Viet Thanh Nguyen is in conversation with Laila Lalami about The Committed in an event with The Library Foundation, presented by The Council and ALOUD.
Read transcript below.
Ela Jhaveri: Good evening. My name is Ela Jhaveri, and I’m president of the Council of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. It is my great pleasure to welcome you all to this remarkable evening being co-produced by the council and the Library Foundation’s allowed program. Viet Thanh Nguyen and Leila Lalami are friends of the Library Foundation, and the amazing number of registrations we have had for this evening is evidence of our affection for them and their work. I value my special connection with Viet, as he was our guest author at our home for the council’s biennial fundraiser, the Literary Feast. He had everybody around our table enthralled with the discussion of its Pulitzer prize winning book, The Sympathizer.
Ela Jhaveri: What else to say is that we are so fortunate today that we are all in our homes and around our own table to experience him talk to us about the sequel book, in which he takes his characters to the next level, The Committed. We are very grateful to Viet for giving the time to us in his very busy schedule to be with us this evening. He holds an endowed position as professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and he also has fellowships from the Guggenheim and the MacArthur Foundations, an author of nonfiction, of short stories, and an editor of an anthology on refugee writing, and the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer prize in fiction, and seven other awards.
Ela Jhaveri: When we asked Viet who he would like to interview him today, there was not a pause. He immediately said Leila Lalami. Happily, we are so glad that Leila is available this evening. We are very thankful and grateful to her as well, in her busy schedule, to make the time for us this evening. Leila is the author of four novels and the winner of the American book award, and a finalist in the Pulitzer prize for fiction, and also the recipient of many awards and honors. Her recent novel, The Other Americans, was a national best seller and a finalist for the Kirkus prize, and also for the national book award in fiction. We could not have imagined a better partner this evening to have to discuss with Viet. We are very honored to have the two of you with us this evening, and everyone is so looking forward to this conversation. Welcome, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and welcome Leila Lalami.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you so much for that introduction, Ela. It’s always such a pleasure to see you, and really thanks for all your support for the library. Hi, Leila.
Leila Lalami: Hi, Viet. Good evening, everybody. My name is Leila Lalami, and it is my distinct pleasure to be in conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen about his new novel, The Committed. We’ll be talking for about 35 minute and then will open it up for your questions. At any time during the program, you can type your question into the question box, and one of the moderators will select a few for Viet to answer. Of course, please support this program and the author by ordering his book from your favorite independent bookstore. So, Viet, how are you? I think you were telling me when we were in the green room that this is your third event for today.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. I’ve been everywhere all over the country today. Never left Pasadena from this chair. That’s our new reality. But it’s a pleasure to be here talking with you. I always think of you as one of my best interlocutors, as we share many of the same concerns.
Leila Lalami: How sweet of you. Are you almost done with your tour for The Committed?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t think so. I’ve sort of lost track of time. So many things are happening. I’m also teaching at the same time, by the way. That’s its own level of weirdness, trying to teach 100 undergraduates purely through Zoom.
Leila Lalami: I know. I know. It’s a little strange. Were you teaching today? Were you teaching today?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes, I taught too. So, I did the three events and I taught in the middle of it, but I’m still fresh for you.
Leila Lalami: That’s good. That’s good. I taught too. I did a seminar on Waiting for the Barbarians, so I feel all warmed up. I’m ready. I’m ready to talk. All right. Since this is a library event, I thought I would start by asking you about your earliest exposure to books. I had the great good fortune of growing up in a house full of them. Although my parents didn’t go to college, they both loved reading, and so it was very natural to me from a very young age to just be reading, have a book in my hands and be reading. It just felt very ordinary. In fact, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader, and that, I feel, was a great fortune in my life. I want to hear about your experience. When did you start reading? What kind of books did you read? What kind of literature?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m so envious of you, because I grew up in a household with one bookshelf and no books. I mean, there was a bookshelf and there were no books on the bookshelf. You know? I mean, my parents were very hardworking people, but I don’t think literature was just on their horizon at all. The thing I never figured out is they’re also devoutly Catholic, but we didn’t even have a Bible in the house. So, there wasn’t even that much. I turned to the library for books. From very, very early on, after coming to the United States as a refugee at four years of age, some of my earliest memories are from a public library. I don’t even remember how I learned how to read English or speak English because my parents didn’t teach me. I learned that in school somehow. But I became fluent very fast.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: By the time I was five or six, I was borrowing books from the library, and it would became my second home because my parents were refugees. They were understandably just working hard all the time. They didn’t have any time to spend with me. So, to get away from that loneliness, I went to the library and I borrowed a backpack full of books every week and brought it home and read them all by the next weekend.
