VFP 2021 Online Convention Keynote Speaker Event

Viet Thanh shares about the relationship between his work and the greater issues of soical justice and militarism for this keynote speech with Veterans for Peace.

Listen to our keynote speaker, best-selling author Viet Thanh Nguyen on how his fictional writing illuminates social justice and militarism issues and how his work supports the Vietnamese diaspora. The Keynote event was followed by our annual VFP Awards, and Presente!

Part of the Veterans For Peace 2021 Online Convention.

Read the transcript below.

Garett:

Hey, y’all welcome to another VFP convention. It’s been an incredible journey so far. We’re a little more than halfway through now. And man, we’ve had some really incredible workshops and trainings, just amazing panels. Really powerful discussions and an effective business meeting that seems to get less painful every single go around we do this thing. Typically, when we meet in person, there’s a large banquet, we’re all settled in after eating some good food. I know we don’t have the banquet this time so I’ve asked Dave Logsdon to drive to everybody’s home and deliver meals. So those should arrive any second now. I know it takes some time to drive from the east coast to the west coast. Be patient. You should get your seven course meals from Dave any second now. So it’s been a powerful convention. Adrian what are your thoughts?

Adrian:

I couldn’t agree more. I actually, I’m blown away that it’s already day three. It’s so much planning, so much preparation, so much awesome work from everybody. And it just goes by so fast. So I just really appreciate so many of the awesome panels. Again, I have to keep reminding people, if you didn’t get a chance to see any of them or all of them, I should say they’re available online. The Allyship was fantastic. The intergenerational organizing fantastic. Everything has been great, and I really appreciate everybody’s patience in the business meeting. I know that it’s hard to completely duplicate what we do in person in an online setting, but we do try our best and we will be continuing to make space for members to discuss our important subjects that we’ll be voting on in October.

Garett:

Great summary. And I agree those were some of my favorite points too, in the convention, and we’ve still got a lot more to go. And even tonight we have an amazing keynote speaker, but we’re also packaging in all the traditional stuff we usually do during the banquet program. So we will have awards presentations and present later in the evening, but I don’t want to leave our guest speaker backstage too long because it’s going to be a really amazing discussion. I think we’re all going to learn a lot and using fiction as a tool to help bring up these issues that we’re working on. And a lot of people around the world are working on how intersectional they are and what we can do. It’s really wild. And I think everybody’s going to get a lot out of it. So I’m going to get out of the way and let Adrian introduce our keynote speaker. Thanks everyone.

Adrian:

Thank you, Garrett. I have the extreme pleasure to be sharing the spotlight with professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is a university professor, Aerol Arnold chair of English and professor of English American studies in ethnicity and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, an esteemed and acclaimed writer, an author of books, fiction and nonfiction that cover so many important stories and narratives and share with the world.

Adrian:

Just an incredibly important perspective. In addition to your writing, which as I was doing my research before this meeting tonight, I see that you have recently put out a book with your son and a fellow illustrator and her son as well. And just talk about a really awesome kind of experience and ability to collaborate in the family. And that you’re also involved in a lot of incredible works to include the diasporic am I pronouncing that right? Diasporic Vietnamese Artist Network and the diacritics, and that you also are helping with the center for trans specific studies at the University of Southern California. So, just amazing the breadth of your experience. And I guess I wanted to first pass it on to you to kind of share those bits of your life that perhaps you’d like to share that there aren’t always covered in the introduction. So thank you for joining us.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Thanks so much for that introduction, Adrian, such a pleasure and honor to be here at the Veterans for Peace Convention. I was born in Vietnam in 1971 and fled with my family to the United States as refugees in 1975. And so of course I think that my life has been defined by war been shaped irrevocably by war. I like to say that I’m a refugee, even though, obviously by now, I’m clearly a bourgeoisie if you’ve taken this whole background here, but the experience of being a refugee has shaped my life. And one of the reasons why I call myself a refugee is because my memory start in a refugee camp up at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. And let me just backtrack a little bit and talk a little bit about my parents because their refugee experiences and their war experiences are really crucial to who I am and why I’m here today.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

My parents were born in north Vietnam in the 1930s under French rule. My 88 year old father, and I’m going to go see him tonight, still remembers the French songs that he sang in school. And so they grew up with war. Their entire lives were defined by war from the 1930s through the 1970s and as Vietnamese Catholics. And when the country was divided in 1954, they were deeply afraid of communism and they fled south when the country was divided. They were already refugees in 1954, and then they encountered 20 more years of conflict and war and were forced to become refugees again in 1975. And so I found myself to be comparatively lucky because despite having in my life and my trajectory of my life being shaped by the war and by the refugee experience, I don’t remember any of it because I was only four years old.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

