Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

RNZ | Viet Thanh Nguyen on being Vietnamese and American

As a child watching the film Apocalypse Now, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen felt split in two – was he one of the Americans doing the killing or one of the Vietnamese being killed? “That moment really brought home to me this idea that stories don’t only have the power to save us but that stories have the power to destroy us, as well,” he tells Susie Ferguson for an interview with RNZ

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for FictionHe will speak about his new memoir A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial at the Auckland Writers Festival in May.

Listen to the interview here.

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1971 and his family were among the 130,000 refugees who fled that country for the United States in 1975 at the end of the war.

His earliest memories are of the Pennsylvanian refugee camp they arrived at. With no American sponsor willing to take his family of four, Nguyen was separated from his 10-year-old brother and their parents.

“This is where my memories begin, howling and screaming as I’m taken away from my parents. This was being done for benevolent reasons, to give my parents the time to get on their feet and recover, but when you’re a four-year-old child, you really don’t understand that.”

Nguyen’s family had left behind a 16-year-old adopted daughter whose “absent presence” he remembers finding out about at the age of 10.

“The knowledge of my sister’s absence haunted me for a very long time but it also imbued me with this sense that I think is very common to refugees and survivors of war, this idea that there is an alternate timeline out there where our lives might have ended up completely different if some circumstance had changed.”

At this moment in world history, there are an unprecedented amount of refugees, Nguyen says.

He prefers the term ‘phenomenon’ to describe the situation of these 100 million displaced people as ‘crisis’ gives them too much personal responsibility for the situation.

“Refugees are produced by forces beyond their control in terms of war, politics, economic and climate catastrophe. And for those things, we are all responsible but we blame refugees instead.”

While being a refugee was very difficult, Nguyen says he’s grateful the experience gave him “the requisite emotional damage” necessary to become a writer.

Growing up he didn’t recognise this, though, and considered himself “very even-keeled” until his future wife made him aware he’d been numbing himself  emotionally.

“My maturation as a human being, as a person, as a father as a husband, but also certainly as a writer, has been tied into my increasing understanding of how much emotional damage was inflicted through the refugee experience, even though I was not an eyewitness. History damaged my parents and therefore damaged me, as well.”

As a child escaping the troubling reality of both parents always away working at their shop, Nguyen turned to books.

“I would go to the library every weekend, and come home with a backpack full of books … I was really escaping to beauty and storytelling – that’s what really made me want to become a writer.

“As I delved deeper into my own history and the history of Vietnam in the United States, of course, I realised that my desire for beauty and for storytelling and to become a writer was inextricably tied to this traumatic history, as well.”

Vietnamese have no place in the American imagination, except to scream or cry or curse or beg to be rescued

Watching American movies about the war in Vietnam, as Nguyen did as a child, is an exercise he “recommends to no one, especially if you’re Vietnamese or Asian.”

“What became very evident to me was that we, Vietnamese and Asians, have no place in the American imagination, except to scream or cry or curse or beg to be rescued.”

At a college screening of Apocalypse Now, he was able to articulate to his class how these films affected him.

“I remember shaking with rage and anger as I recounted the scene in the movie where American soldiers massacred Vietnamese civilians. Up until that point, I was an American rooting for American soldiers, having watched a lot of American war movies.

“At that point, however, watching these Vietnamese people being murdered, I was split in two – not sure whether I was the American doing the killing or the Vietnamese being killed.

“That moment really brought home to me this idea that stories don’t only have the power to save us but that stories have the power to destroy us, as well.”

As the “unofficial Ministry of Propaganda” for the United States, Nguyen says, Hollywood productions have an enormous cultural reach.

And although you’d imagine movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon would make people very critical of Americans’ conduct, because they’re the ones telling the stories it’s with them that viewers empathise.

“In these movies where Americans are committing atrocities, they’re still the centre of attention and even though the Vietnamese people are the victims, they are completely silenced, as well … So, ironically enough, the world knows the Vietnam War via American perspectives, and continues to feel for Americans and see through their point of view. “

Like most people, Nguyen says he craved a sense of “belonging” growing up that as a refugee wasn’t available to him.

Later, experiencing racism and categorisation as ‘other’ made him distrust this desire to be “on the inside”.

