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Transcript: Race in America: History & Memory with Viet Thanh Nguyen

MS. GIVHAN: Hi, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Robin Givhan, Senior Critic-at-Large for The Washington Post, and it’s my pleasure to welcome the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen to Washington Post Live.

Thank you for being with me.

MR. NGUYEN: Hi, Robin. Thanks for having me. It's a real pleasure.

MS. GIVHAN: I thought we would jump right in with your newest novel, "The Committed." And for those people who have not had the pleasure of reading "The Sympathizer," can you talk a little bit about how the two are related, and where "The Committed" begins?

MR. NGUYEN: Sure. Well, "The Sympathizer" is about a spy, a communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army in 1975, and his mission is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States and spy on their efforts to take their country back. And I'm not going to give anything away about the plot, but the story basically ends with him having returned to Vietnam and fleeing again as a refugee for the second time.

So, "The Committed" picks up exactly where "The Sympathizer" leaves off, and in "The Sympathizer," it's a satirical novel, political novel, historical novel, and I did set out to try to offend everybody in that book; I think I succeeded. And for "The Committed," the question was, "Who else can I offend?" And the answer was, obviously, the French.

MS. GIVHAN: Right.

MR. NGUYEN: So--no, the reason for that is because our sympathizer, our narrator, is part French, part Vietnamese. His father is a French priest who molested his mother, who was then 13 years old. So, in "The Committed," we pick up exactly where "The Sympathizer" leaves off. He goes to Paris to investigate his French heritage, to take on French colonialism, French racism, questions which are really pertinent today if you're reading the news reports about what's happening in France. But you don't have to have read "The Sympathizer" to have read "The Committed." It stands on its own. You're given enough information to make sense of what's going on.

And it's a crime thriller. Lots of violence and drugs and action taking place, and it's also a novel about these questions of belonging, about race, about universalism that are pertinent to France, but I think are allegorical to what's happening here in the United States, as well.

MS. GIVHAN: I mean, I loved just--I mean, there's so much packed into just the prologue, the first paragraph, which I would love to just sort of read that and have you talk about it just a little bit, because it conjured so many images and references and, as I said, it's just incredibly rich.

It begins with: "We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing, we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark, 150 of us sweating in a space not meant for us mammals, but for the fish of the sea."

Can you--I mean, there are some words that are chosen so specifically, "ark" for one, as opposed to "boat," but can you talk about those choices?

MR. NGUYEN: Sure. You know, I fled Vietnam on a boat myself, but this was in 1975. I was four years old; I don't remember anything about it. And we weren't called boat people back then. That term, boat people, was reserved for the Vietnamese who would flee a couple of years later in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. You know, tens of thousands of people did this. And of course, the term that the media used to describe them was boat people. It was a very effective term, because it helped elicit a lot of sympathy for these oceanic refugees and compelled many countries to take them in.

But I think boat people has really been done a disservice to them, as well, because it's rendered them as people who are pathetic and frightened and desperate. And refugees possibly are all those things, but in my mind, they're also heroic, because it's obviously extremely dangerous to take to the sea on these ships or boats. And I think that the refugees who did it had--knew perfectly well what they were getting themselves involved in. And so, I really object to the term boat people, and I find it ironic that the French, who really don't like borrowing English words, simply decided to call these people "le boat people," which I find to be deeply problematic, as well.

And I want--I use the term "ark"--

MS. GIVHAN: Very French to just add the "le boat people."

MR. NGUYEN: Very French, right? Yeah. But I use the term "ark" very deliberately, obviously, because I want to conjure up this experience as a heroic one, as one that has biblical connotations, has Homeric connotations. Of course, Ulysses was on a boat. We don't think of him as a boat person; we think of him as a hero. The pilgrims were boat people. They came on really--you know, small boats to the New World.

And they were just lucky, I say in the book, that there wasn't a camera waiting to record them, because they probably looked pretty nasty. But instead, we have these oil painting renditions of the heroic pilgrims. And I think we should at least give the same treatment to these very heroic refugees, as well.

