Viet Thanh Nguyen for the New Books in History Podcast with Michael Vann

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses The Committed with Michael Vann for the New Books in History Podcast.

Read transcript below.

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Michael Vann: Welcome to New Books in History, a channel on the New Books Network. I’m your host, Michael Vann of Sacramento State University, but please call me Mike. Today, my guest is Dr. Viet Nguyen Of the University of Southern California, where he is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity. Professor Nguyen is the author of several books, including Race and Resistance; Literature and Politics in Asian America, and Nothing Ever Dies; Vietnam and the Memory of War. About a year ago, I got to chat with him about Nothing Ever Dies here on the New Books Network, so check the archives for that interview. He also edited Transpacific Studies; Framing an Emerging Field with Janet Hoskins. He has a collection of short stories called The Refugees and an edited volume called The Displaced; Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

Michael Vann: He also co-wrote Chicken of the Sea, but I suspect his co-author, Alison, did most of the heavy lifting on that one. This is a children’s book that was illustrated by the amazing Thi Bui and her son Hien-Bui Stafford. Today, we’ll be talking about his two novels, The Sympathizer and The Committed. The former won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and definitely contributed to professor Nguyen winning both the Guggenheim and a MacArthur Genius grant, congratulations. The second is the sequel to the first, carrying the story from Southern California and Southern Vietnam to Paris, France by way of a refugee boat in the South China sea. Viet Nguyen, welcome back to New Books in History.

Viet Nguyen: Hi, Mike, thanks so much for having me again.

Michael Vann: Yeah. So again, I’m a big fan. I fanboyed out on your hard last time, but hopefully I’m not going to… I’ll be a bit more professional this time, but again, it’s great to chat with you. And I want to start with a question I’ve been dying to ask you, and this will be my big fanboy question here. Can you suggest a beverage pairing for these novels? Last summer, you tweeted out a series of cocktails paired with various books, and drinks figure heavily in the novels. I loved the guilt and shame cocktail in The Committed, but I definitely do not want to try that one. What would you serve with The Sympathizer and with The Committed?

Viet Nguyen: Oh, I think that the answer is very simple. If you want to be genuinely authentic, we’re not really mixologists in Vietnamese culture. We basically drink beer, wine and cognac, that’s the magic trio. So if you want beer and you want the authentic thing, try to find your Ba Moui Ba or 33 Beer, if they can’t find that then Tiger beer is a good substitute because that’s what I drank a lot of when I was in Saigon. And if you can’t find Tiger beer-

Michael Vann: Singaporean beer.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, Singaporean beer [crosstalk 00:04:05], obviously Vietnamese themselves, being in Vietnam, they may not have a lot of fetishization of Ba Moui Ba beer because they can get it any time. So Tiger was more popular and beyond that, like Heineken. Everybody wanted to drink Heineken when I was there. So that’s easy enough. And if you want to drink wine, take any red wine and put an ice cube in it because that’s how the Vietnamese liked to drink it in tropical Vietnam. But really the best thing to do is get yourself a bottle of cognac and there’s many wonderful varieties of cognac out there, but for whatever reason, the Vietnamese really like a couple of different brands, maybe due to effective marketing in Vietnam or in the diaspora. And those brands are Remy Martin and Hennessy.

Viet Nguyen: And if you want to do the bargain route, I mean, bargain is a relative term, but either one VSOP, it’s about $35 a bottle is what you typically get at a Vietnamese wedding, but if you want to get real fancy, you have to get the XO level of either Remy or Hennessy. That’ll run you about a 100, $150 a bottle. And if you go into a lot of Vietnamese homes, they will prominently display their bottle of XO on a shelf, spotlit behind glass. It’s always a full bottle and I’ve never figured out whether it’s actually full of the liquor or a substitute after they’ve drunk the very expensive liquor. But I quite enjoy a snifter of any of that stuff when I’m nostalgic. But finally, if you want to mix it then, you do the Vietnamese wedding thing, which is basically it’s a high ball, but we never called it that because we didn’t know it was called a high ball, but you pour some cognac into a glass with some ice, and then you top it off with 7 Up or Coca-Cola, and it goes down real easy.

Michael Vann: Okay. Those are solid points. I started The Committed with a bit of pot, and then I tweeted that and I think you shamed me saying I would need something stronger. So I finished with Obern’s Little Bay for the last couple chapters. That was a good pair. But I’m an amateur at this. Let me ask you a bit more serious question. And you brought up some aspects of the VQ or Vietnamese diaspora culture. I was worried about if you could say a few words on the politics of the community and especially the significance of a date, this podcast set to be released on April 30th, and this is a significant date in Vietnamese history and in the Vietnamese diaspora, could you say a few words on April 30th?

Viet Nguyen: Sure. Well, I have to talk about it in the Vietnamese American context, because I’m not sure how significant April 30th is to other diasporic Vietnamese communities in other countries. And certainly in France, since The Committed is set in France, there is a divided sense of politics there that doesn’t exist as much in the United States. In United States, deeply anticommunist country welcomes Vietnamese refugees fleeing from suddenly communist Vietnam, and the Vietnamese refugees who came here were almost completely anticommunist. Now that has changed a little bit over the years because now we have a younger generation that’s perhaps less attached to anti-communism, and we have Vietnamese immigrants who have come here for a variety of reasons, and are perhaps less hostile to communism in some cases as well.

Viet Nguyen: But the overwhelming tenor of the community is anticommunist at least in the public sense. And so April 30th has become a really significant landmark anniversary for a large number of the Vietnamese American community who call it black April, I’m not fond of this term, but it’s a term meant to signify that the date of April 30th is the end of the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam, a day of infamy for these Vietnamese refugees. And they use April 30th as a way of commemorating the Republic of Vietnam. And in many ways, celebrating the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States as the de facto cultural capital of this lost nation.

Viet Nguyen: And so, especially if you go to the heart of this capital, which is Little Saigon in Orange County, where there’s an entire Vietnam War Memorial dedicated both to American soldiers and South Vietnamese soldiers, on April 30th there’s usually a big ritual, a commemoration with many people, men and women coming out in full military uniform to commemorate this date and this country. So it’s a very meaningful commemoration for many Vietnamese people who feel that they’ve been erased in Vietnam, which they have been, and forgotten in the United States, which they have been.

Michael Vann: Yeah, and that resonates with something that we saw happen a few months ago on January 6, when the Trump mob stormed the capital. And those of us who were watching it real-time who know Vietnam and Vietnamese history were initially surprised. But maybe not that surprised after all to see the South Vietnamese flag, the Republic of the flag of Vietnam being flown in the crowds as part of the anti-left, anti communist sort of. The incredible hyperbole being thrown at Biden and the Democrats. What was your reaction to that? I know you were active on social media responding to those images.

