The Guardian Live: In Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses his new novel, The Committed, with Nikesh Shukla for the Guardian Live.

Read transcript below.

Nikesh Shukla:
I’m Nikesh Shukla. I am an author. I am the editor of The Good Immigrant and the author of the recent memoir, Brown Baby. I am going to be your co-pilot, host. I’m going to be your host for the next hour. I’m going to be in conversation with Viet. Really, really happy that you’re joining us. We really want to hear from you guys tonight as well. There is a Q&A function on the right of your screen. So please use that and you can send them live throughout the event, as things occur to you. And when we get to the Q&A bit, we’ll be picking from those questions. So your questions will be visible to of the audience, which means you have the option to like other people’s questions, make them respectful, make them short. A comment is not a question and all the rest of it, but we’ll get to that.

First of all, I’m really, really pleased to introduce you or reacquaint you with the amazing author, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Viet was born in Vietnam and raised in America, and he has written the novels, well, that short story collection, The Refugee and Refugees and The Sympathizer, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, as well as five other awards. He has written various nonfiction books, including The Displaced, which is another amazing book of essays and Nothing Ever Dies and Race and Resistance. But we are here tonight to talk about The Committed, which has just come out in the UK. It came out in America in the last month also. It is the sequel to the Pulitzer Prize, The Sympathizer, which followed the anonymous narrator, a North Vietnamese mole in the South Vietnamese army, who was embedded in community in exile in America. But we aren’t here to talk about the sequel, we’re to talk about The Committed. So that is all intro. Hello Viet, how are you doing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Hi, Nikesh, I’m doing good. Thanks so much for having me here.

Nikesh Shukla:
Oh, I’m really, really pleased to be in conversation with you. I’ve been such a huge fan of your work. I came across it when The Refugees came out and I really loved that book. And then after that read The Sympathizer and The Displaced, and obviously in the last few weeks have been tearing through The Committed, which is such a brilliant book, such a brilliant follow. Also a standalone book in its own right. So I wondered if before we start, I guess I have to do the traditional COVID question. How has your lockdown been? How have you been coping with the last year in this global pandemic? Have you been okay? Has your family all been okay? How have you been?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, we’ve been fortunate to be really lucky that everybody in the immediate circle is fine. Nobody got sick. I think everybody’s kind of stressed out and bored. And that is saying a lot, because my family’s a bunch of introverts, me especially. So nothing in my life really changed that much because of the COVID lockdown. Except I had to teach online and I’m doing all these events online. So this is my life sitting in this chair, in this office, in my basement for dozens of hours every week. I’m coming to the end of my rope. I thought I was doing pretty well for the first 12 months or so, but now I’m like, “I got to get out of the house.” We planned our first family vacation within United States for in the summer. And my wife and I have both been vaccinated. So we’re hoping the thing will take a turn around here. Hope yours has been a decent lockdown as well?

Nikesh Shukla:
Can I just tell you that tomorrow my soccer game, my weekly soccer game starts up again, and I have never been more excited to see a bunch of sweaty people in my life. Yeah, one of the things that I have been talking to a lot of writers about is how there’s, even though we’ve been in lockdown and we haven’t been in the world as much as we might like to be in the world. Because obviously being in the world is where we draw so much inspiration. I don’t feel like many of us have had much off time or downtime or time to kind of, so many people have been really either making stuff or torturing themselves that they’re not writing enough or a bit of both. How has it been for you creatively?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, the lockdown had zero impact on my writing. It’s teaching that’s really, I blame my students. It’s the teaching that really gets in the way of the writing. So there was a moment in the lockdown last year, end of mid-December to mid-January between teaching where I wrote 30,000 words. The lockdown didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I thought it was great. I don’t have to a house, which is fantastic, is what, I mean, writers really want to do that. Of course, we want to voluntarily stay at home rather than being forced to stay at home. And you’re right, that my schedule is busier than it’s ever been. And I think partly it’s because the one positive side for a writer in this pandemic is being online has enabled us to reach audiences all over the world.

So one of the cool things is I can talk to you. I don’t have to go to London and vice versa to make this happen. I can do events with authors coming from all different places and when we track where our attendance is coming from, it’s all over the world. So that’s the one positive, but it also means that I think you’re aware of this. We’re available pretty much all the time. And people are like, “Why can’t you do a Zoom meeting? Just turn on the camera.” But if you do enough of them, it’s really, really distracting.

Nikesh Shukla:
Yeah. And especially with the teaching where you have to bring so much energy, so much more energy than you naturally would do in a classroom where an atmosphere can be created, but when there’s X number of students on mute and all you hear is the silence in your own room. It can be quite disconcerting. Let’s move on to The Committed. So you’re going to read two very short passages from it to kind of set us up. I wonder if you, for people who haven’t read The Sympathizer, do you want to just bring us in where Committed picks up? Because the prologue is so beautiful. Sorry, sorry. The prologue is so beautiful and just so sad and reflective and then it gets crazy right after that. And we’re off it, we’re off.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, let me just say that you have the UK cover and I have the American cover here and I like my American publisher very much, but I have to say that cover, I love that cover that you have. And I just want to know, is that cover considered offensive in the UK with those words on the cover?

