Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The Financial Times | Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen: ‘I’m a utopian’

The Pulitzer winner on leaving Vietnam as a child, subverting the immigrant memoir — and why he believes in a borderless world for The Financial Times

Seb Jarnot

Nearly two hours into my lunch with the scholar, writer and provocateur Viet Thanh Nguyen, I hear myself apologise. We’ve taken on the myth of America’s promise, the plague of national borders, writing through trauma, “narrative plenitude” and Israel’s attacks on Gaza. I completely forgot to ask him a light question. He laughs. “Unfortunately, this is what my persona gets me,” he says. “I’ve attended author events where the questions are so easy. Like, ‘tell me about your book and what kind of pencils you use.’ Give me these questions!” OK, I say, what are you reading right now? “Well, I’m on the Pulitzer [Prize] board, so if I tell you stuff I’ve enjoyed it’s kind of a clue.” He rolls his eyes (“Gosh, everything is so serious with me”), then settles on children’s literature: his son loves the Percy Jackson Olympian series, and so does he.

I prod him for other things he likes, and he blurts out, “I like listening to children laugh?” and then slaps the table. I laugh. “OK, see? This is not serious. It’s sentimental and sappy! This is about as sappy as you’re going to get from me.” Nguyen hates being sentimental. But I get the sense, from his new memoir and our two hours together, that underneath it all, he’s mush.

Let’s go back. When Nguyen and I first meet, the word that pops into my head is “contained”: small frame, slim-fit dad sweater, cool haircut, warm eyes. He is unassuming, for a man who staunchly self-defines as Marxist and atheist, advocates for decolonisation and is one of few novelists to win a Pulitzer in fiction for a debut. Nguyen lives five minutes from the Pasadena restaurant he has chosen for our lunch, the whimsically named Agnes Cheesery.

Our small talk is initially respectful, and stilted. But as we settle in, I take out my copy of his new memoir, A Man of Two Faces. He sees that it’s dog-eared, covered in notes. “I like that,” he approves, and we dive in.

If I’d written a more conventional memoir, the book would be absorbed into the body politic of the United States

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen is 52. I ask him why he wrote this now. “I never wanted to write anything that could be classified as a memoir,” he says. “Because I always thought my life wasn’t very interesting. It’s my parents’ lives that were interesting.” Nguyen came to America aged four, with his brother and parents, as a refugee. It was 1975, the end of the Vietnam war. They were in the wave of what history calls “boat people”, four of the 800,000 people who fled Vietnam by sea, and the 130,000 who evacuated to the US. In his earliest memory, he’s being torn from his parents in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, then dropped in an American foster family for months before the state reunites them. His older brother was returned after two years. In his memoir, Nguyen shares these stories piecemeal, recording both what he remembers and what he’ll never know. He writes mostly in the second person, almost to himself: “Your family never speaks of this incident.” “You never ask.” Nguyen’s family settled in San Jose, California.

His parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store. He didn’t speak much Vietnamese. His parents didn’t speak much English. He turned to films and literature, but it all quickly started feeling one-dimensional, only from the point of view of the powerful. Even anti-war films about Vietnam such as Apocalypse Now felt racist, his people reduced to tropes. He eventually chose academia so that he could explore and criticise the singular myths he kept confronting: America can’t only be good. And how should he feel about a country that everyone’s saying rescued him, if it also made him a refugee?

Fast forward to 2015. After his novel The Sympathizer was published, Nguyen went quickly from little-known professor specialising in ethnic studies at the University of Southern California to a thought leader willing to poke holes in the American dream. Set as the war ends, the novel follows a Vietnamese double agent whose loyalties shift and are often in conflict. Critics loved it for using fiction as criticism: how did America lose a war, then win the narrative and somehow emerge as heroes? Its success sent Nguyen lecturing and touring around the world, writing regular op-eds. He wrote a sequel, The Committed, in 2021.

This April, The Sympathizer becomes an HBO mini-series starring Robert Downey Jr. Nguyen tells me that in lockdown his editor recommended he pull together his essays and lectures into a memoir, and write around them. He remembered a talk he’d given, where he mentioned his parents’ grocery store onstage. “I found myself overwhelmed with emotion, in front of all these people. Which was a very uncomfortable moment for me, because I don’t like being overwhelmed by emotion.” As a writer and a father, he took that as a clue: he’d better push towards it. He began to write. Before I follow up, our waiter approaches. Nguyen orders a mocktail, which is also whimsically named the Willy Thyme.

