Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

This opening lecture addresses what it means to write as an other, especially given writing’s power both to save and to destroy the other. The lecture also lays out the methodology of the lectures, an embodied, autobiographical criticism that emerges from the tension between the humanities and the bare life of refugees for Harvard University’s Mahindra Humanities Center

About the Speakers

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and numerous other awards. His most recent publication is A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial. His other books are the sequel to The Sympathizer, The Committed; a short story collection, The Refugees; Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction); and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He has also published Chicken of the Sea, a children’s book written in collaboration with his son, Ellison. He is a University Professor at the University of Southern California. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, he is also the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of five books, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was on the longlist for the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a national bestseller, won the Joyce Carol Oates Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostThe NationHarper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times. She has been awarded fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. She is currently Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California at Riverside.

Introduction By:

Glenda Carpio, Chair of the Department of English, Harvard College Professor, and Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University.

About the Norton Lectures

The Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry was endowed in 1925. Harvard’s preeminent lecture series in the arts and humanities, the Norton Lectures recognize individuals of extraordinary talent who, in addition to their particular expertise, have the gift of wide dissemination and wise expression. The term “poetry” is interpreted in the broadest sense to encompass all poetic expression in language, music, or the fine arts.

Read below for transcript.

[APPLAUSE] 

Good evening, everyone. My name is Glenda Carpio, I’m Professor of English and of African and African-American Studies here at Harvard. And it is my great pleasure and honor to be here to introduce Professor Viet Nguyen, a University Professor at USC, a renowned writer, and someone I had the fortune to have met in graduate school at UC Berkeley. We met in a seminar that he mentioned in his first lecture, a seminar on migration, and borders, and the literature they produce. 

Many of us in that seminar knew that Viet would forge for himself a brilliant future. We all looked up to him. He was both cool and down to Earth, erudite, and incisive, a precise writer and a probing mind. We knew he would burn bright, and how right we were. Professor Nguyen’s many accolades include both a MacArthur and a Guggenheim Fellowship, he’s the author of the novel The Sympathizer, a bestselling Pulitzer Prize winner and the SQL, the committed. 

He wrote a short story collection, The Refugees, the children’s book, Chicken of the Sea, with his son Ellison, named for Ralph Ellison. And a nonfiction among others, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asia, Asian America, as well as Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. And most recently, A Man of Two Faces: a Memoir, a History, a Memorial. 

Please note that the Harvard bookstore is going to be hosting a book sale in the lobby for this book after this lecture. We’re also fortunate to have with us an Interlocutor, Laila Lalami, who is a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of five books, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab American Book Award and the Hurston Wright Legacy Award. 

It was on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and our finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans was a national bestseller, and a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, Lalami is working on The Dream Hotel, which is a novel set in the near future where there’s no privacy. 

The novel follows a museum archivist who gets detained by government agents after an algorithm determines that she is a potential criminal. Professor Lalami will be in conversation with Professor Nguyen immediately after the lecture. Allow me to say a little bit about the series of talks. 

Founded in 1925, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry, now biennially invites prominent artists, writers, and musicians to deliver a six part lecture series about their craft. Professor Nguyen has named his series, To Save and To Destroy, On Writing as an Other. Today, he will deliver the second lecture of his series, which is entitled, On Speaking as an Other. 

In his first lecture, which he delivered a little bit of over a month ago, in which was titled, On the Double or Inauthenticity, Professor Nguyen told us that he is quote, “Invested in the symbolic and economic values of otherness, and how those values are created, extracted, and exploited.” Referencing Toni Morrison’s own Norton lectures which were delivered here in 2016, he told us that quote, “Otherness emerges from within the mysterious and unknown or partly known territory inside us all.” 

It springs from the fierce projected onto quote, “Those we label strangers, foreigners, enemies, invaders, threats.” Otherness is not inherent to any group he asserted, it is imposed by the dominant culture. He then focused on what otherness means for writers who write about others and for writers who made themselves be others. The challenges or temptations as he called them, for these writers is at least threefold. 

One is to treat the other in extreme ways, either by idealizing or sentimentalizing them or by victimizing or villainizing them. Many writers fall into this temptation, he argued because they feel the political pressure to render socially acceptable ways of representing members of their own communities. This burden of representation he said, quote, “Demands that writers tell idealized, sanitized or stereotyped stories about their communities,” as they attempt to carry out salvation through stories. 

A second temptation exists for the writer as other Professor Nguyen argued, and that is, quote, “To separate oneself from the herd, to become less of a target by paradoxically becoming more visible, more individual.” this separation from the herd is to internalize in oneself the already existing strategy of master and colonizer, to divide others and conquer them. Subjugating the many and rewarding the few. 

It is to search for power and mastery rather than truth, it is to forfeit what he called the full power of art. The third temptation is when the writer who is othered gets something like a master of fine arts degree or some other certification, and thinks, oh, I know this now, I know how to write, I know what the other is. But this is an illusion. 

Quote, “Otherness can be traded for money or otherness can be exploited for it, from the enterprises of capitalism and colonialism, to the work of art and culture. What are the alternatives? The series of lectures that he is delivering will allow us to explore this question thoroughly. By way of closing, I’d like to note that one of the aspects of his first talk that I most enjoy was, his candor and humor. 

He spoke openly about the literary market, and how it shapes what and how we read, and write in the humanities, and how we might in turn shape the market to tell better stories. In that spirit, I’d like to shamelessly make a plug for a book of mine that is now just being published. It’s a book called Migrant Aesthetics Contemporary Fiction, Global Migration, and The Limits of Empathy. 

And I do so, not merely to sell my goods, but because it makes clear how much after all these years, Viet and I are still in the kind of conversation we might have had in the seminar on migration and borders. In my book, I too argue against what he called in his last lecture, the sob story. The sob story that anyone who is considered an outsider is expected to write. Specifically, I argue against the acculturation story, which the migrant is expected to tell over and over again. 

What is it like to become an American? And I quote now, Professor Nguyen from an article he wrote some time ago in the New York Times. “So much of immigrant literature, despite bringing attention to the racial, cultural, and economic difficulties that migration face, also ultimately affirms an American dream that is sometimes lofty and aspirational, and at other times a mask for the structural inequalities of the settler colonial state.” 

I quote these words in my book, where Professor Nguyen and I would have a rich discussion I am sure, is in the fact that I think that the language with which we talk about domination including the language of othering may be too frightened with its overuse in academia for it to be effective. In my book, I argue that we need a new language with which to think about migration and other forms of domination and injustice. 

