Q&A: Author Viet Thanh Nguyen on the ghosts that haunt refugees

One of the Vietnamese boat people, the author arrived in the U.S. when he was four, and now writes about his people’s experience

<p>Viet Thanh Nguyen. (no credit)</p>

Viet Thanh Nguyen. (no credit)

Viet Thanh Nguyen. (no credit)
Viet Thanh Nguyen. (no credit)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, 45, came to the United States from South Vietnam when he was four, part of the Boat People refugee exodus that followed the fall of Saigon to Northern forces. Now a professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Nguyen has emerged overnight—that is, after almost two decades of preliminary drafts—as a major new voice in American letters. His first novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, while Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, his brilliant 2016 historical study, is a finalist for the U.S. National Book and National Book Critics Circle non-fiction awards. This year he’s released The Refugees, a book of short stories set primarily in the Vietnamese enclave in California where he grew up, which is garnering similar critical praise. All his writing, fiction and non-fiction explores the in-between lives of refugees: the dueling historical memories of two nations, the generational splits in families, the divided hearts in individuals.

And although the Nguyen family is a self-evident American success story—Viet’s older brother Tung Thanh Nguyen is a professor of medicine at the University of California (San Francisco) and former chair of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under Barack Obama—the author bristles at any suggestion of “immigrant success story.” He and Tung are only in America because the destructive intervention of the U.S. in Vietnam’s internal conflicts caused his parents, already childhood refugees from North Vietnam, to flee their home once again. Refugees are not immigrants, Nguyen argues, and refugee literature is not immigrant literature. He spoke with senior writer Brian Bethune about the distinction, his new book and his young son, now approaching the age when Nguyen became a refugee.

Q: Did you think of your first novel—about an Americanized Vietnamese man who is as dual-natured as imaginable—and your second book, Nothing Ever Dies—about the struggle to control the memory of the Vietnam War—as two parts of a single work?

A: I knew they were related in some way because I had spent nine years doing the research on Nothing Ever Dies before I even turned to The Sympathizer, and thinking about these issues of war and memory through Nothing Ever Dies did definitely prepare me for writing The Sympathizer. I tried to think about how I could enact fictionally some of the things that I had thought about in terms of how we remember and how we forget. And then, after I finished writing The Sympathizer, I turned immediately to writing Nothing Ever Dies and everything I’d learned from writing the novel went into the prose and the structure of it. So there was really a wonderful way in which the two books were symbiotically related to each other.

Q: How do the new stories fit in?

A: Not so new. I started writing them in 1997, and I started doing the research for Nothing Ever Dies in 2003. And the stories took me all the way to 2014, so as I was doing the research for Nothing Ever Dies, I was writing these stories and, you know, the backdrop of war and memory informs them too, certainly the theme of haunting…

Q: That’s why there was an actual ghost story? My favourite, in fact.

A: Haunting is so prevalent in any kind of discussion about war and trauma. But you know, I think as I was writing the short stories, what I was hoping was that what I was learning in terms of writing a sentence and constructing a narrative would somehow make me a better non-fiction writer, too. In retrospect, if I knew in advance that it would take me well over a decade to do the book and 17 years on the short story collection, I’m pretty sure I would have said, “No, thank you.”

Q: The stories all seem highly autobiographical.

A: No, no—only one story is. The rest are about Vietnamese people or people who come across Vietnamese people, but the rest of the stories are actually highly fictional.

Q: You mean aside from the fact they tend to feature refugee parents with an American or Americanized child?

A: Mmm.

Q: The specifically autobiographical one is “War Years”? Right down to the upkeep bill the father presents to his son—$24,376, not including “emotional aggravation”—and that kid was only in the 4th grade? Did that happen to you?

A: Yeah. That was autobiographical. And that part really did happen, though later. I don’t know if my dad was that eloquent, but he did give me a handwritten itemized bill at one point after I graduated from college.

Q:  We were sidetracked from talking about haunting as a theme in all war writing, fictional or not. It was striking to see you take on a female point of view in “Black-Eyed Women,” the ghost story. She has much to haunt her, but the ghost is the least of her terrors.

A: That story was an awful experience to write. It began in ’97, ended in 2014, took me over 50 drafts and a tremendous amount of pain and agony, and you know, it probably takes about 12 minutes to read. It was a very deliberate attempt to write a story from the perspective of a woman and someone of ambiguous sexuality. In an early draft, she was a lesbian, which just didn’t make the final version. And it was always about haunting because ghost stories are prevalent in Vietnamese culture, even apart from war, and not necessarily of the horrific kind, but of the benevolent kind. And that’s partially the point of the story—to talk about how ghosts function in a very normal way for many people.

Q: Immigrant literature is a key component of modern Canadian literature, often featuring characters worrying over fitting in here. In your fiction, though, not melting into the pot isn’t defensive—it’s defiant. You seem to be making a conscious effort to craft refugee literature that’s not immigrant literature. You don’t see these two things as the same?

