Viet Thanh Nguyen shares reflections on publishing, writing mysterious characters, and more in this conversation for the Library of Congress Nation Book Festival.
Read the transcript below.
Heather-Marie Montilla: Welcome. I’m Heather-Marie Montilla and you are watching PBS Books. Thank you for joining us this evening in conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen in partnership with PBS SoCal and KCTS in Seattle. PBS Books is a proud partner with the Library of Congress in sharing its content for its National Book Festival with audiences across the country, both about the festival and the collaborative PBS broadcast. This evening is an important part of that partnership. So welcome. And to do a formal welcome from Seattle, I’m thrilled to welcome in Cathryn Burby. Welcome Cathryn.
Cathryn Burby: Thank you Heather. I’m proud to represent Cascade Public Media here in Washington State, home of KCTS 9 and Crosscut. Our mission is to inspire a smarter world through our public television programming and to local public interest journalism. And so we’re happy to partner with PBS Books and PBS SoCal for tonight’s event. I would like to acknowledge that our office is located on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish, who are still here, continuing to honor and bring to light to their ancient heritage. The Pacific Northwest is also home to many immigrants and refugees from around the globe. As we read and watch the news about Afghanistan with flashbacks to 1975, it highlights our constant struggle to understand the complexities of the intersection of politics, identity, pride, guilt, compassion, displacement and belonging in the hopes of finding one shared humanity.
Cathryn Burby: Viet’s work addresses all of these complexities including his fiction novels like The Committed. In is own words, “Literature does not change the world until people get out of their chairs, go out into the world and do something to transform the conditions of which the literature speaks.” I hope we are all inspired by Viet’s writing to get up out of chairs after this event ends of course. Back to you, Heather.
Heather-Marie Montilla: Thanks Cathryn. Before we begin, I’d like to take a moment to thank our library partners, 1800 strong across the country as well as numerous PBS stations who share this important content with their communities. But most importantly, I’d like to thank you for joining us. Today’s conversation celebrates trailblazing author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, exploring his writing and his recently released book, The Committed. Viet will be featured in the Library of Congresses National Book Festival themed, “Open a Book, Open the World” and the one hour PBS documentary special. Let’s take a moment and watch the trailer.
LeVar Burton: Hi everybody. I’m LeVar Burton and this is “Open a Book, Open the World” Library of Congress National Book Festival.
Kazuo Ishiguro: When I try and create a work of fiction, one of my big aims is to create an entire world.
Sarah Pearse: I think that kind of fictional world, and how we see characters express their thoughts and feelings, that for me is opening up the world.
Isabel Wilkerson: I believe that narrative nonfiction is the closest that many of us will ever to get to be another person.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that sense of empathy is good for anybody but it’s also particularly important, I think, for writers because that’s one of our most important tools is the capacity for empathy.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I think there’s many places that I’ve met for the very first time through a book.
Christopher Paolini: For me, books were a way of learning about the world and experiencing things I had never experienced before.
Roxane Gay: Books have always just shown me just how big and how small the world is.
LeVar Burton: A good book can take you on a journey, and after the last year we are all ready to plot a new course and books can be an amazing compass.
Bill Gates: An addiction to reading has been a key secret of my success.
Yaa Gyasi: It was literature that opened up so many pathways, so many possibilities for me.
Diane von Furstenberg: I read books so I could discover new worlds in those books.
Micheal J. Fox: I had books that I didn’t even think of, like this room I don’t think ever had any books in but I had like 50, 60 books in this room.
Diane von Furstenberg: It’s enlarging your horizon. It’s that books are everything.
Lupita Nyong: It gives me more of a complex understanding of humanity, which I think is the power of stories, that we are able to see ourselves in all manner of different character.
Chang-Rae Lee: And that is what I think I enjoy from a great book.
LeVar Burton: Join me as some of our nations leading literary voices bring us a sense of renewal, discuss their newest work and open up a whole new world of possibilities.
Heather-Marie Montilla: The PBS Library of Congress, Open a Book, Open the World special premieres at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 12th on many PBS stations across the country. Please check your local listing. The Library of Congress National Book Festival launches on September 17th and runs through September 26th. For more information please go to loc.gov/bookfest
Heather-Marie Montilla: So now the moment you’ve been waiting for. It’s my pleasure to introduce trailblazing author, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Viet was born in Vietnam, raised in America. He is the author of The Sympathizer, which was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction alongside six other prizes. He is also the author of short story collection, The Refugees; the nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies, a finalist for National Book Award and is the editor of an anthology of refugee writing, The Displaced. He is the Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and a recipient of the Fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. This year he became the first Asian American member of the Pulitzer Board. He lives in Los Angeles. Welcome, Viet. We are so thrilled to have you here today.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi there. It’s a delight to be here.
Heather-Marie Montilla: Thank you, Viet. We are so thrilled to have you this evening to guide today’s conversation. I am thrilled to have Maria Hall-Brown from PBS SoCal. Before I introduce Maria and hand over the conversation, I just want to remind all of you out there, if you have a question for Viet, please put it in the chat because you will have an opportunity for those to be answered at the end of the conversation. Maria Hall-Brown joined PBS SoCal in 1997. She is a senior producer and the producer/host of the weekly program, “LAaRT.” Maria won a Telly Award and was nominated for an LA Area Emmy for the documentary film, “America Voices.” In addition to creating numerous documentaries, Maria worked as a producer/reporter for the Nightly News and the producer/reporter and host of an author interview series for more than 15 years. We are thrilled to have Maria here. She’s a huge supporter of the arts, an avid reader and it is just my honor to have you. Thank you Maria for being here and enjoy the conversation.
