“…Cynical as he is of the world that he encounters, he’s also pretty cynical and critical of himself. And that manifests itself in that sense of humor that you’re talking about not a light-hearted sense of humor, but a very cynical and dark sense of humor, a sense of the absurd.” Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer and The Committed (now out in paperback), among other books, joins us on the show to riff on the return of his unnamed narrator, why he followed his prize-winning spy thriller with a crime novel set in 1980s Paris, how his novels are in conversation with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the American canon, his literary inspirations and much more with host, Miwa Messer for Poured Over.
Barnes & Noble: Viet Thanh Nguyen. Thank you so much for joining us on Poured Over. Your first novel, The Sympathizer, won both Pulitzer and the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and that doesn’t often happen. So can we go back in time before we talk about the paperback of The Committed and go back to your unnamed narrator’s first sojourn in the States. What changed for you after all of that?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s great to be here talking with you. And it’s nice to go down memory lane with you as well. You know, it was completely unexpected that The Sympathizer was as successful as it was commercially and critically. And of course, it did change my life. Winning the Pulitzer, in particular, gave more opportunities for people to read the book, but also created more opportunities for me to not just write fiction and to do other kinds of literary work, but also to do things like write essays for periodicals, like The New York Times, and all of that, and to carry out something that I’d always thought about doing ever since I was in college, which was to use writing to make an intervention, not just in art, but also in public spaces as well, because the kinds of writers that I admired in college were these writers who were activists as much as they were artists. So I’m grateful to the Pulitzer for giving me this chance.
B&N: The Sympathizer was essentially a spy thriller with a lot more underscoring it, but it really starts as a spy thriller, not unlike Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker not unlike Lauren Wilkerson’s American Spy, it’s a fabulous metaphor for Black and brown writers and code switching. I think of The Committed as a crime story. Let’s put The Committed into context for a second, it is the follow up to The Sympathizer, your nameless narrator is back only this time he’s washed up in Paris, and now he is dealing drugs, which is not quite what I expected. Is this a refugee story, too? Is this a story of colonization? Is this what Junot Diaz called ghost colonial discontent, which is a great line?
VTN: Well, I think it is all of those things. And as with The Sympathizer, there’s a lot of mixing of genres and types of stories that are taking place. And when I wrote The Sympathizer, I chose the spy genre as the dominant genre for the reasons you imply. The spy genre, it’s very fitting for so-called minorities, because we often feel like we’re spying in the Master’s House, but also because the spy genre is very entertaining, and allows me to talk about things like war and politics in a very natural way. And certainly, I was thinking of writers like John le Carre, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as a book that was both very much a genre book, but also very literary, at the same time. I hoped that I could do something of the same thing. I think people who knew there was going to be a sequel, with The Committed thought that it would be a sequel in the most obvious sense, which would be to continue to spy genre. But I was never that interested in genres for their own sake, I’m interested in genres for what they can do for me formally. So, the genre has to serve the purpose of the story. And, in The Committed, he can’t be a spy any longer. I mean, I could try to push really hard to figure out some way to continue his work being a spy, but that would have made the story subservient to genre needs. And you know, what happens is that his work as a spy is obviously diminished by the end of The Sympathizer, if you’ve read the book, and something new has to happen for him, and like you said, you maybe you were caught by surprise that it became a drug dealer. For me, I thought, well, he thinks he’s hit bottom by the time of The Sympathizer’s end and when The Committed begins and is there any place nearer to the bottom, than consuming and dealing drugs for a lot of people. That was one obvious way to start. And writing the book as a crime story is also allowing me to deal with a different kind of genre, which is the crime story genre. And that’s one I’m also fascinated by as well, because I like watching and reading things that have violence and drugs and crime and sex and crime stories, like spy stories are also really powerful in not just entertaining readers, but allowing writers to make political observations and commentaries too, because the most obvious observation is that low-level street criminals are not the ones that we should be afraid of. It’s the upper level white collar criminals, people in power, especially men in power that we should be afraid of. That’s a common theme in crime stories, whether in movies or in fiction. And then finally, the novel is set in Paris and the French have a great interest in noir. And in American crime, story, style, telling and all of that. And so I also do a lot of inspiration from the ways that the French have adapted the crime story to their own needs in both fiction and in film and all that is manifested in the way that The Committed is written how it tells its story.
B&N: The Sympathizer is set in the late 70s. You’re in 1981 in Paris for The Committed. How much fun is it for you that you get to ditch everything you know about the world we live in now and go back in time?
