Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Colonization violated borders and redrew them, generating political, economic, and cultural consequences that are still being lived and felt. Part of the literary and cultural response has been to find the right forms that can speak back to colonization; the ones that interest this lecture cross or abolish (generic) borders and invent new styles like “horrific surrealism” for Harvard University’s Mahindra Humanities Center

About the Speaker

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.

Ken Chen is an Assistant Professor and the Associate Director of Creative Writing at Barnard College. His poetry collection Juvenilia was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award by Louise Glück, who wrote “Like only the best poets, Ken Chen makes with his voice a new category.” His forthcoming book, tentatively titled Death Star, follows his journey to the underworld to rescue his father and his encounters there with those destroyed by colonialism. 

Introduction By:

Jesse McCarthy, Assistant Professor of English and of African and African American Studies 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.

Good evening, everyone. My name is Jesse McCarthy. And I am an assistant professor in the Department of English and the Department of African and African-American Studies here at Harvard University. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Thank you. It is my great honor to reintroduce and welcome back Viet Thanh Nguyen to the fourth of his Norton lectures he is delivering as holder of the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard University. A lectureship with a distinguished lineage that includes, among many other luminaries Toni Morrison, Orhan Pamuk, Nadine Gordimer, and Italo Calvino to name only novelists that have preceded him in this role. 

Viet Nguyen is a university professor, Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English American Studies and Ethnicity and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He is primarily known as a novelist, but he is also the author of several important works of literary scholarship and cultural history, including Race and Resistance– Literature and Politics in Asian America and Nothing Ever Dies– Vietnam and the Memory of War which was a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. 

His first novel, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, and Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger from the French who we learned amusingly in his last lecture like to shelve his books under the heading Anglo-Saxon literature in Paris. 

In 2021, Nguyen published, The Committed, the sequel to The Sympathizer. In between, he has published a short story collection in 2017, The Refugees, and also edited a collection of essays and writings by refugee writers from around the world called The Displaced– Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. His most recent book in a work we have been given a great deal of intimate insight into during the course of these lectures is A Man of Two Faces, a memoir, a history, a memorial, which came out just this last fall. Cathy Park Hong calls it, quote, “a vulnerable and scorching mirror to self and nation” and an essential book, she says, every American should read. 

Viet Nguyen will be joined in conversation after the lecture by the poet and writer, Ken Chen. Chen is an Assistant Professor and the Associate Director of Creative Writing at Barnard College. His poetry collection, Juvenilia, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award by the late Louise Glück who wrote, quote, “like only the best poets, Ken Chen makes with his voice a new category.” 

Now, I’ve been given the unenviable task of attempting to summarize and reacquaint anyone in the audience who has missed Nguyen’s previous three lectures. And this is, of course, an impossible task. The experience of each requires the integrity of the performance. 

Fortunately, all of these lectures are being recorded. And so if you didn’t get to see the previous ones or missed one or would like to share one of these lectures with someone who can’t be here, you can go to the Mahindra Center’s home page where you will find the video links for each lecture that you can download or share across your networks. But if you will bear with me just for a moment longer, I would like to say a few words about the last lecture that was delivered on December 5, 2023. 

I’m afraid I simply can’t do justice to its importance as a rare piece of humane self-examining lucidity at a time when our public discourse has become frighteningly strident, turgid, and self-righteous. It was a beautiful lecture about the need for solidarity, but also ambivalence about how far we really believe or can imagine that solidarity extends. Weaving together Jeffery Paul Chan, Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish, Nadine Gordimer, Amos Oz, Viet Nguyen spoke with frankness and conviction about what has lately come to feel at times unspeakable. 

We’re often told these days that we should want to hear from experts. But I was reminded by Viet’s lecture how much I would rather hear from writers, from artists, from people that you can tell have the grain of courage, of independence in their voice. People who are deeply unaccustomed to the peddling of fatuous euphemism to befog oneself with vain subtleties as Melville once said. And as you can see, the confidence men of the State Department doing on any given evening. 

I would have wanted to quote a dozen or so passages from that lecture, but I have settled on just one that I would like to share because I hope many of my students are here this evening. And I think they should hear it too. Being Asian-American, Nguyen said, is not the only dimension of myself, just one aspect. Born from defending myself or others like me or who are seen as being like me, but my Asian-American-ness matters less than my ethics, politics, and art. Together they constitute a stubborn otherness that resists the lure of a domesticated otherness satiated by belonging. 

There is much to ponder in those lines. And I know that we’ll be given still much more this evening. So please join me without any further delay in welcoming Viet Thanh Nguyen to the podium. Thank you. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Thank you. Thank you so much. Jesse, thanks for that beautiful introduction. And good evening, Harvard, Cambridge, Boston, from wherever people may be coming. It’s such a pleasure to be back here to give you Norton lecture number four. Just two more to go after this. This one is On Crossing Borders. I’m going to get right into it. 

My father has crossed many borders. He was born in Northern Vietnam under French rule in 1933 and was educated in a French Catholic school. More than 80 years later, a widower, he could still sing fragments of French songs when we sat together at the dining table. The meal I could prepare which he most enjoyed was filet mignon, medium rare, with a glass of red wine. 

He had a cupboard full of Louis Jadot Beaujolais for when he liked something, he bought it in bulk. When he stop being able to eat meat and drink wine, I took the last two bottles of Louis Jadot and brought them home with me where they remain untouched. Perhaps I’ll drink one when he passes away. Perhaps I’ll open the second one decades from now and see what I remember when I taste it even if all I will taste is spoiled wine. 

By then, my father will have passed away long ago across the last border any of us will see. I know of at least two other borders that he crossed during his life. In 1954, as a newlywed with his 21-year-old– newlywed with his 17-year-old wife, my father left his childhood home and moved south across the border where Vietnam had been partitioned into a communist north and anti-communist south following the defeat of French colonizers by Vietnamese revolutionaries. 

My mother’s entire family chose to leave the north along with 800,000 other Vietnamese Catholics who feared communist persecution. My father’s family chose to stay. So my father left behind his parents, his younger sister, and three younger brothers. He will not see them again for 50 years. 

Ulysses was away from home for only 20 years. Does my father’s journey away from home and back to it a half century later deserve the name of an epic? If not, what form should my father’s story take? 

The question of form and its relationship to a life lived interests me as a writer and as a border crosser, as my father’s son, and as a father myself. 70 years after my father left his childhood home, I visited the compound. My aunt had married and moved away long ago. But my three paternal uncles still live there along with many of their children and grandchildren. 

I gave all the adults envelopes of cash, the amounts determined by my father. From my youth until the present, my parents have sent home money to the relatives every year to help them survive. I thought about what my life would have been like if my parents had never left in 1954 or in 1975 when they fled from Saigon and crossed yet another border to come to the United States. 