And a new genres too, so that the autobiographical injunction to tell one story for the migrant, for the refugee, and so on might be precisely what we need to reject right now. But as always, I’m more than happy to hear Professor Nguyen argue in whatever direction he wants to take us, even if it’s in the direction opposite of mine. Please join me in welcoming Professor Nguyen to the podium. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Thank you. Good evening Cambridge and Harvard, it’s great to be back, especially to be introduced by my friend and former classmate, Glenda Carpio. It’s just amazing that she is now, she just told me, the first woman who is chairing the English department at Harvard University. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Admittedly, it should have happened 50 years earlier, but here we are. And if anybody can do the job, it’s Glenda. We took a seminar that I still remember very vividly from Professor Henar Pedia at Berkeley on borders and migrant crossings– migrants and border crossings that influenced me deeply as it did her, I think, and our career trajectories have been parallel in terms of our passions and our concerns, as teachers and as scholars, and as writers. 

And I’m just so delighted to be here sharing this moment with you. And also thank you for recapping the first lecture because I completely forgot what I had said, OK. So now, you’re refreshed. In that previous lecture, one other thing is that I ended on the difference between singular sorrow and capacious grief. 

And how writers who are others are often expected to be attached only to their singular sorrow. That sorrow becomes the other’s burden and the one thing the other can write about, at least, to those with the power to let the other speak or be heard. In contrast, capacious grief, allows the other to share their griefs and connect them with the griefs of others. 

In this lecture, I elaborate on these different kinds of grief, the singular and the capacious, in relationship to my mother. And what it means to have written a book, A Man of Two Faces, that is ostensibly a memoir about me, that nevertheless, features her very prominently. Ma, was a hero, who lived an epic life and survived an epic journey, only to be undone like so many other heroes by the only person who could defeat her, herself. 

This was a purely private affair for her and her family. Until that is, I chose to write about her, and speak on her behalf. Perhaps it’s not true then that she was undone only by herself, perhaps I too, in attempting to share my sorrow to engage in capacious grief have also undone her, me and myself, writer and betrayer. 

In 2009, I published a short story called, War Years, which is a somewhat autobiographical account about a boy growing up in San Jose, California in the 1970s and 1980s, with parents who own a Vietnamese grocery store, which my parents called the Saigon Mai. I titled the story War Years because I couldn’t separate that era of the grocery store from the shadow of America’s war in Vietnam. 

In the story, I described my mother as she appeared to me in my childhood. Whenever she spoke in English, her voice took on a higher pitch, as if instead of coming from inside her, the language was outside, squeezing her by the throat. 

In retrospect, I wonder if it was in fact, my language, in my hands around Ma’s neck making her speak. And if I was finding my voice as a writer, how much of it was due to speaking for others, beginning first of all with my mother, who was also my other. Unbeknownst to Ma, she was raising one of the most frightening creatures you can ever find in your house, a writer. 

I wrote and drew my first book when I was in the third grade, in San Jose around 1980, not long after she and my father opened the Saigon Mai, perhaps the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose. My mother and father worked 12 to 14 hour days, seven days a week, almost every day of the year. As a result, I was very good at being alone, spending most of my time with books and stories, rather than with people. 

My father thought that reading too much in dim light had led me to wearing glasses in the second grade. But if so, that reading had another effect, it fired my imagination, where I could see perfectly. So when my third grade teacher told us to write and draw our own books, I was ready. 

My book was Lester the Cat. Lester was an urban cat stricken with ennui. Bored with city life, he fled to the countryside. There in a hay strewn barn, he found love with a country cat. Unexpectedly, the San Jose public library gave Lester the Cat, a Book Award, it’s my first taste of literary fame. 

I never thought of being a writer before Lester the Cat, and I’m forever grateful to the San Jose Public Library for encouraging me and setting me on the path to over 30 years of misery in trying to become a writer. My school librarian, a kindly white haired woman, took me to the awards ceremony. 

There was a hotel across the street from the library and she treated me to a hamburger at the hotel restaurant, which in my eight-year-old mind was the fanciest place I’d ever been. My family were refugees and the only times we ever ate out were at a pho restaurant after Vietnamese language mass on Sundays. 

This was long before pho was fashionable, decades before the celebrity Chef Rachael Ray would offend all Vietnamese people with her pho pha. Back then, the only people in this pho restaurant were Vietnamese, and the only language spoken was Vietnamese. We all ate pho, the ambidextrous Vietnamese way, chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other, surrounded by the hubbub of Vietnamese voices. 

The pho restaurant was part of an international chain spread across the Vietnamese refugee diaspora. Years later, I heard rumors that the chain was funneling profits to the exiled remnants of the South Vietnamese army, intent on taking back Vietnam from the victorious communists. San Jose was home to one of the largest populations of Vietnamese refugees in the world. 

And during our community celebrations like that, Vietnamese veterans in camouflage uniforms guarded the gates. We sang the South Vietnamese national anthem. And in the exhibition hall of the Dead Festival, I saw pictures of South Vietnamese guerrillas somewhere in a jungle, training to invade Vietnam. My parents were anti-communists too, but they were more intent on saving our lives and fighting wars. 

Saving our lives, meant working themselves to exhaustion at the Saigon Moi in pursuit of the American dream, which is why neither of my parents could take me to the library for my award. And which is perhaps why Lester the Cat had neither father nor mother. Now, in this library, a massive white cube named after Martin Luther King Jr. I felt more at home than I did in my parents’ home. 

We lived next to the entrance ramp to the 280 freeway in a house with iron bars on all the windows. When I was 16, a young white man followed my parents’ home from the Saigon Moi, broke into our house, and aimed his gun in all our faces, a scene I describe in War Years. When the gunman told us to get on our knees, I the coward, silently obeyed, as did my father. 

Ba, like me was very good at self preservation, although Ba, unlike me had been tested by history and forced to make life and death decisions before like the time he and my mother chose to become refugees in 1954, fleeing from the North of Vietnam to the South. And the second time in 1975, when they chose to flee Vietnam to come to the United States. 

These decisions they told me often, saved us. On this summer evening in 1987, my mother surprised all of us by dashing past the gunman and running, screaming into the street. When the gunman turned to follow ma, ba slammed the door shut on him, locking him outside with ma. 

I saw her through the living room window, but I couldn’t hear her voice as she ran past all the cars heading for the freeway running to save our lives. My bedroom window had a view of this freeway entrance ramp and that night, as I watched a stream of cars ascend the ramp, I wondered where they were going, and longed to go with them. The library offered me a way out. Inside the library was a world without borders for a refugee boy, who had not chosen unlike his parents, to cross borders. 