VTN: Oh, it’s always fun. Even with The Sympathizer. I mean, I knew the world of Vietnam and the Vietnam War during the 50s through the 70s fairly well in a scholarly way, but I didn’t know it so well in a fictional way and the demands are different in terms of the kinds of research so for The Sympathizer, I did have to do a lot of reading and researching about how to do things like recreate the fall of Saigon and the work of the secret police and things like that. With The Committed, something of the same sort, I had actually spent quite a bit of time in Paris over the last 15 or so years, but like a year’s worth of time altogether. And so I had some familiarity with Paris, in the streets and the environment. And I’d taken French lessons and all of that, but I really needed to focus even more intensely for the purposes of writing the novel. So I spent a couple of summers in Paris reabsorbing the street life and talking to as many French people, Vietnamese and other ancestries as I could just trying to learn the language better as well, a project that continues to this day, and all that was actually quite a lot of fun. And also, you know, because it’s set in the early 1980s, a time period that I don’t know that much about in Paris, I had to look at that time period. In particular, I’d seen a few movies back when I was a high school student in the 1980s, made a much more concerted effort to again, watch a lot of the movies and from the 1980s, to see what the French were wearing in terms of their fashion, and their hairstyles, and all of that, and also researching a little bit more about French history and French politics at this time. And, you know, it was really informative to remind myself that this was the era when the first socialist, Mitterrand, was elected President of France. And this was, you know, the time when the French started to have, I think, five weeks of vacation per year and now they have six. By learning these kinds of things, they will put in little jokes that would have resonance for the French and, and hopefully, for Americans as well. So it was a lot of fun.
B&N: I think, too, it’s really important to remember that even when there’s a couple of extended torture scenes in The Committed, you are very funny. And your characters are very funny. And your unnamed narrator still is wrestling with this split brain, even though he’s no longer a spy, even though he’s no longer attached to the army and no longer attached to the general note, he doesn’t want to commit to anything. And he’s still walking around saying, Well, I can see all of the sides and he can, but it makes his life a lot harder than it might otherwise be.
VTN: Well, that’s the stuff of drama, isn’t it? If his life was easy, we reading about it, that the novels are obviously very particular in their time, their place, their actions, so on. But I also tried to conceive of them as novels that would have a sort of timeless dimension to them. It’s the same feeling get when I watch French New Wave cinema, for example, very particular time and place, but the dilemmas of the characters, their feelings, and so on, are enduring. And I wanted that, again, that feel for this. And so the character having two minds to faces constantly being tortured by himself, first and foremost, even before others get their hands on him. I felt that this was a universal dilemma that the idea of being split of being contradictory of always questioning oneself and being against oneself that this is the stuff of great drama, but hopefully also an experience that many people of different cultures and times go through, probably not to the extent that he goes through it, but nevertheless, the durability in endures, allows him to think about these issues, think about himself and think about these issues very deeply as well, which allows them to do a certain amount of philosophizing. One of the saving graces is that as harshly critical, and cynical as he is of the world that he encounters, he’s also pretty cynical and critical of himself. And that manifests itself in that sense of humor that you’re talking about. Not a light-hearted sense of humor, but a very cynical and dark sense of humor, a sense of the absurd. Both of these novels are concerned with the abuses of the powerful and hypocrisy of the powerful and hypocrisy of the establishment, in addition to our own individual hypocrisy is and one of the ways that we cope with these things is, besides acknowledging them, is to make fun of them, to be satirical about them to be able to laugh at some of the worst things that could happen to us, helps us to number one, understand why they happen but number two, to try to endure them as well.
B&N: When did you know you’d landed on the narrator’s voice? Because it’s this wild mix of sort of wry and introspective and funny, he’s not the most secure in his opinions.
VTN: So, when I started reading The Sympathizer, I spent about a summer trying to figure out what the opening of the novel was going to be trying out different scenes and styles and all that. And the key that really helped me to break the code of the novel was reading a novel called The Land at the End of the World by Antonio Lobo Antunes, who is Portugal’s leading living novelist at the moment and one of their two most famous novelists of the late 20th early 21st century, centuries, the other being Jose Saramago, and I never heard of Lobo Antunes, before I started writing The Sympathizer but a new translation of that novel came out. It was, I believe, his second novel that he published in the 1970s. And as a young man, he had been sent to fight in Portugal’s colonial war in Angola, which was basically their version of their Vietnam War. And it was such a powerful novel not only for the content of what it depicts, but the style which is incredibly dense, very lyrical, very poetic, and just completely unlike anything that we would typically encounter in American literary fiction reviews is all the many conventions that many of us are familiar with. And when I read the novel, I was blown away, I felt I was so deeply moved moved by the rhythm and the voice of the prose. And that was what I needed. And that was the jolt that animated me to come up with the opening line of The Sympathizer, a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces amd two minds. And when I had that line, I thought this is it. This is the voice of my narrator. And this is the rhythm of the novel. So literally, the entire novel style is embedded in that first opening sentence, so is the the narrator’s voice and character that we know from the very beginning that he’s this multifaceted person who is a spy, a sleeper, a spook, words that have many connotations, and that he’s got two faces. So which face is his real one? We don’t know for sure. He doesn’t know for sure. And that internal drama is the real drama of these novels. Everything else is plot in terms of entertainment, in terms of the drama that gets us to go from point A to point B, and all these all these kinds of things that are interesting, but the real drama is internal to himself, because it’s really him against himself. That is the motivation and the engine for both of these books.
