Since the 2015 publication of his Pulitzer Prize–winning debut novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen has emerged as one of the literary world’s leading public intellectuals. At a time of rising xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment in the United States and elsewhere, Nguyen’s fiction, academic writing, and media commentary remind us of the need to keep telling the stories that drop out of national narratives, and to remember the histories that the powerful would have us forget. In the following conversation with Karl Ashoka Britto, Nguyen discusses literary form and the representation of violence, the complex dynamics of remembering and forgetting, and the possibility of a politics that could be post-communist without being pro-capitalist.
Nguyen is University Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Comparative Literature, as well as the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, at the University of Southern California. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he has received many other honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.
Karl Ashoka Britto (KAB): In Race and Resistance and Nothing Ever Dies, you write about the complicated issues that shape relationships between minority writers and the various communities with which they might identify, as well as about what we could call the “majority” reception of their writing. How have you tried to negotiate that complicated position in relation to different publics—Vietnamese American, Asian American, American, Vietnamese, international?
Viet Thanh Nguyen (VTN): As you say, there are a lot of different terrains that I find myself working in—as do a lot of other writers in my situation. I could be classified as a minority writer in the context of the United States, but when I go to France, I’m pleased that they actually call me an American writer or an American writer of Vietnamese origins. In Vietnam, I’m considered a Vietnamese writer but also, as in France, an American writer of Vietnamese origins. That means that sometimes I’m a minority, sometimes I’m part of a national community, sometimes I’m part of a diasporic returning community, and all of these have different connotations. That makes it very hard for any one book to be able to address all of these different kinds of horizons or terrains.
I’ve approached that issue from the perspective of thinking through my status as a minority in the United States. But I do so as a minority who doesn’t want to be apologetic about that status and doesn’t want to be a translator. Instead, I try not to renounce being a minority, while at the same time trying to appropriate or claim for myself the same aesthetic possibilities that a writer of a majority background would have. That means that I have to think about what it means to be a majority American writer, which in the US means being white, male, and heterosexual. In Vietnam, a majority writer is someone who is Vietnamese, just like me, but at the same time not like me. So I want to be in a situation where I would write as if I were in Vietnam and be read as the majority there, and outside Vietnam, while at the same time writing like I’m a minority in the case of the United States, and be defiant about that.
I have to write as both a minority writer and a majority writer at the same time, which means to write about my minority experience as if it were a majority experience. That’s a psychological decision, an aesthetic decision, a political decision, and this transforms the writing itself. A lot of writers don’t make those decisions; they accept—deliberately or otherwise—the constraints of being a minority, as a result of historical forces beyond any individual’s control: migration, diaspora, war, capitalism.
KAB: Could you talk about the aesthetic decisions you have made in your writing? How does literary form, for example, relate to the project of representing certain histories in the way that you’ve just described?
VTN: Well, I’m a scholar of Asian American literature, and a student of ethnic studies and various kinds of so-called ethnic literatures. When we read some of the works of so-called ethnic or minority writers, especially over a long historical span, we recognize that there are some writers who are outstanding, and some writers who are not outstanding. That’s an aesthetic judgment that requires me to make some kind of value judgment, and for a long time it was difficult for me to do so. A literary scholar coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s was not supposed to make aesthetic judgments of that kind. As a scholar, I want to read so-called ethnic or minority writers simply because they existed, regardless of whether I enjoy reading their books or not. But as a writer, I have to respond viscerally to things that give me great pleasure or provocation. And that puts me in another difficult situation: without renouncing being a minority writer or a scholar of minority literature, can I write in these traditions and yet also make aesthetic claims about trying to be “the best”? And what does that mean? What are these aesthetic standards?
That’s why it was important to me to have gone to UC Berkeley, and to have been forced to go through the Berkeley English major’s canonical requirements, which include the best minority writers—Toni Morrison, for example, or Ralph Ellison. Reading the canon gave me a sense of European, and English, and American literary history, and allowed me to think that I should aspire to be somewhere in there—again, not apologetically. I don’t want people to say, “Oh, well, we should talk about him just because he’s Vietnamese,” or for other historical reasons. I wanted people to talk about my work because they thought it was good, by whatever intuitive, prejudicial standards they might have. And I wanted to do that while being conscious of minority traditions. Some so-called minority writers might say, “Well, we’re not minority writers, we’re just writers.” I do not agree with that; I am both a writer and a minority writer at the same time.
