Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of our era’s most powerful chroniclers of capitalism, war, and the refugee experience. A writer, scholar, and professor, he has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur fellowship. But Nguyen pushes back against the notion of exceptional genius, emphasizing instead his role in a long tradition of Asian American voices “speaking up and speaking out against inequality and for justice.”
Nguyen first came to the United States in 1975 when the Vietnam War displaced his family, and he continues to identify as a refugee in solidarity with those currently fleeing violence only to be vilified and denied safe haven at borders. His novel The Sympathizer, written from the perspective of an ambivalent Vietnamese double agent, dismantles dominant American narratives about the war, and his short story collection The Refugees shatters the traditional idea of the “immigrant success story.” His non-fiction, including Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, asks questions about global inequality, historical trauma, and the possibilities of ethical representation.
I met Nguyen during his visit to the University of Vermont, where I teach postcolonial literature, in November 2018. In a packed public lecture, the author deftly tackled racist stereotypes, disinformation about the Vietnam War, and the outlandish pressures placed on the children of immigrants.
Wanting to continue the conversation, I asked Nguyen for an interview and we talked by phone earlier this spring. We discussed his personal experience as a war refugee, the causal connections between US foreign policy and the refugee crisis, and the problem of “narrative scarcity” for marginalized and minority populations. While clear-sighted about the scale of the challenge, Nguyen did not dismiss the possibility of progressive social change, highlighting a central message of The Sympathizer: “we have hope only if we recognize just how difficult the world is.”
— University of Vermont Associate Professor Helen Scott for Guernica
Guernica: You have said that every refugee story is also a war story and that you see yourself as a refugee rather than an immigrant. Can you begin by describing your own personal refugee and war story?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was born during the Vietnam War, and in 1975, my home town was the first to be captured in North Vietnam’s final invasion. My family fled and we became refugees when I was four years old. First, we went to Saigon to escape the Communist invasion, and when that caught up with us, we fled to the United States. My parents had actually fled their home once before, leaving North Vietnam for South Vietnam in 1954 when the country was divided. I’m intimately familiar with the ways that wars and refugees are tied together. Wars always produce refugees. Refugees often, not always, come from wars.
Guernica: Why are these also important truths to stress more broadly in the current context, when in the US, as in Europe, governments are denying entry to those seeking asylum?
Nguyen: Many people have a hard time connecting the plight of refugees to their own lives. They don’t know why people have fled. They may see no obligation towards them other than at some abstract moral level. But in many cases, refugees are produced by geopolitical decisions that are out of their control—and out of our control too.
The decisions of wealthier countries that lead to wars, or support dictatorial regimes, or contribute to climate devastation frequently produce refugees. The Vietnam War produced hundreds of thousands of refugees who came to the United States. These refugees did not just appear here. They arrived because of a very intimate connection with the decisions America and other countries made.
Guernica: In the USA there are many pervasive narratives about the Vietnam War, also known as the American War. In the New York Times last year, Christian Appy argued that the dominant story we tell now is of “American conduct in Vietnam as a well-intentioned, if tragic, intervention.”
Your novel The Sympathizer is a work of fiction, not a political essay, but nonetheless it offers a counter-narrative. Can you talk about how your novel complicates the dominant stories that are all around us?
Nguyen: Even when the Vietnam War was happening, there were competing narratives about what was going on. One of the most powerful was that the US was there to help Vietnam and defend democracy, but others argued that the war was imperialist and racist. In the immediate aftermath of the war, this negative sense prevailed, but in the decades since, the story of well-intentioned Americans who made some mistakes has become more and more popular.
The Sympathizer uses political satire to demonstrate that American intervention in Vietnam was born out of America’s own imperialist and racist tradition. This perspective makes many Americans uncomfortable, but I felt it was important to counter the dominance of the ‘well-intentioned American’ argument, particularly as a Vietnamese refugee. People like me are not expected to say these things. We’re expected to be grateful to the United States for rescuing us, but the novel satirizes that idea, by saying “we’re grateful for being rescued but maybe we wouldn’t have needed it if you hadn’t bombed us in the first place.”
Guernica: When I’ve taught The Sympathizer, I often begin by asking the students what they know about the Vietnam War, and students typically begin by saying “we know nothing,” about either the war or Vietnam. But as the conversation continues, it becomes clear that there is plenty of collective information about both. Vietnam is in the US in very powerful ways, but my students, almost uniformly, have not read anything from the Vietnamese perspective—which is stunning.
In The Sympathizer there is a brilliant sequence about the making of a movie about the war in which, among other things, no Vietnamese people have any lines. Why was it important for you to include Hollywood in this novel?
Nguyen: Even though this war is called the “Vietnam War,” from the American perspective, it is mostly about Americans. And because of the power of American culture, that perspective is broadcast all over the world.
