Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

What does it mean to be a “minor” writer? From a minority, from a small nation, from the conquered, from the displaced, from spaces that are inevitably politicized or forgotten or overlooked? Art and politics explicitly overlap for the writer who is forced to be minor or who chooses to be minor, and whose aesthetic strategies and archives can and must be eclectic 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.

Mai Der Vang is the author of two collections of poetry. Her most recent collection, Yellow Rain (Graywolf Press, 2021), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the LA Times Book Prize in Poetry, and the California Book Awards. Mai Der’s first book, Afterland (Graywolf Press, 2017), received the First Book Award of the Academy of American Poets, was longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry, and a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

Introduction By:

Ju Yon Kim, Patsy Takemoto Mink Professor of English and Harvard College Professor.

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. And welcome to the fifth and penultimate Norton Lecture by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Sympathizer and Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California. 

My name is Ju Yon Kim, and I am professor of English at Harvard, where I teach classes on Asian-American literature and performance. So first, many thanks, I think, from all of us should go to the Mahindra Humanities Center, including Director Suzie Clark Interim Director Bruno Carvalho, Executive Director Steve Biel, and Events Coordinator Mary MacKinnon for their work bringing Nguyen to campus for what has been a bracing and often profoundly moving series of talks. 

In addition to The Sympathizer, Nguyen is the author of its sequel,The Committed, the short story collectionThe Refugees, which he confessed to us in the last lecture required a long-term commitment to suffering, and Nothing Ever Dies– Vietnam and the Memory of War, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. 

However, like Catherine Nguyen, who introduced the third lecture, I first came to know him as an incisive scholar of Asian American literature through his 2002 book Race and Resistance– Literature and Politics in Asian America. And, in fact, I begin my Asian-American literature class every year with a really lively discussion of his critique in Race and Resistance of a tendency to divide Asian-American literature into works of resistance and works of accommodation. And I find that this framework really helps students understand the history of Asian-American literary criticism and to situate them in a long conversation. 

And I’m eager now to return to the classroom so that I can bookend that conversation with his incredibly evocative characterization of Asian America as a monstrous creation, I think one that we would agree is beautiful and messy, and his call for Asian Americanists to reckon deeply and fully with the field’s indebtedness to an appropriation of Edward Said’s work on Orientalism. 

So tonight, Nguyen will be in conversation with Professor Mai Der Vang, who joins us from California State University Fresno. An accomplished poet, she is the author of Yellow Rain, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and received an American Book Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. And so this really promises to be an incredible conversation between two amazing writers, whom I admire very much. 

So in a few minutes, I promise I will welcome Viet Thanh Nguyen to the stage. However, I’ve been asked to very briefly encapsulate some of the ideas that have been running through his lectures in order to situate those of you who might be joining us for the first time or those of you who might just need a refresher. After all, these lectures have been spread out over months. 

So first, something that you should know that’s very important is although he will come to us as a single individual, you must remember that he always comes to us doubled, as himself and his other, as a contradiction and a promise. Whether tied to racialization, migration, or writing, this doubleness animates Nguyen’s political commitments and aesthetic explorations, which are always intertwined. 

From his first lecture, he has sought to trouble our assumptions about the writer– the American writer, the ethnic writer, the refugee writer. The latter two designations, he suggests, have been treated as oxymorons. The refugee reduced to bare life as seen from a distance, to be saved or to be destroyed but not meant to be heard. The ethnic writer is praised or condemned for, and sometimes not even intentionally, representing a people. But– and this is the question that haunts those of us who tend to write or write about ethnic or minority works– the question is, can they write good literature?

So standing before us as the Eliot Norton Professor in Poetry, one of Harvard’s most prestigious honors in the arts and humanities, Nguyen, obviously, offers one answer to that question. But he also helps us to see that this is the wrong question to ask. In his meditations on literary form and specifically on the question of what form his father’s life might take, he asks instead, what kinds of literary representation might adequately capture the horrors, the unknowability of border crossings, whether the borders of nations or the border between life and death? His lectures suggest that perhaps it is our literature that needs to catch up to the migrant, not the migrant who needs to adopt the ill-fitting forms made available to them. 

Throughout his lectures, Nguyen has insisted on reminding us of the material and historical conditions that have brought us here. I see both his humor in the moments of self-deprecation and what I would consider subtle Asian-American jokes and his grief in his reflections on his family as efforts to defamiliarize these lectures, to defamiliarize this encounter. 

Standing at this podium can require its own kind of border crossing, one in which the great mind must leave its refugee body behind. But Nguyen continues to conjure this double. And in doing so, he reminds us of the dispossession that allows us to gather on the ancestral land of the Massachusett people, the wars and occupations in Asia that brought him and me here as the children of those saved and those destroyed, and the wars and occupations that condemn ever new generations to be saved and to be destroyed. Grief, he tells us, must be capacious and solidarity expansive. Please join me in welcoming Viet Thanh Nguyen to the stage. 


Thank you so much for that really wonderful introduction, Ju Yon. That was actually the first introduction I’ve had the chance to hear from the audience. And in some ways, I wish I hadn’t heard it because now I have to live up to that introduction. 

But thank you also to the Mahindra Humanities Center and to Harvard and to the Cambridge community for having me out here. The fifth of six Norton Lectures– we’re almost done. And this one is on being minor. 

I am an American, not quite native born, true, but mostly bred in this country, raised in Silicon Valley, where the future always shines brightly, a fate in many ways major, which is to say a big deal, as all things American must be. But as major as my citizenship is, I’m also a minority, or so my government classifies me through its census. 

The connotations of being minor are often negative, or at least lesser– athletes in the minor leagues, and artist’s minor works, a minority’s minor feelings. To be minor is to be unimportant, casually dismissed, of lesser ability, easy to exploit, vulnerable to danger, in need of protection. 

Being minor might mean being smaller in number relative to a larger population, as when one is a minority. But sometimes a larger population might have less power than a minority, as when small gangs of well-armed foreigners colonize large masses of Natives. 

When it comes to gender, the population of the United States has slightly more women, at 50.4%, than men. But women might still be considered minor, earning $0.82 to the dollar compared to men while comprising 85% of domestic violence victims. Being minor is partly about numbers and partly about power. Where they meet shapes our perception of who is minor and what that means. 

Even those comfortably in the majority, numerically speaking, may feel minor if their power and privileges become contested. The majority, however defined, strikes back, partly out of fear that the minority seeks to replace them, doing essentially what the majority might have done to others in order to become major.

This fear extends to culture as well, where symbolic war manifests in the struggle over whose stories are told and taught. The sense of being a minority has been with me from some of my earliest memories in the United States, although I wouldn’t have called myself a minority, the word and idea too complicated from my childhood self. 

