Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Amanpour | Libraries should ‘expand’ young minds, not contain them

Viet Thanh Nguyen defends the right for children to read challenging books and calls out parents and politicians trying to prevent kids becoming too empathetic by reading for Amanpour at CNN International & PBS.

Read the transcript below.


Welcome back to our program. It’s really a great pleasure to have you on this program, given your incredible novels and your experience, even from overseas, let’s face it. So as a Vietnamese American and all that you’ve written, I just want to first get your gut reaction to the banning by the Tennessee school board of Maus.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Thanks for having me, Christiane. It’s obviously an important subject for writers and readers, but also for anybody who believes that they are citizens of a democracy, because part of a democracy is having the capacity to engage with difficult or disagreeable or even dangerous ideas. So the banning of a book like Maus, number one, I feel sorry for the students and the children who would be deprived of reading a great book. But number two, I think it also shows a lot of fear on the part of the parents and the politicians who are banning books like Maus, because what they don’t want to do is to have these difficult conversations with their children, either about art or about the subjects that a book like Maus raises.


Let me just ask you just to drill down because, if I can remember and recall, part of the Tennessee board’s rationale was that Maus contained scenes of nudity, profanity, and violence. And I’m like, yes, it’s about the Holocaust. I mean, it really does boggle the mind. So is there any rationale you can see when you talk about young children, for instance, should they be protected from that? Should their parents have a veto or the school board or whoever over that kind of material?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Oh, certainly it’s a case by case basis. I’m a father of an eight year old child. I worry about what my child will encounter on things like the internet or when he plays big video games and things like that. And of course, parents have a responsibility and a right to be concerned about what their children are looking at, but this intersects with another issue, which is that books like Maus that belong in school curricula or in libraries and so on, to a certain extent, these books have already been curated. We’re not talking about things that are pornographic, for example. We’re talking about things in this case and in most of the cases that we’re dealing with in terms of book banning that are literature in which there’s a reason for difficult things such as nudity or obscenity or profanity to appear.

Now in that scenario, the proper context for this kind of a discussion is that these things take place in a classroom or with a librarian who is capable of putting these things into context. And the other thing to understand is that the impulse behind book banning seems to be a little misdirected, because from my experience and from what I’m aware of children encounter a lot of profanity and obscenities and terrible ideas outside of the classroom and on things like social media, that parents should be much more concerned about.


So let’s get to your personal story because you were moved to write this op-ed and it was very considered. And you talked about your own experience as a young boy now in the United States, your parents and family had come from Vietnam and at 12 or 13, you read a book called Close Quarters. It’s a novel by Larry Heinemann, 1977. It was about the Vietnam War and about American soldiers in the Vietnam War. What about it troubled you so much because called it a dangerous book and it changed your life?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I was very young when I read that book, I was probably 12 or 13. I was a precocious reader and I was very curious about history because I was aware that I was here in the United States because of the Vietnam War. So I read whatever I could find on that subject in the library. And there are no boundaries in the library. So I could go to the adult fiction section and pick up a book like Close Quarters, and it’s a book about war. And what it depicts is American soldiers doing terrible things to Vietnamese people, including murder and rape. And when I read these accounts in Heinemann’s novel, I was shocked. I thought these are very horrifying depictions and this is the way that Americans see people like me. And they were very disturbing images. And I hated the book at the time. And I didn’t read it again for many, many years. So the image in my mind of Close Quarters was that it was a terrible novel.

When it came down to write my own fiction, I reread a lot of the difficult books that had marked me in some way. And I reread Close Quarters as an adult. And I thought, Larry Heinemann did the right thing because what he wanted to show was exactly how disturbing and terrifying war is. And he wanted to affect his readers. So he didn’t want to give his readers an explanation or an editorial. He didn’t want to humanize the Vietnamese because from the American soldiers’ point of view, that he was depicting, the Vietnamese were not human. And if that causes us discomfort, that is a good thing.

So as a child, I was not prepared for that. It would’ve been wonderful if I could have talked to my parents about it, but I could not. It would’ve been wonderful if I could have talked to a teacher about it, but I could not. But as a writer, I deeply respect this impulse that artists have to both entertain their readers, but also to confront them in ways that can make them think twice. And that’s exactly the function that books, libraries and school curricula should have. It’s not just about making us feel comfortable all the time. It’s about helping us to confront difficult realities and difficult pasts as well.

So let me just give a little devil’s advocate, because what you said was actually quite interesting, that you read this book as a child and was devastated by it. You reread it as an adult and had a different reading of it and a different sensibility and a different understanding. Some people have suggested why not put age appropriate ratings on books, for instance, like we have on movies, like there is on video games and the like. Is that something that has ever crossed your mind?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, in the library, I believe there was a rating on the book because it was in the adult fiction section. So it was up to me to go into that library. Now, my parents were refugee shopkeepers trying to survive. They didn’t have time to take me to the library and look at what I was reading. So I had free rein through the library. Now, if parents are concerned about what their children are getting, then they need to be obviously on top of their children, monitoring their TV and their video and internet habits and so on, and taking them to the library, being engaged parents. If you don’t want your children to read certain kinds of works, then you should be there looking at what your children are picking up.

