Viet Thanh Nguyen Interview Transcript
The Dear Asian Youth book club recently had the pleasure of interviewing Viet Thanh Nguyen (Nguyễn Thanh Việt), an accomplished Vietnamese-American author, professor, and novelist. He is known for his works The Sympathizer and The Commited, a ground-breaking spy thriller series that explores the moral conflicts faced by a half-French, half-Vietnamese Communist spy as he navigates the Vietnam War. His debut book, The Sympathizer, was a New York Times best seller and winner of the 2016 Pulitzer prize for fiction, making it on over 30 “book-of-the-year” lists.
Viet Thanh Nguyen Interview
[00:00:00] Saoud Moon: Okay. Cool. So thank you so much for again, volunteering to interview. We really appreciate the privilege of interviewing you. And like I said, I'm a fan, so it's quite an honor. Just the first thing that you wanna start off with was how did your time away from your parents when you went to Pennsylvania and also your upbringing in San Jose as a refugee inspire your work?
[00:00:22] Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think those experiences. Becoming a refugee were not things that I really understood when I was younger as a child and as an adolescent, but I certainly knew the emotional realities of what they entailed because I could see what, this new life in the United States was doing to my parents who had to, run this grocery store.
[00:00:46] And just, you know, really sacrifice themselves that way to survive and to take care of my brother and me, and to send money home to all the people we had left behind in Vietnam. So that was what being a refugee meant to me. I didn't have a political consciousness about the history of the war and why we had come to this country.
[00:01:05] And I just saw the emotional damage that this refugee life did to my parents. And then therefore to me and this is a very typical immigrant and refugee story, for the, for the 1.5 generation like me or the second generation where we suffer or we feel the emotional fallout from historical tragedy or historical difficulties.
[00:01:29] And I think that those experiences imprinted themselves on me, left me with a very complicated set of feelings for my parents and for this country. And also I think left me struggling to deal with the emotional consequences for me as an individual, like how I just dealt with people, including my parents, but other people as well.
[00:01:53] And so, I think that emotional confusion damage… is pretty good for becoming a writer cause gave me the necessary material that really screwed me up for a long time, but which also provided me with a lot of motivation for trying to figure out my own history, my own family, my own personality.
[00:02:14] So without all those things, I don't know if I could have become the writer that I am now.
[00:02:18] Saoud Moon: Right. That makes a lot of sense. Also you spent a lot of your early career in academia, what kind of pushed you towards writing and choosing to write the sympathizer?
[00:02:31] Viet Thanh Nguyen: You know, becoming an academic was my compromise with my parents because my parents, as you are all familiar with your own possibly, they wanted me to become the doctor or lawyer an engineer.
[00:02:41] And so becoming a professor was sort of halfway there. Like I got a doctorate... it wasn't like a medical doctorate, but it was like a doctorate, you know, and it was a stable job and all that. So my parents were, were okay with that. But it was really my day job, you know, paid the bills and everything. And, it is a great job, but nevertheless, I was, was disappointed that I was doing that.
[00:03:02] Cause I really wanted to be a writer. And so I think at a certain moment in my life when I had enough stability as a professor, I just decided, well, I have to pursue my dreams and write a novel instead. And being a professor actually was very helpful in that regard because a lot of my scholarship was about Asian American studies and about the Vietnam war and about the politics of imperialism and colonialism, but also representation too.
[00:03:29] and so all that scholarly thinking actually goes into the sympathizer. Now I think in the sympathizer, I think those issues, I mean, sometimes are very explicit, but oftentimes they're kind of masked under the surface of a spy novel, which the sympathizer is. So the sympathizer is meant to be entertaining as a spy novel, but it's also meant, to work through so many of these academic issues that I was thinking about when it came to race, colonialism and war
[00:03:57] Saoud Moon: mm-hmm
[00:03:57] And since obviously, as an author, you've gained a lot of success. What has kind of kept you in academia then?
