Amherst College LitFest 2022 | The Art of Belonging: A Conversation About race, Migration, and Fiction with Viet Thanh Nguyen

In its seventh year, Amherst’s annual literary festival celebrates the College’s extraordinary literary life by inviting distinguished authors and editors to discuss the pleasures and challenges of verbal expression—from fiction and nonfiction to poetry and spoken-word performance. Hosted by Jennifer Acker ’00, editor-in-chief of The Common, in partnership with the Presidential Scholars Program for Amherst College.

Read below for transcript beginning at 4:21

Darryl Harper:
My name’s Darryl Harper. I’m Director of the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, the current Director here at Amherst College, and Associate Professor and Chair of the Music Department. To those here in person and those in the virtual space, thank you for being part of tonight. The art of belonging, a conversation about race, migration and fiction writing with Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jennifer Acker. In addition to being a featured element of LitFest 2022, tonight’s event is part of our Presidential Scholars Program, launched in conjunction with the college’s 2020 anti-racism plan, the Presidential Scholars Series brings a preeminent thinkers from a wide range of disciplines to Amherst for short term residencies in order to deepen and enrich our campus wide conversation about racial justice, racial history, and anti-racist scholarship action and policy. Please be aware that tonight’s event is being recorded. And please also allow me to acknowledge the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Johnson Lectureship Fund, which have both made this event possible.

Darryl Harper:
I did not know–I knew our guest tonight Viet Thanh Nguyen, had authored the collection of short stories: The Refugees; that he had written: Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, finalists for the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction; that his novel: The Sympathizer had won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fictio;, that he had edited and acclaimed anthology of refugee writing The Displaced. I knew that Viet Thanh Nguyen was distinguished Professor at the University of Southern California and that he was a MacArthur Fellow. I also knew that he was an outspoken critic of imperialism, of racism, and other forms of structural oppression. But I did not know that even after traveling 3000 miles the day before, he would begin challenging our students and my colleague Raphael Sigal’s The Assassination of Literature Course at 9:00 AM on Friday to distinguish between immigrant and refugee.

Darryl Harper:
To use a form that is not realistic to communicate with power that which cannot be contained by representation–to hone their visible literacy alongside their writing. I did not know that Viet Thanh Nguyen would recall not only his student Charlotte’s name in the class he was meeting for the very first time, but also her question from the beginning of class, and to be able to tie it back to a point that he was making at the end. I did not know that he would challenge students and my colleague [..unintelligible..], time, memory, and ghosts and post dictatorial narratives to consider the limits of empathy as poet Natalie Diaz did again this morning, or that he would challenge them to consider the ethical limitations of writing in first person.

Darryl Harper:
I did not know he would enter the student’s craft talk this afternoon and dismantle the colonial underpinnings of craft itself. I did not know the extent to which he would insist on reciprocity from his readers. I did not know the extent of his commitment to artistic expression, even when it flies in the face of commercial or academic convention. How passionately he cared about how scholarship can matter outside these walls if we can find ways to write to other people. That one of the most important kinds of interdisciplinary to him is that between critical and creative practice. I did not know that he believes national Asian identity to be a trap. Our host tonight, Jennifer Acker is director of LitFest. She is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Common, the award-winning literary magazine housed here at the college. Her 2019 debut novel The Limits of the World was honored for the Massachusetts Book Award.

Darryl Harper:
Her memoir Essay fatigue is a number one Amazon bestseller, and her short stories, essays, translations, and reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, Literary Hub, n+1, Guernica, The Yale Review, Off Assignment and Ploughshares. Jen teaches writing and editing at the college and directs its literary publish internship. I’ve known Jennifer Acker for years. We met by chance at a restaurant through mutual friends. Well, before I joined the faculty at Amherst College, but I did not know until I came to the college that the common specializes in writing about place. I did not know until it began to emerge through this collaboration of the residences between Viet’s work and Jens. That for instance, Viet was quoting authors important to him that Jen had published. I did not know until this afternoon that she and Viet are both writing new memoirs. Would you please join me in welcoming Viet and Jen. And looking ahead to what, after their conversation we might know.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I did not know that you were going to give that speech. That’s very good.

Jennifer Acker:
Darryl is full of surprises, wonderful ones. Thank you all for being here tonight. It’s really such a pleasure to be back in person in this chapel in LitFest. So I just want to take a moment to appreciate that. And I also want to extend my appreciation to our President, Biddy Martin and her support of literature, and to thank her for not only developing Amherst College as a place where the literary arts matter, but making the college a place that leads by example in this field. And she recognized the value of a magazine like The Common right away, a way to support contemporary literature and students at the same time. And it’s just so important for those of us who dedicate our time to creating and writing and reading and understanding literature to have college presidents in our corners. And we really could not have asked for a better advocate, someone who is such a deep reader and a beautiful wordsmith herself, I’m going to miss you a lot and we all are, and I hope you come back for future LitFest. Welcome Viet.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thanks for having me. It’s been a great experience here so far. Amherst students, you’ve been fantastic. Amherst faculty, pretty good too.

Jennifer Acker:
We will try to measure up to our students to the tall order. So this talks promises to be about belonging. And so that’s where I want to start, is to ask you what that word means to you? That you came to this country three at the age of four, as a refugee from Vietnam. You grew up in San Jose, went to UC Berkeley. You’re a professor at USC in Los Angeles. When was the first moment that you felt like you belonged, if there was such a time and place and why?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, and I think belonging like home are complicated things. I had a home, I have loving parents. I had a very good upbringing. And yet at the same time, I always felt a little bit uncomfortable at home. So even when we say things like home or belonging, we have to sort of recognize that these can be contradictory kinds of places. So I always felt like I belonged, for example, in the Vietnamese refugee community that was home, but I also felt like I didn’t belong there at the same time. So I think the number of times where I felt completely uncomplicated sense of belonging had been relatively rare. I can think of only two or three. Let me say three. The first one was going to school at UC Berkeley. The moment I stepped foot on campus at UC Berkeley, I felt like I had come home to an uncomplicated sense of home. And Berkeley is pretty much what the stereotypes describe. And I was immediately radicalized the moment I stepped foot on the Berkeley campus.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And hopefully, I’ve never stopped being radicalized by that experience. Second sense of belonging was through writing. I think it was in writing that I really felt a genuine home as well. And that’s also kind of complicated because I don’t know what your experience with writing is, but mine has been that writing has been for the most of my life, really miserable, really miserable. I wrote The Refugees, it took me 17 years. If you read the book, it’ll take you like half a day. And most of those 17 years completely sucked. But writing The Sympathizer was incredible. And so I long for those kinds of uncomplicated moments of belonging, but overall writing is where I feel most at home except with my family. So I don’t want to get all sentimental, because I didn’t even want to be a father, but I am a father and I have my own home with my children and my family. And that I think, so far, is uncomplicated in holding my own home. My son’s eight, come back when he’s 13 and we’ll see if I still feel the same way.