I would also not have called myself a minor, someone small, underage, not yet autonomous. Although I’m now undeniably an adult, a sense of being a minor still persists despite being a father of two. So long as my own father lives, I’m still his son, a feeling bordering on a kind of paralysis that descends on me the moment I return to his house, where I had spent many childhood hours lying in bed, reading books, and fantasizing about becoming a writer. 

At the beginning of my literary dreams as a boy, I aspired to be major, even though I also greatly enjoyed minor pleasures, from comic books to the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and Westerns. I knew these kinds of stories did not belong to the genre that refuses to call itself a genre, which reserves for itself the name of literature. So I set out to educate myself in my adolescence by reading Austen, Dickens, Dumas, Twain, Hardy, the Brontes, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, among many others who needed no first names. Reading entertained and enlightened me, not just illuminating my mind, but rendering me weightless, making me easy to transport, as if fired by a rocket into distant worlds. 

My education was Catholic, culminating in four years at a Jesuit all-boys college preparatory that sought to turn us into men for others, as the Jesuit slogan went. This was the 1980s. Death squads had murdered Jesuit priests and Catholic nuns in El Salvador. The assassins had trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, where my future father-in-law, as yet unbeknownst to me, had once completed his own airborne training in the segregated 1950s, along with other South Vietnamese paratroopers. My future father-in-law and his comrades were being schooled to defend freedom and democracy, while some of the martyred clergy practice post liberation theology, the only Catholic doctrine that had any attraction for me. 

During my Jesuit years, I instinctively understood that art was liberating, just as religion was also supposed to free us from the world and our bodies. My school curriculum included the Bible, as major as it gets, along with many examples of the human word, like The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, The Communist Manifesto, The Bell Jar, and The Color Purple. 

In retrospect, I understood that the authors of these works might be considered minor in some way– William Faulkner, a regional writer from the American South; James Joyce, an exile from a colonized Ireland; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels waging intellectual guerrilla war; Sylvia Plath a white woman; Alice Walker a Black queer woman. Each was so successful in making a major language their own that it might be difficult to hear the minor notes of their biographies. 

But if I could cite Faulkner, Marx, and Joyce using only their surnames, thus acknowledging how they ascended to the genre that doesn’t call itself a genre, were Plath and Walker still examples of genres that are called genres? Women’s literature, Black literature, Black women’s literature? The minor itself is a genre, while the major is not unless it is contested. 

The contrast between minor and major usually works to outline the minor, as when Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “I feel most colored when I’m thrown against a sharp white background.” To foreground the major and name it as such, as in the case of whiteness or maleness or wealthiness, can discomfit those unused to being thrust into the foreground by the choice of others rather than by their own choosing. 

To label Faulkner, Marx, and Joyce not as individual geniuses, but as examples of dead white male literature, is to describe major Western literature as simply a genre versus a canon. The half-serious, half-mocking label of dead white male literature offends those who do not think something as noble and rarefied as literature should be demeaned by biological features. But the minor is always stigmatized in that fashion.

By college, I understood the distinction between major and minor intuitively. And I had acquired the taste of an adolescent, alienated, angst-ridden white boy with artistic leanings, as confirmed by the movie Dead Poets Society, which came out my freshman year. The movie featured a band of adolescent, alienated, angst-ridden white boys at an elite prep school and their inspiring literature teacher, which I also had. 

When the boys quoted Romantic poems to each other, I recognized the first one instantly, having memorized it years before on my own, Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” I then predicted the second poem the boys quoted to each other, which I had also memorized on my own, Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty.” Memorization was a form of mimicry, and I was already like a character from a VS Naipaul novel, one of those who pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the new world. 

The part of me that wanted to be major willingly believed in the great names, the great works, the great books because I believed in the great words– art, civilization, humanism, the canon, the best of what has been thought and said, as Matthew Arnold put it in Culture and Anarchy. And who doesn’t want to be best? 

If the religious canon was for the saints and the cultural canon was for the immortals, the minor was for the merely mortal, those who failed to attain the promise of eternal afterlife via religion or culture. At a young age, I aspired to immortality, even though I had no emotional understanding of death. But it was my intellectual understanding of death, born from studying the experiences of minoritized and colonized peoples, that introduced me to a different understanding of being minor. Instead of minor connoting failure or lack of importance or childhood, all of which the majority has used to define, demean, and dominate a minority, as when Saul Bellow asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans?” In contrast to that provocation, being minor could be a choice, a form of authorship in opposition to authority. 

In this vein, the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote a book calledKafka– Toward a Minor Literature, which reclaimed Franz Kafka from his elevated status as one of the great 20th century writers and returned him to the same bed where Gregor Samsa opened his eyes to discover that he had become an insect. Kafka was a Jew, writing in German in the early 20th century, in Prague. And perhaps Samsa’s metamorphosis into an insect foreshadowed the fate of the European Jews. Kafka’s work could be read simply as universal literature or as minor literature, tied to Kafka’s historical worldly situation so that Kafka-esque could signify both individual and collective alienation and absurdity. 

While Kafka is interesting as an artistic saint, he’s also just as compelling to me as a writer who was mostly unknown when he died, as minor as John Keats, who asked that his epigraph be, “Here lies one whose name is writ in water,” or Emily Dickinson, who barely published in her lifetime. One of her poems is as relevant today as it was in 19th century Massachusetts. “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody, too? 

Then there’s a pair of us. Don’t tell. They’d advertise, you know. How dreary to be somebody. How public, like a frog, to tell one’s name the livelong June to an admiring bog?” A poem about anonymity written in anonymity embodies the minor. 

But Kafka, Keats, and Dickinson are now major and, in contrast to them, exist those many minor writers who have stayed minor. The scholar Louis Renza wrote a book about one of them, Sarah Orne Jewett, an American of the 19th and early 20th century who influenced Willa Cather, was known to Henry James, and authored nearly 20 books, perhaps best known being The Country of the Pointed Firs. 

But while Jewett seems truly minor compared to Kafka, Keats, and Dickinson, her fate isn’t so bad. A scholar devoted attention to her. And at least one of her books might still be read by a handful more than a century after her passing, which is more than can be said of most writers.

How are we to judge who among living or recently deceased writers might one day become major? The libraries I grew up in were filled with thousands of books by writers I had never heard of, some of them quite famous in their time. And today, some dead authors whose names dominated only a decade or two ago are rarely mentioned, their life force no longer animating the admiring bog of the literary scene. 

But literary reputation doesn’t concern Deleuze and Guattari so much as the minor as a mode of opposition. For Guattari and Deleuze, the minor is always political. This doesn’t predict the nature of those politics or their possibilities and consequences. 

