Jennifer Delgadillo interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen about writing his novels for Booth by Butler University
Memory seeds tradition, celebration, family, friendship, but also rancor and the alternate realities that lead to the suffering of others. Viet Thanh Nguyen grew up understanding that artists and writers have power to inflict harm. Growing up in the United States in the 70s and 80s as a refugee of the American war in Vietnam, Nguyen saw first-hand the impact of books, television, and film on the imaginations of Americans and beyond. He learned that stories play a role in the way people remember and misremember. Through his writing, Nguyen navigates the competing memories surrounding the war and the following generations that continue living in the enormous crater left in the collective memory.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese American professor and novelist. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English, American Studies, and Ethnicity and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and many other accolades. He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. Nguyen is a prolific writer. His other books are The Refugees; Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction; and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is a regular contributor as an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, covering immigration, refugees, politics, culture and Southeast Asia. With his then-six-year-old son, Ellison, he co-authored Chicken of the Sea, a children’s book. His most recent book is The Committed, the sequel to The Sympathizer. Next year, in addition to reading his books and columns, audiences will also be able to watch Nguyen’s story about a man of two minds on the screen with HBO adapting The Sympathizer into a TV series.
Jennifer Delgadillo (JD): When did you first start imagining The Committed as a sequel to The Sympathizer?
Viet Thanh Nguyen (VTN): When I finished The Sympathizer, I did not think there was going to be a sequel, and when I set up The Sympathizer, it was supposed to be a one-off novel. However, while thinking about the next project, I realized I was still interested in this character and there was more to say about his life and his story from a novelistic perspective. And it works in terms of genre as well because it’s supposed to be a spy novel, right? In genre, it’s perfectly fine to have sequels and series and all of that. I also thought that there was more I wanted to learn about who he is as someone who’s deeply political but whose politics have been challenged in all kinds of different ways.
Therefore, it was necessary to have a sequel so I could see what happens to a revolutionary after he’s lost his revolution. Another part of it: It’s not just his politics, it’s also about himself. His masculinity is really problematic in The Sympathizer, as I discovered in writing the story, so I wanted that to be challenged, as well, and that’s what happens in The Committed: He goes to France and investigates the French side of his heritage and the whole history of French colonialism, which is absolutely fundamental to him. It is fundamental to me as well and, you know, engages these political questions about revolution that I have been obsessing over since I was an undergraduate reading people like Frantz Fanon, who appears in the novel. Therefore, it was a way for me—fictionally—to deal with a lot of my own political and personal issues, too.
JD: You’ve mentioned that this is going to be a trilogy. Is it okay to ask about where the character is heading next?
VTN: The Committed is set almost completely in Paris, and he survives at the end, as he does in The Sympathizer. In the third and final novel—I think, because I haven’t written it yet, but I love notes—his journey will begin in Central America because the CIA appears at the end of The Committed. The CIA will continue to play a role in the final novel, and the reason why I think he’s spirited away to Central America is because the point in time here is 1985 and a lot of the things that the United States and the CIA were doing there in the 1980s were a direct continuation of what they were doing in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.
To me, these are not discrete events. These are all part of the American global view of the United States’ place in the world as well as the role of communism and the need to suppress any idea or hint of communism, wherever it appears. It appeared in Central America, and the United States did some very terrible things there. The final novel, then, to me, is an American novel in the sense of the greater America, not just the United States.
So it begins in Central America, but we will come back to North America because a lot of other interesting stuff was happening in the 1980s, which is my decade in terms of my adolescence and identification. Also, I want to work out things about the politics in the 1980s in the United States that were influential to me, things like Ronald Reagan, redressing reparations with Japanese Americans, and the rise of women-of-color politics. All of that was taking place then and I think will appear in the final novel.
JD: You’ve spoken before about how anger played a key role in writing The Sympathizer and The Committed. Do you have advice for writers who feel anger, but are not yet able to put their feelings on the page?
VTN: Oh, I think that anger is a very tricky emotion. For me, it was important when I was in college, because it gave me the ability to articulate a lot of things that weren’t articulated for me in adolescence, and anger really gave me both focus and a lot of passion. However, throughout my life, the anger has ebbed and flowed, which I think is a healthy thing because to be angry at the same pitch I was angry at when I was 19 would be hard to maintain for decades and decades.