I order an iced coffee. He asks for a Cuban melt without cheese (“Obviously this may not make sense”) and I panic-order the quiche. We get tater tots to share. Nguyen’s memoir rails against cliché. It also plays. It pokes fun at the immigrant-American-has-an-identity-crisis narrative, and offers sarcastic steps for anyone writing their own immigrant saga for the western marketplace. Step one: hard life in the old world. Step two: daunting challenges in the new world.

This leads to generational conflict with immigrant parents. And finally, reconciliation, and acceptance of the American dream. Did he feel as if he had to spell out the rules to then break them? “Yeah, I think I’m easily bored,” he tells me. “And I’ve read a lot of memoirs. I know what the rules and expectations are. I could have done a more conventional book, I just didn’t want to. I felt like I’d seen it hundreds of times.” I briefly tell him my own immigrant saga: my grandparents were Greeks and Armenians in Asia Minor, displaced as the Ottoman Empire fell in the early 20th century.

They landed as refugees in Greece and the US. I tell him many of us are chasing this question of where we come from and what’s been lost. We’re chasing it earnestly. What is he wary of? What’s the trap he wants us to avoid? He nods. “I thought if I’d written a more conventional memoir and never mentioned the meta parts, the book would be absorbed into the body politic of the United States. They’d call it an immigrant, Asian-American memoir. And then, automatically, people would read the book through all these lenses they’ve already worn.”

Our meals and drinks arrive. Nguyen’s Cuban sandwich comes with plantain chips, and looks quite good. I surrender quickly to my own bad choice: I’m with a professor, which takes concentration, and this quiche is bound to get cold. Quiches are occasionally transcendent but rarely good, and never better cold. I munch on the tots instead. “I’ve seen that happen to enough books, where the subversive potential of them can be totally contained. And I wanted to write a book that would provoke the reader and say, hey, you’re possibly bringing all these assumptions to my work, and I want you to be aware of that.

I wanted to implicate or challenge the reader, at the same time.” Nguyen’s memoir points out the binaries in everything: in himself (Vietnamese and not, American and not) and in America itself, which “is and will always be a contradiction”. He bites into his Cuban as I read him his reference to F Scott Fitzgerald, who said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at once. I think we’re getting better at being comfortable with things as both/and, not either/or, I say. Is that what you want? Or do you want us to go further?

Refugees embody a rupture. They bring with them a changing world. We need to face it, versus try to keep them out

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“Yes, the next challenge is, what’s next?” He points to refugees. Refugees embody a rupture, he says. They bring with them a changing world. We need to face it, versus try to keep them out. What would that look like, I ask. “People aren’t going to like the answer, because I’m a utopian,” he says, and smiles. “I don’t believe in national borders.” OK, I say. Then I imagine the reader comments that will collect under this piece, and tell him what they’ll probably say: “That’s nice that Viet feels that way, sounds great, but let’s be realistic.” “Well, I’m going to guess that a good number of the Financial Times readers believe in God,” he says, chewing. “I don’t. But if you believe in God, you believe in the impossible.

You’re a utopian! You’ve just forestalled the world without borders until after you’re dead.” He says his academic work has compared Catholics and communists. “The form is all the same. But communists believe you can try to do it on earth, and Catholics say you have to wait until afterwards. So I think the utopian impulse is actually in many of us.” He says a crucial binary is one we all have within us, which is human and inhuman. To him, it’s also a both/and: they’re the same. “When people who aren’t refugees look at refugees, I think they give in to the common impulse to say ‘us versus them’. We’re human, they’re inhuman. That’s how we justify war, and keeping refugees out. It’s a universal human impulse.