Viet Nguyen: Well, anybody who was following Vietnamese American politics in the last year or two during the era of the Trump administration, was aware that there’s a large degree of support in the Vietnamese American community for Donald Trump and everything that he represents. And Vietnamese American Trump’s supporters are as fervent as every other Trump supporter about their man in that particular cause. So in some ways, I guess it was not a surprise that there apparently was a fairly sizeable contingent of Vietnamese Americans who went to the Capitol at least to hear the presidential speech. And for some, I don’t know how many, to go to the Capitol itself and at least one Vietnamese American was arrested inside the Capitol, a Houston police officer. So deeply conservative anticommunist politics of a substantial part of the Vietnamese American population, I think, evidently translated well into a support for Donald Trump, because a lot of Vietnamese Americans and people in Vietnam as well, support Trump because apparently his supposedly strong anti-China stance and China plays a significant role in the Vietnamese imagination.

Viet Nguyen: Also, it’s hard not to believe that Vietnamese Americans have also absorbed some of the racism and the white supremacy of the Trump movement. We’ve seen that, I think, in lesser degrees over the course of Vietnamese American history. Now, Vietnamese Americans, like every other immigrant and refugee group have learned how to be Americans partly by absorbing anti-black racism. And so there must be that present as well, but they were also flying the South Vietnamese flag. Now that’s a very particular manifestation of something. And I thought that it was a manifestation of nostalgia. And when I say nostalgia, I’m talking about this in the Svetlana Boym sense, in her book, The Future of Nostalgia, she talks about different kinds of nostalgia. One thing that you mentioned is what she calls restorative nostalgia. This idea that we want to go back to the past and restore it completely.

Viet Nguyen: And growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community, I felt that this was a pretty accurate definition of Vietnamese American politics. Nostalgia has very specific sense, that it’s literally a homesickness that can kill you. And I think that’s actually a very accurate description of a certain number of Vietnamese Americans who felt such a degree of loss and pain and melancholy for their missing country that it board on this kind of a homesickness, which led to all kinds of extremist politics and statements in the Vietnamese American community. So waving this particular flag was not only a symbol of supporting white supremacy, but it brought on, I think, all these other connotations of a desire to restore South Vietnam that’s somehow aligns perfectly well with every other set of politics that’s going on in the Trump movement, which is nostalgic as well. A nostalgia for a moment of white supremacy and the Confederacy, because there was Confederate flag or more than one Confederate flag being waved there. So there’s some alignment between the nostalgia that the south Vietnamese feel and the nostalgia that some white people feel for our lost south.

Michael Vann: Yeah. And I also thought that the image resonated with the way in which other global anticommunist symbols have been reappropriated. So amongst the alt-right you’ll see these, proud boys and whatnot wearing T-shirts with a helicopter with somebody being thrown out with the reference to Pinochet in Chile and the Argentinian junta throwing arrested, left us out of helicopters over the Pacific or the Atlantic ocean. And I think in some ways maybe the Republican flag of South Vietnam has become the signifier that can be reappropriated for various alt-right causes, just as I don’t think your average Pinochet could tell you that much about Pinochet or about the politics or the DM regime, other than anticommunist.

Michael Vann: And I asked about this because, we’ll get into the book in a few minutes, but one of the characters, the main characters in the book is this diehard anticommunist figure named, named Bone. Now before we get into the two novels, could you just tell us a little bit about yourself? I ask because in your role as a public intellectual, you really stress the importance of your identity and your positionality. And I think knowing your story helps shapes how we read these novels.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I was born in Vietnam came to the United States as a refugee in 1975, along with a lot of other Vietnamese people, including my family, obviously. And grew up in a Vietnamese Refugee Community in San Jose, California, where in the 1970s and the 1980s, where I was very deeply aware of myself as a Vietnamese refugee and all the issues that we just talked about, because I remember going to things like the debt celebrations and Vietnamese Catholic church, and there would always be an overlay of nationalism, and nostalgia in the yellow flag and the anthem of the old country. So I was very aware of Vietnamese refugee memories and Vietnamese refugee feelings, and all of their complexity and their tragedy. And then, I was also growing up as an American. So I was also aware of increasingly being an Asian-American. I wouldn’t have a name for this until I went to college, but I certainly had a growing sense of my racial difference in this society, which was reinforced by things like Vietnam war movies of which I saw most that Hollywood was making in the 70s and 80s.

Viet Nguyen: And so, me becoming a writer in college or starting to dream of becoming a writer in college, was wrapped up with trying to figure out this history of the refugee experience of the Vietnam War and myself as an Asian American. And I would say that my career over the last 30 years has been defined by those particular kinds of issues. I’ve specialized in Asian-American literature as an academic, but now also memory and the war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and these novels, and the short story collection, the refugees are all talking about the war and the refugee experience together. And I think that my position on these issues is perhaps different than a lot of Americans, because I contest the American point of view and different than a lot of Vietnamese Americans, who would not brook any sympathy with communism, and yet in these works, I express sympathy for both Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese communists as well.

Viet Nguyen: And the last thing I’ll say about this is that I think that now in what I’m dealing with, especially with The Committed, maybe there’s a shift in my thinking of emphasis that, I’ve been focused a lot on domestic issues of anti-Asian racism and Asian American integration and all this stuff around multiculturalism and American politics and all of that. But The Committed is very much a novel about colonization, what the French did in Vietnam and what the Americans did by taking over French colonization from 1945 to 1954. And that question of colonization is tied to the question of me being an American citizen in the United States, that is a country built on colonization that is arguably still colonizing if you ask indigenous peoples here. And so my current thinking is about much more on the line of this question of colonization and decolonization as the larger problematic that I’m interested in.

Viet Nguyen: I mean, all the other issues issues are still important to me, but increasingly I think of them as falling under this broader rubric of decolonization as a way of connecting the experiences of refugees, of racial minorities, Asian Americans, with those of other peoples of color in the United States and the situations of other colonized and formerly colonized peoples elsewhere.

Michael Vann: Yeah. As a historian of colonialism in Southeast Asia, I was pretty excited when you engaged that topic in the second novel. So why did you turn to fiction? I mean, your conventional academic writing is excellent. Your Nothing Ever Dies was shortlisted for a National Book Award. Again, listeners check out the podcast from about a year ago where we talk about that book. The writing in there are particularly on film, American films about the American war in Vietnam, but I think some of those chapters are just fantastic. But why did you turn to fiction? What did you think that you could do with fiction that you couldn’t do with conventional academic prose?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I don’t have to footnote myself in fiction. So Nothing Ever Dies was a book that took, a dozen years and more to research and then eventually to write, and it’s not written in your conventional academic fashion. So I did learn a lot from fiction writing and brought it into that book. But nevertheless, I still had to do a lot of footnoting in that book to support the kinds of arguments that I was making about memory and ethics and so on. Now fiction was always, actually my first love. I mean, I don’t know who grows up thinking, hey, I’m 10 years old and I want to be a professor. I mean, unless you’re the child of a professor, I don’t know, how do you think about that? I have no [crosstalk 00:18:49].

