MPR News with Keri Miller | Author Viet Thanh Nguyen on the ‘The Committed’

Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks with MPR News host Kerri Miller about his sequel to “The Sympathizer” called “The Committedfor MPR News.

Read the transcript below.

Speaker 1: You’re listening to a recording of a live radio show on NPR News. If you want to listen to us in real time, you can stream our show live weekdays at 9:00 AM Central. Thanks for listening and enjoy the show.

Keri Miller: Good morning. I’m Keri Miller. This is NPR News, the spy and assassin of Viet Nguyen’s first Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, is now in Paris seething with bitter anger, traumatized by his time in a reeducation camp in Vietnam and preparing to, again, betray those closest to him. “I am also,” he tells us, “a man of two faces and two minds, one of which might perhaps yet still be intact.” The novel and/or narrator are pulsing with outrage, sometimes pungent sarcasm and the contradictions of international politics. Mr. Nguyen recently told the guardian that those contradictions feel familiar. The narrator’s personality, the fact that he’s a man of two minds and two faces is pretty much me too. As our guest joins us, I wonder if your own more recent immigrant experience has left you feeling the same to divided between the family history of your Homeland and the experience of this new land. Viet Nguyen’s new novel is titled The Committed and he joins us this morning from Pasadena. Welcome, welcome back to the show. It’s a pleasure to talk to you again.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi, Keri. Thanks so much for having me back.

Keri Miller: I think it’s really interesting about the way writers of different backgrounds, I was thinking of Louis Alberto Urrea, Laila Lalami, you. Talk about this discomfort and this internal restlessness of being an immigrant and of feeling out of place wherever you are. I’ve had writers tell me that’s a very valuable perspective to be a writer, and I wonder if you’ve found the same.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that’s true. I’m not sure if how happy people become writers, if you’re happy and everything feels like it is what it should be, what are you supposed to write about? So experiencing friction, displacement, discomfort, these are things that I think most people would probably rather not experience and I’d rather not too, but the circumstances of my life and my own personality have led me to feeling these things to observing them, and it’s very useful material for a writer.

Keri Miller: I was listening to a conversation yesterday about the border, the way Americans refer to often our Southern border. This was a political conversation, but I thought the way we talk about, in our political atmosphere, this experience of what it means for people to leave everything that’s familiar, maybe sometimes put a child on a transport up north, across a border with the idea that you may never see that child again. We have become, I think, quite good at distilling some of the humanity away from that and really thinking of this in isolation as a political problem. So I’ve been wondering as you listen to this rhetoric develop and pick up steam again with a new administration, how you hear it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that when we talk about these types of issues or so many things are mixed up into this, and certainly one of them is the question of humanity and how we think of people who are trying to cross borders. I think for many Americans, it’s easy to take on the callous expectation that we have to guard our resources. We have to guard our culture. We can’t let all these people in. we forget exactly what you mentioned, which is that it’s heart rendering and difficult for people to make these journeys. They’re not doing these journeys because they want to come to this country and steal resources, they’re making these journeys because they have very little choice.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I speak of this as a former refugee Vietnamese person. When you mention that families are sending children alone across the border, and this might seem alien to a lot of Americans, I have to say the Vietnamese people did the same thing. There were Vietnamese refugees who were just adolescents. They had been sent out alone onto the open seas by their families to be anchors that if they could get to another country, they could bring the rest of the family with them. It’s ironic for me that there are Vietnamese people out there who are former refugees who have forgotten about this experience. they’ve forgotten their own humanity.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: They look at these newer people trying to cross this Southern border and they don’t want to let them in and they’ve forgotten that they came from the exact same kinds of circumstances. The last thing I’ll say is that I think that we, as a country, actually have the resources to take in many more refugees and immigrants than we do, but we live an economy of scarcity and fear where our resources are being not equally distributed and people feel as if they have to guard what they have. So we can’t disattach our phobias and our fears of newcomers from the fact that we live in a society of deliberately cultivated inequity, where many of us feel that we have to fight for scarce resources, and that’s simply not true.