Dealing with anger has been a matter of trying to figure out when it’s appropriate. I think anger, like every other emotion, can be excessive, so it’s not just anger that is the problem. Too much love is a problem. Too much hate is a problem, right? Being able to modulate the anger was really important in being able to recognize when I wasn’t angry enough—that was very important. I feel as though in my 20s and 30s, I wasn’t angry enough. I was focused on becoming a professor and dealing with academia, so I kept down the anger, which was perhaps necessary to survive. However, in retrospect, it was also not great for me as a writer.
In my 30s and 40s, it was about trying to get the anger back and trying to reach the sort of moment of idealism I experienced in my late teens and early 20s when the anger was also very important. I think that the events of the Trump era in my life also taught me that anger can be excessive in very problematic ways. The anger of the extreme-rightwing has been terrible for the country, but it’s also provoked anger in me that was in many ways excessive, as well. So, those binary politics of action/reaction that characterized, I think, the Trump era but also characterized things like moments of warfare that have shaped my life could be problematic.
In a sense, I’ve had to also take a step back in the last couple of years in regard to my anger because it’s felt better to not be angry all the time and be provoked by other people’s anger. So, my only advice in this area is: Don’t be afraid of your anger. At the same time, don’t be overwhelmed by it, and learn how to use your own emotions and not have your emotions use you. That’s the hard part, I think. There are a lot of people who also tamp down their emotions, which is also not good. It’s very tricky to figure out how to be able to recognize the usefulness of your emotions, recognize when you’re being overwhelmed by your emotions and harness them for your own purposes. Of course, this is true for every emotion, not just anger.
JD: In both The Sympathizer and The Committed your main character reads a lot. Why is it important for you to drive his story through his love of literature?
VTN: Well, because I think that not everybody loves literature, but some people do, so why not talk about it in books or movies? God forbid. Also, it’s partly autobiographical. I love literature. I love reading and wanted to give a prominent place to that in my books.
I was also driven by the idea that ideas are powerful. Look at the history of the 20th century and all the revolutions and calamities and struggles, etc.: They were driven by ideas, whether by capitalist ideas or by communist ideas. These ideas could have been expressed in very knotty and complicated ways by Marx or Adam Smith or whatever, and the average person may not have been reading these things, but the ripple effect of those ideas was tremendous.
So it seems utterly reasonable that someone who is deeply curious about the world and is serious about political change would want to read books, would want to read ideas, and when you look at the history of revolutions and so on, it’s not just the philosophers and the academics who were reading these dense books or changing things. Actually, it’s often everyday people whose lives have been touched by political ideas. Sometimes, they end up going to prison, for example, and in those places, ideas circulate. A lot of revolutionary education happens in prisons, where people are reading books.
In The Sympathizer and in The Committed, the discussion is sometimes very learned—there are characters who are professors in these books—and then sometimes the discussion is not necessarily learned, but the books are there. So, that’s why in The Committed, it was important for me to have the muscle in the brothel be a guy who was big and Black and read books. I don’t see a contradiction in that. Some people might, but that’s the point. It’s not just the effete professor in his fancy apartment in Paris who is reading stuff. It’s also these folks who are lying low. The muscle is taking his time, and he’s someone who I think is capable of revolutionary change, and it’s taking place in a brothel. Again, none of that is contradictory to me.
Look, I’m Catholic. So, I think about how in the Bible, there are stories of revolution that Jesus led and everything—it took place among the people who are not the elite. It took place among the people who would be considered the lowest of their social classes. And so, that’s partly what’s being represented in these novels.
JD: Your short-story collection, The Refugees, is atypical in that it manages more than just the assembling of a collection of stories. You’re painting a nuanced portrait of refugees. What was the process of assembling that collection? How did you decide what stories should be part of it?
VTN: In writing that book, I learned how to become a writer. I taught myself, through trial and error, different fiction techniques, but I was also thinking about trying to write a book that was greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes, I read short-story collections and some individual stories may be brilliant, but it seems to me that the collection is just a random assortment of pieces. Some of the books that have been the most influential for me, in terms of short stories, have been James Joyce’s The Dubliners or, more recently, Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City. It felt to me that these were books that were also about places and groups of people and that was very deliberate on the part of the writers.