Michael Vann: Unreasonably, and because I did. But again, I’m the child of a professor, so maybe I’m proving your point.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. But I was a child of refugee shopkeeper parents. And so I had no idea what a doctorate was, no idea what a professor was. I had no idea what I was getting into when I went to graduate school, I went to graduate school because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. And I thought, oh, I got a fellowship. And they’ll pay me to read some books and do something for a few years and that was great. But I wanted to be a writer. And the writing part, I had to take a detour from that because I wasn’t a very good writer in college and I was pragmatic. So I thought I have to get a job. I might as well become a professor, sounds like something that I could do. And then I got tenure and my ambition was always to go back to writing fiction. That’s exactly what happened, but it took a long time to become a good fiction writer, but seriously, I don’t have to footnote myself.

Viet Nguyen: So in The Committed and The Sympathizer, these are books of criticism masked as fiction. So I had to find the appropriate fictional devices and so on to do this, to make sure that it worked, it wasn’t just a professor ventriloquism through fiction, but these are novels that work as novels, but they also work as criticism. And in that function as criticism, I get to see all kinds of things that, a lot of things I believe in, in the voice of my narrator, The Sympathizer, things that I believe to be true, but I don’t have to prove them. So you either have to accept them or not accept them, but I don’t have to go through extensive footnotes to demonstrate certain kinds of claims that I’m making in these books. So a fiction can be an entertaining way of provoking readers with ideas. Not all fiction does that, but in these two novels, that’s the mode that I wanted to deploy.

Michael Vann: Yeah. And the book the books could be footnoted. I mean, I recognize certain sections here and there and then at the end you have a little section in The Committed, you do this and I think you do it for The Sympathizer too where you referenced some of the works that influenced your thinking. I mean, essentially you’ve got a little bibliography at the end of the novel similar to, I think what Salman Rushdie did with the book on Florence in India, or on Amitav Ghosh with his novels, like the Ibis Trilogy. I know you regularly site Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as an important book for your thinking, who else influenced your writing style and your choices?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I mean, Dostoevsky was a big influence on Ellison’s Invisible Man. And I already was aware of Dostoevsky before Ellison, but it made sense that I was influenced both by Dostoevsky and Ellison, similar set of concerns about deeply alienated individuals struggling against their own societies and engaged in first person monologues or confessions, and the very act of confession itself in those books. Because one of the defining experiences of Vietnamese refugees is that many of them had to go through re-education and the confessional experience there. And so I wanted to be able to use that, basically a literary form that had been totally politicized and use it for my own very literary and political purposes. For The Sympathizer, I was also deeply influenced by Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night 1920s era modernist classic from France.

Viet Nguyen: And Celine was apparently not the nicest guy in the world, to put it lightly, but I don’t have to worry about that, he’s dead and I have his novel. And I approach this novel without knowing anything about him. And so, regardless of whatever he said and did around antisemitism and so on, I think the novel remains for me as an important literary kind of a touchstone. And there’s so many other works that these books allude to. So in The Committed, I try to leave a lot of literary traces because the actual names are being cited and mentioned in that book. And because it’s a book that’s set in France, I wanted to engage a lot with French literary and philosophical culture. The French are very proud, rightfully so, of their literary and philosophical accomplishments. And I wanted my novel to engage with that and also to rebut some of these things or to revise them.

Viet Nguyen: So running throughout The Committed, there’s a lot of commentary and illusions, to Voltaire, and to Rousseau, and to Dissant, and to the decolonizing thinkers that were colonized by France, like Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon. And so yeah, there’s a wealth of literary illusions more than I can recount at the present moment running through both of these books.

Michael Vann: Yeah. And as someone who was originally trained in French history and went through a number of French literature seminars and theory seminars at UC Santa Cruz, I mean, this is the reading that, I really get to nerd out on like, oh, here’s who he’s referencing and so forth. And so these novels engage a huge range of social issues, anti-Asian racism being one of the most important. And as you know< you cite a number of intellectuals Fanon, and Chris, Dave, I mean, you have a character without spoiling too much, he’s a bouncer in a brothel, who’s reading post-colonial theory and he’s reading Fanon and others. And they figure prominently in the works, but the novels are also genre pieces. They’re spy novels and The Committed, it’s part spy novel, part mafia story, organized crime. And they’re funny, they’re really funny. And at times the humorous risque it’s vulgar and in a scene that I will not describe for the listeners in The Committed it is, they’re literally scatological humor. Why did you mix these extremely serious discussions with this fun and at times low brow humor and genre?

Viet Nguyen: Well, As Ralph Ellison says, quoting Popeye, “I am who I am.” So that’s who I am. I mean, I’m an academic who’s very serious and very rational. And I behave myself very well in academic situations from department meetings to conferences and all of that. But underneath there’s somebody else, who has a sense of humor. That’s oftentimes vulgar and scatological. And I have to repress that or I’ve had repressed that to survive in academia, but it’s always been there. So to me, it’s perfectly natural to have both, philosophy and theory, and also an interest in B movies, and pulp fiction, and violence, and vulgarity, and all that kind of thing. And I’m very proud of the fact that I was invited to give to be part of a presidential plenary at the modern language association, right before the pandemic hit.

Viet Nguyen: I was up there with like Gayatri Spivak, for example, like one of my definitive theoretical role models. And I stood up in front of all these people at the MLA and all those probably a 1,000 people in the room. And I hope that I gave the speech with the most fucks ever said at the MLA, certainly at the presidential plenary. And that felt like a coming out for me like, “Hey, this is who I am.” And I’ve always thought this way. I’ve just had to repress myself for your sake and not for mine. And so these novels are demonstrations of the merging of high and low culture. I’m not interested in the middle brow. I mean, the middlebrow is completely uninteresting to me. And it feels like so much of contemporary American fiction is totally middlebrow and looks down on the lowbrow so-called genre fiction, to not being literary and can’t deal with the so-called highbrow, like philosophy and theory.

Viet Nguyen: And so one of the responses that I’ve seen to this novel, The Committed in the handful of reviews that I’ve allowed myself to see, is that some people are remarking on the presence of philosophy in this book and saying, well, this is a little weird, it seems a disruptive fiction or whatever take they’re having. I’m like, why do you think this? In what world is it not permissible to talk about philosophy in your fiction, except in a world that says we can’t discuss ideas explicitly in fiction? So there’s all these kinds of rules in the world of academia and in the world of American fiction that I find just really dumb, honestly. And I find it fun to bring them into close contact with each other, and that the friction between the high and the low, between the serious and the scatological is a provocative and entertaining, and certainly enjoyable for me to write.

Michael Vann: Yeah. And it makes me think of two things. One again, without giving away too much, there’s probably the most cathargic paragraph in The Committed is the fuck you, thank you paragraph. And I don’t want to give away too much, but as I read it, I think that’s what you’re getting at there. And also there’s this great Salman Rushdie quote that I think I got on a bookmark from an independent bookstore back when we used to have independent bookstores, where Salman Rushdie said, “Who says I can’t talk about Homer’s Iliad and Homer Simpson in the same sentence?” And I think he was, someone who I read earlier on, I think, really excited me about the mixing of serious intellectual work with lowbrow fun.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, absolutely. I wish I had said that. But in fact, I do quote, Salman Rushdie in The Committed read from his collection, Imaginary Homelands, the opening essay. I think the title is Nothing is Sacred. He asked the question, “Is nothing sacred?” And this is obviously the question of the controversy around satanic verses. In the end, he says, “No, nothing is sacred to the writer.” And if you read The Committed by the end, I think nothing is sacred is the line that is in there. I was thinking specifically about Rushdie, but nothing is sacred, fits very much into the theme, one of the themes that runs through both of these books about nothingness and the complexities found in the idea of nothing.