That’s what I hoped for when writing The Refugees and The Sympathizer. With The Refugees, I was just trying to learn how to write short stories, which meant aspiring to a certain kind of literary realism that dominates the contemporary American fiction scene—not because I totally agree with it, but because I couldn’t figure out how to break the form; I could only aspire to be good at the form. In The Sympathizer, I felt like I finally reached a level of competency and confidence in the act of fiction writing, and I could imagine breaking the form. That’s when we get to the question of aesthetics, and this is how you enter the canonical conversation: you show that not only do you aspire to achieve a form, but you also aim to push that form in a variety of ways.
KAB: In Nothing Ever Dies, you write at length about war narratives, and about the kinds of responsibilities that accompany the project of telling stories about war and violence. What was that project like for you as a writer of fiction, of historical fiction? How did you approach the representation of extreme violence, often linked to scenes of torture?
VTN: The Sympathizer’s entire plot is about our narrator and what’s going on in his head, how he feels about the various actions that are taking place, and that he is engaged in. He has watched various kinds of pain inflicted upon lots of people, so it made sense that, at the end, he himself would be subjected to torture, and that the interrogation would be completely psychological, about him and his own psychology. Typically narratives of torture show us pain being inflicted on somebody, or the pain is being described retrospectively, at some degree of distance. From a formal perspective, then, I had to think about how to depict someone experiencing torture from his own point of view and in the present, even as he tries to recapture that moment retrospectively.
I used methods borrowed from canonical examples: Morrison and Ellison, for example, both feature descents into madness, the supernatural, or the surreal in the climactic parts of their novels. In doing so, they push the formal boundaries of the novel, and I did the same. I have to say that it’s fun to do so, from a writerly point of view. As I was writing the novel, I was saving up in my mind various kinds of literary tricks that I wanted to do—but you can’t just throw them in because you want to, you have to have a formal reason, and it was the violence that was the occasion for the deployment of all these formal tricks, such as using the screenplay form or the first-person plural.
The Social Lives of Form
KAB: The Sympathizer ends with a rape scene. What are the ethics of including rape as a plot point in a novel?
VTN: The novel is divided into two parts: the first part is the farce, and the second part is the tragedy. The farce ends with the making of the movie in the Philippines, which includes a rape scene. It’s filmed during that time period, but it’s a delayed mechanism in the novel: we don’t get to see that until later, and it’s also a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen in the narrator’s own mind. I wanted to put the cinematic rape in there because those things happen in the American imagination of the war, and I find them very problematic.
This exposes me to a reasonable criticism: if you found it to be so problematic in Hollywood films, why did you replicate it in your novel, both in terms of depicting it cinematically and in the plot of your own novel, in the narrator’s story as well? That’s a very good question, and a very good criticism. I felt that I needed to include those scenes because of the character that I had constructed, and because of the spy narrative that I had chosen. The Sympathizer is a first-person narrative from the point of view of someone who is very masculine, very misogynistic, very sexist. From his point of view, there would be no way to depict something like this that would offer a critical take on the rape, so the reader just has to see it happen.
Why did it have to be rape? Could I have chosen something else? Two-thirds of the way through the novel, I realized who my narrator was. I liked him a lot, even though he was a complicated character. But I also had to understand that he was misogynistic and masculine, and that I was enjoying that as a writer, which made me question why I was enjoying that as a writer. I wanted to show that the misogyny and the sexism that he takes pleasure in, which some readers presumably also take pleasure in, exists on a spectrum.
At one extreme of that is going to be the most atrocious expression of masculinity and misogyny, which is sexual violence. He had to be confronted with that, I had to be confronted with that, and readers who took pleasure in the objectification of women that he participates in had to be confronted with that. Once I had made certain formal decisions—spy novel, first-person narration, masculine and misogynist narrator—a rape was, I felt, the logical conclusion. If I didn’t go there, I would be making a mistake, and if I did go there, I would be making a lot of people uncomfortable—but that is actually what they should feel.
