Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg | “‘[T]o Tell The Truth Against Dominant Mythologies is Always Offensive’—An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen”

David Eisler interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen to discuss his role in American Studies and views on subjects regarding contemporary American politics for Amerikastudien Volume 67, Issue 1: 81-91.

Since the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer in 2016, Viet Thanh Nguyen has become one of the most important voices and public intellectuals in American literary culture. His fiction, essays, and scholarship comprise an incomparable and indispensable body of work that engages with some of the most pressing questions in American studies, from war and memory to colonialism and cultural inequality.

Nguyen is a vocal and incisive critic of American contradiction. He was “born in Vietnam but made in America,” as he writes in the prologue to Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), a work that challenges many of the dominant views of American collective memory by exposing the machinery behind a global culture industry that foregrounds national perspectives at the exclusion of others. As an oceanic refugee whose family fled Vietnam for the United States in 1975, Nguyen’s personal experience informs—but never overwhelms—his writing. His two novels, The Sympathizer (2016) and The Committed (2021), grapple with issues of war, memory, identity, colonialism, and cultural equality through the eyes of a compelling and charismatic protagonist, combining the flair of page-turning plot with the intellectual depth of his ideas. And his short-story collection, The Refugees (2017), bears the hallmark of a writer unafraid to confront the complex facets of what it means to be human in a world that often denies that humanity to those who would seek a better life.

What makes Nguyen’s perspective so insightful is his ability to shift between the ranks of academia and American letters. He has earned numerous awards and accolades—including the prestigious MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships on top of his Pulitzer Prize—while serving as a professor of English, American studies, ethnicity, and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. Whether giving a keynote address at an academic conference or appearing on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Nguyen has leveraged his personal success to spur more Americans to confront, rather than ignore, their nation’s unpleasant conflicts and contradictions.

In October 2021, I had the privilege to speak with Nguyen on a range of topics, including his views on contemporary American politics, issues of authenticity and representation in literature, how he sees his role as a writer, and the discipline of American studies itself.

David Eisler: As somebody who is living in Germany right now and spent only a brief amount of time in the States recently, I wanted to ask you what your sense of America is at this moment in time. Culturally there seems to be a lot of tension. How do you see it from your perspective?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, you know, I think that when Joe Biden got elected there was a glimmer of hope for those of us who identify as Democrats—and I reluctantly identify as a Democrat. I did not vote for Joe Biden. I mean, I did vote for Joe Biden; he just was not my first choice. But I remember doing an interview with The Guardian on the occasion of The Committed coming out, and the interviewer, like me, was fairly skeptical. Histories of American colonialism and so on. And the interviewer said, “Well, nothing’s going to change with Joe Biden, right? I mean, he’s basically the same as Donald Trump.” And I think at the time I was still holding on to the glimmer of hope that he would be substantively different. Now I feel like my interviewer was probably more right than wrong in terms of many of the policy decisions that Joe Biden has carried out.

So my take on what’s happening in the United States is that I think it is a moment of great tension and contradiction for the obvious issues around electoral politics, partisan divides, the state of the Republican Party, and all that. But even the Democratic Party is having a problem meeting progressive goals and visions, which I would support.

And for me looking at the United States, it feels as if there are so many contradictions in the country around issues of politics but also of economic opportunities, quality of life, and then finally the cultural differences that are rooted with all those other issues about economic and political conflicts and inequalities. Vaccine hesitations and so on. I find that all really demoralizing. I can sort of deal with everything else, but frankly, what I think of as the recalcitrance and stupidity of a good percentage of my fellow Americans in resisting common sense and science is deeply dispiriting. I sort of envy you, living in Germany [both laugh]. At least there’s something of a break from the Trumpian rhetoric, but the effects of Trumpian policies are still being felt by a lot of Americans. And of course, we’re still waiting to see whether part two of the Trump presidential show continues or not. And if that happens, I’d be very unhappy.

David Eisler: Your work engages a lot with questions of war and memory. Right after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, you tweeted one of the opening lines from your book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016): “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” That line has always struck a particularly resonating chord with me. And I wonder, given what you have seen and analyzed with the American memory of the Vietnam War, what do you think the trajectory is for the memory of the war in Afghanistan?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’m pessimistic about the memory of the American war in Afghanistan, especially if we look at how the end of the war was being debated at the time, that was just obviously a couple of months ago.

