Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

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Viet Thanh Nguyen talks to host Ben Rhodes about the cultural depictions of the Vietnam War and the links between colonialism and capitalism for Pod Save the World.

Read the transcript for the interview portion below.

Ben Rhodes: I am very pleased to be joined now by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer and the Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His new book, The Committed, is out now. Viet, thanks so much for joining us. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hey, Ben. Good to talk to you again. 

Ben Rhodes: So, look, I just want to start by saying like this, this is a phenomenal book, like people need to go out and buy it. I have to admit, I, I was skeptical that you could match The Sympathizer. I think this in some ways even exceeds it. If you haven’t read The Sympathizer, you can still read this book. But I want to start with a broad question that I kept thinking, because the book is many things, like The Sympathizer. It’s, it’s a crime thriller set in 1980s Paris. It’s a propulsive plot with very colorful characters coming in and out. But it’s also this novel clearly of ideas about colonialism and identity, and believing in something, or not believing in things. And I think if the readers pick it up here, what you’ll find are these amazing vignettes of dialogue and discovery along the way where, you know, you stop and you have to process what’s coming at you. The question I have for you after that intro is, is when you sit down to write a book like this, a novel like this, that is such a novel of ideas, did you begin with, like, the particular story you wanted to tell or do you have these ideas you want to communicate and you build the story around it? How do you go about setting up to write The Sympathizer or The Committed? 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think, first of all, thank you for being skeptical and for keeping your skepticism to yourself. [laughter] I’m glad I didn’t know about that. But, you know, I mean, each book, each book is different. And so The Sympathizer and The Committed evolved in different ways. And in The Sympathizer, you know, it was very important for me to have a plot that would work very well and seduce readers along the way. And that was novel of ideas as well, but probably not quite as explicit a novel of ideas as that The Committed. So I thought The Sympathizer was more kind of a satire. I wanted to set up a lot of the plot points along the way that would allow my narrator to get his punches in against the Americans and the French and the various Vietnamese factions as well. But with The Committed, it was, it was certainly going to be more of an explicit novel of ideas because it’s a different situation that our narrator finds himself in. In The Sympathizer, he’s a spy, he’s on a mission. In The Committed, he’s no longer a spy, and he’s destroyed psychologically after everything that happened to him in The Sympathizer and he has to rebuild himself. And this is where the novel of ideas part comes into play, because here he has to reconsider everything he’s ever thought about himself and about the world, and his own vision of himself as a revolutionary, and all the theories and philosophies that that have shaped him. So in constructing The Committed, one of the things that was really different was The Sympathizer had a two-page outline and The Committed has something like a 40 or 50-page outline and notes about various kinds of things that I wanted to investigate and have conversations about. And a lot of that didn’t make it into the novel, but a lot of it did. So I still wanted that to be a crime novel and to work as a, as a novel with a plot. So all that was working, and then it was really crucial to try to figure out how does he get to have these exchanges about ideas? How does that, how does that work organically, without it seeming as if he was a professor coming in to give you a lecture? And so part of the plot was the necessity of creating characters and situations where it would be sort of believable that he could have these kinds of exchanges about Sartre or Camus, Fennell and Cesaire, and so on and so forth. Hopefully, hopefully it worked. 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah. Well, I definitely thought it worked and I mean, one of the things it’s obviously about is colonialism. And it’s interesting to me how, you know, you deal with kind of American colonialism in The Sympathizer and French colonialism, and then this, you know, just so the listeners know, we begin this book, you know, our narrator has ended up in France. He’s been through a reeducation camp. He’s been through quite an ordeal. He’s already, he’s been a double agent. He was spying for the communist revolution in Vietnam while working for the Americans, lived in America—so this is someone with multiple identities—but he’s taken in by the French who were obviously the original colonizers of Vietnam. And then what I thought was so interesting is, you know, he makes his decision to essentially become a drug dealer. You know, he’s peddling hashish to kind of this circle of French intelligentsia, et cetera. And I thought you, you seem to be blending capitalism with colonialism, like the decision to become a drug dealer corrupts him in some fashion. It almost felt to me like I was reading this, like he was being colonized by the action of, of—not being a drug dealer per se—but just by the action of being dependent on money. Did you see those two things as blended as you’re constructing kind of the, the circumstances for the narrator? 