Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses his personal experience as a refugee child, the separation of migrant children from their parents at the U.S. border, hate and crimes directed against Asians, Hollywood images of Asians, and the writing process, with Frank Buckley for KTLA 5.
Read transcript below.
Frank Buckley: Hello, and welcome. Our program today is about a man with two minds. A man with no face, about communists, capitalists, refugees, and revolutionaries. Those are just some of the characters inhabiting the world of the book, The Committed, along with way too much cognac. It’s the latest novel from the author Viet Thanh Nguyen and it is the sequel to his Pulitzer prize winning book, The Sympathizer.
Frank Buckley: Welcome to Frank Buckley Interviews. I am delighted to welcome the author, the New York Times oped columnist, and USC professor, Viet Thanh Nguyen back to the show. Professor, thanks for joining us. Congratulations on another wonderful book.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: Hi, Frank. Thanks so much for having me back.
Frank Buckley: It’s great to have you. So much to discuss with you today. Of course, we’ll dive into The Committed, but I also want to talk to you about the AAPI hate and violence we’re experiencing. Want talk to you about the trauma being experienced by the thousands of migrant children, separated from their parents. It’s a trauma you experienced yourself as a refugee child. But let’s start with this book and this magnificent character that you created for us in The Sympathizer, who we continue to follow in The Committed.
Frank Buckley: This communist mole, this double agent. This born to a French father and a Vietnamese mother, who has been reeducated, who has killed, who has betrayed, but most of all has survived. You have created this complex, thoughtful, witty character. Here’s what the New York Times review said about him and about you, “Nguyen’s nameless narrator is a singular literary creation. A complete original.” Wow. I know you’re used to praise by now, but come on. That must have been pretty sweet to read that in the New York Times book review.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: It was. What can I say? I mean, authors are vain and vulnerable creatures, so when people like our work, we’re happy.
Frank Buckley: Yeah, well. It’s so well deserved. For those who have not read The Sympathizer or now The Committed, who is your narrator and why is he in Paris?
Việt Thanh Nguyen: The narrator of this novel is part French, part Vietnamese. His father is a French priest. His mother is a young Vietnamese woman who was molested by this priest. And the result of this is a person who he tells us is a man of two faces and two minds. And his one talent is to see any issue from both sides. Which is an incredible talent, but also makes him incredibly vulnerable and a tragic figure as well. Caught up in these binary opposites and conflicts of the cold war.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: In the first novel, which you don’t have to have read by the way to have read this novel. In the first novel, he’s a communist spy. Flees with the remnants of the South Vietnamese army to the United States and spies on their efforts to take their country back. Long story short, he ends up in Vietnam again, fleeing from the country at the end of The Sympathizer. The Committed picks up exactly where the first book leaves off on the South China Sea in a boat full of refugees, and he’s become a refugee again. He decides to flee to Paris because that’s the home of his father and he needs to grapple with what that means. Then finally, The Sympathizer, I set out to try to offend everybody. Americans and Vietnamese of all backgrounds. I think I succeeded. This novel, I had to ask myself, “Who else was there left to offend?” The answer obviously, the French.
Frank Buckley: You talk about this harrowing opening to your book with people trying to escape on a boat. Your personal escape from Vietnam, we’ve discussed it on this program before and I encourage people to watch our conversation. In short, your mother in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, had you as a four year old. Your brother, I believe was 11 at the time. There was the fall of Saigon and your father was away. She had to make this amazing decision to walk with you and your brother for over 150 miles to Saigon. You get there only to have to do it again when Saigon falls. You know this history. You’ve lived this history. As a writer, you could have started this story, The Committed, in so many ways. Why did you start it the way you did?
Việt Thanh Nguyen: I think my experience as a refugee has always stayed with me. My first memories are actually of being in a refugee camp in Harrisburg, or Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, before we were resettled in Harrisburg. I was taken away from my parents, to be sent to live with an American sponsor, which was meant to help my parents get on their feet. As a four year old, I experienced that as abandonment. My first memories are screaming and crying as I was being taken away from my parents. I’ve never forgotten that. I think it’s given me a great degree of empathy for what other refugees have gone through and are going through today. It was totally something I wanted to do to open The Committed in this refugee boat. Which I think is so crucial to acknowledge that, I think for a lot of people who are not refugees, when they see images of refugees fleeing from places on foot or on boats, people tend to think of them as being desperate and frightened and pathetic. They’re certainly desperate and frightened, but they’re also heroic.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: It takes so much courage to take their lives into their own hands. To flee their countries and set out to some unknown place, knowing that their lives are at mortal danger. That’s what the opening is meant to depict and hopefully to evoke the connection between not just the refugees from the 1970s and 1980s, but refugees today who are doing exactly the same thing, whether they’re trying to cross a river or trying to cross the Mediterranean. Their experiences, I think are deeply misunderstood. I think of them as heroic people.