I also thought about what the writer Amitava Kumar had written, “it is not the immigrant but the ones who stay behind who are the true unvanquished.” Kumar pushes back against the praise for those who cross borders– the immigrants, the refugees, the undocumented, the expatriates, the tourists, the settlers, the conquerors. Our sympathies for these voyagers vary based on our feelings about the legality or illegality of their voyages, the nobility or lack thereof concerning their aspirations and motivations, and what or who they conquered. 

Their tales are individual, though they are inextricably intertwined with the sagas of nations and cultures, which might look on these travelers as heroes, as invaders, as laborers, as waste. The heroic and epic versions of border crossings serve national narratives, whether those heroes leave to conquer or stay as the unvanquished. 

In these accounts, migrants are contradictory. Celebrated in their countries of origin, even while appearing as terrifying threats in another people’s history. Facing hostility and suspicion, migrants might feel the need to insert themselves into their new nation’s chronicles of conquest. The migrant’s heroism can then harmonize with their host nation’s self-image as well as affirming that nation’s hospitality and generosity. 

This is what happens in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story. The third and final continent from her lauded collection the Interpreter of Maladies, which focuses on Indian immigrants to the United States. I admire the formal elegance of much of Lahiri’s writing, especially her short stories, a genre in which she excels and in which I am at my most miserable. 

I spent 17 horrible years writing short stories on a similar theme as Lahiri’s signaled by the title of my book, The Refugees. The book frustrated me because I didn’t understand intuitively the genre of the short story where generally speaking, less is more. Almost every single moment of writing the stories agonized me. And I’m just fortunate that as a masochist and a Catholic, I enjoy suffering. 

Whether or not Lahiri suffered in writing her book, her stories themselves appear effortless. Part of that gracefulness stems not just from the art of her writing, but its ideology, the shape of her thinking about being an immigrant and an American fits seamlessly with both the streamlined qualities of a realistic short story and with how many Americans like to imagine their country– its hospitality and its audaciousness. So long as the migrant comes to conquer the United States figuratively by participating in our collective mythology of limitless capitalist progress into a democratic utopia with an SUV in every garage, the migrant is often, if not always, welcome. Lahiri captures the quotidian odyssey of this kind of migrant and the way his story illuminates the shadow free national epic of the United States as a land of innocence pursuing happiness. 

In the story, a young Indian graduate student has arrived in 1960’s Boston after a short stay in London. The United States is his third and final continent. He rents a room from an elderly widow who was born during the Civil War. Despite her age and connection to a time of racial and national horror, she welcomes this Indian immigrant. And when his Indian fiancé arrives, welcomes her as well blessing the start of an Indian American family who will be part of a new non-white generation. 

One arc of the narrative is about progress past our country’s racial sins. The other narrative arc concerns heroism for Neil Armstrong lands on the moon during the Indian student’s time in the widow’s house. Decades later, as a happily married American citizen with successful sons, this narrator reflects on his American life via the moon landing. This is what he says. 

“While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly 30 years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I’m not the only man to seek his fortune far from home. And certainly, I am not the first. Still there are times I’m bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” 

When I look at my father, who no longer recognizes me, I wonder if his accomplishments bewilder him. With the desire to see my father as a bold voyager whose achievement parallels those of the astronauts, Lahiri’s immigrant template attracts me. If Neil Armstrong became the ideal for the nation and of the nation, then so does the immigrant in his own quiet anonymous manner. 

His story resonant with the nation he has come to accept. Armstrong’s story is comforting in another manner. He survives and returns home. What are the migrant who doesn’t survive, who doesn’t return? The American mythology of immigration is perhaps to life and nation affirming to consider migration as an experience of death. 

The writer Ha Jin in his book, The Writer as Migrant, argues that the most significant literature dealing with human migration has been written on the experience of exile. By contrast, immigration is a minor theme, primarily American. Therefore, a major challenge for writers of the immigrant experience is how to treat this subject in response to the greater literary traditions. 

My father is not an immigrant but a refugee whose experience is closer to exile, especially if we consider how exiles typically die far from their homelands. My father has now spent more of his life here than there. He expressed his commitment to this country when he bought burial plots for himself and my mother. That burial plot, he told me years later, was a great investment. What cost $3,000 then is worth more than $20,000 today. In America, even death makes for smart investment and real estate opportunities. 

My father has also planned every last detail of his departure. There’s a form to Vietnamese Catholic death rituals that involve a viewing from morning to evening, a mass with biblical readings and choir hymns, the scent of incense, the chanting of prayers, the burial itself. My father oversaw this form for my mother when she passed away six years ago. The ceremony executed so perfectly that my father-in-law said he wanted something of equal quality. His daughters provided him with exactly that when he passed away last year. 

The repetition of the form of mourning comforts the living as we contemplate our final exit. I grew up with a deep sense of this. For every night in childhood, I encountered the scene of my parents seated on the couch in a dim living room praying the rosary together in a language I poorly understood, facing a wall furnished with a crucifix and pictures of a white Jesus and Mary. 

My parents were between worlds alien to me. Vietnam in the past and the afterlife in the future. The afterlife was bright. But death was a continent from whose depths the explorers never returned. The ones who died clinically and came back to life saw only the shores of death. The only other returnees are ghosts who may really exist, but do not usually appear in realist literature. 

The immigrant literature of realism of which I’m treating Lahiri’s writing as an exemplar both for its artistic and personal grace, its deep love for the immigrant as intrepid traveler. This immigrant literature of realism often forestalls, occludes, hedges on death. And the final border crossing into the ultimate otherness. 

Lahiri’s immigrant does not mention death as the actual final continent and destination of everybody’s final journey. That certainly does appear in a great deal of this realistic literature from the ends of individuals due to personal circumstances and the demise of many from various ghastly calamities. But the realism of the literature insulates readers somewhat from the incomprehensibility of death, both of the personal and collective kinds. 

In Lahiri’s story, for instance, not only is the future death of our immigrant narrator forestalled, even in his old age, but so is the death of his landlady. By the end of the story, she has conveniently disappeared along with the Civil War history from which she emerged. The seamlessness of effective realism serves as a buffer against the emotions generated in those who die, those who witness and remember the death of others, and those who seek to recover the deaths for which they themselves were not present. 

How can realism adequately confront something so unreal as the final undoing? Death wasn’t merely abstract to me as a child. It was unreal, unimaginable, unknowable. The story of the immigrant arriving as a stranger in a strange land who then becomes a part of that land affirms life not death. But if we imagine the immigrant as heroic, we should ask why? 