Nikesh Shukla:
I had to have a conversation with my daughter about what. Right before you came on, it was just obviously when Viet came on the Zoom, I was just reading my daughter’s bedtime story, putting her into bed. And she had seen it and she read, just read it out. And I had to sort of … You know what, it’s one of those things where it’s so immersed in the image that you don’t spot it immediately. So I think we’re fine.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Okay, cool. So-

Nikesh Shukla:
I’ll be putting the stickers over that bit though. Sorry.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I just want to point out that the cover is referring to a real moment in the novel. It’s a flashback where our narrator has returned to his maternal village where his mother died. And he’s so upset. He’s been living in the United States and his mother died while he was a student in the United States and he comes back and he discovers obviously that she’s gone and he’s a mixed race descent, and he’s French and Vietnamese. His father was a French priest who molested his mother when she was only 13. And so he’s so upset that he thinks about this Zippo lighter that his CIA advisor, Claude has and on this. And the lighter is this one. I had it recreated just as a memento. And that’s the unofficial slogan of the CIA. I made that up, but that’s what’s on the cover of the UK edition.

And personally, I love it, fits my mentality. It fits my spirit. But you know, The Sympathizer, as you’ve already described, it is a spy novel. And it’s about the spy who goes to the United States and he eventually goes back to Vietnam in that book. And then he becomes a prisoner. And then he flees the country at the end of the book on a refugee boat. And this is exactly where then The Committed picks up on that refugee boat. So this is the first passage I’m going to read. This is going to be a couple minutes. And they’re on the refugee boat with 150 people on a little boat not meant for anywhere near that amount.

“We, the unwanted, wanted so much. We wanted food, water and parasols. Although, umbrellas would be fine. We wanted clean clothes, baths and toilets, even of the squatting kind. Since squatting on land was safer and less embarrassing than clinging to the bow work of a rolling boat with one’s posterior hanging over the edge. We wanted rain, clouds, and dolphins. We wanted it to be cooler during the hot day and warmer during the freezing night. We wanted an estimated time of arrival. We wanted not to be dead on arrival. We wanted to be rescued from being barbecued by the unrelenting sun. We wanted television, movies, music, anything with which to pass the time. We wanted love, peace and justice, except for our enemies, whom we wanted to burn in hell, preferably for eternity. We wanted independence and freedom, except for the communists who should all be sent to re-education, preferably for life. We wanted benevolent leaders who represented the people by which we meant us and not them, whoever they were.

We wanted to live in a society of equality. Although, if we had to settle for earning more than our neighbor, that would be fine. We wanted a revolution that would overturn the revolution we had just lived through. In some we wanted to want for nothing. What we most certainly did not want was a storm. And yet that was what we got on the seventh day. The faithful once more cried out, ‘God help us.’ The non-faithful cried out, ‘God you bastard.’ Faithful or unfaithful, there was no way to avoid the storm dominating the horizon and surging closer and closer. Whipped into a frenzy. The wind gained momentum and as the waves grew, our arc gained speed and altitude. Lightning illuminated the dark furrows of the storm clouds and thunder overwhelmed our collective grown. A torrent of rain exploded on us. And as the waves propelled our vessel ever higher, the faithful prayed and the unfaithful cursed, but both. Then our arc reached its peak. And for an eternal moment, perched on the snow-capped crust of a watery precipice.

Looking down on that deep wine colored valley awaiting us, we were certain of two things. The first was that we were absolutely going to die. And the second was that we would almost certainly live. Yes, we were sure of it. We will live. And then we plunged, howling into the abyss.”

So they survive that experience on the open seas and they make it, they being our narrator, The Sympathizer and his best friend and blood brother Bon. They make it to Paris, the city of light, a year later after a year’s detour in an Indonesian refugee camp. So we skip over the refugee camp and basically in the next couple pages we arrive in Paris and I’m just going to read one paragraph here on their arrival at the airport.

“I could tell you the name I have in my passport, Vo Danh. I assumed this name in anticipation of coming here to Paris, or as our French masters taught us to call it, the city of light. We, Bon and I, arrived in the airport at night on a flight from Jakarta. Stepping out of the airplane we were gripped by a sense of relief, for we had reached asylum. The fever dream of all refugees, especially those rendered refugees, not just once or twice, but three times. 1954, nine years after I was born. 1975 when I was young and reasonably handsome. In 1979, just two years ago. Was the third time the charm, as the Americans like to say? Bon sighed before he pulled his airline provided sleeping mask over his eyes. Let’s just hope France is better than America.”

Nikesh Shukla:
Brilliant. Thank you so much for those readings stating off the book. So obviously both of these books are, I think that they are incredibly funny and also really far ranging in their scope. And you said that The Sympathizer reads like, it takes all the beats of a spy novel and moves us through them. And The Committed feels in part like a crime thriller. I just wondered if you could talk a bit about that genre shift for you and what that gave you?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah, well, I’m a fan of the so-called genre fictions, and the thing here to say always for me is that, literary fiction is a genre too. It just doesn’t acknowledge itself as such. And so when we say genre fiction, maybe for some people there’s a sense that this is lesser than literary fiction, but that’s not my feeling at all. I’ve written The Sympathizer as a spy novel and The Committed as a crime novel because I really appreciate those particular genres. And I think one reason why I like them so much, besides the fact that they’re oftentimes very fast paced and fun to read and all of that, is that in the hands of the really good writers of these genres, the spy novel and the crime novel, what we have are oftentimes novels that are deeply engaged historically and politically.

And so those genres become a vehicle for writers not to just tell entertainments, but also to make commentaries. And so that’s exactly what The Committed does, and the reason why it’s not a spy novel is because he’s no longer a spy, that was his job in The Sympathizer. But if you’ve read the book, and you don’t have to … Why haven’t you read The Sympathizer? I don’t know, but if you haven’t, you don’t actually need to have read it to have read The Committed. It’s designed to be stand on its own with enough hints about what happened in the past for you to catch up. But in The Committed he’s no longer a spy and he’s unmoored, he’s unmoored, both from that occupation and his affiliation with the Northern Vietnamese communist regime, that revolution that gave him meaning. And he is also unmoored psychologically because he’s been through a lot in that first novel. And so this novel’s both a crime thriller and account of one man’s descent into that underworld.

