The VVA Veteran | Dispatches Episode with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen joins Marc Leepson on an episode of Dispatches for The VVA Veteran magazine.

Read the transcript below:

Speaker 1: Welcome to Dispatches a production of the VVA Veteran Magazine and Vietnam Veterans of America hosted by Arts Editor, Marc Leepson. Each episode is a one-on-one interview with a writer, novelist, actor, director, or other artist whose work is influenced by the Vietnam war. In addition to appearing on the VVA Veterans Facebook page, archived episodes can be found on the magazine’s web page and on VVA’s website. And now let’s begin.

Marc Leepson: Welcome everyone to episode 12 of Dispatches. Production of the VVA Veteran Magazine coming to live and on tape. As always from Vietnam Veterans of America’s national headquarters here in Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. Our special guest today is Viet Thanh Nguyen best known as the author of the bestselling Pulitzer prize winning 2015 novel, The Sympathizer. Beautifully crafted book told by a never identified by name, main character that lasers in on the American war in Vietnam, in the postwar political and social landscape there and among the Vietnamese expatriate community in the US. And its 2021 sequel The Committed another brilliant book, which like The Sympathizer is a rapidly moving sometimes brutal and sometimes laugh out loud funny novel that showcases Viet’s insights into the fallout from the Vietnam war among those who took part in it. And the civilians caught up in it. And his other books include a short story collection called The Refugees and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and The Memory of War, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction and The National Book Critic Circle Award in General Nonfiction and now Viet’s day job is equally impressive.

Marc Leepson: He is University Professor and Chair of English and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He was born in Ban Me Thuot, a place many of American Vietnam war veterans know. Came to United States in 1975 with his family. He’s a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Grant, better known as the genius grant and a Fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. We’re thrilled that he’s here with us today. He’s coming to us from his home in Los Angeles. Welcome Viet, thank very much for taking part in Dispatches.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi Marc, such a pleasure to be here with you.

Marc Leepson: Well, let’s get started and let’s start at the beginning. I know you were very young when you came here. Can you tell us… Do you have any memories of living in Vietnam and yeah, start with that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I was four, so no, honestly there’s a couple of flashes of memory that I have, riding on a motorbike, for example, being taken to school, but nothing really cohesive. I think I vaguely remember an image of a tank with soldiers in fifth helmets riding on it. And if that’s the case, that was from the moment in early March when the north Vietnamese army captured Ban Me Thuot, it was the first town to be captured in the final invasion. And my mother, my brother and I were there for that. It’s possible I did see the soldiers and have some vague memory of it, but really most of my memories begin after coming to the United States and arriving in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, which was one of the four bases that were used to house the 120 to 130,000 Vietnamese refugees who came in April 1975. And that’s where I really started to remember stories and to be able to identify myself in those stories.

Marc Leepson: And I mean, not to go into it too deeply, but I can only imagine what it was like for your family coming over here. And then you moved out to California, right? You grew up in San Jose, right?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah.

Marc Leepson: And tell us a little bit of about that. Well, I have a feeling I know, but I’d like to hear from you about what it was like growing up there?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, it’s as challenging as you can imagine. For my parents, it was obviously really difficult. They were already fully grown adults in their early forties. They were established people in Vietnam and then they lost most of that and had to come to a brand new country where they barely spoke the language and had to rebuild everything. But since I was four, I was insulated from a lot of that. I actually have very fond memories of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we were resettled and we lived from 1975 to 1978. For me, that was actually a fun time because my parents were working nine to five jobs. They actually had some time to spend with their children, my brother and me, and I got to spend time with my brother and there was snow. And it was actually sort of fun.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But then we moved to San Jose, California in 1978 for better economic opportunities. There was a much larger Vietnamese refugee community there. My parents were business people in Vietnam. They wanted to move someplace where they could open a business. And so they opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California. And then things got a lot harder because they were, as you would expect being grocery store owners working constantly. And then you’d had less time to spend with me. I grew up then really starting to understand how difficult the refugee experience was because I could see it happening to my parents and to the other people in the Vietnamese refugee community. And this is where also I started to develop an awareness of myself as first of all, an American growing up being saturated by American culture. But also as someone who is not an American, because part of the exposure to American culture was this recognition that we were Asian and we were Vietnamese.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that did not quite fit into a lot of dominant narratives about who Americans were including the movies and the books of the Vietnam war, which I started to watch and read fairly precociously when I was about 10 or 11. And it was a strange experience because identified with Americans rooted for the American soldiers. But I also recognized that I was not included in these kinds of stories. And as a matter of fact, people who like me, Vietnamese people were the Other in these American stories and that planted a seed of a problem that would eventually grow into The Sympathizer.