Seems to me though, that certain sets of parents are much more concerned about what their children are reading in books versus what they may be consuming outside. So I do want to make a defense of things like a library or a school curriculum. These are places, of course, where children should have mentors, should have guides, should have advisors, but that being said, school curricula and libraries should also be repositories of information and stories and great thinking that students should have access to because that’s their function. Their function is not to contain young minds, but to expand young minds. Hopefully that’s what we’re sending our children to school for. Hopefully that’s why we’re bringing them to libraries, if we’re bringing them to libraries.


You had an experience which you write about in the op-ed with your own son, your young son at the time, and you were reading Tintin and The Adventures of Tintin with him, which is just a most phenomenal book. I read them to my son. So many people have read them and I probably read them when I was young too, but there are all sorts of issues with Tintin, Tintin in Tibet, Tintin in the Congo, all sorts of racial stereotypes that we needed to address at the time. How did you get through that with your son? What was your teaching moment with him on all of that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

The first time I thought about this was when a parent has said that books like Tintin or specifically Tintin should be removed from the school library for the exact reasons that you are talking about. And at the time, I was in fact reading Tintin with my son. So I thought, well, how damaging are these images of black Africans, for example, or Asians that my son might encounter in this book? And I thought about the fact that at that age, my son was five or six years old, he had already heard racial epithets in his progressive preschool. So in other words, ideas like this were already circulating out of the control of parents. And so I thought, number one, Tintin is a great comic book. It’s extremely entertaining, very well done. Number two, the kinds of terrible images in those books are things that, number one, existed in the past and, number two, still exist in the present. My son will encounter these images, whether I want him to or not. And he possibly might have already encountered them already.

So in that scenario, I thought it would’ve been much better for me to allow him to enjoy this book with me or this series with me, but also to talk to him about what it is that he’s seen so that when he encounters these types of images outside of my guidance, he will have some idea of what they are, how problematic they are. And I will have played a role in helping him to deal with these kinds of things versus being taken by surprise by them. And so I think with books like Tintin, and this is representative of, let’s say, classic works of literature that are problematic in one way or another, the solution is not to remove them from the library or the curriculum. The solution is, if we have our students or our children read them, to put them into context, because the conversation around that kind of context is enormously productive.

Christiane: And you’ve written this as well and we observe it. This book banning does not just fit one political party or one political belief. It can cross party lines. You’ve had in Seattle, they banned, I think it was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You’ve had Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which has been banned. But particularly you write, “Those who ban books seem to want to circumscribe empathy, reserving it for a limited circle closer to the kind of people they perceive themselves to be.” Is that the heart of the matter right now?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I think that is one important element in the matter right now. The first thing that you talked about in terms of book banning, not belonging to one part of ideological spectrum is important. I mean, it speaks to the fact that it’s very human impulse to want to protect ourselves and our children from things that cause us personal disruption in one way or another. I understand that impulse. But again, that runs up against that other imperative that I think that we shouldn’t be banning books at all. We should be
engaging with the issues that they bring up, including difficult things like racial slurs. Now on the question of empathy, part of what books do and art in general does is to cultivate empathy, to expand our minds to different peoples and cultures and so on. That in general is, I think very, very positive. And I think most people are capable of empathy, but the issue is how wide of a circle of empathy do people want to cast? And I think that is one of the signature divisive issues in at least American society today. And books are caught in the nexus of that. And so when some parents and politicians are saying, we shouldn’t be reading certain kinds of works that, for example, bring up the subjectivity of black students or black people, especially in the context of racism that they might experience, and that this depiction might cause discomfort for white students, I can’t help but think that it’s also causing discomfort for the white parents as well.

And so what they’re arguing against in that moment is a reserve of empathy for people like them, or how they perceive themselves to be, and a refusal to engage with this other question of empathy for in this example, black people, black students, black children and so on. That I think is part of the political conflict that we have in this country is exactly how much empathy we’re going to feel for people who are not like us in some way.


And finally, and this is sort of a two-part question really, but Art Spiegelman, in response to a lot of questions about this, basically he said the following: “After you ban the book, you have to burn the books, you have to burn the people that wrote them and read them. It’s a trajectory.” I mean, he was really serious about what’s happening to his book. So A, do you foresee an even worse scenario than just banning books? And B, are the kids in your experience that’s susceptible or is it the parents? I mean, do the kids kind of get it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, I think the kids do get it. I think when kids open books, what they most want out of a book is to be entertained. I don’t know any child who opens a book hoping for a lesson. Now the lesson may come hopefully through the entertainment of the book, but first of all, the child wants to be entertained. So I think the real danger with a book like Maus is not the supposed obscene images or profanities in that book. The danger is that Maus is a really good comic book, graphic novel, and it will get kids to read it from beginning to end and be exposed to the story and the ideas that Spiegelman has put in there. And that’s what some parents and politicians are really afraid of because we’ll force them to confront issues like the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and all the ways in which that’s implicated in our present situation.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I’m not worried about the children for the most part. I mean, children are very, very resilient, but the question of whether book banning will lead to book burning and then therefore to the burning of people, well, I agree with Spiegelman. I think that it is a trajectory. It’s not something that I think is about to happen in the United States, but it could happen in the United States. And we should be very, very aware of that. That, again, this is a slippery slope kind of issue. We should be fighting this issue as it happens now, rather than waiting until it gets much worse.

We are so glad to have had your perspective, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Thank you so much, indeed, for joining us.


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