Duke University | Ethics of Now: Struggle, Trauma, Memory, and the Power of the Fictions We Weave

A conversation between Professor Adriane Lentz-Smith and Viet Thanh Nguyen for Duke Ethics.

Read the transcription below.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Hi everybody, and welcome to The Ethics of Now, our occasional conversation series meant to bring folks here in the Durham community, the Duke community, and beyond, into conversations and discussions about things that matter to all of us, with the help of someone whose thinking, writing, doing, has been interesting and important. We are in a period when we realize that we need to have good and meaningful and substantive discussions about pressing issues. We used to say, at the beginning of the pandemic, that the pandemic called for it, I think we’ve come to realize over the last several months that the times call for it, and so we’re going to continue to do it as best we can. I’m Adriane Lentz-Smith and your host for the series and for this evening, I’m going to run over a couple of details before I turn to the introductions.

One is to remind you that this is a conversation. So I’m going to talk with our guest tonight for a little bit, but down there at the bottom of your screen, there is a Q&A button, and you should put your questions in as they occur to you during the conversation, immediately following the conversation, whenever, and at about 8:10 we’ll turn to the Q&A and try to get to as many as we can. Also, as the local news has been telling us, a snowpocalypse or a mini snowpocalypse or sub-snow is coming, so there could be a few technical difficulties. Kenan has folks, the good folks at Kenan are working in the background to make sure that everything goes smoothly. But if we have some sort of glitch, just wait us out and we’ll be back with you in a moment.

I’d like to begin, as we’re in this virtual space, as I often do with a land acknowledgement statement, just to remind ourselves of where… Well, I was going to say where we are, but y’all could be a variety of places. Where I am, where Duke and Durham are. And I’d ask you to think, if you aren’t here in the immediate area, a bit about where you are and the history of the place, the unfolding history of the place in which you’re located. Duke is situated in the traditional territories of the Tutelo and Saponi people. The contemporary Saponi are organized as three tribes who live in central North Carolina today, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi nation, the Saponi tribe, and the Haliwa-Saponi Indian tribe.

And now for the introduction, I am pleased, delighted, and thrilled to welcome Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is a MacArthur fellow, a Guggenheim fellow, and the university professor, Aerol Arnold chair of English, and professor of American studies and ethnicity and comparative lit at the University of Southern California, where he’s won numerous awards for teaching and mentoring. Born in Ban Mê Thuột, Vietnam, he is also, as he describes himself, a refugee, a first-generation college student, and a beneficiary of Affirmative Action.

In addition to writing and editing books and short stories, he also serves as a contributing writer for the New York Times and has published in numerous other outlets, including The Guardian, The Atlantic, and Ploughshares. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, is set to become an HBO series directed by Park Chan-wook, and its Follow-up, The Committed, was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, Time, and BuzzFeed among other outlets. I chose those three because I figure that gets like all of the current generations of leaders somewhere in there between The Post, Time magazine, and Buzzfeed. And with that, I am happy and delighted to welcome Viet. Hi.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Hi Adriane, how are you there? So good to see you.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Good to see you too.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Hi everybody out there, virtual [inaudible 00:04:17] Carolina.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Yeah, there’s some people who would really not want it to be called Duke land, but we’re going to bring those people around slowly and surely through effort and charm. Also, may I just say, as a person who loves rooms full of books, I find that the background on your screen to be joy inducing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Oh good. I’m glad. Yeah. People can zoom in, look at different books over here. I’ll just point out, this is a first edition Beloved from Toni Morrison, just somebody who liked my work, just gave me a spare copy. So good stuff like that happens sometimes in the author world.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

That’s a good argument for writing a novel that brings people into your life. And actually, I want to come back to you, remind me, I’m going to put a pin in it, but just talk to you about books before this conversation and what you’re reading or what moves you. But before we do that, I want to ask a sort of big and general and impossible and unfair question. And I’m asking it in various ways of everybody I encounter right now and have been since somewhere around, I don’t know, this time last year. We’ve come to the end of 2021, we’re three weeks into the new year. We’re on the… Whatever, the one-year anniversary of Biden’s inauguration.

And I think we’ve all done a lot of reflecting on the year that has passed. I have some sense that all of the things that were cascading all over us last year, the pandemic and the intense response and occasional refusal of people to care about the wellbeing of others, the insurrection and the narratives that we see coming out, and the horrors that we continue to hear about how things were worse than we thought, even as people are claiming that they were not as bad as we thought. And then racial violence in myriad forms. I have some sense that all of those things are wrapped up in one another and bound up in one another, but I’m still searching to find a language to articulate how and to pull the threads apart. And I know people have asked you to write about pieces over and over again, or have talked to you about various happenings and events. And I’m wondering if you have some sense, like when people say to you, “What on earth just happened?” How you begin to talk about it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, I share your sense of disquiet, obviously as we know, we’re living through history and it’s no fun actually to live through history. It’s much more fun to look back on history. We were just talking, before this began, about the 1918 flu epidemic and which was even more devastating than what we’re living through now. And yet when we look at history books or at least when I did, you would be lucky to see one sentence mentioning the 1918 epidemic. And so this gives you a sense of how history might look back upon our time, that although all that we’re feeling right now might just appear as a footnote in some history book in the future. Maybe that’s reassuring, to put things into context and maybe it’s not reassuring, but I certainly do feel great anxiety.

