is no there there immediately through the native lines and the way that we have to think about location, already reservations are removed from original lands.

Tommy Orange:

Most native people don’t live on their ancestral lands, they live in either reservation or they live in cities. The there there that we have to think about is like 2 times, 3 times, 4 times removed from a lot of times what were being held to for the authenticity scale that from the outside we’re gauged on the scale of authenticity that has to do with this original nativeness that people think of when they see the set Indian at the end of the trail logo for our ultimate vanishing and defeat or whatever you want to take that symbol to mean. I immediately saw through this other lens and everything that I was writing I had to do with belonging to a city as a native person whose been characterized as some mystical nature, half-animal person in the mythology of this country, where they’re vanished or were mystical animal people.

Eric Liu:

That same mythology attends many Asian-Americans mystical in touch with the spirit world in a different way and operating on a plane not visible to Westerners. Viet, I don’t know if this term is actually on the top 10 list that you prepared for our gathering today, but I know that in other settings you’ve contested the use of the term boat people. First of all, maybe speak to that, but also share with us either some of what’s on your list or if you want to bang through it, your top 10.

Viet Nguyen:

All right. Boat people, not about the people. I’m sure most of the audience knows this, of course. Vietnamese refugees were fleeing in the 1970s en masse and a lot of them took to the seas and the media coined the term boat people to describe them, which was a very powerful term because it got so many countries in the world motivated to help these people and take them in as refugees, so that’s a positive.

Viet Nguyen:

On the other hand, boat people is a term that I think is based in objectification and pity and the idea that refugees are these desperate, frightened people in need of help. Now, they are, but they’re also heroic. Most of these people who were taking to the seas knew that they were taking their lives into their own hands and about half of them did not make it, and they knew that this is a chance that they were taking.

Viet Nguyen:

If this is what people doing this, we would say heroic, we would make epic Hollywood movies about them, and indeed we have, because when we think about the pilgrims, for example, or Christopher Columbus, boat people, all right, boat people, okay. But we cast them as heroes instead as a part of our mythology. For those of us who are writers coming from particular communities, I think many of us have that in mind, that if we were to tell stories from our point of view, we would not be that desperate, pathetic, frightened people in dominant cultural literacy, we would be heroic. But we would also be more than heroic, we would also be human beings who are deeply flawed, as all human beings are.

Viet Nguyen:

I’m not arguing that, instead we should just render ourselves as angels and heroes, but we should give ourselves the capacity to talk about ourselves and all of our flawed human capacity to be everything from heroic to villainous as dominant culture reserves for itself. My top 10 list is designed for that because it is mostly a conceptual list. The only self-interested item in there is the Vietnam War, for obvious reasons. But the rest of the list is very conceptual. Things that are very heroic about American society, including democracy and freedom, these very common terms, which I think if we were to explore become very complex. That’s why I think they should be a part of cultural literacy, not in a simple way but in an advanced way.

Viet Nguyen:

Taxation. We are a country built on various controversies over taxation, and because of the lack of money due to lack of taxation, we can’t do all the very expensive things that would make our people happier and healthier and less susceptible to these demagogic provocations to cultural illiteracy. Now, military-industrial complex. We are taxed-

Laila Lalami:

Oh, that’s a good one.

Viet Nguyen:

[crosstalk 00:36:43] military-industrial complex. That’s a Republican term and if we were to understand that this country, which has 800 military bases overseas, functions very much through the expenditures of monies to develop the most advanced weapon systems possible to kill and intimidate the rest of the world, beginning with indigenous peoples, we would have a better understanding of what our country is like. The other terms are slavery, colonization, genocide, and indigenous because these are the facts on which America is built. You can talk about the American dream, how great it is, and it is great for a whole bunch of people, but the American dream would not be possible if we had not enslaved people, conquered them, taken away their lands, that’s what this country is built on as much as the high-minded ideals, and the last term, immigration, because yes, immigration does in fact make this country great.