Jennifer Acker:
Those are beautiful examples, very different kinds. I wanted to go back to the first part of what you were saying and the growing up, and growing up in a community that you describe as being haunted in some ways by memories and by loss, not only by the things that were spoken, but by the things that were unspoken. So I’m wondering if you could describe how that haunting affected you as a writer, as a person too, and if there’s any particular example that you would like to share with us?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, I think that there’s a difference between having a sense of haunting that’s very explicit when you know that there are ghosts there. And that was what it was like growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community. And then there’s another sense of haunting where you don’t know the ghosts are there, but they are, and that’s growing up in the United States. So for the Vietnamese refugees that I grew up with, they were tormented by the sense of loss. I’m now older than my parents were when they lost everything and had to pick up and leave their country in fear and desperation. And what was important about that experience, for me, in the Vietnamese refugee community, is that that happened to everybody.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
In fact, so we oftentimes did not talk about the terrible things that had happened to us because everything that we went through, other people had gone through. And as terrible as the things that might that happened to my family did happen. We were actually comparatively lucky. So I make a joke about how the quickest way for me to kill a cocktail party conversation is to say, “Hi, I’m a refugee,” because most people have no idea what to say to me, because it’s not a part of the American experience to imagine that Americans could be refugees, but we don’t talk about that again in the Vietnamese community, because that’s normalized. So I would go visit people’s homes and in every home there would be black and white photographs on the mantle or the fireplace or whatever. And these would be the photographs of sometimes the dead, the ancestors who had been left behind, but also oftentimes people who were still alive, who had been left behind.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And in the case of my own family, we were lucky that my parents, my older brother and me escaped from Vietnam, but we left behind my adopted sister. And so I grew up with this sense of an absent presence in my family’s life, which felt like a ghost to me. And then I grew up as an American as well. And growing up as an American, I was fascinated by American warfare. Like I was totally into American battles and guns and uniforms. I have a very nerdish knowledge of these kinds of things. And then of course, so then I watched almost every movie that Hollywood made about the Vietnam War, which is an exercise I recommend to nobody, especially if you’re Vietnamese.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And what it demonstrated to me among other things was that the United States was still haunted as well by that war. But that was an explicit kind of haunting that I think a lot of Americans are aware of. But when I say that there are kinds of hauntings that Americans are not aware of, I’m thinking of other kinds of ghosts that inhabit our American household like the ghosts of enslavement, the ghosts of colonization, the ghosts of genocide. They’re still with us, whether or not many of us want acknowledge them or not.

Jennifer Acker:
Yeah. There are a number of very strong gross in your novels. So how did you think about writing those ghosts? Did they come right away? Did they come a little bit later? Were they part of the original conception? Did you always know the books would be haunted in this way by ghosts?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
So I’ll tell you one story or I’ll talk about one story, which is a story called Black-Eyed Women in The Refugees. It’s an opening story. That story was the first story I wrote in the collection and it was the last story I revised in the collection. So it was with me for 17 years, and it taught me everything I knew about writing. And the most important thing it taught me was, don’t give up. Don’t give up, because I didn’t give up writing that story, I became a writer. But the other thing it taught me was that short story, what’s important oftentimes is what’s not in the story as much as what’s in the story. So I had to write 50 drafts in order to figure out what didn’t belong in the story. And I had to write 50 drafts to find the ghost in the story, because initially there was no ghost in the story. Initially, it was a story about other kinds of trauma and things like that. I’m going to bore you with all the details, but when I realized that there was a ghost and that this ghost had to return to haunt our narrator and her mother in the story, I realized that that ghost had always been there in the story. I just didn’t know it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I had to write 50 drafts to find what was haunting these characters. And once I understood what was haunting these characters then the entire story became clear to me. And so I think that might be an analogy for are so many other things in terms of our understanding about ghosts. We may be haunted by ghosts but we may not understand that we’re haunted by ghosts or what these ghosts are, because we want to turn away from them. We want to do everything we can to pretend that they don’t exist.And so in order to confront our ghosts, first of all, we have to know who they are. And then we know have to know how to speak to them, which is what happens in the story. And then maybe we can seize being haunted. That’s what happens in the story. But I think that’s also part of our national project and not just ours, many nations are haunted by ghosts that they refuse to recognize or acknowledge.

Jennifer Acker:
So perhaps the opposite of feeling a sense of belonging might be being a spy. And the protagonist in the two novels is a communist from north Vietnam, who sort of hides in plain sight by being a captain in the south Vietnamese army. So one question I have about this, the spy narrators, why was it important that this narrator be mixed race, be the son of a French priest and who is also a sexual predator and a young Vietnamese woman?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, I thought that how I imagined myself is that I’m supposed to be a writer who is on the side of justice and is a writer who is always supposed to be trying to call out failures and contradictions wherever I can. And that merges also with the fact that my place in American society, the place that’s given to me is to be a Vietnamese American or a Vietnamese refugee. And what’s expected of someone like me is to write a book about Vietnamese Americans. That’s my multicultural function. And it’s an opportunity to be able to speak in the United States in this way, and to represent Vietnamese Americans, but it’s also potentially a trap because part of what that would potentially do to me is possibly blind me or possibly limit my capacity to see some of the ways in which my fellow Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese people themselves have committed injustice.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And so if you know anything about Vietnamese people, we can be really racist. We can be victims of racism and we can be really racist all at the same time. And so I wanted to make my character mixed race, part French and part Vietnamese, so that I could talk about the ways in which not just the French were racist and the Americans were racist to the Vietnamese, but the Vietnamese themselves have been incredibly racist to mixed race peoples in Vietnam and in the United States as well. So I did not want Vietnamese people to read this book and to think, “Wow, this book really represents us.” I want them to think, “Well, this book does represent us, but it’s showing us being racist as well.” And is someone who is a of mixed race dissent, is that person also Vietnamese as well? I think those are kinds of questions that are true or important, not just to Americans, but they should be important to Vietnamese people also.

Jennifer Acker:
And do you know if it had that effect among Vietnamese readers?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I don’t think so. Well, I think what happened is that the book did okay when it was published. It got good reviews, which means nothing in terms of book sales. And then I heard from some Vietnamese people, “We’re not going to read your book because it’s about a communist spy, and there’s no way we’re going to read a book about a communist spy, because they’re anti-communist.” And then the book won the Pulitzer Prize, and then everybody said, “We’ll take you back now. Now, you’re Vietnamese again.” And so whether or not they ever recognized the issues that the book raises around communism, anti-communism or racism and mixed-based issues, the Pulitzer Prize trumped everything else. So then they just didn’t have to deal with that, or they probably never even read the book anyway, they were just happy to reclaim me in the racial draft, as someone who brought pride to the community.

