Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

To write as an other is to remember the conditions and origins of one’s otherness, which are usually unhappy, both individually and collectively. What are the possibilities in finding joy as an other? Viet Thanh Nguyen on his sixth lecture 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.

Gina Apostol won the 2022 Rome Prize in Literature to write her next novel, on womanhood and radicalism in fin-de-siécle Europe. Her body of work has also been shortlisted for the John Dos Passos Prize. Her last book, Insurrecto, was named by Publishers’ Weekly one of the Ten Best Books of 2018, selected as an Editor’s Choice of the NYT, and shortlisted for the Dayton Prize. Gun Dealers’ Daughter won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan Prize. Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, now out in the US from Soho Press, both won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award). She has received fellowships from Civitella Ranieri and Emily Harvey Foundation, among other residencies, and has served as writer-in-residence at Vassar College and Phillips Exeter Academy, among other institutions. Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Gettysburg Review, Massachusetts Review, and others. She teaches at the Fieldston School in New York City.

Introduction By:

Howie Tam, Assistant Professor of English at Brandeis 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. My name is Howie Tam. I’m an assistant professor in English at Brandeis University, and I’d like to welcome everyone to the last Norton lecture this academic year. It is safe to assume that by now we all know who our lecturer is. So it feels rather redundant to tell you that Professor Viet Nguyen holds a highly esteemed university professorship at the University of Southern California. It is also not news to you at this point that his heavily awarded novel, The Sympathizer, has found new life as a TV series, now streaming on HBO Max. 

I am sure that many of us would like to see an adaptation of his second novel, The Committed, as well. You may also have read several of his nonfiction and scholarly works, and I could tell you about all the honors he has received, including a MacArthur, Genius Grant, and a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, but the list is too long. I could try to summarize the previous five Norton lectures he has delivered since September but I would set myself up for failure. 

My task seemed at once unnecessary and impossible. So please allow me to limit myself now to a few common themes across the lectures that are of particular interest to me, as a way to refresh your memory. Through this year at Harvard, Professor Nguyen has engaged with some of the most intractable, ethical and moral issues of American life and culture. 

Weaving stories from his own life and those of his parents, especially in the second and fourth lectures, with insights from other influential writers and thinkers. Professor Nguyen positions a wide-angled dialectic lens for us to think with him about seemingly oppositional terms such as artistic, pursuit and moneymaking, victim and victimizer, life and death, human and inhuman. 

He explores each pairing of thesis and antithesis with candor, depth and good humor, before sketching pathways for us, if not to transcend those dichotomies, then to understand their larger implications. The other, a term that we have heard quite often in these lectures. The other, as I’ve learned from these lectures is made, not given. The other, could be a foreigner, a refugee, a migrant, the poor and oppressed. 

The other, could also be that part of ourselves we wish to reject and condemn. In the first lecture, Professor Nguyen tells us that the refugee is his double and shadow. The other to himself as a writer. Citing Salman Rushdie, Professor Nguyen cautions against succumbing to the temptation to deny ourselves otherness in fear of affirming the objection imposed on us by the culture of the majority. 

To depict society’s others as the absolute counterexamples of negative stereotypes, he argues, would be to deny ourselves the freedom of art, to showcase full complex humanity. In the third lecture, which I consider to be the [INAUDIBLE] of the lecture series so far. 

Edward Said’s critique in Orientalism becomes the Keystone in Professor Nguyen’s incisive argument that the Oriental is the other to the Asian-American, and that it is perhaps time we declared the death of the inclusionary Asian-American identity in order to foreground the Oriental with its potential for a more expansive solidarity. In this case, with Palestinians, the Orientals at the heart of Said’s trailblazing work. 

This third lecture was thought provoking, impassioned, and timely, and it has generated a range of reactions from cheers to strong disagreements. For my part, I left this theater that evening wandering. My mind went to the tragedy of the Asian women who worked at a massage parlor in Atlanta, and who were killed by a white man on March 16th, 2021. 

I wondered how we should think about their literal deaths in relation to the proposed academic death of the Asian-American identity. I wonder how modern minority Asian-Americans could practice expansive solidarity with precarious lives like these oriental others already in their midst, which was the lesson in Professor Nguyen’s fifth lecture. 

Professor Nguyen has given us the man of two faces as both, a fictional character and an analytical figure, to approach and potentially overcome social, national and historical divisions. Being two faced may invite charges of duplicity and hypocrisy, and yet from these lectures I also learned that two-facedness is a way of understanding in which we may see ourselves and the others we have created, so we may better appreciate our capacity for empathy and cruelty, our inconsistencies and contradictions as humans. After his talk this evening titled, On The Joy of Otherness, Professor Nguyen will be joined by critically acclaimed novelist, Gina Apostol, whose novels have won the Rome Prize, The PEN/Open Book Award, and two Philippine National Book Awards. Now please welcome to the stage for the last time this academic year, Professor Nguyen Thanh Viet. 

[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] 

Thank you. Thanks, Howie. Thanks so much for that introduction. And Thanks to the Mahindra Humanities Center for having hosted me for six times this year. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] I’d like to thank a few people. I’d like to thank Dean Robin Kelsey, who had sent me the letter of invitation many, many months ago. He’s a part of the selection committee for the Norton lecture. 

And I’d like to thank all the other members of the selection committee as well, whom I hopefully have not disappointed too much. Jonathan Bolton, Glenda Carpio, Jesse McCarthy, Melissa McCormick, Mariano Siskind, and Paul Yoon. I’ve been honored by your consideration, and by your invitation and hospitality. I’d like to thank director Suzannah Clark, executive director Stephen Biel, interim director Bruno Carvalho, and most especially the events coordinator, Mary MacKinnon, who has done so much work to make these events possible. 

Thank you so much, Mahindra Humanities Center. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] I’d like to thank all of you, especially the ones who actually attended all six lectures. You know who you are. Or have watched them on YouTube. [CHUCKLES] Now we’ve come to an end, with so many things I have not yet touched on when it comes to salvation and destruction, on writing as an other, and writing about otherness. Over the course of these lectures I have aged as you have. 

And with this year, as with every passing year, I can’t help but hear the distant rumble of time’s winged chariot hurrying ever nearer. My beloved beautiful four-year-old daughter heralded this chariot not long ago over dinner, and she smiled at me with her eyes lit up, then leaned close and said, daddy, you’re old. You’re going to die soon. I love you. Will there be a funeral? 

She probably won’t remember these words but I will because they touch on what I have kept for the end, the lightest and heaviest subject, the joy of otherness. This topic of joy is heavy because I am a pessimist. When it comes to otherness, the associations are often gloomy, revolving around victimization and marginalization, trauma and erasure, subjects in which I revel. But it’s no wonder that some who are othered simply want to feel joy rather than pain. 