Nikesh Shukla:
He sort of like, he loses a sense of family in the first book. And I guess that kind of means that he sort of search. This is almost like his found family that he picks up in France. That’s how it kind of feels to me. He’s sort of searching for some sort of permanence almost.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah, well, I mean, Vietnamese culture is very familial. The family bonds are very close and all of that, but the problem is in Vietnam, probably not unique to the Vietnamese people. They’re also kind of racist. I mean, honestly, they’re kind of racist sometimes. And our narrator being of mixed races descent, French and Vietnamese, has experienced all that racism in Vietnam. He’s never really felt at home, and his mother was this poor girl, molested by a French priest. She was also an outcast. So yes, I think you’re right. I mean, much of his life has been about trying to find a family in the community and he has to make them on his own. So that’s one reason why he becomes a communist revolutionary. And that’s also a reason why he has these deep ties with his blood brothers Bon and Man who both appear in The Committed.

And when he gets to Paris, he’s again unmoored psychologically and morally. So he has to get a job. And he sort of makes a bad decision where he becomes a drug dealer, which from his point of view is perfectly acceptable, “Because being a drug dealer,” he says, “is more honest than being a capitalist. And a drug dealer may harm someone individually, but a capitalist harms millions.” I mean, that’s the mindset that he’s involved in. But one last thing I’ll say here is that I wanted the novel to at least be sort of authentic. So I went to Paris a couple of times for this novel for a few months. And I asked and I thought I had a lot of conversations with a friend of Vietnamese descent there. And I told him, “I’m writing this crime novel, gangster novel set in the Vietnamese refugee community.” They all said, “We don’t do that here.”

And I thought, “Wow, I’m a Vietnamese American. I grew up in a Vietnamese American refugee community. And we definitely do that, a lot of gangsters.” But somehow, I don’t know what it is. The French of Vietnamese has said, according to them, something happened genetically or culturally where they got rid of the gangster gene. And so I said, “Okay, I’m going to make these gangsters ethnic Chinese from Vietnam.” And all the French of Vietnamese descent said, “Yeah, the Chinese would do that.” So that’s the family that he’s chosen there.

Nikesh Shukla:
And did you find that, I guess when writing a crime thriller or even writing a spy thriller, there are some sort of plot beats to eat, tend to have to hit kind of keep the plot moving in that sort of structured way. Did you find that that was constraining in any way, or did you sort of relish in sort of subverting those sort of tropes?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, it’s like pulling a game. So the way I learned how to do plot was through writing a Hollywood through reading a Hollywood screenwriting manual. And I think I read one of the classic ones, but I’ve surveyed a few. They’re all kind of basically the same, because they tell you that Hollywood has a classic three act structure. Here’s what you got to do, here are the beats. Here’s exactly what has to happen at one quarter of the way, halfway, three quarters of the way through the film. And that was actually kind of really informative because once you have the template, then that liberates you from thinking about a certain kind of a framework, and you still have to plug everything in, but that liberates you in some respects.

And so that’s what happened in The Sympathizer. That’s the underlying structure, that’s underlying structure for The Committed. And so I thought, “Yes, at this point in the novel something dramatic has to happen in and so on.” But it’s not that confining if you then can play with the rules. So even though there’s the underlying skeletal structure of these plot beats and all of that, the novel itself, I think has a lot of, I have a lot of fun playing with that and interjecting, lots of variations, lots of jokes, lots of ideas in there. To me it’s a crime thriller because to me it’s a thriller because there’s a lot of violence and gangsterism and drugs and sex and all this good stuff, but it’s also a thriller because it’s also ideas in this book.

And to me, ideas are thrilling. Maybe they’re not thrilling to everybody, but to me they’re thrilling. So in this novel the narrator has to reconstruct himself. He was a man of convictions in The Sympathizer, here again, he’s unmoored. So he has to go back and think through all these ideas that have been so powerful and formative for him. And think through again, what does it mean to be a revolutionary who lost his revolution? That was really a crucial question for me in this novel. As crucial as trying to entertain the reader through the plot.

Nikesh Shukla:
You mentioned the jokes, and I just wanted to touch on the narrative style, the kind of the two brain sort of narrative style that you have. Where it is so light on its feet and it’s so acerbic and fun. And I just wondered if you could talk a bit about how you kept all of these plates spinning. Because to be tense, but to also discuss these big ideas. And I do want to talk about some of the postcolonial stuff that gets talked about in the book. But to be doing all of these things, but also make it funny is an incredible feat. And you do, do it with such a lightness of touch.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I think I’ve learned a lot from watching comedians, because I think the comedians that I really enjoy are the ones who exactly do that. They’re using humor to be really funny, but also to make a point at the same time. And so there’s many I can point to. Dave Chappelle, for example, recently I’ve watched a lot of his stuff, but recently went back and a few months ago watched, I think his first HBO special, which was probably from like 15, 20 years ago. And it was enormously topical because what he was talking about then when he was making very funny was that he’s a black man in the United States, smoking pot, driving and getting pulled over by the cops. I mean, that’s a basic narrative arc of the special and afraid of getting shot by the cops.