As I was trying to be a writer, I thought, Well, I also want to write about Vietnamese people, and I want to say something about getting these experiences collectively, as well. So, that was an easy decision, to say that everything would be about or mostly about Vietnamese people. And if it’s not about Vietnamese people directly, it’s about people who interact with Vietnamese people, because obviously we don’t just hang out with each other all the time. So, that was one way of setting the parameters of the book, and the other way was to make it thematically about refugees. Therefore, it’s not about all Vietnamese people in Vietnam, it’s about this particular refugee experience. It’s cohesive in one way, but even when we’re talking about a very specific subset of people, not everybody’s the same. I was also thinking about Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. It’s about people in a small town. They’re all Americans. They’re all Midwesterners, and so on. However, they’re not all the same. Therefore, if we can think that about white people, obviously we can think that about any other population.
In writing the book, it was also very important for me to think that even if Vietnamese people are divided into refugees and diaspora, even within that subset, there’s vast diversity. So, my job was to try to capture some of that diversity. I tried to make the stories about different people, even if they were all Vietnamese and refugees. In fact, I actually did use a spreadsheet to help me not just write about myself.
Even if these are Vietnamese people and I’m a Vietnamese person, the stories are not all about Vietnamese men in their 20s and 30s, and that was crucial because I have read collections about white male authors that are all about young white men. Okay, well, that is cohesive, but it’s also going to be limiting. I felt that when it comes to these questions of self and otherness that are important for a lot of us who are writers of color, it’s important to recognize that sometimes we’re the “other” in relation to other people, but sometimes other people are “others” to us. That otherness can be a different race, but sometimes otherness can be your mother, otherness can be your family. Otherness can be people within your community, and that raises a challenge for me, as a writer, about how to write about that otherness. It’s an ethical, ethnic, aesthetic, and political question. If we challenge white writers for their inability to deal with various kinds of otherness, then I need to challenge myself as well.
JD: I do have one more question about The Refugees, about the story “The Other Man,” because it stood out to me from the other stories. The bonds of family, tradition, the past—those are present in most of the stories but not in “The Other Man.” I read it as a story about the importance of giving yourself permission to cut ties with the past, with tradition, with family, when they don’t serve the person that you need to become. Could you talk about why you thought it was important to make that point?
VTN: I grew up with complicated feelings about what home and community meant. On the one hand, I always felt welcomed at people’s homes and certainly felt that I was home in my parents’ home, but on the other hand, I often felt very uncomfortable for different reasons. The Vietnamese-refugee community itself is afflicted with all kinds of traumas, tensions, and so on. In my own parents’ home, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I wanted to be a different kind of person than what my parents wanted me to be. Looking at the larger Vietnamese-refugee community, I could also see a lot of in-fighting and backstabbing and divisiveness. And then I could look at other Vietnamese families and see a lot of intimacy and loyalty, but then a lot of terrible things could also be happening in these families: infidelity, alcoholism, abuse, that type of stuff. I could see that people were very conflicted by these relationships. They wanted to leave, but they never could.
I left at my very first opportunity, and that’s probably a tribute to my parents. They didn’t want to hang on to me so tightly that they couldn’t let me go. However, I have seen enough Vietnamese families to know that some people never did leave when they should have. It would have been better for them, but for a number of complicated emotional reasons, they didn’t. For me, family and home are things that are not sentimental. They can be nurturing, and they can be destructive, and both can happen at the same time.
I don’t think this is unique to immigrants and refugees, but if you’re an immigrant or refugee, family and community are supposed to be your bulwark against the larger society—another reason why it’s hard to leave. And so, there’s no right or wrong choice in these circumstances. Maybe if I’d stayed, I would have been a different person. Maybe that would have been a better situation. I have no idea. Clearly, people have left. People have transformed themselves by leaving, and that’s the choice that this particular character is making, and we don’t know what the consequences will be. That’s why it’s a short story, you know? I thought, Maybe I should have written a novel about this particular character and seen what the unfolding consequences of his actions are for himself and for his family, but a short story is about capturing the moment in time and leaving us on the precipice of a situation where something dramatic is happening. Something very important is happening. Something very life-changing has happened for this character, and that’s enough for that moment. However, we know that it’s life-changing to stay and it’s life-changing to leave, and it’s such a complicated decision for so many people. That’s what makes it a great moment for a short story to focus on.
JD: In the essay “On Victims and Voices” in Nothing Ever Dies, you describe the importance of authenticity and how it never really eliminates ventriloquism. Do you have any advice for ethnic writers about ethically addressing this issue?