I do feel a little bit better than I did in 2020 when things were really… That is a year that I will never forget. So it feels like 2021 for me has been a moment of personal resting. I just taken a breather, stepping away a little bit, but I think that we’re leaping through a period of what we might call a phony war and there’s a lot of conflict and everything, but the real conflict is yet to come in the next few years. But the way I make sense out of this and give myself a little bit of comfort and perspective is to say that all the various things that we’re confronting, I think erupt out of some very central contradictions in American society that go back to the very origins of this country, but also to the very origins of white settler colonialism in this country as well.

So they’re not unrelated. It’s not unrelated that we see the resurgence of anti-black violence, anti-Asian violence, and that we see this conflict over COVID and personal responsibility and collective responsibility and all that. To me, it goes back to how this country was formed. That for me, this country was formed from slavery, genocide, colonization, occupation. And it was also formed from ideals and aspirations that we are all quite familiar with. And these things are inseparable from each other. And I think to make things simple, we might want to try to separate them, but they can’t be. And so what I think we’ve seen is that white supremacy, which was dominant and never needed to be named or rarely named explicitly throughout the past couple of centuries, has been put into crisis, explicitly so since World War II, the end of World War II.

And I think what we’re going through now is a very long moment of history, starting from the post- World War II period and civil rights up until the present, that’s been heating up. That’s been increasingly contradictory, and with white supremacy increasingly visible and also increasingly put into crisis, it means that the proponents of white supremacy who had once opposed the tyranny of the British government, now oppose the tyranny of what they see as their own government, because it is no longer absolutely the guardian of white supremacy, but is actually an institution that is trying to embody the ideals on which we were formed.

That of course, is also kind of a delusion, right? When president Obama says, “This is an imperfect country and we’ll make it better,” I’m a little bit skeptical that we can ever divorce the aspirations from the bloody origins of our country, which still continue to the present. So that’s my historical take on why we see these kinds of eruptions, why we’re seeing them happening at the same time and why they resurge on periodic basis throughout American history. It’s just been hard that they’ve resurged all at once, all at the same time in a very concentrated period.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Yeah. I mean, historians, Southern historians, Glenda Gilmore among them, have talked about the protean nature of white supremacy, right? That it remakes itself in response to the pressure of social movements or of people, whether they’re organized into a movement or not, of people putting pressure on it. So maybe they’re screaming, even the screaming murderousness is a response to a feeling of being under… To put it far more simplistic than a historian has ever supposed to put things, a feeling that the good guys are winning. And I agree with you that this is an imperfect country, but we’re getting better as it is aspirational talk, it is not a talk that’s reflected necessarily a reality. But I also wonder if you can’t have a social move, you can’t have the energy to try to pursue reform, if you don’t speak in the language of aspiration, even if we all know it’s a little bit dreamy.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Sure. No, I think it’s absolutely right. Obviously it’s a politically diverse country and thank God I’m not a politician, because you actually have to do things, like address the diversity of people’s interests and the often contradictory nature of people’s interests. It’s very hard to predict how people feel about every single issue because people are not consistent. So you might look at, let’s say just a liberal [inaudible 00:12:16] spectrum. There’s a huge amount of disagreement over what this country is. I mean, we might have some vague consensus about certain things, but there are a lot of people, people of color included, who I think absolutely do believe. And it’s an imperfect country that can be made better based on its own terms.

And I think that any kind of political movement, ranging from the electoral side to the activist side, it has to make decisions about what kind of rhetoric to put forth at a certain time and what kind of policies, decisions to make and what kinds of items to put on the political agenda. We’re witnessing that right now, obviously. And so every coalition is like that. And we have uneasy relationships with people we’re supposed to be in solidarity with. So there’s no easy solution to what we’re talking about here. We’re trying to make incremental gains. We’re trying to protect the gains that we’ve made. And for some of us, we have a more utopian vision of where it is that this country can head.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Yeah. And part of what we do or what I think you and I do, is to traffic in words and in narratives that help people. In my case, to see what folks have imagined, what they’ve looked for, what they’ve articulated, right? The possibilities that have fallen out of our memory, but that at some point existed. Whereas for you, I mean, you do some of that because you’re a keen observer of history, but you’re also in writing fiction, like pushing people’s capacity to generate, to push their imaginative capacity. Do you think that’s… I mean, that might be a little too fluffy too. I guess I should put that in the form of a question instead of telling you what you do.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

No, what I mean, it’s like there’s as a writer and as an academic and as a teacher and as someone who sometimes does this public engagement kind of business, I understand there’s different kinds of discourses out there, right? So sometimes you do want to be the cheerleader, the optimist, the aspirational person, make people feel good about the possibilities of solidarity and alliances and what we can accomplish in this country and so on, because sometimes you do need to do simple things like secure voting rights or expand welfare benefits and so on and so forth, right? So that is all absolutely crucial.

As a writer of fiction, however, I’m much more skeptical about a lot of these things and about the role that writing needs to play in that regard. So for example, once when I was a much younger writer, I submitted a short story to a magazine and the editor wrote back and said, “Where’s the hope in this story?” I’m like, “Why are you looking to me for hope? What is this word hope?” Hope may be something a politician needs to put forth or a political movement needs to put forth, but a writer… A fiction has its sort of a different obligation.