Keri Miller: I understand what you’re saying about this perception of scarcity, and I do understand about the inequities with the wealth gap in this country, but I also look at our history and the way different waves of immigrants have been received and treated and I wonder if there would ever be a moment when Americans felt satisfied enough, fulfilled enough to not engage in the kinds of conversations about scarcity and guarding resources that we are hearing yet again now?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that there have been those moments in American history where Americans felt that they had enough. So let’s look, for example, at the period after World War II and this great expansion of the American economy and that was distributed to a lot of Americans in the form of very high tax rates, for example, and in the form of things like the GI Bill. Now, when we look at that period, Americans embraced that kind of social and economic program, but we also have to be very clear that that was a highly racially distributed form of economic benefit, like Black veterans, for example, didn’t get the benefits of the GI Bill. Racial discrimination was still taking place.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So we have to get to a point in our society where number one, we acknowledge collectively that we need to support everybody in this country, and that number two, we have to get over these fears that have been deeply embedded in our country of racial exclusion and racial othering, where the economic and the racial are completely intertwined with each other. So it’s, obviously, very hard. I understand your questions, obviously, very hard to get to that point. But as an idealist, I think we should try to do that because the targeting of others, whether they happen to be Black people who have been here for centuries or whether they happen to be new immigrants coming across borders, that’s really an endemic American problem.

Keri Miller: I don’t want to miss what you referred to a little earlier when we were talking about what it means to put a child on a boat, as you say, Vietnamese families felt they had to do, or to be somebody in Guatemala who puts a child on a train or a transport to come north over the border, what that means. You had a version of that experience, didn’t you? Although I think your family came together to a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, remind me [crosstalk 00:08:02]

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, first thing I got to say is we had a dramatic escape story from Vietnam, but so did every other Vietnamese refugee who left the country, so I don’t think our story is particularly extraordinary. But in April of 1975, we had to flee the country along with 130,000 other Vietnamese refugees, because we were on the losing side of that war. We ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. There were four camps set up to hold Vietnamese refugees, and that was one of them, and in order to leave the camp, you had to have an American sponsor. For whatever reason, no sponsor would take all four of us, so my parents were taken by one sponsor, my brother by another, he’s-10-years-old, I was four. I was taken by a third sponsor. So that’s where my memories begin, being separated from my parents and that was being done for benevolent purposes. My parents needed time to get on their own two feet and all of that, but when you’re four-years-old, you don’t understand that, so I understood that to be abandonment.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That was a very searing experience for a four-year-old at the time, which is why when I think about what happens to families at our Southern border who are being deliberately broken apart and children of being taken away from their parents and possibly being lost in our bureaucratic system for months and months at a time, I know that that will forever scar these children and their parents. I never actually thought about my parents and what they thought about all of this until I became a father and my son turned four around the time of the so-called Muslim ban, and that was my opportunity to see myself through his eyes, but also, to see my parents at that time and to realize I would never stand to have my children taken away from me. Even the very thought of it is painful to me, so I have such great empathy for the parents in this experience as well.

Keri Miller: I know. How long did you live with a host family before you were reunited with your parents and your siblings?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, it felt like forever to me because when you’re four-years-old days feel like forever, but it was really only a few months. My brother, though, who was 10-years-old, didn’t get to come home for two years.

Keri Miller: Oh, my gosh. Oh.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So he tells me, “That’s how we know mom and dad love you more because they couldn’t stand to be separated from you for so long.”

Keri Miller: But those are very formative years for your brother. Did they, in some ways, imprint his experience of who he is and what it meant to be in this country on him and maybe that’s still influential today.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, you should have him on and ask him because-

Keri Miller: That would be interesting.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, no. We’re an emotionally reticent family, so he actually has never really talked about it with me. He came out of it, at least externally, as an American. He was doing all American activities as this boy in Pennsylvania, and then when we moved to the California a few years later and he went to a public high school and within seven years after arriving in the United States with no English, he graduated as valedictorian of his school and went to Harvard as one of his early generation of Vietnamese refugee success stories. So externally, so I think he coped with it as we all had to do, but I think I’m sure it left an imprint on him. Now, he’s a doctor, he’s a professor, but he’s also turned into a political activist advocating for many of the same things that I advocate for. So I think we recognize that our refugee experience was transformative, both in giving us extreme levels of motivation to try to succeed in this country, but also with a deep awareness of the inequities of this country and what brought us here as well.

