Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The American Library in Paris | Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Viet Thanh Nguyen on Visibility and Invisibility in Literature

A conversation between Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Alice McCrum at the American Library in Paris. Two of the most prominent voices in contemporary fiction convene as part of Festival America to discuss interplays of visibility and invisibility in society and literature. Faced with the wounds of injustice, could writing act as a cure? As part of Festival America, authors Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Viet Thanh Nguyen discussed visibility and invisibility in literature. Invisible as minorities, visible as stereotypes, and highly visible as threats, Asian Americans like Black Americans like First Nation Americans constantly slip in and out of sight, rarely seen for who they are. How can literature disrupt this slippage? How can writing authentically illuminate the overlooked corners of society? Equipped with humor and violence, theory and experience, the best literature exposes not only the hidden tensions of the world, but the hidden tensions of the reader herself. In exposing depths and wounds, literature which makes the invisible visible can be seen as a type of cure.

read below for transcript

Alice McCrum:

What strikes me about your new work, both of you, is that you are changing form. Viet, you’re moving from the novel, as we saw in The Sympathizer and The Committed. You briefly dabbled in the short story in The Refugees. Now, you’re moving to memoir. Nana, you’re moving from short story that you wrote in Friday Black to the form of the novel and your new novel, Chain Gang All Stars, which you just submitted, you said several days ago. Viet, let’s start with you to ask several questions about form. I think the obvious questions are why change form, why now and what has writing in this new form, so in your case, memoir allowed you to do creatively, emotionally, intellectually, that you previously have been unable to do?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Okay. The origins of this is that my editor said to me, “Oh, you’ve written a lot of essays for New York Times and so on and so forth. Why don’t you just do a book of nonfiction, put them all together and then you’ll have a book and then we’ll pay you some money for it.” I said, “Oh, it sounds good.” So, I signed the contract. And then of course that’s not what happened. A lot of these essays, if you’ve read some of them, they have a lot of political critique and commentary and things like that, and then they have some autobiographical elements. I think he was anticipating that it’d be a lot of critique and a little autobiography. It turned out to be a lot of autobiography and a little bit of critique. So, what happened is, as I put the essays together, I realized I have to tell a story. I can’t just put a bunch of essays together.

In telling the story, it became a story about… not just about me because I think my life is boring, but a story about my parents and especially my mother who passed away in 2018. My parents are Vietnamese and I don’t want to… how can I put this? If you’re Vietnamese of a certain generation, your entire life was defined by war and colonialism. My parents were born in the 1930s, which meant that within their childhood they saw World War II, they saw a famine that killed a million people in North Vietnam where they were born. They underwent French colonialism, they underwent the American war, they became refugees twice in 1954 and 1975. They came to the United States. They had to rebuild their lives as middle aged adults. I grew up watching them run the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California, which was great material for a writer, really bad for a childhood, let’s put it this way.

In writing this book, I had to actually unexpectedly go back and look at my own life and my parents’ lives and my feelings about them and my feelings about Vietnam and the United States and the relationships that bound these two countries together and France as well. There was multiple challenges in writing this book. And one challenge was how do you weave the personal and the political and the historical together in a way that is entertaining? Hey, can you make jokes about famine and war? We’ll see. I do it in the novels, so can I do it in a nonfiction account?

Another issue was delving deeply into emotions. It’s really hard… sometimes we talk a lot about, oh it’s really hard if you were a white person writing about Black people or Asian people or whatever. It’s also really hard to write about your mother, that sometimes you have a lot in the memoir that goes, the other is the one who’s too close to us. The book is very much about my mother and about me and about how much she loved me and I loved her. But also, she was my other to me as well in so many ways. And it’s really hard to explore that territory. All of that was what makes it a challenging book.

Alice McCrum:

Did you have conversations with family members that you hadn’t had before?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I never have conversations with my family members to begin with. I think my brother and I exchanged a few texts where I tried to clarify things with him. I started to talk to my dad, my dad is 88. Of course, part of the theme of the book is I start to ask questions way too late. At 88, he’s a different man than he was when he was 40 or 50 or 60, so I’m not getting the answers I need. A lot of this book is about, again, it’s about memory and perception. This book, when we speak about form, it’s the book that does not try to reconstruct memory. I read for example Nabokov’s Speak Memory. If you read it, it’s intensely detailed. It’s a gorgeous book and it’s this beautiful imagination of his young, youthful years as a Russian refugee.

This book is not like that because he reconstructed everything in such granular detail. And for me, that’s not my experience with memory. There’s enormous holes in my memory and I wanted the book to actually express the gaps in the holes that can never be filled, unless we turn to fiction. And this is one of the things that I never understood about nonfiction, it’s like writers will say, well, just make up stuff. I’ll reconstruct conversations, I really don’t remember, but this gives you the flavor of what it was like. That’s a fiction. That may capture some essence, but it’s still a fiction. So, in this project of nonfiction, I wanted to recount what I could remember but also, recount what I can’t remember and don’t want to remember. That’s also important. There are things I do not want to remember.

I think part of writing a memoir, what readers expect is there’s an incitement to memory. We want to know everything about you and your pain and your trauma. And there’s some things that actually I don’t even want to know. And there’s like some things that happened with my mother where I literally do not remember what happened. There’s this blank space.