Now that’s in the context of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. And all of this stuff that’s been happening, has a very different meaning now than it did 20 years ago, even though 20 years ago that stuff was happening too, except it wasn’t being recorded on video. But here’s a guy, Chappelle, who’s able to make jokes out of something that’s obviously incredibly dangerous and incredibly serious. And so that’s the style that I wanted to engage in. And I think the joke for me is really a powerful narrative tool, but also a powerful political tool. Because the joke can make us laugh and make us think all at the same time. And the joke is really threatening to those in power. There’s a line in the novel that goes, “Well, once the revolution loses a sense of humor, it’s all over.” That’s when the revolution, any revolution becomes terrifying to its own people, versus just to the powers that it’s trying to depose. Because once you lose your sense of humor and as someone in power, then any kind of a joke is a threat to you.

And that’s exactly what the function of a joke should be, is to point out absurdity and hypocrisy. And when we’re talking about things like colonialism and capitalism, these can be, and war, these can be very absurd types of things. As tragic as they are, they’re also absurd because of the gap between the ideals that the people who advocate war and colonialism and capitalism put forth. The gap between their ideals and the actual exploitation that takes place. And of course, our narrator is looking at all these systems from the point of view of the exploited.

Nikesh Shukla:
And I just want to talk about colonialism for a second, two things that I want to talk about. I wonder if it’s worth asking these questions sort of at the same time. So one of the things that readers will note throughout the book, our protagonist is wrestling with Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire and Edward Said and all of this postcolonial writing. And also I read in an interview that you did with April [inaudible 00:24:31] that one of the reasons for moving the book to Paris was you wanted to confront French colonialism. And you say, “You wanted to acknowledge both the horrors and the atrocities of what the French did, but also acknowledge the fact that we’ve been mentally colonized by French culture.” I wondered if you could talk about those two things?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Sure. I mean, [crosstalk 00:24:52]. No, I think I have been mentally colonized by French culture. I grew up again among Vietnamese refugees and my father is 86 years old now. But he, my mom, my mother were born during the period of French colonization in the 1930s. My father at 86 still sings some of these French songs he learned from this French education that he got in Vietnam. So, that’s still there. And I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee culture in which there were signs of French culture all around, like the baguette. Frankly, we took the baguette and now we make a better banh mi than the French have ever made in terms of sandwiches. I just guarantee you, the Vietnamese banh mi is like way, way beyond the French, whatever. I don’t like the French sandwiches. But also French pop songs, all that musical traditions that are also in the novel as well.

And I remember sitting at a bus stop when I was a really little kid and this older Vietnamese woman was sitting by my side and she was waxing romantic this total stranger about the city of light in French to me. And what the result of that is that I’m weak in the knees for French culture. You can say the stupidest thing to me in French I’m like, “That sound so good.” And so I had to confront that in this novel, and that’s a basic contradiction. We who have been colonized even in the second generation may be opposed politically to the history of this colonization, but we’re also still many of us, not all of us, many of us are still easily seduced by the power of colonial culture. And of course I write in English, it’s another sign of being colonized, but it’s the sign of impossibility.

What am I going to do? Write in Vietnamese? It’s just not, I grew up as an American, so there’s no going back in that sense to an origin beyond colonization for me. So even in the act of writing, it’s an act of confronting colonization through the masters tools as Audre Lorde puts it. And so it was really crucial to write The Committed to me to take on the French, because The Sympathizer had really taken on the Americans. And I thought the French had, there was some criticism of the French there, but I thought the French had basically gotten off easy. And in general, the French have gotten off easy. The Americans, to their credit, I guess, have recorded all their deeds in technicolor. So the whole world gets to watch American movies of the Vietnam War and remember the war as bad war. And that’s due to the Americans themselves, both doing those deeds, but recording those deeds and telling stories about those deeds.

The French, we have this poor memory of what the French did. We have a lot of black and white photographs of the French looking cool in white linen suits. There’s restaurants in the United States called, Le Colonial, where you can go and eat Vietnamese food, but in the context of a French rubber plantation. And so we don’t remember that the French rubber plantations were slave plantations. People didn’t have a choice, but to go work there and die there. And we don’t remember that the French were drug runners. I mean, the French finance their Indo-Chinese empire through the deliberate cultivation of opium by the monk and Laos, and then using the opium enforcing the rest of the Indo-Chinese to buy the opium through government monopoly.

The French and the British were the original drug runners. Now, that’s why having him be a drug dealer in this novel is a commentary on that because it’s a stigmatized occupation when the individual person of color or the colonized person does it, but it’s legitimate when the colonial state does it. So yeah, that’s, I don’t know. I hopefully answered all parts of that question, but that underneath the machinery of the crime novel, all of this stuff about colonization and it’s detrimental impact on the cultures and psyches of the colonized is going on as well.

Nikesh Shukla:
Yeah. And can you talk a little bit about some of the postcolonial texts that kind of get sort of interrogated in parts of the book as well?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah, I wanted to put the post-colonial thinkers on an equal plane with the French thinkers. So there are a lot of French thinkers being cited, like Rousseau and Sartre. And that’s partly the signal that when you’re a colonized subject, that’s what you read. That’s the colonial education for the Vietnamese in France to read the great French enlightenment thinkers and the existentialists and all of that. And sometimes that can have really tragic consequences. I’m teaching a course on the Vietnam War today, we’re talking about Cambodia. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were all scholarship students in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. And they imbibe these French enlightenment ideals of liberty, democracy and inequality. Then they went back to Cambodia and thought, “Wait a minute, we don’t have Liberty democracy and equality here. What’s going on?” And then they took these ideals to a really horrifying extreme, that’s an outcome of colonization.

So besides citing these canonical French thinkers, I also wanted to cite the colonized thinkers who were trying to reject their colonization in the very terms that they had learned from the French. So that would be people like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon and their struggles with the both the ideas of armed revolution to defeat colonization, but also the psychological revolution that they felt also are needed to take place for the colonized to really throw off the shackles of mental colonization. Because if you don’t throw off those shackles, what’s going to happen? You can have a successful armed revolution that deposes the French, and then you can reinstate an equally detrimental system of oppression, except now it’s going to be run by the formerly colonized themselves. And that I think happened all too often.

