Viet Thanh Nguyen returns to Between the Covers after six years to discuss The Committed. We talk about the differences between France and the United States with regards to race and racism, communism, socialism, and revolution, and how that shapes the discourse within the Vietnamese communities in each country. We talk about the history of the term Asian American in this context, about ethical memory and what it requires of an individual and a community, about being a refugee versus an immigrant, about Francophone postcolonial and revolutionary thought—from Frantz Fanon to Jean-Paul Sartre to Hélène Cixous to Aimé Césaire and more for Tin House.
David Naimon: Today’s episode is made possible by Northwestern University Press and their new release, Blooming Fiascoes by poet, Ellen Hagan. Blooming Fiascoes is a collection of verses that deconstructs identity. We are beautiful and monstrous. We live in a beautiful and monstrous world. Hagan poetically mirrors these metaphoric adversaries, drawing on her experience as a woman, an artist, a mother, a transplanted southerner, and above all, a human being. Listeners receive a 20% discount on Blooming Fiascoes or any other title with promo code: POD20. This offer is available at nupress.northwestern.edu. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Elizabeth Brooks’ The Whispering House which Rene Denfeld calls, “A gothic mystery like no other.” The novel tells the story of Freya Lyell, a woman struggling to move on from her sister Stella’s death five years ago. Visiting the bewitching Byrne Hall, only a few miles from the scene of the tragedy, she discovers a portrait of Stella, a portrait she had no idea existed in a house Stella never set foot in. Or so she thought. As Freya slowly uncovers more about the house and its secrets, she finds herself at the center of a propulsive tale of art, sisterhood, and all-consuming love—the ways that can lead us toward tenderness, nostalgia, and longing, as well as shocking acts of violence. The Whispering House is out on March 16th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Before we begin today’s program with Viet Thanh Nguyen, I wanted to briefly bring up two things that have risen in prominence in the news since Viet and I talked both because they each could have easily been part of our conversation, especially since a lot of Viet’s nonfiction writing is topical, speaking to the moment, and into the moment. Also because even though his new book, The Committed, portrays the French-Vietnamese community mainly in interaction with the French-Arab community and 1980s Paris, much of what is going on and being questioned in this novel is still unfolding today. Since we talked, President Emmanuel Macron ordered a probe into the pedagogy of French universities, a pedagogy he and his Education Minister, Frederick Vidal, claim is contaminated by American influences on race through postcolonial theories and what they coined as Islamo-leftism. When pressed on this term, Vidal said there was no specific definition for Islamo-leftism, but rather in part, it was a feeling the citizens had. You have to wonder if it is the same feeling that results in between 40% and 70% of the French prison population being Muslims. Macron, in the fall, gave a speech that suggested that the alienation felt by some French citizens of Arab or African descent was partly a consequence of them seeing their identity through a postcolonial or anti-colonial discourse—a discourse imported from the United States. One that, according to him, is corrosive to France’s institutionally race-blind society. This has all been met with fierce backlash within France with hundreds and hundreds of professors speaking out against this. Even the body that is being told to scour these schools for this corruption of thought has come out against it. But the main irony I see is that this so-called American corruption fails to see just how deeply American postcolonial thought is indebted to revolutionary postcolonial and anti-racist thought from the Francophone world, whether it be thinkers from France itself, the French-speaking Caribbean, or French-speaking North Africa. This is the world of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed where the characters are either reading, debating, or being influenced, by these very thinkers, these French-speaking thinkers that have since deeply shaped the discourse of postcolonial theory in the United States. The other thing I wanted to briefly bring up is Viet’s engagement with something that has come to a head in the news since we talked, but which also serves as another example of much of what we do talk about around his idea of ethical memory. Also, the importance and difficulty of finding solutions around violence against one’s own community in a way that doesn’t harm other communities in the process; that doesn’t further entrench structural hierarchies that have developed under white supremacy. You may or may not have heard about the recent rise in anti-Asian violence, particularly against Asian elders in California—an 84-year old Thai man knocked to the ground in San Francisco who died two days later of a brain hemorrhage, a 64-year old Vietnamese-American woman assaulted and robbed in San Jose, a 91-year old man brutally shoved to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown, a Filipino man whose face was cut with a box cutter in New York City. These examples only scratch the surface and all of this is happening against the backdrop of anti-Asian racism skyrocketing since the pandemic began and Trump’s rhetoric around the “Chinese virus”. With New York City reporting a 20-fold increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and the Stop AAPI Hate database receiving nearly 3000 reports of anti-Asian discrimination since the pandemic began. The discourse that has arisen around this has been complicated by the fact that some of the perpetrators have been people of color themselves. Viet tweeted the following about this, “Horrendous crimes against Asian-Americans have happened recently, and it is right that Asian-Americans have spoken out against them. But we can be against anti-Asian violence and not resort to knee-jerk calls for more policing, which is inextricable from the policing of Black and Brown communities. Asian-Americans need to locate anti-Asian violence as part of a pattern of white supremacy which also targets Black and Brown and indigenous people. Even if perpetrators of violence are people of color, the solution is not to fall back on racist assumptions.” This was met with a lot of contempt on Twitter and he later tweeted, “It’s super interesting how many people are offended by the thought of doing two things at the same time—being against anti-Asian violence and anti-Black racism.” Viet is not alone in this, not by a long shot. Even if the loudest voices within the Asian-American community are for more policing, for more law and order-mediated solutions, dozens and dozens of organizations have pledged to do community coalition building across communities to find solutions for Asian-American safety that don’t harm the lives of other Black and Brown neighbors. This pledge has been signed in the Bay Area by everyone from the Asian Law Caucus and Asian Refugees United to the Chinese Cultural Center, the Filipino Cultural Center, and the Korean American Cultural Foundation of San Francisco, among many others. Some of these groups argue for this approach by looking back to the Rodney King riots and the burning of Koreatown in 1992, where the media focused on the Black-Asian conflict in its aftermath. But quietly and slowly outside of the spotlight over the decades since, the coalition work that has been done between these communities, they believe, is responsible for why in a 2016 AAPI Survey, Koreans now have some of the most progressive social justice and Black equality stances of any Asian-American demographic. I bring this up because this double act Viet is advocating is very much part of our discussion but also part of the story of The Committed, where the protagonist is navigating the various ideologic fault lines within the Vietnamese, and Vietnamese diasporic communities, and figuring out what way he himself can commit to. Even though we are about to go to 1980s France, as you can see, we are very much in the here and now as well. For the bonus audio archive, Viet talks about the importance for him of the work of Edward P. Jones and Maxine Hong Kingston and reads favorite excerpts of each of their work. To find out more about how to subscribe to the bonus audio archive and the many other benefits of transforming yourself from a listener to a listener supporter head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, my conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is novelist, essayist, and scholar, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen studied English and Ethnic Studies and received his Doctorate in English at UC Berkeley. He is now the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He’s an opinion writer for the New York Times and his writings have appeared everywhere from Time magazine to The Washington Post, from The Guardian to The Atlantic. His books include the story collection, The Refugees, the critical works, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. He’s the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. He co-edited Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field. He co-founded The Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, and its literary arm called diaCRITICS, which publishes essays, interviews, book reviews, and much more from the Vietnamese diaspora and which, for a couple of years, was helmed by a past Between the Covers guest, Dao Strom. Nguyen is also on the steering committee for USC’s Center for Transpacific Studies, which encourages the study of how cultures, peoples, capital, and ideas flow across the Pacific and between Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Guggenheim fellow, a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and is perhaps best known for his first novel which prompted his first visit to Between the Covers six years ago, The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, le Prix du meilleur livre étranger from France, For Best Foreign Book, a California Book Award, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Fiction. John Freeman says of The Sympathizer, “Nguyen performs an optic tilt about Vietnam and what America did there as profound as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were to the legacy of racism and slavery.” Maxine Hong Kingston adds describing The Sympathizer’s protagonist, “Trapped in endless civil war, ‘the man who has two minds’ tortures and is tortured as he tries to meld the halves of his country and of himself. Viet Thanh Nguyen accomplishes this integration in a magnificent feat of storytelling. The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.” Thus, it’s thrilling six years later to have Viet Thanh Nguyen return to Between the Covers along with his protagonist who returns in the much-anticipated follow-up, The Committed just out now from Grove and garnering starred reviews like there’s no tomorrow. Marlon James says, “Call The Committed many things—a white, hot literary thriller disguised as a searing novel of ideas, an unflinching look at redemption and damnation, an unblinking examination of the dangers of belief, and the need to believe, a sequel that goes toe-to-toe with the original then surpasses it, a masterwork.” Ocean Vuong adds, “Fierce in tone, capacious, witty, sharp, and deeply researched, The Committed marks not just a sequel to its groundbreaking predecessor, but a sum total accumulation of a life devoted to Vietnamese-American history and scholarship. This novel, like all daring novels, is a Trojan Horse, whose hidden power is a treatise of global futurity in the aftermath of colonial conquest. It asks questions central both to Vietnamese everywhere and to our very species: How do we live in the wake of seismic loss and betrayal? And, perhaps even more critically, How do we laugh?” Finally, Paul Beatty says, “An elegy to idealism, Orientalism, and existentialism in all its tragic forms, Nguyen’s novel doesn’t so much inhabit early 80s Paris, as it pulls the plug on the City of Light. Think of The Committed as the declaration of the 20th ½ Arrondissement, a squatter’s paradise for those with one foot in the grave and the other shoved halfway up Western civilization’s ass.” Welcome back to Between the Covers, Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi, David. It’s great to be back here. I had such a great time talking to you back in 2015 for The Sympathizer, and one of my early interviews ever as a writer and a great one. It’s just a shock to me that it’s been six years since then, so it’s fantastic to be back here.