Alice McCrum:

We’re going to return to this shifting nature of memory and you delving into your deep emotional past. Before we do that, Nana, you’re moving from the short story to the novel. Tell us about that shift, major shift.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

Yeah. Before I even say that, I just want to say I’m super grateful to be here right now. I’m like if you’re a writer, to do an event with Viet is a huge honor. It’s my first time in France, it’s just a lot that’s making me feel like… I also just turned in the new novel two days ago. So, I’m in the middle of that euphoric, weird feeling. But thank you guys for all this, which is I think, real. I don’t know if I’m just jet lagged and dreaming, but it feels pretty real right now. But yeah, moving from short story to novel, the thing I’ve been saying is that you have to get comfortable swimming without a shore sight for a very, very, very, very long time, sometimes years. I’m a pretty slow writer anyways, but I thought that what is my novel now, was going to be a short story in Friday Black and I failed at that. But I had this feeling about something that I really want to engage closely.

The book deals a lot with the carceral systems and incarceration and the idea of what it means to have humans in cages physical or metaphorical. I just wanted to really interrogate that. What does it mean to do harm? What does it mean when we do harm to those who do harm? How do we try to break that dangerous lineage of harm that I think defines so much of our society? I think as a writer, I’m really interested in how our world as book ended by these murder entities, whether it be the police or the military on the other end. It just felt like something I really wanted to engage. I started, but then with incarceration or the carceral reality of America at least, you start talking about this but you’re like, wait, what about that? You’re like, oh wait, what about how… there’s obviously the race issue. There’s obviously the way women are treated in prison. There’s the way trans people are in particular targeted. It’s also the general idea of us being separated. It’s hidden. The prisons are hidden from us.

There’s the privatization aspect. It became this behemoth that just kept growing. I couldn’t feel like I could do what I wanted to do in the short story just because my interest… I think there’s a short story there for sure, but my interest kept growing out from one topic to one topic and I felt like I would try my best to do this thing that at the time, felt impossible when I started in 2015 to really get my teeth into it all the way. But the other challenge of it for me and I wonder how other people feel is carrying this large entity as you’re growing and change and dramatically as a person. That’s always true if you’re a writer, I’m a writer who really values revision. To me revision is the cornerstone of my practice. I don’t mind working on a shorter story for 6, 7, 8 years. That’s just my thing. But I think often what happens is, I have to catch up to the story’s highest level. My higher self doesn’t exactly exist forward enough to make it true.

So, watching and believing that you set your goal high enough that you’ll still be interested even, the six, seven years later when you’re done, in my case. I feel very grateful because, I don’t know if it’s hubris or what. When I started, I chose a project that was way, way beyond me as a writer. To me, I view it as it’s the mountain where towards the summit it gets a lot steeper, but the strength you gain getting there allows you to be able to climb it. If you got airlifted to one of the higher plateaus of this mountain, you wouldn’t be able to climb up. But just by trying and trying, you grow and you figure stuff out. I think the novel is a lot more of that in this sort of grand scale. But all that said, I tried my best to embody what I value in the short form, which is concision and precision and being as simple and specific and precise as possible.

One of my great mentors, George Saunders, when was he’s my thesis advisor, he line edits. He gave me really great edits, but one of the things he wrote that I ended up writing on my folders where I saw it every day. He said, “Be simple. Be precise.” And that’s one of my big… I embody that, or I try to anyways in my practice. That stuff always stays true.

Alice McCrum:

Thank you. The other thing that strikes me when we put your bodies of work side by side is your different interests in time and temporal setting. You gestured towards this with your discussion about memory and the past. And certainly, you mostly grapple with the past in your work Viet. Whereas Nana, in your work, it’s very much dark, certainly dark present day, but recognizable in some senses. It’s either the present or near future, dystopic version of the present. Why for you Viet, you feel like you are drawn to the past, whether the historical past or the personal past?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I think being a refugee really does that. Anybody who’s gone through a traumatic experience, I think oftentimes is marked indelibly by that history and that past. The reaction for some is to run away and just forget about the past. That’s why you’ll find a lot of refugees who deny that they’re refugees. They don’t want to use that term. They don’t want to address that history for very good reason. And then you have people like me, who just can’t stop writing about it. I would love to at some point. I think I might have one more book and then I can do something else. But I will say, if you read my body of work, there’s a lot of stuff about war and colonialism and the past and so on. Part of what happens in the memoir though is I connect all that stuff from the past, going back to the 1930s and the 1940s and my parents to the present because I’m writing this memoir in the last few years and what happens? All the stuff in America happens, you know what that is.

There’s COVID, and then there’s the fall of Kabul. And then there’s the war in Ukraine. All this stuff is happening while I’m writing this book. I’d mentioned all these things because they’re absolutely connected to what has gone on before. While I’m writing this book, six women, Asian women get murdered in Atlanta in a mass shooting, which to me is absolutely historically connected to the very origins of this country, which those origins in genocide and slavery and colonialism are what brought America to Vietnam. And then therefore, what brings me to the United States. In writing about the past and writing about just personal stuff, one of the things I wanted to do in the memoir was not make it just about the individual.

I think there’s so much pressure on the memoir, at least in an American context, to say it’s about the individual, your personal story, your personal trauma. That’s what we want to know about. That’s why I resist all of that stuff about the granular, fine grain detail. Some of it is in there, but I want to be able to connect our family’s experiences to this entire sweep of history, which is what made us into refugees in the first place.