“In order for us to feel utterly safe and comfortable it is all too human of a response to then demonise someone on the outside and to put our fears and our desires onto that other.”

Americans categorised as ‘other’ are given “a very problematic opportunity” to talk about their particular trauma – in his case the Vietnam War – but not really about anything else, Nguyen says.

In his writing, he draws a direct line between the Vietnam War, American history and current divisions in the United States.

“I connect the failures of the war in Vietnam to the original contradiction that the United States is built upon, which is that we are a country of freedom and democracy – that is true for some people – and we’re also a country that has been built on genocide, colonisation, slavery and warfare.”

Most countries are built on moments of terrible violence that stand in “enduring contradiction” to their national mythology, Nguyen says.

“There’s always something shameful and terrible we have done as a nation that has contradicted our mythologies. In that, there’s tragedy and there’s also comedy in that absurdity and hypocrisy. “

A Catholic childhood – “I like masochism, suffering, sacrifice and martyrdom and all that” – and “pure ignorance” are what Nguyen says got him through the miserable 17 years he spent writing the 2017 short story collection The Refugees.

The long haul taught him endurance, which he says is a key skill for a writer.

“You have to find it within to just persist, no matter what anybody else thinks positively or negatively about your writing.”

In that process, Nguyen also discovered his creative ‘voice’, which he defines as “an expression of one’s authenticity, what one truly believes”.

“I don’t think you know what your ‘voice’ is when you start off being a writer. It takes all that discipline and effort and sacrifice to both discover the art and to discover the voice.”


Read below for the transcript of the interview

Suzy Ferguson:

My next guest this Saturday morning is Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen. He left Vietnam as a child, becoming a refugee to America following the war, which has had repercussions and reverberations throughout his life. He then won the Fiction Award for his novel, The Sympathizer. And his most recent publication is A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial. Viet Thanh Nguyen is coming to the Auckland Writers Festival in May. I asked him about his earliest memories and what he recalled from his time in Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I was born in Vietnam in 1971 and the end of the Vietnam war happened in 1975 when I was four years of age. So I actually do not remember anything very much from before 1975 being quite young. But my family fled from Vietnam in 1975 because we were on the losing side of that war. And we had a very dramatic escape story as I think all Vietnamese refugees did. But we made it to the United States in May of 1975.

My memories began in a refugee camp in the United States in Pennsylvania. And what happened was that for the 130,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States, in order to leave one of these refugee camps, we had to have an American sponsor us. And there was nobody willing to sponsor our family of four. So one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10-year-old brother, and one sponsor took four-year-old me. And this is where my memories begin howling and screaming as I’m taken away from my parents. This was being done for benevolent reasons, to give my parents the time to get on their feet and recover. But when you’re a four-year-old child, you really don’t understand that. So yes, I think my narrative memory, my ability to tell stories with my memory really begins with that traumatic moment.

Suzy Ferguson:

It’s a pretty shocking way for someone’s memories to begin. And that must have been an ordeal that went on for some months, I guess, if not years. That process of your parents deciding to leave, making their way out, as you say, finding yourself in a refugee camp and then getting on their feet.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Our hometown in Vietnam was the first one captured in the final communist invasion from the north in March, early March, 1975. So in fact, it did take about six weeks for our entire escape to unfold because when the communist invasion happened, my father was in Saigon, very far away. My mother had to make a life and death decision about what to do without him. So she decided to take my older brother and myself and flee on foot while leaving behind my older adopted sister to take care of the family property with the assumption that we would come back, which for my mother, I think was something she really believed what happened, but which did not.

And so we left her behind at about 16 years of age and fled and made it on foot and boat to Saigon where we had to wait for a few more weeks before the communist invasion caught up to us in Saigon in late April. So yeah, that was six weeks that I lived through and which I was a part of, but I don’t remember. So I do wonder whether I’m an eyewitness to history or not. And I conclude that I’m not. What I really am is an eyewitness to my parents’ experiences and their history.

Suzy Ferguson:

What happened to your adopted sister?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, she was 16 years old. Can you imagine being on your own and left to guard the family home in business? And what happened was, of course, that the victors confiscated the property and then sent her to what was called a volunteer youth brigade to repair the country from the damages of the war, which was of course not really a volunteer brigade. And when I left at four, of course I knew I had a sister, but I did not remember her. My first memories of her actually that I still remember now were when I was around 10 or 11 years old when we received a letter from Vietnam from this person. And there was a picture included in it of this beautiful young woman who by then was probably 20 years old, and I was told, “This is your adopted sister, [inaudible 00:04:35],” and I was shocked.

