We are joined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen to discuss his new book, A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, a History, a Memorial. Last week the 92NY, a major cultural institution in New York City, canceled an event with Nguyen after he joined 750+ writers in signing an open letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. His memoir explores his family’s personal history as refugees from Vietnam dealing with the impacts of U.S. imperialism. “Civilian stories are war stories, too,” says Nguyen. He says the U.S.’s greatest acts of anti-Asian violence occur internationally and continue today. “I see total continuity between what the United States has done in the Philippines, in Korea, in Japan, in Laos, in Cambodia, in Vietnam and now with Palestine.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Here in New York, the prestigious community and cultural center 92NY, formerly known as the 92nd Street Y, said this week it’s postponing its literary reading series as it faces backlash for canceling an event with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who joined some 750 writers who signed an open letter in the London Review of Books calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. It reads, in part, quote, “We can only express our grief and heartbreak for the victims of these most recent tragedies, and for their families, both Palestinians and Israelis. … But the unprecedented and indiscriminate violence that is still escalating against the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, with the financial and political support of Western powers, can and must be brought to an end,” they said.
Over the past two weeks, scores of Palestinian Americans and their allies say their scheduled appearances and interviews have been canceled. Venues canceled events featuring Palestinians or speakers who have been critical of Israel’s human rights record.
After Friday’s 92NY event was canceled, Nguyen wrote online, quote, “I have no regrets about anything I have said or done in regards to Palestine, Israel, or the occupation and war.” And his event was held instead at the McNally Jackson bookstore. He was able to talk about his new memoir.
He’s joining us now from Minneapolis on another leg of his book tour. Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of many books, has just published A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, a History, a Memorial. We last spoke to him about his novel The Committed, a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sympathizer. His other books include The Refugees and The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which he edited. He’s a professor at USC, the University of Southern California.
We’re so glad to have you back on the show, Professor, and know that you don’t really want to talk about the canceled 92NY event, so let’s talk about your memoir. If you can start out by laying out the themes relevant to what’s unfolding in Israel-Palestine, themes of war and memory, identity, the refugee and diaspora experience, the traumatic toll of history on individuals who live through it?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me back.
I certainly do think that this memoir that I wrote, which is about my life and the lives of my parents, who came to the United States as refugees and who went through 40 years of war and colonization when they were living in Vietnam, those stories I tell in this book, and larger stores about Vietnamese refugees, in general, and about the War in Vietnam, do have a lot of relevance to what’s happening today.
One of the things that I stress in the memoir is that civilian stories are war stories, too. I look at the lives of my parents, who were not soldiers, and how they were deeply affected by war constantly. They were displaced as refugees twice. They had to leave behind an adopted daughter when they fled Vietnam for the first time. My mother had to go to the psychiatric facility in the United States three times in her life, the last time leaving her permanently disabled. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the ramifications of war are oftentimes very visible for soldiers, because when we think about wars, we generally think of wars, soldiers, battles, tanks and so on, but the fact of the matter is that wars usually kill more civilians than soldiers.
And civilians bear enormous burdens, both of violence but also of ongoing trauma in the years afterwards. And that trauma is also then passed on to their families, to their children. I grew up witnessing how the Vietnamese refugee community in the United States was a traumatized community that had a very hard time dealing with its past. It was oriented towards look to the future, becoming American, and then having the unspoken consequences of the war rippling through the family and the community.
And probably the last thing to say here is that when Vietnamese Americans become Americans, it’s certainly part of the narrative of the so-called American dream, of which I’m very critical in the book, but part of the complication for me is that, you know: What does it mean to come as a refugee to the United States and then become a part of a country that is a military-industrial complex and is a settler colonial society? That’s a contradiction that I try to work through in the book.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also deal with the issue of language, how learning and becoming conversant in English drew you away from your family. How does language — in this case, English — also represent or at least stand in for other markers of difference — race, class, culture?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: I came to the United States when I was 4, so I was fluent in Vietnamese at the age of 4, and I still am fluent in Vietnamese at the age of 4. But, you know, I immediately became immersed in English, and I really don’t even remember learning English. It seemed like I was fully born into English. It became my language. It became my way of becoming an American and assimilating into American society, and especially through the use of English to read books. You know, I educated myself at the San Jose Public Library by immersing myself in Anglo-American literature, the entire literary tradition. And I think I understood that I should do that, because that was my entryway into American society. But, of course, the more fluent I became in English, the more distanced I became from my parents. I was reading The Sound and the Fury and Ulysses, and my mother was reading the Vietnamese-language church newsletter.