B&N: Is your guy in conversation with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? Or is that simply an influence on the way you approached telling the story?
VTN: I think the two novels definitely are because I’d read The Invisible Man, when I was in college, it was a huge influence on me, because I was blown away by that novel, too, because I thought here is a masterpiece of literary style. And here’s a masterpiece of Black writing, in addition to American writing. And here’s a novel that’s unafraid of using literature to engage with politics of the most important kind. So all of those aspects of that novel were things that I hope to one day be able to do in my own work. Now, that being said, I do feel like I had some differences with Ellison, especially towards the conclusion of Invisible Man, because Invisible Man was written in the 40s and 50s, and became very popular during a time in the United States when the anti communism was on the rise. And it’s a huge emphasis placed in American literature and culture on the individual and Invisible Man explicitly grapples with the politics of the collective and then turns eventually, in the end towards an affirmation of the individual, above all, and I think that was one reason besides the aesthetics that really made Invisible Man very popular and acceptable to Americans as a whole in the 1950s. And I disagree with that, I thought that there was still a place for the collective and the individual simultaneously, that this was not a binary. But this was something that was more of a dialectic. And so in The Sympathizer, if you read the end of The Sympathizer, in my mind, it’s very definitely a rebuttal to Ellison. And what I was curious about, and when I got to the end of the Invisible Man is, and I guess I have to give away the ending, he emerges out of this whole, the narrator of Invisible Man and says, there’s still a role for someone like me, and then novel ends. And so we don’t know what that role is, and what’s going to happen. I thought, this is perfect, and there could be a sequel to this. And in many ways, the sequel would have been more difficult than the original, because the United States or American literature is very familiar with the narrative of the person who is seduced by ideology, and then turns away from it. And of course, the ideology in question is communism. That’s what happens in Invisible Man. And that’s where the story stops that particular type of story of the communist convert to American individualism and liberty and democracy and so on. And because my novel rejects that conclusion of that genre, it opens up another question, which is what happens next, if you reject this dominant American story? What can take its place? And The Committed is the beginning of an attempt to answer that. I don’t think it answers that question, because I see it as the middle part of a trilogy. So that’s why there has to be a third novel, the final movement of this particular dialectic for this particular narrator, which brings him back to the Americas, both the South and the North to confront again, this so called American narrative about the inevitable triumph of the individual, which obviously, he continues to reject. And I have to write it down to figure this out. Hopefully, in the third novel, he will present us with an alternative to this American story, but he had to go through the committed first in The Sympathizer he thought to hit bottom in the community discovers there’s another bottom beneath the bottom that he has to hit.
B&N: When did you know this was going to have to be a trilogy? I mean, I thought you had sat down to write The Sympathizer and it flew, and you’ve got it done. And then it was rejected by a number of publishers and found the right home, then suddenly you were working on The Committed, which was really exciting. And then you’ve been talking about this third volume, which do we have a vague date? Are we talking 2024? Are we talking 25?
VTN: Oh, no, I think later than that, I have to finish a memoir that I unintentionally wrote. What happened was that I’d written The Sympathizer and in my mind, it was like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It was gonna be a one-off story about a character. When I finished the novel, I had the reaction that I just described to you that, you know, there was more to be said about this narrator and what he the situation he finds himself in, but I knew that if I was going to do that, that it would be more than just one sequel, it would have to be a trilogy trilogy have a nice shape. You know, we estimate the Star Wars original Star Wars trilogy, for example, and they have a nice shape for an important reason. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end in a three book trilogy. And so, I knew that once I made the commitment to a sequel, I’d have to make a commitment to a trilogy in order to tell his story completely. So, that’s what happened. I wrote The Committed, and I was gonna start writing the third part of the trilogy right away. But what I typically do when I’m writing books is I’m already kicking notes for the next book. So I’m taking a bunch of notes for the third part of the trilogy. But I’ve also been writing a bunch of essays over the last five years for again, various publications and my editors and how you’ve written so many essays. Why don’t you just write a nonfiction book? I mean, it’ll be quick one, he said, you just slap all the essays together, you get a book. And so I said, Okay, I’ll do that. And I signed a contract. So now I’m obligated, right. But of course, I can’t just slap together a bunch of essays and call it a book once I looked at all these essays, but I have to write this thing from scratch. And so that’s what I found myself doing, and about three quarters of the way through, I hope, and hopefully I will finish by the end of August, and then I can turn my attention to the final installment of The Sympathizer trilogy. But the one thing I’ll say about the memoir is that like my other nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, these non fiction books are meant to complement the fiction. So if you’ve read Nothing Ever Dies, as one of my critics says, It’s the key to understanding the novels. And the memoir that I set out to write was a memoir about myself and my family, but also about our experiences as refugees and the United States from the era of the Vietnam War until the present all the way through Coronavirus and the Trump presidency and what we’re, Black Lives Matter and everything that we’re confronting now. And the title, you know, changed over time. But the title I think that my editor and I have finally settled on is A Man of Two Faces. Writing about myself, oh, you know, both you and I realized I am also the man of two faces as much as my narrator is in The Sympathizer. So The Sympathizer and its sequels are not autobiographical in any literal sense, but they are autobiographical in their impulse to talk about contradiction and being divided against oneself, especially in the context of being a refugee a so called minority, a person of color, hyphenated American, diasporic, Vietnamese, all those things. So hopefully, in reading the memoir, if readers are so inclined, they’ll find additional clues to understanding the novels.