Alice McCrum:

You wrote so beautifully about this in your introduction to the essay collection, The displaced. I’d like to read an excerpt that I think highlights what you’ve just said. It’s a collection of nonfiction writers on refugee lives. All of these writers you write, are inevitably drawn to the memories of their own past and of their families. To become a refugee is to know inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time but by loss. The loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us. You write too, I remember all of these things because if I did not remember and write them down, perhaps they would all disappear.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I grew up again in this Vietnamese refugee community. And the thing about growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community is everybody went through the same stuff. We didn’t talk about a lot of the stuff. When we refugees tell non-refugees about what happened to us, the usual reaction is silence, because non refugees, they have no relationship to this idea that your home can be blown up, that you can be forced on a boat somewhere, that you can leave behind your entire family. But for us, that happened to everybody. So, there was no need to talk about it in some ways because we all knew that as traumatic as our own personal experiences, that person over there possibly had something worse happened to them. So, we were bound by that experience. In some ways, it’s really ironic that we didn’t need to talk about it, but that emotional experience became so deeply embedded that it would always come out.

I just went and attended a speech given by Bee Nguyen who’s the Vietnamese American democratic candidate for the Secretary of State in Georgia, very important position. Who could have imagined that a Secretary of State in Georgia can possibly determine the future of the United States? But anyway, she’s a daughter of refugees and she’s up there, she’s giving the speech that a politician is expected to give about her parents being refugees and all that. And at the end of it, her voice caught with emotion. I’ve seen that happen to people so many times. We’ve internalized our losses and our pain and not just ours but our parents and our grandparents. Even if we don’t talk about it, the emotional wake ripples through us and it’s just ready to burst out at unexpected moments.

One of the reasons why I’m writing this memoir is because I remember, in the wake of The Sympathizer, I was giving a lot of speeches and talking about the book and then it evolved into story about my life, my family’s life. And I remember being on the stage in front of 800 people talking about my parents and their grocery store and I just was overcome with emotion. I couldn’t talk for 30 seconds. And it never happened to me before because I’m a very cold and rational person, I thought. But what happened was that I had suppressed all of these emotions and all of these feelings that had been so traumatic in a way that was unknown to me and that’s what the memoir is about.

Alice McCrum:

Great. Thank you. Nana, you’re by contrast drawn to what Tommy Orange will call the futuristic hypothetical. Tell us why you are more interested possibly in the present and the near dark future, both very dystopic.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

Yeah. It’s hard when you get access to an interesting answer, you’re reeling after. I’m like, wow, if I had my notepad with me, I’d be taking notes because seriously, one of the things I love… I’m going to answer the question. One of the things I love about The Sympathizer is if you haven’t read it, you end up being just one of those things like, God damn it again, this American education has totally robbed me of something important. I remember reading and just being like, I know some things about this but there’s so much I don’t know. And it’s cool because you don’t have to… from reading that, I know you’re a historian as well, you feel that truly. That’s such a powerful position for a fiction writer to be in.

Yeah. I just really respect that. And so many writers I really love to have that ability and listening to you speak about it, I’m really thinking about that. It’s funny because in many ways, you said why am I drawn to the futuristic? In a lot of ways, it’s fear. I think that there was a period anyways, where I was like, I can’t talk about that. That’s too real, that’s too… Someone smarter than me should be doing that. On some level that’s changed a lot this time around but the future for me, there’s so many things. I can play around with concedes. I can create what is needed for this story. But also, I can do the thing where… I don’t know, imagine you have a very problematic friend, you don’t want to tell them something, but if you tell him directly, they’ll just run away. You could be like, so there’s this guy. He looks like you, acts like you, it’s not you. He looks just like you, acts like you, but he keeps killing black kids. What do we think about that guy?

I can ask that question in a way that can be received, that might not be receivable if it were said just by reporting or going directly into what was passed, in a more one-to-one obvious way. I think that’s just my lane though, of doing it. But in the new novel, I think it’s really, really important to, when you’re talking about incarceration at least, but really everything actually, to give a historical context because sometimes people imagine what is, always was. Without history, you forget or you lose some power because these systems were created and put in place by humans just like us. When that history’s not included, you can skip that. So, this book includes, and it pained me to do it because the footnote thing is sometimes really, really challenging for me, but I included them. There’s historical footnotes about the reality of… there’s the case law about that shows how contradictory so much of everything in America is.

I talk about George Stinney, who was 14 years old when he was electrocuted. I just bring out that real fact. It breaks up the dream of the novel actually, but I felt it was necessary, meaning the footnote. The reason I hate footnotes or sometimes hate them is the physical… you’re reading, right? And for me, as a writer, the most important thing is keeping this dream state sustained. I remember reading the John Gardner book on The Art of Fiction and that was my first craft bible and never want to remove that dream. That dream has to be sustained forever. Meaning, I don’t want to ever… I want to make you forget you’re even reading a book. But because of the way I do… this book’s in the future and the concede is pretty… I don’t know, bombastic and intense. To me it ended up being an ethical decision to sometimes break it up and be like, hold on second, we’re reading a book okay? Because these bodies are, they’re getting tormented and terrible things are happening to them, even though they’re fictional.

I want to say, just so you know, here’s some historical context for why I’m doing this and why… not why I’m doing this, but why this is pertinent to you, me or whoever. Some of the footnotes are actually about the history of that world, which aren’t true per se. And then some of the footnotes are genuinely 100% a true, which creates this weird [inaudible 00:20:44], which maybe I regret doing. But I think I like the idea of it because it’s like, there’s horrific things. There’s so much horror.