The problem or the challenge is that war is, in my opinion, a central activity of this country. It’s been absolutely a formative part of the making and the shaping of the United States. And it is also a part of the country that a lot of Americans are in denial about, that we, collectively as Americans, have a very mythological way of understanding warfare and its place in American society. And it’s a self-serving mythology. My interpretation of our wars in other countries—starting from the Indian Wars [in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries and beyond] and then continuing through the twentieth century—has been that these wars have been absolutely critical to the exercise of American power and American imperialism, American capitalism, American self-interest, but they’ve been dressed up mostly rhetorically and mythologically for Americans as actions to defend American ideals and extend American ideals globally.

I think that the failure of the American war in Afghanistan, and the way it was cast at the end, was as a failure for Americans of their own policies and how that affected Americans, not about how the war affected Afghans. With that approach in mind, the American attempt to remember the war in Afghanistan (which has already begun) will continue in that self-serving vein. And as long as it does, I think we’re pretty much guaranteed that we’ll continue to engage in these kinds of wars because we’ll continue to see them through the lens of American self-interest and American self-serving mythologies. So my feeling, my prediction, is that the way that the American establishment—from the White House to the Pentagon and Congress and the military industrial complex—the way that they will try to remember this war is the same as the way they have tried to remember the war in Vietnam, which is: “How can we do this better?” Not, “We should not do this again,” for a variety of reasons, but “How should we do this better?” I expect to see dominant American memory continue to try to fine-tune the American military industrial complex.

David Eisler: That gets to the heart of some of the most important concepts of your work that you explore in Nothing Ever Dies and also in your fiction, which is these concepts of “just memory” and “just forgetting” and the acknowledgement that each side has degrees of humanity and inhumanity and the dual-sided nature of war. Do you see those as guiding concepts that could help drive the collective memory of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in a certain direction, or are these more idealistic concepts that don’t have as much of a practical application?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think they do have a very practical application, and my one hope in this whole situation is that there have been some lessons learned from the war in Vietnam for Americans when it comes to memory, which is a greater degree of sensitivity to the experiences of the people in the countries in which Americans are fighting wars. I don’t think there’s enough sensitivity, but there is a greater sensitivity, so that American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—especially since they’ve had so much time to think about this war—are quite cognizant, at least some portion of them, the literary portion of them who have an intellectual tendency, they’re more aware of the impact of the war on Afghans. They’re more self-reflective about the American footprint in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. And they’re more desiring, at an earlier stage than American veterans of the Vietnam War were, to hear from Afghan voices and [to] complicate American perspectives.

I think the long post-war reckoning with the war in Vietnam for Americans, to which Vietnamese Americans have contributed substantively, has made some minor impact, and the post-war reflections by American veterans [of Afghanistan and Iraq] have been different than the post-war reflections for the American veterans of the Vietnam War. Especially since the Vietnam War serves as a precedent for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no precedent in the same way for the American soldiers who went to fight in Vietnam.

David Eisler: It makes me really happy to hear you say that because you more or less elucidated the thesis of my own book coming out soon called Writing Wars: Authorship and American War Fiction (University of Iowa Press, 2022), which is about almost exactly that topic. That’s how I came in contact with your work to begin with. This brings me to my next question for you. You’ve become well known for your fiction, and the way I’ve read your novels is in many ways as imaginative explorations of academic questions regarding memory and identity as well as the complex issues associated with colonization, particularly in The Committed. But you are also a credentialed academic with several scholarly books. How do you see yourself in this regard, and then, to borrow a phrase from your own work, do you see yourself “of two minds” when it comes to this identity?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s quite challenging to try to be both a scholar and a fiction writer, at least in the United States. Maybe the situation might be different in other countries, but for a variety of reasons I think that’s true for me in the context of the United States simply because of the division of intellectual labor in this country between the arts and scholarship. And that’s maybe particularly stronger in the literary world where these two worlds rub shoulders but they don’t really overlap for the most part. Writers and scholars tend to speak two different languages and have two different kinds of professional worlds that they live in. And for me, it’s been a lifelong effort to try to bring the two together in my own mind. I take inspiration from the very small number of writers who have been able to successfully do this work. For example, W. G. Sebald, who is relevant in your context. The challenge is to think in both directions. As a scholar, to think about how language is more than simply instrumental, for example, so then how scholarship can be written in a certain way in which the language itself can be a factor in shaping thought. And then in the world of fiction, how ideas can be incorporated into fiction. That’s just as hard, maybe even harder, I think. Because in both cases people are not prepared to see conventions upended regarding how language is dealt with in academia as well as how ideas could be dealt with in fiction.