I think that that was a very important moment in my life where I realized there was in fact an absent presence in our house, somebody we had left behind. I think I was not mature enough to really comprehend what that meant, but the knowledge of my sister’s absence haunted me for a very long time. I think it also imbued me with this sense that I think is very common to refugees and survivors of war, which is this idea that there is an alternate timeline out there where our lives might’ve ended up completely different if some circumstance had changed. And I think this relationship to history and the absent presence and the alternate reality really shaped my own life, but certainly shaped me as a writer.

Suzy Ferguson:

You have the experience of arriving in the United States as a refugee. How now do you look at that and is it possible to quantify the differences subtle or otherwise between being a refugee and being an immigrant?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Being a refugee was difficult, but I do say that I’m grateful for that experience because it gave me the requisite emotional damage necessary to become a writer. I think it also left me with a good degree of empathy for those who are forced to move. And I think that’s a crucial between refugees and immigrants. Immigrants generally do choose to move, choose the time of their movement and choose where to go. And refugees don’t really have that much of a choice. They’re forced by drastic circumstances to make very rapid decisions. And they’re cast upon the mercies of the forces that evict them in the countries where they try to get into.

We are living in a moment in world history where we are seeing an unprecedented production of refugees. When I first started writing about refugees in 2015 or 2016, I believe the refugee population was officially, according to the UN, around 25, 26 million. It’s at least 60, 80, 100 million right now. And the reason I’m hesitating on these figures is I check in every year. Every year it grows and grows and grows. So it is an unprecedented phenomenon. And I choose that term instead of crisis because when we use the term crisis, we displaced onto refugees a set of problems that are oftentimes not the responsibility of refugees. Refugees are produced by forces beyond their control in terms of war, politics, economic and climate catastrophe. And for those things, we are all responsible, but we blame refugees instead.

Suzy Ferguson:

The requisite emotional damage to become a writer, tell me a little bit more about that and I suppose about how this has infused into your writing.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I felt growing up that I was very well-adjusted. I was not emotionally damaged. I was very even keeled. Nothing moved me, nothing affected me. And then I started going out dating my future wife, and somehow the topic of my mental well-being came up and I said, “I’m pretty well-adjusted.” And she said, “No, you’re not.” And in fact, I think she proved to be correct. And I think what happened was that I was very much destabilized by the refugee experience of feeling that I’d been abandoned in some way by my parents when that was not really their responsibility. And then when I realized what happened to my sister, being aware of the possibilities of further abandonment.

And I think the way that I cope with that, plus what I witnessed happening to my parents as they struggled to survive in the United States led me to emotionally numb myself, which is not a healthy response, but I don’t think it’s an usual response. I took that emotional numbing and my response to it, which was to cultivate my own sense of invulnerability, I took that to be emotional well-being. And I think my maturation as a human being, as a person, as a father, as a husband, but also certainly as a writer, has been tied into my increasing understanding of how much emotional damage was inflicted through the refugee experience. Even though I was not an eyewitness, the fact that history damaged my parents therefore damaged me as well.

Suzy Ferguson:

Suzy Ferguson with you here on Saturday Morning on RNZ National. My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author. He’ll be in New Zealand in May for the Auckland Writers Festival.

You talk about the experience of being in the United States and what happened to your parents. Also your parents were attacked in the shop they run.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

In the book that I wrote, A Man of Two Faces, the first chapter, it occurs when I’m about nine years of age and I’m home at Christmas Eve with my brother while my parents are working in their grocery store called the Saigon Mui, which they had opened in pursuit of this economic dream of becoming self-sufficient and so on, which is what they were supposed to do in the United States. And on Christmas Eve, I’m watching cartoons. My brother takes a phone call and then he comes to see me and he says, “Mom and dad have been shot.”

