Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks how refugees are created as a result of foreign policy with Democracy Now!.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses why he chooses to use the term “refugee” in his books, and speaks about his own experience as a refugee. His new novel tells the story of a man who arrives in France as a refugee from Vietnam, and explores the main character’s questioning of ideology and different visions of liberation. Titled “The Committed,” the book is a sequel to “The Sympathizer,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. Nguyen says his protagonist is “a man of two faces and two minds” whose ability to see beyond Cold War divisions makes him the perfect figure to satirize the facile stories people tell themselves about the world. “He’s always going beyond the surface binaries to look underneath.” Nguyen is the chair of English and professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His other books include “The Refugees” and the edited collection “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.”
Read the transcript below.
Amy Goodman: From New York, this is Democracy Now!
Bee Nguyen: We have lived in the shadows, invisible, overlooked, stereotyped and relegated as second class citizens. And now, in the wake of a violent and fatal shooting, white America is still trying to deny our humanity and existence.
Amy Goodman: Protests condemning racism and hate crimes against Asian Americans continue following last week’s deadly shootings in Atlanta, where a 21 year old, white, gunman, attacked three Asian owned spas, killing eight people. Seven of them women, six of them of Asian descent. We’ll speak with Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnamese American writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Asian Americans as a whole, have immediately concluded that this is of course, a shooting that is driven by racist and sexist fantasies and inclinations that are deep seated not only in this particular shooter, but throughout American society and throughout American history. So none of this takes us by surprise. Of course, it’s still deeply upsetting at the same time, but we point towards a very long history of anti-Asian violence in the United States that has existed here as long as there have been Asian immigrants and Asian Americans.
Amy Goodman:Viet Thanh Nguyen will talk about the mass shootings in Atlanta, the link between hate crimes and US foreign policy, the plight of refugees, as well as his new novel, The Committed. A sequel to his prize-winning book, The Sympathizer. All that and more coming up.
Amy Goodman: Welcome to Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report, I’m Amy Goodman.
Amy Goodman: Protestors took to the streets of cities across the United States over the weekend to condemn racism and hate crimes against Asian Americans following last week’s deadly shooting in Atlanta, which killed eight people. Seven of them women, six of them women of Asian descent. The names of all the victims has been released: Xiaojie Tan, Yong Ae Uye, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Suncha Kim, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels. Elcias Hernandez Ortiz, who survived the shooting, is in hospital in critical condition.
Amy Goodman: [inaudible 00:02:43] community leaders and elected officials gathered for a vigil Friday evening. This is Jeehae Fisher of the Korean American Family Service Center.
Jeehae Fisher: These women are our mothers, our aunties, our sisters, our daughters, our loved ones so stop beating us, stop cursing us, stop stabbing us, stop killing us, stop Asian hate!
Crowd: [crosstalk 00:03:12] Stop Asian hate! Stop Asian hate! Stop Asian hate! Stop Asian hate! Stop Asian hate!
Jeehae Fisher: And stop telling us, “Go back to China,” we belong here.
Amy Goodman: Four of the women were Korean. President Biden and Vice President Harris met with Asian American leaders in Atlanta and addressed the mass shooting. This Kamala Harris, who’s the first Asian American and first woman vice president.
Kamala Harris: Everyone has the right to go to work, to go to school, to walk down the street and be safe. And also, the right to be recognized as an American, not as the other. Not as them, but as us. A harm against anyone of us is a harm against all of us.
Amy Goodman:President Biden has urged Congress to quickly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. Meanwhile, lawmakers and others have questioned FBI Director Christopher Wray’s statement last week. The shooting was apparently, “not racially motivated.” The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on a proposal to reduce gun violence Tuesday. The Atlanta mass murderer purchased a nine millimeter handgun just hours before Tuesday’s massacre at the three Atlanta area spas. The purchase was fully legal.
Amy Goodman: We’ll have more on all of this as we spend the hour with the celebrated, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Amy Goodman: Astrazeneca says its COVID-19 vaccine showed 79% efficacy against symptomatic disease among participants in a large clinical trial in the United States. The vaccine was 100% effective in preventing serious illness and death. The findings paved the way for a fourth vaccine to request emergency use authorization in the United States. The trial also showed no increased risk of serious blood clotting, after more than a dozen countries this month, suspended or delayed its use of such concerns. The Centers for Disease Control say one in six US adults has now been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Mississippi and Alaska have opened vaccines eligibility for anyone 16 or older. Floridians over 50 can get vaccinated starting today.
Amy Goodman: In education news, the CDC updated its guidelines to say three feet of physical distancing is safe in elementary schools, though teachers and other staff should still maintain six feet of distance and masks must remain mandatory for all. New York City high schools are opening today, though officials warn infection numbers remain dangerously high in parts of the city, on par with this winter’s surge.
Amy Goodman: Miami Beach has imposed an emergency curfew after officials said spring break revelers brought chaos and disorder to the area and ignited fears of super spreader events.
