Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Tim O’Brien, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Karl Marlantes on what it’s meant to capture the war and its aftermath in their work for The Washington Post.
This month marks 50 years since the United States withdrew from Vietnam. While the country’s civil war would drag on for another two years, by the end of March 1973 U.S. military involvement was effectively finished, as America extracted its combat forces, progressively reduced material support to its southern allies, and narrowed its presence to a smattering of diplomatic and CIA advisory personnel operating out of the American Embassy in what was still known as Saigon — today, Ho Chi Minh City. Two years later, the world watched in shock when the final remainders of the U.S. presence fled the fall of Saigon, leaving their South Vietnamese collaborators to their fates as North Vietnamese tanks entered the city.
To reflect on the war’s meaning, I spoke with four acclaimed fiction writers who have addressed the subject in their work: Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Tim O’Brien, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Karl Marlantes. It’s important to note that these interviews primarily focus on personal and cultural experiences, not military and political analysis.
Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Born in 1973, poet and writer Nguyen Phan Que Mai was raised in postwar Vietnam, living in both the north and the south. Her English-language debut, the novel “The Mountains Sing” (2020), brought her international acclaim for its complex depiction of a Vietnamese family’s experience in relation to the war. Her new novel, “Dust Child,” was published this month.
“Dust Child” was inspired by the real and frequently harrowing experiences of Amerasians, the biracial children who resulted from the presence of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. In 1988, the American Homecoming Act was passed to provide Amerasians with an immigration pathway to the United States, and this coupled with modern DNA testing afforded the opportunity — sometimes just the hope — for these families to be reunited. “Dust Child” follows the labyrinthine story of one such family.
Que Mai spoke to me via Zoom from Kyrgyzstan, where she’s temporarily living.
Has your perspective on the war changed over the years?
Growing up in Vietnam, I was fed the one-sided perspective of the war — that we won and the American side was evil — but through my research and my reading and my interaction with veterans, I know that nobody won. Nobody wins when it comes to war. The poet Nguyen Duy wrote, “At the end of each war, whoever wins, the people lose.”
What was it like to grow up as a woman in postwar Vietnam?
I was born in North Vietnam and grew up in a small village in Ninh Binh province, and I remember mostly the women. My village was emptied of men because they had all gone to war, so the people left were the elderly waiting for the return of the men. I remember so clearly the women who stood on the dike — which was the highest point in the village — and they looked out to the road leading to the highway waiting for the return of their loved ones. And those who returned were missing their arms, their legs, their eyes. It was really sad and traumatic for me as a child.
When I was 6 years old, because the village was so poor and we didn’t have enough to eat and it was damaged by the war so badly, my parents uprooted us and moved us to South Vietnam, where I felt like a refugee. Because Vietnam had been divided into north and south, we were considered invaders. Growing up in North Vietnam I was told we went there to liberate the South. But later on I understood the injustice the South had suffered.
As a human being and a writer, I want to see the truth from different viewpoints, because I don’t think there is one single truth.
You see a lot of that in “Dust Child.”
That’s why I have many different characters. Dan, an American helicopter pilot, who is no less traumatized — it was so difficult for me to write. But I felt compelled to write these types of stories because I wanted to be inclusive of people’s experiences.
I remember at one dinner in Hanoi — I had just started my writing career, and I was invited to this dinner of writers who were in their late 40s and 50s and 60s. I sat next to this very well-known writer, and he asked me, “Do you know who I am?” And he said: “You young women, what do you know about the war, huh? How dare you write about it!”That’s the expectation — that we didn’t fight in the war, so we can’t write about it as women. We don’t know enough to write about men’s experiences.
So that’s why I felt even more compelled to prove — not to him but to myself — we can also feel the feelings of men. As women I think maybe we are able to look at things in different perspectives in terms of examining the impact of war on family relations. Because I’m not interested in writing about the fighting scenes, you know? I want to write about the impact of such fighting on nature, on human relationships, on motherhood, on sisterhood, on brotherhood. And I want to show how the war affects the fabric of society.
What inspired you to write about the plight of Amerasians?
I grew up in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, and I saw Amerasians in my neighborhood who were bullied, who didn’t go to school, and I was haunted by them. Then in 2015 I read an article about a veteran who came back to Vietnam with an album of old photos, trying to look for the pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend who he had lost contact with. He walked the streets of Saigon looking for the mother of his child, hoping to find his child. This story moved me deeply, so I reached out to an organization that helps American veterans find their kids, and I interviewed six or seven of [the veterans].