KAB: The short stories in The Refugees, which you wrote over a long period of time but didn’t publish until after The Sympathizer, are filled with violence, but how you represent that violence varies a lot. What kinds of approaches did writing this collection allow you to experiment with?
VTN: In writing The Refugees, I was focused on the mode of the realistic short story that would end with a kind of epiphany, but also ambiguously. That is the kind of short story I enjoy reading, but one that I felt very constrained in writing. I could not figure out how to depict violence more extremely, for example. That had good and bad consequences. The opening story, “Black-Eyed Women,” also pivots on a rape scene, shown from the perspective of the victim. The good thing about that, I think, is that because I was writing it from her point of view, I felt that I had to be more restrained in depicting that, versus how the rape is depicted in The Sympathizer.
I felt that way with other stories as well. All kinds of terrible things are happening—for example, in “The Americans,” the protagonist James Carver is a former bomber pilot who has probably killed thousands of people, but who would never see that, because of his situation. Again, that was an exercise in restraint. The political person in me wants to say, “You killed thousands of people with your bombs,” but in a short story told from James Carver’s point of view, that’s not possible. The violence has to be more restrained, because that’s his point of view, and that’s the point of view of Americans. We do all the bombing, but we rarely ever think about the consequences of that on the people being bombed. A formally different kind of short story could confront that, but I didn’t know how to write that story.
KAB: All of your work is characterized by a deep interest in the dynamics of remembering and forgetting. Your writing is preoccupied with ghosts, secrets, and complicated relationships to what is securely in the past and to elements of the past constantly threatening to irrupt into the present. These are narratives constructed not simply around absence, but around many different forms of absence, all of which are complicated by struggles over what must be forgotten, and what must be remembered.
Reading your work, I find myself thinking about what this temporal unevenness has to do with how the Vietnam War has and has not been remembered by different groups. Could you talk about the particular challenges involved in constructing narratives that are so shaped by differing ways of being in time?
VTN: I think of the question from two angles. One is from the personal angle of my own memory, and the other is from the angle of writing about characters who have a very different relationship to the events of my own memory. My characters are directly immersed in a historical time period of which I have no memory. From my personal perspective, I grew up always having a very distinct sense that remembering and forgetting were taking place simultaneously. For example, when my family fled to the United States, we left my adopted sister behind, and the only trace we had of her was a black-and-white wallet-sized photograph. I grew up seeing that picture and thinking, who is this person? I know her name, but I don’t know why we left her behind. We don’t talk about her. What if I had been that person?
So I literally grew up with a sense of absent presence in the house, and a haunting, and a sense of parallel universes. I think all of us who are refugees feel that. We’ve all left somebody behind, and we bear with us the mementos of these people. Every Vietnamese refugee household I would go into had black-and-white photographs, and many of those people were not actually there. We who were lucky enough to flee, or to get out, always carry with us the sense of an alternate existence where we did not live, or where we were stuck behind. That’s reinforced for us whenever we communicate with our family members who were left behind, or when we go back and we see how life turned out there.
I was always aware of this, and aware of what it is that I did not remember. I could remember certain things, but basically my memory begins as a refugee coming to the United States. At the same time, I grew up aware that everybody else around me who was older than me remembered more than I did and remembered things in which I was involved, for which I was present, but of which I had no recall. My brother, who is seven years older, remembers many of the details of our refugee experience, which are really horrible, and which I don’t recall. This makes me aware, again, that I was present for things of which I know nothing. That pervades my work as a critic and as a fiction writer, because I’m trying to reconstruct things for which I was partially present, but that I don’t remember, while my characters, obviously, were present for these things.
There are all kinds of ethical and aesthetic issues around the act of memory. How do I, as a writer, create a past time and a space in a way that the people who were actually there would accept? I also have to put my characters in the same situation I’m in. Not only are they experiencing events that I myself don’t remember, they themselves are subjects of both memory and forgetting.
