Viet Thanh Nguyen is in conversation with John Keene, Wesley Ahn, and Judy Xie about the role of professors, and writers of the global majority, in supporting and shaping the education of young writers of color for PlayCo’s Lunch Table Talks.

Read the transcript below.

Carolina Do: Hi. Hello. Welcome everyone. My name is Carolina Do, and I am the Community Engagement Associate here at PlayCo. We are so, so very excited to welcome you to our first ever Lunch Table Talk. If this is your first event with us at PlayCo, the Play Company was founded in 2001 by a founding producer, Kate Loewald, and commissions, develops, and produces new plays from the US and around the world. To date, we have produced 37 new works from 14 different countries. We are currently based in New York City on the Lenapehoking homeland of the Lanape people. Even as we celebrate our ability to make contemporary theater that responds to both our New York City home and today’s interconnected world, we recognize that this land was forcibly taken and sovereignty was never ceded, and we acknowledged the genocide and the displacement of indigenous peoples. We will be posting our full land acknowledgement in the comments of today’s event, and we invite you to share and learn more about the indigenous peoples upon whose land you occupy.

Carolina Do: To get us started, I would like to introduce to you the facilitators here for today’s conversation, both of whom are two I’ve had a pleasure of mentoring. Wesley Ahn is the artistic and literary intern at PlayCo. He is a writer, actor, and a student at Drew University, where he is pursuing dramaturgy. He is also a member of an improv troupe, an acapella group, student government, and has been certified to teach yoga.

Carolina Do: Judy Xie is the marketing intern at PlayCo. As a rising sophomore, she hopes to continue to support and engage in the literary community while studying English at Columbia University. Her work can be found in several publications, including the Columbia Journal and Into the Void; however, she is most known for consisting of at least 50% ice cream. And with that, I will hand it over to Judy and Wesley to introduce today’s guests and get us started. Have fun, y’all.

Judy Xie: Thank you, Carolina.

Wesley Ahn: John Keene is the author and coauthor of a handful of books, including the award-winning fiction collection Counternarratives and the forthcoming poetry collection Punks. He has received many honors, including the 2018 Windham Campbell Prize and a 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His translation projects include poetry, fiction, and essays from Portuguese, French, and Spanish, among them the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s novel, Letters From a Seducer. He chairs the Department of African-American and African studies, is Distinguished Professor of English and African-American studies, and also teaches in the MFA of Creative Writing Program at Rutgers University Newark.

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

Judy Xie: To start off with our Lunch Table conversation, I have an extremely pressing question. Did you guys bring anything for lunch? And if so, what?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I just actually ate my own chicken adobo that I cooked, but I already ate it beforehand so I will not be stuffing my face here with you.

John Keene: I had butternut squash soup a little earlier, a bowl of that, and so I’m just now drinking green tea with ginger.

Judy Xie: That sounds so delicious. On the topic of food, I feel like it is often a gateway to many cultures, and as an Asian America, I’ve found that my culture is really represented and inspired [inaudible 00:07:47]. As professors, what are you thinking of when you try to disseminate your perspective to another generation of writers? It’s a big question.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The generational question is really interesting, because, Wesley, Judy, I was once your age. I was really at your age passionate and angry, and getting myself arrested and doing political protests and standing up against the man and thinking the older generation, that was their turn and now it’s my turn. Now, unfortunately, I am the older generation and I have to think about what the newer generation’s concerns are.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: One of the interesting things is that… Well, one of the depressing things is that some of the concerns have not changed. I go and I talk to a lot of college students on college campuses, and some of the questions that they ask about what they should do, should they pursue the arts, how should they be as artists of color, feminists, and queer and trans writers and artists. Many of those things were the same things we were asking in my generation. I find that vaguely depressing that maybe the same kinds of political, cultural, aesthetic concerns are still being shared by your generation. And yet at the same time, I think there are differences, and I think it’s my responsibility as someone older to understand that I have some responsibility in terms of trying to share what I know, but also have a responsibility to be humble and listen to a younger generation and see what they’re doing that’s different and very unexpected from what I might be concerned with or what I might do.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think it’s my obligation as a teacher to both demonstrate, share lineages, histories, accomplishments, breakthroughs that have happened before, because a younger generation may not know these things, but also to be attuned to what is erupting that may totally catch me by surprise and to help create the conditions where I stand out of the way, but try to foster the possibilities for newer artists like you to say your thing and teach me something.

John Keene: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’d agree. I mean, I think what Viet says is perfect. One of the things I try also not to do, I mean, it’s one thing to share stories about when you were younger or the things you were doing, because those can actually be very fruitful for students, but I also don’t say the way I did it or the way people of my generation did it was the only way. I used to feel when I was in my twenties that I would hear all these stories about what was happening in the sixties. I was a child in the 1970s and through the ’80s and ’90s, and a young person of the ’90s. I would hear these stories about how great things were in the ’60s, etc., and I remember just feeling like, “Oh, my God. I don’t want to hear this anymore.”