But I really wanted to think about what Césaire and Fanon were talking about because they were writing in the ’50s and the early ’60s and their ideas, if you go back and you reread them from the Discourse on colonialism by Césaire to The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks by Fanon, still utterly relevant today, both for black people, global black populations, but also for other colonized and minoritized populations like me.

Nikesh Shukla:
And I guess there’s a lot in those books about the kind of the reframing of the gaze through which we view certain things, like the way we view ideas or history and so on and so forth. And I know you’ve spoken about this in the past, but these two books are very much you reframing how this sort of period in history is talked about, seems like a really important thing. How do you feel that’s kind of going as a project for you?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks talks about obviously being the object of the white gays when he happens to be in his words, seen as a Negro, and this is as a Negro and this colonial white imagination is a really terrifying thing. And then if you are a colonized person, if you are this black person, you absorb that idea. You yourself look at yourself in a very phobic fashion. So W. E. B. Du Bois in the United States, 1903, Souls of Black Folks says, “Again, Negro people from his language always see themselves both through their own eyes and the eyes of white people.” And I think that’s also true for a lot of other colonized and minoritized populations. And so in The Sympathizer there’s a passage where I say, “Look, we who are the so-called minorities in, this country, we know white people better than they know themselves, because we’re always thinking about ourselves obviously. But we’re also always thinking about what white people, how white people portray themselves, because that’s what’s on TV, for example, that we watch all the time. But also how white people think about us.” So white people don’t have to think about us, but we always have to think about them.

Which puts us in a very difficult situation. It can mean that we are really disabled, because again, we see ourselves the way that white people see us. Or it means that we could be really powerful because we have a double vision that white people typically often, at least white people of the very dominant class don’t have.

And so in The Committed, the project continues of trying to both see the world through the eyes of the colonized, but also to reverse the gaze onto the colonizers themselves. And so that’s where the power of the joke again comes up because again, the dominant class, whether you call them white people or colonizers, they have the luxury of never thinking about how other people look at them. So, here’s a guy who comes along and his narrative is constantly poking fun at how white people and colonizers look at themselves through the power of the joke. And hopefully it’s funny, hopefully it’s also a little bit unsettling, but the last thing here is, I think what hopefully gives the novels the capacity for readers to identify with The Sympathizer is that he’s always ultimately the butt of his own joke. I mean, he’s ultimately always the one who is the most vulnerable. So the opening passage that you had me read, where his passport says Vo Danh. We later learn out in the novel that Vo Danh actually means no name, or anonymous, nameless.

And the reason why he’s picked this is because when you go to Vietnam and you see the many, many cemeteries devoted to the hundreds of thousands of communist soldiers who died during the war, you’ll find that a lot of these graves have no names, they’re just marked Vo Danh. So in his mind, he says, “That’s a joke against a French who don’t understand that this name is actually no name.” Joke on him because of this really horrifying, tragic history that he has imprinted upon himself.

Nikesh Shukla:
Okay. So guys who are watching this, loads of you are using the Q&A function, which is great. So keep sending those questions through you. Don’t have to use your name if you want to ask a question anonymously. But we’ll get those in five, 10 minutes. I’ve just a couple more questions for Viet and then we’ll move on. There’s something sort of confessional about this narrator. Almost like he’s repressing some really bad stuff, and it’s sort of like the act of writing, recording, everything in this novel and in The Synthesizer, it’s a way of confronting and processing what’s happening to him. Is that a clue to why you put pen to the page?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah. I mean, again, The Sympathizer, the narrator is sort of like me, because when I was growing up, I felt that I was a spy. I was an American spying on my Vietnamese parents and their strange Vietnamese customs. But when I stepped outside of my parents house, I was a Vietnamese person spying on these strange Americans. But my life story is really boring. Not that interesting, no one needs to hear about it, but I took that seed and I put it into The Sympathizer and I blew it up into something much more traumatic.

The other aspect that was personal to me around the confession and the tricks of memory is that my own memory is really unreliable. And it’s the unreliability of my memory is partly human. I think we all have unreliable memories, but also partly based on certain kinds of family traumas that have happened because of the refugee experience and because of specific personal things in my family’s life that have made me miss remember my own past and the past of my own family members. I think as a way of shielding myself from the emotional damages that took place. And so these two novels express that as well, although again, in a much more dramatic way. And so when you reach the end of The Sympathizer, you realize he has been suppressing something this entire time. I won’t give it away what that is. And then at the end of The Committed, The Committed is written as a confession after everything has happened, but you as the reader and he as the narrator don’t know what that is until you get to the end of the book.

And so I think that the books are also about memory, about the suppression of memory. We suppress memories oftentimes I think in order to survive, because the things that we repress are oftentimes the things that are deeply traumatic to us, or things that are completely contradictory to our own self-image of who we are. And in order to function, we have to forget these things. But in this case with The Sympathizer, he’s forced to confront them. And I think as writers, we also either are forced to confront things or we force ourselves to confront things. I don’t know how you feel, but I feel, for me, I’ve led a very uninteresting life, but the emotions that I felt are the material that I inject into these books underneath the cover of the plot. And in order to have those emotions, I have to confront these things that most normal people want to run away from the emotional damages of their past. But I think for some of us as writers, that’s exactly where we have to go.