A classic example of such a disagreement over being minor and its relationship to politics and literature is found in James Baldwin’s critique of what he called the protest novel. Baldwin’s examples are Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son. For Baldwin, while the protest novel is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, it’s guilty of good intentions and bad writing. 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin might have been a massive 19th century bestseller that promoted the antislavery cause, but it left behind the legacy of Uncle Tom himself as a figure of repugnant subservience and self-sacrifice. Just as problematic for Baldwin is the protagonist of Native Son, Bigger Thomas, a poor young Black man from the Chicago ghetto who commits rape and murder. Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, Baldwin writes. I’m going to quote Baldwin for a long time here. 

So exactly opposite a portrait that it seems that the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked in a deadly, timeless battle. Black and white can only thrust and counterthrust as they go down into the pit together. Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or Black or hungry, not that he even is American, Black, but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being subhuman and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity. 

But our humanity is our burden, our life. We need not battle for it. We need only do what is infinitely more difficult, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. 

I agree with much of what Baldwin says. And so, apparently, do many others. If we judge by a metric found in the author profiles of the New York Times Book Review, one standard question. You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite? This popularity contest is truly a trivial metric. 

But since human beings generally and writers specifically are vulnerable to pettiness, these invitations are not unworthy measure of literary influence. The two authors with the most invitations to these soirees are William Shakespeare and James Baldwin, tied at 32 invites each. Emily Dickinson merited 12, while Toni Morrison garnered 18 invitations. 

Morrison echoes Baldwin in advocating for what she calls the human project, which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others. Baldwin and Morrison are correct about being unapologetic concerning one’s humanity. But I defend Bigger Thomas’s presence among the cast depicting Black and other human experiences, not the only character, just one of them, even if his fearsome reputation might have cost Richard Wright a seat at one of these literary dinner parties, for he does not seem to have ever been invited. Neither did poor Keats. But at least Kafka got the nod from Salman Rushdie. 

Literary inclusion, as illustrated by these literary dinner parties, is perhaps a good example of the major versus the minor. Those who are major can afford to be genteel, liberal, apolitical because the politics of the normal, the normative, the standard are the favored cause of the major. In other words, an invisible politics, one that doesn’t have to acknowledge its political nature. The luxury and appearance of being apolitical comes at no cost for the powerful, whereas being apolitical for the minor reinforces a status quo that disadvantages them.

Baldwin and Morrison are quite political, but they express their commitments with a literary gracefulness. This allows them to be both minor, as they unfailingly write about and center Black experiences, and also major, literally being given a seat at the table. 

Bigger Thomas is not graceful. And the blunt, ferocious style ofNative Son, which makes it unforgettable for me, may make other readers uncomfortable. This violates what might be the first rule of a dinner party. Do not make anyone uncomfortable. 

Wright mounts a vigorous explanation of his discomfiting aesthetic inNative Son through his essay, “How Bigger was Born,” including his belief that Bigger Thomas was not Black all the time. He was white, too. And there were literally millions of him everywhere. 

Baldwin disputed the prophetic power ofNative Son. But Wright’s explanation of why some Black Americans in 1940 were attracted by the spectacle of Japanese imperial might and by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin seems resonant today when Wright talks about the wild and intense longing to belong, to be identified, to feel that they were alive as other people were, to be caught up forgetfully and exultingly in the swing of events, to feel the clean, deep, organic satisfaction of doing a job in common with others. This populist solidarity, enthralled with fascism, cruelty, and collective violence, is not something we have left behind but exists as the shadow of expansive solidarity. 

While expansive solidarity calls for collective liberation, populist solidarity calls for selective liberation, carried out at the expense of demonized others. Condemned to death but thinking he has freed himself in his own mind, Bigger Thomas embodies that limited vision of liberation. He unsettles some readers because he resists the sentimental impulse of literature, at least the kind of writing often praised by well-meaning readers, myself included at times, who seek to defend the value of literature in a debased age, which is probably every age, according to writers. 

This sentimentalism is the major urge to believe that literature is good for you, like vegetables or organic food, that it can improve us, elevate us, teach us empathy. But much of the impact of Native Son depends on its depiction of Bigger Thomas as someone who refuses to agree with the moralizing lure of redemption or the call for a shared humanity. 

Bigger says, “What I killed for must have been good. When a man kills, it’s for something. I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for them. It’s the truth.” While Baldwin decries the master/slave dialectic that condemns both white and Black to the abyss, it seems that Wright knows exactly what he is doing, showing that the abyss remains open at our feet. 

Wright traces his creation of Bigger Thomas to the reaction to his first book,Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of novellas from 1936. “I had made an awfully naive mistake,” Wright wrote. “I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. If I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it. It would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” 

Nothing is inherently wrong with tears or bankers’ daughters, but Wright implies that sentimentally appealing to women, who often constitute the majority of readers, is both the route to popularity and also something potentially demeaning to the writer. Ironically, it was the rage of Native Son, combined with Wright’s artistry, that led the book to become a critical and commercial success, sealing Wright’s reputation as a major writer, if a troubling one. 

While Baldwin thought that the protest novel appealed to liberals, those same liberals now quote Baldwin’s writing as literary scripture. But Baldwin can no more control his reception than Wright can determine his because as Black people in the United States, they shared, in Baldwin’s words, “A lot as ambiguous as a tableau by Kafka.”

Ralph Ellison stresses a similar theme in his explanation about his literary strategy inInvisible Man. The aim is a realism dilated to deal with the almost surreal state of our everyday American life. This is why Deleuze and Guattari think of the minor as always politicized, for the minor is, by definition, dropped into a pit or an abyss not of their making. 

The Kafkaesque nature of racial alienation means that in the parable of Baldwin and Wright, neither offers a better solution than the other. Both routes with which they are identified, emphasizing humanity or inhumanity, are insufficient in and of themselves and captured easily enough by the ministers of the canon, ready to dilute provocations with a generous sprinkle of holy water. 

Baldwin and Wright were not only minor writers in terms of race in the United States. They were also minor writers within empires, the American and the French. They both moved to France and died there as exiles or even, perhaps, as refugees. 

Wright died in Paris in 1960, with the American empire still ascendant, not yet checked by the war in Vietnam. Before his death, he had traveled through Africa, met with anticolonial leaders, attended the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. Aware of the French war in Algeria, which killed over a million Algerians, and in which Algerian revolutionaries killed a fair number of the French, Wright kept silent for fear of offending his French hosts, given that he couldn’t return to the United States. 

The work of Franz Fanon, who died a year after Wright, gives us one way of understanding the difference between Wright as an author and Bigger Thomas as a character. At the end of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argues that it’s through the effort to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that men will be able to create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world. 

Fanon also argues for the need to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself. Like Baldwin, Fanon recognizes the necessity of claiming one’s humanity without apology. But while this might be possible for the individual purely through an act of will, it isn’t enough for collective political freedom when the colonizer simply refuses to leave. 

