Viet Thanh Nguyen's writing invites the reader to cross borders; his fiction and his criticism each offer complex ways to understand why humans draw so many boundaries between themselves and others. Nguyen came to US as a war refugee when he was four, and much of his writing taps into experiences of living during uncertain times. His Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer (2015), has made Nguyen into something of a literary celebrity. What's more, his success as a novelist has helped turned much deserved popular attention to his non-fiction, works that unravel tangled philosophical and political problems in crisp prose.
In Nguyen's most recent critical book, Nothing Ever Dies (2016), he argues that we must accept that all humans have the capacity to be inhuman — that is, to do unthinkable, even evil, things. These two books were written back-to-back, and reflect the range of his thoughts on the aftereffects of what Americans call "the Vietnam War" and the Vietnamese call "the American War."
David Haeselin spoke with Nguyen in March 2017 in advance of the 48th Annual University of North Dakota Writers Conference. Here Nguyen examines the possibility of writing that blends literary sensibility with keen critique; unlike the isolationist governments now in power in the US and Britain, Nguyen doesn't believe in the comfortable fiction of borders, whether national or generic.
David Haeselin: I notice that The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies both begin with "I." Since both books are concerned with similar questions of memory, identity, and the effect of war on people beyond just soldiers, how are these two "I"s related?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Both "I''s in these books are me and not me, to differing degrees. In The Sympathizer, the protagonist is clearly not me in any factual sense, but he is me in an emotional and intellectual sense. The pendulum veers towards the fictional because of the genre, but he has some basis in me. In Nothing Ever Dies, the persona is me in a factual sense, but he isn't me in another sense that's a bit hard to define. He is wiser than I think I actually am. He is more philosophical than I imagine myself being. The pendulum veers toward the academic because of the genre, but I had to create a persona of more gravitas than I believe I actually have. I had to create two personas and write two very different books to get at the complexity of war, memory, feeling, and storytelling.
DH: In Nothing Ever Dies, you describe one important purpose of art as creating a feeling that "might allow us to become citizens of the imagination." Earlier in the book you refer to the novelist Ha Jin's idea that it can be productive for the exiled writer to consider himself a "migrant." I'm curious about how this sense of citizenship differs between the producer and consumer of art. In the literary context, how does a reader become a citizen of the imagination as compared to a writer?
VTN: Being a citizen of the imagination entails a sense of belonging without borders, of allegiance to one's ideas and feelings versus one's nation. For a reader, what this means is giving in to the empathy that is always required in the act of reading. Empathy can be narrow or wide, and being a citizen of the imagination requires a widening of empathy, to take those who are far and feared and bringing them into the circle of the near and dear. At the level of reading, it means being willing to read about characters who are distant from one's own experience, reading authors of backgrounds different from one's own, and reading in languages (through translation) that are foreign. Beyond that, there's the hope that this act of readerly imagination and widening of empathy leads to a similar impulse in the reader as he or she moves in the world. This is the utopian possibility of literature, that the swell of feeling a reader feels for characters far removed from her own life translates into feeling for people in the world who are different from her, and acting on those feelings in ways that go beyond simply reading a book and turning a page.
DH: Mark McGurl changed many discussions in contemporary literary criticism by articulating how creative writing programs shape the style and reception of literature after World War II. In Nothing Ever Dies, you explain that "Vietnamese literature is no exception." How does McGurl's reading of the field of Post45 literature compare to your own? More specifically, how well do you think the description “Asian American literature” applies to your own work?
VTN: I'm a fan of McGurl's book and think he lays out a convincing case for how the institutionalization of creative writing, through MFA programs, has helped to shape a set of dominant formal concerns in contemporary writing. My argument about Vietnamese American literature doesn't differ from his in so much as add additional layers. What I argue is that the success of Vietnamese American literature specifically, and Asian American literature generally, owes a great deal to the demographic changes wrought by the 1965 Immigration Act that opened the doors to immigration from Asian countries. Increasing numbers of Asian immigrants would come, their children would go to college, and some of them would go to MFA programs, which were impacted also by the transformations in political consciousness wrought by the new social movements of the 1960s, which included the Asian American movement. This wave of college-educated, MFA-bound Asian American students would absorb the formal training of the MFA programs. Some would hesitate about the consensus of those MFA programs, given the dissonance with their own racial and cultural backgrounds. My read of the dominant MFA aesthetic is that it's a particular and specific aesthetic, articulated in things like "show, don't tell," that masks itself as a universal, normative one, and that minority writers may not fit such an aesthetic. As for me, I am an Asian American writer, and my books are Asian American books, but the Asian American category is only one of many that I fit in.