At the same time, there is also a universal human impulse towards love and justice.” Our waiter stops by. Would I like another drink? I choose a mocktail to join Nguyen, pointing to one called a Feel Good Fizz. It comes with a silly straw. The whimsy is starting to feel blatantly incongruous. But where were we? We’re talking about the US southern border wall: “Our choices are to keep erecting border walls, militarise them and shoot people as they come over them, or try to address the system that has produced these refugees.” Say you were a politician, I suggest. Even a well-meaning politician can’t eradicate borders; they have to make deals, play games, sometimes choose who dies. What would you do? Nguyen pauses. “I would never be a politician! For those reasons.” He says he believes human negotiations are necessary, as no one should have unbridled power, and some people are suited to politics, and “that’s not me. But most politicians are not artists and writers. And we need artists, writers, philosophers and moral and religious leaders, because their task is to think about human nature, and the limitations and possibilities of our humanity.

Our work is to think about what could be done.” He says he may not believe in God, but this is why we have religions. “They’re supposed to guide us towards a better world in one way or another that politics seems to forestall.” On October 22 last year, Nguyen’s principles were tested when he made news. One of New York’s most prestigious cultural venues, 92NY, abruptly pulled an onstage interview with him because he had signed an open letter critical of Israel. I tell him he seemed very clearheaded in his response (“I have no regrets”) and ask what he was thinking about, in terms of his role. “I didn’t think anything,” he says. “I did not ask to be part of the narrative. I don’t even think I should be. I just got caught up in it.” He says October 7 was October 7, which was horrifying. But since October 7, we’ve had daily exposure to what’s being done to Palestinians. “And so while we need to be opposed to antisemitism and war crimes and massacres, at the same time the things that are happening today are happening in Gaza.”

He says he really got in trouble because he wrote on Instagram in support of the BDS movement. “Boycott, divestment, sanctions is a tool in the face of what I do believe to be genocide,” he tells me. “In the face of that, non-violent BDS is, to me, a principled state.” I’m actually grateful that I got cancelled by 92NY. I felt it helped me clarify my moral and political principles in a very specific situation This is a strange question, I tell him, but how would you recommend someone put words to their principles? People are clearly feeling pressure to take public stands, especially on their social platforms. I’ve seen so many agonise, flub, backtrack, overcorrect. You stand firm.

“I think most people have principles, but they probably don’t spend their lives thinking ‘What are they, and am I being tested on them daily?’” he says. “I’m actually grateful that I got cancelled by 92NY. I didn’t enjoy the pressure that resulted. But I felt it helped me clarify my moral and political principles in a very specific situation. My conclusion was: when put to the test, would you give up something meaningful?” Then I ask what, big picture, gives him hope. “I think all countries are built on something beautiful,” he says. “Most people believe that their countries are beautiful, that their nations and cultures are worthy of love and sacrifice. But many aren’t willing to acknowledge that their nations and cultures are like human beings: their humanity and inhumanity are simultaneous. It would hearten me if people could recognise that. Because then we can do something about it. If we only believe in the more perfect union, only believe in our humanity, only that we’re an exceptional nation, we’re just going to keep on doing some terrible things.” And now, we’re at the end. Nguyen has the tater tots boxed up for his son.

He urges me to take the quiche, which will later smell up an overhead baggage compartment on my flight home. We’re discussing what makes him happiest. He’s telling me about watching his son laugh at cartoons, rolling around on the sofa. “It’s such a pure joy, that I don’t really have as an adult.” I wonder aloud about the closest we can get to childhood freedom now. He answers immediately: “Writing. For me, it’s the adult version of playing.

Writing The Sympathizer was two years of real ecstasy. It was playful. No one knew who I was! That was the closest I can come to childhood. It’s been hard to recapture that because now people know who I am, so they won’t leave me alone.” I laugh, and he looks relieved. “Yes,” he says. “Please try to include some human stuff about me in this thing.” So I ask him to tell me the most emotional part of writing the memoir. He says his wife urged him to write a short penultimate chapter about the family they built together. “That was nice,” he said. “After all the joy, and the struggle, there was a nice quiet punctuation mark about my own personal home that I created with my wife and our kids.” He says he realised he can fight for better homes for others, and also let us see his own, a very nice home, because (of course) “it’s both/and”. He raises an eyebrow. “And this is about as sappy as you can get from me. Because I wish all of us can find our home, whatever that is.”

Lilah Raptopoulos is the host of Life and Art, the culture podcast from FT Weekend

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