Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The World | Author Viet Thanh Nguyen weighs in on banned books debate

A Tennessee county school board agreed to remove Art Spiegelman’s book “Maus” from its eighth-grade curriculum for its “rough, objectionable language” and “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” The Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel tells the story of Spiegelman’s parents in the Holocaust, depicting Jewish people as mice and Nazis as cats. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen thinks the school board has it all wrong. In a New York Times opinion piece, he wrote: “Banning is an act of fear — the fear of dangerous and contagious ideas. The best, and perhaps most dangerous, books deliver these ideas in something just as troubling and infectious: a good story.” Marco Werman speaks to Viet Thanh Nguyen about how reading disturbing books as a kid changed his life — for the better for The World.

Read transcript below.

Here’s a story from the world.

Last week, a school board in Tennessee voted to remove Art Spiegelman’s Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum. The stated reasons? The books “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide” and that the book was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.

Maus is the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that explores Spiegelman’s parents’ experience in the Holocaust. The Nazis are depicted as cats, the Jews as mice. Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen thinks that the Tennessee School Board is just plain wrong. His recent opinion piece in The New York Times is titled My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book: It Changed My Life. Viet Thanh Nguyen, what is the book that disturbed your young mind?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
It was a novel called Close Quarters by the American writer, Larry Heinemann, who was a veteran of the Vietnam War. And I encountered that book in the San Jose public library when I was around 12 or 13. I’m Vietnamese, a refugee from the war. Very curious about my past, so I was reading everything. And when I read that novel, I was completely dismayed, because what happens in the novel is that these American soldiers kill a lot of Vietnamese people and then in the climax, gang rape a Vietnamese woman.

And at 12 or 13, I thought, “This is how Americans must see the Vietnamese people,” and I was very upset. And I hated the book and I hated Larry Heinemann for having written it. And that was what I thought for the next few decades, until I reread the novel as an adult, as a writer. And I realized that Larry Heinemann was right, because what he wanted to show was exactly how war turns nice American boys into remorseless killers and rapists.

That was his indictment of the United States and of American warfare. And the way that he wanted to make his point was not to give readers like me a way out by explaining what he was doing or giving an editorial or sentimentalizing or humanizing the Vietnamese, because that was not how American soldiers saw them.

Understandable. That would be traumatic for a 12 or 13-year-old. How do you see the Tennessee School Board’s decision on Maus?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
It’s ridiculous. When you read the list of things that it was being censored for, I actually do not remember the nudity. And so far as violence and suicide goes, it is a book about the Holocaust. So if that’s all it depicted, that would be an understatement of the actual events. I think that it’s a decision that is based on a moral panic about protecting young minds. But I think what’s really being protected are the parents and the adults who want to ban this book or prevent it from being read because they don’t want to have these conversations with their children about what the book is depicting. And they’re underestimating what children are capable of dealing with and how children respond to stories.

I read Maus when I was relatively young, and I thought it was amazing. And I think that would be the reaction of most children who would read this book. And for the children who would be disturbed the way I was, I don’t think that kind of disturbance is terrible. I think that children actually benefit a little bit from being forced to question their assumptions and being forced to ask questions of the adults, and adults should be welcoming these kinds of conversations.

How did you discuss that book you read when you were 12 with your own parents?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Well, I couldn’t because my parents were Vietnamese. They had grown up in Vietnam. They spoke mostly in Vietnamese. I spoke mostly in English, and it’s a very complex topic to talk about. So in fact, I felt very isolated in terms of everything that I was encountering in American society, including books and movies and everything like that. That’s not the case for these Texas parents and politicians. They are perfectly capable of having conversations with their children, and that’s true for me and my son. And we do read sometimes some books that have some problematic kinds of images or stories, but they’re still very entertaining.

And that contrast is very productive because it allows me to talk to my son about the fact that stories are powerful, they’re seductive, they’re marvelous, and they can sometimes make us uncomfortable. So let’s talk about what makes us uncomfortable rather than trying to censor a book or prevent my son from being aware of the fact that, in fact, these kinds of images circulate everywhere, and he’s going to see them or hear them sooner or later. And I’d rather that he see them with me so that we can talk about them rather than him developing his own strange ideas from however he encounters them.

So can you give us an example of a book that you read with your kid that you have to explain to him that has images or ideas that are difficult or disturbing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
So when I was growing up and going to that San Jose public library, I had access to the Tintin comic books, a very famous series by the Belgian artist Herge, and I loved it. I loved that series. And then when my son was old enough to read, and he’s a very precocious reader, I just bought in the complete set of Tintin comic books in both French and English.

And as I was reading them with him, number one, he was totally fascinated. He loved these books in either language. But number two, it became very obvious to me that these books are very definitely of their time, early in the mid-20th century, in terms of the racial attitudes that they espouse.

And on one hand, the books are liberal because they’re trying to take a positive stance towards non-white peoples, for the most part, but the attitudes from our point of view in today’s age range from paternalistic in the way that they depict, for example, Chinese characters, to really incomprehensible, for example, Tintin in America. Tintin comes to the United States in the 1930s and is being chased around by Native American warriors clad as if they’re fighting wars in the 19th century. So this kind of European fantasy of the American West. And then when it comes to black African characters, it’s completely unmitigated racism, just purely atrocious visual depictions of black African characters in many of the Tintin books.

And so, first of all, when we read the books, I let him enjoy them. But then I asked him, “Well, these kinds of images, let’s talk about these.” This is how a lot of the world saw these people at this time period, and some people still do. If you go to Europe, you’ll still see these kinds of representations of Native Americans and black Africans. Literally, you will still see the exact same images. And he has seen them.

So I want him to be aware that there’s a history behind this, so that he’s not shocked. He doesn’t have the moment that I had, where he sees these images for the first time without having been prepared. And God knows what he’s going to think about these kinds of things. The children and the adults are perfectly capable of reading something like Tintin, because I’m not advocating that we should ban Tintin or remove Tintin from the libraries, and appreciate Tintin for its entertainment and locate it historically and see that attitudes that were circulating in these books are still circulating for a lot of people today.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’m just curious. Have you reread Maus in the wake of this controversy?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
I have read Maus probably within the last five years, but ironically I am scheduled to teach it in the next few weeks. Before this controversy happened, it was actually on my syllabus for a book called Writers in the World, Text in Context. So for me, it’s a perfectly teachable moment for my own students in a few weeks.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. His latest novel is The Committed. Thank you very much for coming on to talk about this.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thanks for having me, Marco.

From PRX.


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