Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about sequel to Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks with CBS This Morning about his new book, The Committed.

Best-selling author Viet Thanh Nguyen talks to Jan Crawford about his new novel, out this week. “The Committed,” a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” continues the story of the refugee narrator from Nguyen’s first book. The novels have earned him the description as “a conscience of American literature.”

Transcript:

Speaker 1: Bestselling author Viet Thanh Nguyen is out this week with the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer. The Committed continues the story of the refugee narrator from Nguyen’s first book. Together, the novels have earned him the description as a “new conscience of American literature.” Jan Crawford spoke with the author about his harrowing escape as a child from war torn Vietnam and how it helped form his creative voice.

Jan Crawford: We invited Viet Thanh Nguyen to share a meal with us. Him in Los Angeles and me in Washington, D.C., hoping food would open the window into his upbringing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When you’re an immigrant or refugee to a country that’s not your own, food becomes really important because it’s obvious symbolic of your culture, and symbolic of love.

Jan Crawford: When it came to food, we followed Nguyen’s lead.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I guess I should order now to get the ball rolling. [foreign language 00:00:52].

Jan Crawford: Let’s go.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: [foreign language 00:00:52].

Jan Crawford: I caught a glimpse of the dual identities that are ever present in his writing. Should we go ahead eat?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. I try to order stuff that wouldn’t be too messy.

Jan Crawford: You’re Vietnamese, but America made you?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I grew up feeling like a spy because in my parents’ very Vietnamese household, I was an American spying on these strange Vietnamese customs. And then I would step outside into the American world and feel like I was a Vietnamese spying on these strange Americans.

Jan Crawford: That feeling led Nguyen to his breakthrough character, an unnamed Vietnamese communist spy, his debut novel sold more than a million copies and earned countless accolades for its look at the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese perspective. You talk about the idea of nuanced patriotism, which means you can be thankful, but also critical.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: This country has always been marked by conflicts and controversies and debates about who we are and what our principles are. And if Americans, White Americans can do this without being told to go home or leave, then why can’t the newcomers?

Jan Crawford: His new book, The Committed, sends his protagonist to Paris, where he becomes immersed in a world of drugs and organized crime.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In The Committed, I say, “Hey, look at France, they have ideals and they failed too.” So I don’t think there’s any shame in that.

Jan Crawford: In this sequel, he’s determined to present a more complete version of the refugee story, writing in the opening lines, “Society views refugees as the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen.” You refuse to call yourself an immigrant. You’re a refugee, the unwanted, as you put it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In my work, I try to stress these people they may be desperate and frightened and scared and so on, but they’re also really heroic. I mean, a lot of the people who took to these seas then and now know that their odds of survival are really, really bad. That to me is bravery and heroism and that needs to be acknowledged in our stories and in our capacity to call ourselves with pride, refugees.

Jan Crawford: Nguyen’s own life story reflects the promise and pain of America, like some 130,000 other refugees, Nguyen’s family fled Vietnam when he was just four years old. His earliest memories are of the refugee camp in Pennsylvania where they ended up and they weren’t always welcomed.

Speaker 4: They’ll just probably take jobs away from people that need jobs around here.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: In order to leave, we had to have American sponsors, but there wasn’t an American sponsor willing to take all four of us, so one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10 year old brother, one sponsor took four year old me. And of course, we were all deeply grateful for these American sponsors, but when you’re four years old, you don’t understand that. So what I remembered was just the feeling of abandonment, of being taken away.

Jan Crawford: He was reunited with his parents after a few months and later, relocated to San Jose where they opened a Vietnamese grocery store. It sounds like the American dream, but it came at a cost.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The painful contradiction is to express their love, they worked like crazy, which means they have no time to spend with their children. And so, there’s this huge emotional distance that grows.

Jan Crawford: Nguyen retreated into books, creating worlds on the page and winning his first literary prize in elementary school. But he didn’t tell his parents.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: They didn’t have the time to take me to the library to get my prize.

Jan Crawford: You didn’t tell your parents that you had won the MacArthur Fellowship, or even the Pulitzer Prize.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: On social media I might say, “I won this and this,” but I don’t go home and tell that to my parents because why? I don’t expect my parents to read my books. They already gave up enough for me, I don’t need them to give up time to read my books.

Jan Crawford: He credits his parents for his work ethic and his persistence. He was discouraged from studying Vietnamese American literature in college. And his first novel was initially rejected by 13 publishers.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I think I was lucky in a way that I was not successful as a writer early, because I think if I had somehow won the Pulitzer at 25 or 30, I might’ve been really messed up, but I actually suffered as a writer for more than 20 years.

Jan Crawford: Nguyen says despite his success, he’s still fighting the same battles, pushing the country to reckon with representation and collective memory. Where are we now in terms of you see us as a country and what are your hopes for America?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, when I look at American history, I think that we always make two steps forward and one step back. Something like a 1,900% increase in New York City in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, for example, but this stuff was happening a century ago. I’m in Los Angeles, 1871, 17 Chinese men and boys were lynched in downtown Los Angeles. So my feeling about the country is as always, suspended, perpetually on the possibility of hope and taking many steps forward and then being pulled back.

Jan Crawford: The New Yorker is calling you, “The conscious of American literature.” Does that even seem real?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, no, no, no, no, it doesn’t seem real. I just think that I’m fulfilling the duty that anybody owes to this country. The real impetus for me to do all of these things is not to hear myself talk. The real impetus for me to do these things is to try to change the circumstances so that there will be more people with the opportunity to speak. We don’t just need one person to speak, we need a lot of people to speak.

Speaker 5: That’s one of those pieces you go, “Wow.” I remember the first piece we did with him.

Speaker 1: Yes, yeah, so strong.

Speaker 5: I could just listen to him. I mean, I think we could all learn a lot listening to what he has to say. Very powerful.

Speaker 1: It’s so important to hear this perspective. I started reading his new book, The Committed, it is really powerful.

Speaker 6: I hope his parents were watching and they found out he won the Pulitzer Prize as a MacArthur [crosstalk 00:06:26].

Speaker 5: And he was such a cute little boy too. I love the little boy pictures. And then you see him as an adult. Very smart. Very interesting.

Speaker 1: Yeah, it was a great piece by Jan Crawford.

Speaker 5: Thank you Jan.

Speaker 1: Yep.

Category: Interviews

 

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