DH: The Sympathizer and your new book of short stories, The Refugees, are both published by Grove Press. Loren Glass's Counterculture Colophon (2013) argues that Grove did more than any other press to popularize avant-garde and world literature in the 1960s by producing quality paperbacks marketed to a burgeoning university-educated reading public. Glass notes that five Grove authors have won the Nobel Prize for Literature; you are the first Grove author to win the Pulitzer for fiction. Was the decision to publish your fiction with an independent press deliberate? What role do you see small, independent presses playing in expanding the prestige and reach of ethnic, minority, and avant-garde literatures in the twenty-first century?
VTN: Grove Press was the only one out of fourteen publishers to whom we sent The Sympathizer that bid on the book. So no, the decision to go with Grove was not deliberate, but I feel very fortunate that this was the outcome. The other thirteen were all major New York publishers, the big houses and their imprints. I suppose something about The Sympathizer was too risky or illegible for them. Grove is probably an intermediary publisher, for it is neither big and corporate nor small and avant-garde. My novel is neither too big and corporate nor too small and avant-garde, so it is the right fit for Grove. Some crucial work can happen in this middle arena that Grove and I work in, but smaller presses than Grove are important in taking on even less commercially viable projects than my novel. A good deal of ethnic, minority, and avant-garde literature simply isn't seen as financially profitable by larger publishers, and partly it's because the concerns of the writers of these literatures are at odds with the profit-based, majority-oriented, market-committed vision that is so prevalent at the big corporate houses. The risks that are taken by the smaller presses and their writers are not just financial, but aesthetic, and that's why they play such an important role in pushing the aesthetic horizon of what is possible, and refusing what won't or can't be done by the glossier publishers.
DH: Forced confessions reoccur throughout your fiction. Obviously, this plays a central role in The Sympathizer, but it also haunts your story "Fatherland" in The Refugees. How does reeducation relate to the way literature works?
VTN: Reeducation has a very specific connotation of ideological indoctrination, combined with imprisonment and hard labor. In short, it's a punishment. As a Catholic, I couldn't help but feel that the forced confession of reeducation had some structural similarities to the seemingly uncoerced confession of Catholicism. In the past, of course, the Catholic confession could be quite coercive, and conversion to the religion could be a kind of reeducation. I draw out the political and religious parallels of confession in order to show that these two systems of communism and Catholicism are similar in terms of being hierarchical modes of power and authority. The political zealot and religious zealot are basically the same kind of person, except they believe in different gods. Formally, the confessional mode was an appropriate one for my novel because it actually existed historically at the time as a widespread mode of writing, and because it allowed me to structure the novel as a confession from one Vietnamese person to another Vietnamese person. Non-Vietnamese readers are cast as eavesdroppers. This changes the fundamental dynamic of contemporary American literature, where the majority audience is unused to being the eavesdropper. Literature is aimed, for the most part, at the majority, which is fine when the writer is part of the majority but very problematic when the writer is a minority. The minority is expected to translate to the majority. The form of the confession allowed me to refuse to do that translating, and to force the non-Vietnamese reader, especially the majority reader, into a potentially uncomfortable position of not being the primary reader.
DH: There's an interesting moment in Nothing Ever Dies where you unpack the meaning of Entertainment Weekly's B+ review of Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomecomer (2005). I read your argument as an explanation of Yang's unease at being treated as a spokesperson for the Hmong and refugees more broadly. As a critic, can you describe your experiences in reading reviews of your own work?