Michael Vann: Exactly. Yeah. I got to meet Salman Rushdie once and we share the same birthday, June 19th, Juneteenth, exactly 20 years apart. And at that time, Midnight’s Children was my favorite novel ever. And I brought it for him to sign and was very excited to tell him that and I think I freaked him out a little bit. There’s a couple of pictures where he’s like, starting to pull away, like okay, move this guy along. But could you say a little bit more about the spy genre as a metaphor for exploring the politics of identity, if I’m reading that right? I mean, some of the things you said previously about growing up with, what some called the hyphenated identity, being of two worlds. And the main character is a man with two minds and that works in several different registers. But could you say something about this in terms of it as a tool to explore identity politics?

Viet Nguyen: Sure. I mean, The Committed is a crime novel because he’s no longer a spy, but The Sympathizer is a spy novel. And certainly The Sympathizer is partly responding to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which I read in college. That’s a spy novel and Green has a major influence on me as someone who did go high and low using the spy novel and other kinds of so-called genre novels genres to talk about very serious political historical events and issues. And in the white American, it’s a novel partly about identity, not in the sense of identity politics like we would talk about it today, but certainly the identity of the narrator of the novel, the identity of the quiet American, the identity of the Vietnamese, all of these are wrapped up in this detective story in a spy story that is the white American.

Viet Nguyen: And in the context of The Sympathizer, where the spy novel is taking place in relationship both to the war in Vietnam, but also to the Vietnamese refugee experience in the United States, questions of identity do come up, what does it mean to be someone who is not white in the United States as a Vietnamese refugee or as an Asian, is a prominent theme throughout a part of the book. And in Ellison’s Invisible Man, we get a sense that it’s partly a spy novel in a very unconventional sense because the novel is explicit from the very beginning that a black man moving in a white world has to function partly like a spy. And he has to be sort of undercover and not reveal everything about himself, even as he’s constantly observing the white people around him.

Viet Nguyen: And when I was growing up in San Jose, I felt like I was an American spying on my Vietnamese parents. And then when I stepped out of the house, I was a Vietnamese spying on American people. And that theme of the ethnic person or the racialized person as a spy, is something that Chang Rae Lee picks up and makes very explicit in his novel Native Speaker, which is another influence that, that novel was influenced by Invisible Man and in turn helped influence me. But in Native Speaker, the Korean-American protagonist is literally a domestic spy on corporate espionage. And there’s a parallel drawn between his spy work there and his own feeling of himself as a person who is spy like in his double consciousness.

Viet Nguyen: So that idea from Dubois speaking specifically about black people as always themselves through the eyes of others is easily translatable, according to generally to Chang Rae Lee to the Asian American experience and I agree with that. So the double consciousness of racialized experience in the United States carries with it, the implications of potentially being a spy, because oftentimes the racialized person has to disguise herself or himself to function in the white world.


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Michael Vann: Yeah, exactly. Especially in the first novel, that’s just so enlightening as he makes his way through Southern California. And it’s set in the late 1970s and the various characters that he meets and this act of constantly having to put on a mask for an actor. I’ve got a question, why did you set The Sympathizer in Orange County and not your hometown of San Jose? I was always wondering about that.

Viet Nguyen: San Jose, bless it. It’s just not as colorful of an environment as Orange County and also Orange County is closer to LA, which is the most colorful of all. And I was living in LA, I’m still living in Los Angeles, when I wrote The Sympathizer. So I wanted to set it in a city that had a lot to offer. And San Jose, not a lot to offer in a lot of ways, which doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of a novelistic treatment, it would be a different novelistic treatment. And I needed a very sort of vibrant and exciting environment for The Sympathizer to operate in. And historically, Los Angeles is close to Camp Pendleton, a couple of hours away. Camp Pendleton is one of the major refugee resettlement centers for Vietnamese refugees.

Viet Nguyen: And in fact, a lot of them initially went to LA in 1975 and in the 1970s. And eventually there was a larger migration an hour away to Orange County to the cities there, I think partly because it’s more affordable there. But initially there was quite a few Vietnamese people in Los Angeles. And they did things like open the first nightclub there in Los Angeles. So it made historical sense to put them there in the midst of, not just what the Vietnamese community was doing, but then it would also put them in proximity to things like Hollywood, which I wanted to satirize as well.

Michael Vann: Great. And also in Orange County is where you start seeing the Alliance formed between the Vietnamese refugees with political aspirations and the Republican party. And it’s really in that hotbed of over Orange County. Who is it? Is it Dana Robuck? Who is the…

Viet Nguyen: Orange County has its share of hardcore, right when Republicans Dana Robuck is one of them. But the one that I was thinking of that is explicitly alluded to in The Sympathizer is a guy named Bob Dornan, whose nickname was B52 Bob. And he was a hardcore, anticommunist a long term Republican congressmen there. And there’s a character called the Congressman in The Sympathizer who’s a little more sophisticated than Bob Dornan, but nevertheless is meant to evoke this patriotic anti-communism that finds, as you said, easy alignment with the Vietnamese anticommunist who came to Orange County. And of course, the problem that had to be overcome is that some of these Orange County Republicans are racist, they don’t like non-white people. And so they had to overcome that racism to see that they had natural allies with the Vietnamese anticommunist. And I think that Alliance is now strongly forged.

Michael Vann: Right. That was the figure I was thinking of. I was mixing up my white Orange County Republican political figures, forgive me. So without giving away too much, we’ve been alluding to this, but can you just tell us without avoiding spoilers the basic plot storyline of the two novels, it’s the trajectory that main character goes through?

Viet Nguyen: The Sympathizer is about a communist spy in the South Vietnamese army in April, 1975 when Saigon falls or is about to be liberated and his mission is to flee with the remnants of that army, to the United States, where he’s going to spy on their efforts to take their country back. And he’s part French and part Vietnamese. His father is a French priest who molested this 13-year-old Vietnamese girl who became The Sympathizers mother. So there’s a spy novel going on. There is a refugee novel going on as he resettled in the United States and deals with all these cultural confusions. There’s also a novel here about the colonization that the French did in Vietnam, although that’s a more of a minor theme that I’ll amplify more in The Committed.

Viet Nguyen: And so there’s all kinds of spy novel types of adventures or misadventures that will take place in the United States, but then eventually he does in fact, go back with a suicide squad to try to invade Vietnam. But almost everything in The Sympathizer is based on real historical events or percentages and not to give anything away, but by the end of The Sympathizer, he has to flee Vietnam yet again, as a refugee. And that’s exactly where The Committed picks up. So The Committed, starts on that refugee boat and eventually ends up in Paris of 1982 in the city of light. And the project of this novel is to pull the plug on the city of light. So here the French who got off relatively easy in The Sympathizer become the main subject of attention, the question of French colonization and the civilizing mission that the French did, which allowed the French to do all kinds of uncivil, horrible things in its colonies is fully addressed in this novel.