Sometimes I look at the historical things I deal with. And sometimes there isn’t hope, when people are being massacred and when they die and when struggles are long, it’s hard to find that hope sometimes. So there’s this tricky balance for me when I write fiction at any rate between granting or acknowledging the necessity of individual agency and what we can do to change things and the hope that all of us hang on to, even I have hope within myself, foolish hope let’s say, but hope is needed to keep us alive.

And yet also to acknowledge the historical realities that for so many people don’t end with a better future, but end in death, how do you balance those two things? How do you make people be realistic and to assess how serious the problems are that we sometimes face, and yet also try to give them enough aspiration to keep moving forward? And when we talk about literature, what we also have to talk about is not just the content, the story, the plot, but we also have to talk… For me anyway, I have to talk about the feeling that literature gives in and of itself. So when people read a novel, you are not just reading it for the content, you are reading it for a feeling that you take away from it, from the pleasure of the story, the pleasure of the language and so on and so forth.

So with my own novels, for example, the material is really dark, right? Even though there’s a lot of jokes in there, but at another level, at the level of literature, I hope readers come away feeling thrilled at the experience of reading. So it’s a real contradiction, we’re dealing with war and terrible things. And yet you can feel thrilled reading about it. And so that’s a totally different level of discourse than the other one that we’re also talking about, which is how do we motivate people to get up and step out of their comfort zones and their bedrooms and their so on and so forth, and go out and teach and form social movements, and get out in the streets. These are two very different kinds of writing and public performances that we have to do.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

You’re reminding me that I spent a semester in college as a Russian and Slavic studies major. And I think the most… In some ways, the class in that period that made the biggest impact on me was the 19th century novel class, the 19th century Russian lit class, where the vision of the world, the tone of the fiction, even with […], who was hilarious was of like clear-eyed kind of acerbic, sometimes fantastical vision of the just complete method upedness of the world. I think the thing that I read in that class that struck with me the most was from Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky, which when I then read The Invisible Man, could see so much how Ellison had been reading Dostoevsky. And that’s not like it is not a literature of uplift. And in fact, when I decided to major in history, I went to American history in part, because even if intellectually, I didn’t believe in the insistent progress narrative that my high school education had handed me, emotionally, I needed someone around me who did.

And I don’t want to give into the platitudes that we so often hear about literature or art in general. But I think that the examples that you spoke about and what I just spoke about, testifies to the fact that one of the reasons why we need art or literature is, again, not because of the content of what it does, but because of how it moves us in a certain way and reminds us that in fact, you can extract great beauty from even the most terrible kinds of circumstances. And that the existence of art is evidence of who we are as the best of who we are as human beings. And again, let’s not be sentimental. I mean, every human being is good and bad. Every human society is good and bad, but art is sort of this distillation of the goodness in us. Again, not a sentimental goodness, but our capacity to create something, even as we’re destroying things at the same time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

And so that’s why I think those of us who love literature, turn to books for comfort, even if the stories themselves are not comforting necessarily, the very existence of books and literature and poetry and art is comforting. I’m curious as to what other people find comforting, because obviously I’m a book lover, right? So that’s where I turn to for evidence of human endurance and the human spirit in our capacity for beauty and goodness. I don’t know what people who don’t love books turn to. Do video gamers turn to video games for evidence of human goodness and beauty? It’s possible, right? So there’s so many different ways that we create things and by bringing up the example of video games, it just shows me that if I ever am tired of reading books, I could always just turn to video games and try to find some beauty there.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:
Do you play video games?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I do. But I’m terrified of them, because my relationship with video games is like that of a drug addict. Like I’ll buy like… Every few years I do this. When I was running my dissertation, I soaked that up, I went out and I bought the game console of the day, which was Sega Genesis from Target. I played it 24 hours for a week. And then I felt so sick and disgusted with myself, but I went and returned it to Target, and I went back to my dissertation. So I’ll do that every few years. Like my last thing was probably Candy Crush. Did it for like a week or two weeks, stayed up to like 3:00 in the morning playing Candy Crush in bed. And I was like, “I got to stop.”

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Yeah. I would benefit from not having any hand-eye coordination, so that cuts out a lot of video games. I just can’t make my brain and my hands… Nothing works together in that way. I discovered Wordle the other day and realized that was going to be dangerous, but that’s about as bad as it gets for me. Spelling Bee, New York Times Spelling Bee, but I don’t think other people call those video games.

But there’s also, as you were talking, I was thinking that there’s a difference between what we need as readers and what we need as writers. That part of what writing is for me, and again, I’m historian, right? So it’s clarifying my own thoughts and my own arguments. And I think I’ve told you in an email that there are certain terms in our contemporary politics that I’ve just grown tired of either because they’ve

been so co-opted and fussed about, that they feel meaningless or they’re so detached from their original meanings that they don’t feel like they mean anything to me, which is a long-winded way of saying that I think our political language has become very silly, whether it was substantive in the first place or not.