My parents do. And everything that I’ve read about French colonization and the American war in Vietnam and everything else that happened in Cambodia and Laos and in the refugee experiences and in the aftermath is testimony to the devastation that was wreaked upon the people of Southeast Asia, as well as American soldiers. And one of the things I really want to stress is that when I talk about refugee stories, what I’m also talking about are war stories. And I think we live in a society in the United States, in which when people hear the word war, they tend to think about soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen and pilots and all that guns, battles, tanks, generals, and all that. But in my experience, war equally affects civilians and arguably affects civilians more than soldiers that might be controversial. We can talk about that. But civilians in the 20th century, certainly bore a greater brunt of the damage of war than soldiers did.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

That was true in Vietnam as well. More civilians died than soldiers did. And the refugee experience is inevitable in war, and it’s an inevitable outcome of war. And for me thinking about this has been really crucial to my development as a writer. I’m thinking about war and peace and the nature of these things and what kind of a role that a writer, a storyteller and a novelist can play in this. But I think a lot about how my students, I teach a class on the Vietnam war as a general education course to students from all kinds of backgrounds, including a lot of veterans and ROTC cadets. And one of their tasks is to go out and interview survivors of the Vietnam war that includes American soldiers and includes Southeast Asian civilians and veterans. And one of the things that they find out obviously is that the war still has an impact 40-50 years later or more.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And that’s one of the claims that I make in my work that wars don’t end simply because we declare them to be over. So the war in Vietnam was officially over in 1975, but the ramifications of it would continue for decades. Certainly for the states and countries that were involved, but very definitely for the veterans and the civilians who were traumatized by this war. So what my students find out is that when they interview American soldiers and veterans, a lot of them went through terrible and traumatic things with what they did in witness and what happened to them. But a lot of American soldiers also sat on bases or did other things besides experiencing combat. But when they interviewed Southeast Asian survivors, whether they are veterans, whether they’re civilians, every single one of those people has a traumatic story to tell simply by dent of being a refugee who had to flee a country and come to the United States.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And these kinds of stories of the civilians, the refugees, women, children, the ones who suffer from secondhand memories and secondhand traumas, these kinds of stories I think when it comes to war and peace are pretty much invisible to so many Americans. And I don’t think Americans are unique in this, just talking about this because that’s where we are today. So I think that the work of Veterans for Peace is so crucial because we still constantly need to hear from soldiers and service people who have, been to war, what they have been through and what that is like. But we also need to hear from civilians as well. I’m convinced that if we’re invested in peace, if we believe in the possibility of anti-war stories that anti-war stories need to be told about civilians and refugees as well. Because there is no glamor, there is no glory,

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

there is no, there is no sanctification in terms of what war does to civilians. So if we were to really look at war’s impact on civilians and the stories that they have to tell, I think we would find a greater trope of truly anti-war narratives and experiences than what comes out of soldier stories. We’ve seen over and over and over again, and I’ve read, and I’ve watched so many war stories and war movies by Americans and by other nationalities where the anti-war message is strong. And yet constantly what we see is that war perpetuates itself so that the spectacle and the glamor of war, even in anti-war stories, by soldiers and veterans and about soldiers still somehow never manages to get across the message in a way that can meaningfully change politics, that war is hell, and we should stop fighting wars.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I don’t know if we hear from civilians and refugees, whether we would be any more effective, but the nature of their stories is genuinely more anti-war I believe because there is nothing exciting or thrilling about losing your country, being forced to flee dehumanized, rendered stateless, and being put into a refugee camp.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

So that forms a personal motivation for me, how I grew up here in the United States as a child being Americanized, being exposed constantly to American war stories. I had a steady diet of Vietnam war movies in the 1980s. And as I say, in my book, Nothing Ever Dies. All wars are fought twice. The first time on the battlefield, and the second time in memory. That is very true, still for the American experience of the war in Vietnam. I think it’s true of the civil war that we’re still fighting the American civil war. It’s undoubtedly going to be true for the wars that we are witnessing now, and that we are finishing in some in one way or another. And so I grew up with that, but I also grew up surrounded by Vietnamese refugees. And so there was a very real disjunction for me between understanding that when Americans heard or said the word Vietnam, what they really meant was not the country.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

They meant the Vietnam war and that this shorthand, this collapse between Vietnam, the country, and the Vietnam war was pervasive throughout American society and because of America’s power because America’s of global power, not just in terms of military might, but also in terms of its capacity to tell stories, the American perception of the war in Vietnam dominated the world. And so if Americans thought Vietnam meant the Vietnam war, so did much of the rest of the world as well. Meanwhile, Vietnamese people and Laotians and Cambodians and Lun who lived through that war and who suffered tremendous losses. Somewhere around 3 million people for the Vietnamese, hundreds of thousands for Cambodians and Laotians, and if you count what happened in Cambodian during the genocide and the years after the war an additional 1.7 million people. These are tremendous losses that most Americans don’t know about.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And most of the rest of the world doesn’t know about, but instead what Americans and the rest of the world focus on when they hear Vietnam and therefore the Vietnam war is the American war experience. I grew up among Vietnamese refugees, intimately aware that the way they saw the war was very different from the way that Americans saw the war and that many Vietnamese people for them, the war had never ended. And the emotional toll of the war, the traumatic toll of the war would continue.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