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I think both these novels: The Sympathizer and The Committed—and by the way, you don’t have to have read The Sympathizer to read The Committed. I don’t know why you haven’t read The Sympathizer but in case you haven’t, you can just read The Committed, there’s plenty of referrals back to the earlier plot—but I think of these two novels as certainly entertainments in the Graham Greene sense. You know, Quiet American in books like that. You read them for the thriller aspect. But I also think of them as indictments of colonialism, like you’re saying. And my own thinking over the past few years has turned increasingly towards the necessity for thinking about how colonization hasn’t really ended. I mean, we’ve lived through the period of national decolonization and wars for independence and all that. But the psychic structures of colonialism continue. Like, I mentally colonized, even though I’m trying to think against colonialism, and the economic fallout of colonialism, and the political fallout still continues. So it’s crucial to foreground colonialism, how it operates, how it continues to shape our lives—whether we’ve benefited from it or whether we were exploited by it. And in my mind, colonialism is inseparable from capitalism, and colonialism is a form of capitalism—it’s done specifically through racism and imperialism—but it’s a way of exploiting entire nations and peoples for their resources and their labor, just a really naked and brutal form of capitalism. And of course, our narrator is a communist. He’s opposed all these kinds of things, but he’s been disillusioned with communism at the end of The Sympathizer. And so he does things he should not do, including—I should say, not just becoming a drug dealer, which might be personally morally reprehensible, but becoming capitalist, which in his view, is actually much more reprehensible because, as he says: a drug dealer might harm a few people, but a capitalist plunders from millions and is not apologetic about it. And of course, we’re living through a time period where I think that’s kind of explicit with the Sackler family. I mean—

Ben Rhodes: Yeah. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We’re having a whole episode of capitalist exploitation of drugs happening right in front of our faces as a function and an outcome of capitalism. I don’t think it’s an aberration. I think it’s a part of the system. And of course, this novel makes reference to the fact that the original drug runners in Southeast Asia were the French, the French government, the French military. They cultivated opium. They forced the Southeast Asians to buy the opium and to consume it. So they weren’t that different from the British in that sense. And so when we look at all of this, this tangle of colonialism and capitalism and drugs, part of the point that the novel is making, is that the real crime is—again, not the individual crime of the drug dealer or the criminal—but the larger systemic crimes of colonialism and capitalism. 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, and I thought, I mean, it was interesting to me how, you know, again, there’s this, you know, people should know, and one of the many reasons to pick up this book—it’s kind of a propulsive crime thriller. And I really loved the kind of the glimpse into 1980s Paris. It made me want to visualize that. But it also has all these remarkable conversations and debates. And what’s interesting to me is that the foil is often kind of French leftist, right? People who are seeking to make themselves kind of fellow travelers or supporters of these Vietnamese, but who cannot help being incredibly condescending. And I was wondering about that, that dynamic where often in the West, you know, it’s the people who think that they’re on the right side of these things who aren’t doing enough to kind of question the prism through which they’re, they’re engaging on issues like Vietnam—or name any other circumstance where you’re kind of moving into post-colonial society. I mean, how did you think about these archetypal characters, these kind of French leftists who, you know, proclaim themselves as socialist or even Maoist or communist, and yet have such an impossible time connecting or understanding the people that they’re trying to sympathize with? 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I had a lot of fun portraying these types of characters. And I think part of the point of these two novels is that, you know, they’re novels that try to punch up. I mean, they’re satirizing the powerful and the abuses of power and the hypocrisy of power, and part of the point is that we’re all susceptible to that. It doesn’t matter whether we’re Democrats or Republicans or on the left wing or on the right wing, you can see these kinds of excesses, excesses and contradictions happening everywhere all the time. It’s part of human nature that we take these noble ideals—whatever they’re called—and then because we’re human, we screw them up with our petty vanities and failures and greed’s and all that kind of thing. And I speak from personal experience. I’m a petty, flawed individual, and