‘I'm inspired by this idea that literature can challenge us politically’ — Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer behind the book "The Sympathizer," was recently in Manila for the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In a Vietnamese enclave in San Jose, California, a boy helps run a grocery store his parents had built after fleeing war-torn Vietnam. He attends Sunday mass with his devout Catholic parents and saves money to buy comic books, candies, and games. Their usual pace is disrupted when a woman named Mrs. Hoa enters their store and demands they donate money to fight communism in Vietnam. The boy’s mother refuses, believing that the cause is futile.

After a series of back and forth within their family as to whether or not they should extend help to this stranger of a woman, the boy and his mother follow Mrs. Hoa to her house, which reveals a home that hosts nine people from three generations, a soldier’s uniform that belonged to her dead husband, and the memories of the two sons she lost in the war.

Upon being confronted with Mrs. Hoa’s circumstance, the boy’s mother readily offers money. After they leave, she and her son go to a 7-Eleven, where the boy is encouraged to buy absolutely anything he wants. While browsing the store, however, he is suddenly uncertain of what to buy.

This story, titled “War Years,” is included in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Refugees,” a collection of short stories that depict the many lives and realities of Vietnamese refugees. The boy, whose confusion paints the complex conditions in which refugees find themselves in, is based on Viet himself. “That was a very difficult story to write because at that point, I didn't like writing about myself. It took a lot of effort,” Nguyen shares.

When “The Refugees” was translated into Vietnamese in Vietnam, the government censored this particular short story, which is the only autobiographical content in the book. “There's one woman in that story, Mrs. Hoa, she's an anti-communist and whatever she said was obviously problematic for the government,” Nguyen explains. “I thought, ‘In the United States, the experiences of Vietnamese refugees have been erased or forgotten by Americans. In Vietnam, we've been forgotten and erased by the Vietnamese as well.’ And that short story exemplified that.”

Nguyen says that the censorship is only a testament to the value of stories, that stories indeed have the ability to challenge authority. “We know [stories] matter because sometimes governments will censor them,” he shares. “This must mean these stories do count for something.”

Nguyen’s “The Refugees,” a collection of short stories that depict the many lives and realities of Vietnamese refugees. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

While he is known to have published “The Sympathizer” first in 2015, it was working on the “The Refugees” (published in 2017) that prepared him for his first novel. He would have Excel sheets that framed what characters and plot devices to use when writing. “These excel sheets had well, if I write a story about a man, I'm going to write a story about a woman, I'm going to write about someone straight, I'm going to write about someone gay, and so on,” he says.

“I'd already been working on ‘The Refugees’ for 11 years at that point. And somehow, by working on these short stories, I learned something about writing. I also learned something about endurance.”

He stresses that one’s ability to endure and to suffer is crucial to being a writer. “So I was ready for the big struggle with ‘The Sympathizer,’ given with what happened with ‘The Refugees,’ and then miraculously, it was not a long struggle.”

It only took him two years to write “The Sympathizer,” a moment which Nguyen says is like breaking through some wall into being able to write unabatedly. Although he’d never written a novel before "The Sympathizer," he says he’d suddenly acquired skills from the continuous, arduous task of writing the short stories he worked on for over a decade. “And all of this is to say that there is no predictable way to becoming a writer or how any book will turn out,” he says.

It turned out well, to say the least. In 2016, his debut novel “The Sympathizer” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It also won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, among others. Nguyen has also authored non-fiction books, such as “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and The Memory of War” (2016) and “Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America” (2002). In 2018, he edited the book “The Displaced,” which features original essays by refugee writers.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer was recently in Manila for this year’s Philippine Readers and Writers Festival and CNN Philippines Life spoke to him about his acclaimed novels, his experience as a refugee, and the multiple identities that tether him not only to America, but also to Vietnam, and even to the Philippines. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

When I was watching some of your interviews to prepare for this conversation, you candidly said on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” that it is doubly hard for you to tell your immigrant parents that you were pursuing a degree in English. Why did you want to study English in the first place?

I grew up as a refugee with Vietnamese refugee parents and as you would expect they really wanted their children to be successful, to make it in America. My brother became a medical doctor so he did what he was supposed to do. [Laughs] And for me though, I majored in English and Ethnic Studies in Berkley because I believe in stories. I believe that for us to become a part of a country, is not simply to become successful people in a conventional way but to change the way we tell stories about that country.