Leila Lalami: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I could walk to the library or take the bus. I was given free range to do anything I wanted in the San Jose Public Library. The wonderful thing about the library, the books are free, so I read all the things that you would expect to read, from Curious George to Tin Tin. Then, because there were no boundaries in the library, I could just go anywhere I wanted. So, I went to the young adult section, I went to the adult section. I read things I should not have read, some things I should have read. I read All Quiet on the Western Front in the sixth grade, I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint when I was like 12 or 13, maybe too young to really-
Leila Lalami: Yes, I was going to say. Readers of The Sympathizer will catch that reference.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, boy. The only thing I remembered from Portnoy’s Complaint, for those of you who have never read it, is when Alex Portnoy, this very hormonal adolescent, let’s say, can’t control himself, so he masturbates with everything, including a slab of liver from the family fridge that he masturbates into and then puts it back into the fridge for the family dinner later that night. As a teenager or early teenager, I was like, “What is going on here?” I never forgot this incredible moment in literature that I would then later put into The Sympathizer with a culturally appropriate item of food that, because we wouldn’t have a slab of liver in a Vietnamese village. We’d have something else.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You have to read the book to know what this is. Honestly, thank God for the public library, thank God for the first amendment that I also encountered all kinds of things I should not have read, from very serious literature like Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters, which deeply disturbed me. I’ve written a novel about the Vietnam war that showed how brutal and ugly that war was, from the violence to the raping and all that kind of stuff, which scarred me as a kid. But then as a writer, I realized that’s what writers should do. We shouldn’t be pulling back. We should show things in all their brutal honesty, from masturbation to murder, you know? I read things that I should not have read. The public library, for whatever reason, had soft core pornography. I’m like, “Wow, this is-“
Leila Lalami: They have a service organization.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. This is before the age when you had the internet, so you could access it this way. This is the age when if you were a horny adolescent, I don’t know if you went through this experience, but TVs, cable, if you didn’t pay for it and you turned it on and you wanted to get the soft core porn channels, all you’d get was static and then an occasional image. So, anyway, that was my mindset. I know that half the audience is like, “Oh my God, this is disgusting.” But the thing is, is that as a writer, I think you have to be exposed to all these kinds of things. The library provides that, for better and for worse. I would be terrified right now if my precocious son was going to the library and reading these things. He’s seven years old.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In fact, he came into my office the other day, he likes to hang out here and bother me. He picked up The Committed right here, and he opened it and he started reading it. The first page that he falls onto is a page of incredible, brutal violence. He’s like, “What’s happening here?” But I think that this is the power of literature that we can’t contain. To me, there’s an analogy for parenting here, that we can only do so much to protect our kids.
Leila Lalami: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My parents could only do so much to protect me. I entered the world that included the library and everything that it represented, everything that literature represents that I believe in, which is that literature allows us to experience the world all throughout the entire range of the beautiful to the ugly. My own son will have to find his own way in that world too, and I will have to let him go and do that.
Leila Lalami: Yeah. I think it’s hilarious when you talk about cable. I mean, I was born and raised in Morocco, and I grew up at a time when Morocco had one state television channel, so you were watching the official news and official programming and that’s it. These are conditions under which it is not all too difficult to be a reader, but I think one of the things that really resonates with me with what you were saying is that although we grew up in very, very different circumstances, and you relied on the library, I relied on used bookstores and what my parents bought and all of that, I think the one thing that really strikes me as being something that we have in common is this complete freedom to read.
Leila Lalami: My parents never censored anything that I read. As long as I was reading, I was left alone, and I enjoyed it. So, I just think that that’s really the first place where I felt free was in books. Then the other thing that also struck me is your mention of Tin Tin, which across all of our very different upbringings, yet we’re still exposed to the same sort of popular literature with its popular stereotypes and whatnot.ye.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s one of my parenting challenges, that I introduced my son to Tintin, and he loves Tintin, so it speaks a century later, almost a century later to this kid, and of course there are problematic stereotypes in Tintin, whether we’re talking about positive colonialism, where the Asians are being elevated in a certain way, to just the out and out terrible way.
Leila Lalami: Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in the Land of Black Gold.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I find it very problematic to think that, “No, I can’t expose my son to Tintin because of the problems.” I think my attitude is more like, “Well, I think we should have conversations about what we’re seeing here.”
Leila Lalami: Right, right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Although, I do not have the Tintin in the Congo book in my house. That’s just going way too far. But there other kinds of stereotypes that appear in Tintin that need to be addressed, because they’re still happening today. I don’t want to insulate my son from those kinds of things. In fact, I was preparing to teach my class today, and it involves a clip from the TV show King of the Hill cartoon that features a Laotian character. It’s a funny clip where the Laotian character is explaining who he is to this table full of white guys, and they say, “So, are you Japanese or Chinese?” My son just laughed. He’s like, “This is racist, right? He’s like, “These guys are racist, right?” And he’s seven years old, so he’s already aware of these kinds of things, which is a positive thing. But the last thing I’ll say here is I learn from my son too. Children’s literature has changed a lot.
Leila Lalami: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I didn’t know about any of this until I started reading what he’s reading. Children’s authors today, in books like Dog Man and so on, which is a classic, they do whatever they want, these writers and these illustrators, and they break all kinds of rules. The kids, likewise, just go along for the ride, because kids don’t have any sense of… and they’re learning the rules, right? But they also don’t have a sense of the rules at the same time. I find that to be so liberating. Part of the inspiration for The Committed, some of the inspiration comes from children’s literature. I mean, you can’t tell from reading it, but when I was reading children’s literature and seeing that these writers did whatever they wanted, I thought, “Well, why not?”
Leila Lalami: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Why as an adult do I feel like I have to follow this set of rules or this set of aesthetics, or what the critics are telling me to do, or what the writing workshops are saying is an acceptable aesthetic? Then you look at children’s literature, that’s so inspirational, the anarchy that goes on in there.
Leila Lalami: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m still learning from the library and from literature.