It’s not a process that’s finished for me; I’m still wrestling with it. And I think the novels are designed to be a part of a dialectical project. That means that each novel’s shape changes in terms of the content it deals with but also how these novels express themselves formally. So, The Committed is different than The Sympathizer, and I think the third and final novel will also probably be different from The Committed as well.

David Eisler: That’s fascinating. And for anybody who hasn’t read Nothing Ever Dies, it feels like reading it as if it were a master key to understanding the two novels in a way that, at least for me, I don’t think would have been possible otherwise. I always thought that that was one of the most interesting aspects of seeing where the crossover was between the academic ideas and the scholarship, but also just telling a good story. The Sympathizer was a lot of fun to read, and I think at one point you said that you had set out to try to write a novel that would be offensive to Americans who read it, yet it ended up doing great. How, if at all, did that affect your writing of The Committed?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It definitely did. I felt that being offensive was partly a joke but also partly real because I think that to tell the truth against dominant mythologies is always offensive because people are obviously invested in them, whatever group that happens to be. It’s not just Americans but everybody of their particular nation, their particular group. They do not like to have deeply held mythologies satirized and held up for contradiction. But to do that kind of a project I think it’s important to do it across different groups. That’s one way to try to prevent the accusation that you’re hating on one particular nation or culture.

In The Sympathizer, while I did try to criticize the French, that was a sub-theme, a minor part of the novel. And I felt that again, as part of this attempt of writing a dialectical project, it would be important to talk about the French and French colonialism more extensively in The Committed because that is really the predecessor to American intervention in Vietnam, not just in terms of foreign policy but also in terms of imperial strategy that the United States basically supported and took over from the French in Indochina. The United States could have walked away or pressured the French to do something else, but they made a series of decisions that connected the American imperial project to the French one. So, The Committed is a book in which the American part becomes a minor theme, and the French part becomes the major theme. I think that it’s challenging to be offensive because, you know, you get a lot of flak for it, but it’s also fun.

David Eisler: Because of your success so far you have the freedom to write about these themes, but you’ve also written about a really interesting concept within American literature, writ large, which is the idea of narrative scarcity and narrative plenitude.1 And I feel like if you just look at books that are coming out, one could argue that this is getting better. You see a lot more diversity in terms of publications, prizes, et cetera. But from your perspective, both inside and outside the academy as well as inside the literary establishment, do you see this getting any better or is this still an issue?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s a good question. I think that it is getting better, and it is still an issue at the same time. And the reason why is because it takes a long time structurally to make a transformation. And by that, I mean talking about what an institution looks like. If we look at the institution of the literary world, it’s of course going to be impacted by the rest of American society around it. If the rest of American society is still unequal and struggling with various issues of access and opportunity, then the literary world will too. We do still see that in the power structures of the literary world, whether we’re talking about editors or agents or publishers and reviewers. There is still a predominance of white people and men and white men in power.2

Now, there has been some change, obviously, so that we do have people behind the scenes that happen to be not white and not male. And they have been smart enough to push a more conscious agenda and to do things like deliberately staff prize juries with more diverse jurors. We see the results of that in terms of who gets prizes and so on. So, if we look at it from that respect, from what the surface appearance of the literary world happens to be, we see more writers of Color and more women winning prizes. That seems to signal that there’s a change underway in the American literary world. But again, that’s a surface issue versus how the power systems continue to operate. There was a recent New Yorker exposé about how, institutionally, the New Yorker is still dominantly run by white people at various levels of power. So there is still a long way to go, and I think this is symptomatic of the larger issues within the United States. We obviously are paying more attention, more lip service to multiculturalism, to representation, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, we still need to make some very important structural changes as well. There’s still a long campaign ahead of us to realize these goals.

