An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

The MacArthur-winning novelist on refugee literature and American politics.

This conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen took place a few days after he received a MacArthur  “genius grant”. As the author of a Pulitzer prize-winning novel (The Sympathizer), and a collection of short stories (The Refugees), as well as a nonfiction work chronicling narratives of the Vietnam War (Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War), Nguyen is both a scholar and a storyteller. He explores the confluence of narrative and memory throughout his oeuvre, and how the experiences of Vietnamese refugees, and Vietnamese-Americans, are molded by both; in an essay for the New York Times last year, Nguyen noted that “it is precisely because I do not look like a refugee that I have to proclaim being one, even when those of us who were refugees would rather forget that there was a time when the world thought us to be less than human.”So could you talk a little bit about the receiving the call?

It was definitely a big shock and a big surprise. I had just come back from a summer in Paris, so I’d just been home for a couple of days, and I got this phone call from a strange number. I didn’t know who it was, but I texted the number, “Who is this”, and they texted back, “It’s the MacArthur Foundation”. I thought I better call these people right away, and I just had to sit down for the duration of the conversation.

But by the time the news broke, I’d had a month to think about it. And it was actually a huge relief once it was out there, and I could finally start acknowledging it to everybody.

Can you recall your earliest memories of writing?

Well, I think the first book I wrote was actually in the third grade. In elementary school, we made our own books, that type of thing. So I wrote it, drew it, bound it, and it won a prize at the public library, and I think it was the first time the thought occurred to me that I could actually do something with this.

Then I dabbled in writing throughout grade school, and high school, and I started getting more serious about it in college.

Did you have a support system when you were starting out? When you were younger, your parents opened a Vietnamese market in San Jose—did you receive any encouragement from them, or from any of your instructors?

Yeah, I think my parents didn’t directly support the writing—that would’ve been very strange for them, to think about something like that. But they supported me directly in terms of providing everything I needed materially. That was enormously important. Many people don’t have that kind of support. And, you know, I was not the best writer when I was developing. So I think I got good feedback from my writing instructors, but I often think that they never thought I would become anything [Laughs]. And for good reason—I don’t think I was a very good writer.

But I’ll mention a particularly important incident from that: I got into Maxine Hong Kingston’s nonfiction writing seminar when I was at Berkeley. You had to compete to get into this class. And I don’t think I realized how lucky I was, because it was a class of fourteen students, and you never had classes with fourteen students at Berkeley. I went to class every day, and I sat three or four feet away from her, and every single day I fell asleep. That must have demonstrated how motivated of a student I was. But at the end of the semester, she wrote everybody a note, and I think she was very right in that letter pointing out that I needed to be more open to people, to ask more questions, to be awake, literally, but also spiritually, you know? I think that was part of the beginning of my very long, slow, maturation process towards being a writer.

Do you remember what influences you were taking in around that time? And what you were reading?

Well, I was an English major, and all of that was very important to me. The whole canon of English and American literature, and I continued reading that very systematically in graduate school. And I went to graduate school immediately after undergraduate, so I ended up reading the entire body of 19th- and 20th-century American literature, from basically Ben Franklin up until the present. I was 23, 24 years old, when I took my qualifying exams in those fields, and that was very important to me because it gave me a sense of the English canon, and of American literary history, and where I might fit into that.

When I wrote The Sympathizer, I found my reading notes from that qualifying exam period in this binder, and I kept them by my desk as a reference. In case I ever needed to look back on what I thought about Thoreau or Emerson or something. I never did open that binder, but it reminded me that I wanted to put myself in that American literary history. And that literary history included other classes I was taking as an ethnic studies major at Berkeley, which was my other undergraduate major. African-American literature, Asian-American literature, and Chicano literature were all of these traditions within American literature that were really, enormously, influential for me.

On that note, do you think your academic background had a heavy influence on how you conceive of narrative? You’re a scholar, as opposed to a writer who came up through an MFA program. Does it shape how you see stories, or do you think your mindset would be different if you had started in the MFA system?

I’m pretty sure it has. There are a lot of generalizations about both the world of MFAs and the world of the PhD, and let’s assume that some of those generalizations are true. And, if so, their approaches to literature tend to be different. The MFA population tends to be very much concerned, I think, first and foremost, with questions of aesthetics, technique, and craft. And of course there has to be a sense of literature that’s important to that, but I think an awareness or a commitment to theory, and broad overviews of how literature works outside of its immediate effect on the reader, is not so much of a concern, in general, for American MFA students and systems.

And what I learned from a PhD program, or what I did not learn, was an appreciation for aesthetic technique, for example. We never talked about “how a story worked,” or anything like that. But we were deeply immersed in literary history, and theoretical ideas of what kinds of functions literature could perform, and, especially for me, what kinds of political functions literature could perform. And that meant that I did I bring all of those concerns from a critical and scholarly perspective to my fiction writing. I had to think about how my own fiction fit into my critical understanding. If I’m seeing certain trends in contemporary American fiction, for example—some of which are good, some of which are bad—how can my own fiction participate in those things or review those things?