And so, I think, at some level, I subconsciously, and then consciously, decided that I had to make a choice between English and Vietnamese. I chose English. It led me to where I am today, talking to you. But the personal, cultural, psychic ramifications of doing that, in terms of not being able to be intimate with my parents in Vietnamese, has been painful, and probably not unique to me but to a lot of refugee and immigrant children. And, you know, English is the language of the masters. It’s the language of the colonizers. Ironically, through writing in English, I’ve been able to access much of the world, because my books are translated into many languages, and I think partly because I’ve been published in the United States through English, a language that people all over the world know they need to grapple with. If I was publishing in Vietnamese, I would be read by much less people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Also, it was striking how, throughout the book, you’ve blacked out or redacted a particular name: Donald Trump. Why?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: You know, I was thinking in particular about how redaction is so crucial to American society, to a country like ours. We literally redact documents, of course, for example, from Guantánamo Bay or other kinds of declassified documents or classified documents that are revealed. And so, the act of redaction is an act of visual censorship. We know something important is being said, but we’re not allowed to see what that is.
And to me, that’s a metaphor for redaction as a hole in the American consciousness. You know, for at least the past 20 years, we’ve been engaged in the forever war, and we’ve been engaged in other wars continuously throughout American history. And that is a matter that I think has been redacted in the general American consciousness. We, as Americans, generally think of ourselves as the greatest country on Earth. We have a hard time imagining that we do terrible things. And so, those terrible things that, in fact, we actually do with our wars is redacted in our own minds and in our education and in our popular culture. So that’s what it really refers to.
And, of course, for me, I took a little bit of pleasure in redacting one person’s name in particular, because, in fact, I do think that that is the most I could do to this particular person, that he benefits from having our names on his lips — on our lips all the time. And so, if we could just stop talking about him and saying his name, that would be one way of erasing him from our history and our memory and our politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Viet, if you could talk about your choice of title, A Man of Two Faces, and the subtitle, A Memoir, a History, a Memorial?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I grew up in the United States feeling like I had two faces. On the one hand, I felt, living in my very Vietnamese household with my very Vietnamese parents, that I was an American spying on them. And I felt completely American growing up. But then, when I stepped outside of that household and outside of the Vietnamese refugee community into the rest of the United States, I felt like a Vietnamese spying on these Americans. And so I took that feeling of duality, and I infused that into my fiction, into characters, like The Sympathizer, the title — the character of that novel. And, you know, for a long time, I worked out my own emotional complications, having grown up as a refugee in the United States, feeling myself to be an eyewitness to the trauma that my parents underwent. I survived that experience by becoming emotionally numb, by not feeling things, by shutting down and not dealing with what I had seen and what I had felt.
And so, eventually, though, it came time to write a memoir, after my mother passed away in 2018. And I certainly wanted to write about my mother and her extraordinary life as a refugee, as a survivor, as a successful businesswoman, as a hero who in the end was destroyed by herself, by whatever was happening in her mind. And so there is a memorial for her in this book, as well. And then, finally, there’s a history, because I think it’s hard for me to separate the memoirs of myself and my family and the memorial I’m writing about my mother from the history of Vietnam and the United States, that led to war and that led to us becoming refugees.
And, you know, one of the central questions I deal with in the book with my mother is: How do I know what was unique to her in what felled her inside her own body and mind from what history did to her, how history hammered her through war and colonization and famine and other kinds of terrible experiences? And that mystery is, I think, true for so many refugees and immigrants. Some survive the experience of becoming refugees or immigrants physically, some survive psychically, and others do not. And how do we know? What is history, and what is personal trauma? What is history, and what is our own memories? And I try to pursue that question for my family, but also for refugees and immigrants, in general, because I think as extraordinary as my mother was, that she was also utterly ordinary, too, because I’ve talked to so many other people, and they’ve told me stories about their refugee parents, and they’ve all experienced extraordinary, horrifying, terrifying things, because that was what marked that generation of Vietnamese people. So I do think that my mother, as extraordinary as she is to me, is also representative of what so many other Vietnamese of her generation went through.