Jennifer Acker:
Right. You are no longer exiled for writing a communist protagonist. So, given that some of the themes that we’ve just been saying about the books, there are ghosts, there’s racism, there’s a sexual predator, you might not imagine that the book is hilarious. And you have mentioned in an interview that before writing The Sympathizer, perhaps no one would have accused you of being a funny person, but that writing The Sympathizer was sort of an awakening in that sense. So can you tell us about your humorous awakening and if that has changed you or your writing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Absolutely. I think it’s made me a more interesting person, honestly. Well, basically the thing you need to know about me is I’m a deeply repressed person. I was raised a Vietnamese Catholic. Vietnamese culture is repressive. Catholic culture is repressive. Vietnamese Catholic culture is incredibly repressive, and I’m a Northern Vietnamese Catholic and Northern Vietnamese Catholics are so repressed. And so I grew up with this intense pressure on me, from my parents, from the Vietnamese church, from the Vietnamese community to buckle down, to work hard, to not rock the boat, to be serious, to get to Harvard, which I failed at. My brother got to Harvard, my parents never cease reminding me. So that was the pressure. And so in order to be the good son, I had to be very serious. And then I became an academic. I don’t know what your experience is, but academics generally don’t have a sense of humor.

Jennifer Acker:
I remain silent on that subject.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah. And they don’t like people who have a sense of humor. So I learned how to repress all of that. And then what happened was, when I was an undergraduate, I heard about something called tenure, tenure. And it’s like, “There really is a job where they don’t fire you. This is my parents’ dream.” And so I said, “I’m going to become a professor and get tenure.” And then speaking about being a spy, when I get tenure, I’m going to do whatever I want and that’s going to be too late. And so that’s what happened. I became a writer. It took me a lot longer than I thought, but part of what happened in being a writer is that I had to learn the craft and the art and everything.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
But I also had to understand that, for me, writing comes from the inside from my own emotions. I mean, so writing is partly about crafting a story and having drama and whatever, but the emotional material for a book or for characters, for me, has to come from inside of myself. So I had to get rid of the self repression. I have to start to learn how to feel things, and that was really hard for me, actually. And the breakthrough in terms of a sense of humor was coming up with a sympathizer, that narrator, and the narrator is basically my alter ego. Not exactly autobiographically me, but emotionally autobiographically me, politically autobiographically me. And suddenly, with this mask of The Sympathizer on me, I could suddenly say all kinds of things that had been brewing inside of me for a long time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And then when people got upset, I said, “It’s a novel, blame him. Don’t blame me,” but that really unleashed something within me. And also when I stood out to write the novel, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to write something like Catch 22 to because that’s a book that I admire, but I thought, “I don’t have a sense of humor. How can I write a book like Catch 22, it’s going to be real challenge.” And so creating a character who had a sense of humor and who had a critical consciousness and who wasn’t unapologetic communist as well, allowed me to say things, but I had to be very careful to make sure that his dialectical anti-capitalist, anti-American diatribes were couched with a sense of humor so that people could take the criticism because I’ve read a lot of very serious political novels without a sense of humor and they can work.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
But things that Catch 22 or Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, these books are very important to me because it demonstrated that you could be very political and very satirical all at the same time. And in fact, when we’re dealing with things like horror and tragedy and catastrophe and war, it is possible to laugh about those things with a sense of distance and with also an awareness that human and satire are deeply political.

Jennifer Acker:
Yeah. Well, you have just pointed out how irreverent the books are. And while there are these powerful attacks launched at Western colonialist powers, there are also plenty of accusation and mockery herald at everybody. So did you set out to be an equal opportunity insulter in these books?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I think that’s a basic principle. You have to offend everybody. It’s not funny to offend one group of people. You have to offend everybody and you have to punch up. And I hope that’s what I was doing. And attacking, for example, American hypocrisy, American imperialism, American exceptionalism, this is punching up because I think, again, my perception is that so-called minority writers are not expected to do that. We’re expected to punch across later on. I don’t know what’s the… We’re expected to expose our own communities and their failures. If you’re an Asian American writer, you’re supposed to patriarchy in Asia, you’re supposed to expose repressive fathers and confusing mothers and things like that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And they exist, of course, but you’re not expected to express in gratitude towards the country that rescued you or welcomed you, even if that country bombed you and created the conditions for rescuing you in the first place. And that’s what these books do, is constantly try to make jokes, not at the weaker, but at the more powerful, and that could be the state, but could also be those moments when even when you’re talking about something like a so-called minoritized community, we’re not powerless. We’re not powerless. We may be less powerful in regards to the state or to racist people, but within our own community, there are hierarchies of power where we abuse each other. And that’s what the books call out too.

Jennifer Acker:
So the books really revolve with these multiple perspectives, and the narrators superpower is being able to see things from multiple sides. So I wanted to bring up an oped that you wrote recently against book banning, and not only against banning certain kinds of books, but we shouldn’t ban any books. It’s the main line. So I just wanted to ask, why shouldn’t we control what students read if we have these hard one values that we’re trying to pass on to them? Isn’t the best way to do that by allowing them to read some things but not others?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
That’s a rhetorical question. That just allows me to answer the work. Okay.

Jennifer Acker:
I’m giving you a platform.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I mean, what can I say? I mean, I think that I look back on my own education and I had that kind of education that you described, which is the very canonical education and very classical education where it got exposed to the great books. But I went to a Catholic Jesuit school and I’ll never forget that we also read Karl Marx’ The Communist Manifesto, which in 1980 San Jose, during the height of the evil empire was in retrospect, really shocking that we read that kind of a book. And then I had total freedom in the library, which I only had because my parents were too busy and were too innocent to think otherwise. They were worried about TV. My father said, “You’re watching too much TV.” So he unplugged the TV and then he taped over the outlet as if that was going to stop me.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
But they never worried about the library because they didn’t know what I was reading. So I would go to the library, I would read everything and anything. And I would read things that have stayed with me forever. So when I was a kid, for some reason, in the children section, there was Voltaire’s Candide. Why is that in the children’s section? I don’t know. But I realized as I was writing The Committed, I realized, “Wait, I must have been deeply influenced by Candide because I’m putting my narrator through all kinds of Candidian misadventures. I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. And one of Amherst students understood the reference in The Sympathizer, so kudos to an Amherst education. There he is right there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
He’s probably been warped as well by reading Portnoy’s Complaint as I was. So sometimes, well, I mean, if you don’t know in The Sympathizer, our narrator loses his virginity to a squid, which is only on semi autobiographical, and it was inspired by Philip Roth and Alex Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint losing his virginity to a slab of liver, which his family then eats for dinner, gross. Who eats liver for dinner? As it turns out Vietnamese people do, or at least my family does.