Amy Goodman: The Intersect reports Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are planning to hike up prices on vaccines as soon as COVID-19 is no longer considered a pandemic. Health experts say COVID-19 will likely become endemic and people will continue to require regular shots, much like the flu. Astrazeneca, which also vowed not to profit from the pandemic, could declare it’s over as early as July.
Amy Goodman: The Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has tested positive for COVID-19, two days after he received a vaccine and as Pakistan is facing a third wave of the virus. Chile has recorded its highest daily case load yet and officials say over a quarter of deaths this year are due to COVID-19. The surge comes despite relatively highly vaccination rates, with 15% of the population fully vaccinated. A Health and Human Services report says US health officials in Donald Trump’s administration pressured Brazil to reject Russia’s Sputnik V Coronavirus vaccine, putting geopolitical concerns over saving lives.
Amy Goodman: In Japan, organizers for the July Tokyo Olympics are barring international spectators. After delaying the Olympics one year, officials pushed ahead with the event this summer despite health experts warning against it.
Amy Goodman: In Europe, France and Poland are the latest countries to reinstate partial lockdowns amidst fresh Coronavirus surges.
Amy Goodman: Department Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, appeared on multiple news shows over the weekend to say the US border is effectively closed.
Alejandro Mayorkas: The border is closed, we are expelling families, we are expelling single adults and we’ve made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children.
Amy Goodman: Over 15,000 migrant children are now in US custody as the number of asylum seekers at the Southern border shows no sign of slowing down. Over 5,000 of those are being held in Customs and Border Protection jails. Axios reports over 800 children have been jailed for over 10 days, more than a four fold increase over the past week.
Amy Goodman: Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin, arrived in Afghanistan Sunday for an unannounced visit with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and top US generals. The trip came after President Biden said last week, the US might not honor its agreement with the Taliban to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by May 1st.
Amy Goodman: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is meeting top NATO officials in Brussels, Belgium today to discuss whether to cancel or delay those plans. The Taliban have called on the US to honor its commitments and warned of a reaction if the US and its allies violate a peace agreement signed in February of 2020 with President Trump. About 3,500 US troops and another 6,500 NATO soldiers remain in Afghanistan nearly 20 years after the US led invasion.
Amy Goodman: Human rights groups are condemning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, the world’s first binding treaty to combat violence against women and girls. Nearly 40% of Turkish women have been subjected to violence from their partner, according to UN figures. And local rights groups say femicides are on the rise. In Istanbul, women took to the streets this weekend to protest the move.
Ozlem Tekin: [foreign language 00:10:22] I wasn’t feeling safe as a woman even before this. And after this, I feel even more like I am in an unsafe environment. At least there was a law, a decision that I was leaning on. But now I don’t feel like I have any support. I feel vulnerable.
Amy Goodman: In Syria, at least six people are dead, including a child and medical workers after Syrian forces shelled a hospital outside the rebel controlled city of Aleppo Sunday. Sixteen civilians were also wounded in the assault, four of them critically. The attack came despite a cease fire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey in March of 2020. Physicians for Human Rights has documented nearly 600 attacks on healthcare facilities by Syria’s military and its allies since the start of the civil war a decade ago.
Amy Goodman: In Spain, a two year old girl who arrived with dozens of other refugees by boat to the Canary Islands last week has died. The girl’s name was Nabody, she was from Mali. She was one of 10 people, over half of them children, who were taken to the hospital with hypothermia after their boat was rescued.
Amy Goodman: In Israel, tens of thousands of people took to the streets Saturday for some of the largest protests yet against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of Tuesday’s election.
Eyal Goldman: We are here to protest against Netanyahu and his corrupt government. This is our last chance before the election. We want everyone to come and vote to change. Vote to exchange this government.
Amy Goodman: Israel’s heading into its fourth election in two years, amidst Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial. Protestors initially condemned the government response to the pandemic, but Netanyahu is hoping Israel’s rapid rollout of vaccines will help secure his win.
Amy Goodman: In other news from the region, Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian man, 42 year old Atef Yussef Hanaysheh, on Friday during protests against illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Amy Goodman: In Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan made history Friday, becoming the nation’s first woman president. Hassan was Tanzania’s vice president, but will now finish the term of John Magufuli, who died suddenly last week. Hassan will take on the national response to the COVID crisis, which her predecessor denied, shunning any public health measures.
Amy Goodman: A warning to our audience. Next stories contain descriptions of sexual violence and harassment. A Pakistani court sentenced two men to death for a rape last year, which set off protests and national outrage. The men gang raped and robbed a woman in front of her children after her car broke down. At the time, the Lahore police chief blamed the woman for traveling at night without a male companion and not making sure she had enough gas in her car.
In the United States, the FBI has reportedly opened an investigation into New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s role in shielding nursing home industry executives from liability over the deaths of thousands of residents from COVID-19. The liability protections came in April 2020 after the Greater New York Hospital Association and its executives gave over $2 million in donations to Cuomo’s campaign. The FBI is also investigating reports that top aides to Cuomo pressured state health officials to falsely state data to cover up the true number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.