Simply yearn to be human although humanity itself comes with a heaviness inherent. In the end, we can’t escape from otherness because otherness exists within us and our humanity. The writer, Ferdinand Pessoa, who was born and died in Lisbon wrote that, to live is to be other. Can we therefore find a degree of joy in our inevitable otherness versus trying to do the impossible and dispel our otherness and our others, especially when doing so often involves shame and violence. 

If that’s a heavy subject to consider, Italo Calvino offers some guidance for how to bear that burden, at least for writers. But I think there are lessons for all of us in general. In Calvino’s Norton lectures, Six Memos for a New Millennium, he examined the opposition between weight and lightness, and chose the latter. This is what he wrote. When the human realm seems doomed to heaviness, I feel the need to fly like Perseus into some other space. 

I’m not talking about escaping into dreams or the irrational. I mean the need to look at the world from a different angle with different logic, different methods of knowing and proving. Calvino challenges us to explore that human realm with a light touch calling for what he says is the sudden nimble leap of the poet / philosopher, who lifts himself against the weight of the world, proving that its heaviness contains the secret of lightness. 

While what many believe to be the life force of the times, loud and aggressive, roaring and rumbling, belongs to the realm of death, like a graveyard of rusted automobiles. Calvino speaks to me because I have intuitively groped my way through this graveyard as I attempted to become a writer, grappling with very serious subjects and very important literature. 

Otherness was a major concern, but it was the otherness of sociological, political, historical, categories, race, class, gender, nationality, and so on. What I hadn’t grappled with was the otherness of those very important people who have been right next to me from my origins. My mother and my father, my older brother, my oldest adopted sister, whom we had left behind in Vietnam at the end of the war, where in the aftermath the victors dispatched her to labor on a youth brigade to rebuild the country. 

A fate that could have been mine if I’d been left behind. Perhaps partly because of this fear of understanding my siblings and my own parents, I had no desire to be a parent. To test myself as my parents had been tested. Writing was the only creative act that interested me, not fathering. And so when I learned that my first child, my son, now 10 years of age, was due to arrive, I panicked. My life as I knew it was over, and it hardly seemed fair for I hadn’t yet finished my novel. 

But his impending birth focused me and I completed the draft a few days before his birth. For the next few months, I revised the novel at night while this strange new being slept. So small and so light, and yet so heavy on my conscience and my soul. He lay swaddled and immobilized on the futon in his mother’s office while I sat at her desk, keeping an eye on little Oedipus as I wrestled with sentences, word choices, rhythms. Anytime my future heir stirred, which was often, stuck a bottle of formula in his mouth. A story over which he now chortles. 

I rewrote and kept vigil until 3:00 in the morning. Then it was my turn to sip on my formula, single malt scotch, until 5:00 in the morning when his mother took over. So it was that we fattened our son and kept him alive. My infant son was my other, perhaps still is an other to me in a wondrous way, as I must be some looming other to my daughter. Intimate and yet incomprehensible. 

I think I know my son very well but perhaps I don’t know him at all. And why would I want to know him or my daughter completely? It is impossible that they would know me absolutely. The reserve of our own mystery to ourselves and to our closest others is a source of consternation but also potentially, joy. Becoming a father frightened me more than anything, including writing, which caused me much anguish that I willingly embraced. Writing, like God, is an incomprehensible other that can inspire as much as torment. 

Writing requires faith as well as a willingness to abide mystery, the unknown source from where creativities emerges. Still, much of creativity springs not from magic or mystique, but from dull discipline. As in Haruki Murakami’s idea that writing is mostly a matter of routine, even punishment, until it isn’t. In his memoir what I talk about when I talk about running, Murakami compares writing to running, particularly marathons, including the original marathon route in Greece which he ran, and even running an ultra marathon of 62 miles. 

I run a few miles on a treadmill, in my basement, next to the washing machine and dryer, watching instructors on my phone exhort me to reach my goal with cliches so banal, I’d be appalled to write them. Nevertheless, the exhortations work. Perhaps Murakami’s novels express that relationship between the mundane and the mysterious. His narrator’s rather unremarkable– His narrator’s rather unremarkable, even his prose somewhat flat, all contrasted against a moment when the surreal or the weird disrupts the routine and reveals a parallel world which might swallow up a character. 

In his novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, for example, a woman on vacation finds herself stuck on a ferris wheel. She can see her apartment. And using binoculars to look into her room, sees herself or someone exactly like her having sex with an unknown man. It’s pretty funny. This external shock of an inexplicable world bifurcates her internally and leads to a sense of loss of another self that she has just discovered. Oneself as another. Oneself as thee other. 

Perhaps one reason for my fascination with these manifestations of otherness is because of how much of the creative process seems to be a relationship, both to the mysterious world outside of ourselves, and the haunting otherness inside ourselves. The primal scene of witnessing one’s own otherness can be traumatic, with the treatment of our otherness sometimes vicious and violent, exploitative and murderous, but willfully accessing one’s otherness through something like a creative act, possesses elements of joy, at least for me. 

Even if that access can usually only be found through hard work, tedious routine, and a degree of pain, I acknowledge the pain. Even if I resist romanticizing it, for the fetishized suffering of the individual male artist, is not deserving of more attention than the pain of manual labor or of actual childbirth, which canonical art has usually treated as a minor theme. 

The grand cliché of tortured artists struggling with the mystery of creation of their own otherness could be deflated by the possibility that writing on average, is more routine, less painful, less dramatic and life risking than laboring. Whether that means toiling in the fields or mines, or enduring pregnancy and childbirth. A series of small cliches composes the romantic idea of the genius artist, the procrastination, the self-flagellation, the periodic reminders from agents and editors that writing is as much business as art. 

The constant inflation and deflation of the ego as writers veer between delusions of grandeur and paroxysms of envy at the success of other writers. Am of course not speaking about myself. [LAUGHTER] These cliches accumulate in their banality, but it is the banality of writing as routine that allows access to those fleeting moments of joy found in the otherness of creation. Reflecting on my parents whose devotion to capitalism and Catholicism I rebelled against, I can see now with the forgiving distance of time, that they were creative people. 

They became entrepreneurs and our founders of small businesses any less inspired than writers who publish in small magazines. The reverse is also true that the contributions of such writers, their ability to access the joy of otherness through writing, is no less important than what small business owners accomplish. 

The creativity of my parents enabled my creation, and their hard arduous labor grounded in the unglamorous and dangerous reality of a grocery store where they stood all day, made it possible for me to sit in a chair, gaze at a screen, and fiddle with my word count in between doses of social media. The act of creativity, whether that of my parents or me, is carried out in the face of vast indifference. 

The monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his first of many books, Fragrant Palm Leaves, expresses something similar when he stands before the Vietnamese landscape. He says, the forest was so immense. We felt minuscule. I think we shouted to overcome our feeling of being utterly insignificant. Shouting into the wilderness is what the act of creation can feel like. Our human voices measured against the vast powers of the natural and mystical worlds. 

Even a fabled spiritual leader like Thich Nhat Hanh needs to shout sometimes. Not as an aberration from spiritual discipline, but perhaps the periodic expression of it as the occasional book from a writer expresses years of quiet and disciplined labor. I imagine a parallel exists between creative discipline and religious discipline. The religious rely on the daily drills of rituals, texts and prayers to remind themselves that God exists. 

With God and the Divine being our human way of trying to understand the ultimate act of creation. How we in our world came into being. My parents prayed every day. And although I don’t believe in their God, I’m moved by the fact that when my mother died she could still, despite her diminishment, recite the Lord’s Prayer with my father. Contemplating her passage into some other realm, I take comfort in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about his own mother’s death. 

For the first four years after she died, he wrote, I felt like an orphan. Then one night she came to me in a dream. And from that moment on, I no longer felt her death as a loss. My mother has visited my brother in a dream, bringing him comfort, but she has never come to me. Another mystery I don’t understand. Thich Nhat Hanh continues about his mother. I understood that she had never died, that my sorrow was based on illusion. She did not exist because of birth, nor cease to exist because of death. 

I saw that being and non-being are not separate. Being can exist only in relation to non-being, and non-being can exist only in relation to being. Nothing can cease to be. I don’t remember if I’d read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words before I wrote my first novel, but that novel’s conclusion also concerns nothing. At the end of my book, the narrator reflects on the famous words of Ho Chi Minh. Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. 

Those words helped to motivate a revolution that freed Vietnam from foreign interference and unify the country, and also forced my parents to flee. Nearly 30 years later, I returned to a Saigon of the early 2000 still struggling with economic inequality, and some disillusionment with the promises of communism. And I heard a sarcastic, possibly bitter joke, that I would then include in the novel’s conclusion. What is more precious than independence and freedom? Nothing. 

Some readers interpreted the ending as nihilistic but that isn’t correct. To take inspiration from Thich Naht Hant, nothing only exists in relation to something, and vice versa. God is only one of the most obvious examples of a nothing that one portion of humanity has turned into something. An otherness that elicits sacrifice and murder, suffering and joy, love and hate. Unlike me, who saw nothing when it came to God, my mother and father could see something. 

And my father, now having forgotten almost everything, can still say the Lord’s Prayer. All one has to do is prompt him and from somewhere deep inside, the words will emerge. Unforgotten, because of his life of discipline. I find it joyful to know that a deep well of otherness exists inside of my father that I cannot detect, and that gives him life and hope. 

I admire my father’s discipline. The relentlessness of it that delivers a believer to the final destination, which is a confrontation with one’s own otherness, carried out utterly in private, and with that greater otherness that God symbolizes. I underestimated my father in some ways as I grew in height and vanity, until I was taller than he was, more fluent in English, more capable in the ways of the west and the canon of its high culture. 

And he was aware of my underestimation of him and perhaps many parents, in the same way, know of the misjudgment of their children. Once my father and I found ourselves sitting in my car running an errand and he suddenly said to me, remember that time we went to France and you told the French border officer that I did not speak English? That trip had happened a decade before, but when my father had obviously waited for his opportunity to let me know he remembered the slight. 

He then picked up a book I had with me, Lost In The City. A collection of short stories by Edward P Jones, who would later win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Known World. His short stories had moved me deeply and helped me shape my own short story collection. My father read the opening paragraph of the first story, The Girl Who Raised Pigeons, one of my favorite short stories, and translated it for me. 

The story is about Betsy Ann, the girl of the title, and her single father, Robert, who lived together in Washington D.C. The setting for all the stories in Lost In The City. Jones paints a portrait of an intimate black neighborhood of 1957. In those days before the community was obliterated by the construction of a railroad over the next four for years. Betsy Ann’s mother has died in childbirth. 

The doctors cut open her stomach and pulled out the child only moments after Clara died. Mother and daughter, passing each other as if along a corridor. One into death, the other into life. A lonely child, Betsy Ann turns to raising pigeons as an act of love and mothering. The family friend who gives her the first pigeons calls them his babies, with him as their daddy. 

Betsy Ann’s relationship to her pigeons is likewise maternal. And from the story, the idea of being on the roof with birds who wanted to fly away to be with someone else, pained her. Robert tries to protect Betsy Ann from the further mortal perils of life by checking the pigeon coop for dead pigeons before she wakes up each morning. But in the end, neither father nor daughter, can protect the pigeons from an attack by rats that kills most of them. 

When the last of the surviving pigeons flies away at the end of the story, she did nothing aside from following him with her eyes, with her heart, as far as she could. The ending is poignant but perhaps carries a little hint of joy, for flying away is as normal as can be. A move of life and independence that should be celebrated, even as the break causes pain. 

When I graduated from high school and left for college, I was only joyful. I never looked back. Perhaps fearful of being drawn back into the world of my parents and I gave not a thought to what my mother and father might have felt. I only cared that I felt free, unburdened, escaping from a house of claustrophobic love. The girl who raised pigeons explores that same territory of family cleaving, where cleaving brings people together, and cleaving also splits them apart. 

The story is clearly about the natural cycle of birth and death, of parenting and letting go, drawing parallels between Robert’s love for Betsy Ann and her love for her pigeons. While the killing of the pigeons is tragic, it’s also part of the natural cycle. The railroad’s destruction of the black community however, is not natural, but it’s an outcome of a racial order that marginalizes and devalues black life and love. 

Even in foregrounding the creeping sense of otherness between Robert and Betsy Ann, who gradually pulls away from her father as she grows up, Edward P Jones is careful to show how the larger forces of otherness that have damaged and shaped black life continue in their malevolence, but he does so with a light touch, despite the gravity of how white dominated urban policy has shattered black communities in many American cities. 

That light touch is also evident in the opening passage that my father read to me as we sat in the car, slightly tense in our father son relationship. Betsy Ann’s father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it. That she had never gone out through the kitchen window at 2 or 3 in the morning to visit the birds. By that time in his life he would have so many notions about himself set in concrete. 

And having always believed that he slept lightly, he would not want to think that a girl of 9 or 10 could walk by him at such an hour in the night without his waking, and asking of the dark, who is it? What’s the matter? Betsy Ann is my son’s age now. At 9 or 10, she learned to tiptoe past her protective father. As my son may yet learn to deceive me, as I myself snuck out of my parents’ home as a teenager while they slept. 