In both The Refugees and The Sympathizer, I’m trying to work through those critical issues in a fictional way, but in a way that was very deliberate for me.

When you were writing The Refugees, which was crafted over the course of twenty years, did you have a theme in mind from the beginning? Or were you starting each story with a narrative? Or were themes, and theory, the foundation of those stories?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write stories focussed on Vietnamese experiences, and especially Vietnamese-Americans. When I first sat down to start writing these stories in the ’90s, I guess the theme would’ve been just simply giving voice to Vietnamese people. And that’s a very common theme in contemporary American fiction: giving voice to some population that has been rendered voiceless, or is perceived to be voiceless. And that’s important work that needs to be done, because there are so many of these populations, and so many of them are underserved, or underrepresented, in the larger American cultural landscape, whether it’s literature or anything else.

But it’s also a limited theme. This was something that was very obvious to me as a literary scholar. It wasn’t enough to desire, or claim, to have a voice, because that desire has a limited critical usefulness. And it’s easily co-opted by the literary, cultural, and political marketplaces, because what usually happens is that someone becomes “the voice for the voiceless,” at a certain period, and then is forgotten, and then someone else becomes the voice for that voiceless population, and it just goes in cycles. And nothing changes for the voiceless. And literature, especially what we call multicultural literature in the United States, can become totally subjugated to that kind of desire.

But when I was writing The Refugees, I was just trying to figure out how to write the stories. That’s hard enough to do as it is, without also trying to figure out how I could disrupt this thematic problem that is so dominant in contemporary American fiction. How could I refuse to give voice to the voiceless, or bring attention to that problem? And I think that’s something that The Sympathizer is much more aggressive about confronting.

Another motif that’s prevalent in your work is sexuality. “The Other Man” immediately comes to mind, which is a story about a gay refugee, a young man who’s been doubly displaced both geographically and sexually. So how do you think about sexuality in addition to all of your themes in your stories?

You know, that’s been very important to me. Given my own background, it was easy for me to think first and foremost about questions of race, or ethnicity, or nationality, or culture, and more difficult to think about gender or sexuality. It just goes to show how normalized I was to my own gender and sexuality. So it was a very deliberate move to make myself think, as I completed each of those stories, about what kinds of themes I was dealing with. And I literally have an excel sheet where I said, OK, here’s this story, and it’s written from the perspective of a man. Well, the next story should be from the perspective of a woman. And this one’s about a straight person. And this one should be about a gay person. And I realized I wanted to demonstrate the whole range of diversity within a single category that we might assume to be homogenous, like, “Vietnamese people.”

But Vietnamese people are not homogenous. They have many different facets, each of them individually. And these different facets allow them to connect with other populations who are not Vietnamese. So in the example of that story, “The Other Man,” foregrounded not just in Liem being Vietnamese and a refugee, but also someone with his own sexual identity and struggles and everything, meant that his problems couldn’t simply be put into one category as a refugee coming to America. The fact that he was beginning to recognize his homosexuality meant that he would no longer fit within the traditional Vietnamese community either.

I think, with each of those stories, I intentionally tried to do that. There are multiple problems and identities that the characters were all struggling with.

Is there anything you’re hoping to accomplish through your work as a cumulative body? Is there something you’re working towards as a whole?

I think that, as a whole, I’m deeply interested in—and have been, ever since I was a student—the intersection of art and politics. And how art can be a political force without being reduced to politics. The Refugees is one way of dealing with this, but in a way that’s perhaps more amenable to mainstream cases, because its politics are kind of muted. The Sympathizer is a much more aggressive novel, in which the politics are much more foregrounded in both the content and the form of the novel as well.  I think that it’s an intersection, and a set of themes I’m continuing to work with, and trying to figure out how the next novel can do the same thing, or can do it differently in terms of this negotiation with art and politics.

As for the future, and as for the recent cluster of books that I’ve published, particularly those two and Nothing Ever Dies, the larger theme is not simply to talk about Vietnam or Vietnamese people, which are certainly major concerns, but also to talk about the nature of war and the nature of memory, which are universal concerns. And so, the Vietnam War in that sense is important not just because of itself, but because of what it can tell us about war and memory in general. That’s what those books are engaged with.

What are you working on now? And will the MacArthur influence it anyway?

I’m working on the sequel to The Sympathizer. One way to understand that book is that it’s a spy novel, and a genre novel—and I love genre. Many kinds. Including literary fiction as a genre. But in genres like spy fiction, or detective novels, and so on, there’s a little mystics for sequels to continue the adventures of characters. And that’s one of the things I want to do with The Sympathizer—to continue exploiting that genre aspect of it; but I also want to acknowledge that, for me, the journey of the antihero wasn’t finished by the end of  the book. And I wanted to figure out where he was going to go. And how he would continue to struggle with his politics. And how I would continue to struggle with the problem of literature and politics within the novel.