DN: It’s an amazing thing to think about because when we were talking, you hadn’t won the Pulitzer yet. I was looking through your academic essays to prepare and a lot of those essays were probably written for a narrower audience at the time. Now, we flash forward to today and preparing for today, I’m watching or listening to you in conversation with some of the greatest thinkers of our time, from Pankaj Mishra to Arundhati Roy to Claudia Rankine to Maxine Hong Kingston. It has been a remarkable six years for you.
VN: I’m really grateful for everything that’s happened, especially the chance to talk to people—yourself, as a really excellent interviewer—but with all those people that you mentioned, it’s been a real privilege just to have had the opportunity to share the stage, and swap ideas. In the case of Paul Beatty, we did a long interview, a long conversation together for The Believer magazine, but I got a chance to hang out with him. We were both in France at a literary festival, drinking beers on a riverside. That’s a writer’s dream come true is to hang out with smart, talented people like that.
DN: It sounds amazing. I want to do a little recap. When we first talked in 2015, we talked a lot about doubling because our protagonist in The Sympathizer was a double agent. Thus, he had to demonstrate allegiance to the side he was working against to pretend to be an anti-communist within the Vietnamese-American community that hoped to eventually topple the Vietnamese government. When in fact he worked at least provisionally for that government. Yet his greatest skill to the consternation of both sides was a double vision, the ability to see things from both sides. The Sympathizer, the book was his confession which he wrote when he was in a communist education camp. It was a confession that was way too nuanced for anybody, essentially. A confession that he now carries in The Committed in a double bottom of a carrying case. We talked back then about your now-famous saying, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, and the second time in memory.” We discussed your proposal for a model of ethical memory that itself was also a double model, that for memory to be ethical, it necessitated not just the remembering of one’s own people’s tragedies but also the remembering of that of the other, and an awareness around what your own people are forgetting in their own story to avoid contending with a competing story of another. For today’s conversation, I was hoping we could switch to a different frame and that’s of the dialectic. It’s a frame we could have chosen back then but perhaps it’s more interesting now because we have the compare and contrast of two books, The Sympathizer, and now, The Committed. The dialectic you set up in both books is between communism and anti-communism with the three Vietnamese men who became blood brothers as boys. One who becomes an ardent communist, one who becomes an ardent anti-communist, and the third our protagonist, who sympathizes with both positions but commits to neither. It’s an ambiguous position that raises the question of whether there’s a way forward that is a response to both but belongs to neither. But where I was hoping we could start is The Sympathizer is centered on the United States, and your new book The Committed on France. That’s where I was hoping we would begin given that France has a very different relationship to communism and also a very different history around race and race theory. I was hoping we could start by talking about the Vietnamese community in France and how those differences in France create a different discourse within the Vietnamese community there.
VN: You brought the issue that there’s a need for an ethical memory to confront the other and to displace one’s own assumptions. That’s something challenging for a lot of people to do, including myself. One of the ways that we can make that happen is to force ourselves to go somewhere else and literally be out of our comfort zone. That’s what France is for me. Because I’m Vietnamese and I was born in Vietnam, the question of French influence and French colonization was always present for me. My parents, for example, were born during the period of French colonization. My father is 86 years old and when I visit him, he regales me still with nostalgic stories about France, about the songs that he had to sing in school. He can still remember some of these French lyrics. To grapple with the legacy of the French for the Vietnamese was important to me because another way to imagine the dialectic for the Vietnamese in the 20th century was that we were caught between France and the United States. The Sympathizer, I wanted to grapple with the meaning of the United States and the war in Vietnam for myself, and for Vietnamese people in general. Then I thought I let France off easy in that book. I did talk about it a little bit but not much. For the purposes of a sequel, I thought, “What better place to go than France?” That would force me to engage with French politics around race, colonialism, and around democracy and revolution. For the purposes of a plot, it was going to be a lot of fun, there’s a lot of things to say. I’ve been to France before writing the novel. I spent a couple of summers there as well, trying to talk to as many French people of Vietnamese descent as I could to see what they thought about the kinds of issues that I was interested in. Coming into it, I knew that I was coming in as an American, a Vietnamese for sure but also an American. I knew enough about France to know that my thinking on these issues of politics, and race, and democracy, might be different than those of the French. Lo and behold, all that proved to be true. French people, obviously, are aware of these questions around diversity, difference, and race and all that, but their take is very different. For me, the first thing I had to encounter was that the French-Vietnamese descent doesn’t have a hybrid model of identity that Americans do or a multicultural one. These are terms that, in the French model of universalism and democracy, are not positives. You’re supposed to aspire to assimilation into a universal idea of equality and to call oneself like a Vietnamese-American or an Asian-American as we do here in the United States is quite alien in France. The French-Vietnamese descent doesn’t call themselves Vietnamese-French, for example. They’re just French. They acknowledge their Vietnamese ancestry. But almost uniformly, their attitude was, “We’ve done pretty good here. We’ve integrated the French-like Vietnamese people, Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese food. We don’t have any trouble here.” I only encountered one person and she happened to be of mixed-race descent who took a very different stance. She said, “This is what the French and Vietnamese descent think.” But if we look around, we see all these kinds of problems around the legacies of colonialism and race. Why aren’t the French and Vietnamese descent engaging with these issues? That is one of the topics of the novel, this critique of these attitudes among the French and Vietnamese descent but through them, French attitudes, in general towards race, and religion, and colonialism.
DN: It’s also worth mentioning that major figures in history that play a role in this book—from Ho Chi Minh to Pol Pot to Frantz Fanon, all at one point or another, they lived in France and studied in France. With France’s very different relationship to communism with the communists valorized for their role in the French resistance during Nazi occupation, with the country frequently electing socialist leaders and even having a Jewish socialist leader during Hitler, and also something that you note in the book is that Jean-Paul Sartre supported the post-colonial revolutionary theories of fennel and wrote the preface to The Wretched of the Earth—there’s the colonial power but then there’s also this intellectual thread that is going both directions around evaluating the colonial power.
VN: I’m fascinated by French political thinking, and French radical politics, and all of that. On the one hand, the birthplace of contemporary Western democracy and revolution and these ideas are super important to the French and embedded in their notions of a secular state. The French were significant supporters, ironically, of the Vietnamese revolution even after having been defeated by the Vietnamese. At the same time, their attitudes towards race and colonialism can also be very patronizing and condescending at the same time. They’re contradictory just like Americans or Vietnamese are contradictory. Part of the fun of writing a novel is to go into the contradictions, especially for someone like me who wants to take these political and cultural contradictions seriously but also to satirize them at the same time. I hope there is a very significant dimension of The Committed which is that satirical element that continues from The Sympathizer. Here, the target is not American right-wing politics or American imperialism, but the target is all these French pretensions and these French ideals which are all beautiful, which are also undercut by human excesses as well. One strand of the novel is a satire of the French left-wing, and the French intellectuals which I had a lot of fun with but also took them seriously at the same time. I quote Sartre for example, but I also have a figure in there that’s a composite figure, the BFD who’s an allusion to various kinds of French intellectuals with three initials for their names.
DN: Quite a few of them. Recently, I was listening to a London Review of Books podcast with Hazel Carby. She’s the chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale. She was discussing her critique of Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste. In Wilkerson’s book, which as you know because I listen to a great conversation between the two of you, she compares the situation of African-Americans to both the caste system in India and to antisemitism in Nazi Germany. Carby argues that the comparison that is most relevant and most potentially illuminating is a comparison that Wilkerson doesn’t make. It’s between Black Americans and other Black diasporic communities in the Americas, from Canada to the Caribbean to Brazil. By not making that comparison, Caste ends up re-inscribing and reinforcing, not only the story of a nation-state and American exceptionalism, but also Black American exceptionalism; the idea that the Black American experience epitomizes the Black diasporic condition. That Caste forecloses questions of social movements that are not defined by National narratives. Carby goes on to argue that, not only that, but that African American Studies has done a similar thing. It’s blinkered itself focusing more and more overtime on the national narrative, the American narrative, that if it were to teach a truly diasporic Black studies, it would have to contend with and confront questions of indigeneity among other things, and questions that aren’t bound to national narratives. All this made me think of John Keene’s Counternarratives, as a great counter-example of a rich complex engagement with the Black diaspora. But I also thought of your move to France in The Committed, and it raised the question of whether it was coming from a similar impulse or if one of the impulses to go to France was a similar impulse. The two things I wondered were, A, if in moving the story to France, you had the impulse to decenter the nation, particularly to decenter the United States, and more particularly the Asian-American, and more particularly than that the Vietnamese-American as epitomizing experiences, and B, what parallels or divergences do you see from what Carby describes in African-American studies with your experiences in Asian-American studies?