VTN: I think it pays for so-called ethnic writers to be very conversant about the entire situation—when we’re talking about the United States—within the United States, where their literature functions. I don’t think it’s enough for an ethnic writer to say, “I just want to write my story,” because I don’t think that’s a freedom that we have as ethnic or minority writers.
If you’re a majority writer, you can say that—I don’t think that’s ethical, either, but you have all the power and the freedom that’s granted to you because you’re part of the majority, whether you’re a man or a white man or just a white person. You have a lot of freedom and privilege granted to you by that, because when you write, you write as a part of the majority, and the audience that receives you will be part of the same majority. There will be a lot of understanding, implicitly, that takes place, and it’s all taken for granted.
However, when you’re a so-called ethnic or minority writer, you’re dealing with a much more complicated terrain within your own community that’s imposing expectations of authenticity on you, but you’re still within this so-called majority community that’s imposing its own expectations of authenticity on you. It is certainly an aesthetic concern at that point, but it’s an aesthetic concern that’s inseparable from the politics and economics of the larger society in which your community is embedded— all the various inequities that are involved there, which saturate every relationship, including not just the act of storytelling but everything in the world of literature.
I call it an illiterate industry because it is, because there are economics involved, agents and publishers and reviewers, and all of that is in the industry. It’s not just about the art—it’s about all the other inequities and assumptions that I’ve mentioned. So, if you, as a so-called ethnic or minority writer, walk into this and say, “I just want to tell my story,” and you’re completely uninformed about this environment, and you’re completely uninformed about the entire way by which your people have been read, and you’re uninformed about how your people have already written and been received, you’re setting yourself up for so many mistakes. Now, you could be the genius that, as a naive person, has so much talent you can blow up in this whole situation—that could happen. However, I think that for the overwhelming majority of writers in this situation, if they’re uninformed, their literature is not going to be very good because they don’t understand all the various assumptions that are imposed on them. They also will not have seen how literature functions as a genre. For instance, I can look at any single category of literature in this country, let’s say Asian American literature—it’s a genre. And if you read a hundred books of Asian American literature, you will see that there are tropes that emerge. Some of them are good and some of them are bad, but as with every trope, if it’s been done by 99 other writers and then you do it yourself, that’s not going to be very interesting.
Now, if you know that the trope exists and you decide to use it and subvert it, that’s interesting. Also, the trope exists because of various kinds of historical and social pressures and so on from inside and outside the community, but you have to have read all of that in order to know that.
Therefore, I think, fairly or unfairly, the so-called ethnic or minority writer has a big challenge ahead of them. Not only do they have to learn the art, which is a universal art, they have to learn the particularities of their own history alongside literary and political history in order to see that the literature is inseparable from all of that—the tropes and the techniques, etc.
Given all that, the so-called ethnic or minority writer can then confront the questions of authenticity and voice in an ethical artistic and political fashion. However, if you’re naive and you don’t know these kinds of things, you’re going to repeat the worst tropes of authenticity and voice and ventriloquism and all of that.
Even though the world of literature is supposed to prize originality, the literary industry, especially when it comes to so-called minorities, is built on cliches and assumptions and prejudices. It’s very easy for the so-called ethnic or minority writer to fall into those, to reiterate those, because those are the things that are going to be rewarded by the majority.
JD: What makes good writing?
VTN: Oh, that’s such a subjective question, and I think the subjective reaction for me is, What makes good writing is something that energizes me when I see it. I think that that is often different for every individual, but we all acquire a sense of taste.
For each of us, that sense of taste determines what we think is good. We’re bored by certain things, stimulated by certain things. So, there’s no right or wrong answer, you know? Personally, I am provoked by writing in which I see that the language is really alive from the very first sentence.
I think about when I open a book and look at the first sentence or first paragraph. I can see, hopefully, the book in microcosm because the style, rhythm, word choice, and the very voice of the author are all present. It’s like a seed in that first sentence or first paragraph, and if I don’t like the seed, I’m probably not going to like the book. I mean, I can make a mistake here, but I need to be provoked from that very first sentence, that very first paragraph. If I feel that the language is inert or unoriginal or that the rhythm is flat, I’m not really interested in carrying on for 300 more pages of that.