For us to become Americans, we really had to change the American story. How do we do that? We do it through telling our own stories, understanding how stories are made, and that's what English is about — the study of literature. And Ethnic Studies was really important because I saw myself as a person of color and as a minority in the United States, and not simply as a Vietnamese person by myself, but someone who is part of a much larger, more complicated history, which includes Filipino-Americans for example.

I wanted to study things that wanted me to connect to different people from different backgrounds. So in one of my earlier Ethnic Studies courses, we read Carlos Bulosan and then we read Jessica Hagedorn. These are some of the ways that I could see that there are other people before me who were basically doing this work, using stories to transform our understanding of America, of the world, of the Philippines. I wanted to be a part of that effort.

Even before going to university, were you already set to give clarity and use literature to understand your place in the world?

Oh yeah. I became an English major because I loved reading. I loved stories and I wanted to be a writer. But why did I want to do that? Partly because out of enjoyment. Like, the sheer pleasure of a story was very powerful for me. That was first and foremost. But I think, intuitively, I wanted to become a writer because I wanted to tell stories about my family, our history, and that of other Vietnamese people.

The very first time I took an Ethnic Studies course, which was my first year in college, it wasn't even about me, or about Asians. It was about Chicanos or Mexican-Americans in the United States. But I grew up with people like that, and instantly, I made the connection that this has been something that I'd been missing. That what I longed for was to hear stories of people who were just weren't white in [America].

From a very early point, I really did understand that stories were going to be crucial both for fun and for pleasure but also understanding myself and my place in [America].

But what made you decide to use the Vietnam War as the backdrop for your books, “The Refugees” and “The Sympathizer?”

In “The Refugees,” I wanted to write about the refugees' experience because it was very intimate, very close to me. The Vietnam War is in the backdrop of that, that's why we became refugees. But when it came to writing the novel, I knew I wanted to confront the history of the Vietnam War very directly because the Vietnam War had only been written about by Vietnamese people in Vietnam and by Americans. And at least in the context of the United States and the world, the American stories dominated because American stories circulate everywhere, including here in the Philippines.

I knew that what I wanted to do was to challenge the way the story was told and this history was told, because it was being told only from the American perspective or the victorious Vietnamese perspective. And I came from the defeated Vietnamese side. I thought that, even though there's been so many books written about this, I felt that still — and this is what writers look for — I thought that there was still a story that hadn't been told. That's when as a writer, you know you have something. When you've identified something that hasn't been told before. And that means something to you, very much personally.

“I think part of the task of being a writer is to recognize that the emotions that you feel count for something.”

There's this one sentence in the short story War Years, which is autobiographical as you've mentioned, where you wrote:the accumulation of everything that I could do nothing about.” It felt that that’s what many immigrant children resonate with, in that they're deposited into a situation where they have to reconcile their parents' weighted history with their home country and also this sudden reality of being in a completely new country. How did you or your family reconcile these two, your history with Vietnam and your new life in America?

That's a very common immigrant, refugee story, which is you come from another country, especially with adults, you already have a fully formed self. And then you have to go to another country and you have to remake yourself again. And oftentimes that involves losing a lot. You've left people, a country, and a culture behind. You come to this new place and you're nobody, most often. There's a lot of pain and tragedy there, which is painful for people who are living that experience.

But then for their children as well. We absorbed that too, from watching what happens to our parents but also that shapes how they treat their children. This is a very common landscape for immigrant and refugee writing, and it doesn't mean it's easy to write about, it's oftentimes very painful to write about if it's autobiographical, which is why it was so hard for me to write the War Years because on the one hand, nothing really important has happened to me or to my family. When you grow up in that circumstance, you think, ‘oh this is normal.’ But you have to step back and think, it is important. These are the events that shape your parents, that shape you or me, and the pain that your family undergoes. It may not be important to anybody else, but it was important to your family and to you and it shapes you. It's certainly shaped me.