But I’m going to ask you to help me think about terms like identity politics or even critical race theory, which I think critical race theory as a subfield of the law is really interesting, as a shorthand for anytime you make me think about settler colonialism, or think hard about the world and social relations and power and how it works, I get mad. I just want to just wipe it all away and make people say what they mean. But if what they think they mean is contained in the phrase that they’re using, then I don’t know how to do that. So how do I redeem language, Viet?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, again, as a writer, it’s an important question, right? Because as a writer, I think one of our basic obligations is to always try to make the language fresh, because if you can make people see a word or a phrase in a new way, then they’ll see the idea behind that in a new way as well. So language does play a really crucial role in shaking up our perception of reality or affirming some very [inaudible 00:23:30] notion of reality as well. It does the whole spectrum. So with these two terms that you just talked about, critical race theory and identity politics, we see some of the ways by which these terms, which in fact, I think did or do shake up our perception of reality, have also become terms that have been appropriated and imbued with a certain meaning that the originators of these terms may not have intended.

So identity politics, it’s actually coined, as far as I know, by black feminists from the Combahee River Collective, articulating this idea that in fact identity is important. That if black women have been negated and devalued throughout much of American history, then a black feminist politics of liberation needs to start from the identity of black women. And from there, of course, that concept has had enormous impact on so many of us who have said, “Yes, in fact, our identities have been negated and we need to organize and to affirm around these identities.” Certainly, that was true for me as a Vietnamese-American and Asian-American in a country that is fairly anti-Asian in a lot of ways. And of course every political movement, every terminology can be taken too far or can be articulated in ways that have no nuance.

And of course, that has happened to variations of identity politics. There are versions of identity politics that are regressive, that are prejudicial in their own ways, that short-circuit thinking. So I don’t think the problem is with identity politics per se, as a concept. I think it’s the fact that the way it’s been implemented has often given ammunition to its critics. Now that being said, when we look at this country today and we look at what’s happening with the supporters of Trump, for example, or QAnon, and so on and so forth, that’s identity politics, that’s white identity politics going on.

And throughout our history as a country, in fact, white identity politics have been the identity politics of this country, except because it’s been majoritarian version. It’s never had to call itself identity politics as such, but now thrown into crisis by various kinds of social movements by people of color, by queer people, by feminists and so on, of course, white identity politics is thrown into relief and it’s behaving
badly. If we want to talk about the worst versions of identity politics, I think we can point the finger at contemporary white identity politics carried out in the name of the far right in the present moment.

Now, critical race theory, sort of a complicated theory. It’s deeply academic, as you say, very specific to the law and to revisionist approaches to how to do legal theory. Now it’s become shorthand for both the left and the right. And even though I think the right wing attacks on critical race theory and the right use of critical race theory is completely off base in terms of actually understanding what critical race theory is, it’s actually possibly not off base in understanding the political impetus and framework from which critical race theory emerges and of which it is a part.

So the anti-CRT people argue that CRT is basically an attempt to dismantle the United States as we know it. I’m not sure that’s incorrect. I mean, it’s like when you argue that white supremacy is the foundation of the nation and that we have to do something about it, that’s a pretty fundamental critique of what this country is. Now, of course, are you going to be scared of it or you’re going to support it? And obviously the anti-CRT people are using that rhetoric as a way of trying to forestall what I think of as needed change in this country, but their idea that we are in fact at a moment of great crisis in the direction of the country, a transformation of the country and all that, they’re not wrong. It’s just that they think that this is the great replacement that white people are going to be replaced.

And I don’t think that’s true. I think the fear of the great replacement is born out of an unacknowledged comprehension of genocide, that there already was a great replacement that took place in the history of this country and that some white people fear that they will then be subject to the same thing that they or their ancestors already did to others. I don’t know what other people think, but I don’t think there’s a great replacement happening at all. I think what it is, in fact, is simply a transformation in this country so that we have greater equity, greater opportunities for people who look like you and me to have a role and a function in this country. So make room is part of the impetus behind critical race theory. But for some of us, when we say make room, other people interpret that as replacement.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Right, or displacement. And I mean, this is why studying Southern history is really helpful that it’s not simply that we want that better society for people that look like you, or that look like me, it’s that we understand that white supremacy has been pretty bad for the vast majority of white people as well. And that having more viable, democratic practices, more equity, better ways of living, expands and increases possibility for everyone. So in some ways, I guess that’s the… I don’t think that like, whatever, it lifts all boats or what have you, but if you look at how white supremacy was constructed as a system of political economy in the 1890s, most crystally in the south, but all kinds of places, you see that it was an attempt to restrict resources and power to a very select few and in part, as an ideology, to get all of the everyday white folks who were going to lose out in this, on board, through the language of race, right? Rather than some other kind of material interest.

And I don’t know, I feel like when you’re looking at things that are written by say, the politicians who constructed it and they explicitly say it, we’re not revising. I mean, we’re always revising history, but
we’re basically showing people the material that’s there and asking them to think about it, as opposed to creating a reality out of our own political desires.