But whereas PTSD was a term invented specifically to describe the experience of American veterans of the Vietnam war, Vietnamese Americans, Vietnamese refugees, did not use that language. They did not have that recourse to that language of trauma to describe what was happening to them. And so while American veterans could at least get some form of emotional and symbolic compensation because of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the eventual validation of the American veterans experience. For Vietnamese veterans of the war, and for Vietnamese civilians, I think many of them felt that they were completely unheard and that their memories would be lost forever even to their own children, grandchildren.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

So this contrast between the Vietnamese refugee world and between my experiences as an American being deeply exposed to American narratives generated for me a huge disjunction that helped to fuel my desire to eventually become a writer. And so a novel like The Sympathizer, which is about the war in Vietnam and about French colonization is my attempt to tell a story, a story that I felt hadn’t been told. And the last thing I’ll say is that I think it’s just amazing that there are literally dozens, maybe hundreds of movies that Americans have made about this war and literally thousands of books that Americans have produced about this war. And yet still in all of that, I still felt that there was an original story to be told. And the reason why is because the originality of The Sympathizer, whether you like it or not, is that it tries to tell this story from the many Vietnamese perspectives that were involved.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And at least when we talk about things in English, that complexity of the Vietnamese of Vietnamese experiences is still very difficult for many people to comprehend. And even in Vietnam, it’s difficult. The Sympathizer for example, has been published or translated in 27, 28, 29 countries and languages. It is not allow out to be translated and published in Vietnam because of what it has to say about Vietnamese communism in the aftermath of the war. So when I wrote The Sympathizer, my ambition was to try to offend everybody and trust me judging from my hate mail, I have succeeded. I get hate mail from American veterans of the war and Americans in general. I get hate mail from Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese refugees, and of course the novels not allowed to be translated into Vietnamese. So I’ll end with that. Just that it’s a pleasure to be here, to try to contribute in any way to this conversation and these concerns of Veterans for Peace.

Adrian:

Thank you. And as I was reflecting on what you were saying in terms of how we can raise voices and be a pro peace force in the world, I think too, about the pro peace people who are standing up to oppose the war Vietnam. And that actually in the eighties and nineties, although the United States government was involved in a lot of different nefarious dealings, that the public ultimately was more and for of peace than of going to war. And I remember that in the run up to the first Iraq war in which the United States invaded in 90, that they were trying to figure out how to get Americans behind the war.

Adrian:

And coming up with the lines, “support the troops”, you got to support the troops. You’re not allowed to think about what they’re doing. You just have to support them regardless of what they’re doing. And that’s something we certainly think about when we’re trying to figure out how do we counter that narrative and make sure people know that supporting endless war does not support the troops. It doesn’t support anybody except for people who are profiting off of war and whatever other things they might be gaining from it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

In my book, Nothing Ever Dies, I think I touch upon some of these issues because that book is about war and memory. About how the war in Vietnam has been remembered by many different sides, the United States, the Vietnamese of all sides, Laotians, Cambodians, the South Koreans who went and fought there 300,000 south Koreans, 5,000 South Koreans died there fighting with Americans. And their efforts have been poorly remembered here. And they have their own problems in memory in South Korea. But in that book part of what the argument of that book says is that every side in a conflict will validate its own experiences. In other words, when we talk about the processes of memory and forgetting whether it’s our own individual processes, or the collective processes of a culture, a community, or a nation, there’s a vested interest, obviously in remembering our own humanity and foregrounding the inhumanity of others.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

It’s one of the most basic mechanisms, obviously for mobilizing people to go to war and to support soldiers. And regardless of the fact that we’ve seen it over and over and over again in the past, we have seen it now and we’ll see it again, whenever there’s a new war to be fought. And it’s very, very hard to overcome this kind of binaristic relationship of memory and forgetting, especially as applied to us versus them. And I think that when it comes to this question of peace and how might we get there, especially around the question of narrative, because that’s what I’m involved with as a storyteller. What I argue in that book is that it’s not enough for those of us who are invested in peace to acknowledge our own inhumanity, as difficult as that might be, for example, pointing to the atrocities that our own side commits, which inevitably happens.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And it’s not enough to idealize our victims because we do that too. If you look, for example, at the Vietnam war, talk specifically about this as an example, the anti-war movement, the American anti-war movement has foregrounded, the atrocities that American soldiers have done. That’s why, for example, we know about the My Lai massacre, and we can talk about the My Lai massacre. There’s a capacity to acknowledge American capacity to do the committed atrocities. And the flip side of that is the anti-war movement has often idealized the other side as victims and as heroes. And that has happened again in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan as well, but from the perspective of narrative of storytelling as a way of accessing truth. And I hope I try to do that. And I think most of us who are writers, try to do that, whether we succeed or not is a different issue, but we try in order to access the truth.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