VTN: I read all the professional reviews and nonprofessional reviews, on places like Amazon.com and Goodreads. As a professional critic, I think it's only appropriate that I subject myself to the criticism. I'm fortunate in that almost all of the professional criticism and a large majority of the nonprofessional criticism has been very positive. As for the negative reviews, they're useful to the extent that they give me a sense of which parts of my books are controversial or difficult for a minority of the readership. There isn't any part of the books that are negatively experienced by anything approaching a substantial minority of the audience. Most of the time I'm amused by the negative reviews. I won't say when I'm not amused, because then reviewers might try and provoke me.
DH: In both The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies, you critique the American "memory industry" exemplified by Hollywood films. Alternatively, we are often told that we living in a Golden Age of narrative television. I see from your website that you've sold the foreign rights for the novel in twenty-three countries. Are there any talks underway about film or television rights? How do your thoughts on memory industries impact your feelings about a loss of creative control that comes with translation and other adaptations?
VTN: Talks are underway and they're complicated. I hope I don't have any illusions about the film and TV industries, to whom I am significant only while I hold the rights to my work. Even then I am not that significant. I expect to not have a great deal of control outside of selecting the producer of any adaptation, and perhaps writing the screenplay or a pilot episode. My approach is that I think any adaptation is a separate work from my book. Those who have read my book won't judge it based on any adaptation, while those who only watch the adaptation would not have read my book anyway. In short, if they think the adaptation is bad, and therefore won't read my book, that wouldn't be a negative impact on my book, since they wouldn't have read it in the first place any way.
DH: Nothing Ever Dies is a powerful work of criticism, but I don't think that it is just that. I read the book as a kind of hybrid work, not unlike some other fine blends of criticism and memoir such as Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. How has your approach to literary criticism changed over the course of your academic career?
VTN: I began as a conventional literary critic of the academic poststructuralist variety, steeped in postcolonial and Marxist approaches. I was imitating some of the influential theorists in my fields, although I didn't think of myself as a theorist. A theorist was too elevated of a term for someone like me, a graduate student and then an assistant professor, just like a writer was a term that I did not dare give myself until I had struggled with writing for decades before finishing The Sympathizer. Writing fiction definitely transformed me as a critic, and made me believe that criticism could be an act of literature, and not just an act dependent on literature, or, in the theoretical mode, an act that could supplant literature. Paying attention to literature as a critic who was also a writer also meant that I prioritized the literature as much as any theory that I used, whereas it seemed to me that some of the most influential theorists in my fields subordinated the literature to their theory, and made the literature illustrate their theory. Because I disagreed with such approaches, I also did not fit in with the movements initiated by such approaches, and in that sense, being a writer made my life harder as a critic. It would have been better for my short-term professional career to have been a critical conformist. Instead I wanted to experiment with my critical writing and approaches, to blend the critical with the creative. The result, in Nothing Ever Dies, is hopefully a work that is readable as literature as well as criticism. It is also a work that is more theoretical than anything I could have produced as a more conventional critic.
DH: Structural issues in the academy have led more critics to publish theoretical and political work in non-traditional places. You often write for public venues and you are even a critic-at-large for The Los Angeles Times. How important is specialization and the divide between creative and critical writing now? How does a culture of anti-intellectualism affect this divide?
VTN: Specialization and the division between critical and creative writing still exist and are probably still dominant in academia. Deviating from specialization, and trying to blend the critical and creative, still requires some daring and some talent, or at least some inclination. That being said, more opportunities exist for critics to take chances. At the minimum, all they need is access to someone's blog, or to start their own. There are more online publications as well, which may not pay much, if at all, but which give the veneer of official editorial curation to someone's published writing. So the critic can both publish more conventionally in academic journals and also write shorter pieces in a different style for these online publications or blogs, or try her or his hand at op-eds and reviews and the like. While the institutional pressure to specialize is still strong, and the incentives to stay within one's critical or creative compounds are still there, the writer who wants to deviate has no excuses.
David Haeselin teaches in the English department at the University of North Dakota. His recent work has appeared in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Hybrid Pedagogy, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Public Books.