But I also recognize that I’m asking you to do something that I had a question about how you felt about being asked to do it, which is that on some level, you are in a lot of ways, a quintessential public intellectual at this point, right? You have a very strong academic view, you are a chaired professor in multiple departments. You’ve won all the prizes. Iron Man is co-starring in your book. And so you’re in this position all of a sudden where, because you have a breadth in what you do well, people want to ask you a little bit about everything. And I can’t imagine that like as a kid running around California, you were like, “I want to grow up to be a public intellectual.” So I’m curious about if that’s disconcerting to you or you… How you got here and how you feel about it, I guess.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

It’s enormously disconcerting in some ways to be described in the way that you just talked about it. On the other hand, it’s been an aspiration too. You’re right. I didn’t go around as a little kid wanting to be a public intellectual or pundit or anything. I didn’t want to be a professor. I came out of a refugee background. My parents never got better than high school education. We just wanted to go to college. My brother was the first in the family, as far as I know, of everybody to go to college. And I was the second. So all I wanted to be was to be a writer. And then I got to college and I was exposed to public intellectuals, whether they call themselves that or not. Talking to people like Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, these kind of people, Toni Morrison. And I thought, this is the kind of writer I want to be.

I want to be a writer that writes beautiful works of fiction, but I also want to be a writer that makes some difference in other contexts with his writing as well. And so in Berkeley, I started writing op-eds or essays for the Daily Cal, the student newspaper, and getting into trouble from an early age for that, because the opinions I was expressing then were pretty much the opinions I’m expressing now. And even in a place as liberal as Berkeley, some of the opinions that I had were still irritating enough for some of the other students and faculty, but I never thought that I would get to the position I’m in that you’re describing now. And so when you describe it, it feels to me that for me to even acknowledge that is incredibly vain in a lot of ways. And yet it’s also factual as well.

So it’s really disconcerting for me, knowing that people see the exterior and all the various kinds of accolades that you’re talking about. And then me feeling like I’m still like a graduate student in a lot of ways like, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m here in this situation with these kinds of people.” So I still feel like I have to be aware of my own inadequacies and yet try to live up to other people’s expectations, given these various kinds of accolades. I also have to be very aware of what these accolades mean. It’s obviously nice to get accolades, but accolades are like cocaine. They’re not good for you. I mean, they feel good, but they’re not good for you in the long run. And especially for those of us who come from so- called underrepresented or so-called marginalized groups, what does it mean to be recognized by the dominant institutions of our country?

I would like to delude myself into thinking that I deserve it all, but on the other hand, these are also symbolic rewards and reparations in a lot of ways that might have other connotations to incorporate me, to assimilate me, to tokenize me in various kinds of ways. So that’s why for me as a writer, it’s always absolutely crucial for me to think about what I do both in an individual way, because I do sit alone in a room most of my time writing, but also to think out my writing in relationship to social and political movements that are happening now, and that have happened in the past, to think of my work as a part of a continuity of what has gone on before. And to also think that what I do now, however visible it is now, might be completely forgotten 100 years from now.

So for example, recently a scholar shared with me, Kate Baldwin shared with me her book about black intellectuals who went to the Soviet Union in the 1920s. I was like, “I never realized that Langston Hughes was in Russia or was in the Soviet Union.” Here it is, a photograph, like 1920 immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution. And so, so much of what we do that might have had an impact at our present time might be forgotten or lost to history in the future. So that helps me to understand my place in this much longer history that I think of myself as, again, part of this much larger movement of solidarity that’s sort of amorphous. I don’t have a direct relationship to Langston Hughes, for example, but we’re somewhere in the same stream of time and effort and imagination that we have some connection in terms of what we think of this country and other countries and the realms of literary and political possibilities. So that’s how I make sense of myself and the way that you describe me.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

So this is a random question too, but I was thinking of the… Do you ever think about double consciousness? This came up, someone was asking me about Du Bois recently, “What does Du Bois mean about double consciousness?” And I was like, “Well, the unreconciled strivings.” But I thought about it because I was thinking about the kind of layers of… I mean, we talked about identity politics and identity, but that identity is multi-layered in its different things and different moments and those things sync up or don’t sync up. So when you think about the platform… Sorry, I’m elliptically taking you to the logic of this question, but when you think about the platform that you’ve created for yourself and that you’ve expanded and how people come to you through the lens of their expectations, and then learn to look for other things through how you present your…

So you write about refugees or you say your bio, I’m a refugee, right? And the narrator in The Sympathizer will become an exile of a sort. But there’s a way in which it’s like, oh, he was born in Vietnam and he came here and he’s a refugee. So he is going to write about the refugee thing. And you’re deeply aware of that expectation. You also have an interest and you have something that you can work with that will, in some ways, claim different space within literature and conversation through that expectation, but always thinking about how to move across who you are and who people assume you to be and what art you want to produce at the same time. And I’m processing that by reading your work, but I’m wondering how you talk about it, I guess. Sorry, that was a lot, but-

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

It makes sense to me. No, I mean, I think that when we’re talking about Du Bois and double consciousness, the black radical tradition in the United States has had a huge impact on me. I think for example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, I wouldn’t say that Ralph Ellison is invisible, but in that book there’s a moment where our narrator of the Invisible Man is remembering what his grandfather said. I believe on his deathbed and the grandfather who came out of slavery is saying, “Hey, you got to undermine him with yeses. Work. And that idea has always been very powerful for me because I am basically that kind of a person. I am not the outsider. I’m not the avant guard kind of artist. I’m kind of an institutional person, given titles and all that kind of thing.