Frank Buckley: You tell us that without beating us over the head. In other words, I can get lost in narrative of your fiction book and find myself rooting for characters, rooting against other characters, in the way that I would do with any terrific narrative in a story. You’re also telling us this important thing that’s happening in society with, as you say, refugees who are living this true story around the world. I wonder just in terms of process as a writer, are you consciously thinking about that always? Do you write in two tracks? In other words, are you thinking, “Here’s my narrative. Here’s what I’m really trying to say”.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: I think that’s always true. I certainly want to entertain readers and pull them along, so The Sympathizer was spy novel. The Committed is a crime novel. He gets to Paris and he’s been deeply traumatized by what he’s gone through, through the war and as a refugee. He makes terrible choices. He becomes a capitalist, which in other words, he becomes drug dealer and there’s lots of crime and drugs and violence as we get sucked into the underworld of Asian crime in Paris.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: It’s important to also try to make certain points about refugee life, about issues of racism in France, and the longstanding legacies of colonialism. The last thing to acknowledge is that even though I think of these refugees as heroes, they’re also human beings. Which means that like everybody else, they’re deeply flawed. People who have been through traumatic experiences don’t often come out the other side as angels. They come out as deeply wounded, problematic people. That’s what helps, I hope, to keep readers interested, is not to think of these refugees as ideal figures in some way, but people who should be respected for what they’ve been through, but also acknowledged as deeply flawed people.
Frank Buckley: When you and I last talked, we talked about this word that you’ve evoked now a couple of times, trauma. And you’ve said traumatic. It’s something that as a refugee, you said you experienced and then you suppressed for a good portion of your adult life. But then as a writer, you knew you had to bring it up to write properly and to write with honesty. I just wonder, as you’ve heard these refugee stories and specifically about the children having been ripped from your parents arms at one point, to hear about these children crossing our border and now being ripped from their parents’ arms. Did it bring up anything in you?
Việt Thanh Nguyen: Of course. Like I said, I was only separated from my parents for a few months, and yet I’ve never forgotten that experience. I think about children who have been separated for many months, years, put into these detention facilities, overcrowded places, not knowing when they might be reconnected with their parents. Of course there are situations where children and parents are still separated after many years. Of course that’s going to be a scarring experience. We’re already hearing accounts of how wounded some of these children are, even after they’ve been reunited with their parents.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: When you’re emotionally damaged like that, your response is not going to be logical. Logically you may understand your parents came back for you and that they didn’t want to be separated. But emotionally, you’re going to carry this experience, this fear of abandonment, this resentment, that this has happened to you, and it’s going to take so much work to recover from this for both the parents and the children.
Frank Buckley: Let me go back to the idea of the refugees on that boat. I know that you hate the term boat people. You’ve written about this. You call in The Committed, the boat an arc. Why?
Việt Thanh Nguyen: The image of the boat people is so strong. This is how people remember the Vietnamese refugees of the 1970s and 1980s. Media described them in this way. It was very effective in terms of stirring worldwide sympathy for the refugees and getting them into host countries. The French, use any form of anglicization of their language, simply call boat people, “Le boat people”, which I find deeply problematic. It takes a huge effort to kind of dislodge this sort of memory of the refugees as boat people. In my own little way, in this opening, I do use this language of biblical, that’s Homeric, to cast the experience of the boat people on this epic scale. Because I think it is an epic experience, except simply refugees don’t have enough storytellers like Hollywood to tell their stories in a heroic fashion.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: Think back to our own heroic myth of this country of Christopher Columbus and the pilgrims. We cast them in this epic fashion, but they were basically boat people. If there was a news reel camera waiting for the pilgrims as they stepped on to the so-called New World, they would look really nasty after many months being unshaven and life ridden and stinky and all of this. But no, we remember them in memory, in an epic and heroic fashion. That’s the same kind of memory we should be extending to these what I call, “oceanic refugees”. These sea bearers who have taken their lives into their own hands today.