Viet Nguyen: And he’s no longer a spy is deeply traumatized. So he makes some bad choices and he falls in with a gang of ethnic Chinese Vietnamese gangsters, while he’s living with his so-called aunt, a woman who is a member of the elite. She’s also French and Vietnamese, and she is an editor and she hangs out with left wing intellectuals and politicians, and they have a need for hashish. So he becomes the supplier between these two worlds. And again, we get the high and the low brought together as a tale of ethnic gangsters who are rubbing shoulders eventually with these white left wing intellectuals. And so the novel gets to have a lot of fun on the crime story and to bring in these serious ideas and to satirize, the French left who are ripe objects for satire.

Michael Vann: Yeah. The Committed reminds me a bit of the film Outside The Law, I’m drawing a blank on his name, Franco, Algerian director. And his first one was Andy Jan about North African troops served in World War II, and then outside the laws about the FLN Algeria and activists that get involved in the criminal underworld in Paris and the poorest nature of underground political activism in underground organized crime. And I saw that your novel resonating with some of the ideas there. There’s a lot of history in in these books. And you noted that the events that happened in The Sympathizer are all drawn from historical events. Did you do much research for this? I mean, I know that you cite a book I love, Alfred McCoy, Politics of Heroin, at the end of The Committed. But was there an aspect of historical research? This podcast is after all New Books in History. So I need to justify why we’re talking fun novels.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I’m very intimately aware of Vietnamese American history. So in The Sympathizer on one hand there wasn’t that much research, because I grew up in this Vietnamese American world and was deeply curious about all the stuff that involved Vietnamese Americans. So it’s easy to just plug in a lot of stuff that I already knew what was taking place. So the research in The Sympathizer was often times not so much broadly historical like did this event happen? But was instead very fictional, like how do I recreate the fall of Saigon? How do I recreate the making of American movie in the Philippines? So that was non scholarly research, really. That was about reading journalism and journalistic accounts. Now The Committed is set in a world that I’m less familiar with, which is Paris in France and the lives of Vietnamese people there and their descendants who became French-

Michael Vann: And the world of organized crime-

Viet Nguyen: In the world of organized crime, right.

Michael Vann: Your department meetings are like, but I don’t know if-

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. So I don’t know a whole lot about a lot of these things. And so one of the ways that I try to get around that was to make my character, the narrator, The Sympathizer, an outsider to French society. Now he did study French in Vietnam. He went to the Lycee, but he hasn’t spoken French in 20 or something so years. And he’s never been to France, so when he writes, he’s a newcomer to France, his French is rusty. So if there are any mistakes that happen in the book in terms of the depiction of French culture and French language, I blame it on him as being someone who doesn’t completely understand what’s taking place. And then that meant that I think the level of detail in the book is a little bit different than the level of detail on The Sympathizer.

Viet Nguyen: I think there’s enough detail in The Committed, so that we get a sense of gritty urban Paris, the world of refugees and immigrants in the early 1980s. And thankfully geographically, I don’t think Paris has changed that much since the early 1980s. So I didn’t have to try to think about how Paris looked back then that was radically different than how it might’ve looked today. But I mean, I was careful in like putting in certain details, but not having to worry about putting in every single street name or every single cafe name that they went to. So there’s certainly a certain level of gassiness in the depiction here. And I did do some research with, Alfred McCoy’s Politics of Heroin. And Gisele Bousquet’s Behind the Bamboo Hedge, which is, I think the only account I could find of the lives of Vietnamese refugees in 1970s and 1980s Paris, very useful account, and some photo books, basically.

Viet Nguyen: One book of photos about Asians in Paris, from which I found the key photograph that appears at the end of this book about the French Vietnamese dissent, a small contingent of whom participated in the 1984 March for Immigrants and Against Racism, that took place throughout France and in Paris, which was, I think, the first major manifestation of that sentiment in France. And then also a book called Ras, Sex, Colonie; Race, Sex and Colonies. Massive compendium of photos and images depicting the French colonial fantasies and imagination in their colonies, which are the deeply orientalist, racist, sexist imagination. I can draw on all of those images. And those ideas are very specific to one scene in the book, but also the sense of that French Orientalism is pervasive throughout the novel.

Viet Nguyen: And so a lot of it though, I had just had to imagine like the world of French intellectuals, I met a few French intellectuals, but a lot of it is based just on what I’ve read in newspaper accounts and my suppositions about what these French intellectuals must be like based on the scholarship that they produced. For example, the fetishization of China by a certain element of the French left wing intellectual set in the 1970s is being referenced here with the character of the Maoist PhD, BFD. And other French intellectual evokes many different kinds of people, but probably the most prominent being DSK, Dominique Strauss-Khan. A leader of the French socialist party who was alleged to have raped the black maid in his hotel, never convicted, but what came out during the trial was that he and his friends had a high-end prostitution ring. Now these guys are members of a left, very upstanding members of society, and yet they’re indulging in this stuff. And that appears in the novel as well.

Michael Vann: Yeah. I thought that that scene, let’s just say it’s a very decadent party where you’re skewing the corruption of this supposedly elite French left, which is very enamored with wealth, and comfort, and luxury. And you tie that with the orientalist obsession, and also not just Orientalism in this Adian sense, but also the sort of sexualized Orientalism and creating the other as this sexual playground for white men, be it colonial or post-colonial, that was a really rich and powerful scene in that book. So there’s a lot of violence in both books but The Committed is really soaked in blood. And there are several torture scenes. And also, I think one of the most accurate descriptions of the emotional impact of a street fight that I’ve read in some time.

Michael Vann: When the street fight starts, it just goes into this long, long, long, several page run-on sentence. And the way that you put that together, that really sort of captured the intensity of that physical violence on one sort of mind and the body. And for me similar violence in The Committed resonated, hopefully I’m not offending you with this, but with the films of Quentin Tarantino. And maybe this is me, because I was a graduate student in the 1990s and spent several years living in France. And that’s when pulp fiction got big and it was really big in France. And so in my mind, a lot of that sort of Quintin Tarantino stuff is associated with Paris.

Michael Vann: But at other times the violence directly engages Fanon and especially in sort of the Fanonian idea of violence as a cleansing forest for the colonized man. And I’m specifically gendering that in regards to Fanon’s writing, because I think he is doing a very gendered argument there. But what’s your relationship with violence, your read on violence? What did you want to say about violence and violence in the context of colonization and decolonization with these books?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think one of the Italian reviews of the novel that I’ve liked is where the reviewers characterize part of the book as being a Dostoevsky as rendered by Tarantino. No, that’s perfect. That’s exactly if you know, a [crosstalk 00:47:30] depiction. You could’ve said about the high and low aspect that runs throughout the work, that the violence on the one hand is pulpy violence. And I think, yes, I’m not offended by the reference to Tarantino, because I’ve watched all those Tarantino movies. I’m generally a fan of Tarantino, even if sometimes he says the wrong thing, which is fine. But I’m attracted to that pulp fictional violence in his movies. They’re very smartly done, but also just in general, the world of pop fiction violence, it’s entertaining for a certain reader, which is me, and I wanted that entertainment aspect in the book. And of course it works perfectly well with the gang land story of the mafia and organized crime.