Marc Leepson: Well, yeah. And we’ll get to The Sympathizer in a minute. Tell me this, I always am curious when I speak to such an accomplished writers, when did it hit you that you could make a living as a writer or that you were headed on that path? Let’s put it that way, to write novels?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I never thought I would make a living as a writer. And even now, as you mentioned, I have a day job. I might possibly be able to quit, but my refugee upbringing and watching my parents scramble to survive has left me with a deep need for stability and guarantees of financial safety. Being a novelist, being a full-time writer is always a risky proposition for most of us, but I had early aspirations to be a writer, had fantasies about being a writer. The first seed was put into my mind when I was in the third grade and I won a book award for a little book that I wrote in drew that set me on the road to 30 years of misery trying to become a writer.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But fantasies that began to mature in college that I could possibly write stories about the refugee experience about being Vietnamese or Asian, but I was always very pragmatic and became a professor. For me, writing was never about making a living. It was about art. It was about trying to tell stories that were meaningful to me and trying to make a change in American culture and literary culture. That was again where The Sympathizer emerged from. I just got very lucky that The Sympathizer won prizes and became successful. And now there’s a possibility of maybe one day becoming a full-time writer.

Marc Leepson: Well, let me ask you this, the growing up, you talked a little bit about seeing those Vietnam war films. And did you read any more Vietnam war books when you were teenager or in college? And second part to the question, what literary authors influenced you as you were growing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was a very voracious reader, which meant going to the public library and reading anything I could find. I found the Vietnam war section in the library and I read widely through that and that meant both high literature, but also low literature as well. And I don’t have a problem with low literature, but I, I think my earliest exposure to literature in the Vietnam war was a book called Mack Bolan, the ex-

Marc Leepson: Oh yeah.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Read that book. [crosstalk 00:09:17] he’s a sniper. He kills a lot of people in Vietnam. Then he comes back to the United States to take vengeance on the mafia. That was like my first exposure to the narrative of the Vietnam war. Then a book called Morning Glory, which is a novel or a memoir, it’s hard to tell. About a Marine going to Vietnam left the deep imprint on me because it was graphic. It was violent and it was also sexual. Both in Mack Bolan and in Mourning Glory, there are accounts of these veterans having relations with prostitutes. And I was like 11, 12 years old. I didn’t know what the prostitute was. I went to ask my older brother, “Is a prostitute like a protestant?” And he said, “We’ll look it up in the dictionary.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I recently bought Mourning Glory. I’m writing a memoir. I wanted to go back and look at these books that I’d read. And I totally forgot that in Mourning Glory. What I did remember was that the marine has relations with Vietnamese prostitute. I go back and I look at the book immediately before he has sex with the prostitute. He cocks his gun, his pistol, and he puts it to her head. I totally erased that, but I didn’t erase Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters, which I read soon after or around that time. And in Heinemann, with American veteran of the war as all the writer of Mourning Glory was. And the climactic event in Closed Quarters is not the gigantic battle, which takes place at the end with the north Vietnamese army.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But with the soldiers of this novel gang raping a Vietnamese woman and holding a gun to her head as they do it, I remembered that. That totally scarred me for a very long time because it… Like I said, “I knew this was our place as Vietnamese people in the American imagination.” We were the victims. We were the others, and I didn’t want to be in that particular place. I really resented Close Quarters in Larry Heinemann for a very long time, until I had to write The Sympathizer and I went back and reread a lot of books that were meaningful to me in some way. And I read Heinemann’s novel again. And I thought how Heinemann actually was very brave. And he did the right thing because he withheld judgment. He did not, at that moment, say in an editorial way, “This is wrong.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: What he wanted to do was to immerse readers into a narrative about how war turns nice young men into monsters. And he wanted, I think, American readers to, and other readers to confront that really harsh reality. And at 12 or whatever I was, I wasn’t capable of dealing with that. But as an adult and as a writer, I wanted to try to replicate some of that commitment in The Sympathizer. And then besides that, I read widely. Other literary influences from me were writers like, Ralph Ellison in particular, Tony Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and world writers like António Lobo Antunes of Portugal and Louis-Ferdinand Céline of France. I try to read as widely as possible because I wanted in my own vision of myself as a writer, I wanted to be a writer but also an American writer, but also a writer who would be read internationally as well.

