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“We Are Here Because You Are There”: Viet Thanh Nguyen on How U.S. Foreign Policy Creates Refugees

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Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses why he chooses to use the term “refugee” in his books, and speaks about his own experience as a refugee. His new novel tells the story of a man who arrives in France as a refugee from Vietnam, and explores the main character’s questioning of ideology and different visions of liberation. Titled “The Committed,” the book is a sequel to “The Sympathizer,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. Nguyen says his protagonist is “a man of two faces and two minds” whose ability to see beyond Cold War divisions makes him the perfect figure to satirize the facile stories people tell themselves about the world. “He’s always going beyond the surface binaries to look underneath.” Nguyen is the chair of English and professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His other books include “The Refugees” and the edited collection “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. His new novel has just been published. It’s called The Committed. It’s a sequel to the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer. Both books share a narrator, half-Vietnamese, half-French communist spy, who refers to himself as “a man of two faces and two minds.” Professor Nguyen is the chair of English and professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His other books include The Refugees and The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which he edited. With his new book, The New Yorker says Professor Nguyen has established himself as a, quote, “conscience of American literature.”

Professor Nguyen, before we get to your new book, I wanted to go to The Refugees. I mean, two of your books use the term “refugees” in the title. As we speak today, you’ve got the mass killings in Atlanta, and you have this massive number of unaccompanied children, of children on the southern border, upwards of what? Fifteen thousand right now, not to mention the number of adults who are being turned away. Can you talk about why you choose to use the term “refugee”? And tell us your own story, your family’s own story, in that answer.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I think there are official refugees and unofficial refugees. And in our case, my family’s case, we were definitely official refugees. We were South Vietnamese, and we were on the losing side of the Vietnam War. So, in 1975, along with 130,000 other Southern Vietnamese people, we fled to the United States. And we were lucky, because the United States had an interest in accepting refugees from a newly communist country. That was useful PR for the United States. And we ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. And I was 4 years old.

My own experiences were that I was taken away from my parents at that age to be resettled with a different sponsor family than my parents. It was done benevolently, because my parents were being given the time to get on their own two feet. But as a 4-year-old, I didn’t understand that. I only remembered it as abandonment. So my first memories are screaming and howling, being taken away from my parents. And I was comparatively lucky. I was reunited with my parents after a few months.

But, of course, what’s happening at our border is that children, at least under the Trump administration, were being forcibly separated from their parents, not for benevolent purposes. And so I know that those families, those parents and those children, will be permanently scarred by what happened to them there.

Now, at the current moment, we have unaccompanied minors. Some of them are being held for much longer than has been mandated, and that will also be deeply problematic for them, as well. But they are not being classified as refugees under any kind of American classification or under the UNHCR, High Commission on Refugees, classification.

And again, I think this is oftentimes very, very political. Why are people coming to the southern — to the south and coming to our southern border? Oftentimes it’s due to political and economic circumstances that the United States has had a role in playing, and the United States has any interest in not classifying them as refugees, because that would obligate the United States to welcome them in, but also it would highlight the ways by which what we do here in the United States impacts other countries and creates conditions for people wanting to flee.

AMY GOODMAN: And that story of fleeing from a place that the U.S. has been involved with — I mean, of course, with Vietnam, Laos, to say “involved with” is to put it mildly — bombing the country, continually at war with. The significance of how that shaped your view of the country you came to grow up in? And culturally, in this country, for example, you talk about being steeped in films like Apocalypse Now and what that meant to you, what people in this country who were born here understand, and what you felt coming from Vietnam.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I feel myself to be an American. I’ve grown up here since I was 4. And I think I deeply understand American culture, and I feel myself to be an American, which means I love many, many things about American culture, including things like American movies, including the many movies that the United States made about the Vietnam War, including Apocalypse Now. But watching a movie like Apocalypse Now was quite shocking for me at 11 or 12 years of age, because I felt myself to be an American, rooting for the American soldiers — up until the point they killed or massacred Vietnamese civilians. And then I felt myself split in two: Was I the American doing the killing, or was I the Vietnamese being killed? To me, that is a very basic question that applies to many other kinds of circumstances that my work addresses.

But I think the most important thing about this is that it’s not just a personal issue for me. It’s not just a feeling of being divided and culturally divided, that many Asian Americans have spoken about. To me, what’s also important to understand here is that my very existence, and that of many other Vietnamese and Asian Americans in this country, we are here because of wars that the United States fought in Asia. And so, this speaks to a bifurcation in American history and culture that is true for so many people, that, on the one hand, this is a country of high ideals, of democracy and pluralism and opportunity; on the other hand, it’s a country that’s rooted in warfare and conquest, which has manifested itself in wars in Asia. And I think that we have an obligation as Americans to recognize the complications of this, both the possibilities of this country and its roots and its continuing immersion in warfare, genocide and colonization.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nguyen, your new book — and congratulations on it — The Committed, begins on a refugee boat. You severely object to people being called “boat people,” but you point out that, oh, Ulysses was on a boat, but we cast him in heroic terms. Pilgrims of the U.S. were boat people, but we called them “Founders.” Talk about the difference in how this country looks at different refugees.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I think one of the reasons why I call myself a “refugee” is because it’s a stigmatized term in the United States. I mean, Americans know what to make out of someone who calls himself or herself an “immigrant.” That’s a part of the American mythology, that you’ve come here to improve yourself and contribute to this country. But I think a refugee often brings up very negative images and ideas in the American imagination.