I include recent history. I’m from a place called Spring Valley, Rockland County. A woman named Tina Davis was tasered by police and she died for it. I know the date happened, I know her family and I put it in the book because… say something happens with the police, have tasers and tasers thought of as this sort of safe option. I’d rather say, I don’t mind breaking that dream state of the book to be like, ding, actually this is a real fact, just so you know. I don’t know, that mattered to me. I guess what I’m saying is, as I’m getting more confident, I’m more willing to go into the past. I finally had to do research, real research actually. And it was scary because I’m in the acknowledgements talking about my research and saying my sighted sources. A lot of us teach comp. If you’re starting English and you have to teach your students how to cite your sources and how to not basically be a ass whole in their essays.

It’s like now you got to put your money with your mouth is. Do you know how to do this? I tried. Yeah. For me, it’s a way of pointing at issues really directly, in a way that I can have something like fun with. But also, I think in the past, I just didn’t think I was allowed to or could do it. But there are people and this book is one of them or Viet is one of the people, and this book is one of the things that helped me feel a little bit more inclined towards being able to do the things I’m trying to do now, which do include actual history.

Alice McCrum:

This is wonderful, in part because I think when Friday Black first came out, you criticized comments about it saying that it was relevant. You wrote in the Paris Review about this, you said, when asked what word you were most tired of hearing in regard to your fiction, what came to mind was timely. I see it everywhere, you write, as if the problems in my stories are new, hey guys, come check out this fun new timely racism. How convenient to have the privilege to tune in or out of whatever issues popular culture has suddenly deemed relevant enough for everyone to care about. For you, I think this issue of dealing with the present in some ways, at least initially was frustrating.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

Absolutely. That’s the catch of not doing the history thing. They’re like, whoa, you’re just doing this new thing. And I’m like, “Huh?” But again, maybe the positive is they’re willing to engage with it again because they seem like… it’s this funny little game you have to play because people have to survive and so they start detuning themselves to this harsh reality. So, they’re like, we want something new, we don’t want to deal with this harsh reality. Sometimes I’m like, okay, I got something here for you that… and then it ends up being that harsh reality again. Yeah. The struggles that we have are so huge and so consistent, it feels shocking to me to imagine that… In the case with that book, what they were saying is, I was inspired by Trayvon Martin, they act like it’s timely. Trayvon Martin is a martyr in a list of… forever. George Stinney is in that same list. And that’s decades before.

It’s scary to imagine that someone might consider those things I’m writing about being somehow new or fresh. But sometimes, again I get it, I dress it up in this way that might present it as new. Sometimes what people are connecting with, and I think they conflate an issue with the style in which the medium is handled. Because I might be introducing concedes, I wrote the first story in my book before Get Out came out for example, which I always like to say as a way to give props to myself. I did this before, it was cool, but there was a certain reverence that I think certain people felt you had to attach to [inaudible 00:25:09]. And again, even though as I say that, it Ishmael Reed exists long before me and is already doing this, and he is one of people who inspire me, but he’s not in the front of people’s minds always.

Yeah. It’s a funny game and I think a lot of my writing is figuring out how to say the thing that needs to be said, which other people are saying a lot, but in the way that these people might not get it. Someone was talking about… Basically, I can’t remember why I was saying this, but I said, “I think of writing like a team sport, but the way we win is to save the world.” My style, for some people who are maybe into… maybe they’re anime nerds or maybe they like surreal stuff and they like to use that part of the imagination. Some people are like, they don’t fiction or something or they don’t like anything that doesn’t feel like strict realism, but there’s someone who has that strict realism for them. Sometimes, I do that too, but that’s not what they might think of me as. That’s their part and we just got to… we’re all saying this similar things or many of us are saying similar things. I just sort lean into where I feel like my powers are and try to see wherever they might grow.

Alice McCrum:

Thank you. I suppose thinking more about leaning into where the powers or emotion, I mean you’ve mentioned now twice that it’s really uncomfortable to go to these places. It’s really upsetting to go into these memories, some of which you remember, some of which you don’t. During our conversation last year Viet, you said that one impetus for the memoir came from advice that writing teachers told you, which is… this is the advice, to write anything meaningful, you have to cut to the bone. To cut the bone, you note, is to look inside, into your soul, into your memory, into your emotions and to cover and confront what you find there. These emotions, you add, are ones that one would rather forget. You said in the interview, most sane people would not do this, but you as a writer, you have to go there, you have to uncover these things in order to be honest. Do you feel that you are writing now is more honest, now that you’re going to these places, now that you’re, as you say, cutting to the ban.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Yeah. I think Friday Black, I really love some of these stories in the book because they cut to the bone, I mean metaphorically, but also literally. There’s a lot of cutting to the bone happening in Friday Black. I think you can achieve this effect of cutting to the bone in various ways. And that’s part of the beauty of literature, are there’s multiple ways of achieving this depth and provocation. In the case of the memoir or using a memoir form, unfortunately or fortunately the bone is inside the writer’s experience. And I thought about it a lot because in writing the memoir, there are a lot of scenes where I will go back and I will confront a particular thing that happened to my mom or to my family and describe it and all of that.

