Talking to Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen
John Freeman Chats with the Author of The Sympathizer
“ALL WARS are fought twice,” Viet Nguyen has written, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”
Born in Vietnam to parents who fled to the United States in 1975, Nguyen understands this truth intimately.
Nguyen spent his first three years in the US in a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsyvlania and then with a host family in Harrisburg, where he was separated from his mother and father and sister. “Not everyone would take a whole family,” he says, speaking by phone from Boston.
“This period had a big impact on me, I didn’t realize how deep until much later.”
Nguyen’s family eventually reunited in 1978 and resettled in San Jose, where his mother and father opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores. It was not an easy period, given the virulence of anti-Vietnamese sentiment.
As an academic, Nguyen has read and studied his way into the heart of this long conflict—the one that extends well beyond a war. And in the past year he has made a double-barreled assault on broadening how we talk about Vietnam.
Last April, Nguyen released his blackly comic debut novel, The Sympathizer, the tale of a communist party spy who escapes Saigon for the United States, where he lives a double-existence—as a resident, and as a informer on a general who has landed in LA and runs a liquor store.
Today it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
What begins casually turns murderous and then absurd as the unnamed narrator tries unsuccessfully to separate from his past. He winds up having to participate in assassinations to cover his tracks. He even takes a turn in Hollywood working on a film that sounds an awful lot like Apocalypse Now.
Two weeks ago, Nguyen also published a searching and far-reaching work of criticism, Nothing Ever Dies, which examines—less comically—the way memory of the Vietnam War—and war in general—is made, curated and abused by those in power.
Put together, the two books perform an optic tilt about Vietnam and what America did there as profound as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were to the legacy of racism and slavery.
Not accidentally, these were two of the most important books for Nguyen at Berkeley in the 1980s and 1990s, when he began to realize that for the war to be—as he calls it—justly remembered, we needed to broaden the way it is addressed.
It would be tempting here to lay the feet firmly on America’s feet. But while The Sympathizer does not flinch at excoriating what the U.S. did in Vietnam, Nothing Ever Dies argues that blame and victimhood are not helpful categories in the long run.
It is Nguyen’s belief that for such wide-scale conflicts to be avoided in the future we need to learn how to become better acquainted with our inhumanity on both sides of the conflict.
So just as Nguyen examines Apocalypse Now for putting America’s suffering at the heart of the Vietnam War, Nguyen looks at the ways Vietnamese society is reluctant to acknowledge the deaths of Cambodians and Laotians.
I caught up with Nguyen, who is now a professor at USC, in Boston by telephone and he described the long road these books had to their near simultaneous publication, and what he hopes they might accomplish beyond earning readers.
John Freeman: The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies are published fast on the heels of one another, I wonder if you could talk about how their thinking was linked.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Both of these books come out of a line of me wanting to deal with Vietnam, and more broadly, the question of war and memory in general. The ideas in Nothing Ever Dies grew slowly—I worked on it for over a decade, but the book itself I wrote in a year. I threw out all the articles I’d written and then wrote it from scratch after I had finished The Sympathizer. Some of those ideas had filtered into the fiction—but all the work of the fiction worked itself into the writing of the nonfiction. The ambition in the back of my mind—I may not be there yet—is that I would love to be able to write fiction like criticism and criticism like fiction. I think of W.G. Sebald—a hero of mine—I can’t tell the difference in his work, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, it all feels like literature. So as I was writing these books closely together, I was doing the best to incorporate criticism into the fiction, and fiction into the criticism, so with The Sympathizer I was hoping to construct a narrator who could say dramatically very critical things, but who wouldn’t be restricted as an academic to source his beliefs. In Nothing Ever Dies, I couldn’t find a way to find a sense of humor into that book, but I really did try to take everything I had learned from the novel—narrative rhythm, for example—even working my basest unsaid feelings into the very shape of the thing. One of things I want both books to do is to move the reader both emotionally and intellectually.
JF: As a scholar, you have read a great deal in the space of Asian-American literature, but also literature of the Vietnam War, and in Nothing Ever Dies you look at many of these books (from Larry Hienemann’s Close Quarters to Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name) and examine how they function as aspects of collective memory. You’re arguing, essentially, that if we are to form a just memory we need—as cultures, as individuals—to acknowledge both our humanity and our inhumanity, as well as the humanity and inhumanity of the Other. Did your experience critically examining these books alter the way you approached writing The Sympathizer and how you drafted character. As in showing you things you did not want to do?
VTN: Those books were not negative examples, they were all positive in different ways in how they confronted war and politics. Larry Hienemann’s Close Quarters was a novel I read when I was very young, 12-years-old, it was a horrible experience, I wasn’t emotionally or literarily equipped to deal with it. So for a long time I really hated that book. But I think Heinemann actually did the right thing by unrelentingly focusing on atrocity without editorializing that these things were wrong. When it came to my novel—I realized if I could make the reader as uncomfortable as I felt reading that book, that would be a good thing. Being a critic, yes, I had to read a lot of things—in many categories—and in reading entire categories of work, much of the writing in these categories is mediocre. So reading the mediocre stuff and seeing the cliches was actually helpful in teaching me what not to do.