What we have to acknowledge is that we are both human and inhuman and they are human and inhuman, too. It doesn’t do us any good to idealize our victims and our enemies purely as being heroic or as being angelic. It’s simply not the case. And so when we actually acknowledge the complexity of the other, whether they are our allies or our enemies, we acknowledge them in their full complexity as human beings, as we acknowledge ourselves. And the reason why I think this is crucial, and the reason why I think it’s difficult for a lot of Americans to understand this is because it’s easier to idealize or demonize others versus think about them as fully complex human beings. Because if we thought about them as fully complex human beings, we would have to give them time to speak and acknowledge their stories. And we like pretty much every other country in the world would rather focus on our own stories.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And so a novel, again, like The Sympathizer is designed to force people to confront this full complexity. And it’s not a surprise that a lot of people would not do that. That’s why I get hate mail from Americans because, whoa, they read the opening of the novel and they’re like, “you are so anti-American” when they read the first three or four chapters. And they sort of missed a point that I make in the novel, which is, I love America, too. Hey, I love hamburgers, too, but I also think we have a military industrial complex that kills millions of people and can we reconcile those two things? And then I get Vietnamese readers don’t like it, sometimes, because the south Vietnamese American readers who idealize south Vietnamese veterans and demonize their communist enemies, do not want to hear the possibility that south Vietnamese soldiers could be heroic and could also be corrupt, or cowardly, or villainous, or commit atrocities, or whatever.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And likewise, if you go to Vietnam, you go to the Vietnamese historical museums. What you’ll find is the same narrative over and over and over again, the Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese communist party are heroes. The outsiders, the French, the Japanese, the Americans, the Chinese are villains and the south Vietnamese are traders. They also don’t want to hear any contradiction to this narrative as well. So if we have the courage to say this, that we should not be idealizing or demonizing ourselves or others, but to think about us in our full complexity, we are actually venturing into a really complicated, moral, emotional, and narrative territory. And it is quite challenging to tell things in their full complexity.

Adrian:

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s something that I have struggled with myself as well. I was an Arabic linguist in the military, my instructors, I learned Arabic in the military. My instructors were from all over the United, all over the Middle East, and I learned so much of the history and Arian culture. And it can fall into this pitfall of the dichotomous thinking that we’re wrong. They’re right, regardless and wherever. And I think it’s caused some problems, even within our own organization of people who are legitimately saying the United States needs to stop intervening in the affairs, internal affairs of other countries, and leave them alone and let them the right to their own self-determination.

Adrian:

But at the same time, idealize them as being perfect. And that doesn’t get us anywhere. It makes for a very short synopsis, but not a very accurate one. And I have a question that kind of goes along this line, we were talking a bit before in the background about Americans pulling out of Afghanistan. And as this is coming to a close, if you had some thoughts or perspectives you’d like to share with us about not only the withdrawal, but also the insights into can help raise the voices of Afghan people. Which is something we’ve been trying to do and a bit successful, but certainly not speak for them, but find a way to amplify their voices.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Yeah. Obviously now you’re starting to see all these comparisons to the fall of Saigon in people’s punditry and essays and tweets and all of that. And of course, I think there is a pretty good comparison to be had there, but we should also look at some of the limitations of that kind of analogy. The first one is that as chaotic as the fall of Saigon was as ill prepared as Americans were. And as much as Americans tried to deny that it was happening, there was still kind of a plan that the United States had to evacuate people. And the United States in the chaos of the last two months of March and April did manage to evacuate 130,000 south Vietnamese people from Saigon and from other places. And my family was among those 130,000 people. Now, there were also at least a million other south Vietnamese people who were affiliated in one way or another with the American war effort who also needed to be evacuated as well. But nevertheless, 130,000 people as inadequate as that was, is still a huge amount more than what the Biden administration is.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen:

With as that was, is still a huge amount more than what the Biden administration is talking about. They’re talking about numbers in the low thousands, which blows my mind that’s the figure that they’re, that they’re discussing. And of course, they’re also talking about trying to send as many people as possible to other countries besides the United States. So, we need to give the Americans of that time in 1970,75 credit for taking 130,000 people, getting them to the United States with relatively few questions asked, what’s also important to point out is that south Vietnamese were comparatively lucky that very few Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong allies were evacuated in March and April of 1975. And they paid a huge price for what took place. Nevertheless, the United States did try to, to make up for its failures in these, in this regard and did take in how literally hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees in the seventies and eighties and, and nineties in various kinds of programs.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