[00:04:07] Viet Thanh Nguyen: Growing up, watching my parents, forging this… career for themselves and being very focused on financial stability and money, because this was how they saved themselves, and so many people in Vietnam, really left me with a deep impression. And that was, number one that I didn't want do what my parents did, did not want to be a business person
[00:04:39] Saoud Moon: mm-hmm
[00:04:40] Viet Thanh Nguyen: But I was irrevocably marked by the spectacle of their hard work and sacrifice and by their fear of instability. And so, now that I'm a professor and I have this paycheck that's guaranteed, unless I do something really, really bad. It's hard to give that up! You know, it's really hard for me psychologically to let that go.
[00:05:05] And so being the professor is still that measure of stability and respectability that my parents found to be so desirable. And that I've still not completely been able to shrug off yet.
[00:05:19] Saoud Moon: Yeah, no, trust me. I think we all feel that, that's a big cultural thing right there.
[00:05:24] So kind of like moving forward a little bit, could you tell us the story of when you won the Pulitzer prize and kind of, how did that moment feel for you?
[00:05:31] Because it's kind of a big deal.
[00:05:34] Viet Thanh Nguyen: You know, when I wrote the sympathizer, my hopes for it were pretty small. I just wanted it to get respectable reviews and sell a respectable number of copies, enough for me to write another novel. And that's exactly what happened. And then I didn't think much more of that at that point.
[00:05:49] I'm sure I fantasized about winning prizes, but I think the Pulitzer was way beyond that level of fantasy, you know. So I thought, oh, maybe I'll get a small prize here and there.
[00:06:00] so anyway, I was on book tour still for the sympathizer. And I was in a hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts one afternoon, doing emails on my laptop.
[00:06:11] And then all of a sudden I heard my social media: Facebook and Twitter start beeping. And I looked at it at that many people were saying, oh, you won the Pulitzer prize and I was like, they must be playing a joke on me, so I called my publicist and said, "is this for real?" And she said, "it's for real!" And so that was a huge shock, you know, it was completely unexpected.
[00:06:31] And I think that obviously, like you said, it was a big deal. I knew it was a big deal. The first thing I did was obviously call my wife, after calling my publicist, I called my wife. And then, I had a lot of time in my hands because I was alone on the road.
[00:06:45] So I just, I wrote a Facebook post which is probably still on my timeline saying, I'm deeply appreciative for this prize, but also I think of myself as a writer working in a tradition of Asian American literature that, I don't think the sympathizer or me as a writer would've been possible without a whole centuries worth of Asian American writers. Who have been doing this since the late 19th century and clearing the way for someone like me, in a novel like this, which I think would've been completely illegible a century ago. And then, that was it. And then I'm still on the road.
[00:07:16] And then the next day my father calls me because I hadn't told my parents that I'd won the Pulitzer prize and literally the thought never crossed my mind. Like I did not think maybe I should call my parents and then I said, no, I won't call my parents. That thought never crossed my mind. Because I think that the thought of bragging to my parents just seemed kind of unnecessary, like after all they've been through, I'm not even sure they understood what I did.
[00:07:38] Cause I told them that I was gonna become a professor, but I never told them I was gonna become a writer, that was just like completely, a total secret, you know? And I think I had given my parents a copy of the sympathizer. So they knew there was a book, but we never talked about it.
[00:07:50] And then, the next day my father calls me on the road and his voice is shaking with happiness, as it turns out, because, the relatives in Vietnam called, you won the Pulitzer Prize! And I was like, oh, so, American imperialism is this powerful that people in Vietnam care about who wins the stupid Pulitzer prize.
[00:08:09] That just further impressed on me being the symbolic weight of this award and how it would've been, I think impossible for me to write this novel in Vietnam. But it is possible for me to write this novel in the United States, ironically enough. And so, this is one of the weird contradictions of history.
[00:08:28] That, coming to the United States as a refugee from an American war, allowed me to write a book about the American war, which I could not do in Vietnam. And still can't, like postscript to all of these novels being turned into a TV series. But we can't shoot in Vietnam.