David Eisler: How do you think this relates to what always turns into a very contentious topic, which is authenticity in writing, particularly in realism, where the background of the author becomes as much a part of the story as the story itself?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that there is an important case to be made for authenticity at the individual level. For example, in writing The Sympathizer, I made a very conscious decision to write this novel just for me, not for anybody else. In writing The Refugees—which was written before The Sympathizer—I was conscious of many other people who might be reading that book who might have some impact on my literary career. That’s not a good place to be in. I think it’s a very normal place to be in, but it’s also rather inauthentic to worry about what other people have to say about something so deeply personal as your creative efforts. I felt that The Sympathizer was a very authentic novel individually for me in terms of expressing what I most deeply believed at the level of art and politics.

Now, when it comes to a group, it becomes a more complicated issue. And that’s what you’re gesturing at. Because I think there are questions of authenticity at the group level. It is valid and important to point to groups who have feelings about the degree of authenticity in their representation and who celebrate or who criticize writers, in this case, who may or may not be authentically representing them. But that is always embedded in a couple of larger systemic issues. One is that the issue of authenticity is mostly exercised for so-called minority populations. For the so-called majority, that’s not so much the case. For example, Philip Roth, when he was an emerging writer in the 1950s, he was definitely a minority writer, being Jewish at that time. And he got a lot of heat around this authenticity question [regarding] his representation of Jewishness and Jewish people. By the time he finished his career, he was an American writer, and the Jewish part, which obviously was still important, became a theme of his being an American writer, and I think that these questions of authenticity were then no longer leveled at him.

So, authenticity is an unequal playing field. That is not unique to literature, and again is a function of the larger problems of inequality in American society. If you have less access to power and material and material resources and representation, the question of authenticity will become that much more pressing. We should always be thinking about that relation. If we cut off that relationship, then the question of authenticity at the level of literary representation becomes a problem that will continually repeat itself because it’s always related to the [narrative] scarcity. Then there’s another issue, which I think is also embedded in your question, which is who gets to represent whom in literature. And that is a question of degree. Because I, for example, have been charged with being inauthentic by some Americans who feel that I’m not authentically representing the United States—judging from my hate mail, it’s a very polite way to put it. And then by some Vietnamese Americans who feel that I’m a communist and therefore not authentic in representing the refugee or exilic or Vietnamese experience. Then if you go to a greater degree, writers not of a group writing about a group are often charged with this question of authenticity and inauthenticity.

My response to this is twofold. One, I think that, again, we always have to think about that relationship to the larger world. These accusations of inauthentic representation by out-members of a group regarding the group that they’re writing about need to be contextualized within the pain that that group feels in being shut out of the larger world. And if we don’t make that gesture, then we’re not really understanding the debate at hand. But, ideally of course, writers should be able to write about whatever and whomever they want. The problem is trying to bring that ideal into an unideal or imperfect world. How do we bring those two together? The best that we can do, I think—outside the social protest and activism and change that needs to take place in the outer world—is for the writer to be extremely cognizant and responsible. So, the “art for art’s sake” response, saying that anybody can write about anything, that you have no right to criticize me, is an inadequate and unethical response in relationship to the world as it is. But that writer does need to do as much work as they possibly can to represent that situation.

David Eisler: Do you think the average reader thinks about these things when they’re deciding which book to pick, or is this—I don’t mean to say, is it “just” an academic question—but this is a question that occupies a lot of thinking within not just academic scholarship but within literary criticism itself. An example I’m thinking of is American Dirt (2021) by Jeanine Cummins that came out earlier this year.3 Despite a lot of the think pieces that were written criticizing her and her right to write that story, the novel was still on the bestseller list for a very long time, indicating at least to some degree that the average reader doesn’t care about these issues. I don’t know if that means if they don’t that they shouldn’t. I don’t know. What is your take on reaching the average reader for important questions that we know are important but maybe don’t resonate as much with someone at the store who is just looking at the covers of the latest books?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think we’d have to do a quantitative study as to who the buyers of that particular book happened to be. Since it did become a big bestseller, then the average reader obviously either did not care about the issue or was still willing to give the book time and money in order to see for themselves what the issue was all about. But: we have to qualify who the average reader is. If the average reader is white and female—which I think is what the statistics indicate—that’s one category. But there are other readers who did not read or buy the book because they did respond to that [criticism]. I’m assuming there was an impact on some Latino and Chicano readers who refused to read the book because of the controversy.