A few years later, after his service to the Algerian Revolution, Fanon wroteThe Wretched of the Earth. Here, he considered the necessity or even inevitability of violent armed struggle against colonization, even if that violence inflicted terrible trauma on those who suffered it and those who wielded it, and even if that violence could not guarantee a just postcolonial society. The 

violence of the Algerian Revolution expressed what Wright captured in Native Son, which is why we need Wright as much as Baldwin, for that violence still persists. 

By the late 1960s, with the war in Vietnam peaking, with Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated, Baldwin was comparing the violent suppression of the Black Panthers to the American counterinsurgency against the Viet Cong. If a younger Baldwin had decried what he considered to be the myth of an unreal Bigger Thomas, an older Baldwin endorsed the legend of the Black Panthers. The reality of the Black Panthers and the Viet Cong was complicated. But in their most heroic mode, they threatened the unimpeded exercise of American violence, domestically and internationally. 

By the time Baldwin died in France in 1987, however, the resurgence of that American empire against what Ronald Reagan called the evil empire of the Soviet Union was quite visible, although the United States is not so much an empire of territory, as in the British and French cases, but a constellation of military bases around the world. An empire that does not call itself an empire deserves the literature that doesn’t identify itself as a genre but instead aspires to an invisible, unmarked universality, a majority that provides the background against which numerous minorities stand out to be targeted or to be tokenized. 

I end with three poets who might one day be major but who I think are minor at the moment by condition and possibly by choice. They grapple with the inevitability of violence that comes with being an empire’s minor subjects. Their minor writing throws the empire into relief by appropriating the documents of American empire, subverting its language from the inside.

In her book Whereas, Layli Long Soldier responds to President Barack Obama’s 2009 congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans. “No tribal readers or official representatives were invited to witness and receive the apology on behalf of tribal nations. My response is directed to the apology’s delivery, as well as the language crafting an arrangement of the written document. 

I’m a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Nation, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. And in this dual citizenship, I must work. I must eat. I must art. I must mother. I must friend. I must listen. I must observe constantly. I must live.” 

I’m reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s argument that the minor no longer designates specific literatures, but the specific conditions, revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great or established literature. They also ask, how many people today live in a language that is not their own or no longer or not yet? Even know their own and poorly the major language, they are forced to serve. 

This is the problem of immigrants and especially of their children, the problem of minorities, the problem of a minor literature, but also a problem for all of us, how to tear a minor literature away from its own language, allowing it to challenge the language and making it follow a sober, revolutionary path; how to become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relationship to one’s own language. 

In a sense, Long Soldier responds. Long Soldier answers Deleuze and Guattari with a series of poems that begin with “whereas,” that introductory word of the clauses that go into governmental documents, proclamations, and treaties, many of which the United States carried out with Native nations and then betrayed. The poet conjures the long-term consequences of genocide by attacking the bloodless legalese found in these whereas clauses, as in this excerpt. 

“Whereas I tire of my efforts to match the effort of the statement, “Whereas Native peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which, unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.” I tire of engaging in numerous conflicts, tire of the word both, both as a woman and a child of that whereas, both of words and wordplay, hunching over dictionaries, tired of understanding, weary, weakened, exhausted, reduced in strength from labor. Bored.” 

Long Soldier reveals the symmetry in the government’s whereas clause to be a mendacious depiction of equal violence between settlers and Indigenous peoples. The seemingly neutral, reconciliatory language of both and which actually favors the colonizer reminds me of President Jimmy Carter’s statement in 1977 that the destruction was mutual between Americans and Vietnamese during the American war in Vietnam. This moral, material, and mortal equivalence is what Americans want to hear, even if it is patently, quantifiably false. The destruction was not mutual by any means. 

In another example, Long Soldier dwells on the language of Obama’s apology. “Given that the words “apologize” or “sorry” do not exist in many Native languages–” I’m going to start quoting from about the fourth line down– “this doesn’t mean that in Native communities where the word “apologize” is not spoken, there aren’t definite actions for admitting and amending wrongdoing. Thus, I wonder how, without the word, this text translates as a gesture.” 

“The United States, acting through Congress, on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States.” On the facing page, Long Soldier writes, “I express commitment to reveal in a text the shape of its pounding,” followed by an array of words from the Congressional resolution but with spaces removed and syntax stripped. The words, forged into an arrow, pointing at the redacted “apologizes,” lose their meaning, exposing the emptiness of this resolution and recalling, perhaps, the government language of earlier generations that allowed the stealing of Native lands, the imprisonment of Indigenous peoples on reservations, the kidnapping of their children.

Empires and war machines deploy the language of neutrality, bureaucracy, and symmetry to disguise the impact of their asymmetrical policies and weaponry. Stealth bombers require stealth language. 

The poet Solmaz Sharif demonstrates this in Look, a book of poems ignited by jargon, drawn from the dictionary of military and associated terms of the United States Department of Defense. She scatters these terms throughout her book and responds to them, as in this poem. 

“Contaminated remains– wash hands before getting in bed. Leave interrogation room before leaving cell. Teach your mouth to say “honey” when you enter the kitchen. Damage area– does not include night sweats or retching at the sight of barbecue. 

Dead space– fridges full after the explosions, the hospital places body parts out back, where crowds attempt to identify those who do not answer their calls by an eyeball, a sleeve of a favorite shirt, a stopped wristwatch. Destruction radius– limited to blast site and not the brother abroad who answers his phone, then falls against the counter or punches a cabinet door.” 

The deadness of the military dictionary language cloaks the deadly effects implied by the language. We turn to dictionaries to give us meaning, but in this case, the poet’s minor language versus the military dictionary’s major language shows us the human empirical reality of empire. The language of the military dictionary is formally accurate, however, in expressing through its sterility the numbness of the average citizen of empire when it comes to the effects of that empire’s power. 

Another writer who responds via poetic form to the rationalization of empire and its documents is Mai Der Vang, my respondent tonight. In her book, Yellow Rain, she writes, “I am a daughter of Hmong refugees. Mother and father were among the fled, which makes me among the fled.” 

Some of the Hmong fought alongside Americans during the war in Vietnam when the CIA and US Air Force waged the so-called secret war in Laos. Tens of thousands of Hmong died. But the United States abandoned most of its Hmong allies at war’s end. And many of the Hmong became refugees. 

They recount being attacked by their enemies with a chemical weapon dropped from planes and helicopters, which they called yellow rain. Those killed by yellow rain might have numbered 6,000, 20,000, or 40,000. Vang assembles a fearsome range of documents, which she takes apart and reassembles, comments on, and mixes with her own poems– US embassy cables, maps, photos, historical facts, scientific studies, refugee questionnaires, and lab reports concerning the physical specimens of blood and urine taken from Hmong survivors, some of which arrived in a deplorable condition, according to a 1984 report. A lab report the following year says, “You may destroy these samples.” 