if you give me that much power, I might be kind of a problematic human being myself. But, you know, in The Sympathize there was all the critique, obviously, of Americans, and especially the American right wing and the militaristic part of American culture. But when, when it came to France, it seemed to me that it would it would be beneficial to point out how the left wing, everything from socialists to communists, also do some of the same things as well. And it wasn’t hard to find these examples in French culture and politics of French leftists and intellectuals behaving badly, and having a particular kind of fetishization about the East and about Maoism and the potential revolutionary idealism. We see this in contemporary French history from the idealization of the May 1968 movement in Paris, and we see it even with what’s happening today. So there’s a character in the novel called BFD. He’s a sort of a French left wing politician, based on a lot of people, but certainly inspired partly by DSK. You know, the other famous guy with three initials like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, he’s a socialist prime minister, candidate for higher office in France. And this guy was alleged to have raped his black hotel maid, never convicted of that. But in the process, it came out that he and his high-falutin friends had a very expensive call—ring of call girls that that they resorted to. And that’s alluded to in the novel as well. So it’s quite a lot of fun to poke fun at our French allies as well. 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, well, I mean, like, one of the things that you do in the, in both these books, and also in another great nonfiction book that you wrote, “Nothing Ever Dies” which I also recommend to people, is offer this experience of the war from the Vietnamese perspective. And you are a Vietnamese-American, but what made me consider is, you know, coming of age, the, you know, the culture I consumed about that was kind of left wing right? I mean, it was all those movies, right? Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. But it’s all about the tragedy of what the war had done like, to Americans. And if the Vietnamese entered into the picture, you know, they were victims, but we didn’t really see them. You know, they were on the other side of napalm, or they were the statistic of three million dead, which dwarfed, you know, the 50,000 that obviously was tragic for Americans. How much do you see the role of these books as identifying: hey, there’s a different experience than the very narrow prism through which America has presented its version of the Vietnam War. I mean, how do we make sense of such a large event in our history that excludes the people, you know, the Vietnamese people who actually were there when the war was fought?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, you know, I’m Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American. Born in Vietnam, came here as a refugee. And I’m also a writer, you know, which makes me a little bit different than a lot of other Vietnamese people who became doctors and lawyers and engineers. And, you know, my feeling is we need our storytellers. You know, we’re living at a time of anti-Asian violence and all of our doctors and lawyers and engineers aren’t necessarily going to save us, but we need the storytellers to change the narrative, right? We need the storytellers to fight against anti-Asian hatred and how it’s sort of fundamentally embedded in the narratives of the United States. And I’m also humbled by the fact that, you know, even a good novel will have tens of thousands of readers, but a bad movie or a bad TV show will have millions of viewers. So this is what we’re up against and, in terms of trying to change narratives and how they’re embedded with power. So you brought up Hollywood and its ability to narrate a certain kind of a story. And I thought that with The Sympathizer, it was important to try to contest that because, not just because they’re American stories, but because they’re global stories. The reason people pay attention to these movies all over the world is because America has the capacity to export its movies as well as export its weaponry and influence, globally. So to try to contest that within an American novel would be a way to try to contest that within the circuits of the English language and of English language literature, which is global again because of America’s global power. Now, that being said, it’s such an immense task because the entire weight of American culture, from presidential rhetoric to the Pentagon to foreign policy to Hollywood, is designed deliberately and sort of just implicitly to get Americans to see the world in a particular way. And part of the point of these of The Sympathizer in particular, is that this is a form of propaganda, and it’s a form of soft power that Americans absorb without knowing it. Americans say: oh, you know, the Chinese or the Russians are the real propagandists. But, you know, we have our own form a propaganda that operates in a soft power kind of fashion. So, the contradiction here is that you can have a left-wing Hollywood culture that silences Vietnamese people, and that at the same time, you can have someone like me, a Vietnamese-American writer, who’s allowed to publish his books in the United States. But how much change can these novels have against, again, this whole weight of American culture, trying to get us to see things just from the American point of view? So I think it’s crucial that I try to do it and that others try to do it as well. But it’s kind of such an immense task. And I don’t know, I just I think in my darkest moments, I fear that it’s hard for something like literature to change the direction of this gigantic American vessel of power and ideology. 