Marc Leepson: I’m really interested that you did mention Larry Heineman’s Close Quarters. Because to me, I mean, Larry, he died a couple years ago. He’s best known for Paco’s Story, which won a National Book Award, but for my money, I’ve always thought that Close Quarters was his best novel by far. That’s a good thing. And Larry was a great guy, too. Terrific Vietnam vet. The Sympathizer, I don’t even know how to ask this question, but what were you trying to do in it? I guess, is what I’m thinking about. And you’ve sort of gotten to it a little bit here as we’ve been talking, how things were bubbling up for you, but tell me what you’re trying to do with that book?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think I tried to do everything with that book. And the preface of that is I had written a short story collection called The Refugees, which was published after The Sympathizer, but was almost all written beforehand. And in that collection, I tried to give voice to Vietnamese people, Vietnamese refugees, Vietnamese Americans. It was a very intimate book in that sense. I finished writing that book and then I had to write a novel and I thought I’ve already written the book about Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese refugees. I don’t need to write a novel that’s about the refugee experience. Now is my chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to take on the entire American framework for understanding the war in Vietnam, but also the Vietnamese framework as well. It’s a very ambitious novel because it is about what Americans think about the Vietnam war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But it’s also about what Vietnamese people think as well, victorious communist Vietnamese, but also the defeated Vietnamese who became refugees or who stayed or were forced to stay in Vietnam. And I think by trying to address all of those things, if we’re talking just about the American context, it was already an intervention because so much of the American take on the war in Vietnam is utterly focused on the American experience. Understandably, very ethnocentric, but also deeply problematic. And from my point of view, the American understanding of the war retrospectively reflects the American approach to Vietnam before the war. But again, Americans approach Vietnam from their own perspective, and not from the perspective of the Vietnamese people. And it was a disaster and this was not unique that this would be an American mindset that Americans would keep repeating. Arguably, we did the same thing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have these terrible results.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: From the American perspective, The Sympathizer is an indictment of this really fundamental trait in the American character about ethnocentric approaches to the world, which is based on a long history of how Americans evolved and originated as settlers and colonizers in to make the United States. They obviously, from my perspective, approach, this experience of colonization in a very racist and white supremacist way, and they denied that, or we have denied that. And that is how we ended up in Vietnam. I use we and they interchangeably because I’m both Vietnamese and American and Vietnamese Americans, I switch all the time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I think that Americans, even to this day, understanding that the war in Vietnam was probably a bad war for Americans still understand it in this American centric fashion and try to recuperate its meaning. That’s why we have a revisionist approach to the war in Vietnam that tries to say this was a noble, but flawed war. We went into it with the best of intentions we messed up, but we did it with the best of intentions. And from my point of view, what The Sympathizer says is yes, rhetorically the best of intentions, and a lot of Americans hold that idealism, but also a war carried out with the worst of intentions, which Americans want to deny. That’s one aspect of what The Sympathizer, the novel tries to do.

Marc Leepson: And that plot, and that character, I mean, I don’t want to tell the whole thing, but where did he come from? And of course he’s in The Committed too. We could move on into that as we go all along. And tell me about that character?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, like I said, “I’m very high ambitions for the novel and myself and the high ambitions were that I was not going to write a book that could be categorized simply as minority literature or Vietnamese American literature.” I would write a book that would be hopefully the equal of anything that Americans have produced about the war in Vietnam. In other words, the ambition of the novel was not simply to compensate, to fill in a gap and say, “Okay, Americans have not talked about the Vietnamese therefore I’m going to talk about the Vietnamese.” The ambition was I’m going to write an American novel and a world novel that would contest the American understanding. And the Vietnamese understanding at the level of literature, not just at the level of content. And what that meant was at the center of this novel, there had to be a protagonist that would be utterly memorable and could hold his own against all the great characters of literature or of art.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For example, Apocalypse Now, which is a movie that I think is a great work of art and is also deeply flawed when it comes to the representation of the Vietnamese has at its center, a deeply flawed American protagonist. And when the world approaches Apocalypse Now, we don’t flinch at the fact that our central American protagonist and his antagonists are basically murderers, right? They commit murder in this film. And this is part of the basis of the film as being great art. It’s unflinching in the way it looks at this heart of darkness within the American character. For me, what I did not want to do was to write this compensatory story where we have a Vietnamese protagonist, who’s an angel, who is a victim, who is asking for pity for understanding. I said, “I wanted to create a Vietnamese protagonist who would be this same kind of protagonist as in Apocalypse Now.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Within this person, there would be that heart of darkness as well. And the reason for doing that was to say, “We are at the center of our own drama.” And by that, I mean, we are at the center of all of these conflicted human feelings and emotions and drives, which include all these noble aspirations, but also of these terrible desires that manifest themselves in crimes. And so I wanted to make someone at the center of the story who was anti heroic, who was capable of great things and capable of terrible things as well. And that is the great drama that I think drives the novel and makes it memorable and makes him memorable

