Interview: Pulitzer-Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen on Why History Can’t Be Erased
President Barack Obama speaks at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative town hall event in Ho Chi Minh City on May 25, 2016. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
After USC Associate Professor of American Studies Viet Thanh Nguyen published two academic books, his agent suggested he try his hand at something else: a novel. His first effort, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in April for what the jury called “a layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a 'man of two minds' — and two countries, Vietnam and the United States." The novel, told as a letter from a spy to his interrogator, starts at the end of the Vietnam War, moves to Southern California, and concludes on the set of a Hollywood war epic. His latest work, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, is a critical companion to the novel.
AsiaBlog spoke to Nguyen about how Hollywood and politics influence each other, how Vietnam’s Communist Party might react to his novel, and President Obama’s recent visit to Vietnam and Japan.
You’ve noted that an industry of memory exists around the Vietnam War, including a “celluloid campaign to refight the [war] on global movie screens.” How does your novel confront the narrative of films like Apocalypse Now?
The novel tackles this question of the industry of memory through its set piece on Hollywood and the making of an epic Vietnam War movie. In Nothing Ever Dies, I give the explicit elaboration upon what I mean by the industry of memory and how Hollywood cinema industrial complex really symbolizes it.
In The Sympathizer, I wanted to dramatize and satirize that and to render vividly through fiction the fact that this industry of memory is more than simply storytelling, but it’s integrated with the military-industrial complex.
What Hollywood does and what the industry of memory does, in the case of this war, is to efface and erase Asians and Asian Americans. This is a mode of propaganda and ideological preparation for the U.S. to go out there and not simply efface or erase Asians, but actually to kill them.
Several Hollywood movies and novels have been very critical of the American experience in Vietnam, such as Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War. What is missing from these works?
There’s a strong critique of the American involvement in the Vietnam War from certain parts of American culture, and that extends to this idea that what we’re really confronting is American imperialism. The problem with this kind of leftist critique is that it sees others simply as voiceless victims. The focus of the drama remains on Americans, and their moral and human subjectivity. So even if they are depicted as criminals, as in de Palma's films, we are nevertheless focused on what these criminals or antiheroes experience.
In the novel, I wanted to refuse the role of the victim for the Vietnamese people or depict them solely as victims, but to depict them as people with complex subjectivities and histories. This allows them not only to be victimized, but also to speak about that victimization and to be victimizers and agents of injustice themselves, which is typically in the Western liberal or left imagination, a role reserved only for the West.
Today, there’s a debate around the lack of diversity in American films and TV. Is this related to what you were just saying?
They are absolutely related. Very little has changed since the moment that I satirize in the novel. The novel is set in the second half of the 1970s, but the effacement and erasure of Asians, Asian Americans and other minorities or people of color still continues to this day in the U.S. What it means is that this industry of memory, which is built on inequality, is rendered very visible in Hollywood both in terms of what it produces, but also how Hollywood itself is structured. That mode of erasing, effacing, or marginalizing people who don’t happen to be white is absolutely central to both the maintenance of structural inequality in the United States, but also as a justification of war against people of color overseas.
You’ve said that to the extent that your novel translates or explains something to someone, it’s not translating Vietnam to Americans, but rather translating the United States and South Vietnam to the Vietnamese. What do you mean by that?
If you are a minority writer in the United States, the problem you face is that in order to be published, at least by mainstream publishing houses, you have to confront a literary industry that is 89 percent white. They function as gatekeepers to what gets published. Often, there is a very strong incentive, explicit and implicit, for minority writers to write for white people. And what that means is that they opt to engage in a process of translation in their work. Sometimes this literally means translating other languages into English. Often it means serving as the cultural ambassador, translating minority culture to majority culture. This also affirms, explicitly or implicitly, the American dream and dominant American culture.