Vang also includes the testimonials of Hmong survivors. But since they are neither Western nor white, their evidence has not proven sufficient to Western and white authorities. Not trusting these Hmong sources as definitive, US officials investigated the incidents of yellow rain but could come to no conclusion as to whether yellow rain was or was not chemical warfare. 

The most notorious research was conducted by a Harvard scientist and his colleague at Yale, who decided that yellow rain was most likely bee feces. Vang writes, “They made the Hmong appear as if we were confused, as if we couldn’t tell the difference between what the Earth gave and what man made, the difference between shit and death.” 

For Long Soldier, Sharif, and Vang, the major official language they inhabit and subvert obfuscates through both precision and vagueness. The carefully worded apology, the efficient jargon, the scientific objectivity all amount to symbolic weaponry, one that can be disassembled in a minor poetry that may not look like literature to some, given its incorporation of the nonliterary. In case anyone might think being called minor is insulting, I also prefer to think of myself as minor, although I was surprised to come across an academic essay not long ago about my work that called me ultraminor, which might be a bit too minor.

The question is, why aspire to be major? For writers, being consecrated as major is best done when the author is dead, when the flesh of fame has decayed, leaving only the bones of the art. Consciously aspiring to be major as a living author could lead to major art but can also lead to collaboration with the ruling tastes of the day, shaped in my case by the politics of an empire that refuses to call itself an empire. Empires can intoxicate themselves with the fumes of their power, while artists can likewise be seduced by the delusion of wanting to be major, as in the belief that one can master writing. 

Isn’t there always something in our art that eludes us? I think of my art as the calling that allows me to create and, therefore, approach something like the divine, which cannot be mastered. In a more earthly sense, while literature is sometimes still a major art form that can garner respect or provoke fear, even in the most capitalist societies, literature is also minor, relative to the artistic juggernauts of movies, music, and video games. 

Working in an art form that is major to me but minor to many others leaves me with a sense of humility before my calling. I do admit to being human, however, very human. And I, too, like dinner party invitations, or at least the idea of them. Better invited than not invited, perhaps. 

But the thought of an afterlife spent attending an unending dinner party in a clean, well-lit room, surrounded by literary celebrities and the masters of the universe, congratulating each other on being the best and the brightest, occasionally gazing down with pity at the poor folks in the pit fills me with dread. The underworld will be warmer and, with the lights turned down low, perhaps a lot more fun. Thank you very much. 


Well, it’s now my great pleasure to be in conversation with Mai Der Vang, whose poetry I quoted and whose poetry I’m a great admirer of, by the way. So welcome to the Norton Lectures. 

Yeah, thank you for having me. Thanks for this invitation. Thank you to the Mahindra Humanities Center for coordinating this series and for arranging me to be here. Yeah, that was a wonderful, wonderful lecture, Viet. Yeah. How are you, by the way? 

Exhausted, honestly. But we’re almost done. One more to go. 

Almost, yeah. Yeah. It was nice to catch up with you but also nice to see that you’ve just been so productive and so busy in the book that just came out this past year, too. So congratulations on all your wonderful accomplishments. 

So I have a lot of questions for you. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you’ve shared in the lecture around the distinctions between major and minor. And you think about major in terms of whiteness or maleness or wealth, wealthiness. That’s kind of how make those distinctions. And anything that’s not those things can probably be considered minor. 

And then you also ask a really good question. How are we to judge who among the living or the deceased might one day become major? And then, of course, that really important note about for writers being consecrated as major is best done when the author is dead, right, when they’re not living anymore. 

So it made me think a lot about the conditions or the infrastructure or the set of parameters that allows for a writer to move between being major and then minor or minor and then major, vice versa, to cross that border, harkening back to your last lecture on the idea of crossings and borders. And I wondered about that. I wondered, well, what is it? What is it that allows for that crossing to happen, for those shifts to happen?

And I thought about this idea of writers who are able to achieve a kind of timelessness in their work, so much so that you find yourself saying, that feels like a writer who’s ahead of their time. I thought about Emily Dickinson, in fact, because Emily Dickinson for me is a poet who I’ve always felt was ahead of her time when she was writing. What she was writing at that time was pretty wild and radical. 

And I also thought about Muriel Rukeyser, who Adrienne Rich has also described as being ahead of the thinking of her time. and Adrienne Rich, who was really involved in reviving her work as well. So it made me think, what is it that allows a writer to then, if they were minor in their life, to become major afterward? And maybe there’s something about the work or the times that people are living in that somehow resonates with where people are at later down the road. 

So I guess my question is, what do you think are the conditions or the set of parameters or the infrastructure that allows that to happen, for writers to cross that border, cross from being major to minor, minor to major, whether alive or posthumously? 

Well, I think that, obviously, there are writers who are already major in their own lifetimes, right? And I think for me, the perfect example is Steven Spielberg. I would love to be Steven Spielberg because I think he’s probably a very genuine artist and that his genuine tastes resonate with billions of people. That’s a fantastic situation to be in. 

But if the tastes change over time, the values change over time, then writers who are major or artists who are major at one point can, obviously, become minor when they fall out of fashion. I’m much more interested in the minor writers who then resurface later. So that’s one reason why I wanted to cite Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston because their dynamic is a really important dynamic, with Zora Neale Hurston being the third part of this controversy with Baldwin and Wright. I mean, she was someone who Wright was very critical of for not appropriately embodying the particular kinds of political and racial commitments and that Wright want to– what Wright believed in. And then it would take Alice Walker to find Zora Neale Hurston in a very famous essay and bring her back to visibility, deserved visibility. 

And so I think that, just to use that example, Zora Neale Hurston was both of her time and ahead of her time because she was writing about the folk and the people that she knew, the regions that she knew, she was writing that without apology and writing that, perhaps, without necessarily as– I mean, she was worried about the market and about white patronage and all these types of things as well. But she still stuck to this idea that this people, these stories, this community were important, regardless of how the major looked at that population. 

And so I think that, for me, is the hope, that this is where what might appear to be minor because it does not reverberate with major values, does not reverberate with what we are willing to pay money for, if we stick to these values, then sometime down the road, obviously, not to our own benefit, someone else will be spoken to because we, whoever it is that identifies as minor, has been so committed to looking at the value of these lives that no one else was valuing or very few other people were valuing at that time. 

Yeah. Yeah. And it makes me think, though, too, is it possible, then, for someone to be major but still– I think you talked about it, still not conform to the ruling tastes of the day and still be able to have it all? 

Do you have any examples? 

I’m asking. That’s what I was thinking.

Yeah, but I think that’s an impossible question because it– I’m currently writing an essay forThe Washington Post about the National Book Awards of the 1950s, for example. And they have a whole series of essays that they’ve commissioned on every single decade of the National Book Awards. 