What did they escape? Was it perhaps masked death or premature death due to forces beyond their control? And if the ones who stayed were also heroic and unvanquished, was it because they confronted these conditions of mass or premature death? By celebrating the courage of migrants, do we foreground their accomplishments in order to obscure, in some cases, how our intervention as a country required them to be brave in order to survive? And what of all those who failed to survive? 

My interlocutor tonight, the poet, Ken Chen, has also approached the issue of death in his father through what he calls migration surrealism. In his text, I was ostensibly searching for my father. But Ken Chen descends into the underworld in order to find his departed father. Instead of imagining the abyss, he finds himself trying to recuperate my right to hallucinate. 

Hallucination is the right response to the scale of death and its terrors for many who have reached the infernal regions through what Ken Chan calls death as migration. The dead, he hallucinates, died when they stayed at home or died when they traveled. But died because of forces beyond their control that rendered their staying or their departure heroic in the eyes of some. Some of those forces were unleashed by colonizers and conquerors for whom borders mattered not. At least the borders of others, always open, ready to be transgressed versus their own borders, which were to be defended. 

The continent of death has no guards, however. All are welcome. And like Orpheus, Ken Chan wanders into the underworld seeing, and these are his words, everything that ever died, I saw the beginning, the true beginning, the beginning of modern capitalism. 

I saw that the beginning had twin poles in the new world where the Indigenous people fled the conquering hordes. Strange men who would casually behead the people they encountered and set their hounds to tear the flesh of infants. And in the West Coast of Africa, where there came a story that these traders of strange cargo must be cannibals piling up as they did colossal mounds of bones whitening in the sun. 

I saw men in India strapping the bodies of insurrectionary sepoys to the mouths of cannons. And there was the Congo where I saw the West come carrying bags of hands. They had taken the hands from the people who lived there. 

And in Mitla, was it ears? What was it in Malaya? Listing these horrors in such a casual way, it shames one to write it. It shames one to read it. How then to represent what I have come to call sublime trauma, the absolute terror of colonialism that is too gargantuan to be represented. Words whose monument deforms our mouths as we speak them. Events too much to even bear glimpsing. 

Like Ken Chan, I think that the language and form of realism is insufficient for grasping the scope of the underworld. The mythology of the heroic traveler is also not enough. For an elevating the individual, this mythology can’t address the scale of collective conquest and death or resistance and survival. 

Secular and religious epics might be better being decidedly unrealistic even hallucinogenic as with the Bible. Replete with fantastic tales of exile, migration, and displacement beginning with Adam and Eve, refugees from the Garden of Eden. Don’t all exiles look back to their lost land? Then there is Noah, cast afloat in a mass extinction event, repopulating the world with his living cargo. Isn’t his ark a boat for the very first boat people? 

This is why in my novel, The Committed, the rickety boat with which my band of Vietnamese refugees flees, Vietnam is described as an ark finding itself on a wine dark sea, an illusion to Homer’s Odyssey. In epics and fables from the Bible to Greek mythology, the hero can cross the last border and return from the dead. Realism isn’t required and even contradicts the promises and lures of these kinds of stories, which involve a reversal of time. 

We mere mortals go from birth to death. But Resurrection exists in divine time and implies what Ken Chan calls death as time travel. I gestured at how the migrant also travels in time in my novel, The Sympathizer, which I didn’t think of as a realistic work but rather as a European modernist version of the great American novel. Or if that’s too pretentious, maybe just a debased refugee knockoff version. 

Against the linear optimism of American mythmaking, the narrator of my not so great American novel, a refugee and a spy enters the United States on a mission of sabotage rather than patriotic affirmation. In the land of plenty, he sees a clock on the wall of a Vietnamese restaurant. And here, I’m going to quote myself, “carved from hardwood into the shape of our homeland, for this clock that was a country. And this country that was a clock. The minute and hour hands pivoted in the south. The numbers of the dial a halo around Saigon.” 

Some craftsmen in exile had understood that this was exactly the timepiece his refugee countrymen desired. We were displaced persons, but it was time more than space that defined us. While the distance to return to our lost country was far but finite, the number of years it would take to close that distance was potentially infinite. Thus for displaced people, the first question was always about time. When can I return? 

Refugee, exile, immigrant, whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. 

The open secret of the clock naked for all to see was that we were only going in circles. As a child, I saw that clock hanging in more than one Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose, California. Where Vietnamese refugees engaged in Proustian moments over bowls of pho, could realism capture the fever of homesickness that plagued some migrants? Can realism show me what whirls inside my father’s head as he approaches the final border? Perhaps. But my sense that realist linearity might not be sufficient in telling all the stories of migrants, border crossers, and my father led me to writers who have dealt with memory by foregrounding the act of remembering itself and how remembering shapes and perhaps distorts reality. 

For the sympathizer, I was interested in memory’s density. So I drew on writers fascinated by memory and exhibiting a particular richness of prose and style from Toni Morrison to Maxine Hong Kingston, from Antonio Lobo Antunes to W.G Sebald. For A Man of Two Faces, I thought about how my existence as person and writer was possible because history had blown up Vietnam and scattered its people all over the world. 

Since memory could be a jagged assembly of shards as much as a thick stream of consciousness, I sought a style for that book even more unconventional, fragmentary, circular, occasionally feverish. Some books that have influenced me are difficult to classify in the way migrants can be hard to classify in transit between nation states with their enforced borders. Genres and styles have borders too, which is why conventional realism with its clear boundaries, marking how fiction should and shouldn’t look suits immigrant narratives affirming national identities. 

Nationalism and realism mold both citizen and immigrant, the latter into being or becoming knowable others. But what if the migrant is unknowable, someone who threatens national identities and borders? I conclude by looking at three remarkable writers who used the migrant as an unknowable other who breaks nationalist and realist models. In each case, the violence of partition of borders being changed by forces beyond the migrant’s control leads these unknowable others to question the very foundation of the nation state. 

Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera published in 1987 is situated on the United States and Mexico border, established by the American conquest of what was once the northern half of Mexico. Anzaldua calls herself a member of a colonized people in our own territory. Mixing prose and poetry, memoir and criticism, the theoretical and the spiritual, the personal and political, English and Spanish often untranslated, she describes the border as a 1,950 mile-long open wound dividing a pueblo, a culture, running down the length of my body, staking fence rods in my flesh, splits me splits me, me raja me raja. This is my home, this thin edge of barbed wire. 

Lahiri’s Indian immigrant identifies with the heroic nation. But Anzaldua stands with and on the tense potentially violent southern border that defines our nation, preventing people from moving freely. If Lahiri’s Indian immigrant establishes a family as a claim to the nation, enabling his family and the national family to merge seamlessly, Anzaldua reminds us that both a nation and the family can abuse those who don’t fit in 

For Anzaldua, national borders are reinforced by borders between languages and religions, genders and sexualities. These human borders contrast with what she calls the skin of the Earth, which is seamless and the sea, which cannot be fenced. Anzaldua sees herself as part of nature and counts herself among the border crossers who she describes as the squint eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half breed, the half dead. 