VN: Asian-American studies and Asian-American culture, since its very inceptions, have had a weakness which is that weakness towards nationalism because we’ve been excluded from American culture as foreigners and outsiders and so on. There’s a very strong impulse to say, “No, we are Americans. We belong here. We’ve been here for generations. We’ve done this and this for this country,” and so on. That’s a very powerful thing to do and a necessary thing to do, but it is a slippery slope as you’re implying because then, you become blind to what it is that nations actually do. What does it mean to belong to a country like the United States to claim equality in a multicultural society if one of the requirements for doing that is to participate or to be complicit in American imperialism? Now, this is the question that Martin Luther King Jr. raised in his speech Beyond Vietnam, which for me is a really crucial text for understanding American politics and Black politics in this country because he does his best to say you can not—if you’re interested in Black liberation—be invested only in the question of what happens to Black people in the United States. That has to be important. But as it says, what does it mean when Black men—only Black men at this time—are being sent overseas to fight a racist imperialist war against Asians? He’s arguing that Black liberation is inseparable from an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist project. Of course, it was probably his most radical speech and not an accident that he was assassinated a year after giving that speech. At that time in 1967, in 1968, when he gave the speech and then when he was assassinated, he was turning more towards this international revolutionary moment that goes hand in hand with the most radical elements of Black liberation in the United States. For me, I’ve turned increasingly more in that direction, too, as I recognize the limits of conducting American-only narratives. I did my best with The Sympathizer to work against that narrative, being very conscious of it, but it’s really hard because American readers will come in with American preoccupations and American conceptions. The hold of American exceptionalism upon American consciousness is very strong. That is also true for people who are immigrants to this country from Asia who want to be American. Part of the price of becoming American is to accept American exceptionalism. Telling this book in France was very important for me to dislodge that assumption, to put it into play against what’s happening in France. Eventually, in the third part of the trilogy, it will be necessary to bring the book back to the United States and Vietnam, not to complete but at least to make the next dialectical move that I want to make. Going to France was crucial here because, of course, there is a really strong component of anti-colonial, decolonizing thinking that comes out of the French colonial francophone context. I was quoting people in The Committed like Frantz Fanon, and also Aimé Césaire. They’re both very deliberate in drawing connections between Black diasporic experiences, the experiences of people on Caribbean islands, and in French Africa, with the experiences of Black Americans. It’s very deliberate. The arguments that they both make are that these are integrated systems. The slavery that happens in the United States is connected to the slavery of the Caribbean, it’s connected to the slavery of that with the exploitation that’s happening in Africa, and then the experiences of the colonized Black people from French colonies in France are analogous to what happens to Black Americans in the United States. Carby’s critique, which I haven’t read, but from your summary, I’m very much in agreement with that push that both Asian-American politics and African-American politics need to be pushed provocatively to consider their deep investments in a blinkered nationalism. This has manifested most recently for me in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which is on the one hand, a necessary film to put Black men at the center of the Vietnam war experience. It quotes Martin Luther King Jr’s Beyond Vietnam. But Spike Lee doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that you just can’t put Black men at the center of an American narrative and be done with the project if you don’t critique American imperialism, which he doesn’t do.
DN: He even has a modern-day war in Vietnam with them essentially. There’s not only the memory of decentering of their own trauma in Vietnam but people are battling each other in the jungle in contemporary Vietnam.
VN: It’s a repetition of Hollywood stories. I understand what Spike Lee is trying to do. He wants to obviously make a critique of the apocalypse now and all of that, but he also wants again to simply take those forms of the “shoot them up”, of the besieged, the American man, the crime narrative, and so on—and put Black men into it, but you can’t do that. You cannot just do that and get away from the ideological baggage that’s also part of these spectacular forms as well. That’s why also in The Sympathizer and The Committed, I’m also not just trying to tell a story with a Vietnamese person at the center of it, but to also question the narrative forms in which these stories are being told.
DN: Let me stay with that a little bit longer because just like you’re saying that you can’t just center it on a Black American soldier and not question the structure of American imperialism—and you’re saying you’re not just centering a Vietnamese person, you’re also trying to go farther than what you see that Spike Lee didn’t do in his film—I wondered if part of you going farther was choosing to have your character be mixed race, having the protagonist have a French father and a Vietnamese mother. Because at the beginning you have this really funny part about the dialectical baguette which you’re contemplating the banh mi, the utterly Vietnamese creation that improves upon but relies utterly upon a French creation. It’s inseparably both and undeniably a product of colonization just as our protagonist’s birth is. I also wondered—especially because you’re centering a character who, philosophically, if he has convictions, they’re really hard to categorize, and we learn them slowly and there’s an ambiguity to them—if there’s an appeal for you as a writer or for its political implications, to not allow the character to be fully categorized as “purely Asian” or “purely Vietnamese,” if somehow you’re sabotaging a regressive authenticity narrative.
VN: Absolutely, because I’m proud to be Vietnamese, I’m happy to be Vietnamese, but I also recognize Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese people do have their share of problems and part of their share of problems is racism. One of the ironies, of course, is that Vietnamese people have been victims of racism through colonialism, and then American warfare, and then here in the United States. Of course, anybody who’s been a victim of racism is sensitive about it, but one of the ironies of this is that oftentimes, the victims of racist experience turn around and are racists themselves. The Vietnamese are not the first ones guilty of it, they won’t be the last ones, but of course, one of the ways by which in the United States you learn how to be an American is that you learn how to be an American racist. An immigrant becomes more American or closer to white people by learning anti-Black narratives, for example. The Vietnamese are not excused from that. I wanted to—in The Sympathizer—both, obviously, deal with Vietnamese people and Vietnamese history, but not let them off the hook. Creating a mixed-race character who would have to absorb the racism of other Vietnamese people was one way of holding Vietnamese people to account. Now that being said, the novel can’t escape the world that it’s in. When it won the Pulitzer Prize, all these Vietnamese people who never read the book rushed to embrace it and me because of this weird attachment to the symbolism of the prize and whatever it meant. My work in these two novels is both engaged with saying, “Yes, we need to talk about Vietnamese people and Vietnamese history,” but yet also challenging people on their notions of authenticity at the same time.
DN: I was listening to a ton of conversations with you recently and I listened to some podcasts that were produced by, and also focused on questions of Asian-Americans, including The Bánh Mì Chronicles and Asian Enough, but most notably a really great conversation you had on a podcast that I didn’t know before called Time To Say Goodbye on Ethnic Studies, Revolutionary Politics, and the Third World Liberation Front. I learned there that the word Asian-American originally was created in the 1960s, inspired by The Black Power movement and it had radical origins. To return to the dialectic for a minute in this context, most of what I hear today about that term are the problems with the term. Before we talk about the problems, if I think about the fraught histories between Asian countries—whether it be China’s imperial conquests in Vietnam, Vietnam’s decade-long occupation of Cambodia, Korea’s participation with America in the Vietnam war, Korea’s colonization by Japan, and so on—the imagining of collective solidarity as Asian-Americans seems visionary. It has the potential to be powerful. But on the other hand, it also feels like it has the potential to not only erase or elide huge differences in how each group has a different American experience, immense differences in class, say, between the average Indian-American and the average Cambodian-American, big differences in how white adjacent different groups are versus others, but it also feels like it could reinforce pre-existing power dynamics where East Asians become the face of Asian Americans more than Central Asians or Southeast Asians, or even worse, Pacific Islanders who seem to only be included in the name. This is my long way to the question about the term which arose from a desire for the collective and for solidarity across difference, and perhaps to rise above grievances between different peoples, but now also seems to fit within a model of a representational politics that has the potential to be far more reactionary than revolutionary. I wondered where you sat with that term Asian-American given its history and its contemporary use.
VN: I really needed that term and that identity when I was 19 years old and coming into Berkeley for the first time, and for me, that was a dialectical moment. It was like being hit by intellectual and political lightning to even hear the term Asian-American because there was no such term for me before then. I was either an American, or a Vietnamese, or an oriental, and none of these things were really satisfactory. It served its purpose for me, and it still does to some extent. I stress the word dialectic because as you imply, the terms and these identities don’t mean the same thing at every moment in history, either for an individual or in our case, for the United States. In the 1960s, Asian-American were absolutely revolutionary. It was anti-imperialist, anti-war, anti-racist, it was based on Marxism, and so on. You can’t say that anymore because the change in demographics, the political changes have meant that now Asian-American has become this representational term for inclusion, diversity, belonging, pluralism, and all the various limitations that involve including an openness to being commodified. What does it mean to be an Asian-American if being an Asian-American right now means that we have reality shows like the House of Ho and Bling Empire and all that stuff? My stance on that is we fought to have this opportunity to be commodified if the choice was simply being erased or being commodified. Now, we’ve fought to the point where we’ve reached this unfortunate moment where we’re equally exploitable like every other American population, but I think that we had to get to this point. This was a movement of the dialectic. Now that we’ve gotten to this point where the revolutionary struggle has led us to further opportunities for capitalist commodification in democratic capitalism, then we can move to the next step. That’s where going to France was also very interesting because in France, it’s like the reverse because one of the great things about being French of Vietnamese descent is for those folks, it’s true, they fit in. They get along really well. For them, French democracy worked out. They could become these universal individuals in France, at least that was their experience. Even Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks wavers between this necessity about being Black and the desire just to be human. He’s not being naive. He’s just saying that we can have both of these desires in our hearts at the same time, and the question of revolution and decolonizing struggle is how do we get there? How do we not deny our Blackness or Asian-ness because that’s how we’re being oppressed, and yet, how do we aspire to universal humanness that we know we need to strive for? That’s where I’m at now with this whole idea of the Asian-American coalition, et cetera. It’s a tactic, it’s an identity that has certain kinds of opportunities that we still need to use, but for me, it’s not the end goal. The end goal is this vision of revolutionary humanism that Frantz Fanon has, but it’s not humanism that’s liberal in the sense that we can just say, “Let’s all close our eyes, let’s wish away our differences, and we’ll all get along.” That’s not the humanism that he believed in or I believe in. The project of the novels is exactly that. How do we get to that point of being equally human? What are the costs involved? Because it’s not going to be easy to get there. It’s not just like singing Kumbaya. It involves really costly political and individual struggle. That’s the terrain of The Committed.