John Keene: On the other hand, I think what I also began to realize, and I was part of a writer’s collective when I was in my twenties, that we were drawing on all of this incredible work, this activism, this visionary practice that people had pioneered in the ’60s and ’70s, right? One of the things that I hope to do with my students is to impart some of that, but also, as Viet said, to be humbled, to listen, to encourage, to learn, because I feel like there are things that younger people today, the generations today, are doing and seeing that can take us to a very different place, that can help us along that road of transformation that we’ve been trying to go, we’ve been trying to pursue for quite some time. I think both sharing, but also being willing to listen and learn, I think is very important.

Judy Xie: Thank you guys both for those responses.

Wesley Ahn: Yeah. As you encourage those voices and you start to find out what’s important to those students, who do you teach your students to write for? Is it for themselves or communities that they feel part of, or do they have to be concerned about reader relatability?

John Keene: Well, I would say on the one hand I tell students when you’re writing, especially [inaudible 00:12:00] students, free as possible. Let nothing limit you. Wherever your imagination takes you, go there. At the same time, you are writing not in isolation, you’re not writing in a vacuum. You’re writing in a broader social field, social, political, and economic field. So you also may be, as part of thinking about writing for yourself, writing for your community or writing to your community, or you’re bringing things that your community wants voiced, to voice. I think it’s a dual thing of encouraging students to just not be limited by anything in terms of what they want to write, but at the same time they also may say, and I encourage this, that “I’m writing for specific reasons. I feel like the community that I come from.”

John Keene: I mean, I read a really fascinating piece today by a guy who was talking about growing up black and poor and feeling like it’s one thing to have people represent this experience, it’s another thing to have people, for example, like several of the people involved with the film Moonlight to actually come from that experience and represent them. There’s a way in which… I mean, sometimes people say if you’re from a particular background, your life is not worthy of art, and that’s actually absurd. Some of the greatest art comes from places that we don’t expect. Again, I think feeling that you can write for your community and speak your community’s concerns to the wider world is a thing I strongly encourage.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I would agree with all of that and maybe throw a variation in there, which is for me there’s always attention or dialectic between what I want to do and what I think of as my community and what I think my community might want. I think I want to complicate this idea of community because what exactly constitutes someone’s community? I identify very strongly, for example, with Vietnamese Americans. I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community. When I was trying to be a writer at a younger age, I felt like I was obligated to speak about and maybe speak for Vietnamese Americans, but that’s a very complicated relationship because anybody who’s come from an intimate community knows it’s not an easy thing to try to represent one’s community. Your community may not want you to represent them. Your community may disagree with what the stories are going to tell. Your community may tell you, “Don’t tell certain kinds of stories.” That could be your family, as well. When those burdens and expectations are put upon you, what are you supposed to do?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Then, in addition, my sense of community is multiple. I mean, it’s not just a Vietnamese or an Asian-American community, but I’m also an American. The United States is my community. I feel like I can represent the United States. Why not? If all these other people, let’s say white guys, are representing the United States implicitly or explicitly, why can’t someone like me? I feel like I have to seize that challenge, both to speak for communities, but also to broaden the sense of what a community is. And that goes all the way to a global community too.

John Keene: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But, again, going back to this idea that my relationship to a community it’s oftentimes very ambivalent. Like I’m very critical of the United States, for example, even if I am an American at the same time. I’m also very critical of Vietnamese people, even if I’m Vietnamese at the same time. So oftentimes I want to defend Vietnamese people, but oftentimes I want to criticize them because sometimes, yes, let’s face it, Vietnamese people do stupid things, say stupid things. They’re totally capable of being racist, even if they’ve been the victims of racism, and my obligation as an artist is not to defend my community a hundred percent, just as I would not defend the United States a hundred percent. My obligation is to speak the truth through art. For me, the most powerful moment for me as a writer was to go from this idea that I’m a part of a community, not to dispose of that, but also to feel like ultimately when I write, I write for myself, and if I write for myself and if I’m truthful, if I’m honest, if I’m committed to the art, then I’m also doing my best for my community even if I’m criticizing them or they feel like I’m betraying them. That was a hard thing for me to reconcile with, but I think it also was for me very necessary to reach that compromise or that balance.

John Keene: I might just add I think it’s very important to keep in mind the idea of intersectionality is very important here. We’re all members of multiple communities at the same time and sometimes those communities may be in conflict. We might recognize when we’re creating something that we’re trying to do something or say something that puts us at odds with one or several of those communities. Sometimes you need to do that. I mean, that’s part of what truth-telling entails. It’s a complex but a very important question. But, again, I don’t think you should ever feel, particularly as a creative person, to feel limited, even as you have to be mindful of the effects your work may have in the world. That’s something to think about sometimes after, as you’re writing and creating, and then, of course, after the fact the effects your work may have in the wider world.