Jennifer Acker:
My grandmother.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah, you did right. But it’s out of fashion now. Anyway, and I feel I have a very complicated relationship to your question because I feel like I’m the wrong person to answer it, because if people who do support book banning, hear what I say, they’re like, “He’s a perfect example of why we should be banning books because look how he turned out.” But in fact, this is about one of the few areas of my life where I’m a libertarian. It’s like, we should not restrict what students and children are reading. We should be educating them and providing them with a critical framework and hopefully an ethical framework for understanding what it is that they’re reading and then letting let them go. And if we have done our job as parents and as educators, then they should be fine when they encounter something to try to make sense out of it, or if not make sense out of it, be so disturbed by it that they’ll come back later to it to try to make sense out of it, which is what happened to me.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I went back and I reread Portnoy’s Complaint and I realized, “Wow, there’s more to it than just jerking off with a piece of liver as an adult.” And I reread a bunch of things that caused me all kinds of complications. So this is a defense of a liberal arts education. And of course, I’m just preaching to the converted here this space. But in order for us to make that defense, I think we have to be consistent. We can’t say on the one hand, “Let all of these very educated students paying exorbitant amounts of money for an education, read whatever they want.” But in this high school curriculum, they can’t read whatever, Huckleberry Finn or whatever book that might be causing difficulty. And we really need to be consistent and then ask, “Well, how could we teach Huckleberry Finn in a way that would prepare the students adequately?

Jennifer Acker:
So we’ve been talking a little bit about the protagonist from your two novels, but I wanted to say that in The Refugees, the story collection, you have a multiplicity of narrators who are writing, who are different ages and genders and nationalities and you inhabit all of those points of view. And I wonder if you have ever begun writing a certain point of view that you then rejected because it was too controversial to obtuse to something you felt like you shouldn’t write it or couldn’t write it for some reason, either you would be you censored yourself or thought that somebody else would be upset about it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
That’s a good question. So in The Refugees, well, one of the things I want to stress is it’s about mostly about Vietnamese people, which doesn’t mean that it’s easy to write, just because I’m Vietnamese doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to write about Vietnamese people and Vietnamese people like every other group of people are very diverse. So I had to write stories from the perspective of people who might have been Vietnamese, but were not like me in so many other ways, from their politics, to their age, to their gender, to their sexual orientation and so on. And then I also wanted to include stories about people who were not Vietnamese, but who met Vietnamese people.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
There’s a story from a Latino man’s perspective and a black man’s perspective. And then there was one story that I could not finish writing. I couldn’t make it work.And that was a story about a white male professor. So here I reached my obstacle and it caused me a lot of consternation that I couldn’t make the story work, couldn’t the right entry way into this character, because I think I couldn’t… At that time, I wanted to write a story that was satirical about a white male professor. And God knows there’s a lot to satirize. There’s a lot to satirize about all kinds of professors, including Asian American professors, but I couldn’t find the way to do it with this particular character. And I’m not sure why. So that just means I will have to go back and rewrite that story one day.

Jennifer Acker:
Right. I was going to ask you, do you think you could write it now?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I think I could. I think I could because well, let me backtrack a little bit. I could not write a short story. I could not write a short story. I mean, my experience writing The Refugees was so traumatic. I swear I cannot write another one, but I could try to write a novel from a white male professor’s point of view, because I think I understand more this imperative to love and fully inhabit the characters that I’m writing about even if they’re very different from me. I hope that I could also write a novel about Donald Trump from Donald Trump’s point of view. I mean, that would be something that I would love to try to do one day.

Jennifer Acker:
I think you would be the one to do it. So this was helpful entry in a way into my next question, which was that I think that writers it’s important to talk about failure and that story that you just told us, I don’t think is an example of failure. It’s just part of the writing process, but I wonder if there is a piece of writing that you felt maybe it was published or maybe it wasn’t, but that wasn’t successful and how did you handle that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Wow, that’s a really hard question. That’s one of those job interview questions. What’s your biggest flaw?

Jennifer Acker:
If you answer it correctly, you will have a job.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Recently somebody I know who’s a Vietnamese American literary critic wrote an essay about one of my short stories. And I totally forgot and I wrote that short story because it was published in a journal 20 years ago. And I’m pretty sure that short story was a failure, if I ever go back and read that story. A failure in the sense that it was one of these early stories where I was trying to learn the craft and so on, and probably doing a lot of things that I wouldn’t do now. But that’s just a part of what we do. We write and we publish, we put things out there and some of them we would disavow later or pretend they don’t exist. But the real failure that just happened recently, coming back with the short stor. I got an offer to write a short story from amazon.com. That was probably the first sign that maybe I should not do this. The second sign was, I mean, literally was like an offer from devil. It’s like, “We’ll pay you $40,000 to write this short story.” I was like, “Oh my God, really?”

Jennifer Acker:
The devil is rich.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah. And I agreed to do it. And then I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I mean, so it went on for months and months and months where I was trying to drag this story out of myself. And I thought, “You have sold your soul and this is what’s happening.” So I said, “I can’t do this.” I admitted failure to them. But I never took the money. I never took the money. So I feel I’m sort of semi-clean.

Jennifer Acker:
Do you think that if you had taken the money, you would’ve finished the story?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
No. I think I would’ve finally gone back to confession, which I haven’t done in about 30 years and confessed with my terrible story.