DN: When you talk about the dialectic around the term Asian-American, in the light of that, talk to us about why you choose to call yourself a refugee versus an immigrant in that light.
VN: Because I am a refugee or I was a refugee, and the whole crucial issue is if you were once a refugee, can you still call yourself a refugee when you clearly are no longer one? I’m not displaced. I’m not homeless. I’m not poor. I’m not marginalized. I’m not persecuted, and none of those things. To call myself a refugee is both to acknowledge the historical fact of how I came to this country—I did not come as an immigrant—and also to make a political claim about aligning myself or standing up with people who are refugees versus people who are immigrants because we just went through a very difficult period of our history, four years of a Trump administration that demonized immigrants and refugees, and in that sense, even standing up for immigrants became a political need. But outside of that, the immigrant totally fits into American mythology, like we’re a country of immigrants, and so on. This, along with the national narrative of Asian-American assimilation, is both powerful and also deeply problematic because you have to ask yourself, what are you invested in when you say you’re an immigrant who has come to a country of immigrants? Increasingly, I cannot look at this without thinking of the fact that we’re still a colonizing society on indigenous lands. That for indigenous peoples, the colonization never really ended and they’re still struggling against it. To claim to be an immigrant and to be a part of this American land means that you’re also claiming to be a part of this colonizing project at the same time. Refugees aren’t excused from that. Refugees can also settle and take on land, and all that as well. But for me to select that refugee narrative means that I can point to different things, and I can point to the fact that refugees come to this country oftentimes because of the wars we wage in other places. Refugees are the alibis for American imperialism. America can say, “Look, we have this wonderful Vietnamese-American population. We took in these people. We rescued them, and that somehow absolves what the United States did in Vietnam and in so many other countries where refugees come from.” On the one hand, it was a situation where I had to say the Trump administration is wrong in cutting refugee admissions to 10,000 from an Obama-era number of 180,000, and yet to also be aware that as I was arguing that we should take in more refugees and immigrants that I’m also participating in this colonizing project. That’s the intractable contradiction that my work is aimed at.
DN: To continue with the intractable contradiction and to return to the Vietnamese blood brothers, they are blood brothers, they’re tied together by blood. They are a family as fellow Vietnamese. They have something deep that unites them. But whatever it is only goes so far. One, the communist oversaw the torture of another, our protagonist, in a communist reeducation camp. The other, if they knew our protagonist was not really an ardent anti-communist would be the greatest betrayal imaginable. We had a past guest on the show, poet Eunsong Kim, and she said something in an interview recently that has been revolutionary for me as a framing device, as a way to frame and contextualize myself as a Jewish person in relationship to traumas of the Jewish experience, but also as an individual Jewish person in relationship to the Jewish community at large, but more importantly, to make sure that doing this is connected to an awareness of how Jews are positioned within America at large, to tether it to the structural. She’s not Jewish, she’s Korean-American, but I’m going to read what she said and say a couple of things, and then see if you feel like it’s something that you connect to or that you disagree with. She said, ”There is fighting white supremacy and there is fighting anti-Blackness. I have found that fighting anti-Blackness often means fighting with those closest to you.” I would add anti-indigeneity to this equation since it often frequently gets erased, but otherwise, when I hear this, I think of, in my own context, how most Jewish institutions in the US fight white supremacy by centering their own ways they’ve been traumatized in relationship to it. Not realizing that because of where Jews are positioned, an insider-outsider position, that shares some qualities with Asian-Americans and the model minority phenomenon. Not realizing that when one fights white supremacy only from one’s middle position point of view, it can actually perpetuate anti-Blackness. I’m thinking of, for instance, the love of so many Jewish institutions around law enforcement solutions even in neighborhoods they share with different Black and Brown communities that, for obvious reasons, are very uneasy about that. On the other hand, if I were to fight anti-Blackness as a Jew instead—not instead of fighting antisemitism, but as a required aspect of liberation-focused politics—I would be having to fight within the Jewish community against its own racism as much as I would be fighting on behalf of the Jewish community against white supremacy. This is where I was thinking. I was connecting Eunsong Kim to your definition of ethical memory, that the memory of the other and this idea of being aware of what one is forgetting. I wondered because I feel like you and your writings, the writing you’re doing in the newspapers and magazines regularly about what’s going on in the world feels inspirational and instructional in a way that feels like an enactment of this quote for me around how you’re engaging with the Vietnamese-American community. Do you see anything in that, that either you embrace or you push away?
VN: That’s pretty accurate. If you’re not a white person and you’re engaged in fighting against white supremacy actively or passively, let’s say, you’re still engaged in a battle of self-interest, unless you explicitly try to align yourself with white people or white supremacy, which does happen. As long as you’re fighting against it and you’re not white, you’re doing something that has some benefit to you. It’s easier to mobilize people around that issue of your own group. To fight against anti-Blackness or to be aware of one’s own investments in anti-Blackness means that you are working in a different direction. You’re allying yourself with another population. You’re recognizing how anti-Blackness has been fundamental to the United States since its very inception, and that there are privileges and benefits that accrue, but not just white people, to anybody who’s not Black in American society because of the deep structural embeddedness of anti-Black racism in this country. I saw that very clearly happening in France because the French, my reading of it is that the French-Vietnamese descent, part of the reason why they like where they’re at is because they’re not the targets of white supremacist violence in France. They are regarded as the model minority, and they get along, and they intermarry, and they’re desirable as neighbors and colleagues, and all that. But I only met one person who proactively brought up the issue that perhaps the privileged place of the Fench-Vietnamese descent in France is possible because they’re not Black, or they’re not Arab, or they’re not Muslim. I never asked people about that issue because I didn’t want to lead them down that road. I just wanted to see if they themselves would even bring it up. The fact that almost no one did was very telling to me that they were lacking this consciousness of solidarity, this recognition that they didn’t get everything they got simply because of who they are, not to discredit the work that they might have done or their families, but they got what they got, at least, partly because of who they’re not. That’s a difficult position for a lot of people to be in, to recognize that you have the privilege. If you’re against white supremacy, you’re against white privilege, but you’re not recognizing that you yourself may have privileges of some kind. If we’re demanding that white people recognize their own privilege—which they should—we should always be constantly self-reflexive and thinking about what other kinds of privileges accrue to us racially, or in terms of class, or in terms of sexuality, or gender, and so on. That was part of the thinking around The Committed because when I reached the end of The Sympathizer, which is really stringent, a criticism of imperialism and racism, and so on, I also realized that it’s a book with a protagonist who’s deeply invested in misogyny, patriarchy, and heterosexuality, and a dialectical move would require me to interrogate that, too. The Committed continues the critique of racism and colonialism, but also, it makes much more explicit a critique of the privilege of being a heterosexual man, even if one happens to be of mixed race or of Asian descent.
DN: I love the difficult move you make but also the way you do it with a lot of humor where we have characters who are wildly misogynistic, but the book itself is very feminist. There’s this way in which you enact some of these patriarchal male blind spots but then also bring in Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, and a variety of ways in which they’re being critiqued, and ultimately critiquing themselves. I don’t know how you did that as a writer where it’s very clear where you stand, but it’s not the same place where your characters are standing.
VN: I wanted to write a novel that could be construed as a feminist novel, and thank you for saying it. [laughs] I wouldn’t dare call it that myself. I just have to wait and see what other people’s assessments are. I wanted to write a novel about a man who gradually comes to understand how deeply invested he has been in his own sexuality, especially heterosexuality, and his own masculinity so that even as he can be critical of other forms of domination, he has to come to recognize that he himself participates in other people’s oppression. I wanted to do it without being heavy-handed. I didn’t want to have a moment in the book where he says, “I’m a feminist,” or to use the word feminism in the book even if that might be part of the intent of the book. His awakening, his sense of self-awareness had to come about through the plot, and had to be couched in a humorous way so that it wouldn’t become too self-serious. That was the tricky part of the novel is to try to figure out how to do that, to not make him into an angel, to still participate in some of the high jinks that carried over from The Sympathizer, and yet as you said, to make it very clear that there’s a feminist critique happening here. That has happened through citing feminist thinkers and having some strong feminist characters in the novel.