Judy Xie: Yeah. I mean, I really resonate with this idea of the complex relationship between your identity and your community’s identity and how your best supposed to navigate that. But in recognition of art and understanding the art as much as we might want to sometimes can exist in a vacuum, do you have any books that you have read that have inspired you? Specifically books that have you read from syllabuses? And did you find yourself represented in your [inaudible 00:17:35] or arts curriculums growing up?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think I did not feel myself represented when I was in high school, for example. I went to a very elite high school. We had a great education. I was reading Faulkner and Joyce when I was in high school. But I think I only read, as far as I remember, one person of color, Alice Walker, during the entire time. Going to college was actually really transformative. I went to University of California campuses, eventually ended up at UC Berkeley, and I was both an English major and an Ethnic Studies major. The Ethnic Studies major was so crucial because it was really through that that I started to read literature of Chicano writers, Asian-American writers, Black writers, Anti-Colonial writers from all over the world. That was the moment where I felt, oh, I can see a connection between literature, which I just love as art, as escapism, and so on, and also politics, because I came out of this refugee background, I had parents who were working constantly, and I felt that it was very difficult for me to go home to my parents and say, “I want to be a writer,” or “I want to be a scholar,” when I’m seeing them toil in a grocery store.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: To see that there were many traditions of writers of many different backgrounds who were not white, and some who were white, who were engaging with social and political issues in a beautiful way. I think it’s very careful for me to stress this that out there in the world sometimes people will say, “Well, you can have politics or you can have art, but you can’t have both,” and I think that’s a totally false dichotomy, because I saw in these many traditions that, in fact, writers were striving to do both. They were striving to be the best artists that they could be, but were also striving to talk about their communities, talk about their histories, and to provoke politically. There are so many writers, but, of course, James Baldwin, Tony Morrison, [inaudible 00:19:21] Kingston, Theresa Cha, the list can go on and on and on. Also, I feel like I draw from all of those traditions in addition to the Euro-American canon, as well.

John Keene: I had a very similar experience. I mean, in I primarily went to Catholic schools. We did not read any writers of color, any writers of color, except for maybe, I think, Richard Wright’s Native Son. I think we read that. Which, of course, there’s a bit of a… It’s a great book, but it is a bit of a shocker with all the books you’re going to be reading. It was a similar situation at first in college. I will say that not even so much classes, but a person that I had an incredible experience as a student of was Ishmael Reed, and there’s a great profile of him in the current New Yorker or a recent New Yorker, you could find it online. One of the things that Ishmael Reed urged us to do was to read widely. He, I think at one point, brought the writer, [inaudible 00:20:25], she was just starting out, to campus, and took us to see her read, and for those of us, I believe, who could not afford her books, he bought a copy of her… I still have this book, The [inaudible 00:20:38]. I think Octavio Paz might have been teaching around that year, or maybe been giving lectures or something, the artist. Go see the great Mexican writer, Octavio Paz.

John Keene: Ntozake Shange came to campus. He said, “You’ve got to go see Ntozake Shange,” and I was actually quite… I mean, it was this incredible experience of having a black professor, professor of color, who had a very expansive and rich view of what writing, what literature are. He treated us as if we were part of that conversation. But also someone who was a lifelong activist, whose work has been consistently political and who made it very clear to us that there was not just one model that we should pursue in terms of writers or one way the poem should look or one way the short story should look. In terms of the writers who were reading, that all these influences were very important. I think, for me, as Viet is saying, there’s so many writers who have been… All the people he names.

John Keene: I was just thinking about like in my very first book, some of the people I cited, like Ntozake Shange, Clarence Major, [inaudible 00:21:49], Lee Yung Lee. I mean, there was just this wide array of writers that I was reading and I’ve learned from, and I think that’s absolutely important if you are a young writer. But even if you’re an established writer, to just read widely and always be willing and able to listen and learn.

Wesley Ahn: Thank you. Actually, in an interview, John, you’ve expressed that beyond extending western candidates, there should be through the lens of western translators even more non-Anglophone, black [inaudible 00:22:26] authors made accessible in English. Could you speak to who and why that’s important?

John Keene: Yeah. Well, that’s a great question. I would say that I’ve given versions… There was an essay, Translating Poetry/Translating Blackness that has circulated. It was on the Poetry Foundations website. That’s also what I think you might be referring to and what people often cite. But I’ve given versions of this talk before at the Thinking Its Presence Conference, I think maybe the first or second one, in which I said, also, I mean, of course not just black writers, but writers from all over the globe.

John Keene: In terms of black writers, just thinking about a particular kind of hegemonic American blackness that circulates that I think sometimes obscures both the history of this country and the history of basically what’s happening across the globe, that literary translation of works from outside, just across the globe, the black diaspora, can be very helpful in helping us understand the conditions and experiences of black people. I think that’s what I was suggesting, that there is not one kind of blackness and that even when we think about the United States and US history, it is a richer and more complicated history than we often sometimes think about when it comes to black people, and that literary translation might be helpful in helping us understand that, and sort of shifting and changing our view, enriching our view, really, in a good way.

Wesley Ahn: Yeah. I’m sorry if that was redundant, and thank you for the clarification as well as the [crosstalk 00:24:10].

John Keene: Oh, no. Not at all. Yeah. Nothing you asked was redundant. It was a great question.

Wesley Ahn: I guess, beyond that, I spoke with one of the playwrights who’s one of our residents in our cohort for black women theater makers, and she had talked about how it’s radical to rewrite history, prioritizing perspectives we hadn’t prioritized before, because that not only rewrites our past, but alters our future in a way that even goes beyond the textbook cliche of not repeating mistakes. Then I read you speak a little bit about counter narratives, and then I read an outtake, and I was wondering who’s a character like Zion, who’s the son of the master. Who is that written for, if anybody.