Jennifer Acker:
Driven you back to the church. Wow. So tell me a little bit more about your revision process. Let’s talk about revising one of the novels, either The Sympathizer or The Committed. How do you engage in that revision process? How do you balance prioritizing the sentences versus the story and the sentences and in these novels are very dense and the story is very complicated, lots of balls to juggle. So did you have multiple rounds of revision? How did you attack that process?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, I mean, so basically when I wrote The Sympathizer, one of the things that really makes that book different from The Refugees is that the pros in The Sympathizer is very, very different. I think the refugees is a very accessible kind of pros. Like I said, you can read it in a half a day or less. And The Sympathizer, the pros is very dense. It’s still very funny, but it’s also very dense. And it was a very deliberate choice on my part because I felt like what I wanted to do in that novel was to disturb the reader, both in terms of what the reader was thinking about Vietnam or the war or about the United States and so on, but also disturb the reader in terms of their relationship to language and force the reader to see the world in a new way through the language itself.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And in order to do that, what I had to do was to really rewrite every single sentence over and over again. And I would write a chapter in about a week or two, and then before I would move on to the next chapter, I would just revise and revise and revise at the level of the sentence, because I thought the rhythm, the word choice, the imagery was so important because the reader would be carried along by the language as much as the plot. So to give you another example, I spent a summer trying to figure out how to open the novel, going through various scenarios, various opening sentences. And when I came across this one sentence, I’m a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces, I realized that’s the opening sentence.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
It’s the opening sentence not only because it establishes the theme and the character, but it’s the opening sentence because of the rhythm, the way I place the commas, what kind of words that I chose, spy, sleeper spook. And that sentence actually embodies the entire, that’s the seed, literally, the entire novel. Every single sentence after that had to prefer form the same function at the level of rhythm, word choice, imagery. And so part of the revision process as I worked on each chapter was that I would revise it going forward, and then I would revise it going backwards. So I would look at every sentence, listen, that crucial stage was to look at every sentence in reverse. So instead of starting from the first sentence in the chapter, I started from the last sentence in the chapter and worked backwards so that I would not be distracted by the narrative.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
When I’m writing and then I’m sucked into the narrative, if I’ve done a good job and the narrative actually is working, it’s very easy to sort of just get sucked along into the sentences. But if I’m working backwards, then I’m not paying attention to the narrative, I’m only paying attention to this sentence. And that really allowed me to think about all these issues that I just raised, but I’ll tell you something that was really interesting about this book was that I used a touchstone. The touchstone was António Lobo Antunes’ novel The Land at the End of the World, which is I think a second novel from the 70s about his experiences being a medic in the Portuguese army and their war Angola, which was basically their equivalent of the war in Vietnam. And it was a horrible, traumatic experience for him, and the novel’s amazing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
The novel’s amazing because the pros are so dense and so beautiful, and he’s writing about something so horrible and yet the language is so gorgeous. And that was what I was going for. And so I would read a paragraph or two of that book, and I would just be seized with ecstasy because the sentences moved me so much. And then when I couldn’t bear it any longer, I would go and work on The Sympathizer. And so a lot of the language in The Sympathizer’s infused with the language of Lobo Antunes. And except that I think that my novel is a failure in that regard because I think his language is so much more beautiful. But the interesting thing is then with The Committed I tried to do the same thing and it didn’t work. There was some-

Jennifer Acker:
Which part?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Reading Lobo Antunes. It’s like, “It no longer work for me,” that that worked for that novel, but that no longer worked for The Committed. So I felt that the pros in The Committed was actually different than the pros in The Sympathizer. And I think what happened is that the narrator himself has changed. I think some people might read The Sympathizer, it’s a spy novel and want a sequel. And in that idea of the genre, think that they’ll get the exact same story all over again. And it’s true in the most conventional senses of genre, like detective stories or spy stories. We want the same story over again, but I couldn’t do it with The Committed and because he himself had changed. And so therefore the language had changed, the structure had changed, so much had changed. And so therefore I couldn’t write that book in the same way.

Jennifer Acker:
I don’t think I’m going to be able to think about anything else for the rest of the night after revising backwards. That is an amazing idea. Think going back to the first line of The Sympathizer, which you just mentioned, did you have any worries about putting that upfront? Sometimes people are worried about exposing some secret about the book to early on. Did you feel like that carried any risk?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, I don’t think it exposed anything because that’s actually who he is. I mean, he is a spy, a sleeper and a spook, that’s the engine that drives the entire book. And in fact, what happened as I wrote the book is that there is a secret in the book, which I didn’t know there was. I’m talking about ghosts that we don’t realize that are actually there. There is a ghost in the book that we don’t discover until about almost all the way to the end of the book. And the reason why we don’t discover that is because I didn’t know that ghost existed. I didn’t know that secret existed. I had to write the book in order to find that out. And so writing that taught me, as all my short stories have taught me, we can plan the best that we can for a story.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And I did have a plan for the novel, two page synopsis, which ended in a way that I knew wasn’t really going to be how the book ended. I didn’t know how the book was going to end, but I had to trust that in writing, I would discover what that ending was because the ending has to be tied to the character, which means that I have to come to understand the character better. A lot of writers talk about this, that we create characters and they take on lives of their own if we’ve done our job right, because you imbue the character with certain kinds of characteristics and background and beliefs and so on. And then they start doing things that take you by surprise. And that’s exactly what happened.

Jennifer Acker:
Did you have a different touchstone book for The Committed? The first book wasn’t lucky the second time, was there another one that you relied on?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
No. That didn’t work. I was on my own for that one.

Jennifer Acker:
Did you feel like you had to grow up?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah, I think so. I think so. But The Committed it’s kind of an interesting book for me because it’s the middle part of a trilogy. And it’s a novel about somebody whose beliefs have been totally shattered and he has to figure out how to rebuild himself. And so it’s a novel that required a lot that didn’t fit the typical kind of quest narrative that you would see in The Sympathizer. And so it demanded something different. I think as he was trying to rebuild himself, I think I was trying to rebuild myself as a writer as well.

Jennifer Acker:
Is there anything you can tell us about the third book in the trilogy?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
He does come back to the United States finally for his happy meal that was denied to him in the first book. It’s the final act of his dialectic. It’s not the final act of the dialectic in general, but it’s the final act of his dialectic. That in book one, he was a communist who had his beliefs and his revolution, and it was destroyed. In book two, he had to reconsider what revolution is. He had to reconsider who he is. He had to reconsider being what a man is. And in book three, he has to figure out a way forward. I don’t know exactly what that is. I’ll have to discover it with him, but he’s going to come back to the United States via the other Americas, the other parts of the Americas in this country. He’s going to continue his investigation into the various kinds of wars that the United States has been engaged in. And then he’s going to try to figure out what a nonviolent revolution could be.

Jennifer Acker:
I have a couple of more questions, but I want to mention that there will be audience, I mean, questions collected from the audience. So there should be paper and pencil. Am I correct, Victoria? Is this correct? Yeah. So there should be paper and pencil on your seats. Begin writing your questions. Someone will come around in a basket to collect them. And please write legibly since we’ll have to be reading them. So you talk about writing or the importance of writing political fiction or book that has some political edge. So how do you make a book political without becoming didactic? You want to keep a really strong story going and a story is very important to you as well. How do you balance those things?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
That’s a great question. It’s hard, because we’re taught in this country, in the world of writing how to tell a tale a story. I think maybe we should teach writers more about how to write a plot, but I mean, that’s generally the idea, but we don’t teach writers how to write about politics. And this is part of the way I was talking about to the Amherst students in afternoon. To me, when we talk about writing a novel, for example, things like plot, character, point of view, narrative, timing, all that is important, but what I’m also concerned about is politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideas, why can’t these be considered a part of the material of fiction as well?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
So, for example, in The Committed, there are some moments in The Committed where the characters discuss philosophical ideas. And some of my American reviewers seem to take umbrage at that. They’re like, “Why is there philosophy being discussed in this novel? It feels like a graduate seminar.” And I was like, “This does not feel like a graduate seminar to me, it’s supposed to feel like an undergraduate seminar.” But more than that, I felt that, for me, ideas are thrilling. Ideas are thrilling and genuinely thrilling. Crime is thrilling. Spy stories are thrilling, but so are ideas. So why can’t ideas be a part of the fabric of a novel. And stereotypically, the French reviewers of this novel… So I have a joke. I say I wrote The Sympathizer to offend everybody.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Apparently, I succeeded judging from my hate mail. Who else are left to offend? The French. So I wrote The Committed and the French were not offended. The French actually have a sense of humor about themselves and how they’re being made fun of, and it’s pretty brutal in The Committed. And the French also had no objection to the use of ideas and philosophy in The Committed, which reaffirms my faith in the French, and also affirms my stereotypes of the Americans as well. So that was very deliberate gesture on my part, this idea that in fact, everyday people can grapple with difficult ideas and they always have, and it’s just some kind of weird provincialism in American fiction to believe that politics and ideas can’t be a part of fiction.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And so the challenge, as you said, the challenge is how to make that accessible to readers. And one, through humor, two, through having a narrator who is an object of mockery, as much as he is a source of critique because it is really boring to read someone who’s completely serious, always making arguments about someone else and is not aware of his own limitations. And the third thing is having a plot. So there is a lot of politics in The Committed, for example, but there’s also a lot of sex, drugs, violence, murder, all these kinds of wonderful things that I enjoy reading and watching about. And so some of the best descriptions of the novel have come from the French reviewers who said, “This seems like it is Jean-Paul Sartre crossed with Quentin Tarantino.” I’m like, “That’s right. That’s a good description.”