My reaction to that was utter confusion. I had no idea what to say or do, and so I said nothing. And I distinctly remember my brother saying to me, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you say anything?” He was crying. And I internalized that as a sign of my incapacity in some way as a son and as a person that I was not able to express myself. I think I internalized a lot of that. And so that was I think a very graphic moment in my family’s history, but not an unusual one because that was the life of shopkeepers, refugee shopkeepers, and other shopkeepers in these working-class, poor neighborhoods of the United States where my parents opened their store. I think it was not an uncommon experience for many refugees. And I think for many of us, I think our response was to simply look forward, don’t look back, don’t dwell on the trauma, whether it’s the trauma of the war and what happened in our countries of origin or what was happening to us in the United States.

Suzy Ferguson:

So numbness as a coping mechanism. When you began to scratch below the surface of that, what did you find?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I found terrifying depths. I think that I move forward by focusing on the things that an immigrant or a refugee is supposed to focus on, which is make sure you get your schooling, become respectable, get a good job. And I succeeded in all those types of things. But I remember that I also wanted to become a writer. So when I was in college, I took a nonfiction writing class with a famous writer, Maxine Hong Kingston. And in that very small class of 14 students, I would fall asleep every single day in that class. Maxine told me that I was the worst student in her class, and she advised me to go seek psychological counseling, which I never did. I became a writer instead. But I became a writer in order to try to cope with this past, but that past was overwhelming for me.

And the essay that I wrote for Maxine’s class was about my mother going to a psychiatric facility. That was a very difficult thing for me to write about. But I wrote it and then I put it away, and then I did not think about it for 30 years until the pandemic and I discovered that essay again. And I realized that I’d been telling myself for the past 30 years that my mother had been sent to the psychiatric facility when I was a little boy, but in fact, when I reread the essay, she had gone there when I was 18 years old. So that was a sign of how much emotional damage had been done on me and how it had been so distorting that I could even convince myself as an adult that my past was different than what it actually was. And once I realized that, I realized I had to go back and rediscover all of this history that had affected us all so deeply.

Suzy Ferguson:

When you did realize that you wanted to be a writer, do you think unconsciously that was part of you trying to find a means of understanding and to work out what had happened?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

That was the secondary result. The first reason why I wanted to become a writer was that I was watching my parents struggle with this grocery store and just working constantly and not having time for me ironically. And so I turned to stories as a way of escaping from this very troubling reality. I would go to the library every weekend, come home with a backpack full of books, and just immerse myself in these stories and escape from the reality of the Saigon Mai and the Vietnamese refugee world of California in the 1970s and the 1980s. So I was really escaping to beauty and to storytelling. That’s what really made me want to become a writer. But as I delve deeper into my own history and the history of Vietnam and the United States, of course I realized that my desire for beauty and for storytelling and for wanting to become a writer were inextricably tied to this traumatic history as well.

Suzy Ferguson:

And the Vietnam War in particular looms pretty large in I guess in the minds of Americans, certainly in American popular culture. I sort of slightly hesitate using this word, but I can’t immediately think of a better one. Are the stories that America tells itself about the Vietnam War like Apocalypse Now? Is that re-traumatizing for like you who has arrived as a refugee from there?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I’m very careful to use the word trauma because obviously if you’ve actually survived a war as an adult or with someone whose memory is capable of remembering these kinds of things, trauma is quite painful and devastating. And I didn’t have that eyewitness memory. However, I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States watching all of these movies that the United States made about the war in Vietnam. And that is an exercise I recommend to no one, especially if you’re Vietnamese or Asian, because in watching these movies, what became very evident to me was that we Vietnamese and Asians had no place in the American imagination except to scream or cry or curse or beg to be rescued. And that deeply affected me in a way that I could not articulate when I was 11 or 12 when I first watched Apocalypse Now. And I realized how much that affected me when I was in college and I was asked to recount in a film class, some film episode that really impacted me. The first thing that came to mind was Apocalypse Now.

I remember shaking with rage and anger as I recounted the scene in the movie where American soldiers massacred Vietnamese civilians. Up until that point, I was an American rooting for American soldiers having watched a lot of American war movies. And at that point, however, watching these Vietnamese people being murdered, I was split into, not sure whether I was the American doing the killing or the Vietnamese being killed. And that moment really proved to me or brought home to me this idea that stories don’t only have the power to save us as I believed from my experiences in the library, but that stories have the power to destroy us as well.