In some cases, I had to sit there for a while and reconstruct things or if I’m living with this book for a few years, memories will come back to me that I had totally forgotten about. But again, mentioning this one thing, there’s this thing that happened. My mom had to go to a mental asylum, for lack of a better word, for the second time. The first time, I don’t remember that either but I actually wrote about it in my college class. And then I went back and I could read what I wrote when I was 19. I was so upset with myself because my entire life, I thought this happened when I was 12. It happened when I was 19. So, my memory totally screwed with me. And only because I had written these essays about this experience, did I have an actual documentary record of the environment and the people and what was happening and my own reactions.

The second time, I did not keep a journal. And for the life of me, I look at this moment in my life, this three or four days, it’s another blank. I could interview my brother and other people and try to reconstruct it, but is that more faithful to cutting to the bone than the actual blankness of my inability to remember this thing that was so terrifying for my entire family, but especially, not especially, but for me too? In other words, when we go to that idea of cutting to the bone, part of the difficulty for a writer is to try to figure out how to do that and what that means. Because if it was a literal act, I think 99% of writers would cut themselves, if it was that easy to write. But it’s actually a lot harder than to cut yourself is to try to figure out internally, where the cut takes place.

When you cut, you don’t cut everything, you cut some things and you don’t cut other things. I’ve chosen to leave this one scene untold because in fact, the inability to tell that story is cutting to the bone to me.

Alice McCrum:

You made this point in the conversation that while writing programs can teach many things, plot, devices, structure and so on, they cannot teach precisely this. In a world saturated with writing programs, I mean you yourself, Nana did an MFA at Syracuse. You teach at USC. Do you feel that fewer people are going there emotionally or you think…

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

You probably have better sense of this since you went, you actually have taken writing workshops and things like that and you’re younger. Does the younger generation still do this? Well, I don’t know. I’m freaking old at this point. No, I don’t think we have a shortage of people who have the willingness and the desire to do it. But I do think that for me, part of what it means to be a writer is that you have to learn your art. And that’s hard enough as it is. But you also just have to be a human being, and I hate to use these words like have some maturity and some wisdom. Some of the things that have happened to me as a writer have happened to me through life. I become a father. Never wanted to be a father, honestly. I’ve told my kids this, I didn’t want to be a father, but you have persuaded me that it’s actually a good thing. Congratulations. But these life experiences have taught me certain emotional things that I never would’ve learned just by being a writer.

So, it’s both of these things. Living a life, going through experiences and being willing to confront these experiences and learning how to use your art, so how to convey them. Because in fact, one of the things that does happen to me, maybe to you too, is that people will send me their memoirs. And there are a lot of people with very interesting life stories out there, especially in the refugee community for example. They’re not very good. That’s a problem. You can also have terrible experiences or important experiences, but you still have to learn the art in order to make the cut.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

It’s such an interesting thing to consider. As a student and as a teacher, especially as a teacher now, even though I haven’t been in the classroom, at least in academia context for two years now. I always say I can craft and I lean on craft really heavily. I’m big on just, if you learn that stuff, at least you’ll be able to almost slightly drag your [inaudible 00:32:33]. But it’s really hard to teach someone to jump off the cliff. They have to be willing to. But if you let someone grow their particular natures of their craft to learn who they are as a writer enough, they’ll trust more and more into their ability to fly, so to speak. That’s why I think in MFA land, if you do the story, story, story… there’s 12 stories in this book. There’s a Google drive somewhere with 80 stories.

None of them are in this book, but by the time you get to story 81, it’s like now, even unconsciously or subconsciously, I’m not as afraid to say, hey, that thing you did was weird, Dad, you were mean, which is a hard thing. Or I don’t like what you said that time or when we lost the house, my childhood ended or something, whatever it might be. As an artist… because you can get so good at creating beauty in a certain sense, a certain aesthetic, a beauty that you can hide behind it. It’s not that hard to hide behind aesthetic beauty to make really beautiful sentences without ever cutting to the bone, getting to the heart, whatever that means for you. But you can tell when someone’s doing it or not. To me, it’s a hard process. And when you’re teaching, it’s hard to teach that second thing and you almost don’t want someone to do it too soon or too early because then you can hurt yourself, sort of.

I don’t think anyone’s any less willing to do that stuff. I think that sometimes they might be even more willing. I think now there’s this over share attitude, there’s the TikTok, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, I’m getting arrested and they’re making a TikTok about it or something. But there is also the other piece which is… sometimes it’s like this microwave attitude towards it. It takes a lot of time to accrue the skills, at least in pros, to hold that feeling, that moment, create that space where we can actually feel the cutting open you’re doing. And sometimes, people want to skip that step, which is the whole thing. It’s this willingness to be open. It’s this willingness to be very vulnerable in a real way because you can say something bad happened to me, but also being really willing to sit in that space and talk about how that’s vibrated and reverberated through your being and how you see some of that in you now and whatever, that’s hard. It’s really hard.

Again, I think as a writer you’re always learning and growth. For me, the reason why it’s engaging is, and why I like revision so much is that I learn, okay, I’m a little bit more open to it, I’m a little bit more vulnerable, I trust myself a little bit more as time goes on. Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s any less, whatever. I think there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of competing entities. I think we’re very used to right now, right now, right now. But I think when I teach workshops, I just at Tin House, the kids are all right. The kids meaning people from age 16 to 90. But people are still willing to do the hard thing, it’s just sometimes I think it’s not always the first instinct.