Marc Leepson: He’s memorable. And he gets himself into some memorable situations. Some of which are comic. I mean, tell me a little bit about that. I mean, you’re talking about high drama and the worst that can happen with people, the horror or the heart of darkness, how does the humor come in there?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, one of the novel that I read as a youth was Catch 22, which made a big impression on me at the time. And I reread it also for The Sympathize and it still remained a very powerful read. And of course, Catch 22 is a tragic comic take on war. And it expresses something which I believe to be true, which is that obviously war is terrible and tragic and all kinds of atrocities happen, but war is also absurd because wars are typically fought for noble ideals. I mean, at least now in the contemporary age, we don’t go to war by saying, “We just want to rape and pillage and take people’s property and lives.” We say, “We’re going to do it for some kind of noble idea about democracy or freedom or whatever.” And then of course, terrible things happen.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The absurdity is fundamental to war as well. And so literature is faced with that task. How do we address war? We could just talk about the tragic dimension, but what if we also talked about the absurdities and the hypocrisies, and I’ve read a lot of other military accounts of war, whether it’s the Vietnamese or the American or other kinds of experiences. And if we just talk about the American experiences, a common theme of the American soldiers experiences of war is that it is a snafu, situation normal, all foul up. That made a big impression on me too. When I was reading these accounts of world war II soldiers, and the absurdities of the experience and all that. And I thought this is normal. And when we look at the results in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a little bit hard to laugh at about these things because we’re too close to them. But nevertheless, I think the potential for comedy or tragic comedy is there in these military experiences because we can see so many absurdities and hypocrisies and failures and snafus taking place.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And so The Sympathizer is born out of that desire to do something that approximated a Catch 22 or Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, which is, French modernist account that begins in world war I, and also talks about the absurdities and hypocrisies of power and warfare. And I thought that there is something powerful in being able to make readers laugh, because I knew that this novel, The Sympathizer and then The Committed would make readers flinch that the novels like Heinemann’s Close Quarters would look very squarely at some very terrible things and not pull away. Well, to try to make that experience in little more palatable for the reader. I wanted to entertain the reader as well by deploying things like the spy thriller genre, for example, but also by deploying comedy to make sure people got some comic relief. I mean, if Shakespeare could do it and make it legitimate, then of course we should all try to do some of that ourselves sometimes.