Keri Miller: You mentioned earlier being disappointed and finding it ironic that there are Vietnamese immigrants, or maybe first and second generation immigrants from Vietnam who now look at what’s happening at the border and say, “The country can’t afford what’s going on. They need to stay in their own countries.” I’ve been thinking a lot about assimilation and how that’s going to fit into the political ramp up again of this debate. I wonder if that is, for many immigrants, just an inevitable part of assimilation. My story is more unique than yours and I did it and I came here and I fought to become whatever it means to be an American and I’m questioning or cynical about you being able to do that. Do you think that comes in some ways with what it means to assimilate? I don’t know, maybe it’s a dark side of assimilation. What do you think?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think if we look at, for example, the former administration and we see people like John Kelly and Stephen Miller who are only one or two generations removed from their own immigrant history, and we see that they in one degree or another, maybe reluctantly with Kelly, but certainly vociferously with Stephen Miller participated in this effort to close down the border and to demonize immigrants and refugees. We can see that Vietnamese refugees are not unique in this transformation of themselves into forgetful Americans who would like to close the door behind them.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I think there is something about maybe it’s human nature, but also particularly about the American immigrant experience where the second and third generations forget their immigrant ancestry, except for St. Patrick’s Day and to celebrate certain kinds of cultural customs, but otherwise to see themselves either fully as Americans or aspirationally fully as Americans, john Kelly is an American, unquestionably, and these second and first generation Vietnamese immigrants, some of them want to be fully Americans and part of the way they participate in that is becoming anti-immigrant. Now, of course, when you’re a Vietnamese refugee or a Vietnamese immigrant, I’m sorry to say, the chances of you being seen as fully American by the rest of the country are not great, but that doesn’t prevent some people from participating in xenophobia to try to distance themselves from other people who are even less American than they are.

Keri Miller: I assume you say that because you wear your family history and your identity on a face that I think you’re going to tell me many Americans will never believe is fully American. Is that right?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I am fully American. I feel fully American. I spent every year of my life in this country, except my first four years. I’m a citizen. I’m pretty sure my English is better than 99% of other Americans out there.

Keri Miller: I’d agree with that, yes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But my fate as an American is partly out of my control. No matter how many op-eds I write, how many books I publish, how many prizes I win, there’s still going to be the fact that some Americans will have great difficulty in seeing someone with my name, Viet Nguyen, and seeing that name as an American name and this is structural to the United States. In other words, when you started off our conversation talking about feeling culturally divided, split in two, it’s not simply a cultural matter.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That division cannot be resolved by culture. That division can only be resolved by political recognition of the fact that this country has been built on a contradiction, the contradiction between everything we love about this country, in terms of its beautiful ideals about democracy, equality, pluralism, assimilation, and so on, and the fact that all of these wonderful ideals have been built on a history of conquest, colonization, bloodshed, genocide, slavery, all these things that a lot of Americans want to forget about and want to deny, and which I insist is a fundamental part of our country. That’s why someone like me who is not White is going to meet resistance from a certain segment of the American population that can’t fully confront this history.