Maria Hall-Brown: Thank you, Heather. I am beyond thrilled to have this opportunity to speak to this leading literary voice, this Pulitzer Prize winner and I think this incredibly passionate, interesting, empathetic man. So, Viet, I am beyond thrilled to be able to see you. And you’re sitting at your writing desk.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi Maria. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you. I wish we could do it in person, since we’re in the same area, but-
Maria Hall-Brown: We’re only 40 miles away. We should’ve figured this out.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s too bad. Yeah, I’m at my writing desk in my writing office. I moved in here a couple of years ago, so most of my books have not been written here.
Maria Hall-Brown: Ah, well, it’s a perfects spot for you to do this interview, and I want to thank you for your time because I don’t think that you sleep. Not only are you a writer and a professor and an incredibly insightful speaker when it comes to a lot of issues that are happening and a guest on many, many, many programs. You’re a father of two, so you don’t sleep, do you?
Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I actually do manage to sleep but having kids really helps me to get disciplined in a way that I never thought I would be before. So I just got to make use of every minute that I can when I’m free to write.
Maria Hall-Brown: All right. Well speaking of writing, I know that you worked for… What was it? Something like 17 years, working on the refugees, and then when you got your literary agent, he said, “You’re obviously incredibly talented. This is great, but people like fiction better.” So you just ran home and decided to write a book about a spy?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well he said, “Short stories don’t sell in New York City, which is a general wisdom. Go and write a novel, that’s what sells.” And I always wanted to write a novel. I’ve always wanted to do it since I was really young. And so I took that opportunity to go write “The Sympathizer.” And you’re right, I spend 17 years writing short stories. It was a completely miserable experience but it did teach me how to be a writer and probably the most important lesson of all, how to endure rejection and obscurity and that really prepared me for this journey of writing a novel about a man who is constantly rejected and lives in obscurity.
Maria Hall-Brown: So “The Sympathizer” however didn’t get accepted right away?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well “The Sympathizer,” we put it out for sale in New York City to 14 different editors. 13 out of 14 rejected the book. That was the most depressing day of my life, I think, but at the very last minute, the 14th editor, Peter Blackstock of Grove Atlantic did swoop in to buy the book. And Peter is actually not an American. I think all the other 13 editors were Americans. And I think “The Sympathizer” was perhaps a novel that was perplexing to a lot of Americans because it’s about the Vietnam War and many Americans have a lot of hangups about that war from an American perspective and maybe it took someone who was not American to see what the novel was doing.
Maria Hall-Brown: It’s a profoundly powerful novel on so many levels and I think that actually listening to you talk about it an even reading the accolades about it could in fact be a literary work in itself because of the nature of how everybody responded to it and to you. When you actually received the Pulitzer, you have said that you did not tell your parents right away.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My parents sacrificed enormously to raise my brother and myself and I knew they were proud of accomplishments but I didn’t really feel like I should brag to them about what I’ve done. They never bragged to me about what they’ve done, so literally when I received the news of the Pulitzer announcement, it did not cross my mind to call my dad. And what happened was the next day I was on the road and he called me and he said, “Hey, the people in Vietnam, the relatives in Vietnam called. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” So that was sort of a circuitous way by which my parents found out and it’s testimony to, I guess, a symbolic value of the Pulitzer globally. And after that my parents were a lot happier about me choosing the path that I did.
Maria Hall-Brown: Did they read “The Sympathizer” by the way? I don’t know if I’ve ever heard you say whether they did or not.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t think so. My dad has my books above his bed and has me take pictures with him when the new books come out but again, they sacrificed so much for me, I don’t feel like I should inflict more pain on them by asking them to read my books.
Maria Hall-Brown: I mean your books are beautifully written, as you well know and as you’ve heard from many, many, many literary sources as well as all of the people who have enjoyed your work for so long, but there is a brutality to what happens in them. So how do you feel if one day dad pulls it down and starts to read either it or “The Committed”?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: What happened was many years ago after I published one of my short stories, it was translated into Vietnamese. This was the first time that a piece of my fiction had been translated. So I went home and I bought my dad a copy of that story. It’s called “The Other Man.” It’s found in The Refugees, and you have to understand, my parents are devout, very strict Catholics. “The Other Man” is about a Vietnamese refugee who comes to the United States in 1975, goes to San Francisco and wrestles with the fact that he is gay and there is homosexual sex in that story. So my dad took the story and never said another word to me about it again. So he may have read it, he may not have read it, I have not idea. But I think my family works on the principal that we shall not talk about anything that makes anybody uncomfortable. We try to protect each other with our silences.