JF: You mentioned reading Close Quarters as a 12-year-old in San Jose. You don’t speak much about your family in Nothing Ever Dies, except glancingly and then more directly in the epilogue. What can you tell me about your upbringing?
VTN: The bare bones of it I was a refugee, and spent a few years in Pennsylvania, so my first memories of anything was being separated from my family, and being sent—after also being separated from my sister, which was very painful—to live with a white family. In order to leave the camp, we had to split up—not everyone would take a whole family—so there I was at 4 years old living with strangers. It was only for 14 months, but this period had a big impact on me, I didn’t realize how deep until much later. Then we went to San Jose. My parents, they were stereotypical shop keepers. We had a challenging time in San Jose because they were working all the time. For me this experience, it has to do with being emotionally separated form my parents, as they were working a lot, and I was absorbing second hand the experiences of the war and immigration. It took me 10 or 15 years to get to the point to be ready to think about the Vietnam War and what it meant for me. I just wanted to get out of San Jose. I never wanted to write my own memoir, it’s not that interesting, my life, if I were a better writer I might write abut my parents.
JF: Were there any books which you read growing up or early on that helped you see your way out of San Jose to a bigger, broader way of seeing the world?
VTN: As an undergrad I studied English and ethnic studies—English, because I loved literature. The reason why I needed ethic studies was during the 1980s and 1990s you were engaging with the canon. And I couldn’t see myself making a life out of that because of I also felt the imperative to make a difference. Ethnic studies revealed to me the possibility that literature could matter in terms of politics and social justice. So I took a lot from Chicano studies and African-American literature and Asian-American literature. Certain people like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Maxine Hong Kingston were hugely important to me. In terms of going back to English studies, I go back to theory: Marxism, deconstructionism, queer, theory, all those things came together and formed the bedrock of Nothing Ever Dies. I was trying to figure out for a decade some essential questions: what does it mean to write, as a minority, what does it mean to be scarred by a war? I was trying to do something in Nothing Ever Dies, to think about memory, yes, but memory in terms of capitalism, and inequality, and how to write about minority subjectivity and how we as minorities are lured into idealized experiences—to think of our communities as defined by our victimization. And the conclusion is: these are traps for any kind of writers of minorities.
JF: I think what’s remarkable in this book is the way you connect these questions of identity—and how memory around Vietnam is curated—with domestic forms of violence, leaning quite heavily on African-American thinkers, from W.E.B Dubois to Toni Morrison. A quote from Beloved gives this book its title. I wonder if you could find any aperture for the broader forms of thinking you advocate in the past year, when there’s been a huge rise in nationalistic rhetoric and simultaneously an ongoing spectacle of terrible police violence against largely African-American men and women.
VTN: Anybody who looks around the contemporary landscape and the activism of Black Lives Matter and is surprised by any connection between wars foreign and domestic is naive, or has no historical consciousness. And that’s probably a large part of America. This isn’t an accident, though. Part of power and ideology in any society is the work it does to prevent its citizens or residents from making these connections. You know, the domestic and international roots of violence go far back though, and the roots of slavery and racism are deeply embedded with nationalism and war. I was always very aware of this once I started taking Ethnic Studies in college. The upshot of this lack of context however is the trap of believing our suffering is somehow unique. And this is true of any people—a lot of Vietnamese people feel this way, a lot of black people feel this way, a lot of white people think this way. We won’t be able to overcome the artificial divisions this creates—and the conflicts it enables—until we acknowledge that our suffering is shared and produced across multiple arenas. That’s why I look at some of the work of writers who demonstrate that in Nothing Ever Dies: the work of Junot Diaz, Susan Sontag, and James Baldwin in particular. These are the writers who have thought about these things.
JF: Throughout Nothing Ever Dies, you’re looking at the artifacts of culture—the artifacts of imagination—examining, from Apocalypse Now to smaller productions in Cambodia about the Khymer Rouge—to see how we curate the Vietnam War and war in general. You use the term just memory, which I have a hard time separating from justice, which is not easily pried away from punishment. How do we work towards enlarging forms of remembrance without giving in to the desire to punish?
VTN: Punishment is the reflexive response to something that we’ve defined as a crime, and once we’ve given that definition we’re able to circumscribe how that crime is produced and has roots much deeper than what we’re comfortable with, whether it is a crime that means a black person is shot on a street or where a terrorist is killed by a soldier or put into a cell. We can deal with it then because we’ve put a very limited historical frame on the crime. We may punish that person, but it’s not going to address the roots that will lead to the same things happening again, be it is perceived or actual crime or the response. For me justice is much larger and takes in a wider historical view—it’s a perspective. Unless we understand both of those things—we’ll never allow a just solution. That’s why Black Lives Matter sees what’s happening now as a repetition of cycles of violence that have already occurred before. And that’s why Black Lives Matter is arguing now for a much larger view about the connection between injustice and American violence.