Keri Miller: You used the word forgetfulness a minute ago, and I think that forgetfulness goes a lot of ways, takes a lot of different shapes because there may be the forgetfulness of, “My family came here a mere 40 years ago, and now I don’t want those other families from Mexico coming here,” but what you’ve just described is also American forgetfulness. I think in pursuit of American exceptionalism, this idea that we’re exceptional and we got there in all of the good ways and none of the kinds of ways that you’ve just described, but the mythology, it depends in some ways on that forgetfulness of how we got here, doesn’t it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think so. I think that part of the American hope is that we have his seemingly new country that anybody can come here and be what they want and that they can shed the allegiances and the blood ties and the conflicts of whatever world that they came from and part of that involves forgetting, leaving things behind. Certainly, if you talk about the Asian-American experience, there’s a lot of truth to that because in Asia people don’t call themselves Asians, for the most part. They call themselves by whatever nationality or ethnicity or religion that’s important to them. Of course, in Asians have fought terrible wars with each other, but here in the United States, at least by the second generation, a lot of that is forgotten. So we don’t harp upon the fact, for the most part, that the Japanese colonized China and Korea, for example, and said here, Japanese and Chinese and Korean-Americans can become Asian-Americans and leave that past behind.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So there’s something wonderful about that, but the problem with forgetting is that simply because you decide to forget the past doesn’t mean that the past has forgotten you. So it may be possible to leave behind what happened in Asia and Europe, but in the United States, we have forged our own history. So when I talk about things like colonization, that’s not of the European past, I’m talking about colonization here in the United States that is a part of our history. We can try to forget it by not talking about it, but the legacies of colonization are embedded in every aspect of our lives. Arguably, colonization is still happening if you ask Indigenous Peoples and I agree with them in that case, and we ignore that as well. We ignore that at our peril because just simply by trying to pretend something doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Keri Miller: I also wonder what you think of the character of the myth of exceptionalism about America, and how it compares with the kind of nationalism that you might find in a country like France, the country that your new novel is set in, or your family’s Homeland of Vietnam. Is there something different, unusual, stubborn, blind? What would you say, give me some adjectives about how you describe how core this idea of being exceptional is to how we Americans see ourselves?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think every nation, obviously, wants to see itself in the best possible light and will construct cultures and mythologies around these set of beliefs. So I don’t know how unique Americans are in believing that they’re unique. Everybody tends to do this. What sets Americans apart, I think, is that their mythology is reinforced by the actual power of United States, that we are a global power. We have enormous economic and political might and so on and so forth. Now that being said, if you look at Vietnam and the Vietnamese people and they have a parallel set of ideas. If you talk to Vietnamese people, for example, and you talk about things like war and conquest, you’ll hear from them pretty soon that, “Hey, we were colonized by the Chinese for 1,000 years and we fought those people off and we became this independent country.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Almost none of the Vietnamese will mention to you that in becoming modern Vietnam, the Vietnamese conquered the Cambodians and the Chams, and took away their land. The whole Southern half of Vietnam is conquered land, they don’t want to talk about it just as Americans don’t want to talk about how we have the United States because of conquest and bloodshed. Likewise, with France, of course, they themselves have been an Imperial country, colonized Africa and Asia, and they did so under the rubric of the civilizing mission. That’s what they called it, and they have their own great democratic traditions. They have their own great democratic revolution, and yet, that is completely intention with what they did in Africa, in Asia, in Haiti, for example. They used a civilizing mission to justify all kinds of very uncivil behavior.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: They dehumanized their colonized peoples and by so doing, they allowed themselves to do horrifying things. So one of the things I say in The Committed is that when he first gets to France, our narrator arrives at Charles de Gaulle Airport, and he says, “Wow, it’s named after one of the greatest Frenchmen in recent memory. He liberated the French from the Nazis at the same time that he was continuing to enslave us Vietnamese.” I was like, “Oh, that’s a contradiction, and contradiction is the perpetual body odor of humanity,” and that’s the kind of territory that I love to explore as a writer. I don’t just criticize Americans. Americans who are criticized by me, sometimes their hackles get raised and they get very defensive and all I want to say to them is, “Look, I say the same things about the Vietnamese and the French. My project as a novelist is not the single out Americans, but to single out these hypocrisies that we all share,

Keri Miller: You are an equal opportunity, how should I put this, the suffering no fools or hypocrites writer. I think that’s right. Viet Nguyen is with us this morning. We’re talking about his new novel, The Committed. It’s a sequel to his first novel, which won a Pulitzer Prize called The Sympathizer, and we’re talking about a number of the themes and the questions and the ideas and ideals that are foundational to the novel. Claudia wrote in to say, “Moving to of the United States meant that I could finally be myself. In Chile, being LGBTQ is only legal on paper. You’ll face discrimination in every single aspect of your life. You can’t get married. Your rights are not the same as a straight person’s. Here, I could be myself. I was able to marry whom I love and not be afraid of backlash.