Maria Hall-Brown: Well then, which brings me to this question because there is such duality in your character who’s the captain in The Sympathizer and then he’s been renamed… no name, actually, in “The Committed”. So this duality, these questions, where did all of that… because you’re a very thoughtful person. You obviously have considered an enormous amount of issues from peoples inhumanity to man, to the issues of immigrants and obviously colonization in a big, huge way but where did all of that begin for you and where did you understand the depth of your narrator/the captain/no name?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well I think you’re right that in much of fiction and nonfiction I point towards how duality is an outcome of things like colonization and racism and all these big forces that of course we who feel the duality, feel it very intimately within ourselves in our every interactions. So I started feeling that duality by the time I was eight, nine, 10 years old growing up in San Jose, California as a refugee, as the son of refugee parents who were working constantly in their Vietnamese grocery story, and growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in a time in the United States when there were a lot of representations of the American War in Vietnam in Hollywood, for example. And there were some representations of Asians in the mainstream Hollywood film as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And from my perspective it was very confusing because I felt myself to be an American but these images told me that I was not; that Vietnamese and Asians were others in the American imagination. And so that sense of duality began early. I certainly felt it in my own home. I felt like I was an American in my parents very Vietnamese household spying on these strange Vietnamese customs but when I stepped out of that household, I felt myself to be a Vietnamese spying on Americans. And so I took that sense of duality that I think is fairly common among a lot of immigrants and refugees in the United States. And because I didn’t lead a very interesting life, I created an alter ego in “The Sympathizer” who’s much more interesting and took that core of emotion and put it into him and then greatly amplified it through his experiences.
Maria Hall-Brown: And that person also experienced a lot of terror, a lot of pain, a lot of situations and you even enhance that in “The Committed”. I know that your family on Christmas Eve experienced a terrible incident at their store up in San Jose, and did that affect you, making you start to examine man’s inhumanity to man from a small germ to a gigantic [inaudible 00:16:47] point?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So what happened, what you’re referring to is that when I was very young, probably seven years old, and my parents had opened this grocery story in San Jose, they were shot there one night in an armed robbery. And they were not badly hurt or if they were, they literally went back to work the next day. And so that was just a part of what it meant to be a refugee. I mean some 10 years later we had someone break into our house and put a gun in all of our faces as this person tried to rob us. And so I think that I felt that violence was a part of our lives both in this intimate, every day circumstance of just trying to survive and what that cost but also the violence of the war that drove us to become refugees and come to the United States, something that I was constantly reminded of growing up in a Vietnamese refugee community and watching these Hollywood movies as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so even though I’m not a spy or like my sympathizer, I’m also not a murderer or an alcoholic or a womanizer. Nevertheless, I, as every novelist should do, every writer should do, I took these feelings and experiences that I’ve had and I put them into that character and I also tried to empathize and to imagine how he would react if he was put into even worse circumstances. So for me empathy is absolutely necessary, combined with experience and research to try to create these types of situations that many of us have never been through. But nevertheless, we have these core feelings within us that if we know how to amplify them we can turn them into fiction.
Maria Hall-Brown: You’ve also done somewhat of a miracle in that you’ve taken this protagonist, antagonist and made him someone who you want to be with for a long time. I mean I think that’s one of the quotes in “The Committed” and I’m not going to be able to quote as well as so many of your reviewers have but something did resonate. The path to hell is not paved with good intentions. It’s actually paved with rationalizations. And you feel those reasons why the narrator has done what he has done and made the choices he has made. At the same time he’s questioning himself and there is something incredibly compelling about that. So did you realize that you were able to create a character that people wanted to spend time with, to the point which you wanted to too? You did the sequel.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean sometimes I like to read fiction about really wonderful people that use love unconditionally, that’s awesome. But sometimes I like to read fiction about people who are deeply complicated and conflicted. Sometimes they’re unlikeable but sometimes they’re likable in very complex ways and I think for me personally, the narrator of these novels, “The Sympathizer,” and “The Committed” is a complicated person who does very clearly egregious things and witnesses even worse things, but at his core, he is someone that at least I can empathize with because he’s struggling with the moral questions that I think are important to all of us as individuals and as citizens of countries that have enormous power. And these questions revolve around, “What should we do?” We’re faced with these challenges, either personally or collectively as a nation, where we feel we should be doing something to improve the situation of our loved ones or our country and yet when we do these things, often times they have terrible kinds of consequences. So that’s where he finds himself and I’ve always wondered how I would react in those kinds of situations too.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was very lucky being born the year that I was because I was born during the Vietnam War but I was not old enough to make these moral decisions that the people who were 10 or 15 years older than me had to do. So I could recreate that in fiction through him, through someone who was as tormented and as ambivalent as I myself often feel and as I think many of us feel too.
Maria Hall-Brown: So you weren’t done with him, you weren’t done with your audience and you weren’t done with what he had to experience. You wanted to cause more chaos and you’ve joked that… because there’s a lot of humor in both you and in what’s happening in your book. So now you were going to take him to Paris and put the French under the spotlight. So now he’s left his re-education camp. He’s gone to Paris with [inaudible 00:21:08] and he has to go through… And he’s no longer a spy, now he’s a gangster. Now he’s in the drug world.