When it comes to good writing, that is not to me a question of seriousness or literariness. I’m not a snob; I think that so-called genre writers can do exactly everything that I talked about, and so-called literary writers can fail in that respect. There are a lot of boring literary writers and a lot of really good so-called genre writers out there. So, this question of what is good is not a matter of snobbish literary values. It’s a question about each individual writer within the constraints of the kind of genre that they picked for themselves, including the literary genre, what they do with that and whether they can make that genre original.
So, yes, I think originality is also part of what I’m looking for in terms of good writing. It’s hard to discern originality if you haven’t read deeply and widely. If you’re a naive reader and then pick up a book, even the worst stuff can look great to you, which is why certain writers sell a lot of copies.
JD: I’m curious about what your media consumption is like. Do you have habits? Do you read the newspaper?
VTN: When I was growing up in the dark ages, there were only books, TV and radio, and magazines and newspapers. There were not even movies, really, because I could never go to the movies. Even back then, I read a lot of books, but I was also reading the newspapers. I was also watching a lot of TV—my dad was so upset by how much TV I was watching and would yell at me. He would unplug the TV and tape over the outlet, but that would not stop me from plugging the TV back in.
Somehow, out of all of that, I still became a writer, so I’m not snobbish about this issue of media consumption. I think that we live in a world of stories, and stories can come to us in many ways. Now, it is important, I think, if you want to be good as a storyteller, to pick a form and immerse yourself deeply, but that doesn’t mean you have to exclude everything else that’s out there. I think you can find powerful storytelling or writing in many different ways. Even Twitter is a form, and some people are really, really good at it, you know? I think I was decent at it—when I was on Twitter. In fact, Twitter did influence the last book that I finished. It’s a nonfiction memoir built on fragments and short sentences and things like that. It was totally influenced by Twitter but also by poetry.
I try to read or watch anything that will provoke me because it captures my interest. I use an Excel sheet to track how much I’m reading—I’m probably doing like 90 books a year in both audio and written form. I also try to make sure that I’m reading as many women as I am men. Where I’m failing is I’m reading too many Americans and not enough non-Americans. That has to be corrected. I still like to watch TV, so I have Netflix and Amazon and Apple and all of that, and I try to watch TV shows that are doing interesting things and are entertaining but are also bringing new worlds to me. So, Reservation Dogs has been there recently, as have Ramy and Westworld. Regarding movies, most recently, there was Dune. I’m still reading newspapers, still get the physical The New York Times. I want to expose my son to all these forms of media so he knows that there are books and newspapers out there. I didn’t have a library when I was growing up, while he has a library probably bigger than most adults have. He takes it for granted. I think that most of us take for granted that we have Facebook and Twitter, our laptops, our phones, and all of that. However, I think that for those of us with children, it’s important to build and very consciously curate the kinds of things our kids get.
JD: Speaking of children, you co-authored the children’s book Chicken of the Sea with your son, Elison. Young people’s expectations of words and writing are so different from the world of publishing and academia that you often write about. What was that experience like?
VTN: Pure joy. It was completely unexpected; it was not me trying to be some stage dad, telling my son he had to write a book or anything. It’s simply that my wife and I provided him with a house full of books, art, and music, all that kind of stuff. I think most kids are naturally creative—it’s life that beats the creativity out of people. So, we got lucky—or he got lucky, too—that he created this little comic book, which a lot of kids do, but he just happened to have a dad who put it on Facebook, and I have a Facebook friend who I’d never met who was an editor who then turned that book into a real book. That’s a sort of fairy-tale story, but I think the heart of the matter is that it doesn’t matter if you get published or not. What really matters is that parents and children should have a relationship that allows for creativity and for parents to converse with their kids in this respect.
For me, part of the lesson from that experience was that childlike creativity is wonderful because it knows no boundaries and borders. As we grow older, we acquire boundaries and borders, rules and etiquette, concepts regarding what we shouldn’t say or do. That’s useful, obviously, but it can kill creativity, you know? And creativity, I think, is partly about seeing the world without any kind of limitation. If we bring it back directly to the question of literature, why does genre exist? Why do we have lines like that? And why do we talk about high and low or have rules that say you can or can’t do certain things in the world of fiction?
After that, it became a father-son thing where we actually went on a book tour, and I took him to places like Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, we were in San Francisco and San Jose. This opens up a place where I can have a relationship with my son and do something with him that hopefully he’ll remember positively. I think all parents should be seeking out that kind of opportunity.