All of us, pigeons yearning to fly the coop, buoyant and weightless, at least until death. The girl who raised pigeons moved me through the way it evokes the intimacy of the relationship between parent and child. The father’s tenderness and the way it was unspoken, which reminds me very much of the way my parents interacted with me. There is estrangement in the father and daughter’s apartment, however. 

The sense that these two people have parts of themselves that the other will never know. That sense of otherness between loved ones is imbued with sadness and melancholy, but perhaps also some joy at the possibility of discovering ever additional layers within others and oneself, until at last, one reaches a truth about one’s self. For me that search has unfolded through two forms of creativity. 

One form is as a father who reproduced himself in his children and act both unsurprising and always surprising. And I don’t mean to be sentimental about this reproduction. Everybody has been a child but not everybody should be a parent, including some of you. [LAUGHTER] Not everyone is equipped to deal with the otherness of their children. And I may yet fail. A prospect that’s as worrisome as the question of my own potential failure as a writer. 

Writing is other form of creation that has compelled me to look within myself. In the words of Edwidge Danticat reflecting on her art as a writer, I exploit no one more than myself. Self-exploitation, self-exploration, both crucial to the act of writing, which I think always involves a confrontation with one’s self even if one writes about others. Jorge Luis Borges, in his Norton lectures, The Craft Of Verse, had this to say. 

I have toyed with the idea, the idea that although a man’s life is compounded of thousands and thousands of moments and days, those many instants and those many days may be reduced to a single one. The moment when a man knows who he is when he sees himself face to face. I don’t know if Borges has ever found himself face to face with himself. 

And even though I’ve looked at myself often in the mirror and in my writing, I don’t know if I have seen my genuine, authentic face. I’m suspicious of authenticity, having been accused of being inauthentic many times. I suspect that in the end, what my writing will uncover about myself or my many selves, is that I’m authentic only to my own inauthenticity. The poet, Theodore Roethke, put his relationship of author to self another way in one of his poems where he wrote, being myself, I sing the soul’s immediate joy. 

In my case that’s the joy of otherness. An awareness that, even seeing oneself face to face, means that the very notion of otherness is present. One can only come face to face with one’s self if one is already at least twofold. To come face to face with one’s self is to encounter oneself in an actual mirror, or in the mirror of one’s soul. And what if the complicate Borges, one sees that one has many faces rather than just two. 

Ferdinand Pessoe, as person and artist, was someone who dwelled constantly on his own multiplicity. He’s famous for creating many authorial selves and names through which he wrote each one with its own distinctive character. In his best known work translated into English, The Book Of Disquiet, he wrote that each of us is more than one person, many people, a proliferation of our one self. Like a diverse but compact multitude. 

This whole world of mine, composed as it is of different people, projects but a single shadow that of this calm figure who writes. Leaning against Borges’s high desk, where I have come to find the blotter he borrowed from me. Whereas Roethke sang the soul’s joy, Pessoe working the same metaphor, hears his soul. He writes, my soul is a hidden orchestra. I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings, and harps, drums and tambores I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony. 

Roethke presumably had to hear or feel his soul’s joy before he could sing it, but he deployed the idea of a singular soul, whereas Pessoe describes his soul as a collective of musicians and instruments, paralleling his idea that the many selves inside of him lead to only one shadow. Our shadows are a part of us and not a part of us at the same time, which Pessoe recognizes when he says that, seeing myself frees me from myself. I almost smile, not because I understand myself, but because having become other I’m no longer able to understand myself. 

Disquieting indeed to see the incomprehensible otherness within oneself. But also possibly joyful to realize that one’s own selves are an immense, possibly endless territory. Coming face to face with that immensity might be like the moment when Thich Nhat Hanh finds himself before the vast forest and can only shout in response. For me, writing is my way of quieting for a while that paradoxical disturbance of being aware of my simultaneous multiplicity and insignificance. 

When I have not written for some stretch of time, I become an irritable unpleasant person, disquieted. Writing is my discipline, my calling, my form of secular prayer. Writing quiets me. And even more, does what the writer, Maurice Condé, once wrote that writing, she says, has given me enormous joy. I would rather compare it to a compulsion somewhat scary, whose cause I have never been able to unravel. 

The otherness of the blank page elicits fear from the writer but also joy, even if the path to that joy can be arduous. Even if that joy is fleeting and needs to be renewed with repeated confrontations with the blank page. That blank page looms like an enigmatic face staring back at me. The face of an other that can elicit both terror and empathy, both murder and love, to paraphrase the philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. 

The confrontation with the other isn’t easy, shouldn’t be easy. But perhaps one thing that writing teaches me about myself is that if we ultimately could look with joy on our others rather than with fear, anger, and hatred, then we could create something new. Stories and societies that are both about individuals and collectives, leading to a sense of our own singular shadow as being cast from many simultaneous selves. 

Ralph Ellison hinted at the possibility of transforming the self through art. He said that the trick here is that of creating one’s identity through the medium of one’s chosen art. Ellison was thinking of the challenges facing, not only writers, but black writers for whom identity cannot only be a matter of the singular self but always has some relationship to a black world that is both chosen by many black people but it’s also imposed on them by white people, and others. 

The poet, Richard Wilbur, articulates something similarly paradoxical when it comes to identity and writing. If the identity is that of being a writer. For Wilbur, when a poet is being a poet, he cannot be concerned with anything but the making of a poem. Psychologically speaking, the end of writing is the poem itself. To quote Robert Frost again, you do more good by doing well than by doing good. I agree, but where is the world in all of this? 

The world outside of the poem and the poet, as much as the world inside the poem and the poet. Wilbur anticipates and responds when he says, and yet of course, poetry is a deeply social thing, radically and incorrigibly social. Writing poetry is talking to oneself yet it is a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears. And the product is something that, though it may not be for everybody, is about everybody. 

Writing poetry then is an unsocial way of manufacturing a thoroughly social product. Because he must shield his poetry in its creation, the poet more than other writers, will write without recognition. He is likely to look on honors and distinctions with the feigned indifference of a wallflower. Certainly, he’s pleased when recognition comes. For what better proof is there that for some people poetry is still a useful and necessary thing like a shoe. 

I love this image of the poem as a shoe. The poem as both art and craft, inspiration and labor, useless and useful. The earthly soul that cannot avoid being grounded and trod on, and the spiritual soul that remains ever mysterious to us and to others. And this is not a binary. This is a fusion. A pun. A play on words between the soul and the soul, with poetry and writing at their best when they play with words. 

A very serious matter that requires a light touch. Shoes are serious matters, as are poems. Both requiring their makers to work with delicacy and discipline. Shoes are themselves light, but carry the weight of our entire bodies. Imagine poems as the shoes that the writer has cobbled together. Anyone can fit in those shoes. But in order for you to stand in those shoes, they have to be empty. Full of nothing. When my own novels end on the subject of nothing some readers are unsettled. 