Books could deliver me across time and space, away from the house with its barred windows, away from the Saigon Moi, where ba and ma had been shot in their store on Christmas Eve. I was nine, my brother and I were home alone, I was watching cartoons. 

Seven years older, my brother, took the phone call. When he told me, I kept watching cartoons. What’s the matter with you? My brother said, he was crying, I was not. I kept watching cartoons, my father and mother returned to work at the Saigon Moi within a day or two, they had to live, and to live they had to work, and they only had flesh wounds. We never spoke of that incident again. 

So when my parents could not make it to my award ceremony, who was I to say anything? They were working to save our lives and not just ours, but all the relatives back in a starving Vietnam, including my parents’ parents and my adopted sister. Our hometown, Ban Me Thuot was the first one captured in the final invasion by the North in 1975. 

Ba was in Saigon, ma by herself, decided to flee with my brother and me and leave behind our adopted sister at age 16, by herself to safeguard the family property, which the victorious communists confiscated anyway. I had no memory of my grandparents or this adopted sister, whom I last saw when I was four. Growing up in our San Jose house of barred windows, I was aware of absent presences of ghosts, of missing persons, of the faces of my grandparents, and black and white pictures gazing at me in silence. 

All these others, except my sister died before I could return to Vietnam and hear their voices. Part of me longed to hear the voices of Vietnamese people, even as part of me didn’t want to hear them. I had come to the United States at age four, fluent in Vietnamese, and all these decades later, Vietnamese is still so fluent that when I go to Vietnam, people compliment me on how good my Vietnamese is for a Korean. 

My monolingualism, my linguistic infantilism, is one of the things that makes me an American. My resistance to Vietnamese came about because I grew up as an American and my poor parents aware that they were raising an American alien in their household, sent me to Vietnamese Catholic Sunday school, which was the quickest way to guarantee that I would never learn Vietnamese. 

And yet I yearned to hear the voices of Vietnamese people because as an American, I understood how Americans saw and heard or didn’t hear Vietnamese people, who were among the many others in the American imagination. 

I was an American, which meant that America’s others were also mine. Born from what the Poet William Carlos Williams called, the orgy of blood that is American history. But I also became aware of myself as an other through watching almost all of Hollywood’s Vietnam War movies, an exercise I recommend to no one, especially if you’re Vietnamese. 

When Americans said Vietnam they really meant the Vietnam War, but whether they meant the country or the war, Vietnam for Americans was an American drama, an American Civil War, a conflict in the American soul in which we were the extras. This was our country and this was our war, and yet our only place in American movies and stories was to be killed, raped, threatened, or rescued. 

All we could do was scream, cry, beg, threaten, or curse. And if we could say anything at all, it was either me love you long time or thank you for being rescued. Of course, we were never so rude as to mention at least in English, that we wouldn’t have needed to be rescued by Americans if we hadn’t been invaded by Americans in the first place. 

The situation in the library wasn’t much better. The books about Vietnam were mostly about the war and therefore, mostly about Americans. There was a well-intentioned children’s book about a Vietnamese refugee, but I didn’t recognize myself in its world of rice paddies, water buffalo, and half naked peasant boys. I finally found the novel, Blue Dragon, White Tiger by Tran Van Dinh, a diplomat writing about the war from a South Vietnamese point of view. 

And perhaps the first Vietnamese writer to write fiction in English. He said, I’m a Vietnamese by birth, and American by choice. And an echo of it must have stuck in my head for decades later I would write, I was born in Vietnam, but made in America. His novel put another thought in my head, we could write about our own experiences in English, which was in other tongue that took the place of my mother tongue. 

But almost all of my reading in the second home of the library was not about me or anyone who looked like me. Almost everything I read was by and about white people. And through those books, and watching TV in the movies, which were also almost all about white people, I became an anthropologist of white people, knowing them far, far better than they knew me or people like me. 

One of the things I knew that white people expected of people like us, Vietnamese, refugees, others, was that we be grateful for our rescue by the United States. Perhaps I thought the best way to say thank you in English was to master English. As an adolescent in provincial San Jose, I became an anglophile in love with Dickens and Austen, Byron and Shelley, Vanity Fair and Tom Brown’s School Days. And I’m happy to report that after spending 30 years as a graduate student and a professor in English departments, I have been cured of my anglophilia. 

But I didn’t know any better at 17 and became an English major in college, and then continued for a PhD in English. For reading in English was the one thing I was good at. Even though Berkeley’s English department disciplined me into the cannon, by having me read the whole of English literature, I hung on to this stubborn desire to hear Vietnamese voices and write Vietnamese stories. At the same time, I also struggled to find my voice. 

In my English graduate seminars and later as a professor in English department faculty meetings, I barely said a word, feeling inauthentic, an imposter, a trespasser, an other. When I did speak, I wondered if I was speaking for myself or if I was speaking for an other. At home with my parents, I also barely said a word. I told my parents, I was going to become a doctor, really? They said. An English doctor, I said, their faces fell. 

How could I explain to my parents that I loved reading Jane Austen and the Romantics, that I had discovered Asian-American literature, which had saved me because it showed me that a writer could look like me, and that I could look like a writer. How could I say that as a writer, I was still an other to many, even to myself? 

But I could also find a voice in literature to assert myself. This was impossible to explain because the language my parents and I shared, Vietnamese, was a stunted one because of me. And yet, as stunted as that language was, the language that I had mastered, English, gave me access to the entire world because its speakers had mastered the world through invasion, enslavement, colonialism, warfare, and capitalism. 

Still I dedicated myself to this complicated tongue, an act inseparable from becoming an Asian-American and a person of color. And someone who was just beginning to understand that he had been colonized, and needed to decolonize himself. I read the literatures of peoples of color and anti-colonial struggle, and I took a nonfiction writing class with Maxine Hong Kingston, who admitted me to her seminar of 14 students. 

In that year of 1991, she was the author of The Woman Warrior, already a feminist and American literary classic, reputed to be the most widely taught book on college campuses at the time. 

I was 19 years old, a self-styled, political activist. Every day I would sit down in seminar, a few feet from Kingston, and every day I would fall asleep. She confirmed for me recently to my face, that I was the worst student in her class, whereas everyone else got an A I got a B+, otherwise known as an Asian F. 

She wrote me a letter in which she advised me to go seek counseling. I never did, instead I became a writer. Perhaps Kingston knew I was troubled because I wrote about my mother in her seminar. But I put those essays about ma into a milk crate and put the milk crate into the closet of my adolescent bedroom. 