Viet Thanh Nguyen:
What happens is that both of these novels are at least partly about nationalisms, Vietnamese nationalism, American nationalism, French nationalism. When you challenge peoples nationalism, they tend to get offended. So with “The Sympathizer” I got a lot of hate mail from different kinds of peoples who focused on how I chose to offend their particular national perspective without taking into consideration how I was offending everybody else’s nationalist perspectives too. And you’re right, I felt that the French got off to easy in “The Sympathizer,” so therefore in “The Committed” it was time to offend the French. And our narrator is part French and part Vietnamese, which is why he goes to Paris.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now the other reason for me setting this novel in Paris is that I, like many people, am completely colonized by the French mentally. I love Paris too, I love all the sentimental stuff about Paris, but this novel is about the non-sentimental Paris. It’s about the immigrant and refugee Paris, and they also like to hang out in, when I go to Paris as well. And the French, like the Americans, are deeply interested in genre, like gangster and crime stories, and I am too. I really love these kinds of genres.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I wanted to make it into a genre novel just as much as “The Sympathizer” was a spy novel. And so our sympathizer has been deeply traumatized by the events of the first novel and when he gets to Paris he makes some really bad choices, including becoming a drug dealer, or as he calls it, “A capitalist.” And of course, even now, today with the [Sackler 00:22:39] family, where we see part of what the novel’s satirizing, which is that when it comes to things like crime or drugs, it’s not really the low level, street corner criminal or gangster or drug dealer that’s really dangerous, I mean you might be worried about meeting that person on the street, but the people who are making billions of dollars are the high level criminals and that’s exactly what “The Committed” takes on.
Maria Hall-Brown: And I want to talk about those drugs because you don’t call them… I mean you call hashish, hashish but you call the really big stuff, “The remedy.” Your choice of how you name things. Most of the men in your work have some characteristic name to them. It just seems that there are only very special people, in particular women, that actually get true names that would be more reflective of being a person versus a stereotype. What a incredibly ingenious idea and how did you decided that that is how you were going to write both “The Sympathizer” and “The Committed,” that these were just going to be almost non-name names?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I wanted the novels to have a mythic quality in some ways because with “The Sympathizer” for example, again, we’re going into the Vietnam War, and people around the world, especially Americans, think they know whatever the Vietnam War means because it’s become a part of American mythology, and I needed to disrupt that. I needed to disrupt peoples understandings of that. Especially when it comes to the Vietnamese, again, we are so deeply stereotyped in the American imagination and therefore, because the American imagination is so powerful, its stories get exported all over the world, everybody’s affected by the American representations. So I wanted to make these novels very mythic to make the experiences of the Vietnamese and others universal [inaudible 00:24:30], and partly the way to do that is to create what you called stereotypes but which we can also call like archetypes.
Maria Hall-Brown: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: [inaudible 00:24:36], like the Iliad, for example, where characters appear… They’re not very well rounded characters. They all have traits that are associated with them and so we remember each character for a singular trait, and that’s what these names are supposed to evoke. And you’re right, the names of a few individuals are real names because I do want them to become more human in our eyes. And then finally with the remedy, it’s not very specific what the remedy is. Is it cocaine? Is it heroine? Is it something else? And it’s deliberate because I didn’t want people to get hung up on this idea of a specific kind of drug but instead the focus on what a drug really represents. Why do we takes drugs? For some us we take drugs because these drugs are a remedy for whatever it is that ails us.
Maria Hall-Brown: So what makes you choose to actually name a character a name? What gives them that elevation in your mind?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think when they are extremely close to our narrator, “The Sympathizer.” And like you said, “The Sympathizer” himself has no name. In “The Committed” he finally gives himself a name but it’s a joke because his name is [foreign language 00:25:41] which is [crosstalk 00:25:43]-
Maria Hall-Brown: No name.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, no name or anonymous and when you go to Vietnam, there’s all these military cemeteries out there and hundreds of thousands of people who are buried there are these northern soldiers, on their tombstone, literally have only [foreign language 00:25:55], nameless. They’re the unknown soldiers. And so he’s given himself this name that really, a joke that’s as much on him as it is on the French bureaucracy, but he does name his closest friends and his lovers, because they’re the ones who matter to him.
Maria Hall-Brown: [inaudible 00:26:12] of course once I got into this name thing in my mind, as sort of a jigsaw puzzle and I wanted to figure out, so [foreign language 00:26:18] means ‘we’? Is that legitimate on your part? I mean, or that choice on your part or was that just me reaching?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well [Bon 00:26:28] is actually a really Vietnamese name and sometimes… I mean it’s a couple of different versions of the name but Bon is also bone or four in Vietnamese because sometimes people, Vietnamese, are only given numbers as names and Bon is also [inaudible 00:26:42] in French or good. So I wanted his name to have multiple implications in both French and Vietnamese but also in English. There’s a famous character by the name of Bon, for example, in “Absalom, Absalom!” By William Faulkner. And if you go back to that novel, that character, Bon, is a very, very complicated and violent person just as our character of Bon is in “The Sympathizer” and “The Committed.”
Maria Hall-Brown: Right. And the last thing, I’m going to get onto the tech of what you do because that was also [inaudible 00:27:13]. You use the book, you don’t quote sentences… I mean and you’re not the first person to do that. Beckett didn’t and [inaudible 00:27:20] didn’t and James Joyce didn’t, where you actually put quotes around. That decision and then also just the bold letters at the end of something. Or you even blacked out like it was [inaudible 00:27:35] from some things when the narrator was hearing. Utilizing the book, the words, the actual text itself as a way to visualize what you were doing, interesting choice.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In order to become a fiction writer I had to learn the rules. There are various kind of rules that you have, that are the conventions of fiction writing including things like quotation marks and all the fonting has to be the same size and the same type of font and the text has to be justified. And increasingly as I write, the more I feel like, “Why? Why do I have to follow these rules? Why do any of us have to follow these rules?” When we’re kids, we don’t follow these rules. I look at my son and when he’s creating stories, he just scrawls all over the page and there’s something joyful and joyous in that that becomes disciplined out of us as we get older.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so increasingly when I write my question to myself is, “Why not? Why can’t I do this?” And it’s probably inspired also by reading a lot of poetry. Like in poetry the poets do whatever they want with the text on the page. They play with the text, the arrangement of the text. And that I found to be, it’s very pertinent to what they’re trying to do with their poems but it’s also very liberating from both the writing perspective and the formal perspective and the graphic perspectives. All that goes into “The Committed.” I’m just having fun following my inspiration and hopefully that is also something that is compelling for readers as well.