Keri Miller: Unfortunately, I realized that there’s a lot of violence here, too.”Sarah wrote in to say, “Immigration meant leaving very tight-knit family behind in search of safety and a better life. I grew up learning English and Spanish simultaneously. It was a challenge early on, but also a blessing. My had to learn English, a new system of life, school and services. Work, finding a home. They worked twice as hard for a fraction of the pay that they deserved, and they also faced disparaging remarks because of their accents. A call here from Heather in Minneapolis. Hi, Heather, good to have you on the phone.

Heather: Thanks so much for this really intriguing conversation. I have a question about this term ‘assimilation.’ I keep hearing you use this word and I wonder if acculturation might be more appropriate or if, this is a question for Mr. Nguyen, if in your immigrant experience, if the difference matters? I guess to me, assimilation really speaks to your conversation about forgetfulness really speaks to forgetting about one’s home culture; whereas, acculturation to me says more about really honoring and finding a way to integrate your home culture with this new American experience. Thanks.

Keri Miller: I love the question, Heather. Thanks.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that’s a very good question. I think that what Heather put forth is, an important point that one of the things that happens to immigrants and to refugees is often this expectation that they will shed everything from wherever it is that they came from, from clothing to names, to languages and food and become American, whatever that means. Part of the forgetfulness is that whatever we think of as American now is actually the result of earlier generations of integration, of conflict, of hybridization, any number of terms of where cultures got mixed. Because we’re forgetful people, we forget that the things that we take for granted now, were not taken for granted in the past.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So one of the things that that immigrants and refugees do to the United States is that they also change this country in as much as the country changes them. If we go back to the example of my name, for example, I’ve written about the fact that Viet Nguyen is not seen as an American name by many Americans, but the struggle is to make Americans say this name and not just my name, but many, many names like mine, and in that sense to change America as well, some win the last name right now, when we first got here in 1975, obviously, 99% of Americans didn’t know how to say it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now we’re getting to a point where White people are saying to me very proudly. Yes. We know many Nguyens in our community and it’s the fourth most common surname in this place, et cetera, et cetera. So we’re starting to have an impact, even at this level of a name that would be considered extremely alien 50 years ago. That’s just one example, and of course the other example is Vietnamese food is awesome. If you haven’t eaten Vietnamese food, you’re missing out and it’s becoming a part of American cuisine. So a few examples of how it is that immigrants and refugees also through this process of acculturation change the United States as much as they are changed.

Keri Miller: We mentioned what were known as boat people a little earlier in our conversation. The Committed’s narrator goes on this wonderful riff and I don’t know, personal investigation, I guess, of what comes with being thought of as a boat person. I have to say, I remember this when I was a kid that my parents’ Lutheran church in Western New York sponsored boat people. I remember that the church was very proud of stepping in as a saving force and helping the boat people, that was all we knew about. They were boat people/ that was the full definition. I’ve never thought about it again, and this was really eye-opening in The Committed. So I’d love to hear you tell me how you worked through some of the ideas that our narrator raises.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I was never, myself, a boat person. That official classification, even though when we fled Saigon on April 30th, we in fact left by barge, but that term hadn’t been invented yet. Like you, I grew up aware of this term, the boat people because by the late 1970s when Vietnamese refugees started to flee en masse by boat, I was six, seven or eight-years-old. I was reading the news and I could see this term and I could see the images of desperate Vietnamese refugees. The impression that you get when you hear this term, and when you see these images that these are desperate and frightened people, and that’s not really a full capturing of their complex humanity; that’s just one dimension of that experience. Of course, I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community where I could see the complex humanity of these people.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I knew some of their stories and I knew that they were so much deeper than what the Western media was portraying them as, and certainly, much deeper than how many Americans and people the world over knew about these folks. So it bothered me for a long time in the same way that a lot of representations of Vietnamese people in the media and in movies and so on bothered me because I knew they were so inadequate. I just knew that the term boat person carried all these very objectifying and pitying connotations. if you’ve never been to subject of objectification and pity, then maybe you don’t understand how demeaning that can be, because pity seems like a good thing, “Hey, we’re going to help you because we feel pity for you,” but I don’t think anybody wants to feel pitied.