I think part of the task of being a writer is to recognize that the emotions that you feel count for something. In fact, the emotions that you feel are what you write about — even if you write about something very different. Like “The Sympathizer,” I didn't live that life. But the emotions that he feels, the ideas the narrator experiences are oftentimes things that I've thought about or have gone through. This is what writers have to do. We have to tap into ourselves and put that emotional material into whatever stories that we work on.

You mentioned in an essay for the LA times how you've always wanted your fiction “to be critical as it was creative.” I think this is best demonstrated in “The Sympathizer,” where you really submerge the reader into the sociopolitical machinations of the Vietnam War. Why is this critique invaluable in making the novel?

In “The Sympathizer,” I wanted to do many things but in the very basic level, I wanted it to be an entertaining book. So it's a spy genre for example and a historical novel for the story. But what I was also thinking about was that I see myself as part of a tradition of writing in which politics is also important — that it is important for writers to use writing as a kind of political critique as well in addition to all that other stuff about entertainment and art.

We've already mentioned Carlos Bulosan and Jessica Hagedorn in the Filipino context; these are two writers who do similar things. I'm inspired by that. I'm inspired by this idea that literature can challenge us politically and in “The Sympathizer,” I had to figure out a way to do that. And the way to do that was to make a character who was a Marxist, and intelligent enough to be very opinionated so it wouldn't sound that I was a writer [who was] dropping my opinions into the book but it naturally came out of him.

That's I think how the novel was able to pull off both the entertainment of being a spy story and the political critique because it emanates naturally from the spy.

Nguyen's debut novel “The Sympathizer” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. It also won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, among others. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

In “The Sympathizer,” one of the settings is in the Philippines, the late '70s Philippines. [In the book, the spy becomes a consultant to a Hollywood filmmaker who wanted to make a movie about the Vietnam War.] How did you arrive at setting it in the Philippines?

I wanted it to be an ambitious novel and so one of the things that I wanted to do was to comment about how the war has been represented through movies, American movies in particular. And how the United States even though lost the war, in fact, won the war in memory all over the world — through American cultural power, which obviously is very influential globally, here as well.

I knew the way Americans remembered their war through the movies had shaped the entire world's understanding of this event. So I wanted to challenge, criticize, and make it as part of the entertainment of the book. The most legendary movie about the war was “Apocalypse Now” and it was made here [in the Philippines]. The making of the film was a legend as well. I wanted to punch up. It was a rich object of satire and so I just had to take a chance because I'd never been to the Philippines.

As part of the novel, it was a bit disruptive. It's a digression in the novel and I knew that as I was writing it but I thought, I don't care. [Laughs] Novels don't always have to be linear, they can have digressions. And so it was a tremendous amount of fun to write that sequence and I really wanted to come to the Philippines for a very long time because you know, growing up in California, I had a lot of Filipino friends and also, I just wanted to see the place that I'd written about.

While you were researching for the novel, what kind of information were you hoping to get about the Philippines?

The Philippines and Vietnam I think are related in some ways. We're both colonized countries and in the case of Vietnam, it was France and then American occupation. And here, Spain and then American colonization. So I think we have a lot of shared experiences in addition to the cultural aspect of being Southeast Asian countries as well. Manila is very familiar to me because it looks a lot like Saigon.

I thought the Philippines was perfect because it is a place that has some similarities about Vietnam in terms of colonization. And the United States came here to colonize the country but also to make a movie about the Vietnam War here in the Philippines. The Philippines was the staging base for the Vietnam War bombers — we have Subic Bay, Clark Air Base. So this history of colonization completely ties the three countries together.

As a matter of fact, I was here in the Philippines as a refugee. I just don't remember it.

Oh wow. Was it in Bataan?

Palawan I think was the big location for refugees. But I didn't go there. I think basically, we fled Saigon on a boat, then the boat stopped here but I didn't stay here in refugee camps.

But in other words, that's the history that binds us together — the Philippines was both used as a bomber base, naval base, and then took in Vietnamese refugees as well. So there's just so much possibility there to both satirize “Apocalypse Now” but also to implicitly bring these histories together.

But did you have to talk to maybe Filipino researchers, academics?