Alice McCrum:

It seems to me that, Nana there are two hard things. There’s the hard thing of going inside and dredging up these more painful memories. And then there’s a hard thing that you pointed out in our conversation on Zoom last year, which is engaging with the often painful beliefs of others. And it really struck me, has stayed with me just as cutting to the bone has stayed with me over the course of this year. Is that in your writing you really believe that it’s important to engage with the often very painful beliefs of other people about things as fraught as gun control, abortion, violence, unregulated capitalism. The point you made during our interview was the following, that in your writing you need to acknowledge and honor these characters whose views are entirely opposed to yours. Otherwise, you said, writing is an exercise in your own ego. I’m essentially singing to the choir. Can you talk about this point as it relates to your new novel, Chain Gang All stars with its questions of incarceration and abolition?

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

I remember that moment. It’s such a good question. It’s really the heart of the new book and it’s, again, it’s a complicated, delicate dance. Especially, now where I guess, the evils or the most obviously evil entities are like hyper present. You really want to wackamo them into oblivion. You really want to be like, those people need to disappear. But I think that these almost caricature, obvious evil people are like… they’re weakening our ability to feel and understand nuance. I guess what I think is that, somewhere in my core, I believe humans really deserve love. And I think that we should be really, really, really careful about when we decide that they no longer deserve it. That applies to those who have done the worst things, or maybe what I’m also saying is that it’s a very dangerous game to create institutions that by definition, are designed to dehumanize people. If that is a core piece of our institution or a core institution in our society, and it is as of right now.

The fact that no matter what happens, if you call 911, a man with a gun will appear who can maybe kill you, is to me that’s a problem. Again, I’m speaking primarily in an American context, but I think it applies globally. I think it weakens us all. I think it’s like training wheels for morality. It discourages community. I think it hurts us deeply. That said, but I also know that when someone trespasses on me, I’m like, well let’s fight. If someone hits me, my first instinct is like, okay, well, you should fight. If you hurt anyone I love, I want to hurt you too. Normally, I think as community, what we do is like, yeah, let’s facilitate the best and easiest way for you to hurt him back. I think the power of community could be, we understand that you are feeling pain and we want to honor that in the best way we can. But because you yourself have been aggressed, rather than just keep this pain cycle going forever, we’ve created these institutions to allow you to feel whole again.

And then for the other person, maybe not just getting forgiveness through suffering, we’ve created pathways to actually atone, which also is missing in this cut off, violence, you’re in prison, your dead thing. Because of that, it’s really hard to make actual progress. I think we have a lot of carceral dismissal attitudes towards so many things when people… Often, it sounds like I’m saying bad guys are great and I’m not. I’m saying that it’s really important for all of us to be really willing to extend grace just as much as possible and for our institutions to do so as well, for many reasons because I think it’s just better for all of us. But also, because I know that when the institutions exist, these dehumanization institutions exist, I know who’s going to be targeted first, whether or not they do anything wrong. That’s also part of it. But even outside of the racist, patriarchal, heteronormative, transphobic, ableist, everything of the world, I also think that for us raise to our higher levels, we can’t have this place where, you know what? Screw you. Here’s the electricity and you’re dead now.

Alice McCrum:

Yeah. I’d like to get your thoughts on this because I think there is a point to be made here about boundaries. Whether it’s the rigid boundaries, physical legal boundaries of a prison or the fixed boundaries, again, physical legal of a country. You’ve written about this, calling for a similar dissolution of boundaries. In the introduction again to this collection of essays, you write, making borders permeable, we bring ourselves closer to others and others closer to us. I find such a prospect exhilarating. But some find this proximity unimaginably terrifying.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

For me as a writer and as a scholar and as a critic. When I look at the world, I see everything as being connected. Whereas, when I think the world looks at me as a writer, okay, I’m usually introduced as the Vietnamese American writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, if they get my last name right. I just went to an event where they introduced me twice and got my last name wrong twice. But in other words, my ability, and I think the ability of many writers who are classified as so-called minority writers is tagged to our identity in a negative way, in the sense that we are only expected to talk about our identity, our little silo. As long as you do that, you will reap your rewards. You can be the Vietnamese American writer.

For me, that’s just not… number one, it’s not interesting. Number two, it’s very patronizing. And number three, it’s an active act of depoliticization. Because what it says is that if I’m to talk about my refugee experience, I’m only to talk about my refugee experience. Which is why even though my… I think the sympathizer, for example, is a Vietnam War novel, but it’s also a novel about the United States and about colonialism and so on. But it’s not read that way or talked about that way because again, we Vietnamese refugees are only expected to be eyewitnesses to our history. But you want the history in the politics, go talk to Henry Kissinger. This is literally what takes place, literally what takes place. We’re only allowed to talk about our experience, but we’re not allowed to talk about the vast geopolitical terrain in which the white men like Kissinger are the experts. In my fiction and nonfiction, the effort is to say no.

What’s interesting to me in talking about my experience, my family’s experience is that in fact it’s connected to all these things. Again, the Vietnam War is an outcome of the energies of slavery and colonialism and conquest and imperialism, that is what makes the United States of America what it is. My family is just one individual manifestation of that but I want to connect it to all of that history. What that means is that it is about breaking these kinds of boundaries and borders that are yes, national boundaries and borders that wants to keep… We keep out refugees, we keep out migrants, because we don’t want them to contaminate our country and our culture and our space and all that. And it’s absolutely related to wanting to keep people contained in their boundaries, so that if we let these migrants or these refugees in, they’re only supposed to talk about their story in one way, which is typically the realest memoir or the autobiographical novel.