Eric Liu:

Love that. I think part of your use of even the base terms of democracy and freedom in that list underscore a way in which if we are going to take any notion of cultural literacy seriously, it probably begins with peeling the cliché of some of these core concepts. People want to argue that freedom means not getting vaccinated, freedom means this. Part of what we’re actually having to contend with then is really isn’t that more, I use word advanced. It need not even be advanced in an academic way, it just means more morally serious. Like your freedom to do whatever the hell you want ends up killing people, so is that freedom? Where is the balance of freedom and responsibility? That’s just a different conversation that gets opened up when you put a word like freedom on your list. Laila, I know you were loving military-industrial complex, but what else did you have on the list that you started to sketch?

Laila Lalami:

I was listening to Viet’s list, and I kept saying, “Oh, darn it, I shouldn’t thought about that.” Then when he got to military-industrial complex, I was like, “Ugh! I should have thought about that.” Okay. My list is a little bit different because it’s a mix of terms, dates, people, so I’ll just get started. The first one is 1491, because one of the things that … I think a lot of the founding myths around this country is, everything is tied up into colonization and colonial expansion, but there is very little interest in what was happening before Columbus showed up. I think it would be, or it is very important to learn about the country that was here before outsiders arrived.

Laila Lalami:

One of the books, I always plug this book so if you don’t mind that I can plug it in, it’s called The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who was a contemporary of Cortes and was writing about the conquest as it was happening and it is an extremely important document about what was happening in the country that they found when they got there. Anyway, 1491 would be the first term. Then another one is, this one is a bit more … is about … a number of the terms I’m going to mention now are about people, because one of the things that I have found easier about the discussion of history is instead of having it be about, say for example, slavery, to actually talk about individuals who were enslaved, because it’s, oftentimes, through the learning of the private lives of people that we learn about this public context in which they were, so I have a number of people to mention in this connection.

Laila Lalami:

One is this fellow named, the Spaniards named Estavanico, who was my novel, The Moor’s Account is based on, but basically he was an enslaved man from Morocco who was brought here in 1528. The reason that I think his story is important is because it again goes against the myth of exploration as being something that was done by white men to a mass of silent victims and basically his story complicate, that’s why I think that that’s something important to learn.

Laila Lalami:

On the list, the crowd sourced list, I saw that the Declaration of Independence was mentioned. I do think it’s an important document, but I think it’s equally important to learn about Thomas Jefferson, the person. That the person who was writing this incredible document, which is universalist in its intentions, he himself was, of course, keeping a number of people enslaved at his plantations, so I think that that kind of contradiction is what people should learn about, and so that’s why I think that Thomas Jefferson would be my term.

Laila Lalami:

Another one would be the Naturalization Act of 1790, because that’s basically one of the first pieces of legislation that puts a connection between whiteness and citizenship. The only people who were allowed to be citizens of the United States in its earliest days were free white persons and certain rights that come with that like the right to vote were further restricted to basically white men with property, propertied white men. So much of the history around race flows from that, and basically who gets to have what flows from that and we see that until today.

Laila Lalami:

Other terms, I might mention John Brown. For me, oftentimes you hear people talking about how the fact that during the slavery era, people were part of that system and there wasn’t anything that they could do, everybody was complicit and John Brown is basically my example of, no you can-

Eric Liu:

The counterexample.

Laila Lalami:

Yeah, you can do something. John Brown went and did some things. Another term I have is grandfather clauses. The reason that I think that is important is oftentimes whenever you saw expansions of rights of, for example, after the Civil War with the writing of the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments, you saw a concurrent, like essentially a backlash and taking away rights and grandfather clauses, which basically allowed people to vote only if they had been in the census.

Eric Liu:

Yeah.

Laila Lalami:

Those clauses basically were designed to allow poor white people to vote but to deprive black people or black men from the right to vote. The list is basically, it’s a mix of actual people like for example Claudette Colvin and terms that are more generic. One term that I will mention before I close, which is not immigration, but immigration restrictions, because as much as this country loves to talk about it being a nation of immigrants, the history of immigration in this country is a history of restrictions. That goes from the Chinese Exclusion Act through Mexican expulsion, through all the way to the Muslim ban of a few years ago, so I think immigration restriction is something that people need to read up on.