So that’s the other point where the anology to the fall of Saigon I fear is going to be limiting because again, getting back to this idea that the war in Vietnam existed for Americans as their own debacle and their own spectacle, that is that war had meaning only in terms of what it meant for Americans for so many Americans, when they say or hear the fall of Saigon, what is in their minds is that stupid image of the helicopter on top of a roof, which people keep saying was the roof of the embassy and it was not, but nevertheless, that’s their image. And I, fear that when people bring that up, what they do is that they think that the war ended or the, experience of the south Vietnamese and the refugees ended at that moment with that evacuation.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

When in fact, like I said, it would continue for decades and decades in terms of what people were trying to do to leave Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. And so, as terrible as this moment, I assume, will be that we, what we’re going to see is the fall of Kabul, as terrible as that, as that is, it’s not actually the end of the experience. And I’m afraid that Americans will simply turn away the moment that the Taliban, if they do captures Kabul, when in fact the experiences of Afghan people under the Taliban regime will continue for quite a long time and our obligation to them. And I believe we do have a moral and political obligation to them will continue. So what, what do we do? So I’ve put most of this to essay that’s submitted to New York times. We’ll see if they publish it, but I think it is beholding them all of us to do, with our limited capacities, to organize, to mobilize, to speak out, to do whatever we can within our power and to get others to speak up as well.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

All of other veterans, other organizations is time to be as vocal as possible in as many places as possible to try to guilt and shame the Biden administration to do a lot more, a lot faster for, for many more people than it’s than is currently being planned. Because there’s just, as I read the, Joe Biden statement today that he just put out about what the United States is doing in Afghanistan. It just strikes me as, boiler plate, trying to pretend that everything will be okay, that the United States is doing its job. And it’s just again, the administration trying to put the best face on things went to almost everyone else. It seems like the disaster is about to happen and not preparing for that disaster has already, in my mind been, been criminal enough. We should have been evacuating Afghans well before this. And now with time rapidly running out, we need to be doing everything we can to evacuate many more.

Adrian:

It’s an incredibly, incredibly true point to make. And it’s also true. I mean, the difficulty people have coming into the United States now under really hard circumstances, the bureaucracy involved is so many times amplified what people, the horrible bureaucracy that existed in the past. In your travels, I think we also had the opportunity to talk a bit about your experience traveling back to Vietnam. And I wondered if you would like to share with us a bit about your experiences and reflections.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Sure. You know, I did obviously want to return to Vietnam since I was born there. I’ve been there several times as a student, as a scholar, as a tourist, I was like, Hey, it’s fun. It’s, affordable. It’s fun. It’s getting more expensive every day. So you, as soon as COVID is lifted, you should try to go. And, I’ve encountered many American veterans who have been back to of the out of that era. Who’ve been back. And I think uniform, like they, they talk about how important that that experience is for them. And also, also it’s important for, for Vietnamese Americans and other Vietnamese people of the diaspora to return back and, and to see how the country has changed and to meet family members and to go through all of these very difficult emotional experience. And then I also went back because, I was doing research for this book that became nothing ever dies Vietnam in the memory of war took me about, well over a decade to research and to write that book.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And part of what that involved was, physically traveling throughout the country to see the, long term effects of the war and, and how the country had rebuilt and how the country sought to remember the war in different ways and not only Vietnam, but also I traveled to Laos, to Cambodia, to South Korea, to see how these processes of commemoration had taken place. Because what I really wanted to understand was, again, these processes of memory and forgetting, and I’ll tell you, when I started writing that book, it was a very self-interested book. What I wanted to, to do was to think about how Vietnamese Americans had remembered the war, because as I said, it felt to me that we had been completely forgotten in the ways that this war been remembered, both in the United States and in Vietnam, we, the losers were completely effaced.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And so I wanted to write a book to repair that memory, to fill in that memory. And what I discovered is that that impulse to fill in a gap as laudable as it might be, is also a deeply limited impulse because every effort to fill in a gap of narrative, if that’s the logic that we’re using, is very probably going to repeat the logic of exclusion that led to that gap in the first place. Now, this is, why we see that people who have been victimized for whatever reason, let’s say victimized through war will turn around and victimize others in exactly the same process, because what they do is they say, well, we’ve been victimized. And now we are going to, to compensate for that, that I think that’s exactly what happened after 9/11, but the Americans felt victimized by what happened justifiably.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

But then instead of learning from that experience, simply repeated the process of victimization. Now, we find ourselves in the situation that we are in today. So we have to be able to think outside of that logic of victimization, filling in the gap, reversing the terms and all that. And so, that was why it was necessary for me, not just to visit Vietnam, but to step outside of Vietnam and go into Laos and Cambodia and South Korea where I wasn’t outsider, and to see how the war was being remembered elsewhere. For example, in Cambodia, the Cambodians do not like Vietnamese people because they feel rightfully so that the Vietnamese invaded and colonized Cambodia, you have to remember much of what is south Vietnam was formally Cambodia that the Vietnamese conquered, the Vietnamese people do not remember this. And so it’s one of the ironies that the many Vietnamese people will immediately say.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