Jennifer Acker:
That’s what you were going for. Good. So The Sympathizer is being made into a series by HBO. What are some of your hopes for this adaptation?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Okay, well, first of all, let me just say this. We had a very hard time selling the rights, making this into a TV series. My first producer who tried to auction this was an Asian American woman. And this was back in around 2016-2017. So after it won the Pulitzer, and so she went out and we thought we were going to do TV series. So she went out and asked various production companies, how can we make this happen? It took months and months and months, finally came back to me and she said, “Well, I’ve talked to all these production companies and they think that in order to make this TV series, what the budget you want. And I was thinking of a TV series like Narcos. I don’t know how many of you’ve seen that, but Narcos is like, I don’t know, a $50 million TV series.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
With that kind of a budget, they said, “They’re going to need Keanu Reeves.” And I was like, “What does Keanu Reeves have to do with any of it?” I love Keanu Reeves, but what does over reefs have to do with anything? And Narcos has no movie stars in it but they still get $50 million. But I, or Asian Americans in order to get $50 million, we need Keanu Reeves. So I was actually deeply offended by this. It wasn’t her fault. So then I got another producer and he’s Canadian and I thought, “Thank God,” because Americans are going to screw me on this one. Just as American editors didn’t understand this book, I’m pretty sure American producers would not understand this novel as well. And then my Canadian producer found the Korean director Park Chan-wook take on this TV series. And I don’t know how many you’re familiar with Park Chan-wook’s work.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
He’s probably the second best known Korean director now behind Bong Joon-ho. But his movie Old Boy, see the Korean version, not the remake, the American remake, Americans will screw you. Do not watch the American remake of the Korean Old Boy. But Old Boy, the original is amazing. And it was so influential on The Sympathizer. It also involves the scene with not octopus. Okay, I’ll leave it at that. But so when Park Chan-wook decided to do it, I thought this is perfect because if you watch Old Boy or The Handmaiden, I think it has a visual sensibility in the political sensibility to really make this happen. So my fantasy, is that this TV series will bring that kind of Park Chan-wook sense of incredible style and political sensibility to a TV series, that will do everything that The Sympathizer does in terms of making fun of the United States and also centering Vietnamese experiences and also Vietnamese faces and Vietnamese bodies as the actors, except Robert Downey, Jr.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Everybody gets excited about Robert Downey Jr. Even my son is like, “Iron man is going to be in the TV series and all of a sudden dad is acceptable again.” But I think there are a lot of Vietnamese actors who are really excited because now they get a chance to participate in a TV series that is about us and shows us hopefully in all of our complexity and which means that shows us in all of in humanity at the same time. And in Park Chan-wook’s movies about Korea. That’s exactly what he does. These are not good representations of Korea. These are movies that show Korean people at their best and at their worst. And that is also the intent of books like The Sympathizer and The Committed as well.

Jennifer Acker:
And will you be involved in the process at all?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I’ve asked to be blown up somewhere in the TV series.

Jennifer Acker:
Oh, okay.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah. Like step on a land mine, get hit by rocket, something like that. Yes. That’s what an author deserves for selling his TV series.

Jennifer Acker:
We’ll look forward to seeing that. So a couple of questions have come in. One of them is, did you ever seriously doubt becoming a writer or keeping being a writer and what allowed you to continue and keep going?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I think every writer doubts being a writer. So actually the worst moment in my life as a writer happened here in Massachusetts. I got a fellowship to a place called the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, on the very tip of Cape Cod. And I’m sure many of you have been to Provincetown in the nice months and the not so nice months, they give it to the writers and the artists. And I’m from California, so the first month in October is fine and then the next five months is like this. And I just got into, I was so depressed. I was depressed. I had insomnia and I was writing that stupid Black-Eyed Women’s story. So I spent the entire seven months working on one stupid short story. I came into that fellowship thinking, “I am awesome. I’m a writer, and I’m going to go in here and I’m going to finish my book and then it’ll be sold and I’ll be famous.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And instead, at the end of the seven months, I was like, “I’m not a writer. I suck. I’m much less talented than I ever thought I was. I have so much more work to do. This is terrible.” And at that point I could have stopped. At that point, I could have stopped. And that was 2005, but I didn’t stop. And as I was telling the students, if you have to choose between talent and persistence, choose persistence when it comes to being a writer, because if you have talent and no persistence, you’re likely not going to make it. But if you have persistence, you can overcome a lot of odds. And so that was 2005. I didn’t get published as a fiction writer in terms of a book until 2015. That was another 10 years of working at it. But because I faced that moment and I persisted, I kept on going, which didn’t mean that there weren’t more moments, booms of doubt and lack of self esteem and depression. There were many of those, but that was the worst.

Jennifer Acker:
So here’s a question that asks about if you grew up listening to, or consuming overseas Vietnamese music, such as Paris by Night, or the music of an artist whose name, I do not know how to pronounce, so I’m not going to do it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Oh, Trịnh Công Sơn. Trịnh Công Sơn is one of Vietnam’s most famous composers and he’s been he’s compared to Bob Dylan, in terms of his impact on Vietnamese culture and the fact that he was an anti-war singer from south Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. So his compositions are really legendary.