That’s why I think in your work, my work, the work writers I find interesting, we’re pushing against these boundaries and these expectations, not just in terms of the content of the stories, but how we tell the stories. That form becomes disrupted. Your example about the footnotes and the dream, great example, but it’s also very highly subjective because my dreams are not like other people’s dreams. Their definition of a dreamlike novel is different than my definition of a dreamlike novel. So, when you put the footnote in there, I love that. I think about Junot Diaz’s Brief Life of Us, or Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the footnotes are great. They’re historical and they’re hilarious. But those footnotes puncture the dream for certain readers who don’t want the history like, oh my God, don’t remind me that we did this to your country. That disrupts their dream. But to me, when I see that, that animates my dream, that’s the dream I want to have. So, the question of boundaries and borders is geographical, it’s political, it’s also a formal and aesthetic issue as well. That’s why it’s all connected.

Alice McCrum:

Thank you so much. Thank you. Big round applause please for Nana and Viet. Thank you. We now have about 15 minutes, I forgot to mention at the beginning, of in-person questions and Zoom questions. I will refer you to Miss Emily Biggs, who will take my microphone.

Speaker 4 :

Any questions in the audience?

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

Who’s that super cool, brave person?

Speaker 4 :


Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

There they are.

Speaker 5:

Thanks for that really interesting conversation. My question is for Viet. You mentioned other writers that you’re interested in, now that you’re moving towards memoir. Do you think there’s a dialogue between the work of, for example, Tash Aw [inaudible 00:46:13] Strangers on the Pier or Ocean Vuong, and stories that you want to tell about the past? Do you think there’s…

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

No, absolutely. I think again, all of these are writers who inevitably are shaped by history. None of us have asked to be subject to colonization and conquest for example. But then every writer finds their own individual way to try to address that history and to try to find the formal mechanisms by which they can deal with it. You mentioned Ocean Vuong’s, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Okay. I’m perfectly equipped to answer this because I gave an entire talk on, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to the Modern Language Association, just a thousand academics, all right? The entire subject of the talk was fuck, fuck. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong makes a big deal out of the fact that number one, the climax of the novel is about one boy fucking another boy. But that in that moment, what Ocean Vuong says is, I choose to be fucked up. Which is great because in my entire life, I’ve only been by others. Personally, but also politically as well.

He makes a very deliberate choice to use this word. And so did I, speaking to these very hoity-toity academics, but that’s the formal decision. In my memoir, I talk about this because I’m saying, look, why do we talk about colonization in these very civil and humane terms when it’s not. We’re in Paris. Paris wouldn’t be possible unless the French fucked all these people over, but you can’t talk about it that way. You cannot use that word and you can’t bring up this history and all this stuff. So, when we talk about what the French did to Vietnam, we have Indochine and we have L’Amant, The Lover. If you read those books or watch those movies, you’re like, it wasn’t so bad, it wasn’t so bad. But when you read what the Vietnamese who are revolting against the French were saying, we were slaves. There’s this very discrepant sense of history between how the French have seen this and how some of the Vietnamese have seen this. Yes, every writer has to find their own formal, linguistic way to try to bring out that history and to disrupt it.

Speaker 4 :

Other questions? There, and then there.

Speaker 6:

This question is for both of you, but I’ll use Viet’s book as an example. In the Sympathizer, the politics at the heart of that book are very radical, I would say for an American context. That the American overseas project is based on colonialism and slavery. The book was of course, celebrated as a mainstream success. I don’t really think you would see that in a nonfiction book, a nonfiction history of the Vietnam War or the Afghan War, would be able to have that same politics without being pushed to the margins, seen as one of these Noam Chomsky school books. What do you make of that? Is there something that’s defanged about radical politics and fiction, that it’s accepted like that? Is that something you’re thinking about as you move to nonfiction?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

It’s for both of us, do you want to try to address it first from your point of view?

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

It’s a good question. For me, I do think there’s a freedom that comes in writing fiction that allows me to say things in a certain way that maybe will be heard differently or more. But I also think that the radical… I’m trying to think of the name of the author. The radical nonfiction is what I’m reading right before I get to the fiction. That’s why I say it’s a team effort to save the world. Some people are going to tune in, but I’m giving them the same thing just in a different container. Maybe they’ll feel it and maybe they won’t, but I actually do… I think that some people will feel it different. I don’t know how nonfiction is or is not received, I think often, so I can’t say all that. But I know there are some people who would not receive some of the things in my first book, had I chosen to write in nonfiction. But there’s also a whole bunch of people who would’ve too. So, I’m not really sure, but I know it’s true in some level. Yeah.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

It’s an interesting question because the nonfiction book I’m writing is… Basically, how I decided to write this book, the nonfiction book, was that I decided what if The Sympathizer wrote a memoir? That is because in fact The Sympathizer, the novel, it’s not autobiographical in a literal sense, but it’s autobiographical in an emotional sense because I’m the person who’s also torn, a man of two faces and everything. So, I thought, if I could write my own memoir from the voice and perspective of The Sympathizer, what it would look like? That’s where the stylistic energy of the book comes from. We’ll see if it’s dismissed as you have just described it. But I think that maybe it’s true that in fiction we’re allowed, at least American fiction where there’s a little bit of an opening where we can have this kind of political critique take place.