It would take me more than 30 years before I could master the will to return to those words and to confront my awkward self and what it was that I refused to remember. During those three decades of misery, I did find my voice and become a writer. My first novel, The Sympathizer was unexpectedly successful. 

I say unexpectedly because the novel was rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers. As one editor put it in his rejection, he just had too much trouble crawling all the way inside the voice. I understood why, especially given how I had spent a lifetime ever since my earliest days in the San Jose public library, crawling all the way inside the voices of so many white writers. 

When those white writers were writing, did they imagine that one day, they would be speaking to a young Vietnamese, refugee boy? Probably not. Was I nevertheless spoken to even though they were other to me? Yes because their voices were beautiful. 

And because I knew that if I wanted to survive in this country, I had to keep quiet, and listen to these other voices, these masterful voices. One lesson I learned intuitively was that, all those white writers I read and admired, didn’t need and shouldn’t need to worry about whether a young Vietnamese refugee boy was ever going to read them, that’s not their obligation. 

Therefore, the lesson I had to learn consciously was that, I, a writer, who also happens to be a Vietnamese refugee writer and an Asian-American writer, I didn’t need to and shouldn’t need to worry about whether non Vietnamese people would read me. My obligation was not to care about whether anyone white, Black, or otherwise could crawl into my voice. 

My obligation was to speak as if everyone could already understand what I said. That’s an assumption, a person of the so-called majority makes all the time. An assumption born from the privilege of being the beneficiary of imperialism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. It’s an assumption that a person of a so-called minority may find hard to make, at least it was hard for me. 

To find my voice, I stopped thinking of myself as a minority, even though I still sometimes find myself to be the only Asian in a room, but I’m not a minority. If I think of myself as being part of a world, a globe where white people are the minority, I’m also not a minority, if when I write, I’m writing first of all to myself because I contain multitudes. 

And I’m not a minority if I write to Vietnamese people, everyone else can listen in. In The Sympathizer, I constructed a narrative in which the protagonist, a spy of French and Vietnamese ancestry is confessing to his Vietnamese interrogator. 

If a Vietnamese person speaks to another Vietnamese person, there is no translation. If I were to write in the voice of our narrator, I would like a bowl of pho, comma a delicious beef noodle soup comma then a sensitive reader would know that I am not talking to Vietnamese people. I would be translating for non-Vietnamese readers. 

People of the so-called majority used to never translating themselves, used to always being translated to might not notice this translation, this catering, this invitation to crawl inside the voice of the writer who is domesticated his otherness by turning himself into a translator. 

But imagine, how you would feel if F. Scott Fitzgerald, in an early draft of the great Gatsby wrote, Daisy made me a sandwich comma two slices of bread, between which there is something delicious comma. Fitzgerald wouldn’t translate because he assumes his audience knows what a sandwich is or should know what a sandwich is. And that is the right stance to take. 

So so-called minority writers, do not translate. And readers of so-called minority literature, do not expect or demand translation. Translation at least, within a book written by a so-called minority is more often than not, a deformation of a voice. The sign of the so-called minority accepting their subjugated status. 

For me, refusing to translate was crucial to denying subjugation and otherness, a challenge inextricable from finding and claiming my voice. Refusing to translate was also my way of refusing to be a representative of Vietnamese people. Too often so-called minority writers are expected to be translators and representatives of their people, even when they’re just writing fiction or poetry, a burden not usually placed on so-called majority writers. 

It wasn’t a surprise then that a major book review of The Sympathizer called me, a voice for the voiceless. And I thought, have you ever eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant, visited a Vietnamese home, hung out with Vietnamese people? Were really, really loud. 

As Arundhati Roy puts it, there’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard. What does it mean then for someone to find their voice when they are told that their voice is heard so much more clearly against the voicelessness of those others who are just like them? 

Those who want to hear a voice for the voiceless may actually be just as invested in not hearing the cacophony in the chorus of those they assume to be voiceless, those whom they have silenced, those whom they refuse to hear. It’s easier to listen just to the one voice. 

This is one reason why I reject the notion of the writer as only being a solitary artist whose task it is to find her, or his, or their voice. And of course, much of the writer’s work is solitary. During my 30 years of misery, I spent thousands of hours alone in my room, facing a screen, and a blank wall, which is perhaps harder to do in sunny California than it is here. 

But always present with me were the voices of all those Vietnamese people I knew, and all the Vietnamese people I had encountered in movies and books. Always there for me were the voices of the Asian-American writers who had come before me beginning in the late 19th century who faced a level of incomprehension I can barely imagine. 

And always with me, were the voices of all the Asian-Americans and other people of color whose political and social movements had broached the walls of racism and indifference, and given me the chance to speak and to be heard. I think of W.E.B Dubois idea that Black people always see themselves through their own eyes and those of others. I experienced that double consciousness too to some degree. 

I was an American spying on my parents, and a Vietnamese spying on Americans. But double consciousness is experienced, not only through the gaze, but also through the voice. I may speak for myself and only for myself, but I am perceived as speaking for others, whether I like it or not, whether I want to or not. 

Instead of accepting this duality in which the so-called minority writer ventriloquize the voiceless as their voice, I believe in two things. First, we all indeed have to find our own voices. But second, we must abolish the conditions of voicelessness. For Asian-Americans, even claiming an individual voice is fraught for our place in this country is to be the silent, acquiescent, apologetic model minority. 

We are neither expected to right nor to fight. We’re not expected to speak alone, much less speak together. And yet, in the face of the anti-Asian violence that is perpetual in American society, routine in American warfare in Asia, in which we surged during the pandemic. Finding and claiming both our individual and collective voices is crucial. 

And here, what’s powerful about literature and storytelling as always, as art and as weapons is that they can teach us how our otherness has been used to divide us and isolate us. And how our otherness can be used to draw us together. Nevertheless, writing is for the most part a lonely act, where the otherness I have most often encountered is my own, and the otherness I have chosen not to think about is what exists within my own family. 

I think, back to the opening lines of the Woman Warrior, you must not tell anyone my mother said what I am about to tell you. Kingston names the taboo and breaks it at the same time. In so doing, Kingston creates a parable of one of the writer’s most important tasks. And that is to find what must not be told and tell it. But is this telling an act of honesty or betrayal? Sometimes, telling the secret is both. 

Just as otherness and voice are both matters of the collective and the individual, so is the secret. There are two kinds of secrets. The private secret and the open secret. The lure of the memoir as genre is to reveal the secret, whatever it happens to be. But in the context of the United States or perhaps any country, the readerly demand is usually for the private secret, divorce, alienation, infidelity, mental illness, and the like, like my mother’s life and her death. 