And that’s a strength and a weakness, but I have to work with my strength, so undermining them with yeses, that’s the idea. Get into the heart of the institution and work your way in, and then undermine it from the inside. That’s the optimistic way of thinking about it. But of course, if you read Invisible Man, you see the limitations of that kind of a strategy. You think you’re undermining people with yeses, but maybe you are being undermined by undertaking the strategy. So it’s such a conundrum that is an ethical, political, artistic dilemma for me, and I think probably for a lot of other people like me, our fears and our doubts that our strategies may be not as effective as we think they are. And so in my case, given what you mentioned, as a refugee from the war and so on, my feeling is I’m given my little place in American society through its politics of representation and pluralism, which says, okay, you the refugee can write about your refugee experience or about Vietnam or Vietnamese-Americans or whatever.

And I took that and I knew that the one way I could have an opportunity to say anything in American society was to write about the Vietnam War, that’s expected of me. And so when we’re faced with that kind of a choice, I think a lot of people would say, “I’m going in the opposite direction. I don’t want to write about the Vietnam War. I’ll do something else.” But I thought I was going to run directly into history and then seize it and try to make it my own, take the opportunity that’s been given to me by the American public or publishing industry in general. And then just say something that would irritate and offend a good number of Americans, but not enough so that they wouldn’t give me prizes because this is a weird dilemma. And in that kind of situation, double consciousness always applies.

So Du Bois is one of those public intellectuals I was looking at in college. And he was talking specifically about Negros, that word that he used. But I felt that there was a huge similarity, or at least a parallel between the condition of double consciousness that he was describing, seeing oneself one own’s eyes and the eyes of others, namely dominant society, white people. I felt that that was true for a lot of people of color and marginalized populations in the United States, including Vietnamese and Asian- Americans. And I made that the subject of my novel, The Sympathizer, which starts off, I’m a man of two faces. And that’s a fiction. It’s not autobiographical, but as it turns out, I’m writing a memoir and we have the draft, my agent read it, my editor read it, and he’s like, “I don’t like the title you have. I think a better title for this book would be A Man of Two Faces.”

And I was like, “Yeah, that’s probably true.” That there is a lot of The Sympathizer in me and vice versa that I created a character, and this is a form of double consciousness. I created a fictional character to allow me to speak freely. And now that fictional character has allowed me, the non-fictional person, to emerge and to speak freely in this memoiristic vein as well. So double consciousness, it’s definitely a collective condition for marginalized peoples, where we feel ourselves to be individuals and a part of a collective, whether we want to be, or not. It’s also an existential condition. I think that a lot of people from non-marginalized conditions might also feel double consciousness as well to a smaller degree, even trivial degree, but certainly it’s something that a lot of people have probably felt that who they are and who they’re perceived to be, might be two very different kinds of things.

And so that’s where I think the connection can be made between the experiences of so-called marginalized peoples and so called unmarginalized peoples that there is a possibility of identification there. And maybe the last thing to be said here is for people who are part of the dominant class, let’s say a certain kind of white person. I think that part of what white privilege means and white supremacy is that they have been insulated from double consciousness collectively. They have never had to worry about how non-white people have looked at them because they didn’t have to care.

But now, as an outcome of social and political movements, in fact, more and more white people are quite aware of how they’re being seen and criticized or depicted by non-white people. And this is, I think, that’s uncomfortable for a certain kind of a white person, not all white people, but a certain kind of white person. And that’s partly what’s generating, I think, a lot of the politics of resentment that are going on out there right now, that white people who have not been used to double consciousness are now being forced to experience some kind of double consciousness by the changing nature of power relations in this country. And they’re not reacting well, some of them, to this experience.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Yeah. I think that’s spot on. I would ask you more questions, but my turn is up and I’m going to open it up to the floor. I will flag… I’ll just tell people the questions I thought about asking, but we may or may not get into them. One of the things that I wanted to think about was we’ve had this conversation as a very kind of US-centric conversation, but in the follow-up, in the sequel to The Sympathizer and The Committed, the narrator goes to France. And so the thought, but how we think about what is particular to the U.S., how the U.S. forms of racialized power brought part of broader histories, webs, what have you, of racialized power I think is interesting.

And then I’m curious, and perhaps this is just a question that exists in the air and the next time we encounter [inaudible 00:43:54] you can tell me the kinds of reception and readings you get in France, and whether they’re different from the conversations that we have here. But before we do that, I am going to go with this question [inaudible 00:44:08] because it begins so nicely. I absolutely love your books, especially that they demonstrate through your characters, what it means to be human i.e. confused, chaotic, mixed, broken, hopeful, disillusioned and all of the above. Can you talk more about in your view what it means to be human, not politically, but socially and from the view of eternity?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

From the view of eternity? Oh my gosh. Well, I feel qualified to answer that question because I’m a Catholic or I was raised a Catholic and it’s all about humanity and eternity in the afterlife in that respect.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:
That’s why I always call you Flannery O’Connor.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Okay, great. It’s an interesting question because there’s a sentimental discourse around the human in this country, but probably in a lot of other countries too. And for me as a writer, how that manifests itself is that oftentimes, writers of color will feel compelled to say, or really believe in saying that what they’re here to do, or what we’re here to do is to humanize our people wherever they happen to be, whatever community that we feel we’re writing about or we’re representing. And of course, the reason why we say that is because we feel that our communities have been dehumanized in various kinds of ways and are not perceived to be fully human as people of a dominant class have the luxury of feeling themselves to be. And that’s a social and a political reality of being human in this country if one is not a part of the dominant class.