We were colonized by the Chinese for a 1000 years. And we were invaded by the French and co occupied for more than a 100 years. And the Americans were here for, for 20 years and so on and so forth. And they will not bring up the fact that modern Vietnam was built on the conquest of the cham and the Cambodian peoples. So this is exactly what I’m talking about. If we cannot step out of the logic of filling in the gap of validating our own experience of saying, well, we’ve been forgotten now, let’s remember ourselves. We’re going to repeat the same processes of violence, conquest, and imperialism that have defined the histories of so many countries, even countries that have been colonized and victimized by other countries have probably colonized victimized others, but they will completely erase that because they participate in the same logic of remembering and forgetting.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

So it’s so crucial. I think for us to expose ourselves to the narratives of other people who do not see history and experience in the same ways that we do, I think this is why a lot of Americans who go to Vietnam are deeply shocked when they go, they step into, for example, the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, Ho chi minh city. And the first thing they’re greeted with, I believe as you enter the museum on the first floor is a sign that, says something like war crimes, atrocities. And what they’re talking about are American atrocities committed in Vietnam. There’s a whole wing devoted to agent orange. There’s a whole wing devoted to the beat line massacre and on and on and on. And for a lot of Americans, this is their first exposure to being seen as the enemy. They’ve grown up thinking about, themselves as the heroes, or even as the anti heroes, but nevertheless, they’re at the center of the story.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

They step foot into a Vietnamese historical museum, and they are at the margins being categorized as the villains. It’s deeply upsetting for a lot of Americans to encounter this perspective and the reaction from a lot of them. Cause I’ve read the, log books. There are these guest books that you can sign as a visitor, about half of Americans will say, this is total propaganda. And the other half of Americans will say, we’re really guilty. We feel terrible that we, that we did this. But you know, the challenge is again for the guilty Americans to look up beyond their guilt, not to idealize the Vietnamese and the challenge for the defensive Americans is not to be defensive. It’s a really hard, these are really hard challenges to overcome, but unless we expose ourselves to perspectives, that contradict not only what, we think we believe, but what we emotionally believe, which lies under this, serve this.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

We’re never going to be capable of transforming ourselves. I’ll just give you point final example of what I mean by that. I think a lot of Americans, for example, the liberal Americans will say, Hey, we’re against war. We’re all four people of color. We’re all four these people in other countries, we fought wars in and so on and so forth. But beneath that a lot of American, the same Americans, the liberal ones are deeply invested in American exceptionalism. And if you contradict that they have, they will not respond well. And this is why I think the sympathizer did, find some challenges. I mean, it was rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers when we sent it out, because I think, it didn’t simply try to idealize Vietnamese people, which I think Americans are capable, liberal Americans are capable of dealing with, but it castigated American exceptionalism. And that is unsettling again for so many Americans who take it for granted that they are at the center of the world. And if you try to dislodge that perspective, that deeply emotional investment Americans have a hard time hearing and listening to these other perspectives

Adrian:

Incredibly true that’s what many of us have experienced even doing peace work as, as Americans and trying to even talk with our family about our experiences in the military. And how many of us have had such strains put on family relationships, because even when we try to share our own experiences, it conflicts with their idea of what America is and they just can’t handle it. And it just, it’s such a valid point. And it reminds me too, a lot of what you have been sharing, the idea that there is no real big T truth in the world. There’s a lot of little T truths based on all of our experiences. And that just like I remember I absolutely loved history. I loved learning about history. I ended up getting a double major in history just because I absolutely love exploring that topic and yet going into it, I had this idea that history could be unbiased.

Adrian:

And I remember in, one of my classes where they’re talking about labor workers and unions and organizing how many of my classmates were just floored. They’re like, this is so biased. It’s just from one person’s perspective, where’s the rest of the narrative. And, if they were really concerned in sharing the entire narrative of the United States in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, you probably couldn’t even do that in a year or two, just focus on that period. But that’s, part of it too, is that there just, isn’t a simple answer to our experiences as people on this planet and it gets so complex and people being open to that complexity is hard.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And, I want to say it’s a learning experience, it’s clearly you were, you were talking about a, learn a trajectory of your own experience and revelation and, and all of that. And, then trying to get other people to recognize and to understand what you’ve been through and the, stories that you have to tell, but it’s, true for, for everybody, it’s true for me too. Recently I thought about this experience that I just, mentioned at the very beginning, and as someone mentioned in the chat about Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where we were, resettled and for, my entire life, most of my life, I never thought twice about, that military camp Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, but I’m writing a non-fiction book now that’s partly memoiristic where I, think about what that, experience was like in 1975.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And then I thought, well, why is it called Fort Indiantown Gap? Never actually thought about it or never investigated it. So I did investigated it a little bit. And of course, the reason why it’s called Fort Indiantown Gap, and there’s still a military base with that name is because it was a Fort built to defend white settlers against indigenous populations in the wars of the 18th century. And so here we are, as Vietnamese refugees being rescued, brought to the United States expected to be grateful for our rescue and being put into a military camp that is named after anti-Indian campaigns. So what does that mean ? for me what it means is that, for so many of us who came as refugees, it also has immigrants to the United States. We are evidence of the American dream of American exceptionalism that of course people want to come here to the United United States with the greatest country on earth.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And that is an ideology that a lot of refugees and immigrants totally absorb as well. And part of that absorption means being blind to fundamental parts of American history, such as the genocidal foundations of American society, American country in terms of, the wars against Indians and the appropriation of lands. So, what I’m saying here is that even for myself, it’s taken a lifetime to recognize these contradictions, that on the one hand, I’m a refugee from, a war that the United States had some role in. And yet I came here to the United States and found opportunity of decent privileges that are not simply part of the American dream, but are also a consequence of this legacy of colonization with this ongoing history of colonization as native peoples would say they would, say that, a lot of native people would say colonization never ended.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

It’s still ongoing as a process for indigenous peoples in this country. So that, once we begin our journey of revelation, where we start to think about history and power and who we are as individuals and as a people, and we continue to make these connections and again, look beyond our own experience and our own trauma, our own victimization, whatever that might be. And we start to make connections, we start to see this, very complex web that we’re all enmeshed in because in fact, I think, what everything that we’re talking about is a part of a larger complex of, historical events that, are all connected to each other throughout American history. So it’s,not a surprise that a Vietnamese refugee would find himself in a base named after an Indian campaign.

Adrian:

Listening to you, sharing that. I honestly, I just, as my husbands like to say, I goosebumps just in terms of the connections and complexities. And I don’t know, I kind of have to take, a deep breath and perhaps go to a question. We have a few minutes to wrap up, and I know people wanted to hear more about your connecting with Vietnamese writers and authors and artists, and finding different ways to, and space to amplify their voices.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Absolutely. You mentioned in your introduction that I’m part of a group, called the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists network, and again, I have the same impulse veterans for peace was formed. When you see an absence, you have to fill it. You have to, if there’s no organization doing what you’re you want to do, if there’s no one telling the story, you want to tell, you got to do it yourself. So, we, as Vietnamese, American artists and writers felt that we needed to amplify Vietnamese American artists and, and their voices. But beyond that also to form this global community, because one of the consequences of the war in Vietnam was the creation of a global Vietnamese diaspora. You know, there’s 90 million people in Vietnam, which is incredible to imagine Vietnamese people are really reproductive apparently because there’s only about like 30 million, I think in 1975, 90 million in Vietnam, but about, at least four million Vietnamese people in the diaspora as a consequence of the war and everything that happened afterwards.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And so, they have all these kinds of stories and voices to tell. And, again, what happened to that all too, is that, of course we want to make connections with artists in Vietnam and writers in Vietnam and, to amplify their voices, because certainly one of the ironies of the, American war in Vietnam is that even though Americans lost that war, in fact, they have won that war in memory. So again, this idea that, the American power to dominate the world it’s not just military and political and economic, but also cultural. I’ll give you an example of that. I went to, Italy to promote the sympathizer. I was interviewed by radio host, who is a communist, very popular radio host, and very much against the American war, Vietnam, very pro you know, Vietnamese people, but she loved apocalypse now.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And she did not see the contradiction between her politics and the fact that a movie like apocalypse now completely centers, the American experience and silences Vietnamese people. So for, most people, they can just turn on their television or internet, whatever, and they’ll get an American story no matter where they are in the world, but for, to get a Vietnamese story, most people have to travel to Vietnam to do that. And so it was really crucial to do things like build these networks translate and publish, Vietnamese voices in English from, Vietnam, which is what we’re trying to do now. And so, there is obviously a vibrant seen in Vietnam, culturally in terms of film and literature, despite modes of censorship and government control. And it’s important to listen to the concerns that are, the kinds of stories that, are being told there, because again, for most Americans, when they hear Vietnam, they think Vietnam war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

