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The humaniser

Published on: May 30, 2017

Filed Under: Books, Connections to Today, Featured

Views: 1140

This article originally appeared at the MekongReview.com.

By Tillman Miller.

 

On the road to Little Saigon, the land is flat and urban, and the California air is warm and cloudless. Under this vast American sky, there are Vietnamese tailors and fabric shops, banh mi joints and merchants selling herbal medicines. There are teahouses where patrons play tien len, a popular card game, listening to the shopkeepers call out to one another above the traffic noise, and in the cafés are portraits of Vietnamese celebrities. A megamall with green eaves and red neon is designed to look like a pagoda guarded by deities. Wander around Bolsa Avenue in the midmorning and you’ll catch a fishy trace of nuoc cham. Then the heart of Orange County begins to smell of scallions, ginger and the briny scent of fish heads.

Photograph: Megan Miller

When Viet Thanh Nguyen became the first Vietnamese American to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, it seemed certain that the author would become a luminary in Little Saigon. And yet there was simply no telling how Vietnamese Americans in Orange County would respond. “I just am not certain how The Sympathizer is going to be received in that community,” Nguyen says, “especially given that the protagonist is a communist spy.” The reason for his uncertainty is that for many Vietnamese Americans, the war has never ended. Anti-communist sentiment still runs deep here, where South Vietnamese flags can be seen flying from streetlamps and a Vietnam War Memorial honours American and South Vietnamese service people.

When The Sympathizer first appeared in April 2015, it opened a twenty-two month span during which Nguyen published three books: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sympathizer, the National Book Award-nominated Nothing Ever Dies, and The Refugees, a collection of short stories. The Sympathizer crackles with energy and ambition, as its narrator — a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent — flees to the US after the fall of Saigon. It’s an epic, globetrotting political-war-satirical-spy novel that reveals the reality of the pre- and postwar Vietnamese experience, all the while conveying the catastrophe of war and the double consciousness of refugees. With Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen maintains and builds upon the themes of The Sympathizer, examining how war stories are created and distorted in America’s fractured landscape. The Refugees, released in February, is the capstone to Nguyen’s trio, exploring the lives of several individuals and families caught up in the trauma, dilemma and displacement of the Vietnamese American experience.

A few days after the release of The Refugees, I travelled to Orange County to meet with Nguyen, who was in the midst of an extended book tour. In person, Nguyen is sharp and gracious. Our meeting took place in an office borrowed from the Orange County Registernewspaper, where we discussed refugees, resistance, ghosts and betrayal among other topics.

You’ve been very careful about taking your books to Orange County and Little Saigon. Why is that?

Orange County has a reputation of being a conservative place — and that is not only true for the Vietnamese Americans who have settled there in Little Saigon. In the past they have not been shy to stage very vocal anti-communist protests directed at anybody they think is a communist or a communist sympathiser.

Have you received negative feedback from American veterans of the war?

I think I’ve only responded once to a veteran who was very angry, and it was in response to an op-ed that I’d written in The New York Times when The Sympathizer first came out. The op-ed was about the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war and the veteran was angry. The common refrain of these complaints … is that I’m ungrateful for the sacrifice of American soldiers and I’m ungrateful for the liberties of this country.

In another op-ed you wrote about how immigrants are considered to be central to idea of the American dream and American mythology, while many Americans view refugees as unwanted and un-American. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s still an issue now because I think that the difference between immigrants and refugees still exists. Immigrants are people who want to come to a country and have come here through ways that are legal, and even in the United States we periodically become xenophobic. And as we do, the idea of the immigrant is still important to the American dream and American mythology. Refugees are usually unwanted where they come from and oftentimes unwanted where they go to, and they come through “illegal” or extralegal means and they are oftentimes perceived by the people in the host countries as being a threat — a legal threat at the very least, but oftentimes also amoral, hygienic, sexual, religious, political, economic threats … So we see that phobia around refugees still with us today, and it’s one of the reasons why I think for someone who is or was a refugee, it’s important for me to point towards that fear and try to counteract it as much as I can.

In [The Refugees], did you set out to humanise refugees?

That was the deliberate method … And of course, it serves an important cultural purpose and now we see a political purpose as well. But I think it’s also quite limited in what literature can do, and that’s why in The Sympathizer I’m not interested in humanising my protagonist or humanising the Vietnamese, but I could only get to that point after I’d written The Refugees.

Is humanising refugees one of the ways you’re trying to “fight the power” in your writing? You used that phrase in an op-ed for The New York Times.

It’s a complicated question and answer because I think, yes, to fight the power that seeks to demonise and exclude people on the basis of whatever kind of identity is an important task, and part of how we accomplish that is through humanisation of those that we fear, or society fears. From a literary point of view, though, is not that complicated. As a writer I want to be more complicated than simply trying to say I’m trying to prove anybody’s humanity. So in The Sympathizer it’s also an attempt to fight the power, but also much more aggressively than in The Refugees. What that means is that I am very explicit in talking about what that power is because The Refugees is a more subtle work — or a work whose politics are more muted, whereas in The Sympathizer the attempt is definitely to make explicit what the political stakes are.