Meanwhile, an eighth woman has stepped forward to accuse Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual misconduct. Alyssa McGrath, one of Cuomo’s current aides, says the governor made numerous unwelcome sexual advances, ogled her body and remarked on her looks. The latest accusations came as forme aide, Lindsey Boylan, called on New York’s legislature to impeach Governor Cuomo. Boylan addressed a crowd of protestors in Manhattan on Saturday.
Lindsey Boylan: In December, I spoke truth to power on the harassment and bullying I faced working for Governor Cuomo. And when the governor should have been focused on leading us out of this pandemic, he was instead focused on covering up the deaths of 15,000 New Yorkers and smearing me and my reputation.
Amy Goodman: In Western New York, Republican US Congress Member, Tom Reed, has apologized to a female lobbyist who accused him of unwanted sexual advances. Nicolette Davis says Congress Member Reed drunkenly rubbed her back, unhooked her bra, and moved his hand to her thigh during a gathering at a Minneapolis bar in 2017. Reed said he would not seek re-election next year. He’s among elected officials who’ve called on Governor Cuomo to resign over sexual harassment claims and said as recently as last month, he was considering a run for governor in 2022. He now says he will not run.
Amy Goodman: Louisiana Republican Julia Letlow, has won a special election to replace her husband, Luke Letlow, who died in December of COVID-19 before he could take his seat in Congress for what would have been his freshman term.
Amy Goodman: Meanwhile, Louisiana Democrats, Troy Carter and Karen Carter-Peterson, head to an April runoff to see who will fill the Congressional seat vacated by Cedric Richmond, who’s now serving as the White House Director of Public Engagement.
Amy Goodman: New York Congress Members Nydia Velazquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, introduced a bill that would allow Puerto Rico to determine its territorial status, including statehood or independence from the United States. New Jersey’s Bob Menendez introduced the measure in the Senate. “A colony is incompatible with democracy,” said Ocasio-Cortez.
Amy Goodman: Youth climate activists staged a global strike Friday after a year of scaled down and virtual protests due to the pandemic.
Crowd: We want [inaudible 00:16:41] and we want it now! No more empty promises.
Amy Goodman: No more empty promises, chanted climate strikers in Kenya. Youth activists from around the world called on their governments to treat the climate catastrophe as an immediate crisis and fulfill their commitments to cut emissions.
Amy Goodman: And the renowned Egyptian feminist, writer, psychiatrist and former political prisoner, Nawal El Saadawi, has died at the age of 89. El Saadawi was the founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and an outspoken defender of women’s rights. Campaigning against sexual oppression, imperialism and female genital mutilation. She described her own experience with the practice in the book, Hidden Face of Eve. In 2011, she joined the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
Amy Goodman: Nawal El Saadawi spoke to Democracy Now! during the Egyptian revolution.
Nawal Al-Sadawy: Women and girls are beside boys in the streets. We are calling for justice, freedom and equality and real democracy and a new constitution. No discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians. To change the system, to change the people who are governing the system and the people. And to have real democracy, [inaudible 00:18:10] women [inaudible 00:18:12].
Amy Goodman: That was Nawal El Saadawi speaking to Democracy Now! January 31, 2011. She’s died at the age of 89. To see all of our interviews with her, you can go to democracynow.org.
Amy Goodman: Those are some of the headlines, this is Democracy Now!, The Quarantine Report. When we come back, we’ll spend the hour with the Pulitzer Prize winning, Vietnamese American writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, to talk about the mass shootings in Atlanta, the link between hate crimes and US foreign policy, the plight of refugees and his new novel, The Committed, a sequel to his prize winning book, The Sympathizer. Stay with us.
Amy Goodman: (singing)
Amy Goodman: Hail to Whatever You Found in the Sunlight That Surrounds You, by Rilo Kiley. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Amy Goodman: Protests condemning racism and hate crimes against Asian Americans continue following last week’s deadly shootings in Atlanta where a white, 21 year old, gunman attacked three Asian owned spas, killing eight people. Seven of them women, six of the women of Asian descent. President Biden and Kamala Harris traveled to Atlanta on Friday to meet with Asian American leaders. Vice President Harris, who is the first Asian American and first woman vice president, condemned last week’s attacks.
Kamala Harris: Whatever the killer’s motive, these facts are clear. Six out of the eight people killed on Tuesday night were of Asian descent. Seven were women. The shootings took place in businesses owned by Asian Americans. The shootings took place as violent hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans has risen dramatically over the last year and more. In fact, over the past year 3,800 such incidents have been reported. Two of three by women. Everything from physical assaults to verbal accusations. And it’s all harmful and sadly it’s not new. Racism is real in America and it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America and always has been, sexism too. For the last year, we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans. People with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate.
Amy Goodman: On Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Georgia state capitol in Atlanta. Speakers included George State Representative, Bee Nguyen.