Maria Hall-Brown: No, I just enjoyed every, single second of it because it was a surprise as you came around the corner. Even there’s… Not that this is a spoiler but there’s even a photograph in there which-
Viet Thanh Nguyen: One photograph.
Maria Hall-Brown: One photography but it has great meaning to where they are and what they’re doing. But you’re not done with him yet. You have a trilogy on the way.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Third novel and Maria, it’s coming back to Southern California. So it’s going to be Los Angeles in the 1980s. I don’t know if you were around, in Los Angeles anyway in the 1980s. I’m sure you grew up in the 1980s like me and there’s just so much to write about in the 1980s. Like I’m a child of the 1980s and I just want to talk about everything, from Ronald Reagan, to Star Wars, to Crack, to Iran-Contra and all of that will be in this final novel which will be, I hope as bloody and violent and sexy as the first two.
Maria Hall-Brown: It’s not often you hear an author say those words, especially one whose child wrote a children’s book.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sure, [inaudible 00:29:58] I think we encompass multitudes. I’m literally working on another children’s book right now but these are different compartments-
Maria Hall-Brown: [inaudible 00:30:07].
Viet Thanh Nguyen: -of imagination.
Maria Hall-Brown: Did Ellison write it or did you write it this time?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No. An artist approached me with this idea for a story that I thought was really wonderful and I can’t draw and she can and she had a story that was sort of half done and I came in and I fleshed it out. So I’m really excited about that one.
Maria Hall-Brown: So what did you learn from being the author of a children’s book to now being an author of a children’s book? What was the…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well number one, I’ll confess, I never wanted to be a father. It totally terrified me this idea of being a father but my wife wanted kids and if I wanted to keep my wife, there you go. And not only do I love my two kids but I actually, I like them. That’s weird. I was like, “I like these two little kids.” And I’m not a person who likes kids. So that was really transformative. But watching them grow up, especially my son because he’s eight years old now and my daughter’s 20 months, as he grew he becomes ever more creative and imaginative and looking at him, I can see myself when I was… I assumed seeing myself when I was his age. And again, seeing a world without limits, without boundaries, when the adults are just telling you to do stuff and you just want to do your own thing. And I’m just trying to follow that energy and that freedom that he has and find inspiration in it. I really do believe, of course I can teach him things but children can teach us things as well.
Maria Hall-Brown: Okay. So there are lots of things that I want to talk to you about but I am going to ask you, you are now not only walking into the children’s book world but you’re now walking into film. Robert Downey Jr. is actually going to produce an HBO version of “The Sympathizer.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. And my son who’s eight years old is excited because, “Hey, that’s Tony Stark. Tony Stark is going to be in-
Maria Hall-Brown: He’s a superhero.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: -the TV adaptation…” Exactly. So that’s going to happen, I’ve been told by HBO. I was in there in this meeting with HBO. They said it’s going to come out in the summer of fall of 2023, so we have a date. All we’ve got to do now is write it and shoot. That’s what the writing part is what we’re about to embark on. Robert Downey Jr. of course is the big news for most people who are tuning on this. He is going to play all the white male roles in “The Sympathizer” so that would be a challenge and a really interesting one. And it turns that he seems to be a pretty nice guy from all our interactions too.
Maria Hall-Brown: Well that’s pretty exciting. Okay. Well we have more to talk to you about but I do want to let everyone know that I’m Maria Hall-Brown and that I’m here with Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of “The Committed” and you’re watching PBS Books celebrating the Library of Congress National Book Festival which begins on September 17th and runs through September 26th. And just a reminder that I’m not the only one that’s going to be asking questions. If you have a question for Viet, please place it in the chat. Now we’ll go back with our conversation for just a second, and in a second I’ll be able to introduce you to someone else too. So Viet, what is it like to know that for the rest of your life you are going to walk into a room and never, ever, ever shake the title, “Pulitzer Prize winning”. You might as well just have it put in there in terms of-
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I just feel like my life is all down hill. I mean literally it’s all down hill. I could probably die and that would be the one thing people would say and “The Sympathizer” would be the one book that people would know. And that’s not a bad thing. I mean that’s actually fairly incredible in a lot of ways. It’s very liberating for me personally because I feel like there’s nothing else I need to do. Not that I won’t do anything else but there’s nothing else I need to do. I have this one prize I can point to and that means I am free to write whatever I want, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.
Maria Hall-Brown: Well that’s very, very true. And there’s lots more that you’re going to do. But I would like to introduce someone else right now and I’m delighted to introduce Sarah Peté from the Washington Center for the book. Now the Washington Center for the Book is the state affiliate for the Center for the Book at the US Library of Congress. The Center for the Book is in all 50 states which are book discussions and other literary humanities program. The Center strives to broaden and deepen appreciation for literature that expands the world of the reader. So Sarah.