And the term “boat people” completely illustrates this, that after the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of Vietnamese people did flee by boat, and the media called them “boat people,” which is a way of drawing attention to their plight, in a very successful way. But it means that Vietnamese have been fixed in the American imagination as these boat people. And the images around boat people are that these are desperate and frightened people. And, of course, that’s true. They were desperate and frightened. But I also think that they were heroic, because many of them knew that their chances of survival, once they took to the open seas on very rickety little boats, were going to be very, very slim.

And so, I have always asked myself: Why do we cast certain people as heroes and other people as not heroic? And I think, in the case of refugees, it’s easier to cast them as desperate and frightened rather than heroic, because if we were to see them as heroes, we might also have to incorporate them into our own stories. We might feel even more obligation to them. And we might have to see them as human beings rather than as these pathetic objects that need to be rescued.

And so, part of the project of a novel like The Committed, which begins on a refugee boat that I deliberately call an “ark,” is to reframe the experience of refugees, whether they’re fleeing from Vietnam or whether they’re fleeing south of our border to the north or whether they’re fleeing from Africa into the Mediterranean, to recast these people as heroes undertaking very difficult journeys with enormous obstacles, and that if they succeed, we should treat them as heroes rather than as desperate and frightened objects of our pity.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about your protagonist, unnamed, in The Committed.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, he’s unnamed because he’s an everyman. He’s certainly Vietnamese, but he’s also an everyman in terms of these adventures and misadventures that he has to go through. He’s of mixed descent: His father is a French priest; his mother is a Vietnamese woman. And so, being of mixed descent, he’s caught directly in the middle of these tensions that we’ve been talking about throughout our hour here, between East and West, and the Orientalist expectations of Europeans and Americans about the Vietnamese and other Asians. And as a result, he’s also a man of two faces and two minds. He sees every issue from both sides, which makes him a perfect figure for someone who’s a writer, who does exactly the same thing. But as a man of two faces and two minds caught up in this era of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, he is able to see through the oppositions and the polarities that countries and cultures typically deploy to make things easier to understand.

So, again, going back to this idea of East and West and anti-Asian violence, it’s easier to understand the world if we see it split into two. But he, himself, does not have that luxury. He’s always going beyond the surface binaries to look underneath. It allows him the capacity to satirize our absurdities and our hypocrisies. And it also makes him kind of a tragic figure, because in a world in which most people want to choose one side or the other, he can’t choose.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nguyen, I was listening to the interview you did on KPFA, Pacifica Radio. And in it, you said Americans don’t think of themselves as colonizers. Their word for colonization is the American dream. Can you elaborate on this?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I think, you know, we, as Americans, believe in American exceptionalism, that we are the greatest country in the world, no other country has been like ours. And when we think about colonization, we think, “Well, it’s the Europeans who did the colonizing, but we never did that.” That’s part of American exceptionalism.

But, of course, that’s factually wrong; that this country has been founded on colonization — that’s why we have the 13 colonies — and that we’ve expanded through colonization, and that the kind of colonization that we’ve seen with Europeans in other places, that we would characterize as being brutal and rapacious and so on, I mean, those are the very terms that we should be using to describe our American history, as well. And, of course, a lot of Americans would object to this kind of characterization. I think we, as Americans, are like every other country: We want to see our own history in the best possible light. So, that inclination is not unique at all.

And I think part of my work is to say we, as Americans, need to be able to, like the sympathizer, hold two opposite ideas in our minds at the same time. This is something that F. Scott Fitzgerald also said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposite ideas in our minds at the same time.” And I think that many Americans can’t do that, which is why they would rather say, when someone like me brings up these kinds of criticisms, “Love it or leave it.” And since I do, in fact, love this country and I don’t want to leave it, I think, in fact, what we should do is embrace the complexities and the brutal and bloody contradictions of our history.

And when I say that successful colonization goes under the name of the American dream, I think what I mean by that is that rhetoric of the American dream allows us to forget the history of our colonization and the ongoing fact of our colonization. I think many Indigenous peoples would say that they’re still being colonized today. What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said about Puerto Rico is that it’s a colony right now. And so, the very opposition to the idea that our country can be a colonizing country blinds many Americans to what is actually going on in our country at this present time.

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than a minute, but I was wondering if you can talk about the Asian American writers who most influenced you? You’re a student of the great Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: So many great Asian American writers. I’m very lucky to come late in the game, because an earlier Asian American writer would just face even more perplexity than I have faced. I think about John Okada writing about the Japanese American internment in the 1950s, Carlos Bulosan writing about Filipino migrant laborers in the 1940s, and, yes, of course, Maxine Hong Kingston, my great teacher, who — I have to say, I was a very poor student, but she had faith in me, and I owe her a great deal.

AMY GOODMAN: A very poor student — right? — who just won the Pulitzer Prize. We thank you so much for spending this time with us. Our guest, Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the new novel The Committed, sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sympathizer, professor at the University of Southern California. And we’ll link to The Washington Post piece you co-authored, “Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia leads to anti-Asian violence here.”

And that does it for our show. Happy Birthday to Miriam Barnard! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

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