Keri Miller: Yeah. I really thought about this. I think the conversation back among our church was, “This is part of a Christian mission. This is an important moment for the church to step forward and be involved,” all good intentions. But I remember some of these families ultimately joining the congregation and always being thought of, I think, as, “Those poor people that came over here on a boat and will never have what real Americans have, and will always need our largess,” again, all good intentions. I don’t want to say that that wasn’t the case, too.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think of course that many of these people, the refugees who came to this country and were sponsored by churches and by individuals and families and so on, are in fact deeply grateful for this hospitality and this generosity, because that’s what that is. But at the same time, I think that some of them can also recognize and feel very complicated feelings about condescension and cultural insensitivity and things like that. All these things can happen at the same time, which is what makes it a complicated situation for many refugees feeling genuinely grateful, but also wanting to, like other human beings, express their, I don’t know, I’m not for certain it’s the right word, but their dislike of being condescended to.

Keri Miller: Right. Right, and moving out from underneath one part of the story of who they are. I wonder if Syrian refugees, I’m thinking of how we’re doing this again and maybe that that’s just part of the history of refugees coming to this country. But that’s how we describe Syrian refugees, too. very few of us know anything about the lives that people led in Syria. I think the sum total of our knowledge about that might be, “They got caught up in this terrible civil war and they left everything they had and they spent time in a refugee camp, and they have nothing and they’re starting over.” Yes, that is probably a part of the story, but I can imagine Syrian refugees doing what you’ve said about Vietnamese refugees coming here and being eager to move out from under some parts of that story. Does it make sense the way I’m putting it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, absolutely. Of course, we wait for the Syrian storytellers to tell Syrian stories.

Keri Miller: Right. Right.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s not as if stories can’t be told about Syrians, but, of course, so much of it is framed when we’re talking about Western media reportage around then the urgency of this crisis. Of course, we want to talk about how desperate these people are because we want to help them. Of course, people want to be helped, but imagine if here in the United States, something like this were to happen and people were displaced as refugees, which happens, we of course have stories covering what has happened to these people when their homes are burnt down, when they’re flooded out [crosstalk 00:32:51]

Keri Miller: New Orleans, Katrina.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Exactly.

Keri Miller: Yeah.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But we also have stories that tell their stories because the reporters and the journalists, and so on, see them as human beings, understand their entire background, give them the opportunity to flesh out who they are and we get a very different sense. They’re not just desperate and frightened people, they’re our fellow human beings or fellow citizens, and we can see the complexity of their worlds. So when it comes to people who are not Americans, we have to engage in this imaginative act to try to construct their humanity, which they obviously already have but which is not being exposed to us or given to us. So that’s why it’s so necessary that we have storytellers. I know that the impulse for a lot of immigrants and refugees is to get to this country or any country and set down economic roots and become economically successful, that’s obvious. It’s very crucial, but we need the storytellers to tell these stories-

Keri Miller: Like you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, not just like me, but many, many people because we cannot claim our humanity without our stories. So I just make a huge pitch out there to all the immigrant and refugee parents out there, just don’t force your kids to be doctors and lawyers and engineers. If they want to be artists and storytellers, let them, cultivate them, grow them until they can grow up and write scathing autobiographies featuring you.

