Profile

With the release of the much anticipated sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathiser, writer Vit Thanh Nguyn reflects on his 20-year struggle with fiction.

By Leah Jing McIntosh.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Việt Thanh Nguyễn

Việt Thanh Nguyễn.
Credit: BeBe Jacobs

Vit Thanh Nguyn isn’t sentimental about his artistic ambition. “Art can accomplish a lot, but it cannot change the world without the partnership of social movements,” he says. “And likewise, I don’t think social and political movements can change the world without the ruptures of imagination that are possible in art.”

His latest novel, The Committed, is a glorious rupture in the American literary landscape. Drifting through the streets of Paris, Nguyn’s nameless, sharp-shooting, unreliable narrator from Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathiser returns as a revolutionary without a revolution, to confess his sins and to contend with his ghosts. “Did ghosts ever stop bleeding, ever stop weeping, stop returning?” the protagonist asks. Nguyn’s oeuvre is striated with this tension between memory and forgetting; in his new novel, he continues to explore these questions of individual and collective memory.

Nguyn speaks to me via video chat from Pasadena, where he lives with his wife, academic Lan Duong, and their two children, Ellison and Simone. Behind the desk where he sits stretches a writer’s backdrop: a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Two rows of shelves are devoted to the different editions of The Committed, covers facing outwards; the cover of the Australian edition features a cigarette lighter which reads, somewhat emphatically, “FUCK THEM BEFORE THEY FUCK US”.

Throughout our conversation, Nguyn speaks in perfect paragraphs. He is well prepared for his Zoom-based press junket. After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, he says, “I didn’t write a word of fiction for a year.” He found himself with a new career as a public speaker, becoming a prominent voice on racism, inequality, immigration and refugee policy.

“I was going around the country giving dozens of speeches. And I was also writing these op-eds. This was all new to me.” Now, almost five years later, he has mastered the form; “It’s not rocket science and it’s not great prose. I don’t really think one day these will be consecrated somewhere … I can write one in a night.” He says that tonight, he’ll write a piece on rising anti-Asian violence.

An ideal writing day for Nguyn, “which doesn’t happen very often” is “a thousand words or four hours, whichever comes first”. He doesn’t have a singular process – “each book demands some form or strategy”. His body of work spans novels, a short-story collection, academic texts and a children’s picture book; he is presently working on a memoir. Nguyn explains how these projects have their heart in history. “I feel that history has moved through me very intimately. I feel history’s ripples inside of myself, and my family, and my communities. So all these projects come out of that, trying to make sense out of that personal experience, which is also at the same time a historical experience.”

In 1975, at the age of four, these ripples of history upended Nguyn’s life. His family – devout Catholics who had already fled persecution in the North – sought refuge from the war in Vietnam, fleeing to the United States. The family eventually settled in San Jose, opening Sài Gòn Mi, the second Vietnamese grocery in the city.

Nguyn considers his parents’ refusal to translate the name of their shop in the essay “Memories of a Refugee” where he writes: “Refugees and immigrants become American by buying property; by putting their language on it. My parents were insisting that some part of themselves would not be changed. Their sign, in public, called out to Vietnamese refugees to build a new community here, where we would change the United States as much as it would change us.” As San Jose gentrified, the Nguyns were displaced again. The city forced them to sell their store to the municipality, ostensibly to turn it into a concert hall. Instead, the city sold it to developers for a hefty sum; the site is now a parking lot.

Nguyn grew up “the son of refugees, of shopkeepers; I had no idea what a professor was, no idea what tenure was”. In the introduction to her graphic novel The Best We Could Do, artist Thi Bui illustrates Nguyn’s rocky start to academia: he was rejected from every college he applied to, except one. “Finding myself at this college, deeply disappointed in myself, I swore to work as hard as I possibly could to transfer to UC Berkeley,” he says. “I haven’t stopped working since.” Now 49, Nguyn holds the Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California. He has “logged 24 years in the academy”, and admits he doesn’t want to do six more. “I know that’s more years than you’ve been alive,” he tells me. “When I was 28, I could not imagine doing anything for 30 years, oh my god. 58… that’s dead.”

In his first book, Race and Resistance (2002), Nguyn investigates the nuances of Asian America; exploring race and racism in depth, it reads as a cornerstone for his later work. Though an academic text, Nguyn admits that it is “a very personal book, because it is born out of this experience of trying to make sense of myself as an Asian American. I grew up without the language to – to call myself, and to analyse my own history. So the language of academic thinking, and scholarship on Asian–American studies, was really formative and powerful for me.” Working on Asian–American literature that had enormous personal resonance “allowed me to make sense out of myself”, Nguyn says. But in order to become an academic, he “had to sort of – hide the personal, and become very objective, very rational”.

The critical and creative further intertwine in his second academic work. It was originally conceived as a collection of his essays, but Nguyn threw them out to start from scratch, distilling ideas from his research to write an accessible, narrative-driven text. The result was Nothing Ever Dies (2016), which takes its title and impetus from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a work that powerfully traces the ethics of memory and forgetting. I can see a first edition of Beloved facing outward on Nguyn’s bookshelf, on the shelf above his own books.