[00:08:44] Saoud Moon: Mm-hmm
[00:08:45] Viet Thanh Nguyen: Government will not allow us to shoot the TV series in Vietnam.
[00:08:48] And so the Pulitzer, I think, just comes to symbolize all of that, that it made all this possible. That the Vietnamese themselves would recognize it. But for a subject matter that the Vietnamese will not allow to be discussed.
[00:09:02] Saoud Moon: That's really interesting. I appreciate the story a lot because I feel like my response would also be the same with my parents.
[00:09:08] Okay. So could you describe the experience of writing the committed, having to kind of write a sequel to a Pulitzer, I feel would be a lot of pressure. So did you feel any pressure or any outwards, circumstances influencing.
[00:09:21] Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think I probably did. I'm certainly aware of the pressures of writing both a sequel and a second novel to something that was so successful, and I think the first thing that I thought about was that when I wrote the sympathizer, I was not a young writer. I was like in my forties, early forties, and I already spent, at that point,14 years, writing, writing a short story collection that I thought would never see the light of day. And so when I started writing the sympathizer, I said to myself, I've just spent 14 years writing this short story collection for other people, Vietnamese people, agents, editors, and so on, hoping for approval with the sympathizer.
[00:10:00] I'm gonna write this novel for myself. And I think that had a great reason, a lot to do with how successful the novel was. Not that it won the Pulitzer, but simply that the novel itself was, I think, a successful novel, because I was sincere about where that novel came from. It was about as authentic of a novel I could write for myself.
[00:10:20] And so with The Committed, I thought, okay, I won the Pulitzer prize. I don't need to win a second one. Like who do I have to impress? And so if the Pulitzer prize I felt could either walk me into fear and the desire to repeat myself, or it could even just continue to liberate me by giving me the ability to do whatever I wanted to do, which is the spirit behind The Committed.
[00:10:39] So yes, there was some trepidation, but mostly I felt even more free to write The Committed than to write the sympathizer. And really the major difference between the two books in terms of the spirit of writing the books, was that in writing the sympathizer, I was also free of people's expectations.
[00:10:56] Nobody knew who I was, the only person who cared was my wife. But in running the committed there were a lot of people who cared. So I was constantly being distracted by invitations and interviews and things like that, so, it was actually more challenging to write The Committed simply from that perspective of being caught up in the world and concerns about the book.
[00:11:13] Saoud Moon: Mm-hmm cool. And then also kind of like building off of that, what motivated you to choose France as like, kind of the setting for The Committed and like making the narrator go through that second experience of being a refugee once again.
[00:11:30] Viet Thanh Nguyen: In writing The Sympathizer it's, you know, set between Vietnam and the United States.
[00:11:34] And the people in both of those countries, in both of these countries, have a lot of hangups about their countries, especially because they fought a war with each other, right. So everybody's wedded to their own mythologies of whatever Vietnam is, whatever the United States is. And so when I wrote the sympathizer, I was very aware that I would try to be very critical of these mythologies, these national mythologies and, and so doing, I was aware that I was probably going to offend a lot of people and that was the result of that. And I was also aware that people who were attached to those mythologies, but have a hard time reading this book because they would've a hard time getting past their own mythologies. So that's why I get hate mail from Americans saying, go back to Vietnam if you love it so much. And I get criticism from Vietnamese of all kinds saying, God, you know, you're too American and all of that. So I thought, in the sequel to The Sympathizer, I wanted to remove it from those contexts.
[00:12:29] And number one, I set it in France because our narrator is partly French. So he would have to confront his own history in France. But again, to remove the novel from the Vietnamese and American conflict and clear some space for myself and my own thinking that maybe in setting the novel in France, I would also achieve further clarity about what Vietnam in the United States happened to be... and then also by setting it in France, I could poke fun at the French, and so far I try not to read the reviews but, from the ones that have made it through, the French seem to have more of a sense of humor about the novel than the Americans do or the Vietnamese do about the criticisms I level at France and at Vietnam and the United States. And then finally, I think, setting it in France was important because it feels to me that in the current moment, the French have gotten away with a lot of stuff. They did terrible things during their Imperial era.