I think of Tommy Oranges, There There. The preface of that novel is really amazing. It’s in six pages, it gives you this condensed history of genocide and the horrors that have been done to native peoples. But the success of fiction is oftentimes really arbitrary. Like The Sympathizer, when it came out, it was a success by literary standards. It sold like 25,000 copies, which meant nobody read it. If you talk about Hollywood, Hollywood, 25,000 people watched their TV show, good luck. No one cares. And then it won the Pulitzer, which is a complete random accident. I serve on the Pulitzer Board now. So, I’m on the other end of it. My attitude about the Pulitzer Prize and about other prizes of this category, is that when it comes to writers like me who get this prize or other prizes like it, and we’re bringing up difficult history that makes certain kinds of Americans uncomfortable, these prizes function as reparations, symbolic reparations, which are a hell a lot cheaper than actual reparations.

We’ll just give the writer an award and we talked about history. I think nonfiction would probably succeed like that. I’m trying to think of examples off the top of my head, but I know that there are nonfiction writers who have done the same thing. Now whether or not they would win a Pulitzer or a national local award or something else, again, I think it’s an accident. It’ll happen sooner or later if it hasn’t happened already. Again, it’s all a part of this terrain of politics and culture in the United States, where it’s uneven. As problematic as liberal condescension might be, sometimes it gives you a Pulitzer Prize. And then that’s the entryway that writers like us can use to try to [inaudible 00:53:22].

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

That’s really real. I like that. I was trying to remember, it’s Mychal Denzel Smith, I’m trying to remember his last book, but maybe a radical point he has. And he’s a abolitionist thinker. He says, basically, let’s let go of Martin Luther King, leave him. We’re done. It’s been sanitized to oblivion, it’s become used. And this hyper focus on individual is actually problematic to the current form of the movement. I don’t know how well or now he’s been received, but I can see people seeing that and because [inaudible 00:53:57] recoiling or something. But also, he does great too. I think what you said is really the truth. It’s super random. It’s your ability to… for some board of people to you, it’s so many… the fiction, it is very random-ish. It feels that way anyways.

Speaker 4 :

We have time for one last question right here.

Speaker 7:

Okay, no pressure. My question is sort of abstract. I hear and I understand the importance on the one hand of building community and finding the people that you need to get through life. At the same time, the need and desire to break down barriers and open borders. I’m curious whether those two concepts and needs aren’t sort of diametrically opposed and how you reconcile that or what your thoughts are on that pattern.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah:

I’ll go first because I feel like you’re going to say something better. Is community, the idea of [inaudible 00:55:03] community diametrically opposed opening up of borders? I don’t think so. I think it’s what the party line is. That’s what they want us to believe. I think we can choose to… if we have the choice to have… If I put you in a room and you’re stuck here now, that’s your community, I guess. If it’s forced, how much community… I think that part of this moment we’re in now with the internet, communities can grow really fast because they can move across these spaces in this of instantaneous way. I think that allowing that to be free flowing, allowing people to really find how they want to find it, whether it be physically or just intellectually or what, is really important.

I think that community can persist in that way. There is something actually super powerful and maybe useful about some kind of board or some kind of boundary existing, but I think that often it’s used against us. I have this story idea for the next book I’m going to do. It’s not relevant, but it’s a, walls are… there’s a reason why they want to build that wall. I had this, talking about future-ish where in the future, they have the ability to, at any point, create a force field between spaces that they want it to exist. Once they can do that, they would do that. But more than that being considered, it’s more about why is it so important for that to be this and that to be that and us to be us and them to be them, and what does that do? I think that there’s a lot of potential for incredible community to amass more, like a organic, real community as we lessen the idea or need for these boundaries to exist. I think it’s just important for us to see what happens in that, once we get there.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I think there is a real tension between communities and breaking down borders in the way that you described, but both of these impulses can work together simultaneously, at the same time. I’ll give you an example, which is that I’m all for Vietnamese people. I’m all for refugees. I think we need to support these communities, build these communities, empower these people, et cetera, et cetera, until they prove they’re racists. Okay? Or that they’re anti refugees themselves. For example, a lot of Vietnamese refugees support refugees. When the Afghan’s fall of Kabul happened and Afghan refugees came to the United States, a lot of Vietnamese people said, they’re exactly like us. And where we were, we’re going to support them. Then there were other Vietnamese refugees who said, we were the good refugees. These people are not the good refugees. They’re brown, they’re not Christian or Catholic, and so on and so forth.

Okay. Now, the line is drawn and one has to make a choice. Do you support your community just because they’re Vietnamese and refugees? Or do you support the principle of hospitality, breaking down borders, forming a human community and all this stuff? Then it becomes a matter of principle versus identity. When that happens, principle always has to triumph, I think, because there’s no way I’m supporting that Vietnamese guy who said, we’re the good refugees, not the bad refugees. I think that dynamic is always, always at play. When we think about, for example, our national identities, whether it’s France or the United States or what have you, there’s always a lot of rhetoric about the nation and what it stands for. And then half the time, we’re totally not living up to those ideals. We’re actively destroying our own ideals inside the country, outside the country, and this is our test. For those of us who are citizens or residents, are we Americans first or are we believers in our principles first? I’ll leave that up to you.


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