In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyn explores an individual’s potential for inhumanity, writing that “it is so easy to forget our inhumanity or to displace it onto other humans”. He also considers the mechanisms of memorial. When I ask him about a memorial for the present tragedy, Nguyn can’t imagine there will be one for Americans who have died from Covid-19. “This – this is the price of ‘freedom’,” he says. “It perfectly matches the fact that Americans go abroad, and kill millions of people in the name of freedom. And now it blows back, and it kills all these Americans, in the name of freedom. We won’t commemorate these people, because how do we do that without acknowledging that we are doing this to ourselves?”

When he entered academia, Nguyn didn’t expect it would have a major impact on his writing. “It took me 10 years to learn academic language,” he says. “It took me another 10 to unlearn it.” It was, he tells me, a “long and difficult experience”. He compares writing short stories to Mr Miyagi’s training in The Karate Kid (1984) – “I was waxing on, waxing off, I was painting a fence. And then, when it came time to write The Sympathiser … all of a sudden, I knew how to do everything I had to do to write a novel.”

His reference to The Karate Kid, a film that features actor Pat Morita feigning broken English, seems appropriate; Nguyn is highly sensitive to the pressures and politics of racial representation. In The Sympathiser, Nguyn writes against and alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). When he first watched the film, he didn’t identify with the white American anti-hero; instead, he says he saw himself in the Vietnamese people who were being “murdered and silenced”. The film was “something I needed to take revenge on”, he says, “but also something that I needed to be inspired by”.

But Nguyn isn’t interested in writing the perspective of the victim, which he says is expected of the “so-called minority writer”. He explains that “as monstrous as we might find Captain Willard to be, we are nevertheless forced to live through his world and see through his eyes. Now, this is the power and the prerogative of Western colonial thinking. Instead of backing away from that,
I wanted to take it for myself.”

In both The Sympathiser and The Committed, the reader is compelled to inhabit the anti-hero’s moral failures, complexities and choices. The Sympathiser, written as a literary confession by a political prisoner to a Communist Vietnamese commandant, nods to spy and detective genres. Its protagonist is an unnamed Vietnamese–French spy who is able to see “any issue from both sides”. A Communist double agent, he both serves and spies on a South Vietnamese general, with whom he flees to southern California. The narrator’s capacious talent for sympathy permits a deeply nuanced text, while Nguyn’s narrative voice is an exercise in multiplicity, swinging between traumatised intimacy to bracing critical satire and back again.

When I ask about the looping, metafictive texture of his novels, he quotes Lolita – “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Following this murderer, The Committed flows even faster than the first novel, Nguyn’s searing lines collecting into winding paragraphs. Following his “re-education” in Vietnam, the narrator entangles himself in questions of French colonialism and racial violence, while struggling with addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nguyn says that though it is a dark novel, it was exciting to come up with different literary devices to convey the narrator’s psychological states. “It was technically challenging, but it was not hard.”

Nguyn acknowledges his recent status as a public intellectual. “There aren’t that many Asian Americans who have a chance to say these things in national platforms,” he says. “With the Pulitzer, I was given an opportunity.” He desires to build “anti-racist, anti-capitalist marks of solidarity”. But his ambition isn’t to become a voice for the voiceless, which he considers to be a “dangerous sentiment”. Nguyn points out that a singular voice for the voiceless allows people to elide “the many people clamouring to be heard”. He aims, instead, to “abolish the conditions of voicelessness”.

One of the more tangible ways Nguyn works towards this is through the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). Growing out of the Vietnamese–American student activism at Berkeley in the 1990s, it began as mc và máu, which translates as ink and blood – “very melodramatic!” Unable to see themselves represented in literature or film, the students began the project because they felt that it was important to tell their own stories. The group disbanded several years later in 2007, when the student activists had become professors and successful artists. The group rebooted as DVAN, in an effort “to create our own spaces”. Nguyn refuses “narrative scarcity” – a term he coined to conceptualise the dearth of Asian–American representation; the goal is instead “narrative plenitude”, which cannot be created alone. In this framework, Nguyn’s work – now a towering presence in American literature – would ideally become only one part of the Asian–American story. The project is ongoing: “We have to cultivate or give opportunities to the next generation of younger writers who may be doing things completely different than what we’re doing.”

Nguyn says that writing his first collection of short stories was “20 years of misery, obscurity and doubt”. He drafted the opening story, “Black-Eyed Women”, 50 times over two decades. An exquisitely crafted ghost story, it contains things far more fearsome than ghosts. The weight of memory as loss, finally acknowledged, tears through the pages. He asks, “But, how long did it take you to read it – 30 minutes?” He shakes his head. “I think for every writer, though, the real test is not the success, it’s the failure. What do you do when you fail? I had 20 years of failure, so hopefully I’ve had my share.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Bleeding ghosts".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Leah Jing McIntosh is the editor of LIMINAL magazine.