They do not understand that nothing is sacred. To say that nothing is sacred is sacrilegious. But it’s also to say at the same time, that we should revere nothing. In this paradox in contradiction in which nothing is in fact, something, I find the unsettling, perplexing, tragicomic joy of otherness, ranging from my own individual, weird, idiosyncratic, unique otherness to the collective systemic otherness projected onto me and my kind, whatever my absurd kind is. 

Among my kind is the Vietnamese, the Asian, the minoritized, the racialized, the colonized, the hybrid, the hyphenated, the refugee, the displaced, the artist, the writer, the smartass, the bastard, the sympathizer, the committed, those out of step, out of tune, out of focus, even to themselves. I recall those lines from Macbeth that you all know. Life’s but a walking shadow. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. 

I am the idiot to whom you have listened for so many hours, and the joke is on you. But of course, the joke is mostly on me and my kind, which is the best and worst kind of joke. The joke that life and death play on us. I think about the fact that my sister has come to visit the United States for the very first time. At the moment of our abandoning her 49 years ago, amidst the terror, chaos, and confusion of the end of the war, she had been a teenager who went by the name of Dewitt [?  ?] 

The last and only time I had seen her since then was 20 years ago on my return to Vietnam, where she by then was middle aged and using the name of [? Whom. ?] Now, the woman who I picked up from the airport two weeks ago and brought to my house, was a senior citizen. When my brother came to my house to visit her, it was the first they had seen each other in 49 years. Almost our entire lives as siblings passed as two or three flashes in time. 

If this meeting after so many years was a bad joke played on us by history, then hopefully it was softened a little by what had happened the night before my brother’s arrival. I wanted to be a good brother and had taken my sister to a private party for the cast and producers of a television show based on my first novel. The party took place at a legendary hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, where rock stars and movie stars were rumored to have done scandalous things. 

My sister and I were the first to arrive. One of the most famous movie stars in the world arrived next. I snapped a picture of my sister with the movie star, and then the movie star had his photographer take portraits of my sister and me. I told her this happens all the time in Hollywood. [LAUGHTER] A good joke, I hope, that on a tourist’s first visit to this country, she got to hobnob with the stars, making the unbearable lightness of being a little more bearable. 

I end with the rest of Theodore Roethke’s poem which goes like this. What times, my heart, I care. I cherish what I have had of the temporal. I am no longer young but the winds and waters are. What falls away will fall. All things bring me to love. Love was what brought my sister to the United States to see her family, especially I think, my father. 

After leaving Los Angeles, my sister flew to San Jose to see him, whom she hadn’t seen for 26 years since his last visit to Vietnam. My father spends his days in quiet contemplation. And when I return, he either does not recognize me, or pretends to recognize me. His other as he is other to me, and yet still my father. I warned my sister that he would probably not know who she was. So when my sister walked into my father’s room, she asked him if he recognized her. 

She told me that he murmured an assent, then he said, [? Willem, ?] and my sister was content that my father said he was very happy. In this moment of reunion between father and daughter that I think of as a manifestation of the joy of otherness. Thank you so much Harvard, Boston, Cambridge. You’ve been a great audience. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] 

Now my pleasure to talk with Gina Apostol, one of my– I think of you as a comrade. 

Yes, comrade. 

You look fabulous as I knew you would. 

Thank you. I needed this for the microphone. There’s something in the pocket. I don’t have a pocket. So, thank you. Thank you for very much, Viet, for the work that you’ve been doing. The work for the lecture series, and the work for all of the others that you have been writing for, writing of, and writing with. Thank you all of you. I was very moved obviously by– especially by that last scene. 

I know we’ve talked about man of two faces, especially the ways in which the nothing that was so much part of the world for you of your sister. The nothing that was something, and how to speak that in man of two faces. You’ve been going through the talks for your memoirs at the same time that you’re doing the Norton lectures. So I’m wondering, is there– do you feel that there’s a connection, a continuation in the lectures of man of two faces? 

Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t have enough ideas for a totally new book so I had to think of this project as a sequel or a companion to a man of two faces. There’s certainly some overlap in the themes, but this lecture series is actually leaning more towards the critical than towards the autobiographical, even though there’s flashes of that autobiography. And then I just couldn’t plan my own life to have wound up so perfectly that my sister arrived. Because the funny story is, she just emailed me out of the blue and said, I’m coming. I was like, OK. 

There’s like choosing the worst possible time to come, in the middle of my lecture series and in the debut of this TV series. But in fact, serendipity worked. I mean she chose the best possible time to come because then I could include her in my lecture, and then give you a story. And then also give her this incredible moment of participating in this TV series. I don’t want to overhype it. You’re Harvard. You don’t care about Hollywood, right? But I’m from LA. We only care about Hollywood and we don’t care about Harvard. [LAUGHTER] 

And I was actually not going to take her to that private party. So I got the invitation, as all the producers and cast did, and I had to email back and said, I’m sorry my sister from Vietnam is here, and I’m going to spend time with her instead of going to your fancy party. And that didn’t bother me at all, actually. I was like that’s fine. She’s more important. And then God bless them– or not God. I don’t believe in God. Bless them. They, specifically the Downey’s, reached out and said, no, no. We want you to come and bring your sister along. 

And so that’s– and so then I asked her. I said, do you want to go to this private party? I mean it’s going to a bunch of people you don’t know, and she said, yes, I want to go to this party. And she was a natural. I mean she was there and I loved it. We have all these pictures from that occasion and she got– and honestly she was not actually most impressed with Robert Downey Jr. She was most impressed with the Vietnamese movie stars that she was going to encounter. 

Kieu Chinh and [INAUDIBLE], for those of you those of you who know these people. And I said, what about Robert Downey Jr? And she said, OK, Maybe. But it was really, really the Vietnamese movie stars that she wanted to meet. So the lecture series for me is, I talked about the world and the poet, and I think about the fact that, as a writer, I’m very worldly in ways that might be offensive. 

You’re only supposed to be this ivory tower kind of writer and whatever, and that was never the case for me. So I was always inspired by this idea that the world matters to the text and to the critic as Edward Said said. And so the lecture series is related to a man of two faces, but it’s also deeply embedded in the world that we’re living in at the same time. 

Yeah, Yeah. So you brought up Borges, for instance, and we’ve been talking about literature for quite some time together. There’s his short story that’s certainly about the Asian as the other, Garden of Forking Paths. You turn the Chinese spy for the Germans, et cetera, et cetera. And one of the things that Borges says in there is that, in a riddle that’s about time, what is the one word that you wouldn’t say. Of course, time. 

