Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The Harvard Advocate | An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Carrie Hsu and Vicki Xu interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen for the Fall/Winter 2023 Issue for The Harvard Advocate

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Southern California. His debut novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and numerous other accolades. A regular contributor to The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Nguyen is a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a 2017 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship. Most recently, Nguyen published an essay collection entitled A Man of Two Faces — an eclectic exploration of colonialism, intersectionality, and how politics, history, and identity are indelibly entwined.

Nguyen was invited to deliver the 2023-24 Charles Eliot Norton lectures hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center, a series in which he explores the concept of writing as an “other” — writing from the margins. He takes this interview with us the day after his second one, sandwiched between two meetings.

Despite his packed day, he is unhurried and gracious. We sit in plush chairs beneath the stairs of the ground floor of the Charles Hotel where he is staying. He speaks quietly, but with a fervor that draws you in, forces you to listen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In A Man of Two Faces, there’s a lot of form breakage: you break into verse, you change font size, you change paragraph alignment. Could you talk us through the decision to do that?

The decision to play with form in this book came about from wanting to play, or becoming a father. Watching a child disregard boundaries and rules or conventions, or not being aware of them in the first place, was very inspiring. And I thought, how sad is it that he will grow up and he will probably acquire all these rules and become a conventional person. That’s sort of inevitable.

As artists, I feel that part of what we do is we also require conventions and rules. And then to be really creative, we have to learn how to break them and ignore them at the same time by getting into impulse, and getting into what feels right. That to me was a very different creative procedure than what I did before, because typically I’ve been very rational and intellectual about various things. And I can give you an intellectual explanation of the different things that I did but you know, sometimes I break up the lines or adjust them in order to draw your eye and to give you an emphasis on the ideas that are being expressed.

One of the themes of the book is that history has shattered communities, dispersed them, fragmented them, and things like war and colonialism disrupt borders. And formally, therefore, the book is responding to that by disregarding borders. I don’t think there is a relationship between national borders, identity borders, and genre borders. And I don’t think I’m unique in seeing the disruption of borders and conventions within literature as a response to historical disruption of borders and conventions.

Dictee by Theresa Cha disregarded all kinds of conventions and forms. It’s really inspiring. I use one of her lines as a section epigraph to gesture to the fact that Dictee really did influence the book in a highly stylized fashion. She makes up her own rules about what she’s going to do with these words — they could be prose, they could be poetry, but they’re somewhere in between. It took the culture decades to catch up with Theresa Cha. I think we’re still catching up to that book. I’m not Theresa Cha; I don’t have her spirit, I don’t have her avant-garde in the same way. But I’m going to take what I can, and I think there’s a little trace of that willingness to rearrange the words on the page and use that rearrangement to provoke the eye; there’s some willingness to point directly to histories of colonialism. There’s some of that present in my book, but my book is certainly more conventional than hers.

The disruption of convention is an interesting idea in light of your soon-to-be trilogy, which was very much accepted by the literary establishment. When you’re putting forth work that is subversive in some way but nonetheless receives critical acclaim from that establishment, how do you square that success with the work’s intent? For The Sympathizer in particular, does that indicate something about the trajectory of literature in America?

I think there is a space in contemporary American literature and Anglo-American literature for a certain degree of political and formal subversion. I don’t think it’s a huge space, but that space is created, at least partly, by people within the publishing industry — editors and so on. You may have diverse writers processing some of the ideas and themes that I’ve been talking about, but you also have editors who can be receptive to that.

Publishing isn’t a monolith, although it certainly is kind of corporate and tends to produce mainstream prose that can be really conventional. But there are openings. I’m not the only one who’s tried to go through those very narrow openings; when I look at certain writers that I admire, like Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, I feel they’ve taken advantage of those openings by trying to be subversive politically and culturally but also trying to execute that at the highest level of their art.

There’s also a long tradition, talking specifically about Asian-American writing, where people are being subversive, politically and in terms of their content, but maybe they’re not succeeding so smoothly at the formal level. But I think that tradition is really important. Even if I found their efforts limited in some ways, they really helped me by revealing to me what those formal conventions were, and that they could and shouldn’t be broken. I think it’s very important to acknowledge that.

My books arrived at a moment in time where the whole publishing apparatus was looking for writers of color and so-called minority writers who can do horribly exciting work to give them recognition and awards and all that, and everybody feels good about themselves. I’m not naïve about the way the publishing apparatus functions as a mode of work: recognizing necessary historical discussions, but also possibly containing those as well in a mode of liberal recognition.

In another interview, you said, “I read a lot of Asian-American literature, ethnic literature, American literature in general. And I just made a decision that a lot of these works that I’ve read failed me at the level of great writing.” Is that related to what you mentioned about formal recognition and the level of high art that you’re seeking?