In short, the less than human and the non-normal who threaten both the conventional family and the nation that envisions itself through that family. The geographical border makes very visible with actual walls and real barbed wire what is true for so many other borders. But one can cut through that barbed wire and turn the border into the cutting edge. 

Theresa Cha’s 1982 book, Dictée, pushes this cutting edge. The book is a strange compelling unclassifiable work of enormous, unruly, unrealistic, aesthetic ambition. Cha was born in South Korea two years before the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War for the United States, but not for Koreans who remained divided into two countries facing off over the DMZ. 

Cha migrated to the United States during the Cold War which certainly wasn’t cold for the approximately 2 million Koreans who died in the war. She studied film theory and became an experimental filmmaker at UC Berkeley where a decade later I studied her work, including her utterly mystifying and unforgettable short films. Cha was educated in English, Korean, and French, all three languages appearing in Dictée along with Chinese and Latin. 

Despite her multilingualism, Cha emphasizes a halting relationship to language, what she calls broken speech, cracked tongue, broken tongue, pigeon, semblance of speech. Dictée can be understood as a broken mold leaving behind shards of a shattered self in juxtaposed fragments of letters, found documents, photographs, film stills, enigmatic images, mysterious movies. 

There are invocations of Greek mythology and muses, the Japanese colonization of Korea, the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, and the teenage patriot Yu Gwan-sun, the patriarchy and rituals of Catholicism, and dictation and translation exercises between French and English. Cha writes from the position of a shattered self who can’t be classified. She composes a list of questions that might be directed at such an anomaly. 

What nationality or what kindred and relation? What blood relation? What blood ties of blood? What ancestry? What race/generation? 

What house, clan, tribe, stock, strain? What lineage extraction? What breed, sect, gender, denomination, caste? What stray ejection misplaced? 

She concludes with a response that mixes Latin and English, tertium quid, neither one nor the other. Being neither one nor the other could apply to Cha herself or her mother who grew up under Korean colonialism, Japanese colonialism, and migrated to the United States. Cha depicts her mother’s life as epic and historic interwoven with Korea’s 20th century tragedies. 

When her mother finally returns to Korea late in life, however, she finds neither the heroic opportunity to be a Ulysses recovering her home nor a sentimental chance at wholeness and healing. Instead, Cha says you return and you are not one of them. The papers give you away. They ask you identity. They comment on your inability or ability to speak. 

Whether you are telling the truth or not about your nationality, this interrogation by border guards shows how violence can be directed at the unclassifiable anomalous other. This violence can be verbal and linguistic as when Japanese colonizers forced Koreans like Cha’s mother to speak Japanese. This violence can also manifest in invasion, war, and colonization. 

When a people exults in what Cha calls the suffering institutionalized on another, one enemy nation has disregarded the humanity of another. The nation can also aim this violence within as when Korean soldiers and police massacre Korean students engaged in anti-government protests. In the us versus them world of harsh nationalism, these student rebels had become unknowable others. Neither one thing nor the other. 

Lahiri’s patriotic immigrant stands in contrast. Realism, a reassuring literary form posits this immigrant as a knowable other fitting the mold, reassuring the nation rather than terrorizing it like the unknowable other threatens to do. Like Anzaldua and Cha, I am more attracted to this kind of other, perhaps because unknowability comes closer to the mystery and danger of the writing process, approximating the fear a writer feels about unlocking what hides inside. In both Borderlands/La Frontera and Dictée, there are accounts of narrators becoming writers. With Anzaldua, finding what she calls her wild tongue while Cha writes of her narrator who might be herself that she says to herself, if she were able to write, she could continue to live. 

Perhaps living through writing motivates my final example of a border crosser who courted death and resisted realism. Behrouz Boochani, author of the memoir, No Friend But the Mountains, from 2019. Occurred from Iran, a self-described child of war, Boochani flees Iran due to repression of the Kurdish people and their movement for an independent Kurdistan. He embarks on what he calls an odyssey, a perilous three-month journey by land to Indonesia and a more hazardous voyage by sea aiming for Australia. 

He says getting on any one of those boats is an extraordinary risk. It is truly a battle against death. Boochani sees his journey as a mythic one writing his account as epic, an allegory mixed with poetry. He and his fellow travelers are not so much individuals as types because the authorities they encounter treat them as stereotypes. 

He bestows epithets instead of birth names on his companions– the cadaver, the insomniac, the cow, the giant, the prophet, the comedian, the hero, all facing existential questions of life and death, courage and humanity. The Australian government not wanting these refugees intercepts the boat and exiles the refugees to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in the middle of the ocean. Among inhabitants that Australian officials see as savage and cannibals, but whom Boochani as a Kurd sees as fellow Indigenous people. 

This island exile evokes Robinson Crusoe except with masses of refugees as anti-heroic castaways instead of Daniel Defoe’s titular, singular hero. The story becomes a prison diary full of awful experiences that the narrator depicts as hallucinations. He finds himself in a prison of filth and heat, a zoo full of animals of different colors and scents where the refugees are given numbers, strip searched, monitored even in the toilets, kept in cages, and given ill-fitting clothes that transform our bodies and utterly degrade us. 

The list of humiliations from disgusting toilets to a diet bordering on starvation reduces the refugees to Anzaldua’s half dead and pressures them to seek voluntary deportation. But prison diaries or memoirs are often also narratives of self-transformation and rebirth. Prisons are where states keep official and unofficial enemies, with the Australian government regarding refugees as the enemy invading by boat. 

For Boochani, the prisoners are what he calls captured soldiers, prisoners of war, and sacrificial subjects of violence. They are also, Boochani says, hostages made examples to strike fear into others to scare people so they won’t come to Australia. He wavers between feeling crushed and worthless and being the person who conquered this great expanse of ocean on a rotting boat. 

I feel a kind of victory. I can erase all the sinking feelings and replace them with hope and joy. By the end, the hostages rebel and seize the prison, some at the cost of their own lives. 

Although Papua New Guinea declared the prison illegal in 2016, Boochani remained there as unaware of his fate as a character from Kafka, Camus, or Beckett, all of whom he cites fitting for an existential drama. But just as Gloria Anzaldua and Theresa Cha mixed discourses, so do Behrouz Boochani and his translator, Omid Tofighian, who used theory and criticism in an important afterword. This afterword suggests that refugees are not only objects of study or pity, but also potentially critics. That the prison is not only a site of punishment and degradation, but a school where refugees might theorize their own existence. What is a border? Boochani asks after his informal prison education. 