Matters of the self and only the self not the collective are the typical drama for an American storytelling world that honors showing over telling. That sneezes when politics nudges too close into fiction, poetry, music, and television. That associates telling with the uncouth acts of writers who are barbarians or even worse, communists. 

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with being either a barbarian or a communist, and I’ve been accused of being both. For me, a lack of politics is the politics of the dominant American literary world leading many American writers to avoid certain open secrets. The open secret dares us to acknowledge its presence. 

The open secret of America is that white people founded it on genocide, slavery, war, and white supremacy. That orgy of blood born from colonization which continues staining the self and the other. The open secret of America is that we do not call colonization by its name. Instead, we give colonization another more acceptable name, the American dream. 

The title of the story I wrote about ma, War Years, refutes how Americans and perhaps people the world over usually understand the lives of immigrants and refugees burdened by private secrets as they chase the American dream. Understanding that this American dream is actually the gold plated brand name of American settler colonization, I understand mass private secrets as shaped by the open secrets of colonization and wartime. 

A time in which I also live, a time in which everyone who inhabits our war machine lives. In my mother’s case and mind, I find it impossible to separate private secrets from open secrets. My speaking for myself and my speaking for an other, who also includes my mother. A few years ago after I had found one register of my voice in writing The Sympathizer, I reread the letter Kingston wrote me, as well as the essays I wrote for her. 

I had remembered that I had written about my mother and the time she was committed to the Asian Pacific psychiatric ward, at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. But I had remembered for decades writing about how that took place when I was a child. In rereading my essays for Kingston’s class about my mother, I discovered what I had made myself forget, what I had kept secret from myself. That my mother was in the Asian Pacific psychiatric Ward when I was a college freshman, the year before I wrote my essay in 1991. 

Back then I wrote what my family, what my mother would not have wanted me to say out loud. That someone out there, if not everyone, is trying to kill her. They crawl through the sewer and emerge through the toilet. She was waiting for them, locked in the bathroom when my father decided enough was enough, and knocked a hole in the door to reach her, it was my bathroom. 

Memory is odd because I still do not remember the hole in my bathroom door, although I do remember the time my mother chased my father into the other bathroom. And when he locked himself inside, smashed holes into that door with a chair. My father normally fastidious about every detail never repaired that door. 

The gaping holes in the bathroom door revealed its hollowness for the rest of our years in that house. But if I can remember that damaged door, I possess no image of sitting with my mother in the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward. My only record of that time was what I wrote. 

She recognized me, but I was no more important in her world than the rest of the ugly furniture. She looked ahead at the opposite wall, her mouth remained slightly open, her eyes slightly glazed, but she didn’t move. Experience was so disturbing that I had to forget almost every aspect of it, including when it happened and my reaction to it. 

I also have no memory of this. The tears started to come for me and I got up before anybody saw me crying because nobody had seen me cry since the sixth grade. I walked into the bathroom without saying anything to her, but I don’t think she noticed anyway. I locked myself in the bathroom stall , and my first sob made me gasp. 

Now, recovered and left the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward some weeks later, but if the experience was so unsettling that I had to write about it, it was also so unnerving that I had to forget about it, until my mother died two days before Christmas Eve in 2018. By then, she had been ill for 13 years, ever since suffering a relapse around Christmas Eve in 2005, and returning to the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward for a second time. 

I did not take any notes the second time. I remember nothing of her second stay in the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward, even though I was 34. Or if I do remember, I have kept it secret from myself. If my mother was my first other, and she is also as of now, my last other, not counting perhaps myself. 

Ma was born in 1937, as went by. Her first name a number, Seven, indicating her birth order. Her rural family was poor, and naming girls with numbers was common. She hated her first name. And when she became a US citizen, she changed it to Linda. She would not have wanted you to know that she barely had a grade school education. 

And that while I was reading The Sound and the Fury, she was reading the church newsletter slowly out loud, with the aid of a magnifying glass. There was no other reading material in our house besides my school books and library books. But I tell you, this secret because even without much of an education, Ma became a wealthy woman in Vietnam, a self-made entrepreneur. 

She was determined to make something of herself. And when Vietnam was divided in 1954, when she was 17, she fled South with her family, including her mother and my father, her new husband. Then when the communists caught up with her in 1975, she fled again to the United States, leaving behind her mother, and sisters, and adopted daughter. 

Having lost everything again, she rebuilt her life and wealth again. Perhaps she didn’t have time to read sacrificing her time instead, so that her son could read. Even as her son reading deeper and deeper into English turned him into an other to his mother. It took decades for me to understand what the costs of war were for my mother. 

Soon after we came to the United States as refugees, for example, my mother’s mother died. I was four years old, I vaguely remember sitting on steps. Perhaps at the back of the house with my father and brother, something is being explained, but I do not understand it. This foreshadowing of what will come. One can see a foreshadow only from the future. What happened is that ma had experienced her first breakdown and went to the hospital. 

My brother thinks the death of my mother’s mother so far away in Vietnam sent ma to a downward spiral from which she eventually resurfaced, only to be plunged again and again. Ma came back, but I do not remember her return. She was simply present again, and for the next 16 years would be who she always was, loving and supportive, hardworking and sacrificial, until she went to the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward when I was in college. 

Was the cause of my mother’s illness a private secret? Something to be found only in her mind and body? Or was the cause an open secret, history itself, which hammered on her repeatedly until it fractured her? Or was the cause both a private secret and an open secret? 

Vietnamese people, how do you separate what is unique to you and your own personal trauma from war, colonization, the division, and reunification of the country? From becoming a refugee or staying behind or being left behind, from being the child of refugees, soldiers, witnesses, survivors? From being the child of those who didn’t survive? 

Vietnamese people, how do you separate yourself and your memories from history? Your private secrets and open secrets, yourself from your otherness, your truth from your betrayal? One more truth, one more betrayal. When it comes to ma, is that as unique as she was to me, she was not unique to others. 

Thousands of people live lives as difficult, if not worse. Thousands live lives as courageous, if not more so. Understanding this does not diminish my mother in any way. If anything, I understand ma better when I see her story against the backdrop of history. 

My mother, child of colonization and war, me grandchild of colonization and war. Also the child of ba and ma who chose each other. For all that ma was lost to us for so many years, my father’s love was not lost to her. 

I know because the last words math says on her hospital bed in the family room before she says the Lord’s Prayer with my father are for my father, to my father. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] this I will translate even if the translation is not enough, I love you. Then the Lord’s Prayer, then silence. 