I don’t think it’s any disrespect to these categories that you mentioned to say that a lot of it is not great. A lot of anything is not great. As readers we’re lucky if we can just find and read the books that have achieved something really compelling; that’s what we should be spending our time doing. But for those of us who are scholars or writers who need to read widely and deeply, we’ll see a lot of the mediocrity and the failures.

You can become a writer with a minimal degree of talent. If you recognize that there are rules, conventions, forms and so on, and you study the form and practice in your form, you’ll be able to produce, for example, a novel that looks like a novel. Doesn’t mean it’s gonna be great, but it looks like a novel.

And it’s important for me to also point out that the form is not simply the arrangement of words on the page, and the way that a plot looks, and the way that a character looks. Those are aspects of form, but there’s also ideological form. And this is a part of the mediocrity — if you as a writer do not recognize ideology and how it’s operating in society, and how it percolates into literary form, you’re probably going to produce a mediocre book.

There’s a lot of Asian-American literature that paints within the lines, the lines already provided. There’s a lot of books about the immigrant experience. It’s important to have a lot of books about the immigrant experience because we want there to be plenitude, but a lot of them reiterate basic ideological narratives about what immigrants are supposed to do in American society. The writers I point to like Ellison, Kingston, Morrison — they recognize the form of both the ideology and the novel or the memoir that they’re disrupting.

Speaking of writers, are there texts that you found formative throughout your life?

The writings of Frantz Fanon — if you read Black Skin, White Masks— it’s really disruptive work because it is political critique, but it’s also formally experimental. It doesn’t look like anything else. And that fascinates me. I like books that don’t look like anything else.

W. G. Sebald is another really interesting person, who, when I read his work, I can’t tell the difference between his fiction and nonfiction. I find it fascinating. He created his own style, and I admire writers who create their own styles, because they’re responding to something inside of themselves, but also responding to the history that they’re confronting. Fanon was confronting slavery and the diaspora and colonization; Sebald was confronting the Holocaust and World War II and amnesia.

More contemporarily, I’ve been reading a lot of poets of color in the last 10 or 15 years — people like Solmaz Sharif, Layli Long Soldier, Ocean Vuong. I can totally see the relationship between the history and the politics that they’re concerned with and the literary forms that they’ve been innovating. The formal question is so compelling to me because it’s not just about the content. It’s not just about saying, “This happened to us for whatever reason.” [It’s about saying,] “This happened to us, but I as a poet am going to use my language in a very particular way, not just to transmit the content, but the shape or experience of that content.”

And when I read the poets, there are no rules. The poets can do whatever they want with the words on the page. I thought, why do prose writers have rules? If you’re a poet, you can do whatever you want. But the prose writer — if you do so much as not use quotation marks, people freak out. (That happened with The Sympathizer — the one most common question people had when it came out was, “Why are there no quotation marks?” It’s just a stupid question.) But you know, the conventions are so deep, and that proves that if you do any little thing, there will be some percentage of readers who don’t like it or don’t comprehend it. And in poetry, poets have the license of total freedom that I just think prose writers should appropriate.

We were interested in the genre of The Sympathizer, which seems generally in the spy novel genre, and The Committed,which is a mafia novel. What spurred the decision to use that framework?

The decision to write The Sympathizer as a spy novel came immediately to me because I knew I wanted to write about the Vietnam War, but I also wanted to write an entertaining novel. I mean, I’ve read a bunch of Vietnam War novels, and I’ve read a lot of Vietnamese refugee accounts and expert accounts. It seemed to me that a lot of them are very serious works, which didn’t mean they couldn’t be entertaining, but I really wanted the novel to be entertaining. And the spy novel as a genre immediately came to mind because there have been spy novels about the Vietnam War from this notably white American standpoint. I was also well aware that the spy novel as a genre has great capacity to talk about politics and history for obvious reasons. That made it the perfect genre for me, because I could be entertaining, and I could talk about politics and history, and I could be metatextual and metafictional.

As a writer, I’m really interested in layers of allusions and novels that speak to traditions or counter traditions. The novel flowed very smoothly from that — once I knew that it was a spy novel, and that there were certain conventions that I could follow, and that the character of the spy also has to fit certain conventions as well. Choosing a genre helps in a way because it gives you certain rules that you can then use to steer yourself but also deviate from if necessary.

When it came time to write the second novel, I felt that I still wanted it to be fun. Couldn’t be a spy novel because he’s no longer a spy, so I chose crime. The crime genre also works very well for me because good crime novels are very aware that street-level crime, personal crime, are interesting, but oftentimes are more interesting when we know that they are manifestations of structural crime. The most interesting crime writers I like are always careful to point out that it’s not the drug dealer on the street that’s really scary. It’s the white guy in charge of the pharmaceutical company, or it’s the nation-state itself that’s engaged in narco-trafficking. Good crime novels are very aware that crimes and gangs and so on are reflections or outcomes of the fact that the state has a monopoly on violence.