I think that these debates do make an impact on the average reader, since that controversy did become pretty well known. But I think that a lot of average readers and spectators default to the dominant ideological position which is that art should be art and we shouldn’t constrain it. This is an American or Western democratic kind of stance. I have certainly felt that myself. For example, I’ve criticized Miss Saigon in the pages of The New York Times for its racial misrepresentations and gender misrepresentations, and if The New York Times comments section is a representation of the average reader, then there’s a lot of resistance to any kind of critique of art at that level.

At the same time, I think that these debates do have an impact at the level of tastemakers, people who have the capacity to do things like sell and buy books and all of that. And we’ve already seen that impact, even in the situation with American Dirt. The political, cultural, and literary struggles of the previous decades set the stage for that debate over American Dirt, and that was the result of previous eras of misrepresentation and lack of representation that we just talked about. So the struggle needs to continue. I expect that there may be future “American Dirts,” but again the debate will keep shifting in favor of the people who are criticizing not just American Dirt but the very apparatus that brought American Dirt to the American reading public.

David Eisler: I have one more overarching question about American studies as a scholarly discipline. This journal’s audience is primarily German scholars of American studies, so the perspective is a little bit different. But I wanted to ask, what do you think the future of the discipline is, now that we’re coming to terms with the Trump presidency and the 2020 election and everything that’s happened since? Where should the discipline go and what should the focus be? What directions should scholars be looking to explore?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s good that you bring up the differences between national versions of American studies, because in my exposure to American studies outside of the United States—in places like Germany, China, Hong Kong, Singapore—these fields are much more capacious than American studies within the United States. American studies outside of the United States would be interested in questions about Donald Trump, for example, in the context of presidential power and American government and institutions. Within the United States, what gets classified as American studies would include that, except that the people who are doing that kind of work tend to be in political science, for example, instead.

Within the United States, because we are all doing American studies of one kind or another, the field gets distributed across disciplines. What’s left to American studies formally as a discipline, at least as it was defined by the American Studies Association, is often much more of a cultural studies approach. In that sense, Donald Trump may or may not be a figure but he would be treated more at the level of what he signifies ideologically and culturally versus what he would signify in terms of American political institutions. I think that divergence might still continue in the future for these different national versions of American studies.

Before 9/11, the field of U.S.-American studies had been increasingly multicultural. If you look at [ASA] presidential addresses and what was being published in American Quarterly, the field from 1990, when I first started to get involved, until 9/11 was defined by foregrounding questions of race in the United States, for obvious reasons. After 9/11, there was a gradual shift that accelerated until the field now is much more focused on questions of war and imperialism as a response to the U.S. being involved in forever wars since 2001. I think that this is going to continue because even though we’ve seen the formal end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the imprint of those wars on the American establishment has been permanent. We’ll still continue to see a preoccupation with the exercise of American power globally and also a preoccupation with American studies for criticizing that exercise of American power, both in terms of looking at what the United States is doing now and what the United States has done historically to lead it to this point.

What I would like to see—and I think there are signs of this—is for U.S.-based American studies to become increasingly international, comparative, and multilingual. Because for example, just around this question of American imperialism, without being international, comparative, and multilingual, you’re still going to have a critique that’s based on the United States with the United States as the center and as the agent of this kind of imperialism. And I think that’s insufficient. American studies needs to equip itself—epistemologically, culturally, and linguistically—to deal with how the United States impacts peoples and cultures outside. A de-centered American studies is what I would like to see, where we’re not only talking about what the United States does internally or what the impact of American policy overseas is internally to the United States, but where we ask what the impact of the United States on other people and other places is. That, to me, would be adding a richer dimension to the U.S.-based approach.

Category: Interviews

 

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