Michael Silverblatt speaks to Viet Thanh Nguyen about his new book The Committed and the literary inspirations behind it for Bookworm.
Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses his new novel, “The Committed,” the follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning “The Sympathizer,” and the second entry in a planned trilogy. It brings Nguyen’s storytelling further into the philosophy of refugees, feminism, communism, anti-communism and more—the terror of both the American war in Vietnam and the French presence in Vietnam, along with the Vietnamese presence in America andFrance. This is duality enacted as a writing method; this is a union between theory and fiction. A novel of ideas and politics and history and theory, but also a crime novel. A novel you’re not born knowing how to read, and you might have to reread it, this is exciting contemporary literature.
Listen to the interview at KCRW or read the transcript below.
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Michael Silverblatt: From KCRW and kcrw.com, I’m Michael Silverblatt and this is Bookworm. And today I have the honor and pleasure to be talking to Viet Thanh Nguyen. He is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sympathizer. A second volume in that series has just been published called The Committed. Both books were published by Grove Press. He has also written many essays, critical works anthologies. He has a collection of short stories as well called The Refugees. I’m a fan with pleasurable difficulties with his work. Welcome, Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Viet Thanh Nguyen : Hi, Michael. Such a pleasure to be here.
Michael Silverblatt: I want to take a different approach to The Committed your new book, because I see people avoiding the subject. And for me, this is one of the thrilling meeting places. One of the very few meeting places in American fiction where theory meets the novel. And so as you’re reading The Committed, the hero of The Sympathizer is now in France, it’s quite natural that he meets people who speak to him in the terms that we now use too in America that come from French critical theory, political theory, and philosophy. People like Adorno, and Althusser, and Kristeva, and the magnificent Césaire, the discourse on colonialism, and Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Frantz Fanon, all the people I think that students learn in college. Were you writing this aware of this as a demanding union between theory and fiction?
Viet Thanh Nguyen : Oh, absolutely. I’m someone who was trained at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate and graduate student in both literary criticism and in literary theory. And then also of course I was trying be a writer at that time. And I was also trying to be a political activist. So all of these ideas were merging for me. And my challenge as a writer back then was to try to figure out how to talk about them all at the same time. And it’s taken a lifetime of practice writing again and again, to try to get to this place. And I think for me, it’s an exciting place because I remember my immersion in both theory and literature to be tremendously exciting and passionate, it opened my mind, it transformed my life. And theory in particular, what we’re talking about here was very difficult. To read Derrida when I was like 20, for example, or Foucault when I was 20, or feminist philosophers like Cixous and Julia Kristeva really challenged me. But working through them, that act of thinking through what they were proposing and the ideas that they had absolutely changed me.
Michael Silverblatt: Our sympathizer, now the committed has to ask questions like what being committed means? To a politics, to a country, to an insane asylum? All things remain possibilities in the book and he’s double-minded. Now, once upon a time the theory of the double in literature was everything we’d hear about Dostoevsky. The double has more or less disappeared. And this is a character who is double-minded, which means he practices telling us that he sees both sides of an issue, often opposing sides. Now, how did you invent a prose style that allowed you to do that, to express opposites at the same time?
Viet Thanh Nguyen : Well, you mentioned Dostoevsky, and certainly reading Dostoevsky was a big influence. And Dostoevsky influenced Ralph Ellison in the writing of Invisible Man. So there’s a dual strand of thinking there from Dostoevsky to black plot. Ellison was grappling with duality. And of course, W.E.B. Du Bois was grappling with duality in his theory of double consciousness. And myself as a refugee and as an Asian American felt that I was always living a life of duality. And the challenge there was not so much how to convey duality in fiction. That’s actually a very common theme in a lot of Asian American literature. For example people who are split between cultures, that stereotypical notion of East is East and West is West. The challenge really was how to enact duality as a method in the writing, where the writing and the thinking of our sympathizer constantly doubles back upon itself. I thought of The Sympathizer and then The Committed, these two novels as dialectical novels grappling with the need for ideas to be constantly self-reflexive and changing. There’s a final installment, the final move of the dialect that will be in the third novel of the trilogy.
Michael Silverblatt: I didn’t know that, but I’m very excited to know that. Because I don’t think The Committed is the end of this character. And I’m thrilled to hear that, what would it be? Four to six years from now we’ll learn more.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, exactly. I still have to write it. I thought it was pretty obvious at the end of The Committed that it’s rather an… I mean, there’s a closure to the novel, but also an obvious opening that I thought would be a cliffhanger towards the next episode in the trilogy.