There are so many stories that I want to tell, and for us to reach out to Amerasians and support them. Not only Amerasians in Vietnam but in the U.S. There are Amerasians who are homeless and unemployed because when they went to the U.S. as teenagers they didn’t have a chance to go to university, and a lot of them haven’t been able to find their parents.
How common is it for Amerasians to move to the U.S. when they do connect with the soldiers who fathered them?
It’s very frequent that they want to move, I think also because of the wrong perceptions about the U.S. People in Vietnam think the U.S. is paradise. With this book, I also want to decolonize the Vietnamese thinking, because the U.S. is not an ideal situation. You look at the U.S. now, you have a lot of homeless people, gun violence. Amerasians who are now in their 40s and 50s who want to go to the U.S. … they do not speak English! What can they do for a living? It would be very challenging for them.
In “Dust Child” you write, “Those in power feared free minds, and nothing unlocked thinking like literature.” Were you talking specifically about the situation in Vietnam?
I wrote this line in a global context because it’s happening in so many countries. Look at the case of Salman Rushdie. It’s frightening. As writers, we are living a dangerous life. But we have to create our art.
I think literature can really connect hearts and minds and move people to take action. Governments know that because they have used literature as propaganda. When they want to have a monopoly of power, they don’t want writers and artists to interfere with what they want to convey.
What about in Vietnam?
I’ve been very surprised because many of my writer friends are very vocal. I’m surprised that they can be so brave. I hope to see progress, but of course censorship is still there. This is something I can’t comment on openly because I have to go back to Vietnam.
I hope to see changes. I don’t want a revolution because it will be very costly. We have seen enough wars and conflicts. There are so many issues for the government of Vietnam to resolve. Not just politically but economically and socially as well. How do we develop sustainably in the years to come? In a peaceful way? I want to see peace in Vietnam.
Tim O’Brien was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in 1969. He served in the country’s central Quang Ngai province, a circumstance that at one point brought him through the site of the infamous My Lai Massacre — in which more than 500 Vietnamese civilians were murdered by American troops — about a year after it occurred but before news of it was revealed.
“So when we were there we didn’t know why that place was so incredibly hostile,” he remembered. “Smiles were not smiles — they were exactly the opposite. We were hated and feared. It felt haunted before I knew about the massacre, and it felt even more haunted after I learned about it and went back and saw the place.”
In the decades following his return home, he wrote extensively about the war, most notably in “The Things They Carried,” which, though a work of fiction, is frequently confused as memoir. Lauded by critics and veterans alike, the book has become part of the modern literary canon, frequently taught in classrooms across the United States.
O’Brien spoke with me on the phone from his home in Austin.
In “The Things They Carried” you wrote of how sometimes a fictional war story can feel more real than a true one. Why is that?
It gives you a closer internal feel for the emotions of combat and proximity to death. Nonfiction — especially the kind that will appear in a simple newspaper story about, say, a battle — will describe the battle and give statistics, body counts, maybe describe the terrain and so on, and maybe interview a soldier or two. All that is necessary to understand the history, the events themselves. But fiction opens the possibility of entering all kinds of heads, whether the Vietnamese young man of 16 or an American 19-year-old, and the feel of it emotionally.
I tried in “The Things They Carried” to make it feel like a memoir, hence my own name as a character and dedicating the book to my characters, and so on — everything I could to make it feel real and happening, through a bunch of different techniques. And the way it backfired on me! Kids get frustrated in high school and colleges when they finally figure out this was fiction. It says right on the title page “a work of fiction,” and I thought those words would be alert enough, but at the same time I was hoping to seduce the reader into believing it was real as you’re reading it.
You wrote that “stories can save us,” and throughout “The Things They Carried” there is an implication that the act of telling stories helps us to heal.
It does more than just help to heal. It does all kinds of things. A story can scare you. As a kid a fairy tale can scare you, and as an adult the story of somebody getting a phone call saying you have — as I did 45 minutes ago, a phone call from my doctor saying that you have severe coronary blockage. And couples getting divorced, when you’re having trouble at home it can put a little scare into you. Stories can do things to us.
There’s also the kinds of stories that save us. For for example, religion — Christianity in particular but Muslim religion, Jewish religion; I don’t know a lot about Confucianism or Buddhism, I know a little — in one way or another they’re grounded in story. It’s a story that guides a hell of a lot of people through their lives.
The myth of America guides a lot of people, and sends you off to the American Legion on Thursday night and to the Fourth of July parade and determines the way you think about political and cultural events happening around you.
Different stories hit different people in different kinds of ways. It depends on what you bring to the story, as I’m sure you well know.
Why do you think the story of the Vietnam War has remained so enduring?