Viet Nguyen: So there’s that going on. And then there is this question, the high-minded question of when is violence permissible and necessary in the context of revolution. So I read Fanon in college, both Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of The Earth. And so I think I’ve been wrestling with him for quite a long time. My thinking about him laid dormant for a long time after graduate school, but I thought it would be appropriate to come back to him here and try to figure out my own thinking on the question of violence, because in the context in which he’s talking about the Algerian Revolution of the 1950s, it’s arguable that violence was inevitable because of what the French were doing there.

Viet Nguyen: Could a nonviolent revolution have succeeded in Algeria, for example, maybe not. I mean, there’s specific situations in which non violence can work and maybe in some other situations where it can’t. So maybe we just attach Fanon from the specific situation that he’s arguing for, but some of his claims, I think, are meant to be transcendent beyond the local situation. So when he says in French, violence detoxifies, it’s that the colonized man can get rid of the impact of colonization by taking violence upon himself. And I think that’s meant to be understood in a much broader context than only the Algerian revolution. So I think that there is some truth to that. I assume violence can detoxify, can render the colonized man into a more independent decolonizing subject, but is that a universal truth?

Viet Nguyen: And I had a hard time with the Fanon in college, trying to think outside of that. Like okay, well, who am I to say that Fanon is wrong in this respect, but here in this book, I try to present an alternative because there’s a connection between the detoxification of de-colonizing violence and this criminal pulpy fiction violence, because it’s totally possible. I think that one of the consequences of becoming violent is not that you detoxify, but that you continue to toxify yourself. There’s a theme in The Committed of toxic masculinity that’s there in The Sympathizer as well. And these gangsters, they’re toxic. I mean, they’re violent, but I wouldn’t say that they’re better men because they’re violent. And that their violence is not only due to being criminals, but is at least partly an outcome of colonizing violence and its distortions in the colonies.

Viet Nguyen: And so the narrator of The Committed is interested in detoxifying himself does recognize without using these terms, that he is the bearer of a toxic masculinity. And he’s also perplexed about the question of violence, especially since he is the perpetrator of violence and the object of violence throughout the novel. And so, I’ll give away one element of the book by the end, he has a long passage where he says, “Yes, violence can detoxify, but what if violence can continue to poison us? And what if nonviolence can detoxify us too?” In other words, every claim that Fanon makes about what violence can do, he argues, my sympathize argues nonviolence can do the same thing. And nonviolence might have an advantage because when we become violent, we replicate the colonizer within us. In other words, there’s a mirror image relationship here between the violence of the colonizer and the violence of the colonized, engaged in this master slave relationship. Whereas maybe with non-violence because it’s not violence, we could break that mirror and use non-violence to imagine a world beyond the terms that the colonizers given us.

Michael Vann: I’m wondering, have you read Anouar Benmalek’s The Lovers of Algeria? He’s a Franco Algerian author and he sets the story in Algeria, and it goes back and forth in time. And part of it set in the 1990s during the horrifying Civil War. And part of it set during the Algerian war for independence in the early 60s. And part of it goes back to the early 1930s as a love story between a Jewish Alsatian woman and an Algerian man. And in some ways it was one of the first pieces I read that really refuted Fanon and maybe not refuted Fanon but carried Fanon’s logic forward and say, “Hey, look, this idea of violence has a cleansing forth for us. What’s that going to mean for Algerian history, 20, 30, 40 years from now?” And by moving back and forth in time in these periods of like really horrifying punctuated violence, he makes us this argument for yes, violence serves a role for Algerian men and the psychological process of decolonization, but what are the long-term consequences for the men and women of this society?

Michael Vann: So when I was reading The Committed, it really resonated with some of the things Benmalek engages in. I’m going to ask you, do you like your main character? I mean, clearly he’s a vehicle for you to put a bunch of stuff that you’re angry about. I mean, it’s like writing must serve as a real catharsis, but do you like the character? Do you identify with them? What’s not you in this character? Maybe that’s my question.

Viet Nguyen: I think when I gave an early draft of The Sympathizer to my agent he responded by saying he’s not a very sympathetic character, is he? Or not a very likable character, I can’t remember which term I think likable character. And my response to that was, well, I like him, because I understand him. And I’m a particular kind of a reader and a writer who is not turned off by negativity in characters. That I’m in fact drawn to characters that don’t function well in society, who are-

Michael Vann: Then if you like Celine.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, exactly. And I’m kind of that person myself, I mean, my attitudes and so on are oftentimes not aligned with the communities that I live in. I have very critical things to say about the United States that get some Americans angry at me. I have very critical things to say about Vietnamese communists that has meant that some of my work is not permitted in Vietnam. I have very critical things to say about the Vietnamese Americans, which means that some Vietnamese Americans really disliked me. Because like I get really allergic around orthodoxy of any kind, no matter who’s espousing it. And this sympathizer is someone who sympathizes with everybody, but he’s also to a lot of social norms as well, because of his ability to see issues from both sides. So he can sympathize with the supposed enemy, but because he can adopt their point of view he can see the limitations of the orthodoxy of his own side, whatever that happens to be.

Viet Nguyen: And he is an alter ego. I took that experience of feeling like a spy growing up and I created a character who was really a spy, much more interesting than me, and put them into a much more extreme circumstances that would be more entertaining and compelling for readers. So a lot of me is within him and going back to that footnoting issue, I can say a lot of things I believe in through him without having to prove anything. If you don’t like it, I can say, “Hey, it’s a novel, it’s fiction. Take it up with The Sympathizer, not with me.” Are there things about him that are not me? Well, I mean, he’s mixed race. And I’m not mixed race, but I guess growing up as a Vietnamese American, I guess you could argue in some allegorical way there’s some kind of mixing happening there.

Viet Nguyen: But he’s a liar, he’s an alcoholic, he’s a womanizer, he’s a spy. Ultimately, he’s a murderer. I’m none of those things except, I drink a lot. So I mean, that’s the only thing in an autobiographical way that I share with The Sympathizer. And so there are vast differences between me and him as a person, but I think psychologically we share quite a bit.

Michael Vann: Yeah. And the books are obviously, about the Vietnamese refugee diaspora, but they’re also a lot about whiteness. And in particular, you engage Edward Said’s Orientalism in the ways in which Euro-Americans construct a self serving image of Asia and Asians, that works as their reality as it serves their needs. And you write characters that represent various types of annoying white people. One of my absolute favorite, and I think you can guess why, one of my absolute favorite is the white male American professor of Oriental Studies who wants to tell the Asians what they think and how they understand things. In The Sympathizer, the American filmmakers, those characters are amazing. And then in The Committed, your caricatures of the French intellectuals are spot on.