Frank Buckley: Viet, we’re going to take a short break. When we return, I’m going to ask Viet Thanh Nguyen about the hate directed toward Asians and Asian Americans. Where it comes from and what we can do about it.
Frank Buckley: Welcome back. We’re with the Pulitzer Prize winning author and USC professor, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Author of the new book, The Committed. Viet, as someone who is not part of the Vietnamese community, there was a recurring mention in the book that caught my attention that I didn’t quite understand. The idea of Fantasia. Tell me about that.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: Fantasia is a [inaudible 00:12:08] dance show that a few people put on in the novel. It’s actually based on a real life show, Paris By Night. Paris By Night was the creation [inaudible 00:12:18] dad. You have to understand something about Vietnamese people. We’re fun loving people. We like smoke, dance, drink, hang out at night clubs, have a good time. One of the first things that we did in Southern California was open a night club in Los Angeles. And so that brings a lot of joy to Vietnamese people. I mean, they’ve been through so much historically because of the war and all that. And they like to gather at these night clubs to sing and dance. And in Paris by Night, there’s this spectacular song and dance extravaganza, very high production values shot in places like Paris and Las Vegas casinos. Places where the Vietnamese like to hang out. And so I wanted to bring some of that joy and some of that spectacle into the novel.
Frank Buckley: Wonderful. I know you spent some time in Paris, as you were working on this novel. How important was it for you to be there, to soak in Paris? And also talk to me about the Vietnamese community in France. People may not realize how large a community it is.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: My wife and I spent seven months in Paris on our honeymoon. It was an incredible experience. We have a deep romantic relationship with Paris. I always wanted to return to Paris and set a novel there, and so I did with The Committed. And of course it gave me the opportunity to go back and visit Paris again. But I really wanted to write a novel that was not about the romantic stereotypes of Paris that I think we all have in terms of the Eiffel Tower and the baguette and all that kind of stuff. I wanted to write a novel that, as one reader of my novel put it, unplugs the city of light. This Paris in my novel is a non-romantic Paris. It’s the Paris of the immigrant quarters. It’s the Paris of people of color, and especially the Paris of little Asia.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: And there is a vibrant Asian community in Paris. It’s somewhat different than what it is here in the United States, because here in the United States, we can call ourselves Asian Americans. That kind of language doesn’t exist in France where the emphasis is to treat everyone in the same way as simply French. And the novel looks at how that is both a wonderful idea, but also deeply problematic for so many people of color in France. And so the Vietnamese community in France is a little bit like what it is here in the United States.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: I talked to a lot of French people of Vietnamese descent, and they pretty much all said the French like us here. We get along really well, because we work hard and we’re quiet and law abiding and all that. And I thought that that may be great that the Vietnamese in France get along so well for who they are, but maybe also get along so well for who they aren’t. They’re not black, they’re not Muslim, they’re not north African. These are all populations that the French in general have a lot of fear and phobia about. And so all that history is introduced into The Committed, because our narrator becomes involved in an ethnic Chinese gang and their rivals are Algerian. And so there’s a lot of fighting and crime and violence between these two gangs, but also some meditation about what it means to be colonized in different ways for the Vietnamese and the Algerian.