Sarah Peté: Thank you, Maria. I’m so happy to be here. So this Washington Center for the Book is a partnership of both the Washington State Library and the Seattle Public Library. So it may not surprise you that I’m going to ask you a question about libraries. I wonder if you could tell me about the role of libraries in your life both personally and professionally?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean libraries have been so important. Some of my earliest memories are of the library in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where my family resettled as, as refugees in the mid 1970s. I seemed to have just emerged fully into English and was already reading kids books when I was like five or six and the library, the public library in particular, was so crucial for me because my parents were always working and well the library became my second home. We had no books at home so I would always have to go to the library every week with a backpack and bring home a backpack full of books that would sustain me until the next weekend. And those books were my tickets to another world outside of the confinement of what it was like to be a refugee child.
Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And I read all the classics of children’s literature but because libraries have no borders, at a young age I was wandering off into sections of the library I probably should not have been going into, and reading all kinds of books are way too advanced for me psychologically. I could read them but I didn’t understand them emotionally. They left such a big imprint on me and really shaped me as a writer so that even decades later I would write books that would refer to the things that I was reading when I was 10 or 11 years old, or 12, that had really marked me or scarred me, like Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” which I read when I was probably 12 and I understood nothing about that book, remembered nothing about that book except for the fact that Alex Portnoy masturbates with a slab of liver and then puts it into the family fridge for dinner later that night, which is really shocking because who eats liver? As it turns out, my liver ate liver so I really identified with this Jewish American experience in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and if you read “The Sympathizer,” it appears, alluded to in that book.
Sarah Peté: And I also believe that maybe one of your earliest literary awards came to you from a public library for a little known piece called “Lester the Cat.” Is that correct?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Lester the Cat. Yeah, well you know what happened was my elementary school had all of us draw and write and bind our own books. So literally I did the whole thing and “Lester the Cat” is a story about Lester, who was an urban cat suffering from [inaudible 00:37:12]. So even in the third grade, I was concerned with alienation, and Lester decides to run off to the countryside and there he falls in love with a country cat, who is a female cat… I forget her name. And they get married and live happily ever after in a barn. So a very heteronormative story. It was already percolating in my mind. At the third grade, the public library gave me an award and that put me on the road to, you guessed it, 30 years of misery trying to become a writer.
Sarah Peté: And so earlier in the interview, you mentioned your love for deeply complicated and not always admirable fictional characters. I wonder if you could maybe share a few examples of some of your favorites either recently or in the past.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well there’s so many. Alex Portnoy, for example, left a mark on me. Larry Heinemann’s novel, “Close Quarters” about the Vietnam War really, really scarred me. I think most Americans read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” which is an excellent book but Larry Heinemann’s “Close Quarters” is the book that would make you uncomfortable in a way that “The Things They Carried” did not. Of course, Ahab, from Moby Dick. I actually have read Moby Dick, have you? I recommend it. I loved that book. And then pretty much anybody out of William Faulkner’s works or Toni Morrison’s works, like “Beloved” for example. Sethe, in “Beloved” a very complicated character that nevertheless, we follow through all the way.
Sarah Peté: Thank you. So we talked about your books, we’ve talked about the upcoming film ventures. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the audiobooks that have been created from your works, whether you have anything to do with those and…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well “The Sympathizer” and “The Committed” are both performed by Francois Chau. Francois is actually Vietnamese. I mean he was born in Vietnam but then was… I think his father was a diplomat, so they were in Cambodia and then when the war ended they fled to the United States as refugees and Francois grew up as an Asian American and became an actor. And he speaks French so it’s great for those parts of the book that are in French. And he also has, unlike me with my high pitched voice, he has a deep, graveling masculine voice that I think is perfect for “The Sympathizer” and “The Committed” and I did read the audiobook for “The Refugees,” which I think I did okay on except part way through the book I realized, “Oh my gosh, there are accents in here.” Australian accents, English accents, I can’t do these accents.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I called my editor, Peter Blackstock who’s British and I said, “Peter, call me back and record for me on my phone this part of the book that’s in English with an English accent and I want to try to imitate his very sophisticated English accent.” I have no idea if I succeeded. Probably not. So in other words, having a good actor for an audiobook is really, really important.
Sarah Peté: Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this chance to get to speak with you. I’m now going to hand the reigns back over to Maria who will take some questions from the live audience as well.
Maria Hall-Brown: Thank you, Sarah. That was amazing. Well I think, Viet, what you have proven to everybody is that you’re multi-talented in so many different ways that I don’t even think you probably realize. You are incredibly prolific on social media and now you’re also on the Pulitzer Board. So I want to get to the questions but before I lose my last question, what do you look for now and does it make you realize what a great writer you are that you got one?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: What do I look for? My life is so busy that-
Maria Hall-Brown: [crosstalk 00:40:54] Pulitzer, that you’re reading.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, the-
Maria Hall-Brown: [crosstalk 00:40:57]. Yeah, being on the board for the Pulitzer.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I see. I see. It’s been enormously educational. I’ve only been on there one year, so we went through a whole cycle and gave out awards, and I read all these categories that I’d never read before, like biography. This is not something I do… Okay. Okay, what are you doing? Get out of here.