My brother, the doctor gives ma morphine, while my sister-in-law the doctor watches. Ma’s breathing slows. I lean close to tell ma in Vietnamese that I love her, she lived a good life, a heroic life. A life that demanded so much strength, devotion, and love. 

I don’t know where ma found those qualities, but I am the beneficiary. Ma gives no sign of hearing, her breathing finally stops. It is midnight, her journey on this Earth complete. When ba asks me to close her eyes, I do so. Then he tells me, to close her mouth. Her skin is already cold, when I lift her jaw. And when I let it go, her mouth falls open again. 

Ma has been silenced, . But her voice will remain with me. Her mouth is open, and I cannot close it. When I remember ma, I hear her speak the mother tongue, which is also an other tongue, caressing me with the love and affection she bestowed on me throughout my childhood. 

Giving me the confidence needed to portray her. And in the end, betray her. Did she ever forbid me from telling her story? No, I doubt she ever thought I would. She trusted me, who cannot trust my own memory. From this forgetfulness and unreliability, and from ma’s journeys to the Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward where she was and was not herself, I have learned that the other is someone too close to us. 

So it is that my mother is mine, and my mother is also other to me as she was an other to herself. As for me, a reluctant, and unintentional memoirist, I’ve also learned that in telling on others, in speaking for others, the memoirist always tells upon himself as well. The other who is an other even to himself. What I tell myself is that ma loved me. Everything else I can forget. Thank you. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Here with my friend and colleague, Laila Lalami, who I’ve known for quite a long time. Thanks for being here. 

Thank you so much. Thank you all for being here. It’s always such a pleasure to share the stage with the award winning writer of Lester the Cat. I wondered if we might start with the end, where you talk about being a reluctant and unintentional memoirist. And I guess I wonder what it is that drew you out of your reluctance, and what gave you the intention to write the book now? 

That’s a great question because in the middle of the book I wondered, what am I doing? And what threw me out, I think that I’d spent years writing novels and excavating the depths of the characters that I was writing about, and discovering that my characters surprised me. And this experience very well, I’m sure. 

And that my characters were surprising themselves. So in The Sympathizer and its SQL The Committed, it’s partly a novel in the first case, The Sympathizer about a man who’s trying to understand himself and he thinks he hits bottom. And then in the second novel, he realizes he hasn’t hit bottom, there’s more beneath it. 

That’s great for fiction right but then in writing him I realized that, I also understood that I had to imbue him with emotions, emotions coming from me. And these emotions were coming from somewhere inside of me. And so that was where the memoir came from, this realization that in fact, what I was doing to my characters torturing them, for example, was something that I would have to do for myself interrogating myself as well. 

One of the questions that also came up for me as I listened to you talk was, actually something that you wrote about in Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, is the subtitle. Yeah. You know which quote I’m going to mention because we’ve talked about it before, but basically, the one where the line that goes, every war is fought twice. 

The first time on the battlefield, the second time on memory. 

And in hearing you talk about the different kinds of memory in this talk, I’ve always thought about this what you mean about that in terms of public memory, meaning the way that we construct memory around historical events. So the building of history, and then private memories like the memories of, for example, survivors. 

But in this case, in hearing you talk about your mother, I wondered if you were expanding that notion a little bit in this memoir because you’re also talking about how that memory has affected, not just your mother, but also you. So I don’t know if, would you apply a different label to that kind of memory? Maybe a sort of hereditary memory or a kind of familial memory, a memory that is sort of passed down within the family. 

Absolutely, and I think, there’s at least two kinds of memory. One is the memory that you seek out actively, you’re trying to remember. And then there are the memories that seek you out. And sometimes they’re very banal memories, obviously. And then sometimes they’re lovely memories and unfortunately, sometimes they’re the traumatic memories. 

That’s partly the definition of trauma, the memory that seeks you out, will not leave you alone whether you want it, want that memory or not. And then, there’s at least one other kind of way that memory is transmitted and that is through silence. So sometimes the family members will obviously, transmit family stories very deliberately stories which you should take with a little bit of skepticism. But then there are the unintentional memories that are transmitted through the gaps, the absences, what people refuse to talk about. 

I’ve heard about this often from the children of American veterans of wars, but also often from Southeast Asian-Americans whose parents and grandparents were refugees. And for me, this is one of the ways I understand that history lives within us because one of the ways that I think I experience history is that, history ripples through me emotionally. 

That’s how we know that history is still is messing with us. And that’s one of the reasons why I really resisted writing this book purely as an account of my mother and my family because I do think that our private memories, even if we haven’t been affected by war and colonization, and things like that. But our private memories are often saturated with public memories, things that we don’t even acknowledge. 

So that if you think about your private memories of JFK’s assassination, for example, that’s inseparable from the public memory that’s been created, which for many people they don’t even remember. Is this what they’ve been told to remember? And so likewise, last example, we talk about things like oh, I remember World War II. 

I think, most people in this room do not remember literally World War II. What you remember is the public memories that have been created about World War II. And so then when people start talking about how that affects them privately, that’s a public memory that’s affecting them. 

Yeah. I mean, it reminds me of something that Baldwin wrote about, which is I think, the line is, history is trapped in us and we’re trapped in history. So it’s the same thing. Oh, I had a question also about language. So because you talk a lot about language in this lecture. And your relationship to language, and you essentially advise young writers to not translate, and so on. 

And so I have two questions about language. One is about the writing of this book and one is about the sympathizer. So why don’t we just start with The Man of Two Faces. In this book you use– so I guess this is more of a craft question. In this book you use the second person, why that choice? Why not just tell it? 

Well, I think, the second person is really can potentially be very powerful. So I’ve read good first, second person short stories, and fiction, and so on. But the way that I found my voice for this particular book is that, number one, again, I did not want to write this memoir. And I thought, I don’t want to spend 200 or 300 pages writing in the first person, I, I, I. 

And so the device that I use to initially leverage myself open was to pretend that I was the sympathizer, writing about Vietnam Taiwan, which is him getting his revenge on me. And so that’s why it’s in the second person, it’s me talking to myself, which is also the experience in The Sympathizer, it’s him talking to himself. And so that was the reason. There’s this duality in the book between me and myself, just as there is a duality in The Sympathizer as well. 

Yeah. When you were looking, for example, you mentioned in your lecture, you went and found this crate, this old crate of essays. Did you have– just I guess, I’m curious about the sort of archival research that you did into your own life. We were talking a little bit about this in the green room, but the sort of letters, and essays that you wrote, what was that search like? And can you give us an example of something that really surprised you other than what you’ve told? 