Obviously, in The Sympathizer, the narrator has forgotten something crucial, even as he is spending the entire narrative remembering stuff. The process of me as a writer writing his account was a process of discovering what it is that he had forgotten, which I had also never known. I did not know, when I began writing the novel, what he had forgotten—I did not know that there was going to be a rape. Writing that narrative was also a process of me remembering what I had forgotten: that part of me is also a misogynistic, masculine person. I don’t comport myself that way, for the most part, but psychologically, I vicariously participate in these kinds of things, and maybe I’m complicit in these kinds of behaviors. That is something that of course I am aware of, but that I forget immediately. That was why writing that concluding moment of the novel was an act of memory and forgetting not just for the narrator, but for me as well.
KAB: There’s a story in The Refugees called “War Years,” which I learned earlier today is the one story in the collection that will be censored in the upcoming Vietnamese translation. It’s about a Vietnamese refugee family, and their business, and their son who literally keeps the family business accounts. Many of the stories in The Refugees play with the notion of the account as a form that is simultaneously economic, narrative, and ethical. “War Years” brings together a narrative of traumatic displacement in the wake of war and of capitalism as a form of assimilation. The final moment of that story involves the boy, the son of this refugee family, being given five dollars by his mother and being let loose in a store, where he finds himself paralyzed because for the first time he has been told that he can buy anything he wants. It’s such a complicated moment, because the reason he has been rewarded with the five dollars has to do with his ability to acknowledge a shared past of suffering.
What was at stake for you in ending the story in that way? Could you talk about the place of capitalism in your work in general, or more specifically in this collection of short stories?
VTN: “War Years” is the only autobiographical story I have ever written—it’s half autobiographical. The premise is autobiographical, in that it’s about a little boy in his Vietnamese refugee parents’ grocery store, which was our situation. That boy, as you said, takes care of the accounts after the end of the workday, which I did at a young age. The rest of that story is inspired by something my mother told me: during the 1980s, when there was a lot of anti-communism going on in the Vietnamese American community, someone came to their store and asked my parents to support this anti-communist cause.
The story is, as you say, very much about capitalism as a means of assimilating and gaining upward mobility, which is what happened to my parents. They were very poor, they didn’t get very much schooling, and they became successful businesspeople in Vietnam through sheer work, luck, and talent. So they are capitalists through and through. I grew up witnessing that, and witnessing that it was an extremely difficult life for my parents to be these refugee shopkeepers. And yet at the same time, I became someone who, by college, had all these basically Marxist sympathies. How do you reconcile this? It was a very significant ethical and political problem for me. Obviously, from my perspective, looking at my parents, I don’t see them as bloodsucking capitalists. They’re not exploitative people, they’re ethical people, they’re very good people, but they want to make money. From a Marxist perspective, this means they’re petit bourgeois, and that they participate in the larger system. That ethical conundrum is part of what motivated me to become the writer that I am, and the critic that I am, and to write The Refugees and The Sympathizer.
When I was at Berkeley, I really did ask myself the question, like my narrator, what is to be done? And what would I have done in my other, alternative life, if I had been older and alive during the Vietnam War? What choices would I have made regarding colonialism and capitalism? Would I have made the right ethical and political choices, from my retrospective perspective as a Berkeley radical? At the same time, because I had grown up in a Vietnamese refugee community, it was impossible for me to be completely judgmental and say, “Yes, the Marxists are right, and the Vietnamese who sided with the French and the Americans are wrong, and the capitalists are wrong,” because I grew up with these people. While I might disagree with them politically in many ways, I could see that they suffered, and that many of them were making the best moral and ethical choices they could make. That’s what led to The Refugees—the capacity for empathy, the capacity to understand that you can’t just judge these people based on some kind of ideological presupposition. The Sympathizer takes on that ideological presupposition of what is to be done, but shows how even that anti-capitalist decision-making can be completely corrupted from the inside.
For me the process of writing the stories and the novel was a process of trying to be ethical and political while granting myself and my family some sense of human flexibility, and an acknowledgment that rigid judgments lead to disaster.