I think the reason why this is important to people besides myself is that the United States and Hollywood of the United States is America’s unofficial ministry of propaganda. And the cultural reach of American soft power through things like Hollywood is enormous. Most of the world knows about the Vietnam War, not from Vietnamese stories, but from these American stories that have been told through Hollywood and other forms of American soft power.

Suzy Ferguson:

And as you say, that has a particular perspective. It centers the American story and the American experience, not the Vietnamese one. And the power in that is palpable. But also, I suppose the fact that there are so many of that kind of story does underline the lack of curiosity.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

It’s a very tricky thing to look at these narratives that are put out by Hollywood and other forms of other nations’ soft power industries because when you watch these American movies, what you come away with is this sense that the war in Vietnam from the American point of view was a bad war and that Americans did terrible things. And you would imagine that having seen these kinds of movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and so on, that the people who are not Americans, the world over who have watched these movies might come away very critical of the United States. That may be true, however, the paradoxical power of soft power is that it gets us to empathize with the people telling the stories even if the stories they’re telling depict them badly.

And so in these movies where Americans are committing atrocities, they’re still the center of attention. And even though the Vietnamese people are the victims, we’re completely silenced as well. And so ironically enough, the world knows the Vietnam War stories through American perspectives and continue to feel for Americans and see through their point of view. And that was really important. That was a really important motivation for me to become a writer so I could try to tell this history, the Vietnam War and afterwards for the refugees, through Vietnamese perspectives. That’s not the only truth out there, but it certainly was my truth that I wanted to use to counteract what the Americans were saying, but also to give the world a different perspective on this history.

Suzy Ferguson:

And so fascinating that way that you recount not knowing whose side you’re on. Are you on the side of the Vietnamese or are you on the side of the Americans as you are both. And do you feel like you’ve got that foot in both countries? You’re an American when you go to Vietnam, but you’re Vietnamese when you are in America because that experience of belonging is a curious one.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I think that most people probably want to belong fully and wholly to some place, to some home, to some people and to some culture. And I feel that urge myself, but I was prevented from having that complete sense of belonging because of the experience of refugee displacement. And because of the fact that in the United States, as in many other countries, if you don’t happen to be a part of the dominant culture however that is defined, you often be categorized as an other in some way. And that’s a very unsettling experience to be the object of racist or other kinds of jokes and microaggressions and macroaggressions and so on.

My response to that was in the end, not to want to fully belong, but to have a distrust for that sense of authenticity, for that desire to be completely on the inside, because I could see the consequences of that desire. I could see that in order for us to feel utterly safe and comfortable, it was all too human of a response to then demonize someone on the outside and to put our fears and our desires onto that other. So my position now is to say that I am both inside and outside everywhere. And that is an uncomfortable position to be in, but it is also a position with advantages. The advantages of cultivating empathy for those who have been cast outside, a position of being capable of seeing how our own side, whatever that side is, is capable of both human and inhuman behaviors of good and evil all at the same time.

Suzy Ferguson:

And then putting that into the stories that you tell, how do you think about the stories that America tells itself about some of these significant cultural touchstone moments like the Vietnam War? Is that something that is developing that is open to hearing from other voices?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, of course. I mean, the United States is a liberal democracy, whatever that means. And the limits of that liberal democracy I think have been put into sharp relief by history, but also by contemporary events in Gaza. But for me, what I perceive is that the United States offers people who have been racialized, minoritized, marginalized in various ways and opening. We are given the opportunities to speak because we are a multicultural democracy. We have the reality and the rhetoric of freedom and freedom of speech and so on. And so there’s an opening there. And the opening for someone like me or anyone else who’s been categorized as another is that we are given a particular trauma, in my case, the Vietnam War. And we’re not only allowed but expected to speak on it, but we’re not allowed and not expected to speak on anything else. So that’s a very problematic opportunity there because there’s the danger, the reality of being ghettoized, of being pigeonholed, of being only expected to speak of one thing.

And so when I became a writer, it was very clear to me that I would definitely speak about the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese refugee experience, but that I would do it on my terms and that I would connect it to the entire experience of American history. This is unsettling for some Americans because I don’t treat the Vietnam War as an isolated episode in American history as an exception to American behavior. But instead, I connect the failures of the war in Vietnam to the original contradiction that the United States is built upon, which is that we are a country of freedom and democracy. That is true for some people. And we’re also a country that has been built on genocide, colonization, slavery, and warfare. And that enduring contradiction led directly to the Vietnam War and leads directly to the present in the United States and all the various divisions that we’re experiencing.