Marc Leepson: Yeah. Interesting that you did mention Catch 22. It’s in my top three novels I’ve ever read. I’ve read it twice. Once when I was in Vietnam, I read it. Don’t ask me why. And I took a lot new meaning about it when I was reading it. So with The Committed, we’re talking more about the wars’ legacy, I think, is that fair to say? And I have a quote here from something you said, or you written, “All wars are fought twice the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Can you talk a little bit about that, especially vis-à-vis, The Committed.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sure. my book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War starts off with that line. “All wars are fought twice first time in the battlefield, the second time in memory.” And that was born from my own experience again, that I grew up in the United States in the 70s and 80s. And I got a very close look at Americans writing the war again in memory, on their screens in Hollywood, but also in books. And if we think about wars like the civil war, which was certainly also in my mind, we’re still fighting that war again in memory over and over again, with these battles over Robert E. Lee and Confederate statues and all of that are taking place. And that seemed to me like a truism that wars are fought over and over again in memory.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I wanted to explore that in the case of Vietnam. In The Sympathizer, it’s a novel that is very much about memory because the entire novel is written as a confession where our spy, our protagonist is being forced to write his story. Therefore, being forced to relive his story and being forced to confront the failures of memory because nations and individuals, when it comes to memory are very, self-serving either deliberately and consciously or unconsciously. We rework our memories and our stories to suit the way that we look at the world and our past, in ways that helped to justify us. And in The Sympathizer, it’s a critique of how Americans and Vietnamese of all sides have done that at the level of memory. But ultimately it’s also a critique of our own protagonist who we discover by the end has obscured a very important memory that he’s forced to confront. I wrote The Sympathizer and it was meant to be a one-off novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And by the time I finished, I thought two things. One, I thought I’m not done with this protagonist. There’s more to be said about him. And the other thing was that I understood that the way The Sympathizer was received in the United States, but also really globally was as a Vietnam war novel. I mean, this is a genre, and this is a way to categorize the book a way to make it marketable or unmarketable because before I tried to sell the book, my agent was telling me, and there were articles in newspapers saying, “No one wants to read Vietnam war novels anymore.” We’re tired of Vietnam war novels. It’s a genre that people were exhausted with, right? And then the novel was successful. And all of a sudden the genres rehabilitated, “Oh, maybe the Vietnam war novel genre, isn’t dead.” But it’s still a genre that contains the novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: And in my mind, the novel is a Vietnam war novel, but it’s also more than that because it’s talking about a lot of other things as well. And one of the things that I point out in Nothing Ever Dies is that when Americans say the Vietnam war, it’s a way for us to contain the meaning by saying, “Oh, the war started in 1945 or 1954 or 1963, but it definitely ended in 1975.” And my feeling is that the way to understand the Vietnam war is not that way as a discrete event in history, but as one episode in a much larger chain of wars that the United States has been fighting for a very long time. And if we understand it that way, then it makes total sense that Iraq and Afghanistan are completely related to the Vietnam war. They’re not separate.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: They’re part of the same chain of thinking that the United States has exercised about its right to interfere in other countries. And that’s why I thought I needed to write a sequel. I needed to say more about my protagonist and what happens to him and his grappling with revolution. And I needed to say more about war and what The Committed does is that it takes up the French narrative because our protagonist is part French and part Vietnamese. That was very deliberate on my part in writing The Sympathizer, it would allow me to address French colonization, but it would also allow me to talk about cultural conflicts. It would also allow me to make fun of the Vietnamese themselves who are really, they’re also racist. It’s not just Americans, Vietnamese people are also racist and they manifest on how they treat Eurasians and Amerasians.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: But the American intervention in Vietnam began in 1945. And then in 1954, when the United States basically turned its back on its own rhetoric about democracy, and freedom, and decided to support French colonialism in Vietnam. The Vietnam war, the American Vietnam war is an extension of French colonialism. And so in The Committed I wanted to take on the French, with The Sympathizer, I offended a lot of people, including Americans, I thought, “Well, who else is there left to offend?” The French. And I’m going to France in November to promote the French translation. We’ll see how offended they actually are. But I felt that in The Sympathizer, while I had criticized French colonialism, the French had gotten off easy. I hadn’t really focused on them that much. And so The Committed is really an investigation of French colonialism as part of a much larger world system of imperialism of which the United States is also a part.

Marc Leepson: Yes. And that’s just scratching the surface of that book too I would say, I mean, not to minimize what you just said, but there’s so much going on there with the Vietnamese gangs, expatriates and so on. I love both books. I think, you know that, and last question, you’re working on another book. Do you feel comfortable talking about it or tell me what you can say?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well I mean, I’ve written an entire full draft, 55,000 words. It’s with my agents and my editor. It’s a nonfiction book. And a lot of it is memoir. I hesitated to call it a memoir because it’s also a lot of stuff about, my feelings about race and culture in America and Vietnam and all these kinds of things. And so it deals with a lot of things we just talked about, which is my experience as a refugee coming to the United States, what happened to my parents? That’s memoiristic aspect. And it’s a deeply personal book. It has been quite terrified, is probably the most terrified I’ve ever been with a book that I’ve written. I’m just waiting to see what my agents and editor have to say about the book right now.

Marc Leepson: Well, I for one would look forward very much to reading it. Thank you very much Viet, this was great. I greatly appreciate you coming on this show.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thanks for having me Marc. It’s been a pleasure.

Marc Leepson: Take care.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: You too.

Marc Leepson: Well, thanks everybody for watching and stay tuned soon for our next episode of dispatches from the VVAveteran@Vietnam veteransofamerica.

Category: Interviews, Uncategorized


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