Fighting the power is also a theme discussed in Nothing Ever Dies, and in the prologue to that book you [quoted] Martin Luther King Jr: “We will be marching … and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.” Do you think a profound change has occurred since Dr King said those words?

There’s been a profound change in American life since Dr King gave that speech. With every move toward a more progressive or liberal or open society we’ve changed. But at the same time, the people and the forces that don’t agree with that perspective are themselves also strengthened and changing and modifying their rhetoric and their tactics and strategies. And those who don’t agree have kept pace — as we’ve seen with this [2016 US] election. What that means is that even though we have changed progressively in some ways, we’ve also entrenched ourselves more reactively in some ways too. So many of the enduring problems that Dr King was talking about have endured because we haven’t changed enough. There’s been resistance against change.

The author with his mother, Linda Kim, in their hometown Ban Me Thuot in 1973

Born in 1971 in Ban Me Thuot, the largest city in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, Nguyen was four when the North Vietnamese military began its final invasion of the south. As communist troops descended upon Ban Me Thuot in March 1975, Nguyen’s mother, Linda Kim, made a split-second decision for her family to flee the highlands for Saigon, where Nguyen’s father, Joseph Thanh, was travelling on business. After walking more than a hundred kilometres to the nearest port town, Linda Kim safely secured a position for her family on a barge bound for Saigon.

In the South Vietnamese capital, his mother managed to find his father, and the family remained together in Saigon until the communists captured the city one month later. During the communist takeover, the family again decided to flee, this time leaving Vietnam. After numerous days at sea, their boat was taken in by the US Navy and transported to Guam, where they lived in a refugee camp until they were flown to another camp in Pennsylvania, in the northeast of the United States.

One of Nguyen’s first memories is of what happened after his family arrived at the camp in Pennsylvania. In order to leave, his family needed an American sponsor; however, no sponsor would take in a family of four. The family was split among three different sponsors: his parents went to live with one sponsor, his brother went to live with another, and Nguyen went to the third. He remembers the uncertainty and confusion he felt while living with a white American family, until his family was able to reunite a few months later.

His family remained in Pennsylvania for three years, struggling with limited opportunities, before moving to California in 1978. Through the rest of the Seventies and Eighties, Joseph and Linda Nguyen ran one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in San Jose, working tirelessly to send their sons to college.

Echoes of this complex and compelling upbringing can be found peppered throughout Nguyen’s work, particularly in the stories collected in The Refugees and in several heartfelt vignettes in Nothing Ever Dies. I asked Nguyen whether his family’s experience was a matter they discussed when he was growing up in California, or whether it was purposely avoided in conversation.

“I don’t remember that we sat around talking about being refugees, but that fact of our life was hard to escape because it saturated everything in terms of the struggles my parents were going through and the impact on the domestic life at home — the parents not being able to spend time with the kids — and the expectations that they had of us and the stories they were telling of life in Vietnam.”

In the epilogue of Nothing Ever Dies, you mention how your father’s relationship to the past is to muffle it. When your father speaks about Vietnam, does he speak about it with melancholy or longing?

Mostly he doesn’t want to talk about it. So when I try to ask him to talk about his past, he will refuse. I don’t know what lies behind that, in terms of whether it’s one emotion or another, but he is a man who’s pretty good at looking forward — at least to me. I don’t know what’s going on inside of him.

Is that one of the reasons why you believe your parents’ lives are worthy of writing about?

If I tell you the bare facts of my parents’ lives, it’s pretty epic. You know, the various journeys they’ve been through, the struggles they’ve had, how high they’ve climbed, what they’ve lost, then what they’ve gained back — that’s very dramatic. And that’s true for a lot of people of their generation. They were not heroes in any kind of epic sense that would be commemorated, but they’re heroes in just living and overcoming the struggles that they’ve faced.

On a personal level, does writing about Vietnam deepen your connection with the country of your birth?

Yes, it does because I have to think about it a lot and I’ve had to go back there a bit. And because the books are about Vietnam — to one degree or another — and because I’m Vietnamese, then Vietnamese readers have responded very strongly to that connection and that continues to affirm my bond with Vietnam and Vietnamese people and Vietnamese Americans, which I find interesting because I’m not a person who would call myself a Vietnamese specialist. I know Vietnamese specialists — they love everything about Vietnam or Vietnam broadly. My relationship to Vietnam is one of a refugee and one who has been shaped by the Vietnam War. That’s where my real interest lies, so outside of that, I don’t really have an ambition to go back to Vietnam and live there and retire there like some people I know — or work there. So my relationship is very particular to that country and that history.

In your writing you talk about how a sense of betrayal is a central part of Vietnamese American literature. How does this sense of betrayal weigh on you?