Suzy Ferguson:

And so how to get that message across and what place does humor have in it?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, how to get the message across is to tell the story, my stories, in the most way that I possibly can. And that involves various kinds of techniques, but that certainly includes humor because everything I’ve been saying is certainly speaking about a tragic and painful history. And yet I think that even in the most tragic and painful moments we can find humor and satire, absurdity, surrealism, jokes. These are all crucial human methods of surviving the worst moments in our shared human history, partly because they make us laugh, and partly because they point out that tragedies are born from contradictions in human behavior that are laughable. That every country, not just the United States, not just Vietnam, every country, it’s probably built on moments of terrible violence that contradict the nation’s mythologies. And the nation’s mythologies are built on very noble and sentimental rhetoric about how human and terrific we are as a country. And yet within that history, there’s always something shameful and terrible we have done as a nation that has contradicted our mythologies. And in that, there’s tragedy and there’s also comedy in that absurdity and hypocrisy.

Suzy Ferguson:

You are listening to Saturday Morning with Susie Ferguson here on RNZ National. My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and is coming to the Auckland Writers Festival in May.

How do you view the fact that 13, I think it was, publishers turned down The Sympathizer, which of course went on to win the Pulitzer Prize?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, I think it’s enormously funny. It was a very sad day when 13 out of 14 publishers turned me down. But it was enormously funny when the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. But I think the 13 out of 14 publishers turned the novel down because exactly as I said, I refuse to subscribe to dominant American narratives and mythologies that allow someone like me a very narrow space to speak. And instead, I decided to go straight for the center of American experience through refugee, the Vietnamese refugee experience.

It’s very important, I think, to point out that the 13 editors who rejected the manuscript were Americans. And the 14th editor who bought it was actually English living in the United States and someone who actually was of mixed race descent, as I eventually found out, Indian, Malaysian and British. And the novel, The Sympathizer, it is told from the perspective of a French and Vietnamese person, a mixed race person. And I chose that deliberately so that I could avoid these ideas of authenticity that we have around national experience, that the Vietnamese must think one way, the French must think another, and so on and so forth. And that mixed race experience was crucial to being able to see every issue from both sides.

Suzy Ferguson:

Did you ever doubt that you would be able to have a career as a writer?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

All the time. Before I wrote The Sympathizer, I’d spent 17 years writing a short story collection called The Refugees, and that was a miserable experience. I hated every single moment of it, which readers do not need to know about. All the readers need to know is that you could probably read The Refugees in a few hours. But for me as a writer, it took enormous effort to be able to produce stories that could be read so easily. And because every moment was horrible, I did have constant doubts about whether I could become a writer, whether it was worthwhile, whether anybody would ever read me and so on.

And because I suffered through that experience, I was able to become a writer because I think one of the key ingredients of becoming a writer is endurance. Honestly, no one cares that you want to be a writer, not even your own mother cares that you want to be a writer even though she may tell you otherwise. And so you have to find it within yourself, as I did, to just persist no matter what anybody else thinks positively or negatively about your own writing. And so there’s no school, no program, no book, no teacher that can teach a writer that most basic lesson. And so I had to go through those 17 years of misery in order to become a writer.

Suzy Ferguson:

17 years of misery. How do you actually go through that process? And I suppose has that changed over the years? Because there is, I guess, a density to your writing, which I don’t know, do you just write it like that? Or is this something that you developed throughout your process of drafting and redrafting and editing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I think the way I was able to survive 17 years of misery is twofold. The first is pure ignorance. If someone had told me at the beginning when I was in my 20s that it would take 17 years of misery to become a writer and even more years to become a published writer, I probably would not have tried to go down that route. And the other thing that helped me survive that experience is that I was raised a Catholic, which means that I like masochism. I like suffering and sacrifice and martyrdom and all that is very crucial to becoming a writer. And then finally, when I spent 17 years working through the art of being a writer, one of the things that I was able to discover was my voice. And this is a very mystical notion for writers and maybe for other artists, this voice.