And I feel that that’s really disabling in a lot of ways, disabling aesthetically, disabling politically, disabling personally and socially, to even concede to that terminology of humanity, because there shouldn’t be any need for us to prove our humanity to anybody. Whoever we happen to be, we’re already human. And if we have been dehumanized, that says less about us than it says about the people who dehumanized us in the first place. So I think it is important to insist on humanity, but to do so in very complicated ways, which is again, never to apologize for one’s humanity, never to start from the assumption that one is less than human or that one people are less than human to always be aware that humanity is in one way, a fact we are human beings, but in another very important way is a social and political construct that some people have had more privileges of humanity than other people. And that this is a function of power.

So if we want to talk about humanity, we have to talk about how humanity has been produced for certain people as a function of power that they take for granted. So it’s very hard to separate the personal from the social because I think they’re all obviously related, but in the social dimension, in terms of how we relate to each other as human beings, I think we need to have that kind of consciousness of how that very term comes about to prevent us from falling back on the old platitudes of, we’re all human here because on the one hand, it’s factually true, on the other hand, it’s socially and politically not true. And we have to know how this process of humanization has worked. We can’t give it up. We have to persist with it, right?

Because I do believe in the importance of a humanistic discourse. I do believe in the humanities. I do believe that we’re all human, but I also believe that’s a social and political struggle to attain all these different kinds of things. And that’s something that we enact collectively, me through my writing for example, but it’s something that we also have to enact at the level of interpersonal relationships as well, because there’s no doubt, I think that our interpersonal relationships, whether we’re talking about friends or community or lovers, they’re going to be impacted by these collectively social and political histories that none of us wanted.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

This next question comes from a creative writing student who says, “I see Interior Chinatown on your shelf where Charles Yu very creatively experiments with form. What is your process for deciding the format of your novels? Do you start with a plot and then think about form?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Good question. Because I think that each of my books I think looks different than the other, and I wish they didn’t because if I could just settle on one form, I could just keep on knocking them out much faster. And so that’s one way in which so-called genre fiction is really reassuring in a lot of ways because you find a form, you settle on it and then you just write 20 books about the same detective, for example. It’s tremendous pleasure to be heard in that. I think both in the reading and the writing of it. In my case, I think for me, it’s always been a question of finding the form to fit the story and to fit the character and to fit the combination of aesthetics and politics that I’m interested in. So in my short story collection, The Refugees, I chose realist short stories because that’s what I felt like I needed to do at that time, because I was actually still hung up on this idea of humanization.

Like let’s prove that Vietnamese people are human by writing short stories about them. And of course the realist short story is very amenable to that kind of discourse of being human and of humanizing. In a novel like The Sympathizer where I disposed of the notion of humanity to begin with, because one of the things that that novel claims implicitly and that I make explicit in my book, Nothing Ever Dies, is that humanity and inhumanity are completely inseparable. That we find that within both of us, within us, both of those elements within us intertwined at the same time. And that’s true for every society and every collectivity. There’s no, as far as I can tell, group of people that’s immune from being inhuman. And for me actually, you have to constantly talk about inhumanity in humanity, and the humanity in inhumanity at the same time, that’s what that novel tries to accomplish.

And to do that, I felt that I really had to use a first-person narration that would force readers to live purely within the mind of The Sympathizer. And that then required formal decisions about, for example, not using quotation marks or constructing a novel as a confession from one Vietnamese person to another Vietnamese person. And that kind of a construction, one’s humanity doesn’t come up. You don’t have to explain anything to another person of the same background. So those kinds of formal decisions are really, really crucial. And that continues on in The Committed, as with a memoir I’m writing, A Man With Two Faces, hopefully you’ll see that in a couple of years, it looks completely different than every other book I’ve written before. It’s fragmentary, it’s poetic. And the formatting is all over the place, there’s left justification, right justification, words in 100 point font and words in regular 12 point font.

The reason for that is because the form needs to fit the subject and the subject is my memories, my feelings. And when I look back upon my own life from its origins, as a refugee in this country, and through the most important period of my life, which was my adolescence in the 1980s, I don’t have a coherent narrative. It’s a very impressionistic relationship I have with the past, so to do something like I did with The Sympathizer where it’s basically one long stream of consciousness story with gigantic chapters and so on, that would not actually be how I experienced my own life. I experienced my own life in this fragmentary impressionistic way. So the form had to be found to talk about that experience.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Yeah. I actually don’t have a fluid narrative of my youth until fifth grade. And I think my family moved a lot and we got to the same town that my parents still live in when I was 10 years old. But I don’t think I
could even do a memoir of my early childhood. This question thanks us both for a lovely discussion.

Thank you for saying that. And then asks what each of us are reading at the moment.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

You first or me first?

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

I’ll go quickly because I think it’s really a question for you. For me, I’m reading Memorial by Bryan Washington, which is a book that I picked up in the Regulator and started reading, which is the local bookshop. And so just brought home with me. I hadn’t heard anything about it. I just liked it in the bookstore. And then for teaching, I just finished Kendra Field’s Growing Up with the Nation, which is an absolutely fantastic history book that’s about settler colonialism and family. And she does it as family history. So three people who end up creating the people who create her, but it’s wonderful. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

So fantastic. Well I’m teaching a seminar for undergraduates on the writer in the world, text and context. So we’re starting off our first week with 10 different essays that talk about the writer in the world in very different ways. If you want the complete syllabus and all that, just follow my Facebook page. I’ll probably post the reading list in a few days. But for example, we’re reading Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Salman Rushdie’s Is Nothing Sacred? It’s a short essay. Sarah Schulman’s, her award-winning speech for winning again, [inaudible 00:53:58] literary award, talking about a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about today in terms of how does the writer relate to the world and how does a writer confront an audience in a world that’s not prepared for what the writer has to say? So I’m having a lot of fun reading some of these essays.