So as you’re doing this speech that you’re doing on– you talk about worldliness, you talk about the– core of it was really creation, procreation, reproduction, et cetera. So why is it that you skip the erotic? [LAUGHTER] What? You did say sex. The riddle of creation, procreation, reproduction, the word is sex but you didn’t do it. 

It’s Harvard it’s one of those– [INTERPOSING VOICES] 

The joy– 

If you go– 

Joy. Joy. 

I mean, if you go on my Instagram today, there’s a whole video– 

I saw that. That’s why I brought up this question. 

Yeah if– 

You didn’t bring up the squid. 

Yeah, Yeah. I talk about squid sex on Instagram. For those of you who read the book or if you have not, don’t worry– and it appears in the TV series. I was very happy. And if you look at this video that HBO produced, there’s like fingers inside of squid in the video. 

Oh, no. 

So I didn’t feel like it was necessary to bring it up in front of this audience. Unless you know but– 

But something really important, though, about your setting up of the revaluing of the other, the recognizing that. All the different permutations of the concept of other. But the body is so much part of it, and the pleasures of the body, the way in which writing is about in many ways. I know you talk about arduous and difficult but there’s a lot of fun in it. 

Yeah, yeah. 

And I do think that the erotics of the other, like thinking about the erotics of writing, what it means in terms of the political place. Do you have– do you think about that? 

That’s a great– 

I think about that a lot. 

This is why you’re here. I should have included that in the lecture, sure. I think about the fact that when I wrote The Sympathizer, it was two years of a lot of pleasure. You’re right. It was a lot of pleasure. That’s sort of the ideal moment that I think many of us who are writers or artists dream of. That space where labor is not like work but labor is fully like play, or the erotic, or the sexual and all that. And in fact, the word I’ve used to describe those two years is ecstatic. 

It’s very hard to communicate that to people, that you can have a two year period of ecstasy. But it was true. And it is related to running as well. That’s why I wanted to introduce that because I would write for four hours and have a whole lot of fun, and I would run. And actually during the running, I would have new ideas for the next day. So I think all of that is a part of that. And Park Chan-wook is directing the TV series and in his interview in the New Yorker, which is really great interview if you want to learn about his process and so on. 

He was describing a movie that he did called, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, which is a weird movie. And he said for the entire time he was making it he was giggling. And that was like– that’s was what I thought when I was writing The Sympathizer. I was writing about torture and murder and all– All these horrible things and I was laughing because it was so much fun to write about these things. And so you’re absolutely right. Yeah. 

Yeah, that’s what I thought too. In terms — The Sympathizer was just sheer fun to read and you can imagine the fun of writing it. The Committed too is very funny. The Committed is your aristophanic novel. The Sympathizer is your sophoclean, search for self, tragic comedy novel. And what I’m also interested in is the work you’re doing with language. 

The play with language even there in the speech that you did today. The nothing that is the Ho Chi Minh mantra. And definitely with The Committed, there’s a lot of play. The other in The Committed is the French theorists that you make fun of. So do you think about that too? The punning? 

Yeah, I mean the play with language is actually really, really important. And so language is another that the writer is constantly grappling with, wrestling with, having fun with. And so for me, it’s really interesting because I think in the first lecture, I talked about– it’s been so long. I can’t remember but I think the first lecture, I talked about my relationship to language as an other because English feels like a native tongue to me but it’s not literally my native tongue. 

And so I do exist as an other to English. And that gap is actually, as tragic as it is, is also the same gap that allows me to be able to play with the language because I can see it from the outside, I think. And that my Vietnamese-ness, my capacity to speak Vietnamese– and the other thing, by the way, about having my sister come that I was really scared about was I’m going to have to spend a week with this person, and I can only speak Vietnamese. 

And I was delighted by the fact that I spoke Vietnamese 90% of the time. And the rest of time was Google Translate. How do I find this right? So retained enough Vietnamese so as that I could look at both Vietnamese and English as an outsider and insider to both. And that’s what allows the play to take place. 

And so when we talk about the joy of otherness, again, like the otherness can be very painful for all the various reasons that are obvious. But it’s also joyful because it allows you that insider-outsider access the capacity to see things that people who are purely inside or outside cannot see in the same way. 

I remember when we were in Manila once and there was a banh gio, a rice cake there, and you were very deliberate. You actually said, no, that’s the word. There’s something like this in Vietnam and you gave me the word. And I thought that was so interesting because the language is in you no matter what you say. The joking that you like to make about your four-year-old Vietnamese self language its deep it seems. 

So I’d like to move into this– I’m going to need a little bit of my notes on this one because I’m not a scholar and I’m going to quote a scholar, who’s my friend Nefertiti [? Diar ?] One of the things that I think you’re doing in these lectures is what I say is a revisioning, or reevaluation of revolutionary action. Nefertiti [? Diar, ?] she does amazingly complex lucid books on Marxist feminism centering on the Philippines. And she talks about how the lived historical experience can and maybe must be read as a tenet of revolutionary action. 

Her definition of historical experience is what she calls a collective subjective. You’ve been talking about that. The collective and the subjective, seeing an individual’s subjective experience simultaneously through the collective lens as a way of reading revolution correctly. So you seem to be revisiting a theory of value by linking individual experience, your parents journey, your sister’s journey, your own and your brother’s through the lens of the collective, seeing how the idea of revolution can be refracted. Does that make sense at all? 

Yeah. Absolutely. I just don’t use that language anymore. I’ve left academia, if not in my body, in my mind I left academia. But the contrast, I mean ending with Wilbur was really interesting for me because the poet, Richard Wilbur, in what he was saying because initially in reading it, I thought, OK, this is purely about art for art’s sake. And I reject that notion and as much as I reject the notion of the pure individual as well. 

But Richard Wilbur sort of dialectical turned to also thinking about poetry as a– the word is very deliberate. A manufactured product, right? So I think even in his poem or in his statement, I love that movement between the art and the labor. This is– I think it’s absolutely necessary to think about the individual and the collective simultaneously. That’s why Ferdinand Pessoe, who no one would mistake for a Marxist, it’s still really interesting to me because he’s operating in that same vein of having multiple selves inside of him but that cast one shadow. 

So all of these different attempts by writers to think about the relationship between individuality and collectivity, between art that’s done in pure isolation and the art that has to happen as a manufacturing. Yes, it is about value in the way that you’re describing. I think about that idea of trying to rethink revolution. For me, of course, we have to think about value, and exploitation, and capitalism, and the commodity, and how we’re all subjected to that, or that we ourselves participate in that. 

But that a true revolutionary act would also be a way of thinking about how liberation would allow us to play. Everything that we’ve been– I find it powerful to think about writing. Not simply because I’m a writer, but because I also think that it is both a metaphor for the relationship of the self as that lecture was about, but also I would love for everybody to have the possibility of living the equivalent experience of a writer. 

