Belonging Is a Complicated Thing: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

JENNIFER ACKER speaks with VIET THANH NGUYEN

a conversation between jen and Viet Thanh Nguyen


Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Amherst College in February 2022 in the joint roles of Presidential Scholar and LitFest headliner. In his live conversation with The Common’s editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker, he deployed humor and refreshing honesty to discuss his path to publishing his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer and its best-selling sequel The Committed. The conversation touched on the complexities of Vietnamese diasporic identity as well as his desire to expand the world of literature to encompass critical thought, breaking through the traditional literary bubble to allow for politics, history, and more. This interview is a collaboration between The Common and Amherst College’s LitFest and is an edited and condensed version of the live conversation.

Jennifer Acker (JA): You came to this country at the age of four as a refugee from Vietnam. You grew up in San Jose, went to UC Berkeley, and now you’re a professor at USC in Los Angeles. When was the first moment that you felt you belonged, if there was such a time and place, and why?

Viet Thanh Nguyen (VTN): Belonging, like home, is a complicated thing. I have a home. I have loving parents. I’ve had a very good upbringing. And yet, at the same time, I always felt a little bit uncomfortable. When we say things like home or belonging, we have to recognize that these can be contradictory kinds of places. So I always felt like I belonged in the Vietnamese refugee community, but I also felt like I didn’t belong there at the same time. The number of times I felt a completely uncomplicated sense of belonging has been relatively rare. The first one was going to school at UC Berkeley. The second sense of belonging was through writing. And I have my children and my family, and that so far is uncomplicated and wholly my own home.

JA: Those are beautiful examples. You have described growing up in a community that is haunted by memories and by loss. I’m wondering if you could describe how that haunting affected you as a writer, and as a person, too?

VTN: There’s a difference between having a sense of haunting that’s very explicit when you know that there are ghosts there—that was growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community. 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.

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. I make jokes about how the quickest way for me to kill a cocktail party conversation is to say, “Hi, I’m a refugee.” Most people have no idea what to say because it’s not a part of the American experience. But in the Vietnamese community, that experience is normalized. I would go visit people’s homes, and in every home, there would be not only black and white photographs of the ancestors who had been left behind but also those alive who were left behind. In the case of my own family, we left behind my adopted sister, so I grew up with this sense of an absence. Then I grew up as an American as well. The United States is still haunted by the Vietnam War and the ghosts of enslavement, colonization, genocide. They’re still with us, whether or not many of us want to acknowledge them.

JA: You have mentioned in an interview that, before writing The Sympathizer, no one would have accused you of being a funny person. Can you tell us about your humorous awakening and if that has changed you or your writing?

VTN: It’s made me a more interesting person, honestly. The thing you need to know about me is that I’m a deeply repressed person. 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. And then I became an academic. I don’t know what your experience is, but academics generally don’t have a sense of humor.

Then, I became a writer. Writing comes from the inside, from my own emotions, so I had to get rid of the self-repression. Creating a character who had a sense of humor, who had a critical consciousness, and who was an unapologetic communist, 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. When we’re dealing with things like catastrophe and war, it is possible to laugh with that sense of distance and with also an awareness that humor and satire are deeply political.

My perception is that so-called minority writers are expected to punch across or down. We’re expected to expose our own communities and their failures. If you’re an Asian American writer, you’re supposed to expose patriarchy in Asia; you’re supposed to expose repressive fathers and confusing mothers. But you’re not expected to express ingratitude 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. That’s what these books do, making jokes about the state and the so-called minoritized community.

JA: Why was it important that the narrator of your two novels be of mixed race?

VTN: I wanted to make my character mixed race—part French and part Vietnamese—so that I could talk about how not just the French and the Americans were racist, but the Vietnamese as well. I did not want Vietnamese people to read this book and think, “Wow, this book really represents us.” I wanted them to think, “Well, the book does represent us, but it’s showing us being racist as well.”

JA: In The Refugees, your short story collection, you have a multiplicity of narrators, all different ages and genders and nationalities. I wonder if you have ever begun writing a certain point of view that you then rejected because it was too controversial, too obtuse.

VTN: That’s a good question. In The Refugees, one of the things I want to stress is it’s mostly about Vietnamese people. Vietnamese people, like every other group of people, are very diverse, so I had to write stories from the perspective of people who were not like me in many ways—from their politics to their age, to their gender, to their sexual orientation, and so on. I also wanted to include stories about people who were not Vietnamese but who met Vietnamese people. There’s a story from a Latino man’s perspective and a Black man’s perspective.

And then there’s one story that I could not finish writing, and that was a story about a white male professor. So here I reached my obstacle. It caused me a lot of consternation that I couldn’t find the right entryway into this character. I wanted to write a story that was satirical, 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. I’m not sure why. So that just means I will have to go back and rewrite that story one day.

JA: How do you make a book political without becoming didactic? I know a strong story is very important to you as well. How do you balance those things?

VTN: We don’t teach people, writers, how to write about politics. When we talk about writing a novel, things like plot, character, point of view, and narrative timing—all that is important. But what I’m also concerned about is politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideas. Everyday people can grapple with difficult ideas, and they always have. The challenge is how to make that accessible to readers. So there is a lot of politics in The Committed, but there’s also a lot of sex, drugs, violence, murder, all these kinds of wonderful things that I enjoy reading and writing about.