B&N: Well, and also the literature of Vietnam, until very recently was written by white men predominantly, but also white women. You know, Michael Herr (Dispatches), Neil Sheehan (Bright Shining Lie), Francis Fitzgerald (Fire in the Lake). I mean, these were the books that were really held up. Now Le Ly Hayslip, her book came much later. And it was a bestseller, and it was a big deal. And it really mattered. It changed the way we saw a lot of the Vietnam War narrative. And and you’ve had to say this multiple times, and that Vietnam is, in fact, a country. It’s not just a war, and we had such incredible tunnel vision about it for so long. How do we continue to change that canon? I mean, we have a lot more Vietnamese and Vietnamese American writers creating art about their individual experiences. But it seems like every time we start to really get some traction, it starts to slip.
VTN: Well, you’re absolutely right, of course, that Americans have produced an enormous literature and body of film about the war in Vietnam and have claimed the war in the country as their own. And because America is an imperialist power, in my opinion, then American cultural production has global reach more so than the Vietnamese themselves. Now this is so that’s one of the ironies that some of the Vietnamese won the war, in fact, but the Americans have won the war in narrative, at least as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Now, as a Vietnamese American, what’s obvious to me is that we are allowed to speak here in a very circumscribed way. We are in fact expected to talk about being Vietnamese or Vietnam, but only in our narrow corner of it. That is, when we write about Vietnam, or our experiences, we’re talking about the Vietnamese. When Americans write about Vietnam, they’re talking about the entire country and themselves. So this is not unusual in the United States that this is the basic place that, again, so called minority are allowed to speak in only about our own experience, but never about the general experience of the country as a whole or about the world as a whole. When I wrote my first book of fiction, The Refugees, which was published after The Sympathizer, it was really written in that vein of speaking about the Vietnamese refugee experience, because I thought it was important, but also, I knew that it would be allowed to be published because it spoke about Vietnamese refugee experience. When I wrote The Sympathizer, I thought, I’m going to write about the entire war, and about the United States and about Vietnam, which is what I’m not expected to do. Because again, for example, white men can write about everything, we’re expected to write about our particular niche. And so I think that took some readers by surprise number one, because I decided to take on the entire war. And number two, because I decided to criticize the United States, which is, again, something that refugees are not expected to do. We’re supposed to be grateful to the United States for rescuing us and for allowing us to speak and forget that we were bombed in the first place by the Americans. And so that was the ambition of The Sympathizer even after The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize, and this is gonna sound terribly egotistical, but I would see articles that said, here are the best novels about the Vietnam War, and it didn’t include The Sympathizer and if it had been any other writer, like another Viennese American writer who’d won the Pulitzer Prize writing about the Vietnam War. It’s exactly the same thing that book needs to belong on this so called canon, because what else do we have to do to prove to anybody that we can speak about the entire experience? But again, the inclination is to think first to American veterans or journalists or whatever of the war who’ve written about it. So it’s still a struggle to work against this dominant American narrative about who gets to speak what the dominant mythologies are. I’ll give you another example that symbolizes being adapted by HBO for a TV series. All right. Like a couple of weeks ago, a company completely unrelated to us put out a casting call, our casting agent put out a casting call this other company amplified it, but they put their own image on it. And the image they put on the casting call was a white American soldier kissing a Vietnamese woman wearing a traditional ao dai against like a sunset or something. And people online freaked out. They’re like, what is this racist, sexist Miss Saigon kind of garbage, this TV series must really suck if it’s going to do this, oh, my God, we had nothing to do with this. And this casting company had who had nothing to do with us, whoever put this ad just plucked the first image that came to mind, this racist, sexist image, so dominant in the American and Western imagination that even when they’re talking about my book, and this story, that’s what they think about first. That’s what we’re up against. And so still such a struggle for us Vietnamese people to try to change the narrative. And we’re not unique in the challenges that we’re facing.
B&N: Part of my question about canon, too, you teach at USC, and you teach English and comparative literature, and also American Studies and ethnicity. And I’m wondering, does ethnicity does that cover people like us? Is that how we talk about us?