MS. GIVHAN: Which very much speaks to the idea of who is telling the story, who is writing the history, and from whose perspective it is being told.

One of the things that you've said is that, in some ways, the protagonist, the narrator is in some ways you. I mean, is that true? Is your sense of humor, for one thing, that dark?

MR. NGUYEN: Well, what's interesting is, before "The Sympathizer," no one would have ever said of me who knew me, "Viet is a funny guy," very serious person. But in creating "The Sympathizer," I think I woke up something within myself that was always latent, probably repressed due to my very strict, devout Catholic upbringing and the fact that I became a professor. In academia, a sense of humor is not rewarded.

But I looked at my own life, and I looked at the fact that when I was growing up as a refugee in the United States I felt like a Vietnamese person--I'm sorry, I felt like an American person in a very Vietnamese household with my parents, spying on them. But when I stepped outside of that household into the rest of the United States, I felt like a Vietnamese spying on Americans.

So, my life is not very interesting. No one wants to hear about it for 300 pages. So, instead, I took the seed of that feeling, of constantly feeling like a spy, of being displaced or out of place, of being an observer, and I put it into this figure of the sympathizer, who is of mixed-race descent, always feeling out of place. But his life is much more dramatic than mine. He's put into much more extreme circumstances of warfare and spying and all of that kind of thing, he has adventures. But that idea that the immigrant or the refugee or the outsider is like a spy is, I think, a fairly common experience for so many of us.

MS. GIVHAN: I mean, you mentioned the idea of feeling a bit like a spy in your own home, and then feeling like a spy when you were sort of out in the world.

I mean, it really speaks to the ability to--I think for a lot of immigrants and refugees to be able to see themselves, you know, as they are, but also see themselves from the perspective of those that surround them, to have these sort of multiple vantage points.

I mean, was that something that you were really focused on wanting to bring to the fore, this idea of not only looking at the Vietnamese protagonists in the book, but also the community into which they move?

MR. NGUYEN: Sure. You know, the inspiration for that comes from W.E.B. Dubois' double consciousness and "The Souls of Black Folk," 1903, I think, where he talked about, in his terms, the experience of the negro being someone who sees himself both through his own eyes and the eyes of others, meaning mostly White people. And there--I think I definitely mention Dubois in the book. I mention Frantz Fanon, who was colonized by the French and was a major Black anti-colonial intellectual.

So, the book establishes very clearly these debts both to refugee and immigrant experiences, but also to Black American and global Black experiences, as well, because I think we do share something in common there. You know, when you are a so-called minority in a society, or when you are colonized and put under domination by an external power, you do see yourself from at least two perspectives. Because as a so-called minority, in my case, at least, I felt like I had to know myself; I had to know my own world; but I had to know the world of dominant society. I had to know the world of White people as well in order to survive. I had to know how they thought and I had to know how they thought about me.

And that kind of knowledge is not reciprocal, because I think if you're part of the so-called majority, however that's defined, or dominant society, your--one part of your privilege is that you can ignore the experiences of people who are not like you, but for us, we can't have that luxury.

MS. GIVHAN: Well, I also--in both books, I mean, you are very sort of straightforward in the way in which you describe certain things and the names by which things are identified. There's no need to explain them. There is--you know, there aren't these sort of constant footnotes with asterisks to kind of bring the reader along with things that are unfamiliar.

I mean, why do you think it's so important to--that you wrote this with a kind of just sort of confident, dominant swagger, as opposed to a "Let me help you along"?

MR. NGUYEN: Well, I think, again, my experience of being at least an Asian-American, model minority, immigrant or refugee, these are the ways by which I think I'm often classified, you know, we're often expected to be the nice, quiet people, your good neighbors, your nice classmates. And part of our niceness is that we translate, we explain our cultures, ourselves, our language, our food. And you know, I can do that in a social context, I'm a very nice guy, but in literature and in culture, it doesn't work. You know, if you think about the movies and the books that many of us really love, there's no translation happening in these stories. We're simply expected to go along.