Bee Nguyen: We have lived in the shadows, invisible, overlooked, stereotyped and relegated as second class citizens. And now in the wake of a violent and brutal shooting, white America is still trying to deny our humanity and existence. A 21 year old, white man, targeted three Asian businesses, driving 40 minutes from one spa to another. Passing other adult entertainment businesses, but he shot and killed eight people, six of them being Asian women. At close range, in the head. No matter how you want to spin it, the facts remain the same. This was an attack on the Asian community.
Amy Goodman: The Reverend William Barber, co-founder of The Poor People’s Campaign, also addressed the protests in Atlanta.
Rev. William Barber: Let us not forget that white supremacy is not just against Black people, but humanity itself.
Rev. William Barber: Let us remember that white supremacy is a fool of self-worship and idolatry and whenever it is pushed and promulgated by presidents and politicians and preachers, it can cause some of the most strangely justification for the taking of life this world has ever seen. And when white supremacy is promulgated, it will try to justify taking Black life, taking brown life, taking indigenous life, taking Indian life, taking Asian life, taking Jewish life, taking Muslim life, taking Palestinian life and taking gay life. And we come here to say, [crosstalk 00:24:17] that white supremacy is a lie teller and a life taker!
Amy Goodman: As we continue to look at the mass shootings in Atlanta, the spike in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and broader issues, we’re joined in Los Angeles, California, by the Pulitzer Prize winning, Vietnamese American, writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. His new novel, The Committed, a sequel to his bestselling book, The Sympathizer. His other books include The Refugees and The Displaced, Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which he edited.
Amy Goodman: Viet Thanh Nguyen came to the United States as a refugee when he was four years old. He’s a professor at the University of Southern California and recently co-wrote an article for The Washington Post, headlined, Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia, leads to anti-Asian violence here.
Amy Goodman: Professor Nguyen, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! Congratulations on your new book and condolences on the horror that has taken place in Atlanta. Which is not just a horror for the the Asian American community, but clearly for all of us. If you can talk about the significance of what happened and also, the point you make in this op-ed in The Washington Post, where you say, “Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia, leads to anti-Asian violence here.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi, Amy. Thanks so much for having me back again and to speak on this really tragic topic. I spent the last week talking to a lot of fellow Asian Americans, we’re all I think in a state of anger, despair about what happened. I think partly because for many of us we recognize that this is not anything new, as I’ve spoken about repeatedly and as have so many others. The history of anti-Asian violence in this country goes back to as long as we’ve had Asian immigrants in this country. That Asian immigrants have been brought here to have their labor exploited and to have that labor exploited, it’s often couched in the language and the justification of racism and sexism.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That is also tied to the United States’ attitudes towards Asia as a whole. That the United States has ever since the 19th century, been focused on expanding Westward into Asia, especially China, to reach Asian resources. And that this has had a distinct relationship in terms of pulling Asian immigrants to the United States either through economic relationships or through wars that the United States has fought with many Asian countries.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So for many of us, I think, during the last year of the pandemic, to hear President Trump and many of his supporters talk about COVID-19 as the Kung Flu and the China virus, was simply the most recent manifestation of a deep held anti-Asian racism. That when people say things like Kung Flu and China virus, they’re tapping into this very deep well of anti-Asian feeling. I think that that combined with the obvious stresses of the pandemic, has a direct relationship to the significant rise in anti-Asian violence and rhetoric that many people have experienced in the last 12 months.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But outside of that immediate trigger, I think that the bipartisan rhetoric that I mentioned, the fact that both Democrats and Republicans have focused on China as the major threat and competitor to the United States, number one: continues this concern with Asia that’s been present throughout much of American history. But also, keeps China in the foreground of the American imagination as a country to be feared. I think that inevitably whether this is said with explicit racism or just with a latent and implicit sign of phobia, it can’t help but to aggravate the suspicions and the feelings of many Americans about people of Asian descent.
Amy Goodman: As we speak, and this past week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the Pentagon Chief, Lloyd Austin, have been traveling the world and fully taking on China, if you will. I mean, Secretary of State Blinken had his first face-to-face meeting with top Chinese officials in Alaska. During a press conference before that with Japanese officials earlier in the week, Blinken warned China not to use coercion or aggression. This is what he said.
Antony Blinken: We’re united in the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region where countries follow the rules, cooperate whenever they can, and resolve their differences peacefully. And in particular, we will push back if necessary when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way.
Amy Goodman: This is Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaking at that joint news conference in Japan.
Lloyd Austin: I know Japan shares our concerns with China’s destabilizing actions and as I have said before, China is a pacing challenge for the Department of Defense.