Michael Silverblatt: You’ve written a book that’s won a Pulitzer Prize and consequently has become popular. And now this book I think, is taking people further into the philosophy of refugees, of feminism, of communism, and anti-communism, of the terror both of the American war in Vietnam and the French presence in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese presence in America, and in France. I mean, you are trying to accomplish so much. I liked The Sympathizer, but I did not know that you would turn out to be such an ambitious novelist. And I think these novels will be read far in the future. Because you’re performing an act of education that’s asking people who are not students to learn the things that almost every student knows now.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. I think that for me, ever since my time at Berkeley, trying to be a writer, being a student of people like Maxine Hong Kingston, seeing myself as a Vietnamese American, as a refugee, as an Asian American writer, as a writer of color, and as a writer in general, part of the challenge I knew that I was going to face is that I was not going to back away from the history that had shaped me. Which is the Vietnam War. And yet if I did this, if I confronted the Vietnam war in my fiction, I knew that there would be mechanisms beyond my control. That would say, “Viet is just a Vietnamese American writer. He’s writing about the Vietnam War, as he should because he’s Vietnamese and that’s all he can tell us.” And that’s a very patronizing way of looking at someone like me. And it’s a patronizing way of looking at many writers of color.
Michael Silverblatt: It’s a patronizing way of looking at any writer to think… Some writers do have only one book that was true of Ralph Ellison. But most writers have many tricks up their sleeves, and that’s why they’re writers. They live in the world as a place of constant revelation, examination, and truth-telling. And taking truth beyond its accustomed boundaries is part of what great writing does. Yes, the first time, and I do say the first time you read The Committed, you may be led to start the book again after you do a certain amount of reading. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with that when we read James Joyce or when we read Thomas Pynchon. It doesn’t matter what the culture is, whatever the culture is, it’s the writer’s culture. And that’s individual.
Viet Thanh Nguyen : Well, this was all again, part of my long-term thinking. But look, I knew The Sympathize would get attention in the American context. It’s a Vietnam War novel. Americans are still hung up about the Vietnam War. And indeed much of the world only thinks of Vietnam through the Vietnam War. That’s fine. So I made my down payment with The Sympathizer, but the intention was always to situate my experiences and the experiences of Vietnamese refugees and the Vietnam War in a much larger context for me, which is the unfolding of American power, of French colonialism. To think of the Vietnam War simply as one episode in a long history of American warfare connected to colonization. And when we talk about the theory, the point is that people like Derrida, they were thinking about these things too. I mean, they were thinking about the power of words and language in relationship to power in general.
Michael Silverblatt: That’s Foucault’s whole subject, language and power. And it is what writing a novel is about. But in America, at least so far, at least to my awareness, and I’m pretty aware, it hasn’t been. Even our experimental writing, say Donald Barthelemy, we don’t have political writing. I mean, goodness knows Grace Paley was a great leftist, and many of the writers that I knew at the time marched against the war in Vietnam. We knew that it was an American atrocity, a terrifying thing. It was where many of us stopped believing in the things that we were taught about America. And we’ve had to grow up without a voice like yours expressing what people coming here from Vietnam… You came here, do I understand it properly, on a boat?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, we fled Vietnam on a boat. But eventually we made it to an American military base. And then we were flown, I believe by jet plane, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Michael Silverblatt: And you were four years old, yes?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes. Four years old. But following up on what you said about politics and literature, I think that my experience has been, in the context of American literature, that there’s a lot of resistance to foregrounding politics. As writers and as individuals, we can go out and march and petition and do all that kind of stuff. But actually dealing with political topics in our writing, either as a part of the plot, let’s say in fiction, or at the level of form meets a lot of resistance and skepticism. And I’m of the belief personally… Again, ever since my exposure to black writers, and to Asian-American writers at Berkeley, that the meeting of politics and literature can be one of tremendous beauty, as well as one of political critique and insight. And again, that’s the ambition in these novels.
Michael Silverblatt: I’m talking to Viet Thanh Nguyen. His new novel is The Committed. It’s published by Grove. I think it’s a remarkable book. And yes, many of us were taught that political poetry was bad poetry, that there was an aestheticization. Which I have been prey to. Coming from poets like John Ashbury, who felt it was very important for poetry to learn how to stop meaning, how to resist meaning, and absolutely to resist politics. Now, Ashbury was one of my favorite poets. But just as you can hold two ideas in opposite parts of the brain in this book, you can love many different kinds of poetry. And that’s in part our job to be taught. To be taught by the many different options of revelation that we have. I have read black women writers recently, who, as they say, debuted at number one of the best seller list. We’re living in a new time. And new ethnicities, and new sexualities, and post-sexualities are being expressed. And they need to be, and have to be, and are being expressed in our literature.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I grew up loving the romantic poets, for example. And that was political for its time. But there was nothing political for me in reading the romantic poets, except to revel in the beauty of the rhyme and the images and all of that kind of thing. But I also like political poetry that gets in my face and performative poetry and slam poetry as well. But we’ve also reached the moment where I think that the definition of politics and poetry is a little bit elastic. Politics and poetry is not only about certain kinds of topics like war or compelling people to march or feminism, but it can also be about a range of other issues. So someone like Ocean Vuong very lauded poet, very lauded fiction writer, I think is an expression of this capacity.