And so this is an interesting example, I think, of the writers who have it all. They won the major book awards. They got the book sales. They’re famous, et cetera. 

And we inhabit that same moment now. We can look around and look at any number of writers who I’ve admired, and they’re popular, and they’ve won awards. But will they be major after we’re all dead? I really– it’s impossible to say. 

So that’s what makes me look with distrust on that whole idea of the major within our own lifetime and how it’s wrapped up not just with some kind of estimation of artistic value, but also wrapped up with our own vanity, our own taste, our own prejudices, and which I myself am enmeshed. And I’m also a part of that whole system as a writer who is also– as I said, I’m human. 

Fair enough. 

I’m also worried about legacies and reputations and all that. I have to admit to that. But at the same time, I think the mental trickery for me is to compartmentalize all of these desires for the major and so on and focus upon the importance of the minor, which is why I call myself a minor writer. 

Yeah. Yeah. So before I continue, I’m going to grab this clock just so I can see the time. And then I think there was that sheet underneath there for me. Thanks. OK, just to make sure we are– 

So I watched the conversation, the last conversation you had with Ken Chen, the last lecture. And I found that really enlightening. And I want to, for a second here, I want us to return to this idea of realism because I’m interested in thinking about the connections between realism or nonrealist modes of writing in relationship to the minor writer. I’m interested in that because I think there is something there. I think there’s the possibility of thinking about that relationship. 

And I think you talk about, in the lecture, you say that minor could be a choice, right, in that choice as a form of authorship in opposition to authority. And any time you make a choice like that, it’s political, right, or it can be thought of as political. 

And then you also discuss Bigger Thomas, right, and how he may make some readers uncomfortable and also the resistance to sentimental impulse from Wright. And I’m interested in that because– oh, and then also Ellison, the quote about, “The aim is a realism dilated to deal with the almost surreal state of the everyday American life.” 

So I think a lot about that. I think a lot about nonrealist modes of writing because I do think that there’s something, the power of surrealism, that allows us to get to some complicated truths, some more truthful truths. Even though it’s surreal, it allows us to get to something that cuts right to the heart of the matter, right to the heart of what’s ineffable. So I think about that. 

And I also, part of what Ken talked about in that conversation was that he had a dream, I think it was, about his father. And dreams, the dreamscape place is also one of the most surreal spaces we can access. It’s the unconscious mind. What is it about that, right, the unconscious mind, the surrealism, and the minor writer? 

So I guess, and also speaking of that, the whole idea of what his father said to him in the dream, he said, you can’t stay here in the underworld because you are not a citizen. It made me think a lot about the Hmong belief that you have to have a passport in the afterlife, that once your passport runs out, you have to go renew it so that you can be reborn. So it’s so funny because Hmong people are an oral culture, and yet we have this understanding of this piece of paper that is so critical to our rebirth and how those borders and those nations cross into the afterlife, so much so that we even need a piece of paper to cross, right?

So I guess I want to just know from your perspective, what do you think is the relationship, whether it’s harmonious or complicated or contradictory, the relationship between a minor writer’s approach to realism, right? Is there a resistance to that? Because I personally am very much in favor of nonrealist modes in my own writing. But just what is it between the minor writer and these nonrealist modes of writing or other approaches to realism, and even, going back to Bigger Thomas, this resistance to expectation or writing against expectation? 

Right. Well, in the lecture, I was talking about this distinction between being a minor writer who is minor by implication, by a fault of the aesthetic vision, right, someone whose aesthetic vision does not survive over time or does not, impact continue to impact over time. And I think in that sense, realism is appropriate for some kinds of minor writers in that sense. I mean, it’s not that realism– 

I would agree with you. Yeah. 

–can’t be powerful or that realism can’t be useful and so on. But in the previous lecture, as you pointed out, I was making an argument that sometimes realism is not sufficient to address the complexities of what it means to be minor because it is surreal. It is absurd. It is strange. And we’ve learned to become used to it. 

And that’s where realism comes in. Realism is our buffer, is our cushion. We become acclimated. And then that becomes expressed formally in our writing, for example. 

The minor writer who, I think, tries to oppose that, I think, is under pressure not to use realism at a certain point. Not to say that they have to be surreal constantly, but there’s a range of aesthetic possibilities that they can choose from, which is why the Ellison example was great because it didn’t make a claim that he was writing completely surrealistically. He was saying, of surrealism dilated or realism dilated to deal with the surreal qualities of everyday American life, especially for Black people. 

And I consider myself to be deeply influenced by Ralph Ellison. So this spoke to me quite perfectly. He and I were working– God, I’m talking about myself and Ellison in the same breath. OK. We’re working in prose, in the form of the novel. You’re working in poetry. 

And the reason I really wanted to end with poets– Layli Long Soldier, Solmaz Sharif, and yourself– is because your poetry really turns me on. I mean, I mean that in a good way. I started with these examples of the poets that I loved when I was a boy not because I don’t love them anymore, but because I did love them. They turned me on. I mean, reading Shakespeare and Byron and Shelley and the Romantic and Victorian poets, I loved that. 

And then I went to college. And the college professors killed my love of poetry. And so it would take me a long time before I would find the poets that, again, would speak to me. And so I feel when I read your work and Layli Long Soldier’s and Solmaz Sharif’s and Natalie Diaz and Ocean Vuong and many other contemporary poets of color, I feel like I understand what they’re doing. I feel I understand the aesthetics. 

And because I think the aesthetics are an expression of how these poets are attempting to deal with surreal history at the level of the form, how they break up the language, how they– even as you do it, using the page itself as a canvas for the words, not just using the words as if they were transparent. I hope you feel the same way about what I’m saying about your work. It’s like, now I’m reading the poet, and the poet is right here in front of me. So you can disagree with my interpretation. 

Well, I mean, if– first of all, thank you for bringing my work into this conversation. I’m going to have to flip that, too, and say I read A Man of Two Faces. And you’re doing structural things in there, too.

So yeah, I do think that poetry– in fact, that was actually one of my questions. Why did you use poets as examples to think about the minor writer? And maybe that’s something– like what is it about poetry that allows the minor writer to have that refuge? 

Well, I think for me– and you might be offended by what I’m going to say, but I think of poetry as a minor art form, a minor art form that can be major. 

And I would agree with that because poetry, we feel like the underdogs in literature. 

Well, because you’re liberated, if that’s the right word, from the worries of commercialism and capitalism and so on. When was the last time– 

All right, fair enough. 

–a work of poetry was turned into a TV series or a movie, for example? 

Right, well, you should see my royalty checks. 


That can be an art form, too, the royalty statements. But part of the problem of the major and part of the advantage of the major is that it is heavily invested in. And by that, I mean invested in by large numbers of readers, by capitalism, by corporations and so on. And so your prose works of nonfiction or fiction can become gigantic commodities. 