VTN: It’s a very convoluted history behind the name of that department. But you know, the behind that naming was to signify that we have a whole field called American Studies, a field that emerged after World War Two very strongly to foreground, the United States. And yet, of course, that field oftentimes, again, aligns itself with America as a white country, while so yes, ethnicity is meant to signify the United States is actually really diverse, right? That’s not necessarily the term I would choose. I was just hired in this department. But so much of my work as an academic and as a writer, and teacher and public writer is partly about getting Americans to recognize the inherent diversity of this country. This is the basic step. And yet that step is so hard to do. What are we facing now, even foregrounding, the issue of the United States being an internally diverse country is interpreted by some Americans as being an attack on white people. And it’s not an attack on white people, right? It’s just simply to say this is a fact of history and of life, and some people can’t even deal with it. So it’s not even in my mind, a very transgressive step to make this statement. It’s a basic step, and yet it meets so much resistance. If people are so resistant to that basic stuff, they would really freak out if they really knew or if they really read my work and understood that the work is pushing for so much more than a recognition that the United States is a diverse country. This is the least we can do.
B&N: So, let’s talk about canon for a second. If you look at the canon of American literature, it’s been very static for a very long time. And certainly there are books on there that Gatsby is Gatsby, we should keep it we should talk about the Hemingway’s that we keep. How do we start? Obviously, Invisible Man is there, Richard Wright is there like but Maxine Hong Kingston, do we still have to fight for a place for her?
VTN: It’s good question. You know, so Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize, but even until, you know, recently, like within the last decade is sometimes you’d have discussions in New York Times or something like that, about the greatest American novels and people would forget to mention, Beloved, was like, what happened here? What do you have to do? Again, what do you have to do to get a recognition that you’re not only a Black novelist and American novelist, and these two things are not irreconcilable. And you can be both at the same time, which is why, you know, when people ask me what kind of a writer I am, I don’t have a problem being called an Asian American or Vietnamese American writer, as long as you also call me, a writer or an American writer, all these things are simultaneous. So yeah, I think that the on the one hand, there’s plenty of evidence that we have writers who are not white, and were not men who are just as good as the white male writers, plenty of evidence of that. And at the level of canonization, whether or not we want to have canons, there is certainly a good deal of academic work that pushes this idea that people like Morrison belong there. Now, whether the average American reader out there understands that is a completely different issue, you know, so you have an eight-part Ken Burns documentary on Hemingway, when do we get the eight part Ken Burns documentary on Toni Morrison, for example? That’s what we need to solidify that kind of a reputation. So a writer like Maxine Hong Kingston, who was my teacher, and who is going to appear in the Library of America series, which is a form of canonization. Yeah, of course, she’s a part of the canon, I think, for academics and for kind of connoisseurs, but for the average American, I don’t know, I don’t think most Americans, good number of Americans know who Maxine Hong Kingston is. So we still have a long ways to go in terms of transforming the general public perception of what American literature is that you know, Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Jonathan Franzen are brands that most people will recognize, and the struggle to truly open the canon in the sense that average Americans will remember and recognize the names of certain writers of color from Morrison to Kingston to Silko, for example, that’s an ongoing struggle. It might take another generation, but I think we’re having an impact because where does this transformation actually take place? It takes place really, I think, at the high school curricula, was when the teachers have to teach this, the AP boards have to have these books on there and all that kind of thing. And that’s happening to some extent, especially as the teachers are coming out of the universities that are leading the charge on this process of canonization. So I have some hope. But it’s still a slow march.
B&N: Canonization isn’t just semantics, right? I mean, you’re American writer. First and foremost, you are an American citizen, you are tackling questions about America’s role in the world. Yes, Vietnam is part of the context, but you are essentially an American writer, you are also a Vietnamese American, you are also Asian American, which a lot of people don’t realize Asian American as a designation is a political designation. You have an undergrad degree from Berkeley, and I am going to open up a can of worms, there’s some question as to whether or not the phrase Asian American was created in San Francisco or Los Angeles, and then I’m going to run away from that conversation because you will know better than I do.
VTN: Every time I write an article that mentions the origins of Asian American movement, I have to go back and check my facts. But as far as I understand, after multiple fact, checking by Time Magazine, and other places, UCLA gets the credit, you know, that Yuji Ichioka, and Emma Gee, who were UCLA students, or alumni at that time, in the mid to late 60s came up with that term first. So they get the credit for that. But you know, like UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State, these campuses really helped us celebrate the recognition of the name Asian American.
B&N: But when you’re working, do you see three separate silos? Or do you just think this is the piece I need to write now?
