Booked: The Empathy of Fiction, with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen at the Library of Congress National Book Festival, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons)

Viet Thanh Nguyen has emerged as a major figure in American letters. Born in Vietnam in 1971, he fled the country with his parents when Saigon fell in 1975 and grew up in California. He writes both fiction and nonfiction. His first novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, as well as other awards. He is also the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (2002) and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and The Memory of War (2016). Nguyen’s newest book is The Refugees (2017), a collection of short stories. He is the Aerol Arnod Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Michael Kazin: I see you as belonging to a long tradition of American authors who go back and forth between writing fiction and writing cultural and political criticism and commentary: Some examples include Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Edmund Wilson and Toni Morrison. How do you combine the two types of writing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s a great genealogy to be put in, a humbling one, too. Whether or not I match that level, I do see myself as someone who’s both a writer and a critic, a novelist and a scholar, and I believe that the capacity to move back and forth between these realms of fiction and nonfiction is tremendously useful for people on both sides of the divide. The various kinds of scholarly and critical work that I’ve done is what made The Sympathizer and The Refugees attain whatever force that they have. Conversely, working as a novelist and as a short-story writer have given me both a greater degree of empathy and a greater degree of style that helped to shape both my critical insight and the way that I write criticism.

Kazin: Are there writers from that tradition, either the ones I mentioned or others, who inspire you and whom you have learned the most from? I noticed your son’s name is Ellison, and I wonder if he is named after Ralph Ellison.

Nguyen: Yes, definitely. Certainly the African-American literary tradition has been really important to me; Ellison for sure, but also Baldwin, Morrison, and W.E.B. DuBois. He’s another figure who wrote both fiction and scholarly works. With all these writers, there’s a sense that you need to work through all these literary forms in order to confront the extremely difficult problems of race, nationalism, American identity, and American imperialism. They did it through both insight and scholarship and style. Part of the power of their persuasion arises from the combination of all those elements. I think also of W.G. Sebald, who engaged in another kind of project. He brought together fiction and nonfiction in investigating the impact of the Holocaust on Germany.

Kazin: You raised the thorny question of identity, which has been so important to scholars of cultural studies and historyas well as to political activists. Early in Race and Resistance, you write about “the need to organize beyond identity if what we seek is more than visibility and empowerment.” How do you see identity not just for the people you’ve written about in your fiction, but as a political category, as a political problem, in America today?

Nguyen: I think that identity is a very necessary part of political mobilization and empowerment. It certainly was for me, to recognize myself as an Asian American, as a Vietnamese American, as a refugee, and to make a claim on American identity. These are all crucial moves for me. But there’s no doubt that a politics organized purely at the level of identity or aesthetics organized purely at that level is deeply limited. What it cannot do is address the deeply entrenched problems of inequality and exploitation that occur at the structural level in any society. Identity is an outcome of that inequality and exploitation—whether it’s the identity of the majority or the identity of minorities.

So we can use identities to highlight inequality and exploitation and the failure to live up to the ideals of a nation or a community, but we can’t actually change those conditions purely through art and politics organized around identity. Art and politics also has to engage at the level of social transformation. Literature, no matter how great it is, can’t change the conditions that it illuminates. I strongly believe that the fiction I write can help us to see how history works and how war operates and how refugees are created. But we’re not going to actually change the problems that my fiction talks about unless the fiction is enabled by and harnessed to social and political movements.

Kazin: What about Asian-American identity and politics, which you discuss in Race and Resistance and, to a certain degree, in Nothing Ever Dies? How do you see the Vietnamese-American experience fitting into the larger history of Asians in the United States? Clearly, the term Asian American encompasses a lot of different groups with quite different histories: Filipinos, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and lots of others as well.

Nguyen: Vietnamese-American identity and community obviously overlap with Asian-American community and identity, but there are crucial ways in which there is a departure. Vietnamese  Americans who become a part of American culture benefit from the opportunities that Asian-American coalitions have created and suffer from the racism that has been directed against other Asian Americans over time. But Vietnamese Americans also differ from other Asian Americans in how they arrived in the United States as a result of the Vietnamese War and the Cold War. This means that many of the first-generation Vietnamese Americans who were refugees carry with them deeply held anti-Communist feelings. In contrast, the genesis of the Asian-American movement in the 1960s and the formation of that sense of community was formed in the crucible of leftist, often Marxist politics. So there’s a contradiction between these two political visions, one often left unaddressed in Asian-American political discussions.

Kazin: About the war in Vietnam: One of the remarkable things about both your nonfiction and fiction is that you transcend the taking of sides in that conflict. The war becomes a terrible tragedy for all involved, not least of all for the ordinary people on both sides. Some of the characters in The Refugees seem to embody that tragedy. I’m thinking of Mrs. Hoa in “War Years” who pressures her fellow refugees to contribute their hard-earned money to fight the Communist government and James Carver, the former U.S. bomber pilot in “The Americans.” Do you think leftists in the U.S. antiwar movement made a serious mistake in praising one side as the moral one and the other side as nothing but collaborators with imperialism?

Nguyen: I think it was a mistake. But I do think it was an understandable one, given how rapidly the events of that period unfolded; we’re really talking about a space of a decade or less. Given our contemporary moment, when we’ve been at war with various parts of the Middle East since at least 2001, and arguably even well before that, we still have a poor understanding of the people and the culture and the complexities that we’re dealing with now. So I look back with considerable empathy on antiwar activists in 1960s who were trying to respond to terrible events that were unfolding quite rapidly.