JD: Your son is almost 10 now and you also have a younger daughter. Did watching them learn to speak change how you see words? You’re a person that speaks various languages and thinks about words in a profound way. I imagine teaching language to someone that’s learning how to be a person has to be a totally different experience.
VTN: I always had the idea that, in general, it’s important not to talk down to kids. I talk to him [Ellison] like he’s capable of understanding very serious things and serious words, and I think that’s important because I think children can understand that. I don’t know why parents go around talking down to their kids or adults go around talking down to kids, but it’s a bad idea. I always assume that he and other children can rise to the challenge. As a result of that, we talk about serious political matters sometimes—he has opinions about Trump and racism, for example—because these ideas, the serious ideas of adults, will affect kids anyway. These ideas circulate non-verbally in people’s households, or sometimes they circulate verbally—adults don’t know that they’re transmitting ideas and the kids are picking up on all kinds of stuff.
That’s how children can be really vicious in the places where parents don’t see things happening. There are plenty of stories about bullies and terrible things happening on playgrounds. Hopefully, that’s not your kid, but maybe it is, and why do they do that? They do it because they learned it from adults, either the words or the behavior.
That’s why I’ve always thought it was important to talk to my son about serious matters, because I want him to be an empathetic, caring, responsible person who’s aware of how history has shaped him. He knows about words like war and colonialism and refugees because this is what shaped his grandparents and parents and led to him.
Besides that, talking to him like he’s a serious person, we also do things that involve language. We read a lot together, and oftentimes that’s silly and fun stuff—his favorite series is Diary of a Wimpy Kid. However, reading children’s literature with him has been informative for me because in the world of children’s literature, not just Diary of a Wimpy Kid but Dog Man, for example, I’ve learned a lot: Break rules! Entertain people! He’s laughing hysterically at a lot of these words. Why can’t adults also laugh hysterically at the things that they read? Dog Man is stupid, but it’s also literary with titles like Fetch-22 and For Whom the Ball Rolls—this is, like, smart stuff. So, regarding the issue of language and education, I think it’s also a mistake for adults to think it’s a one-way street, that it’s only adults who teach kids. It’s also kids who continue to teach adults—not intentionally but through observing them and remembering who we were when we were children.
Finally, it was important for me to have children who are multilingual. I think it’s a real disability for Americans to be monolingual—the majority are—so my kids are enrolled in French school. I would have put them in Spanish school, but the problem is that the state of multilingual education is terrible in this country. I couldn’t get them into K-12 Spanish school, so we put them in French school because I could pay for that. I’ve been in situations in France, for example, where I’ve seen people—young teenagers—speak French and English as if they’re natives in both languages. I can’t tell the difference to other Americans. I want that for him. I want him to have that kind of fluency, because I do think that it allows you to see the world in different ways when you can approach language in different ways. When I was writing The Sympathizer, I knew enough Vietnamese that I could look at it from the outside and look at English from the outside, and The Sympathizer is written as someone who approaches English from the outside—that’s why, I think, the language in that book is so dense in a particular way. I wanted to make that language a very deliberately self-conscious language, and it was really rewarding for me that someone who is Vietnamese recently came up to me and said, “I feel that this was written in Vietnamese.” The sentence structure, he said, was Vietnamese to him. That was really awesome for me to hear, that he could see that structure in there.
With The Committed, there are a lot of French jokes in there, and they came about because, you know, my kids are learning French and I took French in high school. Also, over the last few years, I’ve been taking it very seriously and learning it again because I want to keep up with my kids—I don’t want them to speak a language I can’t understand. In the case of The Committed, knowing French allowed me to make jokes in French that the French catch, as well, which is awesome.
JD: I have some questions about community, because writing is very lonely. You’ve spoken about ethnicity and automatically being part of a collective for that reason. What are the virtues of belonging to a collective and certain literary lineages?
VTN: Yeah ultimately, the writer is left alone in a room, so you do have to confront that solitude. There’s no way of getting out of that, and for some writers, that’s the world they want to inhabit completely, you know? So, more power to them. You can’t really change a writer’s personality. However, collectivity is important in a couple of different ways. In one way, it’s important in the sense you’re talking about, which is the need for some writers to actually have a physical community, to know that there are other people like them out there. Many of us need that kind of affirmation, whether it’s knowing this in a sort of idealistic sense—we’ve read other writers like us, we know they exist and that’s awesome—or actually forming communities that we can participate in physically. Of course, if you’re a part of the majority, that ecosystem already exists for you—you go to a writer’s residency, even go to New York City where you can hang out with other writers that you can assume are white. You take that for granted.