VTN: I think they’re all simultaneous. So I don’t know what that would be. When I talk about audience, for example, with people I say, Look, we have to think about audiences in terms of concentric circles, so that my most important audience is me. And then the next one’s probably my wife, and then it’s Vietnamese Americans, then it’s Asian Americans, then it’s Americans and the entire world. And likewise, that’s how I think of my identities as well, that they are not siloed at all, but they’re like those Russian nesting dolls. And to deny any of those would be false step. And yet we live in a society in which we are asked to deny those identities all the time. And because people are so habituated into thinking of themselves as only one thing or another, and not to think of themselves dually or triply, or multiply, because that’s very challenging for people to do. And so we’re oftentimes offered these false choices. Like I mentioned earlier, one of the classic questions offered to so called minority writers is are you a minority writer? Or are you just a writer? And of course, it’s a loaded question, because either way is the wrong answer. And so you have to be able to refuse the terms of that binary plane, both of them and go beyond that binary at the same time.
B&N: You keep using so called minority and I was like, that’s kind of fascinating to me that you use that terminology. Is that an academic thing? Or is that a POV from Viet in Pasadena thing?
VTN: Well, I think it’s a POV among a lot of people who think about the importance of terminology, right? Like, what, who is the majority? And who is a minority? And what do these terms signify? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a minority as a statement of fact. But when you become a minority, and you’re only a minority, then there’s a problem, because who gets to define the terms of the majority and the minority? What criteria are we using at any particular circumstance or a situation? Typically, in the United States, we use these terms relative to race or ethnicity. So obviously, yes, if I’m a Vietnamese person, or an Asian American, I’m in the minority. But if we think about the changing demographics of the country, that soon presumably will reach a moment where they will no longer be a majority, just a plurality, then these terms of minorities are irrelevant, or else everybody becomes a minority. Another way to think about it is depending on how you choose to identify, I’m not a minority, like I’m a man, right now, I don’t know demographically, whether men or women are a majority or minority who’s majority who’s a minority. But in terms of power, men are the majority. Go back to the idea of having multiple identities, it’s awkward for me to say I’m a minority, racially, without acknowledging that I’m a majority in terms of my gender, which has a significant amount of power, then we talk about my class and my status, all these kinds of things. So I use so-called minority to sort of get us to think about what that term means. And then of course, the last step is where are the boundaries drawn? For defining majorities and minorities? Is it just the United States, if we talk about America as not just the United States, but the Americas? Who is the minority who is majority here, or if we talk about the entire world, if we talk about the entire world, white people are the minority who have colonized the entire world, and thereby that act of power and conquest become the majority in terms of power? And if we talk about whose imagination constitutes the majority, how do we even answer that question? In fact, if my use of this term so called minority has led to this answer, then good it did its work by getting a think about that.
B&N: Kind of where I was trying to go. So you start this book and your life is in a very different place and you’re writing 50 pages at a toss wherever you can kind of thing. It’s not where you sat down and you were able to write The Sympathizer sort of from jump, what did you learn writing The Sympathizer that you needed to lean on for the committed?
VTN: Most important thing in writing The Sympathizer for me was the decision I made at the very beginning that I was going to write the book for myself because I’d spent about 17 years of writing The Refugees, and writing that book was extremely difficult because I had to learn how to become a writer. And I did it through trial and error and writing these short stories. But I was also plagued with anxiety. Will, this book ever get published? Will these short stories ever get published? Will I get an agent, an editor, a publisher? Will I win awards and recognition? All these questions that are important in some ways and irrelevant in other ways to the function of art, when I think about those things that’s not about art that’s about commerce, and marketing, and all these kinds of things, which are important. Again, they’re important, but they’re not as important as art. And when I got around to reading The Sympathizer, The Refugees was done, but no one was interested in that book. And I thought, Okay, I’ve just spent 17 years of my life on a book that may never get published. So I’m just gonna go all in now. And I’m going to write this book for me for nobody else, if no one’s going to buy it, fine. And that was enormously liberating, because all of a sudden, then I didn’t have to worry about the commercial side of things, the marketing side of things, I didn’t have to think about what a reviewer or an editor or publisher an agent thought, I didn’t have to worry about the constraints that are imposed or self imposed on so many writers who worry not just about the marketing and commercial ends of things, but implicitly about how marketing and commercial issues are determined by other issues like demographics. So many so-called minority writers experienced this, when people tell them well, you know, your book won’t sell because people won’t understand it, because they’re not going to understand your particular kinds of story, because they’re just not familiar with that world. And that’s not something writers should worry about. I think we should think about concentric audiences who is your most important audience, and again, it was me. And then it was other people who were closer to me like Asian American or Vietnamese Americans. So that’s what I set out to do with that novel, because I think I was able to do that, The Sympathizer was as forceful as it is. And that’s what I hope for all writers, I assume when Jonathan Franzen sits down to write a novel, he’s not thinking about whether his novel will have any appeal to a Vietnamese American, and he shouldn’t, why should he you should write what he wants to write. And I should do my best to understand what he’s writing about, which is what I’ve done my entire life. And I think all readers who are so-called minorities, I’ve done our entire lives, we are expected to read other people’s writing, white people’s writing, and no one explains anything to us. We just have to know what they’re talking about. And that’s the attitude that the so-called minority writers need to have for themselves. And I carried that attitude over into The Committed and there was another layer of anxiety for reading The Committed because, number one, it’s a novel set in France. So would Americans understand this novel? And number two, what would the French think of this novel? That was a new anxiety and a new challenge in writing that book.