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I mean, I was going to ask, how does, what is the role of the novelist or the writer or a novel in changing that? And I guess a different way of asking that question, because you’ve already kind of answered it, is: is there any way to kind of break down some of these, you know, silos, right? Because, you know, there can be a whole conversation happening through novels that never enters into foreign policy where I used to work. You know, I mean, people weren’t reading novels. They probably should have been, you know? Is there any way—you live out in L.A., right? So do you see any hope, any possibility for a more constructive kind of cross pollination between the kind of ideas that can be explored in a novel, and what’s being produced by popular culture or entering in to consideration? 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I mean, it’s a couple of things, you know, which is, you know, besides being a novelist, I also do my best to be, you know, a pundit or whatever you call it by writing Op-Eds and everything like that. And one of the interesting things that happened recently was I published an Op-Ed with my friend Janelle Wong in The Washington Post saying: hey, you know, there’s anti-Asian violence happening, but we can’t be naive and think that this is separate from our stances against China. For example, if you elevate China to be the number one threat against the United States, you know, given the recent history of the United States against Asians, that’s going to rebound on our Asian-American populations. Lo and behold, got an invitation to talk to the State Department about that Op-Ed. So maybe there is some hope there that if more writers were thinking about themselves not only as, you know, poets or novelists and what have you, but to think about ourselves as committed writers, which is partly what the novel The Committed is about, maybe we could have at least some impact as a consequence of whatever minor cultural status we have as writers and as intellectuals. And then the other side of it, as you said, is pop culture. And here’s one of the most offensive questions you can ask a writer, of a novelist like me, which is: so when is it going to be turned into a movie? As if that is the ultimate sign of cultural approval, not that you have a novel, but that it’s going to become a movie. And so, of course, the novel has been optioned for TV production. Hopefully will happen, but it’s very complicated path, as you know, to try to get anything to be made into an actual TV series in Hollywood. But there’s, maybe there’s some hope there, that with the right collaborators, you know, you can make this TV show, people will go gaga because it cost 50 million to 100 million dollars to produce a TV series, whereas with this novel, it cost me thousands of dollars, whatever I’m worth, it’s like worth thousands of dollars. And maybe then, you know, people could see more of the critique that’s being made guised as, disguised as TV entertainment. So it’s a complex mechanism because, you know, and I think you’ve talked about this, all kinds of compromises, moral and esthetic and political, need to be made the higher up you go into this chain of power and of money. And so there’s no surprise that it’s poets who were the first ones, I think, to take moral stances because all it takes is your own life, whereas Hollywood is the last one to take moral stances because it’s like hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. And of course, people are very reluctant once that money is involved, to do anything courageous. 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, that’s a great point. And the same is true in foreign policy, right? The higher up you get, the more you almost have to compromise some things just to go to work, right? And I want to, I have a couple of questions for you on foreign policy, because there are interesting echoes from your books. I mean, the first is, is Vietnam, right? We, we’re in this kind of strange moment, and we were even in the Obama years, where America and Vietnam are getting closer together in some ways because of shared concerns about China. It’s like history coming full circle around this question of, you know, Vietnamese discomfort with the Chinese encroachment on the South China Sea and their borders, American strategic interest in Asia—I was a part of that, I spent a lot of time with Vietnamese officials. How do you make sense of this world in which, you know, less than a half century after an incredibly brutal war, you know, Vietnam is one of our closer partners in Asia, and it’s not about democracy or any, you know, any value proposition per se. It’s actually kind of about sovereignty, right? The Vietnamese desire to be left alone and to have their independence. Like, how do you look at that? And do you, you know, do you see it as a positive, or is it kind of in some way speak to the you know, the failures of both the American and Vietnamese systems to see things beyond, you know, a pretty narrow interest.