I did a lot of reading. I read everything [there] was to read about “Apocalypse Now” and Francis Ford Coppola, but then I also read, as much as I could find, the Philippines of that time period, the late 1970s. And I'd already written about Filipino-American literature with Hagedorn and Bulosan. So I knew I think a bit about colonization and representation and the various kinds of problems around that, for Filipinos and for Filipino-Americans.

So I felt I was not coming into the situation unaware of these complications for Filipinos. But for the research that I read about the late 1970s, it was very specifically about what Manila was like, what that region of the Philippines was like, where the movie was shot. I wanted to get some of those textures of everyday life down in reading ethnographies. I read Fodor's guide to Southeast Asia in 1975 just to see how Westerners were writing about the Philippines for example, and it was obviously kind of problematic. [Laughs] But all that is part of the imagination of the Philippines at that time.

Can you share what kind of problematic anecdotes or statements were there?

The Philippines was part of Southeast Asia and the way that Fodor's was writing about Southeast Asia in general was a place of exoticism. 'Oh this is a place you can go to for all kinds of interesting things to see, interesting people,' and so on and so forth. And nothing was discussed in terms of American colonization in the Philippines. Or in Cambodia, for example. [The writing was about how] 'this is a pretty nice place to visit,' and this was right before the genocide was going to happen too.

So from the perspective of tourists in America or Westerners, their relationship to the Philippines was completely disconnected from history. It's completely related to the colonizers' perspective, where this is simply a place to enjoy yourself. I mean, yes it is, it's a beautiful country and all that, but for me, I was interested in that gap, between exoticism and the much more problematic history.

"Part of the long process of coming to terms with myself and what it means to be a Vietnamese person in the United States, or a Vietnamese-American is to realize I have multiple identities and they depend on the context that I happen to be in — whether I'm in the United States or whether in Vietnam or in the Philippines — and all of these are equally legitimate," says Nguyen. Photo by JL JAVIER

What I also find most interesting in your writing is how you’ve embraced multiple identities. I watched a discussion you had with author Roxane Gay, where you talked about that and how you’ve learnt that it’s a matter of prioritizing one identity over another at different times. Can you expound on this?

I think when you grow up as a part of the majority, in any country, it's very easy not to question your identity. Because your identity aligns with the identity of the people in power. All the stories, all the assumptions of your society reinforce who you are, so you have no identity crisis. You can have a singular identity as a Filipino, as an American, or Vietnamese, or whatever.

When you grow up as part of the minority, it's different. Because you had to contend with this majority identity and then your minority identity and all the conflicts that happen as a result. And oftentimes, people become very defensive, “Oh I'm torn between two cultures, I have to choose, I have to renounce some part of myself.” Or conversely, they say, “I can make the best of both worlds and we're gonna achieve harmony.” But neither of these are very good solutions. And so for me, part of the long process of coming to terms with myself and what it means to be a Vietnamese person in the United States, or a Vietnamese-American is to realize I have multiple identities and they depend on the context that I happen to be in — whether I'm in the United States or whether in Vietnam or in the Philippines — and all of these are equally legitimate.

While that can be very confusing for some people, it can also be a source of strength and power because I think for those of us who embrace that multiplicity, we have the capacity to see issues from multiple perspectives and that's what I put into the novel, “The Sympathizer.” And that gives us I think, again, an ability to see things that other people who have never been challenged can't see. That can be very frightening, very debilitating, or it can be very powerful.

The United States as you well know also has several parallels with the Philippines, most apparent now perhaps with Trump and Duterte in power. When things get awry in these times, what gives you hope?

What gives me hope is that on the one hand, if we're talking about the United States, we can clearly see that Trump's vision is to take the country back at least a hundred years, maybe more. That's depressing because he has a lot of support. What gives me hope though is that 100 years ago, when this kind of racist nationalism was abundant, there is limited resistance to it, especially on the part of white people. Now, things have changed.

While there are a lot of white nationalists in the United States, there are also a lot of white people who refuse to be white nationalists and are resisting, in addition to the immigrants, and refugees, and people of color and so on. So that gives me hope. That the country has changed even if there is still a component of a country that would like to go backwards in time.

And here in the Philippines, if we find Duterte depressing, which I do, at the same time that he is in power, there is still resistance. There are still people who would contest what it is that Duterte wants to do.

We have to have faith and hope in that kind of resistance, that imagination of a freer world.