Amy Goodman: So you have Austin, you have Biden, we’re not just talking about Trump using terms like the China virus. Can you respond to what they have been saying?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think again, that much of American foreign policy during the period of the Cold War and afterwards, has depended upon a foreign other. Whether it’s the Soviet Union, or China in those years. And it’s obvious we need a foreign other in order to target our political rhetoric, in order to justify our vast expenditures in terms of our military into a [inaudible 00:30:06] complex. So China has again resumed that position for the United States. Russia too, to a certain extent, but I think China because of this again, deep well of anti-Asian racism, this set of Orientalist expectations that we have that China’s going to be mysterious, that it’s going to be menacing, that it’s going to have all kinds of calculations going on strategically and economically that we have to worry about. All of this is being put forth by various people in both parties.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that one of the things to stress here is that of course, there are things about China that we should be concerned about. I think that we should be concerned about human rights abuses that China’s undertaken in Tibet, Hong Kong and Shenyang. But oftentimes, this kind of rhetoric about what China’s doing is again, being used to justify an American militaristic stance against China. Instead of the United States worrying about how it can compete with China economically, but in a non-violent and non-threatening manner. And of course, our outrage about the depredations of China against its own people is sometimes a little bit hypocritical because we’re still struggling, as we are talking about now, with our own capacity to take care of Americans.
Amy Goodman: Last week, Republican Congress Member Chip Roy of Texas was rebuked for using a House judiciary committee meeting on the rise of anti-Asian violence to glorify lynchings and used rhetoric about China that stokes racism toward Asian American communities. This is just a small part of what he said.
Chip Roy: I think there’s old sayings in Texas about find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree. Now we’re talking about whether talking about China, the Chi Comms, the Chinese Communist Party, whatever phrasing we want to use and some people are saying, “Hey, we think those guys are the bad guys,” for whatever reason. And let me just say clearly, I do. I think the Chinese Communist Party running the country China, I think they’re the bad guys. I think that they are harming people.
Amy Goodman: That was Texas Congress Member Chip Roy using the term, the cold warrior term Chi Comm for the Chinese Communist Party. This was a hearing on violence against Asian Americans. This was the response from New York Democratic Congress Member Grace Meng.
Grace Meng: Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s eye on the back of Asian Americans across this country. On our grandparents, on our kids. This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community, to find solutions and we will not let you take our voice away from us.
Amy Goodman: That was Democratic Congress Member Grace Meng. If you, Professor Nguyen, could respond to what he said and what this means.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, again, the reflexive turn from trying to talk about anti-Asian violence within the United States directed against Asian Americans suddenly being undertaken to do a pivot towards this fear of Asia. But also the rhetoric of law and order, of violence, of using lynching, it demonstrates what the Reverend William Barber said in the excerpt of his speech that you talked about. Which is, that these manifestations of anti-Asian racism are almost inevitably tied towards other manifestations of violence. Here in this case, this specter of lynching brings up anti-Black racism that’s been endemic in this country. And that these domestic manifestations of anti-Asian and anti-Black racism are tied again, together with justifications for American foreign policy.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, the term that the Reverend William Barber used was white supremacy to connect all of these kinds of manifestations. And I think that that is correct. That for some people in the United States, talking about anti-Asian violence means that it allows them to deploy other methods of violence directed against other kinds of populations. Whether it’s populations abroad or as well, in this case, the idea that African Americans or Black people also need to be suppressed in this country.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think one of the points that we as Asian Americans must insist on, is that our efforts are tied together here. Our efforts to highlight and to combat anti-Asian racism also need to go hand in hand with our necessity to address anti-Black racism as well.
Amy Goodman: Professor Nguyen, I wanted to ask you about the whole media coverage of what has happened in Atlanta. In that first police news conference last week after the deadly shootings, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson, Captain Jay Baker, said the 21 year old shooter, Robert Aaron Long’s killing spree was not racially motivated. And instead, stemmed from his sex addiction. He said that the young man himself said it wasn’t racially motivated. Now he’s been removed as the spokesperson now because there was such outcry over what he said.
Amy Goodman: But it has framed the discussion and the issue of hate crimes has yet to be raised. He certainly hasn’t been charged with them. If you can comment on that and also comment on this issue. I mean, his church apparently has now disowned him. But talk about this sexualization of Asian women. Seven of the eight victims were women, six of them were of Asian descent.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: As so many Asian American women have already spoken about the question of racism and sexism cannot be separated. So even if he might have been sexually addicted, et cetera, whatever his self-proclamations are, the idea that this somehow is removed from any kind of racist preoccupation is absurd. Again, if we look at the way that Asian Americans and Asians have been depicted and exploited in the American imagination, it’s almost always with the intersection of racism, sexism and labor exploitation. We see that happening exactly in this context.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That he deliberately, that is the shooter, deliberately picked not just any type of place where he might have expected sexual activity, but very specifically Asian massage parlors. And Asian women and Asian American women have always existed as objects of racialized, sexualized, fetish-ized fantasies for men of many different kinds of backgrounds. That there are deep roots of this in American and European culture. And as has come to light, many of these women who were working in these massage parlors, we don’t know whether they were sex workers or not. If they were sex workers, it doesn’t invalidate the fact that they were also victims of racist and sexist violence. But many of them appeared to be women of marginal economic class, who were living and working in these massage parlors. In fact, they were exploited laborers and all these things are happening at the same time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So it’s enormously frustrating that the police response and the FBI response has been to try to compartmentalize what has taken place under one category only of sexual exploitation, when in fact, all these things are happening at once.