Eric Liu:

You said it in passing, but I just want to say it slowly for people that didn’t hear, the title of your novel that referred to is The Moor’s Account, and it is the account of exploration of the continent from that enslaved person who’s on the expedition. I want to allow time for questions from the folks who’ve joined us for this gathering today. Before I turn it back over to Cristal to lead us in the Q&A session, I just want to know one, again, common thread here. This question of representation and the pressures that, you all have described the binary pressures that exist. We live in a time where simultaneously we want more representation and we want that representation to be more complex. Viet, your point about it can’t just be that so-called boat people have to be seen in a more heroic light and not simply as victims or helpless, but also that they are fully human and fully complex with flaws and so forth.

Eric Liu:

That willingness to simultaneously push representation and accept that, some of the people who are going to be speaking and diversifying the story of us are not angels, are not perfect, because guess what, nobody ever was. Tommy, I know you have put a more conceptual list together, and when we talked a little bit about There There, I don’t even know if that was on your list, but is there something quickly you’d like to add as well before we open it up for Q&A?

Tommy Orange:

Two random ones on there from my list, just that merciless Indian savages is in the language of Declaration of Independence. Just to contextualize the way we were thought of when this document, inclusive document for human equality when it was made, we were their merciless Indian savages. I think that’s something people should know and it’s still there. Anyway, that’s one. The second one is just to bring some complexity to the human that is native people and famous native people in history, Geronimo owned a Cadillac and went to church on Sundays in his Cadillac with a very tall hat and fullied in Sunday best. There’s an image, there’s a picture, you can Google it of Geronimo in his Cadillac going to church. The picture of Geronimo we get is like this old warrior looking off, but there’s more to the story than that and he was a complex man.

Eric Liu:

I love that. I literally love that that picture is worth a thousand words.

Viet Nguyen:

Between my cultural literacy because the Vietnamese-Americans really like this song called Geronimo’s Cadillac by this European band called Modern Talking. I had no idea what they’re talking about in that song, now I do and thank you.

Eric Liu:

Now you do. That’s great. Let us turn it back here to Cristal. Cristal, I know you’ve been collecting some questions that would be coming in from our participants.

Cristal Logan:

Thank you all so much. We have a ton of great questions here. The first one and feel free, anyone can answer this. Part of the issue is about, this is about E.D. Hirsch’s book. Part of the issue is also about temporary versus permanent knowledge. Hirsch implied the body of knowledge was permanent, those who argued against said his body was limited in many ways. With access to so much more information and the rate of change, is there a permanent literacy or is that an illusion?

Laila Lalami:

Wow!

Eric Liu:

I’ll just go first just to say very briefly. There is, of course, no permanent literacy. There may be things that last a good long time in the body of stuff that everyone should know, but to the point that Viet made at the very beginning, that our popular culture is many fold, or it’s a magnitude more complex and is [inaudible 00:48:25] Democratic today than it was in 1987 when Hirsch first wrote, and in some ways, our culture is more disposable than it ever was before too, so nothing necessarily lasts. But I’m curious what that question leads any of our three panelists to want to share a thought as well.

Laila Lalami:

I have to agree with you if only because if you consider that less than 20 years ago we didn’t have things like smartphones, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, imagined traveling back 20 years and talking to people about who the previous President of the United States was without the context of Twitter or smart or any of that. You can’t think of literacy as something that is fixed simply because of the advances that we have in technology and it’s something that is constantly evolving. Whether you like it or not, it’s going to evolve so you better-

Eric Liu:

I will say this, I’m channeling Hirsch, the educator. Part of his point in that whole broad endeavor that he was making was that it’s not enough if you’re getting to the actual learning of reading, reading texts. It’s not enough just to have strategies for how you make sense of sound and so on and so forth. It really helps to actually know a bunch of information. I think that can sit side-by-side with the reality that that body of information is ever-changing and ever swirling and things are getting deleted and appended to it, but the baseline idea is that you got to have some common knowledge, otherwise, life itself becomes, in a society like ours becomes less navigable. Maybe Cristal, let’s take some other questions. Viet, you wanted to jump in.