Well, I mean, I totally forgotten that Berkeley City Hall, I think, had sent me my own arrest records, for example, that was in my archives. And I was arrested for undergraduate student protests. I also discovered papers that I turned in to my professors and their B+ grades and their comments on them. 

And I realized, yeah, I was a jerk. I was a jerk. So I remember I took a class with a famous feminist theorist and filmmaker, Jin Min Ha. And my final paper was criticizing her book, which I really don’t advise anybody to do. But she gave me B+. That’s a common theme in my life at Berkeley. 

So yeah, there was all these interesting some things I remembered, but there are other things that I hadn’t. So that’s what an archive is, right? Because I think, part of the point of what I was saying is that, we deceive ourselves all the time, our memories are very selective. Even as adults, it’s not it’s not just kids who do this. And it’s not just people with fading memories who do it, but memories is an active process. So there is a function for the physical archive to give you some evidence of who you were at a certain time. 

Do you find yourself collecting your own archive right now to pass on to your future, your child, or maybe your children, or maybe your future biographer? 

I’m just a pack rat. So I do archive things, everything. And everything is fine. But of course, the weird thing about my archive is that whenever anybody asks me for something, I can’t find it. So I mean, I wrote a paper on Graham Greene as an undergraduate. And someone said, where is that thesis, I want to read? And I would love to have that thesis, I can’t find it. 

Especially to compare with now what you said about the quiet– 

But the one thing I will not pass on to my kids probably are my diaries. I’ll talk about that in the memoir. And they’re not very extensive diaries, but they’re very embarrassing. And maybe that would humanize me to my kids, but I’m embarrassed by myself in reading those. So they’re sitting on my shelf right behind me. And one day, I think, I will burn those. 

So that goes to how identity is very malleable, right? So we try to fashion it for others. Yeah. So the question that was about language, that was about The Sympathizer. So you were telling people, telling writers to not translate. OK, but I wonder, I want to push a little bit on that. And ask you in the process of writing, so for example, in The Sympathizer, we have Vietnamese characters, we are in a Vietnamese re-education camp, they are speaking Vietnamese to each other. 

You are writing the book in English, how does and in the moment of writing, does it come to you naturally to, do you rely on your intuition in sort of like including the words that are in Vietnamese, or is it a more deliberate process? How does that work? 

Yeah, I mean, so part of the challenge in writing a novel like The Sympathizer was my realization that a lot of these people who are in Vietnam would eventually go to the United States, and they would have to interact in English with all the Americans. And of course, most of them are not fluent in English. And so this is a real problem for those of us who are writing about people with other languages, and so on. 

And so you see a lot of– within the constraints of realist fiction, you see a lot of difficulties as writers try to figure out, how am I going to talk about people who are saying something in quote-unquote “Broken English?” and I decided that I was going to go completely around that problem by writing this book as a first person monologue, and confession, and not using quotation marks. 

So everything is what we call indirect discourse, no one is saying anything in quotation marks, everything is being filtered through our narrator. So even when someone is saying something in English that is not grammatically correct, it appears so in his rendition of it. So that was one formal device. But I think, the larger problem that you’re pointing at is that these people are actually most of the time speaking in Vietnamese, but the book is in English, exactly. 

So well, that is as far as I can tell my own condition as a colonized writer. And this is not a problem unique to me. So it’s within that constraint, I have to write in English as I talked about in the last lecture the language of the colonizer. And it’s not an act, it’s not an act of translation in the sense that it’s my own language, and it’s not an act of me translating Vietnamese for other people, it’s an act of me getting people who read English to step into this world where the fictive pretense is that we are hearing Vietnamese, but we’re going to hear it on these terms. 

And that’s where the structural device of Vietnamese speaking to Vietnamese is so crucial because even if the Vietnamese is being implied to be translated, what is not being translated are the ideas. And I think, for a lot of readers, The Sympathizer and this book too is unsettling for them because they’re not used to having untranslated concepts of how the other perceives Americans, or the West, or the imperialists given to them. And hopefully I do that in as unfiltered of a way as I could. 

Yeah. I’m so relieved to hear you say this because I remember there was a review of the Moor’s Account a few years ago, where the critic was livid because there was one word that the critic couldn’t find anywhere. How dare I use a word of Arabic measurement in a book that is about 16 century Arabic traveler. 

All right. I see that I’m running a little bit short on time, so there are people with microphones, runners with microphones in the audience. And I can maybe ask you a question while people are getting their questions in order. Unless there’s– it’s very bright in here. Do I see a question? Yes, oh, yes. 

Well, you said at one point in your talk that you started out as an anglophile, but you were eventually cured of your anglophilia. I was wondering if you could comment on why you were cured. 

Oh, cured of my anglophilia. 

Yeah. 

Are you an English professor? 

No. 

Oh, you have no idea. All right, OK. I think, there are English professors and grad students out there right now. When I was an undergraduate, I was passionately an English major. And when I applied to graduate school, I remember very vividly writing on my application essay that I believe literary criticism can change the world, very naive, but that was my passion. 

And went to the English department as an activist. I imagined myself as a literary activist after having been a campus activist. And the English department, like every other English, every other academic discipline is about disciplining you, and turning you into that person, the English professor. 

And after a few years of that, and after becoming an assistant professor for a few years and experiencing the culture of an English department, you can read the Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy for example any number of academic campus novels, most of which happen to be about English departments for some reason. And so even though we’re a part of a humane tradition supposedly, it’s oftentimes quite inhumane in English departments in a variety of different ways. 

So petty politics, neuroses, savage battles over inconsequential things, things like this. But the worst thing about it, I hope I’m not offending anybody, but I think, the worst thing about it was related to my talk, which is, that I found after a decade as a grad student and as a professor, that I had lost my voice. I had learned how to write as the English department and discipline wanted me to, I wrote a first book, which I don’t really recommend to anybody. But if you specialize in Asian-American literature, it might help you. 

But I found, after I wrote that book that I never wanted to write another book like that again because it was not my voice, it was the voice of English speaking through me. And so that was what helped cure me of my anglophilia, that I realized in order to find my own voice, I would have to completely distance myself from the whole apparatus of English and its culture. It’s not just an academic discipline, but as I talked about in the last lecture, it’s an entire culture with its own customs, and habits, and haberdashery, I don’t know what. But it was yeah, it was increasingly hard for me to reconcile myself to being an English department. 