Of course the sadness endures. Three million dead people in a war that could have been ended on exactly the same terms a decade earlier. I think that lesson, at least for veterans, means a lot. And it’s a mixture of anger and sadness.
But for the general population — my sons included, one who’s a sophomore in college, the other a junior in high school — Vietnam is just a word to them. They know little about the history and don’t care much about it. They know a lot about Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan, because it’s in the news every day and they learn about it in school. Vietnam was covered in half a day in high school. So how much has lasted? I don’t know. Probably as much as the Trojan War has lasted.
The title “The Things They Carried” is partly metaphorical, but in the book you do examine the physical items soldiers carried with them. And when you visit museums — like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City — physical, sometimes prosaic items often feel loaded with a surprising amount of emotional impact.
They do. I’m not sure what the psychological description is — I couldn’t give you one — but it would be like how the sight of a sandbox can bring you back to your own childhood. For me the sight of an M-16 — whether it’s a photograph or on television — I can’t look at it without going back to Vietnam in my head. The object leads me there.
I started the book with that list of tangible, real items and then moved into the emotional baggage that we all carry through our lives. It doesn’t just have to be at war. It can be the emotional baggage of an absent father — you carry it with you forever.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Vietnam, and something that always surprises me is how friendly and welcoming people are, even when they know I’m an American whose father served in the war. And I’ve read that you experienced the same thing when you went back. Why do you think that is?
I have absolutely no idea. I agree with everything you said. They are welcoming. They’re giving. I’m not so sure that if a bunch of al-Qaeda soldiers were to show up in, say, Des Moines, that they would be all that welcome by our former soldiers.
It probably is in part just cultural. Another reason is probably because the American war was just a blip on their radar screen. You have to remember the French, wars with China, the Laotians, Cambodia. And they were the recipient of most of the horror. There were 60-some-thousand American casualties and 3 million Vietnamese — it’s way out of proportion to the scars left on families in America. There just aren’t as many mothers and fathers of dead people as in Vietnam. You’d think that would mean more anger. It explains why the American war in Vietnam is still taught in schools and talked about as part of the culture in Vietnam, but it doesn’t explain the welcoming and forgiving aspect. That’s a mystery to me.
Vietnam has increasingly become a popular travel destination. Where would you recommend visitors go to learn something about the country and the war?
If you want to feel at least a little bit of the war itself, it has to be some small village somewhere surrounded by paddies or mountains. The reason I say that is, much of my old AO [area of operations], I’ve learned — just by the internet and some returning veterans — has got casinos and big, glitzy, kind of Vegas-looking hotels. Bright neon lights. Right in the middle of an area that we called the athletic field, meaning it was littered with land mines and you had to be like an athlete to jump over ’em all. It would be like Gettysburg having a big Vegas hotel. So I would recommend not spending all your time in the hotel.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in 1971 in Buon Ma Thuot, a small city in the Central Highlands of Vietnam about seven hours north of what was then called Saigon. When the capital fell, his family was among the estimated 800,000 “boat people” who escaped the country. After taking refuge in the United States, they eventually settled in San Jose.
In 2015, Nguyen published “The Sympathizer,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, among numerous other awards. A dark war comedy in the tradition of “Catch-22” and “M.A.S.H.,” the novel follows its narrator through the fall of Saigon, to his postwar experiences as a refugee and double agent in Los Angeles, to the set of a misrepresentation-plagued Vietnam War film in the Philippines, then back to the jungles of Vietnam. The book is being adapted into a miniseries for HBO, with Nguyen executive producing.
I spoke with Nguyen via Zoom as he was traveling (in the passenger seat) to the University of Southern California, where he is a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity.
Your book received the Pulitzer nearly half a century after the war concluded. Why has the war remained such a persistent topic over the decades?
Simply because it was so devastating for Americans — not to mention the Vietnamese, but that’s a whole separate issue — who felt it to be a civil war for the American soul. The war itself is inseparable, for Americans, from the domestic issues that went along with it. Things like Black Power, the civil rights movement, feminism, the antiwar movement, the struggle over what defines the United States — all of those things are still with us today. Those issues haven’t gone away. We saw the same issues reach a fevered peak during the previous presidential administration. And even if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from being the war that was fought in Southeast Asia, some of the same questions about U.S. foreign power and what the role of the United States should be are still with us as well.
Early in “The Sympathizer,” you write about the abandonment of Vietnamese support forces — translators and so on — as the final American presence pulled out. We saw history repeat itself in Afghanistan, when the U.S. again left local translators and support personnel to fend for themselves. What drew you to the topic of those who are left behind in the wake of war?