JF: Two books coming out so close together give the impression of immediacy, but you’ve clearly studied this for some time, and been preparing to write for a long time.
VTN: Basically I spent twenty years working in academia as a grad student and professor acquiring various tools, writing an academic book, and it was very much a laborious process, working within a certain set of rules. I think what happened to me during that time was I learned patience, I learned how to live in obscurity, and I learned that quick gratification wasn’t going to come my way, and at a certain point I had nothing left to lose. So when it came time to write the novel, in 2011, it was enormously freeing that I was going to write this book for myself and no one else. And when it came time to write Nothing Ever Dies, which I began in 2013 or 2014, to think similarly, in the context of academia, as in, ‘I don’t care what anybody else things, I’ve already paid my dues to this life’—was freeing. I was hammering at a wall for 20 year and I finally hammered through in the course of writing these books together.
JF: In Nothing Ever Dies, you describe how—at least from the Vietnamese side—the ways of remembrance had yet to incorporate an anti-hero. And yet that’s what you precisely have done in The Sympathizer, having a narrator who is a spy, deceitful, murderous, and deeply problematic.
VTN: I think by the time I wrote The Sympathizer I knew I wanted to write an antihero, someone dark, metaphorically speaking, because I had already thought through this issue of the inhumanity of narrators in the fiction of writers of color. I had already decided that the biggest challenge was to write about characters who were capable of doing bad things—this was a sign not of inhumanity, but of full fledged humanity. Of three-dimensionality. That’s a privilege of the whole western canon, to have flawed characters, and in order for this novel to make a case to be read—not only as minority literature, but as literature that contests with the majority and is in some ways spy fiction, crime fiction, existentialist fiction—I had to reject this claim, however invented, that my character had to be either good or bad.
JF: How has this response been in your family?
VTN: We don’t really talk about the books in my family, I don’t shove my books into the dinner table conversation, I think it’d be really tiresome. My dad was proud of the novel, he insisted on having his picture taken with it when I brought it home. I think part of him appreciates the reception of the book in the American press, but when the nonfiction book was about to come out, I think maybe he thinks of it differently, when I came home I told him I wanted to dedicate it to him and my mother, their sacrifices are absolutely what made me the person I am today. But he said, please, don’t put our names in the book. For him the history I deal with has not died, and to be associated with the book would be too dangerous. As if the history which put him through decades of war and made of him an immigrant is out there waiting to grab him or to grab me. A couple of weeks ago when we talked ago he said, “Are you done writing books now?” So I think there is something much more dangerous about the nonfiction work for him. That is something that I respect, and maybe something that shows that books are still dangerous, words are still dangerous, and he is a person that wants to put them back.
JF: But you’re not going to stop, you’re working on stories which will be out next year—by the way, I believe I read one or two at Granta, sorry we turned them down!—and a sequel to the novel.
VTN: Oh don’t worry about that, getting rejected a few times—it’s part of the whole process. I’m sure I would have rather been accepted, that would have obviously been nicer. But it’s about learning how to learn from rejection—and all that had a way of turning me into the writer I became today. The short story collection, I don’t know what to think of it, I wrote a whole collection in 1997 before I started my academic career, and none of those words appear in this new collection. Still, I have no distance from it, twenty years later. I could look at The Sympathizer when I was done and think, I know what I’m doing here. So now I just depend on my editor, Peter Blackstock. I’m just relieved that I don’t have to write any more short stories. And I’m really super excited about writing the sequel of The Sympathizer, I wrote a 20 page outline, and I’ve written the first 50 pages. There will be an excerpt coming out in Ploughshares soon. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll finish the novel and be turning my attention back to the novel.
JF: You sound like an extremely deliberate writer. Was there anything you decided to do along the way to writing “The Sympathizer” that surprised you, which your unconscious did for you, and for which you’re grateful?
VTN: Two things—I had an outline, and I knew the ending of the novel would not be the ending, it was sort of a Hollywood ending—with lots of explosions and shootouts. I had to trust myself to figure it out, and two-thirds of the way through the book I did discover what the ending would be. Not every writer feels that way, and so that surprised me, but that came around because I inhabited the narrator’s psychology for so long, and what needed to happen for him. But the other thing is I didn’t understand was his character entirely. I had been having a great time writing from his point of view and then I realized, oh, wait a minute, he’s a misogynist, which I understood because I had constructed him to be a bad James Bond, but I was taking pleasure in writing from this point of view. And there was no way out of that part of his character. So that’s one of the things the sequel will take up—his re-education is not complete, including his impressions of gender and sexuality.
Watch: Viet Thanh Nguyen talks to Lit Hub at the National Book Awards on how rejection makes you a better human being.