Jennifer Acker:
Did you grow up listening to that music and what influence did have on you, if so?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I grew up listening to the music of Paris by Night. Now, get this, my parents are super devout Catholics. We go to church every Sunday, they’re very strict. And then they would pop in these videotapes of Paris by Night, which is our version of the song and dance review from Hollywood and Paris by Night features half naked women dancing around in fishnet stockings, trying to imitate Madonna, singing very sexy songs. I could never get over this contradiction, but this was in every Vietnamese household, because we were shut out of Hollywood. And so we had to create our own entertainment and that was Paris by Night.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And it gave us all this glamor and everything. And it was the training ground for generations of musicians and dancers and choreographers and comedians and things like that. And so that is, I think, a defining characteristic of Vietnamese refugee life. And I wanted to pay tribute to that in my own work. So it appears as Fantasia in The Sympathizer. And then if you read The Committed, it appears again, and it will appear again in the third and final installment of The Sympathizer trilogy, because it’s so much fun.

Jennifer Acker:
Were you ever able to ask your parents about this juxtaposition of the Paris by Night and the church by day?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
No. I don’t have those kinds of conversation with my parents.

Jennifer Acker:
It would be a hard one?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Yeah.

Jennifer Acker:
So this question is, you are a writer interested in justice and so what is justice for your characters and can there be justice for them?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
So The Sympathizer, the narrator of that novel is an alcoholic, a liar, a womanizer, a spy, a murderer, and so he does a lot of things that he needs to atone for as he’s very conscious of. And so he’s on the quest for justice. I mean, he’s a revolutionary, he has all these high-minded ideals. And, of course, the contrast in the contradiction is that he himself is a deeply, deeply flawed individual. And if you read The Sympathizer, you realize by the end that he has committed a great crime. I won’t tell you what it is. And so in The Committed, The Committed, the sequel, it’s very much about him besides doing the sex and drugs and violent and gangsterism and stuff. It’s also about him trying to find justice for himself and his realization that he also has to atone.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And he has to try to figure out what that means, what does he have to do? What does he have to say? So that was very important for me to write that book with that kind of a narrative for him, because I am interested in writing this trilogy both to give readers and hopefully to entertain readers, but also to work out my own thinking about questions of justice, morality, reconciliation, recovery, versions of revolutionary politics, what’s possible for country like the United States when he returns, we are a revolutionary country, we’re born out of an American revolution. And yet the point of these two novels partly is about how we are a deeply compromised and contradictory country because we’ve failed our own revolution so many times and still do.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And so if there’s any hope for this country, that’s what the third novel is supposed to try to deal with. How do we make ourselves into a better country that could actually deliver on its promises while not bombing other countries? I think it’s very important to say that, because oftentimes it’s like, “We are going to make this country into a more perfect union. We’re not perfect. We’ll make it at a more perfect union, but let’s pretend that we’re also not bombing other countries at the same time while we’re trying to figure out our own internal issues.” And you have to do both. We cannot be a country that tries to seek justice for its own people while it’s bombing, invading, occupying, arming other countries doing terrible things.

Jennifer Acker:
This is more of a process question. How did you come to develop your way of working? And do you have a specific process for drafting, researching, outlining, et cetera?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Gosh, when I wrote The Sympathizer, that was the ideal two years. I was released from teaching. I had fellowships and so on. And so I would write four hours a day in the morning. My experience in Fine Arts Work Center taught me this. At the Fine Arts Work Center, I thought I’m going to bring my Vietnamese Catholic refugee ethic to this. I’m going to work eight to 12 hours a day and I’m going to write a book. And then, of course, that was the wrong thing to do because when I wrote eight to 12 hours a day, I ended every day completely exhausted and hating myself and what I’d written. So that taught me, I think Ernest Hemingway, who said this, “Stop at a good moment and then pick up on that moment the next day.” So that’s what I did. I would write four hours, have lunch, and then I would go running in the gym for an hour.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And I had so many amazing insights during that hour on the gym. That was actually a part of the writing process. So when it comes to writing, writing is not only just putting words on the page, writing is about so many other things as well, including exercise and clearing your mind and doing whatever physical or spiritual thing you need to do to be in that space. And then I’ve never had that moment again. Like with The Committed, for example, part of the problem with having The Sympathizer be success was I got a lot of invitations to do things like this and have a very hard time saying no. And so I would write The Committed in spurts. I would write it for a month or two weeks and then have to go off and give a speech or do something like that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And so it was a very different rhythm that was constantly being interrupted. And that just like real life, like real life rarely delivers us the ideal circumstances for whatever it is that we wanted to do. And so we have to learn how to adjust to that. So I know that there’s a lot of the mantras out there, write every day in order to become a writer, except for those two years. When I was writing The Sympathizer, I’ve never written every day. I’m writing a memoir right now. There have been months where I haven’t written and then there’ll be a month when I’m not teaching or grading papers. And there was a month where I wrote 30,000 words because I’d been pent up. They’d been building up inside of me. So even when I’m not writing, part of the writing process is taking notes inside my head and taking notes on my phone and so on, preparing for that moment when I do have the time to write 30,000 words, all of a sudden.

Jennifer Acker:
Right. So here’s a question about criticisms or comments. How, and when do you internalize or externalize criticisms or comments about your work?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, I’m trained as a critic, which means I criticize a lot, and I’ve criticized a lot of writers in my life. And so when The Sympathizer came out, I thought, “Well, I have to walk the walk and talk the talk.” So if I’ve been so good at criticizing other writers, I have to read every word of criticism written about The Sympathizer. So I literally read, I think, every word, all the stuff that was published in the newspapers and by professional reviewers. And I was very lucky that it was almost overwhelmingly positive. And then just to bring myself down a pig, I read amazon.com and Goodreads reviews, almost every single one, including the one star, two star reviews, getting rid of the ones that said, “Well, the book arrived damaged, one star.” There were a lot of reviewers who had their say about, they didn’t like this or that about the book.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And so there was a certain percentage of readers, for example, who refused to read past the squid episode, their loss. There were certain reviewers, the biggest hangup was, I don’t understand why there are no quotation marks in The Sympathizer. I was like, “Why is this such a big deal?” But again, no quotation marks, but the more serious criticism I think for that novel came from academic critics and from everyday readers who I would meet. And that was around the question of gender representation and sexuality in The Sympathizer. And they’re absolutely right to make those criticisms because The Sympathizer, the narrator is a misogynist. And in order to write that novel, I had to fully inhabit the misogyny of that character, which means that given that it’s a first person narration, it’s a sort of a realistic, kind of a novel, I couldn’t step out of character and say, “This is bad.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
What he’s doing, what he’s feeling, you shouldn’t look at women this way, bad, bad, bad. And in fiction, given a certain set of constraints that this is the aesthetic you’ve committed to, you got to go all the way. And so I went all the way, which means that I also have to accept that there are going to be reactions to the novel that are perfectly legitimate, that reject the misogyny of the character. And so I learned from reading a novel called close quarters by Larry Heinemann’s novel about the Vietnam War. Heinemann was a veteran. And Heinemann wrote this novel and I read it when I was a kid at a much too young of an age. And I was so angry after reading that novel because it depicted the Vietnamese in a really horrible way, racist, Vietnamese woman is raped and so on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And I blamed the Heinemann. I thought, “You’re just perpetuating these horrifying images of Vietnamese people.” And then I reread it as an adult and I realized Heinemann is right. What Heinemann wanted to do was not simply to tell us that wars hell, but to show us. The protagonist of the novel is that the young average, 19 year old American guy, nice guy, goes to war immediately becomes a killer and a rapist. And that’s Heinemann’s point. This is what war does. And he wanted Americans who read this book not to come away from it with any kind of pretense about what the American military was doing to other people and what the American military was doing to its own men. And that was the right thing for him to do, even if I got angry about it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
And I felt the same way with The Sympathizer. Now, that being said, that doesn’t let me off the hook because you could argue, well, you could have written the novel in a different way so that the misogyny was highlighted and so on. And so that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write a sequel, The Committed, where it’s not just a reconsideration of revolution, but it’s also him coming to terms with his own misogyny. He doesn’t become a feminist by the end, that’s completely unrealistic, but he does become really aware of the depths of his own misogyny and of the misogyny of others and of the pleasures that misogyny creates for men or for some men. And that’s why the still needs be a third book to really work out both the dialectics of Marxist revolution, but also this dialectics of how do men come to grips with their own masculinity and their own privilege in patriarchal, heteronormative structures that deliver pleasure for them and paying for so many other people.