Jonathan Franzen, if he says sandwich, he doesn't have to explain what a sandwich is. We just got to know what that is. When I was growing up in San Jose, California, I felt like I was a provincial, but in the library, all the books that I was reading about kids were all set in Manhattan. No one explained to me what Manhattan was or any of these details. I just had to go along with it.

So, when I became a writer writing these two novels, I felt I had to take the same position. It would devalue literature, devalue my own work if I took this sort of apologetic stance of leading the reader and explaining the world to them. I had to take a more defiant stance, as you said, but also respect the reader, you know, believe that the reader doesn't need to have things explained to them to understand the world in which they're being immersed.

MS. GIVHAN: I mean, so much of the world that you do talk about comes from, to some degree, your own sense of history and the memories of that. And yet, you said that your memories don't really sort of kick in until you're four years old and you're in the U.S. and there are these sort of technicolor photographs of you.

Can you talk about why the idea of memory is so important in your work, and how that sort of--those lost four years, so to speak, have influenced you?

MR. NGUYEN: Yeah. Well, I was born in Vietnam and then came, when I was four years old, to the United States. And I think the fact that that happened to me, even though I can't remember Vietnam and those first four years means that I have some kind of psychic connection to the country and the experience of being Vietnamese that has haunted me for years.

I mean, I'm an American, I'm an American citizen, I think I fully belong here, but there's that kind of shadow hanging over me because of that experience of having been born elsewhere. And I grew up in this refugee community in San Jose, California, you know, composed of many people who came here to this country as adults who had lost everything as a result of the war. And they were definitely haunted by the past and they were plagued by memory, by nostalgia, in ways good and bad. And so, I think for people who have been forcibly displaced, compelled to leave and go somewhere else, part of what they bring with them is this burden of memories, of ghosts, of hauntings.

And so, that dimension of the experience of being displaced is really crucial to my fiction. And then, "The Sympathizer" and "The Committed" also, although they are spy and crime novels, they're also novels about the way by which ghosts are carried with people as well when they leave their home countries and when they go somewhere else, especially after experiences of war and trauma.

MS. GIVHAN: I mean, a lot of people who do feel disconnected from their past and--I mean, I would say this is true with some African-Americans, as well, there is often talk about a sort of feeling the ancestors--you know, just sort of living with you, even if you have no recollection of so much of your past.

And one of the things that you mentioned was in hearing a father, a Vietnamese father, ask his son if he had eaten that day. And it was such a moving story and I think it really kind of gets to that idea of things that are just kind of embedded in your psyche. Can you tell that story and just what it sort of meant to you?

MR. NGUYEN: Sure, I was just in CVS, I believe, and doing an errand, and I found myself standing next to a man who was clearly Asian. I didn't know he was Vietnamese until he answered his cell phone and he said [speaking Vietnamese], which means, literally, "Child, have you eaten, yet?" Which doesn't convey what those words really mean, because it's well known, among Vietnamese people, that we don't say, "I love you." It's really, really rare to say that as explicitly, as stereotypically, I thought that White people said this when I was growing up. Apparently, this is not true, but this is true from watching TV.

So, the way that Vietnamese express love is through sacrifice, through actions, and through being concerned, on an everyday basis, with whether you've eaten or not. And this comes from being--you know, growing up in countries where food was a scarce resource and was a way of showing hospitality and love.

And so, my parents, I don't remember that they ever said "I love you." Now, my father does after my brother and I have mounted this concerted effort over a couple decades to say, "I love you," and he's finally saying it back to us. But in Vietnamese, he would--you know, we would always say, [speaking Vietnamese].

And so, when I heard this father saying this to someone who was clearly his child, I was just so--just so moved. I choked up at that point, because this man--you know, he looked like he was a working man of some kind. He didn't look gentle or anything, but his voice was so gentle when he said that I knew he was expressing love and that it was coming from some really deep place in just this common, everyday expression.