Nikesh Shukla:
Okay. So my final question before we move, obviously there’ll be a lot of writers watching this and it’s that dreaded question that all writers get asked. What’s the single most important piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Single most? Well, I read a few writing books, and the one I really love is Haruki Murakami’s, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I think that’s the title. And the legend of Murakami is that he’s a fanatical runner, runs every day. And also he’s nuts, he runs marathons. But in that book he talks about running the ultra marathon, which instead of 26 miles is 62 miles. The man is I think kind of crazy, but he talks there about the discipline of running. You just got to get up and run every day and I think he’s talking about writing. I think that the book is actually about writing as well.

And to me, that’s it. Writing is about just going out there doing it. For some people, you do it every day. I don’t do it every day because of my students. But over the course of a lifetime you have to run those miles, or you have to write those pages, or you have to spend those hours, whether you do it in 10 years or 20 years or 40 years, it’s up to you, but you got to do it.

And the daily experience of it I find is oftentimes that it’s drudgery. It’s like, who wants to sit in front of a computer and write every day, especially I’m in California, the sun is shining, but I got to spend four hours here sitting front of my computer. So you have to do it. No, other advice really matters. I think, I mean, there’s a whole bunch of other things you could do, but if you cannot do this if you don’t have the discipline of logging in your hours over that span of time, suffering daily, suffering yearly, you’re not going to be a writer, that’s it.

No one else can do that for you, but you. And he has one other metaphor in his book where he talks about digging a well, and that’s obviously a major trope in his works. But you dig, dig, dig, and then finally you hit water. And I think that’s like writing too. You write, write, write. And I don’t know if anybody can explain where inspiration comes from, or talent comes from, but I think that’s the well. You have to dig, dig, dig until you hit it. No one can explain where the ideas come from or where the talent might come from. You have to go inside of yourself to find it. And hopefully you can find it, but you won’t be able to do it unless you’re there digging or writing every day, continuously.

Nikesh Shukla:
To dig deep and show up. Show up and dig deep, basically. Thank you. Okay, so anonymous asked, “I’m imagining your editorial team were not Vietnamese, were there any specific aspects of the story you had to push through that they challenged or wanted to cut out? Or was there anything that didn’t make it to the final version that you wished had?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, my editor, Peter Blackstock, he’s actually English. And I’m very grateful for that, because The Sympathizer was rejected by 13 out of 14 editors, and then Peter bought it and I’m pretty sure the 13 were Americans. And I think that The Sympathizer really tried to challenge American notions of the Vietnam War, but the Vietnam War for Americans it’s deeply embedded in their psyche and they don’t even understand how deep and how locked in their cultural narratives of this war are. So when a novel like The Sympathizer comes along, I can’t help but feel that it was hard for them to understand what the novel was trying to do. Peter being English, I think had an outsider’s perspective on it. And that really helped. So in fact, I haven’t received, I think, any real pushback from Peter or the rest of the publishing team at Grove Atlantic.

And I think partly it’s because the history of my publisher is that it’s one of the few remaining independent publishers left in the United States. And in its history it’s published people like Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X and William Burrows, and basically subversive writers from a long time ago. And so think hopefully I fit somewhere much lower down in that tradition. The one thing that I think that, and this is my fault, rather than Grove’s fault. The one Vietnamese thing that I didn’t do in The Sympathizer was use diacritical marks for the names and places of the Vietnamese people and settings. And if you know Vietnamese, you know that the diacritical critical marks are absolutely critical. If you don’t have the diacritical critical marks, it’s very hard to figure out how to pronounce things. Unless you’re a native Vietnamese speaker, in which case you already know what the diacritical marks are, even if they’re not there. I’m not a native Vietnamese speaker, so I need those guides to help me pronounce things.

But I didn’t put them in, and this was 2011 to 2013 when I was writing it. And honestly, I think most Vietnamese American writers were not putting them in. After I published The Sympathizer, we’ve gone through a C change. Like all these writers have started publishing. There already a lot of Vietnamese American writers, but even more. And they’re defiant, like Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai in her book, The Mountains Sing, which is fantastic and it’s available in the UK. She’s totally bilingual, bi-cultural and she puts the diacriticals in her name and in the writing. And I think more and more Vietnamese support writers are doing that. I was going to do it for The Committed, but Peter said, “You know what? We already didn’t do it for The Sympathizer. So let’s stay consistent.” So I said, “Fine, that was my mistake. But in the future I would change that.”

Nikesh Shukla:
Brilliant. Milan asks, “What has the reception been from the Vietnamese communities in the U.S., Vietnam, and France to your fiction? How have they differed and what has surprised you?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, The Sympathizer’s written from the perspective of a communist spy and the Vietnamese American community is really anti-communist, deeply anti-communist. So I knew that their reaction would probably be negative and that’s been the case. I mean, number one, it’s a literary novel. So that means like a lot of people aren’t going to read it anyway. But if you’re Vietnamese American, you were even less likely to read it because a lot of them would say, “Well, I don’t want to deal with anything from a communist point of view.” But after the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, all that changed. And I don’t think they actually still read the novel, but they’re like, “We’ll take you back. We’ll claim the prize through you.” Which I think is an interesting sign of mental colonization there as well, like who cares about the Pulitzer Prize and why would, if you don’t even read books, why would you care about the Pulitzer Prize?

But obviously some people do for the symbolic cultural value of this thing. The Vietnamese in France are more mixed that there is an anti-communist element to them, but also a lot of them are leftists and socialists and communist because of the long history of Vietnamese migration to France throughout the 20th century. So I think they were actually much more positive about it, especially as they’re actual communists in that population. And then the French in general, I think they had a very positive reception to The Sympathizer. It gave it a couple of book awards. We’ll see how they deal with The Committed, since in The Committed it has a lot of very pungent things to say about the French. And in Vietnam, I mean, some of my work has been translated there, but not The Sympathizer and not Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. There is a translation for The Sympathizer. There is a publisher, but we can’t secure permission to get it published. And that has to do with some of the content of the book.