For those of us who are not white, we have to build those communities, and I think it’s a very important act because what it says is that writing is not only about the individual achievement and individual advancement. In fact, we can help each other along the way.
This, to me, is so important because when you are a part of the majority, you don’t necessarily need that group, because there will be people like you who will recognize you and will give you that helping hand. If you’re a so-called minority, that’s very unlikely to happen. There’s not going to be that famous editor out there or that famous professor who will reach down and pull you up. Therefore, we have to do it for ourselves, and we have to push each other up rather than have someone pull us. There are a lot of examples of that in terms of writers and collectives in the history of writers of color in the United States. Now, if we come from a group in which those collective leads have not yet existed, like for us Vietnamese people, then some of us have to take the initiative and start that on our own, which is what my friends and I have done.
We started off as young, idealistic writers in our 20s, looking around and seeing that there weren’t enough Vietnamese voices out there and thinking maybe we needed to have a group of writers and artists that would provide the community, organize open mics, organize meetings, and give people an audience. That’s exactly what happened, and from that little seed, 25 years later we have a 501c3 with a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar budget. It was done out of just sheer collective will and voluntary work, and now we have paid employees and staff. So, I think anybody, any group of people, can do that, but obviously it’s a tax. It’s a literal tax on our time because in addition to writing, now we do this as well. It’s unfair. Well, there’s no way of getting around it. Unfortunately, that’s what it means to build a collective. I think back to those writers who are not a part of these kinds of things; they just want to sit in their rooms and write. If they go out into the world and are successful and say, “I’m just a writer,” I’m personally offended by that, because they are completely unaware of how much work has already gone into creating a world where they could just be a writer.
So, if you’re the genius who’s been sitting in the room by yourself, and you publish your first book, and you’re Chicana or you’re Asian American or whatever, and you suddenly become the big thing and you’re like, “I just did it by myself,” that’s so untrue. The world has been prepared for you by all these other collectives and struggles and so on that have taken place, that have prepared the world so that it would even recognize what an Asian American writer is. One hundred years ago, that poor person who was the writer sitting alone in a room emerged as an early Chinese American writer. No one knew what to do with that person, because the world hadn’t been prepared for that person.
I think it’s important for writers of color—minorities or minority writers—to understand that they’re never just an individual writer. They are to the extent that they’re sitting alone in a room, but once they go out into the world, they are not just an individual writer, and they should recognize that either they need the support of other people or their individual success has already been enabled by the social and/or political struggles of other writers that have gone before them.
JD: There is a lot of talk about the importance of elevating “marginalized voices” or “unheard voices” in the literary world and beyond, which opens the ethnic writer to larger audiences. However, I wonder about something you said in another interview with The Washington Post: whether greater visibility is similar to the skills immigrants develop in the process of assimilation—the mental elasticity in how they see themselves and others, which you explore in your books. Do you think the experience of seeing oneself through various perspectives translates to specific skills in writing as well?
VTN: I think so, and I think even if we look at writers of the so-called majority, they may be part of the majority, but in their own worlds, the way they grew up and all of that, I think they’ve probably experienced otherness as individuals—you know, alienation and “outsiderness.” Something unique about their upbringing or background has made them sensitive to the inside of the outside, whether it’s the inside and outside of language or the inside and outside of social relations of various kinds. I think literary writers are inevitably people who feel uncomfortable in some way in relation to either language or social relations, but those are individual circumstances. For an immigrant or refugee or writer of color or so-called minority, not only do we feel individually out of sorts, but we are collectively out of sorts because it’s imposed on us. That’s the big difference, right?