My whole life has been impacted by this concept of border. Well, here is law-abiding immigrant accepts the existence of borders and praises his host nation. Boochani is deeply skeptical. There is an island in a silent ocean where people are held prisoner, Boochani and Tofighian explained. 

The people cannot experience the world beyond the island. They only see each other and hear the stories they tell one another. They are frustrated by their isolation and incarceration. But they have also been taught to accept their predicament. 

News somehow enters this prison about another island where the mind is free to know and to create. The people on the other island see things that the prisoners cannot, create things that the prisoners cannot, know things that the prisoners cannot. One island kills vision, creativity, and knowledge. It imprisons thought. 

The other island fosters vision, creativity, and knowledge. It is a land where the mind is free. The first island is the settler colonial state called Australia. And the prisoners are the settlers. 

The second island contains Manus prison. And knowledge resides there with the incarcerated refugees. Boochani transmits that knowledge via text messages from a smuggled contraband phone. Tofighian assembled Boochani’s book from these text messages. 

On the one hand, a hostage with a cell phone. On the other hand, the Australian nation state. Its prison apparatus and client states. Its armed guards and lawyers. Its ships and airplanes. 

An asymmetric conflict waged by the refugee with words and symbols. As Boochani says, “I create my own discourse and do not succumb to the language of oppressive power. I create my own language.” 

The nation state upholds the language of realism. For against the brutal punishments of a prison island, the realistic response for the refugees should be submission and voluntary deportation. Boochani resists both deportation and realism, writing what his translator describes as horrific surrealism. 

I can’t think of a better term or genre to describe the voyage of the illegitimate, uninvited border crosser, blamed by countries and citizens for breaking laws and borders. Nation states are essentially conservative. Their autocratic violence and forcing borders along the nation’s edge and within the nation as well, policing potentially unruly others. Many of these nations are responsible for creating conditions depriving millions of opportunities for life, forcing them to make a choice between heroism at home or heroism in exile. That difficult choice is the reason refugees and other border crossers become the avant garde for a world without borders, a world that can be nightmare or dream, hell or heaven. 

I returned to my father, his earthly journey nearly complete. He has crossed geographical borders I have known and psychic borders I will never know. He has already in the words of Homer sailed over the wine dark sea to men of strange speech. 

In the epic that is his life, his epithet is the father. Mine, the son. I always thought of my father as a conservative man who enforced the borders of my life with lessons about Catholicism and capitalism, authority and respect, suffering and sacrifice. But in so many ways, he has preceded me by making choices I never had to make as when he fled his homeland twice. 

Sometimes his choices showed me that I could make them too as when I finally became a father. He will continue being my own personal vanguard, venturing before me once more across the final border to the ultimate exile showing me, his son of strange speech, the inevitable way to our last continent. Thank you so much. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Thank you. I think I want you to sit here. 

Oh, I’m doing that one? OK. This is my bad side. 

[LAUGHS] 

You don’t have a bad side. 

I do. Trust me. Yes. Thanks so much, Ken, for being with me. I thought it was really fortuitous that I had invited you. We’d met in Paris. I love saying that we met in Paris. 

[LAUGHS] 

Yeah. 

And then we were talking, and these issues came up. And I just wanted to continue the conversation. And then as it turned out, as I had not read the text that I quoted. And then when I read it after I’d written much of the lecture, I thought this is perfect. And so this is really fortuitous circumstance. 

Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me. And I also want to say I’m so sorry about the situation with your father. And I hope he’s OK. So I wanted to thank you for inviting me. Thank Jesse for the great introduction. Thank you, Mary, for sending me several emails. And thank the Mahindra Center for organizing this event. 

Now, you make this argument about the deficits of realism. And clearly, we were thinking in a similar wavelength in the piece you quote that I was writing. I was also trying to find a way to address a political problem, but with some kind of imagination where I wasn’t trapped by what had happened in the past. And I feel like you’re also making obviously a political argument in addition to everything you said about nationalism and citizenship, which is that traditionally, we thought that the political form was actually social realism. 

So if you read The Jungle or if you read Anna Seghers Seventh Cross, proletarian agitprop novels, realism is the political category. And you’re saying something different, which is actually there are avenues that are afforded to us through the avoidance of realism. And I feel like part of that is very clear, especially if any of you have been on Instagram over the last few months. Or I don’t know if anyone here knows names like Plestia or Wizard Bisan or Motaz. 

So we all know what horror looks like. And I feel like part of your argument is that at a certain point, the horror of reality is so exceeds what we can depict that realism hits some limit of depletion or exhaustion. But I feel like you’re also saying something else, which is something about surrealism or magic and more allegorical ways of being as in the Boochani story or in my piece. And it made me think about Aime Césaire, who is in one of your other talks, who was a communist surrealist or about how magical realism actually originated as a response to Latin American dictatorship. Or Frantz Fanon who often wrote like a surrealist poet talking about his antenna picking up racist chit chat or describing being in colonialism as being in an occult zone of instability. 

So I feel like everyone in this room probably understands the situation of horror where you cannot write after Auschwitz. But I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about this other part that more allegorical part. How does that work? What are things that realism cannot do that is in that more metaphorical space? 

It seems like part of it has to do with hitting a kind of emotional or affective register where realism is assumed to be a very literal objective mode of interacting with a world that is easily represented. But to represent something like the Korean War or what your family went through in Vietnam, we have to access a different kind of way of perceiving reality. I wonder if you could talk. 

I mean, there is a dimension of realism that’s still really powerful. I think, I’ve certainly read realist books about the Vietnam War, about racism in the United States, and so on, where the really graphic depiction of what people undergo has stayed with me. But even that level of graphic realism to me, it’s almost surreal. 

I mean, when you get into just, OK, I’ll give you an example of literature that was so realistic that it has unsettled me for a very long time, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. It’s a novel. It’s a gigantic novel about lynching in the United States. And it is intensely realistic. But it goes into it in such enormous detail that it becomes so realistic. But not because it departs from unrealistic representation. 

So there’s a way in which social realism can still do that. And one of the other genres that you mentioned, agitprop, I actually don’t think of that as realistic. I’m not going to have a chance to deal with it in my lectures. But I remember as an undergraduate watching agitprop theater that had been made by Teatro Campesino for peasant workers in the California fields. And it was completely unrealistic. 

It involved puppets and pantomime and types with the corrupt police and the poor peasant workers and so on. It made a huge impression on me. And I think Aime Césaire’s A Tempest does some of that work as well. So there is some space for excessive versions of realism. 