DN: I want to return also to you talking about how, perhaps French-Vietnamese are happier with where they’re positioned because they’re not targeted in the same way as other populations within France. That made me think of how the statistics are wildly variable, partially because I don’t think France—because this idea of universalism and neutral secularism—don’t tally these statistics in the same way, but the statistics range from 40% to 70% of the people in jail in France are Muslim which is pretty remarkable. But one thing that’s unique about The Committed that’s different than The Sympathizer is a lot of the interactions are between two colonized people in The Committed. We have interactions, mostly a turf war between French-Vietnamese and North African Arab population in Paris. How much of that was imagined? How much of that arises from historical investigations? How much of it from talking to people in Paris? Tell us more about that interaction if you have more to tell about the two populations and how they coexist or don’t coexist with each other?
VN: In writing The Committed, it’s meant to be a political novel and so on but also, it’s meant to extend the genre aspect of The Sympathizer which is a spy novel. He’s no longer spy in The Committed but it is a crime novel because he arrives in Paris in 1982 and he’s basically wrecked after his time in reeducation and as a refugee for a third time. He makes some very, very bad choices in his life and gets involved with a gang, and becomes a drug dealer. [laughter] I asked all these folks of Vietnamese descent in France, I said, “Were there Vietnamese gangsters in the 70s and 80s?” They said, “No, Vietnamese people don’t do that kind of stuff, we don’t commit crimes.” Seriously, that was the answer. [laughter] But I knew actually that there was a very famous Vietnamese gangster in South Vietnam who actually migrated to France eventually and became the godfather in France. Then I thought that there must be a way to make this work, at least, historically so it’s accurate. Then it occurred to me that some people would say, “Well, we know there are Chinese gangs in Chinatown.” I thought, “Well, there are Chinese people in Vietnam.” I mean there are Ethnic Chinese people in Vietnam, a lot of them fled as refugees and some of them ended up in France, so I thought this solves my problem, I’ll make them Ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese gangsters, so everybody will blame the fact that they’re being Chinese versus they’re being Vietnamese. That was the way to foreground the crime narrative in the book and also, to address this idea that somehow, the Vietnamese can never commit crimes which I just don’t believe because a lot of Vietnamese gangsters in the United States, I don’t know why that would be different in France. But the crime angle was another way to bring up politics without being sanctimonious. I did want to address the relationships between colonized peoples in France and not center white people but I didn’t want it, for the most part, to be this idea that somehow, people from different colonized backgrounds are going to just get together and form a revolutionary brotherhood. In fact, what happens is the Ethnic Chinese gang and the Algerians are, as you say, in a turf battle, and violent, terrible things happen, yet at the same time, there is the possibility for some political sparks to happen that I tried to take place. To me, that’s part of the difficulty of the legacies of racism and colonization, that they don’t make people who are victims better, [laughs] they often make them worse but they also open up the potential of recognition of mutual solidarity. There’s evidence of that happening in the novel as well. Then my own personal experience in France is that I like France very much and have a lot of fun there. I’ve spent maybe, in total, 12 or 15 months of my life in France. I have to say though that in those 12 or 15 months, I experienced more racism directed against me personally than I ever have in the United States. In the United States, I’d say that I’ve experienced structural racism, I’ve experienced Hollywood racism in terms of just the level of anti-Asian stereotyping and all that kind of stuff, but being called racist names to my face doesn’t happen very often. But it happened three times in France, coming from three different kinds of people, an older white woman, an older Black woman, and a group of non-white teenagers in different parts of Paris and the South of France. I think that’s a political reality that needs to be confronted, whether you call it racism or prejudice, it also moves laterally, as well as vertically. It’s critical not simply to point the finger and say, “Well, people of color can be racist too,” it’s also critical to point out that these are legacies of racism and colonization, the divide-and-conquer realities that people have absorbed and taken into themselves and that any politically conscious struggle needs to point towards and work against.
DN: Yeah, let’s take that and return to Eunsong Kim’s assertion that if you focus on anti-Blackness, you end up fighting the people closest to you. I wanted to take that into some of the things that you’ve written outside of the book, which I feel like still informs the book also. Because if we’re thinking of the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, your protagonist is not just a sympathizer but a synthesizer. I think you are too. A lot of your writing for magazines and newspapers, it feels like it exemplifies an insistence on nuance, an insistence on not centering personal narratives over structural ones when it comes to analysis. Even when the trauma is significant and substantial, not ignoring the personal but tethering it to structural questions. I’m thinking about a couple of pieces, in particular, your writings on Korea town during the Rodney King riots where Koreans suffered a large proportion of the property damage, two Koreans were killed where the police pretty much let Koreatown burn while protecting other areas, yet there were simmering tensions between the African-American and Korean-American communities before the riot. You don’t write about this but there were complaints of anti-Black racism that the Korean shop owners didn’t hire Black people, and just before the Rodney King riots, there were two Korean-American shop owners who killed Black customers, one, in a scuffle, two, when they accused a customer of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. Neither of the shop owners received any jail time even though they killed two unarmed people. Even though you weren’t writing about that, specifically that part, you did point out that even though they lost most of the property, they also had property to lose, that the vast majority of people who died were Black, that of the 12,000 people arrested, most were Black. You did a similar complicated analysis with the Hmong police officer’s complicity during the murder of George Floyd, the police officer who stood for eight minutes during the time George Floyd was being murdered on camera and did nothing. But that essay also brought in all the inadequacies around the Asian-American label, as you pointed out, without excusing the cops action, the Hmong community said, “We’re not going to beat ourselves up over our complicity with white supremacy as a community or for being white adjacent because we’ve never benefited from the model minority or seen its benefits.” You show how the poverty rate in that community is actually higher than for African-Americans and their per capita income is lower, and about a third to a quarter of what someone from an Indian-American or Taiwanese or Filipino-American would earn. I’ll provide links to these articles because they’re very comfortable with contradiction, nuance, and with going into some difficult places. But I wanted to look at your similar engagement within your own Vietnamese-American community, because your personal story has a lot of trauma in it, a deep series of traumas and a story that isn’t uncommon among your fellow Vietnamese-American refugees. Your parents were refugees twice, first to South Vietnam in the 50s, then to the States. Some of your first memories when you’re only four years old, of being in a relocation camp and being taken from your parents for several months as you each receive different sponsors. Your brother being away from your family for several years. Your family being held at gunpoint in your house and shot in their store. You’ve talked about the trauma and mental illness in the Vietnamese-American community where you grew up because of all these traumas and many that I’m not mentioning. Yet you seem very willing to call to account how this trauma is used or instrumentalized. I’m thinking about recently, your writings about Vietnamese-American support for Trump, the most of any Asian-American demographic, the numerous South Vietnamese flags flying at the Capitol Insurrection, and about what you call the radicalized nostalgia that the white Trump supporters and the Vietnamese-American Trump supporters share. I was hoping maybe, you could talk
to us about your work in this area of what feels like an intra-family conversation or battle. Also, maybe you could speak to Vietnamese-American anti-communism in this light. I don’t want to make analogies across communities or not strong ones but maybe, there’s an analogy or a weak one to the Cuban-American community in this regard in relationship to the rest of the Latin-American, American population.