Leila Lalami: That’s great. Then when did you make that leap from being somebody who enjoys reading book books, who goes to the library and borrows that backpack full of books. When did you make that leap from being a reader to wanting to be a writer?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, in fact, also related to the library. When I was in the third grade, so when I was seven or eight, my school, my public school said, “Okay, all you kids, go and we’re going to do a project here. You can draw and write your own book, and you can also do the cover and bind them as well.” So, I did that. I did a book called Lester the Cat. What are you laughing about? I think it’s a great title.
Leila Lalami: Lester, Lester?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Why Lester? Why a cat? I have no idea. I didn’t have any pets. Okay?
Leila Lalami: Lester.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s about an urban cat named Lester. Okay, so this tells you something about my mindset. He’s stricken with ennui. He’s bored of urban living.
Leila Lalami: Already?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, already.
Leila Lalami: Ennui in your first book.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s a classic narrative move. Very archetypal. He flees the city to the country and finds love with a country cat. I think it was heterosexual. I think the [inaudible 00:20:59] didn’t go too far for me at that point. So, anyway-
Leila Lalami: So, adventurous, but not too adventurous.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Exactly. The public library gives my book an award. I mean, there’s an actual ceremony and all that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m the only one. There’s dozens of kids who get these awards, you know? One of the poignant moments about this is my parents are so busy working, they don’t have time to take me-
Leila Lalami: Right, right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: … to the ceremony. So, my school’s librarian, bless her heart, I don’t remember her name, I still see her face, she came by, she drove down to my house, picked me up, took me to the San Jose Public Library, fed me lunch at this hotel across the street, which I thought was the fanciest place in the world, and then allowed me to get my prize from the San Jose Public Library. So, librarians, I owe you. Then this award from the public library set me on the road-
Leila Lalami: Early recognition.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s what it is, set me on the road to 40 years of misery, because no one tells a kid what writing really involves. No one tells him, “Okay, look forward to a lifetime of drug addiction and alcoholism and tearing your heart out,” all this kind of stuff. No, give them a prize when they’re eight years old and then see what-
Leila Lalami: Lure them.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. I love public libraries, and that’s exactly what they’re supposed to encourage, a love of literature and seducing innocent people into this crazy business called writing.
Leila Lalami: I swear we did not plan this conversation about libraries and the importance of libraries, but I’m glad it turned out that way, because everybody should be supporting their libraries. Okay. We’re going to be talking about The Committed. This is a sequel to this other book, The Sympathizer, but I hasten to add for our audience that you don’t need to have read The Sympathizer in order to enjoy The Committed. Yet, we’ll bring you up to speed very quickly on the main characters in the first part of the book. The Committed is about two characters, the narrator, AKA the man of two faces, AKA the man of two minds, who’s a half Vietnamese, half French spy, and the man whom he calls his childhood friend and blood brother, Bon.
Leila Lalami: Together, they’ve managed to survive a north Vietnamese re-education camp, a refugee camp, and they have landed in Paris, the city of lights. [inaudible 00:23:26] takes place in the 1980s, which is an interesting time in France’s history. François Mitterrand is president, as he will be between 1981 and I think 1995. So, it’s a long 15 years. The country is facing an economic crisis in the eighties, and not coincidentally, there are complaints about [inaudible 00:23:48], who as often as not, are in fact citizens rather than immigrants. It is into this environment that our two refugees arrive and immediately set about becoming Parisians, so to speak. Tell me about the joys of writing this book. What was fun about it for you? What kept you going during the writing?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, it’s a very momentous moment in French life, because this is a time when the French go from having four weeks of paid vacation to five weeks of paid vacation. Wow. Such difficulty.
Leila Lalami: The suffering.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The suffering. I mean, the sixth week of paid vacation is going to take a little bit more time to get to that moment. I think it’s fun, because as I’ve said over and over again, I am a mentally colonized person, so I just admit it. I come from Vietnam. My parents actually were born under French colonization. my 86 year old father still sings songs that he remembers from his French education.
Leila Lalami: Wow.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I go weak in the knees when I hear French, or anything related to France. So, I wanted to be able to interrogate my own mental colonization, but I wanted to write a novel that would pull the plug on the city of light, because this is not a novel that is the tourist version of Paris, Eiffel tower, the Seine, all that kind of stuff.
Leila Lalami: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: This is a novel that’s set in the immigrant quarters of Paris, as you said, in the “grittier” part of Paris. But also, I think, really, really interesting parts of Paris. It’s the parts that I like to hang out in when I go there. When the narrator steps off the airplane at Charles de Gaulle Airport in 1982, he says, “Hey, this airport is named after Charles de Gaulle, one of the greatest of great Frenchmen in recent memory, the man who liberated the French from the Nazis, even as he continued to enslave us Vietnamese.” He says, “This is a contradiction.” Right? contradiction is the perpetual body odor of humanity.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s the mood of the novel, that it wants to interrogate these hypocrisies and these absurdities which are part of French culture, but really are part of every culture. The Americans got their turn in The Sympathizer, and after that, I said, “Who else can I offend?” Obviously the French, because the narrator is part French and part Vietnamese, and so he is going to pursue this satire and so on. But of course, underneath the satire and the humor, hopefully you find it funny, there’s also some tragedy that is taking place, because the novel is investigating French colonization and its aftermath. A lot of terrible things happened. The French, what I was thinking about was, look, in The Sympathizer, everybody knows the out the Vietnam war because the Americans recorded it all in full color, whether we’re talking about the news journalists or whether we’re talking about Hollywood and the years after the war.
