A Chat With Author Viet Thanh Nguyen

Sep 25, 2019

Literature allows us to explore the world as much as any of our trips, says author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who explains that he longs for the day he can visit Asia just for the sheer joy of travel. By Christopher Kucway

Most of us equate a chance to travel the world with a plane ticket. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen, on the other hand, sees literature as integral to any journey. It’s not that he disagrees with the first premise, but rather that his travels of late, especially to Asia from his California home, have taken on a more detailed, exploratory search for his work—emotional and cultural obligations, he calls them—particularly Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer and The Refugees, a collection of short stories that also deals with the Vietnamese experience of America. In fact, the final tale in that book touches on tourism in Vietnam in a way few of us ever experience.

For anyone not knowing his story, the thumbnail version is that Nguyen fled Vietnam as a four-year-old with his family in 1975 as the south was falling. They then ended
up in Pennsylvania for a spell where he was separated temporarily from his parents, before moving to California. The mystery of fleeing his homeland and everything familiar at such a young age—born in Vietnam but remade in America, as he likes to put it—leaves empty pages on a personal level. Blank spaces that need words.

His writing—both fiction and nonfiction; for more on the latter, read Nothing Ever Dies—is also an attempt to reclaim the narrative. His adopted America lost its war with his native Vietnam, yet since then has largely controlled the storytelling about those years. Since 2002, Nguyen has visited Vietnam five or six times. His journeys have involved a lot of the research at unpleasant stops, he says, and, “I was always thinking, by the time I don’t have to go back to Asia, I’ll enjoy it more because I can have fun.”

Any learning experience, though, always comes with a plus side. A smile creases his face when he recalls the surprise of being told, on a visit to the north of the country, that his Vietnamese was very good. Many thought he was Korean. “The bonding I experienced with the north Vietnamese doesn’t happen in the south,” he says.

But now that his first novel has made its mark, he hasn’t returned. “My feeling was that I wanted to see how the Vietnamese government would react to The Sympathizer.” Not well, it turned out. The novel hasn’t been translated into Vietnamese and Nguyen admits he doesn’t know what would happen to him if he arrived back in his homeland today.

Still, this man of two worlds has traveled extensively around Asia. We meet in Manila at the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, a new stop on the map for him, where he was taking time to explore. During the past 15 years, he’s had the cliché and not-enjoyable experience of one night in Bangkok—see The Sympathizer—but has also been charmed, like the rest of us, by Luang Prabang and various stops in Japan. That said, his writing isn’t simply about uniquely Asian topics given the long list of travails the world faces. Wars, climate change, economic migrants: all of these headlines underscore one of his main themes. As Nguyen puts it, “Refugee experiences are an ongoing hallmark of the 21st century.”

“I’m interested in looking at two Western ways of thinking—how race, culture and inequality are built into former colonial countries”

So his storyline hasn’t come to an abrupt end. He’s at work on his next novel, a follow-up to The Sympathizer that takes place in 1980s Paris. “I also wanted to deal with the French side of colonialism. The French got off far too easy,” he tells me. “I’m interested in looking at two Western ways of thinking—how race, culture and inequality are built into former colonial countries.” A third novel, the last in the trilogy, will be set in Los Angeles.

For someone who is so precise with his words, Nguyen also has a sharp sense of humor. His six-year-old son knows by rote the reasoning behind those moments when dad says he can’t have something: “I blame everything on being a refugee,” he says, laughing. When his son celebrated his first birthday, Nguyen and his wife made sure it was in their homeland. “When I go back to Vietnam with my son, it’s to show him where I’m from.”

The next Philippine Readers and Writers Festival (readersandwritersfestival.com) will take place in August 2020 at Raffles Makati (raffles.com/makati/).

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