What genre framework are you considering for your third novel?

I think it’s going to be a murder mystery. Someone dies, and whodunit?

How far along is it?

Ideas, lots of ideas. Literally just hundreds of emails to myself with ideas. I don’t carry a Moleskine around; I carry my phone and take notes on my phone.

Do you find yourself being recruited as a kind of pundit to speak on certain things, especially after the success of The Sympathizer? Cathy Park Hong had some things to say about how, after publishing Minor Feelings, a lot of people would ask her to give certain cultural commentary that she felt was not in her capacity to give. We were wondering if that happened to you as well, and how you feel about that.

When I was in college, I was already writing essays for newspapers on topics like affirmative action and Miss Saigon and racism. I was inspired by writers who I felt were committed writers, writing their particular novels or poems or whatever, but also engaged politically. And so that was always my idea of the kind of writer I wanted to be. Even as I was learning how to be a novelist, I worked at a creative writing blog, Diacritics, and wrote editorials for that.

When the novel won the Pulitzer Prize and I did all these interviews, that was the beginning of this process of becoming this pundit. I’m well aware of the process that Cathy was talking about, the transformation of a writer into a professional refugee or professional Vietnamese or professional Asian-American and so on. There’s a whole mechanism to turn us into spokespeople, just as there’s a publishing mechanism that looks for the new hot young writer. I don’t think we control those mechanisms. However, I think there is a window to use the mechanism to the extent that I could just say what I wanted to say. That seemed to work for a while. I did publish essays in The New York Times, talking about things that were important to me.

I’m always conscious of that problem, of being the professional and the spokesperson. That part has slowed down for me because a professional pundit would, I guess, keep on punting endlessly. I just felt like after six or seven years, I ran out of things to say. If I don’t have new ideas or things to say, there’s no need to continue writing these things. But instead I took all those ideas and put them in A Man of Two Faces.

In A Man of Two Faces, you write, “How do you disentangle the peculiarities of your family and your lives from adolescence and testosterone, high literature and pornography, San Jose and Hollywood?” This question, to our reading, was a kind of undergirding for the book. In the practice of nonfiction, how do you disentangle these things that seem so interconnected and make them coherent to yourself and others?

You tell me. You read the book, so is it coherent?

Well, it’s at once an exploration of the wars, Vietnamese-American identity, but also it’s an elegy toward your mother. It’s melding a lot of forms of essay into one book.

Part of the inspiration for me was this idea that you find in Edward Said’s Orientalism. He was quoting Gramsci about the need to make an index of yourself. All of us are composed of all kinds of things, all these different genealogies and influences and histories. And it becomes that knowledge that you’re describing. The index is about going through yourself and making a catalog of all the different ways you’ve been shaped by different things in different incidents. I think a good number of people go around without that index of themselves — accept the knot — and they carry that knot for a bit but don’t question what’s in there. An index for me is a useful idea as well because an index is a list of things, lists, fragments, notes. These generic ideas were very important, versus a kind of holistic message.

You talked about the elegy, for example. The piece that appeared in The New Yorker based on this book was the elegy part that had been extracted from the book and presented as a coherent essay. And it takes the part of the book that I think is the most appealing for a lot of readers because it performs what it is that a memoir is supposed to do.

I’m not interested in that. I think for those of us who are refugees and immigrants, it’s a form that’s easily captured, contained. In other words, ‘Yeah, our parents suffered, let’s elegize them.’ When you cry, you feel good. You have a cathartic experience. And I can point to Asian-American memoirs that do exactly that. You can probably point to them, too, and they’re very readable books.

I felt that there was room for me to do something different. I wanted to force the reader to earn the right to cry. Again, the conventional memoir doesn’t make the viewer earn the right to cry. You just read the narrative and then you cry, because that’s what’s supposed to happen, and then you forget about it, because your expectations have not been disrupted. And that’s not enough for me. I felt that if I had only narrated the story within the narrow confines of my family’s view, of course things like the war and refugee experience would be brought in, but the seamlessness of that memoiristic, elegiac approach would allow the reader to just slip in and slip undisrupted until they get to the moment of catharsis and then they can cry. I want the reader to be bothered by this book. And it’s okay if they are. It’s more important for me to give a broader picture than a smaller and narrower one. The book starts out wide, and the third and fourth parts are more personal. That was very deliberate.

We have a speed round of questions for you. The first is, you want a meal. Do you go for a hot and fast fry, or slow and braised?

Hot and fast fry.

Favorite outfit you own?

Blue velvet blazer, pink shirt, black pants, patent leather shoes.

What’s something you like to do the old-fashioned way?

Take walks in my neighborhood. That’s an old-fashioned thing to do, and there’s really only one way to do it.

How about something that makes you feel young?

What makes me feel young? I don’t feel young anymore. Could be the cocktails. Or the willingness to break these conventions.


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