Viet Nguyen:

Permanent, yes, in the sense that it’s contextual. Right now, we probably should read the Declaration of Independence, but as Tommy said, unless you read it closely you’re not going to come across merciless Indian savages, there’s probably nothing they taught you in school. This question of permanent literacy is still affected by what we’ve been discussing in terms of the way people read these things is going to be different based on their own literacy.

Cristal Logan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Great. Thank you. The next question. Do you think we should require media literacy to graduate high school and to be admitted to college and the military? Do you think being proficient in media literacy would increase civic engagement?

Laila Lalami:

Wow!

Eric Liu:

Tommy, you’re actually a long time media maker in multiple modes. How does that question land with you?

Tommy Orange:

Being media literate and understanding the tools and everything, I don’t think necessarily brings any change of heart or knowledge base with it. You can study me abstractly and still hold on to a lot of ignorant ideologies, so I don’t necessary think those things go hand-in-hand. I wonder about this citizenship test as it’s applied to people, because in the native community, it’s often like why you deserve citizenship in your tribe? Do you need to have cultural knowledge, historical knowledge, language knowledge? It’s interesting to think about. I don’t have an opinion, I don’t have a strong opinion either way about what makes you a citizen. If you want to become a citizen in this country, certainly, you have to know a lot more than the average high school student leaving high school and going out into the world to do their damage. It’s interesting to think about and I think her for a tribal citizenship, it’s something that we think about as well.

Cristal Logan:

Thank you. The next question is, can you talk about strategies to counter toxic masculinity and toxic individuality when trying to create a sense of shared cultural literacy in the US?

Eric Liu:

Viet, the story you told of your activist days might hint at that.

Viet Nguyen:

As far as toxic masculinity goes, I think we have to give credit where credit is due. The feminists and women and other people who have suffered from toxic masculinity have coined the term and have made it very visible. Then after that, it is really up to men or masculine performing people to engage with what that means, hold ourselves accountable and to articulate it. I think to recognize how pervasive toxic masculinity is, it’s a subject that I think a lot of people want to deny without being aware of how intricately related masculinity is to so many performances of power.

Viet Nguyen:

We’re looking at Cuomo today, for example, that’s toxic masculinity. It’s probably not that unusual what it is that he has done or what it is that he did. I think we all need to be able to articulate in the foreground where these things are taking place because they have taken place in a widespread fashion. It shouldn’t just be the victims of toxic masculinity who are obligated to speak out about it, it should be also who have benefited from it as many men have.

Cristal Logan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Great. Thank you. The next question is, we can only have a meaningful discussion if we recognize some common needs and goals. Argumentation skills are infrequently named as what we need to know in these types of what to know. What would you think about changing the framing of lists to begin to get at goals and skills of citizenship?

Eric Liu:

That’s interesting. Not so much what should every American know, but what should every American know how to do or move in the world. Laila, your most recent book really interrogates some of the ideas that Tommy was alluding to both within a tribal context but within the national US context of what does it mean to be a citizen and beyond simply, it means not being not a citizen, which which in many ways, legalistically and culturally is often where the weight is. It’s a form of exclusion. But if you think about the affirmative content of it, do you think that there should be these kinds of how-to skills? How-to think critically, how-to argue, how-to tell fake media from real media, so forth?

Laila Lalami:

The hope is that if you have actually gone through school that you should be able to have a certain amount of literacy and a certain amount of numeracy, by the way, because oftentimes we are drowning in data and data points and you see this all the time that just the basic knowledge of statistics is so often needed in order to make sense of headlines and that oftentimes I find is not always there. The hope is that just having that, you should be able to be a part of any discussion and be fruitful in it.