Nikesh Shukla:
Can you elaborate or are you not able to?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
No, because I still like to get the book published, so maybe I try not to through the-

Nikesh Shukla:
This is being recorded.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
So exactly.

Nikesh Shukla:
Okay. Jenny asked, “What type of reaction did you get from your New York Times piece on Da 5 Bloods?” Could you just expand a bit on what that piece was, and Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee’s recent film.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Spike Lee, major director. His last movie was Da 5 Bloods, which is about black soldiers during the Vietnam war, and then their return to Vietnam now as aging veterans. And I think it’s really important obviously to tell the story of black soldiers in the Vietnam War. And so this was a major film and I’m a huge admirer of Spike Lee’s movies, but I think he really, I think it was a bad movie, so unfortunately. And partly it was because of the way that I think he wanted to comment on the whole history of American representation of the Vietnam War in Hollywood. And by doing that he just sort of reiterated a lot of tropes of the Vietnam War movies, which were updated a bit to make the Vietnamese more sympathetic, but still really cardboard characters in the movie.

And then also, I think, he’s a very political director and he’s very good, obviously at talking about racism and anti-black narratives and centering black stories. But I think the film revealed that he’s not really good at talking about American imperialism. That there’s not really a strong critique of American imperialism, which is tied to the racism directed against Vietnamese people in these kinds of narrative. And so that’s what the New York Times essay is about. It’s taking on both the American-centered narratives of the Vietnam War, and the unfortunate occasions when black Americans will reiterate some of those American narratives. So it’s possible to contest American racism and yet repeat American imperialism. And this is a dilemma and a challenge for anybody who’s a minority or minoritized or person of color under the American regime. Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech, Beyond Vietnam, whose anniversary is coming up on April 4th when he delivered it. The best ever template of how to talk about both anti-black racism in the United States and American imperialism overseas, that black people can participate in as soldiers if they’re unaware of this kind of history, of the connections between these things.

And honestly, you can see the power of American propaganda because most Americans will say, “Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero.” And I’ve heard, I Have a Dream, his most famous speech, but very few people have read Beyond Vietnam, which is an indictment of American racism militarism and imperialism. He was assassinated one year after, exactly one year after giving this speech. And it’s still a speech that’s absolutely relevant today. So if you could only read one thing about the Vietnam War, go read for 30 minutes Beyond Vietnam, you can find it online.

Nikesh Shukla:
Also, if you’re the type of person who quotes Martin Luther King online, chances are you’ve not read him. So please just read a lot more of his actual speech, but that’s my message to people who are probably not watching this live stream. Elaine said that in the past you’ve said that winning the Pulitzer changed your writing and changed you. And she wondered if you could talk how that affected writing The Committed.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
All right. Well, by the way, one thing I forgot to answer the previous question. What was the response to the article? It was all positive, I think most part. Well, maybe Spike Lee didn’t like it, I’m not sure. I don’t think his team read it because I got an invitation from a major American magazine to interview him actually, and David Burn for their collaboration that they just did. And I said to the editor, “Here’s Da 5 Bloods article. Maybe you should have his team read it before you invite me to speak with them.” And I was never invited back as a result of that.

But there was quite a bit of commentary by black left intellectuals, I think on this article or on Da 5 Bloods itself. And they’re very critical of Spike Lee’s work. So it’s not as if black people themselves are monolith, far from it. And so I think there’s a very healthy and necessary black left critique of some of these black intellectual positions as taken on by Spike Lee.

But the Pulitzer question. Well, obviously it’s nice to win the Pulitzer. Wouldn’t turn it down. Did change my life for the positive. The only negative consequence I felt was that it brought so much attention to me that it really disrupted my writing for a couple of years afterwards. And so that’s why this novel The Committed really should have been done two to three years earlier, but it was set back both by the pandemic and by all the various kinds of op-eds and speeches that I was giving that was picking up a lot of time.

But when I wrote The Sympathizer, my mindset was, and I had just finished, I was in the middle of, on the tail end of writing The Refugees, which at that point had taken me 14 years or something out of my life. And writing The Refugees was really difficult. And partly because I was thinking about what other people thought. Is anybody going to publish this book? Is anybody going to care? And by the time I got to writing The Sympathizer, I thought, “I don’t care if anybody cares. I’m going to write The Sympathizer, not for other people, but for me.” That was really liberating. And it probably shows up in the spirit of the novel. So The Committed is written in the same spirit. So even though there was a Pulitzer prize, I thought, “I cannot spend my time here thinking about what people think about this novel, thinking about people’s undoubtedly heightened expectations for the sequel. Thinking about me and other people’s eyes as a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

I had to feel, like my attitude was, “I won the Pulitzer prize, so I don’t have to worry about anything anymore. I don’t have to worry about winning more prizes. I don’t have to worry about writing, selling more books. I’m actually liberated to do whatever I want to do.” So that was the spirit in which The Committed was written. It’s a kind of a mental trick, because obviously, some part of me thought, “Okay, well people care and all that.” But the mental trick is to sort of just compartmentalize that and then really try to write the novel again, as if it was just for me and hope there would be readership out there.