[00:13:19] Saoud Moon: Right.
[00:13:19] Viet Thanh Nguyen: But unlike the Americans, they didn't report these things in color and on TV and film. So there's not as much of a visual record, like the American record of the Vietnam war to remind people that the Americans did terrible things, but we don't have that same set of reminders, with what the French did.
[00:13:35] So instead we have a sort of French nostalgia about their imperialism and colonialism and a global nostalgia for France in which the Vietnamese are included. And so I thought it was necessary to write this novel, to debunk some of that French nostalgia about their own past.
[00:13:51] Saoud Moon: Okay, that's great. The next question is gonna be by Grey, so I'm gonna pass it off to them.
[00:13:58] Grey Yang: So I recently read your book, the refugees. It's a very good book, I really wanted to know… what was the inspiration behind writing it because all the short stories were so different from each other.
[00:14:10] And I was just really curious about how you thought of each story.
[00:14:15] Viet Thanh Nguyen: Great, thanks for reading the book, you know the seed of that book really started in college. I thought I wanted to become a writer and I thought, oh, well I'll start by learning how to write short stories because short stories are short.
[00:14:26] Therefore they should be easier than writing a novel, and in fact, short stories are very, very hard to write. That's why it took so long to write the refugees in total, it took about 20 years altogether. And my ambitions in writing the refugees came about because when I was in college and in high school, it was very clear to me that number one, there weren't a lot of Vietnamese, American voices out there and not very many Vietnamese voices, either, at least in translation into English.
[00:14:54] And the American perception of us as Vietnamese people was refracted almost completely through American obsessions about the war in Vietnam, and through American cultural productions, like Hollywood's Vietnam war movies, and the sense of the Vietnamese in these movies, and these obsessions was totally distorted.
[00:15:11] We were only positioned relative to American fears and desires and things like this and the American imagination, which was racist and sexist and imperialist when it came to Vietnam. So I felt that, you know, myself as a Vietnamese American, I didn't see myself in these kinds of American representations, and so therefore it would be important to write stories that gave voice to Vietnamese experiences.
[00:15:33] So that's why that was the impulse behind the collection. And, after I completed the book some 20 years later, I looked around and like, I was like, oh, now there are a lot of Vietnamese American writers. A lot of people have started publishing in the past 20 years. We no longer need this kind of a book.
[00:15:51] We no longer need someone to give voice to Vietnamese people or to humanize us as I was thinking at the time. And I thought, well, okay, too late. I still gotta publish the book, but it made me think again about the problems posed by my thinking about the need for representation and the need for voices and the need for humanization.
[00:16:11] Yes, those of us who are so called minorities. Yes. We need all those kinds of things, but in accepting that terminology: representation, voice, humanization, we've already accepted the terms of our own subjugation and marginalization, because I don't think white people up until very recently have gone around thinking I need representation or voice or humanization when it comes to literature and art, because they're already represented and given voice and humanized every second of the day through dominant culture.
[00:16:40] It's really only now in the era of Trump and afterwards that we see white people expressing their version of white identity politics. Right. But it's a different kind of identity politics because it's born out of resentment about losing white supremacy. Whereas, our identity politics they're resentful too, but it's born from a different resentment of being marginalized.
[00:17:01] In fact, (being) marginalized versus this false sense of marginalization that white people have. But you know, the point of that is where the sympathizer comes from. The sympathizer comes from this sense that, we need to get beyond ideas of representation, voice, and humanization, which is why the refugees is written in a certain way.
[00:17:18] From this humanistic perspective, and, and the sympathizer is written from a perspective where our main character is very complicated and capable of doing terrible things. Because I think part of what it means to own ourselves completely is to acknowledge that if we look at our population, whatever that is, we're like everybody else.
[00:17:39] And by saying we're like everybody else, it means that we're not angels. We're not ideals. We're not just victims. We're human in our full complexity, which means human in the sense of also being able to do terrible things. And that's what we see in the sympathizer. Now, the refugee is terrible. Things happen too, but I don't think to the same degree as a, the sympathizer and my ambition in the refugees was to demonstrate that even if we're talking about one population in this case, Vietnamese people, we're not talking about a monolith.