Now, poetry, for better or for worse, is no longer in that category. In the time of Byron or Shelley, it could be. Byron was a megastar of his age. We don’t have that that much anymore. 

And so on the one hand, it’s a disadvantage because in some senses, poetry is minor because it’s no longer at the center of our aesthetic and political conversations. But on the other hand, because you are free from the worries of the major, like you’re free from, am I going to land on the bestseller list, et cetera, you can say whatever you want to say. That’s the freedom of the minor. 

Yeah. Yeah, no, I feel you on that because I do think that there’s something about– because with poets, the restrictions don’t– they’re not there in the same way, right? There aren’t the demands of the market to write the next bestselling poetry collection, right, although Ocean Vuong’s done it. 

But I guess the demands are not there in the same way. And that really does allow many poets to be able to sort of explore and to expand and to deepen in ways that are truly within and very expressive. 

Yeah, no, and I’m not offended any way at all, by the way. And, in fact, I thought it was really funny when you emailed me and you said, I hope you’re not offended that I count you as a minor writer. And I just thought, that’s a compliment. But yeah, no, I’m glad we talked about poetry because I agree that we’re the underdogs, but we have free rein to do as we see and need. And whatever the work calls for is where we’ll try to go. 

Well, this is where I think poets actually can really– they really do function as conscience because I always like to say, poetry costs you nothing but your life. And, of course, that means nothing in American society. And so I think poets, for example, have oftentimes been the first to respond to a political crisis, like a war, for example, some failure of our nation’s morality, of our nation’s ideology. And poets can respond first because they have nothing to lose. And Hollywood is the last to respond because it has everything to lose, if we’re talking about major art forms.

Yeah, no, that’s fair although, there are poets who– 

I don’t want to idealize all poets. I’m just saying that there are some poets who can serve as a voice of conscience. 

Yeah, and the other thing I think about, too, with poetry is that it’s such a dexterous form of writing. It’s multifaceted, right? You can do visual. You can destabilize language in ways that you might not do in prose. You can unsettle the grammar, if you want. And these are ways in which I think are unexpected and are pushing back against the institution of English to some degree, if that’s the intent of the poet. 

Well, you tell me something. I have said this before, hopefully not in front of this audience, but I have said that fiction writers and prose writers in general, nonfiction, too, we are bound by other people’s expectations of what the genre of prose is supposed to look like so that if you deviate in any way, people start calling you an experimental writer, which, for example, I had no quotation marks in The Sympathizer and The Committed. And that is the biggest complaint that readers have. Why are there no quotation marks? That’s not experimental in any way, shape, or form. But the conventions of prose are so hardened that it’s difficult for writers to deviate. Now, with poetry, my suspicion, my envy is that poets can do whatever they want, and no one ever questions that a poet has done that, right, because you’re free to do anything you want. 

I mean, there’s a limit. But I’m curious, are you writing poetry, by the way? 


Will you write poetry? 


Never? I mean, I mean, we’re talking about breaking rules and pushing boundaries and challenging expectations. I think poetry would be right– 

I’m going to paraphrase Ellison and say that I– inA Man of Two Faces, for example, that’s poetry that’s been dilated or dilated to fit prose. 

Fair enough. Fair enough. Yeah. Yeah. 

That’s the most I’m going to do. 

Yeah, because I remember in the book, you are– just thinking about your approach to the enjambments and the line breaks, I mean, there’s something very poetry happening in a lot of those pages. 

I think of it as poetry-lite. Yeah. 

Yeah. Fair enough. So I have another question before we move to the audience just real quick. You said, “I think of my art as the calling that allows me to create and, therefore, approach anything like the divine, which cannot be mastered.” I love that. 

It made me think of a quote from Anais Nin. “Perhaps I have loved the artist because creation is the closest we come to divinity.” Do you see any connection or affinity or resonance with that? 

Yeah, absolutely. And that I think will be part of the topic for the last lecture, the joy of otherness, where I try to grapple with this idea that for me, I don’t believe in God, but I believe in art. It’s what inspires but what also humbles because I think I’m always inadequate in the face of that divinity.

Well said. Thank you for sharing. So we do have a little bit of time to open it up to the audience if there are any questions. And if you could wait for the microphone before you ask your question, someone’s coming down here to– there’s one hand right here. 

I’m very intrigued by the literary dinner party. And I was thinking as you were talking that I would like to invite you to a dinner party with Mohsin Hamid. And I’m specifically thinking about the duality and the contradictions in the characters in The Sympathizer. And his writing, both in Exit West, but especially The Reluctant Fundamentalist, were in some way a minor character is having a dialogue with the mainstream and so is able to engage and speak to the American empire. 

Who was the third person? You have to have three people. 


You. I’m sorry. 


Well, in fact, I’ve had dinner with Mohsin Hamid. And I would like to recast all of this by saying, I’m not interested in literary dinner parties. I’d rather have cocktail parties. You’ll get more honest responses out of a writer after you’ve pumped some alcohol into them. 

But there’s no doubt, I think, that Mohsin Hamid is working in a very similar wavelength, similar concerns about revolution, partition, nationalism, colonialism and its aftermath and the creation of refugee and diasporic populations. And so, I mean, he and I– I mean, I think, for example, in Exit West, the novel that you cited, it does go into the surreal. I mean, he’s deploying nonrealistic types of narrative practices to imagine a world that looks something like ours in terms of massively displaced populations. 

But there’s also a surreal element of the portals that people can cross into that will transport them from one place to another. I think it’s a metaphor for how abruptly jarring the experience of displacement can feel, both for the person who’s being transported and the population that suddenly feels as if these aliens have arrived from some other world and just appeared out of nowhere in Cambridge or in the Bay Area, where part of his novel is set. So thank you for that invitation. No cheese, please. I don’t eat cheese. 

There. I think there’s one here, and there’s one in the back. Yeah. 

Hi. Thank you for your talk. I was readingA Man of Two Faces while we were waiting for the talk to begin. And I noticed in the author bio that there is a forthcoming HBO limited series of The Sympathizer. And I’m curious to know, what are your hopes, and what are your concerns about taking a minor story into such a major form? 

Oh, you had to ask a hard question. Yeah. I mean, if you even think about the scale of what we’re talking about, a novel would be lucky if it sold tens of thousands of copies. And even a mediocre TV series or a bad one would get millions and millions of viewers. 

And the cost of the TV series is just enormous. I just can’t even get my mind around how much this production costs in terms of tens of millions of dollars. And so to connect back to an earlier answer, you’re absolutely right. It is a minor novel. I wrote it out of the sense that no one was going to read it. And therefore, I was free to say whatever I wanted to say. 

And then ironically, because I did that, and then the novel– I got lucky and got the prize and prizes. And then it’s been turned into this major vehicle. But that transformation into the major vehicle wouldn’t have happened without the minor conviction combined with a lot, a lot of luck.