Michael Vann: And I love that you have the fictionalized version of Dominique Strauss-Khan, DSK. You call this guy BFD or [Befde 00:57:26], you have the Maoist PhD. And in my mind around the house, as I get ready for this, I’ve been calling you Viet Nguyen, VTN with a French pronunciation, I think, maybe they’ll get some traction. But tell us about some of the white characters you wrote and what you wanted to get out of them and what you want to get out of these characters and what you use them for and how they served as ways to critique whiteness in its French and American forms and manifestations?

Viet Nguyen: Ian Forrester, the novelist, in his book on writing, I think it’s called The Art of The Novel, talks about the distinction between round and flat characters and around being fully thought out and flat being stereotypical. He, wasn’t actually making a value judgment from what I recall on the round in the flat character, using they serve different purposes in fiction. And I took that to heart, but I also took to heart a particular strain of the of aesthetics that have always been influential on me, which is what we might call agitprop, our artwork that also serves a political purpose of agitation, and propaganda, and provocation, and so on. And then agitprop, the flat characters tend to dominate, because part of what’s being done here is to make people think about politics and about political types of people.

Viet Nguyen: And this kind of aesthetic, I think, is not well-received in my context of academic literary fiction and mainstream American literary fiction, which is supposed to be all about the round characters. Like you’re not supposed to have stereotypes because stereotypes are bad and the way that I can appreciate that being the target of stereotypes myself, but somehow strangely in this world of where we’re supposed to reject all kinds of flat characters and only have round characters, nevertheless, there’s never been a place or very little place for people like me in the imagination of white writers. So when we appear we are stereotypes and then when we should be appearing as round characters, we never appear at all. So I think that there is a time and a place for the flat character to be used.

Viet Nguyen: And I’m someone who actually enjoys agitprop, for example, one of the plays that cited in this book, The Committed, is Aime Cesaire’s, A Tempest, the satire in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And I saw that in production as a student at the Berkeley rep. And I loved it, I loved it. I was laughing throughout the production. I was totally into it. And I was sitting next to these two older white people, a couple, man and a woman. And they were, I assume, retired. They didn’t laugh at all. Maybe they were repertory subscribers. I was somebody on a student ticket. They didn’t laugh at all. And I remember watching M. Butterfly, the David Henry Hwang play in San Francisco and laughing throughout it and sitting next to white people who didn’t laugh at the parts that the Asian Americans laughed at.

Viet Nguyen: So this is partly the function of agitprop. You have to be in on the joke or you have to agree with the politics to find it entertaining and stimulating. I do. So there’s a dimension of that in The Committed and The Sympathizer where there’s a lot of flat characters of all kinds, not just white people, there’s five Asian characters as well. I mean, for example, there’s a gang in The Committed, and they’re called the seven dwarfs, they’re all flat. They just have one name like grumpy and angry. That’s all we know about them, okay. But for the white characters, I thought well, have a taste of your own medicine. Let’s present you as a stereotype or as a flat character, see how you like it.

Viet Nguyen: And also, I think there’s some truth, there’s always truth to stereotypes and there’s important ways in which we can deploy stereotypes in a productive fashion. Typically, the stereotypes of Asian people in the Western imagination is that, they’re put there completely to service the orientalist narratives of the white characters, and then also to be raped, or killed, or to be turned into sexual servants and everything else. And I think that in my depiction of the white character is nothing that bad happens to them. I don’t think, they don’t get murdered, they don’t get raped, they don’t get abused. In fact, they’re pretty much left in the same place where we began with them, they still remain in positions of power. So The Auteur, the white male director in The Sympathizer, yes, he’s subjected to scabrous treatment in the novel, but he’s still the man by the end of the story, he’s still making Hollywood movies at the end of the book.

Viet Nguyen: So there’s a vast difference in my deployment of stereotypes and the racist and sexist deployment of stereotypes in Western literature and film. And in the use of the flat characters, white people as flat characters, they exemplify particular kinds of traits, which as far as I can tell, really do exist. So I’ve come across the Oriental Studies Department Chairman, as a type in academia. I’ve been subjected to his kind of statements. So I don’t feel that there’s any manipulation of the truth here in what these characters represent.

Michael Vann: Yeah. I mean, I thought that all those characters types really rang true. And I did a graphic history of colonial Vietnam. And one of the things that I really stressed with the artist is that, wanted to give full humanity to the Vietnamese and the Asian characters as she drew them. But I said, “Hey, you know what we can do, let’s stereotype the French a bit and make them a little flatter so that the images of the French characters, that they’re all, so over the top colonial. They’ve always got a glass of wine and they’re always in white outfits.” And yeah, it was to this, a fellow traveler move with you, like yeah, there are generations of using Asian bodies as decor in Western literature and film and culture. Let’s do that to the white folks.

Michael Vann: So on a somewhat related note, in the second novel, you really start to pick apart French racism and different aspects of that. And I don’t know if you want to do a… I don’t know if it’s even useful comparative racism of France and America, maybe you’re familiar with the work of Tyler Stovall. He wrote Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. And then more recently White Freedom: The Racial History of An Idea, which is a comparative history of the ways in which France and the United States built a concept of freedom based upon whiteness and black unfreedom. And full disclosure, he was my advisor and he’s my friend and really formative for my thinking here.

Michael Vann: So I was really delighted in the cycle of novels to have you pick apart aspects of anti-Asian racism in California, where I live and then take it to France and then pick apart French anti-Asian racism, but also wider French racism. So could you say a few words on that? And I don’t know if the similarities and differences question makes any sense here, but I’m contrasting American and French racial attitudes and practices of racism?

Viet Nguyen: And obviously the French right now are going through a lot of discussions on these topics now about the rise of the French anti-racism movement, and the French version of MeToo. And also the assertiveness of minoritized populations in France, and there’s a certain segment of the French population that doesn’t like to see this and blames these manifestations on American influences, as if American ideas that some have been exported to France, and that’s what’s driving these kinds of insurgencies. And I’m sure there’s some American influence on there, but obviously the American ideas have been influenced by French ideas, and that the French themselves have a decolonizing tradition and people Cesaire and Fanon, who don’t need the Americans to tell them what to think. But if you go back to Cesaire and Fanon, they were already referring to what happened to black people in the United States, already building this idea of a global black diaspora or a global black consciousness.

Viet Nguyen: And in fact, then if we look at England, and the United States, and France, in my thinking, what we’re really seeing are two countries that have wonderful democratic ideals, we’re all familiar with what they are. And we have two countries that also imperial powers at the same time. And the reality in my opinion, that unless the French and the Americans, or the countries as a whole, their societies and the dominant populations, unless these people can acknowledge that their imperialism is inseparable from their ideals, that in fact, they’ve worked together in a contradictory way. And that the contemporary, French and American societies for white people in these countries, is an outcome of these contradictions and that white people benefit from the legacies of imperialism. Then we’re not going to be able to address these particular issues of racial difference, or whether multiculturalism in the United States is better than universalism in France.

Viet Nguyen: And my stance is that neither the French or the American system is going to solve these problems of racial exploitation in difference, for example, using only the rhetoric of universalism or multiculturalism. And the only way we can solve these issues is by going back to the root problems which are still with us in terms of issues of slavery, genocide, colonization, that are completely integral to the foundations of French and American societies. So I think I would like to choose from the best of both places in terms of where to live and how to live my own life. And I have a slight preference for the American version of multiculturalism, but I don’t think the American system is inherently any better than the French and vice versa as well. So hopefully the two novels working together will make that argument for me.