And the last thing I want to say, you know, to your original point, about the ancestors, Robin, is I've spoken and heard from so many younger Vietnamese Americans who were born here in the United States, who have obviously no memory of Vietnam, who feel that they have impacted by history, through their parents and grandparents. Oftentimes even though the history is not spoken, it's through what's unspoken, they know that something has happened. They know that history and culture and memory are things that their parents and grandparents have brought with them. And there are emotional resonances and ripples throughout their lives, sometimes from what's spoken, but oftentimes from what's not spoken. So, I think I do feel that vibe of knowing that people we don't remember, cultures that we don't remember, are still with us and influencing us in ways we don't really understand.

MS. GIVHAN: Well, I know that the absence or temporary absence of your parents has influenced you a great deal. I mean, I was so struck with your story in that when you were in the refugee camp, you were separated from your family for several months. And it's hard not to hear that and to think about what's happening now at our southern border. And even though it was only a few months and you were obviously, like, reunited with your family, I mean, how did that embed itself into your psyche?

MR. NGUYEN: One thing about being a writer is that we have to go where it hurts. I mean, that's where our substance comes from. I mean, we can write plots and characters and everything, but the substance of fiction is emotion. And where do you find the emotion? You find it within yourself.

And so, what happened to me is that, for many decades after what you described I suppressed my feelings because they were painful, even though they were brief. You know, our childhood really marks us in ways that takes a long time to understand. And I think often, as a writer, you have to go back to your childhood and uncover these original traumas and deep feelings that you had.

And so, for me, what happened is that I, along with 130,000 other Vietnamese refugees came to the United States in 1975. We were put into one of four refugee camps. Mine was Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. And in order to leave one of these camps, you had to have an American sponsor. The problem was no sponsor would take all four of us. So, one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my brother, one sponsor took me.

And this was being done benevolently. You know, the ambition, I believe, was to give my parents time on their own to find jobs and get on their feet. But when you're four years old, you don't--you're not cognizant of this rationale. So, I just experienced it as being taken away from my parents, as being abandoned. And I think those were my first memories, of just screaming and howling, being taken from my parents. And although I try to suppress those feelings, I think they always remained with me, stamped between my shoulders as an invisible brand.

And that's why I think that, you know, when we talk about separation of families at the border, parents being taken away from their children for months, for years, children being lost, not even--some of them not yet being recovered, and all of this--I know that people have strong political feelings sometimes about immigration and all that, but I think that regardless of our political beliefs that this policy is wrong. We should not be separating parents from children. It's emotionally devastating for all involved. My experience was benevolent; I've never forgotten it. So, I just can't imagine how traumatic it is for these parents and for these children to be forcibly separated for such long periods.

MS. GIVHAN: Well, also, I mean, another obviously, you know, topic that is really in the spotlight and is deeply troubling, is the rise in anti-Asian discrimination. And you know, one thing that is so striking are those images in which people are assaulting older people, which I think just sort of hits you in a way that is even more extreme than it would be if it were someone who was younger.

I mean, do you see that, what's happening now, as just sort of a part of a continuum of what's been happening for generations and we only now have sort of gotten ourselves attuned and aware of it?

MR. NGUYEN: Oh, I think it has been happening for a long time. It doesn't alleviate the shock. It doesn't alleviate the anger--

MS. GIVHAN: Right.

MR. NGUYEN: --and the hurt and especially the spectacle that you're talking about. And I have no idea why in particular this is happening, that Asian-American elders seem to be targeted in particular in so many of these assaults.

But you know, I'm coming to you from Los Angeles, California, and in 1871, 17 Chinese men and boys were lynched in downtown Los Angeles by a White mob in one of the largest--maybe the largest--mass lynchings in American history. And it wasn't an isolated incident; this was happening all over the western United States in the second half of the 19th century. Chinese immigrants have come here to do work on the railroads and to do gold mining, and they posed an economic threat and they were perceived as a cultural and racial threat by the White working class, and these fears were exacerbated by the newspapers and by politicians.

So, we've seen this happening before and if we look through the course of American history, it's not just the Chinese or people who look like the Chinese have been targeted. We can talk about the violence against Filipino migrant laborers, the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, the racial blowback from the Vietnam War, the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982 by two Detroit auto workers who mistook a Chinese American for a Japanese during a time of heightened anti-Japanese fear because of a trade war with Japan.