[00:18:06] It's like, if we're to say Americans, we wouldn't think that Americans are just one type of person. So the refugees is very systematic in laying out a diversity of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American characters.
[00:18:22] Grey Yang: Very well said. yeah, after reading that, I just wanted to know. So thank you for answering that question. And so Leila is gonna do the rest of our questions, so I'll pass it off to her.
[00:18:35] Leila Wickliffe: Hi. Okay. So I'll be. Doing the last few questions. So after I read the sympathizer, I was directed to your opinion essay in the New York Times, "The Beautiful Flawed Fiction of Asian American".
[00:18:48] And you discussed the necessity for decolonization. How do you think Asian Americans can work towards decolonization?
[00:18:56] Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, I think being Asian American is a very important political and cultural identity. I wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't become an Asian American in college. And there's a lot that we can and need to do with being Asian American, but there are some significant limitations to what that means.
[00:19:11] Number one, we are, we are now something like, I don't know, five or 6% of the American population. We're very diverse, which means we also have, diversity of political opinions. And so there's no way in which we can look at being Asian America and think everybody's committed to decolonization. In fact, I think most people are not. And so the political utility of being Asian American is limited.
[00:19:30] Doesn't mean it's not useful. It's just limited. And for me, the question is why did I become an Asian American? I became an Asian American out of a sense of outrage over injustice.
[00:19:39] And that overlaps with being Asian and Asian American, but is not the same as being Asian or Asian American. This is identity politics where you mistake these things, the sense of outrage over injustice with your identity. And so I think for a lot of Asian Americans that overlap is where they exist.
[00:19:55] And so their political consciousness is very self-interested well, we need to defend ourselves as Asian Americans because we are Asian Americans. And I feel like. We need to defend ourselves, not only because we're Asian Americans, but because we have this larger sense of commitment to addressing deep inequity and deep injustice, which I call the legacies and the current realities of colonization, because we still live in a settler colonial country.
[00:20:21] And many of us are here because of wars of colonization that we fought in our countries of origin or our countries of ancestry. So for me, the larger, political project is what I call decolonization. And decolonization means a lot of things, if we think about the fact that colonization involved, genocide warfare and occupation and enslavement, then we can see that so many of the inequities that we're living with today are directly connected to this history of colonization. So that when I say decolonization, I mean, well, yeah, abolition of prisons is decolonization, cuz it's like over stuffed with like Black people in a disproportionate way, abolition of borders, because nation states and borders are themselves outcomes of colonization, oftentimes education for all because it, you know, keeping people stupid is one way to keep colonization in place.
[00:21:18] So there are very direct pragmatic things in our everyday lives that I see as part of decolonization. I also think of the decolonization of consciousness as being crucial as well, getting people to, to acknowledge that colonization existed and does exist and shapes our realities. That's decolonization, getting people to understand that things that we think of as just being cultural issues are ripple effects of colonization, like identity conflict.
[00:21:48] Like so many younger Asian Americans today still talk about east-west conflict and being torn up about what to choose and so on. And it happens generation to generation, which to me is not therefore a cultural problem. It's a political problem. We wouldn't be feeling identity crises if we're having them, if it weren't for colonization, it's not inherent to feel east west conflict. We feel east west conflict, but because colonization produced these horrifying results that we feel in a more mundane way being, in terms of these cultural problems of identity and then decolonization, and on the larger scale, maybe we decolonize our consciousness because if we don't, then we just repeat the past, which is why we see in some formally colonized countries that are, you know, formally independent there is a ruling class. There shouldn't be a ruling class in decolonization, but there is a ruling class and it does the same things that the foreigners did. And that's because consciousness was never sufficiently decolonized. So decolonization is a very broad and global project and a local project because we were colonized for 500 years and in many ways we're still colonized.