JA: Did you ever doubt becoming a writer?

VTN: I think every writer doubts being a writer. Years ago, I started a seven-month writing residency by thinking, “I am awesome. I am 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.” Instead, at the end of the seven months, I’m like, “I’m not a writer. I suck. I’m much less talented than I ever thought I was. This is terrible.” And at that point, I could have stopped. And that was 2005, but I didn’t stop. If you have to choose between talent and persistence, choose persistence when it comes to being a writer. 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.

JA: Do you have a specific process for drafting, researching, and outlining?

VTN: I once thought, “I’m going to bring my Vietnamese Catholic refugee ethic to this. I’m going to work eight to twelve hours a day, and I’m going to write a book.” And then, of course, it was the wrong thing to do because I ended every day completely exhausted and hating myself and what I’d written. It was 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 for four hours, have lunch, and then I would go running in the gym for an hour. Writing is not only just putting words on the page, but about so many other things, including doing whatever physical or spiritual thing you need to do to be in that space. There are a lot of mantras out there about writing every day to become a writer, but except for those two years when I was writing The Sympathizer, I’ve never written every day. Part of the writing process is taking notes inside my head and taking notes on my phone, and so on.

JA: The sentences in The Committed and The Sympathizer are very dense, and the story is very complicated—did you have multiple rounds of revision?

VTN: When I wrote The Sympathizer, what I wanted to do in that novel was to disturb the reader in their relationship to language and see the world in a new way through the language itself. To do that, I had to rewrite every single sentence over and over again. The rhythm, the word choice, the imagery were so important because the reader would be carried along by the language as much as the plot. The crucial stage was to look at every sentence in reverse. If I’m working backward, then I’m not paying attention to the narrative, and I’m only paying attention to the sentence.

JA: How and when do you internalize or externalize criticisms or comments about your work?

VTN: The more serious criticism for The Sympathizer came around the question of gender representation and sexuality. They’re absolutely right to make those criticisms because the narrator is a misogynist. To write that novel, I had to fully inhabit the misogyny of that character. Given that it’s a first-person narration, I couldn’t step out of character and say, “This is bad. You shouldn’t look at women this way, bad, bad, bad.” In fiction, given the constraints of the aesthetic you’ve committed to, you’ve 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.

I learned from reading a novel called Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann. I was so angry after reading that novel as an adolescent because it depicted the Vietnamese in a really horrible way—racist, Vietnamese women raped. Then I reread it as an adult and realized that Heinemann didn’t want to simply tell us that war is hell, but to show us. The protagonist of the novel is this young, average, 19-year-old American nice guy who goes to war and immediately becomes a killer and a rapist. Heinemann wanted Americans who read this book to do away with any kind of pretense about what the American military was doing. And that was the right thing for him to do, even if I got angry about it.

I felt the same way with The Sympathizer. But I wanted to write a sequel, The Committed, where it’s not just a reconsideration of revolution but also the narrator coming to terms with his misogyny. He doesn’t become a feminist by the end, but he does become aware of the depths of his own misogyny and the pleasures that misogyny creates for some men.

JA: Do you think you could or should have built in a critique of misogyny into The Sympathizer?

VTN: I think honestly, in writing The Sympathizer, I had to confront my own misogyny because about two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized the narrator was a misogynist. It was too late to introduce a character that could say, “Naughty, naughty, this is misogyny.” Instead, I had to demonstrate the logical consequence of the misogynistic pleasures that so many of us take for granted when we enjoy misogynistic spectacles in the movies and books. It had to be a really visceral, painful, emotional understanding, and we’re left with the pain. The deeper understanding comes later in the sequel.

JA: So here’s a question from the audience about your thoughts on the future of Vietnamese American writing: “What would the Vietnamese American identity look like separate from the War, or will there always be a relationship with it?”

VTN: God, I hope not. When I look at a younger generation of Vietnamese American writers, there are still some that deal with war and the refugee consequences, and then there are writers who are doing all kinds of stuff. There are romance writers, there are fantasy writers, there’s a writer who’s rewritten The Great Gatsby.

Twenty years ago, I was the young guy listening to my older Vietnamese elders talking and talking and talking. Now I’m that guy up here talking and talking, talking, and there are all these potential younger Vietnamese American writers out there thinking, “When’s he going to shut up so we can have our say?” That’s exactly the right attitude to have. The issue is not that we’re voiceless but that we’re not allowed to speak. That’s a condition we share with so many other so-called minorities in this country. When someone like me comes along and says that I’m a voice for the voiceless, it’s not a compliment. It’s a way to shut everybody else up and let one person speak. I’m not interested in being a voice for the voiceless; I’m interested in abolishing the conditions of voicelessness, and those of us who are successful writers should create conditions for different voices to emerge.

Jennifer Acker is founder and editor-in-chief of The Common, and author of the debut novel The Limits of the World.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other honors include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, and the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. His other books are the bestselling short story collection, The Refugees, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction), and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. He is a university professor, the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California

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