B&N: Okay, show Ellison’s an influence on your work. Portnoy, Philip Roth’s Portnoy, anyone who’s read The Sympathizer knows and there’s a joke that shows up in The Committed that’s totally worth it. Who else are some of your literary influences?
VTN: Well, there’s so many literary influences in these books, because number one, I’m a lifelong fanatic of reading ever since I was a little boy. And number two, I did a PhD in American literature. So in an undergraduate degree in English that involved some world literature too. So there are so many references, and some of them I think, might be unexpected for people. So of course, there’s Ellison and Morrison and Antonio Lobo Antunes, as we mentioned, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Louis-Fernand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. And these are books that deal with war and power and hypocrisy. So it was a deliberate effort for me to seek them out and read or reread them to incorporate what they were doing. Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum falls in that camp. But then, I was also thinking of myself as an American writer. So, I was hoping that the novel would have some of the ambition and drive of things like Moby Dick or, you know, Faulkner’s works and so on. And then there was all sorts of eclectic interests that go into these works, too. So for example, you know, I’m a father and with my son, I reread the Tintin comic books, which I’d read when I was a kid just to use that one example, Tintin as a comic book is based on a series of adventures that continued from volume to volume. And they involve repetition, repeating characters, and stereotypes and all that kind of thing. And honestly, that was actually very helpful for thinking about The Sympathizer as a trilogy, to think about all those issues. How do characters come back? How do you identify the characters? How do you get readers to remember these characters over time? How do you entertain people? How do you use humor, all that kind of thing that was found in that comic, but was really, really helpful.
B&N: And the plot does not stop in The Committed, I mean, the action, it just doesn’t stop. So when you’re sitting down to create something like The Committed and you’re starting with your narrator, you know, from the first book, but how did he surprise you? When you sat down with him a second time?
VTN: The question of how a character surprises me is tied into both his character but also the actions that he does and that he undertakes and so on. That’s why the plot becomes so important. And of course, plot is driven by both the machinations of the author but also by the character and what the character decides to do in certain kinds of settings. And so in The Sympathizer for example, I plotted the entire novel, but I knew that the ending that I planned for that novel was not the real ending, and I have to wait to see what the character did to surprise me to figure out the real ending which is exactly what happened about two thirds of the way through reading the book, I realized, Oh, I know now what he will do and where he will end up in the final quarter. And for The Sympathizer, I had a two page outline for The Committed, I had like 50, single spaced pages of notes, because I had so much time to think about this novel. And so I took taking so many notes, I knew that it would be action packed, and there’d be a lot of stuff happening. And I knew that there would be certain kinds of beats where he would have to undertake certain kinds of actions. Part of my thinking about that is very cinematic, you know, I’d read the the screenwriting manuals, that said, you have to have certain beats at certain points. Here’s the classic three act structure, all of that, that underlies both of these novels. But what’s important is to have that element of surprise, where I knew I would put him in dramatic situations, but I wouldn’t know what he would do. And the dramatic situations would have to be where he would face choices, that would be bad no matter what choice he picked. And so likewise, in The Committed, when we get to that dramatic moment, I’m like, I can’t tell you what it is, it’s a dramatic moment that mirrors the dramatic moment in The Sympathizer. Symmetrical. And when I reached that moment, I hadn’t planned for it. I knew when I was setting out to write The Committed that I wanted to get that symmetry that The Sympathizer was dependent on the meaning of the word nothing. And I knew that in The Committed, it would be dependent on that same idea, but I didn’t know how that was going to take place, he said, to get to the point in the plot, where he would be forced to confront nothing and have to do something about that. It’s exactly what happened. And when he got to that moment, it surprised me, I didn’t know what he was going to do. Again, I had sort of had a general idea of where the plot would take me. But when it got to that moment, the actual unfolding of the action, and then his response really was a challenge for me to think through. But also a surprise, when I realized I knew what he was going to do. And he knew what he was going to do, which was the perfect response.
B&N: And I know the exact moment you’re talking about, because I may have elped, as I was reading it. I also think the ending of this particular book of The Committed is exactly what it needed to be in, it does leave things open ended for third volume. Did you know this is where the ending was leading? I sort of felt like you knew a little bit where this was going.