[00:22:55] And so we can't expect liberation to take place over a decade or 50 years. It's gonna take quite a long time. But, we've already begun that process of decolonization because there have been plenty of writers from various backgrounds who've written about it, talked about it. So I see that as my intellectual political genealogy, is this tradition of decolonial thinking and struggle and writing of which Asian American literature overlaps.
[00:23:20] And there's a strong strand of Asian American literature that is explicitly about decolonization. And this is where I situate myself as a writer.
[00:23:27] Leila Wickliffe: Awesome. I think that's a really interesting take that I don't think a lot of people think about. So thank you for sharing. So while writing this book or through your academics, what impact do you hope to create through writing a work?
[00:23:42] Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think back to the fact that I fell in love with literature as a young boy, as a refugee. Going to the library and just falling into the sway of language and stories. When I was reading, when I was a kid it was not on the surface, explicitly political, there were just great stories. There was great beauty to be found in these stories.
[00:24:05] And so that's what I want for my readers is to be struck first and foremost, by the beauty of the story and of literature. And when I say beauty, I think beauty is a very complicated thing. Beauty can involve horror and ugliness as well, but there's beauty to be found in, in art. Good art and great art.
[00:24:25] And, I think that myself as a refugee, who is sometimes classified as an immigrant and as an Asian American. I see that beauty is necessary for our survival. It's not. economics. It's not just jobs. It's not just stability. It's not just being the good minority. None of those things are gonna save us. We've been all those things before. Japanese Americans were all those things, they still got sent to concentration camps. So part of our project of survival in this country is to also tell our own stories. and to tell our own stories is not to be something that is only about content like, oh, of course it's important to know that Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps and many, many other stories.
[00:25:21] But we also change the story of the country through the beauty of our stories, you know, through the power of the stories, which resonate with people, readers, and listeners to stories at the level of language and form. That to me is the ambition that drives me as a writer is to believe that if I could just write a good enough novel, it's not that it's gonna change the world, but it would change the readers who encounter it.
[00:25:53] And we all have our own tasks in this regard. We all have our own tasks to tell stories and to try to change the stories for our own children and families and communities and the nation and the world. And we do that in each of our own individual ways. So there's beauty to be found in many, many different things.
[00:26:13] And for me, because I've chosen literature, I believe in the power of literature to impact people and to help people, to see the world differently and to see other people differently. This is not to overstate or understate the importance of literature. You know, it's simply to say, this is one thing that literature can do.
[00:26:34] And I believe in my vision as a writer that I'm situated both in relationship to art, that I have to be the best artist I can be, but I'm also situated your relationship to political and social movements that we changed the world, not through doing one thing, but through doing many things. So literature is a part of that.
[00:26:52] So are these political and social movements, they help to change the world materially and writers help to change the world imaginatively, and if we don't change the world imaginatively, we can't change the world materially and vice versa. That's where I see myself situated.
[00:27:09] Leila Wickliffe: Cool. So this is the last question: are you working on any other short stories, novels, or are you mainly focused on academics being a professor?
[00:27:21] Viet Thanh Nguyen: nonfiction memoir next to final stage 440 something pages 78,000 words. I gotta cut this down a little bit, but it's literally what I'm working on now.
[00:27:32] Hopefully will be done in the next month and shift off to my editor.
[00:27:35] Leila Wickliffe: Awesome. I'm looking forward to that now. Yeah, so that's all for me.
[00:27:40] Saoud Moon: Okay. Sounds good. Thank you so much for this interview. We really
appreciate it. It was a great interview and just like, as a refugee myself, like your work has meant a lot to me and I really found it inspiring.
[00:27:50] So I appreciate that a lot and completely agree with the decolonization. And I found your opinion essays like the New York Times very powerful as well. So I just wanted to ask for permission, we'd like to write an article about this on our website and just publish it on our social media, like we had an interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen about the sympathizer and promote our book club and stuff like that.
[00:28:12] Is that fine with you or is there something else that you would prefer us to do?
[00:28:16] Viet Thanh Nguyen: All good. Thanks for including the book and the book club, by the way. Glad you guys have it.