The experience you have in your classes is one I have in mine too. Just yesterday, I asked my students how many of them had watched at least one American movie or read one American book about the Vietnam War, and everyone raised their hand. When I asked how many had read one book or seen one movie by a Vietnamese person, nobody, or perhaps one or two, had.
The legacies of colonialism and imperialism have created privileged sectors in the West that function as feedback loops. We often only read books or watch movies that reflect our values. In systems like Hollywood, the stories of poor people from other countries are not that interesting to the rest of the world and therefore don’t get told.
But this isn’t just a matter of stories. America’s exclusive empathy towards its own goals and soldiers, and its ignorance about the rest of the world have been crucial in allowing the United States to intervene in other countries, often with disastrous consequences for all involved. If, as a country, we had mechanisms in place to hear from the diverse peoples in our own country but also the rest of the world, I imagine we’d be less inclined to support these imperial endeavors.
Guernica: At your reading at the University of Vermont this fall you used the term “narrative scarcity” to describe the ethnocentrism you experienced as a child growing up in the US. Your short story collection The Refugees presents a refreshingly plural and diverse array of stories featuring different Vietnamese Americans, while underscoring some of the ways that the history of Vietnam and the US are deeply interconnected. Could you talk about the writing process that allowed you to achieve this multiplicity of voices?
Nguyen: American culture tends to foreground certain experiences and voices, which often happen to be white. Under these conditions, the stories of minorities and marginalized populations aren’t told often enough, and when they are told, they are distorted or exploited.
The Refugees is born from that. When I was growing up in this country, I felt that the history and experiences of people like my family and other Vietnamese refugees were completely erased from the American landscape.
Vietnamese refugees are not monolithic; they are just as diverse as the rest of the US population. I wanted to write a collection of stories that gestured towards that diversity. I was very self-conscious that if I were to write one story from a man’s perspective I should write the next from a woman’s, and so on. I actually used an Excel sheet to keep track of the different types of characters and stories! In the end, the collection is about refugees, but it is also about men and women, older people and children, straight people and gay people, Vietnamese people and non-Vietnamese people.
Guernica: My students were particularly struck by how the presence of ghosts and haunting in The Refugees suggests that the events of the past, and even the dead themselves, are still among the living. My favorite, the opening story, “Black-Eyed Women,” makes some of these themes explicit: it is told realistically, but it is also an actual ghost story. An adult “ghost writer” is visited by the ghost of her brother, who was killed while protecting her on the journey out of war-torn Vietnam. The story is about confronting these painful experiences, but we do not doubt the presence of this very tangible spirit.
What possibilities do different forms of fiction offer for representing historical trauma? In particular, what do you find useful about the speculative or magical realist modes?
Nguyen: I started The Refugees by writing an early version of “Black-Eyed Women,” and seventeen years later, I ended the collection by finishing “Black-Eyed Women.” I struggled for so long, because I was learning how to be a writer and how to write short stories, but also because I was grappling with exactly the question you ask: What’s the right form for dealing with historical trauma? The story went through fifty versions where I tried to figure out: How does the ghost appear? What is its subjectivity? How does it talk? It was a struggle for me to represent the traumatic, the supernatural, the otherworldly, and to do so in a way that was semi-realistic, so people could understand it. The rest of the collection is different—the other stories tend to be more realistic, but the struggle to represent the unreal is one of the most difficult things to do, especially when you’re constrained by the bounds of realist fiction.
Guernica: Your 2016 book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War is also interested in representing historical trauma. In this work, you draw a contrast between “disremembering” and “ethical memory.” Could you talk about these concepts and their significance for remembering the past?
Nguyen: Disremembering is the experience of being remembered and forgotten at the same time. For example, it was clear to me that the Vietnamese had not been forgotten in American movies about the Vietnam War. We were remembered, we were there in all these movies. But we were simultaneously forgotten because we only appeared as background. We were seen and unseen at the same time.
When we, the ones who have been disremembered, have the opportunity to speak or to write, we want to re-member ourselves, to bring back the memory of our experiences, but also to put back together our psychically and physically divided selves. The disremembering that is done to us is unethical, so we crave more ethical ways of re-membering.
The book lays out three different models for ethical memory, but the most difficult version asks that we not just be re-membered, but that we be allowed to re-member both ourselves and others. The logical response to being disremembered and dehumanized is to insist on our humanity. That is necessary but insufficient. We need to recognize that yes, we are human, but we are all capable of both inhuman and human acts. Whether we are part of the imperial project, or the natives on which the imperial acts are enacted, none of us are excused from these realities of humanity and inhumanity.
Guernica: This question of representation and ethical memory is central to what it means to be a writer. In 2017 the New York Times Book Review ran a powerful essay in which you critique the standard university “writers’ workshop.” Can you explain the dominant workshop model and why it can exclude writers of color, women writers, and working-class writers?