“War Years” is about the little boy’s capacity to be empathetic with the adult characters and to understand that the world is much more complex than he is able to understand at this point. Capitalism in the story is extremely contradictory, because it’s something that his parents are sacrificing for, for him, but that also makes him feel very deprived, because his parents’ being capitalists comes at a huge emotional cost to the family. When he’s given five dollars by his mother at the end of the story, he gets what he has wanted all along: the promise of capitalist luxury. But he’s also paralyzed, he can’t spend the money, because he has witnessed what his mother has gone through to get this money, and he recognizes that there is enormous cost in this five dollars. To the extent that there is a Marxist critique in the story, it’s about recognizing what five dollars is symbolic of, all of what Marx would talk about in relation to alienated labor.
The Mortal Marx
KAB: And of course, at the moment at which he witnesses his mother actually giving Mrs. Hoa a considerable sum of money—not really because it has been extorted from her at that point, but because the mother chooses to—he runs through a calculation in his mind, and he thinks about how many things they would have to sell in their store, and how many hours of work it would take for that money to be replenished.
One of the things that really struck me in this story is the constant reminder that money circulates, as you say, in a symbolic fashion, but that the gap between people’s lives and economic accounts can become very small. There’s a beautiful scene where the son is plucking out his mother’s gray hairs, and he’s getting a little bit of money for each hair that he plucks. In his mind, he is already converting that gray hair into the Captain America comic he wants to buy. There’s also the memory that comes to him at a crucial point in the story, of the fact that his father was saved from military service due to a bribe. And there’s another moment where he asks for an allowance, and instead his father gives him a bill, basically, for everything that he has cost his parents financially over the course of his short life.
Again, the accumulation of these kinds of details ends up producing a powerful and moving reminder that while economic considerations are certainly bound up in various forms of capitalism and various forms of capitalist fantasy, they also function on an almost corporeal level. The link between bare survival and money is never forgotten over the course of the story.
VTN: All those incidents that you cite are actually true—all those things really did happen. I think your idea of accounting and corporeality is absolutely right. It’s true that writing that story was for me a personal accounting of that time period and my place in it, and of my parents’ place in it. It’s an accounting of the costs on their bodies, and on their psyches, and it’s an attempt to confront what that would mean, to do something like bribe your way out of military service. Many people in Vietnam who could do that did it, so my father was not unique, but it’s not something you want to talk about, because of course a lot of people could not do that, they had to do their military service, with often tragic consequences. So the story is also an accounting of the toll taken on the body by trying to get that money to save yourself—whether that’s by bribing your way out of military service, or being able to get out of the country, or being able to survive here in this country.
I remember growing up with a sense of the corporeality of things. There’s a scene in “War Years” where the boy sees his mother’s breasts through her nightgown, and that’s true, I did see that. It bothered me. It didn’t bother her, but it bothered me, and it was related to that sense of alienation, the fact that at the end of the day she was exhausted, she just wanted to relax. But I was also alienated from her, in the usual mode of the refugee or the immigrant who is embarrassed by his parents. And all of that is wrapped up in cultural difference and economic exploitation and self-exploitation.
KAB: A question about language. One of the interesting things about The Sympathizer is the narrator’s absolute fluency in both Vietnamese and American English. Early on in the novel, he tells us that if we heard his voice on the telephone, we would think he was American. In The Refugees, by contrast, there are many more moments of linguistic confusion or incomprehension, and at various points the process of acquiring English is foregrounded. Do you have memories of learning English? Or has your experience of language, as far as you remember, always involved English?
VTN: I have no memory of learning English, or of learning how to read—which is amazing to me, because it makes it seem as though I somehow just became fully fluent. I remember going to the library and immersing myself in books by the time I was six or seven. My parents took me to the library, but they didn’t teach me English. Somehow some incredible teachers did this work for me, or television did, or just the general environment of being a little kid and having to survive and learn the language. I do remember discomfort. One of my earliest memories is living with my sponsor family when I was four years old and had been taken away from my parents. They wanted to make me feel at home, so they got chopsticks and said, “Hey, teach us how to use chopsticks.” I actually did not know how to use chopsticks. I don’t know how that conversation concluded. I just remember that moment very vividly, and the feeling of embarrassment and shame that I did not know how to use these things, and that I was expected to.