Michael Silverblatt: Lucille Clifton changed my life. And I’ve had the option to do tributes to her and work with the poets that she’s influenced on my show and in public. The degree to which the American public remains an ignorant public of its best writers, of the truths of its ethnicities, this is a country that is in for radical change because what we managed to perfect in these last horrible years of white supremacy is something that needs to be changed. This is not America. It’s not even the sour American dream. This is political separatism of the worst imaginable sort.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, another thing I want to say when citing Ocean or Lucille Clifton and other poets is, sometimes it’s not only the content that’s important in their work, but the rhythm, the word choice that carries me forward.
Michael Silverblatt: Oh, the beauty of it. Yes. I think that Lucille was writing magic spells to transform her readers.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And that is what poetry can do. And for The Sympathizer, for example, I read a lot of poetry. So I’ll just mention one, Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes On A Divided Country, which was talking about the Korean War and its aftermath. Which is important as a parallel to what happened in Vietnam. But also I just love the sound of her poems. I think that the rhythm was so crucial to try to figure out the rhythm for The Sympathizer and likewise with The Committed the same issues were there. That I turned to poetry often just for the sound of the language and the look of the words on the page.
Michael Silverblatt: You have all sorts of pages devoted to the shape of the language, of the paragraph, of the repeated word. And in this book, it’s about Paris. And bearing in mind how Parisian thought became so much of what became literary study in our time. I’m Michael Silverblatt and you’re listening to KCRW’s Bookworm. I’m talking with Viet Thanh Nguyen about his very interesting, exciting, marvelous, strange, demanding new novel, The Committed we’ll continue after this short break.
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Michael Silverblatt: I’m Michael Silverblatt. This is Bookworm. And I’m talking with Viet Thanh Nguyen about his new novel, The Committed. The story of a familiar character under radically new circumstances, being changed in the process, practically page by page. Can you recommend me a novel that would be a companion reading to your own novel? I’m so excited by this book that I want to read more.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, one of the touchstones for this book, since we’ve been talking about France as well, was Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey To The End Of The Night. Which I read for the first time in preparation for writing The Sympathizer. And I was just blown away. This was a classic novel of the… A very disruptive novel though of the 1920s in France. Doing all kinds of things with the French language and with French politics and rebellion. Céline himself was apparently kind of a nasty human being. But I didn’t know that when I picked up Journey To The End Of The Night. And so I could just enjoy it for what it was and what it is. And the spirit of that novel carries over in both of my books, because the opening of Journey To The End Of The Night is a hundred page crazy trip from Paris cafe, to the trenches of World War I, to African colony, to Detroit, and then back to France. And I thought, “If Céline could do this, I can do this too in my novels as well.”
Michael Silverblatt: Well, it’s fascinating because as obscene as Louis-Ferdinand Céline could be, he was a doctor. Now there are loads of problems with Céline. He is by his own admission anti-Semitic. There is a horror in reading Céline, but he’s one of the great French writers. And fortunately Ralph Manheim has done terrific translations of three or four of Céline’s novels. I did not think of Céline. Although, it has its F pages. And F you alternates with thank you. It’s a double world we’re living in The Committed, huh?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, absolutely. That was one of my favorite passages, the passage where that just alternates between F you and thank you. And going back to the poetry that you had talked about one of the liberating things about reading poetry for me was again, to see the words on the page and to see poets just willing to break things up, to experiment with white space, to rearrange words. And that was probably the inspiration for some of the look of the words in The Committed. And the other influence, children’s literature. I have a seven-year-old son. We read a lot of things together. Children’s writers do all kinds of crazy things that so-called adult fiction writers don’t dare to do. And so I took a lot of inspiration from the book that I’m reading with my son as well.