Leila Lalami: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, ironically, the Americans recorded their own atrocities. We have this sense that we think we know something about the Vietnam war. Now, French colonization, all we have are these black and white photographs with the French people in white linen suits and their Vietnamese servants. So, maybe we come away with that, which is this romantic idea of French colonization, and the French got away with it because now you can go dining at restaurants called Le Colonial and pretend that you’re on a rubber plantation and how wonderful that must be eating Vietnamese food on a French rubber plantation, when in fact, the Vietnamese who rebelled against the French said, “We’re slaves.” I mean, that’s the term that they use. This is enslavement, and that’s why we’re revolting against the French. That’s what The Committed is really dealing with. I mean, the present is set in this crime and gangsters narrative in 1982 Paris, but the backdrop is this history of French colonization of Indo China, that the French have pretty much, I think, totally forgotten about.
Leila Lalami: Yeah, no, for sure. For sure. It’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about this idea of the documentation of war and colonialism as it is happening, and the comparison between the Vietnamese experience, say, and something like the Algerian experience, because when did the French arrive in Vietnam? In the late 19th century, right?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Mid 19th century, but they fully successfully colonized by 1887, I think.
Leila Lalami: Then they left, though, before, I think, was it 1954, I want to say?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: 1954, yeah.
Leila Lalami: Good, I remember.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You passed the quiz.
Leila Lalami: No, I was going to say I taught The Quiet American, so I know. That’s interesting, because in Algeria, there’s that whole period of time between, say, 1954 and 1962, when there’s plenty of photography and there’s moving pictures and there’s a lot of documentation, and that’s what enables a film like The Battle of Algiers to be made not long after that war, to be made and produced, but it’s interesting to me that they have this very different memory of what their presence in Vietnam was like. I hadn’t thought about that, about the difference in documentation. Now, what about the challenges of writing this book, which is set in a country that you’ve only visited as a tourist. What are some of the challenges that you encounter as you wrote it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, yeah. I mean, the major difference, one of the major differences in writing The Sympathizer as an American, I think I completely understand what’s going through American minds and what that war was about. Here in the French context, I’m an outsider to it. So, the way that I constructed the novel was to reflect that. I positioned my sympathizer in this novel as someone who has been educated in the French system in Vietnam, but he’s never been to France. He hasn’t spoken French in 15 or 20 years, so he’s an outsider. So, if there are any mistakes that happen in this book, it’s not my fault. It’s his fault, because he’s an immigrant. All right? That was one way to get around this kind of issue.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The other way of getting around this issue is that hopefully there’s enough details in the novel to evoke Paris for readers. I think many people have some image of Paris, and they just fill in the blanks, but I deliberately made it, there’s a slight layer of gauze over the depiction of the city, because I’m not constantly saying, “They’re on this street, they’re on that street. It’s this cafe or that cafe.” There’s very sparing use of that. So, it’s a little bit different level of detail in this novel versus the other. Then the other issue was, again, the very different world that we have here in Paris and in France versus what we have in the United States.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ll bring up one example, and you already sort of alluded to that with the Algerian war, that the Vietnamese in Paris are a very small population. I went to Paris… I mean, I’ve been to Paris before, but for this novel, I went a couple of times, talked to as many French people of Vietnamese descent as I could. One of the things they brought up compared to Vietnamese Americans is, “There aren’t that many of us here, so it’s harder for us to do the Vietnamese American thing here. Plus, there’s all this French pressure to assimilate and just be completely French and all that.” So, that’s a very different experience there.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: He’s moving in the world of the French of Vietnamese descent. Then he becomes a drug dealer. He makes these very smart choices, he becomes a drug dealer, and his gang go into conflict with a rival gang of Algerian drug dealers. That was challenging, because that dynamic, it’s not completely different, but it is different in some ways than what I’m used to in the United States. I had to worry about whether I was going to do a disservice to the French of Algerian descent by depicting them as gangsters, so I had to worry about these kinds of issues. But I felt like I had to do it, because one of the things that I wanted to talk about in this novel, and then I think that has some relevance to what we’re dealing with in the United States, is that I wanted to show how as an outcome of colonization, people, don’t become better people necessarily, you know?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Just because there are Vietnamese people and Algerian people in Paris who have been both been colonized by the French, doesn’t mean that they’re going to become friends and allies. You know? In fact, that’s what the of issue the gang war is about. It’s like, hey, oftentimes people have been colonized turn against each other. I think that has a lot of resonance with what we’re experiencing in the United States today, that colonialism divides and conquers. Well, racism divides and conquers here in the United States as well.
Leila Lalami: Right. Yeah. I mean, they’re fighting over their territory, they’re fighting over survival. The narrator, which I think I mentioned is a communist spy whose cover was never blown, and his friend, Bon, has lost his loved ones to communists, so he hates communists. So, the narrator has to keep pretending that he shares these feelings so that his cover is maintained. In this book, as in all of your fiction, there’s just a deep preoccupation with belonging and betrayal, whether it is two or of a nation, a community, a family. I’m just wondering, do you think that belonging can ever be settled?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, that’s a hard one. Okay. I would like to say no, never, but I’m speaking to you, and here’s my little bit of personal history, right? In my entire life, I have felt unsettled. I have felt always out of place.