Keri Miller: Oh my gosh. That is-

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s part of the price [crosstalk 00:34:18]

Keri Miller: That is so refreshing to hear that. There is not only one path to making it in America. I love that. So I’ve asked you to read a couple of paragraphs from this section of the novel. The narrator has arrived and he’s been in Paris for, I don’t know, some time. I think it also gives us this, oh my gosh, this acerbic voice of the narrator. You don’t sound like this in conversation, but maybe this is just one side of you being totally unleashed. I loved it. I loved the voice of this narrator. So tell us a little bit about where we are, if you will, and then we can hear the excerpt.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sure. Well, he’s arrived in Paris in 1982, and he’s living with his so-called aunt. She’s not really his aunt, but that’s another story. But his aunt a member of the elite. She’s mixed race, he’s French and Vietnamese, but she’s an editor at this high-powered publishing house. She hangs out with all of these left wing, socialist politicians and intellectuals. Here, he’s at a party and he’s just been condescended to by this left wing socialist politician known only as BFD. This is going to be his response to the condescension. “He aimed his finger at me as if his words were not quite enough. I forced myself to smile and swallowed my resentment, which tasted like blood. That is to say, not as bad as you might imagine, given how so many people apparently enjoy dining on rare, juicy meat.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The heat of his pity was so strong that it did not make me feel warm, instead, I boiled, the steam hissing from my ear. As I kept my mouth closed after the few conciliatory words I could manage. How could I say that the so-called boat people had already helped themselves by getting on their boats in the first place? How could I say that I refused to be called a boat person, a term so over a powering that even the Anglophobic French had simply borrowed and worn it on a regular basis like [inaudible 00:36:39] in Le Week-End. I was not a boat person unless the English pilgrims who fled religious persecution to come to America on the Mayflower were also boat people. Those refugees just happened to be fortunate that the soon-to-be hapless natives did not have a camera to record them as the foul-smelling half-starved, unshaven and lice-ridden lot that they were.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In contrast, our misery was forever recorded in De Manatee where we were seen as anything but human. Now, the boat people were not human. They did not get the benefit of some romantic painter casting them in oils, standing boldly on the pro of their sinking ships, facing the monstrous elements with the nobility of Greek heroes and shrined in the Louvre to be admired by tourists and studied by art historians, no, boat people were victims, objects of pity fixed forever in newspaper photographs. Part of me, my mama’s baby wanted that pity, but the part of me that was a grown man, neither wanted nor deserved pity. Neither wanted to be called a victim nor deserved to be seen as such, not after all of my deeds and misdeeds. If the price of being human was to be recognized through being pitiful than to hell with humanity.”

Keri Miller: May I say that I can imagine you writing that passage and sitting back with a “Oh, job well done.” It’s just so wonderful. It’s wonderful. Let me grab a call from Abdisalam in Fridley. Hi, Abdi. Welcome. It’s good to have you on the show.

Abdisalam: Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity. My questions lead into immigrants who sacrifice, every single who run from very difficult situations come to the United States and more or less, make it in life. Then, seeing that they’re not able to establish some the culture or the environment when it comes to the language, the culture or the storytelling, some of the themes that our state has eloquently described. Then, you see them hesitancy to going back home, the place that they came from and probably still not stable.

Abdisalam: I’m referring [inaudible 00:39:08] to Somali, for example, so that hesitancy of, “I’m going back home to build and to help my community,” versus, “Your community needs your help,” let’s say you have the technical skills or the education and the knowledge, why not invest in and establish institutions rather than going back to the place that you left in a very difficult situation? So just that struggle of all and about the future of their children in keeping their identity and establishing themselves here would impact cultural values and norms with the limited resources that they have. So I’m just thinking about what author would say about that?

