The Dreaming Machine is honored to be part of The Creative Process, an exhibition and international educational initiative traveling to leading universities. As part of the exhibition, portraits and interviews with writers, artists, and creative thinkers are being published across a network of university and international literary/arts magazines. The Creative Process is including work by The Dreaming Machine’s contributors in the projection elements of the traveling exhibition.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Interviewed by Mia Funk
Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and other awards. He is also the author of the nonfiction books Nothing Ever Dies and Race and Resistance and the short story collection The Refugees. Apart from writing, Nguyen is also the Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, and is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
What is the first part of The Sympathizer that you wrote?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I wrote the book completely linearly, so, from beginning to end. And, in the original outline for the novel, the scene in the Philippines would not take place until right before he returned to Laos from Vietnam, but as I started writing the novel, I felt that maybe I had to rearrange it and move it up earlier just for various reasons of pacing. So when the time to write that scene, to write all of those chapters, I took a break in order to do research. So I read everything that had been written about Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now. I knew I knew enough already so that I had the vague outline of what these chapters would look like, but reading, doing all that research gave me so much information, so much ammunition because there are things that happened on the set that you just could not make up. For example, I really had to confirm that Vietnamese refugees were used in the making of the movie. I suspected that might be the case, but I definitely found out that that was true, for example. And, in terms of writing the chapters, it was very organic because I had a lot of anger in me about these kinds of movies. And so your idea of a subtitle is pretty accurate because I wanted to scream, and I had to find a way to sublimate that and turn it into something that was funny because just being angry would not be enough. It would be too tiring to read a novel that was 400 pages of anger. And I’ve read books like that. I’ve also read books that are 400 pages of humor, and I thought, that’s not enough either. You have to have some combination of the two to get at the real gravity of the situation. And fortunately Hollywood provides plenty of material for both anger and comedy. And so there is a very obvious direct satire of the making of this kind of a movie, but also it draws a lot.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
What was the first story you wrote? How did you find your way to writing?
Well, the first thing I ever wrote was when I was in the third grade, which would be about eight or nine years old, but in terms of the kinds of stories that would eventually make their way into the books you have now that was probably college. When I thought I want to write fiction about what it means to be Vietnamese, and that began the moment I got to college. I had written some stories in high school and so on, but when I got to college, I thought very clearly we need to write stories about being Vietnamese-American, and that was the beginning.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Because you didn’t see enough stories of that?
Yes, I knew that from a scholarly point of view because I was also writing about Vietnamese-Americans for my academic work, even as a college student. And I think I had read, by the time I was a senior, I had read everything that was in English by Vietnamese-Americans or by Vietnamese refugees or that had been translated into English, and it wasn’t very much. So I knew distinctly that there was a place for stories about Vietnamese-Americans or even Vietnamese people in English. And so that was when it was very clear to me that I thought I will become a writer who writes, at least for his first book, stories about Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese-Americans. I was 20 or 21. And then, by the time it came around to writing The Sympathizer was 20 years later, all of a sudden, not all of the sudden, but during that time period, a lot of other Vietnamese-American writers had already published. And they had already written all these stories about Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnamese refugees. And that was actually very, on the one hand, it was very frustrating for me as a writer to see that happening because I wasn’t getting my own published, but on the other hand, it was very liberating because when it came time to write The Sympathizer, I did not need to write that Vietnamese-American story anymore. And so I thought, and I had already written my own short story collection that had not yet been published. So I thought, okay, I’m going to write a novel that is not like anything or at least is not simply about the refugee or the immigrant experience. And I’m going to write a war novel that’s going to take on the whole experience of the war, which until then had been mostly the domain of white men writing about Vietnam, at least in English.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I really feel in the book, even though it’s strongly rooted in the narrator’s voice, I just love the ambiguity of… It’s not just a narrow perspective. I love that. I wonder if you could talk more about the research that went into finding his voice and allowing us to see him from inside and outside.
When I came up with the outline for the novel, I also came up with the sketch of who the protagonist or anti-hero is going to be. And I knew that the novel would be told entirely in the first person from his point of view. And I constructed him even before I started writing in a very deliberate way. Like he had to be French and Vietnamese. He had to be well-versed in American culture and also Vietnamese culture because I wanted him to be somebody who literally embodied that whole stereotype of the East-West conflict and would be intelligent enough to comment about that and comment about the war and about politics. So, it meant he was also someone who knew a lot about communism and Marxist theory. So that was the general biography, and then in terms of coming up with his voice, I knew that this was going to be a novel where I could finally, as a writer, let go. And writing the short story collection, I think I’d been very careful. I’d been trying to learn how to be a writer, and I was worried about other people’s opinions, and whether I would get these stories published. And the stories were written in a very constrained or restrained way.