Leila Lalami: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Ever since I was growing up. When I was little, in my parents’ Vietnamese household, I felt like an American spying on them. Then when I stepped out, I felt like I was a Vietnamese person spying on Americans. That sense of being ill at ease has filtered into every aspect of my life. Among writers, I feel like I’m out of place, because I’m a scholar. Amongst scholars, I feel I out of place because I’m a writer, and so on. This unease is actually very productive for being a writer, that sense of friction, that sense of being able to look at any issue from both sides, which is why I created my character in this way, is really productive. So, what I’m saying is I fetishize being out of place. Then two years ago I moved to Pasadena.
Leila Lalami: It sounds like a confession the way you say it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In 2005, I thought about moving to Pasadena. I’d been living in Silver Lake, and I went to Pasadena, and I looked around, I was like, “This city’s so nice. It’s so quiet. It’s so boring. I can’t be here. I got to go back to exciting Silver Lake.” So, anyway, now I’m a father. Two years ago, went out to Pasadena again, I’m like, “Hey, I like it here. It’s nice and quiet and boring, which is exactly what I want.” So, now I’m boring and I feel at home finally with my family in Pasadena. This is very weird for me. All right? Apologies to all the Pasadena people listening. This is meant to be a compliment. So, to answer your question, theoretically I would say belonging never gets settled, and yet here it is. I’m saying to you I feel at home. But my personal circumstance is set this larger social circumstance that we’re in of anti-Asian violence.
Leila Lalami: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I swear to God, I go to my front door to get my garbage or whatever, bring my garbage can in, car drives by in my very nice, quiet neighborhood, and my hackles go up. I’m thinking, “What if this person rolls down the window and says something to me?” I mean, my wife says she got flashed the white power sign down the street from our house.
Leila Lalami: Goodness.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You know? So, it’s like even the personal sense of belonging that I have achieved, I’m aware it’s very personal. It’s not a commentary about all of society and what we’re going through.
Leila Lalami: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, to answer your question, can belonging ever be achieved? No. No, it cannot be. You know? Because the social and political and economic contradictions that lead people to feeling out of place are deeply and structurally embedded in our society. We’re not solving this problem, people, by eating Korean tacos. Okay? It’s not a cultural and culinary issue where if we think, “Oh, we just mix all our food together and we all enjoy each other’s food, then somehow we can solve the east/west problem,” or whatever. No, it’s not. Those are just manifestations of these deeper contradictions that are tied to slavery and colonization and genocide and anti-black and the ongoing colonizations of native peoples, and all this kind of stuff into which we, I’m talking about we as Asian Americans, are inserted.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, anti-Asian violence, in this sense of belonging being ruptured, is cyclical. I don’t know how many Asian Americans have felt at home for the last two or three decades, but it’s an illusion that anti-Asian violence has always been there waiting to be reawakened. Even if we solve this issue, this state of assault that we’re going through right now, we’d be delusional if we thought that somehow it would not happen again in the future under the right circumstances.
Leila Lalami: Well, since we’re talking about anti-Asian violence, I wanted to ask you, you’re frequently asked to comment about issues like this, whether it is anti-Asian violence, whether it is the Vietnam war, how it’s represented in media and film, issues of race, how do you fit that part of writing this public commentary, how do you see that with the rest of your writing? Does it feel like an opportunity? Does it feel like an imposition? How do you feel about it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, the title The Committed, it refers to several things, but one thing that refers to is the idea of the committed writer. As we discover-
Leila Lalami: That’s you, right?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: … in the novel, he’s writing his confession, all right? But ever since I wanted to be a writer, not that moment when I was eight years old doing Lester the Cat, but when I went to college and I thought, “Oh, maybe I should think about this seriously.” My ideal writer was always the committed writer, the writers that I looked up to, like people, I don’t know, like Edward Said or James Baldwin or Tony Morrison, or Frantz Fanon, who appears in this novel, this idea that the writer is engaged both at the level of the art, so I’m committed to the art, but also committed to the political and social issues from which the art can’t be extricated. The world in the text, as Edward Said said, are completely entwined with each other.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In college, I was already writing op-eds. I was already a very opinionated person in college. In college, some of my earliest op-eds were about the Miss Saigon controversy of 1991, and affirmative action. Lo and behold, I mean, you fast forward nearly 30 years later, I wrote the exact same op-eds for the New York Times about the revival of Miss Saigon and the ongoing controversies over affirmative action in the place of Asian Americans and affirmative. So, I feel like it is, in a way, drawing me away from writing fiction, on the one hand, in terms of time. On the other hand, I see it all as a continuum, like the social and political issues that I engage with non fictionally, and these op-eds and so on are completely connected to the world of the fiction as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thinking through some of these issues in our everyday life affects the fiction and vice versa. That’s how I can make, I think, this connection between the violence that goes on in Paris between Algerians and Vietnamese, and the violence that’s happening in the United States today that affects Asian, and that sometimes it’s happening, I mean, sometimes from white people, but sometimes from other people of color as well.