Amy Goodman: I want to read from a statement by Kimberly Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum. Professor Crenshaw writes, “To say the murderer’s actions were about sexual desire and therefore not about race, is a fundamental intersectional failure. It denies the racial dimensions of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women, and reproduces the environment that makes Asian women particularly vulnerable to harassment, abuse and murder.”
Amy Goodman: Professor Nguyen.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No, absolutely. I think Professor Crenshaw is right here. Again, for many Asian American women, they have a long litany of experiences being subjected to harassment, to cat calls, to sexual invitations, and then of course, also to rape, sexual violence and marginalization due to their experiences and representations of being Asian American women. It’s pervasive in American popular culture as well. Certainly, the figure of the Asian or Asian American woman as a sexual object or as a prostitute in the American cinematic fantasy has been with us for a very long time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Many people have talked about this infamous moment in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, where the Marines on first going to Vietnam, encounter a Vietnamese prostitute who approaches them and says, “Me so horny.” That became the line for a 2 Live Crew hit that many of us heard in the 1980s and 1990s and a line that many Asian American women have been subjected to.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Again, in the experiences of Asian American women, racism, sexism, and exploitation have been always mutually experienced.
Amy Goodman: Viet Thanh Nguyen, if you can talk further about the history targeting Asian Americans and the violence targeting Asian Americans going back more than a century.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I’m coming to you from Los Angeles, and one of the worst mass lynchings in American history happened here in downtown Los Angeles in 1871. When a mob of about 500 white men murdered 17 Chinese men and boys. This was not an isolated incident. This was taking place throughout the Western United States, even I have learned some of these incidents. Most recently, I’ve learned about an incident in Oregon in 1884 where 34 Chinese miners were murdered.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: What happened was that Chinese immigrants had come to the United States to work on the Trans-Continental Railroad and when their usefulness was expired, they were let go and had to make a living for themselves in the American West. And anti-Chinese fervor among the white working class was encouraged by the media and by politicians. Again, scapegoating an Asian other in the United States to deal with white working class economic frustration. And other Asian populations that came after the Chinese were also subjected to these kinds of feelings.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Obviously, there was the Japanese American interment when 120,000 Japanese American people, many of them citizens, were put into concentration camps even though people of German and Italian descent were not. Racist incidents against Asian Americans have proliferated in the last few decades as well. Most notoriously, the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. He was a Chinese American who was mistaken for Japanese by two Detroit auto workers who were frustrated by Japanese economic competition and they beat him to death with a baseball bat. They did not spend anytime in jail.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In 1989, five Cambodian and Vietnamese school children were shot and killed in a Stockton school yard massacre by a white gunman, which I feel is a direct outcome of the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam that the United States fought. In 2002, six Sikh worshipers at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin were massacred by a white supremacist gunman. These are just some of the most notorious incidents. But again, throughout American history, from the 19th to the 20th century, up until the 21st century, we’ve seen repeated incidents of both singular and mass anti-Asian violence taking place periodically.
Amy Goodman: Do you think what happened in Atlanta has to be immediately labeled as and the alleged shooter charged with hate crimes?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I certainly think so. But again, it was shocking to me to read yesterday in The Guardian, that Christopher Wray, the FBI Director, has said that it’s not conclusive that this was a racially motivated crime. The Reverend Raphael Warnock immediately said, “No, it is a hate crime when we’re looking at this targeted attack. Targeted against Asian massage parlors in which six of the eight victims were Asian women. Were deliberately tracked down.” It looks like a hate crime, it smells like a hate crime, it is a hate crime. I think overwhelmingly, the Asian American population of this country believe that.
Amy Goodman: Let me go directly to what FBI Director Christopher Wray said on NPR on Thursday, about the FBI’s role in the investigation into the mass shooting in Atlanta and his thoughts on the motive.
Christopher Wray: We’re actively involved, but in a support role and while the motive remains still under investigation, at the moment it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated. But I’d defer to the state and local investigation on that for now.
Amy Goodman: That was FBI Director Christoper Wray and this, as Professor Nguyen talked about, was Georgia Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock’s response.
Raphael Warnock: Law enforcement will go through the work that they need to do, but we all know hate when we see it. And it is tragic that we’ve been visited with this kind of violence yet agan and I’m going to be doing everything in my power as a United States Senator, to make sure that families don’t have to endure this kind of violence in the first place.
Amy Goodman: That’s the new Georgia Senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock. We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion with the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Author of the new book, The Committed, sequel to his Pulitzer prize winning book, The Sympathizer. We’ll talk to him about his new book and also about his use of the word refugees, not migrants, but refugees. Whether we’re talking about his family coming to this country from Vietnam, or refugees from Honduras or Guatemala or El Salvador. Stay with us.