It was personal but also political. I think for Americans, when they think of war they think of battles, guns, soldiers, tanks, and very specific beginning and end dates. In my experience with this war, but also others, those dates are often there to serve a historical-legal purpose, but wars oftentimes have a precursor, and then they don’t end simply because the historians say they do.
I grew up in the United States watching the war being fought again in memory throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. The war was very much still a living issue well after the end — it still is for a good number of Vietnamese Americans — and I wanted to write a novel that would be about the Vietnamese perspective.
I deliberately started the novel with the end of the war and then the refugee experience that came after it. For the Vietnamese of both sides, the war very definitely continued in different ways, either because they fled as refugees, or they stayed behind as prisoners, or stayed behind as the defeated.
A major theme in your book is the poor representation of Vietnamese people in film. When Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” came out, it was widely praised, but you took issue with several aspects of it, particularly the representation of Vietnamese people.
I’m a huge fan of Spike Lee. I like most of his movies. I just think “Da 5 Bloods” was narratively a big mess, and then when it came to the representation of the Vietnamese it was problematic. Let’s be clear, it was not as bad as other Vietnam War movies made by White male directors, because I think Spike Lee was very conscious about the role of the Vietnamese, and he attempted to depict them in a more positive light. But I think that whereas earlier generations of American directors simply demonized the Vietnamese through the faceless masses and everything like that, in Lee’s case it was more of a liberal attempt to grapple with the Vietnamese — which is better but not great.
If we look through the entire catalogue of Spike Lee’s movies, he’s very much invested in giving us complex, deep portrayals of Black people of all kinds. We see that in “Da 5 Bloods.” And that’s what I’m looking for when it comes to Vietnamese representation: complexity. Usually Vietnamese are depicted as villains or victims — one of those two things. And depicting the Vietnamese people as victims, that is sympathetic, but it’s also kind of condescending and patronizing at the same time. So I think “Da 5 Bloods” really isn’t able to escape from that, even as it’s performing this important work of centering Black experiences.
Right now a miniseries adaptation of “The Sympathizer” is in production. Do you think the team behind it is doing right in terms of Vietnamese representation?
Absolutely. Park Chan-wook as a Korean director is certainly aware of issues of Asian representation in general. His work demonstrates a historical, political awareness about things like colonization and violence. At every step of the way the entire production has been very careful about trying to get Vietnamese voices, Vietnamese presences in front of the screen and behind the screen. And as one of the executive producers, I’ve been most involved in reading the script and giving feedback.
The narrator in “The Sympathizer” was forced to rewrite his “confession” again and again. This struck me as a mirror of the writing process.
When I was doing research on the postwar experiences of the Vietnamese who were sent to reeducation camps — or even if they weren’t, they still often had to write these self-criticisms for their neighborhood councils — so in those situations, there would often be revising and rewriting involved because the self-criticisms were never sufficient. And I thought that this was actually a very literary kind of experience: You had to write a confession, you had to listen to feedback from very harsh editors — it was like the worst kind of writing workshop you can imagine.
The sequel, “The Committed,” was set in Paris, with a lot of themes pertaining to the French colonization of Vietnam. When I spoke with Nguyen Phan Que Mai she had a lot to say about her desire for Vietnamese people to decolonize their minds and realize that life in “the West” isn’t necessarily the fantasy they hope it will be. You show some of this in “The Committed.”
I think she’s right, and that was a major reason for me to write the sequel set in France, because I didn’t want to let the French off the hook. One possible French reaction to “The Sympathizer” is of course, the Americans did all these terrible things. But the French have gotten lucky, at least in regards to Indochina, that their Indochinese colonialism has been overshadowed completely by American intervention there.
At the same time, I also love France, and Paris in particular. It’s that kind of contradiction of being aware of the failures and complexities of countries like France and the United States, but also being aware of their deep attraction for a lot of people that both of these novels explore. I don’t think there’s a problem with the contradiction. I think it’s perfectly plausible to be in love with your abuser. So that relationship of seduction and abuse that can be carried out on a personal level is also carried out on the level of colonization as well.
Born in a small Oregon logging town, Karl Marlantes left for Yale in the mid-1960s, where he trained as an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve. After attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Marlantes enlisted in the Marines, serving from 1968 to 1969, during the peak of the Vietnam War. He was highly decorated, receiving numerous commendations, including the Navy Cross — the second-highest medal for valor awarded by the Navy and Marines.
Marlantes went on to write extensively about his experiences in the war, most notably in the novel “Matterhorn.” He began working on the book about 10 years after finishing his service, but it took another 30 years before he found a publisher, in 2010. He has since written another novel, “Deep River,” and a third is forthcoming next year.
I spoke with Marlantes via Zoom from his home in Washington state.