John Keene: Well, first of all, that’s a great question. It’s a very astute observation. I mean, there are many people who I think read that story and go right past that, the fact that he may be the son of the slave master of that estate in Massachusetts. I feel like Zion is a character who is a fully realized character, but also a kind of representation of how freedom embodied in certain ways and basically within a system, and one of the huge conversations that’s happening right now is this question of some people will say, “Oh, there’s no such thing as systemic or structural racism,” which is absurd. “White supremacy and racism are not a problem,” which is, of course, absurd. I mean, all you need to do is look at the history of the United States to see that.

John Keene: With a character like Zion, one of the things I was very interested in was, first of all, I didn’t want to write a heroic character, though he has a kind of hero, he’s a kind of antihero. The second thing is, I wanted to write a character who if we imagine freedom embodied, but so radically bounded that there is no way for him to be free, what might that look like? Particularly at a moment when the rhetoric and discourse of freedom are in the air, right at the moment of the American Revolution. Very often, for example, when students are taught the history of the United States and the American Revolution, I mean, this is my experience, particularly in junior high and high school, there was no discussion of slavery. No one said that in 1776 Massachusetts was a slave state. Most of New England, most all of New England, and the Northeastern states had enslaved people in them, including New Jersey where I am broadcasting to you from.

John Keene: This was something I would want them to learn to think about. What happens when you reframe that moment in time, that story in time, from a different perspective? Zion is the figure who provides that possibility of reframing or rethinking it. That’s why I guess what I was thinking about with a character like Zion, whose name has a biblical and historical resonance, and whose life story really is a trajectory leading right up to this moment of freedom, which really isn’t freedom for everyone.

Judy Xie: That’s wonderful. Shifting gears a bit, I have a question for Viet. I also wanted to congratulate you on all your success. All of my friends are so, so excited about your upcoming production. We have a question about it. What are your feelings about the translation of your work into A24’s production, specifically Robert Downey, Jr., playing all of the main antagonists, all of whom represent a different arm of the American establishment?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I will say that the fact that The Sympathizer is being turned into a TV series with Robert Downey, Jr., makes my nephews and nieces very proud of me, much more willing to talk about me than they were before, and, of course, people who don’t read books are very happy to talk about TV adaptations of books. It’s a very weird situation. As a writer and as a human being, I like to work alone. I’ve had to more and more collaborate with people, such as my son, for doing this children’s book over here. And I’m collaborating on another children’s book. And, of course, TV and movies are all about collaborations. It’s been a real adjustment process. I will say that A24 was not the first company to option the series. The first person to option it is Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media, who is actually Canadian. When I optioned it to Niv, I thought this is good because Americans will screw me. Any kind of adaptation of The Sympathizer, because they come in with such a huge set of hangups about America and Vietnam. They can’t see past the particular narratives that Americans have told about the war in Vietnam, which is exactly what the novel is criticizing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Then Niv and me optioned it to A24. A24, of course, has a great track record, I think, of TV shows like Ramy, for example, so stuff like that reassures me that there is a great degree of political awareness and cultural sensitivity in A24. Then we sold it to HBO, and I’m just right now watching Exterminate All The Brutes, a documentary by Raoul Peck on HBO. I’m like, wow, it’s really hard to believe that HBO, this gigantic corporate conglomerate, has allowed the production of something that is basically condemning white supremacy as the core of western civilization.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That also gives me hope that we have an opening here. Then we have Park Chan-Wook directing. Now this is the greatest reassurance, because I love Park Chan-Wook’s work. I think he’s a visionary. I’m not just saying this because he’s my collaborator, but I was saying this before. His movie, Old Boy, was a huge inspiration for The Sympathizer in politics and tone and general weirdness. I like weirdness. He is weird, Park Chan-Wook, in a very, very good way. When we were talking about the book, he asked me a lot of questions which indicated he’d actually read the book, which most Hollywood people I have a feeling did not do when they met with me, and he asked me such good questions, I thought, God darn it, I wish he would have been there when I was writing the book. It would be a much better novel. He was asking questions about plot and character. I was like, “Oh, my God. I didn’t think about these things.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It was his idea to cast one white male actor as the guy who would play all of the white male roles, and I thought it was a stroke of genius, and everybody loves it. This is Park Chan-Wook’s stroke of genius. Robert Downey, Jr., is a very interesting guy. I mean, I’ve been watching him since I was a teenager. His movie Weird Science, where he played a minor role, was one of my favorite movies when I was a teenager. That says a lot about me. And, of course, he’s done a couple of Vietnam War movies, Tropic Thunder and Air America, which I think most people have forgotten about. Maybe he’s trying to make up for these movies. I don’t know, but I think he obviously has the star power to draw people in, and at the same time, obviously, he’s not The Sympathizer.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: This is, again, part of the whole issue of collaboration, negotiation, working with corporate power, star power, these kinds of things. Hopefully, we will get a good production of The Sympathizer with Park Chan-Wook at the helm, and hopefully Robert Downey, Jr., will draw more eyes to this than before. One I agreed to even work with an adaptation, it was very much about figuring out which compromises were acceptable and which ones were not, not something I’m really I’m really used to doing. I believe in the story of The Sympathizer. I believe that if we can do this right, then what’s going to happen is that The sympathizer sold something like a million copies worldwide, but the TV series will draw, I think, tens of millions of people, because generally speaking a great novel would be lucky if it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and a bad movie will still get millions of viewer. This is the negotiation. Can we amplify the message of The Sympathizer, which I think of as anti-war, anti-power, anti-colonial. Can we do this and just get it to a larger audience and hopefully the compromises will be worth it.