And with the novel, I thought, I’m going to write this novel for me, not for anybody else. I don’t care what anyone else thinks, and I’m going to let it all out. And that meant that the voice of the novel had to be very robust and very vigorous and had to be able to say things that I always wanted to say and that I felt were not being said, especially by Vietnamese or Asians. So, it had to be angry, but I also was drawn to novels of war that were satirical and humorous and I wanted those elements in there as well.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I visited Saigon. I went to the War Remnants Museum, and I just started crying uncontrollably. I don’t know if you had an experience like that? And my guide, he looked at me and said, ‘But why are you crying? Don’t you know our history?’ And of course, I know the history. I don’t know, sometimes some things come over you in a wave. Did that happen to you?
I went in 2002 for the first time, and it was the old museum, which was just a cluster of small buildings none of them taller than one story. And I didn’t cry, but I was completely shocked. I felt the experience very viscerally. I felt sick, and I felt like there was a… I felt all kinds of emotions that I did not know how to process at the time. So, for example, I didn’t take any pictures of the exhibits in the museum. I just took pictures of the outside, because the courtyard was airplanes and guns and all that, but I didn’t take pictures of the exhibits, which were the same as what you saw. Pictures of dead people, Agent Orange victims and things like this. And at the time, there were still fetuses in bottles. I thought this is a violation. You know, these are dead people. Terrible things have happened to them. It’s already a violation to have their images recorded this way, and how can I take pictures of the pictures?
So it took me a long time to process my relationship to death and memory and politics, because at the museum it has all those things going on in it. So it was in Nothing Ever Dies, it took me a long time to write the chapter that dealt with these kinds of things, but I would feel that again in Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, in several places when I visited the various genocide memorials in places there as well. And if anything, it’s worse for me in Phnom Penh seeing the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. I remember returning from those places and just feeling physically exhausted and sick, even to a greater degree than in, and it was not my history. Like you’re saying, it was not your history in War Remnants Museum, it was not my history in Phnom Penh, but I could still feel the impact of those images and those memories there.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
You were prepared in Vietnam.
I was prepared in both cases. I’d done the work. I knew what they were about, and I’d already seen many of these pictures in books already, but still, I think there is something important about visiting a site, a place that’s crucial, which is why visiting Vietnam is important, for me going to places is important to try to absorb some of the haunting that’s there, but also the sheer physical experience of being in a place, feeling the heat, speaking Vietnamese, meaning Vietnamese people. All that reawakens memories or makes images and the pictures take on a different dimension. So that was why it was important for me to go back to Vietnam and to spend a year altogether in Vietnam visiting these kinds of places for the purposes of all the books, but most specifically, Nothing Ever Dies, but the physical experience of traveling through the country, encountering Vietnamese people, dealing with Vietnamese customs and language and weather, all that was crucial to the work of memory.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
What message do you like to give to your students?
It depends. I think that in terms of the humanities and the arts, in general, it is what I just mentioned to you, that they remain crucially important, certainly for people who love humanities and the arts. Right? But crucially important in terms of defining who we are as a people, as a culture, as a country. That’s true in any country you’re talking about, any culture you’re talking about. And that’s why I always think that writers need to be committed writers. Not everybody needs to be committed, but we don’t see enough committed writers in the United States, for example.
So, you know, the age of Donald Trump has, I think, made it very evident to writers that stories matter. And Make America Great Again is a story. You might not like the story, but it’s a very powerful story that a lot of people do like. And, for me, my work has always been about contesting that story.
Ever since I was a kid, I have seen this sign in a window near my parents’ store. ‘Another American Driven Out of Business by the Vietnamese.’ And I thought, That’s a story. At ten or twelve or whatever, I knew that was a story. And it didn’t include me and my parents. But there’s a direct connection between that story and Make America Great Again. That’s been my life project to say, ‘No, we didn’t drive you out of your own country.’ You know, there’s a much more complicated story here about America, about Vietnam, about me, about my people and as American people and Vietnamese people that needs to be told through the arts and the humanities, right? It’s a crucial terrain, which is why we keep fighting about it, whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. We know that culture is an important place where we define who we are.
This interview was conducted by Mia Funk with the participation of collaborating universities and students. Associate Interviews Producer on this podcast was Khanh Dinh. Digital Media Coordinator was Yu Young Lee. If you would like to participate in The Creative Process exhibition, podcasts or submit your creative works, just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.