Leila Lalami: Right. Right, right. It’s interesting to hear you talk about these writers like Baldwin and Morrison and Fanon and others, because it occurs to me that in places like Morocco, where I grew up, or France, since we’ve talked so much about France, there is no apparent contradiction between being a writer of fiction and commenting, as you do, on issues of race or what’s going on in the public sphere. It strikes me, it’s only in the US where writers are supposed to stay in their lanes and write fiction and have nothing to say about anything else. If they do, it seems almost as if we’re being rude for getting out of our lane. Do you get that sense too? I sometimes get emails about being angry, and I’m like, “Yes, I’m angry. Of course I am. Of course, there’s a lot to be angry about.” Do you notice that difference in cultures between, say, for example, a place like France and a place like the US with respect to the place of the writer?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. I mean, part of the fascination with French culture for me, and part of the stereotyping of French culture is that, hey, this is a land that values its intellectuals and its writers, the French love to say this kind of thing, and we see a tradition of people like [Saht 00:41:30] and [Kimoo 00:41:32], and so on and so forth, being politically engaged and lionized, both for the art, but also for the politics. The reason in the United States, I think you’re right, we don’t have as much of a tradition of that, and I think that there’s certain historical reasons. We are a deeply anti-communist country, arguably we’re an anti-intellectual country as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, writers on the one hand are discouraged from taking on politically left wing positions, and then we’re discouraged from being too highfalutin in our ideas. I’ll give you an example. Okay. The Committed, there’s been quite a bit of commentary in reviews. I mean, I’m trying not to read the reviews, but the few that have slipped past me, and some of them have said, “Hey, there’s a lot of philosophy in this book.” I’m like, “A lot of philosophy? It’s not like I’m making people read philosophy in the book, people.” I’ve [inaudible 00:42:24] a few names, and then I’ll summarize the ideas so that you can understand what is being said. You don’t actually have to read the philosophy. All right?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But simply by introducing these philosophical ideas, a handful of them, some American readers are like, “We don’t know what to do with this. This doesn’t happen in fiction,” apparently, and they remark upon it. I’m just so annoyed by that, which I think is anti-intellectual. It’s a very narrow definition of literature that says literature should only be middle brow realism, and if you introduce ideas, don’t make it so obvious, because readers just don’t know how to deal with it. So, yeah, I have a beef with a lot of American literature and some of the responses to it on the part of reviewers and teachers as well. We can do so much more in terms of both politics and ideas in our literature. That’s partly what The Committed does. I mean, The Committed is a crime thriller. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of drugs, lots of sex, all that kind of good stuff.
Leila Lalami: And it’s funny.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And it’s funny.
Leila Lalami: Yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you, and it’s a thriller of ideas, because I’m thrilled by ideas. So, I’m shocked by people that are not thrilled by ideas.
Leila Lalami: All right, we’re running out of time. There was something I was going to ask you that I thought wouldn’t take too long. Let me just see if I can remember it now. All right, it’ll come back to me later. I do see that we are starting to get questions in the Q&A, so I’m going to read you… this is a reader question, or a viewer question. Can you talk about your relationship with this character from the two? From the two books I think is what they mean. What compelled you to follow him through two novels?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, honestly, he’s kind of my alter ego. I think that I created him as a man of two faces and two minds, and it’s really an exaggeration of my own perspective. Like I said earlier, I felt like a spy growing up in my parents’ house and so on. I always saw the world from two sides, from two perspectives. I can never stop myself from always thinking, “Well, what about what the other side thinks about this kind of an issue?” It’s not a comfortable position to be in, because I think most people want to see an issue from one side, and they want you to be on their side. So, if you come along and say, “Well, what about the other side?” They can get kind of irritated with you. But it’s a very good perspective for fiction and for criticism, to have this flexibility of perspective. So, I found my character to be really interesting, and he took on a life of his own after I created him in The Sympathizer. For example, before The Sympathizer, nobody would’ve said, “Hey, Viet’s a funny guy.” No, never.
Leila Lalami: I would.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m not sure you knew me before The Sympathizer.
Leila Lalami: That’s true.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I created a character who could be funny. He had a certain worldview, I put him in certain situations, and all of a sudden, this dude started saying funny things. I realized that’s been inside of me this entire time, but I’ve tamped it down, because you cannot be funny as a professor in the academy and hope to survive. Your fellow professors, they don’t have a sense of humor. All right? So, all that stuff has been contained, and the creation of The Sympathizer allowed me to let it all out.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, it just felt right to continue his story, not just for crassly commercial exploitative purposes, but because there are real aesthetic and political reasons to continue his story in the sequel, because in The Committed, one of the things I wanted to talk about was what does revolutionary do who still wants to pursue a revolution after his own revolution has failed him? Communism failed him in The Sympathizer, but he hasn’t given up on this dream that he has that the world can be a better place, that revolution can play some kind of purpose. There’s a purpose in it. So, what exactly does that revolution look like? He tries to give you an answer by the end of the book.
Leila Lalami: All right. Another question is, I get the arc from The Sympathizer through to The Committed. This must be at least a trilogy or perhaps a tetrology. Where are you headed?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, very perceptive question. I hope when you hit the last page of The Committed, you feel like, “Oh, this is an end to the novel.” It feels like this is the right place to end, but also that it’s an opening. You know? I can’t give anything away, but it feels to me that it’s obvious something else has to happen after this last page. Yeah, it sets us up for the third part of the trilogy. No more. I think when you do series, you have to know when to end.