I tend to think that a writer has to be writing directly in the thick of things to get the story right, but “Matterhorn” changed my mind. It took you decades of tinkering to find a publisher. Do you think having the time to breathe and reflect helped the book?
Totally. At the time I felt very sorry for myself because I couldn’t get published. It helped a lot. I matured, and so my characters matured. The prime example: In reality, I had a battalion commander who was an alcoholic who got people killed. I really hated him, and literally I was ready to go kill him at one point, and a friend of mine tackled me and said, “Get back to your senses.” I was in the middle of a battle. But as I got older, I thought, first of all, who’s really the villain? Who put an alcoholic in charge of a Marine battalion in combat? Was it his fault? He had troubles. He was a war veteran. And then I started to think: Well, he was about 38 or 39 years old. I mean, to me now that’s a young man. When I was 22, that was an old man. Time and perspective.
In the first draft I avoided the racism because I’m a White guy, so who am I to say? After almost a decade or so I went, You can’t deal with the Vietnam War without dealing with racism. That was when the rubber hit the road. The civil rights movement was important in the sense that it got the laws changed, but the first time that Whites and Blacks in America really worked together — common cause, weren’t afraid of each other — was in the jungle in Vietnam. That was when it started.
Reading reviews of “Matterhorn,” I was surprised to see that no one criticized you for being a White guy diving so deeply into the experience of racism. People were pretty receptive.
I think it’s because I got it right. We were thrown together. I fought with these guys. We were really close. We were on the same team. So I felt like that probably helped. And I’ve had African American readers tell me, You got it right — that’s the way it was. And so I tried to make it accurate. And you’re right — I thought I was gonna get nailed really hard, but never have been.
The book’s been criticized because I didn’t deal with the horrors that we visited upon the Vietnamese people. Certainly, Que Mai has taken care of all that. But it was meant to tell the story of 19-year-old Marines. It wasn’t meant to do political analysis of why they were there. They didn’t know why they were there.
I remember asking my father and my uncle, who were World War II combat veterans: Did you guys really think that you were fighting fascism? They both broke out laughing, and my uncle said, “Karl, we just wanted to get it over with and come home.”
War novels tend to either lean into technical military descriptions or emphasize the character-driven, emotional side of the experience. “Matterhorn” fused those elements by incorporating the internal lives of the characters into the daily rigmarole of military life. Did you do that on purpose, or did it naturally come out through the writing?
I wanted above all to make it honest and not make it didactic. And in order to do that, the world of the 19-year-old Marine is technical. Is the machine gun clean? Will it shoot? The radio call signs. Their lives depended on that technical knowledge. So that was an important part of the novel. I didn’t want to gloss over that.
I always remember Thomas Mann talking about writing; he said, if your character goes into a hotel room on the third floor and comes out on the fourth floor, you basically ruined your book. I don’t think it ruins a book, but what he was saying hyperbolically was you’ve gotta get it right, and if you don’t, you interrupt the dream of the novel. Then the person is not there anymore.
You’ve struggled with PTSD. What do you think people should know about it?
The first thing is that it’s a physical alteration of neural pathways. Just get over it. Well, hello — your brain has been changed. My simple way of explaining it is, the largest majority of casualties in combat occur in the first two or three months of a tour. Why is that? It’s because you’re a newbie and you’re on the trail and you hear a sound, and then you start thinking, Is that a leaf falling down or is that an animal or my God it could be the ene-… by that time you’re dead.
So the first thing is you have to have a little bit of compassion. Your brain is no longer adapted to this environment. You had to change it to adapt to the other environment, and that saved your life. But then you come back here — now it’s non-adaptive, and it just takes a lot longer to try and get it back in shape. Time, medicine, talk therapy, coming back to community — all those things are important.
In “Matterhorn” you write, “Meaning was made, not discovered.” How did you make meaning out of the war?
That was my struggle. And I think most Vietnam veterans, and a lot of Afghan veterans, a lot of Iraq veterans … it’s like — Why were we there? My parents’ generation could say, Well, we had to beat Hitler. So that supplies some meaning. It’s more difficult with Vietnam. I had to find meaning in my personal experience. It changed me.
I had people who were killed who had certain qualities that the world lost when they died. I feel like, well, I’m carrying their torch. So it’s a relay race. We’re all involved in the relay race. There’s no winning and losing, it’s just we pass the baton to the next people, and we pass it and we pass it, and hopefully you don’t drop the baton. What’s the baton? Consciousness. Consciousness of what’s good about this person, what’s bad about this person. And you have a responsibility to — in a mature way — carry the baton forward. And if you do it, then you’re making meaning.