Viet Thahn Nguyen
I refused to do that in this novel and I had to find a formal method that would allow me not to do these kinds of things, so this novel is written as a confession from our Vietnam spy to his Vietnamese interrogator. The explicit addressee of this book is not an American or a white person, but another Vietnamese person. And that means that I don’t have to, my narrator never has to, translate Vietnamese culture to somebody else. What he does have to translate is American culture to a Vietnamese communist interrogator who knows very little about it. And since the novel is actually being read by many Americans and white people, it ultimately puts them into the position of being outsiders listening in on the conversation.
How has your novel been received in Vietnam?
The reputation of the novel before I got the Pulitzer had preceded it to a certain extent. The literary people in Vietnam had heard of it and were interested in it, but I only received one offer of translation before the Pulitzer. The speculation was that other presses might have been interested, but it was too politically touchy of a subject for them.
The particular press that eventually bought the book perhaps felt that it could take a chance and hope that it could slip the book by the censors. But after the Pulitzer, the political sensitivity of the novel might mean that it’s going to draw much greater scrutiny from the censorship office. It remains to be seen whether it will be published even after it’s translated.
In Nothing Ever Dies, you visit the Republican cemetery in South Vietnam, which has been preserved by the Communist Party as an eventual olive branch to the South Vietnamese diaspora. Are you afraid the Vietnamese government might use your fame and Pulitzer for political purposes?
So far they haven’t done that. Although a lot of people in Vietnam have heard about the book, the official state press, when they reported the news of the Pulitzer, didn’t mention my name or the fact that the novel had won. It’s clearly too politically subversive of a novel to be appropriated at this point. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but the last quarter of the novel is so explicitly critical of the Communist Party that I have a hard time imagining that they could ever pick it up.
If the book ever became an olive branch it would have to be an olive branch where the government allows it to be published as is. That would be an acknowledgment of some kind of liberalization of the press and of free speech.
The language you use to describe the role that art and culture play is straight out of the world of international relations. You write, for example, that memory is a “strategic resource.” Does the way the U.S. remember wars of the past influence our foreign policy today?
The way that it works in particular in the U.S. is that there is an official rhetoric at the state level — here I’m talking about the Pentagon, the White House, congressmen, this all being part of what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex — that works in conjunction with civil society and the economy. I describe Hollywood as being the unofficial ministry of propaganda. The U.S. doesn’t need an official ministry of propaganda, because the gears of the military-industrial complex are working in sync with the popular culture industry. The industry of memory and its reproduction of a certain kind of American-centered ideology is perfectly aligned with what the president and the congress and the Pentagon are saying.
Even if Hollywood takes an antiheroic stance in most of its cultural productions, it still affirms the centrality of American identity and it affirms the idea that American culture is open and democratic.
That’s exactly what President Obama said in Vietnam when he just visited a couple of days ago. That Vietnam needs to open up, free speech is not threatening, it affirms democracy, and we’re an embodiment of that. But at the same time, all of that is being used at the level of the American state to continue to affirm American global dominance.
If you look at just President Obama’s speeches about the Vietnam War in 2012, when he initiated his campaign to remember the Vietnam War, he talked about it as a war of noble sacrifice on the part of American soldiers and didn’t mention the Vietnamese or other Southeast Asians at all. So that was an example of memory as a strategic resource — where the memories of the Vietnam War can be harnessed in a particular way in order to justify the continuing use of American military power in small and large wars today.
President George H.W. Bush famously said that the Gulf War “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” After the later U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the Vietnam syndrome back?
That triumphal note in 1991 had pretty much died out by 2003 or 2004. The return of the idea of Vietnam as an analogy of quagmire came back as the U.S. got bogged down in Iraq. That has not wholly gone away. We are still caught in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Guantanamo. Because there hasn’t been a concluding triumphal moment, the idea that Vietnam can be some kind predecessor remains.