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think, from the American perspective, and this is, I think Americans took all the wrong lessons from the war in Vietnam. I mean, from my understanding in the war, in the years after the war in Vietnam it was all about these kinds of like strategic and policy decisions, you know. How do we fight this war? How do we fight the next war better, for example, with better weapons, better tactics, better cultural policies? This kind of thing. Where the question should have been: how do we not fight a war again? Because hindsight is 20/20, but if we look at what happened in Vietnam from 1945-1975 things, if the United States had simply just let things unfold the way they should have—if the Americans had not sided with the French, if the Americans had not tried to interfere—the country probably would have unified under Ho Chi Minh, maybe would have been communist, maybe it wouldn’t have been communist. Who knows? Most likely would have been communist. But in the end, the result would have been the same. A unified communist Vietnam would still have come seeking American help as Ho Chi Minh tried to do in 1945 because the bigger enemy was China. And we could have got to that point, you know, without the loss of millions of people in Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia, where the war, the war spilled over as well. And so we can’t change that history, but if we look at that history, then we can think, well, maybe if we had just let people pursue their own sovereignty, and our intervention should have been to help them materially with aid, for example, versus with warfare and soldiers—we could have a very different outcome, much less loss of human life on all sides, much less expenditure of money, or at least our money could have been going to improve human lives rather than taking them away. So from my perspective, it seems, again, we took the wrong lessons and that’s why we’re in Iraq and Afghanistan and all this kind of stuff that’s happened over the past 20 years. So, you know, in the current situation, it’s just one of these brutal ironies of history and of politics, that now these mortal enemies, the Americans and the Vietnamese, are, if not best friends, at least friendly and willing to let the past be the past. It’s a kind of a reconciliation in some ways that is not a I think, a real reconciliation. It’s a reconciliation geared for geopolitical self-interest and strategies. And, but what I you mean by saying that it’s not a real reconciliation, is that I think the underlying issues that brought these countries into conflict with each other in both countries, has not been resolved. So in the United States’ case, we’re still the same kind of country we were, I think, getting into Vietnam. And hopefully Joe Biden has recognized that, and is trying to steer both domestic and foreign policy in a different direction. And for the Vietnamese perspective, I think there is still all these kinds of contradictions of inequity within the country that was part of the reason that the Vietnamese wanted to fight a war of freedom and independence. And that’s all been papered over as well. So, yeah, U gave very mixed feelings about what’s happening. 

Ben Rhodes: Well, and you kind of anticipated the question I was going to ask, which is Afghanistan, right? 20 years, we’re finally leaving, leaving that place probably with as little understanding of it as we had a Vietnam in 1975 in a lot of ways. And I guess that leads to the last question, which is less about foreign policy, because your basic point of maybe “don’t fight these wars” is a good answer to the war piece of it. But what, it’s interesting that America is a country that has people from everywhere, right? I mean, we have a large Vietnamese population here, despite the horrific anti-Asian violence we’ve seen recently, that has, that population thrived. But how is it that America manages to have people from everywhere and not be able to to incorporate the lessons of their experience and our own understanding of the countries where these people came from, right? And how could we do better to, as a nation reflect our actual diversity in, you know, in our own conception of ourselves. I mean, your book is a lot on this question of how do you select what you believe in, you know? And I guess in a country like America, part of what you believe in is diversity: diverse views, diverse peoples. You know, having written and thought a lot about this, I’m just curious what your sense is of how we construct an identity as a country that, that is able to draw on that diversity rather than kind of fight against it. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: All right. So I’m going to give you a short-term answer that’s optimistic, and a long-term answer that’s pessimistic. 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, good. Okay.