Judy Xie: Everyone is rooting for your show and the integrity that it will… I hope the integrity of the novel stays intact. We’re all so excited. In recognition of that, I know that you mentioned once that The Sympathizer was written in defiance of reduction of the American dream through generations of immigrant experience. I wanted to know, do you draw from your own memory or experience to help you write your memorable in scene moments that you have created through The Sympathizer ?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, yes. I think The Sympathizer, for example, is a novel that’s based almost wholly on fact. I mean, most of the historical events that are depicted in there really did take place, and, of course, I’ve done variations and the main characters inspired by a real spy, but his psychic life is something that I invented. I was there for the fall of Saigon, but I don’t really remember it, but I feel that as a 1.5 generation person, someone who was born elsewhere, but raised here, like many other people of my generation whose families went through war and trauma of various kinds, a lot of us, even if we don’t remember the specific events, I think a lot of us, including me, feel like we’ve absorbed the emotions of that history through our parents, through the community that we grew up with.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: As a writer, I can invent all kinds of things and do all kinds of historical research, but I think at the core of narrative fiction, at any rate, is still emotion. I have to draw from within my own emotions. Even if I have not committed murder, which happens in The Sympathizer, for example, even if I’ve not witnessed certain kinds of atrocities which happened, I have to draw on my emotions. That’s the extent to which a novel like The Sympathizer is autobiographical. I think it’s emotionally autobiographical.

Judy Xie: Do you ever feel like an emotional toll almost when you write, and you just sometimes need a break from it because it is so personal?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sometimes, yes, it’s true. Writing The Sympathizer, for example, there’s a lot of torture in that. It’s also very funny, by the way, but there’s also a lot of torture and it did cause me some sleepless nights. I have to say, sadly enough, I actually generally enjoyed writing all the terrible things that take place in The Sympathizer and in The Committed, because as a writer I feel like this is an artistic challenge. Yes, something terrible is happening right now, but how do I do this in an interesting way? Interesting for me, hopefully interesting for the reader, and I derive great joy from depicting many, many things that are wonderful, but also even from depicting terrible things. Someone’s got to explain this to me about what kind of damage is necessary to make a person be capable of enjoying the artistic creation of war, but that’s true.

Judy Xie: Yeah, thank you so much.

Wesley Ahn: Yeah. To put you each back in the professor seat, we were wondering, as students, what are dangerous recommendations you hear in your profession, or what are things you find yourself teaching students, and how can that be your avenue for decolonizing the literary space?

John Keene: Well, I’d say one of the things that I try to stress that I learned as a student was that there is no one aesthetic model or no one way of writing. I mean, I think I was reading recently, and Viet you can talk about this as one of the things that you were trying to do specifically in The Committed, is to play with the expectations about what prose should look like, what storytelling should look like, how you write a novel, how you tell a story. And I think that’s actually very good. I mean, translation, I believe, [inaudible 00:35:40] works in translation are good. Other aesthetic models, because of course this is a rich tradition in American literature, even of models that defy the usual writing for the market approach.

John Keene: One of the things that I try to tell students is that there are more expectations than the ones that you’re often internalizing, writing for fame, writing for awards, these things. There are other reasons to write, and sometimes those may be far more rewarding in the long run. So never limit yourself in terms of thinking that there is only one way to write, one way to write a short story, one way to write poems, that there are only these models. Also, your gaze is important. You have to interrogate your gaze, but to understand that part of decolonizing literature is understanding how your gaze is operating as a writer, and to think that through as you’re writing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, that’s wonderful. I mean, I agree with all of that. And, of course, I love Counternarratives. I don’t know how you would classify Counternarrative, but it’s certainly a book that does not look like what is conventionally produced in regards to black people, to enslavement, to colonization, and so on, because it’s not a thing. There’s all these market pressures coming through corporate publishers and there’s a state of racial relations and so on in the United States that seeks to commodify the experiences of people of color, of black people, and then to commodify that in a certain way, in terms of narrative form.

John Keene: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So that audiences are conditioned to expect a certain kind of narrative form when it comes to so-called minoritized peoples in this country. One way of thinking about this, the way I’ve talked about it a lot, is that if you go to an NFA program in prose fiction, oftentimes you’re going to be taught show, don’t tell. There’s nothing wrong with that aesthetic. I enjoy show, don’t tell, too, but when it turns into a dogma, like you always have to show, never tell, then there’s a real problem. I think it happens far too often that people internalize artistic techniques without understanding that they can become ideological, you know?