Michael Silverblatt: What are you reading with your son?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, he loves Dog Man. I highly recommend Dog Man, by Dav Pilkey it’s actually quite literary. Number one, it’s this Frankenstein thing because it’s a cop with a dog head sewed on and he… The titles allude to literature like Fetch 22, For Whom The Ball Rolls. I think it’s hilarious. And seeing the craziness of things like that. Particularly that series I think was quite liberating for me. Reminded me of my own childhood and the boundlessness of children’s imaginations. And the fact that there are no rules for children. And unfortunately, as an adult I’ve learned many, many rules. And in writing The Committed, one of the things I did was simply just to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to do it. And it was quite freeing.
Michael Silverblatt: I think you’re brilliant. It’s been a very liberating experience for me to read these books. I’ve read all of Viet’s books, including his book of short stories. And I’ve read a collection that he has made of refugee literature called The Displaced. Part of my fear about not being around a classroom, is a fear of losing touch with what has to be known of the progress of life, love, literature, politics, the whole thing. And a book like this, I mean, I have to confess there are sections I have to reread. Now tell me, I never got to talk to James Joyce, is it okay for you to have written a book that needs rereading?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t know why not? My attitude towards contemporary American fiction is that a lot of it is geared towards easy reading. We’re living in a time in which there is an entire literary industry out there ready to train writers how to be very, very competent. They go through workshops and MFAs and all of that, and they know the rules, and they know how to write very well formed books. And I have to read a lot of them for various reasons. And I like them. But they’re not things oftentimes that I would read voluntarily on my own. The things I read voluntarily on my own are the books that make me want to read them again. I find that to be a plus. I find it to be a plus if I don’t totally understand what’s going on. I find it to be a plus when I’m provoked, when I track down ideas. And that’s what I want to do in my fiction too.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I just want to emphasize, you said, “Hold two ideas in your mind at the same time.” In both of the cases of The Sympathizer and The Committed, that’s exactly what I want to do. These are novels of ideas and politics, and history, and theory, and so on, but there are also spy and crime novels. And I think that you can do all of these things simultaneously. I look for inspiration to the French who like to read philosophy. At least some of them like to read philosophy. And they like to read detective novels. And these are totally compatible. And that’s part of the spirit of these two books.
Michael Silverblatt: I am still looking for the books that change my life. And books still do change my life. We’re not born knowing how to read Derrida or Kristeva or the philosophers that now most fortunate college students are taught to read. Unfortunately, many of them stop reading literature because they get so excited by theory. And that’s why I’m so excited by Viet Than Nguyen, who is attempting to do the impossible combination of literature theory, populism high culture, low culture. We’ve always known that this is what we aspired toward. The work like opera that embodied all the arts. That was what Wagner was trying to do. That’s what James Joyce was trying to do. That’s what we have literature for. I’m not guaranteeing you that you’re going to like this book. I can’t guarantee anyone, anything. I can say that this is an important book to read, an important book of our time. Now tell me, I hear that you write at home with your child at home. You’re one of the few people I know of who can do it. How do you manage it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I have two children, my older son is seven years old. And thankfully he’s in online school, and thankfully he loves it because he’s an introvert like his father. So he has no problem with that. I have a daughter who’s one, 14 months, and honestly from 4:00 to 6:00 AM, I was in bed with her wide awake because she wouldn’t go to sleep. I learn a lot from my children. I learn how to be a better human being. I learn how to give love and tap into my emotions. And all of that is crucial for a writer. And the other reason I’m able to write is, honestly, I take my royalties and I pay childcare givers to be with my children during the day so I can write. That and investment of my own money into time so that I can write. And the time that I can spend with my children on the weekends and at nights, those are the times that I really value.
Michael Silverblatt: I’m talking with Viet Than Nguyen, he’s the author of The Committed. It is the second volume of a trilogy that began with The Sympathizer. It’s published by Grove Press. Thank you Viet for joining me. It’s been a pleasure for me.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Michael it was such a fun conversation. Thanks for having me.
Michael Silverblatt: I want to tell my listeners that due to the pandemic we are each taping remotely. So you may hear unusual sounds in the background. We’re in our various living places. You can visit kcrw.com/bookworm for a podcast of today’s show. Also available at Apple, Spotify, and all other podcast services. It can also be listened to on demand with KCRW’s smartphone apps. Special thanks to Bookworm’s valued show collaborators, Alan Howard and Shawn Sullivan, Engineer Desmond Taylor and Technical Director, PJ Shahamat. I’m Michael Silverblatt, join me again next time on Bookworm.
Michael Silverblatt: (singing)
Speaker 1: Funds for Bookworm are provided in part by Lannan foundation. This program is produced in the studios of KCRW Santa Monica. You can access archives of all Bookworm programs and podcasts, the most recent ones at kcrw.com/bookworm. Bookworm themes were composed and performed by Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks.
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