But I don’t think Lahiri’s short story does that. I think it’s a particular kind of realism that I wouldn’t describe as social realism in her work. I described it more as well, it’s like New Yorker realism, which is good. I mean, I love New Yorker short stories. And I tried for years to get published in The New Yorker. It never worked because I didn’t fit that mold very well. 

So I think what I was trying to focus on in this lecture was the fact that there’s another dimension of the reading experience where the reader can be deeply unsettled not by the content of what’s being written about but by the very shape of the language and the shape of how the story is being told. And I’ll just give you one very minor example of that. 

When I wrote The Sympathizer, I didn’t use any quotation marks. I swear to God this is what pisses people off the most. I read the comments on amazon.com and Goodreads and most of them are like, I don’t understand why there aren’t any quotation marks in this novel. I’m like, that’s what you focus on? But that’s very one minor example. 

But imagine that a work really forces a reader into a zone of discomfort with the very reading experience, doesn’t give them closure, for example, doesn’t make the reader– doesn’t entertain the reader even as the reader is being told some kind of horrific story. So I think that’s where the level of the allegory can really come into play. Because we’re not being asked to respond through identifying with the character. We’re being asked to think about these characters not only as human beings, but as being representatives of some other larger collective experience. 

So the allegory works in both ways. It works both as individual character, but also as obviously representative of a larger experience. And the allegory goes way back in time, obviously, like I said to epics and fables. Early human storytelling so far, as we know, was actually not realistic . And in our day and age, at least in the United States, we left that behind. 

The most popular prose in this country hews pretty closely to a standard kind of realism. And somehow we’ve absorbed this idea that other forms like didacticism, allegory, epic, fable. These are not the things that we should be reading and discussing in book clubs, for example. 

So I wanted to give space for that because the writers that I picked I think have really stayed with me as being unforgettable because they’ve made me– they’ve challenged me. They made me think why did they choose– why did they refuse realism even as they’re discussing these historically traumatic situations that obviously cry out in one version for realism? 

So, Viet, unlike you, I am the child of divorced parents. And what that means is I have an impulse towards mediation. And so I consider you– we’re friends and comrades. And I’m also friends with Jhumpa. 

I just have a slight– I understand where you’re coming from. And I’m not going to debate you. I have these boxing gloves over there. Just kidding. 

I want to say something that surprised me about her work reading it recently in that I was very familiar with this story that you had read. And I found myself reading a lot of her work over the last year. So I’m going to take this in a direction that’s not about you. And it’s about migration and all of the things that I think both of your work is actually about. 

So I went back and read her short stories. And what struck me is that about a third or half of them are actually about people who are what a Marxist would call the lumpenproletariat. They’re often vagrants. The people Michael Denning would call wageless life. People who are living in the planet of slums. 

And these are people who are often not written about in Asian-American studies because in Asian-American studies, professor might identify with the person who looks like them in the story. And then I read her novel, The Lowland, which I think is her best novel. And it struck me as actually a fanonian novel in that it is a novel about what do we do with revolutionary, anti-colonial violence. It’s a novel about living with the aftermath of being part of the Naxalite armed movement in India, the Maoists who are fighting the state. 

So this is actually not about Jhumpa. And you don’t have to respond to any of that. But what struck me is that your position is one I agree with, which is against this idea of recuperating the heroic immigrant. Because that feeds into the idea that there’s the good immigrant, the bad immigrant or the good Muslim and the bad Muslim, which is a traditional form of colonial divide and conquer tactics. 

What struck me about these character types that I’m reading in her work is that they are the lumpenproletariat and the revolutionary. And I feel like those are ways that we don’t normally think about, the migrant or the revolutionary subject. That’s actually the people that Fanon said would be the revolutionary. 

So I was curious what you thought about that. Because the beginning of your speech is actually about that lovely quote from Amitava and all of these rejections of different predictable roles where we find immigrants palatable or not palatable, right? Expats, refugees, migrants. And I feel like one thing that’s missing from that is maybe something that is captured a little bit by the term refugee, but some form of politics or some form of class status. 

Do you think that the idea of the immigrant as a revolutionary subject is important? Do you think about– so for example, you write so lovingly about your parents as running the shop in San Jose, which I wonder if I’ve ever gone to, actually. And my parents are Chinese skilled working computer programmer types. And in both cases, in my case at least, my family is legible because of work. 

But the lumpenproletariat are the people who don’t work. And they are often the people who were attacked within these anti-Asian hate crimes, which I have skeptical relationship with in that I think it’s actually about this class dynamic of the lumpenproletariat. So I’m curious about how do you feel about the category of the revolutionary immigrant? Etienne Balibar talks about what do we do with the immigrant who is not here but is the revolutionary subject or about this person who you talk about often in your speech, who is this leftover detritus person. 

Yeah. No, great question. And let me be very clear, I’m picking on one short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, not on her entire group of work. Yeah. And if you talk about this to Jhumpa Lahiri, remember I said in the lecture, I admire her writing, OK? 

But it’s a great question because– and the examples you posed are really good because even in her first book, the Interpreter of Maladies, you get a sense that there is a lumpenproletariat in there, but they’re in India. The Indian immigrants who she depicts in Boston in the United States are not that. And so I’m wondering if again, if we go to this idea that what I’m discussing is the border crossing between nations and the idea of the immigrant as affirming a national narrative, especially in the final– in the destination where they come to. 

I think that it is more difficult to talk about what you just asked, the immigrant as revolutionary precisely because the immigrant as revolutionary contradicts the whole idea of the immigrant as becoming a citizen of the host nation that they’re getting into. So it’s telling that in the examples that you cited, The Lowland, is a novel set in India, not in the United States. 

It is set in the United States. 

Is it? OK, OK. I think also of a writer like Carlos Bulosan who I’ve written about. 

Yes. 

And– 

Who was a real radical. 

He was a real radical. And he wrote a classic book called America is in the Heart. And it is about a Marxist and a revolutionary and an immigrant to the United States. Not an immigrant. He’s actually a colonial subject when he comes to the United States from the Philippines. 

But even for that book to become legible, he titled it as America is in the Heart. So the revolutionary energies of that colonial subject who is a Marxist was contained in a certain way simply by the title of that book. And then he published another book. I wrote a whole dissertation, I wrote a whole book chapter for it. 

It sounds amazing. 

Yeah. Oh my God. OK, I wrote this chapter when I was in my 20s. So I’m trying to remember the title of Bulosan’s only his second novel. And the second novel is actually set in the Philippines. And that is an unapologetic– 

Revolutionary anti-colonial war. 

Right. And it’s about the Hukbalahap revolution against the Philippine government and the Americans who are sponsoring the Philippine government. It’s unabashedly a Marxist revolutionary novel. It pays no lip service to America, to the United States of America. And he couldn’t publish it in his lifetime. 