AMY GOODMAN: Viet Thanh Nguyen, as tension grows between the United States and China, we also see a rise in anti-Asian violence. And I was wondering if you can talk about instances in your life where your family confronted violence, and in particular gun violence?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, absolutely. You know, my parents opened a grocery store in San Jose in the late 1970s called the SàiGòn Mới. And in that time, downtown San Jose is not like it is now, highly gentrified. It was a place where only Vietnamese refugees went to open stores back then. And my parents were shot in their store on Christmas Eve when I was 9 years old. That was one of those incidents that I — you know, at 9 years of age, I didn’t know what to do with. And my reaction to that was not to react emotionally, not to process those feelings. And partly that was also —
AMY GOODMAN: They were both shot?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: They were both shot. And, you know, partly what happened is, they were lucky: They were only flesh wounds. And so, they were back to work within a day or two, because they had to be. If they weren’t working in that store, they weren’t going to make money. And if they weren’t going to make money, they weren’t going to be able to save themselves and my brother and me and all the relatives in Vietnam that they were sending money home to. And so, that was a part of the refugee and immigrant life. You know, if you were shot, if you were held up, you just had to keep on moving forward, because there was nobody that was going to take your place in that store.
And then, you know, some years later, when I was 16, a gunman broke into our house and pointed a gun in all of our faces and told us to get on the floor, and my mother and father did, and — I’m sorry, my father and I did. My mother just ran past the gunman screaming into the street. And when he turned around to go after her, my father slammed the door shut and locked it, leaving the gunman outside with my mother. And I could see her running down the street outside the living room window past all these cars, and she was screaming. And she saved our lives that way. And that was typical of my mother, being able to make these life-and-death decisions. So, those were the most graphic kinds of violence that we were subjected to.
But, you know, growing up, I think I was also bombarded just by the ever-present racism of American popular culture, because in the '70s and ’80s, there were “ching chong” jokes on the radio airwaves by shock DJs, and anybody who went to the movies was watching racist Asian caricatures in things like _Breakfast at Tiffany's_ and Sixteen Candles. And, of course, I was watching all the American Vietnam War movies, in which the Vietnamese had nothing to say. Even though this was our country and our war, our only place in the American imagination was to be killed, to be raped or to be rescued.
That had a tremendous impact on me psychologically, so much so that when I went to high school, my Asian friends and I, we didn’t have a language for ourselves, so we would gather in a corner of the campus, and we would call ourselves “the Asian invasion.” And so, the only language we had for ourselves was a racist language. And, of course, the racism in that was that Asians have never invaded the United States. If anything, the United States has invaded Asia. And so, this is one of the most pernicious ways that I think anti-Asian violence works in the United States, is to deny that it even exists, and to get Asian Americans to subject themselves to this kind of brainwashing, and to forget a very crucial fact that is still relevant today, which is that the greatest acts of anti-Asian violence are not carried out within the United States, the greatest acts of anti-Asian violence are carried out in America’s wars in Asia. That’s been true for a century. And if you consider Palestine to be a part of Asia, very broadly speaking, I see total continuity between what the United States has done in the Philippines, in Korea, in Japan, in Laos, in Cambodia, in Vietnam, and now with Palestine.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Viet, we only have about a minute left, but I wanted to ask you about another of your books, The Sympathizer. It’s being made into a miniseries. How did that come about? And what would you like the drama series version to convey that’s perhaps distinct from the novel?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: How did that come about? Well, that came about because, I mean, you know, producers were reaching out to me. And it was a long and complicated process, but the long and short of it is that we were very lucky to land the director Park Chan-wook, who directed Old Boy and The Handmaiden, a director with a beautiful visual sense but also a grasp of politics and history and colonization. I think he’s perfect for this. And with him, we brought the production studio A24, which so many people love. And then that led to Robert Downey Jr. being cast by Park Chan-wook as the one white male actor to play all the white male roles in the TV series. So there’s a satirical element going on there. And then, through all of those, we landed HBO, and the show will hopefully air in April of the coming year.
And what I hope is that with a TV series like this — I mean, one of the realities of the world is that even a good book would be lucky to sell 10,000 or 50,000 copies, but a TV series can reach millions. And so, for decades and decades now, the whole world has been subjected to America’s, Hollywood’s imagination of the War in Vietnam, which is a very problematic depiction that puts Americans at the center. And for just one TV series of seven episodes, we will have all of these very talented Vietnamese actors from all over the world whose faces will be on the screen up there — you know, Hoa Xuande plays the sympathizer — up there with Sandra Oh and Robert Downey Jr. And hopefully through our TV series, we can at least budge for a little bit the representation of the War in Vietnam, but also the representations of Vietnamese people globally, as well.