The Refugees is realistic in dealing with language, because it does show that people who are refugees are obviously going to have varying levels of English capacity, and are going to struggle with this. That’s a formal challenge for a writer. If the story itself is written in fluent English, how do you account for these different capacities without reproducing people’s flawed language? I had to figure out ways to acknowledge people’s different capacities without turning the language “ugly” in the book.
In The Sympathizer, I decided that I was going to take a completely different tack and create this character who was equally fluid and fluent in both cultures. That’s an act of fiction. Does such a person exist? Can such a person exist? I don’t know. I certainly know that during the time of the Vietnam War, there were Vietnamese people who were really quite fluent in English, but whether they were so fluent that their intonations sounded American is a different issue. But I thought, well, why not? Do we have to automatically rule out the possibility simply on the grounds of believability, as some of my Vietnamese American critics have said—that this is clearly an Asian American novel, written by an Asian American, that no Vietnamese could have spoken like this? Maybe, maybe not. Why do we have to be bound by the constraints of our own realism? Why can we not imagine that there have been exceptional people able to do exceptional things? Or depart in some respects from full-blown realism?
This returns to my political and aesthetic intention to work against the limitations facing writers dealing with refugees and immigrants, characters for whom English must be a second language. That demand for realism has thrown so many problems at writers like me, who have dealt with refugees and immigrants. We worry about the realism of depicting what people are going through. I wanted, first, to dispatch that right away, and second, to find formal methods to deal with it anyway. So that’s why there’s so much free indirect discourse in The Sympathizer, no use of quotation marks. That technique means that often you don’t know whether the language reflects what the character is thinking in his mind or what people are actually saying.
In The Sympathizer, I also don’t let the grammatical flaws of people who are speaking English as a second language appear, for very deliberate reasons. Finally, inasmuch as I don’t want to stigmatize Vietnamese people in the imaginations of non-Vietnamese readers who will automatically judge characters who speak “broken” English, I do the complete opposite as a narrator by writing in an English so extremely literary that no one can ever dare question my authenticity as a writer, or the fluency of my narrator. They can be taken aback, and they can say this is not realistic, but they will not be able to question my competence as a writer. That was a very deliberate choice for me.
The Stranger’s Voice
KAB: That’s really interesting, though it also moves me to come to the defense of The Refugees, many of whose characters do not possess mastery over English. The moments where you bring their struggles with English or their different linguistic capacities to the fore are always very thoughtful. For example, you have one character who is always being told that he either should or shouldn’t be using contractions when he speaks, and there are others being trained to seem more “natural” in English.
VTN: Yes, and they were very difficult moments to write. I was trying to figure out the nuances of how to both render the awkwardness of these people who are struggling with English and render that awkwardness in my own language, in the story, as something much more fluid.
KAB: Many readers would be interested to know your thoughts about the future of the narrator of The Sympathizer, and about the sequel that you are working on. Is that something you feel that you can talk about?
VTN: Yes, I felt that when I reached the end of The Sympathizer there was more to my narrator’s story. Obviously, his life continues. The novel ended where it should, with him at the moment of what is basically his own psychic destruction, and his very early attempts to try to reassemble himself. His story could just end there, in a fictional sense. But when I finished reading Invisible Man—one of the major inspirations for The Sympathizer—I remember thinking about the politics of that novel, and that part of me wanted to know what happens next.
The narrative of one’s disillusionment with communism, or with anything else, is its own climactic narrative, ending with someone’s illusions shattered and their need to reemerge into the world, as happens at the end of Invisible Man. But I didn’t want to write a narrative of communist disillusionment resulting in liberal individualism. I wanted to write about someone who is disillusioned, but who refused to go to the opposite extreme by embracing capitalism and individualism. What would a post-communist politics that is not also a pro-capitalist politics look like? I don’t know, and that’s why I felt: this is grounds for writing another novel. I am also interested in how you write a narrative of post-traumatic experience.
And for me, personally, I also wanted to take up the question of France. I spent a lot of time criticizing the United States in The Sympathizer, but France is equally culpable in the situation the narrator finds himself in—and he’s half French. The sequel finds him in Paris in the first half of the 1980s, and he will be subjected to France’s contradictions around race and liberalism and individualism and democracy. Hopefully there will be a lot of material to work with there.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.