I think there are multiple levels of betrayal and I think that one kind of betrayal is what the United States did to South Vietnam, and that’s a very muted one. It’s spoken of within the Vietnamese community in [the Vietnamese language] and it’s not often that it’s brought out in English. So I think that The Sympathizer mentioning some of these issues around the American betrayal of South Vietnam is a little unique for being written about in English. And there are other betrayals beneath that. There’s a question of who betrayed the country of Vietnam: was it the North Vietnamese communists or the South Vietnamese? Who was loyal and who was the traitor? That’s a question that is central to that period of Vietnamese history, and because the victorious Vietnamese called the defeated Vietnamese puppets and traitors then that became a real issue in terms of the identity of the Vietnamese refugees and exiles who obviously did not see themselves as such, but knew that if they were to go back they would be treated like that, as the ones who stayed were treated … by the Vietnamese government.

And finally I think the last layer of betrayal is the intimate kind, the domestic or familial betrayals. It seems to me that there are many Vietnamese who committed or experienced these betrayals — they abandoned their families, for example, or they were abandoned: how fathers and husbands had mistresses or other wives or other families; how people within the same family chose different sides of the political conflict and made some hard choices. All of these kinds of betrayals — the political and the national and ideological and the personal — are all bound up together in this wartime and post-wartime history of Vietnam and its diaspora.

Is there an authorial betrayal?

There’s always that sense that the writer will be a traitor to his community or his family by telling stories or telling secrets that don’t belong to her or to him, and that’s why I think that for the most part in my writing I’ve shied away from the autobiographical. I didn’t want to do that to my own family. I think the only story that I’ve done in that manner is “Warriors” in The Refugees, and now more and more in my nonfiction pieces — like in Nothing Ever Dies — I had to overcome a personal block to start talking about my family and myself and our history together. But I never felt that in my fiction writing that I was betraying anybody. I felt that my allegiance was to telling the truth as I saw it, and that if I did that, that wouldn’t be an act of treachery, no matter if other people disagreed with me, like those American veterans who accuse me of being anti-American and not being grateful.

I thought one of your most lasting observations about Vietnamese American literature was how it must honour ghosts and not ultimately affirm America. Can you explain what you mean by that?

To publish as a minority writer in the United States — or even as a majority writer — means that one operates under a strong cultural and ideological pressure to affirm America, even when one seems to be criticising America. For example, writing the immigrant story is perfectly standard fare — to acknowledge how difficult it is to be an immigrant in the United States — and you can point to all kinds of problems in American society, but ultimately you are strongly persuaded to affirm the American dream. No matter what the [first-generation] immigrant goes through, the second generation makes it, and that validates both the immigrant struggle and American society.

In Vietnamese American literature you can talk about the bad things that happened during the Vietnam War, but ultimately that story ends with Vietnamese American assimilation into this country and is symbolised by the writer even having the opportunity to write about this experience. And I knew that, going into writing The Sympathizer, so I deliberately set out to write a novel that would be very critical of this ideological framework that almost everyone takes for granted, including most writers, and I wanted to bring that out into visibility, which is why, so far as the novel speaks about the United States, some readers think there are anti-American dimensions to it because I’m being very critical about this ideological framework. One of the ways of doing it is to bring out this sense of haunting for the Vietnamese — also for Americans as well — but this idea that the traumatic past is not done with, that people are still dealing with the ghosts of that past, in sometimes a very literal way, in the present. And that is the trace that not everything is okay with what happened in the past.

Has The Sympathizer been released in Vietnam yet?

No, the book is supposedly in the final stages of copyediting in Vietnamese, and then I have to have a translator here check it. Then we have to submit it for the licensing in Vietnam and it remains to be seen if it will get that license or if it will be censored.

Even though The Sympathizer hasn’t been released in Vietnam, do you have a sense of how it’s been received by those in Vietnam who have had a chance read it?

I think the Vietnamese who have read it seem to like it — both in America and Vietnam. The older Vietnamese in America, for example — and even those in Vietnam — have all been very positive. The stories I’ve heard are that when the Pulitzer news was announced, that the official press in Vietnam wouldn’t mention my name. The unofficial press — or the non-state press — did mention it, and people keep telling me that the book is banned in Vietnam. Somehow copies still get snuck in, but apparently if the authorities catch you with it, they’ll take it. These are all signs that the government is not exactly a fan of the novel.

In Nothing Ever Dies you say that, “Every writer wants to write a book that cannot be burned.” What do you mean by that?

That’s in reference to Dang Thuy Tram’s memoir. Her diaries got translated into English as Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, and the anecdote that’s told in the afterword of that memoir is that the South Vietnamese sergeant who found the memoir read it and gave it to his American officer and said, “Don’t burn this book. There’s already fire in it.” The Vietnamese sergeant said this because the story was so vivid to him. And Tram’s diaries survived and became a bestseller in Vietnam. So I think that one aspiration of many writers is that even if they die — in tragic or non-tragic circumstances — the hope is that something that they write will stay on fire even after their own fire has been extinguished.

Tillman Miller is a writer based in Phnom Penh and Kansas City.

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