And the first book that we’re going to read is James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time followed by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. So I’m teaching a bunch of books that I’ve already read before, but which deserve rereading. And this is a new book I’ve just read that I just think is incredible. I actually listened to this on audio, Chasing Me to My Grave. It’s a story of Winfred Rembert, this incredible artist who had his origins in Cuthbert, Georgia. And barely survived a lynching, was sent to prison, hard labor, et cetera, et cetera, learned how to work with leather during his prison time. And then had a very “colorful life” doing various things, including dealing drugs. And then late in his life became an artist working on leather, depicting the scenes of his life.

And it’s a really moving memoir about, number one, the fact that anybody can be an artist, but that people who we don’t think of as artists have this enormous artistic potential in them, like the people of Cuthbert, the white people of Cuthbert, Georgia, almost lynched this man, thought him worthless. And then by the end of his life, they welcome him back to the city and give him the keys to the city. That’s not necessarily the most important part of his narrative, but the most important part of his narrative is that beauty and redemption in his art that he created. And he talks about how he never thought that his life was worth writing about or creating about, who cares about this poor black kid from Cuthbert, Georgia?

And in fact, the scenes that he creates here of his life and his family and prison and all that kind of stuff, that is the stuff of art. And we talked earlier about how important art is in terms of giving us beauty and redemption. This is exactly what this book does. Unfortunately, Winfred Rembert just passed away or passed away last year, but read the book, it’s really beautiful or listen to the audio version, which is performed incredibly. I was so wrapped up in listening to the narration of the work. So I highly recommend either the audio or the physical book here.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

That sounds glorious. It also reminds me Glenda Gilmore, who’s a historian, has a new book on Romare Bearden, the collage artist, where she uses a phrase of his called the Homeland of his imagination… The homeland of my imagination, which I just think is the most gorgeous phrase for recapturing places and sanctuaries and homes that may or may not ever have been, or that was distorted in memory. I think this may be our final question. Let’s see. It says, in The Displaced you bring together voices of so many other refugees from other contexts and backgrounds. What do you think of talking about not only our experiences of mass marginalization, but also talking about marginalization of the other two, how can scholars public intellectuals, teachers, et cetera, empower not only their own communities, but also recognize that others might be disempowered in ways different than us, and we might be in a position to offer and create solidarity? That’s a fantastic question. Thank you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

That’s a good question to end on. Thank you for asking it. In fact, I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in the United States in a Vietnamese-American refugee community, quite aware that I was among people who felt themselves to be victimized. Vietnamese refugees felt themselves to be victimized because they had lost a war, lost a country and so on. Americans felt themselves to be victimized. Ironically, how’s this happen? Like, “Oh, we were the victims of the Vietnam War, not the Vietnamese people.” And when you have that sense of victimization, it can be very empowering. Obviously it can generate great art and political movements and communities and all of that. But it short-circuits exactly what the person who asked a question is asking, how do we identify with other people who may also be suffering in various ways as well?

And I think this is actually… When we get back to the question of humanity, this is a very critical litmus test for humanity. If you are only interested in justice for yourself and for people like you, you’re not really interested in justice, you’re just self-interested. And so in fact, being interested in the other and for the other is number one, I think is an impulse that is found in a lot of religions, including Christianity. Christians and Catholics often fail terribly in living up to this ethos of being interested in and for others. But nevertheless, it’s in the religion and it should be a motivating part of our ethics, our politics, and our practice of solidarity and political movements, that we should be standing up, not only for us and people like us, but for other people who may not look like us, but in other ways are like us, if they’re feeling and suffering in parallel with what we’ve been going through.

And so I think it’s important especially in this age of anti-black violence, anti-Asian violence, for example, a lot of people will immediately say, “Hey, why should we support black people for Asian? Why should black people support Asians and vice versa?” And of course there are moments in which we have these kinds of conflicts between people who are black and people who are Asian. I’m just going to use this as one example, but we have also moments of great solidarity as well. And so we need to remind ourselves of these histories of solidarity that have come before and which still exist today. And we need to take a side, self-interest or interest in others. That’s a choice that each of us has to make.

Adriane Lentz-Smith:

Thank you. And thank all of you. We have reached our time, I’m sad to say. I can keep going forever. I’m sorry for folks whose questions that we didn’t get to. I’m grateful to all of you for being here though and taking part in this conversation. I’m grateful to you Viet, for your generosity, both in this conversation and broadly speaking. We will be back doing more of these. We’re not sure quite when yet, or in what format, depending on what is safe and where is safe, but we will come back to you with these. And you’re always welcome. So if you want to join in on the conversation ever, please do. And I think that’s it. I bid you all goodnight, take good care and we’ll catch you later.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thanks Adriane. Thanks North Carolina.

Category: Interviews


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