So for them, Vietnam is consensually trapped in the past around an experience that is important to Americans. But if you go to Vietnam and if you, watch contemporary Vietnamese movies and, read contemporary Vietnamese literature, a lot of it is not about the war, because those 90 million Vietnamese people, most of them were born after the war. Most of them want to do what everybody else wants to do, which is make a living and make money and all that kind of thing. They’re basically most, Vietnamese people are basically capitalists. They’re not thinking about the war, especially because in Vietnam, the war’s memory is dominated by the Vietnamese communist party and their cultural productions are not exactly the most exciting things around. So, recognizing Vietnamese, humanity and complexity for Americans means recognizing that it’s not only about the war, and that’s really hard for a lot of Americans to comprehend.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Now, that being said, a book that I really recommend by contemporary Vietnamese writer and type it in here, because you might a hard time transcribing her name Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wrote a novel called The Mountain Sing. And that’s, a really brilliant novel. I beloved it as being the Vietnamese version of, the grapes of wrath, and it really is, I mean, it’s a novel that, looks at Vietnamese history from the famine of the 1940s, which my parents survived. It killed a million Vietnamese people in the north at a time when there was probably like 15 million Vietnamese people in the north. So a huge, terrible devastation caused by the Japanese and the French goes from that period of the famine through the land reform of the 1950s, which is when the Vietnamese communist party of north Vietnam decided to, try to liberate the peasantry.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And, part of the way they did that was by killing a lot of landlords, including a lot of people who are not actually landlords and then ending in the period of the American war, and then afterwards, an immediate aftermath in Vietnam. So it’s, really amazing because in fact, Bao Ninh, is completely bilingual bicultural, born in Vietnam, grew up in Vietnam, married to a foreign diplomat, writes in both Vietnamese and English is an incredible translator and an ambassador and the novel is really incredible. So if you had to read one novel, that, is about the contemporary perspective on things I would, read that I’m sure most of your audience has already read Bao Ninh The Sorrow of War it’s, I think one of the great war novels of all time, not just a great novel about, the north Vietnamese perspective on the war and so, hopefully that, that helped to answer the question.

Adrian:

No, thank you. I appreciate it. And I also appreciate your comment. One of the things that’s been running in the back of my mind is it was 2014. I attended an international social work class that was held in Finland with and social workers from all over the world, including a woman from Vietnam. And she was a bit younger than me, but, I was talking with her quite a bit throughout the three weeks we in Finland and at the beginning, I totally went to, what were her thoughts about the Vietnam war, the war in Vietnam as I’m American war in Vietnam is I’m trying to remind myself to rephrase how I say that and the lasting legacy of agent orange. And, she let me know very quickly that Vietnam is a very young country and that so many people, the war was not an occurrence in their lifetime.

Adrian:

And that as you were kind of sharing that people obviously have a much deeper and richer experience in their country. And it’s, it was interesting because travel, it’s so important in terms of learning and connecting with people. And it took me going to Finland and meeting with a woman who happened to be in the same classroom, Vietnam to get that different perspective. We can’t always be traveling, but, with the us embracing zoom and zoom meetings and online technology, one of the things, it out of everything bad happening with COVID is something. I think we’re all learning how to do maybe a bit better. It’s certainly possible to share ideas and stories and our experiences as people a bit easier than perhaps it was a couple of years ago. And so I really appreciate your time. I really appreciate you sharing with us. And I would also like to say, if you have any last thoughts you would like to share in these final few minutes, please do so

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

You know, I’m just grateful for the opportunity to speak to, veterans for peace. I think it’s incredibly important work that, you’re doing. It’s always important to, hear from people who have been to war or in the military, what their experiences were like, especially as we obviously live, in a society now and with, so few people serve, I had the opportunity to, go give a speech at, west point, I was invited to, talk to all of the plebes, about a thousand of them there, I was terrified. Oh my God, I’m sort of the antithesis of the kind of person who would go to west point. And I thought I had to do that because it is beholden in all of us to participate.

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:52:04]

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Us to participate in our society, whether it’s by joining the military or becoming a teacher, or by engaging in dialogues in conversations with people who are not like us. I’m not like a lot of the people in this Zoom conference because I never served in the military, I’m not white, like I think a lot of people are probably are, from what I could tell, but it’s so crucial to engage in these conversations and dialogues, even if they terrify us. And you talked about, for example, even just talking to your family and how difficult that might be. It certainly is difficult for a lot of us who are Vietnamese Americans of my generation to talk to an older generation that is deeply anti-Communist. And yet we have to do it. We have to do it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And I went to that auditorium. I spoke to those thousand plebes. I confessed that I was probably the weakest person in the room relative to them. And I said a lot of things I said today. I said that we have to recognize our nation, our country, in it’s full complexity, both the beauty of it and the brutality of it as well. It’s a complicated truth. And I think that’s what you have to offer. You have the legitimacy of your experience and your service, of your commitments, and I hope a lot of people will listen to what you have to say. Thank you.

Adrienne Kinne:

Thank you so much. And without further ado, I see that so many people are saying how much they appreciated you coming and joining us, and perhaps we can figure out some ways to continue our conversations in the future.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Absolutely. Thanks, Adrienne.

Adrienne Kinne:

Thank you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Everybody.

Adrienne Kinne:

Bye.

Category: Interviews

 

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