Hello. In your new book, you mentioned Wong Wai quite a few times in the first few pages. And you have mentioned your familiarity with and disdain of Hollywood portrayals of war in Asia, and that you have taken a course with Ching Ling Ha. And I wonder if you could share a few thoughts about cinema in relation to literature and to your writing. And specifically, if there are filmmakers who are working right now, who you would consider kindred spirits, whose work resonate with your own. 

Yeah. 

Thank you. 

Well, I mean, there’s a thematic in the book like you said about, what if movies were made about the people people like my parents? And of course, movies are not going to be made about people like my parents, at least, not epic Hollywood movies. And so I say, if anybody were ever to make a movie about my parents, it would probably be like an Asian-American indie filmmaker with no budget. Which is not to decry that genre, it’s a really necessary genre, but no one’s paying attention to lives like this. 

And so growing up, it was very, very clear to me that our lives were being shaped very radically by Hollywood cinema. And that Hollywood cinema is a very expensive art form. So for writers, we write poetry, fiction, memoirs, and so on all it costs us is our lives, and no one cares about our lives. But a $200 million Hollywood blockbuster, people care about that, they care about that a lot. 

So not surprisingly, when it comes to things like the war in Vietnam and other kinds of political crises, it’s the poets who respond first, I think, in the arts. And then it’s probably the prose writers and the very end is corporate Hollywood type cinema. That being said, I mean, part of the humbling reality of being a writer in LA or anywhere in America is that, you could write a great book and you’d be lucky if you sold 50,000 copies, that’s an enormous number. 

You could make a crappy television show or a movie and millions of people will watch it. That’s the reality. And so in The Sympathizer, I satirize Hollywood filmmaking and then Hollywood is making a TV series out of the book. Well, I’m going to live The Sympathizer through this experience. But it’s like living within capitalism, it’s very hard to find purity in there. 

That being said, you asked me about the ideal director. And I feel like the ideal director did in fact choose The Sympathizer to work on it, which is Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy, and the Handmaid’s Tale. Handmaid’s Tale, the Handmaiden. 

The Handmaiden. 

The Handmaiden, I’m sorry, The Handmaiden. And if you’ve watched his movies, if you’ve seen the Oldboy you know that it’s a huge influence on The Sympathizer. He just goes all out and he grapples with history, and sexuality, and violence, and colonization. And he does it not just in the narrative, but at the level of form as well. 

So I think, it’s very fortunate that he and I have been matched together in the making of this book into a TV series. That being said, it’s not my TV series, it’s our TV series or at best, his TV series. 

I think, I remember actually when you were still talking to him. This was before the pandemic, I think, when you guys were still discussing the film rights and now it’s coming out soon, I think. 

April, yeah. I think, there’s a question over there. 

Thank you for The Sympathizer. I wanted to do the victory dance at Reddit because I was so energized by it, or run a mile even if I am over 70. Then I read it a second time, and I started to ask myself some questions. Were you tempted by self-censorship about speaking about American history in Vietnam, CIA, sin of torture, and et cetera, that it was kind of dangerous. 

If you look back to American history and the McCarthy era, where people had to leave the country for expressing themselves even in a not very open way about the American politics or government. That was my first question. The other comment I would have is, you are so lucky you didn’t speak about that because you learned English at the age of 4. 

And being a refugee myself and working with refugees for 30 years, Croatian, Bosnian, Syrian, and so on, I see people destroyed by that having to learn a language late in life, have to abandon their own profession, being people with doctors or professors who are washing dishes in restaurants. 

OK, thank you. 

I do feel very lucky. I mean, I feel like I arrived at the sweet spot in time for myself, which is as for a writer, young enough to be screwed up by history, but not old enough to be really screwed up by history as you pointed out because I grew up in the Vietnamese refugee community, witnessing all the things that you described among Vietnamese refugees of the older generation. 

You come older is harder to learn English, but you’ve been socially demoted, professionally demoted. There was so much trauma in that community, in the older community. There was so much alcoholism, and adultery, and violence, and all these other terrible things that were going on. 

And of course, we knew that it was connected to the war, but no one would ever say it. There was no such thing as therapy, or counseling, or anything like that. So everybody was left to deal with this trauma on their own. And of course, part of the trauma is the language issue as you’re saying. So that in the Vietnamese community, there’s a very vigorous Vietnamese language press and media, and dealing with the history and all this kind of stuff. 

But I think, people are very cognizant that it’s not being heard outside of the Vietnamese refugee community because you can’t say these things in Vietnam. And then no one in the United States who is fluent in English wants to hear what these Vietnamese people are saying in Vietnamese. And so then it’s left up to my generation and the generation after me, to talk about these stories. 

And this whole point, the whole point of this talk is, what right do we have to talk about these stories? And why do we get the benefit from telling these stories versus our parents or grandparents among them were– among whom were many, many writers, and artists, and so on. 

So one last question. 

Hi. Thank you. Thank you so much for your lecture. I was interested in you referring to sharing your mother’s story as a betrayal. And I was wondering, did you consider sharing it as part of a fiction book, kind of hiding that story inside the character? And would that have felt like less of a betrayal? And why did you choose not to do that? 

Well, I’ve written a short story about her war years, which I quoted in the book, in the talk. And yeah, there was an option to try to possibly expand that into a novel. But I just wasn’t interested in that. I was part of the point of A Man of Two Faces is as I think I quote Maxine Hong Kingston, there are things that we want to tell, not just show. 

And fiction is, at least, American fiction is very good for showing things dramatically, maybe not so good about telling things. So I felt like I needed to find their voice and a form that would allow me not only to show my mother’s story, and the story of myself, and other Vietnamese refugees, and the story of the country, this country as I perceive it, but also to tell certain kinds of things, certain kinds of secrets or truths as I perceive them. 

And nonfiction works, for me works better in that case. There’s less room for the writer and the reader to hide behind the idea that this is fiction, and that we can distance ourselves from what is going on. And so there is a dimension of nonfiction in which we are forced to confront facts. Now, the facts can be interpreted and disputed in various ways, but there are facts. And that’s part of what the book is about, the facts about my mother, the facts about myself, the facts about this country’s history. 

What a great note to end on. Thank you. 

Thank you Laila. 

Thank you all so much. 

Thank you everybody. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Thanks so much. 

[APPLAUSE] 

So we want to thank the Harvard bookstore, which is hosting the event tonight, and you can get Viet’s book outside, and get it signed. So we encourage you to check it out. And thank you for being with us tonight, and we hope to see you at the next lecture, which will be on December 5, thank you. 

Good night. Thank you. 

[APPLAUSE]