Amy Goodman: (singing)
Amy Goodman: The End of the World, by Skeeter Davis. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with the Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnamese American writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. His new novel has just been published. It’s called, The Committed. It’s a sequel to the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer. Both books share a narrator half Vietnamese, half French Communist spy, who refers to himself as a man of two faces and two minds.
Amy Goodman: Professor Nguyen is the chair of English and professor of English in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His other books include, The Refugees and The Displaced, Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which he edited. With his new book, The New Yorker says, “Professor Nguyen has established himself as ‘conscious of American literature.'”
Amy Goodman: Professor Nguyen, before we get to your new book, I wanted to go to The Refugees. I mean, two of your books use the term refugees in the title. As we speak today, you’ve got the mass killings in Atlanta and you have this massive number of unaccompanied children, of children on the Southern border. Upwards of what, 15,000 right now, not to mention the number of adults who are being turned away. Can you talk about why you choose to use the term refugee? And tell us your own story, your family’s own story in that answer.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think there are official refugees and unofficial refugees. In our case, my family’s case, we were definitely official refugees. We were South Vietnamese and we were on the losing side of the Vietnam War, so in 1975, along with 130,000 other South Vietnamese people, we fled to the United States. We were lucky because the United States had an interest in accepting refugees from a newly Communist country. That was useful PR for the United States and we ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was four years old. My own experiences were that I was taken away from my parents at that age to be resettled with a different sponsor family than my parents. It was done benevolently because my parents were being given the time to get on their own two feet. But as a four year old, I didn’t understand that. I only remembered it as abandonment, so my first memories are screaming and howling. Being taken away from my parents. I was comparatively lucky. I was reunited with my parents after a few months.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But of course, what’s happening at our border is that children, at least under the Trump administration, were being forceably separated from their parents, not for benevolent purposes. I know that those families, those parents and those children will be permanently scarred by what happened to them there.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, at the current moment we have unaccompanied minors, some of them are being held for much longer than has been mandated and that will also be deeply problematic for them as well. But they are not being classified as refugees under any kind of American classification or under the UN HCR, High Commission on Refugees classification. Again, I think this is often times very, very political.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Why are people coming to the South and coming to our Souther border? Often times it’s due to political and economic circumstances that the United States has had a role in playing and the United States has an interest in not classifying them as refugees because that would obligate the United States to welcome them in. But also it would highlight the ways by which what we do here in the United States impacts other countries and creates conditions for people wanting to flee.
Amy Goodman: That story of fleeing from a place that the US has been involved with. I mean, of course with Vietnam, Laos, to say involved with is to put it mildly. Bombing the country continually, at war with. The significance of how that shaped your view of the country you came to grow up in and culturally in this country. For example, you talk about being steeped in films like Apocalypse Now, and what that meant to you. What people in this country who were born here understand and what you felt coming from Vietnam.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think of myself to be an American. I’ve grown up here since I was four and I think I deeply understand American culture and I feel myself to be an American. Which means I love many, many things about American culture. Including things like American movies, including the many movies the United States made about the Vietnam War, including Apocalypse Now.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But watching a movie like Apocalypse Now was quite shocking for me at 11 or 12 years of age, because I felt myself to be an American, rooting for the American soldiers, up until the point they killed or massacred Vietnamese civilians. Then I felt myself split in two. Was I the American doing the killing, or was I the Vietnamese being killed?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: To me, that is a very basic question that applies to many other kinds of circumstances that my work addresses. But I think the most important thing about this is that it’s not just a personal issue for me, it’s not just a feeling of being divided and culturally divided that many Asian Americans have spoken about. To me, what’s also important to understand here is that my very existence and that of many other Vietnamese and Asian Americans in this country, we are here because of wars that the United States fought in Asia.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: This speaks to a bifurcation in American history and culture that is true for so many people. That on the one hand, this is a country of high ideals, of democracy and pluralism and opportunity. On the other hand, it’s a country that’s rooted in warfare and conquest, which has manifested itself in wars in Asia. I think that we have an obligation as Americans to recognize the complications of this. Both the possibilities of this country and its roots and its continuing immersion in warfare, genocide and colonization.
Amy Goodman: Professor Nguyen, your new book, and congratulations on it, The Committed, begins on a refugee boat. You severely object to people being called boat people. But you point out that Ulysses was on a boat, but we cast him in heroic terms. Pilgrims of the US were boat people, but we call them founders. Talk about the difference in how this country looks at different refugees.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think one of the reasons why I call myself a refugee, is because it’s a stigmatized term in the United States. I mean, Americans know what to make out of someone who calls themself or herself an immigrant, that’s a part of the American mythology that you’ve come here to improve yourself and contribute to this country.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I think a refugee often brings up very negative images and ideas in the American imagination. The term boat people completely illustrates this. That after the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of Vietnamese people did flee by boat and the media called them boat people. Which is a way of drawing attention to their plight in a very successful way. But it means that Vietnamese people have been fixed in the American imagination as these boat people. The images around boat people are that these are desperate and frightened people. Of course, that’s true. They were desperate and frightened, but I also think they were heroic because many of them knew that their chances of survival once they took to the open seas on very rickety little boats, were going to be very, very slim.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I have always asked myself why do we cast certain people as heroes and other people as not heroic. I think in the case of refugees it’s easier to cast them as desperate and frightened rather than heroic because if we were to see them as heroes, we might also have to incorporate them into our own stories. We might feel even more obligation to them and we might have to see them as human beings, rather than as these pathetic objects that need to be rescued.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Again, part of the project of a novel like The Committed, which begins on a refugee boat that I deliberately call an ark, is to reframe the experience of refugees whether they’re fleeing from Vietnam or they’re fleeing South of our border to the North. Or whether they’re fleeing from Africa into [inaudible 00:53:28] Mediterranean, to recast these people as heroes undertaking very difficult journeys with enormous obstacles. And that if they succeed, we should treat them as heroes rather than as desperate and frightened objects of our pity.