The voice I think is something that is an expression of one’s authenticity, what one truly believes as a person and as a writer. And again, I don’t think you know what your voice is when you start off being a writer. It takes all that discipline and effort and sacrifice to both discover the art and to discover the voice. And when my voice emerged, it led, as you described, to a writing style that could be called dense because there’s a lot of words on the page in a novel like The Sympathizer, and a sequel, The Committed. And yet I also believe that the density of that language is there to express all of this complexity of history and stuff we’ve been discussing. But also the density of that language allows something else to emerge, which are the jokes, the satires, the absurdities, the hypocrisies as well.

Suzy Ferguson:

How does your dad, I suppose, and how did your mom respond to you going down the streets and becoming a writer?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Well, they never knew I was going to become a writer. My gosh. My brother became a doctor, a medical doctor, which is what you’re supposed to do as the son of refugees. I put off my parents by saying I was going to become a doctor of philosophy. And they were like, “Well, we don’t know what that is, but at least there’s doctor in there.” So for them, what was acceptable that I would have a doctorate, I would become a professor, which was a real job, but I’d never told them I was going to become a writer. That was a step too far.

And so they found out I was a writer when my books were published. They had no idea what to make out of that, and I had no desire to punish them by making them read my books. So it was enough that they had the physical object of the book. And when the books became successful, especially with The Sympathizer, then they were very happy. I distinctly remember that when I won the Pulitzer Prize, I did not even tell my parents. I thought, “Who am I to brag to my parents? They’ve done so much. Who cares about this?” But what happened was that a day later, my father called me and said, “The villagers in Vietnam called. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” And his voice was shaking with happiness. So all it took was for me to win the Pulitzer Prize to make my father happy.

Suzy Ferguson:

All it took.

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

All it took.

Suzy Ferguson:

Your son, I think in particular, does he want to be a writer? He’s written a book, isn’t he?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

He did write a book. He was told when I took him to a writer’s colony, and he met people who had done this children’s book that he really loved, and he was so inspired he went home and he drew his own comic book and told me the story, and I wrote the words down and I put the thing on Facebook and an editor contacted me and said, “Can we publish this?” And my response was, “Can I make money off my son?” And so we did. And that became a book called Chicken of the Sea, about bored chickens who run off to the sea to become pirates. So my son experienced early fame, and it was really one of the greatest pleasures of my life to go on a book tour with my son. But what happened from that was that he actually made some money from that book, and he still has that money because his mother and I love him and we don’t charge him rent or food or anything else. So he doesn’t have to pay for anything.

And so as long as he has that money, he has no motivation to write another book. And so what he has told me is that he wants to become a video game designer, which struck terror into my heart. I got over it. I said, “Okay, fine. You want to become a video game designer.” I took him to my university, which has the best video game program in the country. And so he could see it firsthand for himself and see that it’s not only fun and games, but in fact he has to work a lot harder to get into that program.

Suzy Ferguson:

It’s an interesting juncture, I guess, at the moment in America. It’s election year. How do you think about America now? Do you still think about it as America TM and what does that mean?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Sure. So for those who haven’t read A Man of Two Faces, every time the word America appears in the book, it’s capitalized, and it’s also accompanied by TM, the trademark symbol. And the reason I did that was because I think the word America, as it’s normally spelled in and of itself, has such enormous mythological power that it’s very hard to overcome the hidden ideology that’s embedded in that word. And certainly, when people all over the world use the word America, they typically mean the United States of America, which means erasing everything else that are in all the other countries that are in the Americas, which the other American countries rightfully resent. And within the United States, to say the word America is to utter an entire ideology that most Americans have no idea that they’re holding. Certainly Americans believe in the American dream and that the greatest country on Earth, but they don’t know how much they have internalized that belief.

And so I think that what we’re witnessing in the United States is exactly related to that, which is the phenomenon of this country. Electing President Obama first, and then President Trump first is not an aberrant moment in American history. It’s actually a logical expression of that contradiction that I mentioned between freedom and democracy and enslavement, genocide, colonization and warfare and so on, that these two presidents are the two different oppositional faces of the country. And both of those faces are real at the same time. And so what we’re witnessing in this country in the last 10 years or so is not a new moment in American history. It’s a repetition of previous cycles in American history, which is very depressing on the one hand, that the challenges that we face as Americans are deep and they’re meaningful to the rest of the world because of the depth of American power. The only optimism I can extract from that is that we have survived previous cycles of American history, and I hope will survive this one as well.

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