John Keene: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For someone like me, for example, I feel like sometimes I just want to tell you, “Fuck off,” and I want to tell you this history that you refuse to acknowledge, and sometimes telling is the most forceful thing to do. Now, if I told you constantly, kind of like I’m the crazy dude sitting at the bar stool just bombarding you with facts, okay, you can go too far. But the point is is that there’s a whole tool chest of possible kinds of aesthetic devices, as John is implying, that come from all over the place. It can come from different genres. It can come from different countries, different linguistic traditions. It can come from outside of literature. Anthony [inaudible 00:38:23] has a great posthumous interview, unfortunately, in I forget the name of the journal. It just came out. But he says it’s not just literature you have to read widely in. You also have to sample from all different kinds of things. You have to be totally open-minded and suck things in.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sometimes I think that the teaching of writing in this country is oftentimes too narrow because teachers don’t acknowledge or aren’t even aware of their own kinds of cultural, ideological, and artistic biases that they assume to be universal. The last thing I’ll say is another thing I would never do is what was done to me when I went to graduate school, a first year graduate student doing a PhD in English. The Department Chair called me in for just a talk. He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to write a dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature.” This was 1992. He said, “You can’t do that, because you’re not going to get a job.” And so I never did it. I didn’t do it. I went and I did a dissertation on Asian-American literature. Now, he might’ve been right that I couldn’t have gotten a job in the early nineties with a dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature, but he should not have told me, “You can’t do it,” because, in fact, 10 years later people were graduating from Berkeley with PhDs in Vietnamese-American literature getting jobs.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: There’s always going to be some new situation where you’re the first one doing something, and people are going to be like, “Well, you can’t do it because no one else has done it,” or “you can’t get a job,” or “you can’t do this,” all these kinds of reasons. People should never say that. People should say, “These are the conditions, these are the challenges. You should be aware of this. You should try to figure out do you want to go straight ahead, do you want to be strategic,” all that kind of stuff, but you should never tell someone, “Don’t do it because it hasn’t been done before.”

Judy Xie: Yeah, that is extremely inspiring. Thank you so much for that, Viet. I feel like as a young writer, especially going through high school and even entering college, I felt the need to almost change or cater my voice and my style of writing for publications. Yeah, so that was so nice to hear, that you can just write for yourself in some ways. On that, I guess, do you find it important for young writers to know the work and the histories of writers from their cultural backgrounds or to simply just pave their own way and experience?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, yes. [crosstalk 00:40:39]

Judy Xie: [crosstalk 00:40:39]

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think it’s important for any artist to know, again, their multiple genealogies. It’s not just one. Know the multiple genealogies from the dominant traditions to your so-called your traditions. In fact, if your tradition, whatever it is, exists, consider yourself lucky, because, again, when I was a student wanting to write that dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature, there was maybe five books I could have written about in 1992. I felt really alone. By the time I finished my short story collection, The Refugees, there were dozens of Vietnamese-American writers. I was like, thank God I’m not alone and that there is a tradition to draw from. What that means, it’s mostly good, could be bad. Mostly good because then you have a genealogy, you have a community, and so on, and you should know that, because as a writer, I think, as an artist of any kind, you’re obligated to know your aesthetic histories. Ignorance in this respect doesn’t do you any good.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think the only bad part about this is that, again, the weight of history can weigh on you. Like, “Oh, my God, I have to respond to XYZ writers and the canon and all this kind of thing,” and that can be very hard to deal with. I think some writers respond by rebelling, which is fine, by ignoring it and moving in a completely different direction, which is fine, but it helps to know what you’re rebelling against or what you’re deciding to discard.

John Keene: Yeah. I strongly think it’s important to know it’s not just one history, it’s multiple histories and genealogies. I like to think of it as a conversation. The more people that you read from the past, from these various traditions, the more you expand your conversation. You really are in conversation with writers who… In some ways, of course, their experiences are quite different. In other ways, as Viet was saying, whether we’re talking about the ’80s and ’90s, or whether we’re talking about the 1950s or we’re talking about the 1850s, there are actually still common… In the United States there are still commonalities. There’s these dual lines. Sometimes I’ve had the experience, I know many people have had this experience, where you think you’ve come up with something new, and then you keep reading and you realize, “Oh, I had a predecessor who actually thought about this first and he’s doing it much better.” Of course, then sometimes you may say, “Uh-oh, what do I do?” The thing is just to think about I’m building a bond with what this person has done, and I’m going to give it my own take, sort of bring things forward. I think it’s a very, very good thing, and it only expands your baseline of creative possibility by reading work from the traditions from which your work comes.

Wesley Ahn: Thank you for sharing lived experiences with us, speaking freedoms over us, and also I especially appreciate, as a writer I’ve recognized right before that I’ve never had a writing teacher who isn’t white, and so there’s something really exciting about this. Neither of what you’ve written is tourist realism, and so those conversation pieces are things that will prevail.

Wesley Ahn: I want to give some time to the audience’s questions, so we’re going to move into some questions from them. Yeah, so do you feel institutionally supported in your efforts to decolonize the higher education that you engage with in the areas of literature and in creative writing that you produce?

John Keene:

Well, I’d say yes. I mean, I think each institution that I’ve worked at has been different, but I feel like I have tremendous freedom where I am now, and to a certain degree in the past, to teach the sorts of things I want to teach and to engage the students in the ways that I want to engage them, to empower them to read and think and grow. There hasn’t been a lot of pushback, but I know there are many places where this is not the case, and so beyond an individual experience, I think this is a conversation that really should be, and is being had, let’s put it that way. Is being had across the country and actually across the globe. Also, one of the things that I wanted to cite in relation to this, there’s a book called Teaching Black that’s coming out, an anthology, and I wrote an essay for this called basically what can creative writing learn from black studies. I feel like it’s just a first step in terms of a response, but I was trying to think about black studies as a product of revolt, really, revolution. It was frequently, even though, of course, there were antecedents before the student revolutions of the ’60s. You had them particularly in the mid- to late-’60s.