Frank Buckley: Speaking of this idea of fear and phobias here in our country, there has been an increase in hate incidents and an increase in crime directed at Asians and Asian Americans. Tell me, I know you’ve thought about this a great deal. You’ve written about it eloquently on your website in an essay. Talk to me about where you believe this comes from, and then what we can do about it.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: So the issue of anti-Asian violence is actually a global issue. It’s not just in the United States. And actually in The Committed, I evoke some of that. Because some of these Algerian gangsters are ready to pull out all of these racist images about the Chinese and about other Asians from their memory. And that’s exactly what’s happening now that the Asians in France are also getting some of this anti-Asian violence. And in Canada and Australia and New Zealand and the list goes on and on. So I think the question of anti-Asian fear, phobia, rhetoric and violence are actually deeply rooted in Western countries in the Western imagination. Which is why, when we’re talking about what’s happening today in the United States, I know a lot of people are saying we need more police protection. We need hate crimes legislation, all this kind of stuff.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: That’s fine, but these are really reactive measures that are not going to actually address the roots of anti-Asian violence. And I think the roots of anti-Asian violence stemmed from the fact that at least in the United States, our relationship with Asia have been… And Asians are generally positioned in two ways. One, we fought a lot of wars in Asia that have killed millions of people. And we have treated Asians in the United States as sources of cheap labor, dating back to at least the 19th century. And Frank, you and I are both in LA. We got to remember that for example, in LA, in 1871, in downtown LA, 19 Chinese men and boys were massacred by an armed mob of several hundred, and that was not unusual in the 19th century. So these roots go way back and we need long term solution. Things like, for example, education about Asian American history. Hollywood needing to step up to and address the fact that it is long been a repository for anti-Asian violent fantasies in its comedies and in its war movies and so on and so forth.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: And we need as a country to acknowledge the role that Asian Americans occupy in this country. Performing very important economic functions, and yet being despised for doing those economic functions at the same time. And lastly, we need to be careful about how our rhetoric about other Asian countries, particularly at this moment, China, has an impact on Asian Americans. So of course the previous administration characterized the COVID-19 as the kung flu and the China virus. I think that is a direct connection to the rise of anti-Asian violence and rhetoric here today. And even though this administration doesn’t say those kinds of things, the fact that it continues to position China as our number one, strategic, military, political, economic threat, is going to have reverberation on Asian American populations.
Frank Buckley: I’ve talked to Asian Americans who have literally changed the way they’re living their lives, where they’re going to live, when they’re going to go out. That sort of thing, out of fear. I was just wondering, have you had any personal effects of all of this?
Việt Thanh Nguyen: I live in a very nice neighborhood of Pasadena, and my wife has had a random driver go by and flash the white power sign at her. So even here, we’re not immune to these kinds of things. And there has been anti-Asian violence in the Pasadena area. Psychologically, I think I, like everyone else, has been impacted. When I go out and I get my garbage cans and whatnot, and a car drives by, I get nervous. I wonder if this car’s going to stop and someone’s going to roll down the window and say something to me, even on my nice street. So I can imagine very much that Asian Americans all over the country are feeling the same way. And I think most of us can say that these issues of anti-Asian violence have touched people within our immediate circle. I think there’s only one degree of separation for me, from people who have actually experienced some of these actions.
Frank Buckley: All right, we’re going to take one more quick break. When we come back, we’ll have more with Pulitzer prize winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen. We’re back with the Pulitzer prize winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Now he’s written a new book, The Committed. Viet, one of the things that you go into in this book is the way that Asian women are perceived. And as the son of an Asian woman, it was something that I took great interest in. What can you tell our viewers about this idea of how Asian women are perceived? And I’ll just ask you that question open ended like that.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: The most notorious incident of anti-Asian violence that took place in recent months was this murder of eight people, including six Asian American women in Atlanta. The initial impulse for a lot of non-Asian Americans would say, “This is not necessarily related to race, or gender, or sexuality”. And I think for so many of us Asian Americans, our reaction was, “Of course it’s related to race and gender and sexuality”, because that’s the place that Asian American women and Asian women have tended to occupy in the Western imagination. That they are subjected to not just racist feelings and fantasy, but also sexist feelings and fantasies as well. I tried to address that in both of these novels, The Sympathizer and The Committed, and even more directly in The Committed. I felt it was important to address what we today would call toxic masculinity.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: And that’s not the word I use in The Committed. But nevertheless, we see so many examples of men behaving badly towards Asian and Asian American women in that novel. And it’s important to stress that oftentimes of course, this does come from non-Asian men. But sometimes it comes from Asian men as well. And so The Committed, I really try to hold my fellow Vietnamese men responsible, for the way we treat Vietnamese women. That there’re deep structures of patriarchy and expectation among so many Asian men and Asian American men about how Asian American women should behave towards them. And this is wrong, right? We’re all responsible as men towards the ways that we idealize. We elevate, but also denigrate, objectify and patronize Asian and Asian American women. It’s so crucial to acknowledge how pervasive these feelings and problems are.
Frank Buckley: Well, Viet. Thank you once again for both your time today, and of course this wonderful new book, The Committed. Thank you.
Việt Thanh Nguyen: Thanks so much, Frank. It’s been a pleasure.
Frank Buckley: And thank you for joining us. We hope you’ll join us on the audio podcast where we’ll have more.