Jennifer Acker:
And do you think you could or should have built in a critique of misogyny into The Sympathizer? Do you think that would’ve been possible in the book and that in retrospect, you should have done it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I mean, it is possible. I mean, honestly, in writing The Sympathizer, I had to confront my own misogyny as well, because I was having a good time writing this book. I was like, wow, I was like… And about two thirds of the way through the book, I realized he’s a misogynist. And if I’m enjoying his misogyny, that means I’m probably a misogynist too. It’s very uncomfortable moment. And so that’s why I felt that the novel I had to pursue the discomfort in the novel, both for myself and for the characters. And so I think I had a glimer of that early on, which is why I created a character like Ms. Mori who’s this nascent feminist, and we see her character art delivered in the third and final novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I know this much about the third and final novel. Miss Mori’s going to come back, a very important character in doing exactly what you’re talking about, but I felt to me, by the time I realized what was happening in the novel, in terms of misogyny, it was too late to do that. It was too late to introduce that character that could say, “Naughty, naughty, this is misogyny.” Instead, what I had to do at that point was to demonstrate consequences of misogyny.That’s the crime that happens at the end of the book. And this upsets a certain portion of readers who say, “Well, why did it have to be this crime? Aren’t you just perpetuating this by talk by rendering into a spectacle.” And it’s possible that’s true.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
That’s why it’s a valid critique, but it’s also possible that what I was doing in there was to demonstrate that this is actually the crime that had to happen, that this is the logical consequence of the misogynistic pleasures, that so many of us take for granted when we enjoy misogynistic spectacles in the movies and TV and books and all that kind of thing. And that had to be delivered in a very painful both for the reader and also for the narrator. It wouldn’t work. I think for the narrator had some kind of intellectual understanding. It had to be a really visceral, painful, emotional understanding. And we’re left with that. We’re left with the pain, but not the understanding. The understanding comes later in the sequel.

Jennifer Acker:
So here’s a question about your thoughts on the future of Vietnamese American writing and the identity for the Vietnamese American generation no longer growing up with the war. What would the Vietnamese American identity look like separate from the war or will we always have a relationship with it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
God, I hope not. I mean, Ocean Bloom is in this town somewhere. And I’ve done event events with Ocean. And I think that I love him because he teaches me so much about, I’m having a hard time saying it, getting in touch with my emotions, because he is very good at that. And I think that he’s taught me a lot, because part of the work is partly about the war and its consequences, but a lot of his work is not about that at all. And when I look at a younger generation or a newer generation of Vietnamese American writers, there are still some that deal with the war and the refugee consequences. And so the creation of diaspora and so on. And then there are writers who are doing all kinds of stuff. There’s romance writers, there’s fantasy writers, there’s a writer who’s rewritten The Great Gatsby.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
This is incredible. And I could never have predicted that this is what we would’ve been doing 20 years ago. And that’s exactly the point. 20 years ago, I was this angry young Vietnamese American man. Now, I’m in sort of an angry middle age Vietnamese American man. But 20 years ago, I was the young guy sitting out there listening to my older Vietnamese elders, talk and talk and talk and talk and I was like, “When did we get a chance to say something, the younger generation?” And now I’m that guy up here talking and talking, talking, and there’s all these potential younger Vietnamese American writers out there thinking, “When’s he going to shut up, so we can have our say?” And that’s exactly the right attitude to have. And so my job is to get out of the way. My job is to get out of the way and do my best to create structures that help younger writers have opportunities.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
This is for important to me. So when The Sympathizer came out, the first major review of The Sympathizer said something that I dreaded, but I thought was possibly going to happen if the book was a success. And what that review said was, “Viet is a voice for the voiceless.” And I was like, “No, have you ever met any Vietnamese people? Gone to a Vietnamese restaurant? Been to a Vietnamese household? We’re not voiceless. We’re really, really loud.” The issue is not that we’re voiceless, is that we’re not allowed to speak. We’re not allowed to publish. We’re not allowed to get our stories out there. And that’s a condition we share with so many other so-called minorities in this country. And so when someone like me comes along, I’m a voice for the voiceless. Well, there was a voice for the voiceless before me.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
There’s going to be a voice for the voiceless after me. It’s not a compliment. It’s a way to shut everybody else up and let one person speak at one moment. And so I’m not interested in being a voice for the voiceless. I’m interested in abolishing the conditions of voiceless. That’s really the project of justice that I’m concerned about, which means that my friends and I, we’ve started the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, which does things like host shows and readings and gives writers residencies and so on. Precisely with the ambition, not to tell them what to write, but just to give them the opportunity and the connections so that they can write whatever they want. And that’s something that I think that is so crucial for those of us who are successful writers to do, is not to just hoard all of the opportunities for ourselves, but to try to create conditions for totally different voices to emerge.

Jennifer Acker:
I think that’s a wonderful note to end on.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Wow, we’ve ended on a positive note. This is first for me. Usually my talks are like, “Oh, such a downer,” at the end. And now we end with the possibility of new voices [crosstalk 01:11:07] that are out there. Hopefully, new voices are ready out there right now in the Amherst audience, ready to have your say very, very soon.

Jennifer Acker:
That’s great.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thank you so much.

Jennifer Acker:
Thank you so much for-

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thank you.

Category: Interviews, Videos

 

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