Leila Lalami: Bow out.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think [inaudible 00:47:06] is a natural end. But he returns to Southern California in part three of The Sympathizer trilogy in the mid to late 1980s. This is, I think, a rich time. This is my time when I was an adolescent, mid to late 1980s. Think about it. This is Ronald Reagan, this is Star Wars, both the movie, but also the missile SDI, Iran-Contra. This is, when we’re talking about LA, arguably the CIA importing crack cocaine into the black community. It may be a conspiracy theory, it may have been real, but I’m going to run with it, because it’s going to allow me to continue one of the narratives from The Committed, which is that drug running is a state enterprise.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: All the hysteria is about the individual drug dealer or whatever, the person who’s going to mug you on the street or something like that, when really, the real threat is the state and corporations running drugs. We look at Indo China, one of the things that the novel brings up, the French finance their empire in Indo China by producing opium and forcing the Indo-Chinese to buy the opium. The British did the same thing in their own empire. The French and the British were the original drug runners. Then if we look at today, who are the biggest drug dealers in the United States? The Sackler family, these very nice, well behaved white people. These people are making billions off of killing Americans with opioids. Those are the real drug dealers. Anyway, there’s my little rant. The third part of The Sympathizer trilogy will deal with all that kind of stuff, plus eighties music as well.
Leila Lalami: That’s good. All right. I’m looking forward to that. The next question is you have just announced that The Sympathizer and The Committed will be adopted into a TV show by 8/24. Which actor do you want to play the main character, and also, what are the qualities that the lead character should embody? I wonder if this is coming from a-
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I did suggest myself, but I was swiftly shut down as a possibility. Anyway, I’m hoping for a minor role as someone who gets killed in the book, but we’ll see. It’s an option. Those of you are familiar with Hollywood, you know there’s a long road before anything can get actually done. But we did, as part of the option, get Park Chan-Wook to sign a contract as well. Park Chan-Wook, you all should know his work. If you’ve seen Oldboy, for example, Oldboy is an incredible movie, big influence on The Sympathizer. When Park Chan-Wook expressed interest in this book, I was like, “God, yes. You are the perfect person to adapt this,” because he has the visual flare and the quirky imagination.
Leila Lalami: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: He came and we talked a couple of times, and I swear to God, he is one of the best interlocutors I’ve ever had on this novel from a story point of view. He was saying, “Why didn’t you do this? I would’ve done this.” I was like, “You’re right. Why didn’t you read this manuscript before I published it so I could put these bits into the novel?” So, we might see changes in the story because because of him. But he’s a fantastic visual director. I think it’s a sense of the politics that are concerned. In terms of who’s going to be the lead actor, well, I think that’s going to be the big mystery. I can populate many of the roles in the book with actors, but the lead actor is a mystery to me. I think they’re going to do a big search for a person who can fit.
Leila Lalami: Yeah. He directed also The Handmaiden, right?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Incredible movie, The Handmaiden.
Leila Lalami: Which is an incredible, incredible, incredible movie. Yeah. Oh, I’m so excited.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: He did The Little Drummer Girl, the adaptation of the John le Carré novel a couple of years ago, which is actually a very good TV adaptation too.
Leila Lalami: Oh, that’s great. All right. The next one is, my roommate’s daughter is Japanese American, and her husband is Vietnamese American. What children’s books would you recommend that I buy for their young children? Ooh, I have a feeling you’re going to have a good recommendation for this one.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, I can’t be so crassly-
Leila Lalami: Oh, yes, you nail it. Ah, yes, [crosstalk 00:51:01].
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Of course, I have to recommend Chicken of the Sea. No. Well, anyway, my son, Ellison, he came up with Chicken of the Sea at five years old, and yes, I exploited him. Yes, we sold the book to McSweeney’s, and yes, you can buy it. It’s about bored chickens who run away from the farm, an echo of Lester the cat running away from ennui. But I can’t think about an exact perfect combination, in case you’re thinking of Japanese Vietnamese combinations, but I think that Bao Phi is a terrific children’s book writer. He went from being a slam poet who you might want to shield your kids from, to writing these really moving children’s books, from A Different Pond, which is about the Vietnamese refugee experience, to the next book, who’s title I can’t recall, but it’s about a daughter with with two mothers.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, I love Bao Phi, I love the work that he’s doing. In terms of other children’s literature that’s Asian, American, you know what you should do, though? You should go to Instagram and follow May Story. M-A-Y Story. She’s a friend of the family, and she’s a bookstagrammer. I never knew about this until I joined Instagram, but people who just do books. She specializes in children’s books, and she herself is Vietnamese American, there are a lot of great book recommendations on May Story. I’ll look up her in Instagram thing and I’ll put it in the chat in just a moment.
Leila Lalami: Great. Yeah. It’s May, M-A-Y Story. All right. Here’s another question. I assume, this questioner says, I assume part of French colonization was the invention of the modern Vietnamese alphabet, which I assume replaced writing Vietnamese using Chinese characters. Do you have thoughts on the consequences of this for the language or the culture?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think the Portuguese actually came up with it first, Alexandre de Rhodes, as it was a Portuguese missionary, if I remember my Vietnamese history correctly. But the French certainly took this Romanized alphabet and instituted it as part of their educational system. It’s a mixed bag, right? Because if we look at Indo China, which is Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the French came in and they took these three countries. They chopped up Vietnam into three parts, and they put it all together as Indo China. They turned the Vietnamese into their collaborators, or maybe the Vietnamese were willing to be turned into their collaborators as well. So, the Vietnamese became part of the French bureaucracy. They helped run the French bureaucracy in these colonies.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think part of the way that happened was because they learned French, but also because there was this whole system of the Romanized alphabet that was brought in as part of the French colonial educational system. So, what can I say? I don’t know. I mean, all I know is being colonized. It’s the same dilemma that other colonized populations have confronted. Do I have a choice to write in English, for example? Or would I have a choice if I wrote in Vietnamese, but to write in the Romanized alphabetical system? Yes, theoretically, I could go and I could learn the Neo Chinese script that was there between Chinese rule and French rule, but who’s going to read it? Who’s going to read it? You know?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, the Vietnamese had to write in this Romanized alphabetical system. That’s where Vietnamese literature is today. As for me, to take that question to next step, I have to write in English. I could try to write in Vietnamese, but number one, it’d be really hard, and number two, when we look at the way the world works, one of the reasons why we read French literature and English language literature is not because French writers are just better than everybody else or that English language writers are just better than everybody else. We read them because of imperialism, that you have to read French literature, you have to read American literature, you have to read English literature because these people colonized the world.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, if I wrote in Vietnamese, how many people would actually read what I wrote? Very few outside of Vietnam. But if I write in English, my books are translated into, I don’t know, close to 30 languages, and that’s not a function just because of my writing. It’s a function of writing in English and as a part of an American publishing industry that has global reach. That’s one of the ironic, tragic consequences of colonization that I’m stuck with and that helps to define me, that makes me into, as I try to say in The Committed, a kind of a Caliban. I have no choice, I think, but to curse you in your own language, with a [inaudible 00:55:48] as well.