That’s also the big difference when it comes to identity. If you’re part of the majority, your identity is an individual identity, and you can take it or leave it, you can be ethnic or not depending on your choice. However, if you’re a racialized minority, you have no choice. It’s imposed on you, so I think that for those of us on whom various kinds of identities are imposed because of historical conditions and circumstances, we do have a different relationship with both the inside and outside of a particular moment. Because of the collective nature of that imposition, the force of that does transform my understanding of what otherness and inclusion might mean, and I think that manifests itself in terms of writing when it comes to the choices that we make about who and what we write about. Inevitably, if you’re a so-called minority writer, it’s political. Even when we speak about the people that you write about, to write as an Asian American is political because you picked a group that’s already marked in the larger society. Of course, to not write about Asian Americans is also political because then it becomes, Why are you not writing about Asian Americans? If you’re writing about an unmarked population, it turns into, Who is that population? Are they white or are they not white? So, it’s that condition that is imposed on you and that, again, is not fair, but it’s a key issue that marks us differently than it does white people, because if white people write about white people, it’s not an explicit, political choice. It’s just something that happens to be normal. If you’re an Asian American writing about an Asian American, however, it is normal, but it’s also political at the same time, because you can’t separate the literature from the larger politics of the society.
I think that a very basic awareness of the imposition of identities and the fact that even things that should not be political are political must inevitably shape an immigrant or refugee writer’s awareness of themselves. Does it make them more elastic? If I said that, I think that it could, but you can’t generalize these things as an inevitability, because there are a lot of non-elastic immigrants and refugees too. However, it gives you the opening that you can walk through to choose to be elastic—to choose to be more entrepreneurial, for example. They can choose to be more experimental, and, again, not every writer makes that choice, but the door has been opened for them to see that that choice could be an option.
JD: As a writer, do you feel a responsibility to subject yourself to adventures and life experiences?
VTN: To adventures and life experiences? Oh, yeah. I think that it’s absolutely necessary for me to have new experiences. However, it’s important to identify what those experiences are, because when I was growing up reading about writers like Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, the idea was that to be a man and a manly writer or to be writer in general, one had to seek out adventure in foreign lands, test their manhood and strength and all of that kind of stuff. That could be true, but I don’t think that’s actually necessary. To become a mother is a life-changing experience that a man will never have. To be an immigrant or a refugee is a life-changing experience that the citizen who grew up in this country will never have. So, I think every experience is potentially a life-changing experience, even the most seemingly mundane or domestic things. To become a father was a life-changing experience. I didn’t want it—to me, it was deeply terrifying, even though it’s a very mundane thing. Therefore, the qualified answer is “absolutely.” Yes, you need new adventures. You need new experiences, but even the most mundane and domestic things can be those experiences. Even changing a job can be that kind of experience: For me, I feel like I’ve exhausted the life of a professor. I don’t think I can learn anymore from this job. I’d love to resign and retire and do something else. I would love to leave this country and live in another country for the next couple of decades, and I think that’s one of the reasons why learning French has been important. That was an important experience—is an important experience—for me as a writer and as a human being to subject myself to humiliation through learning something.
For a lot of people, they get comfortable, they get authority in whatever it is that they’re doing, and for a lot of people, they don’t want to lose that authority and that comfort and stability. I think that’s true for writers as well, and that’s dangerous. I think that for me, my own project is to constantly feel like I’m learning something, but if you’re going to learn something, you have to be a student, and to be a student when you’re already a professor means you have to give up authority. Can you do that? Can you subject yourself to feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, embarrassment, vulnerability? This is what it means to learn stuff, however you choose to do it. It can be, again, as mundane as learning a new language, or it could be traveling to a foreign country and not as a tourist.
I think writers have so many opportunities to do these kinds of things, as every human being does, but it takes a little bit of courage to expose yourself to new things.
JD: Last question: Do you practice other forms of creative output besides writing?
VTN: Promoting other Vietnamese American diasporic artists and writers is helpful to me in the sense that it exposes me to new ideas, new stories that are out there. When I was growing up in the Vietnamese-refugee community, and I was looking at these very old people in their 30s and 40s telling their stories and stuff, I was like, “God, these stories are old and tired. When are you going to learn some new stories? Why are you trapped in the past?” Now, I’m older than those people were at that time, and I think that there are probably younger people looking at me, and I know this is happening: “Wow. Can you just think of a new story to talk about besides refugees and war?” And they are perfectly right in saying that. So, it’s good for me to know that there are younger generations of writers who are concerned about totally different things. That goes back to the question about learning new stuff and having your own authority undermined or questioned and your view of the world put into relief. I think being a parent has been a bit of a creative endeavor in some ways. Therefore, I’m looking forward to being able to give up certain parts of my life. For instance, if I stop being a professor, that should open up more time to do other creative things. I would love to write a script for The Sympathizer TV series at some point. I’m not shutting myself off to other creative endeavors at this point, but right now, I just need to finish this Sympathizer Trilogy.