Keri Miller: I’m so glad you called, because that was an element that we had not yet talked about this pull, Viet, back to the Homeland to bring what the advantages and the skills that you’ve gained in this country.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I really appreciate the question and the comment because for Vietnamese people, the dilemma is pretty much exactly the same. I think for a lot of first-generation Vietnamese people, Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, they came here as teenagers and as adults, there’s a strong connection to the Homeland for obvious reasons. When the Homeland is in need because of floods and poverty and illness and all these kinds of things, Vietnamese refugees and immigrants have responded by sending money, by returning to build foundations and charities and hospitals and churches and all these kinds of things. I think that’s a necessary kind of work to be done because when we look at our communities here and then we see that there’s poverty here and things to be addressed, but there’s even greater poverty and desperation in the country of origin than we feel the tug to return.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t also build our community organizations and, and coaches here in the United States, and sometimes that’s left to the 1.5 generation that as people like me, who were born elsewhere but grew up here, and certainly my friends and I have done our best to build various kinds of cultural, political, economic organizations that are definitely focused on the United States. So I think we do both kinds of things, but the divide between the two is not a wall. I think there’s there’s fluidity because a lot of what we do here in the United States, for example, is done with the awareness that we can also build connections with what’s happening in Vietnam as well. It’s not even so easy to reduce this to a first and second generation issue, because in fact, there are first generation people who are deeply invested in American politics and culture, and there are 1.5 and second generation people, my generation and younger who’ve actually gone back to Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So for example, the Vietnamese film industry is stocked with Vietnamese Americans, actors and filmmakers and directors, producers who found obstacles here in Hollywood, in the United States. So they decided to go back to Vietnam and they became movie stars, and they became the directors of their own movies. So that’s of in some of the inequities of the United States. It’s not as if the movement from outside to inside the United States is unidirectional, but sometimes people face obstacles here and they see further opportunities back home and they go back. So there’s a circulation that’s taking place that’s obscured by this idea of assimilation or that people only come to the United States and leave everything else behind. But that’s actually, I think, never really been true in American history. There’s always been a lot of circulation back and forth. There’s always been people who’ve come here and gone back, and sometimes the second and third generations feel the pull of the ancestral Homeland, both for nostalgic reasons, but also sometimes because there’s more opportunity and excitement there.

Keri Miller: I understand that our narrator is coming back to the United States. So he’s been in France. He is returning to the United States. Is that right? There is one more novel coming where he’s back here?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: One more novel, yeah.

Keri Miller: Yeah.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m pretty sure that’s the end. I’m pretty sure that’s it. I think I wanted to know when to make an exit, and I’m pretty sure the exit will be spectacular, but he has to come back to the United States to make amends and to seek revenge. If you read The Sympathizer, you know that he did some terrible things in that book.

Keri Miller: Oh, yes.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: He ran away from the United States to escape some of these things that he has to come back to confront. The Committed is the novel in between. Let me just say to the audience out there if you haven’t read The Sympathizer, I don’t know why you haven’t. I have no idea why you haven’t read The Sympathizer. If you haven’t, you can still read The Committed without that. It’s been written in such a way that you don’t have to do that, but The Committed is the novel where he deals with the fallout from The Sympathizer he’s a damaged man and he has to reconstruct himself. In the final installment in the trilogy, this reconstructed self will go back to the United States and it’ll be the mid-to-late 1980s. As a child of the mid-to-late 1980s, I think there’s so much there to be talked about in terms of Reagan-ism and Star Wars and crack epidemics and Iran Contra I’m just really dying to put into that final installment.

Keri Miller: Wow. I just have to tell you that he is one of the most ominous and disturbing characters that I’ve spent time with, and he’s so multidimensional, but the trauma that he’s endured, the things that he’s done, the conscience that he has I’m going to have to steel myself, Viet, for the next time I spend time with him, so I’ve got a little bit of time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I can live with ominous and disturbing, but let me just say in my own self defense, I think he’s kind of funny. People make a lot out of [crosstalk 00:45:08]

Keri Miller: Yes, it’s a bitter of humor.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: A bitter humor, but people a lot out of some of the highfalutin ideas that are in this novel, but let me just say that one of the most important sources of inspiration for this novel was that American movie classic, Dumb & Dumber by the Farrelly brothers.

Keri Miller: Oh, my gosh.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: There’s a specific moment in this novel that alludes to that movie. If you’ve seen it, you’ll understand the connection, but I think I really try to make an effort to go high and low, to be both political and satirical and entertaining at the same time.

Keri Miller: Oh, my gosh and mission accomplished. I always look forward to these conversations. Thank you so much for spending the hour with me. I really appreciate it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks, Keri. Sure. It was a lot of fun.

Keri Miller: The novel is called The Committed.

Category: Interviews

 

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