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The short term answer is like, you know, around the question of diversity, is that our recognition of diversity is always belated. You know, when the new population comes in—whoever that happens to be, let’s say it’s the Vietnamese in my case. You know in 1975, the majority of Americans didn’t want to take in Vietnamese refugees, and then Congress did the right thing and admitted us. And then it turns out we were pretty good! [laughs] We contributed to American society. Now, like if we look at Afghanistan, what we should be doing is like rescuing as many Afghans as possible. You know, it’s like, I agree, we should get the American military out of Afghanistan. This was a total disaster. But we can’t just abandon all these people that we persuaded and strong-armed into fighting this terrible war. It’s exactly what happened to the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese, a lot of Vietnamese did not even what the Americans there. They would have taken American aid to fight that war, but they didn’t necessarily want American troops in Vietnam. And then by the time, it was all broken down, you know, it was, it was a total horror show in terms of trying to get people out. So we have a chance, again, to do history better by taking in as many Afghans who sided with Americans as want to come to the United States. And I’m really kind of horrified that this may not happen, again taking the wrong lessons out of what happened during the war in Vietnam. So it’s belated because, you know, obviously there are a lot of Americans who are like: we don’t want to take Afghans in, there this kind of foreign population, they may be terrorists, etc. And then 30 years down the road, if we actually had Afghan-Americans, we’d be: hey, we love you guys! You know, you bring great food and great music and all this other kind of stuff to the United States. So that’s part of the problem here. You know, we have a scapegoating issue—like many countries do, we fear the other. And then once we get to spend time with the new other, we’re like: they’re not so bad. So that’s the optimistic answer, that the diversity, the rhetoric of diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism, is something that’s necessary to trying to fine tune this country’s operations. Now, the long-term pessimistic answer, and this goes back to the colonialism question that The Committed is committed to, is that I think the reason why the diversity issue is not going to solve things and why there is still endemic anti-Asian hate in this country, is reflected in the fact that a lot of Asian-Americans are going around saying in response to anti-Asian hate: hey we’re Americans, we belong here, we’ve been here for a very long time, many of us, and we’re not going away. And that’s a very affirmative thing from the perspective of diversity and American pluralism, that a lot of us believe in. But part of me feels a little uneasy when I hear that, because part of what that narrative participates in is something that Asian-Americans have said for a long time: we claim America. Well, if you claim America, you claim everything about America, about the United States. And by that I mean you claim everything, including the colonization that this country was built on. So when, if I was a Native American or indigenous person and I heard this rhetoric, I’d be like: hmm, well, that sounds awesome to want to belong to America, but America colonized us, is colonizing us still, and that colonization is, you know, genocide to violent conquest and so on. Things that have continued, arguably from my perspective, into the way that we conduct our wars today. So there’s a huge contradiction there between the desire to be diverse and to recognize people and to include them, and all that being premised upon a colonizing system that is still a part of the United States. And unless we can actually recognize that contradiction, and try to find a way to deal with it—and Americans have a very hard time recognizing this—we’re going to, we’re going to see a recurrent pattern, both of American wars overseas, but also of problems of racism and violence domestically as well. 

Ben Rhodes: You know, I think the fact that we had something called the Vietnam Syndrome referred to in foreign policy circles, that was actually about how we learn the wrong lesson because we got too hesitant to get into wars again, you know, and now we’re obviously have a post-9/11 Forever War Syndrome. Hopefully this is a time where we can learn those lessons. But um, but it requires vigilance. And it requires books like The Committed. I cannot recommend this book enough. Like I said, it’s funny, intelligent, it’s a crime thriller. It’s atmospheric, and ’80s Paris, it’s got characters you won’t forget. And above all, it’s this kind of novel of ideas. It is situated in kind of the tradition of the great American novel. So congratulations on the book, and thanks so much for having this conversation with us. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks for having me, Ben. And let’s hope that there will be more readers in foreign policy and government in the future. 

Ben Rhodes: The best thing I ever did, and I didn’t do it enough was I tried to try to read novels before we’d visit like a foreign country, just by someone from that country. You know? If I could make a change in requirement, I think, you know, requiring people to read deeply into the fiction and culture of the countries that they’re working with would be better than reading the think-tank papers. But, hey, you know. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sounds like Utopia. 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] It’s a little Utopian. All right man, Well, thanks so much and good talking to you. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Bye Ben, Thanks for having me.


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