So, none of this is new. And you know, we can talk about what happened after 9/11 when Asian-Americans who were Muslim or who were brown were being targeted during that time period, as well. So, on the one hand, that's very discouraging; on the other hand, it allows us to put what's happening today in a context and to acknowledge that short-term solutions are not the answer, here. You know, these are deeply rooted. These problems are deeply rooted in American society. We need long-term solutions. The fact that Joe Biden said this is wrong, that anti-Asian hate and violence are wrong is great. I also think it's the least that we can expect from an American president to be a role model on this for the rest of the country.

MS. GIVHAN: You've said before that, you know, you don't like the idea of having people refer to you as a voice for the voiceless, and I understand that, but it does sort of point to the fact that, you know, it isn't that people have been voiceless; it's the fact that we've simply chosen not to hear them.

I mean, are we listening better now?

MR. NGUYEN: Gosh, I don't know. I mean, I've said often Vietnamese people are not voiceless; we're really, really loud. Just go to a Vietnamese restaurant; go to a Vietnamese house.

But you know, part--when we talk about things like diversity and inequality and equity and all that kind of thing and we say representation matters, it's absolutely true. It's fantastic that today we have Oscar nominations where Steven Yeun and Riz Ahmed and Isaac Chung have gotten Oscar nominations. That's awesome, it's going to make a difference, but you know, we really also need to be thinking about how we create opportunities and for all members a community to be heard.

So, I come in, I do these events because I do think it's important that at least one voice is heard, but I also think it's important that we create opportunities for many others. I try to do that in my own work by creating Vietnamese-American arts organizations to, you know, create spaces for new voices. I think it's on all of us, whatever institution we find ourselves working in, whatever community we find ourselves working in, that we ask whether these communities and organizations are doing enough with their resources to create pipelines, to cultivate young people, to give them opportunities in these particular institutions and organizations. Are these institutions and organizations giving money to the right community-based organizations that can grow communities? All of these are things that each of us has to be responsible for.

MS. GIVHAN: Yeah, I think one of the things that you have mentioned is this idea of being told that if you're not utterly content with America, that sort of--you know, love it or leave it.

And I mean, you speak very eloquently about wanting to fix and mend and elevate what we love, and that it's a sign of one's profound love for the country that you want to change it. I mean, are there any symbols that really sort of speak to you as sort of emblematic of the America that you love?

MR. NGUYEN: I think there's so many. I think about the fact that, throughout this country, there are people who are working together to build communities and alliances and solidarities.

If we talk about Asian-American violence, for example, I look to Oakland. In Oakland, there have been a lot of--in the Bay Area, there have been a lot of incidents of this anti-Asian violence. And in the Oakland communities, Asian-American and African-American community leaders and activists and organizations have unified. They've said, you know, we need to work together. We need to have conversations between Black and Asian communities. We also need to have conversations with White communities, as well. We need more than short-term solutions. We just can't say, for example, that we need more police when part of the problem with the police is that oftentimes police enforcement is completely unequal. And oftentimes, sometimes racist. That's what the Black Lives Matter movement has been arguing for well over the past year. We need community-based solutions that are about building greater equality, giving people economic resources, creating opportunities for people to interact and not to fear each other.

So, this type of work, I think, is emblematic of a United States that recognizes its diversity, its multiplicity, that recognizes also that it's not perfect. I think part of the love it or leave it response from some people is, well, this country is already great. If you're pointing out some flaws or some limitations, well, we don't want to hear it and you should go back to whatever country you came from if you think it's so much better, but that's not the proper response.

I think we, as mature Americans--you know, people who are able--we should be able to confront our problems and think about the fact that we've done a lot, but we have so much more progress to make. And any kind of criticisms in this fashion are done in the spirit of helping to build a better country, not to tear it down.

MS. GIVHAN: Well, I'm afraid that's--I'm going to have to leave it at that. I think that's a very hopeful note on which to leave it. Thank you so much for being with me this afternoon.

And I would also like to point out that tomorrow at 2:00 my colleague, Jackie Alemany will be in conversation with Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

I'm Robin Givhan, and thanks for watching.

[End recorded session.]

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