VN: I think it’s actually a pretty strong analogy to the Cuban-American experience that we share this sense of exile displacement, loss nostalgia for what might have been and what could have been. It’s rooted in anti-communism, then that intersects with the anti-communism of the United States so that our collective personal angst over being refugees from communism fits perfectly into the narrative of anti-communist American exceptionalism, which makes both Cubans and Vietnamese sort of ideal American refugee subjects. At least on the Vietnamese side, I think a lot of Vietnamese-Americans find themselves willing to play into that for their own benefit, obviously, oftentimes because they sincerely believe in these types of politics. Part of what it means to be a Vietnamese refugee or a Vietnamese-American of my generation in the United States is that it’s an affective, deeply emotional experience. [laughs] It’s like we are refugees, we experienced all these things, yet people of my age I think didn’t experience it as deeply as our parents and grandparents did, who lost everything as adults versus what happened to me when I was four years old coming as a refugee. I think we’re deeply familiar with these emotions of loss, resentment, anger, and all that, and it’s mixed in, for people of my generation, with love, with a sense of filial piety knowing that even if we don’t agree with our parents about various kinds of cultural political issues, we owe them so much. To disagree with your parents or with this older generation, for my generation is extremely difficult because we feel like we’re betraying them in another language, we’re betraying them politically and culturally for all they’ve done for us, we’re betraying them emotionally, then we’re betraying them in English because we recognize that part of our privilege as these American people is due to what our parents went through. The Trump era really brought all of this to a head because obviously, before the Trump era, the degree of conservatism and republican support in the Vietnamese-American community was fairly high anyway. There was already a cultural gap between those who were conservatives and those who weren’t and it doesn’t split down easily into generations but there’s a tendency for the older generation to go one way and there’s a tendency for the younger generation to go another. But Trump really exacerbated all that as it did for the entire country. I found myself just caught up in that because it really did feel to me like the future of the country was at stake during the Trump administration. It disturbed me deeply that anybody was supporting the Trump administration but even more so, that any Vietnamese people were supporting the Trump administration and not just supporting it in a reluctant way like, “We’re republicans,” but wholeheartedly going in for everything that the Trump administration represented. All that personal depth of feeling then became intersected with the need for political struggle. I’ve always taken a public stance well before the Trump administration on all these various kinds of issues and I’ve been called a communist before but it got a lot worse during this Trump administration for me, as it did for everybody else. But I thought it was necessary to do that and I think it got worse partly through the depth of division that the Trump administration caused, but also, for Vietnamese people in particular because of the emotional nexus of obligation and loyalty that the younger generation who was leaning against Trump felt. It’s very emotionally taxing to do that. So many younger Vietnamese-Americans were going public saying, “I can’t believe that my family members are Trump supporters and we can’t even have a conversation.” It seemed to me worse than anti-communism, the debates around, it actually felt worse. I had a Facebook page of 93,000 followers, and for some reason, the overwhelming majority were Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnamese people. During the last several months of 2020, it became all about racism, anti-Blackness, the Trump administration, and Vietnamese support for Trump. The page became a rallying point for a lot of progressive Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnamese people who were opposed to Trump but it also became the staging of a battleground for those who were supporters of Trump who would come in and attack me, and engage in these kinds of troll battles and things like that. But I felt I was willing to do it. It was necessary. Whenever there’s a family struggle like this, both within one’s family but also, in the larger collective family, I think we feel like we have to do it because the soul of the family and the soul of the country is at stake. But after Trump was defeated on December 26, I deleted my Facebook page. [laughter] I feel so much better. I may come back to it if things get worse but for now, there’s sort of a trough of expectations and see if the country can pull itself together under the Biden administration. Even in the Vietnamese-American community, things have toned down as a result of that. I’m just taking a rest right now but I assume I might be back, given the politics of the country. [laughter]
DN: Speaking of Facebook, you posted today about two of the areas that seem most fraught when you speak out or when people speak out or when you speak out about Vietnamese anti-communism and pro-Trump, and also, when you speak out in support of boycott and divestment of Israel around Palestine. I was thinking about how, when I read about your engagements with the Vietnamese-American community and the blowback you get for holding them to account for how their legitimate and real traumas are now being funneled into this imperial American anti-communist narrative, I think about how narrow that conversation is in the Jewish-American community of what you can stay and still be considered family, especially in institutional spaces. But for me, the only magazine I subscribe to, it’s called Jewish Currents, I feel like it models this question of ethical memory because the magazine includes, of course, a lot of Jewish writers but it also includes a lot of Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian writers, a lot of Black writers, a lot of Black Jews, and Jews of color. If you haven’t checked it out, you’ll see Cornel West and you’ll see Bernie Sanders but I could totally imagine you writing in Jewish Currents. But I wondered about the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and diaCRITICS if that served a similar role to what I’m describing, is this an attempt to create a space of ethical memory within the Vietnamese-American discourse?
VN: Yeah, I think so. For those people who don’t know what that is, when I was a college student at Berkeley, I was already a Vietnamese-American and I recognized that we needed to have more Vietnamese-American voices out there to combat the things that we were seeing—in Hollywood, for example, depicting Vietnam as a war, not a country—My work as an aspiring writer was always bound up with my sense that this writing was tied to a community that I wanted to speak for myself but I thought that the stories would have relevance for a Vietnamese-American community too. My friends and I started a Vietnamese-American arts organization back then called Ink and blood, “very melodramatically” and that morphed eventually 20 years later into a Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, much more professional, and all that kind of thing. As part of that effort, I started a blog called diacritics.org which is now under the editorship of Eric Nguyen who has a novel coming out from Knopf in just a few months, Things We Lost to the Water, a great book. But all that is built on this idea that part of the necessary political struggle for a minoritized people is through art, through culture, and cultural politics. We have to tell our own stories, we have to form our own artistic communities, we have to open the doors for everybody, we have to ensure that there’s a proliferation of voices and that’s not just one voice for the voiceless or some gatekeeping presence or something like that. I take that very seriously. The work goes in two directions as you’re implying. On the one hand, we have to be facing towards all of the United States and all the rest of the world to get all these stories out there. On the other hand, we’re looking within our own family, within our own community which is within the Vietnamese language media is dominated by these anti-communist conservative perspectives. We felt that there was a necessity to present a more progressive viewpoint that was US focused and was focused on these questions of race, belonging, and cultural diversity here in the US. I think ironically, we have succeeded in doing that, not just DVAN but collectively as a whole because Vietnamese-American literature in this country is actually fairly successful. We have dozens and dozens of authors with books from major publishers and independent publishers, and lots of awards, all that kind of stuff. Ironically, what we’ve reached is this recognition that we can’t only do in English anymore, we have to do it in Vietnamese too because the people in the Vietnamese-American community who most need to hear these ideas can only hear them in Vietnamese. My recent work has been to do interviews in Vietnamese TV stations. I don’t need people to agree with me, I just need them to hear what I’m saying, then they can argue about that from there. All these efforts now in the Vietnamese-American community from the younger generation or the more progressive group to try to figure out ways to communicate in Vietnamese to foment these conversations, again, not with an idea that we’re going to try to persuade people or lecture to people but simply to model the possibility of dialogue, conversation, and disagreement in civil and respectful ways without resorting to the nuclear bomb for us as anti-communism, for Jewish people as anti-semitism, but you just can’t bring that out the moment someone disagrees with you and gives a political perspective you don’t agree with, even on a very sensitive and divisive issue such as “who should be in power in Vietnam?” or “should you have BDS?” That’s very difficult work because it’s difficult work either way; it’s difficult to face a white majority audience and try to get your story told, and understood, and it’s difficult to go home where the passions run so much deeper.
DN: I watched you on a Vietnamese-American TV show, you were being translated in real time on the show into Vietnamese. It was very interesting, it was respectful, I don’t know if it was warm but you were talking about why you thought something like food stamps wasn’t communist or even socialist and trying to parse out these things that the Vietnamese community had benefited from in their past histories at some point, things that are not a trojan horse towards a communist government.
VN: Yeah, I’m not the last person who should be talking about these kinds of things, I’m not an expert on food stamps or the welfare state or anything like that, [laughter] but it’s this weird position where because of the novel, the awards and whatever, Vietnamese people grant me some kind of legitimacy. I feel like it’s an obligation to just take that little opportunity then to come in and say some stuff that I don’t know that much about but that viewpoint is not even being heard in the Vietnamese-American community in Vietnamese. It’s something I feel very ambivalent about, that I think my primary calling is as a writer and as a scholar but there’s work that needs to be done in public advocacy and public arguments. If I can have a role in that, I would do my best but I feel very stupid honestly, most of the time, having to go out and talking about these big political issues on which I’m not an expert.
DN: I thought you were great. I thought you were really good on that show but I also am amazed how you’ll say on Facebook, “Okay, I need to write about the Vietnamese-Americans who are part of the Capitol Insurrection.” Then two days later, we get your think piece in the Washington Post or Time Magazine. Count me as impressed and not on the side of you being stupid. But I want to switch to another country that plays a role in The Committed that I have some theories about why but I want to hear your theories too. One country that comes up a lot other than Vietnam and France is Cambodia, and I wondered about this. One way I thought about it was as a way to complicate the notion of the Vietnam War being called the Vietnam War or even called the American War by the Vietnamese, that it’s not just a war about Vietnam and America, and that calling it either way erases Laos and Cambodia as victims or South Korea’s participants or the French as the original colonizers. Even as you say it in your words how quickly Vietnam went from a beacon of imperial resistance to one of imperial incursion with its occupation of Cambodia for a decade post-war, to use the totally wrong vocabulary, Cambodia was Vietnam’s Vietnam but I also wonder if you, using Cambodia is a part of a critique of the communist side of the dialectic. Perhaps in the spirit of Teju Cole when he was on and he said, “Year Zero projects never succeed,” so people trying to erase everything and beginning from nothing, whether the French Revolution or Mao or the Khmer Rouge aren’t successful. Then I’m thinking of Sartre’s early support for Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot which obviously, looking back, haven’t aged well, but talk to us about Cambodia. It shows up regularly in the book. It’s not the main focus but it feels like it’s insisting itself in this project.
VN: Yeah, I think it’s born from the necessity to both criticize the failure of communism as it’s necessary to criticize the failure of any political ideology. In The Sympathizer, there was much greater focus on American capitalism, American democracy, and its particular contradictions and failures, also, in Vietnamese communism and revolutionary politics. In The Committed, I wanted to continue these kinds of critiques but I felt I had already made a very strong case about the particular failures of communist revolutionary politics. In The Committed, one of the other things I wanted to criticize was nationalism. That all nationalisms are subject to their own very deeply necessary blind spots. We have to forget everything that our nation has done to become a nation in order to proclaim our patriotism. So all nations are usually founded on acts of violence, conquest, and all of that. In the American context, we’re very familiar with what those acts of violence and conquest are, then if we’re saying these kinds of things, it’s easy to forget, if we come from other countries, what those countries have done. That’s the case with Vietnamese people. We’re very good at saying, “Hey, look, we were colonized by the Chinese for a thousand years, the French and the Americans.” Like everybody else, we’re eager to claim our own victimization. You’d meet very few Vietnamese people who will proactively volunteer that Vietnam is an imperialist country like, “We fought the Chinese in order, partially to be able to then march South, take over other lands, and conquer other peoples to make modern Vietnam.” For example, Southern Vietnam, a lot of it is formerly Thailand and Cambodia. That’s why Cambodia is in there primarily, I mean yes, I bring up the failures of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge but mostly, I wanted to have it in there in order to make it impossible for Vietnamese people to deny what they have done. That’s exactly what Vietnamese people want to do, that’s what all people want to do is to deny what they have done. The presence of Cambodia is there, at least partly to point out that Vietnamese people need to be self-reflexive in their discussions of victimization and in nationalism, as well as in communism and its failures.