That being said, I think that there are lessons to be drawn from both the successes and the failures of the antiwar movement as we think about how to deal with antiwar issues today, our take on American involvement overseas, and how to look at Muslims from the Middle East. The tendency to idealize or demonize victims and villains in Vietnam was definitely a mistake but one that, hopefully, we can learn from to act differently in the present. It is crucial to look at people who are living in Middle Eastern countries afflicted by war through a framework that is not so bifurcated between villains and victims. We should regard them as agents of their own history who are making complex choices and mistakes about their own fates. Some are victims or villains. But most of the time, just like Americans, their actions, world-views, and plights fall somewhere in between.

Kazin: Many of the fictional characters in The Sympathizer and The Refugees are liminal figures. I like that line spoken in “The Transplant” by Louis, a dissembling Vietnamese immigrant who passes himself off as someone he’s not: “I never think about the past. Every morning that I wake up I’m a new man.” Do you see liminality as a problem that afflicts refugees more than other kinds of immigrants?

Nguyen: I think both refugees and immigrants are liminal figures. But as they stand on the threshold of crossing societies, they do have something of a different orientation. I think that immigrants tend to look forward, even though sometimes they look back over their shoulders too. Refugees look more in reverse than towards the future simply because they were often forced by circumstances to begin their journeys and are defined by their loss. Immigrants certainly have lost something as they make the move to another country, but they’ve also chosen to undertake that journey. So they have more of a possibility of looking forward. Their liminal condition is easier for them to deal with than the liminality of refugees who have been thrown across the threshold to another land.

Kazin: As someone who studies and writes about these migratory experiences and who’s grown up in the United States, what do you like about this country? What do you dislike about it? To what degree do your opinions about it get expressed in your fiction?

Nguyen: Well, that’s a huge question, and the answer can be pretty expansive. There’s a lot of things that I like about this country. There is a certain degree of freedom in the U.S.—especially for writers and artists and intellectuals—that is not found in many other places. There’s also a lot of pleasure to be had in the joys of capitalism and commodification that saturate American society. And there’s a lot of joy to be had in the diversity and breadth of American geography and cultures and peoples.

What I don’t like about the country is that all that capitalism and commodification also has terrible consequences at the level of the climate and the exploitation of labor and the hierarchy of classes. And I don’t like that this country is built on a contradiction that is very difficult for many Americans to acknowledge, and that contradiction is that there is both an American dream, which I enjoy, and an American nightmare, which is not an accident. We live in a country in which the rhetoric of American exceptionalism is very, very strong. That encourages us to think of the various injustices of our history as accidents or mistakes or aberrations, when actually, I think they are a structural outcome of the contradiction between the American dream and the American nightmare. And that’s why we keep committing these so-called mistakes or aberrations; it’s because the tendency to repeat them is fundamentally built into the American character.

Kazin: With Donald Trump in power, a president who wants to do so many reprehensible things, do you think that you and other intellectuals who reach a mass audience have a different responsibility than you did when Obama was presidentor do intellectuals and writers have a perpetual need to speak to the kind of hard truth you just outlined? Or is speaking truth to power a perpetual requirement for people like you?

Nguyen: I think those writers who believe in responsibility and commitment and have a particular political orientation had a hard time carrying that out during the Obama administration. There wasn’t a great degree of solidarity or cohesion around what it is that we were supposed to be responsible or be committed to. That was one of the negative consequences of having a liberal African-American president; he split the difference between a true social and economic vision of justice and a vision built around the rhetoric of American exceptionalism and American identity. Now, with the Trump administration, writers who believe they should be socially responsible are finding that they also have their communities behind them: the literary community, for example, or the whole array of the new social movements arising from the 1960s. There’s a broad consensus against Trump. With that consensus, it is much easier to take a committed stance against the administration as opposed to being against some of Obama’s policies and for others.

I do believe that writers should always be willing to speak out about injustice. But I also think there is a great danger in doing so as well. A political commitment taken too far is bad for intellectual and artistic freedom. There’s a very fine line we have to walk between espousing responsibility and commitment and being wary about the damage they might do to our capacity as artists and intellectuals.

Kazin: To return to your craft: do you find yourself having to refresh your mind when you switch from writing nonfiction to writing fiction or are you able to go back and forth between pretty easily between the two?

Nguyen: Now, I go back and forth rather easily. But it took a long time to get to that point because the way our intellectual and artistic worlds operate, in this country at least, is to segregate different modes of thinking and writing. So if you are an academic in the conventional sense, it’s very hard to stop writing as such and to do something quite different. Likewise, if you are a fiction writer, it’s hard to be an academic theorist because of the compartmentalization that takes place. So I find myself to be an anomaly because I had to forge my own path. There are other people who forged paths like mine, but there aren’t that many of us. And there isn’t much institutional support for making both kinds of writing and thinking equal priorities. Typically, it works in reverse: you prioritize your academic or artistic habitus, and your style derives from that.

Kazin: Well, I hope your example will be infectious and that more writers will try to follow it.

Nguyen: Well, it’s a little more fun, I think, to be that kind of writer too.

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