VTN: You know, in constructing the novel and thinking about The Committed, which was a title that it always was going to have, you know, The Committed has multiple meanings. And when you read the book, you’ll see what those multiple meanings are, and then you understand why he ends up where he ends up at the end of the book. And I knew that was going to happen, and I knew that because it was gonna be a trilogy, there will be continuity. And you know, going back to that idea about Tintin that I just talked about, there will be continuity of characters and theme and action. And so somebody has to appear at the end of the book to get us to move on to the next story. And this is a very basic idea, it happens in a lot of continuing series. So for example, I just watched The Eternals with my son. And if you watch The Eternals, all the way to the end, pass the credits, all of a sudden, at the end, new characters appear, same idea, they whet our appetite for what’s going to come next. And so if you’ve read The Sympathizer and you get to the end of The Committed, you will be surprised, not surprised at the same time as to who appears at the end of the book. And that character will play a very important role in the third novel.
B&N: I’m trying to talk a little bit about Graham Greene. And I’m afraid that I might reveal too much. So I think I’m gonna skip my whole Graham Greene thing unless you have very definite thoughts on The Quiet American, which I’m sure you do. But I don’t know if that book carries the weight that it used to.
VTN: The Quiet American was a novel that was very important to me, because I was actually a Graham Greene fan in high school. And of course, I knew his reputation. And then when I got to college, I finally read The Quiet American, I read it in a class on colonialism. And I was like, oh my god, this is about my country of origin me all this kind of stuff. And I wrote a long paper, which I’ve now lost, apparently about the orientalist themes of Graham Greene’s, The Quiet American, even at that time in 1990, that novel was still pretty legendary. When you study the Vietnam War from the American angle, the novel appears quite often as people saying, this is the fundamental text of Vietnam before the Americans arrived. I think that it still retains that reputation simply through inertia more than anything else. When we talked earlier about the canon. Once you’re in the canon, it’s hard to lose your place in the canon, even people don’t read it. It’s still there. Like The Great Gatsby is that really a great book? I don’t know, that’s debatable, but it’s in the canon. And likewise, that’s the place that The Quiet American occupies in the Vietnam War canon. Now, I’ve taught the novel many times in my Vietnam War course. And the students don’t respond to it very well. To them, it feels dated, the allegories are obvious, the gender sexual politics, Orientalism is obvious. And so it’s a historical artifact for them. In the last time I taught that Vietnam work class, I didn’t teach The Quiet American and it didn’t make any difference. I don’t think the students knew that what they were missing. And I didn’t feel that the impact of the course was any less for not having The Quiet American in there. So of course, we still need to talk about it from the perspective of Vietnam War history and from literary history, but not necessarily in terms of contemporary understandings of the war. You know, every time I reread it, I still think is a very well written, well constructed novel, but it’s also a novel of its time, and that’s why we should be studying but not necessarily in terms of telling young people this is what you need to read, understand this war.
B&N: It feels wildly dated to me now. And do you know when I was a teenager, I was like, Oh, this is really interesting. I hadn’t thought about this. And now it feels like my granddad is trying to tell me a story. There are times where we as a society, and as a culture, we forget that some books just age out of their roles. And that’s the point of literature that it should continue to evolve, and it should change and it should grow. And hopefully we go with it, you wrote a really great piece, actually, in the New York Times last week, about book banning, and how you approach reading. And I think it’s a really important point to make where it’s not just reading for your cultural vegetables as it were right? Like, you should just also be able to read for the sheer joy and part of what I love about The Committed and The Sympathizer is they feel very subversive. It’s like you’ve hidden really big ideas in a couple of books that nod to genre in in surprising ways.
VTN: I think that, to me, is one of the appeals about genre, the best genre writers, the ones I’m most attracted to are not the ones who are simply committed to plotting or two recurring characters or the thrills, but all of that, plus the ideas and the critique and the awareness of history and politics and thinking, and that, to me, is what’s so seductive, and powerful. And that’s the reason why I think so many readers turn to so called genre fiction to begin with, they want to read science fiction, or fantasy, or romance, or horror, westerns, and whatever, because they understand that these are entertaining, but also gonna be very substantive at the same time. And so I wanted to do take that and sort of elevate it a little bit in my own way, as well, because I think these two novels are very explicit about the importance of ideas, for example, on in the importance of politics, and I’ve written these novels out of the conviction that so called average readers can totally deal with these kinds of things. If you entertain them enough, put them in an interesting enough package. And so in that New York Times essay I do mention that The Sympathizer for example, is taught in some high schools. And even today like this last week, I got emails from these Canadian High School students in Ottawa saying, Wow, our class loved your book. And would you come and talk to our class on Zoom? I said, Of course, I will. Because I love talking to students, I will always go out of my way to talk to students, especially if they love my book. And so I find it enormously, you know, interesting that, you know, there are some, for example, older readers, you know, read Goodreads, amazon.com, who don’t get these books at all, but, uh, so many teenagers and high school students have told me that they do get these books, and I think that’s fabulous, right? I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
B&N: It makes me very optimistic as a reader, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Thank you so much for joining us on Poured Over. The Committed is just out in paperback.
VTN: Thanks so much, Miwa. It was such a pleasure to talk to you and be on the podcast.