DN: Yeah. The book opens with an epigraph taken from a book called The Elimination: A survivor of the Khmer Rouge confronts his past and the commandant of the killing fields. That epigraph goes, “Nothing’s more real than nothing.” I looked for where this came from and the full quote goes, “‘There was no overall plan. No organization. No dispositions had been made to guide, feed, care for, or lodge these thousands and thousands of people . . . We sensed that the evacuation was turning bad.’ The family bartered what they could but soon had nothing left. ‘Contrary to the popular notion, it’s not true that there’s always something left to swap. I’ve seen a country stripped completely bare, where a fork was a possession too precious to give away, where a hammock was a treasure. Nothing’s more real than nothing.’” There are many riffs on this notion of nothing in the book, some are quite long, baroque, and even sometimes, extremely funny. Sometimes, I’m caught in some of these riffs that you go on around nothing. I’m just laughing and amazed. At one point, the protagonist expresses the dream of the nobodies everywhere rising up, regardless of ethnicity or nation, against the somebodies of one’s own kind. But more often, your riffs on nothing feel more like [coends 1:29:37] that can’t quite be reduced to something entirely graspable. For instance, there’s the line early in the book, “For most of my life, I had constantly and desperately believed in something, only to discover that at the heart of that something was nothing. So why not give nothing a chance?” Or late in the book, “I believe something, I believe nothing is sacred. Life is full of meaning.” Talk to us about nothing being more real than nothing and what that means because it doesn’t mean nihilism, the narrator very clearly says he’s not asserting nihilism, but he is asserting nothing is sacred which can be read in so many different ways, depending where you put the emphasis on that sentence. [laughs]
VN: Let me start going back to the original quote, “Nothing is more real than nothing,” by Rithy Panh. Rithy Panh is a filmmaker, Cambodia’s number one filmmaker. His whole body of work has been devoted to the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath. I think his movie, The Missing Picture is brilliant and the best thing I’ve ever seen about the Cambodian genocide in memory. Then the quote is from his memoir, The Elimination where he tracked down and interrogated the most infamous Khmer Rouge criminal who’d been convicted at that time, a guy who was in charge of a prison camp where 17,000 people died. I think Rithy Panh’s work, I really admire it because it’s completely emblematic of my notions of ethical memory but it’s also grappling with the failure of a revolutionary project, this very idealistic revolutionary project which he connects directly back to the French. In The Elimination, he says, “Look, we got this from the French, these democratic revolutionary aspirations.” [laughs] You can’t untangle what happened in Cambodia from what the French did, yet at the same time, he insists, “The Cambodians did this to themselves.” He’s both holding colonialism to account and holding Cambodians to account which is exactly the project I want to be engaged in. He’s holding into account these revolutionary ideals, and for me, this is very important because my own formation as an Asian-American was through his notion of revolutionary ideals and I believe in these revolutionary projects. What happens if you take your revolutionary ideals to the very extreme like the Khmer Rouge did? That’s something that’s always haunted me. The Vietnamese didn’t go as far as the Cambodians but they went pretty far and a lot of terrible things happened. So I wanted to grapple. My entire life so far has been intellectually, politically a project of grappling with the implications of this revolutionary aspiration and its possible consequences. The focus on nothing, the paradoxes and ambiguities involved with that term is a direct consequence of engaging with this revolutionary project, because what if at the heart of revolution you have nothing? All these ideals, what if they just collapse? I think that’s true, not just for communism but for every revolutionary project that contains within itself the possibility of its own corruption and destruction, human beings being what they are. There’s another version of this revolutionary thinking that is not about capturing the state or overthrowing classes, but it’s instead a revolution that does more about what happens inside of us, our spirituality, our conceptions of who we are, our relationship to being. This, I have to say up front, is something I don’t really totally understand and if anything, the trilogy of which The Sympathizer and The Committed are apart is an attempt to work dialectically through both of these senses of revolution, both the external revolutions of communism and the struggle for the state, the failures therein and the aspirations of things like 1968 in France parallel to this other struggle for a more personal liberation from the world. That’s where the other dimension of nothing is. I started to broach it at the end of The Sympathizer, talking about how nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. Some of the responses that people had were, “Are you trying to give us a nihilistic idea here?” That wasn’t the ambition as you said. In The Committed, I wanted to make it very clear, it’s not nihilism, it’s something else. There are other roots for this idea of nothing in non-Western cultures, like in Buddhism. I’m still trying to feel my way towards what that means but in The Committed, I think I get further into that with this idea that nothing is sacred. Both this idea that nothing is out of bounds in terms of what we can aspire to or what we should talk about but also that nothingness itself, absence, blankness is important as well and that in Western cultures, we’re not really equipped to deal with absence, negative spaces, and blank spaces. Part of what The Committed is working towards is trying to confront this absence. Rithy Panh’s work, I think part of what he’s talking about is both the nothingness at the heart of revolution but also, in the aftermath, nothing is left, your family’s destroyed, millions of people are dead, there are only the ghosts that haunt you. That’s nothing but that’s also something at the same time.
DN: Yeah. We’ve been talking this whole time and you alluded to this at the beginning. I want to move from this, at least for a moment, to acknowledge more deeply that even though we’ve had this very serious and philosophical discussion and even here we’re having a very serious and philosophical discussion about nothing and something in revolution, the book is tonally extremely funny and it’s even funny when engaging with what you just talked about. It’s in the tradition of a satire as much as it is in the tradition of a book of ideas. You do have a nod in this book, like you have a nod to Philip Roth in the first book with the squid masturbation scene. But in this book, you also have a line laid in the book, “Now, we are perhaps ready to begin,” which echoes the last line of Portnoy’s Complaint, the horrifyingly hilarious last line of that book. But I wondered what your satirical, or perhaps, satirical/political touchstones were for The Committed?
VN: Thank you for catching that illusion to Philip Roth in this novel as well, very deliberate quote, but the other major touchstone probably was Voltaire. I read or re-read a lot of French thinkers and writers for the purposes of this book and one of them was Voltaire’s Candide which I had read when I was a kid. For whatever reason, Candide, a little paperback was in the children’s section of the San José Public Library and with a little cartoonish illustration on the cover, I thought it’s an adventure book, it’s a kids book. I loved it. It was a lot of fun. Obviously, I only got half the book, I only understood half the book when I read it at the time. [laughs] I did not reread it until this novel but in the back of my mind, I remembered enough from Candide and knew enough about it to think that what happened to Candide is something that I want to aspire to in The Sympathizer, in The Committed, I mean the narrator of these two novels goes through more than what any human being should possibly be able to absorb. Maybe, no human being could absorb all these things except in a novel or in a fable, like in Candide. The Committed is explicitly modeled on some of these extreme experiences that Candide also undergoes. Going back to Candide, I reread it in English, then all the translated texts from the French to the English, I went back and looked at everything I quoted, and I went back to the French source. There’s a passage I quote from Candide where one of the characters says, “Is it worse to suffer everything we’ve been through or to do nothing?” Candide says, “Well, that’s a big question.” That is the question of the book. But in that quote that I had, it said specifically, it mentions, “Being ravished by pirates.” Then I went back to the French and very specifically it says, “Ravished by negro pirates.” For whatever reason, the English translation I had omitted that word. [laughs] That just became to be a sign of some of the other issues that the book deals with which is the presence of Black people in this racist imagination and the French imagination. Obviously, Candide was progressive for his time but was also reiterating some of these kinds of images and ideas at the same time. But anyway, Candide is a very serious novel, very philosophical novel, and at the same time a lot of fun, a satire and a critique. That’s the spirit in which The Committed is written.
DN: I was hoping we could hear a little bit of, I picked out a little excerpt that I think is a great example of one of many examples of humor, philosophy, and analysis, all in one.
[Viet Thanh Nguyen reads an excerpt from The Committed]
DN: We’ve been listening to Viet Thanh Nguyen read from The Committed. Toward the end of the book, things get stranger formally. We can see some increasing changes in font, we get the dialogue in a theatrical play, there’s a block of slowly shrinking text alternating between exclamatory thank yous and exclamatory f*ck yous, and we get out of nowhere, the first and only photo in the book. I was curious what compelled you enough to include this one and only photo at the end or near the end?