And I think there’s something about being outside of the space of the host nation or at least in this case, the United States, that allows that unabashed revolutionary narrative to emerge. But it’s more challenging to do so within the context of the nation. And there are examples of Asian-American writers who’ve done that. 

I’m thinking about Hsi Tsiang, The Hanging on Union Square. But they’re highly marginalized writers. I mean, he was considered a weirdo in his own time. He’s still considered a weirdo today, 70 or 80 years later. 

So it’s not that the immigrant revolutionary doesn’t exist in reality and doesn’t exist in literature. I’ve cited examples in the lecture. But that what gets privileged, what becomes visible, what becomes promoted is not that for the most part. 

Thank you. 

[LAUGHS] 

I want to thank you also for discussing my writing. And I think I had a similar reaction as you did when reading the Magnet Carter and the cross. In terms of when I would read the accounts of colonial history, you do have this sense of your skin prickling in the sense of encountering something that’s so gargantuan that there’s no way you can depict it. That you hit some kind of limit with a language, which I initially called sublime trauma after the idea of the sublime as this infinity. 

And I want to ask you a little bit about hope and agency. Because I found that, for example, the story of Boochani is so amazing partly because he is an agent. He’s an actor who’s constantly pushing back and telling this story in spite of all the odds. And so in some of the stories that you talk, in some of the narratives that we’re talking about in this conversation, there’s this idea of colonialism as a horror that caps a limit of representation. 

In my own story, part of the reason I wanted to go to the underworld was to evade this idea that we couldn’t speak back or we couldn’t imagine back against colonialism. And it actually originated from an actual dream I had about my father where I visited him in the underworld. And it somehow drew on my past as a lawyer working with someone who was detained by Homeland Security. 

And in the dream, my father said you have to go home because you’re not a citizen in the afterlife. I got nationalized here. It’s much quicker when you die. But that actually made me really happy when I woke up in a way that maybe you could relate with because I thought, oh, well, here’s a way where I can tour the underworld and I can meet these dead revolutionaries. And rather than mourning them, they can actually have agency like Bulosan, right? 

And so I can meet people like Aunt Hester who is Frederick Douglass’s aunt. Or I could meet Al-Jabarti who’s a historian who’s writing about Egypt when Napoleon rolls in. Or Neolin who’s this kind of anti-capitalist native prophet. So that way, the people clearly they are dead, but they could be resurrected in this way that would allow some sense of hope or agency. 

And so I feel like I was watching– well, I feel like there’s a way where horror can be politically demoralizing. And some of what you’re describing is also a story of agency. And I was wondering what you felt about agency amidst this kind of hope that feels so infinite against this terror that feels so infinite. 

Yeah. I mean, when I read just the three examples that I cited– Boochani, Theresa Cha, and Gloria Anzaldua, and they are dealing with horror on a very vast scale, both historical and contemporary. But in fact, I find hope in their works. I find agency both in terms of themselves as writers and what they’re able to accomplish writing these books, but in terms of how they’re depicting the various kinds of people that populate their books as well. 

So looking at Boochani, for example, it does seem hopeless in a lot of ways. Because many of the people that he depicts in the book are deported or voluntarily deported or they are killed or they do suffer various kinds of torture in the prison. And yet, his claim that the prisoners or the hostages are able to rebel and seize their own fate is an enormously powerful one. 

But he doesn’t give us a way out. In reality, what happens to Boochani is that he does eventually get to leave the island. We don’t know that at the time of the book because even when the book is published, he’s still in the prison. He’s still on the island. But eventually, he’s able to leave. And so he doesn’t give us an out in the narrative of the book itself. And I think that’s important. 

Not delusional. 

Yeah. It’s not delusional. I think because for many people who end up in these prison camps or prison islands, there is no way out, right? There are people who’ve been living in refugee camps for years and years or decades and decades. 

The most permanent form of architecture. 

Right. And yet, at the same time, they survive. They live. They organize life in the camps despite the conditions of being half dead as Anzaldua says or bare life as I referred to in the past. 

So that’s where I find the hope and the agency. It’s a glimmer of hope and agency. I’ll cite another figure, Beckett who is mentioned here very, very briefly. When I’ve seen Beckett plays as a young person, deeply confusing plays, Waiting for Godot and Happy Days, plays that I fell asleep in honestly and plays that seemed to have no connection to history. However, Beckett himself was an exile and Beckett– 

French resistance. 

And a French resistance member and a refugee during World War II. So if you know that history, then you can make a connection between the bombed out landscapes of Europe and these wastelands that his characters find themselves in in these seemingly very abstract plays. And they are confronting these vast existential landscapes of horror. But yet, they’re still alive, even if they’re buried up to their waist. And so that’s where the hope and the agency comes in. Not a sentimental hope or agency, but a stubborn little sliver of stubborn of hope. 

Yeah. I was really curious about and laughed at your joke about your works as European modernist takes on the great American novel and connecting a little bit with what you just said about Beckett. I wanted to ask a little bit about the role of humor in genre in what we’re calling horror surrealism or migration surrealism. I was thinking with your description of Theresa Cha, actually. In fact, I wonder how many people here have read Dictée, the Theresa Cha book? 

So there are few hands. So this book is often read as a very mournful book partly because she died very violently right as the book was coming out. And so the book is often read as predicting her own death. Because there are literally lines where she says things like I feel like I’m dying and things like that. 

And one thing we were emailing about is, I’ve attended countless talks on Dictée. I’ve read a lot of this scholarship. I have organized events around Dictée. But the two people who helped me understand it the most were not Asian Americanists or Korean Americanists. 

There were actually– one of them was my wife who left Lebanon during the imperial proxy war that was a Lebanese Civil War. And she opened Dictée. And she said, this is a very playful book. And my friend Geraldine who left the Congo to go to Paris and then to go to the United States. I showed her the book. And she said this is a very kind of cranky, this is a funny book. 

And I thought these two comments were so mind blowing if you understand how this book is usually read as a kind of auto epitaph. And do you think, do you find, what kind of humor or joy do you find Dictée? But also in your own work, there’s this element of you drawing on genre traditions. There’s you, clearly, you have a relationship with humor. And maybe like Fanon and Césaire, it’s a humor that’s tinged with a lot of anger. 

Oh, yeah. That’s the best kind of humor. 

It’s the best kind of humor. 

Yeah, yeah. Well, I mentioned very briefly in this lecture that I’d seen her short films at Berkeley. And I’ll just give you an example of how funny they are. There was one– I think the title of the short film is called Permutations. I don’t know if you’ve seen this. 

Yes, I’ve seen that. 

OK. 

I screened that. 