John Keene: All of these black students all over the country as the civil rights movement is taking place, as the black power movement is coming into being, as the black arts movement is happening. You have all of these young people who are saying, “Look, we want to learn about ourselves in these institutions,” and in many cases you had some of the institutions just saying, “No,” and others that wanted to impose a very liberal, watered-down version. The students were attacked by cops, they were beaten, they were arrested, etc. So just thinking about how black studies came to be and how, going back to community, the communities were a part of that formation, I wanted to rethink creative writing and to say to people in creative writing, how can we learn from the formation of not just black studies, but ethnic studies programs? What can we bring from those experiences to the classroom to help decolonize and transform our study of literature and creative writing? I’m not the only person who has done this, but it just made me think. This question was a wonderful one in citing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: One variation of that is to say that I think literature and creative writing in the United States generally tends to privilege the individual, individual genius individual writer, whether you could aspire to be that person or whether you study these kinds of people, but in order to institutionally do anything in order to decolonize the individual is actually not enough. You need the movement. That’s why as a writer, I always felt like, yes, I’ve accrued certain kinds of individual recognitions or whatever, but none of that would have been possible if there hadn’t been an Asian-American movement, if there hadn’t been generations of Asian-American writers beforehand doing really lonely work and all of that. So it’s so crucial to acknowledge that kind of work that’s gone in advance so that by the time I became a graduate student and a professor there was institutional support, because an earlier generation of Asian-American activists had become scholars because earlier generations of Asian-American writers had created Asian-American literature as a category.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I didn’t have to do it. By the time I became a professor, I joined the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC because there had been generations of ethnic studies scholars and American studies scholars transforming and fighting in a hostile academia. Now I’m also in the Department of English at USC over 25 years, and finally after 25 years we’re finally getting to the moment where we can say decolonization in that department. We couldn’t have said that 25 years ago, but we got there because there have been institutional networks that encourage more and more black scholars, younger scholars coming into the department who were defiant and who wanted to change the very nature of the English curriculum. Then we think about the fact, and I think John and I both have Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, for example, there is institutional support at these really wealthy foundations.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t know where the money came from, but oftentimes now the leadership of these foundations are now diverse, women of color, people of color, black men, and so on, but how did they get there? They got there not only through individual effort, but, again, as part of this residual or other effects of these social and political movements. To institutionally decolonize anything, we need the writers and the artists themselves to do their work, to do the imaginative work. We need everybody else, too, behind the scenes doing the institutional work, the really hard work of transforming institutions to create more opportunities for this decolonizing work to happen.

John Keene: First of all, I don’t have a Guggenheim, but I want to say that you’re right. Sociopolitical transformation is a collective effort. It’s a collaborative effort, and it’s so important to stress that. We build upon the work that’s gone before us, the people who have gone before us. That’s another reason to read the people who proceed us.

Judy Xie: I really admire that. So our next question is, what do you see as the role of theater studies classes, history, lit, theory, and topic courses, in developing and empowering BiPOC and global majority writers?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think it’s crucial, obviously. Yeah, I think about the fact that, as I said, I was an English major and an ethnic studies major, and in English I got a lot of theory and philosophy and literary criticism, which was all great, and the work of the canon. In ethics studies I got a different set of cannons and I got a different set of theories, a different set of assumptions. I think that for me, as a writer personally, I think theory philosophy, especially by people who have identified racism, patriarchy, colonization, homophobia, heteropatriarchy heteronormativity, as social and political forces that are absolutely crucial to the worlds we live in and the aesthetics that we operate in as artists. That kind of theoretical and philosophical work is inseparable from artistic work.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t think I could have written my novels if I hadn’t read [inaudible 00:50:54], for example. The academic work, which is sometimes, especially in the context of the United States and American creative writing, both of which tend to be anti-intellectual, there are these strands of anti-intellectualism in both the United States in general and in American institutionalized creative writing. I think those are luxuries. Ignorance is a luxury that I felt that I couldn’t afford. I don’t think anybody who comes from a so-called minoritized background can afford to be ignorant of the theory and the philosophy that emerges out of political and social struggle.

John Keene: I would say reading outside what you’re getting in your classes. I mean, for example, black feminist theory is absolutely crucial, and queer theory, and, of course, actually more recently black queer theory and [inaudible 00:51:43] queer theory I think is just things that you probably aren’t going to get in our classes, may be as helpful to you as things you’re getting in the classes. So it’s important to do some of the work yourself, too. That’s one of the things I try to encourage students to do.

Wesley Ahn: We can fit one more. When did you know to take the leap to be writing full-time and to release that security of having a day job?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ve got a day job. I’m a professor.

John Keene: I do, too.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Go ahead, please.