VN: I’m trying to remember when I saw that photo for the first time but it’s a photo of a protest march in Paris in 1982. It was a very famous march against racism on the behalf of North Africans and Black people in France. I discovered that the Vietnamese in France at the time also participated in the march. That’s what the photo is about, a group of younger French Vietnamese descent holding a sign saying, “The Vietnamese in France,” “Identity and integration.” At the front of the march were three young men wearing white masks on their faces. In The Committed, one of the characters who, if you’ve read The Sympathizer, you know he’s the faceless man who comes to Paris. He doesn’t want to be faceless, so he wears a white mask on his face. I put that in the novel before I had seen the photograph. When I saw the photograph, it was just a jarring moment as I thought, “Wait a minute, this actually happened in a different context but at the same time.” All I did was to tweak the narrative of the novel a little bit to incorporate that march into the book, both to commemorate the history of that march and to acknowledge the fact that there were French and Vietnamese descent who participated in this march of racial solidarity which I thought was really crucial but also, just to visualize the masks. Of course, I think both of the books are partly about the masks that people wear to each other and to themselves, and the last line of The Committed brings up the idea of both laughing and crying at the same time which alludes to the masks of tragedy and comedy. All of that was wrapped up in that photograph for me plus I’m a huge admirer of W. G. Sebald. I love what he does with photographs in his books. I would love to do that someday, so this was my one short gesture at something like that. [laughs]
DN: To return to the beginning of our conversation and France’s different relationship to communism and socialism, you mentioned the ideas of many French or French language thinkers from the Jewish-French-Algerian Hélène Cixous to Aimé Césaire but most notably, you’re engaging with Frantz Fanon from Martinique who joins the Algerian Liberation Front and who wrote some of the most influential works on postcolonial theory and on anti-Black racism. You also teach a class now on the literature of decolonization, and I think one could easily assemble a syllabus just from reading The Committed, just by jotting down the works that are either mentioned or being read by characters in the book. At one point in the book, your character says, “The most difficult thing when offered two false choices was imagining a third choice.” It feels like if your essays are any indicator, I suspect that you’re like your character in a way and that you’re working on trying to imagine this third choice. I think of your essay about your mom after she died where you talk about the Japanese film After Life by Hirokazu Koreeda which I love also, and where you die and arrive in heaven, and you have to choose one memory, then the angels will make a film of that one memory and you will watch that film in a loop, and that becomes your heaven. But if you can’t choose one memory, you yourself become an angel filmmaker and help other people choose their one memory. You said in that essay that you’ve always thought of yourself as someone who wouldn’t be able to decide on one memory and you, your character won’t commit to one side of this polarization between the two other blood brothers. In a way, he too is an angel filmmaker. You quote Adorno at one point who says, “We should be wary of committed writers.” But at the same time your protagonist, as he differentiates himself from both armed Marxist revolution and the radicalized nostalgia of an anti-communist lost cause, does say that he is nevertheless committed to revolution. In the book, there is the line, “Revolution is always an act of insanity because revolution is not revolution if not committed to the impossible.” I think you’ve already spoken to this a little but can you speak to that impossible third way for you, a little bit more about the revolution that you are committed to that is not those that you see to either side of you?
VN: Another person that I quote is Derrida, where Alisa alluded to Derrida in the book, Jacques Derrida who has a book On Forgiveness. In his book On Forgiveness, Derrida says, “The only thing that can really be forgiven is the unforgivable.” It’s a typical kind of Derridean thinking that just flummoxed me, it still flummoxes me and I was outraged when I saw that, I was like, “Well, you can’t forgive the unforgivable. This is just more Derridean twists in thinking.” But I think in fact that there is a great truth to that, that the novel tries to work through. This is another reason why Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Genocide is in the book because that is an unforgivable act. But in fact, Pol Pot had a lawyer who defended him. That lawyer was Vietnamese and French, a descent. I wanted to confront some of these paradoxes around the unforgivability of things and the impossibility of things, how can we commit to doing things to forgive the unforgivable or to have a revolution when it’s impossible? It’s this kind of paradoxical thinking that I find very difficult to engage in which as a teenage revolutionary college student, I explicitly rejected. I wanted clear-cut answers, I just wanted a clear path towards the revolution and I didn’t want ambiguities and paradoxes or anything like that. Yet at the same time, I think that’s exactly the terrain on which writing, especially writing a fiction for me is situated and that’s the terrain of moral thinking, is to try to grapple with these paradoxes that come directly out of our human contradictions. The revolution in The Sympathizer and The Committed becomes detached from actual revolutions, like the actual revolutions are like the American revolution, the French revolution, the Vietnamese revolution, all of which accomplished different things but also destroyed certain things as well. But the idea of revolution is still important. The idea that there are things that need to be upended, there’s a necessity for change, cycles, and things like this. That, in the end, I think is what the narrator of The Committed is grappling with, that he’s not really a communist but he is a revolutionary. He has this revolutionary spirit. He has the need to constantly interrogate himself in the world around him to see the contradictions and to try to work through the contradictions to move to another place. That project never ends. Even if our specific revolution ends, that larger project of interrogating contradiction, moving through the dialectic trying to get to another place, that continues with the ultimate aspiration, this ultimate idealist, probably impossible aspiration to do things like liberate us all from all the various ways by which we are oppressed and by which we oppress others. I don’t know what the answer to that is, [laughs] the book doesn’t offer that answer but the book holds out that longing and that ideal that motivates a certain kind of person in a certain kind of community. It cites various thinkers, activists, and artists who have likewise made these kinds of gestures as well. I think for me, I want the novel to be fun, to be enjoyable, to be satirical but I also want this novel to not be apologetic in terms of embracing a kind of art amd a kind of politics that aspires towards this impossibility of revolution, simply because I see so little of it happening. [laughs] Maybe for good reason, maybe we shouldn’t be doing these kinds of things but part of me still hopes that we should and The Committed is my way of trying to make that happen at least for myself.
DN: Is the title of your as of yet written third book, The Unfinished, is that a nod to this, the unfinished work that can’t be finished?
VN: Exactly, the revolution is never finished. The fear, of course, is like with Year Zero in the Khmer Rouge. They wanted to finish the revolution. They thought they could really literally build their perfect utopian society in 10 years or something like that. I think to acknowledge that revolutions are unfinished or never finished, they have to have an openness towards the next stage of the revolutionary movement. Otherwise, what happens, they displace the powerful and they become the powerful, then they repeat the processes of oppression which we’ve seen happen far too often. Having the revolution be open-ended and unfinished, knowing that we, ourselves as individuals, are unfinished, that we have somewhere else that we need to go to is ethically and politically crucial. Then in the context of the trilogy itself, every part of the trilogy has been written with a self-consciousness towards the conditions of its own writing. For example, when I wrote The Sympathizer, it’s a first-person narrative. That’s a common convention but I wanted to give a reason as to why we’re reading this first person narrative, who’s writing it? Who’s speaking? Is he speaking to somebody? It’s a confession. That was the eventual device that made it possible to think we had this manuscript in our hands. In The Committed likewise, we have another confession that is written in different circumstances as we’re going to discover. In the third book, there has to be a similar set of conditions by which we have the manuscript in our hands. [laughs] I don’t want to give away what’s going to happen but it’s going to be unfinished by the very conditions of the story that we’re going to see unfold.
DN: Yes, before we end, can you talk to us, you’re also working on a memoir right?
DN: Can you share a little bit about that or do you want to protect the bubble of that creation from exposure to the light?
VN: I’ll mention it very briefly but what happened as you said is that I’ve written a whole bunch of non-fiction pieces, op-eds, and all that. A lot of them have been at least partly autobiographical. My wonderful editor, Peter Blackstock, said, “Why don’t you just write a nonfiction book since you’ve written all this other stuff?” I said, “Sure.” But I didn’t want to just slap together all these pieces and call it a book. I’m three quarters of the way through our first draft, writing it as a memoir which I never thought I would ever do because I don’t like writing about myself. But in the last three or four years, writing these op-ed pieces and going on the road, giving a lot of lectures, I’ve had to come up with a story about myself, to myself into audiences which has forced me to think through a lot of my life that I’ve spent my life running away from. I’ve used my fiction to deal with the emotional energies of my own life, now, with writing a non-fiction book, I have to turn back directly to the actual events that have shaped me, whose emotional impact on me I have sought to compartmentalize and to deny. All that is in the book along with a lot of political and cultural commentary about the United States, about colonialism, about all the things we’ve talked about today.
DN: Yeah, are we going to see that before we see The Unfinished, do you think?
VN: Yes. [laughs]
DN: But both are unfinished?
DN: It was great having you back on Between The Covers.
VN: Thank you so much, David. It was a great conversation as always.
DN: We’re talking today to Viet Thanh Nguyen about his new book, The Committed from Grove. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was not recorded at the studios of KBOO but at a volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s work at dev.yoshikoogino.com. The Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network can be found at dvan.org. When you get there, click on the Diacritics link to explore the highlighted literature and art from the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian diaspora. For the bonus audio archive, Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about the importance of Edward P. Jones and Maxine Hong Kingston to his writing life and reads selected excerpts from each to exemplify things he particularly admires or learned from. This joins bonus readings from Teju Cole, Ross Gay, Nikky Finney, Layli Long Soldier, Mary-Kim Arnold, E. J. Koh, and many others. To learn how to subscribe to the bonus audio and about the many other potential benefits of becoming a listener supporter from collectible items from your favorite writers, to becoming a Tin House early reader receiving books months before the general public, to getting resource rich emails accompanying each episode, all of this and more can be found at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team who make all of this come together, Elizabeth Demeo, Alyssa Ogie, and Spencer Ruchti in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writer’s Workshops. Finally I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et Sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.