Laila Lalami:

One thing I am going to take away from this discussion, Eric, is something that you have said, which is about approaching arguments basically taking winning off the table, which is something that I think is really I have to remind myself often about that in debates. I think that that would be the thing that maybe we need to teach people how to do more, is to engage without necessarily the expectation of winning. The hope, but not the expectation of winning.

Eric Liu:

The intention to understand.

Laila Lalami:

Yeah, yeah.

Viet Nguyen:

I teach general education courses at my university, which sometimes I complain about, but most of the time I think is a good thing, because-

Laila Lalami:

That’s something I complain about.

Viet Nguyen:

[crosstalk 00:56:11] general education is that I have to assume that the people who take my class are being forced to take it, that they have no particular interest in my class because of all-

Laila Lalami:

Stop, they love you. We know it.

Viet Nguyen:

But you know, I have to reach out. I have to suit to build out of this conglomerate of people and audience that is unified by curiosity, and I have to do what the questioner said. I have to teach not just the content of my class, but I have to teach skills, like how do we read certain kinds of things and all that. What I’m saying here is that I found it enormously beneficial to teach in general education because in fact, I’ve had to explain everything we’ve talked about today in the context of the Vietnam War, which is the content of the class, the whole swath of people almost none of whom are in the humanities and a lot of whom are veterans or ROTC cadets training to go to war.

Viet Nguyen:

I don’t know how we would do this outside of the University in the general sense of a public culture, but this forced laboratory where students and professors are required to speak to each other and to try to work towards a common knowledge have been beneficial to me.

Laila Lalami:

Yeah, which is not what you see, because that’s not how in the public forms or in media or on television or on the radio, that’s not how it’s designed. It’s such a loss to public conversation.

Cristal Logan:

Great. I think this is our last question. How do we avoid the stagnation Viet and Tommy referenced at the beginning of this conversation and keep the conversation going about cultural literacy from both a 10,000-foot view, as well as in our everyday lives?

Eric Liu:

Tommy, you want to take the first crack?

Tommy Orange:

I think by 10,000-foot view, maybe we’re talking about the 34-year view, so another 34 years, what knowledge do we feel is we’re going to be still talking about and what on the day-to-day. I think having a relationship to the country and what it means in staying informed and being an engaged citizen, I think that’s part of responsible citizenship, is staying engaged and knowing how to update information about history, how to keep involved with what’s going on now and what it means to people and even engaging yourself on a day-to-day level. What [micro 00:58:32] actions are you taking that affect systems? Are you doing things that are creating climate change that then is going to affect, worsening climate change in ways that are going to affect the people of color and poor people to a greater degree.

Tommy Orange:

Are you eating meat? Do you have a car that has bad miles per gallon? All these little things, what are we doing to engage within systems and how complicit are we, I think, are questions we need to ask on a day-to-day, in addition to staying engaged with information and what it means to the American as we move forward together.

Eric Liu:

That’s about as good a note to close on as I can imagine. I just want to draw out the essence of something that Tom you just said that has been another recurring theme throughout these conversations and that is the generations. The turning of generations, the way in which culture is made and remade with each generation, but also that sense of intergenerational co-generational span of responsibility, and even the ethos of responsibility taking, like I’m responsible for what came before and what I inherit, privilege or not, and what I’m going to pass on. I think that mindset has got to be one of the know-hows of what every American should know, and it is something that conversations like this give me great hope that we’re going to be able to pull it off as a country to get there.

Eric Liu:

Cristal, thank you for hosting us and having us. Thanks again to Aspen Community programs and Aspen Words, our program, the Aspen Citizenship and American Identity Program, so proud to be a partner in this and such deep thanks, Tommy Orange, Viet Nguyen, and Laila Lalami. Thanks so much, it’s been awesome and maybe we’ll find a way to continue it down the road.

Cristal Logan:

Thank you all. Please view the chat. There’s a link to purchase the books that were discussed here today and if you’ve enjoyed this and our other events this summer, please click on the link in the chat to donate if you are so inclined. Thanks for joining us.

Category: Interviews

 

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