Not that you should all be writers but whatever the equivalent is, that idea that labor and joy are somehow– they overlap and they intersect at a very crucial moment. And obviously under an exploitative society or an exploitative economic system, the labor and the joy are kept totally separate, right? So it’s a very privileged thing to be able to have that intersection. And so that’s my idea of revolutionary value. 

Yeah, Yeah. And the way you’re also revisiting that in terms of your parents epic journey to see it as revolution in a weird way, though the Catholicism, the capitalism that their lives ended up with to see the world of the individual as a part of a revolutionary mode. A way in which some kind of rethinking about how society should be done through the individual acts. I think we’re close to questions for the audience. 

Sure. 

Are you good with that? 

This is your last chance. [LAUGHTER] There’s one over there. 

Hi. I’m not even sure how to ask this question but listening to you, I keep thinking about– it’s like having holding opposites at the same time and I think you mentioned that a number of times. How aware can we be of doing that? It’s not like particle and wave, or is it like particle and wave? You can be one or the other but you can’t be both at the same time, but you are both at the same time. 

Yeah. 

So how do you– I mean, anyway that’s what I want to hear you say more about. 

It’s been interesting for me to– I mean, that’s actually what the entire lecture was about. The recognition there’s this multiplicities inside of us. And for me the greatest struggle has been to overcome the binary. So if you read the– if you read the first line of The Sympathizer, I’m a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. And so that notion of duality is something I keep returning to because it’s such a powerful structure. 

It’s present in a lot of my work but in the third and final novel, which is yet to be written of The Sympathizer, it’s supposed to be, I’m a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of many faces. And so I think there’s– for me a necessity to try to move beyond just thinking about self and other, about even the two faces within one self that I talked about with Borges, but to move closer to what Pessoe was able to accomplish. 

The recognition of the multiplicity. How does it happen? I think for me it happens through a constant as in the pursuit of metaphor listening to oneself. To listen to the multiplicities within oneself. I’m just going to project and say that I think maybe many people do not want to listen to themselves. They don’t want to listen to the internal orchestra. They suppress that or they just want to hear one instrument. 

That’s the best metaphor that I can come up with. But so again, for me the act of being a writer is a spiritual act because it is about trying to understand what’s happening inside of myself. And so that’s why I think for me the act of writing stands as an analogy for what we all try to use with spirituality. We all try to use spirituality of whatever fed manifestation to try to understand the multiplicities and contradictions within ourselves. I hope that’s what we use spirituality for. 

There are people with mics around the room so you can– 

Hi. Thank you. What a terrific talk. Thank you so much. I really appreciated that. I wanted to ask you about– I missed a little bit of the beginning so maybe you addressed it. But the concept of the usefulness of the useless, the empty shoe. That is very strong. There’s a very strong component of that in Chinese philosophy throughout time. 

Also very strong sense of, in Buddhism, the importance of nothingness. And it doesn’t mean nothing is there. It just– there’s a feeling of emptiness and openness to possibilities. Have you– does that have any influence on your thought and your work? 

Yeah. I mean, I’ve been absolutely been trying to grapple with that. I think that for me writing is thinking, so I try to understand things through actively writing about them. And so at the end of The Sympathizer, when I got to the nothing part and then literally at a reading someone said, isn’t that nihilistic? And I’m like, no, I think Buddhists also think about this stuff all the time too. And so, to go back to the revolutionary question. 

There has to be three novels because The Sympathizer is a dialectical narrative. So I need that third novel for him and myself to fully understand what he and I mean by nothing. And that is not– certainly nothing is a negation. There is that aspect of it. But nothing is also, as you said, a void, an emptiness, that is always present but it can also elicit responses as well. 

And that there’s always going to be an inherent interplay between the nothing and the something that Thich Nhat Hanh gets at, that the Buddhist philosophy you’re talking about gets at. But I think the revolutionary thinking gets that as well. That nothing actually does matter. 

It does. 

Yeah, so for me the project has been in my writing my novels, but also in thinking through some of these issues in the lecture, to think about different revolutionary systems at the same time. Catholicism is revolutionary, right? Religion is revolutionary, but so is these more material revolutions that take place. 

And so when you’re talking about a revolutionary theory of value, for me it’s about trying to think through multiple systems at the same time rather than thinking that only religion offers one solution or Marxism offers one solution, and they both proven to be failures because of their singularity. So I would like to be able to think about all of these different systems of nothing simultaneously. 

I don’t know about the failure of Marx. I anyway, let’s not go there. Let’s not talk about it. 

We’ll talk about it over dinner. 

–our argument regarding Marx. 

There was a question over there I see. Or there. 

Hello. Thank you very much for the talk. Very inspiring. Coming from the Philippines, I am so happy to see how Manila figures prominently in your novel and I wonder if you have thoughts in relation to a kind of regional solidarity in terms of literature. 

I mean both of you in that stage are two writers that represent the multiplicity that you mentioned in terms of other. And so my question in relation to that is, what are your thoughts in terms of having an ethical commitment with respect to others, both in terms of time and place, and especially in relation to the region and to the country? Thank you. 

Do you want to answer? 

No. [LAUGHTER] 

Well, I honestly– I’ve mostly imagined Manila. When I wrote about it in The Sympathizer it was literally– I had never been to the Philippines and I recreated it through research and through images and things like that. So visiting Manila, I visited Manila for the first time with Gina actually, for a literary festival. And what struck me actually was like, wow, this is actually a lot like Vietnam. A lot like Saigon in a lot of ways. 

So the question of solidarity I think is certainly there as we think about parallel and shared histories of colonization. I mean very different forms of colonization. But nevertheless those exist. Histories of inequity, histories of hierarchy, exploitation. Different versions of the elite and the masses are present in both Vietnam and the Philippines. Different relationships of struggle to dominant outside forces, whether it’s France or Spain or the United States even now, right? 

So the question of solidarity for me is not as compelling when we talk about it at the level of the state. There is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, so you have this kind of solidarity being played out at a regional level but it’s about– that’s about power. And the kind of solidarity I’m interested in, I assume Gina too, is the solidarity of that’s taking place at the level of the peoples and the cultures. 

And so that’s why for me it was always inspiring to read writings by Filipino revolutionaries or revolutionary writers, including Carlos Bulosan and Jessica Hagedorn, and all of that. So it was always been important to think about the literatures that have been produced out of writers who recognize, not only their own colonization, but their affinity with other colonized situations as well. 

Yeah. I was one of– I agree with Howie when he said that your third lecture was really amazing, really important. The issue of expansive solidarity and the ways in which we need to think about West Asia, Southwest, thinking about Asian America, and thinking about what’s happening now as a way to assess our other. The concept of other. The concept of the self. 