Nguyen: The writers’ workshop model places a room full of student writers under the tutelage of a master writer. One student writer shares their work and then listens to the criticism of their classmates and peers. The master writer moderates and steps in at the end. The model may or may not be inherently flawed. Someone like Flannery O’Connor, who graduated from the University of Iowa Writers’ workshop, certainly thought it was, and that’s mostly confirmed by my experience.
There might exist an ideal set of students and writers and conditions for whom the writers’ workshop model works, but that isn’t always the case. The inherent prejudices of the professor and the students may go unchecked. Certainly in fiction workshop—I don’t know what happens in poetry workshops so much—a canonical set of aesthetic norms are often assumed to be true. For example, writers are encouraged to “show not tell” and to follow certain technical aspects of characterization or symbolism. These things are important, but they are specific aesthetic features prized by the American writers’ workshop; they are not universal.
If you are a writer from a background unlike that of your peers and professor, you may need a different set of aesthetic possibilities than what is considered normative. But the underlying assumption often goes uninterrogated: Why have certain aesthetic values become the norm? If teachers and students cannot interrogate or understand the historical contingencies of their aesthetic norms and of the writing workshop itself, then the model has real problems.
Guernica: So what do you do in your writing workshops to counteract this model? What are some alternatives models?
Nguyen: I hate teaching writing workshops, I don’t believe in writing workshops. I’ve always gotten more from talking with a professor one-on-one than hearing from my peers. I’m not sure I’ve ever trusted my peers or believed what they had to say. The master-apprentice model obviously has issues, because your master may turn out to be racist or sexist, but you’re learning from their expertise. You may or not agree with them, but at least they have expertise to agree or disagree with.
When I teach writing I typically have one-on-one conversations with students. I also teach literature classes where I give students the option of creative assignments. If they want to write a short story, we don’t talk about the act of writing in isolation, but in the context of literary history or theory or politics.
The last time I used a workshop model was in a graduate seminar with half creative and half literary-critical PhD students. I wanted to bring writing to the foreground so that scholarly students would be forced to think about writing as an act of creativity, and creative writing students would be forced to think about the critical potential of writing. I like that intersection.
Guernica: Creative writers as diverse as Edwidge Danticat or the late David Foster Wallace have stressed the important role of art in providing both a documentation of the horrors of the world but also some sense of hopefulness, or indication of the possibilities for humanity even in bleak conditions.
Can you speak to this dual role of art in both documenting trauma but also offering some sense of hopefulness?
Nguyen: At the most basic level, literature and stories exist to give life to characters and situations that need to be remembered. That’s crucial and hopeful. The Refugees, for example, is a hopeful collection simply because it exists. When we pick up a book and read about people either like us or not like us: that’s an affirmation of our shared community.
Beyond that the question gets a little more complicated and involves things that some people don’t want to hear. I think The Sympathizer is a hopeful book, but it believes that we have hope only if we recognize just how difficult the world is. It’s a Marxist work in that sense. That’s what the end of The Sympathizer is about, but that may not be enough hope for some people. Some readers want a greater affirmation. To me that’s nice, but a little on the foolish side: hope without reason or reality.
As a writer and a reader, the dimension of literature that gives me the most hope is the aesthetic experience. When I encounter what I think to be a great work of writing, my response is bound up with the content of the story, but it’s also bound up with the form of the language. The work can’t be reduced to some instrumental purpose—as in having to tell a story about a certain population—it has to transcend that and exist at the level of form as well. My hope is that The Sympathizer accomplishes what it does not only because it represents a particular historical situation, but because it does something at the level of structure and language that elicits some kind of reaction from the reader.
Guernica: That explains a good deal about The Sympathizer, which has a very bleak plot, contains horrendous atrocities throughout, and a disturbing prolonged torture and rape scene at its center. It’s somewhat miraculous to me, and my students say the same thing, that you nonetheless come away from the novel with a sense of something greater, a futurity, and reasons to be hopeful for humanity. That is happening at a level beyond plot.
Nguyen: I’m happy to hear that. That was the intent. In the final chapter, there’s one line about hope at the end of a paragraph. It’s partly deluded, but it’s based on the hard-earned experience of the narrator and the writer.
Guernica: What project are you working on now?
Nguyen: I’m working on the sequel to The Sympathizer. It’s a continuation in both plot and form. I hadn’t planned on writing a sequel, but when I reached the end of the novel, I wanted to know more about the character, about what the novel could do with a character like him.
The novel has been read as dialectical by some Marxist critics, which I find very affirming. At the same time, the movement of the dialectic within The Sympathizer represents only one movement of the dialectic. There has to be something else. The novel ends with an affirmation of futurity, as you said, and of some idealistic notion of revolution. But what is that? In the US there’s a whole genre around disillusion in revolution. But after we understand the dynamics of power, and that revolutions can be corrupted, how do you build a new revolution? What would that look like?