Viet Nguyen: And then obviously in the committee, we see anti-Asian racism being enacted by white people, but we also see anti-Asian violence being enacted by the French of Algerian descent, and that’s a parallel. This antagonism between the Vietnamese and the Algerian gangs in this novel parallel, some of the conversations that we’re having in the United States about anti-Asian violence here being undertaken, not just by white people, but by other people of color, including black people as well. And I just came from a talk that Ta Nehisi Coates gave where he brought up the issue of anti-Asian violence, denouncing it, but also saying, look, there are some black people who’ve been doing this kind of stuff. And basically, racism doesn’t make people better and that black people themselves can absorb racist ideas and can act out on them, and I think that’s true.

Viet Nguyen: And that works also for Asian Americans and Asians as well. I mean, we’re also guilty of racist behavior. And so what we see in the colonial situation paralleling the racial situation in the United States, is that racism divides and conquers. And it gets people who have been subjected to parallel kinds of racism to act out against each other. That’s a divide and conquer strategy. In colonization, we see the same thing. That colonization is enacted against different kinds of colonized populations who should have an interest in solidarity with each other, but oftentimes turn against each other. And certainly we see that the French deliberately manipulate this. So we look at Vietnam. Part of the French colonial army were colonized troops from Senegal and Morocco, for example, being brought into Vietnam to subjugate their fellow colonized peoples. And they didn’t see some of them, the relationships of solidarity, some did, but not all of them.

Viet Nguyen: And so it’s not a surprise that in France, in Paris, we would see people descended from colonized populations, not see themselves in solidarity, but see themselves in antagonism. And so the novel depicts this, and it depicts a hope that we could rise to solidarity as well as our sympathizer says, but it’s a very difficult task to work against the weight of history and the weight of colonization that’s designed to prevent us from seeing the necessary solidarity of colonized peoples against their colonizer.

Michael Vann: In one of the scenes that really stuck in my mind. And you captured a body of academic literature on being black in France, and in the space of a couple of sentences is when, the narrator is talking to some African-American jazz musicians at a party. And he presses them with his English and they’re happy to speak English with him. And then he asks, do they speak French and they say, “Well, no, we speak French, but around the white people, we speak broken French so that they know we’re African American and they’ll treat us well. But if we speak proper French they’ll think we’re from Africa and then we’ll get treated poorly.” And I thought that really touched on so many things about blackness in France in the 20th century. The country that shielded Josephine Baker and James Baldwin from the horrors of Jim Crow, yet behaved horribly to the Algerian population and to the Sub-Saharan Francophone population within its borders.

Michael Vann: And that was really, I mean, just that quick little aside, and it’s not even a full scene, just like summarized a really important body of literature. You’ve been really generous with your time, and I’ve got two more questions before I let you go. And the first one is going to come with a caveat. We asked this of every guest, but can you suggest two books for the audience to read? However, I’m going to put some restrictions on you because you’re pretty good at tweeting out good books. So you’re not allowed to suggest Charles Yu’s, Interior Chinatown, or Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language which everybody should read. They’re fantastic books. One is really a fellow traveler of The Sympathizer and the other one’s a fellow traveler of The Committed. So two books, other than those two that the audience should read.

Viet Nguyen: Well, The Seventh Function of Language is very entertaining novel. And I read it when I was writing The Committed, and it was one kind of influence for that book. Okay, so outside of those books, well, given our conversation about colonization and so on, I’m going to recommend two books of poetry, because poetry was actually a big influence in the writing of these two books. There’s a lot of playfulness, hopefully with language, and there’s an intensity of language that I want to achieve that obviously poets take as a routine matter, but in the world of fiction, maybe not so much. So Natalie Diaz is post-colonial love poem, she’s a native American poet and the title signals that. What she’s interested in is this colonizing relationship of the United States to its indigenous to indigenous peoples.

Viet Nguyen: It’s a beautiful, beautiful book, very graceful, but also very political at the same time. And then Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony, she’s a poet, a Korean-American poet who characterizes herself as engaged in anti-colonial poetics, which I think I’m hopefully aspiring to do as well. And in DMZ Colony, also a beautiful book. She takes on this question of the Korean War, which has never ended and its aftermath and the devastating consequences for the Korean people, especially when we think about how it was not just Americans killing Koreans, but it was Koreans killing Koreans. And not just even north versus south, but like South Koreans killing other South Koreans whom they suspected of being communists. And she called Syngman Rhee, the leader of The Republic of South Korea at the time, the American backed angel of genocide. And so it’s a very forceful book, but also beautifully written book as well.

Michael Vann: Yeah. And yes, you do take poetic lessons with the word and especially in The Committed and I really enjoyed it. It reminds me a bit of, was it [inaudible 01:13:20] first novel, the one about the Ukraine and anti-Semitism. Everything is illuminated in the way in which all of a sudden words on the page start to do unexpected things. And as a reader, it’s just an absolute delight. Finally, what are you working on now? What can you hope to see for me next? And I don’t know, will there be a third novel in this cycle?

Viet Nguyen: So what I’m working on now is a non-fiction book. It’s memoristic, drawing from the personal autobiography that I’ve spent most of my life avoiding. But I’ve been writing increasingly personal autobiographical essays. And so a lot of those stories are in the book, but also looped in or woven in with a lot of what we talked about today in terms of the fact that I’m interested in making critiques about culture, and politics, and representation, and race, and American colonization. All that stuff will be woven in with the personal story.

Viet Nguyen: And then after I’m done with that, hopefully later this year, I can turn my attention to the third and final installment of The Sympathizer trilogy, where he will in fact return to Southern California of the mid to late 1980s. And this is my time, this is my adolescence, and there’s so much I want to talk about, everything from Reagan to Star Wars, both the movie and the missile initiative, and Iran-Contra, and the fact that the CIA was pumping supposedly, crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles. All of that is going to be hopefully woven into a story of The Sympathizer coming back to make amends and seek revenge.

Michael Vann: Fantastic. I look forward to that. Viet Nguyen, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Viet Nguyen: Hey, Mike, it was great talking to you again, you do in fact, look like the Department Chair of Oriental Studies in The Sympathizer. So hopefully we can get you in to a TV adaptation, or at least someone who looks like you.

Michael Vann: Well, I don’t know if you wanted to reference that, but you did tweet that it’s been optioned and I immediately, I’m a reply guy, so I said, “I want the role of the Department of Oriental studies. For me, that would be a very cathartic role because I’d like to act out some of the things I’ve had to deal with over the years.” So keep me in mind, put me in your-

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely.

Michael Vann: So this has been a conversation with Professor Viet Nguyen about his novels, The Sympathizer, and The Committed. I’m your host, Michael Vann of Sacramento State University, and this has been an episode of New Books in History, a channel in the New Books Network. Thank you for listening.

Michael Vann: (silence)

Category: Interviews


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