How do I feel about it? I feel pretty good, actually. Yeah, I feel pretty good. I already got paid. And now we’re planning for things like the red carpet premiere party and all this kind of stuff. 

And how I feel about it is that I’ve seen five episodes. And I have two more waiting for me to watch. They’re at least good. They’re at least good. Whether they’re great, I have no idea. They’re at least good. 

And they’re good because we brought on the right collaborators. And it was important that even though it’s a major production from HBO and A24, it was important that my major creative collaborators were not Americans. Don McKellar, the head writer, Niv Fichman, the producer, they’re Canadians. And that’s perfect because Americans would have totally screwed me on this. 

And then Park Chan-wook is Korean, the leader of this entire enterprise. And so it was really important to try to figure out how to navigate as carefully as I could or we could in this huge corporate machinery that is Hollywood. And there are prices to be paid. I won’t get into that. 

But the end result is that even though everybody’s talking about the TV series because Robert Downey Jr. is in it, and he plays all the white guys, and he’s great, that’s the lure for people to watch it. But once they start watching it, it’s seven hours of Hoa Xuande, Vietnamese-Australian actor, playing the captain or the sympathizer. He’s in almost every shot. And 90% of the cast is Vietnamese. And at least 20% to 40% of the dialogue is in Vietnamese. 

And so people are going to watch seven hours of Vietnamese faces saying Vietnamese things and telling Vietnamese perspectives. And they may not agree with all of it, but the sheer force and presence of all these Vietnamese people will– that would have been worth the cost of whatever price I might have paid for going from minor to major in that case. Yeah, I think there was a question over there. 

Hi. Thank you so much. This question dovetails the previous one, which is, currently do you think that, with the axis of art now compared to in the time of James Baldwin being a lot more accessible and, one could argue, a little bit more egalitarian than it used to be, do you feel like minor artists are in a position to see their art in a way conform to or change and push the boundaries of the major ruling culture? 

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that, obviously, there are writers who are classified as minor in some kind of demographic sense who have been very successful at the level of both critical and commercial success. And even if literature is minor relative to Hollywood, for example, there’s still a lot of money in it. And so literature by minor writers still can become commodities, can still become marketed. And that’s the troubling terrain that we’re operating in. 

So I think there are still Zora Neale Hurtsons out there that are under-recognized, under-read, maybe temporarily forgotten. But there’s still that dilemma that the lure of the marketplace, the lure of major society still tempts the minor writer. They have more opportunities. But the dilemma itself hasn’t changed. There’s questions over there. 

Thank you. Those are two tough questions to follow. What about the possibility that a writer becomes major not simply because he or she has died, but because they were a minor, and the culture moved to incorporate them? I’m thinking of, for instance, of Allen Ginsberg or Joyce or Beckett or Langston Hughes or any number of people who wrote with the minor perspective, which ultimately got absorbed, one might say co-opted, and they became major through time because we moved with them.

No, I think that’s absolutely right. And again, it’s through the forcefulness of that minor vision that shifts the cultural landscape. And that’s why I wanted to cite people like Joyce, who even if many people in this room have never read James Joyce, for example- – I read Ulysses in high school, but that’s a heavy lift for a lot of people. But he’s become, someone like him, major, so major that he doesn’t have to even be read anymore, right? Isn’t that the ultimate transcendence? I mean, you can just name drop without having read the book. 

And so I think you’re absolutely right. That’s exactly what takes place. And the hope is that a minor vision can be so powerful, as you put it so well, that everybody absorbs that minor perspective. And it becomes canonical. That’s why I wanted to work with that image of the power of these works becoming not diluted, but suppressed by the very holy water that blesses them at the same time. 

It’s really of on the readership to decide those times and what will happen, right? 

Well, it depends on the readership to actually read James Joyce. If you readUlysses, it’s still a minor work in the sense that it’s really, I think, still a very challenging work. But the idea of it has been turned into the major. And I’m quite familiar with that experience because there are any number of people who I don’t think have read my work, for example, but they like being around the work because they think they should. 

Or they like to just name drop Viet Thanh Nguyen. 

Invited to dinner parties. It was fantastic. 

So I think we have time for one more question. Yeah. 

Thank you so much, Viet, for another lovely lecture. I kind of– because Ju Yon at the beginning of your work, at the beginning of the talk, referred to your first book, Race and Resistance, and the binary between the resistant and the accommodating. So I’m actually wondering whether or not the major and the minor maps onto a similar binary as you discussed in your first book. 

I wrote that book 25 years ago, I think. So thank you for bringing it back up. That’s such a really good question because I’m trying to think back through the argument that I wrote 25 years ago. 

For Asian-American literary critics, as they have looked, as we have looked back upon Asian-American literature, I think have been existing at this tension of the major and the minor because the projections of Asian-American literary criticism is that Asian American literature is radical. And it’s a symptom of Asian-American culture as a whole being radical and that, therefore, if it’s radical, it’s going to be minor. It’s going to be in opposition to the major. 

And yet at the same time, part of the impulse of Asian-American literary criticism– and I don’t think it’s that different from other so-called minority literary criticisms– is that it wants the writers to be major. It wants people to read all of these writers, whether it’s these writers that have been historically recovered from the late 19th to the early 20th century, or whether it’s contemporary Asian-American writers. So that dynamic between the minor and the major is already present. And it is mapped out in a contradictory way to the resistance and the accommodation because what the ideal situation is from the perspective of Asian American literary critics is for resistant, radical, subversive, oppositional Asian-American writers to also become major at the same time. And that’s almost an impossibility.

It’s why a figure like Theresa Cha has become important, why I wanted to quote from her in the last instance, because I think she has stayed resolutely minor, even as more attention is brought to her. She is like James Joyce. She is like someone dictate her work, is something that people might cite more than they might actually read, or her name might be something they know more than actually having read a book as complicated as Dictee is. 

And the tension between minor and major, resistant and accommodation, for Asian-Americans as a whole, not just for the literature, is realized in the contemporary moment because, in fact, I think Asian-Americans are still a minor population demographically but with major aspirations. And that tension, that contradiction between that demographic reality and the desire on the one hand to be subversive and resistant, but also the desire to be included, to be represented, to be celebrities, to have HBO TV series and the like, that is, at this point, I think an irresolvable contradiction and tension within Asian-American culture and politics. Thank you so much, Takeo. Thank you as well for this conversation. 

Yeah, thank you. It’s lovely to talk. And I think that brings us to the end of our program. Thank you all for joining us tonight. [APPLAUSE] 

Thanks, everybody. [INAUDIBLE]. 

And the next Norton Lecture is the final lecture of the series. And it will take place on Tuesday, April 16 at Sanders Theatre. Have a good night, everyone. Thanks, everybody.