Amy Goodman: Tell us about your protagonist, unnamed, in The Committed.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, he’s unnamed because he’s an every man. He’s certainly Vietnamese, but he’s also an every man in terms of these adventures and misadventures that he has to go through. He’s of mixed descent, his father’s a French priest, his mother’s a Vietnamese woman. So being of mixed descent, he’s caught directly in the middle of these tensions that we’ve been talking about throughout our hour here. Between East and West and the Orientalist expectations of Europeans and Americans about the Vietnamese and other Asians.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: As a result, he’s also a man of two faces and two minds. He sees every issue from both sides, which makes him a perfect figure for someone who’s a writer, who does exactly the same thing. But as a man of two faces and two minds, caught up in this era of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, he’s able to see through the oppositions and the polarities that countries and cultures typically deploy to make things easier to understand.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Again, going back to this idea of East and West and anti-Asian violence, it’s easier to understand the world as we see it split into two. But he himself does not have that luxury, he’s always going beyond the surface binaries to look underneath. It allows him the capacity to satirize our absurdities and our hypocrisies. And it also makes him a tragic figure because in a world in which most people want to choose one side or the other, he can’t choose.
Amy Goodman: Professor Nguyen, I was listening to the interview you did on KPFA, Pacifica Radio. In it you said, “Americans don’t think of themselves as colonizers. Their word for colonization is the American Dream.” Can you elaborate on this?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think we as Americans believe in American exceptionalism. That we are the greatest country in the world, no other country has been like ours. When we think about colonization, we think well, it’s the Europeans who did the colonizing, but we never did that. That’s part of American exceptionalism. But of course, that’s factually wrong that this country has been founded on colonization, that’s why we have the 13 colonies. And that we’ve expanded through colonization and that the kind of colonization that we’ve seen with Europeans and other places that we would characterize as being brutal and rapacious and so on, I mean, those are the very terms that we should be using to describe our American history, as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Of course, a lot of Americans will object to this kind of characterization. I think we as Americans, are like every other country. We want to see our own history in the best possible light. That inclination is not unique at all and part of my work is to say we as Americans need to be able to, like The Sympathizer, hold two opposite ideas in our minds at the same time. This is something that F. Scott Fitzgerald also said. The test of a first rate intelligence is to hold two opposite ideas in our minds at the same time.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think many Americans can’t do that, which is why they would rather say when someone like me brings up these kinds of criticisms, love it or leave it. Since I do in fact love this country, and I don’t want to leave it, I think in fact, what we should do is embrace the complexities and the brutal and bloody contradictions of our history. When I say that successful colonization goes under the name of the American Dream, I think what I mean by that is that rhetoric of the American Dream allows us to forget the history of our colonization and the ongoing fact of our colonization.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think many indigenous peoples would say that they’re still being colonized today. What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said about Puerto Rico, it’s a colony right now. So the very opposition to the idea that our country can be a colonizing country, blinds many Americans to what is actually going on in our country at this present time.
Amy Goodman: We have less than a minute, but I was wondering if you can talk about the Asian American writers who most influenced you. You’re a student of the great Chinese American writer, Maxine Hong Kingston
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So many great Asian American writers. I’m very lucky to come late in the game because an earlier Asian American writer would just face even more perplexity than I have faced. I think about John Okada writing about the Japanese American interment in the 1950s, Carlos Bulason, writing about Filipino migrant laborers in the 1940s, and yes, of course, Maxine Hong Kingston my great teacher. I have to say I was a very poor student, but she had faith in me and I owe her a great deal.
Amy Goodman: A very poor student, who just won the Pulitzer Prize. We thank you so much for spending this time with us. Our guest, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Author of the new novel, The Committed, sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Sympathizer. A professor at the University of Southern California. And we’ll link to The Washington Post piece you co-authored, Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia leads to anti-Asian violence here.
Amy Goodman: That does it for our show. Happy birthday to Miriam Barnard. Democracy Now! is produced with Renee Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, Maria Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Waronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcott, [inaudible 00:58:51], Robbie Karran, [inaudible 00:58:53] Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard.
Amy Goodman: I’m Amy Goodman, stay safe, wear a mask.