Our engagement with what’s happening now. And it includes in my view, thinking about those who are the world of the anti-Semitism that has run through western Europe really has kind of a product of Western Europe, as well as how to think about the expansiveness of that solidarity so that all groups are fully human. The becoming fully human of everyone. That’s the way I would go about it. Which is why I love the way you talk about your dad’s epic journey. 

And I see that as a revolutionary journey. That there’s the interesting revolutionary aspects to rethinking about your father. Even in the rethinking, even in the remembering about your father in this other way. And to think about our individual lives and the moments that we take a stand for certain kinds of things or the choices that we make, as having an aspect of the revolution. I think I want to really work through your dad’s journey, that epic– 

[INTERPOSING VOICES] 

That’s what I’m trying to do. 

Yeah. I love it. I love that collective subjective, historical experience that is revolutionary action in what you’re doing with the personal story. I think it’s really — I’m going to be honest. I think it’s really hard. Hard to do as a writer, hard to do as a person. And I know we’ve talked about that. It’s psychically difficult. Yeah. 

Yep. 

And I do think our expansive solidarities have to include the psychic difficulties of engaging. 

Hi. I have a question to your points that you just made about writing as thinking, and writing as an act of spirituality. I’m curious about the act of giving these six lectures over this cumulative period of time, both in the writing of them. Were there particular new thoughts that you had at the end of writing that maybe you didn’t expect? 

I mean, I’m sure there are many. I’m asking if you could share one. And also the possibility of, after delivering these lectures, does that bridge of writing is thinking continue in the actual speaking, and are there things you can point out about that? 

Sure. I mean, what can I say? The writing of the lectures has been enormously stressful. Thank you, because you’re very intelligent audience and you’re a very hard audience to deal with because on the one hand, you have elite Harvard faculty and grad students and postdocs here. And then you have very intelligent members of the community and you have intelligent undergraduates are coming from Harvard and from different universities. So it’s a hard target to hit. 

And so it taught me a lot about a particular style of the writer and the academic as a public person. Which is always interesting because when I was an undergraduate and I would read these types of essays by very senior people, I would think, wow, these seem too transparent to me. But actually, maybe I’m self-serving, but transparency is actually kind of hard to do. 

Those of us who are in a discipline, whether it’s academics or something else, we spend decades becoming highly specialized and we become impressed with our own specialization, which is good. There’s a purpose for that. But there’s also something very critical about the capacity to be transparent, to be lucid, to communicate. Something some difficult ideas in ways that a larger audience can comprehend. Or not to comprehend but can more easily access. And so that was the writing I was thinking that was being carried out through these lectures. 

It wasn’t just– I mean, it wasn’t just me thinking through ideas but me thinking through ideas in a language that would be elegant enough to give them expression for most of you. That was actually quite a challenge, and I learned a lot. That was what I learned, was that I could give these, that I could write these lectures in this fashion, and that I could speak about them in this fashion as well. I think there’s, again, I’m not trying to offend any of the academics here. 

I think there’s really important work to be done with our highly specialized language, but there’s also really important work to be done in being able to speak in a public manner as well. And I did actually learn a lot about myself. I got over my emotional part backstage. I’d like to read my lectures in advance so I get the sobs out first, and then I can come out here and I can be more composed. 

But yeah, the lectures are full of ideas but I think they’re also emotional as well. And I’m just going through an autobiographical moment in my life right now. It may not be true five years from now but this particular project of my own writing, and thinking, and self-exploration, and self exploitation involves the autobiographical at this moment. 

Yeah, Yeah. 

I don’t have much more time we have left but there were hands raised down here. 

I think we have room for one more question. 

So this may be something of a stretch but I wanted to ask you a question relating to something called The Tale of Kieu, which I regard as an epic poem. Very deeply embedded in the civilization of Vietnam. And I think of you as primarily an American writer, but you also deal with some Vietnamese topics. 

Professor Alexander Woodside who taught Chinese and Vietnamese history here back in the 70s, wrote an introduction to the translation into English of The Tale of Kieu, in which he made the case that the story was written by a aristocrat or a scholar official of a regime that had just been overthrown. And that the novel, which has as its central character, a woman, who goes through great hardship and suffering, was in fact a representation of the feeling of the writer, representing the feelings of those who had been overthrown and been displaced. 

And in talking with my educated Vietnamese friends, they were amazed at this interpretation. They had always thought of it as the glory of Vietnamese women being so strong and putting up with hardships and self-sacrifice in order to allow the family and the society to hold together. And I’m not sure I ever convinced them, even given the source of that interpretation. 

And the otherness it seems to me, in The Tale of Kieu, if you accept– particularly if you accept Woodside’s interpretation is multileveled because on the one hand, you’ve got a male aristocrat writing almost as an I figure as a woman oppressed and brutalized. But there’s also the otherness of being displaced to aristocrat who were no longer in rule. 

And for a male Vietnamese aristocrat to portray himself as a woman going through all the hardship is a remarkable expression of otherness. I’m just curious whether this is everything, anything that’s ever crossed your mind or if there’s any possible value in pursuing that kind of way of thinking? 

Well, I think the translation that– there’s more than one translation but the translation that I think Woodside was referring to was [? Sentongs’ ?] in translation, I think, from the from the 1970s. And I think when [? Sentongs ?] sort of endorsed that interpretation as well. But of course, I mean, literature operates at multiple levels. You have the explicit story that’s unfolding, that is about Kieu herself. And then you could totally read it in the way that you described it that Woodside interpreted it as. 

I don’t see those two things as being incommensurate at all. I would hope that in fact that any work of literature that’s worthy of being read and remembered over time would in fact have multiple possible interpretations, even conflicting interpretations, because if they didn’t literary critics would be out of a job. So I give credit to the possibility that, even if that was not even the intention of Windsor when he wrote it, it doesn’t matter. It does not matter. I mean the author is literally dead in his case, but the author is also figuratively dead in my case. 

And so if you want to read my own novels in a completely different way than I intended, that’s fine. That’s even better for me. It’ll sell more copies. [LAUGHTER] So, and you know I– readers in the example that you offered, they could be wrong. I mean, they could be wrong. Their interpretations are not exhaustive of the potential of the text. 

And I’m delighted that we’re still talking about The Tale of Kieu by Windsor a couple of centuries after he wrote it. It shows that, in fact, whatever his intention was or however he was interpreted by certain Vietnamese readers, the text still lives, still survives, still provokes us, and that’s what we hope for as writers. 

And there we are. So this is our end. Thank you for joining us. 

[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE] 

Thank you, Gina. 

Thank you. Make sure to swing by– make sure to swing by the Porter Square Books Booth on your way out and pick up a copy of the Viet’s book. Thank you. 

Thank you so much, everyone. 

Thanks a lot.