Leila Lalami: All right. Here’s another question. Thank you for your emphasis on the first amendment. How do you feel about demands for limitations on speech on social media?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Demands for limitations on speech on social media. Well, I think there’s a difference between official censorship, that is censorship carried out with the power of the state, and what I think the questioner is asking about, which is what we call cancellation, right? Social media forms of discouragement of speech, which it’s very powerful, because if you’ve been subjected to a social media attack, it’s really dispiriting. So, there’s a real power to it that I don’t want to discount. But it’s also different than official state censorship. So, I can’t help but, yes, people are upset, and they’re using the power that they have, in this case, social media, to try to do things that have been denied to them through other channels. So, you can agree or disagree with the specific manifestations of this.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I think the reason why people have taken to social media to cancel is because they don’t see people being actually punished in real life for the things that they have done. If men, for example, are not getting fired for sexual harassment and rape and all these kinds of things, then take the social media and punish them there, and then maybe that would actually lead to real firings, which is what’s taken place. So, I think we have to contextualize it in that fashion and say, yes, people can go overboard, yes, people can be victimized the wrong way through social media cancellation, but put this into the larger context of why people are doing this and whether or not our society as a whole has held people accountable for their very real transgressions that have been going on for a very long time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Then finally, the official censorship thing, just remember that under the previous administration, in which Republicans have been calling up this attack against cancellation and arguing that cancellation is a left wing thing, it was under the previous administration that the previous administration would actually set out to censor actual things. The Trump administration passed an executive amendment in the last few months of the administration saying that no federal agency and nobody funded by the federal government, which is a lot of institutions, can engage in diversity, equity and inclusion education, and can say things like white supremacy. I mean, that’s censorship with the full force of the federal government and billions of dollars threatened to be pooled from that kind of a gesture. So, we need to put all that into perspective.
Leila Lalami: All right. I think this might be our last question because we are running out of time. Oh, dear. I’ve got several questions to pick from, but here’s one about the novel. The dualities in both novels are amazing, but there is one character, Claude, who seems more singular. Am I reading this incorrectly?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, Claude, if you remember from The Sympathizer, is a CIA agent and the mentor of our sympathizer. He is a part of the Central Intelligence Agency. I just want to show you one thing here very, very quickly, and that is the cover of the UK edition, right? Which has a cigarette lighter, a Zippo lighter, that our agent, Claude, has given to our sympathizer, imprinted with the motto of the Central Intelligence Agency, “Fuck them before they fuck us.” Now, I don’t know if that’s the real model of the CIA, but it should be. The UK publisher is brave enough to put that on the cover of their book. So, Claude does seem to be the expression of a Central Intelligence Agency united in its mission. But trust me, in the third and final installment, we will see a different side of Claude.
Leila Lalami: Okay. Brilliant. All right, my dear. This was really lovely talking to you. I always have so much fun during our conversation. Thank you all so much for tuning in, and please, please, please support the author by ordering his book from your independent bookstore. I like the UK edition. Both of them are great. This is a great cover, so you can see the man of two faces on it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was so inspired that I ordered my own lighters online.
Leila Lalami: Are you even a smoker? Are you even-
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, but I just want to flash this sometimes, you know? If you’re a lucky person, I might give it to you.
Leila Lalami: Oh, I am a lucky person. I was born under a very lucky… all right. Okay. Thank you all so much.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you so much, Leila. Thank you so much.
Leila Lalami: Thank you. Bye, you guys. Thanks so much for tuning in.
Ela Jhaveri: Viet and Leila, what can I say? Thank you so much for being with us. I have to say, we’ve had so many events, but this has to be one of the most fun events we’ve ever had. You’ve covered, both of you, so many issues, current issues, historical issues. I’m sure everyone who’s been here today is going to always remember this event for a long, long time. I do encourage all of you who are here today as part of this event to please go and purchase The Committed and The Other Americans. They’re available at the library store, or I’m sure at your local independent bookstore. All of you, remember to register for the May 20th event. We’re going to have Daniel James Brown come to talk about his new book. His other book, the previous book won an award, Boys in the Boat, and his new book is called Facing the Mountain. It’s the story about Japanese American heroes in World War II. Please register for the event. Until next time, stay safe, stay connected, and keep reading. Goodbye.