But the major cautionary note is that American warfare has changed since the Vietnam War. We used to think we had to win wars conclusively. The experience in Vietnam for Americans was devastating because the U.S. didn’t win. But now, even if that memory continues to haunt Americans, it’s almost irrelevant to the way that we conduct wars. Even though we’d like to win, and that would be good for the American people, for the state, for the military, for the government, we don’t have to win any more.
We fight wars interminably. Whether we lose them or we have a stalemate, whatever outcome we have can be turned around to continue justifying these kinds of expenditures that we’re doing on our military-industrial complex. That is the ultimate victory for the United States.
President Obama has just visited Vietnam. Beyond political and diplomatic implications, do these visits serve a purpose in the realm of memory? Do they help close a wound?
At the level of the state, that’s what these visit are designed to do. The Vietnamese and American governments can say, “the Vietnam War is really, really over and now we have this new relationship, this new partnership.” A lot of Vietnamese people and American people do believe in that, and will take this visit at face value. Even if they’re moderately skeptical, they will still say it’s necessary to do this, and this is how we move forward. That might actually be the case for the two countries.
For people who actually lived through the war, and there are still a lot of people who are alive from that generation, this visit doesn’t necessarily heal those wounds. Many of the people who lived through this era are still hurt by it and still carry the same political convictions that they had during that time.
In a larger historical and geopolitical sense, I don’t think this closes the chapter on the Vietnam War. I understand the Vietnam War to be an episode in a much larger history of global conflict, and in the much larger history of American warfare beginning in 1898. If you look at it that way, the U.S. didn’t actually lose the Vietnam War: It set out to contain communism and to certify Asia for capitalist development. Forty years later, that’s pretty much exactly what has happened. The larger implications of this war are still ongoing and they are present now in how Vietnam continues to dominate Laos and Cambodia, which were also part of the war, and how Vietnam and the U.S. are negotiating in some way to try to contain China, which was also part of the history of why the Vietnam War took place.
How does the Vietnamese American community view this supposed warming of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam?
There are certainly still many people in the Vietnamese-American community who view Vietnam with intense distrust and are probably not happy that President Obama has visited and offered this olive branch, which includes the lifting of the ban on weapon sales to the Vietnamese government. At the same time, there are also a lot of Vietnamese-Americans who have already been back to Vietnam, who have been building relationships with Vietnam in various kinds of ways. I think the pragmatic side has won out to a certain extent.
That doesn’t mean that anti-communism is dead. I think that most Vietnamese-Americans, even if they are not hardline anti-communist, would still say that questions of political and religious freedom are important, questions of environmental abuses and economic inequality are crucial, as well as transparency. They’re skeptical of the Vietnamese government, but they’re hoping that the continued relationship with the United States will help to either ameliorate these conditions or lead to some situation where eventually the Communist Party crumbles.
President Obama is now headed to Japan, where he will visit Hiroshima. What do you make of his visit and of the controversy of whether the U.S. should apologize for the atomic bomb?
Japan is an interesting comparison because the U.S. fought a horrible war with Japan, and then turned it into an ally immediately at the war’s conclusion. That was a very deliberate strategic policy in order to turn Japan into the bulwark against communism and a model state of capitalist development. Basically, the United States succeeded Japan in being the major power in the Pacific and then co-opted it into becoming an ally.
That's what's happening now with Vietnam and the U.S., although not to the same degree. The relationship between the U.S. and these countries is a little bit contradictory because the U.S. wants them to be allies, but at the same it can’t completely erase the history of conflict.
Of course President Obama is not going to apologize for Hiroshima. This visit to Hiroshima is meant to be simply an acknowledgement of the past without apology — a halfway measure. In the same way that in his speech in Vietnam, he at least acknowledged the death of 3 million Vietnamese people, but didn’t acknowledge responsibility for it.
This is again another example of your earlier question about whether wounds can be healed and this chapter of the past can be fully closed. I don’t think it can be unless these genuine apologies actually take place, which is probably not going to happen anytime in the near future because of these contradictory histories.