John Keene: I was going to say that I think when I was younger there weren’t many, and there are still are writers, of course, who are full-time writers. I mean, I know several. I think it’s particularly challenging these days for any number of reasons. I mean, the shift in the economy and so forth has made it much more difficult to do. I actually enjoy my day job, so I can’t speak to not having it, but, yeah, I think are people who figure out how to make it work, but it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy, especially if you’re not a fiction writer. I think it’s particularly difficult for poets, playwrights, etc., but there are people who are able to do it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s also not an either/or thing. It’s not like you have to be a full-time writer or you have to only have a day job. I think that for most of us, as John’s implying, there’s a middle ground, and it’s also difficult simply to make the decision to say, I’m going to have day job and I’m going to try to be an artist or a writer at the same time, because what you’re really doing at that point is saying, I’m going to have two jobs, in addition to my personal life and whatever the emotional needs of that. That’s really hard. I think of my 20-year apprentice trying to become a writer as I was a professor and as I had a personal life, it meant that I had no life. I’m not sure that’s a solution for everybody, but that was the price… I think writers and artists always have to pay some kind of price.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m told often that I’m too negative and too pessimistic and I should say writing is fun and writing is awesome and everybody should do it. I’m like, okay, for some people, but for me I felt like writing always had a cost, cost in terms of time, cost in terms of emotion, cost in terms of many, many things. I’m not doing this to draw pity or anything. I’m just saying that it’s a difficult thing to be an artist of any kind in any situation in the United States. We all need our support networks. We need the institutional support. We need events like this to know that there’s a community or communities for us, that we’re not alone doing the lonely work.

Judy Xie: Well, as a creative writing student, I can assure you that we all really, really appreciate our creative writing professors and having them there. It’s just so nice. It’s a real break from a very difficult curriculum sometimes. Well, we have one more question. Are there any up and coming authors who you recommend us to check out?

John Keene: There are so many. I’m just going to name two that I taught this past spring, who are both fantastic. I was teaching a novel workshop, and so we read three novels, and two of the novels, I want to mention two of them, or two of the writers. One of them was the writer Maza Magista, who I think is just fantastic, and she has written several novels about a family, I think it was in Ethiopia, and so she was going to write [inaudible 00:55:25]. It’s the history of those countries, but in these incredibly rich and invigorating way. I highly recommend her.

John Keene: Another up and coming writer that I taught this past spring was Kaming Chang, who is also a fantastic writer and very inventive. She takes the immigrant story and just turns it on its head in a very, very interesting way. Those are just two writers, but there are so many. For all of the people I did not name, forgive me. The poets. I look at your writing. This is a wonderful time for writing, and I think you just can dive in and you’ll find a lot of amazing work out there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m going to take up and coming meaning as someone with one book, as far as I know. So I mentioned Anthony Veasna So, his short story collection After Parties, I think, has just come out. Lots of love for Anthony who passed away too soon. Tommy Orange, the novelist of There There, a big hit obviously, but also a very nice guy. Two poets, Somass Sharif, who wrote Look, and Lady Longsoldier who wrote Whereas. All these writers, I think, find new and creative ways of using language and form to address very difficult kinds of histories around colonization, warfare, genocide, occupation, and all these types of things, and doing it with great imagination and oftentimes with humor, as well, which is really hard to do, but it’s actually possible. I find all of them very inspiring.

Judy Xie: I will be sure to check them out.

Wesley Ahn: Well, I think we’ve come to the end of our time. Thank you both for sharing time and space and recommendations with us.

Carolina Do: I’m definitely going to email you both, because in our chats, which we’ve had a very, very interactive audience, wanting to know your book recommendations and your article recommendations. I want to be able to share with. Thank you both so much for your time and for speaking with Wesley and Judy, and also our community of folks who tuned in. The words and everything you guys told really resonated with a lot of people who are artists and are looking for guidance on what to do next. So thank you so much.

John Keene: Thank you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you Carolina. Thank you Judy and Wesley. Good luck everybody out there.

Carolina Do: Thank you.

John Keene: Thank you Judy and Wesley.

Carolina Do: I just want to let everyone in the audience know before we wrap up and let you get back to your day. John and Viet you can leave, you can go back to your day, wherever, whatever you were doing before this. We wanted to let you know a little bit more about our upcoming programming, which is currently we have a residency for black women theater makers, one of the playwrights whom Wesley mentioned earlier, and it’s a four-month period of process-oriented creative support that is provided to artists from around the world. The program provides financial support, time for new work development and experimentation and community building with local artists. We will be having our presentations in late September. Please join us. Sign up on our mailing list so that you can follow us and find out about it. Follow us on social media.

Carolina Do: Lastly, as a small theater company, we are committed to providing affordable access to our artistic programming, whether it be a main stage production or a digital event like this, and equitable compensation for all of our guests and artists. The support and engagement of our community, like you all in the audience, in the comments, really goes a long way and really encourages us to continue to do these types of programming. If you’re able to, we always appreciate donations of any amount. Any amount helps us do the work that we want to do in terms of programming more events like this. Also, please follow us, like I said, again on social media. Let us know what you want to hear about next, who you want to hear from next. The great thing about our lunch table talks is that it’s a revolving Rolodex of staff members who are choosing the people and the themes that we’re interested in to talk about. Last, but not least, we look forward to welcoming you back to in person when we do our first onsite production next spring. Thank you all so much for joining us today. Thank you so much.

Judy Xie: Bye.

Carolina Do: Bye. Thank you.

Category: Interviews


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