Ellison: Can I eat dinner in front of mommy’s computer?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, you can eat [inaudible 00:41:21]. Yes, go. [inaudible 00:41:21].
Maria Hall-Brown: [crosstalk 00:41:21] make a mess.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, so that was the eight year old asking a very important question. I did cook dinner and now he wants to go off and watch [crosstalk 00:41:31].
Maria Hall-Brown: See, talent with talent.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. So anyway, there is no Pulitzer for children’s literature, which is kind of unfortunate. But what do I look for? I mean in each category of the Pulitzer there’s already a jury and they give the board three finalists. And I think they are all so different. I mean imagine a whole category like biography. There are so many out there. So for me what I’m looking for is something that compels me, something that moves me, something that is alive in terms of the language of the book but also in terms of the story that the book or the journalistic piece is telling.
Maria Hall-Brown: Okay. Well there were some things people want to know from you. What kind of research do you have to do in order to understand the criminal side of the story in “The Committed”?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I actually wrote an essay about that for “The Committed” and then… I thought it was a pretty good essay and then my editors were like, “Maybe you don’t want to publish that essay.” The autobiographical essay about how he did some research. And like, “Maybe you shouldn’t. You might get into trouble.” So there is some personal experience that I won’t get into but other than that, the research is… I read a lot of books, I read a lot of articles about the drug trade, for example. There’s a lot of work on the global drug trade that informs “The Committed.” And again, going back to the example of the Sacklers. The Sacklers are not new. The idea of very nice white people who are very respectable profiting off of drugs is an old one. I mean the original drug runners were the French and the British with their colonial empires, and the Sacklers are only continuing in that long tradition.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And then for “The Committed” actually visiting Paris. I’d been to Paris before several times but I came back for a couple of summers with the explicit intention of revisiting all the old haunts and familiarizing myself again with the streets and also just talking to as many French people of Vietnamese descent because I could, because I wanted to understand their experience and how it was different from my own growing up in the United States. And so for example, in “The Committed” there is a character who is Asian who is the crime boss and he was Vietnamese. So I asked my French friends of Vietnamese descent, “What do you think?” And they said, “We French of Vietnamese descent don’t do that kind of thing,” meaning drugs and crime, which was a real surprise to me because we, Americans of Vietnamese descent do this kind of thing a lot. So I turned the crime boss into an ethnic Chinese crime boss and the French of Vietnamese descent were like, “Yeah, a Chinese, they would do that.”
Maria Hall-Brown: You’re going to get in trouble again. Okay, so here’s another one, similar idea but a little bit more… Well I’ll just say it, do you feel that being in America and trying to achieve the American dream, some Vietnamese men do become gangsters in a way to overcome the demasculinization of Asian men historically in America? That’s a heavy question.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, again, growing up in a Vietnamese refugee community in the ’70s and ’80s, I was exposed to Vietnamese masculinity of all kinds, from people my own age, teenagers and so on, all the way to grown men who had been through the war, and of course with the historical understanding you could say that there was emasculation taking place. I mean, for example you had generals and warriors who had been in the South Vietnamese army coming to the United States and suddenly they were no longer the same kind of men they used to be. They were no longer in power and they were no longer in charge either in society as a whole or even within their own families. And that in combination with just being traumatized from the war and all that, meant that there was a lot of things like domestic violence and abuse taking place, a lot of alcoholism and for the people who were younger, guys my age, there was a lot of gangsterism taking place as we tried, or they tried to assert their place in American society which included becoming violent.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But we were not unique in that regard. The reason why I’m fascinated by gangster, including Vietnamese and Chinese gangsters is not because they were unique but because they were fulfilling a deeply, widely held belief in American society that violence and gangsterism is part of the American dream. I mean, look at Martin Scorsese and the story of Italian Americans and the Mafia. A lot of Italian Americans don’t like that representation of Italian gangsterism but that is one way that Italian Americans have become a part of the American story. And so I think that the finally in response to that question, it is both something very specific to be an Asian and Vietnamese and being racialized and emasculated when it comes to violence but it’s also simply becoming a part of the United States as well to become violent in a way that other Americans unfortunately recognize.
Maria Hall-Brown: And on the flip side of that, there’s the whole issue of the model minority and…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. A model minority is a stereotype, like I’m sure we’re all aware of and every stereotype always functions as a binary. It’s like a coin. It’s flat and there’s two sides and there’s no such thing as a good stereotype. It could be positive, it could be negative but every stereotype always invokes the other one. So if you’re a model minority, you feel yourself to be a model minority or you’re characterized to be a model minority, the problem is that you might be treated well in that circumstance but the coin can always be flipped against you.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So for example, my parents did what they were supposed to do as a model minority, as refugees in the United States, they opened that grocery store. That’s what you’re supposed to do, pursue the American dream, and yet they… When I was kid walking down the street from that store I saw a sign in another store window that said, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” So they were the model minority and they were the yellow peril all at the same time and that’s a story that’s been repeated throughout American history, still being repeated today. That’s why during the pandemic Asian Americans have been targeted by anti-Asian violence. We’ve been associated with COVID-19, called the China virus and the Kung Flu. So the model minority and the yellow peril still stick to us today. We have to reject both.
Maria Hall-Brown: Another question. It’s kind of a non sequitur but I’ll jump to it anyway, are you going to have much hands on input with Robert Downey Jr. and “The Sympathizer” to make sure that your vision becomes your vision and not some Hollywood’s vision?
Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I will say that if “The Sympathizer” is a success, I take all the credit and if it’s a failure, I take none of the credit, okay? Because I’m a writer. We don’t really care that much but I am an executive producer on the HBO series and I am involved. For example, I helped Don McKellar, the writer, shape the overall breakdown of the episodes. We’ve talked about how they should be written, I’ve given feedback on the pilot script. I’m going to be there in the writers room giving feedback the writers who are writing the scripts. That being said, writers are very important to TV and film and yet at the same time we’re also completely devalued. So my feeling is that there are many more powerful people involved in this production. Their opinions are going to count for a lot more than mine, but I’m going to do my best to try to steer “The Sympathizer” in a way that will be as faithful as I hope we can achieve in the adaptation.
And my last question sadly because I would like to keep you a lot longer but I don’t think that they’re going to let me. We’re getting close to the 50 year mark of the fall of Saigon and there now have been so many children of children of children that are living only in the US, are you learning things from them? Are you looking to their stories? Are you wondering what their experience is because you can’t necessarily miss something you never had.
Viet Thanh Nguyen:
One of the things I really believe is that for people like me, old people, who’ve had some measure of success, our job, especially if we’re people of color or other kinds of marginalized populations, in a publishing industry that is so dominated by basically white people, our job is not to be the gatekeeper. Our job is not to tell a younger generation, “This is the way you have to do it. These are the stories you have to tell, because this is what I went through.” Our job is to cultivate new opportunities. My job is to open that gate if I have access to it and my job is to do things like create new opportunities. So my friends and I, we have an organization we created called the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, at dvan.org, whose entire ambition is to create conditions for new writers and artists to emerge. And when they do because they were born after the war or they were born in the United States, they tell unexpected stories.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I’ll point to a few. Ly Tran’s “House of Sticks” She was born in Vietnam but long after the war. “House of Sticks” is about a refugee experience in New York City, where Ly Tran’s family has to open a nail salon. Anybody who’s ever been to a nail salon has to read her book, you’ll learn something. Or Violet Kupersmith’s new novel, “Build Your House Around My Body.” It’s a horror story, ghost story, set in Vietnam as an Amerasian, Vietnamese returns to Vietnam. And I’m frankly terrified because I don’t like ghost stories and this has nothing to do with the war, and so these are the kind of stories that a newer generation is creating and I think it’s amazing. That’s exactly what they should be doing and I’m learning from reading their works.
Maria Hall-Brown: You don’t like ghost stories says the man that puts ghosts in every, single one of his books.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, well it’s different when I’m creating it but when my ghosts are not scary ghosts. You read Violet Kupersmith’s book, I had to stop last night because it’s like I’m home alone in the dark. She’s talking about a ghost who is like dripping something in the corner I’m like, “Oh God, I got to stop because I’m [inaudible 00:51:36] myself at this point.”
Maria Hall-Brown: Especially when you need to calm Ellison down. All right, so earlier Cathryn said that you have asked us all to get up out of our chair. And if in fact we do get up out of our chair, I know my job is I need to go become more literary and read more because all the allusions in your book made me want to read more books. Brilliant, interesting, compelling and just demonstrated that I don’t know a thing. So what do you want others to do when you say, “Get up out of your chair.”?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well I think so far as literature goes and the world of reading, we all owe it to ourselves and to others to read widely outside of our comfort zone and outside of our habits. Literally I have an Excel sheet where I track what I read and I say, “Here are the category of American authors and international authors. I want to make sure I’m trying to read more international authors. I want to make sure I’m reading as many women or as men.” I’m happy about the fact that this year I’m reading more women than men, for example. So we have to use the power of literature, not just to entertain ourselves which is very important but also to educate ourselves and to expand our horizons. That’s one way we can figuratively get out of the chair that we’re so used to be being in.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The other thing is that if we’re actually moved by the social and political and cultural situations that we encounter in our literature, we can do something. I mean not all of have time to be activists and to join organizations, if you can, if you wish, but donate money or amplify things on social media. There’s so many things that demand our attention and our time right now, so many pressing social and cultural issues. That’s why I do believe that literature has its own special function as art to awaken us, to entertain us but it can also get us to do something in the world that’s also really crucial too.
Maria Hall-Brown: Well thank you for your voice, thank you for your time, thank you for humor and thank you for your inspiration. This has been a really amazing treat. I’m just really sorry I’m not in the same room with you but maybe we can work that out on a future date. And I wish you a world of luck on everything that you do.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you so much, Maria. Thanks everybody.
Maria Hall-Brown: All right. Let’s throw it back to Heather.
Heather-Marie Montilla: Thank you. Thank you Viet for transporting us to new worlds and for sharing your incredible work with us. We are appreciative to Maria Hall-Brown for guiding this evenings conversation and for Sarah, from the Washington Center for the Book. Thank you for coming as well. We need to close today’s conversation but I want to remind everyone that this conversation was part of the Library of Congress National Book Festival which launches on September 17th. So we hope you will go. This evening was brought to you by PBS Books in collaboration with PBS SoCal and KCTS. I’m Heather-Marie Montilla and it’s been a pleasure to be with you this evening. I look forward to seeing you soon next week. We’ll be interviewing Christopher Paolini on Wednesday, September 8th at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard. Hope to see you there. Good night.