Oh, you did. OK. So hopefully, it’s the right title. I’m thinking of the right film. But from what I remember, the entire film I thought it was like an hour long. It’s probably like 10 minutes long. 

It feels like an hour. 

It feels like an hour because all it is is one woman’s head. That’s all you see in black and white. And the camera is just like front side, back side. And it just goes on and on and on. And she just is looking. That’s it for 10 minutes. And then she blinks. That’s it. That’s the entire film. And I thought that’s– 

I think it’s her sister. And I think there’s one frame where it’s suddenly her. 

Yeah. And so I– 

You’re right. You’re like, what? She blinked. 

Yeah. And I thought that’s a sick joke. That’s a very sick joke. That’s funny in its own way. It’s like Samuel Beckett. It’s funny in a very mordant way. 

So I think there is humor. And in fact, you’re I think foreshadowing what I think I’ll write about in the final lecture in terms of playfulness. Because in fact, I think her book– I didn’t understand it as an undergraduate that it was playful. But now I think I do. And I appreciate the playfulness of her work. 

Because again, when I talk about the literature of realism, that’s an acceptable mode for talking about immigration to this country. I think of it often as a very serious mode. Because in fact, I think it’s very pedagogical. Especially if you’re a writer being trained in America’s contemporary writing programs, you’re being trained usually to write in this fashion. I mean, you have to have a model of something. 

And if you know the rules and you play within the rules, and you work within the rules, it’s not very playful. And what happens in Dictée is she knows the rules. I mean, she’s an intellectual. She studied theory, all these kinds of things. And she totally disregards them. And that’s enormously playful. 

I mean, people who don’t like the book may think of it as intellectually playful or they may think of it as intellectually masturbatory or something. But I don’t. I think of it as genuine play as an adult who has been able to discover the childlike capacity to do whatever she wants. And that’s enormously powerful for me. 

Because again, the modes of nationalism and realism try to put us into a certain kind of a category as a child would be put into. And as a writer myself, it’s taken me so long to get to the point where I can say I don’t care about the molds and the rules. I want to play like I see my own children play. 

It’s beautiful. I think at this point, we can take maybe one question from the audience. We have one right here. 

I want to congratulate you on your upcoming HBO adaptation of your book, The Sympathizer, which I love. You masterfully wove in your narrative, your lecture today into this odyssean narrative where you’re referencing of these liminal crossing moments, these father and son experiences, this katabasis. And I was just understanding that you are working on the third installation of your trilogy, your Sympathizer trilogy. I was wondering if you’re going to frame your book in these odyssean framework where you have a homecoming. And just wondering how these homecoming going to look like. That’s my question is, where is your homecoming? 

I mean, well, thank you. April 14th, the TV series comes out. There’ll be another reading. Woo! Yes, yes! 

How can they watch it? 

How can they watch it? It’s on HBO Max. HBO Max or whatever. Yeah. Yeah, you applauded for that. Good. Thank you. 

Honestly, I would have an answer for you if I hadn’t had to write these lectures. Because I should have been writing the third novel The Sympathizer trilogy, but I’m writing these lectures instead. But yeah, there is a homecoming, in fact. There is a homecoming. 

I guess I hadn’t thought of it as odyssean, but that’s a great suggestion. I thought of my, I thought of the protagonist of The Sympathizer triology more like Candide, if you’ve read that book. I read Candide when I was very young. And then I reread it and more as an adult preparing to write The Committed. And that book is a fable. 

And that seems very fitting with what you were talking. 

Yeah, fable, allegory, epic– 

Picaresque. 

Picaresque. All these things that are not realistic. If you haven’t read Candide, I highly recommend it. It’s so funny and also really horrifying and tragic all at the same time. And that is exactly what I would hope The Sympathizer would be. 

And so there are multiple homecomings, I think, in the third and final novel as far as I imagined it. And Odysseus comes back to his territory, his homeland. And he just kills everybody. There’s going to be a lot of that, I think. 

Or at least, there will be these ambitions and these fantasies for that. Thank you for reminding me I should write the novel. Especially if I want a third and final season of the TV series. 

Maybe one more. Any? Maybe I’ll ask one more question. It was very moving to read A Man of Two Faces. And as I was emailing you, I really love how your father and your mother appear in these essays as glimpses where we have these grand ideas about the nature of genre and the state. 

And then your father comes and there’s all this subtext around him. And I’m wondering if either of the two of them have read your memoir or have heard parts of it, read to them? And what is their reaction to it? 

Yeah. No. Because I mean, I could not possibly write about my mother while she was alive. And so I wasn’t waiting for her to pass away. But when she did pass away, it was a removal of a psychic and ethical barrier for me that allowed me to talk about her. 

And with my father, he’s not capable of reading the book. I will tell a story about him, though, which I find to be very funny. Which is that we went to– I mentioned in A Man of Two Faces I took them on this trip through Europe to see the Catholic shrines of Europe. That was their idea of fun. 

I was like, OK. But I’m a good son. I’m going to do this for you. So I took him around. So I remember we were at the immigration control getting into France. And I was talking to the immigration, the border agent. And I was speaking about my parents. And I was saying, oh, they don’t speak English, OK? This was 2003, I believe, 2004. 

About a decade later, we’re sitting in a car. And my father says, remember that time you said I don’t speak English? And then I have a book with me. It’s Edward P. Jones Lost in the City. And the opening short story is the girl who raised pigeons. 

And he picked up the book, and he opened it. And he started reading it. He said this is a story about a girl and birds, just to demonstrate to me that yes, he is a man who can read, OK? So that was very important for him to demonstrate to me that he was not the man I thought he was. 

What was his expression at that time? Was he smiling? 

Oh, yeah. He was like, I got you. You thought I didn’t even hear what you said to the border agent. But the other part of the story is at one point, I had a short story translated into Vietnamese in The Refugees. I forget the title. The Other Man is the title of the short story. 

And it’s about a Vietnamese refugee who comes to San Francisco in 1975 and discovers that he’s gay and wrestles with his sexuality. And it was translated into Vietnamese well before it was published in the book. And I brought it home and I gave it to him. And he never mentioned it again. 

So did he read it or didn’t he read it? I have no idea. But my own feeling about it is that in my own weird way, writing these books has been my way of paying back my parents for all the sacrifices they’ve been through. At least I was able to give them these material objects, which my father has arrayed above his bed. 

But it wasn’t necessary for me to have my– to know that my parents read or didn’t read my work. Because they’ve already been through so much I’m going to subject them to my books? So no. That wasn’t actually important to me that they read my work. 

Well, then now, let’s give a hand to the wonderful lecture. 

Thank you so much. Thank you, Ken. Thank you. Thank you. All right. 

[APPLAUSE]