Nikesh Shukla:
So, this leads one to another question that someone asked, “When you were working on The Sympathizer, did you know that The Committed was where you would go next? And is there another thing are we going to be carrying on with?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, The Sympathizer was just meant to be its own novel, but by the time I reached the end my agent said, “What are you going to write next?” I thought, “Oh, well, a sequel would be nice. It would mean I wouldn’t have to rethink, reimagine an entire new character and new world.” But also again, in the context of the so-called genre of the spy novel or the crime novel, sequels and trilogies and series are completely acceptable. So there was that, but also I thought at the end of The Sympathizer, “This character is really complex and I’m not done with him.” Because what The Sympathizer does as a novel is to work within another genre, which is the genre of the disillusioned communist spy. Now in that genre and the west, the result or the conclusion is typically that the disillusioned communist spy renounces communism and embraces capitalism and democracy and individualism and runs off to the west.

And I thought, “That’s not the answer for me. That’s not a satisfactory answer. That just repeats the binary of capitalism versus communism.” And I felt that my narrator is not so dumb as to just flip the script and become a capitalist. He’s still deeply skeptical of capitalism and Western democracy, especially since Western democracy is still the basis of Western colonization of other countries. So he’s still in pursuit of a revolution, he just doesn’t know what it is. And he still wants to be as radical as he has been. So that entailed another novel to try to figure out what happens to the revolutionary in search of a revolution.

And the second theme is that in The Sympathizer he’s a spy, he’s a bad James Bond. He likes to drink and womanize, and halfway through the writing of that book I felt I was enjoying his womanizing too much. Not that I’m a womanizer, but that I enjoyed the narrative of the objectification of women. And I thought, “This is problematic.” And so by the end of The Sympathizer we see why it’s problematic, but in The Committed I wanted to take up that other issue of really just as equally important issue as a question of the revolution, which is, what happens to a man when he realizes that his heterosexuality and masculinity is not only deeply flawed, but is completely implicated in the very system of domination that he believes himself to be opposing? So if you study the history of revolutions, it’s totally possible to be this upright revolutionary against the state and yet totally reiterate patriarchy within the revolution itself. And that’s a very common experience.

So what happens in The Committed is that he has to reconstruct himself as a man as well. Oh yes. And then finally yes, there will be a third and final novel that is a trilogy. No more, I think it’s always good to know when to leave after having watched some TV series that have just gone on for way too long. So there will be one third and final installment in The Sympathizer trilogy.

Nikesh Shukla:
He becomes a capitalist and ends up an estate agent.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
No.

Nikesh Shukla:
Objecting. We’ve got one final question from Anne. “I understand that you grew up in North America, and having spent time in Europe, can you compare your experiences as a Vietnamese person in those cultures? I ask as I grew up in Canada, but now live in the UK and find the experience is very different.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Sure. I haven’t spent that much time in the UK, but obviously spent a lot more time in France. And one of the other reasons for writing The Committed was, again, to bring up the implicit comparison between the American system of democracy and the French system of democracy. Because they’re apparently at opposition. Because on the one hand the American system is about multiculturalism and pluralism and identity as a part of democracy. And the French system is about universalism and humanism and the refusal of the particularities of identity. And now, in France, there’s a whole Macron sponsored, critique of what Macron’s party is calling, Islam at leftist fascism, some conglomeration of these things. And the blame is being put at the feet of the Americans. It’s American identity politics being sent to France that’s encouraging these French people of colonized descent to take up this rhetoric of feminism and multiculturalism and identity and all that.

Which is I think really reductive, because a lot of our ideas have been influenced by French thinking. And a lot of the French thinking is coming not from the Americans, but from anticolonial traditions in francophone thought from the colonies of the French themselves. But my experience in these two countries is that they’re both equally flawed. And that neither system actually going to solve the problems of slavery, genocide, oppression in the American context, and of slavery, genocide oppression and colonization in the French context. And let me say, colonization in the American context too. Americans have got a serious problem. The Americans think that it was a French and the Europeans and the English who colonized people, but the Americans never did.

But we have colonized other places, including the Philippines. And then we have incorporated them like Hawaii. And we’re still colonizing if you ask indigenous peoples living in the United States, they’re still being colonized. So the Americans are in denial. And as long as you’re in denial, your system of democracy is not going to work. So all this rhetoric, I mean around, I think it’s important to be represented and to have multiculturalism, but it’s not going to solve these deep inequities that are rooted in the colonizing system of the United States that is still present. And likewise in France, all of the French rhetoric about universalism, it’s awesome. Even Fennell wants to be human, but I think he points out that you cannot be human in a system that’s built on inequity. And the French are not capable, just as the Americans are not capable of acknowledging how deeply embedded the legacy of colonization is in the privileges of the French system for French white people. They don’t even want to say white people.

So both systems are beautiful in their rhetoric and I hope they work, but they’re not going to work as long as the dominant cultures and peoples cannot acknowledge how fundamentally colonization and its outcomes are completely embedded in the contemporary lives of the peoples in these countries.

Nikesh Shukla:
Thank you so much. I’m afraid we’ve run out of time. Thank you so much, Viet for being with us this or morning or afternoon or middle of the night, or wherever you are watching this. The Committed is available to buy now. Please go and buy it from your preferred retailer, but support independent, if you can. There is a Guardian Bookshop, I believe where you can pick up the book. You can find out more about different Guardian, upcoming Guardian live events at the guardian.com/guardianlive. Thank you again to all of you for watching and for your questions. Sorry, we didn’t get to all of them. There were just so many and they were all really, really interesting and I wish we could have had more time with them. My name is Nikesh Shukla. You’ve been watching The Guardian Live, but thank you so much to Viet Thanh Nguyen. Congratulations on the release of another masterpiece. It’s so good to have more fiction from you out in the world. Goodnight, enjoy the rest of your evenings and bye-bye.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thanks, Nikesh.

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