A: I don’t think they’re the same. In the United States, the immigrant experience occupies a very central place in American mythology. And sometimes, that place wavers between acceptance and rejection. Currently we’re in a moment of immigration rejection. But no one disputes the centrality of that experience. Refugees, on the other hand, are threatening, not just to Americans, but also in many countries the world over. And it’s partially because, unlike immigrants, refugees do not choose where they’re going to go or why they’re fleeing, and they are unwanted populations. They bring with them the stigma of disaster. That scares people who are not refugees, people in potential host countries, because the refugees are not only going to be a demand on the country’s resources, but also the refugees raise the possibility that the countries that they’re going to are themselves not as stable as the citizens would like, I think. We’re all just one catastrophe away from ending up as a refugee, and we don’t want to be reminded of that.

MORE: A refugee flood in Canada? Please.

Q: You think, then, that refugees have a different relationship with their new country than immigrants have?

A: I think that’s true. Immigrants who voluntarily come to a country have already made a decision to assimilate to one degree or another. Probably not completely, but they’ve committed to the place, and they know that they need to make certain kinds of concessions. They change themselves in some way to fit in. They’re looking forward as much as they’re still looking backward.

But refugees, especially in their early years, are still caught up in the experience that made them refugees. And they’re much more melancholic. They’re much more oriented towards the past and towards the country of origin. That can make the process of becoming a part of the new country much more fraught for them.

Q: Does the issue of memory, the prime theme of all your work—one story portrays a refugee who develops Alzheimer’s—play out differently too? 

A: I think all immigrants and refugees are preoccupied with memories to one degree or another. But again, this question of how much to remember and how much to forget is really aggravated for those who have lost a tremendous amount. Immigrants who come to a country are going to lose something, for sure, but they hope to gain a great deal by making this journey, whereas refugees by definition have lost a tremendous amount—not just country and society, but also more personal things like careers, prestige, status, relatives, identities. This inevitably makes the longing to remember the past even more powerful among refugees, to the point of often debilitating them.

Vietnamese Boat People. (Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images)
Vietnamese Boat People. (Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images)

Q: That probably made integration a particularly thorny question for Vietnamese in America, in the country that both made them refugees and gave them a refuge. In Nothing Ever Dies you write about how the U.S. lost the war but won the peace through its vast soft power. Americans can focus on American tragedies—the 58,000 dead in Vietnam, the four or five thousand in Iraq—and ignore the backdrop, the millions of deaths among locals.

A: Yeah. Growing up in the U.S., I was certainly deeply aware of the power of American media, specifically Hollywood and television, in terms of broadcasting a particular vision of what the American experience was like. As someone coming from a war that was a preoccupation of Americans in the 1980s, it did strike me that since we were a part of that war, we should have a chance to talk about ourselves. That brought in me a particular kind of resentment about this erasure of the Vietnamese experience—a simmering rage, really—and a desire to contest the American version. It has also instilled in me a great sympathy and empathy for other people to whom this process of erasure was going to happen. The example of Iraq, or Afghanistan, is absolutely true. People may be vaguely aware that there’s suffering in these countries, but simply because the media are filled with American-centric versions, we still see the experiences through the American perspective. We are just completely ignorant of what might be happening to other people.

MORE: How a Vietnamese boat person helped save a family of Syrian refugees

Q: You pointed out something that wouldn’t be obvious to most people: it doesn’t really matter if the American government or individual Americans are portrayed negatively, because they are at least portrayed. They’re there.

A: We enjoy watching bad guys or antiheroes all the time, and to see Americans or any kind of white person cast in this way—consider Apocalypse Now—still continues to make us see through their eyes, even if we disagree with what they’re doing. They have a life that the characters in the background do not.

Q: In the acknowledgments in The Refugees, you mention your son, specifically to note he’s approaching the age you were when you became a refugee. Why is that significant to you?

 A: He’s three and a half. I was a little bit past four years old when I became a refugee, and I didn’t really have memory at that point. Certainly not coherent memory. I have flashes of recall on the ocean, and very definitely narrative memory once I arrived at the refugee camp in Pennsylvania. So for me, my identity is deeply intertwined with being a refugee because that’s the first experience that I remember. When I was growing up, I cared very little for the customs of my parents, the special things that we’re supposed to do as Vietnamese people. But now that I am a parent, I go out of my way to make sure that my son goes to visit his grandparents and participates in customs like the Lunar New Year celebration. We went home then, so he could participate in that and wear the traditional dress. It’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to these kinds of demands being put on him by his parents, because I didn’t react very well when I was a kid. But the experience of having these things forced on me left their imprint, and even if it was sort of miserable to have to endure it at the time, I appreciate it now. Looking at him at this age and thinking about myself when I was four gives me greater empathy for myself, thinking about what it must have been like for me at that age to have lost everything. And it makes me love him the more to see a little bit of myself in him.

Q: And to feel enormously protective, I’m sure: it’s not going to happen to you.

A: Yeah.